Anger: A Field Guide
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Sermon video: https://youtu.be/JyIrS9k7KDM
We are approaching the completion of the first year of Joseph Biden’s presidency here in the United States, and the news cycle is reporting about how our country is more divided today, politically, than it was a year ago. https://www.npr.org/2022/01/03/1069764164/american-democracy-poll-jan-6
There is a staggering number of people firmly convinced that those on the other side of the political aisle are trying to destroy our democracy. People are angry. This is made worse, in my opinion, by the fact that part of the reason for this political anger among us is due to the succuss of a big lie about election fraud. This lie has been refuted and disproven clearly and repeatedly, yet the lie continues to hold sway, as does the anger, which makes me angry.
Meanwhile, this pandemic continues to rage through our country and through the world. We’ve had record numbers of cases in our county in the past few weeks. It is worse now than it has ever been. Thankfully, the Omicron variant is not as deadly as earlier variants. Still, we’re close to a total of 60 thousand deaths in New York State, more than 800 thousand in the country, and nearing 5.5 million deaths worldwide. We are seeing an exponential rise is new cases. I get angry at the way people believe and spread disinformation spurred by political interests resulting in this increased harm to the public health.
So, yes. I will preach about anger this month as we work our way through the anniversary of the Trump Republican’s failed insurrection. I will preach about anger as the economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots continues to yawn wider. I will preach about anger as our grossly mismanaged healthcare system stumbles to respond to this public health crisis. I will preach about anger as American corporations continue to be the largest contributor of global greenhouse gas emissions – selling the future of our planet for a buck. Yes, I will preach about anger this month.
But I don’t come off as an angry person, do I? If you were to asked to describe me, would ‘angry’ come to mind? Probably not. I do get angry. But I don’t spend a lot of time with it. I work to move my anger along, to transform it into action for change.
Everyone gets angry at times. Anger is one of our basic emotions. We typically associate the anger with the display of shouting and yelling, maybe a red face and clenched jaw, or a clenched fist. Violence seems to be a frequent companion to the emotion of anger.
In the 2015 Pixar movie, Inside Out, we see Anger drawn as a red emotion that, when pushed too far, will have the top of his head burst into flames (Stick hands out and make angry face). He is voiced by comedian Lewis Black. During the opening narration, Joy introduces the different emotions in the story. “That’s Anger. He cares very deeply about things being fair.”
That last part is going to be true for all the ways we display our anger. Anger is connected to caring deeply about things being fair. Anger is not always about ranting and ‘blowing up.’ It is one of our basic emotions. Everyone gets angry at times. The question is not if you get angry but what you do with it when you are angry.
Most of the resources I have about anger focus on the interpersonal levels, dealing with anger among friends and family members. I suspect this is because the goal is to allow the anger to be a catalyst for change, which is easier to accomplish in our personal relationships than it is to do on the national or global stage. But let’s take a look at the interpersonal side of this conversation for a bit. I have found there are parallels and insights suitable for the kind of angers I was sharing a few minutes earlier about injustices and politics.
Our reading this morning was taken from a classic book on the topic from 1985 – nearly 40 years ago. The primary focus of The Dance of Anger by Dr. Harriet Lerner is to serve as “a women’s guide to changing the patterns of intimate relationships.” The excerpt we heard was not focused on women’s anger in particular except in the way that the whole book is focused on women’s anger. But I tried to share a section that might be heard as useful by all genders. The dynamics of gender and anger have shifted a little over the past few decades, but I find the content still quite insightful.
In particular, the questions she encourages are important. “What am I really angry about?” “What is the problem, and whose problem is it?” And I love this one: “How can I learn to express my anger in a way that will not leave me feeling helpless and powerless?”
Dr. Lerner reveals the importance of listening to our anger to learn what it is offering, what message it is telling us about what matters to us. Anger is information that something is wrong. It is a signal that something needs to change.
A contemporary author agrees. In a 2011 essay entitled “Tender Anger,” minister and poet, Jan Richardson tells us:
“As with any emotion, anger can be a map. Within the landscape of our life, the presence of anger reveals where our passions lie, whom we love, what we consider important. Anger shows us where we are vulnerable, where there are cracks or wounds in our soul, where there is brokenness within us or around us. If we pay attention to what anger reveals about the terrain of our soul, it can help us find and create the path ahead.”
She goes on to ask, “Is there a step I can take that will transform anger into action—for my own life, for the lives of those around me, for the life of the world?”
That’s the goal, isn’t it? When I get angry about something, the point is not just to yell and scream. The point is to change something. I want to transform the anger into action. But this can get tricky, yes? Punching something is an action. Violence is an action. What we want is more than any old action. We want action that will serve life. This is where this conversation turns into a sermon. We want our anger to be transformed into action that will heal and bring justice, or simply make things more fair. This is not easy to accomplish. It is spiritual work. The usual spiritual tasks are involved – decentering the ego, patience, practice, trust, and deep listening.
And it is true that anger is often a mask for other emotions that are harder to deal with, emotions such as fear and grief. When I talk about my anger at the political shenanigans, I can admit this anger is rooted in some fear for what is at risk and grief for what has been lost. And some of my anger is really just anger. When you are angry, it is worth checking in with yourself about other emotions beneath the anger.
During my first ministry, serving in a large church with two other ministers down in the D.C. area, I learned quite a bit about grief and loss. I remember one visit from an angry member of the congregation. One of the other ministers sighed when he heard I’d be visiting with this member, and said, “This is someone who gets angry a lot. His pattern is to get angry at someone or something and leave the church. He’ll turn up then in one of the other nearby congregations for a while until he gets angry with something there and he’ll leave.”
We met; we talked about what was going on. He aired his grievance and then began to develop a list of other grievances. Eventually, I stopped him and said, “I don’t know if I’m out of line, and if I am I trust you’ll tell me, but it seems like you’re angry a lot.” He paused a moment and then agreed with me. He said, “Before my wife died, we were a great team. I would curse the dark and she would light a candle.” His wife had died recently. I asked, “Who’s lighting the candles now?”
This member had been referencing an old Chinese proverb – “Don’t curse the darkness – light a candle.” The proverb inspired the founder of Amnesty International who created the “candle wrapped in barb wire” logo – such a powerful and recognizable image. Indeed, when faced with manifestations of evil, it is better to light a candle than curse the dark.
So, what does that mean? How do we do that, how do we light proverbial candles when we are outraged at the world? How do we do more than merely curse the dark?
Feminist theologian Beverly Wildung Harrison wrote, “Anger … is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us.” She suggested that anger is a form of caring – it is a sign of our connections with what matter to us. Harrison wrote, “Where anger rises, there the energy to act is present.” [from ‘The Power of Anger in the Work of Love’ in Union Seminary Quarterly Review, vol. xxxvi, pp. 41-57, 1981]
If we can honor our anger as both a sign of our caring and a spark of energy to bring change, then we can transform anger from one of the negative emotions to be avoided into yet another form of love. Cursing the dark is not enough, because it is not action toward change. Lighting a candle is about using the spark of our anger to bring change. “Where anger rises, there the energy to act is present.”
The violence so often associated with anger is about unguided anger, about anger that merely rages without accomplishing the true goal. It is not enough to just be angry. We must learn to allow our anger to serve as a catalyst for growth and change.
In her 2017 book, Braving the Wilderness, Dr. Brené Brown tells us:
“Anger is a catalyst. Holding on to it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice.”
In short, it is not enough to be angry. We must allow our anger to spark change. And that is one of the hardest parts of this whole conversation. Isn’t it?
I get angry about something in part because I am not able to change it. I can’t control our global descent into climate crisis. I can’t stop other people from getting sucked into disinformation and political propaganda. I can’t solve income inequality or save someone from their own bad choices. Which heaps more anger on top of my anger because I can’t transform it into an action to make a change! … Or that is how it feels at times.
But I can control myself. I can respond – even with this anger and frustration. But not if I give my anger free rein. I have to learn to allow my anger to be the catalyst, the spark, without it becoming an all-consuming fire.
Even when we are feeling angry because we feel powerless and frustrated, we can take a breath and remember that our anger is information revealing our caring hearts, revealing what matters to us, revealing the focus of where we are called to light our candle.
To do that, first, acknowledge your anger when you have it. Trust that you do get angry from time to time and that it is a worthy emotion to have. Next, listen to your anger. It is information, a signal or map revealing what you care about, what matters to you. Check to see if your anger is masking a deeper emotion, in case there is something else you need to do. But if it really is just anger, then allow it to be a spark to lead you into courage and compassion that you may bring more love and justice into your life and the lives of the people around you.
Light a candle from that spark. Allow your anger to become courage and make the changes you need. Light the candle.
In a world without end, may it be so.
Look Again: The Obvious, Often Unobserved
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Sermon video: https://youtu.be/6LDNgedqC1E
Tara Brach, in our reading (Blessings of a Patient Heart) talks about patience. She encourages patience as a spiritual practice leading to mindfulness.
“The Buddha” Brach tells us, “considered patience to be a ‘perfection of the heart’—one of the basic spiritual qualities that expresses our deepest nature.”
For Brach, the practice of patience leads her to be present in the moment, present to her own emotions, present to the people she is with. In our text for this morning, we heard:
“Patience is not the absence of strong emotions, nor is it the denial of unpleasantness. Patience is the capacity to feel at home, to be accepting in the face of the tension and anxiety of stress.”
Patience, Brach is telling us, allows her to give her attention intentionally rather than to have it tugged and pulled by the whims of the moment.
But that led me to deeper curiosity: to what am I to give my attention?
It is a common spiritual practice, not only in Buddhism, to be mindfully in the moment, to prayerfully pay attention, to ‘be here now.’ Equally common is the critique of culture – certainly our current culture – leading us to be obediently unobservant.
Our consumer culture, in particular, lulls us into paying attention only to how we can fulfill our wants and desires through consumption. The 24-hour news culture clamors for us to be anxiously attentive on the edge of our seats for the next bit of news. Indeed, there are countless ways in which our attention is focused for us in ways that do not serve our spirits or our values.
In The Hound of the Baskervilles, the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes says “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” Now, Holmes was surely referring to observable activities in the world around us. Brach, on the other hand, is turning her attention inward. I suggest they are both on to something and it is, at heart, the same thing. The point is that it is your attention and you ought to be in control of it.
This Christmas, a friend has asked for a very particular kind of Christmas gift. She said to us: “Please give me a copy of your favorite book. And include a note about why it is your favorite.”
My friend loves books. And she imagines she will know me a little better when she reads my favorite book. It is possible she has already read it, or would by chance some future day read it of her own desire. But for this Christmas gift practice she is creating, she will read it while looking for what I found in it. She’ll read it looking for a little of me.
I have, on occasion over the years, been given a book or a recommendation for a book by various people – some here in the room. I try to honor the invitation, but in truth I have developed some particular reading habits. I tend to read non-fiction in a bit of a rush as I prepare for a sermon or a presentation. And then I read fiction at a leisurely pace for my own enjoyment. When someone offers me a recommendation or gives me a book, I will often ask “What is it in this book that you really liked? What did you get out of it? Tell me a little about what it means to you?”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “We live not by things but by the meaning of things.” My friend, with her Christmas-book-gift request wants to learn about me and others in our circle through the meaning we have placed on certain books and stories. That is where her attention will be this season – not on things, but on the meanings of things and the relationships of the people around her.
To what are you paying attention?
I’ve recently been reading a book by Alexandra Horowitz, an author, Barnard College professor, and cognitive scientist. Her recent book is entitled On Looking: A Walker’s guide to the Art of Observation. (For the record, this is not the book I am giving my friend, but it is still a good one, if you are looking for a recommendation.)
For this book Horowitz invited a variety of individuals, experts in a diverse range of subjects, to walk with her around her city block. A geologist, an artist, a typographer, and a sound designer: she invites them to reveal to her what they experience of her city block, which she has experienced through her own daily walks of several years. As expected, she learns quite a lot about the world right outside her door that she had not noticed before.
She spent an evening walking around her city block with a man from the Wildlife division of the Humane Society. They talked about rodents and coyotes, pigeons and wild monk parakeets. So much of the city’s wildlife remains unnoticed until a critter is deemed a pest. On another walk around her block, Horowitz strolled along her city block with a professional Sound Engineer to discover sound beyond the roar of traffic and the buzz of flies – the reverberations and Doppler effects caused by buildings and alleys
I think my favorite chapter was when she took an urban sociologist for a walk. A fellow named Kent who worked at the Project for Public Spaces reveled in the way pedestrians move together through the cityscape. “We don’t bump into people,” he reported from in the midst of a tight pack of people crossing the street. The behaviors of a school of fish or a herd of wildebeest reveal rules of movement while in congestion – people have a version of that as well in the city,
Anyway, all of this, really, is about what you notice and what you don’t. As Yogi Berra quipped, “You can observe a lot by watching.” One of the things Horowitz reveals in her book is how our attentiveness can be used against us. We miss things because we are giving our attention to one thing and not another.
“Attention and expectation also work together io oblige our missing things right in front of our noses. There is a term for this: inattentional blindness. It is the missing of the literal elephant in the room, despite the overturned armchairs, dinner-plate foot-prints, and piles of dung. Psychologist have cleverly demonstrated our propensity to miss a rather obvious element of a visual scene when attending to another by asking subjects to watch a specially designed short video. In this video, two teams, dressed in white or black shirts, toss around a basketball. The task is to count the number of tosses made by one of the teams. That is the expectation: the viewers expect there’ll be basketball-tossing! They gear up to see it. Afterward, the subjects are asked for their final tally. Of course, this is not the actual question of interest to the researchers. That question is this: Did you, attentive subject, notice anything else? Anything unusual? Anything else … at all?
“Nearly half of all subjects did not. In this case, the elephant in the room was an actual gorilla – well, a person in a gorilla costume – who waltzes, right between the players, pounds his chest, and saunters off-screen. paying attention to the basketball players, we miss a rather salient (and furry) figure among them.
“Expectation allows us to miss bits of the ordinary world, not just the gorillas in our midst. Indeed, it nearly prevents us from seeing lots of things happening around us”.
Horowitz is referring to the Simons and Chabris “Selective Attention” experiment, 1999. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo&ab_channel=DanielSimons A year earlier Simons did a similar video with a random person giving directions called the “Door” study. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWSxSQsspiQ&ab_channel=DanielSimons And there is a delightful one based on the old Shell Game as well. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bnnmWYI0lM&ab_channel=MarissaWebb You can look these short videos up online. I’ve put the links into the manuscript so you can find them easily. These attention tricks are very clever and it can be fun to get tricked, to notice what you don’t notice.
Here is the important part, however. What do we do with this information? Sherlock Holmes says, “You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.” (From “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”) But which trifles are the important ones? How are we to judge which bits are the important parts to notice?
I sometimes feel this frustration watching the news and then hearing a bit of analysis about a news story that essentially says – that sensational piece of news was a distraction from the real problem which the media is not reporting! I feel like I’ve been dupped, like I’m stupid. And there have been some recent political celebrities who were quite good at this sort of manipulation and distraction.
When life is like a magician waving a hand saying, “behold, nothing up my sleeve,” it can be quite disheartening to simply be told – pay attention to every little thing. But that’s the problem. We can’t possibly! It is literally impossible, biologically and mentally impossible to pay attention to every little thing. Horowitz concludes her book with a response to exactly this:
“There could be an exhaustion in being told to look, to pay attention, to be here now: one might feel put upon, as though being chastised for being neglectful. Nearly all the people I walked with – some of whom were, in essence, professional attenders or lookers – reproached themselves for not paying good enough attention.
“Do not sag with exhaustion. There is no mandate; only opportunity. Our culture fosters inattention; we are all creatures of that culture. But by making your way through this book – by merely picking it up, perhaps – you, reader, are in a new culture, one that values looking. The unbelievable strata of trifling, tremendous things to observe are there for the observing. Look!” -p265
This is the part where I tell you the secret, where I reveal the solution, and direct your attention to what you ought to be noticing. But that’s just the point. Your best course is to pick your own course. And … and to check in with others about what they’re noticing as well, because life is not a competition. We can share our notes with each other.
For example, you might follow along a bit on what Horowitz has done – which is to welcome a sense of wonder back into her daily walks. As the naturalist John Burroughs reminds us, “To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.” Similarly, you may prefer to follow Brach’s lead when she enjoins us into patience that we may give our attention to the inward movements of our spirits, to be wholeheartedly present with the things that matter most in our lives.
English Author Storm Jameson writes,
“There is only one world, the world pressing against you at this minute. There is only one minute in which you are alive, this minute here and now. The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable miracle.”
To be mindfully present to the moment, whether you are a meditating monk or a homicide detective or simply a regular person going about your day, the point is to allow yourself the opportunity to receive what the world is actually offering; to not be shuttled into someone else’s conclusion; to be open to the splendor of living, the regular possibility of joy and wonder.
Life is an opportunity. The world is arrayed before us with beauty and bitterness, wheat and chafe, the mundane and the profound. It’s all there. Life is an opportunity. Look! Seek! There is always more to discover.
I’ll close with the words we heard at the opening, words from my colleague, Rev. Kristen Harper
“Each day provides us with an opportunity to love again, To hurt again, to embrace joy, To experience unease, To discover the tragic. Each day provides us with the opportunity to live. This day is no different, this hour no more unique than the last, Except…Maybe today, maybe now, Among friends and fellow journeyers, Maybe for the first time, maybe silently, We can share ourselves.”
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Reflections based on Kimmerer’s Honorable Harvest in her book Braiding Sweetgrass
Taylor, Lerner, and Cooke
Video of our Reflections: https://youtu.be/oBmBL2seWL4
Our stories this morning are all adapted from the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer from 2013. The subtitle is “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.” Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and the SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology. At the intersection of those to aspects of her life, she reveals the wisdom of sustainability as something both modern and ancient.
As the season turns once more to the time of harvest and our country’s holiday of thanksgiving. I invite us into the wisdom and wondering that Kimmerer’s book offers. She writes about our needing to see ourselves as a part of our ecosystem. That we should not merely take, but instead both give and take. As heterotrophs, we do not photosynthesize our own energy. Our role is to consume, to exchange a life for a life.
“How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? I know we cannot all become hunter-gatherers- the living world could not bear our weight- but even in a market economy, can we behave ‘as if’ the living world were a gift?” [p. 31]
Do you have a story of how you’ve grown or foraged or hunted your own food? Are you a part of your ecosystem and the give and take that is needed as you consume? As you sit down for a Thanksgiving meal, can you note where the various foods came from and how they came to your table?
“For much of my life, I have had access to fresh grown foods. For instance every year my family has a garden that always at least has something growing in it or my first job was working on a vegetable farm. For this I am thankful as it has given me a very open perspective to the benefits of eating food produced in this manner and as a kid it gave me the opportunity to enjoy vegetables that many others my age never got the opportunity to experience or learn to enjoy.
Another place I ended up being involved with food was my grandfather’s old garden. It was a project of his to grow some food for himself, an endeavor which lasted a handful years. Over time he began to downsize it as the work began to outweigh the benefit to himself. Year after year it began to shrink until there was only one bed left that happened to be full of asparagus. For him the time had come to let this final part of the garden go. As he requested, I mowed over the area as I had with the previous garden beds leaving his yard garden-less or so we thought. The thing some of you might not know about asparagus is that once it is left untouched for its first two years it begins to be self-sufficient making it become super resilient. This meaning to this day year after year that asparagus pokes its way out of the ground showing exactly where the bed was and during its most active time of the season, even while mowing over it weekly there are enough stems to make a dinner side out of each week.
The resilience of asparagus is definitely something to admire and just one of many examples that if nature is not pushed past its breaking point it will continue to provide.”
Dylan reminded me as we were preparing for this service of that favorite Dr. Suess quote from the Lorax. “Unless! Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” The path to a better world is for people to care. The path to caring is being connected, being interconnected and familiar with the world.
I grew up the youngest of eight children to parents in NW Pennsylvania who grew up during the depression and experienced food rationing in World War II. We had a stove with 8 burners, two ovens, a griddle and a broiler. It’s not surprising that, having to feed all of us, they were experienced in gardening, foraging, fishing, hunting, bee keeping, and raising chickens and other fowl.
Some of my favorite memories are walking along the trails in the woods near our home picking raspberries, blackberries and blueberries with my Dad. Along the way we’d sometimes find mushrooms to bring home for dinner. He knew which ones were safe and which were not.
My mother loved to grow vegetables that seemed unusual to me. I’m still not sure what salsify is, but it sounded exotic. She grew brussel sprouts long before I ever saw one at the grocery. I wasn’t much for weeding, but I loved the harvest, and learned to freeze and can produce for the winters. We were always taught not to waste food, or anything for that matter – we’d hear, “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
I remember holidays that were packed with people cooking and baking and sharing stories, and I’ve tried to pass down the wisdom and love to our children. They are all excellent cooks, and one is a professional chef. Our holidays continue the loving traditions of our ancestors.
Many of you know about John Murray, an early Universalist in this country, who landed in Good Luck NJ near the home of Thomas Potter. The Murray Grove Retreat and Conference Center is still on this property, and is a favorite place for many UUs to retreat and relax. One fall, I noticed that the wild concord grapes that grow around the pool had a bumper crop of grapes. My foraging genes kicked in, and a few grocery bags later, I was on my way home to make jelly. No Hell Jell, we called it, and I donated most back to Murray Grove as a fundraiser.
I’ve been following along with the lives of some youth leaders from my time with the UUA Metro NY District, now adults. Of course, many of them are in the helping professions, and I’m delighted that more than the average number of them turned to occupations in sustainable agriculture – like
Katie who was farm manager at John Hart Farms, a family-run working farm that offers resources and information to growers at any agricultural scale—from families looking to raise a few chickens, to industrial-sized operations.
Kassandra in Colorado at FrontLine Farming, a food and farmers advocacy group focusing on food growing, education, sovereignty, and justice.
And Tobin in Mass, working with Book and Plow Farm, associated with Amherst College. They provide high quality vegetables and nourishing education that feed the local community in sustainable ways.
Watching these youth and my own children grow into caring and nurturing adults really gives me hope for the future.
For my part, I can only witness to the blessing and abundance of the earth. I am not an attentive gardener. I have many examples I could share of herbs and vegetables under my care that did not make it. The farmers’ fields from my youth were a fertile land for my imagination, but I never actually paid attention to the food that was growing there as well. I am a child of the supermarkets and restaurants. Kimmerer’s question drives right to heart of my own living. Perhaps it is different for you. I welcome you to call your own story to mind.
“How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? I know we cannot all become hunter-gatherers- the living world could not bear our weight- but even in a market economy, can we behave ‘as if’ the living world were a gift?” [p. 31]
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Broken Wing (2)
Sermon Video: https://youtu.be/hOiwsiEHB0E
A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on each end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his master’s house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfections, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.
After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.” “Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?” “I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work and you don’t get full value for your efforts,” the pot said.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot and in his compassion he said, “As we return to the master’s house I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure.
The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”
Each of us has our own unique flaws. We’re all cracked pots.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There is a crack in everything God has made.” All of existence is flawed, broken. For Christians this manifest in humans as Original Sin – a tricky concept even semantically as there is a significant distinction between little ‘s’ sins and capital ‘S’ Original Sin. Little ‘s’ sins are about behavior while capital ‘S’ Sin is about existence – a state of being broken, flawed, of having a crack. But it is easy to mix the two ideas together and see our brokenness as somehow our fault: something to feel guilty for. But that is not a fair rendering of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. We are not bad, we are broken. There is a crack in everything God has made.
I remember a favorite children’s story by Shel Silverstein called The Missing Piece. I used the story once as a jumping off point for a major theology presentation in seminary. The story tells of a pacman-like circle with a slice missing. The opening lines reads: “It was missing a piece. And it was not happy. So it set off in search of its missing piece.” The story then tells about the adventures it has along the search, the complications encountered when it finds what it thinks it is after, and the resulting decision to remain broken. You see, when it finally found its missing piece after searching and making up songs about its searching and discovering the wrong pieces over and over … when it finally found its missing piece it was geometrically a whole circle and thus there was no opening through which it could sing. So it decided that it was better to sing of the longing to be whole than it was to actually be whole. It decided to remain broken so that it could sing.
(“Blackbird” by the Beatles)
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
And so I would speak today upon the benefits of being broken, as if there were any other way to be – for there is a crack in everything God has made and it is through that crack that the light shines. It is the blackbird singing in the dead of night with broken wings that learn to fly and sunken eyes that learn to see. It is the amazing grace of having been lost then found, blind but now you see … into the light of the dark black night.
The children’s story I offered as I began my theology presentation that day in seminary was not a presentation on some general aspect of theology such as ‘Human Nature’ or ‘Faith and Suffering’. It was a presentation of my personal theological journey. I was missing a piece and I was not happy. So I had set off in search of my missing piece … into the light of the dark black night.
And my experience was very much like the paradox of Paul McCartney’s poetry: to find the light within myself, I sat with the dark black night of my brokenness. Notice what McCartney has done with that bit of poetry. Often a “dark black night” is perceived as negative, as bad. But in the song, McCartney say we fly into the light of that dark black night. There is something profoundly healing to be found there. It is where grace resides. For me, I looked into my heartache and depression until I found the mix of love and fear at the root. Then, I turned toward my suffering rather than away from it.
Back in the early 70’s, Henri Nouwen wrote a powerful book called The Wounded Healer. The book quickly became a standard for pastoral theology. The premise of the title is that “in our own brokenness we can become a source of life for others.” The bulk of the book, however, is centered upon a critique of culture. Nouwen said that we live in a dislocated world, a fragmented society, a rootless generation, and that we are a hopeless and lonely and isolated mix of people. Nouwen said we are driven apart by forces in the culture. Healing comes from a radical stance of hospitality, a welcoming in; it is a standing forth with all that you are and inviting others in.
Suffering is solitary work. Each of us experiences suffering – there is a unifying community of sufferers to be sure; we all suffer and thus are kin in this. Yet each person’s heartache and pain is unique to that person and is experienced inwardly. Howard Thurman, reflecting on this, writes: “Suffering tends to isolate the individual, to create a wall… It makes his spirit miserable in the literal sense of that word. Initially, it stops all outward flow of life and makes a virtue of the necessity for turning inward.” (Disciplines of the Spirit p75) But later he adds: “Openings are made in a life by suffering that are not made in any other way.” (Ibid p 76)
Initially it isolates you and creates a wall; then it offers an opening. Maya Angelou writes: “No one knows what it costs the bulb, the onion bulb or the tulip bulb, to split – to crack itself open – to allow the thin tendril of life to emerge.” (Maya Angelou in Restoring Hope) Certainly there is pain and suffering involved, but the brokenness is an opening into a greater depth of joy and meaning. As Kahlil Gibran wrote: “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked… The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
This is not to say that suffering is always an opportunity to grow into joy or new life. Only that is can, that it is an opportunity. I am not preaching about the saving power of suffering as if suffering is a great good for our spiritual growth. Indeed I think our capacity for joy is a greater agent for spiritual growth than suffering ever has been.
And besides, I am speaking of brokenness more than suffering. Our brokenness – my brokenness – is a source of power and beauty, it can be an opening for grace, it is the crack through which so much compassion and understanding can flow. It can cause me suffering when I work to hide my flaws or be ashamed of them, when I allow myself to be limited by my failures. Or, I can grow. Rainer Marie Rilke has said, “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” At times I will playfully say that my hope is to make new and more glorious mistakes rather than to repeat the same old tired mistakes I’m used to.
Like the circle who was missing a piece, the end goal is not to reach perfection. It is to learn how best to make use of the brokenness. You are full of flaws and failings, suffering and sorrow: yet you also have so much to offer. And your gifts are available not just in spite of your brokenness – but oftentimes because of it.
I had a professor when I was in undergrad studying theater who would talk to us not about acting or set design or directing, but about life as an artist. His philosophy was ‘if you know who you are as an artist, everything else will fall in place.’ This professor was a bit of an odd duck, but you grow used to that when you work in theater. There was one lesson in particular that I found and still find of great value. He was talking one day about the role of suffering in the life of an artist and he said it is important to name and own the pain you’ve experienced. This way, for example, when you are getting into character, you could relate to your character’s hurts and suffering by saying “I know that fire, I’ve been through that fire or one very similar.”
That image of talking about suffering in our lives as fires we have lived through stuck with me when I switched my major from theater to psychology, and when I then went through seminary as I trained to become a minister. This idea that we all have been though fires that have burned and informed us has taught us much about empathy and of how we interact with other people. And it is an analogy that seems to fit better and better the more I think of it and live with it. For it leads us compassion. The broken places in my life and in my heart can reveal grace and offer wisdom through the understanding that comes with compassion.
According to Henri Nouwen we live in a dislocated and isolating world. Healing comes from a radical stance of hospitality, a welcoming in; it is a holding forth with all that you are and inviting others in. It is not in fixing another person’s brokenness; rather it is in welcoming another person, flaws and all, to be present with you. A poem from May Sarton illustrates this well when she advises us to move among the tender with an open hand. (From “An Observation” by May Sarton)
True gardeners cannot bear a glove
Between the sure touch and the tender root,
Must let their hands grow knotted as they move
With a rough sensitivity about
Under the earth, between the rock and shoot,
Never to bruise or wound the hidden fruit.
And so I watched my mother’s hands grow scarred,
She who could heal the wounded plant or friend
With the same vulnerable yet rigorous love;
I minded once to see her beauty gnarled,
But now her truth is given me to live,
As I learn for myself we must be hard
To move among the tender with an open hand,
And to stay sensitive up to the end
Pay with some toughness for a gentle world.
Nouwin contends that even in our own brokenness we can become a source of healing for others. Thurman witnesses that openings are found through our brokenness that are not found any other way. And if we can learn to move among the thorns without a glove, Sarton observes, you can stay sensitive to another’s brokenness. There is a crack in everything God has made. We are all cracked pots.
Do not despair for that within you which feels lost, sunken, or broken. What feels like a weight holding you back may be the other side of the coin of your great gift to offer the world. You can still learn to fly though your wings be broken.
Black bird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
all your life (Amazing Grace)
you were only waiting for this moment to be free
Blackbird fly, Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.
At least, thus it has been with my experience of life. May it be so for you as well.
In a world without end
May it be so.
The Arc of our UU Universe
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Anti-racism has become a central aspect of our faith tradition. It may seem a little odd to consider it that way, but have I not spoken for some time about how the center of our Unitarian Universalist faith is not found in beliefs and creeds, but in values. We are values-centric faith. And one of the values rising to the fore in our communal conversations is anti-racism and multiculturalism. We value justice, inclusion, and mutual respect. Thus, anti-racism has become a central feature of our values as Unitarian Universalists.
But that was not always the case. It is interesting really to think about the version of Unitarian Universalism we are living today and how we are sometimes tempted to think it has always been like this, that our commitment to religious freedom and tolerance has always led us to behave as we do today. But ask some of our long-term members and we’ll remind ourselves that ours is an evolving faith tradition. We grow, we change. This heavy emphasis on anti-racism is somewhat new.
In our reading, (from the introduction of Mistakes and Miracles,) the authors describe an event happening at General Assembly back in 2017. Rev. Peter Morales was our UUA president from 2009 to 2017, and 3 months prior to the end of his 8-year term, he resigned in a controversy of UUA hiring practices and charges of institutional racism. Those events and our association’s response contributed to the rise of the phrase “White Supremacy” among us. We in Binghamton participated in the national “White Supremacy Teach-in” back in the spring of 2017. I expect some of you can recall that time. It was a little messy. But then, Unitarian Universalism has struggled with racism for a long time.
I mentioned the issue with Thomas Jefferson’s legacy during the Time for All Ages. We Unitarians have loved him for his stance on the separation of church and state, for his commitment to the use of reason in religion, for his lofty words in the Declaration of Independence. For a long time, we simply didn’t talk about the contradiction and hypocrisy of his role in the slaughter of native people, of his owning of slaves, of keeping an enslaved mistress, and of not even doing that bare minimum of decency of freeing his slaves upon his death – several of whom were his children – all after proclaiming “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”
In 1993 there was a significant event for Unitarian Universalists that cracked open a major conversation around old TJ. 1993 was the 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth. Our UUA General Assembly was schedule to happen in Charlotte, NC, which at the time was located in the district named after Thomas Jefferson. The minister serving the Thomas Jefferson UU Church in Charlottesville, VA offered to do a workshop on “The most famous Unitarian in history.” People wanted to celebrate Jefferson’s legacy among us.
The GA planning committee suggested a celebratory ball in his honor, inviting people to wear period-costumes. They thought it would a bit of fun to have people attend dressed in costumes from the early American time period. It simply was not on many people’s radar that this idea might cause pain to black and indigenous people. Notably, Hope Johnson read a statement during the plenary which included the question, “Must African Americans such events in rags and chains?”
People countered saying that the event was intended to honor a luminary from our Unitarian history. People countered saying the good Jefferson embodied is still worth praising and to do so does not automatically make one a racist. The planning team responsible for hosting the Jefferson Ball tried to respond but the response dissolved into blame. One member of that planning team, Rev. Keith Kron, said this a few years later:
“We think of racism as being an overt thing,” Kron reflected. “As someone who had lived in the South and had seem as a 5th grader, my elementary school become integrated, I knew what racism was. And I was right. Or half-right. There are a lot of people who consciously want people of color to be second-class citizens. What I and the rest of the Planning Committee didn’t know at the time was that much of racism is not conscious – just part of the system, and you have to be awake to see it.”
I was in seminary a few years after these events and will offer the perspective that my entire time as a minister has been during the version of Unitarian Universalism debating multiculturalism, working to unlearn racism, and waking up to the ways white supremacy shapes our history and our values as a faith tradition. That’s the version of our faith I know professionally.
I remember a time early in my ministry when I had attended a conference on anti-racism and during an informal time, I was chatting with an elder UU lay-leader who was set against our attempts at diversity because he doesn’t want to dumb down Unitarian Universalism to win over black people. I was shocked by the ignorance and illogic of this argument, but learned as the years went by that this was a common argument against integration among us. It was a pattern.
I am reminded of the advice one of the co-presidents offered from our reading. In reflecting on how to move forward, Rev. Bill Sinkford commended us to “focus not on the persons but the patterns.” In this context, I am drawn to notice the patterns of our history rather than a single person – contemporary or historical – save as they reveal something about our patterns.
Are you, for example, familiar with the story of Rev. Egbert Ethelred Brown? He was born in Jamaica, trained by Meadville theological school from 1910-12 to be a Unitarian minister, and launched the Harlem Unitarian Church in 1920. But he had little to no support in his ministry. The American Unitarian Association dropped him from fellowship in 1929 only to have it reinstated in 1935 with the support of the ALCU.
Unitarians at that time were not interested in supporting the spread of Unitarianism among black people. To be sure, there were white Unitarians who went against the tide, but the leadership of the association labeled African Americans as ‘lower class ‘shiftless rascals.’ (from Darkening the Doorways, ed Mark Morrison-Reed; p51) This claim that our faith is somehow inaccessible to ‘lesser’ people is an arrogant failing that continues to appear among us through the years. This, despite Rev. Brown being described as a radical leader offering thought-provoking sermons.
My contemporary colleagues have commented about this, how their sermons as people of color are critiqued as being too emotional – ‘too Jesus-y’ is a coded way of saying much the same.
Back in 1860, an incredibly rare example of an encounter before the 1900’s, the Rev. William Jackson applied to join the ranks of the Unitarian clergy in Bedford MA. After being in conversation with a Unitarian clergy friend, Jackson felt moved to become a Unitarian. He was denied. One historian from the ‘70’s produced a widely reproduced quote about the response:
The Unitarians took a collection … and Mr. Jackson was sent on his way. No discussion, no welcome, no expression of praise and satisfaction was uttered, that the Unitarian gospel had reached the ‘colored.’ (from Patterns of Antislavery among American Unitarians 1831-60, Douglas Stange; p 227)
And the Universalist have their own track record. There is an amazing and tragic story about what came to be called the Universalist Negro missions in Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia. Under the leadership of two dynamic African American Universalist, the church and the school connected to the mission bloomed and blossomed. The first leader died young and the next eventually left Universalism, being over extended and under-supported by the denomination.
The mission fell into the hands of the Rev. Joseph Fletcher Jordan, who became the pastor of St. Paul Universalist church in Suffolk VA and principle of the Suffolk Normal Training School for 25 years in the early 1900’s. Along with his wife, Mary Jordan, and later his daughter, Annie Willis, the Jordans brought the message of God’s love to countless people of color in Virginia. Support from the Universalist’s General Convention would ebb and flow through the years depending on who was in charge and who was paying attention. Not having another African American Universalist ready to step in, the mission faded away when Annie Willis died.
Similarly up here in New England, Jeffery Campbell attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY to become a Universalist minister. After graduation he officiated at his sister’s wedding and then moved to London, unable to secure a pulpit in this country as either a Universalist or a Unitarian in the 1930’s or ‘40s. The wedding he officiated for his sister was an interracial wedding to another seminary student, Francis Davis. Rev Davis, while being white, had no luck securing a Universalist pulpit either, due to his interracial marriage.
I suggest one pernicious pattern in this history among both our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors is a willful apathy and distain aimed to ignore the issue away. And so, I for one applaud the courageously called who have refused to fade away. I am grateful the issue and values of Anti-racism have worked their way into the center of our faith’s conversation and attention. I am please to acknowledge the change and the centering of those who had so long been pushed to the margins.
Years back now, Unitarian preacher and activist Theodore Parker said:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” -Theodore Parker, 1853
So with all this evidence from our own history of hypocrisy and racism, what do are we to do? What do I do about this moral arc and the messy legacy of it all? Where do I as your minister look for evidence of this bending arc? I will share one final story.
I have mentioned the annual General Assembly of the UUA several times this morning. It is perhaps fitting to close my sermon with one more story for a General Assembly. This time from 2019, the Sunday Morning worship service. The preacher, the Reverend Marta Valentin, had finished – her sermon had been titled “It Is Time Now” and she had told us that we were in a ‘turning’ as a faith, a turning toward greater wholeness and justice and beloved-ness. She had told us that the hard path we are on of becoming an anti-racist, multicultural faith tradition, we are at a turning of the path. Things are changing.
At the end of the service, the choir began singing the postlude song by Karisha Longaker of the musical duo, MaMuse. The song says, “We shall be known by the company we keep, by the ones who circle round and tend these fires”
And the worship leaders all moved off to one side as other people began joining them on the large stage while the choir sang. First a few folks in scooters or using canes, then more people came up starting a second row behind those who had arrived a moment earlier.
“We shall be known” the choir voices rang out, “by the ones who sow and reap the seeds of change alive from deep within the earth.”
And if it wasn’t clear before, no one would miss it now as more and more people arrived on stage. Here were the black, indigenous, and people of color who have been leaders in our faith tradition at this particular time in our history.
“It is time now,” the choir sang, “it is time now that we thrive.”
Here before us on the stage was a snapshot, a moment in time, revealing the active leadership in our faith who were not white. When I entered ministry in the late 90’s there were a handful of people of color in leadership in our faith. Here now were several dozen people filling the stage. Clergy and prominent lay leaders, elders and youth. And remember this was only those who were present at General Assembly that Sunday morning.
“It is time now, and what a time to be alive,” the choir sang.
And we know it is not about counting up the diverse people and patting ourselves on the back for good numbers. It is about transformation and growth and becoming a little more like the Beloved Community each day. And what I witnessed on the stage that Sunday morning was about something new growing among us, something about leadership and change and love.
“In this Great Turning,” the choir sang, “we must learn to lead in love.”
And the choir sang, “In this Great Turning, we must learn to lead in love.”
In a world without end,
May it be so.