Posts Tagged beauty

Lighting the Windows of Our Lives


For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

My favorite part of any Christmas Eve service — and, I suspect, the favorite part for most Unitarian Universalist ministers — is the ceremony of passing the flame. With a single candle lit from the chalice, the flame is silently passed along the rows, and from each row to the one behind. Standing at the pulpit, I can see the tongues of fire multiplying as they spread, until soft light shines in every face and the whole Sanctuary is aglow. Then, each of us holding our candles, we sing “Silent Night”, adding another dimension to the warmth and beauty that fills the room.

Christmas Eve photograph by Rosalee Pfister

There are many ways to understand the symbolism of this ceremony. The individual flame can represent hope or love or wisdom or kindness, something that we all have, something that we all…

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Bringing Wholeness

(I preached this homily for Flower Communion at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 1st 2014.)

In a few minutes’ time, we’ll celebrate the Flower Communion, which I can say without hesitation is the most beloved of all Unitarian Universalist ceremonies.  It was created by Czech Unitarian minister Norbert Čapek, who wrote a number of original hymns and prayers for it, and it was then brought to the United States by his wife, Maja.  Actually, I suspect that Maja had a hand in helping her husband create the Flower Communion, but we are particularly grateful to her for making it such a beautiful part of the living tradition of Unitarian Universalism.

The story goes that, until about a hundred years ago, Norbert was living in eastern Europe.  He’d been born into a Roman Catholic family living in Bohemia and he’d always wanted to be a priest, but he was a free-thinker and that got him into trouble when it came to some of the things he said about religion and politics.  Finding his increasingly liberal opinions unwelcome, Norbert, his first wife and their eight children fled to the United States.  Unfortunately his wife died soon after they arrived, but it was here that he learned about Unitarianism and found that it matched his own developing religious ideas.  He also met Maja, who was from Bohemia as well and had come to the United States some years before.  A graduate of Columbia University, she worked at the New York Public Library when they met.  They married soon after, and together joined the Unitarian church in Orange, New Jersey.

With their homeland newly independent after World War I, the Čapeks moved back to Europe, to the city of Prague in what is now the Czech Republic.  Together they founded the first Unitarian church in that part of Europe, and in time it became the largest Unitarian congregation in the world, with over three-thousand members.

Now, Sunday services in the Czech Unitarian Church weren’t much like worship services in today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations.  They didn’t sing hymns, and the ritual of lighting the chalice didn’t yet exist.  Some of the church members wanted something more spiritual than a lecture they could hear at the local university, so Norbert decided to create a ritual that would bring people together.  Taking his inspiration from the beauty of the countryside around Prague, he created the Flower Communion.

It’s a simple idea, but it’s the simple beauty that makes it so meaningful.  Every person coming to the service brings a flower, which they place in large vases.  The flowers form a beautiful bouquet, as unique and irreplaceable as each of the flowers in it.  With even just one flower missing, it wouldn’t be the same bouquet!  After the flowers are blessed, each person selects a flower to take home with them.  So different people brings different flowers and everybody gets to take one home, a different one than they brought.  In this way we honor the uniqueness of each person, as beautiful in their own way as a flower, each of us with a special contribution to make to our community.

lots of flowers

Now this isn’t a story with a nice, neat happy ending, but then, life is hardly a fairy tale.  During World War II, the Čapeks were invited back to the United States, given understandable concerns for their safety.  Maja did return, though that was primarily to help raise funds for Czech relief efforts, but Norbert chose to remain in his homeland, ministering to those who needed to hear his message of inherent worth and dignity and beauty.  Unfortunately that message wasn’t popular with the Nazi regime, and both he and his daughter were arrested and sent to a concentration camp.  Norbert was tortured and then killed.  But his legacy didn’t die with him, of course.  Maja, who had also been ordained a minister of the Czech Unitarian Church, brought with her the Flower Communion, and it quickly became a beloved tradition in Unitarian and then Unitarian Universalist congregations.

In a moment, I’ll read Norbert’s own words for consecrating the flowers before I invite you to come forward and take one.  But there’s one particular line that has stood out since the first time I heard these words, and it bears a little further comment.  That line is as follows:

May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do work of bringing wholeness to the world.

I know there have been times in my own life when I feel envy at something that another person has done, something that I myself have not done, perhaps that I am not even able to do.  Many of my colleagues in ministry do amazing things all the time, and I sometimes find myself thinking, “Oooh, I wish I had done that.”  Or even, “I wish I could do that.”  Of course, I try not to begrudge them their success, and I try to turn it around to find ways to let their successes inspire me, rather than resenting them and putting myself down.  I’d like to think, of course, that there are similarly things that I do, at least once in a while, that inspire other people, and maybe even impress them, too.  Hey, I have an ego: I’m human, too.

Goodness knows, there are lots of opportunities, even within a modestly sized congregation like ours, to be impressed by what other people are doing.  Take any one of us, and there will always be someone who can volunteer more of their time here, or who can contribute more money, or who can run a committee meeting more effectively, or who can sing or play music with more skill, or who can create artwork or write poetry that is more beautiful, or who can cook and bake more delicious food, or …  The list goes on.  It’s natural to feel a little envious, because we’re human, too, and if it inspires us to try a little harder and aim a little higher, then that’s okay.  Putting ourselves down, and making others feel bad about their talents and efforts, on the other hand, is not okay.

This, of course, is one of the lessons of the Flower Communion.  It wasn’t some random thought that prompted Norbert Čapek to put that line into his prayer for consecrating the flowers: “May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do work of bringing wholeness to the world.”  Flowers are a great metaphor for human diversity, and of course an object lesson in accepting one another’s inherent worth and dignity and beauty.  And not only accepting it, but lifting it up, and enjoy being lifted up ourselves, too.

After all, even the flowers that most people consider to be undesirable weeds when it comes to their lawns at home are beautiful in their own way.  When my daughter and I go for a walk — well, I’m usually the one walking, while she rides in the wagon I’m pulling — we notice all of the flowers we pass.  As yet, she really hasn’t been that interested in roses or lilies, but she loves buttercups and clover.  It’s reminded me of my own childhood delight in flowers, how buttercups shine so brightly yellow, and that thing children do of holding one under someone’s chin to see if they like butter or not.  And clover is not only something that enriches the soil, but is a primary source of nectar for honeybees, which need all the help they can get right now.  Even dandelions, the bane of many home gardeners’ existence, are beautiful in their own way, not to mention when the heads dry out and all those seeds are on their little fluffy parachutes and you can blow on them and who knows how far any one seed will travel.

So as you select a flower today to take home, think about how it’s different from every other flower that you might have taken.  Think about how you are different from every other person here, perhaps more skilled and gifted and interested in some things than other people, perhaps less in others.  And that’s okay, because whatever we do and whatever we are, we are all a part of the work of bringing wholeness to the world.

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Life Shines Through

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 5th 2014.)

Responsive Reading: #588 in Singing the Living Tradition

While it is generally accepted amongst scholars of the Bible that the Book of Isaiah originates with the eighth-century Hebrew prophet Isaiah ben Amoz, it is also widely known that he did not write the book himself.  What’s more, given evidence such as the sudden change in style and theology after chapter forty, the book as a whole was probably the work of multiple authors.  Its various pieces were then arranged to create an overarching message about life in Israel before and after the Jewish exile in Babylon.

Aside from being the book of the Hebrew Bible most cited in the Christian New Testament — even if, for instance, Matthew gets some of it wrong, such as basing a pretty major claim on the mis-translation of the Hebrew word for “young woman” into the Greek word for “virgin” — well, aside from that, Isaiah is foremost amongst the Hebrew prophets in speaking truth to power, calling for peace and justice, lifting up the plight of the poor and the oppressed and taking to task the avarice of the rich and the powerful.  Our responsive reading this morning, then, comes from such a passage on the topic of holiness and righteousness.

Is not this the fast that I choose:

To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.

Aria: “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen

Sermon: “Life Shines Through”

I think it’s fair to say that Leonard Cohen knows his Hebrew Bible.  His mother’s father was a rabbi and his other grandfather was founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.  And as a child, he knew that his surname came from the Hebrew word kohen meaning “priest”, indicating that he was a descendent of Aaron, older brother of Moses and the first high priest ordained by God.

Then there are the Biblical allusions in his songs.  His “Anthem” refers to “the killers in high places say[ing] their prayers out loud”, just the sort of religious hypocrisy called out by the Hebrew prophets — Jesus of Nazareth also criticized such false piety, of course, but he was, after all, a Hebrew prophet, too.

Then there’s the perhaps more subtle line in the chorus: “forget your perfect offering”.  Cohen is arguing against anything being perfect, and in fact that’s a good thing, because “that’s how the light gets in”.  The mention of perfect offerings is in reference to the Biblical requirement that any sacrifice must be pure and unblemished, and that the person making the sacrifice must be similarly clean and perfect.  Such requirements of perfection are impossible to meet, of course, but even when we know that, it can be very hard to let go of the idea that everything we do should be perfect.

That’s particularly the case when that’s something that’s drummed into us as children.  The British equivalent of high school that I attended had a song that we only sang three times a year, at the end of each school term.  It was printed in a little book that contained helpful information about the school, the teachers, our fellow students, and so on, but we were supposed to have the song memorized so that we didn’t need to refer to the book to sing it.  It was called “Heroes”, a portion of a longer poem by Victorian playwright Robert Browning, but even just those sixteen lines were hard to commit to memory, consisting as each did of twelve or thirteen syllables of floridly dramatic language.  But I remember parts of it even now, including the last line: “my heart and soul applaud perfection, nothing less.”

If having that as our school song wasn’t setting up impressionable teenagers for failure, I don’t know what was.  Appreciating perfection in terms of the ideals of good and beauty, of bravery and dedication, sure, that’s a positive message for teenage boys to absorb, but the implication that “nothing less” than perfection will do?  Well, I have to wonder how many of my classmates struggled with perfectionism in later life.  Aiming high?  Nothing wrong with that, so long as there’s at least some realism in there.  Aiming for perfection while shackled to the idea that anything less than a perfect outcome is unacceptable?  That’s a recipe for disappointment, procrastination and depression.

I’ve certainly found myself in situations where I’ve struggled with this.  On the one hand, really putting in the effort to make something as perfect as possible could make a real difference, and often the paper I was writing or the experiment I was doing or the computer program I was coding or the piece of equipment that I was building turned out much better than if I’d been more willing to settle for something “good enough”.

On the other hand, there were times when trying to get something perfectly right made things worse, when my frustration caused me to make mistakes or give up too early or not even try.  When I was twelve or thirteen I was asked to do a reading at the memorial service of another boy from my school who had died from cancer.  I was so worried about doing it right — so scared, in fact, of mucking it up — that I didn’t even look at the reading until the day of the service, at the rehearsal only an hour before. So yes, at the service itself I came close to mucking it up, thanks to my own unreasonable expectations.

Even without being so afraid of being imperfect, there’s always the risk of not having enough time, at least not for the perfect when something “good enough” would be just fine.  For example, when Scottish engineer Robert Watson-Watt was leading the development of the British radar system in the 1930s, he knew that his researchers were up against a rapidly growing Nazi air force.  Given enough time, they could have built the perfect system, but they knew that war could be declared at any moment, so instead they embraced the imperfect but good enough: “Give them the third best to go on with,” Watson-Watt advised; “the second best comes too late, [and] the best never comes.”

There’s another saying that someone shared with me a number of years ago that has stuck with me: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

I first heard this in a small group that met around the subject of Voluntary Simplicity, something that is frequently misunderstood as purging almost all possessions, going to unreasonable lengths to live more lightly on the Earth, and frankly depriving oneself of anything that brings happiness or comfort.  In fact, that’s the opposite of Voluntary Simplicity.  Rather, as explained on the blog entitled “Choosing Voluntary Simplicity”, it’s really about “figuring out who you are and how you really feel.  What is important to you?  What do you strongly believe in?  What do you see as a worthwhile use of your time and your money?  What really makes you happy?

What we talked about that time in that small group was that it’s all very well to have a dream of living the perfect life, whatever that might mean for you, whether it’s quitting the rat-race and working for yourself, or growing and preparing all of your own food, or slowing down and living fully in the moment, or devoting yourself to great causes, but getting there is a process, and it takes time.  Try aiming for the perfect as if it were possible to leap there directly, without going through many intermediate stages of good and better and even better along the way, not to mention some inevitable set-backs as well, and the result may well be disappointment, procrastination and depression.

This is particularly important to keep in mind when it comes to making the world a better place, where it seems like there are so many things wrong that it’s easy to be frozen into inaction as if the only option were to fix all of it, in one go.  It doesn’t help that so much injustice is a result of interlocking systems, whether it’s the renewed disenfranchisement of women and minorities as voters, the erosion of the middle class and unions and public education, this economic “recovery” that has only really benefited the people who were doing well anyway, the attacks on reproductive rights and even contraception in the name of religious freedom, the millions of people still without access to health care except through the emergency room, the demonization of immigrants and the working poor, and so on.

For those of us fortunate enough not to be particularly impacted by so many problems, but who are at least willing to try to fix them, it’s all too easy to be convinced that we can’t, or that what we can do isn’t worth it.  That’s the way that systems of oppression work, of course.  But then there’s the fact that I should really have said “for those of us fortunate enough to not yet be impacted”, so not doing anything is a luxury we can’t afford.  As put best by co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do.”

Over the next few weeks, then, we’re going to address some of the different pieces of this, and think about what we can do that will make a difference without setting ourselves up for failure by holding unreasonable expectations.

Our service theme for the month of January is justice.  Next Sunday, Jennifer Ryu, my colleague at the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists, will be preaching here as part of a pulpit swap that we’re doing.  Jennifer’s sermon will look at how religious diversity is a key part of a strong democracy and ask how we UUs can deepen our interfaith work.  The following Sunday I’ll be preaching about the Thirty Days of Love, which is an interfaith public advocacy campaign running from the weekend of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to the weekend after Valentine’s Day.  It invites us into a month of intentional action, service, education and reflection as we grow the Beloved Community together.  And at the end of the month you’ll hear from a panel of speakers including our own UUFP Charter Member, about how this congregation has been and continues to be part of the civil rights movement.

Turning to the theme of stewardship in February, you’ll hear from local UU Margaret Sequeira about marriage equality, including the fact that her own marriage is legal in California but not here in Virginia.  (Someday it will be of course! The Defense of Marriage Act is history and seventeen states and counting, plus the District of Columbia, now recognize the right to marry!)  And I’ll wrap up the Thirty Days of Love with a service as part of the interfaith National Preach-In on Climate Change, joining a thousand other clergy around the country to offer a religious response to what has been called the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced.

Of course there’s more to this than what is said in this room on a Sunday morning. Unitarian Universalism is not a faith content to sit and contemplate its own navel; it’s a faith that demands to be put into action.

So on January 21st, I’ll be in Richmond for the Virginia Interfaith Center’s Day for All People, a day of advocacy at the state capitol.  Hopefully you saw the recent e-Flame article about the UU Legislative Ministry of Virginia that is participating in the Day for All People in order to support legislation that would allow eligible immigrant youth to attend Virginia’s colleges.  And I’ll be back in Richmond on January 28th for Equality Virginia’s Day of Action, which is about advocating for bills supporting equal rights and legal protections for all Virginians regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Then in February I’ll be in Raleigh, North Carolina, answering a call from my colleagues to participate in what is being billed as the “most massive moral rally in the South since Selma!”  Though prompted by a number of social problems in the state, the driving force for what has now been a series of demonstrations is North Carolina’s voter suppression, including reducing early voting, requiring unreasonable identification (in a state with no evidence of voter fraud), and penalizing students for voting on campus.  And that matters here, because Virginia’s neighbor to the south is essentially being used to test such measures before they are also introduced in other states.  And on Valentine’s Day, I’ll be at the courthouse here in Newport News, taking part in a witness organized by People of Faith for Equality in Virginia, and supporting same sex couples applying for marriage licenses or requesting that their marriage in another state or DC be recognized here, too.

So, my stole and my “Standing on the Side of Love” clergy shirt are going to be out in public a lot during the next few weeks.  It won’t just be me there, though.  I know that I’ll be seeing a lot of those yellow T-shirts at these events, too, some of them worn, I’m sure, by some of you.

Of course I don’t expect any of these events to suddenly bring about massive changes that usher in a new age of love and abundance.  Even the most idealistic organizer doesn’t expect that to happen.  Chances are that the events themselves won’t go completely according to plan in all their details, either.  But that’s okay.  Because speaking up matters; and even if there’s nothing to say, showing up matters; and if your life doesn’t allow you to be there in person, supporting those who are there matters.  Expecting everything to be perfect would only be setting ourselves up for failure, and there’s too much work to do for that.  Rather, we should have reasonable expectations of making mistakes.

But making mistakes doesn’t mean we’ve failed.  Mistakes don’t have to be the end of the world, so long as, like Beatrice Bottomwell, “the Girl Who Never Made Mistakes”, in the children’s story this morning, we’re willing to learn from them.

Perhaps a decade ago, the three Unitarian Universalist congregations in and around Hartford, Connecticut were partnered with an African Methodist Episcopal church in a coalition known as Congregations United for Racial Equity and Justice.  We referred to it using its initials, because not only do we like acronyms, but in this case we could pronounce those initials (CUREJ) like the word “courage”.

One Sunday afternoon, there was a special service at the AME church to benefit CUREJ, with members of the choirs of the three UU congregations participating.  I arrived with another member of my congregation, but neither of us had been there before, and we were early, so nobody seemed to be about.  We found a door with a doorbell and we rang it, hoping that somebody would let us in from the cold, and shortly we saw a man coming to answer the door.  Well, we thanked him for letting us in, and he welcomed us, and we said we were there for the service.

Now I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but I’ve found that sometimes when I’m in an unfamiliar place and I’m not sure what’s going on and I don’t know where I ought to be, well, I lock onto what I think I should be doing because at least I know that much.  I get something like tunnel vision.  And so, on that Sunday afternoon, without further conversation, I blurted out a question to the man who had let us in as to where we could leave our coats.

A number of things happened very quickly.

One was that I realized that this man who had just opened the door for us was the minister.  He was a solidly built African American man, a good half foot taller than me and a couple of decades older than me, and in my semi-flustered state I hadn’t recognized him; he’d done pulpit swaps with my minister, so I’d seen him before, and I should have recognized him.  Then I saw that he was staring at me in disbelief.  Then I was aware of the racial undertones in what I had just done.  Then I saw him look to the other member of my congregation, an Asian American woman who was a local judge, and something I thought was confusion crossed his face.  And then he let out his breath and told us he’d show us where we could leave our coats.

Everything that happened in those few moments has stuck with me: my sense of the awkwardness, the sheer brokenness of that situation heightened by the fact that I was actually there for a service dedicated to racial equity and justice, and with one unthinking question had reduced this proud man to a coat-checker.  It’s a lot more subtle than, say, passing laws deliberately intended to disenfranchise a whole demographic of people.  I have since learned that I committed what is known as a micro-aggression, a small indignity that, even if unintentional, nonetheless communicated an insult.  Remembering that, I try to pay more attention to how I am treating other people, and it’s one of the reasons why, in becoming a minister myself, doing justice work, and being a part of a congregation that does justice work, is so important to me.  We may not do it perfectly, but it matters that we do it.

I’m going to conclude with a parable that I’ve heard in a few different forms, though it’s generally said to originate somewhere in Asia.

A water bearer had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole that he carried across his shoulders.  Every day the water bearer carried the pots down to the stream, filled them, and carried them back to his master’s house.  Now one of the pots was perfect and always delivered its full portion of water.  But the other pot had a crack in it, and it leaked, so at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot had only half its water left.

This took place every day for two years, with the water bearer only delivering one and a half pots full of water to his master’s house.  Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, of how it was perfectly fulfilling the purpose for which it was made.  But the cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and was miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been created to do.

So after two years of what it perceived to be failure, just as it was about to be filled from the stream, the cracked pot spoke to the water bearer.  “I am ashamed of myself,” the pot said, “and I want to apologize to you.”

“Why?” asked the water bearer.  “What reason do you have to be ashamed?”

“For these past two years,” the pot replied, “I have delivered only half my load of water, because this crack in my side causes it to leak out all the way back to your master’s house.  You do all that work, but because of my flaws you don’t get all the results you deserve.”

The water bearer felt sorry for the cracked pot, and spoke with compassion.  “Let us return to my master’s house, and as we go I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.”

So they went back to the house, and this time the pot noticed the beautiful flowers growing in the warm Sun along the side of the path from the stream.  And the pot cheered up a bit from seeing them.  But when they reached the house, the pot still felt bad for having again lost half its water along the way, and so again it apologized to the water bearer for its failure.

Then the water bearer said to the pot, “Didn’t you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other side?  That’s because I have always known about your flaw, but I put it to good use.  I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day as we came back from the stream, you watered them.  For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table, and without you being just the way you are, there would not have been such beauty.”

The moral of the story, of course, is that all of us have our own flaws and imperfections.  We are all cracked pots.  But it’s those cracks that are part of making us who we are.  They may seem inefficient or even useless in certain areas of our lives, but they can turn out to be blessings in disguise, and they remind us to have a little more compassion for one another, and for ourselves.  Nobody is perfect, and not only is that okay, but sometimes it’s even a good thing, particularly when life shines through those flaws, blessing us with miracle, inspiring us with mystery and supporting us with love.

So may it be.

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Soul Repair: a Social Practice of Love

(I preached this sermon for Memorial Day at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 26th 2013.  Other than where indicated, my source for this sermon was Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini.)

Shortly after the end of World War II, United States Army combat historian S. L. A. Marshall published a report claiming that, of the U.S. troops engaged in actual combat, a full three-quarters of them never actually fired their weapons at the enemy, even when their own lives were directly threatened.  Marshall concluded in 1947 that “the average and normally healthy individual — the man that can endure the mental and physical stresses of combat — still has such an inner and unrealized resistance toward killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility. […] At a vital point, he becomes a conscientious objector, unknowing.”

Marshall recommended to the Army brass who were understandably alarmed by his conclusions that they should develop new training methods to overcome their soldiers’ reluctance to killing.  In the following decades, such “reflexive fire training”, as it is known, raised the percentage of soldiers willing to fire directly at the enemy from twenty-five in World War II to more than fifty in Korea to almost ninety percent in Vietnam.  In that sense, the training program was very successful.  Some veterans, however, have noted that reflexive fire training bypassed their’ own moral decision-making processes — and did so without providing any preparation for dealing with the emotional and spiritual consequences of having killed another human being.

While there is training to prepare for war, there is no equivalent process for returning to civilian life.  In generations past, going home would be a long process; today our soldiers go from active combat to the civilian world in fewer than three days — and then only to be deployed again.

During our Ministry to Military Families potlucks, this was a frequent topic of conversation. It’s also the subject of the book Soul Repair by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, which brings together the stories of veterans who experienced what they call “moral injury”.  Different from post-traumatic stress disorder, which “occurs in response to prolonged, extreme danger and is a […] reaction to danger [that] produces hormones that affect [the parts of the brain] that control responses to fear, as well as regulate emotions and connect fear to memory”, moral injury “results when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they can no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings.  They may feel this,” Brock and Lettini explain, “even if what they did was warranted and unavoidable.”  “Seeing someone else violate core moral values or feeling betrayed by persons in authority can also lead to a loss of meaning and faith.”  As combat-trained U.S. Army chaplain Herman Keizer Jr. discovered when ministering to soldiers in Vietnam, he would sometimes hear what amounted to confessions of “profound, searing shame” as well as feelings of betrayal by senior officers and the government.  “From these conversations, Herm concluded that something profound and soul endangering was the source of their suffering, not just ‘shell shock’ or what was later called PTSD.”

Let me back up and saying something about why I’m preaching on this topic.

Two years ago today, this pulpit was filled by Pat Owen, who is herself a twenty-two-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force.  She is currently Director of Membership for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond as well as a student at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, which is our Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago.  Pat is amply qualified, then, to preach on the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and the military, and in her sermon she specifically charged us to “consider it part of our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.  As Pat said, with so many military facilities in this part of Virginia, not to mention the shipyards, “this congregation finds itself in the perfect position to create an exemplary program connecting with service members.”

We’ve spent the last couple of years trying to begin figuring out how to do that.  One of the first things we did was bring together a number of veterans, active duty personnel and military spouses who are members of the Fellowship, to ask them what they need.  A safe place to share stories and memories and experiences with others who would understand was one of the needs that was expressed, and so we began a series of regular potlucks to try to meet that need.  Something else that was mentioned was being better understood by members of the congregation who have no military experience, so last Veterans Day I invited some of our members to speak to us on what it means to be an enlisted UU, what it means to be a UU military spouse, what it means to be a UU and a veteran.

Now in that Veterans Day service I mentioned a program developed by the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which is the three-and-a-half-thousand member “congregation without walls” that includes Unitarian Universalists who have no local church to attend as well as many UUs who are serving in the military.  At first glance, this program seemed ideal, offering a way to bring together our members both in the military and not and engaging them in mutually enlightening conversation around topics of military service, peace, war and ministry.  As we took a closer look at the program, though, we realized that it was really intended for congregations experiencing conflict around these issues, and that’s not us.  One of the things I very quickly realized about this Fellowship is that while it certainly includes people holding widely differing opinions on matters of war and peace, there is a deep atmosphere of respect and appreciation and love that makes this, unlike some Unitarian Universalist congregations, a place where all of us can be proud of our military personnel and veterans and their spouses and families, where we can thank them for their service.  And it’s not hard to see how much these military families add by being here, so it’s always sad to see them go as and when they are transferred to other posts elsewhere in the country.

The question remains, then, as to how we can respond to Pat Owen’s charge “to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.  There’s no one way, of course, but I was struck by something that came up at that first meeting — and came up again and again at the subsequent potlucks — namely the fact that the move from active duty to veteran — from the structure and discipline of military life to the uncertainty and ambiguity of civilian life — can be one of the hardest transitions anyone is ever expected to make in their life.  It’s tough for those of us who have never served in the military to understand that, but journalist Sebastian Junger provides one insight we can appreciate.  He writes, “The classic story of a man throwing himself on a hand grenade — certain death, but an action that will almost certainly save everyone else — is neither a Hollywood cliché nor something that only happened in wars gone by. It is something that happens with regularity, and I don’t think it can be explained by ‘army training’ or any kind of suicidal impulse.  I think that kind of courage goes to the heart of what it means to be human and to affiliate with others in a kind of transcendent way.  Of course, once you have experienced a bond like that, everything else looks pathetic and uninteresting.  That may be one reason,” Junger concludes, that “combat vets have such a hard time returning to society.”

So how does the U.S. Army, for instance, help prepare its personnel for going home?  Well, here’s one comment on a debriefing as experienced by Iraq veteran Camilo Mejía: “A twenty-minute session centering on the admonition Don’t commit suicide doesn’t do much to ease the anguish of a soldier dealing with the horror, for instance, of having killed a child, just as a group session with a combat stress team isn’t much help if your life is at risk twenty-four hours a day.”

And how well do such debriefings work?  Consider the fact that veterans make up about seven percent of the U.S. population but represent twenty percent of all suicides.  The Veterans Administration estimates, in fact, that veteran suicides average one every eighty minutes.  And between 2005 and 2007 alone, the suicide rate among veterans under thirty increased by more than a quarter.  Veterans are also disproportionately divorced, unemployed, homeless and imprisoned.

Now while this is known to VA researchers, getting to VA services and benefits is another matter.  Brock and Lettini open their book by telling some of the story of Clay Warren Hunt, the “twenty-eight-year-old former marine corporal who earned a Purple Heart serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  In 2009 he was “a model to other veterans of a successful return home”, married, taking college courses, advocating for veterans’ rights and working in disaster relief.  In 2010 “the VA lost his benefit application papers and [his] payments were delayed for ten months.  Frustrated, he lobbied Congress on behalf of veteran’s benefits:  ‘You fight for your country,” he said, “then come home and have to fight against your own country for the benefits you were promised.’”  Then “his marriage ended, he left school, [and he] went into treatment for depression”.  In 2011 Clay killed himself.  “Over a thousand people attended his funeral.”

Clay’s experience with the VA is far from unique.  Pamela Lightsey spent time in the military, worked in civil service positions associated with her husband’s continued career in the military, and her son, Dweylon, joined the Army and was posted to Iraq.  Eight years after coming home, Dweylon had still not received the help he needed, and Pamela worries about him as only a mother can.  “What he has achieved at home,” she explains, “is especially miraculous in the face of VA services that are not only just awful but also require veterans to have to fight their own government for the disability support or financial compensation owed them from serving in war.  It can take many years going back and forth filing and responding to documents for disability pay. Some even have to hire an attorney to help them back their way through all the red tape.”

I’ve heard from some of our own members here about the problems with the Veterans Administration, particularly our local VA Medical Center in Hampton.  It’s even been a recurring segment on The Daily Show, which is not known for taking current events entirely seriously but has been reporting on the horrendous backlog of benefits applications at the VA, to the extent that the weight of hundreds of thousands of paper claim forms is buckling the floors of the building where they are waiting to be processed.

Unfortunately, even if the VA were able to process the applications in a timely manner, it is “not prepared to help [those] in emotional pain and deep anguish.”  As discovered by U.S. Marine veteran Mac Bica, “about all the help the VA offered [him upon his return from Vietnam] was some group therapy and heavy medication like Thorazine to ease depression and anxiety.”  Recognizing that he could not simply put the war behind him, as some well-meaning friends advised him, Mac found himself challenging “modern therapeutic approaches to the suffering of veterans as afflictions of stress and trauma, clustered under the umbrella of PTSD[, approaches that deem] moral and spiritual considerations irrelevant, or even a hindrance to restoring psychological health.”  As Iraq veteran Camilo Mejía explains it, “PTSD and moral injury are two different hidden wounds of war.”  “PTSD is a breach of trust with the world” — he found he could no longer trust roads not to explode nor trust children not to throw grenades at him.  “Moral injury, however, is the violation of a moral agreement he had with his own internal world, his moral identity.  Camilo broke that inner agreement by violating his most deeply held moral beliefs”,  killing unarmed civilians and allowing prisoners of war to be tortured.  The fact that he did those things under orders is of little comfort.

Now some of you may know that the Army has attempted to address the impacts of combat on its soldiers’ health and well-being by instituting a program called “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness”.  Primarily directed at helping its soldiers to be resilient — in other words, to be able to “bounce back” after trauma and stress — the CSF program identifies five dimensions of resilience, which are physical, emotional, social, family and spiritual.  The spiritual dimension of fitness is defined as “strengthening a set of beliefs, principles or values that sustain a person beyond family, institutional, and societal sources of strength”, which makes it little more than an “everything else not included above” category.  Furthermore, the spiritual fitness part of the program has come under criticism as a back-door means to promote Evangelical Christianity, with non-Christians and particularly atheists experiencing discrimination.  And as Brock and Lettini note, the Army’s definition of “spiritual [fitness] fails to contain any moral content or to acknowledge the basic existence of moral conscience, which is the key to distinguishing a healthy person from a sociopath.”  The irony, in fact, is that the CSF program seems to promote a spirituality that would rule out empathy and ethical concerns, meaning that veterans with moral injury are actually stigmatized as being spiritually unfit.

What is to be done about all of this?  Well, there’s what might be called the “top down” approach, but that’s problematic.  Iraq veteran Kevin Benderman originally chose a career in the Army in order to defend his country, but, horrified by what he had already witnessed, he refused to redeploy as a way to uphold “the honor and integrity of military service, which taught him to respect the truth.”  His application for Conscientious Objector status was supported by a chaplain but was eventually denied, and he was court-martialed, demoted and sentenced to fifteen months in a military prison.  Studying the politics — and the economics — of war, “Kevin believes that ‘protest demonstrations to stop wars are useless.  People are still driven by their fears to believe propaganda rather than to challenge the lies that send people to war.”  Rather, the civilian public needs to “demand justice for those who fought and those who died.”  “Until the public demands an accounting, Kevin is certain that the country’s leaders, trusting in military power, mesmerized by weapons systems, and oblivious to the cost of war on ordinary people, will fail to use intelligence, moral reasoning and common sense in dealing with international problems.”

But there’s also a “bottom up” approach.

My reading this morning came from Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way, a work of fiction that described a nonetheless real Navajo practice known as “the Enemy Way”, an extensive, difficult process to purge the harmful effects of war, fatal accidents and other encounters with death from the soul.  VA hospitals in the Southwest even promote ceremonies such as the Enemy Way to help Native American veterans, so there’s some hope on that front.  Along the same lines, “Christian churches in the first millennium required anyone who ‘shed human blood’ to undergo a rehabilitation process that included reverting to the status of someone who had not yet been baptized” and required them to spend at least a year re-developing their faith.

Whether we consider the extinct practices of primitive Christianity or the continuing practices of the Navajo Nation, the work of soul repair is a deliberate, arduous tasks.  As Brock and Lettini note, “We must resist offering hasty forgiveness to absolve ourselves and others.  If we can take the time, instead, to listen to what veterans say to us, to befriend them as we journey together toward a different world, we can together discover how deep transformation leads us toward the moral conscience that is the deepest, most important dimension of our shared humanity.  In doing so, we can come to understand the honor and integrity of military service and the importance of the moral criteria for war, which the military itself teaches, and what it would require of everyone one of us to send any one of us to war.”  I think this is getting at what Pat Owen meant when she challenged us to “consider it part of our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.

Now Soul Repair is not a “how to” manual.  There is, unfortunately, no program in here that we can simply adapt and adopt.  This is new territory — one barely appreciated by the Veterans Administration and still essentially denied by the military hierarchy and the government.  The Soul Repair Center, of which Rita Nakashima Brock is co-director, at the Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth is working on programs and materials for congregations, theological schools and community organizations that want to support the recovery of veterans and others from moral injury, but it’s still very new.

But I really dislike, if I can at all help it, ending a sermon by having described a problem and yet offering nothing about what we, as a congregation, might do about it.  To even frame the topic of moral injury in terms of the phrase “soul repair” is to imply that there’s a significant spiritual dimension to it, and that ought to align it with the bread-and-butter of every religious organization.

More veterans look for help from ministers than from psychiatrists, and it’s no accident that many of the veterans whose stories are told in Brock and Lettini’s book sought to deepen their faith as a way to repair their own souls, some becoming ministers.  Moreover, there’s clearly an important rôle for non-Christian faith communities, particularly Unitarian Universalist congregations when it comes to pagans, humanists, atheists and so on who feel excluded by the military’s capitulation to Evangelical Christianity when it comes to matters of spiritual fitness.

For example, Army veteran and chaplain Herman Keizer Jr. wants religious communities to create, in his words, “a place of grace” that supports recovery from moral injury.  When few “social institutions teach moral integrity, courage, personal discipline, humility, a sense of purpose and responsibility, and commitment to the lives others better than” — no, not churches — but the military, then “people of faith [are called] to wade into the complex moral questions of war and social responsibility and discern the meaning of spiritual life after war [so that we] can engage the conversations that matter deeply and, in doing so, save lives.”

So what would characterize “a place of grace”?  What is needed to support soul repair?  Brock and Lettini do describe a few requirements, and they fit right into the mission of any decent church.  First, there needs to be friendship.  “Friends,” they explain, “probe and question and challenge each other to make each other more complete.”  “With friends, we discuss intimate questions, hold each other’s confidences, learn to tolerate disagreements, support each other through life’s struggles and joys, and explore the profound questions of life’s meaning.”

Second, “conversations about moral injury require deep listening.  In being open,” they write, “we must be willing to take in what we hear as part of ourselves, to be moved, even by what is difficult or painful to hear, and to struggle to understand profound questions about moral conscience.”  “Deep listening requires us to set our own needs aside and to offer, simply, respect.”

Third and fourth, “recovering from moral injury also requires a renewed sense of life purpose and service.  A society that ends a war with a parade and returns to its entertainments, consumerism, celebrity worship and casual commitments in order to forget its wars offers no purpose worth pursuing,” they argue.  “Whatever we think of a war, the crucial responsibility is to accompany the journey home of those who return and remind [ourselves] that, as a society, we don’t just leave wars [or our warriors] behind.”

First, friendship.  Second, deep listening.  Third, life purpose.  Fourth, service.  We enjoy and promote those here, don’t we?

Time and again I hear in the testimonials that our own members give from this pulpit how much they value the friends they have made here.  And many of our members enjoy the opportunities offered by Fellowship Circles to deepen existing friendships and make new friends through the practice of deep listening.  And if there’s anywhere that we can talk about life’s purpose and the values claimed and manifested by our society, it’s in church.  And as part of being people of faith, we encourage one another to engage in service, whether it’s within the congregation by being an RE teacher or by offering hospitality or beyond our walls by volunteering with LINK or St. Paul’s.  We may not have them perfectly, but all of the aspirations and skills we need are already here, gathered up in our Fellowship’s mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, bound together in our Unitarian Universalist covenant to walk together in the ways of love.

Addressing moral injury is a religious task and as a religious community we have a vital role to play in helping even those who may not consider themselves religious to find healthy ways to express themselves and engage in the arduous work of soul repair.  There’s important outreach we can do — that we must do — as part of a non-dogmatic faith tradition that speaks up for the rights of religious minorities and encourages the covenanted social practice of love.  For it is our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans, to military families and to everyone who seeks spiritual wholeness, who seeks to transform themselves and one another such that this world may be filled with beauty, and we the fortunate souls who walk together in it.

So may it be.

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Manifest in Beauty

(I delivered this homily at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 12th 2013.)

A seasoned minister once warned me about Mother’s Day services.  “We have people who don’t get on with their mothers,” she told me.  “Or they never knew their mothers.  Or they were abused by their mothers.  We have women who always wanted to be mothers but because of health or relationship challenges never had children.  Or society tells them there’s something wrong with them because they don’t want children.  There are all too many reasons why people would rather not be reminded that it’s Mother’s Day,” she concluded, “or else they’d simply prefer to dismiss it as yet another commercialized, ‘Hallmark’ holiday.”

It’s perhaps not too surprising, then, that Mother’s Day is a fairly popular choice of Sunday for Unitarian Universalists to hold their Flower Communion services.  After all, any Sunday in the months approaching the Summer would do, providing a nice symmetry between the Water Communion in early Autumn as a celebration of everything we share in common with one another and the Flower Communion in late Spring as a celebration of everything that makes us unique and special.  But the more of a Sunday service on Mother’s Day that’s devoted to something like the Flower Communion, well, the less time there is to deal with that fact that it is Mother’s Day.  Plus, there’s already that association between Mother’s Day and flowers, so it’s not too hard to justify.

Of course, Mother’s Day didn’t begin as just another opportunity for the vendors of flowers, chocolates and jewelry to make money: Unitarian writer and activist Julia Ward Howe first campaigned for such a day in the late nineteenth century as a way for women everywhere to bring healing and peace in the wake of the horrors of the Civil War.  And challenging our society’s narrow views of motherhood and the resulting oppression of women, the Unitarian Universalist Association is partnering with the Strong Families Initiative, a coalition of organizations and individuals that crosses society’s often artificial boundaries of “generation, race, gender, immigration status, and sexuality”.  The UUA, by the way, is the first religious organization to partner with Strong Families, joining the effort to broaden Mother’s Day into a more inclusive celebration of motherhood in all its forms.  Jessica Halperin, who is the UUA’s women’s issues program associate, explains, “Strong Families is a national initiative to change policy and culture in support of all families.  Their annual ‘Mama’s Day’ campaign lifts up and celebrates the magic and heartbreak of being a mama and honors the experiences of motherhood that often don’t fit ideas of a traditional Mother’s Day.”

Another dimension to this, of course, comes in association with the word “beauty”.  I actually picked the title of this service, “Manifest in Beauty”, based on my description of previous Flower Communion services, where I explained that just “as the idea of a flower finds expression in many varieties and infinite forms, so too does our shared humanity manifest in so many beautiful ways.”  Then, shortly after I’d chosen my title, the Dove soap people came out with a new advert as part of their “Real Beauty” marketing campaign, comparing a forensic artist’s sketches of women’s descriptions of themselves with those based on other people’s descriptions of the same women.  Putting each pair of sketches side-by-side, it’s clear that the women described themselves in overly critical and, frankly, inaccurate ways, whereas other people — women and men — described their appearances more favorably.  It’s a powerful advert, but it received a lot of criticism because, at the end of the day, Dove’s message seems to be that, simply put, it’s physical appearance that really matters when it comes to a woman’s self-confidence, her success, even her ability to be a good mother.  (Oh, and, of course, that Dove soap and other products from the Unilever corporation can help with that.)

Now there’s a whole series of sermons’ worth of material here — from the complex ways that inner self-confidence and outer self-image are related, including the differences between men and women in how that typically happens, to the intentional marketing of the artificial problem of falling short of some idealized standard of beauty in order to support the growth of the cosmetics industry — but I bring it up here because it does indeed relate to the reason why Unitarian Universalist congregations celebrate the Flower Communion.

flowersAfter all, when Norbert and Maja Čapek left the United States, where they had lived during World War I, to create in Prague what would be, for a while, the largest Unitarian church in the world, they wanted to inspire their congregants to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all people, to think of themselves and everyone else, too, as a different embodiment of a spark of divinity struggling for higher expression in its own way.  Inspired by the beauty of the Czech countryside, the Čapeks asked everyone coming to services to bring with them a flower, and to put all of the flowers together to form a huge bouquet.  The assembly of flowers, of course, was just like the congregation of people: remove or change just one flower, and it wouldn’t be the same bouquet!  Then, as part of the Flower Communion, each person was to select a flower to take with them when they left, a reminder that each is special in and of itself, simply for being itself, for the carnation doesn’t complain that it’s not a rose nor the tulip that it’s not an orchid.

In a few minutes we’ll be celebrating the Flower Communion ourselves, taking the opportunity to once again manifest in shared beauty our diverse humanity.  But it is Mother’s Day, and so in tribute to everyone — regardless of age, race, class, gender identity or sexual orientation — who deserves to be recognized for their mothering, I’d like to share a reading by mother and writer Beth Brubaker with you.  By way of an introduction, I’ll simply say that this reading is in the style of the books by Laura Numeroff that began with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, but even if you’ve never read those books, many of you, I suspect, will find Brubaker’s description of household events awfully familiar.

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