Posts Tagged life

Reconnecting, Remembering, Recommitting

Changing the World @ the UUFP

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

Hinei mah tov umah nayim, shevet achim gam yahad!
How rare it is, how lovely, this fellowship of those who meet together!
— Psalm 133

The house was alive with activity, from elders catching up on their news to children chasing one another through the doorways.  Those not assisting in the preparations would be shooed out of the kitchen, where the cooks were in a state of frenzy getting everything ready.  There were bowls of appetizers everywhere, to try to delay some of the impatience of hunger; olives were particularly popular.  And in what was otherwise the living room, every table and chair in the house had been gathered to make a long dining table with enough space for the whole family to sit down together.  It was Passover at my grandmother-in-law’s house in Philadelphia.

Soon after Allison and I…

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To Create a Dynamic Community the Celebrates Life and Searches for Truths

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on November 17th 2013.)

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

Many of you know that before I went into ministry I had a career in science.  I trace this back to my childhood, when I first found a fascination with machinery.  Well, to be precise, it came from a children’s television show that was set in an antiques store and featured a cast of toys who came to life after hours.  The toy mice were typically the troublemakers in every episode, and in one they tricked the other toys into thinking they had a machine that made cookies.  The mice emptied small sacks of flour and sugar and other ingredients into one end of the machine, and a nice round cookie came rolling out of the other end.  It turned out that the mice were just taking the one cookie and bringing it around the back of the machine and sending it rolling out the front again, and soon enough the other toys figured out that it was all a trick.  But I liked cookies, at least the ones my mother baked, and I thought to myself that it must be possible to build a machine that really took flour and sugar and other ingredients and actually make cookies.  It was just a matter of figuring out how to build such a machine.

A couple of years later I was introduced to chemistry, and that seemed even better.  For one thing, I think I’d realized by then that you could simply buy cookies that were made by machines, and that took away of the challenge.  But chemistry!  You could take this little glass tube of something blue and heat it up over a flame and it would turn white.  And then, you could add a little water, and what had been this white ashy stuff would turn a brilliant blue again.  It was like magic!  The possibilities seemed endless for transforming substances into one another, for making things that would change color or burn with bright flames or give off strange smells.  I wanted to find out more, to find out what could be done in a chemistry laboratory.  When my parents gave me a chemistry set that Christmas, I asked about using a storage shed at the back of our garden to do experiments.  They agreed, perhaps wanting to encourage this budding interest of mine, perhaps thinking that at least I’d be outdoors.

Some time in high school, though, we were introduced to organic chemistry, and some of the attraction wore off.  We were expected to learn about these techniques for bringing about certain reactions, but the catalysts that were used and whether something actually worked or not, well, it all just seemed so random.  In the mean-time, I’d been learning about physics, about laws and forces and particles and space and time.  Chemistry, we’d been taught, was a consequence of physics, so physics was more fundamental, and it opened up whole new vistas of imagination.  I had started reading science fiction, too, and the mere chance it might be possible to travel faster than light, to explore other star systems, well, I wanted to find out everything I could about what really makes the Universe tick.

I think I took that about as far as I could.  In graduate school I worked with a professor who developed an alternative formulation of quantum mechanics, and though I helped him flesh out some of his ideas a little further, I was reaching the limits of what I was able to do with the mathematics.  It wasn’t much consolation that other professors working on the bleeding edge of physics were saying things like how five new fields of mathematics would have to be invented just to capture some of the concepts then being proposed.

After graduate school, I was fortunate to have research work that paid me enough to maintain a frugal lifestyle, but I was at something of a loss for a few years.  I did some teaching, which I enjoyed, but otherwise found myself back where I started, figuring out how to make machines that did particular things.  Not make cookies, I’m sad to say.  No, I was building microscopes that could look at biological processes in living cells.  The professors for whom I worked got their funding on the basis of the potential applications for diagnosing certain diseases, for understanding the mechanisms of such diseases, and perhaps even for therapeutic treatments in some cases.  So having been to the frontiers of our understanding of reality, so to speak, I now found myself drawn to finding ways to help people, even if only indirectly by figuring out new tools and techniques that others could use in their research of better diagnostics and treatments.

Though some have wondered how I moved from physics to ministry, I don’t see it as such a big leap when I look back at it.  Ministry is considered a helping profession, and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to accompany someone as they try to figure out what’s going on in their lives, to help them find creative, compassionate ways to respond to the struggles that they face.  And when it comes to religion, to understanding what it means to be human and how we can be our best with one another, well, the challenges and the possibilities are even greater than they are in science.  Though my career, my vocation, my calling has changed, I’m still searching for the same truths.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life

July 19th will be one of the most important days of each year for the rest of my life.  It was the day last year on which my daughter was born, and so July 19th will always be for me, first and foremost, Olivia’s birthday.  I shall never forget her first cries as she was delivered; I held tight to Allison’s hand and the world stood still in that moment.  Someone took a picture of the three of us; I don’t remember who — it doesn’t really matter — but I’ll treasure that picture forever.  Many hours later, after a long day in the hospital, busier than any we had known before, and having shared our happy news with family and friends, we were finally able to sleep, filled with joy for this precious gift of a child in our lives.

Unfortunately July 20th woke us with decidedly unhappy news.  We noticed that some of our friends had posted on Facebook their reassurances that they were okay, and we wondered what had happened that might have caused them to not be okay.  Turning on the news, we learned that a man had opened fire at a movie theater in Colorado, killing a dozen people and wounding dozens more.  And our hearts sank when we recognized the theater, not far from where we had lived in Aurora just a few years ago, and where we had ourselves watched movies.  A couple of our friends had even planned to go to the movie showing where the shooting had happened, but thankfully decided in the end to go to a different movie theater.

It was hard to wrap our minds around both the great joy of Olivia’s birth and the great sorrow of so many pointless deaths in Aurora.  There was, of course, very little we could do about the latter, other than to reach out to our friends in Colorado, to say that we were thinking about them, that we were with them in their grief.  As for here in Newport News, we had a baby to look after, we had to get ready to go home, and we had to take the plunge into our new lives as parents.  Through it all we were reminded of what really matters in life, something that is both precious and all too brief.  We were filled with gratitude to the doctors and nurses who looked after both Allison and Olivia, to our parents for all of their love and support, and to the members of this congregation who helped us in so many ways both before and after Olivia was born.  And we found ourselves filled with hope, hope for Olivia’s future, hope for all of us, hope that even in the midst of tragic events we would always be able to find the courage to celebrate life.  For how do we truly respond to tragedies — from the man-made evil of the Boston Marathon bombing to the natural devastation of Typhoon Haiyan — if not from a place of celebrating life?

That’s a big part of what being here is all about, of course.  Joy and sorrow, reasons to celebrate and reasons to grieve, life gives them to us together.  Often we can’t do much about that, so it’s what we do with it that makes all the difference.  And it can be a really big difference.

Three years ago, for example, a few of us decided that we wanted to start observing Transgender Day of Remembrance here at the Fellowship.  I can say without reservation that it is one of the hardest things we do.  The main element in it is the reading of names, the names of people who were transgender or did not conform to gender stereotypes and who were killed by others out of fear and hatred.  Hearing what happened to each person, many of whom were not just violently killed but cruelly mutilated as well, your faith in humanity is called into question.  Reading aloud what happened… well, it’s hard to do that.  And yet we’re doing it again this afternoon, the third year we’ve observed Transgender Day of Remembrance, refusing to give in to the sorrow, to the shame of what some people are willing to do to others.  We do it, paradoxically, as a celebration of life, accepting the sorrow but standing resolutely against the fear and the hatred, lifting the small lights of faith that beckon us all onward into a world where all of us can be fully human, fully realized and, most importantly, fully loved.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community

When I first went to seminary, I took courses part-time while I continued to work in my research job full-time.  I spent five years, in fact, doing a third of the coursework I’d ultimately complete, and at the end of that time, when I was about to move from Connecticut to Colorado in order to complete my studies, I gave a farewell sermon at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, thanking them for their support and encouragement, describing some of what I’d learned, and sharing some of my hopes and plans.

Something I noted was that, in at least eight out of the ten courses I’d taken, I’d come to address the meaning of community, the importance of religious community, not just in courses on congregational studies but in courses on topics from environmental ethics to the letters of Paul to the Corinthians.  I’ve since realized, though, that this was more than just an academic interest to me.

When I was a child, about the time I started to get interested in science, I got my sister and the boy next door together to organize the other children on our street into our naïve idea of a gang.  Our base was the shed at the back of my parent’s garden that I was using as a chemistry laboratory, and perhaps a wise observer might have guessed I was destined for church work when our main activity was holding committee meetings.

A few years later my school bought its first computers, and a another student and I thought it’d be a good idea to learn more about how to use them, so we organized a computer club to teach ourselves what we thought we needed to know.  In high school I started a science society, to bring in local speakers to talk to us about topics that added a real-world dimension to what we were learning in classes.  Or, in the case of yours truly, to give a talk about time-travel.  At university I joined a host of student organizations on topics from physics and astronomy to music appreciation and learning to sing Russian folk songs.  Perhaps you can see something of a pattern emerging here.

Things changed when I came to the United States. I didn’t participate in many official clubs or societies in graduate school, but I found a fairly close-knit group of friends amongst the mathematicians, who for whatever reason were much more sociable than my fellow physicists.  And, thanks to my girlfriend at the time, I went up to New York a couple of times a week to sing in a large college choir.  It wasn’t until I was living in San Diego that I really found myself part of an organized community again.  At first that was with a group of students and university alumni who met for dinner each week to talk about science fiction and go to the movies.  And then it was when I organized the Pantheists of Southern California, bringing together for meals and talks and hikes a variety of people who saw divinity in the Universe and sacredness in Nature.  And when I moved back to the East Coast — and having finally heard about Unitarian Universalism after nearly a decade of living in this country, which was way too long not to have heard about Unitarian Universalism — one of the first things I did was join the Unitarian Society of Hartford.

So looking back, it’s really not surprising that in all those seminary courses, I found some way to bring the course material to bear on the subject of community.  I wanted to find out what community means; I wanted to find out what makes a community tick; I clearly wanted to be part of a community, no matter my age, occupation or place in the world.  I’m still figuring it out, of course.  Being here at the Fellowship for three-plus years has been eye-opening, that’s for sure.  And in a good way!  You may not realize what a gift it truly is to be immersed in such a great community as thrives here.  I know I’m blessed to be a part of it.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

In the last month I preached three sermons that all had the word “church” in their titles.  I’d intended for the first two to be a pair — though I hadn’t realized that it would lead to a bidding war at the auction over who would get to select a topic for one of my future sermons!  But the third sermon turned out to be a part three, so I’ve been referring to them, when people ask about being able to read them and share them with others, as the “church” trilogy.

In planning for this service, I realized I didn’t want to do what would essentially be part four of the “church” trilogy.  Yes, our mission is important, and it’s something that we all need to keep in mind as the true owner of this Fellowship.  Our “bottom line” as a congregation truly is, as Dan Hotchkiss asserts, the degree to which our mission is being achieved.  Yes, I want you all to read the UUFP Planning Committee’s report, and to re-read it if you’ve done it before.  It’s on the website, and the Planning Committee wants to know what you think, too, with a survey that is going out to everyone this week; please do take the time to respond.  And yes, how we achieve our mission and realize our vision and implement a strategic plan for doing both hinges critically on leadership and on leadership development and on the willingness of every member and friend of this beloved community to engage, at some level, with the life and ministry of this congregation.  But I’ve come to the conclusion that I won’t convince anyone of any of that by preaching a part four of the “church” trilogy.  If you think you might be convinced by reading those three sermons, great, I can tell you how you can do that, but this morning I thought I’d try a different approach.

So I told you about myself, about some of my own personal history when it comes to searching for truths in science and religion, when it comes to celebrating life in both joy and sadness, and when it comes to the pursuit of a dynamic community where I could belong.  But I know I’m not the only one with such narratives, with similar stories about growing up and finding friends and discovering what really matters in life.  And that is why we are here.  It’s why our mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths is the true owner of this congregation, because it reflects what has brought us here and who we already are.

Let me finish with this request.  I want to hear your stories.  I want to hear your stories about your searching for truths and your celebrations of life and your need for a dynamic community where you belong.  So send me an e-mail.  Write me an old-fashioned letter.  Post something on your blog and give me the link.  Invite me for coffee at Starbucks or Aroma’s.  I want to hear your stories, and for that matter I want you to share them with one another, too.  Because our mission and everything that comes with it reflects what has brought us here and who we already are, so your stories matter.  And it’s in the telling of them that we’ll create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

So may it be.

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The Spirituality of “Powers of Ten”

Changing the World @ the UUFP

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

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers;
The heron and the otter are my friends;
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends.
— from “Colors of the Wind”, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

As a young child, I used to come home from school and watch the television programs that the BBC put together specifically for school-age children.  There’d be a couple of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, but also in the mix were programs about art and creative projects, or solving puzzles, or making a difference by helping other people.  There was even a ten-minute news show, talking about current events in a positive and child-friendly way.

While I don’t remember many specifics of the programs I watched, there’s one I remember very clearly.  It was a short movie that, starting…

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Sky and Water, Land and Spirit

(I delivered this sermon for Earth Day at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on April 21st 2013.)Born with a Bang

Children’s Story: Born with a Bang: the Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story by Jennifer Morgan

Reading: from Song by Philemon Sturges

A few weeks ago I talked about someone I’d met through an organization called the Institute on Religion in an Age of SciencePhilemon had been challenged to write a book about the Epic of Evolution, which is one name for the scientific creation story of the Universe, the Earth and Life as we know it.  As a successful children’s author, he’d accepted the challenge to write not just another technical, scholarly book, but a book for children, and to write it not just in ordinary prose, but in poetry.

The working title of the book was Song, a metaphor for the creative processes of the cosmos itself.  This reading tells the portion of the story where an ancestral supernova created the heavy elements that would later form our solar system, our planet and ourselves.

Quite long ago, yet not so far
from here, there was a giant star.
Tiamat’s the perfect name
for that great sphere of searing flame.
Her balance-dancing did not last.
She ‘xploded with a thund’rous blast.
That roaring fiery furnace forged
new elements.  They were disgorged
into surrounding space, and then
were gracefully gathered back again.

Her stardust gyred and slowly spun;
soon gravity’s great work was done.
Though Tiamat was sorely riven,
her godlike gift of gold was given.

A mellow star was born — our Sun.
Of his [eight] planets there was one
that balance-danced ‘twixt heat and cold,
and there Song’s singing could unfold.

Air-wrapped Earth was bathed in water.
The circling Moon, Her clinging daughter,
stirred amniotic air and sea.
Soon gyring eddies came to be.

As Earth basked in the warming Sun,
Song’s birthing song was softly sung:

Gently turn, slowly spin,
my warmth transforms what errs within.
What once was simple now shall be
imbued with new complexity.

Then, in a still mysterious way,
near a vent, on crystal clay,
or on the edge of tidal sea,
emerged a new complexity.
Two mirrored molecules entwined.
Our Mother, Life, was born.
(And now, perhaps, Her daughter — Mind.)

Anthem: “Above the Moon, Earth Rises

Sermon: “Sky and Water, Land and Spirit”

When I was seven years I started at a new school.  At the back of the room where I had all of my classes other than art and music, there was a tall bookcase, crammed with books suitable for seven-year-olds.  The teacher told us that we were to choose one of the books, to read it as class-time allowed, and, when we were done with it, to select another and repeat.  All of the other children picked books like The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan and The Hobbit.  I picked a book about the solar system.  And when I’d finished reading that one, I picked a book about atoms.

My teacher patiently explained to me that those weren’t really the books that she wanted me to read.  Eventually she succeeded in getting me to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — and I owe her my thanks for my enjoyment of reading ever since — but I have to admit that my interest in the science books wasn’t because of the science, at least at first, but because of the pictures in the books — gorgeous photographs of planets and galaxies, beautiful illustrations of particles too small to see — and they captured my imagination.  It was an incredible feeling to try to wrap my mind around the immensities of space and time, so far beyond anything I’d experienced in my barely begun life, or to think about how everything that I believed to be solid — books, chairs, my own body — was made up of these miniscule bits of matter that were actually mostly empty space.

And I guess there’s an important lesson for all of us, whether we’re teachers or not.  If you want to get somebody to do something, particularly if it involves thinking in a new way, and not just to do it but really to commit to doing it, you’ve got to capture their imagination.  Because after reading those books on planets and atoms, I was hooked.  I’d had an interest in mechanical devices and machinery, thanks to a few children’s television programs I’d seen as well as some of the toys my parents had given me, but now I didn’t just want to build the machines myself: I wanted to figure out how they worked.  I wanted to figure out how everything worked, how we could be part of the same Universe, from atoms up through planets and with us living our lives there in the middle.

NASA: Earthrise at Christmas

NASA: Earthrise at Christmas
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Humanity’s understanding of the Universe has come a long way in my life-time, of course.  Apollo 11 landed on the Moon just a couple of years before I was born.  This picture was taken by Apollo 8 only a little before that, on Christmas Eve 1968, to be precise.  It has inspired a generation of would-be astronauts, as well as the words by preacher and poet Thomas Troeger that the choir sang a few minutes ago, and gave its name to the Fellowship’s Earth-centered spirituality group, EarthRising.  Then there’s the cosmic microwave background — the low level hum of energy that fills all space — that had been discovered earlier in the 1960s, a phenomenon that, as we have studied it, has revolutionized our knowledge about the Big Bang and the evolution of the Universe.

Fifty years later, we know more precisely than ever that the Universe is a little less than fourteen billion years old.  Much as we might be tempted to ask what happened before the Universe was created, that’s not a very meaningful question because time itself didn’t exist before then either.  There was no “before” before.  The metaphor that cosmologist Stephen Hawking gives is that asking what happened before time began is like asking what’s north of the north pole.

One idea about how the Universe was created is that there was an unstable fluctuation in what is known as the quantum vacuum.  To try to explain that, let me simply say that in quantum mechanics, what we might think of as nothingness is actually boiling with activity, with energy appearing and disappearing far too quickly for us to notice.  Only, 13.8 billion years ago, some of that energy didn’t disappear and instead blew up.  As described in this morning’s children’s story, the early Universe expanded and cooled down enough for some of that energy to turn into particles.  They were created with their anti-matter equivalents, which annihilated each other back into energy, but as the particle physicists who work at Jefferson Labs can tell us, there’s a very slight imbalance built into the laws of physics and so there was just a little matter left over.  That slight excess of matter, of course, is what everything that exists today — you, me, this building, this planet — is made from.

NASA: Best Map Ever of the Universe

NASA: Best Map Ever of the Universe
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After a few hundred thousand years, the Universe was cool enough for atoms to form, mostly hydrogen with some helium.  Now this is a picture of the cosmic microwave background, a map of the whole sky that was completed just last year after nine years of gathering data.  It shows very slight irregularities in the distribution of energy in the very early Universe, as a result of which there were places where, even under the very weak pull of gravity between hydrogen atoms, those atoms could be gathered together and eventually form galaxies.

NASA: Pillars of Creation

NASA: Pillars of Creation
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In places where enough hydrogen could collect, of course, gravity squeezed the hydrogen atoms together until nuclear fusion took place, and stars were born.  This is a process that continues even today, in places such as the Eagle Nebula.  This picture was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope; to give you an idea of the scale here, the column on the left is six or seven light years in length.  The Eagle Nebula, by the way, is about seven thousand light years away from us, which means that, given the finite speed of light, we’re actually seeing the nebula as it was seven thousand years ago in the past.

Now only a decade or two ago there was an idea that in our part of the galaxy there was once a very large star, much bigger than our Sun.  In the children’s story, this was called the Mother Star, while others have called it Tiamat, which in Babylonian mythology is the name of the primordial goddess who gives birth to the other gods.  The idea was that this star exploded and, as a supernova, produced carbon, nitrogen, calcium, iron and other heavy elements that were scattered across space.  Given another billion years or so, enough of those elements, along with plenty of the original hydrogen that was still around, had condensed to form our solar system, with the Sun shining at its center.  More recently, astrophysicists have concluded that at least twenty such ancestral stars exploded, contributing the elements that made our solar system, so Tiamat was not a single star but a community of stars.

At the same time that we’ve been making these discoveries, astronomers have also discovered planets around other stars — and some of those other planets are about the same size as the Earth or are orbiting their star at just the right distance for liquid water to exist, which is generally believed to be one of the pre-conditions for life to emerge.  Those solar systems were similarly formed from the elements resulting from ancestral supernovas, so perhaps our solar system isn’t that unique, though we cannot say as yet whether any of those other planets have anything we’d recognize as life on them or not.

In any case, our planet, life as we know it and everything that makes us up was produced by dying stars.  As astronomer Carl Sagan and others have since put it, “We are made of star stuff.”  We all come from the same raw materials.  And we are alive today because, billions of years ago, those stars died.

Of course, once the Earth had formed and the bombardment of comets and other space debris had eased off, the story switches from cosmological evolution to biological evolution.  That’s a topic for a future sermon, but I want to note that it’s in biology that the principle of interdependence is particularly obvious.  After all, the air we breathe and the water we drink and the food we eat are all parts of a vast system of cycles that, powered by sunlight and otherwise left to themselves, support life on this planet just as they have for millions of years.  Everything that makes us what we are was once somewhere else in and on the Earth, even as, billions of years before that, it came from a supernova.

Now there’s apparently a Serbian proverb that captures these ideas and suggests what we might do with them:  “Be humble for you are made of earth.  Be noble for you are made of stars.”  Actually I suspect that the Serbian word translated “earth” here more literally means “soil”, since I’ve seen another translation that says: “Be humble for you are made of dung.”  And there’s little that’s more humble than that.

Yes, we should all be uplifted to know that we are made of stars, but we need a good dose of humility, too.  It’s all too easy to look at the progression from energy to matter to life to consciousness, even to claim (and not metaphorically) that stars died so that we might live, and then to conclude that, well, the point of the whole thing was obviously to produce conscious beings as a way for the Universe to be aware of itself.  There’s even something called the Anthropic Principle that claims that the Universe must be the way it is in order for there to be intelligent life that is able to see that the Universe is the way it is.  But when we’re talking about conscious beings, of course, we know we’re really talking about human beings.  After all, wouldn’t we like to think that the whole point of the Big Bang and everything that happened in the fourteen billion years since was to produce us as the pinnacle not only of biological evolution but of cosmological evolution, too?  That seems awfully arrogant to me.

Sometimes, though, it’s easier to be arrogant, to be conceited, to be unquestioningly sure of ourselves, than it is to be humble.  Humility takes courage.  Humility requires that we question ourselves, that we think about things beyond ourselves, that we think of ourselves not in the spotlight at the center of the cosmic stage but as part of an interdependent web where our true value comes from our relationships and not from our fantasies about self-reliance.  It takes courage to hear the scientific creation story of the Universe and embrace its implications for how we are to live on this Earth, how we are to treat one another, and how we are to treat the special planet that supports such diversity of life, not just ours.

For example, Carl Sagan pleaded with NASA during the 1980s to have the first Voyager spacecraft take a particular picture.  Voyager had swung past Saturn up and out of the plane of the solar system, and Sagan wanted it to glance homeward one last time.  It almost didn’t happen — a few project personnel claimed it wasn’t “science” and the project’s technicians were being laid off — but an administrator intervened just in time and so Voyager 1 took its photograph of the Earth — from a distance of more than four billion miles.

NASA: Pale Blue Dot

NASA: Pale Blue Dot
Click for more details.

You may have seen that photo.  Here it is, in fact.  Against an almost black background, a beam of sunlight, reflected off the spacecraft, slants across the picture.  As if suspended in the light, like a tiny bit of blue dust, is our planet.

Describing the photograph, Sagan wrote the following.

“That’s here.  That’s home.  That’s us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Sagan continued.  “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.  Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.  Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.  Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.  Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.  In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

And Sagan concluded with this.  “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience.  There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.  To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

We are all called to embrace this cosmic perspective, and to do so joyfully.  Our Earth, this pale blue dot that is our blue boat home, is small, but it is special and so very precious.  It is unique, so far as we know, and so are we.  For we are made of earth and should be humble, but along with the Earth we are also made of the noble stars.  Rather than being at odds with one another, though, the humility and the nobility go hand-in-hand, asking us not to look down on our world and one another in superiority but calling us instead to look up to creation in wonder.

The living tradition that is Unitarian Universalism is based on the truth that we are most human when we are in right relationship with one another and with the world around us.  For the fact of our interdependence is manifest in the Unitarian assertion that “We are all in this together.”  And our faith in a better future — in the only way that salvation can really work, which is in this life — is expressed by the Universalist assertion that “Together we shall be well.”  The scientific creation story of the Universe affirms that there is a unity that makes us one, but it is up to us, all of us, working together, to ensure that the future is hospitable to humanity.

We are called to honor the Earth and to honor one another, to care for our blue boat home and to nurture the irreplaceable spark of divinity within each of us.  May we strive to answer that call, now and always.

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The End of the World?

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 23rd 2012.)

A couple of weeks ago this sermon was going to be very different.  I was going to begin by noting — with feigned amazement — that the world hadn’t ended.  The thirteenth b’ak’tun of the Mayan “long count” calendar had ended on December 20th and the fourteenth b’ak’tun had begun on December 21st, apparently without much in the way of cataclysm.  Rather, as Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies in Crystal River, Florida notes, to claim December 21st 2012 as doomsday is “a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in.

I was going to continue by talking about our apparent fascination with the end of the world, and the popularity of predicting when it will take place.  One of the more publicized predictions in recent years was made by radio broadcaster Harold Camping, who predicted that Jesus would return to earth on May 21st 2011, with Judgment Day to follow after precisely five months of fire, brimstone and plagues had been visited on whoever hadn’t already been taken up bodily to heaven.  It’s easy for most of us to laugh about such things, though it’s sad that there were people so convinced of Camping’s prediction that they sold everything they owned in order to devote themselves and their families to being ready for the Rapture.

I was then going to talk about how the pseudo-Christian theology of the Rapture has become big business for some who have figured out how to make money out of it.  As Mary Luti, a minister in the United Church of Christ who now teaches at Andover Newton Theological School, criticized that business recently: “[T]here are the end-time movies.  And books.  And T-shirts.  And action figures.  Even a video game.  For only $39.95 and a little manual dexterity, you can join Christ’s well-armed angelic army on Judgment Day and mow down as many of God’s enemies as you can manage to locate through the thick smoke rising from the bodies of burning homosexuals and women who have had abortions.”  I’m taking Luti’s word for it that there is such a video game, by the way; I have no particular interest in finding out its name.

I was going to talk about how the Second Coming has been part of the culture of Christendom since the beginning of Christianity, though I remember from one of my seminary classes that, if you put Paul’s various books in most Biblical scholars’ best guess as to the order in which he (or his followers) wrote them, from his First Letter to the Thessalonians as the earliest to the letters to Timothy and Titus as the latest, you find that Paul goes from being wholly confident that Jesus will return any day now to instead advising his followers to be patient and to settle in for the long-haul.  So while faith in the Second Coming is a sincere — and not, I want to stress, a necessarily triumphalist —part of Christianity, and is, in fact, a valid part of the Christian practice of Advent, there’s a mutant strain of militant quasi-Christianity that has taken the idea way beyond anything reasonable, or, actually, anything Christian.  As the late and undeniably great homiletics professor and Disciples of Christ minister Fred Craddock once put it in one of his own moments of exasperation, “Maybe people are obsessed with the Second Coming because, deep down, they were really disappointed in the first one.”

I was going to talk about how the end of the world has caught on in secular circles, too.  After I’d mentioned this sermon to my grandmother-in-law when visiting her in Philadelphia at Thanksgiving, she sent me a clipping from the very next day’s newspaper about college classes being taught at Rutgers-Camden University, Temple and Penn State on such topics as “Media, Culture and the End of the World”.  Even the federal government found within our cultural obsession a clever opportunity to teach Americans about emergency preparedness, and my pre-sermon reading was going to be an article from Discover magazine about how “The Centers for Disease Control Has a Plan for the Zombie Apocalypse”.  You can check it out yourself: it’s on the CDC website, which offers a zombie blog, zombie posters and even a zombie graphic novel that, the CDC claims, “demonstrates the importance of being prepared in an entertaining way that people of all ages will enjoy”.  As United States Assistant Surgeon General Dr. Ali Khan explains, “If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse you will [also] be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake or terrorist attack.

And I was going to talk about how, while we’re so entranced with these various over-hyped scenarios for the end of the world — not to mention this absurdly self-inflicted calamity of the “fiscal cliff” that The Daily Show’s John Stewart dubbed “Cliffpocalypsemageddonacaust: Our Totally Solvable Budget Problem” — we’re completely failing to talk about very real disasters such as global climate change.  Some people, such as journalist Glenn Scherer and public commentator Bill Moyers, seem to blame that on the Christian right — “Why care about the Earth,” Scherer writes, for instance, “when the droughts, floods, famine and pestilence brought [on] by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible?” — but it’s just as much about the ever-growing influence of special interest money in government as it is about the ability of the rest of us to distract ourselves with more manageable problems.

That, as I say, is what, up until ten days ago, I had in mind for this sermon.  That’s what I was planning to talk about before I heard the news about the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, before I heard about the literal massacre of twenty first-grade boys and girls as well as the six women who died protecting the children entrusted to their care.  After that, well, a whole sermon joking about the end of the world doesn’t seem so appropriate.

In the last week and a half, I’ve been trying, like most of you, to come to terms with what happened in Newtown.  It’s not a matter of trying to make sense of it, since I don’t think it’s possible to make sense of it.  That’s what “senseless” means.  There’s a natural desire to try to find out more about what happened, of course, something that the media is only too willing to feed, so it’s not surprising that some of what was said about the day’s events early on turned out, once actual facts were available, not to have been the case.  Still, in some ways I’ve actually developed a grudging respect for how some reporters have handled this.

I’m impressed with Anderson Cooper’s refusal to focus on the gunman, for instance, something that I believe he started doing in response to some of the pleas by the survivors and bereaved of the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting in July.  Instead, he’s been celebrating the lives of all those who died at Sandy Hook, whether six- or seven-year-olds or full grown adults, grieving for them, to be sure, but emphasizing the joy they experienced and brought to others during life, much as we UUs try to do when we hold memorial services.

And though I’ve often thought Piers Morgan to be a condescending ass — and, since I’m also British, I should know — I’m impressed with both the passion with which he’s challenged the facile claims of those who make and market guns and the compassion with which he’s spoken with the survivors of all too many shootings in recent years.  You can probably tell that Allison and I primarily watch CNN for news, at least when The Daily Show isn’t on, though we’ve done our best to remember the advice passed on by Joanne and others to turn off the television when the coverage starts to get too much.

But what to do with this mixture of sadness and rage that I know so many of us have been feeling?  How do we respond to something that is so awful that words fail us, that boggles the mind as to how anyone could ever commit such an atrocity?  How do we come to terms with the fact that this is just one example, albeit a particularly horrific one, of the violence that people do to one another on a daily basis in our society?  Well, I don’t have many good answers to those questions, but let me share with you a few things that are encouraging me right now.

A few weeks ago, I saw on Facebook a graphic that someone had made that included comments by Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, from his speech to this year’s session of the United Nations General Assembly.  “And I would like to say,” he said, “that according to the Mayan calendar, the 21st of December marks the end of selfishness and the beginning of brotherhood.  It is the end of individualism and the beginning of collectivism.  [It] marks the end of an anthropocentric life and the beginning of a biocentric life.  It is the end of hatred and the beginning of love.  […]  It is the end of sadness and the beginning of joy.  It is the end of division and the beginning of unity.”  Well, I don’t know if I believe that such things are going to happen all by themselves, any more than supernatural forces will bring about the end of the world, but to be fair it looks like President Morales did end this portion of his speech with an invitation to people everywhere to try to make this vision of a better, kinder, more joyful, more loving future a reality.

Then there are the words of the missing verse from “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” as it’s printed in our hymnal.  Yes, Edmund Sears actually wrote five verses, and for some reason his original verse four didn’t make it into Singing the Living Tradition.  Here’s that missing verse:

And you, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow:
look now!  For glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!

Angels are a popular part of what might be called American folk culture, though perhaps they’re not as popular as zombies, and for all I know Sears didn’t literally mean that there’s a heavenly choir floating above the sky, but that doesn’t negate the importance of their good news: “Peace on Earth, to all good will.”  Again, that’s not something that I believe will happen all by itself, any more than I believe that those angels are just itching to come to Earth with swords aflame, ready to engage in a final battle with the armies of hell.

Rather, if we are prepared to believe that peace on Earth, that a turning from division and selfishness to joy and fellowship is possible, no matter how we might feel the crushing load of bad news, no matter how it seems that our efforts to overcome the status quo of entrenched power are painful and slow, then we might also be encouraged by Victoria Safford’s reminder that “we already possess all the gifts we need; we’ve already received our presents: ears to hear music, eyes to behold lights, hands to build true peace on Earth and to hold each other tight in love.

Now at some time you may have heard the question, “What would you do if you only had one day left to live?”  The intent, of course, is to find out what is most important to someone that that’s what they’d spend their time doing, rather than engaging in petty, meaningless things.  Perhaps a better question for our time, though, is the one that Joanne asked the children this morning: “What will we do with our ‘New World’?”  What if, rather than the world ending last week, we have, in effect, been given another chance?  What might we now do differently, to make the world better?  What could we do to help bring about peace on Earth and good will to and by all?

Well, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, there’s been a call to do more to help one another, not necessarily people in Newtown, Connecticut, but wherever we encounter each other.  One specific suggestion offered by Ann Curry of NBC News is to do twenty acts of kindness, in honor of the twenty children who were killed, while others have suggested twenty-six good deeds, to honor the adult victims, too.  Erin McHugh, whose book One Good Deed: 365 Days of Trying to Be Just a Little Bit Better was published earlier this year, offers some simple suggestions for what those acts of kindness might be: “a good deed is any situation where you can change someone’s life for the better, if only for a moment,” she writes.  “The simplest thing is to just give: a shoulder to lean on, time, sound advice, a helping hand, some pocket change — it doesn’t matter what,” she explains, “it just has to be from your heart.”  Perhaps more important than what to do, though, is her advice as to when to do it.  “Never, ever assume it’s too late,” McHugh says.  “When you find yourself hesitating about doing something — thinking ‘I missed my chance’ or ‘It won’t matter anymore’ — just plunge ahead.  A sincere good deed is timeless.”

Then there’s the inspiring story and work of Hannah Brencher.  Two years ago she was riding the subway in New York City, fresh out of college and feeling at a loss for what to do with her life, unable to come to grips with her place and purpose in this world, feeling alone in one of the most crowded places on Earth.  So she began writing letters — love letters, in fact — to the other people on the train, people she didn’t know but who seemed like they could do with the encouragement of knowing that someone, anyone, cared about them, even if anonymously.  Brencher started leaving her letters all over the city — on café tables, between books on library shelves, even slipped into people’s coat pockets — and as she blogged about what she was doing, she started receiving requests for her letters from all around the world.  In just nine months, she realized, she had written over four hundred love letters to people in need of reading them, and she found that they healed her, too.  “This journey has taught me so much in such a short amount of time,” Brencher explains.  “I’ve discovered that no matter how tough we act, we all still need a love letter from time to time.  That even in a world crammed tight into one-hundred-and-forty characters and constant status updates, there is still a great craving for the handwritten note.  But most of all,” she observes, “I learned with certainty that the world needs far more than just my own love letters.

Though the people of Newtown, Connecticut will soon have finished burying their dead, they will continue to face the task of healing their shattered community.  When the school year resumes next month, Sandy Hook Elementary will remain closed, the students going somewhere else for classes.  We can hope that the media will not forget them, that politicians will not forget them, that our nation has the courage to hold the hard conversations that we have been putting off — that we have been bullied into putting off — for far too long now.  But when the new year arrives, and the camera crews have left, and the people of Newtown try to adjust to what all too glibly is being called their “new normal”, I want them to know that we are thinking of them.

So I’m asking you, during the next few weeks, as we make our way through the holidays and into the new year, to write a note, a love letter to the people of Newtown.  It doesn’t need to be poetry.  It doesn’t need to be brilliantly eloquent or even more than a few sentences.  It just needs to be from your heart.  Seal it in an envelope and bring it here or give it to me sometime during the month of January, and I’ll send your notes to Newtown, to give them some encouragement as they face the future, as together we build a future in which such violence is merely a sad memory.

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Will you do that?  Will you write, by hand, a love letter, a unique note of thoughtfulness and encouragement, something from your heart to the people of Newtown?  Will you bring it here next month so that it can be sent with the other letters written by the people sitting around you?  Will you do that?

Thank you.  This is a beloved community.

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What Really Matters

“Joy and woe are woven fine, A clothing for the soul divine.”
— from “Auguries of Innocence” (1803) by William Blake

July 19th will be a red letter day on my calendar for the rest of my life, for it was the day on which my daughter was born.  I shall always remember her first cries as she was delivered: I held tight to my wife’s hand and the world stood still in that moment.  Much later, after a long day in the hospital, busier than any we had known in a long time, and having shared our happy news with family and friends, my wife and I finally drifted off to sleep, tired but filled with joy for this new life.

Then, on July 20th, the new day woke us with unhappy news.  We noticed that some of our friends had posted on Facebook their reassurances that they were okay, and we wondered what had happened.  We learned that a heavily armed man had opened fire at a movie theater in Colorado, killing a dozen people  and wounding dozens more.  Our hearts sank when we recognized the theater, which is not far from where we lived in Aurora only a few years ago, and where we had ourselves watched movies with friends.

Religion is at its best when it helps us to celebrate life and to grieve in the wake of death.  Particularly at times of great joy and at times of great woe we all need a community of the like-hearted that can support us by sharing in our struggle to find meaning in both life and death.  For a church is like a gym for our souls, a place where we can go to exercise our spiritual muscles by practicing the gratitude, compassion and hope that we need to be fully human throughout the week.

The unfortunate fact is, however, that the number of people in the United States who report no religious affiliation is increasing, many of them turned off not just by church-based homophobia and sexism but also by injustice’s decoration in religious bromides.  It doesn’t help that the media tend to portray the more conservative forms of religion as the only forms of religion, but when religious leaders would rather dictate the details of citizens’ sexual lives than feed the hungry and shelter the stranger, then it is nothing short of a massive failure of our calling to minister to the real needs of the world.

And yet, it doesn’t need to be that way.  There is no shortage of opportunities to wake up, to open our hearts to the call “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”.

For every birth is a reminder that life is both precious and all too short, and every death is a reminder of what really matters in life.  Both provide occasions for us to exercise gratitude, compassion and hope.  As we enjoy these first weeks of my daughter’s new life, for instance, my wife and I are grateful to many people: the doctors and nurses at both the Center for Women’s Health and Mary Immaculate Hospital for their skill and care; our own parents, for their love and support of us in countless ways; and the members of my congregation who helped us make ready our home for a baby and are now bringing us meals.  As we think about our friends in Colorado and our former neighbors in Aurora, we mourn the senseless loss of twelve all-too-young lives and we keep in our prayers all those who are still suffering from the trauma and loss of that terrible night.  And for all of us, for every family and community, we hope for a future where none of us need live in fear, a future where each of us is free to discover for ourselves who we are and what we can be, a future where every religion supports rather than opposes our striving to be fully human, fully realized and, most importantly, fully loved.

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