Posts Tagged science

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”

UUFP Changing the World

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
Click for more details.

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
Click for more details.

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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A Place for All of Us

(I delivered this sermon for Hanukkah at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 9th 2012.)

This sermon began with a telling of Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: a Christmas Story.

Latkes are potato pancakes served at Hanukkah, and Lemony Snicket is an alleged children’s author.  For the first time in literary history, these two elements are combined in one book.  A particularly irate latke is the star of The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming, but many other holiday icons appear and even speak: flashing colored lights, cane-shaped candy, a pine tree.  Santa Claus is briefly discussed as well.  The ending is happy, at least for some.  People who are interested in any or all of these things will find this book so enjoyable it will feel as though Hanukkah were being celebrated for several years, rather than eight nights.

I’m pretty sure that most of us have felt misunderstood at some time or other in our lives.  Probably many of us have, somewhere along the way, wondered if there’s a place in the world for us, where we can be welcomed.  And quite a few of us, I’m prepared to bet, have gone through times of uncertainty about why we’re here or who we are or who we want to be that called any confidence we previously held into question.  I’ve certainly gone through those times when I felt misunderstood and uncertain about my place in the world.

Usually it’s pretty easy to look back at those times and figure out why I might have felt that way.  Maybe it was when I was about to have surgery, or when I was getting ready for an interview.  Maybe it was when I was putting together a budget when there didn’t seem to be quite enough money, or when I was going to meet someone to give them bad news.  I would hope everything would work out okay, of course, because what else could I do?  That didn’t stop me from being anxious or even afraid, but there I was anyway, anticipating what I was about to do because it was something I had to do.  In spite of any uncertainty I had about my place in the world, about who I was or what I was doing, I had to take what a leap of faith to move forward.

For example, about twenty-one years ago, which I am amazed to realize was nearly half my lifetime ago, I was in the process of applying to graduate schools in the United States.  I had gone to London to take the required standardized tests, I had completed the appropriate application forms, I had written my essays, and I had requested various letters of recommendation.  Over the next few months I received decision letters from the schools, and then I made my own decision about where I was going to go.

It was my last year as an undergraduate, so I was otherwise busy finishing up my studies and then taking exams, but there came a time when what I was about to do hit me.  I was making a commitment to begin a new set of studies, this time living much further away from home, from my parents than before.  And it wasn’t just far away from home!  I was going to be in a different country, where they had their own traditions and customs and strange ways of speaking!

I was pretty well committed at that point, though I don’t think anyone but me would have given me grief if I’d decided to back out and stay in the United Kingdom instead of moving to the United States.  I knew a little about where I was going to be, less about the people I was going to be around, and nothing about what my life would look like as a result of this transition.  But I also knew that this was something I was going to do, so I spent those last couple of months in England getting ready, preparing myself for a leap of faith across the Atlantic.

Arriving in New Jersey, I quickly discovered the truth of playwright George Bernard Shaw’s quip that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”  Thankfully most of the differences in vocabulary were pretty inconsequential, though there was the time when, turning to another physics student as we worked through some problem sets, I asked him if he had a rubber.  Fortunately he had some familiarity with British English, and he calmly told me that I should probably ask for an eraser from now on.

But no sooner had I settled into life in the United States, than I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life next.  Since high school I’d had a simply answer: I was going to become a scientist and do research somewhere.  Well, that’s a pretty fuzzy plan.  Finishing graduate school was a more clear goal, but trying to find a place where I could continue to do the research I’d been doing turned out to be much harder than I’d anticipated.

I ended up moving from New Jersey to California, another three time zones away from my family in England, another leap of faith that also took me from theoretical physics to applied laser science and biomedical imaging.  As it turned out I enjoyed the work and I liked my co-workers, though I’ll save for another time the story of how I ended up working for the physics professor who was the inspiration for the character of Beavis in Mike Judge’s cartoon, Beavis and Butt-head.  In any case, it seemed like some of the fuzziness in my life-plan was starting to resolve itself, but it was in San Diego that some of that plan started to change.  And a big part of that was being introduced to Unitarian Universalism.

Now from my early teenage years on, I had gone through school with a lack of interest in religion, and in fact with an active distaste for what I thought religion was.  It was in California, however, that I heard about this religion where my scientific view of the world, my environmental concerns and my love of choir music were all equally welcome.  After a decade and a half of spiritual homelessness, I found a place where it felt like I fit, a place where I didn’t always feel misunderstood when it came to what I believed.  I felt at home in this faith, discovering a beloved community that embraces us for who we already are, holding in creative tension all that unites us with all the ways in which we are different from one another, encouraging me on a spiritual journey for truth and meaning that is uniquely mine but where I am not alone.

A number of years later, and back on the East coast, another piece of life’s jigsaw puzzle fell into place.  Until then, whenever I had gone on a date and had said that I was a Unitarian Universalist,  the response ranged from “What’s that?” to a blank stare to concern that I was a Moonie.  So it was a breath of fresh air when I met someone who had heard of Unitarian Universalism!

As it turned out, Allison’s grandfather lived in a nursing home in Philadelphia called the UU House, so her whole family had not only heard of Unitarian Universalism, but had a good opinion of UUs, too.  They warmly welcomed me to the big family Passover seder, a couple of dozen people seated at every table in the house put end to end, and I felt right at home.

Thinking about it now, I’ve spent much of the last two decades, since coming to the the United States, figuring out who I am.  And that’s not to say that I’m done figuring it out, but my faith and my family are two pretty major pieces of that, pieces that were not part of my life, at least not remotely in their current form, when I arrived in New Jersey twenty years ago.  Not all of us — in fact, I’d venture that very few of us — are as lucky as the latke in Lemony Snicket’s story that we know so well what we are.  The latke was born knowing what it was, what it represented, what it needed in order to be understood, but none of us are so fortunate.  And not knowing who we are, what we want to be, we need to engage in individual work to figure that out.

Now even if we should be so lucky that we know who and what we are with the same amount of conviction that the latke had, that still doesn’t mean we have a place where we can be who and what we are.  Whether it’s a matter of finding that place or creating it because it doesn’t yet exist, that’s something that calls for collective work to figure out.

I hereby make the claim, then, that Unitarian Universalist congregations are places where both the individual work and the collective work may not only take place, but are actively encouraged.  It is part of the vision of this congregation, for instance, that “We offer a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.”  We do this when we strive to be a beloved community that embraces us for who we already are, when we remember to hold in creative tension all that unites us with all the ways in which we are different from one another, when we find ways to encourage one another on the spiritual journeys for truth and meaning that are uniquely ours but where none of us are alone.

For when we lift up the eternal verity put into words by Waldemar Argow, that “we are children of one great love, united in our one eternal family”, we remind one another that somewhere in the world there is a place for all of us, that everyone and everything should be welcomed somewhere.  And when we think of the promise written into song by Ehud Manor and Nurit Hirsch, the injunction to “wait and see what a world there can be, if we share, if we care”, we remind ourselves that this work of making a place for all of us, of welcoming one another, is something that we are called into together.  Whatever our struggles, big or small, private or public, whether it’s something that seems as momentous as the Maccabean Revolt or a frustration that just makes us want to scream, may we hold fast to the hope we can give one another, the faith we find in one another, in all the days of our living.

So may it be.

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The Jigsaw Puzzles of Our Souls

It’s no accident that my congregation’s mission — “to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths” — refers to “truths” in the plural.  Unitarian Universalists generally recognize that there are few things we can claim as being absolutely true in any completely objective sense, and so we embrace “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as a valuable part of our religious endeavor.

Of course, we human beings like to be right.  We like to think we have the truth, that we can even refer to “truth” in the singular — or, worse, capitalize it.  We like to believe that we’ve got it all figured out, and it’s just a matter of convincing people, and if they won’t be convinced it’s only because they’re stupid and we just need to talk at them more loudly.  Oh, we know on an intellectual level that it’s possible to be wrong, but we’d much rather be right, even over the most apparently inconsequential things, and if needs be we’ll defend our rightness with words or fists… or bullets… or bombs.

There’s apparently no greater need to be right than when it comes to understanding the world around us.  Given my former life as a research scientist, though, I know that while a good discovery confirms something we thought was right, the better discovery is actually one where we realize we were wrong about something.  After all, experiments that failed to follow Newton’s ideas about absolute space and time led Einstein to his theories of relativity, while a couple of apparently minor problems in optics and thermodynamics led to quantum mechanics.  As Isaac Asimov put it:  “The most important phrase in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, isn’t ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’”

Now it’s not for nothing that most religions lift up humility as a virtue; at one time in ancient Greek society, hubris was considered the greatest crime someone could commit.  Journalist Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, notes that “the capacity to [be wrong] is crucial to human cognition.  Far from being a moral flaw,” she writes, “it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction and courage.  And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change.  Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.”

Of course, I’m not advocating willful ignorance or suggesting we avoid courage when it comes to our convictions.  But it seems to me that refusing to acknowledge our own mistakes, to stick to our guns come hell or high water, to willfully deny the evidence that we’re wrong is to be no better than a child with his fingers in his ears chanting that he can’t hear.  In doing so we forget that it’s only when we’re wrong that we have a chance to become right, to seek out those small-‘t’ truths than can help us find wholeness and wisdom.

Maybe we can think of such truths as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle — actually, as the pieces of lots of different puzzles, at least one for every human soul on the planet.  You never know where you might find one of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of your own soul, or who might have found it and kept it in their heart until the day they can pass it on to you — and on that day your own soul grows a little more into its own wholeness.

After all, we can learn a lot about ourselves from other people.  Versions of the Golden Rule are found throughout the world’s religious traditions, but here’s one from the ancient wisdom of Shinto that goes beyond the ethic of reciprocity:  “The heart of the person before you is a mirror; see there your own form.”  What if we were truly able to see and hear ourselves reflected in the hearts of others?  Would we be so righteous about our rightness?  Or would we be open to seeing the holes in the jigsaw puzzles of our own souls and be more willing to seek out the missing pieces?  Wouldn’t we see ourselves as part of something so much larger?  Perhaps then we’d be ready to lift our hearts above the constraints of our own truths and be free.

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