May I let my voice be a clarion call. I will use these words for justice. I will use these words for truth. And humour.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Saint Francis Spiritual Care Services Thought of the Week

One of my colleagues sends out these "Thought of the Week" messages weekly. I really liked this one. The picture is from Creative Commons.

pax hominibus,agape to all,joel

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Sunday, October 10, 2010


Sermons from Last Year: #5 The Art of Massage


Delivered to UUSF on Feb 28, 2010

During my second year in seminary, I took a year-long class with Mary Ann Finch at the Care Through Touch Institute in downtown San Francisco. The coursework included much more than massage technique and anatomy for massage therapists. One of the primary goals of the course was to train Care Through Touch volunteers how to be fully present to the oppressions carried by many of the residents in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. As part of the training, we did several hours of field-work each month, at one of the many agencies where CTI has established partnerships.

Whether I’m volunteering at the Transgender health clinic at Tom Waddell or at Martin de Porres soup kitchen and house of hospitality over on Potrero, the opportunity that CTI creates for giving people a safe, comforting massage is a divine blessing. Many of the people who put their names on the clipboard are leery about it, asking how much it costs, or actually really having to come out of their shell to let somebody touch them. Many of them have been abused, disowned, suffer injustices as second-class citizens, or are really really sore from sleeping on concrete or cardboard for the last week, or the last few years, in some cases. At the same time, our culture is in need of more genuine comforting touch. Mary Ann says most people just don’t get enough touch. Yet if one were to massage someone on the BART or another random place such as a G-8 summit meeting, it would be transgressing a norm, and quite likely unwelcome. That is all the more reason that the opportunities CTI creates through these intentional settings are such a blessing. A person in need of touch is able to feel a compassionate connection through the hands of a stranger. And perhaps for the first time in a long time, they can let the tension in their shoulders, neck, and back relax. Not because of something they’ve done, but because they have—as we Unitarian Universalists often refer to it in our first principle—they have “Inherent worth and dignity.”

This form of seated-chair-massage they teach at CTI is a form of ministry. And ministry is a form of massage. And I’m not just talking about professional ministers ministering to the needs of a congregation. I’m talking about shared ministry. Everybody who comes here brings something. Everybody has gifts to share, and there is plenty of work to be done, and connections to be made, in to keep a congregation vital. And I’m not just referring to ministry in the church among the congregation. Your ministry of massage is something you can take with you everywhere, in every relationship. You may not think of yourselves yet as massage artists, so I’ll explain that last sentence a bit further. The interpersonal connections we make are informed by the second UU principle: Justice, Equity, and Compassion in human relations. The massage work is when we are in contact with one another according to that principle. It’s when we are sensitive to whether our connections are indeed just, equitable, and compassionate.

In some circles, the church is seen as the body of Christ. Whatever you may choose to call it, congregations are collective organizations of people that can work together with stronger agency than individuals. By definition, the church is a corporate body--not the kind that has shareholder profits and quarterly earnings statements, but rather it is a collection of cells working together to maintain itself, and to be an agent for justice in the greater world. That corporate body ranges in size from this congregation, the entire Unitarian Universalist Association, all of Christianity, the entirety of the world’s interfaith body of religions, or the entirety of humanity.

Within these corporate bodies of any size, there are knots. There are patterns of behavior where stress and dysfunction have caused the muscles to flex and flex continuously, until they are rock hard. How do we massage them?

Here is the way I learned to do the seated chair massage at the Care Through Touch Institute: First, I say something like, “Hi ___. My name is Joel. What I can offer you today is some massage on your back, your shoulders, neck, and arms. Does that sound OK?” And then there’s the opportunity to begin being pastorally present, “Is there anything going on I should know about? Any recent injuries or events that might be helpful to share?” Sometimes, the issue is sleeping on the street, sometimes medical issues, falls and fractures, and sometimes it’s emotional, or “just carrying a lot of stress here, between my shoulder blades and on my shoulders….” When I started here at First UU, I did my best to introduce myself, and to talk with folks to try and get a feel for recent events and gain an awareness of long-term chronic conditions as well.

After we’ve taken a few moments to connect, I next tell them that I’m going to take a minute or so to ground myself, and that they can take a few deep breaths and make themselves as comfortable as they can, and are welcome to put their head down on the pillow. For people giving massage, it’s really important to be grounded and centered and to be aware of one’s own posture, not getting too lost in the other person’s massage-work, lest you end up gathering tensions of your own from massaging while non-centered. For the people receiving massage-work, this might be one of the few times they get to sit in a chair, or lay their head on a pillow. Sometimes they fall asleep immediately; sometimes they remain wary for the first few minutes, still discerning whether they’ve made the right choice to receive a massage. I’ve come to realize in life that everybody is carrying something. If you look, you will find that each of us has some suffering, some events from the past that we now carry in our bodies. In regards to bringing our individual ministries into the congregation and elsewhere, being centered and balanced, and having our feet beneath us as we do our work is really critical to make sure we remain in right relation to ourselves and each other.

After the introduction and the centering, finally the massage begins. It begins really gently, basically like brushing. First, laying one’s hands on the person’s head, then down to their shoulders, then to their elbows, and then working a few very light circles on their back. This is about establishing rapport, saying, hello to the person’s body—I’m here with you, and these hands will be present with you for the next several minutes. This is the check-in’s at the beginning of meetings, this is the person who comes to our worship services for a few months, perhaps heading straight out after the service, or getting to know people a little in the Starr King room afterwards, but not yet signed the membership book, or on committees, or in the choir. It’s still just saying hello.

We still haven’t dug deep and are not ready to find the knots yet. Next, we start to warm up the muscles. This could be done in advance with yoga or exercise, a heating pad or a hot tub. But we don’t assume that, so we use good old-fashioned friction. First, we do a smooth stroke up along the lateral part of the back, then a smooth stroke down just inside the spine, and then the other side. Then, we rub a series of circles working downward on each side. And then smooth short strokes outward along the lats, and the shoulders. The shoulders can have a lot of tension in them—sitting at keyboards and working at workstations where we’re facing forward can put deep tension in the shoulders and upper back, so it’s important to warm up. In our communities, this warming up is when we start to share ideas and feelings, and start asking questions. It can be in small-group ministries, in committees, on the board, or anywhere else that will accept a conversation.

After all of these steps, introduction, being present, and warming up, we’re finally ready to go searching for knots. With a medium amount of depth, one works their thumbs and fingers around on the muscles that support the spine, going both downward from the heart and upward to the shoulders. Here, we’re feeling for knots and points of stress. The person may now start to vocalize “that’s the spot,” or “go easy there.” And we’re starting to do some work now. In our congregation, this is when we start looking for places to make changes or to add energy, asking the “what-if’s” along with also recognizing the structure of the muscles—the polity, the covenants, and bylaws—that hold us together in beloved community (or at least in the hope of beloved community). Our quest for being in beloved community is what compels us to find those knots. And we know there are knots, in this congregation, in Unitarian Universalism, and in the world at large. The knot of racism exists within our systems--anyone who’s read the news this last year knows racism is alive and well—both overt individual acts of racism as well as institutional and systemic forms that continue to grant privileges to people with white skin. It exists out in US culture, and it exists in our association and even in this congregation. Likewise, the knots of classism, heterosexism, ableism, and more—these are patterns learned in our collective cultural muscles that run deep. A light brushing or a gentle warming up isn’t going to be able to put on enough pressure to melt them.

But those steps were necessary to get to the point of unlearning the patterns. First, an honest introduction and centering on our authentic persons, then gently establishing rapport, then warming things up, then determining where the knots are. And finally, we get to the deep work, if we can. When I start out a massage with anybody, I tell them to let me know if any of the pressure I’m applying hurts, either in a good way, or if it has a sharp sting. If it’s a sharp sting, it’s important to ease off, because that combination of touch to the knot is not going to be healing. And the person knows that the sting happened despite my best intentions that they may feel comfort. If it hurts like an old ache, that can mean things are getting loosened up. Depending on the person, or the corporate body, the deep work can mean holding a thumb or finger on a spot, or increasing the intensity by leaning in with all your weight on an elbow. It’s a steady pressure, moving around just a little, that’s key. The knot knows you’re there, centered on it and applying pressure, asking it to allow you in, for it to melt and give way.

And usually there’s a line of people waiting for these massages, so each massage is limited to 15 or 20 minutes. We may not get that deep in that amount of time, and even if we do, the old habits, patterns, and injuries may bring those knots right back, and another massage would be a good idea in a week or two. In the time-frame of congregations, it can take five or more years for a new minister and congregation to meet each other and establish a rapport. Only then, can the conversations about the knots begin to happen. My concern for this congregation is that some of the internal knots—patterns of congregational dynamics—may make it perennially difficult to get to the deep knots. When ministers are overloaded, it’s hard to remain in one place on a knot, and each time a congregation calls a new minister, the knot has the potential to go back underground and get lost. When a congregation has sensitivity about a knot, and the work stings instead of aches, it’s hard to get the tension out, so more warming up time may be necessary.

In the world, our historical stories show that those deep knots have been here since humanity’s fall, and there’s been dysfunction ever since, with muscles pulling needlessly, in need of massage. For those kind of knots, it takes more than one set of hands. If you look at the cover of your order of service, there are pictures of Eastern gods Avalokiteshvara and Shiva, with their many hands. My understanding is that they were drawn and sculpted with all those hands to indicate how much power—how much agency—they have in the world. I think it’s important to remember that our efforts of getting to the knots in the congregation are so that we can help it be a more functional agent of presence in the world at large. The old adage says “Many hands make light work,” and I believe that when those many hands all work toward a common cause, they are capable of doing divine work.

So,… with these hands, with these voices, and with our very soul, may we remember our commitment—to touch the world gracefully, and to bless it with love.

pax hominibus,agape to all,joel



Sermons from Last Year: #4 A Responsive Imaginarium


Jan 3, 2010: A Responsive Imaginarium
Delivered to First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco

This one will make much much much more sense if you watch the video. (It's a 115MB file. Be sure to right-click and choose Save As..., and you may need to find and install an appropriate video player, such as Quicktime.)

Without it, the words tell much less of a story, and perhaps a different story.

I’m awesome. You’re awesome too--remember that. Just don’t let it go to your head. It’s OK to let it go to your face though. I’m not just saying that to fill you up with sunshine either. There’s a reason, which will become clear over the course of this reflection.

A couple summers ago, I did a chaplaincy internship up at Napa State Hospital, a mental health facility in which the majority of the population was also incarcerated. They were there either because they had been judged not guilty by reason of insanity, or were unfit to stand trial. Being a chaplain at a mental hospital, I spent a lot of time reflecting on thought processes, including my own. The hospital had a policy where employees could go to one of the kitchens in the non-incarcerated area of the hospital to get a “free lunch” (my supervisor assured me there was no such thing, which was something else I learned). A few times each week, I took advantage of this opportunity, partially because it was free, partially because I had to get up so early and never packed a lunch, but also to find out the typical faire on the menu at a California state mental hospital (prognosis: not so good- sometimes a meal would be a round scoop of peanut butter and a round scoop of jelly between two pieces of white bread, and a bag of potato chips). After about three weeks of walking to and from the kitchen each noon hour, I came to realize a pattern. I had found the shortest, fastest route between the chapel and the kitchen, and was beginning to get into an optimized groove, or rut, depending on your perspective. And the part that shocked me the most.. . I had yet to see what lay on the far side of the chapel, not fifty feet beyond, or explore the outer path around the facility. Many of the individuals (a.k.a. patients, or prisoners) walked that path as part of their daily exercise, but to me, it only existed in theory.

My concern was not because of this lack of physical exploration. It was because it made me think of ruts and exploration in mental and spiritual terms. There are some habits and some thoughts that we practice every day, and some that we go through much more frequently. Thoughts like recalling the labels and categorizations that we have for people, based on our interpretations of experiences with them, and based on things we’ve heard about them. We also rehearse these categories and labels for ideas, for things, for places, and for activities. I’m thinking here of the classic Dr. Seuss story, Green Eggs and Ham. The main character, an avuncular figure named Sam, refuses again and again to eat green eggs and ham, until finally giving in to the other character’s badgering, and finds out that he actually does like it after all. I’m pretty sure by “Green Eggs and Ham,” Dr. Seuss was tacitly referring here, of course, to national health care, or perhaps world peace.

We tend to think about people, ideas, and activities in the contexts we’ve experienced them. Once, upon meeting some future friends for only the second time, this woman said, “I’ve met you before. Didn’t you used to have a moustache?” The first time she’d met me, I had just left from a spy-themed party, where I’d been dressed up like Magnum P.I., moustache and all. I’d had the moustache for only about 8 hours before shaving it off, but that was her perception of me. I was that guy with the moustache. Ever since then, Stephanie and I try to have a moustache-themed party once a year. We’ve presently got our hands really quite full, so having a party this year might be a little difficult to swing.

There is a common thread here. We tend to want to know the gist of the story quickly, and think that’s the entirety. Our fourth principle, “The free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” calls us to investigate further. Life is so much more complicated than we perceive at first glance, and further, it’s complexifiable. Complexification is not the same thing as complication. To complexify something is to dig around for more connections, and find further meaning. It’s a process driven by curiosity, and a desire to experience things more fully. But if we focus too soon on putting something into a category, or on finding a solution to our problem as quickly as possible, we’re prone to get “there” too quickly, thinking we’re “there” but really we haven’t even looked and found the far side of the chapel yet. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line... segment. Or in the case of this map from the 20th Street BART to Oakland Whole Foods, many segments. But it’s a segment, closed on both ends, with the minimal energy applied to get from point A to point B, and because it demands “the” best route, it doesn’t allow us to take in all the options. As a result, this singular focus can cause our arena of thought to become vanishingly small, if we’re not mindful. Particularly astonishing are the dialogs provided by mass media, with their polemics and pundits on the “left and the right” whose conversations serve to keep that arena of thought small, allowing between forced limited options, and keeping the scope of possibility narrow. I can’t help but think that somebody behind the corporate media benefits from this, and the best way to defend ourselves is to open our arena of thought as broadly as possible.

Back when I drove taxi for a year, when a passenger would get in my cab, first, I’d ask them where they were going, and then ask if they wanted the route that was fastest, cheapest on the meter, or the most scenic. Going out of your way might cost a little more money or time, but often, it brings with it a richer view of the world. Here is my usual route to church when I walk up from the Civic Center BART station. When I go a different way, my senses are a bit stronger—less habituated. When I took Larkin instead of Hyde, I found the sign from the cover of last week’s order of service. Or by heading directly west first, I found some of the beautiful art in the city hall lower level, sponsored by the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. However, I often am in a hurry, so I do take the most direct route, but at least now I know about those other routes and have a wider frame of reference, and I am much more confident that my route is likely the easiest climb.

It’s not always best to just jump right in. They say a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step? Actually, I would say that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a good pair of shoes and an informative map. For a journey of 1,000,000 miles, you might do better to get yourself a car or a plane. For a journey of 1 billion miles, you’re going to bring a civilization together to create a community-supported endeavor such as NASA. And for this journey, whatever the length, remember that it is about the journey as well as the destination, so don’t take the straight line-segment without first considering aesthetics. Journey poetically. Don’t be afraid to sashay, or to chat with a stranger. The straight line segment suggests keeping to yourself, and doing what you need to do as efficiently as possible so you can get on to something else. But with that attitude, isn’t life just a series of things to efficiently complete? Take a big breath, and sloooooooooow dowwwwwwwn, and you may find other ways to get to point B, or better destinations. Do it poetically, with music, for no good reason, other than you can.

For example, “Do I sound like a musical robot?” I didn’t have to say that. It didn’t add anything of substance to this sermon. And now doing a focused analysis of it actually detracts. So I’ll repeat without analysis, “Do I sound like a musical robot?”

A /torus is /most commonly known as a

Donut… /---/--or/ bagel.

A torus is a geometer’s thing.

It’s a ring encircling a ring.

They come in many sizes and shapes …and they have wings.

The ring torus, most common, is king.

The spindle torus has a football-shaped thing.

And the horn-torus has deep meaning.

A single point in the center,

Where everything comes together,

At a special place called the origin.

Where at every instance we always begin.

At this nexus we’re creating our spirit

Our here and our now touching everything near it.

The pictures are denser than poetry knows

So I’ll try and explain it less densely in prose.


There really is something about this special kind of torus, the horn torus, and I think it has theological implications. Imagine any of the repeating processes in your life as a circle, traveling around the surface of this torus. If this process is straightforward, say tying your shoe, or picking up dry-cleaning, you may be able to do it without giving any conscious thought about how to go about it. Yet actually, as you follow that process along, you get to this singularity at the origin, where there is an infinitude of possibility. You could go around the circle exactly the same way as last time, or you might smoothly change course and do something different. At that very center, there is opportunity for change, and if we open and listen closely, we can discern a variety of options and different directions.

Some of those options are pretty bad: You could choose to take a scissors to your shoelaces, or grab your dry-cleaning and run out of the store without paying. But some options might be improvements: perhaps you could learn a better way of tying a bow, or spruce up those old shoes with some bright new shoelaces, or take an extra minute to share a little with the person who does your dry-cleaning, and exchange a little energy with them.

Some of the circles we follow around again and again are actually addictions or vices. They can stall us and our advancement and achievement in life. By “vices,” I’m referring not only to the serious moral flaws and undesirable habits known in classical times. I’m referring to vice here as choices we make that prevent us from being virtuous simply in terms of opportunity cost. We only have so much time in life, and those cycles devoted to actions that keep us from doing virtuous acts are, in effect, stealing time away from doing the work of justice. This might mean wasting our time on activities that really provide no lasting benefit, or even just reserving ample time for self-interests. When we consider that some people in the world are not gifted with as much free time, vice might even include an inordinate amount of time devoted to prayer, meditation, or a day at the fair. By no means am I admonishing against prayer, meditation, and time off. It’s just important to listen for the calls of the world, and to find a moderate balance.

Sometimes these circles we follow, these vices, are in our mind as well as in the external world. Things you tell yourself about yourself and others. Nobody is harder on us than we are on ourselves. During the course of the day, we can tell ourselves the same thing a hundred times. Perhaps it’s an echo of some long-past event when somebody called us a name in school, or it’s an internalized label that we’ve taken on and now repeat to ourselves tacitly. Somebody handed us that label and we were unable to dispel it (or didn’t even know that was an option), and now it’s become self-talk. But you can take control there. After all, it’s your head! Remember at the beginning when I said we were awesome? That’s the self-talk I want to echo.

Getting back to the torus, there’s something else; the cycles, the opportunities for change aren’t actually discrete. We are always at the center of the torus, and it spins around us as we move forward—if we do. We can change direction at any time, at any moment. And to get from our current spiritual, physical, and mental location, our choice of direction is important. Imagine with me the condition of your life today, or of life in general. Then imagine where you’d like it to be. You might not know all (or any) of the steps that it takes to get there, but you likely know the direction. Because the context of the world we’re in throws blockades and hurdles in our path, our route to get there is likely going to need to be creative and circuitous. And the center of life is not some brilliant day in your past, however appreciable it may have been, and it’s not point B, some future for which you hope to arrive. And it’s not 2010 years ago either. Center yourself, center your life, in right now. The origin, the nexus, moves with you. When you turn, it turns, when you move forward, it moves forward. As time advances, it’s still right there with you.

If we attempt to follow the straight line segments with our torus, we’re not honoring the complexity in life. If we sit stagnant, or follow the same circular paths, that’s not going to get us going in the direction we’d like. And more often than not, the route that we take will wind all over the place, but the process will generally follow a vector that matches the direction we intend, especially if we take time to reflect, and then respond by changing our direction. To be still, to hear what the world is saying and make a change, here at the nexus, at the center of your spirit, is the one thing we can always do. May we all be so blessed in the year to come. Amen.

pax hominibus,agape to all,joel



Sermons from Last Year: #3 Human Christianity


Human Christianity

Delivered to UUSF 12.27.2009

After last week’s sermon, one of our congregants mentioned their newfound appreciation of Unitarian Universalism upon hearing in Reverend Greg say(and I paraphrase) “We’re not the religion about Jesus, we’re the religion of Jesus.” That’s a pretty strong and important distinction. As Unitarians, as Universalists, as UU’s, instead of worshiping Jesus as a god--unattainable other--we endeavor to see Jesus as an exemplar, as a brother, and as a fully human being cut from the same cloth as us, as a man who was ever seeking to strengthen his connection with the divine.

Jesus was aiming to be the messiah of the oppressed Jewish people whose once-rich autonomous culture had been assailed upon for centuries by the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. His ministry struck a chord in many, and drew in disciples, who carried his stories forward, and the stories became universal. Jesus, because he was working to save his people, was anointed by his followers as Christ.

Now—regarding today’s lesson, in which Kevin Drewery mentions looking in the mirror—how many of you have given any thought to the idea that you might be the messiah? There was a time during my calling when I was genuinely worried about that myself. Coming from a theist background, I wondered, was God calling me to be a prophet, or even Christ? During moments of youthful indiscretion, I’d sometimes entertain a solipsistic point of view—what if all the messed-upness of the world was my fault--a result of me not taking my station in life? YIKES! Who would choose to be Christ, and who would wish all that responsibility on anybody, really? But the thought had crossed my mind. And once a message like that arrives, it’s not so easy to dispel. Some advice from a bumper sticker I occasionally see has provided guidance: “Don’t believe everything you think!” Yet confusion abounded as I wrestled down a low self-opinion from comparing my simple humanness with the legendary brilliance of Christ. So I naturally turned to the book of Jonah for advice. In addition to the story about the whale, Jonah was also one of the rare prophets who, instead of prophesying to the people of Nineveh about the doom to come upon them as a result of their wrongdoing, dragged his feet on his divinely-inspired mission for a while, and things actually turned out pretty okay—the city didn’t get destroyed and there’s no mention of Jonah getting stoned, burned, or crucified for delivering his message. Many prophets, especially those speaking against the rulers or the ruling class, seem to meet a grisly end.

For that reason alone, I wanted to dispel this notion of Christness, and get back to a “normal” life—there is so much beauty and potential in this world, and I want to be here for it. There’s a joke from Annie Hall that might help explain my continued attachment to this thread. ‘This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, uh, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken." And, uh, the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" The guy says, "I would, but we need the eggs."’ The world needs saving, and it needs prophets. And I’m so glad none of us have to do it alone.

So while dragging my feet in my late-20s and early 30’s, I was testing the possibility of making a Type-I error. Type-I errors are where you declare a hypothesis to be true, which is actually false—in other words, declaring “I am the Christ,” but actually, “Oops! Just a guy,” who’s going to get looked at weirdly by people, or worse, perceived as too loony to fit into the job market. On the other hand, a Type-II error is the one where you declare your hypothesis false, but it’s actually true—in other words, deciding, “Well no, I guess I’m just a guy,” but actually being the guy who’s supposed to save everybody. I didn’t really want either for myself. I was just trying to figure out a way to make my calling real. How could I be Christ or a prophet or whatever, in community, and have some serious amount of collective responsibility, authority, and accountability? I thought bringing this into being would take some serious time and study, along with a very flexible and double-jointed paintbrush.

But that was almost two decades ago, long before I’d stumbled upon Unitarian Universalism, the one place where people barely blink at things considered heretical in more traditional Christian communities. In fact, when I got to seminary, I was pleasantly surprised and relieved to find several of the students there overflowing with this Christ spirit, even if they might not have named it as such.

In Unitarian Universalism, our 4th principle is the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” When we identify the meaning of Christ as that which saves our culture, our interconnected web, and ultimately saves each of us—when we identify that which saves as Christ, all that business of Type-I and Type-II errors and testing for truth is set aside. (In theologians’ terms, the Christology of UUs is very similar to our “soteriology.” Christology is the study of humanity and divinity within the person of Christ. And soteriology is just a fancy term for “the study of what saves or preserves us.”)

Where then, does Jesus fit into all this? He was inspired by the events in his world to devote himself wholly to teaching a way of life through which the world might be saved—so inspired and devoted that he wouldn’t shut up even under the looming threat of capital punishment. Now, when people focus on the death of Jesus, or even the person of Jesus, they miss the point, and run dangerously close to falling into idolizing him and fetishizing the crucifixion. Putting a person or event, especially a symbolic one, on a pedestal is a form of idolatry. Our authentic connection is to recognize the underlying spirit of Christ that would cause Jesus to mold his life into such a wondrous piece of art. And then to ponder the art he created and find how it inspires us.

When we recognize that the qualities of Christ lurk beneath our embodied exteriors, we see that Jesus was the first incarnated instance of Christ, kindling an energy capable of saving us. This vital energy that transcends between us is what Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to as the Oversoul, our shared soul. Regarding claims of Jesus being the only Son of God, he was unique in the same sense that each of us are unique, but also was quite an outlier in his fulfillment of potential—his devotion to study, perfection of character, and embodied commitment. He was the “only” child because he was the first. Think for a moment on the eldest sibling in your family. For how long were they the only child until the next sibling was born? In the same way, more humans have adopted this consciousness and strive toward those qualities we would assign to divinity--qualities which also happen to be fit for our collective salvation.

Kevin Drewery listed five distinct qualities or dimensions of Christ consciousness, along with exemplars and descriptions. Here are a few excerpts:

These four men and one woman allowed the light of these divine qualities to shine out through them and into the world. Looking back to the nature of our Christian roots, Unitarian theology has advocated for improvement of moral character, looking to Jesus Christ as a model for human virtue.

How does that Unitarian kind of virtue connect with those who’d rather not bother with “religion” or with those who see Jesus in a very different way, as a solitary Christ, with a separate and unattainable nature? I say we invite them in by taking the high road, humbly. Not only is there less traffic, but as we develop a moral system capable of saving that which needs saving, we’ll draw them in if they see Christ-like qualities in our way of being. And that if implies we are actively developing our virtuous character, or as the 3rd Unitarian Universalist principle puts it, “Accepting one another and encouraging spiritual growth in our congregations.” Next week’s sermon will explore virtue a bit more deeply.

In the blurb announcing today’s service, I indicated I would talk about what an atheist Christianity might look like, and I wonder if the atheists in our midst today are kind of miffed that I haven’t yet come to that. I mentioned God earlier because that was my way of understanding at that time. However, this work and theology can exist entirely within the framework of Christian Humanism, as a human endeavor that saves us even if God should disappear from the picture entirely. For those called to believe and serve theistically, Jesus as God is an expedient means of teaching and providing connection and comfort; and striving for deeper identification with his divinity should be a central duty. For those who believe more in our human connections, our interconnectedness, our reliance on, and responsibility to one another is our source. Yet there is a deep mystery to life, something that transcends all words and definition. I don’t see a need to name the mystery. Not everything needs to have a name. And that undefined mystery need not be separate from the common workaday stream of cause and effect at work in the world.

Before I close, I need to share a major pet peeve. “Religion.” The first amendment says that congress can’t establish it, and we’re free to practice it as we wish. Yet people tend to define religion into a neat little box involving worship, prayer, and special sacred buildings. About once a month, I hear somebody say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I cringe at that! To me, religion is the way you live your life. Religion shares a root with “ligament.” Religare, the root word, means “to bind back.” Without ligaments binding our bones together, we’d just be an unstructured mess laying in a pile on the floor. Religion is so much more than prayers, meditations and special buildings. Everybody has religion in their life. The practices and structure that hold your life together constitute your religion. How frequently you brush your teeth, and whether you use a circular motion, or up and down—that’s religion! How do you commute to work, and to church? What time do you wake up each day? Does that time vary? Foods you do and don’t eat—how they’re grown. Paper or plastic? Reduce, reuse, recycle. Decaf or regular? Or tea? Or juice? Your favorite (and least favorite) sexual practices are even a part of your religion. What is the nature of the community with which you gather, if you do—and how often? How do you handle your investments and finances?—do you buy things on layaway, or always with cash? Budgetary matters are most definitely moral considerations.

All those things are religion. Our beliefs, as well, are structures that help to hold us together as individuals and as a community. Likewise, the rituals we choose are part of our religion. Organized religion is when many people are bound to each other, or to a creed, and influenced to do (or steer clear of) a common set of practices or rituals. I’ve heard it said that the most common ritual in America now is swiping a credit card. I wonder if that means that capitalism is the organized religion now binding our nation together?

Even as we experience the failures of capitalism, I say that right NOW is precisely the time and a great opportunity for Human Christianity. We are here at the cusp of 2010, a full decade after the beginning of the new millennium, a time when some Christians had actually expected some form of second coming, for which some still wait. Yet we—collectively—save. Especially when we work together, and especially as more people are drawn to come together into this moral rekindling.

Back when I was worried that it might be me on my own as a Christ volunteer, I thought “How difficult and arduous it would be to fully flesh out a concrete moral compass and get buy-in.” But actually, over the last 48 years Unitarian Universalists have compiled what hopefully will soon be a not-so-secret secret document, based on putting our principles into action. Our Statement of Conscience packet, a 400+ page compendium of social justice statements, available online at (so good we had to say it twice!), is just such a document. All these years, we have affirmed our principled morality in this Statement of Conscience document, as it applies to current issues such as Equal Rights, Immigration, Racial Justice, Religious Liberty, Civil Liberties, Drug Policy Reform, Election Reform and Health Care to name a few.

Ultimately the morality of Human Christianity is about building community, it’s about connecting with compassion, it’s about fair compensation and just distribution, about polity and political action, and about recognizing the values at work in the cultures we live in.

So whether you believe in God, gods, or no God… believe in our collective human agency, an agency that is capable of transcending those beliefs, and be a part of what saves us. Be Christ. Be yourself. Be unafraid.

This… [gesturing to congregation] is Christ.

pax hominibus,agape to all,joel



Sermons from Last Year: #2 An Unreckonable Gratitude

An Unreckonable Gratitude

Delivered to UUSF 11.29.2009

Thank you!
For reasons that I know I am not even fully aware of (and can’t possibly be fully aware of), and from the bottom of my heart, the center of my heart, I am compelled to repeat, "Thank you!" (Simply for your presence, for your way of being in the world, and for something you’ve done already in this world that has improved it and probably worked its way into affecting my life and those of many others.)

And our seventh UU principle, which states our respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part tells me that I really don’t know who or what all to thank, so my thank you today is universal. To countless people who have come before and left traces of beauty in this life for me to enjoy, to those who have carried the Unitarian and Universalist banners, both preachers and practitioners, to those who have created vital institutions such as the SF Interfaith Council—people of faith coming together to work against homelessness and poverty in the bay area. And for the US system of government with all its checks and balances, I am grateful. And to all of the plants and animals, to the Earth, Sun, Moon and stars, and even to all the energy and matter in the universe that has come together to make this moment and every other moment, I just want to say, "Thank you!"

I say it because my list of blessings in this life has already been long. As our earlier reading from Forrest Church notes, the gift of life from our parents is something each of us were granted through no doing of our own, as far as we know or could attempt to prove. We just arrived here into life. I don't even know who all to be grateful to, for my invitation into this life. My parents were most directly responsible, but for all I know I might want to thank my father's employers for a recent pay raise, or my older sisters for both being female, or perhaps the quality control person at the condom factory for being lax in their duties because it was a Monday or a Friday.

It's not just the simple gift of life to be grateful for, but to be born into this time and this place. To have the privileges of a family with enough money, that values education; to be born into this world by chance male and white and "straight" in a time and place where those attributes often carry benefits.

And I'm grateful not just for the gift of life in the here-and-now, but also for the gifts that have sustained life across time. To be born on a planet with the right mix of molecules in the environment--where plants grow easily from seeds, and to be born into a time with domesticated livestock and an abundance of grains and vegetables. To be born on a planet with a star just the right size and distance and brightness to allow for such abundant life.

I'm grateful to those who have created social systems and technologies that have helped to boost my quality of living, even when those social systems and technologies have caused harm to our environment and to the quality of life for others. And I am grateful to the environment and to those suffering people for suffering through the damage caused by the inherent evils (or evil byproducts) of those same social systems and technologies.

So many blessings have come to me, and to many of us here, and I think it's of utmost importance that we acknowledge those blessings in all their fullness, even if that stings sometimes. Because by being in life, whatever lot we've received, we are each blessed in fundamental ways just to be alive and aware in the universe--as the universe experiencing itself!!

The acknowledgment of that blessing is essential for our grounded connection with the universe. The gratitude that we can offer is critical, because it changes our state of being. The existence of gratitude changes our attitude.

In Boy Scouts, in order to use a knife or saw or axe--anything with a blade--it was important to have your "Totin' Chip" card, which meant you'd passed basic safety training. One critical piece of knowledge I recall learning was how to safely pass a sharp item from one person to another. When the person receiving the bladed tool had safely gotten a grip on the item, they said "Thank you," as a sign to the giver that the transaction had successfully taken place.

The person who neglects saying "Thank you" in this case is dangerous, because the acknowledgment of an exchange becomes rather unclear. In a similar way, when we fail to acknowledge the benefits we have (or the detriments we avoid), our danger becomes one of ingratitude, of entitlement. Without changing to a state of gratitude, we may continue to expect that more benefits should be heaped upon us.

And this “thank you,”—this recognition of gratitude—is best when it comes from down deep. What follows are a couple examples of the shallow gratitude from dinner tables I have been at in the course of my life. At our Lutheran family dinners, the grace was “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food. Amen.” Or perhaps this one that my friends’ families used to say might ring more bells: “Come lord Jesus be our guest, let this food to us be blessed. Amen.” I was asked to say grace one Thanksgiving over break from college. After a friend taught me “God’s neat, let’s eat.” I decided to impress my family by shortening it to the bare essentials: “Yay God.” “Impressed” they were, but not really in a positive sense. Admittedly, it’s really not about the content or length, but it is about taking the time to sincerely recognize the bounty we have received.

I imagine most of you here over the course of the last decade have noticed the patriotic phrase "God Bless America" in speeches or on bumper stickers? Well, I've always felt our nation was already richly blessed in so many ways. And yet the apparent attitude of our country has been one of ingratitude and entitlement, with expectations of greater wealth and economic growth, and little acknowledgment of the blessings thus far received. I can’t really put my finger on the root of the problem, but I can only imagine that the heads-down, overworked, exhausted, spoon-fed-by- television nature of life has certainly been an exacerbating factor.

Taking even a moment to recognize the inherent grace contained within the gift of being here in space and time can pull away a veil, for each of us as individuals as well as this country. As a nation—and equally as important, as individuals—our change to a state of gratitude has the potential to work miracles. When we realize all that we have been given, our modus operandi—our way of being in the world—changes. The recognition of our wealth turns us away from habits of acquiring and consuming, and away from resistive re-gifting of what we've received, and toward generosity. The fundamental gift of life calls us to give and to pass it on. I'm not talking about just bringing life to new human babies, but about spreading greater life, greater energy, and greater love to all the people and beings we have opportunities to connect with in life.

By acknowledging the privileges obtained by virtue of having a certain gender, race, class, sexual orientation, size, ability, or nationality ascribed to and attached to our bodies, we make way for an awareness of clear paths for re-gifting gifts that never ought to have been bestowed so arbitrarily in the first place. Our privileges can be powerful tools for creating equality. Whenever greater equality is achieved and recognized, the gratitude becomes a chain and the world around us becomes richer.

We each are given the gift of one life, and we each have whatever time, ability, and energy left to do what we will in the world. Some people have become great leaders and turned their lives into amazing works of justice—people like Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, MLK, Cesar Chavez, and Dorothy Day. But for every one of those well-known saints, there are thousands of people playing supporting roles in those movements. And for every preeminent social movement, there are thousands of unrecognized or anonymous movements that support the lives of smaller communities, families and individuals. I'm thinking here of people and movements like the ones you can read about on the wall just outside the Starr King room just down the hall in the center. may be blessed with the skills and opportunities to be a great leader. Or you may be blessed with money, energy or time to re-gift, thereby adding your power to projects and movements that matter. Or you may be blessed only with a mind, a heart, a voice, hands, and a body, each of which you can turn into gifts.

Whatever gifts you have been given, receive them and acknowledge them. And then let your life be a Thank You!

pax hominibus,agape to all,joel



Sermons from Last Year: #1 Regarding Candlepower

Regarding Candlepower,
Delivered to First UU San Francisco

Light does not sit still.  It wants to spread in every direction until it hits something to reflect off of, or to be absorbed.

But doesn’t the word “light” describe more than just matter or energy? From a spiritual perspective, light is knowledge, information, and reason—and even emotion. Light shows the paths available to us, and the light of understanding can help to dispel fear and confusion.

Candlepower is another term for luminous intensity, or how bright a light appears to be shining. The title of this sermon is also a reference to actual candles. Now, I want to start with a brief story about a candle we have at home. He’s sitting right back there with his mom and grandma, and his name is Henry. Sometimes our infant wakes up alone in the bedroom with the lights out, and starts to wailing. I’ll go in and scoop him up to my chest, get the drool towel on my shoulder, and rock him back to sleep while singing in the darkened room. His favorite lullaby is actually a variant of “This Little Light of Mine” from our hymnal. He likes it best when I sing it under water. The underwater version goes something like this: “Thbibs lbibttble lbibliblbght obf mbibne, iblbl’m gmloblbing tblblo let it shine.” As soon as he gets close to nodding off, I switch over to a steady rhythmic version that I call the “Seraphim’s Lullaby.” In Judeo-Christian lore, the seraphim are the inner ring of angels singing songs of praise night and day to God.

This lullaby echoes the last word from “this little light of mine” in a rhythm as he starts to nod off. “Shine, shine,… shine, shine, shine,… shine, shine, shine,… shine, shine, shine ,… shine, shine, shine ,… shine, shine, shine ,… shine, shine, shine , shine-shine,” which then repeats. Then as Henry’s totally conking out from the monotony, I work my way down to singing “Shine…” every eight beats, until I can finally lay him down slowly in the crib.

That to me is one example of a candle, it’s some personal information, a message that I sing to my baby, a prayer whose seeds will hopefully be planted deep within, for him to shine his light steady and strong, whatever that may turn out to be. And each of us has different messages, and different light to shed onto the world. Our light is composed of our experiences, perspectives, passions and hopes. Getting in touch with the uniqueness of our own light is a process of constant unfolding. Then when we shine out, it’s through our words and our deeds—through our life itself.

When our candles of life come together, they inform each other. By listening intently to the experiences, perspectives, passions and hopes of another, the light in ourselves grows in intensity, or changes hue. We can feel more strongly about our truths, or develop a more nuanced understanding. And when our own light is flickering, one candle can always light another, and that’s one empowering blessing of being among a community of broad-minded thinkers and compassionate feelers.

When enough people share in community, we have a rich discourse that becomes a bonfire, where we can not only have light, but also warmth, and sometimes “heat” when we come to disagreements. I’ve already witnessed that this congregation’s conversations are often energized enough to grow from words into action. And the fire turns into steady-burning coals….19th-century Universalist Mary Livermore tells a story how before there were matches, if your kitchen’s fire went out in the night, you either needed to work flint and steel together until a spark caught so you could light your tinder and rebuild your own fire from scratch (a painful proposition), or you would beg a shovelful of coals from a neighbor. A vibrant and thriving religious community like this one has coals it can offer, not just to the Sunday afternoon fellowship, the Lutherans, the Buddhists, and the other groups that meet here, but to the wider community. And they have coals that would enrich us as well.

A campfire like ours at First Unitarian Universalist is highly visible, and draws people in from further away. That’s our goal—to grow spiritually as a community, and draw people in, so that new visitors and old members alike can come here to fan the flames of their passions for justice, and become more active in the world. Here’s a question to ponder, what things have you found here that make you come to life, and make it natural to devote your time and energy here?

Yet while a roaring fire is more robust than an individual candle, even our campfires are in danger of being blown out or diminished by the rain and the wind of an environment that doesn’t know to value what we have here. It’s all the more frightful when we find our voices shut out of the mass media, and there are other voices amplifying values that run counter to ours. Our good news that God loves everyone, and that everyone is saved isn’t likely to be well-received if it can’t be heard, or runs contrary to nihilistic and damaging messages blaring through the airwaves.

Our message presents danger to some people. For some, our news means questioning their whole worldview based on a personal and everlasting life, and accepting a savior to overcome sins. For others, it means weighing their relationship to the Earth and the welfare of its inhabitants against their own self-interests. Questioning fundamental assumptions and habits like these is difficult, and when people first hear our good news—and I realize there may be some sitting right out here today, or perhaps listening online—when people first hear our good news, we are a new candle joining an existing candle, which burns differently.

So our light can attract hostilities as well as friends. Our message brings cognitive dissonance and fear to some. Our goals may run counter to their goals of maintaining their livelihood, their lifestyle, or their retirement plans, or their hopes and fears for an afterlife, so they will fight our message. From Jesus decrying the Pharisees killing of prophets in Matthew 23, to Hypatia of Alexandria, to MLK, all the way to Van Jones, the brightest luminaries have been under attack by powers with vested interests, with their light diminished, sullied, or even snuffed-out. Humanist philosopher Erich Fromm says, “Those whose hope is weak settle down for comfort or violence; those whose hope is strong see and cherish all signs of new life, and are ready at every moment to help give birth to that which is ready to be born.” What light exists that can finally burn brightly enough that it cannot be snuffed out?

The Sun is one such source of light that will be constant and shining for ages to come. What would it take to get our message THAT bright? How about a compelling enough message to help draw in a critical mass of people sharing their lights on a global scale? Our message is right on: everyone’s together in this spherical blue and green boat, everyone’s included, and nobody should be left behind. Our message is one of communities rooted where they are, and extending out to any other communities who would join in common cause. The sixth Unitarian Universalist principle, states “[We…covenant to affirm and promote] the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” The thought that the sixth principle might come into reality is awe-inspiring, isn’t it? That’d be a huge change! One I hope we all learn to truly welcome.

The principle says “the goal of world community.” A goal is a dream with a deadline. We’re not about affirming the dream of a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. It’s a goal. There’s got to be a deadline, or the light is blurry. If we leave the deadline unset, then that’s just a dream deferred. That’s justice deferred, peace deferred, and liberty deferred.

So, what do we envision—how will we know when the goal of “world community” is successfully realized? It requires that we establish common ground on which to speak and listen freely. We can start by all acknowledging our common humanity, and the worth and dignity to be found in everyone. Until we do that, we’re standing on different ground, not common ground. From common ground, we can freely share the lights of our myriad communities of identity. And with that common ground conversation, we can equitably negotiate shared definitions for peace, liberty and justice.

We’ll need to do a lot of work to get to that common ground. From physics, power is defined asthe ability to do work in a given amount of time. A more powerful movement can get more work done more quickly. A more powerful movement is composed of more people participating more fully.

Today’s second lesson is the story of Aten, the god responsible for the Sun. This god was represented by a bright disk in the sky, with arms reaching out of it, each with a hand bearing gifts. More hands, more voices, more lives working for common ground means more power and faster work toward our goal. Not everybody’s going to join our churches. Perhaps they disagree with organized religion entirely, or perhaps they’re happy with the worship and the people of their own faith communities. But surely they will lend their hands and co-create with us once they see the light of our message, and our goal. And our fourth principle—the one about our “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” compels us to share this light with them, pronto. For when we truly embody truth and meaning, we find we’re responsible to act on it, and share it.

Until we create a deadline that we mean to be accountable to, there’s a disconnect at work here. The “end-times” or the “last generation” has been a concept people have anticipated at least since the book of revelation was written, and probably much earlier. For many people, the end of time, or to my understanding, the end of the age, was always “just a few years away.” But it’s been that way for countless generations. It’s time to get in sync, and focus our resolve and determination to bring the end of this age, through introducing a beloved world community.

The God I know and love, who waits with a plenitude of gifts that true community brings, has been ever-restless for world community to come into being. This God is getting less and less patient, first ringing the doorbell, then knocking, knocking, knocking, then pounding at the door, demanding, “Who put this door here? And why is it taking so long for them to answer?” There’s real pressure to answer the door, to answer this call, because nature has a way of making corrections. That danger to our environment is a real-life fire-and-brimstone scenario, which I’ll reserve for another sermon, some other time. We try not to work from a place of fear, so let’s instead look at the possibilities of opening the door and answering the call.

A few weeks ago, Rev. Fitch mentioned in his homily that this community needs to go public and show the world a new paradigm for the 21st century, and I would challenge us to take that a step further. To reach our goal, we need to shine the light of a 3rd millennium community. To guide humanity’s eyes toward the horizon and see the sunrise, and know that just as our message of world community starts to shine, so too, the fire of the human race is only just now beginning to burn like the stable star of today’s first lesson.

So I’ll ask, and this is not a rhetorical question, but you need not answer aloud right now: How soon do you think this world community can be delivered? How soon will we be able to establish common ground throughout the races, beyond national boundaries, and across ethnic lines? How soon until we can establish common ground for everyone based on the fact that they love and are loved, not based on what kind of person they love? And how soon until we can establish common ground that says nobody is left behind, that when we come to the economic table, nobody leaves hungry, without an adequate piece of the pie? What if that depends on us talking and acting on our goal of world community? How quickly can our light spread?

We are not alone. We have allies. Who are they? “Anybody who will answer to the call for this world community we yearn for.” But the call is critical. It brings the power of suggestion into play. Some people have forgotten their dreams, or do not believe we can achieve this goal. Perhaps they’ve never even thought about the possibility of world community. If we who carry this torch don’t invite them, they won’t know when or where to show up, or to show up at all.

And here’s more good news: for the most part world community happens as people come to life and join one at a time, empowering each other. The people you share this message with—your friends, family, maybe even people you’re just conversing with for the first time, they might really need Unitarian Universalism.

Before last week’s service while I was talking with Claire Bohman, I shared a little about this sermon, and I mentioned how long it took me to stumble upon this religion, and how there are a lot of people in the world out there who want—who need—the gifts of our theology. She shined her light right back and said, “and they have gifts that we need.” To me, that is a reminder of the true give-and-take involved in this commission.

Some say we need to get more people in our doors, and into our congregations, but I think it’s more than that. Howard Thurman, the longtime minister at the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples just up Larkin Street, said: "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." So get in touch with your passion and find or create an avenue to manifest that passion, either within or beyond these church walls, and get other people excited about it. And listen to others, and hear their passions, so they can realize their goals as well.

May the work that we do shine like the fusion of the Sun, and may this community achieve that goal of world community, with the inclusion of everyone and energy of everyone working toward it. And when you go forth from this place, may you know in your innermost heart that you carry the Sun within.


pax hominibus,agape to all,joel


Friday, October 1, 2010


A shared gift with a friend

A friend of mine gave me this.
He's going through some soul s
earching and path-discerning,
so I'm holding his heart now as ever.


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