Many of my sermons can be found in written or mp3 form on the website of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

Sermons on audio

December 16, 2012: “Living by Love”

August 25, 2013: “Free and Responsible”

Sermon texts

September 1, 2019: “Why Do We Build the Wall?”

September 9, 2018: “Who Are Our Neighbors? Who Are We?”

March 13, 2016: “The Real Marshmallow Test”

November 15, 2015: “Learning Some Other Country’s History,” winner of the 2016 Skinner Sermon Award from the Unitarian Universalist Association

November 1, 2015: “A Matter of Life and Death,” given on the occasion of the ordination of Pamela Gehrke

December 24, 2014: Christmas Eve homily, “Come, Emmanuel”

Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014: “How Gods Are Created”

December 24, 2013: Christmas Eve homily, “To Hear the Angels Sing”

Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013: “A Religion for this World”

Sunday, January 27, 2013: “On the Threshold”

Wednesday, October 3, 2012: “Traveling Over Rocky Ground,” given at the fall retreat of the Pacific Central chapter, Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association

Sunday, September 30, 2012: “From Righteousness to Right”

Sunday, August 19, 2012: “The New Normal”

Sunday, April 22, 2012: “Thinking Like the Earth”

Saturday, December 24, 2011: Christmas Eve homily, “Waiting to be Born”

Sunday, September 11, 2011, Water Communion: Reflection on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11

Sunday, June 19, 2011: “Getting Unstuck”

Friday, December 24, 2010: Christmas Eve homily

Sunday, July 11, 2010: on judgment and mercy

Thursday, December 24, 2009: Christmas Eve homily

Other writings

Flower Communion Liturgy

“There is a Balm in Gilead”

new verses written on the occasion of Bass Lake weekend, September 2010

“Beyond Either/Or”

essay on bisexuality and Unitarian Universalism


“Why Do We Build the Wall?”
A Labor Day sermon, given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto
September 1, 2019

Centering Words

If you want to be free, there is but one way; it is to guarantee an equally full measure of liberty to all your neighbors. There is no other. –Carl Schurz


Our first reading is from B. K. Ambedkar, a great social reformer of the 20th century who is known as the Father of India’s Constitution. Speaking of the day his country’s constitution was to go into effect, the day India was to become a republic, he said:

“On January 26, 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality, one man, one vote, one vote and one value. In society and economy, we will still have inequality. . . .

“How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.

“We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which [we have] so laboriously built up.”

– – –

Our second reading is “Why We Build the Wall,” from the 2010 recording of Hadestown, by Anais Mitchell. In it, the god of wealth is speaking to his children, his followers, who spend their days building a wall around their realm. The song is their catechism, a question and answer. Let’s listen.

Why We Build the Wall

Sermon Why Do We Build the Wall?

Hadestown came to prominence on Broadway this past year, but it was first produced in 2006. Anais Mitchell wrote it before any prominent person seriously suggested building a wall dividing the United States from Mexico. I’ll come back to that wall, but first I want to look together at some other ones.

What is a wall? Why do we build them? To shield ourselves . . . A wall can shut some things out, threats, people . . . A wall can shut some people in . . . Walls are prisons and protectors. They are always double-sided, though it’s not always easy to know which is the inside and which the outside . . .

Greg Brown, he of the deep bass voice, plays the god of wealth, but his children are not wealthy. They are poor and so the war of which they sing is a war of the poor against the poor. Elsewhere, others sing that he is not a loving father, but a “mean old boss,” demanding and harsh. He teaches his children that there is not enough to go around. Scarcity rules, and so they must protect what little they have from the others who “want what [they] have got.”

This is a story we hear as well. And it’s a lie. There is enough on this planet to feed us all, to shelter us all, to give us what we need and more than what we need. It’s just that so much is hoarded, guarded behind walls, the walls of bank safes and gated communities and locked doors and stock portfolios. And these walls are built, “high and thick” in the words of the musical, by not only the richest among us but by millions of us who accept the lie. One reason we accept the lies, and the walls: we don’t know they’re there. We sense them but we don’t perceive them for what they are. Until a prophet like Ambedkar or Mitchell shows them to us, the first stage of liberation.

Mitchell shows us something else: the god of wealth, who is singing here: he is god, as well, of the dead. He is Hades, and his people, his children are the dead. Elsewhere in the music, it’s explained that the wall they are building is the river Styx, or rather, the river is actually a wall, one of “cinder bricks and razor wire,” build by the dead over the millennia.

People do not, as a rule, pound at the gate to enter the world of the dead. Looking for photos Heather might put on our website for today’s service, I came across one that is a formidable wall around a cemetery. The photographer wryly titled it, “Safe place to be dead.” So why are the dead, the citizens of Hadestown, building the wall? They say it is to shut others out, but in fact it shuts them in. They are building the walls of their own prison.

Why do we build the wall? Does it protect us? Does it imprison us?

That we are imprisoned, at least to some extent, by our fear of others’ taking what we have, there is no question. I look at all the money we spend on locks and security systems, car alarms and cameras . . . The billions spent on police forces and guards to protect property from those who, for the most part, only steal because they can’t support themselves with an honest job . . . Imagine what we could do with that money if we didn’t spend it to put up these walls! But that’s just one aspect. I mean a deeper kind of imprisonment.
One of the saddest conversations I’ve had in my years here in Palo Alto was with a teenager whose primary life goal was to be rich enough to live in Palo Alto. The reason she gave was that people with less money than that were miserable. She couldn’t imagine being happy with anything less than a Palo Alto income (which, as we know, is a much higher bar now than it was a generation ago, or a generation before that). She didn’t see the wall there, I think. But what I thought was that her goal wasn’t leaving her a lot of choices in this life. Who would you rather be as you go into the work world: someone who can be well and happy with $80k a year or someone who needs four times that? Which one is more free?

A wall that shuts someone out always shuts someone in as well. One of our highest, thickest walls is the one preventing connection across class lines. Rich, middle class or poor, we live in so much fear and mistrust created by our myth that there is simply not enough–that prosperity is a zero-sum game. In the song, “the enemy is poverty,” but it quickly becomes apparent that the enemy is actually the poor. And so people are divided from people.
“What do we have that they should want?” “They want what we have got.” So we’d better grip it tightly.

Let’s look at that zero-sum myth. The fact is, spreading the wealth of a community—such as a nation or a city, or the whole world—more evenly creates more prosperity for everyone. But we live as if this were not true. We are pitted against one another as if by a god.

From for-profit so-called “rideshare” drivers keeping their prices competitive by bearing the costs of employment that riders don’t want to (or can’t) pay . . . to hardworking folks making their dollars stretch by shopping at bargain places whose products are made by hardworking folks who are paid poverty wages . . . Soon we find ourselves saying that some people must live in poverty, even starve, in order for others to have enough. If we hear that in our heads, that’s a moment to stop and ask some deeper questions. Maybe that’s why we seldom say it out loud . . . We just live it.

And let’s remember that the higher price tag on expensive items doesn’t mean the makers are receiving a living wage. Not at all. Someone is making money from that markup, but it isn’t the little boy weaving the Persian rug or the woman in Malaysia sewing luxury clothes for the U.S. upscale market. So we live in little islands of affluence, protected by police (think what happens if someone who looks poor wanders through a wealthy neighborhood). Or we live on islands of poverty, barring the door against those who are even poorer and whose desperation frightens us.

And so we think we need a wall to keep us free. But it’s not true.

It’s not true! We would be freer if everyone had enough. We, here in the United States, were freer when incomes were more equitable, when union wages and strong social programs lifted the floor, and higher taxes on the wealthy lowered the ceiling. We had more security, less fear. In our heyday of equality, the 1950s and 60s, were also our heyday of prosperity.

One myth is that the prosperity enabled the equality. The harsh boss, urging us to keep building that wall, tells us that only in good times can we spread the wealth around, and when times get tough we can’t afford to do that. But that’s backwards. The greater equality of that era is one of the major factors that created the prosperity.

Equaltiy creates more happiness. A typical study of developed nations show “Every single time income inequality decreased between two time points, the percentage of ‘very happy’ responses went up. And every time income inequality increased, the percentage of ‘very happy’ responses went down. In other words, although economic growth was steady and strong during this period, the evenness of the income distribution was fluctuating, and happiness was inversely related to income inequality.”

And a study of poorer, “developing” nations, found that the study “found that it is the even distribution of economic growth across a population that accounts for greater happiness. In contrast, when economic growth is concentrated among a small portion of a nation’s elite, it does not lead to greater life satisfaction.”

Equality leads not only to more happiness, but to more freedom. Those who find satisfaction in something other than high income are better problem-solvers, studies show; they deal with life’s challenges better. And they report a greater sense of autonomy.

So equality makes us more free. The even better news: the power to create that equality is in our own hands—if we choose to build it, instead of walls that divide us and imprison us.

Our centering words spoke of the necessity of extending freedom to all if we are to be free ourselves. Quoting Carl Schurz is ironic, and in that irony, there is some wisdom for us. He was a German reformer in the 19th century who joined the Republican Party upon his immigration to the United States, opposed slavery, and became a general in the Union Army. But when after the Civil War, President Grant tried to enact strong protections of freed people’s rights to vote, own property, et cetera, Schurz opposed him so strongly that he helped create a new opposition party. Clearly, his belief in freedom failed him at that crucial moment. If Grant’s proposed measures had been put into place, the brutal legacy of slavery would almost certainly have been mitigated. But Schurz, like most of us, proclaimed ideals beyond what he actually put into practice.

We say we want freedom and equality. I believe we really do. But we are also afraid. And so we fail to see the ways we live “a life of contradictions.”

As Ambedkar urged his country as it began its new life as a republic, if we can admit these contradictions, we will experience a kind of equality that has eluded us thus far. We will remove not only the political barriers between us, but the social and economic ones. And we will find what the scholars have shown and our own country’s history has demonstrated: that these barriers stand not only between us and our neighbors, but between each one of us and genuine freedom.
First we have to see the walls and what they are trying to hide. Sometimes, the walls are so obvious that they help us to see what’s going on. The most visible barrier of our political moment, the border wall, illustrates what we are dealing with. Poverty that drives people from their homelands to a foreign country where they don’t know the language or the ways . . . For everyone who freely chooses to immigrate, there are many more who feel they have no choice. And instead of making common cause, seeing our common goals, we are putting a physical barrier up to match the economic, social, and political ones. But the barrier between U.S. American and foreigner has always been permeable. That’s how I and almost all of you came to be here. And the real walls aren’t made of cinder bricks and razor wire, nor a river, nor guards. They are within, and we can build or unbuild them.
There’s a joke about two British college students who are talking about their areas of research. One shares what she is studying, and then asks the other. He says, “I’m researching the secret of the persistence of the class system in the United States.” She says in surprise, “I thought there wasn’t a class system in the United States.” He says, “Yes, it turns out that that’s the secret.”
We can’t fight what we can’t see. But bring down the walls and we can see what has been keeping us from each other. Then we can reach our hands across.
The Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies, one of our prophets of justice in the last century, asked, “What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness? Here we are—all of us—all upon this planet, bound together in a common destiny, living our lives between the briefness of the daylight and the dark. Kindred in this, each lighted by the same precarious, flickering flame of life, how does it happen that we are not kindred in all things else? How strange and foolish are these walls of separation that divide us!”
I believe we know the answer. We know what to do to stretch our hearts and extend a hand across the space where there were once walls.
So may we do.

Chalice Extinguishing

The distant land beacons, a land where there is justice, freedom and joyful singing. May that light not shine in vain. May we follow it and find that beyond the “strange and foolish walls” we build, there is a better life for all of us.

© 2019 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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“Who Are Our Neighbors? Who Are We?”
September 9, 2018
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA

Centering Words: Al-fatah Stewart, “The Mask”

Readings: Dan Harder, “At the Corner”, Tony Robles, “Crawl Space”


What makes homeless people fundamentally different from those who have homes?

It isn’t mental illness. Although the expulsion of people in need of mental health from mental hospitals, without the promised resources to fill in for these institutions, contributed markedly to the rise in homelessness in many of our lifetimes the perception that homeless people are usually mentally ill is drastically inaccurate. And the perception that their mental illness preceded their becoming homeless is also inaccurate. The incidence of mental illness in the general population is 20%, more or less. It’s about double that in the population of homeless people–though one wonders how much living in a state of chronic danger and worry might contribute to what are then diagnosed as anxiety and depression. How much is mental illness the cause of homelessness and how much it is the effect? How much mental illness would lift if people were secure in where they were going to stay and what they were going to eat? In any case, people living in shelters, their cars, or on the streets do suffer more mental illness than those who are not in these situations, but it’s common in both populations.

Nor is the fundamental difference drug use. Drug and alcohol addiction are more common among people on the street than those living safely in houses. Again, it’s hard to know how much is cause and how much is effect–no doubt addiction contributes to homelessness, and homelessness, in turn, makes it more likely that someone will fall into addiction and less likely that they will be able climb out of it. But what’s clear is this: there are so many people who struggle with addiction among those with secure places to live, including, as we know, many right here in our congregation and in our families, that it can’t be called a fundamental difference.

It isn’t domestic violence. Although the majority of women who end up on the streets are driven there by violence from intimate partners, this isn’t something that is rare in the wider population either.

It isn’t laziness. At least ten percent of homeless people work; that number skyrockets to 25% when you talk to homeless people who are raising children.  Twenty-five percent go in to work and then return, not to home but to who knows where. One in four homeless people is a child: someone aged birth to 17,  who’s not supposed to have to work for a living. Hundreds of thousands of children in this country come to school from the cars or shelters or condemned buildings their families call their only home, and return there to do their “homework.”

There’s no federal research on laziness; I can’t look up laziness stats at the National Institute of Mental Health website for you; but I do know this: like addiction and mental illness and violence, it occurs everywhere. Some of us slack off and never have to worry about becoming homeless. Some of us work hard and end up on the streets.

Economically, of course, the main difference is poverty. About 13% of the total population of the United States lives in poverty. That’s pretty stunning, especially since it’s by the stingy definition that means “one’s income falls below the poverty level.” Obviously, most homeless people fall within that category. They are a tiny percentage of  the poor–between 1 and 2%. But even poverty isn’t a fundamental difference. It’s not a difference in kind among us. What makes us rich or poor is mostly accidents of birth (class mobility has come to a virtual standstill in our country, once famous for people’s being able to move up); or it’s economic factors such as the value the market puts on your particular line of work; or the political decisions we’ve made collectively, such as how and what we tax, and whether we fund programs intended to help people rise into the middle class.

So what is the fundamental difference between people who are homeless and people who are not?

I don’t think there is one. And the myth that there is one is a major source of the problem.

There’s an old saying invoked when someone who is feeling fortunate looks upon someone who is less so: there but for the grace of God go I. And we need to recognize that grace is undeserved, unmerited–it falls upon us, we do not know why. Perhaps, as the hymn sings (my favorite verse in that hymn), grace might teach our hearts to fear when we don’t have the appropriate fear that those of us who are fortunate could easily, just as easily, find ourselves living on a street bench. Don’t worry–grace can relieve our fear as well, as we sang: by inspiring us to change things and cure the epidemic of homelessness.

The myth of difference, the myth of otherness, is one that our religious teachers have been trying to unmask for thousands of years. It’s what the unknown author of Leviticus meant in saying “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is what Jesus meant when he called that verse one of the two Great Commandments, along with the commandment to love one’s God. You are your neighbor. Your neighbor is you. In the most important matter–how we treat each other–to deny others is to deny ourselves. To ignore them is to ignore ourselves. What are our sages trying to tell us, if not this?

Those who have never been homeless can encounter those who are can encounter those who are and fool themselves into thinking it can never happen to them. The gulf of otherness yawns between them, between the fortunate and a fate that is, after all, not that uncommon. And this inability to see our essential sameness makes it possible for us to allow things to degrade nationwide to this point. First, the deinstitutionalization of those who are in need of mental health care. Then, the gutting of federal support for housing. Both of these happened in my lifetime, with the result that homelessness has gone from being a rare occurrence to an epidemic. The zoning and gentrification that lower the availability of affordable housing and the number of single-room-occupancy spaces. And then, when inevitably, homelessness increases in response to all these changes, what do we do? Criminalize those who bear the brunt, by passing laws against living in cars, sit-lie laws, a law against camping in cities–although, in a piece of good news, one such law was just struck down by a federal court.

If you read an article or listen to a radio call-in show, a typical response to the question “What shall we do about the problem of homelessness?” reveals how common the view is that the problem is the homeless. So that, in the city where I live, San Francisco, you’ll read letters to the editor complaining, “I have to step over someone to get to my workplace!” Or “The streets smell terrible!” Or “I saw needles on the street–why doesn’t the city do something about these people?” As if the people suffering the most are the source of the problem. One person who commented online recently (I did not log on and get a password to argue with her) said, “See, San Francisco is too easy on people who are homeless. Go to a place like Palo Alto, where they’re much tougher, and there is one homeless guy.” Really, I should log on to tell her that there are 22 people living in our church this month, and that that’s a fraction of the number of homeless people in Palo Alto.

This is a policy crisis, yes, but it’s also a spiritual crisis. For all of us, and particularly those of us who are not experiencing homelessness. It’s a spiritual crisis caused by a policy crisis; it’s a policy crisis that has sprung from a spiritual failure.

When we look at someone who has to sleep on the sidewalk, and has tried to soften it with a layer of cardboard, and what we see is trash on the sidewalk instead of suffering: we are spiritually ill. When we look around at people who have no place to empty their bowels or bladder, and complain about how they look or smell, we are suffering spiritually, whether we know it or not. And when we look away, what’s happening then?

(I’m mostly addressing people here who have never experienced homelessness. I know those of you who have experienced it have seen both sides of it, and don’t need to know this.)

The command of these religious traditions–of Leviticus and then the Gospels–to those who have never had this experience, is: don’t look away. Don’t deny that your neighbor is here before you and must be loved, just like you. In other words, that they are you. Don’t deny their humanity. Don’t pretend that they aren’t just like you, because when we do, we deny our own humanity.

Have you ever felt that happen?

I had the experience just this week of being in a cafe, enjoying my expensive breakfast, when a woman came in who was living on the streets. She was pretty down-and-out; she looked physically, and probably mentally, ill. I couldn’t make out what she was asking–it was hard for me to understand her–but the manager went right up to her, and I tensed, braced: how was this interaction going to go? What might I have to say?

He was pretty good. He treated her like a person. He spoke to her gently; he said to her, “You need to go now,” but he looked her in the eyes and treated her like a person of dignity and worth, as our first principle urges us to do with everybody we encounter. He could have done more. I’m sure it happens a lot with his cafe located where it is, and he can’t give a free breakfast to everyone who comes in, but he could have let her sit down for 15 minutes, offered her a cup of tea, perhaps. But still: he treated her with respect.

So often we don’t even look at people in such dire need because of fear. The fear of engagement: like the man on BART [the Worship Associate mentioned in his reflection] who said, “Will someone just look at me?”–why don’t we? Because we’re afraid of what might happen next, what that might drag us into? Fear of acknowledging: that could be me. That’s someone’s son, who they held in their arms and never dreamed, could not possibly have hoped, that this would be the fate of this beloved child. This is somebody’s sister, who played and laughed, and now her sister doesn’t even know where she is. I think we’re afraid.

And yet, when we don’t look, something happens to us.

Like [today’s Worship Associate], I’ve tried to make a commitment to look people in the eye when they speak to me on the street. Even as I say, as I usually do when they ask me for money, “Sorry, no,” I think, “I want to treat them as a person,” and so I will look and respond instead of pretending I don’t see them. I feel the difference when I do that. Something really scary happens, really scary, when I just pretend they’re not there; it’s as if I’m not there either. It’s as if something invisible has come between us; something invisible has fallen over my face. And I realize, if you could see it, I know what it would look like: it would look like this. (puts on blank white mask)

A mask, blank and terrifying. As the poet said whose words we heard as the Centering Words, Al-Fatah Stewart, who knows what it’s like on the street, “Everyone has one . . . Some don’t know when to take them off.” I think I’m being asked to take off this mask. “Just see me! Here we are, two residents of the same city.” And here’s the line that really gets me: “Just make sure that the mask you wear in the street you don’t forget to take off when you get home . . . ” If we put it on in response to those that Jesus referred to as “the least of these” among us, will we be able to take it off? Or does it stick after a while?

There’s no question what the context was of the author of Leviticus and the authors of Mark and Matthew, from which this passage from Jesus comes. They were speaking about loving our neighbor, knowing we are the same, in the context of people in trouble, people in need. In Leviticus, that passage comes in the middle of many rules of economic justice: what we must do, if we have something, for those who have nothing. For example, speaking to this agricultural community, it says, when you clear your fields, leave the corners; those are for people who can’t earn a living and have nothing. Don’t do too good a job clearing the grain; if you drop some, don’t go back and get it. That’s for the gleaners, the author of Leviticus says. And why? Because you should love your neighbor as yourself.

And Jesus responds with this quote when a lawyer asks him, “What must I do to gain eternal life?” He tells him the answer is this passage, along with “Love the Lord thy God with all thy soul, all thy heart, all thy strength, and all thy mind.” He says, “These are the two great commandments”; the lawyer responds, “But who is my neighbor?”; and you probably know the story that comes next. Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, which is the story of someone you meet in the street, being passed by dignified, respected members of the community, until finally one stops. One who is not particularly respected by the community stops and says, “I know you are my neighbor. I know we are the same. Let me bind up your wounds and help you.”

This command to love others as ourselves, this ancient teaching that we are all one–that there is no fundamental difference between us–that any one of us could suffer the fate of the others–it is not an ethereal dream: “Oh, we’re all one . . . isn’t that nice . . . ” It has practical consequences, and they are spelled out very clearly: this is what you must do, because you and your neighbor are the same, must be loved the same.

And therefore we have institutions like Hotel de Zink. I want to say a few things about it. One, I struggle a lot about whether to give one or two dollars to people on the street. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t; there are a lot of folks. And I’m aware that another way that I can help is to give to organizations like Hotel de Zink, like the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, like LifeMoves to which we give our Christmas Eve offering each year. I give to them knowing what good work they do. But then I think about the Sunday offering, and what I usually give is five or ten dollars. I pull out my wallet and see if I have something small, and this morning I had a few ones and some fifties. Don’t you hate when you get fifties?–they’re so hard to break. And I thought, this is what I say to myself when I see people on the street: “I’m going to help by giving to organizations like this.” So I pulled out the fifty; that’s what I’ll be giving this morning. I know that for some people, even a dollar or two is too much; you know what you can give. But I hope you, also, will dig deep and give more than you planned, if this is the way you can help.

But you know, if we simply recognize that we and our neighbors are one, it implies more than giving help. More even than working for a just housing policy and better economics, which are so, so important too, and which many in our congregation do. It means meeting as people, face to face, mask off. And so, I encourage you to think about how you can do that. Again, if you have experienced homelessness, you already know what it’s like. If you haven’t, might I suggest that you do what the man on BART: “look at me.” I ask that you give generously when you can. And when you bring your meal to Hotel de Zink, as many of you will be doing this month, stay and talk. Not everyone will want to have a chat with you, but many will. You’ll have a good conversation, I promise you. I speak with an attitude of confession, here, because it took me about 12 years to figure that out. I mean, I didn’t drop my food and run; I said hello, chatted a few minutes with the folks in the kitchen, told them I was glad they were staying here, wished them a good night; but to sit down and have a meal with them? OH!

. . . I was scared. Scared, I think, of seeing my face in their faces. Scared of dropping the mask.

And it took me 14 years to think, “Oh, they’re staying here in our church–they’re certainly welcome to our services and classes and events. Let’s tell them that! So when we open our church, let’s open it all the way, not just at night, and not just for this month, but all the time. To welcome everybody.

In other words, we have been given a spiritual challenge, and we have many ways to rise to that challenge, many opportunities to say, “I’m not going to wear the mask.” So let’s each think about how we can do that, individually and together as a church, and say, How can I meet this person as my neighbor, love them as I wish to be loved, know that they are very dear to someone, and that someone could also be me. Let’s say what kind of world we might make.

© 2018 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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“The Real Marshmallow Test”
March 13, 2016
Given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA

The marshmallow test is a series of psychological research studies by Walter Mischel and various research assistants and followers of his. The gist of the test is that a four-year-old is given a choice between one marshmallow (or cookie or pretzel, sometimes) right now, or two treat if the child can wait some designated amount of time, such as 10 or 15 minutes. The kids did variously well or badly at this task, teaching Mischel and the other researchers something about delayed gratification.

In his decades of work on this subject, Mischel has been particularly interested in the how: how do the kids who manage to put off the temptation of the marshmallow so that they can have double the treat, do it? He’s found that distraction is very helpful. The kids who do worse tend to focus on that treat. They can see it right there and if they say “Marshmallow, marshmallow!” they tend to give in, whereas those who can make themselves think about something else find that the 10 minutes go by more easily.

Likewise, changing how you see the desired object is a very good way to delay gratification. Maria Konnikova, a student of Mischel, explains: “Put a frame around it in your mind, as if it were a picture or photograph, to make the temptation less immediate. One boy in Mischel’s test was initially unable to wait,” she writes, “but, with careful instruction, eventually learned to hold out. When Mischel asked him what had changed, the boy replied, ‘You can’t eat a picture.’”

So, good techniques. So far, so good! It’s important to be able to delay gratification; it’s a really good life skill. If you can put off pleasure, you can benefit a lot. This goes for everything from paying cash rather than credit, to sticking with a healthful diet (which isn’t nearly as much fun in the short term as chocolate cake, but pays off in the long run), to saving for a big purchase. It applies anywhere that working hard when we’d rather goof off can get us somewhere; when we’d like to save up instead of joyfully spending what we’ve got right now; it applies to studying to get a better job when it’s really hard to be working and going to school. And we can learn a lot from all these studies on how to do it—what works.

Well, then the researchers started doing follow-up studies on what became of these children. Mischel recalls, “It was only as an afterthought that I looked at differences between these kids as time passed. But the more I looked, the more I saw how dramatic some of these differences turned out to be.” Kids who at four years old were able to delay gratification and get the better reward, in their young adulthood were more successful by various measures: “competence” in adolescence, as measured by the adults in their lives; higher SAT scores; lower body mass index; lower rates of drug abuse; even lower rates of divorce and separation.

This is where I start to think, “Uh oh.”

You can just watch the wheels turning. You can read the interpretations saying that people do worse on tests, have worse behavior, are less successful in life because of qualities they possessed when they were four years old. It becomes an explanation, an excuse, for the pervasive, the escalating inequality in our society, and this is a problem.

Now, Mischel does not want to argue that we are innately capable of more or less delaying of gratification. Some people have more of a talent for it, but he believes very strongly that these are skills that can be taught and should be taught. That’s good to know, but still . . . these studies are looking at the issue much too narrowly.

How much of the difference between the kids who can delay gratification and the kids who struggle with it is based on factors that were well in place when they came into the lab, and that continue throughout life? For example, there’s the issue of trust. What if a child has learned through experience that the people who promise a reward are not to be trusted—that they’re unreliable? By the way, later iterations of the experiment did just that. Some experimenters lied and then they found that on the next round, the kids who were lied to were, not surprisingly much less likely to delay gratification. They’d go for what they were offered right then and there. But what I’d like to know is how reliable the kids found adults, in general. Because by the time you’re four years old, you have a lot of reason to believe, either that adults come through with what they have promised, or they often don’t. Even if the tester, the person with the white coat in the lab, is honest, if adults in this kid’s life regularly fail to come through, the child will be making a rational decision if he grabs the one marshmallow.

And there’s a parallel here to the state of our social contract, which is not good. We would like to believe—and we say—that if you work hard, develop skills, in short delay gratification, you’ll be rewarded: you’ll get a good job, you’ll live a stable life, you’ll be able to retire one day. At least, your chances of doing all these things will be greatly enhanced. Well, that might work in the lab, but it doesn’t actually work in the society and economy that we’ve structured. It was never true for everyone, and it is less and less true for a wider range of people now. I mean, we haven’t even made the choice to allow people to keep a larger percentage of what they earn from working than other people do from what they make on investments. In a society where one can work very hard—like Maria in the song we heard, “only working, only working”–and come away with very little, it’s just rational to grab what you can early on. It’s not a sign of poor self-control or bad training or lack of discernment; it’s the smart thing to do.

And then there’s the question of whether you can delay gratification if the cost is just too high for you. Imagine a child coming into this lab who likes sweets. Okay, that’s who the test was designed for. Now imagine a kid coming in who hasn’t eaten yet that day. That kid is going to be far more likely to go for the one marshmallow. It’s just easier to put off the reward if you’re not that hungry.

The parallels to this show up all over our economic system. For example: rich people, if they’re smart, pay cash, the cheap way to buy things; poor people buy on credit, adding interest to the original cost. The poorer you are, the worse deal you’re going to make: not just loans for houses and cars, but payday loans, high-interest credit cards, charging for things that don’t cost that much, like groceries; pawning things that you own. This is not because the rich people understand the costs of borrowing and the poor people don’t. The poor people don’t have the money. They won’t have cash in hand until payday, and food can’t wait. When you’re in that kind of bind, by paying more later, you’re making a rational choice. You know you’re paying more, but you’re doing what you need to do. Yet we so often act as if people in that bind are being irrational, unable to delay gratification, and our public policies reflect that belief. Our public policies around wealth, around financial issues of all kinds, and especially around poverty, reflect the conviction that an inability to delay gratification is a primary cause of inequality.

And then we have a system that has always favored some people more than others based on no rational characteristic at all. We say that hard work will pay off, but in fact, throughout this country’s history, when black people did too well, they were often punished. In Tulsa, in 1921, there was a mostly African-American neighborhood, a middle- and upper-class neighborhood, called Greenwood. It was known as “Black Wall Street”; there was tremendous wealth and success in this community; it was the wealthiest black community in the United States. And in 1921, white people in Tulsa rioted. They invaded the neighborhood, destroyed Greenwood, left at least 10,000 African American residents homeless and at least 50, possibly as many as 300, dead. Thirty years later (just to give one other example from a long history of these kinds of incidents), black family moved into a nice neighborhood in Cicero, Illinois: a formerly only-white neighborhood. A mob of 4,000 people showed up and demanded that they leave. When they refused, they were driven out, and everything they had was destroyed: their property thrown out of the windows, stomped on, burned. And the message in Tulsa, in Cicero, and wherever and whenever white supremacy was allowed its voice in this culture was: if you delay gratification, use self-control, save and succeed, African-Americans, we will make sure you are made worse off than you were before. And while white people might not learn this history, African-Americans do. They know the story that’s being told; they know the risks of delaying gratification.

Today is Girl Scout Sunday; we have 14 of the Girl Scouts in this congregation participating in this service. And girls, we are teaching you to be empowered, to develop character, to make good decisions–that’s what the Girl Scouts are all about and what this congregation is about. But the fact is, in this society, women who do exactly the same things as men do not always get the same rewards. They can work hard and make wise decisions and not receive the rewards that are promised to everybody; really, those rewards are just for some. We’re doing something about that, but it is so.

The original inspiration for Mischel’s studies was an Indonesian study that was interested in the realities of the children’s perceptions that they had different qualities based on their ethnicities. It was all about differences in social status. And in that study in Indonesia, it turned out that one ethnic group was more willing to defer gratification than the other. That caught his eye. Whether anyone studied what the different backgrounds were, what the different training was and what the different expectations were for members of each ethnic group, I do not know.

But I know the ways that his studies have often been interpreted. Sometimes with questions, with variations and people questioning the basis of the studies, but nevertheless, on the whole, they have affirmed our very great tendency in this society to focus on the individual. There’s a lot of power residing in each individual, in the decisions we each make, in whether we can exert self-control. That’s undeniable. But to look only at that is to look at only one part of the picture. And what we look at is the piece we will try to fix.

I recently heard a talk by a terrific young activist named Minh Dang, who suggested that we tend to think of things like “homelessness” as the condition of an individual: “She is homeless,” we say. And so we have an individual explanation for how she came to be that way. But we could talk about it, Minh Dang, instead, as the condition of a community: “Not enough affordable housing, not enough social services for people who hit rough patches.” But because we look just at the individual, we focus too many of our solutions on changing the individual rather than the structures of the community. What if we thought of self-control and ability to delay gratification as something that’s either supported by larger social structures, or undermined by them? Then what might we do about this problem of some people not having enough, of not having the ability to go well through life?

If we create a system in which rewards don’t always come through as promised—in which, depending on your racial, gender and other characteristics, they often don’t—and in which a lot of people can’t afford to make the wiser choice because they don’t even have their basic needs met, then an awful lot of Americans end up looking like the kids who grabbed the single marshmallow. And we can go, “tsk tsk tsk” about their foolish choices, or we can create a system that acts like that lab imagined it was acting: one that has reliable rules and a baseline of basic human needs being met for everyone.

This is the real marshmallow test. Who is the subject of this test? Not four-year-olds. Us. The ones who create the society in which we all live. We are the subjects. This experiment and the ways that we interpret it shine a light on justice, equality, and creating a society where people can thrive—or on the opposite of all those things.

Are we going to say that some people are just more inclined from an early age to give in to temptation, and that they will be less successful in life–thus letting ourselves off the hook of responsibility? Are we going to notice that some techniques work better for delaying gratification and seize on those and teach them to kids?—that’s Walter Mischel’s solution, and it’s good, and constructive, but still fails to recognize that the individual is acting within a context that puts tremendous pressure toward certain outcomes, and puts more pressure on some people than on others.

Will we notice, we subjects of this test, that the setup has a huge impact on the outcome, and that we have set up in our economic system is an arrangement in which some people suffer much stronger pressure to go for the short-term reward: people who for whom that is the only rational choice, people who, increasingly, stay on the bottom of the heap? Will we turn that around? Will we seek to create a more equal society? Will we try to create conditions, instead, where everyone can do better by acting well, and rationally, and wisely?

Will we pass the test?

(c) 2016 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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“Learning Some Other Country’s History”
November 15, 2015
Given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA
Awarded the UUA’s 2016 Skinner Sermon Award

[holding up paper] This is a cartoon that has come back to my mind often since I first encountered it. It’s by Jules Feiffer, drawn sometime in the Johnson Administration. As is often the case in a Jules Feiffer cartoon, the visual is very simple: the same face, shown twelve times. It’s a middle aged guy, looking kind of grumpy. He says: “When I went to school, I learned George Washington never told a lie—slaves were happy on the plantation—the men who opened the west were giants—and we won every war because God was on our side. But where my kid goes to school, he learns George Washington was a slave owner—slaves hated slavery—the men who opened the west committed genocide—and the wars we won were victories for U.S. imperialism.

“No wonder my kid’s not an American. They’re teaching him some other country’s history.”

As I say, I have occasion to think of this cartoon on a regular basis, and particularly in these last several months, I’ve done so quite a lot. The experience of the man in the cartoon is a common experience. We go along thinking we’re all Americans and we share one history—we’re all in one country, aren’t we? Then we come up against a completely different way of seeing things, and we’re reminded that the word “history” means “story.” What stories we have in our minds influence how we see events—the way we define our country. And those stories aren’t all the same.

This shows up sharply in conversations about police brutality and killings of civilians by police. As we have been noting each week on our board out here, that total is soon to hit one thousand, and the rate of deaths among black people is far higher than any other racial category, giving rise to the declaration, “Black Lives Matter.”

A friend of mine believes this is all backwards. She doesn’t like that slogan; she thinks black lives get more attention than others when there’s a death by police. As for all these black people getting killed by cops, she thinks that that’s because black people are committing far more crimes. She sincerely believes that if you don’t want to tangle with the police, all you need to do, most of the time, is refrain from committing crimes.

She thinks this, I’m sure, because the history she’s learned says that the police are colorblind; that they are impartial enforcers of our laws.

Well, there’s another history that reveals another country. In this history, when African-Americans wanted to move into a sundown town—a town where they were permitted to work or travel but not stay overnight, much less live in—the police told them “We can’t protect you.” And that meant, not that the police wanted to protect them from mobs and the KKK, but were simply outgunned (“We just can’t manage it!”) but that they wouldn’t protect the newcomers’ rights, that they didn’t want to protect them, that they were, in fact, actively engaged in denying them—as evidenced by the membership of many police in the KKK, including deputies, sheriffs, and chiefs.

The history that I have in my head when I’m arguing with my friend indicates that our enforcement of laws is highly selective based on race, and has always been. Comparing each racial group’s rate of current drug use to the national average, the rate is sharply lower among Asian-Americans, somewhat lower among Hispanics and Latinos, and higher among Pacific Islanders and Native Americans (although that tends to be a very small sample, so it’s hard to say). Between whites and blacks there is not a huge disparity—about 10% more drug use and dealing among African-Americans. But the cops are far more likely to arrest them: not ten percent more likely, not fifty percent more likely, not twice as likely, but three to five times as likely. This makes the argument that the key to avoiding trouble with the cops is to refrain from crime appear desperately naïve.

I could give many more examples. But the point is: that version of the history of police and race is not complete. No one has a complete grasp of history. No one’s picture of this country is entirely true. Each of us contributes a piece.

That poses a particular challenge to those of us who belong to the dominant culture, who belong to that dominant story, because rather than learning lots of histories to help us put together a composite that might help us approach the truth., we live in an echo chamber, where the stories we tell are the same as the stories in the history books. The stories Hollywood tells tend to affirm the stories that our grandparents tell us. We only learn one country’s history, and it is not the country we actually live in.

If one’s culture, ethnicity, race, and class have their stories told in the history books, then one’s at a disadvantage in understanding one’s own country. So people who live in the dominant culture particularly need to hear other versions to begin to see things as they really are.

Those in less dominant subcultures get two versions from the start: the one told in the history books and the one they probably know from their own families. So let’s take, for example, the story of how important Chinese immigrants were to the building of the transcontinental railroad. We might all have learned that; I learned it in my mostly-white school. And in that white version, right, Chinese immigrants were very important—yay, rah, thank you very much! But in the version I’ve learned since, and which is probably well-known to most Chinese-Americans from the time they are very small, the completion of the railroad was shortly followed by a huge shift in immigration policy, in which many Chinese were sent back to China, and the doors were shut to prevent more newcomers from that country.

These contrasts between the versions of history that we hear can be crazy-making and enraging, although the different, contradictory pieces do point to a fuller version of the truth, at least.

By the way, one person can live within both a dominant culture and a minority culture. For example, maybe you are white and so you have learned a version of United States history that is sanitized of much of its racism. But you’re also Jewish, and you learned about the Holocaust in detail, from survivors of the camps, before you knew how to read. That was several years before the nice Christian kid sitting next to you in your high school classroom was assigned The Diary of Anne Frank. They simply did not know a piece of history that you knew from the time you were very young, and when you talk about anti-Semitism (if you do), they think you mean minor incidents of exclusion. They have no idea. They have learned a different history. They need to do some catching up.

We can remedy our own ignorance, the incompleteness of our own versions of history, by doing just that: by encountering, reading, taking seriously, listening to, other people’s stories.

But if you’re thinking of beginning to read other histories, hear other stories, I warn you: it’s dangerous. You will never be able to regain the history that is in your head right now. You will lose the country that you think you’re living in right now, and find yourself in a new one that is largely unexplored by you. The map you have been using as a guide will prove to be partial, and you may feel a little lost.


In the movie The Matrix, what we think of as reality is revealed to be a vast illusion keeping us imprisoned. The basic idea of the movie is that we think we walk and talk and travel freely, when actually we are all just in a kind of factory farm, preyed upon by parasites who suck the life from us and bathe us in these illusions to keep us docile. The main character, Neo, gets a glimpse of this reality, and in a scene that became an immediate classic (because the metaphor is so powerful and universal), the character Morpheus offers him a choice between two pills, saying:

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.

The red pill? That will show him what the parasites don’t want any of us to see: the reality we live in, and therefore, a long-shot chance of freeing us all. Of course, being the hero of the movie, Neo chooses the red pill, as Morpheus gives him one last warning: “Remember… all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.”

Once we take that pill, once we start reading accounts we never read, and having conversations we never used to have, and listening to people we never engaged with before, we learn things we can’t unlearn. We have more of the truth.

The Bible says, “The truth will make you free.” But Terry Pratchett, in his book called The Truth, also knew that the typographical error is not wrong: “The truth will make you fret.” The truth is hard, it’s painful, it disturbs your sleep, it disturbs your conscience, and it compels you to change your life. Think well before you take the red pill. Before you learn some other country’s history and discover that the old history, your old country, no longer exist in that simple way you trusted for all those years.

Just last night I learned two pieces of that country’s history—my country’s history—I hadn’t known before. I’ve been trying to remediate this gap; I’ve been reading books that were never assigned to me, seeking to encounter voices that I didn’t encounter in my particular upbringing. But then I came to a church event and had a conversation in which I learned these two things:

The GI Bill offered government-guaranteed housing loans to veterans returning from World War II. We know this; the suburbs were growing, housing was booming, and veterans got a piece of that new economy. That’s the history I learned: how the GI Bill helped a generation of Americans move into the middle class and stay there.

The other country’s history crashed into me last night and informed me (fact #1) that the black members of that generation were excluded. Black veterans were not permitted to get those housing loans.

For that matter (fact #2), the Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, which is supposed to ensure equal access to housing, has in fact funded segregation and gutted attempts at integrating housing for decades. (Some of you are nodding. I’m a little late learning this.) When Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, prohibiting discriminatory zoning and other practices that maintained segregation, the Nixon administration went to great lengths to circumvent it. When Nixon’s own housing secretary, George Romney (a name known well to us), tried to enforce the new law, he was excluded from discussions of domestic policy. The president’s housing secretary could not speak to the president about housing. He was ostracized within the administration and finally kicked out of the cabinet. And so to this day, neighborhoods are sharply segregated, not just by income but by race: black Americans earning $75,000 a year live in poorer neighborhoods than white Americans earning $40,000.

So if you know one history, you may think (as I imagine my friend does) that black Americans have had equal opportunity since 1865, or at the very least since the Civil Rights movement, and conclude they have done nothing with it—why else are they in such dire straits? And that is in fact the story that is told over and over . . . Whereas, if you know the other history, the conclusions are very different. They explain something about persistent poverty and inequality. They explain something about rage.

Those were two facts to add to the history of social programs in this country that I’ve been accumulating through my remedial reading. For example, I picked up in my reading that in order to get the New Deal passed, FDR cut some deals that cut out African-Americans. He proposed Social Security—as we know, one of the most important pieces of social legislation in our country’s history—to help Americans save for retirement, but members of Congress, mostly from the South, said they wouldn’t vote for it unless it excluded two labor sectors that dominated their region and were populated mostly by African-Americans: agricultural work and domestic work.

Farmworkers were finally added to the system after being excluded for twenty years. But to this day, if you’re working in a factory, some of your earnings and your employer’s earnings go into your Social Security, while you can be working 40 hours a week or more cleaning houses, getting a regular paycheck, with nothing at all going into Social Security. After a lifetime of that work, your Social Security wage statement adds up to zero.

This is what Malcolm X meant when he said “You can’t drive a knife into a man’s back nine inches, pull it out six inches, and call it progress.” He knew all the facts that I just told. But that gap in inches was missing from most of the discussions of affirmative action I’ve ever heard. It was missing from the history of the New Deal that I learned in school. What sense could we have made of that famous assertion of his, without knowing what he knew?

Whatever race we are, and however short or long a time we have lived in this country, racism is one of the deepest wounds that our country has suffered.

Nurses and doctors have learned something about deep wounds. A deep cut, such as a surgical incision: if you leave it open, simply packing it with sterile material, it will heal from the inside out. If you stitch it closed, it looks great on the surface, and that outer layer is soon almost perfectly healed. But underneath you run the serious risk of an abscess: pain, festering infection, deterioration, a spreading of the disease, and quite possibly death.

We have told a nice, tidy version of history for a long time. Those on its underside have always known that it wasn’t true. And maybe now more people who only heard the nice, tidy version are listening, seeking out the other stories that will make a more complete truth. Not just a few people here in Palo Alto, but thousands around the country are reading about the pipeline to prison in The New Jim Crow—the president has spoken and taken action about it and members of Congress across the political spectrum are seeking prison reform. Maybe this is a moment of growing awareness of how racism has poisoned our law enforcement and criminal justice systems.

More books are becoming recognized across the bestseller list, not just in small university departments, not just in specialized bookstores; more movies (both documentary and fiction) are expressing these stories that have been known for a long time but were not being heard by those of the dominant culture. More and more people, perhaps, are listening. This is our moment to help tip that balance.

In the movie The Matrix, it’s once and for all—you take the red pill and it reveals reality. In real life, actually you go deeper and deeper. You don’t take a single pill and learn the truth. The truth comes piecemeal, by hearing many versions; by hearing many stories and histories. What will you learn? It all depends whom you’re listening to.

We have some opportunities (we are creating opportunities), here among ourselves and in the wider community, for broader and deeper listening. Dr. Mark Hicks, an African-American Unitarian Universalist religious educator, has created a curriculum called Beloved Conversations, a program for helping Unitarian Universalists hear one another’s stories across lines of race and ethnicity. Beginning in January with a retreat in Oakland, and continuing with eight Sunday sessions here at UUCPA co-facilitated by me and Thida Cornes, you have an opportunity to join that conversation.

Pastor Kaloma Smith of the University AME Zion Church called many of us together last summer to speak together and understand more about racism and the possibilities for racial justice in our local community. I am speaking with him about a community exploration of the ten-point plan for ending police violence against civilians, created by some of the intellectual and policy leaders in Black Lives Matter. I’ll let you know what happens with that.

And we can listen to each other’s histories. If there is a book that you have read that reveals a piece of U.S. history that is important, perhaps revealing something to you that you never knew before, I invite you to write it on the flip chart right there [pointing]. I’ll compile those and share them, because sometimes something that opens our eyes is completely unknown to others, and they can learn so much from that: something about your own heritage or someone else’s. We may not all agree on which stories are worth telling or are even accurate. But by doing that, we are adding to a bigger picture. We have a faith (don’t we?) that truth is always partial, that it’s always unfolding, that we can learn from one another so much more than we can know just on our own.

Injustices neatly covered up and showing a nice smooth surface make a lie, and the bitter truth will not go away. If we don’t acknowledge it, it can kill us. It kills our individual souls, our relationships, our hopes for truly peaceful, just communities, as it has threatened from the very beginning of this country’s history to kill our country. But if we do acknowledge it, if we do seek out the truth, we can be healed and healthy and whole. We set out long ago to be one people, and we can help make that dream come true.

So may we do.

(c) 2015 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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“A Matter of Life and Death”

November 1, 2015

given on the occasion of the ordination of Pamela Gehrke, San Mateo, CA

Dan Kane’s absence and presence are much on my mind this afternoon, because when Pam asked me a couple of months ago to give this sermon, she told me candidly that she had hoped Dan would preach at her ordination, but that he was too sick. How did I feel about that? Naturally, I was honored to be asked, doubly honored to be trying to fill Dan’s shoes, and only too eager to be bumped (as I assured Pam) if he rallied as the date approached. And so it is with great regret that I am standing here.

There is no authority like that of the dying. The wisdom delivered from the deathbed commands our attention: surely those who hover between life and death know something that we all need to hear.

So I’m going to claim my authority by reminding you: I am dying too. So is every person who is addressing this congregation today, and so are the people beside you now, and so are you. What does that knowledge command of your soul?

Dōgen Zenji, Zen Buddhist adept and teacher, speaks to us from the 13th century:

Let me respectfully remind you: Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to wake up. Wake up!—take heed—do not squander your life.

Life is brief, and we who are blithe and healthy may be gone next season, next month, or tomorrow.

For ministers: nothing will concentrate your ministry into a shining, hard, brilliant gem like the pressure of that awareness. Any Sunday’s sermon may be your last. Maybe it will be one about life and death, and after you die, it will seem so fitting that those were your last words as a minister. Or maybe you will die after a sermon that was . . . trivial. You were tired when you wrote it, you were overloaded, you didn’t have the energy to go deep, you just wanted to get it done. Which one of these do you want as your farewell?

For all of us: any conversation, any interaction, any action, can be our last. One of them will be. Which one do you want it to be?

I don’t want to make it sound as if we should be serious all the time, because oh God, God forbid. The work of the church—the work to which we are about to ordain Pam—isn’t all seriousness. Life is of supreme importance, but that doesn’t make it grim, even serious all the time. Life is joyful, it’s fun, it’s full of pleasure: the ever-shifting dance of clouds, the child climbing into your lap, the fall colors that startle our eyes, the laugh of a new friend, the sweet thrill of a kiss. And the work of the church is to help us to be awake to all of that.

Sometimes you will be acutely aware that the conversation you’re having with the dear person sitting beside you here might be the last time you speak together; that this visit could be the final one; that everything you do is an urgent matter of life and death—and other times, the illusion of permanence will take over.

That illusion has its uses. There’s a wise and funny woman in the Palo Alto congregation who I’m happy to say is currently our president: Sally Ahnger. A couple of years ago, in a group at church, the question was put to us, “What if today were your last day on earth?” and Sally said, “I hate this question. If I knew it were my last day, I wouldn’t do laundry! But today, I actually do have to do some laundry. So that’s what I’m going to do.”

A lot of the work of the church (as of the rest of life) is laundry. Preparing next week’s class so that it will go well. Holding yet another meeting so that the social justice witness you’re planning together will be effective. Reading three books in the hopes that one paragraph of one of them will prove useful. Pledge campaigns, and capital campaigns, and staff evaluations, and curriculum revisions, and all sorts of things we wouldn’t choose to do if it were our last day, but are doing anyway. As Talking Heads says, we’re “living in the future”—because it will be here (probably) and it needs our attention. It is very good to have a congregational president with this attitude, and it’s good for a minister to have this attitude too.

And . . . and, all of us, and I’m talking particularly to the new minister, must also infuse all that planning, all that daily routine, all that laundry, with the spirit of urgency. Dōgen, the Zen master, knew what he was talking about. He led a monastery! It can’t have been all that different from leading a church, even if it was in medieval Japan and the members were probably, on the whole, a lot quieter. He knew that as we strive to balance now and the future, here and there, the imminence of death and the continuation of life, we tend to err in the same direction: we forget that life is brief. We get busy with all the work of daily life. Busy work. Detail drags us down, we get absorbed in abstractions and distractions . . .

The squandering against which Dōgen warned us can take many forms, and to make it complicated, it isn’t the same for everyone. We have a choice before us: given our options, when we look into the heart of our hearts, what do we really want to be doing? What do we not want to put off anymore? As I say, the answer varies. A week spent reading could be a waste of life for one person, another person’s true calling. For some, a year devoted to writing a novel that probably no one but the author will ever read is a supreme fulfillment—for others, a supreme waste of time. No one can tell you what is true for you—but they will line up to give it a try. There is no shortage of advice and admonishment about what we should do or not do with the time and talent that are given us. (I know—I wrote a whole paragraph of “should nots” that I crossed out. You should be grateful to my wife, a marvelous editor.)

I didn’t know Dan well enough to know, but I imagine that some people thought that a newly ordained, loved, and talented minister should be serving a congregation full time. But when I heard that he was terminally ill, I was so glad that he had devoted so much of the last several years to his children. I hope he felt the same; I hope he felt fulfilled. We each must discern what call we should be accepting, so that when we come to die—whenever we come to die—we will know that we have truly lived. We don’t need anyone else’s “do list.”

What we need are communal and personal practices that remind us: life and death are of supreme importance . . . take heed . . . wake up. The church is abundant in these practices, and one reason is that it is real about death. We form this peculiar community where we celebrate life each Sunday, walk each other through the valley of the shadow, gather in mourning, celebrate life again. We do our preaching and teaching and planning and organizing and counseling and playing and singing and learning all in the brilliant light of Dōgen’s warning, or to quote another Zen master closer to our own time, we do it all aware of the truth spoken by Albus Dumbledore: “Death is coming for me as surely as the Chudley Cannons will finish bottom of this year’s league.” (Translation, for those of you who speak baseball rather than Quidditch: “as surely as the Cubs blew it again this year.”) Death is coming for us all, and the communal, liturgical life of a congregation is designed to remind us of that repeatedly. It’s one of religion’s great gifts to the world, and those who enter the ministry are custodians of that gift.

Sometimes we focus so much on extending our lives. If it’s not through belief in life after death, and a strenuous attempt to win admission into that second life, then it’s through all the ways good Californian Unitarian Universalists know. Don’t smoke, eat whole grains, exercise, get enough sleep, conquer stress. Yes, yes, those will probably add a few years. But if we want to double the life allotted to us, then we have to focus less on extending that life and more on expanding it. We can do that by living twice as much with every day: by going twice as deep, speaking twice as honestly, feeling twice as intensely, singing twice as joyfully, being twice as real. When we sit down to that sermon, the blank page or screen, we ask ourselves, “What is the most important thing I, who am dying, can say to these beloved people, who are dying?”

We ask ourselves, as we do the laundry of the church, “What is most important right now?” And it might well be the square dance or the kids’ carnival or the latke supper, because life is for rejoicing—for being awake to what is. The ironic twist is that we know that best when we remember that death is at our door, poised to knock.

Pam has gathered us to carry out this sacred task of ordination on Samhain, the day when, some say, the veil between the living and the dead grows so thin that we can feel their hands [gestures, pressing a hand against the air], just there on the other side of that gossamer thinness. Dan Kane and all those who have gone before us into the mystery have laid their hands upon us. They have ordained us to the holy work of being alive. They whisper, with the rustling of the veil, the cool winter winds that approach: Time passes swiftly. You will pass through the veil soon. Do not squander your life.

Halloween, with all its spooks and goblins and haunted houses, says that these ghostly voices are trying to frighten us, but we know that they are offering a blessing. As you take up the mantle of ministry, Pam, may you be so blessed. And so may we all.

(c) 2015 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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“Come, Emmanuel”
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014
given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA

Have you ever wondered why we celebrate the birth of Jesus?

One of the oddest things about the Christian story is the idea that everything changed with Jesus. The carols say that this is the turning point in history. O come, o come, Emmanuel, “God with us”: once Jesus is born, God will dwell among us for the first time. Once Jesus is born, and not until then, we are saved from death and sin. What does that mean for the thousands of years before him? Really, if this was a grand plan—create humanity, let them suffer for a long time, then redeem them with this savior–it’s kind of mean.

It seems more likely that God is kind of making things up as they go along . . . and in fact the God of the Bible is described like that. He creates Adam and Eve to live in Eden, but then they mess up so he has to change the plan. Some generations after that, people have gotten so bad that he washes out all of creation in the flood, leaving just one human family and two of each other species to start over. And then, thousands of years later (in the Biblical chronology it’s three to four thousand years), he decides a radical change is needed and he does something brand new: he begets a human child who will grow up to die on the cross and save us all that way. It’s an interesting God, but a rather confusing one. In fact, he—this God is a he—seems confused. Doesn’t he have a plan? Is he just tinkering, trying things out and seeing what happens?

As someone who doesn’t actually believe in that God’s literally existing, though, I find the story rather familiar just the same. That tinkering, trying this, trying that, most things coming up against a dead end, but some other branch working out . . . that sounds like the way nature creates. Trial and error.

In which case, forget about the whole story being planned from the start to have several thousand years of sin and death and then a new era, post-Jesus, where we’re all saved and all is well. Instead we have just people, doing bad things, doing good things, before Jesus and since Jesus.

And then, Jesus isn’t the one big turning point. He’s one very fine person. He is one of the many people who have used their days among us to bring the holy among us, to be the embodiment of God-with-us. These are the people who have turned the world toward the light: toward love, toward treating each other with respect and dignity, toward kindness and compassion for all. It’s been done again and again, sometimes by the people we call saints. Saint Nicholas was one of them, exemplifying generosity, especially to people who were poor and unlucky.

And sometimes it’s done by other saints, not actually canonized by any church but with radiance beaming through our troubled history from their holy faces: Saint Dorothy Day, creating communities for those living on the margins of our society; Saint Martin Luther King, organizing those who had suffered long to demand simple fairness; Saint Malala Yousafzai, risking everything for equality for girls . . . each asking and answering, as Saint William Penn of the Quakers did, “Let us then see what love can do.”

And sometimes, often, more times than anyone could count, the world is turned by saints unknown to anyone except a few family, neighbors, and friends: the woman caring for abandoned pets in the upper peninsula of Michigan; the tired, overworked clerk in a small town in India who makes sure to smile warmly at everyone he encounters; the woman living on the streets of New Haven, Connecticut, who asks always for thirty cents and speaks a blessing upon every person who responds to her request; the boy who learns about child labor and starts asking for the soccer balls his school buys, and his friends buy, and sporting good stores stock, be only those made by people who are paid fairly and treated right; the old man in China who quietly pays the school tuition of his neighbor’s child. We know these people. We meet them every day. We are these people, whenever we choose to be Emmanuel, those who bring the holy to dwell among us.

Really, could it be any other way? The world is a mix of good and bad. No one victory, no one person turns it around for good and all. To the saints, to those who strive to choose life, to choose kindness, to choose fairness, to choose love, this is no surprise. They aren’t—we aren’t—trying to fix it all with one fell swoop. We’re just doing our part, making our patch of earth better as best we can.

As Saint Albus Dumbledore said when Harry Potter worried that his defeat of Voldemort at the end of his first year did not mean that the evil wizard was gone, “While you may only have delayed his return to power, it will merely take someone else who is prepared to fight what seems a losing battle next time–and if he is delayed again, and again, why, he may never return to power.” No Messiahs. No turning points. Only, possibly, tipping points: people determined enough, brave enough, and good enough to transform the world. That’s what Christmas celebrates. That’s what it inspires in all of us.

Some people celebrate Buddha’s birthday. And when they do, they aren’t saying “When the Buddha came along, we became completely different kind of people, with a different fate, a different future.” No—that day is blessed because the teaching of the Buddha helped to change the lives of everyone who came afterwards.

In the same way, Jesus’s birthday isn’t the beginning of a totally new era, with almost a different species of human being. What it is is a day to celebrate and remember what Jesus taught: that every single one of us can be a person who turns our world more toward kindness, more toward goodness, away from violence and hatred. Each of us is Emmanuel, born to change the world.

(c) 2014 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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“How Gods Are Created”
Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014
given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA

Centering Words

With our centering words each week, we draw on one of the sources of our living tradition. Today’s words come from a late member of this congregation, John Beverley Butcher, a Unitarian Universalist, writer, activist, and Episcopal priest:

Whatever absorbs most of our mental energies reveals our greatest concerns and values. What do we think about most? Is this really our greatest treasure? Might there be something more valuable on which to focus our thinking? (Telling the Untold Stories, 41)

Story                                The Story of Easter (link coming soon)                 Dan Harper


Our first reading is from How Jesus Became God, by the historian of religion Bart D. Ehrman:

Jesus was a lower-class Jewish preacher from the backwaters of rural Galilee who was condemned for illegal activities and crucified for crimes against the state. Yet not long after his death, his followers were claiming that he was a divine being. Eventually they went further, declaring that he was none other than God, Lord of heaven and earth. And so the question: how did a crucified peasant come to be thought of as the Lord who created all things? How did Jesus become God? (1)

Our second reading is from the novel Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett:

Where do gods come from? Where do they go? . . . . Koomi’s theory was that gods come into being and grow and flourish because they are believed in. Belief itself is the food of the gods. Initially, when mankind lived in small primitive tribes, there were probably millions of gods. Now there tended to be only a few very important ones . . . But any god could join. Any god could start small. Any god could grow in stature as its believers increased. And dwindle as they decreased. (104-5) [Gods] also needed a shape. [They] became what people believed they ought to be. You gave a god its shape, like jelly fills a mold. (223)                    

Sermon                        How Gods Are Created           

So Bart Ehrman has just published this book, How Jesus Became God, because he wants to know how, and why, a peasant teacher from Galilee—the cultural equivalent is “from Kentucky”—began to be regarded as God Himself.

Ehrman irritates religious conservatives so much that even before his book was published, they had prepared their rebuttal, How God Became Jesus. But his project isn’t new. Not 20 years ago, Richard Rubinstein wrote When Jesus Became God (my emphasis), which is particularly fascinating for Unitarian Universalists because it’s all about the Arian heresy, the belief of Arius and his followers in the early centuries after Jesus’s death that Jesus was just a man and a follower of the Jewish God, not God Himself. We Unitarians have believed that ever since.

Well, I think the project of these two scholars, and others like Paula Fredriksen, who wrote From Jesus to Christ, is very interesting, but none of them can quite answer the question. See, I think they’ve missed something because they don’t believe Jesus is God.

But Jesus is God.

Jesus is God!

Before you decide you must have come to a different church than you meant to, I’ll prove it to you.

Because of Jesus, people are willing to die. They go off to war and kill other people. They devote their entire lives to the service of the very poorest, without any hope of compensation. They take on impossible tasks of overthrowing oppression. People do terrible things to each other in Jesus’s name, and amazing, noble things. Anyone or anything that has that kind of power in people’s lives has become a god. Jesus isn’t the only one, but he is one.

And it’s very simple, how he got to be a god. You don’t have to write a whole long scholarly book about it. Terry Pratchett explains it perfectly in his wonderful satirical novel: the way someone becomes a god is that people believe he is (or she is, or it is). Gods grow in power as we believe in them and allow them to shape our lives. Their own shape is whatever form we need them to take: like jello in a mold, as Pratchett says (except he says “jelly,” because he’s British). And then this form affects us in turn.

It’s a very old idea, this idea that people create gods and that gods get their power from having people who believe in them. Heretics like Unitarians and Universalists have said it for centuries. Modern novelists like Terry Pratchett, and Neil Gaiman in his marvelous book American Gods, ran with it and looked at what that would actually mean for the people, how it would affect our lives. How the gods we create, and give form and power, shape us in turn.

Now, this god people call Jesus might not be much like the man Jesus. The peasant, radical rabbi and teacher, who overturned the authority of the religious leadership and political leadership, who challenged the wealthy and powerful, who taught love—if that’s what the actual man was like who lived briefly in what we now call Palestine and Israel two thousand years ago, he’s been changed. We change whatever we believe in and give power to with the food of our belief. We see it through the eyes of our own needs, or what we think we need.

So my question for you on this Easter morning is: What gods do you create? This is how to spot them: look for what rules you.

It’s a tender and difficult question, so I’ll go first. I would like to be ruled by love; a passion for justice; the search for truth; harmony with the earth and all that is . . . I want those to be my gods. But I have other gods too. Why else would I feel too busy to play with my daughter because I need to spend just one more hour on a report for work that I’ve already pretty much written? I think I worship a god of Perfection—and I have made it so powerful, it rules me. It overrules some of the gods I wish I worshiped instead.

That’s one of mine. What are some of yours?

Maybe Influence—the desire to have power, oh, power for good, to do good things, sure, but still, a drive for power, to make things go the way you think they should.

For many people, Alcohol and other Drugs are gods—or maybe the real god is something that the drug gives them, a temporary feeling of Well-being or Confidence or Peace.

I look around my culture and see a fervent worship of the god Financial Security. That god started small, I think. It’s easy to get people to worship you when their situation is so insecure that if anything goes wrong this month, they will be evicted from their homes and living on the street. They are bound to pay you a lot of attention, Security, when they are constantly having to choose between taking their children to the doctor or providing them with enough meals for the day. But this god has become so powerful, feeding on our belief, that even those of us who have a virtual lifetime guarantee of plenty to eat, a college education, the health care we need, and a safe place to live, plus luxuries like the choice of exactly what town to live in and a new car now and then, worry constantly that we don’t have enough.

There are gods of Knowledge, Success, Busyness, Popularity, Distraction, Expertise . . . oh, they’re all over the place. When we give them power and form, they shape our lives in turn.

If you want to know what gods you worship, which ones you give power by your belief in them, watch the pattern of your days for what you give your time, your attention, your concern. Those are your gods.

These gods we worship can serve us and the spirit of life well, or they can be destructive. Look at Jesus. Jesus had power in the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero, causing him to lay down his life for the poor of El Salvador and around the world, and Jesus also had power in the life of Fred Phelps, causing him to devote his life to trying to make people miserable on account of their being gay.

So it is for all of our gods. Alcohol may be a god for one person, a pleasant drink for another, a nasty taste for a third. Money may be a simple means to useful ends for one person and, for another, an all-powerful god who is tyrannical and ever-demanding. It’s not the thing itself, but the worship of it that makes it a god: the shaping our lives around it, the fervent belief that it can give us what we long for.

In honor of the man Jesus, who became a god without asking to or wanting to, but who tried to teach people to love each other and love the source of life, may we celebrate Easter in this way: by trying to become aware of what gods we worship. May we give the power of our belief only to those things that we truly wish to rule us, because when we believe in them, they will have power over us. May we make gods only of the things that are worthy of the sacrifices of our time, our abilities, our attention, and our love. May we choose to revere only what is truly holy and receive its blessings with joy.

So may it be.

(c) 2014 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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“To Hear the Angels Sing”

Christmas Eve, 2013
given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA

What are we to make of these angels? What are we supposed to think about all these angels?

There’s a lot in this lovely little story of Christmas that is hard for the rational mind to believe. But you can explain most of it away—the miraculous birth, the amazing star. But not angels. They are a whole different kind of creature that populates the Bible, something between the human and the divine. People have invented a whole field of study called “angelology” and explained all the various ranks and types, which only makes it all harder to believe for me.

But the meaning of the word “angel” in the Bible that I was taught as a child and that means the most to me today is something very simple and grounded in our real lives. An angel is a messenger. Someone who comes from God to a person, carrying a message. Someone who tells us something we need to know about the holy.

What is the holy? Well, according to the Unitarian Universalist songwriter Peter Mayer, everything—and I see no reason to doubt him. Which would seem to suggest that everything is or can be a messenger of the holy also. Anything that helps goodness, wisdom, hope, get from out there to inside here, is an angel of a kind. Anything that brings us a message that the holy is the holy is an angel.

It doesn’t have to be a beautiful young woman straight out of a Renaissance painting, with classical features, flowing long hair, and wings. When you’re sick and scared in the hospital, and an overworked, overweight, aging nursing assistant puts a reassuring hand on your shoulder and smiles, and you look into his eyes and feel a flame of hope come to life inside you—he’s an angel.

It doesn’t have to be a human being. When you are filled with despair and there seems to be nothing except barren ground and hard edges, and you stumble home and your cat rubs her cheeks against your ankles, and you remember that there is something soft and loving in the world—she’s an angel.

It doesn’t have to be alive. A shooting star, the Badlands of South Dakota, a sand dollar shell washed up on the beach, the ocean itself . . . these have all been known to whisper messages of hope, harmony, beauty.

Whenever a message comes that reminds you of holiness, you have met an angel.

The messages don’t always have to be pleasant, either. We may hear that people are dying in South Sudan (radio as angel). We may be informed that we have hurt someone’s feelings (angry friend as angel). We may suddenly grasp that we are going the wrong way and have been going the wrong way for years (road sign as angel). If these messages awaken in us compassion, love, greater understanding, or a thirst for justice, then they are the holy speaking to us.

Everything is holy; anyone, anything, can be an angel.

And so the unknown writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers; for by so doing, some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).

This, to me, means: be open to the unexpected, the unknown, the apparently uninteresting. It may be the messenger bearing a note for your ear. And we are reminded in particular to be open to those would-be messengers that we turn away because they bear messages we don’t want to hear. After all, when the holy breaks into our awareness, it can make us have to change our lives. It can turn everything upside down.

A message implies that there is something we now must do. Here’s a text message that says, “Call me, it’s urgent.” Here’s a messenger of God saying, “Joseph, marry your fiancee,” or “Shepherds, go to Bethlehem and look for the baby who will be King of the Jews.” Here’s an angel saying, “I bring glad tidings of peace on earth, goodwill to all people.” Wait a second. As the first carol we sang tonight, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” says, there hasn’t been peace on earth. People have not extended goodwill to each other. What has followed that message has been “two thousand years of wrong.” That’s because the message is never just a point of information; it’s a command. Go and do something. Make this a world of peace. Make goodwill between yourself and your neighbor. Hear the angels sing and take their messages to heart.

So the messages that come our way can be disruptive, reassuring, joyful, scary, exhilarating . . . . it depends on what we do with them. One thing is certain. When the holy speaks to us, whatever form the holy takes, whatever form its messenger takes, that angel is always bearing good news.

(c) 2013 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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“A Religion for this World”

Easter Sermon: A Religion for this World

Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, March 31, 2013

And now I’m going to tell you a story too. But first I need you to tell me something. When you walk into a Christian church, what are some of the things you see? Especially the things up front here, at what’s called the altar?

(People say: cross, crucifix, candles, flowers)

Thanks! Here’s my story.

Once upon a time, in fact, just about ten years ago, there were two people who were Christian and studied Christianity and wrote books together about religion. They were traveling in Europe to some of the oldest churches, the ones that have been around since a few hundred years after the Christian religion began. They were beautiful churches. The traditional shape for old churches is a cross or sometimes a capital T, and this part of the church (gesturing over altar) is called the apse—often it has a high ceiling or dome and the inside of the dome is covered in pictures. The apses at these churches were filled with pictures of Jesus and the saints, the natural world and stories from the Bible. And after a while, these two people started to notice something odd about these pictures.

They went to one, in Ravenna, Italy, that was built in the sixth century. Its ceiling is a gorgeous mosaic of flowers, trees, and birds. In this mosaic, a blue sky stretches behind hills of mossy green rocks. Sheep are in the hills, and the figures of saints, and in the midst of it all is the face of Jesus. But there is no crucifix.

They went to the catacombs outside Rome, which were places people were buried and so they had a great deal of religious meaning. There they saw many pictures of Jesus. There’s Jesus’s birth, and Jesus healing people, and Jesus feeding a huge crowd with just a few loaves and fishes, and Jesus as a shepherd. But there is no crucifix.

Apse of Santa Pudenziana, Rome. Source: Wikimedia Commons

They went to the church that has the earliest image of Jesus of any church apse, Santa Pudenziana in Rome, which also has mosaics, created three to four hundred years after Jesus’s time. It shows Jesus holding a book and talking with his students. There is no crucifix.

They started to wonder what was going on, and they did some research, and they discovered something amazing: there are no images of Jesus on the cross for the first thousand years of Christian church-building. For the first half of Christianity, crucifixion is not a central image. It’s not an image at all.

There are crosses, yes. They just don’t have Jesus on them. He’s doing other things: healing, teaching, making gestures of welcome and blessing. The people who built and worshipped in these holy places knew all about the crucifixion. It was part of the story, a key part of the story, as Dan just related; it’s told in all four Gospels. Jesus died and he died on the cross. That just doesn’t seem to be the part of the story that interested Christians for half of the history of Christianity.

This is quite a shocker to people like me, and maybe you, and most people who walk into a Christian church nowadays. It was quite a shocker to the two people in my story, whose names are Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker and who wrote a book about what they learned, called Saving Paradise. (Parker, by the way, is a Unitarian Universalist minister and the president of our Starr King School for the Ministry.)

Apparently, the crucifixion isn’t as central to Christianity as we have been led to believe. It wasn’t the center at all for those thousand years, until something changed. What made things change is an interesting question, and Brock and Parker go into it at length in their book, but we don’t have time to get into it today. The question for us today is: if the crucifixion wasn’t the center of the religion, what was?

That’s what Parker and Brock asked, and the answer was right there in those mosaics and beautiful apses. It had paradise. A very particular kind of paradise. A paradise that is right here in this world that we live in right now: that is right here in the life we’re living right now.

At its heart, the holiday we celebrate today, Easter, is about how to find paradise.

At its heart, Unitarian Universalism is about the same thing: what paradise is, how to know it when we see it, and rejoice in it, and preserve it, and sustain it.

So what is paradise? There are different ways to answer this question, and the answer we give will have a big effect on how we live.

One answer is: paradise is another place and another time. To be specific, it’s where you go after you die, maybe only if you’ve been good. Another word for it is heaven. It’s a realm beyond the body, beyond the world, beyond the life we live right now, and in this answer, in this way of looking at things, that’s good, because in this way of looking at things, the body suffers and the world is a mess and life is scary, so you want to get beyond all those bad things to the blessed place, the only truly good place. The way you get there is: you die.

If that’s how we think about paradise, then it makes a lot of sense to have the crucifixion front and center. That way we’re constantly reminded that this world is a terrible place where good people are tortured and die; and we’re shown the way out. The way out is to die too; if we do, we’ll be resurrected, the way Jesus was.

For the last thousand years, that’s been the dominant view within Christianity. Not the only one—Christianity is a very diverse and complex religion—but a big one.

A different way to understand paradise is this: we were already given a perfect world, right here, in this life. The Bible called it Eden. At first sight it looks like that’s what’s going on in those beautiful mosaics. The grass is lush and green, the birds are flying, there are flowers and trees of many kinds, a river runs gently through . . . Eden was called a garden—but you might notice, if you read the first few chapters of Genesis, the garden of Eden wasn’t really a garden, not like the garden you might grow around your house, or like the Gamble Garden. Those require a lot of work and attention. In Eden, Adam and Eve had everything they needed, without having to do a thing. They were just fed as babies are fed, fruit dropping into their hands—no weeding, no mulching, no effort on their parts.

The problem with this understanding of paradise is that if you look around the world we have, which is beautiful but does require our work and attention, we’ve obviously already blown it. So we tell stories that explain why things aren’t perfect anymore. We talk about how we messed up; we fouled the nest; we were given perfection, but we were imperfect, so paradise is a thing of the past. And the only way we can get it back is to wipe out everything and start over. Interestingly, the crucifixion has been used to promote that idea too. When, after a thousand years, the crucified Jesus started showing up in the art of the churches of Europe and Asia, another Jesus started showing up there too: the angry judge, who sent some people to the pit that was hell, others to the glorious, walled city that was heaven. In that view, all of the bad people and bad things will be cleared away one day, and the few good survivors will get to live in paradise once again. If you can call it paradise when most people are locked out.

There’s a third way, a third paradise, not of the future nor of the past, but of the present. Brock and Parker saw it in the mosaics of Ravenna and the catacombs of Rome. This third view of paradise envisions it in this world, among the rivers and trees and hills and sky we know. It’s not the long-ago Eden to which we can’t return. It’s in figures like Mary, caring for her baby. Like shepherd saints, who tend the flocks of sheep. And most of all, in Jesus, who is shown healing sick people, feeding crowds, speaking to his students of books and wisdom. It’s not a dead Jesus—Jesus is never dead on those walls—it’s the living one: the rabbi, the teacher, who taught anyone who chose to learn from him that they should love one another and care for everyone. This vision of paradise shows a world that is beautiful, holy, vulnerable like a little baby, full of potential, and imperfect. It’s our world: a paradise that is all around us and within us, and that also needs us. We can destroy it or we can sustain it. We are the shepherds too. This paradise doesn’t ask us to suffer and die, like the crucified Jesus; it certainly doesn’t ask us to kill to avenge that crucified Jesus, the way the church of the second thousand years began to do. It shows us the living Jesus and his care for creation, and it invites us to take care of the earth and its beings, the way he does, and so make this world a continuing paradise.

That’s how we find life in the midst of death. That’s our Easter.

Ours is a religion for this world. And that means two things. One, that it’s a religion of this world. We live as fully as we can the one life we know we have, this “wild and precious life,” as the poet Mary Oliver says. We look for heaven here on this “happening illimitably earth” (e. e. cummings). The other meaning is that ours is a religion for, on behalf of, this world. It’s a world that needs us, just as we need it. We are part of a web of interdependence, nurtured by the beings all around us and the other people we encounter, who need us in turn. If we do not depend on them, we have nothing; if we harm them, we harm ourselves.

That’s the teaching of the third way, the vision that comes through in the early centuries of Jesus on those walls and ceilings. When he was walking in the fields, when he was tending his sheep, when he was restoring the temple, when he was speaking to his students as the great Greek philosophers spoke to theirs. When he was a teacher and a friend, not a corpse.

In the third way, paradise is the whole world, not just a part. Long before people knew that the world was a globe, they used circles to show completion, and that’s what we see in those high, arched, domed ceilings. They show the whole world, and all of it is paradise. That paradise isn’t a walled garden. The walled-off heaven only appears in those angry, judgment scenes, the ones where Jesus is sending a select few to the wonderful paradise, the paintings that show up in churches after the crucifixion starts to appear there. If we are to make paradise here, it will have no walls shutting anyone out. It will be for everyone, because otherwise it can be for no one. It can’t be a parkland carved out of desolation, a lovely, clean, green spot that the rich and lucky preserve for themselves by running air purifiers and waste treatment plants that just spew more pollution into the lands of the poor and unfortunate who are shut outside. Paradise isn’t a realm that only some people get into: it’s a community that we create, where all are welcome. Everywhere, everyone, has something of the holy within, and we strive to make holiness blossom everywhere.

The most frequently reported miracle in the gospels is Jesus feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and a couple of fish. In four books it appears six times, and it appears in the art of the first thousand years, too. Jesus doesn’t make a way to paradise for us by dying on the cross; he does it by making sure there’s enough to go around. In his life and teaching, he took what looked like scarcity, like not enough, and made a paradise for everyone, which is the only kind of paradise there can be. When we create justice and fairness, we take this world in all its beauty and imperfection, and make it into a forever paradise.

(c) 2013 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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On the Threshold

Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA

January 27, 2013

Listening to and singing with our guest musicians, the Threshold Choir, this morning, I thought about the way that many people come to die in our country today. There is no one way, of course, and in fact every story is a little different. But oftentimes the place is a hospital room. And one is there, you the dying person, the person at one of those momentous thresholds in life, with perhaps someone, or a few someones, who love you, and with many, many people coming in and out of this space. It is not a chapel, it is not a temple; it is a space for healing and trying to cure people. And the people come in to do their medical tasks and care for you, and out they go again. And in the midst of all this busyness that is so concerned with something other than the threshold on which you stand, in might come a chaplain, or a leader, or member, of your spiritual community, to say a few words, help everyone to take hands and mark what is happening here. In might come a few singers who lift their voices and touch you with one of the most beautiful sounds that human beings can make, to shepherd you on this journey.

Thresholds are sacred. Religions of all kinds, cultures of all times and places have ways to mark the moments when we are on a threshold: we are between one state of being and another.

As a culture, the United States is a little thin on rituals for such moments. We mark weddings, of course, and deaths, and births . . . graduations, maybe the payment of a mortgage, the moving in to a new home. We have ways to celebrate turning 21 . . . retiring from one’s career. But it’s a little thin considering all the many, many thresholds that we cross in our lives.

On the other hand, we are a greatly diverse culture, weaving together many cultures with all their riches of millennia of human development. And so we all can draw upon the very beautiful traditions that exist among us to mark thresholds, whether or not they are from the cultures in which we personally grew up. For example, some cultures such as Korea and China, mark the 100th day of life. The Diné, the people of the Navajo nation, mark a baby’s first laugh. Many cultures mark a time of coming of age: 12 or 13 years for a Bat or Bar Mitzvah to mark the taking on of adult responsibility in the Jewish world, 15 years to mark a girl’s becoming a woman in much of Latin America, et cetera. Around the world people have devised rituals as they become necessary.

And yet sometimes we feel them to be necessary and don’t have them available to us. When we don’t have such rituals and know we are upon a threshold, we may seek them out or create them. Many feel the lack of a ritual to mark the end of a marriage. We have so many to mark its beginning, but nothing to mark its end. So some people crossing the threshold that is divorce have created “marriage wakes” or other rituals to honor that momentous threshold, to honor the beauty of what is on both sides: the life shared and all the hopes of that marriage, and the new life that awaits on the other side. I think that part of the attraction of neo-Paganism for so many, including Unitarian Universalists, is that it pays attention to large and small thresholds and provides, creates, new rituals to recognize those moments.

Much of our life together as a congregation is about noting and honoring thresholds, and nothing makes me more aware of the importance of what we do here than testimony like [today’s Worship Associate’s*], of what it means to know the community is here when you are so alone facing one of those great transitions of life. We have Coming of Age services, we have Caring and Sharing each week, the welcome of new members, the dedication of children when they arrive, the memorial celebration of someone among us when they depart, the care that we give each other at times of sickness and birth and dying. The meal that we bring to someone who has just emerged from surgery in our “Get Better Bistro”: it isn’t just a pragmatic matter meant to help out with a daily task that has become difficult. It is also a way of honoring the occasion and witnessing—being present for, and listening at–a time of transition. It is an offering and a celebration.

Physical thresholds, literal doorways, get a lot of attention around the world for the same reason that we need to have attention given to these figurative thresholds: they are symbolic of those great moments of in-between. The lintel of a Maori meeting house, for example, is elaborately carved with holy images, because as one passes below it, one is moving from one holy domain into another. The outer doors and gates of a Jewish home bear mezuzot, which hold excerpts from the holy Torah, so that one might be reminded of one’s most important commitments as one comes and goes—might be reminded of Who is with you as you cross every threshold of your life. In ancient Greece, each part of a doorway had its god: the lintel had a god, the posts had a god, the door, the hinges, the sill (the threshold itself). All of these practices of marking physical doorways, like the practices of marking the figurative doorways of our lives, are meant say the same thing to us: Pause here with awareness. Know that when you are in the space between, you are in a sacred space of your life.

But why are thresholds sacred? I think there are two basic reasons. One is that they’re about identity: they are a place of acute awareness or questioning of who we are, what we are, to what community of people and land we belong. And, they are about change: the shedding of one identity and the taking upon ourselves of another. In other words, they are about being and becoming, that great balance of our lives.

The origin of the word is exactly what you might think from its sound like: threshold comes from thresh, threshing being the removing of a grain from its inedible shell. And when we are upon a threshold, we are in the act of stepping out—like the grain that is losing its skin—stepping out of our old identity and stepping into a new one that is yet unknown.

So a question for us as a spiritual community, the community that is companioning each of us on our spiritual paths, is: what do we need at such moments? What can we provide for each other?

We need to honor what is on both sides of the doorway: to celebrate the whole of our lives, the self we are leaving behind as well as the self toward which we are going.

We need something—some words, some music, some ceremony—that will recognize the significance of this moment, not leave it unmarked as if it means nothing. And we need one another.

Thresholds can be particularly challenging when our culture—which might be our community, our family, our larger culture—when those around us don’t have a way to recognize the threshold. So I want us to take a moment to pause and reflect silently to ourselves on a time when we might have been at a threshold in our lives (or maybe we are right now) and our culture offered no particular way to recognize it as such.

And before we take a moment of silence for that, I want to acknowledge that in some way, that’s, if not a trick question, then a tricky question, because to some extent it’s hard even to perceive a threshold when no one else is recognizing it. So here are some feelings and thoughts that might be a clue that we are crossing a threshold, that we are in that in-between land:

We might have an awareness of a first or last of something.

We might have tears.

There might be a sense of momentousness.

Time might get strange; things slowing down or speeding up much too fast.

We might have a powerful sensation that there ought to be music for this moment—some kind of inner soundtrack.

We may have a strong desire to talk to other people about what is happening to us, and, or, a desire to talk to ourselves about it—in a journal, or by the creation of some private ritual marking the moment.

So let’s take a moment to reflect on whether we have had such a moment, on our own, without the recognition of those around us.

(long pause for people to remember)

I’ve invited you into this exercise, first of all so that we can become aware of how important it is to have a community that marks our thresholds and helps us to recognize them, and how different that might feel. And also, because it’s never too late. If there is a threshold that you thought of, that you thought, “Mm, that never really got marked as such,” in some sense you are still there. And that’s fine. You might always be, in some way. But it is not too late for others to help you to honor it, to recognize that that is a very sacred place.

Of course, the threshold isn’t always where and when we think it is. It’s not always the spot that gets a highlight, even from our community.

And it’s not only a moment. When it is that love arises, so that people know they wish to marry? Is it just one moment? And it’s certainly not the moment in which they say “I do.” When does it die, and they decide to part? That also is not just one moment. Even with birth: a person is born in an instant of gasping for breath, but childbirth takes hours, and gestation takes months, and the preparation for parenthood and for new life takes lifetimes. A person dies, perhaps, in a discrete moment, when the last breath is drawn or the brain ceases its hum, but dying can be a journey of years. We may mark a single symbolic moment later, like an anniversary, birthday, or date of death, but when we are living these transitions, when we are on the threshold, it is much, much wider than something we can cross in one moment. We feel ourselves in the in-between for long, long periods of time. And that can be very beautiful, and sweet and good, and it can also, even at the same time, excruciatingly painful.

This, perhaps, is when we need each other the most. This is when we need words and art, music and symbols, stories and the squeeze of a hand, to say: Yes, this time is sacred. It is a time of becoming for you, it is time of being for you. Time has slowed down and held us here, in mid-step, in the no-one’s land between what we used to be and what we will be. Here we are, not knowing exactly what or who we are in this moment.

So why are thresholds sacred? Because they teach us to live fully in that in-between and that unknowing.

And why is this so important? Because that’s where we really live all the time. All the time. The honoring of threshold times is like a practice that helps us to live more fully in the in-between, uncertain, traveling place where we always, in some way, are.

Now, the arrivals are real too. Things are happening that are real, that we are aware of, too. Being a wife is real, and being a widow is real. Being a child and being an adult. Being single and being married. Being a student, being a worker. Each of those states is real and we try to live there fully too. And also, in the deepest sense, we are always and at every moment poised between two states, between two times, between two selves.

To be here, fully present when we are neither inside the temple nor outside it, neither child nor adult, neither spouse nor widow, but right on the threshold, in that state of in-between and unknowing, is the hope of our lives. It is the only time that we ever really have. And it may be, if we are fully alive in those moments, that despite the tumult behind and uncertainty ahead, in the words the Threshold Choir has sung for us, “in the quiet of this moment, all is well.”

There is a Jewish prayer that is heard at every holiday, every momentous occasion. The beginning is the standard for a short Jewish prayer of blessing: Baruch atah adonai . . . Blessed are you, Lord, Ruler of the universe. This one closes, shehecheyanu—who has kept us alive—v’kiyimanu—and protected us—v’higianu l’azman hazeh—and brought us to this time. It is called the Shehecheyanu after its key word: who has kept us alive, or you might say, kept us in life, or more simply, en-livened-us. One says this prayer at beginnings: the first night of a long holiday such as Hanukah, the first time one eats matzah during Passover; also at the birth of a child, and upon moving into a new home. It is a threshold prayer, one that may be said at any moment that is a new experience or an infrequent experience, to mark that as a time of transition. And what is it that is being said on each such occasion?: Shehecheyanu—“who has enlivened us.” So that we might remember what has brought us life, so that we might remember: this is life, no matter what is happening, no matter how in-between we feel, and how in flux our lives are, we are alive and we are grateful for this very moment.

And so my prayer for each of us as we move across the many, many thresholds of our lives, is that every moment may be a shehecheyanu moment, a moment when we know ourselves to be, and are grateful to be, alive. So may it be.

(c) 2013 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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“Traveling Over Rocky Ground”

Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Pacific Central chapter, Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association

Fall Retreat, October 3, 2012


Exodus 3:1-5

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Yitro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock to the far side of the wilderness, and came to Chorev, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ 4When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 5Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’


I sometimes think I am not cut out for this job.

Last week D. and I were having lunch together as our first meeting of mentor and mentee. (I’m sharing this story with her permission.) So I asked her, “What are you hoping for from this relationship—what are you trying to develop at this point in your ministry?”

She said, “I’m really working on leaving the job at church—not taking it home with me.”

And I said, “You might have chosen the wrong mentor.”

“Clergy” often ranks high on the list of stressful jobs. So I guess there are a lot of colleagues who

  • wake up at 3 a.m. thinking about a family in their congregation that’s suffering
  • worse, and more guilt-inducingly, wake up at 3 a.m. worrying about who thinks they’re doing a bad job and why on earth they said that stupid thing at the Board meeting
  • work themselves into exhaustion to right an injustice that haunts them
  • never feel as if they are doing enough to avert a global crisis
  • wonder if this level of worry is sustainable.

And yet we appear to love it. Because clergy also report ourselves as being among the most happy and fulfilled of any workers.

There could be a lot of explanations for these apparently conflicting results. Pathology: we’re masochists; we’re gluttons for punishment. Theology: we value martyrdom and want to see ourselves in that light. Or just plain bad methodology: these researchers are asking the wrong questions and making invalid comparisons. However, I think there is a nugget of truth in that odd little statistic.

I hope so. Because, for all that our preparation for ministry in recent years has included more attention to self-care and having a strong spiritual practice – making ministry something we can sustain – still, the question remains: When the shepherd feels lost, when it seems like more than we can do to keep ourselves walking in the right direction, much less lead our people, what do we do?

Some answers are here in this retreat. We come seeking beauty, time for our spiritual practices, solitude, companionship, learning, karaoke, yes. They are important. And yet: are they enough? I don’t find them so. Over the years I’ve done better at making sure I have a spiritual practice, spend time with my family, and guard boundaries, yet, one day back from vacation and the full catastrophe is back. Boundaries around our time and space and e-mail can only help so much if the boundaries within our brains and our hearts are flimsy.

Maybe there is something else we can do when we’re wandering amongst the broken places.

Let me tell you what I did on Monday afternoon.

It was my day off, but I was on call, and I was just finishing lunch in a restaurant, alone, a treat to myself, when an emergency call came. A woman at our church who is dying was getting very close to the end and she had asked for me.

I didn’t change my clothes, I didn’t brush my teeth—I had just eaten the most garlicky meal I’ve had in months—I just headed out. So I’m driving down 101 popping mint Lifesavers, leaving rest behind and going into a dry and desolate place. I’m trying to collect myself; I’m trying to get out of myself, and focus on her and what she might need

This fall day was radiant with summer light. I was thinking, what if it were her last day? Was she ready? Was there anything I could say or do to help her? And thinking that floating out on fumes of garlic and mint was probably not what anyone wanted for their last moments . . .

They weren’t her last moments, as it turned out, but she had some things she wanted me to know, and we talked a while. She is very old, and has had a long life rich in love and fulfillment–there is no tragedy here–but still, it was breaking my heart to leave and know that I was probably seeing that brilliant smile for the last time. When I finally kissed her goodbye, she said, “Good night,” then added, “Is it night? I don’t really know.”

I told her, “It’s mid-afternoon. It’s a beautiful day. It’s the first of October, but it feels like summer.” And she lifted herself up a little to look toward the window, and said, “So now I’m saying goodbye to the beautiful world. Thank you, beautiful world. It’s been wonderful living in you. It’s been a good trip.”

I had been wondering what prayer I could offer for such a moment. But it was she who offered it.

And I think of the Moses story. He goes to the far side of the wilderness. Over the years of retelling, a variation on this story, a kind of midrash, has sprung up, adding something that’s not in the text: that he is in search of a lost sheep. Maybe because it’s conflated with the parable of the lost sheep told by Jesus in Matthew and Luke. Maybe as a plausible explanation for why Moses went so far. Why would he lead his flock to the far side of the wilderness? Perhaps in search of one who had become lost and fallen into danger.

In any case, it brings him to the most desolate places. He’s been climbing up and down on rocky and thorny land; he’s tired; he’s far from home; and what does he find? A bush, burning and yet not burning up. A paradox of suffering and sustenance. And from within it he hears the voice of his God.

And what God says to him is, “Take off your shoes.”

Take them off! Here! With all these rocks and thorny plants and scorpions and goodness knows what else! Because, God says, this rocky, prickly, unsafe place is holy.

I told one story from my ministry. You have many of your own: times when you went deeper in to the wilderness (of the world or your own heart), you went to the aid of one who wandered, you turned toward the burning place, the place of grief, crisis, brokenness, despair, and found something wondrous there.

Can this be what those surveys are getting at when they find that we are overwhelmed with stress and deeply fulfilled? Can it be that it is there, in the place of pain and risk, that we find the strength and solace to withstand the brokenness?—even be transformed by it, us and our people and our planet?

I don’t know. I barely trust this hope. But I know what happens to Moses. He finds pain and sustenance, dread and joy, in one place, in one moment.

Dear friends, are you on rocky and desert ground? The story tells you: take off your shoes! Strip away your last protection and feel the holy ground under your tender skin. Open your eyes and you will see how to burn, and burn, and burn, and yet not be consumed.

So may it be, and blessed be.

Closing song: “Rocky Ground,” Bruce Springsteen (from Wrecking Ball; lyrics here, mp3 here)

Sermon © 2012 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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“From Righteousness to Right”

Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA

September 30, 2012


Excerpt from “The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union,” Wendell Berry

Excerpt from The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt:

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide. (79-80; this and all citations are from the eBook)


It’s thirty-seven days to Election Day, but who’s counting? And if you are like 95 to 97 percent of likely voters (and I certainly hope you are a likely voter), you’ve already made up your mind about the presidential ticket. So you don’t have a lot to do between now and then. Today I am proposing some homework to fill the empty hours.

I’m joking, of course–there’s a lot to do in the next 37 days, and I’m going to propose some specific things two Sundays from now that we all might do to help with the democratic process. But this assignment is just as important. In fact, I believe that doing this is as important to the future of our country as the outcome of the election. It is quite simple:

Pay attention to what people on “the other side” are saying and try, as Jonathan Haidt recommends, to see things from their angle.

Okay, now, you only have to do it for 37 days. It’s not the end of the world.

(And please forgive me, but for simplicity’s sake I am speaking mostly in binaries, as if there were only two parties and two basic worldviews, which is of course not true. The reasons for listening to other’s views apply more broadly, so feel free to translate.)

Why should we do this? Three basic reasons. To increase the chances of all of us making the best decisions; to stop demonizing our political opposites and realize that our concerns overlap with theirs much more than we knew; and to create a national community that is better than the flawed and struggling one we have created so far.

So, to the first point. Do we want to feel right, to have the security of never doubting our own positions? Or do we want to be right? That is, do we want to advocate the public policies that are best for the people of our country and for the world, as best as we can tell? Then we need to make wise decisions. And here Jonathan Haidt has some news for us. He is a psychologist who researches moral decisionmaking, especially in the realm of political decisions, and in the book The Righteous Mind, he gives ample evidence that human beings don’t use reason to reach our moral and political decisions nearly as much as we think we do.

This summer, in a sermon on the religious implications of neuroscience, Dan referred to this fact, and gave the example of reflexes and near-reflexes, such as moving our foot toward the brake before we’re consciously aware of the need to stop. It goes way beyond reflexes. Haidt cites ample research, his own and many other people’s, to prove that to a large extent, we do not reach our moral decisions by reasoning. For example, research subjects are asked to respond to a story in which someone breaks a taboo. They are all alone in the house and doing housework, and, having run out of rags, use a worn old American flag to clean the bathroom. Or in another story, the family dog is killed by a car and the family decides to eat it. The subjects reach a conclusion almost instantly. Most are unable to explain their opposition to these acts in terms of their usual moral categories: no one was harmed, there was no injustice or infringement of someone’s freedom. They can’t give a reason to support their intuition. But they try, they try . . . They invent reasons, such as that someone might see the woman using the American flag to clean with, even though the story explicitly says no one sees her or ever finds out what she did. It appears that, faced with moral choices, we react, almost like that foot on the brake, and then we invent explanations and justifications for our reactions. Haidt concludes:

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you . . . [Ethical rationales are] mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives. (12-13 eBook)

I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’m not just talking about that cousin or neighbor or friend of yours with the crazy political opinions. I’m talking about you. I’m talking about us all.

Haidt’s metaphor for how we actually make moral decisions is that of a rider, the reason, astride an elephant, the intuition. Our intuitions drive a great deal of our decisionmaking, just as an elephant who wants to go to the left or the right is likely to get her way. The rider can steer, but when the elephant heads one way or another, the momentum to keep going that way is powerful. In fact, it turns out that our riders, our reasoning selves, do an awful lot of rationalizing: not reasoning our way to a good decision, but filling in plausible explanations for why we are making the decision we are, when the real reason is that the elephant led us that way.

Other examples abound. For example, people are given a simple cognitive exercise in which wrong answers are common. What is telling about the research is that

when people are told up front what the answer is and asked to explain why that answer is correct, they can do it. But amazingly, they are just as able to offer an explanation, and just as confident in their reasoning, whether they are told the right answer . . . or the popular but wrong answer. (70, emphasis added)

The same appears to true for moral reasoning. “Moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog,” he writes (78, emphasis in the original). “You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail. And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments” (ibid). So Haidt advises, “Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value”—and I would add, including, and most especially, your own. Because if you or I think we’d have done better in these research studies, well, the evidence is not with us. Liberals and conservatives are equally skilled at inventing after-the-fact rationalizations for our intuitive opinions.

And, conservative and liberal, we are particularly bad at looking for evidence that will contradict what we already believe. I will confess right here and now that if I see a story on the web that appears to be going to confirm my opinion, I’m much more likely to click on it than on one that appears to be going to challenge my opinion. I’m more likely to click on a story about some stupid thing done by the person I’m planning to vote against than on a similar story about someone I’m planning to vote for. Research suggests that I am not unusual.

What does this have to do with listening to other people? Well, it is possible to strengthen our inner rider in making real, reasoned decisions instead of rationalizations, and one of the main ways to do so is to encounter thoughtful, challenging opposition to our elephant’s wishes, our intuitions. The friction of conversation, of engagement, rubs off those assumptions and first-intuitions. Good news: studies support this assertion too.

So if we are to make good decisions on these questions that matter so much, then we need to interact with people who disagree with us. This is also supported by my own experience. When I do read the story that supports a different point of view, I come away with a more nuanced view, myself. It doesn’t necessarily change my mind, and I doubt anything I could read would change my mind about whom to vote for for President five weeks from Tuesday. But it helps me to reach a more thoughtful conclusion and, over time, to think things through with more care and complexity.

Unfortunately, interacting with people we disagree with is really not fun. And you may be asking right now, “Do I have to invite creative friction into my life? I hate friction. It feels awful. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant and makes me want to throw ______ across the room. (Fill in the blank here—“the magazine,” “the newspaper,” “the radio,” “my computer,” “my brother-in-law.”) Can’t we just carry on with our no-politics rule and keep everything civil? That way we’ll all get along and the next family gathering will be much more pleasant.”

Well, I’m glad you asked. Because it brings me to my second reason for engaging with the enemy, I mean, with people of opposing political views, which is that it helps us to understand that we are much more similar to them than we might have thought, and it helps us to honor our own values.

Our first similarity is that we’re all flawed decisionmakers: “very small rider[s] on . . . large elephant[s]” (420). We already knew that others make decisions illogically. When we know the same about ourselves, we can listen to them with more compassion.

And then we might make an even more important discovery: that the moral divide between us is not as great as we think.

You see, we tend to take political beliefs and generalize grand moral views from them. Political differences mean someone is deficient in morals. Republicans are hesitant to support social programs, which must prove that they don’t care about compassion. Democrats are eager to place restrictions on how someone earns and spends their money, which must prove that they don’t care about freedom. And when we know someone who is otherwise very nice and whom we generally respect, and yet whose views are very different from ours, we surmise that they are being foolish or misled.

Haidt proposes that there are six different moral categories, areas of consideration that we use in making our moral, and therefore our political, judgments: caring for the vulnerable and protecting them from harm; fairness; and freedom from oppression; loyalty, a respect for authority, and purity, or what Haidt calls sanctity. (I think he is probably leaving out one or two.) Which ones you draw upon is a good indicator of your political positions; interestingly, conservatives tend to draw upon all six fairly evenly, while liberals draw heavily only on the first three. And there is much more research about this, with many interesting implications we don’t have time for this morning. But what I want to focus on today is that they are moral categories. Someone who has a political viewpoint that we find bewildering probably arrived at it not because they are bad or thoughtless, but because it supports a moral value that they hold dear. And furthermore, when we look at these moral values in this light, we may realize that we share them more than we thought we did.

For example, one of the distinctions between conservative and liberal is how much we are troubled by freeloading. I often think it is the major distinction. If you set up a social program—for example, food stamps—then some people will use it who don’t really need it. This tends to drive conservatives crazy, to the point that they would rather not have the program at all; liberals, on the other hand, tend to consider it a necessary evil and would rather keep the program and tolerate some freeloading. But where I get really concerned, for myself and, here I’ll pick on other liberals, is that we stop caring about freeloading, or even acknowledging that it is a problem. We can’t afford to admit it. If we did, we might allow a chink in the armor around social programs. We might have to concede something to the opponent. That’s how it looks when we are in combat instead of in conversation.

And yet, if I step out of combat and into my own experience, I can say honestly that freeloading drives me crazy too. For example, I hate this: I’m in heavy traffic on the highway, so heavy that it’s practically at a standstill. I and all the other responsible drivers have been sitting there for half an hour. Now along comes someone speeding along the shoulder, in which it is illegal to drive except in an emergency—just zooming past all the rest of us—and he wants to cut in front of me to get back into a lane. No way! I’ve been playing by the rules, like the hundreds of other cars here, and we all want to get where we’re going just as much as this guy does, and no way am I going to let him delay us one moment more. He can darn well get to the back of the line. Geez, every schoolkid knows this: you don’t cut in line.

What if I were to say to my conservative friends, who are so incensed by the prospects of one welfare recipient having a Cadillac or a hidden income on the side: “That makes me angry too”? What might happen? It would be more honest, for one thing. I’d be opening up a part of myself that I had denied, and that’s always good for making better decisions. We would feel less alienated from each other. Maybe we could have a constructive conversation about how to meet our shared goals: get help to those who really need it, minimize cheating by those who don’t. And maybe we would all honor all our values a little more.

We tend to assume that the people whose political views differ from ours have very different moral convictions than we do, and some of Haidt’s work suggests that we do tend to draw on different areas of moral consideration. But let’s look for a moment at the song we sang as our opening hymn. Does “If I Had a Hammer” express liberal or conservative values? You may know the politics of the writers already—hint, they were blacklisted during the McCarthy years—but if you didn’t, could you guess from the words? A vision of our land being one of justice, freedom, and love, where we think of ourselves as family, and where we see danger that calls for a warning? If you think your side has these values but the other one doesn’t, you’re not even going to want to talk to them. If you think these are the values only of the other side, then you might invent reasons that they’re bad. For example—this is for the liberals out there—what if I told you that the songwriters were not leftists but actually very conservative? Would you start thinking that there was something a little fishy about their supposed devotion to justice, freedom, and love?—maybe that those terms meant something very different for the songwriters than they do for you?

Are you finding yourself wanting to know Haidt’s own political views? If you learned they differed significantly from yours, would you be less inclined even to consider the findings of his research?

The research, sadly, says yes. We are less likely to notice facts that contradict our beliefs than those that affirm them, and when presented with contradictory facts, we are more likely to ignore them. Left to ourselves, we sit in an echo chamber, calling out our own convictions and happily listening to them confirm what we already believe.

Which, again, is why we need to listen to people with whom we disagree. Now, there’s no need to go to extremes. Just find a responsible, thoughtful source that has a different political bent than your own. If you’re liberal, don’t start watching Fox News or reading the Drudge Report; try reading the Wall Street Journal or The Economist. If you’re conservative, don’t start logging in daily to Talking Points Memo or watching Jon Stewart; just try getting your news from the New York Times or the Washington Post. Don’t lift the ban on talking politics with the person who thinks you are going to hell for your convictions, or taking the country there. Instead, find that reasonable friend or family member, the one about whom you’ve wondered, “How can someone so smart and kind have opinions like that?,” and ask them, for real, not rhetorically: “What makes you reach that decision? What values are behind it?” And listen, without thinking of how to change their minds or what’s wrong with what they’re saying. What might be very hard is that they might not be ready to listen to you. It’s okay. This is a first step. Just listen.

It will not only improve your relationship, it will improve our country. That’s my third reason for making this recommendation. Not only will we make better decisions if we strengthen our riders by having to reason, not just rationalize; not only will we be truer to ourselves if we acknowledge the many values that go into our decisions, not just one or two or three; but we will be a stronger, better society if we build on all of the moral foundations that we and our neighbors value. A society cannot stand just on a couple of our values—it needs all of the six that Haidt outlines, and maybe more. Too little respect for authority will make our streets unsafe and our schools and workplaces combat zones of all against all. Too little care will create a society that knows only justice and no mercy or kindness. Too many freeloaders will break the system. We need not just the love between our brothers and sisters, not just freedom, not just justice, but all three, and more. Among us all we hold a great deal of moral capital, without which the most wonderful dreams of left or right can’t survive.

As Haidt writes, “Social order is extremely precious and difficult to achieve” (364); “Moral communities are hard to build and easy to destroy” (392). As we move through the difficult next five weeks, at those moments when we feel despair that this country can ever be united or that goodness can ever prevail, let us turn not to the shelter of our own righteousness and self-righteousness, but to our neighbors, all of them, and ask them, “What moral values do you hold most dear?” Let us be ready for what they say to surprise us, hearten us, and challenge us. Let us be prepared to see beyond the walls we have built and find something of value on the other side. Maybe then we can build, together, despite our differences, because of our differences, a society that will be good, and do good, for the world and the future.

© 2012 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

To see more detail on Haidt’s categories, participate in the questionnaires used in the research reported here, etc., look at:

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“The New Normal”

Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA, August 19, 2012

Centering Words

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

Jelaluddin Muhammad Rumi


When I was sixteen I got some unwelcome and upsetting news. The details escape me now, but I do remember that it was hard to be happy while thinking about it, and virtually impossible to think about anything else. I don’t know what my then-boyfriend had experienced to give him wisdom in these matters—he was no older than I was—but he had. He said, “It’s like a meteorite has crashed into your living room. And at first you can barely move around the room because there’s this huge rock in the middle. After a while you start to move around it, and put things on it, and then, eventually, you’re used to it, this big meteorite in the middle of the living room, and you hardly even think about it.”

You’ve probably had your own meteorites: unwelcome changes, which is to say, losses: losses of a person, a dream, an ability, an identity. When we’re trying to adjust to such losses, we often refer to our state as “the new normal,” not to be confused with the new television show of that name. What was once normal for us becomes a relic of the past and we have a new day-to-day reality, like Robert’s life with drop foot and Melissa’s unasked-for new home far away from what was familiar.

It’s a horrible term to anyone who’s just been hit with a disaster. We don’t want the new reality to become normal. We want to go back to where we were a moment before that thing crashed into our lives.

Another geological image comes to my mind. If you’ve never been to Craters of the Moon National Park, let me describe it for you. It is a place in Idaho where the earth once erupted in fire and flowed with melted rock. The formations left by the lava as it cooled are bizarre, and hard to walk on. And it is almost entirely devoid of life, except for the tourists who gingerly step out onto this desert. The rocks are so sharp that even through the soles of your shoes you feel the hostility of the landscape. It tears at the soles.

Adjusting to a new normal can be like walking across that barren land. We may know in some way that on the far side of pain and difficulty there is a new self in a new reality, and that that is where we need to arrive. We might know in the abstract that we won’t always feel as awful as we do at that moment. But we might not even want to adjust to the loss. In the most devastating cases, we may feel that we don’t even want to survive it. We wish we could just curl up and die rather than have to take one more step across that terrain of grief.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Animal Dreams, a character suffers that kind of loss, and has a conversation with someone who is possibly the only person who has the standing to talk about it, because he’s suffered a very similar loss himself. His name is Loyd.

[He says:] “Listen, I know how this is. You don’t think you’ll live past it. And you don’t, really. The person you were is gone. But the half of you that’s still alive wakes up one day and takes over again.”

[And she says:] “Why should I look forward to that?”

. . . . [He replies,] “I can’t answer that.”

The seven words she utters are the cry of any of us who must suddenly look into a future devoid of a precious something or someone, and are told that one day we will find our pain bearable: “Why should I look forward to that?” To make the unendurable normal is itself an almost unendurable idea. And Loyd is right: no one can tell us why life in that normality might be worth living. We will answer it for ourselves, through faith and courage, as we pick our way over the soul-cutting rocks.

Sometimes, we spend a lot of time first huddling on one side of the desert, wrapped in denial, hoping that if we refuse to move, the pain won’t cut as deep. If we don’t think, don’t speak, don’t look our loss in the face, maybe we can just stay here, in some kind of no-man’s-land. That denial can get us through the shock. It’s a survival skill, and loving friends will give us the time to decide when we’ll take the first step across to our new, unwelcome selves.

When we get stuck there, though, it’s tragic. When Robert and I first spoke about this topic, his story struck me doubly because of someone else I have known (someone not associated with this congregation) who also had drop foot. She was so bitter about this irreparable loss that she could never move through it; she got stuck there, refusing completely to move into a new normal. Actually, the only thing I can think of that’s worse than having to adjust to a loss is not adjusting to it. And so I want to give the rest of this time to considering how we might wake up to that reality when we are in that place of just not even wanting to face that there is a new normal. What gives us the strength to see to the far side of the journey we have to make?.

A few years back, Nick Hornby wrote a beautifully humane novel about the struggle to adjust to a new normal. It’s called Slam. It’s a very apt title, because the main character, a teenager named Sam, is a passionate skateboarder. A slam in skating is a bad accident where you fall off the board and smash to the ground, and who knows what breaks. The story is about another slam that happens to him.

Hornby is not usually a fantasist. He writes realistic fiction about contemporary people. In this book, though, he uses a little bit of magic, a little science fiction, to show how we might adjust to the slams of life.

At the start, Sam’s life is going pretty well. He’s a smart, college-bound sixteen-year-old. In his room hangs a poster of the god of skateboarding, Tony Hawk, and he talks to this poster and Tony talks back, offering him all sorts of life advice. When Sam realizes, knows, that his girlfriend Alicia is going to tell him she’s pregnant—actually, she’s his ex-girlfriend, as he’s just broken up with her, but that’s no help—and before she can deliver the news that he knows she’s going to say, he tries to run away. He tries to stop time by turning off his mobile phone (in fact, by throwing it into the ocean) and living his life, insistently, as if nothing has changed.

But then something inexplicable happens. In the place he’s run to to hide, he goes to sleep, alone, and wakes up next to Alicia, in bed, with their infant son in a crib in the same room. He’s been picked up and dropped into the future, the future that he knows awaits him but that he’s trying so hard not to enter.

He blames Tony Hawk, who, he says, has magically forwarded him to the future. All through the book Tony Hawk whizzes him back and forth, giving him little glimpses of the future. It’s full of trouble: college plans put on hold, a baby he just isn’t ready for, two sets of parents who are disappointed and angry.

And worst of all, the person he experiences there just isn’t him. The first time he goes into the future, and wakes up beside his girlfriend, she of course assumes he knows how to take care of a baby, because in her reality, the future, he’s been doing it for a few months. He says, in his narration to the reader:

The trouble was, I wasn’t that Sam. I was the old Sam. I was the Sam who’d turned his mobile off so that he wouldn’t find out if his ex-girlfriend was pregnant or not. (91)

Well, that’s the new normal in a nutshell. You’re a new you. You’re not the old you anymore, even though you may want to be. But the old Sam already isn’t working out so well, because the future is here. Time did not stop when he threw his cell phone into the ocean. And thanks to being whizzed into the future, the old Sam takes a deep breath and faces his new reality.

It reminds me of one of my favorite moments in my favorite Harry Potter book, . . .The Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry works a powerful, life-saving piece of magic that he’s never been able to do before. He too is able to do it because he’s seen the future–literally seen it, because that can happen in a magical world–and there he has seen a strength in himself that he didn’t previously know he had.

I said his spell saved lives. Actually, to be precise, it saved souls. And it’s our souls that are on the line when we struggle to accept a new normal. If we can do it, we can remain ourselves, even grow into a greater self, despite our loss, despite our pain. The walk across the desert of knifelike rocks cuts at us, but not nearly as much as the refusal to cross it would do.

Now, I have to make an important acknowledgement about Sam and his slam. On the scale of life disasters, having a baby at 17, many years before you want to, isn’t the worst. Hornby acknowledges that too; it’s clear that Sam adores his son and that a lot about being a father makes him happy, so he has an enormous consolation. People endure far worse.

But it is still far from a happy situation. Thinking about how to rate his new life, “marks out of ten,” Sam says, “I’m afraid I couldn’t go any higher than a three. This isn’t what I had in mind. How could it be?” (304)

And yet he can cope. He can cope because he’s glimpsed the future, and while he doesn’t know what steps will get him from the present to there, he knows that somehow he will take them. From the present, it looked impossible, but from the vantage point of the future, the place Tony Hawk whizzed him to, he knows it’s possible. Hard, but possible. And that is enough to give him the courage to keep moving over that land of pain.

Most of us don’t have a magical poster of Tony Hawk on the wall, so when we are plunged into an unasked-for, painful new reality, we have to call on something else to get us to accept it and begin to thrive. And we sang of some of them. We might feel it in this great burst of energy as in singing to the power of the strength within or maybe we’ll hear it as a still, small voice that some people hear as God within them. We might call on imagination, on hope, on faith. The evidence of the people all around us who have endured what we consider unendurable. One of the great gifts of life in a community like this is that we can see other people, ordinary people just like us, who have been dropped into a reality that no one wants, least of all them, and yet they step forward with courage and grace.

What I wish for you when you face loss and unwelcome changes is that that magic might work in your heart just enough to show you a future you can endure. Not one that will be just as it was. Not such a rosy future that you will in time be glad of the sorrows that came into your life, although that happens sometimes, with some losses, even very deep losses. But just that you will be able to see yourself, a new version of yourself, living fully in a future that you have fully entered.

For each of us, in some form, there’s a magical poster to bring us that special gift. We may take hope from a plant just emerging from the earth, that shows us the promise of the future; we may derive faith from the sun’s rising each morning, even when a part of us wishes it would hold still and let us stay fixed in time. The tide pouring over the beach again and again may give us determination by reminding us that the unstoppable forces of life do not just overtake us but also flow from of us, as the beauty that we make, as the love that we share. And we can find that window into the future in each other and be that window for each other. From our own courageous acceptance of whatever guest’s life brings into our guesthouse, we can show each other a new reality and the strength to accept it.

May it be so! Blessed be.

(c) 2012 Amy Zucker Morgenstern. Rumi poem translated by Coleman Barks.

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“Thinking Like the Earth”

Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA

April 22 (Earth Day), 2012

Centering Words: Terry Tempest Williams, Red

The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. They are kneeling with hands clasped that we might act with restraint, that we might leave room for the life that is destined to come. To protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle. Perhaps the wildness we fear is the pause between our own heartbeats, the silent space that says we live only by grace. Wilderness lives by this same grace. Wild mercy is in our hands.

Reading: Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949)

In one of the most striking passages from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, in an essay called “Thinking Like a Mountain,” he tells of coming across a pack of wolves, mother and grown pups. He grew up seeing wolves as the enemy: killers or deer and thus competitors with human hunters, killers of cattle and thus impediments to a rancher’s solvency. “In those days,” he writes, “we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf,” and so he and the people he is fire onto the pack.

When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks . . .

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes-something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea. (130-32)


I remember the first time I felt the earth spin. I must have been ten or twelve years old. It was bedtime, and I was lying on my back. I closed my eyes, and suddenly, I felt that I was turning, slowly, but just perceptibly enough to make me a little dizzy, as if I had lain down in the center of a playground carousel as it slowed.

My first and unshakeable impression was that I was feeling the rotation of the earth. If it had been a scene in a movie, the shot of me on my bunkbed would have cut to a very long shot of the whole planet Earth, one speck of a North American child spreadeagled upon it.

As my mind raced with wonder and curiosity, I applied some logic. If the spin of the earth was detectable, what a felt, a spinning with myself at the center, would be possible only at the poles. I was not at the axis of the spinning globe, like a person at the center of the carousel. If I could feel the earth’s movement, in Connecticut, about midway between equator and North Pole, it should feel like rushing movement eastward, not a rotation.

But the epiphany remained, and has always remained: I was one small being on a big globe, and that globe was one small rounded rock in a big expanse of space. It was one of many treasured experiences of glimpsing my part in a much larger and complex whole.


Long before the first Earth Day in 1970, Aldo Leopold was a worker in the U.S. Forest Service who observed the land and made beautiful verbal “sketches here and there,” as he called them, that are reminiscent of Thoreau: he is a keen-eyed naturalist and a shrewd analyst of human relationships with the rest of what Leopold called “the community” of land. He noted the effects of conservation, and its failures. Most conservation efforts just rewarded people for doing what was already in their economic self-interest. The problem was, “most members of the land community have no economic value”—such as songbirds and wildflowers (210).

In 1948, a few months before he died fighting a grass fire, Leopold wrote,

Conservation is getting nowhere, because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized [humanity] . . .

That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten. (viii-ix)

The passage I read about the wolves is not a declaration of animal rights, nor a manifesto against hunting. Leopold became an ardent opponent of Congress’s policy of exterminating timber wolves, not out of sentiment or affection for wolves, though his admiration for them is clear. Rather, he saw our prejudice against predators as short-sighted and profoundly out of touch with the community of land as a whole, which needs its predators; its pests; its unattractive members like gnats and molds; its members who yield no visible economic benefit, like deserts and marshes. If he were alive to hear today’s suburban city governments fuss and worry about their exploding deer populations, and the damage done to gardens and the people in cars, he would probably refrain from saying “I told you so,” but he would have earned the right.

~ ~ ~

Leopold’s insights are some of the origins of what is known as Deep Ecology. Deep Ecology has no single definition or proponent, but the gist is that living beings have an inherent worth—that should sound familiar to Unitarian Universalists—an inherent worth regardless of their usefulness to human beings; that an anthropocentric view of our environment is neither borne out by what we know about ecological systems nor morally defensible; that, in Leopold’s words, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community [and] it is wrong when it tends otherwise” (224-25). The “eyes of the future” of which Terry Tempest Williams writes, in the stirring words we heard at our centering time, are not only human eyes. They are the witness of all living things.

Now, in a purely philosophical sense, the concept of “thinking like a mountain,” or thinking like the whole earth, ends in a cul de sac. Leopold writes that as the deer fear the wolf, the mountain fears its deer. But does it really? Too many deer mean too few juniper and sage, but what does the mountain care whether the juniper and sage thrive, or the deer, or the wolves? The mountain—its rocks and waters, its gullies and crevices, its contour—will be standing long after every animal and plant that lived upon it is gone. Just as the Earth, the actual ball of rock revolving around the sun, is not something we can destroy. It is impervious to us (something for which I occasionally give thanks), and even if we could blow it out of the skies, the impact on the galaxy would be negligible . . . you see, when you try to answer the question of “what are these things good for,” you head into a dead end.

In other words, to take Leopold’s logic to its logical extreme is not logical. Extremes seldom are.

What Deep Ecology does is expand our ethics, which have mostly spoken only of people, to encompass the entire biosphere: living things and everything that sustains them. Until very recently, we used to think of many people as having no rights at all. They were property; they were commodities in an economic system. “Rights,” when that concept was developed, protected a very small circle, which has gradually been expanded to include: women. Children. The original residents of whatever land we occupy. People in other parts of the world. They are no longer a commodity to which all people belong.

As Leopold writes,

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land…. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these “resources”, but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. (204)

A naïve interpretation of ecology, even Deep Ecology, would have it that humans are uniquely unsuited to live on earth—undeserving. In this view, other creatures and some enlightened, usually aboriginal, people live in perfect harmony, but most of us are just exploiters. And yet Leopold’s wiser view affirms what Bill [today’s Worship Associate] said: we and all our creations are a part of the biosphere as well. The problem is not that we use resources; alter the land; threaten other creatures, even species; or create things that some would call ugly. After all, deer use resources; beavers alter the land; any predator, in a series of strong seasons, could tip a vulnerable prey population over the edge into extinction; and other species are, or create, things that others find ugly. All of these are part of the equilibrium of a living system, and we have our place in it.

No, the problem is that we are so ignorant of our place in it, so ignorant of the complex web of which we are just a part, that we don’t know how to walk in a balanced way. Leopold again:

The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in ignorance is the [person] who says of an animal or plant: “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering. (Round River, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993, 145-146.)

We will not, need not, stop tinkering. But for us to do it sustainably, we need two things: intelligence and humility. And there is a powerful, simple route to both: pay attention to the other inhabitants of Earth, the other parts of the complex organism of which we are also a part. We often act as if we are removed from the rest of nature. The remedy is simple.

Our Green Sanctuary Committee, of which Bill is one of the leaders, encourages us all to be stewards of the earth by taking specific actions to reduce our carbon footprint, our impact on the climate, over the next month. As you are contemplating actions you’ll take—such as driving less, using the sun instead of gas heat to dry your clothes, or buying some of those native plants for your garden—I urge you to include one more thing make a date with yourself to connect with the rest of the Earth more often. It could be signing up for the hikes K. B. offers on our Announce e-mail list and getting up to Wunderlich or out to Mount Diablo. And it can be even closer to home.

The community of earth is wherever you are. So you can eat lunch outdoors and watch the birds. You can take your shoes off when you sit in your garden so you can feel the earth under your bare feet. When you’re up early one morning, instead of turning on the radio or computer, lie quietly and listen to the dawn chorus. When you see a spider in your home, pull up a chair and watch it. As you walk to the train station, note what is in bloom that wasn’t the week before. As you eat your dinner, pay attention to where your nourishment comes from and the effect it has on your body . . .

We are always a part of the community of the land. When we open our awareness, we develop intelligence and humility. We move from being contenders against the rest of this community, or even just stewards of it, to knowing ourselves to be a full part, a neighbor, a thread in the web. Over the next month and the months to come, may you spend this time becoming aware of this interdependence, and may it guide you into wise choices and joyful life.

(c) 2012 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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Christmas Eve homily: “Waiting to be Born”

given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto

December 24, 2011

“Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart . . . “

Mary has had a lot to think about for many months now, ever since an angel, a messenger from her God, came to her to tell her that she was going to have a baby, and that it was no ordinary baby, but holy, born of God’s Holy Spirit. Ever since then, surely, she has been pondering, what is it that is being brought to birth by me?

In some ways, the story is hard for us to relate to. It’s so full of miracles, supernatural occurrences, predictions that come true as if by magic. One thousand and eight hundred years after Matthew and Luke told the story of Jesus’s life, Thomas Jefferson would retell it without any of that. In Jefferson’s Bible, Jesus was born, he taught, and he died. No miracles, no singing angels. Just a human baby and the miracle that is every birth. That, apparently, was meaningful enough to Jefferson.

And we don’t have to believe in the moving star or the angels or the messenger from God to connect our own lives to this story: the story which, at its core, is as common as the ground we walk on. A woman is expecting a child. He is born. She ponders what he will become. It happens all over the world every day.

We don’t have to have given birth, or be parents, or ever intend to become parents, to recognize ourselves in this story. We are all, every one of us, of whatever age and situation in life, like Mary in one key respect: Something waits to be born through us: something beyond us, beyond our understanding, beautiful, complete unto itself and yet dependent on us. It may be a dream, a friendship, a work of art, an idea, an act of love, a new way of being, a new world: something larger than ourselves and yet needing us in order to come to life. Whether it will be born depends on whether we give ourselves over to its birth.

The dancer and choreographer Martha Graham said, “There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.”

What is waiting to be born through you?

Graham didn’t have any children. But she knew all about the quickening of new life within—the stirring of images, actions, ideas—and patiently waited and worked, labored, to bring them into the world for all to see.

What is it that could come into the world, could ripen and be borne, like a peach swelling on a branch, if only you, the tree, will dig your roots deep to bring up water, open yourself to the light, allow yourself to bud, blossom, and bring it forth?

Today is the last day of Advent. The time of waiting, the days when something is coming, are almost complete.

Something is always waiting to be born. Approaching. Needing only for someone to bring it to its full form and welcome it into the world.

And so this is a meditation for Christmas: the question, what is it that can enter the world through you? However ordinary you may think you are, just a person going along minding your daily business the way Mary was, there is something that can take shape only if you allow it. You can block it—you can resist it—you can refuse to bloom and let the bud wither before it comes to fruition. Or you can try too hard to make it happen, when it has to grow in its own time, like a baby. Mary, like a Taoist sage, neither strives nor resists. She knows something is happening that is bigger than her and yet that must come through her.

Don’t most pregnant women wonder how this amazing thing can be happening? How is a new life, a whole human being, being put together within their bodies? None of us knows how to construct a human being. Something beyond our comprehension makes it happen.

Don’t most parents look into their child’s face and wonder what she is thinking, what kind of person he will grow to be, what her fate will be, whether they will be happy and loving and loved?

Aren’t so many of our most important plans and accomplishments realized by a mix of our efforts and our getting out of the way and letting that amazing power move through us?

The artist makes himself a channel for inspiration. He doesn’t know where it comes from. He practices, he hones his skills, yes, he works hard like a woman in labor, and also, when an idea comes from who knows where in the middle of the night, he picks up his pen or brush and follows it.

The athlete works and practices, gets up early, eats well, drills with discipline, but all in the interest of letting the inexplicable, unpredictable power use her body. She knows that feeling of being in the zone, when she does amazing things on the field or the court without even knowing how she does them.

Even the activist, so intent on making a difference, is a channel through which the longings of the world for peace and justice flow. Let them come through and the world will change, through us and only partly because of us.

Something is waiting to be born through you, and only through you. Part of your role is to pay attention and know what it is. And part of your role is to move aside enough to let it be born. Imagine a pregnant woman deciding to take matters into her own hands and make bones, a brain, a heart. She couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t know how. Life knows how to make new life, and so she eats well, gets enough rest, tries not to take too many long journeys by donkey, and awaits the birth of this miraculous, unknown child. The child, as we reminded parents at their children’s dedications earlier this week, of life itself.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that even what we call God may be something that is waiting to be born through us: “the one who is coming, who has been approaching from all eternity, the one who will someday arrive, the ultimate fruit of a tree whose leaves we are.” Each person’s life, he wrote, can be lived “as a painful and lovely day in the history of a great pregnancy.”

Something is ready to come into being through you. Something beautiful, unique, and holy can come to birth through you, and you alone. Like Mary, may we each ponder what it might be. May we be humble enough, simple enough to let ourselves be the sacred channel through which something new and precious travels from dark nonbeing into the light of day.

Like the morning stars, let us together praise the holy birth, give thanks, and treasure it in our hearts.

© 2011 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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Reflection on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11

given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto

Sunday, September 11, 2011: Water Communion

The quote on the order of service, from John F. Kennedy, was also the text of an anthem sung by the choir, “Common Link,” composed by Mark Carlson.

If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic, common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future.  And we are all mortal.

Centering words, from Saadi, 13th century Persian poet

To worship God is nothing other than to serve the people.

It does not need rosaries, prayer carpets, or robes.

All peoples are members of the same body, created from one essence.

If fate brings suffering to one member, the others cannot stay at rest.

Reading                        Peter Ferrara, published on September 25, 2001

You probably missed it in the rush of news [right after September 11], but there was actually a report that someone in Pakistan had published in a newspaper there an offer of a reward to anyone who killed an American, any American.

So I just thought I would write to let them know what an American is, so they would know when they found one.

An American is English…or French, or Italian, Irish, German, Spanish, Polish, Russian or Greek. An American may also be African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Australian, Iranian, Asian, or Arab, or Pakistani, or Afghan.

An American is Christian, or he could be Jewish, or Buddhist, or Muslim. In fact, there are more Muslims in America than in Afghanistan. The only difference is that in America they are free to worship as each of them choose.

An American is also free to believe in no religion. For that he will answer only to God, not to the government, or to armed thugs claiming to speak for the government and for God.

. . . . Americans welcome the best, but they also welcome the least. The national symbol of America welcomes your tired and your poor, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores, the homeless, tempest tossed.

So you can try to kill an American if you must . . . . But in doing so you would just be killing yourself. Because Americans are not a particular people from a particular place. They are the embodiment of the human spirit of freedom. Everyone who holds to that spirit, everywhere, is an American.[i]


It was a day of fire and dust. Airplanes turning into missiles. Towers of glass and concrete burning. Blazes erupting in New York, Pennsylvania, Washington. And when the first tower collapsed from the heat, a cloud of unimaginable power, so large it was visible from space, rolled across Manhattan like a thunderstorm front.

How do we respond to a grief that still burns and chokes, ten years later? How do we memorialize such a loss?

My mother sent me a video of what the planned memorial looked like, and I cried and cried, both from sorrow remembered and re-awakened, and from a sense of peace and healing. The memorial was dedicated this morning. In the precise footprints of the twin towers, we have set waterfalls, endlessly pouring. Around the edge of each are engraved all of the names, all of the stories of love and loss, and within: a fountain, cool water ever flowing.

In those first days we spoke all our grief and hope. One ideal was given voice by Professor Peter Ferrara in the reading [our Worship Associate] shared. A belief, a hope maybe, that America would always embody freedom and openness.

That ideal was under fire then, as it always is: from without, and, even more dangerously, from within. Even as Ferrara wrote, the freedom of religion he hailed was hard to come by for American Muslims. In another paragraph we didn’t hear this morning, he praised Americans for not being people who would be fooled into killing innocents. But that ideal was hard to achieve. Two weeks later, we were dropping fire upon Afghanistan, the sufferers mostly civilians, as the sufferers of modern war mostly are. Sixteen months after that, we were invading another country that had no part in the attack upon us. Our grief was made a cry for war, answering fire with fire.

The hymn we sang, “By the Waters of Babylon,” is a song of grief, of exile. The people of Jerusalem, exiled by the Babylonians, sing how “we sat down and wept” for the peaceful and beautiful homeland lost, Zion, Jerusalem. And who are we in that song? Are we Jerusalem, the place of hope and promise, the symbol of all that is good, or are we Babylon, the land of violence?

It depends on us. One can turn into the other in a single moment. The words of that hymn are the first lines of Psalm 137. The psalm begins in sorrow and grief; it ends in a call for revenge and one of the most chilling expressions of rage in all of the Bible, a longing to turn one’s grief and anger not just against the enemy, the rulers of Babylon, but against other innocent people. When we are hurt, it makes us angry, and when we are angry, we burn with a fire that, if we are not careful, hurts the innocent.

It is so easy to start off as Jerusalem and end up as Babylon . . . This is true of America; it is true of humanity. It is the struggle within each of us, especially when we are in pain and confusion. It is easy in such moments to turn even love into a source of division. The love of our country, the love of our families, that has such power to unite us with everyone who has ever loved their country and their family, can be corrupted by fear.

But as we will sing in our other hymn today, if we will it and make it happen, “a bright new day [will dawn] when love will not divide.”

Each year when we gather here, we bring each other water: the gift of ourselves, the gifts of beauty and hope, healing, life.

What a beautiful, lasting gift the creators of the national 9/11 memorial have made to us. They have poured cool waters upon our burning sorrow. When we visit Ground Zero in reality or in our minds, when we go to that place of fire and dust, of rending and loss, of shock and fear, we will sit by the soothing waters and hear their peaceful music. We will weep, and we will know healing and hope.

[i] “What Is An American?,” The National Review, accessed September 6, 2011,

(c) 2011 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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“Getting Unstuck”

given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA

June 19, 2011

Happy Father’s Day! What is it we are celebrating when we celebrate fatherhood? I ask this question because it strikes me that the answer is very different now than it would have been in 1911, or for that matter, 50 years ago, in 1961. There have always been fathers, and the expectations of what it means to be a father is strongly passed down from father to son, and yet fatherhood has changed, for individual men and their families, and for society as a whole. This is good to remember, because according to some points of view, namely a lot of women and mothers I know, there is nothing more resistant to change than an American father. Clearly, it’s not true!

At some moments, we believe that change is all but impossible, whether on a personal, an organizational, or a social level. On a personal level, we know all too well the cycle of resolutions and failures: of swearing to work out more, eat less, change our work habits, but not achieving the change we aimed for. We can sing every day with the hymn we shared earlier: “I wish I could live like I’m longing to live.” (“I Wish I Knew How,” Singing the Living Tradition, No. 151) We know all about the frustration of asking our spouses to change just one single annoying habit and having it never happen; of trying to get our housemate to just empty the darn dishwasher instead of pulling clean dishes out of it on an as-needed basis; of getting our employees or co-workers to abide by a few simple common-sense guidelines that they’ve been resisting for year. We are very good at sabotaging change efforts. We do it so effectively that it’s sometimes amazing that change ever happens at all.

And yet it does. As William Schulz (Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, and former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association) retold when he spoke here two months ago, he was once part of a conversation where academics were debating whether the state of human rights was better now than it was 100 years ago. One after another lamented that it wasn’t, but if I’d been there, I’d have responded to them the same way Schulz told us he did: by asking them, “Are you guys nuts?!” The advances have been truly incredible. A step back for every two forward, often, but still, the change, a change for the better, is clear.

What happened with human rights, with the changing roles of fathers and mothers, women and men in our society—did human nature change? Or are there perhaps more concrete, repeatable ways to bring change about?

I’ve been reading a book about change recently because I’m particularly interested in how to bring about wanted changes. It’s called Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath. Like everyone, I have all sorts of hypotheses about why individuals, organizations, and societies do or don’t embrace change. But hypotheses beg to be tested, so I turned to research. There has been a wealth of research about what works for people seeking to change. The Heaths’ book digests this research and sets out some principles, beginning with three surprises about change:

(1) “What looks like laziness is often exhaustion”; help people to tap into their source of energy and they will change.

(2) “What looks like resistance [to change] is often a lack of clarity”; give clear, specific direction and have a clear destination, and people will change.

(3) “What looks like a problem with the people is often a problem with the situation”; tweak the situation, and people will change.

We can get very stuck, and stay stuck, and I’d like to spend the rest of my time this morning looking at one case of stuckness and what we know about how to shift it from research such as that compiled by the Heaths. The case I’m interested in is Unitarian Universalism’s welcome, or lack thereof, of people of color—what the Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed constructively frames as “missed opportunities.”

Reverend Morrison-Reed is a historian of African-American pioneers in Unitarianism, Universalism, and our denomination since the merger of the two in 1961. He has written a few books on the subject, and his first, Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, published almost 30 years ago, has been on the required reading list for ministers in preparation for many years, and I’m happy to learn, still is. He spoke at our District Assembly last month, and then here at UUCPA a few days later, invited by our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, who also wrote the opening essay in Rev. Morrison-Reed’s most recent book, Darkening the Doorways: Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism. In that book, Mark told one story that illustrates this problem of getting stuck.

It’s the story of the hymnal commission created after merger, in order to create the first hymnal of the new, merged denomination, the one just before our “gray hymnal,” the “blue hymnal” called Hymns for the Celebration of Life. It was the early 60s and the commission included people who were acutely attuned to racial justice and the racial issues of the country, particularly black-white issues. One was Kenneth Patton, who led the way in shaping a Universalism that drew on all different traditions and world religions, and who made headlines when he wrote an essay declaring his resignation from the white race. Another was Christopher Moore, who founded the Chicago Children’s Choir, an intentionally multiracial, multicultural chorus that began at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. And yet the hymnal that resulted had not a single reading by an African-American poet, not a single song from the African-American tradition.

The moral is that sometimes we don’t even know we’re stuck. Good people, with lots of knowledge and good intentions, and a commitment to racial justice, might still replicate old patterns.

What do we know about change that suggests some ways we could move forward? In particular, how might we apply this knowledge here, at UUCPA?

I don’t know if Mark Morrison-Reed has read Switch, but I’ll tell you, he successfully used some of their principles on me. When I went to his address at District Assembly, I was already on board emotionally with the dream of a Unitarian Universalism that is abundantly multiracial and multicultural. I agreed with the UUA president, Peter Morales, that welcoming newcomers is “the spiritual equivalent of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless,” because we have already found here something that they need and are looking for; I saw outreach to people of color as part of that mission. I had taken steps toward leading this congregation in that direction. But I didn’t have a lot of energy for the task. It felt overwhelming, like an uphill and uncertain path.

Here are a few things Reverend Morrison-Reed said and did that helped get me unstuck. More, they showed me some ways that we as a congregation can get unstuck.

I’d love to share the Heaths’ whole framework with you first, but I can’t do it all this morning. I’ll just tell you a few things that happened for me over the past month to change me from a person who vaguely wished we were more diverse, to someone with a fire in the belly, a plan in mind, and the means to make it happen—starting with the workshop I’m leading this Thursday evening, which I hope you’ll attend.

One thing they advise is to make a big job less overwhelming by shrinking the change. To stay motivated, we need hope, and we get hope by knowing that we’re partway there. Studies have shown how big a difference this makes. For example, in one experiment a group of people was given a card to fill out, eight car washes and then they would get a free car wash; and another group was given a card that said “ten car washes and you get a free car wash,” but it had the first two already punched. Eight to go for these folks, and eight to go for these folks. The ones who had the ten-minus-two were much more likely to complete the card and get the free car wash—which was of course exactly what car wash owners wanted them to do. They got to the goal because they were already partway there when they started. Well, I went to this workshop and learned from Mark how attractive Unitarian Universalism is to people of color—how many times in our history African-Americans, for example, have eagerly come in our doors, saying “This is what we’re looking for!”–and then I started looking at how many people of color and multiracial families are already here in our congregation, and I felt this burst of energy. I was feeling so overwhelmed before, but look, I already have two punches on my card!

UUCPA shifted me. One of the keys to becoming a multiracial, multicultural congregation, Mark said, was the support of lay leaders. Like any big change, it won’t happen unless there’s a broad range of dedicated supporters among the leadership, and here is where I must apologize, because I had a lot of doubt on that point. I looked at his list of keys, realized we had a lot of them in place, but looked at “lay leadership” and thought, “I don’t know. I don’t know if they want this.” Then Mark spoke here in our Main Hall a few days later. The crowd wasn’t big—about what I expect for a mid-week speaker, 22 people in addition to me and Dan, and I know because I counted and wrote down their names. But it was made up of people whom, if there were any change you wanted to make happen in this congregation, you would want to be pushing in your direction. I looked around and thought, “Wow, we do have that key too.” I’ve also been encouraged by the response of the Board and the number of leaders who have either told me they’ll be here on Thursday, or if they have another commitment, have taken the time to say, “I’m so glad you’re doing this—how else can I support it?”

A third thing that the Heaths advise that’s been happening for me over the past month is to look for bright spots—look for where you are already having success making the change—and replicate them. Again, there is abundant research on how effective this approach is, which I’ll share with you another time. For example, let’s look at that hymnal commission. It would be easy to bemoan this missed opportunity—or we could look for the bright spot, which is that, as Mark Morrison-Reed points out, the next hymnal commission did much better. The hymnal they produced, our gray hymnal, is full of resources from African-American poets and writers, and music like the hymn we sang earlier (“I Wish I Knew How”). So how do we clone that? We know some of the things the second commission did differently, and we can repeat them so as to notice the opportunities we might be missing now and grab them. For example, as Reverend Morrison-Reed pointed out, we can open our eyes to all the contributions Latino culture could make.

He started his workshop presentation at District Assembly with another bright spot, a video of a congregation that has successfully made the shift I’m hoping we’ll make, Davies Memorial in Prince Georges County, Maryland. We’ll watch the same video on Thursday. It’s a congregation I already know and admire, so that I felt, “Look, we’re already doing it there in Maryland!” It’s in much the same situation as UUCPA: it’s near a liberal urban center and located in the midst of a large middle class population of people of color. In Davies’ case, it’s the biggest black middle class population of any county in the US; in our case, it’s a huge population of middle class Latino and Asian people, a county in which 68% of the people are other than white European-American Anglos. (For the moment, as Reverend Morrison-Reed suggested, I’m setting aside considerations of class and classism, although as K. [our Worship Associate] said, they’re important too.)

Finally, the research cited by the Heath brothers emphasizes the importance of marshalling one’s sense of identity to bring about change. People don’t change when they’re told “You’re resisting change because of the kind of person you are.” They change when the change asks them not to go against their identity but to honor it. Reverend Morrison-Reed helped do that for me. He could so easily blame the whole problem on the kind of people Unitarian Universalists are, especially white European-American ones like me: that we’re not open to change, or want our congregations to remain full of people who are mostly like us, or that we’re not very welcoming. Instead, he points out how good we are, how concerned we have always been about racial justice, how anxious to be welcoming—all of which is true. It’s a part of my identity, a part of our identity, to make this change.

There’s lots more to learn and lots more to do, and I hope you’ll join me. In Julius Caesar, Cassius says to Brutus that the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. But actually, what we know about what’s happening when people stay stuck, and what’s happening when we change, tells us that we are not fated, by either the stars or our natures, to stay exactly as we are. The more we know about our own natures—what motivates us—the better we can make any change we envision. We can do this. Please join me.

© 2011 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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Christmas Eve homily

given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA

December 24, 2010

I’m really excited about tomorrow morning. Aren’t you?

I try to live simply and not accumulate a lot of things I don’t need, but I admit I really love to see a gift bag with my name on it and a pretty ribbon on top. I love the surprise inside the tissue paper. I love getting stuff.

But I’m also a little nervous about how much I love it. I know that’s not what Christmas is supposed to be about.

Jesus never said a word about presents. They don’t appear in the Christmas story. The magi do bring gifts, but that isn’t even on Christmas, but twelve days later, when they complete their journey from the East. And of course, the presents are just for the newborn baby, not from everyone to everyone the way we give Christmas presents; and really, they’re the kind of gifts you bring to royalty to show your honor and homage, not the useful or fun thing you’d normally bring a baby, like a rattle. Still, somewhere along the line, presents became a big part of Christmas.

Of course, we’re supposed to give them, not just get them. And that’s a really fun part of Christmas too. Most of us find that it gets to be even more fun as we get older.

But is it really as much fun to give as to receive? We’re supposed to feel that way, but it’s not easy to live up to it. Especially when we’re thinking about all those goodies waiting for us tomorrow morning.

There’s a website I really like called PostSecret, where anyone who likes is invited to choose or create a postcard, write on it a secret they’ve never shared with anyone, and send it in. About twenty of these beautiful, creative, three-by-five-inch works of art are posted each week. In time for Christmas, one was posted that looked like a wrapped present and read, “I hate that Christmas makes me feel greedy.”

So I guess I’m not the only one.

And I know for sure that neither the religion Jesus followed—Judaism—nor the religion he inspired—Christianity—nor our religion—Unitarian Universalism—gives us permission to be greedy. They are united in their teaching that we should let go of all our desire to have things, let go of all our fear that we will not have enough, and just concentrate on the side of the giving-receiving equation that is in our control: that is, concentrate on giving.

If you think that that part of Christmas is challenging, just wait ‘til Jesus grows up. Then he starts to challenge us to get really generous and really fearless.

He says even if someone demands something from us that is ours, we should give it to them, and more. If they ask for our coat, we should give them the cloak we wear on top of it too. He says we’re not only supposed to love our friends, but also our enemies. He tells a rich young man who wants to know how to get to heaven that it’s very simple: all he has to do is give everything away. Yes, that simple!

Let’s imagine for a moment trying to live that way . . . giving and giving, giving it all away, without trying to receive or worrying about what will come back to us.

It can be done if we have one essential quality: trust. Trust that our needs will be taken care of. Giving makes us like a newborn baby far from his only home, utterly vulnerable, utterly dependent on the goodwill of those around him.

As a culture, we have a deep and growing fear of freeloaders. More and more, we arrange our politics, our economics, our whole social system, as if the worst thing that can happen is not that a family in genuine need will find themselves without a place to sleep, but that a family not in need will get a free night at the inn.

We are more worried about the welfare cheat than about the people who need our help and don’t get it. What kind of community does this give us? The kind where in the midst of plenty, 20,000 people experience homelessness each year, as they do in our county.

And what creates that other kind of community, where trust not only flourishes, but most of the time it turns out to be well-founded? Giving freely. Giving with no thought of being repaid.

Whereas clutching onto what we have, worrying that we will give more than we get, makes us trust people less. It drives us further into our own fortresses, walls and fences around each of us and our stuff.

Yes, sometimes someone will take advantage. But Jesus said not to worry about that. He even said to give to people who we know don’t wish us well. Just give. Not just give to the people we love, not just give presents—those are warmups for the other kind of giving.

Another rabbi, Moses ben-Maimon, known as Maimonides, told us some more about the kind of giving we’re working our way up to. And the kinds of giving he said were best are the kind we are doing here tonight.

He said there are lots of ways to give. In some, we give grudgingly. In some, we want to be thanked and recognized, maybe even made to feel like the recipient owes us something. These are not the best ways to give.

But one of the best ways to give is anonymously. The person we help doesn’t know who we are, so they can’t feel beholden; we don’t know who they are, so we can’t feel superior. That’s the kind of giving we just did with our offering. InnVision will help someone with our dollars and that person will be able to offer thanks only to an unknown angel, just as we will get nothing in exchange except the hope that we have helped an unknown Joseph, Mary, or Jesus in our midst.

The very best way to give, Maimonides says, is to help the recipient to not need our help anymore. InnVision does that kind of thing too, when it helps someone find a job. So does the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which will take the contents of our Guest at Your Table boxes and help people close to here and far away create more just communities where they and everyone can prosper.

The rich young man asked the grown Jesus, “How do I get to heaven?”

And he said, “Give.” Does that mean we go to heaven if we stop trying to receive and just give? Not exactly. It means that if we do that, heaven comes to us. By giving to our friends and our family members, yes—and then also giving to people we don’t even know, giving to people we don’t even like, giving to people who show no sign of giving to us, giving when we aren’t sure what we’re going to get back: we make heaven, right here. This is how we get to heaven.

A heavenly Christmas to you all.

© 2010 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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Sermon on judgment

given at the Community Church of San Miguel, San Miguel de Allende, GTO, Mexico

July 11, 2010

Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Amos 7:7-17

Psalm 82

Colossians 1:1-14

Luke 10:25-37


One uncomfortable theme comes up repeatedly in today’s lectionary readings: judgment. I don’t like judgment. You could say I’m positively judgmental about it. I don’t like to be judged, I don’t like to hear people judge other people, and my own quickness to judge others is one of the qualities I try hardest to eradicate in myself.

Judgment is not nice. So how do we make sense of these passages, such as the one from Amos and the 82nd Psalm, which seem to exalt judgment, and harsh judgment at that? Aren’t they just encouraging one of our worst tendencies? The obvious answer is that the scripture is encouraging us to give our desire to judge over to God, the only true Judge. But I’m not much more comfortable with a judging God than with a judgmental person. When I pray, it’s never to the divine Judge—except when I’m vengefully hoping that an all-powerful Someone will bang the gavel and mete out justice to someone I think deserves it. Which is to say, both I and many others call on the God of Judgment when we want our own views to be backed up by the ultimate authority. And so we come round, in a very small circle, to our own harshly judging selves.

To make things more difficult still, we do have to judge. It’s part of our responsibility, part of being a good person. Sometimes it’s literally our duty as citizens, as when we’re called to jury duty and required to decide who among our neighbors is speaking truth, who is lying; who bears blame and who is innocent; who has done wrong, who should be exonerated, who should be compensated, who should be punished. Then there are the more everyday, less dramatic cases of judgment. Judging the parent who yells at his child in the market. Judging the greed of corporate directors who have trampled on human dignity or nature’s beauty in search of profit. These are just discriminations of fact, of right and wrong, aren’t they? And finally, there is the kind of judgment that we might call discernment, that is so essential a part of religious life because it is the heart of morality. How do we decide, “I should do this, I should not do that,” without implicitly shining the light of judgment on others and saying, if only to ourselves, “This person is good, that one is bad”? If we flat-out refuse to make such judgments, whether in a courtroom or our own hearts, we may be guilty of abandoning the world to injustice and chaos.

The wise designers of the lectionary have pieced together an interesting message for us, in the passages they’ve chosen about judgment and the way they’ve paired them with a complementary theme.

That theme is taken up by a midrash, a Jewish story expounding on the scriptures, that tells of a king

who had delicate crystal goblets [and he wasn’t quite sure how to make use of them]. He said, “If I pour hot water into them, they will expand and burst; if I pour cold water into them, they will contract and shatter.” So what did the king do? He mixed hot water with cold and poured the [temperate] water into the cups, and they did not break.

So it was with God. When it came time to create the world, God reflected, “If I create the world with the attribute of compassion alone, there will be an overflow of wrongful acts. No one will be afraid of punishment. But if I create the world with justice alone, how could the world endure? It would shatter from the harshness. So I will create it with both justice and compassion, and it will endure.” (B’reishit Rabbah 12:15, translation found here)

Justice and compassion, or, put another way, judgment and mercy. Today’s scriptures urge us to practice them together. Let’s take a few minutes to look at how.

The passage from Amos is chilling. In a time of prosperity and peace, God’s prophet has some bad news: God has judged the people; his verdict is “GUILTY”; and the sentence he pronounces is death. This is judgment at its most terrifying. And what makes it perhaps even more terrifying is the so-simple image of the plumb line.

A plumb line is an age-old builder’s tool that uses gravity to determine whether a wall is straight. Hang a lead weight on a string and you have an inescapable, implacable judgment of whether the work of your hands is in plumb, is true, is the way it should be.

You can’t argue with this judge, it isn’t biased, it isn’t corruptible, you can’t appeal to it with emotion or logic. It just measures us the way we really are: how we compare to the straight line. Are we upright, are we true? And none of us could escape such a judgment.

Imagine being judged for everything we do. Not judged harshly, but purely, unemotionally, as by a carpenter’s tool. Who among us could stand under that impartial gaze? We have betrayed the trust of friends. We have responded to suffering with callousness and apathy. We have spoken words that are not true and many more that are not kind, and we have left unsaid the words of compassion that could have been a balm to another suffering soul. We have seen someone in trouble and been too tired, too busy, too nervous, too bent on our own destinations to stop and help. Who among us does not deserve punishment?

Were we subject to pure justice, we would be in a bad way. We need that judgment to be tempered with mercy, or we could not withstand the force of our own failings. They would shatter us.

J. R. R. Tolkien put wise words in the mouth of his wizard, Gandalf: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement” (The Two Towers, Book IV). It is not enough for our judgments to be just; they must also be tempered with mercy, or who could live?

That rather bizarre council of the gods in today’s psalm shows us two ways the people of the world are judged. All gods sit in judgment, but the God that is our God, our champion in this psalm, is moved by mercy as well as justice. God exhorts the other gods to have mercy on the orphan, the poor person. The psalm challenges us to consider: When we judge others, do we judge like these gods, the ones who have no kindness for the widow and the hungry and so lose their own immortality, or do we judge like the God who is Love, pouring mercy and compassion upon those in need, and so gain ourselves a kind of immortality?

Which brings us to the question asked of Jesus in the Gospel reading. It is asked by one whose realm is that of judgment: the law courts where people come to be judged and to attain justice. He seems to be a good man—he gets a lot of flak in various interpretations of this story, but he’s honest and earnest—but still, he would like to judge those around him, to sort out who is his neighbor and who unworthy of that designation, so as to make that onerous commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” a little easier to carry out.

The story of the Good Samaritan also tempts us to judge: to criticize the priest and the Levite, and of course to criticize, then applaud, the Samaritan. Just one chapter previously, Luke has reminded us that the Samaritans are Not Nice People (Luke 9:51-55). It’s as if the Gospel author is saying to his listeners: yep, I’m talking about those Samaritans, those troublemakers who don’t respect Jesus. It might even be the case that the apostles who itch to punish them for their disrespect are justified in judging Samaritans harshly.

In that passage we read two weeks ago, Luke’s Jesus gave us a hint of what was to follow when he silently prevented his disciples from passing sentence on the Samaritans. In today’s passage, Jesus doesn’t ask us to judge the Samaritans, those we despise, fairly. He doesn’t ask us to judge at all. He asks us to do mercy. That is what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And so from today’s scripture, we may derive a small but profound spiritual practice. A tempering of justice with compassion, judgment with mercy, which we can all practice daily, at least if you’re like me and never go a day without passing judgment on someone. The practice is to add mercy to each of our judgments. When we hear the man speak harshly to his child and our minds leap to the judgment that he is a bad parent, we can think, mercy in our minds, “Maybe he is an exemplary father and I’m catching him at the one moment all year when he’s lost his patience. Maybe he is under stress that I can’t see and what his child did was the last straw: maybe he just lost his job; maybe his mother died last week.” When we hear the news and are filled with rage at what some criminal, some corrupt official, some greedy CEO has done, instead of just hoping that the so-and-so gets what’s coming to him or her, we can pray for a merciful outcome for all involved: that the culprits as well as the victims be healed. When we cast our eyes on someone in judgment, we can add, “there but for the grace of God go I”—and know that if we are blessed with a little extra grace right now, we could be in a very different situation in a year or a week or even an hour. “That could be me,” we can remember, and more—“Sometimes that is me.”

We show mercy to others—we grant others the same benefit of the doubt that we want for ourselves—we give them room to change—we, in short, love our neighbor as ourselves, because we are our neighbor’s neighbor. We are the one set upon by thieves, we are the thieves, we are the important official hurrying past to carry out another duty, we are the despised Samaritan. We are the lawyer looking for an easy way; and sometimes, just sometimes, on a good day, we are Jesus.

So may it be.

© 2010 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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Christmas Eve Candlelight Service 2009

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA


Isaiah 9:2, 4, 6-7

Matthew 1:18-21

Luke 2:1-21


What an improbable story this is. Everyone gathers around a newborn child and hails him as the King of his people, the Messiah they have awaited for a thousand years, the Savior. A baby! He doesn’t know anything. He can’t do anything. He doesn’t even have a bellybutton yet. How do they expect him to save the world?

Of course, the story reflects the hope we feel at the birth of any child. “Each night a child is born is a holy night” (Sophia Lyon Fahs). In the presence of a newborn baby we feel that anything is possible. We wonder if this is the child who will save us. Is that so improbable? Maybe this is the one who will unlock the riddle of cancer and rid the world of that terrible illness. Maybe this is the one who will bring warring nations to peace. Maybe this one will write a piece of music that seems to make the angels themselves sing Alleluia. Maybe this one will turn us back from our crazy path of destroying our beautiful planet.

Some of these predictions will surely come true. And so we have hope.

But first someone has to raise the babies into women and men. Which is why the story is a little funny, a little touching. Here are all these grownups hoping a baby will save them. But first they need to save him. There’s nothing so helpless as a newborn human—other animals at least can walk almost as soon as they’re born. Most are grown in a few months, many in a few weeks. But not a human. It’s going to take a long time until the baby Jesus grows up into the teacher Jesus, and the Bible skips over most of it. In the in-between years, Joseph and Mary did a lot of child-rearing. They had to feed him and bathe him and teach him and keep him from climbing onto a high shelf in his father’s carpentry shop and falling to his death, if they were to turn the hope into a reality.

We look around at our world and see a mess we don’t know how to clean up. Through the centuries since Jesus’ birth and the centuries before, we’ve asked again and again for someone to save us. There’s so much we need to be saved from: war, exploitation, greed, poverty, cruelty. We want to be saved from ourselves.

Then, when a savior comes along, we are filled with hope—and as quickly disillusioned. Last month, a man whom millions around the world, thousands of millions, had thought could turn us back from war, stood up to declare an escalation of war. Great disappointment and anguished questions followed. So it goes: we hail a new savior, are disappointed, and turn in ever-decreasing hope to a new savior. Maybe we need to do something different. And I think the story we tell tonight tells us what that something might be.

Jesus was called the light of the world. And yet he turned to his students, his followers, the multitudes who gathered to hear him preach, and said to them, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). You.



“And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). Your light shines. The words of John’s gospel combine the present tense (“shines”) and the past (“did not,” resolved in some translations as “has not,” overcome). All these years the darkness has never overcome it; through the darkest times; still, into the present, in that bold present tense, the same today as when John set down his words 1900 years ago, the light shines. For it is not that a baby is born and all is saved, forever and ever. The salvation begins there, with the hope. And the hope is kept alive as the child grows, as the child is nurtured by not just two but numberless others.

The light passes from one to another. Look at these teachers before us, symbolized by the candles that we have lit—and we will be the teachers who next pass the light along.

When Jesus told his disciples, told us, “You are the light of the world,” he didn’t say “you have to do it alone.” You are not the only light–just you. You have others. Teachers are all around us, exemplars, brave pioneers, stubborn toilers for freedom and justice. Will we leave it to them to be the light of the world or will we join them? Will we follow them, push them, raise them up?

A savior lives on, past his early death, 2000 years later, because others, including us, have lit their tapers from his. Anyone who we think may save us, that is what she needs, what he needs, in order to be the salvation we hope for. They need us. We bend our candle to theirs and double their light.

In this way and this way alone the world will be saved. It begins with each birth, and it begins again with each kind word, each wise stance, each strong stand . . . Together, and together alone, we will be the saving of our world.


The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it—has never overcome it. And as long as we take light from one another and give light to one another, it never will.

(c) 2009 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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Other writings

Flower Communion Liturgy

Each of us is a flower, with a delicate beauty uniquely our own. We may be like sunflowers, turning always towards the light.

May our lives bloom like the flowers.

We may be like night-blooming cereus, only displaying our fragrant petals when it is dark and we think no one can see.

May our lives bloom like the flowers.

We may be hothouse flowers, far from our native lands, cautiously tended within a harsh and unfamiliar climate.

May our lives bloom like the flowers.

We may be gray-headed like dandelions, eager to launch the new generation with the first strong gust of wind: past our own bright youth, but ready to pass our wisdom on in precious gossamer-carried seeds.

May our lives bloom like the flowers.

Some of us, sometimes, spring up overnight and fade in the hot glare.

May our lives bloom like the flowers.

Some of us, sometimes, are roses, slowly assembling petal after tightly-wrapped petal, and revealing our full glory only when everything is in place.

May our lives bloom like the flowers.

Sometimes we are roadside weeds, lovelinesses bursting improbably from the dust and debris.

May our lives bloom like the flowers.

May we offer our beauty with the simplicity of flowers, expecting no recognition, hoping for nothing, giving out of what we are, and knowing it is enough.

May our lives bloom like the flowers.


(c) 2002 Amy Zucker [Morgenstern]–please use freely, with attribution.

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“There Is a Balm in Gilead”

There is a balm in Gilead

To make the wounded whole

There is a balm in Gilead

To heal the sin-sick soul.

(Traditional [African-American spiritual])

The original has two verses, one of which I love:

Sometimes I feel discouraged

And I think my work’s in vain

But then the Holy Spirit

Revives my soul again.

So far, so good, but the next verse veers off in a distinctly un-UU direction:

If you cannot preach like Peter

If you cannot pray like Paul

Go tell the love of Jesus

He died to save us all.

The “you don’t need extraordinary gifts to change the world” is powerful, and I’ve thought of rewriting the last line to make it about salvation by the teachings of Jesus, or the love Jesus counsels us to put at the center of our religion, but my thoughts went on other paths, because when I think about what gives balm to my soul, I think of places like Bass Lake. So I wrote:

When I cannot hear the music

That used to call my name

I sit beside the waters

And they sing to me again.

It whispers through the forest,

It floats down like the leaves:

The peace past understanding,

The courage to believe.

(c) 2010 Amy Zucker Morgenstern–please use freely, with attribution. The original lyrics and melody are in the public domain.

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“Beyond Either/Or”

essay published in reprinted version of Coming Out in Faith: Voices of LGBTQ Unitarian Universalists, Skinner House Press, 2011

Unlike a woman I knew in college who said unhesitatingly that she’d known she was a lesbian from age two, I had to learn my sexual orientation gradually. I didn’t get the first glimmer of the idea that I might be bisexual until I was about 18, and I didn’t strongly identify this way until several years later. There were sudden revelatory moments along the way, such as the one that came when I was watching the opening scene of Rear Window and, seeing Grace Kelly’s luminous face loom into close-up as she leans in toward the viewer to kiss James Stewart, was surprised by my emphatic wish, “Kiss me! Kiss me!” But on the whole, my realization that I was bi arrived in degrees, a gradual perceptual shift.

What I have known for as long as memory stretches back is that either/or choices make me suspicious. When presented with a confident statement that two things stand on the opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide, I reflexively ask whether they are really mutually exclusive. Material and spiritual, male and female, liberal and conservative, Israel and Palestine, teenager and elder—when two things are said to be opposites, I try to ask: what category might encompass both of these, synthesize them into a whole?

Being a both/and thinker serves me well as a minister, particularly in the role of community-builder. Part of my job is finding a way for opposites to dwell together in peace. And theologically, I am committed to moving beyond the choices that are often presented to us as either/or, and to leading others past those unreal boundaries; it gave me particular delight to once give a sermon called “Confessions of a Theist Humanist.”

I was well-trained in the habit of seeking both/and answers to either/or questions by my late teens. So when I discovered, around that time, that the world was not divided into heterosexual and homosexual, as I’d thought, but included many people who were romantically drawn to both another sex and their own, I already stood on a foundation that made that fact unsurprising, easy to accept, and, ultimately, attractive to apply to myself.

The desire to go beyond either/or also brought me to Unitarian Universalism and kept me here. I had been brought up Jewish, and the stories and rituals of that faith still meant a great deal to me even when I started searching for something else. I had found great wisdom in Buddhism and embraced much of its teaching. But neither one of those traditions was quite the right home for my spirit. And then I went to my first UU congregation, and discovered a place where I could be Jewish and Buddhist and this great new (to me) thing called Unitarian Universalist, and where no one would force me to choose just one. It was a religion that allowed room for each of us to keep adding new ideas, theologies, practices, and ethical perspectives: where the assumption that met such changes would not be “You can’t do that,” but “Let’s see how that fits in!” Unitarian Universalism was the both/and religion, the one that had successfully challenged so many rules of society and theology and shown them to be illusions.

As I learned more about my newly adopted religion, I felt more and more that this was a religion that thought the way I did, deliberately turning the false choices of either/ors into the inclusivity of both/ands. I read about how the early Unitarians and Universalists were told that if religion tried to incorporate skepticism about the Bible, it would crumble—but Channing, Parker, and Ballou insisted that reason and religion could (must!) co-exist. The resistance to women’s rights in the nineteenth century was an attempt to force an either/or choice: women could either have a moral voice in a public role or have moral authority in the private sphere. I learned that Unitarians and Universalists had led the way in insisting that women could still be women while voting, speaking, leading, in the public sphere that had so long been reserved for men. In the next century, critics of religious liberalism said that one could not both be atheistic and have moral guidance. The UU humanists who went before us replied, “Of course we can.” These Unitarian Universalists were my people!

I’m not both/and about everything. I believe there are ideas that are mutually exclusive; I believe there are actions that are incompatible with certain desired outcomes. So, for example, I am monogamous, not because I’m opposed to polyamory in principle—if people can make it work to everyone’s satisfaction, all power to them—but because what my wife and I know about ourselves tells us that we are most likely to find what we seek within a single relationship sustained as long as we both live. And then, too, much of ethics is about delineating, “If you choose A, then B will be necessarily excluded.” For example, we can’t both maintain solidarity with the poor and promote an economic system that depends on keeping people in poverty. In short, there are limits to both/and-ness. Yet the habit of thinking that seeks to rise above false either/or choices and give a more inclusive answer is one of the gifts we Unitarian Universalists have to offer the world. In turn, one of the gifts bisexuals can offer Unitarian Universalism is to help our religion to more fully develop that way of thinking, applying it to more situations, bringing ever more inclusiveness to a world that creates arbitrary categories—and to our own religious communities. I believe Unitarian Universalists will understand bisexuality better as we learn to think of ourselves as spiritual questioners dwelling in a world that prefers its categories neatly bounded, one that mistrusts those who call those boundaries into question.

We Unitarian Universalists are already boundary-challengers by nature. When I co-authored an Adult Religious Education curriculum on bisexuality, I suggested including exercises that would help people move beyond either/or thinking. One of them asks people to go to one side of the room or the other depending on whether they like vanilla or chocolate, walking alone in nature or being with friends, reading books or listening to music. Being Unitarian Universalists, they often resist the binary options. Even though the facilitators firmly instruct them to choose one side or the other, almost all participants gripe about this arbitrary division, and some disregard the rules, invent a continuum, and put themselves somewhere in between.

In other words, Unitarian Universalists are ripe for understanding bisexuality. When they don’t get it—and I’ve encountered some, both heterosexual and homosexual, who don’t–it is usually because they haven’t yet expanded their capacity for both/and thinking to encompass sexual orientation. I take hope from the fact that most Unitarian Universalists embrace both/and thinking in other areas of their lives. It also means that when we are supported in being out and clear about what our orientation means, we bi UUs can lead our co-congregants in broadening their views, not just of sexuality, but of all the elements of life that have been forced into arbitrary and false categories.

My own experience suggests that even in a Welcoming Congregation, we can have a ways to go. When I came out as bi, I was asked by one UU (sympathetically, but with an exasperatingly knowing look) whether I was “in transition.” I was so slow about the lingo that it took me a week to realize that she was suggesting that this was just a step on the way to admitting I was a lesbian. I don’t generally mind being taken for a lesbian—it’s an honorable label—but I do mind the implication that someone who claims to be bi must be only halfway out of the closet. Although many people do try on bisexuality as a self-description in the process of sorting out their orientation (and they have my support and empathy), it is a mistake to conclude from that that it is only an in-between state. Being bi is not a way station. It is an orientation of its own.

It reminds me of the bitter little joke told about UUs, that our religion is “a way station between Methodism and the golf course.” No, it’s not. Some of us live here permanently, and find it a very comfortable and beautiful home. Many people may pass through our congregations on their way from another religion to none at all, but their using Unitarian Universalism as a convenient resting point doesn’t define our religion.

Invisibility, the bane of bisexuality, is a problem in our congregations. I’ve had someone in the church’s LGBTQ community suggest that another bi person—in fact, our other minister—was not a true member of that community because she was married to a man. In other words, I and others who were in same-sex relationships were acceptable because—and, I couldn’t help concluding, only because—we resembled lesbians or gay men. Likewise, many hetero people in the congregation simply didn’t register that their other minister was bi, even though she had spoken clearly of her bisexuality from the pulpit. It was easy for them to disregard her membership in the LGBTQ community even when she proclaimed it; they could think of her as hetero, and chose to do so. In each case, people struggled to acknowledge the both/and before their eyes: that we bisexuals fit into neither category, neither gay/lesbian nor hetero, but are an entity outside that either/or.

Another such entity is our religion itself, which shares with bisexuals that painful quality of invisibility. It isn’t beneficial to either UUs or bi folk to be rendered invisible, and perhaps Unitarian Universalists can learn something about themselves, as well as about the bisexuals in their midst, from bisexuals’ dogged insistence to be acknowledged and understood by a world that often simply does not see us.

In the case of bisexuality, invisibility arises from the peculiar rules a please-check-one-and-only-one-box society imposes. It is one half of the double bind that holds us: if we are openly involved with one person, then we are implicitly identifying as either hetero or gay (depending on whether it’s a different- or same-sex relationship), which hides bisexuality from view—if not disproving its very existence. If, on the other hand, we speak openly about our past involvement in both kinds of relationship–or, heaven forbid, are in both at once—we are confirming the stereotype that bisexuals “just can’t make up their minds,” “can’t be faithful,” or are all polyamorous.

Of course, as with so many double binds, the dilemma is caused not by the nature of bisexuality but by the rigidity of the rules. When we dismiss those rules, the problem dissolves. Just as people in our congregations are learning not to assume that a man who speaks of his partner is referring to a woman, we can learn not to assume that everyone in a different-sex relationship is hetero, or that everyone in a same-sex relationship is gay. Bisexuality is always a possibility, and, studies suggest, will be increasingly so as we free people to be more candid about their true orientation. We can do that through activism—by removing the real, legal penalties for being openly bi—and, right at home in our congregations and organizations, through remembering (and reflecting in the way we speak) that many of the people who visit, join, and lead us are bi even though it doesn’t show.

When bisexuals stay closeted, it’s generally out of fear. Why do Unitarian Universalists stay in the closet? Why do we hide our religion from the world? I think it is often for the same reason. We accept the assumptions of the wider society; we define ourselves by its categories, which have no place for the likes of us; and so we become reticent to say “Actually, there is another option.” We closet ourselves. Perhaps we do so because the implications of declaring of our religious home, “We are a both/and place,” scare us. Such a statement certainly carries its pejorative connotations just as bisexuality does. According to some members of other, more creedal faiths, we Unitarian Universalists are simply unable, or unwilling, to make a commitment. Our diverse approach to spiritual sources, which is one of our great strengths, they interpret as wishy-washiness; we don’t stand for anything. We can’t commit to one path. And while this is sometimes true, it misses the larger truth that being Unitarian Universalist is a path.

All of this is very familiar to us bisexual people. We hear it all the time: you can’t commit to a single partner; you’re afraid to declare yourself as lesbian or gay; you’re trying to be trendy; you can’t make up your mind.

We know a thing or two about seeing through these accusations. We know that the reason we’re bi is not that we can’t make up our minds, but because we see the beauty of many varieties of humanity. We know that we are perfectly capable of committing to a single partner for life if we wish, just as a heterosexual woman can be attracted to men of different colors, yet choose one, with his own unchangeable skin, to be her husband; just as a lesbian can forswear women she finds attractive in order to settle down happily with just one—some say as soon as the second date. We know we are what we are, regardless of whether it fits a trend. Can Unitarian Universalism as a whole “come out” as what it truly is? We are a religion that, in explicit contradiction to what many religions consider possible, affirms both mystery and reason; is a home for both Christians and Buddhists; draws upon the Bible and other texts riddled with oppressive teachings, while firmly supporting liberation.

To assert the possibility of both/and is to blaze a new trail, or rather, to clear a trail that many have walked before but that continually becomes overgrown for lack of enough footsteps. So it can be hard going. We Unitarian Universalists have internalized many of the either/or messages from other faiths—even though, for many of us, they are the very messages that made us go look for a religious alternative in the first place. We accept too readily the either/or stereotype that says one is either a possessor of university degrees or uninterested in tackling subtle ideas, and thus we question whether our religion is attractive to people who don’t have an advanced formal education. We accept the falsehood that we must be either an activist church or concerned with tending our spirits, and thus repeat the old, tired drama of “spirituality versus social justice.”

As Unitarian Universalists, we inherit a great legacy from generations of people who heard all the “NOs” of either/or thinking and responded with a both/and, affirming, “Why not?” Will we make the most of that legacy?

A heterosexual friend of mine once said, in all seriousness, that he admired those of us who could be attracted to more than one sex–as if we demonstrated a higher spirituality, a kind of open-mindedness that “hopelessly heterosexual” people such as he had not attained. I laughed, but I strongly disagreed. There is nothing better about bisexuality; for mysterious reasons, human beings have a range of orientations and none is better than the others. We bi folks are just being ourselves. But when the wider society denies that one’s self is a true and possible thing, then being oneself is itself an act of courage and spiritual leadership. All openly LGBTQ people among us have led their UU kin in practicing integrity and wholeness, and we can continue to do so, if the others will follow. By insisting on our own truths, we can break through the walls dividing categories and lead others to freedom. What joy could follow if we Unitarian Universalists dismissed all the false categories the world and our own minds create!

We can begin with our own religious communities, where many of the barriers caused by either/or thinking still wait for us to dismantle them. We struggle, still, to say “why not?” not only to category-defying identities like bisexuality and transgender, but also to political diversity, class diversity, and racial and ethnic diversity. We are too quick to accept the either/or thinking that stuffs our religion into a mostly white, upper-class, liberal, English-speaking box. We struggle even to be open to both humanists and theists, to both children and adults, to both young adults and elders, to both cradle Unitarian Universalists and converts.

Bisexuals know just how hard it is to say both/and where others have said either/or. It puts you betwixt and between, and it’s so much more comfortable, so much more emotionally safe to fit into a set category. It is not easy to feel as if you don’t belong anywhere. It’s not easy for a bi man to turn down the solidarity offered by a gay man who assumes, with a friendly “Nice to have another gay man in this group,” that he’s gay too. It’s hard for a married man and woman to declare themselves outside the safe circle of other married couples in the church by saying, “Actually, we’re both bi.” People are comfortable with categories, and we challenge them, even frighten them, when our lives present them with evidence that the walls separating one category from another are permeable.

But we bisexuals have also learned that the problem is not in ourselves, but in the categories, which are figments of the mind. Coming out is a proclamation of faith in reality instead of the divisions that falsely claim authority. Unitarian Universalism will begin to claim its full authority as a religion when it comes out boldly as a both/and faith. Celebrating bisexuality, that dissolver of false boundaries, can be the key that opens that closet door.

© 2010 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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