Four years ago, when the New York State Legislature voted for marriage equality, I received the news with a mix of joy and sadness, relief and regret. I was so excited that justice, equality, and love won that day – but I missed my partner Tricia terribly; when she died in 1998, marriage was a pipe dream.

And now, it’s here. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that marriage equality is the law of the land. As Kevin Russell at SCOTUSblog writes,

The majority bases its conclusion that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right on “four principles and traditions”: (1) right to person choice in marriage is “inherent in the concept of individual autonomy”; (2) “two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals”; (3) marriage safeguards children and families; (4) marriage is a keystone to our social order.

It is a relief – more so now than in 2011 – less tears of sadness, more tears of relief. I am so thrilled that the hard work of so many people has paid off, that we have swayed not just hearts and minds but the law, and that we ALL can move from state to state and have the same legal rights, statewide and federally.

But this isn’t the end of the road for LGBTQ equality.

Just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was just one important step toward equality, the Obergefell decision is just one important step toward equality. There’s still so much to do; for example:

  • fair housing for LGBTQ people – because some people can be kicked out of their homes.
  • anti-discrimination laws in the workplace – because people can still be fired for being gay, even if they are legally married
  • acceptance and legal recognition of trans and non-binary gendered people – because the T isn’t there for its good looks
  • the court of public opinion – perhaps the hardest battle of all, especially when you consider that not only was the decision 5-4, but that each of the dissenters wrote their own dissenting opinion. There’s a lot of anger and distress here, and that’s just the court.

We know that significant laws and court cases have not stopped racism from thriving. We know that a landmark decision has not stopped the war against women and reproductive rights. So we must brace ourselves for continued homophobia and transphobia – along with the continued racism, bigotry, and misogyny we already work to fight. We must remember the stirring words of Joyce Poley’s song*:

One more step, we will take one more step,
‘til there is peace for us and everyone, we’ll take one more step.

One more word, we will say one more word,
‘til every word is heard by everyone, we’ll say one more word.

One more prayer, we will say one more prayer,
‘til every prayer is shared by everyone, we’ll say one more prayer.

One more song, we will sing one more song,
‘til every song is sung by everyone, we’ll sing one more song.

Let’s take those steps together. In faith, in love, in our call for justice, equality, and the inherent worth and dignity of EVERY SINGLE PERSON.



*Hymn 168 in Singing the Living Tradition

“Take this bread, broken as my body is broken…eat this, in remembrance of me…”

Eat this, in remembrance of Jesus, a teacher, a pastor, a radical, a beloved son whose body was broken by a system that could not bear his truths.

Eat this, in remembrance of Sharon, the coworker whose body was broken one too many times by a violent spouse.

Eat this, in remembrance of Michael, the homeless Desert Storm vet whose body was broken when his staggering body hit the hood of my car, rolled over the roof, and crashed onto the pavement.

Eat this, in remembrance of Tricia, the beloved woman who shared my life and whose body was broken by the ravages of drug addiction, shame, and struggle.

Eat this, in remembrance of Rick, a fellow thespian whose body was broken by the HIV virus before he could create his dramatic masterpiece.

Eat this, in remembrance of my self, whose soul has been broken by grief, and trauma, and depression, and heartache – but whose body still has power and presence and the ability to help the least of these.


“This wine is my blood, my life poured out … drink this, in remembrance of me…”

Drink this, in remembrance of Jesus, whose blood drained from his body as he hung on the cross.

Drink this, in remembrance of Sharon, whose blood gathered in bruises that betrayed her best efforts to hide the abuse.

Drink this, in remembrance of Michael, whose blood stained the asphalt as his life left him..

Drink this, in remembrance of Tricia, whose blood was arrested in her body and could no longer pump through her heart.

Drink this, in remembrance of Rick, whose blood was overtaken by a virus that was – at the time – a death sentence.

Drink this, in remembrance of my self, whose blood courses still through my veins, a reminder that my life is called to love and protect and nurture and fight for those who cannot and could not…







My memory is a little messed up. In 2007-early 2008, I had severe back problems and was on pretty heavy pain meds for about 18 months. Within that year, I had three surgical procedures, each one requiring general anesthesia. As I came out of that time period feeling much better and reemerging into the world, I noticed that my memory wasn’t nearly as good. My short term memory requires vigilant note taking and reminders, and there are some gaps in my long-term memory. I recall once listening to a recounting of an historical event and breaking down in tears, because I knew I had once known those facts but could no longer reach them. I didn’t lose everything, but I know that the act of remembering takes a little more work.

But there are some memories I wish I didn’t still have.

I wish I didn’t remember what it was like reading names at displays of the AIDS quilt when I read names at the Transgender Day of Remembrance. While others broke down – a reasonable reaction – I found I could, as I learned in the late 1980s, to read with emotion without getting emotional.

I wish I didn’t remember the moment-by-moment experience of the homeless Desert Storm vet running in front of my car that rainy night in 2006 when last week I sat with the family and friends of a young man who was walking on a street and hit by a drunk driver. I know the general circumstances were different, but it triggered something for me and made the week of pastoral care and memorial preparations all the more resonant.

Mom and Dad, 1969
Mom and Dad, 1969

I wish I didn’t remember the horror of finding my beloved partner Tricia almost dead on the sofa when marriage equality is declared legal in yet another state. We were just starting our life together in 1998, and same sex marriage at the time was a pipe dream. I am always so happy when justice reigns and love wins, but I also relive the loss.

I wish I didn’t remember that my mother died on November 21, 2007, when the reminder of my sister’s birthday pops up. While we justified it as fitting, it still is a hard day, and I pray each year that my sister dwells on the joy of her life and the celebration she richly deserves rather than marking it as simply a day of loss.

On the Sunday before Memorial Day in 2013, I was privileged to step into Sam Trumbore’s pulpit at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany. As we led up to a candle lighting ritual, I talked about our need for memorials:

In memorial, the act of remembering is a physical act, that connects us with the past, that connects us with life, that alters time so that past and present can meet, even for a short while. And we find strength in the remembering. Director Anne Bogart says “As a result of a partnership with memory and the consequent journeys through the past, I feel nourished, encouraged, and energized. I feel more profoundly connected to and inspired by those who came before.”

Connected and inspired.

While it would be easier some days to have the pain of some of my memories much more faded than the crisp images that come to mind, when they do come, they connect me to life – my own, those who have died, and those still living. The pain of these memories informs who I am, how I enter the world, and how I interact with others. And yes, the pain of these memories inspires me to keep living, keep loving, keep remembering.

This is a post I should have written a month ago, when Rev. Jennifer Slade took her life – a beautiful, brilliant, humanity-affirming life. Her death was shocking and jarring. But I didn’t write then, perhaps because while she was a colleague, I didn’t know her personally and didn’t know how to parse it. I didn’t know what to say then.

It’s been a couple of days now since Robin Williams took his own life – also a beautiful, brilliant, humanity-affirming life. And while I didn’t know him personally either, somehow I think we all did on one level – we knew him through his antic comedy and his moving drama. He came into our living rooms and our movie theatres and we knew him. After hearing the news, my cousin wrote, “if he only knew how we felt… really felt.”

And suddenly, I know what to say – to those who loved Jennifer, to those who loved Robin, and to those who love anyone.

It might not have been enough, knowing how people really felt. I know, because I have lived it.

I have lived that moment when, despite having some success and security, I could see no way out.

I have lived that moment when, despite knowing that there were people who would miss me, I thought they would be better off without me.

I have lived that moment when, despite being knowledgeable about mental illness and the tragedies of suicide, it just didn’t matter.

Now obviously, I didn’t commit suicide. Instead, like a robot, I went to work, and thankfully the better angels in my head compelled me to say something to someone. They got me to a doctor, who got me to a psychiatrist, who got me treatment, which helped me get well. I now know better how to manage the sadness, how to reach out, what to look for in my own life so that I won’t go down that road again.

But I have lived that moment, when a decision is made. For me, the delay was largely because I couldn’t come up with a method that I thought would work. But I had made a decision.

There’s a scene in an episode of M*A*S*H, where psychiatrist Sidney Freedman spends some time at the 4077th because he had lost a patient. He explains the moment to Hawkeye:

Actually, the straw that broke my back was a kid who was hearing voices telling him to kill himself. After some time with him, he got very quiet, sometimes that’s a sign they’ve made up their minds. Only somehow, I missed it. And then that night, after we all went to sleep, that sweet, innocent, troubled kid… listened to the voices.

I know that moment of quiet. And I imagine Jennifer and Robin probably seemed calmer to family and friends in those last days than they had leading up to it. It’s impossible to know exactly what was in their mind, but I can imagine, because I’ve lived it.

So what do we do? If I hadn’t said something to a coworker, I might not be here today. The truth is, no one asked me. I put up a front of being very together, very self-assured, very competent and confident. I was (and still am) the person others came to for problems.

What we do is engage.

What we do is talk to people, not about their accomplishments, but about their lives.

What we do is ask “how are you” and stay present as we hear the answer.

What we do is not assume the confident person has a busy schedule and wouldn’t possibly be interested in going to lunch or a movie or helping with a project.

What we do is be present to those who otherwise might be outside our close circle.

What we do is be in covenant.

“Love is the doctrine of this church,” we recite, “to the end that all shall grow into harmony… thus do we covenant with one another.” Not contract, not promise, not lawfully abide. Covenant. Be in right relation. With everyone.

It’s possible that Jennifer had good, strong people in covenant with her and like Sidney Freedman, they still missed the signs. It’s possible Robin was surrounded by people who genuinely loved him, not his celebrity or his genius, and they still missed the signs.

But then I remember the viral stories of the men – one a police officer at the Golden Gate Bridge, one an Irishman who lives near a cliff – who talk to people who look like they’ve made a decision, and encourage them to keep living. They have an unspoken covenant with these people – to know them. To relate to them. To care for them. To listen when no one else will. Sometimes it isn’t the people closest to us that make the difference but simply the people who take seriously the care of being in covenant with one another.

A decade ago, Jeannie Gagne wrote an incredible, haunting piece (available to all of us in Singing the Journey) called “In My Quiet Sorrow,” written to honor those times when we carry “sorrows in our hearts that sometimes go unexpressed—with a prayer for support, love, and guidance. We all have times in our lives that are challenging; sometimes we need to ask for help, but we don’t know quite how or when.” (from the UUA’s song information page) Our covenant to one another is to hold each other and be present for each other in these times:

I am worn,
I am tired,
in my quiet sorrow.
Hopelessness will not let me be.
Help me

I won’t speak
of this ache
inside, light eludes me.
In the silence of my heart,
I’m praying.

I keep on,
day by day,
trusting light will guide me.
Will you be with me through this time,
holding me?

You’re my hope
when I fear
holding on, believing.
Deep inside I pray I’m strong.
Blessed be.

You may not know what to say exactly. But say something. And genuinely listen.

You never know, and you still may miss some of the signs, but you may also make all the difference.

New York City drops a ball; Key West drops a drag queen in a ruby slipper.
New York City drops a ball; Key West drops a drag queen in a ruby slipper.

Here are my bold predictions for 2014:

A popular celebrity will die unexpectedly; another will cause a scandal; a third will come out (to the shock of some and to a “duh” to others); the midterm elections will “send a message”; a weather event will cause deaths; so will gun violence; a well-known fundamentalist will blame something they don’t like on the gays; the top ten movies will fail both Bechdel tests (for women and for race); some politician will be caught in a compromising position; laws will be passed that will enrage someone; people will spew anger and hate; some will lose jobs and homes; others will become richer and more entitled; we will all be sure this has been an extremely unique year in the news and nothing has ever been so bad.

On the other hand, I also predict love will spark; babies will be welcomed into loving arms; people will take small and large steps toward their dreams; some will write books; more will read them; some will write songs; more will sing them; someone will kick a bad habit; someone else will pick up a healthy one; someone will feel more compassion and act on it; another will finally get off the couch and make a difference; someone will finally feel secure; people will smile and laugh and spread joy; others will hold and comfort and provide solace; love will win.

I am pretty sure I was not the only person headed for a pulpit this morning who let out an extra moan after hearing the verdict in the Zimmerman trial.

In the midst of weeping for the Martin family, for our young black men, and the failed justice system…and after a while weeping also for women, for immigrants, for students, for the poor, for the marginalized… somewhere in the midst of my uncontrollable weeping, I let out a moan, knowing I had a sermon that felt like half a loaf compared to the shock, anger, sorrow, and fear we were all facing. How could I stand up and talk about a loving, father-mother god, when God was not in heaven and all was wrong with the world? How could I present this hopeful, encouraging service when we were faced with such pain?

That is when Pat Humphrey’s song came to mind (song begins at 1:53)…

I began to sing to myself and slowly began to stop crying. I knew I could not let this travesty of justice go unmentioned, but I also knew I could not write an entirely new sermon at midnight on Saturday.

But I could do something: I wrote a new call to worship for this morning – one that acknowledges our pain, our frustration, and our need to come together for comfort, for peace, for space, for nourishment. I invited us all to not get stuck, but to keep on moving forward. And we sang. And then we moved on to the rest of the service, talking about the loving, transcendent God that is found in Unitarian Universalism.

Of the many lessons I have learned since entering seminary, the one that’s been most remarkable and meaningful is the lesson about being present to the present moment of a congregation. You can have everything perfectly planned, but if they are hurting, or if there is strife, or if something tragic has happened, you have to be present to that pain and address it in a way that comforts and encourages. People want space for their pain to be acknowledged – and they want something to both nourish and distract them for a bit. We can’t let our inner preacher silence our inner pastor.

Nor can we let our own pains get in the way. Last month, in the midst of a bizarre crisis that hit my village and my family, I was slated to preach on the virtues of theism and humanism; the week, however, was difficult, and in my pain, all I wanted to say was “God’s dead and people suck.” Of course, I didn’t… I found a path through my pain to provide a message that was both authentic to the situation I found myself in and was nourishing to the congregation I spoke to. I had to keep on moving forward.

And that’s the lesson. We can pause and honor our pain. We can weep out of anger, fear, frustration. We can feel paralyzed by injustice. And we can pause with others who feel as we do. But then we have to take that next step. We cannot, CANNOT let injustice and hate win. We have to keep on moving forward.

Whenever I encounter an article, photo album, site, or video I don’t have time or ability to view at the moment, I email the link to myself and shove them into a folder called “internet for later.” I always intend to go to the folder as soon as I can to see what I saved that day or week…but somehow it simply became a dumping ground.  Yesterday, I found myself with some time, so I decided to clean out the folder. And I found nearly 200 emails to myself. Some of them had articles that I had actually read, some had items I still need to hang on to, some had links that for the life of me I can’t figure out why I saved.

One of the links – found very recently – is to a site called Stuff Christian Culture Likes. The blogger, a former evangelical preacher’s kid, outlines in some great detail parts of this particular flavor of Christian culture. Some of it’s kinda fun, from the outside, to laugh at (like The Ungame). But much of what Stephanie Drury says points to the very thing Unitarian Universalists can’t abide: the need for certainty.

It hit me while reading Stephanie’s post on “Things that Edify“:

Edification is mentioned several times in the New Testament, basically saying we should do stuff that edifies ourselves and each other. It’s a lovely concept and Christians want to take it seriously. But the Bible doesn’t give a whole lot of specifics as to what is edifying and what isn’t. Christian culture wants to know exactly what that means, so they have filled in the blanks.

Over and over again, whether talking about social issues, church organizations, or family, she points to the need for certainty. They fill in the blanks so there is no unsurety, and all subsequent issues get measured against that created doctrine. Whether it’s blasphemy, homosexuality, money, or movies, there is such a need for certainty that certainty often overtakes reason.

And that is why we as UUs often have such a hard time. We value reason – some suggest it is our deity – but at the very least, we cherish our doubt, honor our ability to see many points of view, celebrate our plurality and variety, both in matters spiritual and cultural (although we’re more dogmatic than we’d like to admit in regards to our culture – but that’s a topic for another day). The point is, we are so strongly attuned to questioning, reasoning, debating, that we don’t know how to handle certainty – particularly when it goes against all reason.

I bring this up, because it is a failing on our part to not understand this mindset.

We know, as Kevin Smith wrote in his film Dogma, “you can change an idea; changing a belief is trickier” but we have a hard time recognizing that what we think are ideas are beliefs for others. We are so tied into following ideas to a logical conclusion, we can’t understand how people simply take things on faith. We dwell so easily in a sea of uncertainty, we can’t understand how some people drown in it.

In her presentation at General Assembly a few weeks ago, Ellen Cooper-Davis encouraged us to learn more about the cultures we find ourselves in, and learn how to speak to others about our own faith in the context of their faith. In a keynote at a St. Lawrence District Assembly a number of years ago, Fred Helio Garcia reminded us that we must be literate in both ideas and language – “words matter,” he said, because “those who control the words control the world.”

We must get better at approaching those who are swimming in the pool of certainty, not by chastising their lack of logic, but by showing them love beyond the pool – showing them the beautiful shores, glistening with hope and openness, showing them the gentle waves of compassion, showing them the rich waters of love and faith. We can’t do it by shoving them off the pier. We have to do it by meeting them where they are.

We can combat the sin of certainty and open minds and hearts to the awesome, expansive, inclusive, healing love that some call God, when we know what we’re saying and how it is perceived. Let us be loving and gentle to those whose certainties we are shaking.

Moments after two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon yesterday, my Twitter and Facebook feeds were filled with prayers and information (and, sadly, misinformation).

But a few moments after that, my feed began to fill up with the comforting words and image of Fred Rogers – in particular, this one:


After the initial draw of comfort, I began to wonder why I was seeing Mr. Rogers so much…. and then it hit me.

You see, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood premiered on PBS stations in 1968 – the year I turned 4. My generation did, literally, grow up with Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Electric Company, and Zoom. These programs were created for MY generation; they weren’t leftovers like Captain Kangaroo or Romper Room (not to take anything away from those shows, but they weren’t created with my generation in mind). People who knew this new generation of kids was a little bit different and needed a little attention created these amazing shows for us.

Without realizing it, I think Fred Rogers in particular understood GenX; as I’ve previously written (and as Strauss & Howe point out), the Nomadic generations tend to be smaller, marginalized, mistrusted, overshadowed by the previous Idealist generations. It’s no wonder that films about us highlight our pragmatism in the face of unfairness (Pretty in Pink), our willingness to break rules in order to get ahead (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and our feelings of inadequacy (The Breakfast Club). We were a generation overshadowed by a huge cohort of noisy, eager Boomers… and we were growing up in a world that was crumbling around us without our really understanding (JFK/MLK/RFK/Malcolm X assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, LA riots, Chicago DNC, etc.). We needed someone to tell us it was all going to be okay. We needed someone to value us just the way we were, just for who we were.

And there was Fred Rogers. As good and loving a man in real life as he was on television. I think we instinctively knew he was genuine; sure, as we got into our teens, there was something rather old fashioned about him that we mocked a little. But the truth of Fred Rogers is that when no one else did, he valued us. He answered every letter, and showed genuine care in public appearances. He spoke directly to us through the camera with a love that was palpable. He taught us to care for one another in a way that wasn’t dismissive or flashy.

And so now, in times of trouble and strife, my generation turns to Mr. Rogers.  He still makes us feel valued, safe, ready to take on the world: “You make each day a special day. You know how, by just your being you. There’s only one person in this whole world like you. And people can like you exactly as you are.”

Each day (after 1972) he’d end the program with a song I still remember all the words to:

It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.
It’s such a happy feeling: You’re growing inside.
And when you wake up ready to say,
“I think I’ll make a snappy new day.”
It’s such a good feeling, a very good feeling,
The feeling you know that I’ll be back,
When the day is new, and I’ll have more ideas for you.
And you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about.
I will too.

Thank you, Mr. Rogers.

Today, on this national day of Thanksgiving, I am especially thankful for

  • My nephew Tom’s continuing recovery and his now home with the ‘rents.
  • The many hours in the kitchen with Mom learning her methods and recipes – they keep her with me.
  • A growing and focusing sense of purpose.
  • My crazy, devoted, outrageous, loving family – even when we’re separated by miles (or in this case, a terrible infection that has Sandy and I doing Thanksgiving dinner on our own today).
  • Antibiotics (see above).
  • Deep friendships – that hang on despite long gaps between conversations (and as an ancillary, thank God for Facebook, so that those friends are still connected somehow).
  • Pumpkin pie – well, all pie, really. I mean, who doesn’t like pie?
  • Room for the sorrows of the day too – both personal and national. I miss Mom and Dad, as well as friends who have passed… but I am also sad that our European ancestors had no regard for the cultures and peoples they encountered when they landed here.
  • My brilliant, shiny, compassionate, and earnest colleagues at Union Theological Seminary.
  • Laughter; especially at this (h/t Erik Wikstrom):
  • Music. Always music.
  • The soft, snoring kitty next to me (and the one sacked out on my bed).
  • I and those I love are safe, warm, and dry. And sorrow that is it not so for everyone, when it is in our capacity to make it true for all.
  • My faith. And yours. Many beliefs enrich our world.
  • Challenges – physical, mental, spiritual, emotional.
  • The many teachers in my life – professional and unintentional
  • Memories – even the bad ones.
  • Books.
  • Middle age – I’m old enough to know better but still young enough to do something about it. (Although I’d like a little less of this aching and creaking, thanks.)
  • Opportunities, some of which I know I get because of my place of privilege (white, middle class, American), some of which I have fought tooth and nail for, some of which have been simply gifts of grace.
  • The inspiration of fellow Unitarian Universalists – you keep me focused and hopeful.
  • Peace.
  • Joy.
  • Love.


Happy Thanksgiving, one and all.

There’s a lot of talk about freedom and liberty these days, and whenever I hear the word freedom, my mind instantly goes to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and the beautiful interpretations by Normal Rockwell. In his 1941 state of the union address, FDR proposed people “everywhere in the world” ought to enjoy:

Freedom of speech and expression
Freedom of worship
Freedom from want
Freedom from fear

These freedoms are much of what Unitarian Universalism is about – we speak of them in our principles, which affirm, among other things, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience; the use of the democratic process; the goal of world community; and Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

Noble – strong – affirming. But as I read our principles, and as I think about FDR’s four freedoms, something is missing.

And it’s something we don’t seem to embrace, almost as though we don’t believe it is our right to have it. That something is joy.

We are, as Garrison Keillor puts it, “God’s Frozen people.” Given a choice at death between spending eternity in the joy of heaven or in a discussion about the existence of heaven, UUs will choose the discussion. We are incredibly earnest, hardworking, compassionate people, who forget how funny the church parking lots full of Priuses with “coexist” bumper stickers look to outsiders. We wonder in amazement when during a committee meeting check-in someone actually has good news.

A search of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Worship Web returns ZERO results for the keyword ‘joy’.

There is a little joy in our hymnal – we get “Joy to the World” at Christmastime and “There Is More Joy Somewhere” – but that’s about it.

We don’t tend to be expressive in our worship.

Some of our African-American ministers have suggested that if we were more joyful, and more expressive about our joy in our worship, we would be a long way toward the multicultural vision we have for our denomination. But many outside of the protestant European-American diaspora find our services – as a rule – stuffy, full of somber reflection, lacking in play and laughter.

We stifle our joy, because we are serious people in serious times.

Why are we not joyful? Why all the embarrassment about being happy? Why do we not feel free for joy?


I pick on UUs a little, much like we pick on our sisters and nephews and cousins, out of love and long-standing relationship. I was born into a Unitarian family, and while my spiritual journey took me out of our congregations for many years, my return was much like that of the prodigal son. I was welcomed back in, without question, my chosen congregation, upstate in Saratoga Springs, making me feel like a place had always been saved for me. Like the father in the New Testament parable, our denomination said “let us celebrate and rejoice, for she was lost and now has been found.”

So I pick on us a little, because I know that given a little prod, a little permission, we can embrace our freedom for joy.


Now I hear you thinking, “there is so much suffering in the world! How can we possibly be joyful?  We live in such a difficult, tragic world, that it is a denial of our common darkness to jump for joy!” And you might, rightly, quote theologian Fredrick Buechner to me, who said, “Compassion… is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

If we postpone joy until all the world is fed and clothed and peaceful and free – if we postpone joy until FDR’s four freedoms are a reality – we will spend generations in a dark and joyless world.

And that is so sad, for joy is an upswelling of life, of spirit, a blossoming of freedom. We are here for joy; philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would add that “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Joy is what makes life worthwhile. And yes, we can be joyful AND work to make the world just and safe and free; as poet Kahil Gibran said, “He who has not looked on Sorrow will never see Joy.” Joseph Campbell advises us to “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”

A few years ago, two of the teens from our congregation spent a week working on a project in a poor neighborhood in the city of San Salvador; their project? Paint a mural. Studies have shown that brightly colored murals on long, foreboding walls and abandoned buildings will actually bring crime rates down. Alongside other Americans, the priests who ran the project, and some of the neighborhood’s teens, Alie and Emma painted by day and wondered by night – each evening, the families in this neighborhood would prepare sumptuous meals despite their own poverty; and they would dance and sing with wild abandon in celebration of these visitors from the north. Alie remarked to one of the priests how surprised she was that these people who had no running water, little money, meager and crowded homes, and a constant fear of crime, disease, and death, would be so joyful. The priest replied that when you have literally nothing, you celebrate everything you do have – even if all you have is a soul touched by God. Even in shockingly oppressive conditions, there is one freedom no one can take away; your joy. Or as composer Richard Wagner put it, “Joy is not in things, it is in us.”


Now this isn’t to say that we should only look on the bright side in the face of injustice. We don’t have to look far to see that we’re in a real pickle:

Man-made climate change is causing massive disasters, unwieldy temperature fluctuations, species extinctions, and a pile of consequences we can’t imagine.

There is a clear and present danger to women’s health, women’s rights, and women’s dignity, with more and more draconian laws being passed to turn back 100 years of progress.

As a country, we have failed the First Nations miserably, and continue to do so.

Clean energy solutions are being sidelined in favor of outrageous greed and ill-advised big oil interests.

The Borderlands continue to be a crucible for racism, poverty, oppression, and violence.

Veterans are being slighted – they are homeless, suffering with PTSD and often addictions. And they aren’t getting their due.

Religion is being used as a weapon against nearly everyone – and ‘freedom of religion’ is being perverted for deleterious causes.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are being so demonized, our LGBTQ and genderQueer youth are killing themselves.

Income inequality isn’t just a catch-phrase but a horrific reality that is causing starvation, homelessness, disease, and unease.

Anti-union sentiments assault workers of every stripe.

Anti-education sentiments are destroying primary and secondary education – and threaten post-secondary education as well.

Racism thrives.

Are you depressed yet? Are you angry yet? Angry enough to do something? Good. In his book Between Heaven and Mirth, Jesuit priest James Martin writes, “The anger that rises in you over an unjust situation may be a sign that God is moving you to address that injustice. …but where is joy then? It comes from an awareness that God is working through the compassion you feel.”  And remember: you don’t have to do everything – many hands make light work. And those hands are even lighter when they are accompanied by a smile, a laugh, and a little hope.

When you listen to the songs created by Africans who were enslaved in this country, something sticks out:  they are all remarkably hopeful. Again, you would think a people so horribly and appallingly oppressed, would have little to be hopeful about; yet it is hope and joy that is the organic pulse of life, not oppression. It is faith, born in the midst of deep suffering, that allows the oppressed to hope for liberation and a vision of freedom. Joy and hope exist in the spirituals of the 19th century, and the blues of the 20th century; even today, as theologian James Cone remarks, joy and hope exist in the sermons, songs, and stories of the oppressed as they “respond to the vision that stamps dignity upon their personhood.”


So to be joyful is to be dignified!?

Why not? What, in the rule books, says we have to be stoic in order to carry dignity? Well, besides Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations – a rule book for Stoics. In fact, aren’t we more attracted to people who express joy rather than hide it behind the façade of gravitas? I think of Teresa of Avila, who said “let each of us humbly use joy to cheer one another.”


Cheering each other with joy is easy, because joy is contagious. When we express joy – through laughter, and dancing, and cheering, and singing, and even smiling – we share a little of that divinity with each other, and maybe help each other.

How many times have you been in a rotten mood and have been wallowing in it? You know the kind – the day started badly from the moment you put your feet on the cold floor made dismayingly damp by the puppy. Then there was no hot water in the shower. You spilled the used, wet coffee grounds on the counter. And once you got to work, you received a text from your daughter, upset because you forgot to sign the permission slip for today’s field trip. You are in a foul mood, and no one better get in your way. You wallow in it. You grumble audibly. You scowl and curse and fume, creating a PigPen-like cloud of disconsolate misery that follows wherever you go.

And then some wiseacre cracks a joke. You force yourself to not smile. “I’m not in the mood” you might say. But instead of leaving, this guy keeps it up, ribbing you playfully, maybe telling you how it could be worse – that you could have had your arms full of burgers and fries and shakes and trip on the door jamb just as you’re entering the room of your friends waiting for their lunches…. Or that you could have watched your bookbag full of final exam essays blow off the top of your car as you pulled away from the street, papers flying all over including squarely in the face of your neighbor – the judge, or how you could have hit a puddle just right so that it created a wave that drenched three nuns standing on the curb. You stifle your laugh and your lighthearted tormentor is not gonna let up and you fight it and fight it … until dammit, you can’t help it… and you guffaw.

And you feel a little better. Maybe the stress of the morning releases a little. Maybe you realize that sometimes we just have lousy mornings, and they help us appreciate the good ones a bit more. We laugh at ourselves and psychologically get out of our own way. Trappist monk Thomas Merton felt that “the main reason we have so little joy is that we take ourselves too seriously.” Reverend David Robb, over at All Souls, says that “those who can laugh at themselves can also look at themselves critically, but not harshly, as key element of emotional growth.”

That’s… joy.

Balm for a troubled soul.

The Persian mystic Hafiz would call it “the glorious sound of a soul waking up.”

Again, the caveat – I’m not saying we have to be joyful all the time. Sadness, anger, fear, anxiety – they’re all natural responses, and even desirable. They show we are emotionally alive. But joy shouldn’t be left out of that mix; nor should our freedom to express it. And maybe Joy – rather than melancholy or bitterness or sadness – maybe Joy should be our default setting.


So how do we all embrace our freedom for joy?

First: practice gratitude.

It doesn’t take much: you can start by thinking of one thing you are grateful for right this moment. Now practice that every day – like all new skills, start small – take one moment. Then build it up – maybe be grateful for something when you wake up (I’m grateful I woke up) and when you go to bed (I’m grateful for clean sheets). Add a little gratitude to your meals (I’m grateful for this food) and your commute (I’m grateful there’s a seat on the bus), and before you know it, you’ll be practicing gratitude. And you all know what happens when you are grateful for something – BAM! A little joy comes in.


Next: Practice the Principle of Delayed Understanding.

Sometimes we get so busy focusing on what is happening as it is happening, we forget to experience what is happening. We’re constantly analyzing it, looking for angles, and we get serious and thoughtful and then our thoughts take us someplace that might be sad or annoying and we start wondering why this came up and do I really blame my mother and maybe my cat would like me more if I wore catnip-scented perfume and before you know it, you’ve missed the moment.

Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard says that life is lived forward but understood backward; motivational speaker David Roche calls this the principle of delayed understanding. If we would just let go, we’ll experience what’s happening just fine and remember it later. The yogi Ram Dass would tell us to “be here now” – yes, it’s a way to find peace, but it’s also a way to find joy. Figure out what it all means later…be here now.


Third – and I’ll close with this idea, which is a riff off Ghandi – be the joy you want to see in the world.

This one is a bit tougher. Many of us work or study in places that are full of strife, conflict, negativity, and at the very least, complaining. The cliché misery loves company is a cliché because it’s true. It’s easier to say “me too” when someone complains than say “gee, not me!” Yet if we remember that We are not our Environment – and that we have an effect on our environment – then we can hold on to those moments of gratitude, the contagion of humor, the perspectives that allow us to share a smile instead of a frown – and maybe bring a little joy in. You are in a joyless place? Be joyful. Not sticky sweet Disney princess joyful – but honestly, gratefully, mirthfully joyful. Translate that to our congregations: be joyful in worship, in committee meetings, working for justice, caring for our community. We are already known as the Church of the Yellow Shirts – let us also be known as the Religion of Joy.

I’ve had plenty of traumas in my life – and I have worked at some soulless places. But one comment I get constantly is “you are always smiling.” In fact, when I told some colleagues I was preaching on joy, they said “there’s no one better – you embody joy.” I think my colleagues were being kind, because a lot of times it’s not easy to be joyful. I do suffer from episodic depression. I do go through spells of deep mourning and melancholy. But because I know – and remember most of the time – that I am made for joy, I can look at the world with hope. Yes, I am an optimist – because the alternative is unbearable. Despite the pain, it’s much more bearable to let joy be my default position.

So let us embrace this freedom, and let joy propel us and buoy us as we work to nurture the world. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.”

If freedom is the ability to make choices, let us be free to make a choice for joy.

Note: This was originally written as a sermon, delivered at the UU Congregation of Queens. To read it in its original form, click here.