Rev. Kenneth H. Read-Brown
Rev. Read-Brown has been our minister since 1987. Prior to this settlement, Ken served as Associate Director of Cambridge Forum and Assistant Minister at First Parish, Cambridge, Mass. Ken was born and raised on Long Island, New York. He is a graduate of Haverford College, from which he received a BA in philosophy, and of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA, from which he received a Master of Divinity degree. Before entering Starr King, Ken taught music at a school for severely learning-disabled children. He lives in Hingham with his wife, Susan. They have three grown children.
"I am available for conversation on any matter of concern to you. If you're wondering about joining Old Ship, reflecting on a matter of theological or philosophical concern, or experiencing a personal crisis, and you'd like to talk, please call, write, e-mail, or speak with me during Fellowship Hour. I look forward to the conversation."
How to reach Ken Read-Brown
Old Ship Church 90 Main Street Hingham, Massachusetts 781-749-1679
Office Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday - 10:00 - 2:00
The most efficient way to contact Ken is by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Musings from the Minister's desk
I've shared Peter Laforge's Thanksgiving poem on many a Thanksgiving. Some of you heard it read in our Old Ship Meeting House again just this past Sunday. But though Laforge's poem is just right for Thanksgiving, it surely works for any gathering of family or friends around a shared table for a holiday meal at any season or, for that matter, at any meal at any time.
So I share the poem with you again here in the newsletter, with the wish that this season, though it may feel "busy" at times, will also be full in the best sense: Full of love and shared kindnesses, perhaps mostly "only" small words or gestures of kindness, but remembering that every act of kindness and goodwill ripples beyond our imagining, making the world better, more peaceful, more just, than it would have been otherwise. So... thank you for all that you do and say in precisely this spirit. Know that it really matters, and know that you really matter.
Here’s the poem:
Perhaps I should have said it just between
The wine and grace, the wishing and the blessing.
That was a time for words, when the scene
Had just begun, before we passed the dressing.
Before the knife cut deep into the breast,
I might have paused, looked up and all around
Into the eyes of each of them.
A jest came easier, wit tossed into the sound
And lost. Between the stuffing and the pie,
Was yet another quiet moment when
I could have told them all. Instead, I sighed
and let it pass. Just once before the end
I should have cried, "listen, before you go.
I love you. I just wanted you to know."
– Peter Laforge
Peace and blessings
Enough about the election. I know that readers of this column and our newsletter,like Unitarian Universalists everywhere, will likely have about the highest voter participation rate as any cohort anywhere. And I know you take your vote seriously and look at the issues and candidates with care. I don't need to encourage you to do this.
So ... enough about the election. Having decided how we will cast our votes, may we pray or wish for results that further the wellbeing of all Americans, of all people, of all life on the planet.
So ... enough about the election.
The morning after the third presidential debate I woke with the debate still very much on my mind, talking points echoing, facial expressions imprinted ... all of it hard to shake. And yes, I was curious to hear and read what the pundits were saying and writing. But after a few minutes of that ... I headed out the door (no headphones) and hit the road for my daily run. It was a perfectly beautiful morning! In half a mile I left the road and trotted onto the golf course. Blue sky, a few white clouds, morning sunlight filtering through the woods lining the 18th fairway, yellow, orange, red, green, all sparkling in the light. How fortunate to be able to put one foot in front of the other on such a morning! As poet Jane Kenyon poignantly wrote, "It could have been otherwise."
I guess in short what I am coming around to reminding myself is that whatever else might be going on personally or politically, to circle back to gratitude. Admittedly this is not always easy, given whatever circumstances might be swirling around us. But if we can do it, it is life-giving, life-affirming, life- sustaining.
One more thing I am grateful for, then, is that Thanksgiving arrives in just a few weeks, reminding me and all of us to reclaim gratitude so that we might reclaim hearts centered in those things that matter most: Family, friends, community ... kindness, caring, love.
So, okay, really: Enough about the election indeed. For though important as this election is, there are in fact other things more important, more enduring, more sustaining.
Be well. And take care of each other.
Peace and blessings,
There is much I could say about this political season; much I could say to encourage each of us to vote and to be as active as we can on behalf of candidates we support; I could remind you that this is a critically important election in many ways, when it comes to our vision for the health of our nation in all of its beautiful diversity and when it comes to the health of our planet in the midst of the accelerating crisis of climate change.
But you know all this, so I won’t belabor the points.
Instead I will, so to speak, cede some of this space to our dear friend Robbie Walsh, who as most of you know was a member of Old Ship as well as minister emeritus at First Parish Duxbury. Some years ago, in his beautiful little collection Stone Blessings, Robbie wrote this reflection on the season of nature which we have just entered:
“New England Autumn”
Why are we treated to this colorful show every year?
I am not aware of any survival value for the trees in their going through this bright showing-off phase. It makes no difference to the leaves – they are soon mulch, every red and yellow one of them.
In northern New England, a large tourist industry thrives on the human enjoyment of the fall colors. Sentient beings travel in machines to see decaying vegetable matter. Is this part of the Grand Design? Does it have survival value for us?
It is a mystery. After all the botanical analysis and theological speculation we are still left with the red and yellow leaves as a gift. There is no card to say who sent the gift, or why. Just the trees and the leaves and the chill air. It will be there for a while, and then it will change into something else. We can’t store it up.
Robbie’s message still and always will ring true, won’t it? This reminder, as I extend it, to pay attention to the free gift of each season as it comes and then goes, and so also to each day and moment as they come and then go – and of course to each person … and all this no matter what else is going on in the world.
Well, political seasons come too – and though we might understandably be relieved to see this one go, let us indeed first honor the covenant we call our Constitution and particpate with our best citizen selves within this season.
And when it passes, remember that participatory democracy is about more than a one day election as we keep on no matter the result – remembering that autumn itself is at one and the same time a dying time and a seed time, giving way through winter to spring.
Peace and blessings,
I'm not sure if the words "tiller" and "till" are etymologically related or not, but I'm intrigued.
In any case, they are each, and each in their own way, about important tools - and maybe pretty good metaphors for our spiritual lives. The tiller, connected to a boat's rudder, is essential for navigation, whether in seas rough or calm. And to till the soil is essential to a farmer growing crops - and therefore essential to us who benefit from the fruits of the soil.
So ... seizing the metaphors: I hope that here at Old Ship we are able to discover tools of navigation for our lives, and that we are tilling the soil of our lives to help us grow in love and wisdom.
Well, metaphors only go so far. But whatever the metaphor, I certainly hope that this Old Ship year to come does help us as individuals and as a community to navigate the sometimes treacherous waters in which we live, and helps us to create fruitful soil for the living of our lives.
Opportunities in this spirit abound and our described in our newsletters and on our Old Ship web site. We offer an abundance of classes, groups, and ways to serve our community and the wider world. Of course none of us possibly can (or should) be an active part of every group and committee; but each of us can choose to be involved at Old Ship in ways that nurture and heal our spirit and that contribute to the health of our community and to the larger good.
Together, then, risking the mixing of those two metaphors, may we hold fast to our spiritual tillers in order to navigate the waters of the coming year and of our lives, and may we do so with compassion and kindness and love which grow from the rich tilled spiritual soil of our lives.
Peace and blessings,
p.s. In this political year, it seems worth reminding us that though political conversation is among the many good and lively conversations we have at Old Ship, we ought not assume that everyone thinks alike politically or will vote alike. Let us be sensitive to this, whether when we light a candle of concern during worship or engage in coffee hour conversation. As an early ancestor of our faith wrote, we need not think alike in order to love alike.
As I write, sitting in our back porch room, I hear not one but two chipmunks chirping away, I hear birds singing, and I hear the distant roar of what sounds like a wood chipper; and as I look out the windows I see that I’m surrounded by a sea of seemingly infinite shades of green.
And from irritating wood chipper to pleasing birdsong and soothing leafy green, I know that I am kin with it all, since all of us, whether animate or inanimate, are descended from the stardust of a supernovae several billions of years ago.
Does it matter that I know this? Well, it certainly is different from the notion that humans are somehow separate from the rest of creation, mere observers of everything else. But it is not only different; feeling kinship with, well, everything might actually lead to a transformed and transformative way of living with each other and with all the creation on this quite extraordinary planet in this expanding universe. And we could surely use a different way of living right about now, couldn’t we? Different from the consumerist, competitive culture that has been infecting the planet?
What would this different way of living look like? Well, it would begin with fuller presence and care in the midst of our most intimate relationships of family and friends, would circle out to our respectful conversations at Old Ship and among neighbors and in all our seemingly trivial (but never trivial) daily interactions with everyone we encounter, would circle out to how we perceive and talk with people of differing political or religious views from our own, and would circle out to influence the choices we make that impact the health of the earth.
Nothing trivial in any of this! Quite the contrary. In this spirit then: This summer (and always) may we nurture a feeling of kinship with each and every part of creation. It just might make a big difference.
Peace and blessings,
I’ve been running long distances for almost fifty years.
(Think where I’d be now if I hadn’t been running in circles … )
All this running, whether on suburban sidewalks, rural back roads, busy city streets, or through the woods, has given me plenty of time to think. And sometimes that thinking turns to the question of what it takes to sustain a long run, not to mention to sustain running over the course of decades.
Distance runner and environmentalist Ed Ayers, now in his seventies and still running “ultras” (races of well over marathon distances), has reflected on this too. In his book The Longest Race, he writes that the wisdom required to run fifty miles is not unlike the wisdom we collectively need to sustain a flourishing community of life on the planet over the course of generations.
He notes that for too long we’ve been living like sprinters instead of like marathoners. Sprinters can afford to use up all their resources of oxygen within ten or twenty seconds, while marathoners need to pace themselves – in it for the long haul. On the planet we cannot afford to live like sprinters anymore.
When I ponder the future of our Old Ship congregation as we face momentous decisions concerning the future of our Parish House, I try to put this, too, into the marathon (indeed ultra-marathon) not sprint perspective.
To begin with, our vote this Sunday is part of a process of careful thought that began well over a year ago and that will continue after the vote, whichever way the vote goes. We have been and must continue to be patient with this process.
Even so, these months of shared conversation, reflection, and decision-making, are in service of the spiritual and financial health and well-being of our congregations not just for this year or next, but for this generation and the next… and the one after that.
It is, I believe, critical that we keep this long-term marathoner’s perspective in mind and heart as we debate together. We will naturally enough have different opinions and ideas as we move ahead – but we can be one in our shared concern to create a sustainable future for Old Ship: not for this or that building, but for our congregation, our community of life and love, over the long term.
May it be so.
Peace and blessings,
My Musing this month is largely taken from my most recent column in the Hingham Journal, which also includes thoughts from my Easter sermon – and indirectly at the same time looks forward to Earth Day, April 22.
The Christian journey of Holy Week – from Palm Sunday through Good Friday to Easter – mirrors journeys each of us sometimes take in the midst of our personal lives, journeys through dark nights of the soul towards a fresh dawning of the spirit.
The most universal example of this is our passage through grief. We experience first the deepest pangs of loss and sadness; and then, with time and loving support and companionship, we learn to live anew: never forgetting, always feeling the loss, but discovering that we are able to go on – as our loved one would want us to do.
It seems to me that the human family may well collectively be in the midst of such a journey these days. There is first of all a grief we may or may not acknowledge. This is grief over the loss of the Earth we have known: loss of biodiversity as we count extinctions of species at a rate not seen for millions of years, loss of a stable climate we have been able to depend upon for thousands of years, and loss of an assured sustainable future for our children and grandchildren.
Then what? Well, as with any grieving, “the only way through is through.” To begin with, how natural and understandable, even healthy, to be deeply sad, even sometimes to the point of despair, as we observe the continued degradation of our Earth home. But the journey must continue through and beyond despair. With mutual support and the companionship of neighbors and friends who share this sadness and concern, we can “learn to live anew”.
Together we can seek that “fresh dawning of the spirit” through the many ways we participate in the creation of an ecologically sustainable way of life on the planet, from the personal to the political, from changing light bulbs to changing minds.
We cannot know for a certainty what the future may bring. But we can with certainty know what we can bring to the future: Care and kindness, and in the spirit of Jesus and all the wisdom teachers of humanity, love for one another, for all creatures great and small, and for our Earth home.
Peace and blessings,
It’s time for my quadrennial reminder that religious liberalism and political liberalism are not the same thing. Time to remember that to affirm that Unitarian Universalists gather as liberal religious communities is to affirm that we believe in individual freedom to pursue truth and meaning each in our own way, and that we commit to offering one another spiritual support as we seek together to help create a more just and peaceful world.
To put it more simply, it is to affirm that we are a religious tradition of the free open mind and generous open heart.
None of which implies that Unitarian Universalists are all liberal politically, much less all members of the Democratic Party. Free open minds and generous open hearts can lead us in many directions, politically liberal as well as politically conservative, as we covenant to walk together with one spirit of love and care and concern.
All this said, it is no big secret that a majority of UUs likely do consider themselves politically as well as religiously liberal. This means that it is more important than ever in a contentious political year, such as the one in which we are now living, to avoid assuming that everyone in the room is liberal or Democrat or supports a particular candidate.
I encourage us to remember this as we quite naturally engage in political conversations during coffee hour or at other social events; and please remember this too if you are thinking of lighting a candle on Sunday morning reflecting your political views.
In this spirit, then, with open minds and open hearts may we continue with utmost respect to listen to and learn from one another’s varied opinions and views.
* * *
As our calendar of festivals, both secular and religious, continues to turn, we celebrate Easter later this month. May this celebration of new life, this celebration of joy in the morning after a dark night of the soul … reflect new life and love in your hearts and your lives, even in the midst of whatever trial and sorrow there may be for some of you this season.
As always, please know that my door is always open for conversation on whatever may be on your mind or in your heart
Peace and blessings,
The practice of zakat (or "charity") for Muslims is one of the five "pillars" of Islam. One is meant each year to donate 2.5% of one's wealth (not income, but wealth) to religious charity. In the same spirit, many Christians practice tithing, which as you know means giving 10% of one's annual income to the church.
We Unitarian Universalists have no set percentages required, but we do ask ourselves each year to consider a significant pledge to our congregations, in addition to whatever other charities and causes we support. Our Old Ship pledge campaign will be underway soon.
You can find a few preliminary words about this year's pledge drive elsewhere in the newsletter. Meanwhile we are all invited to begin reflecting on the many ways that Old Ship and Unitarian Universalism enrich our lives all year long, and to what extent we are able to support Old Ship financially during the coming fiscal year (July-June).
I would invite you to keep this in mind as you reflect: Our pledge and gifts to Old Ship are somewhat different from other charitable contributions. Whereas our gifts to other worthy organizations are just that - to an organization out there or over there that has a mission we'd like to support - by contrast, as members and friends of our congregation we are with our pledges making a commitment to pool our wealth to support the programs that nourish our spiritual lives and that enable us to reach out to serve in the wider world. This mutual financial sharing mirrors all the other ways we share with one another to create together the vibrant spiritual community we call Old Ship.
Thank you in advance for your serious pre-pledge reflection.
All this said, like you, I have other organizations and causes I support to the degree I am able, including, near the top of the list for me, the Alzheimer's Association, which I now support through my running.
On Patriots Day 1970, I ran my first Boston Marathon with a mere thousand or so others. My brothers with their wives and our parents cheered me along at various points from Hopkinton to Boston. It was a memorable day in many ways. Yet though I've run many marathons since, none have been as meaningful as the Boston Marathons I've run in memory of my mother, who died in 2012, just before Christmas at the end of a long Alzheimer's journey.
I'll be running again this April, and I run not just in my mother's memory and in memory and honor of others (Old Shippers among them) touched by this disease. I run to raise funds for the Alzheimer's Association to support their mission of finding a cure and meanwhile supporting families in the midst of the Alzheimer's journey - often it's own sort of marathon, a marathon far more challenging than any mere road race. (If this is a mission close to your heart too, you can give through my fundraising site. Just click on this link. If you'd prefer, you can send a check made out to the Alzheimer's Association to me at the church, 107 Main Street, Hingham, MA 02043, and I'll pass it along to the Association.)
Thanks very much for all the ways you give: To Old Ship above all, as well as to whatever additional causes and organizations are closest to your heart. It all adds up to making the world a better place than it would be without our collective efforts.
Peace and blessings,
(adapted from my “Earth and Spirit” column printed recently in the Hingham Journal.)
The United Nations conference on climate change is still scheduled to take place in Paris from November 30 through December 11.
Right now Paris is a place of heartbreak. For Parisians. For all who love Paris. For all who value human life.
Is this a time and place for such a conference? Well … perhaps more than before it is precisely the right time and the right place for such a conference. Perhaps it is deeply appropriate that leaders from the global community of nations will in a matter of days be gathering in Paris of all places to consider the future of this earth home we share as it relates to climate change.
For our shared hope can be that this gathering of leaders from some two hundred nations will transcend terror and fear, will instead represent the fundamental and essential need for a unity of nations and of peoples, a unity the terrorists don’t understand or see and would seek to break.
After all, in spite of the reality of borders and conflicts and terror, in spite of the heartbreak from violence not only in Paris, but in Beirut and Baghdad, Ankara and Damascus, Mali and Kabul, and too many other places… when all is said and done we are one humanity, one life, one earth. Perhaps, just perhaps, we are on the cusp of acting a bit more as if we knew it.
A few days before the UN conference begins, we in the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving. In this time of understandable fear and trepidation, yet also of tentative hope, I give thanks: for the beauties of our land and of the earth we share, for the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, for the love of family and friends and community, for life.
And I pray that from the wellspring of grateful hearts we might together continue the good work of creating a world of greater justice and peace and well-being for all. It is possible. As Gandhi once reminded us, “The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.”
I wish you all a Thanksgiving and holiday season of abundant blessings.
Peace and blessings,
Of course “all lives matter” – this should pretty much go without saying in company that passes for civilized. Why then bother with “Black Lives Matter”? Aren’t black lives included in “all lives”?
Of course they are. But when some lives (in this case “black lives”) are threatened or oppressed simply because of the color of their skin or their ethnic background or origin, we need to name those lives in order to remind ourselves and everyone that their lives do indeed matter as much as other lives. Not more than, but as much.
For the reality is that in many ways the lives of African Americans in our nation certainly appear to be undervalued. Three examples among all too many: 60% of those in our prisons and jails are either African American or Latino; median income for African American families is $20,000 less than the median for the entire country; black unemployment is twice the national average. I could go on.
Something is going on here that must be addressed. Our American ideals call us to this work; our religious and moral grounding calls us to this work. For though much has undeniably changed for the better as a result of the civil rights movement, for which we can be grateful, much remains to be done. Isn’t it well past time to ensure that ours is a nation in which all lives are treated as if they mattered equally (because they do) by naming lives that matter, yet for too long have been treated as mattering less?
With all this in mind, our Old Ship Board of Trustees voted last spring to acquire and hang a “Black Lives Matter” banner, and rotate it with a “Standing on the Side of Love” banner. We’ve been doing this for the past two months; and the “Black Lives Matter” banner has evoked important and heartfelt conversation – within our congregation and in the larger community. It is good, honest conversation, conversation that will continue specifically at a November 15 forum at noon after our worship service that day, and with a forum open to the larger community in January or February.
Meanwhile, please feel free to be in direct communication with your thoughts and feelings to me, to our Board president Nina Wellford Price (email@example.com), or to other members of the Board (contact information on our web site; see the “staff and board” page under the pull down “About Us” menu).
Conversation can change hearts, and changed hearts can change lives. We are invited to this conversation.
Peace and blessings,
You may have heard that the Pope visited our country last week. His visit was of course hard to miss, and blessedly so. It was extraordinary.
Our theologies and outward religious beliefs may differ, but there is so much that we share as human beings; and I am hardly the first to say that wherever he goes, Pope Francis offers a voice of sanity and spirit. Yes, he has particular views on particular "issues" - and we may or may not agree with all of his views. But through his presence and his way of living, his example, along with his gentle but firm and sometimes challenging words, he transcends any usual petty partisan bickering.
He does this by reminding us of who we are most deeply, most truly, and suggesting how we could live on this planet together if we heeded more often the admonitions of the spirit, of conscience, of our better natures - call it what you will, call it God, call it Love.
On another matter, quite a bit more locally:
Sitting in the Parish House parlor in a circle of Old Ship folks for a conversation about Dante or the Upanishads or the Koran or Jesus or Buddha or almost whatever … I feel completely and comfortably at home spiritually, nourished by the company and the conversation. At the same time I seem to hear echoes of hundreds of other conversations about things that matter extending back through the twenty-eight years of my ministry among you and no doubt back over the more than fifty years since our congregation first moved into the current Parish House.
Yes, we may naturally enough consider the Meeting House to be our primary place of spiritual nurture - and our congregation's history there goes back a good bit further than fifty years, all the way to 1681 when the posts and beams were first raised. The echoes of sermons and prayers and presence are rich indeed on that side of the street, in that space "made sacred by love" as I sometimes put it.
But, as I've said, we are nourished and nurtured in the Parish House too, whether in a class for whatever age, during a labyrinth walk or at a Coffee House concert in the fellowship hall - even at a committee meeting, when we work together for a common and good purpose.
Well, as you know, serious financial challenges have brought us as a congregation to consider the future of the Parish House: whether to repair, renovate, or sell it and build a new one on land we own to the north of the Meeting House. Weighty decisions to be sure.
But I have confidence that though financial issues press upon us, we will not rush into a decision (a decision that will of course be made by the congregation as a whole), that instead respectful and careful (in other words full of care) conversations will lead in due time to a good decision moving forward.
In this regard we would do well to keep in mind that among alternatives there may be more than one that we could, with will, perseverance, and energy, make a right one, one that will serve our present needs and the needs of the congregation for years, even generations, to come.
I don't know what we will decide about the future of the Parish House; but I do know this for certain: It is not this or than building or room, but rather the circle of caring, committed, kind, and loving people that makes the Old Ship congregation.
Peace and blessings,
Each summer I create a stack of books I intend to read.
Each summer I read a few of them.
And each summer I find myself led one way or another – a review, a personal recommendation, or just a book that catches my eye on a bookstore shelf – to books I hadn’t planned on reading. Interestingly, these are sometimes the books I enjoy the most and/or find most illuminating.
This was true again this summer. Without going into my entire list: I had indeed intended to re-read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the belated “sequel” Go Set a Watchman; then at about the same time I was reading those two books, I saw an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of The World and Me, a searing memoir of growing up black in America, written as a letter to his 15-year-old son – and perhaps needless to say a sort of indirect commentary on issues of race raised in Harper Lee’s books.
Another quite different serendipitous read: I was in a health food store on the Cape and happened to see the most recent book by the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror. There was much in this book I’d read before, but it is a beautiful and inspiring compilation of his life’s teachings, worth a slow, contemplative read.
In yet another vein: I had planned to finally read a novel that had been by my bedside for years, Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Gosh. But I hadn’t fully realized it was the first of a trilogy of 500 page books, or that I would find it gripping enough to want to go right out and get part two of this fascinating saga set in South Asia and China during the period just preceding the Opium Wars … with echoes into our own time.
Well, there’s more. But you get the idea.
And then, in the midst of all this, as I expect most of you have heard by now through Old Ship’s “Constant Contact” email, our daughter Sandra gave birth to our first grandchild, Lowell Brooks Begley, a most beautiful baby boy. During our time in New York visiting and helping out, the book of life, so to speak, became my primary reading – and quite joyfully so.
John Lennon famously said (most likely quoting someone else) that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans … or, in this case, when I was reading other books.
I hope you are all well no matter what the summer has brought your way; and if the summer has been difficult for you, I hope you have received the support and love you’ve needed.
In any case, I look forward to seeing you soon as we re-gather in our Meeting House and for many other shared Old Ship activities, all in the service of the book of life and love.
Peace and blessings,
Our Old Ship Parish House address: 107 Main Street, Hingham, Massachusetts, United States of America, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way Galaxy, Virgo Supercluster, Universe.
Summer offers the opportunity to be comfortably outdoors for longer stretches of time at night. This means the season offers the opportunity to experience our “address” – our place in the universe.
How might we do this? It can be as simple as looking at the Moon and thinking of it as “over there” rather than “up there”. Or as the sun “sets” reminding ourselves as we watch that it is not the sun’s going “down” but the Earth’s turning we are seeing.
Or, on a night with bright planets such as Venus and Jupiter and Saturn in evidence, seeing them not just as brighter lights on a dome filled with millions of other apparently stationery lights, but to see and experience them as we know them to be: orbiting the sun (whose light they are reflecting) on the same plane as our Earth. Or, if we are someplace dark enough for the Milky Way to be visible, reminding ourselves that this disk-like spread of stars is a spinning spiral galaxy … and that we are seeing it from within, since we are traveling in one of its outer spiral arms.
Why would we want to bother with such exercises?
Well, it might matter a great deal to have as accurate an understanding as possible of our place in this evolving universe. Does the universe – and hence our lives – have meaning? Or not? It seems to me that even to begin addressing such questions we ought to know what we’re talking about when we are talking about the universe. Even better would be to experience, if only in some small measure, what we are talking about when we are talking about the universe.
If nothing else, experiencing the Moon as “over there” … the rolling earth as the creator of each evening’s sunset … the planets spread across solar system … the spirals of our galaxy … may re-awaken us to a lost sense of childhood wonder. This in itself would be enough reason to spend a little more time outside on a summer’s evening. You are hereby invited.
Peace and blessings,
I’m struck with more than usual force these days with the varieties of human suffering that confront us in the daily headlines. From the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean to the devastating earthquake in Nepal to riots in Baltimore. And meanwhile each one of us is also living through whatever joy or sorrow, trial or trouble, the day brings to us personally. What are we to do? How are we to live?
My response echoes what seems to me to be the wisdom of the ages. With gratitude for the gifts of life that are ours, with awareness of our place in the interwoven web of creation, we do what we can where we are with what we have. It is actually not so complicated: the kind word, the helping hand, the meal at Father Bill’s, the email to an elected official, the contribution to earthquake relief (www.uusc.org).
All this said, how do we keep our footing, our balance, when the world seems “too much with us” as Wordsworth put it? One of my ways is to take a little time each morning – sometimes only a few minutes, sometimes longer – to read from the world’s scriptures or perhaps a poem. This as a way of preparing for the day by first settling into a wisdom deeper than the headlines, of allowing myself to be reminded of more enduring truths than the latest Facebook post or Twitter feed. For example, these few lines from the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi:
All religions, all this singing, one song.
The differences are just illusion and vanity.
Sunlight looks a little different on this wall
than it does on that wall
and a lot different on this other one,
but it is still one light.
Peace and blessings,
February is of course the shortest month of the year, even when it stretches itself out to twenty-nine days every leap year. But though short, it does have its share of holidays and holy days, including Groundhog Day, Tu Bishvat (New Year for Trees on the Jewish calendar), Valentine’s Day, Presidents Day, Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday (on the Christian Calendar), and the Chinese New Year.
All this means that in the depths of winter we still have occasions to warm ourselves with celebration of one kind or another – with the hope which many share that at the very outset of the month the groundhog will not see his shadow so that winter will (it is of course a scientifically verified correlation) end sooner rather than later.
Be all this as it may be, at the heart of the month, right smack in the center, is Valentine’s Day – a celebration of love. And boy do we need more love in our troubled world. Not just romantic love, which is of course wonderful, but all kinds of love: friendship, compassion, caring, kindness. The story itself of St. Valentine reminds us of the way in which love can reach out, connect, and heal.
Whether closely rooted in fact or just pure legend, we are told that while imprisoned, persecuted for religious reasons, on the day before his execution St. Valentine wrote a letter to his jailer’s daughter, who he had miraculously healed of blindness outside the walls. He signed his letter of comfort and consolation “Your Valentine”.
Valentine was the one in prison! But he reached beyond the prison walls to comfort another. And by reaching out in this way, he (or the legend) taught that any walls of separation can be breached … with kindness, love, care, and compassion.
Yes, in our troubled world we need more love, love of all kinds to reach beyond prison walls of fear and hate, to bridge chasms of misunderstanding that separate us one from another.
May we each and all reach out in the spirit of love this month and always.
Peace and blessings,
p.s. Once again this year I’m training to run the Boston Marathon to raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Association, in honor and memory of my mother. I know you each have special important causes to which you contribute, but if you would like to support my run to honor a loved one of yours or simply because the cause matters to you, you may do so by going to my fundraising web site: Google “crowd rise Ken Read-Brown” and the first “hit” will be my site. Or you may contribute with a check or cash, using a form that I can provide for you.
The year 2014 draws to an end in the midst of a disconcerting swirl of national and world events – Ferguson, New York, Cleveland … ISIS, Taliban bombings, continued drone strikes … climate change, immigration reform, partisan dueling worse than ever …
And as the headlines do their work on our hearts and minds, we navigate at the same time our personal lives of joy and sorrow woven fine.
Well might we wonder in an idle moment: What is the meaning of life?
In a way, that’s the question I address one way or another in every sermon I preach and every class I preach. More accurately it is a series of interlocking questions that we each no doubt ask ourselves … at least from time to time: What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of my life? How can I make my life meaningful? And so on.
Further, if we are to make New Year’s resolutions that have any significant value, ought those resolutions not be rooted in some sense (however vague it might sometimes be) of life’s meaning or of the meaning we wish to make of our lives?
It is with such musings in mind that I prepare to teach my twenty-seventh (or so) “winter class” here at Old Ship, which this year will be The Meaning of Life For Stoics, Epicureans … and the Rest of Us.
Originally I had planned just to focus on the Meditations of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius – his personal reflections composed largely from the perspective of the ancient school of philosophy known as Stoicism. But more recently I’ve been thinking that we need a broader canvass in order to more fruitfully feed our contemporary need for meaning. So we’ll be looking at both Stoic and Epicurean writings, which though they have often been viewed primarily in contrast to one another are more accurately complementary.
As always, everyone is invited to these conversations – which this year will be Wednesdays from January 7 through February 4 (take your pick between 1:00 and 7:00 – or both!). Details are repeated elsewhere in the newsletter and on the web site.
It’s just the next installment of this more than a quarter century of shared “conversations about things that matter” – conversations that have enriched my life more than words can express … which I hope is true for many of you too.
Whether or not you join us for these gatherings, I wish you all a New Year filled with blessings … and if hard times come your way, may you have all the love and support you need. Old Ship – and I – are here when you need us.
Peace and blessings,
Maybe you’ve had the experience I’ve had on occasion and had again recently, which is to come away from a talk or lecture with not much more than one phrase – but it is a phrase which somehow manages to capture the whole meaning of the presentation.
The phrase that has stayed with me this time was shared during a breakfast gathering of clergy at Father Bill’s Place, the shelter in Quincy where Old Shippers often help out by cooking and serving meals. One of the speakers was a woman who had lived in the shelter for fourteen months and was now on her own and doing very well. In telling her story, she made a point of saying “No one chooses to be homeless.” Well, I suppose that should be obvious! And it is, once we give it a moment’s thought.
And, though obvious it may be, so much is wrapped up in this simple reminder. Homelessness is not a lifestyle choice, as another speaker put it, and is almost all the time not the fault of the person without a home – who is, after all, a person very much like every one of us. “There but for the grace of God,” as the saying goes.
So, then comes a question: Can we not only help those in need of shelter and home, but also work to change the conditions and policies that lead all too many into life without a home in the first place? This is the question at the heart of our new congregation wide social justice issue – and we are all invited to the conversation and to the good work.
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On another note: I’m writing this in the midst of the first northeast storm of the season. The lyrics to two of the verses from Gordon Bok’s poignant and beautiful song Turning Toward the Morning come to mind as I hold each of you in my thoughts and prayers, this season and always:
Now October's growing thin
And November's coming home;
You'll be thinking of the season
And the sad things that you've seen,
And you hear that old wind walking,
Hear him singing high and thin,
You could swear he's out there singing
Of your sorrow.
When the darkness falls around you
And the Northwind comes to blow,
And you hear him call your name out
As he walks the brittle snow:
That old wind don't mean you trouble,
He don't care or even know,
He's just walking down the darkness
Toward the morning.
Whatever this season brings to you, may you remember that, also in Gordon Bok’s words, “the world is always turning toward the morning.”
Peace and blessings,
So … a Quaker, Hindu, Lutheran, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, and Unitarian Universalist were walking down 58th Street in New York City …
No joke. Rather, these were just a few of the faiths represented in the “Multifaith Contingent” of the People’s Climate March on Sunday, September 21. Thousands of us from our different religious traditions filled 58th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues as we waited our turn to begin walking. I was there, and I felt that I was there representing all of you.
And the “Multifaith Contingent” was just one of the many and varied groups lining up to parade through the heart of Manhattan to encourage the leaders of the world at the United Nations Climate Summit to make the kinds of national and global policy changes necessary to meet the challenge of the climate change crisis.
Yes, Sierra Club and other well-known environmental groups were there (the “usual suspects” – including 350MA, the group with whom several other Old Shippers marched); but also represented were all those faith traditions, as well as labor unions, scientists, indigenous groups, and a potpourri of social justice and civil rights groups.
Why such a diversity among the marchers? Because climate change affects everyone, and is affecting first and worst the poorest on the planet who are most vulnerable to the storms, droughts, heat waves, and rising seas brought about by global warming and climate change.
Participants also ranged from the very young who will be living into the end of this century, to the very old (including a group calling itself the Raging Grannies who won’t see the end of the century, but who want those young people to have a healthy, clean energy future. (Among my favorite signs along the way: “Less oil, more sun” and “Love more, consume less”.)
Will such a march make a difference? Who knows. But, at three or four hundred thousand strong, this demonstration was among the largest of any kind in American history, ranking with the major civil rights and peace marches of the sixties and seventies. Those demonstrations arguably made a huge difference. Let’s hope this one does too.
This said, the future well-being of human life and all life on our home planet will not depend on single march or even on the commitments of world leaders gathering at the United Nations. The future will hinge as well on actions we take at every level of our lives: from personal changes in energy use, to local initiatives, to state and national policies, to changes in business and investment practices.
We all have a role to play in helping to create a world friendlier to life, a better way of life on this earth we share.
Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org and one of the organizers of the march, put it this way writing in The New Yorker magazine after the march: “ … this movement is like a battery. When lobbyists head out to congressional offices to argue for sensible legislation, when shareholders ask companies to change, they draw on the juice that comes from people in the streets.”
Peace and blessings,