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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on December 7, 2008

To Light One Candle
Amnesty International as a Guide to a Complete Spiritual Life

There's a story I would like to share with you. It was inspired by the writing of Loren Eiseley. Eiseley was a very special person because he combined the best of two cultures. He was a scientist and a poet. And from those two perspectives he wrote insightfully and beautifully about the world and our role in it.

Once upon a time, there was a wise man, much like Eiseley himself, who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day he was walking along the shore. As he looked down the beach, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself to think of someone who would dance to the day. So he began to walk faster to catch up. As he got closer, he saw that it was a young man and the young man wasn't dancing, but instead he was reaching down to the shore, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean.

As he got closer, he called out, "Good morning! What are you doing?" The young man paused, looked up and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean." "I guess I should have asked, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" "The sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don't throw them in they'll die."

“But young man, don't you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it. You can't possibly make a difference!" The young man listened politely. Then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves.

"It made a difference for that one!"

—Joel Barker

This past Thursday evening I met with the Stewardship committee. If you’re not a regular churchgoer, you might never have given any thought to how a church supports itself. Or if you have perhaps you think the money raised during the offering does the trick. Let me tell you, it doesn’t. What supports most churches, and certainly all “free churches,” of which we Unitarian Universalists are one, are the voluntary pledges of its members and friends. Pledges are made, in our case sometime early in the spring, a budget is finalized and approved by a congregational vote, and through that you get what you see here, and hopefully more.

Stewardship is the committee that is charged with the task of helping folk think about the place of money in our church life, and make those critical pledges. So, there I was. Frankly, with the economy where it is, I was more than a little anxious. Fortunately, we had a guest presenter, Laurel Amabile, from our UUA denominational offices in Boston. She was great. Particularly as she reminded us, well, at least me that while money is important, it’s our mission, our work which is what it’s all about. And so she pushed us at that meeting not to focus on the mechanics, which will come, no doubt, but rather on the why.

That led to quite a discussion. We were being pushed to reflect on the heart of this community, the First Unitarian Church of Providence. We talked about our history. We talked about our present. We speculated about our future. And within that conversation I felt some things begin to take shape, a picture of who we are and, most important, why we are.

Then we started to reach for some sort of summary statement, a word or two to capture our sense of what we’re about. Our immediate past president Neil Bartholomew suggested, “growing our ministries.” I liked it. Nice slogan for the stewardship campaign, I thought. But as Neil and I looked around the table we were met with silence. In retrospect Neil’s slogan touched the institutional wonk part of my heart, and I suspect his. And, no doubt, that word ministry is magical. To minister, after all, means to serve. But really, while close, no cigar. Growing ministries is what follows. We needed to dig a bit deeper, to go, as it were, closer to the bone.

Then Steven Koelz suggested we’re here to “thrive.” Thrive! I immediately loved it. As did most all of us, actually I think all of us. Thrive is a lovely English word apparently derived from the Old Norse, meaning to grasp. Later that evening as I read the etymology, I couldn’t help but think of our ancestor Henry David Thoreau writing in Walden.

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it…”

Most of us who have gathered into this Meeting House have survival down. Specifics may be shaky, but in general we know we will survive. We gather here, many of us, I think most of us; because we intuit there might be something more to our lives than putting food on the table, a roof over our heads, and getting some entertainment while we wait to die. We’re here driven through those doors by the same impulse as drove our ancestor Thoreau to the woods.

What we share is an intuition that survival isn’t enough, that we want to thrive. The desire to thrive is the spark of genius that lives like a seed within every heart. Margaret Fuller another great Unitarian transcendentalist like Thoreau, observed, “Genius will live and thrive without training, but it does not the less reward the watering- pot and pruning-knife.”

To thrive is a natural part of life. But intentionality brings it to the fore. Generally we need to cultivate that seed, that desire to thrive, and grow it. We come into a place like this seeking the watering pot, looking, if warily, for the pruning knife. Of course what we find in a UU church is a whole raft of watering pots, and a drawer full of knives. The tools are here, but we, each of us, must take responsibility for our own journey. We find inspiration from each other, we get the benefit of the insights of those who have walked the way before, but we must, ultimately take responsibility for our own thriving.

My primary task as our called minister is to present some of the possibilities. I’ve certainly devoted a lot of my life to understanding these things. Along the way I have found some disciplines that have particularly worked for me. And I’ve observed other ways that seem consonant with our liberal religious predilections for reasonableness and for bringing mind and heart together. From this pulpit and elsewhere I try to share some of these insights into the way of flourishing, our shared path of thriving. And to point out when we seem to get off track. As best I can, by my best lights.

A few weeks ago we had a speaker, whom I very much admire. He advocated for ways we can engage the world and eloquently. And I really think getting our hands dirty, taking on tasks outside our personal lives, are very much a part of thriving. I’ll return to that. Our speaker, however, shifted for part of his presentation diving into a rabbit hole. He seemed to think there is some sort of difference that matters between individual acts, what he called charity, and larger political actions, which he saw as culturally transformative, which he called social justice.

We have many opinions among us about those things that matter, and, actually that don’t matter at all. But, let me suggest by my best read there is in fact no difference between an individual act, whether working at our food pantry, or at one of the agencies serving the homeless and hungry here in town, helping to finance a micro bank in Haiti, organizing to get legislation passed that supports affordable housing, or to work to shift a nation’s attitude about gay and lesbian rights.

Rather, here’s the truth as best I understand it. What is done to one; is done to all. If we want to thrive we need to understand what that means and how it works. The rest of my sermon will be my attempt to unravel this assertion.

There is one intuition that seems to bind most contemporary Unitarian Universalists together, and that is a visceral sense of our essential unity as people and as creatures on this planet. We, you and I and the whole blessed world, truly are one. And as such, what is done for one; is done for all. And knowing this, shallowly or deeply, and acting from this sense is the most important thing we can be about. It takes us from survival mode, to a way of thriving.

Of course no single action, large or small, is ever enough. And, at the very same time, every specific thing as it presents is all there is. This is, no doubt, a conundrum. But it is the conundrum of real life. The joy of our lives is found, I suggest, as we turn our hearts, which is the only true revolution, and out of that turning to allow each action to be an expression of our deep interconnectedness. There is no end point. It is always in play. Justice like spirituality is a work in progress. Spirituality, like justice, is ongoing. These are living things. And to engage them wholeheartedly is to live, is to thrive. To engage is the grab that is thriving.

Of course, like all living things, this way needs tending. It needs watering. And, from time to time, it requires pruning. We need to decide where we will put our attention, what we will do and what we will refrain from doing. But exactly what gets the attention and what is let go, that’s a bit harder. However, we can get a sense of what this can look like as we consider the work of Amnesty International. As you all know we sponsor an annual event, an opportunity to write and sign letters to help various people around the globe. I hope you’re planning on returning later today to participate. And bring your kids. Show them what you do with your time, with your life.

Amnesty was formed in London in 1961 out of a simple project where two friends started a letter writing campaign in support of two Portuguese students who had been sentenced to seven years in prison for having drunk a toast to liberty.

Amnesty’s mission is pretty simple, "to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated." It does this by drawing attention to human rights abuses around the world, and then advocates for compliance with international standards of justice primarily, although not exclusively through letter writing campaigns. It is shocking how successful this simple practice has been. I’m reminded of the starfish story. I’m haunted by that phrase “It made a difference for that one.” Particularly in light of how I understand the relationship of any given one thing to the greater whole. And how noticing that moves a life from survival to thriving.

In that spirit let me stop here for a moment, and make some brief introductions. As I said this afternoon we’ll be involved in our annual letter writing campaign. In addition to a visit from Senator Jack Reed, we have two theme speakers. They’re with us this morning.

First, let me introduce Grace Akallo. Grace was a 15-year-old schoolgirl in Uganda when rebel soldiers abducted her from her dormitory and forced her to become a soldier. For seven months she suffered abuse, forced marches, beatings and starvation. Fortunately she was able to escape and then to broadcast to the world what was going on not only in her home country but in about twenty-eight other nations. Grace will be speaking later this afternoon, but would you mind briefly introducing yourself to our congregation?

(Grace Akallo)

Now let me introduce you to Mohamed el-Jahmi. His brother Fathi el-Jahmi is a prisoner of conscience in Libya, imprisoned for the crimes of advocating for democracy and human rights. As a result he has suffered horribly. Mohamed will be speaking later this afternoon, but would you mind briefly introducing yourself to our congregation?

(Mohamed el-Jahmi)

Let’s cut to the chase. What is the purpose of our lives? And understanding that purpose, how shall we live? As to our purpose, when we discover how intimately related we all are; the emotion, the insight, the way of encountering the world that arises, that follows like day follows night, is love. Love is the bottom line. It is the secret ground of our being; it is the power that moves us from survival to thriving.

And love must manifest. Our thriving is not something abstract, rather it is found always in concrete actions. I’m not quite saying this right. Let me try again. I suggest love and the many actions of life that allow us to thrive, are one thing. Our heart’s longing, that intuition which brought us here into this Meeting House, is found in every simple action that is informed by our knowing we are connected. It’s a circle. And our project is to close that divine circle, to bring action and love together.

What needs pruning is not found in picking which work to devote ourselves to; our hearts will take us in that right direction. What we need prune is our attitudes, our egos, our desires to be special and to do only the highest work. What we need to water is humility and most of all that seed in each and every one of us, love. Every moment we expand our hearts, we discover the way.

The way of moving from survival to thriving is manifested every time we throw a single starfish back into the sea. The way is manifest every time we help to change an unjust law. And the way is manifest when we stop and play with a child. The way is manifest every time we help to feed one person. The way is manifest when we visit with our elderly aunt. And the way is manifest every time we sit down and write a single letter to help free one person. There is no high and low on the great way, no small or great. There is only this moment: an opening, an opportunity. It is a chance to see the connections, to find love. It is our chance to thrive.

To shift the metaphor, it is all revealed when, like with that lovely symbol of Amnesty International, we light a single candle.