Building the World We Dream About

Last week I’m driving on 285 towards my home in Dunwoody and I see a police car on the far right flash on its strobe lights, launch itself into the stream of traffic, hone in on a car, lock on. The unhappy car slows to a stop, and just as I’m passing by (thanking my lucky stars I’m not him), I see that the driver is a young black man, maybe 25 years old. Instantly: surge of anger. Anger towards a country in which I really can’t be sure why that man was stopped—whether it was for a truly legitimate reason or just because he was driving while black. Anger, too, because the rest of us just kept to our lanes, eyes forward, minds focused on our private destinations and oblivious to the common good and how injustice to one never fails to be injustice to all…

It’s the poem by William Butler Yeats coming alive:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Obviously on 285 all of us in our cars were going too fast to stop; to stop on a dime would be disastrous. But it struck me as a symbol of general disengagement while things are falling part and the center’s not holding. People keeping to their lanes and nothing else matters. People keeping to their narrow lives and no one else matters.

We need passionate intensity not from the worst but from the best.

We need that passionate intensity right now, in the face of injustices of all kinds.

The ceremony of innocence is being drowned.


There is a word that comes from the Akan people of Ghana: SANKOFA. Often it is symbolized by a bird that turns around and reaches for the egg on its back, so as to bring it forward. Sankofa means we take what’s good from the past and bring it into our present, because it will heal us. It will show us the way.

And so today we reach back to the Transcendentalists. In our spiritual tradition, passionate intensity comes from them, who were instigators of what historians call the American Renaissance. People like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Bronson Alcott, James Freeman Clarke, Theodore Parker, and, of course, Henry David Thoreau. It was the 1830s and 1840s, and they too felt that the ceremony of innocence was being drowned. In their day it was the full-blown institution of slavery, despite the unequivocal human rights affirmation of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” America declared this against England, saw itself as taking the moral high ground, but guess which one of them would abolish slavery first? England, in 1834. As for America? In the 1840s, it would find itself fighting an illegal war—the Mexican-American War—in order to EXPAND slavery.


To our Transcendentalist ancestors, it really did feel like the center wasn’t holding and things were falling apart. Economic meltdown that rivals our more recent Great Recession frayed the fabric of society, and so did the radical changes spurred on by technological and economic innovation. Before 1830, everything had been primarily local, from one’s sense of identity to working conditions and the manufacture of goods. It took time for messages to go from point A to point B. It took time to get anywhere. But all this came to an end. The invention of the telegraph allowed for news to cross far distances instantly. Then there was the railroad, newly built tracks crisscrossing the land, bringing with it a new sense of national identity. Also new economic opportunity, allowing sons and daughters to leave home to find wage-earning jobs in the cities or in the also new textile mills of New England. Leading to the transient population in cities rising at an alarming rate. Unregulated working conditions becoming worse and worse, even as more and more money was being made. Old ways lost, one by one. Old traditions and comforts and securities lost, and new ways needed to be found…

Transcendentalism comes out chaos like this. THIS is the reason for their passionate intensity. Everything was at stake.

And so: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” Thoreau said that. Unless the sleeper wakes up, there can be no morning, just a perpetual midnight of ethical schizophrenia and materialism and social confusion. The sleeper must awaken to the abundant truths and powers of the soul. This is how we become free in our minds and hearts even if we find ourselves surrounded with unfreedom on all sides. This is what powers us to do the right thing in an unethical age of slavery and warmongering; this is what keeps us poised and flowing when everything around us feels disorienting and strange. There is a dawning day that we can experience here and now—we can join the sun in its new morning—but only if the sleeper wakes up.


Another way of saying this is, Only if a person learns how to live deliberately. “I wished to live deliberately,” says Thoreau, in language that sings, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear….” In an immoral, confusing age, he had to get clear on who he was, and whose he was. Identity was the solution. And to achieve that, on July 4, 1845, he went to Walden Pond to more fully immerse himself in the cycles and rhythms of the natural world. “I feel,” he says, “that I draw nearest to understanding the great secret of my life in my closest intercourse with nature.” But Walden was just on the edge of the town of Concord, meaning that Thoreau wasn’t completely isolated and immersed in wilderness. So an equally important part of his Walden experience was conversation with folks back in Concord like Emerson, which would allow him to share and integrate his discoveries in nature—put the pieces together, see what is implied about his sense of self and identity, his relationships, and larger social conditions. The Transcendentalism of our spiritual ancestors was never isolationism. Retreats to nature were always preludes to rich conversations with soul friends, and always, the aim was getting clear on WHO we are and WHOSE we are.

One thing Thoreau learned from his Walden experience was to simplify. “Simplify, simplify,” he says. Part of this means refusing to fill yourself up with things that feel urgent but are in fact draining and demoralizing, so that you end up having no room for that which truly vitalizes. Refuse to endlessly ruminate on experiences of futility and cruelty and loneliness and disappointment so that there’s no room for anything else. Refuse to be like the shortsighted man in a museum who studies Van Gogh’s Starry Night or some other take-your-breath-away painting from two inches away, and intellectually he has clearly and accurately identified 12 different kinds of blobs of color and 7 different shapes, but he can’t see the whole thing, he misses out on the big picture, he is starving for meaning and purpose. Our lives, says Thoreau, are “frittered away by detail.” We live too up-close to things, shortsighted, and this is a form of spiritual sleepwalking. But to simplify is to make room for abundance. It is to empty ourselves of the nonessential, so that we can be filled with the essential.

Walden taught him this, and it also taught him to aspire. “We must,” Thoreau says, “learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” “That man,” he says, “who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.” As I think on what this means, a story comes to mind from the work of Abraham Maslow, founder of humanistic psychology and one of the founders of transpersonal psychology. I’ve shared this story before but it’s provocative enough to share again and again and again. Maslow’s focus was on self-actualization or, as we Unitarian Universalists might say, people giving full expression to the worth and dignity that is inherently theirs. In the course of his studies, he determined that self-actualizing people very naturally have spiritual experiences—profound moments of love, understanding, happiness, or rapture, during which a person feels more whole, alive, self-sufficient and yet a part of the world; more aware of truth, justice, harmony, and goodness. But now here is the story. When Maslow’s students began to talk to each other about their peak experiences, they began having them all the time. It was as if the simple act of being reminded of their existence was enough to make them happen. Talking and thinking about moments of people being saved every day makes it more likely that we will have such moments ourselves. Conversely, if we do not talk and think about such things, we may block their happening.

Thus we are to aspire, says Thoreau. Talking about God evokes God energy. Talking about heaven brings heaven closer. Hold fast to an infinite expectation of the dawn, hold it close, since (as he says), it “does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.” It goes with us, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. When facing some kind of scarcity in life, you say to yourself like a mantra, over and over, “I trust that everything I need is inside me and near me, and it will become available to me as I need it.” If our lives are frittered away by detail, this will seem like a load of baloney, and nonsense. But in reality it is the largest thing imaginable, a hope, a peace, a vision of Life Abundant, and it requires us to prepare tremendous room in our hearts. We must prepare the way to receive it.

Simplify, so we can aspire.


I want to go back to 285, my experience on that road last week. Back to my anger as I passed that young black man and wondered if this was yet another instance of driving while black. Back to my anger as I saw all the other cars speeding forward in their narrow lanes towards self-centered ends, uncaring towards what was happening in plain sight. Back to my horrible vision which is so well captured by the words of the poet:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

I am grateful to say that this was not the whole story. Because I was in one of those other cars speeding forward, and I saw what was happening, and I cared. I proved the poet wrong. I had conviction. I was full of passionate intensity.

And this was so because I belonged to a Beloved Community that would allow nothing less from me.

It wasn’t always so. Unitarian Universalism used to be something that I left behind when my car exited the church parking lot. I had grown up isolationist and it was a hard habit to break. A sad habit, because it’s what made me and makes so many of us lonely. The words of Carl Jung come to mind: “Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself….” I was unable to communicate what was important to me, and therefore I was unknown to others and unknown to myself. I was lonely.

But Unitarian Universalism has always been persistent. It wanted only one thing from me, and it wants only one thing from all of us: to live into the truth of who we are. To be ourselves, to live deliberately.

All the sermons, all the music, all the service groups and projects, all the fun and fellowship, all the special events: all of it is like Walden to our souls. A 21st century version.

Especially when it asks us to give.

I realized this the other day when I was preparing a talk for the volunteers who are part of our Year-Round Stewardship process. By now you have all received a snail mail letter describing the details. The congregation divided up into twelve “Generosity Circles,” one for each month of the year. Folks in each generosity circle being informed about what’s going on at UUCA and what our aspirations are, and also being thanked for greening this place with their dollars. But what I said to the volunteers was not so much about technical details but about the why, the meaning behind it all. I talked about how problems in the larger world are problems here in our midst. Our UUCA community is not hermetically sealed off. So what makes this place so valuable is that here in Beloved Community we seek to be the change we wish to see in the world. If we can’t find solutions in Beloved Community, then where?

That’s why we aspire to be an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural institution. If Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, well, we need to turn that right around and it starts here. Healing starts here, and we can take that healing everywhere else we go.

Another problem in the larger world is that of too many alternatives, too many choices, too many ways to spend our money, too many things to give to. It’s confusing, it’s disorienting, and in fact way too often we are dupes of the merely good enough. We choose or we buy the merely mediocre and that’s what takes up room in our lives. That’s what it looks like for a life to be frittered away…

But Beloved Community, I said to those stewardship volunteers, is part of the solution. Don’t feel bad about calling people and reminding them that it’s their month to review their pledge. Don’t feel bad about sharing the awesome things going on at UUCA and asking people to consider upping their pledge. Don’t feel bad! Because what you’re doing is helping people solve the problem of too many choices. The only way to solve that is people getting clear on who they are. That’s what stewardship conversations are fundamentally about. Who am I? Whose am I? Do we see ourselves as the inheritors of what others, like Thoreau, have built up? Are we committed to passing this on to our friends and family and children and grandchildren? Are we committed to building the world be dream about?

What we have right here are some of the basics of Transcendentalism. Conversation helping us to simplify, to get down to the essentials. Simplifying so that there’s room to aspire. So don’t feel bad about making the call. And I’m saying this to all of us: don’t be taken aback when you receive such a call. Of course talking about money is uncomfortable, but that’s because we’re not necessarily clear on our values, and the effort to get clear feels like struggling through muck, mud threatening to suck our boots off. That doesn’t feel good. But understand what’s trying to happen. Beloved Community is doing a good thing. Beloved Community is trying to help you get clear on who you are and what really counts for you, and this clarity will help you everywhere you go, way beyond the walls of this place.

We are being the change we wish to see in the world.

We need the best people to have convictions.

We need the best people passionately intense.

It happens here, in this 21st century version of Walden, which will never settle for less. Through the power of our combined efforts, we need to make sure we live in a country where, if someone is pulled over by the police, we can know with confidence it’s for reasonable cause, and reasonable cause only.

Future generations rely on the good we accomplish now, even as, like the Sakofa bird, we reach back to our spiritual ancestors and receive from them a blessing for the present.

Let’s build the world we dream about, starting right here!

You are the best, so be passionately intense!

Be passionately intense!