Mother’s Day, Teachers, and Mothering

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is an excerpt from “A Practical Mom” by Amy Uyematsu.

The second reading this morning is from a short story by Grace Paley, titled “Mother”:

One day I was listening to the AM radio. I heard a song: “Oh, I Long To See My Mother in the Doorway.” By God! I said, I understand that song. I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway. As a matter of fact, she did stand frequently in various doorways looking at me. She stood one day, just so, at the front door, the darkness of the hallway behind her. It was New Year’s Day. She said sadly, If you come home at 4 a.m. when you’re seventeen, what time will you come home when you’re twenty? She asked this question without humor or meanness. She had begun her worried preparations for death. She would not be present, she thought, when I was twenty. So she wondered.

Another time she stood in the doorway of my room. I had just issued a political manifesto attacking the family’s position on the Soviet Union. She said, Go to sleep for godsakes, you damn fool, you and your Communist ideas. We saw them already, Papa and me, in 1905. We guessed it all.

At the door of the kitchen she said, You never finish your lunch. You run around senselessly. What will become of you?

Then she died.

Naturally for the rest of my life I longed to see her, not only in doorways, in a great number of places — in the dining room with my aunts, at the window looking up and down the block… in the living room with my father….

Sermon: Mother’s Day and Teaching and Mothering

Today would have been my mother’s one hundredth birthday. For twelve years before she married, my mother taught grades K through 2 in public schools in New York, Delaware, and Massachusetts. As soon as her own children got old enough, she went back to teaching, and ended her career in a local preschool. Not surprisingly, my personal perception of motherhood was shaped by my experience of my own mother. My mother used the skills she had honed as a teacher with her own children. Thus it is no surprise that I learned to associate mothers with teaching, and that I still associate mothers with teaching. Of course all parents are teachers no matter what their gender. But on this Mothers Day, I’d like to talk about mothers as teachers. I’d also like to talk about how all of us can teach the way mothers teach.

To begin with, let’s consider what it is that mothers teach. From the beginning of a new life, mothers teach what it means to be cared for, what it means to be connected. This may seem too obvious, and too easy. But think about what happens to infants whose mothers neglect them (and before you rush into judgement against mothers who neglect their children, remember that a mother may be battling serious mental or physical illness, or having to deal with any number of other unavoidable problems): infants who are neglected can miss important learning about how to connect with, and how to trust in, other people. So it is that mothers begin teaching the moment they touch and hold a newborn. Those first lessons are lessons in love and human connection.

We tend to think of mothers as the ones who the primary teachers of love and connection, but of course a father or any parent who holds a newborn, who rocks a baby to sleep, who changes diapers and feeds an infant is also teaching important lessons of love and human connection. This is true of anyone who cares for an infant, including grandparents and other caring adults, and even older siblings.

Child psychoanalyst Erik Erikson said that infants in this first stage of life are not only learning about trust, they are also learning about hope. Trust and hope do seem to go together. If we have trust in the people around us, it does seem that we are more likely to have hope. If we trust in the stability of human connections, of human community, that allows us to trust in the future, which in turn brings to us hope.

Nor is this something that we learn only in infancy. Those people who don’t learn all they need to know about trust as infants will still have opportunities to finish learning this key lesson later in life. Indeed, trust may be one of the first lessons we must learn, but pretty much every one of us has to keep re-learning it over and over again. It is one of those lesson that we keep on learning throughout the course of our lives, including long after our biological mothers have died. And this leads to an interesting conclusion. While trust and hope are lessons that we associate with mothers and mothering, but if trust and hope have to be continually relearned over the course of our lives, even after our biological mothers have died, then clearly this is one aspect of mothering that we must all do for one another. In this sense, each of us, all of human society, is responsible for mothering each other.

While this may seem obvious, it’s equally obvious that our contemporary world culture does not center around mothering. To give one obvious example, I’m willing to bet that Vladimir Putin, the dictator of Russia, thinks mothering is something that is only done by young women when they’re out of sight of the big strong men of the world. If I suggested to him that we all need to mother one another, he would scoff at the idea. A big strong man like himself? He doesn’t need any mothering. Besides, Vladimir Putin has no interest in building trust in others. He dominates others through fear; the lesson he teaches is mistrust. And because he generates mistrust through nearly every action he takes, he destroys hope for millions of people. Hope disappears, and all that is left is violent resistance, or acquiescence and resignation to brutal domination. Vladimir Putin is admired by others who want to be like him — not because they trust him, but because they too have lost a sense of trust and so they hope to emulate Putin.

Those who admire Putin seem to me to have given up hope in humankind. They have decided the only way to live in a dog-eat-dog world is to brutally dominate others. They have forgotten the lessons of trust and hope they had once learned from whomever it was who mothered them when they were young. It is easy to forget what our mothers taught us about trust and hope; we all need to learn and relearn those lessons of trust and hope over and over again as we grow older.

And given what’s going on in the world right now, contemporary society does not give us much reason to believe in trust and hope. Wars and violence, sexism and sexual assault, racism and hatred — the news is full of things that erode our trust and hope.

I happened to be making a long drive yesterday, and while I was fiddling with the radio I tuned in to an interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin, a writer who taught history and government at Harvard for many years. The interviewer asked her if she, as a historian, thought that ours was an especially challenging historical moment. Without minimizing the challenges we face, Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out several moments in American history which she judged to be more challenging — the Great Depression, the early part of the Second World War when it seemed the Nazis were unstoppable, and above all the Civil War and the years leading up to it. I’m not a particular fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s work, but as I listened to her on the radio, I felt a sense of hope. She did not minimize the dangers facing the United States today, but she offered hope that we can find a way through our current troubles, hope that we can learn to trust one another once again.

In this moment on the radio, Doris Kearns Goodwin was teaching the radio audience the way we hope a mother would teach. It brought back memories of listening to my own mother, even though Doris Kearns Goodwin and my mother were polar opposites in many ways. As a young adult in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was especially worried about the prospect of global nuclear war. Without minimizing the danger of such a war, my mother, in her no-nonsense way, talked me out of fear, and talked me into feeling trust and hope. She was continuing the lessons she had begun teaching me as an infant, although in a different way now that I was an adult.

These lessons that my mother taught me in adulthood were not like some soft-focus heart-warming TV show. The lessons my mother taught me were much closer to what we heard in the second reading this morning, as in this short excerpt from Grace Paley’s story titled “Mother”: “At the door of the kitchen [my mother] said, You never finish your lunch. You run around senselessly. What will become of you?” Grace Paley’s mother was saying: take care of yourself. Telling someone to take care of themselves means telling them to have hope in the future. And to have hope in the future means that you have to learn to trust. And the way you teach trust is to show someone you love them — by, for example, telling them to stop running around senselessly so they can take the time to finish their lunch.

Now, not everyone has a biological mother who can teach us trust and hope. And even if you have a biological mother like Grace Paley’s mother, who does teach you these things well into your adult years, at some point — just like Grace Paley — you’re going to lose your mother. So it is that we all need other people in our lives who can provide those lessons in trust and hope — we all need what I might call “alternate mothers.” The gender of these people is not especially important, nor is the age of these people, nor do they need to be our biological relatives. They don’t even have to be someone we have met in person. Let me give you an example, from my own life, of how someone you haven’t even met could teach these lessons of trust and hope.

My own mother died twenty-five years ago. As I look back on the years immediately following her death, I now realize that quite a few alternate mothers entered my life in that time. One of those people was Hans Georg Gadamer, the philosopher, whom I never actually met. In 2001, when he was 101 years old, an interviewer asked Gadamer if he had hope for the world. Now, Gadamer lived in Germany throughout the tumultuous twentieth century: through the First World War, through the rise of Hitler and Naziism, through the Second World War, and finally through the Soviet takeover of East Germany (Gadamer left East Germany to go live in West Germany) and the building of the Berlin Wall, through the Cold War and the ongoing threat of nuclear war. The interviewer knew all this, and asked Gadamer this question not long after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Did he, Gadamer, have hope for the world? Gadamer, being a philosopher, gave a suitably nuanced reply. But I will strip his reply of all nuance, and summarize it like this: In spite of everything, we still have grounds for hope; not much hope, perhaps, maybe about this much hope — hold your finger and thumb about in inch apart — but there is still hope for the world.

This was an adult-level lesson in trust and hope. Gadamer did not minimize the danger the world faced, but he made the case based on his long experience of life that there is still reason to hope; which means there is still reason to trust in humanity. Now, you may not have the same response to Gadamer that I did; philosophy is an acquired taste. But the point is that Gadamer became a sort of literary mother for me — someone I never met, but who gave me a message of hope through what he wrote and said publicly. I was convinced by his message of hope, and from that message I was able to relearn the lesson of trusting in other human beings.

Mothering from public figures like Hans Georg Gadamer is convenient. You pick up a book or listen to a podcast, and there they are. Plus, they never stand in your doorway and say, “You never finish your lunch.” For this, we still need real-life mothers. Which can pose a problem for those us of who don’t have real-life biological mothers in our lives, or whose real-life biological mothers don’t fill this role for whatever reason.

But we can find other people who help us re-learn the lessons of trust and hope throughout our lives. If I think about my own life, I can think of several people who have filled that role for me. These people have generally been older than me, but not all of them; perhaps half of them have been women; and to each of them I felt a strong enough bond of affection that I’d want to call it love. As I say this, maybe you’re making a mental list of the people who might fill this role in your life. This list might include your own biological mother (or it might not). But this list could include a number of people who are family, chosen family, or older friends. This list might include people who aren’t even aware that you feel as though you’ve received some mothering from them. My own mental list includes at least one person who would probably be appalled if I told him that I felt like he mothered me — that he gave me love, and helped me re-learn lessons of trust and hope. (Of course this can also be true of biological mothers who don’t want to engage in mothering once their child is past infancy.)

And as you make your mental list of people who have mothered you, perhaps you’ll become aware of people who might consider you to be giving them some mothering. If you’re an actual biological mother who still has your biological children in your life, obviously you’re mothering them. But I think almost anyone can do some mothering, starting as early as your late teens and continuing for the rest of your life. Again, this need not look like the kind of mothering you find on Hallmark greeting cards, all unicorns and rainbows. It can look like the mothering Grace Paley describes her own mother doing: “Another time [my mother] stood in the doorway of my room. I had just issued a political manifesto attacking the family’s position on the Soviet Union. She said, Go to sleep for godsakes, you damn fool, you and your Communist ideas. We saw them already, Papa and me, in 1905.” This may not sound like mothering, but along with criticism of her actions, her mother expresses trust in Grace Paley’s abilities. You can hear the deep affection and love. Finally, you can hear concern for Grace Paley’s future (“Go to sleep for godsakes”), a loving concern which engenders hope.

There are billions of ways to be a mother. You can be a cranky critical mom like Grace Paley’s mother (or like my mother). You can be a practical mom, as we heard described in the first reading, the poem by Amy Uyematsu. Personally, I don’t want to think of myself as a mother at all; I’d rather think of myself as a sort of eccentric uncle; but even then, I can still acknowledge that I as an eccentric uncle can sometimes help young people re-learn lessons of trust and hope. There are as many ways to be a good mother — someone who teaches love and hope and trust — as there are people in the world.

On Mother’s Day we do especially honor those who served the more traditional role of mother within a nuclear family. And to all of you who fill that role, we honor you and thank you. But right now, the world needs more mothering than can fit into that traditional role. The world needs as many mothers as we can find. We need mothering to help us re-establish trust and and hope for the future; we need mothering to remind us that love is the most important force in the universe. We need people who can do public mothering — people on the radio, in books, on podcasts. But more than that, we need people who are willing to extend mothering to those in their immediate social circles — people who can help us re-learn what it means to trust one another. There are many of us who are already doing this mothering in our work lives — teachers and doctors and social workers and therapists and anyone in the helping professions. There are many of us who are already teaching trust and hope in our volunteer work, or in our day-to-day living. And if it seems too much to be a mother to people who are not your biological children, you can join me in becoming and eccentric aunt or uncle. The point is that maybe we all can think about the ways in which each one of us might actually be acting as mothers in the sense of helping people we love to re-learn basic lessons of trust and hope; for the world needs us to do this.


Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

Moment for All Ages

Members of the Sunday school sang the song “Garbage” by Bill Steele.

Roger Weiss has posted “Garbage” sung by the songwriter online. Bill Steele had originally posted this recording on his own website, but after his death in 2018 his website disappeared. For Roger Weiss’s remembrance of Bill Steele, along with more recordings, go here.


The first reading was a poem by Ada Limon, “The Origin Revisited.”

The second reading was from “The Edge of the Sea” by Rachel Carson.

Hearing the rising tide, I think how it is pressing also against other shores I know—rising on a southern beach where there is no fog, but a moon edging all the waves with silver and touching the wet sands with lambent sheen, and on a still more distant shore sending its streaming currents against the moonlit pinnacles and the dark caves of the coral rock.…

Once this rocky coast beneath me was a plain of sand; then the sea rose and found a new shore line. And again in some shadowy future the surf will have ground these rocks to sand and will have returned the coast to its earlier state. And so in my mind’s eye these coastal forms merge and blend in a shifting, kaleidoscopic pattern in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality—earth becoming fluid as the sea itself.

Sermon: “Garbage”

The First Parish children’s programs — both our summer ecology camp, and the Sunday school — have been singing the song “Garbage” by Bill Steele. This has become a favorite song of several of our kids. Partly, it has become a favorite song because they sing it as fast as possible — maybe twice as fast as you heard it earlier this morning. Obviously, that’s too fast to really understand the words, but they all have the words memorized. They know exactly what the song means.

The other reason I think they like the song is because it has meaning for them. Today’s kids seem to be very aware of problems like plastic pollution of the ocean, so even though this was a topical song written back in 1969 to convince peopple to stop filling in San Francisco Bay, it still has meaning for today’s kids. In 2009, Steele told an interviewer, “Writing topical songs can be frustrating because they go out of currency very quickly. What’s frustrating about this one is that 40 years after it was written, it is still current. From the environmental standpoint, it’s frustrating that we haven’t done anything about it, and that this problem is still with us after all this time.”

I don’t know how the kids feel about it, but for me the most powerful verse is the third verse. That’s the verse that tells us that we’re not only filling up the Bay with garbage, and filling the air with garbage, we’re also filling up our minds with garbage. The song tells how Mr. Thompson goes home after a hard day at work, and settles down to read a newspaper story about “the mayor’s middle name,” which he finishes just in time to watch the All-Star Bingo Game on television. Today it’s more likely to be TikTok and Instagram than newspapers and television, but the phenomenon remains the same — most of us spend way too much time on trivia. While it is important to stay abreast of the news in a democracy, we don’t really need to know about the mayor’s middle name, any more than we need to know about Joe Biden’s dog’s behavior, or that Donald Trump does not own a dog.

We fill our minds with information of no value, and Bill Steele wanted us to convince us that that was analogous to the way garbage was being dumped into San Francisco Bay back in 1969. I’d even extend that metaphor somewhat. Great tracts of San Francisco Bay were filled in with garbage and other landfill during the 1960s and 1970s. But that kind of landfill liquifies during an earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey tells us that “When the ground liquefies, it may lose its ability to support buildings and other structures.” Thus, don’t build your house on garbage, because the garbage won’t provide stability in moments of crisis. If we fill our minds with garbage, we will not have a secure foundation on which to build wisdom or ethics. The first time our mind is shaken by some catastrophic event, all that garbage will turn to mush.

Of course there are alternatives to filling our minds with garbage. This is supposed to be the role of the great spiritual and ethical traditions throughout human history. And indeed, the environmental movement has been cast as a kind of spiritual battle. We are told that we must recycle more, and buy electric cars, and eat more plant-based food. If we could just rid ourselves of our individual spiritual failings — our lack of recycling, our consumption of meat, our gas-guzzling cars, and so on — we could solve the environmental crisis.

I’ve become convinced that the environmental crisis we’re currently facing does have spiritual roots, but I don’t believe that the roots of the environmental crisis lie in ridding ourselves of our individual spiritual failings. We’re not going to solve the environmental crisis by addressing our individual sins of not recycling enough, not eat plant-based foods, and so on. Instead, I feel one of the main roots of the environmental crisis comes from a collective misinterpretation of the Bible. Specifically, I feel that our society collectively buys into a gross misinterpretation of the so-called “dominion clause” in the book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 27, which goes like this:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’”

This passage has been widely interpreted by Western Christians, Jews, and atheists to mean that God gave humankind god-like powers over every other living thing, meaning we humans have permission to do whatever we like to the non-human world. The historian Lynn White thought this misinterpretation of the Bible dated back to medieval times. I don’t know about that, but I do know that in the late twentieth century a theological viewpoint called Dominion theology became very influential. This theology is based on a misinterpretation of that passage in Genesis, teaching that God has given god-like powers to humans, so they can do whatever they want. Dominion theology goes further than this, teaching that men should have dominion over women. And dominion theology also teaches that Christians should be in charge of all human political affairs. Humans have power over non-humans; male humans have power over female humans; male Christian humans have power over everyone else.

In my opinion, dominion theology is spiritual and religious garbage. Nevertheless, a great many people are filling up their minds with this garbage — not just conservative Christians, but secular people are also being influenced by it. Now the secular people should know better, but let’s look at why dominion theology is religious and spiritual garbage.

According to Genesis, God created all the creatures that live on the earth, in the seas, and in the skies; God also created all the plants and every other living thing. Periodically during this creation process, God stopped, looked at the latest creations, and “saw that it was good.” That is: God did not stop, look at the latest creations, and say, “Gee, I hope some day the human beings make this animal or that plant go extinct.” Nor does God ever say, “Gee, I hope the humans use their garbage to fill in San Francisco Bay, which by the way I created to be a home for ‘every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm’.” Nowhere in the Bible does God say that humankind is supposed to trash the world.

Not only that, but the very next passage in the Bible states that men and women are equal. This upends another major tenet of dominion theology. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” You’ll notice that God had both male and female characteristics, since both males and females were created in God’s image (if this is hard for you to imagine, that’s no surprise since we limited mortals can’t entirely comprehend God anyway).

Contrary to what the proponents of dominion theology claim, here’s what those passages in the book of Genesis actually say: Humankind may have a great deal of power over the nonhuman world, but we are supposed to use that power to take care of God’s creation. God created both women and men in God’s image, which means that women are just as good as men. As for Christians being in charge of everyone else, nowhere in the book of Genesis does that come up. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Christians are supposed to run the United States. This is garbage theology. Yet this is the garbage that has been filling many people’s minds.

So why do people allow their minds to be filled up with this kind of garbage? I suspect that part of the problem is that more than a few people in the United States today feel a sense of spiritual emptiness. They’re tired of conventional organized religion — and let’s face it, too much of conventional organized religion today feels spiritually empty — but they want something that fills that spiritual void they sense within. Then they hear about this spiritual movement that sounds pretty convincing, that gives them a purpose, that makes them feel a part of something larger than themselves, and they decide it fills the spiritual void they have been feeling.

There are also a good many people who don’t consciously accept dominion theology, but still act in accordance with some of of its values. Yet these people have unthinkingly accepted the tenets of dominion theology. Even though these people may not want conservative Christians running the United States; even though these people may believe that women are just as good as men; they are providing unthinking support to dominion theology.

So what are we to do about dominion theology? How can we promote the opposite of dominion theology — how can we promote the careful stewardship of planet Earth, the equality of men and women, the separation of church and state?

Today, a great many liberal Christians and Jews are pushing back against dominion theology. These liberal Christians and Jews are saying: Hey, this is our God and our Bible, and dominion theology has gotten it all wrong. Yes, we believe God created the nonhuman world; but while we humans may have dominion over the nonhuman world, dominion was given to us in order to care for God’s creation. And our Bible teaches that “God created humankind in his image…male and female he created them”; that is, women are just as good as men. Oh, and by the way, it says nothing in the Bible about Christians running the United States. This is some of what liberal Jews and Christians are saying. And if you’re a liberal Christian or a liberal Jew, you can be a part of this; you can say: Hey, stop trying to throw your dominionist garbage into our religion.

In addition to that, what all of us can do — whether we’re Christians or Jews or atheists or Buddhists or Haven’t-figured-it-out-yet-ists — we can all offer a compelling spiritual alternative to dominion theology. Part of our spiritual alternative will be that we have reverence for all life; we respect all life. We have equal reverence for all human beings, equal respect for all human beings, no matter what their gender. We value all the wonders of Nature and all the wonders of humankind; or, as we might phrase it, we affirm and support the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. Lastly, we can talk about love being the most powerful force in the universe, and we can teach that principle to other people by doing our best to live it out in our own lives.

We can offer a positive spirituality to replace a negative spirituality. Dominion theology is essentially a negative spirituality; it is not cheerful and filled with love, it is depressing and filled with feelings of sinfulness and inadequacy. We want to replace that with a positive spirituality, a spirituality of hope and of love; a spirituality that helps us live our lives as if we are all connected.

One way we communicate our positive spirituality is the way we live our lives. Another way we communicate our positive spirituality is through the arts. This is exactly what we did with the two readings we heard this morning. Ada Limon, poet laureate of the United States, wrote about a positive poem about how the beauty of the non-human world can support us and sustain us spiritually. Rachel Carson wrote a prose passage about feeling connected to everything. By reading this poem and this prose aloud, we are creating a positive spirituality. That’s one of the most important things we do here in the Meetinghouse each week: we use the arts to create positive spirituality together.

Of course there’s more to it than that. The concrete environmental problems we face — invasive plants and plastics in the ocean and so on — require concrete action. But concrete actions will be so much the stronger when they are supported by a positive spirituality; concrete actions are more effective when they are backed up by hope, and by love.

Springtime Poetry

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation. I did not have time to correct typos and other errors in the text.

Opening words

The opening words were the poem “Spring and All [By the toad to the contagious hospital]” by William Carlos Williams.


The first reading was “Winter Poem” by Nikki Giovanni.

The second reading was “Instructions on Not Giving Up” by Ada Limón.

The final reading was “Thank You” by Ross Gay.

Sermon: “Springtime poetry”

There’s an old Christian spiritual practice called “lectio divina.” That Latin phrase, which I’m probably mispronouncing, means “divine reading.” Supposedly, lectio divina dates back to the early sixth century when the monk Benedict, founder of the Christian Benedictine monastic order, instructed the monks under him to use it as a spiritual practice. It worked something like this: A monk would read one passage from the Bible to himself slowly, over and over again, trying to hear the voice of God in that passage. Then the monk would meditate on the passage as it related to his own life, waiting for an image or a feeling or a perception about God to arise in his mind. The third step in lectio divina would be for the monk to talk back to God about what had arisen for him, maybe even hearing some feedback back from God. In the final step, the monk is supposed to contemplate what he has felt and heard, and feel peaceful and contented, with new energy for living his monastic life. At least, that’s how I understand it. Some of you may use lectio divina as a spiritual practice yourselves, and if so please tell me about my errors after the service.

I first became aware of lectio divina in the nineties and the aughts. At that time there was a movement called the “emergent church” among both mainline Protestants and evangelical Christians. The emergent church folks saw that churches were losing the younger generation — Generation X, in those days — because the typical American church service had become too formulaic, too intellectual and lacking in spiritual depth. The emergent church movement had some real successes in attracting young people to return to churches, and some Unitarian Universalists started paying attention. (I myself started using some of the emergent church techniques when I led worship.) Lectio divina was one of the spiritual practices that gained currency among us, as both a personal and communal spiritual practice. And we Unitarian Universalists applied the lectio divina technique, not just to the Bible, but to poetry.

While I’ve never used the specific technique of lectio divina myself, I have found that reading a good poem can be a spiritual practice. To use a metaphor from electronics, I’ve found that a really good poem can rewire your brain. Back in the aughts, when I was experimenting with emergent church techniques, I was at the New Bedford Unitarian church. There were three or four published poets in that small congregation, one of whom was Everett Hoagland, the award-winning poet who came here last September to read his poetry. Not only was Everett an exceptionally good poet himself, he mentored other poets and organized events where they could read their poetry aloud. I discovered that listening to poetry being read aloud to a group of people made the poetry especially powerful for me. It did something to me. Just as listening to live music is more powerful than listening to music on your earbuds, I find that listening to live poetry is more powerful than reading it to myself.

With that overly long preface, I’d like to read some poems about springtime, and say a few words about each poem. To begin, I’ll remind you of the poem by William Carlos Williams which started our service this morning, “Spring and All [By the toad to the contagious hospital]” by William Carlos Williams. [During the sermon, I quoted the first 8 lines of this poem.]

A couple of facts about William Carlos Williams that are not well known, but may be of interest to us: he was Latino, and he was a Unitarian Universalist. Both those things place him a bit outside the mainstream of U.S. culture. Perhaps that gave him a broader insight into human nature. He was also a physician, and was the chief of pediatrics at Passaic General Hospital in New Jersey. This last fact helps us understand why he began a poem about spring with the phrase, “By the road to the contagious hospital….” In popular culture, spring is a season that all about pretty flowers and unicorns and rainbows. William Carlos Williams understands that the real-life season spring is much messier than the pop culture version. As he says in this poem: “…They enter the new world naked, / cold, uncertain of all / save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind — …”

No unicorns and rainbows here. Cold and warmth, winter and spring, joy and sorrow are mixed together in human experience.

The first reading, “Winter Poem” by Nikki Giovanni, also mixes seemingly discreet things together. Nikki Giovanni is another person who doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of a “typical” American poet: she’s been called the Poet of the Black Revolution, she writes children’s books, she’s a feminist, she likes hip hop, and she’s proud of her down-home Appalachian roots.

“Winter Poem” by Nikki Giovanni

While this is in fact a springtime poem about flowers, it’s a little bit weird. The “I” of the poem, whoever it is that’s narrating the poem, starts out as a human, then becomes a snowflake, then becomes a spring rain, then becomes a flower. Winter turns into spring without sharp boundaries, and there don’t seem to be sharp boundaries between humans, snow, rain, and flowers either. It’s all an interconnected web. Or maybe more precisely, it could be an interconnected web, if we let it. Back in 2019, Nikki Giovanni told this story about growing up in Appalachia:

“…if you had a flat tire in the old days when people had flat tires, the best place to be was in Appalachia…it’s always going to be a woman [saying], ‘Pa! Somebody’s car broke down!’ And he would say, ‘Be right there!’ and they would come down and help you. They’d help fix the tire. And you’d be sitting on the porch with the woman while Pa did that. And of course you didn’t have any money and they didn’t either. So, you’d be saying thank you. But it was a safe place.”

And it was a safe place whether you were White or Black. In Nikki Giovanni’s opinion, the people in American politics who are fostering hate and divisiveness tend to be people driving expensive cars who can hire other people to fix their flat tires, and they’re using poor people for their own ends. According to the poet Asha French, “Nikki Giovanni’s deep sight sidesteps easy stereotypes to get to the heart of the matter: economic justice for all Americans.” (1) Or as we Unitarian Universalists might put it, the heart of the matter is that we are all interconnected in the web of existence.

Ada Limón, the current Poet Laureate of the United States, wrote another atypical springtime poem, which she has titled “Instructions on Not Giving Up.”

While Ada Limón grew up in Sonoma, California, and still lives there part of every year, to me this sounds more like a New England poem. When she says that the new green leaves that come out in springtime are “Patient, plodding, a green skin / growing over whatever winter did to us, a return / to the strange idea of continuous living despite / the mess of us, the hurt, the empty” — that sounds more like winter and spring in New England than in Sonoma, California. However, having spent 13 years living just south of Sonoma, California, it is true that northern California winters can can be hard in their own way. Northern California has had an especially hard winter this year: storms with hurricane force winds, intense rainstorms, flooding, landslides. A hard winter can take it out of you. All the difficult parts of life can take it out of you. Life is messy, it hurts us, it can make us feel empty. Yet like the trees in springtime, we too can put out new life. We can take all of life — the meanness of hurts and emptiness, and also the sublime glory of springtime.

And so it is that we conclude with final springtime poem by Ross Gay titled “Thank You.”

Parts of this poem remind me of another poem, one written twenty-five hundred years ago. When Ross Gay says, “All will one day turn to dust” I can hear echoes of the ancient poet who wrote the book Ecclesiastes: “dust returns to the earth as it was.” Yet the poet of Ecclesiastes ends by repeating the opening lines of their poem — “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” — while Ross Gay ends his poem quite differently: “Say only thank you. Thank you.”

I sometimes feel that most religion today does not give thanks often enough. The first thing the conservative Christians tell us is that we are sinners. The first thing that Unitarian Universalists and other religious progressives tell us is that the world is full of injustice that needs to be corrected, which isn’t so very different from saying that we are all sinners. And what does Ross Gay do? He tells us to say thank you. This to me is something that’s missing from too much of today’s religion. Watch your breath steam out from your mouth on a cold spring morning, walk through your still-dormant garden, and say thank you. We need to give thanks more often.

It would be easy to dismiss Ross Gay as hopelessly idealistic. After all, he’s just another privileged college professor. Yet he’s also a Black man living in the United States, who said in a 2021 interview that he’s always aware of racial justice when he writes poetry. (2) Or as he put it in an NPR interview: “Joy is the evidence of our reaching across to one another in the midst of — or as a way even of — caring for one another’s sorrows.” (3) Ross Gay sees joy and sorrow as being connected. He also believes that joy does not happen in isolation; joy only happens through your connection to others. You can’t have joy unless you’re connected to other people, and to the whole universe; joy arises because we pare part of the interconnected web of all existence.

And this is why we say thank you. Yes, we know that we’re all going to die sooner or later, and there’s a great deal of sorrow in that knowledge. Yes, we know that there is much that is horribly wrong with this world, and there’s a great deal of sorrow in that knowledge. But when we reach out to others in the midst of our many sorrows, when we care for one another in the midst of sorrow, joy can arise.

I began by telling you how reading poetry can be a sort of spiritual practice. To reuse that overused electronics metaphor, a good poem can rewire your brain. And I don’t mean that it changes the way you think so much as I mean a good poem can change the way you are in the world. Poetry can change your very being.

Lately, I’ve been finding that I need to have my being changed. Between COVID and climate change and race relations and Gaza and presidential politics — all this on top of the individual sorrows and griefs that we all face in our personal lives — the past few years have been difficult for me, and I think for most of us. There’s a lot of sorrow floating around in the world.

In these times, it is all too easy to say, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” — and stop there. But I hope these poems about springtime prompt you to go beyond the vanity of vanities. With William Carlos Williams, may we see that even outside the contagious hospital, new life is emerging with spring. With Nikki Giovanni, may we understand that we are connected with snow and rain and flowers, and with all of humanity as well. With Ada Limón, may we realize that like the trees in springtime, we too can put out new life. And with Ross Gay, may we remember to say thank you. Over and over again, may we remember to say thank you.


(1) Asha French, “Deeper Than Double: Nikki Giovanniand her Appalachian Elders,” Pluck: Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture (University of Kentucky, June, 2020)

(2) “Poet Ross Gay explores a joy informed by deep sorrow,” interview with Leah Rumack, 11 Jan. 2021, Broadview magazine website,

(3) “How Ross Gay Finds Joy In The Smallest of ‘Delights’,” interview with Christina Cala, 19 August 2021, transcript of NPR “CodeSwitch” radio program,