Navigating in the Dark

The phrase “uncharted territory” is repeated on an almost daily basis these days. Reflecting on how we are to navigate our way forward, let us draw inspiration from prophetic women and men of both the past and present.

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Share the plate: Salem Interfaith Hospitality Network

Celebrant: David Jeffers, Anchor: Benjahmin Boschee

Music both services: Ted Cory








This is the story of a great sea captain who sailed out of old New England, in the days of the great sailing vessels.  Eleazer Hull made his voyages in record time, with the largest cargoes.  No one could match his knowledge of the sea’s currents, the winds, and the vagaries of sailing.  He had no formal navigation training, and yet he was the wisest of ancient New England mariners.

Asked how he guided his ships so infallibly over the high and hazardous seas, he said, “I go up on deck, listen to the wind in the rigging, catch the drift of the sea, take a long look at the stars, and then set my course.”

Finally, the advance of business caught up with the captain.  His insurance agents demanded that he use the latest navigation equipment, and that he meet certain standards of formal education, in order to continue his craft and trade.

With trepidation, they told Eleazer Hull what would be required if he wished to continue to sail.  Much to their surprise and relief, he agreed, and he was enthusiastic about learning.

And so the arrangements were made.  Eleazer Hull studied hard, and graduated at the top of his class.  Then he re-boarded his ship and set out for a two-year voyage.

When he returned, his friends gathered around him.  Curious, they asked how he had enjoyed navigating by the book, after so many years of sailing the other way.

“It was wonderful,” Captain Hull responded.  “Whenever I wanted to know my course, I would go down to my cabin, pull out my charts, work through the proper equations, and then set a course with mathematical and nautical precision.”

Then,” he said, “I would go up on deck, listen to the wind in the rigging, catch the drift of the sea, take a long look at the stars…and correct my computations for errors.”


Among my childhood memories of the winter holidays, one that still resonates is my sense of anticipation at the sight of presents under the Christmas tree. I’m not talking about greed – “Oh boy, look how many have my name on them!” – No, I’m talking about the sensation of mystery, combined with anticipation. Those gaily wrapped boxes might contain anything: some things I had wished for, some that might never have occurred to me; just as I always hoped that the gifts I gave would be a good match for their recipients.

That’s become a metaphor for me at the start of a new year, whether the fall season of church life or the month of January. Anything might happen in the year ahead – some events expected; some surprising.

Well, we’re passed Christmas – here we are in the middle of January – and not all of us are delighted with what has come to pass. While the prospect of the Inauguration this Friday fills some of us with joy, for others the dominant feeling is dread. In ironic synchronicity, we begin the typical work week tomorrow observing the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. His iconic words, “I Have a Dream” give me a surreal feeling this year. What a time this is!

The author and theologian Frederick Buechner, who celebrated his 90th birthday last July, observed:

We tend to think of time as progression, as moment following moment, day following day, in relentless flow, the kind of time a clock or calendar can measure. But we experience time also as depth, as having quality as well as quantity – a good time, a dangerous time, an auspicious time, a time we mark not by its duration but by its content.

Sometimes it’s only possible to judge the quality of time in retrospect. We know without doubt that this time, at the very least, heralds vast challenges of all sorts. As many commentators have said, we seem to have sailed into uncharted territory.

Many of us wonder, how do we navigate these waters? How do we find our way?

We often turn to our Principles for guidance, and if ever there was a time to take our principles to heart – to truly live them and thereby live our values – this is that time.  But this morning, I want to find inspiration from some prophetic voices whose lives and commitments offer insights from which we can draw wisdom; who light my way, who reassure me that it is even possible to steer away from the rocky shore, to move forward through these times with integrity, true to the ideals of our Principles.

Margaret Fuller is one of my personal heroes.  She’s been called America’s first true feminist: the lone woman in the otherwise male circle of Transcendentalists in the nineteenth century; a literary critic, editor, journalist, teacher, political activist, and revolutionary.  She tends to be primarily identified by the dual context of editing the Transcendentalist publication “The Dial,” and hosting Salons that became known as Boston Conversations (a series of classes with and for women), but she is relatively unknown in terms of other aspects of her life. What I offer this morning is but a sketch.

She was already on the staff of The New York Tribune when the US and Mexico entered war. Believing that her country had fallen short of its professed ideals, she was not content with sitting on the sidelines. Instead, she became the first woman foreign correspondent, reporting developments to Horace Greeley from afar.

Margaret then became interested in the growing unrest in Italy, particularly the efforts to establish a democratic society through the overthrow of Austrian and Papal control.  She fell in love, and married a fellow revolutionary, a revolutionary act itself.  Since her beloved was Catholic and she Unitarian, the wedding had to be held secretly. Giovanni became a soldier.  Margaret sent dispatches on the war activities she observed, worked in a hospital caring for the wounded, and began writing a book on the Italian Revolution.

I could devote an entire sermon to Margaret Fuller.  Her life and actions had a lasting impact. The scholar David Robinson contends that she laid the foundation for the movement toward gender equality, essentially remaking society over the past two hundred years.

The basis of that foundation was theological – William Ellery Channing’s theological concept of self-culture – the idea that the shape of one’s destiny can be changed by one’s own efforts.  Ralph Waldo Emerson called the concept “Self-reliance,” Margaret Fuller termed it “Self-dependence.”

Although Channing himself described it as “the care which every man owes to himself, to the unfolding and perfecting of his nature,” Margaret Fuller not only applied that model to herself, she passed that awareness on to other women, making it abundantly clear that the “self” is not defined exclusively as male.

Her investigative journalism, according to David Robinson, marked a political turn in the Transcendentalist movement …connecting it to what we now think of as progressive, rights-based social justice.  She applied the same message to institutions she saw as barriers to self-development: prisons, asylums, hospitals, slums, immigration policy, poor-houses.  She framed the issue of imprisoning women for prostitution, for example, not as the moral issue her contemporaries saw, but rather as a lack of economic opportunity and social standing.  No one else was thinking that broadly.

Finally, Margaret Fuller expressed a concern for human rights outside her own country’s borders, making it an international issue.

More than a hundred years later, Margaret’s grand-nephew, Buckminster Fuller, carried on the practice of pushing social and political boundaries, coining the phrase “Spaceship Earth,” and the term synergetic.  In his writing and speeches, he laid out his vision for us to fulfill the needs of one hundred percent of humanity.  He’s probably best known for his boldness in architecture, and the geodesic dome.

Looking for inspiration, we needn’t limit ourselves to our own faith tradition, or to the distant past. The Reverend William Barber stands out in my mind.  He is pastor at the Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and president of the state chapter of the NAACP.

On the last Monday of April, 2013, Reverend Barber led a modest group of clergy and activists into the state legislative building in Raleigh, in response to actions of North Carolina Republicans, who had taken control of the state Legislature and the governorship for the first time in more than a century.

Among [the Republicans’] top priorities – along with blocking Medicaid expansion and cutting unemployment benefits and higher-education spending – was pushing through a raft of changes to election laws, including reducing the number of early voting days, ending same-day voter registration, and requiring ID at the polls.

[The protesters] sang “We Shall Overcome,” quoted the Bible, and blocked the doors to the Senate chambers. [Reverend] Barber …[was] led…away in handcuffs. (Rabb)

Just another protest, right?  Maybe it was. But the next Monday, one hundred protesters showed up at the capitol. Since then, “Moral Mondays” have brought thousands of people together, and movements have begun in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama.  Reverend Barber believes we are at the cusp of a Third Reconstruction, the second being the era of Martin Luther King, Jr. and passage of the Voting Rights Act.

The Black Lives Matter movement has no designated leader, but has been credited with having “elevated the national discussion of anti-black racism more dramatically than any movement in decades.” (Van Jones) It has certainly been influential in shaping a new dialogue around racial justice issues in this country.

Representatives of Black Lives Matter, along with prominent authors, educators, clergy and others, have joined the alliance of activists in protest of the North Dakota Access Pipeline – a protest born of the same devotion demonstrated by Reverend Barber’s Moral Mondays. I have such admiration for the Water Protectors who advocate for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; many of my colleagues have supported them in person, onsite. It’s not a stretch for me to imagine Margaret Fuller in this company.

The late Lloyd Averill, a liberal Christian theologian, defined religion as “the search for that meaning that has power to give shape to our experience, purpose to our existence, and motivation and moral energy to our human enterprises.” That sounds like a relevant resource for any of those I’ve named, especially applicable to self-culture, self-reliance or self-dependence; and yet it is a most effective change agent, I believe, when we band together for common purposes.

The excitement so many of us experienced when we first discovered this faith – the joy of engaging our minds and our hearts, of thinking for ourselves – is what calls to us now, in our own time: to be guided by ethical compassion and the test of reason, to be willing to subject our ideas to scrutiny; to reject disrespect for others, even if their conclusions are not our own. This requires more than aspiration – more than intent – or even hope. This requires that we carry our faith into action.

We are not the first people to live in so-called “interesting,” even desperate times, as we must occasionally remind ourselves. But the words of Patrick Overton ring true:

When you walk to the edge of all the light you have and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown, you must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for you to stand upon or you will be taught to fly.

We find solid ground in the company of one another, and the knowledge that, together, we are not short of resources.  Margaret Fuller holds a light for us to navigate the darkness, her courageous leadership in the virtual absence of any role model, tacking an unmarked course.

The Reverend Barber, in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Junior, found a means of engaging hearts, minds and bodies in the common cause of justice, and continues to apply political action to some of the most pressing moral issues of our time.

These individuals, along with so many others, are connected with us, as we are with one another, in relationship. I’m as certain of that as I am that this is a religious conviction. That conviction is what calls us to help one another over obstacles, as we navigate the rough waves of life.  That is the common thread that binds us, the common star that guides us, and to my mind, that is what makes our actions religious.

We don’t offer a creed as solid ground, as many churches do.  Sacred texts are references within the framework of our faith, like the charts Captain Eleazer Hull was taught to use.  But these writings are not our creed or dogma.  We set our course by the dictates of our hearts as well as our minds, sometimes leading to sacrifice, even pain.  And the support of a loving community can give us the courage to listen to our hearts and take those steps into the darkness.

May we learn to navigate the course of our lives religiously, guided by what is unseen as well as seen.  May we be unafraid to take risks, secure in what we know to be true, feeling the wind and plotting the stars, called by love and hope, perspective and humor where we can find it, that our spirits may be aligned with the promise of the Spirit of Life.

May our powers be released and our hearts be awakened for the good of this planet Earth and all beings that move and rest on it – for we are, in essence, always navigating in the dark.

And may we, when we come to the edge of all the light we have, hold hands, take the next step, and fly.

Blessed be.


Selected Resources

French, Kimberly, “Radiant Genius and Fiery Heart,” UU World, May 15, 2010.

Jones, Van, CNN commentary, August 13, 2015.

Rabb, Lisa, “Meet the Man Behind Moral Mondays,” in Mother Jones magazine online, April 14, 2014 (

Robinson, David, quoted in “Radiant Genius and Fiery Heart,” UU World, May 15, 2010.