Sunday 27 September 2020: … but sometimes it’s difficult to see

Beer can in the desert

“There is beauty everywhere,” said Big Panda, “but sometimes it’s difficult to see.”
— James Norbury

We live in a world of spectacular contrasts. At times the beauty we see overwhelms us, but other times the ugliness around us seems more than we can bear. Yet even in those times of ugliness we’re surrounded by beauty. This Sunday Robert Helfer will consider how we can see beauty when ugliness has made it difficult.

Welcome before prelude

Good morning and welcome to West Fork Unitarian Universalists. I’m Robert and I feel blessed to serve this congregation as a lay leader. I’m glad to see all of you here today.

Thank you for joining us.

Let us use the prelude for centering. We are about to enter sacred time. We are about to make this time and this place sacred by our presence and intention.

Please silence your phones… and as you do so, I invite us also to turn down the volume on our fears; to remove our masks; and to loosen the armor around our hearts.


Let go of the expectations placed on you by others—and those they taught you to place on yourself.

Drop the guilt and the shame, not to shirk accountability, but in honest expectation of the possibility of forgiveness.

Let go of the thing you said the other day. Let go of the thing you dread next week. Be here, in this moment. Breathe, here.

Prelude: “The Worker’s Funeral March”, from Symphony of Factory Sirens, Arseny Avraamov

Welcome The Beauty of the Whole – Meg Barnhouse

We gather to worship, our hearts alive with hope that here we will be truly seen, that here we will be welcomed into the garden of this community, where the simple and the elegant, the fluted and frilled, the shy and the dramatic complement one another and are treasured. May we know that here, each contributes in their way to the beauty of the whole. Come, let us worship together, all genders, sexualities, politics, clappers and non-clappers, progressive or conservative, may we root ourselves in the values of this faith: compassion and courage, transcendence, justice and transformation

Song Come, Come, Whoever You Are

(Singing the Living Tradition, 188)

Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair
Come, yet again come

Chalice lighting Chalice Lighting for Yom Kippur – Vanessa Southern

We light our chalice, symbol of our faith,
For truth, sought through a questioning heart and an attentive mind;
And for love, pursued through obstacles inside and outside our own human heart;
And for forgiveness, and all it entails—
The place where truth and love meet and merge.

Principles of Unitarian Universalism

Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles, which we hold as strong values and moral guides:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Story for All Ages:Grand Canyon II”, Erica Olsen

(From: Recapture & Other Stories)

Offering and Response

Say to thyself, ‘If there is any good thing that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now; let me not defer it nor neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.’
– Anonymous

Remember that our being here, together, all of us, in this electronic space, is part of our offering, our sharing and building of this community. Let us use the time during the offertory to contemplate how we can use out time and talents during the next week for this community and for our larger society.

Since we cannot take up a collection, let us use the time during the offertory to contemplate how we can use out time and talents during the next week for this community and our larger society.


Épitaphe of Seikilos – Petros Tabouris Ensemble

While you live, shine,
Have no grief at all;
Life exists only for a short while,
And Time demands its toll.

Response (Unison)

For the gifts which we have received—and the gifts which we, ourselves, are—may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Reading: From The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto, translated by John W. Harvey

There is a precisely parallel process in another department of judgement, that of aesthetic taste. While the taste is still crude, a feeling or fore-feeling of the beautiful begins to stir, which must come from an obscure a priori conception of beauty already present, else it could not occur at all. The man of crude taste, not being capable of a clear ‘recognition’ of authentic beauty, falls into confusion and misapplies this obscure, dim conception of the beautiful, judging things to be beautiful which are in fact not beautiful at all. Here, as in the case of the judgement of holiness, the principle underlying the erroneous judgement of beauty is one of faint analogy. Certain elements in the thing wrongly judged to be beautiful have a closer or remoter analogy to real beauty. And later here, too, when his taste has been educated, the man rejects with strong aversion the quasi-beautiful but not really beautiful thing and becomes qualified to see and to judge rightly, i.e., to recognize as beautiful the outward object in which the ‘beauty’ of which he has an inward notion and standard really ‘appears’.

Lesson … But Sometimes It’s Difficult to See
Robert Helfer

Sunset today marks the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a time of renewal. In Jewish tradition, this is when we seek forgiveness from others as we forgive them, a time of clearing away transgressions at the beginning of the new year. It is also when God reviews our lives and decides each person’s fate. May each of us be judged with forgiveness as we forgive others.

How can I find words? Poets have taken them all, and left me with nothing to say or do——
— Dorothy L. Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon

And now, perhaps I speak in a fog.

An artist named James Norbury ( has for some time been publishing on the Internet a series of cartoons called Big Panda and Tiny Dragon. Each cartoon is a single frame containing the named characters with some small comment or dialog between them offering some brief observation on life. A couple of weeks ago one of his cartoons caught my attention as it crossed my newsfeed. The two heroes are seated on a blighted terrain. The only obvious signs that anything has ever lived here are dead, dry grass and a very dead tree. Below the picture is inscribed:

“There is beauty everywhere,” said Big Panda, “but sometimes it’s difficult to see.”

Now, I know this is a simple, maybe obvious, sentiment. Maybe even trite. But I learned a long time ago that one person’s trite can be another person’s profound. And as I sat in my, for the time being, safe place here in Clarksburg, surrounded by pandemic and political and social turmoil, the message struck me as profound.

I’ll start from here: “There is beauty everywhere .”

What is Beauty?

That sounds like an easy question, doesn’t it? I think the closest I can come to an answer is that beauty, things that are beautiful, engender a pleasant feeling that might be akin to spiritual. A beautiful piece of music may take one into a meditative realm. A beautiful painting may cause one to pause, to study the interplay of shape and color. A beautiful thought, poem, essay may bring us some peace. In short, it’s a positive feature in our lives. I think this is something many of us feel is lacking in our current world, where we see much negativity in ugly disagreement, humans behaving in ugly ways.

But I need to skip over that human form of ugliness for right now and bring us back for the moment to aesthetics.

I reflect back on Rudolf Otto’s statement I read a couple of minutes ago. I don’t remember when I first read this passage, and I don’t remember when exactly some parts of it began to trouble me. To be honest, I’ve been poking at this book for years but have never actually managed to read it through. It seems to me that Otto often builds his theses on distinctions without differences, and supports his arguments by a flow of superfluous words. But perhaps that’s just me. Anyway, Otto was writing about “The Holy”, and included this passage on the perception of beauty as “precisely parallel” to what he had been talking about in perception of the holy.

I guess Otto sees both “Beauty” and “The Holy” as Platonic ideals, existing in some non-material world filled with absolutes (but which oddly require some form of education to be perceived). What does he mean “quasi-beautiful but not really beautiful”?

I lean toward a different understanding of beauty. I think in many ways we make things beautiful rather than discovering them to be beautiful.

Seeing (or hearing or smelling) beauty may require a bit of reinterpretation.

The prelude this morning was a musical piece from the 1920s, a symphony of jarring industrial noise and human voices from the Soviet Union. I’ve listened to it several times now, and I’m still not sure I could call it “beautiful”, but much of it is actually enjoyable. Perhaps it, and other musical pieces of the same era and genre, can be seen as a reinterpretation. What might be thought ugly has been blended into a format more recognizable as “artistic” and maybe “beautiful”? The composer, Arseny Avraamov, apparently conducted the premier performance of the full piece this was taken from with a torch in each hand. I’m not sure if he was simply being flamboyant or if he wanted to be sure the people – we might call them industrial musicians, I guess – handling the industrial equipment could see him. They would have been some distance away.

When Lisa and I lived in Texas we used to drive to the Gulf Coast, usually twice each summer, for Memorial Day weekend and for Labor Day weekend. It was a lovely drive through the countryside pocked with various kinds of birds along the way. There was much rural beauty – the trees, the birds, the fields. Our route carried us through a town called Luling. Luling has some charms, but if one is seeking beautiful smells, Luling is not the place to go. Luling is a petroleum town. There are several oil wells in the center of the town, as evidenced by the mosquito-shaped oil pumps scattered around., and the smell of crude oil that pervades the whole place. The residents, however, didn’t object; they said it smelled like money, and, I suppose for them at least, that’s a form of beauty. Again, what seems ugly to many has been reinterpreted. Apparently, Luling’s wells are now all pumped out, but the town has converted the old pumps into an art project, decorating them with fanciful forms and creatures – my favorite, I think, is the cow jumping over the moon.

Seeing beauty may require knowledge, or interest at least.

Lisa and I used to watch a British television show called “Time Team”. In each episode a group of archaeologists would take on the task of excavating and interpreting an archaeological site in three days. At some point during each dig at least one archaeologist (usually Phil Harding, the most enthusiastic member of the team) would hold up some object and exclaim “Isn’t that the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen!” Now, for us in the television audience, what he’s holding is a stone or a broken, dirty, rusted bit of rubble. But what the archaeologists see is a piece of a Roman wall, the remains of a Roman glass beaker or Celtic clay pot, part of a house wall made of woven reeds, a medieval spear head., a prehistoric stone scraping tool, and in these objects they see a whole piece of history laid out on the ground. Without the added information, the training and education and experience that these people bring to their tasks, the word “beauty” rarely applies. But the archaeologists see so much more than we do.

Seeing beauty may require patience.

The place where I was born is often described as boring. It seems to outsiders as if it lacks features, it’s too flat, there’s nothing there. Some years ago there was a nature blog called “City in a Garden” after Chicago’s motto “urbs in horto”. One post said that such a place as a prairie must be seen slowly, with patience, to find its beauty. If your standard of beauty is the spectacular terrain and colors of the mountains, whether Colorado or West Virginia, you might have difficulty seeing the beauty of the prairie. You have to look at it slowly.

There’s another aspect of patience: parts of our yard are full of little scrubby plants. They have skinny stems, often twisted, with tiny, spindly leaves. Mostly they look like unsightly weeds, and over the course of the summer I tend to pull them ruthlessly. That’s true for most of the summer. But then, if I’ve been patient enough to leave at least some of them alone, with autumn come the blooms. They’re native asters, and when they flower they show it. They’re still not the most spectacular asters in the garden, but they bring delight to me when I look at them covered with tiny white or blue flowers, and delight to the bees, wasps, flies, and butterflies who flock to these flowers.

Currently much of our yard is dominated by brilliant yellow of the goldenrod and the wingstems. Both of these are huge plants, and most of the summer they stand as awkward, often ugly, misfits in the yard. But once again, if I don’t uproot them enthusiastically they reward me, and all the local pollinators, with their spectacular blooms.

The final piece of all this is, I think, understanding and acceptance. Otto appeals to the notion of “truly beautiful” vs. “quasi-beautiful”, and to our ability to be educated to perceive proper beauty.

… when his taste has been educated, the man rejects with strong aversion the quasi-beautiful but not really beautiful thing and becomes qualified to see and to judge rightly, i.e., to recognize as beautiful the outward object in which the ‘beauty’ of which he has an inward notion and standard really ‘appears’.

But I think that when we stop trying to impose our preconceived notions of what is beautiful on the world around us we are able to see so much more.

I guess what I’m saying is that to see beauty in what seems to be ugly requires “active seeing”. We must see what’s really there and learn to appreciate it.

Which, unfortunately, brings us back around to the human ugliness – meanness an cruelty toward others – which I mentioned earlier, and which we all need to deal with in our lives right now.

Part of the answer must be “active listening”. We must listen to understand, even though it’s really hard, sometimes painful, to do so. But I’m still working on this, and have no advice to give except to be strong, stay safe, and stay well.

Music: I’ll Be Your Mirror, The Velvet Underground

Joys and Sorrows

(Please save announcements and comments until the end of the service)

If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;

or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.


For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.

These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation

Let us join our hearts and minds in silent meditation

Song Go Now In Peace (3 times)

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Closing The World Is Too Beautiful – Eric Williams

The world is too beautiful to be praised by only one voice.
May you have the courage to sing your part.

The world is too broken to be healed by only one set of hands.
May you have the courage to use your gifts.

The chalice flame is extinguished
Until once again ignited by the strength of our communion.
Go now in peace.