March 27, 2020 No comments exist

Duncan preached this sermon in Castine, Maine in November, 2018. It remains constantly relevant.

“Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination.” So wrote Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, on the mechanics of totalitarianism.
I have given myself that giant task: to find and offer some illumination in this, one of the darkest of times.
The mechanics of totalitarianism–all the turning gears, big and tiny! These machinations are chewing up our sanity.
I believe we are, left and right, blue and red, now all a little bit crazy after the election of 2016. And I want to talk with you, my old friends, about the darkness and the illumination that I see.
I promise to not re-traumatize you by a sermon. I am honored to be here and count our past journey together as one of the substantial joys of Rebecca’s and my life. And of course I am so sorry that Kent Price is not here with us now, as he was my first link to you all. I’ll never forget hearing how he laughingly reported about our first phone conversation, “I love this guy.” Surprised me, and then of course I came to love him too.
So I have a doctorate in preaching which means of course that I am supposed to be really good at this—like at the brain surgeon level of preaching. Well, I did learn this–that one thing you never do in sermons is to assault people with images of violence and the direct sounds of things too hard to hear. But it is almost impossible to focus attention on the political and psychological culture we are now in without doing that. Most people I know turn off the news as often as they turn it on, and I recommend that. So, I want to be careful with us all here.
The only way I have found to look at the darkness and illumination is to tell you a little of what this American season is like for me, a season that is reaching a fever pitch this coming Tuesday. And I foresee that we are in for even greater and greater monstrous moments in the coming days, if not years. I will be as careful of our sensibilities as I can be.
I believe our time is the fourth really hard time in our history. The American Revolution, The Civil War. World War II, and now. I believe this is worse than the discord of the 60’s with the assassinations and the riots and the Vietnam War. That was all extreme but it wasn’t unrecognizable.
Many people in my profession as a psychotherapist started, after the election, to report patients who were afraid, anxious, and confused by the advent of the Trump presidency. Severely disoriented. People were sleepless, depressed, anxious, distracted, moody, and talking about it in therapy sessions. I have been a psychotherapist for decades and I never ever had a patient whose session centered on something political, even something from the news, even after 9/11. Therapy was always contained within a private bubble, the most private bubble. But not so after November of 2016.
Moreover therapists began to reach out to each other, even in national networks, about our own troubled thoughts and feelings. I belong to the Northeast Guild of Spiritual Directors and we had a series of group circle meetings just to talk about what we felt and thought. We were in shock. And we were dismayed. And we felt betrayed. And we needed to talk with each other.
We who have suffered trauma, sexual or violent, as I have, began to have bad dreams. I had direct dreams of a bully man coming after me. I was back on the elementary school recess playground. And I can only imagine how LGBT people must feel, along with people of color, or people of immigrant status, or people with disabilities , or people like Christine Blasey Ford. Or even now political leaders faced with bomb threats, and journalists with worse.
So the short of it is that our starting point is the real level of psychological distress of the deepest sort abroad in the land now. We don’t really fully get what is going on, much less agree on how to think and to act, as Lincoln said, “anew.”
What is different from either of the wars fought here, the Revolutionary and the Civil wars, or the turmoil of the 60’s, or WWII is that now there is a kind of mental disease yet to really have a good name or description.
But here is what it is like: I asked Rebecca to tell me, as poet, what image she would give our times, and she said it was like a person wandering in a desert and only seeing mirages of an oasis and not having real food and water. I think that is a telling image.
What it means emotionally and intellectually is this: It is not just that we have lost the common ground with half of our fellow Americans, which is bad enough, but not unlike the Revolution when only a third of the people were for it, or the Civil War when almost half of the states were leaving. What we have begun to lose is our OWN ground. Not the common ground we need to share, that too can feel lost, but the very ground we need to stand on.
And there is a reason and a name for that. The reason is lies. The name is the banality of evil. And for that we will need a spiritual solution. We here are among the people who can attain that spiritual solution. Never underestimate, Margaret Meade reminds us, the power of what a small group of people can do. In short what the UU tradition calls forth in people is the powerful spiritual we call “Thinking.” Thinking creates our own solid ground. Being surrounded with lies sucks the oxygen out of thinking and suffocates our very sense of self. Mindfulness, reflective self-awareness, pausing in order to know, stepping back in order to see is what will help us regain our ground and maybe save our land. We need a place to step back in order to see the theater before we step forward to act in the play. And that place is our minds.
The mechanics of this are simple, and well laid out by Hannah Arendt whom I have only just begun to understand.
But as a therapist I got it. In marriages the lies are called gaslighting. As a citizen I get it. In politics it’s called propaganda, fake news.
Perhaps the most poignant way to recognize this is to recall our childhood experience of being lied to. Whatever it was it created a serious sense of disorientation. A lie is the total manipulation of a person’s sense of self, what they can trust and how they can safely act. The hell pit of sexual abuse starts in the vestibule of lies. The victim thinks one thing is happening and then it becomes something else. Our child-like response is that we feel complicit. What is wrong with us that we “did” this and so we feel guilty. A total environment of lies offers only one way out, belief in the liar, repeating the lie creates loyalty, gets us close to the giver of the lies, and absolves us of the sickening feeling of guilt and aloneness that comes, barely consciously, when we are lied to. We become ashamed of who we are—oddly enough. And that is then the power the totalitarian propagator has to instigate a mass movement.
I have read most of a remarkable book put together by a woman psychiatrist and minister on the faculty at Yale. It is called “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.” Edited by Dr. Bandy Lee.
It is beyond a doubt in my view that Donald Trump is seriously psychologically damaged, most likely what is called malignant narcissism, which is worse than just narcissism because there is rage and destruction as well as infantile self-absorption.
It is the psychological nature of human beings to need and follow leaders in some way. It is an archetype, a hard wired instinct. There is a place in our consciousness for The King, for The Queen. Every hive has one. And it is very deep. We see in Queen Elizabeth II what 50 plus years of benign Queenliness can do and does do for people in Britain in the English-speaking world, still.
But a truly malignant present is worse for us because not only does the entire “air” of the society become polluted, but the very nature of love and hate, truth and lies becomes corrupted. Trump stirs a great loyal love for him among his followers, and a great hate among them for others, as well as within many of us a hatred for him, having nothing to do with political ideas. Love and hatred are dangerous political forces. But lies are even worse.
Here are the mechanics of it: Blatant, constant lying fully dominates those who are subordinate to the liar. Once a subordinate repeats a lie, and knowingly does that, he or she loses their own sense of reality, they lose what can be called their own “epistemological ground”, they lose their ability to think, and to think for themselves.
People are reduced to their most superficial sense of self. People become shallow, banal. That is what Hannah Arendt saw. She saw it in Adolph Eichmann. She wrote that it was not his decision to be bad or evil that was so dangerous but his extraordinary shallowness. That is what we experience in Donald Trump: his extraordinary shallowness. It is why we keep being amazed and dumbfounded by him, because we just cannot believe that someone could be so shallow, so transparently empty. It is not stupidity, writes Arendt, but a curious and quite authentic inability to think.
And clearly Trump cannot think. He will say whatever will make him feel needed and revered in some way. And what he says will change like a chameleon’s surface colors.
And that makes us complicit in his lying if we stop thinking, and makes us ashamed if we stop acting.
Arendt said we must think and we must act politically in order to be free.
Well, she was not the first.
Lincoln too said we must think and we must act. I will recite the conclusion to his address to Congress a month before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. But the operative sentence is, “we must disenthrall ourselves, as we must think anew, so we must act anew…then we shall save our country….we, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility.”
Lincoln knew that the southerners had been lying to each other for a generation. They had gone from a contained view of the temporary necessity of slavery to the Big Lie that slavery was good, and slave societies were best, and that slaves were happy, and that northerners were evil elites.
He called it not lying but sugar coating.
There was an editor in Congress who was to read Lincoln’s speeches. State of the Union type addresses were not personally delivered but read by a congressional reader. The man said, Mr. Lincoln you cannot use the word “sugar coating” in your speech because it is not a “presidential” sounding word, sugar coating. Lincoln acerbically replied that there was not a person in Congress, nor a person in history who would hear or read this speech and NOT know just exactly what “sugar coating” meant, and he meant to be understood, to communicate the addictive falsehoods that were drawing the southerner into evil and into war through his or her own sentimental sweet fictions. The banality of evil.
So what can we do to think anew and to act anew? How do we disenthrall ourselves, and then find a ground, our own ground, on which to stand and a sharable ground on which to act.
We need to reclaim our American story and stories. Stories keep people alive and well in hard times, a story that rings with truth. The Pilgrim Puritans could suffer and brave all sorts of difficulties and hardships in their first decades in the new American colonies because saw themselves as in a story. That’s how they thought about it. The story for them was the exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt to the Promised Land, and then the story was their own exodus from religious oppression, enslavement, in England into the New World. They had a Biblical narrative and a sense of the presence of God in their individual and communal lives.
A story gives perspective and strength to thoughts and actions. And stories are communal and full of imagination.
There is an American story that Unitarian Universalists know and can reclaim. Here is how Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “The office of America is to liberate, to abolish kingcraft, priest-craft, caste, monopoly, to pull down the gallows, to burn up the bloody statute-book, to take in the immigrant, to open the doors of the sea and the fields of the earth.”
But there an even larger story that the American story is a part of. That is the Enlightenment idea of equality.
If we are to be talking about some illumination in the present darkness we need to look at the shadow that has been following the light of the Enlightenment for over 500 years. It is time for that shadow to now become light and it is the light of women. The idea of equality has been an evolving value, a growing idea, and its fullness of time is now. All throughout the Middle Ages, women, princesses and court ladies secretly read romantic novels. Why, because they told the story of the value of women. Chivalry developed as a testament to the qualities of the feminine, the value of personal feelings, the sanctity of sex, the end of blood lust and rapine wars. The cult of Notre Dame, our lady, Mary, and all of her cathedral homes.
You can even trace the shadows of the emerging feminine in the biblical narratives. The role of the second son, like Jacob not Esau, is the end of the patriarchal rule of primogenitor. Nothing guaranteed the hierarchy of the male like the value of the first born son. The Biblical myths are largely stories of the feminized second son, the thinker not the hunters. Some scholars even think that one of four main Biblical source traditions, called “J”, was written by a woman, which puts a whole new slant of the five books of Moses. The tribes that left Egypt and entered the Promised Land were not the firstborn sons of those who lived in Palestine, not inheritors but rather interlopers and occupiers at best, they obviously did not inherit it being the Eldest Son.
We can go back further than the Bible into non-patriarchal cultures on Crete. But it makes more sense to us now to see how our own Enlightenment tradition has been a voice, the voice, of women for centuries. Most of the great 19th century English novelists, whether it’s Mary Anne Evans as George Elliot, or Jane Austen, or John Gallsworthy, all are about the enslavement and the liberation of the woman.
I believe that the full equality if not even the ascendency of women and the feminine is the story of our time, and explains why we are in the darkness we are in and how we can move towards the light.
I wrote a book a few years ago about my own personal quest to come to terms with the sacred feminine, it is called Desperately Seeking Mary, and I think that is the name of the game now. Half of us are desperately seeking Mary in some way and the other half are desperately trying to keep Mary in her place.
That is what reproductive rights are all about. That is what Me Too is all about. That is what Christine Blasey Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is all about. It is what Donald Trump is all about. It is what the rise of so-called Strong Men in politics is all about, and it is all about to be over for the so called strong men.
The bully in the playground is about to be over. The school teacher is about to rise. The cyclops is over. Penelope is on the rise.
Slavery was the issue of our last Civil War. When the Supreme Count ruled that the Black Man had no legal status in America, in our Constitution, the Dred Scott Case in 1857, Lincoln’s quiet fire brought him back into politics. When the President now tries to outlaw the legal status of transgender people he is doing nothing less that what the Supreme Court tried to do to black people, legally define them out of existence, and may try to do that to women again.
Women and the plight of the feminine is the slavery issue of our time. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a myth and story of our time. The irrepressible conflict of our time is not the freedom of the black slave but the freedom of the woman, economically, sexually, politically, spiritually.
The liberation of the sacred feminine, in men and women, is the war behind the so called war with the West versus Islam. The extreme of Islam is only another form of male power over women. The defeat of that is a part of our story as globalists, as Americans. The liberation of women was a part of the 1960’s. And then thanks to many like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a sustained revolution. The liberation of woman was fought in the 1850’s from Seneca Falls on. The Enlightenment idea of equality was the center of the American Revolution. So I will close with a version of Thomas Paine. With only one word changed.
“These are the times that try women’s and men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he and she who stands by it now, and she and he who stand by it now, deserve the love and thanks of man and woman.” And Thomas Paine did say man and woman.
He called this Common Sense. He thought about it. It was a thinking man’s response and then an acting response. To think anew. To act anew. That will be our illumination out of this darkness.
So let it be for us.

November 1, 2019 No comments exist
Duncan's new book from Front Edge publishing

Front Edge Publishing is proud to announce the first book in a brand new series, Thirty Days With Abraham Lincoln: Quiet Fire by Lincoln scholar, the Reverend Dr. Duncan Newcomer. Newcomer has hosted more than 200 episodes of the radio series Quiet Fire: The Spiritual Life of Abraham Lincoln. Now, 30 of his best stories provide a month of inspirational reading in a unique volume that invites us to read the stories—or to follow a simple code to hear the original broadcast each day.

July 23, 2018 No comments exist

Squirrel Island, ME. Sermon, July 8, 2018
By Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer

Scripture: Isaiah 11:6-7

So, shall the wolf dwell with the lamb…the calf and the lion?
Shall they be together.…will the lion eat straw like the ox…and shall
a little child lead them?
With malice toward none; with charity for all…shall we bind up the nation’s wounds….and…. do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

I would say that we meet this morning here in this chapel because we have not entirely given up on these utopian hopes. In our silences and in our songs, we share, in these moments, something peaceful. From the hard wood and through the clear windows, we feel something simple and real. And we have memories of faces we still do recall in our life.
Hope, peace, reality, and memory: These are not just secular words, they are words that point us toward spiritual realities and invite us to participate in the life of the spirit.
The wolf and the lamb together are Biblical images from the Prophet Isaiah expressing the Hebrew and human hope for utopia, the human city become the holy city, God’s reign in our historical lives.
With malice toward none and charity for all, of course, are Lincoln’s American words for national healing and lasting world peace.
The story of America more than any other nation is a story of our living Biblical hopes to define community and national life. Because we mandate a separation between church and state we have always been free to create and to judge our community life with religious ideas. Even our journalistic obsession with hypocrisy is rooted in the assumption that people should be good. Our secular Enlightenment values are rooted in the Biblical categories of the value of human life and justice. The flame atop the statue of Liberty is a torch originally lit from Moses’ burning-bush revelation of freedom from oppression.
The story of America with its Biblical utopian hopes—that City on the Hill—is the answer to the crisis of America.
There is within each and every one of us a library of unopened maybe forgotten books all ready for the story teller, the Prophet, to come in, sit down, and start telling and retelling us our American, almost religious, story.
I’m thinking of the wonderful library we have here on Squirrel Island. I’m imagining that we gather in small groups each evening, and an American Prophet, an American story teller, comes in and sits down with us—having picked several books off the shelves—and begins to read and tell us once again who we are and why we are who we are. And of course after a summer of this we will be ready to have the wolf and the lamb lie down together and we will have that remarkable absence of malice that is the true nature of our best selves, the better angels of our nature.
There are many American Prophet story tellers. I today choose Abraham Lincoln. Some evening we could have Mark Twain, another, Emily Dickenson, wouldn’t she be amazing, or perhaps Robert Penn Warren or Anne Patchett. I’m sure you have some in mind. “The Idea of America as Told in a Story of America”, that would be our poster motto on the Post Office wall.
When the outer story resonates with our inner self, then we have peace, hope, and love. Stories remind us of what it means to be human. They organize our experience into meaningful and shareable words and feelings. When the outer story is received and accepted by the inner story there is harmony, both within ourselves and between each other. Utopia is simply a matter of getting most of us to tell, hear, feel and abide by the same story.
Today’s first story teller is in fact not Lincoln but Leo Tolstoy. He has a story to tell us about Lincoln, about Lincoln and Christ and some Muslim warriors in the mountains of the Caucuses.
Recall that hope and peace, reality and memory are among the spiritual realities we gather to invoke. Our concern is that the wolf is at the throat of the lamb in our world, daily and in new and local and global ways. Recall that with malice toward none and charity for all are the axioms for a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Can our imaginations be stirred by a story involving the triangle of Lincoln, Christ, and Muslim warriors?
In 1909 a reporter for the New York World paper had a telephone conversation with Leo Tolstoy. America was preparing for the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
What do we see of the world and ourselves in this story—Russian Muslim warriors in the mountains, Leo Tolstoy talking with them about Lincoln and about Christ?
The major Lincoln scholars credit this story. This is how Doris Kearns Goodwin retells it at the end of her book “Team of Rivals”, the book that gave rise to Tony Kushner’s movie script for the Spielberg film “Lincoln.”
She writes:
In 1908, in a wild and remote area of the North Caucasus, Leo Tolstoy, the greatest writer of the age, was the guest of a tribal chief, ‘living far away from civilized life in the mountains.’ Gathering his family and neighbors, the chief asked Tolstoy to tell stories about the famous men of history. Tolstoy told how he entertained the eager crowd for hours with tales of Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon. When he was winding to a close, the chief stood and said, ‘But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock….His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man.’
‘I looked at them,’ Tolstoy recalled, ‘and saw their faces all aglow, while their eyes were burning. I saw that the rude barbarians were really interested in a man whose name and deeds had already become a legend.’ He told them everything he knew about Lincoln’s ‘home life and youth…his habits, his influence upon the people and his physical strength.’ When he finished, they were so grateful for the story that they presented him with ‘a wonderful Arabian horse.’ The next morning, as Tolstoy prepared to leave, they asked if he could possibly acquire for them a picture of Lincoln. Thinking that he might find one at a friend’s house in the neighboring town, Tolstoy asked one of the riders to accompany him. ‘I was successful in getting a large photograph from my friend,’ recalled Tolstoy. As he handed it to the rider he noted that the man’s hand’s trembled as he took it. ‘He gazed for several minutes silently, like one in a reverent prayer, his eyes filled with tears.’
Tolstoy went on to observe, “This little incident proves how largely the name of Lincoln is worshipped throughout the world and how legendary his personality has become.” Now why was Lincoln so great that he overshadows all other national heroes? He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skillful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and the greatness of his character.
‘Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country—bigger than all the Presidents together.
‘We are still too near to his greatness,’ Tolstoy concluded, ‘but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerable bigger than we do. His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.’ ”
Tolstoy had elsewhere written that the greatness of Lincoln makes him an almost Christ-like figure in history because he was willing and able to love his enemies. And another historian expands the text of the 1909 newspaper story stating that the Muslim warrior not only wept when he saw the picture of Lincoln but exclaimed that you could see from Lincoln’s lips that he was a man who had suffered great sorrow and sadness.
Stories express wonder, manifest emotions, demonstrate character, imaging situations that can teach us about our world, and give us another window by which to view ourselves.
Stories, histories, real and imagined, lead us to our best selves because they draw up the better nature within us waiting to be reborn.
It is not for me to interpret for you this story about Lincoln—it carries its own suggestions. To me it does not make Lincoln into a Christian, which he was not, never professing Christ nor joining a Christian church. Lincoln tempered American exceptionalism by naming us God’s “almost chosen people.”
But the historian Arnold Toynbee names self-sacrificial love as the virtue that generates the rising trajectory of history. And so I see how that somber virtue, self-sacrificial love, in Lincoln inspired one of the greatest literary and moral figures of the 19th century, Leo Tolstoy, and profoundly moved a cohort of raw mountain men and Muslim warriors.
My guidance as preacher is to join those who warn us against making religious life the front line of political life. From Thomas Jefferson to Reinhold Niebuhr we need to be restrained from imposing our religious vision on the body politic.
Yet if Lincoln’s character gives us a hint of what it would be like to live with malice toward none and charity for all, so can he reveal for us the practical spirit in which the wolf and lamb make peace and the lion and the cow eat straw together.
Well, if not straw perhaps a melon! Here’s a true story: Lincoln and the melon thieves.
Now in southern Indiana, Lincoln’s boyhood homeland, melons, cantaloupe-like melons are of historic proportions and taste. We lived there. In our time they are referred to as Posey County Melons. Well, the Lincoln family had a melon patch. As a field hand young Lincoln, aged 14 or so, was already up to his six feet four-inch gigantic height, and noticed melons missing. Now, within a mile radius of what was called the Little Pigeon community there were nine families and 49 children between the ages of seven and seventeen.
Lincoln knew who was stealing his family’s melons. Lincoln hid behind some trees. Here is how one historian tells the story.
“Once some neighbor boys raided the Lincoln melon patch and one of them, (Joseph C. Richardson, in 1865) recalled: ‘We got the melons, went through the corn to the fence, got over. All at once to our surprise and mortification Lincoln came among us, on us, good naturedly said: “Boys, now I’ve got you.” Sat down with us, cracked jokes, told stories, helped eat the melons.’ ”
This is Lincoln’s spiritual DNA. He takes it with him everywhere he goes. This is the seed bed of his cabinet as a team of rivals. He instructed General Grant to treat Robert E. Lee in such a spirit at the end of the Civil War. His own political plans for Reconstruction held this spirit, nearly utopian.
In his boyhood Murphy’s reader Lincoln had read this aphorism. “To have your enemy in your power and yet to do him good is the greatest heroism.”
The wolf and the lamb, the calf and the lion, eat straw together, and a little child shall lead them with malice toward none and charity for all, for a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.

March 8, 2017 No comments exist

Duncan Newcomer is a Spiritual Director, a retired UCC minister and psychotherapist living in Belfast, Maine. He is a trained labyrinth facilitator, and gives frequent lectures and seminars in the midcoast Maine region on a wide variety of subjects. His first book, Desperately Seeking Mary, is available on, and his second book, Quiet Fire, the Spiritual Life of Abraham Lincoln, will be published soon. You can reach Dr. Newcomer at