The Path of Love: Proposed Changes to the UUMA Guidelines, 2019

The Path of Love:  Proposed changes to the UUMA Guidelines

August 2019


If our faith is to have any hope of helping heal this world, we need to begin by healing our own community. Our covenant can be a means of perpetuating systems  of oppression among ourselves and in our ministries, or it can create space for the flourishing of love and trust and boundless creativity. As colleagues and members of the UUMA, we long for the latter. To this end, we are proposing revisions to our Guidelines for the Conduct of Ministry.  These revisions fall into two categories:  the ethical standards to which we hold ourselves (what), and the ways in which will hold ourselves and each other accountable to the standards (how.)

Our theology calls us toward love—always toward love.  This means our ethics must begin with love and justice, compassion and solidarity. We may differ on strategies for accountability, and should have robust discussions of how to respond to pain and minimize trauma.  How can we of the UUMA embody love in our relationships with each other and in our ministries?  How can we restore covenant when covenant has been broken?

There are two things we hope you will keep in your hearts as we begin this year of study.  First and foremost, the language we propose is the result of speaking with dozens of people, some with broad understanding of our ministry and some who have been hurt and/or frustrated by our current system.  We honor the stories shared with us. We heard so many stories of when and how our current process doesn’t work — when people want healing, not punishment, and can’t get it. When ministers with less social power were ignored by those with more. When ministers spoke up, but the process took years — and the one who hurt them just quit the body.  We heard cases of careers damaged, of talented staff abused, of congregations harmed — and of the esteem of ministry deeply damaged. To those who shared your stories with us:  we wept with you, raged with you, and designed a system that, with practice and improvement, may respond better. We heard you and we see you.

Second, we as a body must think about why the ministers are in covenant at all. What is the role of the UUMA in holding ourselves and one another accountable to our standards of practice, especially to our clear need to stop perpetuating systems of oppression such as white supremacy and heteropatriarchy? The Guidelines Ethics and Accountability Committees have spent a year listening to stories filled with pain from colleagues with less power who had no ability to hold their colleagues accountable and who had no support from their professional organization to do so. In the past, our Association has upheld the right of ministers to keep their misdeeds secret. That has allowed powerful ministers to prey on those with less power in the system.

The tradition of “Thou shalt not speak ill of another colleague” (“I will not speak scornfully or in derogation of any colleague in public. In any private conversation concerning a colleague, I will speak responsibly and temperately. I will not solicit or encourage negative comments about a colleague or their ministry.”)  has kept ministers from naming the damage that has been done to them and to others. The expectation that one must first speak directly to the colleague who has done harm has gagged ministers of color and women and anyone with less systemic power, preventing them from bringing complaints forward because they could not confront a powerful colleague, or because doing so resulted only in further abuse.

In order to heal our community, we, the members of the UUMA must hold each other accountable. The question is, how we do that effectively?  For a generation or more, we have said we hold each other accountable, but we have done so unevenly at best.  It is another kind of injury to say that we have standards of ethics but fail to uphold them consistently.

These are the circumstances under which our teams were asked to add and revise language in our Guidelines and develop a new system of accountability. We humbly acknowledge that our proposals will need continual review and revision. At the same time, we must begin in some way to change our system from one that supports the perpetuation of harm to one that confronts abuses of power and seeks to heal trauma and restore covenant.

We think our proposals are a way to do that.  If you have ideas for tweaks, corrections, or counter-proposals that would improve our proposals, we wish to learn what they are.  As we engage in this year of study together, we welcome your feedback and input.

Thank you for joining us in this brave new adventure.

In faith and solidarity,

Committee on Ethics and Committee on Accountability

The Path of Love: The Proposed Changes to our UUMA Guidelines

By Rev. Dr. Leisa M. Huyck, Member of the Committee on Ethics, in consultation with Rev. Kim Wilson, Ethics Committee Chair, and Members Rev. Dr. Anita Farber-Robertson, Rev. Nathan Ryan, and Rev. Rob Keithan.

There is an old teaching story that goes something like this:  once upon a time, there was a little town next to a river.   One day, a man saw a baby floating down the river.  He ran in and pulled the baby out, and called for help.  No sooner had the man handed the baby over to someone else, when another baby floated down, and no sooner had he rescued that one when yet another floated along!  Soon the townspeople were organizing a brigade:  some people would catch the babies as they floated by, others would take them to shore, and still others would find food and housing and clothing for them.  The townspeople became very efficient.  But after some time went by, two people were seen leaving the town.  “Hey, where are you going?!”  the townspeople cried.  “We need all the help we can get!”  The two replied:  “Someone has to find out what’s happening upstream.”

Today there are babies floating everywhere, both figuratively and literally.  Climate change, war, poverty, mass shootings, hatred and violence toward brown and black people and gay and trans people, toward women and Muslims and homeless people—the list goes on and on.  So many of us work so hard at rescuing babies that not only do we endanger our own health, but we also forget to investigate what’s going on upstream.

And it is essential to go upstream.  It is essential to find out the causes of these interconnected crises.  Only if we know their causes can we begin to resolve them.  Only if we know the causes of white supremacist heteropatriarchy can we begin to root it out in our own communities and thus begin to heal our planet and its many interconnected peoples.

If the prospect of rooting out white supremacist heteropatriarchy from our movement is not enough to get you excited about doing this work, consider the fact that ongoing global catastrophe and its resulting trauma are the context in which we minister now.  Fear, anger, hatred and a palpable sense of doom fill the air.  If Unitarian Universalism is to be relevant to the needs of this world, our leaders—particularly our professional leaders—must be equipped to guide those in our settings on the path of Love, through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  We need to know how to dismantle the systems of oppression that have brought us to this pass.  We need to know how to heal trauma and restore relationships.  We need to know how to form effective alliances with widely diverse groups of people.  We need to go upstream and understand how we got here. We need to understand how making changes in the circle of our own community can ripple outward into larger and larger circles.

The good news is that we can do these things.  We are very good at learning new ways of thinking.  We are very good at practicing new skills.  We can do what is needed. And as it turns out, it’s not as hard as it may first look.

The remainder of this paper will briefly describe

  • the reasons why the UUMA Board charged our Committees with revising the Guidelines (The Problem),
  • the charge each committee was given,
  • the process we used to study the current Guidelines and develop the proposed changes,
  • our findings,
  • theological grounds for making changes,
  • obstacles to change, and
  • a hopeful look ahead. 

The Problem(s)

Imagine this:  a well-known White colleague with a great deal of social capital in the UUMA goes to serve as an Assistant Minister in a large congregation.  We might think this minister’s credentials would protect them, but we would be mistaken.  For several years the senior minister bullies this Assistant Minister, as well as the Director of Religious Education, so severely that they are deeply traumatized.  The Assistant Minister and the DRE separately think about filing a complaint about the senior minister, but there is nothing in our Code of Conduct that says a minister should not bully staff—no official grounds for complaint.  The senior minister then leaves to serve another congregation.  The assistant minister is prevented by our current Guidelines from saying anying negative about this colleague to the search committee.  The senior minister eventually commits sexual misconduct, is found out, and resigns. When a formal complaint is filed, the minister resigns from fellowship and the UUMA.

Under our current Guidelines, there is no way to hold this senior minister accountable for their actions.  Even if there were something in our Guidelines saying bullying staff is wrong, there is no process by which to address and heal the trauma the senior minister has caused to the staff and congregations.  Even regional staff are prevented from speaking openly about the damage a minister has caused to a congregation and to the esteem of our vocation.

Furthermore, what if, in a few years, this minister comes to a true awareness of the harm they have caused, and wishes to seek forgiveness and make amends?  What if they want to worship in one of our congregations?  We have no process for restoring the covenant that has been broken.  We have only a legalistic mechanism for identifying gross misconduct and punishing the wrongdoer.  Does our Universalism extend to colleagues who have misconducted in serious ways?

Now imagine this:  a powerful senior minister in an urban congregation makes racist remarks to a junior colleague of color.  Nothing in our current Guidelines says ministers should not behave in a racist way.  Nevertheless, the junior colleague feels they have been harmed and seeks the help of a Good Officer in restoring covenant.  The senior colleague says they are too busy to go out of their way to have a conversation.  The junior colleague must fly to the big city where the senior minister serves in order to seek reconciliation. The Good Officer holds space for the conversation but does not participate in any way. The senior minister never acknowledges having caused harm.  The junior colleague wants healing, not punishment, and goes away feeling unheard, unsupported, and more degraded by the attempt to restore covenant than by the initial remarks.

These are but two of dozens and dozens of examples of ways our current Guidelines are no longer serving the needs of our body.  After becoming aware of these and numerous other cases, the UUMA Board decided it was time to revise the Guidelines.  It was clear that changes were needed both in the ethical standards to which we hold ourselves, and to the accountability process.  The Board therefore charged two committees, as follows:

Our charges

Committee on Ethics

The UUMA Guidelines Committee A is charged with studying the existing Guidelines and proposing revisions to clarify and strengthen our professional standards against behaviors that perpetuate white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and other systems and structures of oppression. This should include, but may not be limited to: unambiguously forbidding sexual harassment, contact, and/or relationships between ministers and anyone and everyone they serve, supervise, or otherwise hold authority over; changing or removing provisions that aid mis-conductors in evading accountability; adding a specific provision against bullying and harassment; naming the malicious deceit of those we serve an actionable offense; and making it explicit that the imperative to confront and dismantle white supremacy and heteropatriarchy should take priority over collegial courtesy. While it may eventually be necessary to completely rewrite our Guidelines, we want this committee to focus its scope on the gaps in our ethical standards in the Code of Conduct as well as the inconsistencies that compromise clarity about ethical conduct in the entirety of the Guidelines.

Committee on Accountability

The UUMA Guidelines Committee B is charged with developing a clear, transparent and accessible process of accountability and restoration for colleagues who have a covenantal breech with another colleague or colleagues.  The committee is asked to focus its scope on covenantal breeches, knowing that accountability processes for handling complaints of misconduct are being pursued through other means.

The committee will bring forward these recommendations for consideration during the 2019 annual meeting. The committee will assist chapter leaders in facilitating adaptive conversations during a year of study and recommend either adoption of the 2019 proposed changes or new changes based on the year of study for consideration during the 2020 annual meeting. The Committee will assist staff in developing a resource guide for the accountability process within our Guidelines.

Our Process

These two committees had met virtually for more than a year and decided that the Guidelines needed to be completely re-written.  The UUMA Board said that might be the case, but since that would be a long process, in the meantime, some immediate changes were necessary in order to protect vulnerable people from  harm.  The committees were not getting much traction, so the Board brought the two committees together in person in October of 2018.  On the first day we all met together in a workshop. We were asked to brainstorm everything we would like to see in Guidelines, and again came to the conclusion that they need to be completely re-written.   Again the Board said that this might be true, but in the meantime, we needed to patch the current language in order to protect vulnerable people from further harm.  We agreed that we would do this, if in the future we could re-write the guidelines in their entirety.  The Board agreed.

We then separated into our two different committees for the remainder of our meeting time. The first thing the Ethics Committee had to do was understand the nature of the two different sections of our covenant that set our ethical standards.  These are the Code of Conduct and the Guidelines for the Conduct of Professional Ministry.  The Code of Conduct contains the rules that we covenant with each other to keep, and is actionable.  In other words, if someone breaks the rules in the Code of Conduct, there are grounds for formal complaint and consequences.  The Code of Conduct lays out a legalistic method for accountability, focusing on identifying misdeeds and punishing the perpetrator.

The Guidelines for the Conduct of Professional ministry are just that, guidelines.  They are not actionable rules, but rather suggestions. Some of the most important standards we have are currently in this section rather than in the Code of Conduct.  That needs to change.

The next thing was to brainstorm a list of UU organizations and individuals with whom we needed to consult.  We needed to hear from people experiencing harm in the current system.  We also needed to hear from people with particular areas of expertise and/or with very broad perspectives and understanding of our ministry.  We assigned members to contact each organization and/or person on the list and interview them.

We interviewed over two dozen people and heard many stories of harm experienced and witnessed.  We gathered information about the ethical standards of other professional organizations (physicians, social workers, therapists) and about the issues that our interviewees raised.

Then we developed a proposal for changes, which we submitted to the Board.  The Board made a few changes to our proposals.  Then we reached out again to our interviewees, plus a new group of UU organizations, to ask for their feedback on what we had developed.  We incorporated the excellent feedback we received into our second round of proposals.  We submitted this to the Board, they again made a few revisions, and we were ready to go to Ministry Days. 

Our Findings:  Kyriarchy, Systems, and the UUMA

As we read the Guidelines more intensively than we ever had before, and listened to people’s stories, it became clear to us that the Guidelines are rooted in and maintain a kyriarchal mode of social organization.

Kyriarchy is a social system characterized by dominance, or power over, and submission.  Kyriarchy is built on fear and violence.  Its most fundamental belief is that a human being is an individual, alone in a dangerous world, who must compete with other beings for survival.  This leads to the strategy of dominance, of trying to control everything and everyone in order to survive. (An alternative belief is that a human being is part of an interdependent community of life, and that collaborating with other members of the community is the best strategy for mutual flourishing.)

The strategy of dominance, of power over, can work for some people for a limited amount of time.  But it does not serve the whole community of life, and it does not even serve individuals for very long.

The reason is that in reality, human beings ARE part of an interdependent community of life.  This community of life is a living system composed of other living systems, which in turn are composed of other living systems. Living systems have rules.  If we break the rules for very long, living systems fail.  They collapse and die.

One of these rules has to do with feedback, or communication between different parts and levels of the system.  Whenever change happens—which is all the time—living systems need to adjust.  Our bodies, for example, are made of organs and circulatory systems, which are made of cells.  Each cell has its own needs and its own job.  If a need doesn’t get met, the cell can’t do its job.  It sends out messages to the other parts of the system, and the whole system gets sick until the need is met again.  So, if our cells aren’t getting enough water, they send out little distress signals that are picked up by our brain, and our brain tells us to drink water.  These little messages are feedback.

If we respond to the feedback and drink water, our cells get better and they stop sending out the signals.  If we suppress feedback, and don’t drink water, we can get very sick, or even die.  The system collapses.   The tricky thing is that our needs for water change constantly, depending on how hot or cold we are, how active we are, what size we are, and so on.  But our bodies are so finely tuned that unless we’re sick, our cells tell us just how much water we need to drink.

This is how all living systems work, from the tiniest microorganism to the whole planetary ecosystem.  Feedback is how the system adjusts and adapts to change, which happens all the time.

Human beings live in interdependent systems with one another and with other forms of life.  And human beings, like all organisms, have needs, and our needs change, and different people have different needs.  In order for our systems to be healthy, we have to be able to express our needs so we can get them met.  And we have to respond to each other’s needs in ways that keep the system healthy.  We need to have ways to give each other feedback.

We can handle the feedback by making adjustments to keep the system working, which would be the healthy thing to do—or we can suppress the feedback.  Suppressing feedback is what happens when people or systems respond violently to other people’s needs, as tyrants and dictatorships and bullies do.  Kyriarchy, by definition, suppresses feedback.  Suppressing feedback is also what happens when we do not express our own needs directly.  We may be afraid to do this because in the past, others have responded to our expression of needs with emotional or physical violence. We may have learned to just go along and not rock the boat.  But just like if we don’t listen to our body telling us to drink water, suppressing feedback can cause the whole system to collapse.

Alas, the dominant culture does not teach people how to give or receive feedback in health-bringing ways.  It only teaches us either how to compete and dominate, or submit and either express our needs indirectly or not at all.  Kyriarchy is expressed in family systems, in society at large, and in the relationships between human and the wider community of life.  It is why we have poverty, racism, heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, ableism, ageism, sexism, domestic violence, war, pollution, massive species extinction, and a global climate crisis whose magnitude dwarfs every other problem in human history save the threat of nuclear annihilation, which we also face now.  All of these problems are interwoven and intersect, and all result from kyriarchy, in which one person or group strives to dominate all others, including the web of life that supports them.

Unitarian Universalism arose from and is enmeshed in the dominant culture, so it is not surprising that it shows many signs and symptoms of kyriarchy. Just as a congregation will behave in ways that reflect its cultural “DNA,” so does our faith movement as a whole, including the UUMA. While in some ways, we are a countercultural faith tradition, our behavior toward each other reflects our kyriarchal DNA.  When we of the Committees listened to people telling us their stories, we heard about racism, both institutional and personal.  We heard about tokenism and ableism and sexism and heterosexism and cisgenderism and ageism.  We heard about bullying and cruelty, about casual disregard for people’s needs and humanity.  The stories were heartbreaking and enraging.  As our colleague Rev. Sean Dennison pointed out at the meeting of our body at Ministry Days, it is one thing to experience these isms in the wider world; we all expect that to a certain degree.  It is entirely another to experience them with our colleagues.

When we listened to ways in which people had tried to use the current system of accountability to restore covenant, we heard about legalism (assumption of innocence until proven guilty; threats of lawsuits against those seeking to be heard; filing of complaints that take years to process.)  We heard about a system in which persons with very little systemic power are expected to speak directly to someone with more systemic power about ways in which the more powerful person has caused harm.  We heard about traumatized people being expected to confront an abuser with little or no guidance or help, and no resources to help them heal.  And these are the people who are still here.  We can only guess how much harm has been done to the people who have left our movement.

All of the “isms” present among us, and the legalistic framework for our accountability process, are symptoms of kyriarchy.  Our guidelines allow us to try to maintain our own power and control at the expense of others more vulnerable than we are.  They provide no means for healthy feedback and needed adjustments to occur.

The greatest weakness of kyriarchy is that it causes its own demise.  It flouts the rules of living systems and so it always collapses. Every kyriarchal civilization in history has collapsed. Given that we do not want Unitarian Universalism or our ministry to collapse, we need change.

What change is needed?

Theological Grounding:  Moving from Fear to Love

Kyriarchy, as previously discussed, is built on fear: the fear that a person or group feels when they believe they are alone in a dangerous world, and must dominate and control everyone and everything around them in order to survive—and also the fear that this person or group inspires in those whom they dominate.

Our current covenant, with its ethical standards and accountability process, reflects this fear.  As Unitarian Universalists, we know a thing or two about the antidote to fear:  Love.   Love and its power in the world.  Not weak, vague, superficial love that says everyone is just doing their best and we should just all get along (without specifying how this might actually happen, or working toward it) but strong, true, deep Love that has power and grit, courage and determination.  This Love gets results.  This Love knows we are all part of an interdependent living system in which, as our colleague Theresa Inés Soto says, “all of us need all of us to make it.” This Love gives us the strength and courage to do hard things.  It calls us into healing our relationships with each other.  It calls us into healing our relationships with all of life.  This Love calls us to listen to others when they are hurting, and respond to their needs by adjusting the way we do things.  This Love says we know we can do this, we can change, we can change together.

Recall that Calvinists believed God to be an angry, vengeful deity who redeems humanity through violence, and divides people into the saved and the damned.  Recall that Universalist Hosea Ballou, and Unitarians William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker, could not accept this idea of God.  They argued that since people model their own behavior on what they imagine God to be, this concept of a wrathful, bloodthirsty God results in earthly hell.  It results in the division of people into the worthy and the worthless, and it sanctifies violent oppression of those deemed to be worthless.  They said that this theology caused people to live in and from fear.  Ballou understood that fear resides in the body, and causes people to behave with violence toward each other rather than with kindness.

Ballou, Channing, and Parker believed that a theology of a loving God would instead enable people to live in and from love. They argued that God was all loving, and people were created in the image of that loving God.  Ballou said that if that were so, then no one needed to worry about where their soul would go when they died, because everyone would be united with God.  Unitarians said that if that were so, then everyone is equally worthy, and oppression was unconscionable.  In both lines of thinking, the job of human beings was understood to be attending to conditions in the here and now, in this world.  People should embody love here—that is, give love arms and legs and voices and speech—to make sure every body was fed and clothed and housed and liberated.  Then no one need fear for their survival.  People’s bodies would be liberated from fear, love would abound, and heaven would be realized here on earth.

Present-day Unitarian Universalism still reverberates with these ideas about love.  Even though UU’s do not all have the same beliefs about whether God exists, or what God might or might not be, our seven principles and six sources affirm our belief that love is a powerful force for healing, in our own lives and in the wider world.

We saw it work in the 19th century, when Unitarians and Universalists took it into civic and political spaces and made major social change.  We saw it work in the struggle for marriage equality, and we are using it now in our struggles around immigration and climate change.

Love has real power in the world. Love can disarm kyriarchy and dismantle systems of oppression.  Love not only can resist oppression but also create entirely new ways of being and living.  And the key to bringing this power to bear is actually embodying it in our own lives and our own communities. Embodying love means learning some new skills.  When we practice these skills in our own communities, we transform them, and the effects ripple outward in wider and wider circles.  Thus it behooves us as ministers, as the spiritual leaders of our people, to do this work and learn these skills.

Obstacles to Cultural Change:  The Servants of Kyriarchy

Change is not always easy.  In the case of the kyriarchy that is our dominant culture, change is extremely difficult, because kyriarchy has several mechanisms by which it reinforces itself.  Fear is the main one.  Kyriarchy says, if you don’t do as I say, you will be punished.  Common expressions of this fear of punishment in UU culture are perfectionism, conflict avoidance, and groupthink, also known as mob mentality.

1.Perfectionism: We believe we have to get it perfect or we are worthless/people will know the real truth about us/we will lose our job or standing in the community.  Our Universalist theology, which says we are all loved and worthy of love no matter what, counters perfectionism if we let it.  However, we can get confused by what Channing called the “perfectibility” of human nature.  Perfectionism has a long history in Puritan theology.  (Believers could tell who was one of the elect by the “signs,” and if your character was impeccable that was a sign.) The theological history of the term “perfect” is interesting in that when it is used in the Christian scriptures to describe the nature of God, Western interpreters have translated it to mean without flaws, when the Greek term actually means something more like “ripe,” “mature,”or “fully developed,” like a fruit.  Even the ripest, most mature, most fully developed fruit still has flaws.  Perfectibility then might come to mean the capacity to ripen and mature, not the capacity to develop a flawless nature.  No one and nothing is flawless; we are all perfectly imperfect.

Some ways perfectionism manifests in UU communities, including the UUMA, are:

1.1) refusal to speak or act unless or until we feel we can say it perfectly.  This leads to paralysis when we see harm being done, which reinforces kyriarchy.

1.2) public shaming of those who do not say it perfectly the first time, or who make big mistakes.  This also leads to paralysis.

1.3) Confusion and/or conflation of calling back in with shaming (by both the people doing the calling back in and people being called back in)

Some people, when they call others back into covenant, do it in such a way that it turns into public shaming.  This is harmful and reinforces kyriarachy.  Some, when they are called back into covenant, may feel ashamed and/or believe that they are being publicly shamed.  This has been called fragility:  white fragility, male fragility.  The thing to remember about fragility is that it develops as a result of the violence of kyriarchy.  It is not, in itself, something to feel ashamed of, but something to heal from.  Healing fragility is possible, and we can do it together. We can learn that calling someone back into covenant is a good thing.  It means the person is valued by the community and expected to be able to uphold its standards of behavior.  It means we value the person’s inherent worth and dignity.  We can also learn ways to call each other back in that are healthful rather than harmful.  We can also learn how to release perfectionism.  We can learn all these things together.

2.Conflict aversion/avoidance

The Commission on Institutional Change has reported that one of the things that holds UU culture back from its potential as a liberating faith that can help heal the world is a “toxic triangle” of racism, conflict aversion, and idealism.  In other words, we behave in racist ways, think we don’t, and don’t want to talk about it.

Conflict aversion or avoidance results from a culture in which differences of opinion or expressions of emotion receive a response of emotional or physical violence. People become afraid to express themselves anytime their emotions are engaged.  The problem with this, as previously discussed, is that in order for a system to function in a healthy way, there has to be a way for feedback to move through it.  If we avoid conflict, we are suppressing feedback.  There is a very simple solution to this:  learning new communication skills, and regularly practicing them.  None of us was born with the skills we needed, and if we grew up in a kyriarchy, which we all did, we did not generally acquire them as we grew up.  Fortunately it is a relatively simple thing to learn the new skills we need.

3) Groupthink and mob mentality

Groupthink happens when a subgroup of a larger whole gets together and defines a problem affecting the whole—and the solution to the problem—without consulting anyone from outside the group.  This leads to a mob mentality in which the insiders in the group have a certain way of thinking about something, and attack anyone outside the group when they express a different way of thinking or behave in a way that is problematic according to their own definitions.  People who want to be seen as insiders then pile onto the bandwagon (or the Facebook page).  We have seen and heard numerous cases of colleagues being deeply traumatized by this behavior.  Not only have they been damaged emotionally, but their careers have been damaged as well.  It is essential that we learn the skills we need in order to communicate in ways that include rather than exclude, and repair our covenant when it has been broken.  Again, these are skills that can be learned and practiced, and we have every confidence that as a body, we can learn them.

Looking Ahead

Contemplating the changes we are proposing has produced fear in some of our colleagues.  What if they/we don’t do it right?  What if they/we are publicly shamed for making mistakes? What if being called into the proposed accountability process damages their/our careers?  Shouldn’t we all be able to just talk things through?

As to this last question, if we could, we would not need to make any changes to our Guidelines.  Our proposals were developed after the UUMA Board, the UUA Ministerial Fellowship Committee, the Good Officers, and regional (or district) staff spent decades trying to cope with numerous cases in which people could not just talk things through.  The proposed new accountability process is intended to help people be able to talk things through. It is intended to protect the more vulnerable among us from harm, and help them heal when they do experience harm.  It is intended to help preserve their careers and vocations.  It is also intended to prevent shaming, and preserve the careers and vocations, of those who inadvertently cause harm.  It is intended to help us realize that none of us is perfect, and all of us make mistakes, and that’s okay.  It is intended to help us repair relationships when we are harmed or when we make mistakes. It is also intended to prevent those who cause harm, either intentionally or from willful ignorance, from doing so repeatedly.  

It will take some time for us, as a body, to learn the skills we need in order to successfully navigate the path that we are proposing.  To aid with this, we are planning to offer new Continuing Education opportunities.  Along the way, we can expect, as in any new human endeavor, to make mistakes.  But that is not a reason to not continue.  In this time of global crisis, we are faced with a marvelous opportunity: to free Unitarian Universalism from the constraints of kyriarchy so that it can become the liberating and healing faith, and the great blessing in the world, that we long for it to be.  If we can heal ourselves and our relationships with each other, if we can learn how to repair covenant when covenant has been broken, then we have a chance of succeeding.  May we choose this path of love.


(Published in print and audio in Quest for Meaning, a publication of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.)

In the past few days, Jewish people all over the world have been celebrating the Days of Awe, the period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.  Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, believed to be the anniversary of the creation of human beings.  Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish year, the Day of Atonement.  During the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, observant Jews do an inventory of their relationships and behavior over the past year.  They examine all the ways in which they have broken their covenants with other people.  They repent of their sins, making restitution to those whom they have harmed, and asking forgiveness.  They are required to grant forgiveness to those who ask it.  Then, on Yom Kippur, Jews spend 25 hours fasting and praying in the synagogue, in order to repent of their sins against God.  It is believed that if they make things right with God, their names will be written by God into the Book of Life, and their lives will be sweet in the coming year.  At the end of Yom Kippur –which is on Wednesday this year–there is a huge celebratory feast.

So, what can Jewish ideas about sin and repentance and atonement have to do with Unitarian Universalists?

Well, let me ask you this.  Have you ever come to a place in your life where everything is broken?  And not only that, but broken by you? Where you have said and done things that have caused so much hurt that a relationship is beyond repair?  Or you’ve made mistakes or lived in ways that caused great suffering, and you didn’t even know it?  And then when you found out, you felt so much shame and despair that you didn’t know how you could go on?

I have.  When I was very young I married an also very young man who seemed like home to me.  Everything about him felt familiar and comfortable.  I thought we would be happy forever.  But we weren’t.  We were happy for about six months, and then he suddenly became miserable.  That made me miserable.  So did I seek counseling?  No.  Did we try to get help?  No.  Not right away.  What I did, after about six years and two beautiful children, was fall in love with someone else.  Do you think that helped anything?

No, it did not.  After that extremely short and excruciatingly painful love ended, everything was broken.  Shards of trust, of love, of hope lay everywhere, so that every step caused terrible wounds.  I could not see how to leave the marriage and I could not see how to stay in it, so finally I did seek counseling.

Little by little, insights began to emerge.  My children’s father was addicted to alcohol.  He lived with severe depression.  He was abusive.  The reason he had seemed like home was because that was exactly how my father was.  I was codependent.  The fact that I was unhappy in my marriage was actually a sign of health.  If I wanted to pursue real health, I had to get treatment.  I had to do things differently.

I started 12-step work for codependence.  Anyone who has done 12-step work knows that recovery depends on openly acknowledging we have a problem.  We do a fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves.  We tell at least one other person all the harm we have done.  We make amends where possible, and we commit to continuous growth and learning from our mistakes.  Hmm…sounds a little like the Jewish ritual, doesn’t it?

I also went looking for a church.  I was filled with spiritual longing and I needed to be with others in community.  But–I was also so filled with shame and guilt that I could not imagine a church that would accept me.  I had gone to a Catholic high school and been taught there the doctrine of original sin, which meant I had believed as a teen that I was inherently bad, rotten at the center.  The way to get clean was to be like Jesus and suffer, and forgive, suffer, and forgive.  While I had rejected the church and that doctrine as a young adult, the pattern was so deeply inscribed in my soul that I continued to live it in my marriage.  I did not know if there was any church where I could become healthy.

So this was the situation when I walked into a Unitarian Universalist church for the first time:  I felt utterly broken.  I went inside and sat down in the back.  Then, I picked up a hymnal, and read the seven principles, and I began to weep.  I knew exactly what that first principle meant.  This was a religion that said even I had worth and dignity.  I knew I was home.

At first, each Sunday, I sat in the back and cried.  Then I started participating around the edges a little.  Finally, I joined a women’s group, in which we gathered around and told each other our real stories.  When it was my turn, I hesitated, but other women had shared deeply, and their stories were riveting.  Every single one of those women had at some point in her life done something she deeply regretted.  But no one had been judged, no one had been rejected.  So I told my truth.  And instead of turning away from me in disgust, the women leaned in and listened, murmuring softly, patting my arm when I cried, nodding in recognition of what they heard.  It was the first place I had ever been where I could be my whole real self, and be truly loved.  My community looked into my face and saw who I really was.  They saw the light in me, and reflected it back tenfold.

As they did, I began to heal.  I thought I would be able to stay in my marriage, and make it work.  But there came a time when life with my children’s father became too frightening, and I had to leave.  I was broken again.  Again there were shards everywhere, and this time my children were in pieces too.

But here my 12-step work and my religious life came together.  As I did my moral inventory, I realized that I was a perfectionist, and that this was not a good thing.  Perfectionism is part of being codependent.  A codependent child grows up believing that in order to be loved, she or he must be perfect.  I had been trying to stay in an unhealthy marriage because I could not bear failure.  I had been hiding the truth about my marriage from my family because I could not bear for them to know I had made a mistake.

But now, because I was held in the loving care of my religious community, I could let go of that.  Because I was sharing deeply with other women and seeing the truth of their lives, I was beginning to understand that there is no such thing as perfect.  There is no perfect marriage, no perfect love, no perfect children, no perfect friendship, not even a perfect church or a perfect sermon!  There is no such thing as perfect.  What a relief it was to figure that out!  Because it meant that I did not have to be afraid anymore.  I did not have to be afraid that if I was not perfect, I would not be loved.

Once I saw that, I was able to start putting the pieces of my life and my heart together in a whole new shape.  With scars, with fault lines, with some pieces missing, but also with new pieces from my community.  My heart was larger, less brittle, more resilient.  And the thing is, I am not the only woman in my group who needed this kind of help.  All of us have gone through something, or done something, awful and needed each other to get through it.  Because that’s the way life is, all of us get broken in one way or another.  All of us.  As Reverend William Sloane Coffin once said, I’m not ok, you’re not ok, and that’s ok!

To many Unitarian Universalists, acknowledging our brokenness can seem like a contradiction of our theological tradition.  We reject the doctrine of original sin, the idea that people are born in a state of complete separation from the divine.  How then do we deal in our communities with the dreadful mistakes, and hurts, and temporary losses of sanity, that are part of every human life?  The traditional theological word for these kinds of mistakes is sin.  How does Unitarian Universalism deal with sin?  Do we deal with sin?  Is that a word we can even say here?

The word sin comes from an old archery term meaning “to miss the mark,” or be separated from.  Separation from all that is good and beautiful.  Separation from our best selves, or from the divine.  Being out of harmony with the interdependent whole of which we are part.  This kind of separation is intensely painful for most people, although we don’t always consciously know why we’re in pain.  But it is not a permanent state unless we choose to keep it so.  As most religions in the world and 12-step programs understand, being able to admit that sometimes we miss the mark, cause harm, is absolutely essential for our health and for the health of our communities.  It is how we begin the process of healing the separation.  If there is enough love in our communities, we can make mistakes and feel badly and learn from them and make restitution and seek forgiveness and change and grow into a new state of wholeness.

And the theological words for this process—for the process of healing the pain we feel when we are separated from what we most need and love—are repentance and atonement.

The Hebrew word translated into the English word repentance is shuvah, a combination of “to sigh” and “to return.”  The Greek word translated into the English repentance is metanoia, “turn,” but a kind of turning that is a complete changing of mind, a total transformation.  So I think repentance does not mean what those fundamentalist signholders on street corners think it means.  Instead, it means becoming someone new, with a new mind and heart, which is perhaps paradoxically also who we were always meant to be.  So in becoming we are also returning:  returning to the source, returning to who and what we really are, returning to right relations with all beings.  It is a healing.  And this then is atonement:  At-one-ment.  At one with the web of life that sustains us, at one with the great love that holds us, at one with ourselves.

Many Unitarian Universalists are uncomfortable with these words—sin, repentance, atonement—perhaps because we associate them with those signholders on street corners.  Or perhaps because these words were used in abusive ways in the churches we attended in childhood.  You may not want to use these words yourself because of the associations.  But you may also want to claim them for your own, because they are ancient words that describe ancient human needs:  the need to acknowledge that we sometimes are broken.  The need to be in community with others who can hold us in love as we heal our wrongs.  The need to grow into our best selves.  The need to be at one with all that is, and at peace.

I think we have never been more in need of repentance and atonement than we are now.  For not only do we have all the personal messes we make in our homes and families, but also, as North Americans, we live in a society that is profoundly racist, profoundly sexist, profoundly xenophobic.  As North Americans, we are living so far out of balance with the interdependent web of being that we are endangering all life.  Our common life is broken.  Our relationship with all beings is in shards.

We need to repent.  We need a complete change of mind and heart.  We need to become a new people.

And the thing about repentance is that it is active.  It does not involve only words and prayers and ceremonies.  To reach at-one-ment we must make restitution.  Wherever possible, we must repair what is broken, put back what has been taken, restore what has been damaged. Where this is not possible, we must accept responsibility for what we have done.  Only then can we seek forgiveness.

This is life in religious community.  This is what it requires of us: that we bring our whole imperfect selves to it.  That we be willing to tell the truth about how we are broken.  That we be willing to repair what we damage.  That we be willing to forgive and be forgiven.  That we be open to transformation.  All of it is messy, imperfect, absolutely beautiful.

May it always be so.

Blessed be.

Grief and Hope and the Full-Time Human

I have a confession to make.  I spent most of the winter, and now the first bit of spring, sliding down into a situational depression.  Just when I was launching this new ministry, just when I most needed to be able to write inspiring pieces that would nourish people for the hard work ahead, I fell face forward into a pit of despond. It is a soft, pillow-lined pit—I have food and shelter and clothing and medical care and the love of family and friends—but it is nevertheless a pit.  And it is proving hard to climb out of.  Partly it’s the weather: where I live, down in a hollow in a cedar forest, it has rained over 90 inches, more or less continuously, in the past 6 months, and there is no sign of it stopping anytime soon.  Anyone would get depressed in these conditions.  But mostly it’s because the state of the world is so wretched that I am having a hard time finding hope.

For several weeks I thought that I should not write about this because it would be bad for general morale.  If my job is to help give people hope, how would it look if, instead, I shared my own fear and despair?  How could I give people hope if I have none myself?  How would it look if a person who purports to offer wisdom and strength for healing admits to being all out of wisdom and strength herself?  And then just sits down in the middle of the road and cries, like a toddler who wants to be carried instead of having to walk?  So I thought, I can’t write anything until I feel better.

But then several things came to mind.

First, this happens to a lot of people, even the most wonderful people.  Even the most gifted spiritual teachers, even those whose teachings sparked the beginnings of whole new religions, and the greatest leaders of social change:  the Buddha, Muhammed (pbuh), Confucius, Hildegard of Bingen, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day. All the great spiritual teachers and leaders have had times of fear and despair.  Even Jesus.  He went out into the desert alone to wrestle with his fear and his faith.  At his life’s end he is said to have cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Quoting Psalm 22, one of the most gorgeous descriptions of spiritual desolation ever written.)

And not only the great spiritual leaders, but anyone sensitive enough to be what my brilliant friend Rev. Theresa Ines Soto calls a “full-time human,” is going to experience situational depressions and periodic losses of hope, because life is hard.  The long dark night of the soul is just part of it.  Life is also spectacularly wonderful, but it is damned hard a lot of the time.  (I love Glennon Doyle Melton’s blending of “beautiful” and “brutal” into “brutiful.”) And when you add on what is happening now in our world, well, life is even harder.

Second, where did I get the idea that my job is to give people hope?  What is hope, anyway, and is it necessarily a good thing?  There are many definitions.  One is the simple idea that good things are possible.  I like this definition because this kind of hope is clearly applicable and useful in any situation.  Good things are always possible, even in the worst situations.  Another, in more common currency, is the belief that the outcome we desire will come to pass if we only work or pray or try hard enough.  I don’t like this one at all because a) it is magical thinking, b) it is colonizing thinking (who says the outcome we desire is really what’s best?), c) it puts the whole burden on just our own self, d) so many other reasons.  Alas, it is the working definition for a good number of activists, and not coincidentally why so many (especially privileged ones) burn out.  As an alternative, Margaret Wheatley, Thomas Merton, Paul Rogat Loeb, and a number of other activist writers suggest that it is more effective to release our attachment to particular outcomes and continue doing the work because it is the right thing to do, and the people doing it are the people we most want to be in relationship with.  In this way activism can actually be nourishing rather than exhausting.

Still, if we can agree that we like the definition of hope as the idea that good things are possible, is it my job to give people hope?  All the time?

Actually, ministers, and full-time humans, have many jobs.  Sometimes our job is indeed to be a purveyor of hope.  Other times, our job is to witness, and to accompany.  To witness what is really going on, to name it as best we can, and to accompany those who are in the midst of it—whatever “it” is.  It might be something entirely joyful:  a student graduating, a couple falling in love, the election of leaders who will devote themselves to the flourishing of all beings.  But it also might be something terrible:  the death of a beloved child, domestic violence, the ascendance of white male supremacy, irreversible climate change and mass extinction, the bombing of poor countries.

Witnessing and accompanying mean helping people know they are not alone, however terrible things are or however wonderful.  They are not alone, and they are held in a whole that is larger than anything they can imagine.  This whole might be our whole starry universe, or it might be God, or it might be something else entirely, depending on one’s spiritual orientation. So even if you are feeling hopeless, even if you are afraid for your life and the lives of those you love, even if you are in anguish and despair over racism and misogyny and homophobia and ableism and climate change and extinction, you are not alone.

Third, and related to the above, if there is one thing I have learned as a minister it is that ignoring grief, not allowing ourselves to feel our real feelings, causes depression.  It is essential to grieve what we have lost and what we are continuing to lose.  Our grief wakes us up to our connections.  If we are experiencing the worst crisis in the history of the world, we need to be able to grieve what is being lost.  Only if we can allow ourselves to grieve will we be able to move into effective, loving action, whatever that action may be.

Joanna Macy says that we cannot know, at this time in the world, whether we are witnessing the end of life as we know it, or bringing to birth a new and better age.  Either way we are midwives, in the old sense of the word: a midwife was in the middle between birth and death, bringing new life into the world and seeing the dead out of it.  Whether we are witnessing the end of everything, or bringing to birth something new, or some combination of both, what is required of us are the same qualities of being:  deep, unflinching presence to what is, and deep compassion for all beings.

Finally, to heal a personal depression and then widen the circle of healing into the world, we need meaning and beauty and connection.  We sometimes also need a little medical help.  I find it very hard to seek connection and help when I am depressed, and then the more isolated I become, the worse the depression gets.  Last week, in desperation, I did two things:  first I went to my doctor and got started on a low dose of a mild antidepressant.  Then I spoke to my spiritual director, Rev. Cathleen Cox. and she gave me a sentence to write down and repeat to myself until I believe it.  Because I was dubious about the first sentence, she gave me another, and another, until there was a whole paragraph.  This may help you, too:

“It is a contribution to the well-being of life for me to reach out to others and share with them my feelings and needs.  Everyone needs connection now. I serve others when I model reaching out for connection and give others the opportunity to feel good about giving.  If we all speak our feelings and needs together, who knows what positive things may happen.”

What are your feelings and needs right now, during these very difficult times?  Are you able to reach out for connection and the help you need?  What might happen if we all speak our feelings and needs together?

Let us speak them and find out.

Blessed be.


Looking In and Looking Out

In these extraordinary days, when enormous numbers of terrifying things are happening so fast we can’t keep up, we are in need of restoration. We are in need of time and space to nourish our souls for the great work of healing the world.  We are in need of time in the quiet, slow places on the living Earth, the places where we can reconnect to our Source and remember who we really are.  But for how many of us is this possible? Where can we go?  It is easy to lose ourselves in wonder in places where there are living waters, or ancient trees, or deep canyons, or tall mountains—but if, is is the case for so many of us, we do not live near such places, how can we recharge?

By looking in, and looking out.

By looking in I mean finding some small, ordinary thing—a leaf, a stone, a shell, a flower—and looking deeply into its interior. We can even look into our own interior—our hand, our brain, our lungs. Look into this thing and truly see it. See how it was formed. See what is happening inside it now. See what it will become. See how it is related to all other things. I once heard a minister friend, Lynn Ungar, say, “Beauty is seeing the whole in the particular.” What is the whole that is manifested in this particular thing?

Inside every leaf, photosynthesis is taking place. The leaf takes sunlight falling on its surface, and carbon and hydrogen—ancient stardust—from the atmosphere, and combines them into sugars that it then uses to build its own structure and the structure of its parent plant. Is this not a miracle? And here is another miracle: this leaf knows how to carry out photosynthesis, and what shape to grow into, and how big to get, and when and if to reproduce, and when to stop living, because its DNA tells it what to do. This particular sequence of DNA has evolved in response to interactions with other living things–with earth, air, water, and fire–in a sacred dance that has lasted eons.

The whole that is manifested in this particular thing, then, is the entire universe, from the beginning of time until this very moment. It is this way for all things: the uncurling spiral of the new fern leaf, the nest of the paper wasp, the fuzzy peach whose juice runs down our chin, the smooth pebble on the beach. In focusing our awareness on the processes going on inside some small thing, we become aware of how they are connected with the larger processes that created and sustain life: evolution, the intersecting cycles of matter, the flow of energy. We return to the very beginning of life itself, the mystery we can never fully grasp. Many theologians and particle physicists call this mystery God. In this way of thinking, the universe is the Body of God, divine love becoming manifest.

Sometimes, looking in can be intoxicating, as we marvel at the beauty and intricacy of the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are part. But other times, it can lead to greater pain than that with which we started, because we know that all this exquisite beauty, wrought over millions of years, is in danger of being destroyed forever. It can hurt too much to bear.

Then, must we look out. By looking out I mean traveling to the farthest reaches of space and time, to the beginnings and endings of all things. Human beings think we know how the universe started but we do not know, and we do not know why. If conditions at the very beginning had been only slightly different, no universe would have come into being at all. But somehow, billions of years ago, it did. And somehow, life emerged on a planet orbiting an ordinary star.

In this vast expanse of time and space, particular organisms—ourselves included—are but temporary aggregations of molecules, coalesced for the briefest moment of time. We are beautiful, but ephemeral, like raindrops, or clouds. Soon we will be gone. But life, itself, will go on.  Think of how lichen grows on granite, how dandelions spring up in tiny cracks in parking lots and sidewalks. Even if a catastrophic event destroyed most life on our planet, eventually new forms of life and new ecosystems would evolve.

And then, billions of years from now, if our astronomers are correct, our sun will become a red giant and even this planet will die. The matter of planet Earth will then become available for other solar systems to use.

If we can place our small selves, our short time frame, within this larger mystery, we can find rest. We are free to wonder at the diversity and intricacy of life on earth: it seems all the more marvelous for its impermanence, for its contingency. We can use the power of our own temporary being to do all we can to preserve the conditions for life, but we do not have to solve everything all by ourselves. We have many companions. Life itself—divine love shaped into all its wondrous forms–is on our side.

So may it ever be. Amen.

For reflection:

  1. Find some small, beautiful thing—a feather, a shell, a piece of freshly picked fruit, a part of your own body–and spend ten minutes looking deeply into it. What is happening inside this thing? How was it made? How did it come to be this shape? What was its journey before it came to you? (If you don’t know, do some research on it and then return to looking in.) Journal about your experience.
  2. Spend ten minutes traveling in your mind to the furthest reaches of space and time, from the beginning of all things to the end of the earth. Then, locate your own small body and time frame within this larger one. Imagine your body as a cloud of molecules coalescing for a brief time and then dispersing again. Journal about your experience.
  3. What does the idea of the universe as the Body of God mean to you? Is this an idea that resonates for you, or not? Why, or why not?

When the River is Just the River

One late summer day my friend Katie and I were hiking in the Columbia River Gorge, above a waterfall in one of the side canyons there. We had spent the morning clambering over moss-covered rocks, throwing sticks for our two exuberant dogs, glorying in the sights and sounds of clear water flowing from pool to pool to pool over dark basalt in a green forest.

Now it was time to return to the city, and we had to make our way back across the stream whence we had come. We had just spent half an hour talking about how neither of us is as nimble as we used to be; when we fall now, we fall hard, and we are more aware of the risks we take when we move from rock to slippery rock to cross a creek. I never was very nimble, even when I was young; I have a daughter who leaps from boulder to boulder with no fear and who never falls, but I have been falling flat on my face ever since I can remember.

Getting across the stream in the first place had not been difficult. Rocks are often dryer on the downstream side, but have slippery moss or algae on the upstream side. If you cross in an upstream direction, using the downstream side of the rocks, it can be easy. But coming back across, using the wetter side of the rocks, it is harder not to slip and fall in.

On this day, it would not have been terrible to fall into the water. It was only a few inches deep, the day was warm, and it was only two miles back to the car. I could easily have hiked that in wet boots. But sometimes, we humans get fixated on an idea about how things should be. How they must be. And it seemed to me on that day that I should be able to cross that stream without getting my feet wet. I must be able to.

So I was concentrating with all my might on moving carefully from one stone to the next. My whole body was rigid with tension, my brow furrowed so deeply it felt like my face was one big frown. I had to do this right, I had to get across the creek without falling in.

Then Katie said to me, “Leisa, look up. Look at the river.”

I looked up. I saw the river. It was exquisite. It was so beautiful that I could have died right then and there in perfect happiness. Clear, cold water flowed over basalt, moving around stones with ease and fluidity. The shining surface reflected green upon green upon green, with a few yellow splotches where maples were beginning to turn. The sound of the moving water was paradise. There are simply no words to describe the incomparable beauty of a clear stream running through a forest.

As I looked upon this perfect beauty all the tension in my body flowed away with the water. The music of the stream entered me and I saw how I flowed with it. I was water, standing in water, hearing and seeing and smelling water, feeling water. I stood like this for a long time outside of time. When I came back to myself, I was relaxed and unafraid, and easily stepped the rest of the way across the stream. Katie crossed behind me and we made our way down the trail.

When I thanked Katie later, for saying just the right thing, at just the right moment, she said, “Sometimes the river’s just the river. Not a problem to be solved.”

Sometimes the river’s just the river.

North Coast

Visiting my 20-year-old son on the North Coast. Together we walk in the community forest, as we have done since we moved to Arcata when he was eight, as we walked next to a creek or river together every day of his life before that. We don’t often talk, being comfortable with quiet companionship.  This time I ask him if he has finished Ishmael, which he asked to borrow last time he visited me. He says he did, and he liked it because it said things he’d never heard of before, never thought of before.

So many times I have walked in this redwood forest seeking solace, healing, the companionship of the trees and the ravens and the murmuring stream. The bigleaf maples at the stream’s edge are losing their leaves now, so you can see inside the structure of the trees. One tree forms a little room on the streambank, a secret green room in spring, now open to view. The ferns are dying back, and the bright fuchsia ballerinas are long gone.

When the kids were little we would stop at the giant hollow stump so they could climb up inside and look for fairies or gnomes. We’d recite from The Little Fur Family about Grandpa, who lived in a hollow stump, or I am a Bunny, “My name is Nicholas. I live in a hollow tree.” We moved along at a snail’s pace, allowing time for little legs to meander in a zig-zagging path from one side of the trail to the other, to notice banana slugs, pick huckleberries, play Pooh-Sticks. Now my six-foot-four son strides along beside me and we talk about what it means for a culture to be successful. Does it mean the culture survives over thousands of years, or that it dominates the known world? What changes would be necessary for our own culture to survive? I am amazed we are having this conversation.

“It doesn’t matter,” he finally says.

“Well, I think it matters,” I reply, hotly. “Your future matters, to me.”

“I can’t say what I mean,” he says.

I stop trying to direct his thinking and start trying to listen. “What do you mean?” I ask.

Haltingly, he tries to explain. HE TRIES TO EXPLAIN.

This is the boy—no, the young man now—who for many years has communicated largely through shrugs and grunts, and who rarely returns my calls. Since shrugs and grunts don’t translate well through a phone line, I have spent many an hour weeping after trying to talk with him on the phone. And for six years, since he decided to move in full-time with his dad, and I moved to a different place, phone time and monthly visits are all the time I have with him.

My son says he thinks that no matter what we or anybody does, there will always be people who do the wrong thing. I say that of course there will, but it would be good if they were the outliers rather than the whole culture. He considers this, and nods. “I guess.”

“That’s what I’m working toward,” I say. “For your future.” He grins and puts his arm around me, then removes his arm and gives me a shove with his side. This is the signal for me to shove back, at which point he will suddenly step away and I will tumble sideways and he will laugh—the way we always do.

This forest is not a wild or ancient one. It is second- or even third-growth, owned by the City of Arcata, held in trust in perpetuity for its citizens. There are 28 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. The stream that runs from the highest point, through the forest, then through town, and finally to the bay, is being restored and monitored by high school students. Scattered here and there through the forest are giant stumps, relics of the ancient groves that were cut down over a hundred years ago. They are like bison skeletons on the plains, a reminder of something magnificent, of something truly awesome, that was only recently destroyed. The base of one of the stumps is so large in circumference that it would take six or more people holding hands to encircle it. I see these stumps, these relics, and weep. We have lost so much.

Thirty miles north of here are 2,000-year-old redwood groves that have been set aside for preservation. Walking among these trees is an experience that cannot be conveyed in words; it is to be lost in time, to become smaller and younger than the newest-born infant, to become aware of a consciousness larger and older and deeper than anything we can understand. How can people cut down such forests? How can they not feel the sacredness of these groves, their palpable consciousness? Redwood ecologists have found that climatic conditions no longer support the growth and development of a fully functional redwood forest. These forests will never recover, never grow back. We can grow redwood plantations, but never again will the world see a fully regenerated redwood forest. Thousands of years of Creation’s care, wiped out in moments. It hurts too much to bear. What a world we are leaving for our children.

And yet: this young forest, now, is growing. There is so much green life here: giant ferns, salal, huckleberries, pitcher plants, skunk cabbage, giant fungus, redwoods, spruces, maples; all connected, all growing, dying, decaying, growing, in the endless cycle of life. When it has just rained and the sun breaks through, light comes in slanting shafts through the trees and illuminates vapor rising from the ferns and moss. It is as if life has just begun anew, Creation just set in motion. The salmon smolts released into the stream by young students a few years ago have begun returning to spawn.

This little bit of hope will have to be enough; it is all we have.