What The World Needs Now

excerpted from “Live For It” by Ellen Bass[i]

Jasmine unfolding, the scent and color attracting the bees,
the darker veins guiding them toward the nectar,
honey in honeycombs, worms aerating soil,
the levity of bird bones,
fins of fish, the eye blinking—
who could have ever conceived it?

The crescent moon, tender as new love in the luminescent blue,
Milkweed silk—who could have imagined it?

And my lover, when she lifts her lips to me
and I first feel that softness,
warm like summer nights as a child
when she rubs against me like fur
and small cries escape my mouth like birds,
“Sing to me,” she breathes
and I sing glory I did not know was mine to sing.

What is this but a miracle?
What is this but the improbable, marvelous reward of desire?

Desire—that fire I was taught to suspect,
that intensity I struggled to calm.
“Don’t want too much,” the voices warned.

No.  Want.  Want life.
Want this fragile oasis of the galaxy to flourish.
Want fertility, want seasons, want this spectacular
array of creatures,
this brilliant balance of need.
Want it.  Want it all.

Desire.  Welcome her raging power.
May her strength course through us.
Desire, she is life.  Desire life.
Allow ourselves to desire life, to want this sweetness
so passionately, that we live for it.


What The World Needs Now

(Offered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Chico, February 10, 2019)

What does it mean to love and be loved?  What is healthy love and what is not?   What is the place of love in human life on earth, and why does it matter?

In the field of systematic theology, these questions fall into the category of theological anthropology, or human nature in relation to the divine.  Wow, you may be saying, that sounds dull.  I thought we were going to be talking about eros today!  I was expecting something a little more, shall we say, exciting?

Okay, let’s talk about eros.

Have you ever stood in a winter storm with your arms open wide and your face to the wind and felt it scour you clean?  In the summer, have you ever been so hot that you slipped off all your clothes and slid naked into a cold river?  Have you ever stood between the rising of the full moon, and the setting of the brilliant sun, and felt the turning of the earth?  Have you ever lost yourself in music or painting or sculpting, or danced in joy until dawn?  Have you ever tasted a strawberry picked straight from the plant and nearly swooned as the bright flavor exploded in your mouth?  Have you ever made love with another person and felt, if only for a moment, your two selves become one?  Has longing ever pierced your heart?  Has beauty ever made you cry?

These are erotic experiences, experiences in which we feel the life force moving through us and responding to the life all around us.  We feel a longing to intimately participate in this life; we long to know and be known, to love and be loved.  We see beauty and respond by creating more beauty; we are the world consciously loving itself.  We are part of a great communion of all life.

Erotic love is one of the most joyful pathways human beings can follow to awakening to this communion.  Relationships based on mutual care and pleasure provide refuge and sustenance for their partners.  These would be wonderful enough, but even more is possible.  The ecstatic awareness that comes with erotic love can be a magic portal.  Through it people can enter a new relationship with what some call the interdependent universe and others call the divine.  Do you remember your first mutual love?  Did colors seem brighter?  Did birds seem to be singing in a language you could almost understand?  Did every breeze seem to caress your skin?  Did the moon seem to hang low and lush, just for you?  The heightening of our senses that comes with desire can make us exquisitely aware of our interbeing with all that is.

This was what happened to a Muslim man named Mevlana Jelal Ad Din Muhammad Rumi, in 13th century Persia.  Rumi, as Americans call him, was born in what is now Afghanistan and moved to what is now Turkey as boy.  He was a respected scholar and jurist—until the fateful day when a wandering ascetic named Shams came into his life.  Shams means Sun in Arabic, and for Rumi Shams was his sun.  He fell madly in love.  His love for Shams opened his whole being so wide that he began regularly to experience all life and love as One, in Arabic called Allah, THE One. In the mystical school of Islam that Rumi began, Allah is said to have created the universe that Allah might be known by Allah.  In other words, the universe both is God and is a mirror of God; in still other words, the universe is Godself becoming.  In still yet other words, humans are the divine beholding the divine, both Lover and Beloved.  The job of lovers is to see the divine in each other and grow, through love, toward union with the whole.  In Islam, there is a concept of the unity of all creation.  It is a communion of all life and the divine, from which human beings often feel cut off, but long for.  The name of this concept is tawhid.  According to Rumi’s teachings, this communion, this state of participation in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, is what we seek when we love.

Here is one of Rumi’s ecstatic poems:

Some Kiss We Want

There is some kiss we want with
our whole lives, the touch of
spirit on the body.

Seawater begs the pearl
to break its shell.

And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling!

At night, I open the window and ask
the moon to come and press its
face against mine.
Breathe into me.

Close the language- door and
open the love window. The moon
won’t use the door, only the window. [ii]

Rumi taught that when we love well, when we move past the limitations of our own ego, when we reach consciousness of our unity with the divine whole that is our world, we have no choice but to love that whole and care for every part and being.  Rumi taught his followers to love and care for peoples of all religions, castes, and nations, as well as the other creatures of the earth.

Hafiz was another Persian poet from this same school of thought.  Here is one of his works, which can be found in the back of our gray hymnal.

“Cloak yourself in a thousand ways; still shall I know you, my Beloved.
Veil yourself with every enchantment, and yet I shall feel you, presence, most close, dear, and intimate.
I shall salute you in the springing of cypresses and in the sheen of lakes, the laughter of fountains.
I shall surely see you in the tumbling clouds, in brightly embroidered meadows.

Oh, Beloved Presence, More beautiful than all the stars together,
I trace your face in ivy that climbs,
in clusters of grapes,
in morning flaming the mountains,
in the clear arch of sky.
You gladden the whole earth and make every heart great.
You are the breathing of the world.”[iii]

In this way of understanding, eros, the life force, our drive to love, is the divine moving in us, making us aware, giving us our ability to perceive beauty, making us long for union with all that is.  These Islamic teachers express an idea of the divine as both immanent—fully present in this world now—and transcendent.  Transcendent in this case not meaning something separate and apart, but rather a reality that is greater than the sum of its parts, something of which we are members and in which we participate.

One thing that might occur to you as I speak of these teachings is how familiar they sound.  Do they sound a little bit Unitarian Universalist? The unity of the divine, and the divine as both immanent and transcendent?  The universality of divine love?

This is not actually a coincidence.  Islam directly influenced the development of Unitarianism in eastern Europe, and that influenced American Unitarianism.  The Persian Sufi poets greatly influenced Unitarian and Universalist thinkers, particularly the Transcendentalists.  Think of William Ellery Channing writing:  “Nature is a great shining forth of the Divine Mind.”  And Emerson writing:  “Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball-I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me-I am part or particle of God.”

Partly as a result of these Islamic influences, our faith tradition has a long history of understanding the world as sacred and beautiful, and the human capacity for relationship and sexual love as being one of what Channing called “the powers of the soul.”  Our faith tradition values all healthy erotic relationships.  As Rebecca Parker writes in the book, A House for Hope,

“Eros is more than acceptable in liberal religious understanding, it is revelatory of humanity’s deepest capacities to touch and be touched, to take joy, to be transported and to transport another, to create life… at its best, sexual intimacy can reveal the powers of the soul—our ability to feel and be affected, our capacity for both vulnerability and power, to receive and to give.  It can teach us that we have agency to act in the world and that we can be moved deeply by the presence and the actions of another.  It can transport our hearts into spaces of openness, flexibility, tenderness.  It can renew, refresh, and satisfy our love for life—not only our affection for a beloved, but our affection for the world.  Same-sex affectional and sexual relationships do all this, just as heterosexual relationships can.”[iv]

These understandings directly counter conservative church doctrines holding that the world is corrupt, human sexual love is dangerous, and same-sex love is wrong.  Was anyone here taught these doctrines at some point in your life? According to these doctrines, the only way human beings can reach union with the divine is through obedience to God’s laws.  Rebecca Parker, again, shares an experience she once had in talking to a conservative colleague in ministry about the divide in the Methodist church over same-sex relationships.  She writes:

“Sam felt loved by God when he was obedient to God’s rule…In (his) interpretation of (Genesis), God created humanity in two genders, male and female, and created woman to be man’s helpmate.   Patriarchal heterosexual union is the way God has ordained things to be.  Only by complying…could people receive God’s love and be in right relationship with God…those who turn away from God’s love will suffer the torments of the damned, and those who accept it will be rewarded with eternal life…God’s love, he said, includes rewards and punishments, because human beings are nothing more than selfish, willful children…motivated by what gratifies us, by what we want, not what God wants…For him, love was inseparable from a hierarchical structure of command and obedience.”[v]

Our faith tradition sees this identification of love with “a hierarchical structure of command and obedience” as precisely the problem—in fact, we see it as the biggest problem facing life on earth.  It haunts personal sexual relationships, structures of political and economic power, and our relationships with the whole web of life.  Relationships with each other and the rest of the world that are based on patriarchal dominance, on control, and power over, cause harm.  Between individuals, at best, they limit women’s freedom, and at worst result in outright abuse and violence.  At larger levels, they give rise to industrial capitalism and empires whose machinery and wars endanger all of life on earth.

Unitarian Universalism offers an alternative.  We affirm the beauty and goodness of eros.  We affirm that healthy erotic love between human beings, whatever our sex or gender, can bring us joy.  Not only that, it can be a doorway through which we enter into profound awareness of our interbeing with all life.  Love is the seed, love is the green growing stem, love is the flower, love is the fruit, and love is the seed again of more love.  Love is the life force expressing itself in our human forms.  Eros, desire, longing…when we can let go of our need for control, and surrender to these powerful forces calling us toward communion, toward intimate relationship with the world, in ways that create life and beauty, we fulfill nature’s purpose.  We are ourselves fulfilled.

This is the Unitarian Universalist theological anthropology about eros.   It is what we believe about what it means to love and be loved, what healthy love is, and what the place of love is in human life on earth. And so it is critical that Unitarian Universalists make our voices heard in the public sphere.  Our faith tradition offers a path to healing our broken hearts and our wounded bodies.  It offers a path to healing our broken society, and our relationship with the whole community of life.  As Rebecca Parker writes:

“As we face the future, we need a rebirth of love for life, for the planet, and for one another, grounded in a relational understanding of human existence…There needs to be a (religious) home built on the understanding that all life is interdependent, whose foundation is faithful care, whose threshold is open-hearted welcome, whose kitchen serves any in need, and where love can lie down in peace and take joy.  This kind of love can provide us the nourishment we need to resist the excesses and injustices of market capitalism.  It can instigate more justice and sustainability for the planet.”[vi]

May this community be such a home for love.

Blessed be.

Artwork:  Pink Rhythms Chalice by Peg Green

[i] Bass, Ellen, “Live For It,” from Woman of Power.  Excerpted in Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, eds., 1996Life Prayers From Around the World:  365 Prayers, Blessings, and Affirmations to Celebrate the Human Journey, Harper Collins, San Francisco. Pp. 234-235.

[ii] There are so many translations of Rumi’s poetry online and in print that it is difficult to choose one to cite. A quick Google search will reveal many possibilities.

[iii] The same applies to the poetry of Hafiz.

[iv] Parker, Rebecca Ann, 2010.  “A Home for Love.”  Chapter Nine in Buehrens, John A., and Rebecca Ann Parker, A House for Hope:  The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-First Century.  Beacon Press, Boston.  Pp. 130-131.

[v] Ibid,  pp. 124-125

[vi] Ibid, p. 136.

Not the Opposite of Life

Aditi by Peg Green

I have a joyful story to share with you today.  Some years ago, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer.  Three years after that, she died.  Whoa, whoa, back up, stop.  You might be wondering if you heard me right.

“What did she say?  Her grandmother ?  Her grandmother died of cancer?”

“How could that possibly be a joyful story?  Should this person be a minister, this woman who can so cheerfully announce the death of a loved one, from an illness so dreadful?  Is she crazy?”

Well, I might be crazy, but if I am, I got it from my grandmother.  My grandmother’s given name was Helen, but starting in her mid-seventies, she went by a different name, Pam, because she liked having a secret identity.  What my friends used to say when they met her was, wow, she’s a real character.  She was kind of like Lucille Ball, and Auntie Mame, and a slender Mae West all rolled up into one.  I can’t tell you how old she was when she died because according to her, a lady never reveals her age, but at that very advanced age, she was absolutely beautiful, with bright orange hair and a perfect figure.  She was an elementary school teacher, but people were always asking her, “Were you On Stage?”–in capital letters—because she was so dramatic, and so gifted at making people laugh, and she knew so much poetry by heart.

For about ten years, Pam lived in a retirement community a mile from my home. Friends told me how lucky I was to have such a vibrant woman as my role model for old age.  What they didn’t know was that for as long as I can remember, my grandmother went around neighborhoods and peered into other people’s windows when they weren’t home.  She also picked flowers from their yards!  And while my friends heard her recite Shakespeare and Robert Frost, they did not hear her repertoire of dirty limericks, nor her poems of horror.  Here’s one of her favorites:  “Love to eat them mousies, mousies what I love to eat, bite they little heads off, nibble on they tiny feet.”

And none of my friends ever knew Pam’s greatest secret, which I received her permission to reveal after she was diagnosed with cancer.  For the last twelve years of her life, what Pam wanted most in this world was to die, or as she put it, to “shuffle off this mortal coil.” She hated being old.  She missed her late husband.  For all her bright wit and beauty, she was depressed.

When this started, my mother was alarmed.  She took my grandmother to the doctor and they got her on antidepressants.  After a while Pam felt a bit less depressed, but the conversation about wanting to die stayed the same.   She put “DO NOT RESCUSCITATE” signs up all over her apartment, and made sure she had a copy of her DNR paperwork taped to her refrigerator.   She researched the Hemlock Society.  She researched methods of suicide.  She joined the ACLU so she could fight for the right to die.  She repeated at every opportunity:  “he yearns for immortality who doesn’t know what to do with himself on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”

But here’s the strange thing.  During all those years, every time Pam’s heart rate got too high, or she fell, or got very sick, she called me in a panic and demanded to go to the emergency room.  She had dozens of near-death experiences, and she lived through every one.  She could have simply let go, but she did not.  Instead, she continued to loudly lament living.  I remember once when my then-college-age son and daughter visited her, and she brought out her scrapbook of information on how to commit suicide.  There the two tall kids sat, one on either side of their dear great-grandmother, nodding attentively, as she explained the helium method of dying.

Then, in 2009, my grandmother began to take to her bed for days at a time.  She gave up many of her activities because she had no energy.  My mother took her in for some tests, and we learned that she had between six months and two years to live.

With this terminal diagnosis, my grandmother bounded out of bed and resumed most of her activities.  When hospice came to meet with our family, they asked her where the patient was.  Soon, I could hardly get hold of her because she was so busy, and she said she had more energy than she’d had in years.

So this is why the terminal diagnosis was good news:  My grandmother was finally getting what she wanted.  She was going to die.  And we, her long-suffering family, began to cherish each moment we had with her.  We began to see her foibles not as unbearable, but quirky.  And best of all, once my grandmother knew that she was really and truly dying, she began to love her life.

This simple truth is at the heart of many religious teachings about life and death.  Francois de la Rochefoucauld said:  “You cannot stare into the face of the sun, or death.”[1] But religion—our religion–tells us that while staring into the face of the sun would blind us, staring directly at death can instead deepen and clarify our vision.

Death is something many people deeply fear.  Some fear it so much that they refuse to think about it or to acknowledge it will actually happen to them.  They won’t sign up for life insurance or make wills or advance directives or do anything that might bring death closer to their consciousness.

Others go to the opposite extreme and obsess over death, spending their nights sweating with anxiety.  This is particularly prone to happen when we get a strange test result, or develop a new health issue.

There is a simple reason for our fear:  the reptilian part of our brain.  Actually, both the reptilian brainstem, and the mammalian limbic system, are programmed to do all they can to keep us alive.  That’s why my grandmother used to go to the emergency room every time she was in trouble.  That ancient, instinctive fear is what makes it so hard for us to look directly at death.  But as long as we avoid the topic of death, especially our particular death, the fear prevents us from living fully.  Only if we confront it squarely can we overcome our fear and truly live.

How do we do that?  How do we learn to stare death in the face without flinching?

Well, there are many things we can do.  All of them may seem morbid to people who normally avoid thinking about death, but in fact they are anything but.

One is to be present at the deaths of others.  In this way we learn everything we can about what death looks like up close and personal; we learn that death, like birth, is a sacred transformation.

Another is to celebrate autumn festivals like Samhain, and Dia de los Muertos, in which we invite those who have died before us to join us in celebrating their lives.  When we join in these kinds of celebrations, we begin to understand that death is not truly the end of anyone.

A third thing we can do, and the one I really want to focus on today, is a particular spiritual practice around death.  It’s common to most of the religions of the world, though it takes a slightly different form in each.  This is contemplating the moment of death.

Episcopal priest Alan Jones writes:

“In my tradition we try to practice dying every day so that we may be fully alive.  What I understand of my prayer life is to place myself on the threshold of death, to participate in my dying, so that I may live each day and each moment as a gift.  What I cultivate is a grateful heart; each moment then becomes a new thing.  My gratitude comes from the sheer gift of life itself.”[2]

Joanna Macy, Buddhist teacher and ecological activist, explains:

“To confront and accept the inevitability of our dying releases us from triviality and frees us to live boldly.  Meditation on the twofold fact that ‘death is certain,’ and ‘the time of death is uncertain’…  jolts us awake to life’s vividness, its miraculous quality, heightening our awareness of the beauty and uniqueness of each object and each being.”[3]

Now, if we are going to meditate on our death, or practice dying, this means imagining what happens to our consciousness at that moment.   This is where our theology comes in, or our idea of ultimate reality.

In my experience, some ideas about ultimate reality are helpful when it comes to death and some are not.  I worked as a chaplain for a year, in a hospital where many people died.  I noticed that the people most afraid of dying were fundamentalist Christians whose idea of God was that vengeful deity who would condemn some people to hell.  The people who were least afraid were Buddhists, and Christians whose concept of God was all loving.

Buddhists hope to achieve nirvana, the state of enlightenment in which the ephemeral self disappears.  Why should the disappearance of self be desired?  Because it disappears as a separate, fearful, grasping thing, into oneness with all that is: from small and limited it becomes infinite. But if the Buddhist does not achieve nirvana, he or she is reborn as another being with another chance to achieve enlightenment.  So there is nothing to fear.

Many Christians who believe in an all-loving God believe that at death, they will become one with God, meaning they will rest in a love so large that it holds all that is.  We might say this is another way that the small self disappears, into the infinite Self of God.  This is what our Universalist ancestor Hosea Ballou taught:  that at the moment of death, all people are immediately united with God, which is love.  All pain, all sorrow, all illness vanishes as we are welcomed into infinite love.

My own understanding of ultimate reality is informed by my life experience as an ecologist and mystic.  It falls somewhere between the perspectives of religious naturalism and process theology.  Religious naturalism says our starry universe and this living planet are worthy of reverence for their own sake.  It says that when we die, our molecules disperse into the larger universe and become available for the creation of new life, and that this is such an astounding and beautiful thing that we need not look for any further meaning.

But I am also a mystic, and I often experience the universe as having not just more meaning, but consciousness.  At those times I lean toward process theology.  Process theology is a union of contemporary physics and mysticism.  It says the universe is alive, in a constant process of becoming. What some people call “God” is the creative, generative love that animates the universe and is its consciousness; the universe is the Body of God.  Humans and all other beings are members of this body and this consciousness, so that we are in God and God is in us.  We ourselves are ever in process, changing from one moment to the next, influenced by and influencing all other beings.  Thus we are co-creators of all that is.

In process theology, our death is merely a change from one being-state to another:  when we die, the energy and matter of our bodies, as well as our consciousness, are gathered back into the larger whole, which continues to body forth in new and beautiful forms.  Life and death are two halves of a cycle, neither of which is possible without the other.

This is the way of things, here, within the divine body:  each time something dies, something new begins.  This is the great and sacred mystery.

All of these ways of understanding the moment of death—Buddhist, Christian, religious naturalism, process theology, — all have something in common.  This is a deep knowing that we are part of something larger than ourselves, so that when we die, instead of being forever separated from all we love, we actually become forever part of it.

So, far from being morbid or life-denying, practices of looking death in the face are deeply life-affirming.  This is why nearly every indigenous culture in the world has a festival like the Day of the Dead, and why nearly every religion recommends contemplating death.

So I invite you to try this practice.  Put on some soft music, or go out to a sacred place, and meditate on the moment of your death.  Practice dying.  Imagine what happens at each step.  Imagine your self dissolving into a love, or a consciousness, or a starry universe so vast you cannot comprehend it.  In doing this, may you be freed from fear.  May you be awakened to the vivid beauty of this life.  And may you seize the time you have to live boldly.

May it ever be so.

[1] De La Rochefoucauld, Francois, as quoted on p. iii in Yalom, Irvin D., Staring at the Sun:  Overcoming the Terror of Death.  (San Francisco, California, Jossey-Bass, 2008, 2009.)

[2] Jones, Alan, p. 23 in Stillwater, Michael, and  Gary Remal Malkin, (eds.)  Graceful Passages: A Companion for

Living and Dying. (Novato, California, Wisdom of the World, Inc., 2003.)

[3]Macy, Joanna, and Molly Young Brown, p. 187 in Coming Back to Life:  Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World.  (Vancouver, Canada, New Society Publishers, 1998.)

Breaking The Heart To Open It


I am Willing
Holli Near


The Love of Travelers

At the rest stop on the way to Mississippi
we found the butterfly mired in the oil slick;
its wings thick
and blunted. One of us, tender in the fingertips,
smoothed with a tissue the oil
that came off only a little;
the oil-smeared wings like lips colored with lipstick
blotted before a kiss.

So delicate the cleansing of the wings.  I thought the color soft as
would wash off under the method of her mercy for something
so slight and graceful, injured, beyond the love of travelers.

It was torn then, even after her kindest work,
the almost-moth, exquisite charity could not mend
what weighted the wing, melded with it,
then ruptured it in release.
The body of the thing lifted out of its place
between the washed wings.
Imagine the agony of a self separated by gentlest repair.

“Should we kill it?” One of us said. And I said yes.
But none of us had the nerve.
We walked away, the last of the oil welding the butterfly
to the wood of the picnic table.
The wings stuck out and quivered when the wind went by.

Whoever found it must have marveled at this.
And loved it for what it was and
had been.
I think, meticulous mercy is the work of travelers,
and leaving things as they are
or reward.

I have died for the smallest things.
Nothing washes off.
Angela Jackson


(First preached on February 21, 2010 at First Unitarian Church of Portland, Portland, OR.)

It is said that God will break your heart again and again, until it remains open.

Surely our hearts have been broken enough recently, with the disaster in Haiti, and the police shooting of Aaron Campbell here in Portland–not to mention all our own personal disasters, of which I know there are many.

But it is Black History Month, and I want us to focus on the particular heartbreak of racism.  I want us to see how having our hearts broken can open them to change.  And so I offer you a bit of my story, in the hopes that my mistakes might be instructive for you.

Imagine this:  It is my very first preaching class in seminary, and I am about to deliver my very first sermon.  I’m nervous, and my voice shakes.  My sermon begins with a walk in the woods to a stream.  From my very first sentence, the teacher, who is an African American woman, crosses her arms over her chest, leans back in her chair, and frowns.

When I’ve finished, this is how she responds:

“Do you realize how many people you have excluded by starting your sermon with a walk in the woods?  This is such a typical White UU thing.  Y’all want to preach about walkin’ in the woods.  But not only do most black people not have access to any woods to walk in, we can’t walk safely anywhere at all.  What would happen if a black person went up to those woods you can just casually walk into?  Just imagine a young black man from Oakland going up into the Berkeley hills to walk in Tilden Park.  Would it be safe for him to do that?”

I imagine it:  it would not be safe.  He would get harassed or possibly arrested just for being black in a white neighborhood; he might even get shot.  And his mother would be left mourning a precious child who wanted nothing more than to find solace among the trees.

The teacher continues, “When you preach, you need to include everyone’s experience, not just the experience of rich white people.  Otherwise this whole movement is going to stay nothing but a whites-only club.”

When I got home that evening, I cried.  I felt as if my heart had been smashed with a hammer.

Why was this so deeply painful?

It wasn’t because my teacher didn’t like my sermon.  It was because her response struck at the very core of my identity.  I thought of myself as someone whose life was dedicated to working for justice for all people.  I had spent years out in farm fields and sitting at tables with people from Asia, Africa, India, Latin America, Europe, and my own country…we were trying to develop farming systems and trade policies that would make it possible for countries like Haiti to feed their people, instead of servicing debt by exporting coffee and sugar, and importing garbage and toxic waste.  We wanted to make it possible for local communities everywhere to grow food for children in healthy ecosystems.  We wanted to make it impossible for corporations to continue turning entire landscapes into deserts and impoverishing whole nations.  To me, this work on sustainability was justice work:  it was about redistributing wealth, restoring ecosystems, making a healthy world for people of all colors to live in together.

This was one layer of the identity that was being challenged.  The second layer was much deeper.  Let me explain with a story.

It was the late 1960’s in the California Bay Area, and my family’s best friends were the Hewitts.  Lisa and Allen were the kids of the family.  One hot September evening, the parents smoked and drank and talked politics, while “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog,” played in the background. Lisa and Allen and my sister and I ran madly through the sweltering house in our underpants.  We compared our skins:  Lisa and Allen were a light caramel color, I was whitish pinkish, and my sister Kass was pale golden.  Both of the mothers were white, and my sister’s father was dark tan.  Lisa and Allen’s father was dark chocolaty brown, like Hershey’s syrup.  Why I was the palest of everyone was a mystery because my biological father was Choctaw from Oklahoma.

My palms were the same color as the back of my hands, but Lisa and Allen had hands with brown backs and pink fingernails and palms.  Our lips were different colors, but everyone’s tongues were the same bubble gum pink.  At kindergarten, we had a friend named Tommy Lee and his eyes were sharp at one end and round at the other, and he had skin a color somewhere between Lisa’s and mine, and black hair.  Our friend Rosa, from Guatemala, had lustrous black hair in two thick braids, huge black eyes, golden brown skin, and pierced ears with gold earrings.  We weren’t allowed to have pierced ears.  It was so unfair.  But Rosa had to sleep without a pillow to keep her back and neck straight, so that kind of made up for the earrings.

As a child in this unique time and place, I developed an identity as a member of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic “us.”  We kids were not colorblind; human beings cannot be colorblind.  Instead, we delighted in discovering the ways in which we were the same and the ways in which we were different.  We thought “other” meant interesting.  We had not yet been taught that “other” means inferior to ourselves, or frightening, or somehow so different as to be outside our own consideration.  We were like a garden of different and beautiful flowers.

So this was why, when my preaching teacher gave me her comments, it felt as if my heart had broken.  I saw myself as a mixed-race woman, part of a global “us,” and had spent my entire career working for justice, healing, and restoration.  But this professor saw before her a privileged white woman, ignorant of the realities facing American black people in the early 21st century.   And she was mostly right.  Although I knew people of every color, all over the world, and myself had a multi-ethnic identity, I had not one single close personal relationship with an African American.  Because of the privilege I am accorded by having white skin, it had not occurred to me that not everyone in the United States can go for a walk in a public park.

I felt sick with shame.  But when this happens—and it does happen in this kind of work, privileged people of any ethnicity will sometimes feel shame when we realize we have been blind to our own privilege—we have to give ourselves over to love.  And so I saw that in order to heal our world, I needed to change myself.  That is the place to start. And that would involve pain, and it would surely involve more feelings of shame and embarrassment when I made mistakes.  But I had to be willing to endure those feelings when they happened, because when you really care, that is what you have to do.  You have to accept that the work of transformation is going to hurt.  It is like childbirth:  you have to lean into the pain, yell through the pain, cry when you need to.  And most times, the outcome is a reward beyond price:  A new life.  A new world.

But also like childbirth, there are some times when the best we can do is not quite enough.  The poem we heard earlier spoke to that.  The travelers did all they could to save a beautiful life from what endangered it, but they did not succeed.  We will not be able to save everything, but the love is in the trying.  We must be willing to feel our pain—Jackson writes, “I have died for the smallest things”—and continue trying.

Was I willing?  I was.  So I changed myself.  I went out of my comfort zone and went to black churches and interracial dialogues and took classes at the Baptist seminary.  I now have deep friendships with African Americans.  And these friendships have broken my heart open again and again.

Sometimes the breaking has been in the form of tough love.  Once my friend Chris, of mixed African American and Chinese descent, was helping me plan a worship service in which I was planning to tell a story of UU’s helping migrant farm workers get access to clean water.  Chris said, “Honey, we don’t need stories of white people helping brown people.  What did these brown people do for themselves?”  And I realized I had framed the story from the viewpoint of the whites, not the farm workers.  And it was actually the farm workers who had taken action, while the white UU’s stood with them in solidarity.  Oh, was I embarrassed.  Chris said, “We want allies, not saviors.  We want solidarity, not rescue.”  And then he went upstairs, because he was tired of being a mirror for his mostly white friends.  And I was even more embarrassed because I have had to do that too and I know how exhausting it is.

Sometimes the breaking has been by the suffering caused by institutional racism.  One friend’s collegebound son was arrested.  Why?  Just for standing there, goofing off with friends like boys do.  He was just standing there being a young black man, and he was arrested for disturbing the peace.  He was taken to jail, where he was raped before his family could bail him out.  The HIV test came back negative, but…now this young man has a police record.  And if he gets pulled over by the cops for driving while black, they will approach him with guns drawn, because he has a record.  So god forbid he should move a single muscle because then in the minds of the cops it would look like he was reaching for a gun…and we have just now here in Portland seen what happens when the police think a young black man is going for a gun.

Before my teacher held a mirror up to my privilege, when I heard of these shootings of unarmed black men, I used to get upset.  But I was focused on my own justice work and I didn’t feel I had the time to get involved in every cause.  Now, I am accountable to my African American friends.  Now, once again, there is no “them,” there is only “us.”  Getting involved is a necessity.  So last Tuesday night I went to the rally where Jesse Jackson spoke, and on Wednesday I marched to City Hall.  And I heard some very disturbing numbers.  According to Reverend Jackson, in the state of Oregon, where there is 11 percent unemployment, there is 22 percent unemployment among blacks.  At the University of Oregon, there are 22,000 students.  300 of them are black.  Seven percent of Oregon’s population is black.  20 percent of the population in prison is black.  The grand jury appointed to investigate the killing of Aaron Campbell was all white.  The city council in Portland is all white.  The police force in the City of Portland is mostly white.

Where are we?  NPR reported early in the fall that Portland is the epicenter of white supremacist activity in the Pacific Northwest.

We’ve got some work to do here.

Are we willing?  Are we willing to put our hearts on the line, to develop personal relationships with people different from us?  Are we willing to risk making mistakes and feeling embarrassed?  Are we willing to feel pain, but let love carry us through it?  Are the white people among us, of whom I am one, willing to share power?  Are the people of color, of whom I am also one, willing to share our knowledge of how to live in community?

I think we are.  Our ancestors in faith are the men who ordained the first women into ministry.  Our ancestors in faith are the white women who invited black women Sojourner Truth and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper to share speaking platforms when they demanded equal rights for women.  Our ancestors fought for abolition and equal suffrage for all.  Our ancestors started the Red Cross and Planned Parenthood.  Our ancestor James Reeb gave his life in the fight for civil rights.  Over and over again, the people of this religion have been willing.  So let us begin right here.

Because this is where it starts.  Right here at home is where we need that “meticulous mercy.”  If we can change our lives here at home—if we can develop resilient and sustainable communities here, communities that provide equal access to health, opportunity, beauty, and education for all of our citizens—then we will not need to import luxuries from or dump waste on countries like Haiti.  And then they too will be able to heal.

For the sake of all life on earth, we must…be…willing!


Let us pray.

Great Spirit of Life,
Make us willing.
Make us willing to be broken open
by your persistent knocking on our hearts.
You call us into love for life in all its diverse forms,
all its beautiful faces.
May we be willing to answer the call.
May we be willing to go wherever it takes us.
Lift us up to the light of change.



The Life Abundant

Two years ago, my husband and I moved from Davis, California, to Grass Valley.  The first thing we did was plant fruit trees. One day last August, in the sweet early morning, I went to check on the trees, and found, to my delight, that one little tree had grown a single, perfect peach. It was fat and ripe and fragrant. I reached out to tug at it, and it dropped into my upraised hand.

This is my body, grown here for you. These are the words I hear any time I hold a fresh fruit or a vegetable. If there was ever a sign of a covenant between humans and the divine, it is this: we reach out our hands, and ripe fruit drops into them. The act of eating is a communion: we take into our bodies nutrients and water from the dust of long ago stars, distilled by the power of the sun, and the intentions of life itself, into delectable juicy flesh. We partake of the Body of God.

But wait a minute, who is this “we?” Does everyone get to join in this communion? Does everyone get to sit together at our table?

Of course the answer is no. Seven hundred and ninety-five million people are hungry in our world, many of them starving. Seven hundred and ninety-five million. That’s such a big number that it’s hard to make sense of. So let’s take it to a more understandable scale. Let’s imagine shrinking the entire human population to the size of one village of a hundred people. Who are the people and what are the conditions of their lives?

There would be 60 Asians, 14 Africans, and 11 Europeans. Fourteen people would be from the Americas, with only five from Canada and the United States. About half would be female, and half male. Only 16 would consider themselves White, with the other 84 having other identities. 30 would be Christian. The other 70 would not. One person would own over half of all the wealth, and that person would be from the United States. 17 people would be unable to read or write. 15 would be chronically hungry. 23 would have no shelter. 35 would have no sanitation facilities. 13 would have no safe drinking water. 22 would have access to a computer. Seven would have a college education.

Do you have a computer? Do you have a college education? If you do, you are one of the richest people in the world. Do you feel rich?

If we shrank the population of just the United States to a village of 100 people, one person would own 40 percent of the wealth. The richest 20 would own 93 percent. That’s right. Eighty percent of Americans share only seven percent of the wealth of this nation.

One of the worst things about the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few is that the “wealth” is “produced” from the exploitation of ecological and social systems to the point where they break down completely. This is happening everywhere in the world, but perhaps the most familiar example is Syria. Climate change caused by fossil fuel use dried farmlands to the point where they were unusable. So people began moving en masse toward cities, which couldn’t sustain them. This has resulted not only in the horror of war, but also in a global immigration crisis, as rich countries in the North refuse to take in the immigrants whose lives we’ve ruined with our profligate fossil fuel use.

The language we hear in the news about why we should not take in immigrants—why we should build a wall instead of a bigger table—has to do with scarcity. The story goes that there is not enough for all, and at worst, immigrants want to kill us to get our share, and at the very least they want to come take our jobs.

A lot of progressive people scoff at what they consider to be the stupidity of this kind of rhetoric. It’s so obviously fear-mongering for political ends. Or they’re simply bewildered by all the vicious hatred. But there is a reason why some people respond to the rhetoric. Poverty in this country is deep and real and rapidly increasing. When eighty percent of the people have access to only seven percent of the wealth, when it says right on people’s paychecks that the money they are contributing to Social Security might not be available when they grow old, it’s not hard to understand why people are afraid.

And that makes it even easier for the richest one percent to say we can’t afford to stop using fossil fuels. We can’t afford to restore ecosystems or conserve water or clean up pollution or protect wildlife because that would shut down our economy and we need more jobs. We hear that we have to choose between jobs and the environment, one or the other. The economy or the environment. One or the other.

Why should this be?

Consider the Greek word “oikos.” It means “household” or “home.” From it we get the English prefix, “eco.” So ecology means the study of our household or home. Economy means the custom or rules of our home.

Now consider the word “environment.” “Environ” means “to surround,” so the word literally means “that which surrounds us.” Isn’t it interesting that the word that white Americans decided to use to refer to the interdependent web of existence is a word that places it outside of—separate from—ourselves? The fact that we use this is a legacy of Western culture. This culture has historically understood the world in a binary, dualistic way, in which humans are atomistic individuals, separate from and in conflict with each other and nature.

And this view is the foundation of our economy system. In a college economics class, my daughter was taught, as I had been 25 years before, that economics is the study of “the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends.” In other words, scarcity is assumed to be the basic condition of an economy, so that individuals must compete with each other for what they need. Economic growth is valued above all because as long as more wealth can be generated, more will be available to all. Nature is seen as a repository of resources for humans to use. When one resource is used up, others can be substituted, so there are no limits to growth.

Now, there are at least two good ways to understand what is wrong with these traditional Western ways of thinking.

One is to look at the shape and size of our planet. It is a sphere. It is finite. So infinite economic growth is simply not possible. To behave as if it is, is suicidal.

The second is to try and stop breathing. Can you do it? Think of all that is necessary for you to take a breath, all that happens in your nerves and muscles and lungs and bloodstream when you do. Think of how oxygen arrives in front of you.

We are embedded in and utterly dependent upon the ecosystems in which we live. WE ARE THE EARTH AND THE EARTH IS US. There is no separation and there can be no separation. We are temporary aggregations of atoms and molecules that are continually being exchanged with those of the atmosphere; every cell in our bodies is being continually remade from the food we eat and the water we drink and the air we breathe. There is no substitute for water. There is no substitute for oxygen. There are no substitutes for the basic nutrients our bodies need.

And we can only get these through the action of healthy communities of billions of other kinds of lives. We need them to fix energy for us and cycle water and oxygen and nutrients for us.

And we need the beauty and diversity and richness of a healthy world in order to feel whole and well and happy, because we evolved in a beautiful and diverse and rich world. We will feel ill as long as the earth, that larger body of which we are part, is ill. This is the reality of interbeing.

So it is no coincidence that global economic and ecological and social catastrophe are all arriving at the same time: we are living in one single interdependent oikos, one household, with one set of rules, which we cannot transcend.
How, then, do we live here?

Well, there is a different model of economics. It’s called ecological economics. Its goal is not growth, but rather sustainability and justice. An ecological economy starts at the local level with meeting people’s basic human needs: food, shelter, water, health care, education, meaningful work, safety, beauty. Each local community finds ways of providing for its citizens’ needs that sustain the supporting ecosystem. Only when there is a surplus does one community trade with another. Larger national and international economies develop then as communities of communities, partnerships of partnerships.

Ecological economists—the only economists who accurately predicted the economic meltdown of 2008—have written volumes on specific policies that would convert our failing, unjust, growth-based economy to a healthy, just, steady-state one.

So then the question becomes, if there is a different model available, and we know how to implement it, then what on EARTH are we doing trying to keep a growth economy going when it is killing us all? What keeps us in its thrall? Why do those of us who are not super-rich keep working so hard, and making wars, to protect the interests of the wealthiest one percent?

One word: fear. The current model says scarcity is the basic condition of life. Scarcity. How does that word feel inside your body? Is there a tightening of your chest, a drop in your stomach, an acceleration of your heart? If I say resources are scarce, do you think people will share with you? Or do you want to run right out and grab all you can for yourself and your family?

This is a model grounded in fear. Fear that we are all alone, there is not enough, no one will share—and so we’ll die.

But what about the word abundance? What if I say, there is plenty for all? How does that feel inside your body? Is there some loosening, some relaxing?

Because there really is plenty for all, if we will just share. When we are willing to live within limits, and not take more than what we need, there is plenty for everyone. So the next question is, how do we learn to live in faith that there is enough? How do we calm our fears? How do those of us with wealth release our attachments to it? And how do those of us who live in poverty find the courage to stand up for what we need?

These are some of the central questions addressed by every religion of the world. And every religion of the world says similar things. One of these is that, for those people who have more things and money than we need, a really good way to release our attachments to them, is to release the things and money. Give them away. The less surplus we have, the more simply we live, the freer we are from attachment and fear. I have a friend from Grenada who tells me that her brother is a wealthy man who owns many things. He worries constantly that someone will break into his house and steal everything. But my friend owns very little. She leaves her house unlocked. She is free from worry. She is the most joyful person I know.

A second piece of wisdom from every world religion is that releasing our attachments to things does not mean we should become ascetics who revile the material world. No, in fact, the opposite is true; we should celebrate, revel in, lose ourselves in the beauty here, because simple beauty can fill us so full we need very little in the way of material things. What’s more, all the beauty we perceive, through smell and sound and sight and touch and taste, is a gift we are obligated to appreciate and participate in and share. Think of all the bread and wine Jesus and his friends ate together; think of Rumi wandering around, intoxicated by the moon; think of the erotic poetry of the Song of Solomon. Think of the Buddhist meditations on the lotus blossom, the bright colors of a Hindu festival, the dancing and drumming of a Salish potlatch. In the book Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes a group of Jewish men in a Nazi concentration camp. One of the men could sing beautiful arias. The other men saved their meager rations of food to give him in return for his singing. This is how deep is the human need for beauty.

Then there’s a third teaching I want to share, from Unitarian Universalism.  To understand it, let’s return to the question of fear—that fear of scarcity we need to calm if we are to learn to live sustainably and joyfully on earth. And also that fear of what might happen to us if we claim our power and stand up for what we need.

Nineteenth century Universalist theologian Hosea Ballou said that fear—the kind of fear that keeps us from becoming our best selves—is located in the body. Ballou believed this fear stemmed from the religious understanding, prevalent in his time, that God’s love was scarce, and only the elect would be saved.  He countered that fear with the idea of universal salvation, the idea that God’s love is so abundant that all are saved.  We have transmuted this to the teaching that every person has inherent worth and dignity, that all are equally worthy of love. But what of the fear that still resides in our bodies? Contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologians John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker, in their book A House for Hope, remind us that religious community offers us experiences of beauty that train our bodies out of fear and into love. When we come together in community to experience beauty through ritual and ceremony, through song and dance, through shared food and drink, we are training our bodies to share with each other, to trust one another, to trust in a larger love that holds us all. If we do this well, our fallback behavior during adversity becomes courageous, creative love. If we are threatened with violence, we meet it with love. If we are threatened with scarcity, we find ways to create abundance.

And so here we are today, sharing the bounty of the earth. Here we are, filling ourselves with the beauty of all these fruits and flowers and vegetables, the beauty of our singing, the beauty of all these loving faces. In this way do we begin to restore the covenant between ourselves and the source of life. In this way do we begin to make the communion of eating available to all. In this way do we begin to create the life abundant.

May it be so. Blessed be.

For further reading/viewing:

Buehrens, John, and Rebecca Ann Parker. 2011. A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century. Beacon Press.

Cobb, John B. Jr. 2007. Sustainability: Economics, Ecology, and Justice. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Kaza, Stephanie, ed. 2005. Hooked! Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

McFague, Sallie. Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. 2000, Fortress Press. (An extremely clear and simple explanation of ecological economics from a Christian theologian.)




Conflict-Avoiders Anonymous

Have you ever gotten into an argument with someone you lived with about housework?  How long were you upset before it all blew up?  Did you try to overlook things, but then go around in a constant state of irritation?  Or maybe you both bottled unhappy feelings up for months and then suddenly exploded, and brought up everything either of you ever did wrong, and accused each other of being terrible people?  Or maybe you just complained to your friends about the situation, while never actually talking to the person you were really upset with?  That’s called triangulation, by the way—when two people get together to talk about a problem with someone else, but don’t speak directly to the person they have a problem with. (This happens a lot in churches).

None of these ways of dealing with the situation feel very good, do they?  And none of them are particularly effective, either.  It would be a lot better if we could talk directly to the person involved, about little things, as they come up.  But for many of us that is really hard.  We are conflict avoiders and we just don’t want to go there.

Why do we avoid conflict so?  Well, many of us grew up in families where it was not safe to express our own truth.  If we disagreed with our parents, we were severely punished.  And our families reflected the larger culture:  it could be a dangerous proposition to disagree with the way things are.   We were taught that in order to remain safe, we must go along with the flow and be “nice” to others.  “Nice” meaning superficially polite, while underneath harboring all sorts of different feelings.  We were taught to comply, even if we knew in our bones something was wrong.

Alternatively, and at the very same time, we were taught that success in life depends on winning at competition.  And the way to win is to totally dominate, to send the opponent packing with tail between legs—like the singing cats were trying to do earlier.  Remember the fights we had with siblings or playmates as kids?  How winning meant humiliating the other person, making them cry, making them give up on wanting to play with us?   And remember the “Shock and Awe” campaign, when we bombed Baghdad?

So, on the one hand it’s important to never rock the boat, and on the other, if a fight does happen, we have to win at all costs, or be totally destroyed.  No wonder we avoid conflict!  It’s terrifying under those conditions!

But what if we saw conflict in a different way?  What if, instead of seeing it as something that endangers us, we saw it as the natural expression of diversity in healthy systems?  What if we understood conflict as the means by which systems adjust to change?

You see, this is how living systems work.  Change happens all the time, and systems need to adjust.  Your body, for example, is 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 properly 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.

Now, 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.  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.  And that’s all conflict is: feedback.  It’s people expressing wants and needs that are different from one another’s.

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.  That’s what happens when people respond violently to other people’s needs, or fail to express their own needs.  And just like if we don’t drink the water we need, that can cause the system to collapse.

So how can we express and respond to needs in ways that bring about wholeness and beauty rather than violence and collapse?

Oh, what a question.  What a question.  This is really the central religious question.  How do we live together with all beings in love and peace, as we are called by the divine, by the Spirit of Life, to do?

Sacred texts and oral traditions of all religions give us deceptively simple advice.  Replace fear with love.  Replace hatred with compassion.  But these are not simple things.  So religious traditions teach spiritual practices that help us, over the course of a lifetime—or many lifetimes—achieve these goals.  They teach us to meditate.  Contemplate sacred texts.  Pray.  Practice mindfulness.  Make music.  Worship.   And anyone who does these things knows that they do help—but often, we still can’t seem to tell each other that we’re upset about the housework!

Perhaps this is because historically, many Eastern and Western spiritual paths involved withdrawing from family and civic life in order to practice.  The idea was that only by leaving the ordinary world with its ordinary attachments could religious seekers attain enlightenment.

But I believe that ordinary life is spiritual practice.  I believe that it is in ordinary life that we can best learn how to live in love and peace.  And so I offer you now a practice that can only be used in relationship with others.  It’s called compassionate communication.  Some people call it nonviolent communication.  Here’s how it can work in a marriage.  Let’s return to the old housework argument.

(Two spouses are onstage.  She is looking angrily at him, hands on hips, while he avoids her gaze, looking a different direction.)

The two spouses turn to one another, in love.

(The two spouses turn to face one another).

They tell one another their stories.  But they do this in a particular way.   The one who is unhappy begins by describing the physical events she has observed.  Then she describes her thoughts about the events, her interpretation.  Next she tells what her feelings are about this interpretation.  Then she expresses her needs, and finally, she makes a request for change.

At each stage, her partner reflects back to her what he hears.  He then tells his own story in the same way, and she reflects back what she hears.  Then the two brainstorm together how to meet both their needs.

Let’s listen in to see how it works:

Spouse 1:  You know, lately I’ve noticed that I have been doing three or four hours of housework a day, and you do about twenty minutes worth.

Spouse 2:  Hmmh.  You’ve been seeing me do twenty minutes of housework a day, and you’ve been doing four hours’ worth?

Spouse 1:  Yes.  And when this happens I think you must not think of me as an equal partner.  I think you must not consider me as important as you are.  I think you must not love me in the way I want to be loved.

Spouse 2:  So when I do less housework than you do, you think this means I don’t love you in the way you want to be loved?  You think I don’t believe you are equal to me?

Spouse 1:  Yes.  And I feel very frustrated and angry and sad about this.

Spouse 2:  I see.   You’re feeling frustrated and angry and sad?

Spouse 1:  (Tearfully)  Yes.  I need to know that you love me and value me as an equal partner.  I need to believe that you think of me as being just as important as you are in our relationship.

Spouse 2:  (Sincerely) Oh, I’m so sorry.  I do think you are just as important as I am in this relationship.  I want you to know that I love you very much, and I do value you as an equal partner.  What can I do so you’ll understand that?

Spouse 1:  Well, I’d really like if we could divide the housework more equally.  Would you be willing to work with me on coming up with a better way to do it?

Spouse 2:  Yes, I would.  And I also have something I need to say here.  You know that my work is really physically demanding.  You’ve helped me with it sometimes and you know how hard it is.  When I come home, I’m so exhausted I can hardly move.  I need to rest.  And I need to feel respected for how hard I work.  I don’t really care as much as you do about keeping the house clean.  So for me it would be okay if we just did less altogether.  I would rather spend more time doing fun things together and less time worrying about the house.

Spouse 1:  So, you are so exhausted at the end of each day that it’s hard for you to do any more when you come home?

Spouse 2:  Yes.

Spouse 1:  And you need to rest, and for me to respect how hard you work?  (He nods).  And you think it would be okay for the house to be less clean in general?  (He nods).  And you’d like to spend less time on that and more time doing fun things?

Spouse 2:  Yes.

Spouse 1:  Well, I do know how hard your work is, and I know you need to rest when you get home.  I do respect you and all you do.  It’s really nice to know you want to do more fun things together. But there are some really basic things that we need to do regularly, for hygiene.  And we can’t stop taking care of the pets or kids.

Spouse 2:  Okay, what if we put the most important things at the top of a list, and we divide those up, and I do more of my cleaning chores on the weekends and less after work?  And then what if we do the less important things less regularly, so we still have time to have fun together?

Spouse 1:  We could try that.

(The two move in close together and begin making a list.)

So now they’re brainstorming, and once they’ve finished that, they’ll agree on a plan for the future.

This conversation might have sounded a little stilted, maybe a little contrived.  But it is an actual conversation that my husband and I had, in a marriage counseling session, after I had been upset for many months over the housework.  I had already bottled up my feelings for a while and been generally angry and irritable, and I didn’t like being that person.  I had already exploded, in an unloving way, and I didn’t like that either.  I had already triangulated with my girlfriends.  But none of those things had helped—they had just put distance between me and my husband, where we wanted intimacy.  So finally, we went to counseling, and we learned this method of communicating, and it still works for us.

But I have to say I was a little embarrassed because I had been using this approach for years in environmental conflict resolution, but hadn’t thought to apply it to our marriage.  I had seen it help loggers and environmentalists agree on how to manage forest watersheds.  I had seen it help farmers and indigenous tribes agree on how to manage a river for both irrigation and salmon.   A version of it was used after apartheid ended in South Africa, as part of the Truth and Reconciliation process. 2  It has been used in successful mediations between Palestinians and Israelis. 3

This way of approaching conflict works, because it involves, as Margaret Wheatley puts it, turning to one other.  People gather in circles.   They agree on ground rules to create a safe space.  And then they do deep listening.  They tell their stories to one another, and express their needs.  They reflect back to each other what they have heard.  Once people feel truly heard, everything changes.  The possibility of healing enters in.  One young black man in South Africa, who had been blinded by a white person, said that just telling his story, and having it heard, made him feel like he had gotten his eyesight back. 4  When this kind of healing takes place, people can work together to find ways of meeting everyone’s needs, and enormous amounts of creativity get unleashed.

This is healthy feedback.  This brings wholeness and beauty and love into our shared lives.  It is deep spiritual practice.

How might your life and relationships be enriched by this practice?  May you take many opportunities to find out.  May you turn to one another, and see stars everywhere.

Blessed be.  Amen.

Let us pray.

Spirit of Life,
O Mysterious Energy that is the source of our being,
help us turn to one another.
Help us quiet our minds
so that we can listen with deep compassion.
Let our hearts be wells of love
into which each other’s words can fall:
Words of anger, and forgiveness,
words of sorrow, and joy,
words of despair, and hope.
Help us not fear conflict,
but see it only as a signal
that something needs to change.
In this season of wild and rampant growth,
help us grow in wisdom and love.
Great Spirit of our changing universe,
we thank you for our lives.

1 Marshall B. Rosenberg.  Nonviolent Communication:  A  Language of Life.  2nd Edition.  PuddleDancer Press, Encinitas, California, 2003.

2 Margaret J.  Wheatley.  Turning To One Another:  Simple Conversations To Restore Hope To The Future.  Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, 2002.

3 Rosenberg.

4 Wheatley.

Also see:

Kay Lindahl.  Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening:  A Guide to Enrich Your Relationships and Kindle Your Spiritual Life. Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2003.

Thich Nhat Hanh.  Creating True Peace:  Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, And The World.  Free Press, New York, 2003.

Paradise Now! (Or, How Love Wins)

Basilica of Saint Apollinaris in Classe, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

What should a Unitarian Universalist minister talk about on Easter Sunday?  Particularly after the week we’ve just had?  It’s a real dilemma.  What can the story of the death and resurrection of an itinerant Jewish rabbi say to people looking for hope, in what looks like one of the darkest times in the history of the world, if we don’t believe in the literal truth of resurrection?  Our closest Christian cousins say “Love wins.”[i]  They say that is the whole point of the resurrection story.  Love wins.[ii]  But if, as we UU’s tend to believe, Jesus was metaphorically rather than physically  resurrected, how exactly did love win? Why think about the story at all, when we could just be celebrating the emergence of new life in spring and singing alleluias?

Well, you know, we do love to celebrate spring.  We do love to sing alleluias.  And…we also love to poke around in the mythologies of the world and find common motifs and see what they tell us about the human condition. For example:  the resurrection motif.  A divine being goes into a cave or a tomb, into the world of the dead, and then comes back, bringing salvation. Think of the story of Persephone, whose disappearance into the land of the dead causes her mother, Demeter, to grieve so deeply that all the earth’s vegetation dies.   But then Persephone re-emerges from the land of the dead for several months each year and Demeter is so happy that the earth comes back to life.

At the time Jesus was alive, this story was the center of a whole Greek religion. The Romans had their own version.  There are dozens of other examples from all over the world.  The seasonal death and rebirth of plant and animal life was profoundly important to long-ago peoples. It was a great mystery that affected the people’s survival, and it had to be marked and explained and celebrated.

Nowadays, we have a scientific explanation for the seasonal death and rebirth of life.  If our food comes from stores, and our heat comes from natural gas and electricity, we might find the resurrection religions quite strange.  We might find it easy to forget just how important it is that the plants come back to life after winter.  But our own bodies instruct us, don’t they?  Doesn’t it feel like a miracle when the sun starts to come back out?   Doesn’t it feel like the stone over the tomb of our own souls has been rolled away, and we are newly awake?

Well, normally it does… except that such horrific things are happening in the world, many of them caused by the leadership of our own country, that I don’t know about you, but right now, instead of feeling like the stone has been rolled away from the tomb, I feel like the stone is repeatedly being rolled over my heart, and also bashing me over the head.

And so I want to talk to you about the story of Jesus.  I know some of you love and revere Jesus as a teacher.  Others of you are allergic to the mention of his name, because you were harmed by the version of Christianity in which you were brought up.  Either way, I think there is great value in taking a new look at the story of this radical rabbi.  First, if we want to be agents of change, we have to be able to speak intelligently with people outside our own faith community about someone whose life and teachings have been so significant in the history of the world.  And second, recent scholarship about Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity have revealed much that is of value in our search for hope in these very dark times.[iii]

Like many of you, in my youth I was taught a version of Christianity that was focused almost entirely on the afterlife.  It sanctified violence and oppression, as well as human domination and exploitation of the earth.  It encouraged me to turn the other cheek when I was abused, so that I could go to heaven after I died.  This version of Christianity has been responsible for an enormous amount of suffering in this world, for many centuries.  It is symbolized by the crucifix.  Not the cross, but the crucifix, because the focus is on the redemption of humankind through the bloody, tortured, sacrificial death of Jesus.  In this version of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus is important because it represents the transformation of earthly suffering into the reward of everlasting life after death.  It understands the earth and the body as sites of evil and temptation.  It makes violence against both necessary, and suffering redemptive.

So why do I insist on talking about this now, when we could be talking about caterpillars turning into butterflies?

Well, bear with me while I ask you a couple of questions.  Here’s one.  Did you know that there was no such thing as a crucifix until the 10th century of the Common Era?  That symbol, which focused the attention of Christians on the idea that God planned to redeem humans through the bloody sacrifice of his only son—that symbol did not show up in any churches or cathedrals until almost a thousand years after Jesus died.

And here’s another.  Did you know that until relatively recently in world history, most people did not know how to read and write?  Which means that most people who thought of themselves as Christian had no access to the Bible or the Gospels or the letters of the apostles.  The Bible wasn’t widely available in print until the 1500’s anyway.

So, what do these two things have to do with one another?  Well, think about this.  How would people of the early Christian church express their understanding of their faith and what the life of Jesus meant, if they didn’t read or write?  Through art and craft.  Through music and storytelling. Through ritual and ceremony.

That means that if we want to understand early Christianity, and how most Christians understood their faith, instead of reading the Bible, we have to look at early Christian art and its symbols. We have to go to the earliest places of worship, the earliest churches and cathedrals, and see how they are decorated.  We have to study the liturgical practices of the community, their worship life and rituals.  This is exactly what Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker did in researching their book Saving Paradise:  How Christianity Traded Love for This World for Crucifixion and Empire.

And when they did, they found that the crucifix is conspicuously absent.  It does not exist.  What they found instead of the crucifix was image after image of paradise.  Not an otherworldly paradise, representing the afterlife, but shimmering, brilliantly colorful mosaics depicting paradise on this earth.  Jesus is shown as the person who welcomes the people into paradise:  a paradise where all feast at common tables, laughing together, surrounded by sun and moon and stars, fountains of water, animals and plants and birds of all kinds.  And also surrounded by the beloved family members and friends who have already died; they are close by, in their own paradise, close enough to commune with. In this earthly paradise, lovers entwine and give one another flowers.

Many of these images of Paradise come from the ancient Jewish tradition from which Christianity was born, and that tradition had very little, if anything, to say about an afterlife.  It was all about this life here and now.  Salvation in Jewish tradition was never about what happened after you died, it was always about the conditions under which you were living.  As we saw last week in the Passover story, salvation was political and economic:  It meant freedom from slavery, freedom from the violence of empire, freedom to eat and drink and love in peace.  Salvation was also about healing, about salving the body and mind, heart and soul.  Jesus was a Jewish rabbi and he was teaching and healing Jewish people.  He was speaking Aramaic.  When he made references to abundant life in his own language, in the context of his culture, the people would have understood him to be talking not about an afterlife, but to the life of the body.  They would have understood him as referring to the kind of earthly life described in many of the lyrical Psalms, or in passages like this one from the Song of Solomon:

“Arise, my love, my fair one and come away, for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing is come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.   The fig tree puts forth her figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.  Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”[iv]

It was in this context of a focus on earthly life that early Christianity developed.  Scholars who did know how to read and write recorded many of the ritual practices of early Christian communities.  From them we learn that not only did they decorate churches in ways that visually brought the whole community of life inside, but whenever they gathered to worship, they brought boughs of greenery and flowers in to lay on the floors, to surround themselves with their fragrance and color.

We also learn that baptism into Christian community was understood to be the portal into paradise.  It was a sensual rite that celebrated the beauty of the body and drew it into loving communion with the earth, Jesus, God, and the other members of the church.

In order to be baptized, people first studied the teachings of Jesus and the church leaders for months—again, not through reading and writing, but through storytelling, memorizing, and discussion.  Then it was time for the ceremony.  First, the people renounced sin, and committed to living in covenant with the community.  Then the community went to the water together and the people to be baptized were undressed completely, men and women all together with no shame, as if in the Garden of Eden again.  The removal of their clothing symbolized the shedding of the burdens of sin.  Then their bodies were rubbed with olive oil from head to toe, and then they were cradled in loving arms and completely submerged in the water three times.  After they emerged from the water, they were clothed in new white linen robes to symbolize their becoming a new person, and everyone joyfully feasted together.

Have you ever gone swimming naked in a river or a lake with someone you loved?  With a lover or a friend or a group of beloved friends?  How did you feel afterward?  Did you feel reborn?  Did you feel cleansed?  Whenever I do this, I experience a communion and a righting of my relationship with the water and the rocks and the trees and my beloveds.  I am refreshed and made new.  I imagine that old rite of baptism to have felt like this. In the early years of Christianity, baptism had nothing to do with original sin, which also had not yet been invented.  Baptism had nothing to do with making sure you went to heaven after you died.  It was instead a ritual that welcomed people into community by enacting the righting of their relationship with the whole of life, and becoming someone new.

And then there was the way the Christians actually lived once they were baptized.  They gave all they had to the community, and the community provided for them.  They took care of the poor, the sick, the widows, the orphans, and even the dead, burying bodies that otherwise would be left outside of city gates.  And, they didn’t just feed and care for their own people, they fed and cared for anyone in need. They offered the feast of life to all who hungered for it.

To understand just how radical this was, you have to understand three things about the time.  First, the Jews and the early Christians were trying to survive in places occupied by the cruel and violent Roman Empire.  Attracting attention to your nonconforming religious group was not a good idea—it was dangerous.  Second, most cultures very strictly defined in-groups and out-groups, and people in the in-group were supposed to shun people in the out-group.  Third, the causes of sickness and disfigurements were not yet understood.  A person with any kind of sickness or disfigurement was considered unclean or contaminated by evil; it was thought that they or their parents had done something evil for which they were being punished by God or the gods.  They were cast out of society.

But Jesus taught that none of this was what God wanted for people on earth.  He dared to claim that God’s love was more powerful than the empire was.  He taught his followers to welcome and love everyone and to heal the sick and disfigured.  No more in-group or out-group, no more outcasts.  Everyone was to be loved and included in the circle of community, everyone was to be considered equal—including women.  Living in this way was what brought about paradise.

In churches, Jesus is shown as a shepherd and a teacher and a healer.  Sometimes he carries a book.  Sometimes he holds a shepherd’s crook.  Other symbols referring to Jesus included the tree of life, an anchor, and a cross. The cross was understood in quite a different way than was the crucifix later on.  It reminded Jesus’ followers of three critical aspects of his story.  One was that he lived and died resisting the violence of empire. He taught active nonviolent resistance, and he knew that as his following and his reputation grew, his life would be in danger.  But he did not stop.  He gave himself entirely to his cause and his people, and his life ended when the empire executed him on the cross.

The second was that his death did not stop the movement he started.  His humiliating public execution could not stop his revolutionary love.  It could not stop his followers from continuing to spread his message and living their understanding of paradise now.  Love did win.

The third was that the empire could also not stop Jesus’ followers from developing a resurrection story about him.  Like the other resurrection stories of the time, in this one the semi-divine being goes into the realm of the dead and returns with salvation: in this case salvation from the violence and cruelty of empire.  Salvation from the long and sorry history of human unkindness to out-groups.  Salvation from poverty, and the salving of suffering bodies and minds.

The resurrection story did not originally appear in the first version of the first Gospel to be written down, the Gospel of Mark.  In that story, which was written in about 70 of the Common Era, the women leave the site of the tomb terrified because Jesus is not there.  That’s it.  End of story.  Only in later copies of the text did new endings show up that alluded to Jesus appearing to his disciples after his death.  And then it was later still, by several more decades, that the other Gospels were written down and given endings that talked about Jesus’ resurrection.  So the resurrection story took some time to develop.  Once it did, it became important to believers because it said to them that Jesus had a power of life and love that transcended the power of earthly authorities, especially the Caesar.  It said to them that Jesus’ life and his teachings truly did usher in Paradise.

All of this was what the cross symbolized for the early Christians.  But it was only one of many important symbols and was not used particularly often.

So how did we get from cross to crucifix?  How did we get from Jesus as bringer of Paradise to Jesus as bloody sacrifice to an angry father God?

Well, it’s a long story involving the rise and fall of various empires.  I used to keep The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire next to my bed for when I couldn’t sleep, because I would nod off after just a sentence or two.  So I won’t go into detail.  Suffice it to say that in the ninth century, the First Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, converted the pagans of Europe to Christianity by force.  Not only did his troops kill anyone who would not be baptized, but his troops cut down and destroyed the pagans’ sacred trees and groves.

One group that suffered greatly was the Saxons.  Their descendants carved the oldest-known crucifix, in the tenth century.  To them, the Christian religion was about suffering and death and hoping for some reward in the afterlife.  After Charlemagne died, his empire did not hold together well and the many different peoples of Europe began feuding between themselves.  Pope Urban the Second wanted to unify Christendom so he decided to begin the Crusades. War now became holy, and the reward for killing Muslims and Jews was going to heaven after you died.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

But even throughout that long and bloody history, there have been people who understood the message of Christianity differently.  Irish Catholic mysticism is deeply rooted in pagan religion, and its adherents believe that the beauty of life on earth is a sign of its divine nature.  Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century German abbess who wrote the first known opera, called God the force of life, and Jesus the power of greening, or viriditas.

And then, in 19th century America, came the Unitarians and the Universalists.  They carefully studied all they could find about the story of Jesus and the early Church.  They used what they learned to deconstruct later Christian theologies rooted in violence and suffering.  Universalist Hosea Ballou wrote:  “The …belief that the great Jehovah was offended by his creatures to that degree, that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers, for many centuries.”[v]  He argued that Jesus was not sent to be an atoning sacrifice, but rather as a model of how to live in love, so people could be happy.

Unitarians replaced violence-centered theologies of original sin with the idea that humans were created in the image of a good and loving God.  They said that the resurrection story was meant to be understood figuratively, and the important thing about Jesus was what he taught by how he lived.  Following his teachings was the way to salvation.   Moreover, nature—life on earth—was a manifestation of the divine mind, and all we had to do to know God was to go outside and see all the beauty around us.

Well.  I hope you are beginning to see the point of what I wanted to share with you.  The version of Christianity that I was taught in my youth is apparently a version that was corrupted by Empire.  It turns out that the original Christianity was about abundant life here and now.  It was about welcoming everyone in love, and taking care of one another.  It was about enjoying and celebrating the beauty of the earth and the body.  And it was about nonviolently resisting those forces of empire that would threaten abundance and love and beauty.

Isn’t that what we most need at this precise moment in history?

I think it is, and so I look around at you and I am in awe.  The stone has gone; hope takes its place.  Here we are, the religious descendants of the Unitarians and Universalists who drew on the teachings of Jesus and the very earliest Christian church.  Here we are, coming together to welcome all in love, to share our lives, to care for one another and be cared for.  Here we are, celebrating the beauty of the earth and bodily life.  Surrounded by trees and earth and river and sky, dressed in our beautiful colors and bringing our fragrant flowers, we lift our jubilant voices in song.  We will rise up in love and we will resist the forces of empire.

Looks to me like resurrection is happening here.  Looks to me like salvation.  Looks to me like paradise.

May it be so.  Blessed be.

[i] Bell, Rob. 2011.  Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell,and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Harper Collins, NY.

[ii] Melton, Glennon Doyle. 2016  Love Warrior: A Memoir. Flatiron Books, NY .

[iii] Brock, Rita Nakashima, and Rebecca Ann Parker, 2008. Saving Paradise:  How Christianity Traded Love for This World for Crucifixion and Empire.  Beacon Press, Boston.  All of the historical information about Christianity featured in this sermon comes from this book. It is worth reading cover to cover, including the footnotes.  It is long but not at all boring.

[iv] Song of Solomon 2:10-13.  NRSV.

[v] Ballou, Hosea. 1848.  A Treatise on Atonement.  A. Tompkins, Boston. P. 107.

The Impossible Will Take a Little While*

A sermon preached at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Rosa, March 12, 2017

Listen to it here.


There are only two feelings.
Love and fear.
There are only two languages.
Love and fear.
There are only two activities.
Love and fear.
There are only two motives,
two procedures, two frameworks,
two results.
Love and fear.
Love and fear.
Michael Leunig

I was asked to speak to you today about our sixth principle. For those of you who may be visiting a Unitarian Universalist space for the first time, one of the things to know about us is that we covenant to affirm and promote seven principles.  Today we’re just going to focus on number six.

So all I have to talk about is this:

The goal of world community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Seriously? World community, with peace, liberty and justice for all?

Lately when I read those words, I think of a song I sing with my favorite 3 ½ year old boy:

“Once there was a silly old ant
thought he’d move a rubber tree plant
everyone knows an ant can’t
move a rubber tree plant

but he had high hopes
he had high hopes
he had high apple pie
in the sky hopes…”1

Does it seem to you that the goal of world community, with peace and liberty and justice for all, is just pie in the sky? An impossible dream? When you consider the whole bloody history of humankind, all the horrific things going on the world right now, including in our own nation, does any part of that goal seem likely to be accomplished? Are people for whom it is a core theological statement nothing but a bunch of naïve simpletons?

Well, to go back to that song…it doesn’t stop with the high apple pie in the sky hopes. It goes on:

“…so any time you’re feeling bad
feeling kind of sad
just remember that ant—
oops there goes another rubber tree
oops there goes another rubber tree
oops there goes another rubber tree plant.”

In the song, everyone may know an ant can’t move a rubber tree plant, but the ANT doesn’t know it. Or if it does know, it tries anyway. And oops, there goes another rubber tree plant. The ant accomplishes the impossible.

Okay, enough with the ant and the rubber tree plant! That’s just a silly song, right? And the message is just as foolish and naïve as the idea of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. The ant does something impossible. Which, by definition, means it can’t be done, so just give it a rest.

But wait…have you ever watched an ant carry something several times the size and weight of its own body? Have you ever watched a bumblebee fly, those tiny wings supporting that enormous body? I’ve read that the laws of physics would predict these things to be impossible, but they do happen, every day. And then when you get a whole group of ants together, watch out. I’m guessing the ant in the song was not acting alone. A whole colony of ants would have no difficulty in moving a rubber tree plant. Ants, like bees, and also like humans, are obligatory social animals. Alone, even if we are really strong for our size, we may feel small and powerless in the face of great obstacles. But in groups, bound by common purpose, we are exceedingly powerful.

There is a line in a Billie Holiday song that goes: “The difficult I’ll do right now, the impossible will take a little while.”2

What can that mean to us as religious people facing the greatest crisis in the history of the world? By that, of course, I refer to the interwoven catastrophes of climate change, mass extinction, war, and the rising tide of fascism threatening to trample human rights into the dust.

To begin, let’s go back to the reading I just shared with you. About love and fear. And let’s think about the stories we’ve heard this morning in its light.

Jennifer’s story is one of love, of what it looks like to live one’s ordinary life from a place of love. She could have been fearful of her Latinx neighbors and of the quality of public education, and taken her kids to a private school. Instead, she has chosen to love her neighbors—her actual neighbors, not hypothetical ones—and keep her children at the neighborhood school. She has formed genuine community with people different from her, and she can’t help but be involved in their concerns. She is not just dreaming of a better world but actually building it. She is, in Mahatma Gandhi’s words, being the change she wishes to see in the world.

The story of Kunkush is another story of love. The love of a mother for her children. The love of human beings for other kinds of beings. Also a wider kind of love in which people from all around the world act together to help others whom they’ve never even met. Clearly, world community is not only POSSIBLE, but it already exists, because people are capable of acting from love rather than fear.

“Love,” says Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “is the most universal, the most tremendous and most mysterious of the cosmic forces…it is huge, ubiquitous and always unsubdued…Love is a wild force, a sacred reserve of energy like the blood of spiritual evolution.”3

Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”4

Gandhi said: “If one person can achieve the highest kind of love, it will be sufficient to neutralize the hate of millions.”5

Unitarian Universalist theology passionately affirms these views of love and its power to overcome the fear that causes hate. American Unitarianism and Universalism arose in response to orthodox Calvinist doctrines of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Calvinism claimed that human beings were “totally depraved,” with no free will and no ability to make choices that would bring good into the world. God had elected from the beginning of time which humans would be saved and which would be damned to suffer in a fiery hell for all eternity. Jesus was crucified and died in order to pay the penalty for the sins of the elect. The way to know whether a person was one of the elect, who would be saved and resurrected, was to read the “signs.” One of these signs had to do with how much material wealth a person had; prosperity was therefore a sign of election.6

Universalist preachers John Murray and Hosea Ballou could not accept this concept of God. For them, God was a good and loving father, whose abundant love showered upon everyone equally. This God would no more condemn any of his creatures to an eternal fiery hell than a loving parent would place a child in an earthly fire. What was more, a God who would require a beloved son to die a cruel and tortured death as atonement for the sins of the rest of humanity was not fit to worship.

Ballou, along with Unitarians William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker, believed that people model their own behavior on what they imagine God to be. So the concept of the angry, vengeful God who redeems humanity through violence, and divides people into the saved and the damned, is dangerous. This theology causes people to live from fear. It divides people into the worthy and the worthless, and it sanctifies violence against those deemed to be worthless.

Ballou argued that God’s purpose was to “happify” people, sending Jesus to teach us by example how to live. If we lived in accordance with God’s purpose—to love God and God’s creation and one another—we would be happy.  If we did not—if we lived, instead, separated from God and cruel to each other—we would be unhappy.  We ourselves created our own heaven and hell here on earth.7

Present-day Unitarian Universalism still reverberates with these ideas. While some of us believe in a personal deity and some do not, we all affirm seven principles that are underpinned by these theological notions: an abundance of love, equally available to every person, the importance of caring for this beautiful world here and now, the necessity of meeting all with love and not fear.

I have been speaking of love and fear as Michael Leunig does, as polar opposites, each resulting in a different way of being. But really, they’re all bound up together, aren’t they? If you have ever had a child, you know what I mean in a very visceral way. There is that powerful, intense love for that precious little being, the flip side of which is deep fear that something will happen to it. You may feel similarly about any of your loved ones, human or otherwise. Many of us have the same feelings about our wondrous blue planet. We are terrified right now because all we love is in grave danger. It is our love that gives rise to our fear.

Sometimes fear can galvanize us into action. Other times, fear prevents us from taking action because we are afraid of the consequences. Either way, fear is not a good long-term companion. Contemporary neuroscience shows that Hosea Ballou was right: living in fear is bad for us, both for our personal health and the health of society. When we’re afraid, we don’t have access to our cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that enables us to think clearly. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are racing around in our body, and while we can survive that once in a while, if we stew in stress hormones, they shred all of our cells, including our brain cells. We become less and less intelligent, more and more prone to reacting without thinking. We have less capacity for empathy, which means our capacity for social cooperation is reduced. So the whole world becomes more and more frightening and dangerous, which in turn damages the brain more. It’s a positive feedback cycle.8

So while fear might give us the kick in the pants we need to wake us up, if it does, we need to thank it, and release it, and then draw upon the love underneath the fear for our long-term fuel.

Because love is where the real power is. If we are afraid of what will happen to us if we act, we give others power over us. But when we act from love, when we act joyfully and together with others, in love, our fear falls away, and we take our power back. And we can accomplish what seems impossible. Sí, se puede.

What do I mean by saying love is power? How does love go from being a feeling to being a force that makes real change in the real world? Through active nonviolent resistance. Nonviolence is both a philosophy and a practical strategy that is rooted in love. Powered by love. People who don’t know much about nonviolence dismiss it as weak and ineffective. Or they say it can only work in situations in which all parties place the same value on human life. I’ve often heard good friends of mine say it would be impossible to use nonviolence successfully against a regime as brutal and evil as Hitler’s.

Impossible? In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep saying that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means.”9

In fact, nonviolent movements have succeeded in dismantling oppression of all kinds in every part of the world. Through nonviolent resistance, India freed itself from the British Empire. African Americans won equal civil rights. Mexican-American farm laborers won the right to be treated like human beings. Black South Africans and their allies faced down apartheid. Nonviolent movements brought down Milosevic in Serbia and freed Poland from the USSR. In Argentina, the Mothers of the Disappeared demonstrated nonviolently for twenty years, and finally fractured the military regime. The tiny republic of Estonia took up singing instead of arms and won its freedom from the Soviets.10

And what of the example of Hitler? The one regime people believe could not be touched by nonviolent resistance?

Consider this: In Berlin, in 1943, the Nazis began rounding up all Jewish men remaining in the city. The men were still there because they were married to German women who were not Jewish. But now they were being held at Rosenstrasse before being shipped to camps. Their wives and children began gathering and demanding their release, and over the next few days the crowd grew and grew. Soldiers fired warning shots and the crowd dispersed, but the next day the women and children were back, with other citizens who were not married to Jews. Rather than lose control of more than just this situation, the Nazis returned the men, and later released all intermarried Jewish men from all the camps, all over Europe.11

Even Hitler’s regime was vulnerable to the power of love.

The difficult I’ll do right now, the impossible will take a little while. It may be that world community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all is an impossible dream, so far out in the future that none of us here will ever see it—if humans make it that far. Nevertheless, we must persist. As religious people who believe in the power of love, we must continue to hold the dream, because anything we do in its service brings it that much closer to fruition. We can’t know what the effects of our actions will be. In times of great social change, often nothing seems to happen for a very long time, and then everything suddenly changes all at once.

It’s kind of like childbirth. There’s a lot of work for a very long time, and it hurts like hell, and then suddenly a whole new being lands in our arms!

The great civil rights lawyer and filmmaker Valarie Kaur asks:

“What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?”12

And she says:

“In labor, we don’t breathe just once and push the rest of the way. We breathe, and push. And breathe. And push. And we do this holding the hand of someone we love. So find your sister or brother or partner or friend today — and be one another’s midwives. We can only do this together. Breathe, and push.”13

May it be so. Amen.


*Title borrowed both from the Billie Holiday song (see below) and from the marvelous book, The Impossible Will Take A Little While:  A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, by Paul Rogat Loeb.  Basic Books, New York, 2004.

1This version of High Hopes by Mary Miche on Animal Crackers.
2Crazy He Calls Me.  1949.  Music: Carl Sigman.  Lyrics:  Bob Russell.
3Meynard, Thierry (ed.) Teilhard and the Future of Humanity, Fordham University Press, New York, 2006.
4Washington, James M. (ed.) A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Harper & Row, New York, 1986.
5Gandhi, Mohandas.  “It is possible to live in peace.”  Reading #577 in Singing the Living Tradition, Unitarian Universalist Association, Boston, 1994.
6Parker, Rebecca.  Lecture in “Unitarian Universalist Theologies:  Modernity and Postmodernity,”  ST 4019 at Starr King School for the Ministry, Berkeley, California, February 25, 2009.
7Ballou, Hosea.  A Treatise on Atonement.  Originally published 1805.  Edited and introduced by Ernest Cassara, Skinner House Books, Boston,1986.
8One good book on this is How God Changes Your Brain, by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman.  Ballantine Books, New York, NY.  2009.  It’s really about how spiritual practice changes the brain, and useful for learning ways of releasing fear.
9The Princess Bride.  Also a book by William Goldman, but the film is much more fun.
10Ackerman, Peter and Jack Duvall.  A Force More Powerful:  A Century of Nonviolent Conflict.  Palgrave, New York, NY. 2000.  11Ibid, pp.236-238.

Soul Repair

Have you ever noticed how many Unitarian Universalists are uncomfortable talking about war, and veterans?  And how few military families there are in our pews?  Last year I lit a candle here, in honor of the sacrifices of veterans.  There was a palpable feeling of tension in the room as I spoke these words:

“Veterans’ Day was originally called Armistice Day.  It was a celebration of the end of World War I.  It was a celebration of peace.  Later, after World War II and the conflict in Korea, it became Veterans Day.  It was set aside to honor the sacrifices of all those who have served in the United States armed forces.

Some of those veterans were drafted.  But for others, serving their country was and remains a calling.  Many soldiers enlist because they feel called to serve and protect, even at the cost of their own lives.  May there come a day when answering a call to serve, and protect, does not mean being sent to war.  May we together work toward that day.”

The room relaxed as I finished.  “Whew!  She walked that line pretty well, that line between mindless patriotism on one side and scorn for veterans on the other.”

Then we moved on to a completely different topic.

Today we are not going to move on to a different topic.  We are going to stay on this difficult and potentially painful topic, because sometimes that’s what we most need to do.  Today is Veterans Day and I am going to talk about veterans.

For many years, I was one of those UU’s who was uncomfortable talking about veterans, and about war.  And so were most people in my home church.  We were appalled by the wars our country was involved in and we didn’t see how anyone with half a brain could be fooled into signing up.  We did not want to celebrate militarism, or make war seem in any way heroic.  We were also quite sensitive, and we didn’t want to hear the details of atrocities in church.  So, we walked the line between celebrating war and denouncing it by just ignoring it.

Then, about five years ago, on Memorial Day weekend, a group of us were putting on an intergenerational service about a completely different theme.  Afterward, two mothers approached us.  Both were deeply involved in the church, and they were gifted women whom I greatly admired.  They said,

“How could you not even MENTION that tomorrow is Memorial Day!  Our husbands are serving in Iraq and we are afraid for their lives every day.  How can we feel held by this congregation if you don’t even MENTION Memorial Day?!”

Well.  I was astounded.  These two women were in military families?  There are military families in Unitarian Universalism?  Which shows you just how how little I knew.  Later I was talking about this with a close friend from our church, and he said, “You know, I used to be a Navy pilot.”  You could have knocked me over with a feather.

He went on to explain why he had joined up.  Like many people who enlist, his family was poor.  He was deeply lonely, and he wanted to feel like he belonged somewhere.  He wanted to devote himself to something bigger than he was, give his life to some larger purpose. He wanted an education.  He wanted meaningful work, in which he would be respected.  There were no real opportunities where he lived, and wanted to go places in the world.  He wanted health care.  He loved ceremony and pageantry.  The military offered him all of that.  Is there anything else that does?

Those conversations were real eye-openers for me.  They were heart-openers.  I began to understand soldiers as human beings with human needs.  I began to understand military families as…just…families, who have the same problems as other families, plus others.

Then I met Chris Antal.  Chris is a young UU minister who serves as a chaplain in the United States Army.  Does it surprise you, that a UU minister would become a military chaplain?  When we have so many other options?  But Chris isn’t like me.  He doesn’t have a lot of other options.  He and his wife have four very young children, and they are poor.  “Dirt poor,” are his exact words.  He had two options if we wanted to follow his call to ministry.  One was to take out gigantic student loans.  The other was to enter the military.  Ministry doesn’t pay particularly well, and Chris didn’t see how his family could get by on a minister’s salary if he had a huge load of debt.

But that is not the main reason he chose military chaplaincy.  It matters, but it’s not the main reason. Chris told me the main reason is this: “As long as we continue to send people to war, we have an obligation to accompany them.  To minister to them.  The more unjust the war, the more this is true.  We cannot abandon the people we send into harm’s way.”

Oh, was I humbled.  As long as we continue to send people into war, we must accompany them.  And he is accompanying them, all the way into battle.  This fall Chris was deployed with his unit to a place he’s not allowed to name.  I haven’t heard from him since.

Not everyone can be a military chaplain; you have to be young and strong to do it.  So how can the rest of us accompany soldiers and veterans?  As long as we continue to send people to war, as long as they go there believing they are serving us, and they come back damaged and broken, we must care for them.  How?

Perhaps the first thing we can do is try to understand what it is like for them.  Why did they go into the military?  What happened to them in battle?  What do they face when they come back?

We’ve heard from my Navy friend about the very human reasons why young people enlist.  Chris told me that now there’s another dimension.  He said, “Most of the boys in my unit enlisted the minute they turned eighteen.  They grew up in New York.  They watched the Twin Towers fall.  Some of them lost family members.”  Chris’ soldiers feel a deep need to defend what it is precious to them, to make sure the attackers do not attack again.  They want to make the world safe for their loved ones.

The next question is, when these soldiers get there, what is it like for them?  Chris Hedges is a career war correspondent who has written several books denouncing war.  One is called War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.  In it he talks about two opposing forces, eros and thanatos.  The force of life, as experienced in erotic love, and the force of death, as experienced in battle.  Both are equally powerful in the human psyche, he says.  Both heighten the senses, focus the attention, subsume the small individual self into something as vast as the sky.  Soldiers who have been in war describe combat in almost erotic terms.  Hedges says that war “seduces combatants with…a powerful elixir of noble purpose and meaning…an antidote to the shallowness of consumer culture and aimless and marginalized lives…”

In war, the soldiers are intensely bonded, intensely focused on surviving from one minute to the next.  In the particular kind of war that is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military of one country is not fighting the military of another country.  Instead, soldiers are fighting what our country calls “insurgents.”  Who can be anybody, using anything as a weapon, including a child or a pet, and using anything or anyone as a shield, including a child or a pet.  There is no way for soldiers to tell who is a combatant and who is not, so they have to be alert 100 percent of the time, focused on protecting their friends 100 percent of the time, in contact with each other 100 percent of the time.  The depth of relationships that develop is like nothing else except the very first throes of romantic love.  This kind of intensity is addictive.

And at the same time, soldiers must carry out tasks and orders that require them to violate their own innermost being, their own internal moral code.

The most basic human moral precept is never kill another human being.  Never take another human life.  Young people learn this from their families, their neighbors, teachers, their churches.  By the time they are teens it is deeply rooted in their consciousness. It is so deeply ingrained that during World War II, a study found that nearly 75 percent of soldiers would not fire directly at an enemy, even when their own lives were at risk.

Well, that had to be changed, so the military developed training in reflexive firing, which means firing a weapon on command without thinking at all.  By the time of the Korean war, soldiers were firing directly at the enemy 50 to 60 percent of the time, and in Vietnam it was 85-90 percent.

What happens to these killing machines when they truly realize what they have done?

“Mac” Bica calls it “moral injury.”  Mac served in Vietnam and has been trying to recover ever since.  He became a philosopher of war to try to make sense of his experiences and those of his fellow veterans.  He uses the term moral injury to differentiate what happens to a person’s soul when they violate their moral code, from the PTSD that happens when they are exposed to life-threatening situations.

My colleagues Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini have just written a book called Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War.  They say:

“Moral injury results when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings.”

When soldiers come back from war, they have left the most intense relationships of their life.  Some of their closest friends have been killed, often right next to them.  They experience both moral injury and PTSD, along with grief, and the pain of their physical injuries.  They may have brain injuries caused by concussions from bomb blasts.  And they come back to…what?  A consumerist society in which most people are oblivious to the fact that a war is happening at all?  In which people spend most of their time shopping and watching television and talking on phones and computers?  Veteran Tyler Boudreau says, “they say war is hell, but I say it’s the foyer to hell.  I say coming home is hell…you’re lost.”

Veterans are so lost that they are committing suicide at a rate of 18 per day.

These veterans understand that they are not victims, in the way that the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who have died during the past ten years were victims.  The veterans know the harm they have caused, and that is exactly their problem.

What can be done to help repair their souls?  Is it even possible to do so?

In the past 40 years, Mac Bica has found that the first step in repairing the soul of a veteran is talking to other veterans.  Only other veterans can understand.  That may seem obvious, but when Mac first came back from Vietnam, no support groups existed.  The treatment of choice for traumatized veterans was thorazine.  Veterans at VA hospitals who wanted to meet together and talk, had to do so secretly.  Now there are support groups for vets at VA hospitals—but there are not enough, and they are not always easy to get into.  Most vets have to fight the VA tooth and nail to get the care they need.  And many veterans go back to civilian life in towns where no support is available at all.   How are they to begin recovering?  Many of them just don’t.

What’s available here, in this town, to support veterans?

The next thing veterans need is support from family and friends—and those family and friends need support themselves.  Again, where are they to get it?  The VA just does not offer enough.  What is available here?  Do you know?

The third thing veterans say they need is a welcoming community where they can tell their truth. Not the kind of community that calls them heroes and offers them parades and yellow ribbons.  They say this only makes things worse for them, because they do not feel like heroes.  They cannot live up to the expectations of heroes.  What they need instead is to share their anguish with people who will listen to them with open minds and hearts, who will be present with them no matter what they say.  They don’t necessarily want to describe the violence they have seen and done.  They want to tell us about their pain.  They need us to read their poetry, to watch their films, to see their paintings, to go to their plays, to hear them speak.  They need us to stretch our hearts big enough to handle hearing from them about the consequences of what we asked them to do.

Camilo Mejia is an immigrant to this country who became a soldier because, like my friend, he was lonely and looking for somewhere to belong.  In Iraq, he was ordered to shoot a young man who was about to throw a grenade into a crowd.  He remembers looking through his rifle sight and then he remembers the young man lying dead in the street.  He has no memory of firing his weapon, although later he counted 11 bullets gone from its magazine.  Shortly afterward, he found out had a paperwork problem related to his immigration status.  He was given two weeks’ leave to go home and take care of it.  He visited his 4-year-old daughter, and realized, in his words:

“How could I ever teach my daughter right from wrong when I had done so wrong myself?  What moral authority did I have left to be a good father?”

Mejia found himself unable to go back to Iraq.  Although technically, as a non-citizen, he was supposed to have been discharged months before, officials called him a coward and refused to sign his papers.  He applied for conscientious objector status, but his application was never even looked at.  He went AWOL and went into hiding.  Finally he decided to go public with his opposition to the war.  He was arrested, court-martialed and sentenced to a year in prison.  He said he had never felt freer, because “there is no higher exertion of your freedom than to follow your conscience.”  Camilo has found that telling his truth is an important step toward repairing his soul.

The fourth thing veterans need is to do something to make amends.  To atone.  Not to obtain cheap forgiveness by going to the scene of their crimes and distributing dollar bills, but to do something real to change the situation that led to the damage in the first place.  I want to read to you from Camilo Mejia’s testimony before a Truth Commission on Conscience in War:

“I don’t pity myself for living with moral injury. I believe we always have a chance to take the defining moments in life, however painful they may be, and either turn them into something positive, or let them continue to destroy the core of our moral being…My eyes are open and I no longer view the suffering of others as alien to my own experience.  I view hunger, disease, and the brutality of war and occupation as global-scale issues, not as issues of individual nations.  I believe those of us who have lived through war have a moral obligation to educate the public about what is being done in their name…if there is one thing I am certain about, it is that in committing great wrongs against others, I committed great wrongs against myself as well.  And with the certainty that it will take a lifetime to heal the injuries within me, I embark on this lifelong journey to heal the injuries of others.”

Finally, what veterans need from us is for us to join with them in the process of soul repair.  They need us take responsibility for starting unjust wars in the first place.  They want us to hold officials who launch such wars accountable, and prosecute them.  They want us to create a society in which no one need sign up to become a killer because they are poor and lonely, because they need food and health care, or because they want meaning and purpose.  In such a society there would be no need for killing.

Brock and Lettini write: “We cannot uphold our moral integrity by pleading an ignorance of facts, by claiming a war is legal, or by distancing ourselves from the leaders who declare a war.  To treat veterans with respect means to examine our collective relationship to war with the same…courage and integrity veterans themselves have modeled.”

Can we take this responsibility?  Can we examine our collective relationship with war with courage and integrity?  Can we hold our leaders accountable for the damage wars have done?  Can we accompany and care for the veterans who return?  Can we create a society in which all are cared for and all belong?

Here is a small way to start.  Before my friend Chris left for parts unknown, he told me that it would really help if Unitarian Universalists would start actively welcoming veterans into our churches.  It would really help if we would support families of veterans.  Especially in places like this one, far from the nearest military base.  He said, “Maybe you could start by talking about veterans on Veterans Day.”  I promised him I would.

I hope I get to tell him I kept my promise.

May it be so.  Blessed be.


All quotations from:

Brock, Rita Nakashima and Gabriella Lettini, 2013.  Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War. Beacon Press, Boston.

Hedges, Chris. 2002.  War is a Force That Gives us MeaningPublic Affairs, New York.

Declaration of Interdependence


On Interbeing by Thich Nhat Hanh

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are.

And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too.

Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too… the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here–time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper.

“To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing.


So, how are you feeling about this country of ours these days? All ready to celebrate its birthday?

I’ll tell you how I am feeling. I love this country. I love its landscapes, its wildlife, its enormous variety of ecosystems. I love the variety of peoples and cultures here. I love our ideals of freedom and equality and justice. This is my home, the country where my heart is.

And because I love this country, in the past few months I have been feeling enraged. I have been feeling heartbroken, and grief-stricken. We seem to be hell-bent on destroying our beautiful lands and completely trashing our ideals.

I am also feeling afraid. Never in my lifetime, which includes the Cold War and the terrors of the Reagan years, has this world faced the extreme level of danger we are facing now. If we in this nation don’t immediately mobilize every resource we have to convert from fossil fuels to renewable energy, our planet will be unfit for human life within 50 to 100 years. Within the lifetime of my own children.

But it’s hard to work on that right now when he who must not be named and his administration of hate occupy so much of our national attention. We find ourselves having instead to mobilize to stop fascism and reclaim basic human rights we thought we had already won.

Do you think that’s an accident?

I am not suggesting conspiracies, though they may be afoot. I am suggesting that the upsurge in hatred and violence, and the extreme destruction we are wreaking our planet, are deeply interconnected.

There is an old story that goes something like this: once upon a time, there was a little town next to a river. One day, a person saw a baby floating down the river. They ran in and pulled the baby out, and called for help. No sooner had the person handed the baby over to someone else, when another baby floated down, and no sooner had they 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. Many people are working as hard as they can to rescue babies—to care for the hungry and the homeless and the victims of abuse and war, to restore ecosystems. This is essential work. If this is your work, thank you for doing it.

And it is also essential to go upstream. It is essential to find out the causes of these interconnected crises. How can we begin to address them? How can we begin to heal our planet and its peoples?

This is what I have spent my entire adult life trying to understand. Lucky for you, I can distill 35 years of study into just a few minutes of sermonating!

What I have learned is this: Western culture is built on a binary, dualistic understanding of the world, in which separation and power over are the main themes. Plato and Aristotle believed that the basic unit of human life was the solitary individual, separate from all others. They called this theory “atomism.” The ancient Hebrews believed that God created humans in the image of the divine, and then separated Adam from all other living things and gave him “dominion” over them.

Western philosophers, theologians, and scientists have spent centuries describing separations between heaven and earth, sacred and profane, mind and body, light and dark, order and chaos, purity and sexuality—with the second term always inferior to the first. The earth, or “nature,” women, and dark-skinned people—anyone and anything not white and male—were equated with each other, and all equated with darkness, sexuality, and chaos. All were to be subdued and used for the benefit of mankind (meaning white men of European descent.) All were considered Other, and relegated to the status of “It,” in Martin Buber’s terms, which permits separation between oneself and another, instead of the “You” that makes relationship possible.

Embedded in this dualistic understanding of the world is the notion of conflict between opposites. Not the kind of constructive conflict that engenders healthy mutual growth, but the destructive kind that keeps us locked in winner-take-all competitions. The kind in which a solitary self, alone and afraid, is pitted against everyone and everything else in the world in a battle for survival. Remember your literature classes in high school, how the three basic plots revolved around conflict? Man against man, man against nature, man against himself. Someone always won or lost. I was one of those pesky high school students who kept raising my hand and asking “What about woman? Why do we use “man” to refer to all people? And why does a plot always have to involve conflict? Isn’t love an important story? What about cooperation?” The teachers would sigh and roll their eyes. “That’s not what we’re talking about right now,” they would say. “You’re missing the point.”

But I wasn’t missing the point. I was making a different point. As I would later learn, this construct, of a fearful, solitary self, in competition with all else for scarce resources, with divine permission to exercise dominion over the world, is what formed the basis of the brand new United States of America.

When our forefathers wrote the Constitution, they relied heavily on the ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith, who borrowed from Plato and Aristotle. In the 17th century, Locke proposed a theory he called social atomism, in which each individual acts solely in his own interest. These interests conflict with the interests of others, and require the consumption of “inert resources.” Therefore society should set up a social contract in order to make sure individuals respect each other’s rights. In the 18th century, Adam Smith applied the idea of social atomism to economics, proposing that the most efficient market would result from individuals acting in their own self-interest.

These theories appealed to men like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, because in their world, people were not free to act in their own self-interest. Instead, they acted from obligation to relationships based on dominion, or power over: God had absolute power over everything. Kings had absolute power over their lands and peoples. Men had absolute power over women and children. Whites had absolute power over people of color.

Our forefathers did not like having to submit to the king. They were men of wealth and privilege, and brilliant minds, and they wanted the freedom to determine their own lives. So much the better if acting in their own interests brought about the best situation for everyone! So what kind of social contract could they set up to make it happen?

Well, for some years they had been observing and admiring the Iroquois League. This was a representative democracy, with every person, including women, having an equal voice. All people were considered equal! And that system of governance explicitly recognized interdependence. The Iroquois League considered the impacts of every decision on their nonhuman relatives, and they considered the impacts on the next seven generations. 1

But alas, our forefathers, like all people, were limited by their own frame of reference. So the only part of this system of governance they could grasp was the idea of representative democracy, in which each man had an equal say. They could not grasp the importance of considering women and men as equals. Or considering persons of different skin colors equal to each other, or considering nonhuman beings as important as human ones. They certainly did not grasp the importance of considering the impacts of their decisions on the seventh generation. But they took what they did understand and used it to form a new nation. They declared that all men were created equal and ought to be guaranteed certain rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Then they made the free market economy the foundation of the new nation, with slavery and genocide as its building blocks.

With a beginning like this, no wonder we still struggle. Our most basic national story is that the self is all alone in a dangerous world, and its survival depends upon harming others. There is a wound here that needs healing. Only if we heal that wound can we go on to heal all the other terrible wounds that have sprung from it: the racism, the genocide, the rape culture, and more.

How do we do that?

By changing the story. By changing our understanding of the nature of the self and its relationship to other people and the rest of the universe. We must unlearn old habitual thought patterns and re-learn new ones.

So how do we need to understand the self?

In answer, I invite you to try to stop breathing. Can you do it? How about eating, or drinking water, would you be able to do that? Think of all that is necessary for you to take a breath, all that happens in your nerves and muscles and lungs and bloodstream when you do. Isn’t that amazing? Now, look at your hand. Is there a dark line delineating the boundary between your skin and the atmosphere in the room? There is not, because your skin and the atmosphere interpenetrate one another, exchanging atoms and molecules at a rate too fast for your eyes to see.

We are embedded in and utterly dependent upon the ecosystems in which we live. We inter-are with them. There is no separation and there can be no separation.

Not only are we radically interdependent with all other nature, we also inter-are with all other humans. An individual can neither exist nor survive by their self. Not one of us here gave birth to ourselves or fed ourselves or changed our own diapers; if babies are not held and spoken to by caregivers they die. The basic unit of human life is not an individual, it is a relationship within a system of other relationships. In fact it is complete nonsense to even speak of a basic unit of human life. All reality is composed of systems within systems within systems. We are sustained by a web of relationships so vast we cannot even comprehend it.

Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. We sometimes struggle a bit to understand what that really means, in religious terms. But our six sources give us many rich ways to engage with it.

Over twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha explained that we and the world in which we live are formed together, in relationship with all that is and ever has been. Therefore we are continuously co-creating the world, by our thoughts, our words and our deeds. Early Christians put it a bit more simply when they said, as you sow, so shall you reap. Western physics reached the same conclusion as the Buddha just this past century. As Maria Mitchell, a Unitarian and early American astronomer, wrote:

“Small as is our whole system compared with the infinitude of creation, brief as is our life compared with the cycles of time, we are so tethered to the beautiful dependencies of law, that not only the sparrow’s fall is felt to the uttermost bound, but the vibrations set in motion by the words we utter reach through all space and the tremor is felt through all time.” 2

And then there is process theology, a union of mysticism and physics, which says all things are interconnected in a moving, flowing, dancing whole, a process of creative love ever becoming. The name process theologians give this living whole, this moving love, of which all things are part, is God.

We might say, then, that the universe is the body of God. As Pagan thealogian Starhawk writes: “Earth Mother, Star Mother, you who are called by a thousand names, may all remember we are cells in your body, and dance together.” 3

A common thread running through all of these understandings of the interdependent web of being, is that every single thing we think and say and do has an effect on the whole of which we are part. We are all co-creating the world we live in, in every moment. We must take care in choosing our thoughts, our words, and our actions, because the universe holds their consequences for all time. This means that as a nation, we will continue to struggle with the consequences of slavery and genocide and misogyny and ecological destruction until we decide to heal them.

The good news is that interbeing means we CAN heal them. We have enormous power, power TO and power WITH. We have power TO work WITH one another to co-create a world that is healthy. We have the power to recognize that the evil things in our world, those things that we are taught are permanent and inevitable, the things that require us to view ourselves as isolated individuals in conflict with nature and each other, are only as real and as contingent as a cloud. Meaning, they are real, and they have effects, but they depend for their existence on a certain set of conditions. We have the power to change these conditions. More than that, we have a responsibility to change them.

How do we do that? What can just one person do? As Kathleen Dean Moore says, “Stop being just one person!” Join with others. Whatever aspect of our interrelated crises you are most concerned about, there is a group of people doing something about it. Find out who they are and join them. Be careful to join groups who understand interbeing and intersectionality, who understand that every problem we have is interrelated with every other problem we have, and are working together with other groups to solve them. For example, poor people and people of color know that climate change and pollution always disproportionately affect those who are most marginalized. They have been getting together with historically white environmental groups to demand environmental justice. And that is how the people of Portland and the people of Oakland got coal banned from their cities.  Groups acting on behalf of seniors and women and disabled people and poor people are getting together to demand universal health care.

And this is why I am feeling something else about our country today: I’m feeling hopeful. I’m feeling hopeful because people of many colors and cultures and economic classes, many genders and sexual orientations, are beginning to come together in our love for the earth and all her peoples. We are coming together in a shared understanding of interbeing.  We are making real change.

So let us acknowledge our power. Let us take up our responsibility. Let us declare interdependence. Say it with me: We declare Interdependence! And let us go forth and make America beautiful.

1 Jack Weatherford, Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. Fawcett Books, New York, 1988.

2  Singing The Living Tradition, UUA, Boston, 1993.

3  Ibid, #524.

The Way of the Chalice

Pink Rhythms Chalice by Peg Green

How do you explain Unitarian Universalism when people ask you about your religion? A few years ago I was meeting with a group at my home congregation to brainstorm some ideas for how families can build UU spiritual practice into home life. A newcomer asked, “What is it that we believe, anyway? How can I find out?” I asked her, “Have you read our Principles and Sources?” She said, “Well, yes, but the principles are social, political views, not spiritual beliefs. There must be something at the center here, something like a creed, or it wouldn’t be a church.” It reminded me a little bit of what newspaper reporters say after every General Assembly. They often claim Unitarian Universalism is not a real religion. It has nothing at the center. The seven principles are political statements that have nothing to do with God. One year a reporter said, you can’t draw a circle around nothing. Another reporter said, there’s no there there.

But the thing is, we do have something at our center. What’s more, each of our principles is a statement of a theological position with thousands of years of history behind it. AND, like other liberal religions, our faith focuses on life here and now, in this world—which means that for us, the political is the spiritual, and vice versa.

So, what is this thing at our center? What makes a UU group a religious community? We don’t often mention God, we rarely hear sermons based on biblical texts, and most of our churches don’t offer a Eucharist. We certainly don’t have a creed. So how can we call ourselves a religion?

Well, the word religion comes from the Latin, re-ligare, to bind back, or to hold together, to link. It’s the same root as in the word ligament…you know, those cords that hold our skeletons together. I like that image: without religious community, we fall apart into useless pieces. With it, we can accomplish great things.

Unitarian Universalist religion comes together not around a creed, which is a profession of beliefs that all members share, but rather through a covenant. The word covenant comes from the Latin “co,” together, and venir, “to come.” A covenant is a promise about how we come together.

Creeds are actually rare in religions: only a few forms of Christianity espouse them. The idea of a creed wasn’t even developed until the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the state religion of the Empire. Before that, Christians, like their Jewish predecessors, had constantly debated with each other about the meaning of their faith’s teachings and texts. In the Jewish tradition, such argument and debate is seen as healthy; it is a way of engaging with each other that keeps people also constantly engaged with the divine. But in order for a religion to be aligned with the power of empire, there must be one correct interpretation of everything. So Constantine called a meeting, the Council of Nicaea, at which he demanded that the bishops decide, once and for all, any points of doctrinal dispute, and write them up as a unified statement of belief. This is how the Nicene Creed came to be. A prospective member of the church would have to believe and recite the creed, in every particular, in order to be accepted. Anyone who disagreed with any part of it was considered a heretic (which actually means “choice,” or “one who chooses.”) At first, heretics were only excommunicated, but later they were tortured, or burned at the stake. The creed became a matter of life or death.

By the sixteenth century, the alliance between church and state had become so cruel and oppressive that large numbers of people protested…and so was born the Protestant Reformation. According to Rebecca Parker, “Reformers …reconceptualized church. They dismantled the hierarchical power structure and said instead that church comes into being when human beings freely make a covenant with one another to walk together.” 1 What made this “walking together” a church instead of just a political community was that God was considered to be the organizing member of the covenant. So the Salem Covenant of 1629 says: “We Covenant with the Lord and with one another; and doe bynd ourselves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himself unto us in his Blessed word of truth.”2

Unitarians and Universalists both inherited the covenantal form of church from our American Puritan ancestors. Unitarian Universalism has purposely chosen to keep this form. So, in our churches, as Parker says, “every member of the church has a say in what the church’s purpose is and why we come together. This places democratic process and human promise-making at the center of church life.” 3 As James Luther Adams put it in our responsive reading, “the goal is the prophethood and the priesthood of all believers.”4

But what exactly is it that Adams’ “believers” believe? Is God in our covenants? Many UU’s believe in some form of God or divine energy, but many do not. UU churches have atheists, agnostics, religious humanists, and Buddhists among our members, along with our many varieties of theists. If we don’t all covenant with God, then with whom, or what, besides ourselves, do we covenant? Is there something larger than ourselves, some transcendent reality, with which we covenant, and to which we hold ourselves accountable?

To answer this question, let’s take a look at the actual covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It’s on the insert in your Order of Service. Let’s read the first half together, just through our seventh principle.


The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.

At first read, these principles might not sound particularly religious. They might not seem to say anything about God, or not-God. But as I said earlier, each principle is actually a statement of a particular theological position, with a very long history. Take just our first principle. It evolved from our religious ancestors’ belief that people were inherently good, because they were created in the image of an all-loving God—an idea from the Hebrew Bible. This directly counters the doctrine of Original Sin developed by Augustine in the late fourth century. According to Augustine, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had done such a bad thing in disobeying God that the consequences of their sin were visited on every human being from then on. Every baby was born in state of complete separation from God, and would therefore go to hell UNLESS it was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That was the only remedy. The doctrine of Original Sin is still in the Catholic catechism, and it’s still alive in many forms of Protestantism. But our ancestors in faith rejected it. And their belief in the goodness of human beings also countered the Calvinist idea that humans are utterly depraved. It gave our ancestors in faith the impetus to fight against slavery and for women’s rights. Our first principle now counters all forms of oppression. It is a brave and daring statement of our beliefs about human nature. It is also a statement of radical hospitality.

Because of our first principle, my daughter, who identifies as queer, had a safe and loving community to grow up in. She understands her sexual orientation as a lovely and essential part of herself. In stark and tragic contrast, recently a friend wrote me to say that a transgendered friend of hers had committed suicide. This friend was raised in a faith that could not accept her for who she was. Her parents had a funeral for her, but not really for her. They had the funeral for the son they wish they had had. How differently might this young person’s life have turned out, if her family’s religion had welcomed her, and loved her, just as she was? How differently would her parents’ life have turned out? Our first principle can make the difference between life and death.

Each of our principles has this much importance to the living of human life. Each has this much–or more!–history and depth.

And not only are our principles statements of theological positions, but the way they are organized speaks to our theology of interdependence, of interbeing. They begin with a statement about individuals, and then move outward in concentric spheres. Our seventh principle is about the health of the whole interdependent web of being. So our covenant expresses a vision of abundant love in which each individual flourishes because the whole community of life does, and the whole flourishes because each individual does.

What all this means is that we do covenant with a transcendent reality. We do understand there to be something larger than ourselves, into which we were born, that can help us when we are in need, and to which we can hold ourselves accountable. For some of us, this transcendent reality is the living universe that gave us birth, and gave us the capacity for love. For others, it is a personal deity they call God. For still others, it is simply the love we create when we come together in community, which holds us, and gives us power to do bigger things in the world than we could do alone. There are many ways to understand this transcendent reality, which James Luther Adams called “the ultimate source of existence.” So, our covenant has a second half, which names six sources of our living tradition.

Now, before I can talk about these, I want to give you another way of understanding the relationship between our covenant and the ultimate source of existence. This is through the symbolism of our flaming chalice.

The chalice is an open container. It provides a place to rest, a place to hold something sacred, a place to elevate something beautiful. It does not close off what is inside, but rather lifts it up, gives it space to move. The chalice is created by our uplifted hands, our covenanted community, the sacred space we create when we come together. Our community forms the chalice. At its center is an open place, and at the center of that dances a flame.

The flame is a powerful, and potentially dangerous, interaction between energy and matter. It re-creates, at a small scale, the moment of combustion that began the universe, a process of simultaneous creation and destruction. It re-creates the power that has brought all of life and death into being. It can provide light, and heat, something to see by, something to warm us; or it can burn, and consume. It is the mystery at the center of our faith community. The flame is a locus of pure possibility.

So our community forms an open container, at the center of which dwells this spark of pure possibility, energy that can both create and destroy. What each of us sees in that space of creative/destructive energy, and what meaning we make from it, might be different. UU theists might see it and name it as a personal God, with whom they can have an intimate relationship. UU religious humanists and atheists might see it as the impulses toward love and fear, good and evil, that are found in every human heart. UU pagans might see it as the Goddess in her aspects of maiden, mother, and crone. UU process theists might see it as the divine energy which manifests itself in the form of the becoming universe.
Each of us looks for, and sees, “something” that keeps us in the chalice, in the community. We generally find that this “something” changes as we grow and develop. So we covenant to use the sources of our living tradition—including our own life experiences, our mystical encounters with the divine, our powers of reasoning, and the wisdom of the many religions of the world—to expand our awareness of the possibilities.

Whatever we see at the center of the chalice, we limit what we do with it. We limit how we behave, toward each other and the wider world. Contrary to what many people think about us, UU’s are not free to believe just anything. Our chalice may be an open container but it is still a container. We live in covenantal relationship with the others in our community. And since we understand our community as an interdependent web that extends infinitely in all directions, we limit what we believe, and how we behave, to what is healthful for the whole web of life. Which means that however many ways there are for us to understand the symbol of the flame, at the center of all them is love.

Doesn’t this sound wonderful? I think so. I am passionately in love with our life-giving and life-saving religion. But I have to be honest with you. In my view, our covenant has a serious limitation. This is that we only covenant to affirm and promote our principles. We do not, as yet, covenant to live them. I think this makes our religion weaker than it could be. I think it’s one reason why many UU churches seem like social clubs for likeminded people, rather than religious communities that engage us at the very deepest levels of our being.

But imagine—just imagine—what might happen if we covenanted to LIVE our principles? If we covenanted to LIVE the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, and respect for the interdependent web of all existence? This would make our religion quite demanding, wouldn’t it? We would have to shed any possessions in excess of what we need. We would have to learn how to communicate, and behave, in nonviolent ways. We would have to act in the world, every day, as Marge Piercy says, to “bless whatever (we) can with eyes and hands and tongues, and if (we) can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.”

Can we meet those demands? Can we bless the world, or make it new? YES, WE CAN.

We can, because we walk together, in covenanted community, with none of us alone. We can, because the many sources of our faith give us sustenance for the journey. We can, because we love.

My brothers and sisters, let us deepen our covenant so that we live it in every moment. Then can this religion of love claim its true power in the world. Then can the Way of the Chalice be the way of blessing we want it to be.

May it be so. Blessed be.


1Parker, Rebecca A.  “Under Construction:  Knowing and Transforming Our Unitarian Universalist Theological House.”  Unpublished paper, presented at Collegium, October 23-26, 2003.  p. 6.

2Wright, Conrad.  “Congregational Polity and the Covenant,”  Redeeming Time:  Endowing Your Church with the Power of Covenant, Walter P. Herz, ed., Boston, Skinner House Books, 1999.  p. 39.

3Parker, ibid.

Adams, James Luther. #591 in Singing the Living Tradition.  Boston, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993.

See also Buehrens, John A. and Rebecca Parker. A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century, Boston, Beacon Press, 2011.