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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it always be so.

Blessed be.

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.

What to Set in Motion

Spirit of Life,
Great immensity of love
in which we live and move and have our being:

Now is the time of spring wind in the pines,
new green oak leaves spreading wide.
Dogwoods hold out snowy blooms,
and bees buzz busily in the borage.
We hear birdsong in the morning
frogsong at night.

And at the very same time
that we behold all this beauty,
unnecessary suffering abounds.
In our own community,
children are going hungry
families are losing their homes,
violence and neglect are all around.

May we never forget the contingency of all that is.
Each of us is where we are
because of millions of things that happened before.
All the beauty of this broken world,
all the suffering in this beautiful world—
all of it is contingent
on what has happened before.

From this moment,
may we vow
to be mindful of the beauty
mindful of the brokenness
mindful of our own power to choose
what to set in motion.

May we choose love.
May we choose beauty.
May we choose healing.

Blessed be.

Looking In and Looking Out

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

By looking in, and looking out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So may it ever be. Amen.

For reflection:

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

To Act With Holy Boldness

Spirit of Life, Source of all Love,
You who shine in every person here:

To be a member of a liberal religious community
is to act with holy boldness.

It is to affirm with our whole selves
that love matters,
that life matters,
that we can bring healing to the web of life,
if we will but love one another
and all the earth’s creatures.

It is to have passionate faith
that if we will commit ourselves deeply to that love
and stay with it for the long haul,
we ourselves become
the world we dream of.

Blessed be.

Veterans Day Prayer

Spirit of Life, Source of all love:

On this Veterans Day,
we long for the blessing of eros.
We long for life-giving love
to sweep across the face of the earth
and make war a distant memory.

May we be a people
who bring such love into the world.

May we open our hearts to veterans
and be willing to hear their stories.
May we make them welcome in our midst.
May we sit with them
as they make sense of their experience.

May we offer them the love
that heals all wounds,
binds all that is broken,
and wipes away all tears.

May we honor veterans
by building the world they most need.

May it be so. Blessed be.

North Coast

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

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

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

“It doesn’t matter,” he finally says.

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

“I can’t say what I mean,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Healing Meditation

Healing Meditation 1

(To be read by a caregiver to the person who is ill or injured. Read with pauses between each line. Other instructions to the reader are in parentheses.)

Sit comfortably or lie down.

Close your eyes.

Now, yawn five times, sighing as you exhale. (The first time, say something like: “If you have to fake it, that’s fine; usually a real yawn will arise after a couple of fake ones.”)

Now, take 10 belly breaths: Slowly inhale air down into your belly, pushing your abdominal muscles out as you inhale, the way a baby breathes. Slowly exhale. (Help count ten breaths.)

Now, breathe normally.

Pay attention to how the air feels as it enters your body…

and how it feels as it exits.

As you breathe,

imagine you are floating

on an infinite ocean of love

All the love of your family, and friends,

all the love there is

and ever has been:

an infinite ocean of love.

As you breathe in, imagine the light of this love entering your body.

It is the force of life, and healing, made visible.

It is a bright…warm…light.

It swirls into your lungs…

your bloodstream…

and every cell.

The bright…warm…healing light

bathes…and cleanses…

every cell of your body.

It flows in…

and washes all the fear…and pain…


All the things you don’t need.

Let them go.

Let everything you don’t need

be flushed away.

Breathe them out.

Breathe in healing light…

Breathe out all you don’t need.

Breathe in healing light…

Breathe out all you don’t need.

Let the healing light

and your breath

do their work.

Breathe in healing light…

Breathe out all you don’t need.

As the warm, tender force of life and love

swirls through your body,



and healing

every cell,

whisper “Thank you.”

Thank you for this life

Thank you for this beauty

Thank you for this love.

Thank you.

And now breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Now…as you float

on the ocean of

infinite love

let your consciousness gather.

Breathe in

Breathe out

Breathe in

Breathe out

Return slowly to this place

and this time.

Take your time.

Be gentle with yourself.

Breathe in

Breathe out

Breathe in

Breathe out.

Blessed be.

1 This meditation is particularly suitable for humanists and atheists, but can be used for anyone.