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.)

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.)

Know Your World: Facts About Hunger and Poverty

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.