What are we willing to sacrifice for Peace?

Today we’re celebrating international peace day. We brought flags for the nations we want to know peace. We want peace to prevail on earth. We bring our whole and broken selves to this place hoping to make the world a peaceful place.

But I have a question: What is Peace? Is it the cessation of war? Is it inner peace? What is it we’re asking for?

Do we want every person on the planet have a sense of inner peace? Is it everyone choosing Non-Violence? Is it lack of turmoil between people, between nations? Or are we simply asking for solutions to problems that don’t come down to war?

What does peace look like? Does it look like everyone keeping to themselves – staying out of other people’s business? Is it caring for those who are sick and poor and hungry? Does it mean sharing resources across international boundaries? What does your utopia look like? —

I bet some of you are imagining tranquil waters, surrounded by natural settings where people walk around being kind and generous with each other. Tending the earth and to each other’s needs. This kind of utopia has been the dream of many a commune.

There certainly is an appeal to this ideal, but I think it lacks a foundation in the reality of human interaction. People aren’t always able to be calm and kind – when our needs don’t align with other people’s needs we get into conflict. We don’t need to be violent in conflict, however.

“But”, many would say, “people are inherently violent, there’s no point in trying to change that.” The reading I shared reminded us that we are not inherently violent as human beings. We are only aggressive and violent when put in certain circumstances. We, like most animals, act with aggression and violence out of fear. When we are scared of losing something vital to survival, scared of starving to death, or see threats to those we care about – that’s when violence comes out.

We see violence everywhere because we are steeped in it. We assume people are violent because we are witness to violence – in person, on the news, in our entertainment, basically everywhere we look. The citizens of the United States have become acclimated to violence, and so we have started to accept it as inevitable.

But work on Non-Violence proves that people, nations and countries can solve conflicts without resorting to violence and war. The United States Government and many of its citizens are living in fear, and are resorting to violent action – no longer as a defense, but now as an offence. We are so scared of being attacked that we have taken to deploying drones to take out “potential threats” – with the side effect of ending too many innocent lives.

The reading cited that the US has been a part of 150 military conflicts worldwide since 1850, but that article was written in 1988, 27 years ago. How many more have we been a part of in the last 27 years? How many innocent lives have been lost in the name of freedom? We’ve decided that innocent lives need to be sacrificed in the name of peace and freedom.

I am not willing to sacrifice innocent lives for freedom. Are you? What about not-so-innocent lives? Do you support the death penalty? Would you condone the killing of a violent dictator? If you had a time machine would you have gone back in time and kill Hitler before the holocaust could happen? Where is your dividing line between acceptable loss and unacceptable sacrifice?

What ARE you willing to sacrifice for peace? I don’t support the military industrial complex, and yet I am not in the street standing in front of the tanks. I am not striding through the capitol building standing up against those who support force. How close does war need to come to my life for me to be willing to sacrifice my comfort? We’ve been told so many times that war is for the greater good that we have started to believe it.

Have any of you seen the movie Serenity? Well if you haven’t, it’s great, and I am going to majorly spoil it for you. Sorry.

In this futuristic space western (yes, space western), a misfit band of space robbers – the crew of the spaceship Serenity – come up against the Alliance – an intergalactic government – who have sent a hitman to kill one of their number, a sixteen year old psychic.

This hitman is willing to sacrifice his own life, and the lives of many innocent people for the sake of “a better world.” That he believes will come about only when everyone is under the protection and control of the Alliance. Unfortunately this 16 year old girl knows a secret that the Alliance wants to stifle, so he is on a mission to kill her.

The crew of Serenity aren’t willing to sacrifice her life for the greater good, so they defy the Alliance by seeking out the secret.

The big, life changing secret is that the Alliance – in an effort to create a peaceful world – has drugged an entire planet with a peace drug. The unintended side effects of this drug? Most of the population is so peaceful they have no motivation to live, so they lay down where they are and, peacefully, die. A small fraction of the population become violent cannibals who roam the universe senselessly killing people.

If this is the better world, the peaceful world, the crew of Serenity know they don’t want to be a part of it. The hitman, when he finds out, can no longer believe the Alliance is the way to a better world, and gives up his quest to destroy the girl.

He was willing to sacrifice hundreds of innocent lives for a peaceful world. He expected that he himself – as a killer – would not be welcome in this better world he was building, and yet he was willing to sacrifice his place in the peaceful future to violently reach the goal. But when the people he trusted to make the better world weren’t willing to publically accept their own role in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives – that was more than he was willing to sacrifice.

Who are we willing to sacrifice for peace? Where do you drawn your line? Your own life? Do you drawn the line at a limited number of “evil” people? What about people who sign up for military service willingly risking their lives? How about some innocent men, women and children? Would you be willing to sacrifice an entire planet full of people?

What are you willing to sacrifice for peace? Are you willing to give up your autonomy? As a nation, the United Sates Government has asked us to sacrifice our privacy for peace, and most of us haven’t even noticed much of a difference. Of course when we say peace in this context we really mean safety. In order to have peace people need to have a certain level of safety. Remember that it’s fear that makes us act out with violence. But we have taken safety to new extremes.

We as human beings need social contracts to facilitate how we are together, but we have become obsessed with making laws for everything. There are some neighborhood associations that regulate the color of the homes and the appropriate length of the grass!

When a black teenager is tackled by 6 police officers for j-walking, something is wrong. When a popular, black, sports celebrity is violently arrested for standing in front of a hotel, something is wrong. When a black woman is committed to a mental hospital for 8 days because the white police officers don’t believe she owns her expensive car, or that she knows President Barak Obama, something is wrong. When BLACK lives are being taken by police all across the country, even in our own backyards, in the name of safety, SOMETHING’S WRONG. We have become so obsessed with safety in the guise of peace that we have become scared of our own citizens.

If you are willing to give up your comfort to save the lives of the millions of innocent people who are “casualties of war,” are you willing to give up your comfort for the safety of your neighbors? Do you stand with #BlackLivesMatter even though you’re the only one on your block? Do you put up a blacklivesmatter sign, even if it means people will tear it down? Do you put it back up again? Are you willing to sacrifice your comfort for the sake of black lives? It is the least we can do as UUs, the very least we can do.

So, what do you think peace looks like? What are YOU willing to sacrifice for peace? Would you house a refugee, break the law, or run for office in the name of peace?

Are you willing to sacrifice your inner peace for peace in the world?
Because that may just be what it takes.


Sara Goodman, Consulting Minister
UU Congregation of Rock Valley, Rockton, IL
September 20, 2015
© 2015 Sara Goodman. All Rights Reserved.


Spiritual Practice as Resistance

New Year’s Resolutions are so passé. The thing us minister types have been talking about is creating and sustaining spiritual practices. I was going to talk today about how to sustain ourselves through hard times, and that this is an important counter-cultural way to be, and a way to resist the capitalistic society’s push to do more and be more. And maybe that’s where I’ll start, but while sitting down to write it didn’t feel like – enough – it didn’t speak to my soul in this moment.

2015, and parts of 2014 have been incredibly difficult and life changing for me, and as I sat there dealing with my own personal heartbreak, I watched the world go crazy. I watched and didn’t have enough in me join in the revolution that I saw sprouting. I felt guilty and selfish and like a hypocrite – I can preach it, but I can’t do it. It’s my job as a minister to comfort to your spirits, it’s my job as a UU minister to also send you out to create a better world.

This has never been my strong suit – creating justice opportunities. It’s not in my nature as a homebody and an introvert to actively participate in much. I spent my time and energy growing up on creating beloved community in my own world, through theater and in the UU youth community. This is where my call to ministry is rooted, in communities of people working together to create something beautiful.

To me ministry is about people and connections. It’s about building healthy and strong relationships – a place to come home to when life outside is beyond what we can deal with. This is my ministry.

Yet I was raised UU, so I know all about social justice, working for change, protesting in the streets and giving our time in service. I know that to make a difference you have to put your money and time where your mouth is, you have to vote in elections, and when there are unjust laws, you have to disobey.

When the kids at my high school wanted to protest the campus closure at lunchtime, they stood with signs on the “correct side” of the line, showing their displeasure. I told them that they were doing it wrong. There were only 2 campus security guards and dozens of them. I told them that if they wanted to take back the campus, they needed to cross the line and take it back. I showed them what it would take – I just walked past the line and took a seat.

Of course, I had nothing invested in the action. So when they asked me to move, I said no, but when they told me I wouldn’t be able to graduate, I walked away. I feel like that’s been my life. I know how to make change, I am just haven’t found the thing I am passionate enough about to give up my peace and comfort for it.

And this is my own privilege showing. I have the ability to live comfortably despite oppression and injustice. I have the choice whether or not to engage with the work of changing the world. I can think about how to spend my money and where to spend my time and where to put my energy. I choose to put my energy into working on sermons for you, on helping our UU children to understand their place in UU history, and to create a healthy future for my family.

So this year, instead of choosing a resolution, I am choosing a spiritual practice to focus on. A practice to keep me sane in my divided world. A practice to focus my mind beyond the immediate discomforts of my life. I am going to choose a practice that will help me turn from the inward focus I’ve been carrying for too long a time, and help me look beyond myself and connect in a real way to the revolution this world is facing.

But what resolution will I choose? Some people I know have taken a word and dedicated the year to it, but writing in a journal every day. But I’m not sure how long I can remember to focus on a single word, and like many resolutions, I imagine in a couple weeks I might forget to do it. Some people I know have made collages with images and words of their hopes and dreams for the coming year to look at every day for motivation.

There are so many spiritual practices to choose from these days. For a long time, I thought it was only praying or meditating. But through the years of my training, I learned that almost anything can be spiritual practice, if it helps you clear your mind and come to an inner calm.

Many people find spiritual practice in physical pursuits – running, yoga, fishing. I personally find an inner calm when swimming or when dancing, dancing alone when I’m not worried if I’m doing it right.

I know there are many people who find calm in repetitive actions, like washing dishes, cutting wood, or even knitting. Certainly Buddhists would agree that anything can be spiritual and bring you to nirvana, if you do it mindfully. One of the many spiritual practices, or methods of meditation, in Buddhism is the practice of bowing 108 times.

In seminary I participated in a meditation class where every morning at 7:30 am a large group of us would practice 108 bows, then do a sitting mediation for 30 minutes. Now, so you know, these bows are not just standing and bowing at the waist, no, these bows are full salute-the-sun bows – from standing with hands clasped in front of you, you fall to your knees, and place your forehead on the ground, then return to standing – preferably without unclasping your hands. One of these bows is hard enough, but 108? All I can say is that I only was able to complete 108 twice in a whole semester.

I guess what I’m saying is that physical and repetitive practices are definitely a good choice for many people, but if it’s not something you’re going to stick to for a whole year, it may not be the best promise to make.

A spiritual practice that is starting to make waves in the wider culture, as a creative pastime, is coloring. I can’t help but giggle that people are calling it “adult coloring.” It makes me think of other “Adult” activities. Maybe so many people are coloring because they’re under the same impression?

But the truth of the matter is, after Caroline died in April, I spent many hours of most of my days coloring. Choosing the right colors for my pages, taking the time to fill in each area with care and confidence, these repetitive, but comforting tasks helped me to find an inner calm, and a brief respite from the chaos of my life. It’s simple and creative and gives me a great sense of satisfaction to have created something beautiful.

But there I go making it about myself again. Let’s refocus.

Parker Palmer published an article on the blog On Being last week, he called it My Five New Year’s Revolutions. A slip of the fingers, a typo when he meant to write resolutions, got him thinking about some of the revolutions that need to happen to help this world be a better place. He found that he really wanted to “write about my resolve to commit to a few of the revolutions we need if we’re going to regain our humanity in 2016.”

To Parker Palmer, author, Quaker, intellectual; to Palmer, thinking about resolutions was boring. To Palmer, the idea of revolutions – revolutions that have already started in this country and around the world – was much more satisfying.

Generally, most people I know were glad to see the back of 2015. It was certainly full of my own personal tragedy, but it was also full of global heartbreak, of national outcries, of disasters and death. It was also full of many good times and good things that changed people’s lives for the better. And yet, the New York Times found the year, at least the end of it so dismal that they called their Christmas editorial “Moments of Grace in a Grim World.”

They, like Palmer, want to see the signs of progress in chaos. So what are the revolutions that Palmer wants to take on – to live into – in the coming year? There are five of them, and he certainly states them more baldly than I will as I tell you about them.

  1. He wants to revolt against the fear of otherness – he wants to stand up to those who peddle fear, to those who are afraid of people who “aren’t like us” – to say “I stand with those you are afraid of”
  2. He wants to revolt against “the state of denial in which most white American’s live.” He wants to look into his own heart and understand that he’s not had to experience oppression in the same way as people of color do. He wants white Americans to sit in the discomfort of seeing what they’ve not been able to see – that oppression is what pays for their privilege.
  3. He wants to revolt against the public education system which doesn’t account for poverty and is being overregulated and underfunded, in a power play to make private schools the only way to get a decent education.
  4. He wants to revolt against the gun-related policies that make it easy for people to obtain automatic weapons, and those people who keep touting that more guns and less regulations will make the world safer, which is clearly not the case. There were more mass shootings in the US in 2015 than days in the year.
  5. And lastly, he wants to revolt against the idea that the few deserve more than the many. He wants to revolt against capitalist theory that tells us those of us who are born into privilege (say born in the middle class in the United States, or other Western countries) deserve to live in luxury, while millions of people around the world live in poverty.

These revolutions are on the horizon, and I too want to be a part of them. I want to spread love and compassion to the world. I want to choose to be more pro-actively justice seeking.

AND, I think if you and I are going to try to make change, we need to start where we are. Working to keep ourselves sane while we go through our lives, fighting for justice, supporting our causes, helping those we can help. We can’t do everything, but we can do something.

Sometimes that something is taking time to find calm within ourselves as the storm rages around us, and sometimes it’s jumping in feet first to fight with a revolution.

Let’s start where we are though – if you are working to make it day by day in your life, practice calm. If you are holding your own, and looking for something more – practice embracing justice. It doesn’t take much, just some self-education and a dedication to allowing discomfort. It’s a good place to start anyway. Will you join me?


Sara Goodman, Consulting Minister
UU Congregation of Rock Valley, Rockton, IL
January 3, 2015
© 2015 Sara Goodman. All Rights Reserved.

Science and Religion: A Match Made in Heaven.

Eighty years ago today, in 1925, America was a different place. It was only five years ago that women had won the right to vote for the president of the United States. While the stock market crash was four years away, flappers and the Charleston were taking over living rooms everywhere. The civil rights movement wouldn’t come on the scene for another 30 years. And in April 1925, a young teacher named John Scopes discussed the theory of evolution with his high-school biology students in Tennessee.

As a high-school student myself sixty-some years later, in Minnesota, I studied the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” that ensued. I learned about the great Clarence Darrow, the liberal defense lawyer—who, by the way, regularly attended a Unitarian church in Chicago[1]—and I learned about William Jennings Bryan, the conservative Christian who prosecuted John Scopes for undermining the teachings of the Bible. My high-school class watched the movie version of Inherit the Wind, the play based on the trial. It renames the lawyers as “Brady” and “Drummond,” but they’re clearly meant to represent Bryan and Darrow.

And, watching the movie, I cringed when Drummond asked Brady to speculate on the geological age of a rock, and Brady replied he is more interested in the Rock of Ages than the Age of Rocks.[2] I thrilled to Drummond’s passionate speech in praise of the power and freedom of the human mind. “In a child’s power to master the multiplication tables,” he cried, “there is more sanctity than in all your shouted ‘Amens!’, ‘Holy, Holies!’, and ‘Hosannahs!’”[3] And in my heart I shouted “Amen!” to Drummond’s humanism because it mirrored what I believed. I was convinced that religion wasn’t good for much, and it definitely was a threat to freedom of thought and scientific progress.

Flash forward to today, and we’re still arguing about how to teach biology in the public schools. I know better now that lots of religious people accept the theory of evolution. But there are those who don’t. After an attack on evolution in the small town of Grantsburg in Wisconsin, our neighbor to the north, a bunch of liberal Wisconsin clergy circulated a petition saying they believed it was possible to be a good Christian and still affirm the truth of evolution. You’d think that by now we wouldn’t have to defend this revolutionary idea. But for a lot of Americans, science and religion are still enemies.

Some people are trying to defend one or the other, taking sides and arguing which one should dominate. Imagine a conversation between an atheist geology professor and a fundamentalist minister. The geologist might say, “Why do I need religion? Science tells me that the earth condensed out of dust and gas 4 billion years ago, and I can tell you the history of the planet since then by reading the rocks of our mountains and canyons. All that stuff in Genesis, creation in six days, that’s just a load of hooey. Anyone who really believes that stuff ought to have their head examined.”

The fundamentalist might say, “Why do I need science? The Bible tells me exactly how the world was created, right there in Genesis. All you scientists with their fancy radio-carbon dating and whatnot think they’re so smart, but they’re the ones who have it wrong. They’re attacking the Bible, which means they’re attacking God and the moral foundations of our society, and I take that as a personal attack on me!”

Phew! All that arguing, and where has it gotten us? Nowhere very helpful. It’s familiar territory to me, though. My dad is a psychoanalyst, and so of course I learned early on that Freud thought religion was a nice little neurotic delusion for folks who were too weak to get along without it. And since Freud was practically God for the psychoanalytic crew, I figured, well, he must be right!

Then I got to high school and started studying chemistry, and that put another nail into my coffin of skepticism about religion. Now, I was a girl who loved textbooks, especially brand-new ones. Some people love that new-car smell, but for me, let me crack open a new textbook and inhale those delicious fumes, and I’m happy. So here was this world of chemistry that opened up for me. The little models of atoms and molecules and interlocking electrons, and the cute little two-letter codes for the elements—wow, it all just seemed so clean and orderly. No matter what kind of angst or craziness was going on in my life outside class, those little elements were not going to let me down.

Chemistry seemed like a reliable world, a place where I could hang my hat, sit down, and rest for a while. And the way we learned it in high school, those little atoms explained everything about everything, really. We went back to the Big Bang and learned about how everything that exists came from that tremendous explosion, and how science is advancing so that we know more and more about how we got from there to here. In that world of ever-progressing knowledge, who needed some old guy named God to explain anything? Maybe I wondered now and then about what happened before the Big Bang, and how all that matter got there in the first place. But we never talked about it in class, and I didn’t really have anyplace to take those wonderings. So they didn’t go anywhere.

Meanwhile, what I thought of as that “old guy named God” entered my life in a roundabout way when a wave of conversions to born-again Christianity hit my high school in 10th grade. One after another, six kids on my sports teams became born-again Christians, and that was a lot on a team of less than 20 people. All of a sudden they were huddling together for prayers before a big race. One of them, a sweet, gentle girl, didn’t hesitate to tell the rest of us, when we asked, that she was truly sorry but she was afraid she did believe we were all going to hell if we didn’t convert. She was really nice about it, but still I found it disturbing!

As for the rest of them, it’s true that they seemed happier, really at peace and smiling a lot. But it seemed so weird that they actually believed that I was going to hell. I remember feeling halfway jealous—that is, jealous of their peace of mind and that inner glow they seemed to have, but totally convinced that what was doing it for them was not going to do it for me. I was left with the impression that converting to Christianity was kind of like getting a lobotomy—it improved your mood, but at what cost? And since I had never gone to church, I figured this was what all religion was. And I said, no thanks. I’ll stick to my textbooks. For me, science and religion had very little in common.

Well, things have changed in my world, and maybe in yours too. I will always be grateful to have found Unitarian Universalism, not least because it shows us how to honor both religion and science. In our most recent statement of who we are and what we’re about, the so-called “Principles and Purposes,” we tell the world that, among other religious traditions, we honor “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” Reason and science guiding us—what does that mean exactly? Well, as a religious movement we’ve always been guided by reason in thinking about the big questions like, “Who is God?” “Is the Bible true?” and “How do I know what to believe?” The Unitarians have always said flat out that the Bible is a human book, written by human beings, and we need to use our reason to interpret it just as we would with any other book. In this movement we aren’t afraid to use our brains and follow our thoughts wherever they lead us.

We’ve welcomed scientific knowledge too. The theory of evolution really doesn’t pose a problem for us. Guided by science, we can read the book of Genesis and say, when God creates the light, that is a lovely symbolic way of talking about the sun and the stars and how much we need light to live. When God creates the waters, and then the dry land, that reminds us of how life began in the sea, “Life from the sea, warmed by sun, washed by rain,” in the words of the reading we shared, and then how life crept little by little onto the land. And when God creates the sea creatures and the birds and the insects and the reptiles and the mammals and finally the people, we say, how amazing that the theory of evolution says, yes, the fish came first, and then the birds, and then the mammals, and we only came to exist very late in the story! Isn’t it amazing that Genesis and Darwin are telling just the same story, only in a different language!

Yes, for us, science and religion are dear friends. Most of the time it’s easy to embrace that “Principles and Purposes” statement that we “heed the guidance of reason and the results of science.”

How about that next piece, though? What about those “idolatries of the mind and spirit” that we’re warned against? When the “Principles and Purposes” statement was written back in 1985, I imagine that most people were thinking of traditional religious doctrines that felt too narrow to us, like my high-school notion that God was an old guy, or the idea that if you don’t accept Jesus as your personal savior, you’re going to hell. In my book, those are idolatries. On the other hand, we have to be careful not to let science itself become a form of idolatry for us. When I got turned off by my buddies’ born-again religion, I assumed that’s all religion was, and I decided to be one of those tough and rugged folks Freud talked about who didn’t need the so-called illusion of religion to make it through life.

The thing is, though, I did need it! As soon as I encountered Unitarian Universalism and got exposed to a different kind of religion, one that told me I didn’t have to leave behind what I already believed, I drank it up, in huge big gulps, just like a fish that hadn’t even known I was out of water. Well, make that a Darwin fish, and then you get what I mean!

In retrospect, I understand why I was so thirsty for something more than just science. The thing about science is that it can only understand what it can empirically observe and measure. In fact, from a scientific perspective, if you can’t physically, materially observe something, for all practical purposes it’s simply not there. If our entire worldview is shaped only by science, then we are living in a material world of time and space, and that’s it. When our time on earth is done, then we’re done too, as far as we know. But religions throughout human history, in every age and every culture, have always told us that there’s more to life than just what we can see and hear and touch. Every religion has told us, in a million ways that differ from place to place, that we are bodies, but we’re more than just bodies. We’re consciousness, we are spirit, we are life energy, we are divine, we are something more than what science tells us we are.

But many people in our secular culture are trying to live without this sense of “something more,” and finding it rough going. What are we supposed to do with our dearest and deepest hopes? For the first time in human history, some of us in this culture don’t dare to harbor the hope of life after death.[4] Some of us don’t dare to name our experiences of grace and mystery and awe, even to ourselves. Some of us don’t even dare to hope that the power that gave us life has our best interests at heart. In this kind of culture, we in this religious community have such a mission to fulfill. It’s far too late for many of us to embrace the kind of Christianity that captured the hearts of my high-school classmates. But it’s not too late to proclaim a religion that says, we believe in science, and we believe in more than that too. We’re proud to claim that great liberal lawyer Clarence Darrow, defender of evolution and freedom of thought, for our religious tradition. We’re proud to read Genesis and claim it as sacred myth. We see the chain of evolution that started with a tiny cell and produced us, and we say, “Cry wonder that we live!”

And yet…and yet…I wonder if we can also find some compassion for poor William Jennings Bryan, the man who railed and thundered against Darwin’s theory of evolution. Would it surprise you if I told you that Bryan was also a great populist? All his life he stood up for causes that we would be proud to be associated with today—for women’s suffrage, for the progressive income tax, for Philippine independence, and against American imperialism.[5] So what happened? What was so wrong about evolution for this flaming liberal politician?

Would it help if I told you that the textbook that John Scopes was using in that biology class wasn’t Darwin’s own Origin of Species, but rather a textbook called Civic Biology that presented the theory of evolution and used it to endorse the charming eugenic idea that epileptics and mentally retarded people should be sterilized?[6] And it’s true that the theory of evolution was being misused at this time in all sorts of shocking ways to argue that rich people were simply the “fittest,” poor people were proven “unfit” exactly by virtue of their poverty, and anyone who was labeled weak or deviant might not even deserve to live. One line from Scopes’s textbook actually reads as follows: “Hundreds of families…exist today, spreading disease, immorality and crime….Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society….If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading.”[7]

Well! Given that context, is it really so surprising that Bryan, the populist, thought that teaching evolution was sinister? Bryan didn’t have it all figured out—he couldn’t understand that the theory of evolution was separate from and better than the way it was being taught. But Clarence Darrow didn’t have it all figured out either. In his zeal to defend scientific freedom, he didn’t see what Bryan was afraid of losing—compassion for the weak, gratitude toward the power that created us, and an awareness of mystery in the world. Eighty years later we’ve come to know a little better on both sides. Now I like to imagine those two great men shaking hands and saying to one another, “Yes, I see what you mean. I see what you mean.” Science and religion, embracing at last. May it be so in our lives and in the life of our nation.

Amen and blessed be.

Laura Horton, Student Minister
UU Congregation of Rock Valley, Rockton, IL
April 10, 2005
© 2005 Laura M. Horton. All rights reserved.

Sickness and Health

When I was nine years old, I went to the hospital to have an operation on my eyes. Some of you might have noticed that my eyes sometimes focus a little differently from most people’s. I was born with my eyes crossed. So, when I was nine, I decided I wanted to have cosmetic surgery, and into the hospital I went. What I remember most vividly, 25 years later, was the IV. I had an IV in my hand that had to stay in for a couple of days after the operation, and if I just sat still it was fine. But if I moved just the wrong way, a searing pain shot into my hand, and it hurt so bad that it made me cry. I remember that pain.

But the other thing that I remember is that I never told the nurses about it. Even though it was the worst pain I had ever experienced in my life, I figured that was just the way it was. I felt ashamed when I jostled the thing, as if the pain were my fault for not being a good, quiet patient. I just kept my mouth shut and got through it.

In retrospect, it’s clear to me that something was wrong with the darn thing! Working in hospitals as an adult has taught me that IVs aren’t supposed to hurt like that. But at the time I thought it was something I had to endure, so I isolated myself needlessly from the very people who were there to take care of me. I learned the hard lesson that being sick and in pain can be hard not just because of the physical suffering, but also because of the ways it isolates us. Today I’d like to speak to you about illness and how we can help ourselves and others move out of that isolation toward reconnection. Part of the picture is the deeply personal and inter-personal issues of illness, and another part has to do with the way health insurance works, or doesn’t, to strengthen the bonds of compassion and solidarity in our society. In sickness and health, as we’ve learned in so many other realms, the personal is also political.

Let me start with the personal. I think one of the most disturbing things about being sick is the sense of isolation and estrangement we can feel from our bodies.

Now, not everyone would see this as a problem. The Jewish tradition tends to see the body and mind and soul as inseparable parts of a whole. But Christians were influenced by the Greek philosophical idea that the soul was superior to the body, and they have tended to experience their bodies as separate, in fact as a cluster of burdens and demands that the soul has to overcome. St. Augustine, the famous African bishop who lived around the year 400 CE, talks in his Confessions about his struggles to control his body and give up sex, which he believed held him back from serving God as he wanted to do.1 Over 1000 years later, Catherine of Genoa, an Italian mystic, wrote an imaginary dialogue between the soul and the body, in which the body tempts the soul into abandoning God for sensual pleasures, and the soul has to forcibly take charge again with God’s help.2

These are just two examples of the long-standing Christian tendency to split the self into soul and body. It’s been a powerful current. But in recent years, lots of Unitarian Universalists and other liberal religious folk have started to question that separation. People have started to ask, why should we despise our bodies? Lots of feminists especially have been raising this concern as we struggle against thousands of years of so-called wisdom that told women we were nothing more than weak and corrupt bodies.

It is a spiritual task for each of us, men and women alike, to appreciate the gifts of being alive and having a body. Our bodies let us see a beautiful sunrise, to taste an ice-cream cone, to hear a hawk crying on the wind. Our bodies let us swim in a lake and turn somersaults and type letters and give massages and connect with other people in wonderful ways.

Except when they don’t.

Our bodies do get sick. We hurt and ache and swell and sweat and bleed. Eventually, we break down and die. Elaine Scarry, an old professor of mine who wrote a book on pain, suggests that when we’re hurting very badly, we feel that our own body is separate from our inner self-in fact it feels like our enemy!3 To give you only a small example, once I came down with a headache in the middle of the night that was so bad that it woke me up. It didn’t go away even after I took some aspirin, and I began to get frightened that maybe something was seriously wrong. Maybe, I thought, alone in the dark-maybe I have a brain tumor; maybe I’m even going to die! And the “I” who was frightened was not the same as the pain in my head. The pain was something that was attacking me. It did pass, eventually, but not before I’d been reminded that being in a body is not always wonderful.

Here we are, people with bodies that sometimes hurt, bodies that will eventually break down and kill us. This is what it is to be human. And we know that people for thousands and thousands of years have been asking, why? Why do we have to get sick and suffer and die? What kind of world-what kind of God-would do that to us? These are questions that can make us feel isolated and estranged from the very power that brought us into being, however we choose to name it.

One person who asked these questions was Job. In the Hebrew Bible, Job is the perfect Jew-a man who we’re told is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” Satan is a character in this story, and here he’s kind of like God’s master spy, rather than the evil arch-enemy that we’re used to. He convinces God to test Job to see how loyal he really is. So God lets Satan destroy all Job’s possessions, kill all his children, and finally inflict a horrible illness on him. Job is covered with sores, and in an unforgettable image we see him sitting in ashes, scratching his sores with a shard of broken pottery.

Eventually, some of Job’s friends show up and try to tell him all the reasons why this has happened to him. Mostly, they’re a good example of what not to say to people who are sick: they tell him he must have done something to deserve it. This is a myth that dies hard in our culture. Susan Sontag, who died of cancer just a few weeks ago, wrote about how much it hurts when we assume people with cancer brought their illness on themselves by being too stressed out or too repressed or too whatever.4 This kind of thinking only isolates and punishes sick people today, and it did no good to Job either.

Finally Job, in despair and still in terrible physical pain, challenges God to explain. And God shows up! For a moment it seems there’s a possibility for reconciliation here. But God’s answer is actually quite cruel. “Where were you,” God asks, “when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). Basically, God tells him, “I am so much more powerful and intelligent than you that I have no need to justify my actions. You have no claim on me that I have to honor. I do what I do and that’s that.”

And that’s the end of the story. At least in the book of Job. It’s true, in the end, God is satisfied with Job’s performance under stress and cures his illness and makes him wealthy again. But we’re left with this terribly uneasy sense of estrangement from the divine power that Job had previously always felt was there to help him. And this is a hard fact about illness-for many of us, it does provoke a crisis of faith as we ask, have I been abandoned? Am I alone?

This, of course, is one of the very deepest questions of religion. To stay with Job a little longer, the psychologist Carl Jung has suggested that we can read the Bible as a novel about God. A novel about God-what a powerful idea! And what we find, Jung suggests, is that Job got under God’s skin. God was just blustering when he bragged to Job about all his power (and in the Hebrew Bible it was a “he”). In fact, God feels ashamed and decides that he has to become human so that he can understand Job’s suffering. At that moment the stage is set for the incarnation of God in Jesus, and a whole new possibility for God to relate to humans with a compassion born of direct, lived experience.5

Now, I’m not saying you must or should accept this reading of the Bible and the Judeo-Christian God whole-heartedly. But I want to share it with you because I really appreciate the idea behind it-that because human beings know what suffering is, we also know that we need compassion.

Illness isolates us, but reaching out compassionately can heal our spirit. When the IV was giving my nine-year-old self in the hospital so much pain, I didn’t know how to reach out and ask for help. But when my adult self was blindsided with that horrible, frightening headache, I did. I woke my partner up and asked him to please help by keeping me company for a little while. As soon as I did that, my fear receded and I felt more able to handle the pain.

Then, sometimes when we’re sick, we’re not so much fearful as angry and frustrated. It’s good to be able to vent those feelings with someone else. Humor helps too, partly because humor always connects us to other people. You can’t tell a joke unless someone else is around to laugh! Maybe some of you have been reading the Doonesbury strips following the story of B.D., a soldier in Iraq, whose leg was blown off at the knee in an explosion. Early on in his recovery, you know he’s on his way back to being OK when he cracks, “Hey, at least I’m finally down to my ideal weight!”

But sometimes, after the doctors and the medicines have done what they can, what we really need is for someone else just to be with us and our pain-not trying to fix it but just being there with us. Remember the woman with breast cancer in our reading [from Undercurrents, by Martha Manning]. She was tormented because she felt she couldn’t let her family see the sores and scars where her breasts used to be. She didn’t really need “therapy”; what she needed was to be with someone who could look at her wounds without turning away, someone who could accept her and say, yes, you are still a human being; you are not alone.

This is not easy. It’s not easy to ask for help, and it’s not easy to respond with that gift of pure presence and acceptance. But I know we can do it, because I’ve seen it happen in my own life and the life of this congregation. And it is profoundly healing to our spirit.

Well, I also promised you that I’d talk about health insurance today. And although it may seem like I’m clunking down from the sublime heights of spiritual reflection to the plain old wonkiness of policy reform, I am convinced that health insurance is as much a spiritual issue as a practical one. In a nutshell, health insurance is a system we’ve constructed to live out some of our most cherished religious values-dignity, justice, compassion, and interdependence. Reforming and protecting our health insurance system means making sure that we support each other financially as well as personally during illness. It means making sure that no one is so isolated and vulnerable that getting sick leads to financial ruin-or, worse, that being poor means not getting cared for at all.

We know that many of us are facing serious financial challenges because of the health insurance crisis in the U.S. One of my other favorite comic strips, Candorville, sums it up pretty well in a recent strip. Lemont, one of the main characters, is getting ready for bed and saying his prayers: “Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake . . . it’ll be because I didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford preventive treatment!”6

Seriously, we are facing a major problem. Maybe you or someone you know has had trouble finding and paying for health insurance. If so, you aren’t alone. Let me share some statistics with you: Since 2001, the average annual cost to insure a family of four has gone up by nearly 60%. The Kaiser Family Foundation predicts that premiums will keep going up and up in the next few years.7 At the same time, many people’s insurance benefits are being cut. And people in the U.S. are already paying more out of pocket for health care than people in any other industrialized countries.8 I’ve seen this trend in action at my seminary, where student health insurance premiums have nearly tripled during my four years.

Meanwhile, a recent survey found that two out of five adults under age 64 had had serious problems paying off medical bills in the last year, or else were paying off medical debt they’d incurred in the last few years.9 That means over 40% of people in this country are experiencing financial problems because of medical bills. Chances are, that means people we know.

Another surprise: out of the 1.9 million Americans who declare personal bankruptcies every year, 1 million do so because of medical debts.10 And 75% of them had health insurance when they first got sick.11 Maybe you know someone like Henry Brandt, who had great health insurance (or so he thought) when he was diagnosed with severe congestive heart failure in 1997. Six years and five surgeries later, the insurance co-payments alone have nearly exhausted his life savings of $150,000.

Even for those of us who have decent insurance, this is an anxious time. Some of us stay in jobs we hate because we can’t afford to give up our insurance. This crisis affects all of us.

The origins of the crisis are extremely complicated, partly because we have such a complicated system of sharing the costs between individuals, employers, and government.12 So the solutions are going to be complicated too. Much as I would love to see our country adopt a single-payer universal health-care system, I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.

But the good news is that over 60% of adults surveyed recently said they’d be willing to give up the entire federal tax cut if the proceeds went to help guarantee health insurance coverage for everyone. Even people with the highest incomes, and the highest tax cuts, agreed.13 So there is hope, and I urge you to do all you can to support policies that extend coverage to more and more people who need it.

This really is a religious issue. It goes to the heart of so much of what we affirm as religious people. Good health insurance is about “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” It’s about justice because we affirm that it’s not right for anyone to be financially ruined because of illness. Right now, it’s also a justice issue in our congregations. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have found it very difficult to afford health insurance benefits for their ministers and staff members. How to find decent, cheap insurance is a perpetually popular topic on the national ministers’ email chat list that I participate in. Right now the Unitarian Universalist Association is trying to set up a group insurance plan for ministers and church staff, and many of us are hoping they will succeed, the sooner, the better!

Health insurance is about equity because we affirm that every person should have access to good medical care without regard to how much money they have. And it’s about compassion because we want to ease each other’s burdens when we’re sick.

Health insurance is about individual worth and dignity. Being seriously ill is enough of a strain without having to worry about financial catastrophe. Illness can be the most profound challenge to our understanding of what it really means to have “inherent worth.” It can be terribly hard to affirm our own inherent worth and dignity at a time when we can’t work and can’t take care of the people we love-when we’re stuck in a hospital gown that hangs open and shows our rear ends to a multitude of doctors and nurses. It’s a real challenge because so many of us secretly believe that our worth as human beings is really dependent on what we do and what we look like. When we’re so sick that we can’t work and we look like hell, we can feel alone and afraid. And that is partly because our society right now has decided that not everyone really is worthy of equal protection. If our society can change to affirm the dignity and worth of all people, by protecting us with decent insurance, that is a spiritual choice as well as a material one. It’s a choice against isolation and for human connection.

Most of us are going to confront serious illness in our lifetime, and in the end we all have to die. There’s no protection against the ultimate dissolution of our bodies. But health insurance helps prevent the dissolution of our material resources. It protects the people we love while we’re sick and, eventually, after we’re gone. We all try to pass on our care and love in ways that endure-just as Uncle George did with his nephew in the story we read earlier [Beautiful, by Susi Gregg Fowler]. Insurance helps us do that in a different way, and in this sense it fills the profoundly spiritual need to maintain a sense of caring connection with our loved ones, even after our death.

And finally, health insurance is about “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” The fundamental principle of insurance is that we all pay into the same pool so that we can subsidize anyone who needs it. That is interdependence-of a sort created and sustained by human compassion and ingenuity-which we voluntarily embrace for the good of us all. That is connection-it’s how we create practical bonds of solidarity that help protect every person in our society.

We have such an opportunity here. Every single one of us will be touched by illness one day. And we know, we really do know, that there are ways to make it easier to bear. The key is moving from estrangement to connection-day by day, in the macro-world of health policy reform just as much as in our most deeply personal encounters. That way lies the world we want to see-more love, more hope, and more joy. In sickness and in health, so may it be.

Amen and blessed be.

Laura Horton, Student Minister
UU Congregation of Rock Valley, Rockton, IL
January 23, 2005
© 2005 Laura M. Horton. All rights reserved.



My purpose, in this paper, is to solicit the development of heuristic and constructive theological materials by Unitarian Universalist theologians for use by our ministers and congregants. To summarize the situation at hand, I detect two general trends among Unitarian Universalists: 1) the desire for spirituality and 2) a resistance to theological discourse as it is currently framed. A solution may be to frame the theological discourse in a “different way.” This “different way,” or different methodological approach, must reframe theological discourse and situate it within the context of the lay person’s existential desire for spirituality. If we wish to avoid lapsing into pure emotionalism-or faith without content, then cum assensione cogitare-to think with assent, is essential to the theological health of our movement. Given this basic premise, I will propose two possible “different ways.”


I’ve observed a growing propensity among fellow Unitarian Universalist ministers to close their emails with the phrase, “In Faith.” Quite possibly, this phrase signals a shift from the secular-humanist commitment of the past decades to the more commonplace experiential-mystical commitment of contemporary Unitarian Universalists. As a minister and as a theologian dedicated to rigorous thinking, I’m alarmed by the incompleteness, or lack of content, signaled by the two words, “In Faith”. Although the close, “In Faith,” ends with a comma-thereby giving the impression that something more might follow-nothing follows except for the signature line. The problem? “In Faith,” indicates a self-conscious commitment to faith-but to faith without an object, faith without content. In other words, “In Faith” signals nothing more than a commitment to faith for the sake of faith. Many Unitarian Universalists, ministers as well as congregants, call this kind of faith, spirituality. The decision to leave the object of faith unstated-and hence, either nonexistent or unknown, demonstrates the marginalization of theology in favor of spirituality or sensibility-a dissociation regarded as a normal state of affairs, and unfortunately, by some, as a preferable one.


Indeed, most of the members of my congregation have told me that they are looking for spirituality, not “theology.” By spirituality, they mean that they want to experience a movement of the heart during worship services. As to the possible cause or the possible end to that movement-they will, if pressed, rely on vague terms such as “the mystery of life,” or “the divine,” or “something greater than myself.” By theology, they mean substantive discussions about the content of “the mystery of life,” etc. They resist so-called theological discussions-perhaps because of what they view as theology’s link to the realm of the intellect (rather than to the realm of feeling), or perhaps because they were raised in doctrinal religious traditions and such discussions remind them of the childhood lessons they’ve rejected (but which, in some cases, continue to cause them a great deal of pain and anguish). The few who find themselves driven to reflect upon the destination of their heart’s movement find themselves alone and frustrated. For example, Philip Simmons, a Unitarian Universalist essayist who wrote for the UU World in 1999, acknowledged the amorphous character of his faith but expressed a longing for God regardless: “I am frankly-and I’m afraid, unfashionably, desperate for God. I say this even though my notion of God remains fluid and at times impossibly vague.(1)


For the purposes of this paper, I will, like Philip Simmons, use the traditional religious word, God, to designate what ministers and congregants sometimes refer to as “the mystery of life,” or “the divine,” or “something greater than myself,” etc. While many ministers and congregants desire a movement of the heart, they remain unable (or unwilling) to develop more than a “fluid and at times impossibly vague” understanding of the object toward which they wish their heart to move. The result, so aptly described by the scholar of mysticism, Andrew Louth, is division of heart and mind. Constructive theology, when properly carried out, is attentive both to the movement of the heart as well as to the movement’s destination. Louth warns, as I do, that to cut off the heart’s movement from its object “is particularly damaging in theology, for it threatens in a fundamental way the whole fabric of theology in both its spiritual and intellectual aspects.(2) If theology fails to embrace both the spiritual aspects (heart and emotion) and intellectual aspects (thought and reason), then it finds itself in a void-for where is its object? The traditional phrase, cum assensione cogitare; captures the essence of faith-namely, “faith is to think with assent.(3) Indeed, without thought, how can there be assent? When ministers close their emails with words like, “In Faith,” to what, exactly, are they assenting? When congregants like Philip Simmons yearn to experience the divine, to what, exactly, are they assenting? Unfortunately, even when ministers and congregants are willing to seek understanding and develop a substantive notion of God, they discover, as I have, that there exists a severe shortage of constructive tools.


If we, Unitarian Universalist scholars, wish to encourage and to enable ministers and lay-people to engage in meaningful theological reflection, then we must develop the constructive tools they require. In my opinion, these constructive theological methods do not require us to pay attention to the question of whether the word ‘God’ refers to something-or not. Following the work of the philosopher, D.Z. Phillips (a disciple of the later Wittgenstein), even if we could agree that the word ‘God’ referred to something real, the fact would remain that no “clarificatory conceptual work has been done.(4) When lay people utter statements like: “During worship, I feel a connection to the divine,” they have no interest in ascertaining whether the divine is ‘real’ and ‘unreal.’ And, even if we could demonstrate that their statements do, or do not, refer to something real, we should ask ourselves what we would achieve. I, along with D.Z. Phillips, would claim that we would achieve-nothing. If we are to develop constructive tools for the members of our faith tradition, we should not worry about such demonstrations. The purpose of constructive theological tools is not to prove or disprove God’s existence. Rather, their purpose is to provide the means for spiritually-inclined Unitarian Universalists to clarify and explicate the details of the God they encounter when they have a special and heightened consciousness of the divine.(5) I’ve adopted the preference of the scholar of mysticism, Bernard McGinn, for the category of ‘consciousness’ over the category of ‘experience’. The latter category has so often been used without definition that it has become imprecise, ambiguous and nearly meaningless.


A. Powell Davies once said: “And though I think there is more-very much more-that faith in God can do than we are ready for, it may be enough for the present if we follow that little kindly light of hope that never fails us-a light that none of us has kindled for himself, a light that belongs, as we do, to the mystery within us and beyond us, the mystery whose other, lovelier name is God.(6) Here, Davies may very well have articulated one of the underlying reasons that some Unitarian Universalists remain vague when asked to describe the direction of their heart’s movement: “God is a mystery within us and beyond us.” While congregants may not be familiar with Kant’s division of objects of knowledge into the two separate realms of the noumenal and the phenomenal, they are enlightened individuals who are keenly aware that there are boundaries to what they can know. In other words, when they experience a movement of the heart, they probably also realize that their heart has moved toward an object that lies beyond the strictly phenomenal realm. The scholar of mysticism, Paul Rorem explains: “if all knowledge is of that which is and is limited to the realm of the existent, then whatever transcends being must also transcend knowledge.(7) Kant would agree with Rorem’s assessment. Since mystical theology takes a special interest in the transcendent, or that which lies beyond knowledge, it could well prove to be an especially fruitful area when searching for theological tools. Both of the methods I now wish to explore contain mystical components.


One possible approach to mystical theology is double-pronged and dialectical. For example, the Neoplatonist-Christian theologian, Pseudo-Dionysius insists on an apophatic, transcendent (and thus absent) God who “cannot simply be called word or power or mind or life or being, for God is completely beyond our every conjecture, name, thought and conception.(8) He also insists that the other prong of a properly dialectical approach is cataphatic-the approach that renders God immanent (and thus present). This approach takes into account that, for human beings to make any sense of God, we are compelled to find analogies or metaphors within the realm of what we know. Accordingly, we give God names like ‘spirit of life’, ‘God,’ ‘goodness,’ ‘love,’ ‘beauty’, absolute ‘truth,’ or ‘nature’-names that either draw on common sensory perceptions or on the domain of our concepts or ideas. Pseudo-Dionysius favors the methodological tension engendered by naming God and unnaming God since “as Cause of all and as transcending all, he is rightly nameless and yet has the names of everything there is.” For Pseudo-Dionysius “God’s causation of all things justifies the use of all created things or thoughts among the divine names; yet the divine transcendence beyond all these things and thoughts demands the denial of all names.(9) Thus, his mystical theology allows us to speak of God in familiar terms and render God immanent, while simultaneously warning us to remember that these names are human constructs and that God transcends the familiar. For Unitarian Universalist theologians, Pseudo-Dionysius’ dialectical, apophatic-cataphatic method may provide a useful resource.


A standard charge against mystical theologies is that they lack an ethical dimension. Such a charge is often valid and so we may want to take into account James Luther Adams’ demand for an ethical theology as well as his claim that guidance concerning what is valuable for human life could not be found in the idea of Nature. He rejected Nature as a valid grounding for theology because it failed to call for a human life attuned to appropriate moral precepts: Nature religions try, and we have some Unitarians who try, to understand man primarily as related to and embedded in nature. But nature has no culture. Nature entails neither ideological conflict nor any bonding except that which is instinctual… Nature religions tend, therefore, to have a philosophy of time that is cyclical. They try to understand human history in terms of the cycles of nature, of birth, growth, senility, death, birth and growth. That is a conception of history and human nature and culture that really makes individuality seem an illusion… Nature religions tend NOT to recognize a universal demand which cuts in on nature and across one’s natural instincts and tendencies.(10) To address Adams’ important observations about the crucial role of a universal ethical demand, the work of the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, may offer valuable assistance. In his seminal work, I and Thou, Buber describes the possibility of an encounter with God similar to that described by spiritual Unitarian Universalists-namely, an encounter characterized by an heightened awareness or consciousness of God’s presence. For Buber, such an encounter takes place at a cognitive level that is deeper and more fundamental than what we may experience through “sensing, knowing and loving.(11) The divine presence is given in a direct and immediate manner. However, for Buber, an encounter with God can only occur if and when we are in relation with others. On the one hand, God cannot be encountered as long as we remain alone, at a remove from our fellow creatures. On the other hand, we cannot merely be in relation with others either. Rather, we must treat others, not as means, but as ends. If we hope to encounter God, we can only do so through the mediation of another human being whom we approach with absolute trust, vulnerability and intimacy. Thus, our preparations for an encounter with God require us to interact ethically with another human being. In return, our encounter with God’s presence leaves us with a demand to enact God’s justice in the world. Both the preparation leading to a possible encounter with God, as well as the effect of an encounter are ethical in nature.(12) The ethical component of Buber’s work may provide even more important and beneficial ground for Unitarian Universalist theology than Pseudo-Dionysius’ Neoplatonist-Christian mysticism.

Rev. Myriam Renaud
A paper presented to UU Collegium, Los Gatos, CA
Nov. 2-5,2006
© 2005 All Rights Reserved.

A Unitarian Universalist
Perspective on Prayer

Unitarian Universalists have a unique relationship with prayer. It can even be downright tricky for some of us. We are a religious movement that often has deep ambivalence about traditional religious words. We are a non-creedal faith tradition, where each of us defines our own theology, a lifelong work in progress. Newcomers to Unitarian Universalism frequently ask the question, “Do UUs pray?” The implicit corollary, the question behind the question, is often, “Can UUs pray? Can one pray in a religious movement that is not bound by one common creed or theological understanding? Can a faith tradition that includes humanists, agnostics, and atheists have anything to do with prayer?

To which my answer is, unequivocally, “yes.” Yes, Unitarian Universalists can pray, and yes, many of us do pray. It is also true that there are some Unitarian Universalists who do not pray, who are uncomfortable with the word because of past wounding in the religious tradition of their childhood, or who simply don’t see the need to pray, nor hold a theology that allows for prayer. But there are many who do, including myself. Now, this is my perspective on the matter, and it is, of course, simply that: my perspective. A sermon is always the beginning of a dialogue. It is the beginning of a conversation between and among all of us, internally in our own minds and hearts as well as out loud between us. It is up to you, to each of you, to continue the dialogue, adding your perspectives as well.

I was not always comfortable with the concept of prayer. I grew up essentially unchurched, and most definitely outside of the Christian tradition. Prayer was not part of my life, and my understanding was limited to the conception of prayer I saw in the greater culture. I equated prayer as asking God for something, some tangible thing or some outcome.

For example, here is a definition of prayer that comes from the 1897 Easton’s Bible Dictionary, that sums up much of what I and many UUs find difficult in the standard Western Christian concept of prayer. “Prayer is converse with God;” it starts out, “the intercourse of the soul with God, not in contemplation or meditation, but in direct address to him.” And, of course, with that first exclusive masculine gender reference, they’ve lost my feminist, Goddess-as-metaphor-loving self. But it goes on:

“Prayer presupposes a belief in the personality of God, his ability and willingness to hold intercourse with us, his personal control of all things and of all his creatures and all their actions. Acceptable prayer must be sincere … offered with reverence and godly fear … [and must] be offered in the faith that God is, and is the hearer and answerer of prayer, and that he will fulfil his word.”

Well! If this is prayer, I don’t want it, thank you very much! I don’t believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing white-bearded-old-man-in-the-sky kind of God, and never have. I don’t believe in a literal separate Creator, who looks down upon the world and chooses which prayers to answer, and how, and when. If this is prayer, I can’t believe in it. Yet-is it? Is this all that prayer is? Is this definition or others like it, the end-all and be-all of prayer?

I have come to believe that there is much more to prayer than this definition suggests. After I became a Unitarian Universalist and began to explore and consciously seek to learn more about spirituality and religion and develop my own understandings and beliefs, I have become more and more comfortable with the concept of prayer. Prayer is a deep and evocative word, much like “worship” and “soul.” These are words that are part of our religious and spiritual heritage. And just as with certain other words, words like, oh, say, “patriot” or “family values,” we do not have to let other people have the sole and exclusive right to define them. We do not have to hand them over to a certain segment of the culture and let them be lost, trapped forever in a narrow definition that does not fit how we understand them to be. Some may not agree with this-prayer may be a word that is too loaded for you, that evokes memories of a restrictive belief or religious organization that has been left behind. And that is the right of each and every Unitarian Universalist. Each of us must do what is right for us. As for me, I choose to reclaim the word prayer, to breathe new life into it, the breath of Spirit, because prayer touches a place deep inside which no other word quite fits.

The words of Abraham Heschel with which we began the service have come to sum up what I understand about prayer:

Prayer invites God [or the Holy],
to be present in our spirits
and in our lives.

Prayer cannot
bring water to parched land
nor mend a broken bridge,
nor rebuild a ruined city,

but prayer can
water an arid soul,
mend a broken heart,
and rebuild a weakened will.

This is a concept of prayer that I can believe in, a concept large enough and wide enough to hold my beliefs.

I can still remember the first occasion when I deliberately and consciously tried prayer. It was in the depths of winter, and I was about to step into totally uncharted waters. I was about to lead a pagan-style ritual in honor of the Winter Solstice. This was something I had never done before, something I had never even really seen done before, only read about. I was nervous and anxious, my stomach full of butterflies. I wanted so very much for the ritual to be meaningful, for myself and for all those gathered. And so I prayed, self-consciously, with at least part of my mind, the stubborn, rational left-brain, hanging back in observation, but I prayed. I prayed to “the Goddess,” knowing I meant by that symbol and metaphor, but still choosing to create an image in my mind’s eye to represent an embodiment of Spirit. I opened my heart, and poured forth all of my yearning and wishes and hopes. I prayed to be centered, to be calm, to be assured. I prayed that everything in the ritual go well, or at least, “well-enough.” And it helped. The act of prayer helped. Strengthened and encouraged, I was able to go into a new situation, in which the outcome meant a great deal, and do my best.

As I have come to define it, prayer is a spiritual act, the act of centering and grounding. Prayer helps me to reach a place of stillness inside, a place of calm. At the heart of prayer, at its essence, what makes prayer for me is the intention. If words are said or actions are done with prayerful intention, then it is prayer. Poetry often acts as prayers, finding a way to express the inexpressible. There are certain poems, like Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” that immediately acts as prayer for me whenever I hear or read them. Poetry that touches our hearts at a depth-level can be among the deepest and most powerful, the most prayerful prayers. Songs and chants can be prayers, the music making a link between head and heart, and helping us access the spiritual dimension of our soul. So, too, can music without any words be prayer-and often, more powerful than anything with words. Movement can be prayer. Silence can be prayer. And as we acknowledge every Sunday morning, service can be prayer.

Some might ask, how, then, does prayer differ from meditation? Meditation and prayer are deeply akin, of course. It can indeed be difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Some make the distinction by contrasting the acts of speaking and listening-prayer is speaking and meditation is listening. To God, to Spirit, to Life, to one’s deeper Self, to the All that is Everything. This is a useful thumbnail definition, but it does not fully capture the depth of what prayer is. We use words, often, to pray, and our culture has conditioned us to think of prayer in terms of words. But in my living, organic definition of prayer, its heart is deeper any than words. The impulse to pray, the prayerful attitude, come from a place within the deepest reaches of our souls, a wordless, shimmering place of immanence and transcendence, both. As the poet Joy Harjo says, “To pray you open your whole self, to sky, to earth, to sun, to moon, to one whole voice that is you.”

If we do use words, the best prayers are often the simplest. Writer Anne Lamott suggests that the two best prayers are: Help, and Thank you. Help, and Thank you. We ask for help when we are in need, when we are frightened and tired and overwhelmed. “Help me!” we cry, either internally or externally, implicitly or explicitly. Help me! God, Life, Higher Power, Divine Source, spiritual energy that flows through the Universe, deepest Self-whatever, however, just help. Help me hold on. Help me get through. Help me find a better way.

And “thank you.” The medieval German mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart said it best: “If the only prayer you [say] in your whole life [is] ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” That would suffice. How we pray is far less important than the act of prayer itself. Let us give thanks, and be glad. Let us honor the lives from which our own lives are made possible. We are part of an interconnected, interdependent web which is infinitely larger than our particular selves. And we give thanks.

Along with these two foundational prayers, I have added another: “namasté.” Namasté is a Hindi phrase which comes from the Sanskrit word, namas, meaning “bow” or “reverential salutation.” There are a number of ways to translate this phrase into English, but the one that resonates most strongly for me is, “The Divine in me greets the Divine in thee.” Namasté is another way to honor the interconnected, interdependent web of life which we did not make and do not control, but which we are privileged and lucky enough to be part of. To say, “namasté,” mindfully as a prayer, is to honor the wondrous, breathtaking world around us and inside us. Whenever I see something that catches me up, in beauty or awesomeness, whenever I have a moment of connection to the wide and sparkling Universe, that prayerful impulse wells up within me. To the crescent moon in the night-falling sky: “Namasté.” To the wild geese high overhead, or the dandelion springing up through the crack in the cement: “Namasté.” To the wind and the sky, the mountains and the grass, the wild roses and the fireweed: Namasté, Namasté, Namasté.

Now, does prayer “work”? And even if it helps the one who is praying by calming and centering us, does praying for others have any effect? Truthfully, I just don’t know. At my core, I am agnostic about many things when it comes to religion and spirituality-agnostic in the oldest and most literal sense of the word. It is not just that I don’t know, but that certain things cannot be known. They are part of the Mystery, beyond human ken. But when I feel a need for centering and connection with something greater than myself, I pray. And when someone I care for is hurting, I pray. I pray because the act of prayer helps me, but I also pray because, like chicken soup, it can’t hurt, and it might help. I certainly recognize that there is more of Mystery in the Universe than I or we can ever figure out. If we are all interconnected, as I believe deeply that we are, if energy is exchanged between all beings and all things at a subatomic level, then who knows what effect prayerful, positive intention may have?

I pray to touch in to my own Deepest Self. I pray to find the stillness deep inside, to be able to come to rest in the place where I can hear “the still, small voice within,” the voice of Spirit. I pray because I have found, from experience, that it helps me. When we define prayer in an inclusive way, it can be big and deep and wide. In fact, prayer can be big and deep and wide enough to encompass the many different perspectives and theologies of Unitarian Universalists. As Heschel says, “Prayer invites [the Holy], to be present in our spirits and in our lives. Prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.” Or as Episcopalian priest Alla Renee Bozarth puts it, prayer helps us to “be awake to the Life that is loving [us],” to “make of [our] life an offering.” And Mahatma Gandhi agrees; “Prayer,” he says, “is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.” Prayer can help us connect with the Web of All Existence, and touch in to the deep wellsprings of Life itself. Refreshed and renewed, we can then return to the work of our lives and the work of the world-living lives of authenticity and meaning, and working to make the world more fair and more just, more loving and more compassionate.

May it be so! Blessed be, and Amen.

Ruth Greenwood, Student Minister
UU Congregation of Rock Valley, Rockton, IL
February 24, 2008
© 2008 Ruth Greenwood. All rights reserved.

“The End Of Racism”

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” With prophetic wisdom W. E. B. Du Bois made this statement in 1900 and it has proven to be so. It is interesting to note that Du Bois was the radical voice of the civil rights movement in the first part of this century contrasting to Booker T. Washington’s conservative views.

From segregation and Jim Crow to a dream of equitable rights for all races. From a black man at the end of a rope to a black man in the White House. The past century has been an era of great accomplishment for both African-Americans as individuals and for our nation as a whole. We have achieved significant progress in our quest to be a more just society and that has benefited us all.

I was uplifted recently by listening to the voice of an African-American elder, a voice imbued with pride and with glory. As she remarked about never expecting to see such a day in her lifetime, I glimpsed the profound significance this victory represents to African-Americans and people of African descent all over the world.

In a little more than a week we will inaugurate the first African-American as President of the United States. To say that this is historic is an understatement. To say it is a miracle comes closer.

Over the years we have witnessed the slow and incremental progress that has led to this laudatory event. We have seen that in spite of setbacks and failures, there has been advancement towards our nation’s lofty goal of equality and respect across racial divides. What sublime irony there is in that a nation which once enslaved people of African descent will now have a man of African descent as its president — “the leader of the free world.” It strikes me as a particularly appropriate illustration of both the worst and best of our nation’s character.

I know that as I gather with my colleagues and fellow students next week to watch the televised inauguration ceremony, there will be in all of our hearts a joy and hope for a nation and world more free of oppression. But I am wary of a self-congratulatory atmosphere I might encounter.

I am wary of members of an overwhelmingly white institution, with a somewhat checkered past in reference to issues of race, sanctifying ourselves with an over-inflated sense of our importance on such a momentous day.

I am wary that in Chicago’s Hyde Park, one of the most economically, social, and racially diverse neighborhoods and the home of the Obama family, I will encounter an overwhelming majority of white faces, with perhaps our two black faculty members in attendance, celebrating together.

In saying this I know I sound like a party-pooper at best. Despite what may seem like a curmudgeonly stance, I would never claim to be anything but proud of my school. Just as I would never claim to be anything but proud of Unitarian Universalism and our comparatively progressive stance toward the evils of racism.

As Unitarian Universalists we like to point to our record of abolitionism, civil rights advocacy, and anti-oppression work. We extol the virtues of individuals like Theodore Parker, A. Powell Davies and others like them.

I am reminded of the words of Theodore Parker, perhaps the greatest of all Unitarian abolitionists. Parker said: “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Parker did not understand his or anyone’s role in this “bending” as passive. He was an agent of change in both word and action. Parker’s convictions toward the abolishment of slavery were such that — legend has it that he kept a loaded pistol in his desk in the event that he might have to defend himself or a fugitive slave from bodily attack.

A. Powell Davies was the minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington DC from 1944 to 1957 during the formative years of the Civil Rights Movement. Citing him as one of America’s outstanding clergymen, Time magazine acclaimed him as an outstanding American clergyman and said that ‘in Washington, “where many talk but few listen … Davies is a man who is heard.’ “In the Washington Post he gained praise as being “militantly in the forefront of every assault upon intolerance and racial discrimination and injustice.”

Davies led the All Souls congregation in protesting segregation in restaurants and in sponsoring the city’s first racially integrated boys club. Like Parker he used his considerable rhetorical skill in the pursuit of racial equity.

There is a certain comfort in being able to look back over the long history of the civil rights movement and see how things have changed so dramatically just within my own lifetime. Significant court cases like Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954 and important legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have been instrumental in upholding our great national promise of equality for all.

Organizations like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have been dynamic organizations for change in an ongoing struggle for justice. Despite what some will try to tell us, affirmative action has changed many lives for the better.

Epithets, inflammatory rhetoric and hateful imagery have been virtually eliminated. That common and most degrading word – has evolved into the whispered “n word” and for the most part has vanished from public use. On the infrequent occasions when public figures do insult and degrade with “hate speech” they are rightfully chastised in the media and frequently punished.

Our societal consciousness has grown profoundly as we have learned and been sensitized to issues of race. As I have shared previously — art, music and in particular the writing of black women have sensitized me to the experiences of black people.

I recently expressed these feelings by saying that the books of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker had given me greater insight into the African-American experience. I was told (and rightfully so) that the African-American experience is not singular, that there is a vast body of African American experiences, plural!

I responded negatively to that critique at first, but now I see its meaning. At the time I wanted to dismiss that criticism as trivial, but it has nagged at me and I now willingly acknowledge my mistake, and I have tried to learn from it. What may seem to me to be such a subtlety of language so slight as to be imperceptible, may illuminate blind spots to my subconscious racism.

Often our first reaction to our subconscious racism is shame. And then anger toward those who have helped us to see those seemingly insignificant words and actions that breach our righteousness. These are hardly constructive responses – though they may be natural ones. What I now try to do and sometimes succeed in doing is challenge myself to respond to such criticism without defensiveness and learn from it.

Ridding ourselves of that defensiveness is no small task. It is the reason that so many of us are so unwilling to respond to the lasting legacy of American slavery.

In his book Stupid White Men author and filmmaker Michael Moore says this: “The roots of most of our social ills can be traced straight back to this sick chapter of our history. African-Americans never got the same fair start the rest of us got. Their families were willfully destroyed. Their language and culture and religion were stripped from them. Their poverty was institutionalized so that our cotton could get picked, our wars could be fought, [and] our convenience stores could remain open all night.

The America we’ve come to know would never have come to pass if not for the millions of slaves who built it and created its booming economy. … Until we realize that, and accept that we do have a responsibility to correct an immoral act that still has repercussions today, we will never remove the single greatest stain on the soul of our country.”

When I, Scott, think about the incalculable wrongs perpetrated against African-Americans during the era of slavery and its legacy, I am outraged. And when a spiritual leader of the African American community is denounced for daring to utter the words “God Damn America!” because he can no longer abide the injustice of our nation, I cannot help but wonder if this “century of accomplishment” has done anything to ease the antipathy African-Americans can justifiably feel towards privileged whites.

A wise woman once said “How can any of us be free of racism when we live in a racist world.” I want to grow and develop in my love for all and in my understanding of human experiences. Being a small part of the movement to overcome racism and opposing oppression wherever I find it is a commitment I honor – but especially — when I find it within myself and the institutions I am a part of. Self reflection, both individually and collectively, is critical to living a religious life as well as for the betterment of our society.

When faced with the hard soul-searching work that confronting racism can be, there is a temptation to complacency – especially after a significant milestone has been reached. So many times in history significant achievements have been followed by a period of atrophy, I think specifically of the long struggle American women waged to gain the vote and the forty year dormancy that followed. The resurgence of feminism did not start until the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963.

So too has it been with overcoming racial oppression. Its forward progress has ebbed and flowed within our lifetimes.

Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States is an amazing milestone in our journey to abolish racism in America. It is indeed tempting to wax philosophical about the power of time and the ultimate, if protracted, evolution of justice. What stops me from such indulging is my understanding of the many privileges I enjoy as a white middle-class American male that I am less than anxious to relinquish. My perception of progress comes to me from a position of comfort – which is not the case for many others. My long-view perception is a result of my access to justice, power, wealth and education. In a different position I might feel less optimistic.

When the temptation to complacency threatens to capture me, I stop to remember my own personal experience of discrimination and my access points to social inequity. My one point of reference is the issue of marriage equity. Tony and I have much to be grateful for – but we periodically lament that our lives would be easier, if we were eligible for the same rights as legally married people.

In such instances I have bitterly quoted the words of the 19th century English Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who said: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” We know that the legal recognition of same-sex marriages is inevitable, but that eventuality does not help us now with health coverage.

We all have personal access points to understanding the power of racism. Some of us have experienced ageism, sexism, or homophobia. Some of us have known unfairness due to disabilities; physical or mental health. We all have faced challenges to our access to individual achievement or enjoyment of life that were unjust. Is there one among us who has not felt victimized by some form of prejudice in our lives? Of course not. As liberal religious people it is our duty to find those points of access and, coupled with deep empathy, gain some understanding of what life in a profoundly racist society might be like for a person of color.

Martin Luther King also cited those powerful words of Gladstone’s in his famous letter from a Birmingham jail. King wrote and addressed this letter to Alabama clergymen who issued a public statement that faulted Dr. King, his leadership and the non-violent demonstrations for civil rights.

In it, he also refutes the illusion of time itself as a healer, which some might misunderstand as the attitude implicit in Parker’s statement.

He wrote: “Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.”

Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of [women and] men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

As we celebrate the glorious inauguration of our first African-American President, we cannot allow this monumental achievement to delude us into believing that we have overcome racism in this country. We need only remember the images of Hurricane Katrina and the racial inequities in access to wealth, power, justice, basic human needs and rights. Those calling voices and straining hands we saw on our television screens continue to haunt me. They remind me that in this land of the free and home of the brave where a black man can become president, there is still much, much arduous work to be done in ending racism.

I fear, as the first African American President in our history takes his place in the Oval Office, that some will seize the opportunity to convert a real milestone into a symbolic one. Some I fear, will try to use this victory as an indication that racism is over, when we know it to be alive and potent. I am not convinced that I will live to see true racial equity in this country. What I do hope to see is the continuation of the profound change that I have lived to see in my lifetime.

Scott Talbot Lewis, Consulting Minister
UU Congregation of Rock Valley, Rockton, IL
January 11, 2009
© 2009 Scott Talbot Lewis. All Rights Reserved.

Is Hope Evil?

Everyone in this room knows that our planet is in deep trouble. Many of you may have read the very important book Moral Ground by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael Nelson. It is intended to be an appeal to conscientious and ethical people from all walks of life, and all parts of the world, to consider and act upon their moral obligation to the planet, the human species, and all living things.

I confess, I have not read the entire book. One of the things I like most about this book is it’s easy to pick up and read chapter by chapter. I further admit that parts of this book depressed me, deflated me and provoked despair; an emotion I spend a considerable amount of energy keeping at bay. Despair, about these huge issues of global crisis is thoroughly debilitating.

As an antidote to despair, many people latch onto hope. To avoid becoming completely cynical we talk about holding on to hope, visualizing the possibilities, praying for a healed world, etc. In fact, hope for the future has become a hot commodity. People are starving for anything that helps prop up their hopeful mindset. Posters, songs, magazines, advertising slogans assuage us with promises that recycling, cleaner fuels, organic food, yoga, hybrid cars, and (you fill in the blank) provide hope for a brighter future.

Now, don’t get me wrong; all of the aforementioned are very good things; very positive cultural developments. But I, like Michael Nelson, “worry that hope will actually stifle, not aid in healing our warped relationship with the natural word. He says, “I worry that hope can be, and often is a distraction, an excuse for not getting on with the work at hand.”

In recent years, I have heard and read more and more urgings to visualize a healed world, pray for the planet, meditate on man and nature living harmoniously, etc. Like the ubiquitous bumper sticker that reads “pray for peace,” these types of invocations are fine as spiritual practices, but they are poor substitutes for action. I believe a huge portion of society has been seduced by feel-good messages offering “hope for the future”. Clinging to hope may save us from descending into despair, but it may also reinforce the disconnect between what we say we believe in and how we behave, thus eroding our personal integrity.

Kathleen Dean Moore describes “a huge, essential middle ground between hope and despair. This is not acting-out-of-hope, or failing-to-act-out-of-despair, but acting out of virtue, an affirmation of who we are and what is worthy of us as moral beings. This is integrity, which is consistency between belief and action. To act lovingly because we love. To act justly because we are just. To live gratefully because this life is a gift.”

Taking action to combat climate change, and other environmental degradation is a moral imperative for all individuals who know the threats we face. Further, I believe, failure to act is vice.

There is a quote that I encountered decades ago and often rely on as one of my personal moral touch stones. Edmund Burke said, “Real evil is when good men stand by and do nothing.” I don’t know the context of this statement, it was likely a war. For me those words are a compelling reminder that being horrified about atrocities and injustice while failing to act is not a neutral stance, but is in fact, morally delinquent.

By focusing on hope rather than personal action, are we perpetuating evil? If we are so busy “wishing and hoping and thinking and praying” that we are, effectively, standing idly by while the lives of the children of the future are being seriously threatened, then yes! I believe we are as guilty as those who profit from drilling for oil in pristine landscapes, those who harvest scarce ocean life, who clear-cut the rain forest to create grazing land for cattle destined to become hamburgers, and those who spend multi-millions of dollars to send our young people to fight for oil in the middle east rather than investing in alternative energy at home.

I found myself in this moral crucible several years ago when I was the mother of young children. The menace posed by nuclear weapons, population growth, pollution, extinction and global warming nearly overshadowed the joys of parenting. I fought psychological and emotional anguish as I taught my son and daughter to love a world that seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket. And I felt guilty; guilty about my privileged lifestyle, my consumptive habits, and for the whole catastrophic mess my generation, my parents and my grandparents had created. I could not sleep at night. To save my own integrity and attain some degree of peace, I realized I needed to focus on achieving two things:

1. Ease my conscience by working hard to create the future I desire for my children, and all children

2. Be a role model for my children: Model a life that responds to challenges and uncertainty with action, tenacity and resilience.

In other words, I got busy. I pulled myself out the dark brooding through yoga and meditation. These practices gave me inner strength and clarity, and empowered me to look honestly at my own life and the world around me. It can be very scary, to burst that protective bubble of hope and come face to face the truth of our dire situation. It really was a paradigm shift for me to admit that visualizing a viable future and praying for its coming were not enough. I quit kidding myself into thinking I could rely on other people, or institutions to come up with solutions. By now I knew in my heart that our desired future must be actualized by people with enough integrity to accept the emotional and intellectual challenge of analyzing the world for the purpose of changing it. That meant me.

I made a conscious decision to leave my passive comfort zone and become a messenger and an activist for environmental conservation and protection. I read up on environmentally friendly lifestyle changes and adopted them. I educated myself about ecology, species conservation and resource protection. I joined local environmental initiatives and volunteered for environmental organizations. My gosh! There are an awesome number of worthwhile and effective organizations, projects and movements going on here in our own community and around the globe.

I want to tell you about an organization I discovered through my interest in yoga, because I think it’s philosophy really reinforces what Michael Nelson and Kathleen Moore are preaching.

Off the Mat and Into the World was founded by three women, yogis, who believe yoga practitioners should do more than enhance their own well-being. OTM’s mission is to use the power of yoga to inspire conscious, sustainable activism and ignite grassroots social change. Founder Sean Corn says, “A lot of people have been practicing yoga for years, even decades. Their bodies are healthier, their relationships are better. They’re saying, ‘Now what? I say, take your practice off the mat and into the world.” This inspirational organization encourages people to take all they have learned in their yoga practice and bring it into the community by implementing in-service group projects to fill real needs.

Wouldn’t it be great if more organizations started similar movements? I’d like to see Out of the Gym and Into the World to get all those body-builders to weatherize some houses. Think of how many trees could be planted by the world’s professional athletes through Out of the Arena and Into the World. College professors could pitch in through Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the World. Out of the Pew and Into the World, and perhaps even Out of the Pulpit and Into the World would give all of us good church people an avenue to aid the hungry, the sick, the illiterate, the addicted, and the abused by protecting the ecosystems upon which they all ultimately depend.

Speaking of pulpits, let me share another inspirational example. Clare Butterfield, a UU minister, is currently Executive Director of a wonderful organization called Faith In Place. Its mission is to give religious people the tools to become good stewards of the earth. I’d like to read an excerpt from the sermon she delivered just prior to leaving Unity Temple in Oak Park to devote herself to Faith in Place.

Butterfield says, “This is what I have learned. Rituals and acts, shared meals, surrender to the power of the natural world, apology for the costs we have inflicted, love for others, these are how we keep our souls alive in this soul-deadening world. The restoration of prairie, the care for the smallest part of our local ecology is a magnification of the value of life. It allows us to go on, and to go on in possession of our souls in a culture that really doesn’t want us to retain possession of our souls. The work that I do is not about a particular eco-system, a particular non-native invasive species, a particular faith or a particular tribe. It is about the quality of our relationships as we move on the Earth. Cultivating gardens reminds me of this. Working with the children in From The Ground Up reminds me of this. Pulling the garlic mustard and cutting the buckthorn so that the trout lilies can come back to the understory, where their seeds have lain dormant for years or decades, reminds me that any soul no matter how fallen away, can be restored to the knowledge of the Grace of God. This is hard work, this business of restoring souls. Hard, and look at the world, so necessary.”

Clearly Butterfield is entreating us to do more than pray and hope and wear t-shirts emblazoned with catchy environmental messages. Today I urge you to actively support and participate in any and all environmental protection and restoration efforts and organizations. National organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, the Ocean Conservancy, Earth Share, and Green Peace need financial support. Locally, you can join or volunteer with the Green Communities Coalition, the Four Rivers Environmental Coalition, Severson Dells, Audubon, Angelic Organics Learning Center or the Natural Land Institute.

From the pulpit, Clare Butterfield directly asked her congregants to come and help her restore a local prairie. She told them, “The benefit of this kind personal action is that you will rediscover your own agency in the interdependent web, you will recognize your ship with all the life around you.” I would like to extend a similar invitation to you. Come with me on this journey to integrity. Find a project or practice, roll up your sleeves, wade into the mess and begin today. I have with me a list of events, organizations and projects going on right here, right now, that are working for the restoration and protection of our land, water, soil and wildlife and also advocating and planning for renewable energy and sustainable communities.

If we are honest we will admit that our own souls have been damaged by what we have seen in our lifetimes and in recent weeks and months. But it’s not time to give up and it is not time to merely hope. If my life has taught me anything, it is that the possibility of restoration, of the land, of the people, of my own integrity lies in stepping off the comfortable island of acquiescence and becoming someone who contributes knowledge, inspiration, energy and resources to the fight for our planet’s future.

I think Kathleen Dean Moore says it best, “When all is said and done, make sure that you are able to say you lived a life you believe in, conscientiously refusing what is wrong and destructive, exhibiting in your life choices what is compassionate and just. Even if hope is rapidly failing that you can make a difference to the future of the Earth, you can always make a difference to who you are.”

We don’t know what lies ahead, but we have to get through this time, and we can do it with integrity and elegance if we act with love and wisdom as our guides.

In closing, I want to share with you a Hopi Indian prayer because I think it speaks to the changes that must happen now. The need to let go of the way we have been living.

We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For

You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour. Now you must go back and tell the people that this is The Hour. And there are things to be considered: Where are you living? What are you doing? What are your relationships? Are you in right relation? Where is your water? Know your garden. It is time to speak your Truth. Create your community. Be good to each other. And do not look outside yourself for the leader. This could be a good time! There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart, and they will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. See who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all, ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. -The Elders Oraibi Arizona Hopi Nation

Jamie B. Johannsen, Dir. Marketing & Community Relations
Winnebago County Forest Preserve District
March 20, 2011
© 2011 Jamie B. Johannsen. All rights reserved.