Envisioning the Emergent Future

How many of you remember phone booths? (Everyone raises their hand).
How many here have used a telephone booth sometime in your life? (Raised hands).
How many of you used one in the past seven days? (Much laughter, and no one raises their hand).

They were everywhere at one time. Now there are empty sockets where telephone booths once were.

How many of you here watched a movie at home this past week? (Hands raised).
How many of you rented that film from Blockbuster? (Laughter).
How many of you here even remember Blockbuster?
Blockbuster had a terrific business plan. They did everything right. They dominated the market. Where are they now?
They went bankrupt. They’re out of business.

Now, we can think to ourselves, “Gee. What is the matter with people? Does nobody want to talk on the phone anymore? What do you do when you’re out and about and need to speak to someone? What are we going to do without phone booths?”

Or, “Gosh, do people not want to watch films anymore? Films are fantastic. Why don’t people want to watch movies anymore?”

People talk on the phone now. People still continue to enjoy the cinematic arts.

And yet, everything has changed.

Everything has changed.

The changes that have come about in terms of the place religion occupies in our society have been no less dramatic. Not that long ago, Canada was a churchgoing nation. And yes, I mean church-going because Canada was largely homogenous religiously. It was a cultural norm even a generation ago to at least belong to a faith community and to attend regularly.

Today, the fastest growing religious demographic in North America are the people who, when asked with what religion they are affiliated, answer “None of The Above.” That demographic is growing exponentially. In surveys, ten percent responded that way 12 years ago. Today it’s closer to 25 percent. For Millennials, those born in the 1980s, it’s a higher percentage, almost 30 percent. Most people now in their twenties are not interested in church.

Generally, younger people, by which I mean people now in their twenties and thirties, are not interested in institutions. They don’t trust institutions. Trust needs to be earned among younger people; it is no longer automatic. They’re suspicious of institutions and aren’t interested much in membership, in anything, let alone in doing the kinds of things we all take for granted when it comes to maintaining an institution.

Overall, Canadians are more mistrustful of religious institutions and participation in mainline faith communities is dropping. A recent report indicated that, at the current rate of decline, there will be no more Anglicans in Canada in 20 years.

Now, we can bemoan this loss of faith. We can wring our hands about all of those people who share our values but don’t come to our local congregation. (Because many of the people who define themselves as None of The Above are quite liberal and egalitarian. They care about marriage equality and the environment). We can decry the poverty of their spiritual lives.

But to do so would be to miss the point.

According to the Pew Forum Religion and Public Life Project, the unaffiliated of all ages are quite interested in spirituality. They are very interested in spiritual practices—be it yoga or meditation or prayer or some form of mind-body wellness. They are very curious about God. It would be a mistake to describe them as non-theistic, but they’re more interested in experiencing something of the divine rather than hearing somebody talk about it. They are very much interested in experience.

To bemoan the absence of the “spiritual but not religious” in our congregations, to bemoan our inability to attract new participants to our congregations, to bemoan the unaffiliated who would love us if they just knew about us, is along the same lines as asking why people don’t want to talk on the phone anymore or watch movies anymore.

They do all of these things.
It’s just that the form these are beginning to take are now very different.
And are changing.
The form that religion will take in the coming years will be as radically transformed.
The form that the basic human need for meaning and significance and community will look nothing like it looks like today. (We have an idea of what might be emerging. More on that later).

So, the question before us today is not, “How do we make our telephone booth more attractive? How can we get more people to use our telephone booth?” The question is: how will we meet the need that is out there—the very real need that is out there—for meaning and significance and community in ways that are intelligible and useful?

The question for us is not, how do we make renting our VHS cassettes more appealing? Or what would a good business plan be for promoting our VHS tapes? The question before us today is: how will we respond usefully and skillfully to the very real longings and needs out there for a spiritual life, a life of meaning and significance?

And before we are able to answer that question, we need to take stock.
There is a difference between what we have to offer, what is essential in our liberal way of being religious, and the trappings that it comes in. The trappings are all transient, and the core of our way of faith is timeless.

What is essential is the life-giving message that we were born to original blessing,
that there is a better way of being in relationship with each other, ourselves, our natural environment,
better ways of being a society together,
that forgiveness is better than anger,
that love compassion and generosity are better than fear and self-centeredness.

Yes, better. And yes, life-saving and transformative.

What is essential is the conviction
that mutually sustaining relationship is at the heart of existence, expressed sometimes beautifully, sometimes imperfectly in covenanted community
that life, human and more-than-human life, is an interrelated network, that we are all reciprocally connected
that the world is saved (yes, saved) by the cultivation of the liberality we espouse, by the proliferation of the virtues we espouse:
openness and solidarity, curiosity and respect for the truth, humility, reverence and awe, gratitude and generosity, self-awareness and self-possession.

This is at the heart of our liberal religious faith. And these values are as relevant to people of all ages in this country today as they ever have been.

Newsletters, staff members, Web sites, musicians, styles of music, styles of worship, hymnbooks, furniture, buildings—and yes, ministers—all come and go. These are the wrapping around our basic core, the expressions of our basic core.

They are all transient. They are all impermanent.

What is required of us is the faith and the courage and the staying power and the imagination to gracefully let go of what no longer suits us,
to gracefully let go of what is no longer of service to our ministry and mission,
to gracefully let go of what keeps us from reaching our full potential as liberal communities of faith in this time, this 21st century, in this place.

The core message of our liberal religion is unchanging. Our core values remain the same, generation to generation.

Though they would be bewildered by much of what we do, the New England Puritans who founded, in the 1600s, the congregations that became Unitarian 100 years later would recognize our congregationalism, our covenantal communities.
Even though the 18th and 19th century founders and organizers of North American Unitarianism and Universalism would be confounded by some of what they would see among us today, I believe they would still recognize our optimistic religious philosophy and our dedication to liberty.

So, there have been changes.
We’ve evolved over the decades and centuries, and so we evolve some more.
While the gift of this great religious tradition of ours is ageless, the wrapping that gift comes in can change, as indeed it has over the last three centuries. The wrapping can, in fact, be torn off, dispensed with, and replaced—without affecting what is essential.

We whose work it is to bring our movement into its future as a vibrant and lively space need to have the imagination, the vision, to stretch beyond what we have known, and what we think is the way church is supposed to be, the way Unitarian Universalism is supposed to be, the imagination and vision to invent something new around which our core is built, to express that core in ways that are meaningful to our contemporary world.

We can’t just keep asking only for what it is that we want, we who are already here, we who have been around for a while.
We cannot just keep asking for more of the same only better or brighter or more efficiently communicated.
What we need is a breakthrough of imagination– fearless, visionary, creative imagination.

Henry Ford once said, “If I gave my customers what they wanted, I would have invented a faster horse.”

Rather than a really attractive and well-functioning telephone booth, we need to make the leap—invent something innovative and truly new that will be the vehicle by which we make our vibrant, liberal religion available to the next generation, and to the generation after that.

I served a Unitarian fellowship in a consultative, interim role.* This was a congregation that was started by lay people in the heyday of the fellowship movement, a movement which saw small, informal, lay-led communities of Unitarians spring up all over Canada and the United States. This fellowship was started in the early sixties. I was with them just before they celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their founding.

A lot has changed in the world since 1960. Those of you who were around in 1960 know what I’m talking about. It was unheard of to have a female minister. Sunday School and the nursery were female domains. It was unheard of to have openly gay or lesbian individuals in positions of leadership, let alone to acknowledge and celebrate our presence. A lot has changed since 1960.

Some of the changes this Unitarian fellowship saw included hiring (not calling) a part time minister in the 1980s, and eventually calling a full-time settled minister. They went from meeting in the public library to buying their own meetinghouse to outgrowing that space. With the influx of Baby Boomers, that generation born after the Second World War, a greater interest in Eastern philosophy, meditation, yoga was seen, along with Earth-centered spirituality, religious feminism. Openly lesbian and gay people began attending services. They began a tradition of lighting candles in the worship service. Like any healthy, living organization and organism, they were evolving, growing, changing, making use of new insights, responding to changes in society.

The original founders of the fellowship (the “Charter Members”) were not universally pleased at how much their congregation had evolved over the years. Every step along the way was a battle—and these were battles the founders felt they kept losing.
They didn’t want a minister.
They didn’t want candles.
They didn’t want to sing.
They didn’t want a choir.
They didn’t want to hear anything about spirituality.

Now, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for these individuals. Born before 1945, they were institutionalists, excellent builders and stewards of their institutions. They were dedicated to Unitarianism—the fellowship Unitarianism of the postwar era, that is. And what they didn’t understand was why these new people, these strangers, were introducing innovations into their common life.

Well those “new people” and “strangers,” many of them members of the fellowship for fifteen years or more, were the next generation.
The congregation was changing as it was growing. (Congregations that want to grow are the ones that recognize it means they change). The programs and minister and leaders were responding to the real needs of the religious liberals who were finding a home among them. They were responding to social change and directions our religious movement was making. (Movements, of course, move!).

Some in the circle of original founders—the Charter Members—were happy to see the congregation grow and evolve, and to have all sorts of new people find a home in their fellowship. Others were not so gracious.
In my work with this congregation, I felt it was important to surface what was happening with and in this group of Charter Members.
They were aging and a number of them were increasingly failing.
A number of the Charter Members had died.

I organized tea one afternoon with all of those who were around in 1960, who had founded the fellowship. We celebrated their successes—they bought that meetinghouse without going into debt, for example. We talked about the evolution of the fellowship, the evolution of Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism.

One woman admitted something so important that day.
She told me, “I feel like I’ve lost my church. I feel like the fellowship we started is gone.”

I replied, being as pastoral as possible:
“The reason you feel like you’ve lost your church is because you have.
The reason you feel like the fellowship you started is gone is because it is gone.”

You’ve lost your church. It’s gone. You suffer when you cling to the fellowship of 1960. You suffer because the fellowship of 1960 is gone forever.
We are going to have to find a way to graciously bequeath the gift of this lovely, lively community to the next generation.
We are going to have to find a way to graciously bequeath the gift of this congregation to those religious liberals who come after us, who have different mindsets than us, who have different needs and wants and social realities from us, who are adding their influence to ours on the shaping of this community.
We can cling to the way things were, the ways of the past, and cause suffering for ourselves and others, or we can graciously let go.
In order for us to give the gift of our congregation to the next generation, we are going to have to let it go.

We found a way together, for the older generation in that congregation to bear their loss with grace.

It’s important to note and honour this sense of loss.
It is a truism that change is hard and more so that churches hate change.
“We’ve never done it that way before,” is the common refrain in congregations.

It is my sincere belief that in actual fact, people do not resist change.

We resist loss.

A transition is simultaneously a beginning and an ending.
A new start means ending what came before.
While hopeful and optimistic about the new undertaking, one needs to acknowledge the grief of losing what was.
Change is hard not because we don’t welcome the new, but because we lose the old. And with loss comes grief, the pain of letting go of what was (and continues to be) cherished.

So. There have been changes. We’ve evolved over the decades and centuries, and so we evolve some more.

What do we expect our local congregation to look like three years from now?
What do we expect our Unitarian Universalist movement to look like five years from now?
How are we positioning ourselves for the next 100 years? the next 25?
How are we integrating social changes that affect our faith community—changes in technology, society, the role of religion in Canadian society?

This last question, I believe is the most pertinent and important and we ignore it at our peril. Our social order has been changing rapidly over the last generation. Everything from the way we communicate, operate our church office, pay our pledges, conduct our worship and attract new members is being affected.

We can either position ourselves for success in the changing landscape or limp along haphazardly.
We can either adapt to new realities or become obsolete. It’s our choice.
We can evolve or we can go extinct. It’s our choice.

How will we expand our reach into the community through our ministry of music? How will our music-making deepen our spirituality and enrich our worship life?
How will we grow our religious education ministry? Will more families be able to raise thoughtful and generous and socially engaged children because of our ministry? How do we meet those families where they are?
How can we offer more opportunities to act on our values in the community at large, in our province and nation? Will we extend the ways we make a difference in the lives of others?
How will we create meaningful opportunities for people of all ages through worship, study, community-building, and service?

What I see for our local congregations is a vibrant program of spiritual development for people of all ages, programs for parenting that understand the home to be the most significant site for children’s religious education.
I see programming for children and youth that emphasizes community-building, belonging, as well as learning.

I see us adjusting our programs for the real needs of real families—who may or may not be able to attend every session of every class—by using more of our Web sites and social media. By equipping parents with resources for the home.

I see programs of religious growth and learning, programs of spiritual practice and formation, being offered to and attracting adults in the surrounding community, folks coming to us to help them shape their faith journey.

I see us planning for and experimenting with styles of worship and music that would not be familiar to our 19th century forbears.

I see us continuing to expand our vibrant social action ministry, evolving to be better grounded in love and in the best of our theological, philosophical, and spiritual traditions.

I see our governance evolving, developing ways of shaping our common life that doesn’t exhaust its participants or feel like a burden.

Many of the emerging ways of 21st century liberal religion do not look like what we have known and are more familiar with. We are not reinventing the public telephone booth—we are moving on to a new iteration of religious liberalism altogether.

As far as I can see, what these emerging ways have in common is a focus on mission, a deeply felt spiritual connection, and a sense of joyful innovation.

(I didn’t feel like I had enough time to describe some emerging, emergent, and experimental UU communities, but for a good discussion of these and how we might be evolving, I commend a collection of essays edited by Frederic Muir, published by the UUA’s Skinner House. It’s called Turning Point: Essays on a New Unitarian Universalism). Let me describe in broad terms characteristics of what I see emerging among us.

I see emerging UU communities focused on meeting the needs of others, of serving in some capacity the wider community. Whether it’s the arts, spirituality, food, adult religious formation programming I believe that our vital congregations in this century will be and are focused outwardly. We build up esprit de corps as we are on a mission together in the world, bringing some aspect of our essential liberal religious message and way of being to the world around us.

I see a revival of the notion of the parish church, like our New England foundations, congregations that see themselves as the centre, the meeting place of their neighbourhood or town, in which the needs of the community are met in some way. Most importantly, the self-understanding of such congregations is that the “parish” is not simply coterminous with the “congregation” but is a geographical area the congregation is called to serve.

Our congregations are a lighthouse in and for the community, and not a clubhouse of likeminded individuals.

I see a spirituality of contemporary Unitarian Universalist communities that is unabashedly grounded in love, centred in love and the call of creating beloved community.

Love draws us out of ourselves and toward others, it is the heart of our relatedness, our interconnection with all that is. The interrelated web of existence is spun of this love, this desire to connect. And so, the worship life that is emerging among us celebrates and embodies this connection, this transcendent bigger life, transcending ego and small mindedness in the embrace of a larger self.

The generous and charitable attitude in emerging UU congregations embrace UU concepts of the divine without apology and speak forthrightly the language of reverence–religious language–albeit in a Unitarian Universalist mode.

The late 19th and early 20th century controversies among Unitarians of theism-versus-humanism are not merely from another age; any contemporary iterations (outdated, obsolete, repetitive) are a marker and sign of decline. (If that’s the most animated conversation in your congregation…)

And finally, joyful innovation is what we see in areas where there are signs of new life in our religious movement. Which takes a considerable amount of courage and not just creativity. There is both joy and permission in congregations that are thriving, permission to try something new which is also the permission to fail. If anybody even ever says “We’ve never done it that way before,” a usual response is, “No, we haven’t, let’s see what happens!”

The attitude is adventurous.

This might also mean experimenting with how we govern ourselves in congregational life. There is no army of potential volunteers waiting in the wings to join church committees. People, especially working people and working families, are better able to volunteer their time and effort in specific, time-limited ways. The more we are able to shape the way we do things around pop-up opportunities to contribute, the better able we will be to populate our efforts. Our organizations can be nimbler in how we create and sustain our ministries.

If we are going to live into our potential as a viable religious movement in this century, we are going to have to change. Which is to say, we are going to lose something; we are going to lose not only cherished ways of doing things, but we’re going to lose our sense of certainty.

André Gide once said, “One does not explore new lands without losing sight of shore.” The shore of the past is receding quickly behind us, and we need to sail into the waters of the unknown, the unknown ocean of the future. What we have with us on board are the best of our historic testimonies, the best of our enduring values, what is best suited for our adventure, what is most useful in creating the kind of communities and world we dream of living in. And yes, leaving behind everything else.

It’s an adventure.

I believe that the future of Unitarian Universalism is bright and that as we skilfully navigate the tides of change, we will see a flourishing of our way of being religious in the decades to come. But it won’t happen by accident. It will happen as we are intentional and forward looking. It will happen as we attend to what is emerging, as we cultivate what is emerging. And as we look forward with hope for what we will become and are becoming.


*If I served your congregation in such a role, don’t worry. I’m not talking about you.

This post is based on the keynote address given at the 31st annual UU Midwinter Retreat in Schomberg, Ontario, 8 February 2020. It brings together thoughts expressed previously in sermons in various other locations. A lively conversation followed. 



Making Our Way Home: Spiritual Journey as Pilgrimage

It’s the Fourth of July, 2002. I’m in lower Manhattan, walking south. It is hot, even though it is still morning. The air around me is tight, the light a brilliant white bleaching out the colour from buildings, trees, sidewalks. The streets are deserted, most shops shuttered against the heat. The financial district of this city built on commerce pauses to mark Independence Day, and the empty streets—usually so filled with bustling hurrying crowds—seem strange and haunted.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m here. I had been visiting with family and, with some time on my hands before my train, I knew, somehow, there was something I needed to do.

I pass a closed off subway station exit and the acrid smell of burned metal, sharp and insistent, emerges from within its barricaded tunnels.

Ground Zero. Like thousands around the world, I had seen live video of the events of that terrible day some ten months earlier, stared in mesmerized horror at the destruction wrought on hundreds and hundreds of innocent people.

Why have I come here?

Even as I approach the site, I am asking myself this. There isn’t much to do except look through a chain link fence at where rubble has been cleared, at a cross made from steel beams pulled from the wreckage, to walk along a sidewalk memorial outside a church remarkably untouched by the destruction visited upon its neighbour, and marvel in silence at the photographs, T-shirts, flowers, drawings, candles lining the iron fence, to read silently the names of the dead.

The sign by the place where pedestrians can look out onto Ground Zero reads: NO VENDORS. But on every other street, here they are: hawking calendars of firefighters and police officers, NY Police Department memorabilia, framed photographs of the twin towers at night, US flags—lots of American flags.

More vendors are arriving as I continue to walk, setting up their stands in the growing July heat, selling lemonade and hot dogs, and T-shirts, post cards, bumper stickers emblazoned with UNITED WE STAND, emblazoned with GOD BLESS AMERICA, emblazoned with stars and stripes and bald eagles, a display of kitsch memorabilia, the tourist trinkets you can take home with you to say to the world: I was there. I went there.

Because the tacky tourists who—like me—come to this place will need something to remember it by. And there will be somebody here to sell it to you—there will always be someone to sell here in this very place of world trade.

I find myself tangled momentarily in a gawking gaggle of tourists, snapping photographs, talking loudly, pointing. Annoyed, I try to untie myself from them, walk out ahead of them, get around them, away from them. Then I realize I am one of them.

Come to gawk, to take pictures, to collect trinkets, to say a prayer, to feel something real, to listen for the echoes—death, pain, grief, disaster—reverberating in widening circles out from this very place, this very site, into an increasingly complex twenty-first century world.

Come for first hand experience, to see first hand the devastation, and not the record of the devastation. Come to see for myself, to experience for myself what depraved injury had been visited upon this place. Come to see it with my own eyes, the place and not the record of the place, the place and not its sign.

Come to mourn, to feel deeply, to untie the terrible knots my soul had been twisted into since the events of September 11, 2001. I’m here to be a witness. And take back whatever I experience here into my daily life and be illuminated by its insights. I’ve come here to be changed.


There are places in our world that seem to contain the powers of renewal, places to which people flock seeking healing, enlightenment, inspiration. There are places in the world toward which we are drawn, places of power that seem to offer transformation and wholeness. The spirit longs for what might make us whole again, bends toward powers of regeneration.

People throughout time and across many cultures have travelled to such places, made pilgrimages to such holy sites. Perhaps, filled with hopes and wounds, something within them is drawn to certain mountains and springs, temples and cathedrals, rocks and rivers, just that way that I, with my hopes and wounds, was drawn toward Ground Zero.

I had felt a need to go there, in my own pilgrimage of struggling to understand. I had felt drawn there, a gravitational pull I can only describe in terms of a journey toward insight, witness, transformation. Essentially, spiritual terms. Even as I questioned my travelling to that site, I felt compelled.

Pilgrimage is an ancient spiritual practice of leaving what is comfortable and familiar to journey across the terrain of the unknown to a significant place, the vision of which drives us on, the arrival at which powers us forward. To be present where it all happened, physically present. To experience, if only by proxy and approximation, what took place there, what was revealed there.

Pilgrimage is a practice that gives us our most enduring metaphors for spirituality, for the inner life. We speak often of being on a journey, of our spiritual journey, being on a path, of walking together.

In his book The Orthodox Way, Kallistos Ware tells the story of Sarapion the Sidionite, one of the desert fathers, that group of fourth century women and men who fled to wild and abandoned places to live ascetic, monastic lives. Sarapion was a great traveller before becoming a monk and once made a pilgrimage to Rome. There, he was told of a famous recluse, a woman who prayed and meditated all day, never leaving her room. Sarapion visited her and sceptically asked, “Why are you just sitting there?” To which she replied, “I am not sitting. I am on a journey.”

I’m not sitting, I’m on a journey. This summarizes nicely my own experience of my daily meditation practice. Outwardly, of course, I am just sitting but in truth I have been on a journey. I’m not the same man I was when I began years ago, and the discipline of contemplative prayer and meditation are what I attribute much of my own spiritual and personal growth to. Transformation, in my experience, is rarely dramatic and overnight but is rather a cumulative process of trials and errors, of intentional cultivation and slow, patient growth.

For me, being a person of faith is only partly about beliefs, religious philosophies, and theological ideas. Being a person of faith, for me, is a way of life. It’s a way of conducting myself in the world, toward others, and with communities of accountability.

Ideas, scriptures, creeds, philosophies, and theology are important, the way a map is an important tool for finding your way. They can be the map – the description of the territory – but they are not the territory.

They can be means by which we discern the path, but they are not the path.

Living one’s faith is a matter of daily actions that embody one’s aspirations – daily acts of compassion and care, of study and celebration, solidarity and service. It’s a matter of walking the talk. It’s a way of experience, of seeing for ourselves. The map is necessary for the journey but is no substitute for practice, for actually hitting the road.

Such maps orient our religious lives, providing a sense of direction toward where our hearts yearn to go. They provide a true north toward which bends the individual needle of our personal compass.

The pilgrimage to Mecca, for a Muslim, is a central tenet in the practice of Islam; pilgrimage (the hajj) is one of the five pillars of Islam. And just as pilgrims walk around the holy places in Mecca, rotating or circumambulating around the Kaaba, like planets orbiting a sun, so Muslims around the world are oriented toward Mecca in prayer. When praying, Muslims face toward the holy city.

What direction are you pointed in? What orients your spiritual and ethical life?

Such a cartography keeps us from being bandied about by spiritual fads, spiritual-but-not-religious fads. There’s always room for course corrections, to be sure. Yet remaining constant to essentials, to the very values and virtues that command our loyalty, is the surest compass we can have as we make our way.

As we make our way slowly, deliberately, trusting in the outcome that may yet be beyond the horizon.

Ours is a culture that assumes anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. If something is to be done, we assume it can be done quickly and efficiently. Why walk hundreds of miles through the mountains of France and Spain when you can fly to Santiago de Compostela?

Our attention spans are shortened, truncated by television’s and the Internet’s immediacy. We get abridged versions of the story. An authentic religious life is difficult to cultivate in this context because it implies a discipline and staying power that goes against the grain of a culture marked by the immediate and the casual.

In our religious lives, contemporary people expect the abridged version of the story, the record of the place and not the place itself. We are all too willing to collect the tourist trinkets of a holy place and move on to the next spiritual trend.

“The essential thing is that there should be long obedience in the same direction. There thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” Friedrich Nietzsche

A long obedience in the same direction results in something which makes life worth living. The fruits of a spiritual practice – and I include involvement in a faith community among those spiritual practices – don’t come instantly. Any more than running a marathon comes instantly after one’s first run. We live in a culture that instils in us a desire for instant results and impatience when these aren’t delivered immediately.

Staying on the path, even when the way gets difficult or the weather rough, is the mark of an authentic spiritual seeker. The one bound to find something, to touch the powers of regeneration and healing, is the one dedicated to walking the walk, to a long obedience in the same direction, to staying true to one’s intention. It’s the difference between being a seeker and a dilettante, between experiencing the holy and merely collecting the kitschy trinkets.

It’s the difference between being a pilgrim and being a tourist.

Being on the journey, walking the path of liberal religion, walking the way of compassion and peace and solidarity, deserves our attention and commitment. Being sufficiently committed to our congregations, to our meditation practice, to our prayer life, to whatever our daily spiritual disciplines include, is important and necessary. Having moments of clarity and insight, moments of transcendence and joy, are important milestones, meaningful experiences along the way.

Are those moments the point of spirituality? Do we wander aimlessly, accumulating them willy-nilly? What is the point of spiritual practice? If the spiritual life, the cultivation of our inner life, is a journey, then what’s the destination?

So here’s the thing. Here’s the difficulty I have with the metaphor of spiritual journey. We have a tendency to think that the destination of the journey is the holy city, the sacred site, the mountaintop experience. But then what? What happens when we get there?

Staying there is not the point of making a pilgrimage. That’s not pilgrimage—that’s exile.

The point of the sacred journey is to go home.

The true destination of any pilgrimage isn’t the holy place; the destination of every pilgrimage is home.

After the journey there must come the journey back.

Which is why, rather than simply journey, I prefer the metaphor of pilgrimage for the spiritual life. Because going to the mountaintop, and being with the teacher, and drawing near to the places containing the seeds of our own healing, is merely act one. Act two is coming down from the mountain, putting the teaching into practice, cultivating the seeds of our wellbeing. Act two is taking off the white clothing of the hajj upon returning from Mecca to begin again the daily round of one’s life. The second act of the pilgrim’s drama is coming home, retracing the steps that brought us to that place and arriving again at the place we began, our point of departure.

I prefer the metaphor of pilgrimage because the real test of whatever truth we learn, or insights we have, on our spiritual quest is what we do with it at home. The true test of any spiritual practice is whether it makes us better people, more loving and understanding and patient and curious.

Does your religion make you more compassionate? Does your religion compel you to live justly, creating and sustaining moral and truthful relationships? Or have you simply come back from the holy places with a handful of trinkets?

The true test of any religious experience is what difference it makes in our home, in our workplace, with our families and friends, with strangers and enemies. The true test of the mountaintop experience isn’t its intensity or brilliance but what light it casts on our daily life. Mountaintop experiences are not tested by their sanctity or how good they make us feel, but rather how they inform how we live our life down here in the ordinary world.

The pilgrim, the hajji, comes back to the village in Indonesia or Morocco or Pakistan, dressed in white. And a kind of aura surrounds them, an honour is paid to them as they recount stories of their journey there and back. And then they get back into their ordinary clothes to re-enter daily life. As the title of one popular book on spiritual practice puts it: After the ecstasy, the laundry. 

Communities of faith, spiritual practice, religious experience – these can be ways of opening to new life-changing truth and insight, to the divine, to others in more authentic ways. These can also be ways of making ourselves feel good or self-satisfied and have no bearing whatsoever on our relationships and commitments.

It is completely possible to bliss out on chanting or singing or doing yoga and still be mean to people! You can go to workshops at the Omega Institute or Kripalu or go on retreat to a monastery, you can read every spiritual book that Oprah recommends and still be petty, lack generosity and compassion, and not become a better person if you are unable or unwilling to put any of the wisdom you have encountered into practice every day.

Have you ever felt a deep call within to experience a place or person or practice? How might you answer such a call? What is it that sustains you as you strive to live a good life, to be a better person? What can you do to maintain what sustains you?

We are all longing to come home to our best and most authentic selves. Finding our way as pilgrims we are gifted with inspiration and longing and adventurousness, direction and orientation, pathways and routes to walk to which we are committed. We are gifted with travel companions, who lift you up when you fall, who egg you on when you falter, and to whom you can be a companion, offering your guidance and help along the way. Our faith communities, at their best, provide us with a context in which we are challenged, edified, encouraged and in which we challenge, edify, and encourage others.


If you go to lower Manhattan today, you can visit the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in the space once occupied by the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. The memorial features two reflecting pools, each perfectly square, in what are described as footprints of the two towers. Waterfalls line the parameter of each square, living water feeding each reflecting pool, describing in their open shape an absence. Inscribed in bronze parapets bordering each pool are the names of those killed.

Mediating the space between these pools of water and the hustle and bustle of the busy city is a grove of oak trees. One tree that survived the destruction of the towers remains rooted in place there, surrounded now by a small forest of living trees offering up their sweet green leaves each spring, fading into amber colours each fall. You can walk among the trees, reminded of the powers of regeneration and growth, of cycles of life, death, and new life.

I’ve never been. I haven’t yet visited the memorial or the museum, put perhaps the next time I’m in New York City and have the time to go, I’ll visit.






Made Known in the Breaking of the Bread

I have always thought of the kitchen as the heart of a household. In some primordial half-remembered, half-imagined archetypal house, it is the hearth fire around which the members of a household gather. A house can shelter different, even disparate people. You can enter a household, live within its sheltering walls, and share its fellowship and rituals with your fellow inhabitants.

And what more visceral expression of a household’s unity than to share meals together regularly? We all need food to live and sharing food can be symbolic of shared life. And it is in the kitchen, the hearth and heart of a house, that the abundance of creation is chopped and julienned and boiled and sautéed and broiled and then taken and blessed and given and shared.

Perhaps you have had the experience in your family of everybody working together in the kitchen to produce a big meal. Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, summer barbecues. And you talk while you cook, tell stories, laugh together. A large table is set (maybe with the little card table set out for the youngest) and the meal is shared by all with more talk, stories and laughter. In the observance of Passover, the ancient story of freedom told around the shared meal is formalized.

At Easter, many of us ponder the stories of Jesus’ appearance to his followers in the days following his brutal execution. Isn’t it interesting how many of these texts involve food? In fact, they all involve food. In some stories, Jesus cooks the disciples a breakfast of toast and fried fish. In another he eats with them (again, a fish) as if to demonstrate that he is not a ghost. And in these appearance stories, Jesus is at first unrecognized.

In Luke’s story, the two Jesus followers who walk with a stranger to Emmaus don’t recognize that it is Jesus who walks with them until—what? They break bread together.

And more than that. “Jesus would have gone on,” the text says, “but they begged him to stay the night with them.” They offer hospitality to the stranger. And then, when he is at the table with them, he takes a loaf of bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. And suddenly their eyes were opened.

Now this language is formulaic. It is a formula, a blueprint, a recipe. He takes bread, and after blessing it, breaks it and gives it to them. This is the formula of the Eucharist, of communion, the Lord’s Supper.

Remember, of course, that the gospels are the theological expressions of the early followers of Jesus and not biographies written by eyewitnesses. So the early followers of Jesus, the original Jesus movement, are telling us something very important about how they experienced the continuing presence of Jesus in the days following his crucifixion.

In the early decades of the Christian era, followers of Jesus met in one another’s homes. In the Greco-Roman world, the home, the household, was the domain of women, so often women would preside at the table, around which songs were sung, and scriptures and letters read, a meal was shared and food distributed to the hungry. And, around the table, the Eucharist was celebrated.

Reaching out to the stranger, the inclusion of the stranger in this godly household, the act of pulling up one more chair to the collective table, was essential. At this table there is always room for one more. The universe is extravagant in the goodness bestowed upon us and out of that abundance comes the grace with which we share with others.

The point of being a household of faith is not to lock the doors and draw the blinds and parcel out God’s scarce, limited resources among ourselves. The point of being such a household—of being the church—is to invite everybody to the banquet. This is a feast and everybody is invited.

And everybody sometimes meant random guests being invited from the highways and byways, thrown together in a generous act of hospitality. People of different social status rubbed elbows at such a table.

Jesus shared a table fellowship with his followers, students, and friends. It was a symbol of what his mission was about. Jesus’ table was a symbol of God’s abundance, of the possibilities of liberation and communion when people came together and shared what they had, often across lines  of difference.

And the stories that circulated among his friends were fantastic tales of fish and loaves multiplying, of water turning into wine. In his presence, these stories tell us, nobody goes hungry. At Jesus’ table, all are fed.

Anthropologists speak of commensality—a fancy word for sharing a table—and the insights into culture when observing who is invited to eat, who sits where at the table, who is served first. Open commensality is the practice of there being no restrictions or taboos at the meal table. Jesus’ practice of open commensality is remarked upon throughout the stories of him in the New Testament.

In the beloved community, social differences are elided in a banquet of sharing and hospitality and abundance and fellowship. The bodies we all share unite us in their need for nourishment and we are all given what we need.

When Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, he knew that he was going to get in trouble. He might have even known he was going to die. For at the last meal he ate with his friends, he told them that every time they came together in his name, sharing food, sharing bread and cup, they would be living out the beloved community.

Do this and remember me, Jesus says. Daily acts of eating and drinking, do it for the remembrance of me. You know, the Greek word in the New Testament that is translated as remembrance also means reenactment.

Do this and re-enact my table fellowship. Do this and re-enact my mission.

The shared meal, symbolic of shared life, is the centre of a household’s life, a community’s life. For the earliest followers of Jesus, the reenactment of his mission of shared abundance was the way they experienced his ongoing presence among them—the worshipping, Eucharistic community, those gathered around the freely-given, justice-creating meals of Christian worship.


emmaus icon

You have just arrived in town.

The mid-morning sun is heating up the stone walkways of this Mediterranean port city. The sky is a dazzling cobalt, a blue that offsets the whitewashed houses and sandstone walls. It is the first century, and you are arriving in a seaside city along the coast of the Mediterranean in what is now Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Italy.

You are a stranger here. You know nobody here and nobody knows you. Perhaps you are a migrant labourer, one of a growing number of destitute peasants looking for work. Perhaps you are a recently freed slave. A few things are certain. You have no money, you have no family, you live in the rough world of sailors, fishers, traders making up the underbelly of the Roman Empire.

And you are a Christian. You are a member of a secretive mystery cult based in the life and teachings of a Jew from Galilee, a spirit-filled miracle-worker and sage. He was executed by the Romans as a political criminal, but his earliest followers say that he lives on within and among his followers, wherever two or more are gathered in his name. And his name is Iesous, Iesous Christos. Jesus the Christ. Most of his followers that you know are not Jews, but Greeks, like you, and like you from the lower classes of the Empire.

There are networks of Christos followers, Christians, throughout the towns and villages of this region. You need to keep your cultic practices to yourself, as the religious leaders have disestablished followers of Christos, forbidding you from meeting in the Jewish meetinghouses of the diaspora.

As a newly established sect, your Greek neighbours and the Roman authorities alike are suspicious of this upstart religion. In another generation, Christians will be actively persecuted. Indeed, there are already stories circulating among the believers of court cases and accusations. The secrets of your religion must be kept.

You seek and find each other out, meeting before dawn on the first day of the week, before going to work. You meet to sing, mostly, sing and pray. And then share a meal together. A meal of fish and bread and wine. And then, at the close of worship, food from this feast is distributed.

That’s how you became a Christian. You heard that they would feed you, and so you sought out this new mystery cult. Because you were hungry, physically hungry and desperate to sustain yourself. And they helped you, these Christians. They fed you, gave you clothes, told you who in town was a Christian who you could find work with. And the network of believers exists throughout the Empire, clandestine and unseen.

Like other secret societies, yours has its version of code words and secret handshakes. It is said, for example, if you meet a stranger on the road and begin to talk about your religious practices, and you wanted to know if he or she was a Christian, you could scratch an arc into the dirt, and if without speaking, they drew a similar intersecting arch, you knew there was a brother or sister with you.

And so you arrive here, the mid-morning sun heating up the stone walkways as the cobalt blue sky above offsets the whitewashed houses and sandstone walls. You need to find work, you need to find a place to stay, you need some money, you need to eat. And although you don’t know where to look, you know there are believers here who will help you.

You begin to scan the walls, some of which are scratched with graffiti. Lovers names, political slogans, sexual innuendos, and—finally, you spot it—a fish. Two simple, intersecting arcs. The sign of the fish. It is pointing you to the right, and so you step along that alleyway, to another sign of the fish, pointing left. You continue left along the walkway, following these fish until you arrive at the household of the local Christian community, the household at which the local believers gather for pre-dawn worship on the first day of the week.

You will knock on this door. The door will be opened by somebody who will help you, somebody who will welcome you in to this city’s network of believers. You will be drawn in, welcomed into this circle, and fed. These are your people and they will not let you go hungry. These are your people, and they will take care of you.


The sign of the fish is the earliest Christian symbol. As early as the first century, Christian grave markers displayed images of the fish and the dove. Long before the cross, it was the fish that symbolized Christianity, the Jesus movement.

As a secretive worshipping community, the fish was a kind of password, an acrostic. If you take the Greek words Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, which mean Jesus Christ God Son Saviour, and take the first letter of each of those words, you get IXTHYS, the Greek word for “fish.”

It is possible that this creedal formulation (Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Saviour) emerged in Alexandria, the major Hellenistic city of North Africa in the late first century as a reaction to the reign of Domitian, who proclaimed himself a son of God, and had coins pressed with his image and these words. The Christian counter-affirmation was that Jesus was the true ruler, that their first allegiance was to the Kingdom of God.

Mosaics, murals, and frescoes from the first three centuries of Christian worship spaces, including the catacombs of Italy, depict the Eucharistic gifts as a fish, a loaf of bread, and wine or grapes.

The fish is an ancient symbol of life, fertility, abundance. In the ancient world, the fish was a symbol associated with the Goddess. In the ancient Mediterranean,it was a symbol of fertility associated with various Goddesses, including Venus who is venerated on the sixth day of the week—Friday, dies Veneris. In Scandinavia, the Great Goddess was called Freya and fish were eaten in her honour, also on the day named after her: Friday. The Roman Catholic Church, until recent years, had its adherents abstain from eating meat on the day that Christ was crucified and to eat instead fish on Fridays.

The association of the fish with abundance and fertility and life is expressed in many of the gospel stories.  A symbol rich with meaning in the minds of the people, the fish came to represent the worshipping, Eucharistic community, those communities gathered for worship that was both devotion and social justice, both reverence toward God and the distribution of foodstuffs to the needy.

The cruciform symbol of Christ’s cross came long after these early symbols of the table, and I for one take that as significant. Jesus’ death was not as significant as his ongoing mysterious presence among them at the table, where they reenacted his mission.

For me, the symbol of the living Christ is not a codeword for Jesus the man, but rather a symbol of life’s creative, transforming power. I believe to understand the symbol of the Christ, the living Christ (or the “Cosmic Christ”), we need to understand how God’s creative transforming power is lived out in communities of people.

The only compelling and truly meaningful Christology I’ve encountered in all my years of study and reflection is that of the feminist theologian Rita Nakashima Brock. In her book Journeys By Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, she speaks not of the Christ, but of Christa, the feminine form used in conjunction with Community. The living Christ is Christa/Community.

The power that gives and sustains life does not flow from a dead and resurrected savior to his followers. Rather, the community sustains life-giving power by its memory of its own broken-heartedness and of those who have suffered and gone before and by its members being courageously and redemptively present to all. In doing so, the community remains Christa/Community and participates in the life-giving flow of erotic power. No one person or group exclusively reveals it or incarnates it.

Jesus is like the whitecap on a wave. The whitecap is momentarily set off from the swell that is pushing it up, making us notice it. But the visibility of the whitecap, which draws our attention, rests on the enormous pushing power of the sea—of its power to push with life-giving labor, to buoy up all lives, and to unite diverse shores with its restless energy. That sea becomes monstrous and chaotically destructive when we try to control it, and its life-giving power is denied. Jesus’ power lies with the great swells of the ocean without which the white foam is not brought to visibility. To understand the fullness of erotic power we must look to the ocean which is the whole and compassionate being, including ourselves.


Brock argues that the very nature of the Christ insists on relationality: “What is truly christological, that is, truly revealing of divine incarnation and salvific power in human life, must reside in connectedness and not in single individuals… [Jesus] neither reveals nor embodies it, but he participates in its revelation and embodiment.”

In other words, the creative transforming power of God happens when people come together and act out the creativity and transformation of our own lives, as individuals and together in the intentional relationships we call communities. The living Christ exists where love, mercy, and compassion are enacted among human persons.

And this is not an abstract thing. We embody mercy and compassion in concrete acts of care and concern for those around us, particularly those in need, those who are most vulnerable. We embody that spirit—a meal delivered, a bandage applied, a hug, setting out food, a hospital bedside vigil—we make that spirit known in what we do with our bodies—feeding, visiting, clothing, touching.

I think those of us who gather in community can be the conduits of salvation (in that word’s sense of healing and wholeness). We, involved in the intentional relationships known as community, can be the places of saving grace and action. Within the matrix, the network, of who we are collectively moves the spirit that saves the world. Within the matrix, the network, the oceanic swell, of who we are cooperatively moves the spirit that saves the world.

At Easter time, my sense is that people celebrate a living spirit, a green springtime of the soul, a numinous presence of creative, regenerative, transforming power. This power is at work in the world, if only we would recognize it. Its alchemy transforms strangers into friends, disparate individuals into a community. It is the Life that makes all things new. For Christians, it is the living Christ.

When I was in seminary, I worked off campus. One of my co-workers was involved in something called Food Not Bombs. Once a week, these activists would collect discarded food from restaurants and supermarkets in downtown Toronto. Restaurants and supermarkets, you might know, throw away a lot of food. Things that spoil easily or are slightly bruised, food they cannot re-serve or that go off the menu the following day. The activist volunteers of Food Not Bombs collect the leftovers and the refuse of restaurants—who happily give their garbage over—and create huge, vegetarian feasts.

Once a week, Food Not Bombs sets up a table in a public park and invites all passersby to a free meal. The homeless population of the city makes good use of this free food, but it is meant for everybody. I used to love the meals of Food Not Bombs, probably because I shared many of the political aspirations of those involved, with our vision of a world of plenty, where human need comes before human greed.

It seemed to me that if the spirit of Jesus was alive anywhere, it was here. And I don’t mean in the individual face of a homeless person, and I don’t mean in the face of a young idealist. I mean the whole gesture of turning garbage into a feast, redeeming leftovers, of freely offering a table full of food to strangers, the Bay Street business man sharing a meal with a street-involved youth with a mental illness, the rough poor from the underbelly of another empire knowing where to go for food, people of disparate backgrounds rubbing elbows at a shared meal.

For me, the living Christ is not an individual, the living Christ is a feast, a table where mercies are spread, a community, a common wealth. The living Christ is a symbol of our common life shaping a world of mutuality and trust and love, a symbol of what sustains and nurtures life.

From Tolerance to Hospitality

At a congregational board retreat at the beginning of a church year one year, we began to ask questions about mission.

To spark answers to the question of what our purpose is, we considered the question, “What is this congregation’s saving message?”

A number of themes emerged consistently, one of them being the notion that we model a way of holding together in unity a diversity of theological and philosophical perspectives. Our historic testimony – part of our saving message to the world – has been religious toleration, creating understanding and respect in civil society for a variety of religious beliefs and for none. The language that many Unitarians grew up with, including some on this board, was of religious tolerance.

But before I could write down, “Tolerance” with my marker onto the page in front of the group, a participant spoke up.

“You know, I don’t want to be tolerated.”

Tolerance, indeed, implies that there is something distasteful about another and we are holding our noses and allowing them to remain in our presence. Like tolerating loud noise or a foul smell because it can’t be avoided.

The historian Earl Morse Wilbur identified the three foundational principles of Unitarianism as being freedom, reason and tolerance. This describes our history, but not our present moment and in these opening decades of the twenty-first century, these basic principles of religious liberalism are, without really being superseded, transforming.

Tolerance, for example, is no longer adequate for our increasingly multicultural and interfaith context. It is not helping our divided body politic. What is needed today is not simply tolerance for difference, but rather authentic engagement across our differences.

No longer holding our nose and allowing you to stay here, but rather, curiosity and conversation with those who are different from us. Who are you and how do you see the world? Asking and discovering, in an attitude of openness, does not mean acceptance necessarily of another’s views. But it builds a bridge, and makes connection and communication possible.

There have been times when I, and other LGBT people I know, have “come out” to others in our faith communities and were told, “It doesn’t matter that you’re gay” (or lesbian or bi or trans).

Well… it matters to me!

I’ve also been told by well meaning people that it makes no difference that I’m Arab. “You can hardly tell,” they say, thinking they’ve complimented me.

Well…it makes a difference to me!

It is a well-meaning, liberal response that actually closes down dialogue. By saying, You’re no different from me, the real and actual difference is not acknowledged, the fullness of that person’s rich experience and humanity remains shut off.

The same happens across differences of ability and disability, language, culture, race, theology, class, nationality, gender.

Pretending those differences aren’t there isn’t helpful. To actually engage one another, we’d need to give up the well-intended but pernicious fictions of “colour blindness” and “aren’t we all the same.”

A video going round on my social media recently exhorts viewers to give up “labels” saying that our “true” identities are some kind of interior quintessence and not our outward appearances, including our bodies. This laudable plea to see the humanity in one another, rather than the material conditions that separate us, falls into this same sort of thinking.

Those material conditions are real and have real consequences in our real lives. And those identities are real and meaningful, even if socially constructed. It’s delusional to pretend otherwise. Erasing people’s identities is, to say the least, problematic.

I suggest that hospitality is what is needed today, the willingness to engage with one different from or strange to us, the practice of active engagement across the divisions and barriers that separate us. Hospitality involves acknowledging and affirming differences in another as we commit to understanding and accepting them fully as they are.

Hospitality is the practice of curiosity and openness, a spirit of inquiry into another’s life and experience. Hospitality is the practice of taking a risk—of asking a question, for example, even if it might be insensitive.

We need more than ever to open our door and welcome in the one who we consider one of “them.” Because in the transformational guest-host conversation that is the heart of hospitality, there is mutual exchange of distrust and trust, sincerity and reticence, giving and receiving out of which is born new understanding, new insight and new relationship.

I don’t want to be tolerated. I refuse to be erased. I want to be listened to, understood, taken seriously, affirmed and maybe even accepted – for who I actually am. These are the fruits of hospitality, a virtue that I daresay needs to become more central to who we are and what we do.


Keeping the Joy: A Christmas Practice

An unadorned Christmas tree, its branches having relaxed in the warm living room, stood in the corner.

A string of Christmas lights lay out in a row along the wall. Checking for burned out bulbs, my mom replaced any that no longer glowed with festive light.

The cardboard box, removed from its eleven-month slumber in storage, sat in the middle of the living room, crumpled newspaper strewn about the carpet. My siblings and I unwrapped ornaments and decorations as we took them out of the box.

One of these decorations was a dime store Santa Claus that had been my mother’s since she was three years old. It held a candle that we never lit. One of the ornaments was a bell that had come from my grandparents on my father’s side. The bell, however, was shattered. As we kids took out the usable ornaments, Mom opened the bell’s box carefully, gently peeling back its wrapping to reveal the sparkling shards.

Annually, I wondered to myself: why do we hold on to these? The cracked and peeling Santa candle stand with its never burned candle, the broken bits of an ornament that would never go on a tree—why keep these?

Their value was in what they represented: my parents’ past and childhood and Christmases of yore. Their utility was their ability to convey continuity, history, and tradition.

The story of these objects (a war time holiday, a Christmas tree that fell over) was told ritually as we decorated the Christmas tree. Function, or usefulness, is only one measure of something’s worth.

At what point does a person or a family decide to throw such things away?

I moved recently, and as I began to unpack and sort out my new home, I read—…you know what, I had to go check just now on the title. It’s called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up but I have been referring to it as The Magical Art of Throwing Everything Away mostly because its author, Marie Kondo, advocates not holding on to anything.

Well, not exactly. She insists that you keep only those things which bring you joy. Presumably, when I am done this process, I will be surrounded only by things which bring me joy. Which sounds wonderful! And as a touchstone for whether or not to keep a thing, Does this bring me joy? diminishes the power of all other reasons to keep it: I might reread it again or I might fit into this if I lose ten pounds or But a special person gave this to me or I think I will need this for my doctoral research.

It also means being in touch with what joy feels like.

The December holiday season is a time of nostalgia, a time for holding precious shards of our past gently in hand. It can be a time of mourning what is irreparably damaged, for grieving loss, for handling those broken places of our past or present lightly, carefully. We can ask if now is the time to let go.

There’s a delicious old word which I’ve only ever heard Quakers use: cumber. To cumber is to weigh down, to inhibit, to clutter up. Too many things, and too many things that bring us no joy, are cumbersome. We can become so encumbered, we can’t move.

I think of cumber as all of that clutter that I hang on to that is not useful or beautiful and no longer brings me joy. Getting rid of it is true liberation.

But I hesitate to give away or recycle or send to the landfill so many things that I am not tied to anything—a tradition, a past, a family, a faith. So much of the rootlessness of modern life, it seems to me, comes from being enamoured with the shifting, never ending cycles of the new, the latest, the up-to-date.

History, tradition, and memory inform who we are, give us context and meaning. Yet the past ought not limit us. How many of us have spent this season with endless, joyless tasks (baking cookies, writing cards, buying gifts) because that’s just what we do every year and it can never be different?

Christmas is one of those seasons when this all comes together for me. It can be a time of imagination, of creating new practices while keeping and cherishing past traditions. Of doing things that bring joy—for one’s self, one’s household, and family—and laying down what is no longer useful, beautiful, or joyful.

I have a handful of Christmas items that, while they bring me great joy, don’t seem as historic as the relics of my family’s Christmas ornament box. But come to think of it, they represent my own collection of memories, stories, and traditions. I would hate to lose any of it. I have—even as I release what weighs me down—been creating and curating my own cherished reliquary of hallowed things.

I guess that’s how it happens.



The Wrath of Jonah: A reflection on anger, forgiveness, and letting go

There are many Bible stories that many who have never read the Bible know.

Or think they know.

Jonah and the whale is one of them. Many seem to be familiar with the hapless Jonah who gets swallowed by a whale, in whose belly he lives for three days. Some might even know that he was running away from an assignment given to him by God.

What many might not appreciate, even those who know the story, is that Jonah is not really the hero of the story, in the sense that he is meant to be an exemplar of behaviour, a model to be emulated. Rather, he is an angry, judgmental, small-minded man who bitterly opposes God’s compassion and God’s mercy on those who don’t follow the rules. He’s kind of a proto-­fundamentalist.

And what’s more, the story is told about him in the Bible in a way that intends for listeners or readers of the story to laugh at Jonah. It’s a funny story. It’s a comedy. Which is another surprise to those who think of the Bible as being dreadfully boring or humourless. The story of Jonah is a bit of a caricature of religious and ethnic intolerance, a parody of small-­mindedness which lampoons those who would not be gracious or forgiving.

The word of God comes to Jonah, the way that it comes to all of the Jewish prophets. Prophets receive word from God usually to proclaim that God’s justice cannot be ignored, and that judgment will fall on those who oppress the poor, cheat their workers, or ignore the needs of the most vulnerable. A major theme for the Jewish prophets is the tendency of the Hebrews to worship other gods and goddesses, and how mad God, the God of the Hebrew people, gets when this happens.

So Jonah receives word from the God of Israel to go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it. The wickedness of its people has come to the attention of God and God wants Jonah to go tell them about it. (Jonah 1:1-­2) Nineveh was the flourishing capital of the Assyrian empire, at the time of this story, the largest city in the ancient world. In other words, the seat of an imperial power amassing wealth through the domination of other lands. And one that is not Jewish. The Assyrians were pagan, after all.

So God is sending Jonah there to preach against Nineveh. What does he do?

He gets on the next ship out of there and goes—in the opposite direction.

He heads for Tarshish, a fabled name for a place probably on the Iberian peninsula, pretty much the outer edge of the known world. Jonah wants to get as far away as possible. If we were telling this story today, we might say something like, “Jonah got on the next plane to Timbuktu.”

God stirs up a violent storm that tosses and pounds the ship that Jonah is on. Everyone aboard starts praying to their own god while Jonah, incredibly, is asleep below deck.

The sailors wake him up and say, “What are you doing? Get up and call on your God to save us!” (1:6)

The sailors also cast lots to find out who is responsible for the calamity that has befallen them, which they discover is Jonah.

“Who are you? Where are you from? Do you know who’s responsible for the trouble we’re in?”

Jonah replies that he is a Hebrew and that he has angered his God by running away from him.

“What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” they ask.

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” is the answer Jonah gives. (1:11-­12)

That is when a huge fish (not a whale but a “huge fish”) swallows Jonah and carries Jonah in its belly for three days and three nights and spits him up onto dry land.

There, God again commands Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim there the message God gave Jonah. Reluctantly, Jonah goes.

Now much of the Hebrew Bible devoted to the prophets is full of threats, all of the things that God will do to the wicked. The prophets give long lists of what has made God angry: oppression of the poor, unfaithfulness, chasing after ostentatious wealth. They give long lists of punishments and tribulations: famines and droughts (economic losses) and military invasions.

Jonah, on the other hand, walks into the city of Nineveh and says, “You have forty days.” (3:4)

That’s it.

That’s all he says.

No “Woe to you,” no explanation of the wickedness that God has seen, no long lists of things to repent from.

Jonah is doing his best to make sure they don’t repent and that God punishes them.

“You have forty days.”

And then, to Jonah’s great dismay, that’s all it takes for the Ninevites to be sorry and repent.

He’s not even working that hard at prophesying, and they all are sorry for what they’ve done and immediately begin to fast and ask forgiveness. Including the king who proclaims a fast and urges everybody to “give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows,” the king says, “God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (3:8-­9)

“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” (3:10)

Well. Jonah is angry! He is so angry! 

He storms out of the city. “I knew you were going to this! I knew it!” he rails at God.

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4:3)

God acts like a soothing parent. “Oh, honey you don’t mean that.”

“Yes I do! I’d rather be dead than glad that you didn’t destroy them!”

“Is it right for you to be angry?” God asks repeatedly.

“I’m going to sit right here and watch the city and wait and see what happens to them.” (4:5)

And that’s pretty much how the story ends. (Although we also get this comic situation where God shelters Jonah out there in the desert with a tree that grows up where he is sulking, after which God takes it away and Jonah blows up again).

But that is pretty much how the story ends. Jonah sulking and a soothing parental God saying, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Is it right for you to be angry?

Sometimes it is right to be angry. Anger at an injustice is a sign of an active moral conscience. Getting mad when something unfair happens is a good sign. It can be the energy that gets us to move toward making justice, toward righting the wrong. Anger can be the motivation for action.

But Jonah is mad because the people of Nineveh have been spared. The compassion—the mercy—of the God he reveres is greater than Jonah’s petty need for revenge and retribution. Jonah is angry because he didn’t get what he wanted— God smiting the people he doesn’t like.

The citizens of Nineveh, remember, are not even Jews. The story plays on the distinction that the Hebrews made between themselves and other nations, that they had been chosen out of all the nations of the world in a special covenant with God. That God’s covenant could be universal, and could include all peoples, was anathema to those who claimed the superiority of their ethnic and national group over all others.

I myself have known people like Jonah, given to jingoistic sloganeering about their nation being the best nation on Earth, given to confirming their prejudices by quoting a scripture chapter and verse, and who refuse to acknowledge goodness in people different from them or deemed enemies to themselves.

I see in the character of Jonah something I see all the time. When you’re really mad at somebody who has wronged you in some way. They’ve really done something unskillful and hurtful and you just can’t wait until you see them because you are going to let them have it. You are going to tell them what they did and how it made you feel and what you’re going to do about it and what they should do about it and the kind of person you think they are.

You rehearse what you’re going to say in your mind, making all kinds of brilliant points about this other person’s shortcomings and failures.

And then.

When you see them, before you can even get a word out, they apologize.

Without your explaining it, they acknowledge what they’ve done. They say they realize what they did and see how unskillful and hurtful it was toward you, and they are sorry. And they ask you to accept their apology.

You don’t want them to be sorry!

You want to have the fight you’ve been rehearsing in your head!

You don’t want to accept their apology, you want to enumerate the ways in which they are wrong, and now you’re even angrier because they’ve taken that away from you.

They’ve done it themselves and apologized for it.

Sometimes we don’t want reconciliation or resolution. We want to be proven right. We want to triumph in victory over another. We ourselves can be vengeful or spiteful and in so doing, perpetuate a conflict, continue a difference we have with another.

Maybe you have known people like Jonah, who refuse to give up their resentments, refuse to let go of a justified anger or a grudge, who seethe with bitterness at the perceived or actual wrongdoing of others.

Some people collect grievances.

There was a woman in a church I once served who was known to take people to task for not following rules or procedures, or for being sloppy or incorrect. She’d phone you and go on and on about everything you had done wrong, some of them quite petty, and if you hung up on her, she’d call right back and continue.

Just wait, I was told when I arrived in this church, you’ll see. When I asked about the covenant of right-­relation this congregation had, people scoffed. “You try holding her to that!”

Sure enough, in due time, this woman called me on the phone and lay into me everything that I had done wrong since I had arrived at this church, on and on with great vehemence.

I had been there three weeks.

She collected grievances. She derived some benefit to always feeling wronged. She needed to always be right.

I have known people who always have to win, whether it’s a game or an argument. They have to be right. A wall of righteousness and arrogance and ego blocks them from acknowledging they could be wrong, their knowledge could be partial, that there could be goodness and thoughtfulness in a person or people they designate their opponent.

I think we all know somebody who is like Jonah and I think that we all, in one way or another, are ourselves quite like him.

We don’t need to look very far to find smug and self-­righteous people. We’re right here.

We don’t need to look to other groups of people in other religions or with different politics from us to find people who are convinced that they are right. We’re right here.

Some of the most smug and self-­righteous people I’ve ever known I met in supposedly liberal circles. Tell such people that you eat meat, or can’t stand listening to NPR, or that you own a gun, or vote Republican—and just see what happens.

Jonah needed to be right. There are rules and if you don’t follow them, you are to be punished. That is the correct way of running an ordered and predictable world. There is a moral and good way to act and an immoral and evil way to act. The good are rewarded. Wrongdoers are punished. God is on the side of those who are right, moral and good. God is on our side and against them.

This either-­or, black-­and-­white way of ordering people and the world can’t handle compassion and forgiveness. The idea that wrong can go unpunished is unbearable and upsetting.

Anger can, as Thich Nhat Hanh notes, form a kind of knot within us, a formation that is difficult to undo. When that knot has formed within us, the person with whom we disagree or who has wronged us is all wrong, all the time.

We cannot see anything else about that person.

We hold on to that anger, as resentment, because we think that doing so is going to punish them for what they did wrong. It’s like swallowing a burning poison to hurt somebody else. We are only hurting ourselves.

Physically, even, when we carry anger and resentment around within us, our bodies are affected negatively—ulcers, headaches, muscle pain. If we choose to be free of suffering, it will be because we let go of the resentment we are holding on to.

We need to ask ourselves, Do I want to be right? Or do I want to be free?

And we can choose freedom. In living a compassionate life, practicing forgiveness, we do the hard spiritual work of giving up the demand to be vindicated.

What about those that have harmed us? What happens when they do not reach out to make amends, or insist they have done nothing wrong, or will not engage with you at all? What about needing to forgive somebody who has died or is otherwise indisposed?

It seems to me we then have the choice of either holding on to our sense of being aggrieved or let it go. We can constantly tell ourselves the story of how we were wronged and live out that identity of the righteous victim. Or, without excusing the other’s actions, without forgetting the harm they caused, we can let go of the hurt and the anger and the acrimony and vindictiveness.

Anger and resentment are corrosive to the soul, eating you up inside. Forgiveness can be an act of self-­care, even as one stands in opposition to the others’ actions, firmly standing against their behaviour.

One does the work of justice, of resolving conflict, of being in relation with difficult people, without becoming full of negative emotion. It’s a kind of non-­attached engagement; we are not detached, but we don’t get hooked and reeled in by the reactivity, the ill will of those with whom we are in conflict. We maintain a spacious, serene mind and equilibrium in our hearts. Even as we oppose them.

Being unforgiving is essentially a fantasy of making the past different and wanting to punish somebody for doing something they cannot change.

Forgiveness is a practice that liberates us from what cannot be undone; it frees us from an unchanging past.

Forgiveness, being fully in the present moment and oriented toward possibilities of the future, is what it takes for peace and understanding.

I can understand and appreciate how the story of Jonah is traditionally the Haftorah reading for the afternoon Yom Kippur service. Yom Kippur is an intense time of self-scrutiny and prayer, a time for forgiveness of wrongs, making amends, and reconciliation.

We can laugh at the caricature that Jonah represents, but let it be the laughter of recognition and not derision, that we see in this character something of our own character.

And let us recognize that we ourselves at times are like the citizens of Nineveh, unable to tell our right hand from our left, and that concern and grace and love is shown to us, even in our confusion and uncertainty, more than we sometimes know.

And let us find it within ourselves to live more graciously and with more compassion, for ourselves as well as others, forgiving and asking forgiveness, that we may live with ease and at peace.

Forgiveness, Repentance, & White Supremacy

When the accused killer of the nine martyrs of Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina was arraigned in court, much was made in the mainstream media about how the loved ones of the murdered forgave him. This forgiveness was seen as marvelous, simplistic, premature, Christian—it garnered attention and commentary.

This narrative of African Americans forgiving a white murderer and terrorist fits neatly—too neatly—into a larger framework that diminishes the injustices inflicted upon Black people. Somehow the misdeeds of white people magically evaporate in the face of the wonderful “spiritual” and “soulful” presence of African Americans.

This isn’t right. And I mean by this not only that this narrative, and these assumptions, are morally wrong, they are also incorrect.

In confronting him, the loved ones of the slain worshippers did indeed forgive him and in the same breath told him this was his opportunity to repent.

It is this challenge to repent that deserves to be widely disseminated and discussed.

Demonstrating the powerful, all-inclusive mercy of God is the fruit of profound faith and spiritual discipline. God’s unrelenting and universal love is a core message of the Christian life as I understand it (steeped as I am in the Universalist witness).

The community of survivors that held and holds that killer in prayer, offering him forgiveness, demonstrating for him the nature of God, bathing him in the light of divine love are not weak. They are not meek and mild.

Forgiving him does not mean exonerating him. It doesn’t mean declaring him “not guilty.” It doesn’t mean not holding him accountable.

The point of bringing that murderer the light of God is to illuminate the evil he has done.

To make him see it. To make him acknowledge it. God’s light illumines the space where evil lurks, showing it to you. Making it visible to you. Being compelled to see what you have done—and to see it through the eyes of the ones who bear the consequences of what you did—is meant to awaken remorse, contrition, confession.

People have a tendency to cover up our mistakes, our missteps, our—let’s just say it—our sins through denial. We deny we have done anything wrong, or we deny that our actions were wrong, finding ways to justify or rationalize.

The unrelenting soul-force of those who would hold us accountable blow that all away. Look at what you’ve done, they say, see it here in the light. Acknowledge it.

And repent.

The humane response to being shown clearly the nature of our wrongs is to regret them, be sorry for them, to repent of them and ask forgiveness to those who we wronged.

The German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonheoffer speaks of “cheap grace,” like being given the “get out of jail free” card easily and quickly. Cheap grace is, in his words, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.”

I don’t think what we’re seeing here is cheap grace. The Christian witness of forgiveness manifested by the loved ones of the nine martyrs of Charleston was one that required repentance.

And some kind of repentance is required if we are to ever have racial justice.

I have so few answers on what this might look like for all of us trying to live through the continuing legacy of slavery and colonialism on this continent. Except that the evil that white people have inflicted on Black and Native peoples will not magically evaporate.

And that without repentance, without the public confession of wrongdoing and without official apology, without a thorough examination of conscience by every person who benefits in the racial system of advantage and disadvantage, there can be no reconciliation, no justice, no peace.

The Work (In Progress)

If the pundits are to be believed, organized religion in North America is a losing proposition and leadership in religious institutions a fool’s errand.

Much has been made recently of the latest information from the Pew Trust Religion and Public Life survey. Religious affiliation in this country is in rapid decline, particularly among younger people. The number of people who respond “None of the Above” to the question, “What religion are you?” is increasing exponentially.

These latest findings, which are in line with similar surveys and studies that have been coming out over the last several years, have unsurprisingly increased the hand wringing among those of us who are not only affiliated with a religion, but care deeply about its future.

There was a time when religious institutions could depend on a stable population of volunteers and donors. Houses of worship could sit pretty on the town green or on the main street and expect people to come to them. Attendance at a house of worship was an expectation (if not an obligation) that most fulfilled, particularly in the period after the Second World War. Clergy were respected in the culture at large as leaders and moral guides. Religious institutions were trusted, and the charitable work they did was lauded and commended.

There’s been a dramatic shift over the last generation. People now are generally suspicious of institutions, and much less likely to join one or sustain it financially. Clergy sexual misconduct, and its cover-up, along with financial malfeasance among religious leaders, has dashed forever the automatic trust people might once have had in clergy. Faith communities compete with all kinds of enticements and regular attendance at worship has fallen.

The seismic shifts that are taking place beneath our feet are breaking centuries-old encrustations and tectonic plates. The religious institutions that once seemed rock solid are crumbling and the very foundations of church are shaking. Centuries of church establishment and Christendom are crumbling and falling away in this generation. For those inside its collapsing edifice, these changes are painful and frightening, to be sure.

Yet it is also an exciting time to be the church.

Without the culture and the state propping up religious observance, who and what will be left? Stripped of power, privilege and persuading influence, what role can organized religion play in our social order? If our neighbour isn’t knocking on the church door to be let in, how will we be sent to serve our neighbour?

The possibilities are endless and exciting. What will faith communities look like in the decades ahead?

We just can’t imagine the future. It’s hard to imagine a future when everything is up for grabs. Telling people that our pipe organs and meetinghouses and hymn books, our meeting for worship and our meeting for worship on Sunday mornings, may not be in the church’s future is met with the blankest of blank stares. What’s left? To say nothing of the change in basic assumptions—people are not coming to you, you need to go to them.

A year ago, I preached a sermon at the First Parish in Lexington, where it has been my honour to serve as their minister these last five years, which I think might become my lasting legacy. They continue to speak about “the phone booth sermon.” I began by asking the congregation, “How many of you remember telephone booths?” Most everybody raised their hands. Then I asked, “How many of you, at some time in your life, have used a public phone?” Again, just about everybody raised their hand. And then I asked, “How many of you have used a public phone in the past seven days?” There was laughter, and not a single hand in the air.

And yet, it’s not as if people don’t need to speak on the phone when they’re out in public. People still want to be able to reach others when they’re away from home. And we continue to do so. It’s just that how we do it has completely changed.

Nobody could have imagined, forty years ago, that we would all be walking around with little phones on our person, phones not tethered to the wall. We couldn’t have imagined this change. We had no way of knowing this is what “talking on the phone in public” would look like in the future.

When it comes to church, we only know how to ask for what we have always known.

We think maybe if we update our Web site, or use guitar in worship, or create a Facebook page, we will be well positioned for life in the twenty-first century. We cannot even imagine the entirely new, reinvented church of the future. So we keep asking for what we already know, only maybe with a few modifications when what we need is a complete, creative, innovative breakthrough.

Henry Ford once said, “If I gave my customers what they wanted, I would have invented a faster horse.”

Those whose hope is in institutions and habits, as they are, whose hope is in the ability of church people to change, those are the ones who are really panicking. Because our most enduring slogan is, “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before.”

But the good news is, there are powers greater than any human made institution, including the church. There’s a spiritual power moving in the world greater than our habits, including our religious habits.

I believe there are powers of regeneration and renewal alive in our world that are constantly calling us to be, and to become, and to be-in-relation. There is a power greater than ourselves that simultaneously invites, sustains, and constitutes mutual dependence and community, constantly drawing together disparate elements and people, eternally expressing itself as love. These forces within and among us are known by many names, including God or the Goddess.

God is doing a new thing. When something interesting or creative or new is afoot and church people are shocked or dismayed, I pay close attention. Because I think that if it upsets church people, it is probably of God. If it is overturning those intractable idols of “what we have always believed” or “the way things have always been,” I am certain God is in the midst of it. When a vibrant spiritual thing is happening on the margins, in the peripheral vision of the established religious institutions, I think, “Now that’s some Holy Spirit power right there.”

God is doing a new thing. That creative and creating power at the heart of the universe is doing a new thing. And a new thing sometimes means letting the old thing crumble away and fall apart.

The pathway to renewal and revival goes straight through defeat and decline. The pathway to resurrection goes straight through the shadowy valley of death. The church needs to die to the church in order for what comes next to come to life.

The trappings that our faith comes in are falling away. There may not be meetinghouses and churches and pipe organs and stained glass and hymnals a generation from now. We might not meet for worship on Sunday morning. But what is essential and at the core of our liberal way of being religious is timeless.

What is essential is the life-giving message that we were born to original blessing–

that there is a better way of being in relationship with each other, ourselves, our natural environment–

better ways of being a society together–

that forgiveness is better than anger–

that love and compassion and generosity and solidarity are better than fear and self-centeredness.

Yes, better.

And yes, life-saving and transformative.

This is at the heart of our liberal religious faith. What we offer as religious liberals is in fact sorely needed in our world today.

Now more than ever, our nation needs our witness. Now more than ever, our communities need our witness. Now more than ever, our planet needs our witness.

How we reach our nation and communities, and what our life together as communities of faith will look like, we are still figuring out.

What kind of a common life we will be inviting people in to, we are still figuring out.

What it all will look like, we’re still discerning.

The pipe organs and meetinghouses, the way we do worship and religious education and social action, our Web sites and Facebook pages, our newsletters and rummage sales and potlucks—these all may or may not any longer serve our purposes. They are all transient. They are all impermanent.

What is required of us in this historic moment is the faith that what is lasting will endure. And the courage and the staying power and the imagination to gracefully let go of what no longer suits us.

To gracefully let go of what is no longer of service to our ministry and mission.

To gracefully let go of what keeps us from reaching our full potential as a liberal religious movement in this time, this twenty first century.

Because it’s not change that we resist–it’s loss. We resist loss. And we are losing so much.

The good news is, the path of loss leads to new life.

The expressions of our faith have evolved over the decades and centuries, and so we evolve some more.

The restoration of God’s people that the prophet Isaiah envisions is radiant and triumphant. I believe our way way forward is through humility and modesty and accepting our marginalized position in the culture, accepting that what we are, and what we do, is countercultural.

We are going to get used to being on the margins of the social order, to inhabiting the “abandoned places of empire,” to living among the ruins of Christendom and established religion. And, with God’s help, liberated to do a new thing.

We whose work it is to bring us into our future as a vibrant, lively, faithful people need to have the imagination to stretch beyond what we have known, and what we think is the way church is supposed to be, the courage to try something new–to experiment, the imagination to invent something new around which our core is built and expressed.

What is required is attentiveness to the Spirit, to pay attention to the promptings and invitations of the Spirit, to discern the new thing God is doing, to get comfortable with failure as we experiment.

We don’t have to have it all figured out. This clinging to certainty only causes suffering. We don’t have to be in control. We can do our part for reimagining how to be church, the shape of how we are to be faithful together, but the work will always be a work in progress.

“The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.” (Ken Untener)

This does not allow us to take our hands off the steering wheel and say, “Okay Higher Power, you drive this thing!” We do what we are able to do. We play the part we know is ours to play. We answer the call to serve. And do our best. And let go of the outcome.

In the Talmud, we read: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:21)

The work continues. It is a work in progress.

Because just like people talk on the telephone in public without public pay phones, without telephone booths, we will continue our shared ministry whatever shape that it takes.

Because just as people still need to talk on the phone in public, people still need what we have to offer.

As long as people search for significance in their lives, we will be there.

As long as people long for meaning in life, we will be there.

As long as people, grieving the death of loved ones, want to celebrate life and bury their dead, we will be there.

We will be there as long as people ask Why?

As long as people want to make a difference in the life of others, as long as the need to serve others arises in human hearts, as long as people ask How? when it comes to living a life of compassion, generosity and gratitude, we will be there.

We will be there.

We whose task it is to love the hell out of the world–

whose task it is to bind up the broken–

to provide salve to the wounded, to heal the hurt–

to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and, yes, raise the dead–

we whose task it is to minister will not shrink from the work.

Aligning ourselves with the divine will, paying attention to the direction of Spirit, with God’s help, we will be there.

This post is the sermon delivered at the ordination of the Rev. Aaron Stockwell by the First Parish Church in Groton, Massachusetts on 6 June 2015. The readings were Isaiah 65:17-25 and “A Step Along the Way” by Bishop Ken Untener.

Letter to a Colleague (On Leaving the Parish)

So it seems I’m not alone among our colleagues. This year, there are fewer available ministers than there are Unitarian Universalist congregations seeking interim ministers. The reasons cited for this situation include a bumper crop of retirees and a fair number of ministers who are leaving the parish.

And I am one of them.

There was a time when celebrity clergy were publishing memoirs about “leaving church” and we both rolled our eyes at that. Thanks for the vote of confidence, friend, and for dissing the institution we are pouring our lives out for.

And yet here I am reflecting publicly on my reasons for leaving my current parish ministry as I move on into something else. Not leaving ministry, and certainly not “leaving church,” just going back to school to get what I need to do ministry in a different setting.

Part of it, for me, is being spooked by all of the doomsday predictions and catastrophic forecasts about declining religious affiliation and its ramification for local faith communities. I experience, like many ordained ministers, equal parts excitement and terror at the reality that congregational life as we know it is going to be very different in the decades ahead.

We’re not going to be able to count on a regular paycheque from a local church–indeed, many of us currently do not. Seminarians are now being prepared for a “bi-vocational” career in ministry, which in a way is what I am doing. I may or may not take up part time parish ministry in the future. I do love it very much.

I love congregational life, and I love the work I get to do in the parish. Reinventing the local church to thrive in organized religion’s reduced circumstances is the kind of creative opportunity I might be invigorated by.

What can I tell you? I’m tired.

I became an aspirant and candidate for ministry in my twenties. Remember what that was like—ready to conquer the evils of the world, transform our religious movement while proclaiming its gospel to churches we were growing to twice their size by our astounding feats of preaching and public witness!

When I was in my twenties and thirties, this was fine. I had the energy and ego strength to do all this and go out dancing afterwards. In my late forties, it takes greater effort.

In entering the second half of life, I’m more sensible about my abilities and interests, more realistic about my limitations. I’m more clear on which values and needs and desires I want to shape my life around, the settings in which I feel most at home.

I find that I’m becoming more and more introverted the older I get. This hasn’t meant withdrawing, only that it costs my spirit more, especially without adequate time replenished by solitude.

Obviously, I still engage in all the public aspects of ministry—the social hours and potlucks, the Memorial Day ceremonies and clergy meetings—it takes more out of me. As do the usual visits and calls, staff meetings and board meetings, and all the other assemblies in which I find myself.

There is never enough time. It seems like just as I am catching my breath it is time to start running again. The moment I feel rested is followed by the moment of heading back to work. Not much time for relationships, for family, for exercise, for cooking myself nutritious meals. Everything is on the go. I thank God for my ministerial colleagues, with whom I spend more time than any other kind of friend.

Am I burned out? I don’t think so. I have long maintained good boundaries, taken Sabbath time consistently, and on some days chose self-care over an unfinished to-do list.

It’s not enough for me.

What I need is a slower pace, a more spacious schedule (as I told my congregation, pronouncing it the American way), a better balance between work, rest, and play, a ministry in which I am not the constant moving target. The twelve hour days are not sustainable to my spirit, especially as they come back to back.

My congregation has been superb at encouraging me to rest and study, to take the time off allotted to me. Lay leaders have reminded me to say No when I might have said Yes, to let a congregant’s unmet responsibility drop rather than catch it.

No, the fatigue I experience is harder to pin down, its remedy more than time off.

We hold the presence of the church on our person, the mantle of spirit around our shoulders. When we show up in the operating recovery room at the hospital, it is the church that shows up. When we drive over to the bereaved family’s home after the death of loved one, it is the church that is showing up for them. That is a huge responsibility that we would always remember when we don our stoles before leading worship. L’église c’est moi, as Louis XIV might have said.

That stole, that weighty mantle, is often very, very heavy to carry day in and day out.

What is exhausting, and perhaps something lay people aren’t aware of, is the psychic energy that goes in to being the screen for their projections and desires. A good minister is constantly discerning: Is this really about me? Or is this member of my congregation actually interacting with their parent or spouse or boss? What is really happening here?

Graciously being that screen for their fantasies and expectations and aggression without getting hooked and reeled in to the drama they want to act out with you takes a lot of soul power.

To say nothing about when it actually is about us, and having to remain open and non-defensive.

Skillful ministers do this well, but even the most self-differentiated clergy person, once exhausted by the effort, will have “one of those days.” And then one finds oneself apologizing and making amends for actions (or inaction) that most people take for granted and let slip by. It is the cost of the pastoral relationship, of right-relation, and our calling is to model it.

That can feel deceitful when on the inside we are heaping curses on the person we are asking to forgive us. It’s really more artful than artifice, but that divide feels more and more dishonest to me. Skillful self-differentiation is an art, but I don’t believe true authenticity is ever available to us as parish ministers. (Nor should it be. We both know emotionally unintelligent colleagues who wish to share everything with their congregation. And how that turns out).

The lesser burden is to listen with forbearance to a tiresome and uninformed parishioner drone on and on about some religious topic, or some church matter, some thing that you and I studied in depth at graduate school, in seminary. Our expertise takes second place to making this person feel heard.

It is our burden to carry all of the truths that are unable to be enunciated publicly, all of what is confessed to us in the minister’s study, often without any hope of absolution.

But we also hold the organization’s truths, truths that, for the sake of the congregation, are never told by us—even when it would vindicate or excuse or explain some action taken.

You and I know that the church is an employer as well as a faith community, but that is not so obvious to our people. As chief of staff, it is up to us to hire, evaluate, manage and sometime dismiss church employees. The process, by necessity private and confidential, is lost on most parishioners. To such folks, church staff are members of the family, treated like a fellow member, and are to be treated the way parishioners are.

Although lay leaders certainly provide detailed feedback for evaluations, even the evaluation process is lost on the average parishioner. So when the time comes to dismiss an employee—for not performing their duties, for not following an improvement plan, for being unwilling to learn needed skills, or, as you certainly know, for some other egregious misconduct—all the congregation sees is a beloved “friend” being “forced” to leave the church.

And we have to sit there, with our lay leaders, silently, while aggrieved members of our congregations make a big noise. Knowing we will never break confidentiality, knowing we can never share the true story of why that staff person was dismissed. We have to grin and bear it, no doubt making our Puritan ancestors proud.

We have to die to ourselves, so that the congregation might live.

It is the art of skillful self-differentiation, a burden I gladly took on at ordination, that now costs me more than I have left to spend. I’m spent.

I love congregational life, and I love my congregation. Good ministers are always “in” the congregation, but never really “of” it. It is the tragic irony of our role. We love religious community so much we dedicate our lives to its health and prosperity, only to find we no longer can belong fully to a church the way we did before becoming ministers.

I miss that.

I miss being at worship regularly and not being at work. I miss singing in the choir and teaching in the religious education program for children. I miss having my soul tended to by a gathering of imperfect, loving, genuine people—among whom I am most authentically myself, my undivided, wholehearted self.

This nostalgia is a kind of homesickness for church life at its best.

What can I say? I want to go home.

Lifeline: A Reflection on Vocation

In the early 1990s, the popular avant-garde performance artist Laurie Anderson climbed the Himalayas. She was accompanied by about a dozen other climbers, eight sherpas (Tibetan guides), and a number of yaks. They were on a journey to view a lake high in the mountains where, it was said, the next Dalai Lama’s name is written in a secret language on the surface of the water.

At 22 000 feet, Anderson began to suffer from altitude sickness and quickly worsened, with a temperature of 104 degrees, hallucinations and severe headache. The party decided to take her back down. Anderson was zipped into a body bag, put on the back of a donkey, and led down by another American mountain climber who was in the group.

She was not expected to survive.

I heard Laurie Anderson tell this harrowing story in a performance in Montreal years ago. The young man who accompanied her down the mountain was a shy, quiet person. He had barely said a word the entire time. The whole way down, the taciturn man led the donkey along the steep pathways, while this ostensibly dying woman weaved in and out of consciousness.

Anderson asked him to talk, to keep talking as they made their way. Which he did. He told her to look at the stars, to look at the rocks.

“By giving me some little thing to hold on to and concentrate on,” she said later, “he saved my life.”  It wasn’t merely the things he got her to pay attention to that saved her life, but his voice. Focusing on his calm voice, reassuring by its presence. His voice was like a rope, Anderson says, which she clung to, a rope that guided her. It was, as she says in one of her songs, a “tightrope made of sound/This long line made of my own blood…/This long thin line./ … This tightrope.”

I imagine what it might be like, in a chaotic world of searing, blinding pain and swirling hallucinations. The steady, sturdy guide, something sure to hold on to, a constant, calm voice holding me as much as I hold on to it. A voice, like a rope pulling me out of the depths.

The word “vocation” has its root in the word for voice. Many people who enter the ministry, who enter a profession, often speak in terms of vocation. It is as if there is a voice, calling you forward, calling to you, summoning you, and to which you must respond. Sometimes it even might be a rope made of sound, a long thin line, a lifeline.

Discernment of vocation can be a matter of hearing the voice, listening for it. Focusing on it.

During a minister’s formation, discernment is an essential pursuit. There is a decision to be made about whether or not to pursue ordained ministry, or what kind of ministry to pursue, but discernment is greater than decision-making.

It’s more of a threshing, as when a farmer separates grain from plant. A potential minister sifts through her gifts and desires, strengths and weaknesses, her history and spirituality. And in that threshing, something emerges. The seed, the grain, separated from the chaff, surfaces. An interest in religious traditions, a love for spiritual practice, a devotion to one’s faith community, a passion for social justice. The desire to make a difference in the lives of others. That seed which becomes apparent are kernels of a future life in ministry, that will germinate over time, grow roots and reach toward the light.

James Hillman, the great depth psychologist, speaks of the “acorn” in his book The Souls Code. The future oak tree, its potential, is present in the acorn. In the same way, within each of us is the potential of what and who we are becoming. We have within us the seed of what we are meant to be. We come into this world with the inner information we need to become most fully ourselves. The task of discernment, for all of us, is to uncover our inborn acorn. Our mission in life is to answer its imperatives, to say yes to its full flourishing.

Children do, it turns out, come into the world with their own personalities, their own characteristics.

What is innate and unique in you?

How would you characterize your traits? your gifts? your strengths?

A life in ministry, a life launched by responding to the voice, unfolds over time and as seasoned ministers will attest, you find yourself (or lose yourself) in a flurry of details, tasks that pull at you in differing, simultaneous directions, unmet needs of those you serve that gnaw at you, all folded into the achievements, and hard work, and happy occasions. That original voice loses its volume. That saving voice is increasingly lost to the chaos and clamour that is everyday life.

Whatever idea that got planted in one’s mind, in one’s soul, that original voice that beckoned and invited and summoned, need not fade into the background noise of daily life. Return to it often. Whatever is most true, most genuine, most compelling for you, return to that. Remember that.

There are times in our lives, aren’t there, when we experience a kind of dislocation in the middle of our perfectly good enough life. It’s as if the inner self or the soul is estranged from the self the world sees. The inner self, the soul, is alienated, apart from, the self that the world knows, different from what is presented to the world. You look around and go, What am I doing here? Is this my life? 

These experiences of drift, of nothingness, of emptiness are what mystics name the dark night of the soul. The conventional lives we have been given, or the lives we have made for ourselves, suddenly seem inadequate or inauthentic. The script given to act out no longer make any sense, and our lives ring hollow with our deepest sense of ourselves, grate against the skin of our living. This isn’t me, an inner voice can be heard to say. This life is not my own. And then if this isn’t me, what is me? Who am I?

In such times, we have drifted away from that inward guide, the voice. Listen for it. Discern where the thread is, find it, and allow it to suggest a new pattern. At whatever age we are or stage in life, in whatever profession we work, finding that call and being true to it is a life’s work.

Do you remember the voice that first whispered in your ear: I’m good at this. Here is work to which I could see myself dedicating my life. This speaks to me.

This speaks to me.

Remember. Make every effort to remember when the going gets tough, when the days are long, and the burdens heavy. Hold on to it. Hold on to the long thin line, the rope made of sound, made of the voice to which you said, Yes.

Keep saying yes.

For all of us spiritual beings having a human experience, we need to be centred, I believe, centred in the best of who we are. In our inward guide, the acorn of our possibilities. Our innate gifts and capacities, and what living them out might imply. A power deeper and wider than ourselves. An original sense of who we are meant to be, grounded in the native soil of our own soul.

Because we all have a vocation, a calling.

Laurie Anderson survived her trip to the Himalayas. She wrote a couple of pieces about it, about her brush with death, and dedicated one to the young man who talked the whole way down, saving her life.

Listen for the voice that calls you to your best self.

It might just save your life.

This post was a homily given at the ordination of the Rev. Nicoline Guerrier at the Unitarian Church of Montreal on 14 May 2015. It was also shared with the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association at the UUA weekly chapel service on 19 May 2015, during the week of the first year ministers seminar.