Sacred Water

As Unitarian Universalists we acknowledge the interdependence of life on this planet, and seek a healthy, respectful relationship with water. Our ecological sensibility is in harmony with other, ancient traditions, from India to the First Nations on this continent. The links below show us people dedicated to transforming our attitude towards water. We must re-learn that water, so necessary to life, has inherent value and is sacred.

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a renowned scholar and environmental activist, here she speaks about the Hindu relationship to the sacred Ganges river.

In the video at the link below, Cree Elders in Alberta are seeking healthier relationships with water and all peoples.

Water: Sacred Relationship

In Peterborough, Ontario, indigenous and non-indigenous people are working together to care for water.

Sacred Water Circle

Salvation Not Required

Christianity is filled with beautiful metaphorical language which tells a story of sin, of salvation and redemption. The stories are powerful and continue to hold great meaning for many people. To be broken and forgiven, to be hopeless and be saved by God’s love is a message of hope. Salvation – to be saved from sin or from evil – is an essential concept for most Christians.

Unitarian Universalism has a complex relationship to the word salvation. The Universalist tradition originated out of the theology of universal salvation – that God so loved people that all people would be reunited with God in death. No one was condemned to the endless torments of hell. Many contemporary Universalists experience a sense of an all-loving God and see salvation as a path of love. It isn’t so much related to a sense of Jesus as saviour, but that people need saving from all the hells that exist on earth  – the hell of addiction, oppression, depression, and more. People aren’t saved by Jesus, but by love.

For me, even this sense of salvation simply doesn’t resonate. I see our tradition as oriented to the interdependence of life, to the awareness that we belong on this earth. We may make it hard for ourselves, we may not always feel at home here, but this is our place. Love can not, in truth, save people from addiction or oppression. Instead, we might work with people who are struggling, be witnesses, be caring and stand in solidarity with them.

Salvation just isn’t a word that helps tell the story of my Unitarian Universalism. This is part of the tension of contemporary Unitarian Universalism: as Thomas Berry says, “we are between stories.”  Christian words and stories continue to resonate for some Unitarian Universalists, but no longer work for many. We haven’t figured out what our overarching story is. I see glimpses of the meta-narrative, it involves the universe and reciprocity and choice, but it hasn’t yet come together clearly.

Photo by Ali Harrison

Photo by Ali Harrison

I don’t think there is an UU equivalent of salvation, I don’t think we need one. I know I am not a sinner. I am a messed up human being, but my brokenness is held by my wholeness. I am never not whole, even if I often lose sight of that wholeness. We are like mosaics – each minor part of us is imperfect, at times damaged or broken – but we always, always comes together into a beautiful whole.

The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is affirming “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This translates into the concept of original blessing: we are not born fallen sinners but as holy and whole human beings. We are born human into the world to which we belong. We struggle to see our wholeness, but in the end, no salvation is required.

This Tuesday blog was a little late! Next Tuesday I will consider “connection”,  which is part of the new vocabulary of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theology.

Jesus was just this good guy, you know?

This is the second in a series looking at UU theology and language.

cast the nets

from Inherit the Mirth by Cuyler Black

The Unitarian Universalist tradition sees Jesus as a human prophet whose life and teachings provide us with an example of how people should care for one another in this world. The Unitarian side of our tradition arises out of a rejection of the trinity – emphasizing the unity of God – and identified Jesus as a person who was touched by God, but was not of the same substance as God.

With our roots in Prostestant Christianity, Jesus was the prophet for our faith community in the beginning, but as both Unitarian and Universalism moved away from doctrines and creeds, Jesus became one of many prophets from ancient times, comparable to Mohammed and the Buddha. UUs focus on how Jesus lived his life, not on his death or the promise of salvation, considering the essential message of Jesus to be love to God and love to humankind. UUism may have more in common with early Christian attitudes about Jesus. Two former professors from Starr King, our west coast seminary, found that the first 1,000 years of Christianity focused more on creating an earthly paradise then on the promise of heaven in their book Saving Paradise.

Jesus is considered an example of how to serve others with love, generousity and compassion. Jesus demonstrated a loving spirit, a sense of justice, and a fierce desire to serve God and humanity. UUs tend to emphasize the radical, trouble-making Jesus who stood up against authority, who sided with the poor, who looked beyond categories to see people in their wholeness. Some UUs have a strong sense of Jesus as a source of spiritual strength. Our fourth source is “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbours as ourselves”.

UUs do not believe Jesus performed miracles, and not all UUs would even agree that Jesus was a rabble rousing activist. Some see Jesus as a mythic figure, not a real person, pointing to the lack of any contemporary accounts of his life and the story of his crucifixion resembling ancient Egyptian and Babylonian tales of death and resurrection. Others believe he may have been a visionary during his life, but his story has been so refracted and amplified by the Gospels, by Paul and church doctrine and systems, that it is impossible to know the truth about Jesus.

How do you understand Jesus and Unitarian Universalism?

Spirit

At last Sunday’s service at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga  I spoke about religious language (Found in Translation, January 11, 2015) and the struggles we have as Unitarian Universalists sorting out the words that shape our spiritual orientation. I committed to a blog post each week to explore a word and its meaning in the hopes of helping my congregants (and myself!) to better understand UU theology and vocabulary. We hope to figure out where our common meanings lie, what the differences are; where we can be on the same page, where we might have to compromise, and where we might need a new word altogether.

These comments reflect my current understanding of a word.  Please join in the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments.

by Alannah Lee Clamp

by Alannah Lee Clamp

Spirit

Spirit is the vital principle which animates life but is not itself material. I like to think of it as the whole which is more than the sum of its parts, that part of each living being which expresses its essence. Spirit is linked with breath, wind, air. Like air, spirit can be felt, but not seen, it is ethereal, but also a source of connection. Spirit brings us closer to the living world when we recognize its vital presence everywhere on earth. An awareness of spirit calls us to presence, to pay attention to the here and now. I don’t understand spirit as separate from the body, but rather see spirit and body as integrated expressions of life. I don’t see spirit as a guiding authority or independent presence but as an essential part of being alive and part of the whole.

A sense of spirit is hard to experience – it’s always just beyond my awareness, but I sense it during walks in the woods or when a group of people are caught up in a moment together.  Because of spirit’s ephemeral nature, it can be easy to not notice it. People can live well without consciously experiencing a sense of spirit.  For others, it is an invaluable experience of being connected, of belonging. Seekers are helped by an embodied spiritual discipline such as prayer or meditation or dance, part of that paradox of being present in the body opening us to the spirit.

 

Honouring the Animals

The Makuna people are an indigenous people living within the borders of Columbia.  The Makuna maintain that humans, animals, plants, all of nature, are part of a great Oneness.  Our ancestors long ago, they say, were magical fish who came ashore along the rivers and became two-legged.  As these first land beings began to sing and conduct their lives, everything in the world began to be created: hills and forest; animal and bird people; insect and fish people.  But – here’s the twist – this creation process is still going on.

The world is still being created, right here, right now: our words and actions still determine the nature of the hills and forests, still help create, sustain – or destroy – the animal and bird people, the insect and fish people.

We share a spiritual essence, the Makuna say, with the swimming, flying, four-legged people and all the rest.  They also live in communities, have chiefs and shamans, dance houses and birth houses, songs and rites, even material possessions, as we do.  Think of ants, a bull cariboo, or a black raven, think of bird nests and whale songs, think of territories and prey.

According to the Makuna, our essential oneness with other species is a source of an enormous obligation.  We depend on insect, fish, animal and bird people to eat and live.  In return, the insect, fish, animal and bird people depend on us to spiritually enact, daily, the hidden oneness of all life.  Anytime humans eat, anytime humans gather, anytime we celebrate, we have an obligation to offer “spirit food” to all the other creatures, so that they may celebrate in their worlds.  And if we fail to make such offerings – if we do not spiritually share with other species – they die.  So say the Makuna.

Salmon NationHow do we offer “spirit food” to other creatures?  The native people on the west coast, who depended on the salmon for  so much, used to offer elaborate gifts, dances and feasts to honour the coming of the salmon.  On a rational level it  sounds rather foolish and unnecessary. Yet our industrial selves offered the salmon dams and destruction of most of their habitat.  Wild salmon are in danger. Perhaps we do need a change in attitude. Gifting and feasting and the awareness of our need for other species may keep us human people grounded and connected and careful.

We forget how spiritually alive and capable we are.  Reverence for life, for all the swimming, flying, and four legged people, is a good thing. We should be proud to honour the diversity of life that surrounds us, we should be bold in our appreciation of their great gifts.

What is a modern day spirit offering? Perhaps it is giving our money  to causes like endangered animals or the humane society or reducing meat consumption because of the suffering of factory animals, or the time we take to play with, and care for, our animal companions.  A spirit offering is giving something that we value  – our energy, our focus, our time – to another being or group of beings.

What can we do to recognize and honour the oneness of the world?  How can we turn towards creating a world that sustains and celebrates insect and fish people, animal and bird people?  How do we make spirit offerings part of our lives once more?

from a sermon first preached in 2006.

Spaciousness and Spirit

crane-bird-flying

As a society, we tend to be impressed by people who sleep little, as if it is a sign of accomplishment; not taking vacation is seen as a good work ethic, instead of a poor life choice. We need, I believe, to participate in what might be described as a certain vibrant emptiness, what the Japanese call ma. Ma is found in the silences between words, in the white space on a page, in the tacit understanding between two close friends. The Japanese school of Sumi painting says: “If you depict a bird, give it space to fly”.  How do we give ourselves that space to fly?  (from World Enough & Time by Christian McEwan.)

In the Tao Te Ching (translation by Ursula Le Guin), a book of wisdom first written down almost 2,500 years ago, chapter 11 discusses the importance of creating space for living:

Thirty spokes meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t is where it is useful.

Hollowed out, clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not is where it is useful.

Cut doors and windows make a room.
where the room isn’t, there’s room for you.

So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.

Where the pot is not is where it is useful. I love this kind of backwards revelation, this reminder that it is the space itself that is useful. Where the room isn’t, there is room for you.

I believe the text is reminding us of the importance of emptiness. The absolute necessity for room to simply live, that spaciousness is a meaningful necessity to humanity. It is the unused space in a room that makes it habitable.This space might be physical but its effect is metaphysical,it allows our spirits to stretch and  unfurl, helps us to find calmness and focus.

In the Unitarian tradition, our chalice, while it can be filled with fire, with water, and with flowers, can also be empty.  Each service we sit together in silence, opening to the quiet silence.  It is these moments that free us to be ourselves. It is in the empty spaces that we can re-connect to the awesome, unnameable sense of the immensity of being.

How do you make space for your spirit to unfurl and fly?

 

excerpt from Finding Stillness, a reflection given at the UU Congregation of Durham on June 9, 2013.

Ministry – How exciting!

final poster web The following is an essay – “what excites you about ministry?” – I had to write in 2009 when I applied for candidate status as a Unitarian Universalist minister.  With my final step – ordination – on this Sunday – it’s affirming to see that I am still largely motivated by the same interests.

The light of a chalice.  Pouring the waters.  Exchanging flowers.  Honouring Charles Darwin.  Speaking out for justice. Celebrating connections.  These are some of the UU rituals and practices which inspired me to turn to UU ministry.  Three aspects of my vocation are most exciting:  creating sacred space for reflection and connection, encouraging UUs to live out our shared values in daily life, and articulating the uniquely UU way of being in the world. Continue reading