Ancient Myths, New Life

This is a reflection I wrote several years ago for Easter.

Our spiritual tradition emerged from of Protestant Christianity but we no longer follow its biblical theology.

So while the United Church is proclaiming joyously that Christ is Risen, perhaps this service on Easter Sunday should be advertised with the words: “Come celebrate with us. We don’t know what happened.” (UU joke)

Easter is a tricky theological event for Unitarian Universalists.  Even for those of us who experience the presence of God, it’s hard to accept that Jesus ascended bodily into heaven having died for human sin so that we may all have eternal life.

I can accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but not his divinity as the son of God.

Celebrating his birth at Christmas is one thing – after all every night a child is born is a holy night – but it is much more difficult for me to understand the veneration of his death.

With our fifth source of wisdom calling us to heed science and reason, I don’t accept the resurrection as historical fact. The gospels were written decades after his death. They aren’t eye witness accounts.

The earliest gospel in its original form – the gospel of Mark – says nothing about Jesus returning and being seen by his disciples.

I struggle with the bible as a historical document, but as a collection of mythic stories it offers wisdom into the human condition.

It has been said that “the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.”  (Antony de Mello).

Stories give us a way to reveal deeper truths, ones that are hard to express in facts: what it means to love someone, how life is both searingly painful and wonderful at the same time, the fear of death. These things we tell sideways – through poetry, through story.

The story of Jesus on the cross and what happens next is a grand tale of death and resurrection, divine miracle and the very human need for hope.

But it tells us more about humanity’s lament about the finality of death than about what happened that long ago day in Jerusalem.

Easter mythology is an old tale told in a new way. A very old tale indeed.

Rev. Kendyll Gibbons writes: “Spring in Minnesota is an act of faith. Easter comes, whether or not the climate around us has noticed, whether or not the sun has fully struck through the last of the winter’s chill. Every year it varies; the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. You have to know that this is a pagan holiday, with a little bit of Christianity grafted on; who would celebrate an historical anniversary according to such an esoteric lunar calculation? The very name of the day is pagan.”

Gibbons is right.

The Easter story evolved from even older myths from even older civilizations that surround the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

Stories of death and resurrection has been told all over the Middle East and Northern Africa in all sorts of variations for over 6,000 years.

It’s a story of love and death, of fertility and fallowness. It’s a story of spring.

daffadil crop

One of the earliest variations of the story is about Ishtar, the Babylonian Goddess of war and fertility and Tammuz, her son or her husband – the translations differ.

Tammuz is badly injured by a boar when out hunting. He ends up in the underworld, not dead but spellbound in a sleep.

Ishtar laments:  “Him of the plains – why have they slain? The shepherd, the wise one. The man of sorrows, why have they slain him?”

Grief-stricken, Ishtar goes to find Tammuz in the underworld. Ishtar goes through various trials to reach Tammuz down in the depths.

She spends three days underground and during this time the world above falls asleep, nothing grows. Ishtar awakens Tammuz and when they return to the world fertility returns. The earth awakens.

The Gods and Goddesses personify forces of Nature; their actions shape the world as they fight and love, betray and reunite. A grand drama played out across the sky and the land.

Each spring, the Babylonians ritually re-enacted the story of Ishtar and Tammuz. The ritual honours the fertility of the land, the god dies so the grain may grow.

Life ends so that life may begin again.

The death of Tammuz was told as an act of worship, as an act of respect for the earth.

Centuries later, the Egyptians also shared myths of Gods dying and being reborn. Isis, who was the great mother goddess, had a husband Osiris, who was seen as the first King of Egypt and the bringer of civilization.

Osiris is trapped and killed by his brother Seth, who is jealous of his virtue. Isis searches everywhere for Osiris and finds parts of his body scattered all over the land. Through many adventures she brings his body back together.

In one of her forms Isis has wings. She fans them over the reassembled body. Osiris is revived.

Isis says “Osiris! You went away, but you have returned, you fell asleep, but you have awakened, you died, but you live again.”

But Osiris doesn’t return to life in the world. Instead he becomes Ruler of Eternity; he lives in the underworld and judges the souls of the dead. Isis stays in the world and gives birth to their son Horus.

Life ends so that life may begin again.

These are powerful stories from a time when people believed the Gods and Goddesses were manifest in creation, expressed in the seasons.

In spring the Nile River rises, swollen with the tears of Isis as she mourns Osiris. As the waters restore the parched fields, Osiris is revived in the greening plants.

Life and death, fertility and fallowness, are all mixed up together.

Life ends so that life may begin again.


What I find interesting about the story of Jesus in his final days is how it both echoes and challenges the older myths of Babylon and Egypt.

The earlier stories are about Gods and Goddesses  – not people, but Jesus is a person as well as the son of God. His story becomes the human story.

Like Osiris, Jesus is betrayed. He is crucified, hung on a wooden cross to die, a common form of execution in his time.

After his lonely death his body is placed into a tomb and it is sealed by a rock rolled across the entrance. Three days later, women go to the tomb to care for the body. When they get there the rock has been moved, the tomb is open, and it is empty.

The women weep in shock, and an angel appears to tell them that Jesus has risen. This is where the original gospel of Mark ends. Jesus has risen, but this remark isn’t explained.

The story of Jesus mixes myth into history. It’s a fascinating blend of new theologies and old images, shifting the old myths of the Gods into the new religion of the One God.

The gospels are rich with historical detail while asserting this new mythic way to understand humanity and the divine. Death and resurrection still happen in the spring, but the story of Christ isn’t related to the changes in the land.

His story isn’t about the Gods embodying the cycle of nature. Of life ending and life beginning.

His story is about how people die and are reborn, about our relationship with one all-powerful God, a God that is beyond nature, indeed this a God that can confound the cycles of life and death.

It’s now life never ending.

With the death of Jesus humans no longer die. Christians are promised eternal life in heaven. It’s a paradigm shift.

The idea of everlasting life is appealing. While I can intellectually accept that Death is a necessary part of life, it is not so easy to accept in my heart.

Many of us have loved ones we miss dearly, that we long to be reunited with. The thought of being together again is a great comfort. It lessens the pain of loss.

And wanting life – your life – to continue on is understandable. To believe my life in some way will be unending sounds wonderful.

But I don’t know if this is possible.

Truly, we don’t know anything about what happens after death. It is the last “great adventure.” It’s the mystery that all of us, every being, will meet one day.

All we can do is live here on this earth right now. And live as well as we can in the face of inevitable death.

In the end, the older myths appeal to me more, the ones that don’t offer me hope of my own everlasting life, but point to a harder truth that life goes on even when I will not.

The daffodils of this year are not the same daffodils as last year.

The old makes way for the new, it is that never ending transition that makes life precious.

We are all temporary beings. Life ends so that life may begin again.

Life as a whole renews endlessly.  Ishtar returns from the underworld and the earth reawakens. Osiris is torn apart but is knit back together. Jesus is born and dies yet lives on in people’s hearts.

I take comfort in knowing that when I die, babies will keep on being born. Winter will end as it always ends. Life will spring forth as it always does.

In a way I feel relieved that while I can do my small part to live well, that is all I have to do.

I’m not responsible for the sun rising or the snow melting, just my own small part of this time and this place. Life carries on, with or without us.

While the ancient myths speak to the reality of death, they also highlight the fallow periods of life, reminding us that they provide the fertile ground for new life.

We might enter the underworld many times during our lives, but we can emerge restored.

One moment it seems like the snow will never go away, the trees and the earth are a uniform dirty grey, and then one morning there are purple crocus’ blooming. The grass is growing bright green. The cardinals are singing lustily.

Life is back!

We too can be brought back to life. We might have a time of sleeping, of darkness, but the planet continues to turn and we awaken. We feel forsaken and then forge new connections. We find a new path and start walking. Resurrection!

This is not easy, it takes emotional strength. And it’s a messy process.

Spring is an ugly time of year. The earth looks hung over. In my garden, broken branches and scattered leaves are remnants of the stormy winter. But the green shoots of the tulips are already bursting forth. I just have to help by cleaning up a little.

And life will burst forth, even if I don’t clean up the broken branches. It might be a little messier, but the green grass grows again.

There are times when for three days or three months or three years we live suspended, not knowing whether we are truly alive.

These are times which can be incredibly lonely, when it is so hard to connect to others, so hard to connect to our own spirits. We can become so isolated in pride and fear of telling others about the fallow periods.

Yet the ancient myths remind us that we aren’t in this alone, even when we think we are.

Jesus cried out, believing himself forsaken by God. But He was not. Osiris was in pieces, but Isis put him back together. Tammuz was alone in the underworld, but Ishtar came for him. Even the Gods needed help sometimes!

These myths remind us that we are not alone. We all belong somewhere, to someone, to something. We all belong to this grand drama of life on earth.

We can all be brought back to life, through the strength and support of others, through love, through kindness.

We might need to get out the rake and make the first move, or even the second or third moves, but life will respond.

The wagging of a dog’s tail. The kindness of a stranger. The patient support of a loved one. Any small moment might be the beginning of hope. And in the next breeze we can feel that spring is in the air.

We can begin again.  We are not alone, even in the worst depths of despair, someone is looking out for us, whether we know it or not.

Let us be grateful for those that love us and care for us.

Let us be grateful this spring morning for all the kindness and compassion that surrounds us, even when we can’t quite feel that support.

Let us be grateful for ancient myths that reveal deep truths. That remind us that we are part of the cycle of life and death, that despite the broken branches and scattered leaves, spring blooms once more.

As we celebrate life renewing, knowing that spring returns year after year, let our hearts be glad and grateful.

Let us remember that we too can be renewed.

So Say We All.



The Myth of the Goddess. 1992. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford.

The Pagan Christ. 2004. Tom Harpur


The Spiritual Spiral

This is an excerpt from a reflection given at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga in May 2015, about the value of tending to your spirit.


How do you understand the term spirit?  Does it include connection? Something Greater? Something Vital?

Something greater might be God, it might be nature, it might be the universe. The words will always be inadequate. And will vary from person to person.

But the difficulty in language should not prevent us from speaking about matters of the spirit.

For me, the spirit is the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. We all have bodies, minds, and emotions.  We have personalities and histories, and experiences. And yet taking it all together we are still something more.

In Unitarian Universalism, spirit refers to the wholeness of the self  – the wholeness of all beings. It can also refer to the greater whole – again that might be God or the universe. I use it both for the wholeness of the individual self and the wholeness of the – well – whole.

Words are inadequate!

“From the Latin spiritus, the word spirit is linked with air and breath: felt but not seen, intangible yet essential, ephemeral yet connects us to one  another. No name is large enough to hold this power [that is larger than life, although it contains life], but of all the inadequate names, the one that comes to me now is spirit. […the word seems to catch the lightness, radiance, and wind-like subtlety of the power that I seek].”  (Scott Russell Saunders in The Force of Spirit)

Spirit. Breath. Wind. Air.

Air connects us all, it surrounds us, the air we breathe is the air that has always been part of the planet.

We are rarely aware of the air. We notice air when there isn’t enough of it – people with asthma know it all too well. And we notice air when it is in upheaval – whirlwinds creating chaos.

I’d say the spiritual aspect of living is a little like air. We notice when it’s missing and our lives feel constricting and tight. We notice when life is too intense and blowing us about. It’s why many people when they first come to UCM need to sit in the back and cry.

Spirit may be intangible, but it is also vital to our well being. And many people, whose lives are neither too constricting or too intense, might never pay attention to their spiritual side.

But for those who are aware, wonder awaits.

“”Spiritual treasure can be found in our everyday life. Spirit does not exist except as part of the bodily experiences of human life on earth” (Barbara Brown Taylor).

The spiritual is not separate from the material but is entangled. Just as we are entangled in air – it surrounds us and is within us. It is when we live with attention and awareness that we begin to see this.

It is of primary importance, perhaps more now than ever, that our spirit, the essence of ourselves, which some might call soul, can experience a sense of connection to the immensity of the greater whole – to the spirit of all.

Spirituality can be, at its most basic, understood as the awareness that all life is connected. Spirituality is not a set of beliefs, but a way to experience the universe whole.

Sara Maitland, a writer who went to live alone and experience true silence, describes a moment when she was sitting on a rock high on the side of a valley looking down onto a river in the distance.

“..Quite suddenly and unexpectedly, I slipped a gear, or something like that.  There was not me and the landscape, but a kind of oneness: a connection as though my skin had been blown off.  More than that – as though the molecules and atoms I am made of had reunited themselves with the molecules and atoms that the rest of  the world is made of. I felt absolutely connected to everything.  It was very brief, but it was a total moment. “

Spiritual experiences are experiences of connection. They happen in your body, in the world.

Spiritual practices are disciplines that help us develop patterns of behaviour that make it easier for us to be aware of a sense of connectedness.

Some might not even call it a spiritual sense, like sports fans. But to cheer so ardently for the Blue Jays baseball team, to feel such connection to the team’s wins and losses, what else is it but a sense of connection to something larger?

I was on Yonge Street way back when the Blue Jays won the 1993 World Series. I suspect the euphoria that night was not much different from the joy at the Hindu festival of Diwali.

We all need to belong to something larger than ourselves.

The spiritual is the sense that despite all of our knowledge, all of power, all of our control, that we are part of something beyond our comprehension.

Something so vast, so immense, so beautiful.

Something we didn’t have to do work for or sacrifice for, but simply is.

And we are part of that oneness.

Our molecules reuniting with all the other molecules.

It is a way to press the reset buttons on ourselves.

After experiences like Sara Maitland’s slipping gear up on that rock high up in the valley , people report feeling lighter, or comforted, or freer, or joyful.

After the Montreal Canadians win the Stanley Cup, (fingers crossed) people will express similar feelings!

And that’s okay, connection can be found in unexpected places.

It can also be found here.

We are the place with a spiritual perspective.  It’s what religions do. As people of the chalice we are called to look beyond ourselves and pay attention to the luminous web of life.

One of the symbols of our chalice community is the golden spiral.  Also known as the golden ratio, or the divine proportion, it is a mathematical spiral of precise geometry.

The spiral has the self at the centre, going out to the community, to the earth, to the universe.

Our spiritual lives are like this as well – a going outwards into connection with all that is and a going inwards into greater self awareness –  the spiral movement taking us ever forward.

Let us live into the spiral, live into our bodies, and so find ourselves part of the mystery.


Thank you, Thank you, Thank you

This month we will explore the spiritual practice of prayer. Prayer can be tricky for Unitarian Universalists, if you don’t have an experience of God/Goddess, then to whom are you praying? We’ll look at different ways to understand prayer – as gratitude, as listening – as we try this ancient practice.

Prayer is traditionally understood as a petition to God, a request for help from a deity. If you don’t believe in a God that intervenes in the world, then what does praying to God mean? What does it mean for atheists and others who have a different sense of divinity?

For some, prayer is a way to relate to the greater whole, a way to connect to that which is beyond us. It is about being in relationship with the sacred, not whether the sacred will answer.  Poet Czeslaw Milosz in his poem On Prayer describes prayer as a bridge:

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold…

I like this sense of prayer lifting us up. Some people who pray regularly feel a sense of lightness, of openness. We must each decide for ourselves whether prayer is a meaningful exercise, and to whom, if we wish, we might direct our prayers. There is no one answer. Many UUs who pray don’t think of their prayers as being directed towards a Being, but to the Universe, the Earth, or to all beings around them. Others use terms such as Spirit of Life to enlarge their understanding of God.

Through out this month, consider who or what you might be praying to, but try to take a few moments each day to pray. It may be the practice itself reveals the relationship. I won’t be offering written prayers to be recited, but encouraging you to take some time to think/feel/be each day, with your own words or even in silence.

Prayer as Gratitude

Gratitude as prayer is as simple as the words “thank you”.  Gratitude as a daily practice comes easily to Unitarian Universalists, it has even been argued that our theology is based on an ethic of gratitude.

For this week, our practice is to name our gratitude in prayer. Rather than writing down what we are grateful for, or posting it to facebook, take some time to sit with gratitude.

If ritual helps you move into a more spiritual mode, light a candle before beginning, and end by extinguishing the light.

Sit comfortably and close your eyes. What made you thankful today?  What should have made you thankful, but you were too busy to notice? What was difficult but ended with something positive? Sit with your gratitude until you feel you have acknowledged everything you are thankful for.

You might be directing your gratitude towards God (thank you God), or to the people or creatures or land itself (thank you first robin of spring), or you may be letting your gratitude out into the world without a particular direction (I’m grateful for sunshine). Experiment and see what feels right.

End with a final thank you, or an Amen, or So Say I, or another word or phrase that feels right to you.

Try to do this practice daily for the next week.

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?


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 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


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