Covenantal Faith

One of the comments I hear from time to time is that because Unitarian Universalists have no core doctrine, no central dogma therefore Unitarian Universalism cannot be a religion, let alone foster spirituality.  While it is true that other religions have doctrines and dogmas that shape the boundaries of their practice, our covenants shape ours.  One popular covenant that is heard in our congregations is this one.

Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth its sacrament and service is its prayer; to dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine.  Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.

These are lovely words though sometimes hard to do. In this covenant we define how we are going to be loving people. We have placed seeking truth as a sacrament, as a holy obligation, and as something that holds a sacred significance to us. Service as its prayer; meaning that in our efforts to support the church, in our supporting our justice making causes, in our compassion to serve human need, and in our seeking to dwell in peace that truth is found in these efforts empowering us to be loving people. The prayer is answered through our loving actions “…to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine.” Notice we do not state that all souls shall grow into harmony with each other but rather with the divine. There is great wisdom here. It is in the diversity of our human relationships that new desires / new thoughts / new ways of being together can develop and shine. The divine here is that quality of connecting to our best selves / our higher selves / our higher power. We state in the last sentence that we are going to hold each other accountable to each other and to God.  God being that which is ultimate in our lives; the creative interchange as Weiman states; the ground of being as Tillich states.   

This covenant is sometimes hard to live out consistently. That is okay because it also teaches us how to forgive as we connect to the promise we make. In any relationship there will be opportunities for forgiveness and a church community is no different. We can never know what filters people are wearing on any given day. People could be wearing the filters of exhaustion, filters of feeling overwhelmed with work or projects, filters of not understanding, filters of a day where everything seemingly went wrong, filters of not feeling adequate, filters of being abused, filters of not feeling well physically. The list goes on. So in the process of interacting with one another, words are also spoken and heard through these filters. Misunderstandings occur, misperceptions occur, and feelings are hurt with people withdrawing from the situation or the task at hand.

This covenant reminds us to seek forgiveness from each other, to try to listen to the other person without our own inner self chatter happening at the same time. To reflect on what is being said to us and to grow in new understanding and appreciation of the other. Through this deep attentive listening to the other we can begin again to honor our covenant of faith.

Covenants require re-commitments in order to uphold them as central to our being together.  Covenants act as a centering touch stone that we can call each other back to and help remind of the promise to higher commitments and ideals we seek to reveal in our coming together.  When we fall short of that promise to each other and/or to ourselves we can always renew that promise and begin again. 

It is in examining our covenants on a regular basis that we can discover how we are fairing as a community of faith.  Even for those faiths that have doctrines and dogmas that its adherents are asked to affirm for themselves personally, covenants are sometimes developed to aid the congregants in living the ideals those doctrines point towards.  Covenants are deeply spiritual in their very nature dating back at least to the covenant made between God and Abraham and his descendants.  This covenant was reviewed regularly and was often the topic of the prophets.   Keeping a covenant is spiritual discipline. 

Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth its sacrament and service is its prayer; to dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine.  Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.


Holly Near- I am Willing

I recently heard this song by Holly Near and it seemed to be so appropriate with all that is happening in America today.   Blessings,

Published in: on September 29, 2008 at 10:19 am  Comments (1)  
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Soulforce Equality Rides Coming to AL & MS

Soulforce, the organization seeking to have conservative Christian groups embrace their gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered, intersexed, questioning members, is sponsoring another Equality Ride.  They have been quite successful with their previous rides to Christian Colleges and Universities to discuss how they have treated sexual minority students.  This fall they will be coming in October to Heritage Christian University in Florence, AL and Mississippi College in Clinton, MS. 

Soulforce is based on Gandhi’s teachings of non-violence to create change and justice.  I was privileged to have been able to participate in Soulforce’s first event in meeting with Rev. Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, VA.  It was a powerful event meeting face to face with 200 of Jerry Falwell’s congregation and attending his worship service.  I went back to Lynchburg a few years later and served as a peacekeeper for Lynchburg’s first Gay Pride event.  Having conservative Christians lean up against me and shout in my ear that I was attempting to sexually assault them was a most difficult moment in being silent and resilient in justice work. Being the buffer of their hatred so those who came to celebrate their humanity could do so was well worth it.  We also stood in silent vigil this time outside of Thomas Road Baptist Church on Sunday in prayerful intercession regarding Jerry’s violent accusations of Gays and Lesbians being one of the causes for 9/11. 

While in Lynchburg, I heard first hand how difficult it was to be in the closet at Falwell’s Liberty University.  The anguish the students faced, trying to please their parents by going to a Christian University; trying to discover who they were as a child of God; and knowing that being that person at that campus meant at best expulsion and worst the taking of their life.  The spiritual violence committed is atrocious.  The pain and suffering is incredible. 

The message of Jesus seems so clear to me.  Love one another.  Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  

Those who heap vile hatred against others must not be able to love themselves very much and they also must want to be treated in the same manner.  How very sad.  And after 2000 years, the message of Jesus is still not heard even by those who call out ‘Lord Lord.’


Economic bailouts

I have been caught up in reading and listening to the various banking firms going belly up partly because of the housing crisis with Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.  There have been way too many financial institutions failing in recent months to really ignore this as just part of the capitalist survival of the fittist rules of the game.  So from my humble position of not being an economist, it seems that there is something systemic that needs to be examined and corrected. 

I am not convinced that the government implementing a department with a czar who has the broad sweeping powers to swoop in and rescue failing banks is the answer.   What the solution does is place increasing burden on the tax payer to the tune of $700 billion for this year. (What will it be next year?)  The tax payer in this case, given our current tax structure, is the shrinking middle class and the working poor. 

This strategy only postpones and amplifies the coming crash.  It is like turning tax payers into the multitude of fingers placed to stop up the holes in the dyke without draining the water behind the dyke. The dyke will burst and cause even more havoc and suffering than if the system was examined and prepared for a long term fix.   

We have been convinced that growth in the economy is always good.  It is a capitalist theorem  that growth is the favorable scenario.  What if our assumptions are not correct?  What if continous growth is not good.  What if there is a natural cycle like there is in organic cycles of birth, growth, maturation, and death?  A plant that grows too fast towards the light becomes spindly and cannot support itself.  The plant will collapse upon itself and die.    (What if Chauncey Gardener in the movie Being There is correct?)

Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac and AIG are examples of companies that grew too fast within the housing mortgage market.  They did not take the time to look at their infrastructure to ensure that they were developing good solid foundations. Times were good.  Money was flowing in like Niagra Falls.  So who could blame them for not seeing the fault lines developing in the ground beneath them?  Growth at all costs seemed to be the mantra. 

I am not convinced that the Federal government has any better means of developing infrastructure since the Federal government operates from the erroneous belief that deficit spending is a good mode of operation. Both sides of the political aisles have used this methodology over the years so I am not advocating here for one party over the other.  The Federal government believes erroneously that the taxpayer has deeper pockets.  And the Federal government has ensured that there are sufficient tax benefits and shelters for the top 5% who control the wealth in the country–those who really do have deeper pockets. 

Where am I really going with this line of argument?  I think our American priorities are misplaced.  We value money and consumerism over relationships and the welfare of people (citizens).  When 9/11 occurred Americans took a moratorium on spending and spent time with family and friends.  The Government told us healing our relationships was Un-American, shopping and spending was patriotic.  And we bowed our heads and rung up our credit cards as fast as we could because who wants to be considered unpatriotic.  The things that matter most in our spirituality as a nation was short shrifted from expression.   

Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center wrote the following on what he calls Sacred Economics: 

      “The basic religious economic  premise was not just about being nice to poor folks. It was about the flow of God’s abundance that must move through the whole society, not get stuck in the pockets of the rich.  When the flow gets stuck, the clumps of super-wealth become an embolus. They stop the flow of healing blood,   the arteries choke up, the heart stutters and stops   —   and society collapses. 

        “Massive  depressions are not good for societies or for the human race. I had just  been born when a major industrial nation that had lost a war, had lost its  sense of place and identity and its allies in the world, had gone through  a massive economic disaster, then responded to its own fear and anger by  choosing an addled war hero to hold power.  Faced with rising chaos,  he chose as his successor a ultra-right-wing crazy, who everybody said was  sure to calm down once he actually held power.

        “The war hero was Von Hindenburg. His successor? Look it up.

          “So it is certainly urgent to  shape our financial system so that such a collapse does not descend upon  us.  But are we simply propping up the old system – the same one that  has set up our risk of disaster? Are we turning over the process to many  of the same people who set up the disaster in the first place?    

           “Or can we address the basic issues, the ones our religious traditions teach, the ones that the hard-headed masters of disaster dismiss contemptuously?  

            “So far, the most “radical”  poultices have been that a governmental economic czar will save the financial institutions that are in trouble,  by buying and selling their assets  — and taxpayers will bear the burden and the risk. 

            “There has begun to be discussion of a slightly deeper remedy – the re-regulation of these institutions so that greed and ambition cannot so  easily pocket the abundance that must move through society.

            “But so far the whole notion of rhythmically redistributing wealth -a vision at the heart of Biblical economics – is not on the agenda. That vision is encoded partly in the redemption and redistribution of family land each fifty years — the Jubilee – and the annulment of debt each seventh year – all in the context that for the seventh day, the seventh month, the seventh year, and the year of seven cycles – seven times seven plus one -the whole society rests and reflects, along with the earth itself. Not only physical work pauses, but hierarchy pauses as well.  Boss and servant vanish, for a day, a month, a year.

           “And the redistribution is also encoded in the right of the landless to feed themselves by working, gleaning, in the fields of the landowners. No one can deny them this relationship with the means of production. No ‘unemployment.’ 

           “And no compulsory overtime. Shabbat is for  everyone.

           “Let us start to imagine how to transcribe this wisdom for a society that needs to let the earth rest from our pouring CO2 into its atmosphere, from our sucking out the water from its veins, from our injecting poisons in its body.

          “We can restore our  economy for both work and rest by building energy-efficient railroads,  windmills, solar collectors.  We can use the new governmental oversight of banks to insist on micro-lending to the poor for urban  gardens, for workplaces within walking distance of our homes, for  insulating our houses to save the heat and money that are pouring out of  our porous doors and windows.   

         “We can insist on a living wage, with livable hours.  Time to sing, to dance, to pray and  meditate, to rear the children, to care for the elders, to make love. If  the flow of abundance starts at the grass roots, it will reach everyone.  Our banking crisis and the fear that elevates a Hindenburg will vanish.”

Now perhaps it would be impossible to institute a jubilee year of equity.  But we can shift our mind-set regarding our relationship with money and consumerism.  We can begin to see that money was not meant to be the ultimate end purpose of life but rather as a means to aid in our enjoyment of life to the fullest with one another, with our families and friends, with our local communities.   It is our relationships with one another that are to come first.  Our government is to help ensure that the well-being of all of its citizens is ensured.  It should not be focusing on the well-being of things like corporations and big businesses but people, the ones that operate the things of corporations and big business.   Blessings,

Published in: on September 22, 2008 at 4:19 pm  Comments Off on Economic bailouts  
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liberal v conservative religious

I have been thinking about what the terms liberal and conservative mean in religious terms.   It is oft conflated with political leanings and the two do not always readily match up.  

WIkipedia’s definition of Liberal Religion is not entirely correct because it excludes religious perspectives that may indeed have a doctrine.  It is also not entirely correct because it is only using sources from the Unitarian Universalist tradition to define it.  Liberal Religion is a category of which Unitarian Universalism is a sub-category. The two are not synonymous words.   Yet, when I do a google search,  one would think the two are synonymous terms, excluding all others. 

Yet, when I think of Liberal Religion; I think of United Church of Christ, Unity, Religious Science of Mind, and the Union of Reformed Judaism.  I am sure there are others that would fit under a Liberal Religion category.  

The beliefs of these and of Unitarian Universalists are varied and across the spectrum.  United Church of Christ (UCC) is a mainline protestant denomination firmly rooted in the Christian Reformed tradition.  The Union of Reformed Judaism is a movement within the Jewish faith and is the largest Jewish movement in the United States. Unity and Religious Science of Mind have their roots in the 19th century following, among others,  Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy ( A Unitarian Minister, making these groups distant cousins of Unitarian Universalism) but expanding it into what is known as the New Thought Movement.

But what makes them liberal in contrast to conservative?  Because our society is defined by its majority religion, Christianity, one of the definitions has to be how one would read the Hebrew and Christian texts aka the Old and New Testament.  What lense does one use in reading these texts? 

I believe it is safe to say that all of these liberal religions read the Hebrew and Christian texts as the story of a people of faith who are journeying together learning who they are in relation to their world and to their God.  These are humans who are applying what they know and sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail.  When taking the story as a whole; for Jews it is the whole of the Torah; for Christians it is the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures; they discover that there is an evolution in how God operates in the world which is with increasing generosity of mercy, with justice, and with loving kindness for all of creation.  So this becomes the lense through which these texts are read by liberal religious people. 

The texts are read with this looking for generosity of mercy, justice, and loving kindness.  James Luther Adams, Unitarian Theologian,  defined what he called the five stones of liberalism:
  1. Revelation and truth are not closed, but constantly revealed.
  2. All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion.
  3. Affirmation of the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a democratic (a just and loving) community.
  4. Denial of the immaculate conception of virtue and affirmation of the necessity of social incarnation. Good must be consciously given form and power within history.
  5. The resources (divine and human) that are available for achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate (but not necessarily immediate) optimism. There is hope in the ultimate abundance of the Universe. 

A conservative lense reads these texts as not just as a story of a people but as the word of God.  There fore there is power in the text itself.  Revelation is closed.  There is no new revelation of the divine that could be revealed that is not already revealed in the sacred texts.  The Book of Revelation closes with a statement that anyone adds or substracts to this will receive the afflictions included in the book.  Many conservative religious read this as referring to the whole of the Bible and not just the text known as the Book of Revelation.  It is a fairly strict command.  But it exemplifies how conservative religious view their faith in a theological context.

This explains the animosity between conservative religions and science.  Science being the new revealed revelation that cannot be true because revelation is closed.  So it is difficult for conservative religions then to reconcile science’s evolution to the Genesis story of Creation.  Even tho from a liberal point of view, the Genesis creation story as an ancient metaphor fits nicely with the Big Bang theory of all that is around us. 

It explains the animosity Conservative religions have regarding societal changes towards justice for all people.  Because there are texts in the Bible that dictate other things.  A liberal reading would argue that these edicts were attempting to address specific problems in a specific societal context and therefore do not mesh with today’s societal mores.  A conservative reading states no, the word of God is unchanging and therefore if it was wrong three thousand years ago it is still wrong today.   

I believe there may be a difference in how a liberal and a conservative religious would define the phrase “a living faith.”   For a Liberal undestanding, a living faith is a faith that lives and breathes in todays context.  There are always new understandings to be found and integrated into ones view of their world.  One’s biases and prejudices are confronted with this understanding of a living faith.  For a conservative understanding, I think it refers more to becoming more like the image of people living in the bible.  To put on the mind of Christ is to embrace the characteristics of what are considered righteous living in the Bible rather than what is considered righteous living for today. 

I realize as I am writing this that I have a strong bias towards liberal religious thought.  So perhaps some of our more conservative religious readers could help us out with their understanding of how to live a conservative religion’s perspective.   Blessings,

Leviticus 19:34

Leviticus 19:34
“But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

A recent comment on what has been the most read blog entry to date on this site, ICE Raid in Laurel MS, made a statement that I was “veiling my liberal philosophy behind a facade of religious love.”   I responded to this by stating that I was not veiling my liberal philosophy and that I claimed my stance on Biblical teaching.  I then quoted the above quote.   

The person felt that undocumented people had no rights, no inalienable rights as declared by our most sacred civil documents.  They broke the law and therefore must be rounded up and deported, end of story.  Does this also mean that we are to have no compassion?  No sense of moral decency in our treatment of these people?   The families who have had their husbands and wives taken into custody, have no ability to buy food, they will not be able to maintain their shelter because their income is now gone.  Is this what it means to be an American; to turn our backs on the stranger in our lands?  Is this who we have become?  Have our hearts really grown this cold towards the face of suffering?  

The writer re-iterates an argument for the clapping that occurred as these workers were rounded up.  It was mentioned in previous comments that the clapping was done only because a law was being enforced.  I suggested clapping at that moment was a rejoicing at the misfortune of others. 

Which message was sent to those being carried away by ICE agents? Clapping because a law was upheld or clapping because these people are getting what they deserve?  I still believe the latter was sent.  It stated, ‘you are not welcome here.’  It stated, ‘what happens to you is not of my concern.’  It stated, ‘you are not a person that I identify as having human worth.’  This is the message the clapping sent.  And it goes against the commandment that is expressed in Leviticus 19. 

There is a growing trend in the south and elsewhere in the country to demonize groups of people.  I see it in our congregations when conservative religious topics are brought up.  I see it in the conservative media  reports of Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage, and others.  We need to stop this nonsense. 

Bill Moyers did a PBS story on the events that occurred in sister congregation in Knoxville, TN.  In a letter written by Jim Adkisson, he blames the liberals for his woes and states that because he could not get to the elected liberals, he was going to target to kill those liberals who voted  for them.   Bill Moyers examines the virulent messages that are being sent out by the media that may have spurred Jim Adkisson on to commit a such violent act.  It is a disturbing report with graphic hate language against groups of people, immigrants and liberals among them.

There is a way to disagree with presenting points of view without succumbing to demonizing language that seeks to strip the humanity from a person or group of peoples.  That way is to honor the person who is speaking as being more than just the words they are saying.  To listen to what is being said behind the words to what the real message is. 

I am hearing fear.  That ubiquitous emotion that takes on a form of a ghoul and devours  a person’s heart if they are not careful.  When the heart is devoured then there is no telling what the person may end up doing.  Clapping at the arrest of co-workers seems pretty benign on the onset but it was, I believe fear that instigated the events at Howard Industries. Fear of loss of jobs.  Fear of not being able to support families.  Fear of not recognizing ones community as it becomes bi-lingual.  

Listening intently to the radical right on talk radio spew their hatred at groups of people is a more invasive fear that corrupts the heart.  Listening to the radical left do the same in return has the same result.   If one begins to believe this fear is based in a real threat, then people begin to act on these hateful words the radical right and radical left spew.  That is when fear has won the soul and spirit of a person, of a community.  We only need to look at Rwanda and Darfur for recent examples of how fear spewed from the media engendered a people to place into action a genocide.  Germany is now too distant a memory to see how they used their messages of hatred to blame the Jews for their economic problems.

And America is in trouble economically.  Another bank collapses due to faulty management practices and gas prices rocket to all time highs of over $5 a gallon; people will be looking for a scapecoat for their woes.  It is not hard to imagine where the radical right will be looking to place blame.  Yet, we are all accountable for our current economy.  As the cartoon character Pogo from the 1940’s to 1970’s said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”  

We are our own worst enemy.  And that acknowledgement alone should engender some compassion on those who are in the minority among us.  Getting rid of them is not the answer.  It does not solve the problems that our system has institutionalized into our fabric of being.  Blaming groups of people is an immature way of solving problems.  We used it when we were kids and it didn’t work then.   So why would we think it would work now? 

One of Unitarian Universalists’ forebears, Francis David of 16th century Hungary, is quoted as saying, “We do not need to think alike to love alike.”  May we begin to emphasis the loving alike in how we live our daily lives.  Blessings,

Postscript:  In case some of my readers think that what I am writing here is just a liberal religious point of view I offer you these following links of more conservative (conservative to Unitarian Universalists) Christian faiths who are seeking to live out the commandment in Leviticus 19:34:  Disciples of Christ ;  Roman Catholic Church  and there is an excellent video on the blog site of Jim Wallis, leader of Sojourners, a conservative Christian community in Washington, DC.

Published in: on September 15, 2008 at 1:04 pm  Comments Off on Leviticus 19:34  
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The Theology of Mary Oliver


Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver


Rev. Fred L Hammond
September 14 2008 ©
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL

Wise Ol’ King Solomon is credited with saying there is nothing new under the sun.  Little did I know that he also included as nothing new a discussion on the Theology of Mary Oliver.   I thought this was going to be a sermon rarely done before.  And then I discovered colleague Rev. Victoria Weinstein a.k.a. blogger Peacebang did a blog entry earlier this year on Unitarian Universalist’s fascination on Mary Oliver.  Then I discovered colleague Rev. Kathleen McTigue did a sermon in 2006 entitled “God of Dirt: The Theology of Mary Oliver.  And then I discovered her inspiration for her sermon was a text by Thomas W. Mann entitled “God of Dirt: Mary Oliver and the other Book of God.   So my hope in the light of these esteemed colleagues and scholars is to add to the conversation on Mary Oliver’s theology.

Mary Oliver has won the hearts of many Unitarian Universalists.  Her popularity among us gained her the esteemed and prestigious place of being a Ware Lecturer in 2006 at our General Assembly. She currently has six books listed in the top 30 best sellers list of poetry as reported by the Poetry Foundation and three of these are in the top five. 

One possibility to her being, as I have heard here and elsewhere, the unofficial poet laureate of Unitarian Universalists is Mary Oliver is not afraid of the questions.  Kathleen McTigue writes regarding Oliver’s theology, “By that word [theology] I mean not only what her poems reflect of her beliefs about God, but what they reflect about a host of other religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability? These questions matter to all of us. And the answers in Mary Oliver’s poems feel so resonant and so true…”

What is it about her poetry that resonates with so many of us?  This may be a rhetorical question.  So I will try to answer the question in the personal. 

I lived across the road from my paternal grandparents.  They owned sixty some acres that had reverted with an exception of a few fields back to its natural state of pines, oaks, and maples. My grandmother was trained as a botanist.  She had taught for a few years but then focused on her love of wild life as an avocation.  Every morning just as the sun was rising she would take a walk through her property, taking notice of the animals and of the various plants that grew on her land.  She knew every one by name and it seemed as if she was in intimate contact with them.  As a child, I was convinced that they confided in her their secrets because it seemed all of the birds and animals would visit at her back stoop.  The fields behind their house had a few apple trees that would be visited by black bears, deer and raccoons.  The chickadee and chipmunk would take sunflower seeds from her hands. There is even the coveted photograph of a chickadee taking seed from her lips as if she was receiving a kiss.   She had a connection.  And she would marvel at the arrival of flowers and ferns that would return each spring to her rock garden and along her walking paths. 

One of her greatest lessons to me came directly from her observations of nature.  On a walk with her in the woods, she pointed out to me a New York Fern.   On closer inspection she stated to me that there are always variations in life; ‘see how this frond ends in one point, but this one in a double point, and this one in three? The norm is one point but every species has variations and diversities within them; each a special creation.’   Years later, as I struggled with my sexuality, it was this lesson that came back to me and gave me new insight into my being.

Mary Oliver’s poems bring back these memories of my grandmother.  So when I read her poem, entitled, “Spring” I am flooded with memories and connections.  And these connections expand into new possibilities of understanding our world.

[Spring House of Light p6]

a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring
down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring
I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue
like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:
how to love this world. …

She captures for me that sense of the sacred that I experienced as a child watching the black bear knocking apples off the branches to feed her cubs.  We would watch from my grandmother’s kitchen window in hushed silence the bear caring for her young.  There was this sense of awe / this sense, as Mary Oliver later states in the poem, of also being “dazzling darkness” “breathing and tasting” all of life’s glory.   There is in her poetry a sense of communing with nature in a raw earthy sensual manner that our world at our fingertips of the computer age no longer has access to experiencing.

Yet, life is to be lived to the full and Mary Oliver’s poetry hints at how this could be.  There is an attitude one is to have towards life.  Thomas Mann in his book God of Dirt, quotes this passage from her essays in Winter Hours;  “Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is the recognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to.  What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude.” 

Thomas Mann then responds with, “The heart of natural spirituality is not what one thinks about God, but how one relates to the natural world as the realm of God.”  (p 11 God of Dirt: Mary Oliver and the Other Book of God)  And Mary Oliver’s poems are filled with how she relates to the realm of God.  Her poem “The Summer Day” expands this notion. 

[The Summer Day  House of Light p 60]

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. …

She asks a universal question.  But she answers with this: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down / into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, / how to be idle and blessed.”

Paying attention is her form of prayer within the realm of God called nature.  She defines prayer from this perspective in her poem entitled “Praying” [ Praying, Thirst, p 37

pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but a doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

For Mary Oliver all of nature speaks to her.  In her poem, “One or Two Things” (Dream Work p 50)  She writes: 

The god of dirt
came to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, I lay
on the grass listening
to his dog voice,
crow voice,
frog voice; now,
he said, and now,
and never once mentioned forever…

By paying attention she is able to perceive the world around her as the voices of creation.  Each plant, beast, bird has a message, a thought that will illuminate the heavens and the life we are living here.  It is from the dirt that all of life has sprung so it is not in any derogatory sense that Mary Oliver speaks of the god of dirt. In fact it is with highest praise and recognition that she is able to commune with nature and hear the voice of the god of dirt. 

Thomas Mann in his text, states Mary Oliver is saying “to attend to what is now, rather than pine for what is forever.”  She states later in the poem that she has longed just to love her life.  It is then the butterfly that appears earlier in the poem, who answers her, “The butterfly / rose, weightless, in the wind. / “Don’t love your life / too much,”…  Thomas Mann comments on this symbolism.  The butterfly loving its life too much would refer to the butterfly’s chrysalis stage.  If it remained there, it would never become a butterfly.  He states “It would never be ‘transformed’ … the same is true for humans who long for ‘forever’.  As a contemporary proverb puts it, ‘some people long for eternal life but don’t know what to do on a Sunday afternoon.’ The longing for ‘forever’ prevents an enjoyment of the ‘now.’ ”    Mary Oliver listens to the voice of nature in her being present to it.

The concept of nature speaking is not so heretical an idea. The Psalmist wrote:  “The heavens are telling the glory of god; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 19 v 1—4a)

This listening to the silence of the world and hearing its voice is a common theme in many religions.  I recently saw a short video clip of an American teacher by the name of Gangaji, who follows the teachings of a Hindu Maharshi, who spoke about being in silence.  She teaches that quieting the thoughts of our mind enables us to hear the essence of our being and not our thoughts about our being.  Doing so she claims will open the door ways to our authentic self, the self that uses no words.   Gangaji claims that when we have thoughts about ourselves we are no longer experiencing our selves directly but instead objectifying our relationship with our selves into an I-it instead of an I-thou relationship.  

Oliver alludes to this in her poem The Notebook (House of Light p 44),  “The turtle / doesn’t have a word for any of it—the silky water / or the enormous blue morning, or the curious affair of his own body.”   She is caught up in her scribbling and crossing out that she almost misses the moment of when the turtle leaves. She writes, “How much can the right word do?” 

Sometimes it is the silence that reveals the spirit.  Sometimes it is silence that reveals our relationship with nature, with the realm of God.  In her poem “Spring” she states that she goes about thinking about the bear with “her white teeth / her wordlessness / her perfect love.”    But there is no harsh rebuke if she misses a moment of this level of relationship with the world, with herself.  She closes the poem “Notebook,” with “There is still time / to let the last rose of the sunrise / float down/ into my uplifted eyes.”

Where does this take her when she listens in silence, when she pays attention to the natural world around her?   Her poem Mindful [ New and Selected Poems, Vol. Two, p90] offers us clues. 

Every day
I see or I hear
that more or less
kills me
with delight, …
It is what I was born for—
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world—
to instruct myself
over and over
in joy,
and acclamation…

She goes on and states these are not the exceptional things but rather the drab every day things that she is mindful of that brings her such delight.  The world is filled with wonders and it is her life long task to find them.  She states in other poems that this is her work, “which is standing still and learning to be astonished.”  (Messenger, Thirst p 1)

It is in the realm of God, nature, that she draws comfort and strength.  After the death of her spouse, Molly Malone Cook, she writes several poems on grieving.  In After Her Death, (Thirst p 16) she writes about feeling lost.  She adds, “…The trees keep whispering / peace, peace, and the birds / in the shallows are full of the / bodies of small fish and are / content.  They open their wings/ so easily, and fly.  So. It is still / possible.” 

In the poem entitled, Gethsemane (Thirst ,p 45), it is the stars, the grass, the crickets, and the lake far away, and the wind that stays awake and waited with Jesus on that night before his arrest.  Again there is this sense that nature is in communion with all of creation, including humans especially in our time of need.  In the poem, Heavy, (Thirst p 53) she closes with these words, “How I linger / to admire, admire, admire / the things of this world / that are kind, and maybe // also troubled—/ roses in the wind, / the sea geese on the steep waves, / a love, / to which there is no reply?”   Her grief is palpable and yet she is finding a way through it in the world she sees around her. 

There is much wisdom in her poetry.  Her contemplation of the natural world around her has enabled her to garner strength when experiences are difficult to handle.  This contemplation also gives her access to joy and praise as she observes the life of the fauna and flora of her world. 

Mary Oliver has two poems that allude to a specific verse in the Christian scriptures attributed to Jesus.   The verse is Matthew 6:28 and 29 which reads: “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”

In Another Everyday Poem (Red Bird p 12) she writes: 

Every day
I consider
the lilies—
how they are dressed—
and the ravens—
how they are fed—
and how each of these
is a miracle
of Lord-love …

In the poem Lilies (House of Light p 12) she writes

I have been thinking
about living
like the lilies
that blow in the fields.
They rise and fall
in the wedge of the wind,
and have no shelter
from the tongues of the cattle,
and have no closets or cupboards,
and have no legs.
Still I would wait all day
for the green face
of the hummingbird
to touch me.
What I mean is,
could I forget myself
even in those feathery fields? …

Both of these poems speak of the lushness of life to supply every need.  The joy of life even in such brevity is a wonder to behold. “for the lilies / in their bright dresses /cannot last / but wrinkle fast / and fall…”  (Another Everyday Poem)  She adds,  “[W]hat a puzzle it is / that such brevity—/ the lavish clothes … / makes the world / so full, so good.”   Their length of days does not detract from the joy of living.  She offers a perspective on life that few acknowledge deeply.   It does not matter how long a life is lived to enable offering joy and love to others, making the world full and good.  In doing so she flips the sorrow of loss into recognition of gratitude for life and the experiences that life offers. 

Yet there is also awareness that something still separates her from this kind of life. She later speaks in the poem, Lilies; “I think I will always be lonely / in this world, … where ravishing lilies / melt, without protest, on their tongues— / where the hummingbird, whenever there is a fuss, / just rises and floats away.”   –It is the existential quest for wholeness and purpose in life. We are not always so self-assured as this.  We are more like the people that Jesus admonishes in the Christian scriptures worrying about having our needs fulfilled or protected from harm from this day to the next. Even at the end of life, the lilies without protest melt their existence into fodder for the cattle.   Mary Oliver captures this sentiment for us, letting us know that the flora and fauna in its wordless awareness has a peace and wholeness about life that we humans have somehow lost.

She asks, “Can anyone doubt that the lion of the Serengeti / is part of the idea of God?” (Serengeti p 61 House of Light)   She describes the frightening roar and the fear this animal displays as it too lives its life as both the “flower of life and the winch of death.” This notion of what we might call good and evil seems to have no duality within her poetry.   The animal is only displaying what it is created to do; it does not have a sense of any other way. We humans tend to see things in dualities.  The lion that seeks to feed its cubs by killing us is seen as an evil; something to be feared.  The lion that seeks out the lame and infirmed animals for food is seen as good.     Yet, in nature, it is both /and not either /or.    

She does not have an easy answer for this state of being.  In The Owl Who Comes (New and Selected Poems Vol. Two p 52) she writes:  “and if I wish the owl luck, / and I do, / what am I wishing for that other / soft life, /climbing through the snow?”    She suggests that we are “to hope the world /  keeps its balance.”  Beyond that she does not know “what we are to do… /  with our hearts.”    The question is still posed, “Can anyone doubt that the lion of the Serengeti / is part of the idea of God?”  The implications of the question are ones that all people of faith continue to struggle with in living their spiritual path. 

So back to our rhetorical question of what is it about Mary Oliver’s poetry that speaks to us as Unitarian Universalists?  Is it perhaps Mary Oliver is able to speak to our deep longing to be connected to this natural world and not separate from it?   Could it be that she is offering a corrective to our Judeo/Christian myth of being created to have dominion over the world?  That instead we are to be in partnership, dare I say as co-equals, in living on this planet.  That perhaps there is indeed wisdom in the flora and fauna of this earth that is more profound, more revealing about how we are to live and breathe our days here? “My work is loving the world,” (Messenger, Thirst, p 1) she states.   It is our work, too.  Blessed Be.




Hurricane Creek

I am beginning to get know more of my surroundings in Alabama. I was recently introduced to the Friends of Hurricane Creek Newsletter. This is a piece of land near Tuscaloosa that needs some loving care.  It is as E.O WIlson of Harvard University and native Alabaman states one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet.  Watch the video of E. O. WIlson standing near the bank of Hurricane Creek as he describes this valuable heritage to us.  And listen to the variety of birds singing in the background.   Blessings,  

Published in: on September 13, 2008 at 2:25 pm  Comments Off on Hurricane Creek  
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My Blog in Wordle Form

Wordle is a fun program that takes any text, in this case all of my blog entries, and according to word usage, enlarges the key words to comparative sizes. I tried to get a clear image here of my wordle but the code given to me only had thumb size and I was unable to figure out what the language was needed to increase its size for posting a clear image. You may see a larger image here.

I have also placed my sermon “Theology of Torture” into wordle form as well. You may see it here.

Published in: on September 12, 2008 at 12:41 pm  Comments Off on My Blog in Wordle Form  

What is going on here?

Readers may have noticed that I have changed yet again the background theme of this blog.  WordPress has a series of pre-programmed theme pages for bloggers.  And when I moved to begin serving the Tuscaloosa, AL congregation I thought it was time to change the backgound theme and to slightly change the title of my blog.  This seemed to work until I added another page and discovered the title no longer fit on the page.  So I found what I thought was a very attractive and classic theme.  It was nice.  It allowed for the title of the blog to be placed in full across the top of the page.  Then I discovered that all of the other pages, including the sermons and the about page, were no where to be found.  So I have changed it again.   I am not sure I like the colors.  But it seems to allow all of the pages to be included, it does not cut off any pictures I have embedded, and the title of the blog is fully displayed.   So for now I will use this one until another option comes along that appeals to the more classic look I was wanting.  Let me know what you think?  And now back to our line of programming… Blessings,

Postscript:  A little education goes a long ways… I discovered how I could get the things I wanted back on my blog page so I have once again… hopefully it does not drive everyone crazy… changed back to the design I really like on WordPress.  Blessings and thanks for your patience as I go through this shedding of skins thing… I feel so reptilian…   LOL

Published in: on September 12, 2008 at 11:49 am  Comments Off on What is going on here?