The Baptist Minister Knocks on the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Door

The other day a Baptist minister and a congregant came to my apartment door.  They were passing out tracts and alerting the neighborhood of a revival his congregation is hosting.  After exchanging a few pleasantries, he found out that I was a Unitarian Universalist minister. He launched into a series of questions of what if I am wrong in my faith and damnation awaited my eternal soul after death.  I assured him I had faith that was not the case for me or for anyone. He suggested I was making a huge gamble.  I assured him my faith was sure.  He requested that I read the tract he was passing out and I told that I would not because I already knew what the tract was going to state and was not interested.  He told me I was afraid of the truth.  I reminded him it was as he perceived it and not truth as I perceived it.  He continued to challenge me on reading it.  And after I stated again I was not going to read it, he told me I was pitiful.  And continued to call me pitiful as he walked away.

I found it quite interesting that he could not accept an honest answer to his question therefore he had to resort to insulting me.  The difficulty that I have with Christianity as it is presented here in the Deep South is that it is based on fear and contradictions.  That fact alone should be a red flag for any would be converts.

The Baptist minister and I agreed that God is love.  Yet, the Baptist minister also believes that if Jesus is not accepted as Lord and Savior then that God of love will condemn the person to eternal damnation of fire and brimstone.  This is a contradiction.  A god of love does not condemn the beloved. A skilled parent may punish their child for doing something harmful to themselves and others but the parent never condemns their child to everlasting punishment.  The parent seeks to protect the child.  The parent seeks to nurture the child.  The parent seeks to instruct the child. The skilled parent does not use fear of condemnation to achieve instruction.  Condemnation destroys and removes all hope of reconciliation.  The God the Baptist believes in is an abusive manipulative parent who uses fear, intimidation, and condemnation to oppress and control his people.

As a society, we try to remove the child from such abusive parents because we recognize the damage such brutal relationships causes within the child’s maturational development. Is it any wonder given that sort of relationship with a god who requires being fearful of eternal damnation in order to achieve loyalty results in state laws that are punitive on those less fortunate?   This is not the teachings of Jesus.  His teachings that refer to damnation are aimed at his followers who become smug in their salvation and do not recognize the divine in each other.  ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ (Matthew 25:44 New American Standard) This is a parable.   Jesus is not referring to an actual location one will be sent but rather is referring to how far a distance one might be in following his teachings when they only take on the shell of his teachings and not embody them.  How different the world would be if we recognized the presence of the Christ, the Buddha, the divine in each other and nurtured that to blossom to full bloom and then to seed?

The Baptist minister in promoting fear and coercion to convert others is likened to another teaching of Jesus’ “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but on the inside you are full of greed and evil.” (Luke 11:39 International Standard Version).  Having the appearance of salvation but not the spirit of love within is no salvation at all.  If he was truly a follower of Jesus, he would not have needed to resort to insults as he parted. I am sure he felt very smug and good at his ability to cast dispersions on my honesty in telling him ‘no I will not read’ his tract.  His behavior does not speak well of his religion.  He did not impress me with his arrogant stance.

To be honest, I have difficulty with a faith where the message is, ‘See what you made me do to your elder brother because you would not listen to me? You made me torture him and crucify him in the most horrendous fashion all because you refused to obey my commandments.’    This is the abusive parent.  And since the church is considered the bride of Christ, this is the abusive spouse.  ‘It is your fault because of your sinful nature that I strike Jesus with the lash and drive nails into his body.  If only you would just do what I ask and not make me so angry, I would not have to beat up Jesus. Can’t you see how much I love you? I crucified my son for your evil behaviors.’  This is the abusive message the Baptist minister was preaching to me the other day.  Every victim of domestic abuse has heard this rationale for why their spouse struck them. The only difference is that instead of striking the victim, the abuser strikes someone else in their stead with the warning ‘this will happen to you for all eternity if you do not do as I say.’  I was already all too familiar with the subtext of the tract he passed out to have a need to read it.

I prefer a religion that invites me to be more than I am today.  There are versions of Christianity, albeit rare in the Deep South, that  invite others to grow beyond where they are today.  I prefer a religion that calls me to love my neighbor.  I prefer a religion that calls me to make straight the path, to encourage justice to roll down like waters, to be a river of righteousness, to be an up-lifter of people. Such a religion will also lead me to lie down in green pastures and to drink from still waters to restore my soul. Such a religion will place a yearning in my heart to create justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly through-out my days.  That is a religion I can follow, not because it ‘tickle’s my ears”  with words I want to hear as the Baptist minister suggested, but because such a religion confronts my prejudices and biases, chastises my false convictions, and reveals where I have fallen short in my relationships with others.  Such a religion makes me think long and hard on how my life affects the lives of others.  It also reassures me of my humanity when I miss the mark and invites me to begin again.  Such a religion reaffirms my inherent worth and dignity with the love that is offered me not because of anything I have done but simply because I, too, am a child of the universe/god.

My chosen faith, Unitarian Universalism, is not the perfect religion either.  We have our own issues with racism, classism, and other isms as they are manifested within our congregations and denominational structures.  But I believe we strive to not be coercive with fear mongering. I believe we strive to honor our principles and struggle on how to live those principles in our daily lives.  May we seek to fulfill our covenant with love and affection and leave fear behind.




Green Blade Rises

The hymn Now the Green Blade Riseth sung beautifully this morning loosely refers to the Christian texts in Mark 4: The earth beareth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And also the verse in John 12: I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

The hymn written by minister John Crum in the 1920’s takes these verses and weaves a wonderful metaphor not only referring to the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus but also to the resurrection / rebirth of love in a heart wounded and grieving. It is this second metaphor that I want to explore on this day of celebrating resurrection, this day of celebrating spring’s rising to new life.

We need that assurance that love not only can but will prevail ultimately. As Rob Bell writes, Love Wins. Love wins. And it wins even when all signs point to the opposite. The green blade riseth from the buried grain/ wheat that in dark earth many days has lain/ Love lives again, that with the dead has been/ love comes again like wheat that springeth green.

I officiated at an outdoor wedding last week and on the property were these 200 year old oaks whose branches were covered with small ferns—called the resurrection fern. In times of drought the fronds of this fern are dry, apparently dead/lifeless. But when the rain comes, these fronds become healthy and supple, vibrant with life. It had been raining and these fronds were full of life.

But there is another plant that is even more amazing called the Ibervillea Sonorae. This desert plant of the gourd family can appear as a piece of drift wood for years. When the rains come, it will burst forth in magnificent full bloom and produce gourds and then die off and wait again. NY Botanical Garden reportedly had one; they purposefully kept it from water to see how long it would live in its drift wood state. Each year it would tentatively send out green tendrils looking for a source of water. If there was none to be found, it would shrivel back and return to its drift wood state. For seven years the plant waited for the moment of rebirth before it died.

I found that number of years to be meaningful. Without delving too much into numerology, the number seven is a significant number metaphorically in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Genesis story has god resting on the seventh day of creation. A Hebrew slave is to be released in the seventh year. Hebrews insisted a field be fallow every seven years; and of course the notion that the seventh day of the week is the Sabbath, a day of rest. Jesus was once asked how many times to forgive someone for the same offense, seven times? No, Jesus replied, seventy times seven. So seven years for a desert plant to wait for resurrection seems theologically significant. It suggests that we are not to give up on love. Even after waiting a time period numbering seventy times seven and the appearance of anything different still seems dead impossible—we are not to give up on love. Seven seems to be the number of the Sabbath, the rest needed to bring about rejuvenation/ new life/ or new starts can begin. But it also seems to imply that just when by all appearances everything seems to be forever in the dead of night, the moment of dawn occurs and a bright new day begins.

A blog post on this amazing plant asks the questions: How dead does something have to appear before it is dead? How dry and lifeless and alone and fruitless does something have to be before it is actually, and finally, beyond hope? *

For the Ibervillea apparently a very long time. When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain, Love’s touch can call us back to life again, fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been: Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

That is often the fear, isn’t it, that our hearts once bereft will be kept in an eternal wintry mess and spring’s warm caress of new life will never come or never come in time? So how do we wait patiently like the Ibervillea day after day, week after week? It isn’t easy.

I believe the point of Jesus’ message is not in his death and resurrection. At least not in the way the orthodox theology has established it. The point is that Jesus kept saying the kingdom of god / the beloved community was within us, the realm of heaven is indeed within us. He stated this before his death and resurrection. It was not a condition contingent on his crucifixion; it was already according to Jesus a reality. Christianity has placed the emPHASis on the wrong sylLAHble. Just as the Ibervillea has everything ready within it to burst forth with new vines of flowers and gourds, we too have everything within us we need to burst forth with love to transform our society from the dried piece of drift wood it seems to be to a lush garden of life.

This beloved community with in us is the green blade that riseth in the hearts of people who seek to live according to the universal truth that we are all one people/ one family. What we do to one person we do to all. I’ve said this before and I truly am convinced that Jesus’ core message is found in what he considers to be the greatest commandments of the Tanakh, the scriptures of Jesus’ day: “To love god / Life with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul, and with all one’s mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Everything else falls under these two commands.

I have come to believe that to focus on the crucifixion and resurrection is a form of cheap grace. There is no need for personal growth and health when this becomes the central piece of salvation. Even history’s worst villains of the western world claimed to be Christian because they believed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Say the sinner’s prayer and be on your way—nothing more to be seen here. But when the person seeks to fulfill the great command—whether it is stated in the words of Jesus or the Dalai Lama or Karen Armstrong or Thich Nhat Hanh then the person becomes engaged and their lives are transformed in ways that are mysterious and wonderful. The rest, as the Rabbi Hillel said, is commentary.

So reach out to the person who is grieving or in pain with compassion, with love as you would want someone to reach out to you in love and become that life saving water that encourages the green blade to rise again. Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

Green Blade Rises
Rev Fred L Hammond 31 March 2013 ©
Presented at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

* As found on March 29 2013 at

We Must Change

Last Sunday, I gave what was perhaps the most emotional sermon ever as I reflected, as did many throughout America, on the events that occurred in Sandy Hook.  My personal connections to the community made it all the harder for me to function in the hours and days after the event.

I have read many perspectives over the last few days and have come to the conclusion that the recent events in Clackamas, OR and Sandy Hook, CT have more to do with our love for violence than it does with guns.   Guns are only a small piece of the puzzle.

There are folks who believe that banning assault rifles is the solution.  I agree that assault rifles have no purpose except for killing mass numbers of people.  However,  banning weapons will not prevent murders from weapons any more than banning abortions would prevent terminating pregnancies or banning cocaine and crack would prevent drug addiction. The only outcome of outlawing weapons, abortions, crack/cocaine is force these underground giving organized crime syndicates another market to exploit.  Plus the number of deaths annually by assault rifles is small compared to the number of deaths by all firearms, whether those deaths are homicides, suicides, or accidental.  So a ban on assault rifles only covers a small dent in the overall issue of gun violence, just as gun violence is a small piece of the over all issue of violence.  It might seem a victory for gun control advocates but it does not address the problem.  It is comparable to swatting at a fly when a tiger is on the prowl.

That tiger is violence in American culture.  We have a love affair with violence.  John Lennon is quoted as saying “We live in a world where we have to hide to make love, while violence is practiced in broad daylight.”

We begin early in our lives to enculturate our children to violence.  When I was young it was watching Tom and Jerry Cartoons and The Three Stooges. We would laugh at their antics but the underlying theme was violence.  Today the children are given video games of World of Warcraft and Call of Duty and the Halo series.  The animations are increasingly lifelike. One of the purposes of games in any culture is to teach various skills that will enable the player to survive in that culture.  Games like Candy Land or Shoots and Ladders teach young children how to cooperate with one another, Chess teaches strategic thinking, and World of Warcraft, Halo?  They teach how to become immune to the horrors of war and death.   They teach how to be callous in the face of violence–both in the receiving of it and in the perpetrating of it.

I am not going to join the chorus that is trying to blame video games on the recent shooting in Sandy Hook.  The factors that led this young man to commit these heinous actions are far too complex to simply point to one factor as the scape goat.  That said, our culture’s willingness to lift up these games as desirable products for children and adults is a symptom of this nation’s pathology.  It is an indication that our culture is mentally ill when violence is glorified  as entertainment.  It makes our culture no different than the Roman Empire when people  were thrown to the lions and gladiators for sport.  We look at that ancient empire and think how barbaric yet our actions are no less barbaric.

We further enculturate our children to violence when we teach our children that it is acceptable to be violent towards women. The recent misogynist statements by our elected officials that rape is only legitimate if no pregnancy occurs  or that god (small g deliberately used) ordained the rape for purposes of pregnancy is part of this normative approach to violence in our culture.  How many times are our young teens told that when a partner says ‘no’ to sex, that they do not really mean ‘no’?   Or that if a woman does not resist sexual advances that she therefore wanted the sex?  Unwanted sexual advances are violent and our culture lifts this up as acceptable behavior unless the behaviors become brutal and leaves outward visible marks.  Then we might prosecute but what always comes up is that the woman dressed in a manner to invite such advances.  Resulting in all bets are off and the violent act is once again seen as acceptable.  Violence against others in any form is never acceptable behavior is the message we need to be sending.

We honor and lift up spiritual violence as a normative in our culture as well. Our churches preach that homosexuals deserve death because that is what one of the  six verses in the Bible state.  The fact that the same Bible says the same for working on the sabbath is over looked (Exodus 35:2). We do spiritual violence to our gay, transgender, and intersex children when we spout such violence from the pulpit.  Yet we abhor the actions of Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, not because they are saying anything differently than most  conservative congregations in America but because they are are putting into action the words that  our ministers have stated from the pulpit.    So spiritual violence is fine but acting on that spiritual violence by making it also physical violence, not fine.  We are a very sick and demented culture.  Those preachers who preach spiritual violence against sexual minorities are the same as Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church–a matter of degrees in action does not make it acceptable nor moral.

Our theology is even steeped in violence.  The whole idea of a savior needing to be brutally tortured and  killed for our sins reveals a god that is equally violent and non-loving. That is not the good news, that is the violent news.  The good news message of Jesus is not found in his brutal death but rather in his life, the love and compassion he showed, the belief or rather trust he held that each of us have the potential to reveal the realm of love.  His death,  as Gracie Allen might say, is the comma not the period.

Spiritual violence against another person is not appropriate behavior.  Words cut just as deep into the heart as a knife does and can shape that young person into being violent, not only against others but destructive against their own being as well.  It is well documented that the most virulent homophobic person is one that struggles with their own sexual orientation.  The result is they project violently all the self hatred and self-rejection they have out into the world.  We need to learn how to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Spewing hatred and violence towards others means we  neither love our neighbors nor ourselves.

The events in Clackamas, OR and Sandy Hook, CT are horrifying. I hope that we will not only look to substantive legislation like stricter controls on gun registration, not only those sold new but those sold used, just as we do with car registrations.  Stricter regulations on requiring gun safety courses for all gun users and locking guns away securely when not in use.  But if that is all that we do, then we are doing ourselves a disservice.    We also need to change our desire to fantasize being violent, acted out through our video games. We need to correct our theology so it reveals a loving God who wept over his son’s death (the sun went dark and the earth quaked)  and not gloried in his son’s violent death. We need to examine how insurance companies handle mental health issues–having a limited maximum number of sessions or day stays in a hospital is not helpful for people who are psychically hurting. We need to learn how to solve our problems with rationality and not with violent words and fighting.   We need to learn how to treat each other with respect, how to respect and honor each other.

In short, we need to create a new culture here in the United States.  A culture of love and equanimity.  A culture of humility.  A culture where non-violence is lifted up and valued.  This is more than just a few feel good legislative bills proposed and passed but in such a water down version so the legislation  is impotent.   We need to change our heart.  We must change or we will self-destruct in our psychosis as a nation.

What’s it All About?

Opening Words:

From the dawn of human history, humanity has been seeking the answer to life’s most pressing question:  What is it all about?  There have been variations of this question.  Does life have a purpose?  Is there meaning in life?

There appears to be an answer that has dubious origins.  Some say the answer came from the Shakers in the celibate religious communes in New England in the late 19th century. Others say it was discovered after a brutal battle in the midst of the Second World War in England to cheer the troops.  And still others say the answer refers to the ice cream street vendors selling ice cream in wax paper before the invention of ice cream cones.

The answer to this pressing question is this:  You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out, you put your right foot in and you shake it all about.  You do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around, that’s what it’s all about.


Okay so we had some fun with the question by doing the Hokey Pokey.  But we humans are a serious bunch and not so easily given to such frivolity as song and dance.   It has its place, we serious ones might declare and some have even dared to declare that song and dance  was the work of the evil one.  Some of us in the human race when trying to answer this question of what’s it all about received answers that life is very serious and must therefore be lived with a sort of prudence and decorum. 

There is the ancient thought that human life served purposes of the gods who were rivals of each other.  Our part in the scheme of things was some sort of chess match being moved about as pawns.  Greek and Roman mythology is filled with stories of the gods having their rivalry and human life being the means in which their rivalries were to be played out. 

This thought is also found in the Hebrew Scriptures in the story of Job.  In this story, God and Satan are having a conversation.  God is bragging about his faithful servant Job.  Satan responds with ‘but of course he is faithful, look at all you have given him—a fine home, healthy and strong children, riches and comforts beyond compare—take all this away from him and Job will curse God and the day he was born.’  God accepts the challenge and within days Satan has all of Job’s good fortune wiped out. 

‘What’s it all about?’  Job cries out.  His friends all tell him it is because of some grievous sin that he committed.  For his friends life is about seeking the good side of God, of pleasing God;  and those who please God will be rewarded with a comfortable and good life. Therefore his friends insist, Job must repent of his sin and get right with God.  But Job knows of no sin in his life or in the life of his family who have been taken from him.  His friends however, argue that His life is out of his control and his sin is that he piously thought it was his to decide its course.  Job does not accept that answer either.

The premise is that God is wise and the creator in all things.  His friends construct this syllogism:  Suffering comes from God. God is Just. Therefore Job is guilty.  Job constructs this syllogism:  Suffering comes from God. I am innocent. Therefore God is unjust.  According to Stephen Mitchell, a translator of the Book of Job, a third syllogism is not even imaginable:  Suffering comes from God. God is just. Job is innocent. (no therefore.) 

So according to this, what it’s all about is humanity humbly accepting the fate that God has bestowed. Even in the final syllogism that Mitchell suggests, God is still the author and director of life.  God is still in charge and his ways are just and good.  There is yet another syllogism that even Mitchell does not consider.   Suffering does not come from God or Satan. God, and here I will also insert the non-theist Universe, is neither just nor unjust. Job is an innocent bystander in a series of events that he had no control over.  His attempt to make sense of these seemingly unrelated events is a futile exercise. 

Yet we all try to do this, don’t we?  We all try to understand why a sequence of events have occurred, that there must be some fate, some master plan that we are unable to see in the present moment. 

Some religions have taken these random events, both on the personal intimate level and on the national and global level and try to fit them into some sort of schematic.  We want a plan to be there. We want there to be a purpose to answer what is it all about? 

So religions have created these narratives.  One such narrative suggests there is this cosmic spiritual battle occurring in the heavens between good and evil/ between God and Satan.  We are all in this conspiracy of this huge battle being waged whether we want to be in it or not.  Events like tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and even human made events like terrorist attacks, both domestic and foreign, become part of the battle plan in this cosmic war of good versus evil. God or Satan, depending on perspective, allowed or created these events to punish the sinful or tempt the chosen to fall from grace.

And just like in the movie the Matrix, at any moment, if we are not awake to the truth, our actions could become the actions of Agent Smith to fight against those who are enlightened about the matrix and seek to expose this delusion. There are those behind the scenes of the matrix who are watching and controlling what happens, trying to keep balance between those who are enlightened and those who are still asleep in their delusions.

We see it in the current dualistic political landscape, regardless of which party one subscribes to, the other side is an evil interloper out to destroy all that is good, all that is sacred and Mom and apple pie, too.  What it’s all about is to become one of the chosen, one of the elect that will reap in the rewards. Choose your political party carefully.  Even in politics, there are the elect few who will be saved and the rest is refuse for the fires.  

What if all this seriousness is not what it’s all about?  What if there is no god who is waging a cosmic battle with the forces of evil?  What if there is no magic in the universe that if we speak our intentions and let go into the unfolding process things will merrily go our way?  What if there is no hidden plan for our lives that we must strive to uncover? What then?  Does that mean there is no answer to the question: What is it all about?  Perhaps. 

But then I consider our lives.  I consider those who have lived their lives as if it had purpose, as if they had a reason to be here in this time and place.   I think of people like Phyllis Ward, whose memorial service I officiated this past week.  Here was a person whose life had purpose.  What’s it all about? 

Her life seemed to answer this question with an affirmation—to live life as fully as possible, to love others as fully as possible, and thereby make a difference to improve the lives not only for those in her immediate circle but also those far off. She enjoyed all that life offered her and she sought to live that life as brightly as she could.  

The teacher Jesus said his presence and teachings was so that others could have life and have life abundantly.  Phyllis seemed to be saying the same thing with her life as her presence and teachings made a significant difference in the lives of hundreds of her students.  She inspired others in finding their hearts path. I heard repeated over and over how she inspired her students and friends to follow their dreams and how grateful they were that they did.  

What is it all about?  To love and be loved in return. 

 In the eulogy I gave for Phyllis I quoted Ric Masten’s poem End Line with these words: 

I ask God:  “How much time do I have before I die?” “Enough to make a difference,” God replies.

Phyllis certainly made a difference in this world, she made the world a better place for those who knew her and helped shape towards the positive our collective future.  The only way she could have done this is by jumping her whole self into life. 

Jump with our whole selves into life.  Enjoy the heart and marrow of it.  All that comes our way good, bad, or indifferent is there for the tasting and it can spur the development of love and compassion in our days of living and love and compassion to and from others.

Even in the struggles we face in our lives requires nothing less than our whole selves.  Our friends on the Undocubus [no papers no fear ride to justice] made such a choice to live life with their whole selves. This is living with integrity. They are deciding that they will not just passively accept their destiny as dictated by someone else’s rules but rather engage their destiny with their whole lives–with integrity. They are declaring that their life matters and will make a positive difference to others in their living of it.

Begin slowly if you must with just a hand or a foot but at some point all must jump in with our whole selves in order to reap benefits of living a full and abundant life.

All that silliness of the Hokey Pokey may really be what it’s all about. 

Published in: on September 2, 2012 at 1:58 pm  Comments Off on What’s it All About?  
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Whose are We?

That Which Holds All by Nancy Shaffer

Because she wanted everyone to feel included
in her prayer,
she said right at the beginning
several names for the Holy:
Spirit, she said, Holy One, Mystery, God

But then thinking these weren’t enough ways of addressing
that which cannot fully be addressed, she added
particularities, saying, Spirit of Life, Spirit of Love,
Ancient Holy One, Mystery We Will Not Ever Fully Know,
Gracious God, and also Spirit of this Earth,
God of Sarah, Gaia, Thou

And then, tongue loosened, she fell to naming
superlatives as well: Most Creative One,
Greatest Source, Closest Hope –
even though superlatives for the Sacred seemed to her
probably redundant, but then she couldn’t stop:

One who Made the Stars, she said, although she knew
technically a number of those present didn’t believe
the stars had been made by anyone or thing
but just luckily happened.

One Who Is an Entire Ocean of Compassion,
she said, and no one laughed.
That Which Has Been Present Since Before the Beginning,
she said, and the room was silent.

Then, although she hadn’t imagined it this way,
others began to offer names.

Peace, said one.
One My Mother Knew, said another.
Ancestor, said a third.
Breath, said one near the back.
That Which Holds All.
A child said, Water.
Then: Womb.
Great Kindness.
Great Eagle.
Eternal Stillness.

And then, there wasn’t any need to say the things
she’d thought would be important to say,
and everyone sat hushed, until someone said


“Whose Are We?” Rev. Fred L Hammond
21 August 2011 ©

Those of us who are old enough to remember the Hippie Movement, perhaps some of us even were hippies, when asking about a friend might hear, “’He’s off to find himself, man.”  It was a time of self-exploration, of dropping out of society, to wander across the country, to participate in vision quests in the hopes of finding oneself.  It was a quest that was often met with derision from the then over 30 crowd. But the quest is as universal as any other experience.  Who am I? Where do I belong?  What am I supposed to do with my life?

In some European cultures when their youth graduate high school would take a moratorium, a year or two off, to explore life a bit before going back to school for an advanced degree.  It is not a bad idea.  How many of our high school graduates know what they want to do for the rest of their life when they enter college.  How many change majors more than once as they attempt to sort things out for themselves.  The quest to find oneself, to become aware of who one is, is an important question to ask.  But if that is all we ponder then we risk falling into a sort of self-love that borders on idolatry.  We risk the fate of Narcissus, the Greek tale of a handsome young man who fell in love with a reflection of himself but found this love to be unfulfilled and subsequently died.

Rev. Colin Bossen interprets the story of Narcissus as lifting “up the importance of being connected to something other than, something greater than, ourselves. If Narcissus had been connected to something other, something greater, than himself he would not have died. The same is true for us. If we are not connected to something greater then we risk falling into a consuming self-love and spiritually wasting away.”[i]

So the quest to discover who we are, is an important one, but if it ends there it leaves us wanting. So as we ask who are we, we need to follow up the question with whose are we?  To what or whom are we responsible?  To whom are we accountable?  Who lays claim to me / us?

Last summer the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association began a nation wide conversation on the question whose are we?  And in the fall our various minister chapters gathered and began to ask the question of each other, whose are you?  We continued to answer the question to whose are you until we had no more responses left to give.  The response our listeners were to give to each of our answers was “God be merciful.”

The response was just as challenging as the question.  In the room were myriad concepts as to what god is or isn’t. The word merciful in this context also brought on debate, what is mercy? How can the Mystery, the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of this Earth, Gaia, One my mother knew, That which holds all, and Breath, be merciful?  And what is mercy in the context of whose am I?

In my own journey there are many who have laid claim to me in some fashion and whether they still lay claim to me today or not, these relationships have shaped my perspective on the world and shape my actions.

Whose am I?  I am my family’s.  I learned early in life that my actions and the actions of each member reflect on my family as a whole.  When I was growing up to say that one came from a good family was an important statement in society.  I experienced the emotional disappointment of others when expectations were not met by me or by any one of my family.  At some point in time we all fell short of the ideal we sometimes held high of the other. Sometimes we were able to find forgiveness for each other and sometimes forgiveness came too late.  God be merciful.

Whose am I? I am the earth’s.  My grandparents on my father side were conservationists. My grandmother would take me on walks and show me all the great variety of life that grew on their property.  She would point out the subtle differences between two varieties of Hepaticas, an early spring flower.  One variety had leaves rounded and another had leaves that came to a point but the flowers looked the same.  And she would reveal to me the diversity of life even within the same species.  A fern frond has one point and another frond on the same fern ends in two. All living things express diversity. Observe life on earth and it will reveal its secrets.

But the greatest secret of all was that all things grew out of the earth in one fashion or another and all things would return.  Whether it was the pitcher plants that would die off and sink into the bog on the edge of the old ice pond or the insects that would fall into its pooled water to feed it, all things find nourishment from the earth and all things would one day return to it, including me.  Spirit of the Earth be merciful.

Whose am I?  I am my childhood friend Glenn’s.  My relationship with Glenn was a life altering one. We were best friends in junior and senior high school, both gay, but back then both too afraid to say those words aloud.  I sought refuge in Christianity and Glenn found reconciliation and came out of the closet.  We remained friends and I would visit him every so often in our adult lives. Then in 1987, Glenn told me he was HIV positive.

I sought to find a way to support him from afar—that support led to my co-founding Interfaith AIDS Ministry, serving as board president then stepping into the Executive Director position when the fledgling agency lost its third director in about the same number of years. This agency went on to serve hundreds of people living with HIV/AIDS, preserving family integrity of families affected by this disease, and empowering youth to be prevention educators to their peers.

In the process I reconciled my own sexuality and was excommunicated from my Christian community. Glenn died before I became director, before I came out of the closet, but I was able to thank him for being in my life and opening my life to new possibilities. One who is an entire ocean of Compassion be merciful.

Whose am I?  I am god’s.  My favorite hymn from childhood was I Come to the Garden Alone.  Some of you may know it from your childhood as well. I loved the chorus especially where “He tells me I am His own.”  Believing that I belonged to god was an important part of my identity as a child and as a young adult.  As a child struggling between my sexuality and the churches teaching that my mere sexuality, prior to any behavioral expression of same, meant I was an abomination; the knowledge that I was god’s brought me comfort.

My childhood faith in a loving god and my young adult faith in a god who heals the broken was one of immense hope that belonging to god would bring me the deliverance I sought.  As I came to realize that my sexuality is fine just as it is; the deliverance I found was not from my sexuality but rather from a restrictive dogmatic belief.

I began to see the eternal as something far more fluid, far more flexible in expression than I ever realized. This realization resulted in being excommunicated from a community I called home, divorced from people that I loved dearly, shaken from a faith that no longer could answer my questions and opened the doors to a freedom I was only just beginning to experience.  Closest Hope be merciful.

Whose am I?  I am justice’s.  Two of my great grandfathers, my grandfather, granduncle and grandaunt were public servants.  One great grandfather served as Mayor and County Judge.  Another great grandfather was President of the Board of Health. My grandfather served as town supervisor.  A granduncle was a lawyer who assisted in rewriting the mental health legislation for New York State. My grandaunt, also a lawyer, was a consultant in the writing of the constitution for the country of Liberia until a military coup assassinated their president.

They served their constituents well and in the process instilled in me a sense of duty to protect the welfare of other’s rights and freedoms.  The duty of justice-making led me to support the formation of a people’s first chapter for the developmentally disabled, found an agency to advocate for medical care for people living with AIDS, coordinate the formation of Faith Leaders for Peace in San Diego, March to Washington for equality for LGBT people, and most recently organize an interfaith response in the form of yesterday’s rally; Somos Tuskaloosa: Neighbors against HB 56.  The drive for justice where oppression lives, the drive to empower voice where speech has been silenced is as deep a part of me as the blood the flows through my veins.  Yes, I am justice’s.  Refuge be merciful.

Whose am I?  I am my ancestor’s history.  I grew up on the legends of a proud family history.  Many of the legends in investigating them did not equal the reality of their lives.  Yet other stories emerged. Some painful to uncover like my 12th great-grandmother Adrienne Cuvelier who is blamed for the first massacre of the Manhattan natives in 1634.  She is also the mother of the first white male child born on these shores.  Others emerged with joy like my 9th great grandmother Anne Dudley, who was the author of the first published book of American poems. At my nephews wedding, a poem by Anne Dudley was quoted unbeknownst to the bridal couple that these words brought his 10th great grandmother into the wedding ceremony.  There are grandfathers who fought in the war of 1812, the civil war, the Spanish American War, and the War to end all wars with the guns and swords from these wars echoing on our family’s walls.   There was the great-uncle who was the accountant for Thomas Edison.   And the host of ministers, too many to count who stood in pulpits and preached their truth.  There is the wonder; what of their life story still courses through my veins? Ancestor be merciful.

Whose am I?  I am the universe’s.  One who made the stars be merciful.

Whose am I? I am America’s. Great Eagle be merciful.

Whose am I?  I am my deepest desire’s.  Most Creative One be merciful.

Whose am I? I am yours.  Spirit of Love be merciful.

Whose are you? Who do you find yourself most accountable to in this life?  Who do you strive to remain in relationship with no matter what the cost?  To whom do you find yourself being shaped and guided in ways that are mysterious, ever unfolding, and perhaps enlightening?  That Which Has Been Present Since Before the Beginning be merciful.  Blessed be.

[i]“Who Do We Serve?” preached by the Rev. Colin Bossen, March 6, 2011 at Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland. As found at

What Endures?

I received an interesting comment  on my post A Unitarian Universalist Theology.  “…why should we concern ourselves on [relationships t]hat will pass , instead of what will endure?”

The question, even though I attempted to give an answer, remained with me.  Here is a portion of what I wrote:

What does endure? Everything that I see and experience dies in this universe including the stars above. Some ancient scriptures state that love endures. But where is love found? In relationships. I have never seen or experienced love that existed independently or was separate from a relationship between two or more entities. …  So if love endures as many various scriptures indicate, then focusing on relationships is a means to experience love and to have that love endure beyond us.

I have reflected more on love enduring beyond us and remembered several events in my life where this is true, at least in my life.  My father’s parents were conservationists, a term that today would probably be translated as environmentalists.  They co-founded the local chapter of the Audubon Society. The both loved being in nature;  exploring the various ferns and fauna that grew on their property.  I was fortunate to have them live across the road from me and so I was surrounded by their love of nature. They introduced me to raising Monarch Butterflies and other caterpillars.  They would teach me to be awed by the diversity of life even within the same species.  My grandparents have now been gone for over 40 years, yet when I stop to look at flowers or butterflies pirouetting in flight , or to listen to the warbler’s  song, it is my grandparents’ love that is being expressed here.  Their love surfaces to my memories and hold me in that grace.

I had a childhood friend who was my best friend through out middle school and high school.  He was gay. We continued our friendship into adulthood. And while I struggled with acceptance of my sexuality, he was able to be there for me. I  would argue with him about the sinfulness of it all and he would listen and still accept me for where I was.

Then Glenn in the late 1980’s was diagnosed HIV positive.  I wanted to do something that would let him know that I supported him, that I cared for him. An opportunity opened up for me to become involved with the founding of an Interfaith response to HIV in the Connecticut city where I lived.  This opportunity based in the desire to support my friend was to shift the direction of my life for ever.

I was on the founding board of this new entity.  Then I was president and then through some heavy duty risk taking, I stepped into the director position not knowing if sustainable funding would be established. That position grew into full time and then had a complement of eight staff.  Fifteen years later the ministry was providing family preservation supports to hundreds of people living with and affected by HIV.  We were educating our youth with a youth directed,  youth organized HIV/AIDS education program. We were doing outreach into the immigrant Brazilian population.  We were providing a full service food pantry with fresh meats, fresh vegetables, fresh dairy, fresh fruit and a nutritionist at 20 hours a week.  And we were the first in that community to be a tri-lingual agency with English, Spanish, and Brazilian dialect Portuguese spoken.

My relationship and my love for Glenn endured through this time even though Glenn did not live long enough to see or hear the full story of his inspiration on my life. He died just before I became director of that organization.

When I came out of the closet and subsequently excommunicated from the Charismatic Christian intentional community I lived in, it was my relationship with another friend that carried me through and lives on in me now.  Wayne’s wife was active in the AIDS ministry in those early years. When she retired our friendship thinned as friendships sometimes do. A few years had passed and she died.  I attended her memorial service and Wayne and I reconnected our friendship.  I was floundering spiritually.  Wayne invited me to attend his Unitarian Universalist congregation.   I did and while I did not join the congregation for a good length of time, I was beginning to sense that this was home for me.  Wayne was a good mentor for me.  He had a perspective on things that was delightfully refreshing.

When I began talking about entering seminary for the UU ministry, Wayne was the first to encourage me.  Wayne was a phenomenal knitter.  He was knitting me a sweater for those cold Chicago nights when the cancer thought in remission was discovered to have metastasized in the brain.  Wayne spoke with the knitting ministry of the church to finish the sweater even as he lay in the hospital bed approaching his final hours.  While I have not had much opportunity to wear the sweater here in Alabama, I treasure it as another example of love enduring.

In many ways these relationships continue on in my life in various ways.  It is their love that endures and sustains me.  They have shaped my vision of life and they have steered me into uncharted waters at the right time.  There are others whose lives have intersected with mine whose love endures and shapes mine.  I am sure that there are lives that I have intersected with and perhaps have shaped their lives, hopefully for the fuller, happier side of life.

This for me is part of what I would refer to as having a relationship with the holy.  That indescribable flow of energy between two or more that creates something new and different.  It could be something as simple as an awe and appreciation of the wonders of nature or the creation of a new entity that lets people know that they are loved and not alone with a frightening disease called AIDS.

And so I emend my answer. Love endures.  The physical may pass away, but the love shared endures and can still inform the present.  It is through relationships that love develops.  It is through relationships that love informs. It is through relationships that love shapes our lives into new creations. It is through relationships that our lives are directed on a path towards what exactly, I do not know.   Some say to the holy, some say to an afterlife of bliss, some say to come back and do it again.  And some say this is life is all we are given.  Whatever the destination, I have come to believe  having quality relationships with others is key to an abundant life.  And love endures.

A Unitarian Universalist Theology

One of the questions that ministers get asked is to discuss their personal theology.  Unitarian Universalists do not have a prescribed creed that we must believe in in order to be a Unitarian Universalist.  We are encouraged to ask ourselves those hard questions  and  develop a personal theology of what we believe and how this informs our daily lives.

My personal theology continues to evolve.  Today, I am much less concerned with doctrines that people hold and more concerned with the relationships that evolve around them. Therefore my theology has become more focused on the relational. What is our relationship to the holy?  What is our relationship to our past?  What is our relationship with our present?  How do the answers to these questions influence or dictate our future relational  experiences?

A person wounded by a spiritual violent religious experience who has not found some way to resolve that woundedness is going to relate to others in a much different manner than someone who has resolved that woundedness.  If they can begin to see the connection of their relationship to their past and in particular this past event to how they respond now, then perhaps they can begin to make conscious choices to act differently now.

I am less concerned with whether a person has a doctrine that states god is a father in heaven and more concerned with how this doctrine influences their relationships with each other here.  Does it enable them to be more just in their actions with others? Does it make them judgmental?  Likewise, I am less concerned with a person’s claim there is no god and more concerned with how this doctrine influences their relationships with others. Does not having a belief in god shift their relationship with one another? If so, in what direction does it shift—towards more compassion –towards more cynicism?  These questions do not have static answers.

Theology is only helpful and practical if it enables a person or a group of people to live their lives in a manner that is uplifting of universal values.   Our Unitarian Universalist faith is not concerned with whether you are a Buddhist or a Christian, a Pagan or a Muslim, an atheist or a theist. Our  faith is more concerned with how those beliefs help build sustaining relationships with each other.  If the beliefs we hold aid us in living an ever increasing compassionate and justice filled life, then those beliefs are transformative.  If these beliefs or doctrines hinder that ability, then we as individuals need to let them go. If we choose not to let them go, then the result is a breakage in the relationships.

I speak from experience in this breakage.  The Christian community I lived in during my youth could not let go of their doctrine that homosexuality was against god’s will for humanity. And therefore it resulted in a breakage in the relationship. As painful as this break was, it needed to be made in order for me to continue to grow in relationship with who I fully am, and in relationship with who I want to be—a more compassionate and justice centered person.

We live in relationship to one another and it is only in the relationships we have with one another that new desire, new opportunities, new avenues are found and developed. We heal others through our relationships with them. We do not know which experience in our life will lead to a transformation of a fuller expression of who we are at the core our being.

As I have already implied, there are theologies that would speak dogmatically another perspective than mine; however, their theology is valid based on the accumulation of their life experiences and how they have chosen to perceive those experiences. This is because I see expression of faith as an evolution and not a static entity. Where each person is in their theology is within the process of how they have made sense of their experiences to date. New experiences attract new thoughts which alter perspectives and ultimately how we perceive and relate to the world we live in. A theology that is relational reflects our Unitarian Universalist principle that each person is responsible for their own search for truth and meaning.

As a Unitarian Universalist,  it is not just other theologies that Unitarian Universalist hold but all other theologies that one must relate with in this pluralistic society. I believe the theology that I am embracing allows me to be in relationship with others who may have different theologies than mine. If we are going to strive to create a better world, then we need to find ways of being with the other that enhances the quality of our lives in community.

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.




Theology of Mary Oliver: Sermon research

I am going to be writing a sermon on the theology of Mary Oliver as she expresses it through her poetry.  If you are new to the poetry of Mary Oliver, her latest book Red Bird is from my humble perspective one of her best collections.  Mary Oliver also spoke as a Ware Lecturer at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 2006.   She has touched a chord within many Unitarian Universalists that I thought it would be interesting to examine what it is about her poetry and the imbedded theology of her work that appeals to us, Unitarian Universalists. 

I would like to know from you what is your favorite Mary Oliver Poem.  Because of copyright, only list the title in the comment section and if you know the book it was published in mention that as well.   Say a few words about what that poem means to you.  I will in my sermon give credit for all the responses I receive here. And I will post the sermon on my blog as well so y’all can see what I have come up with in looking at her body of work.   Thank you in advance, my dear readers.  Blessings, Serenity Home

Published in: on August 20, 2008 at 6:58 pm  Comments (1)  
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Is God Punishing?

I keep running into a view of God here in Mississippi that I frankly have a hard time wrapping my head around.  It is a view that I heard in Connecticut but never so intensely.  This is the notion that God is a punishing God.  The notion that God will strike you with some punishment if you are not living right or more specifically if you are not living right according to my wishes and desires. 

Back in the early 1980’s and into the 1990’s,  a belief went across America that AIDS was a punishment from God for being Gay.  Young men were being thrown out of their congregations because they had this disease.  It was a painful experience on top of having a fatal disease.  The one place one could turn to for a message of comfort turned its back on young men who were diagnosed with AIDS.   When babies began being born with HIV/AIDS, I heard the argument that God was punishing the parents for their sins by giving them a baby with this disease.  What sort of cruel god do these people believe in that an innocent child should have to suffer for the sins of its parents?  They had to state it was the parents sins because even they could not wrap their heads around the possibility that a new born was worthy of god’s punishment.  This merely affirms the ludicrousness of their punishment argument.

In my work with people living with HIV/AIDS I spent a lot of time counseling these individuals that fear is not something God instills in people of faith.  God was not punishing them.  That image of God was an Old Testament image when people had no notion of how diseases and illnesses operated, or other forces of nature for that matter. 

Yet, this notion of a punishing God is very prevalent here in Mississippi.  I meet educated people who truly believe that their illness is a punishment from God for some alleged sin.   I meet people who believe that if they are wronged by their relatives or their friends that when something bad happens to their relatives and friends that God is punishing them for that wrong.  I’m serious. 

Now people in my circles tended to laugh when we heard the late Rev. Falwell state that the actions of gays, lesbians, feminists and the ACLU resulted in God lifting a veil of protection over America and God punishing America with the events of 9/11.   And we rolled our eyes when Rev. Haggee (friend of Senator McCain’s by the way,  since America is currently big on beliefs by association) stated that Hurricane Katrina was sent by God to clean up New Orleans of its sodomites. And not to be outdone, we have Rev. Phelps stating that soldiers dying in Iraq is God’s punishment on America for not getting rid of gays.  

But there are people who actually believe this stuff in Mississippi (and throughout the Bible belt of the South).  I have met people who actually believe that God will punish America for allowing undocumented residents to live here.  Or that God will punish America for allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children.   And when something bad happens to an undocumented resident or a gay person, that is seen as proof that God is punishing. 

I simply do not understand.  What could a person possibly do that would be so heinous as to receive the grief of a miscarriage or a terminal illness as punishment?  And why would one person receive such punishment and not another?   O I have heard the argument that god is showing his infinite mercy in the hopes that that person would see the consequences of such grievous sins committed and repent before such punishment befalls them as well.  This is pure BS.  If god is impartial in his judgment then his mercy on me over someone else doing the same sin shows favoritism not impartiality. This has been seen as proof of being among the elect of god.  God loved Jacob but hated Esau; Calvin’s predestination of the elect and all of that talk.  What it shows is that god is a capricious sob that acts more like an animal than any supreme being because the righteous, by our standards anyway, are punished by the same acts of god.   Hurricane Katrina destroyed the homes of “the wicked” and “the righteous.”  The airplanes that became bombs on 9/11 killed the righteous and the wicked.   If god was angry at gays and feminists as Rev. Falwell and Rev. Robertson claimed, then couldn’t god have been a bit more specific in his aim?   Why kill the righteous when he could have just killed the offending party? 

A member of one of my congregations once reported that someone refused to stand next to him during a thunderstorm in case god decided to strike my congregant dead.  His response was ‘where was his faith? Did he think god’s aim wasn’t good?’  Joking aside the point is made.  If god is so PO’d at the wicked, then why is he impotent on dealing with the wicked that he takes the righteous too?   I know, blasphemy. 

The notion of Universalism states that all are loved and precious in god’s sight.  All of creation is blessed and good.  We live in a world where there are natural forces.  Hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards, tsunami’s, birth and death are all natural forces.  We live in an ecosytem that is interdependent for its survival.  That means that bacteria , viruses, amoebas, algae, insects, plants, fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals are dependent on each other for survival.   Remove any one of them and life on this planet is diminished or placed out of balance.  [We are beginning seeing the results of our actions towards the earth being placed out of balance.] This means that things will happen in this world.  Some things will be filled with pleasure and joy like sunshine causing rainbows after a thunderstorm.  Some things will be filled with pain and sorrow like miscarriages and HIV/AIDS.    But neither the rainbow nor the miscarriage is a result of our righteousness nor our wickedness.  They just are. 

Humankind is perhaps the only species on this earth that seeks to place meaning on events.  I think we try too hard to make sense of it all which in turn increases our pain and suffering.  My dear friend James posted a song on his blog that I think sums it all up… “Let the Mystery Be.”    Take a listen to it. Blessings. 

Published in: on April 21, 2008 at 4:16 pm  Comments (2)  
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