A Spiritual Perspective on Alzheimer’s

As Unitarian Universalists, we have a spiritual perspective we affirm. We affirm (in part):

  • the inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

We affirm, we affirm.

But how might we understand these affirmations in light of Alzheimer’s? It is “one of the most cruel of diseases,” says the Rev. Eugene Picket, Minister Emeritus of this congregation, whom I contacted just recently by email. “Helen,” he replied, “the love of my life for 63 years, is now suffering from moderate to severe dementia. […] She has lost most of her ability to recognize those around her, even me at times, and our daughters. She will look at me and ask, ‘Where is my husband?’ I will respond, ‘I have been your husband for over 60 years.’ She will say with surprise in her voice, ‘Really!’”

And as for the person with Alzheimer’s themselves? One of the patients of a New York doctor, a Dr. Alan Dienstag, once said, “I feel like a picture that’s fading; every time I look, there is less of me here. I almost don’t recognize myself.”

Imagine your three-pound brain as a forest of 100 billion neurons, all interconnected through electrical discharges and chemical neurotransmitters. But the disease of Alzheimer’s disrupts this; Alzheimer’s pollutes the neuron forest and the brain goes haywire, the interconnections are gunked up, the brain literally shrinks. That’s the inner, physiological basis of what folks experience in terms of outer behavioral and personality changes. Family and friends see the same face and form, but, as the disease progresses, from mild to moderate to severe, the person becomes increasingly different from how they’ve always been known through the years.

It’s like a real-life version of that 1950’s science fiction movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It looks like him, but it’s not him. It looks like her, but it’s not her.

And the heart breaks, because where is he? Where is she? How can they possibly not know me anymore?

For the primary caregiver, 24 hours no longer seems enough to do all that must be done. From increased memory loss and confusion in their loved one; problems recognizing family and friends; continuously repeating stories, favorite wants, or motions; difficulty doing things that have multiple steps, 
like getting dressed; lack of concern for hygiene and appearance—from these moderate symptoms, to severe symptoms like inability to recognize oneself or family; inability to communicate; lack of control over bowel and bladder; groaning, moaning, or grunting; needing help with all activities of daily living. From these all the way to the loved one’s death: the prospect is completely overwhelming. How to not feel eaten alive by the responsibilities? How to survive this?

Alzheimer’s is a terrible, terrible place.


But listen to the witness of Anne Lamott, an amazing writer, who says two things we need to hear right now. One is: “Human lives are hard, even those of health and privilege, and don’t make much sense. This is the message of the Book of Job: Any snappy explanation of suffering you come up with will be horseshit.”

And then she says: “You can’t get to [spiritual] truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in – then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.”

This morning we are embracing life as we find it in a terrible place. We are avoiding snappy explanations. We are going into the abyss and we’re going to take it in and we’re going to find the voice that is our own and we’re going to find home.

So we go back to the Unitarian Universalist affirmations I mentioned earlier:

  • the inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • the free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

But the question at this point is, How can these affirmations possibly make sense, when it seems that Alzheimer’s strips everything of worth and dignity and freedom and responsibility away? This was certainly my question when I was a seminarian in Chicago almost 20 years ago, and I was working with Alzheimer’s patients as part of my pastoral care training. Wallace Rusterholtz, Erica Weinberg, Anna Viscount, Helen Rice, Eva Clark, Jean Bowman-Anderson. Assigned to me because all had been long-time Unitarian Universalists, all lovers of high culture and books and conversations. Folks like us: way too busy reading ahead in the hymnal to get into the spirit of the song, because they didn’t want to sing anything they didn’t intellectually understand. But when I saw them, everything had changed. Alzheimer’s. Some of them took to roaming the halls, rummaging around in other’s rooms, taking other people’s clothes and putting them on and also taking clothes off, stripping down, just anywhere. Boundaries of privacy and shame dissolving, boundaries of “mine” and “yours” dissolving, along with other aspects of the rational self. Dissolving. No hope in expecting them to learn to do otherwise, because without memory, new learning is impossible. All you have is the moment. A window of now that closes as soon as it’s opened. Now, now, now, now, now. That’s what happened to these people who had been brilliant Unitarian Universalists and had once loved their conversations and their books.

My colleague the Rev. Mike Morse once said, “If the meaning of life is intrinsically linked to our ability to think, to reason, to weigh differences rationally, and thus make decisions, then it is meaning that is slipping away.” That’s what I wondered long and hard about, as a seminarian in Chicago all those years ago, and we’re wondering about it together right now. Without a capacity for memory or rationality or learning, what gives life meaning?

Does our spiritual way of Unitarian Universalism survive the acid test of Alzheimer’s?

I believe the answer is most definitely YES. But the way to that answer requires something of us. It requires us to expose the assumption that meaning comes from only our individuality and self-reliance. Perhaps we lean hard on that assumption because it is so very American to do so. Yet America also teaches us “out of many, one.” It teaches us “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Individuality is balanced by community. Meaning comes from both aspects of human reality. If, in the case of Alzheimer’s, a person loses capacities that are more on the side of self-reliance, there is still a source of meaning left, and it is larger than any individual.

Yes, Alzheimer’s can feel like oblivion. But listen to what my colleague the Rev. Roger Jones says: “[I]n the unfolding of the universe, every good time, every act of goodness or beauty, becomes an everlasting part of the universe. [None] of our contributions is lost; they all become part of the unfolding of creation. They belong forever to the divine life in which we participate. Every gift of music or poetry, every meal cooked and enjoyed, every garden we tend, every kind word, every loving touch, every moment – these gifts are everlasting parts of creation. The fruits of one’s life extend beyond its conclusion. When we try to be of help, a kind word might seem pointless if the other person forgets it in a few minutes. Yet in words of the ancient storyteller, [Aesop]: ‘No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.’ In the unfolding of the divine life in which we participate, whatever we give, however we serve, such gifts are not lost.”

The Rev. Roger Jones is reminding us about our Seventh Principle as Unitarian Universalists, which complements the First. “We affirm respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of which we are a part.” Even if the part feels lost, in the whole it is found. In the whole it is lighted up, lifted up, lightened. Our fragile human individuality need not bear the total burden of making life meaningful.

One of my personal prayers, which I pray every time I feel like I have fallen short, is this: I trust that no matter how flawed or limited my contribution, the Universe will eventually, in some way, turn it into some good. I give myself in trust to the Universe. My ego steps back from trying to be like God, and I don’t insist that I have to force meaning onto everything or be the total source of meaning. Meaning flows, meaning happens, meaning is larger than me.

A good thing to know in the face of Alzheimer’s.

But now that we have contextualized our individuality and remembered that it’s not the sole source of meaning, let’s double back and take a closer look at it. It’s true that Alzheimer’s strips away our self-reliance capacities for remembering, reasoning, learning new things, and taking responsibility for our actions. But is that equivalent to stripping away everything? Is nothing left that could also be a source of dignity and worth and meaning?

A clue comes from something that theologian Gisela Webb points out, whose academic training in comparative religion was enriched by her practical experience, over the course of 16 years, with her mother’s Alzheimer’s. “As nurses know, you do not avoid the word ‘no’ simply because it is not effective, but rather because the intuitive, feeling faculties are still intact. The ‘no’ does leave an impression…. I call Alzheimer’s the great unlearning,” she goes on to say, “because it is clearly an unraveling of mind, language, and former knowledge. But in my experience, there is a center, or centers, of apprehension and experience (such as humor, intuition, and emotion) clearly intact much longer than mind and language. The nature of Alzheimer’s decline suggests to me both the reality of the radical impermanence of life (as suggested in the many constantly shifting states and stages of the disease) and the reality of some deeper knowing/knower. Therefore, it supports the ethical mandate to honor that deep and abiding part, or ground, of the person…”

In other words, despite the “great unlearning,” still, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We do this because there is a source of worth and dignity and meaning in people that is deeper than rationality, deeper than intellect….

I saw this unfolding before me when I would sing with my Alzheimer’s patients back in Montgomery Place.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a soul like me.
I once was lost, but now was found,
Was blind, but now I see.

It was like a dry flower being watered. Slack faces and blank stares went away, and life swept into the room. People who had forgotten everything singing along with me, dredging up those old words from who knows where. The emotion in the heart that is too deep for even the acid of Alzheimer’s to burn away.

“It was striking to me,” says Gisela Webb, “how my mother never forgot to go to noon mass every day, nor how to get there, nor what to do there. Attending mass was my mother’s last independent activity before we placed her in a nursing home, and this particular capacity for remembrance formed a significant part of my reflection on the importance of faith and ritual.” As it should for our reflection as well. When we sing “Amazing Grace” or our Unitarian Universalist version of that song called “Spirit of Life”; when we light our chalice, when we enter into the Engaging Meditation and the lights go down and I ask you to close your eyes and breath in deeply and then out, when I ask you to hold a hand against your heart and say a kind word to yourself, when we, in short, engage our religion bodily, in all the ways we do that, for all ages, we create memories that Alzheimer’s can’t touch. Our religion, not in its verbal form but in its bodily feeling, survives as a source of beautiful dignity and worth and meaning….

There is good reason why, when anti-racism activist and writer Tim Wise heard that Bruce Springsteen opened his recent Brooklyn concert with a rendition of “Purple Rain,’ he said, “Aside from what an amazing tribute this is, I think it speaks to something bigger than the tribute itself. It says something about the camaraderie of art… Regardless of musical genre, regardless of age, regardless of race, regardless of any of the bullshit that keeps us divided…art is always the thing that elicits our humanity. It is the only thing, I beg to remind you, that can save us in the end as well. Science can not do it. Politics sure as hell cannot do it. Only art stands even the remotest chance.”

Yes. Art touches the deepest inward springs that remain, even after “invasion of the body snatchers” has happened, even after the forest of 100 billion neurons in the brain is all gunked up and polluted and no longer working.

Let me close with a word about art, or the kind of art that is most relevant here. Rev. Pickett touched on it in his email to me when he said, “As a full-time caregiver, I have learned to be much more patient, flexible, and compassionate. While [Helen] cannot express herself verbally she is sensitive to the tone of my voice and the expression on my face.”

In other words, the way to affirming the inherent worth and dignity of a person with Alzheimer’s is through the art of compassion. “Compassionate speech,” as Gisela Webb puts it. “Compassionate speech,” she says, “is not simply an issue of not telling lies; it is a much broader concept. It is speech that does not create violence, speech that overcomes duality. As such it is a language that bridges the distance between self and other. It is an ethical mandate to speak/choose words in a way that knows/reflects how the patient hears them. Compassionate speech in an Alzheimer’s encounter does not mean asking about or explaining to the person the thing which they have forgotten or are perceiving incorrectly. That would be like getting my mom to conform to my reality. This approach causes so much suffering not only because it does not work, but because we cannot get that person — as we knew them — back.” It’s just like Julie Weisberg said in her reading from a moment ago: be in the reality of the Alzheimer’s patient, rather than insisting that they be in yours. Do this out of compassion.

Let anxious insistence on matters of verbal correctness fall away. Let matters of the heart shine through. “Once,” Gisela Webb says, “when I was ‘ambulating’ my mom, one of the women patients made eye contact with her, brightened up, and said to her with such care, ‘Oh Elizabeth (not my mother’s name), I’m so glad to see you. I heard you had been in the hospital — and with all your troubles.’ My mother heard the gesture and intention of compassion and allowed herself to receive/accept this gesture. Both women experienced in this moment of encounter a moment of right speech, and each received the essence of the message. I do not know what else this mutual gesture could have been other than the deepest expression of the essence of compassion.”

This is how we affirm inherent worth and dignity, and not just with folks with Alzheimer’s, but with everyone. Through speech that overcomes duality, speech that bridges the distance between self and other because it is kind speech, the tone is kind, the nonverbals are gracious and kind. As intelligent people we love our words to death, we love sharp exactitude, we want our reports and resolutions to be perfect. But Alzheimer’s is the acid test. It shows us what truly matters, and endures.

Love, kindness, a song in the heart, the spirit underneath the words, HOW something is said.

To the degree our spiritual way comes from this,
does justice to this,
it’s home,
fully home for the human spirit.

Alzheimer’s proves it.


Preaching Politics

It was 1917, and America was at war. Most Unitarians were for it, including the moderator of the American Unitarian Association, former U.S. president William Howard Taft. But some were not, and this minority included John Haynes Holmes, minister of one of our most prominent churches of the time. “War,” said the Rev. Holmes, “is never justifiable under any circumstances. And this means . . . for me—and for myself only can I speak—that never will I take up arms against a foe. And if, because of cowardice or madness, I do this awful thing, may God in his anger strike me dead, ere I strike dead some brother from another land!”

This was his anti-war activism. 100% anti. And he feared it would cost him his job, in his church where the majority was politically conservative. But he preached it from the pulpit nevertheless. On the Sunday morning he did that, the response was stunned silence. Could’ve heard a pin drop. He left the pulpit, thinking he’d never be able to return. The next day President Woodrow Wilson requested from Congress a declaration of war on Germany. That very evening the board of John Haynes Holmes’ church met to respond to their minister’s anti-war stance. They took two votes. One was to unanimously condemn his position, declaring it dangerous, “wrong-headed,” even treasonous. The other, also unanimous, was that, wrong-headed or not, their minister, John Haynes Holmes, had the obligation and the right to speak his mind. He was their minister, and their minister he would remain.

This is a beautiful moment in our history, a great example of our 500+ year old tradition of the freedom of the pulpit and the freedom of the pew.

It’s also a moment of high tension, suggestive of the many risks in preaching politics.

And not just in situations of the minister preaching to congregants, but also in situations of congregant-to-congregant-and-back-again preaching. You don’t have to be a minister to have something to say, for example, about the time He Who Shall Not Be Named tweeted, “It’s freezing outside, where the [heck] is global warming??” (Which is like saying, “I ate today, where the [heck] is world hunger??”)

Whoever is doing the preaching, when politics are at issue, it’s risky. That’s what I want to talk about today. And I trust that the reasons are already clear why we would take the risk to begin with. Despite the fact that politics for many people is a less popular topic than root canals or head lice, we take the risk and plunge headfirst because politics has to do with how communities give abstract concepts like freedom and justice concrete expression, in the form of practices and laws. The French writer Charles Peguy once said, “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” And it ought to be so. We can preach “inherent worth and dignity” mysticism all day long, for example, but if we aren’t addressing things like the Georgia Legislature’s recent so-called Liberty Bill (which was really an attempt to legalize discrimination against people who are LGBTQ), well, what good are we? “Justice is what love looks like in public,” says Cornel West. If we’re going to be Love people, we have to be Justice people.

So we take the risks in preaching politics.

Therefore, let us be wise. Forces are unleashed through political speech that is activist, aspirational, and individualist. Patterns are triggered, and if we are unaware of what’s going on, we can get sucked into something ugly.


Start with political speech that is activist. In the larger world we hear pro vs. anti- ways of framing things all the time. Pro stances are activist visions of where we want to go; whereas anti- stances are activist visions of what we want to abolish, visions of oppressive things that are preventing us from getting to a better place.

We hear both kinds of visions in political speech, and we can also hear a decided preference for one over the other, as in this quote from no less a figure than Mother Theresa: “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.” Anti- feels negative and therefore unhelpful. Focus on the anti- and the fear is that what comes back to you is just more anti-. But pro- gives us a path forward, a strategy, a plan.

This is the sort of argument another 20th century saint heard all the time. I’m referring to Dr. King. He speaks to this at length in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. “I must confess,” he writes, “that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizens’ ‘Councilor’ or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”

Dr. King was decidedly anti-racist. He saw his anti-racist activism as “a positive peace which is the presence of justice,” and he argued for it against what he describes variously as “a devotion to order” and a “preference for a negative peace which is the absence of tension.” Clearly, Dr. King felt that an exclusively pro-position was vastly unhelpful and incomplete—“negative,” in fact.

But why?

Because it makes him an invisible man. Nothing of the real things he struggles with as a black person are included in the so-called pro- position which the white moderates favor. Just read the long passage that precedes his expression of frustration toward those white moderates. In that long passage, he itemizes all sorts of bad things that white people never experience but black people experience all the time. He says, “When you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over.”

Dr. King was anti-racist because he wanted his political activism to reflect his real experience in the world, the bad things that he very definitely wanted to abolish and, unless he did so, he’d stay stuck in the mud and the muck and simply not be capable of stepping forward into a better life. This is the difference between his activism and that of the white moderates, for whom an exclusive pro- vision made perfect sense because (where racism is concerned) their lives were untouched, they weren’t the ones suffocating, they weren’t the ones being crushed.

But some things have to stop in order for other things to go.

And some of us know this more intimately and completely than others.

Unless we acknowledge this diversity in the room, the very same people that good-intentioned whites want to help will feel left out or talked down to. They will be rendered invisible—and this by the very folks who are supposed to be their friends! It’s a horrible pattern to get sucked into, and it creates ugliness everywhere it happens.

When someone’s activism is anti-, it’s helpful to assume that there’s a real story behind it. Pro- is of course important, but not everyone can take the same path to it. Yes to Mother Theresa. But let’s also remember Dr. King and his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Oh, it’s risky preaching politics. Forces are unleashed, patterns are triggered.

Consider a second way of preaching politics. Here, the speech is not so much activist as aspirational. The speech is about being “a city on a hill” or “a light among nations.” Do you recognize such language? It’s what America has always said about itself. We have a special destiny to fulfill in the world. We are exceptional.

Which is why political writer E. J. Dionne says, “Fear of decline is one of the oldest American impulses.” It’s imposter syndrome fear. It’s everywhere around us, in this election season. Millions of people are wearing hats that say, “Make America Great Again.” Millions of people feel the country has fallen and they are rallying around that call to action.

Political speech that is aspirational has this shadow effect, and not just in the nation. The shadow can settle upon religious communities like ours as well, since we are deeply American in our aspirations.

I was reminded of the shadow effect several years ago at a Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. During the opening plenary, outgoing UUA President Bill Sinkford (this was a while ago!) reviewed the highlights of his administration’s achievements, and part of this included a recitation of injustice after injustice in the world, which he enjoined the Unitarian Universalist community to address. Then, during the opening worship that followed, he spoke of truth and reconciliation and formally apologized to representatives of local Indian tribes for what we did in the 19th century: our complicity (bumbling though it was) in the U. S. government’s initiative to “civilize” the indigenous tribes of Utah and elsewhere.

Now by no means do I think that such an apology was unnecessary. By no means do I think that the evils of the world should go unchecked. But something happened for me in that moment. The whole thing suddenly struck me as overly solemn, as overly earnest, as going overboard in the direction of self-critique and a sense of responsibility.

The fear, constantly, is that we are falling short and we must do more, we must do everything. It is America’s fear, and it is our fear as a deeply American faith.

So we must be overachievers, in the lead attacking every social ill. Theologically, it’s not enough to become familiar with one world religious tradition—we’ve got to know them all, in addition to every liberal art and every science. Our dreams have got to be the biggest.

And if we are going to do “diversity,” well, then, we’re going to do Noah’s Ark diversity. We’re going to gather two of every possible kind within our walls—two mosquitos, two polar bears, two jellyfish, two alligators—and when we look around and see something missing, well, we self-flagellate. How bad we are! Fact is, we are aspiring to do something only a God could do. Only a God could gather two mosquitos, two polar bears, two jellyfish, two alligators, and two of every other kind of thing in one place and make it work. This God I’m talking about is exactly the sort of God that most of us don’t even believe in. Yet, unconsciously, in all our aspirationalism, we are demanding that mere mortals like ourselves step up and perform like Him.

Now maybe this is my unpopular John Haynes Holmes message for the day. Yet every time I hear a key Unitarian Universalist voice reciting a litany of all the evils in the world, together with the message that we’ve just got to DO something, I feel the weight of what I want to call the Unitarian Universalist superego, which, ironically, can reduce our enthusiasm for bringing healing to the world rather than inspire it. Its effect can be counter-productive. Is does not help. It casts a shadow over our real desires to be a Justice people.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s what I really want to say. Just bring awareness to it. The fear of falling short manifests when we are trying to do too many things. The imposter syndrome fear manifests when folks pick our Beloved Community apart and don’t see that the good things outnumber the bad 100 to 1.

I love this faith. We ARE a “city on a hill” religion, a “light among nations” religion. And I also believe, fervently, that we can be all this and still pace ourselves and still enjoy. I go back, again and again, to the surly waitress image that my colleague the Rev. Meg Barnhouse summons up, as a reminder to pick your battles: “In my life,” she says, “I have certain things to take care of: my children, my relationships, my work, myself, and one or two causes. That’s it. Other things are not my table. I would go nuts if I tried to take care of everyone, if I tried to make everybody do the right thing. If I went through my life without ever learning to say, ‘Sorry, that’s not my table, Hon,’ I would burn out and be no good to anybody. I need to have a surly waitress inside myself that I can call on when it seems that everyone in the world is waving an empty coffee cup in my direction. My Inner Waitress looks over at them, keeping her six plates balanced and her feet moving, and says, ‘Sorry, Hon, not my table.’”

How healing, to hear this. Makes for a saner way. Political speech that is aspirational can encourage hyper self-criticism and fear of failure, and the shadow pattern can emerge here in our midst. Patterns in the larger world are patterns here.

And now, a third and last pattern to be mindful of. Political speech that is individualistic, as in “Don’t tread on me.” Now this is language from a Revolutionary War flag, and it reflects an individualistic mentality that doesn’t want to feel the burden of other people’s opinions and other people’s needs. The mentality is “I go my way, and you go yours.”

It’s why Americans typically prefer to complain anonymously to police when troubled by neighbors rather than risk face-to-face confrontation. Face-to-face confrontation implies taking a superior attitude which breaks the 11th Commandment which is Thou Shalt Not Judge. But political conversations break the 11th Commandment all the time. Someone says something political, and if we disagree, the instant response is to feel tread upon. Or we may agree but imagine our neighbor’s disagreement, and the mere imagination of that makes us feel terribly uncomfortable….

If I have ever said something politics-related in this pulpit, and you felt I was being too pointed, too in-your-face….

If this congregation has ever tried to take a collective stand about something, and you felt that doing so was way out of line with Unitarian Universalism’s emphasis on freedom of individual conscience….

If so, then you are in touch with the libertarian “don’t tread on me” instinct that is deep in America and deep in our American faith.

Which is why I can’t possible say that your feelings are wrong. Can’t do that.

But what is fair to say is that to be an American is to live within the tension of competing impulses. On the one hand is “don’t tread on me”; on the other hand is “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” On the one hand is individualism; on the other hand is community. From the very beginning of this nation and of our own faith, values of individuality and community have both been in play—and in creative tension with each other.

Bill Clinton memorably illustrated this by asking people to take a penny out of their pocket. “On one side,” he’d say, “next to Lincoln’s portrait is a single word: “Liberty. On the other side is our national motto. It says ‘E Pluribus Unum’—‘Out of Many, One.’ It does not say ‘Every man for himself.’”

That’s the coin of our American realm, and it’s the coin of this Beloved Community realm as well. It means that as a country and as a faith tradition, we have to give “don’t tread on me” its due, and we also have to understand that that’s not the whole story. A competing value is equally important. Democracy. Our Fifth Principle as Unitarian Universalists.

That is why, in America, we form political parties, we form interest groups, we compromise on little things to get to the big things, no one gets their own way. That is why, in this congregation, we discuss and debate, we strive to hear different points of view and express our own, we take stands. Democracy is how we get things done as a people. And we get what we work for. As individuals, if we hang back, stay in our “don’t tread on me” shells and refuse to be a part of the process, well, it’s just like the situation with Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland. It’s shameful. The whole system is jammed because some people don’t want to play by the rules of democratic governance.

I’m preaching politics today. We are preaching politics to each other. Doesn’t matter that root canals or head lice can be more popular topics. Justice is what Love looks like in public. We are a love and justice people. And America is in our blood. We Unitarian Universalists did not invent the language of pro- and anti- or “a city on a hill” or “don’t tread on me,” but they nevertheless affect us deeply and we must be careful.

The story of John Haynes Holmes, despite being intense, ended sweetly, and we want the same for ourselves.

Sexual Intelligence

Sex therapist and educator Marty Klein, Ph. D., says that people ask him all the time about what “normal” looks like. His reply? “I say forget the number of times people have sex per month, or how often someone masturbates, or how long it takes to climax. Those averages tell you nothing. Knowing that you don’t laugh during sex, are too embarrassed to use lubricant, or can’t tell your partner ‘No, not there, here,’ tells us much, much more.”

But what does it tell?

That the “… circle of lovers / Whose hands are joined in a dance” can often be a space of bad and hard feelings: shame, blame, intimidation, resentment, pessimism, loneliness. That for some people, says Marty Klein, “not failing is the best that sex ever gets.”

We want, he says (and he’s right), some combination of pleasure and comfort, but before, during, and after sex, our focus can be on the exact kind of things that kick pleasure and comfort out the door.

The reason why can be summed up in one word: noise. The music that moves a circle of lovers into sexual dancing—or, in less poetic and more physiological terms: the sexual signal that the brain sends down the spinal column to the pelvis where, as a result, vasocongestion leads to erection or lubrication—this music, this ecstatic music of sex positivity, is blocked, jammed, drowned out, depressed.

Noise does this to us.

Noise: the idea/feeling that sexual desire in general is something dark and dirty and secret and awful. A bias that is confirmed in so many ways by American culture, including, for example, its penchant to say no to sex but yes to violence. Back in 2011, the US Supreme Court ruled that a ban on selling violent video games was unconstitutional, but apparently unconstitutionality does not extend to banning depictions of sexual activity that is perfectly consensual and nonviolent. Show a head exploding, and that’s ok. Show a penis, erect or not, and OMG.

Or this noise: the idea/feeling that some specific kinds of sex are dark and dirty. Just ask the Georgia legislators in the House and the Senate about House Bill 757, the so-called “religious liberty” bill, which would have legalized open discrimination against LGBTQ people but which, thankfully, Governor Deal vetoed. Just ask the North Carolina legislators who framed a comparable bill called House Bill 2 but the governor there didn’t veto it and so now open discrimination in that state is the law.

Noise, noise, noise. It jams the sexual signal and stops the dance.

And more:

The noise that says, “Only some kinds of sex are good.”

One variation of this noise is that only sex with a partner counts. Masturbation is wrong, is not a valid way to generate pleasure, so especially if you are younger and you haven’t been with a partner yet, well, you better get on the sex train stat even though you might not be ready and doing it is risky. You can feel this way even though nature blows raspberries against this anti-masturbation bias. Apes and orangutans and capuchin monkeys are champion masturbators, and so are bottlenose dolphins and killer whales and elephants and walruses and squirrels and bats and iguanas and turtles and penguins and on and on. Masturbation is the norm in nature, not the exception. So why do humans create an alternate norm around this?

It’s noise, and so is this: the noise of the “normal.” Only normal sex is good. Normal-looking penises, vaginas, vulvas, all functioning in normal ways that drug companies approve, all erect or lubricated in normal fashion, and everything marching towards normal orgasms.

But normal can also mean a view of how enlightened men and empowered women look and feel and behave. In this sense, is Beyonce’s sexuality, for example, normal? Does it reflect genuine female-empowered sexual expression, or is it merely an internalization of male fantasy? (Your answer to this question says something, arguably, about which wave of feminism you belong to.)

And consider yet a third sense of normal, which assumes that people’s relationship with sex is fairly simple and straightforward. But what if you’ve been raped, or you’ve experienced some kind of sexual violence? Your partner’s sole focus is on orgasms, and he makes it sound like that’s normal, so what it means is that miles of who you are is left out of the sexual relationship. No room for your heart and your healing. The noise of the normal drowns your authenticity out…

But there’s still more noise to consider.

The noise that says, unless sex exhibits perfect genital functioning, it’s no good.

The noise that says, unless sex culminates in penetration with orgasm, it’s no good.

The noise that says, unless the sex I’m having is like the sex I had when I was in my 20s, it’s no good.

The noise that says, unless the conditions of my environment are perfect (no kids in the house; not a single chore to do; I went to the gym and flossed today, and so did my partner), the sex is no good.

The noise that says, unless my partner can read my mind—unless I can just say nothing or at least go no further than having to say “down there” or “it” or “you know”—the sex is no good.

Noise noise noise…

Ultimately, with all this noise, the experience of sex becomes one of policing, monitoring. Listen to Marty Klein on this: “Many people are watching themselves during sex more than they are experiencing sex…. We usually imagine, harshly judge, and worry about what our partner sees, smells, hears, and tastes. […] It’s like trying to enjoy dinner while wearing a brand-new expensive white suit.” Marty Klein goes on to say that we can also monitor our partners. “[T]hey take their partner’s functioning personally. Many people scrutinize their partner’s arousal and orgasm because they don’t want to be judged a failure… But,” he asks, “how can you relax when your partner is examining your sexual response—not in a joyful, attentive way, but with an eye for signs that he or she has failed?”

All the noise just makes for loneliness, where we feel that we are on the outside, looking in. Rather than experiencing in all our authenticity, we are watching and we are judging….

Yes we can learn much from knowing that way too many people don’t laugh during sex, are too embarrassed to use lubricant, or can’t tell their partner ‘No, not there, here.’…

And do you know what Unitarian Universalism has to say to all of this? Especially now, in this time of year when the plant world is in furious sexual heat and the pollen everywhere is the bold brash evidence of that?

What Unitarian Universalism has to say was confirmed at General Assembly in 2012, when Unitarian Universalists from across the world came together to choose “Reproductive Justice” as the UUA’s next Congregational/Action focus for 2012-2016. “Reproductive justice advocacy,” says official UUA literature, “is grounded in a vision where sex and bodies are not stigmatized and a diversity of truths are possible; where we can tell the truth about our lives and learn to hold each other in non-judgmental compassion.”

Unitarian Universalism says, Drown the noise out with Love. Subvert that noise, silence that noise. That noise is not true to the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. That noise is not true to what it means to live as part of the interdependent web of all existence. That noise is not true to Beloved Community, where there’s a place at the table not just for people who are young and people who are old and people who are black and people who are white and people who are brown and people who are theists and people who are atheists and people who are abled in one way and people who are abled in other ways and on and on—not just a place for people like that, but also a place for their bodies. Their bodies are as welcome as their minds. Beloved Community is embodied community. If Beloved Community can’t embrace sexuality, then it is not Beloved.

So Unitarian Universalist Beloved Community says, Enough with the noise! Give us music instead!

Or more specifically: give us “sexual intelligence.”

In his wonderful book with that as its title, Marty Klein defines it as “the set of internal resources that allows you to relax, be present, communicate, and respond to stimulation, and create physical and emotional connection with a partner. When you can do that, you’ll have enjoyable sexual experiences, regardless of what your body does.” Essentially, there are three kinds of internal resources: correct information about sex; emotional skills that enable a person to use the information effectively; and body awareness that brings it all together.

We don’t have time to explore all three resources, but we do have time to at least get a good start.

Our sexual intelligence grows, says Marty Klein, every time we let a piece of the noisiness go. Every time we turn a source of noise down.

Turn down the noise that sexual desire is something dark and dirty and secret and awful. Masturbation is just healthy and good; and as for sex with a partner, that is worthy to stand in the light if at least five conditions are met: (1) If a person is truly ready for it and it’s not just about peer pressure or showing a partner how much you care or something like that; (2) if a person is truly acting out of respect vs. using sex in manipulative, destructive, hurtful ways; (3) if a person is taking responsibility for protecting themselves and their partner against pregnancy (if that is the desire) and also against STDs; (4) if a person is fully aware of what’s happening (not drunk for example), and they can always say no; and (5) if a person is having sex with someone whose power is equal to theirs vs. there being a power differential between the two. Fulfill those five conditions and it doesn’t matter if it’s straight or gay, it doesn’t matter what the flavor of your kink is, the sex is worthy to stand in the light of day.

Turn down the noise of all that drowns out the beautiful music!

Turn down the noise of the “normal.” You know what’s truly normal in sex? “Normal,” says Marty Klein, “is worrying about being sexually normal. Normal is not talking about being worried about these things.” Turn down that noise, so the music of your authentic self can course down from your brain and through your spine and you become what Walt Whitman once called the “body electric” but in an utterly unique sexy way.

Also turn down the noise of moralists who want to tell you who you need to be to be a real man or woman or feminist. Sex-positivity affirms diversity. The blogger at Pervocracy says, “Some people are asexual. Some people are sexual but not all that into it.  Some people are monogamous, heterosexual, and not into kink.  Some people have physical or psychological issues that interfere with them having sex.  Trying to ‘free’ any of these people from their ‘repression’ is ignorant, presumptuous, and the very opposite of promoting sexual freedom.” And note how all this sexual freedom is within the moral bounds that I just defined; ethically permissible sexuality is as varied as nature is.

Turn down the noise, and allow for diversity.

Turn down the noise, and welcome your partner in all his or her fullness, including the hurts and scars. Let there be space for being honest about this, and for healing.

Turn down the noise, and imagine how your entire body could be an erogenous zone, not just your genitals.

Turn down the noise, and enjoy what’s happening without having to monitor “where it’s going.”

Turn down the noise, and accept what happens as your body ages and the sex changes accordingly: create space for that. Every age and stage of life has its unique worth and dignity.

Turn down the noise, and know that it’s ok not to pay attention to whatever would pull you out of the experience (the dishes in the sink, you didn’t floss today). For the moment, let it all go.

Turn down the noise, and acknowledge that a common sexual vocabulary is a part of good sex. Spontaneous fun happens during bike-riding or going on a picnic or having a lovely dinner, but to get to that spontaneity there’s got to be some preparation ahead of time. People have to plan. People have to talk. Take your partner’s hand and show them what you like and say, “Like this.” If something feels good, say so. If something doesn’t feel good, never ever lie. Just say, “no thanks.” Say, “Do this instead.”

Unitarian Universalism wants everyone to be free, and fully realized. Not on the outside looking in, but immersed in experience. Not lonely, but seen and known and held.

In this interdependent web of all existence, in this springtime when the pollen everywhere reminds us that the world is torrid with sexuality, Unitarian Universalism says, Love the sexuality that’s yours. Understand it, own it, take care of it.

Either just by yourself, or shared with another: let pleasure and comfort be yours.


Bigger Than Jesus




Several months ago, you might have heard the news about one of the most famous paintings in the world: Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” The news is, there’s another portrait underneath, and in this hidden portrait, a different-looking woman gazes to the side rather than right at you, and she is unsmiling.

For 500 years, people have wondered what the Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile is all about. Perhaps we finally have an answer.

She is not who we think she is.

As art historian, Andrew Graham-Dixon, says, “I think the new discoveries are like a huge stone thrown into the still waters of art history. They disturb everything that we thought we knew about the Mona Lisa … [T]here may be some reluctance on the part of the authorities at the Louvre to think about changing the title of the painting because that’s what we’re talking about. It’s ‘Goodbye, Mona Lisa.’ She is somebody else.”

Now, the French scientist who discovered the hidden portrait under the “Mona Lisa,” Pascal Cotte, uncovered it using reflective light technology. This morning, we’re going to do a similar sort of thing to Easter. We’re going to employ our own version of reflective light technology (the light of reason) to see what’s beneath.

But why should we do that? Why not just stay with what’s presented on the surface? Does this curiosity to go deeper (by using the reflective light technology of reason) merely betray Unitarian Universalist cantankerousness? Our historic heretical bent?

Well, you tell me. Let’s conjure up in our collective imagination what a painting of Easter might look like—what images would be in it that are faithful to this time of year as we know it.

Of course, the resurrection of Jesus story would be there. There would be a cave, representing where he was buried.


There would be a huge stone rolled away from the entrance. There would be several women, with lamps, entering with the purpose of retrieving the dead body. But what they find instead is a man clothed in a long white garment, telling them that Jesus has risen, and that they need to find the disciples and tell them the good news. But all this only serves to frighten the women terribly. Their eyes and mouths go round with fear, they drop their lamps, they run away as fast as they can.

And, happily, in their haste, they avoid tromping on the beautiful spring flowers and brightly colored eggs that also deserve to be a part of any Easter painting faithful to how we experience it today.


The women would completely ignore the Easter Bunny with his smart polka-dotted bow tie, holding an Easter basket full of goodies, because that simply does not compute. The women would (of course) be completely oblivious to the title of this painting we are conjuring up in our collective imagination, which is a word directly derived from the name of an ancient German spring fertility goddess who, the story goes, mates with a god to conceive a son who just happens to be born at Yule (which is suspiciously close to December 25th and the birth of you know who). This fertility goddess, named Ostara or Eostra, is often portrayed as crowned with spring flowers, holding an egg in her hand, and surrounded by rabbits frolicking at her feet.

Some of these images are just not like the others. But all belong to any portrait that is faithful to the Easter we know. A huge stone rolled away from the entrance of a cave and a bunny wearing a bow tie; a man clothed in a long white garment and a goddess whose hair is wreathed in spring flowers; a dead body that’s been resurrected and a world once withered by winter now coming alive again, in spring.

That strange juxtaposition of elements—how can anyone look at it and not want to ask some serious questions? How can anyone resist turning on the reflective light technology of reason to see below the surface?

So that’s what we’re doing. That’s what so cool about being Unitarian Universalist. You get to ask questions.

And what we find will make us say, “Easter is not what we think it is.”

Below the surface, we find layer after layer after layer, and all these layers tell us of gods and goddesses who suffer and die and journey beneath the earth, only to be reborn as a source of fertility for the earth and new hope for their human followers.

Jesus is not the only one who resurrects.

There is also the Sumerian god of vegetation, Dumuzi, from 6000 years ago, who dies to spend part of every year beneath the earth, fertilizing it. In his absence, the rivers dry up and the desert grows parched. But upon his return, the earth once again bears fruit.

There is also the Egyptian god of the underworld and of vegetation, Osiris, thousands of years old as well, who is cut into pieces by his evil brother god Set. But the goddess Isis searches for his parts the world over and, once they are found, she breathes life back into him so that the crops might grow again. The annual flooding of the Nile was equated with Isis’ tears of mourning, as well as the outpouring of Osiris’ blood—more instances of the gods’ life-giving, fertility-giving power.

This is just so interesting. Layers and layers of resurrection stories that are all about fertility and new life. The layer that comes from the Roman era, just a few hundred years before the historical Jesus lived: how around the time of the spring equinox Romans would carry a statue of their Great Goddess Cybele and remember the death and resurrection of her consort, Attis. His death was on a Friday which they called Black Friday or the Day of Blood. There followed three days of lamentation, penance, and fasting; but on the third day, Sunday, he arose from his tomb. His followers, believing that his salvation from suffering assured theirs, celebrated with dancing and festivities, welcoming the new life that spring brings.

Easter is not what we think it is.

So what is it? Really?



When we turn on the reflective light technology of reason to see below the surface of Easter, we lose some things and we gain some things.

What we lose is the kind of literalism that fundamentalism insists on. Fundamentalism wants the Jesus story to be the only story that counts. But once we see all the other stories below the surface, our focus shifts from certain names and individuals to the fact of resurrection itself.

Resurrection is bigger than Jesus. Jesus is only one way of telling that bigger story.

We lose literalism, and we also lose a distorted sense of self. Fact is, if our sense of Easter is exclusively tied up with the Christian story, then we are victims of historical amnesia and we end up imagining ourselves to be the only ones in the entirety of history who have wrestled with the reality that all that lives must die, but a life well spent nourishes the life that will follow. If we see the Jesus story as the only one that can validly tell this tale, then we cut ourselves off from the devotees of Dumuzi and Osiris and Attis and others down the ages who felt just as urgently as we do about matters of life and death and resiliency and courage and grace. It makes us feel like cosmic orphans, lonely—and the loneliness withers the spirit.

Let’s lose this, because it clears the way to all sorts of gains. Freed from captivity to parochial images, our minds are better able to appreciate the larger truth that’s trying to be known, that every resurrection story is trying to point to.

Another gain has to do with the stories and the images themselves. If we can see them together, then they play off each other and all are enriched immeasurably. Take Easter eggs. Eggs symbolize the miracle of life, they symbolize creation. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Anglo-Saxons would put eggs on the graves of their dead to ensure they would be reborn. So go back to the Christian story of the empty tomb, and the women are searching for Jesus body, but all they find is a man clothed in a long white garment, telling the women that he has risen—at that very moment, it would make all the sense in the world for him to hand those women eggs.

See the images together. Allow the larger resurrection truth to come forth.

Death is a part of life, but life never stops triumphing over death.

Listen to yet another story layer that’s below the surface of the Easter picture. Patricia Montley, in her wonderful book In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals That Celebrate the Earth, offers us this version:

In the ancient time of eternal spring, Demeter, mother goddess of grain, makes all things grow. Her daughter Kore is much beloved of her mother. One day when Kore is gathering flowers with her friends, the earth trembles and from a great gaping hole bursts the chariot of Hades, ruler of the Underworld. Kore screams with fright, but Hades thrusts her into his chariot and urges the immortal horses back to his Underworld domain. The distraught Kore shouts to her father Zeus for help, but he turns a deaf ear to her cries.

Mad with grief, Demeter tears the veil from her hair and the cloak from her shoulders, and like a wild, lonely bird, searches over land and sea for her lost daughter. When she discovers that Zeus had granted Kore to the Lord of the Underworld, the raging, grieving mother withdraws from Olympus, the home of the gods. In her absence, nothing grows on the earth, not the grain in the fields, not the fruit in the orchard, not the flowers in the meadows, not the young in the wombs of animals or humans. Snow covers the earth and famine haunts the people.

Finally Zeus sends a messenger to Demeter, bearing gifts and promises of honors to come if only she will return to Olympus. But the goddess is a rock of resistance. Nothing can move her to save the recovery of her daughter. Zeus relents.

Kore returns from the Underworld and is restored to her mother, whose joy knows no bounds. At their reunion, the flowers bloom, the grain grows, the trees bear fruit.

But Kore has eaten the seeds of the pomegranate that Hades gave her in the Underworld. She has gone from innocent to knowing. Having eaten food from the land of the dead, she is destined to return there for part of each year and fulfill her role as Persephone, Comforter of the Dead.

So every fall Kore descends deep into the earth, and in her absence, her mourning mother weeps the world into winter. But every spring, Persephone rises up again. Overcome with delight at the return of her beloved daughter, Demeter fills the world with green and growing things.

And that’s one of the many story layers right below the surface of Easter.

Demeter and Kore

Why do bad things happen to good people? The best man of all, Jesus, is crucified; and an innocent girl, Kore, is captured against her will and taken into the Underworld. The disciples of Jesus, including the women, weep at his death; and Demeter becomes mad with grief. With Jesus’ death, the disciples scatter and all hope feels lost; with Kore deep in the Underworld, Demeter’s hope is lost as well and the earth feels the sting: nothing grows, not the grain in the fields, not the fruit in the orchard, not the flowers in the meadows, not the young in the wombs of animals or humans. Jesus dies, but after three days he rises and his face shines with the light of his salvation from suffering; Kore is torn from her mother and descends into the Underworld, but there she discovers her individual destiny as Comforter of the Dead and she rises up again with a new name, Persephone. Every year at this time we remember Jesus dying but his resurrection announces that despair can never be the last word, that hope is perennial; and every year at this time, we remember Kore stolen away but Persephone rises up again and Demeter is overcome with delight, Demeter the mother fills the world with green and growing things, and it is springtime, springtime in the earth and springtime in the soul.

See the stories together, and the larger resurrection truth emerges.

And then do this: see yourself in the stories. This past week, this past year, have you felt crucified? Have you felt captured against your will and dragged down into some kind of Underworld? Have you felt hopeless like the disciples, or like Demeter whose grief withers everything because someone you love is in trouble or hurting and you can’t take that away? Or perhaps you have endured the valley of the shadow of death and come through to the other side. There is a new light in your eyes; you have a new name and a clearer understanding of your destiny. You know first hand what despair feels like, but you also know that despair has a false bottom, and you can break through to something better.

Like the nature surrounding us, your soul fills with green and growing things. Ostara, the ancient German fertility goddess, after whom Easter is named, whose hair is crowned with spring flowers, who is surrounded by rabbits frolicking at her feet, hands you something.

An egg.


Earth Teach Me


Come run the hidden pine trails of the forest
Come taste the sunsweet berries of the Earth
Come roll in all the riches all around you
And for once never wonder what they’re worth
The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends.

Pocahontas sings this, in the 1995 Disney movie named after her which grossed $346 million worldwide. Just the year before it had been yet another Disney movie, The Lion King, which grossed even more worldwide–$987 million—and in it we hear Mufasa (Simba’s Dad) say, “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance, and respect all the creatures from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.” “You must,” he says, “take your place in the Circle of Life.”

This is the earth-centered message: humanity de-centered and brought into right relationship with the rest of nature. In 1995 millions of people saw it on the big screen played out.


1995 also happened to be the year that the earth-centered sensibility of Pocahontas’ “Colors of the Wind” song received official expression in our Unitarian Universalist faith community. That was the year that General Assembly delegates from congregations everywhere voted to add a Sixth Source: “Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” Now it’s an integral part of our living faith. Hard to imagine our faith without it.

But 1995 has yet another fascinating coincidence for us to consider: it was the year that a social science researcher, Richard Wayne Lee of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, finished writing his seminal paper entitled “Strained Bedfellows: Pagans, New Agers, and ‘Starchy Humanists’ in Unitarian Universalism.” Published the following year, the paper would describe the spread of earth-centered spirituality in our congregations and also the resistance it encountered. Why some folks balked, even as General Assembly delegates were officially confirming the validity of earth-centered spirituality as a valid source for us and millions of children around the world were singing “Colors of the Wind” from the Disney movie.

1995 was a revelatory year. In today’s message, I want to explore the story in more detail. What is earth-centered spirituality, first of all? Why did some people balk at it, and still do? And where are we now—where do we go from here? Let’s ask these questions and see where they take us this morning.

Begin with the insight that earth-centered spirituality is a big family of traditions. Besides Native American spirituality, we’re talking modern witchcraft/Wicca and Neo-Paganism. We’re talking contemporary feminist theology and neo-shamanistic groups and certain ‘New Age’ movements. We’re talking the spiritual perspectives of the environmental/sustainability movement like Deep Ecology. It’s a big family. Lots of member traditions which at times can seem profoundly different. But, even so, key similarities are there to prove they all belong to the same family.

One of these key similarities is the conviction that nature is the truest Bible. Natural cycles and processes are sources of spiritual truth. In the West, a key voice here comes from philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century, who made it an epistemological first principle to go to nature to find one’s true happiness and authentic heart.

That’s why we hear Pocahontas sing,

Come run the hidden pine trails of the forest
Come taste the sunsweet berries of the Earth
Come roll in all the riches all around you
And for once never wonder what they’re worth

Come run, come taste, come roll… Do that because of the second key similarity: the experience of animism, and the explanation of that through pantheism.

There’s a scene in the movie when John Smith has a very interesting experience, and he says to Pocahontas, “Pocahontas, that tree is talking to me.”

Pocahontas: Then you should talk back.
Grandmother Willow: Don’t be frightened, young man. My bark is worse than my bite.
Pocahontas: Say something.
John Smith: What do you say to a tree?
Pocahontas: Anything you want.

Animism attributes consciousness and intent to all the forms that AIR, FIRE, WATER, and EARTH take. Henry David Thoreau, one of our Unitarian Universalist ancestors, professed animism when he once said, “I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person or a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.”

Have you ever experienced trees listening? Animism says they do. You can indeed tell Grandmother Willow anything you want.

And pantheism helps to explain why. Pantheism says that the Divine is nature and nature is the Divine. All things are animated by the same Sacredness, and Sacredness is in all things (not just human beings). Ralph Waldo Emerson, yet another Unitarian Universalist ancestor, proclaims pantheism when he says, “Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”

Which leads to the third family resemblance that helps us to identify various disparate traditions as earth-centered: polytheism: belief in many gods not just one; belief in male and female gods both and not just male. Wikipedia (which here focuses on polytheism in a Pagan context) gives us a taste of the nuances involved: “One view in the Pagan community is that these polytheistic deities are not viewed as literal entities, but as Jungian archetypes or other psychological constructs that exist in the human psyche. Others adopt the belief that the deities have both a psychological and external existence. Many Pagans believe adoption of a polytheistic world-view would be beneficial for western society – replacing the dominant monotheism they see as innately repressive. In fact, many American neopagans first came to their adopted faiths because it allowed a greater freedom, diversity, and tolerance of worship among the community. […] Most Pagans adopt an ethos of “unity in diversity” regarding their religious beliefs.”

Besides these beliefs, additional family resemblances between differing earth-centered traditions can be found in such things as the employment of magic and spells, an emphasis on ritual (like our calling the quarters ritual from a moment ago), and an enjoyment of festivals that are seasonal in nature, such as Wicca’s Wheel of the Year: Beltane, Midsummer, Lammas, Mabon, Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, and the festival right around the corner, Ostara, which happens to be a time of great fertility and is celebrated by the ritual of egg decorating. Bunnies are also popular.

Ostara. Where the word Easter happens to come from. Which is very interesting…. But that leads to a completely different sermon, which we’ll hear March 27.

For now, having laid out some of the essentials of earth-centered spirituality, let’s turn to the focus of Richard Wayne Lee’s mid-1990s paper entitled “Strained Bedfellows: Pagans, New Agers, and ‘Starchy Humanists’ in Unitarian Universalism.” A picturesque title, right? Diversity in the Unitarian Universalist bed, and it’s not feeling good.

One way he illustrates this is through articles in the World, our denominational magazine, together with letters to the editor. For example, a 1992 article about a UU witch and another titled “Celebrating the Goddess Within” provoked the following reader responses:

Once I was proud to be an Unitarian Universalist, and I could not understand why others thought us silly. But after reading the articles on [a] self-proclaimed witch, and a commentary on worshipping the goddess within, I not only understand, I agree….I am disturbed by the increase in mysticism and “new age” philosophy in our churches….There are limits to tolerance.


….I am concerned about a revival of witches and witchcraft, even in the earliest meaning of wise woman/healer…. UUs are often considered a far-out sect; let’s not give our critics a chance to level more derision our way.

Now, these are voices from awhile ago. What’s valuable to me about the “Strained Bedfellows” article is that it preserves them in a kind of literary amber. The struggle of what an evolving religious movement looks like is preserved.

Why is there the feeling that an earth-centered tradition like Wicca is silliness? Why the shame? The concern?

Perhaps it comes from a sense that the “earth-centered” focus is faddish. Flighty. One of my colleagues, Rev. Roberta Finkelstein, admits that when the proposal to add the Sixth Source initially came up, she voted against it, thinking, “You can’t add a sentence for every fad that comes along.” Our Sources statement “is a carefully crafted consensus statement,” after all; “it ought not to be messed with casually.”

In addition to this concern about faddishness comes the larger concern that earth-centered traditions are regressive. As Richard Wayne Lee himself says, “Oriented to scientific-technical rationality, UU humanists naturally reacted with particular hostility to … movements associated with pre-modernity and including occult elements (i.e. neopaganism and new age).”

Is the earth-centered focus faddish? Are its related traditions regressive and out-of-sync with what we know about human psychology the world in general?

The Richard Wayne Lee article doesn’t offer any answers here, but it does remind us that, as a religious movement, we’ve had “strained bedfellows” moments before.

“Leading transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson,” he reminds us, “resigned from the Unitarian ministry in 1832, complaining that the denomination’s excessive emphasis on reason had turned it into a ‘religion of dry bones,’ and a ‘thin porridge [of] pale negations.’” Emerson wanted to bring the Unitarians of his day into something far richer and juicier, which was his pantheism, his sense of the divine permeating the universe, revealing itself in nature and in the human soul.

And now, here we are again. “Known for decades as a ‘haven of starchy humanists,’” says Richard Wayne Lee, “UU has in recent years assimilated a set of new … movements. These include, most visibly, American Zen, new age, Native American spirituality, and neopaganism (the latter subsuming goddess spirituality and witchcraft).” Richard Wayne Lee goes on to say, “This analysis of UU’s remarkable turn toward ‘spirituality’ is based mainly on secondary data gathered by the author during and after a two-year study of a UU church in Atlanta, Georgia (1990-92).”

Which UU church do you think he’s talking about?

The vision he’s putting out there is this: dry bones and starchiness, on the one hand; and juicy spirituality on the other. The two colliding.

That was back in 1995. But where are we now, do you think, twenty-one years later? Are the two still colliding?

Now and into the future, I’d like to shift metaphors. “Dry bones” vs. “juicy spirituality” feels bad to me. One’s wrong and the other’s right. I don’t like that. I think both are valid. Something that is more cerebral, more internal, more quiet can very well be spiritual. Just as an energetic AIR, FIRE, WATER, and EARTH ritual can be spiritual—but spiritual in a different key.

Now and into the future, I say it’s far better to think in terms of vegetarians and carnivores. The spiritual hungers are equally strong, but the desired foods differ tremendously. Some people have experienced the efficacy of magick; some people have really felt called by the Goddess; some people really do speak to trees and the trees answer back.

And then there are others for whom a walk in the woods is enough, or reading the nature poetry of Mary Oliver.

People are different and in some cases wildly so. As Unitarian Universalists we have “strange bedfellows” experiences because we fling our doors wide open to them. We are curious! We want to pursue truth wherever truth comes from! And then truth comes! Something truly diverse actually unfolds—and we go HOLY MOLY! We go, WHAT THE HECK JUST HAPPENED?

1995 doesn’t feel so far away, after all.

It just takes time to process and integrate. As with individuals, so with institutions.

I will say this. There is nothing faddish about earth-centered spirituality and the need for humanity to be in right relationship with the rest of nature. There is nothing faddish about Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson or that 20th century saint Rachel Carson (about whom I spoke this past January). There is nothing faddish about ancient pre-Christian traditions that folks today are drawing from because nothing they’re finding in Christian times is feeding their souls. There is nothing faddish about the Native American sensibility that sings

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends.

Nothing faddish about that at all.

Our Sixth Source is perennial, and needed.


Talking About Money


You’ve heard it said that people don’t like to talk about money.

But what about the kind of person who ties up his or her sense of self-esteem with how much they have? These “money status” people tend to affirm statements like:

Money is what gives life meaning.
Your self-worth equals your net worth.
If something is not considered the “best,” it is not worth buying.
People are only as successful as the amount of money they earn.
Rich people have no reason to be unhappy.
If others have more, I’m less.

They affirm such ideas, and they can also behave in certain characteristic ways. Money status people tend to take bigger financial risks because they want to have stories of H_U_G_E gains to show off. Or, whether we’re talking diamond rings or donuts, this sort of person will try to bargain with the salesperson for the best possible deal—and will be so focused on how powerful this makes them feel that they’re oblivious to the fact that they’re acting like jerks.

Money status people like to talk about money.

So do “money worship” people. Now this second kind of person believes that, whatever the problem is, having more money is the solution. The sort of things they tend to affirm include:

It is hard to be poor and happy.
You can never have enough money.
Money is power.
I will never be able to afford the things I really want in life.
Money buys freedom.


Because of such convictions, money worship people can tend to be spenders. Since money is their security and love substitute, the act of purchasing becomes instant pleasure, instant gratification. To save and prioritize for the future is especially hard because that represents denial of urgent here and now hungers to feel good and worthwhile. Saving and prioritizing takes away all the fun.

So let’s talk about money, say money worship people. They want to tell you all about the things they got at the various places and how good they’re going to look wearing them or how improved their home will be or whatever. The whole experience was a rush and they want to tell you all about it.

And perhaps by now you see my point. There are different personality types around money, or different kinds of scripts that people live out. I’m not claiming that this typology system is 100% neat and tidy; in some places different types overlap; sometimes people can combine scripts that appear to contradict each other. But in general people tend to emphasize one over the others, as reflected by their most abiding attitudes and behaviors.

To money status people and money worship people, let’s add two other types which, as it turns out, DO hate to talk about money. Number three is the “money avoidance” person. Just listen to what they tend to affirm, which is in sharp contrast to the first two types:

Good people should not care about money.
It is hard to be rich and be a good person.
The less money you have, the better life is.
Being rich means you no longer fit in with old friends and family.
Money is a necessary evil.
Money doesn’t count. I’m above it all.
Someone will rescue me. God will provide.
I do not deserve money.

As for characteristic behaviors of money avoiders, one involves what might be called “the bill basket,” which is usually stored in some out-of-sight place. You get a bill, you toss it in the bill basket, and you walk away, and pretty soon the bill basket is overflowing. Which is when you get another bill basket.

Money avoiders can also act like “money monks,” which is a phrase that comes from Maggie Baker in her book Crazy About Money. The money monk takes great satisfaction in feeling superior to money and those who seek it out. The primary focus is what’s on the inside, together with disdain for externals. Money monks can also get into the habit of doing without—as in neglecting basic needs like dental care, car repairs, or insurance. Or they can find themselves just making do, in ways that are akin to purchasing a pair of shoes that are a size too small because they’re on sale and therefore affordable. Doesn’t matter that the shoes are going to kill your feet. You are making do.

Does any of this ring bells for you? Do you know money status people, either personally or in the news? What about money worshippers? Or money avoiders?

Or what about the fourth and last type of person: the “money vigilance” type? This fourth type is never going to get into the same kind of money troubles as the other three because, well, they are vigilant. What they tend to affirm is the following:

It is important to save for a rainy day.
If you cannot pay cash for something, you should not buy it.
Don’t spend money on yourself or others.
People should work hard for their money and not be given handouts.
I need to keep track of every dime, but don’t ask me to talk about it.
It is not polite to talk about money.
People only want you for your money.
I would be a nervous wreck if I did not have money saved for an emergency.

You bet these “money vigilance” folks will probably never feel crushed by debt, hounded by creditors, or advised by attorneys that their last best hope is declaring bankruptcy. They probably won’t ever experience that sort of hellishness. But these types can tend to be excessive and unreasonable in avoiding risks that could bring in a great infusion of vitality. Money worries can fill their hearts and minds until there’s room for nothing else. They can be the sort of person who drives hours to save a dollar—anything to get the best value for the money—even though they’re somehow unaware of all the resources they’ve wasted to save that measly dollar.

And that’s the four types of money people. The typology comes from a study done over the course of a decade by Brad Klontz, a research associate professor at Kansas State University who also happens to be a “financial therapist”—which is actually a fairly new thing. It’s meant to fill the vacuum between psychologists who are unsophisticated about money and financial advisors who focus on the mechanics of planning without the deeper awareness that it does not matter how clear a person might be on what they ought to do—they can still find themselves doing the opposite. People can be their own worst enemies. And so the aim of financial therapy: “to find out,” as Brad Klontz says, “what aspects of your upbringing, your money beliefs, or your relationship with money are causing you distress, sabotaging you, or keeping you stuck.”

And the distress potentials go way beyond the ways in which each of the money types can fall into extremes—as in, money status people becoming gambling addicts, or money worship people amassing crushing credit card debt, or money avoidance people accepting way less for their work than they deserve, or money vigilance people being perfect obnoxious Scrooges.

In addition to all that, consider what happens when the different types start to interact. Just imagine: the moment a money vigilance-type person discovers a money avoider’s bill basket overflowing with unpaid bills. The outrage. The waves of nausea.

It’s not pretty.

Maggie Baker in her book Crazy About Money tells the story of a financial planner asking a client couple about how much they need to meet basic expenses. “One spouse says $4,000 a month; the other spouse says $7,000 a month. When the planner asks how much they saved in the past year, the one says, ‘Not much,’ and the other says, ‘We did pretty well.’”

Now does THAT ring any bells?

Money fights: the #1 cause of divorce in the early years of marriage. “Drive by” conversations, in which one spouse shoots a dart at the other because they’re frustrated and resentful about the latest incident.

One spouse is all about money status, and the other is into money vigilance: a terrible combination. How possibly could they have gotten married without knowing this? But it’s the magical thinking mentioned in the Wall Street Journal video we saw moments ago, which goes like this: “Our love automatically means we see eye to eye in all ways including money ways.”

No one who has ever fallen in love is a stranger to that kind of thinking. And then the real world happens. Rude wake-up call.

We are back again to the idea that people don’t like to talk about money. When it creates such waves in relationships, why do it? Even money status and money worship folks could agree to this, in situations when they’re talking to people who are into money avoidance and money vigilance….

So let’s just stop talking about it already.

No more money talk.

Zip it.

[lock lips and throw away the key]

But we just can’t go there, as much as we might like to.

As says Karen McCall says in her book Financial Recovery: Developing a Healthy Relationships With Money, “absolutely everyone has a relationship with money—whether they want to or not, and whether they know it or not. The relationship may be harmonious or it may be acrimonious, distant or obsessive. It may be conscious or unconscious, supportive or abusive.” It’s all these things, she says, and even more. That’s when she goes on to quote a friend and colleague (David Krueger) who likes to say that our relationship with money is “the longest-running relationship in our life.” Now listen to that. “Even before we are born, our parents’ financial circumstances and attitudes lay the groundwork for our first experiences of the world, influencing what kind of prenatal care our mothers receive and what our resources, education, and opportunities will be as we grow. Similarly, after we die, our estate (or lack thereof) lives on. Our children will likely be influenced throughout their lives—consciously or not—by whatever we teach them, intentionally or unintentionally, about money. They may pass on those lessons to their children, giving our relationship with money a multigenerational impact.”

In other words, when you are talking about a relationship as central and influential as the one we have with money, we don’t dare zip it. Too much is at stake for ourselves and for the ones we love.

We have to talk about money.

And the good news is that we can do that in ways which are much more productive than usual if we do at least two things.

First: surround it with compassion. Whatever the money issue is which is causing distress, sabotaging you, or keeping you stuck.

You know, what’s interesting about Brad Klontz’ typology of the four money scripts is that he found the links between who held what belief and their family background, race, gender, education level, or income to be weak. The strong links were altogether different. The strong links were between beliefs and certain kinds of financially traumatic moments growing up. Say, for example, that you are seven and you find out that you’re about to lose the house you live in. Your parents are over their heads in debt. They tell you that you are going to be ok, but you still feel paralyzed by fear. Now, what kind of beliefs about money do you think you, the seven year old, will form if the rest of the story is that your family figured out a way to keep the house on its own? By contrast, what if the rest of the story was that grandma bailed you guys out? Says Brad Klontz, “If grandma swoops in and saves the day, you could walk away from that thinking that you don’t need to worry about money. Or where there was lots of talk about losing the house, that could impact you so you live your life afraid of losing everything.”

This is exactly why we want to surround money issues with compassion. Because there’s always more to them than meets the eye. Most of what’s really going on is unconscious, invisible, underneath. The problem is not lack of character, a shortage of hard work, an inability to solve problems. The problem is rooted in what happened when you were seven and scared out of your mind.

(As a side note: I wish there was time to expand on the unconscious depths of economics. It’s just fascinating, what light the discipline of behavioral economics sheds on the many irrational things people do in order to avoid loss. Neuroeconomics actually peers into our brains and shows us the irrationality.)

Point is, we just have to have compassion for this, for ourselves and for others, when, once again, we’re in a money tailspin or embroiled in yet another money argument.

We are only human.

Which naturally sets us up to do the second thing which enables more productive money conversations: go deeper. Go deeper than, for example, what your preferred money script allows. Money status folks like to brag; money worship folks love to talk about what fun they are having; money avoiders think money talk is irrelevant; and money vigilance folks think talking about money is rude and takes away energy from the real work of tracking every penny. But go deeper than this. Get underneath your money script and get to the stories that ultimately made you the way you are. Share those stories with the people you are building a household with, or the people of this Beloved Community.

Not for the first time do I wish my father was still alive, so I could ask him what it was like to be so close to completing his training as a surgeon, but then he and Mom had their second child (me) and he ran out of money, and so he asked his Dad to help, and his Dad said no. Because his Dad was a strict money vigilance kind of guy who came to Canada from the Old Country and was a completely self-made Man who simply could not comprehend the finances involved in medical school. So my father had to start work prematurely as a family practitioner and he forever felt the loss of a brighter career as a surgeon. What was that like for him? How was that related to the money patterns we ended up living out in our household, which were analogous to what a person with borderline personality disorder lives out. One moment the money is flowing, then next it’s a source of high anxiety—and I never really knew what tipped the scale. All I knew is that I felt I was always walking on eggshells. There wasn’t regularity or rationale. Sometimes they were very generous when I needed things; other times when I needed things there were explosions, and they made me feel terribly guilty. Oftentimes money flowed into wants and not needs. Oftentimes we spent money in completely irresponsible ways, like constant eating at restaurants, or Mom’s money worship pattern of buying jewelry and clothing and tchotchkes for the house but when we got home she wouldn’t even take the stuff out of their original boxes and wrappers. They would go straight to storage. And she would continue to buy new things, money worshipper she was. Meanwhile, my Dad loved to say to his kids, angrily, “Do you think money grows on trees?”

I bring all this up merely a spirit of curiosity. I’m going deeper. It’s not about judgment. It’s not about anyone being bad. It’s just about trying to understand, and to heal.

We try to remember the old hurts and tell the old stories because that’s how healing works.

What are your stories? What were your parents or parental figures like? What financially traumatic moments can you remember? What happened next? Is that why you might be a money worshipper? Or something else?

I would wish that everyone here goes deeper like this. Do this with your small groups. Do this with friends. Talk about this with loved ones.

It’s not more money that solves problems. It’s more emotional insight, more emotional intelligence. You can win the lottery, but if you are emotionally stuck, all that extra money is going to feel like a curse, I guarantee you.

Money talk CAN be productive talk. Surround the money issues with compassion, and go deeper. It leads to a healthier relationship with money, and that means greater likelihood for following all the sound advice that financial planners are bursting at the seams with.

But first our hearts have to be ready to receive. The emotional work needs to take place, first.

Step by step by step, we are on our way to a better place.





Salvation Art



“Painting is easy,” said the immortal Impressionist Edgar Degas, ”when you don’t know how. But when you do know how, it’s very difficult.”

Lucky for me that I didn’t know how. Because

a spring was breaking
out in my heart.

These are words from an Antonio Machado poem, and he says,

Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

This was what I was feeling at 22 years of age—a turning point in my life. I was about to graduate from college; I was in a serious relationship with someone I eventually married and shared life with for many years; and I was gulping philosophical and psychological wisdom like my life depended on it. Among the things I was reading was a book by Strephon Kaplan-Williams on Jungian-Senoi dream work, and so dreams were flooding my world every night, like this one: An elephant is trapped in a glass bottle, and it is MY elephant. I need to let him out. I do, and I’m amazed to discover that he’s like soap. I soap up my body with him and, all of a sudden, I feel power coursing through me. I can skate with the best of the Olympians. I can even do a quad lutz.

A spring was breaking out in my heart. Water of a new life, coming to me.

Lucky for me I did not know how to paint. Because painting is what I did, to manage the overflow, to give it form. Painting, because I was just curious about it and wanted to see what it was like; and also because other forms of visual art (like sculpture, printmaking, photography, and film) appeared to require machines and other complicated instruments and I wanted means that were simpler and more direct. Heart to brush to page.

Water Buffalo

This is perhaps the very first piece I ever did. I just went for it. Paint on the paper, following instinct and intuition. Red, white, blue, green, black: allowing whatever was meant to emerge, to emerge. In the end what seemed to come out was a water buffalo. Do you see it?

A head full of blood. Well, that’s what things felt like.

Then there was this painting:

Three Graces

I had been listening to U2’s Joshua Tree album, cranked up. Songs like “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “Running To Stand Still,” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The intense music was magnifying my heart. At that time in my life I was a smoker and so while my one hand was working in the brown tones and the green tones my other hand held the smoke and then something happened—I remember the moment clearly—I felt curious about what it would be like to get into things even more viscerally and so what I did was take used cigarette butts and move the paint around with them, apply such deep pressure that I was literally scratching the surface of the painting. Maybe it was true on one level, that “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Maybe the power and despair of the U2 album was true, on one level. But on another level, look at the image that surfaced, look at what I had inside me: turbulence, yes, but three resilient trees swaying gracefully. Over the years, in fact, I have toyed with calling it “The Three Graces.”

It never stops reassuring me. Grace inside me, a green forest inside….

There was this amazing burst of visual creativity centered around painting, when I was around 22, a turning point in my life. Secret images of my soul disclosed through swirling colors on a page, which I’d introduce by paintbrush or fingers or even cigarette butts. More paint here, less there, until it felt intuitively right to stop and an image had arrived, it had come home.

It was another form of sleep and dreams. Water of a new life, coming to me.

Since then, I have gone to painting only infrequently. Around eight years ago I took an oil painting class at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center and that’s when I learned the truth of Degas’ statement. When you know how to paint, absolutely, that’s when it’s very difficult.

And this is exactly the time to hear writer Sherwood Anderson’s advice to his son (the aspiring painter):

The object drawn doesn’t matter so much. It’s what you feel about it, what it means to you.

A masterpiece could be made of a dish of turnips.

Draw, draw hundreds of drawings.

Try to remain humble. Smartness kills everything.

The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.

This is as much true of visual arts as it is of other forms: music, theater, dance, and other performing arts; literature; and whatever else kind of art there is. And note how each form has two sides to it: the process involved in producing specific artworks, and the experience of being an audience engaging those artworks. Creation and reception. Both integrally involved in art’s salvific power.

But before I go on to explain why, exactly what do I mean, “salvation”? Am I dredging up that old theological term in all its questionable glory? Listen to lyrics from that 1969 hit “Spirit in the Sky”:

Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky
That’s where I’m gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
Prepare yourself you know it’s a must
Gotta have a friend in Jesus
So you know that when you die
He’s gonna recommend you
To the spirit in the sky

Is that how art saves? What do you think?

If you were here last week, I suggested a definition of “salvation” that, I believe, is far more relevant. It’s fundamentally about deliverance from bad or difficult situations; it’s about resilience, strength to face harm and come through with dignity intact. Salvation sustains hopefulness; salvation keeps us fluid and flowing no matter what life brings our way. And then I said, “As Unitarian Universalists, it’s our privilege to choose the words and ways that energize us to keep on showing up. For some of us, a word like God energizes and brings us into a feeling of a larger life. For others, the word takes all the oxygen out of the room, oxygen that comes right back in when they talk instead of mindfulness meditation, or of the Goddess, or of being in nature.”

Today, I add “art” to the list of what might oxygenate.

Each of us has an elephant trapped in a glass bottle, not just me. Art can release it—all that power it represents.

And with this said, let’s get back to the two sides of it: creation and reception, starting with creation.

“What art offers,” said the great novelist John Updike, “is space—a certain breathing room for the spirit.” Put away the smartness which kills everything. Let the big voice of ego which huffs and puffs and dominates everything soften and allow the little voices at the margins to finally be heard. Experiment. Play. “The artist,” said Picasso, “is a receptacle for the emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.”

Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching says it this way:

The Tao is like an empty bowl
Which in being used can never be filled up.
Fathomless, it seems to be the origin of things.

Whatever metaphor you prefer—space, receptacle, empty bowl—the creative act that’s alive and not killed through smartness puts you into sync with the origin of things. You yourself get to be an origin, “which in being used can never be filled up.”

That is an inherently spiritual feeling. At-one-ness with the Tao.

And once you assume that position of humility, that openness, what you begin to discover—through the artistic process—are the deep roots of yourself, the enduring themes of your being, the objects of your most intense struggle and care.

A great example of this is the art of Marc Chagall.

Over the Town

Born 1887, died 1985, Chagall was one of the very greatest. A pioneer of modernism and a major Jewish artist. “When Matisse dies,” Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.”

In the painting before you, entitled “Over the Town” (which is so appropriate and sweet for Valentine’s Day), just look at that crystalline color, the deep greens and blues. The lovers are high overhead, wrapped in each other’s warmth; and then, below, there is the city, built mostly of wood, filled with churches and synagogues. That city in some form or fashion appears in many of his paintings. It is the city he grew up in, Vitebsk, which later in life he moved far away from. “Why did I leave you so many years ago?” he says. “I did not live with you, but I didn’t have one single painting that didn’t breathe with your spirit and reflection.”

Time is a River

Another of his paintings is “Time is a River Without Banks.” There’s Vitebsk again, in the background. The open space of the canvas allows his identity (fused with the city of his birth) to be seen and known. And not just this, but seemingly strange symbols in deep blue, in shimmering red and gold. A flying fish, a pendulum clock, a fiddle fiddling away all by itself, lovers embracing. The painting is all about celebration and mourning. In Chagall’s village, the fiddler made music at cross-points of life (birth, marriage, death); and Chagall’s father worked tirelessly in a fish factory, so the fish commemorates him. Time is a river; time flows forward and brings with it sweetness but also pain. But the particular thing to sense here is how intensely Chagall is able to express this, through scenes of childhood repeatedly invoked, invested with intense energy. Every painting augments his being. Every painting reminds him who he is and what he cares about.

That is salvation art, on the creative side.

But what about the reception side? What salvific things happen when we engage with artworks already made?

The writer Marcel Proust has said, “In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discover what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says in the proof of its veracity.” That’s what Proust says, and note the paradox he lifts up. The novel “puts a finger on perceptions that we recognize as our own, but could not have formulated on our own” (Alain de Botton).

But why can’t we formulate the perceptions on our own?

Because we are just moving too fast through life, trying to do too much. Because we’re snubbing the world in favor of our mobile phones, or what’s called “phubbing.” Because we are caught up in habits of heart and mind that have hardened and so we’re cut off from a wealth of other possibilities and we don’t even know that. Because we’re stressed and tired. Because because because.

“Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.” (Stella Adler).

Therefore, says Proust, read. Go to the theater, go to the movies, absorb the art that adorns the walls of this building, go to the UUCA Underground Coffeehouse featuring Elise Witt on February 27th. Be reminded that you have a soul. In particular, recognize perceptions that you have not formulated on your own but they are in fact possible for you and, in the having of them, your world is expanded, your world is renewed….

As a German proverb says, “Art holds fast when all else is lost.”


This is one of the last paintings I did at 22 years of age, at that turning point in my life, and I have loved it ever since. Like all my paintings, it started with simple curiosity about what would happen if I put a blob of paint there and then spread it. What felt good to do? Go straight, or curve it? What textures? What colors? Just making a space for play, just letting that dream elephant out, just being the empty bowl of the Tao … and what came up was a scene with lilting curves, all against a backdrop of translucent blue. And in the foreground, in a way reminiscent of that other painting of mine we saw earlier, The Three Graces, here are three figures in white, and they look like they are in graceful motion, swaying, dancing—and by this I am reminded of who I am, by this my being is enlarged, by this I am saved from a life that can beat down and crush.

May art lead you, too, into the truth.