A Conversation Between Religion and Science About Global Warming


Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka
on August 16, 2009 by
Reverend Kent Saleska and Doctor Scott Saleska

Storytime: DVD of “The Great Story” of Thomas Berry. We did the first 5:45 minutes of the video, but here on Thomas Berry’s website, is a shortened version online.

Reading: “Perspective” from Amici Curiae (“Friend of the Court”) brief
Massachusetts v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (No. 05-1120)
Signed by 18 renowned climate scientists (including Scott Saleska)

As practicing scientists who study the earth’s climate system, we and many in our profession have long understood that continued human-caused emission of greenhouse gases—primarily carbon dioxide (CO2), but also methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorocarbons—would eventually warm the earth’s surface. Most were skeptical that we would see strong signs of human-induced climate change in our lifetimes. But by the beginning of this decade, we observed that global temperatures are rising, plant and animal ranges are shifting, glaciers are in retreat globally, and arctic sea ice is retreating. Sea levels are rising and the oceans are becoming more acidic. To the extent that these changes result from human alteration of the atmosphere, we know that they are just the first small increment of climate change yet to come if human societies do not curb emissions of greenhouse gases. The evidence of these changes, though attended by the uncertainty or caveats that appropriately accompany scientific knowledge, is nonetheless so compelling that it has crystallized a remarkable consensus within the scientific community: climate warming is happening, and human activities are very likely a significant causal factor. The nature of this consensus may be obscured in a public debate that sometimes equates consensus with unanimity or complete certainty.  We are profoundly troubled by the misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the current state of knowledge of climate change evident in the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s denial of the petition … to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases from [motor vehicles].

EPA … stated that [it] considered the National Academy of Sciences report, [entitled] Climate Change Science, to be the scientific authority for their decision [not to] regulate. We feel an obligation to inform this Court that [EPA] misunderstood or misrepresented the science contained in this report, to correct the public record as to what [this] and subsequent NAS reports say about climate change, and to offer our professional insight on using scientific evidence to judge whether a particular standard for regulatory action is met in the matter of climate change.


Introduction to the Sermon: Reverend Kent Saleska

For at least the last 400 years or so since the time of Rene Descartes, the father of dualism, science and religion have been split, each governing their separate realms: science presiding over the realm of the seen, and religion presiding over the realm of the unseen.  In recent decades, however, enlightened members of both the scientific and religious world have discovered and witnessed a much more integrated universe.

The Great Story, as articulated by the eco-theologian Thomas Berry, is a narrative larger than all tribal particularity, beyond parochial stories of world religions, broader than the story of our planet or our galaxy.  The Great Story, the Universe Story, is a story that encompasses and includes the entire known universe for all of known time.  The Great Story combines the knowledge of science with the wisdom of religion.  The Great Story reunites science and religion like a gracious parent reunites prodigal siblings, returning them to their rightful place alongside each other, complementing each other, informing one another, working in concert to discover both truth and meaning for biological life.

Today my brother and I join together in formal conversation between religion and science.  You will notice that we deliberately did not describe our service today as a “debate” between religion and science.  We are not here to disparage one another, or debate the merits of our respective fields, arguing which one is more profound, articulate or accurate.  Rather, the task we chose was to share with you some of the perspectives and conversations we’ve had over the years about the roles each of our fields has to play in our current lives and in the future of humanity and our planet.

My brother and I view religion and science as complimentary in many ways.  Though we dive deeply into the fields of our individual calling, we also seek, especially this morning, to discover the ways each of our fields may inform, inspire, or fulfill the other.  We know we could take this conversation in many directions.  Today, however, largely because of the focus of Scott’s life work, our broad discussion will focus on the particulars of global warming, and the potential responses of both science and religion.

Dr. Scott Saleska: A Perspective from Science

Kent and I have been talking for a long time about doing something that addresses and integrates the topics of science and religion.  So first thing is, I want to thank Kent for finally getting me up here with him to do it.

I wanted to make this discussion about a specific example, an example that we all knew something about, at least in a general way, and something that we all probably care about as human beings.  As a citizen and human and father (and an uncle!) who cares about the future of the planet, and as a practicing scientist who studies the interaction between the biosphere and the climate system, global warming seemed to be an ideal example.

This global warming example – taken from the Supreme Court case about climate change – reminds us that science is not enough.  In order to go from knowledge to action, we need “something else” that is external to science. In the example I’m going to discuss, that “something else” was provided by the law: the federal Clean Air Act, in fact.  But the law is a human creation, and once we back up to the level of humans and human society, that “something else” must come from whatever it is that provides the source of our caring about each other and the world.  It must come, in other words, from the religious.  Thus, the main lesson I take from this example (that I will come back to at the end) is that, in order to go from knowledge to action, we need both science and religion.


The first and only climate change case, Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006.   It was won by Massachusetts, 13 other states, and the environmental groups, which had brought suit against the EPA for failing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the cars we drive.  In the end, that victory – our victory – caused the EPA to begin the process of regulating the emissions of climate-change causing greenhouse gases from cars and trucks.

My small involvement in the case came when my wife, who had been chief of the environmental division of the Massachusetts AG office, suggested that I organize a group of climate scientists to bring their advice and perspective to the high Court.  In the end, a group of 18 climate scientists, including some of the world’s most renowned – submitted a “Friend of the Court” brief to the Supreme Court, offering our perspective on what the science of climate change had to say that was relevant to the case.   You never know for sure if these things have an impact, and in high-profile cases like this there can be 30 or 40 “friend of the court” briefs submitted, but our brief had the distinction of being cited from the bench (by Justice Stevens) during oral argument.  So we like to think it had some kind of impact on the outcome of the case.


The basis for the case was the Clean Air Act (CAA).  The CAA doesn’t mention the regulation of CO2 from cars explicitly, but there is a catch all section, which requires regulation whenever EPA identifies air pollutants that “cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”

The thing about this “reasonable anticipation of endangerment” standard is that there’s no wiggle room!  Once the agency reaches a point where it “reasonably anticipates” that a chemical “causes or contributes” to the endangerment of public health or welfare, the EPA administrator must regulate!

Massachusetts sued EPA because EPA refused to regulate CO2 from cars, contending among other things (talk to my wife afterwards if you want to know about all the legal arguments in the case) that the science was still too uncertain to justify regulations.

Now, in science there is always uncertainty!  We never know for sure.  Indeed, a primary quality of science is that it includes an estimate of uncertainty about anything it measures or conclusions it makes.  Being able to quantify the uncertainty of something is almost a prerequisite for it being an object of scientific study.  What we need in this case, then, is a standard for how certain is certain enough?

Our scientists’ brief to the Supreme Court made one core argument:  that the scientific evidence was in fact, more than sufficient to support actions to limit GHG emissions from cars, when compared to the standard given in the Clean Air Act (“do greenhouse gases cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”?).


Now – what does this have to say about the need to have a conversation between science and “something else” to address questions about big societal problems like global warming?

As I just said, our scientist’s brief argued that the scientific evidence was sufficient to meet an externally supplied legal standard for action.

We did not say that the science of global warming by itself required action (even though our lawyers sometimes seemed to want us to say that it did).  To them, the case would be stronger if there were a basis independent of law that required action.

This is an important distinction:

  • Science by itself does not care about global warming.
  • Science by itself does not care if the earth is transformed into “a different planet” that is largely unrecognizable to its current inhabitants.
  • Science does not care if massive parts of the biological diversity built by 300 million years of evolution – Teilhard de Chardin’s “reality ever new born” – is wiped out in the relative blink of an eye because of human activities.

Personally, I find it hard to imagine a greater source of environmental grief than the enormity of this destruction of irreplaceable biological treasure.

Scientists may care, and care deeply, about these things.  And indeed many of them (many of us!) do.  For some it is even part of the reason they do the science that they do.    But that is because they are also human beings.

Thus, to come back to where I started: in order to go from our scientific knowledge to an argument for action by the EPA, we need that “something else” that is external to science.  In the legal case, that “something else” was the law.  But in our lives and in human society, that “something else” must ultimately come from the source of our caring about each other and the world.  It must come, in other words, from the religious.

In order to go from knowledge to action, we need both science and religion.

I think the words of Albert Einstein, as quoted in this morning’s order of service, are especially apt here:  “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

This distinction, between science (the source of our knowledge about facts) and religion (the source of values), is an important one for scientists engaging in the public arena to recognize.  It is important because otherwise we end up disguising or hiding our values in the objective cloak of science.  And in a democratic society, values judgments should be made collectively, not handed down to experts.

But we scientists are not always very good at making this distinction.  That’s partly because not everyone agrees with it, and partly because not everyone is fully aware of it, not even scientists!  Following the Supreme Court argument, for example, several of us climate scientists had an exchange with NYT climate reporter Andrew Revkin.  Revkin had written, in words that I quoted approvingly, that:

Ultimately, the choices that confront us are values choices.  The question of avoiding dangerous climate change revolves around the word dangerous, and the word dangerous is fundamentally a values-laden word. It’s not a scientifically delineated term…Even though scientists know that they can’t answer the question of “dangerous,” they are still are very seduced by the idea that they can. I think what could benefit the whole discourse is for the scientists to say “we can’t define this for you.”  And scientists haven’t really done that yet.

My colleague and distinguished NASA climate scientist James Hansen (who participated in our scientists’ brief, and who is perhaps the most famous U.S. climate scientist for his bold public stand in the face of Bush administration attempts to censor his words to Congress) wrote back, calling Revkin’s perspective “horse manure”:

I am a scientist and I can tell you a lot of dangerous things that will happen if we stay on business-as-usual.   And yes, science can tell us something about when actions are needed; indeed, if we want to avoid producing a different planet, we need to start acting now, ….   What’s the problem with letting [people] know [that]?  Don’t hide behind any crap like, oh that’s a judgment that we shouldn’t be making, so we will leave it to some politicians (who may happen to be beholden to various interests).

I personally don’t think the positions of Revkin and Hansen are so very far apart.   Indeed, Hansen himself says in this piece, “If we want to avoid producing a different planet, we need to start acting now”.  Science doesn’t want:  we want.  If we want, then science can let us know that we need to start acting now.

So that means we need to decide, as a community, as a country, as a world, what it is we want – and science can’t help terribly much with that part.   I will let Kent continue this conversation by talking about how religion in general and UUism in particular can contribute to the dialogue and, we hope, by working together with science, help save the planet.


Reverend Kent Saleska: A Perspective from Liberal Religion

Every society has its cosmology – that is, a story of the universe, a story of creation, and how humans fit into that story, and what we’re supposed to do as actors and participants in that story, and what that says about us as a tribe or religion or nation.  A new cosmology, however, is emerging.  This cosmology is the Universe Story, the Great Story, articulated by the eco-theologian Thomas Berry, the mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme, and others.  It is a story that describes the varied powers of the universe, including “seamlessness” (the source of all powers, a creation story), “allurement” (the power of attraction and how the universe holds together, for instance, gravity), and “transformation” (the power to change the whole).

The task of science is to answer the questions of “how”: How did the universe originate?  How does the universe work on a quantum scale?  Religion, on the other hand, seeks to answer the questions of “why”:  Why was the universe created?  Why are we here?  Science often seems to describe a cold and unemotional universe in cold and unemotional terms.  Religion, on the other hand, seeks to narrate a story of creation, tradition and practice, and to locate human beings in the context of that narrative.  Religion also seeks to articulate a purpose in the midst of what traditional science deems a random and senseless universe.

I raise the issue of cosmology, particularly this emerging cosmology of the Great Story, because it is a revelation to identify qualities of the universe and then to identify those same qualities in the human species.  Religion in general traffics in revelation.  Yet, as opposed to the more fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity, our liberal Unitarian Universalist tradition teaches that revelation is not sealed.

We believe that God did not simply reveal all truth some 5000 or 2000 or even 1400 years ago, then cause a few humans to compile that truth in a book, and then voluntarily enter into an exile of silence for the remainder of all time.  Instead, we draw validity, in part, from both scripture and science.

Hebrew scripture states that we were created in the image of God.  God was a creator.  Therefore, we, the creation, may believe that we are also creators.  We are artists and scientists constantly discovering new insights, uncovering new information, creating new thought, new theories, new movement, new images and words that either never existed before, or which we are revealing (as humans) for the first time.  In our worship services, for example, we may quote from Christian or Hebrew or other religious scripture.  But because we recognize that truth can be found in art and science and literature and in everyday life, we also quote from poetry or novels or legal cases or use clips from movies.  Our liberal religious tradition holds, as articulated by our United Methodist co-religionists, that God (in whatever form or metaphor works for you) is still speaking.

Science and cosmology frame this slightly differently.  In the realm of the Great Story, a primary quality of the universe is “emergence.”  Emergence is the ways in which the universe transcends itself.  “Emergence” is the power of creativity.  Whether we call it “continuing revelation” or “creativity,” it is a quality that is ongoing in both humanity and the universe.  Our liberal religion revolves around this core belief about continuing revelation.  The truth of continuing revelation is the truth of creativity and imagination.

These qualities of creativity and imagination allow us as a liberal religious movement to be agile and responsive to human need.  Religion – especially Unitarian Universalism – when it is at its best, reminds us of our network of mutual relationships, and reminds us who we are and who we want to be – and how we can do it – in the context of these relationships.

Take, for example, this issue of global warming.  In all my religious studies, I don’t recall ever reading that Abraham or Jesus or Mohammed said anything about monitoring our CO2 emissions.  Yet in our liberal religious tradition, rather than being tied to ancient texts, we have the freedom and the capacity to take into account the new information that science brings to us.  We are compelled to respond based on both our religious principle that acknowledges the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, as well as two primary tenets of the Great Story cosmology, that of “synergy,” which is the power of working together, and that of “Interrelatedness,” which is the power of care, or how the universe responds to the “other.”

Our theology of continuing revelation provides a foundation for creativity.  When responding to global warming, we first invoke the power of imagining a world that does not exist, a clean world where humans and the environment exist in harmony, and then we invoke the powers of synergy to create that world.

Since Unitarian Universalism arises from the traditions of Judaism and Christianity, we may also choose to cite Hebrew Scripture in our work to reduce global warming.  In the book of Genesis, after being created, Adam and Eve were directed by God to be the caretakers of creation, not to destroy or exploit it.

Beyond all this, however, in our urge toward social justice and eco-justice, I believe a primary motivator is missing from our Unitarian Universalist movement.  Historically, we Unitarian Universalists have seen ourselves as children of protest: children of Martin Luther’s protest against the Catholic Church, of Puritan rejection of the Church of England, of Humanism’s protest against religious fundamentalism.  Taken together and told as an unbroken narrative, we place ourselves in the role of the perpetual adolescent, constantly rebelling against the establishment because we feel we have a better idea or theology or movement.  We do not teach or emphasize, however, that sometimes we are wrong and sometimes we make mistakes.  The primary motivator that is missing from our liberal religious movement is the teaching and the quality of humility.  A sense of humility removes false pride and helps us understand we are not always in control.

In an April 2007 Time magazine article, Albert Einstein was described as being more critical of debunkers of faith, those who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than he was of the faithful.  “The fanatical atheists,” he wrote in a letter, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who – in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’ – cannot hear the music of the spheres.”

If we do not allow ourselves to hear the music of the spheres, we will find ourselves on the doorstep of a devastated planet with a science that does not care whether millions of years of evolution are eliminated in the relative blink of an eye.  To preserve our planet, to save our lives, to ensure the health of our children, we must carry as part of our religious education a sense of humility, a sense of wonder with how our very breath nourishes the trees and how every leaf and blade of grass provide us with breath in return.  Our protests will not save us.  Rather, our salvation will come when we allow ourselves to be hit so hard with a sense of awe and humility that we drop to our knees.  In the posture of supplication we enter more honestly into an awareness that we are not masters of creation, but that we are expressions of creation.  As a colleague of creation then, we may learn to work together more fully to create what we so earnestly desire.

Father’s Day Reflection

Originally posted on my personal Facebook page
June 7, 2018

I just saw an ad that said “June 17th is Father’s Day – give dad the gift of peace, quiet, and a gift from…”

And I thought, “What the hell? Are you serious?”

All my life I wanted to be a dad, though for a long time I couldn’t get to the point of trusting myself enough to be able to do it, worried that I wouldn’t be a good “enough” of a dad…whatever that means. So I was 40 when my son was born, and a few days past my 43rd birthday when my daughter was born. I loved having a family, and I love not just watching my children grow, but participating in their growth: changing their diapers, feeding them mushed up food, pulling them in a bicycle trailer, helping them with homework, attending their school concerts and events, watching movies with them – new ones as well as introducing them to many of my old favorites as they become old enough to understand them; and also yelling at them sometimes either because they continue to not do something I ask for repeatedly or because I am an imperfect father and sometimes lose my patience because despite my ten years of experience working with teenagers and a lifetime of effort to tone down my reactivity I still struggle to break free from (or incorporate the wholeness of) the sometimes traumatizing shaming of my mother as she raised me because she herself couldn’t fully break free from (or incorporate the wholeness of) the brutal upbringing she got from her father. But no matter what anyone else thinks, I see a long slow progression from generation to generation, where my mother was a better parent than her father, and I am a better parent (most of the time) than my mother. 

I absolutely adore my children, and love raising them. Reading to them and with them, giving them hugs and back rubs like my dad gave me, and crying in front of them when I am moved by a story or a movie just as my father cried in front of my brother and me when he hurt or was moved; playing with my children, being silly with them, using daily experiences as learning opportunities and to fuel curiosity, and traveling with them. I fear I may never have the money now to take my kids to Europe, or elsewhere around the world, just like my parents always wanted to and never did with my brother and me either…but I can take them on road trips across the United States and go camping because it is both cheaper and more fun and adventurous to do it that way, like these photos of us on our return to Minnesota last summer after our road trip to the Grand Canyon, where we spend a few days with my brother and his daughter.

And to think that some advertisers imagine that all dads want “peace and quiet” on Father’s Day just boggles my mind. Now that I am divorced and have my kids with me only 50% of the time, I ache with the “peace and quiet” of the house when they’re not here. Who wants peace and quiet when you could have the sounds of children in your house? 

I know parenting isn’t for everyone, and I know some are forced into not being parents because of a variety of circumstances even when they want to be. But here, and now, I’m just talking about me. And I really don’t want “peace and quiet” for Father’s Day. Or any day. I want the imperfect noise of my imperfect children in my imperfect house with my imperfect parenting and my imperfect love.


Closer to Fine: the Land on the Other Side of Shame

By Joseph Erhard-Hudson

[Note from me, Kent Saleska, the author of this blog:
This is a first for me. I’ve never done this before, so I am pleased to welcome my first guest blogger, Joseph Erhard-Hudson. I am part of an online group of UU clergy (and those pursuing ordination) who have ADHD. In one post, Joseph shared his thoughts and experiences about leaving the path to ministry, and subseqently gave his permission to share them in a slightly edited form as a guest blogger. I am impressed by his honesty, his vulnerability, and the similarity of his experience to mine. I was diagnosed late in life too (at age 50), after almost a decade in ministry. But once I recieved that diagnosis, so many things became clear to me in a way that Joseph has encountered and wrestled with recently, even before entering ministry. After my own late diagnosis and recent failures, I am left to wonder what would have happened if I was diagnosed before my marriage and my ministry. In many ways, though, that is a fruitless wondering. But no matter what, I am so grateful to Joseph for allowing me and Reverend Heather Lou to reprint his words in our blogs. Thank you, Joseph.


Entering the path to ministry was a daring choice. My ADHD was undiagnosed, and my life as a whole felt like it had come to a disappointing, heartbreaking standstill. I had pretty much given up hope of achieving any career beyond the retail wage position I had devolved into or aspiring to anything that required sustained and complex preparation, planning, and education. I didn’t have name “ADHD” to put on the reasons, but learned helplessness had taken a paralyzing grip on me.

The call to ministry was relentless, however, and the encouragement and love of my home congregation made me believe I should try. I dared to push through my fears and begin. I convinced myself, and the gatekeepers, that I had grown out of whatever had caused my Bachelor’s degree to span 13 years. But entering seminary was deja vu all over again. Bewilderment, procrastination, paralysis, vicious self-judgment, shame.

If I’m so fucking smart, why do I always fail at this? (Hint: being smart compensates pretty well, right up until it spectacularly doesn’t.) It all came snowballing back, piling deeper each semester, suffocating me, bringing not only my academic efforts to ruin, but threatening my marriage and family with the same.

The growing public knowledge about adult ADHD finally reached me. Better late than never, even if later sucks. I clawed my way into an affordable assessment, and thankfully, blessedly, after 50 years of life and 40 years of bewilderment, I was diagnosed.

But learning to know and understand my ADHD was not enough, when what I needed more than anything else was healing. Even with the tools and accomodations I am learning to use, I can’t heal my soul, and rebuild my life, and work on school at the same time, when being in school is the source of so many wounds. The scars can’t even form if the stitches keep getting ripped out.

Leaving this path hurts. The failure hurts. The ways I wasn’t present, and hurt my family, hurt me to even think about.

I haven’t even begun to talk about the emotional dysregulation, the rejection-sensitive dysphoria, the grief of time lost because I didn’t know, all the other wounds beyond school and career that I am healing. I have debts that may take the rest of my life to pay, and the prize at the end is lost to me. It all hurts like hell.

But—I’m strangely okay. I’m not saying this in resignation, or anger, or defiance. I’m becoming fine. Leaning into the pain, into the shame, learning to just be with it, is leading me to a place where it doesn’t hurt so much to be hurt, and there’s no shame in carrying so much shame, or in putting it down.

In the moments when I believe in God, I wonder if that relentless call, which I thought was to ordained ministry, was really God’s call towards healing. If Process Theology is a valid framework, then perhaps God is willing to persuade us even into the path of failure, if that’s what it takes to bring us to wholeness on the other side.

It occurs to me there was another call I was answering, the false call of shame. It was the call to somehow, by achieving this impossible goal, I could finally prove I was the person I thought I should have been, the person who was me without the ADHD, the version of me that was successful at the things people expected of me, and actually worthy of anyone’s love. But if that person existed, they wouldn’t be me.

For me, at least, the greatest challenge of Universalism has been the part that is directed toward myself. With my beliefs and actions I can affirm to everyone that they are worthy—everyone except myself. When we know ourselves truly and well, and hold ourselves precious for precisely who we are, and set aside all notions of success and failure, and see the path that is truly ours before us and can move along it, that is when wholeness begins.

I still feel a call to ministry, but it has less and less of the false call of shame, or the trickster’s call to ordination. There’s a lot of ministry in our world, even paid ministry, that doesn’t need to go through seminary and the credentialing ringer to get to. Maybe if I had been diagnosed a decade or two ago, I could follow that path. But I am here, now, and that’s okay.

This is my path. This. This. This. Mine. Mine. Mine. Here, where I am now, who I am now, this is my new path, through the land on the other side of shame. I don’t have to be the person that could be on a different path. I don’t even have to know the end of the path to follow the call. We ADHDers can be especially good at taking things as they come. I think we can turn that into listening to the call well, even as it evolves and grows with us. Maybe that can be a gift we can teach to others.

“The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine…”

This. Path. Is. Mine. And it is precious to me. Blessed be my path, and blessed be me. And blessed be you, and blessed be your paths as well. I see your challenges, and your pain, and the shame you may be carrying from our ADHD, and I love you all. May you find peace on the path that is truly yours.

I am grateful that my path has been alongside so many beautiful people in UU Ministry, even if it’s clear now my path departs from theirs in this way.

Jacob Marley: Letter to a Fettered Spectre

The sermon below is a “letter” I wrote to Jacob Marley, the fictional character from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” In it I explore the question, “Who determined that Scrooge’s life was worth saving while yours was not?” I gave this sermon just before Christmas 2007 during my first year of full-time settled ministry.  Each year in December after that I wrote a letter to a different Christmas character, but this was the first. After seeing the Guthrie’s production of “A Christmas Carol” again this year, I went back and read this sermon again.  Given our world today, and my own life, this sermon still feels relevant. I hope it is meaningful for you too.         -KS 12/9/18


Jacob Marley: Letter to a Fettered Spectre
Kent Hemmen Saleska, Minister
Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka
Sunday, December 23, 2007

“Marley’s Ghost”
Reading from A Christmas Carol
By Charles Dickens

[The apparition] came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before [Scrooge’s] eyes.  Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, “I know him; Marley’s Ghost!” and fell again.

The same face…Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots…The chain he drew was clasped about his middle.  It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel…the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.

“How now!” said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”

“Much!” — Marley’s voice, no doubt about it…

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling.  “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.  Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembled more and more.

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?  It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago.  You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”

Scrooge glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable: but he could see nothing…

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  “Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said “I suffer most…I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate, Ebenezer…”  [And then Marley told Scrooge about the three spirits that would visit him that night.]

When it had said these words…the apparition walked backward from him [toward the window.]

[Scrooge] became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory.  The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.  Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity.  He looked out.

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went.  Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few…were linked together; none were free.  Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives…The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.

Jacob Marley: Letter to a Fettered Spectre
Kent Hemmen Saleska, Minister

To the Honorable Jacob Marley, Esquire,

Greetings to you from the 21st Century!  I am fairly sure you do not know me, so allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Kent Hemmen Saleska, and I am the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka, in Wayzata, Minnesota.  Perhaps you’ve heard of us?

You may be somewhat familiar with the Unitarian faith since Charles Dickens, a writer you may know from the 19th Century, was himself a Unitarian.  During your restless wandering around the world these past 150 years you may have caught wind of the merger in 1961 wherein the Unitarians merged with the Universalists to become the Unitarian Universalist Association.  The Unitarians acquired their name from the belief in only one God – not a Trinitarian god-head.  And the Universalists acquired their name from the belief in Universal salvation, that is, they believed that God was good, and as a good God, would never condemn anyone to an eternity in hell.  In fact, some went so far as to believe that hell did not exist – or rather, that both heaven and hell could be found in the living of our own lives, right here on earth.

But I digress!

I am writing to you now because lately you have been on my mind.  It is the Christmas season here where I live.  Your story is often told and read in many ways each year at this time.  In fact, here in the church where I serve as the minister, members of our congregation produced and performed the story once again last Sunday to great acclaim and appreciation!

I am also writing to you now in the tradition of many other ministers I’ve known who wrote public letters at Christmas time to great members of great holiday stories.  I am a newly settled minister, and I am at the beginning of my work in this calling, so I ask your forgiveness if I am too bold in my approach to you, or if I do not understand something you may hold dear.  But I do hope you appreciate my sincere desire to contact you and share some of my thoughts and feelings about you and this season.

I have known about you for many years now, ever since I was a child and saw various interpretations of your great story, from the Mr. Magoo cartoon version, to the version the Muppets made, to wonderful live theatrical productions at the Repertory Theater in Milwaukee where I grew up.  In each re-telling of your story, whether as a cartoon or as a live actor, you are always presented as quite a fearsome creature.  But as scary as you are, and as good as I inevitably feel after seeing or hearing your “Christmas Carol” story, I always come away feeling a little sad when I think about you.

In the story, even though Scrooge is described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner,” he is the one who gets all the glory in the end.  Even though you and Scrooge both lived your lives fueled by greed, it is Scrooge – not you – who first gets the chance to change, and then does change.  I always feel good at the end of the story because Scrooge’s hard heart, like mine can be sometimes, turns away from his grasping and covetous old ways and towards a spirit of joy, and an attitude of grace and compassion.  Yet I always have this nagging feeling when the story is done that you got the short stick.

You, Marley, appear in the story as a fearsome phantom, yet your message is one of grace.  Why is it that you must play the part of the messenger of Scrooge’s salvation, yet you were never given the same chance?  Why is it no one ever came as a fearsome ghost to visit you before you died?  What forces of the universe declared that Scrooge would have the opportunity to change his heart, while you are merely a messenger, an afterthought, a foot note to someone else’s great story?  Who determined that Scrooge’s life was worth saving while yours was not?

I like to imagine that after 150 years of endlessly wandering the earth you at last found some peace.  I like to imagine that after all this time since you first sprang forth from the imagination of your creator, that you too finally have your own shot at redemption.  And yet, year after year you appear once again to tell your tale of woe and despair.

I wonder if, being a Unitarian and not a Universalist, Charles Dickens never heard of, or did not believe in the doctrine of universal salvation?  It is hard to believe that someone who wrote such a beautiful story as this one about Scrooge would, in the process, condemn another to an eternal hellish afterlife wandering the world, forever carrying the weight of every misdeed and bad decision.  It’s not fair.  It’s not fair, and it seems to me that it’s time some grace came your way.

In life, if you were anything like Scrooge, I can imagine that you were not a kind person.  If, as the story suggests, you were as mean and miserly as Scrooge, then I can understand why you had no friends, and I can understand why you died all alone – except for Scrooge himself who only had to attend to your death for as long as it took to pay your bills.  And yet, in the grand scheme of the evolution and progression of the universe, it seems to me that the price you continue to pay for your earthly transgressions is far too high.

In the spirit of didactic entertainment, I appreciate your role, and even the humor in the “Christmas Carol” story.  But on a deeper theological level I am disturbed and saddened more than I can express by your horrible fate.  But one thing I’ve learned about ministry so far is that the reality of a person’s feelings about their situation may be far different from what I first expect or assume them to be.  So in the middle of writing this letter to you, I went back to the story and read again the parts about you to see if I could find additional clues about your fate.  In your last moments with Scrooge, this is what the story says about you and your kindred miserable spirits:

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went.  Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few…were linked together; none were free.  Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives…The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.

This is as beautiful and as terrible a description of hell as I have ever read.  To learn an abiding soul lesson about life only after you are dead, and then be able to do nothing about it is about as painful an existence as I can imagine.  Yet when I read this passage again, I found something I missed when I read it the first time.  That last line says that all of you phantoms had forever lost the power to interfere for the good in human matters.  But that is a lie.  Or at least that passage is not telling the entire truth.  Or at the very least it is not accurate.  It may be that some of you, like some of us humans, feel unable to interfere for good in human matters.  But you – you are different.

You had a relationship with Scrooge.  You were his business partner.  You knew him as well as it was possible to know him.  Yet, you were more than a friend.  You are more than just a foot-note to someone else’s story.  You still don’t get much credit, but you are a messenger.  I don’t know why it took you seven years to come back and visit Scrooge – maybe he needed to work his way that much more deeply into his miserly pain before he was be able to hear your message – but what you brought to Scrooge that Christmas Eve night long ago was a message of hope.  “I am here tonight,” you said, “to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate, Ebenezer.”

This message you bring to Scrooge, by the fact that you even appeared to Scrooge in the first place, is proof that you can – and proof that you did – interfere for good in human affairs!  And as I ponder this even more, I realize that not only did you interfere for the good in Scrooge’s life long ago, but that you also continue to interfere for the good in our human lives each year when the “Christmas Carol” story re-told.

And so I wonder about the parts of your existence we are not told about in the story.  I wonder if you had to appear to Scrooge the way you did because it was the only way you could get his attention?  Maybe heavy, rattling chains were the only way he would pay attention to you?

And I wonder something else.  In the story you say that as a ghost, you wear the chain you forged in life.  “I made it link by link,” you said.  “I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

I understand that the chain you wear in death is one that you made unwittingly in life, and that each link represents each time during your life when you were mean or greedy or unforgiving or cruel.  But it sounds like when you became a ghost after you died, you realized how mean and greedy and unforgiving you were while you were alive.  And so I can’t help but wonder – since you created the chain of your own free will while you were alive – if you now wear the chain of your own free will in death.  I wonder if the weight you carry is forced upon you by some other entity, or if you now carry it as you carry the weight of your conscience, and now you somehow wish to atone for all your cruelty?

Please forgive me if I am prying too much into your personal affairs.  But the more I think about these things, the more questions come to my mind.  You do not need to answer these questions, but frankly, I feel compelled to ask them!

The more I think about it, the more I begin to suspect that the work you do as a ghost is more meaningful for you now than any work ever was to you in your former life.  You wander the earth to visit the deluded and the powerful, those who are trapped and sheltered within the chains and prisons of their own fear.  Your work, your calling as a ghost, is to bring a message of hope, a message about how possible it is, at any moment of our lives, to turn around and take another path.

And that, I realize, is exactly the message of Universalism.  The eternal option, at any moment, to be aware of and honor grace, forgiveness and love, is the message of a loving God.  It is the message of Jesus, Buddha, Allah, and the message of our own experience from the web of relationships in which we exist as children of this Universe.  I only wish we could all be so fortunate as Scrooge to have a visit from a phantom messenger such as you.

So, Jacob Marley, if you are still wandering the earth, a spectre fettered with the weight of all your sins and misdeeds, taking on many shapes and personages, bringing a message of love and hope and grace, I wonder if I may ask of you a favor.  You are a frightening apparition, but you are also one of the strangest angels I could ever imagine.

So I ask – if I may be so bold and if you do not find it too impertinent – I ask if you could make midnight visits, sometime in this next year, to the leaders of our nation, and to the people who want to be leaders of our nation.  I ask that you hold before them the visions of Christmases yet to come the myriad potential consequences of their actions.  I ask that you help remind them, as you helped remind Scrooge, of their generous and compassionate natures.

I ask that you visit those who make war to remind them how it is possible to make peace.

I ask that you visit those who are angry to remind them how to soften.

I ask that you visit those who feel shame, to remind them about the greater power of forgiveness, even for themselves.

I ask that you visit those who are struggling with addictions so that they may be reminded that each day brings with it a new possibility.

I ask that you visit those who have experienced loss and death, so that they may be reminded about how new life grows from the compost of old life.

I ask that you visit those like Scrooge who have much, to remind them how to share what they have with those who have little.

I ask that you visit those who are certain, so they may be reminded of compassion and reverence.

I ask that you visit those who hate, so they may be reminded of love.

I ask that you visit each one of us – not once, but many times – in the dark nights when we are alone, to remind us of our human fallibility;

to remind us that our existence is the result of a chain of happy mistakes and so now we learn by making mistakes;

to remind us that the weight and the chains of our own past do not need to trap us into a single future, but that at each moment we are invited to wake to a new morning in which we may cry out, as did Scrooge at the end of his long night,

“Spirit, hear me!  I am not the man I was.  I will not be the man I must have been…I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future.  The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me!  I shall not forget the lessons they teach…Oh Jacob Marley!  Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this.  I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!”

State of the UUA 2017: The Road through Humansville

Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minntonka
July 2, 2017

First Reading: From “Willing to be Made a People
By Victoria Weinstein

Second “Reading” – Video Clip: President’s and Staff Report (from 30:48 to 34:51)
Unitarian Universalist Interim co-presidents: Dr. Leon Spencer, Rev. Bill Sinkford, Rev. Sofia Betancourt

Third “Reading” – Video Clip: Black Lives of UU report (from 14:33 to 18:50)
Passing the baton from Mel Hoover and Paula Cole Jones to Lena Gardner and BLUU

State of the UUA 2017: The Road through Humansville
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
July 2, 2017

Friends, it is good to see you again. After a month away on Study Leave and attending General Assembly, our denomination’s annual business meeting, this year in New Orleans, it is good to be back here, it is good to see you all again, it is good to share with each other stories of our time apart, and it is good to be home.

Though I must say, with all the recent transition in our lives on so many levels, the notion of “home” seems to keep evolving. As many of you know, I am wresting with and moving through a divorce that has shaken me deeply, and challenges my notion of family and of home. And of course, as a congregation, we are now a month in to living in and worshipping in the beautiful new space. This transition has been a great joy and relief, but it has also involved some hard conversations and interactions, which are inevitable in a transition like this. And this new building is also a space that will likely takes us many months, if not years, to actually and deeply call this place our spiritual “home.” And on the denominational, hoo-boy, there has been a lot going on, which I’ll get into in a few moments…and then there’s all the incredibly disrespectful, mean and even downright brutal things going on in our nation and our world.

The stereotypical notion of home conjures up images of safety, refuge, security, and of close family who love us no matter what. But the reality is that the notion of “home” brings up painful, or even traumatic feelings or memories in some people. And when we talk about a church community, our congregation or any Unitarian Universalist congregation, a group of people who voluntarily join together in covenant to share values, faith, and action, we are far too varied to hold here the stereotypical notions of home.

The truth is that being in relationship, being a people of covenant, is that we can’t always be in a safe space. Especially if we have any value of growth at all, we don’t grow and transform seated in a comfortable easy chair. Too often we talk about needing to create a “safe space” so that people will feel accepted or feel heard, but too often when we say “safe space,” what we really mean is something like “I want to say what I want to say without getting challenged on what I’m saying.” So I’ve appreciated the new phrase I’ve heard in Unitarian Universalist gatherings over the past few months, that rather than create or enter into “safe space,” that we enter together into “brave space.” Because “brave space” is what allows us to both share our truths as well as hold each other accountable through our covenant to our deepest communal values and highest communal aspirations. So let us enter now into some “brave space.”

This sermon, on the first Sunday in July, is Sunday when I return from General Assembly, our annual denominational conference and business meeting, and report on what I experienced and learned, in an attempt to bring all that home to you. It is always an impossible task, because there is always more learning from a week of experiences that can fit into a 20-minute sermon or a one-hour service. But I do my best to condense that experience to give you at least a bit of a sense of what is going on in the larger UU world.

If you don’t know, or have not been following denominational concerns, this year there has been a flurry of heartbreaking events. And I want to give you a warning here that some of these may be a trigger for some people, and I want to let you know I will be available after the service if you want or need to talk more about any of these. At the Unitarian Universalist Ministry Days during the three days prior to General Assembly, we addressed seven major issues or responses in both worship and in conversation:

  • First there was the redaction of the Barry Street Lecture given by a female minister last year, after she called out clergy sexual misconduct from some older male ministers, and one of the named ministers threatened legal action;
  • Next there was the arrest of the Reverend Ron Robinson on child pornography charges. Ron was a well-respected minister doing powerful ministry in Oklahoma for some of the most disenfranchised people there;
  • Later this spring we unmasked white supremacy in our Unitarian Universalist Association when a white male was chosen for a top level UUA position by other white males over a well-qualified Hispanic woman;
  • Subsequently, and in an unprecedented move, this resulted in the president of our Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales, resigning from his post only three months before the end of his term; following him two more top-level white men resigned, who it was later discovered had been given some $500 thousand severance packages, which was over four times the allowed amount for firings – yet these men had left voluntarily;
  • Fifth, in response, the Black Lives of UUs (BLUU – also known as “blue”) called for a denomination-wide White Supremacy teach-in;
  • Sixth, Don Southworth, a white male and the Executive Director of the UU Minister’s Association, sent out an open letter on Easter Sunday calling out behaviors by the UUA board he did not agree with, and hurt a lot of people of color, and white allies, in the process;
  • Finally, there was the response to Don’s letter by the board of the UU Minister’s Association, and their range of responses within their letter.

So, as you may imagine, there was a lot of tension and anxiety among both  ministers and congregants as some 4,000 of us descended upon New Orleans.

For my part, one way I decided to address the tension and anxiety in both my personal and professional life, was to ride my motorcycle from here down to New Orleans and back.



It was a journey that took me 2,830 miles through seven states…

…retracing parts of a bicycle trip I took in 1984, and included a breakdown in Mississippi on my return trip, rides through a couple of rain storms and a near miss with tropical storm Cindy.

But on my way, I discovered an amazing little road, off the side of a side road in the middle of Missouri. I was headed down this main highway when suddenly I saw a road I just had to take, no matter where it was going to lead. It was, of course, Highway UU.


So I turned off the main road and began to follow Highway UU, but what do you think happened barely a mile or two later? Of course, even given what you’ve heard this morning, that road turned to gravel and dirt. And that road crossed a few streams on bridges without any railings.

But here’s the thing. You want to know where that road ultimately took me? Well, ultimately it took me to New Orleans, but in that moment…and you may not believe this but I’ll be happy to show you on a map after the service…but that road dumped me out into the little town of Humansville, population 1,048.


I don’t know about you, and I don’t know where that town got that name, but I can’t imagine a better metaphor for what we are doing this year, or perhaps any year, or all the time, as Unitarian Universalists. And for this morning, I intentionally did NOT subtitle my sermon, “The Road TO Humansville,” I subtitled it, “The Road THROUGH Humansville.” I wrote the title that way because being human is not a destination. It’s a process. It’s a matter of entering brave space in order to grow and expand and transform. And this year, more than any year in my memory, and in every area of life, from personal to professional, congregational, denominational and national, we have dragged ourselves through dirt and across spans without railings in our fumbling attempts to be human and move through our humanity.

On the hills and valleys of the remainder of my ride down south, on one day I mourned the acquittal of Officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of Philandro Castile. I heard the news through friends and colleagues on Facebook, but I could only mourn in solidarity from a distance.


And then in a complete turnaround, the next day in Mississippi I discovered the birthplace of Kermit the Frog (Leland, Mississippi), and continued Onward to my destination, General Assembly in New Orleans.


For those of you who have never been, and for whom this congregation is your only experience of Unitarian Universalism – and even for someone like me who has been to many of them – it is an amazing experience to walk into a great hall with some four or five thousand other Unitarian Universalists.


So let me share with you a little more of what we did.

  • There was a push to amend our first principle, to reword it so it would say “we affirm and promote the inherent worth of all beings” instead of “the inherent worth of every person,” so as to include animals and our natural world. Many people argued that the seventh principle, that we are part of an interdepended web of existence, already covered that. But more importantly, the people who brought this amendment forward asked that it be tabled in order for us to focus on the Commission on Institutional Change, a newly appointed group, to explore the work around creating an 8th
  • The Black Lives of UU (BLUU) Organizing Collective encourages all Unitarian Universalists to advocate for the formal adoption of an 8th principle, articulating a commitment to the dismantling of white supremacy, within the stated principles of our faith. According to a statement from BLUU: “It has been 20 years since the 1997 General Assembly, where delegates voted that the Unitarian Universalist Association commit to intentionally becoming a multicultural and anti-racist institution. Notably, this act came some 5 years after the passage of the 1992 Resolution of Immediate Witness which, in part, affirmed the “vision of a racially diverse and multicultural Unitarian Universalism.” The proposed 8th Principle was written by Bruce Pollack-Johnson and Paula Cole Jones…and states:

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

  • In a plenary session of General Assembly, we did resolve to send this 8th principle to the study commission to bring it back next year.
  • We also made a resolution to change the name of the justice campaign “Standing on the Side of Love,” to something more inclusive, in the way that composer Jason Shelton has already changed the title and lyrics of the song to “Answering the Call of Love.”
  • We had the first of two votes to amend the wording of the sources of our faith to be gender-neutral (so changing phrases like “prophetic women and men” to “prophetic people”), though we won’t officially amend them until the vote at next year’s GA.

For about four or five years at General Assembly we’ve been working toward more and more inclusion and access for people who have physical challenges getting around, and for those who are non-gender-binary by having designated bathrooms around the convention center that allow use by all people.


As General Assembly continued, the Exhibit Hall housed all kinds of great books, clothing, jewelry and resources for sale, while workshops continued on all levels.


On Thursday night we held the Service of the Living Tradition, the annual service that honors ministers, religious educators and music directors. And this year, after it was over, the Reverend Jason Shelton conducted a jazz band and a combined choir in the “Ruby Bridges Suite,” a beautiful and heartbreaking piece of music that honors Ruby Bridges, who was six years old in 1960 when she was the first black child to integrate the New Orleans school system.


And on Friday, Andrea Heier and I participated in a march through the streets of New Orleans and a rally for “Love Resists” with several inspiring speakers, most of whom were local.

And then on Saturday night, the man who spoke at the Ware Lecture was Bryan Stephenson, who wrote the book “Just Mercy,” which some people in our congregation read and discussed last year. He gave an hour-long speech without notes, that was more captivating because it was full of his personal stories of service, learning, and growth.


Bryan Stevenson’s four points for the night were:

  • Get proximate – that is, get close to and in relationship with the people who need justice the most;
  • Change the narrative under the policies – that is, change the dominant story so that it includes the experiences of those who live at the margins
  • Maintain hope; and
  • Be willing to get uncomfortable – as he said, “We can’t change the world until good people make the choice to do something uncomfortable.”

Finally, at this year’s General Assembly we also made another historic “first.” We elected our first female president, the Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray (though Sofia Betancourt, as part of the three-person, three-month interim presidency was actually the first female president to serve our denomination). It was the first time with electronic voting that included an instant run-off process, and this time she will serve for one six-year term, rather than a four-year term with a chance at re-election. This is also the first time we have ever had a president who was not a baby boomer. The significance of this, if any, has yet to be seen, but many feel this is a significant shift in a good way.

So now I’d like to introduce the Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray to you through this video of her accepting her new role on Saturday afternoon:

UUA Presidential Election Results: Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray
Clip from 10:20 to 18:25
GA2017 Video #443a

It was a wonderful night, celebrating the new presidency of Susan Frederick-Gray. Unfortunately, and horrifically, one of her first acts as president later that night was to visit the bedsides of two UUA staff members who were brutally attacked and beaten in the French Quarter, and then share that news with the entire General Assembly before worship last Sunday morning. One of the men was released from the hospital quickly, while the other remains in a New Orleans hospital in serious but stable condition, and it is believed he will recover.

After reporting on the attacks, “The Advocate” online newspaper continued: “Meanwhile, members of the liberal religious organization for which both victims worked appeared in court during the bail hearing to spread a message of mercy… Unitarian Universalists packed a row in Magistrate Court as the four men accused of taking part in the attack appeared in court. Several of the observers wore “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts. After the hearing, one of the Unitarians said they had hoped the young men would receive lower bails. “We wanted to show up for restorative justice. We wanted to advocate for a reasonable bond for all four,” said Jolanda Walter, 43, of New Orleans. “We don’t want these young men thrown away.”

In the wake of this attack, some may question our stance on racial justice and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. But friends, we are committed. As my colleague the Reverend Jordin Nelson Long says, “and in those commitments we learn what those covenants are made of, and indeed, what *we* are made of, when it’s hard.”

Friends, our little UU Highway through Humansville can turn to dirt and gravel, and get bumpy and full of potholes sometimes, and lead to some unexpected and even unwanted detours, especially this year. But we ARE a people of covenant, a people of promise, made by our promises. On this road through our humanity we know, even if we don’t always want to admit it, that our faith calls us to greater love, to honor the promises we make through our covenants, that it calls us to remember and to know that the line between “good” and “evil” is not between you and me. That line is not between any group we consider “us” and any other group we consider “them.” No friends, that line between good and evil runs right through the middle of the human heart. Each one of us is capable of meanness and cruelty. But we are capable of so much promise and love too. This is how we honor anyone who is attacked and brutalized. Choose a willingness and commitment to stay at the table. Choose love. Honor who and what we are by demanding that the world become a better place by navigating the road that takes us through the larger, harder, and more challenging love.



A Christmas Eve Homily
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 24, 2016

Friends, I don’t know about you, but this season this year, I’m feeling pretty exhausted. For me it’s more of an emotional and mental exhaustion than it is a physical exhaustion. Physical work can be hard, but if it’s not extreme, there’s even a rejuvenating quality to it because with physical work you can easily see what’s been accomplished: the lawn mowed, the boxes moved, a fence built, the garden weeded, the field plowed, the dishes in the drying rack.

But emotional and mental exhaustion is different. There’s a weight to it that physical work doesn’t have, partly because sometimes it seems endless, and you can never tell if you just completed a task, or if what you’re thinking or what you’ve done is enough. And sometimes the emotional and mental exhaustion comes when the task feels overwhelming. That’s part of what I’ve been feeling since the election, and in some other areas of my life too, that feeling of things being so big they are overwhelming.

When racism, even our own racial bias, was already a hugely challenge in our society, how will we address it under an administration that wants to go back to the “good old days” of shutting people down, beating them up and throwing them out, or in jail, when they, or we, attempt to speak up not just about our civil rights, but our human dignity?

And when it was already a challenge in the atmosphere of this corporate society to address environmental pollution and degradation, how will we address it under an administration that doesn’t just have differing environmental policies, but doesn’t even believe global warming is a real thing at all?

And when loving one another was already a challenge, how are we to live with the diversity of our world when so much fear exists, and is supported by so much of the state enforcement agencies.

So I enter this space and walk through this time with a deeply broken heart. It’s a heart that’s broken from so many hopes that have not been realized, and pain from the feeling that no matter how hard I work at making things right, the world and relationships and politics are just too big for me to respond well too, with reason and intellect and compassion, and certainly not all those things all at once.

And then today on Facebook, a colleague of mine mentions on our UU minister’s Facebook page that her child was born one year ago on December 26, but that she and her husband didn’t get the news until the 29th that he was going to be theirs. They adopted him on the 31st. She recalled getting the email that there was a baby, and did they want to show their materials to the birth mother? She and her husband had just been devastated a few days earlier after a long wait and finding out we didn’t get chosen to parent a different baby. They almost said no on the 23rd, but then said yes, and proceeded to distract themselves with holiday stuff. They didn’t even tell anyone.

But a year later she is feeling really overwhelmed remembering how they had no idea how their lives were about to change, and getting ready now to celebrate their son’s first Christmas and first birthday with their giant family. It’s a mixture of feeling lucky and happy, and sad that they didn’t know a year ago that he was born yet, and sad for his birth mother, and yet at the same time thrilled to be a family.

And in the midst of my own struggles and heartbreak, I see this message from someone else suffering from heartbreak, and about to say “no” to life, but then taking a leap of faith and saying yes. “There’s Christmas in the bathroom,” says Robert Fulghum. “And therein lies the message…Christmas is and ever will be found / where it’s looked for. / Most often close by, most always very underfoot. / Hidden away in the cupboards of our lives / waiting to be rediscovered in a rebirth of wonder – / Waiting to be dumped over / our hard heads like blessing oil / Waiting to be scattered like red glitter / on the walls and hallways of dark December.”

It’s an old story, either told the same way every year, or in an attempt to tell it differently and with pizazz, it gets told in sometimes bizarre ways. But look at us. No, I mean really look at us. Here we are, many of us who say we are not Christian, many of us who say the Jesus story doesn’t have much meaning in our daily lives, and yet here we are tonight. And not just sitting here, but packed in here, just as we are every year – and clear out into the North Room as well. We must think we can find meaning here somehow.

I’m not in a place to promise you anything. I can’t promise you that your hard work will pay off. And probably certainly not in your lifetime. I can’t promise you that I, or anyone, knows the way forward. And I can’t promise you that everything will be OK. Because for many people in the years to come, things won’t be OK.

But I do know that under the cruel and brutal leadership of King Herod, a new light, and a new life was born. A life that, legend has it, came to teach the world about peace, forgiveness and grace – and a fierce love that would not die, a love that holds each of us, before we existed, while we are here, and long after we are gone. I can promise you that if you go looking for Christmas, in your cupboards, underfoot, or dumped over your head, you are very likely to find it.


Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 11, 2016

Our Unitarian Universalist religion is a faith based in optimism. This optimism particularly arises from the Universalist side of our heritage. One of the more famous stories comes from over 200 years ago from the Universalist minister John Murray who reported a conversation with a deacon who approached Murray, saying he heard that Murray preached Universal salvation. A conversation ensues where Murray describes his Universalist faith based on scriptures that that tell how God sent his son [Jesus] not to condemn the world, but that through Jesus the world might be saved – while the deacon refutes that theology.

Then Murray pulls out the passage from 1 Corinthians 15, that “As in Adam all die, so in Christ are all made alive.”

The deacon wants to hold on to the notion that yes, because of Adam and Eve, all people are born in sin, so that’s why people need to believe in Jesus, so that they can have eternal life.

And John Murray said it doesn’t work that way. He said if you’re going to follow the words and the lessons of scripture, it’s either gotta be that only believers are born in sin and only believers who can be saved by Jesus, or it’s gotta be that everyone is born in sin, and that everyone was saved by the arrival of Jesus. And since the scriptures say, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ are all made alive,” that pretty well determines it’s the second meaning, that everyone is saved. Or as the old joke goes, the Universalists believe that God is too good to damn anyone, and the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned.

The resulting theology and the resulting belief behind all this is in the basic goodness of humanity. Where other more traditional religions believe in the inherent evil of humanity – that everyone was born in sin – the Unitarians and Universalists generally have held a more positive view of humanity, that of inherent goodness. Down through the ages and generations this positive view evolved first into the original and slightly naïve Humanist slogan of “Humankind: Onward and Upward Forever,” and then into our modern and current phrase found in the wording of the first of our seven principles: that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each individual.

Because of this foundational theology, in the most positive spin some have called us a religion or a faith of hope. Now I don’t struggle so much with the notion of the inherent worth and dignity of each person as much as I do with the notion that we are a faith of hope. The “inherent worth” piece is a little easier for me because in humanity, I see inherent worth as different from a person’s actions. We may readily call someone to account for their words or their actions, but our faith calls us to honor their inherent worth.

I struggle, though, with the notion that we are a faith of hope for a number of reasons. First of all, in all the most famous and foundational writings upon which we base our beliefs, including scripture from the Hebrew and Christian bibles, we don’t talk much about hope. Even now, in our seven principles and six sources from which our living tradition draws, you will find mentioned justice, equity, compassion, truth, peace, liberty, love and reason…but no mention of hope!

Secondly, and more deeply and more to the point, I struggle with the notion that we are a faith of hope because I simply struggle with the notion of “hope” itself. Now it may be that others use the word “hope” but mean it in a different way than the way I generally understand it – so it may be that I’m just wallowing in semantics, and that when I don’t want to use the word and others do, that even so we both still really mean the same thing. But a primary reason I try to avoid using the word “hope” is that it gives the connotation – if not a very real request – of a desired outcome. And because rarely in life do we get what we want the way we want it, in my experience hope generally really only brings heartache.

I don’t claim to know a lot about Buddhism, but some of what I do know revolves around the first three teachings of the Four Noble Truths, that (1) life is suffering; that (2) suffering is caused by attachment to desires; and (3) that suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases. As I understand it, attachment isn’t simply about attachment to desire. We can also have an attachment to outcomes. When we hope for something, we desire a specific outcome of an event or happening. When we play a game, we hope we win. When we go on a trip, we hope we come home safely. When someone gets diagnosed with an illness, we hope they get better. In all of these, we are attached to an outcome in the way that we want it to be an outcome. The problem arises when either the outcome isn’t what we wanted it to be, or doesn’t occur at all. Once again, hope brings heartache.

Another reason why I struggle with the notion of hope has to do with our theme for this month, “presence.” Presence is a state or fact of existing, of being present in a place or thing. Presence is about awareness, attention, and existing in this very moment. Hope, on the other hand, pulls us out of the present moment and toward a desired outcome that is not in this present time. We may even get addicted to hope: hope that doubt and mystery will go away, and accompanied by fear that it won’t, robbing us of the present moment. Our December theme of “presence,” then, invites us and calls us into this very moment, not just when beauty abounds, but when pain and sorrow are in the room as well.

A year before I began my ministry here with this congregation I worked as a chaplain resident for a year at Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park. Many times that year I entered a room or sat with a patient or their family when they were in pain from a surprising diagnosis of cancer, or were sitting in shock and uncertainty after an accident that involved a daughter or husband, or were aching and empty after the death of a partner or parent. Some found their way through slowly, allowing the feelings to wash over them, and taking each bit of news in each moment as it came and then letting it sink in before they made a decision. But others would want a prayer for their loved one would be healed, or would use some form of the cruel trite sayings like, “when God closes the door, he opens a window,” or worse, “everything happens for a reason.”

In times like those it is important for people to stay in the moment, to process what’s happening, because if they don’t, they often live with regrets and truncated emotional responses for much of their life. But I then discovered two things: the first was that even my desire for them to stay in the painful moment and not wash it away with a trite saying was my own hope, my own desire, my own attachment to an outcome that had little or nothing to do with what the patient or family wanted. Secondly, because my own agenda would begin to loom so large, I discovered in those moments that it was a challenge for me to remain present with them. So I had to learn how to enter a room, and remain in a room, with no agenda other than to learn – learn where the patient or family was emotionally and spiritually, and then learn what they felt would help them most in those moments.

It was not my role in those moments of pain to change their minds or argue with their theology – but if it seemed necessary for processing or healing, or even to avoid a promise I was not able to keep, I could, in some ways, challenge their theology even as I remained present with them. It could be a simple question that brought them back into the moment, like, “what scares you the most about this new diagnosis?” Or if they asked me to pray that their loved one would be healed, I would pray instead for the doctors and nurses to use all their knowledge and care to do what was in their power to bring healing.

In my own life, I was disabused of more traditional notions of hope early on. Just a couple weeks before Christmas in December 34 years ago, when I was in 11th grade, I came home from high school one day to discover that my dad had been admitted to the hospital because of some unusual signs. It took a few months for the doctors to determine what was going on, but eventually they learned that it was a rare illness called sclerosing cholangitis, a disease of the bile ducts, which carry the digestive liquid bile from your liver to your small intestine. In sclerosing cholangitis, inflammation causes scars within the bile ducts, and the scars make the ducts hard and narrow. The disease progresses slowly and can lead to repeated infections and liver failure. The only known cure, even today, is a liver transplant.

Two problems exist, though. First, the body has to accept a new transplanted organ, and the doctors gave my dad only a 50% chance that his body would even accept a new liver; second, the body’s whole system is what makes the liver fail, so even if the body accepted a new liver, they gave that a 50% chance that the new liver would acquire the same disease. And in the meantime, after attempting to recover from those major surgeries in his weakened condition, his quality of life would be next to nothing. Since he had a better chance of living, and living longer, without the transplant, my dad opted not to have a transplant surgery. So at age 16, I got the news that my dad was going to die, and that he had no more than 10 years to live. He endured with his disease for eight years, dying in February, the year after I graduated from college.

A big challenge in dealing with a terminal illness, especially as a relatively inexperienced 16-year-old, is finding anything that passes for hope, when the only real thing to hope for is less pain or fewer maintenance procedures to unblock a bile duct, but never a longer life with more time with my dad. People would even say dumb things like how my dad’s illness and death would make me more compassionate and understanding toward others, and my reply was always that if I had a choice, I’d rather be a less compassionate person and still have my dad.

With that experience so early in life, hope was something I mostly learned to live without. Sometimes that made life pretty hard, but it also created two other realities in my life. The first was living more in the moment. I had a tendency to do that anyway, but my father’s long illness caused me to take fewer things for granted and learn to experience things more fully as they happened. The second was learning to take chances when they arose – so one thing I did as an 18-year-old high school graduate was take a bicycle trip across the country, from coast to coast.

In some ways I’m still not very good at it, but when I’m able to do it well, living without hope is a gift. I can take out my worst fear and look right at it, and then begin to look around to see what options, support and resources I have. Hopelessness is a gift. It helps us look around in the present moment, and rather than looking for something we want, we look around for what needs to be done.

It’s important to understand that living without hope is not the same shutting down or retreating. In fact, it’s the very opposite. I’m not at all saying “don’t work for justice” or “don’t work for outcomes.” It’s more about not being consumed by the outcome. As I experience it, the life work around this topic is to not be “tricked” by hope – that is, getting lulled into the false notion that if we just work hard enough and are diligent enough and faithful enough that we’ll get what we want: a job we applied for, a better marriage, a longer life, a healed child. Because in this life there’s not much we control and sometimes life just doesn’t give us what we want no matter how honest and faithful and genuine and diligent we are.

But just because we learn how to not be attached to hope and how not to be attached to outcomes doesn’t mean we don’t work for outcomes. Living without hope is not to be confused with working toward something we value. So yes, be diligent, be courageous, show up, be faithful, work hard, pull in allies, read and learn and grow and evolve and transform. In this new political and social climate of more brazen hatred and fear, do all you can to work to create more love and justice in the world…I’m just saying that all that work doesn’t guarantee the outcome you or we want. It’s like being back in the hospital and not praying for healing, but praying for the doctors and nurses to use all their knowledge and care to do what was in their power to bring healing. It’s a little like when teams pray before a football game. It’s pretty dumb to think that God chooses one football team over another, so it’s a pretty empty prayer to say, “Please God, make us win this game.” But it’s a more powerful and more faithful prayer to say, “Give me the strength to play my best today.”

Being present in the moment to what is happening, to what we feel and what we know is a basic way to begin learning how to move through the world in authentic and meaningful ways. The poet Mary says, “This is the first, the wildest and wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of our attentiveness.” And the writer Henry Miller says, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”

We rarely get to learn the consequences of our actions, and most of the good work we do in the world emerges after we’re gone. As my colleague the Reverend Jill Jarvis says, “Deeds and words and choices which seem from our perspective to have no impact all, may prove to be the small change that moves history in a new and unexpected direction.”

We Unitarian Universalists balk at the notion of definite hard and fast answers to the deepest religious values. We say we value complexity and nuance and ambiguity. So here’s our chance to take the bull by the horns and live in ambiguity. I know it is hard to imagine how we can work toward a future without feeling our actions will make a difference. But in the long run, rarely is history written in four-year increments. It may be that feeling insecure, even groundless, like the teachings of non-attachment in Buddhism, will increase our ability to be present, with ourselves and each other, and stay in the work.

* * * *
I want to close with a few readings on finding strength and presence without hope:

[SARA] Thomas Merton: Do not depend on the hope of results…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…you gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people…In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

[KENT] Women working against a violent dictatorship in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s:

  • How we’re going is important, not where. I want to go together and with faith.
  • I feel like we’re holding hands as we walk into a deep, dark woods.
  • In my grief I saw myself being held, us all holding one another in this incredible web of loving kindness. Grief and love in the same place. I felt as if my heart would burst with holding it all.

[SARA] Rudolf Bahro: When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.

[KENT] Vaclev Havel: Hope is a dimension of the soul…an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons…It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.

[SARA] Gail Brenner: In a nursing home I spoke to a charming 92-year-old woman faced with possibly never returning to her home. When I asked how she felt, she responded, “I’m not attached.” She proceeded to tell me that as a young girl, following the death of her mother, she learned that being attached brought her suffering and being open to the comings and goings of life brought a sense of ease. This understanding enabled her to live life to the fullest – she had many wonderful adventures – as she was no longer afraid of what she could lose or gain.

[KENT] T.S. Eliot: in the Four Quartets:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.