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.


Easter Reflection 2016

Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
March 27, 2016

So this is Easter.  Most of us in the Western world know what this Sunday is about, but if you are a little hazy on the story, here’s a reminder. In the Christian faith, today is the culmination of the life story of Jesus of Nazareth. Recently Sean Gladding, a blogger, posted an obituary for Jesus with a modern turn, writing:

“Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem of Judea [and] His family fled to Egypt when he was two, seeking political asylum. They returned to Nazareth… after the death of Herod the Great. Jesus was apprenticed as a carpenter to Joseph, and worked in the family business until he turned 30. He was baptized in the Jordan River by the prophet John bar Zechariah, his cousin. He spent the next 3 years living as an itinerant rabbi, with a small school of 12 disciples. He received the patronage of Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward…and many others. [Jesus] devoted his life to serving the least, the last and the lost, wherever he found them. He proclaimed that the kingdom of God has drawn near, and bore witness to it through liberating people from the demonic, from disease and from the slow death of social exclusion. Despite our repeated warnings, his teaching, his work and especially those whom he chose to call friend inevitably drew the attention of the authorities. The family wishes to make it clear that his arrest and immediate trial took place without due process. The charges of blasphemy and of being a threat to national security were not corroborated by a single witness. He was humiliated and brutalized in custody before his execution by the State. He died as he lived: extending forgiveness to those responsible for his death. He will be greatly missed by his family, his friends – the ‘sinners’ – and by the poor.”

While I love this version of the story, it doesn’t account for the rise in Jesus’ popularity or the lasting power of his teachings centuries later. The great mid-20th Century Unitarian religious educator, Sophia Lyon Fahs, continues the story from a perspective that still resonates with many Unitarian Universalists today. She describes how the remaining male and female followers returned brokenhearted to Galilee after Jesus’ death, and in their grief they clung to one another for comfort. They gathered in each other’s homes to talk, to process all that happened, to both rage and weep over the death of their teacher, struggling to understand why their beloved teacher had to be killed.  It was as if the foundation on which these men and women built their beliefs had been blasted out from underneath them, or had been shaken by an earthquake. They had hoped and believed that Jesus would save their nation in some way. But now his voice was forever gone, and as they tried to look toward the future, they could see nothing but desolation. The Roman conquerors and occupiers were too powerful even for him.

Now friends, I don’t know about you, but this is where I’ve been for some time now: disheartened. I haven’t been much in the mood lately to create a traditional Easter sermon and service. I know governments are not perfect, but after so many years of progress, dating back at least to the Civil Rights period of the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed we were moving on, moving upward, moving forward on a progressive humanitarian direction where we continued to care for more and more people.

And then, after reaching the point of electing our first black president, it seemed that brought out some of the worst fears and reactivity and anger of a bunch of people in our country. Hate, hate crimes and threats against our friends and neighbors of color increased, against immigrants and our own citizens from Central America and South America to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. And now we have candidates running for president who fight and whine and call each other names in ways that, if my nine and seven year old kids did it, they’d be in time out for the next ten years. These candidates make running for president into a mockery of a reality TV show or “professional” wresting match that is focused on pure entertainment value as though it has no real consequences.

And I am tired of the gun deaths and terrorist attacks, and the feelings I get of lethargy and the despair I see in others, day after day sometimes, where I wonder just what is the point? Some of us work so hard to make justice more available to ever-widening groups of people, to include those who are disenfranchised and marginalized, and yet lately it seems that all we are doing is taking giant steps backward in how we treat the women of our nation, and people who are poor, and people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, and taking giant steps backward in our relationships between people of all colors, and going backward in education, voting, jobs, the environment and global warming. I tell you, with so many verbal, political and physical attacks against so many people of good will doing so much good work that this year I often find myself feeling more the despair of Good Friday than I do feeling the message of the joy and resurrection of Easter Sunday.


But then again, this IS Easter Sunday. And the story of Easter is the story of spring, the story resurrection in the midst of death, of inspiration in the midst of despair. And as most of us know, despair and sadness doesn’t come only during Easter – or only during election season. Despair and sadness can come at any time of year for any reason, so the challenge is figure out what I’m going to do in response. So I often hear myself asking: “What are my choices?”

It’s true that I can choose to live in despair, but having been there I know that doesn’t change much except insulate me with a thick coat of paralyzation. I’m learning, too, that parts of despair actually come from a place of privilege, as when people say they will move to another country if they don’t like the outcome of this fall’s election. Moving takes a huge amount of resources, which disenfranchised people in our country don’t have. I’ve also lived in a Pollyanna world, where I pretend everything will work out fine without me lifting a finger. I want to live in a place that honors the pain, but also honors beauty in the world and then does something about it. So instead I hear and see and feel and hold beauty and creation in poetry, music, stories, art, dance, and the growth of new ideas like fragile emerging tulips through the snow. Like the words of our choir anthem today: “Oh war and power, you blind and blur…but music and singing shall be my light.”

I am also challenged and inspired by the words of Adrienne Rich when she says, “My heart is moved by all I cannot save: / so much has been destroyed / I have to cast my lot with those / who age after age, perversely, / with no extraordinary power / reconstitute the world.”

And you know, in our telling of the Jesus story, it is not difficult to imagine a slow and lovely thing beginning to happen among his followers after his death. Day after day, as they raged and wept over his loss, they began to do with Jesus what people often do regarding the dead person at funerals and memorial services: they began to recall the wonderful experiences they had had with Jesus. They told one another happenings they had almost forgotten. The very tone of Jesus’ voice and the look on his face would come back to them so vividly that it seemed as though Jesus were again right there with them.

Though death ends the physical interaction with another being, the teachings and joy and love endure. In our presence with one another, one option for us is to be bitter, cynical and full of despair, just like much of the world would have us be. Another choice is to stay connected and engaged as we are called to do by our faith, or as one minister [David Pyle] puts it, to be a people who encounter the two saving lines of grace at the beginning and end of our seven principles. The first principle, as you may recall, is that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each individual, and the seventh principle is that we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part.

Teaching each other and reminding each other about these saving lines of grace amid the despair of our world today is a revolutionary act. It is a way through for us, to feel and be known for our joy of life and love of one another. It is a way of living lives of enduring transformation, of changing fear and hate into joy and love. And when we teach each other and remind each other of these saving lines of grace, we discover, over and over again, in this often harsh and divisive world, that we are not alone. So… [from Jan Richardson’s “Blessing for the Brokenhearted”]

Let us promise
we will not
tell ourselves
time will heal
the wound
when every day
our waking
opens it anew.

Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—

as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it

as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
for breaking
is to love still

as if it trusts
that its own stubborn
and persistent pulse
is the rhythm
of a blessing
we cannot
begin to fathom
but will save us

Unitarian Universalist Prayer: A Velvet Bridge

Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
October 18, 2015

READING: On Prayer
By Czeslaw Milosz

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are left aloft, as on a springboard
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun
That velvet bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word is
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we: there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

Unitarian Universalist Prayer: A Velvet Bridge
By Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska

This month of October our theological theme is prayer. I know for some, prayer may feel irrelevant, outdated, or seem like magical thinking.  I understand that some Unitarian Universalists struggle with prayer. Even through my years in seminary I also struggled with understanding prayer, and it wasn’t until my year as a chaplain resident at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park that I began to awake to some beginning understanding about prayer. It is good to remember, though, that many Unitarian Universalists, even many in this congregation, consider themselves Christian, or theist, and there are many in our denomination for whom prayer is a lively act of faith.  Our religious parents were the Congregationalists, and our religious grandparents were the Puritans, so our religious DNA is firmly grounded in Christianity.

But like many theological terms and general religious practices, prayer is not solely owned by Christians. It is not owned by Muslims or Jews either, for that matter, or by any particular religion, sect, or people.  The issue of prayer really isn’t about Christians versus atheists or humanists. In fact, it’s not a “versus” thing at all. It’s not about fighting, arguing or disagreeing. The issue of prayer is partly about honoring our own sources and values, but even more importantly, it is about the quality of how we want to connect.

We Unitarian Universalists say we value diversity, all kinds, including sexual orientation, skin color, income levels, geography – even theological diversity. In fact, we value theological diversity so much that we enshrined it in the words of our six sources. You may already be familiar with our Seven Principles: the ones that include “The inherent worth of each individual” and “The interdependent web of which we are a part.” But I’m wondering how many are familiar with our six sources of Unitarian Universalism?  The “living tradition” of six wisdom and spirituality sources, affirmed decades ago by our congregations, and from which Unitarian Universalism functions and engages the world, include:

  1. Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  1. Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  1. Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  1. Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  1. Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  1. 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.

No single one of these sources is intended to dominate the others. These six sources are the foundation upon which we operate and move through the world. These sources are six equal ingredients in a soup that nourishes our wisdom and guides our actions. Denigrating any one of these six ingredients not only discounts individuals in our church we love and cherish, it also discounts the value we say we have of diversity.  How are we to go into the world and preach tolerance, acceptance and diversity if we don’t first practice it here in our midst?

We are held together not by dogma, theology or creed, but by covenant, by the promises we make to one another, as individuals and as a denomination, for living in Beloved Community.

I know words like “prayer” and “spirituality” and “God” come with baggage for a lot of people. And I know that a lot of people come to Unitarian Universalism because we tend to be not as religiously dogmatic as many of the more right-wing conservative religions of many faiths.  But that doesn’t mean we abdicate the use of religious language and the language of reverence. Our task is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to turn and face our biases, to be rigorous in questioning how we got them, and to be honest about the beliefs and practices we may let go, and the beliefs and practices we appreciate and want to keep.

In all my years of growing up in Unitarian Universalism and in recent years gathering with fellow ministers, I have never heard anyone pray asking for a miracle of healing or engage in magical thinking about supernatural intervention. Maybe it’s just the people I hang out with, but Unitarian Universalist prayer, in my experience, is directly tied to our relationship with each other and with the planet, and often addresses our greatest aspirations for how we want to engage our own powerful humanity as a creature that evolved as an expression of a creative universe.  “Spiritual growth” is written into the third of our seven Unitarian Universalist principles: “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” So in my experience, Unitarian Universalist prayer is one of those pieces of how we as individuals go about growing in spirit.

In his poem, “On Prayer,” Chess-law Me-losh (Czeslaw Milosz) says, “All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge / and walking it we are left aloft, as on a springboard / above landscapes the color of ripe gold.”

The poet begins by saying “all I know,” which is using different words to describe our first source: direct experience.  In our liberal religious tradition, we affirm that we don’t need popes or bishops or ministers to access the power of the universe. We first access the Holy, however we may describe it, through our own direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. This is our first source, from our own tradition, which acknowledges that we are called and moved to a renewal of spirit through an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. Some people call those forces “God,” some people call those forces the Big Bang, gravitational pull and DNA. These are the forces greater than ourselves that we may acknowledge through addiction recovery, in small group ministry, in social justice work, and through being part of a congregation and having to work through the challenging problem of designing a new building that will embody our congregational mission.

And I love the image of prayer being a “velvet bridge.” The poet doesn’t describe prayer as a way to ask a supernatural being for money or for favors or for miracles. Through acknowledging the existence of transcending mystery and wonder, though, we know that the task of faith is to move forward even when we don’t know the answer. In fact, that’s the definition of faith. We don’t know for sure, absolutely positively, that all people are born “good.” But our Universalist heritage fills us with the faith that people are NOT born in sin, that we are inherently the expressions of a creative universe, and as such we have inherent worth. We have faith in our connections to one another, to our planet, to the universe, to the past, and to the future.

The central image of this poem is the bridge, the velvet bridge. The purpose of a bridge is to connect, to unite, to pass from one shore to another, from realm of experience to another. With the metaphor of a bridge, prayer is understood to be not a form of begging for things to be different, but to connect things as they are. And yet, paradoxically, in the process of connecting things as they are, everything is transformed. Soren Kierkegaard, that famous Danish philosopher and theologian, once said that “Prayer does not change God, but it changes [the one] who prays.”  The poet Chess-law Me-losh (Czeslaw Milosz) says something similar.  He says, “That velvet bridge leads to the shore of Reversal / Where everything is just the opposite and the word “is” / Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.”

The “shore of Reversal.” What a beautiful phrase. In the written version of the poem, the word “Reversal” is capitalized. The shore of Reversal. That’s where the velvet bridge of prayer leads. Why does anyone pray? To be grounded, to find a center, to find focus, to connect to a deep yearning, to connect to the Source of all creativity and love that enfolds and welcomes, to connect to the Source that affirms the brilliance of our origins and brilliance that lies beneath the mess of all pain and addiction and loss that is our true self and our true being.

Friends, we pray out of a recognition that we are not able to get through this world on our own. That even when we don’t fail or falter or struggle, and even when we are not faced with some big catastrophe, we rely on so many things done by so many others: the people who package the food in the grocery store, the farmers who grow and harvest the food, the people who made our cars and built our homes, the institutions and people who provide our paychecks, the doctors and dentists who see to our health, the construction workers who built the roads upon which we travel, the people who took care of us and raised us when we were babies. We are not self-sufficient islands and never were.

A time of prayer provides us with a time to remember our connections to each other, to remember the velvet bridges that reach across the chaos and consumerism and conflict of each day. The “shore of Reversal” is the ground where we can go beneath the surface of the veneer of our lives, to touch again our original brilliance and be reminded of our purpose, our deepest desires and our greatest aspirations.

That velvet bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word “is”
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we: there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh

This is another part of what we find on the “shore of Reversal”: not only do reconnect with our own brilliance and greatest aspirations, but we find compassion too.  This life is beautiful, but sometimes it can be really hard. Things happen. Sometimes we lose a job.  Sometimes we need to move to another neighborhood or another state, where everything is new and different and unknown. Sometimes we are betrayed by a friend. Sometimes a beloved family member dies.  And I’m willing to bet that each person here, at some point in your life, has behaved in a way you regret. I know I have. So in prayer, when we arrive on the “shore of Reversal,” we move beyond ourselves and become larger. Maybe we recently had a fight with someone, but for a few moments in honest prayer, we let down our walls and feel some of the fear or pain experienced by the other person. The Reversal comes from being startled for a few moments when we loosen our grip on our own anger or resentment and feel compassion for the Other. We see that we may be a unique human being, but we are not alone, and neither are others, that there on the shore of Reversal, “every one, separately, / Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh.”

In the music Paul Winchester [our Music Director] offers us today, the movement is from a more traditional understanding of prayer and use of language to a more broad and deep and open interpretation of language of reverence that connects us to the forces of the universe that create and uphold life. The language of reverence, whether through music, words or theology, is largely through metaphor, and the language of poetry is the primary vehicle for the use of metaphor.  So the words of our music today begin with the traditional language “Our Father, who art in heaven” in the musical piece of the prelude, but in the opening words of the music for the postlude, the words are very different.  The postlude piece begins with the phrase, “O Birther! Father-Mother of the Cosmos, focus your light within us.” It is said to be an translation of the Lord’s Prayer that is directly into English from the original Aramaic. I have no way of knowing for sure if that is true, but it definitely resonates more with the teachings of the radical and inclusive Jesus I know from the rest of his teachings and actions in the old stories. And in this new translation, I love the line that, instead of saying, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” it says, “loose the bonds of mistakes as we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.”

We humans are created from a creative universe and we are creative beings. We are artists.  We can make spiritual growth out of anything.  Spiritual growth is the purpose of the church.  It’s the purpose of ministry.  It’s why we’re here.

I like Parker Palmer’s definition of “spiritual.” It connects with an understanding of prayer as a velvet bridge. Parker Palmer says, “By spiritual I mean the diverse ways we answer the heart’s longing to be connected with the largeness of life.” There are so, so many diverse ways to pray, and so, so many ways to answer that longing to be connected with the largeness of life.

The poem by Chess-law Me-losh (Czeslaw Milosz) ends with the lines:

That velvet bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word “is”
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we: there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

“If there is no other shore / we will walk that aerial bridge all the same.” In prayer we walk forward with a trust in the connections that bind us to one another and to the planet and to the universe, and to our past and our future. In prayer, even if we don’t always know why it works or how it transforms us, we move with an intention that helps us let go of our frustration, anger, and resentment, and helps us focus on compassion.  In prayer, we move not with pleas to a supernatural being for supernatural help, but with a faith in the goodness that exists in each being, and in the transformation of our own attitude that will allow us to see that goodness.

In prayer, even if there is no other shore, we will walk across that velvet aerial bridge all the same.


(From the words I spoke at my own ordination in March 2008)

It has been said that the only true and honest prayer,
For all the joy and for all the pain,
For all that is despised and for all that is beautiful,
Is a prayer of thanks.

So I give thanks today
For all that has been my life
For all that has been given
For all that people have done to make this day happen.
But the thanks are not for me alone.
I give thanks for this community,
For our time together today
Is in honor of our covenantal relationship
With each other.

So, as we move forward together,
May we remember and honor our gifts, our compassion, and our passion.
But most of all, may we remember and honor
The spirit of love that moves between and among us.
Here today, and for all the days we move through the world together.

Blessed be and amen.


Before this trip I had never been to “the continent.”  The European continent, that is.  My international experience so far has consisted of visiting Canada three times, Mexico twice, and then going to Ireland on our honeymoon a decade ago.  Also, I’ve been hearing about Romania and Transylvania – as it relates to Unitarianism – for over 30 years.  Then in the early 1990s, after the fall of Communism and as the church partnerships sprung up between Unitarian churches in the states and in Transylvania began to emerge, my mother, the Reverend Charlotte Justice Saleksa, went to visit Romania on an official partnership visit as the minister of the Unitarian Church in Davenport, Iowa (where she was the minister from 1988-2000). So I’ve been wanting to come here for at least 25 years…and now my dream is realized!

My flight to Romania was 15 hours in the air with three legs.  First, from Minneapolis to Newark, NJ; then from Newark to Munich, Germany; and third, from Munich to Cluj-Napoca, Romania.  I didn’t sleep on the entire trip.  It is very difficult for me to sleep on planes, and there is also an eight-hour time difference between Minnesota and Transylvania, so I thought getting desperately tired would help in the process of adjusting!

A word on terminology, and a little bit of history: there are many ethnic groups and languages spoken here.  Two of the biggest groups in this area are the Hungarians and Romanians.  The Hungarians were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In the two successive wars of World War I and World War II, they came out on the losing side of both, and like Germany, they were divided among other world powers. Unlike Germany, though, the Hungarian ethnic group has not been reunited. They remain split into parts of about five different countries.  In Hungary, they make up the majority of the population, but in Romania, the Hungarians are a minority.  And most of the Unitarians in Hungary are ethnic Hungarians, so in Romania they are a double minority.  So this history has an effect on current terminology.

For many years during Communism, the Hungarians were sometimes not permitted to speak or teach their language, and it certainly was not taught in the schools.  The Unitarians were not allowed to build any new churches and in fact, many of them had their property and churches confiscated by the Communist Romanian government (including the Unitarian Church headquarters, seminary, and high school in Cluj).  So this shows up in current life because all the town names, roads and government functions are all in the Romanian language, but the Hungarians we meet and are traveling with use the Hungarian names for things.  For instance, since I love maps I went to the AAA store in Minnesota to buy a map of Romania to follow along on our stay here.  But our route here is described in Hungarian, so I need to keep asking about the town names in Romanian so I can follow along!

In this blog, as much as I am aware of them, I’ll use the Hungarian name first in honor of my hosts and their people who have been here longer than the Romanians (of course, that’s not the perspective of the Romanians!), and then I’ll put the Romanian name in parentheses.  The capital town of the Transylvanian region is called “Cluj” or “Cluj-Napoca” in Romanian (and that’s the name that was printed on my official airline ticket), but in Hungarian, the name of the town is “Kolozsvar” – so I’ll write it in my blog this way: “I visited the town of Kolozsvar (Cluj).”

It’s confusing for a newcomer, so I’m sure it’s even more so for someone just reading this! But I’ll do my best to communicate well.

Hawaii Journal – Day 3: Carnage in Paradise and Other Priorities

Our second day in Hawaii we toured Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona memorial site, and the USS Missouri. It was an emotionally challenging day on many levels, and I found myself weeping several times.

Some weeks before our arrival my wife signed us up for the tour, which left Honolulu at 6:15 in the morning and brought us back at about 3:00 pm.  I’m not a war history buff, but I do like history.  For a while in grade school I was hooked on the American Revolution and was absolutely captivated at age 13 when I finally got to travel to Boston for the first time and walk the Freedom Trail and see so many of the sites I had learned and read about over and over.

I had read about the years leading up to World War II, and about the increasing tensions between the U.S. and Japan, including the Japanese move in July 1941 to occupy portions of southeast Asia, which were formerly French colonies. But because Germany was an ally of Japan, and since the Germans had invaded and occupied France, this left open huge portions of southeast Asia for Japan to occupy as part of their effort and desire to attack and occupy China – and, of course, to be closer to the American military bases in the Philippines, only 800 miles away.  In response, according to one website, “President Roosevelt swung into action by freezing all Japanese assets in America…The result: Japan lost access to three-fourths of its overseas trade and 88 percent of its imported oil. Japan’s oil reserves were only sufficient to last three years, and only half that time if it went to war and consumed fuel at a more frenzied pace.”

So Japan had to act fast if they wanted to seize raw materials of rubber and oil production if they wanted to survive.  They came up with a (militarily) brilliant and risky plan to initiate a preventive attack on the US Pacific naval fleet based in Pearl Harbor. The Japanese pilots trained for months at low-level flying (25 feet above the water) while dropping torpedoes at targets.  With six aircraft carriers and some 400 airplanes, and numerous support ships, the Japanese fleet sailed to a point a few hundred miles to the north of Oahu, and launched their attack planes.


Attack on Pearl Harbor

Above is an aerial photo from a Japanese plane in the first attack wave on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

There are many, many details to the attack, the planning, the attack itself, and the aftermath, and there are many books and websites to read about it.  But as a result of the attack, some 2,500 Americans died – almost half of which were on the USS Arizona – and an additional 1,000 were wounded; 55 Japanese lives were lost as well.  One thing I hadn’t known but learned in the visitor center exhibits was that some 49 civilians were also killed, and almost all of them were by “friendly fire” from US military personnel attempting to shoot down the Japanese planes.

As we toured the visitor’s center, the USS Arizona Memorial, and then the USS Missouri, I had many observations and insights, and felt a vast array of emotions.



This is how Pearl Harbor (with Ford Island in the middle) looked as we approached Honolulu on March 20, 2015.

At the very simplest level, it was a fascinating excursion and education about U.S. and World History.  I even bought the “official” DVD from the visitor center that includes all the videos and personal stories of all the displays in the center.  I learned boatloads of details about events leading up to the attack, the attack itself (including the Japanese use of wooden tail fins on their torpedoes so they would not sink too deeply in the shallow harbor waters), and the aftermath (including personal accounts – both Japanese and American – of people who had been in the attack).  I can also appreciate the brilliant military plan this attack was from the Japanese perspective.  Just as Lawrence of Arabia, Sherif Nasir and Auda Abu Tayi captured Aqaba in a surprise attack from the desert (instead of from the sea), the Japanese surprised us in an attack we hardly expected.

As a side note, the events and facts of the attack are portrayed fairly accurately in the 1970 movie, “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” which means “tiger” in Japanese, and was the code phrase for a successful attack on Pearl Harbor; the movie also had technical advisers from both the US and Japan who were actually in the attack.  And though it is a fairly cheesy retelling filled with inaccuracies, the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor” (with Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett and Cuba Gooding, Jr.) has more emotional impact, especially during the rescue attempts of sailors in the bombed battleships.

At another deeper level though, and as an American, I mourned the loss of so many American lives in the surprise attack.  It is sobering to take the launch out to the memorial for the men lost on the USS Arizona, and to know the remains of 1,777 men are still down there entombed in their nationally honored underwater grave.





I couldn’t imagine what it had been like to be on the ship as it was attacked, particularly if you had survived one of the bombs (it was hit four times), but then were trapped below decks simply waiting to die by drowning in the flooding water.  I stood in silent reverence before the wall of 1,777 names of those who were dead below me.


And I choked up so much I couldn’t even speak to my wife at the thought of Pearl Harbor attack survivors who served on the USS Arizona who, even now, request that their cremated remains be interred in the rusting underwater hulk of the battleship so that they may be laid to rest with their comrades who died there 74 years ago.  I would have broken down sobbing had I not felt embarrassed in the middle of the tourists surrounding me.

After visiting the USS Arizona memorial we went back and saw more sections of the history displays in the visitor’s center, then we took a shuttle bus to visit the still floating and moored USS Missouri, also known as “Mighty Mo” or “Big Mo.”  The ship is 887 feet long and 29 feet wide (so it will fit through the Panama Canal), and it fought in three wars: World War II, the Korean War, and Operation Desert Storm.


Panorama shot from the bridge of the USS Missouri, looking forward to the USS Arizona memorial and out into Pearl Harbor

We took a 30-minute guided tour, and then took headphones to explore the rest of the ship on our own.  My wife, who has worked in dentistry and orthodontia for the past 14 years, was especially interested in seeing the dentist’s office.  And after seeing the crew’s quarters and bunks, I was reminded of the beds we slept in on my few months on an Alaskan fishing trawler the summer after I graduated from college.  But perhaps the single most recognizable feature of a battleship, and what really stunned me, were the guns, the cannons on the deck of the ship.

The ship has nine 16-inch (diameter) cannons which are 66 feet in length and weigh 239,000 pounds each, and each gun fires 2,700 pound shells a distance of 20 miles with pinpoint accuracy.  Each turret has three guns, and there are three turrets on the ship, and each turret requires a crew of 79 men to operate (the shells are loaded manually).  For comparison, each shell weighs about as much as a VW bug, and just two of the guns weigh as much as a modern 747 airplane (that means there are 4 1/2 Boeing 747 airplanes on deck), and each gun is capable of firing one shell every 30 seconds, and at maximum firing range, the shell will be in the air for approximately 1 1/2 minutes.  That means if all the guns are firing at top speed, that means 27 shells will still be in the air just as shells 28-36 are being fired.

Two gun turrets on the forward section of the USS Missouri.

One gun turret on the aft section of the USS Missouri.

There are many more modern weapons these days, in the form of Tomahawk and Polaris missiles, and many more I don’t even know about, each with nuclear warheads, and each capable of flying farther and doing more damage than one of these shells from this now obsolete warship. But the instruments of destruction on this ship are still within the range of human understanding and comprehension. And within this comprehension I remain stunned, days later, at the enormous size and capability of this weapon. Not just each gun itself, but the entire ship. And this is just one ship in one branch of one military arm of one country.

What strikes me first is the human ingenuity it took to create this weapon.  I don’t know much about guns, but these huge cannons are basically the same weapon as the muzzle loading muskets used during the Revolutionary War…except a lot bigger. They still have a barrel, a shell, gunpowder and a breech.  It’s just that engineers had to invent a way rotate and elevate guns in a turret that weighed as much as 1 1/2 modern passenger jets, and would contain the explosion so it wouldn’t burst the barrel or sink the ship with the weight.

What always affects me so deeply about guns is that the only reason they are made is to kill.  And cannons (and missiles beyond that) are designed to kill even more.  What struck me this time was the human creativity and ingenuity that was needed to create the weapon in the first place.  It never escapes me that no matter how ingenious or creative a weapon may be, it is still used for violence. It is still used for killing.  So what got me wondering this time is how else could we have – and could we still – use our human creativity and problem-solving ability?

And cash.

One-third of our national US budget goes to Social Security and Medicare. After that, 20% goes to the military.  Education is way below that at 3.7% of the US budget, and even below that is health care, at 2.6% of the budget. And money that goes to Space/Science is at 0.9% of the budget. And yet, even at this rate, some fear-mongering politicians feel we are spending dangerously little money on “defense of US interests,” and that we need to spend two or three times what we are spending now in order to impose “global military dominance.”

On board the USS Missouri, there is a plaque that commemorates the spot on deck where the Japanese and the allied forces signed the document called “The Instrument of Surrender.”  In the Pearl Harbor visitor’s center, we saw videos of former US soldiers and Japanese soldiers laying flowers on the former battlefield in an effort to forgive the past and move forward in peace, and to stop the fighting.

Plaque on the deck of the USS Missouri commemorating the spot where the Japanese signed their surrender at the end of World War II

And at the visitor’s center there is an artist’s creation – which is echoed in the walls of the USS Arizona memorial – called “The Tree of Life,” a universal symbol of renewal, designed by Alfred Preis.

The "Tree of Life"

It is inspiring to see these images, knowing that World War II is past.  But at the same time, it was disheartening to see those images, also knowing that war around the globe, especially perpetuated and supported by the US, has not stopped, or slowed, and that politicians still cry for more military strength, and that at 14 years on from 9/11/2001, we remain in the longest war our nation has ever been in, longer than our involvement in the American Revolutionary War, World War I, and World War II combined.

Imagine if we changed our priorities. Of course we would never get rid of our military. But imagine what would happen if we spent 20% of our US budget on the arts. Or on increasing the number of schools and teacher’s salaries and principal’s salaries.  That would mean spending six times as much on education as we do now.  Or how about even on space and science – that would mean spending 20 times what we spend on space and science right now.

Imagine putting 20% of our US budget, and all the engineers and and their ingenuity and creativity, and the factories and raw materials and training and support all toward solar panels and solar highways and electric cars and renewable food sources and infrastructure that could deliver the food to people around the globe.  Rather than weapons, which are both symbols and instruments of destruction, imagine if every bit of energy and creativity and problem-solving brilliance that went into the construction of a battleship went into work that prioritized and focused on the deeper meaning behind the USS Arizona memorial: a tree of life, a universal symbol of renewal.  I find it hard to imagine myself what that effort might look like, and what it might produce because I don’t think we’ve ever put that much energy into creativity and renewal in all of human history.

Imagine the programs that would connect people, that would break down the animosity that causes war in the first place.  Imagine the inequality that could be lessened with the sharing of human resources, which would again reduce the animosity between those who don’t have, and those who have.  Imagine the food and the education that could be spread around, not just around the US, but around the world.  Imagine the art and the music that could be shared and transformed and inspired, not just in our country, but around the world.

I’ve been accused of being idealistic and unrealistic before in my life. And I’m sure I will be again after this post. But it seems to me that most criticism like that comes from people who haven’t tried to envision, or work towards something different than what is. So go ahead, imagine. Imagine – if we didn’t spend it on the military or destruction – imagine what the human race could do with $800 billion dollars. So go ahead, imagine.

I imagine it might begin by looking something like this:

An Attitude of Prayer

A sermon by the Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
November 16, 2014

First Reading: Exodus 19:16-19
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast.  Everyone in the camp trembled.  Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire.  The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder.  Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.

Second Reading: Mark 14:32-42
They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”  He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled.  “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them.
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba. Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

Third Reading: Call to Worship
By Rev. Victoria Safford
What if there were a universe, a cosmos, which began in shining blackness, out of nothing, out of fire, out of a single, silent breath, and into it came billions and billions of stars, stars beyond imagining, and near one of them a world, a blue-green world so beautiful that the learned clergyman could not even speak about it cogently, and brilliant scientists, with their physics, their mathematics, their empirical, impressionistic musing, in trying to describe it, would begin to sound like poets?

What if there were a universe in which a world was born out of a smallish star, and into that world (at some point) flew red-winged blackbirds, and into it swam sperm whales, and into it bloomed crocuses, and into it blew wind to lift the tiniest hairs on naked arms in spring, and into it as some point grew onions, out of soil, and in went Mt. Everest and also the coyote we’ve spotted in the woods about a mile from here, just after sunrise on these mornings when the moon is full?  Into that world came animals and elements and plants, and imagination, the mind and the mind’s eye.  If such a universe existed and you noticed it, what would you do?  What song would come out of your mouth, what prayer, what praises, what sacred offering, what whirling dance, what religion and what reverential gesture would you make to greet that world, every single day you were in it?

An Attitude of Prayer
Sermon by Kent Hemmen Saleska

When I was eight years old, shortly before my family began to attend a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I remember sitting in church one Sunday when the minister asked us to bow our heads in prayer.  So I diligently followed the example of my parents and bowed my head.  I did not know to whom I was talking, or what to ask for.  When I peeked at the people around me, some simply sat still with their eyes closed.  Others swayed slightly while silently moving their lips.  I got nervous.  Time was running out.  Then I remembered one other time in my life when I was supposed to close my eyes and ask for something: my birthday!  So, with deepest sincerity, I closed my eyes again, bowed my head, and prayed that all the automobiles and airplanes and even our houses would turn to chocolate.

My understanding of and attitude toward prayer did not change much in the next 30 years.  I got silent reflection.  I appreciated meditation.  And I certainly understood when Mary Oliver wrote:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?”[1]

This month our worship theme is “doubt,” – what it is, what it means, what it feels like, and what we may do with it.  I know some Unitarian Universalists struggle with and have doubts about prayer.  And a few weeks ago, during the “Question Box” service, someone asked: “What is the difference between ‘prayer’ and ‘an attitude of prayer’?”  This sermon, which I titled, An Attitude of Prayer, is one I gave in the spring of 2007, when I was your ministerial candidate.  When I saw that question pop up a few weeks ago, I realized a long time had passed and a lot of people have joined the church since 2007 and hadn’t heard my story with prayer, so I thought it would be good to bring back this sermon and share again my journey with prayer and why I value it now.

For most of my earlier life, I too struggled with prayer.  I was not raised with it in my own UU upbringing.  I didn’t get it, and was often irritated with prayer in church, or at weddings and funerals, or even during interfaith social justice gatherings.  For many years, because I was a good Unitarian Universalist (that is, because I gracefully tolerated the superstitious ways of others), I bowed my head during the prayer and silently endured the praise or petition of a distant God with whom I felt no connection and in whom I did not believe.

Some years ago, though, I was faced with a challenge.  In September 2005 I began work as a Chaplain Resident at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park.  The Department of Spiritual Care at the hospital included eight full-time chaplains, four on-call chaplains, a volunteer Jewish chaplain, and an on-call priest.  In addition, five of us Chaplain Residents made up the 12-month Clinical Pastoral Education – or “CPE” – program.  My colleagues included a Lutheran woman, a lay Catholic man, a woman from the United Church of Christ, and a male Episcopal Priest.

CPE uses an action-reflection-action model of learning.  We visited patients of all religions, genders, ages and races – then three times a week we met in our Residency group to reflect on our experiences – then went out to visit more people.  In the process, we not only encountered patients and fellow group members who irritated and annoyed us, we were also invited to enter more deeply into our irritation and annoyance, into our frustration, into our anger, into the anxiety and pain and fear underneath our anger, into our own hearts and souls to explore the darkness at the source.  The theory – and the practice – is that the more we know about our shadow side, the less likely we are to feel ambushed when we encounter it with other people.  The result, and I experienced this repeatedly, is that we are able to be more present with people in the midst of their pain.  One condition, though, is that while called to be present with others in their pain, we are also challenged to engage a presence that is authentic to our own theology – because if our theology is unable to engage the real world, then it is a useless theology.

Entering and exploring my own darkness, I uncovered deep roots of shame and a Beast who enjoyed telling me I was stupid and incapable.  In my shadow side, I also continued to encounter resistance to prayer….though as you might guess, prayer is a huge part of a Chaplain job description!

When I wrote my first draft of this sermon, while I was still in the CPE program, I shared with my CPE colleagues that I was presenting a sermon on prayer to a UU congregation and that I wanted a stunning title.  After recovering from their feigned shock, my UCC friend suggested: “Prayer: the REAL weapon of mass destruction!”  When I said that might not be my approach, my Episcopalian friend then suggested, “UU Prayer: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Well, I came to appreciate a phrase I heard in some UU churches that goes like this: “I invite you to join me now in an attitude of prayer.”  For those of us who may be resistant to the idea or practice of prayer, this phrase invites an approach that says, “I don’t believe in this, but I can go along with an attitude – I can certainly close my eyes and pretend to look like I’m praying.”  And for those of us who find resonance in a prayerful practice, “an attitude of prayer” suggests an orientation toward centering, balance and connection.

When I am honest, I see that most of my life I’ve been less than generous towards people who pray.  I was especially cynical about statements of faith or rote prayers that seemed mechanical in their re-telling.  But two hospital experiences urged me to explore the purpose and meaning of prayer more deeply.

One day I visited Lucille, a Methodist woman who was admitted with what appeared to be a stroke.  Her two daughters were also present.  Lucille told me she hoped her stroke wasn’t serious, that she was worried about hospital expenses, and that she sang in her church choir.  Then came the dreaded question: she asked me to pray for her.  I looked down, shifted from foot to foot, and said haltingly:

Gracious God, we ask for…health(!) for Lucille in this time of uncertainty so…so that she may find renewed strength…and, um, for a stability in her finances to help her pay for her hospital stay…and, ah, continued support from her family as they are showing here tonight (pause).  We also ask for continued joy and strength from the music she loves so much (long pause as I couldn’t think of anything else to say).  Amen.

Leaving the room, my Beast of shame attacked me and I felt like an idiot.  Saying “Gracious God” was better than saying “Dear Lord,” but I just knew they were suspicious of me because of all my stumbling.  I don’t believe in a male God, so I couldn’t end in “His” name, and I believe spirituality is bigger than Jesus, so I couldn’t end by saying “in Jesus name.”  So I just said “Amen” and got out fast.

In the midst of writing up that visit to discuss with my CPE group, I visited Glen.  Glen was 74, nearly deaf, and had an advanced case of Parkinson’s.  I asked a few “yes” or “no” questions but our visit was mostly in silence.  Glen could think clearly but could barely get those thoughts into words.  His eyes, though, were very expressive and it seemed he wanted to say so much more.  Finally, I saw him struggle to formulate a word.  I bent over him and heard him whisper “prayer.”  “You want me to say a prayer?” I asked.  He responded: “Lord’s Prayer.”  “You want me to say the Lord’s Prayer?” I asked.  He nodded.  I took his left hand in my right hand, leaned very close over him, and looked directly into his eyes, saying:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen.

During the prayer, Glen looked steadily back into my eyes, spoke without a tremor, and remembered every word.  Water gathered in his eye as we recited together, and by the end of the prayer a tear rolled down the side of Glen’s face.

I could not, for the life of me, figure out why this rote prayer – this prayer I do not recite in my personal life, this prayer dripping with paternal hierarchy, this prayer whose only connection and meaning for me is rooted in childhood Sunday school memory, this prayer which, unlike my first attempt with spontaneous prayer when I felt like an idiot afterward – hit me on this day with the emotional force of a punch to the chest.  I was flustered.  I did not feel a sense of conversion.  I did not feel I was speaking to a supernatural God.  But this experience touched something of profound emotional connection and left me confused and flustered.

I needed to just let go for a while.  In prayer with patients, I did not censor or nuance my words, but used all the traditional “God” and “Jesus” words.  It felt uncomfortable, and I knew I wouldn’t use those words forever.  But I needed to let go of my resistance before I could return to my own authenticity.

In my prayer with patients, I began to notice two main themes.  The first was that prayer was a time set aside to recognize connection: certainly with other humans, but also in an intimate and intentional way with the vastness and varieties of all existence.  The second thing, which was more surprising to me, was that my exploration of prayer pushed me to deepen my own liberal faith.  Prayer, I discovered, is not a requirement of faith.  Prayer is an attitude and a practice that arises out of faith.  So what then, was my faith?

To be authentic in prayer, I could not ignore my humanist and naturalistic mystic tendencies.  I do not use “Christ” language in prayers because those words are unique to Christianity, and I do not claim Christianity as the faith tradition that nourishes me the most.  But “God” is another story.

Of course I’ve encountered some fundamentalist Christians who try to tell us what God thinks and where God lives, as though we could not claim God for ourselves.  My Chaplain colleagues were as frustrated and angry with those fundamentalists as I was.  But one day in group I began ranting to my colleagues about how I didn’t believe God had genitals, about how I didn’t believe God had intentions – bad or good – for us humans, and in fact, I didn’t believe in God at all and I would appreciate it if they would all just stop using the “God” word around me, thank you very much.  If God did exist, I thought God would be bigger and more complex than any of us could know, we would barely have a clue about what God intended, and I doubted that one small handful of our human realm on this hunk of rock circling a minor star in a backwater spiral of one single galaxy would hold sole possession of ultimate truth about this unknowable being.  “I only use the word ‘God’ around you,” I told them, “so maybe you’ll understand what I’m saying.  But using language like that is not my native tongue.  I feel like I always have to translate my beliefs.  I know what I mean if I use the word ‘God,’ but I get very nervous when other people use it.”

After a pause, my friend the Episcopalian priest looked at me calmly and said, “So you don’t trust anyone else with the metaphor of God?”

Well.  I didn’t know what to say.  I sat in silence for a long time and the group sat with me.  I didn’t trust anyone else with the metaphor of God?  That didn’t make sense.  Or did it?  Why did someone else saying the word “God” make me feel nervous or irritated?  It became clear that my irritation belonged to me, and that when I get irritated about “God” language I am playing a role of victim.  The liberal and progressive Christians in my group had never attacked or hurt me, yet I was retaliating against them.  I was allowing a certain realm of fundamentalists to steal an acceptable word and bash me over the head with it.  I realized that the source of my irritation with prayer did not lie in the hands of fundamentalists, but in my own discomfort and lack of clarity with my own liberal religious beliefs.

It was about this time that I remembered my seminary class in Hebrew Scripture.  In those old stories, God is described through many metaphors: as a shepherd protecting sheep; as a potter shaping souls; as steadfast as a rock; as “the bread of life” that will satisfy our spiritual hunger; as a comforter in times of pain; as a healer in times of sickness; as a creator in whose image all existence is created; even as a mother hen protecting chicks under her wing; and as a mother giving birth and gathering her children into her arms.

These images, these metaphors, are attempts to name the unnameable.  But no matter how we come at it, our naming always falls short.  This is not a failure of Judaism or Christianity.  Rather, these descriptions are an example of humanity’s ongoing attempts to relate with a larger existence.  These attempts remind me of the opening phrases of the Tao te Ching: “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.  The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.  Having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; having a name, it is the Mother of all things.”

In Hebrew Scriptures, we hear story after story of God in conversation with humanity: Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Sarah, Moses on Mount Sinai.  Moses talks to God and God responds.  But in Christian Scriptures, dialogue between God and humans no longer exists.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, we hear only a one-sided prayer from Jesus saying to the universe, “Everything is possible for you.  Take this cup from me.  Yet not what I want, but what you will.”  In a liberal religious attempt to name the unnamable, we may understand “God” as all the forces that shape and create the Universe, from DNA, gravity, tornados and quarks to parenting, painting, poetry and imagination.

I believe that Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is not a story about Jesus being alone.  Rather, it is a story that recognizes known and unknown forces in the universe, most of which are beyond human control.  The universe will do what the universe does; the only control we have is how we respond.

I believe that the story of Jesus is the story of the universe: it is a story of existence becoming aware of itself.  As Christian terminology suggests, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh.  I believe Jesus in Gethsemane is one attempt to tell the story of how Jesus, as both a human and as a metaphor for all existence, is no longer separate from God.  It is a story about how creator and creation are one.

As Victoria Safford writes, “If such a universe existed and you noticed it, what song would come out of your mouth, what prayer, what praises, what sacred offering, what whirling dance, what religion and what reverential gesture would you make to greet that world, every single day you were in it?”

If I really understand metaphor, that is, with one concept described as equal to a second concept, then I accept the poetic flow between “God” and “Universe.”  In this story of the universe, the universe is the body of God.

As the Universe creates, and as we creatures emerge, then when we look into the darkened sky at night and see stars and far off galaxies, you and I are the eyes of God seeing ourselves for the first time.  You and I are the ears of God, hearing the cries and songs of a universe being born.  In the story of the Universe, we humans are not the most prominent creatures, nor are we the most evolved, nor are we the end product.  But we are vital and inextricably interwoven members of a continuum.  We are not creatures who live in the universe.  We are expressions of the universe.

I don’t think I’m the best prayer in the world, but I continue to do it each week because it remains a challenge for me, and because I trust in the unnamable forces that move within us, among us, and beyond us, and that show up only when we are together, holding one another’s lives in the cradle of our care.  In this spirit, understanding that we are both agents and inheritors of shaping and creative forces, I invite you to join with me in an attitude of prayer:

Creative God, Spirit of Life,
we come here today as we come every Sunday
to recognize and be reminded
of the relationships inherent in our existence.
In our communion, we honor the awareness
that humanity is a part of nature,
that we creatures of earth emerged
as a result of a continuous process.
We also know there are many times in our lives
when we walk through
the Valley of the Shadow of Death,
or the shadow of fear,
or the shadow of pain and loneliness,
as we are torn from our family and friends,
and even from the people we long to be.
We seek the strength
to be aware of and honor our connections one to another,
as well as to the secret parts of ourselves
we fear or hate the most,
so we may discover the peace of green pastures
and the healing of still waters
available to both creator and creation.
Honoring our relationships, we pray:
Amen and blessed be.

[1] From Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer’s Day,” from her 1992 book, New and Selected Poems.