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.


DEAR 605

NOTE: Every December, on the first or second Sunday of the month, I preach a sermon that is a letter to a Christmas character. This year, since this will be our final Christmas season in this building before we move to our new one, I wrote my annual letter to the building itself. -Kent

Annual Letter to a Christmas Character sermon
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 4, 2016

READING: Notes below taken from actual church Board Minutes and Newsletters
August 2, 1964: General Meeting of Amity UU Fellowship
Henry Norton reported on the negotiations and stated the price had been orally agreed to, but that the Wayzata Church could not commit themselves as to date until they had actually broken ground for their new building. The earliest date the building might possibly be available is March [1965]. It is the intention of the Board of Directors to acquire adequate facilities as soon as possible. The building fund drive will continue as planned. Further negotiations will be considered with Wayzata Church as well as investigating other possibilities.

November 25, 1964: Board meeting
New members accepted were David G. Opheim [and] Mary N. Opheim…

January 7, 1965: Letter to Membership
There is a good possibility that the Fellowship can purchase the Wayzata church in accordance with previously negotiated terms without the necessity of selling the 3½ acres of property that it owns on Minnetonka Boulevard. The Wayzata church should be adequate for the needs of our Fellowship over the next four to five years at which time other arrangements could be considered.

February 8, 1965
From Expression Newsletter article: STATE OF AFFAIRS AT AMITY
The membership of Amity has voted to proceed to hire a minister and to purchase the Wayzata Church building both by its near unanimous approval of the budget for the coming twelve months and by the encouraging financial support as evidenced by the results of the pledge canvass…Loan commitments are being sought so as to be able to complete the legal technicalities involved with the purchase of the Wayzata church now that both congregations have approved the transaction. Possession of the church will take place August 1.

February 24, 1965: Board meeting
Bill Merlin will act as our lawyer and has drawn up a purchase agreement for the Wayzata church, which will be signed by Joe Connell and himself contingent upon a mortgage of $13,500 at 5¾ %. We have received an oral commitment of a 10-year $5,000 loan at 6% interest from Unity Church [in St. Paul].

April 25, 1965: Annual meeting of Amity UU Fellowship
In a vote of the membership, congregation voted to change their name by a margin of 13 votes to continue with Amity Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and 47 votes to change to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka. An additional name was proposed by Mary Merlin: the James C. Reeb Unitarian-Universalist Church, but it failed to gain enough votes. Motion was made and seconded to amend the articles of incorporation to reflect the name change.

June 30, 1965: Board meeting
First Federal Savings and Loan has approved the Mortgage application. Closing date is August 1, 1965. Report of the Building and Lands Committee: Work parties were organized to begin working on different parts of the church between August 1 and September 12. Bids were solicited from stained glass companies for the cleaning and repair of the stained glass windows; John Prellwitz will paint the church sign; Bob Fetzek will make a new sign for the church property; Bill Hardacker will contract work to be done on the chimney; work is proposed on the driveway; classroom partitions being considered.

August 5, 1965: Board meeting at the home of Irene Chanin
Joe Connell reported that the completion of the church purchase had taken place on Friday, July 31, 1965. The amount paid to the Wayzata Free Church was 21,600.00 [including the purchase of the parsonage next door], with the remaining $400.00 being kept in an escrow account to pay for clearing of Title.

September 9, 1965: first Board meeting held at the 605 church!
There are some problems which remain to be solved – the problem of sound carrying throughout the building is the most urgent one. The furnace must be cleaned; a bid of $185.00 has been received. We have not as yet been able to obtain a piano: an ad has been placed in the suburban paper. Betty reported that there would be a new sign outside the church by Sunday [and] the church will be ready for occupancy on Sunday, September 12 [1965].


SERMON: Dear 605
Annual Letter to a Christmas Character sermon
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska

Dear 605,

Every year at this time, usually the first or second Sunday of December, I write a letter to a Christmas character in an attempt to explore more of their story than what we usually hear. So in the past I’ve written to Jacob Marley, Santa Claus, Elsa from the movie Frozen, Rudolf, and many others.

This year is a little different though. This year, this is our final holiday season in this building: our final Thanksgiving service; our final Christmas play by Jeff Hatcher in this building, our final annual Christmas pageant in this building; our final Winter Solstice service in this building; and our final Christmas Eve service here. It’s a momentous time. Ever since the City Council gave their final approval last May for our plans to build a new church, we have been charging ahead with great new energy, so relieved and so grateful and so full of vision and pent-up action and joy to finally be moving forward on this project after over a decade after this congregation voted to move.

And at the same time there is a weariness from working so long and hard on this project, and yes, a sadness in many of us about leaving this building. There are so many memories wrapped up here, many joyful ones and a few painful ones. So this year, rather than write my annual letter to a Christmas character, I thought I’d write this one you, 605, the building at 605 Rice Street that has housed this congregation for the last 51 of our 56 years in existence.

Today I brought my rocking glider chair from home to share this letter with you, 605, because I was inspired by a recent story from one of our long-time members, Nancy Johnson. During our Sunday service in October to honor the dead, you may remember that some of our long-time members shared some of their memories and stories of this place. Nancy grew up attending church in this building even before you housed us, 605, back when it was the Wayzata Community Congregational Church. You probably already remember this, but Nancy said her sister’s wedding was held in this church, and she remembers having church suppers in the basement because the kitchen was located down there back then. And then she said, “The furnaces were always a problem so the man who fixed them placed a rocking chair in one of the furnace rooms so he could be comfortable while he waited to see if they worked properly.”


So this morning I wanted to sit in this rocking chair as I share this letter with you, 605. You see, our theme for the month of December is “Presence.” And when I heard Nancy tell her story earlier, and mentioned the man in the rocking chair, I was moved. Now, I have no idea who the man was, partly because it was so long ago and partly because he was someone from two congregations before we even arrived here. In fact, you probably know who it was. But I don’t even know if that man was sweet and kind or mean and grumpy [I learned from Nancy after the service that his name was Carl Linman, and he was very nice!]. To me though, no matter what kind of man he was, I know that he cared. Maybe he was the life of the congregation and was one of those happy outgoing people who was involved in everything. Or it may be that he was a quiet man who just knew he was good at mechanical things, and so, having faith in the congregation and the people who carried out its mission, wanted to take on one role he knew he could do – something he could do in a way that others could not.

So to me, it was a story of caring, of stepping up and stepping in when something needed to be done and a person knows they have the experience or the talent or the knowledge for it. For me, it was a story of presence. That man in the rocking chair – and others after him – was present with you, 605, all the while you were present with the people of the Wayzata Community Church, and then the people of the Wayzata Free Evangelical Church after them, and then our people after that, those of us in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka.

You, 605, have been a presence with so many people during your time. Of course, you were not the first one on this site. As the story goes, in 1881, twelve people who were concerned with their own unfulfilled spiritual needs, covenanted together to – as they described it – to “bring civilization to the wicked, uncivilized village of Wayzata.”

So in 1881 that group built a little wooden church on piece of donated property on the corner of the two dirt roads, Walker and Rice Streets at the top of the hill. The congregation grew over the decades so in 1912 they built a new church. Unfortunately that building only lasted for four years, because it burned down in February of 1916. But the congregation was resilient, and in addition to their own funds, and since they were the only church in town back then, they went through the town, soliciting funds from ALL the residents – which is partly why, I suppose, they have that name: Wayzata Community Church. In any case, in 1916 they rebuilt you, on the foundation of the 1912 building, and amazingly, completed construction in seven months during that same year. So this building that you are now is essentially the same layout and design as the 1912 building, and now you are just a few months past 100 years old.

It’s pretty amazing to think of what you’ve seen and been through. You were built just before our country entered World War I. You’ve been present through three congregations, two world wars, the Great Depression, the independence of India from Great Britain, the creation of the state of Israel, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the construction and destruction of the Iron Curtain, the imprisonment and release of Nelson Mandela, the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the following wars around the globe to fight terrorism, the election of our first black president, and most recently, the election of the least politically experienced president in the history of our nation. You’ve been present and witness to a world in its automobile infancy that was still largely dependent on horse power to a world that has sent men to walk on the moon and created tools to see galaxies far beyond our own.

You’ve seen quite a lot. And you’ve seen a lot of us, too. Us Unitarian Universalists. We may be the third group to be housed here, but we’re the ones who’ve been here the longest. The original congregation was here 32 years, the next was here about 12 or 13 years, but we’ve been here now 51 years!

After meeting for five years in the cafeteria of a grade school in Minnetonka, our congregation purchased you, 605, in 1965. And as I read it in our history, the people were so happy to get a new home to call their own, one where they wouldn’t have to set up every Sunday morning, then take everything down by  noon, and then gather in the homes of their members for every single meeting.

To our way of thinking, it’s also a little strange to think that our first minister, the Reverend Robert Brownlie, who was called here in 1966 – the year I was born – lived next door at 615 Rice Street, because back then, that house was that parsonage for this church. I always wanted to live close to the church I served, but never THAT close!

Much has been said this year about our time here, with our 100-year Sunday service celebration last May with the other two congregations, and the local paper write up of our history, and members who’ve shared stories and pictures this fall. I myself first saw you in the mid-1990s. I was the Youth Director at First Universalist in Uptown Minneapolis. I brought my youth group out here one time for a youth conference. And the next time I saw you was in 2007, when the ministerial search committee began to consider me as a possible next minister. That was a joyful time, for both the congregation and for me. And now, here we are, in our tenth year together – the longest relationship this congregation has ever had with a minister, and for me too, the longest job I’ve ever had.

We’ve gone through a lot in our time together too. Not only was it the five-year legal process where we sued the city in Federal court, invoking Federal law around the separation of church and state in order to build our new building, and then the last three years of raising money and working to design the building (which has taken an inordinate amount of time out of just regular, normal church life) but there’ve been other good things we’ve done as well: creating a congregational covenant together, hosting a social justice empowerment workshop that helped guide us in social justice for many years, the work around defeating a Minnesota amendment that would deny marriage rights to same-sex couples, creating new rituals like our Winter Solstice celebration, the delightful annual Jeff Hatcher holiday play, and the multiple-year process to change from an operational governance system to a policy based governance system. And now we are in the middle of rewriting our mission, and within the next six months we will move into a new building.

So I’ve come to wonder what wisdom you might have, 605, to share with us? I’ve wondered what knowledge or wisdom you’d have to share about how you might see things going on in our world today. I look up into these rafters and think about the people who built you, and what might have been going on in their lives one-hundred years ago in 1916, and I wonder if their lives, thinking about the World War that was going on, was vastly different from how we feel today, or if there is any remarkable similarity. You are not a mountain, but dear 605, you have seen a lot in your time.

You see, part of it is that I’m having a hard time. Ever since the election I realize that I’ve been grieving. As a colleague of mine, the Reverend Joanne Fontaine Crawford, articulated similarly, I feel I am grieving for the death of what I thought was my country. I realize this comes from a place of privilege, since native people and people of color have never had the experience of this country that I have – even today, as we gather in this beautiful warm sanctuary, thousands of clergy and laypeople from many denominations and over 2,000 military veterans are joining native people at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota to join together in an interfaith Day of Prayer, called by Chief Arvol Looking Horse, to “unite for our children’s future.” Though not everyone can be there physically this weekend, they are asking religious people for support, to stand with them physically, or in spirit, and spend a day in prayer with them.

But I have always hoped for better. Even though I know my country has not always lived up to its aspirations and ideals, up until now I have always held those ideals as a guide, like the north star, and almost every work of justice I’ve done has been guided by both the human ideals articulated in our nation’s constitution, as well as the values and beliefs articulated by my faith. But now I am feeling deeply discouraged. I’ve seen the media be manipulated by a showman, and whatever dignity the presidency had, has been stripped away by a thin-skinned, petulant, crass, narcissistic, politically inexperienced and morally irresponsible man. And all, apparently, without regret.

I’ve always tried to be a pastor to everyone, to not take sides, at least not here in church, between one political party and the other. But this feels different. This is not normal. This isn’t Democrat versus Republican – what’s going on now is an attack on our religious values: that all people have inherent worth; that revelation is continuous; that we have promised ourselves and our world that we will direct our efforts toward creating a loving community with liberty and justice for all; and to honor the interdependent web of existence.

The attack on these things, or the destruction of them, is just not ok. I feel disillusioned, and even frightened, that we could be manipulated so easily to be our worst selves. So part of what I’m grieving too, is the myth that our country is “safe” from such things.

I am heartbroken.

So in this loving time of year, during a time in our congregational life when we are preparing to leave you, 605, and grieve your loss as well, I look to you for some wisdom, some lesson in how we may move forward with a sense of purpose and meaning, while holding on to our liberal religious values and beliefs.

One lesson I’ve learned from you, 605, is your presence. You have housed three very different faith traditions. You have witnessed a community church that was probably fairly in the middle of the road in religion, and then what was probably a more right-leaning evangelical group, and then us, on the far left of the religious spectrum. Even though people in our groups may not think they could get along, you have always been steadfast. You have always been here, offering hospitality for anyone who needs it. And for me, that is pretty much the core of any faith tradition. How they – the people who call themselves part of that faith, whatever faith it may be – how they express and practice hospitality.

Are they bitter and mean, joking about people who are not like them, people who are “too liberal” or “too conservative”? Or are they open to differences, in a healthy way that can both set boundaries but also be open to difference and unique life and belief and practice? We Unitarian Universalists say we believe in diversity, but we don’t always practice it.

So if there’s one thing this season can bring us, and if there’s one thing I hope you will be able to remind us about, even after we are gone from here, is hospitality. Though nothing is certain yet, it is looking more and more like a theater group may move into this space. It makes me happy that you will not be torn down, and that you will continue in your practice of hospitality, not just of religious groups, but secular groups as well. Your hospitality carries on and continues to inspire. Even after we move away, I hope we can stop by to visit, and maybe see a show. Thank you so much for your presence and your wisdom.

As ever, your friend,


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.

Honest Doubt

A sermon by the Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
November 2, 2014

Note: It seems that a lot of people appreciated this sermon yesterday.  It continues to be a mystery to me why some sermons get rave reviews, and others nary a whisper.  It seems to depend less on me and the effort I put into the sermon, and more on the headspace and heartspace of the hearer.  For whatever reason, this one seemed to be deeply meaningful for a lot of people today since almost every person through the line at the end of the service went out of their way to say how good they thought it was.  I even received complementary emails about it later in the day.  So – I thought I’d share it here!

In 1849 the English poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote a poem about a good friend of his, Arthur Henry Hallam, who had died some years earlier of a cerebral hemorrhage.  In that poem, titled In Memoriam A.H.H., Tennyson wrote these memorable lines:

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

Unitarian Universalists over the ages – my mother, an English literature teacher who taught this poem to her high school students, was one of them – have resonated deeply with these lines.  For hundreds of years, people have turned toward Unitarianism and Universalism for many reasons, especially after experiencing suppression of curiosity and the sometimes brutal enforcement of conformity of thought in the most conservative of Christian, Jewish, and other religious traditions.  In reaction and response, people have sometimes turned to the stream of our faith tradition to drink from the refreshing water that nourishes and values questions, curiosity, and relationship over creedal belief statements.

For the month of November we are exploring the theme of “doubt.”  In our plan for worship, we are in the second year of a three-year arc of themes that parallel the construction of a building.  Last year our overall theme was “Foundations of Faith.”  This year, as we imagine the construction of rooms in a building, we are exploring how we here in our congregation may “make space” or “make room” for various qualities of faith and for various ways of being in together in community.  Last month we explored how we may “make room” for being Welcoming.  This month, we are exploring how we may make room for doubt – what doubt means, what it sometimes feels like, and what we might be able to do with it.

Doubt about the beliefs taught in mainline churches and Christianity is one thing that still motivates people to seek out a new, more liberal, and more open religious community.  And yet, we Unitarian Universalists may not be as unique as we like to think we are.  While nine out of ten Americans say they believe in God, recent results from a Pew Religious Landscape survey[1] of America’s 43 largest religions indicates quite a range of beliefs.  The survey asked people if they believed in God, and followed with the question, “Are you absolutely certain, fairly certain, not too certain, or not at all certain?”  The most theologically conservative groups had high levels of certainty of course, but it was interesting to see the breakdown after that.

Behind Seventh Day Adventists, Southern Baptists and Mormons, just over 80% of American Muslims were absolutely certain there is a God, just under 80% of Orthodox Jews were absolutely certain, and about 75% of Catholics were absolutely certain.  Now there’s more to look at with this, but that means that 20% of Muslims and Orthodox Jews are NOT absolutely certain that God exists, and 25% of Catholics are not absolutely certain that God exists.  There’s a lot to ponder there in terms of our assumptions of even more conservative faiths.

Next in line, all these faiths had between 60% and 70% of people who were “absolutely certain” that there is a God: Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, American Baptist, Friends, United Church of Christ, and Congregationalists.  Hindus had about 55%.  One of the funniest things about this survey to me is that at the bottom, 15% of agnostics are “absolutely certain” that God exists, and 6% of Atheists are “absolutely certain” that God exists!  It seems to me that it’s not so much that these people are confused or somehow gave a wrong answer, as much as it is how labels mean different things to different people.

Now, perhaps not surprisingly, because we tend to attract a lot of people who question mainline beliefs, we are a little lower on the survey.  Both the Buddhists and the Unitarian Universalists have about 35% of people who are “absolutely certain” there is a God.  While that ranks us lower than most of the other 43 religions, I suspect that number is higher than many of us would have thought.  Doing the math, that means that three or four out of every 10 people in this room believe in God.

A few weeks ago during the Question Box Sunday, I received two different questions.  One was, “Am I correct that the Unitarian Church started as Christian-based?” and the other was, “Can you be an atheist and UU?”  The answer to both questions is “Yes.”  As a matter of fact, in 1825 when the American Unitarian Association first organized, they created a pamphlet titled, “100 Scriptural Arguments for Unitarianism.”  The introduction to that pamphlet states:

Unitarian Christians believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God and the Saviour of men.  They believe in the divinity of his mission and in the divinity of his doctrines. They believe that the Gospel which he proclaimed came from God; that the knowledge it imparts, the morality it enjoins, the spirit it breathes, the acceptance it provides, the promises it makes, the prospects it exhibits, the rewards it proposes, the punishments it threatens, all proceed from the Great Jehovah.  But they do not believe that Jesus Christ is the Supreme God. They believe that, though exalted far above all other created intelligences, he is a being distinct from, inferior to, and dependent upon, the Father Almighty.  For this belief they urge, among other reasons, the following arguments from the Scriptures.

Then it goes on to quote 100 passages from Christian scripture that support a belief in one God.  A century later, in 1933, a new group of thinkers created a document called “The Humanist Manifesto,” and it was signed by 35 men, at least 10 of whom were Unitarian ministers.

Our faith tradition is firmly rooted in the Christian tradition, and these days we continue to have many people who are theistic in their beliefs.  At the same time, we have a strong tradition of curiosity and free thought that arises from our Unitarian Christian heritage of doubting and questioning traditional beliefs to create the belief statement that Jesus was not God.

Sometimes there is conflict in our religion between those whose beliefs are theistic and those whose beliefs are atheistic.  It is almost inevitable that when I use the word “God” or “Spirit,” someone will come up afterwards to question why I used that language.  And if I go too long without using language of the spirit, someone will come up and say to me that if we are a religion, why can’t we have more language that reflects spirit and mystery?  In fact, a third question from the Question Box Sunday was, “What is it like to be a minister to such a wide range of belief systems from atheists to those who believe in god or a higher power?”

I tell ya, it ain’t always so easy!  The good thing is that we are not a religion based on a creed you must subscribe to in order to belong here.  Instead, we are a religion based on making promises to each other and creating covenant about how we want to be in relationship with one another – not despite our different beliefs, but through our different beliefs.  Our promises and agreements hold us together, not a creed.  So my challenge as a minister is not to make sure everyone has the “right” belief, but more to be a facilitator monitoring whether we are in right relationship, making room for the range of voices to be heard.

So being a minister to people with many different beliefs helps me ask and answer the question, “What is our goal here?”  That is, are we here to bicker over who is “right”?  Are we here to argue over which belief is wrong because it is either “magical thinking” or because it is “cold and impersonal”?

Or instead, are we here because we have a mission and purpose in the world, and that part of our mission is to live with diversity through the promises we make in our evolving relationship with one another?

It is our calling, our work, to constantly return the question of our purpose in the world, of holding up the quality of good, healthy relationship, because part of what we can do – when we do this covenant thing well – is to take this model of how we behave with each other out into the world and use it as a tool for relating to other people with a variety of other differences.

All of this then raises the issue again of “doubt.”  It is good to be a safe place where people may bring their doubts and feel welcome, and feel that this is our spiritual and religious home.  But what draws us in isn’t always what may sustain us, or nurture us, or inspire us, or keep us relevant in an ever-evolving world.  It is not a very effective political campaign to say, “Anyone but George,” and neither would it be a very effective or relevant religion to have our primary faith statement revolve around pride in our definition of what we are not.

Over the past several decades I’ve seen a shift in our denomination, in our people, and I think it is a good one, but it is still taking shape.  Except for the very conservative religions, specific nuances of faith are becoming less important about what defines a faith.  Simply saying that “I am a Unitarian Universalist” does not have as much impact or definition as it did 100 years ago.  There are so many people in so many other religions for whom the issue of whether Jesus is God is no longer a relevant question.  I even wonder sometimes how long we will be able to continue with using the name of a theology to name our faith.  What does “Unitarian” even mean anymore to the 65% or so of UUs who are NOT certain that a God even exists?  Our very name is becoming less and less relevant, both to ourselves internally, and to the world outside.

More and more, it seems to me, religions will be defined not by their beliefs, but by their actions.  Or maybe the beliefs will still be important, because belief always precedes behavior, but it will be a matter of how those beliefs are put into action.

If it is true that our calling, our work, is to constantly return the question of our purpose in the world, in order to create, nurture, maintain, repair and evolve good, healthy relationships in a variety of diverse situations and beliefs, then we have our work cut out for us.  We can no longer rely on the way we’ve always done church in the past.  We may not have an answer, and we may not know the way forward, but we need to pay attention to the shifting religious landscape around us, and through study, and trial and error, begin to learn those ways.  I do know that part of being relevant in the increasingly connected world is building relationships with younger generations and across the generations, and building relationships across lines of color, race, faith, and political affiliation.  It may be that questioning and doubt bring us into this place, but it needs to be relationship and action that carries us forward through a common mission and purpose.

Doubt gives way to action, which turns into transformation – both in society and in our hearts – when we reach across the traditional lines that separate us and  engage deeply in relationship.  Our great Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams said it this way: there is a “moral obligation to direct one’s efforts toward the establishment of a just and loving community.”  Furthermore, and as part of that community, the meaning of life is found when we participate in the “processes that give body and form to universal justice.”  In different words, Martin Luther King, Jr., described this as “the beloved community.”

In this rapidly evolving digital world, we need to reach out and continually build relationships with ever-rotating younger generations.  In places like Ferguson, Missouri, and here at home even around the Twin Cities, we see the deadly consequences, especially for people of color, where communities have not built or established a web of relationships.

Anyone who has been in one knows it is not easy to do good relationships well.  Even being in a marriage or a long-term relationship with one other person you love and choose is challenging as all get-out.  It is even more difficult to relate well with a whole congregation full of people with differing beliefs and unique ideas – and even more of a challenge to do those relationships well out in the world.  There is a passage, though, in the book of Micah in the Hebrew Scriptures that advises the chosen people to “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

“Doing justice” and “loving mercy” are things we liberals are usually pretty good at.  Good action and compassion go hand in hand.  Walking humbly with the meaning of life, though, is more difficult.   Walking humbly means admitting that we don’t always have the right answer, or even any answer.  Walking humbly sometimes means not knowing what to do.  Walking humbly means letting go, listening, learning, paying attention, moving through the process with a beginner’s mind.  Echoing the prophet Micah, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote in his poem:

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

Whether you call it a God-given gift, or a gift from the universe in the form of evolution, or both, we have the gift of intelligence and reason, so it is important to use it.  “Honest doubt” does not mean being scornful of people who believe in God or a higher power.  “Honest doubt” means asking a question you don’t know the answer to. “Honest doubt” means letting go of our ego and just simply getting curious.  “Honest doubt” means recognizing we may not have an answer, or any answer, and asking other people – the people on the other side of the social demarcations we rarely relate to in any meaningful way – what is important for them, and what they need for their survival and what they need for the nourishment of their souls.  And then we can share our own and build from there.

When we finally let go, when we finally stop assuming that we have or can find all the answers if we just work hard enough, then we can begin to grow.  Then we can begin to grow in spiritual maturity and grow in our relationships to others.  When we let go, we recognize that something larger is moving through us.  We begin to feel the flow of another spirit, another heart, another soul longing for justice, connection and compassion, and that we need to work together to make that happen.

The next lines of Tennyson’s poem say:

He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them; thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own.

May our welcoming of questions and our building of relationships bring us, too, to a stronger faith that is our own.

[1] Found at: