Tuesday, May 23, 2023


What is theology? The word comes from the root Theo meaning God and logy meaning study or meaning of.  As UUs we can substitute any number of ideas for God such as human spirit, Spirit of Life, Creator Presence, and so on. The name doesn’t matter as much as the idea that we are trying to find a source for that which gives us the greatest meaning in  our lives.

The question to ask yourself is: What matters most? When you answer that you are on your way to creating a theology. I ask myself this question quite often. What matters most to me are the loving relationships I keep; relationships wherein trust and service reside. These include all of you, my family and the earth upon which we reside.

I once described myself as an enchanted agnostic with mystical tendencies. This is largely still true. But equally important to me is the natural world in which we live. I call myself a religious naturalist these days; finding, as I do, strength and meaning in the world in which we live. Walking along the beach is for me a holy practice. Finding a balance between the competing forces in our lives is for me a guiding ethic. That balance might be in terms of how much we consume. What is true in finances is true of our planet. As an old friend once told me “when your outgo exceeds your income, then your upkeep will be your downfall.”

That balance also extends to the relationships I keep. If all our time is spent in pursuit of an ideal (consumption, beauty, justice, wealth, health, etc.) we will find ourselves out of balance with those who love us. I am honored to be your minister and I must keep time to be in relationships with the ones I love. I honor my Sabbath. I take time off to restore balance and remain in love.

This theology of balance informs our life as a congregation as well. I have found that when a congregation is struggling with issues, it is best to return to our core practice; providing a place for spiritual sustenance and a practice of pastoral and loving care. I practice this re-balancing religiously and I invite you to do so as well.

With Grace and Grit, John


Wednesday, April 12, 2023

After the Resurection


In the story of Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus is said to have returned in body and made himself known to Mary Magdalene and the disciples. They were, of course, astonished that he had returned at all since the men were sure his death on the cross was the end of the road. So skeptical were they that, Thomas (as in doubting Thomas) is said to have put his finger in Jesus’ wound. The story goes on to proclaim that the message of Jesus should be preached to the world by his followers  (this is known in Christianity as “The Great Commission”). The understanding is that Jesus will someday return to judge the living and the dead.

Of course, once Jesus died, we too are skeptical as to the real meaning of his message. It is in the resurrection that we move from a religion about Jesus (what early followers called “The Way”) to a religion of Jesus. There is a deeper meaning in the resurrection than whether it actually happened or not. The resurrection illustrates the power of faith, the hope for the world and the image of God made human and accessible to all. At least that is how I look at it.

After the resurrection comes the possibility of believing in a future that is far better than our present. These days that belief takes a lot of faith. While our congregation and our families are managing to find hope and meaning, the outside world seems fraught with daily struggles and hypocrisies. The expulsion of two African American legislators from the Tennessee State House for exercising their right to protest the lack of gun safety legislation, was just such a hypocrisy. The super majority of Republicans censored three Democrats for their protest in the Well of the house; Justin Pearson, Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson. The Republicans then expelled Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, both African American, from their offices and thereby disenfranchised the people in Memphis and Nashville who elected them.

Perhaps it was no accident that their expulsion happened during Holy Week leading up to Easter. While it appears that they will both be re-instated, the power of the resurrection story illustrates how this expulsion was a modern day crucifixion, a punishment by the state on the false charge of sedition. My colleague Rev. Sam Teitel, minister of our UU Church of the River in Memphis, invited Justin Pearson, who represents Memphis, to preach the Easter Sermon. Pearson along with his family (his father is a preacher and also participated in the service), preached one of the most powerful sermons I have ever heard. He made a vivid connection with the Speaker of the House as Pilate and the assembled supermajority as the Empire. 

The video to the sermon is linked below. His sermon starts at time stamp 1:03. It’s a long sermon but worth it all the way. I was struck by this young man’s power and purpose. I was astonished by his courage and wisdom. And, in the spirit of Dr. King, I am heartened by his call for justice, amplified by the congregation who were often on their feet clapping. 

After the resurrection, hope seems possible. Our place in that possibility is to bear witness for truth and justice, and when we can, to support the cause of a better world.
With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, March 31, 2023

Appreciation over Complaining


From now until the end of April we are in what in the Christian Calendar is known as Lent. Lent is the season in which we consider giving up something we are accustomed to in order to focus the lens of our lives on what truly matters, be it love, belonging, or the coming of new life. Lent is a preparation for the resurrection, whether it be Jesus, love or the beating life of this green earth.

Like all sacrificial seasons (Ramadan for Muslims and Passover for Jews), Lent also reminds us to take up something more important than ourselves. This season I have decided to give up complaining and take up appreciation. Complaining is natural enough; we have an expectation of a certain outcome and we are disappointed when that outcome fails to come about. In response to our disappointment we protest to whoever we think caused that shortcoming; be it an institution, an individual, or the fates of our many desires.

What I have learned in this practice these last few weeks is, first of all, complaining is really a waste of time and good energy. But more importantly I have learned that I have reason to celebrate what is right over what is wrong. Dewitt Jones, who has for many years been a lead photographer for National Geographic, points out that our vision controls our perception. What we focus on determines our reality. If I am focused on what I don’t have I will only see more of that I want. But if I focus on what I do have, well then, the world opens up before me. One day last week I went out in the predawn morning to let the dogs out. It was cold and I started to grumble about the cold, until I remembered my Lenten vow, stopped and looked to the east. And ‘lo, the cold of that early spring morning made possible the most amazing sunrise I can ever remember seeing; purples, oranges, and streaks of yellow firing forward into a new dawn. God, I thought, might be just like this. What we see is what the world is to us.

Communities are not perfect. In fact, it is their imperfection that drives a rich diversity. I realize now in this season of emerging new realities that there will always be a tension between what could be and what should be. I choose what could be every time. And in so doing I, hopefully, choose possibility over scarcity, together and in our own lives. As Dewitt Jones says “celebrating what is right does not deny the very real pain on this planet and in our lives. But what celebrating possibilities does do is put our pain into the larger context of what is beautiful. Change your lens.”

The light we have doesn’t just shine on us, it shines within us. When we see the beauty of our world and each other right before our eyes, we give justice to beauty and the good. There is more than one right answer to almost any question. Step back from your complaints, disappointments and fears and look through another lens. And when you do, then you are ready to be reborn. 

Here is the TED talk that Dewitt Jones gave that has been so inspiring for me and so many others.

With Grace and Grit - John

Tuesday, February 7, 2023




Most of us think of resilience as the ability to overcome difficulties and persevere. That is true but resilience is more than that: Resilience is the ability to  adapt to the change we are experiencing. Jeremy Lent in his book The Patterning Instinct puts it this way:

“The resilience of a system determines whether it can withstand big shocks or is susceptible to collapse from a small disturbance. Resilience can be understood as the capacity of a system to recover from a disturbance. But recovery doesn't necessarily mean remaining the same; the most resilient systems are often those that are constantly adapting to changes in their environment.”

This is as true for each of us as it is for a planet. The terrible earthquake in Turkey and Syria, the warming of our planet and the violent weather patterns of the last few years are telling us that we will need to become even more resilient than we already are. Our use of energy and resources cannot continue in this way. Our resilience as human beings will depend on how we  adapt to the changing reality. It will depend on how we live our lives and design our spaces. I am confident that we will adjust if there is still time.

As for the planet so for each of us. How have you changed in response to your environment? I have started to prioritize rest as a spiritual practice; naps, longer meditations, my own blend of tai chi and yoga, waking with the sun rather than a clock. If we are to change our habits as consumers to meet the changing planet, we will need to change how we view time; moving from beyond a perishable resource towards seeing time as a sacred gift.

What is true for us our planet and ourselves is true for our congregation. As we change from a congregation that can “do it all” to a congregation that will have to make choices in what we do, we will become deeper and more reflective. I invite us to be less concerned with achieving victories and more concerned with enjoying the time we have. This too is resilience.

With Grace and Grit, John

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Networks of Self


What I have come to believe is that we are so much more complicated than any one theory about human nature. We “contain multitudes” as Walt Whitman observed, and within those multitudes is the very essence of what makes any of us a person. While we know that our history is not our destiny, we do know that our history, our context if you will, plays a large part in how we see the world. I agree with Anais Ain that “we see the world not as it is, but as we are.”

But who are we? We are our history, our family (or decidedly not our family as the case may be), our genes, and perhaps, our souls. What I do believe is that we are also the networks we keep. So much of the acrimony in American public life can be attributed to the networks we restrict our world too. This is why social media can be so insidious; if we only spend time with those who think like us, the algorithms of digital platforms will feed us only more of the same.

The social scientist Kathleen Wallace makes a compelling case that who we are as a person is actually the accumulation of the networks we keep.  In her book The Network Self: Relation, Process and Personal Identity, she challenges the belief that we are separate from the world we are engaged in. In her words: “Rather than an underlying, unchanging substance that acquires and loses properties, we’re making a paradigm shift to seeing the self as a process, as a cumulative network with a changeable integrity.”

The most important realization I see with this way of looking at ourselves is that we can transform our identity through the networks we keep and the networks we seek to better our lives. While we are all flawed and broken people in one sense, we can be better people in another by surrounding ourselves with people who are also seeking transformation. That transformation can take the place of something as baseline as our sanity or as far reaching as lasting social change.

The point is that we do have a choice to be around those who can make us better people. That includes this congregation. I have seen amazing transformations happen right before my eyes among those who find their way to us.  Such networks can lead to a better future beyond whatever past we have suffered from. In Dr. Wallace’s words:

“Some responsibilities might be inherited, though many are chosen. That’s part of the fabric of living with others. Selves are not only ‘networked’, that is, in social networks, but are themselves networks. By embracing the complexity and fluidity of selves, we come to a better understanding of who we are and how to live well with ourselves and with one another.”

With Grace and Grit, John

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Stories of Logos and Mythos


Stories are essential to our identity as meaning makers. Its stories, poetry (a kind of story telling) and the images they invoke that ground us in a reality. We live the stories of our lives as a script with a beginning, middle and an end, even if certain parts of that story are painful. Ask anyone what they think about a certain situation, and while we might rationalize and analyze what is happening around us, ultimately it’s a story that brings the point home. Philosophers almost always illustrate a point by using “armchair experiment”; an imaginative story that invites you in to the idea.

In our post-modern age we often measure the efficacy of a truth by how well that truth relates to our sense of reality. This use of reason, first postulated by Plato and his student Aristotle, is known in as Logos, or knowledge from reason. Logos is at the heart of the scientific and intellectual tradition in the West. It is central to how decide what is real and what is not.

And yet, Mythos, or myth telling is, I believe, an equally valid way to make meaning. Myths are often viewed as not true from the viewpoint of reason. However, a myth is a way of telling the truth through the vehicle of a story. When the ancient Greeks, acted out the myths of Gods and Humans on the stage they were participating in a truth telling beyond the reality most lived. Tragedies and comedies are a reminder of the deeper meanings we live for; that despite all that befalls us – disease, lost relationships, death and heartbreak – we are here to love and serve. Tears and laughter are two sides of the essential impulse to live, to remind ourselves to we live out our days with as much vivre and compassion as possible.

Logos and Mythos are two sides to the same coin: each calling us into the world with the whole of our being. I, for one, believe that we can embrace both. I close with this reminder from Mary Oliver:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things. – Wild Geese

Yours Always,  Rev. John

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Journey to Becoming

Minister Message

Journey to Becoming

We are in the midst of Holy Week in the Christian Calendar. The week commemorates the journey Jesus took from his home in Galilee into the Jerusalem during the festival of Passover. As so often happens the Christian story of Easter runs parallel to the Jewish Festival of Passover.

Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday which was last Sunday. Borrowing imagery from the Hebrew text of Zachariah (9:9), Jesus comes to Jerusalem to fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah will herald the coming Kingdom of God riding on an ass. As we explored last  week Jesus is widely believed to be the one who would save the Hebrews from the Romans. They stand out waving palm fronds as if to hail a new King. But Jesus comes not as a king but as a sacrifice according to Christian teaching.

On Holy Monday Jesus enterd the temple and clears it of money changers, proclaiming a new kingdom is at hand. On Tuesday Jesus is said to have told his disciples that his death is imminent and with it to prepare for the Kingdom of God to arrive on earth.

Spy Wednesday is said to be the day when Judas made a deal with the Jewish authorities to turn Jesus over to the Romans. It is believed that Jesus knew of Judas’ betrayal and that he now had a spy in the midst of his disciples.

On Maundy Thursday Jesus and his disciples sit  down to the Last Supper wherein he proclaimed the Eucharist; that the bread shall be his body and the wine shall be his blood. It was a somber affair as Jesus proclaimed that he would be betrayed and that even his closest disciple Peter would deny him three times. This is also the time when Jesus washed the feet of all his disciples to model servant leadership in the days after he was gone.

Good Friday is anything but good other than it sets the stage for his resurrection on Easter Sunday. This is the day Jesus was arrested, tried and condemned to death by crucifixion. By that evening, Jesus was dead and laid in a tomb. Black Saturday was the time of waiting. A vigil was kept in the dark, as the tomb is dark as those who remain wait for his resurrection.

Easter Sunday, the stone is rolled away from the Tomb and Jesus is gone, risen to God. This is the story which defines the heart of Christianity. Jesus died for our sins and is now at the right hand of God.

In many ways this journey from peasant to messiah to the Son of God is a story of becoming. It could mirror our lives as well. All of us have had high hopes for our future, perhaps even a dream of greatness. Those in their twenties and thirties are often consumed with pursuing this dream, starting careers and families and imaging how their lives will be. But as with all dreams, reality sets in; we realize that there are limits to what we can do. Raising a family is harder than we imagined. Relationships seem wrought with troubles. We march into the future but we soon realize that we are not as royal as we once thought we were.

And then comes the hard work of mid-life, the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of our lives. Here we began to realize that we are not satisfied with the material world, we search for meaning that goes beyond the tables of money we see before us. We may also imagine our own mortality for the first time as we find ourselves facing health issues or children (or elderly parents) that have issues we couldn’t imagine. This can be like falling into the valley of trouble, and we yearn to find our way out again.

By late mid-life, you climb out of the valley towards a second mountain, you struggle through your Good Friday towards a new day. This is the real resurrection that we all go through. As David Brooks in his book The Second Mountain puts it “You don’t climb the second mountain the way you climb the first mountain. You conquer your first mountain. You identify the summit, and you claw your way toward it. You are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender to some summons, and you do everything necessary to answer the call and address the problem or injustice that is in front of you. On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless.”

Many of us are in the midst of this journey from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, especially in this pandemic. Some of us have lost loved ones, others are dealing with illness, and some of us are struggling to make ends meet. We are climbing out of the valley unto the second mountain, moving from our old life into a new life. Like Jesus, all of us are on the Journey to Becoming. Let us keep the hope of that rebirth before us.

With Grace and Grit,