Improvising a Life

It was my great privilege to be a guest speaker at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Southwest Michigan this morning. I am so thankful to be able to celebrate with this lovely faith community and make lots of new friends!

The meditation on which the sermon is based is the following video by Abigail and Sean Bengson.
I highly recommend watching it before listening to or reading the sermon.
It will lift your spirits and provide context for my message.

Here is a video recording of the message.
I apologize for the scruffy sound of the microphone on my shirt.
I didn’t realize that was happening during the talk.
If you would rather read than listen, the typed manuscript is posted below.

As I begin, I would like to express my sincere thanks to several people for the opportunity to join you in celebration on this beautiful Sunday morning. I would like to thank your minister, the Rev. Gy Ludvig-McCartney, for inviting me to join you and share my thoughts with you today. Our thoughts are with Gy and their spouse Patti this morning. I would also like to thank your Director of Religious Education, Miriam Epskamp, for her kind and helpful guidance in helping me navigate the technical challenges of online church during a global pandemic. Finally, I would like to thank all of you, the lovely people of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Southwest Michigan, for your warm welcome into this sacred space and time on this first Sunday of the year 2021. It is a great honor to participate in your worship service and I hope to make an inspiring and informative contribution this morning.

I love the video of the ‘Keep Going On Song’ for several reasons. First of all, it sends a message of hope and compassion in a year when we sorely need it. It comes from fellow travelers who were struggling through 2020 just like the rest of us. They used their powers of creativity to bring a little more light and goodness to a world that was (and still is) feeling like a very dark and lonely place.

But more than that: I love this video as a musician. The way that the singer improvises around the chord progression and returns to the chorus is magnificent. There is an orderliness in the structure of the song, and there is also chaos in the improvisation. This song could never be sung the same way twice.

I would like to talk with you today about this unfolding interaction. When order and chaos come together, they form something that is neither one nor the other. Nor do they reach a compromise between the two extremes. What they form is something new that includes and transcends both order and chaos in their fullness. The word I would like to use for this new thing is creativity. And creativity is what I would like to talk about with you today.

Creativity, understood as an emergent property of the interaction between order and chaos, is fully present in the natural world. I can see it happening particularly in the process of biological evolution, which has been happening on this planet for the last 4.5 billion years, and is still continuing today.

As many of you grownups will remember from your high school biology classes, there are two main components to the engine of evolution. The first component is genetic mutation. This the chaotic part. A mutation is a copy error that occurs in our DNA during the process of cellular division (mitosis). Something in the code unexpectedly changes, which alters the way the new cell functions when the code is read. Often, these errors are harmful to the new cell, but every now and then, a mutation happens that is actually helpful.

Now, the question arises: How do our cells decide which mutations are helpful and which ones are harmful? Well, that’s where the second component of the evolutionary engine comes in.

Genetic mutations cause changes that give either an advantage or a disadvantage to an organism’s chances for survival in its environment. A mutation, for example, that allows a cell to digest a certain kind of food in an environment where that food source is abundant will have a survival advantage. In other words, the new cell that can digest the food is more likely to survive than the cells that cannot digest that food. When this new cell later divides into daughter cells, it passes on its mutation to the next generation. The other cells, meanwhile, are more likely to die before they can reproduce. The name that biologists have given to this process is natural selection.

Natural selection is the orderly component of the evolutionary engine. It takes the errors provided by genetic mutation and determines which ones will provide a survival advantage for the organism. The process itself may be blind, but it is certainly not random.

Critics of evolutionary theory have sometimes used an imaginary example to explain why they think a blind process could not produce the immense diversity and complexity of life that we have on this planet today.

“Imagine,” they say, “a monkey in front of a computer, randomly pushing keys on the keyboard. What are the odds that this monkey could accidentally produce a Shakespearean sonnet? The odds are infinitesimally small.”

The purpose of this thought experiment is usually to demonstrate the idea that something as beautiful and complex as a Shakespearean sonnet can only be produced by a conscious entity with the intelligence of William Shakespeare. “So,” they say, “there must be some kind of intelligent designer at work, consciously directing the process of evolution in ways that are not random or chaotic.” Most proponents of this intelligent design hypothesis use this thought experiment as an argument in favor of the existence of God.

But there is a key piece that intelligent design proponents leave out, and that key piece is natural selection. If we were to adapt the monkey/computer thought experiment to account for natural selection, we would have to add something like the following:

Imagine that there was some kind of system in place that rewarded the monkey with a banana each time it pressed the correct key in the correct order. Over time, the monkey would be able to realize and remember that pressing certain keys in a certain way gave that monkey an advantage. And now, imagine that there was some way to keep each correct letter on the computer screen while erasing the incorrect letters. Finally, imagine further that there were millions of monkeys working on this project at the same time, and each time a monkey anywhere pressed the correct key, the letter on the screen would be kept. Suddenly, it is not at all inconceivable that the monkeys might be able to produce a Shakespearean sonnet in a very short amount of time! And all this would happen without any of the monkeys being aware of the literary masterpiece they were creating. (See Endnote 1)

This is how the creative process of evolution works. It uses the interaction between chaos and order to improvise increasingly diverse and complex forms of life, up to and including you wonderful homo sapiens who have gathered together online to reflect on the meaning of life this Sunday morning.

Music and evolution are not the only places in the universe where chaos and order come together to improvise bonds of creativity. We humans, individually and collectively, have an opportunity to make our own unique contribution to the ongoing creativity of the universe.

You and I experience the interaction of chaos and order in our lives on a daily basis. The chaos has been particularly evident over the course of the year 2020. We are currently living through a global pandemic that has claimed nearly 2 million lives, so far. We have endured quarantine, lockdowns, and violent reactions against those lockdowns. Frontline medical workers, such as myself, have put our lives on the line to care for those who have contracted and sometimes died from COVID-19. We have all witnessed (and some of us have participated in) protests against acts of police brutality that disproportionately impact people of color in the United States. Many of our fellow citizens (including my wife) have been tear-gassed, beaten, and shot by the very officers we commission to keep us safe from unlawful acts of violence. We Americans have endured the spectacle of a particularly contentious presidential election and watched in horror as the legitimacy of that electoral process was called into question by those who have sworn to uphold it. The collective chaos in 2020 has indeed been particularly evident.

In the midst of chaos such as this, it is not uncommon for humans to grasp at straws for meaning. We say things like, “Everything happens for a reason.” The more religiously inclined among us might say, “God has a plan.” In the midst of chaos, many of us might ask, “Why is this happening,” or, “What is the meaning of life, anyway?”

I think we humans tend to ask these questions because we are afraid that the alternative to an orderly plan is a universe that is entirely chaotic and meaningless. We have already observed, however, that life is not entirely chaotic or orderly, but the product of a process that includes and transcends both chaos and order: the universe is a creative process. (See Endnote 2)

I would like to propose a new question this morning: What if the meaning of life is not something we find, but something we make?

The making of meaning is how we humans participate in the process of creativity. Things happen to us that seem chaotic: The lost job, the failed relationship, the missed opportunity, the unforeseen disaster, or the chance encounter. What is ultimately important about these events is not the events themselves, but the story we tell ourselves about them.

When a relationship ends, we can say to ourselves, “That’s just proof that I will never be loved in the way that I want to be,” or we can say, “I have made many mistakes in this relationship, but I will work on myself, learn from my mistakes, and act differently the next time I am in another relationship.” When a baby unexpectedly dies, we can say, “This is evidence that I am just not ready to be a parent,” or we can say, “I will join a support group to help other parents, who are enduring this inestimable loss, and make a way through the darkness of grief.” We cannot control what happens to us in life, but we can decide how we will respond to our chaotic circumstances.

When the unexpected happens, will I choose respond with faith or fear? Will that which does not kill me make me more cynical or more sensitive? Will I use my experience of pain to hurt or to help? The choice is up to us.

May the powers of creativity, compassion, and courage, which are already within you, be your guide, your strength, and your hope as you go out into the world. May each of you become meaning-makers in the midst of chaos, today and every day.

So say we all.


1. I adapted the extended metaphor of the monkeys at the computer from Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett.

2. I am indebted to Karl E. Peters for the conception of creative process as an interplay between chaos and order, especially in regards to genetic mutation and natural selection. See especially his book, Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God.

To Err is Divine

Matthew 9:9-17

Karl E. Peters writes: “To err is divine.”

This phrase feels uncomfortable to most religious practitioners in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We have been conditioned to think of the Divine as an all-powerful being who has established unchanging standards of truth and righteousness in the world. Peters, on the other hand, identifies “God” as “the creative process working in our midst.”

Biological evolution happens by mistake. Mutations are copy errors in an organism’s genetic code. Most genetic mutations have a neutral or adverse effect on an organism’s chances for survival, but some of them turn out to be beneficial. When a mutation gives an organism a survival advantage, that error gets incorporated into the genetic code and is more likely to shape future generations.

Cultural evolution happens in much the same way. When Jesus invited outcasts into his grassroots movement and challenged established moral and theological standards of his culture, the leaders of his culture regarded his actions as mistakes. The appointed guardians of tradition branded Jesus as a dangerous heretic because he did not practice his spirituality in the “right” way or with the “right” people.

The early followers of Jesus incorporated his tendencies toward inclusion and innovation into the cultural DNA of their movement. These cultural mutations gave that community the independence it needed to survive and thrive after the Roman Empire razed the second Jewish temple in 70CE. Other religious movements survived because they centered their faith and practice in the study of the Torah, rather than the rituals of the temple. These two movements evolved into the religious traditions we now recognize as Judaism and Christianity.

The following questions arise: What creative mistakes are we making in our lives today? How might today’s heretics become tomorrow’s leaders? How might “the creative process working in our midst” be adapting our communities to include new voices and invent new ways of doing things?

Peters asks:

“Are these mistakes mutations in religious thought that ought to be destroyed or might they be something else, a new and helpful way of portraying the sacred? That will be determined not by what I am saying. It will be determined only by how you and others respond, by whether these ideas help you make sense of your own experience in living.”

Karl E. Peters. Dancing with the sacred: evolution, ecology, and God (Trinity Press International: 2002).

is the space between
what is known and
what is new.

It is a constant
coming into existence.

No respecter
of who belongs
or how it’s done.

Some mistakes
turn out to be correct
and vice versa.

Some heretics
turn out to be prophets
and vice versa.

An Unexpected Party

A generic picture of a hobbit by Antoine Glédel. For the sake of argument, let’s just call him Bilbo. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.


“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

Don’t you hate that?  I sure do.  And what I hate most about it that it rings so true.  There is no plan so perfect, no system so airtight, and no arrangement so ideal that life cannot find some way to mess with it.  Sometimes, I just wish the universe could just leave well enough alone for once.  But, as we all know, that never happens.  Eventually, something comes along to change every circumstance, for better or worse.  Those of us who are invested in the way things are usually have the toughest time adjusting to the new situation (especially when we feel like we were just getting used to the old situation).  Life is frustrating that way.

Of course, we don’t mind sudden and unexpected change so much when it happens to other people.  In fact, we kind of relish it.  I think this is because it makes us feel better about the chaos in our own lives to watch others go through it and survive.  Just think: how many of your favorite books, TV shows, and movies involve plots where the hero is thrust into action against his/her will? 

Lately, I’ve been reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic, The Hobbit, with my four year old.  For those who haven’t read it, it’s the story of a hobbit, a little person, named Bilbo Baggins, who lives in a quiet little village in a land called the Shire, where life is simple and no one ever goes on adventures or does anything unexpected.  Hobbits like to eat, drink, work in their gardens, and watch fireworks.  Anything else is far too exciting for them.  Those who seek greener pastures and broader horizons are frowned upon by the rest of hobbit society.

Then, one fine day, a wizard named Gandalf the Grey shows up on Bilbo’s doorstep with a band of rowdy dwarves.  Suddenly, Bilbo finds himself unwittingly thrust into a most dreadful adventure, full of goblins, dragons, lost treasure, and one magic ring (that later proves to be most significant indeed).  He never asked for it and didn’t even really want to go on the trip.  He just wanted to stay home, read books, and smoke his pipe.  But the remarkable thing is that Bilbo only becomes the hero he’s destined to be because of all the unexpected things that happen to him along the way.  Those chaotic changes, for all their inconvenience, enable Bilbo to discover who he is and what he is capable of.  As readers, we can definitely agree that The Hobbit wouldn’t be much of a story without the unexpected changes.  After all, who would bother to read a book or see a movie where the hero never leaves home and never has any problems of any kind?  Nobody, that’s who.

Chaos, change, and conflict drive the plots of our favorite stories.  As it is in fiction, so it is in life.  If our lives didn’t keep getting interrupted by unfair and unwelcome changes, they wouldn’t be very interesting.  We would never learn what we are capable of.  We may hate the change and curse the chaos, but we need them because they make us into the heroes we’re meant to be.

This is what evolution looks like: the unfolding emergence of life through struggle and chaos.  When unexpected change comes, it is not the devil trying to steal your peace, it is God’s way calling you to new adventures of the spirit.

Jesus knew how to embrace the flow of this constantly unfolding process in life.  He talks about it somewhat enigmatically in today’s gospel reading.  He says in the beginning, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

If you look past the metaphors of fire and baptism, you can see Jesus talking about something that is not yet finished.  He is telling his followers that he is involved in something that is not yet completed.

Going on from there, he elaborates, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”  This is an unusually harsh thing for Jesus to say.  We’re used to thinking of him as the ultimate champion of world peace and family values, but here he talks about conflict and the breaking up of families due to his influence.  What are we supposed to make of that?

What I hear Jesus saying in this passage is that his job is not to uphold the status quo in life or society.  “The way things are/have been” is of little or no interest to Jesus.  His job, as he sees it, is to shake things up.

Understandably, this agenda would have been particularly frustrating to the religious leaders of his day, who saw it as their solemn and sacred duty to maintain the status quo and defend traditional family values.  In the eyes of the people, they were the ones who had all the answers when it came to issues of faith and morals.

But Jesus is challenging their authority.  He makes the claim that their so-called insight is really nothing more than pretense.  “You hypocrites!”  He says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

Jesus is exposing their so-called insight as deficient.  They, with all of their sophisticated arguments and developed systems of ethics, really have no special knowledge about the nature of reality beyond that which is available to everyone.  The word hypocrite, which Jesus uses here, is actually the Greek word for actor.  These leaders have built their reputation on pretending to have knowledge and insight.  They keep up appearances and see to it that the show goes on.

The implication is that, if they really had insight, they would be able to see this unfolding process that Jesus was describing in images of fire and baptism.  The truly wise among them would know that growth requires change and change is hard.  If they knew “how to interpret the present time,” as Jesus said, they would be open to interpreting the challenges of the future as opportunities presented by God for our growth and development, our evolution, as people of faith.  But, as it is, these close-minded authorities are simply standing in the way of God’s work with their beliefs, their tradition, and their family values.

This is a hard and enigmatic word that Jesus gives us today.  We mainline Protestants in the 21st century are really not all that different from the Pharisees of the first century.  We too are concerned about preserving what we have, especially when it comes to church, tradition, and family.

There’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I think it’s quite admirable to honor the best of what has been handed down to us from previous generations.  However, we have to always keep before us a sense of the renewing nature of faith in each generation.  The challenges that our grandparents faced are not the challenges that we face.  We would do their legacy a disservice if we were simply to repeat and regurgitate what they had passed down to us.

Our task, as believers in this day and age, is to make the Christian faith our own as we reinterpret and apply its message today.  Sometimes, this means doing away with old ways of thinking or doing things.  We have to be open to each new challenge, not as a threat against the integrity of our faith, but as an opportunity presented by God for our growth and development.

Holding this kind of perspective, which I call ‘seeing with the eyes of faith,’ will keep our attention focused where it needs to be: on the unique possibilities presented by each new situation as it arises.  As believers, we are called to face the future with the conviction that we are being loved and led into new beginnings.  That’s what faith is.

Our ancestors had to do adopt this risky perspective in times past.  The earliest Christians found their experience with Jesus to be at odds with traditional Judaism; John Calvin found his study of the Bible leading him to challenge established Catholic doctrine during the Protestant Reformation; other Christians at various times have been led to adopt new ways of thinking and living in relation to issues like the abolition of slavery, the theory of evolution, the ordination of women, and marriage equality for gay and lesbian people.

Change is nothing new for us Christians.  It goes all the way back to the very beginning of our faith, including Jesus himself, if we take today’s passage seriously.  For almost two thousand years, the Spirit of Christ has been kindling a fire in the hearts of people the world over.  This spiritual fire has put them at odds with their peers and mentors, who couldn’t understand that what was happening through them was the work of the Holy Spirit.  If we would honor our ancestors’ legacy, then we must open our hearts to that same inner fire of the Spirit.  We have to look at the constantly changing chaos around us as God’s gift for our evolution.

This church is about to enter into yet another one of these times of change.  After three wonderful years as your pastor, I will soon be moving on to a new call at another church.  I recognize that it’s easy for me to stand here this morning and ask you to embrace change with openness because I know exactly where I am going next and what I will be doing when I get there, while you remain here without so much knowledge.  It might even seem trite or cruel to hear these words from me, but I wouldn’t be your pastor if I didn’t challenge you to look beyond these present circumstances and see, with the eyes of faith, the hand of God leading you into new opportunities as a church.

Whatever the future looks like, it will not look like the past.  I can’t even guess what new realities will emerge for you from the womb of possibility.  What I do know, and what I can tell you is this: If the Holy Spirit is calling me to a new ministry, then the Holy Spirit is also calling you to a new ministry.  The question for you to answer is: what might that new ministry be?  I can’t answer that one for you.  What I can tell you is that the God who has been “our help in ages past” will continue to be “our hope for years to come.”  The same God who loved our ancestors into their new beginnings is faithful to love us into ours.  That much I know.  This much I trust.

My prayer for you, as I prepare to leave next week, is that you, as the Church of Christ, will embrace the challenge of the coming days in the spirit of faith, which looks for opportunities and possibilities.  Silence in yourselves the voices of fear and despair.  This church is neither dead nor dying.  We are alive with potential and bursting at the seams with possibility.  This church is a powder keg, waiting only for the fire of the Spirit to ignite us into explosive new realities. 

Trust this.  Be open to each new opportunity as it comes.  Like Bilbo Baggins, become the heroes you’re meant to be.  Honor the legacy of your ancestors by showing yourselves to be the kind of Christians who “know how to interpret the present time” through the eyes of faith.

The Arc of the Universe


Click here to listen to this sermon at

They say growing up is hard to do.  And I think they’re right.  Because growing up involves change and kids generally like to have a regular, predictable routine.  I remember one time when life interrupted my routine and I had to adjust to a new way of doing things.  It happened at the beginning of fifth grade.  I was having a hard time adjusting to my new classroom, my new teacher, and more challenging homework assignments.

When I finally had all I thought I could handle, I made an appointment to see the school guidance counselor, Mr. Arnold.  I walked into his office with my mind made up.  I had a plan.  I thought I already knew the solution to my problem, so I told him: “Mr. Arnold, this fifth grade stuff is too hard.  I don’t like my teacher, I can’t keep up with the material, and I’m just not happy here.  I’m obviously not ready for this.  I think I just need to back to fourth grade.”

Well, you can imagine what Mr. Arnold’s response was.  When he finally stopped laughing, he told me in no uncertain terms that returning to the fourth grade was not an option.  Then he introduced me to a new word, one that I’ve carried with me ever since.  To be honest, I think he made it up, but it describes so well what I was doing by asking to go back to fourth grade.  Mr. Arnold’s word was awfulizing.  He said, “You’re awfulizing this situation, and no, you can’t go back to the fourth grade.”  And then he explained what he meant by that:  my ten-year-old self was choosing to see only the negative parts of fifth grade and blowing them out of all rational proportion until I convinced myself that the only solution was to go backwards and stay in my old comfort zone.  By awfulizing the situation, I was basically just giving in to despair and giving up on life.  I was refusing to trust that life had given me enough resilience and adaptability to rise up and meet this new challenge.

Despair can be a powerful sedative.  Awfulizing, while cathartic, is an addictive anesthetic that keeps us from feeling our growing pains.  The upside is that it numbs our pain, but the downside is that it stunts our growth.  Evolution only happens through struggle.  Life has to be pushed past its previously known limits in order to adapt to new environments.

This is never easy.  When it happens in the biosphere, there is always struggle and the imminent risk of failure and death.  When it happens in the struggle for social justice, people stand up against powerful and entrenched institutions, like oppressive regimes, unjust laws, multinational corporations, and long-held beliefs, prejudices, and assumptions.  Change only happens slowly and with great effort.  Activist movements often struggle for generations before they reap a harvest from their labors.  They endure persecution, ostracism, imprisonment, and death.  Many lose hope and give up the fight along the way, but those who persevere become the catalysts for our social and spiritual evolution.  For example, who could have guessed on the night of the Stonewall riots that, within a generation, several countries, the president of the United States, multiple states, and even a few religious institutions would recognize the right to marriage equality?

Change happens slowly, but it does indeed happen.  Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Not many know this, but Dr. King was actually adapting the words of the famous 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker.  Parker said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways… But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

These words have been a source of comfort and hope to many in the struggle for justice.  But the question arises, How do we know?  How can one be so sure that this universe is arranged in such a way that we can be sure that right will win out in the end?  Well, the short answer is that we don’t.  Philosophers are quick to point out the naturalistic fallacy, a rule (if you will) of critical thinking which states that one cannot derive an Ought from an Is.  In other words, you cannot logically draw a definitive conclusion about the way things should be based on the way things are.  Take, for example, the following popular label on food and drug products: Contains All Natural Ingredients.  We consumers are supposed to look at that and think that, because the ingredients are all natural, they must therefore be good for you.  But we know that’s not true.  You want to know what else is natural?  Arsenic, Plutonium, and Hydrochloric Acid.  These things contain all natural ingredients as well, but I wouldn’t want to put any of them inside my body!  Just because something is natural doesn’t necessarily make it good.

So, how then can Rev. Parker and Dr. King say that the arc of the universe “bends toward justice”?

Well, I think we can start by looking at the facts.  There are certain things we know about the universe that we would almost certainly label as good.  How about the fact that we are here?  We exist.  Most would accept that fact as both true and good.  How then did this favorable state of affairs come about?

Let me tell you a story: it takes place on a planet where a race of life forms has learned how to extract a vital resource from its environment.  The downside is that the extraction process gives off a toxic gas that poisons the atmosphere.  These life forms, with wanton disregard for anything other than their own immediate needs, willingly pollute the atmosphere of their planet for generation after generation until the air is saturated with poison.  Yet, even then they continued their pollution.  They kept going until the vast majority of life on their planet had been eradicated.

This sounds like a sad beginning to a dystopian science fiction story, doesn’t it?  But it’s not.  There’s a lot more science than fiction in this story because it happened right here on our planet about 2.4 billion years ago in what scientists call the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE).  In the GOE, anaerobic cyanobacteria figured out how to extract hydrogen from water molecules.  The poisonous air pollution that resulted from this process was a toxic gas known as oxygen.  We don’t think of oxygen as pollution nowadays because we need it to live and breathe, but there was a time when it caused our planet’s first pollution crisis.  The fact that we are here now, breathing oxygen, is a testament to life’s amazing capacity to endure and adapt.

They say, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”  You could say that’s certainly true in our case, where we now depend on oxygen for our very survival.  We could say that one era’s pollution is another era’s air!

Life is amazing, isn’t it?  The universe has taken almost 14 billion years to produce the people sitting in this room right now.  You and I are sitting here as the end-result of billions of years of evolutionary success.  Of course, we can’t say that it was all good, but I think most of us would agree that something must have gone right along the way!  We’ve gone from single-celled organisms to fish, to dinosaurs, to mammals, to primates, to humans.  We are the heirs of a vast evolutionary inheritance passed down from generations of ancestors leading all the way back to the stars themselves, in whose furnaces the atoms of our bodies were forged.

We’ve come so far, across eons and light years, to sit together in this room today.  That’s quite a pilgrimage!  We’ve overcome so much strain and adversity.  The odds were (exponentially) against us ever getting here in the first place, but we beat the odds.  We are here.  We have overcome.  In the words of Dr. King, we have hewn “out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” a precious jewel set into the ring of our being.  Our very existence on this planet is a testimony to hope.

Other ancestors have testified to this hope as well.  I’m thinking primarily of our predecessors in the liberal religious tradition: the Universalists.  They were the great prophets of hope.  They were the first to jettison doctrines of hellfire and damnation from their religion.  They refused to give up on anyone because they believed there is hope for all.  They taught that there is a place for everyone in this world and that all things will eventually come together for good.  Rev. John Murray, one of the founders of Universalism in America, once said, “You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men [and women]. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.”

Liberal Universalist faith was founded on hope.  We are gathered here this morning as heirs of both the evolutionary and the Universalist legacies of hope.  We have more reason than most to draw strength and courage from this faith.

Sure, we can’t guarantee that any particular struggle for liberty or justice will immediately end in our favor.  No one can promise that.  But it seems, based on our scientific and religious history, that life itself can be trusted.  Life endures.  Life adapts.  Life overcomes.  This tendency seems to be woven into the fabric of the evolutionary process itself.  To put it in human terms, using symbolic language:

When we stand on the side of love, the universe stands with us.

“The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

This assertion, far from being a justification for fatalism and inaction, has the capacity to fill us with hope, strength, and courage.  When Desmond Tutu’s church in South Africa was once invaded and surrounded by a SWAT team during Sunday services, he stopped his sermon, calmly looked around, smiled, and said, “Since you have already lost, I would like to invite you to come and join the winning side.”  At this, the congregation erupted with joy and began dancing… right out into the street where more soldiers were waiting, weapons at the ready.  Not knowing what else to do, they stepped aside and let the dancers pass by unharmed.

Desmond Tutu’s faith that equality and justice would win out over evil in the end was the source of his amazing strength to keep going when the cause itself seemed hopeless.  His faith proved stronger and more enduring than the powers of Apartheid.  The strength of life itself flowed up and out through his heart, mind, and body as he committed his whole self to the evolution of the human spirit and society.

My hope this morning is that you and I might choose to trust life and embrace the faith of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, and Theodore Parker.  May we come to know and feel the long, gentle arc of the universe, bending inexorably toward justice.  May we draw strength from this hope and rise again to meet the challenges of injustice, trusting that, no matter what happens, life will overcome.

May it be so.

Be blessed and be a blessing.

Thoughts on New Year’s Eve

Carina NebulaAbout to turn over another page in the calendar.  Feeling stuck?  Like life and everything else is just going around in circles without ever getting anywhere?

Not technically true.

Consider this: as each day passes, our planet rotates on its axis and moves forward in its orbit around the sun.  Our sun is revolving around the center of our galaxy.  Our galaxy, along with hundreds and millions of others, is being thrust further and further out into space by the momentum left over from the Big Bang.

Technically speaking: it’s a spiral, not a circle.  You’ve never actually been to the same place twice.  Your life is going somewhere.

Taken metaphorically, this gives me food for reflection.

For the past few years, I’ve felt increasingly drawn to elements of Process Theology, expressed by the likes of John Cobb and Monica Coleman, and what is coming to be known as the Evolutionary perspective on Christianity, which I have discovered through the writings of Michael Dowd and Diarmuid O’Murchu.  As a result of this exposure, I find it difficult to espouse with much sincere conviction platitudes like, “God has a plan.”

It might sound especially strange to hear this from a Presbyterian, one of the theological descendants of John Calvin and the Westminster divines, all of whom were famous for their devotion to the doctrine of predestination.  But then again, our Reformed tradition is constantly and consciously reforma, semper reformanda (“reformed, and always reforming/being reformed/to be reformed”).

Absolute labels like Omnipotence and Sovereignty create insurmountable theological and philosophical problems for many people when applied to a theistic deity.  They can be barriers to authentic growth in faith.

Rather than believing in God as an all-powerful outside entity who controls everything according to a preordained plan, I have come to trust in the God who influences all things from the inside according to an evolving vision (or dream as I heard one friend put it), which is Love.  For me, the almighty-ness of God lies in Her infinite adaptability.  The victory of God is in the faithfulness of God.  In other words: God wins because She keeps adapting and never gives up.

Creativity in pursuit of Love is the hand of God at work in the world.

Reflecting on these theological thoughts in light of my opening remarks about the earth, sun, and galaxy, I get the sense that we’re all going somewhere, even though none of us (maybe not even God) is entirely sure where…

The Biological Advantage of Being Awestruck

Here is a link to a video by Jason Silva that’s sure to blow your mind on a Monday morning.  It’s only about 3 minutes long and worth every second.

From a Stanford study, it has been found that exposure to ‘awe’ at regular intervals leads to an increase in empathy, compassion, increased feelings of altruism and general well being.

I found it on Facebook via Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer Oget.

Many thanks!


Re-blogged from the United Church of Christ’s Stillspeaking daily devotional.

Original source:

Excerpt from Ezekiel 37:1-14

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones…I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

Reflection by Quinn G. Caldwell

Here’s what the story says: dry bones are not the final state of things.  Death will not win.  Here’s what it says: life wins.

Here’s what it doesn’t say: that they were human bones.  Or that those bones went back together in their original order.  Or that the bodies at the end were the same as the bodies in the beginning.

We tell this story as if it’s only about humans, as if we’re the only species God loves enough to waste the energy on.  But this is the God that notes the fall of every sparrow, right?  Surely God noted the fall of every pterodactyl.  Surely, God noticed the fate of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis just as fully as he does that of the hominid Homo sapiens.

99% of all the different species that once lived are now extinct.  And yet, the place is full of life.  Why?  Because God does not let extinction win.  The dinosaurs go down to bones and molecules, and the mammals rise up to take their place.  Homo habilis goes extinct, and up rises Homo sapiens.  One very particular Homo sapiens goes down to dust, and rises up the King of Heaven.

Death happens, but so does resurrection.  Extinction happens, but so does evolution.  And if our bones fit together differently when we walk out of the valley than when we walked in, maybe that’s not so bad.  I mean, you’re better looking than Paranthropus boisei any day.


For evolution, thank you.  For resurrection, thank you.  For not giving me a protruding brow ridge and shallow brain pan, thank you, thank you, thank you.  Amen.

Evolutionary Thoughts: Where’s Waldo?

One of my students in class jokingly compared God to the famous stripey-shirted figure of Where’s Waldo? fame.  In the funniest rendering of the “God of the gaps” problem, he depicted the divine as constantly reshaping the earth and changing the laws of physics in order to stay hidden from the eyes of humanity.

Not quite plausible, but still hilarious!

Anyway, it reminded me of this passage from Diarmuid O’Murchu:

The universe knows what it’s about.  The fact that it does not make sense to us humans, that it often baffles us to extremes and undermines all our theories and expectations, is not a problem for the universe; it is a problem for us.  We, therefore, impetuously conclude that the universe does not care about us or about anything else; like the selfish genes, it too unfolds along its blind, lifeless path.

But is a blind, lifeless path likely to produce stars and galaxies, supernova explosions and quasars, planets and atoms, bacteria and photosynthesis, and creatures of such enormous diversity?  Instead of viewing it all as mindless, why not work with the opinion that it is mindful?  Not only would that make exploration more productive and hopeful; it would also make it a great deal more exciting, energizing, and engaging.

We also need to transcend this fretful preoccupation with where or how God comes into the whole picture.  Theologians seem to be nervously concerned with keeping God in, while scientists are desperate to keep God out.  I suspect that God is bemusedly puzzled by our human reactions.

Diarmuid O’Murchu, Evolutionary Faith, p. 199

Evolutionary Thoughts: The Paradox of Resurrection

Yes, we are a resurrected people.  Evolution has been telling us that since time immemorial.  Resurrection is the mythical/religious name we give to the triumph of matter over antimatter, life over death, meaning over meaninglessness, cosmos over chaos.  But it is also the name we give to that baffling transformative process that requires paradox – apparent contradiction – as an essential ingredient in every transformation, whether personal or global…

Assuredly, not everything in our world is in harmony, and often we are overwhelmed by mysterious forces that push our sanity and sanctity to their very limits.  But before we address these big questions, let’s get our own house in order.  Let’s begin by resolving and dissolving all the meaningless suffering that we ourselves cause either directly or indirectly.  Then the chances are that the other great paradoxes that baffle and confuse us will not seem that irrational anymore.  We then will be in a position to understand with greater wisdom and equanimity the paradoxically creative Spirit who energizes the E-mergent miracle of our evolving universe.

Then, too, we are likely to be more at peace with the paradoxical enigmas of each day.  With graced intuition we will be more at ease about the fact that death is a precondition for new life; we do not know why, but it is.  Chaos is the fermenting ground for creative order; light is meaningless without the dark; pain and beauty have a strange familiarity; suffering awakens us into compassion.  The evolutionary cycle of creation and destruction manifests itself in every realm of life and permeates every recess of our being.

Diarmuid O’Murchu, Evolutionary Faith (p. 107-108)