Thursday, April 26, 2012


Over the last decade or so, I’ve significantly reformed my core understanding of Religion. I’ve spoken to you, through my sermons, about the changes.

By the 1990s, I advocated a postmodern point of view.

Postmodern is a term popularized in the late 20th century to describe a transformed, post World War II world—a world of proliferating images, ideas, communication, and travel.(Television is often offered as a significant and symbolic phenomenon of postmodernity.) The proliferation resulted in fragmentation, along with a sense there was no longer any unifying point of view. Everything is relative, a matter of the “eye of the beholder.” For example a woman’s experience offers a different experience than a man’s; a gay person sees the world differently than does a straight; and so on and on. 

Systems of belief continually deconstruct, a word often used in conjunction with postmodern.

Simply stated, I’ve long argued that the modern era was petering out in the late 19th century and finished by the utter horror of World War I. There were a number of thinkers who anticipated and realized the end of the modern era, such as Nietzsche who by the mid-1880s had proclaimed the Death of God. (This really meant that a long prevailing Western Christian worldview/value system no longer prevailed.) A favorite voice of postmodernism is Albert Schweitzer. Among his extensive accomplishments, he was a preeminent Christian theologian. At the turn of the century Schweitzer declared that the great organizing principle of Western Civilization, what he summarized the will-to-progress, was no longer was valid. (His striving to find a new organizing principle resulted in his Reverence for Life Ethic.).

Postmodernism offers a variety of outlooks, while deconstructing any one system that claims overarching authority. 

I like to use the concept, the category of postmodern, because it provokes us into confronting, what has become, in our lifetime, a radically altered world.

I lift up courage and faith, two attributes a successful postmodern person embodies: courage to face honestly Life’s complexity; and faith that to think and act with such courage is never to fail, really, no matter the consequences. It is to be an unflinching Realist.


As a balance to postmodernism’s ambiguities and relativisms, I delved deeply into the dialectic between Science and Religion. (Any contemporary Religion worth its salt, must engage in such a conversation.) My rational UUism bent me toward the authority of Science, yet I strove to maintain the positive outlook and practical results of Religion, if only the seeking of meaning and purpose—my estimation of what Religion is essentially concerned with.

In the late 1990s, I dedicated one sermon a month for an entire year to explore the transformations that science and science’s handmaiden, technology, had wrought in a relatively short time. I described the rudiments of a new mythopoetic telling of the origin and the evolution of the universe. I collected these sermons under the title of Manifesto for Meaning, in which I summarized emerging understandings of the human condition through exciting new disciplines: socio-biology, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience.  

I contended that scientific findings--reasonable truths--trumped traditional statements of faith and personal intuitions of belief. I also contended, with the likes of Richard Dawkins, that science leads to a kind of consciousness or experience that is deep and rich:  “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver.” Such a response is analogous to, if not the same as, traditional religious experience.

A sermon of that era, "Light of Science" won a prize and was included in a Templeton Foundation anthology of contemporary essays about changing attitudes toward God.  [Expanding Humanity's Vision of God: New Thoughts on Science and Religion] My essay called for a new mythopoetic telling, true to science, of the origin and evolution of the universe.

The most compelling aspect of science’s discoveries relative to Religion concerned a still emerging understanding of the so-called moral nature of humankind as being primarily intuitive/instinctual rather than rational. Social/evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt talk about five inherent moral instincts: a sense of the value of one’s own and others’ life—do no harm; a sense of fairness or justice; a sense of community—group loyalty;  a reasonable respect for authority; and a sense of purity. Now these instincts are surely nuanced by nurture and experience. Still, recent studies find that we act/react unconsciously, while almost instantly forming rationalizations. Simply stated, evolution has hardwired us with instincts that have insured our species survival. There is a universal and normative moral instinct with an exception that evolutionary psychologist wrestle with—psychopathy. About one per cent of the population appears to lack the affect most often called compassion—or fellow-feeling.

In such a scientific light, we, the 99%, are surely moral creatures. We have no choice (unless we fall in the psychopath spectrum) but to be unconsciously moral, acting from our instincts, before rationalizing why we do what we do. (Indeed the whole question of free will comes into question as we strive to understand the human condition.)

[In an aside, one of the books du jour is Jonathan Haidt’s very recent The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, offering a much-appreciated explanation of the conservative/liberal divide and the red state/blue state alignments. I recommend it as an important read in a contentious election year.]


This brings me to a few thoughts regarding ethics. Ethics is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong. (I remember a song from the 1960’s that had in it a simple expression of ethics, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Treat Your Children Well: "You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by."

The road is metaphorical—it’s our life-long journey. And a code is an ethic. Because we are conscious as well as self-conscious creatures of a moral nature, who also seek meaning and purpose, we need and therefore create codes. Such codes are also the means by which we pass on through our progeny what we value. As a post modern religionist, I’ve wrestled with how we can effectively and efficaciously reach and teach ethics in a postmodern era of complexity and ambiguity.

I’ve settled upon a mosaic approach. A couple of  years ago I created an occasional blog that I called “Ethics for Postmoderns” and began posting the focused ethical outlook of important 20th century persons, each who offered an ethical shard to contribute to a larger human mosaic.

As I ran across an ethical shard, I posted a summary. The voices on my site include the predictable: Albert Schweitzer on Reverence for Life; Martin Luther King Jr. on Unconditional Love; Rachel Carson on an Environmental Ethic of Personal Experience; and Peter Singer on Animal Liberation. I’ve also found ethical shards from public intellectuals and writers such as John Steinbeck and Hannah Arendt. I also found ethical shards from politicians: Franklin Roosevelt’s Moral Order of Freedoms and Rights, Barbara Jordan’s Ethic of the Common Good, and quite surprising to me Herbert Hoover’s Ethic of Equality of Opportunity. 

What I’ve found in building my blog Ethics for Postmoderns are a host of important, though relatively narrow ethical outlooks, each which resonates to one of the five moral instincts: do no harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity. Each by itself is compelling because we resonate to it.

Religion excites me now more than forty years ago when I first began to study it. Back then, I yearned for substance, more than mere faith or philosophy. I drifted toward the underpinnings of religious experience as understood through psychology, particularly the work of Carl Jung as authority. But even then, I recognized the speculative nature of such a soft science as psychology. 

We now have at our disposal an ever-growing cache of solid evidence of who we are—as a species and individually. My hope for Unitarian Universalism is that it will lead the way in reforming Religion so that fundamental yearning of the human condition will find communal, as well as personal,  encouragement and nurture.


Another major shift in my personal perspective vis a vis Religion involves the notion of a philosophy of life. Recently, I’ve spoken to Stoicism, recommending its timeless outlook and contemporary relevance. I’ve written a book, my personal take, on the eccentric outlook of the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, an agnostic philosophy of life embedded in the Hebrew and Christian canon. Ecclesiastes recommends seize the day through ordinary wisdom. The aim of a philosophy of life is that elusive yet palpable concept of happiness

A philosophy of life can function independently or it can supplement a traditional religious point, so says a leading scholar of Stoicism, William B. Irvine in his recent book about Stoic Joy. In a culture that is becoming less formally religious—the fastest growing component of the population claim no formal religious affiliation, often self-describing as spiritual rather than religious—a philosophy has traction.

Personally, I find myself bending toward a common sense, philosophy of life point of view, resonant to one’s own experience and centered in wisdom. Each of us can register, from within our own experience whether or not we are happy. (Our American system, from the Declaration of Independence through today, tells us that one of our unalienable rights as a citizen, along with life and liberty, is the pursuit of happiness.)

There are many reasons why I’ve been drawn to the Book of Ecclesiastes, a slim work of a mere 5500 words, but packed with so much. It is an inquiry into happiness and in part is set as a narrative of the great king Solomon. The narrative becomes more expansive when joined to two other books attributed to Solomon, The Song of Songs, and the Book of Proverbs. These three books relate to the stages of Solomon’s life: his lusty youth, his wise middle years, and his more reflective, even pessimist final years. Ecclesiastes takes the measure of the first two thirds of Solomon’s life as well as the realistic debilitations of age and inevitable death into account.

The conclusion, stated several times throughout the text is to acquire wisdom, work hard, enjoy the gifts life of life with the one you love. Yet implicitly, through Solomon’s example, Ecclesiastes recommends to make a test of your life moving appropriately through the ages and stages seizing each day, indeed each moment then moving on, letting go of what time proves to be of transitory value. What is kept I call wisdom, an ever-growing understanding of self in time and place, best expressed in pithy aphorisms.

For me, wisdom is the most enduring aspect of a life lived appropriately and fully. Wisdom accumulates within one’s own life and lasts in myriad cultural deposits, such as the Book of Ecclesiastes. Wisdom is the large category that contains enduring values of self and culture.

From a philosophy of life perspective, what endures? This is what I’ve found and with which conventional wisdom agrees.

Life matters. The old Stoics recommended that one should now and again reflect upon mortality. The Latin term is memento mori. The reflection need only be fleeting, and it should bring you to a realization and appreciation of the fleeting moment. Consistent with our moral instincts, the realization of one’s own life leads to empathy and compassion with other life and the Web of Existence. For each of us there is no greater gift than our life, nothing more precious than the life around us. Nature has bought Life into being and found clever means to pass Life through the generations. 

The Mind matters. Experience joined to more formal education, processed by imagination and reason, produces our individual consciousnesses. Each of us is a rich and complex world, unique and at the center of the universe. Let us be curious and free thinking.

Connections/Relationships matters.  By nature, we humans are social creatures. We’re all in this together. Simply put we need one another for a variety of reasons and purposes.  The deeper connections go by the name of love. My recently deceased colleague Forrest Church proposed that our immortality rests upon love, the love that endures though we have died. The philosopher Martin Buber beguiled us with transcendent nature of subject-subject encounters, the purest state of being reaching to the Divine. A deep or mystical consciousness recognizes the extent of our connections, which we often express as an ‘interdependent web of existence.”

My fourth and final enduring value is work and the results of work. Work matters.  Ecclesiastes declares, “Whatever your hands finds to do, do with all your might.” I agree. Work is the means by which we meet the world, discover self, and make our special contribution, embedding our values just where we are.
When I first started my ministry, I took to heart a wise colleague’s advice on how to attain immortality: plant a tree, raise a child, or write a poem—all aspects of one’s Life work.

Happiness flows from an ever-growing alignment of self with enduring values.

Hold LIFE in a gentle/strong embrace.


Let your MIND be free and expansive.

Do your WORK, your vocation as well as your avocation, with dedication and purpose.

Infuse these enduring values into your life and you will repose in happiness.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Historical Jesus: Symbol of Human Liberation

On the High Road to Taos
Last week, Palm Sunday, I related anecdotes from a 1995 sabbatical road trip I framed during the Season of Lent.  My study theme, to justify my peripatetic idleness, involved a search of Religion in America.  I kept a log of my experiences trekking from New Orleans during Mardi Gras to Chimayo, New Mexico, where I visited the celebrated Sanctuary, the “Lourdes of America,” on Good Friday.  (Part of my discipline was to write daily.)  From that journal, I have an unpublished manuscript titled The Quest for the Light Green, Glow in the Dark, Plastic Jesus

The title references a doleful Cajun man in an electric blue jumpsuit, with raccoon eyes and deeply tanned skin, enveloped in a cloud of pipe tobacco smoke, whose handiwork I found in his wife’s second store in New Iberia, Louisiana.  He had a story, a scheme, and a design for making crosses from native wood gathered in nearby swamps.  He asserted he was on a mission of God.  He maintained that Providence guided his work.  And after he learned of my road trip, he declared I was a divinely sent emissary to locate what he needed to complete his project:  light green plastic glow in the dark corpora. [These were the innocent days before the Internet. Now a Google search results almost immediately in an outpouring of corpora, including the phosphorescent sort my acquaintance sought.]

A focus of my journey was New Mexico, the High Road to Taos along the spine of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I hoped to experience the remnants of the Penitentes, the secular brotherhood that arose in territorial times when Spain lost control of these northern settlements during an Indian uprising.  The laity formed a brotherhood of mutual exhortation, when there were no priests.  The brotherhood gathered small groups and built their own stark meeting houses, known as moradas.  Much of the secret activity in the moradas reached a high tide during Holy Week.  They flagellated themselves with yucca whips as penance and even staged mock crucifixions during which some brothers may have died.  (The novel Brave New World has images of Penitente behavior and the hero John‘s demise echoes Penitente self-flagellation and sacrifice.)

In the Sangre de Cristo Mountains I found active Penitente activity that culminated in a small town on the East side of the mountains, near the source of the Pecos River, Anton de Chico, where I went for a Good Friday service at the traditional three o’clock hour.  I found the church empty, the town, too.  However, I discovered that the townspeople were processing to a morada on the outside of town—a genuine Penitente procession.  Witnessing this phenomenon made my trek a success.

Earlier on that Good Friday I crossed from the west to the east side of the Sangre de Cristos.  At the top of the pass between the two sides, I was listening to NPR’s Terry Gross of Fresh Air.  She was interviewing my favorite theologian of the day John Dominic Crossan of DePaul.  He was talking about his new biography of Jesus that resulted from his association with the monumental Jesus Project of the 1980s.  I will not forget the final question Ms. Gross asked Crossan, a priest who had left his order and married.  “And where will you go to Church on Easter Sunday?”  Crossan didn’t hesitate, “I don’t go to church anymore.  I prefer not to get upset by what’s spoken from the pulpit.”

That was one of my truly unexpected perfect days.
As most of you know I grew up nominally Catholic in the 1950s in a rather sterile star-up parish in suburban Wilmington DE, around the corner from a large Unitarian Church. There wasn’t much that engaged me as a Catholic youth. What I knew about Jesus came from the mass’s weekly New Testament reading, often from a gospel, and from the homilies that the priests quickly dispensed with, even when trying to make transparent the parables that Jesus often spoke.

When I decided to become a Unitarian minister in 1970, I reckoned I should at least read the Bible.  I bought a fat Oxford annotated edition of the Old and New Testaments before leaving Burlington VT and UVM’s graduate school, where I studied history. I intended to read it from Genesis to Revelations. I vaguely remember trying to comprehend it while sunbathing on a Canadian beach the year before I made my great leap of faith and attended the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montreal.  The little of the Bible I managed to consume without assistance made scant sense.

At McGill, I learned the rudiments of traditional Protestant ologies and isms, including Christology—the nature and meaning of Jesus.  I did well in these academic studies, maybe because I didn’t have a dog in the fight, as did my more traditionally churched classmates who had their creeds and beliefs challenged by a purely scholarly approach to scripture and doctrine.

Simultaneously, I was reading up on Unitarianism and Universalism, particularly Unitarianism.

Albert Schweitzer and The Quest

From the academic side, Albert Schweitzer’s epic study The Quest of the Historical Jesus had great influence on me.  Schweitzer was an eminent theologian of the turn of the century era.  He declared that what is now called the “first quest for the historical Jesus” beginning in the 18th century, had reached its limits, because nineteenth century scholars had exhausted evidence of the biblical materials.  I quickly surmised that the Unitarian point of view that emerged in the early 19th century was influenced by an historical understanding of Jesus, an aspect of what Schweitzer call at the end of the century “the historical quest of Jesus.).

Schweitzer’s conclusion considered Jesus’s point of view as apocalyptic and the resulting ethic he preached was therefore an interim ethic for his immediate generation. In his own life, Schweitzer left a brilliant career in theology and became a physician attending natives as a medical missionary in French Equatorial Africa.  Schweitzer’s work reflected the reality of helping to save a world without.)

As a fledgling “theolog” my earlier impression of Jesus incorporated a large piece of Schweitzer’s outlook.  (I began to think Jesus’ ethic as purified because of an anticipated imminent end.)  In particular, I maintained that Jesus must be seen in light of Jesus’s clear contention that the world would soon end.  (This was also the message of John the Baptist.) Jesus’s message, as well as his demanding ethic, wasn’t well-suited for later generations.

Unitarianism Reforms Jesus

Around the same time, my Unitarian and Universalist ramblings began a study of rational, foundational assertions of our founders at the turn of the 18th into the 19th century. These formative thinkers found that there no Doctrine of a Trinity in the Bible, therefore Jesus, though inspired, perhaps divinely, was not God. (Hence the moniker Unitarian.)  I encountered the significant, original texts of Unitarianism’s great three founders: Channing, Emerson, and Parker, c. 1820-1850.

William Ellery Channing, recognized as the founder/voice of early Unitarianism, offered this portrait of Jesus as summarized by a current scholar of New England Transcendentalism, Robert Michael Ruehl:   “His message was not new; he was communicating the truth of God, which had been around from the beginning of creation. Jesus had another mission in this world besides the articulation of God's divine truth; his mission was to model a godly life. He was a role model for the entire world who was disclosing how people should live their life with love and compassion.  In this way, Christ's example passed on to the rest of the world the need to take seriously our predicament and the need to alter our lives. Christ, for Channing, was a role model who revealed a morally flawless life that urged people to morally perfect their own life through their free choice.”  Channing’s Jesus was a moral exemplar and a practical inspiration, the shining example of salvation b character.

“Jesus, then, is a means to an end. People need to give their allegiance to Jesus in order to follow his example. By following this example, we paradoxically will go beyond Jesus by becoming more Christ like. In other words, the more people strive to follow the example of Jesus, the more they will cultivate the divine likeness within themselves. This will bring them closer to God. By perpetually becoming closer to God, the centrality of Christ diminishes.”

The Transcendentalist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker took Channing’s notion of Jesus’s divine likeness even farther in a famous 1842 sermon” The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.”  Parker asserted that the person of Jesus though historical, isn’t essential to Christianity. In that long ago sermon Parker declared that if there had been no Jesus and therefore no Christianity as we have come to know it, still there would be the same absolute religion though but with a different name. The divine presence that is part and parcel of every human being would have found another person or persons to utter selfsame imperatives. This absolute religion, named by some Christianity, is inevitable and universal, for we know it through historical Jesus.  But it is not particular to Jesus, for it is within all souls.  (We just sang a hymn, penned by our founding minister William Channing Gannett:  “It sounds along the ages, soul answering to soul…”)

In his “Divinity School Address,” Emerson expressed the notion of innate divinity, once, perhaps most eloquently; “Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’”

What today we call our first UU principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” echoes the natural revelation Channing, Emerson, and Parker recognized in Jesus. I can draw converging line from then to now.

The Jesus Seminar

Through the mid-1990s I held Jesus to be a moral exemplar, a mythic personification of the notion of divinity: “the best in you and me.”  (Here I nodded to Joseph Campbell’s popular The Power of Myth.) I believed that Jesus had been ravished by a sense of an imminent apocalypse, so his teachings and ethics were rarified—and therefore curiously pure.  Adapting the metaphorical language of this day, Jesus’s teachings and his life represented a “bucket list” outlook—how to behave before the world ends.

My appreciation of Jesus expanded in the 1990’s when I became familiar with the results and findings of what was called the Jesus Seminar—important theologians and philosophers who fueled what is known as the “third quest for the historical Jesus.”  This extraordinary group of scholars proved Schweitzer was wrong nearly a century before, the quest hadn’t been exhausted.  In the final decades of the 20th century, new scholarship, including a storehouse of information from archeology and refined forms of biblical criticism, opened up an unanticipated door of interest in the person Jesus who lived two thousand years ago.  The Jesus Seminar first took upon themselves the task of deciding what could be reasonably attributed to Jesus as authentic utterances and activities from New Testament and extra-Testament source—most notably the Gospel of Thomas. They secretly voted on the authenticity of text and published their results.

Once they reached consensus, the individual participants began to write their interpretations of the historical Jesus.  I remain excited by the new portrait of an historical Jesus that emerged.  I became fond of the works of the previously mentioned John Dominic Crossan, particularly his slim work titled Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography

My favorite takeaways from Crossan’s books involved the significance of the stories regarding the meals that Jesus ate and a related term commensality—the fellowship of the table.  That Jesus sat with women and tax collectors, according to Crossan, indicated the radical egalitarianism that Jesus practiced, breaking down class and status distinctions.  Jesus also sought to tear down all the barriers that stood between an individual and her or his God—unmediated relationships.  (Incidentally, Crossan challenged the Traditional teachings regarding Jesus’s death and resurrection concluding there was no tomb and his physical body may well have been ravaged from a shallow grave by animals.)

The Jesus Seminar’s work, in my estimation, revivified the person of Jesus, consonant with the contentions of our UU tradition, further taking him into contemporary expressions of personal spirituality and social justice, as in liberation theology.  Two millennia after his crucifixion, he remains a revolutionary threat to religious and political realms.  I like what another Chicago philosopher, Thomas Sheehan, then of Loyola and member of the Jesus Seminar, declared in the mid-1980s:  “Jesus is a symbol of human liberation.” 

In what may be my final Easter sermon, I’ve returned to the traditional theme of Jesus, and offered a UU answer to the timeless question Jesus posed to his disciples, according to the Gospel of Mark:  “Who do men say that I am?”

He is a symbol of human liberation, not for some but for all.

To each of you: may you be free enough and open enough and wise enough to encounter the historical Jesus. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Old Elm: A Requiem in Words

            A gracious elm on the berm of our east lawn is dying.  The village forester, Reese, arrived in the church office a few Friday’s ago and pronounced the elm fatally infected with a deadly fungus—what everyone knows as “Dutch elm disease.”   He wanted us to know that it  was coming down for the sake of other elms.

            I had questions for Reese: 

  • How old do you think it is?  “Oh, about ninety years,” he said.  I did the math.   The tree was planted in the first or second decade of the twentieth century; some twenty to thirty years after UCH was founded.
  • How did the tree get infected? “It probably got the disease through root grafts,” he reckoned.
  •  What are root grafts?  “The roots of a nearby, infected tree literally grafts its roots on the roots of the big elm, or vice versa,” he explained.  I imagined a hidden working, the twining of roots in the moist, dark, cool earth, and elm melding with elm.
  • When will you cut it down?  “In a week or two.”  A pang of emotion—was it grief?—touched me.  Any living thing of longevity deserves respect, I affirmed.
 Reese left.  I needed to visit the old elm, to identify it.  Had I ever really seen it before? 

 It was easy enough to identify.  It had a wedge, scored in the bark about chest high and a spray-painted X on the side that faced the street.  It was also taller than the other elms that made a modest corridor on Washington Street.  And no, I’d not really seen the old elm before—not as a distinct tree.  So I sat on the adjacent bench and tried to make up for years of omission.  (The first meditation mused on the irony of seeing and not seeing.  It was then I truly saw the old elm for the first time.)

The sun was warm and angling, the sky clear above the towering canopy of elm branches.  Have you ever looked up into a tall tree and been transported by imagination/intuition/insight?

From, I and Thou, by Martin Buber

I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite comer with earth and air—and the growing itself in its darkness.

I can assign I to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.

I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as a an expression of the law—those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.

I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.

Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It.  The power of exclusiveness has seized me.

This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation.  There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparable fused.

Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the start—all this in it entirety

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it—only differently.

One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relations: relation is reciprocity.

Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own?  I have no experience of that.  But thinking hat you have brought this off in your own case, must you again n divide the indivisible.  What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.

This old elm tree belongs to a plant family that is some forty million years ancient, dating from the Miocene period.  Originating in Central Asia, the elm became well established in Asia, Europe, and North America. 

It is an evolved vascular plant with long thin tubes running throughout the outer growth ring or cambrium that distribute water and nutrients from the roots throughout the whole tree to the leaves.  The cambrium is the outward ring that marks a year. Each spring a new layer expands the girth and the tree grows upward, too.

The leaves use the water, along with carbon dioxide, chemically drawn from the air by chlorophyll, to dissolve minerals taken up by the roots.  At the end of this chemical reaction the leaves transpire excess moisture and oxygen into the air.  Our old elm has been producing life-sustaining oxygen throughout its lifetime.

from  “Tree and Jubilee,” by Rev. Greta W. Crosby

I have long had a sense of fellowship with trees.  Since I was a child, I have sought their company from time to time because I like the way I feel in their presence.  I enjoy their beauty, but it is more than that.  I used the word “presence” in a very strong sense.  I felt their presence as living things.  And in that presence, I often feel relaxed and centered, peaceful, restored to inner equilibrium.

For many of us, life is the meaning of the tree. But for me, perhaps the greatest thing about the tree is its silence.  Whatever the tree says to us, whatever it answers to our questing, the tree gives its message without words.  And the tree bears with us well.  It does not judge.  It does not react to our anxieties.  It does not run after us.  It just stands there with open arms.

Trees, generally, have significance for human beings unlike other living things.  We’re familiar with the ancient and enduring motif of the tree-of-life, whether in the mythic tale of the Garden of Eden or the yearly parlor ritual of the Christmas tree.   The Buddha gained enlightenment beneath the Bo Tree and it showered blossoms over him.  In every colony, the patriots of the American Revolution, following Massachusetts’ s lead, held rallies beneath a designated Liberty Tree, which the British would ceremoniously cut down if they occupied that place.
Robert Frost titled one collection of his poems The Witness Tree in reference to the nineteenth century surveyor’s custom of notching a particular tree as a boundary marker and extended the meaning in his characteristic way  in an opening poem (“Beech”):

from Witness Tree, “Beech,’ by Robert Frost

One tree, by being deeply wounded
Has been impressed as Witness Tree
And made commit to memory
My proof of being not unbounded.

            “Our” old elm bears witness.   When it is cut, each ring of the trunk will remember a year—the saw will traverse from now until then; and reaching center, it will return to now; sawdust will mingle decades.   Like events dissolving into time, the sawdust will meld with the earth.

            A person given to reading history can invest those years and decades with varied meanings, including the history of this church.  When a sapling, this Unitarian Church was on the brink of going out of existence, having voted to join then rescinded the vote to become part of Union Church of Hinsdale.  The 1920s saw the defiant/triumphant rise of religious humanism under Eugene Cosgrove, whose charismatic influence threatened to take this church out of the orbit of Unitarianism and as a precaution, the property was deeded (and perhaps the elm tree)  to the Western Unitarian Conference.   There were more lean years throughout the Depression and into the post world war era, when a 1950s scandal between a minister and a church member decimated the tiny congregation.  This was followed by a decade of expansion in the 1950s and 1960s under the leadership of Sunder Joshi, who wisely worked the humanist heritage and rode the baby boom.  Then there was a decade of on-again-off-again distress as the congregation endured controversy of the Vietnam War era and internal politics followed by the tragic death by cancer of the brief ministry of Ted Shokes.  In the 1970s, the congregation bounced back under new leadership, then faced more ministerial controversy, found a healing interim minister with Mason MacGinness in the new decade of 1980 and eventually called me in 1983.

            More particularly, the old elm bears witness to a piece of ecology with implications for now and for the future.  (It speaks across Kingdoms—from the realm of plants to the realm of animals, the domain where we humans reside.  Let us listen to the elm’s witness.)

  When the elm was a sapling, modern ecology was being discovered.  A significant living laboratory was the Dunes of southern Lake Michigan where a diversity of eco-systems meet in what one scholar has called the axis-mundi—the pivot of North America.

            The world of the turn of the century may seem innocent, idyllic from our relatively ravaged, jaded vantage.  Part of that vanished age are elm trees—favored in the Victorian era for their beguiling hour glass shape and the way, when planted in rows along streets, they created a vaulted canopy, not unlike the tracery of gothic churches.   Elms represented respectability and a touch of romance. (I believe I once read there are more Elm Streets than Main Streets in America.  Surely Elm Street is residence, while Main Street is commerce.)  When elms thrived, America was seemingly isolated from the rest of the world.  In many American villages and cities the elm predominated.  They created what we now call a monoculture.

            And then, in 1930, a shipment of European elm logs imported for veneer to Cleveland introduced to America an alien organism, a fungus; or perhaps the fungus arrived via the wood of shipping pallets —a fungus first isolated in the Netherlands in 1917, thus known as the Dutch Elm Disease.   A second major infestation from Europe took place in Sorel, Quebec, in 1945.  Probably the fungus is native to the Himalayas and came to Europe from the Dutch East Indies in the late 1800s.  The disease devastated the elms of Europe and then America, killing tens of millions elm and laying bare the urban landscape.

            It was first spread here via the habits of elm bark beetles that breed in weakened and diseased trees.  The fungus thrives in the highly developed vascular system of the elm and in short time clogs the vascular tubes and deprives the branches of its needed water.  A tree showing the first sign of infestation—withered leaves and dead branches—will die within a year or three.

            The elm tree bears witness to the accelerating reality of Globalism and the dangers of invasive life forms on vulnerable ecosystems—starlings, kudzu, zebra mussels, and the like.  The old elm also bears witness to the perils of monocultures that include many of our food crops.

            So, the old elm tells us something important about Nature, as we humans interact with it, while respecting its implicit boundaries—at least as expressed in the Robert Frost poem:  a “proof of not being unbounded.”

Farewell and Thanksgiving

from The Wilderness of John Muir, by Edwin Way Teale

The rugged old Norsemen spoke of death as Heimgang—home-going.  So the snowflowers go home when they melt and flow to the sea; and the rock-ferns, after unrolling their fronds to the light and beautifying the rocks, roll them up lose again in the autumn and blend with the soil.  Myriads of rejoicing living creatures—daily, hourly, perhaps every moment—sink into death’s arms, dust to dust, spirit to sprit—waited on, watched over, noticed only by their Maker, each arriving at its own heaven –dealt destiny.  All the merry dwellers of the trees and streams, and he myriad swarms of the air, called into life by the sunbeam of a summer morning, go home through death, wings folded perhaps in the last red rays of sunset of the day they were firs tried.  Trees towering in the sky, braving storms of centuries, flowers turning faces to the light for a single day or hour, having enjoyed their share of life’s feast—all alike pass on and away under the law of death and love.  Yet all are our [sisters] and brothers and hey enjoy life as we do, share Heavens blessings with us die and are buried in hallowed ground, come with us out of eternity and return into eternity.  Our lives are rounded with a sleep.

And now we bid this silent yet eloquent companion, our good-by:

In the final analysis, there is no doubt: we are all in this together.  And so we say not just “good-by, old elm,” but we add “blessings on you, even as we wish those same blessings on ourselves.”

We give thanks for this old elm tree:  for the oxygen that it breathed to our lungs that we might have life, too, for its beguiling grace and beauty, for its shade in summer.
We honor its ancient lineage spanning not years or millennia but epochs, reminding us of the deeps of Nature and the sure process of evolution.

We venerate its years, in large part, because its years paralleled our years.  We can read its rings and recall our common time—seasons and events that comprise the stuff of Life.  We shall miss the continuity of memory the old elm has offered—its links with the past.

We contemplate its witness as it stood alongside our church for nearly six score years.  And we take solemn counsel from its melancholy testimony to the effects of humankind on Nature.

We regret that our kind has negatively impacted on a marvelously wrought natural world, and promise from now on to seek knowledge and apply remedies to restore.

Truly we, human beings and trees, are part and parcel with a vast, encompassing reality: an interdependent web of being.  Though we infrequently mark the comings and goings of Life’s multitudes, we do so now.  We are all in this together. 

And so the old elm compels us to affirm the Unity of Being, in living and in dying.