Rev. Mark Ward: Are We Cooked?

It’s an old metaphor that you see popping up more and more these days: that of the frog placed in a pot of water that is brought to a boil. The story goes that if you drop the frog in when the water is hot, the frog will jump out. But if you raise the heat slowly, the frog will stay: adjusting itself to the warming water until it is cooked.
    It’s a particularly good metaphor for the phenomenon of climate change since it applies literally. Rising global temperatures threaten many of the systems that support life on Earth. While awareness of this trend is growing, the responses of our institutions, governments, even how we organize our individual lives don’t come anyway near meeting the urgency of this crisis. Can we mount a response adequate to the challenge before we are cooked?
    We understand the inertia that keeps us from acting. This is arguably the biggest, most complex crisis humankind has ever faced. But the good news is that its resolution is in our hands: after all, we caused it. After decades of research, we understand that the massive industrialization and heedless development that our species has pursued in the last several centuries are the primary drivers of the climate chaos we are now living with.
    Yet, even knowing this makes it no easier to choose a way forward since there are so many constituencies with conflicting agendas. It can make us numb trying to keep track of it all. So, what do we do? On Sunday, July 10, I plan to argue that our role as a religious people is to help reframe the work before us so that we might be reenergized for the critical task of saving our planet.
    But I don’t plan to argue that I alone have the answer. I believe that this reframing will come out of a wide conversation that embraces many people of integrity and compassion. There is meme popular in cyberspace these days called “hive mind.” Essentially, it envisions a large number of people offering reflections on a topic with no one guiding the process. So, for the next week I would like to invite the “hive mind” to help me work through this question:
How might religious people reframe how we address climate change so that it might reenergize the work of saving our planet?
    Feel free to respond directly to this blog or send me your thoughts to me at  I will also be posting this question on our congregation’s Facebook page. Feel free to respond there, if you’d prefer and share this question and your responses. I will integrate what I learn into the sermon on July 10. Have at it, friends!

Rev. Mark Ward is the Lead Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville.

Cecilia Rawlins and Eleanor Lane: Increased Collaboration Between ESJM and Community Plate

Cecilia Rawlins and Eleanor Lane are standing in for Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, Associate Minister, while she is on sabbatical.

Members of the Interim Steering Committee from ESJM (Earth and Social Justice Ministry) recently met with the Community Plate Committee to discuss how the two groups could work together. As the Interim Steering Committee of the Earth and Social Justice Ministry (ESJM) was envisioning a direction for moving our congregation forward, numerous people expressed a desire to increase the collaboration between the ESJM and the Community Plate Committee. When members of these two groups met recently, exciting ideas emerged.

As part of the discussion, we focused on the need to better explain to our congregation how the Community Plate will work. We envision looking to the various ESJM action groups to identify organizations in which they are involved and have clear needs, and recommend these as Community Plate recipients. As a member of an action group, you may be called on in the future to educate us about the good works of community organizations already known or new to us. We hope this will support heightened volunteerism from our congregation. This means that everyone’s time, talent and money are needed and appreciated. We want to continue to try to donate a substantial financial amount to various community organizations while at the same time encouraging our fellow UUCA congregants to volunteer at the selected organizations. In this way, we will view the community organizations as partners. Our sweat equity will become equally valuable to our financial contributions.

Since we also take our responsibility for the social justice development of our youth very seriously, we will meet with RE staff to further discuss ideas for the involvement of our youth in this process

We are excited about the further development of the Community Plate program and encourage the full participation of all congregants with our envisioned community partner program.

Sermon: A Way of Commitment (audio & text)

Rev. Mark Ward
Marriage means commitment. What could be simpler, right? Well . . . David Ehlert, a UUCA friend who at the 2015 auction made the winning bid to name a sermon topic for me, asked me to address “marriage: the ultimate commitment.” I’m not sure that marriage is the “ultimate” commitment, but especially after all the controversy in recent years over who sanctions marriage and how, it’s worth us exploring what kind of commitment we today take it to be.

(This sermon resulted a winning bid at the UUCA 2015 Auction from David Ehlert,
who asked that I address this topic: Marriage – the Ultimate Commitment.)


Not long ago, I was mulling over this whole notion of commitment and Dave’s inspiring
words on marriage, when I came upon a headline on an article that caught me up short:
“Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.”
Not why you might marry the wrong person, or how to avoid marrying the wrong person. No:
why you WILL marry the wrong person. And the author, Allain Botton, was no slouch: a 46-year-
old British philosopher & documentary maker who has written both novels and non-fiction
books on the subject of love, he has a pretty sophisticated understanding of all this. And he
wasn’t being totally (although I think maybe he intended to be partly) a provocateur just trying
to stir people up.
His point really was to question this romantic notion that we seem to be stuck with –
women, men, gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, transgender: really, everybody – that there is that
person somewhere out who is the perfect partner for us, the one. Right?
It reminds me of a reading that Debbie and I have joked about over the years that was
among the selections offered for us to consider for our ceremony by the minister who married
us – now nearly 37 years ago. It draws a picture of a couple destined for each other from the
beginning of time, from the moment life first arose from the primordial ooze. We called it the
mire and muck reading. (We didn’t use it!)
We laugh and say, “Come on. The one? We’re grown-ups. We know better than that. Of
course, not everything about our prospective mate will please us. There are always
compromises to be made. That’s the way life is.” Uh-huh.
And still, let’s face it, in just about every relationship we enter, especially those where
we see the possible prospect of life-long commitment, there is that little shred of hope eternal
that we will turn out to be a matched set – our strengths and weakness, pluses and minuses
complementing each other in a wonderful balance that will carry us on together in harmony for
the rest of our days. And then there comes that moment when we are confronted with
something in our partner that we sure didn’t bargain for. Maybe it’s a silly snit, or a smashed
cup, or a humiliating dig, or the stone-cold silent treatment.
It may not be a big deal, but suddenly at some level the thought flits through our minds :
uh-oh – maybe this is the wrong person! We say to ourselves, or maybe a friend: “I don’t expect
him/her to be perfect, but . . .”
Alain Botton suggests that maybe we should make a practice of simply acknowledging
our foibles, what he calls the “bewildering array of problems that emerge when we try to get
close to others,” early in our relationships, before we get too deep into it. Maybe it would be
better if at an early dinner date we simply asked each other: “And how are you crazy?”
So, how might you answer? It’s not a question that most of us think about. We may
even feel that it really doesn’t apply. I’m no saint, we may say, but on balance I think I’m pretty
easy to live with.
We all know people who go through serial relationships, and each time a new one
begins we can see the train wreck coming from a mile off. When the inevitable break-up comes,
we get to hear chapter and verse about why this was “the wrong person.” And, of course, that
may be true, even if in the back of our minds we’re wondering how much this friend’s
“craziness,” as Botton puts it, contributed to the result.
Of course, when you think about it, there is no end of craziness in this process. What
crazy impulse, childhood need, or passionate urge led you to choose this person to be your
partner anyway? There’s no science in it that can assure you of a good outcome. It is in many
ways a roll of the dice, a shot in the dark as it is.
The perfect person? Let’s be honest. As Botton puts it there are ways in which, “every
human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us – and we (without malice) will
do the same to them.” But, he says, none of this is cause for giving up on a relationship. It is,
instead, reason for adjusting our expectations for it. The person best suited to us, he suggests,
is that not the one who shares our every taste, but one who can tolerate difference with
So, let’s talk a little about commitment. Like Dave, I am one who believes in marriage:
and a good thing, too, as I am married myself. And in 12 years as an ordained minister I have
officiated at around 80 weddings, with more on the way. And so far, among those couples I’ve
stayed in touch with, I’ve had a pretty good batting average: most of those marriages endured.
Of course, putting it that way gives me far more credit than I deserve. As inspiring as I
hope those ceremonies were, whether those unions endured had nothing to do with me. It had
to do, rather, with how the members of those couples lived into the commitments that they
made that day.
Because, in the end, as I often make a point of saying, commitment is different from
love, at least at the beginning. Wendell Berry’s words are some of my favorites for making that
point. The meaning of marriage, he says, relies not on some fleeting romantic impulse, but on
the giving of words. It’s a reminder that marriage began as a kind of contract, a business
transaction that was a means to transfer property or secure a place in the social hierarchy.
Love, really, had nothing to do with it.
Nor, necessarily, did the prospect of happiness. Family, friends – not to speak of the
couple themselves – certainly hoped for happiness, but everyone figured that it would take
time: because happiness, after all, is more grounded than love. We can be miserably in love,
but not miserably happy.
Happiness with another person takes time and attention. It’s not a momentary flash in
the pan. It takes work, and some of the hardest work is opening ourselves to the uncertainty
that accompanies any relationship.
As Wendell Berry puts it, the giving of words in marriage “is an unconditional giving, for
in joining ourselves to another we join ourselves to the unknown.” There is much we do not
know and cannot know about another person or what the future will bring.
So, as carefully as we may try to vet each other, talk things through, there are things
that are going to sail in from left field that we are not and cannot be prepared for. There is an
easiness, a confidence, a flexibility together that we must learn to cultivate that’s centered in
those less flamboyant emotions, like humility and respect.
As Wendell Berry warns, “what you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be.
Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you –
and marriage, time, life, history, and the world – will take it.”
In the end, it is not a road whose path we can map. It is, instead, a way: a way of being,
a way of thinking, a way of acting . . . a way of loving.
That’s the delightful thing that nobody tells you, because there’s no way they can
describe it. Living over time in caring, considerate partnership carries you to a unique
appreciation of another person that only the two of you can know. It is loving of a different sort
than what the two of you knew at first.
It brings to mind when I was cooking a caramel dessert the other day. The ingredients
bubble in the pot and you stir and stir, and nothing seems to happen until suddenly the
transformation occurs: the liquid darkens into a mixture of incomparable sweetness and
At its best, that is what the commitment of marriage can give us. That is how it can be,
as Dave quoted the writer Patricia O’Brien earlier, “one of the best bets for a truly balanced
But lest we get too treacly, Jane Hirshfield offers us another image that reminds us of
the struggles that it sometimes takes to get to the sweetness: the powerful testimony of what
she calls the “proud flesh” that grows back across a wound: stronger, darker than what she calls
“the simple, untested surface before,” a scar that amounts to something like “honors given out
after battle.”
I don’t know a single couple that has endured over many years whose relationship
doesn’t bear its share of “proud flesh.” We are, each of us, fragile, fallible beings, capable of
folly and conceit. The test of longevity, then, is how we respond, what grace and humility we
can command, what strength we find together when those episodes appear.
And so I quibble a bit with Dave’s notion of marriage as the “ultimate” commitment.
One could easily mistake that to mean that marriage is in some way the “ultimate” state, a sort
of epitome of human achievement.
I think of a friend who endured many years of a rocky marriage but was determined to
stick it out – “I don’t believe in divorce,” she once told me – until one day when she and her
husband were arguing and he assaulted her. It was the wake-up call she needed to show her all
the ways that the relationship had been in trouble for some time and that it was time to end it.
Her health and her hope lay in leaving.
Equally, coupling is hardly the only path to fulfillment. People who choose to be single
or who survive the death of a spouse can find rich and rewarding lives with friends or in
communities like this one.
But I get Dave’s point. There is unique joy to be found in a deep, intimate relationship,
and marriage is how we package it in this culture. I remember being amazed a couple of years
ago after same sex marriage was permitted in North Carolina when dozens of couples showed
up at the Register of Deeds office. Many came to this church after we distributed flyers inviting
them to come for free ceremonies. We offered flowers and cakes, and services at half a dozen
locations across our campus. There were several clergy doing the weddings. I performed about
10 weddings myself.
What amazed me about those couples is that nearly every one of them that I married
had been together for at least 20 years. They didn’t need marriage to be committed to each
other, but marriage also gave them something unique.
There were all the legal benefits that state-sanctioned marriage confers, of course. But
also for each one there was something in that moment when their eyes welled at the reciting of
vows where each seemed to see in the other something they hadn’t seen before. The sealing of
that commitment was like an exclamation mark in their lives: ultimate – maybe – at least for
them. And for those of us in attendance, strangers to these people, though in that moment
joined with them in a kind of embrace, there was something special, too, an affirmation of how
it is possible for we humans to be with each other.
For all our craziness, we are capable of giving ourselves to others who light our fire and
making of that love an enduring commitment that fills us both. How we do that is for us alone
to discover, and there is a good chance of accumulating some “proud flesh” along the way. But
in that effort we also affirm something in ourselves that spark of compassion and hope that
helps us realize the best within us.
I can only say that it’s been my experience. May it be so for you.

Joy Berry, Director of Religious Lifespan Education: Mission: Makers! Summer Sundays Program

LibraryThe Mission: Makers! Summer Program: Makers!
Missional UUism, Makerspace, and Religious Education

Makerspace as RE is a new way in UU religious education that aligns with our legacy of
progressive, engaging, and important work with children and youth. Much has been written about this emergent educational approach, but a good overview can be found here. Missionalism is a religious approach that calls us to doing real work in the world as a people of faith. You can read more about how Missionalism and UUism intersect in this great short film by Texas minister Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford.

I am on vacation this week, but wanted to share with you some of the work I have been doing in the larger faith community, writing about UUCA’s innovative Mission: Makers Summer program, now in its second year. It’s an excerpt of a recent essay I wrote to describe how Makerspace RE and Missional UUism are a perfect match. If you are interested in going deeper than I am normally able to share about in these blog posts, understanding the philosophical grounding in one of our most popular programs and, frankly, our entire program, you may enjoy this post. It also describes in detail a couple of the big maker projects on tap this Summer at UUCA.

From the beginning, Unitarian and Universalist religious education has been uniquely
progressive. Universalists were first to create church-based programming especially for
children, in 1790. At first, the focus was on to teach working children to read, after founding father Benjamin Rush organized to create “First Day Schools” in every Philadelphia Universalist church. Children forced to work full-time, after all, were deprived of their right to receive basic education. At its core, this was a social justice issue. Churches had a set-aside time and space
where they could choose to teach what their leaders thought most essential, and most lacking, in at-risk children’s lives. In a time when many religious people thought that only the eternal soul mattered and earthly life was meant to be a challenge, Universalists were doing a kind of religious education meant to make life in this world better for children.

Unitarian and Universalist church school classes evolved to be more like catechism in the 1800s, mostly reciting and memorizing from the Bible. Unitarian William Ellery Channing responded vociferously to that approach, saying children deserved more than rote learning: “The great end in religious instruction . . . is not to stamp our minds irresistibly on the young, but to stir up their own.”

Then Sophia Lyon Fahs went further, creating “curricula based on the philosophy that religious education should be grounded in the firsthand experiences of children.” Her curricula used teaching stories from around the world and human history, not just the Bible. And it was age graded, meaning that there was an understanding that children’s needs and challenges around faith development changed with age.

Angus MacLean built on Fahs work and reoriented RE pedagogy once again, emphasizing the family as the central site where faith formation happens. He also suggested that most of early learning should be experiential. His most notable claim was that “the method is the message”: the WAY we teach religious education should reflect its central goals. Children should be taught religion in religious ways, not authoritarian ones, because we believe that the learner is assimilating not just the explicit curriculum, but from the whole of the learning experience.

This history (and the work of many other unsung RE leaders) laid the groundwork for an
essential understanding. From the beginning, our UU heritage of religious education is one that has both supported children in a journey of faith and human development as an end to itself, as well as part of a larger mission to build a world more aligned with our values. We have seen Unitarian and Universalist religious education align and re-create itself according to our understanding of the greatest need on the part of the living learner, not to its proposed impact on their eternal soul. The very etymology of “religious education” clarifies our goals, in a poetic way: from the Latin religare (“to bind together”) and educere (“to draw out”.) We have seen our primary role as gathering, identity building, and bringing out the very best that inherently exists in a child. My interest is piqued, however, in another of the meanings for educere: “to send out”, like mission, whose Latin root missio means “to send”. Perhaps the next great change in UU religious education should be a mission to bind up and gather our young people, solidifying their sense of who they are as individuals and as part of a wider community, and then send them out into a world that needs them.

For Missional UUs, our theology’s great calling is to take our faith outside the church and to the wider world. We are called to be its hands and feet, doing faith as a verb. We are called to embody and manifest our theology’s teaching that we each have a divine spark, and to let that light shine, with work that is real. Missionalism is uniquely incarnational in this way. This call to active duty can be seen in our understanding of our actions in the world, not our beliefs, as the most important reflection of our faith. Forrest Church reminded us that we are a faith of deeds not creeds, and Rebecca Parker encouraged us to choose to bless the world. To be incarnational means we are active participants in the creation and realization of the beloved community. Where do children fit in? How can we embody the call to incarnational missionalism in religious education, while staying connected to our legacy of intentionally child-centered, experiential, and developmentally-appropriate faith development? I believe Maker Culture is a valuable part of a new way to create opportunities for missional faith development.

Every Sunday in our Spirit Play program, I gather the children and we say together: We are Unitarian Universalists. We are a church of open minds, loving hearts, and helping hands. For 225 years we have succeeded in religious education programming and curricula that do the first two pretty well. For Missional UUs, the question is this. How do we best develop and teach a “helping hands” approach that respects the unique needs of children, yet prepares them for the work we are called to do in a world that needs us–all of us– to do more than think and love?

Ask adults what they remember from Sunday School and you’ll hear memories of doing. That convinces me that religious education should be as hands-on, innovative, and creative as possible. Like Makerspaces. Around the country, “Maker Culture” is developing. Communities, libraries, and schools have installed “Makerspaces” that encourage kids to design, collaborate, and create. According to the Makerspace Playbook: “Makerspaces serve as gathering points where communities of new and experienced makers connect to work on real and personally meaningful projects, informed by helpful mentors and expertise, using new technologies and traditional tools.”

If we ground our children in the idea that real problems can be approached and solved, and support them in building those skills, we just might be making the next logical leap in UU religious education pedagogy.

Wondering what missional makerspace RE looks like in real life programs? An overview: We begin with a grounding that reminds us of our UU identity, and how we are called to do all we can to bless the world, and a reminder about the nature of makerspace learning. The key is to allow children as much freedom as possible to comprehend a real challenge, then plan and act in ways that seek to solve a problem–or at least a piece of it, using real world technology and tools. (A word of caution: Adult facilitators need support and reminders in stepping back, letting kids do as much as possible, especially to allow failure and reboot, where maker culture tells us the real learning happens.) We work on our projects and come back to a circle to debrief and regroup, and send families home with info on how the kids can continue the learning or actions outside the church through the week.

We begin our Mission: Maker! Sundays in a circle, as described already, with a chalice lighting. We sing “Gathered Here” together, reminding us that we are called to act in one strong body, in the struggle and the power we hold as a gathered people. Instead of joys and sorrows, I ask them to share a problem or challenge in the world they know about, and that breaks their hearts, or to share a big problem they know is being fixed by human helpers. I share that we are called to help, to repair, and to bind up a broken world as UUs (and that many other faiths and peoples are working to do the same thing.) I ask them to consider that even children and youth can make a difference in the world, through real work with real tools, and that they are doing so in every country in the world. I tell a story or show a clip about a youth who has done something amazing to help fix a big problem. I ask them to come up to the altar I have prepared that day, which contains a variety of tools depending on our work projects–like a hammer, bandages, a key and lock, a spade, an iPad, a compass, a measuring tape, a telescope, a flashlight, and a small broom and dustpan. I ask them if they know about or have used any of these tools. I choose one of the altar items and describe how we are called to use the tools of our faith to dig deeper, look closer, unlock new ideas, find a new way, shine a light in dark places, see things differently, explore, clean up messes, heal, build, and repair what is fixable. I tell they are makers: of change, of meaning, of new possibilities. I remind them about how they
are supposed to use teamwork and lead as much as possible in our projects today, and that adults are there to support and collaborate, but not to be in charge. I describe what our maker projects today are, and send them out to do the work in activity centers. Later, a closing circle brings us back together to share our challenges, successes, and failures, as well as any further work that is planned on their projects.

Some of our Mission: Makers projects are described in some detail below, but it is important to unpack why and how missional RE for children should differ from missional work for adults. Missionalism as it has been described to date has concentrated on adult and sometimes multigenerational projects. Missional UUism calls us to engage deeply with the world around us, outside the church walls. It asks us to consider who, in our communities, our hearts break for. Yet it is often challenging to engage in this kind of missional work via a church RE program. Families are best suited to make choices and shepherd children around “heartbreak”, so I believe a multigenerational approach works best for such missional activities outside the church. But in a standard Sunday School RE program, what kind of activities would build missional muscles and also honor the work of Channing, Fahs and MacLean, urging us to prioritize experiential, developmentally appropriate, child-centered RE? Problem solving and project planning within church programs are developmentally appropriate ways for kids to encounter challenging issues in a safe space, and then expand toward the world with their skills. Our unique third place status, neither work nor home, allows us to think creatively and use our time to plant seeds for future action, so that children are better prepared to be justice-
workers as they grow. To that end, we can provide a kind of spiritual scaffolding in RE space, both preparing for and actively engaging with the foundational elements of missional work now.

In every makerspace project, we honor the developmental needs of the child and youth by
beginning with safe spaces and projects with a degree of risk (acceptable failure), where
children gain confidence. Projects that are successful and that kids are passionate about can be expanded to become congregational, multigenerational, community-based, or global in nature, looking more like previously described (adult) missionalism. Here are some examples of projects in our Mission: Makers! program.

Children building a Little Free Library, curating the content from our RE library (with discussion on which of our principles the book reflects), and placing near the church gave a perfect opportunity to talk about literacy. We explored how access to books is a key factor in learning outcomes, but is not equal across our community. Going further: A similar project we are working on is a Little Free Blessing Box, using the “Blessing Bags” our children and youth have been assembling to share with the local in-need population. A year of using these bags as our social justice project helped me see the deep desire families and kids had to engage meaningfully with our community’s sizable homeless/in need population. Families reported how grateful they were to have something real to share in those moments when a person approached them and asked for help: a small bag filled with snacks, water, bus fare, clean socks, warm gloves, and personal items, as well as a hand written note from our children. We want to multiply this effect by creating boxes around town, stocked with such care packs. Our kids will map out areas of our community most in need, seek permission from property owners, and place boxes in those areas, with each child having the opportunity to “adopt” and keep the box stocked for two weeks. A makerspace classroom will serve all year as a workshop for building both Little Free Library and Little Free Blessing boxes, and for project planning–with kids at the helm.

Makerspace projects can be also be meta. We are working to create a video about our second year of makerspace programming, with kids taking primary roles in the process. They will interview both their peers and adults, film and edit the finished product, then plan how to publicize and share it with other churches. By doing so, they will not only learn skills in videography and social media communication, but also take active roles in understanding why we engage in this kind of work, and how it reflects our seven principles and our church and RE mission. Going further: In a world where mass media and social justice go hand in hand, these are competencies that can help our children feel confident in using technology as a tool to take our faith into the world, to change it. Once you have a team of kids or youth who have can make, edit, and share a video, it provides a uniquely “safe” way for them to go out into the world to communicate and advocate outside the church walls.

Our kids thrive on DOING. It changes their brains and the way they see themselves: When we make things, we are more confident, more open, and less anxious about perfection. We naturally collaborate and take risks, and we begin to see ourselves as creators of the world around us, not passive consumers. We know our children need RE experiences that help them “take it home” every day of the week, in all their activities. Makerspace work lets them bring skills and passion into their daily lives. We can bring our UU values and theology to life when we build capacity in our kids for imagining, doing, helping, healing. We say we are the church of the open minds, loving hearts, and helping hands. Makerspace work in RE programs can help make
that a reality.

Sermon:Widening Our Window (audio and text)

Rev. Mark Ward
Marriage means commitment. What could be simpler, right? Well . . . David Ehlert, a UUCA friend who at the 2015 auction made the winning bid to name a sermon topic for me, asked me to address “marriage: the ultimate commitment.” I’m not sure that marriage is the “ultimate” commitment, but especially after all the controversy in recent years over who sanctions marriage and how, it’s worth us exploring what kind of commitment we today take it to be.


From The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

“The universe is not a miracle. It simply is, unguided and unsustained, manifesting the patterns
of nature with scrupulous regularity. Over billions of years it has evolved naturally, from a state
of low entropy toward increasing complexity, and it will eventually wind down to a featureless
We are the miracle, we human beings. Not a break-the-laws-of-physics kind of miracle… It is
wondrous and amazing how such complex, aware, creative, caring creatures could have arisen
in perfect accordance with those laws. Our lives are finite, unpredictable, and immeasurably
precious. Our emergence has brought meaning and mattering into the world.”
Tao Te Ching 1
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not eh eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of 10,000 things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring. One sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
This appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

Some 20 years ago I was working as a newspaper science writer when I had a chance to
visit the headquarters for the Hubble Space Telescope in Maryland. This was shortly after
astronauts in a space shuttle flight had corrected what you may recall were the initial fuzzy
optics of the telescope.

Scientists had organized media tours of the headquarters to show off just how well the
repair had worked. And I have to say that the images they showed us were breath-taking –
brilliant nebulae left over from supernova explosions, columns of super-hot gases that were
nurseries of stars, and, maybe most amazing: the Deep Field image.
This was created by focusing the telescope for 10 days on a spot of what appeared to be
empty sky. But the image they got was not empty: It was covered with hundreds of points of
light, each a galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars. We have a large photo of that image
here, and nearly every time I pass it I stare in astonishment. It is one thing to hear people talk
about the vastness of the universe, and another to have it splashed in front of you.
I had a similar reaction in February earlier this year. Astronomers announced that for the
first time they had detected . . . gravity waves. Wow, right? OK, how about this: the waves
came from the collision of two black holes some 1.3 billion light years away. No? Well, get this:
the energy generated by their collision equaled the brightness of a billion trillion suns, an
amount greater than that generated by all the stars in the observable universe at that time.
And the scientists who made this discovery couldn’t even see it, but in a sense they could
hear it. If you translated the gravity waves that they detected to sound waves, it would sound
something like this . . . when the black holes collided – I mean, what?
OK, I admit that it’s hard to make space in our minds for this kind of news. Amid the car
wrecks, political back and forth, common graft and stories of foreign wars, the announcement
of gravity waves sails in as if it were, when in fact it is, from outer space. But I want to propose
that it’s something that we in this religious community might attend to, because I think it also
speaks to and helps informs a sense of spirituality that invites us into wonder and even a sense
of the sacred.
First, we need to get a feeling for the context of all this. So, let’s begin by orienting
ourselves to this idea of gravity. Simple enough – gravity is what keeps me from floating away,
right? The equations that help us calculate the effect of gravity are complicated, sure, but we
get the idea. Isaac Newton pretty much figured it out 300 years ago: The laws that govern the
apple falling on my head also govern the planets spinning in space. Pretty elegant.
But for all that, even Newton wasn’t sure just what gravity was. It seemed like it must be a
kind of force that things exert, but he couldn’t take it much further than that. And that didn’t
really matter – until it did.
Astronomers using Newton’s formulas came upon errors in calculating the orbits of some
planets. Again, no big deal, but it was the nagging thread that led people like Albert Einstein to
work on the issue.
Einstein had already revolutionized physics by showing that space and time were not
separate, fixed phenomena: They were all dimensions of an integrated fabric that we
experience differently relative to where we are & the speed at which we’re moving.

This model, he found, also implies that gravity is not a force that things exert; it is an effect
of their presence in space-time. Things that have mass create a field of gravity by distorting this
fabric of space-time, creating, as it were, a dimple or pocket in the fabric.
This is a very different image from now things looked before. We see that space-time can
be pushed & stretched. And every once in a while there are great disturbances: stars explode,
or collide. Like an earthquake they generate vibrations that ripple through space-time:
At least, that was the theory. Until now, nobody knew. The problem is that as important as
it may be to us, gravity is actually a weak force, and gravity waves hard to detect. But
astronomers figured that maybe if the disturbance was strong, they might detect it.
Enter the Laser Interferometer Gravity-Wave Observatory: It’s made of lasers that are
pointed at mirrors set at right angles to each other in a total vacuum. There are two of them: in
Washington state and Louisiana. Theory says that when gravity waves pass through they should
make the tunnels & mirrors squeeze and stretch just a little, and their goal was to look for those
It’s hard to describe just how hard this is to do. Because gravity waves are so weak, they
were looking to detect a variation of one ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton: A distance
that seems unimaginably small. In any event, the astronomers figured that the only events they
could hope to observe would have to be big ones, like the collision of neutron stars.
They also thought they would look for evidence of the collision of black holes. They weren’t
really sure if black holes even could collide. There were different theoretical reasons why they
might or might not. But it turns out they could.
Last September 14, just seven milliseconds (that’s seven thousands of a second) after LIGO
was turned on they got a signal, and it was a whopper. As I said, they calculated that it was
from an event 1.3 billion years ago when two black holes collided.
They weren’t especially large, as black holes go – one was about 36 times the mass of the
sun; the other 29. Together they created a new black hole of 62 solar masses.

So, if you do the math you see that there were three solar masses missing. Where did they
go? Well, remember Einstein’s famous formula – E=mc2? It means you can convert mass into
energy – it’s what’s at the heart of atomic bombs. So, it doesn’t take a lot of mass to create a
lot of energy. Generally it takes about 10 pounds of plutonium or 30 pounds of uranium to
make a bomb. So, imagine the effect of a bomb that annihilated material equaling three times
that of the mass of the sun.
Now that we know that LIGO works scientists are working to fine-tune it. They figure there
should be a sea of gravity waves out there. What will we learn? Among other things we may get
insight into our origin, the Big Bang.

Consider that up to now all the astronomy has involved observation using what we call
electromagnetic radiation – light, radio, infrared, ultraviolent, even x-rays. They have taken
scientists far back in time, but there appears to be a limit in the early universe that we can’t see
past. Gravity waves could be a way to look back further. As one scientist put it, “Finally
astronomy grew ears. We never had ears before.”
So, you see? Pretty neat, huh?
Now, to the religious part of this. First, let’s step back and reflect on what we’ve learned:
for many centuries people believed that ultimate knowledge about the nature of universe was
unavailable to us. Though science gave us more and more information, there was only so much
it could do, and that we would need help from supernatural sources.
Remember that Isaac Newton felt that for all he had learned, there was so much more to
be know. He said: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have
been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a
smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all
undiscovered before me.”
So, he turned to other pursuits, dabbling in the occult, biblical prophecy and alchemy. Long
before JK Rowling’s Harry Potter set off to look for the philosopher’s stone, Newton made it his
quest, though, unlike Voldemort, his goal was not immortality, but to turn base metals into
This is something that we still struggle with today: can we trust what the world teaches us?
LIGO results provide one more brick in the claim that we can. We need not posit forces or
influences outside of the world: it’s all here.
Still, we are left with immense uncertainty. The structures of science are great for helping
us describe the world, but not so great in guiding our lives. When we look for meaning in our
lives, we want to know more than what it is made of. We want to know what we are to make
of it.
While apples are falling and black holes are colliding, we are left with these brief lives of
ours that are no more than a whisper in the eternity of spacetime.
I came upon a way to address this recently that intrigued me. It’s in a book by the physicist
Sean Carroll called The Big Picture. He reviews many of the discoveries in the last century or so
that have transformed what we know about the world. Even as these learnings show us how
small our part in the Universe is, he says, we are also redeemed by our growing capacity to
comprehend it and to give it meaning.
Yes. What we have learned is mind-blowing, but it also teaches us that we are of this
universe, is our home, a place shot through with beauty, a place where we are learning to see
ourselves and our fellows as precious in our own right.

It’s a perspective that Carroll describes as “poetic naturalism.” It is naturalist, since it says
that this world is the only world, and that the things of our experience behave according to
laws that we can learn, and that the only reliable way to learn about things is to observe them.
And yet it is also poetic, in that it says there are many distinctive, coequal ways of talking
about the world. We use different words, different frames, and that’s OK. There is room for
metaphor and imagery that reaches beyond and illuminates more down-to-earth talk.
And so, he says, in each moment we look for the way of talking, the frame that best suits
our task. He borrows a felicitous phrase from the poet Muriel Rukeyeser: Universe, she says. is
made of stories, not atoms.
The world is what it is, but we gain insight by talking about it – telling its story – in different
ways. There are different levels of telling stories about the world – subatomic, molecular,
ecological. But even more – there are stories centered in ethics, compassion, beauty. And all
are significant: all, in their own way, real.
The words of Robert T. Weston that we read earlier offer an example of how we might do
this. He weaves together many stories, from the big bang and formation of stars, planets, to the
evolution of life from the sea to the land, to our own emergence: eyes to behold, throats to
sing, mates to love. And then he brings it all together in one brief summary: “This is the wonder
of time, the marvel of space; Out of stars swung Earth, life upon earth rose to love.”
No one level of story can claim primary importance. They are interwoven, one with the
other. They are all equal dimensions of how things are. It’s part of the learning that we receive
from the Tao that we heard earlier, which is, after all, just another story.
The Tao that can be told, that story, is not the eternal Tao. There are many different
dimensions that seem to compete, yet the competition is an illusion. There is only one truth –
the unity of all things. And each new window we open offers us a fresh perspective on it.
So, after centuries of the eye, is it the age of the ear? After centuries of self-seeking, can
we look forward to an age of compassion? How might we tell that story?
Look to the starry sky, and as vast and distant as it all is it is our place, it is our context. As
Carl Sagan and then Joni Mitchell said, we are stardust; we are golden, and we’ve got to get
ourselves back to the garden: another story that tells us something about ourselves, and about
how, as Sean Carroll says, we have brought meaning and mattering into the world.
Part of what discoveries like LIGO give us is a profound spiritual gift. It teaches us to value
the world around us, to, as Mary Oliver puts it, hold it against our bones knowing our own lives
depend on it, and to name as sacred that which upholds and sustains it.