Live Knowing Your Actions Matter

            How relevant to modern life are Heaven and Hell?  Many religions hold that there are stages of Heaven and stages of Hell to which people are sent according to their good or bad deeds during life.   

            Egyptian tomb paintings from as early as 2500 BC show the jackal-headed god Anubis as the gatekeeper of the underworld.  Anubis would determine a person’s worthiness by weighing the deceased heart against the feather of truth.  The heart would be weighted down by bad deeds and lightened by good.  When your life comes to an end, how will your heart measure up against the feather of truth?      

            The idea of judgment after death is found in many religious traditions.  In Judaism the Jewish New Year is the time to reconcile your misdeeds so your name will be inscribed into the Book of Life.  In Christianity, St. Peter is sometimes depicted as the keeper of Heaven’s Gate where people will be interviewed in order to be admitted to Heaven, damned to Hell or sent to Purgatory where they might purge or make up for their sins.  In both Hinduism and Buddhism, it is believed that life is a wheel of successive reincarnations.  Between reincarnations, people arrive in the hall of the ruler of the dead where people are judged according to their right or wrong actions.  People are then rewarded or punished in one of many different heavens or hells before being reborn.  Eastern religions emphasize the journey between lifetimes is one of consciousness.

            There are many different visions of Heaven.  Where the earth is chaotic and unpredictable, human beings look upward to the wheel of stars as a realm of immortality, order and harmony.  Paradise is also portrayed as a verdant garden like Eden located somewhere on this earth.  Explorers were driven to discover an idyllic place with a perfect climate and fertile land where people could live in harmony with the world of nature.  Some believed it was an island without aging, disease, work, or private property.

            Heaven is sometimes depicted as a land of endless pleasure with food, drink, frolicking and music.  St. Paul countered that “The kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and the Holy Spirit.”  Rabbi Rav of the third century AD wrote, “There is neither eating nor drinking, nor any begetting of children, no bargaining or jealousy or hatred or strife.  All that the righteous do is sit with their crowns on their heads and enjoy the effulgence of the Presence.”

            Where Heaven is a place of bliss and perfection, Hell is the opposite: a place of torment.  Some theologians proclaim that a perk of Heaven is that you can see justice served by witnessing those who wronged you being punished. 

            I challenge you to consider your own views of Heaven and Hell.  When you say, “Ah, Heaven!” what are you experiencing?  Physical pleasure?  Beauty?  Material Security?  Personal Achievement?  Peace?  Love?  A sense of God’s presence?  Harmony with the natural world?  Here is the really tough question, do you receive satisfaction from the suffering of others especially those who you do not like or may have hurt you in some way?

            When you say, “Oh, Hell!” what are you encountering?  Physical pain?  Ugliness?  Loss?  Failure?  Frustration?  Hatred?  A sense of isolation?

            As people of conscience, it is important to be mindful of what we hold as ideal for that is what motivates our actions.  It is equally important to consider how sometimes our misplaced striving after that ideal leads to suffering and thereby creates our own hell.  The ideal of a Paradise with a perfect climate, trees always bearing fruit, a place without aging, disease or work has not been abandoned.  Consider how many modern conveniences, marketing campaigns, and resorts were born from those longings.  Super-sized meals deficient of nutrients, people purchasing luxury items on credit, and attempts to mask signs of aging can lead to lives out of balance.  Ironically, our desire for vengeance instead of reconciliation weighs on our hearts hurting us more than our enemies.   

            The mystery of death and the afterlife remains.  However, no matter who makes the final judgment whether it is God or karma, our own conscience or our impact on others—there is one conclusion, our actions matter.  Whether or not you believe in life after death or Heaven and Hell among us, all traditions teach the same lesson that our choices have consequences that can give rise to love or pain.  The path to healing and wholeness is through nourishing others.

Hutchinson Helped Build a Bridge to a Better World

One of the names being proposed for the new Sakonnet River Bridge is Anne Hutchinson. Like many early settlers, she moved to Massachusetts Bay Colony seeking to worship freely.  Anne had no formal education but was instructed by her father who was a dissident Puritan clergyman.  Anne and her husband William had eleven children when they arrived in the New World in 1634 and their family eventually grew to fifteen.  Anne invited other women to her home where they studied the Bible, discussed religious issues, and current events.  These gatherings were so engaging that soon men as well as women filled her home to participate in lively discussions.  Her following grew to eighty people, too large a gathering for a house so they moved to a church.


Although the early settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony left England in order to worship freely, they themselves did not believe in the free expression of religion.  The Puritans set up a theocracy where all people were expected to follow the same religious laws.  Anne Hutchinson directly challenged the moral and legal codes of the Puritans as well as advocating for the rights of women and Native Americans.  Like Rogers Williams, she was put on trial for her heretical views and banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony.  In 1638, Anne Hutchinson, her family, and sixty of her followers settled in Pocasset, what we now call Portsmouth, Rhode Island.


At a time when women were told to be quiet and obedient, Anne Hutchinson spoke out and defied the established order.  At a time when it was taught that women were cursed, Anne held a steadfast belief that to be a woman was a blessing.  Certainly, she had plenty of reasons to be complacent including the moral codes of the time and her massive responsibilities as the mother of such a large family.  There was no model for her actions.  However, she was moved by her own conscience, the teachings of her father, and her reading of the Bible which gave her a vision of a more harmonious world. 


She started small, inviting neighboring women to join her for conversation.  Her message and the energy that resulted could not be contained.  In just four years from when she arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony, her following grew enough to be perceived as a threat to the establishment.


In 1639, a year after Hutchinson’s group established Pocasset on the northern end of Aquidneck Island, half of the group led by William Coddington and Nicholas Easton moved south to form our city of Newport.  Following their conscience, many of them became Baptists believing in the separation of church and state.  This was codified into law in the Newport Town Statutes of 1641.  Newport is one of the first secular democracies.


Many times, we become discouraged with the complexity and scale of the problems of our times.  There are so many needs, so much that is broken and needs fixing.  The powers of government seem too entrenched with the interests of big business to really care about our well-being and that of the down-trodden. 


Anne Hutchinson did not complain that she was born into the doomed generation or find excuses for inaction.  She lived out her beliefs.  We must do the same. 


Living in a small state as we do, we have an opportunity to effect legislation and bring about positive change. One of the blessings of our country is that we are free to express our opinions and to advocate for change.  Our state senators and representatives work for us.  Whenever constituents take the time to communicate our message is taken seriously.

Although the outcome may not be clear from where we stand, a few people can build a bridge to a better world.

This I Believe

“This I Believe” is the inspiration for lay-led Sunday services at Channing Memorial Church while I am on vacation and study leave though August 5th.  As a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we uphold shared ministry, a vibrant partnership between the faith community and ordained minister. 


We believe that each person has unique insights to share about life and the workings of the sacred.  It is a true gift whenever people share their personal experiences and spiritual discoveries.  We learn essential truths of people’s lives.  In listening to this sort of authentic revelation, our own hearts and minds are expanded whether we share the same convictions or we are challenged to consider a new perspective.


“This I Believe” is a weekly series broadcast on National Public Radio in which both famous and every day people share their personal beliefs.  The essays are only three and a half minutes in length but they have incredible depth as people tell not only what they believe, but how they reached that conviction, and what made it grow.


The original program was hosted by Edward R. Murrow from 1951-1955.  Murrow became one of the most well-known and respected American journalists from his radio broadcasts from London during World War II.  When he returned to the States and CBS, he was concerned by what he perceived as an increasingly materialistic and adversarial trend in society.  At lunch with colleagues, as they discussed the issues of their day, Murrow asked, “Where are the values?”  It was from this simple question that “This I Believe” was born.


“This I Believe” was a product of its time.  It brought an important message of hope, faith, and courage in a period fraught with fear, doubt, and insecurity.  The fifties marked the dawn of the Cold War.  The United States was gripped by Anti-communist fears which led to loyalty oaths, blacklisting, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities led by Senator Joseph McCarthy.


Despite the growing climate of fear and insecurity, men and women were living lives of faith and integrity.  The aim of the program was not to be religious in a traditional sense but to offer insight into the core beliefs that guide daily life.  At a time when church attendance was high, this emphasis on personal belief rather than religious dogma became a cultural phenomenon.  The radio show aired across the nation and even abroad.  The essays also became syndicated and appeared weekly in newspapers as well as being compiled into a bestselling book.


A key to the program’s success were the guidelines for sharing.  All contributors were asked to frame their thoughts affirmatively: “This I Believe” instead of a tirade of disbelief or cynicism.  In order to do so, participants were asked to reflect upon their personal experiences and to speak from the first person instead of preaching or editorializing.  When people speak their deepest truths from their own experience, we are offered a precious gift, a window into life from a new perspective that can enrich our own.


In introducing the original series, Murrow said, “Never has the need for personal philosophies of this kind been so urgent”.  “This I Believe” was revived on National Public Radio in 2005.  Now, fifty years later, our nation is at war and there is a climate of fear especially with rising costs, job insecurity, and market volatility.  We are bombarded with messages of hate, conflict, violence, and deceit on a daily basis.  For these reasons, it is more important than ever for us to uphold the positive values of life.


One of the simplest ways to do this is by attending worship.  All are welcome to our Sunday services held at 10:00am in which members of Channing Memorial Church will share their beliefs along with music, meditation, and a time of sharing.  No matter whether you are a member of another faith community, searching for a religious home or looking for a place to center before a busy week, you and your family are welcome.


Navigating Life’s Transitions

READING: To a Daughter Leaving Home, Linda Pastan              

When I taught you

at eight to ride

a bicycle, loping along

beside you

as you wobbled away

on two round wheels,

my own mouth rounding

in surprise when you pulled

ahead down the curved

path of the park,

I kept waiting

for the thud

of your crash as I

sprinted to catch up,

while you grew smaller, more breakable

with distance,

pumping, pumping

for your life, screaming

with laughter,

the hair flapping

behind you like a

handkerchief waving




            The poem by Linda Pastan brought back memories of my learning to ride a bicycle.  It was my father who taught me.  By the time I was nine, I could ride my bike to my best friend’s house so I must have been around eight or younger.  Before that, I had a red tricycle on which I was fearless speeding in circles around the columns of our concrete basement.  There was a time in-between when I got the light blue two-wheeler with training wheels securely attached.  As I recall, it was relatively easy switching from the tricycle to the bike with training wheels.  The biggest challenge was learning to brake by reversing directions of the pedals instead of just throwing my feet on the ground while the wheels were in motion.  A bicycle of course was much further off the ground then my red tricycle.  A sign that I was growing up!


            However, once those training wheels came off, I longed for my good old tricycle!  I had a hard time finding my balance.  I was afraid of falling.  I was afraid that if I ever got going, I would not be able to stop.


            I grew up in West Newton, Massachusetts on Waltham Street, a road with a constant buzz of traffic.  Directly across from our house was the Swedish Home, a nursing home set back from the road with a long circular driveway.  When my father could see how frustrated and discouraged I was we crossed the street with the light blue bike between us to practice while my mother prepared dinner.


            I don’t remember how many times we went to practice but it became an afternoon ritual.  My father would hold the handlebars while I got the rhythm of pedaling.  Later, he held the back of the bike and simply let go when my pedaling seemed more confident. 


            After a while, we had an audience.  The residents of the Swedish Home started gathering on the front porch to see this father and daughter routine.  When my father pointed them out to me, I felt shy at first.  My father explained that they too first learned to ride a bicycle and they were simply cheering me on.  After a while, a group was always out there to greet us as we walked the bike across the street and up the driveway at the usual time. We exchanged friendly smiles and waves.


            My father was a wonderful coach.  When I exclaimed “I can’t do this!” he encouraged me.  His steady reassuring presence motivated me to keep trying and never give up.  When I fell over and scraped my hands, he’d whistle a few bars of a song that continues to echo in my head to this day, “Pick yourself up, brush yourself off, try all over again!”  One day, I was able to ride without my father’s steady guiding hand.  I found my balance pedaling on my own and even engaged the brakes—the start of my journey toward independence.  Now I could ride my bike to my best friend’s house on my own.


            The determination to persist even when at first I do not succeed is a lesson that has helped me face many challenges and transitions through out my life.  My father offered the same steadfast reassuring support as I learned to drive, auditioned for plays, went to college, applied for jobs, felt called to the ministry, purchased my first home, and committed myself in marriage.  The transitions were always mine to face but the fact that my father believed in me gave me the confidence to move forward in unfamiliar territory.


            On this Father’s Day, I am keenly aware that my father is facing his own unfamiliar territory.  His mind is increasingly clouded by dementia and his body has become frail.  My mother is offering him steady reassuring support by caring for him at home with the aid of home healthcare workers.  He is afraid of the transition from life to death although I have tried to assure him that he will be at peace.  At this point, there is no disease nor prognosis so we do not know how long this slow goodbye will continue.  Even though I am not able to visit with him as often as I would like, my heart is with him as I know his heart is with me, across geographical distance and ultimately when the veil of death passes between us.  As I face this life transition, my faith assures me that the bonds of love remain unbroken and timeless.


            Today we honor the transition of our youth toward adulthood.  At the end of the service, this community will create a bridge symbolic of this life passage.  In truth, each one of us no matter our age is navigating life’s transitions.  Some of these changes call on us to learn new skills or face new challenges.  There are new chapters which we consciously choose for ourselves that help us move toward our personal goals.  There are other transitions like the loss of a loved one or an obstacle unforeseen but no less real on our life’s journey.  There are times when the love and support of family or church community is close at hand, cheering us on, providing comfort, and offering inspiration.  There are other times when our new chapter takes us far away from all that is familiar to face unknown territory alone.


            I want all the youth to know that even though we might not see one another as often, this community is here for you.  I am only an email away anytime you have a challenge or a success you would like to share.


For all people who navigate life’s transitions, we offer inspiration from our Unitarian ancestors, first Ralph Waldo Emerson who was present at the dedication of this historic church, “Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit.”  And then the following words from Henry David Thoreau who had Emerson as his friend and mentor, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you have imagined.”  Foremost when you fall literally or spiritually hum a few bars of the simple tune, “Pick yourself up, brush yourself off, try all over again.”  

Mindful Eating Habits Bind Us to All Creation

Growing up, my mother planted a small vegetable garden in our backyard.  I enjoyed working alongside her in the dirt.  I watched with fascination as the plants grew.  Even more, I loved picking fresh produce and carrying it indoors in a basket for my family to eat. 


One day, my mother sent me to harvest our first carrots.  I ran outdoors firmly grasping the green leaves and pulled the vegetable from the earth.  Only to discover that carrots do not come in bunches!  From the packages of carrots in our fridge, somehow I had assumed that under each carrot top was a whole bunch not just a single orange root.


For most of us, food comes from the supermarket.  We have become accustomed to choosing our meals from the shelves of the store often packaged in a way that has little resemblance to any living thing.  With our busy lives, many of us choose frozen dinners and prepared meals over the raw ingredients.


Each food item in the United States typically travels 1,500 miles before it reaches our plates.  This includes all the produce that we can enjoy year round and processed foods.   


Many of us treat food like fuel, eating to fill up our tanks in order to keep active.  A whole industry of fast food has built up around our desire for convenience allowing us to eat on the run.  Many Americans eat in the car en route to another destination.


Eating becomes a religious experience when we are mindful of the source of our food and our interdependence with other living beings.  Truly it is a miracle that seed, soil, sun, and water contribute to what becomes food.  The food that we eat is essential to our lives nourishing and sustaining us.


This fall, we held a Harvest Dinner where church members were invited to bring dishes made of local ingredients.  If we were unable to find a local product, the challenge was to at least to identify the source.  This was an eye-opening exercise!  The Farmers Market provided many locally-grown and raised staples.  In cooking, we had to consider where in the world our spices came from.


This lesson about eating locally or at least being mindful about the source of food has stuck with me.  Choosing natural ingredients over processed ones are healthy choices both for me and our world.  Despite the temptation of junk food, real food is more deeply satisfying.


My family has decided to plant a small vegetable garden this summer.  Our yard is small but there is a patch out back where the sun shines brightly for at least six hours a day.  I am looking forward to working the soil and planting.


I have also decided to subscribe to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).  Simmons Farm in Middletown helps build a direct relationship between people, food, and the farm.  Through a subscription, we will receive a share of certified organic vegetables every week during the months of June through October.  This will give us the opportunity to experience the workings of a farm more closely and to eat in rhythm with the season.  If you are interested in learning more about Simmons Farm drop by 1942 West Main Road or call 848-9910.


Of course, not everyone has the resources to plant a garden or to choose organic foods.  Many children around the world and close to home will go to bed hungry tonight.  Saturday morning, April 26th is the annual Aquidneck Island CROP WALK Against Hunger.  This is an opportunity to join an interfaith movement in our community by walking three or ten miles.  The funds raised will go to hunger relief globally and locally. For more information, check out


The word “religion” comes from the Latin root “religare” meaning “to bind back.”  Mindful eating is religious because it binds us back to our wholeness with all of creation.  Instead of simply refueling, let us make healthier choices that awaken our sense of reverence and gratitude for living.  This type of nourishment will feed our sense of joy and generosity!

What does Confucius say?


The Master said “The rule of virtue can be compared to the Pole Star which commands the homage of the multitude of stars without leaving its place.” (2:1)


The Master is none other than Confucius.  The passage is from The Analects, a collection of Confucius’ sayings.  Originally compiled by his students in 497 B.C., the philosophy of Confucius continues to inform contemporary East Asian society influencing both political culture and spiritual life.  Confucius’ sayings offer guidance for living a moral life that remains relevant for us today.


Book 2, Chapter 1 touches upon several essential ideas within Confucian thought.  This saying is attributed to Confucius himself which suggests its importance.  It is concerned with the moral nature of a ruler.  If a ruler has a virtuous character, then the subjects will naturally follow.  Proper government is by example or moral persuasion not through force or coercion.  The use of celestial imagery gives a sense of the cosmic order after which human beings should pattern themselves.  Confucius presents a model of Harmony in which Heaven, Earth, and Humanity work in an orderly fashion.  He asserts that by following moral principles and customs the ideal society is attainable.


Confucius was not satisfied with the moral character of government.  The missing element was “virtue”.  Much of The Analects is devoted to describing the nature of “virtue”.  The main principles include: benevolence, righteousness, wisdom, courage, trustworthiness, and filial piety.  If these qualities are present in rulers, the welfare of the people is guaranteed.


Unfortunately, the moral character of American government is questionable.  There is growing concern that the current Administration has deceived the American people.  The United States is viewed with suspicion and even hatred by much of the world.  Although American leaders often talk about the values of freedom, peace, and justice, some of our actions cast our integrity as a nation into doubt. 


The American people are looking for a leader who fits Confucius’ description like the Pole Star, a beacon of hope.  This is one of the most wide-open Presidential elections in recent history.  During the debates, candidates often become derailed from the issues by sniping at each other.  Our leaders need to move beyond divisiveness to realize our greater unity and to address substantive matters.      


The Master said, “When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal.  When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self.”  (4:17)


The moral imperative is not to root out the short-comings of other people but to continually strive to better one’s self.   According to Confucius, individuals should strive to improve their characters by emulating those people who are “better” or “of superior quality”.  When encountering a person who is “not as good”, the instruction is to “look within and examine your own self”.  Our central concern should always be self-cultivation. 


Our actions are important.  Our words have weight.   Our thoughts also matter as they govern our behavior and attitudes.  As a spiritual practice, all people (even political candidates!) should strive to cultivate virtue by paying attention to our judgments about others and shifting focus back to oneself. 


Try this simple practice in the week ahead.  When you think someone is better than you, do not put yourself down instead think how you can emulate his or her positive qualities.  When you think other people are lesser than you, instead of dismissing them or dwelling on their faults, consider why that judgment or frustration arose within you and how you will move forward with virtue like benevolence, courage, and trustworthiness. 


In order to achieve greater harmony than we have known, each one of us needs to be engaged with the upcoming election, participate in public service, and foremost set our own hearts in order.              For as Confucius says,

If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character.

If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home.

If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation.

If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.

Theodore Parker: A Life of Reform

Theodore Parker: A Life of Reform


What can we do to make things better?  Foremost, we need to believe that it is possible to make things better, to reform society for the common good.  When my faith wavers, I often turn to my spiritual ancestors for inspiration.  Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker (1810-1860) lived the charge of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, “What is man born for, but to be a reformer?”


“What can we do to make things better?” was Theodore Parker’s constant refrain.  He asked this question again and again to the crowds that assembled to hear him while at the same time searching his own mind and heart.


Parker and fellow Transcendentalists believed that all people are endowed with God-given abilities to bring forth truth, beauty, and justice.  This means that not only the politicians have the answers to the problems of our times.  In fact, the politicians may be more clouded from the truth.  Parker would assert that every person has knowledge that can benefit the common good.  It is part of our very make-up.  We are born with the ability to discern right from wrong, as long as we listen to the still small voice within.


Theodore Parker began his ministry as a scholar and a pastor.  As he listened to the “voice of God in the soul” or “conscience”, he became increasingly a reformer.  He was a close friend of George Ripley and so often visited the utopian community of Brook Farm, interested in the intellectual exchange and new forms of living being tried there.  In the end, Parker concluded that although Brook Farm might have been a success for individuals, really the members were escaping the ills of society.  The experimental community did not advance society, solve problems or reform institutions.


Parker spoke out about issues of labor, property, war, education, women’s rights, and temperance.  He was a tireless abolitionist speaking in Faneuil Hall, serving as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and even marrying escaped slaves.  Theodore Parker had the wisdom to say in response to Biblical passages often cited in support of slavery, that if the Bible supported slavery, the Bible was wrong.  He pressed people to see a Higher Law than the superstition of religious dogma.  Parker also pressed people to see a Higher Law than economics and property.


What can we do to make things better?  We too must listen to “the voice of God in the soul” or “conscience” welling up within us to distinguish right from wrong.  We must believe in a Higher Law than individualism and materialism.


We are intelligent people.  We can understand the interests of corporations.  We know why jobs have been outsourced.  We know why manufacturing is now parceled out so that the companies can deliver the cheapest products to Americans, the top-consumers of the world.  However, the interests of these ever-larger corporations operating in a global market should not rise above the worth of the human family.  The cost of jobs lost to the mechanization of labor is too high.  The cost of food and toys being manufactured by workers with few rights and questionable practices is too high.  Private ownership of water is against Higher Laws. 


What can we do to make things better?  Foremost, we must believe in democracy and the principles of freedom.  In a speech at the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in Boston, Parker said, “There is what I call the American idea. . . . This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy,–that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government of the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness’ sake I will call it the idea of Freedom.”  This speech actually inspired President Abraham Lincoln.  Now more than ever, we need to preserve “a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people”.  After all, what are we born for, but to be reformers?