Archive for January, 2012

Jan 25 2012

January Theme: Creation. Breathing Life into Clay

Published by under Minister's Musings

The dusty paint-spattered basement of the Art Students League on West 57th Street in New York smells earthy, damp, metallic. On the first day of class, our teacher leads us to the huge garbage bins filled with dark gray clay. The advanced sculpture students haul out handfuls and hurry to their stations. But when we beginners plunge in our hands, it’s shocking. Wet and cold, the clay resists us, as though dragged down by suction. How will we make something out of this?

That sensation tingles on my skin as I think about January’s theme: Creation. So many creation myths begin with a god or gods who fashion humans from clay. I wonder: what did the gods feel when they first touched the clay? Surprise? Dismay? Pleasure? Inspiration?

The ancient Egyptian deity Khnum, god of the source of the Nile River, gathers silt and clay left behind by the Nile’s flooding. He sits at a potter’s wheel and shapes children. Imagine the clay spinning and spitting off the wheel as Khnum molds legs, arms, torso, the small column of the neck, the tiny delicate head. He will place these children fully formed into their mothers’ wombs.

The creator-god Juok lives on the western bank of the Nile, now Sudan. He travels all over the world, gathering different colors of earth, sand, clay to form white, red, brown, and black people. He makes them all legs at first so they can work. Then Juok adds arms for cultivating crops, then eyes for seeing and mouths for eating, and finally tongues and ears for dancing, singing, and shouting for joy.

For the Pangwe of Cameroon, God first makes a lizard of clay and sets it to soak in a pool, as though it needs marinating. A week later, he calls out for the human step forth—and sure enough, a person emerges. Talk about evolution!

In the Qur’an (37:11; 38:71-72), Allah forms a human being out of clay and then breathes Allah’s own spirit into the new creature, commanding the angels to bow down before the human. This particular theme—humans made of a wet, sticky, earthy substance inspired (literally, breathed into) by something divine—shows up again and again in creation myths.

But why do we 21st-century Unitarian Universalists revisit these myths? Your own responses say it all (see “In Our Own Voices” in this issue). Each creation myth has something unique to tell us about who we are, one of you says, so “which ones can help us find direction?” “We humans are called to be co-creators with all that is!” another shouts, and “we humans get to create the myths we need,” reminds another. (Come hear some brand-new myths in worship in early January!)

Where does creativity come from, and how can all of  us, even if we’re not artists, live creatively? What does it mean to be creative in our relationships, our jobs, our classes, our social justice work, our approach to life every day? “We humans create ourselves,” one of you says. “So how do we put into motion our interests and hopes for the world?”

From clay, from the stuff of the earth, comes life, the myths claim, using metaphor to speak a fundamental truth: We are indeed children of this planet, our Mother Earth. The Earth, through its natural cycles of creation and destruction, sustains all life. But what are we humans doing to sustain or to destroy this Earth and her species? How can we be co-creators—allies—with Mother Earth? At FUCSJ, the Rights of Mother Earth group lifts up these pressing questions so that we may move into effective action. Please join us at our next meeting on January 22 (see the announcement later in this journal).

Back in my sculpture class years ago, our live model breathes, patiently holding her pose. I roll and mold the clay until at last a shape emerges, an S-shaped curve that captures my heart. The lines evolve and begin to tell a story: this creature has a setting, a mood, a life. She comes from another time, lying fearless on her old-fashioned divan. She comes from me but is not of me. I certainly wouldn’t call her an “inspired” or breathing creation! But the process of creation teaches me something about myself: I can plunge my hands in and begin to shape my life.

Come, my good people, the clay is waiting. Let’s plunge in!


With love and encouragement for this New Year,

Rev. Nancy



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Jan 25 2012

December Theme: Hope The Discipline of Hope

Published by under Minister's Musings

The most powerful video from the Occupy movement that I have seen shows hundreds of students at the University of California Davis, sitting in silence in the dark, watching UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi walk to her car. The day before, campus police had pepper-sprayed students engaged in nonviolent protest. Since videos of that attack went viral, students, professors, and others have cried out for the chancellor’s resignation.

But on this evening the silence is broken only by the tap of the chancellor’s shoes on the pavement. Camera strobes light the path that students have cleared. Campus minister Rev. Kristin Stoneking performs the most profound of all ministerial functions: that of “walking with” the chancellor. Chancellor Katehi walks slowly, taking in the faces of the students. They meet her gaze steadily. It seems to take forever, that walk, those two and a half minutes of mutual witness. Each time I watch it, I hold my breath.

Some commentators have called this event Chancellor Katehi’s “walk of shame.” I think they are missing its true meaning. The students wanted face-to-face contact; they wanted “to see and be seen by the chancellor,” as Rev. Stoneking describes later. The chancellor agreed. The moment is profoundly humanizing on all sides. It embodies the power of hope—hope for understanding, for change, for reconciliation.

 “Why did I walk the Chancellor to her car?” Rev. Stoneking writes. “Because I believe in the humanity of all persons. Because I believe that people should be assisted when they are afraid. Because I believe that in showing compassion we embrace a nonviolent way of life that emanates to those whom we refuse to see as enemies and in turn leads to the change that we all seek.” 

Hope springs from such compassion. But hope takes the kind of discipline the students demonstrated with their silent, steady, peaceful witness.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion of hope. Hope in this world and of this world. But it is not a glib or easy hope; it must be earned through practice and experience.

My clergy study group, the Sparks for Growth, spent two days last week talking about the “core truths of Unitarian Universalism.” My friend the Rev. Chris Bell said, “We UUs have a positive view of evolution. We believe that things can, and should, and will get better.”

Really?” I said. “Isn’t that just too optimistic? Look at the persistence of violence, war, oppression, poverty, hunger, and plain old meanness.”

Ah, that’s where choice comes in, Chris and other colleagues reminded me. Unitarian Universalism is also a religion of choice. We humans are free, as individuals and as communities,  to choose how we live. We can choose to meet ourselves and each other face to face, with honesty, compassion, and a commitment to nonviolence. We can choose to walk this strobe-lit path through the evening’s dark.

This month we explore our own pathways to hope. Watch the video of Chancellor Katehi walking to her car at Read the whole of Rev. Kristin Stoneking’s blog, “Why I walked Chancellor Katehi out of Surge II” (Surge II is a UC Davis administrative building), at And ask, What does this event say to you about the discipline of hope, about the possibility for reconciliation and healing? Where in your own life might the discipline of hope open the door to life-giving choices and second chances?


With gratitude that we walk this path together,

Rev. Nancy

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