CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice


"Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice..."

Robert Frost mused on the end of the world and on death by the fire of desire versus death in the destructive grip of icy hatred.

We do not know how it will all end, but we do know that it began in fire: the fire of the "big bang" and the continuing nuclear fire of the stars.

And a most peculiar fire it was and is: in our everyday experience, fire consumes, giving off heat and light, leaving only smoke and ash.

Likewise atomic fire, fission, the coming apart of atoms with great destructive force, laying waste to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leaving only smoke, ash and devastation.

But the nuclear fire, the fire of fusion, is not inherently destructive, but constructive. It comes about through the joining, the nuclear engagement, of atoms of the simplest chemical element, hydrogen. The atoms engage, they merge, they fuse and the created whole is more than the sum of the parts, causing the stars to shine with holy fire, giving birth to all of the elements of earth, air and water and giving to us, life.

I don't mean life in the sense of the gift of a personal creator, as pictured on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, caught in the instant of passing a spark of divine fire to Adam.

I mean more directly this: Without fire, the other three elements of the Greek world view would be of little value or use: Water would be hard, black ice, the very air would condense and freeze solid, and the earth itself, gripped in ice, would be hard and barren, unable to support life. And all would be forever in dark, deep, cold, impenetrable darkness.

Instead, everywhere we look there is light and life and motion; we see the energy of nuclear engagement, of the mating dance of hydrogen, suffusing our world, permitting the waters to give birth to life, the air to support wings and refresh our lungs and causing the earth to be warm and fertile, feeding humans and animals alike with its' bounty.

When I wrote of earth, of our common bonds with dirt, I wrote also of metaphors.

In the metaphor of the growing plant, earth represents germination and emergence, while fire is the period of rapid growth and maturation which must come before the harvest.

Likewise, the space shuttle sits anchored on the launching pad, linked to the earth during preflight preparations and strains at its bonds before rising to the sky in a fiery ascent, beginning the work of its' mission.

And so it is also with us humans: we arise from earth and, in the beginning, we are closely bound to it. We grow and mature, we learn and master skills, we rise up and strain against our bonds. And then, we launch out, rising as Martin Luther King Jr., on a cloud of fire, in a high ascending arc of ambition and endeavor.


"All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air,
And playing, lovely and watery,
And fire green as grass"


Dylan Thomas sang of the flush, the exuberance, the fire of the ascent. When all things seem possible and there are no limits to aspiration, beyond the totally unreal knowledge of our ultimate surcease:

"Oh, as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means. time held me green and dying,
Though I sang in my chains like the sea."

This is the fire time, the time of creation, of expansion, of blazing trails, of laying the pathway for future life.

This is when partnerships and marriages are made, families are founded, new ideas are created, new ventures launched.

This is the time of revolution and of declarations, not of interdependence, but of independence.

This is the time:

Of peak achievement of the scientist, the mathematician, the philosopher, the artist, the preacher and the prophet.

This is the time for the third covenantal principle:

For free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

The fire in us demands knowledge of why and wither and whence; it challenges the status quo; it takes "No, absolutely not!" as an interesting, initial negotiating position.

This is also the time for the fourth covenantal principle:

For asserting the right of conscience and the primacy of the democratic process; for insisting on declaring and serving and preserving principle; for striving for a just society of laws, not of men, in which all men and women, while differing in nature and nurture, are equals in their inherent worth and dignity.

The fire time, those years between the early 20s and the early 40s, is a time of struggle and of unselfconscious striving.

When I look back on that time in my life, I get tired just remembering all of the things that I tried to do and I am amazed at what actually got done. I am embarrassed at how ignorant of reality I was then and yet so grateful now for that ignorance, in that I and my works and my family did prosper. When I was in my late 20s, I returned to school briefly and, while there, conceived, or perhaps received, three new ideas. Of these ideas, two were sufficient to occupy my time and my mind for more than a quarter of a century and to support a full career.

What a time that was!

And there is a message which I receive from my recollections of that time: it is an echo of a familiar idea: if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it! And this message is universal; it applies equally to all of us.

When I wrote of earth, of the common dirt, I asked for reflection and reconciliation, for coming to grips with the reality that we are more strongly united by our common wants, needs and beliefs than we are separated by our differences of opinion.

Now, have you all done your homework?

Have you asked yourself “What brings me here and what keeps me here?"

Yes? I really hope so!

Then, let me ask you now to heed Martin Luther King Jr. and ask yourself, in paraphrase, "If I do not stop to help, what will happen?"

I will not recite the areas and the people in this congregation, in your community, in the larger world, from the youngest to the oldest, who need your help, your ministry, your greater engagement with them and their needs and concerns. My list would be long and I would, without doubt, miss some.

Rather, I would like to pose two questions, specific to our local context, and answer each one by telling a story:

First, What did we each, as UUs, actually agree to do when we signed the membership book?

Now, I bet that that is something that not many of you have thought about. And I haven’t thought about it, in fact, until recently.

Let me want to tell you a story. I don’t know if you remember the children’s game where you put your hands together, back to back, with fingers intertwined and the turn them outwards and wiggle them. There is a little rhyme that goes with it:


This is the church.
This is the steeple.
Open the door
And see all the people.


The point of this exercise is that I don’t think this is a terribly good image of a UU congregation. Because somehow, whichever way you do it, they (the fingers) are all of pointing in different directions. And that is not what we are or what we are about. Some years ago, I was in a workshop and the leader asked a very provocative question: “When you think about your fellowship or your church, what is the single image that comes to your mind?”

On the spur of the moment that day, I put my hands together, palm facing palm, fingers curled, pad against pad and said :

“This is the image that comes to my mind, the image of engagement; that we are close together, facing each other.”

Thus, I answer my own first question, by saying, by signing the book, whether we know it or not, we have each agreed to come together, to engage each other and to maintain that engagement in friendship.

The second question is, What do each of us stand to lose by engagement?

Now I want to tell you another story. Some years ago, when I was still full time on an academic faculty, a donor had approached the university I was at, at the time and had given a very large gift to endow a professorial chair.

Now, for those of you who may be less familiar with university life than some of us, this is not an uncommon gift. In fact, it goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. The idea is that the donor gives a large amount of money; the principle and part of the income are to be maintained in perpetuity. There are some chairs, in European universities, that are more than three hundred years old. A portion of the income is used then to pay the salary and sometimes the expenses of a professor. Because of the perpetual nature of the gift, it’s an enormous honor for the university to receive such a gift and it is a great honor for an academic to be appointed to such a post.

The gift had been made and confirmed and the time had come to actually fill the chair. The university had decided to honor the donor. A number of the senior professors, including myself, were invited to a formal luncheon, with the donor and his wife, at which the university would express its thanks and the donor would have a chance to say a few words.

We all dutifully went, expecting to be bored out of our minds, the usual internal version of the boiled chicken circuit. It was fairly boring. The president got up and said some words. The provost got up and said some words.

But finally at the end, the donor, a fairly simple, plain man, a small businessman from down state, got up to make some remarks. I was half asleep at the time but what he said electrified me because it struck home very directly.

He said that when he had given the gift, which was some two years before, his wife, who was sitting right beside him, had been very alarmed at the size of the gift because it was nearly two million dollars. It seemed to her like a tremendous amount of money.

And his wife nodded her agreement. He said “It seemed like a tremendous amount of money to me, too. But since then I have prospered and it has all come back to me.” You could see from his expression and his wife’s expression that it was absolutely true.

Therefore, I would answer the second question by saying, in my experience, while holding back diminishes one, giving freely results in enlargement, in unforeseen returns and rewards.

Greater engagement, taking up more tasks and concerns of others, will in the same way pay you back and then some!

Let me turn the idea of engagement around another way:

Sometime ago, I received a wedding announcement, in which the young lady to be married wrote, in part, "Come and help us celebrate, as I marry my best friend."

When two people decide to marry, they agree and announce their engagement to their family and friends. They are clearly deeply attracted, in love, to be able to make the decision. But it is often the case that they do not know each other very well, that they may even be, to outside appearances, strangers to each other.

We can say the same about visitors who come to our congregation and, often after a very brief time, decide to become members. We and they may like each other very much, probably do, in fact, but don't know each other very well and probably have not had time to become friends.

One of the many reasons for an engagement is to allow time for lovers to become friends, hopefully best friends.

My father once advised me, "Don't fall in love with someone you don't like." What he meant, I think, is that love is, perhaps, evanescent and fleeting, but friendship lasts and lasts and lasts.

Recently I have been developing new friendships, as I move further and further away from my professional career and towards what comes next. This has given me cause to reflect on what we mean by the word friend and how can I tell if others are friends to me and I to them.

I want to suggest a simple three step mental excise:

Ask yourself, about another person:

First, would I, to the best of my abilities, fulfill any request that that person makes of me?

Second, would I assume that any such request is reasonable and that my help is truly desired and necessary?

And, third, would I expect the same response and assumption if I made a request of that person?

I suggest that if I or you can answer all three of these questions about each other with a quick Yes, without too much reflection or consideration, then we are truly friends. And our friendship is measured by our engagement with the needs and concerns of each other.

Let me say, parenthetically, when I discussed this with Clare, she said “That sounds like family.”

I said “Yes, but we gain family generally by inheritance and friendship by choice.”

The whole question of engagement comes back to fire.

Some would like Colin Powell to run for president of the country.

But he declines; others say that he lacks "fire in the gut."

Martin Luther King Jr. did not lack fire; in the gut, in the voice or in the spirit.

If King were alive today, the fire of his oratory and his actions would surround us, envelop us, threaten to consume us, as he continued to remind us, in word and deed, of the need of all for truth, for meaning, for the right of conscience and for the democracy of justice.

He lacked nothing in fire.

We should expect no less of each other, for in common humanity, in our congregation, in our homes and in our community, we are his equals.

We stand here, each naked and alone under the stars, balanced precariously between the heat of the depths and the chill of the heights.

The fire of the heavens streams down and around and through us.

And to each of us, at any instant, may come a moment of illumination, when the opportunity for service, for ministry, for dangerous unselfishness, is evident.

You can run, but you can't hide; you can't escape your common humanity, which binds all to all.

Wherever you are, if you are still and pay careful attention, you will hear voices, saying:

"The need is clear.
The course is laid in.
What is your decision?"

And then will come the answer, echoed in the words of Jon Luc Picard, eternally the same:

"Make it so. Engage."