CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice


I want now to take you back to a much, much earlier time and write of Thalees of Mileesios, better known to us as Thales of Miletus. He was perhaps the first of the Greek physicist/ philosophers, and lived and died in the 6th century BC.

Thales was, to my mind, the first Unitarian Universalist. He left no writings but, two hundred years after his death, his ideas were well known and familiar to Aristotle, who quoted Thales as having said:


“It is water that, in taking different forms, constitutes the earth, atmosphere, sky, mountains, gods and men, beasts and birds, grass and trees, and animals down to worms, flies and ants. All these are different forms of water. Meditate on water!”


Thales apparently sought for the common substance, a single principle, which would explain the variety of nature and reduce the world to unity and system.

Aristotle, again, commenting on Thales’ search:

“He probably derived his opinion from observing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that even actual heat is generated there from, and that animal life is sustained by water and from the fact that the seeds of all things contain a moist nature and that water is a first principle of all things humid.”

To Thales, the entire universe was a living organism, nourished and linked by water.

Or as our contemporary Norman Maclean wrote,

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”

It is less important that Thales thought specifically of water as the first cause than that he sought to find a first cause.

Today, we are far more sophisticated in our attempts to understand the universe, the physical creation, the very word of God, as our namesake

Thomas Paine wrote of the physical creation, the one true testament, “which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, through which God speaketh universally to man.”

And yet for all of our conceptions of complexity, we live on small islands amidst great oceans, in whose depths the majority of life abides

In later years, when we have become a space faring people, our descendants, the Pauls and Clares of the future, will say,


“We come from Earth, the water planet.”


From space we see clouds: water, oceans: water, ice: water, and in between some few brown and green lands, covering less than 1/3 of the globe.

And where there is water, there is life. The green algae, the green grasses, the butterflies, the trees in their new leaves, the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, we humans and the great blue whales: all depend on water for life.

In many languages we speak of the water of life, l’eau de vie, aqua vita, usbequa, for water is life itself:

There is no life in dry ground; only water makes the desert bloom.

There is no life in fire, in the heart of stars or even on the high wind, else it comes from water originally.

Yes, I have said we arise from the earth, from dirt, and that is true for each of us, but we have our common origins in water and in our arteries and veins still course the ancient seas.

And perhaps Thales was right.

For water is so simple: three basic particles, combined into two colorless gases, themselves, in turn, bound up into a simple, pure liquid. And everywhere we search we find water: from the depths of the oceans to the far places between the stars.

Everywhere there is water and within water life, abundant, teaming life.

So, although I have left water to the last, it perhaps should have been first, and in Thales’ view, paramount, in considering the nature of existence and of our life.

I have shared with you many metaphors:

the metaphor of the elements,

the metaphor of the growing plant,

the metaphor of the space shuttle,


the metaphor of the trapeze.

I will leave it to each of you to work out how these metaphors finish, how water closes the cycle of each one.

Let me now share with you another metaphor: that of the water bird

Imagine for a minute a water bird, it could be a duck or a swan perhaps, or some smaller nameless bird.

Born from a egg by the side of the water, blinking and looking around, and learning, as Emerson said, “the laws of physics and of nature.”

Learning to walk and almost immediately after walking, learning to swim because its life will be upon the water.

And growing and growing and one day learning to fly. Rising from the water, separating from its reflection, first tentatively, then much more confidently, then flying simply as matter of course and of nature.

In the fall flying south and in the spring flying back north, first as a singleton, then as a paired bird. First following and then finally leading, year after year.

Then will come the time when the bird flies much more slowly, when it is cautious in coming down on the water, when it looks back and it looks down and sees its own reflection. It may even be startled by it.

Perhaps, birds even know that there will be a final time, one last long flight over water. And then no more.

Like the water bird, as we move toward the end of life, coming to rest, more and more, we should also reflect, looking down and back and see our life as we lived it and as we came to understand it.

We each come to this place in life, this moment, this low reflective flight over water, at different times and in different ways.

Sometimes through a singular event: the death of the last parent or the birth of the first child or grandchild or maybe even great grandchild.

But more often, it is by the gradual gathering of the moments, of dew fall turning to fine mist, and then to silver rain, dappling the surface of our lives with small losses, with points passed, with endings rather than beginnings.

It is then that we should be reminded that the great challenge is to live a good enough life, one which, at the end, produces little or no regret.

It is never too late to examine our own life experience, to learn what it has to teach us.

For each life is the same, but different.

I walk most days, particularly when it is not raining. One of my favorite walks takes me through a park, a small township park, that runs along both sides of a stream. The path crosses the stream in two places.

Recently, the township installed a bridge at the lower crossing so I can now go across dry shod without having to hop from stone to stone.

I usually stop on the bridge and I look down at the stream. There are lots of stones there because I and others had tried to put stepping stones there to cross over. The water gathers and ripples around the stones.

There is one particular place where, if the water level is just right, then there is a eddy and it forms bubbles. Sometimes they are little bubbles and sometimes they are big bubbles, sometimes they are very big bubbles. Sometimes they just form and then burst. Other times they escape from the eddy and run down the stream and, a little bit later, burst.

I always look at those and try to ask myself, having been originally educated as a physicist, is there a relationship between the size of the bubble and how long it lasts? Of course, there isn’t. Sometimes the small bubbles never make it out of eddy, sometimes the big bubbles never do and sometimes the small ones get far downstream.

But eventually they all burst.

Eventually, all things merge into one and a river runs through it.

We think of rivers of water, of the river of life but the great river is the river of time.

We are bubbles on the river, mere drops of water, carried ahead eternally and self aware, only for a brief instant.

Each of us has our own conceits.

In the dark night of the soul, we see ourselves as beautiful snowflakes, each a little different, each unique, each special, and for most of us, at least some of the time, superior in our petty differences.
But we should be careful to take notice of our dreams, to examine our conceits: for snowflakes, although each is different, are all the same, all have hexagonal symmetry, all are formed of water, and only of water, that simple abundant, primal matter.

And when the light of truth shines on us, when we feel the warmth of community, when we face the fire of reason, we melt and become but drops of silver rain, bubbles on the river of time, each the same and indistinguishable.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.

The river is also a metaphor, for the interdependent web of existence, which we recognize and revere in our seventh covenantal principle.

And yet, I think, we tend to focus too closely and narrowly on the river, on nature and on our tiny, singular planet Earth.

In a responsive reading in our UU hymnal, the reader speaks the seventh principle:

“We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.”

And the congregation answers:

“We believe that we should care for our planet Earth.”

True, true, noble, and... yes, true.

But Thales knew better: he said that all, all is water and that the river joins and links all, from the smallest ant to the gods themselves, in a mighty web of existence.

We have complicated his view and twisted it and turned it, until Einstein called us back to ourselves and said that all existence is either matter or energy and each can be made from the other.

Truly, this is the interdependent web of existence, of being.

Look again at your partner, your friend, your neighbor and see:

Just beneath the dead skin are live cells, within the cells are molecules and they in turn are made of atoms of matter, moved by energy in the dance of life and the energy and matter in each of us, as it is in the stars, is the same, not just similar, not just a lot alike but the same, identical.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.

And the river reminds us:

We are mostly water and the water runs through us and down to the oceans and rises up into the skies and falls as silver rain, and ...and...and...binds us into a single seamless web of existence.

We are here together, in this simple, perfect moment, aware of ourselves and of each other and of the river, of life and of time.

In this moment, I want to say explicitly some of what I have been implying in earlier parts:

I want now to write now of things which I know: not simply things which I have rationally convinced myself of, nor things which may simply be true, but things that I know, instant and entire, as Emerson spoke of the moral sentiment in humans which through good deeds ennobles and bad deeds contracts us.

First: the seven covenantal principles that we revere are, in reality, but one principle with seven parts and of these parts, the first and the seventh are the most instructive.

We are all bound up in an interdependent web of existence and through this web, are rendered far, far more alike than our petty differences can lead us to believe.

Thus, since we each hold ourselves to have inherent worth and dignity, we must, we must, we can have no alternative, but to accord the same worth and dignity to all others and to the whole of the physical creation.
This is not to say that we should surrender reason nor give up the power of discernment.

For humans are different from plants and from stones and from stars.

For there are differences, and these differences have importance, but in their place, only in their proper place.

Thus I can truthfully say, beyond fear of rational contradiction, that only women can bear children and only men can sire them, but both men and women can be good parents.

Discrimination, of any sort, is bad.

To distinguish in the absence of difference is to discriminate, but to fail to discern true differences is to be blind in both mind and spirit.

Let me repeat that carefully:

To distinguish in the absence of difference is to discriminate, but to fail to discern true differences is to be blind in both mind and spirit.

So should it be in each of our lives, as well as in our congregation, our communities, our world.

Second: If we wish for justice, for equity, for compassion, for the right of conscience, for all of the highest fruits of human association, we must in the beginning, and in the middle and at the end, tell the truth, speak the truth.

Emerson, again, from the Divinity School address:

“Murder will speak out of stone walls. The least admixture of a lie, --for example, the taint of vanity, the least attempt to make a good impression, a favorable appearance--, will instantly vitiate the effect. But speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness.”

We must speak the truth: speak authentically, not just truth to power but truth to each and all. To speak the truth is easy: as Paul frequently remarks, “Truth is the easiest version to remember.”

We must speak the whole truth: for the least omission will, in Emerson’s words, “instantly vitiate the effect.”

We must speak nothing but the truth: be not boastful, but emulate the plainness and directness, the lack of embellishment and boast, of our fellows, the Quakers.

We wish for truth, we strive for truth, we desire truth to be spoken to us, to affirm our own inherent worth and dignity.

In truth and through truth, life becomes simple. Robert Fulghum tells us that we learn the principles necessary for a good enough life very early, in kindergarten, in Sunday school, in the sandbox: Play fair, don’t hit; flush; be aware of wonder.

And if we, in truth, through thought and deed, by clear speech and open mind, pursue these simple principles, then we will each be the better for it, and the world will be a better place for us all.

Life is hard: it is hard even to hew to the simplest principle of honoring the inherent worth and dignity of your fellows. For some of us have not awoken in a moral sense, we do not heed the small, still voice of moral sentiment, guiding and correcting our actions and some of us from time to time doze off and some of us are so deafened by the press of events and the business of life, that we sometimes act without listening, and thinking and reflecting.

But we each know that we ourselves are inherently worthy and deserving of dignity and so are we all.

And so are we all.

Third, we are each born and will each die and between these moments, these ripples on the river of time, despite our petty conceits and disguises, we are naked under the stars.

And we are more than naked.

For we are mostly water. Gravity drags us down, water calling to water. We sag, we droop, our flesh dries out, the water of life flows from us, as if a stream trying to return to the ancient sea.

In the end, when the water is gone, and with it the flash and fire of life, all that is left is a handful of dust, borne away on the wind.

It is only though community that we can cloth this nakedness, rise from the earth and approach our better selves.

I have asked members and friends of the congregation, again and again “What brings you here and what keeps you here?” And I have heard the answers.

But still, each time you enter this place, this circle of faith, you should ask yourself once again,

“What brings me here and what keeps me here?”

Now, it is only fair, in fellowship, that I tell you what brings me here and what keeps me here.

I came to the UU movement in driven by a sense of something missing. It was not as clearly defined as the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, that piece you find on the floor or in your pants cuff, but a sense of lack of wholeness, of incompleteness, of a thirst for something which has no name.

I cannot say I have found it yet. But what brings me back and keeps me here is that this is a good place for the search, the journey, and here there are excellent, most excellent traveling companions.

Here there is a community of seekers, drops of silver rain, which together gather in strength and force, as in a golden river, as in a mighty torrent.

And I thank you for the company and for continuing to share your search with me.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.