22 February 2024

As I mentioned in my Imbolc post, one of my spiritual practices is simply noticing the more-than-human world around me. I use the term “more-than-human” after David Abram in his book Spell of the Sensuous, a text that was as life-changing for me as Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands that was the focus of last Sunday’s service. In his book, Abram explores (among other things) the way that indigenous cultures across the globe understand the language of the landscape in which they are embedded and of the other living beings in that landscape. During his fieldwork in indigenous communities, Abram learned to listen to the more-than-human world, and when he came back home to the US, he lost that skill. But having come to know the speaking Earth, referring to it as “nature” or “non-human” communicated a separateness, and a less-than status that he could no longer abide. He had experienced being in communication with something more-than-human, from which he was not separate. The poet William Stafford put it this way in his poem Earth Dweller: “The world speaks everything to us. It is our only friend.”

Now, my indigenous ancestors are more than a thousand years in the past; I am too much a creature of the United States to be able to understand what the Earth is speaking to me most of the time. But my Earth-centered spirituality is an aspiration to re-learn the language of the more-than-human world, and this is where my spiritual practice of noticing comes in. It’s easy to walk through the world paying attention to our thoughts, our to-do lists, the people around us, so that we barely notice that we are embedded in the more-than-human world. Just like getting up early to meditate, noticing the beings, terrain, and climate around me takes effort and discipline, and just like meditation, noticing the more-than-human world is a powerful teacher. The more-than-human world is always changing. And, it is always returning, for even as the seasons change, they change in cycles that become familiar when we begin to notice. Maybe it seems simple or silly to pay so much attention to plants, animals, fungi, rocks and water, but if so, maybe that’s because you’ve been conditioned to think that these things matter less and have less to teach us than human things. So I encourage you to practice noticing. And I can’t think of a better place to take up this practice than on the land of Saltwater Church and Saltwater State Park.

When I first came to visit you in October, I took a walk from the church office down to the sound, and I did the same thing just a few days ago. I invite you to join me in noticing all that was different, and all that remained the same:

So consider yourself invited into the spiritual practice of noticing. What will you hear the more-than-human world speaking, if you commit to taking time to listen?

In Faith,
Rev. Alison

14 February 2024

This Valentine’s Day, I want to share with you a little bit about my partner Jamie and our relationship over the years. I’ve known Jamie since we were six, and this year we’ll hit the milestone of having been partnered for half our lives. Even though he’s a man and I’m a woman and we’re legally married, I often refer to Jamie as my ‘partner’ because that’s what our relationship is and has been for almost 22 years: a partnership between two different and equal people who have sought to build a life together.

Getting legally married wasn’t ever a goal of ours or mine; ultimately we did it so that I could get in on Jamie’s employer-provided health insurance (so romantic!). But for years before we ‘made it legal’ we were building a partnership together grounded in love, friendship and mutual respect, and that partnership is much more significant to us than the legal recognition of marriage. In our first days together, we made commitments in the privacy of our own home that continue to define our partnership much more to than anything we said the day we got married. And for me, the gendered labels of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ feel like something very far away from the partnership I know.

For Valentine’s Day this year, the Shortwave science podcast had a wonderful piece on queer love in our animal siblings:

Hearing this podcast today reminded and affirmed for me that my bisexuality is a part of my very nature. This remains true regardless of my 20+ years of monogamous marriage. The ways that Jamie and I challenge the gendered roles of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ in our relationship, with me being a religious leader and him being a stay-at-home parent, are just one example of the ways I am “queering” heterosexual marriage.

Being bisexual for me is in part an acknowledgment that people are people, and gender matters less to me than the wholeness of the person in front of me. For me, gender doesn’t divide people into two separate camps, one of which is out of range of my love and attraction. I firmly believe that I would have loved my partner Jamie regardless of his gender. While I celebrate those who choose the labels of ‘husband’ and ‘wife,’ and while I’ll happily officiate weddings and celebrate wedding anniversaries, the primary relationship in my life is one defined by partnership, and to honor the truth of who Jamie is to me, I’m going to keep calling him my partner. And if that confuses some people, maybe that’s ok. The legal status of my partnership or the gender of the person I’m partnered with is less important than the fact that I’m supported, nurtured and sustained by the love that Jamie and I have cultivated and committed to over these past two decades.

On Valentine’s Day this year, as usual, we got treats and little gifts for our two daughters, but nothing for each other. We’re grounded in our love every day. As Joni Mitchell sang, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the City Hall keeping us tied and true,” nor do we need a holiday to remind us to focus on our love, because it is always at the center of our lives. No matter how you label, define or experience your primary relationships, I hope you too are grounded in a sustaining love like the one that is at the center of my own family, today and always.

Jamie & Alison: How it started & how it’s going
7 February 2024

I was surprised to learn that it was only recently that the UUA began requiring continuing education for ministers. In the health care field where I spent much of my professional life before ministry, all types of providers from doctors to massage therapists and everyone in between is required to have a certain number of hours of continuing ed on a regular basis. This practice helps newer providers continue building their knowledge and skills, and allows long-time providers to stay current as practice standards evolve. This is just as true for ministers as for health-care providers, and I’m truly excited for the opportunities to continue my education that I’ve embarked on this month. I’ll share more about that below.

For UUs, though, it’s not just ministers for whom continuing education is a necessary part of our spiritual practice. Rev. Dr. Sheri Prud’homme, who was my advisor and UU theology teacher at Starr King School for the Ministry writes, “Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, emerita professor of theology and former president of Starr King School for the Ministry, has asserted that the spiritual practice at the center of Unitarian Universalism is education.” The first North American minister to claim the label Unitarian, William Ellery Channing preached on what he called “self-culture,” the development of the self that enhances what Channing saw as humankind’s likeness to God. As a faith that believes that every human should have the ability to fulfill their potential, we encourage each other to keep learning so that we may each have the tools we need to fulfill our own potential. I’d like to offer each of you an opportunity to do some continuing UU education by reading Rev. Dr. Prud’homme’s piece on the theology behind the seven UU values identified in the proposed revision to the statement of purpose of the Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations (to which Saltwater Church belongs). Sheri’s writing is accessible and she has deep knowledge of our faith and theology throughout the ages, including the recognition that the whole idea of theology rubs some of us the wrong way. I hope you’ll take the time to read her nine pages and see how it informs your understanding of the proposed revisions.

For myself, in February I’ve embarked on a program offered by Sharing Sacred Spaces in partnership with the unRival Network, Religions for Peace USA and Hartford International University for Religion and Peace called Peacebuilding Amid Polarization: A Leader’s Toolkit for Constructive Engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian Crisis. So many of the conversations that I’ve seen taking place around the violence in Israel and Gaza over the last four months have put polarization and binary thinking (i.e. “If you’re not with us you’re against us”) front and center. But the reality is so much more complicated. In my life, the people who have called me most strongly to speak up for ceasefire are Jewish themselves, and yet I have also absorbed the message in the wider discourse that paints calls for peace or critiques of the response of the Israeli government to the horrific attacks of October 7th as anti-Semitic. What’s a leader of a multireligious faith community to do? The answer I’ve come to for now is to take up the UU spiritual practice of educating myself, so that I can more fully live in to my potential to be a religious leader who can hold all the complexity with you in community, a community that is made stronger by including a diverse array of perspectives.

I’m also excited to have returned to Starr King this month for an online class in which I served as Teacher’s Assistant during the final semester of my Masters studies: Power, Organizations & Movements. Grounded in the Tao to Ching (the first religious text that spoke to me as an atheist young adult), this class explores the movement of power among groups of people, and encourages us to take up practices that help us use our power together to create the future we envision. I’m looking forward to sharing practices from this class with the Saltwater Church community as well. Here’s to being UUs learning together.

In Faith,
Rev. Alison

1 February 2024

Imbolc Blessings, Saltwater Community! I’m looking forward to celebrating this Celtic pagan cross-quarter festival with you and Saltwater’s Covenant of UU Pagans (CUUPS) at Sunday worship this week. I’ve always felt spring in the air around my birthday at the end of January, even though it’s the middle of winter. When I was introduced to this “first spring” holiday of Imbolc, I began to understand why.

This year, I celebrated Imbolc by collaging, clearing the detritus off of my alter and burning the old flowers and food offerings in the fire pit, refreshing my altar with a Brigid’s Cross I made of long grass stems I found in an empty field nearby, and by paying attention to the world around me (the sunrise, the swelling daffodil buds, discovering the gift painted rock left on a fallen log ). The Goddess Brigid is the deity of Imbolc, a triple goddess of poetry, midwifery, and smithcraft. I offer this video as an opportunity for you to engage with my spiritual practices of altar craft, collage and engagement with the more-than-human world.

In Faith,
Rev. Alison

31 January 2024

The Gifts of Justice & Equity: SoulMatters Monthly Theme for February 2024

Building off of last month’s theme of Liberating Love, in February we turn to Justice & Equity. At my first Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, I heard Rev. Dr. Cornell West speak the words, “Justice is what Love looks like in public,” and these words rang so true that they have become touchstones of my UU faith. In contemplating the difference between justice and equity, a picture is worth a thousand words, and I encourage you to take a look at this image and consider the actions we need to take to work toward equity, and to move the world past equity to justice. The words “justice” and “equity” have been central to our understanding of ourselves as Unitarian Universalists, with justice appearing in every version of the statement of purpose of the Unitarian Universalist Association since its beginning in 1961, “equity” since 1985, and both words included in the proposed revision of that statement of purpose that will be voted on this summer by the delegates at the UU General Assembly.

Like love, justice is part of our mission here at Saltwater UU Church, and we’re excited for the congregation to get to know the three teams that help us practice justice at this month’s Faith Formation Sunday: Saltwater Climate Action Now!, the Racial Justice Organizing Team, and Sound Alliance will all have tables where you can learn more, ask questions, and get involved after the service on February 18th. Many of us, myself included, have come to this faith in part because we want to create a more just word. Together in community, with the benefit of multiple perspectives, we hope to gain a wider vision of justice and equity than any one of us could hold alone, along with more power to make the vision real. But please know that creating justice in an unjust world isn’t easy or comfortable, and that those of us, myself included, who benefit from systemic injustices will be called to examine our own participation in and complicity with systems of oppression, and to transform ourselves and our institutions to make room for justice to dwell among us.

In Faith,
Rev. Alison

17 January 2024

In my reflection on New Year’s Eve, I talked about the importance of imagining the world we want to see, so that we can work to build it. But this isn’t an idea I came up with on my own. My favorite author, Ursula K. LeGuin talked about this in the speech she gave when she received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters: “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.” This is why I read “speculative fiction” also called “sci-fi/fantasy” — these books exercise my imagination and help me see possibilities about what it means to be human that I may never have considered before. Speculative fiction isn’t just for kids or escapists. It can be a powerful force for re-imagining the way things are, imagining something better. I have found in my favorite works of speculative fiction “Words…of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love,” which is one of the stated sources of our UU faith.

I saw a YouTube video once where a couple was explaining what Unitarian Universalism is all about, and they talked about how, rather than one single book (like the Bible in Christianity, the Torah in Judaism, or the Quran in Islam), UUs are people of So. Many. Books. I see that truth in action here at Saltwater. This year, the Racial Justice Organizing Team will host a book study of An Indigenous People’s History of the United States for Young People by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza, based on the original edition by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz; and the Health Congregations Team will host a book study of Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Tawwab. I’m looking forward to both of these reads, and I know these books have important things to teach me and us all. And, because we’re the people of ALL THE BOOKS, I wonder if there’s room for a speculative fiction book group at Saltwater too? I want and need to learn the truth about our country’s history, I want and need to practice healthy boundaries to improve my relationships…and I want and need to exercise my imagination, too. If the idea of reading speculative fiction together through a UU lens appeals to you, please email me at minister.swuuc@gmail.com and let’s see if we can find enough time and interest to read even more books in community.

In Faith,
Rev. Alison

9 January 2024

I want to thank the folks who joined me on December 17th in person and on January 3rd online for our Adult Faith Formation program exploring the history of Article II of the Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws, and reflecting on the words that our community would want to see included in a description of Unitarian Universalism. We had so many good words, I’m having trouble finding a word-cloud program that can hold them all! This is the best I’ve made so far (remember, bigger words came up more often), with this visual only missing the word “creativity:”

The handout from our sessions can be found HERE, and it includes: our Saltwater Church Covenant of Right Relations (which provides a framework for all our interactions together as a community here at our church); the text of Article II, the Purposes section of the UUA Bylaws, as passed in 1961 and 1985 (with amendments passed in 1995 and 2018); proposed revisions to Article II from 2009 that were not adopted by vote of the General Assembly; the text of the proposed 8th Principle which has been passed by 200+ congregations but not by the UUA as a whole; and the current proposed revision to Article II which will be voted on by delegates to UU General Assembly in June of this year.

At Saltwater Church, we expect our GA delegates to vote their conscience on the issues before them at GA, including the Article II proposal, but we also ask that folks serving as delegates do the work both before and during General Assembly to keep themselves informed on the issues they will participate in deciding. Keep watching the newsletter for more information on how to become a delegate from Saltwater Church to the 2024 GA.

In the meantime, the amendment process to the Article II proposal is underway as outlined on the UUA website:

“The Article II proposal is subject to amendment in 2024 only by a three-fourths vote in favor of an amendment submitted to the General Assembly in writing by the Board of Trustees or a minimum of fifteen (15) certified congregations by action of their governing boards or their congregations; such proposed amendments must be received by the Board of Trustees by February 1, 2024.

Final approval of the Article II proposal requires a two-thirds (2/3) vote of the 2024 General Assembly to adopted the revision as the new Article II of the UUA bylaws. If either 2023 or 2024 General Assembly votes fails, the process ends and a similar proposal cannot be considered for two years.”

An article in last month’s UU World magazine shares: “The Board [of the UUA] is now receiving amendments to the version submitted by the Commission, and it has created an online process to make it easier to propose and endorse amendments. Any proposed amendment needs fifteen certified congregations to formally endorse it, and this process ends on February 1, 2024.” There’s an area on the UUA Discussion Boards where proposed amendments are being discussed, as well as two Facebook groups having these conversations, HERE and HERE.

Rev. Cheryl Walker, a member of the Article II Study Commission who helped draft the current proposal, says in the UU World article mentioned above, “We are hearing so many congregations are engaging the question we posed in this, which is: ‘What does it mean to be a Unitarian Universalist?’ That conversation is happening in ways that I’ve never, ever seen us engage before.” In some ways, engaging with this question is the whole point of the review of Article II that is required by the UUA bylaws every 15 years, and that’s what our last Adult Faith Formation offerings have been all about. Again, I’m grateful for all those who joined me, in person and online, to explore that question together.

In Faith,
Rev. Alison

3 January 2024

The Gift of Liberating Love: SoulMatters Monthly Theme for January 2024

Liberating love is our heritage as Unitarian Universalists, and practicing that love is part of our mission here at Saltwater Church. Our Universalist ancestors in the Christian tradition believed that God was too loving and just to condemn any human soul to eternal damnation; this meant that the salvation promised through Jesus’ resurrection was for everyone, not just those who believed in Jesus, not just those who had repented for their sins. As our living tradition has grown and changed over time, our Universalism has become less grounded in Christianity, but no less grounded in liberating love. Liberating love inspires our affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and leads us to declare that every person has the right to flourish. Liberating love inspires us to open our arms to include all comers who share our values, affirm our principles, and wish to dwell in covenant with us, regardless of their backgrounds or particular spiritual beliefs.

The social justice arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association is called “Side with Love,” because that is how we understand our social justice advocacy work: we choose the side of greater love. In the US, most of our society is structured around profit. Making profit for our employers is typically the goal of our jobs, and making enough money so our families can survive and thrive is the goal of being employed. Can you imagine how different society would be if every organization shared Saltwater’s mission of practicing love, and asked as every decision was made, “Does this decision have love at the center?” It is hard for me to even imagine this, which is part of why it’s so important to try.

Each year, Side with Love offers 30 Days of Love between Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 15th and Valentine’s Day on February 14th. I encourage you to check out their offerings as a way to deepen your connection to both the liberating love at the center of our faith, the ways that love inspires us to act for justice, and the greater community of Unitarian Universalists around the country and the world. At Saltwater Church during the month of January, we’ll be focusing on how liberating love is a part of the history and present of our UU tradition, as well as how we can practice liberating love more effectively right here at home. This month for Faith Formation Sunday, we’ll be exploring how to make neurodivergent people in our community feel more at welcome at Saltwater Church. I encourage you to attend our Neurodivergence in Congregational Life video screening online or in-person on January 17th from 6-7pm, and join us for a panel discussion with neurodivergent folks who are part of our community on Faith Formation Sunday, January 21st, after worship and our community meal.

In Community,
Rev. Alison

28 December 2023

It’s already been a week since we gathered together to celebrate the Winter Solstice at Saltwater UU Church. I brought the last of the pumpkins from my garden to make into pie for the celebration. In the spring, when I planted the seeds that became those pumpkins, I couldn’t have guessed that I’d be sharing them with you. Though I was dreaming of what my ministry had in store for me, I hadn’t yet been granted ministerial fellowship by the Unitarian Universalist Association or been ordained. As those seeds grew into vines, flowers, and fruit, I grew into your minister. Observing the changing seasons helps me also honor the growth and change that I experience as the Wheel of the Year turns.

Because of the miracle of modern technology, some of our Saltwater community celebrated the Summer Solstice last week. As the northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun in winter, the southern hemisphere leans in for its summer. Our commitment to making the ministry of Saltwater accessible remotely means that we have members and friends all over the world. Would we have guessed four years ago that this was our community’s future? We don’t always weave our remote community seamlessly into our in-person gatherings, but we are committed to continuing to lean into the potential of technology to connect us beyond geography.

For those who participate in the life of our community from a distance, I wanted to offer you an opportunity to experience some of our Winter Solstice ritual even if you weren’t able to be there in person. One piece of our celebration was walking the spiral of darkness and light: With an unlit candle, we entered a spiral made of evergreen boughs. As we journeyed through the shortening days of fall, so we journeyed to the center of the spiral in darkness. But at the center, a flaming chalice waited, symbolizing the Winter Solstice where, on the longest night, the light is reborn as the days begin to lengthen. After lighting our candles from the flaming chalice, we then journeyed out of the spiral, carrying the flame that will become the light of spring and summer out from the darkest night. By embodying this journey, we are reminded that we are partners in creation. We participate in turning the wheel of the year, changing ourselves as the seasons change. I invite you to walk the spiral with me by playing the video below.

I invite you to imagine what will wax with the daylight as we journey from winter to spring, and what will wane with the darkness, in your life and in the life of our community. Our informational congregational meeting on Sunday offers us all — online or in-person — an opportunity to reflect on what this congregation has accomplished this year, and look ahead to what we are excited to create together in the year ahead. I hope to see you there, whether you’re joining on Zoom as I will be, or in-person in the sanctuary. And just as the spiral of light and darkness is only a powerful embodiment of the changing seasons if we take the journey into and out of the spiral, so our congregation will only create the future we dream about if we commit to journeying together, to working together, to co-create this beloved community.

I’m grateful to everyone who helped make our Winter Solstice ritual happen — Serena for suggesting it and leading our indoor ritual, Mayda for leading us in song and dance, Bubba for putting all the pieces into place to allow it all to unfold, and everyone who came and participated. May we continue the spiral dance of our lives together as the wheel turns and we change with the seasons.

In Community,
Rev. Alison

19 December 2023

Can you imagined having to write down the key elements of our Unitarian Universalist faith in a way that all UUs could agree on? That’s exactly what the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Article II Study Commission has been working on for the past two years. And even though they’ve had all that time, and a team to work together, and the benefit of all sorts of feedback from UUs all over the country and the world, it still seems like an enormous task. Is it even possible?

The UUA is the association of Unitarian Universalist congregations; just like Saltwater UU Church has members who are individual people, the UUA has members that are UU congregations, including ours. And just like our church, the UUA is a non-profit organization that is required to have bylaws describing what the organization is and how it is run. And Article II of almost all non-profit bylaws is the statement of purpose, that answers the question, “Why does this organization exist?” Since it came into being in 1961, Article II of the UUA Bylaws has included not only the purpose of the UUA, but also our guiding principles, the key elements of Unitarian Universalism Those 1961 principles got a big overhaul in 1985, and right now the UUA is considering another big revision undertaken by the Article II study commission. Their proposed revision of Article II was amended by a vote of delegates representing member congregations at the UU General Assembly this past June. A final version of the proposal including those amendments was released in early November, and it will be up for a final vote at the 2024 General Assembly.

So this past Faith Formation Sunday, our adult group spent some time learning the history of Article II and trying our own hands at summing up the key elements of Unitarian Universalism. We broke up into groups and went around several times giving short one or two word answers to the question, “What words would you have to use if you were describing Unitarian Universalism?” This exercise can help us better understand our own faith as individuals and as a community, and it can give us some perspective on the challenging task that the Article II Study Commission had before them, summing up all these diverse ideas about who and what we are into one statement.

My favorite thing about our time together on Faith Formation Sunday was getting to hear those key words and phrases that the gathered Saltys used to describe our faith. Each group had a recorder who generously shared the recorded words with me, and I used them to create the following image. The more frequently a word came up, the bigger it appears in the word cloud below:

What I love about our word cloud is that it’s clear that we understand that being together in community is one of the most important things that we do, and that our community is liberal, inclusive, justice-seeking, caring and loving. Yes! Whatever the General Assembly voters decide about Article II in June, Saltwater Church will continue to live into the vision of Unitarian Universalism we hold together.

If you weren’t able to participate on Sunday, you have another chance! There will be a repeat of Sunday’s adult Faith Formation program offered on the evening of January 3rd over Zoom, so you can join in from home. I’m excited to see what our second round will add to the collective understanding of our UU faith represented by this word cloud. Keep an eye on our newsletter and list serve to find the January 3rd Zoom link for the repeat program. If you weren’t able to join us last Sunday, I hope to see you there.

In Community,
Rev. Alison

7 December 2023

As a little girl growing up in the church now known as Community of Christ, Christmas felt like the peak religious experience of the year to me. I got two whole weeks off school that were filled with choir practice, Christmas tree farm, decorations, cookie baking, special music services and pageants at church, electric lights and candles, angels, stars, the baby Jesus, story books that we only brought out once a year, tree lighting and caroling in downtown Portland. When harmful anti-gay rhetoric couched in Christian theology broke my faith, celebrating Christmas felt false. It was a ritual that no longer held meaning for me, and it felt disrespectful to my own beliefs and to Christianity for me to continue go through the motions of the Christmas celebration.

My partner, however, was raised without religious faith. As a little boy, though he might go to church with his grandparents on Christmas, to him it was more about the decorations, good food, being together with family, and (of course) the presents. It wasn’t a religious practice or a statement of belief. When we began living together, he wanted to put up a tree, to exchange gifts, to do Christmas, and he didn’t quite understand why I was uncomfortable. Eventually, we started putting up a tree, which I reconciled as a pagan holdover anyway, and we went for it with the presents once we became parents.

I’m at a different place with Christmas these days. When family separations at the US/Mexico border were ripping asylum-seeking parents and children apart, my activism around immigrant and refugee issues helped me to see the Christmas story from a new perspective. In one biblical story, Jesus, Mary and Joseph flee their country soon after Jesus’ birth because the king is after baby Jesus and wants to kill him. That year, my little daughter wanted to go up to be the angels in the the no-rehearsal Christmas pageant at our UU church. So we went. As I stood with my child in my arms, sheltering the holy family in our home-made halos and angel wings, I realized that baby Jesus is that refugee child I was trying to protect with my activism, whose family has all the odds stacked against them, even the power of the state. Baby Jesus is the “least of these” that grown-up Jesus tells his people to care for. I don’t have to believe that Jesus is God, nor do I have to accept any particular Christian theology, to be inspired by stories of the birth of a baby who defied the odds and grew up to share a message of love and care with the world.

Unitarianism and Universalism both began as Christian traditions and we have many Christian UUs in our congregations and throughout our association. So yes, we celebrate Christmas. But we also acknowledge the many other holidays and holydays around this time of year, as the Worship Team did so beautifully in last Sunday’s service. We also recognize that folks in our congregations may be in many different place on their journey with Christmas, just as I have been at different points in my own life, and we offer spaces to express the mixed feelings that this season brings up for so many of us, and the grief we often feel at the holidays for those beloveds who are no longer with us in life. There are many ways to participate in this magical and complicated time of year at Saltwater Church:

Blue Christmas Online Vespers Service: December 15, 7pm, on Zoom

This is our opportunity to make space for any difficult feelings that come along with the Christmas holiday, or that we are feeling at Christmastime this year. We’ll sing songs, name our griefs, and seek causes for hope in the midst of our sadnesses.

The Very Best Time of Year: December 17, 10:30am, Saltwater Church Sanctuary

Come celebrate the season and explore the meaning of Christmas in our Unitarian Universalist faith. Hear the Saltwater Choir share the music of John Rutter and enjoy a feast of traditional Christmas carols at our December Music Service.

Solstice Celebration: December 21, 5-6:30pm, Saltwater Church Welcome Room

During this multigenerational, family-friendly celebration, we’ll connect over snacks and songs, and we’ll walk the spiral of light and darkness, symbolizing the return of lengthening days after the longest night.

Christmas Eve Eve Candlelight Service: December 23, 7pm, Saltwater Church Sanctuary

We’ll gather on a dark winter night to tell stories, sing carols, and light candles honoring the promise of peace and love that was born with one little baby over two thousand years ago. To accommodate the regular Sunday evening worship service of the Haitian Christian United community with whom we share our space, our candlelight service will be held on Saturday December 23rd.

I’ll be participating in all these ways of honoring this time of year, and I hope to see you there at the offerings that speak to you.

29 November 2023

The Gift of Mystery ~ SoulMatters Monthly Theme for December 2023

Once when I was a girl, my father (an avid amateur astronomer who had been captivated by the space shuttle missions as a youth) said to me something along the lines of, “We have to go to space, Alison. We’ve learned all there is to learn down here.” Something about that didn’t seem quite right to me, and as I’ve grown and continued to learn throughout my life, I can confidently say that my dad was wrong on this one. Whether we’re talking about the sub-atomic particles that make up all matter, the intricate workings of our bodies, life under the depths of the ocean, or even whether or not it will rain this afternoon, life on earth is filled with mysteries that we have yet to even discover, let alone understand. Have you heard that a whole body system previously unknown to biomedical science was discovered in the last ten years? What about those “extinct” animals that keep turning up alive in the forests and oceans? We’re even discovering mysteries hidden in what we thought we already knew. Our ability to extract DNA from bone reveals that many ancient hunters buried with weapons and other signs of prestige had XX chromosomes rather than XY as the scientific establishment had expected, turning anthropological discourse about gender norms on its head. Mystery is all around us, even in the places where we think we have certainty. Unitarian Universalism affirms that our own experience of mystery is a primary source for our religious understanding. So this month, as we explore the gift of mystery, I want to encourage us to hold what we think we know lightly, and leave space to encounter the mystery all around us.

In Faith,
Rev. Alison

22 November 2023

My time in Des Moines this month unfolded as a powerful lesson in the pluralism that is a core value of Unitarian Universalism.

On Tuesday, I headed over to the Federal Way Community Caregiving Network board meeting at the urging of Betty, a member of Saltwater Church who is on the FWCCN board. We met in the basement of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, which partners with St. Vincent du Paul Catholic Church to offer one of the two monthly meals for neighbors in need that FWCCN provides. The other meal is offered by Christian Faith Center. Did you hear the one about the UU, the Catholic, the protestant, and the evangelical who all walked in to a room? They all fed the hungry together. In the history of Christianity, such meetings have been fraught. Factions with different flavors of Christian belief fought deadly wars over theology for many of the last two millennia, but in the 21st century, with all our different ideas about who Jesus was and what his life meant, the leaders of FWCCN can still come together to follow Jesus’ example and provide hungry people with food, serving it at community meals and growing it in community gardens. I’m proud to partner with these folks from different traditions in this important work.

Then on Thursday, I had the opportunity to gather with Saltwater Church’s Covenant of UU Pagans (CUUPS) group to bless, purify and ritually protect our buildings and the energy they contain. After a series of challenges with broken windows, malfunctioning technology, and even accessing basic utilities, Saltwater Church’s office staff decided we needed to put some intention into the well being of our community’s physical home. GG, also a member of our congregation’s board, wrote our our ritual, revising the classic pagan chant The earth, the air, the fire, the water, return, return, return, return into our ritual words:

Sadness, Danger, Stressful Days – Away, Away, Away
Safety, Clarity, Joyful Days – Return, Return, Return

Altar created by Saltwater CUUPS

We circled our buildings, ringing bells, burning herbs, and sweeping all negativity away with brooms as we sang. The love of our church home was palpable, and while I know not everyone in our community might understand or agree, I feel the intention of our ritual actions enduring as a protective bubble surrounding the buildings and grounds of Saltwater Unitarian Universalist Church. So mote it be.

On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending morning shabbat service with Rabbi Jim and the Bet Chaverim congregation, with whom we have shared our sanctuary for over twenty years. Also in attendance was Rev. Dr. Carl Livingston of Kingdom Christian Center in Tacoma, who is part of a coalition of Black pastors and Rabbis with Rabbi Jim. Pastor Carl and I were both invited to share our wisdom with the congregation during the service and in the community discussion of the Torah portion read that day after the service was over. I shared with the community my first multi-religious experience, attending and being deeply moved by High Holy Days services with my friend Emily’s family as a child. It was Emily, my friend of thirty-seven years, who placed the ordination stole around my neck for the first time at my ordination service in June (pictured below). As I said to the good people of Bet Chaverim, I’m looking forward to deepening my engagement with Judaism along side them as the minister here at Saltwater UU Church.

Then on Sunday, I got to experience the wise, funny, and deeply centered presence of Abbot Koshin Cain of the Puget Sound Zen Center, and share in the wisdom of our community members who practice there. Though I spent morning worship time with the youth making rice crispy treats, I still had the opportunity to connect with the Abbot as part of the panel on meditation that was the focus of Faith Formation Sunday for the adults. Many of us came away from the panel with new understandings of meditation, the ways we might have already been doing it without realizing, and how we can turn the things that make it hard for us to meditate into a deepening of our meditation practice. Since our day was so full, we didn’t get the chance to practice meditation together, but stay tuned for a chance to try out a metta meditation with me in a video I’ll be posting soon.

During my eight days in Des Moines, I had a chance to live my Unitarian Universalist commitment to drawing from multiple sources by engaging with partners from four different religious traditions. We didn’t argue about what was true, we didn’t try to change each other’s beliefs, we came together because we recognize that we are all part of the interdependent web of existence that Unitarian Universalism affirms. I’m thankful this week that I get to be a part of the Saltwater UU Church community where living our faith in this way is not only possible, it’s just another week at church.

In Community,
Rev. Alison

***

16 November 2023

The more-than-human world is so generous with its gifts – the smell of damp earth, tiny mushrooms that surprise me among the moss on the side of a tree, birdsong in the branches above, cool drops of rain on my skin. At Saltwater Church, we’re so blessed to be able to go outside and receive these gifts if we only pay attention. How wonderful then to give back to our more-than-human community, as we were able to do last Sunday as part of the ivy pull led by Jean. I learned so much from Jean: to roll the invasive ivy I’d pulled in to balls to prevent it from re-rooting itself into the ground; that the ivy will not only climb and kill the trees if we leave it be, but that it will also prevent other native plants and seedlings from growing as it carpets the ground and smothers new growth; that a Western red cedar sapling must be planted in a spot that will stay moist and not too hot. It was a perfect Pacific Northwest fall afternoon, not too cold, but with a light rain to loosen the soil and make the ivy easy to pull. After clearing away the ivy, we planted two red cedar saplings, which (at Jean’s urging) we named: Austin and Alma (pictured below with human friends). If we named all the trees we know, would it change our relationship with the forests?

Receiving from the more than human world is, as they say, as easy as falling off a log. But do we remember to give back? Sometimes it can feel like we are too small to matter, like our efforts alone won’t make much difference. There is still ivy in our woods, and even if every one of us went out to pull ivy every Sunday after church, there probably still would be at least some. But for Alma and Austin, and the grown up trees whose trunks are no longer choked with invasive ivy, what we did last Sunday mattered, and what those trees bring to the larger community of the woods will reshape that community for the better. Even as we are aware of our tininess compared to towering trees, ocean, Earth and beyond, the hill of balled up ivy we left to compost is proof that our work made a difference. We can give back to the more-than-human world. I’m reminded of the words of our religious ancestor, 19th century Unitarian Rev. Edward Everett Hale:

I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

When I pull the ivy, I am doing the something that I can do. When we pull the ivy together, we are doing more than any one of us could alone. We are being good neighbors to the community of trees, fungi, plants and animals that share our home. We area giving back to the world that gives so generously to us each day.

In Faith,

Rev. Alison

***

8 November 2023

Beloved Saltwater Church Community,

I’m looking forward to sharing my first Sunday morning message with you this weekend on November 12, the first day of my monthly visit to Des Moines, which runs through the November 19 (and I still have in-person meetings available, sign up HERE). I hope you’ll come to Sunday’s From You I Receive, To You I Give: The Generosity of Beloved Community service (whether in person or via Zoom) prepared to give and receive gifts, both spiritual and tangible. One gift that I hope to both give and receive on Sunday morning is the gift of covenant.

20th century Unitarian Universalist theologian Rev. Dr. James Luther Adams, whose birthday is this Sunday, wrote in From Cage to Covenant, “Human beings, individually and collectively, become human by making commitments, by making promises. The human being as such, as Martin Buber says, is the promise-making, promise-keeping, promisebreaking, promise-renewing creature.” Covenants are the mutual promises we make to each other about how we will be together in this human community, and these promises that we give and receive are more important to us as Unitarian Universalists than the particulars of our individual beliefs about the nature of Divinity or what happens after we die. And, because our faith is free, we each get to choose if we want to make those promises or not.

I’m writing today to offer you the words of the covenant I’ll ask you to share with me on Sunday, so that you can freely choose if you want to join in. One of the reasons I am a Unitarian Universalist is because there is no expectation in this faith for me to speak words that don’t ring true to me, and the same is true for you. I’m grateful for Board President Aida and lay minister Debra, who helped me craft these promises that we will speak on Sunday, and that will shape our journey together this church year. These words borrow a phrase I learned from Rev. Dr. Cornell West at the first UU General Assembly I ever attended, words that have become central to the practice of my UU faith: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” You don’t need to memorize this covenant for Sunday, but I encourage you to read it over before the service, so you’ll be ready to give and receive these promises in Beloved Community, as you choose.

In Faith,

Rev. Alison

Covenant Between Saltwater Church and Rev. Alison, November, 2023

Rev. Alison:

As your minister, I have all this and more to give to our shared ministry:

Leadership grounded in our Unitarian Universalist faith, Saltwater’s mission, the priorities established by the board, and the creativity and inspiration that flow from the Spirit of Life.

Partnership with staff, lay leaders, community partners, members and friends of the congregation to co-create our vision of Saltwater Church’s vibrant present and resilient future, and to live them into being.

Accountability to our covenant of right relations, the contract I signed with your Board, the guidelines of the UU Minister’s Association, our UU principles and values, and my own conscience that is the voice of the Spirit of Life within.

And at the center of these is Love, Love for this community and the people in it, Love that is the Spirit of Life that flows through me, Love that leads me join you in your good work for justice, because justice is what Love looks like in public.

Congregation:

As the Saltwater Church community, we have all this and more to give to our shared ministry:

Sustenance in the form of time, talent and treasure devoted to the mission, work, and future of Saltwater Church.

Openness to learning new things, to trying new ways, to making new connections, and to our spiritual growth as individuals and as a congregation.

Accountability to our covenant of right relations, our UU principles and values, the commitments I’ve made to this community, and my own conscience.

And at the center of these is Love, Love for this community and the people in it, Love that is the Spirit of Life that flows through us all, Love that leads us as we work together for justice, because justice is what Love looks like in public.

ALL:

I give my gifts and receive yours. Together we join in this covenant in the spirit of Beloved Community.

***

1 October 2023

Dear Saltwater Community,

I am so very honored to greet you today as your new Minister. I am Rev. Alison Cole Duren-Sutherland, Duren from my mother, Sutherland from my father, and Cole for the street in San Francisco that we lived on when I was born. My father loved the Puget Sound, and some of his ashes were returned to the earth of the apple orchard in Tukwila where he made his home for thirty years. I gave birth to my first child in Renton, and I learned midwifery at the Puget Sound Birth Center in Kirkland. This new ministry truly feels like a homecoming for me.

As I shared during worship this morning, I currently make my home in Southern Oregon, near the California border, on the traditional lands of the Cow Creek Umpqua, Takelma, Shasta and Tolowa Dee-ni’ peoples. Through June, I will travel once a month to Des Moines to preach twice in person, and I’ll be present on-site at Saltwater during the week in between. My first visit is coming up October 14th through 22nd (though I won’t begin preaching until November), so mark your calendars and look for information coming in the weeks ahead about how to connect with me when I’m there in person.

I also believe that there’s nothing “virtual” about online community. During the pandemic, I served a partnership of three Southern Oregon UU churches operating entirely remotely, and most of my seminary education through Starr King School for the Ministry was also completed online. These experiences were ones of deep relationship building and spiritual growth that were very real, though it took place largely in Zoom rooms and online forums. In the same way, I will be your minister when I am here in Southern Oregon just as much as when I’m there in Des Moines, always just a phone call or an email away.

My family includes my spouse and childhood friend Jamie, our two daughters Ramona (15) and Frances (8), plus Cat Ballou. This is part of why I will be remaining in Southern Oregon for now, as my children have already begun their school year. Jamie and I met at Irvington Elementary in Portland, Oregon, where I grew up with my mother and maternal grandmother. I look forward to being able to visit family all along the I5 corridor and around the Puget Sound as I travel to be in-person with you. If you’d like to learn more about me, you’re welcome to visit my website (linked below), schedule a one-on-one meeting, and please keep your eye on your emails for future opportunities to connect.

Thank you for helping me find my place in the story of Saltwater Church.

In Faith,

Rev. Alison