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