The Reverend Allison Barrett

Loving the World with Words


Credo – a sermon about wrestling with belief

Song of the Open Road by Walt Whitman

Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road.
Healthy, free, the world before me.
Henceforth I ask not good fortune –
I myself am good fortune;
strong and content, I travel the open road.
I inhale great draughts of space;
the east and the west are mine,
and the north and the south are mine.
All seems beautiful to me;
I can repeat over to men and women,
You have done such good to me,
I would do the same to you.
Whoever you are, come travel with me!
However sweet these laid up stores –
however convenient this dwelling,
we cannot remain here;
However sheltered this port,
and however calm these waters,
we must not anchor here;
Together! the inducements shall be greater;
We will sail pathless wild seas;
We will go where winds blow, waves dash,
and the Yankee clipper speeds by under full sail.
Forward! after the great Companions
and to belong to them!
They too are on the road!
Onward! To that which is endless,
as it was beginningless,
to undergo much, tramps of
days, rests of nights,
To see nothing anywhere but
what you may reach it and pass it.
To look up or down no road but it
stretches and waits for you
To know the universe itself as a road –
as many roads –
as roads for traveling souls.


by Pico Ayer

May we remember, as we log on, that half the world’s people
have never used a telephone, and recall, as we chatter, that
most of those around us have no chance to speak or move as
they choose. May we recall that more than a billion beings live
without food, and that as many children live amidst poverty and war.

May we have the strength to question our own gods, and the
grace to respects others’; may we, on a globe that is shrinking
and expanding, honor our differences, while finding a language
in which to speak of them together. May we recall that the
responsibility of the fortunate is to answer the prayers of others,
and the privilege of the blessed is to make cause for general
gratitude; may we sing hymns for the opportunities we often
ignore and say hallelujahs to the moments that are everyday gifts.

May we speak to the best in our neighbors and attend to
the worst in ourselves; may we have the courage to leaven
compassion with discernment, and the sense to make knowledge
dance with innocence.

May we, above all, in the clamor of the moment, find a space
to recollect what we treasure, and a silence in which to recall the
fact that progress, fundamentally, takes us backward, toward the
essential and the deep. And may we continue, amidst the acceleration
and the opportunities of the moment, to see what exists beyond all
moments, and to rejoice in the wise souls in our midst whose
challenges and injunctions and reminders answer our petitions and our
needs, while leaving us with questions it is our duty –
our pleasure – to take home.

Reading – “Some Wishes For You”

I wish for you a troubled heart at times
As woes of world and friend come close beside
And keep you sleepless.
I wish for you the thrill of knowing
Who you are,
Where you stand.
And why.
Especially why.
Not prosperity, but dreams I wish for you;
Not riches, but a sense of your own worth I wish
For you.
Not even long life, however proud we’d be to
have it so,
But life that is crammed with living,
Hour by hour.
And love I wish for you;
May you give it frequently.
I wish for you solitude in the midst of company,
And a mind full of company within your quiet times.
Full todays I wish for you, and full tomorrows.

– Charles. S. Stephen Jr.


I believe
any land is holy
any bush is burning
any sea is parting
anywhere is temple
anyone is priest
any meal is communion
any particular is eternal
any book is sacred
anyone is the holy of holies
and the last judgment is now.
– David Hillen

(I believe)

Someone asked me not so long ago “What do you believe?” and I thought – It’s kind of a funny question to ask your minister. Isn’t it obvious? I have the privilege every week of wrestling with what I believe and then the challenge of standing up before all of you and trying to articulate it. But I realized when he asked that it has been a long time since I preached a sermon about what I actually believe; in fact, it was the second sermon I ever preached before you, and a lot of time and living has happened since then. And so I offer it as an invitation to you to examine what you believe – at this moment in time – for as we know – all truths are, as one of you used to say “working hypotheses.”

I have had the privilege of studying our roots – Christianity – in theological school, and since Christmas is coming, I’ll begin with what I believe about Jesus. I discovered in studying the scriptures at school that the early disciples were touched, stirred, inspired and profoundly disturbed by the presence of their friend Jesus who was not afraid to confront authority about injustice, who was not afraid to include those who were shunned, who was not afraid to challenge the religious laws written in stone, who was not afraid to draw a big, wide circle that could include everyone.

And so whenever I hear people use their faith to exclude or condemn, I want to say “Which Jesus are you following again?” because the one I read about in theological school did the opposite of that. But I am a Unitarian Universalist Christian, because I believe that it is the message and the life of Jesus, not the mystery of his identity, that is worthy of emulation, worship, reverence or praise. That makes me a heretic in some people’s eyes, but apparently, not in everyone’s!

I remember an extraordinary encounter at an event I attended one evening at McMaster with Peter. Among many others, I was introduced to a professor (Gerard Vallee) whose specialty was the study of early Christianity, so when he asked me what I did, I had the usual feeling of trepidation I have when introduced to people who I fear want to get into long-winded theological discussions. “I’m a minister” I said, hoping he’d leave it at that, which often people do. No such luck. “What denomination?” he asked. “Unitarian” I said. “Ah, Unitarian. The real Christians!” was his reply, and well, then we DID have a very interesting and long-winded theological discussion!

What he said took me by surprise, although I have actually long quietly held a similar opinion, and early Unitarians fervently believed it. But I have rarely encountered it stated so succinctly either within or especially beyond my own denomination by a renowned scholar of Christianity!

But I do believe that if we all lived our lives the way Jesus did, we would incarnate God all over the world in one glorious moment. I also think he was preceded and followed by many spiritual woman and men who also lived lives we should emulate. And I believe we should sing all their songs – Mary’s song, Buddha’s song, Bernadette’s song, Pagan and Goddess chants, The Vedas, the Great Spirit’s song, the Song of Solomon…
I am also a Mystic. I know I am a Unitarian Universalist Mystic – not the kind with a crystal ball to see the future, or the kind that “talks to dead people” but the kind that recognizes that despite the amazing discoveries of science, we cannot know everything that is to be known.

In the Sistine Chapel, in Michaelangelo’s famous painting of God and Adam, there is a tiny gap between the outstretched hand of God and the hand of humanity reaching toward the Eternal Mystery. I believe that within this tiny gap, reside the spark of life and all the greatest Mysteries we can imagine. Despite all our progress and technology, we really do not understand what lies at the heart of this great Mystery. We had no idea until we split the atom or discovered DNA how much energy was locked in even the smallest particles of existence.

Despite all our curiosity, we still have not unlocked the mysteries of this world, we do not know where we go when we die, exactly how it all began, and if and when it will ever end. The further along life’s path I go, the more certain I am that great mystery lies at the heart of everything important. You know, the more you know, the less you understand. Shakespeare said “Modest doubt is the beacon of the wise.” And so I am grateful to have a religion that honours the doubts as much as the faith, the questions as much as the answers.

I am also a Pagan or a follower of Earth-Based Spirituality, if you prefer that name. I know I am a true Unitarian Universalist Pagan because nature is not a resource to me, but an outpouring of amazing creativity of which I know I am only a small part. I never feel closer to the Eternal, more a part of the Universe, more at home in the world than when I am immersed in Nature, honouring her beauty and incredible diversity, feeling myself at one and the same time so small against a night sky full of stars and so vast a part of a whole that stretches beyond my imagination.

I gaze in wonder at the Moon, who sets the cycles of tides and women, and at the Sun, who turns the seasons, and night into day; giver of all life so that the trees and I can share breath like two lovers, and I am speechless before her. I believe that the fundamental religious feeling is humility, and this is what is awakened in me in the sacred presence of Nature. UU Minister Max Kapp puts it this way:

“Often I have felt that I must praise my world
For what my eyes have seen these many years
And what my heart has loved.’
And often I have tried to start my lines:

“Dear Earth,” I say
And then I pause
To look once more.
Soon I am bemused
And far way in wonder.

So I never get beyond “Dear Earth.”

And so yes, I am a Christian-Mystical-Earth-Based Unitarian-Universalist Minister and a few things besides. And I could have ended the sermon here, and we could all go home now! But it’s a lot more complicated than that I’m afraid. I haven’t gotten to the God part yet… and that’s where things get bogged down.
Because in living my life I have discovered that theological belief and faith are two very different things – one perhaps of the head and the other of the heart. And I discovered this… because of a profound loss of my own faith.

I could tell you many reasons and no doubt there are many reasons.

There comes a time when, as Peter Gabriel says in his song “In Your Eyes” “Lord, I get so tired just fighting for our survival” – not just the survival of our world – which is hard enough, or the survival of the human race, which is tenuous enough, but just the survival of each and every one of us – you and me, every day.
This may sound silly, but no-one ever told me that a big part of my job would be falling in love with such amazing people, and then having to help say goodbye to them. I have buried too many of your and my loved ones… I do not need to read you a list, because they are your beloved people, but without a peek at my records, I counted 30 people whose memorial services I have presided over… and you know, it’s sad, and it gets to me sometimes…

September 11th happened since I have last spoken to you of my beliefs, and while I don’t believe the world changed that day as so many do, I do believe that it has gotten to be a much more dangerous place to live, breathe, think and love in, and that weighs on me sometimes… and I despair of humanity’s hopes for ever having a peaceful world.

But the cherry on my sundae of lost faith is my 5 year struggle, (of which many of you know) to become a mother. Or as I have said to Peter, I don’t want to be a “Barrenness!” I make no judgment on the meaning of anyone else’s life – whether you be parents or “child-free” as the saying now goes – I only say for myself that the combination of the loss of two children followed by long years of infertility cast me into a deep well of despair and meaninglessness from which I have at times wondered if I will ever escape.

For those who may be tempted to leap in and tell me that my life does indeed have meaning – I ask you, if you have children, to imagine for one moment that you do not have them – with no hope that you ever will…to look at your life, as it is, without your children, and catch a glimpse of the view from the bottom of the well. For those of you who are child-free, imagine your life without that which gives it greatest meaning (which is how people describe their children) – whether it be your creative, professional or volunteer accomplishments, dearest friends and relationships, extended family, or beloved spouse.

I tell you not to confess my crisis of faith or to seek comfort (or advice!) This is only my example of a hundred different human stories that can make us question every notion of goodness, fairness, rightness and blessing we have ever been taught. For each of us it different – an unimaginable loss, a fractured relationship, the deep pain of illness, a horrible accident. I have walked with you through many such moments. And I know that the bottom can drop out of our faith, not just in God at times like these – but our faith in the very meaning of our life, faith that life is worth living. The cause may be different, but the feeling is the same. “I do not understand! My world no longer makes sense.”

I was born in a post-Holocaust world, grew up in the shadow of nuclear war, I was in theological school learning to be a minister while millions were slaughtered in Rwanda as the world stood by; I find it quite embarrassing that I could hold my faith held through all of these, and then lose it over whether or not I can have a baby. But there you have it. Feeling cut off from the circle of life, a “point, not a line” as I put it to a friend, seemed to bring to a head my personal crisis of faith, perhaps exacerbated by a life in ministry where one is exposed to the pain of the world on a regular basis.

I can only say by way of explanation that I think we are constructed as to think in the general but feel in the particular. We all know logically know that children die of cancer every day, but as long as it’s not our children, it seems we find a way to live with it. We know that bad things happen to good people, but it is usually when it is our good people that we are thrown into a crisis of faith. When this happened to me, I questioned whether or not I could continue in the ministry at all. Not whether or not you would fire me if you found out (!) but whether or not I could be authentic preaching about hope and faith when I didn’t feel much of it myself.

The first folks I shared this with were my Women’s Clergy Group – who listened compassionately to my story of lost faith and crisis in my calling. “What do the people in your church think?” one of them gently asked. “I’m not sure they can tell…” I said, “But even if they could, I don’t think it would matter!” “Wow, wish I was a Unitarian!” one of them said, and we all burst out laughing. Of course, they too have their moments of despair and doubt but, the idea that I could lose my faith in God but keep my job as a minister was amazing to them! “Lost your faith in God, not a problem, you can still be our spiritual leader!”

At the worst of these times, I called up one of my old professors from Emmanuel College because, you know, I needed a minister. I told him I needed to talk to him because I was having a crisis in my ministry, I had lost my faith and wasn’t sure if I could go on serving my church without it. He said two things to me.
The first was “So you’ve lost your faith – So what? Why should your ministry depend on your faith alone?” He said “I’ve always thought the notion that the work of the church should depend on the faith of the minister kind of arrogant or even downright scary! So you’ve lost your faith – Big Deal! There’s work to be done, a world full of hurting people, wrongs to be righted… get out there and get busy!”

I have to confess this wasn’t the answer I was expected from my kind and gentle retired professor. I thought only your former minister Martha Munsen had attended the “Buck Up, You Sniveling Coward” School of Pastoral Counseling, but apparently not! But it appealed to my sense of service, and my no-nonsense attitude about life. It was just what I needed to hear. Wrapped up in my own pain, I had closed my eyes to both the pain of others and the good I could still do.

The second thing he said to me was “If you’ve lost your faith in God, what do you believe in?” And I thought about it and I said “People. I believe in people.” Because during this long dark night, I have been held and healed by people – people who have always held me, and people who found me with such a small moment of grace or kindness that they will never know how much it meant. Like Walt Whitman, “I can repeat over to men and women, you have done such good to me, I would do the same to you.” (My professor also said “Oh, Allison, by the way, if you were God, who would you work through?”) I’ll have “Things that make you go “Hmm…” for $200 dollars, Alex!

Losing my faith in God, I regained it in human beings, I became a humanist again! Which is funny, because this is at least the second time I’ve been here, even in a different place. Like the spiral stained glass window in my office, I believe that in life we circle back to places we have been – but find ourselves in a different place –and so believe that all is changed.  I believed in a “God in the Sky” who was in charge with all my child’s heart, and yet I lost my faith in that God as a teenager – and joined the Unitarian Church as an atheist/humanist. (I was a teenage atheist… like I was teenage werewolf!)

Over the years that belief changed too. I cannot describe the process that brought faith in the Spirit of Life slowly back into my world, except that it seemed to seep in like water filling a well, until I discovered I was often overflowing with gratitude, faith and belief in God and the goodness of creation. I cannot describe to you any more than I have how that water seeped out of my well, and in some ways, has yet to fully return.

But I am so grateful for a religion that can meet me where I am. This faith, like an old friend, stands by me no matter what – no matter where I go and who I become, no matter what life throws at me or at those I love. African American Theologian Howard Thurman says “On your lonely path may you not walk alone.” It does not offer me all the answers, but company in the questions, and “great companions on the open road.”

Along the way, I’ve discovered that there are some things I do know.

I know that life is not fair, but it is still good.
I know that people are broken, but they are still beautiful.
I know that the human spirit is like water poured into a vessel that can assume
any shape and circumstance – and still emerge beautiful and brimming with meaning.
I know that our Faith is not meant to be constant, but is meant to follow us wherever we go.
I know that we are here for each other.
I know that Mysteries abound, and Nature can heal us.

And so, my prayer for you is this: I pray that if times come in life as they sadly surely will – when you feel abandoned by God, lost to the Spirit of Life and cut off from the land of the living – that you are found and held by people who love you and are uplifted by the best in human nature.

And I pray that if times come in life, as they sadly surely will – when you feel let down by people, disappointed, disillusioned and even disgusted by the worst of human nature, that you will be found and held by some Hand greater than yours or mine and restored to your faith in the beauty and majesty of life.
I pray that if the time comes where you despair for our planet, that the stories of great human beings who have made a difference will inspire you and give you courage.

And I pray that if the time comes when you are tired of the struggle, in the words of Wendell Berry, you will “Go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeds, into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief… and rest in the grace of the world and (be) free.”

Because, you see – I think we’re a team. God and Goddess and You and Me and Nature and Humanity. We’re all working together; now I take my turn, now you take yours, now I lose my faith, now you lose yours, now one of us falls down a well and now we lay our head down to rest in the healing woods and are restored; we each do our part, and somehow, somehow – the whole is honoured, sheltered, redeemed.

I believe, like the words of the hymn Jerusalem we sang this morning, that we are here to build heaven on earth, on this “green and pleasant land.” I believe, as your fellow member David Hillen does, that:
“Any land is holy, any bush is burning, any sea is parting, anywhere is temple, anyone is priest, any meal is communion, any particular is eternal, any book is sacred, anyone is the holy of holies, and the last judgment is now.”

This Recovering Theist-Christian-Humanist-Pagan-Mystic-Unitarian-Universalist Minister does not know what she will believe this time next year, or in ten years, or at the end of my life, but I do know that I will have this religion and a company of Great Companions to help me find out. And for that, I am grateful.
I know that life is, again, in the words of Walt…

“To see nothing anywhere
but what you may reach it and pass it.
To look up or down no road
but it stretches and waits for you
To know the universe itself as a road
as many roads
as roads for traveling souls.”

I am glad to be traveling with you souls, and I wish us all courage in our losing and our finding faith, amid the living of our days.

So may it be.

Closing Words

For all who see God,
May God go with you.
For all who embrace life,
May life return your affection.
For all who seek a right path,
May a way be found…
And the courage to take it,
step by step.

And now, let us go
Remembering to praise.
to live in the moment,
to love mightily,
and to bow to the Mystery.
So may it be.