The Reverend Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull
Unitarian Universalist Minister

“Shared Ministry: The Language of Reverence”

Sermon by Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills
Kingston, NY
February 27, 2011

Shared ministry….the practice of a faith community affirming that it takes every single one of us to bring the ministries of a congregation into full blossom. I may be the professional minister, the one who went to seminary and jumped through all the hoops that Unitarian Universalism throws out there as requirements for ordination. I may have passed muster with our denominational committee responsible for overseeing this process. I may have been ordained by one of our congregations—All Souls, New York City, BUT I can’t do the work of ministry all by myself. No minister can. I need you. We need each other to realize the full promise of this faith and this congregation.

As we share the endeavors of ministry, so we learn its many languages—the language of listening, the language of love and justice, the language of commitment, and the language of reverence, including some variant forms of reverence such as the not quite prayer of poet Philip Appleman:

“O Karma, Dharma, pudding and pie,
gimme a break before I die:
grant me wisdom, will & wit,
purity, probity, pluck & grit.”

Appleman’s supplication is deliciously irreverent, with a dash of conceit as he implores “Karma and Darma” and friends to “teach the believers how to think”—that is, “before our world goes over the brink.”

How easy it is for some of us to get carried away with the assumption that believers don’t think. As I consider the language of reverence, the figure of Dr. Albert Schweitzer surfaces. Physician, professor, scholar, theologian, master organist, and Bach historian, Schweitzer was one of the most erudite and expansive thinkers of the 20th century. As a young man, he studied to become a Protestant minister. His inclinations led him to scholarly pursuits as a seminary professor. The more he studied, the more differently he believed, until he reached the point of asking himself how he could continue teaching what he no longer believed and whether he could begin to teach that which he newly believed. He did neither. In an interview with Norman Cousins, he explained:

“I decided that I would leave the seminary. Instead of trying to get acceptance for my ideas involving painful controversy, I decided I would make my life my argument. I would advocate the things I believed in terms of the life I lived and what I did. Instead of vocalizing my belief in the existence of God within each of us, I would attempt to have my life and work say what I believed."

I recall reading in my teens Schweitzer’s autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought. I was drawn into the sheer largesse of this man who heeded his inner truth in his larger world. His decision to let his life and work speak his belief evolved over the course of his decades as a physician serving the indigenous peoples of Lambarene in the West African nation of Gabon, raising funds for his work by performing organ concerts around the world, and pursuing scholarly interests that resulted in monumental works on J.S. Bach and the historical Jesus. Every spoke of his wheel turned in response to Schweitzer’s relentless search for truth and meaning. It was a search that coalesced in a philosophy that he called reverence for life.

“As we know life in ourselves, we want to understand life in the universe, in order to enter into harmony with it,” he wrote in 1936. But Schweitzer didn’t find harmony. In Lambarene, he bore witness to such a magnitude of suffering, that he found it impossible “to imagine that human life is nature’s goal” or that the “Creative Force” even concerns itself with preserving life. Rather than abandoning any deference to the Creative Force though, Schweitzer bowed before Life itself, claiming that “the first spiritual act in [one’s] experience” is “reverence for life.” This reverence for life emerged out of what he termed “fidelity to my own nature” and blossomed into a regard for all life as sacred.

“I must regard other life than my own with equal reverence,” he wrote, “for I shall know that it longs for fullness and development as deeply as I do myself. ...Reverence for life is a universal ethic… We are born of other lives; we possess the capacities to bring still other lives into existence… So nature compels us to recognize the fact of mutual dependence … ”

Where does this take him? To an understanding, in Schweitzer’s words, that “God does not rest content with commanding ethics. He gives it to us in our very hearts.”

A large and over-arching God, indeed, a Spirit of Life, a Creative Force, that infuses our nature with the spark of divinity that allows us to hold all life sacred and the free will to act accordingly or otherwise. The spiritual life and everyday ethics are inextricably bound.

I believe that that which we call the sacred or the Spirit of Life or the holy or the Great Whatever lives in a spirituality woven into everyday ethics, everyday compassion, everyday gratitude, everyday awe and through religious community in which we are, in concert with Schweitzer and quite likely the person sitting next to us this morning, in relentless search for truth and meaning. It is a search with a heartbeat, constrained and compelled by the span of a lifetime.

For all the promise that this holds, we commonly find ourselves wading through the mud of terminology.

A few years ago the mud turned into a veritable mudslide within our faith. Rev. William Sinkford, then President of our Unitarian Universalist Association and now Senior Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, preached a sermon on “The Language of Faith.” It was a topic simmering on the back burner for decades, but during those years immediately and perhaps not coincidentally following the events of September 11, 2001, it became a hot topic. Increasing numbers of Unitarian Universalists were compelled to speak of the spiritual forces that move within us and through us and emerge from Creation itself, a manifestation of the sacred in our lives.

In his sermon of November 2003, delivered in Fort Worth, Bill pointed out that our shared Principles and Purposes include not a single term for the divine, the holy, the transcendent. While we readily proclaim the inherent worth and dignity of every person, our free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and the interdependent web, there’s not a hint of the sacred in that language. He recalled that when these principles and purposes were adopted in the mid 1980s, a compromise was struck. Those sticky terms of reverence were allocated to a separate and distinct text that names the sources of our faith tradition, sources that include: “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves,” “Humanist teachings which….warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit,” “Direct experience of that transforming mystery and wonder,” moving us to an “openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”

Is it any wonder that we have such a hard time saying what we believe when we find ourselves in a conversation with someone who hasn’t a clue about our faith tradition and simply asks: “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” It’s a tough call when our only common language of belief has been subject to Solomon’s solution: You’re quarreling over the baby? Fine! Cut him in half! So one half of our UU baby is principles and purposes; the other half, the sources of our living tradition.

Whether we can put the baby back together again, like our own Humpty Dumpty, is anyone’s guess, but Bill’s sermon set up a storm of controversy about what Unitarian Universalists believe and don’t believe and how we do and don’t talk about it. Language is important. It’s important, because the words and phrases that we use and choose to identify what matters most to us mirror the experiences that we’ve had that matter most to us. Those experiences give rise to our language, and that language both opens and closes us to a faith community that holds the promise of shared ministry and its many languages.

But back to Bill and what he says on the spur of the moment, when someone asks him what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.

“The Unitarian side of our family tree tells us that there is only one God, one Spirit of Life, one Power of Love.”

“The Universalist side tells us that God is a loving God, condemning none of us, and valuing the spark of divinity that is in every human being. So, Unitarian Universalism stands for: one God, no one left behind.”

Now I’m not suggesting that we adopt this as our stump speech to explain our liberal faith. Nor did Bill suggest this. In his words:

“…’religious language’ doesn’t have to mean ‘God talk.’ And I’m not suggesting that Unitarian Universalism return to traditional Christian language. But I do feel that we need some language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name the holy, to talk about human agency in theological terms—the ability of humans to shape and frame our world guided by what we find to be of ultimate importance.”

In the same way that Schweitzer decided to let his life and work speak his beliefs, so might we as Unitarian Universalists, find our way out of the mudslides of linguistic conflict and hone in on how we live and work and learn and listen, how we honor the community that is this congregation, and how we join in healing the fractured community that is the world we inhabit.

When words are needed, how do we speak them and how do we listen to the words that are meaningful to you and to you and to you and to you? How do we honor the language of shared ministry that is the language of listening and love and justice?

Do we qualify every possible name for the Holy, from Spirit of Life to God to “You-hoo?” Do we say with every story of sacred experience, “This may not be so for you? I honor the uniqueness of your story and how you tell it?” Do we teach our youngsters that there may or may not be an experience that they’ll want to call sacred when they grow up? What is it that we yearn for when we enter this sphere of worship, of worth-ship, of holding close and sharing that which matters most? How might we open ourselves, each and all of us, to a lived language of reverence? Above all, how might we realize that it’s not all about us? How might we open our hearts to gratitude and our minds to awe?

Let’s head for the subway! Yep, the New York City Subway. For years I took the C train and the uptown #4 every day. Once in awhile, usually during rush hour when we were packed in like vertical sardines, the car I had boarded became still. I mean really still. Nothing out of the ordinary was happening, for New York City that is—no shootings, no handsprings for loose change, just this astonishing silence.

I began to notice my fellow passengers, as if we suddenly inhabited our own universe. I noticed faces with every shade of joy and distress and a rainbow of skin tones and profiles markedly different but each confirming a human countenance. Like Schweitzer, I was compelled to realize how interdependent we are and how utterly dependent we are on forces beyond ourselves and the boundaries of that momentary world. And we were in transit, just like we would be when the silence ebbed and the din returned and the train stopped and we scattered. We’re in transit this morning, still dependent on forces beyond ourselves and still ultimately interdependent.

“Reverence,” suggests Paul Woodruff, “is the virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods.” Where is our reverence for life as a universal ethic? Where is the gratitude and awe that suggest we just may not be Creation’s last act?

How might we restore wholeness to that cleft that moves through our own Unitarian Universalism and let go of trying to micro-manage the language of reverence? Call it Spirit of Life, Creative Force, God, Allah, Wind, Breath, it doesn’t really matter. But it does matter that we heed the yearning of each and every heart in this sanctuary, the deep yearning for truth and love spoken and unspoken, mostly lived. It does matter that we can each and all be transformed by the simple acknowledgement that it’s not all about us.

It does matter that we can feel gratitude for life welling up inside us and spilling out into a shared ministry of gratitude for this community, for the overwhelming mutuality that just is, for the epiphany of unexpected silences, for the next breath, and for that experience of the sacred that refuses to be stifled by the conventions and compromises of how we name the sacred. We are, after all, on a fast moving train.



Philip Appleman, Kharma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie, W.W. Norton, 2009.

William G. Sinkford, “The Language of Faith,” as preached at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church, Fort Worth, Texas, January 12, 2003,

Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography / Edition 60 by Albert Schweitzer, Antje Bultmann Lemke (Translator), Jimmy Carter (Foreword by), Lachlan Forrow (Foreword by), Antje Bultmann Lemke (Preface by), Johns Hopkins University Press, June 2009.

“Albert Schweitzer Talks with Norman Cousins,” in Albert Schweitzer: Exemplar of Life, 1875-1965, J.S. Bixler, in The Christian Register, April 1942,

Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, Oxford University Press, New York, 2001.


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