Tag Archives: Bible


I’ve been working on a booklet containing prayers, meditations, graces, words for lighting a chalice, and affirmations, to send home with families that have children or teens at home. One challenge has been to come up with copyright-free materials that today’s Unitarian Universalist families are likely to use. Another challenge has been to come up with materials that will appeal to the wide range of theologies we have in the New Bedford church.

Most recently, I came up with some prayers based on Bible materials, and I thought I’d share some of these here. First, a recasting of the prayer attributed to Jesus (though scholars say it’s based on a much older Jewish prayer). Traditionalists will cringe, but I rewrote it because I realized that, having heard it every week in the Unitarian Universalist church of my teens, I no longer heard it.

God of love,
your name is goodness and holiness.
May your love be present in all the nations of earth,
just as I feel your love in my heart.
Grant us the food we need today,
grant all people the food they need today.
Forgive me when I fail, and
help me forgive those who fail me.
May I not be tempted by evil or wrong-doing —
may your love watch over me, and over us all.

–a traditional Jewish prayer, adapted by early Christian communities, and further adapted by Dan Harper

Next, a short prayer that uses phraseology from pseudo-Paul’s alleged second letter to the Christian community at Thessalonika. I found a version of this in the old hymnal We Sing of Life, by Vincent Silliman, where it is credited to A New Prayer Book, 1923. I adapted it further.

May I go forth into the world in peace,
and be of good courage,
and hold fast to what is good,
returning to no person evil for evil.

May I strengthen the fainthearted
and help the weak,
and be patient with all persons,
loving all living beings.

So may I rejoice in life,
and give thanks for that which is good.

— adapted from A New Prayer Book and 2 Thessalonians 5.14-18

Finally, I got this old chestnut from Rev. Helen Cohen, minister emerita of First Parish, Lexington, Mass. I traced it to the old children’s hymnal, Beacon Song and Service Book, but I believe it’s older than that. At the request of someone in this congregation, I tracked down the likely scripture references contained in this prayer.

May the truth that sets us free,
And the hope that never dies,
And the love that casts out fear
Be with us now
Until the dayspring breaks,
And the shadows flee away.

— adapted from the Christian and Hebrew scriptures (John 8.32, Romans, John 4.18, Song of Solomon 2.17)

I’m thinking these short prayers will be useful both for Unitarian Universalists who are Christian, and those who have rejected Christianity. I’d be interested to hear your reactions.

Lizards and Einstein

I’ve been reading Down the River, by novelist and environmental writer Edward Abbey. In the essay titled “Watching the Birds: The Windhover,” Abbey makes what I take to be a theological statement:

The naming of things is a useful mnemonic device, enabling us to distinguish and utilize and remember what otherwise might remain an undifferentiated sensory blur, but I don’t think names tell us much of character, essence, meaning.

Apply that to the old book of Genesis: God lets the first humans name things, not because God thinks humans are specially suited to naming things, but simply so humans can function in the world without things and events turning into a sensory blur. Puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it? Humans are not quite so remarkably unique as it seems at first. Not even Einstein:

Einstein thought that the most mysterious aspect of the universe (if it is, indeed, a uni-verse, not a pluri-verse) is what he called its “comprehensibility.” Being primarily a mathematician and only secondarily a violinist, Einstein saw the world as comprehensible because so many of its properties and so much of its behavior can be described through mathematical formulas. The atomic bomb and Hiroshima make a convincing argument for his point of view…

Take that, Einstein — you’re not quite the perfect scientist-hero that some say you are, and your (human) view of the world was limited….

The lizard sunning itself on a stone would no doubt tell us that time, space, sun, and earth exist to serve the lizard’s interests; the lizard, too, must see the world as perfectly comprehensible, reducible to a rational formula. Relative to the context, the lizard’s metaphysical system seems as complete as Einstein’s.

Neither science nor traditional religion offers a convincing explanation for the world as it truly is; both are ultimately too narrow. As is Edward Abbey when you come down to it– narrow, I mean — but at least he tells you so.

Thinking out loud

Still working on this week’s sermon, even though in general Friday serves as a my sabbath day. The title this week is “The Garden.” One of the texts is Genesis 1.27-28: “[27] So God created humankind in his image,/ in the image of God he created them;/ male and female he created them. [28] God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.'” And my topic, as you might have guessed, is ecotheology.

One of the theologians I have been consulting on this topic is Rosemary Radford Reuther, in her book Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. She writes [my reading notes in square brackets]:

…I assume that there is no ready-made ecological spirituality and ethic in past traditions. The ecological crisis is new to human experience. [I.e., Ruether appears to admit the necessity of allowing ongoing revelation to humanity.] This does not mean that humans have not devestated their environment before. But as long as populations remained small and human technology weak, these devestations were remediable by migration, retreat from to-heavy urban centers, or adaptation of new techniques. [This challenges God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” in gen. 1.28.] Nature appeared a huge inexhaustible source of life, and humans small…. The radical nature of this new face of ecological devestation means that all past human traditions are inadequate in the face of it. Whatever useful elements may exist in, for example, Native American or Taoist thought, must be reinterpreted to make them usable in the face of both scientific knowledge and the destructive power of the technology it has made possible.

So one of the challenges of an ecotheology is that we’re going to have to completely rework religious traditions. I’d say this is a task that we Unitarian Universalists should be able to handle, as a non-creedal people who have been pretty willing to rework religious tradition (at least in small ways). Ruether goes on:

…Each tradition is best explored by those who claim community in that tradition [and she means “tradition” more broadly than the narrow confines of, say, Unitarian Universalism]. This does not preclude conversions into other traditions or communication between them…. But the plumbing of each tradition, and its reinterpretation for today’s crises, is a profound task that needs to begin in the context of communities of accountability. Those people for whom Taoism or Pueblo Indian spirituality are their native traditions are those best suited to dig those roots and offer their fruits to the rest of us. Those without these roots should be cautious in claiming plants not our own, respectful of those who speak from within.

So which tradition does Unitarian Universalism belong to? –and no, we aren’t deep or rich enough to claim to be our own tradition. It’s probably best to say we’re a post-Christian tradition, and while we might be post-Christian, we are post-Christian. But although Christianity is often equated with Western religion, that’s not at all true: we can’t forget the Jews; the neo-pagans have been helping us find the remnants of indigenous European traditions; there’s also a small but important secularist tradition that has to be included. Obviously most of our spiritual root system is in Protestant Christianity. But as a post-Christian spirituality, with individual members who are deeply embedded in Christian, Jewish, neo-pagan, and humanist spiritualities, we’re willing to acknowledge that our root system spreads a little more widely. We might be well-placed to mediate the conversation that will inevitably ensue between the different reinterpretations of Western spirituality.

I still don’t have a sermon, though, so I guess I better go back to Genesis 1.27-28 and see what I can do with it.

Work in progress

The story below is one of the stories I have been working on. It comes from the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 97. Thomas is one of the many gospels that did not make it into the final canonical edition of the Christian Bible. But it remains of interest, since it is another historical record of Jesus. Although the story is protected under coypright, feel free to make personal copies as long as you include the copyright notice.

The Empty Jar

copyright (c) 2005 Dan Harper

Jesus and his followers were traveling from village to village in Judea so that Jesus could teach his message of love to whomever would hear it. They had spent the day in a village where some people wanted to hear what Jesus had to say, and many others didn’t seem to care. That evening, they stayed on the outskirts of the village, and as they were eating dinner, one of the followers asked, “Master, what will it be like when the kingdom of heaven is finally established?”

“Let me tell you a story that will explain,” said Jesus, and he told this story.


Once upon a time, there was a woman, just an ordinary woman who happened to live in a very small village that had no marketplace of its own. At the harvest season, the crops having been gathered in, the woman decided to walk to a larger village, just two or three miles away, where there was a market.

She started off early in the morning. She brought along some things her family had grown to sell in the market, and she brought along a large pottery jar with two big handles. Since she was an ordinary villager, or course she did not have fancy bronze jars, nor did she even have well-made pottery jars with pretty decorations. The potter who lived in her village was not very good at what he did, so her jars were without decoration, and not very well made.

She arrived at the marketplace, and sold everything she had brought. Then she purchased a large amount of meal, or coarsely-ground flour. She filled her jar with the meal, tied the handle with a strap of cloth, and slung the jar over her back.

The path home was steep and rough, and by now the day was hot. She walked along, putting one foot in front of the other, and she did not notice anything besides the heat and the rough path.

But one of the handles to the jar broke off, and the jar slowly tipped to one side. Bit by bit, the coarsely-ground flour spilled out on the path behind her. Bit by bit, the jar tipped even further. Before she reached home, all the flour in that jar had spilled out.

At last the woman reached home. She put the jar down, and discovered that it was empty. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like.


When Jesus stopped talking, his followers respectfully waited a little while longer, because they did not think that could be the end of the story. But Jesus stopped talking. They all sat in silence for a while, and one of the followers finally said, “Master, I’m not sure I understand.” Still Jesus did not explain further, and went off by himself to sleep.

The followers still did not understand the story. They sat up longer talking about the story. “It is like the story when the prophet Elijah goes to the widow of Zarephath,” said one of the followers. “God told Elijah to go there and she would feed him, but the widow did not even have enough flour for herself and her son. Elijah tells her to bake three loaves anyway, and she finds that she does have enough flour after all, for God has provided for her. Indeed, the jar of flour is still just as full as it was before Elijah had arrived. Jesus is telling us that in the Kingdom of God, we will not have to worry where our food comes from.”

“You mean like when Jesus said, the lilies in the fields don’t go to work and yet they have enough to eat,” said one of the other followers. “Perhaps you are right, but I think Jesus is telling us that we will find the Kingdom of God in the most unexpected places. He also taught us that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a seed so small you can hardly see it, but one that grows into a huge plant.”

“Perhaps you are right,” said a third follower, “but a mustard seed can grow, and an empty jar of flour cannot grow into anything but hunger. I think Jesus is talking about the poor, who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Like the woman in the story, those who are poor and hungry have no flour at all. She will be one of the ones who inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.”

No one else had anything to say, and they sat in silence for a while. At last, another one of Jesus’s followers stood up. “It’s time to go to sleep,” she said. “I don’t think any of us really understand that story, but Jesus got us to think hard about what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like. We have thought, and now it’s time to sleep, because there is a long walk in store for tomorrow. Just like the woman in the story. Though unlike that woman, you won’t have to carry a heavy jar of flour on your back.”

With that, they all went off to sleep.

In the Beginning

For the past few months, I’ve been working on a book of stories for liberal religious kids. Just for fun, I thought I’d post a draft of one of the stories on this blog. Obviously, this story comes from the book of Genesis, up to chapter 2 verse 4 (remember that there are two stories of the creation of humanity in Genesis, and I have only included one of those stories here).


In the Beginning

Copyright (c) 2005 Dan Harper

Once upon a time that had no time, a being lived in a place that wasn’t really a place. This being did have a name, but the being’s real name cannot be spoken. Because of this, it’s easiest to call the being “God.”

Before time began, before you could even say there was a before, or an after, God looked around, and saw that nothing had any shape or form to it. All around God, it was just nothingness. Or perhaps there was water, and there was wind, and the wind was God. Either that, or God seemed like wind and all around God was everything that ever was, or is, or could be, but it was all mixed up together as if it were a vast ocean.

God decided to separate out light from darkness, and when God did that, time began. God looked at the light and the darkness, decided that they were good. God called the darkness “Night,” and the light “Day,” which meant there now was evening and morning, and that was the first day of all time. But no one knows how long that first day lasted, for in the beginning time did not flow in the same way it does now.

Eventually God wanted more than just light and darkness, night and day. God separated out some of the water, and made it into a big dome that arched above the rest of the water. God called the big dome the “Sky.” Time moved on, evening came, morning came, and another day passed. But no one knows how long that second day lasted.

When it was time for another day to begin, God gathered together the water that lay under the sky, which meant there was room for dry land to come forth. God called the dry land “Earth.” God asked the dry land to grow plants, and plants grew. All kinds of plants, small plants with seeds, and plants that have spores instead of seeds, and trees, and every kind of plant grew up out of the Earth. It must have taken a long time for all the plants to grow. But time still hadn’t settled down into a regular rhythm yet. Evening came, and morning came, but how long did they last? The plants grew and grew, for a long, long time, but it only took a day. That was the third day.

On the fourth day, lights appeared in the dome of the sky, a big bright light, a smaller dimmer light, and lots and lots of tiny little lights. God put all the lights in the dome of the sky. The big, bright light came out in the day. When evening came, the smaller, lesser light came out, and so did all the stars. These lights in the sky lit up the earth, and helped to separate out light from darkness because now there could be days and nights, and seasons, and years. God looked at everything, and felt that everything was good. No one knows how long that fourth day took, but at last it was done.

The next morning, which was the fifth day, living creatures started to live in the waters, and birds started to live in the skies. God created every kind of animal that lives in the water, and every kind of winged creature that flies in the sky. God told them that they could have babies on their own. God told the sea creatures to fill up the waters, and the birds to settle down on earth. It took one day to create all these creatures, but no one knows how long that fifth day lasted. For all we know, the fifth day and night lasted so long we would call it a million years.

On the sixth day, God decided that the land needed more creatures, so God told the earth to bring forth animals. God made all kinds of animals, from mosquitoes to tigers. God liked all the animals.

God made human beings, too. We human beings say that God made us look just like God, that women and men were created to be the exact image of God. Just like the animals, God told the human beings that they could have babies on their own. And God said to the first human beings, “Because I made you in my image, you are responsible for all the creatures in the sea, and all the creatures who live on land. Rule over them wisely.”

After that, God told all the animals, and the human beings, that they could eat the plants that had come forth from the earth. “Everything that has the breath of life,” said God, “shall eat plants for food.” That was the end of the sixth day. It must have been a very long day, but once again no one knows just how long that day lasted.

At last, God felt that everything was finished. Now there was light and darkness; and the dome of the sky; and the oceans and earth with green plants; and sun and moon and stars; and creatures of the water and of the air; and creatures who lived on dry land including human beings.

But not quite everything was finished. On the seventh day, God made a different kind of day. God blessed this seventh day and rested, and God admired light and dark and day and night, the sky and the water, the plants growing on dry land, the sun and the moon and the stars, all the creatures in the water and all the birds in the air, the animals and the human beings. Some people say that God liked everything existed, but there needed to be a reason for everything to exist, and that was why God made the seventh day.

Finally, on that day of rest, God felt everything was finished.

Home stretch…

Fort Worth

We’re coming down to the home stretch at General Assembly here in Fort Worth. In some ways, things are slowing down — quite a few people have already left, people who could only take a long weekend and have to be back at work. In some ways, it feels as though the pace is picking up, as those of us who are left try to cram too many events into too short a time.

I’m sitting in the Raddisson Hotel, cramming some lunch into myself before heading off to the final session of Plenary, which I’ll be reporting on. So I’m quickly updating this blog before I have to run off. (I asked for a table near a plug, and they found one for me — but when I plugged in my laptop, I discovered the plug has no power — typical, I’m afraid, of this hotel, where the staff is pleasant and accomdating but the building is falling apart.)

I wasn’t going to go to Elaine Pagel’s lecture last night — went up to the Web room to write up some stories, and while I was writing, I turned on the live video streaming of the lecture — she was so good, I hustled right over to hear her live. A woman came in a little later to stand and listen — she obviously knew her Bible, because I could see her mouthing the words of Bible quotes as Pagels cited passages in the Gospel of John — and this woman, too, was captivated, found a seat, and sat down. I watched teenagers who were lost in rapt attention — and someone whom I know is pretty much of a humanist, also rapt in attention.

OK, so Pagels is a great speaker. But there was something more going on here.

After the lecture, I ran across Chris Walton, who’s on the staff of UU World magazine. Chris was sitting in the Raddisson lobby, typing away on his cute little 12″ Mac Powerbook, and he had just come back from Pagels’s lecture. “We are seeing a real change in Unitarian Universalists,” he said.

I wasn’t sure I agreed with him, but he went on.

“Ten years ago, I could not imagine over 2,000 Unitarian Universalists sitting and listening to a lecture about Jesus the way people did tonight,” he said. “No one got up and walked out in a huff.”

He’s right. there does seem to be a new openness to all things religious amongst Unitarian Universalists — a distinct movement away from the hardline ideologies that many Unitarian Universalists used to adhere to — there’s a new sense of intellectual openness, a new willingness to listen.

And Chirs and I agreed that this openness does have a generational aspect. The generation of younger Unitarian Universalists now coming up is far more open to exploring the Christian tradition, and not immediately rejecting it out of hand.