Home » Lectures


These “lectures” are talks or sermons I have delivered in various locations.  They each address major issues that concern me and present ideas that I think ought to stir the theist and non-theist community to hard thinking and decisive action.

“By the Hands of Nature:  John Muir as Secular Saint”

“The Nature of Shelter” (UU talk, San Rafael)

“God  is Green”

“Re-defining the Sacred”

“Nature is God” (author reading in Seattle)

“Nature is God” (UU Talk on Whidbey Island)

“Chaplain Thoughts”

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Muir-1875-Watkins copy

By the Hands of Nature: John Muir as Natural (Secular) Saint

Conservation, Preservation, Participation, Celebration

Chris Highland

“Earth Week” at Cabrillo College, Aptos, CA

April 19, 2012, 2:30-4pm

It’s good to be with you today. I’m honored to be a part of this week when we celebrate the big blue, soggy rock spinning in space, the chunk of the cosmos we call home (and ought to treat as a reverenced residence).

Biologists tell us a startling fact: our bodies contain hundreds of millions of bacteria cells, which comes out to more bacteria cells than human cells! So, I want to welcome all you colonies of bacteria here today. This is definitely the largest audience I’ve ever spoken to! But even that’s a little more polite than what an alien said to the Enterprise crew on Star Trek, when it called them “ugly bags of mostly water.” Well, when you think about it, that’s a pretty accurate description.

So, here we are. Bags of watery bacteria. As an old Philosophy Professor used to say, Go and think about that, for ten or twenty years! Seriously, I’m grateful for the invitation to speak this afternoon. I’m a strong supporter of the Secular Student Alliance and I’ve donated copies of my book, Life After Faith to the National organization and to Sonya, their representative here. Back in my conservative Christian days, the word secular made us shake and pray and run to hide behind our big black bibles. Then I came to understand that “Secular,” in my simplistic way of thinking, simply means “this present world.” I can’t honestly speak about any other. What better way to address concerns about the world we share and celebrate our small rocky, watery home on this place we call Earth, than to speak of “secular”–down to earth–things?

This week, in April 1838, a child was born in Dunbar, Scotland, who would give the world National Parks, a new understanding of how the earth was created, cut and sculpted by glaciers, and maybe, just maybe, he helped build a bridge beyond belief, beyond our irrational and UN-earthly beliefs. I’ve always felt Muir’s presence in the mountains. Especially when I was walking somewhere he described in his books or journals. On my second trip to Scotland, I sensed him even more. . .or at least I felt I Understood him better. Meditations of John Muir, my first book, came out just after my Scottish pilgrimage. Muir became for me a kind of Natural Saint. A spiritual teacher who helped me completely re-interpret what “Spirituality” means.

This last weekend my wife and I were walking around the lakes of the Marin Watershed. We saw a line of turtles sunning themselves on some logs and then noticed a trio of young boys catching lizards. One of them started throwing stones at the turtles and we yelled across at them. Their father was standing nearby, not saying anything, but talking on his cellphone. We walked away shaking our heads. Such a disconnect we have from Nature. And it starts with the children.

A few years ago I was living in a one-room cabin in the forest on a Northwest island. I was invited to speak to a High School class so I took the students along a path into the woods surrounding the school and read a few selections from my Muir book. Along the way we stopped in a small grove of fir and hemlock and I asked the class to bend down and scoop a bit of dirt in their hands. As you might expect, some of them refused, “Oooo. I’m not getting my hands DIRTY!” It took some coaxing before they would even touch the ground under their feet. I guess that was all the Muir they could handle, literally, that day!

Well, some may be afraid to get their hands dirty, but I wonder, Why is it people are still so drawn to the Muddy Guy Muir, perhaps even more than dirty old Thoreau? There’s something about this wild Scottish fool who tramped all over the planet, that makes us want to hike around with him (even in our Heads). We want to see some of those incredible, unbelievable things he saw and sink into those earthy experiences. But to do that, we have to be converted to a kind of bio-degradable Religion, a bio-mimicking Science and Bio itself. . .LIFE as a Journey of endless, Joyful Delight. . .muddy and mucked up as it can be. Muir talks “dirty” to us and we love it!

Muir sauntered his way through life in the wild spaces–saunter is a great Thoreauvian word: to feel at home with the earth, to walk deeply, mindfully–Muir sauntered, full of deep curiosity and delight, across vast distances. During his 1000-mile walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867 he described the Cumberland Mountains and green, forested valleys of Kentucky as “an Eden” abundant with a “paradise of oaks.” He said the “glorious forest road” stretched over the hills and valleys, the path molded and curved “by the hands of Nature.” Being John Muir, he couldn’t help himself, saying, he was sauntering through “the most sublime and comprehensive picture that ever entered” his eyes. He stepped into the painting, the art of Eden, of masterwork of Earth.

Muir was a playful and punning artist with words (he liked to sketch too). . .and he was the ultimate, sustainable secularist. His only interest was in “this present world”–this down to the ground and up to the mountains kind of real world where Nature is all, and everything and Enough. Confucius was once asked to comment on spiritual beings and the other world. The old sage replied, “If we’re not yet able to serve people, how can we serve spiritual beings; if we know so little about life, how can we say anything about death or the afterlife.” Confucius and Muir would have made good camping companions!

Raised by a strict Christian father, Muir knew the Bible inside and out, front to back, upside down and backwards (my own evangelical background injected me with the same kind of bible-in-the-blood). He once said if Hell was a deep pit, he would simply find the handholds and footholds and climb (the hell) out! (my paraphrase) Like Muir, those of us born and raised as believers, our brains baked with bible passages, “pray” for nothing more than to be “saved” from spirituality, to climb out of restrictive, confining thinking and immerse ourselves in the freethinking and fresh air and liberating baptisms of THIS world, the only world we know, full of Nature’s wide-open beauty.

This line, “By the hands of Nature” is very instructive. . .a good introduction to Muir’s healthy use of rich anthropomorphisms. We have to be careful here because I think this is one reason Muir is so misunderstood by folks who paint him as a Good Christian. Much of the picturesque language Muir uses in his literature is drawn from humanity to express what is immensely greater than humanity. The reference point is the Human Species. . .and the more we venture and discover the more we see there are countless, limitless reference points. Of course, we love re-creating the world in Our Image! As an old religion prof said to us, “God made us in God’s Image. . .and we’ve returned the favor ever since!” We create our Gods. . .other worlds, other realities. That’s coming from a theological perspective of course. But what if we looked at the world differently? As Muir said, see the world with our “heads upside down?” The hands of Nature, the heart of Nature, the head of Nature, the Body of Nature. . .it all speaks of our need to use the language we know and understand to express and explain what we don’t know and don’t understand. And so it is with faith and religion, myth and fantasy, dreams and hopes and human wonder. We put our face on the wonder and beauty and mystery and INcredibleness of Nature. . .and we want to believe. . .to believe ultimately in all of it, and perhaps, more than anything, to believe in ourselves. Nothing really “wrong” with that; we just need to admit it.

And here is where the bushy bearded Scotsman leaps into the conversation. Muir offers one steady log across the turbulent confluence of science and faith, philosophy and theology, culture and government and all of it. His philosophy is not the only answer or solution for our disconnect from the great vibrating web of life, or our discontent with our minuscule place in it all. But Muir, along with his friend John Burroughs and Burroughs’ friend Walt Whitman, may offer the best trail out of this boggy thicket of spiritualizing and supernaturalizing. We have lost our way with distractions. We need to find some traction to climb up, out and beyond these dead-end trails, these UN-imaginative distractions.

Muir’s faith-free religion can easily be seen in his famous line: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you. As the sunshine into the trees, the winds will blow their freshness into you. And the storms their energy, while cares will drop away like autumn leaves.” Highly charged spiritual language here. Muir was unashamed to utilize the ancient terminology and images he grew up with (good tidings, good news, gospel, peace and wind like a spirit with energized storms that blow away our cares and worries). Beautiful linguistics. And the Reference Point, the Grounding for the language, is entirely natural, and, as I read him, utterly devoid of anything super-natural. If we asked Muir if he was a “believer” he would probably answer with an enthusiastic “Aye!” (Aye Lad. . .Aye Lass!). But what would he mean? He certainly used the word God and many other religious terms. Which might turn off many secularists and agitate many religious folks. Yet, I would argue that his direct experience and participation in the natural world caused him to believe only in what he could put his hands and feet on, what he could grip and grasp of, what he could touch and climb and smell and see in the great landscape of life.

So, what was Muir’s church, what was his cathedral, synagogue, mosque? The mountain temples. What was his scripture? The torah, gospel, qur’an, dharma and endless scientific and philosophical lessons. . .all writ large, everywhere present in Nature. Texts written every moment of every day by rains and rivers, glaciers and winds, starfish and stars. . .and the tiniest tracks of grasshoppers, beetles, newts and slugs. His congregation? The trees and flowers and all wildlife. His choir music? The wind, the waterfalls and birdsongs. His faith? Well, that can be complicated, but I think he might say he felt Nature is “God’s handiwork” and he believed in Nature’s wisdom, Nature’s creative acts, “Nature’s peace will flow into you.” More a Sense and an Experience than some leap of faith. Yes, leap from boulder to boulder, tree-limb to treelimb, but don’t leap off a cliff! I think he put his faith, his trust, in Nature. It gave him delight. Sometimes I say that Muir’s kind of faith is simply, profoundly Delight. . .Delight in the “glorious” world. The word glorious he used over and over, used to be reserved for God alone. For Mountain Man Muir, the whole earth was Glorious! His God? Beauty (he said Beauty was the perfect synonym for God). . .the Creator of the Universe? Naturally, obviously, Nature. His mission? To entice us all to fearlessly live the delight, as a natural creature, one among a Goo-gol (Goo-GALL= one with a hundred zeros) of lifeforms; to reverence and respect all and to seek with all one’s might to Conserve it all; Preserve; Celebrate it and Participate in it all (I think at times Environmentalists and Scientists forget that to conserve and preserve isn’t enough. . .Muir and his trekkers remind us to go farther. . .they don’t want us to miss the glorious celebration, the grateful participation in the great community we call Cosmos). Without celebration and participation we’ll just continue to Use Nature for our purposes, even good sustainable purposes, to claim Nature for our programs, our recreation, or attempt to preserve it like some delicate display in a grand museum.

Muir’s religionless religion and faithless faith are a breath of fresh air in the history of humanity’s sense of awe and wonder and mystery. What do we do with our delight. . .our WOW experiences? Think about the evolution of religion, the origins of faith:

Moses came down from the Sinai mountain of Egypt with commands cut in stone (so the story goes)– Muir says, Climb the mountains and read the messages in the stones and glaciers for yourself!

Jesus emerged from the desert wilderness of Palestine with a gospel of another world, a call to repentance, saying Come to Me Muir says, Go out to the wilderness; hear Nature’s earth-shaking, earth-making message; every step is breaking news! Shake off the “sin” of the city and be cleansed by the wild earth; Don’t believe ME, YOU go!

Buddha calmly walked out of the forests of India with a bow and breath of peace and a pack full of dharma saying Wake UP! Muir says, Come to the woods for here is rest. . .going out is really going in. The sun shines not [just] on us but in us. The rivers flow not [just] past us but through us. When we are with Nature we are awake.

Muhammad went into an Arabian cave and came out as a tribal prophet of the One and Only and Best God Muir went to the Range of Light and proclaimed he was already in heaven, “I breathe the atmosphere of angels.” The one and only God is Beauty!

Joseph Smith came out of his New York farm fields and said he had a new book, a new religion to tell the world about, a new vision of heaven Muir says, In THESE fields a single day in so divine an atmosphere of beauty and love would be well worth living for. . .and immortal life beyond the grave is not essential to perfect happiness.

All the Mystics and Saints and “Spiritual Superstars & Superheroes” of all traditions across the globe have quietly pointed to the “Super” above and beyond and behind the Natural– Muir ecstatically bounded into the unbounded wilds to yell a wake up call: “As soon as we are absorbed in the harmony—plain, mountain, calm, storm, lilies and sequoias, forests and [meadows] are only different strands of many-colored Light–[they and we] are one in the sunbeam!” Most Religions preach about love, compassion, justice. . .and struggle to sustain insular tribal communities and to explain the details of death Muir calmly says: “Nature loves [humanity], beetles and birds with the same love. With her storms. . .she seems to scatter. . .death among her creatures, and so she does, but they are scattered as the stars are scattered in the heavens. . .singing together. . .Indeed every atom. . .is inspired with unchangeable love.” It’s fairly obvious that when Muir stumbled out of the mountains, forests, meadows, deserts to tell his fantastic stories, he didn’t expect people to BELIEVE him or FOLLOW him and definitely not to have disciples start some new Muirite Religion. He said that he lived only to “Entice” people to go out there and see and explore and learn for themselves. Now think about it: Every one of those Religious Rebels left the Old Religion to offer something New. But then, something bizarre happened. . .not unexpected, but bizarre. Have you ever thought how very odd it is that the wild experiences in wide open nature of Religion’s Founders immediately lead to building projects—building boxes for the beliefs, packages for piety, sacred spaces enclosed and closed off for members only? Strange. Sanctuaries with doors and locks. The uncontrollable imaginative experience occurs in the forest and the response is to cut the forest down to build a temple to worship the original experience and control all future experience. We humans are quite odd, aren’t we? And of course, then millions more trees are destroyed to create holy icons and holy books so people can forever repeat the same stories over and over as they look out on a desecrated landscape.

For balance, think of all the people who crowd into exhibits and theaters and bookstores in Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon or any National Park fumbling with their digital cameras or scrambling for snacks and souvenirs right in the center of the Cathedral! Nature help us if we hear a nice loud cellphone ringing by a mountain stream!

Now, I’ve worked beside and lived with people of faith for a long time, and so did Muir. So, I’m not implying we disparage or discard all supernaturalists. In fact, I think it’s critical to our world that believers and non-believers figure out creative new ways to get along, or the Earth will continue to suffer. It IS possible. I was a Interfaith Freethinking Chaplain for a while, then the Director of a homeless shelter coordinating evangelicals, jews, catholics, agnostics and many others. I teach sometimes at a Pagan seminary! I’m currently the Housing Manager for an Ecumenical association. I’m the Celebrant at a Wedding this weekend on Mount Tamalpais, marrying a doctor and a biofuel researcher. It’s Doable, to live in community, to live with the Earth, to live in our Home as harmonious residents. But let me tell you, it’s damn hard! It takes work. We’re not gonna like everyone and they’re not going to like us. But, we’d better figure it out. . .we’d better invent a new kind of community if we have to. . .because we Have To.

One week ago today I was sitting in a Psychiatric Emergency unit with an elderly man who lives in a house I manage. He’s in serious distress; life falling apart; he’s a man of faith; goes to church. But where was his church; where was his pastor? He didn’t call them when he needed emergency help. I took him to the hospital; I took him to the psych unit. I spoke on his behalf and advocated for immediate care. I guess it’s my old Chaplain Heart or something. . .but now I don’t do it for God or the Church. I do it for him, this man, and each person who needs another human being to be present, show some basic compassion, and do something to really help. He didn’t need my prayers or my bible quotes–he didn’t need religion or promises or Someone up there. He needed someone who could be honest with him, to listen, to sit with him. In that moment, he needed me. I’d like to think I was helpful but I couldn’t honestly do very much for this man. But his smile and handshake told me I was appreciated.

I’m going to shock you right now. We need GOD. Yes, we NEED God. Someone who is present, who cares, who sits with us, who has the time to get busy, who does something to help here and now, who’s creative and honest and works for the good, for peace, for justice–things like that. You know. . .God. Right? Well, then, WHO IS that? Right. . .You are. . .I am. No, we’re not almighty and infinitely powerful and all-knowing and all that. But who needs that anyway? Maybe it’s time we Play God. Join Nature and Act like we’re Gods, because if we don’t. . .There just isn’t a viable, realistic alternative.

Even the Dalai Lama, in his intriguing new book, Beyond Religion, grounds his call to a Secular Ethics with a very natural analogy. He says Ethics WITHOUT Religion are like water. Ethics WITH Religion are like tea–flavoring has been added. But, he says, “While we can live without tea, we cannot live without water.”

Muir, sipping his watery tea by a forest campfire, was extremely impatient with all the God-talk and yet he became what I call a Natural Chaplain. He used the old language to energize for change, to get active in altering the reality. Muir was a master at fancy storytelling that had teeth, that caused radical change like the invention of National Parks! Faith or no faith, everyone can enjoy the Secular Sanctuaries of the world (I’ve actually floated the idea of a MOON Wilderness Park!. . .Crazy, Nuts, Luny. . .but why not?).

Transcendent language wasn’t all that important to the man Muir. The imminently divine natural cosmos was all that mattered because it is all that IS. Nature is God, in a sense, but Nature is more. . .Nature is actually Better than God because Nature (the Universe, the Cosmos) made us and everything that is (and continues to create every micro-moment), Nature gives us everything we need, we are inseparable from Nature, Nature does not demand or command or ask anything of us, Nature does not judge us or insist that we believe in it. Nature has no personality yet contains all personalities; Nature has no face but all faces. . .no need for avatars and incarnations or spirits or holy teachers or holy books. Nature is fully, sufficiently Enough. Some heaven or hell or other world is completely unnecessary in a Muirian view. We come from the earth, we return to the earth. As Whitman said, We are Compost. Naturally a part of the natural process, and we are no better or worse than any other lifeform. . .though we can certainly be the most destructive on the planet (when we piss in our own teacup).

Here’s what Muir contemplated while walking his 1000 mile trek: “The world, we are told, was made especially for humanity–a presumption not supported by all the facts. . . .” He goes on to say, in essence, We have created our own God, no better than a cheap puppet, so no wonder we treat the “creation” so cheaply. Muir’s pocket notes end with his salvation, his liberation: “Glad to leave these ecclesiastical fires and blunders, I joyfully return to the immortal truth and immortal beauty of Nature.” By the way, these pages from Muir’s Walk contain one of his greatest philosophical statements on preservation of the Environment: He says, “The universe would be incomplete without Humanity; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature. . . ” This is the essential balance we need for a sustainable environmental ethic. We play a critical part in the Universal Play, but so does everything else.

So, you see, this is not about being ANTI-religious or ANTI-god or ANTI at all. What we’re concerned with is being PRO-natural, PRO-common sense, PRO-creativity, cooperation, collaboration; to PRO-actively seek and discover solutions and make it work. Distractions or delusions of any sort are just not helpful, can be deadly and destructive and the death of our environment and our Earth–literally our demise and disappearance. Religion desperately, futilely, attempts to reach across the foggy, cloudy areas, hoping, wishing for another world, any world, better than this (I can sympathize sometimes. . .can’t you?). You can almost see Muir shaking his head, scratching his bushy beard with a bewildered smile, as he reminds us, almost preaches to us: How could there ever be a more wonderful, better world! Can’t we see it: Nature is Enough! There is no super-Nature and there is no need to invent such a thing.

In that famous story, Muir climbed a 100-foot Douglas Spruce in a Sierra windstorm, exhilarated by the HIGH. Have you ever felt that high? I have. For many years I’ve climbed a tree on Christmas Day to celebrate my birthday (not cutting a Christmas Tree but Climbing One!). Up there in that leafy heaven, there never fails to be a burst of energy and power and inspiration in those balancing moments in the hands and arms of a living being. As Muir learned, there is always something spectacularly subtle to learn in that Higher Classroom!

We humans love to be amazed, mesmerized by our adventures of body or mind. . .our myths and our stories of the strange and new on the ground or up in some tree, or up in some place that feels OTHERworldly–we are wide-eyed with the special effects that capture our imagination. To venture into Narnia or the Shire of the Hobbits. To soar into Pangaia or the distant planets of Star Trek or the realms of Dragons. Where will our imaginations take us next? Imagination is wonderful, as long as we don’t lose touch, don’t forget that we are imagining. That would be delusion–the unhealthiest of distractions.

In the Wild Gospel of Muir, it may be that what we’ve always thought was Spirituality was actually Imagination–pure and simple Imagination. A wonderful freethinking, inventive gift of Evolution. Listen closely to this mind-blowing passage from Muir’s Journals: “How infinitely superior to our physical senses are those of the mind! The spiritual eye sees not only rivers of water but of air. . .the whole world is in motion to the center. So also Sounds. We hear only woodpeckers and squirrels and. . .streams. But imagination gives us the sweet music of tiniest insect wings, enables us to hear, all round the world, the vibration of every needle, the waving of every. . .branch. . .the sound of stars in circulation like particles in the blood. . .Imagination is usually regarded as a synonym for the unreal. Yet is true imagination healthful and real. . .Indeed, the power of imagination makes us infinite.”

Isn’t that gorgeous? Muir has crossed over, been converted, been born again, and again and again, with every sight and sound and “higher sense” of “spirituality” we can now call Mind, and Imagination. There are no limits; we are infinite. . .limitless. We ugly (maybe beautiful) bags of bacteria colonies live in a wonderful world, but one with pain and suffering and injustice, disease and death. And we’ll be long gone with our science and our religion and our technology and our tantalizing distractions. . .and the earth, the cosmos, Nature will live on, forever and ever, Amen.

For now, we have the Household. What the ancients called “ecumenical”–managing the world home. We are householders, participating in the life of the whole house. All the rooms are wirelessly inter-connected. As Muir said, you pick up one piece of it and it’s hitched to everything else. And so our science; so our bio-community. As Biomimicry scientists like to say, we are only One Vote in a parliament of perhaps 100 million species. Only one vote. And, as we are learning, it is time we come to the earth, the cosmos, not simply to learn About nature, but to learn From nature. As I like to say, Nature is both Classroom and Cathedral, both Temple and Teacher.

E.O. Wilson said that humanity has a vision, a kind of spiritual craving, for an expanding future and we won’t be satisfied with colonizing space. He said, “the true frontier for humanity is life on Earth”–the exploration of life on Earth leading to greater knowledge for science, art and practical affairs.

We throw around these words. . .Conservation. Preservation. Our mantra, “Sustainable.” But, I ask again, what about Participation?. . .what about Celebration? Sound too mystical? Not at all. Muir’s sustainable enthusiasm is helpful here, and can drive on the best of science and maybe even some truly progressive spiritual thought and action. The entire history of human culture has been interaction with our world, participation with our world. And people have been drawn to celebrate (some would say “worship”. . . though I don’t think that’s necessary or helpful). Maybe we don’t get it, we don’t understand Nature because we don’t understand ourselves. We’re missing something. Muir’s JOY, perhaps. Pure Joy in participating in the ever-delightful lessons of goodness all around us, and–when you think of those bacteria–within us!

Muir’s participatory wisdom echoes in the voices of other celebrators:

Such as Frances Wright, an early American voice of freethought and women’s rights: “The true Bible is the book of nature, the wisest teacher is the one who most plainly expounds it, the best priest our own conscience, and the most orthodox church a hall of science.” Reason, Religion, and Morals (1820’s)

Such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton: “In times like this humanity rises above all college curriculums and recognizes Nature as the greatest of all teachers. . .” Solitude of Self

We can hear Muir’s voice echoing in thinkers such as Robert Green Ingersoll: “One drop of water is as wonderful as all the seas; one leaf, as all the forests; and one grain of sand, as all the stars.” “The Gods” (1872)

Such as Henry Thoreau: “That I may dream of no heaven but that which lies about me.” ~Henry Thoreau, Journals, March, 1856 “It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves.  There is none such.” ~Henry Thoreau, Journals, August, 1856 “I suppose that what in others is religion is in me love of nature.” ~Henry Thoreau, Journals

Such as Theodore Roosevelt, the President who once rolled out a blanket and camped in the snow with Muir,: “Lying out at night under the giant sequoias had been like lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build, and I hope for the preservation of the groves of giant trees simply because it would be a shame to our civilization to let them disappear.” (speech in Sacramento, California, 1903)

And such as Muir’s friend, the great naturalist, John Burroughs: “Amid the decay of creeds, love of nature has high religious value. . .It has made [Nature-minded people] contented and at home wherever they are in nature—in the house not made with hands.  This house is their church, and the rocks and the hills are the altars, and the creed is written in the leaves of the trees and in the flowers of the field and in the sands of the shore. [Burroughs continues]  A new creed every day and new preachers, and holy days all the week through.  Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving [baptism].  Communion service is at all hours, and the bread and wine are from the heart and marrow of Mother Earth.  There are no heretics in Nature’s church; all are believers, all are communicants.  The beauty of natural religion is that you have it all the time. . . .The crickets chirp it, the birds sing it, the breezes chant it, the thunder proclaims it, the streams murmur it. . . . Its incense rises from the plowed fields, it is on the morning breeze, it is in the forest breath and in the spray of the wave. . . .It is not even a faith; it is a love, an enthusiasm, a consecration to natural truth.”

Burroughs’ images remind me of an article I published last year under the title, “The End of Spirituality,” where I presented the case for a Sacred Secularity. I wrote,

“What if we seriously considered the practice of a Sacred Secularity, a direct and common experience of what is, what we face as a species among species, from water to air to energy, from economies, to housing, justice, rights and communities? What if? Without a need to fall on our knees beneath something or someone outside Nature we can sink in the soil to plant seeds of secularity, to admit we are a wonderful, even “sacred” (amazingly delightful) mix of mostly water and air and earthy dirt. Could we grow to better “recognize our place in [the] immensity” (as Carl Sagan put it), to discover that what we used to call the Spiritual Path is a pilgrimage closer to home than we ever imagined, a trail laced with breath, bones and blood, with ancient stones, verdant moss, leafy branches, twisted roots and much more? With a deep breath and a courageous sense of adventure, we may open ourselves to landscapes never seen, alongside our furry, feathered, finned companions who may just lead us beyond religion, beyond spirituality, beyond the gods. . .and leave us standing in silent awe.” Here’s the thing. If we’re at all interested in this slippery something called, in the old language, Spirituality, but in the new language, Imagination, it seems to me we desperately need some new mind frameworks that make pragmatic sense for us today. Muir isn’t far behind; in fact, as I see it, he’s right alongside. In a deeply divided world where people, their lands and the interrelations of the environment are being threatened or destroyed every day, we need to explore some common ground–literal dirt, soil, something to stand on. Find our grounding. And find our poetry as well. Muir’s favorite poet was the good old Scottish bard, Robbie Burns. Take a deep breath and imagine John reciting these words on a mountain trail: “What tho’, like commoners of air, We wander out, we know not where, But either house or hall, Yet nature’s charms, the hills and woods, The sweeping vales, and foaming floods, Are free alike to all.” (Epistle to Davie) “Free alike to all.”

Theists and Non-Theists need to feel this freedom (and the poetry), to engage it all, to work side by side in the present, natural world, and be “charmed” by Nature’s seductive sacredness. We’re going to have to put aside needless and unhelpful divisive, distractive debates over Super-Nature. Heaven’s golden pavement no longer offers a safe ride and holy books no longer provide much more than torn and yellowed road maps for one tribe to drive over another. We need a GPS that pinpoints our place among many and includes those across borders (physical and mental). We need a Google Earth mentality that spins us around and reminds us of our journey on a very small spaceship. We need to use our telescopes and our microscopes, to get a solar view and a street view, a real perspective of where we live and a reference point for how small and inter-related we are. We have to ask ourselves and each other: What’s the alternative? Really, where else can we go with this, with what we have, with who we are? Gratefully, overall and above all, Nature is the ultimate and final organic link we have to our own humanity and this present world. I’m going to close this now and bring us back to the trailhead. . .to check the maps, take a sip of the water we are made of, and instill a little more wild wisdom from the wildman of the Sierra.

What I’m evangelizing about today is something you can put in your brain backpacks and carry into the wilds of your own mind, your own life, your own patch of the planet, your own world. . .and it’s from the rugged and ragged coat pocket, under the weathered hat, of the Secular Saint, John Muir.

Where do we discover real, Sustainable Secular Solutions to problems in our environment and fractures in the human community? I would suggest we remember Muir’s “handy” line: “By the hands of Nature.”

Energy solutions? By the hands of Nature.

Scientific, Technological, Medical solutions? By the hands of Nature.

Building, Transportation, Communication solutions? By the hands of Nature.

Social, neighborhood, community solutions? By the hands of Nature. Political and economic solutions? By the hands of Nature.

Personal, psychological solutions? By the hands of Nature.

And the mind, the imagination, the poetry, the pure delight. . .of Nature.

I’d like to END with a kind of Benediction from our Secular Saint, drawn from his journals: “We little know how much wildness there is in us.” “GO now and then for fresh life. . . just as divers hold their breath and come to the surface to breathe. . . Go whether or not you have faith. . . Go to the snowflowers in winter, Go to the sunflowers in summer. . . Go up and away for Life! “GO, free as the wind, living as true to Nature. . .as the sequoias and the pines.” “May New Beauty meet you at every step in all your wanderings.”


March 2008 spiderballs2

“The Nature of Shelter”

Chris Highland

Unitarian Universalist Congregation, San Rafael, CA

November 2009

*Farside cartoon with pilot looking down at a small sandy island in the ocean where a guy is waving frantically next to a big sign in coconuts spelling out H.E.L.F.  The pilot radios back, “Cancel that emergency.  It only says HELF.”

I’m guessing that you are people who understand that HELF may be the best someone in distress may be able to piece together, and you have no trouble figuring out that it really means HELP!

I’m glad to stand before you today as the Director of the Marin Emergency Shelter.  We are grateful that the Unitarian Universalist  congregation is a partner in this simple work of compassion.  Doing the right thing because, it’s the right thing to do!

This emergency is as old as humanity.  And the response is as old as humans practicing a basic humanity and hospitality.  How many in history have been outsiders—the outcasts, the lepers, the despised, the misunderstood, the hated and feared?   We have countless stories of numberless lives.  We have only to think of our great spiritual teachers who emerged from the forests, deserts, mountains, caves or streets to become our Teachers of Meaning, of What is Good and Right and Just.  Moses, Mahavira and Mohammad appear from the wilds of mountains and deserts; the One born in the chill of a barn wanders into town from the wilderness; Lao Tzu and Confucius scatter their wisdom like seeds in the air; Buddha gathers followers in the forest.  Each one an Outsider in their Day—a Heretic, a crazy “bum” to most “respectable” people.

And in more modern times, we can all think of people who didn’t Look or Act right.  The ones who don’t fit in or go with the flow.  They are their own stream diverging from the River of Respectability and the Cascades of Conformity.  They challenge us to Re-think “Community” and see if the word means much any longer.  They force us to ask, “Who can we include?  Who can we EXclude?  And, if they don’t FIT, is that Their problem, or Ours??”

In our small, flimsy raft of sheltering, the huddled masses are guests and we are the hosts.  The simple rule is mutual respect.  Only 20 women and 30 men in separate shelters, eating a simple meal with their hosts, watching a film if they choose, and settling down for the night.  Up and out in the wee hours of the dawn, they disappear back into their invisible world.  Shadows in the night that become faces and names and stories we know, and think about.  And maybe they haunt our dreams sometimes.

They are, at times, our new Revolutionaries.  Our Thomas Paines; our Walt Whitmans; our Frances Wrights and Margaret Fullers.  Some poor, some despised, some even hated for being Different—that dreaded Difference.  Difference makes us uncomfortable in our comfort, urging us to change because change is not spare, it is our Independence, our refuge and our common home.

When the inspiring voice of Frederick Douglass was released for all succeeding generations, the former slave described his first steps of freedom from slavery:  My Bondage and My Freedom, pp. 249-250.

How many Frederick Douglasses, how many Van Goghs, how many Susan Anthonys or Barack Obamas, how many great minds, mahatmas, poets, writers, philosophers, scientists, world leaders or simply good people masked or cloaked by their poverty wander among us, beside us, around us, or through us?  Do we see them?  Do we care?

I just re-read the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer.  These epic poems from almost 3000 years passed, contain these wonderful stories of loves and battles and kings and queens and warriors.  And they delight us with people like Odysseus, the wandering king, who arrives home only to find others have taken his home.  He disguises himself among his townfolk and his own family.  To them he is a beggar, nothing more than an outsider, a stranger.  And yet, there are a few who treat him well, welcome him in, and practice the great virtue of the Greeks:  Hospitality.  And it’s not just Odysseus.  At times the gods and goddesses wander about, hidden right before the eyes of people distracted by their politics or religion or wealth or power, or. . .cellphones.

Here’s something to think about:  Biologists tell us there are about 300 million bacterial cells on the human body.  Add the bacteria cells in the intestines and there are more bacterial cells than human cells!

It’s all in what we see—or choose to see!

Silly isn’t it?  How much we try to deny our earthy closeness to the humus—the dirt, the organism, we are?

In the book, Wild Solutions, biologists tell us how much there is that Does Not Meet the Eye! (Wild Solutions, p. 19).

When we cast seeds of hospitality what will happen?  Who will see?  Who will open?

With this small, temporary Emergency Shelter, opening this week around Marin, we have cast the seeds and a small circle of redwoods has sprouted; a grove of gratitude and generosity.

It’s an Odd Circle we’ve woven here (revolutionary really):

Catholics and Lutherans

Presbyterians and Episcopalians

Jews and Evangelicals

Methodists and Unitarians—

with a Shelter Director who is a former speaking-in-tongues Pentecostal, proselytizing Evangelical, then interfaith progressive  chaplain, now a Nature-loving, freethinking, heretic of a Non-Supernaturalist.  How’s THAT for bio-diversity?

This shelter is our Wild Solution.  Our Underground Railroad for the Dispossessed—temporary shelter for the Free and the Brave.  This is our walk in the wilderness to Do the Right Thing.  Do we need any other Ethic or Religion?

And here’s the Natural Gospel:

Most of our women from last winter have housing now;

many of our Men too.

We took some of our most vulnerable guests to detox and hospitals.  Some are on the rocky trail of recovery.

Some have jobs—some are now shelter staff!

And sadly, some have died.

Some are still lost wanderers, seeking their own personal liberation from slavery, their own wild solutions, their own elusive “home”–not just outside but outside our awareness, our field of vision.

Every night for four months our little lifeboat will drift from island of refuge to island of refuge.  And I think we’ll find, as Steinbeck found when he and his dog Charlie drove across the land, there are No  Strangers—some may be strange, but not strangers—As he found:  Everyone is an “American”—included, belonging to the Great Community, this Welcoming Land, called America.

When we shelter–when we practice cooperative hospitality—we discover that the true shelter, the true sanctuary, is Nature

The true refuge is IN our nature

And, the greatest shelter we have is. . .Each Other.


Autumn05 024

“God is Green”

Chris Highland

Christ Presbyterian Church, Terra Linda, California

April 26, 2009

Texts:  Nature and The Letter of James

please listen for the images from Nature in these selections:

(1:1, 5, 6, 9-11, 15, 17, 21, 27; 2:5; 3:7-8, 11-12, 14-15, 17-18;

4:4,8, 10, 14; 5:2, 7-8)

A few years ago I lived on an island in my home state of Washington (now I consider myself a hybrid Washingfornian).  On the island I lived in a small one-room cabin and worked on an organic farm, planting, pulling tons of weeds, harvesting, and clearing trails through the thick, dripping, mossy-green forest.  One afternoon, while deep in the woods, I poked my right eye tossing vines and sticks into the brush.  Nursing my blurry eye back at the cabin, I heard a swooshing sound and looked up.  On a low alder branch sat one of my near neighbors:  the barred owl.  I walked near the tree as she stared down.  Then I noticed she had one eye closed–her right eye.  I smiled at her winged sympathy, and gave a bow to my neighbor on her bough.  My sight was impaired but I had a moment of vision, of insight into what could be called the Greenness of God.

There is a great deal of talk these days about Being Green.  A Green Revolution.  Green is the New Cool.  A kind of Religion, isn’t it?  Green evangelists telling us where to shop, what to buy, what to eat, what to drive, what to conserve, what not to throw away—As Kermit the Frog used to say, It’s not easy being Green!

Green is planted deep in our language:  green with envy; green behind the ears; greenback; greensleeves; Green Day; village green; putting green; green belt; Green Beret; green around the gills; green horn; greenhouse; greengrocer; green card; greenskeeper; green room; greenwood; green light; green tea. . .

We are clearly verdant, virescent beings—always becoming green and growing greener.

Did you read the headline in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle?  “Birds Damaged 45 Planes at SFO.”  This shows you how my mind works:  I immediately turned it around—45 Planes Kill Birds at SFO!

I guess I’m beginning to think Green, naturally.  I find I have more of a feeling for, a connection with, the Pagan view of the earth:  pagan just means countryfolk (outsiders who live outside close to the ground; it’s like the old word, Heathen—meaning people of the heath and heather, or that great word Heretic:  one who chooses another, green?, path).  These outsiders have no fear of the dirt; they aren’t afraid of becoming impure or stained by the natural environment.  They see Life in the earth, the Earth is Alive, and all living things are animated—they are anima–there is living soul or spirit or breath within it all.

Pagans get really excited about Green.  Pagans, Wiccans and a lot of indigenous tribal people are members of the original Green Religion—Nature Religion—Nature as Religion, or at least some kind of directly experienced spirituality.

Theologians (that is, those who make good guesses about things they really don’t know anything about) refer to this ancient philosophy of earthiness as either animism or Pantheism—all is imbued with life, every particle and proton teeming with electricity and aliveness—a relationship is possible with the earth, with nature, the Universe. . .or call it God. . .doesn’t matter.  The relationship is everything—and it is a relationship with Everything, as a part of every last thing.  Creator and creation are one.

The great naturalist John Burroughs said that we get into great trouble when we identify God with Nature.  But, Burroughs says. . .But what trouble we get into when we refuse to identify the two!  God and Nature are the same thing, in Burroughs’ mind.  God is Nature and Nature is God.  Seems natural doesn’t it?  Maybe not.  So either God is literally Green (and brown, red, yellow, white, blue—earth tones) or out there, as the old song says, somewhere beyond the sea, or beyond the sky.

Burroughs put it this way:

“We go away from home [the earth, the known universe] searching for the gods [the spiritual]—gods that we carry with us always.”   What does that mean?  We search for the backpack and behold, it’s been on our back the whole time. We have been hoodwinked into thinking that there are two universes:  one physical and one spiritual—one natural and one super-natural.  The gospel of Burroughs, and Muir and many other scientific-naturalists calls us to return to our roots, literally, our dark brown and green roots.  In this view and practice, spirituality is simply our life—nothing more, nothing less.

What’s the alternative?. . .James

So, what was James’ problem?  He didn’t like green!  He wasn’t green, didn’t care to even notice the green.  He was too busy doing what a lot of religious people do:  keeping his eye on the sky (particularly the cloudy, stormy, gray, judgment-looking sky) and hoping for a quick trip to the very un-green wilderness above.  Heaven, as you know, is a very un-Green place!   Everything’s gold and pearls and, by god, there’s no recycling!!

James presents us with the old theology of separation:

the earth and humanity is:  worldly, fleshly, dirty, sinful, from below

the good and divine is:  heavenly, unstained, pure, from above. . .

Simple.  And gravely simplistic.

The writer of the Book of James lost what Emerson called “the love of Beauty.”  Sadly, James has lost a deep and energizing, creative and positive sense of beauty—intrinsic beauty.  John Muir said that Beauty is the best synonym for the divine.  God equals Beauty in the way Nature equals God.

James preaches the Theology of Separation (human from divine; natural from super-natural; below from above).  And the question must be asked:  Is this a helpful or healthy theology, for then or now?

It is a Theology of UP-looking, that tramples the plants and animals and fellow humans while gazing up into the cloud mansions looking for another world of purity and glory—it’s always about glory; always for the “pure” and “holy” ones:  the saints. . .Us, and certainly not Them or Their World.

This is the Theology of all Fanatics and Fundamentalists.  I know, I used to be one.  In my opinion, this dim and dimwitted theology is not only unhelpful but ultimately destructive to everything in its path.  It is Religion of the Battleground, where everything is a constant battle for the Right and the Righteous.  It is about division, sectarianism and faith-based fear as well as fear-based faith.

But what if Burroughs is right:  What if there is no separation?  What if there is only Nature?  Or if you prefer, what if there is only God?  What about the natural world?  Does this transform our outlooking and uplooking into an inlooking and a downlooking?  Or simply a wider, more inclusive, more balanced, more curious, inquisitive, delighted looking?

And what if John Muir was on the right trail:  he challenged us to go further into Nature’s Temples, our parks and open spaces and even our gardens and backyards and our own inseparable nature, because there—which is really here—is the only place to find anything that could be called “divine.”  In Muir’s perspective, why do we keep filling libraries with holy books and filling the earth with holy houses of worship all cut, carved and constructed from the living temples, the living churches of Nature?  We live in the Sanctuary and don’t even know it.  And this sanctuary is open 24/7, has no doors or stained glass or altars because it is all one great green altar.  In fact, it has no altar either, because there is no more sacrifice or appeasing to be done.  The green church needs no clergy or creed or confession.  This sanctuary is green, leafy, wild, alive through and through, it is the abode of eagles and whales, of orangutans and owls, of wolves and bears and lions, of snails and slugs and spiders and bugs—all calling us into the greenness because We are Green, God is Green, and we don’t even seem to care.

Why?  Why don’t we care?  Because so much religion and faith is Jamesian.  Martin Luther wanted to rip the Letter of James right out of the Bible.  His reason was its emphasis on Works rather than Faith.  My reason would be its emphasis on Faith rather than Reason, on the Super-natural over the Natural, its insistence on being Gray and not Green (by the way, I like the color gray and I like storm clouds too—but that’s not my point either. . .yet, maybe it is!).

There are some important lessons in James.  The instructions about caring for widows and orphans are good reminders (though we already know it’s the right thing to do, don’t we?).  Urging the Christian community to care for poorer Christians is admirable (though we could wish compassion might extend to some of the outsiders—maybe a Pagan or two).  And “love your neighbor as yourself” isn’t a bad ethic.  No, don’t tear James out of the scriptures.  Just bring a green marking pen when you read it.  On the other hand, it might make great mulch for the garden vegetables—but don’t quote me on that.

One of the greatest orators of the 19th Century, Robert Ingersoll (whose middle name, seriously, was Green—Robert Green Ingersoll) once said that the American Founders learned from Nature and used what they learned from the natural world to become as great as the land.  Jefferson, Paine, Adams, Washington, Madison. . .they learned from Nature and became as great as the land.  When people learn from the land, their land, Nature, they share in the greatness, the beauty, the divinity (?) of the only home we know.  This seems noble; this seems revolutionary and the stuff of reformation; this seems “faithful;” and it sounds “sustainable”—even “organic.”  Are we as great as our land?

The writer of James forgot, or maybe he never learned, to love the dirt, to go skinny dipping in a river, to walk in a forest or climb a mountain, to make love or write a poem—to Get Stained by the World.  He forgot to be like the farmer waiting for the precious crop from the earth, not a promise from the sky.  He forgot, but we don’t have to.

We need the Green.  My mother always raised her eyebrows when I came in from playing and my pants were covered with grass-stains and my shirt was sticky with sap from climbing the pines and firs and cedars.  Bless you mom, but my mother the Earth washes in other ways.  The chlorophyll and the tree sap are as clean as my blood and brain.  It’s time for us to let go of our weary worldly worries.  Why don’t we wash off all these obsessions about dirt and doubt and disbelief?  Let’s try to practice something healthier by getting a lasting scrub, a fresher clean, by getting more grounded, by getting immersed, baptized even, in the goodness and gritty green all around us.  This is our life.  There is no other world.  God is naturally green.  And maybe one day, this will be exactly what we mean by “Faith.”



“Re-defining the Sacred”

Chris Highland

Christ Presbyterian, Terra Linda, CA, July 26, 2009

Scripture:   Job 14:7-9; The Revelation to John 22:1-5

It’s good to be back among you.  Actually, I’m a bit surprised to be back in the pulpit!  It’s shocking really!  Last time I spoke here I essentially said that God was Green!  I blabbed on about Nature as identical with God—that God equals Nature.  Pretty radical stuff!  Truly heretical!  And you didn’t budge; you didn’t throw your hymnals at me or chase me out!  In fact, you invited me back!  How’s that?  I can only conclude that either you brought me back to burn me at the stake on a pile of Calvin’s Institutes, OR, many of you are. . .secret heretics!  Well, today, I make you honorary members of HA!  Heretics Anonymous.  HA!  And in this place, today, maybe we don’t have to be so anonymous anymore.

I take walks and talks with a pastor friend sometimes.  He’s an Evangelical.  I know, that’s scary, but I used to be one so I know their moves. . .I sense their tactics, their tricks. . .how they sneak up and want to bop you over the head with their beliefs and their big black bibles—they try to lure you in and pounce on you to save your sin-loving soul.  Well, my friend’s not like that at all, so I think I’m safe.

We talk about Faith and Reason; we throw around ideas of Heaven and Hell; we jabber about Jesus and debate the old and moldy Evolution versus Intelligent Design arguments.  But you know?  After all the banter and bible texting. . .it always comes back to one thing:  we’re friends.  And we’re friends because we worked together last winter to keep the emergency homeless shelter open.  We did the same work, got to know the same people, saw the same critical needs and acted in cooperation.  My friend disagrees, but I think that faith and religion, beliefs and the bible take a backseat when it comes to doing what must be done.  As he put it when he first opened the doors of his little church to take people in off the street:  “This is the right thing to do at the right time.”  I’m good with that.  In my book, compassion trumps faith and the scripture of what’s right deletes the scripture of what’s righteous—or at least renders it rather irrelevant.

Forty years ago a couple of white guys were kickin’ up dust on the moon—and the world watched—at least those with televisions.  Heretics are like those explorers who kick up a little dust by wondering what’s out there—what’s out there beyond the old ideas, the old beliefs and the old books.  Heretics (and you know heresy just means to choose another opinion—out beyond the “right opinions” of ortho-doxy). . .Heretics are unafraid to take small steps that risk becoming Giant Leaps in our consciousness and possibly in our communities.

Now, here today, in the proud tradition of Holy Heretics (and among all you formerly secret heretics) I simply want to take a leap with you—Our “Eagle” lands hereThis is our Tranquility Base!

You know, it looks to me—and I might be off the mark here, which is the classic definition of SIN!—but it looks to me like the bible, all scriptures really, have one great message:

Is it, Love and Service?  Yes, maybe.

Is it Compassion and Justice?  O.K.  perhaps.

But I hear one over-arching universal message of truth in all the Holy Books on the Planet, from all the high and huge pile of holy paper and ink (well, alright, I haven’t read them ALL!).

What’s the message?  Are you ready?

“Let ‘em go!” 

That’s the message.

“Let ‘em go!  Drop the book and get on with it.”  I hear all the sacred scrolls say, “You get the point, at least you ought to by now, so now—like an owner’s manual, file it or recycle it and get on with running the machine—run your life.  It’s really all about Life—not a book.”

Besides, think about it:  We’d save a lot of trees and a ton of cowhide to drop the books!

Heresy!  Yes.  Infidel!  Yes.  Not nice!  I suppose.  This isn’t gonna preach too well in some quarters.  This weird form of Good News will seem like pretty Bad News for the people who base their beliefs on One Big Book. . .but, really, it must be said and said loud and clear—Let the Book go.

Well, before we recycle, let’s hear a few final words from Job and John:

Job. . .now there’s a case.  What’s the great message of Job?  Suffering Happens.  Wow!  Didn’t know that!  But here in this chapter he points to a tree (that’s creative!) and says there’s even hope for a tree (we can relate to this).  Cut it down and it will sprout again.  I think that’s obvious.  But he goes on and I would sum it up by saying:  Look to Nature because Nature has all the spiritual instructions, all the sacred lessons we need—that we will ever need.  Of course!. . .we are made of Nature, we ARE Nature, and all we need to do is look at a tree.  We don’t need to cut it down and publish a book about it.           Thank you Job.

Then there’s The Revelation to John.  Can’t say honestly it’s a revelation to ME, but John or someone wrote a lot of wild words and said it was “revealed.”  Well, even good old heretic revolutionary Thomas Paine reminded us that this is not revelation but hearsay.  And heretics don’t like hearsay very much.

Hearsay is hard to verify, difficult to confirm, to corroborate, to base decisions let alone a life on.  If there’s a “revelation to Chris” I’ll let you know, but you’re under no obligation to believe me or start a religion over it.

Anyway, the most famous and infamous Apocalyptic book ends with this odd passage about:  a Tree!  Surprise!  A tree again.  And it’s in heaven, alongside a river flowing down the celestial street.  Now that’s a strange image.  A river flowing down the middle of a street and, get this, the Tree of Life is growing on both sides of the river.  I’m not making this up.  Apart from the question of why there is a river or a tree, a street or a city at all, somewhere up around the Milky Way. . . I’m left asking:  What’s the point?  I’m lost here.  One of the most sacred texts on the earth ends with an image and a message that seems to say:  there’s no more sun or earth or government or religion or anything much left,    but there’s a river, and a tree.

So, my fellow heretics (choosers of other opinions other than what has been handed to us for centuries), my fellow heretics. . .we need to re-define the Sacred—don’t you think it’s time?

Couldn’t it be said that Jesus and all wise teachers ultimately taught one great thought too:

“Let go of everything that distracts from the Real World, that offends your Reason and your Common Sense.  If something seems contrary to Nature, your nature, the natural cosmos, or the work that needs to be done. . .Let it go.  Let go of the distractions, be they ideas, beliefs, bibles or the teachers themselves.

There is only one Sacred (that is, what is honored and honorable, wonderful and full of wonder, something we are all related to). . .and that Sacred is Nature—another word for all that is, all that can be experienced and explored from the Molecule to the Mouse to the Moon and beyond.  This is our Leap—our small step that becomes a skip and a jump and we land on solid ground!  Not in heaven or in a mystical garden.  On solid ground.  We don’t have to climb a sacred symbol of a tree—a bloody and dead tree–  but a leafy and alive tree.  It’s the Tree of Life.  And there it is!  Right there!  Right here!  Right now!

I think of these lines from Walt Whitman,

“We consider bibles and religions divine—I do not say they are not divine,

I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still,

It is not they who give the life, it is you who give the life,

Leaves are not more shed from the trees, or trees from the earth,

than they are shed out of you.” (A Song for Occupations)

To re-define the Sacred is to de-mystify and re-energize Life itself.  To “shed leaves, to shed life” as Whitman sings.  To re-understand our lives as fully natural, fully earthly and good.  Intrinsically rooted in good.  Perhaps the word “God” originally meant simply “Good”—but that’s another sermon (maybe for other heretics).

Nature is mysterious but not unknowable.  Science is our best Guide—not perfect, but our best guide.  We see Nature as wide open to investigation—our classroom and our sanctuary.  It’s not nice and neat—but who expects it to be?  There are flowers and snowflakes and there is disease and there is death.  There are shelters and soup kitchens and there are suicide bombers.  There is much we do not know; so much to amaze us.  There are branches of the tree of life yet to discover and explore.  There are planets and people yet to learn from.  Is the “Sacred” simply the wild wilderness of ideas and imagination where we all stand on common ground of awe and wonder and amazement. . .

where the religion is Beauty and the faith is Wow!?? 

Carol handed me the Chronicle the other day, laughing at the descriptions of wines.  Here is what we’re told to taste. . .what we’re told to taste. . .in different wines:

“Lots of lifted red cherry and bayberry to offset a more overt oak presence and gobs of dark fruit.  Nuanced earth tones round it out.”

Here’s another:  “Subtle mossy accents atop bright strawberry and darker, soft roasted fruit.  A bit shy on first taste but has impressive nuance as it opens.”

And another:  “A powerhouse.  Fine-boned and subtle.  Raspberry, charred orange and loamy aromas amid a warm bundle of red fruit flavors.  Graceful and taut.”

Here’s one more,

“Bright and full of woodsy conifer aromas, with a lighter touch and rhubarb-like highlights.  Deft and eminently drinkable.”

People!  It’s just Wine!  It comes from vines that grow in the dirt and get light from the sun and yet they taste different to different people, but that’s the point.  It’s wine.  It’s only a drink.

But we want to convince people that if they taste Our Wine, they will taste the same flavors and have exactly the same experience.  Methinks the power of suggestion is afoot here (a good sales trick).   It says:   If you don’t taste the oaky presence and the loamy aromas, well then, you’re not cultured enough –you don’t have the palate for it.  Oh, please!

I see Religion and Faith and the Bible in exactly this way.  Lots of bottling, packaging, labeling and tasting.  Buying and selling.  What’s the point?  We enjoy the fruit of the vine, of the earth, or not. . .and we realize the label means nothing and cost means nothing and it’s all about personal taste—it’s all just a drink from a grape.

This is the meaning of “Sacred.”  It is just what is.  Moses meets the Sacred in his campfire on a mountainside and hears a voice that says, “I Am.”  Wrap your head, or your tongue, around that!  Existence, the Universe, the Natural Cosmos, speaks with an orphan fugitive rebel terrorist heretic in the wilderness and a religion is born.  The message:  let it all go, get going, and be Liberated,  be Free!

Jesus comes out of the desert, as many have done before and since, and he says, I have some Good News, and proceeds to get to work doing what needs to be done.  Are the exact words important?  Do we need the manual any longer?  Is the label or the bottle or which vineyard of the world it sprouted and squeezed from, important?  A little.  It might be of interest to know.  After all, there are some good stories.  But our holy books, like all sacred furniture and all vineyards and the bottles of liquid they produce, must one day go, or be recycled.  Existence, Universe, Cosmos, speaks to us and says:  Check out the trees.  Learn to Live!  Do what must be done.  End the bickering.  Drop the heavy load of books.  Lighten up.  Get on with it.

And, we go on.  We have new stories, new miraculous experiences including moonwalks and twitters and blogs and IPhones and Internet—new parables, new science, never imagined by those ancient ancestors.

And. . .I’m going to stop here. . .because I’ve made my argument and I have no argument with you.  After all, you are fellow and fella heretics. . .and we’ll all be burned at the stake someday and we’ll deserve it.  Because we’re Choosers of another way, another path, a greener path, and a new kind of Sacred, re-defined as Life itself.  Ahhh, that’s something to sip. . .That is something to savor.  “Nuanced with earth tones to round it out.”  That’s US.  That’s the Greening Goodness squeezed from Life!  That’s the Awe and the Wow that makes life a moonshot—a never-ending challenge and call to adventure.  And all a good heretic really needs to remember is this:  If there is hope for a tree, there is hope for thee and me.

And let us all say Awe. . . Awwwwwwwe!


Mary Oliver, “Buck Moon-From the Field Guide to Insects”

“Eighty-eight thousand six-hundred different species in North America.

In the trees, the grasses around us.

Maybe more, maybe several million on each acre of earth.

This one as well as any other.

Where you are standing at dusk. 

Where the moon appears to be climbing the eastern sky.

Where the wind seems to be traveling through the trees,

and the frogs are content in their black ponds or else why do they sing? 

Where you feel a power that is not you but flows into you like a river.

Where you lie down and breathe the sweet honey of the grass and count the stars;

Where you fall asleep listening to the simple chords repeated, repeated.

Where, resting, you feel the perfection, the rising, the happiness

of their dark wings.”


Seattle 02

“Nature is God” 

A reading and discussion with Chris Highland

East-West Bookshop, Seattle

March 25, 2007


“That I may dream of no heaven but that which lies about me.”

~Henry Thoreau, Journals, March, 1856

“It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves.  There is none such.”

~Henry Thoreau, Journals, August, 1856

“I suppose that what in others is religion is in me love of nature.”

~Henry Thoreau, Journals


Read from Muir (27).  Johnny the heretic.  The wise old wild heretic of Scotland, and Yosemite.  Here’s a piece of that crumbling castle in Dunbar that I picked up on my second trip to Scotland.  To me, this is a symbol of where Muir has taken me on our hikes.  It is a symbol of the crumbling castle of religion and super-natural faith.  Muir, and his climbing companions from Thoreau and Emerson on down to us, present the greatest challenge to those who still inhabit the desolate castle, who defend the cracked walls of church, synagogue, mosque and temple.

What are the walls we need to climb today?  Where is our compass point, our GPS reference point to find direction in life?  For many, religion is the center, the fulcrum point for their life.  Their God is somewhere, locatable, if only in a cloudy, unreachable place on a high, holy trembling mountain.  East-West; North-South.  We want to know where we are.  As Steinbeck said, we need to know where we are before we can know where we are going.

My spiritual journey brought me to this place and time.  It has been a long, winding road of a journey.  From evangelical roots, to branches of philosophical exploration, to leaves and fruit of interfaith work, and now, to what I think is a deeper, wiser sense of the grounding of it all.

My writing has presented me with some wonderful wild companions for the trail.  It’s really been an expedition to collect pieces of wisdom more enduring than the chunks that fall from the walls.  John Muir opened up the living temple of Nature in his beloved mountains—the exuberant, bounding, mountain-climbing Scotsman entices us to go higher. Henry Thoreau still gives us a drumbeat of solitude and social conscience in the community of frogs and birds by his wooded pond; Waldo Emerson (as his friends called him) continues to teach us his self-reliant philosophy to walk the way of reason and wisdom, the ex-minister who became a preacher of Nature and the Oversoul connecting all things; Walt Whitman, poet of America and the Cosmos, sings his joyous rhapsody of the earth, the human body, slavery, democracy. Margaret Fuller, brilliant teacher, writer, editor, revolutionary and colleague of Emerson, her strong balancing, challenging voice echoes, still calling for us to keep our feet planted firmly on the earth until we grow wings. John Burroughs, who built his own cabin along the Hudson River in New York, shows us that we can build our own home in the universe; a lifelong birdlover whose thoughts took flight into philosophy and religious criticism still urges a radically rooted study of this, the only home we have to live in together.

All of these teachers have taken the pulpit in my church—the congregation of the earth, Nature’s Temple, where the sermons are proclaimed all around us, the choirs are singing, the bibles are being written and Nature is, in all ways and manners, divine.  Nature is God.  If there is a God, God is Nature.

As the ancient Stoics taught, we cannot learn how to live our lives by turning to society, to the state or to the God of religion.  We must turn to Nature, including our own human nature.  Nature gives us our laws for living and any sacredness we seek.  Nature is Providence, the Almighty, the Creator and Sustainer, the Way, the Truth, the Life.  Nature is Science, Philosophy, Reason and wondrously troubling Mystery–what we do not understand—not yet.  Nature is flesh and blood and brain, fur and feather, puddle and ocean, starfish and star, galaxy and dark matter and black hole.  You get the point.  Nature is Everything.  Maybe we could call this Pan-Naturism rather than Pan-Theism.  It’s the only pan we have, the only one to know.  We are all pan-handlers, begging for a deeper connection, a wider understanding.  What we’re really talking about is simply Life and all that is.  Simple!

Burroughs told us, maybe he was reminding us, there is nothing above, back of or behind the natural world.  There is no super-natural, no invisible transcendent sphere.  There is no heaven, no hell, no other place other than the universe as we know it, search it, and know more about it.  As we know more, we hopefully gain wisdom, and greater knowledge about ourselves and our interrelation with all life.  Once again Burroughs told us, even the atoms hold hands and dance together in what he called “the temple of life.”

Nature is God.  God is Nature.  This is now my compass point, my center from which all the directions of exploration and adventure proceed.  These books are collections of wisdom that begin and end and begin again with the understanding that all is sacred, that all religion must end out where the well-marked trails dissipate into deer, fox and bear paths, or where no pathways have been walked; out where the raptors and the rivers, the winds and the tides show the way.  These collections are only telescopes and microscopes to come nearer, to see, hear and feel the greatest Teacher, the most revered spiritual guide, the oldest and most venerable religion ever presented to us.  This is our science, our philosophy, our religion, our home and our God.  Our clergy for this wild, natural adventure are not seminary trained or ordained.  They are the naturalists, the students of Nature, who point us to the source for our spiritual knowledge and wisdom.

Tell me of a greater God than Nature.  Show me a wiser professor or more skilled preacher.  Describe for me a more wonderful creator, a more amazingly mysterious source for searching and study, for inquiry, reason and insight.  What human person or human community has invented a greater, more loving, more powerful deity than the one we each are an integral part of, the one we participate with as companions, as living creatures?  What theology, creed, dogma, scripture or congregation offers us a larger, more inclusive circle of community; what institution of faith offers us such a limitless diversity of wondrous Life?  Nature.  Our parent; our ground of being; our matrix; our best and only society.  The natural trail is the only journey, the path, the way, truth and most abundant life.  There is no church, temple, synagogue, mosque or meeting place that can contain the unifying principle of the universe.  How silly that we think that we can box and package and label it.  Religion is the mythology that would clothe the great, living body of the cosmos.  We fear the nakedness of Nature, we are shamed by the nudity of God (have you ever seen a true depiction of the crucifixion with a penis?  Would the church that hangs that last long?).  But in the nakedness of the Natural God we too are naked and exposed for what we are:  fragile and fantastic atoms with amazing energy for imagination, reasoning, ideas and creative action.  We come from the earth and return to it.  It is what we are made of.  It is our earthy, earthly organic heaven.

If what I am saying is true, what do we do with Krishna, Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Mohammad, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Zoroaster and all the rest, these  great voices for reform, renewal and rebirth, these reminders of the necessity of revolution and evolution.  What do we do?  We freeze their voices into monuments and testaments.  Endlessly repeating what they said, how they lived.  “I hear them say” is what we repeat.  We are too afraid to repeat Jesus’ words, “You have heard it said, but now I say.”  As Emerson wrote “why do we not see God face to face” as they did.  We fear the face and fear to face what is not extraordinary at all, the miracle all around and in us—the divinity of Life.  We are powerless over our faith and devotion, or so we act.  Yet we sit to worship the past and the experiences of others, we lie on the ground in their imagined presence, we stand to proclaim their words, their lives, their way as the only way.  We bow, and pray, and sometimes dance.  But we have forgotten.  We have dishonored their words, their lives, their spirits.  Truth is as living and present now as it ever was.  The wisest teachers have pointed beyond themselves to the One.  In forests, by rivers, on mountains, they spoke and lived for truth.  Now it is us.  They are dead and gone.  We are alive, aware, open to learn and see.  Are we?  Or are we only bowing to the past, afraid to rise to our full stature and speak the truth as we see it, or remain silent in our present truth.

The Meditations series offers a bit of gorp mix for the trail—definitely not freeze-dried.  These are only energy food, or the appetizer, handfuls of tasty tidbits to inspire and encourage our own pathfinding.  The intention is that you will read these and then further seek out the full texts of these great thinkers, then the full Text of the natural scriptures in the common world freely available to each of us every day.  They offer their telescopes and microscopes, but who wears a telescope on their head, a microscope over their eye!  We can see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears.  In my books you will find the first steps into a powerful wisdom for the contemporary search for what transcends religion, to find the source where all the religions were first nourished and sprouted.  If we choose to join with these natural saints in their journey, their pilgrimage deeper into the sanctuary of earth, we will take up Thoreau’s call to

“Do what you love.  Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.  Do not be too moral.  You may cheat yourself out of much life so.  Aim above morality.  Be not simply good—be good for something.”

~Letter to Harrison Blake, March 1848



WhidbeyWinter06 013

“Nature is God:

Pathclearing with John Burroughs”

*Second Version*

Chris Highland

UU of WI       November 5, 2006

I nearly changed the path of my message last night when I was awakened in the moonlit shadows by scurrying, knocking sounds outside my cabin window.  I stumbled out to find a good size rat hanging from the bird feeder.  Then early this morning I was roused again from my lunar dreams by a very disappointed squirrel traversing all over the front of the cabin, like an expert mountain climber, wondering where I hid the feeder.  I remember rolling over and sighing, “Nature is God.  Ha!”

You can thank those night visitors because they woke me to a better idea.  I took a walk today in the sanctuary of Nature, looking closely at the hanging art of wasp nests, heard the call of a large hawk and stopped to shake my head at a big frog squashed on the road.  The walk made up my mind about this talk with you this afternoon.  I decided to spare you a long history lesson about Burroughs and get right to it.

John Burroughs.  Naturalist; bird-lover; squirrel-lover; philosopher; scientist; mystic.  He was another of the 19th century students of the Earth.

He grew a friendship with John Muir; camped with Teddy Roosevelt; hung out with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.  The Queen of England loved his writings, as did a whole generation of schoolchildren.

Between 1867 and 1921 he wrote nearly thirty books.

His first book was on his friend Walt Whitman.

From the little bark cabin he built by the Hudson River, he scribbled down many nature study books with titles like:


Field and Study

Last Harvest

Ways of Nature

Breath of Life

Light of Day

Accepting the Universe


He wrote a little about the Northwest too.  He set out on a steamer ship from Seattle in 1899 (sailing right by Whidbey Island) on an expedition to a wild place called Alaska.  By his side was that other bearded adventurer—John Muir.

He enjoyed the simple life in the woods, and wrote of it,

“I am bound to praise the simple life, because I have lived it and found it good. . .I love a small house, plain clothes, simple living. . .

How free one feels, how good the elements taste, how close one gets to them.  To see the fire that warms you, or better yet, to cut the wood that feeds the fire that warms you. . .to see the beams that are the stay of your four walls. . .to be in direct and personal contact with the sources of your material life; to want no extras, no shields; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest, or over a wild flower in spring—these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”

The simple life of John Burroughs brought him up close and personal with the wild creatures all around him.  It was from them, from Nature, that he learned his simplest and most profound lessons.  And he began to ask the larger questions about life, the universe, god.

Who or what is God?

His contemporary, Henry Thoreau, whom he never met but admired, said:

“My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”

Burroughs took this profession to heart.  Yet, for him, it was not simply a matter of seeking some transcendent deity in nature.  Was God IN Nature?  Was Nature IN God?  Not for Burroughs.  The deity, for Burroughs, was Nature herself.

In his book The Breath of Life published in 1915, he writes:

“Our reason demands that the natural order be all-inclusive.  Can our faith in the divinity of matter measure up to this standard?  Not till we free ourselves from the inherited prejudices which have grown up from our everyday struggles with material things.  We must follow the guidance of science till we penetrate this husk and see its real mystical and transcendental character.”

Now listen close to our natural prophet,



“Though the secret of life is under our feet, yet how strange and mysterious it seems!  It draws our attention away from matter. . . .

We are so immersed in these realities that we do not see the divinity they embody.  We call that sacred and divine which is far off and unattainable. . .

“until science opened our eyes we did not know that the celestial and the terrestrial are one, and that we are already in the heavens among the stars.  When we emancipate ourselves. . . and see with clear vision our relations to the Cosmos, all our ideas of materialism and spiritualism are made over, and we see how the two are one.”

Hard to hear his Baptist roots here.  Or is it?

To “see with clear vision our relations to the Cosmos.”

Our religion has taught us to look beyond, above, outside, for something, for Someone who watches over it all—a creator, maker, superhuman made in our image.  But a simple closeup view of the earth and her wonders reveals such intricate beauty, such profoundly sacred divinity—why isn’t this enough for us?  Why do we keep looking beyond—beyond ourselves, beyond our world, beyond Nature?

In his book Field and Study (1919), Burroughs wrote,

“My readers sometimes complain that there is too much Nature in my books and not enough God, which seems to me like complaining that there is too much about the sunlight and not enough about the sun. . .

With a human-like God, the maker and ruler of the universe, and existing apart from it, I can do nothing.

When I write about Nature and make much of her beauties and wonders, I am writing about God.  The Nature-lover is the God-lover.”

And here Burroughs gets at the heart of my message this morning:

“I am cautious about using the term ‘God’ because of its theological and other disturbing associations. . .But call it Nature and it is brought immeasurably near.  I see it, touch it, hear it, smell it.  I see the flowers, the birds, and all engaging aspects of field and wood and sky.

 I am a part of it.”

And while he has our attention, hear what he says about heaven and earth:

“[Some imagined other world] fades as this world brightens.  Science has made this world so interesting and wonderful, and our minds find such scope in it for the exercise of all their powers, that thoughts of another world are becoming foreign to us.  We shall never exhaust the beauties and the wonders and the possibilities of this.  To feel at home on this planet, and that it is, with all its drawbacks, the best possible world, I look upon as [the supreme happiness] of life.”

Now, take a deep breath and let a little more sink in:

“When we call the power back of all God, it smells of creeds and systems, of superstition, intolerance, persecution; but when we call it Nature, it smells of spring and summer, of green fields and blooming groves, of birds and flowers and sky and stars.  I admit that it smells of tornadoes and earthquakes, of jungles and wilderness, of disease and death, too, but these things make it all the more real to us.”

For me this sets Burroughs apart from most New Age thinking, and raises him above most traditional theology.  He doesn’t sugar coat his philosophy of Nature or make it all a neat system with God in charge, with God on top.  The good smells of Nature mingle with the bad smells and we call it Life.  Live with it.  It is the way things are.

Don’t claim the good for God and blame the bad on dark, devilish evil.

Face the facts, accept the universe as it is, and humbly learn.

So, what does Burroughs leave our religious communities—for our beliefs and families of faith?  Well, that depends on how adventurous we are!

This is pretty radical stuff here.

As I say in the introduction to my book, this is not chicken soup but chili and brew for the soul.  This is not comfort food for the comfortable, but rations and gruel for the spiritual insurgency.

Listen to what Burroughs wrote just shortly after World War One, amazingly, audaciously, he says we can accept the universe,

even with its questions, its tragedies, its wars.

“Only a faith founded upon the rock of natural law can weather such a storm as the world passed through in war. . .

Persons who do not read the book of Nature as a whole, who do not try their faith by the records of the rocks and the everlasting stars. . .

those who take no account of all these things soon lose their reckoning in times like ours.”

To “read the book of Nature as a whole.”  A powerful line.

Then, J.B. blows open the doors and windows of religion

(I don’t know if we’re ready for this, but I hope so):

“Our ecclesiastical faith must be housed in churches and kept warm by vestments.  The moment we take it out into the open and expose it to unroofed and unwarmed universal nature, it is bound to suffer from the cosmic chill.  For my part. . .it is an open-air faith [nothing, not all the terrible things of life] make me doubt for one moment that the universe is sound and good. . .  I do not mind if you call this view the infidelity (or atheism) of science; science too is divine;

all knowledge is knowledge of God.”

Harsh words from our New York woodsman.  Challenging and truthful words clearing a path from the forested shores of the Hudson River.

Yet, aren’t these just the words we need to hear today?  We need J.B.  Our religion, our science, our environmentalism, even our politics, need the naturally balanced and reasonable, universal wisdom of the

Sage of Slabsides.

Here is the kernel of what I appreciate in John Burroughs.

Here is the core of the questions he raises for us.

If we live in heaven, why are we still dreaming of a fantasy world somewhere else?

If we are living in a divine world, we are divine too and there need not be another face out there to name God.

Is this simply the old pantheism?  Yes, in a way.

Is this a new atheism?  Yes, in another way.

It has taken me many years to let go of a personal god, one that sits above, judges, acts like a celestial police officer, or walks beside as a close friend.

I admit:  I miss the close friendship I once felt with that Invisible Buddy in a Robe.

I miss the Gentle Shepherd of Palestine and his guiding, abiding presence.

And sometimes I miss the assuring confidence of a faithful community—the Church—the “House of God”—where everyone seems so sure they are talking to Someone somewhere who cares, for them, for their world, for their rituals.

Yet, the House of God has grown so much bigger to me now.  The God I knew can’t even fit anymore.  What I miss cannot stand long before the incredible greatness of Nature, the natural universe, the Earth and her scripture lessons, her gospels, her torahs, her qur’ans, her sutras and tao.

The god I have left behind with the religion I left behind was, after all, a very small god—a god of my making, of my mind—passed along to me by generations of well-meaning people who struggled and suffered so much they could never imagine any other kind of god but one great King in a Glorious Kingdom where they would one day go to escape this “veil of tears.”

I understand that.  I respect much of what religions offer.

But J.B. and others have helped me articulate a better, wiser path.

Now I know:  It’s o.k. to let the old broken and tangled paths go.

It’s good and right to move on to wider and wiser paths to wonder and beauty and, who knows where.

You see, I have been converted to the Gospel of Nature.

(do I hear an ‘Amen!’?).

John Muir listened and was converted.

So was Margaret Fuller, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman


John Burroughs.

Are we ready to be converted, born again?

To see with new eyes that Nature is God?  That Nature is better than God?  More wonderful, mysterious, accessible, than a God out there?

Are we ready for heaven?

Ready to walk in the Garden of Eden, here, today–in the forests, along the shorelines and rivers, up the mountains?

Are we ready to be saved?

Saved from our separations, dividing spirit and matter, earth and heaven, human and divine?

Are we prepared to leave one island, the island in our minds, and explore the wilds of other islands, other ideas, new worlds–guided by reason, science, a sense of wonder and delight in beauty?

Burroughs once said that he wasn’t sure the world was ready for a new Religion of Nature—a naturally spiritual way of life.

But, I wonder.  Are we ready now?

In the spirit of John Burroughs I say emphatically, Yes!  Now is the time.

A voice calls once again in the wilderness, where all prophets arise—

yet this time the voice is the wilderness itself.

Now, I hope our little saunter with the simple sage of slabsides, the birdlover of the backwoods, is only the beginning of our explorations into Nature as our home and our god.

Let us find our own paths, clear our own way, carrying with us the words of John Burroughs’s creed, his statement of natural religion calling us to think more expansively, and act more openly, with compassion and truth.

Take his call to heart:


“Amid the decay of creeds, love of nature has high religious value. . .

It has made [Nature-minded people] contented and at home wherever they are in nature—in the house not made with hands.  This house is their church, and the rocks and the hills are the altars, and the creed is written in the leaves of the trees and in the flowers of the field and in the sands of the shore.  A new creed every day and new preachers, and holy days all the week through.  Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving [baptism].  Communion service is at all hours, and the bread and wine are from the heart and marrow of Mother Earth.  There are no heretics in Nature’s church; all are believers, all are communicants.  The beauty of natural religion is that you have it all the time. . . .

The crickets chirp it, the birds sing it, the breezes chant it, the thunder proclaims it, the streams murmur it. . . .

Its incense rises from the plowed fields, it is on the morning breeze, it is in the forest breath and in the spray of the wave. . . .

It is not even a faith; it is a love, an enthusiasm,

a consecration to natural truth.”

Enjoy the Path!


Chap Team

Some Chaplain Thoughts

Chaplaincy Institute Class, Berkeley, December 2008

“Don’t call me ‘homeless’!  No one is homeless on this home, Earth!”

~diner in St. Vincent’s free dining room, San Rafael


“Oh please, police officer, won’t you leave me alone;

You’re chasing me out from my only home!

My only crime, is no home of my own.

I too was an officer, I fought in a war;

Now I’m so poor that I sleep by a door;

Defender of peace, I too carried a gun;

And like over there, I choose not to run.”

~”No Home of My Own,” from the Soul Carpentry album (1997)

“Most frightening of all are reports that one in four wild species. . .will be facing extinction by the year 2025.  Underlying the new haste to find cures is the understanding that it may be now or never for chemical prospecting. The job ahead is enormous.  Out of the estimated 5 to 30 million living species on Earth (some estimates put it closer to 100 million) only about 1.4 million have been named.  Less than 5 percent of the world’s total roster of plant species have been identified, and out of the estimated 265, 000 flowering species, only about 5,000, or 2 percent, have been studied exhaustively for chemical composition and medicinal value.  To take one country as an example, scientists estimate that nothing is known about the chemistry of more than 99 percent of the plant species growing in Brazil.”

~Janine Benyus, Biomimicry

“Here is the test of wisdom,

Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,

Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,

Wisdom is of the soul. . .

Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.

Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,

They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.”

~Walt Whitman, Meditations of Walt Whitman

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

~Ben Franklin (source currently unknown), or,

“I hear and I forget.  I see and I remember.  I do and I understand.”

~Confucius (or who knows? It’s a good quote)

“Anyone who looks at nature, which is the same as looking into oneself, long and deeply enough,

will. . .be cured of all despair.” ~Anne Frank, Tales from the Secret Annex

“The true Bible is the book of nature, the wisest teacher is the one who most plainly expounds it,

the best priest our own conscience, and the most orthodox church a hall of science.”

~Frances Wright, Reason, Religion, and Morals



I called a local pastor and asked whether we could have one of our weekly street meals at his church.  He hesitated, then said, “Well, I don’t know.  Your reputation precedes you.”  He had heard from one of his colleagues that I was hard to work with.  I wondered why I was not considered a “colleague.”  Chaplains run into this often.  Some other clergy don’t tend to think of us as true colleagues; we’re too hard to work with.  It’s a similar problem faced on the streets.

Penny was a flirty gal lots of guys noticed whenever she would walk by in her tight clothes.  She loved the attention.  Loud and animated she would make sure the room knew she had arrived.  One afternoon Penny came up to me and asked if I could help her move into an apartment.  She said that some of the guys were going to meet us at the new place and help us carry her stuff into her new home.  We arrived and began unloading.  After about an hour it was clear, the other guys weren’t showing up.  Carrying some boxes on the elevator Penny joked that people would think we were a couple.  A few minutes later, when we were riding the elevator back down to the van, Penny looked at me and said, “You’re my real friend.  No one else would even come here and help me.  Thanks!” Penny had been through hell over the years, but the staff of the chaplaincy had always been there for her even if it was to tell her she couldn’t have her way.

Rumors can ruin reputations, at least among people who take the gossip seriously with no first hand experience.  The chaplaincy was constantly faced with both sides of the rumor coin.  A new person would arrive and say, “My friend told me about you and said you could help.”  The next minute another would come up and say, “I was told you are just here to make money and go traveling.”  What could we do but take it in stride.  The only thing we could ever do is what we did best:  encouraged anyone who asked for encouragement, assisted when it seemed right, and stayed the course of compassion.  If some didn’t get it or chose to “bad-mouth” us, well, that was their problem.  If someone chose to listen to the rumors and believe them, again, their problem.  Most people were intelligent enough to get to know us and see for themselves.  The same was true for the rumors we heard about others.  Prejudging–prejudice–wasn’t something a chaplain could ever afford to do.  There just wasn’t the time or energy for that nonsense.

I drove an older woman to see an apartment.  She introduced me to the social worker who ran the complex.  Shaking my hand she said, “Oh, I’ve heard of you.  You have quite a reputation—and it’s a Good One!”  I smiled.  That’s the only kind of reputation I value.  To be known from friends I’ve come to know on the street.  Well, to be honest, I don’t really mind the reputation as a rebel either.

from My Address is a River (Introduction)

My “higher” education really began in my own periods of houselessness when I was plunged into the raging emotions of instability and loss; where I was forced to swim or sink, grab a slippery boulder of hope and find my mossy footing.  I carry along a kind of temporal sense of settling briefly at a rest stop on the way with no permanent building.  Like paddling a river this takes on the delight of pulling over to a small island or boulder in the middle of the flow to explore, maybe camp, but always with the thought in the back of my mind: I am only visiting; where next?  I am transient with a vague feeling of vagrancy.  I know from experience—you never forget the feeling in your gut, a fearful and fainting kind of feeling:  Where is my home?   I cannot help but tell something of my personal story here, and in many ways this book reveals who I am, illustrates my story, in images that say more than words could describe.

“Those of us on the street need things; things like food vouchers, socks, jackets, sleeping bags.  But what we are really looking for is a place to belong.”

~Randy, houseseeker


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