Wednesday, October 07, 2015

"Journeys With Jesus": A Goodbye Homily As Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship

“A Journey With Jesus” Homily

Saying Goodbye as the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship Executive Director

Rev. Ron Robinson
Oct. 8, 2015
Turley, Oklahoma

Once again I start with scripture, and a selection from this coming Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings, originated by the Consultation on Common Texts, of which the UUCF was a founding member.

From Mark 10: 17-22 (NRSV):

“As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”


Today will be my last day, after 12 years and three months, as the sixth Executive Director of the UUCF which was itself 58 years old when I started and is now in its 70th year, a good year to make changes. Back on April 22 of this year, I announced that the Board and I were starting transitions, and why it was the right time for me, and including for the Board a search process for a new Executive Director. You can read that note here

I am excited, as my last official act besides this message, to announce that the Board and the new Executive Director will make their public announcement tomorrow welcoming in the new Executive Director and relationship. We are already hard at work in making the transition as healthy and productive as possible. It has been energizing for me and I know it will be for the UUCF. On leaving, I think it is natural to think about all the “should haves” and “could haves” and “wish I’d done this or not done that” and be filled with the visions again of what is left to do. I am heartened instead by the knowledge that if a measure of one’s accomplishment is in what happens in a position afterwards, and who takes over, then it has been a great comfort and witness to the continuing potential and need for the UUCF that everyone who was interested or pursued this part-time position was extremely well qualified far exceeding my own abilities when I began not long out of seminary. “Leaving it in good hands” is, as you will see, an understatement.

As part of our collegial ministerial covenant and good practices, I will back out of all, or most things, officially UUCF unless asked otherwise or by permission. But If I could sneak in one last “ask” here, it would be to welcome in the new Executive Director with financial gifts and end-of-the-year donations worthy of the vision of the generous and liberating God we follow, and our mission, and so the UUCF would have the capacity to act boldly in our new era under this new capable, learned, and spirited leadership. It is easy to make gifts online at the donate button at


It is a strange thing to leave a ministry of this sort that is national and global, and so much online, and part-time in a culture that keeps requiring it to be full-time. It is hard not to have the chance to be together in person to meet and celebrate and remember and forgive and, ultimately, to bless. But I believe that even given that opportunity, it would, of course, not be enough; and yet it would be enough, and so it is here too. I started a process of saying goodbye and thank you to folks last April, and I know I will be continuing to do so as I encounter you all face to face and online in months and years to come.

So many images come to mind, though: holding forth in loving, always loving, graceful for the most part conversation with whomever came up to us for hours on end at the UUCF booth in the agora of the General Assembly of the UUA; worshipping in body, yea in body with hands upraised, in spirit, chanting Taize and holding one another in prayer circles, and in mind with some of the most cutting edge religious thinkers in our midst both within our historic and continuing association with the UUism and without as we made league with those in other Christian traditions and beyond at our Revivals and General Assembly. Even more so, the one on ones and small groups and late-night dreams and connections, and the stream of phone calls and emails with those who were just finding out about us and our tradition and our reality, that we exist, but not nearly as present as we wished and as we are needed; praying and counseling and learning from both laity and clergy struggling to come into our progressive Christian faith, to remain in it with us and the UUA, or how to leave it and remain with us in the beloved community of the Body of Christ. Meeting people throughout the nation, travelling twice to the Philippines to our strong church there which taught me so much, so many faces come to mind as I think back.  I thought I would be here for a year, maybe a little longer, and it has been a blessing to have been able to remain for these dozen years. 

We in the UUCF have seen much continuing change, I believe, in these past 12 years, sometimes in conflicting directions. Within our historic home, the UUA, we have seen a progressive non-creedal Christian witness rising up in many places and ways envisioned by us at the very first Revival in New Orleans in 1999 which inspired me as a seminary student to write a UUCF circular letter about this new spirit. It is wonderful to see the diverse embodiments of this not only as the fruits of the UUCF’s presence and ministry, but in people and places beyond any direct influence by us, reminding us that we in our own institutionally small group are not by any stretch the sole seeders of Jesus’ leaven within the UUA.  At the same time, there seems something of a backlash to this, and an attempt it strikes me, intentionally or not, to seek to “brand” us out of Unitarian Universalism (akin to what one of my mentors and predecessors in the UUCF, the Rev. Carl Scovel, once said about those who claimed they would “yawn” Christianity out of UUism), to make UUism “other than” rather than “more than” Christian, to turn words like “church” and “worship” and, still, “God” into terms of inhospitality instead of the radical hospitality they contain, and to “tame” (or make an historical asterisk) of the wild upsetting world-and-life-overturning Jesus AND the traditions that sprang up, for all the flaws, from Jesus and his first century followers, of which we, today, are still within. We have much to celebrate and connect and commit to within UUism, and much to challenge.

And yet we in the UUCF particular during the past 70 years have emerged a response to an emerging spiritual and cultural landscape, one that propels us to tap into our non-sectarian roots, our ecumenical roots, inheritors of that spirit that motivated William Ellery Channing, and to branch out among the many branches of the wider Christian life today—be it progressive, neo-evangelical, missional, neo-monastic, emergent, and also with the social movements of justice that will carry us even further into living out the communion, the crucifixion, the resurrection of Christ in ways and with people beyond church and faith traditions. This is the ministry (my other hats as we say)  to which I have been turning and will seek with God’s grace to grow, always knowing that what I have been a part of locally in my church and mission plant has benefited from and is due to the support and spirit and teachings I have received in the UUCF.


In closing, I turn back to Mark’s account of the gospel to be lifted up around the world this week. There is a journey before us, even as we leave wherever we have been. We will be tempted on this journey with Jesus, as was the man who came up to Jesus on his journey in the story, to believe that “freely following Jesus”, as our motto of the UUCF proclaims, is in fact free, and can just happen, by what someone else does, or without giving up all that seeks to define us which we hold most dear, or that it is just about the capacity to think freely about Jesus and spiritual issues and have the right answers.

But eternal life is more than that, more than we can grasp in any answer or mental understanding, even one that Jesus, as he seems to know, might give. So Jesus points him to the familiar path, as if to say: “your future in God, your place in God’s kind of Empire, lies in taking the steps you already know and have been taught. You have all you need right around you in and through them, the commandments.” They may sound simple, but they are no small thing to actually do, particularly inasmuch as they are directed toward others and not toward just our own self and self-enlightenment.

So the UUCF is there for you in all the ways easily known but too often not taken: pray for and support one another, come together and share struggles and insights and stories via online and face to face, join or start a small gathering where you are, serve, share with others the paths and resources for growing love and justice that we offer. Whatever you do, is enough. And the sustenance of the UUCF lies all around it too.

Like the man, though, we are often tempted to dismiss the ordinary radical acts and still search for the Big Truth (or Project or Dream of Church) that will save us. And so Jesus, in love the story says and in looking right into the man, gives him what he wants by casting another equally valid option for the man’s future. He shows him an unfamiliar path: “risk all that separates you from the poor, from me. Do this and you will really come alive!” [Likewise, there is so much waiting to bring the UUCF alive as it continues committing and risking to bring the life and spirit of Jesus to all in search and suffering.]

The man and Jesus part ways, at least for the time being, with grief in both I imagine. The story ends like the parable of the prodigal family ends, with a separation and a question: will the elder brother risk joining the party God is throwing for all and everyone, or stay standing outside in all he knows to be true and right? Will the man remain with all he possesses, letting them prevent him from possessing so much more, grieving and questioning what might have been, or will he take that “faith of leap” into the unfamiliar, and as Jesus said to all, and to us, then “come follow me”?

Here’s to the risk ahead.

May we both in our journeys, in the familiar and unfamiliar paths we take ahead, continue to walk together as we walk with Jesus.  

Thank you. Blessings. And More To Come.


Friday, May 15, 2015

I Am A Catholic Christian by The Rev. Carl Scovel

A powerful essay published by the UUCF in June, 1980, by the Rev. Carl Scovel, titled "I Am A Catholic Christian". Part of our 70th anniversary historical year of creating online resources for free from our rich out of print sources. Much more coming soon for your summer reading. Support this project with your donations to and most of all share these resources from here with others in your own social media and church circles. The Rev. Scovel is minister emeritus of Kings Chapel in Boston and receipient of the Unitarian Universalist Association Distinguished Service Award, its highest honor.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

There Are Bible Thumpers and Bible Bashers -- We Are Neither



There are Bible-thumpers, and there are Bible-bashers.

 You know about the Bible-thumpers. To make a point, the Bible-thumping preachers thump the Bible on the pulpit. Liberal preachers do it too, of course, but in a kind of weak-kneed way (more like patting it). The real experts at Bible-thumping are the television evangelists: somebody like Jimmy Swaggart holds his Bible in one hand, walks across the stage, reads a line or two carefully, asks a rhetorical question, pauses for a moment, and then lets you have it: “What it means, brother, is that you’re going to hell if you don’t mend your ways!”  I love to watch them – it is great theater. I’m convinced that is one reason for their success. John Wesley once said that the reason he got such large audiences was because “I set myself on fire, and the people come to watch me burn!”

 You know about the Bible-thumpers. They are the ones who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, that every word and every sentence is direct instruction from God to us today.

 There are also Bible-bashers. You may not have seen as many of them, but you have probably known a few. The Bible-bashers are the ones who love to debunk, to challenge, to ridicule, and generally to reject any special significance for the Bible. Bible-bashers have been around for a long time – forever I guess – but there have been times when they’ve been exceptionally active. During the second half of the 19th century, the secularists and freethinkers and other anti-Christian/antichurch folk in England and Europe got downright vicious in their attacks. The American versions were generally less vicious; people like Ingersoll and even Mark Twain were appreciated by audiences perhaps more for their wit and cleverness than for their beliefs. On both sides of the Atlantic, however, Bible-bashers like to take a passage or two out of its historical context, ridicule it by comparison with contemporary standards, and by implication at least, suggest that people ought to then reject the whole Bible.

 Some Bible bashing and church-bashing is helpful, for it punctures the pretensions of Christians who get too arrogant. Sometimes, however, Bible-bashing is just as arrogant – the work of people who think they’re smarter than those poor Christians; and sometimes it’s sad – people working out their anger about childhood experiences with conservative religion.

 An example of Bible-bashing might be the letter from a fellow who wrote: “Have you ever read the filth in the Old Testament?” – and then proceeded to cite several instances of God smiting the Ameleks and instructing Moses to wipe out the Midianites. “Why give the Bible any more credence than we give ancient Greek myths, or the Koran, or the Book of Mormon?” he concluded.

 There are, you see, Bible-thumpers and Bible-bashers. Both of them share one common trait: they’re both biblical literalists. One reads the Bible and says, “It’s all true,” the other says “no, it ain’t.” Both, I think, miss the point.


 It is crucial to know, to have a basic understanding of, what the Bible is, and what it is not. The way in which you approach the whole Christian enterprise is dependent upon the answer you give. Here is a liberal Christian answer.

 The Bible is not literal history, or geology or astronomy, or a set of instructions on divinely-approved diets, or an international affairs handbook for understanding Soviet intentions in a nuclear age. Nor is it a deliberate fabrication, a hoax, or a cruel delusion fostered upon the masses to keep them under control. It is not a verbatim transcription of God’s spoken words to the world, dictated through sixty or so secretaries; nor is it simply myth, conjecture, fantasy and legend.

 The Bible is the record of the encounter of a people with God. The record of that encounter is, to be sure, expressed in the language and the world-view and the cultural conditions of the writers’ times (and in the time of Moses, you either wiped out the Midianites or the Midianites wiped you out!).

But the underlying reality is there: the people of the Old Testament, the people who responded to Jesus, found – beneath all the cruelty of the ancient world, behind all the day-to-day tragedies of human life, beyond all the crushed hopes and dreams of every one’s existence – a power and a strength and a grace that redeems and transforms the whole creation. They saw a meaning that transcended the endless repetitions of birth and life and death, and projected instead a future for the planet. They found people who said and did things that were good, too good to be the products of the cultures in which they lived.  So what if they described them in otherworldly, miraculous, ways? In a world where wiping out the Midianites was the order of the day, to find a man who preached “love your enemy” was definitely (and still is) “out-of-this-world.” And, most importantly, they found themselves changed, transformed, empowered, “equipped” for good work.  So what did they do?  The only thing they could do: they told stories.

 The Bible is, simply, The Story. And not just any story, but our story, the story of how our people encountered God. Christians are a band of storytellers.

The problem of the Thumpers and the Bashers is that they try to make The Story into something it is not. With a story, you don’t bother to ask whether some event happened exactly as it was described, you ask what it means. To borrow the language of constitutional interpretation, you can be a “strict constructionist” or you can be a “broad constructionist.” One closes down the document, restricting it to only what the writers meant many years ago; the other opens it up and allows it to live. With the biblical story, it’s not just a matter of how did the Israelites live 3000 years ago, but what does the Bible say to us today?
 The point is that the Bible is more than just “literature” or “religious history.” The power those ancient writers described is a living power. To say that the Bible itself is the revelation of God would be idolatry. God is greater than the words written about God – but there is a way in which God speaks through  the  Bible,  uses  the  biblical Story,  to speak to us. Perhaps it is that the gospels simply make us receptive, help us to recognize God. But I think it is something more:  when you hear the stories of Jesus, for example, when you don’t just take a surface reading but when you wrestle with them, when you confront your own life in their light, you can begin to see things you’ve never seen before, you can understand and feel and know something of who Jesus was and is. And you can be changed.
 Duke University’s William Willimon points out that for much of this century, liberal educators and liberal churches have thought of education (both religious and secular) in terms of “nurture.” It is the idea that education is a matter of “‘bringing forth’ self-contained, individual, self-discovered identities.” It’s all a matter of “discovering who we are,” of uncovering the “spark of divinity” within us, of exploring our talents and wants and desires and rights.
 I believe that – up to a point – but I’ve always had a problem contemplating the idea of encouraging a young Adolf Hitler to discover “who he really is.” To me, at least, it is as clear as day that there is in human nature, in every one of us, impulses to do grand and noble deeds and baser impulses, negative destructive impulses. Human beings are saints and sinners. 

 “The Christian gospel,” says Willimon, “is a story about something that has happened to us – something that has come to us from the outside” – some words, some events, and the life of one man. It is a message, I believe from God, about how human beings ought to live with dignity and compassion and love and justice.

 The Biblical story, when you get to the heart of it, is something out-of-this-world. It was out-of-sync with the culture of Roman-occupied Judea and it is out-of-sync with much of the world in the twentieth century. It is something “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man or woman of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

 The month of November begins with All Saints Day. There really are saints – not the plastic ones on dashboards and the plaster ones in yards – but the ones we have known and who have helped and befriended us and others, the ones who are faithful when the world is idolatrous, who are loving when the world is hateful, who are forgiving when the world is vengeful. Do you know what I think makes ordinary people into saints? – when they listen to The Story, they let it work its way upon them. The Christian community’s testimony is this: they become blessed, blessed:

blessed because they mourn and are not calloused by the endless repetitions of  wars;
blessed because they are meek enough to not add to the escalation of violence by retaliating;
blessed because they hunger for righteousness and are not satisfied with
  peace and quiet;
blessed because they are merciful enough to show to others the mercy they
 themselves need;
blessed because they are pure in heart  and let God’s love flow in their veins;
blessed because they conspire to make  peace.
Why give the Bible any credence? Because when we truly listen to it, when we stop arguing and shouting, when we stop thumping and bashing, we can hear God.

 – Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Wintle, Senior Minister

First Parish Church in Weston, Massachusetts 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"On Reading The Gospel of Mark With Two Eyes", An Essay on Mark, by the Rev. George Kimmich Beach, a companion essay to his recent book "The Seminal Gospel: forty days with Mark"

The Seminal Gospel, a series of meditations and exegesis of the Gospel of Mark, is a new book written by a UUCF member, the Rev. Kim Beach. We have highlighted it recently in an earlier online issue of the Good News. We would like to remind you of it at this time of year so you can consider buying a copy from the UUCF ($20, can be ordered through our UUCF payment website) and begin thinking of using it for a small group ministry or personal mediation in the coming Lenten Season.

On Reading the Gospel of Mark with Two Eyes
  George Kimmich Beach, November, 2013
            After Jesus tells the parable called “The Sower,” the disciples ask him what it means.  He replies: “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are in parables: that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at ay time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.  And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable?  And how will ye know all parables?”  (Mark 4: 11-13, KJV)        
            The Yogi Book, a national best-seller by Yogi Berra, is subtitled, “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said.”  We must assume, of course, that this is not necessarily something he said.[1]  The recently formed Yogi Berra Seminar has noted this admission that some of his famous sayings are apocryphal.  Accordingly, they have established criteria for deciding which are authentic and which are dubious, at best.  Berra claims, for instance, to have said, “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be,” a patently theological statement that he explains with the question, “If the world were perfect, how would you know?”  In other words, a perfect world is unknowable and therefore impossible.  On its authenticity scale the Seminar rated this saying “too intellectual” and therefore highly doubtful.  Another instance is his claim to have said, when he was asked for the time of day, “You mean now?”  Isn’t this saying is redolent with eschatological consciousness, rather like Jesus’ reported words, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (that is, draws near, Gr. eggizo), and therefore, as the Jesus Seminar maintains, to be judged apocryphal, like all such interpretations influenced by Albert Schweitzer?
            My school of Yogi Berra interpretation is different.  It finds the recognition that he “really didn’t say everything [he] said” wonderful, for it means that the kind of cracked vision he brought to us was generative of an ongoing tradition of Yogisms.  I can say the same of Jesus: The fact that his gospel as told in the Gospel of Mark is seminal, not only of the other Gospels (canonical and otherwise) but also of religious and moral thought (Christian and otherwise) in the vast stream of human history, is the primary fact. Jesus, too, “really didn’t say everything he said.” For that matter, he didn’t really do everything he did.  That’s the beauty of sacred tradition.
Knowing this, what can we say?  Not all elements of the tradition that has been formed by the stories and commentaries of Jesus’ life will be equally meaningful; some will be meaningless, and some positively distasteful.   So as readers of this tradition, we will necessarily make critical judgments about what is valuable within it.  We will make a selection, as I do in my reading of Mark’s Gospel—recently published as The Seminal Gospel: Forty Days with Mark.[2]  Yes, but! I must also remind myself to take care not to reject as meaningless, spurious, or unhistorical, elements of the story that don’t neatly fit into a modern, rational, science-minded way of understanding things—in sum, that lie outside my comfort zone. 
The book proceeds with other assumptions: We don’t need a modern but rather a postmodernunderstanding of religious faith—faith not as beliefs but as “believing in,” religion as a “passionate commitment to a system of reference” (Wittgenstien).[3]  Nor as a rationalbut an existential, that is, a personal and decisional, turn of thought.  Nor as a scientific but a mytho-poetic imagination; as Francis Spufford puts it, “Science is a special exercise in perceiving the world without metaphor, and . . . powerful though it is, it doesn’t function as a guide to those very large aspects of experience that can’t be perceived except through metaphor.”[4]  Finally, we don’t need to stay inside but to step outsideour comfort zones.  You mean, “He spoke in parables so that the ‘outsiders’ would remain outside the fold?  Now that’s outside my comfort zone!”
In his essay, “Naming God,” Paul Ricouer writes: “Naming God, before being an act of which I am capable, is what the texts of my predilection do when they escape from their authors and their first audience, when they deploy their world, when they poetically manifest and thereby reveal a world we might inhabit.”[5]  The Seminal Gospelis not another quest for the historical Jesus. Rather, it takes Mark as “the text of my predilection,” to see whether or how it reveals “a world we might inhabit.”  To this end it seeks to read the gospel brought by Jesus with, as it were, two eyes.  One eye is the eye of fidelity to the text; the other is the eye of present-day self-understanding.  I am not so much seeking what lies behind Mark’s text as what flows from it in the sacred tradition he initiates, a tradition we inherit and would ourselves contribute to. 
Much as Thoreau retreated to Walden to find out whether life, traced to its bare essentials, were “mean” or “sublime,” I read Mark to find out whether the gospel, traced to its seminal text, its essentials, revealed “a world I might inhabit.”  I found that I was led to wrestle with many difficult passages, until they yielded insight—blessed me as Jacob was blessed, crossing the river Jabbok. To cite my own text: “I find that [Mark’s Gospel] invites me to name God in my contemporary life-experience.”
The Introduction begins: “A pathway into the origins of the gospel is also a pathway forward from the present, toward the future we choose. This book seeks to uncover that pathway.
“All that we know of Jesus and his original message is derived from a few ancient texts, among which the Gospel According to Mark is particularly fascinating and often perplexing. Mark came first among the four Gospels of the New Testament, and as such planted the seeds from which subsequent traditions, especially those in narrative form, have grown.
The Seminal Gospel is an exploration of Mark and an extended personal reflection on what his telling of the story of Jesus can mean to us today.  Its two focal points are intricately related.  One is Mark’s text, taken, so far as we are able, on its own terms.  This especially means resisting the temptation to overlay our preconceived ideas about Jesus and his message on the text.  The other focal point is simply what we . . .  bring to our reading.  How distant our world is from the first century world of Jesus and the others vividly portrayed by Mark!  And yet the humanity and passionate concerns of these people are immediately felt.  In their story I recognize my own story.  My hope is that readers who follow my explorations and reflections may more fully discover their own stories.
“These two focal points are in tension with each other; but taken together they can generate significant insight.  Like the two points which define the arcing line of an ellipse, they hold the promise of joining fuller understanding of sacred tradition to fuller understanding of ourselves as spiritual beings.  This kind of outward exploration and inward reflection will require of us a certain effort, perhaps forty days’ worth—here offered in forty chapters for convenient, if not easy, daily consumption.”[6]
Do we find ourselves in these poignant words from the Gospel?  “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief!”  “Could you not watch with me one hour?”  Or these directive words?  “Who gave thee authority to do these things?”  And: “He goeth before you into Galilee”—which is to say, into our homeland.
“Reading with two eyes” is a procedure that Krister Stendahl, professor of New Testament and later Dean of Harvard Divinity School, commended.  I do not recall him saying how to go about it; it is not a procedural formula that can be mechanically applied.   But it means at least that these two things are (a) not to be confused with each other and (b) not to be separated from each other.  They are (c) to be held in a kind of double vision, in tension and yet without ever letting the connection break.  I have elsewhere called it “parabolic vision,” seen in the way prophetic visionaries “cast up symbols to dispel the mystery” of existence: “Sacred symbols illuminate the way before us, inviting us to step into the light.”[7] 
I am suggesting an interpretive procedure: First, try to enter Mark’s first century world, a time of vast upheaval with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the emigration of Jews into the diaspora.  Second, notice what strikes you as clear and true, and what strikes you as odd or off-putting, even offensive.  Finally, set these observations up against your understanding of self and world, for such juxtapositions often mark moments of insight, or of changed heart and mind.  Mark’s word ismetanoia, usually translated as repentance or conversion, or in my own lexicon, new-mindedness. 
Have we moved outside our comfort zone? Do we speak of conversion?  Jim Adams enjoyed telling the story of the Unitarian matron who said with due indignation, “Why should I be born again?  I was born in Boston!”
This is not, I think, a hermeneutics that is superimposed on Mark’s text; it is a way of interpretation that is invited by the text itself—not because Mark consciously put it there but because this pregnant moment in the history of the world called it forth, and he was there as a midwife to this rebirth, this “good news.”  The fact that his Gospel was written approximately 40 years after the death of Jesus is often cited to discredit his account; but consider that his 40 years’ separation from his subject is in principle no different from our own 2000 years.  One must suppose that he too was sometimes inspired and sometimes baffled by the stories he heard, and wove into his narrative—which is itself a creative work of interpretation.  He too sought insight and found his own fascinating brand of new-mindedness.  Examples are in order:
The disciples are notoriously uncomprehending, as they stumble through “life with Jesus.”  Even when he takes them aside to “de-mystify” the mystery of the kingdom of God, they don’t get it.  They miss every cue he gives them.  And Mark himself, or perhaps his chief informant, often thought to be Peter, is one of these uncomprehending dunces: Only upon looking back with a reborn faith, only “after the Resurrection,” do they understand that this man had brought the presence of the kingdom of God to them—within their grasp, “at hand.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
This “kingdom” was, then, both gift and task, as Jim Adams would say; it remains so for us today.  Mark’s Gospel is an act of reconstructive memory, a gift that we must actively engage, must make our task.  He and we alike are fated (as Kiekegaard said) to live our lives forward in time, but to comprehend them, if at all, only backward. Just so, faith is an awakening, and comes not as a result of understanding; rather, faith enables understanding.  Faith even goes so far as to say: I believe in order that I may understand. 
This runs directly contrary to what the Enlightenment taught us, namely, to look at the evidence and on this basis decide what you believe.  The Enlightenment has done its work: the task of liberation from arbitrary authority, and in consequence, the gift of freedom from fear. Its courageous motto, Kant said, was Sapere aude! Dare to think!   But the gospel as told by Mark and other witnesses requires something different, a hermeneutic of memory, to the end of recovering sacred tradition and holy ground, or as Paul Ricouer named it, “a world we might inhabit.”  
Consider the healing and exorcism stories in Mark: they are many and highly prominent in the account.  Mark’s Jesus is first and foremost a charismatic healer, for we see the common people flocking to him at every turn, importuning him for help.  But how he heals is surprising; it’s hard to generalize, because the stories of these wonders are so varied, suggesting that they have come down to Mark from various oral or perhaps written accounts.  But Mark’s Jesus never says: Ihave made you well, or I have cast out your demon.  He says, Your faith has healed you, your faith has cast out your demon.  He  is not a magician.  He says: The kingdom of God is at hand, that is, is nearby, is available to those who in faith give themselves wholly to it, who appropriate its power to themselves. 
Consider the Resurrection—an event never described in Mark, but left implicit in his story of the empty tomb.  Is it not described for fear of profaning a great mystery?  Or because it can be appropriated only by the experience of entering into the faith of a beloved community?  Jesus’ resurrection is a symbolic expression of the disciples’ transformation: now all that went before is comprehensible—a seed planted by the historical memory that there was a before and anafter in this gospel, and thus a decisive  moment of transformation.  Ever since, the gospel has been about transformation, forming a deep—if also a deeply flawed—sacred tradition.  Still, it is cherished, or why would we attach ourselves passionately to it? 
Ludwig Wittgenstein supports this viewpoint in his reflections on faith—surprising perhaps even to himself:  “Queer as it sounds: The historical accounts in the Gospels might, historically speaking, be demonstrably false and yet belief would lose nothing by this: not, however, because it concerns ‘universal truths of reason’!  Rather because historical proof . . . is irrelevant to belief.  This message (the Gospels) is seized on by men believingly (i. e. lovingly).  Thatis the certainty characterizing this particular acceptance-as-true, not something else. . . .    [I]f I am really to be saved, what I need is certainty – not wisdom, dreams or speculation – and this certainty is faith.  And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not by my speculative intelligence.  For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind.  Perhaps we can say: Only love can believe the Resurrection.  Or: it is love that believes the Resurrection.”[8]  We may imagine, I think, that it was not entirely otherwise for Mark and his contemporaries. 
The first words we hear from Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, proclaim his central purpose and message: The kingdom of God is near, is at hand, is within your grasp; re-pent, re-think, be reborn, and believe in this good news, this gospel (Mark 1: 15). The Jesus Seminar declares this statement entirely inauthentic; they read it as apocalyptic and entirely out of keeping with their view of Jesus as a wandering preacher of spiritual wisdom.[9]  Professor Bart Ehrman, on the other hand, accepts it as an authentic summary of an apocalyptic (and finally deluded) preacher.[10] Reza Aslan, author of the new best-seller, Zealot,reads it as a political manifesto.[11] These are serious scholars who want to go behind Mark and the other early sources, in search of “the real” Jesus of history.  But it is Mark himself who (with others) founds the sacred tradition of the gospel of Jesus and challenges us to believe with heart and mind—which is to say, to make an existential commitment. 
Does the Unitarian Universalist community have a sacred tradition, or only a perpetual state of identity confusion?  James Luther Adams commented that there never has been a great religion without its scripture, its sacred texts.  To be sure, the By-laws of the Unitarian Universalist Association states that “the living tradition we share draws from many sources,” and among these sources names “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”  A sacred tradition that is not also a “living,” evolving tradition would ossify and be cast out as salt that has lost its savor; no doubt, this is what has happened for many. 
But equally, a living tradition would have to be embraced as a sacred tradition, a tradition we believe in—the root meaning “be-life” is “hold dear”—or  we would have no reason for keeping it alive.  Once I asked a group of religious educators, Did they not think we should teach our children about the “cherished traditions” of our liberal faith?  A man responded, “Well, yes.  But do they have to be cherished?”  To which I replied, “Why else would you want to teach them?” 
Mark’s Jesus abundantly displays two personal qualities: an utter freedom of action, and healing compassion for those who suffer.  These are fruits of his faith.  The gospel teaches that this kind of faith—an active faithfulness—is available to us here and now; it is a gift, a kind of grace, and its tasks are to act freely and compassionately.  A third personal quality of Mark’s Jesus is seldom commented upon: he is an organizer, one  who empowers others with his own vocation; in fact, we might call him the most successful organizer in human history!  The tradition has given him more exalted titles, like “Prophet, Priest, and King,” signifying the ministries of teaching, healing, and leading, respectively.  He calls upon all of us to make his vocation our own, in what James Luther Adams called “the prophethood of all believers” and “the priesthood of all believers”—“the one for the ministry of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing.”  These tasks of ministry are sustained and extended by working for the   dedicated community; may I venture naming it the “organizer-hood of all believers”?[12] 
I always remember the man who said he’d joined our church because “he didn’t believe in organized religion.”  I’m afraid he knew us well. When we ask, “Where does our idea of ministry—lay as well as professional ministry, institutional as well as personal—come from?” the answer is not far to seek: our calling, our vocation, our ministry is to do pretty much what we see Jesus doing in the Gospels: preaching, pastoral caring, and trying to get the place, well, organized! 
Mark’s Gospel is seminal because it plants the seeds from which a vast sacred tradition has grown.  This tradition includes Unitarian Universalists, whether they know it or not.  May I indulge in some out-sized simplifications?  Jesus by his notorious “speaking with authority” exemplifies the essence of historical Unitarianism, which Channing, like Luther and Paul before him, called “spiritual freedom.”  And his charismatic compassion exemplifies the essence of historical Universalism, which is what Quillen Shinn called “the almighty force of love.” The Seminal Gospel names these two qualities “creative freedom, the divine image in which we are made and re-made,” and “the transforming power of love, agape” (p. 204).  They are not free-floating virtues, but depend on what Jim Adams called “the power of organization and he organization of power,” the third form of ministry richly exemplified by Jesus, in Mark’s pregnant text.
Recall Mark’s baffling reference to “the mystery of the kingdom of God,” cited at the outset.  Commentators ranging from pious Protestants to the skeptical Jesus Seminar have said: Jesus can have said no such thing! Accordingly, the passage is explained away or thrown away as foreign to the whole thrust of the gospel.  Robert Frost is more clear-sighted.  In “Directive” he evokes the experience of hiking upPanther Mountain, in New Hampshire, to a well-known place—a long-abandoned farm with a cold, mountain spring.  When the thirsty hiker reaches his “destination” and “destiny,” the poem alludes to this text, Mark 4: 11-13, and concludes:
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.[13]
Mark similarly invites what I call “parabolic vision,” a way of seeing that is like the trajectory of flares shot up into the darkness and coming down to earth again, but always in a new place. The central realities of faith are mysteries, hidden in darkness; they cannot be seen clearly or defined because they cannot be observed from without, but only from within.  They can only be understood by participating in them, by symbolic actions, like drinking cold water from a broken goblet, or the Grail—like climbing a mountain, or “going up to Jerusalem.” 




[1]  Yogi Berra, The Yogi Book: “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!” (New York: Workman Publishing, 1998), pp. 9, 33, 52.


[2]  George Kimmich BeachThe Seminal Gospel: Forty Days With Mark (Campicello Press: MadisonCountyVirginia, 2013).  The book is available in paperback or e-book format from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Xlibris Corporation (, or from the author (


[3]  “It strikes me that a religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference.  Hence, although it’s a belief, it’s really a way of living, or a way of assessing life.  It’s passionately seizing hold of this interpretation.  Instruction in a religious faith, therefore, would have to take the form of a portrayal, a description, of that system of reference, while at the same time being an appeal to conscience.  And this combination would have to result in the pupil himself, of his own accord, passionately taking hold of the system of reference.  It would be as though someone were first to let me see the hopelessness of my situation and then show me the means of rescue until, of my own accord, or not at any rate led to it by my instructor, I ran to it and grasped it.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, edited by G. H. von Wright, translated by Peter Winch(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,1980), p. 64e.  Taking up Wittgenstein’s terminology, I think of the gospel as a passionately held “system of reference”; my book takes “the form of a portrayal, a description, of the system of reference.”  


[4] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), p. 222.


[5] Quoted in The Seminal Gospel, op. cit., p. 18; cited  from Ricouer’s essay, “Naming God,” inRhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry, a collection edited by Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 168.  In this essay Ricouer elucidates the liveliness of a good text: “A text is first a link in a communicative chain.  To begin, one of life’s experiences is brought to language.  It becomes discourse.  Then this discourse is differentiated into speech and writing. . . .   A text, in this regard, is like a musical score that requires execution.” (p. 165)


[6] The Seminal Gospel, op. cit., p. 11.


[7] George Kimmich BeachQuestions for the Religious Journey (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002), p. 166.


[8] Wittgenstein, op. cit., pp. 32c-33e.


[9] See The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar (New York: Macmillan, 1993) , pp. 4, 40-41.


[10] Bart D. Ehrman,  Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why
We Don’t Know About Them) 
(New York: Harper One, 2009), pp. 156ff.


[11] “The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple. . . .  If the Kingdom of God is not an ethereal fantasy, how else could it be established upon a land occupied by a massive imperial presence except through the use of force?”  Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013), p. 120.


[12] James Luther Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers , edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), p. 101.  Regarding Adams’s comments on “the organization of power,” see p. 52.


[13] “Directive,” a frequently anthologized poem, is found in Complete Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1958), pp. 520-521.