Category Archives: ministry

Fill in the Blank


The summer of 2014 and into early 2015 have brought national and international deaths by violence. Every day some part of the world is wracked by violence over which most of us have little control. In that context I offer this reflection:

Anxious, agitated,

Uncertain, unclear, unsure–

The latest news about (fill in the blank) breaks my heart. I am a woman of privilege who was born into a middle class white family in a white neighborhood. Life has not been completely rosy. Childhood abuse, the deaths of loved ones, divorce, and depression were usually followed by therapy or medication–another sign of privilege for sure, since I had to belong a system that made remedies available, affordable, and acceptable to my cultural group. For less serious anxieties I learned meditation.  Benefits arose from paying attention to my breath and to the present moment. I could regain equilibrium and go on about my business.

But watch the news;  see how fast social media churn up nastiness and ignorance;  witness insults and put-downs pawned off as humor. No amount of meditation makes it go away. War, jihad, racism, bullying, systems of oppression all seem impossible to address. What can I do anyway?

Then I remember the children and adults who have no choice but to do something for survival. They have no choice but to live inside a system that’s designed to keep them silent and out of sight.

  • Teachers and students kidnapped or killed because they value education.
  • Families in underground bunkers because of bombs that level neighborhoods.
  • Domestic partners and children abused by those who claim to love them.
  • Minorities threatened and killed because of skin color, religion, or national origin.
  • Refugees who cross borders to escape war or financial ruin.
  • (Fill in the blank.)

History repeats itself and all we can do is wring our hands? NO! That’s not good enough!

If I am remotely worthy of the privilege gained by my white skin and U.S. citizenship, I can stand up; speak out; swap safety for courage. It’s time to step forward in solidarity with those who have no choice.

A Move in Progress


Boxes and lists surround me couple of weeks before I move

from my Houston apartment back to my house in Austin.


Obviously the days of this month are diminishing, but new items on the lists continue to appear. Not everything will be accomplished in the end; something will be left undone or left behind in one form or another.

Mainly I want to clear my schedule as much as possible for goodbyes. First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston ( is full of wonderful people. They are smart, funny, kind, friendly, wise, creative and many other positive attributes.

Yesterday I wrote about 2/3 of my final sermon here, to deliver on July 27. So soon!

Then there will be a farewell party hosted by the members and staff. I anticipate tears and laughter as we share what’s on our hearts. In just under 2 years we have changed each other. We have made indelible memories that have filled me with gratitude.

The weekly commute became too much to continue for another year. Husband, friends, and family await my permanent return. To rest, to plan our trip to Barcelona and the Canal du Midi in southern France, and to contemplate the next chapter in my life–those are my 3 primary goals. Perhaps more blogging, too!


Second (spiritual) Childhood


I seem to have entered my second childhood, spiritually speaking. Earliest lesson that I remember from Sunday School: God is Love.

Decades have gone by; theological studies; ponderings. For many years I have labeled myself a Panentheist: in short, God infuses the cosmos and also transcends it (Wikipedia,  Maybe that was my grownup way to understand God as Love that flows through us yet is greater than all, the Love that abides.

I have spent time in prayer. Always before, it was meditation or silent reflection. It is more likely now to be addressed to God, a surprise even to me!

How shall we find God? Tony deMello says it by looking at creation in a special way. If you look at the sky you might see clouds and the angle of light and outlines of trees and vast stretches of blue, but it becomes beautiful with that special way of looking. You will seek God in vain until you know God is not an object but a special way of looking.

As I go about the rest of this  Thanksgiving Day I will remind myself to see God and to see Love. My husband and I will go to a church potluck where there will be all kinds of people with whom I have a range of relationships. I will tune in to Love and look for God in each person.

For each of you, I am grateful. May our hearts swell a little more through the art and practice of Love.

Sacred Space (sermon)


Sacred Space

Rev. Kathleen Ellis

September 29, 2013


The Episcopal Church taught me everything I knew about God. I had absorbed the idea that God is Love, Jesus was my friend, and of course, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Details of theology like the virgin birth, resurrection, the Trinity, or salvation only through Jesus, never made logical sense to a literal-minded 10-year old. I loved the music and my friends and stayed with the church through high school.


I found my way gradually to marriage, motherhood, and Unitarian Universalism.

When the boys were grown I followed my heart into seminary—Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. That’s where God was ripped away suddenly and without warning.


Let me explain. I had long ago left behind my childhood notions of God. It was a challenge to study religion in a Christian seminary where I was pushed toward a new understanding of theology. I wanted to stand on the edge of religious knowledge where it meets a great mystery beyond human understanding. What was the underlying message? What values still inform my life? We seminary students tried out all sorts of theories in class and in the weekly Chapel services.


Perkins Chapel is a lovely, old-fashioned chapel with a tall steeple and white columns at the top of a hill. Inside, there is a plain wooden cross on the sanctuary wall—it is part of Southern Methodist University, after all. One night in the middle of Domestic Violence Awareness Week on campus some students had prepared a special worship service to raise awareness. For this particular service, a startling image appeared on that wall. A photograph was projected and superimposed over the foot of that cross. It was the image of a naked woman–curled up on the floor, face down, utterly defeated. It was a jarring image of domestic violence.


I was stunned. Shocked. Furious! How could God let this happen?! Where was God for that woman when she needed help? I jumped to an obvious conclusion: There really IS no God!!


I turned and fled. . . . I ran sobbing back to my dorm room with my best friend in pursuit. I had a head start on her, though, and slammed my door with a bang. I wouldn’t let her in. She knocked, she pleaded, she slipped notes under my door. But I couldn’t face her or anyone else. I had to face my own fury and my ultimate isolation. God was dead to me.

I know I’m not alone in my divine isolation because I’ve heard stories from others. Writers, poets, and singers for over a century have declared the Death of God but neither God nor Goddess will ever die. Hindus incorporate thousands of deities; Buddhists have developed a religion with none. Atheists reject them all and agnostics continue to probe, explore, question, and doubt.


A young man approached me after a service. He was anxious and agitated as he waited to talk to me and finally blurted out, “I don’t love God anymore.” He went on to explain that if God knows everything that’s going to happen, why does he let bad things happen? He still believes in Jesus— and has no quarrel with the man. But he doesn’t love God and he doesn’t know what to do. It was an echo of my same feelings at Perkins Chapel.


The Rev. Joanna Crawford said that when she was a student minister, a woman came to her to talk about God. She was clearly upset. She had been raised “a believer,” but had learned more church history and how books were chosen to be included or left out of the Bible, and had learned that some of her Sunday School lessons from long ago were not literally true. She searched for a new church home and found Unitarian Universalism. She was reasonably happy there. But now she missed her prayer life, even if it no longer seemed real.


In the course of the conversation Joanna gently asked her, “Are you missing God?” The woman’s eyes welled up and she said yes.


She had what has been called a God-shaped hole in her heart. So did the young man who spoke with me. So did I that night at Perkins Chapel. It’s a hole that opens up when doubt overcomes belief.


This idea has resonated for centuries. In the 18th century, philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote,

There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.”


Today we can read it in the lyrics of a song by Tiffany Lee[i]:

“. . . Does the world seem gray with empty longing

Wearing every shade of cynical

And do you ever feel that

There is something missing?

There’s a god-shaped hole in all of us

And the restless soul is searching . . .”


We’re a restless people, working at work or home, endlessly engaged with electronic devices, computers, and games, serving as volunteers, driving our children to enrich their lives through art, music, and sports, cooking, cleaning, eating out. When anyone asks how we are, the typical answer is “busy.” Who has room for anything more?


Dr. Brené Brown is the Houston researcher we ministers have been studying for weeks. She describes the defensive shield of “numbing” that protects us from the crazy-busy lives many of us lead. When we don’t take the time for our souls to catch up with our minds, our feelings go numb. We might not do this compulsively or chronically, which is addiction, but we have a strong tendency to minimize our feelings, both positive and negative. Why in the world would we minimize positive feelings? One answer is that something wonderful is too good to be true. Disaster must be lurking around the corner. So instead of feeling joy, we try not to tempt fate and bring on that disaster.


It’s easier to understand why we might want to numb negative feelings. As Brown points out, “Americans today are more debt-ridden, obese, medicated, and addicted than we ever have been.” She goes on to say that in 2011 “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that automobile accidents are now the second leading cause of accidental death in the United States. The leading cause? Drug overdoses. In fact, more people die from prescription drug overdoses than from heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine drug use combined.”[ii]


Numbness. Isolation. A joy-shaped hole. How do we cope? We don’t have to use drugs. We can sedate feelings with a brownie, maybe 2. We can anesthetize feelings with wine. But the truth is that significant feelings don’t go away for long; they just get bigger. Feelings tug on you to pay attention to them. There is nothing inherently wrong with brownies OR wine. There IS someone wrong with using them to disguise, diffuse, and detach from the emptiness of your spirit.


Emptiness was sudden that night in the Chapel. The very idea of God was ripped from my soul like ripping away my skin. It felt raw and painfully tender for a long time. It was the wrenching loss of relationship like the death of a human love. My antidote to all of the losses and numbness was a sense of gratitude and attention to spiritual needs. Gradually I refilled my God-shaped hole with the practical idea that we are her hands and heart because clearly, we are not in control of creation or tragedy. Instead, we are the ones who respond with compassion to the terrible things that happen in our lives and those around us. It is not God’s responsibility but ours.


With gratitude and spirituality we can begin to believe in something bigger than ourselves—as big as our galaxy. Start by gazing into a starry night. Do we remember stars, we city dwellers who rarely see a night without light pollution? I remember stars.


On a memorable trip to Australia my first husband and our two sons drove an RV up a mountain to a campground. It was a clear, cold night—so cold that ice formed inside the windows, so clear and cold that stars filled the night sky all the way to the horizon in every direction. They made unfamiliar patterns, because we were in the Southern hemisphere. We were inside a bowl of stars! It was a sacred time to see so many of them at one time. Two messages came to us in that moment: One, we are tiny dots in the universe … and two, we belong to the universe just as surely as every other person or rock or tree.


And when we make that connection we have found Sacred Space.


Much more recently, and on my sabbatical two years ago, I traveled to India with a group of Unitarian Universalists. We were on a spiritual pilgrimage led by the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, a UU minister and a native of south India. We visited ancient and modern temples, mosques, and churches, taking in the diversity of religious practice along with the complexity of India. A pilgrimage is a way to touch the sacred in our lives.


The Shiva Temple in Chidambaram, India, had enormous impact.

A nightly ritual (to put the statue of Shiva “to bed”)

Roof open to the stars

Bells of all sizes ringing wildly in the stone temple (Inner thought–this is not noise! these are sound waves!

Hundreds of oil lamps burning

Hundreds of people pressed together, hands raised in homage

Priestly ritual, priestly blessing; a garland from Shiva presented to me by a priest, with a blessing (as though I had been ordained as a Hindu).


Without having to travel thousands of miles on a pilgrimage, you have probably read about them. Journeys to Mecca, to the Wailing Wall, Chimayo. In northern Spain, pilgrims since the Middle Ages have walked El Camino de Santiago Compostela. It became the subject of a film entitled “The Way.” Martin Sheen directed and starred in the story of a father whose estranged son had died on El Camino. He didn’t really understand why, but when he traveled to Spain to claim his son’s belongings—a backpack and all the necessary gear, the older man followed in his son’s footsteps and was himself transformed.


Sheen said that the story is about the search of every person on earth, whether we believe in God or not, for a singular “moment of clarity” when we realize we are loved. The Way—the Camino—attracts 100,000 pilgrims every year. Many of them are truly on an inner journey to find healing: a “moment of clarity” when they realize they are loved.


Sacred Space is available every day and everywhere because it relies on you. You just have to pay attention. When you are open to life or you are opened by life, you have entered sacred space. You don’t have to have a particular ritual or an intermediary. Rituals simply provide an experience that reminds you to open yourself to the sacred.


Sacred is the feeling that you belong and that you are connected to something beyond yourself. You might connect with a person, but it doesn’t have to be a person. Children’s author Byrd Baylor tells about following deer tracks when she looked up and saw “a young coyote trotting through the brush.” They stopped and looked at each other, unafraid, just a couple of “creatures following another rocky trail.” They looked at each other for a long time before they went on their way. Because of that encounter, Byrd Baylor says she “never will feel quite the same again.”[iii]


A farmer’s market is another example of sacred connection if you think about it. All those fruits and vegetables were planted and harvested by fellow human beings; they were probably grown in soil enriched by compost and worms, pollinated by bees or other creatures. The market brings together sellers and shoppers of all ages. We are all connected.


Someone sent me a photograph of a baby last week. This was no ordinary baby to me, because he was the son of a member of a church I once served. Tears sprang to my eyes because I don’t know that baby. I don’t even know his mother, who had joined the church after I left, but I did know the people who surrounded her with love. In the picture, mom held him in a fabric sling. His back was snuggled against her chest and his face looked straight out into the world. His eyes looked bright and curious. What kind of world will he inherit? How will he continue to feel that secure connection while he ventures forth into a universe not of his own making?


That one photograph reminded me how we of all ages share basic needs: Our bodies require nourishment or we will die. Our spirits require sustenance of a different kind or we will limit the full meaning of our lives. Whatever you believe to be sacred, be at one with it. Fill the God-shaped hole, the joy-shaped hole, the star-shaped hole, the fill-in-the-blank shaped hole.


You are a child of the universe for a lifetime.

You have enough. You do enough. You are enough.

Sacred wisdom is waiting for you.

Sacred wisdom is waiting inside you,

With a unique voice you join the chorus of humanity

Where all beings interconnect into a larger whole.




Benediction (Rumi)

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

[i] Tiffany Lee Arbuckle, Wayne Kirkpatrick (aka Plumb), “God-Shaped Hole,” on Beautiful History

[ii] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly (New York: Gotham Books, 2012).

[iii] Byrd Baylor, I’m in Charge of Celebrations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1986).

Time Management–Ugh!


I signed a contract for another year beginning August 1, but this year at 3/4 time (my choice). However, I’m trying to figure out how to work 3/4 time when I’ve already developed full-time habits.

There is always ministry to be done. In fact, it didn’t always get done to my satisfaction even at full-time. So, what to do?

Easy to set a schedule; hard to stick to it. Fewer hours per day? One less day per week? One less week per month? Pros and cons to each of them. Conjure up another 1/4 time job, even if it’s voluntary?

Conscious of this, I think I’ll start with an online timer to see how much time is really spent. It reminds me of budgeting for a low income–keeping track of every penny helped me figure out where the money was going and also made me more conscious of every dollar I spent.

If you have good tips, let me know. Meanwhile, there’s a movie to see this afternoon!

Prayer to Raise the Wage


Some version of this I spoke at the March to Raise the Wage on July 24 in downtown Houston.

Let us pray:

God of many Names, let your presence be known.

Mystery of Life, fill our hearts this afternoon.

Our minds are full of the stories presented here today. They represent but three of the millions of low wage workers who must choose between paying the rent and feeding their families.

How closely linked we are—rich, poor, and in the middle. Poverty, wealth, power and powerlessness are interconnected and each of us is a part of that web of life.

We give thanks for all who advocate for a living wage, that they may be heard by employers, by communities, and by policy makers.

We call for fair pay so that full-time workers can live above the poverty line. A job should pull people out of poverty, not keep them in it. They’ll have money to spend on goods and services; money to save for emergencies; money to invest in education for the kids and for their own retirement.

We call for change in policies and managers who abuse their workers, that they will rise to a higher standard of decency and respect.

We call upon ourselves as consumers to hold companies accountable for the ways they treat their workers, and to work toward legal remedies.

We call upon you, God of our Hearts, Spirit of Life, to keep us united.

We pray all this in the name of all that is holy and whole.

Go in peace, Salaam, Shalom, İSí se puede!





Greater Heights Chamber of Commerce, July 26, 2013


There are 200 of us here today—business owners, Congressman Ted Poe, and others. . . . Two hundred uniquely personal faiths . . .

Two hundred different understandings of God. . . .

In this way we are not unlike the world—

A world in which we invest our love and hope as well as money

And we pray together, each in our own way. Let us pray.

God of Many Names, and Mystery of the Highest Order,

We ask that you make your presence known to us through our own religious or spiritual-but-not-religious lens.

God, strengthen our working families, that their jobs will pull them above the poverty line, that they will be able to pay for health care and rent and put food on the table for themselves and their children. Their ability to spend money makes the economy strong and business thrives.

God grant wisdom to teachers who educate our kids for a strong workforce. May there be jobs for them when they graduate from high school; may there be additional training and education available for those who need it.

Now we give thanks, oh God, for this food before us, for the servers, bussers, and cooks, for the chefs and the dishwashers; for the farmers and harvesters and truckers who made it all possible.

Bless this food to our use and us to Thy service.

We offer this prayer in the name of the Highest.


Community Dialogue


Community Dialogue

“The Legacy of Trayvon Martin: so that he may rest in peace” dialogue at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District.

In the Public Eye


Goodness, gracious, what a week this has been! Generally speaking, clergy are sometimes asked to deliver a public prayer or something along that line. This week I had three different opportunities that came around serendipitously during the same week. Okay, part of it is that I’m the designated summer minister while the other three in our team are on vacation or study leave.

Cherry Steinwender, founding director of the Center for the Healing of Racism, asked me if our church would co-host a Community Dialogue on “The Legacy of Trayvon Martin: so that he may rest in peace.” That has been a plea by Trayvon’s parents, who have gone a long way toward advancing a national conversation about race in the United States. Their son was one more young person caught up in the fear and general unconsciousness about race. I feel sad about our vast separation along skin color lines, but grateful that we could encourage an honest conversation.

Participants packed the place. More and more chairs were brought in until there were anywhere from 75-90 people in close quarters. It was the most diverse group of people I have seen in one place with a common, interactive purpose.

We wanted to express feelings–confusion, anger, tears, and even some laughter. Ground rules were established from the start. I provided opening and closing words; others gave a short history of racism in the country and a little about what people were saying on opposite sides of Highway 288, one of Houston’s color lines.  Cherry facilitated as individuals shared their feelings. We tried (not always successfully) to keep speakers to 2 minutes each.

The collective dialogue was honest, respectful, and heart-felt. I would say that every one of us heard something to make us uncomfortable, but we stayed with it for two hours. Afterward, people made personal connections and invited one another to coffee, to lunch, or to another event. Our next event at the church is a video and discussion about Michelle Alexander’s scholarly work on the New Jim Crow (the prison system as modern segregation).

– – – – – – –

During the month of July, my sermon series has been on immigration, with the Big Idea = Welcome the Stranger. On the 21st I addressed the issue of minimum wage ($7.25 / hour OR the “tipped” wage of $2.13 / hour). The $2.13 hasn’t gone up for 22 years! The $7.25 was established 4 years ago. Anyway, I had read Saru Jayarama’s book Behind the Kitchen Door and decided it was sermon-worthy. Word got around to a former president of the church Board who has since moved to the west coast. Her daughter, who grew up in our church, is now an Ph.D. student and an intern with Restaurant Opportunities Center. ROC is establishing a presence in Houston and has joined with other organizations in campaigning to Raise the Wage.

So I met with ROC organizers and was invited to deliver the closing remarks at their March to Raise the Wage on Wednesday. We started at a downtown building where the cleaning staff gets low wages, marched past some of the others with our signs and chants and drums, and ended the rally with a few more testimonies from low wage workers and my remarks. (I’ll post them separately for anyone interested.)

– – – – – – –

Today I delivered and invocation / grace before the Greater Heights Chamber of Commerce. Board members Jacob  I was seated at a table for the Houston City Council, and met Council members Brown and Bradford, their Chiefs of Staff, a Constable, two photographers, and a few from the Power Women Group–they had 3 tables! There were women throughout the gathering of 200 folks, but the Power Women’s table sign caught my eye. My prayer was as inclusive as possible, knowing that it was a diverse group in attendance. I’ll post that later, too. Congressman Ted Poe was the keynote speaker.

– – – – – – –

Now it’s back to sermonating / sermonizing / wrestling with words for Sunday. It’s the last in the immigration series this time around, with stories of people I know who have crossed international borders to make a new life. There are some truly remarkable stories. Natalie, Lin, Rob, Fibi, Maru, Farah, and so many more, I salute you!