Category Archives: Reflections

Love: Don’t let me go!

Love: Don’t let me go!

My son is in prison. Held in an 8×8 cell. A container perpetuating trauma and dehumanization. A container interrupting his alcohol us, his drug use, his access to a needle, a spoon, and the possibility of an overdose. A container. I know where he is. I know he is not using. I know he is alive. A container, nonetheless. For that I am grateful and for that I am sad.  

My son is in prison. Held in an 8×8 cell. Life interrupted. Family interrupted. Parenting interrupted. Plumber at work interrupted. Sure, there was a crime. There is also an illness, a health issue for sure. Society says, punishment. I say, compassionate care. Society says, he must pay. I say, restorative justice. He says, “This may be the thing that saves my life Mom.”  For that I am confused and for that I am angry. 

My son is in prison. Held in an 8×8 cell. Prison gates, bullet proof vests, stun guns, loaded guns, locked doors, buzzers, steel, steel and more steel, and plexiglass barriers greeting each visit.  Safety, they say! Cold, hard defenses necessary to subdue the criminal, they say! Stoic, curt guards, holding power, heroes protecting society, they say! The crime: adverse childhood experiences. The crime: substance use disorder. The crime: a hardened society incarcerating the ‘junkie’. The crime: a privileged society casting out the wounded. The crime: a justice system exploding for profit. The crime: a people locking their doors and their hearts and their soul. Protecting themselves, they say! For that I am angry and for that I rise up. 

My son is in prison. Held in an 8×8 cell. The visit: one hour. A container for the heartbreaking beauty of love. We speak with our eyes. I imagine the hug. We speak of regrets. We speak of the love that will not let us go. We remember the years shared. The years to come. We tell the stories. We laugh. We cry. I imagine the hug. His head tucked neatly on my shoulder. My arms wrapped around his pain, his tears, his sorrow, his despair. His reflection on bad choices. His life on overwhelm. We speak of the fear. He worries of release. He’s apprehensive of the pressures of life. We speak of the hardship. Parenting from behind bars. We speak of dreams and getting a second chance. We love with our eyes. I imagine the hug. His head on my shoulder. My arms around his tears. For that I am hopeful and for that I am heartbroken. 

Rev. Carie Johnsen is minister at Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Augusta, ME. Speaking as a mother and serving as co-chair of the Public Policy Committee for the Maine Council of Churches, Rev. Carie works to influence drug policy and criminal justice reform in Maine

“The words ‘Messy’ and ‘Church’ do not usually go together!

When I came across this statement at the beginning of an advert for Messy Church Family Fun Days at a small parish in rural Wales, I was immediately transported back in time to my early days as a Unitarian Universalist.

When I first heard the Rev. Jim Robinson say, “life is messy”, I breathed a sigh of relief. This humble statement offered assuring affirmation that things in life were just as they should be. Like so many others, I was chasing that ever-illusive state of normalcy. After all, the predominate message I had become accustomed to left me believing only my life was complicated. My worldview changed as I adopted this new mantra for life as it is.

With this simple, yet profound wisdom, I answered the call to ministry, whereupon, I quickly learned, not only is life messy, but the work and business of the church is also messy.

All too often people arrive in the pews, halls, and offices of church expecting to find the complicated nature of being human in relationship magically dissolved. We naively assume church must have this aspect of living figured out, so when disputes surface between the ‘righteous’, we observe the unfolding havoc with dismay.

At such times, it is common to hear “I come to church to be uplifted, find peace, and experience God’s grace, I didn’t sign up for this.” Despite thousands of years of dispute and division and denominational splitting, we are utterly disappointed when conflict, tension, triangulation, and splitting arise in the ‘holiest’ of places.

Still, all hope is not lost. Church life is messy and human grace can be experienced in the midst of such turmoil. With healthy church leadership and the willingness of the people to be still and listen, to sit with discomfort and to engage with humility, and lean in curiously, the opportunity for spiritual growth is plentiful.

Indeed, all hope is not lost. God’s grace and human transformation can be found in the work of unpacking conflict, witnessing stories, and discerning resolution. This is the work of church. This is ministry. This is the messy business of walking alongside humanity.

Growing Up With God

When I was a child, I prayed like a child.

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

And I played in the church halls with the laughing Jesus looking over my shoulder. Enthusiastically, I skipped down the street every Summer to Bible Camp, where I listened closely to the parables of Jesus.

When I was a teen, I was confirmed like a Lutheran. I accepted the Trinity at face value. I recited the Apostle’s Creed. I memorized the Ten Commandments. Despite having little appreciation for or understanding of these commitments or confessions of faith, I had passed the test. By all accounts, I was a good Lutheran. I could now take communion with the adults. My grandmothers were proud. I appreciated the party!

When I was a young adult, I abandoned the ways of my childhood. If someone asked, I said I was a Christian. While I wouldn’t say I abandoned God or Jesus during those years, it was more that I just simply didn’t have a relationship with either one of them. They were omnipresent— like the childhood picture – but I didn’t experience them has having a presence in my days. Having been told God was the master of my fate, I’d occasionally check in, for a consult of sorts, through prayer, to ask for preferential treatment on one matter or another.

Then, at the age of thirty, with my life in more than a bit of a crisis, I walked into my first twelve-step meeting. Broken open by death and a marriage on the rocks, I was hungry for the promise of serenity prayer.

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.

In the company of others affected by the disease of addiction, I turned to something greater than myself: I turned to God.

By the time I arrived in the pews of my first Unitarian Universalist church, I was in relationship with God. Like so many others, I had found a religious community that invited me to discern for myself what was right and true. Here, I learned to walk with the questions, trust in a mystery unfolding, and wait for answers to be revealed.

In Unitarian Universalism, I found a place to explore the faith of my childhood within the context of modern science and reason, new and ongoing revelations, world religions, religious studies, spirituality, the historical Jesus, and so very much more. Eventually, like my 19th-century forbearers, I rejected the trinity for a theology of Unity. I came to understand I was a theist, someone who experienced God as Love manifest in humanity and all of creation. I came to embrace Jesus as a person who walked with God in a pantheistic way wherein God is experienced in everything.

In the third principle of Unitarian Universalism, we covenant to affirm and promote the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. And in so many ways we do this really well. We are eager to embrace the person practicing Buddhism, the new Muslim family in town, and the rituals of the earth-centered traditions. Unfortunately, the embrace of practicing Christians or the theist is filled with tension.

We get uncomfortable. Truth is some of us have been hurt, rejected, and oppressed by exclusive interpretations and expressions of Christianity. It’s personal, very personal.

Others lack the necessary information to be in conversation with Christianity’s 2000 history. We don’t understand the importance of Christianity to the faithful.

Religions, all of them, can be used for good or ill. We don’t reject Islam because of the extremists. We lean in curiously to better understand. Yet, somehow, we Unitarian Universalists can shut down at the first mention of God or Jesus.

In the book A Language of Reverence by former UUA President, the Rev. William Sinkford captures the tension around religious language in UU churches. A tension anyone who embraces God or celebrates Jesus beyond his humanity has encountered more than once. Our discomfort with Christianity and religious language makes so many of us squirm or shut down or reject the message because of the packaging. One of my mentors from Massachusetts, the Rev. Pancetta Peterson often said, “This church doesn’t have a problem with black people, they have a problem with Christians.” Ask any Unitarian Universalist Christian at UUCC, if they aren’t hiding out in the closet, and they are likely to tell you the same.

I am grateful to Scotty McLennan’s new book Christ for Unitarian Universalists. His book is understood by many as a timely clarion call for UUs—those who identify as Christian as well as those who do not—to engage in dialogue with the more than seventy percent of Americans who do so identify. McLennan offers ideas about how to enhance the practice and experience of Christianity that traditional Christians today might find compelling.

If you identify as a UU Christina, this book will be like a settling into a cozy couch with an old friend.

If you are curious about how to navigate the faith of your childhood or want to know what is on the mind of UU Christians, this book study will be a road map.
If you are among those who squirm and shut down, this book study will be an open door to a rich classroom for listening and learning why Christianity matters so deeply to so many.

Over my 17 years as a Unitarian Universalist, my relationship with God has evolved. My sustaining center has shifted many times and I remain steadfast in my quest for a life grounded in the Holy and centered on something beyond myself.

Over my 17 years as a Unitarian Universalist, my relationship with God has evolved. My sustaining center has shifted many times and I remain steadfast in my quest for a life grounded in the Holy and centered on something beyond myself.

Today, I celebrate the opportunity to walk humbly with God. Written four years ago now my credo remains an accurate expression of my faith.

I am centered in a spiritual life

… influenced by my life as a spiritual wanderer on a skeptic’s journey; a Christian inspired to live and be guided by the words and deeds of a great prophet, teacher, activist, and Rabbi; a humanist with a mystic’s heart who believes we are the hands and hearts and eyes and ears of God; a pantheist humbled by an over abundance of miracles…

Confused? So am I!! Truth be told, I am one among many who are at peace living beyond the categories, walking with the questions, living into the answers, and engaging Mystery.

Our reading this morning—Jesus as storeowner selling dreams—reminds me religion is not a spectator sport and our beliefs are not commodities to be bought and sold. We can turn around and walk away from the best of what any tradition has to offer or wander through the store and take up the messages that affirm life, embolden Love, and sustain our days.

Centered on Goodness, choosing Life and Love, spiritual living is a practice, a way of life, a vision to center and guide, a call to right living, to be planted, nurtured and sustained through the ashes and embers of life forever unfolding. Our belief systems mature over time. Our understanding of that which sustains all of creation evolves with each breath.

For fifty-four years I have walked with God and Jesus—from childlike crush to indoctrination to rejection to redefinition to choosing both to center and guide my living.

Today it is this definition from Forrest Church that best defines my fifth decade understanding of all that is, was, and will be.

“The power which I cannot explain or know or name, I call God. God is not God’s name. God is the name for the mystery that looms within and beyond the limits of my being. Life force, Spirit of Life, Bound of Being. These to are names for the unnamable which I am now content to call my God.”

Interfaith Inspiration Abounds at Parliament


We can’t make religion a scapegoat for the secular sins of the 21st century.
~ Dr. Karen Armstrong, British Author and Commentator

It is time churches put as much time, energy and resources into
reconstructing the indigenous culture as they have/do trying to destroy it.
~ Steven Newcomb, Indigenous Law Institute, Shawnee and Lanape

If you have an ego on your heart, you can’t love.
If you don’t have compassion in your heart, you’ve done nothing.
~ Gurbax Singh Gulshan, Sikh

It doesn’t matter who hurts you, surround them in love.
~ Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Rose Pare, New Zealand, Traditional Maori Elder

Find the least respectable black person you know, and become their friend.
Then ask them what you should do about racism in America.
~ Rev. Michael McBride, Pastor, The Way Christian Center

We need more than allies. We need accomplices.
~ Rev. Jim Wallis, Founder and Editor Sojourners magazine

Where are your wounds? If you have none,
I must ask was there nothing worth fighting for?
~ Allan Boesak, South African Dutch Reformed Church

If you want to turn the world around, you need to turn it upside down. We all got to unify.
~ Ta’Kaiy Blaney, 13 yr old actress and environmental activist

Mass incarceration in US isn’t an indictment on one group but an indictment on all.
~ Dr. Rami Nashashibi, Executive Director, Inner-City Muslim Action Network

Sexism is the first original sin and we’ve had enough of it.
~ Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Co-founder Interfaith Peace Builders

Let this be the year the Parliament/Women of Faith put corporate dominance on notice.
~ Dr. Vandana Shiva, Delhi, India, Hindu author

What you see above are a few of my favorite quotes tweeted from the Parliament of World’s Religions: the Global Interfaith Movement. For five days this past month, I walked among 10,000 people of faith from 70 countries representing 50 religions. I traveled with two colleagues from New England. I am told 500 Unitarian Universalists attended this gathering.

Every day, as I entered the convention center, I walked by the sacred fire being tended by the local Ute Nation, the sand mandala being created before our very eyes by Tibetan Buddhist Monks, and the construction of the Derasar (temple) of the Jains; ate Langar (lunch) with the Sikhs; prayed with the indigenous Grandmothers, Pagan Priestesses, Buddhist Monks, Swamis, Rabbis, Pastors, Imams, Chiefs; and listened to global religious leaders inspire the faithful. With a spotlight on women, emerging leaders, economic inequality, climate change and indigenous people, it was hard to pause from a multitude of provocative options to let the body, mind and spirit rest.

Some called it a religious disney land, and it could have been, but that was not my experience. With a personal focus on women’s workshop, walking with the ancestors and indigenous people, I found  spiritual direction, intellectual stimulation, healing and inspiration to guide my justice ministries. Time well spent with colleagues offered time for deeper personal reflection and connections that sustain, as well as conversations to inspire and challenge. I arrived home heartbroken, grieving, and overwhelmed. I arrived home inspired, joyful, and hopeful. I arrived home exhausted!

Parliament was one of those game changers, a watershed moment. I am not the same person, the same minister who walked onto the Great Salt Lake Desert on October 14th. No doubt the magic, mystery and wonder of transformation will reveal itself in the days and months ahead. No doubt my ministry will be guided by those five days I spent quenching my thirst with spiritual sustenance to sustain a ministry that helps and heals and holds the ache and inspires the people to live generously, compassionately and lovingly. May it be so.

The Way of the Naturalist


Last fall I had the opportunity to walk in the woods with a group of Maine naturalists. You know the type, the ones who venture off from the parking lots and side roads with magnifiers and binoculars around their neck. Unlike the thousands of hikers who arrive in Maine every year, you will not find this group scaling a mountain in record time. They are the ones who saunter through the forest marveling at the miracles and wonders of creation’s beauty and mystery. They are the ones who pause to ponder new growth protruding through the dense spring debris. They are the ones who encounter a mushroom pushing up from the forest floor and stop to consult the fungal expert to find out if it is edible. They are the ones who claim the day to be promising when the experienced bird watcher identifies every distinct song and points upwards into the treetops to marvel at the colors and sounds of our feathered friends. They are the ones who notice where the beaver has been busy gnawing at a tree in the thicket. They are the ones who experience the sacred and ponder the existence of God in the forest, the floral, the fauna and in the creatures that abound.

IMG_2509A day with a naturalist is a day in which one moves beyond the sacred texts and obedience to creeds, doctrine and dogma to discover the sacred story of a universe brilliantly unfolding in the DNA of each specimen and the laws of nature. The wonder and awe with which this group approaches the mysteries of creation are both inspiring and awakening. Their devotion to creation’s endless and diverse presence is evident in their penetrating gaze and endless wonder.

While the group I journeyed with that day, may not call themselves Religious Naturalist, it was clear to me their attention, curiosity and praise of the transcendent was no less passionate or reverential than the Christian or Jew or Muslim or Buddhist who approaches the sacred scriptures, stories, theologies and religious practices of their tradition.

As a minister in Maine, people often tell me they don’t go to church because that is not where they find God. They expound on about how they find God in the woods, on the mountaintop, lakeside while trolling the shores, in their gardens and on their farms. I listen with affirmation and confirmation as I am reminded nature’s cathedral is as sanctified as any bricks and mortar we humans have built in praise of that which matters most.

For each of you who find God in the sun and the rain, in the snow and the cold, in the beehive and the anthill, I offer these guiding words:

As the Earth opens to a full bloom here in the northern hemisphere, may we be flooded with intoxicating experiences of transcendent beauty.

As the Earth reveals to us a hidden treasure trove of miracles, may we be humbled by the mystery of all that we do not know.

IMG_2005As the Earth follows the laws of nature, may we be inspired to follow the ways of the mind, leading us onward to preserve all that is right and good.

As the Earth turns, again and again and again, offering us rest and rejuvenation, may we awaken ready to bless and be blessed.


This post was published in the May 23, 2015 Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal.  Titled: Window on Faith: the naturalists are right, God is everywhere.