Mary Beth Writes

The park ranger described the paths one could choose to hike across the island. I picked the that one he said was the easiest.  When he was done talking, I walked to get a drink at a building that was a distance away, behind some trees. When I came back out, I couldn’t quite see what was a path and what was the field, so I walked back to where some people seemed to be hanging out. However, they were photographers and they weren’t going anywhere.

And that is how I got myself separated from all other humans who were going to be hiking across Bonaventure Island that day.

I eventually found a path, hoped it was the easy one, and set off.

We had driven away from Wisconsin a week earlier. The plan was to travel to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, but Hurricane Dorian was churning up the Atlantic seaboard and we figured a side trip would allow time for it to clear the maritime provinces.

This is where you who know our story are shaking your heads.

Anyway, we were on the Gaspe’ Peninsula.  On a map it doesn’t look like that big of a deal, but maps are poor at portraying just how long it will take to drive around what looks like a little dog’s paw sitting atop New Brunswick. And just because its true and I found out later – know why they call it Gaspe’? It’s what the French though the Mi’kmaq people were saying, cuz in Mi’kmaq Gaspe’ means the end - The Last Gasp…

We had already driven two days on the INCREDIBLY BEAUTIFUL and VERY NARROW 2-lane highway up the coast of the St Lawrence estuary which looks and acts like the Atlantic Ocean. So the sea was a couple feet to our left; the Chic-Choc mountains swept down next to us on our right. Sometimes you can speed along at 60 mph but mostly the road twists and turns and there are lumbering RV’s and speeding locals and you go up and down and back and forth, gasping at the beauty. Also groaning each time you get out of your car because your knees and back are turning to cement

We stayed a couple days in the small city of Perce, which features Perce’ Rock; a massive colossus that looks as if a limestone ocean liner fell over near shore. It’s so big and unusual that you can read about it in Jacques Cartier’s diary of 1534.  It has giant holes big enough to drive a boat through, which is why Cartier named it Perce’ - Pierced rock.

I took the tourist ferry boat around that rock and then out to and around Bonaventure island which is a Canadian bird sanctuary. The website said one could hike to the largest Northern gannet colony on earth. So, cool, I was interested in that.

Len (descended from generations of Polish coal miners) – easily gets seasick so he stayed in town and found his own adventures, including a French bakery with the most deliciously incredible sourdough baguettes on earth. Trust Len to find a bakery.

Anyways, I went to the island, eager to hike to see gannets - how hard could that be?

The path, once I found it, was narrow and very rocky except for where the rain had turned it to deep muck. The path leads one slowly UP the island. Walking mostly up an incline for 45 minutes is a lot of walking up.

The sky was brilliantly blue, the air as pure as a baby’s soul, the breezes energetic. And, like I said, I was completely alone on that path. During one stretch of the hike I heard a weird bird high in the pines that towered around me; it screamed as if it was being tortured, or maybe as if it was informing the entire island that a slow and juicy looking person was walking along with half a granola bar in her pocket.

Next I was traipsing through a long stretch of tangled raspberry and blueberry bushes when, suddenly, I wondered if this island had bears.  And why there were so few berries on the bushes. Okay, PROBABLY because it’s a bird sanctuary, but seriously, that unnerved me.  I started singing hymns from my youth just to let the bear, if there was one, know that an Onward Christian Soldier was coming through.

It took an hour to get to the Gannet colony of 60,000 birds and I heard them before I saw them. Big seagull-sized birds with white bodies and yellow heads and, get this!, turquoise eyelids! Gannets are as antic as Lucille Ball. Each bird was screaming, or cawing, or picking at her fluffy giant child. Birds were fighting, participating in enthusiastic acts of bird love. They chattered, they fished by diving from those rocky cliffs into the sea and then emerging from the waves a half minute later with a fish in a long beak. I loved them. I never had a favorite bird before but now I do.

Walking back around the island took longer that the hike in. I admired non-stop postcard views of cliffs, pines, wildflowers and the sparkling sapphire sea. I only passed a few people, one of them a tiny boy who didn’t even look up as he handed me a bunch of tiny pinecones.  I saw two foxes, an eagle or hawk flying down the path I was on; when it saw me it veered into the forest – but who knew birds prefer paths too?

When I got back to our room late that afternoon; seven hours after I had left, I laid down on the bed and started to cry.  All my muscles and joints hurt, but I didn’t exactly care because I had never seen such beauty, or been so anxious, or worried about bears with a genuine reason to worry about bears, or felt such purity, or been so whacked by our wild, gorgeous earth. I couldn’t move but worse than the assault on my body was that assault of perfection on my spirit. 

Before we left on our trip, in a goofy mood, we decided to call it the Quest … and we would be the Servants of the Quest.  We thought that was funny.

And then, slowly, we began to understand that this trip WAS a quest. We are retired now but pretty strong and healthy, kind of like junior seniors, ya know? This is a precious time in our life, and we are trying to figure out how to live well and fast. So we went on a long car trip -- and the trip fell apart on us. The hurricane didn’t blow on out to sea. It knocked out power to most of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and we couldn’t go there.

We had to shrug our shoulders and change directions and just keep moving to see where this quest was taking us. Somewhere along in there we stopped being the inventors of our cute, cool quest. We were becoming servants to this vacation that had become an adventure that was becoming a quest. Drive, keep your eyes open, don’t whine.

Here’s the thing. If our quest had gone according to our plans, I would never have seen Gaspe’, been assaulted with that beauty, or received pinecones from a pixie.

We joked that we were ready to serve our quest – and when the path that we thought we were going to take changed, then the joke became real and we kept going.


A Quest is when you believe something is out there - and you drive or walk or leap or are pulled backwards into it. And then your world becomes scarier and tougher and possibly more beautiful than you could have imagined.

Something is out there that calls us to go further, try harder, see deeper. Maybe you know that your life lies somewhere beyond here. Maybe your life is secure and meaningful, but you still sometimes feel lonely or adrift.  Maybe you have an old or new handicap or disease and you have to keep figuring out how to be your authentic self while pushing through limitations you never asked for. Maybe you and your partner split or your kids moved out or the career you spent all that energy preparing to have – no longer makes enough sense – or dollars... Maybe you have suffered a loss that churns you like a rock polisher without an off switch. Maybe the cruelty and injustice that hangs in the air around us like slime in a house of horrors, is more than the evening news now. Maybe we need to find our fiercest powers and figure out how to respond.

When we encounter our limitations, our longings, our misgivings, and our desires to leave what we know and find something more - we can “manage” our feelings in the regular ways. Have another glass of wine. Buy a bag of donuts and eat them all, fast and alone. Send another check to that good organization. Take an enriching class or declutter the closet or go to the outlet malls. Check Facebook or twitter.

But maybe this time you don’t pick up your phone. Maybe you walk away from the donuts and arguments and the list of bitter disappointments in your head - and all the other stale ways you know to keep everything the way it always is.

Maybe you need a quest.

Here’s the first truth about quests. If you believe you need to be on a quest, you are already on it.

What is it you are looking for, when you go questing?

I was emailing with my cousin Brent who sent me this story from his childhood.  

“I spent large portions of my young summers at a YMCA camp. On Sundays we young Christian heathens would hike to the Cathedral of the Pines, an outdoor sanctuary made with pine logs. The same guy gave the sermon every week, but here’s the cool thing. It wasn’t a sermon, ever. It was always a Holy Grail Quest story. A new one each week! He’d might have even made them up the fly. There was always a moral to the story, e.g. after years of searching and strife (with swords!) for the exquisite gold and bejeweled goblet, it turned out, as Sir Galahad lay dying, that the Holy Grail was the dented tin cup he had carried on his saddle and drank from every day. As he died in the arms of his true friend King Arthur he drank once more. That sort of thing.” 


What are we looking for? We are looking for ourselves. For the best and strongest and most creative parts that are in us. We are looking to protect others, to tell the truth, to fight for justice, to share with others along the way.

Going on a quest certainly isn’t an isolated story. There is Sir Galahad and those Knights of the Round Table. There’s Huck Finn and Jim rafting down the Mississippi. There are the Narnia books, Harry Potter and the Wizard of Oz. Pretty much half of all the Greek, Roman, and Nordic myths are about people who go on quests. Every LGBTQ person I know or have read has a Quest tale of trying to go one way until the determination to be what others expected from them turned into their own powerful quest to love and be loved.  Becoming one’s authentic self is a surprising and often uncomfortable adventure. As almost any Unitarian-Universalist can tell you.

The scripture passages I chose describe two ways people end up on quests.

In the short passage from Mark, Jesus was calling his first disciples. “He sees Simon and Andrew casting a net into the lake. ‘Come, follow me.’ They left their nets and followed him.

When he had gone a little farther, he saw James and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. He called them, and they left their father in the boat with the hired men and followed him.”

Seriously? Jesus could walk up to grown men in the middle of their workdays, ask them to follow him and they did? What’s up with that?

In Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks didn’t move to the back of the bus. The world was astonished that within a few days a boycott of 17,000 African American bus riders began and it lasted an entire year.

On June 28, 1969 cops stormed the Stonewall Bar in New York City – and it turned into 4 days of protests and a revolution that is still going on as humans demand their right to love and be loved without fear, condescension, or injustice.

On November 15, 1969 a half million people came to the mall in Washington to protest the Vietnam war. Nixon said he wasn’t watching, but he was. So was all the rest of America.

In August 2018 Greta Thunberg sat by herself outside the Swedish Parliament with a sign that said School Climate Strike. One year later there were 4500 strikes in 150 countries, participated in by 4 million people. So far.

In 2006 African American activist Tarana Burke started the #MeToo movement when she didn’t know what to say to a 13-year old who had been raped. So she said the truth. Me, too. In 2017 the stories about Harvey Weinstein were revealed and within two months 12 million women, TWELVE MILLION women responded - #Me Too.

People endure hard stories, injustices, pain, anger, fear, racism and sexism, misogyny, the betrayal of their children’s futures. It builds and builds until, one day, Jesus walks up and says Join Me and we say okay.

That is one way to join a quest. You respond to the moment that calls out your name. 

The other way?

‘Saul was breathing murderous threats against the followers of Jesus. He was nearing Damascus on his vicious journey to clear out Jesus-following infidels from the holy, rule-abiding congregation in Damascus. Suddenly a light appeared all around Saul. He fell to the ground as he heard a voice call out, “Why do you persecute me?” 

Have you ever pushed and pushed, pulled and manipulated, worked and sweated to make others behave the way they ought to behave? And then one day, light floods around you and you realize you can’t change them. You can only change yourself?

I do not mean to conflate the conversion of St. Paul with an ‘aha’ moment. I do mean to say that if we are struggling to build meaningful, generous, prophetic lives … sometimes we need to stop being the one who is dangerously right -in order to become as whacked out and vulnerable as a blind man on an unknown road headed towards a place he’s never been. 

Of course, it’s reasonable to try to plan what’s coming next in your life. Pick good goals. Make a list, check it twice, mark it on your calendar, call the people you need to call to accomplish the thing you need to accomplish. 

And then, be prepared for all the ways plans and goals can change. We don’t invent our quest. We are the servants of it. It’s our adventure.

What are the rewards of being a servant on the quest for justice and truth, beauty and creativity, this quest to be give and receive?

Well, the third point of all good sermons is love. The goal, the point, the reward of being a servant of the quest is – love. 

Which sounds great, right?  Go on a trip, get on your bike, go out for a walk, take yourself to a show or museum, gathering or park. Then get lost and Boom, you will find love! Because sometimes it happens this way and we love these stories. Most of us with partners have some variation on this story about how we met the person we love.  “I was going to point A but I ended up at Point B and that was all she wrote.”

Those who have adopted children, or rescued animals, or tried hard to work for a cause that failed – but then something else grew from that loss.  We know and love these stories.

But real life isn’t this tidy going forward, not when we are living our lives going forward. We can give generously, try hard, care about each other, live in harsh place and a callous time and we see good people trying all around us and loss, death, and in justice flourishing anyways.  I don’t think we can tell Central American refugee parents to that it’s ok to lose custody of their kids at the border because something better will happen down the road.  I don’t think we can cheerfully admire Greta Thunberg without fearing the desolation and destruction she fears, too. 

We live in a fraught time. The dangers are real. People are living in limitations and misery entirely caused by inequity, injustice, and stupidity.  

Sometimes we find love and good endings. Other times? Len and I often remember a song neither of us can find on the internet on YouTube.  It was from the years in which we belonged to a Chicago sanctuary church with refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala in our building and among our congregation.

The song was “En La Lucha.”   Lucha means- struggle or fight or quest to endure and overcome.

To this day, we both remember it and our aim is still to live it.

“In the struggle, rewards are few. In fact, I know of only two. Loving friends and living dreams.”

Risk it. Say yes to the quest to explore, to serve, and to love.  


The New Testament passages I refer to in the sermon are: 

Mark 1:14-20   Jesus is recruiting disciples.

Acts 9:1-20  The conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus


Gosh darn it, MB, again you make me smile, laugh, cry and know there is more for me to do in this life. Thank you for your sharing of the drive to know and fulfill those hopes and desires.
Mary Beth's picture

And thanks for saying so, Helle, cuz sometimes writing is a quest that goes south and is never seen again... I truly appreciate your words.

Excellent as usual. Would have loved to hear this in person.

Inspiring -- I think a quest is exactly what I need to make my life worth living. Thanks.
Mary Beth's picture

This is what one needs at the end of this sermon. Or any sermon, IMHO.

Nice story, well-told! Wonderful thoughts. I’m on several quests, always... really miss having my husband to travel with, but have to keep questing alone or with new friends! Have you told the story of how you and your husband met, which you sort of referred to in the story? If yes, please put a link back to it, and if not, I’d enjoy reading about it! Thank you!
Mary Beth's picture

The short version is that I was in seminary, needed to be associated with a United Methodist congregation that would support and sponsor me. I joined Grace United Methodist in Logan Square in Chicago. Len visited that church because he knew it housed the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and he wanted to be more politically involved in the city. First time we met, I reached out to shake his hand, he was palming a gold paper whistle that was in his pocket ... it was in his hand so he gave it to me before we shook hands. I never became a minister. But if I had not hared off that direction, I wouldn't have met the love of my life and I am pretty sure he would have driven a saner woman crazy...

Wonderful, engaging stories, with just the right turn of phrase; just the right twist of life. Thank you for sharing this quest. Really helps to make a "little" sense of life in these woeful times!

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Love, Communicate, Show Up, & Love.

Our congregation is United Unitarian Universalist in Waukesha, WI. I only preach a couple times a year; it is the one of the hardest things it is my privilege to do. 

Sunday I preached to my congregation. The topic evolved as I was working on it during the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, and as we learned more about the life and gentleness of George Floyd.

Here is my sermon in two forms. 

This is the service on YouTube: 

Sanctuary: Safety or Invitation? 10/7/2018

Sanctuary is Our Claim that Hope Can Become Truth  

 Sanctuary is more than a concept. Sanctuary is our claim that the realm of God and goodness is here, now, in this time and place. Sanctuary isn’t the room where we wait for things to get better. Sanctuary is the space where we claim peace and justice, hope and love right now, among us.

In sanctuary - hope becomes truth.


A Path of Integrity - Sermon

 I recently preached on the topic of Integrity. I had this sermon completed before Christmas because I wanted to not stress about it. Good for me. 

The day after Christmas I realized it wasn't "right."  I wasn't sure what was wrong, but as I do when I'm looking for more than I have, I delved into quotes by people I think know what I'm trying to figure out.  James Baldwin amazed me.  

Then I watched the movies I reference in the sermon. 

Then I wrote the sermon that is here. 

Where & What is Beauty?

This was this last Sunday’s service in the United Unitarian Universalist congregation in my town.  This was entirely written by five of us - the “United We Writers.” I told friends that I would post this on my website. The service was wonderfully received.

"No Felons Here"

I preached this sermon at United Unitarian Universalist /23/2019.

The photo is of the sanctuary of Grace United Methodist in Chicago. It's the church in which Len and I met and then married. We happened to be driving by earlier this year on a Sunday morning. They were voting that day on what to do with their building. I took this single picture with my phone, capturing the affection we all feel for our friends and fellow-journeyers in our congregations. 


Journey to Happiness

(I preached this sermon at my church, United Unitarian Universalist, in Waukesha. 3/3/2019)



One day a young Buddhist on her journey to find True Happiness, came to the banks of a wide river. Staring at the great obstacle in front of her, she pondered and pondered how to cross such a wide and mighty barrier.

  Just as she was about to give up, she saw a Great Teacher on the other side of the river. The young Buddhist yelled over to the Teacher, "Oh Wise One, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river?”

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