Archives for October 2015

November 2015 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

In October I attended a workshop for Unitarian Universalism clergy entitled “Ministry in the Age of Disengagement” with Hartford Seminary sociologist of religion, Scott Thumma. Disengagement refers to the way Americans are disengaging from religious communities across denominations and faiths. I laughed because I had just preached in September on my intention to stop talking about the “end of church.” But there I was in the midst of a workshop, talking about all the data that suggests organized religion is declining in the United States.

Though Unitarian Universalism still seems to be doing marginally better than other liberal Protestant denominations, Professor Thumma’s data is challenging. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the ‘end of church.’ It means we have work to do. Here is an overview of Professor Thumma’s response to widespread religious disengagement:

First, we need to recognize that in our larger culture, the alternatives to religious engagement are compelling. But none of the alternatives offers the combined opportunities for spiritual growth, community connection, and a sustained focus on our highest values that religious communities offer. None. So, those of us who love our religious communities need to make the case to the wider culture that they matter. Some might call this evangelism. Some might call it marketing. I’m not sure I have a good word for it, but I know we need to ‘come out’ in a much bigger and intentional way as Unitarian Universalists. Are you ready?

Second, we need to name our niche. Professor Thumma says that unless you’re a mega church, you just don’t have the resources to be all things to all people. Congregations need to specialize in a few areas. Are we a church for families? A church for religious education? A church for social justice? A church for environmental stewardship? A church for music and arts? Congregations that spread themselves too thin lose their way too easily. So, let’s have a conversation about our niche. What are our unique ministries? Can we stay focused on those, and let go of others? Are you ready?

Finally, we need to innovate. Professor Thumma says, very bluntly, the people who aren’t coming to your church don’t want what you’re offering. That’s a hard truth. What he means is that people may actually want what we offer, but not how we offer it. So do it differently! Innovate. Experiment. Are you ready?

      These are all ideas we’ve considered during the past few years. If anything, Professor Thumma affirms what we already suspect, and he pushes us even harder than we’ve been pushing ourselves. This is, in fact, hard work. It’s difficult for congregations to do things differently. But I think we’re up to the task. Both our newly formed UUS:E growth team (headed by Jason Corsa and Peggy Gagne) and the Religious Education Transition Team (headed by Stan McMillen) are getting us in the habit of innovation. Watch for updates from them. Are you ready? 

With love,

Rev. Josh

Telling it With a Sigh . . . .

Chaplain Emma Peterson

Emma Peterson In my work as a hospital chaplain, I am seeking to hear the stories of the patients and families I encounter. “Tell me the story of your life,” I ask. And my asking often comes in the midst of remarkable upheaval, in the moments where life as they knew it is suddenly so very different from what they hoped for, expected. I arrive in the unsettling, the reconsidering, the knitting back together. I meet people in the minutes just after the breaking, and long before the healing really begins. “Tell me the story of your life,” I say and wait for what comes. At first, there is usually a look of surprise. Eyes widen a bit, and lips purse as if to catch any words that may pass without permission. But there is always an answer. It begins slowly, a drawling “well,” but there is almost always a response that the person I am listening to has considered before.

          Because that’s how humans are. We are constantly working to make sense of the pathways of our lives. We are seeking the aerial view of the map we always believed we were following. We are aching to see the whole picture, as if it would clarify where we came from and where we are going. My life began like this, we say, and then it looked like this, and then it looked a little different, and now I am here. Usually, the people I encounter attempt to conclude their narratives with an air of confidence- an assurance that they were always meant to wind up exactly where they are. Or, they make an attempt at explaining why their life doesn’t look the way they had always hoped. “I turned left here, when I should have turned right.” “I took this job, pursued this love, moved far away or found my way back home.” I did this, and this, and now I am here. See? It all makes sense, and I was at the helm the whole time, for good or for ill.
          Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is arguably the most iconic poem in America. David Orr’s recent examination of the work and its impact on Western popular culture ranks it as a poem cherished in both academic and informal circles. It has been utilized in thousands of advertisements, appropriated onto countless novels and literary collections. It can be quoted without reference to its original source and recognized immediately by almost any audience. Americans love this poem. It speaks to the way we value personal choice, independence, and control over the worlds we exist in. “And that has made all the difference,” we explain over and over- to ourselves, to each other. Its refrain reassures us in moments when we fear we are losing touch with our personal compass. “I took the one less traveled by,” we proclaim proudly as we attempt to explain the mess of pathways, the lack of straight lines, the utter disaster that was our journey from A to B. I got myself here on purpose, we say, trying to convince ourselves all the while.
          But Western popular culture is guilty of a massive mis-reading of Frost’s most loved poem. We have made famous our misconception, popularized it in such a way that Frost’s intent has become far removed from what we want his words to mean. And, as I think is typical of so many stubborn American assertions, we are oblivious to the fact that Frost is actually confessing a deep anxiety of the human spirit. That is, a recognition that our paths are unknown to us until we begin to travel them.”Though as for that, the passing there/had worn them really about the same.” It all looks the same until we turn left or right, until we discover what is coming up around the next bend. We do not create the paths that lay before us, nor do we always dictate which direction we are going in. Frost is shaking his head at our insistence on explaining away our lives, on claiming ownership and control. Frost is opening a vulnerable cavity of awareness, recognizing a lack of actual choice while admitting he will still try to explain it all as his own doing years in the future.
          Neither Frost nor myself are making a claim that we never actually make our own choices. Of course we do. But a self-centric world view, an insistence that we can always, no matter what, determine where we end up, is painfully flawed. Such a view ignores all of the other forces that exist around us all the time. These “forces” I am referring to are both concrete and obvious, our families, our jobs, our personal obligations and the day to day monotony of survival. But I think it’s much, much more vast than that- I want to push beyond the lens of human consciousness, towards a possibility that there may exist forces in this incredible, miracle universe in which we exist. That these forces may actually have a rhythm, an awareness, an intention to them. And that maybe, we, tiny specks that we are, might not be the ones in charge here. We certainly try to appear in charge. Building up our systems and our rules, stomping our feet and proclaiming skywards that we are running the show here! And the world spins endlessly on in response. And This world continues on, storming, growing, dying, erupting. The world and the universe that cradles it was here eons before we ever were, will be here long after, and I’m not really sure if the entire universe sees your personal life plan as congruent to the big picture. Maybe something bigger than you has a better plan for your life, and it intends to get you there- no matter how desperately you aim in the other direction. And so look out, theres a curve ahead, and you may want to ride it instead of fighting it.
          Here’s something about those curves we face. They come, with their swooping, break-neck speed, and they leave whatever came before them behind.  One path always leaves another untravelled. And the loss there is real, and significant in the narratives of our lives. If you are uncertain where the meaning lies, look for the loss. Seek out the grief, and work to understand how its presence has informed your identity. “Sorry I could not travel both/and be one traveller.” In the past decade, I have imagined countless possible lives I could lead. But there is always, really, only room for one. How many people could I have become by now, if only I could seek out all paths, or settle down once I felt I had found my way home. Life doesn’t work that way. And there our traveller stands, on the precipice of possibility, knowing that whatever way he goes, he will lose the other way entirely. He expresses a brief hope to return again and seek the other path. “Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/I doubted if I should ever come back.” In that there is grieved recognition of a life not lived, and another lived instead.
          Just like so many of the patients I encounter, I too have learned how to tell my story. My words are practiced to sound that while I accept a small degree of mystery, I more or less knew my direction from the start. But this is all just well rehearsed nonsense. I don’t know how I wound up where I am, and the only thing I can point to to explain it all is this feeling that has swelled from my heart from the moment I realized that I was not the center of the universe. (Imagine that!) This feeling can only be called faith, a certainty in some divine presence that I know exists, even if I can’t even begin to qualify it. This love, this deep love that feels truly knitted into my very person, has kept me moving ever forward, and it has doubled back to find me each time I declared I was going to ignore it because I had other things to do. If destiny is real, then destiny hurts. But I have come to realize that ignoring the persistent whisper in my heart, the whisper that demands I follow what I have come to understand as my personal call, hurts far more than answering it, loudly, and with praise.
          I was raised in the bosom of small-town Methodist community. The theology of the faith that raised me was conservative, straight forward and simple. Christ, born of Father God and Mary, came here to save humanity. We took communion with homemade bread and warm grape juice, laid the baby Jesus in our manger on Christmas Eve, and covered the cross during Holy Week. I grew up spending Sunday’s being embraced by the bony, warm dry hands of little old ladies. My pastors were men who commanded authority, and who didn’t appreciate the questions I asked as I got older.
          I think I was about ten when I began to feel the persistent tug of cognitive dissonance. One Sunday, our minister preached a sermon about his certainty that Jesus Christ was “the way, the truth, and the light.” Proclaiming Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior was the only path to salvation. At the time, I had a friend Ming June whose parents owned the Chinese take out place on Main Street. She lived in a huge victorian home with a bevy of Chinese men and women who were here to work in the restaurant. In their sparse living room was a massive Buddhist alter, a smiling statue of the one who is awake in the center. Sweet incense burned around the Buddha all day long, orange peels dried at his feet, and small scraps of paper bearing prayers rested in his palms. Ming’s family alter was a sacred space, I knew it to be true, and the thought of her burning in hell for following the wrong prophet both broke my heart and awoke in me an anger that eventually led me away from the Methodist church and Christianity entirely. This burgeoning anger, this swelling of dissent carried with it a strong undercurrent of grief and loss. I ached to hear true gospel. I was coming into myself, developing an in your face liberal and queered identity, and I all I wanted was for someone to tell me God made me as I was, loved me every day, and recognized me even when I couldn’t recognize myself.
          This period of angst lasted an entire decade. I learned to ignore God, in no small part because I already believed God was ignoring me. I felt safely removed from the longing simmering in my heart. But then when I was 21, on a trip to Texas I visited a psychic, a veritable prophet, sitting in her sweltering trailer in July. She was all of four foot five, skin like leather left in the sun, and a voice only achieved when someone is very, very dedicated to chain smoking. She held my hands in hers, and spoke to me with a measured urgency unlike anything I’d heard before. “Ask me a question, dear child,” she implored me, and I did. I asked her what I was going to be when I grew up. My anxiety surrounding the mystery of what was to come next was growing inside me, and I had come to her in hopes of direction. “I don’t know,” she relied, her voice scraping gravel. “But I can tell you this, you are going to work for God.” She shook me up, this tiny psychic angel, and then she sent me on my way. I pushed her out of my mind for seven months, until on one late January afternoon I sat down and resolved to apply to seminary. I wanted answers about God. I wanted to know why I couldn’t hear “blessed assurance” without dissolving into tears. I wanted to know why people in my life, those who knew me and knew me not at all were always telling me to become a pastor. I determined I would answer these questions by hitting the books, and one year later found myself at Yale.
I read the entire Bible, and only found more to reject. I wanted to return to Christ, and while I loved the puzzle of the trinity, I just couldn’t conceive of Jesus beyond a revolutionary and a prophet. This broke my heart, and I spiraled again into grief and loss.
          But then I met Elizabeth Price, a CPE supervisor delighted by my reluctance to name the divine presence I felt always. She accepted me into the ten week chaplaincy program, and it was there I discovered the holy ground I had so long been seeking. In the hospital, where the world comes when it is breaking, the divine was everywhere. I encountered God in each patient I met, mixed in with the starkest possible representations of the human experience. And this stumbling upon what what I believed to be God calling me to chaplain ministry meant I needed to get to work. Gradually, a combination of dear friends and small miracles led me to the Unitarian Universalist Association of New Haven. And there, on that first Sunday morning, was a proclamation of the gospel I had been longing to hear. There it was! It was justice, and mystery, and radical inclusion all at once. I was home, finally, finally. God had found a way and I was home.
          I am not going off the deep end here. Please do not misunderstand this sermon as a spin of the relentlessly damaging adage “everything happens for a reason.” I do not believe everything happens for a reason. But I do believe there is so much more to this world than we, tiny fallible humans can ever hope to understand. I want to believe God, spirit, heavenly creator, knows me intimately and has intentions for what I (and you, too) will do in this world. All I can say is this- I would not be a Unitarian Universalist, I would not be a hospital chaplain, I would not spend every day swelled to capacity for love of the divine if something, something unfathomable and way, way bigger than me didn’t exist.
          In the photo series “Humans of New York” there was a picture taken of a middle-aged woman leaning against an iron fence in some small city neighborhood. The corresponding quote read, “I have this theory. Are you ready for it? So we are on earth for a finite amount of time. And time is a manmade perception. And we perceive time passing through change- seasons, aging, things like that. So to expand our time on earth, we must incite as much change in our lives as possible.” What a remarkable way to cope with the unexpected. And she’s right, at least in terms of how I think of my own life. My strongest memories, my strongest sense of how I have become who I am becoming, are directly connected to transition, to new life, to moving past something and growing in to something new. And most of this change comes with a period of pain, of grief, of reluctance to move beyond the familiar and the comfortable. But after all of that, after I truly put to rest what is no longer mine, there is new and better life. There is a sense of “this is where I am supposed to be.” I never would have gotten anywhere near where I am now if I had been in charge.
          I am telling this with a sigh. But I am no longer making claim that my own choice about left here or right there made all the difference in this strange and incredible life I’m blessed to live. The narrative of my life contains so much more than my own choices. Perhaps I am “giving it up to God.” Perhaps I am choosing to waylay personal responsibility in favor of divine mystery, for the pull of the unexpected, for the chance to see what happens next if I listen for the thread woven so tightly throughout my heart. If it were truly up to me, I likely wouldn’t of sent off that application to seminary in the wee hours of some January morning. I wouldn’t have chosen to witness so much death, so much loss, so much remarkable grace. But here I am. Best to let that be what it is, best to become whatever I am supposed to become.
          And maybe there are signs, sometimes, showing up how we can live in this unbelievable world. In the late afternoon, I am walking the dog around a man made pond. The earth around me is heavily landscaped, displaying appealing beauty with its perfect angles and intentional curves and straight lines. The day is cool and clear, breezy. A monarch butterfly flits past me, filling up my vision with a flash of orange and black, beating wings. She appears so suddenly that I catch my breath, and pause to take note of her arrival. She is lovely, and so bright against the endless blue sky. She circles my body, once, twice, before allowing the wind to carry her on. The breeze is strong, but she rides it like a kite. Her weightlessness has become her strength, and she has surrendered herself to the journey ahead. She will withstand the wind, and it will become a part of her,  taking her where she needs to go.

UUS:E Members Stand on the Hartford City Line for the Black Lives Matter

 

Photo by Rev. Heather Rion Starr

Photo by Rev. Heather Rion Starr

On Monday, October 5th, several members of UUSE joined a hundred others at a Moral Monday CT rally for racial  and economic justice.  The rally began at the Unitarian Society of Hartford. Unitarian Universalist Association staff from Boston were in attendance.  Particiapants marched out to the corner of Bloomfield and Albany Avenues under the banner “Black Lives Matter”, where about 30 of us moved into the intersection and stopped traffic for approximately 20 minutes.  Four members of UUS:E were among the City Line Dozen arrested: Al Benford, Sue McMillen, Joan Macomber and Christine Joyner.

In addition, Rhona Cohen and Lisa P. Sementilli, Co-Chairs of the UUS:E Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee were there along with Rev. Pawelek, Polly Painter, Nancy Parker, Gene Sestero, Bob Hewey, Carol Simpson and many others.

Why the Hartford City Line? We were there to dramatize the stark economic difference between Hartford and the surrounding suburbs. Hartford is Connecticut’s capital city—the insurance city—and yet one of the poorest cities in the nation.  Hartford is 84% black and Latino.  Per capita income is less than $17,000/year and about half of the city’s children live in poverty. The corner of Prospect and Albany is the dividing line between wealth and poverty, a potent symbol of racial and economic injustice in Hartford. That’s why we stood there for this particular action.

If you didn’t make it but want to help:

There is more to come. Moral Monday CT leader, Bishop John Selders said, “we will continue to carry the gospel of justice beyond the City Line.”

More coverage: 

http://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/12-Arrested-in-Black-Lives-Matter-Protest-in-Hartford-330770352.html

http://foxct.com/2015/10/05/protesters-chant-black-lives-matter-at-moral-monday-rally-in-hartford/

http://www.courant.com/breaking-news/hc-hartford-protest-1006-20151005-story.html

 

Interment of Carol Shapiro’s Ashes on 10/25 at 1:00 PM

Carol ShapiroThe Rev. Josh Pawelek will officiate at the interment of Carol Shapiro’s ashes on Sunday, October 25th at 1:00 PM in the UUS:E Memorial Garden. All are welcome. Carol was a beloved, long-time member of UUS:E. She is fondly remembered for her tender heart, her poetry, her creativity, her love of cats and her friendship.

Carol disappeared from her apartment in Manchester on August 31, 2007. In June of this year, police were finally able to confirm by DNA analysis that human remains discovered in Vernon, CT in March of 2013 were Carol’s remains.

At the time of her disappearance, police were fairly confident that she had ended her own life. While suicide is still the most widely accepted explanation for Carol’s death, there is not yet conclusive evidence that she took her own life.  Even without full confirmation of the cause of death, Carol’s family and the members and friends of UUS:E are greatly relieved that she has finally been found, and that she will finally ‘come home’ to a congregation and to land that was very special to her. 

 

Falling: Thoughts on Forgiveness

IMG_0574Forgiveness is our ministry theme for October. This is a sermon about forgiveness. I’ve given it the title, “Falling,” mainly because autumn has come to New England, the leaves are changing and beginning to fall, and I’ve been caught by the notion that the act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires us to let go of something; to let go like leaves and fall; to let go like leaves and fall and trust that we will land where we need to be.

There are many metaphors that will work in addition to falling. All morning we’ve been singing those words from Rev. Raymond Baughan: “Turn scarlet, leaves.”[1] The act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires us to turn; to turn away from something; to turn away from something that has been holding us, constraining us, defining us—some hurt, anger, distrust, fear, self-pity, self-righteousness, pride. To forgive someone who has wronged us requires us to turn away, to turn toward something new—often something unknown—and to trust we are turning in a good direction.

In our first reading, Rev. Belletini likens forgiving to sinking “like stones in a pool” all those things that weigh us down. “Drop them like hot rocks / into the cool silence,” he urges.[2] Here again, the act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires that we let something go, drop it, plunge it, sink it, trusting that its removal from our lives will serve us well; will enable us, in his words, to “lay back gently, and float, / float on the calm surface of the silence.”[3]

We might add tumbling to the list. We sang Rev. Baughan’s words, “Tumble the shadows into dawn / The morning out of night.”[4] Perhaps forgiving is akin to tumbling—to leaving the solid ground we’ve been occupying; hoping and trusting some new ground will form beneath us, hoping and trusting we will land well. Falling, turning, sinking, dropping, quieting, letting go, surrendering, tumbling. Many words work. This morning, falling. If we are to forgive those who have wronged us, something must fall.

The impact genuine forgiveness has on our lives is well-known: it makes us free. Let’s remember this. Our national culture, at its worst—meaning not all the time, but increasingly—is becoming less forgiving, more tolerant of and comfortable with un-checked and unbridled anger, more content with broken relationships remaining broken, more quick to judge, more quick to assume the worst, more quick to lash out, more quick to publically shame. And public apologies, if they come at all, are shallow, worded to avoid responsibility for wrongdoing, and thus they don’t readily invite forgiveness. Ours is a ‘gotcha’ society, a litigious society, a road rage society, a mass incarceration society, a mass shooting society. The more familiar and habitual these trends become, the more we let them become the status quo, the less free we are. Something must fall.

Last July I had the honor of participating on the National Public Radio show “On Point.” The show was about religion in the public square. The topic of forgiveness came up in response to the way some of the family members of those killed in the June 17th mass shooting at Charleston, South Carolina’s “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church publically forgave the shooter. The quickness with which these family members forgave was puzzling to many people. One of the panelists on the show, Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, MD, responded, “Many people think that [to forgive] means to absolve the offender. But the word ‘to forgive’… is also about releasing the self from the pain, from the action that was committed by the other person…. When I hear people saying that they forgive … they are going to release themselves from … the desire for vengeance that can actually creep into one’s heart.”[5] I don’t pretend to know why or how those family members were able to utter words of forgiveness so quickly after such a monstrous crime, but I think Rev. Coates is correct: they did not want their lives to become defined by overwhelming anger, bitterness, and a desire for vengeance. They wanted release. They wanted to determine the values that would guide them through the chaos. They wanted emotional and spiritual freedom. I also suspect they offered forgiveness not to announce they had completed a process of forgiving, but that they had begun. Forgiveness is a practice, and this would not be the last time they would say those blessed words.

In a sermon entitled, “The Gift of Forgiveness,” minister emeritus of Boston’s King’s Chapel, Rev. Carl Scovel, says “When we forgive, we are freed, not from the hurt, but from the dominating power of the hurt. We are able to give up our anger. The hurt and wrath no longer direct us…. We may still suffer the consequences of the offense, but the offense no longer masters us.” “However it happens, we are free.”[6]

In a meditation entitled, “Forgiveness is Human,” Unitarian Universalist Army chaplain Rev. George Tyger writes, “We often think about forgiveness as releasing another person from an obligation to us…. In truth, through forgiveness, we free ourselves. We free ourselves from the desire to take revenge, the need to get even, and from anger. Without forgiveness, we carry these weights with us wherever we go. With forgiveness, we can put down these burdens.”[7]

Last Sunday from this pulpit Jeannette LeSure shared a powerful and painful story about her decades-long process of forgiving those who had abused her as a child, and forgiving her parents—particularly her mother—for not keeping her safe. Finding the capacity to forgive ultimately freed her not only to reclaim positive memories of her mother as a beautiful, if flawed, person, but also to become more fully the person she longed to be—an artist, a painter with a studio. Without forgetting the wrongs done to her, she can say on this side of forgiveness, “Who cares how my wings got so broken? When I paint in my studio, I soar to where Mommy and I could never travel, and she’s with me in every brushstroke. I just do not care. I am free.”[8]

But how? I can hear many of you, over the years—and me too—saying “I understand forgiveness brings freedom, but understanding the outcome isn’t the same as getting there. How do I actually get there?” “I’m so mad, I’m so hurt, I feel so betrayed. How can I forgive?” Or, “I want so much to not feel this anger and pain anymore, but it won’t leave me, it won’t be gone, it won’t get behind me.” Yes, there is freedom on the other side of forgiveness, but the chasm between that freedom and the experience of being wronged can feel so vast, can feel—for years, for decades, for a lifetime—unbreachable. Something must fall.

What if I told you that leaves are always falling, that falling is their natural state? We don’t notice them falling in spring and summer because they are firmly attached to their branches, but without that attachment, and without the ground on which to settle, they would keep falling and falling and falling in every season. What if I told you that even once they settle on the ground, that settling is just an illusion? The falling continues as gravity pulls their decaying fibers down into the dirt, into the dust, into the muck. The pace of the falling slows greatly once they reach the ground, but it continues even after nothing resembling a leaf remains.

And what if I told you the same is true for us, that without this floor, without the ground, we too, like leaves, would fall and fall and fall? Over the eons, as living creatures, we have adjusted well to the presence of solid ground—we have learned to trust that the earth’s surface more or less holds—but what if I told you that falling is our natural state? You might say that’s silly, not helpful, but take the ground away, and you know as well as I: we’ll all fall.

You might also say, “that’s a very astute observation, Rev., but even so, we have to hold onto something. We can’t live if we’re falling.” That’s true. We need solid ground in order to live. We need flat, even surfaces for walking, running, rolling, driving, dancing. We need chairs to hold our weight as we sit, tables to hold our food as we eat, desks to hold our computers as we work. Most of us lay down on mattresses to sleep. These are the physical handholds, footholds and body-holds that keep us from falling through life. They are more or less reliable. But not all of the things we hold onto are physical. Some are emotional and spiritual. On our best days, we hold onto positive emotions—what makes us feel happy and joyful, content and fulfilled? What makes us feel enthusiastic and excited or calm and serene? If we can have the experiences that create these feelings in us, and then hold onto them, we won’t feel as if we’re falling. We’ll feel stable, steady, solid.

But here is the key to forgiveness: not all emotional and spiritual handholds are positive or pleasant. Some are negative and quite unpleasant, but we reach for them too. We use them to stop falling too. Sometimes we hold on tightly to the experience of being wronged. The thoughts and feelings that spin out from that experience become our thoughts and feelings. They take hold in our bodies. They become habitual. Sometimes they become so familiar to us that we aren’t sure who we are without them. The same is true for the experience of betrayal, of being victimized, harmed, oppressed, let down. Thoughts and feelings spin out from these experiences: we want the wrong-doer, the offender, the perpetrator, the betrayer to feel pain as well; we want them to feel remorse, guilt and shame; we want them to be punished; we want vengeance. We typically don’t like it when we think and feel this way. It isn’t how we imagine ourselves thinking and feeling. But these are real thoughts and feelings, and we have them. Sometimes we keep coming back to them. They become our solid ground. They anchor us. We return to them habitually—and with good reason: they, too, keep us from falling.

No wonder genuine forgiveness is so difficult. In order to forgive we must somehow move off the solid ground of our pain, off the solid ground of our desire to punish, off the solid ground of our anger. In order to forgive we must let go of our hold on these things. We must let go and fall and trust that we will land where we need to be.

How do we do this? Practice. In her short book, Practicing Peace in Times of War, the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, writes about shenpa, which commonly translates as “attachment,” but which she describes as “getting hooked.” She says “Somebody says a harsh word and immediately you can feel a shift. There’s a tightening that rapidly spirals into mentally blaming this person, or wanting revenge, or blaming yourself. Then you speak or act. The charge behind the tightening, behind the urge, behind the story line or action is shenpa.”[9] Chödrön isn’t writing about forgiveness per se, but I suspect shenpa functions as an impediment to forgiveness. We can become hooked on our victimization, on our pain, on a desire to punish, on a desire for vengeance, on anger. The sense of self-righteousness that can flow out of these feelings is very powerful, very addictive. We get high from it—high both from the emotional rush of false power it provides, and from the way it allows us to place ourselves above the wrong-doer, to believe we are better than they. So, forgive? Not easy when we’re hooked on pain and anger.

For Chödrön, the practice of meditation overcomes the effects of shenpa. Meditation, she says, “teaches us to experience the uneasiness [of shenpa] fully [and then] to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to return again and again to the present moment.” She tells us to let the thoughts and feelings arise—because they are real. Let them come … but don’t follow them. Instead, let them dissolve—because eventually they will. She says: keep coming “back to ‘right now,’ even when ‘right now’ doesn’t feel so great. This is how we learn patience, and how we learn to interrupt the chain reaction of habitual responses that otherwise will rule our lives.”[10] “What happens when you don’t follow the habitual response?” she asks? “Gradually you learn to relax into the shaky, impermanent moment.”[11] Or to use my language, gradually, you learn to fall. When we’re no longer holding on, we’re falling. Rev. Belletini might call it floating.

Meditation, we know, is not for everyone. There are other ways to practice. I imagine very simple prayers: If I am angry, then may I feel anger. But let me not follow it. Let it not define my life. If I am in pain, then may I feel pain. But let me not follow it. Let it not rule my life. If I am vengeful, then may I feel vengeful. But let me not follow it. Let it not become the master of my life. I am convinced this is what the family members of the Mother Emanuel victims were doing when the offered forgiveness to the shooter. They were practicing not holding onto pain, anger and vengeance.

So practice. Practice not following the negative thoughts and feelings. Slowly, slowly, slowly their power over you will wane. Slowly, slowly, slowly you will begin to let go. Slowly, slowly, slowly you will fall. As you fall, the deeper truths of your life—and of living—will shine all around you. Forgiveness will come. Freedom will come.

Those words we heard earlier from Rev. David Breeden may make more sense now: “I dug and dug / deeper into the earth / Looking for blue heaven / Choking always / On the piles of dust rising / Then once / At midnight / I slipped / And fell into the sky.”[12] Slowly, slowly, slowly, it will come. May each of us, when we need it, learn to fall.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Baughan, Raymond J., “Turn Scarlet, Leaves,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #485.

[2] Belletini, Mark, Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

[3] Belletini, Mark, Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

[4] Baughan, Raymond J., “Turn Scarlet, Leaves,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #485.

[5] “Politics, Tragedy and Religion in the Public Square” On Point, July 6th, 2015. See: http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/07/06/god-public-life-united-states-scotus-charleston. 21:00.

[6] Scovel, Carl, “The Gift of Forgiveness,” Never Far From Home: Stories From the Radio Pulpit (Boston: Skinner House, 2004) p. 131.

[7][7] Tyger, George, “Forgiveness is Human,” War Zone Faith: An Army Chaplain’s Reflections from Afghanistan (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 73-74.

[8] LeSure, Jeannette, “Forgiveness: Freedom to Fly,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, October 4, 2015. Unpublished.

[9] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 56.

[10] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 59.

[11] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 63.

[12] Breeden, David, “Falling Into the Sky,”eds., Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, Falling Into the Sky: A Meditation Anthology (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) p. 1.

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October 2015 Ministers Column

Dear Ones:

[Note: this column contains some gender-neutral pronouns!]

As many of you have heard me say in worship over the past few weeks, the Sunday Services Committee and I would like to make a shift in our Sunday morning ritual of sharing joys and sorrows. While we want the sharing to be robust, we also want everyone to feel they have an opportunity to do so. We’ve learned that some members and friends consistently opt not to share because they feel the overall ritual lasts too long. Thus, we are requesting that all those who share limit their sharing to one or two sentences. We feel strongly that sharing can effectively be done in one or two sentences. For example, “Please light a candle for my aunt who has been diagnosed with cancer.” “My child made the honor roll.” “My friend is getting out of prison.” “Thanks to everyone who helped with the fall clean-up.” There is no need—and truly no time—to provide the back-story. We recognize that this ritual is not a time for story-telling. We trust that if you share a simple sentence or two during the ritual, those who want or need to know the story behind your sharing will find you following the service.

On behalf of the Sunday Services Committee, I want to thank you for taking this request seriously. We feel it is the best way to insure that all those who want to share feel that they can share without taking time away from other elements in the service. If you have any questions or concerns about this change, please do not hesitate to contact me or a member of the Sunday Services Committee.

On another note, I’d like to remind everyone that UUS:E has a Committee on Ministry, selected by me and appointed by the Policy Board for two-year terms. The Committee on Ministry exists to support the minister in his/zir/her ministry. They provide valuable feedback to the minister about how he/ze/she is performing the regular tasks of ministry, and about how he/ze/she is achieving his/zir/her goals for the year. This year’s committee includes Sande Hartdagen, Bob Knapp, Liz Nelsen, Jeff Schlechtweg and Carol Simpson. You are encouraged to reach out to any of them if you have any questions about UUS:E’s professional minister.

Last spring the Committee on Ministry conducted a survey of the congregation regarding its appraisal of my ministry. Their report on the results of the survey is printed in this newsletter. I am profoundly pleased with the survey results. While people provided heart-felt criticism where they deemed necessary, the overall results indicate an ongoing affirmation of my ministry at UUS:E. I am deeply thankful for that affirmation—still strong at the beginning of year 13! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

With love,

Rev. Josh

UUS:E Launches Feasibility Study for Capital Campaign

UUS:E in late summerDear UUS:E Members and Friends:

Many of you will remember that at our annual meeting last May, the congregation voted to conduct a capital campaign feasibility study.

The purpose of a capital campaign at this time is to pay off a portion of the principal on our mortgage and thereby reduce the amount of our annual debt payment. Paying off $200,000 of our mortgage principal would enable us to reduce our annual debt payment by approximately $15,000. If we can reduce our annual debt payment by $15,000, we can finally stop drawing on our limited reserves to balance our budget. If we can reduce our annual debt payment by more than $15,000, we can start expanding our programming to meet our strategic goals and further build our beloved spiritual community.

The purpose of the feasibility study is to help us determine whether a successful campaign is likely. It’s time to conduct the feasibility study. If you would like to volunteer to participate in the UUSE Sanctuaryfeasibility study, please contact Stacey Wyatt, the project coordinator, at staceyhwyatt@hotmail.com. Other members and friends will be asked directly to participate in order to ensure a diverse sample from the congregation. Once names have been gathered, a final group of UUS:E members and friends will be asked to participate in a brief, 30 minute interview. Interviews will take place on Saturdays, October 17th and 24th at UUS:E. If you are contacted, please respond with your availability as soon as you can. If you have questions about the study, feel free to contact Stacey Wyatt or me at adayers@buildinnovation.com.

Thanks!

Sincerely,

Alan Ayers, UUS:E President