Archives for April 2016

Unitarian Universalist Society: East to Hire Ministerial Intern

Join Rev. Josh for a discussion of Unitarian Universalist Society: East’s plan to hire a student minister. Sunday, May 1st , 10:15 in Josh’s office and 12:30 in the chapel.  Questions? Contact Rev. Josh at revpawelek@sbcglobal.net.

“The Gift of Water” – An Earth Day service

“Water Calls Us” by Lauriston King, 

Lauriston King (under umbrella)

Lauriston King (under umbrella)

Water Calls Us. 

It calls us to value it beyond measure because it is the basis for life itself.  Indeed, nearly 60% of our bodies are water.  Even more impressive, our hearts and brains are about 73% water. When astronauts first saw Earth from space, they saw a blue planet, 71% of which is covered with water. The problem is that most of this water is too salty to use.  This leaves only about 1% for drinking, cleaning, and meeting the needs of crops and animals for the nearly 7 billion people on the planet. And it’s not equally available to everyone.  Some 1 billion people don’t have access to a reliable source of clean, fresh drinking water.  In contrast, Americans use about twice the amount used in other parts of the world.

Two recent incidents remind us of these two core realities, namely, that we need water to live, and that it’s often scarce.

In January 2014, storage tanks along the Elk River in West Virginia, ruptured and spilled toxic chemicals in water used by people in nine counties, including the state capital.  Residents had to use bottled water for two months.  The leaking tanks had not been inspected by a government agency in 15 years. It turned out that there was no law requiring that they be inspected, even though they sat along a river that provided water to surrounding communities.

More recently, citizens of Flint, Michigan, have been exposed to dangerously high levels of lead in their drinking water, the result of efforts to reduce costs of water treatment and delivery. Failure to treat the water system properly has resulted in sharp increases of lead in the blood of an unspecified number of people, including infants and young children. Lead in growing children can result in reduced leaning ability as well as other behavioral problems.

Just a few days ago, criminal charges were filed against three  men responsible for that water system. One was accused of approving a permit for a treatment plant—and I quote—“knowing that it would fail to provide clean and safe drinking water to families.”

There’s much more to these two cases, to be sure. But my basic point is this: These elected officials, water managers, and company executives betrayed a fundamental community trust, specifically, that they recognize and commit themselves to provide safe, clean water to their fellow citizens. These are not just technical failures.  They are moral failures as well.

Water calls us. 

Lush Land and Rugged RockIt calls us to respect its power. Anyone who been wading in the surf and been suddenly thrown to the ground and tossed about, or caught in an undertow or riptide that drags you out to sea, knows the power of the ocean. And think about how water carves and shapes the earth as it erodes deep channels such as the Grand Canyon.  Hurricanes and floods remind us of how powerful water can be.  Scientists predict that sea levels are likely to rise by anywhere from a few inches to several feet by 2100, threatening the destruction of coastal cities like Boston, New York, Houston, and New Orleans.  Respect for the power of water must be the basis for action to protect life, property, and community.

Water calls us. 

It calls us to study, to learn, and to understand how our lives are tightly bound and dependent on water.  We read and see stories about water every day, but most of the time it’s hard to see where they all add up.

That’s where science comes in.  Understanding the grand ecology of weather, climate, and climate change, is fundamentally about water.  That is the realm of those who study large earth systems, hydrologists, geologists, geographers, atmospheric scientists, and engineers. There is no debate that water is critical for life. There are no water deniers. So we, as individuals and a society, must be responsible for learning how it’s created, stored, distributed, delivered; why some places have abundant water and others do not; and how and why climate changes and with what effects.

Because water is a scarce resource, people will fight over who should get it, in what amounts, and in what order.  On Martha’s farm, the cows had first dibs.  In Bloomfield, across the river, there is a conflict over whether a private company, Niagara Bottling, should have special access to the region’s public water supplies.  This tension between private and public control over water systems goes on around the country. To understand these conflicts, and to make fair and equitable rules for who gets what, when, and how, we need the work of economists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers.  Simply put, we must understand water in all its natural, social, and human dimensions.

It may come as little surprise, however, that there are those, even in our own Congress, who not only deny the reality of climate change, but seek to cut off funding support for natural and social scientists who seek to understand these matters. Because water is necessary for life, willful ignorance about any part of the water system is not just irresponsible, it is morally bankrupt.

Water calls us. 

It calls us to quiet, familiar places.  When I was about eight, we moved to a new house in East Hartford that backed up to a tobacco field with lots of woods nearby.  I loved to play in the woods with my friends, wade in the brooks, fight through the brush along the bank, and walk along the bends and curves, as the water slipped toward some place that I was not yet allowed to go.

Many years later I moved to Texas with my own family.  The land was flat, there were no brooks or ponds, or streams spilling over rocks, only creeks and small ponds called stock tanks for the cattle. I felt disconnected, out of place.  I missed my brooks and streams.  I slowly realized that these were part of what gave me my sense of place, of home.

And one last thing. For me, the sound that a brook or stream makes invites me to stop, to listen as it passes along a sandy bottom, or over rocks. It calls me to listen as the water breaks the silence and, if only for a moment, receive the gift of a mind at peace, and the comfort of a sense of place.

Water calls us.

It calls us to treasure it, to respect its power, to understand it, and to be grateful for its gift of quiet and place.

Will we hear it?

Will we listen to it?

May it be so.

***

“The Ocean is a Gift” by Chloe Campellone

Chloe Campellone

Chloe Campellone

I was 7 years old. It was the summer of 2007 in Charlestown, Rhode Island. I was with my relatives that day, hanging out at my grandmother’s beach house. I loved that place so much. There was a backyard to play hide and seek in and you could see Block Island from her doorstep. Once we arrived we were all expected to sit around on the deck chatting and drinking wine. Well, the adults drank wine. The kids had juice boxes. The adults were in no hurry.  But I had little patience for chit chat. All I could think about was getting to the beach! After what felt like hours we finally got our swim suits on and headed to the beach on foot.

It was a short walk from Grandma’s house to the beach. We walked past many cool nautical themed beach houses I dreamed of living in. As we walked I could see those glorious path by seawaves getting closer and closer. We finally stepped onto the boardwalk and I flung off my sandals in excitement. The sun was beating down on me, the sand sifted between my toes, and the smell of seaweed and too much coconut scented sun screen moved among the sea breeze. The waves were huge and they crashed and boomed loudly.  I bounced impatiently as the relatives set up their beach towels and umbrellas into little campsites. As soon as I was lathered up in Coppertone and got the go ahead, I strapped on my favorite boogie board, the one with the shark on it, and ran to the sea with all my little 7 year old might.

My cousin Julia and I liked to wait until the very last second to jump on top of those quickly moving waves. The waves were so enormous to me, I could feel the adrenaline pumping throughout my body. I remember just soaring into the air with those incredible blue waves and thinking I was on top of the world. I also remember getting pulled under the water and taking tumbles with the riptide while I hung on desperately to my shark boogie board. Some may think that getting pulled into the riptide is scary, but all I remember were the endless giggles that arose from me and my cousin after we pulled our sand covered bodies out of the water. After repeating this cycle of soaring and tumbling in the waves for a couple of hours, I came out of the sea and onto the soft beach sand. I made sand castles and remember running back and forth from ocean to shore like a messenger to get more water for the moat around the biggest castle. Despite the sometimes pesky seagulls pecking for scraps of sandwiches and potato chips, and the loads of sand that managed to migrate into my bathing suit, making for a very uncomfortable walk home, I had a great day. In fact, it was one of my very best days ever.

 I’ve returned to this same place again and again, year after year, and the ocean never fails to offer me adventure and new experiences.  Once my dad and I sat on some rocks by the breachway and he taught me to capture crabs by sticking little pieces of hotdogs on strings into the water. I couldn’t help but laugh as I watched their little claws appear from between the rock crevices to get a hunk of the hotdog. I also caught tiny harmless jellyfish in a big net. We released the crabs and the jelly fish, of course. But it was fun checking them out up close.

Another time I kayaked with my grandpa though the little rivers branching off from the sea in Charlestown. I paddled as fish jumped above the water right next to me and herons sat peacefully, apparently with full bellies, lazily soaking up the warmth of the sun.

Another treasured memory is the morning I went clam digging, or “quahogging” with my grandpa. I put on the huge waders and trudged through the water. I dragged along a heavy clam rake and a big bag to carry home my winnings. If you’ve never used a clam rake this might sound like an easy enough endeavor. Think again!  Digging for clams is hard work. You’re bent over, your hands are tired and freezing, and if you’re really unlucky you might get attacked by sand fleas — which is why my grandpa gave me the waders! And yet, I can honestly say that was easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced.

The ocean is a gift. It cools us when we have grown too hot. It dares us to ride its waves. It teems with life and it invites us to explore it. We will never know its depth but its joy is ours to experience again and again. It calls to me and it calls to my family. It calls us all back to it year after year, summer after summer. And we come together, each taking a break from our own busy little worlds, to celebrate this gift. The ocean is a gift.

***

“The Ram Pump,” by Martha Larson

MarthaI grew up on a small family farm in the village of Still River in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts. My family had been there since sometime in the 1630s. I’m not sure when the water supply system I remember was installed, but I want to tell you about it, because although it was common in rural New England, many of you may not know about it.

Our house had neighbors on either side – fairly close for a rural village. But our property extended out back for acres and acres, including cow pastures, apple orchard, corn fields, and vegetable gardens. If you walked about a quarter of a mile through the pasture, past the saw mill, and beside the apple orchard, you came to a giant ancient maple tree, which sheltered the path down through a swampy area to the ram house. No, not a shelter for male sheep – but the little building which housed the hydraulic ram. The ram was common in rural areas – it pumped water from where it occurred naturally, uphill to where it was needed. And, it used no electricity or gasoline! Water was collected in the reservoir – fed by natural springs – an 8 x 8 building protected this water from leaves, twigs, and most animals. A small diameter pipe led downhill a few feet to the ram house. This was a 6×6 building. When you opened the door you looked way down – about 8 feet – to the sandy bottom where the ram was installed. There was a wooden ladder to climb down if the ram needed attention – which, as long as the water flowed, it didn’t.

Antique ram pump

Antique ram pump

Water flowed into the ram at high pressure, opened another valve, closed the first one with a clacking sound, and pushed the water into the outlet pipe and eventually 1,200 feet away to the holding tank in the barn. Cows got the water first, and the cool water also chilled the cans of milk each day until the Hood truck picked them up.

From the barn, the water (still pushed by the ram) went up to a holding tank in the attic of our house. When I turned the faucet in bathroom or kitchen, water flowed down by gravity. The water pressure was not high enough for a shower, but the old claw foot bathtub was used judiciously – never lots of water in it, and baths were limited – sometimes just once a week. We all learned how to get clean with a small amount of water in the bathroom sink.

We occasionally got to swim at the town beach 2 miles away, and even more rarely got to visit the ocean. But I loved to swim and so was delighted when I was 12 that my father, who had earned some extra money on jury duty, used it to build a pond down back at the foot of the apple orchard, not far from the ram and reservoir. This pond was for entertainment! Yes, it could be used to irrigate crops, but it became a place to enjoy water – to play with water.  It was a place to swim in the summer, row a boat in fall and spring, and ice skate in the winter. Countless family gatherings were held at the pond, including, years later,  my wedding reception.

During a summer storm in 1961 the barn across the street was struck by lightning. Fortunately, it housed no animals, but was old and dry and full of combustible things. The fire raged and the wind picked up. Having exhausted the supply of water the tanker truck carried, the volunteer firemen drove down to the pond – several times – collecting water that was sprayed on the roofs of the neighbor’s house and ours. The neighbor’s barn was a total loss, but no homes or people were injured, thanks to the pond.

During the mid and late sixties, there was a pretty severe draught in Massachusetts – perhaps Connecticut too. The old ram was becoming unreliable, and my brothers and I were all away at school – no one to climb down the ladder in the ram house and unclog or restart it. The cows were long gone, but garden and people needed water. A well was drilled beside the house, and the old farmhouse had a modern water system which is still working today.

The old ram house and reservoir are gone, and a new pond is in the area where they used to be. That pond is used to irrigate the fields of tomatoes, corn, and other veggies that my brother grows. It’s been used to put out at least two brush fires in the village, and still provides a lovely place to walk and reminisce.

***

“A Drink of Cold Water,” by Anne Vaughan

Anne VaughanMany of you know that I grew up out in the Sandhills of Nebraska, on a small farm near a small town called Ainsworth. A mile away from our house was a one room country schoolhouse which I attended from Kindergarten through eighth grade. My first few years there, we didn’t have running water in the building. One of our daily jobs was to carry a bucket out to the pump, pump it full of water and bring it in to fill up a gray crockery water cooler with a spigot at the bottom. That was where we got our drinking water. On warm days when we’d play outside during recess, we’d be hot after a game of baseball or pum-pum-pull away, and we’d run to the pump. Usually the bigger boys would pump that pump handle until water came pouring out. We’d cup our hands under it to catch a drink of cold, refreshing water before going back inside for classes.

At my home we had indoor plumbing and our water was pumped by a windmill that stood on a little hill above the house. In the mid-50’s some of the farmers and ranchers Windmillstill did not have indoor plumbing. We always had fresh, cold water to drink for ourselves and for the cows and chickens and pigs. I loved that windmill. It had a ladder that we could climb and look out at everything. You can still see a lot of those little windmills pumping water for cattle and horses out in the pastures.

Seven miles from Ainsworth is a very small town called Long Pine. There is a place called Seven Springs that feeds into Pine Creek. We used to love to go there and drink the water right from one of the springs because it was even fresher and colder than our water at home. My uncle once sent a sample of the water to the state for testing and they were amazed by the purity of it. Coco-Cola even had a small bottling plant there.

Not everyone has access to such good, clean water, but there are springs with good water in other places, too of course. There’s one in Willimantic where you see people filling containers with fresh, cold water. And we even have an old spring here on our property. There’s a path out back leading to that spring where you’ll find nice flat stones placed around it to make a kind of well where clear, cold water collects. This is water from that spring. (I had a jar of water that I collected from the spring and boiled it so it could be used in the child dedications.)

To me, water is sacred, but we often don’t treat it that way. When I was a senior in high school, they built a small feed lot in Ainsworth. That’s the kind of place they take range-fed cattle to be fattened up for a few weeks on corn before shipping them off to the packing houses near Omaha. Years later when we were back visiting my mom at her apartment in town, we noticed a water filter on her kitchen faucet. When I asked Mom about it, she just said the building superintendent told them to use it. But I know that it was because they were concerned about the purity of the water. It breaks my heart to think that the water once so clean and pure, which comes from the renowned Ogallala Aquifer, may now be contaminated by that feed lot and other larger scale farming and ranching that now take place there.

***


“Take a pebble, drop it in Water, Watch the Ripples on the Water”  by Mel Hoover and Josh Pawelek

I invite you to imagine water. Imagine it any way you wish. Notice that water has a spirit to it. Invite the spirit of water to come to you. Remember with thankfulness and joy plunging bare foot intoripples river beds, riding ocean waves, swimming in pools, picking up river-smoothed rocks, skipping stones and watching pebbles create ripples on the water’s surface.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

This is movement. This is energy. This is power. This is the spirit of water fanning out in all directions, fanning out through more and more molecules, expanding the circle, wider and wider and wider.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

If we want to make change—any kind of change—whether we’re talking about protecting water resources, or land resources, or animals or human bodies or the earth’s body—we must be willing to ripple the water. We must be willing to start something; willing to get things moving, willing to offer a different perspective, willing to take action. We must be agitators, instigators, innovators, catalysts. We must be willing to take risks, to say what we think and feel, to speak truth to power, to send a message that moves from person to person to person.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

If we want to make change, we must be willing to ripple the water. And if the first stone is too small and the ripples lose energy, we must be ready to drop another pebble, perhaps a larger pebble, generating larger, more powerful ripples. And when those ripples lose energy, we must be ready to drop the next pebble, and the next, and the next. May we be like pebbles dropped in water, sources of movement, energy, power and spirit.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

May we be like ripples on the water, constant, continuous, in all directions, expanding the circle wider and wider and wider.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

Let us take a moment together in the holy quiet to ponder the differences we can make together. What pebbles do we need to drop? What change would we like to see in our community, in our nation, in our faith? What water do we need to ripple?

 

Policy Board to Host Black Lives Matter Conversation 4-17-16 at 1:00 PM

DSC_2065The UUS:E Policy Board will host a congregation-wide conversation on Black Lives Matter on Sunday, April 17th at 1:00 PM in the chapel. 

All are welcome and encouraged to attend!

Background: At its February and March meetings, the Policy Board considered a request from the UUS:E Social Justice/ Anti-Oppression Committee (SJ/AO) to place a Black Lives Matter road-sign on our property along West Vernon St.  SJ/AO had previously held congregational conversations on this question and also invited feedback from members and friends following Sunday services in January. While SJ/AO found clear support for placing a road sign on our property, there was not unanimous support. Concerns raised about placing a sign included 1) the risk of vandalism and 2) the notion that UUS:E members and friends support many causes and we don’t want to privilege one cause over the others. 

The Policy Board determined that placing a road sign on our property constitutes a “congregational statement” and thus, based on our policies, requires the congregation to pass a resolution at a called meeting. While the agenda for the May 21st UUS:E Annual Meeting has not yet been set, it is highly likely that the Policy Board will ask the congregation to vote on whether or not UUS:E officially supports the Black Lives Matter movement. Given this, the Policy Board would like to hear comments from members and friends. This is the purpose of the April 17th Black Lives Matter Conversation. 

Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have entered into such conversations about Black Lives Matter. Many have placed signs on their property. This is due in part to the fact that African American Unitarian Universalists participating in protests in Ferguson, MO, along with the Back Lives of Unitarian Universalism Organizing Collective have asked Unitarian Universalist congregations to place banners and signs in order to show solidarity with America’s new racial justice movement. 

For further reading, see:

Alicia Garza’s “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.”

Read the 2015 Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly’s statement on Black Lives Matter.

Read about a Black Lives Matter installation at the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters.

Read about Black Lives Matter signs being vandalized.

See Rev. Josh’s 2015 sermon #BlackLivesMatter.

See Rev. Josh’s 2016 sermon, “Perhaps Struggle is All We Have.”

Click here for resources on Black Lives Matter from the Unitarian Universalist Association.

 

 

For Gravity’s Sake

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Did you feel it? I didn’t either.

4-3 gravitational wavesIn the new issue of Smithsonian Magazine, physicist Brian Greene writes: “More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two black holes executed the final steps in a fast-footed pas de deux, concluding with a final embrace so violent it released more energy than the combined output of every star in every galaxy in the observable universe. Yet, unlike starlight, the energy was dark, being carried by the invisible force of gravity. On September 14, 2015, at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, a fragment of that energy, in the form of a ‘gravitational wave,’ reached Earth, reduced by its vast transit across space and time to a mere whisper of its thunderous beginning.”[1] This was not the first time gravitational waves have grazed or graced our planet, but it was the first time scientists detected it. It took fifteen months to determine the data were accurate, but on February 11th, 2016, scientists announced the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), operating identical detection systems simultaneously in Louisiana and Washington, had detected a gravitational wave emanating from the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago on the other side of the universe. [2]

When they pass by a planet or person, gravitational waves squeeze in one direction, and in a perpendicular direction they pull. How often does something more than a billion years old give you a squeeze and a pull?

For a brief explanation of the discovery of gravitational waves, check out Brian Greene’s video: 

I knew immediately I wanted to address this in a sermon. Our theme for April is creation, and that seemed an appropriate time. Historically creation is a reference to the earth, the sun, moon, stars, waters, dry land, plants, trees, fish, animals, human beings—everything God is said to have created in the book of Genesis. I use creation in the broadest sense possible, as a name for all there is, all existence, everything—the visible and the invisible, the near and the far, the new and the ancient. And here comes this invisible ripple in the fabric of space-time—its size a billionth of the diameter of an atom—gently squeezing us in one direction and pulling us in another. Our bodies don’t sense it, but now we have tools that can detect this very slight, very subtle, but very real movement across creation. “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” said an ancient Hebrew priest. Gravitational waves likely weren’t what he had in mind, but there it is, sweeping over us. The universe speaking? [3]

I want to offer some reflections on gravity as a way to deepen the message of my sermon from two weeks ago. In that sermon I spoke about how the modern world—specifically the Western industrialized nations—separated mind from body and separated divinity from the earth after humans had lived for millennia without such separations. In that sermon I offered prayers that we may learn to reunite mind and body, that we may learn to experience divinity present in the earth. I said, “May ours be a religion that gently sinks its people into intimate relationship with Nature, intimate relationship with the divine earth—a relationship that is the ancestral birthright of [us all].”[4]

I named René Descartes and Francis Bacon as two of the leading philosophers of modern science—people responsible for advancing these separations. I did not name Isaac Newton who is often identified as the symbol of Western science. According to science historian, Morris Berman, “Newton defined the method of science itself, the notions of hypothesis and experiment, and the techniques that were to make rational mastery of the environment a viable intellectual exercise.”[5] But there was something different about Newton. Not only did he help invent a whole new way of doing science and a whole new way of understanding Nature—my fourth grader just completed a unit on Newton’s Laws; and not only did he discover gravity; but he was also deeply immersed in the ancient scientific traditions—Occultism, Hermeticism, Alchemy. The 20th-century British economist John Maynard Keynes said “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”[6]

Today, if we learn about alchemy at all, we learn it was spurious, late medieval attempt to turn lead into gold, or to create an elixir to prolong life. It never worked. But this begs a question: if it didn’t work, why was it around for some many hundreds of years? What accounted for its staying power? There was much more to alchemy than these fantastic quests.[7] For my purposes here, it’s enough to know that alchemists did not understand themselves as disembodied observers of the natural world. More to the point, they weren’t observers in the sense that we understand that word today. They were participants. They did not experience a mind-body separation, nor did they experience a separation between themselves and the materials with which they worked. To them, all matter possessed Mind—its own kind of consciousness. Some refer to alchemy as “the search for the God-head in matter.” Everything was alive, and the alchemist was part of it. As they sought to transform matter, they expected themselves to be transformed in the process. Berman says “the alchemist did not confront matter; he permeated it.”[8] Apparently Isaac Newton subscribed to this archaic world-view, and took his role as a steward of the ancient practices quite seriously.

But alchemy’s ascendency also ended with Newton. He lived in an age of great social disruption, class conflict, revolution and war in England. Apparently the more ancient and occult world-views, including alchemy, aligned with the more radical and revolutionary political views. When the English monarchy was restored to power in the 1660s, it became dangerous for anyone to espouse radical and revolutionary views, whether political or scientific. In this climate, the ruling elites saw the new modern science—what they called the mechanical philosophy—as an antidote to the radicalism of the previous decades.[9] A vision of an ordered, mechanical universe translated into an ordered, mechanical society. As a highly public figure, Newton hid his affinity for alchemy and the occult. This affinity was only discovered when his private manuscripts were made public many years later. According to Berman, Newton delved “deeply into the Hermetic wisdom for his answers, while clothing them in the idiom of the mechanical philosophy. The centerpiece of the Newtonian system, gravitational attraction, was in fact the Hermetic principle of sympathetic forces, which Newton saw as a creative principle, a source of divine energy in the universe. Although he presented this idea in mechanical terms, his unpublished writings reveal his commitment to the cornerstone of all occult systems: the notion that mind exists in matter.”[10]

I didn’t know this about Newton. Learning it now, I find it highly ironic that a person who regarded himself as a steward of ancient wisdom, as a magician—a person who sensed God in matter—would become synonymous with a view of Nature and the universe as cold, inert, inanimate, orderly and vast. As physicist Joel Primack and science historian Nancy Ellen Abrams say in their book, The View from the Center of the Universe, after Newton, “the universe that had once felt like a great cathedral filled with angels had vanished, and infinite reaches loomed.”[11] Human beings had lived for millennia with a sense of belonging and confidence because they experienced themselves as intimately embedded in a universe filled with divinity. Now they began to experience existential terror in response to a universe seen as infinite or at least incomprehensively large, almost empty, and with no inherent purpose.”[12] “No place was special,” they say. “There was no secure foothold in the universe, no anchor…. Physics claimed to define physical reality, yet it treated human beings like objects, and those objects were left wondering whether anything in the universe recognized them as more than that. Perhaps they were just a random occurrence on an average planet in a vast and uncaring scheme of things.”[13] “The Newtonian picture left humans drifting in a kind of cosmic homelessness that persists to this day.”[14]

Some might call this sense of cosmic homelessness excessively bleak. Others might call it ‘overdone,’ something only philosophers experience. Obviously not every human being feels it. If anything, humans more commonly feel existential terror in response to more immediate concerns: war, migration, the climate crisis, violence, etc. So perhaps cosmic homelessness isn’t such a big deal. However, it is also true that 325 years since Newton published his Principia, many of us are used to the picture of the universe physics paints. To the extent we can grasp it, we’re used to its impersonal vastness. We’re used to our smallness. We’re even used to the conclusion that there is no larger purpose. Of course, many people don’t accept the astronomers’ conclusions and never have. They continue to resist the idea of a meaningless universe. Billions across the planet still take refuge in other-worldly religious visions, still bow down to a commanding, disembodied God, still look forward to a non-physical eternity in Heaven. As such they still help perpetuate the great separations of modernity—the separation of body and mind, and the separation divinity from the earth.

These separations are hurting us. We need a new alchemy for our time. I included in our liturgy this morning Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “When Something Comes to Me at My Window,” and Heather McHugh’s poem “A Physics,” because, for me, they begin to name an alternative to both cosmic homelessness and anti-scientific blind faith in a disembodied God. They gently sink us into intimate relationship with Nature. They blur the lines between us and Nature. They embrace what the body experiences. And they both start with a reverent shout-out to gravity. “How surely gravity’s law,” says Rilke, “strong as an ocean current, / takes hold of even the smallest thing / and pulls it toward the heart of the world.”[15] McHugh is more veiled. “When you get down to it,” she says. And then the lines between us and Nature blur. “Earth / has our great ranges / of feeling—Rocky, Smoky, Blue— / and a heart that can melt stones. / The still pools fill with sky, / as if aloof, and we have eyes / for all of this—and more, for Earth’s / reminding moon. We too are ruled / by such attractions—spun and swaddled, / rocked and lent a light.”[16] She seems to know something of what the alchemists knew.

Rilke challenges the idea of a disembodied existence. “Only we, in our arrogance,” he says, “push out beyond what we each belong to / for some empty freedom.”[17] And McHugh, though not exactly challenging, clearly sees God as somewhere else. “The whole / idea of love was not to fall. And neither was / the whole idea of God. We put him well / above ourselves, because we meant, / in time, to measure up.”[18] But gravity is real, and we do fall. I think McHugh is saying we’ll never measure up, and if anything, we need to measure down, get down to it, let gravity works its magic, pull God off the pedestal, squeeze God out of disembodied existence, out of other-worldly heaven, out of the judgement seat, out of timelessness into this time, into the body of this world, into the energy of this life. Rilke says, “like children, we begin again / to learn from the things, / because they are in God’s heart; they have never left.”[19] This is an alchemical vision for our time. And McHugh says, “We want the suns and moons of silver in ourselves.”[20] This is an alchemical vision for our time.  

And if this alchemy is still too mired in words, still too abstract, still leaves you wondering, “yes, but how shall I live?” perhaps there’s a lesson in Gary Short’s poem, “Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders,” in the image of a teacher endlessly kicking playground balls to his students at recess. “The balls rise like planets / and the 3rd graders / circle dizzily beneath the falling sky, / their arms outstretched.”[21] That’s how we ought to live: with joy and outstretched arms, awaiting our playground balls—whatever they may be—as they, like we, are pulled gently towards the heart of the world.

There is mighty work ahead. My next two sermons will name what this work is. This reunification of body and mind, of earth and divinity—it is the work of generations. It is work we are doing and must continue to do. And don’t be surprised, if in the midst of this work, you find yourself transformed into something more whole, like an alchemist, such that even your senses work differently, and you awake one fine morning, and you just know—because your body now knows—an ancient wave, rippling its way across the universe has just passed by, has just touched you, has squeezed you and pulled you, softly, as if to say “I know you’re there,” and then continued on its endless way.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Greene, Brian, “The Detection of Gravitational Waves Was a Scientific Breakthrough, but What’s Next?” Smithsonian Magazine, April, 2016. See: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/detection-gravitational-waves-breakthrough-whats-next-180958511/.

[2] Brian Greene Explains the Discovery of Gravitational Waves: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s06_jRK939I.

[3] In addition to Brian Green’s article in Smithsonian Magazine, see also MacDonald, Fiona, “It’s Official: Gravitational Waves Have Been Detected, Einstein Was Right,” Science Alert, Feb. 11, 2016, http://www.sciencealert.com/live-update-big-gravitational-wave-announcement-is-happening-right-now; and Krauss, Lawrence, “Finding Beauty in the Darkness,” New York Times, Feb. 11th, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/finding-beauty-in-the-darkness.html?_r=0.

[4] Pawelek, Josh, “I Am Lush Land and Rugged Rock,” a sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, March 20, 2016: http://uuse.org/i-am-lush-land-and-rugged-rock/#.VvwLLKQrKhc.

[5] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 107.

[6] Quoted in Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 108.

[7] C. G. Jung famously explores the depth and breadth of alchemy in his Collected Works, specifically Vol. 12, Psychology and Alchemy, Vol. 13, Alchemical Studies, and Vol. 14, Mysterium Coniunctionis.

[8] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 82.

[9] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 114.

[10] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 115.

[11] Primack, Joel and Abrams, Nancy Ellen, The View from the Center of the Universe (New York: Riverhead Books, 2006) pp. 80.

[12] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, p. 83.

[13] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, pp. 80-81.

[14] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, p. 82.

[15] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “When Something Comes to Me By My Window,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, trs., Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999) p. 116.

[16] McHugh, Heather, “A Physics,” in Keillor, Garrison, ed., Good Poems (New York: Penguin, 2005) p. 103.

[17] Rilke, Book of Hours, p. 116.

[18] McHugh, Good Poems, p. 103.

[19] Rilke, Book of Hours, p. 116-117.

[20] McHugh, Good Poems, p. 103.

[21] Short, Gary, “Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders.” See: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/03/29.