Archives for June 2016

Special Performances of Twelfth Night

Hear Ye, Hear Ye! The Bard has come to UUS:E!

Join us for performances of Shakespeare’s shakespeareboisterously hilarious comedy TWELFTH NIGHT, on Saturday, July 16, in the Meeting Room at 8 PM, and on Sunday, July 17, outside on the lawn at 2 PM. There is no charge, but a goodwill offering will be accepted. Email Jessica at jtoandcc@charter.net with any questions, and we hope to see you there!

July 2016 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

I have a request. I’d like to hear from as many UUS:E members and friends as possible what your favorite sermons of mine have been over the years. Please write to me at revpawelek@sbcglobal.net or leave a message on my home office phone, 860-652-8961. If you don’t remember titles, that’s OK. (I don’t remember most of the titles either!) If you can tell me what the sermon was about, or if there was a particular story or message that you remember, that should be enough to help me identify which sermon you are referring to. And if you can’t remember specific sermons but there’s a certain type of sermon that you like, you can inform me of that too.

I’m making this request mainly so I can identify what has stuck with you over the years. I’m trying to discern which sermons have had the most impact on you, or have meant the most to you, or have been the most helpful to you. I want to learn what works best for the congregation.

I’m also planning to “re-preach” the two sermons that get named most frequently in this little survey. I will update them and preach one on July 31st and the other on August 28th.

When you send me an email or leave a phone message, you will get a message informing you that I am on vacation and study leave. That is true. But don’t worry. I want to hear from you in response to this question. What have been your one or two favorite sermons of mine?

***

Speaking of vacation and study leave, I will be taking approximately six weeks off for this purpose between July 5th and August 21st. As is always the case, I am available for pastoral emergencies during my vacation and study leave. I request that people only contact me in the event of emergencies (and to tell me about your favorite sermons!)

During the summer our family will be spending some time in the Berkshires with Stephany’s parents. The boys will be participating in various camps there. We’ll be taking a road trip to Baltimore. And we’ll also be spending a week on Cape Cod with my parents and my brothers’ families. My primary focus of study this summer will be the work of Morris Berman. Some of you may remember the sermon I preached on May 1st in response to his first book on human consciousness, The Reenchantment of the World. This summer I will be studying his other two books on human consciousness, Coming to Our Senses and Wandering God. I will also wade into his series on the United States of America, Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed. My goal is to teach an Adult Religious Education course on his work sometime next year.

***

Finally, as many of you know, UUS:E has made plans to hire a ministerial intern and become a teaching congregation. Well, we were poised to begin the internship in September, however our candidate ultimately accepted an offer from another congregation. This means that we will not be commencing with this program in the fall. I was very disheartened by this news. Such is life. We will eventually do this, just not next year.

With love,

Rev. Josh

Part-Time Job Opportunity – Nursery Coordinator – Filled

FILLED.
If you enjoy caring for babies and toddlers and can commit to being in the nursery every Sunday during the 11 AM service this position might be a good fit for you.  Qualified candidates must be at least 18 years of age, have experience caring for infants and toddlers, enjoy working with volunteers and establishing relationships with families, and pass a criminal background check. The position is year round and pays $20 / week (10:45 AM – 12:30 PM).  Think you might be interested?  (Or know someone who might be?)  Contact Director of Religious Education, Gina Campellone at UUSE.redir@sbcglobal.net to learn more.

Gina Campellone

Director of Religious Education
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
153 Vernon Street West, Manchester, CT 06042
860.646.5151
uuse.org

A Remote Important Region

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Josh at Ministry Days“And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, / a remote important region in all who talk”[1]—words from twentieth-century American poet, William E. Stafford. I don’t pretend to know what the poet meant by the phrase, “a remote important region,” though I suspect it was something he felt, something essential in us he imagined must be real and must be accessible. But it isn’t easily accessible. It is shadowy, remote.

As we come to the end of the 2015-2016 congregational year, I want to reflect on a theme that has caught my heart and with which I’ve been wrestling in my preaching over the past year. Maybe Stafford didn’t have words for this remote, important region; or maybe he did but he didn’t want to name it explicitly; and maybe this isn’t what he meant at all: but when I encounter this appeal “to something shadowy, / a remote, important region,” I imagine he is talking about the body. I imagine he is talking about our physical, sensual bodies that breathe deeply as they enter into worship, sit quietly and comfortably, rise to sing, light chalice flames, meditate and pray, share joys and concerns, give money, hold hands, hug and love; our physical, sensual bodies that revel in pleasure and beauty; our bodies that grow, age, decline, forget, and eventually die; our bodies that witness and sometimes experience horrors and thus hold stress, anxiety, pain; feel fear, anger, despair. Our bodies—shadowy, remote, but utterly important regions. Why remote? Because for too long our faith, like our larger western culture, has kept the body separate from the mind. You’ve heard me come back to this claim again and again this year.

We know body and mind aren’t separate. Anyone who practices yoga or Buddhist meditation has some inkling of this non-separateness, this non-duality. Mystics, healers, yogis, gurus, sages, TED talkers, therapists, life coaches and UU ministers tell us all the time of this non-separateness. I’m telling you again right now. And yet somehow, in practice, our faith, like our larger western culture, resists this knowledge. Religiously speaking, the body remains shadowy, remote. “I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty,” says Stafford, “to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.”

Let’s face it (and I don’t mean this metaphorically): the Unitarian Universalism we inherit is not a deeply embodied faith. Those of you who attended Thomas Moore’s lecture here last weekend heard me say this to him. Historically we favor mind, ideas, words, talk. We stack books by our bedsides. Our clergy start sermons quoting poems. We may not identify as Abrahamic “people of the book,” but surely we are people of the word. Whether we care to admit it or not, we’re good Protestants who privilege the word in worship, expecting preachers to prove their point through reasoned argument. So many of our congregations debate whether it’s OK to clap or shout amen or hallelujah in worship. Sometimes the music moves us so much we want to physically move, but we’re not sure it’s ok. Sex education is great for our children, but feels dicey for adults. And most importantly for my purposes this morning, we’re often unable or unwilling to move anywhere until we’ve crafted the perfect mission and vision statements. We want to get the words right. But the body doesn’t typically occur to us as a religiously significant region. It is remote. Those of you who hail from less wordy faith traditions couldn’t stay there for many good reasons, but sometimes you whisper to me privately that you miss the ritual, the darkness, the incense, the spiritedness, hands raised high, even a living, incarnate God. You miss the invitation to live religiously in the body. We stay mired in mind, which, given what we know about non-separateness, is irrational.

This is what I’ve been coming to terms with over the last year: our minds are sharp and we don’t want to lose them, but alone they are insufficient for the ministry our era demands. There is a growing dissonance between the vision our words proclaim and our bodies’ knowledge of the world. Are you one who has felt this dissonance? We envision a world made fair, a glorious, golden city, a land where justice rolls down like waters. “The moral arc of the universe is long,” we say with Parker and King, “but it bends towards justice.” Do we ever pause to consider whether these wonderful, hopeful visions are remotely realistic? Do we ever peer beneath them to explore honestly what we must do to achieve them and how radically different our lives would be if they became our reality?

Fifty people gunned down on Latinx night at a gay night club in Orlando, FL. Is it possible our vision of a world free of violence is growing not closer but more distant? When we proclaim visions of a world free of racism, sexism, homophobia, violence, or fossil fuel consumption, does something shadowy in you feel dissonance? Do you wonder in some remote region of you how on earth this is really going to happen? Do you get a flash of maybe it won’t happen? And if you do, how quickly do you put it aside? How swiftly does it rise up in you only to find no outlet, only to have your mind tell you not to speak it because it may be misunderstood, may sound cynical, faint-hearted, privileged, or worse, like you’re not a real Unitarian Universalist. Do you tell yourself you shouldn’t feel this way? And what way is it exactly? If you probe, is there hopelessness or despair churning your stomach, tensing your shoulders, dizzying your head? And might you suddenly feel guilty, ashamed or weak for feeling this way? Yet this is one way the body tries to speak in our era. Let’s learn to listen.

Let’s face it. We name wonderful visions Sunday after Sunday, year after year—and I intend to keep naming them—but the naming hasn’t been enough to stem the tide of oppression, income inequality, global warming and so much needless violence. Despite our words, and despite all our good work and the work of so many others, those things are getting worse, not better. No doubt our words help people feel hopeful—and that matters—that is part of our ministry—but let’s come down from the mountaintop of our minds and join our bodies in the desert where they’re already facing it: facing extreme weather patterns and hottest years on record; facing gun violence in the home and almost daily mass shootings; facing opioid addiction; facing mental illness; facing decreasing life expectancy, a hollowed out American middle class looking for work that doesn’t exist, political polarization; the trauma of endless war, terrorism and its threat; mass incarceration, racist police violence, modern slavery, tens of millions of stateless people; and reactionary backlash to any effort to address any of it in a principled, peaceful and just manner. Sometimes it is too much for the mind to take in, but our bodies feel it whether our minds think and reason and vision or not. Our bodies know something of how deep it goes. Just remember how you felt as news of the Orlando shooting unfolded. Unless we can integrate this body-knowledge into our religious lives, our beautiful, hopeful, visionary words will come, in time, to mean nothing.

I was moved by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a letter to his son explaining the historical and ongoing violence against Black bodies in the United States. I preached about it on Martin Luther King Sunday. Coates counsels his son—and his readers—not to become too dependent on visions of a better world. He says, “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.”[2] “You must wake up each morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all.”[3] Hard words. But he’s facing what his body knows! His words collapse the distance between body and mind. Lay the vision aside for a moment. Consult your flesh-bone-and-blood body that breathes and bleeds, laughs and cries, ponders and thinks, makes love, gives birth, ages, dies. What is the body capable of doing in this moment? That question matters as much as what our vision is. Coates’ answer is struggle. It sounds hard. It sounds barren. But he offers to his son as a path to integrity and wholeness. “You are called to struggle,” he says, “not because it assures you of victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.” The more I sit with this, the more I realize I find it so much more hopeful than repeating the words of a vision whose realization grows more distant with each passing year. 

Bishop John Selders of Hartford’s Amistad United Church of Christ is a great friend of this congregation. He was deeply moved by his experiences in Ferguson, MO in the months following the police killing of Michael Brown. He returned from a visit there in December, 2014 and, at a meeting of clergy to discuss convening yet another dialogue with police he said “No. I’m done trying to talk the system out of racism.” What he learned in Ferguson, and what he was teaching us is that it’s time for the creative use of our bodies in the struggle against racism. It’s time for the physical disruption of business as usual. It’s time to take streets. These are the lessons of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. Social justice movements need our bodies as much—or more—than they need our words. As one who’s invested much in the talk of social justice, it was hard for me to transition to body-based struggle. I’ve named that from this pulpit a number of times. I’ve always been affirmed for using words. Would embodied struggle receive the same affirmation? But what a difference it has made for me to say nothing with my mouth and everything with my body, to stand in a street blocking traffic because Black Lives Matter, to spend an evening in jail. And how much more powerful the words that finally do come when the mind speaks what the body knows.

I’ve come to understand over the years many Unitarian Universalists feel paralyzed when it comes to social justice work, not because they don’t agree with the various causes, but because the distance between body and mind is so great. It’s counter-cultural for us, but it’s time to start naming the concerns, pain, anxiety, shakiness, nervousness, hopelessness and despair that can live in the body. This is the leadership our faith needs now. As we name what our bodies know, we give permission for others not only to name it, but to sing, dance, pray and laugh it. As we name what our bodies know, we’ll be making this important region less remote.

There’s a story making its way around the internet. Bill Graver sent it to me a few weeks ago. The teacher asks a group of young students to list the seven wonders of the world. They name the usual Pyramids, Great Wall, Taj Majal, etc. One student isn’t sure she understands. “Well, tell us what you have; we’ll help,” says the teacher. The student hesitates but then says, “it’s different for different people, but the seven wonders of the world are that we can see, taste, smell, hear, touch, feel, and love.” Friends: before we appeal to our lofty, beautiful visions of a world made fair, Let us learn to consult our bodies? The question is not only What do I think about what’s happening? The question is What does the body know about what’s happening? And a corollary: What is the body capable of doing in this moment? And as we ask, let’s be ready to encounter and welcome the hopelessness and despair that lives in our bodies. Let’s face it. Let’s see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it, feel it, love it. We may have to reign in our vision, but we will move farther than we thought possible.

And let us remember: the body doesn’t only hold the world’s pain. It holds the world’s joy too. In a faith community that understands the body as religiously significant, not only does our hopelessness and despair become speakable and thus more manageable, our joy and ecstasy become speakable too. Bringing the body in opens avenues for eye contact, touch, color, fragrance, dance, art, intuition, dreaming; for ‘let’s break bread together,’ for the creative occupation of space in the service of social justice struggle, and for the rediscovery of ritual, darkness, incense, spiritedness, hands raised high in praise, a living, incarnate God and a reenchanted world.

May our bodies find their home in our faith. May we learn to hear their voice. May we struggle for what matters. And may our lives be honorable and sane.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Stafford, William E., “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” See: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/58264.

[2] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015) p. 70.

[3] Coates, Between the World and Me, pp. 70-71.

Interfaith Vigil for Orlando

Join  Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Unitarian Universalist leaders for a

vigil in honor of the victims of Sunday’s mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando

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Wednesday, June 15th at 7:00 PM

Unitarian Universalist Society: East

153 West Vernon St., Manchester, CT

All are welcome. 

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For information call (860) 646-5151 or email revpawelek@sbcglobal.net

 

 

Those Who Serve, Families at Home

Lauriston King

David Garnes

Jim Adams

Reflections on a Memorial Day Service, May 29, 2016

Lauriston King

For me growing up in the years before time, Memorial Day meant putting on my high-top Keds, my flannel Little League uniform, marching down East Hartford’s Main Street in the morning, and getting to play ball that afternoon. Sometime over the weekend we would go on a family picnic up to Henry Park in Rockville.  Other than noticing the flags on veterans’ graves, reveling in the long weekend that delivered summer, and the newspapers filled with ads, I knew little about Memorial Day.

At its core, Memorial Day honors the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. (In that respect, it’s distinct from Veterans’ Day which honors all veterans.) In the years following the Civil War it was known as Decoration Day for the tradition of placing flowers on the graves of the fallen.  There continues to be argument about the who, when, and how of the first Decoration Day; sharp differences between the Union and Confederacy over when to hold the ceremonies; and how it changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day.  But the heart, the intent of the day, still rings true in the words of the Union general, John Logan, who called for a nationwide day of remembrance: “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

The name, Memorial Day, did not come into widespread use until after World War II. It was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967.  Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act the following year (June 28, 1968) that moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. (See, government can do good.) This moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date (the historical premise being that flowers were in abundant bloom) to the last Monday in May.

 So, here we are on a Memorial Day weekend, nearly 150 years later, with the experience of regional wars, two world wars,  numerous military efforts to overthrow distasteful governments, and the dispiriting sense of war without end. Indeed, earlier this month marked the date when the Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Obama, had been at war longer than any president in American history.

If we allow ourselves to think beyond the Weekend Spirit of Memorial Day, we find ourselves, as members of a liberal religious community, in the uncomfortable position of typically being against war and wary of those who seek to fire up the coarse emotions drive countries to war. At the same time, we want to support those who serve, as well as commit our military strength to defend those unable to defend themselves, no matter where terror and oppression strive to destroy lives and freedom.

Let me share a few brief thoughts on ways liberal religious communities might wrestle with these often opposing positions.

First, it is our responsibility, defined by our principles — dignity, respect, truth, justice, equity, democracy, care of the earth — to demand an open, public, and hard look at any call to war.

I say this because respect for citizens in a democratic republic demands it.

I say it because it has become way too easy to go to war in this country.  In the title of Geoffrey Perret’s 1989 book, we are A Nation Made by War.  It should not be easy for powerful people to suppress dissent by conjuring up the magic spell of National Security.

And, I say it because presidents and politicians lie.  Recall Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin, Iraq and “weapons of mass destruction”.

Second, it is our responsibility to know the political history of how, when, and with what rationalizations political people have committed our citizens to war.  Over the past few years I’ve been reading some of that history. I’ve lived through some 60 years of it and thought I knew something about what was going on.  I clearly did not.  What historians, biographers, and other scholars have found in looking at over 100 years of American wars is a pattern of overt and covert military force to support corporate interests; imperialist ambition; poor to non-existent intelligence; unfounded fears of weak adversaries, and an always fluid roster of new “enemies”.  All compounded by  an arrogance of power and willful ignorance of other countries and their cultures.  Simply put, we need to know how, by whom, and why we got into war so that we can gear up our informed skepticism the next time we hear that awful cliché, “boots on the ground.”

Third, it is our responsibility to understand the fundamental changes that have reshaped our relationship to war, and, more specifically to those who bear arms.  War is now waged in our name without specific declaration, with little shared financial sacrifice, with a small professional volunteer force, with legions of civilian contractors and complex technologies, and with no clear understanding of what victory means.  The citizen soldier has been replaced by the National Security State.

The issue here is the growing gulf between those who go into battle and the society from which they come.  We live in an age of spectator wars.  We watch combat on television, in movies, and through video games.  The harsh reality of death in war touches fewer and fewer families and communities.  Consider that some 625,000 died in the Civil War, where, in General Logan’s words, their “bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Compare these numbers to the 7100 lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Few cities, villages, or hamlet churchyards hold them. I have not known them.  I have not known their families. I doubt that I’m alone here. This increasingly huge gap between the very small number who serve and the much larger society raises basic issues of fairness, shared sacrifice, and social support for them.

That said, we have an immediate responsibility to respect and honor those whose lives have been taken in service to the country.  That is why we have Memorial Day.  That is why we acknowledge Memorial Day in a worship service. It is not a celebration of war but a reminder of the cost of war. Our civic duty to question, challenge, and dispute those in power must not obscure our responsibility to those who serve. We cannot allow that to happen.  Those who serve are our families, our friends, our neighbors.

One powerful reminder of these ties is the stories of those we do know, as we will hear from David Garnes and Jim Adams. Jim’s wife, Sylvia Ounpuu, has graciously agreed to stand in for Jim, as he is not able to be here today.
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David Garnes

I’d like to begin by reading a poem from a book I wrote:

It’s called “After the War Was Over: December 1945.”

Standing on the cold and crowded station platform

Pushed against trousers of scratchy wool

The boy nestles in the fragrance of his mother’s coat

They’re meeting the man in the photo on the piano

The tall sailor in Navy whites holding the hand

Of the little boy straining to meet his grip

The son’s tiny white cap perches on his mass of curls

Not as comfortably as the father’s, worn with easy

Swagger atop his sun- bleached butch

 

First a far-off whistle then a single piercing light

As the huge engine lumbers in on screeching wheels

His mother’s nails dig into the boy’s mittened palm

Smudged faces are visible from every window and

Hands wave wildly to the sounds of muffled shouts

A sharp hiss of air and the steel steps are lowered

The sailor is first off the train and taller than anyone

He sweeps the boy’s mother in a fierce embrace

That knocks her felt tam to the dirty boarded floor

Your hat! Mommy your hat! Cries the boy

 

Then his turn comes

And he’s lifted high overhead where

He hangs suspended in the frosty air

He reaches out to his smiling mother

Mindful of the space between them

Hurting from the tight grip of unfamiliar hands

Smelling a scent different from the one he knows

 

As you may have guessed, the scared little boy is me, and the returning sailor is my father, James “Jim” Garnes, whom I was seeing for the first time in my memory. This in fact is one of my very earliest memories, one that has stayed particularly vivid in my mind. Though it was a big day no matter how you look at it, I think for me it represented the beginning of a relationship that I’m convinced was partially formed by the circumstances of war.

I was a pre-World War II baby. I was four months old on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. My mother told me in later years that I was asleep in my crib, she was doing the dishes, and my dad was listening to a football game on the Philco radio in the living room.

My father enlisted in the Navy because he wanted a choice of where to serve when it became apparent that married men with children would be drafted. He left for boot camp and eventually the Pacific before I was two years old and I didn’t see him again for several years.

Always a quiet, somewhat introverted person, he apparently was even more so in his first years back from the war. He was a stranger to me, but I suppose I’d become somewhat a stranger to him, since I had evolved from a baby into a youngster getting ready to start school. Moreover, I’d been pampered by my mother and my aunt and my grandmother, with whom we lived during the war. Why was this new, large arrival—my father was nearly 6 feet 5 inches tall—why was he getting all the attention? It wasn’t easy for either of us.

Nor had it been easy for those on the homefront during the war. My family was lucky in many ways. Women with children were not great candidates for jobs. My mother began work at the Mass Mutual Life Insurance Compny in Springfield in 1943, the very week they began to hire married women for the first time. Also, my grandmother, my dad’s mother, was home to take care of me while my mother was at work. Women working in companys that had unions also found that the unions themselves were not necessarily in favor of day care centers at work, since they feared it would give too much power to management. As I mentioned above, it was not an easy time.

I’d like to say that over the years my father and I became best buddies, but that was not the case. As an adult I developed a polite relationship with him and we got along “OK.” We just never connected, and in some ways he remained the stranger I’d met at the train station years earlier. However, my father and brother, born in the suburbs eight years after me in 1949, had a much closer relationship, and in retrospect at least, I’m very glad of that for both of them.

The times I remember the most were when I could get my dad to talk about the war. He didn’t much, but when he did, I remembered everything he told me about the typhoon his LST ship navigated through, the kamikaze attacks that were frequent towards the end of the war, and his participation in the battle of Okinawa. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the very thing that separated us in my early years on this planet and his early years as a father was what provided the most vivid, connecting conversations that we had.

The presence of war in those very early years of  my life and in his young adulthood and our absence from each other during this time certainly may have created a roadblock that made resuming—or, really, creating—a close relationship difficult. On the other hand, had the war had not occurred, there may still have been a certain distance between us. Who knows? Whatever…It’s that kind of “What if?” question that many, perhaps most, of us carry around, unresolved, regarding one thing or another.

World War II has been called the “good” war. I understand the term—there truly seemed no alternative but to get in the fight in 1941—but I’m not so sure I’d ever use that adjective to describe war. Remember: World War I, a scant 23 years earlier, had been “the war to end all wars.” And so it goes.

Perhaps because the spectre of war is so awful and the maintaining of freedom so tenuous, we tend to embellish our holidays and days of remembrance with traditions that go beyond the original intent of the particular observance. I think Memorial Day family gatherings and parades and visits to cemeteries to remember all those who have gone before are fine. Anything that strengthens the sense of community and acknowledges the value of human connection is worthy to be observed. Memorial Day mattress sales, on the other hand, I find more questionable!

War and death affect everyone, and in closing I would like personally to acknowledge the originally intended meaning of Memorial Day. As Lorry mentioned, it began as “Decoration Day” to honor the dead of the Civil War. My grandmother, for example, always called it that.

I want to name an Air Force officer whose all-too-real death was the first I’d personally experienced of someone actively serving in the military. I had a good college friend, Francis Driscoll, who graduated a year after I did and then served in Vietnam beginning in 1965. Fran was a pilot and bailed out from his damaged plane over Laos in 1968. His parachute failed to open, and the location of his remains is unknown.
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High Flight

Jim Adams

The sun was just starting to come up and I sensed it as my eyes slowly opened, with the sound of the highway reverberating through the floor of our 1962 Ford station wagon.  I reached under the mattress that I was laying on, the one my Dad had wrestled into the car the night before in preparation for our journey half way across the country, and pulled out 5 fresh issues of Mad magazine that I had been saving for this trip.  I had made sure not to read a single page before I had hid them under my bed at home, one each month leading up to our departure.  My Mom and Dad, brother and sister, and I were on the road somewhere in the southeast US, as we did at least twice every year, headed for my parent’s hometown, Chrisman, Illinois.  For me, it was like a trip to Disney Land.  We were going on vacation; a week of rough housing with cousins, dinners with Grandparents, Aunts, and Uncles, working on the farm, and riding ponies.  But for now, as I began enunciating to my increasingly annoyed father who was at the wheel, I really needed to go to the bathroom.

I grew up in a military family, my father an Air Force pilot, and my Mother the dedicated wife who took tremendous pride in her role as a military wife, homemaker, kid raiser, and as my Dad would say, the one who “held down the fort”.  I had lived in 8 different towns by the time I was 14, and grew to think of life as being lived in segments, where friendships were temporary, and new and exciting adventures were always just ahead at my Dad’s next assignment.  We lived in Florida (twice), Japan (2 different homes), Tennessee, Illinois, Virginia, and finally Texas, where I would graduate from high school and college.  Yes, military life involved lots of moving, often with minimal advanced notice and always without any choice.  You went where they sent you.

As a kid, I never gave this routine much thought.  It’s just the way life was.  You get to try lots of schools, after a couple of years exploring a neighborhood and settling into a house, you’re not surprised when its time to move again.  And your Dad is just gone a lot; sometimes for a few nights, sometimes for months, and sometimes for a year or more.  I asked my Mom how it felt when he was gone and if she worried about him, especially the time he left suddenly one night during the Cuban missile crisis, or in 1966 when he was sent to Vietnam.  And here is what she had to say:

 “I was very proud of Rob (that’s my Dad) and knew he was an excellent pilot.  Sure, I worried, but at the same time I had every confidence in his ability.  I think it was hardest when he was in Vietnam as I went long periods without hearing from him but, thank God, I had you kids and family to help me through that time.  Having you three kids was a blessing to me, I loved being a parent; I truly loved my job!!!  The other wives became like family and we counted on each other in so many ways, kept ourselves busy with wives clubs, lunches, bridge, and just being there for one another.  Military life to me was a great privilege and I am quite proud to say I was a Military Wife!  I am so proud of your Dad.  Life with him has truly been a pleasure, maybe a little bumpy at times, but I loved it!!!”

There is no doubt that the most significant period for our family was when my Dad was sent to Vietnam.  We kids were too young to understand the gravity of the situation, but my Mom must have been very aware.  At the time, my Dad flew C-130 cargo planes, and though he wasn’t actually involved in battle, he flew into it, and he was lucky enough to come back alive after 1½  years.  But so many didn’t.  My Dad didn’t talk much about what he did, but I remember 2 of his stories well.  One of his jobs was to deliver paratroopers to the front lines.  They would sit quietly in the back of the plane during the several hours it took to reach their destination, and when they were a couple of minutes from the drop zone, my Dad would reach down and flip on a yellow light to warn them.  In a matter of seconds, they would all be on their feet, running in place, yelling, preparing themselves for the task ahead.  In the cockpit, my Dad could feel the plane shaking and hear their warrior chorus.  When they reached the drop zone, my Dad would flip on a green light, and open the aft cargo door, exposing the jungles of Vietnam several hundred feet below.  And immediately, the soldiers would start running in line out the back of the plane, and slowly, the shaking and the noise would subside until there was just the drone of the engines.  They were on their way.

Unfortunately, another of his stories involved soldiers again, possibly some of the same ones he carried before.  But this time there was only the drone of the engines.   Because some of his missions involved hauling the remains of soldiers back from the front lines in preparation for their return home.  As I said, my Dad never talked about things much, but I remember him saying how he so disliked these missions.  So many young men, and some women, never made it home like my Dad did.   On this Memorial Day, its important that we never forget them, their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of their families.

The other thing that was significant about my Dad’s tour of duty in Vietnam was that for the first time, the family got to choose where we wanted to live while he was away.  I’m not sure of all the reasons my parents chose the town they did, but for me, it was an absolute dream come true.  We were going to live in Chrisman, the special place I had visited so many times and come to think of as simply magical.  Where my Dad had been captain of the basketball team, my Mom a head cheerleader, with my cousins in their amazing Victorian home with ponies in the barn, my Uncle’s farm with so many chores, the town square with Wednesday night movies, the local drive in with root beer, a grandpa, 2 grandmas, and an Aunt that made me feel so special every time I saw her.  To this day, there had never been a place where I felt so much at home, but like all the other places before, when my Dad returned after a year and a half, we were packing up again and heading for Virginia.  On the day before we left, I can still remember running out the back door of my Aunts house, stopping at the edge of her garden, and bawling my eyes out.  Please don’t make me leave.  Of all the moves we made before and after, this was the only one that affected me this way.

As I think back on that wonderful town of Chrisman, I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my parents to leave after my Dad graduated from college as a 2nd Lieutenant.  They were in their 20s, still newlyweds, with a 6 week old baby, leaving the only place they had ever known as home.  I don’t think either of them had ever travelled any more than 100 miles from Chrisman.   But that would change.  They were now off to join a new family, their military family, which would bring them adventure, so many good times, support during rough times, and a sense of pride that they cherish to this day.    When I asked my Mom about this chapter in her life, here’s what she had to say:

I always said I never wanted to leave Chrisman, but alas and alack, that’s what happened.   I was excited yet hated to leave the folks and family.  Rob came to Chrisman when Charlie (my older brother) was just 6 weeks old, picked us up, and we headed for Tucson, Arizona.   We arrived on January 1st, having traveled through a huge blizzard.  We didn’t realize just how lucky we were when we found a motel open and stopped for the night.  Other wise we may have been stranded on the road as many other’s were.  I was so homesick.  But again, I was so proud to becoming a Military Wife, seeing sights I had never imagined seeing.  Cotton fields, orange groves, living in Japan, having two children there, one buried there.  Living in seven states, traveling through many more.  It was an experience I never dreamed of living.  I would do it all over again!!!

As long as I can remember, there has been a poem hanging on the wall of our house that my Mom had hung up long ago, a prayer of sorts I had always assumed applied just to my Dad.  But I realize now that in many ways, it was true for all of our family, especially my Mom.  I close with “High Flight”, by John Gillespie Magee, an American pilot in the Royal Canadian Airforce, who died during World War II at age 19:

 

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds

And done a hundred things you have not dreamed of,

Wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.

Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along

And flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long delirious burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,

Where never lark, or even eagle, flew;

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

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On the Art of Being Lost

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”[1] These words from the Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau ring true to me. They echo the wisdom of more ancient spiritual teachers. The Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, said “Do not be an embodier of fame; do not be a storehouse of schemes; do not be an undertaker of projects…. Embody to the fullest what has no end and wander where there is no trail.”[2] Jesus said “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[3] These teachers are not referring to loss in the sense of losing something or someone. They mean lost as a state of being: not knowing where you are, where you’re going; not knowing what to say, how to act; not knowing how to get back to the familiar, or if it’s even possible to do so; not feeling the solid ground beneath you. Being lost can be frightening, overwhelming, but it also offers blessings. As it takes us out of our everyday experience, away from the familiar, the comfortable, the routine, it invites us to encounter the world from a different perspective. It challenges us to find sources of strength and creativity in us we didn’t know we possessed. It may even require us to ask for help, to rely on the kindness of strangers. Our world actually gets larger. In the process we learn something about ourselves. We wake up, we stretch, we grow, we break through, we transform. These are blessings. Getting lost from time to time is a good thing.

This makes sense to me, but I cannot remember ever being lost and thinking, Oh, great, I’m encountering the world from a different perspective. What a wonderful growth opportunity! The first thought that occurs to me when I’m lost isn’t fit for the pulpit! One of my earliest childhood memories is of being lost in a grocery store. I must have been three years old. I became separated from my mother and brothers. I remember crying very loudly. In fact, I have a memory of being outside of myself, watching myself crying from a few feet away. I was afraid but I suspect there was more than fear in my body. It was my first conscious experience of separation from my mother without knowing where she was or how I could get back to her. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that she might be gone. 

Then there was a family hike. I can’t quite remember which summer it was or which national park—it was either Yellowstone or Kejimkujik in Nova Scotia. My mother was nervous from the start, mainly due to the signs instructing us what to do in the event we encountered bears. My father, perpetually unconcerned, led us onward to a supposedly beautiful lake out in the wilderness where only the most experienced campers camped. We eventually found a small pond full of duckweed and decided that either the map was not drawn to scale, or we were lost. It turned out to be both.

But perhaps the most embarrassing experience of being lost was on my honeymoon in Italy. Steph and I were staying in a hotel in the town of Sarno about an hour’s drive east of Naples. We had spent the day exploring Pompeii and didn’t start heading back until after dark. Steph fell asleep as I drove. I soon stopped recognizing landmarks along the highway, and realized I had no idea where we were. I took a random exit. At the bottom of the ramp was a toll booth. I started speaking to the attendant in English, a reasonable thing to do since many Italians speak English. This Italian was not one of them. But instead of waking Stephany, who is relatively fluent in Italian, I panicked. I started speaking louder English to the attendant. This strategy was unsuccessful. It got worse from there. I won’t go into details, except to say it was not one of my finer moments. Steph eventually woke up. She had a long conversation with the attendant in Italian, which I suspect had very little to do with directions, and very much to do with me. We paid the toll and continued our journey. We knew from the attendant that we were heading in the right direction, though we still didn’t know how to get where we were going. As I remember it, we came upon Sarno by sheer luck. It was a long night.

All this is to say that even though the words of Thoreau, Chuang Tzu and Jesus resonate with me; even though I know being lost offers certain blessings, I don’t like the way it feels. Which is why I had originally not planned to read Thoreau’s famous words in praise of being lost, but rather a more cautionary tale from the American writer and environmentalist Barry Lopez entitled “Within Birds’ Hearing.” In this story the narrator gets lost hiking in the Mojave Desert. It’s grim. “By evening I was winded, irritated, dry hearted,” he explains after many days of wandering. “I would scrape out a place on the ground and fall asleep, too exhausted to eat. My clothing, thin and worn, began to disintegrate. I would awaken dreamless, my tongue swollen from thirst.”[4] He doesn’t speak of the wonderful things he’s learning about himself. He says, “I was overwhelmed by my own foolishness …. I knew the depths of my own stupidity.”[5] He may be having a spiritual experience, but it’s one of suffering. He may be learning about himself, but it’s a lesson of human folly and frailty. If there’s a blessing, it’s that he didn’t die. And this feels really important to me: I want to speak of the spiritual blessings of being lost, but I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s never wise to romanticize wilderness experiences. There is no way to be truly lost and entirely safe at the same time. Anyone who’s ever been truly lost in any kind of wilderness—whether in Nature or in some metaphorical wilderness—the depths of depression or grief or poverty or war—knows it can be terrifying. Lost people don’t always return. The blessings of being lost may not be worth the cost.

Well, Mary Bopp was having none of this. We started working with the Lopez story on Tuesday and she said “you’re taking all the fun out of it.” Unlike me, Mary is drawn to being lost. She told me about the dissonance she feels when visiting a foreign city with friends who want to plan the day in great detail. Rather than following paths prescribed by the local tourism bureau, Mary prefers to wander where there is no trail, to get off the beaten path. She says she enjoys the experience of solo hiking on a trail she’s never been on before. She also told me about her favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who often wrote in an early twentieth-century, late Romantic style in which the music continually modulates from key to key, so that the listener keeps losing their sense of the tonal center. Just when the listener feels like they’re arriving somewhere, the next modulation takes them in a different direction. They get lost. Different keys feel differently, offer different colors, different qualities. A modulation brings the listener into a new musical landscape. Mary loves this! She says it feels like it can go on forever, that there’s something eternal to it. She gets lost in it.

Mary’s appreciation of being lost reminds me of the historian Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She blends memoir, cultural history, nature writing and philosophy into a prolonged and varied reflection on the many ways we can be lost—lost in thought, in love, in a good story, in a city, in nature; lost as one comes of age; lost in the sense of not knowing entirely who one’s ancestors are. Solnit writes: “I love going out of my way, beyond what I know, and finding my way back a few extra miles, by another trail, with a compass that argues with the map.” She writes in praise of “nights alone in motels in remote western towns where I know no one and no one I know knows where I am, nights with strange paintings and floral spreads and cable television that furnish a reprieve from my own biography.” She writes in praise of “moments when I say to myself as feet or car clear a crest or round a bend, I have never seen this place before.”[6]

So let me pull back from my concern with being dangerously lost. Yes, it can happen. Yes, we can become so lost we may never return. But we also cannot limit our lives in fear and expect to grow spiritually. Solnit says “the word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…. I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.” I commend to you the practice of disbanding your army. I commend to you the practice of going beyond what you know. And with all seriousness but tongue somewhere near cheek, I implore you to get lost.

I remember hiking with my boys when they were younger, taking them a few hundred yards off the trail, blindfolding them, spinning them around, taking the blindfolds off, then instructing them to find their way back to the trail. At first it was an exercise in frustration. I would have to give them clues. But eventually they learned to look for landmarks as we walked away from the trail. Find the landmark. Find the way back. Over time they learned to pay attention to their surroundings, to observe and remember details in the landscape.

What trail in your life might you intentionally wander away from blindfolded and spinning? What new neighborhood, town or city might you explore without a map? What new experience do you want—or need—to have? Or consider the life-paths that lay ahead of you. Might there be one that excites you but feels just out of reach or more unknown, more difficult, more risky? Is there a way to start down that path even though you’re not sure where it leads? Or might there be some stasis that has overtaken your life; you know you need to break out of it, but breaking out would mean leaving the familiar behind, being lost for a while. Perhaps now is the time to wander where there’s no trail.

The benefits of intentionally being lost may be as simple as learning a new place, finding a new route, meeting new people, acquiring new skills, or just experiencing the joy of a nice surprise. But they may be more complex: discovering new dimensions of you, finding reservoirs of creativity, strength and resilience you didn’t know were in you. And they may come on a more explicitly spiritual level. Mystics throughout the centuries have described their ecstatic experiences of the divine in the same way we might describe being lost—entering the unknown, the dark, the cloud; feeling ungrounded, unanchored, dislocated; soaring, flying, falling, vertigo. For some being lost is a profound spiritual experience. Solnit suggests that “in relinquishing certainty we approach, if only fleetingly, the divine.”[7]

I’m suggesting we practice being lost. But I’m also mindful that we practice for a reason. Being lost is an inevitable human experience. I’m not referring to getting lost in the actual wilderness, though that is certainly a possibility. I’m referring to being lost in our lives: lost in suffering, in illness, in decline; lost when everything around us is changing; lost when we realize life isn’t unfolding as we hoped. It happens. We lose our confidence, our sense of purpose, our sense of direction. We can feel lost in our schooling, in our careers, in retirement. We can feel lost because we know what we have to do, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. We lose those we love and become lost in grief. The greatest benefit that comes from practicing being lost is that when we become lost for reasons beyond our control, we have some knowledge of how to be and what to do. We know to trust ourselves more than the map which may not be drawn to scale. We know to look for landmarks. We know panicking doesn’t help, though it may be hard to avoid. We know it may be a time to disband our armies. We know openness matters. We know patience matters. We know breathing deeply matters. We know it may be dark and cloudy for a long time, but that we can live with not knowing for longer.

When we’re lost, our world gets larger. I didn’t tell you that when I was lost and crying in the grocery store at age 3, a stranger helped me find my mother. And I didn’t tell you that when our family was lost in the woods, and we really didn’t know which way to go, a young couple happened by and gave us directions back to our car. I won’t say they saved our lives, but their chance appearance definitely kept us from spending a night in the deep woods. And I didn’t tell you that in Barry Lopez’s story about being lost in the Mojave Desert, his narrator is ultimately saved, as he puts it, by “the unceasing kindness of animals.” “Not till we are lost … do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” said Thoreau. Perhaps that is the greatest blessing of being lost: not always, but more often than not, there is someone there to help. Our world gets larger. The extent of our relations is literally infinite, but we forget this. Sometimes being lost is what helps us remember.

 Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1960) p. 118.

[2] Chuang Tzu, in Watson, Burton, tr., Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) p. 94.

[3] Matthew 10:39 (NRSV).

[4] Lopez, Barry, “Introduction: Within Birds’ Hearing,” Field Notes (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) p. 5.

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

[6] Solnit, Rebecca, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Penguin Group, 2005).

[7] “A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2005. See: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/08/08/a-field-guide-to-getting-lost.

June 2016 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

Our ministry theme for June is Wilderness. I’ve been thinking about how to approach this theme differently than I have in the past. This month I offer you the idea of being lost. In most contexts, lost is precisely what we least want to be. We might feel lost in our lives—lost in terms of the direction we want to take, lost in terms of career, lost in terms of our social lives, lost in terms of our spiritual lives. Feeling lost in any of these ways typically doesn’t feel good. We might feel lost when we lack a skill or a capacity—when there’s something we need to do, but we don’t know how to do it. Feeling lost in this way also doesn’t feel good. We might become lost when driving—perhaps our GPS didn’t work, or we don’t have a map, or the map we do have isn’t accurate, or the place we’re trying to find isn’t on the map. Or, we might be lost in the woods, in the forest, in the desert, at sea, in the wilderness. For anyone who’s ever been truly lost in any kind of wilderness, you know it can be terrifying. People who are lost in the wilderness don’t always return.

I remember being lost in a grocery store at age three. I remember being lost in a forest for a frightening fifteen minutes as a teenager. I remember feeling emotionally and spiritually lost at times during my young adult years. Being lost never felt good, and I suspect our default mode is to avoid being lost as much as possible.

But I also suspect being lost may bring some benefits. Being lost at times may be precisely what we need to wake us up, to shake us out of whatever stasis we’ve entered, to relieve us of boredom. Being lost may be precisely what we need to rekindle the fire within, to revive us, to inspire our creativity, to help us learn what we need to learn. Being lost may be the very condition that moves us out of dangerous certainty, that helps us “think outside the box,” that opens new directions in our lives.

This makes sense in theory. But how does a minister advise parishioners to get lost? (Ha ha! I couldn’t resist writing that!) It may be good advice, but it also may be dangerous advice. Is there a way to mimic the experience of being lost without actually being lost? Is there a safe way to be lost? Is there a way to be lost in a laboratory or computer simulation? Is there a religious education class on the art of being lost? I’m not sure. It seems to me the benefits of being lost only come if one is truly lost, if there is something truly important at stake. There’s no completely “safe” way to be lost. So, I’m not sure how to advise any of you to get lost!

Still, there’s something about it that feels like good advice. There’s something about being lost that is good for the soul. I don’t want to lose that. So, as summer approaches, I invite us to explore what being lost means to us. If you’ve ever been lost in your life, what was that experience like? What did it take to find your way back? What skills did you learn? What new confidences did you develop? And if you feel lost in your life right now, as difficult and challenging as it may be, before you find your way back, ask yourself: What is this experience teaching you about yourself? It may be the best thing that ever happened to you.

In the coming summer season, may we each find a way to get lost!

With love,

Rev. Josh