In Praise of Nothing

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Late autumn in New England offers many blessings, though this morning I’m not referring to the blessings we typically associate with the holiday season. I’m not referring to the blessings of family, friends and festivity. I’m not referring to the blessings of the solstice, the return of the sun, inaugurating the long, slow lengthening of day-light hours. I’m not referring to the wonderful displays of light and color that emerge in windows and doorways and front yards as the season progresses. I’m not referring to the Christmas spirit, the message of peace on earth, good will to all—or to all the holiday miracles, the Hannukah story, the virgin birth, the star of Bethlehem. Yes, all of these are blessings. But I’m referring to something different.

            I’m referring to the way the land blesses us in this season with its barren fields lying fallow—brown, windswept, muddy, freezing, empty. 

            I’m referring to the way the trees bless us with their leafless branches, exposed, web-like and grey against th epale December sky.

            I’m referring to the way the ponds and streams bless us as they slowly begin to freeze, as their surfaces turn cold, hard, dark, sheer. As the Cape Cod poet, Mary Oliver, puts it, every pond, / no matter what its name is, is / nameless now.[1]

            I’m referring to how the long mid-winter nights bless us; how the creeping afternoon shadows bless us; how the rapid dusk blesses us; how the cloaking darkness blesses us.

            I’m referring to how the late autumn quiet blesses us—the absence of bird-song as the singers leave the region for warmer climes; the absence of wild animals as they begin their winter slumbers; the absence of crickets and tree frogs—all the buzzers and croakers and peepers quiet now, no longer filling the night with constant, rhythmical sound.

I’m referring to how a pervasive seasonal stillness blesses us.

****

            Our ministry theme for December is mystery. I understand mystery in are a religious context as any experience, any phenomenon that feels spiritually significant yet has no apparent explanation; any experience, any phenomenon that feels meaningful, but makes no immediate sense; any experience, any phenomenon that feels other-worldly, in the sense that its connection to this world isn’t immediately obvious. Mystery subverts our capacity to reason, for a time. Mystery renders us quiet and still, for a time.

            That’s a very general definition. I remind us that some religions are structured around mysteries which the leaders understand and the followers don’t. Leaders ask—and sometimes demand—that followers accept the mysteries without question. Many of the early Christian Gnostic religions were structured in this way. Gnosis referred to the esoteric, hidden or secret knowledge necessary to achieve salvation. The Church of Scientology is structured in this way. There are many others.

The Christian doctrine of the trinity is often described as a mystery. “How can God be three entities, father, son, and holy spirit, at once?” That’s a question many of you asked as incredulous children in your traditional Christian Sunday school classes.  The answer you so often received back was some form of, “It’s a mystery. Accept it.” Our Unitarian and Universalist forebears are notable theologically for rejecting this kind of answer to this kind of question. They argued, essentially, that the doctrine of the trinity stretched the limits of reason too far and, frankly, had no supporting evidence in the Bible. In fact, that’s the origin of the name Unitarian–one God, as opposed to Trinitarianism’s three.

            Most of you already know this, but I want to say it for the benefit of visitors who are new to Unitarian Universalism, or people watching this sermon on Youtube or reading this text at a later date: There are no theological or doctrinal mysteries at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. (Just in case you were nervous!) There’s nothing we ask you to accept without question, or which we require you to learn in order to be initiated into the faith. In our congregations there are no inner circles of enlightenment surrounded by outer circles of ignorance. We gather around a set of principles which guide our interactions with each other and the world. But they are not secret or hidden truths. On the contrary, they are quite obvious. Furthermore, like our spiritual forebears, we tend to bristle when the concept of mystery becomes code for “don’t ask questions” or “don’t try to understand,” or “don’t think about it,” or, “just accept it.” We bristle even more when the concept of mystery is used as an excuse for lazy or bad theology. We expect to think about our religion. We expect to use our reason in our religious lives. We say, ‘show us the evidence.’

            Having said that, we also recognize that one of the most powerful dimensions of the human experience is our encounter with phenomena we don’t understand and can’t readily explain—our encounter with mystery. When we Unitarian Universalists identify the sources of our religious tradition, the very first is “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”[2] We bear witness to the fact that most human beings, from time to time, have experiences we can’t explain yet which feel spiritually profound and impact our lives in positive ways, move us in positive directions. A reading from the Unitarian Universalist resource network, Soul Matters, says that “the roots of [the word] mystery point beyond the idea of a secret, hidden truth to an experience that renders us speechless.” The reading also refers to the Latin root word muo, which translated literally means“shut the mouth” or “to be rendered silent or dumbfounded.” “It is also the root for our English word ‘mute.’” While we don’t like people in authority telling us to be quiet and not ask questions, when some phenomenon, some experience, some feeling, some beauty silences us, takes our breath away—mutes us—then it behooves us to pay attention.

            The term for that ‘paying attention’is mysticism. For me, mysticism is any practice of noticing, being present to,entering into, or communing with mystery. Mystery is the raw experience. Mysticism is our engagement with it. Though scholars often describe mysticism as the search for an immediate experience of God—sometimes a quiet, contemplative experience, sometimes an ecstatic, even erotic experience—for me, it has never required belief in a deity or active searching for communion with one. In fact, for me, belief may inadvertently destroy the mystical experience. That is, if you have an experience of mystery, and immediately fill it with belief—“Ahh, God is present, God is speaking tome!”—you have actually demystified the experience. You have offered an explanation for that which is unexplainable. You have reasoned theologically in response to an experience that defies reason. You have found a comforting balm to heal the discomfort of unknowing. Many mystics over the centuries have understood this dynamic and have counseled their followers not to leap to theological conclusions in the presence of mystery. The Medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart once said, “I ask God to rid me of God.”[3] That is, if he imposes any prior conception of God onto his experience of mystery, he is distancing himself from the mystery, and ultimately distancing himself from God.

The encounter with mystery is most powerful when approach it with no theological assumptions, no spiritual agendas or, as Meister Eckhart was fond of saying, “without a why or wherefore.”[4] Allow mystery to render you speechless, to take your breath away, to fill you with awe. Before thinking, before reasoning, before speaking, practice being silent, still,empty, barren, dark.

            Notice what such a state accomplishes: the reduction or diminishment of the ego; the softening and waning of the self, even the disappearing of the self. Some mystics speak in more extreme terms of the annihilation, the destruction, or the extinction of the self. In his Divan or Collected Works, the 13th-century Persian mystic, Jal?lad-D?n Muhammad R?m?, wrote, “I do not recognize myself. I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Parsi, nor Muslim. I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea; I am not of Nature’s workshop, nor of the circling heavens. I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire.I am not of the Heavenly City, nor of the dust, nor of Paradise, nor of Hell; I am not of Adam, nor of Eve, nor of Eden or Eden’s angels. My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless.”[5]

            The 16th-century Spanishmystic, St. John of the Cross once wrote, “If you desire to season everything, / Seek your delight in nothing; / If you desire to know everything, / Seek to know something in nothing; / If you desire to possess everything, / Seek to possess something in nothing; / If you desire to be everything, / Seek to be something in nothing.”[6]

            The message I want you to encounter this morning, whether or not you identify with the terms mystery or mysticism; whether or not you believe in god in some form or you are an atheist or agnostic; whether or not you perceive yourself as spiritually adept or clumsy; all of us need periods in our lives wherein our egos fade; wherein our selves disappear or merge into the vastness; wherein the world around us grows dim, grows dark. We all need periods of emptiness, stillness, silence.  In a culture as fast and bright, as stressful and anxiety-producing, as materialistic and money-centered, as competitive and mean-spirited as ours can be, having such periods of emptiness, stillness and silence—periods of nothing—are essential for our spiritual health as well as our mental and physical health. Mystery invites us into such periods.

            Emptiness, stillness, silence, . Here in New England’s late autumn, these spiritual qualities surround us. The fields are neither bursting forth with new life, nor yielding up a bountiful harvest. They are barren and unmoving. The trees are neither dotting their branches with buds, nor coloring the landscape with lush summer or resplendent autumn. They are empty. The ponds and streams are not moving, not teeming with fish, not overflowing their banks. They are slowly freezing. The sun does not traverse the entire dome of the sky through endless, bright summer days. No. It hangs low in the southern sky, giving way to long, dark nights.

            This season points more to what is not than to what is, more to emptiness than to fullness, more to nothing than to something. The Rev. Mary Wellemeyer calls it “a special time / of seeing into the depths of woods…. / The underlying shape of Earth, / the hints of stories from the past— / these offer themselves to eye and mind, / now, between the falling leaves/ and the coming of snow.”[7] Indeed, this is a season of absences, of once-concealed spaces now open, of once-hidden shapes now revealed, and of new shadows and subtle shades of grey. Of course, there is still some activity. The cold breeze sweeps a few stray leaves across suburban lawns and forest floors. A critter darts along the edge of the woods searching for some stray morsel. But through the course of any year, there is no season as still, quiet, and empty as the one we New Englanders are in now.

I urge you in this season to do as Earth does.

Do as Earth does.

Settle down into nothingness.

Find the reservoirs of emptiness in you.

Find the great and ominous silences in you.

Find the utter stillnesses in you.

Resist the urge to think, to reason, to explain. Resist the urge to theologize, to speak. Let go of ego. Let go of self. Receive the blessings of mystery. Notice what comes. Notice what the depths within you teach you about you.

****

My prayer for each of you in this late autumn season is that you will let emptiness fill you for a time; that you will let stillness move in you for a time; and that you will let your own silence speak for a time. Rest assured there will be time for lighting lights to signal the return of the sun. There will be time for family, friends, and festivity. There will be time for stories of the birth of a savior, of shepherds gathered in the fields encountering angel song. But before any of this takes over, may you experience the mystery of this season.

Welcome emptiness.

Welcome stillness.

Welcome silence.

Welcome darkness.

Praise nothing.

Praise nothing.

Praise nothing.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Oliver, Mary, “In Blackwater Woods,” in Sewell, Marilyn, Cries of the Spirit (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991) p. 128

[2] The sources of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition are listed at https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/sources.

[3] Quoted in Soelle, Dorothee, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) p. 68.

[4] For a discussion of Meister Eckhart’s concept of Sunder Warumbe (without a why or wherefore), see Soelle, Dorothee, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) pp. 59-62.

[5] Quoted in Soelle, Dorothee, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) pp. 65-66.

[6] Quoted in Soelle, Dorothee, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) pp. 216-217.

[7] Wellemeyer, Mary, “Late November” in Admire the Moon: Meditations(Boston: Skinner House Books, 2005) p. 2.

Testify! Witness! Re-Imagine!

This is a sermon about how faith communities must respond to the reality of sexual violence in our larger culture. Specifically: how are we, as people of faith, called to heal the trauma with which too many people live as the result of widespread sexual violence?

The immediate impetus for preaching this sermon came in late September, when Professor Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about her experience of sexual assault in high school at the hands of then Supreme Court Nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. That hearing, that tragic episode in our nation’s history, revealed to me some basic truths about our culture:

First, perhaps due to increasing levels of education around rape prevention in high schools and colleges; perhaps due to the increasing willingness of people to file complaints about sexual violence in the work-place; perhaps due to the increasing visibility of the #MeToo movement; perhaps due to the incredible work of organizations like the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence[1]—there is a public recognition—and at times an expectation—that some allegations of sexual violence need to and will be taken seriously.

Second, nevertheless, people who attempt to speak about their experience of sexual violence, from the most mundane office harassment, to the most brutal assaults, still have to fight to be heard and typically have to endure withering criticism for making public allegations in the first place: “Why didn’t they tell anyone when it first happened?” “Why did they wait so long to say anything?” “Why can’t they remember exactly what happened?” Or worse, “What was she wearing?” “She was probably asking for it.” “Boys will be boys.”

Finally, it is easy for people in power—and truly for people in general—to feign concern, sympathy, even empathy for survivors of sexual violence, and then to ultimately ignore them, as if they had never spoken at all. Jude Kavanaugh is now Justice Kavanaugh.

Of course, Blasey Ford’s testimony did not reveal everything about our nation’s culture of sexual violence. As important, as powerful, as believable as her testimony was, it is also true that her various identities—educated, credentialed, successful, white, college professor—may actually have obscured as much as they revealed. Blasey Ford offers one, compelling image of who survivors of sexual assault are. But we need to remember that women of color experience sexual assault. Men and boys of all racial identities experience sexual assault. Gay and lesbian adults and youth experience sexual assault. Transgender people experience sexual assault, especially trans women of color. Immigrants experience sexual assault. Elders experience sexual assault. People with disabilities experience sexual assault. People in the military experience sexual assault. People in churches, in synagogues, in mosques experience sexual assault.

Yes, Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony created a compelling opportunity for faith leaders to talk about the US culture of sexual violence, and it is important to take that opportunity. And, it is also true that it shouldn’t take such a high profile revelation to move faith communities to speak and act out against that culture. It is a long-standing culture. The colonial system that gave rise to our nation and which still operates in our structures and in our national psyche had sexual violence at its heart. The slave system that anchored the economic prosperity of our nation from its earliest days and whose legacy lives on in our structures and in our national psyche had sexual violence at its heart. Sexual violence is one of the great unspoken, unacknowledged, still too invisible truths of our national history and our current national life.

What I want is for the reality of sexual violence in all its forms to be speakable, utterable, nameable, acknowledgeable, visible here. What I want is for us, here, to be able to receive disclosures of sexual violence with compassion and love. What I want is for us to be able to hold, nurture and honor survivors of sexual assault, in ways that give power and agency back to them, in ways that bring healing not only to them but to the wider community. What I want is for us to become active bystanders—people who can’t keep quiet in the face of sexual violence, people who demand respect for others in all situations, people who intervene when they witness sexual violence or the potential for it. What I want is for our congregation to not shy away, but to be able to speak about sexual violence as a public health crisis—as an epidemic—with forthrightness, conviction, and the resolve to treat it like we treat any other epidemic. What I want is for our words and deeds to contribute mightily to the dismantling of our national culture of sexual violence and to the building up of a new culture that recognizes the integrity of all human bodies and promotes agency, respect and justice.

****

Our ministry theme for November is memory. This theme provided a second, perhaps deeper impetus for speaking about sexual violence now. Traumatic events, because of their very nature, can be difficult to remember. They often become buried—a very natural, human response. The mind creates a buffer, a protective layer. Remembering requires the removal of the buffer. Remembering requires re-visiting, re-experiencing, re-living the trauma. For some people, it is truly best not to remember, and that is always a choice we must respect. And yet, in most cases, healing from sexual violence is very difficult without remembering, and without speaking aloud what one remembers. So when I speak of this congregation becoming a place where sexual violence in all its forms is speakable, utterable, nameable, acknowledgeable, visible, I’m asking us to imagine ourselves as a place where traumatic memories can be safely recalled, shared and honored.

Laura Cordes, the outgoing executive director of the CT Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said “I think one of the messages to go along with the ‘memory’ theme is ‘how we respond, matters….’ Victims REMEMBER how people (friends, family members and those in position to help) respond. The memories of the insensitive, shaming, dismissive, and blaming responses contribute to and can be just as harmful as the assault itself and keep survivors from getting the support, validation, healing—LET ALONE JUSTICE—that they deserve.”

In considering how to respond well, I’ve been turning to theologian Serene Jones’ 2009 book, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World for guidance. Serene Jones is the president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and formerly the chair of Gender, Woman, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. Informed by her research  in theology and trauma studies, she offers an overall framework for trauma work in congregations.  

There are three components to this framework: testimony, witness and re-imaginging. Jones says, “First, the person or persons who have experienced trauma need to be able to tell their story. The event needs to be spoken, pulled out of the shadows of the mind into the light of day.” That’s testimony.

“Second, there needs to be someone to witness this testimony, a third-party presence that not only creates the safe space for speaking but also receives the words when they are finally spoken.” That’s witness.

“Third, the testifier and the witness … must begin the process of telling a new, different story together: we must begin to pave a new road through the brain.”[2] That’s re-imagining.

So what might a congregational response look like? I’m not suggesting a random sharing of traumatic memories. I have a specific process in mind. Such sharing needs to be intentionally and lovingly managed through covenanted small groups and with carefully-crafted rituals. I imagine any member or friend of this congregation, living in the aftermath of sexual violence, who feels ready to begin a healing journey, ready to reclaim agency and power, ready to reclaim their life, could request that we create a trained small group to journey with them, to listen to and hold their story, to help them tell a new story, and to ultimately rededicate their life to the sacred power that lies within us, beyond us and between us.

That’s one possibility for how we can hear, hold and support the healing of individual survivors of sexual violence: creating spaces for testimony, witness and re-imagining.

****

With this idea in mind, I’d like to take a moment for us as a congregation to honor victims of sexual violence—people who have survived and, as the case may be, people who died as a result of sexual violence. I offer to you a very simple, candle-lighting ritual. I invite you to breathe deeply. I invite you to relax. I invite you to imagine the face or the name of someone you know who has experienced sexual violence. It might be yourself. It might be a family-member or friend. It might be someone you don’t know well, but you are familiar with their story. It might be someone you only know from a story in the news. Imagine the face or the name of someone you know who has survived sexual violence.

Hold them in your mind’s eye.

Hold them in your heart.

Now, if you would like to light a candle as a way to honor this person’s experience, their suffering, and their journey back to power and agency, please come forward at this time.

[Music]

We pray for all those who have experienced sexual violence.

We pray that they may find healing.

We pray that, if it is their wish, they may find the courage and the strength to speak aloud their experience.

We pray that if and when they speak, there will be a caring, loving community gathered around them, prepared, open, ready to listen, ready to hold them.

We pray that with this caring, loving community, they are able to reclaim the power and agency that was taken from them.

We pray that with this caring, loving community, they are able to re-tell their story, able to re-imagine their life in new directions with new possibilities.

We also pray also for our congregation:

That we may be a congregation that speaks to the world of the realities of sexual violence;

That we may speak with tenderness but also with unflinching resolve;

That we may tell a new story of our own faith as one that promotes human integrity healing, respect, and justice.

And, buoyed by this new story, that we may join the work of dismantling our national culture of sexual violence.

****

Changing culture in a single institution, like a church, is hard enough. Changing the culture of a country may seem beyond comprehension. Such change takes decades. Such change takes millions of committed people. Sometimes when we let the magnitude of the problem—and the magnitude of what is needed to address it—wash over us, we feel powerless to effect change. But we’re really not powerless. Simply by saying that the experience of sexual violence will be uttered, named, spoken aloud, made visible here is an exercise of our power. And the act of creating safe spaces for survivors to speak and be held and begin to rebuild their lives—that is an exercise of power. And I love this notion of the active bystander—one who cannot keep quiet about ending sexual violence; one who intervenes when they witness it happening or anticipate it is about to happen. We can commit ourselves to being active bystanders. That is an exercise of our power. And from there, we can be those who volunteer. We can be those who support. We can be those who advocate. We can be those who lobby. We can be those who testify! Those who witness! Those who re-imagine! We have power. Let’s use it. There is a movement to end sexual violence in our nation. Let’s be part of it. Let’s build that new way.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Learn more about the CT Center to End Sexual Violence at https://endsexualviolencect.org/.

[2] Jones, Serene, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009) p. 32.

Solidarity Shabbat: Temple Beth Sholom B’nai Israel

In Solidarity with the People of Pittsburgh, we invite all people of faith to join us at this service to affirm our commitment to making our sanctuaries places of safety and peace and to affirm our country’s Freedom of Religion.

There will be a Service of Solidarity at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel

400 Middle Turnpike East in Manchester

Friday, November 2, 2018 at 6:30 pm

 

After Charleston, Sutherland Springs, Louisville, and Pittsburgh, it is time for all people of faith to stand together in the face of hate and bigotry, to bring hope, kindness and love to the world!

 

Area UU Congregations Present the Rev. Chris Antal

The Unitarian Universalist congregations of the greater Hartford region welcome

United States military veteran and Unitarian Universalist minister

The Rev. Dr. Chris Antal

Saturday evening, November 10th

7:00 PM

Fiske Hall (the auditorium at the rear of the building)

Universalist Church of West Hartford

433 Fern St. in West Hartford, CT

 

After a thirty minute screening of the film “National Bird,” Rev. Dr. Antal will address US war in the 21st century, specifically the reality and moral hazards of drone warfare. We will examine what actions we can take as committed people of faith to address the rapid proliferation of weaponized drone technology.

Screening of Brittany Packnett’s Ware Lecture at the 2018 UUA General Assembly

Join the UUS:E Social Jutice / Anti-Oppression Committee for a viewing and discussion of Brittany Packnett’s Ware Lecture at the 2018 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Kansas City, MO.

Tuesday, October 30th, 7:00 PM at UUS:E.

Brittany Packnett is an unapologetic educator, organizer, writer, and speaker. Known as @MsPackyetti on social media, Brittany has become a sought-after voice in the work of social change and empowerment. A former teacher, policy expert, and non- profit executive director, Brittany has committed her life and career to justice. She currently plays many roles, all focused on freedom. Brittany serves as Teach For America’s Vice President of National Community Alliances, where she leads partnerships and civil rights work with communities of color. Beyond Teach For America, Brittany was a Ferguson protestor and continues in activism as, among other things, co-founder of Campaign Zero, a policy platform to end police violence. She is a contributor to the Crooked Media network, most notably contributing to the weekly news roundup on Pod Save The People, a Video Columnist for Mic News, and writes for many publications. Recently, Brittany launched Love + Power, a hub created to inspire, empower, and outfit everyday people to seismically shift society. Brittany was an appointed member of the Ferguson Commission and President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Today, she continues to advocate for urgent systemic change at critical decision making tables and through national and international media.

The Ware Lecture has been in existence since 1920. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President, in consultation with the General Assembly Planning Committee, invites a distinguished guest each year to address the General Assembly as the Ware Lecturer.

Less Distant from the Hope of Myself: Reflections on Sanctuary

Our ministry theme for October is sanctuary. For my remarks this morning I had planned to take a break from talking about being a sanctuary congregation. I had planned to take a break from talking about how we as a congregation relate morally to larger social and political realities. I had planned to take a break from talking about how we have the capacity to provide care and shelter to people whose lives have been or are being upended in tragic ways by governments acting immorally. We’ve actually talked a lot about that over the past two years. As a congregation you are familiar with many of these themes. I was going to take a break. I had planned to talk about sanctuary in a more general, and perhaps a more personal spiritual way. I had planned to say that regardless of our life circumstances, regardless of our relative privileges, no matter who we are, there’s a human need for sanctuary, for places of safety and protection, of retreat and reflection, of beauty and creation. We all need sanctuary from time to time.

As I read in our meditation from the Rev. Ann Willever, Just for this moment / let me be still / let me rest / in the quiet of this sacred place / in the presence of the spirit gathered / held gently, yet mightily, by the threads of love / that bind us together.[1] She’s describing that kind of sanctuary we all need from time to time.

That’s still what this sermon is about—with a first caveat that this happens to be the week we are, for the first time, welcoming a guest into our sanctuary space; and with a second caveat that the dynamics of this situation are different—though not entirely—from the scenario we originally anticipated. This situation is easier in some ways, because our guest is not confined to our building. But it is still hard, because his life is so clearly at stake if his asylum claim fails.

For me, it has been a difficult week. It has been difficult because the work of bringing a guest into our building is highly detailed; it requires the input, insight, organization and commitment of many people. I want to thank Judi Durham and Rhona Cohen, who co-lead our Sanctuary Congregation Team, along with all the members of the Team who’ve had a hand in making this transition in the life of our congregation go as smoothly as possible.

It’s been a difficult week because the reality of a human being moving into our building impacts all of us who use the building. It is disruptive, especially for our staff. Gina, Jane, Annie, Mary and Emmy have all prepared for this moment—and yet nobody can fully prepare for something like this until it happens. I am so appreciative of their willingness to stay open, to be flexible, to raise questions we haven’t yet raised, and thereby support all of you in making this transition.

It’s been a difficult week because some of you, appropriately, have expressed concern about our decision-making process, because this situation—providing sanctuary to a person whose deportation order has been put on hold while he’s pursuing an asylum claim—is different from the situation that drove our deliberations last spring—providing sanctuary to a person who has an open deportation order. Those of you who’ve spoken or written to me about this difference, please know that I deeply value your willingness to raise questions. Having disagreements about this is hard, but if we can’t raise questions and be in dialogue, then in my mind we are muting our fifth Unitarian Universalist principle, ‘the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.’

It’s been a difficult week because we’re still trying to figure out what details about our guest’s story are shareable and how best to share them. Transparency is critical in the healthy functioning of a congregation—and yet we have to be careful in this situation: if our guest’s asylum claim fails and he must return home, we don’t want our public sharing here in the United States to inadvertently make his situation at home more dangerous. As a reminder, he is an atheist, and what he calls a free thinker, from a country where atheism is a crime punishable by death.

Having said that, this is a church, and we have never been under any illusions that it would be possible to keep our guest’s presence here a secret. Though we will not hold a press conference, the Manchester Police and Fire Departments are aware that he is living here. There’s no way around that. So what we can say is that our guest comes from a country in the Middle East. He arrived in the United States in mid-September and immediately presented himself to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and requested asylum. ICE detained him at a facility in Greenfield, MA. After ICE background checks and a briefing in the case a federal judge in Hartford determined he was neither a threat nor a flight risk, and allowed him to be released from detention as long as there was a place for him to go. This is where we come in. We are providing a place for him to stay while he pursues his asylum claim. On average, such claims take about 3-4 months to complete—though there are no guarantees.

It’s been a hard, stressful, taxing week. I know during such weeks I am not at my best—not as a minister, not as a pastor, not as a husband, not as a father. Some lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, “When I Am Among the Trees,” resonate with me. I am so distant from the hope of myself, / in which I have goodness, and discernment, / and never hurry through the world / but walk slowly, and bow often.[2]

There have definitely been times this week when I’ve felt distant from the hope of myself.

That could mean many things. I wonder what it might mean for you. It could be the feeling that accompanies a hard week, a week in which you know you aren’t at peak, aren’t your best self. It could be the feeling that accompanies a difficult diagnosis, or a recovery from surgery or illness that is taking much longer than the doctors predicted. It could be the feeling that accompanies the breakdown or loss of a relationship that really matters to you. It could be the weight of the world bearing down, those feelings of overwhelm that come in response to so much unwelcome, disconcerting news. Contemplate, for a moment, those times when you’ve felt distant from the hope of yourself.

[Musical Interlude]

I’d like to say I hope none of you will ever feel distant from the hope of yourself. It would be nice to never feel that way. It would be nice to always know your own goodness, to always have discernment, to never hurry through the world, to walk slowly, to bow often. But we know the world and our lives don’t work this way. We have hard days, hard weeks, hard years. Some moments in our lives are grueling. This is inevitable. What I do hope, for myself and for all of you, is that when you come to those grueling moments, you will also have sanctuaries—places to which you can you can for rest and respite, for comfort, solace and peace—beautiful vibrant places, tranquil, colorful places that soften life’s hard edges, that make living not only bearable but joyful, meaningful, useful.  

That is the idea of sanctuary I want to offer you this morning: places that matter deeply to you; places that help reduce the distance between you and the hope of yourself; places that help you remember your goodness. That’s what a sanctuary does. The poet speaks of the trees as her sanctuary. They call out, “Stay a while.” / The light flows from their branches. / And they call again, “It’s simple, they say, / “and you too have come / into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled / with the light, and to shine.[3] That’s a good statement of the place I’ve been trying to get to this week, a place where I can go easy, be filled with light, shine. I don’t want the hardness of this week—or the hardness of the laws that led our guest to flee is home country—or the hardness of our larger world, our polarized and often hate-filled politics—I don’t want any of it to change me. I don’t want any of it to change you, or to lessen your courage, to dampen your conviction. Where can you go for affirmation that you, too, are filled with light; that you, too, shine.

What is your sanctuary? What is the place that saves you again and again and again; the place where you find room to breathe and stretch, the place that shelters you, if only for a time, from the hardness, the madness, the cruelty of the world? Two weeks ago I asked the members of the Small Group Ministry I facilitate to respond to that very question. It was a wonderful sharing. I remember stories of homes, or certain rooms within homes, of ponds and rivers nearby, of baseball parks, of the powerfully, comforting memories of loved-ones who’ve died, of this place—this Unitarian Universalist meeting house, here atop Elm Hill, on the Manchester-Vernon line, east of the Connecticut River.

Contemplate, for a moment, the sanctuaries in your life.

[Musical Interlude]

I’m offering you the idea of sanctuary as a spiritual resource. Just as taking a sabbath—a day of rest—is a spiritual resource; just as prayer and meditation are spiritual resources; just as yoga is a spiritual resource; just as being together in worshiping community on Sunday morning is a spiritual resource, so is having a sanctuary, a place where you can go for rest, respite, renewal.

The Rev. Kathleen McTigue tells the story of the small hole-in-the-wall café near her office. She describes the café as a sanctuary for her. “It was a wonderful thing just then, to be marooned on this little island of calm amidst the impatience, irritability, and general craziness of life, in a pace where someone makes her living by patiently shaping and then serving two of the world’s most basic and nourishing foods.”[4]

I love the healing imagery at the heart of McTigue’s experience in the café. “It’s easy to believe,” she writes, “that some small corner of the world’s fabric is being patiently, lovingly stitched back together—and that something more gets carried out the door than a bag of bread and warm soup.”[5]

That may be what’s happening here. In providing space for our guest to live, to prepare his asylum case, to engage in activities that will keep him well in mind, body and spirit, perhaps we too are patiently, lovingly stitching some corner of the world’s fabric back together. Indeed, some small bit of fear and loneliness and desperation ebbed this week when our guest came here. His journey is far from over, his fate far from certain, but the fabric in his corner of the world, and in ours, has been strengthened.

Of course, there are many holes, tatters, and runs in the fabric. The edges are worn and frayed. My prayer is that in those moments when the holes and tatters and runs touch our lives, cause us to grow distant from the hope of ourselves, that we have place to go for renewal; that we have sanctuaries in which our small corner of the world’s fabric can be stitched back together. I leave you words from Rev. Willever’s “Autumn:” May whatever pain or sorrow or loss I feel today /be eased / if only for this moment /even as I feel tossed and turned by the wind / a fallen leaf, blown about / with no seeming direction / may I abandon the illusion of control / if only for this moment / and sense the love surrounding me / and the strength of he love within me.[6]

Amen, blessed be.

[1] Willever, Ann, “Autumn” in Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 40-41.

[2] Oliver, Mary “When I Am Among the Trees,” in Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006) p. 4.

[3] Oliver, “When I Am Among the Trees.”

[4] McTigue, Kathleen, “More Than a Cup of Soup,” Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 4-5.

[5] McTigue, “More Than a Coup of Soup.”

[6] Willever, Ann, “Autumn.”

Centering the Margins as Spiritual Practice

Last June at our Bridging Ceremony, at which we recognize graduating high school seniors and welcome them into the community of Unitarian Universalist young adults, the bridgers received a gift from me: The Jefferson Bible, officially known as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Thomas Jefferson is remembered for many things, not the least of which is his commitment to reason in religion. He famously took a scissors to the New Testament gospels in his King James Bible, snipping out all the miracles. For Jefferson, they weren’t reasonable. They couldn’t be verified, and therefore didn’t belong in a sacred scripture. What remained after this purge was the narrative of Jesus’ human life—we read of his execution but not his miraculous resurrection; and we read of his moral teachings—the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, the sayings, etc.        

For more than a century since this little tome was first published in the late 1800s, it has sat prominently in the libraries of Unitarian Universalist congregations. When I was a bridger in 1985, my minister gifted me with a copy, which I still possess and for which I still hold an emotional attachment. I don’t normally give this gift to bridgers. In nearly twenty years of ministry I believe this was only the second time I’ve given it. I wish I had thought more deeply about giving it—and about receiving it 33 years ago. After the service last June, Kristal Kallenberg approached me and asked about the reason for giving it. As soon as she asked I realized it’s not a good gift. Kristal said it didn’t seem right to offer Thomas Jefferson as a moral exemplar for our bridgers. It was Jefferson, after all, who could articulate the moral depravity at the heart of slavery,”[1] and yet who could not summon the political will—or the heart—to work for the abolition of slavery, not even on his own plantation. He could describe the moral life vividly; but when it came to slavery, he could not live it. And he knew it.

I’m not saying The Jefferson Bible has no value, or that it should be censored or banned or removed from our libraries. I’m saying it’s not a good gift for our bridgers.

I wasn’t remembering that our denomination has had huge debates over Jefferson precisely because he was a slaveholder and thus a potent reminder of White Supremacy at the heart of our nation’s founding. There used to be a Thomas Jefferson District of the Unitarian Universalist Association. After decades of intense debate, the district finally changed its name. I was fully aware of this, yet somehow I had compartmentalized The Jefferson Bible into a context-free zone in my mind, as if I could separate Jefferson’s moral vision from his moral behavior. It shouldn’t have happened. We live in an age when activists around the country, including Unitarian Universalists, are fighting for the removal of Confederate monuments and flags from public places precisely because they celebrate White Supremacy. I should have made the connection.

This is embarrassing, given my commitment to anti-racism and the Movement for Black Lives, but I offer no excuses. This is one of the ways and White supremacy operate. I’m thankful to Kristal for being willing to ask the question. I am sorry that she had to dedicate energy to naming something I should have known. I apologize to my colleagues—especially my colleagues of Color, some of whom will feel, in the very least, let down when they read this. I apologize to you, especially those of you who were present and may have felt a pinch, an ouch, a micro-aggression, or even a macro-aggression. And most of all I am apologizing to the bridgers. I am writing to them about my change of heart, and including replacement gifts—

a book of readings compiled for UU young adults called Becoming, and a book of meditations from Unitarian Universalist ministers of Color entitled Voices from the Margins, from which I have been reading throughout this service.

In her meditation entitled “Marginal Wisdom,” the Rev. Leslie Takahashi says, “The day is coming when all will know / That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than monochrome, / That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, / stubborn rocks in its course, / That the margins hold the center.”[2] In her meditation, “Waiting,” the Rev. Marta Valentín[3] beckons her readers to come “into the center / come in from the margins / I will hold you here.”

In the life and culture of any institution, including congregations, there is a center and there are margins. The center is where power is exercised, priorities determined, decisions made, money spent, resources allocated, values articulated, sermons preached, hymns sung, joys and sorrows shared, coffee served, gifts given. The center specifies norms for appropriate behavior and emotional expression; norms for which topics are speakable, and which are taboo; norms for belonging—who is in and who doesn’t really fit. Sometimes these norms are clearly articulated. Sometimes they are assumed, taken for granted, unexamined.

The margins are those places where people experiences themselves as out-of- sync with the center or, worse, excluded. For example, oftentimes as people age, as their mobility, hearing and vision decline, they may begin to feel marginalized from the physical life of the congregation. Another example: Many congregations are adult-focused. Children—and by extension, their parents—occupy the margins. If the center is White, People of Color may experience themselves as marginal. If the center speaks English, people who speak limited English may experience themselves as marginal. If the congregation’s primary theological orientation is Humanist, people who identify as Christian, Theist or Pagan may experience themselves as marginal. People with mental illness may feel marginal. Survivors of sexual violence may feel marginal. Often we have some identities that occupy the center; and others that occupy the margins. We are rarely only one or the other.

The existence of a center and margins is natural and unavoidable in any institution or community. However, here, our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to pay attention to what our center and margins are—to be institutionally self-aware. Who are we including? Who are we excluding? But then further, because we envision a highly inclusive community, a multigenerational, multicultural and multiracial community, a spiritually pluralistic community that can offer many styles of worship, music, and arts, our center must be in constant dialogue with our margins. And further: we must be willing to center that which is marginal.

We often use ‘centering’ as a spiritual term for finding our own inner grounding, our own foundation, our own anchor. But here I’m using centering differently. I am calling centering the the margins a spiritual practice.

Knowing that our congregational center is White, that our culture is a White culture, that it is possible for well-intentioned White people to perpetuate racism and White supremacy inadvertently, what if before making the decision to give a book created by a slaveholder to our bridgers, I had centered the descendants of former African slaves? What if I had simply asked, “if one of our bridgers were African American, how might it feel for them to receive this gift and learn from the minister that it represents a great moral example in the history of our faith and nation?” I can only imagine that it wouldn’t feel good, that it would likely do harm. And if it wouldn’t be good for that child, why would it be good for any of our children?

This week the nation witnessed what many commentators have described as a tragedy: the build-up to, and the actual testimony of, Christine Blasey Ford about her sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Survivors of sexual violence still occupy the margins in our society. The #MeToo movement is challenging this marginalization, demanding that we as a society center the experiences of survivors—take them seriously, believe them, care for them and hold perpetrators accountable. With so many high-profile firings, resignations, failed political careers and campaigns, and guilty verdicts, it seems as if the movement is having an impact—though I am not aware of an overall reduction in sexual violence.

The Senate Judiciary Committee leaders didn’t want to center Blasey Ford’s story, but they also knew they couldn’t ignore her. They had to at least appear to be centering her. They tried so hard not to publicly shame or discredit her ahead of time. Even the President, who consistently engages in character assassination on Twitter, held back for a few days, initially acknowledging that Blasey Ford’s allegations were serious and deserved a hearing. Committee chair Senator Grassley kept reiterating that Blasey Ford could testify whichever way was most comfortable for her. They even recognized how bad the optics were for eleven powerful men to be questioning a woman about her experience of sexual assault. They hired Rachel Miller, a female attorney with extensive experience prosecuting sex crimes, to do their questioning for them. The result was an extensive, unchallenged testimony in which Blasey Ford, though frightened, was able to speak her truth and, from my perspective, was utterly convincing. I believe her.

It was fascinating to watch the Judiciary Committee leadership decenter attorney Miller. She asked Judge Kavanaugh two questions, and then she was essentially gone from the proceedings. Evidently her questions were good for Blasey Ford, but not for Cavanaugh—a potent double standard.

I also want to name—and I’ll talk about how this works in congregations in a moment—that centering a story or experience from the margins is often experienced as a threat by those who occupy the center. Centering a story or experience from the margins often produces feelings of guilt, shame, and anger from the center. I think Judge Kavanaugh offered a perfect example of this. Who could have responded with grace and dignity. Instead, he responded with anger. He was livid. He scolded. He was partisan. He alleged a conspiracy against him. And his supporters on the Committee followed his lead, expressing their own anger and dissapointment

Back to congregations. Congregational cultures are inherently conservative, meaning they exist to conserve specific values and principles, specific ideas about worship, spirituality, and the role religion plays in our lives. So any act of bringing new identities and ways of being into the center from the margins, though it sounds reasonable on the surface, can be quite disruptive. The center often resists. When you, or some part of you, is centered in a congregation—when you feel comfortable at the center, when the center meets your needs, feeds you, fulfills you, when you are emotionally invested in it—the act of centering someone else whose experience, world-view, ideas, culture, or spirituality reside at the margins, can feel threatening. We often feel defensive before we think about it, before we remember, “Oh, yes, this is who we say we are: open to new and different ideas, longing for greater diversity, striving to expand the circle, not close it off.”

I invite you to contemplate centering the margins as a spiritual practice. At its easiest, it’s a practice of deep listening to new stories. At it’s most difficult, it’s a practice of trusting and believing people who are courageous enough to speak about how they’ve been wounded, the ways they’ve felt excluded, the ways they’ve been relegated to the margins. Centering the other requires a softening of the ego, an openness of heart, a willingness to share cultural and spiritual space, a willingness to change. I try to keep four themes in mind.

First, stay focused on what the other is trying to convey from their experience on the margin. If you find yourself defending the center, or saying ‘that’s not how we do it,’ or ‘The Jefferson Bible is an important part of our heritage,’ pause. Breathe. Ease back from defensiveness. Center the person who is speaking. Trust they have something valuable to offer. Trust marginal wisdom to shape the center in positive ways.

Second, avoid the impulse to fix problems immediately. Sometimes stories from the margins reveal flaws in the congregation, ways in which it isn’t aware of itself, ways in which it might be alienating people without realizing it. In the midst of such revelations our allegiance to the center may lead us to want to fix the problem quickly. Unitarian Universalist culture has a habit of moving quickly away from stories of pain and anger into problem-solving. But far too often the people doing the problem-solving aren’t the ones experiencing the problem. Far too often the people doing the problem-solving are recentering themselves and their power to fix, rather than focusing on the story. If someone is sharing a margin story and you find yourself wanting to fix what has happened, pause. Breathe. Ease back from this impulse to fix. Stay with the pain. Learn from the pain. Let your understanding of yourself and your church evolve in response to the pain. The time for fixing will come. For now, center the margins.

Third, beware of guilt, shame and anger. When the story from the margin is about something painful that happened at the center, such feelings are understandable. But if I start talking about my feelings, or worse, if I get angry because I feel I am being challenged, I am now making the story about me. I am decentering the other, and recentering me. “Thank you for telling your story, now let me tell you how YOUR story makes ME feel!” It’s important to notice guilt and shame, but instead of letting them take over the conversation, receive them as cues to refocus attention back on the story, allowing it to live and breathe in the discussion, allowing it to become part of your larger Unitarian Universalist story.

Finally, strive for humility. Indeed, centering the other is an act of humility. The key to honoring and affirming the stories and experiences of people from the cultural margins is humility. The key to not rushing in with solutions is humility. The key to decentering one’s own feelings of guilt and shame is humility. The key to welcoming people from the cultural margins into our cultural center is humility. The key to realizing how deeply the center is connected to the margins is humility.

Rev. Takahashi says “The day is coming when all will know / That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than monochrome, / That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, / stubborn rocks in its course, / That the margins hold the center.”[4] So often, the center of the institution is that static, stubborn rock. Sometimes we need to let go, to swim with the current. The rainbow serves all of us. The monochrome only serves some of us.

I suspect we know this in our heads. We know diversity of ideas, spiritualities and identities is healthy for congregations. But the more we practice centering the margins, the more we will know it in our hearts. It might just be the difference between articulating a moral vision and living it.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Jefferson, Thomas, Notes of the State of Virginia, Query XVIII: Manners, 1781. See: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/notes-on-the-state-of-virginia-query-xviii-manners/.

[2] Takahashi, Leslie, in Morrison-Reed, Mark and James, Jacqui, eds., Voices from the Margins (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012) pp. 30-31.

[3] Valentín, Marta, “Waiting” in Morrison-Reed and James, Voices, pp. 3-4.

[4] Takahashi, Leslie, in Morrison-Reed, Mark and James, Jacqui, eds., Voices from the Margins (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012) pp. 30-31.

Lest We Remain Unused

Subtitle: The Greater-Love-Greater-Inclusion-Greater-Justice-Liberal-Religious-Vision for the United States of America

Rev. Josh Pawelek

What great and noble work uses you up?

What great and noble work calls to you, inspires you, focuses your energy, lets your passions meet the world where it needs them most?

My message this morning is really quite simple. Being fairly confident we each have only one life to live, it matters that we can envision a better world, and then work with all our strength, power, heart, creativity, steadfastness and love to shape the world in response to that vision. In service to our vision it matters, in the poet Rilke’s words, that we not “remain unused.”[1]

We cannot predict the future, but we can imagine it. Really, that’s what I mean when I speak of vision—our best imagining of what the future can be—our own future; our children’s and grandchildren’s futures, for those of us who are parents or grandparents; the future of our neighborhoods, our communities, out towns; the future of our congregation, our Unitarian Universalist Association, our collective UU faith; the future of our country; the future of our environment; the future of the earth. We cannot predict the future, but we can imagine it. And once we’ve imagined, let us not remain unused. Let us instead take to heart Rilke’s claim:“there’s a power in [us] / to grasp and give shape to [our] world.”[2]

Our ministry theme for September is vision. As I speak, you are welcome to reflect on your vision for your own life, especially if you’re not sure what that vision is, or if you’ve encountered barriers to realizing your vision, or if you’re in need of a new vision. But I want to focus my words on our collective vision as members and friends of this Unitarian Universalist congregation. What great and noble work uses us up?

Our congregation adopted a new vision statement at our annual meeting in May. The statement says the “Unitarian Universalist Society: East will be home to a spiritually alive, richly diverse and growing congregation. We will send forth energy, spirit and strength into our beloved communities. We will love, be present to suffering, comfort, heal, bear witness to oppression, and boldly work toward social and environmental justice.” I hope you encounter in these words hints, suggestions and directions for great and noble work we can do together. I am certainly looking forward to being used up in service to this vision. I hope you are too.

Having said that, it feels important to offer the observation that our vision is not really unique among Unitarian Universalist congregations; nor is it unique among liberal congregations of many denominations; nor is it all that different from the visions articulated among many secular organizations, liberal and progressive people in general, and even some pop music and movie stars. Our process for arriving at the specific words in our statement was unique, but the end result fits a pattern. This, by the way, is not a problem. I think it’s a good thing—a sign of our health.

I began thinking about this non-uniqueness when Jenn Richard offered to sing Janelle Monáe’s “Americans” for this morning’s service.”[3] I read the lyrics and thought, well, it’s a secular song—it’s about America. That’s OK. We sing a lot of secular songs. But then I wondered, is it a secular song? It’s not a gospel song. It’s not centered on God or Jesus. But it is prophetic in its call for justice. Monáe emphasizes the spiritual nature of this call by weaving into the song sermon excerpts from a minister named Pastor Sean McMillan. He says “Until women can get equal pay for equal work, this is not my America. / Until same-gender loving people can be who they are, this is not my America. / Until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head, this is not my America. / Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful, this is not my America.” Later he adds “Until Latinos and Latinas don’t have to run from walls, this is not my America. / But I tell you today that the devil is a liar / Because it’s gon’ be my America before it’s all over.”

This is prophecy. For me, it’s a spiritual song. In total, it offers a vision of a more loving, more inclusive, and more just America. Though there are some subtleties within the song, its vision isn’t subtle at all. It is big, bold, obvious. It also feels very consistent with the vison American Unitarian Universalists and other liberal and progressive people of faith often express for our congregations, our local communities, and our nation: greater love, greater inclusion, greater justice.

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that Janelle Monáe is a Unitarian Universalist and doesn’t know it. She’s not a UU. I am suggesting that our collective Unitarian Universalist vision fits comfortably into a more widely-shared liberal vision for our communities, our country and our planet. For now, I’ll call it the “greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America.”

I subscribe to a blog called “The Velveteen Rabbi.” It features the poetry of Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. She lives in western Massachusetts and leads a congregation in North Adams. Earlier this week she sent out the link to her sermon from worship on Rosh Hashanah morning. The sermon is entitled, “A Vision of Better.”[4] I knew I had to tell you about her sermon when she announced that “Our theme for the High Holy Days is vision.” She preaches her version of the greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America. She talks about immigrant children being torn apart from their parents at the border; about the insidious Question #3 on the Massachusetts ballot seeking to abolish anti-discrimination protections for transgender people; about looming threats to reproductive freedom and women’s control over their own bodies; about widespread attempts to suppress voting rights; about attacks on press freedoms; about actual Nazis running for Congress.

She acknowledges to her people that they may feel overwhelmed, that much gets in the way, that the problem we all face is one of fundamental human disconnection. Nevertheless, she preaches, “It’s up to us to see a better world and then make that vision real. In this sense we’re called to be prophets, and then to build our vision into being. In Jewish tradition a prophet is not someone who predicts the future. A prophet is someone who exhorts us to be and to do better. We need to envision a better world than this. Then we need to set our hands to the task of building it.” That’s the Velveteen Rabbi’s version of the ‘greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America.’

We encounter this vision here all the time. You find it in my preaching all the time. We sing it all the time. Channeling the ancient Hebrew prophets, Isaiah and Amos, we sang earlier, “Come build a land where [siblings], anointed by God, may then create peace. Where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.”[5] We sang “We Would Be One,” pledging ourselves “to greater service, with love and justice, strive to make us free.”[6] We heard the echoes of this vision in the meditation from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “All will come again into its strength: / the fields undivided, the waters undammed, / the trees towering and the walls built low…./ The houses welcoming all who knock / and a sense of boundless offering / in all relations, and in you and me.”[7]

Our sixth Unitarian Universalist principle is itself a very short, very concise articulation of this greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious vision. It commits us, very simply, to “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” And the vision statement we adopted last May, in my reading of it, fits squarely within this greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice liberal religious vision.

We know something about the work of making this vision a reality. Because we collectively hold this vision, we voted to become a sanctuary congregation and have made ourselves ready to welcome guests seeking to avoid deportation. Because we collectively hold this vision, we voted to support the Black Lives Matter movement and have worked in solidarity with Moral Monday CT. Because we collectively hold this vision we fought for marriage equality and anti-discrimination protections for transgender people in years past—and we won. Because we collectively hold this vision, we continually engage in actions for social, political, economic and environmental justice. This has been our version, our interpretation, our reaching toward the greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision in the United States of America.

Even so, with any articulation of a vision—with any sermon, any song or hymn, any poem or prose, and principle or precept, any adopted vision statement—there is always the risk that something will get in the way, as Rabbi Barenblat says. There is always the risk we will feel overwhelmed and slowly retreat from the work. In Unitarian Universalism, where we tend to be hyper-focused on verbal expressions of our spiritual and religious commitments, we encounter the unique risk of confusing the speaking of the visionary words with the actual work of bringing the vision into reality. Just because we’ve said it doesn’t mean we’ve done it. Words may inspire the work, but they aren’t the work itself.

Nevertheless, in this moment, words are what I have, so I will use them. I want to make sure our new vision statement does not end up gathering dust in the online equivalent of the proverbial desk drawer. I want it to inform our Unitarian Universalist life together, lest we remain unused.

I challenge each of us to bring the words off the page, to manifest them through what we do in the world. Turn to a neighbor and say, “There is a power in me to grasp and give shape to my world.” [8]  Turn to another neighbor and say, “There is a power in me to grasp and give shape to my world.” I believe this about myself—and I believe it about you. Do you believe it about you? Let me hear you one more time: “There is a power in me to grasp and give shape to my world.”

I hope when you encounter the words in our vision statement that say “we will love,” that you will feel, stirring within you, the power to love, to love fiercely, to love across lines of difference, to love yourself, your neighbor, the stranger, the alien, the refugee, the undocumented person, the enemy—and that you will then bring your love to each other and to the world.

When you encounter the words in our vision statement that say we will be “present to suffering,” that we will offer comfort and healing, I hope you will feel, alive and flowing within you, the power of your own comforting, healing presence. I hope you can begin to imagine yourself approaching pain—somebody’s pain here, somebody’s pain in our larger community—with a gentle, steady resolve, an unwillingness to turn away, an offer of support, a compassionate touch. Remember healing is not just what medical professionals do. Healing happens whenever we take actions that overcome that fundamental human disconnection Rabbi Barenblat names. Healing happens as we make connections and build relationships, as we acknowledge, accept and live into our interdependence with one another and the whole of life.

When you encounter the words in our vision statement that say we will “bear witness to oppression, and boldly work toward social and environmental justice,” I hope you feel rolling and roiling and raging within you the power to confront oppression with clarity and conviction, the power to creatively address our society’s and our world’s most pressing problems, the power to join with others in solidarity, in struggle, in justice movements for the sake of our collective liberation from all the forces that diminish and destroy life.

I hope when you encounter the words to our version of the greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America that you will feel power in you to act, to let the vision use you so that it may, in time, become the new reality.

I like the way Christian mystic Howard Thurman put it in the words we said together at the top of the service: “Holy One, may your fire burn brightly in me that I may, from this moment on, take effective measures within my own powers, to courageously build the kind of world I so deeply desire.”[9]

I like the way the Velveteen Rabbi put it in her sermon: “Be brave enough to envision a world better than the one we know now, and set your hands to bringing that vision to life. That’s the work.”

And I like the way Janelle Monáe concludes her song, “Americans,” with the words, “Please sign your name on the dotted line,” meaning ‘come on, sign up, commit yourself.’

Let’s make our vision real. Let’s not leave this precious life unused.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Alles wird wieder gross sein und gewaltig,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 121.

[2] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Da neight sich die Stunde und ruhrt mich an,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 47.

[3] View the video for Janelle Monáe’s song “Americans” from her 2018 album Dirty Computers at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POZNheF-KdY. Read the lyrics at https://genius.com/Janelle-monae-americans-lyrics.

[4] Barenblat, Rachel, “A Vision of Better.” View the full sermon at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiMutoPy4Nc&t=915s. Also check out the Velveteen Rabbit at https://velveteenrabbi.com/.

[5] Isaiah and Amos, adapted by Zanotti, Barbara, “We’ll Build a Land,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #121.

[6] Wright, Anthony, “We Would Be One,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #318.

[7] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Alles wird wieder gross sein und gewaltig,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 121.

[8] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Da neight sich die Stunde und ruhrt mich an,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 47.

[9] Adapted from Thurman, Howard, “I Confess,” Meditations of the Heart, reprinted in Lifting Our Voices (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2015) #54.

Remembering and Imagining: Time Travel as Spiritual Practice

Rev. Josh Pawelek

On your program cover there’s an image of the sankofa bird. Sankofa comes from the Twi language of Ghana in West Africa. A common English translation is “go back and get it.” The sankofa bird is an example of adinkra. Adinkra symbols make up a highly symbolic language—similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics. They are common among the Akan people of Ghana, and have made their way into the wider African diaspora. The symbols express complex thoughts and proverbs. The sankofa bird’s head faces backward as it attempts to catch its lost egg in its mouth. Its feet face forward. One translation is, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have lost,” or “that which was taken.” Learn your past so that it may guide your actions in the present for the purpose of shaping the future. Another translation: “remember the past to protect the future.”[1]

Past, present, future. This sermon is about time travel. In the absence of an actual time machine, how do we visit the past? How do we visit the future? The sankofa bird isn’t a time machine. It is an assertion that the act of visiting matters.

****

I am an admirer of UCONN physics professor Ron Mallett, who convinces me time travel is possible—in theory certainly and, perhaps one day, in practice. I want to share with you a clip from a lecture he gave a few years ago. The lecture outlines his book, Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality.[2]

[While preaching this sermon, I showed the following video until 3:45, though the entire lecture is worth viewing.]

I love Professor Mallett’s questions: “Who of us has not wondered what’s going to happen in the future, what’s going to happen next? Or thought about the past, maybe to visit some significant historical event, or … to change something in our lives?”[3] These are human, spiritual questions. They might emerge in us from any number of sources: curiosity, wonder, anxiety, fear. For Professor Mallett they emerge out of a ten-year-old’s potent grief, a desire to see his father again, to maybe save his life.

There’s a sankofa dimension in Professor Mallett’s pursuit of time travel. Go back and get it. Go back and retrieve what was lost, that precious egg. Throughout his career he has been looking back—while his feet have faced forward, while he’s studied the impact of black holes on time, the intricacies of circulating light created by strong lasers. He’s produced no time machine, but his backward look has motivated him to advance human understanding, thereby shaping the future, and possibly inspiring some as-yet-unborn savant to build the machine he longs for. Who’s to say his father’s life won’t yet be saved?

Go back and get it.

****

In May Rolling Stone magazine featured on its cover singer, composer, actress, filmmaker and founder of the Wondaland artists collective, Janelle Monáe. The article, entitled “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself,” was helping to promote her new album Dirty Computers. If you aren’t familiar with Monáe’s music, you may still know her as the actress who played Teresa in Moonlight, winner of the 2016 Oscar for best picture; or Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures, the story about the black, female NASA mathematicians during the 1960s space race (also a 2016 best picture nomination). I knew Monáe was a musician. I was not familiar with her music. What I’d heard about the Rolling Stone article before actually reading it seemed strange. It seemed to be introducing Monáe as a human being—as if she’d never been one before. There was something to that. “‘Let the rumors be true’” trumpeted the opening paragraph. “Janelle Monáe is not … the immaculate android, the ‘alien from outer space/The cybergirl without a face’ she’s claimed to be over a decade’s worth of albums, videos, concerts and … interviews—she is, instead, a flawed, messy, flesh-and-blood 32-year-old human being.”[4]

Wait, what? Android?

I have been exploring Monáe’s music all summer, including the videos (she calls them ‘emotion pictures’) that accompany her songs with an amazing science fiction story. In a sense she really hasn’t been human until now. She’s been writing, performing and appearing in emotion pictures as a rebellious, time-traveling, messianic android named Cindi Mayweather. In the futuristic city of Metropolis, sentient androids serve humans—they’re essentially slaves—an explicit metaphor for racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression in our society. Cindi Mayweather becomes fully aware of her oppression when she illegally falls in love with a human, gets caught, and is slated for disassembly. She fights back, leading a nonviolent rebellion against the Great Divide, a secret society that uses time travel to suppress freedom and love across eras. Deploying the weapons of music, dance, inclusion and love, her rebellion seeks to unite androids and humans as equals.[5]

To give you just a taste of how Monáe tells these stories, here’s a quick clip from the emotion picture for her 2013 song, “Q.U.E.E.N.”

[While preaching this sermon, I showed this video until 0:55.]

About Monáe’s 2010 album, ArchAndroid, the writer Charles Pulliam-Moore says: “While time travel is established as being an integral part of the album’s story, it’s unclear specifically how you [as the listener/viewer are] supposed to string its timeline together or whether you’re meant to at all. At various points throughout the [album], Cindi’s staring down death at the Droid Patrol’s hands, wandering through an asylum for folks whose dancing is a subversive form of magic, or imploring people to join her as she’s slipping into the time stream…. She weaves in and out of moments throughout time, all the while spreading her messages of love, raging against her oppressors, and encouraging you to do the same.”[6] I call this hyper-sankofa. Cindi Mayweather goes back to find what was lost, but she also goes forward, sideways, up, down and around. She appears in multiple times and spaces at once, always fighting the forces of oppression with love, music, dance, creativity, individuality. Earlier you heard an example of this hyper-sankofa time travel in the reading of the cybernetic chantdown from in the song “Many Moons.”[7]

While all these temporal boundary-crossings are happening in the emotion pictures, Monáe’s music seamlessly crosses boundaries between styles and eras. She combines the sounds not just of R&B, soul, hip hop, funk, spirituals, jazz and big band which we associate with Black artists, but psychedelic rock, Broadway, European classical music and movie soundtracks. The opening song on her new album is a collaboration with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys[8]–possibly the whitest band of all time!

She wants her audience to cross boundaries as well. She used to hand out a pamphlet at her concerts called “Ten Droid Commandments.” The seventh commandment read: “Before the show, feel free to walk about the premises impersonating one of the many inspirations of the ArchAndroid Emotion Picture: … Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, Outkast, Stevie Wonder, Octavia Butler, David Bowie, Andy Warhol or John Williams.”[9] Artistically she goes back again and again to recover the past, weaving it into a present expression that envisions a compelling future. In a sense, she doesn’t need a time machine. She is a time machine, driven by a potent yearning to manifest humanity’s interconnectedness through music—and to invite her audience to manifest it with her. It’s another version of sankofa: redeem the past by transcending its divisions in the present. In so doing, create a future that enables people to exist beyond labels and stereotypes, to freely live multiple, intersecting identities, to be creative, to be whole. There is much at stake in the act of visiting past and future.

****

Some critics and scholars classify Janelle Monáe’s art as Afrofuturism, an artistic movement that imagines Black people and culture in the future. One might think there’s nothing extraordinary about that. Of course there will be Black people and culture in the future.’ But that doesn’t account for a historic lack of Black and other People of Color characters, world-views and stories in our most culturally prominent future visions, especially in science fiction and fantasy. In her book, Afrofuturism, scholar and sci-fi writer Ytasha L. Womak says: “Even in the imaginary future—a space where the mind can stretch beyond the Milky Way to envision routine space travel, cuddly space animals, talking apes, and time machines—[when] people can’t fathom a person of non-Euro descent a hundred years [from now], a cosmic foot has to be put down.”[10] Afrofuturism puts that foot down.

Womak discusses various lineages of black artists—sci-fi and fantasy writers like Octavia Butler; musicians like Sun Ra, George Clinton and Janelle Monae; visual artists, poets, deejays, film-makers, museum curators, conference organizers—people who imagine Black and other peoples of color in the future through their artwork. This comes in response to dominant culture futurism’s failure to imagine Black and other peoples of color in the coming centuries or in imaginary, fantasy settings. In populating the future with Black people, Womak says “Afrofuturism unchains the mind.” It liberates the imagination, liberates creativity. When a person can imagine themself in the future—even a wild, seemingly impossible future, or a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested future—it generates hope, resolve, and action.

But Afrofuturism also looks back. Womack points to artists who refer to their ancestors, or to the ancient histories, mythologies, and cultures of the African continent. She quotes poet Khari B., who says, “It’s the sankofa effect…. One step into the future while looking back…. We’re evolving using the strength and characteristics of things that [brought us to where we are today]. We … pull from our past to build our future.”[11] Go back and get it!

****

I want to leave you with three thoughts regarding how Afrofuturistic time travel might influence a historically white culture Unitarian Universalist congregation.

First, as a person descended most recently from White, European ancestors, it feels critical to me to approach Afrofuturism, as well as sankofa, deeply aware of the ways in which White, European culture historically has—and even today continues to—misunderstand, misrepresent, belittle, denigrate, appropriate, steal, and at times, destroy the cultural expressions of non-European cultures. The short-hand for this is ‘cultural racism.’ Mindful of it, I’m digging deeply into Afrofuturism, stiving to do so with the utmost humility and reverence.

Second. We live in the future’s past. contemplate that for a moment. Since we live in the future’s past, what is our responsibility for creating a future worthy of our principles—one that corrects the flaws of white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism and environmental injustice? One that is inclusive, loving, joyful? Womak says “the idea of time travel, oddly enough, reemphasizes the present.” That is, given the future we imagine, how should we act now? Who should we be today so that a loving, inclusive future becomes a reality? I read to you earlier from the hip-hop artist Gabriel Teodros’ story, “Lalibela.”[12] Teodros has a spoken word piece called “Colored People’s Time Machine,” in which he acknowledges, “I’m the future ancestor to my unborn seeds.”[13] He means we need to be conscious, aware, accountable to the people who are coming after us. We want them to come back and get us, to bring us into their present so that our example can help them shape their future. That’s time tavel.

Finally, I talked about the way Janelle Monáe collapses the boundaries between past, present and future in her music. Gabriel Teodros makes a similar statement in “Colored People’s Time Machine.” He says “Everything’s happening at once, right?” [14] The more human beings consciously travel in time—remembering and imagining, remembering and imagining, remembering and imagining—the more the boundaries between past, present and future actually disappear. Maybe they were never real in the first place. Maybe they are just illusions our minds create to make sense of our existence. Teodros continues: “ I see it in moments and I feel it in dreams  / and it would be so easy If I could let go of me. / It’s a constant process unravelling / You call it hip hop, I call it colored people’s time machine. / Made of music you feel what you don’t see, / I ride the vessel, the vessel is also me.” Arriving at that kind of enlightenment—that sense of oneness in time and space—is the goal of many spiritual practices. Sankofa suggests yet another approach. Go back and get it. Bring it forward. Shape the future by living well in the present. Ride the vessel, knowing you are the vessel.

Go back and get it.

Amen.

Blessed be.

 

________________________________________________________

[1] For a general statement about Sankofa, see the article “Sankofa, What Does it Mean?” at the blog Sankofa: Filling the Digital Divide, Feb. 15, 2013: https://lnwatsonblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/sankofa-what-does-it-mean/.

For a general statement about adinkra, see the article “Adinkra Symbols” at the blog An Afroetic Narrative, 2016: https://afroetic.com/adinkra-symbols/. Also see reflections on sankofa and the sankofa bird in Womack, Ytasha L., Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013) pp. 160-161.

[2] Mallett, Ron L., Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality (Basic Books: New York, 2009).

[3] UConn Talks, “Time Travel Fueled by Love,” with Professor Ron L. Mallett. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etJv4yTY4Ig.

[4] Spanos, Brittany, “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself,” Rolling Stone, Issue 1313/1314, May 17-30, 2018, pp. 34-36. See: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/janelle-monae-frees-herself-629204/.

[5] Sterritt, Laura, “Janelle Monáe’s Hidden Sci-Fi Epic,” Transchordian, October 24th, 2013. See: http://www.transchordian.com/2013/10/metropolis-janelle-monaes-hidden-sci-fi-epic/. Also see Womak, Afrofuturism, pp. 74-76. View further analyses of Janelle Monáe’s work at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMqng3HmPOA and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdylle_hPgQ.

[6] Pulliam-Moore, Charles, “From Metropolis to Dirty Computer: A Guide to Janelle Monáe’s Time-Traveling Musical Odyssey” at io9 We Come From the Future (Gizmodo), May 2, 2018. See: https://io9.gizmodo.com/from-metropolis-to-dirty-computer-a-guide-to-janelle-m-1825580195.

[7] View the emotion picture for Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHgbzNHVg0c.

[8] Listen to Janelle Monae’s “Dirty Computer” featuring Brian Wilson on Yutube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFK6k-pvXmI.

[9] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 75.

[10] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 7. Incidentally, Ytasha Womak is the creator of Rayla 2212—a multimedia series with music, books, animation and games that follows Rayla Illmatic … a rebel strategist and third generation citizen of Planet Hope, an Earth colony gone rogue some two hundred years into the future. Check out: http://rayla2212.com/welcome-to-the-world-of-rayla/.

[11] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 160.

[12] Teodros, Gabriel, “Lalibela,” in Brown, Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood (Oakland: AK Press, 2015) pp. 123-133.

[13] Tedodros, Gabriel, “Colored People’s Time Machine.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuIxAkZXsKI.

[14] Tedodros, Gabriel, “Colored People’s Time Machine.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuIxAkZXsKI.

Only the Mystery Is

Rev. Josh Pawelek

The Outward Orientation

Our ministry theme for July is witness. As far as I can tell, the last time I preached directly on this theme was July, 2012. I had just returned from the “Justice General Assembly”—or Justice GA—in Phoenix, where Unitarian Universalist Association leaders had dedicated the entire five-day assembly to witnessing Arizona’s treatment of undocumented immigrants; and to specifically witnessing against the racial profiling and other anti-immigrant practices of Maricopa County’s now infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In that sermon I talked about a variety of ways to define understand witness. I pointed out that in more conservative, fundamentalist or evangelical churches, the term witness often refers to the act of naming how God is working positively in one’s life—how God is bringing healing, rebirth, a bright future, prosperity, etc., into one’s life. In mainline Protestant, liberal Christian and Unitarian Universalist congregations, the term witness more often refers to the public naming of social, economic and political injustices; and the prophetic call for reform, for social transformation, for justice-making, for building the beloved community.

I also spoke of a pastoral dimension to religious witness. I quoted the oncologist and spiritual writer, Rachel Naomi Remen who once said, “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[1] I said that, for me, Remen’s statement names “the heart of what it means to be a religious witness. When someone is suffering, let us in the very least not turn away, not move on to the next agenda item, not think of the next thing we need to say. When someone is suffering, let us stay present to their pain; let us keep our focus on what has happened to them. When someone is suffering, let us stay with them, sit by their side, listen to their story, support them, encourage them.” Even if we have no words and don’t know what to say, even if we feel inadequate, even if the other’s suffering is beyond our comprehension, our silent presence still matters. “When we act as religious witnesses, we make suffering visible so that it cannot be ignored, denied or downplayed by anyone. When we act as religious witnesses we say to those who suffer, ‘you do not have to endure this alone.’ When someone is suffering, in the very least, let us not turn away.”[2]

I notice that each of these forms of religious witness orients us in an outward manner, focuses our attention outward. We reach out, call out, speak out, extend ourselves, lengthen ourselves, enlarge ourselves, give of ourselves, open our hearts beyond the boundaries of self. We suffer with. We peer out beyond ourselves to the sacred, to Nature, to God, to Goddess, to the animating spirit of life. We peer out beyond ourselves to human society, to its systems and institutions that perpetuate injustice, oppression, discrimination, and cruelty toward people, towards animals, toward the earth. We peer out beyond ourselves to family, friends, neighbors and strangers who are suffering, who are in pain, who are hurting; outward to those who are lonely, isolated, stuck, stranded, imprisoned.

To bear witness is to assume an outward orientation—to turn, to move, to reach, to peer out beyond ourselves.

The Inward Orientation

You have heard me say many times, in different ways, that one of the central purposes of the church is to ‘send its people forth,’ to cultivate in the people that outward orientation. The church sends you forth to bear witness to the way the sacred moves in the world and to celebrate that movement. The church sends you forth to bear witness to suffering and to be present to it for the sake of healing and connection. The church sends you forth to bear witness to injustice and oppression and to organize and advocate for a more just and loving community.

But the church would be spiritually negligent were it to send you forth without first preparing you. We prepare for the outward look by taking the inward look. We are more effective and impactful in our outward witness when we pause, first, for inward witness.

I remember learning this lesson during my unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE) at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston in the summer of 1998. CPE is an intensive pastoral care training in a hospital setting. When my supervisors learned I am an adult child of an alcoholic, they guided me into deep reflection on how that alcoholism had shaped me emotionally, and how it might influence my response to hospital patients in treatment for alcoholism and other addictions. What features of my experience might prevent me from being fully present while providing pastoral care to an alcoholic? What assumptions was I carrying about alcoholism and alcoholics that might lead me to misunderstand an individual’s unique circumstances? What deeply-rooted behaviors forged in me through years of living with an alcoholic might subvert my best efforts to provide compassionate care? A lack of clear answers to such questions, an absence of self-knowledge—the failure to peer inward and understand the origins of my adult self—would limit my capacity to provide genuine and effective pastoral care. With no inward witness, the outward witness grows thin, brittle, ambivalent.

I’m mindful of Martin Luther King Jr.’s description of the steps one must take to insure a successful campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. Before placing one’s body in the street, or at the entrance to an official building or a legislator’s office, before offering one’s body to potential violence, to arrest, spiritual purification is essential. In King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he says: “We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’”[3] Again this probing, this searching, this preparing of the self is critical. Am I ready? What will prevent me from engaging? What inner fears and conflicts might weaken my resolve? Who am I really? Who am I becoming? Who do I long to be?

Before the outward witness can succeed, the inward witness is essential.

This is the reason I almost always open our worship services with an invitation to interiority. Find that place inside of you, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, when you yearn for peace; that place where you know your truth, where your conviction resides, where your voice is strong; that place from which you reach out to others who are suffering; that place in which you commune with all that is holy in your life. But I’m also suggesting this morning that that place inside of us is not static, is not some unchanging center. It grows as we grow. Our knowledge of it is never complete. There is always more for us to discover about that place inside of us. It is always possible to peer more deeply within; always possible to extend and enlarge our self-knowledge; always possible to more fully grasp the roots of our anxieties, obsessions and fears—and the roots of the roots. It is always possible to more fully understand the forces that have shaped and formed us for better or for worse. It is always possible to rewrite the stories we and others tell about ourselves so that the words and images and metaphors more accurately speak to who we are, who we’re becoming and who we long to be.

We take the inward look to prepare as best we can for the outward look. The quality of our inward witness determines the quality of our outward witness. The depth of our inward witness lends power and confidence to our outward witness.

Only the Mystery Is

The inward witness doesn’t end merely with self-knowledge. Something more profound rests just beyond the base of our self-knowing. Something more profound rests beneath, around, within – though these are words we use to describe something that is indescribable. Earlier we shared spiritual teacher Adyashanti’s poem, “Have You Noticed?” Here it is again:

I have no more ideas anymore about / God, consciousness, / the absolute or non-duality. / If you want to talk with me / let us meet where / there are no abstractions. / All I want to know is: / Have you noticed? / Something is here / my friend. / Something is here / have you noticed? / Only the Mystery is. / The Mystery is noticing that / only the Mystery is. / Have you noticed?[4]

As we witness through layers and layers of self, layers and layers of experience, layers and layers of who I am, who I am becoming, who I long to be; as we slowly come to terms with the forces that have shaped and formed us, it is possible at times to arrive at a different kind of knowledge, a different kind of awareness—a knowledge and awareness that so many words, concepts, and theories humans use to describe reality actually don’t describe reality, actually serve, in the end, to limit reality, to box it in, to confine it. In actuality life and spirit and soul cannot be captured in words and concepts and theories. In actuality life and spirit and soul are always moving beyond the boundaries human beings establish; always flowing, transcending, subverting; always, like the wind, blowing where they may; always, like the wind, oblivious to the borders humans draw on maps and defend with soldiers, walls and drones.

I have no more ideas anymore about / God, consciousness, / the absolute or non-duality. / If you want to talk with me / let us meet where / there are no abstractions.

Adyashanti’s words remind me of those familiar lines from the 13th-century Persian Sufi poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi:  Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing / and rightdoing there is a field./ I’ll meet you there. / When the soul lies down in that grass / the world is too full to talk about. / Ideas, language, even the phrase each other / doesn’t make any sense.[5] They remind me also of the pronouncements of the ancient Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, who responds to a question about how to rule the world, “What kind of question is this? I am just about to set off with the Creator. And if I get bored with that, then I’ll ride on the Light-and-Lissome Bird out beyond the six directions, wandering in the village of Not-Even-Anything and living in the Broad-and-Borderless field…. Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, follow along with things the way they are.”[6]

These sages sought, in playful ways, to guide their followers to that ‘something more profound,’ that essence that is full because it is empty, assertive because it is silent, mobile because it is still, something because it is nothing; that ground of being in which we rest yet which we can only approach through a quieting of the mind, through the abandonment of words and concepts and theories, through the letting go of any and all notions of the self.

I am confident that the closer we can come to this ‘something more profound,’ to this place wherein, as Adyashanti says elsewhere, no words can penetrate, [7] the more robust our preparation will be for our outward witness in the wider world. The more we can take notice of the mystery within, where human borders and boundaries and barricades make no sense, the better able we are to transcend the borders and boundaries and barricades that relentlessly separate people from each other and from the earth.

Suddenly the inward witness and the outward witness don’t seem so distinct, may even be the same witness, because ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ are human constructions, human words, that don’t quite capture the essence of reality.  

Suddenly we realize, only the Mystery is / …. Have you noticed?

Amen and blessed be. 

 

[1] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Bearing Witness,” My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000) p. 105.

[2] Pawelek, Josh, “Let Us Not Turn Away: Some Reflections on Justice General Assembly,” a sermon preached for the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, July 15, 2012. See: http://uuse.org/let-us-not-turn-away-some-reflections-on-justice-general-assembly/#.WzOvL9JKhPY.

[3] King, Jr., Martin Luther, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. Read the text at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[4] Adyashanti, “Have You Noticed?” My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 108.

[5] Jalal al-Din Rumi, excerpt from “Out Beyond Ideas.” See: https://allpoetry.com/Out-Beyond-Ideas.

[6] Watson, Burton, tr., Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) pp. 90-91.

[7] Adyashanti, My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 115.

[8] Adyashanti, “Have You Noticed?” My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 108.