Reinventing the Sacred

In his 2008 book Reinventing the Sacred, complexity theorist Stuart A. Kauffman tells an apocryphal story of the invention of the tractor. Portable engines had been invented for the purpose of powering farm machinery in the early 1800s. The question by mid-century was how to embed an engine directly into the machinery. No reasonably-sized chassis could bear the weight of the engine. Eventually an engineer working on the problem suggested using the sturdy, rigid engine block itself as the chassis.[1] This solution led to the invention of the tractor. This story illustrates Kauffman’s principle of “emergence,” which describes how every new thing—new molecules, species, technologies, economies, cultures—comes into the universe for the first time—not at the very beginning, but as a part of a continuing creative process inherent in the universe. This principle is so compelling to Kauffman that he proposes we call it God. Hence the title of his book, Reinventing the Sacred.

It would never have occurred to me to read this book, but luckily for me, when Fred and Phil Sawyer purchased a sermon at last year’s goods and services auction, Fred assigned it. “Luckily.” As I remember it, Fred handed it to me saying something like, “I got nothing out of it; I’m not a biologist; maybe you can tell us why this matters.” I remember thinking, “I’m not a biologist either!” But I’m always up for a challenge. And reading this book was a challenge.  Much of the science is dense and beyond my comprehension. But I know enough to understand the significance Kauffman attaches to the science. And what he says does matter—not because he has found God, but because his science reveals a mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe—one that can inform us in a profound way what it means to be human. Ready?

I think it’s fair to say the average human isn’t typically aware of a mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe. We might catch fleeting glimpses of it in the midst of worship, or in the presence of beautiful art or nature. If we desire a more sustained experience of it we need to work at it. It requires a prayer life, a devotional life, a meditational life. It requires regular practices that connect mind, body and spirit to each other and to the world. But that’s not what the book is about. Kauffman contends we need a new scientific worldview. In fact, the reason we aren’t typically aware of the mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe is because the reigning scientific worldview, reductionism, blocks such awareness.  

“Reductionism,” says Kauffman, “is the view that society is to be explained in terms of people, people in terms of organs, organs by cells, cells by biochemistry, biochemistry by chemistry, and chemistry by physics…. It is the view that in the end, all of reality is nothing but whatever is ‘down there’ at the … base of physics….”[2] What’s down there? Atoms and subatomic particles like pions, muons, guons and the Higgs boson. A string theorist would say there are vibrating strings down there.

Presumably, there are laws governing the behavior of these microcosmic entities, just as there are laws governing the behavior of planets and stars. If we can articulate these laws, if we can know what each minute entity will do in any given situation, then theoretically it is possible to know everything that will happen. This is reductionism’s goal. We’ve succumbed to the Galilean spell. Kauffman says “since Galileo rolled balls down incline planes and showed that the distance traveled varied with the square of the time elapsed, we scientists have believed that the universe and all in it are governed by natural laws…. Under this spell we have believed reductionism for over 350 years.”[3] The spell is seductive. If we can find the natural laws governing the physical world, then we can know everything that will happen in physics. Kauffman says knowing a natural law means we can pre-state what is going to happen. If we can pre-state everything that will happen in physics, then we can pre-state everything that will happen in chemistry and on up the chain: biochemistry, cells, organs, people, societies.[4] With such knowledge we can unlock every secret in the universe.

But Kauffman also reminds us of a shadowy truth at the heart of reductionism: “The more we comprehend the universe, the more pointless it seems.”[5] That is, physics only tells us what happens. It only tells us facts. There’s no meaning or purpose embedded in the interaction of subatomic particles. If everything—including consciousness—can be reduced to particles colliding, then at the heart of reality there is no meaning or purpose. There is no agency. Nothing utterly new emerges, and there is certainly no God. It’s all utterly pointless.

Kaffman resists this conclusion. He is convinced we aren’t just particles colliding. We have agency. There is meaning and purpose. These things didn’t exist at the beginning of the universe; they have emerged into the universe over time and they cannot be reduced to physics. Kauffman proposes to break the Galilean spell. He makes this proposal based primarily on his understanding of a concept in the theory of evolution called preadaptation. What is preadaptation? Any biological organism has features that are more or less adapted to its environment and enable it to survive and reproduce. But what happens if the environment changes—becomes colder or warmer, wetter or dryer—and the organism’s survival needs change? The study of evolution reveals that in such situations, some of the organism’s features may take on new functions that have no relationship to their original functions. Scientists call this preadaptation.

This is why Kauffman tells the tractor story. The engine block’s original function is to support the components of the engine. But some engineer imagined the engine block could also be used as the tractor’s chassis. The engine block wasn’t designed to be a chassis, but as needs changed, it emerged as a chassis. It was preadapted to function as a chassis even though it wasn’t designed to function as a chassis. Kauffman also talks about screwdrivers, which were designed to turn screws. “But how many other novel uses can the screwdriver be put to? It can be used to open a can of paint … to scrape putty from a frozen window … to defend yourself against an assailant … as an object of art … as a paperweight … to carve your initials on a fine tabletop, spear a fish, crack a coconut, chop down a tree using a rock to hammer if you are on an isolated island making a hut.”[6] When we use a screwdriver for any purpose other than turning screws, we can say it is preadapted for these other functions.

That’s the principle. Returning to actual biology, Kauffman talks about how the three bones in the fish jaw were preadapted to evolve into the bones of the middle ear in mammals. He talks about how ancient fish lungs evolved by preadaptation into the swim bladder. There are countless examples of preadaptation in nature. It is one of the primary mechanisms by which novelty emerges into the universe. And whenever something new emerges into the universe, it also changes its environment, putting survival pressure on other organisms, thus creating opportunities for emergence to continue in endless cycles. Emergence does not violate the laws of physics, but there is also no physical law that fully governs it either. Kauffman says there can be no such law because “we have not the faintest idea of what all possible [environmental changes] might be … and no way to list all possible … environments with respect to all … features of organisms. How would we even get started on creating such a list? Thus we cannot [pre-state] the …  preadaptations that will come to exist in the biosphere.”[7]

Remember the mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe? Here it is. Reductionism can’t explain it because reductionism requires laws. Emergence is a partially lawless phenomenon.

Kauffman calls this mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe God. Throughout the book he is clear he can’t accept the idea of an all-powerful, transcendent, Creator God. But he also can’t accept reductionism’s pointless universe. He believes he has found a third way, a scientifically describable creativity inherent in the universe which, because no natural law governs it completely, is also eternally mysterious. Isn’t God a good name for it? This is how he reinvents the sacred. But there’s no reinvention here. Most theologians would call his theology pantheism, the idea that God is synonymous with the natural world. If the natural world is inherently creative, partially lawless and unknowably mysterious, then God is creative, partially lawless and unknowably mysterious. Pantheism comes in many forms and is quite ancient. I’m a pantheist. Many Unitarian Universalists profess some form of pantheism, even if they don’t use the word.

I’m not blown away by his theologizing, but I’ve loved contemplating what it means to be human in this inherently creative, partially lawless, unknowably mysterious universe. Every time Kauffman illustrates how some biological process, or the human mind, or the biosphere, or the economy or human culture cannot be reduced to physics, cannot be contained within the boundaries of natural law; or how some change in biology, the economy or culture cannot be pre-stated—his science reveals an infinite space all around us and in which virtually anything can happen. He calls it the adjacent possible. Every possible preadaptation, every path to something new exists there, and everything that emerges new into the universe emerges there. This doesn’t mean that every new thing that can happen will happen, but something new will happen. In a sense we are constantly entering a sliver of the adjacent possible.

As an example, he notes “that the early Earth … had only a small diversity of organic molecules, perhaps a hundred or a thousand different compounds. Today there are trillions of different organic compounds spread among the roughly 100 million living species. The biosphere has exploded into its chemically adjacent possible. We will find similar explosions in economics, human history and elsewhere…. The creativity in the universe is tied to the explosions into the adjacent possible.”[8] Every new chemical compound, cell or organism, every new use for a screwdriver, the inner ear, the swim bladder, the automobile, the airplane, the emergence of  smell, sight, hearing, taste, touch through evolution—even every new thought—

brings us into the adjacent possible. And every time something new comes into the world, a new adjacent possible comes into existence. Endless creativity.

I invited Molly Vigeant to compose a poem in response to the prompt: “is the human mind like a computer?” She wrote: my mind connects / each neuron / like a cable to a memory / that means something to me, / my cables connect / finding results to your questions, / to my questions / but i do not display the results / you see my mind / does not work like that laptop …. I gave her this prompt when I was reading Kauffman’s chapter on the human mind. He asks whether or not the human mind is like a computer. He and Molly agree. Our minds do not work like laptops. Computers are algorithmic. They use algorithms to make complex calculations. Humans use algorithms—long division is an example—but is the human mind algorithmic like a computer? For an algorithm to work, there must be boundaries. There must be what Kauffman calls a pre-stated problem space. The algorithm finds a solution within the boundaries of the problem space. Once the problem space is pre-stated, there are many solutions that can be found within the space, but not beyond it. There is no adjacent possible for computers. Laws set limits. The human mind, however, knows no such limits. Molly almost begs us, “Please / don’t call me a computer /when I compose rhymes, call it the power / of a human mind.” Kauffman says, “the human mind, like a ghost ship, keeps slipping free of its computational moorings to sail where it will. It does so because it is nonalgorithmic. This freedom is part of the creativity of the universe.”[9]

Yes! The human imagination crosses boundaries into the adjacent possible all the time: in dreams, in creative endeavor, while under pressure, in the throes of passion, in problem-solving, in prayer, in meditation, while doing yoga, dancing, running, day-dreaming, free and easy wandering. I’m mindful of our opening words from Howard Thurman: “The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of [people] often … causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making.”[10] Any time we’re struggling and realize we need to live differently, the adjacent possible beckons. Any time we encounter difficulty, hurt, tragedy and need to adapt to new circumstances, the adjacent possible beckons. Any time we’ve become weighted down by habit or addiction and need to reinvent ourselves, the adjacent possible beckons. But it cannot be pre-stated. There is no way to know ahead of time what the mind will imagine, what answers will emerge. We’ll know once we’ve found our way there.

This is what it means to be human. We live in a partially lawless universe, not knowing what the future may bring. In this sense we are surrounded by mystery, which can be terrifying. But we are also surrounded by infinite pathways, infinite promise. The adjacent possible is always accessible. Knowing this, trusting this, believing this, let us not fear mystery but rather embrace it. Let us live in consort with the creative heart of the universe. Knowing the adjacent possible is there, may we find inspiration to meet the challenges of our lives. Knowing the adjacent possible is there, may we be hopeful people.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Kauffman, Stuart A., Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 2008) pp. 151-2. Kauffman says this “is how tractors are made,” but he doesn’t cite any sources. A quick google search informs me that “in 1892, John Froelich invented and built the first gasoline/petrol-powered tractor in Clayton County, Iowa, USA. A Van Duzen single-cylinder gasoline engine was mounted on a Robinson engine chassis, which could be controlled and propelled by Froelich’s gear box.” See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tractor.

[2] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, pp. 10-11.

[3] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 131.

[4] Kauffman refers to the early 19th-century French scientist, Simon Pierre LaPlace, saying that “the entire universe and all the events within it, from particles colliding to nations at war, could be understood as nothing but the motion of a very large number of particles.” Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, pp. 14.

[5] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, pp. 18.

[6] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 188.

[7] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 132-3.

[8] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 64.

[9] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 188.

[10] Thurman, Howard, Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (Harper, 1959).

 

Circle of Race Unity Meets at UUS:E

On Tuesday evening, May 31st, at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, the ‘Circle of Race Unity’ (CRU) team facilitated a public dialogue on race and racism. Through meaningful conversations CRU believes people will learn to be respectful of others, accept their diversity as a benefit, and appreciate their contributions to humanity’s social well-being. The event attracted thirty participants from seven surrounding towns.

CRU is a diverse group dedicated to improving communication between people of different cultures, religions, races, nationalities and other distinctions. CRU’s members are based largely in the South Windsor area.

CRU members began the event with short video featuring the CEO of ATT–who is white–speaking to a group of his company’s managers about how he had been unaware of some of the bitter racial realities in the life of a close friend who is African-American.

After a short period which focused on the reasons that prompted those in the audience to attend the event, the group divided into four breakout sessions to discuss individual topics on race. Lively, informative and heart-felt discussion was followed by a social hour at which participants continued to deepen relationships.

CRU plans to hold follow-up sessions over the summer and in September to continue working on ways to improve relationship among diverse people. Watch this website for updates!

UUS:E Partners with Artist Joe Young for “Imagine Main St.”

UUS:E is partnering with award-winning cartoonist, filmaker, producer, writer and educatior Joe Young at our Imagine Main St. booth, this coming Thursday evening, June 1, from 5:30 to 8:00. Mr. Young will teach kids (and adults) basic animation techniques using flip-books and pre-drawn comic strips. UUS:E members are also taking this opportunity to speak to Manchester residents about our support for the Black Lives Matter movement.  (Our booth will be located at 801 Main St., former site of the Great Harvest Bread Co.)

Info on Joe Young: 

Joe Young, is a Connecticut native, is a cartoonist, filmmaker, producer, writer, and educator. He is the creator of the socially engaged Scruples comic characters and the writer and executive producer of Hartford’s first major home grown book-to-film project, Diamond Ruff. In early 2015, Cinedigm Entertainment, the largest independent content provider in the United States, nationally distributed Diamond Ruff. Young is currently the President of Maurice Starr Entertainment/Joe Young! Studios headquartered in Hartford, CT, where he oversees many projects including the visual development of new boy band NK5. The company currently has multiple Billboard achievements. He currently sits as a board director of the non-profit organization The Foster Buddies Network. Young is founder and President of Joe Young Studios which, amongst other things, provides film and animation programming for youth in various Connecticut schools. He is also the Founder & Executive Director of the youth arts non-profit agency The Joe, Picture This Show/Hartford Animation and Film Institute. He is a former Guinness World Record Holder for creating the World’s Longest Comic Strip, which included the participation of thousands of Greater Hartford-based youth. In 1999 he received the prestigious Daily Point of Light Award from the White House for volunteering his time in bringing the arts to otherwise access-less youth. He has also received recognition from the Connecticut branch of N.A.A.C.P. as one of the 100 Most Influential Blacks in Connecticut, special community honor from Senator Christopher S. Murphy, the 100 Men of Color Award, and the Dr. Ivor Echols Community Service Award. He and his work have appeared in People, Ebony, GQ and Jet Magazine, the Boston Globe, New York Times, C-Span, CNN, the Black Family Channel and other national media outlets (www.joeyoung.org). 

Info on Imagine Main Street:

White Supremacy Teach-In

Rev. Josh Pawelek

During last year’s presidential campaign there was an almost constant outcry from white conservative and working class voters who were tired of being called racist. They were especially tired of progressive white people on the coasts and in large cities calling them racist. ‘Just because we want to end illegal immigration doesn’t mean we’re racist.’ ‘Just because we support law and order doesn’t mean we’re racist.’ ‘Just because we support a temporary Muslim ban doesn’t mean we’re racist.’ Even traditional white supremacists started asking, ‘if it’s ok to say black lives matter, why is it racist to say white lives matter?

As you may expect, I have responses to each of these arguments. Each of them, if enacted in real life, have racist outcomes, regardless of the intent of the people who promote them. But this White Supremacy Teach-In is not about other peoples’ racism. It is about how white supremacy continues to operate in our beloved Unitarian Universalist faith. I remember hearing that outcry during the campaign. I remember wondering for a moment: have I become a coastal elite, looking down my hypocritical nose at heartland, rust-belt and southern white people who support a candidate who expresses racist views? Some of you asked that same question: ‘Are we those coastal elites at whom conservative white voters are so angry?’ And to some degree, at least for me, the answer is ‘yes.’ I was—and continue to be—angry at not only the racism, but the misogyny, homophobia, religious bigotry and classism driving major policy proposals and executive orders in Washington, DC, and having a negative social, economic and political impact not only on people of color, indigenous people, women, GLBTQ people, Muslims, but on many of those angry white voters as well.

But if that is the extent of my analysis, then shame on me. If the problem, as I assess it, lies only with those people out there and not with me too, then not only have I become that stereotype of the liberal, coastal elite, but I don’t really understand how white supremacy works. If all I really do is point fingers at other people, am I not excusing myself from taking any responsibility for the problem? Whenever I heard that outcry—stop calling us racist!—I wondered if there might be some legitimacy to the request, but only for a moment. It’s not a legitimate request. But the reason I feel confident saying that is because I know the problem does not lie simply with Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Jeff sessions, Breitbart and Fox News, or police over-reaching, ICE deporting, and big energy companies building pipelines across lands sacred to indigenous people. It lies with white liberals too. It lies with me too. As much as our nation was founded on egalitarian ideals, it was also founded on an unexamined assumption and vision of white supremacy. Despite centuries of resistance, that foundation has yet to be sufficiently eroded, and thus white supremacy continues to move through virtually all aspects of our lives, including our religious lives. I don’t give those other white people a pass, because I don’t give a pass to myself, my family, my community or to this faith I love deeply.

Our Unitarian Universalist principles name the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the imperative of justice, equity and compassion in human relations. As such they call us to be constantly vigilant about confronting white supremacy and other forms of oppression in ourselves and in the world, and I could and should be preaching this sermon at any time. But why today? And, for that matter, why are more than 600 Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country doing the same thing today?

It’s been a rough few months for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. As many of you know, in early April, the Rev. Peter Morales resigned as President of the UUA in the midst of allegations of racism in hiring practices. For background, I want to read a section of a March 27th UU World magazine article entitled, “Critics Decry ‘White Supremacy’ in Hiring Practices.

“The hiring in March of a white male minister to a regional leadership position within the [UUA], an organization in which almost all the top staff positions are held by white people, has sparked controversy over whether the UUA is living its stated racial justice values.” News of this hiring “emerged as UU religious professionals of color were gathered in Baltimore for [an] annual … retreat on March 17. One of those religious professionals [who identifies racially as Chicana-Latina] … told colleagues at the retreat that she had been a finalist for the job but had been told she was not “the right fit for the team….”

Over the next week, charges spread on social media that the UUA had hired another white person over [a] woman of color who was a qualified finalist for the Southern Region job. Critics pointed out that the five regional leads, who supervise the fifty members of the UUA’s Congregational Life staff … were all white ministers….

UUA Moderator Jim Key said the Board of Trustees has received a dozen emails and letters expressing unhappiness over the lack of diversity in UUA staffing…. One of those emails—a letter signed by 121 UU ministers and other religious professionals—said that ‘the practice of hiring white people nearly to the exclusion of hiring people of color is alarming….’ Noting that people of color make up no more than 11 percent of any rank of UUA employees except service workers, where they are 84 percent …, the letter called for a change in hiring practices and a public conversation about monitoring the Association’s success in creating a multicultural staff.”[1]

Over the next few weeks the controversy grew. On April 1st Rev. Morales resign, saying he had lost the trust of too many people to effectively lead the UUA at this time.[2]  Eventually more senior staff announced resignations.

As soon as the controversy erupted, many Unitarian Universalists religious professionals of color and their white allies began using the term white supremacy to describe it. (Actually, many of us have been using this term for decades, but this is the first time in my memory that Unitarian Universalists are engaging deeply with it.) The organization Black Lives UU and some of its partners called for congregations to dedicate their worship services on April 30th or May 7th to a “white supremacy teach-in.” That’s the reason for today’s service.

Wait. What? White supremacy? In Unitarian Universalism? How can white supremacy apply to our justice-seeking, Black-Lives-Matter supporting, refugee resettling, criminal-justice reforming, GBLTQ-welcoming, earth-saving, answering-the-call-of-love, liberal faith? There must be some mistake. White supremacy applies to those other white people—the Alt Right, the people who want border walls and Muslims bans, who desecrate Jewish cemeteries, who commit hate crimes. Well, yes, but in pointing my finger at someone else, I am likely excusing myself from taking responsibility for the problem. Let’s explore this.    

When my people of color, indigenous people and white antiracist colleagues—people who I know and love and have worked with for many years—use the term white supremacy to describe Unitarian Universalism, I’ve learned to listen. I’ve learned to open my heart, approach the conversation with curiosity, and try to understand why the term makes sense. I’ve learned people don’t use this term merely to be provocative. They don’t use it to be mean. They don’t use it to make white people feel guilty. They use it to make sense of their own painful experiences within Unitarian Universalism. They use it to help themselves and others understand why decent, compassionate, loving, justice-seeking white people can nevertheless do and say things that are hurtful, often with no awareness. They use it to help themselves and others understand why spiritually open, love-centered, justice-seeking institutions can fail to practice stated commitments to diversity, multiculturalism and antiracism. In using this term, no one is calling anyone else a white supremacist. No one is likening the UUA or our congregations to the KKK or the Alt Right. But they are pointing out how our institutions center white people, white identity, experience, culture, ministers, history and spirituality; and how it makes them feel excluded, ‘less than,’ and invisible. When a hiring pattern favoring white people for high level positions becomes apparent, it is evidence that a deep-seeded white supremacy is operating. Not a hateful, violent white supremacy, but one that nevertheless has a painful impact on the lives of people of color in our denomination.

Remember that the Unitarian and Universalist denominations were founded by white people to serve the spiritual needs of white people in the decades following the founding of the United States, which was by law a country for white people.[3] People of color were present among our spiritual forebears, but they were highly marginalized, in part because they had a less-than-human legal status in the larger society. White identity, values, culture, spirituality, music, food and concerns were at the center of early Unitarian and Universalist institutional life. That’s the white supremacy we’re talking about—that unexamined assumption that the center is always white. Today much has changed about our faith. And much has changed about America.  But if our institutions have never made a serious commitment to decentering whiteness, then it is always possible for white supremacy to operate. Even in the midst of our support for Black Lives Matter, refugee resettlement, former inmates, domestic workers and undocumented people—all of it essential work expressing our commitment to confronting racism—we can still perpetuate white supremacy.

Does it operate here? Yes. It’s not easy to say that, but yes. We were talking about this at the Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee meeting this past Tuesday. The UUA has a stated goal of hiring a diverse, multicultural staff. They failed to reach that goal, but at least they have such a goal. We can’t say the same thing. Over the past five years, as we’ve done hiring for two major positions, we never specified that a racially diverse staff should be an outcome of our hiring efforts. One could argue ‘that’s not white supremacy—we just want to hire the best person for the job regardless of race,’ or, ‘it’s impractical to set racial quotas with such a small staff.’ There are hundreds of arguments like these. But if we never affirm that we want racial and cultural diversity in our staff, in our leadership team, in our membership, in the artists whose work adorns our walls, in our Sunday speakers, or in our partners in the wider community, then we’ll never give ourselves the opportunity to think through how these goals might be achievable; whiteness will continue to be our unexamined institutional center; and the risk of white supremacy operating here will remain.

What can we do? If white supremacy operates because whiteness occupies the center of our institutions, then our task is to learn the art of decentering whiteness and centering the experiences of people of color and indigenous people. This is not a punishment or a demotion for white people. It does not mean white people are bad or any less deserving of love, care and support, or that we somehow have less inherent worth and dignity. But it does ask white people to intentionally make room for, to listen to, to follow, to be accountable to, to act in solidarity with people of color and indigenous people.

In my conversations with people of color here and in other UU congregations, people say it can be exhausting to be among white people who never seem to fully acknowledge the profound differences in life experience. One person says, “I would like someone to recognize that to be Black in America is to have lived an entire life perceived as inferior and illegitimate, directly and indirectly, daily from early childhood to adulthood compounded over a lifetime and that it is a significantly different way of existing and experiencing America than [for] those [who] benefit from white privilege. These differences need to be acknowledged.” And it’s not just the experience of oppression that people of color can bring to institutional center; they also bring traditions of resistance to oppression, as well as different experiences of culture, family, spirituality, language, history, creativity, vision. It strikes me that if these different experiences were regularly spoken aloud and fully embraced at the center of our congregational life, it would be much more difficult for white supremacy to operate in that unexamined, often unconscious way. It would be more visible, easier to confront; and our congregation would start to change in beautiful and compelling ways.

I’m describing a huge shift in the way Unitarian Universalism approaches its institutional life. I have no illusions that making this shift will be easy, or that we will not consciously and unconsciously seek ways to avoid it—old habits do indeed die hard. But I am convinced our principles call us to embrace this shift.

I leave you with words adapted from white UU antiracism activist, Chris Crass, who says: “White supremacy, you cannot have me. You cannot have my family; you cannot have my faith; you cannot have my congregation. I will not bow to the … fear you put on me. For today, I choose to rise?—?to rise for racial justice, to rise and show up for my siblings of color and indigenous siblings…. They have courageously led us into a fight to make ourselves the faith that these times call us to be: the faith of salvation from the death culture, the faith of [rituals, ceremonies, theologies, and sacred actions] that nourish and grow beloved community. I might be scared. I might be out of my comfort zone. I might not know what I’m supposed to do. I might even disagree…. Yet, I’m going to show up … with my community, with my faith … and say ‘yes’ to racial justice, ‘yes’ to being on the journey, ‘yes’ to building a new way, ‘yes’ to shattering that which does not serve this goal. I’m going to find sources of strength, hope and courage I didn’t even realize existed. Today I say ‘yes’ to getting free from supremacy systems and ‘yes’ to a Unitarian Universalist faith that is alive for racial justice, on a path to be a spiritual home for more and more people hungry for beloved community working for collective liberation.”[4]

[1] McArdle, Elaine, “Critics See White Supremacy in UUA Hiring Practices,” UU World, March 27, 2017. See: http://www.uuworld.org/articles/critics-challenge-uua-hiring-practices.

[2] Walton, Chris, “UUA President Resigns Amid Controversy Over Hiring Practices,” UU World, March 30, 2017. See: http://www.uuworld.org/articles/peter-morales-resigns.

[3] The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person” who had been in the U.S. for two years. In effect, it left out indentured servants, slaves, and most women. See: http://rs6.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=226.

[4] Crass, Chris, “Let’s Move Beyond Fear of the words ‘White Supremacy’ and say Yes to Racial Justice!” April 28, 2017. See: https://medium.com/@chriscrass/im-scared-too-and-together-let-s-say-yes-917dd4317786.

 

Call Letter to UUS:E 2017 Annual Meeting

Dear UUS:E Voting Members:

We hope this letter finds you well and enjoying spring!

UUS:E’s 2017 Annual meeting will take place on Sunday afternoon, May 21st   at 1:00 pm. 

The agenda for the annual meeting will include the following:

Potluck Social

We are planning a salad pot luck social between the Affirmation service and the beginning of the annual meeting. Please bring a dish to share!

More Information

If you would like to vote but are unable to attend the meeting, absentee ballots are available in the UUS:E office. If you would like to designate a proxy, the form can also be obtained in the UUS:E office or accessed here: Proxy Voting Form 2017 Annual Meeting.

If you would like child care during the meeting and auction, please contact Annie Gentile in the UUS:E office by Tuesday, May 16th at 4:00 PM. And, if you have any questions or concerns regarding this meeting, please contact one of us.

We look forward to seeing you on May 21st!

Alan Ayers,                             Sylvia Ounpuu,                       Rev. Josh Pawelek

UUS:E President                   UUS:E Vice President            UUS:E minister

  

 

Good Friday Tenebrae service, April 14, 7:00 pm

UUS:E will offer a Good Friday service, April 14th at 7:00 PM. All are welcome.

 

This service features New York City-based violinst, Sharon Gunderson, dancer/choreographer, Hannah Barnard, and UUS:E Director of Music, Mary Bopp, performing “Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus” from “Quartet for the End of Time” by Oliver Messiaen. This performance and others will accompany reflections on the execution of Jesus and the reality of state violence in our own time.  Tenebrae is an ancient Christian religious service celebrated  on the evening before or early morning of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Holy Saturday. Tenebrae is distinctive for its gradual extinguishing of candles while a series of readings and psalms is chanted or recited. UUS:E’s adaptation of Tenebrae will be contemplative, meditative, and truthful about violence and the paths to peace.

UUS:E is at 153 West Vernon St., Manchester, CT. For more information, contact Rev. Josh Pawelek at (860) 652-8961. 

Surrender: A Path to Power

 

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Our ministry theme for March is surrender. In reviewing my past sermons on this theme, I notice a tendency in me—and not only in me, but among Unitarian Universalists and liberal religious people in general, among at least some of the American Buddhist and Yoga bloggers, and certainly on self-help bookshelves —a tendency to speak and write about surrender as this wonderful, liberating act that fills you with peace and joy. All you have to do is let go. All you have to do is be present, be in the moment, go with the flow, let what is yearning to emerge emerge, let the world be the world, accept that you don’t have control over outcomes, be soft, be gentle, bow down, bend in the wind, move with the current, yield, remain quiet.[1] It’s all good advice—solid, sound spiritual wisdom. I often ground it in a reference to the ancient Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu, who writes in Chapter 22 of the Tao-te Ching “To yield [i.e, to surrender] is to be preserved whole.”[2] But there’s a risk in offering this advice. The risk, always, is that we make what is exceedingly difficult sound exceedingly easy. The risk is that we provide a kind of false hope. How does one let go when holding on for dear life?

I am thankful to Penny Field for coordinating last week’s service on addiction. To the addict, the advice to just let go, just be present, just accept that you don’t have control over outcomes isn’t wrong, but on one level it’s laughable, because surrender in the context of addiction is so exceedingly difficult. And it’s not just addiction. Surrendering to illness is difficult. Surrendering to loss and grief are difficult. Surrendering to the need to work on a relationship or to accept the reality of a broken relationship: difficult. Surrendering to the need to make major life changes—career changes, retirement, relationship changes, moving to a new community, becoming a parent: difficult. Surrendering to the need to accept and be and proclaim who you really are, even when the people in your life don’t accept you and won’t support you: difficult. The advice is always good—just let go, be present to what is, let what is yearning to emerge, emerge—but the risk is that we make what is exceedingly difficult sound exceedingly simple.

Prior to my mini-sabbatical this past month, Mary Bopp and I were talking about how to address surrender differently, how to speak about surrender in a way that accounts for how difficult it can be. Mary reminded me that engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience is an act of surrender. People who engage in nonviolent civil disobedience have made a decision to accept the consequences of their actions, including—historically and today—harassment, harsh language, having people spit in their face, beatings, firehoses, police dogs, bombings, jail time, death threats and even, at times, death. As they accept the consequences of their actions without retaliating, they are committing acts of surrender. And the hope at the heart of their surrender is that their actions will dramatize the injustice in a particular social, economic or political system, and thereby create conditions that will force that system to change. Change comes as a result of someone—or some ones—engaging in acts of surrender. Hence the title of this sermon, “Surrender: A Path to Power.”

This idea of nonviolent civil disobedience as surrender came home to me a few years ago, when Bishop John Selders, the co-founder of Moral Monday CT—a leading Black Lives Matter organization in our state—and a good friend to this congregation, was talking about why a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience was necessary now. I’m not quoting him exactly, but he essentially pointed out that we all move through our lives and the world in the midst of profound injustice. We can identify a thousand different—though often related—injustices in the wider world when we put our minds to it. It’s not as if we who can identify injustice don’t try to do anything about it. We do. Many of us are quite willing and able to call or write a letter to an elected official, attend a city council meeting, participate in a rally or march, testify at the legislature on an important bill, make a donation, help settle a refugee family, etc. But even when we take these actions, so often their ultimate outcome is much less than we’d hoped for. So often we take our actions in good faith, month after month, year after year, and find ourselves still living in the midst of profound injustice. Bishop Selders was making the point that the way we engage matters. He was noticing that too often we take our actions in such a way that we maintain our own standing in society. We stay respectable. We express our concerns to those in power but we don’t hold them accountable. We don’t create any real tension. We don’t take genuine risks. And nothing really changes. He said—and this is a quote—“I can’t live like that anymore.”

It’s relatively easy to talk to a legislator about a bill. It’s relatively easy to march. We can do these things without too much risk to ourselves or our way of life. It is something else entirely to use one’s body to break a law in order to dramatize an injustice and, as a result, risk physical harm, fines, jail, etc. Moving from a willingness to engage in low-risk actions for social justice to a willingness to engage in high-risk actions for social justice requires surrender. The person who is willing to use their body to conduct nonviolent civil disobedience surrenders their attachment to whatever comfort they have in life, to whatever standing they have in society, and to the possibility that they will suffer violence in retaliation for their actions. That’s essentially what Bishop Selders was saying: I don’t want to live my life in a way that ultimately supports the status quo. I am ready to take bigger risks. I am ready to surrender for the sake of a more just society. And I am trusting the counter-intuitive proposition that through acts of surrender I will gain the power to change society.

I began reading up on people who famously organized nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns. As I read, I noticed a common dimension in those campaigns that is rarely discussed when we recount the histories: self purification. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” When he later described how they conducted self purification as part of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, 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] He doesn’t indicate that they prayed together or sang together as part of self purification, but I suspect both prayer and song were part of the process.

I looked for examples of self purification in the nonviolent campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi. I haven’t yet found instances of Gandhi using that term specifically, but he clearly engaged in disciplined spiritual preparation before taking action. In a book entitled Prophets of a Just Society, the historian and political scientist, Jake C. Miller says about Gandhi’s movement that “while there were many who gave lip-service to the doctrine of nonviolence, fewer were willing to undergo the suffering that was involved in its implementation. Although it was easy to talk about replacing hatred with love, some protestors were not able to meet the challenge when they came face to face with grave provocation. Thus, in order to ensure the success of civil disobedience as a weapon, it was necessary to prepare would-be-protesters for the difficult role they were expected to play. Self purification was regarded as essential in this process. Fasting, meditating and praying were essential components in Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent resistance. He perceived fasting and similar acts of discipline as a means of self-restraint, but he insisted that if physical fasting is not accompanied by mental fasting, it is bound to end in hypocrisy and disaster.”[4]

Self purification—this preparation, this getting ready, this praying, fasting, meditating, singing, studying, this fortifying oneself, steeling oneself, bracing oneself, grounding oneself—this is not itself an act of surrender. Self purification is prelude to successful surrender. Self purification produces surrender that is more likely to result in change, more likely to have power in the world.

I wonder: in our various discussions of all the other ways we need to surrender at certain times in our lives, do we speak of a distinct self purification component? I usually don’t. But how radically would it alter the typical spiritual advice on surrender if we spoke first of self purification? Instead of the usual catch-alls—“just let go” or “just go with the flow” or “just be present to whatever happens”—how different would it sound and feel if the spiritual advice focused on practices of self purification before acts of surrender? Mindful that letting go, going with the flow, being present can be enormously painful, frightening, overwhelming, might we more effectively approach that real pain and fear and stress by engaging in self purification first—by praying some kind of sacred prayer, making some kind of sacred vow, bathing in some sacred waters, singing some sacred song, dancing some sacred dance, sitting in some sacred silence first? We surrender old ways so that we may take on new ways—new ways of living, thinking, feeling, being. We surrender not for petty reasons but because we desperately need to make a change. So instead of the catch-alls, which, the more I contemplate them just sound trite and platitudinous, what if the person seeking surrender were advised to perform a ritual of self purification, a symbolic emptying out of the old and a welcoming in of the new, an enactment of the transition to a new reality as a precursor to actual surrender?

I read to you earlier from the Buddhacarita, the chronicles of the life of the Buddha written by the first century Indian priest, Ashyaghosha. I read the passage in which Siddh?rtha Gautama sits beneath the Bodhi tree with the goal of attaining enlightenment. In this passage he is on the verge of a deeply profound act of surrender. He is surrendering his attachment to his experience of having a self. He is letting go of his self, literally going with the flow. What stood out to me reading the passage this time is that he didn’t just sit down and surrender. He sat down and made a vow. He fortified himself before his actual surrender. This vow feels to me like an act of self purification. And looking at it through that lens, there’s also a resonance with the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights movement, especially the practice of the sit-in. Ashyaghosha writes “He then adopted the cross-legged posture, which is the best of all, because so immovable…. And he said to himself: ‘I shall not change … my position so long as I have not done what I set out to do!’”[5]

I am also mindful of Jesus, on the night before his crucifixion, struggling to accept the consequences of his actions and his ministry, wracked with fear and anxiety, preparing to surrender not just to the authorities but to his death on the cross. What does he do? He prays. Matthew 26: 39 in the Christian New Testament says, “And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’” This prayer is not the act of surrender; it is self purification prior to surrender.

In the Hebrew scriptures, Exodus 3, Moses encounters a burning bush in the desert, and notices the flames do not consume the bush. He wants to look more closely. If you know the story, you know God is about to call him to return to Egypt and liberate the Israelites from bondage. Moses eventually surrenders to this call. But the burning bush is prelude to surrender. And what does he do? He takes off his shoes because this is holy ground. For me, this is an image of self purification prior to an act of surrender.

When you find you can no longer “live that way,” whether we’re talking about no longer living a life that tacitly supports injustice, no longer living a life mired in addiction, no longer living a life that is unsustainable in some way, a life that needs to move in some way, a life that needs to grieve, to accept some hard truth, to stop fighting whatever it is you’ve been fighting for so long, a life that is too rigid, too controlling, too in charge; when you can no longer live that way and it’s time to surrender, be wary of advisors who urge you with platitudes to let go without first guiding you in the ways of self purification. Our lives are too short for going through motions that leave us essentially unchanged. Purify first. Pray, fast, meditate, sing, dance, take off your shoes, study, make a vow. Self purification comes first. Then, and only then, attempt to sit in that immoveable way. Then and only then, surrender, and change your life. Then and only then, surrender, and change the world.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] This list is quoted from my March 2, 2014 sermon, “Surrender: In Search of the Present Moment,” delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT.

[2] Wing-Tsit Chan, tr., Lao Tzu, Chapter 22, The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 139.

[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] Miller, Jake C., Prophets of a Just Society (Nova Publishers,   2001) p. 35.

[5] Ashyaghosha, “The Buddhacarita,” in Conze, Edward, Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 1959) p. 48.

Storytelling with Speak Up!

Speak Up Presents

FOOD & DRINK

Back by Popular Demand! The Greater Hartford Region’s Premier storytelling organization takes the state at Unitarian Universalist Society: East

Saturday, April 8th, 7:00 PM. (Doors open at 6:30)

Purchase Tickets.

Join us for an evening of true stories – both humorous and heartfelt – centered on the theme “Food & Drink.” Speak Up storytellers will take the stage for an evening of humor, drama, and surprise. The goal of Speak Up is to bring the craft of live storytelling to the greater Hartford area while entertaining audiences with stories about the human condition. All stories are 6-8 minutes long and are guaranteed to make you laugh, cry, and think.

Purchase Tickets.

Artsmash

ArtsMash is UUS:E’s ongoing celebration of art and its diverse makers, forms, and functions.

Questions? Contact the UUS:E office at (860) 646-5151.

 

 

No Room For Hate

[Rev. Josh Pawelek’s comments at the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding’s event, “An Interreligious Call to Love They Neighbor and Act for All Americans,” at the Cathedral of St. Jospeh, Hartford, CT, January 29, 2017]

Friends:

It’s an honor to be invited to say a few words this evening about the call at the heart of all our faiths to love our neighbors as ourselves. Thank you to the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding for organizing this event. Thank you to the Archdiocese for hosting. It is good to be together.

Like so many of us, I am concerned, unnerved, angered by the increasing normalization of hate—not only in our country, but in so many countries around the world. This hate is not new. Hate has always been a possibility in human hearts and in the hearts of nations, but in recent times—at least in my lifetime—it has been kept in check largely by human decency, compassion and love. Something has shifted. Hate seems to have found its way out into the open.

Let’s be clear about the difference between anger and hate. There are legitimate reasons for people to be angry. All across society, across faiths, across races, across classes, across the political spectrum from progressive to liberal to moderate to conservative to Tea Party—there are legitimate reasons for people to be angry. There are legitimate reasons for people to protest. There are legitimate reasons for people to engage in civil disobedience.  But hate? There’s no legitimate reason for hate. There’s no social, economic or political problem for which hate is a sustainable solution. There’s certainly no just law or policy that has hate at its core.

As people of faith we are called to resist this resurgent hate. Our ethics call us to resist. Our scriptures call us to resist. Our prophets (peace be upon them) call us to resist. Our Gods call us to resist. Anyone who professes to be a faithful adherent of any religion and yet urges us to hate another group, to exclude another group, to ban another group, to commit violence against another group has grossly misunderstood or purposefully disregarded their own ethics, their own scriptures, their own prophets (peace be upon them), their own God.

Love your neighbor as yourself. In my Unitarian Universalist tradition, this is our first principle. We say “respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This simple principle—love your neighbor as yourself—has always resided at the heart of our respective faiths. It has always been there to guide us. And it has always been an enormously difficult commandment to fulfill. But in the struggle to resist hate in our time, this principle is our plumb line, our north star, our grounding, our guiding light. Love your neighbor as yourself. Does your neighbor have to look like you to worthy of your love? No. Does your neighbor have to speak like you to worthy of your love? No. Does your neighbor have to pray, worship, or believe like you to be worthy of your love? No. Is the immigrant worthy of your love? Yes. Is the refugee worthy of your love? Yes. Is your political opposite worthy of your love? Is the transgender person worthy of your love? Is the coal miner worthy of your love? Is the police officer worthy of your love? Is the prisoner worthy of your love? Is the domestic worker worthy of your love? Is the corporate CEO worthy of your love? Yes, yes, yes.

Oh, there is room for disagreement and debate. There is room for anger, even rage. There is room for winning and losing in the political process. There is room for sticking to your convictions and fighting a principled fight. But there is no room for hate. Resist hate in everything you think, say and do. Let love prevail. Love will prevail. Great love, we pray, that you will prevail. Amen and blessed be.

Where the Wood Drake Rests Not: Reflections on Mental Health Ministry

Visible and Speakable

Our congregation has conducted a Mental Health Ministry for the last six or seven years. Sharon Gresk was the original visionary behind this ministry. She remains one of our in-house experts on offering pastoral support to people with mental illness. The current leaders of this ministry are Sarah Karstaedt and Christine Joyner. I am grateful for their ongoing commitment. The Mental Health Ministry has sponsored a variety of programs and activities. We’ve held affinity groups for people with mental illness, for people in recovery, for caregivers. We’ve taught courses on mental illness. We’ve sponsored forums like this afternoon’s National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) event. We’ve hosted performances of the Free at Last Players. We’ve sought continuing education for ourselves. We’re connected to an emerging network of faith communities, mental health chaplains and mental health care providers exploring the role of religion in addressing mental illness in the greater Hartford region. Twice a year we hold a Mental Health Ministry Summit when we gather for community, spiritual practice, continuing education and planning.

The heart of this ministry has been making mental illness visible and speakable here at UUS:E. Visibility and speakability are not easy qualities to measure, but when people speak openly about their mental illness, their medications, their addiction or their path to recovery; when people speak openly about family members or friends struggling with mental illness; when people arrive at our summit and find a vibrant, supportive, welcoming community; when people are not afraid to share, “hey, I’m having a bad week,” “I’m feeling down,” “I need help”—it says to me the heart of this ministry is alive and well.  

This is how it should be. Mental illness is a difficult, painful reality in the lives of many people and their families. In past services we’ve invited you to stand if mental illness has touched your life, the life of someone in your family or the life of a friend. Virtually everyone stands. Yet, despite the reality that mental illness is very common, there is still enormous stigma attached to it; still subtle, but widespread discrimination against people with mental illness; still a lack of parity in funding for mental health treatment compared to treatment for physical illness. Faith communities are not innocent when it comes to perpetuating the stigma. In fact, faith communities are some of the worst offenders. For a variety of reasons faith communities are, more often than not, fearful, silent and unwelcoming toward people with mental illness. The reasons might be theological, cultural, social, economic. Whatever they are, it is my firm conviction that faith communities cannot claim to be welcoming to all, cannot claim to be ‘for all people, cannot claim to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person if mental illness remains invisible and unspeakable. Has our Mental Health Ministry been perfect? No. But have increased the visibility and speakability of mental illness? Yes, absolutely. Whenever a member or friend of this congregation with mental illness tells me this place feels like home to them because they do not have to hide this particular part of themselves, it is a moment of immense pride for me as the congregation’s minister. But it’s not perfect, and thus I’d like to share a few reflections on broad future directions for our mental health ministry based on what I’ve learn from people who participate in it.

Where the Wood Drake Rests Not, or

Let’s Not Confuse Spiritual Care with Medical Care

Our hymnal includes beloved words by the poet Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” “When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water…. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”[1] I have preached from these words many times; I will preach from them again. They offer a remedy for fear and despair, for angst, anxiety, worry, panic, hopelessness, sorrow, melancholy, desperation, dispiritedness, despondency, depression. So often in response to any of these feelings the remedy we offer as Unitarian Universalists is some version of “go and lie down where the wood drake rests.” Reconnect with the natural world. As one of the Mental Health Ministry participants described it: “Go for a walk, smell the roses, write in a journal, visit a beach, be in nature, etc.”

Sylvia Plath was an American poet who committed suicide in 1963. Here death came just a few weeks after the publication of her novel, The Bell Jar, which is widely understood as the story of her struggle with mental illness.  Earlier I read her 1961 poem, “I Am Vertical.” It offers a very different take on ‘lying down’ in the natural world—a provocative contrast to “The Peace of Wild Things.” Where Berry offers ‘lying down’ as a spiritual practice to center, calm and reconnect oneself, for Plath ‘lying down’ is fraught. It reminds her, “I am not a tree with my root in the soil / Sucking up minerals and motherly love.” It reminds her, I am not “the beauty of a garden bed.” She craves that sense of connection and identity but it never happens. “Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars, / The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors. / I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.” There is sadness here, a sense of distance and isolation. The hardest thing about this poem, which we dare not miss: she imagines she is closest to connection when she is asleep, when her “thoughts [have] gone dim.” Only her death will bring anything close to the peace of wild things: “I shall be useful when I lie down finally: / The trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.”[2]

Reading Sylvia Plath next to “Peace of Wild Things” reminds me to stay vigilant about the difference between ministry and medicine. Neither of these poems make this distinction, but the contrast between them points to it. “Peace of Wild Things” offers a spiritual remedy. It says, “do something to connect with a reality larger than yourself.” For many people it is an effective remedy, especially if the angst, anxiety, or despair they’re experiencing is primarily spiritual in nature. But is it sufficient for a person with mental illness, especially a person whose mental illness is chemical in nature—not emerging from spiritual disconnection, but rather from an internal neuro-chemical imbalance? Spiritual dis-ease is not the same thing as mental illness. The two conditions may appear the same, may overlap, may occur simultaneously—spiritual dis-ease is often a symptom of mental illness—but they are not the same. Spiritual leaders and faith communities must be careful not to inadvertently offer spiritual remedies as treatment for mental illness. It can be quite problematic to gloss over mental illness with a purely spiritual assessment.

For example, sometimes medication is the only treatment that keeps a person’s mental illness under control. In my experience, the more severe the illness, the more this is true. If clergy and congregations only ever address mental illness in purely spiritual terms—which, in a more fundamentalist setting might be the assessment that one is possessed by demons; and in a more liberal setting might be the implication that really all you need is a dose of the great outdoors—there is always a risk that a person on medication may hear the message that their medication is unnecessary. If they’re looking for an excuse to not take their meds, there it is. Go lie down where the wood drake rests. My instinct is that this kind of lack of compliance will be relatively rare here, but it happens. We need to send a clear message: spiritual remedies complement, but do not replace, medical treatments. As a church we don’t and can’t provide medical treatment, but we can make sure the spiritual remedies we offer support and affirm the  medical treatment people are receiving.

Another example. A person living with mental illness might take the minister’s spiritual advice to heart—might take that walk, spend time outdoors, lie down where the wood drake rests, pray long and hard. It might even have a positive impact. But their mental illness remains unchanged. The risk is that they may begin to feel they aren’t doing their spiritual practice right, that there’s ‘something else’ wrong with them, that they aren’t faithful enough, that they aren’t a good Unitarian Universalist. Because this is hard to admit, they may not talk about it. They may pull away, become more isolated at precisely the time they need their congregation most.

Another example. Sometimes spiritual practice just isn’t an option. As one caregiver said, “I can’t stop and smell the roses, I can’t go for a walk, I can’t take time to myself.  Every single moment of our existence is about keeping everyone safe and managing the disaster.  The roses might as well be on fire, and who has time to care if they are?” Again, the result is disconnection and isolation.

Hearing and understanding these concerns brings much more nuance to the way we address mental illness theologically and spiritually. I’ve learned that mental illness can make access to some of our typical theological language and spiritual practices difficult. Not everyone can lie down comfortably where the wood drake rests. Mental illness challenges all of us to think more broadly about the scope of our welcome, the limits of our inclusion. It pushes us to examine the gap between our words and our actions. It demands that we pay close attention to its medical dimensions as we address its spiritual dimensions. I don’t yet have answers to this challenge. But in the coming years I’d like to see us think and talk and pray our way into theological language and spiritual practices that take the reality of mental illness more fully into account. Spiritual practices for those who are verticle!

Weep–You Are Not Alone

I’ve been hearing the first line of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem “Solitude” my entire life. “Laugh, and the world laughs with you.” I never knew the rest of the poem until this week. “Weep, and you weep alone…. / “Sing, and the hills will answer; /Sigh, it is lost on the air; / The echoes bound to a joyful sound, / But shrink from voicing care. / Rejoice, and men will seek you; Grieve, and they turn and go; They want full measure of all your pleasure, / But they do not need your woe.”[3] Apparently Wilcox was not writing from a place of compassion for depressed people. She was a proponent of ‘positive thinking,’ and with this poem she was essentially saying, “don’t be sad, because no one wants to be around sad people.” I don’t agree with her, but she’s speaking a hard truth. Most people don’t readily choose to spend time with those who are depressed, down, anxious. We do it when someone we love feels this way. But it’s not typically our first choice. We want the full measure of all your pleasure, but we do not need your woe.”

Nobody knows this truth more keenly than people who live with mental illness—their own, or that of a family member or friend. When I asked participants in our Mental Health Ministry what message they wanted the rest of the congregation to hear about mental illness, by far the most common response was isolation. Some comments stand out:

“Mental illness is not something people like to talk about because you can’t tie a pretty bow on it and make it better.  People often have advice like … ‘take time to myself, [go for a walk, smell the roses] … I just need to be able to take a shower…. I need company. I’ve had to give up so much. I am still isolated.  I am afraid to rejoin things because I know it’s going to happen again.” Another members says, “not talking about mental illness increases the stigma and makes those living with it feel invisible, unworthy, and left out.” Another says, “the isolation can be painful and dangerous. Isolation caused by shame or even by simply not knowing where to find like-suffering people compounds the problems.” Yet another says, “as a caretaker is that the situation is very isolating. Caregivers really need time with non-ill people, and I think you could remind the congregation of this simple fact.”

Visibility and speakability are important but not sufficient. A more robust compassion and presence come next—Mental Health Ministry 2.0. Building a congregational practice of deep compassion and presence at the heart of our Mental Health Ministry will lessen the gaps between our words and actions, and reduce peoples’ experience of isolation. Mindful of that, I felt called to write a new version of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s “Solitude,” a version that has at its heart compassion for and presence with people with mental illness, a version that welcomes the full range of human emotion and human psychiatric realities, a version that meets us fully not only in our joy but in the mess, the disaster, that sometimes unrelenting, unfixable despair. I call it “Multitude.”

Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Weep—you are not alone; / For the good green earth, though it knows great mirth, / adopts your sorrow as its own. / Sing, and the hills will answer; / A sigh rides high in the air; / The echoes bound to a joyful sound, / But they’ll come around voicing care. / Rejoice, and all will seek you; Grieve, still they won’t let you go; / They want full measure of all your pleasure, / But they’ll not abandon you in your woe. / Be glad, and your friends are many; Be sad, and you’ll lose not one, / There are none to decline your nectared wine, / But they’ll stay through your bitter draft’s run. / Feast, and your halls are crowded; / Fast, and the world is not shy. / Succeed and give, and it helps you live, / And dear, tender souls help you die. / There is room in the halls of pleasure / For a large and lordly train, / And that is why we’ll all tarry on, / Together in our deepest pain.

Of course this is aspirational. We are not there yet. But it is time for Mental Health Ministry 2.0. Let’s move beyond visibility and speakability to a more tangible compassion and presence, a more nuanced theology and spirituality, an in-depth understanding of the medical dimensions of mental illness, and an ever-expanding sense of home for all who enter these halls.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Berry, Wendell, “The Peace of Wild Things,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #483.

[2] Plath, Sylvia, “I Am Vertical” in Hughes, Ted, ed., The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (New York: Haper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008) p. 162. See: http://www.neuroticpoets.com/plath/poem/vertical/.

[3] Wilcox, Ella Wheeler, “Solitude.” See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45937.