Chosen Times: Understanding the Jewish Holy Days

A three-session course with

Rabbi Richard Plavin, Ed.D.

Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Beth Sholom B’nai Israel

Thursday Afternoons, February 13, 20 and 27, 4:00 to 5:30

Location: Unitarian Universalist Society: East,153 West Vernon St., Manchester, CT

 

Rabbi Plavin will provide an overview of the year as practiced and experienced in the Jewish religion. The instruction will deal with rituals and the values they promote. Topics include:

  • How the calendar works and the Sabbath
  • The Days of Awe: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur
  • The Three Pilgrimage Festivals: Pesach, Shavuot and Succot
  • The minor Biblical and post Biblical festivals

This course is offered free of charge. Participants will be asked to pay a small materials fee. To register, or for more information, contact the Unitarian Universalist Society: East office at (860) 646-5151. Need childcare? Let us know that too!

 

Rarely So Clear: Thoughts on Integrity

Our ministry theme for January is integrity. For the past few months I’ve anticipated talking about President Trump in this sermon. Especially after Congress’s December 18th vote to impeach him, it would seem strange to preach a sermon on integrity and not address what appears to me to be a glaring lack of integrity in the person who holds our nation’s highest elected office.

One definition of integrity is ‘adherence to a moral code.’ President Trump certainly lives and governs by a set of codes. I want to name the codes I witness in his conduct, with the caveat that I know his supporters witness the same codes and interpret them very differently. Among them are: win by any means, including ignoring or breaking the law. Demean your opponents relentlessly. Demand unswerving, unquestioning loyalty from those who work for you; dismiss them when they waver. Repeat falsehoods incessantly so as to obscure the truth or, when that fails, admit wrongdoing as if it’s no big deal, or, when that fails, file law suits and settle out of court. Project strength. Praise dictators. Speak to people’s fears rather than their hopes and dreams. Exploit the weak and marginalized. And most important for the purposes of this sermon, never admit you—or anything you do—is anything less than perfect. He follows these codes with ruthless consistency. One could argue there is a kind integrity in this consistency. However, the moral dimension is highly dubious. The best I can come up with is some version of “might makes right,” which has a long history as a moral philosophy; though as moral philosophies go, it’s among the most cruel, selfish and prone to criminality. Thou shalt exploit thy neighbor—and thy nation—for thyself.

I’m calling this sermon “Rarely So Clear,” in part because the lack of integrity in a public official is rarely so clear as it is in President Trump. I say this mindful that I haven’t spoken from this pulpit about the impeachment hearings. Now that Congress has voted for impeachment, I think it’s important for you to hear from me directly as your minister—though it likely comes as no surprise: based on the president’s conduct in office, I think the impeachment vote was correct. the president is unfit for office. I think the evidence presented during the impeachment hearings, while clearly not complete, is sufficient to demonstrate that he has violated his oath to uphold the Constitution.

But that’s not the sermon I want to preach about integrity. I don’t want to preach it because I don’t know what the useful spiritual lesson is. If the situation were less clear, if there were gray areas, if the president could acknowledge that not everything he does is perfect, if there were traces of kindness and compassion undergirding his actions, then maybe there’d be a sermon here. But this president refuses to reflect, at least publicly, on his own life, refuses to admit mistakes and wrongdoing, refuses to acknowledge in any way his human frailties and imperfections, refuses to ask for forgiveness. There’s no internal struggle in him, just denial. I think it’s much more instructive to talk about people for whom integrity requires self-probing, struggle and confession. I am far more intrigued by people who we assume have incredible integrity, yet who admit to internal conflict and self-doubt. I am far more intrigued by people who seem to lack integrity, yet who can also admit it, and then identify how they are striving to develop it. Integrity—or the lack thereof—is rarely so clear. The spiritual lessons reside in the lack of clarity.

Integrity is more than adherence to a moral code. It comes from the Latin word ‘integer’ which means whole and complete. In this sense, integrity has something to do with embracing all aspects of oneself—one’s gifts, talents, strengths, and also one’s challenges, vulnerabilities, shortcomings. The spiritual writer Parker Palmer once wrote,  “I now know myself to be a person of weakness and strength, liability and giftedness, darkness and light.  I now know that to be whole means to reject none of it but to embrace all of it.”[1] In order to embrace all of it, one must be aware of and able to reflect on those aspects of self that are not so positive, not so perfect, not the greatest ever. Integrity emerges in the crucible of that full embrace.

I read to you earlier a poem, “Who Am I?” by the theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leader of Germany’s anti-Nazi “Confessing Church” during World War II. The Gestapo arrested him in April of 1943 for anti-Nazi activities. They executed him in April of 1945 for his apparent connections to a plot to assassinate Hitler. We rightly regard Bonhoeffer as a person of great integrity for his moral clarity and his resistance to fascism. There is a popular image of him as a person who accepted his fate with courage and peace of mind. He acknowledges this in the poem: “They often tell me / I emerge from my cell / serene and cheerful and poised…. / They also tell me / I bear days of misfortune / with composure, smiling and regal, / like one accustomed to victory.”

And yet this outward appearance does not match his internal state. He describes himself as “disquieted, yearning, sick, caged like a bird, / fighting for breath itself… / helpless in worry for friends endless distances away, / tired, with nothing left for praying, thinking, working, / weary and ready to take leave of it all.” He’s keenly aware of two versions of himself. “Who am I?” he asks. “This one or the other? / Am I one today and another tomorrow? / Am I both at the same time? Before others a hypocrite / and in my own eyes a contemptibly self-pitying weakling?”[2] It’s rarely so clear.

I’m reminded of the private letters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Here is a person of towering, impeccable moral integrity who, we learn, lived for many years in deep despair, feeling that God had abandoned her, and thus, as she put it, being “on the verge of saying ‘No to God.’” In 1961 she wrote to the German Jesuit priest, Joseph Neuner, “the place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me … I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—Heaven—souls—why these are just words—which mean nothing to me.—My very life seems so contradictory. I help souls—to go where?—Why all this? Where is the soul in my very being? God does not want me.”[3] It’s rarely so clear.

I suppose I’m even reminded of Jesus, on the eve of his execution, retiring to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray after celebrating Passover. He is anything but calm and serene. On the contrary, he is distressed and agitated. He says to his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death.” He asks some of them to stay awake while he prays. When he finds them sleeping he is disappointed, angry, saying “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” He doesn’t want to die. When he prays, he says to God, “take this cup from me.” Though he also understands, like Mother Teresa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “your will be done, not mine.”[4] Jesus displays spiritual groundedness and agitation, courage and fear, conviction and misgivings. The gospel writers are embracing all of him. Integer. Whole. Compete. Integrity.

What appeals to me about Bonhoeffer’s poem is what he calls “this lonely probing of mine”—his willingness to reflect on and name his experience of his own weakness and vulnerability, his exhaustion, his fear. As much as he may want to be the perfect, even beatific person his guards say he is, he knows he isn’t that person. At least to him, the full range of his humanity is on display. He’s doing a noble, principled, courageous thing, but in his eyes, he’s doing it imperfectly. We might even say he’s doing a spiritually perfect thing—sacrificing himself for his principles, for truth, for justice—imperfectly. He’s embracing all of himself. Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

There’s a paradox here. The spiritual life isn’t about attaining a state of perfection. God may not show up. And even if God does, our best selves may not show up. Especially in our most difficult moments, there will be doubt, misgivings, fear, lack of clarity. As long as we inhabit these human bodies, there’s no such thing as perfection. As we strive for some abstract or ideal state of spiritual perfection, our bodies, our nerves, our racing thoughts, our anxieties, our contradictions—our full humanity—easily undercuts our striving. Yet, as we embrace our imperfections, as we let that same, complicated, confounding humanity shine through, that’s when we grow spiritually. Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

I recently encountered a version of this paradox in tennis star Andre Agassi’s 2009 autobiography, Open. Not the kind of book I normally read, but it came highly recommended. I don’t feel completely comfortable talking Bonhoeffer, let alone Mother Teresa and Jesus, in the same sermon as Agassi, who is sometimes remembered for the commercial tagline “image is everything.” But I read his book over the Christmas break and found it compelling because he writes very openly about his sheer lack of integrity as a young player, and how he struggled to develop it.

In 1994, at a low-point in his career, Agassi began working with a new coach—a retired player named Brad Gilbert—who gave him advice no one had ever given him before. Agassi writes, “Brad says my overall problem … is perfectionism.” He quotes Brad: “by trying for a perfect shot with every ball, you’re stacking the odds against yourself…. Just keep the ball moving. Back and forth. Nice and easy. Solid…. When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you’re doing? You’re chasing something that doesn’t exist. You’re making everyone around you miserable. You’re making yourself miserable. Perfection? There’s about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can’t lose to anybody, but it’s not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being, for that matter. It’s the other times.”[5]

Agassi struggles to let go of his perfectionism on the court and in his life. It takes him years to internalize Gilbert’s teaching. Even by the time he wrote the book in his late thirties, he clearly still hadn’t fully figured it out. But he knows this about himself. He knows it’s hard to live a life of integrity. And he knows integrity has something to do with embracing every part of himself. Regarding a speech he’s preparing for students at a charter school he founded in Las Vegas, he says: “My theme, I think, will be contradictions. A friend suggests I brush up on Walt Whitman. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I never knew this was an acceptable point of view…. Now it’s my North Star. And that’s what I’ll tell the students. Life is a tennis match between polar opposites. Winning and losing, love and hate, open and closed. It helps to recognize that painful fact early. Then recognize the polar opposites within yourself, and if you can’t embrace them, or reconcile them, at least accept them and move on. The only thing you cannot do is ignore them.”[6] Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

It’s rarely so clear. Integrity takes more than adherence to a moral code. In fact, unthinking, unreflective adherence to a moral code is a form of perfectionism, which can be as dangerous as having no code at all. Bring your whole self along. Question. Probe. Reflect. Notice your contradictions, your polar opposites. Be honest about them. Be humble about them. In this sometimes painful embrace of the whole self lies our very human path to integrity.

Amen and blessed be.

[1]  Palmer, Parker J., Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999)  p. 70.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, “Who Am I?” Who Am I? Poetic Insights on Personal Identity (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2005) pp. 8-9.

[3] Letter from Mother Teresa to FatherJoseph Neuner, most probably April 11, 1961, in Kolodiejchuk, Brian, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (New York: Doubleday, 2001) pp. 210, 211.

[4] Mark 14: 32-42; Luke 22: 39-46; Matthew 26: 36-46.

[5] Agassi, Andre, Open: An Autobiography (New York: Vintage Books, 2010) pp. 186, 187.

[6] Agassi, Open, pp. 383-384.

And So the Light Returns

Rev. Josh Pawelek

And so the light returns. Our human senses aren’t so finely attuned that we can notice the difference immediately. The daylight hours are still very short. The season is still dark. Nevertheless, we know the earth has shifted and is now slowly leaning its northern latitudes back toward the sun. We know this because the science of astronomy confirms it. We know also that ancient humans across the planet knew that the winter solstice marked a shift, that the day-light hours would lengthen from this point on until a corresponding shift at the summer solstice; though in many ancient cosmologies it was the sun, not the earth, that was understood to be making the shift. It was the sun God—and sometimes the sun goddess—returning, being born, chasing or being chased by the moon or some other sky deity, sacrificing him or herself so that there would be light, bringing a torch to brighten the darkness, riding a flaming chariot across the sky, coming from afar as a great fireball. There are countless myths and stories known today, and surely many, many more that have been lost through the ages. Whether or not the ancients had the science right, they knew a shift had occurred. They knew the light was returning. They had reason to celebrate, reason to hope.

Here we are, southern New England, the United States, 2019. The planetary shift, the Winter Solstice, happened last night at 11:19 pm. Christmas arrives a few days hence. I’ve always heard it said that upon converting to Christianity the Roman Empire selected December 25th as the date for Christmas not because there is any evidence for that date in the Bible (which there isn’t) but because it was already the date for the birthday of the Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, the supreme deity, often, in later years, associated with Mithras, or Mithra, who was not Roman in origin, but an angelic figure in the ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism. There is some evidence that the Romans held many misperceptions about this deity, and that their cult of Mithras, which I believe first emerged within the Roman military well after the beginnings of Christianity, was not at all consistent with the Persian understanding of Mithra or with the Persian practices associated with him. And whether the Roman cult got it right or not, my casual research this past week suggests that nobody really knows for sure when, how or why December 25th became the date for Christmas. Scholars look back on the era and make an educated guess that it must have had something to do with the Cult of Mithras already using that date for the birth of its patron deity. But as far as I can tell, there is no record of an official imperial decree identifying December 25th as the date for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. I read a passage from Clement A. Miles earlier. Although this late 19th, early 20th century scholar is likely not a super-reliable source himself, I like the way he put it a century ago: “There is no direct evidence of deliberate substitution, but at all events ecclesiastical writers soon after the foundation of Christmas made good use of the idea that the birthday of the Savior had replaced the birthday of the sun.”[1]

In hindsight, the link between the Christian savior and the sun God seems obvious. I’m mindful of the opening paragraph in the Gospel of John which states, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[2] Light has always been one of the dominant metaphors people use to describe Jesus. What better time of year, then, to celebrate his birth than the time when the earth begins moving back toward the source of light (and warmth and energy), the sun?

Here we are, the United States, 2019. The planetary shift has happened. It’s fascinating to me, and I suppose at the same time completely unsurprising, that other light-oriented festivals are drawn into the Christmas orbit at this time of year. For example, today is the first day of the Jewish celebration of Hannukah, a relatively minor Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Jewish temple after the victory in 165 BC of the Maccabees over Syrian occupying forces. The eight candles on the menorah refer to a legend that, upon entering the temple and finding only enough lamp oil for one day, that oil miraculously provided eight days of light. Hannukah isn’t a Jewish alternative to Christmas, though it often feels that way in our larger culture.

Kwanzaa, the modern, African American celebration, also involving the lighting of candles on the kinara, begins on December 26th. Although there is some evidence that its creator, Maulana Karenga, actually did intend it as an alternative to Christmas, he later said it was not meant to replace any religion or religious observance. If I have my facts right, the model for this celebration has nothing to do with the timing of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, but rather the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere. Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili term, matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits of the harvest.” In this sense, it recalls southern African first harvest festivals, a reference to mid-summer rather than mid-winter.

Yule, or Yuletide, is the ancient Germanic mid-winter celebration, many of whose symbols show up in current day celebrations of the holiday season, many of which, like the decorating of evergreens in homes, merge rather seamlessly with the celebration of Christmas. Perhaps the most ubiquitous Yule practice having to do with light is the burning of a Yule log either on Christmas Day or for the entire twelve days of Christmas, if you have a large enough log to fit in a large enough fireplace. As I mentioned earlier, our UUS:E Pagan Study Group will be offering a Yule ritual this afternoon at 2:00 PM. All are welcome. Due to fire codes, and the absence of a fireplace, no yule logs will be burnt.

These festivals of light, and I suppose others with which I’m less familiar, mix and merge with each other, sometimes conflict with each other, throughout the holiday season.  Light and symbols of light are pervasive. References to the sun, stars, flame, fire, candles, a blazing hearth fill the music of the season, the rituals, the department story displays, decorations on homes and church services. Light means something to human beings. Whether the cult of Mithras really understood its Persian spiritual sources, something about the mystical power of the sun spoke to them, as it did to so many ancient people and to us today. Hannukah is not a Jewish alternative to Christmas, but somehow the symbol of the menorah lights speaks even to non-Jews in this season. Even if we’ve never lived in a house or apartment with a fireplace, somehow the Yule image of a large, burning log fits very naturally with this season. Light means something to human beings. After this November-December period of blessed, restful darkness, of quiet and stillness, of taking an inward look, of Advent waiting for the birth of something new, the light returns. It reaches in, catches our attention. Sometimes its beauty takes our breath away. I’m wondering, this morning, what meaning the returning light holds for us.

I may just be speaking for myself, but my sense is the returning light—all the ways we encounter it in this season—speaks to us at a very instinctual and spiritual level, informing us there is a sacred dimension to our lives; and we have the capacity to manifest that sacred dimension in how we live—what we say, what we do, how we treat others. We make it real through our love, compassion, caring, kindness, generosity, creativity, passion and joy. These qualities, these values, these commitments have power. With them we can make positive changes in our lives, positive changes in our communities, and positive changes in the world. I’m not saying this is what the returning light meant to ancient people. I’m not saying this is what the returning light meant to the early Christians, or the Maccabees, or the German pagans, or adherents to the Roman cult of Mithras. I’m trying to name, as best I can, what the returning light means to us – liberal religious, Unitarian Universalists, living in New England in the United States of America, just after the winter solstice, December 22, 2019. The returning light is a potent spiritual metaphor, informing us there is a sacred dimension to our lives; and we manifest that sacred dimension through our love, compassion, caring, kindness, generosity, creativity, passion and joy. These qualities are powerful, healing, life-giving.

We forget this sacred dimension. We forget it all the time. We fall short of our aspirations. We miss our marks. We fail to keep certain commitments. It is enormously difficult to remain loving, compassionate, caring, kind, generous, creative, passionate, and joyful. It is also understandable. Our lives take all sorts of twists and turns. We have hard days, hard weeks, hard months, hard years. We lose so much. We grieve for so much. We suffer—some far more than others, yes—but no one who inhabits a human body can avoid some degree of suffering in their life. No one who participates in any sort of human community, from a family to a nation, can avoid the pain of disagreement and conflict. So we easily forget the things to which we said we were committed. We easily forget our highest values. We easily forget the power we have to manifest the sacred dimension of our lives. The returning light helps us remember. The returning light calls us back to the sacred dimension of our living.

Perhaps another way to express this is that the light returning at the darkest time of year calls forth the light that already exists in us. The returning light awakens the light sleeping in us, finds the light hiding in us, liberates the light imprisoned in us, welcomes the light waiting in us.

I read to you earlier from the artist, author and Methodist minister, Jan Richardson, “Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light.” I want to share these words again with you now. Before I do, I invite you to contemplate the sacred dimension of your life. How do you name that right now? And even more importantly, how do you manifest it? How does it guide your engagement with the world? As I read Richardson’s words, whenever you hear the word ‘light,’ hear it as if she’s referring to the sacred dimension of your life.

[Read Richardson’s poem here.]

And so the light returns. Granted, in real time winter is just beginning; the daylight hours will remain short for now. But in terms of our spiritual seasons, the period of darkness has ended. The time for quiet and stillness, turning inward and waiting has ended. Now the festivals of light begin. When you encounter holiday lights in the coming days, I urge you to let them speak to you of the sacred dimension in your life. Let them remind you of the power you have to manifest sacredness in the world through how you live, through your words and your deeds, through the way you treat others. Let the lights remind you of your highest aspirations, your convictions, your dreams. Let the lights call you to love, compassion, caring, kindness, generosity, creativity, passion and joy. Yes, may the lights of the season call out to the light that lives in your imperfect, struggling, suffering human body. And may that light in you spill out into the world.

Happy Holidays. Happy Hannukah. Happy Yuletide. Happy Solstice. Happy Kwanzaa. Merry Christmas.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan (1912). See: http://www.worldspirituality.org/december-25.html.

[2] John 1: 3b-5.

[3] Richardson, Jan, “Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light,” The Advent Door: Entering a Contemplative Christmas. See: http://adventdoor.com/2014/12/12/advent-3-testify-to-the-light/.

Faithfully Unfolding

Rev. Josh Pawelek

What are you waiting for?

I assume most of us encounter these words less as a genuinely curious question and more as a directive to stop procrastinating. If you’re really serious about making a change in your life, doing something new, getting out of your rut, your bad habits, pursuing your passions and dreams, going back to school, finding a new job, retiring, committing your life more deeply to the people you love, to service, to movements for liberation and justice—whatever you’ve identified as a possible new direction for your life—what are you waiting for? Get off the couch. Seize the day! Grab the moment! Take the bull by the horns. Don’t just stand there, do something! In the words of our 19th-century spiritual forebear Henry David Thoreau, it’s time to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life!”[1] In the words of the Nike company, “just do it!”

What are you waiting for?

As if it were always that simple.

Our larger culture places high value on action, on doing, producing, performing, achieving, accomplishing. In those moments when we have no good answer to the question—what are you waiting for?—chances are we’ll feel something negative about ourselves, in the very least a tinge of guilt, and at worst, full-blown self-loathing.

I’m reminded of a story from the late Dutch priest, Henri Nouwen. He called it “A Story of Waiting.” “I was invited to visit a friend who was very sick. He was … fifty-three years old [and] had lived a very active, useful, faithful, creative life. Actually, he was a social activist who had cared deeply for people. When he was fifty he found out he had cancer, and the cancer became more and more severe. When I came to him, he said to me, ‘Henri, here I am lying in this bed, and I don’t even know how to think about being sick. My whole way of thinking about myself is in terms of action, in terms of doing things for people. My life is valuable because I’ve been able to do many things for many people. And suddenly here I am passive and I can’t do anything anymore….’ As we talked I realized that he and many others were constantly thinking ‘How much more can I still do?’ Somehow this man had learned to think about himself as a man who was worth only what he was doing.”[2]

I’m reminded also of words from the late spiritual writer Philip Simmons who, in his essay, “The Art of Doing Nothing,” argued that “we [human beings] want to know we matter, we want to know our lives are worthwhile. And when we’re not sure, we work that much harder.”[3] That is, when we’re concerned at some deep level about our worth, we gravitate toward doing. As if we have to prove ourselves. What are you waiting for?

Sometimes we wait for good reason—we’re unsure of how to proceed; we’re uneasy about the risks; we’re concerned about the impact our doing will have on others. Sometimes we wait for good reason, yet it appears to others—and perhaps to ourselves—that we’re somehow flawed, paralyzed with fear, trapped in our own inertia, confused, unmotivated, lazy. Even when asked with care, what are you waiting for? becomes a negative judgement, a subtle indictment of our character.

Let’s lean back from judgement for a moment. Let’s be curious about the impulse to wait. I want us to more fully understand the spiritual value of waiting. I want us to recognize there are things worth waiting for that matter more than whatever we think we should be doing. Maybe procrastination, in some instances, is a sign of wisdom. Maybe waiting is a spiritual skill.  But how would we know? We’ve attached so much negative judgement to it, it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than a character flaw.

My colleague, the Rev. Jen Crow, preached a sermon some years ago entitled “Waiting as an Act of Faith.” She said, “I bring you a counter-cultural message, especially in this season of what can become holiday madness—a message of stillness, of waiting, of trust and hopeful expectation, a message that encourages us … to consider the phrase …. Don’t just do something … stand there.”[4]  Or sit there, lie there. Pause, rest, breath, pray, be still. Wait.

The Christian liturgical year begins today. It’s the first Sunday of Advent, a four-week season of waiting prior to Christmas. Expectancy and hope infuse this waiting as the Christian world anticipates celebrating the birth of Jesus, the savior, the peacemaker—God incarnate. Of course, this spiritual waiting mixes and merges with waiting for Christmas presents, Santa Claus, reindeer, etc. For children whose families celebrate Christmas, waiting for presents is both excruciatingly annoying and exquisitely joyful. That joy alone tell us there is something precious in the waiting.

The Christian liturgical calendar rests atop more ancient spiritual calendars based on northern hemisphere agricultural cycles—planting, growing and harvesting, followed by waiting through long winter months. The natural world tells us this is a season of waiting. Earlier I shared words from the Rev. Karen Hering: “Hidden in the heart / of late autumn’s barren / fields is the ripening / of seasons yet to come. / Roots clinging to frozen ground / wait patiently / for their next long drink. / Seeds fallen from last summer’s blooms / sleep beneath blankets of quilted leaves / and feathered snow.”[5] Now that the harvest is done, roots, seeds, fields and people are waiting.

The darkness of the post-harvest season also beckons us away from doing toward introspection and reflection—hallmarks of the spiritual skill of waiting. In the words of the Rev. Mark Belletini, “Less Light. / A time to carefully focus on things / that the spotlight has missed…. / Less light. / No need to look frantically / for what we might be missing. / Eyes closed and breath steady…. / Less light. / A blessing to all who never quite find time / to sit in the dark silence during the noisy summer…. Less Light. A gift of the tilting earth.”[6]

If we were pre-industrial, agrarian people, and we had completed our late autumn tasks, harvested and stored food supplies for the winter, prepared wood for the fires that will keep us warm, we would now be entering into a long period of waiting, not just for the return of the sun at the solstice, but for eventual spring thaws and the resumption of outdoor life. We would be accustomed to waiting. We would know how to do it! We would likely look forward to it. We would have methods for passing the long winter hours, teaching our children the ways of our people, telling stories of who we are and where we’ve come from. Our physical activity would naturally be less than in the other seasons. We would likely sleep more. We might not even think of it as waiting. We might just think of it as living.

But that’s not who we are. We who live in developed, post-industrial, post-modern societies—we who have, for the most part, abandoned intimate relationship with the land, with the seasons, with the cycles of food production—we who have grown accustomed to convenience and seemingly endless supplies of energy and heat and who can therefore expect—and be expected to—work and live through the winter months as if they differ in no way from spring, summer and autumn—we don’t wait well. Either we dedicate enormous energy to doing, because that is what our culture values, or we beat ourselves up for not doing enough.

There’s much we miss when our primary mode of being is doing. What if we learned to subvert the impulse to just do it? What if we learned how to wait well? I ask because I believe spiritual waiting brings us more fully into alignment with the sacred dimensions of our lives. I’m taking a cue this morning from the process theologian Jay McDaniel, who recently wrote a short piece called “A Process Theology of Waiting.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with process theology, know that process theologians view the as a dynamic, nearly infinite and always unfolding set of relationships. Process theologians understand God as the sum total of those relationships—everything that has happened and all that will happen, from the interactions of sub-atomic particles to the interactions of galaxies. As such, God—divinity, the sacred—is continually emerging, continually becoming. And one important response for us is waiting—waiting to notice what is emerging. Whether we recognize it or not, says Jay McDaniel, “much of our life is spent in waiting. This is inescapable, because every present moment contains a future that has not yet arrived.”[7] Imagine that! Waiting is an inherent part of who we are.

If we only ever focus our attention on what we need to do, we deny that part of ourselves that waits in each moment. Though we may want things to emerge more quickly, though we may want answers and clarity now, the sacred typically doesn’t move at our pace. And as Rev. Belletini says, “few paths in this life are clearly lit.”[8] As much as we may feel called to act, we are also called to wait, and in that waiting to notice what is emerging within that dynamic, nearly infinite set of relationships, and to align ourselves with it as best we can. Waiting also a reminds us wee don’t always have control over what is happening around us or to us. As much as we may want to seize the day, sometimes the day seizes us and our task is to adapt with as much grace as we can muster. That takes time and patience. That takes waiting. I like the way Rev. Hering alludes to this: “Fruits of the future, / words unripened into speech, / truth present but unseen, evidence yet to be awakened / by the faithful / unfolding / of time and love.”[9]

Regarding the fifty-three year old cancer patient, Henri Nouwen says: “[My friend] realized that after [a life of] hard work he had to wait. He came to see that his vocation as a human being would be fulfilled not just in his actions but also in his passion [meaning, in this case, his suffering and experience of things happening to him that were beyond his control].” Together they began to witness how the sacred was moving in their lives, bringing something new they hadn’t noticed before. Nouwen puts it in Catholic language, “together we began to understand that precisely in this waiting the glory of God and our new life both become visible.”[10]

Earlier I shared a meditation from Rev. Vanessa Rush Southern. She writes, “I couldn’t hear myself think above the din of my surroundings / and when I finally did, I was surprised by what I heard. / I’d lived my life in restless banter, / but with a pause I met what had eluded me— / the part of me (and Her) that waited to be born.”[11] She refers to a variety of relationships—child, friend, lover, parent, Destiny, God—that had become invisible to her precisely because she did not wait. Like the universe, like the quantum world, like spirit, like God, the fact of our relationships means we are in a constant state of emerging. But if we believe we must always be doing something—anything!—we risk missing what is faithfully unfolding in our lives.

What is faithfully unfolding in your life? I like that as a different way of asking the question. Instead of what are you waiting for? ask what is faithfully unfolding in your life?

You will eventually encounter the question, what are you waiting for? You may be encountering it in this very moment. How will it feel to experience the question not as an indictment of inactivity, but as an invitation to reflect on the sacred dimensions of your life? Whatever you hold as sacred, how is it making itself apparent to you in this moment? How is it emerging anew in your life? How will it feel to experience the question as in invitation to ponder your place in that dynamic and nearly infinite set of relationships? Before doing anything, how will it feel to wait, trusting not only that the sun will return, that the springtime will come, but that something meaningful is always faithfully unfolding in your life, that the sacred will, on its on schedule, break forth, bringing renewal and wisdom?

The harvest is done. Winter is near. Advent begins. This is a season of waiting, and waiting is a gift we give to ourselves that assures us what we need most will emerge in its proper time? May we wait well.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thoreau, Henry David, “To Live Deliberately,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #660.

[2] Nouwen, Henri, “A Spirituality of Waiting.” See: https://bgbc.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/A-Spirituality-of-Waiting-by-Henri-Houwen.pdf.

[3] Simmons, Philip, “The Art of Doing Nothing,” Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (New York: Bantam Books, 2002) p. 122.

[4] Crow, Jen, “Waiting as an Act of Faith,” Quest for Meaning, December, 2012. See: https://www.questformeaning.org/spiritual-themes/waiting-as-an-act-of-faith/.

[5] Hering, Karen, “Hidden in the Heart,” in Janamanchi, Abhi, and Janamanchi Abhimanyu, Falling Into the Sky: A Meditation Anthology (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013) p. 57.

[6] Belletini, Mark, “Late Fall,” in Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008) p. 58.

[7] McDaniel, Jay, “A Process Theology of Waiting,” OpenHorizons.org. See: https://www.openhorizons.org/a-process-theology-of-waiting.html.

[8] Belletini,  “Late Fall,” in Sonata for Voice and Silence, p. 58.

[9] Hering, Karen, “Hidden in the Heart,” Falling Into the Sky, p. 57.

[10] Nouwen, Henri, “A Spirituality of Waiting.” See: https://bgbc.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/A-Spirituality-of-Waiting-by-Henri-Houwen.pdf.

[11] Southern, Vanessa Rush, “Advent: A Responsive Reading,” in This Piece of Eden: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2001) p. 3.

The Invitation is Always There

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“If you keep thinking, you miss the flower,”[1] says Buddhist monk and global peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.” This is the meaning he derives from the story of the Buddha’s disciple, Mahakashyapa, a foundational story—an origin story—for Zen Buddhism. We shared Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the story earlier in the service. Unitarian Universalist minister and Soto Zen priest, James Ishmael Ford tells it this way:

A large gathering … came to hear a talk by the Buddha. Instead of speaking about enlightenment he simply held up a flower, twirling it slowly in his fingers. Of the whole assembly only one person understood—the Venerable Mahakashyapa. He smiled. Seeing the smile, the Buddha declared, “I have the all-pervading True Dharma, incomparable Nirvana, exquisite teaching of formless form. It does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside scriptures. I now hand it to Mahakashyapa.”[2] According to tradition, the founder of Zen Buddhism, the semi-mythical Bodhidharma, an Indian Buddhist who travelled to China in the sixth century, was the 28th successor to the Buddha through the lineage of Mahakashyapa.

In addition to being an origin story for Zen Buddhism, this story is also a koan, meaning it is itself an object of meditation. Like any koan, its meaning is not immediately, or perhaps ever, apparent to the rational, thinking mind. In response to any koan, one intuits their way to understanding more than thinks their way to understanding. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.” As I encounter Thich Nhat Hanh’s interpretation of this koan, I recognize that, though I think I understand what his words mean, I would be foolish to think I understand what they mean to someone like Thich Nhat Hanh who’d been meditating for over fifty years at the time he wrote them. Furthermore, though I think I understand what his words mean, and though I think I can talk about them in a sermon, the truth is I’m still thinking about them. I’m still thinking about words that advise me to stop thinking. I’m still thinking and writing about words that assure me the all-pervading truth “does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside of scriptures.”

As simple as Thich Nhat Hanh makes it sound, I have to assume I am still missing something. And what I am missing is not a thought—I have plenty of those. What I am missing is not a set of words—I have plenty of those. What I’m missing is an intuitive experience. The experience of being fully present. Do I know what that means? I like to think so … but, there I go again, thinking. Do any of us really know what being fully present means? Had I gone to hear the Buddha speak on that day, had I witnessed him twirling that flower in his fingers and saying nothing for minutes on end, would I have had the wisdom and the skill to quiet my thinking mind, which likely, and very understandably, would have been asking questions like, ‘What does this mean?’ ‘What is the significance of the flower?’ ‘Why twirl the flower in his fingers?’ ‘What kind of flower is it?’ ‘What is Mahakashyapa smiling about?’ Would I have had the wisdom and the skill to quiet my thinking, questioning, analytical, concept-forming mind and let myself fully experience the present moment, fully experience the flower in the Buddha’s fingers? Would I have smiled?

Maybe. I don’t want to rule it out entirely….

But doubtful.

Our ministry theme for November is attention. Although every religious tradition calls on its adherents to pay attention in some way, to pray, to contemplate, to study scripture, to go on pilgrimage, to worship, to “wake now my senses,” as one of our UU hymns says,[3] in my experience no tradition speaks more beautifully or extensively about paying attention than Buddhism. I remind us that our Unitarian Universalist living tradition draws from many sources, including “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” That’s where I am grounding myself this morning. I’m wondering about paying attention for the purpose of being fully present, and I’m turning to Buddhism for guidance.

How often are we fully present—present to any particular moment, like this moment; present to a person, a loved-one, a child, a neighbor, a stranger; present to an activity, washing dishes, drinking tea, raking leaves; present to suffering, physical or emotional pain, abuse, discrimination; present to nature, the changing seasons, the night sky, the barren November fields. Paying attention for the purpose of being fully present is hard. When I say that, I don’t mean it’s hard because of the many ways technology now intrudes into our lives, the rise of social media, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle. And I’m not saying it’s hard because of the troubling, frightening re-emergence of hatreds in our era that so many of us thought were in decline, or because of the troubling, frightening acceleration of climate change in our era. Yes we live in an age of extraordinary distraction, but that’s not why paying attention for the purpose of being fully present is hard. It has always been hard. Many people came to hear the Buddha speak. Apparently only one of them was fully present. It isn’t a question of what’s going on in the world around us. There is something in our very human nature—in the structure of our bodies, our wiring, our brain chemistry, our neural pathways, our senses—something in the way all of it works together—that makes paying attention for the purpose of being fully present hard no matter what is happening in the wider world.

Buddhists speak of the monkey mind—the way the mind very naturally jumps from one thing to another. Monkey mind is not a condition that some people have and others don’t. As far as I can tell, it’s the normal condition of most human brains. The new issue of the UU World magazine, which arrived last week, features an article by the Rev. Erika Hewitt and religious educator Becky Brooks called “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy.” They write “Chaos is an apt term for what happens between our ears during the practice of meditation. That’s because it’s the mind’s natural state to be whirring, planning, and chattering.” They cite the Rev. Eric Walker Wikstrom, who “describes meditation mantras as ‘giving the tiger a certain amount of meat to keep it quiet,’ suggesting that without that distraction, the mind is like a roving, predatory beast.” They proclaim, “Hear us now, fellow monkey minds: the presence (the loud, active presence) of inner voices, noise, and whirl during meditation does not mean you’re doing it ‘wrong.’ It means you’re human.”[4]

I find this very affirming. I hope you do too. My mind often races around, jumps up and down. Does yours? I notice that even when I’m focused on some task like mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, raking leaves, chopping wood, shoveling snow, or when I’m exercising, despite my focus on the activity, my mind is always monkeying: What’s next on my schedule? What’s happening tonight? What do I have to do to prepare for this meeting, or that class, or next week’s sermon? What time is Max’s basketball game? Where is it? Who’s cooking dinner? Oh, wait—I’m not home for dinner. What are the boys going to eat? Who am I forgetting? X is going into the hospital. Y is coming home from the hospital. Has Mason written the final draft of his college essay? If I don’t do anything about it, the thoughts just keep coming. My body is going through the motions of the task; I have no problem performing the task; but my mind is somewhere else. I’m not fully present.

That’s what monkey mind looks like for me when I’m engaged in a task. What’s fascinating to me is how it works when I’m purposefully not doing anything, when I’m actually attempting to meditate, to quiet my mind, to not think of anything at all,[5] to not miss the flower. Then the monkey really takes off. It’s as if true quiet, true emptiness, true presence free of all thought is frightening to the part of me that thinks. The part of me that thinks really doesn’t want to be extinguished. It resists. Don’t stop thinking!

I figured out many years ago I am not on the path to enlightenment. That is, I don’t feel a compelling personal spiritual call to engage in a dedicated, regular meditation practice. Though, having said that, I want to be clear that I recognize the importance such practices hold for many Unitarian Universalists; and I celebrate the spiritual richness Buddhists and those with an affinity for Buddhism bring to our congregations. I may not be on the path to enlightenment, but  being present—as fully present as possible—is important to me, especially in relation to other people. If my mind is monkeying while I’m washing the dishes, that’s my loss, but no harm done. If my mind is monkeying when a family member, or one of you, or a colleague is talking to me, that’s a problem. And though I may never know what it means to be fully present in a state of deep meditation, nevertheless, I can strive for presence in my day-to-day life. Buddhism can inform that striving. And what I learn from Buddhism is that the invitation to be present is always with us in any given moment. It’s an invitation worth accepting.  We accept the invitation by learning first to notice when and how, and maybe why, the mind starts monkeying; and second, learning to gently pull the mind back to the task at hand, to the attempted quiet, to the relationship, the conversation, the present moment. Our capacity to be present to the world begins with being present to ourselves.

Thich Nhat Hanh invites this presence to self through breathing. In those moments when the mind is monkeying, interrupt it with conscious breathing. He says “our breathing is the link between our body and our mind. Sometimes our mind is thinking of one thing … our body is doing another … mind and body are not unified. By concentrating on our breathing, ‘In’ and ‘Out,’ we bring body and mind back together, and become whole again. Conscious breathing is an important bridge.” He offers this mantra: Breathing in, I calm my body. / Breathing out I smile. / Dwelling in the present moment, / I know this is a wonderful moment![6] Breathing will carry us toward presence, but the mind will monkey again. Remember, that’s the norm. Being present requires a continual interruption of the norm. Conscious breathing is one way to interrupt, to bring mind and body together, to come back to the moment.

It’s not a forceful interruption. It’s not bellicose. It’s not judgmental. It’s a gentle and compassionate interruption. The writer Anne Lamott offers a wonderful image. She says, “Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper. So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen, maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence.”[7] The invitation to be present is always there.

In their recent UU World article, Hewitt and Brooks say something similar: “When (not if!) we get distracted … the heart of meditation is to notice your distraction—your departure—and make the decision to try again. The practice isn’t the doing; it’s the return, the reentry.”[8] Our mind will monkey. The invitation to unite body and mind is always there. The invitation to quiet the mind is always there. The invitation to stop thinking and behold the flower is always there. The invitation to offer that heart-felt, genuine smile is always there. The invitation to move back toward presence is always there.

There’s nothing doctrinal or dogmatic about this. There’s nothing here about right or wrong. We won’t be punished for having stray thoughts. The mind will monkey. That’s normal. The invitation is always there to gently pull it back to presence. I find great comfort in this ongoing—dare I say eternal—invitation.

Why accept the invitation? Why does being present to ourselves matter? In short, it’s a gesture of kindness to ourselves, and as far as I’m concerned, each of us deserves kindness. But beyond that, I think it’s also true that as we develop the capacity for being kind to ourselves, we develop the capacity to return kindness into the world. I like the way Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg puts it in a recent blog post. She writes, “the practice of shepherding our attention back to the present—even an incalculable number of times—helps us find the power to be kind to ourselves…. [When] we react to our compulsions with compassion … we open up, and feel a subtle movement of our hearts. This movement of the heart is like the sea moving close to the ocean floor — it is so subtle, but affects everything above.”[9] It effects everything above. In short, kindness to self begets kindness to others.

Is that really true? Maybe it’s just wishful thinking. I suppose it will always be wishful thinking if we keep confining it to the realm of thought. But if we keep thinking we miss the flower. The point is to accept the invitation, to make that gesture of kindness to ourselves, to strive for presence. Will that enable us to bring more kindness into the world? The invitation is always there. And what is there to lose but a few wandering thoughts? May we accept the invitation.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thich Naht Hanh, “Flower Insights,” Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) p. 43.

[2] Ford, James Ishmael, This Very Moment: A Brief Introduction to Buddhism and Zen for Unitarian Universalists (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) pp. 27-28.

[3] Mikelson, Thomas, “Wake Now My Senses,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #298.

[4] Brooks, Becky and Hewitt, Erika, “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy,” UU World (Winter, 2019). P. 18.

[5] Takashina, Rosen, Zetto Zemmi, in Conze, Edward, tr., Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 1959) p. 138.

[6] Thich Naht Hanh, “Conscious Breathing” and “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment” in Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) pp.8-10.

[7] Lamott, Anne, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1994) p. 99.

[8] Brooks and Hewitt, “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy,” p. 19.

[9] Salzberg, Sharon, “A New Vision of Kindness Starts with Paying Attention,” On Being, June 11th, 2016. See: https://onbeing.org/blog/a-new-vision-of-kindness-starts-with-paying-attention/#.

Black Lives Matter: State of the Movement

BLACK LIVES MATTER

A Conversation about the ‘State of the Movement’

With Bishop John and Pamela Moore Selders, co-founders of Moral Monday CT

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019

7:00 PM

Unitarian Universalist Society: East

Main Meeting Room

Questions: Contact Rev. Josh Pawelek at (860) 646-5151.

Whose Are You?

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In her poem, “The Small Plot of Ground,” poet and Episcopal priest Alla Renee Bozarth writes: “To feel alive, / important, and safe, / know your own waters / and hills, but know / more.”[1] Know your own waters and hills, but know more. For me, this morning, these words speak to a fundamental tension within Unitarian Universalism between two essential spiritual questions: “Who am I?” and “Whose am I?” (We can also turn them around and ask “Who are You?” and “Whose are You?” We UUs have become highly skilled in asking and answering the first question, “Who am I?”—in Bozarth’s words, knowing our own waters and hills. We are less skilled in asking and answering the second question, “Whose am I?” Frankly, when we talk about the spiritual life, we sometimes forget there is more to know beyond our own waters and hills. This sermon is about the difference these two questions make in our spiritual lives. It also calls for us to start discerning more intentionally not who we are but whose we are.

In my October newsletter column I wrote that we live in a society that invites us relentlessly (though often disingenuously) to respond to the question “Who am I?” I said I feel this poignantly as my high school senior goes through the process of applying to colleges. The primary question this process invites him to answer is “Who am I?” What are his skills, values, passions and experiences that will make him an asset to a particular student body? What kinds of intelligence does he bring? What is his vision for himself? I hope we have parented him in such a way that he has substantive answers to these questions, that he knows his own waters and hills, that he knows who he is and is able to communicate his isness to college admissions offices. I also hope his seventeen years of Unitarian Universalist religious education have helped him to answer these questions, have instilled in him a sense of who he is, have taught him values, and have enabled him to articulate what he believes.

Of course this question—“Who am I?—runs much deeper than high school seniors applying to college. It’s an ancient philosophical and theological question having to do with the nature of consciousness, the nature of the soul, even the nature of reality. Both eastern and western cultures have asked the question and offered a variety of answers for millennia.

There is a quintessentially American version of this question. We can think of the founding of the United States of America as the pinnacle of a long history of European people slowly rejecting the authority of kings and the church in favor of democratic systems that protect the rights of individuals who are free to conduct their lives, work, and religion in a manner they determine—people who are able to ask the question, “who am I?” and then freely assert their answers. Of course, there were profound historical contradictions: slavery, Indian wars and reservations, women as property. Not everyone had rights. Not everyone could safely ask and answer the question “Who am I?” That is still true today. There are places where it is unsafe to speak openly about being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or non-binary. There are places where it is unsafe to speak openly about being an immigrant, or even an atheist. Nevertheless, as flawed as the tradition may be, the ability to ask this question—“Who am I?—the ability to be a particular individual and to proclaim one’s individuality, lies at the heart of the American identity. It’s the tradition of the rugged individualist, the yeoman farmer, the pioneer, the explorer, the adventurer, the innovator, the competitor, the underdog, the captain of industry. It lies at the heart of “Don’t Tread on Me.” It lies at the heart of the First Amendment to the Constitution: freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petition for the redress of grievances.

It is also fair to say this question lives at the heart of Unitarianism Universalism. Though this is a generalization, we inherited it from the Transcendentalists of the mid-1800s who were beginning to sketch the philosophical portrait of the American individual. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sage of Concord, among other things, was channeling the American revolutionary spirit, as well as his understanding of the ancient philosophers—both eastern and western—in an attempt to articulate an innate human power. He was searching for the roots of human greatness, the sources of human genius. He found his answer in originality. He urged his audiences to live not in conformity, not with foolish consistency, but as creators, innovators, originators. In his 1836 essay, “Nature,” he lamented that people so quickly define themselves by the greatness of past generations. Such definition stifles the human spirit. He asked, “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy [based on our] insight and not [on] tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, not a history of theirs?”[2] In his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” he wrote, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” He wrote, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” He wrote, “Do your work, and I shall know you.” He wrote, “Insist on yourself; never imitate.” He wrote, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”[3] Don’t be someone else, don’t be the crowd, the mob, the church, the government; be yourself. Do something new. Who are you?

Today, when I hear us describe Unitarian Universalism as a non-creedal faith that encourages each individual to pursue their own spiritual path, I hear echoes of that Emersonian self-reliance, and behind it the invitation to ask, “Who am I?” When we invite new members of this congregation to “share with us who you are … share your creativity, your experiences, your questions, your doubts, your beliefs, and all your discoveries of life’s meaning,” we’re encouraging them to ask and answer the question, “Who am I?” When we say church ought to be a place where members and friends offer their gifts and pursue their passions, we’re saying the question, “Who am I?” really matters. When our ninth grade Affirmation students recite their credo statements from this pulpit, we’re not testing to see how well they’ve conformed. We’re affirming their unique answers to the question, Who Am I?”

Know your own waters and hills….

But know more.

****

In the end it is insufficient—both for a nation and for a religion—to only ask the question “Who am I?” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think,” but let’s be real: our words and actions affect others. People do think, and feel, and react, and interact. No matter how much we might imagine a unique spiritual life, pursuing our passions, following our hearts, being true to ourselves, we also participate in communities which place certain obligations on us and which, therefore, at times, conflict with who we are. That’s the tension in our Unitarian Universalist faith.

In my October newsletter column I quoted the 20th-century Quaker teacher, Douglas Steere, who once said, “There is no identity outside of relationship. You cannot be a person by yourself.” Who we are does not spring from some wholly original source. Our relationships shape and influence who we are. Our relationships both constrain and expand who we are. Consider how the arrival of a new child affects a family. It is a joyful moment when a parent welcomes a new child, but the child places enormous demands on not only the parent, but the grandparents and aunts, uncles and friends who may be helping out, and on any siblings who now have to share the attention of the primary caregivers. As a caregiver, suddenly your life feels like it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to this new child who is completely dependent on you. Your life is constrained by the demands of this screaming, eating, pooping, peeing machine. Yet its presence immeasurably enriches and expands the lives of parents and all others involved. Steere says “The ancient question, ‘Who am I?’ inevitably leads to a deeper one: ‘Whose am I?’” Who has some claim on us that we need to honor? Sometimes we must temper who we are based on whose we are.

I read earlier a set of what I call “Whose am I” questions from the Rev. Victoria Safford, who serves the White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. Listen to a few of them again and contemplate your answers:

When you look in the mirror in the morning, whose bones do you see? Whose blood runs in your veins? Who are those people, stretching back in time, beyond memory? Where did you come from? Who is within your circle of concern? Whose care is yours to provide? Who carries you in their heart, thinks of you, whether you think of them or not? Who are your people, the ones who make a force field you can almost touch? To whom are you responsible, accountable?[4]

****

A few weeks ago, the staff of our Unitarian Universalist Association New England Region office presented a workshop on congregational covenants. Kate Kimmerle and I attended. Our covenant is our statement of how we intend to relate to each other as members of this spiritual community. It is our commitment to each other. We’re participating with the New England Region staff in a yearlong program that will help us as a congregation re-imagine our congregational covenant. That workshop helped me understand, in a conscious way, something that has been nagging at me at my unconscious for a while. I have been talking about membership in this congregation too much in terms of who we are, and not enough in terms of whose we are.

When you become a member of this congregation, we emphasize your gifts, your passions, your expectations—your answers to the question “Who am I?” This makes sense. We want to learn who you are. We want you to shine! This is true not just for new members, but for all members! But we spend much less time asking about your people who make a force field around you, the people you hold in your heart and the people who hold you in their hearts. And we spend much less time in conversation about this: when you become a member of a congregation, the congregation becomes an answer to the question, “Whose am I?” That is, as a member, you belong spiritually to the people of this congregation. And the people of this congregation belong spiritually to you. You carry us in your heart. We carry you in our heart. You are accountable to us for living your Unitarian Universalist principles as best you can. We are accountable to you for living our Unitarian Universalist principles as best we can. If it’s only about who you are, then it isn’t a real community—it’s a group of individuals with wonderful gifts and passions. Real community continually asks and answers the question, “Whose are you?”

Knowing who we are is critical. It helps us to stand out, be powerful; a healthy community allows for that. Knowing whose we are is just as critical. It reminds us of how we’re connected, how we are held in our vulnerable times. Knowing who we are helps us assert ourselves and our independence. Knowing whose we are reminds us of larger realities larger in which we are embedded, reminds us of our interdependence. Knowing who we are helps us pursue our passions. Knowing whose we are reminds us of our responsibilities. Knowing who we are encourages healthy growth of the ego. Knowing whose we are tempers the ego, encourages greater humility.

Rev. Safford asks:

At the end of the day, through the longest night, in the valley of the shadow of death and despair, who holds your going out and coming in, your waking and your sleeping? Who, what, holds you in the hollow of its hand?

As Unitarian Universalists, we take great pride in the notion that we each build our own theology, that we each construct our own beliefs. You know what? In the absence of a creed, that is a difficult thing to do. What do we base our beliefs on? Personal experience? The Bible? A favorite theologian or poet? A connection to Buddhism? Taoism? Yoga? We arrive at answers: Atheist, Humanist, Pagan, Theist, Agnostic. I find my spirituality in Nature. I lean toward Buddhism. I’m a liberal Christian. Sometimes we speak eloquently about our theology. Sometime we’re utterly tongue-tied. How do I put my Theism into words that make sense? How do I meaningfully describe my Humanism? I’m a pagan but how do I clearly explain the sustenance I draw from the ancient myths?

For those of you who feel stuck when it comes to naming your own theology, let alone building your own theology, instead of asking “What do I believe,” ask, “Whose am I?” Good theology identifies your connections to others and to larger realities. So does answering the question “Whose am I?” Good theology identifies your sources of support, hope and inspiration in difficult times. So does “Whose am I?” Good theology holds you accountable for conducting your life in an ethical way. So does “Whose am I?” Good theolgoy guides you to seek reconciliation when relationships break down. So does “Whose am I?” Good theology keeps you humble, and names who, or what, holds you in the hollow of its hand. So does “Whose am I?” We need this question in our spiritual lives as much as we need “Who am I?”

What are your answers? Whose are you? Let us start having that conversation here in this beloved community.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Bozarth, Alla Renee, “The Small Plot of Ground,” in Roberts, Elizabeth and Amidon, Elias, eds., Earth Prayers from Around the World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) pp. 132-133.

[2] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Nature,” in Whicher, Stephen, E., ed., Selection From Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 21.

[3] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Self Reliance,” in Whicher, Stephen, E., ed., Selection From Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) pp. 147-168.

[4] Safford, Victoria, excerpt from a sermon entitled “Love’s Conditions,” posted at Quest for Meaning. See: https://www.questformeaning.org/spiritual-themes/whose-are-you/.

Soul Advocacy

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Spiritual writer and medical doctor, Rachel Naomi Remen,[1] once pointed out that “in [our] culture the soul … too often goes homeless.” Her solution to this condition is listening. ‘Listening,” she says, “creates holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear truths in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.”[2] The remedy to the soul’s homelessness is listening.

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Most of you have heard by now that we finally, and very thankfully, have a report in response to the congregational survey we conducted a year ago. Our Growth Strategy Team is working hard at producing a summary to share with you. There are copies of the full, 323-page report in our office if anyone would like to read it in its entirety. As I was studying the report this summer I noticed a set of comments about social and environmental justice advocacy. We have a strong identity as a congregation that engages in social and environmental justice advocacy: Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights, sanctuary, domestic worker rights, environmental racism, renewable energy, climate change. We’ve recently established a partnership with the Verplanck Elementary School in Manchester which may, in time, involve different forms of advocacy in solidarity with the students and their families. We’re currently signing people up to attend the October 28th launch of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. Participation in that organization, in time, will involve advocacy. Not every UUS:E member is involved in these activities, but these activities do shape the identity of the congregation.

The comments I’m referring to were asking, essentially, “is that kind of advocacy the essence of who we are?” “Does that kind of advocacy provide a sufficient or sustainable foundation for the identity of a congregation?” Or more bluntly, “what about our own congregational community? What about our needs right here?” And even more bluntly, “what if I disagree? Is it OK to say that?” I don’t read these comments as assertions that progressive churches should not be acting on their principles in the public sphere. I read these comments as asking, simply and forthrightly, that we not forget the other reasons we gather on Sunday mornings. We gather in worship to hold up and celebrate all that is worthy of our attention, time, energy and commitment.[3] We gather to be in multigenerational community, wherein our children learn from adults, and our adults from children. We gather to be held in our grief and affirmed in our joy. We gather to celebrate our milestones. We gather for our own and our collective spiritual growth and deepening. We gather because in our larger culture the soul too often goes homeless; and here, we hope, the soul finds a home. If we somehow forget these reasons for gathering, if we do not tend well to this soul homelessness, then our social and environmental justice advocacy will be ultimately ineffectual.

One way to describe what we do here on Sunday morning and throughout the week is “soul advocacy.” Our social and environmental justice advocacy beyond the walls of our meeting house must be grounded in, and is thus dependent on, the soul advocacy that happens within the walls of our meeting house.

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Soul advocacy. This term came to me as I was contemplating the survey report this summer. However, I was sure it is not unique to me. I googled it. Sure enough, it’s pretty common. People who use it fall into two categories: new-age-self-help gurus and Christian motivational speakers. In either case, nobody ever explains what the soul actually is. People use the word ‘soul’ all the time, and just assume that the rest of us know what they’re talking about. Yet, if there’s one thing I know about Unitarian Universalists, it’s that the minister can’t use traditional religious terms—especially terms as ambiguous and mushy as ‘soul’—and expect a group of UUs not to wonder what they mean. So I want to spend a little time on what I mean by ‘soul’ right now.

Soul isn’t a clear Biblical concept. Neither the Hebrew nor the Christian scriptures offer a well-developed conception of the soul. In the western world, soul is a classical Greek idea, the  Platonic idea of an indestructible, immortal entity that is part of us, though it seeks liberation from the physical body. It seeks to return to the source, the One, or God. It wasn’t until the European Middle Ages that Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas successfully synchronized the ancient Greek ideas with Christian thought. Even then, and certainly today, Christianity has never spoken with one voice on what the soul is. Catholics and Protestants have differed. Liberal and Conservative Christians have differed.[4] Aquinas lived at almost exactly the same time as the Sufi poet and mystic, Jal?l ad-D?n Muhammad R?m?, who is well-known for his beautiful meditations on the soul. My sense is that, similar to Christianity, there have been ongoing discussions of the soul in Islamic philosophy over the centuries as well. And there are similar, longstanding dialogues within Eastern religious traditions.

These have largely been dialogues among theologians and scholars. What has filtered down into popular western culture is an understanding of the soul as an entity that resides within us, has something to do with who we are—our personality—and lives on in some way after our physical bodies die. Popular culture is filled with references to this understanding of soul. Some of you may be familiar with the Netflix show “The Good Place,” a thoughtful, hilarious meditation on the afterlife and how one’s soul enters the good place, or not. I’m also thinking of the Saturday morning cartoon trope in which a character predictably dies in some spectacular way, and then a whispy, ethereal version of them leaves the crumpled, physical body and floats upwards, sometimes all the way to Heaven where it encounters a version of St. Peter at the pearly gates. Sometimes the direction is downward to a much less benign fate. (For those of a certain age I’m thinking of the misfortunes of Wile E. Coyote, but I see it in today’s cartoons as well.) (I’m also thinking of the Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze movie Ghost.) That whispy, ethereal version of the character is the cartoon representation of the soul.

This is, indeed, a popular culture conception of what the soul is and what happens to it after death. And certainly there are religious people who believe that the goal of the religious life—and the goal of soul advocacy—is to ensure that whispy ethereal version of us achieves eternal life in Heaven.

But that isn’t at all what I mean by the soul. It isn’t what Rachel Naomi Remen and other modern spiritual writers mean. It isn’t what the new-age-self-help gurus mean. And it isn’t what many Christian, Jewish and Muslim theologians and philosophers mean. For me it’s important to bring the soul down to earth, to ground it, to advocate not for its other-worldly, eternal status, but rather for its health, well-being and visibility in this life.

In a sermon I preached about five years ago, I said “Imagine we’re having a conversation and you’re telling me about something for which you have great passion, something that makes you come alive, something so important to you that you can’t let it go; you’re going to pursue it, you’re going to wrap your life around it. When I see your eyes light up at the prospect of your life so dedicated; when I hear the enthusiasm and the strength in your voice when you speak about it; when I perceive it living very naturally in your body; when I sense the energy you gain from contemplating what your life could be—that glow, that excitement, that conviction, that power—that’s your soul. It’s not a thing. It’s a quality in us. It shines through when we’re being authentic, telling the truth, pursuing our passions. It’s never complacent or static…. It is restless. And if we open ourselves to it, it will push, prod, call us further along, higher up, deeper into…. fulfillment, satisfaction, wholeness.[5] The soul is that part of you that is most uniquely you and without which you would not be you.

When Dr. Remen says “in our culture the soul … too often goes homeless,” I hear her saying that this quality in us, this best self, this true self, this passionate self, this source of our creativity and our desire for wholeness—that’s what goes homeless. That’s what too easily gets shut down, overlooked, cut-off, silenced, ignored, or forgotten through the course of a normally busy, a lonely, isolated day, or a technology-saturated day. That’s what becomes an afterthought in the midst of pain and suffering, in the midst of anxiety, stress and fear, in the midst anticipated crisis or actual crisis. And that’s the soul we advocate for here, when we gather in this place.

How do we do that? Soul advocacy begins with listening. Dr. Remen says  “the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart. When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”[6] Of course, the word ‘advocacy’ often assumes taking an action, marshalling resources, speaking truth to power, fighting for rights, fighting for justice. There’s an underlying assertiveness to it, and underlying aggressiveness. Soul advocacy is different. ‘Passive’ isn’t quite the right word, but it may look like passivity, because the one doing soul advocacy is quiet, open, attentive, listening. The one doing soul advocacy creates space, and offers into that space a welcoming, inviting, curious attitude. “You speak (or draw, dance, sing, cry). The soul advocate holds what you communicate with care and tenderness.”

Soul advocacy is as simple as that. Listening, focusing, caring, being present, staying with. Our willingness to listen invites the speaker’s soul to come forward from wherever it is hiding. Our willingness to listen creates space for the speaker’s soul to surface, to emerge, to reveal itself not only to us but to the speaker as well. “When you listen generously to people,” says Dr. Remen, “they can hear truths in themselves, often for the first time.” Our willingness to listen not only to the usual pleasantries, the small talk, the weather, but also to the desires, the yearnings, the longings, the passions, as well as the struggles, the challenges, the pain and the painstaking movement through it—that is soul advocacy. Where do we really get to proclaim this part of our selves, let alone openly wrestle with it? Where do people deeply listen to us? Hopefully our families and close friends create such spaces for us, though this is not the case for everyone. Does your soul get to come out at work? Maybe, if it’s a very special work place. School? Maybe. If it’s a very special school. I’m sure there are places many of you can name where your soul does not feel hidden or homeless. But certainly religious community ought to be one of those places where soul advocacy happens regularly.

We share joys and concerns publicly as part of our Sunday morning worship. It’s an opportunity for people to speak from their depths. The rest of us listen. That’s soul advocacy.

Most of our committee meetings begin with some form of check-in. This, too, is an opportunity to speak from the depths for those who choose to do so. The rest of us listen. That’s soul advocacy.

In our small group ministries, our spiritual affinity groups, our religious education classes, during pastoral visits, memorial services, and when we welcome new members into the congregation—there are opportunities to speak from our depths. The rest of us listen. That’s  soul advocacy. When the listening creates a space for the speaker to begin to shine, to glow, to sing; when it creates a space for the speaker to confidently share from a place of vulnerability or pain; when it creates a space for the soul to come home, then our soul advocacy is successfull.

Is it always successful? Do we always get it right? No. We don’t. I know there are times when I’ve left a meeting and realized later that someone offered a sharing of great depth to which I wasn’t fully attentive. We don’t always listen well. We don’t always listen skillfully. We don’t always succeed in our soul advocacy. I suspect that is, at least to some degree, the reason why some survey respondents raised concerns about social and environmental justice advocacy. If a person is living with soul homelessness, it makes sense that they would raise questions about where our collective focus is, where our attention is. So I’m reminding us: our act of listening to each isn’t just good manners. It’s spiritual practice. It’s soul advocacy.

Listening, if we’re doing it well, is an inherently relational act. The listener gains as much value as the one they listen to. I love the way Dr. Remen puts it: “In the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.” That is the kind of spiritual foundation soul advocacy creates in a congregation. My prayer for us as we enter more fully now into the congregational year is that through our connections to each other, through our listening, through our soul advocacy, we may encounter that singing.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] For information on what Dr. Remen is up to currently, see her website: http://www.rachelremen.com/about/.

[2] Remen, Rachel Naomi, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 220.

[3] Arnason, Wayne, and Rolenz, Kathleen, Worship that Works: Theory and Practice for Unitarian Universalists (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008).

[4] This brief synopsis is drawn from Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Touchstone, 1997) pp. 226-227.

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “For What the Soul Hungers,” a sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, April 14, 2014. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/for-what-the-soul-hungers/.

[6] Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom, pp. 143-144.

Adventures in Spiritual Plumb-Bobbing

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“If only for once it were still”—words from the late 19th-early 20th-century Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.[1] I suspect every society in every age has had and will have its high pace, its franticness, its urgency, anxieties and stresses, its underlying sense of crisis. And in response I suspect every society in every age has had and will have its poets, its artists, its spiritual leaders who cry out some form of the words, “If only for once it were still.” If only for once I—we—could be at peace, at rest, quiet, tranquil, safe, unguarded, serene. “If only for once it were still.”

We here in this congregation are well-rehearsed at witnessing, naming and feeling the anxieties, stresses and underlying crises of our own time. Certainly we witness, name and feel various manifestations of the climate crisis. We witness, name and feel various manifestations of economic crisis in our communities, our nation and the world. We witness, name and feel our nation’s political crisis—a deepening divide between liberal and conservative world-views, red vs. blue, coasts vs. heartland, rural vs. urban. We witness, name and feel the gun violence crisis, the opioid crisis, the resurgence of white nationalism. We pay attention to and attempt to address these crises. They have real and sometimes crushing impacts on our lives or the lives of people we love, on our community life, on our common national life. Our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to witness, name, feel and respond to these crises. Respect for human worth; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; faith democratic processes; the goal of world community; respect for the interdependent web of all existence—our principles demand that we pay attention and respond to the crises of our times. What is our role? What can we do? There’s an intensity to this liberal faith in this frantic age. And in the midst of it, the poet’s cry is ours as well: “If only for once it were still.”

Rilke lived in what surely felt like an age of rapid technological growth. He was born in 1875, before the invention of the electric lightbulb, the modern automobile and airplanes. All of these things were in mass production by the time of his death in 1926. Still, he didn’t have television or computers. He didn’t have cable, the internet, social media, or smart phones. I’m naming these technologies because as amazing and powerful as they are, they also clearly heighten the franticness of our age. They heighten the anxiety. They heighten the feeling of crisis by bringing it ever closer to us, by enabling us to dive into the news cycle at any time, by making the world accessible to us and us accessible to the world virtually anywhere, any time of day if we don’t turn our devices off. And when we do dive in, the messages, images, advertisements and headlines arrive with dizzying speed which often, ironically, obscures the crises we want to understand. “If only for once it were still.”

I find cable news shows to be a signature example of how technology brings crisis and anxiety closer while simultaneously obscuring them by making it more difficult to focus on what really matters. Picture in your mind’s eye how a typical cable news show looks. There’s usually a headline at the top of the screen, along with a fancy, eye-catching graphic, photo or video. Then there’s a talking head or a panel of experts in the middle of the screen, along with various ads in boxes to the right or left; local weather in another box, the date and time in yet another, sports scores and stock prices in other boxes, and the constant flow of more headlines and information running across the bottom of the screen, completely unrelated to what the talking heads are talking about. Where are you supposed to look? There are 10 or 12 options on the screen. And if your ears are listening to the talking heads, but your eyes are reading the headline roll, what is the quality of the information you are receiving? It’s as if the screen is inviting us to multitask as we watch. Yet, everything I’ve ever read about multitasking suggests it is a myth—not a real human capacity. Our conscious minds can only really focus our attention well on one thing at a time.[2] “If only for once it were still.”

I was ordained to the Unitarian Universalist ministry in 1999, just around the time the cable news industry was taking off, about six months after the founding of Google, but well before the advent of social media and smart phones. I remember much that was spoken and sung at my ordination, but the Rev. Thomas Mikelson, one of my mentors in ministry, offered a simple piece of wisdom I shall never forget. He said “Go deep rather than wide. Wide is easy and tempting, but deep is where saving ministry lies.”

What I experience in this moment, twenty years later, is that we live in a larger culture that daily pulls us relentlessly widthwise, even as our souls hunger for depth. We live in a larger culture filled with seemingly endless, heart-breaking stories about harm done to people, to the environment, to institutions, to neighborliness, to civility, even to the truth—all of it vying for our attention, drawing our focus in myriad directions at once. We live in a larger culture whose front page, unfortunately, resides on screens with tens if not hundreds of options to click on, each click leading to tens if not hundreds of new options, our attention and focus drawn relentlessly widthwise, but rarely, if ever, deep. “If only for once it were still.”

I’d been talking to Mary Bopp about this widthwise pull as we prepared for this morning’s service. She suggested a piece of music entitled “Plumb,” p-l-u-m-b, as in ‘plumbing the depths.’ I immediately thought of the plumb line and the piece of metal at the end of the plumb line, the plumb bob. The plumb line is one of humanity’s most ancient construction tools. If I understand correctly, the builder suspends the plumb line. Gravity pulls the bob toward the center of the earth so that the line is perfectly vertical. [Pause] (You’ve got to wait until the bob comes to rest. For once it is still.) The builder uses the plumb line’s verticality to assess the verticality of the wall they are building. The plumb line is a vertical reference point for the builder.

This feels like a fruitful metaphor for talking about our spiritual lives. In the midst of a culture that pulls us relentlessly widthwise, makes multiple, simultaneous demands on our attention, what is our plumb line? What points straight down to our center, our core? What is our truth? In the midst of the pulling, the franticness, the anxiety, the crises, can we drop our line, pause until the bob stills, and, as we sang, return to the home of our soul, to who we are, to what we are, to where we are;[3] and from there know more clearly how to focus our energy?

It’s a powerful spiritual metaphor, though it carries certain risks. Plumb lines are mentioned in the Bible. One of the more famous references appears in the book of Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord God, / See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,/ a tested stone, / a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: / ‘One who trusts will not panic.’ / And I will make justice the line, / and righteousness the plummet;/ hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, / and waters will overwhelm the shelter [of falsehood].”[4] Using the plumb line as a spiritual metaphor Isaiah is calling out the Israelites who have strayed from God’s justice and righteousness and threatening divine retribution.

We read earlier form the book of Amos, another well-known passage: “The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord asked me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ ‘A plumb line,’ I replied. Then the Lord said, ‘Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.'”[5] Amos is also calling out the Israelites, reminding them that God has spared them so far, but now God has set a line and those who don’t measure up will not be spared. Essentially God is using the divine plumb line to determine who gets punished.

That’s not what I had in mind.

My concern always with these sorts of scriptural passages is not that they somehow mar the majesty, beauty and complexity of ancient Israel, but that they might be used today to divide people from each other; that the so-called righteous might use their plumb line to identify and cast out the so-called unrighteous; that so-called believers might use their plumb line to identify and cast out non-believers; that those who understand themselves as morally upright, upstanding, straight—like a plumb line—might use it to persecute those who don’t measure up. We could be talking about how religious institutions and people have historically persecuted gay and lesbian people, gender non-conforming people, people with physical or mental disabilities, poor people, Native Americans, pagans, folk healers, witches, interfaith couples, divorced people, unwed mothers, and more because they didn’t or don’t measure up. It makes sense to me that in times of crisis, in times of high anxiety some people (including us) can and/or will gravitate toward a very strict spiritual plumb line. It gives structure, meaning and purpose to their lives, which is a good thing, but the shadow side is that it can also become a tool of division, of persecution. If that’s the case, I think it’s better if the walls lean a bit. It’s better if things are a little off, in fact it’s much better that way.

Of course there is another use for the plumb line and bob: plumbing the depths or what sailors might call depth sounding. Quoting from an article on the historical website Vintage News, “The most primitive tool for depth sounding was called a sounding line, or lead line: a thin rope of a certain length, with a lead plummet on its end. The lead lines were swung or cast by the “leadsman” …. At bigger depths, sailors used to tie marks made of leather, calico, serge or some other material. Those marks were placed at certain intervals and shaped and attached so that they could be easily read during day or night. Marks were placed at every second or third fathom…. After dropping the lead, the leadsman called out the depths. If a particular depth was exactly at a mark, [they] would say: “by the mark,” and then say the number. If the depth was somewhere between two numbers, [they] would say: “by the deep” and then say an estimated number of fathoms.”[6]

So far I don’t see any risks using depth sounding as a spiritual metaphor, except that sometimes the water is deep and dark. We don’t always know what we’ll find when the bob settles on the bottom. Is our line long enough for the bob to reach the bottom? But in the midst of a culture that pulls us relentlessly widthwise, it’s really important to practice plumbing the depths. Hence, “Adventures in Spiritual Plumb Bobbing.”

We heard earlier a meditation from the Rev. David O. Rankin, “Singing in the Night.”[7] His practice for spiritual plumb bobbing is prayer. He says “I love to pray, to go deep down into the silence: / To strip myself of all pride, selfishness, and coldness of heart.” Perhaps that’s his first mark. “To peel off thought after thought, passion after passion.” By the mark, 2 fathoms. “To remember how short a time ago I was nothing, and in how short a time again I will not be here.” By the mark, 5 fathoms. “To dwell on all joys, all ecstasies, all tender relations that give my life zest and meaning.” By the mark, 7 fathoms. “To peek through a mystic window and look upon the fabric of life—how still it breathes, how solemn its march, how profound its perspective.” By the deep, about 10 fathoms. “And to think how little I know, how very little, except the calm, calm of the silence, and the singing, singing in the night.” By the deep.

It’s not enough to know how deep. What do we bring back from the depths? On a website called “Historical Naval Fiction,” I learned that if a sailor wasn’t familiar with the ocean floor where they were sailing, they could fill a hollow indentation on the bottom of the bob “with tallow or another sticky substance so that a sample of the bottom could then be brought up…. The nature of the bottom might be mud, sand, shingle or shell … or if nothing attached to the tallow, rock.”[8]

What might we bring back from our depths? What might stick to the tallow on our spiritual plumb bobs? Rilke hoped to bring God back. “If only for once it were still…. / I could possess you, / Even for the brevity of a smile, / To offer you / To all that lives, In gladness.” Perhaps what we bring back is what we need most in the moment. Perhaps the act of being still, centering, peering within, reminds us what is most important: Gratitude. Humility. Truth. Purpose. Principles. Mission. Acceptance.  Hope. Community. Faith. Love. Hopefully what sticks will help us stay focused, attentive and awake in the midst of uncertainty, anxiety and crisis, in the midst of a culture that pulls us relentlessly width-wise.

Our ministry theme for September is expectation. My expectation for the year is that we shall take adventures in spiritual plumb bobbing, that in those aspects of our lives that matter most, we shall not go wide, but rather deep.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Rilke, Rainer Maria in Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna, tr., “Wenn es nur einmal so ganz stille wäre,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 53.

[2] Napier,Nancy K. “The Myth of Multitasking,” Psychology Today, May 12, 2014. See: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creativity-without-borders/201405/the-myth-multitasking

[3] Carlebach, Shlomo, “Return Again,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1011.

[4] Isaiah 28: 16-17. (New Revised Standard Version)

[5] Amos 7: 7-8. (New International Version)

[6] Docevski, Boban, “Depth sounding techniques that preceded the modern day SONAR technology,” Vintage News, February 23, 2017. See:

https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/02/23/depth-sounding-techniques-that-preceded-the-modern-day-sonar-technology/

[7] Rankin, David O., in Benard, Mary, ed., “Singing in the Night,” Singing in the Night: Collected Meditations, Vol. 5 (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2004) p. 3.

[8] “Taking Soundings, Historical Naval Fiction. See: https://www.historicnavalfiction.com/general-hnf-info/naval-facts/taking-soundings.

Connetic Word Tag Sale at UUS:E

Connecticut’s Slam Poetry Team, Connetic Word, is running a tag sale in the UUS:E parking lot this coming Saturday, September 7th from 9:30 to 3:00 to help raise funds to cover the cost of their recent trip to the Brave New Voices competition in Las Vegas. Come out and support this very talented group of YOUNG PEOPLE!!!