Plant seeds. Dig in the dirt. Water, weed, feed.


by Mary Lawrence

Plant seeds. Dig in the dirt. Water, weed, feed. Nurture with love. Then hope and pray. This is how we grow a garden. This is also how we grow community. We are planting seeds of peace, love, and justice with the UUS:E Peas & Love Community Garden, creating a space for connection with nature and each other.

In the words of botanist and Potawatomi Nation member, Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, [it] activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”

The UUS:E community garden is an extension of the Sustainable Living Committee’s mission to minimize our carbon footprint and live in harmony with Mother Nature. We use natural, organic compost created onsite from dried leaves and plant-based scraps collected in our church kitchen, amendments such as dried kelp and coco coir, straw and bark mulch, companion planting, and green manure cover crops. By using these regenerative veganic growing methods, we eliminate the use of chemicals and dependence on the animal agriculture industry, where factory farms pollute the environment and disrupt natural ecosystems.

Through the garden we are reminded that nature is not just something to admire from a distance. Nor is it something to control and dominate. Nature is part of who we are: in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the ground we walk on and share with other beings, in the sun that warms our skin… we are infinitely connected. And we are infinitely indebted.

The garden is here for all of us, as a resource for anyone who seeks to learn where their food comes from, how it grows, and how nutritious and delicious meals can be that are made from the harvest. Today is our first planting day, so please, come visit, and check out what’s growing over the next few months (fingers crossed)! In addition to feeding UUS:E members, produce will also be donated to the Manchester Area Conference of Churches food pantry to feed people in need, so that anyone who wants to eat healthfully can, regardless of age, race, gender, income, or ability.

When we reciprocate the gifts from Mother Nature, we secure the sacred bond of mutual respect, honor, and protection. We erase unconscious lines of separation. We recognize our responsibility in maintaining this precious relationship. We consider how our daily decisions have repercussions for all. We grow in ways unimaginable.

Many years before the first Earth Day, Rachel Carson wrote these ominous words in the groundbreaking book Silent Spring, which inspired me to stop and think when I read it 20 years ago: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance, to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

On this day, Earth Day, we reflect on our place in the world and how grateful we are for the beautiful planet we call home. We also reflect on our responsibility, and the decision we make when we come to that fork in the road. So plant seeds! Take a packet, dig in your garden, or fill a pot with soil, and know that in this synergistic act of combining seed with soil with water, you are reciprocating the gift, honoring Mother Nature, and making a commitment to preserve and protect this planet.

Toward Silence

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I shared with you the opening paragraphs of Morris Berman’s 1989 book, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West. He describes childhood memories of family gatherings—though it could be a dinner party, a date, a classroom, the lunch table at school or the office, a job interview, a work meeting—any gathering where people are interacting, talking, chatting, connecting, achieving good chemistry—where extended silences appear to be unwelcome. Most of us have had the experience of an unanticipated pause in the conversation, an awkward, uncomfortable silence.

Berman says, “it is as though silence could disclose some sort of terribly frightening Void. And what is being avoided are questions of who we are and what we are actually doing with each other. These questions live in our bodies, and silence forces them to the surface.”[1] This is probably an overstatement. Not all awkward silence holds existential significance. But when it happens to me, I definitely feel a sense of relief when the chatter starts up again, when the conversation carries on, when the chemistry recatalyzes. There’s something in that silence that I—and perhaps we—don’t typically want to explore. When it happens, we don’t say, “ah, this is nice, let’s continue not talking.”

Of course Berman isn’t only talking about awkward dinner party silences. He’s offering a metaphor for all the silences and empty spaces that hover around the edges of our awareness. Whatever resides in that silence, he’s convinced it matters. He challenges us to explore it, rather than start up the chatter again. I find a striking resonance with various passages from the ancient Taoist masters; Chuang Tzu’s “fasting of the mind”[2]; and Lao Tzu’s admonition to “Shut the mouth. / Shut the doors. / Blunt the sharpness. / Untie the tangles. / Soften the light. / Become one with the dusty world.”[3]

****

Our April ministry theme is transcendence, a nod to spring’s rebirth transcending winter’s death-like slumber; Easter’s resurrection transcending death on the cross; Passover’s story of the Israelites transcending slavery in ancient Egypt. I’ve been reviewing my previous sermons on this theme, and I discover, not surprisingly, that I come to it with mixed feelings. Transcending adversity or oppression, yes; transcending something in ourselves that holds us back, yes; but transcendence as a quality of God, no. In his Handbook of Theological Terms, which I’ve quoted in sermons before, Van Harvey says transcendence “has been used to designate any ideal or thing or being that ‘stands over against’…. It conveys ‘otherness.’” God “is said to transcend the world in the sense that his being is not identical with or his power not exhausted by the [earthly realm].” “When this idea of transcendence has been radicalized … it has led to the view that [God] is ‘wholly other’ and, therefore, unknowable.”[4]

This transcendent God doesn’t speak to me—neither literally, nor metaphorically. I’ve always dismissed this God in favor of a radically immanent one. Quoting a previous sermon, “I’ve longed for God to be nearby, close, present, immediate—like a friend, a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a lover—a wise counselor when my way is unclear, a source of inspiration when my well runs dry, a muse for my creativity, a provider of comfort and solace when life is hard, a bringer of peace in the midst of chaos.”[5]

****

I originally titled this sermon “I Sing the Body Transcendent.” I thought I was being clever. I thought I could expose God as utterly immanent. I reasoned that human beings cannot have a spiritual experience without our bodies being involved in some way. Whatever counts for you as spiritual experience—whether it is based in emotions, perceptions, thoughts, physical activity, ritual, prayer, meditation—something happens in the body. I wrote in the newsletter that, though God is often described as transcendent, “people across the planet purport to commune with God through spiritual practices that use the body. Do our bodies transcend?” I imagined the answer would be no: our bodies stay here—at this pulpit, in these chairs, weighty, grounded, bounded by age and time, caught in gravity’s pull. If God is real, then God must come to us. God cannot be wholly other. God must be immanent.

We have a monthly meeting called God-Talk. Every fourth Tuesday at 4:30, a small group meets for exploration of what God means in our lives. I asked participants what they thought about my clever idea. They didn’t think much of it. They felt I was simplifying something that doesn’t need simplification. They felt I was reducing concepts like soul, spirit, and mind to purely mechanical, bodily functions, when they are more than that. Not only did they not find my answer all that compelling, I’m pretty sure they didn’t find the question compelling.

But something about the question wouldn’t let me go. I turned to Morris Berman’s Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West. His work on human consciousness and its grounding in bodily experience has been extremely influential on my spiritual growth. Nevertheless, I find reading him frustrating because he compiles vast mountains of evidence, theory and analysis from a wide range of disciplines to point in certain directions, to hint at certain possibilities, but without ever confirming anything. What he says feels right to me, but I’m never quite sure it’s true. As a Berman disciple once suggested, his work comes with a wink; as if to say, ‘yeah, I know, maybe not; but it could be right.”

From here on, I’m winking.

****

One experience common to all humanity is the womb. In the womb, and to some extent through the earliest periods of infancy, we live in complete oneness with our environment. There is no ‘I’ or ‘you,’ no ‘us’ or ‘them.’ There is oneness, what Lao Tzu might call profound union.[6]  Berman argues this is a completely embodied experience. Though we are unconscious, our bodies feel it, and it feels good.  

Then, inevitably …  rupture. We are launched out of oneness. Some contend the rupture happens at birth, others locate it whenever consciousness begins. Berman says, “up to this point, all of us feel ourselves more or less continuous with the external environment. Coming to consciousness means a rupture in that continuity, the emergence of a divide between Self and Other. With the thought, ‘I am I,’ a new level of existence opens up for us. There is a tear in the fabric.”[7]  

This tear, though it has psychological, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions, is fundamentally physical. Our bodies experienced oneness in the womb; thus they experience rupture more keenly than our other faculties do. There’s a barreness, a void, something missing, perhaps a broken feeling. The Hungarian psychoanalyst, Michael Balint, called it the “basic fault.”[8] The British novelist, John Fowles, called it the “nemo.”[9] Berman argues this basic fault nags at us, haunts us, drives us, motivates us. He says, “the enormous power of this feeling … derives from the fact that the basic fault has a biological foundation. It is laid down in the tissue of the body at a primary level, and as a result can never quite be eradicated.”[10]

Berman’s primary question in Coming to Our Senses, is what do we do with this basic fault? What do we do with this rupture that lives deep in our cells, and comes to the surface, often unbidden, not only in awkward dinner party silences, but also in our anxiety, fear, yearning, addiction, attachment, lust for power, desire for control, need for order and stability? His answer? We fill it up.

To be clear, by ‘we,’ he means people living in modern, western societies. He conceives of the basic fault as a western, more than an eastern phenomenon. We fill it up with anything that might recreate the experience of original unity, anything that can bring a moment of relief, comfort, solace, ecstasy, anything that might approximate our body’s womb experience. We fill it with food, alcohol, drugs, sex, video games and other screen-based entertainments. We fill it, perhaps more ominously, with ideologies and isms. Note how nationalism makes some people feel powerful and whole; how being American, makes some feel powerful and whole; how racism, sexism or homophobia make some feel powerful and whole; how fighting against those things, having a cause, makes some feel powerful and whole; or even how having a favorite sports team makes some feel powerful and whole. We fill it up with stories we tell about our people, how we’re moving through history toward some better era in which there will be justice and peace. We fill it up with religion, with visions of Heaven, Paradise, the Promised Land. Note how belief in an all-powerful God, or a resurrected God, a prosperity God, a liberation God, a judging God—some transcendent God to whom we must ascend—makes some feel powerful and whole.

So often we believe we’re transcending, but all we’re really doing is filling the basic fault, attempting a return to the womb, to that bodily feeling of oneness. But none of it works.  None of it fulfills, satisfies, quenches indefinitely. None of it ultimately transcends anything. This is Berman’s central insight. The basic fault—no matter how it manifests in us—cannot be sufficiently filled by anything—no food, no substance, no ideology, no ism, no religion, no heaven, no God—because it is physical, because it is an unavoidable feature of the human condition that can never be fully eradicated.

****

I don’t know if the basic fault is real. There’s a lot it doesn’t explain. But let’s say it’s real and we can’t eradicate it. Or let’s say it isn’t real, but there are other sources of rupture in our lives, and the physical effects are enormously difficult to eradicate, so we live with something like the basic fault. Either way, we can treat our bodies differently. We can tend to our bodies where the basic fault resides. But such tending to the body is counter-cultural. This is Berman’s enduring cultural criticism. We so quickly seek to fill the basic fault; we so readily seek to transcend our condition, because we live in a modern, western culture that, in myriad ways, discounts, devalues, ignores, abuses, embarrasses, starves, stuffs, and shames the body. It’s difficult for us to be truly comfortable in and close to our bodies. And, Berman says, “When you’ve lost your body, you need an ism.”[11]

Tending to our bodies begins with accepting the physical root of the rupture. Instead of seeking transcendence, Berman says “learn to live with the Abyss; recognizing the [basic fault] for what it is. Far more important than finding a [new ism, ideology, paradigm, God, Heaven, etc.] is coming face to face with the immense yearning that underlies the need for [it] in the first place. This means exploring what we fear most … the empty space or silence that exists between concepts and paradigms, but never in them.”[12] He’s essentially saying, ‘let your yearning be. Resist the temptation to fill it up.’

“Do our bodies transcend?” It’s the wrong question. We seek transcendence to fill a void in our lives that doesn’t actually need filling. Instead of transcendence, try silence. As Lao Tzu said, “Shut the mouth. / Shut the doors. / Blunt the sharpness. / Untie the tangles. / Soften the light. / Become one with the dusty world.”[13] As Chuang Tzu said, “the Way gathers in emptiness alone.”[14]

Entering into silence, becoming comfortable with it, learning to just be, begins to relieve us of the need to fill the basic fault. When we’re not dedicating energy to filling it up, we can live more fully in our bodies; we can tend to our bodies physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually where they hurt, where pain, fear and anxiety persist.

So often, transcendence is a denial of who we really are, where we really hurt, and what we’re actually doing. “The true enlightenment,” says Berman, “is to really know, really feel, your … somatic nature,”[15]—your body, your body’s integrity, your body’s magnificence. He advises us not to go up, but to go across, or even down.

****

“The real goal of a spiritual tradition should not be ascent, but openness, vulnerability, and this does not require great experiences but, on the contrary, very ordinary ones. Charisma is easy; presence, self-remembering, is terribly difficult, and where the real work lies.”[16]

****

We have bodies. We are incarnate beings. “Incarnation means living in life, not transcending it.”[17]

****

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Berman, Morris, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West (Brattleboro: Echo Point Books and Media, 1989) p. 20.

[2] Chuang Tzu, in Watson, Burton, tr., Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) p. 54.

[3] Lao Tzu, in Wing-Tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu (Tao-te ching) (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 199.

[4] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992) pp. 242-243.

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “From Radical Transcendence to Radical Immanence,” a sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT, April 13th, 2015. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/from-radical-transcendence-to-radical-immanence/.

[6] Lao Tzu, in Wing-Tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu (Tao-te ching) (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 199.

[7] Berman, Senses, p. 25.

[8] Berman, Senses, p. 24.

[9] Berman, Senses, p. 20.

[10] Berman, Senses, p. 24.

[11] Berman, Senses, p. 343.

[12] Berman, Senses, p. 307.

[13] Lao Tzu, The Way of Lao Tzu, p. 199.

[14] Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, p. 54.

[15] Berman, Senses, p. 310.

[16] Berman, Senses, p. 310.

[17] Berman, Senses, p. 315.

Sunrise Song: An Easter Homily

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Listen to one telling of the Easter story from the Christian New Testament Book of Mark, Chapter 16, verses 1-8. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, it happens just beyond sunrise on the morning of the third day after Roman authorities have overseen the crucifixion of Jesus. His body has been lying in a tomb, which the writer describes as a room hewn out of the rock—a cave. A large stone has been rolled in front of the entrance to the tomb.

The writer says, “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

This is Christianity’s central story, its miracle among miracles, the culmination of its gospel, the heart of its good news. It is no accident that the celebration of Easter takes place in spring-time. It is no accident that we encounter this miraculous story in the weeks following the vernal equinox, when the greening, rejuvenating earth offers natural miracle after natural miracle. It is no accident that we speak of an incarnated god—a god with a flesh-blood-and-bone body—dying a human death and coming back to life just as the earth around us is coming back to life after months and months of winter darkness and slumber. It is no accident the early Christian church eventually placed Easter in northern hemisphere springtime. Indeed, Easter sits atop a multitude of more ancient human celebrations of fertility and planting, celebrations of spring’s rebirth out of winter’s death-like sleep.

Contemplate the tomb for a moment—the cave hewn out of the rock, the large stone set in front of the entrance. Contemplate that dim, dark, misshapen room; that confining, constricting space. Such a potent, enduring image. Through the years it has come to symbolize so much that confines and constricts humans beings yearning for some kind of release, some kind of freedom, some kind of rebirth, some kind of resurrection. In our most difficult times, who doesn’t want to live again?

“So Night wrapped her great arms around the sun, and the night was very long indeed.”

What tomb, if any, constrains, confines, constricts you in the long night of winter?

What tomb, if any, prevents you from facing and making difficult decisions?

What tomb, if any, obscures your way forward?

What tomb, if any, isolates you from others, cuts you off from family, friends, neighbors—from those with whom you need to be in relationship?

What tomb, if any, numbs your heart to the suffering of others; numbs your heart to abuses of power, to injustice, to environmental degradation?

What tomb, if any, dampens your spirit, shrinks your soul?

What tomb, if any, keeps you anxious, fearful, angry; makes you forget  life’s sweetness, life’s joy; makes you forget life’s blessings, life’s grace, life’s beauty; makes you forget the precious, amazing sacred gift of life?

Sometimes, all it takes for us to remember life’s sweetness and joy is a small shift in perspective. Sometimes, all it takes for us to remember the many blessings in our lives is a small shift in our point of view. Sometimes all it takes for us to remember how precious our lives are is the arrival of spring, the rising sun on glistening mornings—soft, warm, yellow light greeting us with the predawn birdsong. Sometimes all it takes is a sunrise song.

“Early in the morning, the old ones woke the children. Together they climbed a high hill and faced to the east, the direction of sunrise. They sang songs to the sun and ran around trying to keep warm. They waited and waited to see what dawn would bring.           

The sky began to turn from black to indigo to blue. Slowly the sky grew light. A golden glow crept over the horizon. Night opened her great arms, and in a burst of brightness, the sun appeared, new and strong and shining.”[1]

Sometimes it’s easy, but sometimes it’s not so easy. Sometimes, despite spring, it is still difficult to remember the sweetness, joy, blessing, grace, beauty in life. Sometimes it is still difficult to remember how precious the gift of life is. Sometimes our suffering doesn’t end, even when we change our perspective, even when we sing. Sometimes the suffering of those for whom we pray doesn’t end; the suffering of those with whom we act in solidarity doesn’t end. Sometimes it feels like we need an Easter miracle.

“And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”

‘And what if there’s no such thing as miracles?’ you may ask. What if it’s just a myth, just a story, as so many of us have long suspected? What if Jesus was just a man whom the Romans crucified, like tens of thousands of other victims of their brutal imperial oppression? What if they rolled the stone in place, and that was the end? And what if anything that seems miraculous has a logical explanation? What if his disciples, and Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome loved him so much that they imagined he returned to them in the flesh, and their imaginings were so vivid that they believed? And, in time, all those they told believed too?

There may be a logical explanation for everything, and thus there may be no such thing as miracles. But those tombs? The ones that constrain, confine, and constrict us and others? The ones that make us forget all the sweetness and goodness in life, all the blessings, all the grace? Those tombs are real. And because they are real, we yearn for life beyond them. We yearn to live again. Which is why Easter lives on in our hearts whether we believe the stories or not. Because the tombs are real, I say we have no choice but to keep singing sunrise songs. The alternative is despair. Keep singing sunrise songs. Keep praying sunrise prayers. Keep dancing sunrise dances. Keep chanting sunrise chants. Keep stretching sunrise stretches. Keep telling sunrise stories of rebirth and rejuvenation. Keep telling sunrise stories of hope and aspiration. Keep telling sunrise stories of better days, of peaceful living, or loving relationships.

My prayer for each of us on this Easter morning is that we will keep singing sunrise songs; and my hope is that stones will roll away, the tombs that constrain, constrict and confine us and all humanity will open, and that the release, the freedom, the rebirth, the resurrection we seek will come, as sure as winter’s long night turns to spring’s green day.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] From CIRCLE ROUND by Starhawk and Diane Baker and Anne Hill, copyright (C) 2000 by Miriam Simas, Anne Hill and Diane Baker. See: https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/loveguide/session11/168878.shtml.

A Curious Ministry

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I’ve been reviewing the “literature” on curiosity. A quick Google search reveals there are quite a few recently published self-help books, new age manuals, spiritual guides, TED talks, motivational speeches, scholarly articles, cool quotes, etc. on the importance of being curious. For example, in a July, 2017 article in The Atlantic entitled “Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning,” University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Scott Barry Kaufman says “In recent years, curiosity has been linked to happiness, creativity, satisfying intimate relationships, increased personal growth after traumatic experiences, and increased meaning in life…. Having a ‘hungry mind’ has been shown to be a core determinant of academic achievement, rivaling the prediction power of IQ.”[1]

In May, 2017, Christian minister and spiritual director Casey Tygrett published Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice of Asking Questions. He says, “Faith is impossible without curiosity. We don’t step out, we don’t take risks, unless we’re curious about what will happen next.” He cites research that shows young children are inherently curious, asking between three and four hundred questions a day until age four. He refers to Jesus’s admonition, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it,”[2] and suggests that faith is most powerful when we approach it with a child’s curiosity.[3] A recent article entitled “Nurturing a Holy Curiosity” in ByFaith, the online magazine of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., makes a similar claim. The writer, Ann Kroeker, says “We’re all born with a God-given sense of curiosity—children exhibit it, exploring their world each moment, whether they’re batting their infant feet at a plastic spinning toy or holding a magnifying glass tight in a preschool fist to watch ants emerge from an anthill.”[4] Both Tygrett and and Kroeker point out that Jesus was curious, that throughout his brief ministry he was constantly asking questions,[5] and that with his questions he was inviting his followers to be curious as well.

By the way, that phrase, “holy curiosity,” comes from a 1955 LIFE Magazine interview with the physicist Albert Einstein. He said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning; curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of the mystery every day. The important thing is to not stop questioning; never lose a holy curiosity.”[6]

I also like a quote from the 19th-century Unitarian minister turned Transcendentalist leader, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret.[7]

Then there’s the literature in quotes, the legion of self-help, new-age, pop-psychology, click-bait blog posts on curiosity. Huffpost recently published “Five Benefits of Being a Curious Person.”[8] The website Fast Company: “8 Habits of Curious People.”[9] The website Lifehack: “4 Reasons Why Curiosity is Important and How to Develop It.”[10] The Career and Life Coaching firm, Jody Michael Associates: “7 Benefits of Intellectual Curiosity.”[11] The website Experience Life published “The Power of Curiosity: Discover How Cultivating an Inquiring Mind Can Help You Lead a Happier, Healthier Life.”[12] Greater Good Magazine published “Why Curious People Have Better Relationships.”[13] It goes on and on.

Wading through all this material, we learn that curious people are more healthy, more intelligent, have more fulfilling social relationships, report greater happiness and experience a greater sense of meaning in their lives. In order to obtain these benefits we are encouraged to welcome uncertainty, seek the unfamiliar, take more risks, ask many, many questions, be more playful, channel our inner child, listen without judgement, replace our need to be right with an openness to the insights and opinions of others, never label anything as boring, read a diverse array of authors, identify and pursue our passions.

I don’t knock any of this—not even the faux-spiritual, self-help, new-age, click-bait stuff. None of it is wrong. Many of the writers reference reputable psychological studies as the basis for the claims they make. But even if they don’t, all of it—at least at a surface level—is good advice (though they don’t always explain what they mean by ‘welcoming uncertainty,’ and ‘seeking the unfamiliar’). Nevertheless, what emerges for me as I review this “literature,” is that the human quality of being curious aligns very naturally with Unitarian Universalism. Our fourth principle, “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning,”[14] implies that curiosity lives at the heart of our faith. We search because, at some level, we are curious about something we don’t know. Our emphasis on questioning conventional wisdom, questioning traditional theologies, questioning God, questioning authority, questioning the uses of power, questioning religious doctrine and dogma, questioning either/or, black/white, binary conceptions of the world—all of it implies that our liberal faith requires, even demands, a curious spirit.  

James Luther Adams, one of the more well-known Unitarian theologians of the twentieth century, once wrote that “revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been fully captured. Nothing is complete.”[15] There is always more to discover. No religion contains all truth. No scripture expresses all truth. No field of scientific inquiry explains all truth. No political party, no ideology, no world-view, no theory, no philosophy, no nation, no culture holds the entire truth. Revelation is not sealed for all time, it is continuous. In the words of American comedian, Gracie Allen. “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” In a universe that is still unfolding, still evolving, still growing, still becoming, curiosity is an essential spiritual quality. If we want our lives to peer beyond the boundaries of the known into the unknown; if we want to cross thresholds, think new thoughts, welcome new insights; if we want access to truths that exist beyond what passes for truth here and now; if we want to keep growing in heart, mind and spirit; if we intend to continue searching for what is true and meaningful for us; then curiosity is an essential spiritual quality, and asking good questions is an essential spiritual discipline.

How might that quality and that discipline become real here, within these halls?

Virtually every Sunday I address you from this pulpit, I say the words, “Each of our lives tells a story worth knowing.” I believe these words. I repeat them purposefully to counter certain peculiar challenges of our age wherein, despite our seemingly boundless interconnectivity, it is remarkably easy for our stories to remain untold or, if told, to be ignored, forgotten, lost. I remind us that each of our lives tells a story worth knowing because we live in an age in which, regardless of one’s level of wealth and privilege, it is remarkably easy to become isolated, lonely, even abandoned. Have you noticed that Britain just appointed a new “Minister of Loneliness” to help battle the loneliness epidemic?[16]

I’m convinced that one of the reasons we become involved in religious communities—whether we admit it to ourselves or not—is so that others will acknowledge us, recognize us, value us, embrace us—so that others will know our story.  Even the shy ones among us, the ones who can’t imagine speaking on Sunday morning. Even the fearful ones, the ones carrying guilt, shame, regret, embarrassment, self-loathing. The ones recovering from addiction, mental illness, trauma. There is something in us—our deepest self, our truest self, our most authentic self—that yearns to be known, held and loved; not through status updates on Facebook, but known, held and loved by real flesh-blood-and-bone people. There is something in us that yearns to be known, held and loved, and deserves to be known, held and loved.

Sometimes the greatest ministry we offer to each other—the way we know, hold and love each other—is through encountering each other’s stories. And what inspires us to offer such a ministry? Curiosity. When we are curious about each other’s stories—really, truly, genuinely curious—when we listen with open hearts and minds—we offer a humanizing ministry, a ministry of recognition, acknowledgment, embrace.

Continuous revelation is not only out there in the natural world, in the expanding universe, or the universe of ideas. Our lives and our stories are sources of continuous revelation as well.

Earlier I shared with you a story from the Rev. Elea Kemler, about a young boy she visited in a psychiatric unit. When she visited, they would play checkers. The boy would sing as he spoke to her. “He began this musical conversation,” she writes, “on the second visit —humming under his breath as he moved his pieces — and then he started adding words. Mostly, the words were about what was happening on the board. ‘I am going to juuuuummmp you,’ he sang. ‘If I move like this, you cannot juuummmmp me,’ I sang back. I wondered if he was singing me another, truer song underneath, so I was listening carefully and trying to choose what to sing back.”[17] 

She says, “I wondered.”

Can we approach each other—in our hard times, yes, but even in our good times, our joyful times, our celebratory times—with that same sense of wonder?

I’m interested. Can you tell me…?

I’m fascinated. How did you…?

I’m intrigued. How old were you when you decided…?

May I ask you about…?

Can you tell me more?

Where are you from?

Who are your people?

Which is your child?

As a colleague, the Rev. Marta Valentin asks, “How is your heart?”

Were you scared?

How did you get through it?

What have you learned?

You had this same operation. What can you tell me about it?

‘One day at a time’—what does that really mean to you?

Do you miss her?

Do you miss him?

What’s next for you?

 I’m curious. Tell me about yourself.

I’m curious. Tell me what you’re passionate about.

I’m curious. Tell me your story.

Obviously, a person has to want to share, has to feel safe enough to share, must be willing to risk being vulnerable in that moment—our stories are so precious, our hurts so tender, our fears so raw. It may not be the right time to share. But I ask you to contemplate the difference in experience between a person who is invited to share some piece of their story and a person who never receives such an invitation. The former knows their story matters to someone, even if they can’t share. The latter cannot be sure, and may suspect they don’t matter.

Our curiosity about each other’s stories is a sign of our willingness to know, to hold, to love. Our curiosity about each other’s stories is the foundation of a caring congregation. It is also the foundation for our social and environmental justice work.

I say this because just last weekend we hosted a training in faith-based community organizing for thirty-five people from congregations across the Greater Hartford region, including six of us from UUS:E. If there is one central learning we took away from the training, it is that successful community organizing emerges out of our relationships. We’re proposing to build a powerful faith-based community organization for greater Hartford. Naturally, people ask: what are we going to do? What issues are we going to work on? What injustices are we going to confront and transform? What truth are we going to speak to power? But the trainers kept asking us a different question. “How well do you know each other?” And even before we get to know people in other congregations, they asked: “How well do you know the people in your own congregation?” “What is the quality of the relationships in your own congregation?” “Do you know each other’s stories?” “Do you know what keeps people in your congregation awake at night?”

They began training us in a very simple, but very profound tool, the one-on-one meeting—two people sitting down together, telling each other their stories, building a relationship. All throughout the training they made us practice meeting each other one-on-one. You can’t fake it. You have to be genuinely curious about a person in order to begin building a relationship with them. Without solid relationships, we’ll never build sufficient power to bring lasting social and environmental justice. With solid relationships, with a relational culture within and among congregations, we’ll be able to build the power to do virtually anything we can imagine. Our curiosity about each other matters immensely.

There’s a quote from the 20th-century Trappist monk, writer, mystic and activist, Thomas Merton, which our trainers referenced during our time together. In his autobiographical novel, My Argument with the Gestapo, Merton says, “If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. Between these two answers you can determine the identity of any person.”[18]

Do you consider yourself a curious person? I hope so. Ours is a faith for curious people. Our principles assume we are curious people. Those who believe revelation is not sealed but continuous must be curious people. I urge you to be curious about the person sitting next to you. Be curious about the person you encounter here who you’ve never met before. Be curious about people you’ve known for years—for surely you don’t know all there is to know. Be curious about their stories. Trust there is a truer song underneath. And trust that your curiosity manifests your care, builds important relationships, builds a relational culture, and creates the power necessary to fashion a more just and loving community.

 Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Kaufman, Scott Barry, “Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning” The Atlantic, July 24, 2017. See: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/the-underrated-gift-of-curiosity/534573/.

[2] Luke 18:17.

[3] Tygrett, Casey, Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice of Asking Questions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017). Promotional Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjalXouMwYo.

[4] http://byfaithonline.com/nurturing-a-holy-curiosity/.

[5] For example, consider this compilation of 135 questions Jesus asked in the Christian New Testament: https://mondaymorningreview.wordpress.com/2010/05/14/137questionsjesusasked/.

[6] Einstein, Albert, statement to William Miller, as quoted in LIFE Magazine, May 2nd, 1955.

[7] The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Letters and Social Aims [Vol. 8] (Boston, New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904) p. 226. See: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/4957107.0008.001/1:13?rgn=div1;view=fulltext.

[8] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/09/benefits-of-being-a-curious-person_n_6109060.html.

[9] https://www.fastcompany.com/3045148/8-habits-of-curious-people.

[10] https://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/4-reasons-why-curiosity-is-important-and-how-to-develop-it.html.

[11] https://www.jodymichael.com/blog/7-benefits-intellectual-curiosity/.

[12] https://experiencelife.com/article/the-power-of-curiosity/.

[13] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_curious_people_have_better_relationships.

[14] For a listing of the Unitarian Universalist Association principles, see: https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles.

[15] Adams, James Luther, in Stackhouse, Max L., ed., On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Beacon Press, 1977) p. 12.

[16] http://www.businessinsider.com/britain-appoints-loneliness-minister-to-combat-epidemic-2018-1.

[17] Kemler, Elea, “Another, Truer Song, published in Braver/Wiser at the Unitarian Universalist Association. See: https://www.uua.org/braverwiser/another-truer-song.

[18] Merton, Thomas, My Argument with the Gestapo: A Macaronic Journal (New York: New Direction Books, 1969) pp. 160-161.

Spirit-Filled Risk! (a Sermon for the Annual Appeal)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Religion at its best is no friend of the status quo,” says Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Dan Hotchkiss. “Religion transforms people; no one touches holy ground and stays the same.” [1] And not only does religion transform people, but, at least in this congregation, we expect people to transform our religious experience and practice. We are very explicit about this when we welcome new members into the congregation as we are doing this morning. We say “shake us up with your ideas … stir us up with your conscience … inspire us with your actions, and … stimulate our hopes with your dreams of what life can be.”[2] Let the religion do something good and new in your life, and bring something good and new to the life of the religion. The result is change, transformation, metamorphosis, innovation, growth. The status quo doesn’t stand a chance!

Or does it?

Religion is a collective endeavor. We conduct our religious lives together. And when people do things together, they require some system of organization. They require institutions. “Organization,” says Rev. Hotchkiss, “conserves. Institutions capture, schematize, and codify persistent patterns of activity…. A well-ordered congregation lays down schedules, puts policies on paper, places people in positions, and generally brings order out of chaos.”[3] Perhaps the status quo isn’t in such great jeopardy after all.

It’s a paradox. On one hand, change and transformation. On the other, the inherent conservatism of institutions. Both sides work together. Hotchkiss says, “The stability of a religious institution is necessary for the instability that religious transformation brings.”[4]

This paradox is nowhere more apparent to me than when we ask you, the members and friends of the congregation, to make your annual financial pledge. Like virtually any congregation, and any small, member-based non-profit, we need the steady flow of your generous financial gifts to provide fair salaries and benefits to our staff, to pay for insurance and utilities, to pay our annual dues to the Unitarian Universalist Association, to run our programs, to purchase supplies. Organizational stuff. Institutional stuff.

Yet, what we strive to offer you in return goes far beyond organizational stuff. We strive to offer life-giving, life-enabling, life-empowering, and in some cases, life-saving, spiritual support, sustenance and challenge, so that each of us individually—and all of us collectively—can live as our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to live, and thereby continually transform ourselves, this congregation and the wider world in positive ways. It’s a tall order. We don’t always achieve what we set out to achieve. But that’s what we strive to offer. There’s the paradox: we raise money to maintain institutional stability. We offer ministries that we hope bring change and transformation which, at their best, invite some degree of instability.

Any attempt we make to create a new program or a new staff position, to adopt new energy-efficient technologies or environmentally-friendly practices, to make new social justice commitments, to add new textures in worship, to evolve our emergency plan, to add new adult courses or new models for children’s religious education—any time we move away from the relative comfort of what we know, to the relative discomfort of something new, there is always some degree of risk. It’s not just that we might fail to do what we’re trying to do—that risk is always present. Entering into something new is risky because we might succeed, and success means change.

Our work for marriage equality in the mid-2000s, and for transgender anti-discrimination laws in the late 2000s, changed us. Our commitment to becoming a certified Green Sanctuary changed us. Our building project eight years ago changed us. Our commitment to building a truly multigenerational spiritual community has changed us. Our partnership with Moral Monday Connecticut and our commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement has changed us. Sometimes the changes aren’t so obvious. Sometimes they’re incremental; they come slowly. Sometimes making a commitment is only the beginning of a journey. Sometimes the change begins to happen, but we don’t do the work of sustaining it, and we begin to slide back to the way things ‘used to be.’ But regardless of the pace, whatever changes us demands that we encounter ourselves, our congregation and our community differently. Such encounter expands our knowledge, our consciousness, our world-view, our relationships, our boundaries. For me, such encounter is deeply spiritual. For me, the risks we take as a congregation are spirit-filled risks.

Even when we appear to be wisely maintaining our institution, paying salaries, insurance premiums, utility bills, running our programs—institutional stuff—we are simultaneously taking spirit-filled risks.

Perhaps the most significant goal the Policy Board has set for this year’s annual appeal is creating and hiring a Membership Coordinator. Creating a new position is always risky. It changes the fabric of the congregation. But we’re going for it this year. Our Growth Team and the Policy Board have been exploring and implementing a variety of strategies to grow our congregation—spiritual growth, membership growth, financial growth, and growth of our visibility in the wider community. But so many indicators point to the need for a staff member to focus on the deeper, sometimes intangible aspects of membership that go beyond the capacity, training and hours of our already very committed and involved Membership Committee volunteers.

Membership Coordinators are responsible for connecting with visitors to the congregation, and helping them discern whether membership is right for them. They also help increase opportunities for member engagement in congregational activities such as small group ministries, circle groups, adult religious education, social justice work, etc. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country report that hiring a Membership Coordinator not only leads to growth in membership and financial giving, but also increases opportunities for spiritual growth, learning and connection among members. It’s risky. It might not work. It might not have the impact we want it to have.

But what if it does work? We’ve been growing very slowly over the years, but what if  people start joining UUS:E at a higher rate? What if more people start finding opportunities for spiritual growth, connection, and learning here? What if more people have opportunities to share their stories, to be vulnerable with each other, to offer care and support in times of crisis? What if more people discover and take to heart the Unitarian Universalist principles, the central idea of the free church, the notion of the prophethood and the priesthood of all believers, the old Universalist idea that all are worthy of love? What if more people discover and take to heart the social and environmental justice commitments of this congregation and our denomination? What if twenty-five more people join us through the course of a year? What if fifty more people join us? What if a hundred more people join us? What if we have to add a third service on Sunday afternoons? What if we had the excruciating problem of having to find room for more parking spaces? What if we could realistically explore planting a new Unitarian Universalist congregation in downtown Manchester? It would be disruptive. It would be transformative. We would not be the same congregation we are now. I say that’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

I hope and trust most of you know that a group of UUS:E members feel so strongly about taking this spirit-filled risk, that they have created a giving challenge. For every one of us who increases our annual pledge between 5% and 10%, they will match the increase. I am deeply appreciative of the generosity of Larry Lunden, Rob and Tammy Stolzman, Fred and Phil Sawyer, and another family who wishes to remain anonymous. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

In the current year, and in the coming year, we are investing money in the long-term growth of our youth program. Some of you know that for years we’ve struggled to maintain a vibrant youth program. Many congregations in many denominations report similar experiences. This struggle is confounding to me. It is heart-breaking. The teenage years are some of the most vulnerable, turbulent, confusing—and hopefully fun and enjoyable—years of anyone’s life. Youth benefit immensely from ministries geared toward them. I know I benefitted immensely from my UU youth group as a teenager, so much so that I can’t imagine being the person I am today without having had that experience. Youth need places to ask questions, to wrestle with difficult decisions, to process feelings, to be affirmed and held and loved as budding adults; but also to have clear boundaries set for them, to learn responsibility, community service, and leadership skills. If I ever leave this position of minister at UUS:E, and we have not turned our youth ministry into a vibrant, life-giving, life-saving ministry, I will count it as my greatest failure.

What if, in time, our youth, and their friends, and even youth they barely know but who heard them talking about our youth ministry—really wanted to be here, wanted to participate in our Sunday services and our social and environmental justice work, wanted to hang out here, felt safe and supported here, had some of their most important friendships here, knew thirty adults besides their parents by name—and those adults knew them by name and could help them find after-school jobs or internships and could write college recommendations for them? What if that one kid who was sad—maybe that gay kid, that trans kid, that queer kid—who didn’t feel affirmed at home or at school—and was contemplating self-harm—actually found this church and discovered that incredible gift—that they matter, that people care about them, that they have a wonderful future ahead of them? What if that one kid, lost, struggling, possibly abused—that one kid falling through the cracks in the system, capable of great violence—actually found this place, and discovered that incredible gift—that they matter, that people care about them, that they have a wonderful future ahead of them?

What if we had that kind of youth program? It would be disruptive. It would change us. It would transform us. I say that’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

The UUS:E Music Committee and the Policy Board are beginning to talk about an expansion of our music program. What if, in time, we had more opportunities for members and friends to explore music as a spiritual practice? More hymn sings, more kirtans, more singing circles, more small performance groups, chamber groups, jazz, rock, and gospel groups? What if we had a true concert series with a diverse array of cutting-edge, multicultural artists performing at UUS:E on a regular basis? And what if we expanded that out to include visual arts, dance, theater, comedy, story-telling—all geared toward exploring those very compelling and life-giving connections between the arts and spirituality, the arts and mystical experience, the arts and social justice, the arts and environmental stewardship?

What if we had that kind of music program? It would be disruptive. It would change and transform us. I say that’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking!

We’re about to begin a congregation-wide conversation on becoming a sanctuary congregation. This doesn’t have an immediate financial implication for us, but it certainly could in future. While becoming a sanctuary congregation could mean many things, perhaps the most salient question is whether we will offer physical sanctuary to a person or a family who is seeking to avoid deportation. What if we were to do that? What if we said to an undocumented parent and grandparent of United States citizens—a worker, a taxpayer, a provider who was nevertheless facing deportation—“Come, live with us until your legal status can be worked out?” Or, in the words of the Rev. Kathleen McTigue, which opened our service this morning, “You who are fearful, who live with shadows / hovering over your shoulders, / come in. / This place is sanctuary, and it is for you.”[5]

Like so many Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country who have already provided sanctuary, it would be a clear demonstration of our second principle, “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” in action. And it would be disruptive. It would change and transform us. Given the need in the nation right now, given the unconscionable lack of compassion on display in Washington, DC these days, given the injustices of our current immigration system, I say it is a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

We’re also exploring becoming a founding member of a new Greater Hartford interfaith organization. What if we are successful? What if we help found a new interfaith coalition that has forty or fifty congregational members, all of them committed to working together across lines of faith, race, class and geography to build a more just and loving greater Hartford and state of Connecticut? What if we build deep relationships with other people of faith across the region? What if we join together with them, discern our common values, our common ground, our common commitments, our common longings, and then set to work, organizing, advocating, lobbying, testifying, marching, singing, praying and, most importantly, building the power capable of making substantive, lasting social change—building that rare kind of faith-based social, economic and political power that we will simply never have on our own? This is not some idealistic, liberal fantasy. This can really happen.

I say it’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

New ideas are risky. Change is risky. Upsetting the status quo is risky. Inviting the instability of transformation is risky. But in the end, taking spirit-filled risks is what makes congregations come alive, makes them thrive, enables them to achieve their vision.

Our annual appeal has begun. When your steward contacts you, please follow up with them quickly. Yes, we are asking each of us to make as generous a financial pledge as possible for the coming year. We are asking so that we can maintain institutional and organization stability, pay salaries, bills, etc. But please know that every dollar you give to UUS:E also funds a life-giving, life-enabling, life-empowering, and in some cases, life-saving, spirit-filled risk. Thank you for your generosity.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Hotchkiss, Dan, “The Paradox of Organized Religion,” Bless the Imperfect: Meditations or Congregational Leaders (Boston: Skinner House, 2014) p. 34.

[2] This language comes from the UUS:E “New Member Welcome.”

[3] Hotchkiss, “Paradox,” p. 34.

[4] Hotchkiss, “Paradox,” p. 34.

[5] McTigue, Kathleen, “This Place is Sanctuary,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations(Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 54.

Bearing Witness on the West Bank

Two Perspectives on the
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Part II: 4/8 at 2 PM and Part III: 4/22 at 1 PM

In Part I of this series, held in March, Bishop John and Pamela Selders shared their recent trip to the West Bank, Israel, and Jordan and facilitated a discussion about how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict takes a toll on our humanity.

 

In Part II, we welcome Rabbi Richard Plavin (Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Sholom B’nai Israel in Manchester), who will share his experience of life in Israel and his perspective on Israeli security and democracy.

 

 

 

 

 

In Part III, we will have a conversation within the UUS:E community to process what we’ve learned, to deepen our collective understanding, and to consider further avenues of study and engagement.
Co-Sponsored with the Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee
Reverend Josh Pawelek, revpawelek@gmail.com, Deena Steinberg, deenasteinberg@gmail.com

Sundays, Part 2: 4/8, 2:00 – 4:00 PM, Part 3: 4/22, 1:00 – 3:00 PM

Questions? Contact Rev. Josh Pawelek at revpawlek@gmail.com or (860) 652-8961.

Unitarian Universalist Society: East

If you need childcare, please contact Annie Gentile in the UUS:E office at (860) 646-5151.

Out of Sorrow, Soul

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“That distillation of soul—which of all possessions is most precious—comes, if we are faithful, out of sorrow.”[1] A challenging and hopefully liberating idea from the late Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Nancy Shaffer.” Soul—that part of you that is most uniquely you; that part of you without which you would not be you; that part of you that is most genuine, most authentic, most vital, alert, energized, creative, passionate, generous and good; that often hidden part of you that nevertheless springs up from the deep wells of your being in intuitions and insights, ahas and eurekas, amens and hallelujahs. “That distillation of soul—which of all possessions is most precious—comes, if we are faithful, out of sorrow.” Out of sorrow.

A challenging and hopefully liberating idea.

Our ministry theme for February is brokenness. The original title for this sermon was “Living Whole in the Midst of Brokenness.”  I wrote in the church newsletter I would explore resources for maintaining our sense of wholeness when the world feels like it’s breaking. That is still the essence of my message this morning, though I’ve retitled this sermon with an adaptation of Rev. Shaffer’s words, “Out of Sorrow, Soul.”

Rev. Shaffer never shied away from sorrow. So often her words ache with sadness, longing, grief—her own, yes; but she also gives voice to the sadness, longing and grief that lie at the heart of so much human experience. She doesn’t wrap sorrow up in tidy, neat packages, as if to say, ‘there, we’ve fixed that problem, let’s put it on the shelf and move on.’ She doesn’t offer those spirit-killing clichés—‘everything happens for a reason,’ ‘it’s all part of God’s plan,’ ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ She knows sometimes there simply is no reason for the awful things that befall a person, a congregation, community a country; and some things happen that no decent God would ever plan; and sometimes the things that don’t kill us nevertheless stay with us, stay in our bodies, leave us feeling weakened, deflated, sorrowful. She doesn’t shy away from sorrow, and that’s important. These days are full of it.  

For a moment, consider nothing in the wider world. Just consider this congregation. Five long-time members, deeply loved, deeply embedded in the social fabric of this spiritual community, have died in recent months: Nancy Parker, Carolyn Kolwicz, Johanna Conant, Bruce Hockaday and, just this week, Lynn Kayser. Also this week, Pedro Colquicocha, the long-time partner of UUS:E member David Lacoss, died after removal from life support. Those of you who are newer to UUS:E may not have known any of these beloved members of our congregational family, but you will likely sense the sorrow flowing through these halls.

And it may be that I’m just returning from sabbatical, and thus it feels to me that there is a greater-than-usual number of pastoral challenges greeting me all at once; but I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say there are a plethora of difficult, sorrowful events in many of your lives: the deaths of parents, mental health crises, cancer. Some of you are entering into very difficult life transitions, making hard decisions. Some of you have children who are struggling. Perhaps not as sorrowful, but challenging and anxiety-producing nevertheless, some of you are recovering from surgeries, while others are preparing for surgeries.

Just here, within these walls, so many sources of sorrow.

Do I dare shift our attention to the wider world?

We pray for the Parkland, FL mass shooting victims and their families. We pray that the survivors may find comfort, solace, peace. We pray for the shooter that he will somehow find release from whatever demons torment him. We pray for an end to the insanity of gun violence in our nation. We pray, knowing—because we’ve prayed so much, for so many victims and their families, for so many shooters, for so many first responders, for so many communities, including Manchester, CT after the 2010 Hartford Distributors shooting—we pray along with tens of millions of our fellow Americans—we pray, knowing from experience, that our prayers, our vigils, our candles lit, our quiet songs of mourning and hope, are insufficient to address the magnitude of this scourge.

October 2nd, 2017 was the first day of my sabbatical. That was a Monday. The entire country woke up that morning to news of yet another ‘worst’ mass shooting in American history, this time at a country music festival in Las Vegas.

On that same morning, I heard a report on the radio about my long-time acquaintance, Sujitno Sajuti, an Indonesian immigrant, a devout Muslim living in West Hartford, who arrived in the United States legally on an education visa in the early 1980s. He lost his legal status through an unfortunate and complex set of events in the 1990s, and has been trying ever since to regain it. The radio report stated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, had issued an order for his deportation.

It was not a good day to start a sabbatical.

As an aside, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Meriden offered sanctuary to Sujitno and his wife Dahlia. The couple has been living in the church since mid-October. The church has ongoing needs for financial, moral and physical support. If you are interested in helping out with the sanctuary process in Meriden, please feel free to speak with me about opportunities.

I worked on a novel during my sabbatical. On most weekdays, I wrote between six and eight hours a day. I loved it, and I remain eternally grateful to you for providing me with this opportunity. After a few weeks of sitting and writing, I began to experience a feeling that I believe is always with me these days, but that I don’t typically notice. Perhaps I don’t notice it because I don’t have the time to fully experience it during the course of a normal week full of ministry, parenting, household chores, etc. Perhaps I purposefully ignore it. Clearly, the sabbatical process of separating myself out from the regular work of ministry, and perhaps the habit of sitting for long periods and focusing on one task, somehow brought this feeling more directly into my conscious awareness. The best word I have for it is sorrow. Physically I experience it in my upper back, between my shoulder blades. Maybe it spreads out from the back of my heart. It’s not physically painful, it’s a nagging, aching sensation. I don’t have many other words to describe it. It lives in that murky place, that visceral realm we inhabit before words form. Whenever I would pause to give it my full attention, to welcome it into my consciousness, to try to understand it, I would start to cry. The crying never lasted long. It wasn’t overwhelming. It was actually a great relief.

Rev. Shaffer writes:  “I have been looking for the words that come before words: the ones older than silence, the ones not mine, that can’t be found by thought—the ones that hold the beginning of the world, and are never used up, which arrive loaned, and make me weep.”[2]

As I sat with this sorrow, I started to recognize it as the crest of a wave, something I suspect many of us—if not all of us here—experience to some degree, a wave of profound soul-sickness in response to so many troubling trends. A profound soul-sickness over endless shootings and our collective, national inability to do anything that makes us safer as a society; a profound soul-sickness over the parent of gun violence: insatiable American militarism and unceasing war. Soul-sickness over irresponsible nuclear weapons brinksmanship and American drones relentlessly bombing innocent people.

A profound soul-sickness over the ascendancy of fear and hatred of perceived others: a near-constant announcements of deportation orders, calls to rally in support of this Guatamalan name, that Nigerian name, this Indonesian name, that Mexican name, this Ecuadorian name—every name a story, every story a family, every family a community living with the threat of exile and loss.

A profound soul-sickness over calls for religious freedom not even trying anymore to mask ongoing and un-Christian hatred of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people; a profound soul-sickness over continuous #metoo revelations of sexual assault and violence; a profound soul-sickness over the assault on decades of efforts to reduce racism in the criminal justice system; a profound soul-sickness over bills and laws and fiscal policies that unapologetically bankrupt our nation’s future and immorally redistribute yet more wealth to the wealthiest members of society.

A profound soul-sickness over the denial and belittling of basic science, over climate-science denial, over the pursuit of energy policies that are hastening environmental catastrophe.

A profound soul-sickness over the normalization of public-sphere lying.

There’s more, of course.I’m not saying I wasn’t aware of these trends. I’m saying I wasn’t fully in touch with how all of it was making me feel, not until I had the chance to sit for weeks, and then months. For the past few years I thought I was just angry at so much violence and oppression. I didn’t realize how sorrowful I am.

When our own inner world and the wide outer world feel like they’re breaking, when we are soul-sick, how do we cultivate and sustain our own sense of wholeness? I ask not simply so that we here may find comfort and solace in sorrowful times—as important as that is, it risks becoming a kind of escapism. I ask so that we may each be fortified in our own resolve and capacity to be ministers, healers, justice-makers and community-builders among ourselves and in the wider world.

I’m reading Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, by Serene Jones, a Christian theologian and president of Union Theological Seminary. She offers two ‘habits of spirit’ that can move us toward a sense of wholeness in the wake of trauma: mourning and wonder. Habits—meaning part of our daily lives, part of our way of being in the world. She arrives at these habits of spirit not only through her scholarly work, but also through reflection on her own traumatic experiences, losses, struggles and sorrows, which led her to a crisis of faith. She emerged from this crisis through body work. It makes sense. Trauma, loss, grief, sorrow all live in the body: “quick-startle responses,” she writes, “headaches, exhaustion, muscle aches, distractibility, depression.” She reasoned that if trauma lives in the body then “grace capable of touching it should be equally physical.” She signed up for yoga classes and began working with an acupuncturist. These were her “liturgies of flesh.”[3] From observing her bodily response to these practices, she gradually developed her habits of spirit: mourning and wonder.

Mourning: “A disposition in which your heart and mind give into … loss and consent to dwell in the trauma with as much attention as can be mustered. It requires acknowledging how much was lost, how deeply it matters, how unstable the world has become in the aftermath, and how difficult it feels to be ever moving forward.”[4] In other words, let us not shy away from sorrow.

Jones cautions: mourning does not necessarily heal our wounds or bring our sorrow to an end. Sometimes the things that don’t kill us nevertheless stay with us, leave us feeling weakened, deflated, sorrowful. Jones says “The gift of mourning is that fully awakening to the depth of loss enables you to at least learn, perhaps for the first time, that you can hold the loss: you can bear terrors of heart and body and still see your way forward with open eyes.”[5] As long as our losses, sorrows and traumas hold us in their grip, then we live in a truncated world, a constrained world; we lack space in which to move, air to breathe, words to speak. But if we can learn to hold them, grip them, bear them—which allows us some modicum of control over how they impact our lives, even if it’s just a sliver of control—then the world begins to open, our hearts begin to open, our lungs begin to open, our bodies begin to open. Words come. We begin to reassert ourselves. Rev. Shaffer says “This is the gift with which we / escape, stumble out: / we know the essence of this life and who we are.”[6]

If we can mourn well, then wonder becomes possible. Jones says “Wondering is the simple capacity to behold the world around you (and within you), to be awed by its mystery, to be made curious by its difference, and to marvel at its compelling form.”[7] As long as we have the space in our lives that mourning provides—even if it’s just a sliver of emotional space—then we have room to be curious, intrigued, inquisitive, thoughtful. We can wonder. The capacity to wonder, even in the midst of sorrow, pain, loss, trauma, is what enables us to notice and receive those things that are new and good in the world—the support of loved ones, the care of a loving spiritual community, the prayers of strangers, the myriad acts of kindness that happen every day all day long, “liturgies of flesh,” the beauty, grandeur, subtlety and diversity of the natural world, spring poking out around the edges of winter, and our own human depths—even in the midst of sorrow—our genuine, authentic, vital, alert, energized, creative, passionate, generous and good selves. Out of sorrow, soul.

Rev. Shaffer says: “Ever after, whatever we have, / we have enough: begin complete, / even with nothing, even though / aching. In our lifetime we learn this, / while still we can cherish. Come / complete to the end … full.”[8]

When our own inner world, and the wide outer world feel like they’re breaking, when we are soul-sick, how do we cultivate and sustain our own sense of wholeness? I offer you mourning and wonder, two habits of spirit, two paths to the soul, that can ground us, center us, and make us ready to be ministers, healers, justice-makers and community-builders among ourselves and in the wider world.

Mourning and wonder.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Shaffer, Nancy, “Alchemy,” Instructions in Joy (Boston: Skinner House, 2002) p. 52.

[2] Shaffer, Nancy, “In Stillness,” Instructions in Joy (Boston: Skinner House, 2002) p. 5.

[3] Jones, Serene, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009) p. 158.

[4] Jones, Trauma and Grace, p. 163.

[5] Jones, Trauma and Grace, p. 163.

[6] Shaffer, Nancy, “Alchemy,” p. 52.

[7] Jones, Trauma and Grace, p. 163.

[8] Shaffer, Nancy, “Alchemy,” p. 52.

 

You are a Visionary

“Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life”—a prayer from the early 17th-century devotional and mystical British poet, George Herbert. We also heard Mark Belletini’s meditation, “Mystical Song,” which riffs on Herbert’s prayer. Come, my way, my truth, my life. I have my own riff in mind this morning. What are the ways of this congregation? Do they serve us well? What new ways might we need to meet the challenges of the coming years? What is the truth that lies at the heart of this congregation? Is it, as Rev. Belletini says, “as exciting as fire, and as bright—as powerful as water, and as fluid—as solid as earth, but as transparent as air?”[1] Will it sustain us in the coming years? What is the life this congregation saves, nurtures and sends forth into the world? Is it a life the world needs? Hold onto whatever answers may be popping into your head and heart as you hear me ask these questions. Your answers are important because they help inform our collective vision for the future of this congregation. I’m going to come back to them. But I want to start with a few words about my upcoming sabbatical.

Today is my last day. Unless there is some extreme circumstance that demands my presence, the next time I lead worship from this pulpit will be February 4th, 2018. I’ve written a number of times about how various aspects of the congregation’s ministry will be conducted during the sabbatical, but it feels important for those of you who haven’t been part of the planning to hear directly from me about the plans.

First, believe this: UUS:E has a very strong, talented, dedicated leadership team and staff. So much that happens here happens with either very little or no direct input, guidance or oversight from me: children’s religious education, most adult religious education, sustainable living and green sanctuary programming, multigenerational events, two fifths of all Sunday morning services, concerts, art shows, Sunday morning hospitality, and most fundraising events including our annual appeal, the holiday fair, and the goods and services auction. We have outstanding leaders. Not just during my sabbatical but always: you are in great hands.

We’ve lined up eight guest preachers over the next four months, including next week Dr. Reza Mansoor, a leader of the Connecticut Muslim Coalition. Later in October, Rev. Jan Carlsson-Bull of the UU Church in Meriden will lead us in responding to the UU call for a second White Supremacy Teach-in. In November you’ll hear from Bailey Saddlemire, a youth who grew up in this congregation until her family moved to Providence a few years ago. She now serves on the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees and has many powerful stories to tell. Later in November, Revs. Carolyn Patierno of All Souls UU in New London and Heather Rion Starr of the Unitarian Society of Hartford will preach. In early December Rev. Kathleen Green, Executive Director of the Yale Humanist Community, will be here. In January Rev. Jean Wahlstrom, a UU minister and member of this congregation, and Bishop John Selders of Amistad United Church of Christ in Hartford and co-founder of Moral Monday CT will preach. As always, the Sunday Services Committee will be bringing a variety of lay-led services. Some will be multigenerational, designed in collaboration with Gina Campellone, our Director of Religious Education. It’s gonna be great!

Perhaps an even larger sabbatical question is “what happens with pastoral care?” There are three parts to this answer. Part One: I mentioned extreme circumstances. I consider death and dying an extreme circumstance, and I expect to provide the ministry I would normally provide in the event someone is actively dying or has died. Having served as your minister for fourteen years, I can’t imagine not being present under these circumstances. I’ve talked to many of you about your memorial services already. In some instances I already know members of your extended family. I know many of you theologically, many of you musically. I know your passions. I love you. There no universe in which it would be OK for me to say, if someone is dying or has died, “I’m on sabbatical, find someone else.” I want to be there. That’s my rule. Some clergy disagree, but that’s how I roll.

Part Two: We have a 10-member Pastoral Friends Committee, ably led by Patricia Wildes. While I am on sabbatical, any request for help of a pastoral nature from the congregation should go to Patricia. She and the Pastoral Friends Committee can organize much of the help people typically need—rides, meals, visits. Patricia will also manage the Minister’s Discretionary Fund for people who need financial assistance.

Part Three: For people experiencing some sort of spiritual crisis who want pastoral support from a professional minister on a short-term basis, we have a list of area clergy—all Unitarian Universalist and one from the United Church of Christ—who are willing to receive calls. Patricia Wildes can help you connect with one of those clergy if needed.

There are many other responsibilities and roles I have at UUS:E that will be on hold. Staff supervision will be on hold, though the staff know if they have any problems they can speak with our Personnel Committee or the Board President, Rob Stolzman. My work with our Emergency Preparedness Team, Mental Health Ministry, Council of Elders, Circle Groups, Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee, Membership Committee, Policy Board, and Program Council will be on hold, though all of these programs and committees will continue. You are always in good hands.

There’s a very obvious opportunity for me in taking a sabbatical. It’s an opportunity to pull back from the daily tasks of ministry, to pull back from being on-call at essentially all times—even during vacations—and to work on a project that I otherwise wouldn’t have time to work on. And, as the word sabbatical implies, it’s an opportunity to rest. I cannot express to the Policy Board and to you the depth of my gratitude for this opportunity. I am aware the vast majority of people don’t get sabbaticals. This is a privilege beyond measure. It is a blessing. You are blessing me with a gift of precious, sacred time. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, thank you, thank.

Within this opportunity is a chance for me to discern which aspects of my ministry remain critical to fulfilling both my vision for myself as a minister and the congregation’s vision for its ministries; and which aspects of my ministry are actually not so critical, not so essential, and might even be getting in the way of fulfilling my vision and yours. Might it be time to let go of some of the ways I conduct my ministry, some of the programs I invest my time in? When I’m in the midst of it all, it can be difficult to do this discernment. Everything feels important all the time. Taking a sabbatical will allow me to recognize why I do what I do the way I do it; what I miss and don’t miss about the ministry; and what feels critical and essential vs. what doesn’t.

There’s a similar opportunity for you. During a sabbatical the congregation has the opportunity to notice, by virtue of the minister’s absence, what it does well, what it does not do so well, where it excels, where it needs improvement. It has the opportunity to discern what ministries it needs a professional minister to conduct; and what ministries lay people can conduct. The minister’s absence causes a natural ferment of thought and reflection. The absence creates space for new insights to emerge. Of course, you don’t want to make any major decisions in the minister’s absence—like voting to expand the building. Please wait until February to do anything that drastic! But my absence, and the presence of a variety of guest voices, creates a very natural opening to new ways, new truths, new life. Come, my way, my truth, my life.

This sabbatical comes at a very opportune time. This congregation is at a point where it needs to establish a new vision. It’s been seven years since we moved into this renovated, green, accessible building. During that time, the world has changed. It’s time for us to re-envision our future. Who do we want to be? What directions do we want to move in? It’s time. Therefore I challenge you—each of you individually and all of you collectively—under the leadership of the Policy Board and Program Council—to reflect on our congregational vision in the coming months. What is the vision for our ministries five or ten years from now? What do we want to achieve? What are the components of our best future congregational self? Come, my way, my truth, my life!

It’s actually your job to answer this question. In Unitarian Universalism we practice congregational  polity. This means the congregation governs itself. The congregation belongs to its people. The people envision their own future together. This doesn’t mean that the minister can’t have a vision—you certainly want a minister who is visionary—but ideally the congregation’s vision and the minister’s vision are in alignment. So please let this sabbatical time be a time of discernment for you.

It has already begun. Our leadership team held a retreat this weekend with the purpose of beginning to craft a new vision. Later this fall they’ll share their initial thoughts with you and request your feedback, which will help us collectively craft a vision statement that the congregation can approve at its annual meeting in May.

I want to tell you just a bit about this weekend. Before we engaged in our own process of visioning, we acknowledged that there are many voices and identities that aren’t present in our membership, especially not in large numbers. Mindful of this, and mindful of the movement within Unitarian Universalism today to understand and confront white supremacy, we invited a group of People of Color leaders from Manchester and Hartford to speak to us Friday night about their vision for this region and their ideas about how a congregation like ours might be able to contribute to that vision. We listened. We heard things—hard, heartfelt, honest things—we wouldn’t have heard otherwise. We were deeply grateful. Then, with their words reverberating in our hearts, we engaged in our visioning work.

Come, my way, my truth, my life. Looking towards the future, what will be our way? Building community—caring, heart-centered, thoughtful, spiritual community. Community that supports those who are vulnerable. Community that speaks for those for whom it is too dangerous to speak. Community that encourages and promotes courageous conversations about difficult, polarizing topics. Community that lets people be who they are, that encourages people be true to themselves rather than feeling they must hide part of who they are just to get by. Multigenerational community. Multicultural community. Multiracial community. Community that expands outward from a tight, robust, fun, liberally religious, deeply spiritual congregation here at 153 West Vernon St. to partners in the wider community: to liberation and social justice organizations, to interfaith and religious organizations—especially religious to minorities who face persecution in American society—to arts organizations, to service organizations—a vast network of connection, interplay, mutual support and caring. Come, my way!

Looking toward the future, what is our truth? The answer is so clear to our leaders: love. Perhaps first and foremost: learning again and again and again to love ourselves. In the midst of white supremacy, in the midst of climate catastrophe, in the midst of political polarization, in the midst of violence and hatred, in the midst of profound inequality and endless need, learn to love ourselves deeply so that we may we have great stores of love with which to bless the world; love for neighbors, love for strangers, love for children, love for elders, love for the lonely and the isolated, love for the demonized and the scapegoated; love across lines of faith, culture, ethnicity and race; love across lines of gender and sexual orientation; love across lines of city and suburb; love so vast and deep that these lines that vex us start to blur, start to disappear; so that our connectedness and our oneness shine forth not only in what we say but in what we do. Come, my truth!

Looking toward the future, what is our life? The answer that came through from our panel on Friday and our discussions on Saturday is authenticity, the life of people who don’t hide, who let their light shine, who speak their truths, who feel, who sing and dance; people who know themselves deeply, share themselves generously, who listen well to other selves, respect and honor other selves, celebrate other selves. What is our life? It is a bold life, not afraid to dream, not afraid to risk, not willing any longer to play it safe when the world’s need is overflowing. What is our life?  It is a committed life, a connected life, a powerful life. It is our energy, spirit and strength sent forth into the world to love, to be present to suffering, to comfort, to heal; to bear witness to oppression and injustice; to resist and dismantle the systems that hold oppression in place, to build a more just, loving and fair society. Come, my life!

That’s my best initial articulation of our emerging vision for this congregation’s future. What I hope is that in the space of this sabbatical time, you individually and as a congregation can continue this conversation and imagine the most compelling UUS:E future possible. Imagine what has never been imagined before. I challenge you to think big. Think boldly. Don’t worry about the technicalities of how some new ministry might come to fruition. Don’t worry about whether or not we have the resources. Take time to imagine amazing what-could-bes. Take time to imagine a spiritually alive, powerful, transformative, life-saving, life-giving, connected congregation. If the vision is compelling, the resources will come. You all have it within you. Be visionary!

“Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life.” May the ways of this congregation meet the needs of a hurting world. May the truth that lies at the heart of this congregation be “as exciting as fire, and as bright—as powerful as water, and as fluid—as solid as earth, but as transparent as air!”[2] May the life this congregation saves, nurtures and sends forth bring love and healing into the world. You each have it within you. In the coming months, be visionary.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Belletini, Mark, “Mystical Song,”Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

[2] Belletini, Mark, “Mystical Song,”Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

Hurricane Relief Collection — October 1st

On Sunday morning, October 1st, UUS:E is dedicating its entire offering to hurricane relief efforts.

One half of UUS:E’s October 1st collection will be dedicated to the Connecticut-based Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Network, which was established in the wake of Hurricane Irma, and is even more critical in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation. Many of Connecticut’s nearly 300,000 Puerto Rican residents remain closely tied to their families on the island and are looking for ways to assist their loved ones. In light of this need, numerous Connecticut non-profit agencies have come together to form The Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Network with the help of the Hispanic Federation to serve as the fiduciary as the network develops. The “Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Network” is comprised of the CT Puerto Rican Agenda, The Center for Latino Progress, CICD Hartford Puerto Rican Day Parade, and The San Juan Center, working in tandem with the Hispanic Federation and the CT General Assembly’s Puerto Rican Caucus.

One half of UUS:E’s Otober 1st collection will be dedicated to the two Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) funds. The UUA’s Hurricane Irma Recovery Fund assists congregations, including in the U.S. Virgin Islands, in repairing hurricane damage, and also in responding to their members’ and their community’s efforts to recover. The Hurricane Harvey Recovery Fund is a joint effort of the UUA and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC). Half of the money raised will go to at-risk populations served by UUSC partners in the region; the other half will support Unitarian Universalist congregations and members of those congregations most affected by the storm.

Checks can be made out to UUS:E with “Hurricane Relief” written in the memo line. 

For those who would also like to make donations of material goods to Puerto Rican recovery efforts, there are two opportunities to do so in Manchester in the coming days and weeks. 

First, for the next two weeks, downtown Manchester businessman, Carlos Ortiz, owner of Sol de Bourinquen, Jr. Bakery at 856 Main Street is helping to coordinate donations to the storm victims in his native Puerto Rico. A wide variety of items including but not limited to: water, flash lights and batteries, nonperishable food items, diapers and clean clothing in good condition are needed.  Donations may be dropped off at his bakery located at 856 Main St., Manchester, CT during normal business hours.  (Mon.– closed; Tues.- Fri. 6am -6pm; Sat. 7am-4pm; Sun. 7am-3pm. Questions? Call Carlos at 860 801-2099.

Finally, United for a Safe and Inclusive Community — Manchester is collecting donations at the Lutz Children’s Museum until Saturday, September 30th. Please bring your donations to the Lutz this Wednesday to Friday between 9am – 5 pm, or Saturday from 12 noon – 4:30 pm. They are asking for the following items:

Water
Portable water purifiers 
Water filtration devices 
Batteries, all sizes 
Rice 
Beans (canned)
Tomato sauce (canned) 
Sanitary products MaxiPads
Mosquito /bug repellent 
Rubbing alcohol 
Diapers/wipes 
Formula
Gloves (disposable) 
Flashlights/headlamps 
LED lanterns 
Hand wipes / sanitizer
Sleeping bags

 

 

 

 

for the

This is Not a Drill

Over the last week of August our family rented a cottage on Cape Cod. One day we came home from the beach and discovered a gas leak in the basement. For a few minutes the best word to describe my response was confusion. OK, it’s only in the basement, except I can smell it a little bit upstairs. We have to do something. Let’s call the owner – or should we call the gas company, or the plumber, or 911? It’s dinner time; the boys are getting cranky from hunger; I’m getting cranky from hunger; is it ok to light the grill, which is near the house, but not that near? Can the pilot light on the water heater ignite the gas in the basement? Is it OK to take a shower? Stephany reached the owner on the phone, who thought it was best to call the plumber who had been working on the house earlier that day. That’s when the fire alarm went off. Yikes. For a moment I experienced full-blown panic. Then, for the first time since smelling the gas I took a breath. Just one breath with that loud beeping and that jarring, mechanical voice announcing the presence of a fire, and I somehow gained clarity, calm, and a sense of resolve. I yelled at Stephany to have the owner call the gas company to come turn off the gas. I ordered the boys out of the house to the front yard. I grabbed my phone and some corn chips and salsa. We camped out on the front lawn, away from the house, until the gas company arrived, turned off the gas, vented the house, and fixed the leak. The whole ordeal lasted about 90 minutes.

This was not a drill. If it had been, I would not have given myself high marks for my initial response. Confusion and panic are understandable, but if there’s a gas leak, evacuate first, then be confused. And in hindsight, we should have called 911 immediately. The gas company treated the situation as an emergency and arrived quickly, but I suspect the fire department would have arrived more quickly. 

This experience raises two related questions, both with spiritual ramifications. First, in the midst of a crisis or a disaster—a fire, a flood, a long-term power outage, an earthquake, a medical emergency, a shooting—here or, for that matter, anywhere you happen to be—how do or would you respond emotionally? In such situations it’s rarely our rational mind that responds first. There’s a moment of surprise. Our ancient, limbic, fight-flee-or-freeze instinct kicks in. Fear, anger, panic, confusion kick in. It’s a survival response. It floods the body with adrenalin, quickens the pulse, quickens breathing. It often makes decisions for us. We fight before thinking, “I need to fight.” We flee before thinking, “I need to flee.” We push a child out of the way of an oncoming car before thinking, “I’ve got to save that child.” We say, “Oh my God,” before thinking, “I need to pray.” So, how—and how quickly—do we get to that place of clear, calm resolve? How do we get to thoughtfulness?

That initial gut response is virtually unavoidable. It’s in our nature, our wiring. Hopefully it does what our ancient ancestors needed it to do, which is save our lives or the lives of others.  But once we’ve been surprised, once we’ve been confused, once we’ve reacted emotionally to the threat—our ancient, limbic response becomes increasingly unhelpful. We need calm. We need clarity. How do we move from fight-flee-freeze auto-pilot to calm, clear rationality? How do we move from hot to cool in the midst of a disaster? My sense is that the quality of our day-to-day spiritual lives matters immensely in moments like this. If we don’t have a daily practice of any sort, if we aren’t used to intentionally sinking into a relaxed, focused state of being for at least a few minutes every day, then we have very little to reach for in the midst of a crisis. But if we are accustomed to setting aside time each day to breathe, to pray, to meditate, to settle in, to sink in, to focus our attention, to study and contemplate, to stretch, to engage in ritual, to connect intentionally with a reality larger than ourselves—if it is part of our regular living—then we can use it in the midst of a crisis. Over time our spiritual practices become instinctual too. There’s smoke coming from the kitchen. Your pulse is racing. Take a breath. There’s a foot of water on the basement floor. You’re panicking. Quiet your mind. Someone has fainted in front of you. Imagine that calm state you attain when you exercise or stretch. You hear screams and you know something is wrong. You’re highly agitated. Say that short comforting prayer that’s always been meaningful to you, even if you don’t believe in the power of prayer. Say it with intention. It is a spiritual resource for bringing calm and clarity in the midst of a crisis.

A few years ago a group of us studied spiritual writer Thomas Moore’s A Religion of One’s Own. One of his central ideas is that regular spiritual practice cultivates an alert mind. He means a mind alert to insights, intuitions and synchronicities that come to us as if out of nowhere. Often we don’t notice them, let alone realize the directions in which they are pointing us. Often we ignore them because we aren’t ready for them. Regular spiritual practice—anything that focuses or unclutters the mind—opens us up to receive revelations, says Moore.[1] It strikes me that having a regular spiritual practice contributes to our alertness and readiness to manage ourselves and others in the midst of a crisis.

Last week at the 9:00 service I shared some words from a blog post by the Rev. Dawn Cooley, a staff member in the office of the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Her post was called “Beyond Disaster Relief.” She talks about the way so many people respond to disasters like hurricanes with not only love and compassion but courage and heroism. Without in any way belittling these loving, heroic testaments to the human spirit, Rev. Cooley points out that “Our tendency is to latch onto these stories and think about how great it is that we help each other out when we must. But … why must it take a disaster, such as a hurricane, to get us to treat one another with care and concern?” She quotes a friend who asks: well before the storm, “have I been my brother’s keeper? [Have I cared] about his livelihood before his actual, physical life was at stake…. That’s a question worth sitting with.”[2]

It’s true: the regular, daily quality of our community, of our relationships, of our concern for one another and for strangers, impacts the quality of our response in times of crisis. The more we care about each other and strangers in good times, the better able we’ll be to care for each other and strangers in hard times. Rev. Cooley says “Send love, and care, and financial support to those in Texas and Louisiana [and now Florida], but don’t stop there. Let us work to find ways to implement these actions and attitudes into our daily lives. Urge your representatives and elected officials to create crisis plans, knowing more events like this will happen. Work to create legislation that treats people with dignity at all times. Demand justice for those in need—not just in a natural disaster but at all times…. For better and for worse, we will have many opportunities to practice.”[3] The more we do the work—the spiritual work, the service work, the social justice work—in good times, the better able we’ll be to respond to crises, the more quickly we’ll move from fight-flee-or-freeze to calm, clear rationality when disaster strikes.

Second question. In the response to any crisis, do we actually know the right things to do and in what order they need to be done? This question also has spiritual ramifications. A simple example: imagine that during worship on a Sunday morning, a fire breaks out in the kitchen. We’re here in the sanctuary. We become aware of the fire, and although it isn’t huge, it also doesn’t appear to be under control. Whoever is leading worship calmly invites you to evacuate. People on the left move slowly to the walls and down the aisle to the doors. People on the right move slowly to the walls and down the aisle to the lobby and out the doors. Somebody hit the fire alarm on your way out. Four or five of you have already called 911 (Note: in an emergency it’s best to call 911 from a landline which routes more quickly to local dispatchers. The closest landline to this room is in the kitchen which, in this scenario, is on fire, so call 911 on your cell.) Be mindful of elders, people in wheelchairs, people with babies. Move at their pace. This will not take long. Somebody near the right-hand door, please go downstairs and alert the adults that we’re evacuating due to fire and they must do the same with the children. By the way, conduct a garden level fire drill with the kids every year. We don’t conduct a main level fire drill, but we will start doing them periodically. Here’s why: We’ve successfully evacuated the building, which includes establishing a location for teachers to bring children to their parents, but then what happens? The safest, most helpful place to be now is in a car; and that car is to remain parked. Nobody attempts to leave. The hill at the entrance to our lot is too steep for some of the firetrucks to use. They will use the exit ramp. If anyone tries to leave, they risk blocking emergency responders or, worse, colliding with them. Do we actually know the right things to do and in what order they need to be done so that we do them as effectively as possible?            

Unless we plan and train for crises, we won’t know. One of my jobs as the head of staff, and one of the Policy Board’s jobs in its fiduciary role on behalf of the congregation, is to ensure that we and our building are as safe as possible. One dimension of safety is knowing what to do in a crisis. To that end, the Policy Board charged an Emergency Preparedness Team with the task of creating an Emergency Preparedness Plan. The team includes at large members Cressy Goodwin and Peter Marroto, Bill Graver from the Buildings and Grounds Committee, Sue McMillen from the Pastoral Care Committee, Jane Osborn, our sexton, Annie Gentile, our Office Administrator, Gina Campellone, our Director of Religious Education, and myself. Thanks to all of you who’ve been part of this effort. Under Cressy’s leadership we created the plan earlier this year. It is consistent with guidelines for the town of Manchester and our region, which are consistent with guidelines established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The plan offers concise directions in the event of smoke or fire, a power outage, a medical emergency, an armed and dangerous person entering the building, an unarmed but dangerous person entering the building, storm damage, flooding, septic system failure, hazardous materials spill, loss of water supply, breakdown of our heating and cooling system, and how and when to provide temporary shelter to members and friends. We’ve begun training the staff in using the plan. We’re offering a workshop today at 1:00 for anyone who would like to begin their own training. We’re still figuring out the best ways to provide training to all of you. Knowledge is definitely power in an emergency. An actual fire drill is coming.     

One of my anxieties in talking about this is that it will raise doubts in your minds about how safe we truly are here. In naming the potential for fire, might some of you look around and wonder, Hmmm, if there were a fire in the kitchen, could we really evacuate in time? If there were a shooter in the lobby? What chemical do we have that could spill? But that anxiety comes from me anticipating your fight-flee-or-freeze response. Not talking about it is pure denial. Doing the planning and the training on a regular basis, making it part of the life of the congregation, will enable all of us to respond with calm, clear resolve if a crisis should befall us here. It makes us safer. Doing the planning and the training—that’s the work of being our siblings’ keepers before the crisis comes. That’s caring for each other before the crisis comes. This making ourselves ready, this preparing ourselves, is not just a fiduciary responsibility. It is love in action.

I read to you earlier from my late colleague, the Rev. Robbie Walsh two meditations, “Fault Line” and “Fire at the Parsonage.” He isn’t writing about emergency preparedness, but he it reminding us that disasters happen, that our lives, “already spilling over the brim, could be invaded, sent off in a new direction, turned aside by forces [we] were warned about but not prepared for.”[4] He reminds us that “The world is going to end, and we don’t know when. My world, or yours, may end tomorrow in some unexpected way.”[5] He warns us about the fragility of life, the potential for everything to come crashing down in an instant. “Have we done what we need to do?” he asks. “Have we said the words we should say before the opportunity is gone?”[6]

That is perhaps the greatest spiritual benefit to come to us from emergency planning. In naming the crises that could happen, we accept our fragility, and ultimately our mortality. In doing so we are inevitably reminded of the things that matter most, of the people and pets and places and experiences we love most deeply, of the bonds that hold us close, of the passions that set us free. We are reminded, in Walsh’s words, that “the shifting plates, the restive earth, your room, your precious life, they all proceed from love, the ground on which we [move] together.”[7]

Life is not a drill. May we plan well, because it will make a difference, even if disaster never strikes.

Life is not a drill. May we respond well, because our lives depend on it.

Life is not a drill. May we love deeply before the storm, because our lives can change dramatically in an instant, and we may not get the chance again.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own (New York: Avery, 2014) p. 184.

[2] Rev. Dawn Skjei Cooley “Beyond Disaster Relief, September 5, 2017, http://www.uua.org/southern/blog/beyond-disaster-relief.

[3] Rev. Dawn Skjei Cooley “Beyond Disaster Relief, September 5, 2017, http://www.uua.org/southern/blog/beyond-disaster-relief.

[4] Walsh, Robert, “Fault Line,” Noisy Stones: A Meditation Manual (Boston: Skinner House, 1992) p. 15.

[5] Walsh, Robert, “Fire at the Parsonage,” Noisy Stones: A Meditation Manual (Boston: Skinner House, 1992) p. 14.

[6] Walsh, “Fire at the Parsonage,” p. 14.

[7] Walsh, “Fault Line,” p. 15.