2014 Transgender Day of Remembrance

11-20 TDOR

 REMEMBER ** HONOR ** ACT

The 16th Annual (Hartford Area) Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place at 7:00pm, Thursday November 20, 2014 at the Metropolitan Community Church of Hartford, 155 Wyllys Street, Hartford CT 06106 (Parish House, Church of the Good Shepherd, entrance in the back)

Office: (860)724-4605 Pastor: (860)990-1225

www.mcchartford.com

 Guest speakers

Candlelight vigil

Music

Reception


This is a day we reserve each year to memorialize those whose lives were lost due to anti-transgender fear, bigotry and hatred.  Around the world, communities have planned vigils to come together in community to remember those who have died in the past year.  As we gather this year, we remember, we honor, and we commit to action that will prevent more lives being senselessly lost.  Join us for a night of community, compassion, and hope.

 

This event is FREE.

Epicenter Ferguson (A Poet-Preacher Collaboration)

A Letter to My Unborn Black Son

Christopher D. Sims

pregnant bellyDear son, African American warrior, 
Reincarnation of the people of the

Sudan. I hope you understand why
I am writing you this letter. And 
hopefully, by the time you read it
Race relations in America are a lot
better than what they are now. You 
will understand why I will beg you
not to wear a hoodie when you leave
our home. You will understand why
I ask you to be careful outside these
doors.

 

Maybe your best friends will be named
Trayvon and Michael. And they will be the
namesakes of the young men who died
because of indifference, and because of
hate. Dear son, I know you will relate.
Because I will have read the Autobiography
of Malcolm X to you while you were in
your mother’s womb. You will come into
this life knowing that black youth and men
are doomed in America.

 

Son, I hate to scare ya, but your ancestors
were taken from the shores of Africa. They
snatched ya great great great great grandparents
and brought them here. Took away our language
and culture, and in black women and men 
instilled fear. Son I want you to know the truth
of this place here.

 

Dear son, your skin will be the reason why
they call you nigger, why cops will pull up
to your car with their fingers shaking on the
trigger. Ask Trayvon and Michael. They will
tell you what happened to the people they were
named after. They will tell you tales of hell,
each with a sad, sad chapter. 

 

Black boys and men are being killed and 

We are being treated like we don’t matter. 

Like we don’t even matter.

 

Son, I am preparing you for a world that
focuses on race, that moves at an unhealthy pace,
Where your mother and other black women
like her are disgraced. There are people who
will want you to increase the prison population.
They will start early in your education. Son, this
is all truth, and it’s all real. You will learn when
I read to you what happened to Emmett Till. 

 

I’ll stop here now son, don’t want you to be scared. 

I write this letter to you because I want you to
come into this world informed and prepared.

Not So Rank Speculation

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

GriefLast weekend I heard multiple rumors that the St. Louis County Grand Jury considering whether or not to indict White Ferguson, MO police Officer, Darren Wilson for the fatal August 9th shooting of an unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, was about to deliver its decision and that it would likely not indict Officer Wilson. Maybe you heard those rumors too. I tend to think the Grand Jury will indict Officer Wilson, but I understand why so many people believe rumors to the contrary. On Monday the Prosecuting Attorney, Robert McCulloch, called the rumors “rank speculation.” I think there are more sensitive words than “rank” to use in a situation like this. I’ve always used “rank” to describe the smell of my socks after a long run. I hope that isn’t what McCulloch meant.

When a community that has witnessed the broad-daylight killing of one of its own sons at the hands of a police officer begins to speculate that the Grand Jury’s decision is coming at any moment and that the decision will go in the officer’s favor, such speculation doesn’t strike me as “rank.” After months of living with the bitter, painful memories of that day and yearning desperately for some kind of closure—hopefully a closure that feels like justice—it isn’t rank speculation. It’s grief. It’s part of the grieving process.

When a community that is still reeling from many complicated nights of mayhem in the wake of that shooting—including the deployment by police of an astounding array of military equipment (which has understandably shocked the nation), further police violence, apparent civil rights violations, and violent reactions from some community members, including looting and rioting, though some understand it as resistance and uprising—when that community begins to speculate that the Grand Jury’s decision is coming at any moment and that the decision will go in the officer’s favor, it doesn’t strike me as “rank.” It’s a community-wide expression of anxiety and fear. Are we about to plunge into that same chaos again? Is there any way to prevent that?

Yes, there is. When a coalition of more than fifty organizations—the Don’t Shoot Coalition—holds a press conference to ask police and government officials to agree to rules of engagement for the days and weeks following the Grand Jury’s announcement, such as 48 hours advanced notice of the decision so that they can adequately prepare people for productive, nonviolent protests; such as a demilitarized police presence—no armored vehicles, rubber bullets, rifles, tear gas or riot gear—so that people won’t be provoked into reactive violence; such as respect for safe houses and churches in the midst of protests; such as respect for reporters and legal observers who aren’t part of the protests but who need to be there in order to do their jobs—I don’t think there’s anything “rank” about it. I think the request for rules of engagement displays deeply thoughtful, principled community organizing and a calm attempt to communicate to authorities how they can minimize violence and mayhem.

When a community—and all the people across the country who feel connected and sympathetic to it—all the people across the country who stand in solidarity with it—all the people across the country and across the planet who know the history of American racism, who’ve seen young Black men murdered again and again, who’ve waited for countless Grand Jury decisions, who know this legal pattern intimately—this finding that the young, dead Black man is somehow responsible for his own death and the person who pulled the trigger, often multiple times, was justified in doing so—I don’t think it’s rank speculation when that community names its belief that the decision is coming soon and it will go in the shooter’s favor. We might call it cynical speculation. We might call it despairing speculation. Why might call it speculation marked by a pervasive mistrust of the justice system. But what I think it reveals at its deepest level is a profound experience of betrayal. America betrays young Black and Brown men. It says to them, as it does to all American children, that they can be anything they want to be, but then fails to address social, economic and legal structures that result not only in second class citizenship, not only in a loss of worth and dignity, but far too often in loss of life.

Just because an act is legal doesn’t make it moral. If anything is “rank” in this story it’s the gap so many Black and Brown communities experience between what is legal and what is moral. The Grand Jury may determine that Officer Wilson was legally justified in shooting Michael Brown at least six times—but that won’t mean he acted morally. It won’t mean that the institutions that trained and authorized him have acted morally. It certainly won’t mean Michael Brown deserved to die. Remember, slavery was legal. Segregation was legal. Countless Indian wars were legal. The Trail of Tears was legal. Japanese internment camps were legal. Voter suppression was legal, and there are many who contend the Supreme Court has made it legal once again by gutting significant portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The War on Drugs is legal. Mass incarceration is legal. None of it, in my view, met or meets any criteria for moral. As long as that gap between the legal and the moral exists when it comes to the lives of young Black and Brown men, America will continue down the path of betrayal: communities will continue to grieve, to weep, to mistrust, to rage, to struggle in poverty, to struggle against injustice: and poets will continue to write letters of warning to their children, born and unborn.

 I feel called, I feel Unitarian Universalism is called, I feel people of faith in general are called, and I feel Americans are called, today, to close the gap between what is legal and what is moral when it comes to the lives of young Black and Brown men. The nation’s focus is on whether or not the Grand Jury indicts Officer Wilson. But whether they do or don’t, that gap will remain. Can I be a minister, can we be a congregation, can we be part of a larger UU faith, can we be part of an America that looks beyond the outcome of the Grand Jury’s proceedings and works to dismantle the system that ultimately led to the death of Michael Brown and the ruined lives of so many other young people? I have faith that we can.

On Being: Reborn

Christopher D. Sims

breathingArt, the art of expression, through my poetry
Allows me to breathe, to breathe, to breathe.

And what I conceive is the truth, the truth,
the truth. 

This art form helps me become reborn, reborn,
reborn. I reach the highest of highs when I
perform. My world, your world, my world, your
world, is transformed, transformed. 

As I contemplate on what I create, I’ve connected
even more to who I am, what I am, my faith, my
faith. 

It’s a spiritual connection. I am trying to reach
perfection. It’s a spiritual connection. I am trying
to reach perfection. Perfection. What a blessing! 

I am testing the waters. I am swimming in sound.
I am dealing with something that is so profound.
Profound. Profound. Profound. 

It’s like John Coltrane with his tenor sax. It’s
like Miles Davis with his horn. It’s like Thelonious

Monk with his piano. The words have to flow, to flow,
to flow, to flow. Of energy and electricity of the third

degree I am letting go.

 

This is a pilgrimage on the page, a poet on a stage,
an angry man finding peace within his rage. A caged
bird being freed through words, through words, through
words.

 

Preferred is the pen. I write hip-hop rhymes and poetic
hymns. Poetic hymns.

 

The spiritual release makes me want to clasp my hands
in prayer form. I am reborn. I perform. I am reborn. I
perform. I am reborn. I perform. I am reborn from

 

The clutches of poverty; the many dreams deferred;

Martin Luther King Jr’s dream hasn’t come true;
In the ghettos in urban communities, we still sing the blues;
The Ebola news on National Public Radio;
What happened to Eric Garner and Michael Brown;
I stopped watching television to drown out the sounds
I stopped watching television to drown out the sounds.

 

I am reborn through my nieces’ and nephews’ smiles;
I am reborn through a blend of activism and Unitarian
Universalism; I am reborn through universal love, the
hugs of friends and strangers; I am reborn through collectives
of people fighting for justice, because it is still Just Us!

And faith is at the very core of my rebirth – from my
poetical ministry to meeting and marching for Earth.
Faith helps me put this all into perspective. Faith pushes
me forward, faith helps me think of a better future, faith
wraps its arms around me and lets me know everything
is going to be all right. Faith is in everything that I say,
and in everything that I write. Faith is in everything that
I say, and in everything that I write. 

I am reborn, I have found my indigenous soul
Maintaining balance, remaining disciplined and in
control. I am reborn. I perform. I am reborn. I perform.

May We Have Faith

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

UU WorldAs many of you know, I serve on the board of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. Along with the boards of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, our board has moved the location of its March, 2015 meeting to Birmingham, AL in order to be present during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches. Those marches were a pivotal moment for the Civil Rights movement. As images of police and civilian violence against marchers appeared on countless televisions across the nation, they helped generate massive public support for passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Those marches were also pivotal for what was then a very young Unitarian Universalist Association, as hundreds of UU clergy and lay-people heeded Martin Luther King’s call to join the marchers. Two of those UUs—the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo—were murdered during the marches. For more insight into the significance of Selma to Unitarian Universalism, I commend to you the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed’s new book, Selma Awakening: How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalisma section of which appears in the Winter issue of UU World Magazine. I feel excited, honored, privileged and blessed to have the opportunity to be present in Alabama 50 years later.

A number of people have said—in a variety of ways—“That’s all well and good, but why aren’t you meeting in Ferguson?” I understand the question. For indeed, Ferguson has become the symbolic epicenter of American racism. What Selma became in the late winter of 1965, Ferguson has become in the summer and autumn of 2014. Indeed, the title of the cover story for that Winter issue of UU World is “Selma Then, Ferguson Now.”

If the St. Louis County Grand Jury decides not to indict Officer Wilson—and possibly even if it decides to indict—there will be a call for clergy from across the nation to travel to Ferguson. I plan to do everything in my power to go to there when the call comes, as do many of my colleagues. The reason for going is not only to bear witness to this particular decision, but to bear witness to the plight of young Black and Brown men in the United States of America. Not just police shootings, not just the gang shootings, not just the daily grind of urban street violence, but the criminalization of too many Black and Brown men, the mass incarceration of too many Black and Brown men, the unemployment of too many Black and Brown men, the failure to educate too many Black and Brown men. As Unitarian Universalist Association President, the Rev. Peter Morales, said after the shooting, “Ferguson is not about Ferguson. It is about the systematic dehumanizing of people all over America.” This reminds me of Dr. King’s assertion that “the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land.”[1]

Though Ferguson is the symbolic epicenter of American racism today, and though we need to pay attention to what is happening there, we also need to pay attention to the same dynamics as they manifest here, where we are, where we have a more immediate capacity to work for change. We need to pay attention to violence here, mass incarceration here, failing schools here, achievement gaps here, wealth gaps here, environmental racism here. Ferguson is not about Ferguson. It’s about all of us, about every American, about the health of our democracy, about fairness for all, justice for all, compassion for all, love for all.

Chris Sims offered us his new poem, “On Being: Reborn.” It’s a poem about knowing himself, finding his voice through his artistry, finding the sacred through his artistry, and then living in response to it, living in a way that brings more fairness, more justice, more compassion, more love into the world. He calls this faith.

My prayer for each of us is that we may have such faith—that we may know ourselves, find our own voice, find what is sacred to us, and live in response to it. My prayer for each of us is that we may have such faith—faith in ourselves, faith in each other, faith in our congregation, faith our nation, faith in humanity—so that we may wake up to the multifaceted human energy coming out of Ferguson—the pain, the rage, the struggle, the persistence, the community, the humor, the love, the caring, the commitment—so that we may wake up to all of it and channel it into our own efforts to make a difference right here, our own efforts to close that gap between what is legal and what is moral in the lives of young Black and Brown men. My prayer for each of us is that we may have such faith, faith  that we—this congregation, our Unitarian Universalist Association, our state, our nation—will heed the call coming out of Ferguson, MO and give birth, finally, to a more just, fair and loving society.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Quoted in Morrison-Reed, Mark, “Selma’s Challenge,” UU World (Winter, 2014) p. 33.

Interfaith Thanksgiving Service — November 23rd, 4:30 PM

Interfaith Thanksgiving Service

Manchester clergy and faith leaders will hold an Interfaith Thanksgiving service. All are warmly invited!

When: Sunday afternoon, November 23rd, 4:30 PM

Where: Temple Beth Shalom B’Nai Israel, 400 Middle Turnpike East, Manchester, CT

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

IFTS

A Sufficient Quantity of Faith

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Faith


In an interview with Krista Tippett for the American Public Media show “On Being,” Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints, said, “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals…. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”[1] She offers this thought as part of a broader, ongoing, playful yet pointed critique of American Protestantism, which she describes both as “Western individualism run amok in religion” and the “personal me-and-Jesus, how-I-feel, what-my-piety-is, [what]-my-personal-prayer-life-[is]—all of that stuff.”[2] As Unitarian Universalists it is easy to assume this critique doesn’t apply to us because, well, she’s not talking to us; she’s talking to Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, etc. We don’t get all the jokes about high church Christian theology, but that’s OK. Her message isn’t really for us.

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Except maybe it is. I actually think Bolz-Weber’s critique applies more to us than any other tradition, mainly because something at the heart of mid-19th-century Unitarianism—160, 170 years ago—something in its liberal world-view, its revolutionary spirit—something in its encounter with the artistry and theology of European Romanticism, something in it led many of our 19th-century Unitarian forebears to prioritize the individual spiritual search over and above the authority of the church. Something led the Unitarian-minister-turned-Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1841 to pen those enduring words, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”[3] Something led Emerson’s poetic descendent, Walt Whitman, in 1871 to contend “that only in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality may the spirituality of religion come forth at all.”[4] Something led the author and Unitarian minister, John Weiss, also in 1871, to declare that “America is an opportunity to make a Religion out of the sacredness of the individual.”[5]

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

While there were certainly Unitarians who prioritized the centrality of the church in this era, the emphasis on the sacredness of the individual began with us and still lives and breathes in Unitarian Universalism today. It may appear different than today’s American Protestant ‘me-and-Jesus’ individualism, but they share the same historical roots. This isn’t commonly understood, but current-day American Christianity has adapted its forms of individualistic spirituality from the Unitarians, Universalists, Transcendentalists and other liberal religionists of the mid-19th century.[6] So, what if faith isn’t given in sufficient quantity to individuals? What if faith is only given in sufficient quantity to communities? What might that mean for us?

Our November ministry theme is faith. The last time we used faith as a monthly theme was November, 2010. I recently re-read a sermon I preached on faith at that time, wondering how my thinking has evolved.[7] That sermon was helpful (I hope) in offering to UUs a more relevant definition of faith than the one the larger culture tends to use. If someone knocks at your door and wants to have a conversation about religion, you kinda know what they mean by faith. It likely has something to do with accepting Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior, plus the good news that such acceptance is the path to eternal life. Beneath that good news is almost always a set of doctrines about who Jesus is, who God is, and why their church understands these things correctly. This kind of faith requires us to accept propositions for which we have no evidence other than that “the Bible says it.” It requires us to believe the unbelievable. That’s the common definition of faith in our larger culture. It’s certainly a valid definition—not everything we believe must have a rational explanation.[8] But as inheritors of the 19th-century Unitarian appeal to the sacredness of the individual, we need a different definition.

door knocking

In that November, 2010 sermon I quoted Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, who says that the essence of faith, whetherconnected to a deity or not … lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.”[9] Similarly, the 20th century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, suggested that faith is the act of placing our confidence in something. He held no expectation that that something be unbelievable or other-worldly. He said “faith should take into account the realm of fact…. Every person is concerned with a basic fact, something in which one has confidence.”[10] This is a definition of faith that can work for people who don’t or can’t believe the unbelievable, for people who need their religious and spiritual lives to be grounded in a reality they can experience through their senses: through touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, smelling; through raising children, caring for others, working for a just society, or digging in dirt. This is a definition of faith that arises not from religious doctrines, but from the concrete experience of our daily lives, the realm of fact.

James Luther Adams

James Luther Adams

There is much in which we place our confidence. We are deeply faithful people. As I wrote in my November newsletter column, “we have faith in humanity, creativity, nature, love. We have faith in science, democracy, community, fairness, humility. We have faith in gratitude, children, education, diversity, the earth. We have faith in the seasons, the tides, the warmth of the sun, the darkness of night. We have faith in our neighbors, our principles, our interfaith partners, the words and deeds of prophetic people of all eras. We have faith in modern medicine, ancient healing arts, the comforting assurance of family and friends, the kindness of strangers. We have faith in reason, the power of speaking truth, compassion, honesty. Some have faith in God—a deep and sustaining faith. Some have faith in the ancestors—a deep and sustaining faith. And did I mention love? We put our faith in love.

When I invite you, at the beginning of worship, to find that place inside of you, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, that place where you may go when you yearn for peace, that place where you may go to commune with whatever is holy in your life, that place where you know your truth, where your voice is strong, I am asking you to remember what is most reliable to you. I am asking you to remember those things in which you place your highest confidence. I am asserting that we are people of faith just as much as those who come knocking on doors, or who stand on city street corners yelling, Repent! or who experience a personal, intimate relationship with their lord and savior. By locating that place inside of you, I am keeping continuity with our spiritual forebears. That mid-19th century tradition of honoring the sacredness of the individual remains vibrant among us. For me, our UU identity is so deeply embedded in this tradition that, were we to give it up, we would cease being who we are.

It’s also important to name that not just our UU identity, but a big part of the American identity is rooted in this individualistic tradition, so much so that, without it, we wouldn’t quite recognize America. It would take a series of sermons to unpack this claim, but if in recent years you’ve felt a shift in the American character, it may have to do not with the loss of this tradition but, as the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt contends, with its cooptation by market forces, with its commercialization, with what some call the “‘Oprahfication’ of American religion and culture…the spread of the feel-good spirituality that [Oprah] Winfrey urges upon her fans,”[11] and with what we might describe as the hyper-expressions of this tradition—narcissism and self-absorption that have eviscerated religious and civic connections[12] and, in my view, have spurred the rise of various religious fundamentalisms in the United States.

As far as I can tell, Nadia Bolz-Weber isn’t criticizing the individualistic spiritual tradition in American religion. In fact, she’s a shining example of it. But she is criticizing shallow, surface expressions of this tradition—“me and Jesus and all that stuff.” She’s criticizing the shadow side—the fact that we pay lip service to the sacredness of each individual but often don’t live as if it matters. She’s rightly wary about what individualism in religion can and has become. She understands how hyper-individualism in spiritual and secular settings has taken a toll on community cohesiveness. So, she asks all people of faith to take a TIME OUT! “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals…. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”

faith

You could hear this as a re-assertion of the authority of the church over the individual, a call to doctrinal conformity, but she has too many tattoos for that to be true. She’s offering a course correction to Western individualism run amok in religion. She’s calling for balance. She’s reminding us that individualism can only take us so far. No matter how sacred, precious, worthy, and profoundly beautiful each individual soul is, none of us can make it alone. She uses the example of the Apostles Creed, saying “nobody believes every line of the Creed…. But in a room [full] of people … for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right?”[13] It’s funny, not because it’s a joke, but because it’s true. As a Lutheran minister, she knows that were she to demand that every Lutheran believe every line of the Creed all the time, she would make Lutheranism inaccessible to people who need church in their lives but can’t believe in that “perfect” way. If I were to demand that each UU embody our principles perfectly all the time, I would similarly make Unitarian Universalism inaccessible to many.

The truth is we don’t bring our best selves to each new day. We don’t always live the ideals we aspire to live, let alone those our church calls us to live. We may come to church in profound pain, feeling wounded, broken, lost, empty, anxious or in despair from a difficult diagnosis, a lost job, lost memory, the death of a loved-one, a struggling child, a raging virus, an endless war, catastrophic climate change. Sometimes our faith fails. Whatever we place our confidence in can let us down, can go missing, can forsake us. Faith isn’t given in sufficient quantity to individuals. Sometimes we simply don’t have enough.

angst

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough. This is my evolution since 2010: Together we have enough. Faith is given to communities in sufficient quantities. Bolz-Weber says there are times she can’t adhere to the Biblical admonition to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. But, “if I’m at the point where I cannot pray for someone,” she says, “I will say ‘I cannot pray for this person, I really need you to do it for me.’”[14] That’s the power of community: if I can’t get there, there is someone else who can get there for me. There is someone else who can carry my faith until I’m able to carry it again.

This led me to reflect on the ways we’ve responded in worship to mass shootings. I’m remembering in particular the Hartford Distributors shooting in August, 2010 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December, 2012—both so close to us here in Manchester. These were worst-nightmares-come-true—the human potential for evil becoming real before our eyes. Many of us, myself included, felt our faith in humanity faltering in a very specific way. We questioned the validity of our first UU principle—the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In the aftermath of such shootings our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We say their names in worship. But what of the shooters? They have crossed a moral line, have launched themselves beyond the pale, have made themselves enemies in the Biblical sense. Our hearts don’t naturally go out to them. Instead we recoil at the thought of them. Yes, we are admonished to love the enemy. Yes, we UUs affirm the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person—but surely that doesn’t apply to these shooters? For so many of us it is enormously difficult to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of the perpetrator in the aftermath of horrendous evil. Even the act of just saying their name in worship feels like too much.  And yet there were people in our community in both instances who felt strongly that the names of the perpetrators needed to be said, that in addition to their crimes their deaths also needed acknowledgement. To name them in this way does not condone their crimes. It is simply to remember that they were human too. Though something went horribly wrong, they came into this world surrounded by hope and promise too, and their deaths—though different—are tragic too. These shootings were profoundly difficult moments for me, and I was so grateful to know others were keeping my faith for me.

hands

Someone will remember. Even when we can’t, someone will carry our faith for us. And there will be times when we maintain faith for others who can’t—after the difficult diagnosis, the lost job, the loss of memory, the death of a loved-one, as a child struggles, a virus rages, a war continues and climate changes. That compelling tradition of affirming the sacredness of the individual continues to live and breathe in our congregations. But there are times when it isn’t enough. When we come to those times, may we always remember: faith is given in sufficient quantity to communities. And in the midst of community, may we have faith.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] The text to this interview is posted at http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace. Or watch the interview at http://vimeo.com/73913123. The segment I refer to in this sermon begins at 1:08:53.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Self Reliance,” in Whicher, Stephen E., ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 149.

[4] Whitman, Walt, Democratic Vistas, quoted in Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 4.

[5] Ibid., vi.

[6] My primary resource for making this claim is Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

[7] Pawelek, Josh, “I Know This Rose Will Open: On Being a Person of Faith,” Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT,  November 14th, 2010:  http://uuse.org/i-know-this-rose-will-open-reflections-on-being-a-person-of-faith/#.VFOMF_nF-Sp.

[8] Ibid., third paragraph.

[9] Salzberg, Sharon, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002) p. xiii.

[10] Adams, James Luther in Beach, George K., ed, An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991) p. 21.

[11] Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 285.

[12] Schmidt names this phenomenon in the final chapter of Restless Souls. Another take on what I call the “shadow side” of the American tradition of spiritual individualism is Claude Fischer’s blog-post “Self-Absorbed” at http://madeinamericathebook.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/self-absorbed/.

[13] The text to this interview is posted at http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace. Or watch the interview at http://vimeo.com/73913123. The segment I refer to in this sermon begins at 1:08:53.

[14] Ibid.

Backpack Project with Community Partners in Action

backpackThe UUS:E Social Justice/Anti-Oppression committee is again collecting needed items for recently released prisoners during the month of November.  This program is a UUS:E partnership with Community Partners in Action, an agency which helps recently released prisoners begin their lives again with the best possible start in many areas of living.  Visit our table in the UUS:E lobby following Sunday services in November. A list of needed items can be found here

A Day With Feminism (or Why Abortion Rights Matter As Much as Ever!)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

First UU Church, New Orleans

First UU Church, New Orleans

Sunday, July 20th, members of the anti-abortion group Operation Save America (OSA) disrupted the worship service at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, threatening hell-fire, shouting scripture quotes and lecturing parishioners. OSA was in New Orleans for a week of protests, their primary focus being the construction of a new Planned Parenthood women’s health center. They protested at the construction site, the construction company headquarters, and the offices of contractors. On Sunday, since their regular targets were closed, OSA went to First UU which has been very supportive of the new clinic.[1]

My first reaction to hearing this news was anger that anyone would have the audacity to so blatantly disrespect someone else’s religious observance. Not only was it insensitive and mean, it was un-American. These anti-abortion activists demonstrated a complete inability to live well in a religiously pluralistic society. I disagree theologically, socially and politically with many religious world-views, but I cannot imagine ever disrupting someone else’s worship.

I’ve come to recognize since then that the worship disruption is a minor piece of two larger, related stories. Clearly, one larger story is about the many people who believe with every fiber of their being that abortion should not be legal under any circumstances, or only under extremely limited circumstances such as rape or incest. The Constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy was firmly established with the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. But it turns out there are a myriad of legal and illegal ways to subvert this right, and that is precisely what is happening in many states. A small number of anti-abortion activists will disrupt worship services. An even smaller number will murder doctors and medical staff who perform abortions. Some will engage in civil disobedience, blocking clinic entrances. Many more will protest at clinics without blocking entrances. Still more will lobby for laws that reduce access to abortions. Many more pray daily for abortions to end. That’s the first story: there is a large, well-organized, well-funded movement to contest this constitutional right. It’s been so successful in some states that, though the right exists, it is virtually impossible to exercise it.

I want to ease into the second larger story by naming some of our Unitarian Universalist history related to abortion and also my personal experience with abortion. I begin with a reminder that not every UU embraces abortion. There’s no political litmus test here, though I know it sometimes feels as if there is. Similarly, not every religious or political liberal, not every Democrat supports abortion rights, though it often feels that way because our country has become so politically polarized. The same can be said in reverse of political and religious conservatives, evangelicals, Catholics, Republicans, etc. Not all are against abortion, though it often feels that way. So, I think it’s important to say that it hasn’t always felt this way. A 2012 article by religion scholar Lela Dawson Scanzoni entitled “When Evangelicals Were Open to Differing Views on Abortion,” says, “there was a time in the not too distant past when the majority of Protestant Christians, including … evangelical[s], did not consider the point at which a fertilized ovum or developing embryo or fetus becomes a human being to be clearly defined, indisputable, and settled for all time. There was a time when different viewpoints were accepted and respected and did not serve as a litmus test to determine who was a “real” Christian. A time when many evangelicals thought that the United States Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision might be considered a good and compassionate ruling as it overturned the varied restrictive abortion laws of the states that so often drove desperate women to seek out illegal, unsafe, ‘back-alley’ abortions.”[2] The nation hasn’t always felt as polarized as it does today.

Having said that, it is true: a large majority of religious conservatives oppose abortion today. And it is true: Unitarian Universalists, for more than fifty years, have strongly supported efforts to make and keep abortion safe, legal and rare in the U.S. and Canada. We are a pro-choice denomination. I count at least twelve General Assembly resolutions in support of abortion rights since 1963. I note Unitarian Universalism’s groundbreaking efforts in faith-based sexuality education. I’m mindful of many UUs over the years who’ve worked to strengthen and preserve abortion rights, people such as the late Nancy Lou Lister, a member of this congregation who helped found and then directed the Connecticut affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League. I’m mindful of many Unitarian Universalists across the nation who volunteer as escorts or work as staff in clinics where abortions are performed.[3] I’m mindful of Retired Lt. Col. and Unitarian Universalist James H. Barrett, who was murdered in 1993 at a Pensacola, FL abortion clinic while escorting Dr. John Bayard Britton, who also died in the attack.[4]

We UUs have a vibrant and, at times, tragic legacy of personal and institutional engagement in the struggle for abortion rights. I am proud to inherit that legacy and consider myself firmly pro-choice. I also confess that at times I’ve felt ambivalent about being more vocal in this struggle. At times I’ve felt my pro-choice convictions were not entirely my own; that they were instilled in me by the many loving, pro-choice adults who raised and socialized me; that I didn’t come to them through my own moral reasoning, but rather through the reasoning of others. I was taught to be pro-choice, but not encouraged to question that identity. This absence of my own moral reasoning on abortion was fine when, because I had a car in college, on multiple occasions I drove friends to the city to have abortions. It was fine when I was living in Boston in the early 1990s and attended clinic defense actions with other UUs.

However, it was not fine—not at all—when my girlfriend became pregnant and chose to have an abortion. I was just out of college. I was in no position to start a family. It would have been very difficult to become a father at that time in my life. Though I don’t remember if I voiced it at the time, I know in my heart I hoped my girlfriend would terminate the pregnancy. I remember saying I would be supportive no matter what decision she made. I understood it was her decision and I would not violate the sanctity of that decision. She knew pretty quickly she did not want to continue the pregnancy. We were both relieved when the procedure was over.

I didn’t talk about it to anyone. Though I was relieved, I was also embarrassed. After all, I was raised UU. I had taken the About Your Sexuality class in 8th grade. I knew about safe sex. This was not supposed to happen to me. I also felt shame. Looking back, my pro-choice upbringing had prepared me to honor my girlfriend’s decision, and that’s a good thing. But it had not prepared me to wrestle with the profound and conflicting emotions that arise both in the decision-making process and in the aftermath of that decision. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but there was a part of me that could have benefitted emotionally and spiritually from hearing the voices of people who are morally opposed to abortion, people who believe it really is the taking of a human life—not their ridicule or their judgment, but their heart-felt conviction. In opening myself up to their point of view I would have had more room to engage in my own moral reasoning. I could have come to my own conclusion regardless of what my girlfriend decided. I would have honored her choice no matter what, but I also would have been more in touch with my own feelings. I needed that. All I had learned growing up was that those anti-choice people are wrong, misguided. It’s the woman’s choice and that’s final. Great for political posturing, but not for personal moral reasoning, not for digging deep into what it really meant to me.

debateEpiscopal priest, the Rev. Martin Elfert says our national entrenchment on the question of abortion is a shame. “Both the Christian movement and our wider society are impoverished by the absence of a vigorous and mutually respectful conversation around this question.”[5] The incredibly bitter polarization we experience around abortion serves none of us. Women and their partners who find themselves in the heart-wrenching position of having to decide whether or not to end a pregnancy need to hear all sides of the argument so they can make the best decision possible for them. And if the decision is to terminate the pregnancy, they must be able to do so not with fear of ridicule and judgment, but with room to mourn, space to speak openly about what the experience has meant for them, and support from loving family, friends and spiritual communities. I, for one, promise that my office is a safe space for these things to happen. And I trust this congregation is such a safe place as well. No shame. No isolation. Just love.

I don’t feel shame today, though my grief lingers. I am aware from time to time, that there was an unintended pregnancy for which I was jointly responsible; that that pregnancy could have come to term; that there could be another person in the world today; that I would be their father, and my life would be radically different. Rev. Elfert says, “There are times when we do the right thing but we still need to mourn. That can happen when we name out loud … that a marriage has died…. It can happen when we choose to say ‘no’ to a manipulative loved one. And, assuredly, it can happen when a woman chooses to end a pregnancy.”[6]

I’ve been reflecting here on my personal experience and recognizing a personal emotional and spiritual need for a deeper, more productive conversation between the pro- and anti-abortion moral positions because I believe such conversation, in a non-judgmental setting, will help women and their partners makes the best possible decision for them. But please don’t mistake my call for greater dialgoue at a personal level for the suggestion that the erosion of the constitutional right to have an abortion is somehow OK. It’s not.

The reason it’s not brings me to the second larger story in which abortion plays one role among many other characters. We still live in a culture in which it is OK to question whether or not a woman’s body belongs exclusively to her, and to behave as if it doesn’t. We still live in a culture in which women don’t have complete freedom to make what are often heart-wrenching, deeply spiritual choices about: their own reproductive health, contraception, family planning, abortion, neo-natal care, childcare, dating, getting married, staying married, taking sick leave, taking maternity leave, when and with whom to have sex, reporting rape, spousal abuse or child abuse, and whether or not to stay in a job where they equal payearn less than their male colleagues for doing the same work. That’s just the beginning of the list. We cannot have a real and honest conversation about abortion in our nation because women’s control over their own bodies, their families and their livelihoods is still contested at the highest levels of government and society. We have church invasions, clinic closings, bans on medically proven contraceptives, corporations masquerading as people of faith to deny insurance coverage for contraceptives to their female employees, unequal pay for equal work, widespread rape in the home, on the street and on college campuses and among professional football players because as a nation we still haven’t accepted that basic feminist premise that women are human beings. We haven’t yet had, as our reading from Manifesta proclaimed earlier, a day with feminism.[7]

The idea that abortion is morally wrong should be accessible to anyone who is contemplating the termination of a pregnancy. It will help them make the best decision possible for them. But given the way our culture still treats women, banning abortion or access to it through the courts, statutes, the closing of clinics, or the harassment and even murder of clinic personnel is sexist, an ongoing chapter in the story of American misogyny, because it denies women exclusive control over their own bodies. It is a morally bankrupt strategy to work for the abolition of abortion and lift no finger in support of women, their children or their families. To ban abortion without supporting universal, comprehensive sexuality education is a moral contradiction. To ban abortion without making highly effective contraception universally available is a moral contradiction. To ban abortion without establishing laws and policies that provide generous parental leave as well as affordable day care is a moral contradiction. To ban abortion without demanding equal pay for equal work and a living wage for all workers is a moral contradiction. To ban abortion without first ending the American culture of rape is not only a moral contradiction, it is morally reprehensible.

rape culture

Everything I’m naming here—sex education, contraception, maternity leave, day care, equal pay, ending rape—these are the ways to make legal abortion extraordinarily rare. So here’s my proposal: Let’s work for those things first. Let’s have a day with feminism first. Actually, no; let’s have 25 years with feminism first. And then let’s talk about the legality of abortion. My guess is there’ll be nothing to talk about.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show presented the story of the church invasion on July 29th in the second half of this segment: http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/watch/anti-abortion-extremists-violate-church-313460291585. A year earlier, when the organizers of the clinic’s groundbreaking ceremony had to move the event indoors due to rain, they moved it to First UU. You can find pictures online of Planned Parenthood leaders and city officials wearing hard hats and holding shovels inside First UU at http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/05/planned_parenthood_kicks_off_c.html.

[2] Scanzoni, Letha Dawson, “When Evangelicals Were Open to Differing Views on Abortion,” (Christian Feminism Today, Sept. 2012): http://www.eewc.com/FemFaith/evangelicals-open-differing-views-abortion.

[3] This Center for American Progress interview with the Rev. Kathleen Green is an example of Unitarian Universalist involvement with clinics where abortions are performed: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/religion/news/2014/05/01/88781/minister-and-clinic-escort-an-interview-with-rev-kathleen-green/. This sermon by the Rev. Tamara Lebak is another good example: http://www.allsoulschurch.org/Websites/AllSouls/images/Sermons/2012_sermons/06-10-12_A_Womb_of_One_s_Own.pdf.

[4] The story as it was reported in the Baltimore Sun is at http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1994-08-03/news/1994215043_1_annapolis-chapter-barrett-retired-officers.

[5] One of the more beautiful and powerful articles I’ve encountered on the subject of abortion is Elfert, Martin, “How Can I Say I Believe in God and in the Decision I’ve Made,” Religious News Service (Dec. 17th, 2013). See:   http://www.religionnews.com/2013/12/17/father-knows-best-can-say-believe-god-decision-ive-made/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Baumgardner, Jennifer and Richards, Amy, “A Day With Feminism” in Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) pp. 315-321.

Four Reflections on Atonement

Rev. Josh Pawelek


leavesA Reflection on Atonement: Teshuvah For UUs?

Our October ministry theme is atonement—making amends for whatever pain or hurt, large or small, we have caused in others; acknowledging our imperfections; correcting our mistakes; offering genuine apology; offering forgiveness to those who apologize to us; moving back across the borders that have kept us separated and isolated from each other; seeking reconciliation with whatever it is we regard as most holy. We select this theme at this time of year in part as a way of seeing and valuing Judaism and Jewish tradition. The Jewish High Holy days—the “Days of Awe”—occur in late summer or early autumn every year. This year they concluded yesterday, October 4th, with Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement.” In a message to children about the “Days of Awe,” author and Rabbi Malka Drucker[1] says, “these are delicate days, when people look at the year that has passed and face up to their mistakes, errors in judgment, or wrongdoings. This is called teshuvah, which means return.”[2] I understand return in this sense to mean a return to right relationship, a return to community, a return to God. Teshuvah is also often translated as repentance meaning, again, making amends, offering apology, seeking forgiveness for wrongdoing. 

I also understand the experience of teshuvah during the Days of Awe as an opportunity for Jews to not only repair external relationships, but to repair the relationship one has with oneself—to return to one’s true self, to regain grounding, to regain wholeness, to once again recognize and speak one’s own voice. It seems repairing one’s relationship with oneself and repairing one’s external relationships are intertwined. We might say it is difficult to forgive others if one hasn’t forgiven oneself. I found a poem from Rabbi Burt Jacobsson entitled “Prayer Before Yom Kippur,” which expresses this aspect of teshuvah: “I now prepare / to unify my whole self— / heart / mind/ consciousness / body / passions / with this holy community / with the Jewish people everywhere / with all people everywhere /with all life and being / to commune with the Source of all being. / May I find the words, / the music, the movements / that will put me in touch / with the great light of God. / May the rungs of insight and joy /that I reach in my devotion /flow from me to others / and fill all my actions in the world.”[3]

I mentioned in my October newsletter column that it’s somewhat of a cliché for Unitarian Universalist clergy, myself included, to point out at this time of year that we UUs don’t have a spiritual practice akin to teshuvah.  We don’t have a set of rituals for atonement, let alone a Day of Atonement. In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that we ought to somehow copy what Jews do. Generally speaking, Unitarian Universalists are not rigorously ritualistic in our collective spiritual life, and it may be too out-of-spiritual-character for us to create and engage in such rituals.  But not having such a ritual should in no way imply that we don’t need a practice of atonement in our lives.

It is indeed part of the human condition to find ourselves from time to time—and sometimes for extended periods of time, if not permanently—out of right relationship with family members, friends, work-colleagues, neighbors; out of right-relationship with ourselves;  and indeed, out of right relationship with whatever it is we regard as most holy. It is part of the human condition to find ourselves bearing grudges, unable to let go of past hurts, harboring anger, resentment, hatred. It is part of the human condition to find ourselves feeling isolated, separated, alienated from whatever it is we regard as holy. And, odd but true, we can and do dedicate enormous energy to keeping our broken relationships broken. This is not new to the human condition. It is an ancient human experience. It makes perfect sense to me that the ancient Hebrew priests would place rituals of atonement at the center of their highest holy day. It makes perfect sense to me that we modern Unitarian Universalists would recognize the importance of cultivating religious and spiritual identities that invite us to atone in response to those moments when we falter.  

How can we return to right relationship given our inevitable propensity to miss the mark, to make mistakes, to hurt others’ feelings, to misunderstand, to react out of anger?” That’s the question I feel we are continually called to answer in our own lives, in our congregation, and in the world. It’s a question that has gone missing from the public sphere. An obvious example is the politician who refuses to acknowledge an ethics violation, even as they walk through the prison gates; or perhaps the spate of recent revelations of professional football players behaving abusively towards spouses and children. I wonder if such high-profile unwillingness to admit wrongdoing sets a tone for the wider society, or if the wider society has somehow set an “I did nothing wrong” tone for its leaders and celebrities to adopt. Either way, the question has gone missing. How do we bring it back and cement it in our spiritual lives? How do we say I’m sorry when I’m sorry is what’s really needed?

leavesA Second Reflection on Atonement: On Avoiding Conflict Avoidance 

I’ve mentioned before from this pulpit that I’m an adult child of an alcoholic, an ACOA. As I think many of you know, one of the unfortunate and false lessons children sometimes learn in families in which one or both parents struggle with addiction is that nothing can go wrong. That is, as long as nothing goes wrong, the family system won’t get out of control, won’t become dangerous, won’t become embarrassing, etc. That’s a general statement. It’s always more complicated than that, and I don’t want to suggest for a minute that as I child I never did anything wrong. But in looking back on my childhood—especially my adolescent years—through the lens of ACOA literature, I recognize I was one of those kids who was motivated to do well in school and extracurricular activities in part because I didn’t want to upset the family system. I didn’t want to be the cause of any extra stress. I didn’t want to rock the boat.

I also became the kind of kid and, eventually, the kind of adult, who’s instinct in the event that something did or does go wrong, is to smooth it over as quickly as possible. Make it go away. It’s dangerous. Today I joke that I wish my own kids would be more like this—start showing a little more motivation; stop adding undue stress to our family system; and when something goes wrong, please, please, please show me you’d like to see it smoothed over—at least a little. Please? But I also know that if a child lives in a home where they can’t make mistakes, where they can’t miss the mark, where they can’t hurt others’ feelings, where they can’t be a jerk from time to time, it’s much harder for them to learn the use of those two blessed words, “I’m sorry.” Effective parents don’t raise children who never misbehave. Effective parents raise children who, when they do misbehave, know how to take responsibility for their actions and apologize.

For the person who’s learned to avoid conflict for whatever reason, or the person who has learned to make conflict go away as quickly as possible, it strikes me that this these character traits—at least as I encounter them in myself—make it challenging to accept and live with the inevitability of disagreement and conflict in human communities. I can see this now, though I remember when I began in ministry, despite having conflict management training, I really thought my job was to just make conflict go away. So, instead of always trying to ensure that nobody’s feelings get hurt in the first place, I’ve come to understand it is much more healthy, much more life-giving, much more spiritually sound to embrace the reality that we may hurt each other from time to time. This means that knowing how to apologize is an essential skill. When we enter into conflicts, we need to do so fully expecting that at some point along the way we will either be offering an apology, offering forgiveness or both.

We need the possibility for atonement.

The absence of any possibility for atonement makes human conflict terrifying. The presence of that possibility makes human conflict palatable and even productive.

In the absence of any possibility for atonement, we are forced to conclude that broken relationships will remain broken, separation will remain separation, isolation will remain isolation. The presence of that possibility assures us that broken relationships can be restored, separation and isolation can be overcome.

In the absence of any possibility for atonement, our first chance, it turns out, was our only chance. There is no new beginning. But in the presence of that possibility, we get second chances. We can keep trying until we get it right. We can always begin again in love. 

Autumn BirdsA Third Reflection on Atonement: “Micro-Atonements”

I’m calling this reflection “Micro-Atonements,” but I originally called it “I Didn’t Mean It That Way,” in reference to that gut response we may sometimes have when someone informs us we’ve hurt them or crossed some line they find problematic.

“What you did hurt me.” “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“That’s a racist thing to say.” “Oh, no, not at all. You don’t understand what I mean.”

“That was harsh.” “Well, I didn’t intend to be harsh.”

“You didn’t do what you said you were going to do.” “Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying.”

“Your response sounds sexist.” “Oh please, I don’t have a sexist bone in my body.”

“Stop making fun of me.” “I’m not trying to make fun of you.”

“Ughh, please don’t keep saying that. You’re making me angry.” “That’s not my intent.”

“It just feels homophobic to me.” “No, you’re not hearing me correctly. This isn’t that.”

“Ouch, that stung.” “That’s not how I meant it.”

When you tell me I hurt you, it is quite possible that my gut response will be to deny that I hurt you, to try to absolve myself of any wrong-doing before you’ve had a chance to explain. I don’t experience myself as a hurtful person, so it just isn’t possible that I hurt you. I know I didn’t intend to hurt you, so clearly you’ve misunderstood, misheard, mis-interpreted what I’ve said or done. My intentions are good, so your hurt isn’t justified. Frankly, it isn’t even real. Get over it. Surely, if I explain that I didn’t mean it that way, your hurt will go away.

This gut response comes from multiple sources. In me, it may have something to do with the way our society socializes boys to turn away from emotion. It may have something to do with being an ACOA and wanting to make any negative or difficult emotion vanish as quickly as possible. It may have something to do with being a perfectionist, with not wanting to admit that I, too, can make mistakes. I’m sure it also has something to do with being white, male and heterosexual in a society that privileges white, male, heterosexual people, and thus not fully understanding how deep racism, sexism and homophobia go, or how they are experienced in the tiny things we say and do that we don’t know we’re saying and doing. By the way, the term for those tiny sayings and doings is ‘micro-aggressions.” They are indeed small—“no big deal,” we might say in our own defense—but they add up through the course of a day, a year, a life.

If this gut response to defend exists in you, it may have similar origins to those I am describing for myself. It may have other origins. Regardless of where it comes from, in my experience, most of us say these kinds of things from time to time when confronted with the negative impact we’ve had on someone else, no matter how unintentional. “You hurt me.” Well, that wasn’t my intent.”

But in this gut response lives the seeds of more hurt, the seeds of distance, separateness, isolation. It took me a long time to figure this out—and I am still figuring it out: the fact that I didn’t mean to hurt you, doesn’t mean you weren’t hurt. The fact that it wasn’t my intent to cause you pain, doesn’t mean your pain isn’t real. Telling you “I didn’t mean it that way,” is equivalent to saying “your feelings are wrong.” It’s an attempt to end the conflict without actually doing the work of reconciliation. When someone is hurt, before we explain ourselves, we need to tend to the hurt. Those two blessed words, “I’m sorry,” spoken with love and care, more often than not, will be sufficient to begin repairing the breach. But not “I’m sorry” with sarcasm, not with a rolling of the eyes, not with a huff and a sigh, not with a tone that suggests I’m only saying this because I know you need to hear it but I don’t really feel it; and not “I’m sorry, but….” And not, “I’m sorry that you misunderstood my intentions.” Just two words: “I’m sorry.” Let’s call this micro-atonement.

I know this isn’t a perfect science, but I’ve come to trust that when we acknowledge and honor another’s feelings, when we say “I’m sorry,” they have a much better chance of hearing and believing that causing pain was not our intent. And we also have a much better chance of learning how our words and actions have power beyond our intent.

bombingA Final Reflection on Atonement: If We Must Go To War

The United States of America and its allies are at war with a barbaric and, in my view, pathological enemy calling itself the Islamic State. I won’t rehearse here the events that led to this war as I trust they are widely known in this room. What I hope to do in a few minutes is describe my own struggle to come to terms with the idea that this war is necessary.

I am deeply suspicious of American war-making in our era. My suspicion emerges when I detect the possibility that American or multinational corporations stand to profit from our war-making. I don’t agree that innocent people anywhere ought to suffer—that is, have their cities or villages bombed, lose their homes, lose all their worldly possessions, be driven into mountains, deserts and swamps, driven across borders, driven into refugee camps, experience starvation, dehydration and disease, lose limbs, see friends and family members die—simply because a corporation’s interests are threatened or because a corporation stands to make a profit. Whenever there is a justifiable reason to go to war, i.e., ending fascism in Europe and Japan or stopping genocide, I know there will always be those who profit—some corporate entity must produce the weapons used in fighting the war. But all too often I fear our leaders allow the discernment process to go in reverse: the lust for profit comes first, and the moral (and often thin) justification for war (recall Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction) comes second.

I don’t feel suspicion toward our war against the Islamic State. I feel fear, anger and sadness, but not suspicion.  I feel fear particularly when I learn of the arrest of a cell of Islamic State operatives in Australia who were planning to conduct random kidnappings and beheadings. I wonder: was that really what it was? It’s not completely clear. But if that’s what it was, I wonder further: have such cells already formed in Europe, in the United States? I wonder also about the Khorasan Group—not part of the Islamic State—whose base near Aleppo, Syria the United States bombed last week, citing the presence of an imminent threat to the United States. I want to believe these threats are not so real, that this talk is an inflation of a much more distant threat. The word “threat” raises suspicions for me. Is this just the government and the media attempting to build public support for the war—by frightening us into believing there is a direct threat to us? I also know that when the government and the media talk about threats to the “homeland” from radical Islamist groups, there is almost always an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment and a violation of the civil rights of Muslims in the United States. Allegations of threats are immensely complicated. I never quite believe they are as imminent as we hear. But my heart also remembers: it’s happened before. What if the threats are real this time? And I feel fear.

I feel anger at the litany of atrocities the Islamic State has committed—killing, raping, disfiguring, destroying sacred sites, attacking religious minorities, viciously silencing opposing viewpoints, enslaving women, marrying girls to multiple fighters at a time, and lying again and again about the teachings of Islam. I fully accept that people across the Middle East are angry at the United States, other western nations, and corrupt Middle Eastern regimes for a century of colonial oppression. Fight if you must—I get that. But the wonton slaughter of innocents invalidates the grievances you have against perceived enemies; and it demands a principled response from the global community.

I feel deep sadness that we are dropping bombs again on Iraq and anew in Syria—sadness in response to the loss of life, especially the innocents who will become our collateral damage statistics; sadness in response to the money and resources we’re dedicating to war-making that are so desperately needed in our own nation; sadness about the long-term psychological and spiritual damage American war-making does to us, let alone the damage it does abroad; and sadness at the thought that I hate war, that I take to heart Dr. King’s warning that “returning violence for violence multiplies violence.”[4] And yet when I weigh every fact I can learn about this situation—and I acknowledge I don’t know all the facts—I come to the heart-wrenching conclusion that we cannot abandon the millions of people who live in Iraq and Syria to this barbarous tyranny; that there is no solution other than to meet these atrocities not only with every available economic and diplomatic tool, but with resounding military force. I can barely imagine myself saying such a thing; but a chaotic, relentless, brutal and unfeeling spirit drives the Islamic State. I know of no word to name it other than evil. I am not suspicious of our intentions in this new-old war. I am fearful, angry, sad and resigned. The fact that so many traditional antiwar voices on the American left have not spoken out forcefully against this war leads me to speculate that there are many others who feel similarly.  

War, more than any other human endeavor, destroys relationships, creates separation, dehumanizes, murders. What I long to be assured of now is that there will be some way to atone for the violence we are perpetuating.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister and committed pacifist who joined a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler said this about his own embrace of violence to confront evil: “The ultimate question for a responsible [person] to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”[5] I don’t know enough about this quote to say for sure what Bonhoffer meant by it, but it speaks to me today about this war that feels so tragically necessary. If we must pursue it, let us do so in a way that minimizes the killing of innocents—let that be our first principle of engagement. If we must pursue it, let it not define us as a people. Let it not become who we are as a nation. Let it not obscure and decimate our vision of a more just, peaceful and fair world. Indeed may that vision—not this war—serve as the moral foundation for the coming generations; and may we who live now do everything in our power to make it so. In this way, may we begin to atone for all the wrongs that will surely come with this  new-old war.

Amen and blessed be.

hope

[1] Malka Drucker’s website is at http://www.malkadrucker.com/.

[2] Drucker, Malka, The Family Treasury of Jewish Holidays (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1994) p. 5.

[3] Jacobson, Burt, “A Prayer Before Yom Kippur,” is posted at Velveteen Rabbi, http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2014/10/before-yom-kippur.html.

[4] King,Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 62.

[5] Carroll, James, “Who Is Jesus Today? Bonhoffer, Tillich, and the Future of Jesus Christ” Harvard Divinity School Bulletin (Summe/Autumn 2014) p. 46. See: http://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/summerautumn2014/who-jesus-today.

 

Taking Your Faith to Work

Rev. Josh Pawelek

water coolerI’m calling this sermon “Taking Your Faith to Work,” though it’s a misleading title because there are so many different understandings of what it means to have faith and what it might mean to take it out into the world to such places as work (paid or volunteer), or the gym, the senior center, the playground, the mall, the soccer field—any place you might interact with other people. Josh and Christine Hawks-Ladds purchased this sermon at our 2013 Goods and Services Auction. After speaking with Josh about it, and then proposing this title, he said it wasn’t really what they’d had in mind.” If I understood Josh correctly, to him having faith suggested having a set of solid theological beliefs—belief in God, belief in certain doctrines about the nature of God, and perhaps a strongly felt mission to convince others of the existence of that God. That is certainly one way to understand faith. Taking that kind of faith to work would imply looking for opportunities to talk to co-workers about your beliefs and to try to persuade them to join you. A better title for that sermon might be “Proclaiming Your Faith at Work” or “Proselytizing in the Work-Place.” For us it might sound like, “Hey, let me tell you about the seven Unitarian Universalist principles.” Which you can do. But this isn’t that sermon.

Josh also mentioned last June’s Supreme Court decision in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby.[1] The Court decided in favor of the Hobby Lobby owners—the Green family—and the Conestoga Wood Specialties owners—the Hahn family—who petitioned for a faith-based exemption from the Affordable Care Act mandate that corporations pay for employee health insurance that covers contraception. The Greens, who are Evangelical Christians, and the Hahns, who are Mennonites, argued that the mandate forced them to violate their faith by paying for what they believe are abortions caused by certain contraceptives. Later in October I will preach about the slow erosion of reproductive rights in the United States and will likely look more closely at the Hobby Lobby decision. For now, I offer that decision as another possible interpretation of “Taking Your Faith to Work,” in this case by using the courts to impose your faith on your 21,000 employees regardless of the dictates of their faith. A better title for that sermon might be “Explaining Your Boss’s Faith to Your Doctor” or just “Losing Access to Medical Coverage for Scientifically-Proven Methods of Family Planning Because of Your Boss’s Faith.” (If you’re wondering about these titles, I found Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian’s July 7th analysis of the Hobby Lobby decision very helpful.) This is not that sermon.

“Taking Your Faith to Work” could also refer to the way faith-based activists might speak out along that sometimes murky and sometimes not-so-murky line where a company’s drive to make profits runs afoul of social or environmental justice values. An agri-business sprays pesticides on crops to increase yields, but in doing so it slowly poisons groundwater. An energy company invests in fracking—an economic boon to struggling regional economies—but may be generating any number of negative environmental and health consequences. Mining companies profit by their failure to comply with safety regulations; banks make home loans to families that have no chance of paying them back; fast-food chains, big retailers and some nursing homes derive huge profits by not paying their employees a living wage. People of faith, including Unitarian Universalists, are often moved to engage in public protests or shareholder actions in an effort to curtail corporate behavior that risks the health, safety, and livelihood of their workers and the larger community. That sermon might be called “Prioritizing the Common Good at Work.” This isn’t that sermon.

Many people of faith showed up in support of workers striking for higher wages at a Hartford McDonald's in early September, 2014.

Many people of faith showed up in support of workers striking for higher wages at a Hartford McDonald’s in early September, 2014.

So, what sermon is this? Josh said he feels that being part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation has brought an element of civility and spirituality to his everyday life, including his work life. Being a Unitarian Universalist has reminded him that we are all part of one larger community, that the ancient idea of the commons matters; and because of that we have to treat everyone respectfully; we have to honor the inherent worth and dignity of each person, even if we sense others aren’t honoring our worth, even if we experience others as uncaring, callous, selfish, insensitive. This is hard. We know, at times, we fail mightily. Josh reflected on his maturation as a lawyer, saying he didn’t always have the tools and grounding to deal with difficult people in a civil way. “My emotions got the best of me,” he said.

Given our propensity to fail, Josh asks, “When the slings and arrows of the workplace are being thrown at you, how do you respond as a Unitarian Universalist?” How do you treat others? How do you act? At our best, how ought Unitarian Universalists show up at work (whether paid or volunteer), and I would add at the gym, the senior center, the playground, the mall, the soccer field—any place we interact with other people?  That is this sermon. It’s not about how you articulate Unitarian Universalism to others. It’s not, “Hey, let me tell you about the seven principles of my faith.” “Taking Your Faith to Work,” the way I’m using it, means living, acting, behaving in such a way that your religious values have a beneficial impact on people’s lives. Ultimately this isn’t just about Unitarian Universalists; it’s about any person of faith—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, etc. Faith, in this sense, is a belief, a conviction, an expectation that our deepest values matter and will make a difference if we keep them at the center of everything we do. Faith is also a confidence that as we let our values guide our interactions, others will experience us—and we will experience ourselves—as more grounded, more whole, more fully human.

Earlier I read an excerpt from a talk by columnist David Brooks entitled “Should You Live for Your Résumé … or Your Eulogy?”[2] He says, “The résumé virtues are the ones you put on your résumé, which are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that get mentioned in the eulogy, which are deeper: who are you, in your depth, what is the nature of your relationships, are you bold, loving, dependable, consistent? And most of us, including me, would say that the eulogy virtues are the more important of the virtues. But at least in my case, are they the ones that I think about the most? And the answer is no.”

By the way, the eulogy is the statement we make at a memorial service about the person who has died. It’s the telling of their life—not just the chronology of their life events, but the stories that name what mattered most to them. “He loved us. We knew it because he would always stop what he was doing to spend time with us.” “She was so reliable. If she said she was going to do something, she did it. And if you said you were going to do something, she would hold you to your word.” The eulogy attempts to capture the essence of the person—their beliefs, their convictions, their values—which, in my mind, can very simply be called their faith.

I was drawn to Brooks’ talk for this particular Sunday because he mentions Adam, as in Adam the Biblical first man. Recall that Jews celebrated Rosh Hashanah this week. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, marks the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days. In Jewish tradition it celebrates the creation of the world, the creation of Adam and Eve, and the special relationship between God and humanity. In his talk Brooks draws on the 20th-century Orthodox rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s 1965 book, The Lonely Man of Faith,[3]in which he reflects on two distinct characterizations of Adam in the Hebrew book of Genesis. Yes, there are two Adams. I won’t explain this in detail, but suffice it to say that a scholarly or historical critical reading of Genesis reveals the work of multiple authors whose words were compiled over the centuries into one Biblical narrative.[4] The first chapter of Genesis describes the creation of the world differently than the second. The first chapter describes God differently than the second. The first chapter describes Adam differently than the second. Rabbi Soloveitchik used those differences to reflect on what he felt were two, often competing natures in modern human beings.

I haven’t read Lonely Man of Faith, but based on what I’ve read about it, I think I see the distinction Rabbi Soloveitchik was making. Adam 1—the Adam in Genesis 1—is created at the same time as Eve. “So God created humankind in God’s image … male and female God created them.”[5] They are the first humans. God tells them: “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion … over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”[6] Adam 2, the Adam in Genesis 2, is created alone. Eve comes later. There’s no reference to being created in God’s image. God simply forms Adam from the dust of the ground. Nor does God charge him to subdue the earth or to have dominion over every living thing. God puts Adam 2 in the garden to “till it and keep it.”[7] And then God recognizes: “it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”[8]

Adam from Dust

What I take from my reading of these Biblical words in modern English is this: Adam 1 at his best is creative, innovative, a builder. Rabbi Soloveitchik called him “Majestic Man.”  David Brooks says Adam I is the worldly, ambitious, external side of our nature. He wants to know how things work. He savors success and accomplishment. He wants to conquer the world.[9]  Brooks links this nature to the current values of the work place and the culture at large. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these values, but there are risks that accompany them. Adam 1 can be dominating—that is his divine charge, after all. He can take relationships for granted, undervaluing them, for he has never experienced what it means to be alone. Adam 1’s pragmatism may outweigh other human values like listening, compassion and empathy. Others may experience him as heartless.

Adam 2 at his best is humble. He’s not here to subdue the earth, but to keep and tend the garden. And because he has known loneliness, he values relationships differently than Adam 1. He takes others more fully into account. He listens. He is compassionate. Rabbi Soloveitchik called him“Covenantal Man.”Brooks says “Adam II is the humble side of our nature. [He] wants not only to do good but to be good, to live in a way internally that honors God, creation and our possibilities….  [He] wants to hear a calling and obey the world.  [He] savors inner consistency and strength. [While] Adam I asks how things work. Adam II asks why we’re here. [Where] Adam I’s motto is ‘success.’ Adam II’s motto is ‘love, redemption and return.’”[10]

I hear in David Brooks’ talk a deep sadness that the eulogy virtues and the values that underlie them are so absent from our dominant culture. He says “We happen to live in a society that favors Adam I, and often neglects Adam II. And the problem is, that turns you into a shrewd animal who treats life as a game, and you become a cold, calculating creature who slips into a sort of mediocrity.”[11] I hear him longing for a different kind of interaction, a different way of treating the other—not just in the work place but everywhere— the gym, the senior center, the playground, the mall, the soccer field, even the battle field. At our best, as Unitarian Universalists, as liberal religious people, as people of faith who covenant around the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, I think we’re in a position to respond well to that longing; to take our faith out to the world—to let the eulogy virtues shine in the midst of a culture that not only shuns them, but desperately needs them.

The ancient Hebrew writer said “God formed man from the dust of the ground.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I try to remember these bodies we inhabit all come from the dust of the ground, and all return in time to the dust of the ground. We are dust. And knowing this truth—coming to terms with it, feeling it deeply, feeling the profound loneliness that can accompany  it—calls us, I believe, to a place of humility. The Latin humus—ground—is also the root word for humility.

We are dust

When I speak of taking your UU faith to work, I imagine humility as the central hallmark of that faith. It is utterly difficult to recognize and honor the worth of others without humility. What does that look like? It looks like many things: patience; a willingness to listen; an ethic of inclusion; a practice of breathing first, reacting second; stepping back from difficult situations before making a decision; a sincere desire to learn another’s perspective, to comprehend why others act the way they do; understanding not only what is in one’s own best interest in relation to others, but what is in the best interest of the common good; a refusal to subdue; a refusal to dominate; an impulse towards partnership and collaboration; a compassionate and loving heart;  a willingness to acknowledge mistakes, to apologize for hurtful actions, and to forgive those who’ve been hurtful. David Brooks was right to suggest this kind of faith is missing from the work place and so many places in our nation—not because faithful people don’t exist, but because the résumé values are so overly prioritized.

In the service of a new priority, this is my charge to you: be faithful. Take your faith into the work place. Take it to the office, the factory floor, the board room, the warehouse. Take it to the gym, the senior center, the playground, the mall, the soccer field. Take it to the supermarket, the town hall meeting, the homeless shelter, the night club, your child’s first grade class. Take it to the fundraising dinner, the beach, the board of ed., the graduation party. Take it to the nursing home, the hospital, the prison, the police station, the battlefield. Be faithful. Be like dust, humus. Humble. Be this way, trusting that some day, someone will want to tell the story of your life, because your life made a difference in their life, and they loved you for it.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] The text to the decision and the dissenting opinion are at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/13-354_olp1.pdf.

[2] Brooks, David, “Should You Live For Your Résumé . . . or Your Eulogy?” (TED talk, March 2014) at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy?language=en.

[3] Soloveitchik, Joseph, The Lonely Man of Faith, (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2011). See:

http://www.korenpub.com/EN/products/maggid/maggid/9781613290033.

[4] For an accessible review of the history of Biblical authorship, see Friedman, Richard E., Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Harper and Rowe Publishers, 1989).

[5] Genesis 1: 27.

[6] Genesis 1: 28b.

[7] Genesis 2:15b.

[8] Genesis 2:18b.

[9] Brooks, David, “Should You Live For Your Résumé . . . or Your Eulogy?” (TED talk, March 2014) at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy?language=en.

[10] Brooks, David, “Should You Live For Your Résumé . . . or Your Eulogy?” (TED talk, March 2014) at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy?language=en.

[11] Brooks, David, “Should You Live For Your Résumé . . . or Your Eulogy?” (TED talk, March 2014) at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy?language=en.

UUS:E to Run Food Drive for MACC Food Pantry

MACC Community Food Pantry after a food drive

MACC Community Food Pantry after a food drive

The Manchester Area Conference of Churches (MACC) Community Pantry needs food and nonfood items (listed below) that cannot be purchased with SNAP (foodstamps) on a weekly basis.  The shelves are clear after every pantry session as more and more people are in need of extra help to feed their families.

UUS:E will hold a food drive for MACC from Sunday, October 12th to Sunday, October 19th. Please bring items on the list below to the meeting house and place them in the bins in the lobby.

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

Food Items

Peanut butter and jelly

Pasta – sauce and parmesan cheese

Canned pasta (like Chef Boyardee)

Beef stew

Canned protein (like tuna and chicken)

Condiments (mayo – mustard, ketchup – salad dressings etc.)

Canned veggies and fruits (corn – green beans – carrots are the favorites)

Canned soups (not tomato – chicken noodle is favorite – chunky soups are popular too)

Cereal

Snacks & juice boxes

Salt –pepper – sugar

Coffee

Juice (not grapefruit)

Nonfood items

Shampoo & conditioner

Toilet tissue

Paper towels

Toothpaste & brushes

Laundry detergent

Dish soap

Household Cleaning supplies

Thank you so much.

Ring Them Bells!

Rev. Josh Pawelek
End of ChurchIn her 2012 Huffington Post article, “The End of Church,” author and historian of American religion, Diana Butler Bass, says “Something startling is happening in American religion: We are witnessing the end of church or, at the very least, the end of conventional church.”[1] She refers to studies that reveal an increasing disenchantment with organized religion, not just within Roman Catholicism or the aging and typically more liberal mainline Protestant denominations, but also within the more evangelical and conservative denominations such as the Southern Baptist Conference. People are leaving church. She refers to the distinction Americans are increasingly making between being religious—which means being part of an organized religion—and being spiritual—which, in Bass’s terms, means having some kind of visceral experience of faith. People are much less inclined today than just a decade ago to identify themselves as “religious,” and much more inclined to identify themselves as either “spiritual and religious” or “spiritual but not religious.” I notice the famous—to some, infamous—“New Atheist,” Sam Harris, is about to publish a book entitled Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.[2] New York Times columnist Frank Bruni said Harris’ book caught his eye “because it’s so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion.”[3]

When I hear about trends in declining church membership—especially membership in evangelical churches—I admit I often find the news hard to believe. It seems like just yesterday we were hearing about the rapid growth of Christian Fundamentalism, thousands of new mega churches, and the unprecedented political power of the Religious Right during the presidency of George W Bush. Could all that really be declining? Could a new generation of Americans really be rejecting that kind of religiosity which seemed so prevalent and permanent just a decade ago?

Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass

Well, there were numerous articles just this week about the Seattle-based, mega church, Mars Hill, being forced to close some of its fifteen branches and lay off 30-40% of its staff due to budget constraints.[4] These articles cite multiple reasons for Mars Hill’s problems, including financial mismanagement, plagiarism, hyper-homophobia, hyper-sexism, and ongoing negative media attention. This seems consistent with Bass’findings about the emerging negative view of churches in general. In the popular mind churches appear increasingly unresponsive to the spiritual and material needs of the world. They seem wrapped up in their own internal affairs, institutional governance, politics, financial challenges; they often seem unethical; they seem stuck in patterns of congregational life and organization that don’t mesh with the life experiences of real people, especially young adults; they seem unfocused, unclear, and adrift when it comes to having a positive impact on the wider community. Of course, in Bass’ view, the rapid emergence of the “spiritual and religious” and the “spiritual but not religious” identities is ultimately positive. She says it “expresses a grassroots desire for new kinds of faith communities, where institutional structures do not inhibit or impede one’s relationship with God or neighbor. Americans are searching for churches—and temples, synagogues, and mosques—that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.”[5]

When I read sentences like that last one I confess I always have the same gut reaction: that’s exactly what Unitarian Universalist congregations are trying to do and, in many cases, have been doing for generations: offering “pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.” I don’t think I’m alone in that reaction. I think we UUs have tendency (at least historically) to read articles like Bass’ and then to assume the warnings of decline don’t apply to us because somehow we’re getting it right. I remember hearing the term ‘spiritual but not religious’ for the first time in the late 1990s, and saying to myself, and probably to others, “this bodes well for Unitarian Universalism.” Afterall, we were ‘spiritual but not religious’ long before it came into vogue. We were skeptical of religion long before such skepticism became hip, so much so that we have been known in some quarters as the ‘religion for the non-religious.’ And aren’t we the one place in America where atheists, Humanists and agnostics can gather for worship on Sunday morning and be welcomed and embraced in their theological views? So, we’re not like other churches. Right?

Well, we are certainly distinct from other churches, but the reality is we’re not immune from the wider trends in American religious life. I find myself forced to own up to my earlier naiveté in assuming that the prevalence of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ identity would lead automatically to growth in Unitarian Universalist congregations. It hasn’t. Exhibit A is an article in the summer issue of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine by the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley entitled “Into the Beyond.” In it, she points out that “Unitarian Universalist congregations seemed for a while to have bucked these trends, but our U.S. membership has slipped each year since 2008.”[6] In that regard, we’re just like other churches.

Rev. Cooley is the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Program and Strategy Officer. She says her job is to “scare all of us, at least a little bit, because if we don’t pay attention to these trends, we could end up like those near-empty or abandoned churches that are increasingly becoming part of our landscape.”[7] Like Bass, she cites a number of recent studies that give some credence to her warnings. For example, earlier this year the Barna Group, an Evangelical Christian polling firm, found that only 2 out of 10 millennials (adults under 30) feel churchgoing is important.[8] She also cites a 2012 Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project finding that nearly 20% of Americans have no religious affiliation whatsoever.[9]

One of the messages in Rev. Cooley’s article which a few of you found unsettling enough to want to talk to me about it is her discussion of the ways people access and practice Unitarian Universalism beyond the local congregation. She names the reality that there are many people in the wider world who agree with our principles and values, who share our commitments to environmental stewardship, antiracism, and civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, who will partner with us on social justice initiatives, and who may even call themselves Unitarian Universalists, but who, for any number of reasons, can’t or won’t attend or join a UU congregation. Do we ignore them since they aren’t going to be part of our congregation? Or do we figure out how to be in relationship with them? Rev. Cooley leans toward relationship, not only for her work as a UUA staff-member, but for us as well. “Creating new ways for people … to connect, serve, and deepen their spirituality with others, with or without a congregation,” she says, “must become a major shift in the UUA’s mission and also in our congregations.”[10]

“How can people connect to Unitarian Universalism and claim a Unitarian Universalist identity without being part of a congregation?” That’s her question. And while I know the UUA isn’t abandoning congregations, it leads me to ask: if participation in American congregations is declining across the board, and if our denominational officials are looking for ways to reach out to people beyond congregations, then what’s a congregation to do?

I was excited when Dorothy Bognar suggested that she and Tom Chung would sing Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells”[11] for us this morning. Dylan wrote this song for his 1989 album “Oh Mercy.” I don’t claim to know what Dylan meant by any of the lyrics in this song, but he clearly isn’t happy with the church. He refers to the bride running backwards—bride being a reference (I assume) to the church as the “bride of Christ.” He refers to the sun “going down upon the sacred cow.” He sings “Oh the shepherd is asleep.” I find it intriguing to compare his discontent with the church to that of the legions of Americans who today say they have no use for organized religion. Remember, although Dylan is Jewish, he became a born-again Christian around 1980. So when he criticizes the church, he’s writing as an insider who seems to care deeply about the church. He finds the church ineffectual in the face of a general moral and social breakdown in society: “Oh the lines are long and the fighting is strong / And they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong.” He’s upset about what he encounters in the world and he’s critical of a church that seems unresponsive to it. But instead of abandoning the church, instead of throwing up his hands saying, “I have no use for you anymore, I’ll get my spirituality elsewhere,” he’s pleading with the church: Do something! Make a difference! Assert your moral authority! Ring them bells!

That’s the sentiment I want to borrow and channel in response to the question, “What’s a congregation to do? When participation in American churches is declining across the board, and as our denominational officials are—rightly, I think—looking for ways to reach people beyond the traditional, local church, what’s a congregation to do? Ring them bells!

Before you start thinking I’ve lost my mind, please know I know, at least in this building, we don’t have bells. So, I don’t mean we should literally ring bells. Furthermore, I realize one could take this plea to “ring them bells” as a call for the church to just make more noise—to keep being ineffectual, but to do it more loudly. That’s not what I mean either. And furthermore, some commentators have argued Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” is literature in keeping with the ancient Near-Eastern apocalyptic tradition meaning that the bell is ringing out a warning: “Repent! The end of the world is nigh!” And while I do think religions have a role to play in warning about the consequences of human greed, arrogance, hatred and ignorance, especially when it comes to the climate crisis, the church that only rings its bells to warn of impending disaster is offering a very thin slice of what it requires to fully nurture peoples’ spiritual lives.

I think our spiritual lives are assaulted constantly. I know I don’t have to convince those of you gathered here that prominent aspects of our wider culture and economy lead countless people into boredom, anxiety, exhaustion, isolation, desperation. I don’t have to convince those of you gathered here that prominent aspects of our wider culture and economy tunnel our vision, leave us bowling alone,[12] train us to think in sound-bites, offer trivia in place of truth, and speak to us constantly of our fears so that divisions abound and engaging difference becomes taboo. I don’t have to convince you there is a climate crisis. I don’t have to convince you there are food, water and health crises, or a money-in-politics crisis. I don’t have to convince you there is racism, homophobia or sexism, all of it driving people further and further apart. But given all of it, I do want to say this: church matters! That’s the bell I want us to ring. Church matters immensely, and this Unitarian Universalist congregation matters immensely. In the midst of a culture and economy that drive people apart, that obscure any deeper sense of meaning in our lives, that blunt our sense of vocation, that discourage us from organizing for a more just community, churches, if they choose to use it, have incredible power to counter the daily assault on our spiritual lives: to connect us to each other, to help us find meaning, to help us discern our vocation. Churches have the power to bring us together to organize for social and economic justice. And churches have the power to offer us life-giving spiritual experience.[13] Those are the bells I want us to ring. Not just bells of warning, as important as those are. But bells that proclaim a beloved spiritual and religious community exists here, bells that invite us to shape that community as a powerful response to all those forces in the world that would drive us apart.

Churches and denominations may be in decline these days. But there is still a genius to the idea of people gathering faithfully, week after week, united around a set of common principles, giving thanks for the blessings in their lives, caring for one another, teaching their children, hearing the wisdom of their elders, searching together for truth and meaning, and working for a more just, peaceful and loving world. That’s my vision for this church. If that’s religion, then call me religious, and show me where the bell is, ‘cause that’s a noise I want to make!

Bells

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Bass, Diana Butler, “The End of Church,” is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion.

[2] More information about Harris’ new book can be found at his website: http://www.samharris.org/waking-up.

[3] Bruni, Frank, “Between Godliness and Godlessness,” New York Times, September 7, 2014. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-between-godliness-and-godlessness.html?_r=0.

[4] See the Associated Press report at http://www.thestate.com/2014/09/09/3669748/mars-hill-megachurch-closing-branches.html?sp=/99/132/.

[5] Bass, Diana Butler, “The End of Church,” is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion.

[6] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[7] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[8] See “Americans Divided on the Importance of Church” at https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/661-americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church#.VBBtXPldWSr.

[9] See “Nones on the Rise” at http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/.

[10] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[11] Watch Bob Dylan perform “Ring Them Bells” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-gZooq3Ylc.

[12] This is a reference to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

[13] This list riffs off of language Diana Butler Bass’ uses in “The End of Church” athttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion. She says Americans are looking for “pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.”