Beyond the Last Ridge: Reflections on Devotion

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Last Ridge“I always thought I’d have little girls / and be a good mom, be the mother / I never had, teach them how to make pies / and how to get past wanting to quit, show them / the place in our minds beyond the last ridge / where we can rock the cutter endlessly, the place where there is no time and how to / tightly crimp the edge with alternating thumbs.”[1] Words from Northern California-based poet and artist Lin Max’s “The Piemaker.” I offer these words as a starting place for reflections on devotion, on what it means to be devoted, on what it means to give our hearts so fully that the giving shapes the direction of our lives.

Devotion is our ministry theme for May. Devotion in a religious context may strike some of you as one of those haunting theological words that make some Unitarian Universalists bristle; one of those words that doesn’t quite mesh with a more liberal, modernist, questioning, skeptical, agnostic, atheist or Humanist approach to religion; one of those words you may have left behind if you’re one who left behind a more conservative religious life. Given that, let me be the first to say there are good reasons5-13 ridge 4 why we might bristle. Devotion—especially religious devotion—can and does go horribly wrong. And yet the poet offers a glimpse of something powerful, something of great value devotion imparts to the devoted. It teaches patience. It teaches how not to quit. It reveals “the place in our minds beyond the last ridge … the place where there is no time.” I’m curious about this place. Aren’t you? The poet seems to be referencing the place we might come to in a peak spiritual experience, or at the culmination of a spiritual journey—a place where our body, mind, heart and spirit are aligned; a place where our inner and outer worlds cohere; a place where we know our purpose and we let it be our guide. I’d like to go there. While I’m pretty sure pie making is not my path to it, I’m also fairly confident none of us can get beyond the last ridge without some degree of devotion.

In its most basic, secular sense, if we’re devoted to something or someone, it means we care deeply about that something or someone and our actions demonstrate that care. We feel loving, loyal, supportive, enthusiastic towards that something or someone. We’re willing to take risks on behalf of that something or someone. We give our hearts to that something or someone. For me this is a basic definition of devotion: the ongoing giving of a part of ourselves to something or someone. And in that giving, we become more whole.

A week ago I attend a vigil in North Hartford organized by Mothers United Against Violence to mark the one year anniversary of the murder of a young woman named Shamari Jenkins.[2] The minister who leads this group, the Rev. Henry Brown,[3] is one of the most devoted people I know. A one-time victim of gun-violence, he is crystal clear in his purpose: to support and minister to the families of the victims of violence; and to do whatever he can to end violence on Hartford streets. During the vigil a group of young men joined the crowd. They were drinking whiskey and smoking what looked like pot, though I wasn’t sure. While I know not to make assumptions about anyone based on looks, they looked tough, and the question crossed my mind: could these young men could be dangerous? I had no idea what to do other than ignore them. The police ignored them too. But Rev. Brown didn’t. In the middle of the vigil he confronted them. He scolded them. He said, into his bullhorn, “put that away.” “Show some respect for this family.” “Either you’re here to support this family or not. If not, then leave.” They left.

Rev. Henry Brown of MUAV

Rev. Henry Brown of MUAV

Confronting a group of young, whiskey-drinking men is risky on any corner anywhere. I’m sure Rev. Brown had a much better assessment of the actual risk than I did. And whether it was risky or not, he did it. This giving a piece of himself to a family that has lost a daughter to violence; this giving a piece of himself to make sure their dignity is honored; this giving a piece of himself to say, once again, that we must end violence on our city streets: this is devotion—

to the family, to victims, to neighborhoods where these murders happen, and even to the tough-looking young men he confronted. Rev. Brown knows something of what it’s like beyond the last ridge. He knows his purpose. He patiently conducts his ministry. He resists those demons that council him to quit. He is passionate about what he’s doing.

Rev. Howard Thurman

Rev. Howard Thurman

As a minister—as your minister—the question that seems most critical for me to ask you is “What are you passionate about?” You’ve heard me ask this question from the pulpit. Many of you have heard me ask it in one-on-one meetings or in small groups. I ask this question because I’m convinced people pursuing their passions are truly living their lives. They’re awake, inspired, generous, open, committed. We read earlier from the Christian mystic, Howard Thurman: “Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in good times or in tempests, I may not forget that to which my life is committed.”[4] I’m mindful of another quote from Thurman: “Ask not what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who’ve come alive.”[5] For me this is another way to describe how it feels when we arrive beyond the last ridge: fully alive and blessing the world.

So when I talk about religious devotion here—liberal religious devotion, Unitarian Universalist devotion—I’m looking for the extent to which your life is oriented toward your passions. What portion of your day is devoted to giving some part of yourself to that something or someone you care deeply about? How much opportunity is there in the course of your week to open your heart fully to that something or someone you love? In your life is there sufficient room to take the risks your passion requires? Religious devotion is a quality in us—a quality we can cultivate—marked by focus, patience, practice, purposefulness, resolve, clarity, a striving for what matters most. The word devotion comes from the Latin devovere, which translates as consecrate. When we consecrate something or someone, we make them sacred. I’m suggesting that as we devote our lives to the things and people we’re passionate about, we make them sacred. My continual prayer for us is that we may have in our lives sufficient if not expansive room for consecration—room to devote ourselves to what matters most. Through our devotion, which is always a giving away of some part of ourselves, may we live fully. May we find wholeness. May we bless the world.

Having offered this prayer, let me offer a caution: devotion can sometimes lead to conflict in communities. Rev. Brown is outspoken about the need to end violence on Hartford streets. His devotion inspires him to challenge and critique elected officials, the police, clergy, neighborhoods, drug dealers, gang members—anyone whose actions, or inactions, undermine attempts to end violence, he calls them out. And as you may imagine, there are many who don’t appreciate being called out. He generates conflict—and I think it’s a necessary conflict when we pause to consider what is at stake.

Exploring religious devotion in our own lives, it’s important for us to recognize that our devotion may bring clarity and a singularity of purpose to us, but that others may not share it. When we name it, when we act on it, it can be alienating to those who don’t share our passion. Thus, our devotion can set us apart, make us stand out, make us wonder: Why don’t others take this as seriously as I do? Our devotion can, in fact, lead us into isolation, into loneliness, and into disagreement. This is a basic reality of human communities. To live well with this reality, it is critical that we learn to accept that not everyone shares our passion—that we can invite others to join us, but we can’t force them; and that we are a stronger spiritual community when there is room for many passions: social justice, music, children, elders, learning, multigenerational community, visual arts, cooking, service, worship, leadership, finance, theology, administration, sustainable living, green energy, event planning, fundraising, caring, gardening, visiting, knitting. The more room for passionate devotion, the stronger we are.

knockingA further caution: religious devotion can become overbearing and downright dangerous. In more mild Crusadesterms I’m referring to door-to-door evangelists, to proselytizers who seem unable to respect the existence of other faiths. We often experience them as spiritually tone-deaf, as pious and pushy, though I admire the courage of those who knock on endless doors only to be met with a polite no thank you at best, and derision at worst. In more extreme terms we know some who are deeply devoted are easily manipulated. When given a reason to fear some enemy, some infidel, some non-believer, some other, the devoted can be convinced to commit acts of violence or terrorism. So many perpetrators of religious violence believe they are acting out of devotion to God, believe they fulfilling God’s will for them. Devotion can and does go horribly wrong. If we bristle at the word, it is understandable.

Rev. Davidson Loehr

Rev. Davidson Loehr

A final caution: not all passions are worth pursuing. But how do we know? Here’s a quote from the Rev. Davidson Loehr, a liberal minister who served Unitarian Universalist congregations. In his 2005 book, America Fascism + God, he names the power of gods in our lives, though he’s using god in psychological rather than a traditional religious sense. He says, “I am a theologian, and I … know something about gods. I know how they work, how powerful they are, how invisible they usually are, and I know that beneath nearly every human endeavor with any passion or commitment about it there will be a god operating, doing the things gods do. Gods are those central concerns that our behaviors show we take very seriously. We commit our lives to them, we are driven by them, and in return they promise us something we want, or think we want. Whether what they promise us is good or bad is a measure of whether the god involved is an adequate or an inadequate one.”[6] He’s talking here specifically about the way American society treats capitalism as a god, though a highly inadequate one, since recent economic trends have led to such enormous inequality and poverty. He contends this worship of the inadequate god of capitalism has come at the expense of a much more adequate god, democracy.[7]

I won’t follow this particular thread any further, but I think this concept is important. The sign of an inadequate god is that our devotion to it results either in some kind of harm, or in nothing useful at all. The sign of an adequate god is that our devotion to it results in some tangible good. I was thinking that a good way to discuss devotion with children would be to ask them how they spend their free time. If they’re being honest—as opposed to thinking, he’s the minister, I better say what I think he wants me to say—they might talk about watching television or playing video games. At least my kids would. And we could then have a conversation about whether choosing to spend their time this way results in any good for themselves or for society. Hopefully it would get them thinking about more productive ways to devote themselves. Of course, some kids will talk about sports, nature, art, pets, school or helping their parents. If asked, they can name how devoting their time in this way results in a good for themselves or others. The deeper learning in such a conversation is that how we spend our time is a sign of what is truly important to us, regardless of what we say is important to us. As Rev. Loehr and others would put it, it’s a sign of the god we actually worship.

This can be dicey with adults, especially if we’re prone to feeling guilty. If we answer the question honestly, we may find that we devote quite a bit of time to things that make no difference, things that produce no good for ourselves or society. We may find that despite what we say we’re passionate about, our actions indicate we’re devoted to some other god. Do we watch too much television? Do we spend too much time on our electronic devices? These are fairly innocuous gods. They hurt no one. And often we say “this is how I unwind.” And that’s legitimate, though if our unwinding consistently prevents us from devoting ourselves to our passions, we may have to confront the possibility we are not fully living our lives. And what of devotion to more destructive gods? Alcohol comes to my mind most immediately as an adult child of an alcoholic. An unbalanced devotion to any substance—drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, food—can lead to harm of oneself and others. An unbalanced devotion to money can lead to harm. An unbalanced devotion to power can lead to harm. And there are even more insidious gods. Human beings can devote themselves to nourishing their hatreds and fears, their sense of victimhood when no actual victimization is taking place, their sense of racial and cultural superiority. Such devotions, if unchecked, lead quite easily to violence, oppression and warfare. Devotion can and does go horribly wrong.

Last Ridge

So we approach with caution. But I say, let us err not on the side of caution, but on the side of devotion. If Rev. Loehr is correct—and I believe he is—whether we know it or not, we’re always choosing to worship one god or another. So let us devote ourselves to those gods that bring good to the world: beauty, creativity, peace, justice, community, democracy, love. And not just for a moment, but for our lifetimes, like the pie maker, patiently learning “how to get past wanting to quit,” and finally arriving at “the place in our minds beyond the last ridge.”[8]

May each of us find in our lives sufficient if not expansive room for consecration—room to devote ourselves to what matters most; and through our devotion, which is always a giving away of some part of ourselves, may we live fully, may we find wholeness, may we bless the world. Amen, blessed be.

 

[1] Max, Lin, “Piemaker,” “Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature By Women,” Summer 1992, Volume 14, #1, p. 34.

[2] For the story about the murder of Shamari Jenkins, see: http://articles.courant.com/2013-06-07/community/hc-hartford-bryan-murder-arraignment-0608-2-20130607_1_girlfriend-killed-magnolia-street-police.

[3] Read at December 17th, 2011 Hartford Courant article on Rev. Henry Brown at http://articles.courant.com/2011-12-17/community/hc-hartford-henry-brown-1218-20111217_1_gun-violence-brown-prayer-vigils.

[4] Thurman, Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #498.

[5] My research confirms this quote is from Howard Thurman, though it is not clear where he wrote it or when he said it.

[6] Loehr, Davidson, America Fascism + God (White River Junction, CT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2005) p. 46.

[7] Ibid, p. 52.

[8] Max, Lin, “Piemaker,” “Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature By Women,” Summer 1992, Volume 14, #1, p. 34.