Living With a Living Tradition

Rev. Josh Pawelek

6 Sources

This summer the Sunday Services Committee and I have been exploring the six sources of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition in our worship services. While our seven principles express our vision for how we want to be together and how we want to be in the world, the six sources are the wells from which we draw our beliefs and deepen our spiritual lives. I’m aware that as I go through my days these sources are all around me, present, available. I find them in the people I meet, the places I visit, the books I read. I encounter them in the land, in our history, in the daily news, in dreams. Sometimes I go to them for insight. Sometimes they sneak up on me, surprise me, awaken me. Part of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist is to be familiar with how these sources present themselves to us, how they help us form our beliefs, how they deepen or, as I like to say, moisten, our spiritual lives. They live, breathe, pulse, dance. And when taken together, they really do give rise to a living tradition. This morning I want to briefly reflect on each of the six sources and share with you how I’ve encountered them this summer.

Nancy ShafferEarlier I read from Rev. Nancy Shaffer’s book, While Still There is Light, in which she chronicles her experience of living with an aggressive and, ultimately, fatal brain tumor.[1] She explores death and dying, fighting and struggling, acceptance, sorrow, joy, friendship, love and more. Emotionally raw, unrefined, unfinished, it’s not your classic escapist summer reading. In the beginning of the book she describes what she calls a “primary spiritual experience.” As hospital staff were prepping her for surgery to remove the tumor she was overcome with an intense feeling of “being held in love, / the entire tunnel of love / and wondering whether the whole team / felt held in love / and whether we altered the course of neurosurgery / by holding the team and me in love.”[2]

Rev. Shaffer’s “primary spiritual experience” is an example of our first source: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” Hers is common enough: in the midst of fear and anxiety she finds comfort and solace, a powerful feeling of being held, of being loved even while lying on the cold, sterile operating room table. Unitarian Universalists most typically report having such experiences in Nature—in response to a majestic mountain-top view, or in the presence of water, or while gazing out at the night sky, or with the fragrance of spring’s first blossoms, or with autumn’s changing leaves, or with the first snowfall. Others report such experiences in response to music, or while singing, reciting poetry, gardening, praying, meditating, dancing, worshipping, exercising, acting for justice, working with children, caring for a loved-one, building—or just being in—community. The list is seemingly endless.

Such experiences vary from person to person. Some don’t report them at all. They are typically fleeting. Like dreams, they are difficult to sustain. They are vague in the sense that they are not creatures of the mind. Rather, they are creatures of the heart, the soul, the spirit. They are feelings, hunches, instincts, intuitions. They are cries of Hallelujah! They don’t necessarily tell us anything concrete about the world. They don’t give us new facts. But somehow they affirm our deepest longings and our strongest sense of what is true. They tell us that we actually do belong here; or we actually are connected to the whole of life; or we actually are part of a reality larger than ourselves; or we actually are justified in being hopeful about the future; or we actually are loved—held in a loving embrace—even if we cannot name what holds us.

During the first week of August I was walking on the beach in Panama City Beach, Florida. I noticed something moving under the Stingrayswaves two or three yards away. It was a stingray swimming—perhaps fluttering—slowly along the ocean floor, its pace matched to mine. Then I saw three more stingrays, all moving along at the same slow speed. I walked with them for about a hundred yards before they changed direction and headed out to sea. I’ve seen stingrays in the ocean before. They certainly aren’t the most beautiful fish. But it was one of those awe-filled moments for me, walking along with these oddly graceful cousins of sharks. I can’t say exactly what it was, but I felt connected and somehow held—part of some reality larger than myself. I felt peace. I felt gratitude. Hallelujah. Amen. Blessed be.

Our second source is “words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with the transforming power of love.” For so many Unitarian Universalists the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s stands out as the quintessential moment of prophetic witness in American history. Many UUs supported and I Have a Dreamparticipated in that movement, including two who were famously murdered by white segregationists: Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. Because of this we often look back to that time for prophetic words and deeds to inspire us in our social justice efforts today. While I hope I have shared with you over the years words and deeds of prophetic women and men from a wide range of movements—women’s suffrage, feminism, gay and lesbian civil rights, marriage equality, transgender anti-discrimination, anti-apartheid, anti-slavery and Abolitionism, immigrants’ rights, migrant workers’ rights, the American Indian Movement, the Arab Spring, environmental justice, anti-colonialism, anti-racism and anti-oppression—while I hope I have brought voices from these movements consistently into this pulpit and counseled us not to rely solely for inspiration on the words and deeds of the Civil Rights Movement—I want to remind us that this coming week—August 28th specifically—marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. This week we ought to let the prophetic words and deeds of the American Civil Rights movement wash over us, nurture us, inspire us and call us back to that enduring vision of a racially and economically just United States of America, call us back to the many ways we can work to make that vision a reality.

Our third source is “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” For me this source speaks to a basic yet also radical Unitarian Universalist orientation to the world. That is, we trust we have something to learn from other religions. Other religions are not to be ignored, looked down upon, or feared, but rather respected, honored, and studied. It’s a reminder that any revelation we believe we’ve received is not final, that whatever wisdom we possess is incomplete, that our knowledge is limited. The presence of other faiths is not threatening. That presence challenges us to grow more deeply in our own faith.

On our way back from Panama City Beach we spent a day at Colonial Williamsburg. If you’ve been there you know it’s a living history museum featuring hundreds of colonial era buildings, shops and farms filled with actors in period dress and thousands of tourists, not in period dress. Into this mix, on a near 100? day, strolls a Muslim family. The husband and sons are dressed like all the other tourists, in shorts and t-shirts. The woman—who I assume is the wife and mother in this family—is dressed in a jet-black, full-body hijab. She is completely covered. Only her eyes are exposed. I notice other tourists staring at her. I notice I’m staring at her. Her presence in Colonial Williamsburg is somehow jarring. Given the current tension in the United States over the place of Muslims in society, given the widespread stereotype of Muslims as potential terrorists, given the many, many myths about Islam that hold sway in the popular American mind, I have to assume that at least some of the tourists—and perhaps the actors too—wonder what she is doing there. At least that’s my fear—and it’s based on what I know of the experiences of my Muslim colleagues and acquaintances. People question them all the time. Are they legitimate Americans? Especially here. Williamsburg is one of the cradles of American democracy, and many Americans see Islam as anti-democratic and anti-American. I don’t think my assumption is implausible: that some of the tourists and staff may, at least in their immediate gut reaction, question whether or not this woman belongs here.


But I also know there are possibly as many as 10 million Muslim Americans. The Muslims I know, who include African and Caucasian Americans, Middle Easterners and Southeast Asians identify with the nation’s democratic principles; they see Islam as completely compatible with a free society; and they long to be accepted as full members of that society. I also know that devout Muslim women cover themselves. Are there some Muslim women who chaff at this practice? I’m sure there are, but I’ve never met one. What I know from Muslim women who take pride in this practice is that the covering symbolizes modesty and morality, that it is consistent with the teaching of the Koran, and that wearing it in public is a form of spiritual discipline. And knowing all this I find myself admiring this woman in the jet-black, full-body hijab, strolling down the main street of Colonial Williamsburg. And in thinking about her spiritual discipline and, frankly, her courage, I begin to wonder: what is my spiritual discipline? And I recognize that witnessing the spiritual discipline of another faith, far from being threatening, teaches me, makes me think, and challenges me to dig deeper into my own faith.

Our fourth source is “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as ourselves.” I preached about this on July 28th in response to the verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial. I won’t say more about it now, except to remind us that George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict, while understandable from a technical legal standpoint, was disheartening, demoralizing and enraging for many Americans of all races. In response to the verdict I heard and read many people around the country making some reference to the Great Commandment, to loving our neighbors as ourselves. This story led many people to decry the apparent lack of love at the heart of our public encounters, and to hold up George Zimmerman’s treatment of Trayvon Martin, and perhaps Trayvon Martin’s treatment of George Zimmerman, as emblematic of a crisis in our capacity to love one another in the public square. Whether or not you believe such a crisis really exists, I take it as a fundamental truth that opportunities to love our neighbors as ourselves present themselves to us every day. My prayer always is that we may heed the ancient teachings and choose love.


The fifth source is “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” I’m going to be teaching a course this fall called “The Humanist-Theist Debate, Then and Now.” So this summer I’ve been studying the relationship between Humanism and Theism primarily in Unitarianism over the past century. Through the course of this study I’ve realized that we define Humanism in far too narrow terms these days. We say things like, “Humanism is another word for Atheism,” and leave it at that. I know I’m guilty of using this theological shorthand. While it’s true that most UUs who identify as Humanists are also Atheists, Humanism is much broader than Atheism. When we talk about Humanism as a source for our living tradition, we are referring to the power of the human mind and the knowledge brought forth through the exercise of reason. We’re referring to the power of the human heart and the wisdom brought forth through acts of courage, compassion and commitment. We’re referring to the power of the scientific method to uncover the truths of our world and the universe. We’re referring to the power of human invention and innovation. We’re referring to the power of values such as freedom, democracy, justice and the human capacity to shape the world in response to these values. Through the course of this study I’ve been feeling more and more called to revisit Humanism, to reclaim it and to present it and live it in all its breadth and depth.

Finally, our sixth source is “spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” I want to tell you a story from our time in Panama City Beach,“The Pirate Cruise Story.” A pirate cruise is a tourist attraction. The boat is decorated like a pirate ship, though it has a full bar and blasts Jimmy Buffet music over the loudspeakers. There are about 50-60 kids on the boat, along with their parents and some grandparents. The kids do pirate activities like finding treasure, practicing sword-fighting, and firing the ship’s canons at unsuspecting sunbathers on the beach.

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I had the privilege of sitting behind the captain. He was probably sixty years old, stocky, grizzled, eye-patch, big sword. In between giving the kid orders, he would talk to the adults about the natural features of the area. He was knowledgeable about the surrounding land and water. I couldn’t tell if he was spiritually grounded in a traditional earth-based religion. I thought probably not. But with his knowledge and love for the land and water around Panama City Beach, he struck me as someone who grew up steeped in it, someone who knew something about the sacred circle of life and how to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature. He did not strike me as an environmentalist, mainly because he kept saying things like, “We can’t sail in this channel or the environmental people will be all over me.” He clearly was not a big fan of the environmental people.

Eventually we sailed out into the Gulf of Mexico, just beyond a large jetty. There were a number of tourist boats—much smaller than ours—floating in what looked like a big circle. I noticed people diving off some of the boats into the middle of the circle. Soon it became clear they were swimming with dolphins. Our pirate captain was livid. He sailed our comparatively monstrous ship right into the middle of the circle of smaller boats. He cranked up his PA system and starting speaking to us—but really to everyone in the area—about the new statutes prohibiting this kind of interaction with dolphins. In short, dolphins are to be left alone. If you build relationships with them, especially through feeding them, they become dependent and lose their ability to survive in the wild. It destroys their natural rhythm. He yelled out that the first lawsuits to be filed under these new statutes were about to be heard in court and the defendants were facing steep fines, as much as half a million dollars. Now that was some mighty fine pirating! Argh!

Feeding Dolphins

The reminder for me—the lesson—is how important it is to know and to love the land and the water where you live; to treat the circle of life as sacred—because it is; and to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature. When we love the land and the water, we will fight to protect it, preserve it, sustain it.

Six sources all around us, constantly available. Sometimes we seek them out. Sometimes they sneak up on us, surprise us, awaken us. Six sources helping us form our beliefs and moisten our spiritual lives, reminding us of our values, affirming our deepest longings and our strongest sense of what is true. Six sources living, breathing, pulsing, dancing. Six sources giving rise to a living tradition.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Shaffer, Nancy, While Still There Is Light (Boston: Skinner House, 2013).

[2] Shaffer, While Still There Is Light, p. 4.