Stretching Our Hearts

Rev. Josh Pawelek

6-21 Stretching hearts“What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?” asked the Rev. A. Powel Davies more than half a century ago.[1] I love this question. I love the image of our hearts stretching. Of course, there’s nothing extraordinary about a religious leader asking a question like this. It’s a version of the question that lies at the core of so many religions. It’s the question of ethics, of justice. How shall we live? How can we bring love and compassion into the world, into our encounters with family members, friends, strangers? How can we live peacefully with others, especially those who are different from us in some way? How can we break down the strange and foolish walls that divide the human family? How can we stretch our hearts?

Indeed, the strange and foolish walls were very real half a century ago, and they are very real now. We didn’t need Thursday morning’s news of a white supremacist mass shooting at Charleston, South Carolina’s “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church to be convinced of this. But there it was again, a gut-wrenching and profound failure of “love your neighbor”—not only in the small heart of the killer, but in the small and atrophied heart of the social, cultural and political systems that produced him.  Despite all the progress humanity has made over centuries—despite its enlightenment, its knowledge, its scientific advancements, its faith, its modern conceptions of human rights and social justice—despite it all, the human family feels, to me, as divided as ever; as if we are somehow fated to revert back to a fight-or-flight limbic response to conflict; as if we’ll never be able to overcome the allure and the power of simplistic and false dualisms—‘us vs. them,’ ‘good vs. evil’—whether we’re talking about international, national or local conflicts, or conflicts within the intimacy of our own families—conflicts that seem intractable despite our earnest desire to see them resolved. Despite all our achievements, love—deep abiding love—seems so difficult to sustain. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” though still a potent ethical principle, seems worn down, battered, beaten. Our collective heart seems small and ineffectual.

Maybe it’s always been this way. Maybe every age has its insurmountable conflicts. Maybe the goal of a more peaceful, just and loving society always feels elusive to those who care about it most. Maybe each of us struggles to be more loving and compassionate and never quite meets the mark we set for ourselves. In ancient Greek mythology, Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, was for eternity compelled to roll an immense boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down again and again each time he approached the summit. Maybe we each roll our own boulders; and maybe collectively we roll boulders; and we almost get where we think we’re going, and then suddenly, in a flash, we lose our grip—a mass shooting in a church or an elementary school tears through a town, a loved one’s life falls apart, a foreign war we thought had ended suddenly begins again, a suicide rips through a community, a school system fails, a chronic illness debilitates, entrenched poverty crushes—and in a flash the boulder rolls back down the mountain. Maybe there’s always a layer of human existence that is like this.

Maybe, but that’s no excuse to give up. There is also in the human heart a yearning to do better, a yearning to not let hate destroy kindness and compassion, a yearning to make love—deep, abiding love— real in the world. Those families of the nine who died in Charleston, when they faced the killer in court, said, essentially, “you’ve hurt us; we forgive you.” So let us ask the question, and keep asking it, and never stop asking it: “What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?”

The heart in this question is, of course, a metaphor in which our physical hearts which pump our blood refer to our spiritual hearts—our center, our grounding, the source of our passion and compassion, the place inside where we commune with what is sacred to us, the home in us of love and warmth and joy. It’s the thing that soars when we fall in love, and the thing that breaks when a loved-one dies. How do we stretch that?

My heart has been stretching and growing and breaking and healing and stretching and growing and breaking again all year long, and I sure hope some strange and foolish walls have begun to crumble as a result. I want to say a few words about the way I experience my heart stretching, because it may be more or less the same—or radically different—than the way you experience your heart stretching. One thing I’ve always known about myself, but which I’ve had to contend with at a much deeper level this year than ever before—is that as much as I think I want to stretch and grow and change—as much as I preach the value of stretching and growing and changing—as much as I proclaim that we come to church to be transformed and to tear down those strange and foolish walls—my body doesn’t like it. Some bodies love it. Mine doesn’t. When my heart starts stretching, my body usually says, “wait, before you do that, here’s a slight headache,” or “here’s a backache for you,” or “here are some allergies you’ve never had before,” or, my least favorite, “here is some unexplainable dizziness. Enjoy!”

I’ve spoken about this before. The reasons why some people have somatic reactions to different kinds of stress are always complex. My simplest understanding of why it happens to me has to do with being raised in a family with an alcoholic parent. As is the case with many adult children of alcoholics, there is, in me, a deep-seeded impulse to not “rock the boat,” to keep the peace, to not create tension, to please others, to accommodate others. I know some of you know condition well. The challenge here is that stretching one’s heart in order to overcome strange and foolish walls inevitably creates tension. Stretching creates tension. It’s good tension, productive tension, creative tension, justice-seeking tension. And it’s necessary: the change we seek won’t come without it.

The insight I’ve had about myself this year is that my body actually mistakes good tension that will lead to good change for bad, unproductive, uncreative tension that will lead nowhere. As a child, perhaps it made sense to avoid tension of any sort and my mind and my body were in agreement: keep steady, keep the peace, keep out of trouble, keep, keep, keep, keep, keep. But now, as an adult, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve changed it for good reasons. I understand some tension is necessary. My mind affirms my heart’s desire to stretch, but my body still says “no, we can’t do that.” It’s unnerving when this happens, but it’s also become for me an important sign: my body feels a certain way because my heart is trying to stretch. And while I have to take my body seriously and attend to how it is feeling, my personal challenge is to teach my body to work with my heart. I can’t let my heart stay little. None of us can. The world needs deep, abiding love. These strange and foolish walls must come down.

Perhaps my most potent experience of intentional heart stretching has been my participation in Moral Monday CT which, as many of you know, held a Black Lives Matter rally in Hartford on June 8th, which included nonviolent civil disobedience—the blocking of a busy, rush hour intersection—for which 17 people were arrested, including me and three other members of our congregation. That didn’t just happen. It required months of heart-stretching. I started telling you the story in my MLK sermon in January. I said then that, given the high visibility of police killings of unarmed people of color—Staten Island, Ferguson, Cleveland, etc.—on top of what we already know about racism in the United States—mass incarceration, health disparities, educational disparities, income disparities, wealth disparities—it was clearly time to do more than talk. The powers that be will listen to talk, but talk alone doesn’t produce the kind of tension needed to subvert racism at its roots. We recognized that we need to use our bodies in a different way, that we need to occupy public space in a different way. I said in that sermon that nonviolent civil disobedience is coming, though I still wasn’t sure what that really meant. I was beginning to stretch my heart, and in my body I felt anxious, dizzy, achy. My body was not intending to do anything differently. As far as my body was concerned, we had a good thing going: “Just keep talking. You’re good at that. People like when you talk. But you in a street at rush hour? They might not like that!”

There is too much at stake. I was determined to stretch. We prepared ourselves to do what we needed to do. We conducted nonviolent civil disobedience training here at UUS:E in early February. That was stretching. Then we did a trial run on Monday, February 23rd in Hartford, stretching further. My body came along—still didn’t like what we were doing, and it let me know.

We picked June 8th as the date for our first major action. We conducted a final training here the night before. And then around 5:00 pm on the 8th we walked into the street. My heart soared. In that street was where I needed to be in that moment, more than anywhere else in the world. My body hated it. I became so dizzy after a while that I walked off the line to talk to our medics. They checked me over, gave me some sugar and water, and said it looked like stress. So I walked back out into the street, heart soaring, body still protesting—“we’re really rockin’ the boat now”—and got myself arrested.

Picture by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

Picture by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

My body is still trying to figure it out. It’s going to take a while. But my heart has stretched. And if I had any misgivings about what I had done after the fact, they vanished on Thursday morning with the news from Charleston. Black Lives Matter. These strange and foolish walls must come down. Deep, abiding love will bring them down.

As momentous as that particular experience has been for me, there has been so much more. My heart has been stretching around multigenerational community here at UUS:E. My heart has been stretching around new directions in our music program as we integrate Mary Bopp onto our staff. My heart is beginning to stretch around new growth strategies for our congregation. My heart has been stretching in response to having a teenager in the house. There’s been a lot of good tension, a lot of good, slow, measured change, and more is coming. My body still wants nothing to with it, but I know where that comes from, and I trust its resistance will eventually fade. I don’t want a little heart. I want a loosened, supple, open, expansive, generous heart. I want to be a vehicle for deep, abiding love to come into the world.

Rev. Davies asked, “What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?” What can we do to bring more love into the world? What can we do to assure we are loving our neighbors as ourselves? My response is to start small. Start simply by naming the strange and foolish walls in your life or out in the wider world that that you feel must come down. Name them not just to yourself, but to others. Naming them out loud is the beginning of commitment. Name them, and then ask yourself what you need to dismantle them. Find others who’ve stretched in the way you aspire to stretch, and ask them how they did it. What preparation do you need? What training? What support? Where can you practice before you take your action? Who will work with you? Is your body on board?

And here’s what we also need to remember: as much as we prepare ourselves, as much as we stretch, as much as we love, there will be moments when it falls apart. Events, often beyond our control, will crash through our lives. We’ll lose our grip on the boulder. We’ll tumble down. We’ll find ourselves at the base of the mountain looking up, tired, sad, angry, demoralized, wondering how to get back up again. I’m thinking, of course, about Pawel Jura’s death by suicide in late winter, which deeply impacted this congregation, brought so much of our congregational life to standstill. I’m thinking now also about the death of Carol Shapiro, whose bodily remains were finally identified last week, after eight years. Receiving this news brought me back to the time she disappeared. It was similar to Pawel’s death in the sense that everything came to a halt—boulders tumbling down the mountain.

Our hearts stretch differently in moments like this. No preparation, no training, no practice, no warm-up. They stretch too quickly. They stretch beyond their capacity. They stretch to the breaking point. They break. When Pawel died I found a reading from the late Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox about what happens to love in the wake of loss. She wrote, “Oh, my dear, do not despair that love has come and gone. Although we are broken, the love that spilled out of us has joined the love that circles the world and makes it blessed.”[2] Looking back on that time now, looking back at all those broken hearts—including mine: so much love spilled out. Deep, abiding love. Whatever strange and foolish walls might have existed among us, they melted away in the presence of that love. They melted away as you held each other, ministered to each other, carried each other, cried with each other, sang with each other.

This isn’t an answer to A. Powell Davies’ question about stretching our hearts. We don’t wish for broken hearts. We don’t wish tragedy upon ourselves or anyone. But strange and foolish walls have a tendency to vanish in the wake of tragedy. We saw it after 9/11. We saw it after Sandy Hook. We saw it after the Boston Marathon bombing. We see it in the outpouring of love for “Mother Emanuel,” for Charleston, for South Carolina. We hear it in those powerful, loving words, “we forgive you.”

In the end, it shouldn’t take a tragedy to get there. It shouldn’t take a tragedy for love—deep, abiding love—to come pouring out, every day, all the time. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to wake us up to the littleness of our hearts. Yes, we are up against so much. The strange and foolish walls are multitudinous and well-fortified. In Sisyphusian style we lose our boulders down the mountain. And maybe this is an enduring part of the human condition. But it can’t be an excuse for giving up. It can’t be an excuse for not stretching our hearts. Stretching is part of their design. I’ve learned that this year. So, my counsel is for all of us to name our strange and foolish walls, and start stretching—warm-up, practice, get training, talk to those who’ve done it before. And then do what we need to do to make that deep, abiding love real in the world, to let it circle the world, to let it bless the world. We have it in us. Stretch, and keep stretching. No wall can stand forever.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Davies, A. Powell, “Strange and Foolish Walls,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #662.

[2] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Legacy,” Evening Tide (Boston: Skinner House, 1998) p, 56.