A Church That Matters: A Sermon for the Annual Appeal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

According to the Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson, “In the church that doesn’t matter, no one has to ask for money, or even talk about it much; there is always enough to go around. There is always enough because no matter how much there is, there is always less to do with it than that. The vision always shrinks to under-match the means. So canvas season is always a breeze.”[1]

He’s kidding, except he’s not.

Every year there’s a moment when I panic about our annual appeal. Costs rise every year. The finance committee dutifully builds a budget that accounts for all the rising costs. They generate different versions of the budget—a conservative version that limits spending increases to a bare minimum; a mid-level version that may be a stretch, but funds our highest priority goals; and then an “everything budget” that funds everything we want to do, but which usually requires around a 10 percent increase in financial giving. At least for the past few years, the Policy Board has looked at these various proposals and, mindful that a 3% increase in giving is a very successful annual appeal for us, they nevertheless want to make sure that the everything budget is visible during the annual appeal, so that you will know what your financial generosity can make possible. This year that everything budget includes fully and sustainably funding our Membership Coordinator position (which we hope to rehire over the summer); paying full dues to the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance; funding a variety of building security measures; and paying salaries and benefits to our staff in line with Unitarian Universalist association recommendations. At the Policy Board meetings, we get really, really excited about what is possible. We want you to feel that same excitement.

Then I panic. How are we going to pull this off? People already make incredibly generous financial gifts; how can we keep asking for more? Most people’s income doesn’t increase three to ten percent every year, so how can we justify asking for increases? I worry you are going to think we’re out of touch with the fiscal realities of your lives.

But then, inevitably, I remember. This liberal religious, Unitarian Universalist congregation matters. And because this congregation matters, because we care deeply about it, the vision always expands, the possibilities always increase, opportunities always abound. Every year we imagine more than we can achieve—more social justice work and partnerships, more music and arts, more pastoral ministry, more spiritual growth, more outreach, more volunteerism, more youth and junior youth programming. We will always have an everything budget to reach for. We will always be visioning, dreaming and imaging beyond where we are precisely because this church matters. We will always be taking risks and experiencing some failure precisely because this church matters.

It’s never going to be easy, because none of you are here for a church that isn’t worth fighting over, a church that doesn’t inspire passion, a church that doesn’t touch your heart and move you to put your principles into action.

Our annual appeal has begun. Let’s thank the Stewardship Committee members. They run the annual appeal. Their purpose is to encourage generosity toward this congregation—not only financial generosity, but generosity in terms of commitment, spirit and love. Adam Bender chairs the committee. Members include Louisa Graver, Stan McMillen, Phil Sawyer and Larry Lunden. A great team! They organize the pledging potlucks. They organize and train the stewards who will reach out to many of you to ask for your financial pledge for the coming fiscal year. (As always, if a steward contacts you, please get back to them as soon as possible so they can meet with you.) Thank you Stewardship Committee. We deeply appreciate all the work you do on behalf of this church that matters.

We have big goals this year. As many of you know, we’ve made a big push over the last two years to hire a Membership Coordinator whose job is to oversee our membership ministry, including welcoming and nurturing visitors and fostering the engagement of current members and friends. Among the congregations in our denomination showing the greatest growth, the majority of them point to the presence of a membership professional as a primary reason for their growth. We filled the position last year. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. That was very disappointing. We’ve taken lessons from that experience. All of us who’ve worked hard to establish this position still believe it is the right direction for UUS:E, especially in this era when congregations in all denominations are facing strong headwinds and declining membership. Your generous pledge to the annual appeal will help us hire a membership coordinator in the coming year and sustain the position until it becomes self-sustaining. I want to thank members of the Growth Strategy Team Carol Marion, Michelle Spadaccini, Nancy Pappas, Louisa Graver, and Edie Lacey for all the work they’ve done to imagine, create and bring this position into being. Friends: Your extra financial generosity can make this happen!

In October, after three years of organizing, thirty-five congregations from across Hartford County founded the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance or GHIAA, a faith-based social justice organization. We come together across lines of faith, race, culture and geography, discern our common values, pool our resources, identify issues where our collective power will make a difference, and then exercise our power. Already we are having an impact. GHIAA has supported a group called the North End Power Team in their No More Slumlords campaign, which is successfully holding Hartford slumlords accountable for housing code violations, and which has also led the city of Hartford to update its housing codes for the first time in forty years. GHIAA is also currently engaged in the Clean Slate campaign, an effort to remove some misdemeanor and felony convictions from peoples’ records after incarceration so they can more fully enter back into regular life, find work, housing and educational opportunities. Many of you have already signed postcards in our lobby to your legislators and the governor urging them to support Clean Slate.

We’re also supporting legislation to repeal Connecticut’s welfare liens statutes. Currently our state and New York are the only two states that have mechanisms for clawing back public assistance money from people who’ve received it. This practice sends people who’ve made their way out of poverty right back into poverty—a classic example of balancing the state budget on the backs of poor people. It is unconscionable, immoral, cruel, and economically unwise. We’re going to end this practice.

GHIAA is also working in the areas of health care, gun violence, and education. Our UUS:E GHIAA core team will keep you informed of opportunities to get involved. If anyone wants to become part of our GHIAA core team, or if you want to work on one of GHIAA’s issue committees, please connect with me and I can point you in the right direction. But what does any of this have to do with our budget? UUS:E has been with GHIAA from the beginning, but we have not become a formal member. You will make that decision at our annual meeting in May. Membership comes with dues. We pay dues because it is our organization. In our everything budget, we pay dues of $5,000 to GHIAA. In the first few years we should be able to get some financial assistance from the Unitarian Universalist Association, but ultimately our dues are our expression of our commitment to a more just and equitable Greater Hartford region. Your extra generosity can make this happen!

Many of you know our congregation has been developing its emergency response plan in earnest for a number of years now. Along the way we’ve recognized there are many things we can do to make our building more secure. Some of you have noticed that we’ve begun installing a public address system using a series of wall units. There are many other upgrades we’d like to adopt, including a video surveillance system, reinforced glass around entry ways and more training opportunities. Our everything budget enables us to begin pursuing these upgrades in the coming year. Your extra generous gift to UUS:E can make this happen!

And yes, we want to treat our staff well. In our everything budget we bring our staff salaries in line with the midpoint of the annual UUA recommendations.

Like every year, there’s much we want to achieve. Why? Because this church matters. Many of you can envision more and more possibilities precisely because you love this church, and you want it to be the best, most effective, most meaningful, most loving church it can be.

But your generous donation to UUS:E is not just about these particular goals. These goals express something much deeper, much more profound and, frankly, much more urgent. Scholars of congregational vitality in the United States tell us organized religion is declining for a host of reasons—people are disillusioned with the church; they see hypocrisy and abuse; they see the church unable and unwilling to address problems in the larger society. We hear family life and kids’ schedules no longer mesh with a regular Sunday morning commitment. We hear the explosion of online entertainment, social media and gaming have greater appeal than church. I said a number of years ago I would no longer preach about the end of church, and I won’t. Suffice to say congregations in all denominations face headwinds.

But there’s a reason we’re still here. There is still a genius to the idea of the local congregation, and none of the headwinds negate that genius. At its best, your local congregation articulates and attempts to live by the values you hold dear; it welcomes you as you are, accompanies you on your life journey, holds you in your times of sorrow and grief, and celebrates with you in your times of joy and success. It helps you and your family mark your life transitions: birth, coming of age, marriage, death. Perhaps most importantly its gathers every week for worship—for holding up that which is worthy of our attention and commitment—and then sends us forth into the world ready to make a positive difference with our living. The local congregation is a powerful answer to the isolation and anxiety so many people feel today. It is a powerful answer to all the forces that divide people from people and weaken communities. And that is why, in Rev. Asprooth-Jackson’s words, “we get out of bed on Sunday morning, answer that email, make something for the [chocolate auction] and give our time and attention to a meeting every third Thursday.” That is why, “We still decide again and again to ask tough questions, take real risks, do the work that needs doing, and tell the truth.”[2] Local congregations of all kinds matter.

Having said that, for me there is a still greater genius at the core of the liberal and liberating church, including this Unitarian Universalist congregation. I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist and I have dedicated my life to our UU faith. I suspect the reasons I am here are consistent with the reasons you are here.

I am dedicated to the church that begins with the premise not that some are saved and some are damned, but that each human being has inherent worth and dignity.

I am dedicated to the church that refuses to contain its peoples’ spiritual lives within doctrines and dogmas but rather says “we trust you to freely and responsibly conduct your search for truth and meaning.”

I am dedicated to the church that teaches we are not separate from but rather exist in intimate relationship with the earth, that teaches the earth does not belong to us, rather we belong to it, and we are therefore called not just to care for the earth but to fight for its survival and well-bring.

I am dedicated to the church that understands the limits of its charity and therefore seeks to transform systems of injustice that create the need for charity in the first place.

I am dedicated to the church that seeks liberation for oppressed people not on its own but in accountable relationship to and in solidarity with oppressed people and their allies.

I am dedicated to the church that knows it doesn’t have all the answers, knows it isn’t perfect, knows change is inherent in our living, and therefore approaches the world from a position of humble questioning rather than unexamined or arrogant theological knowing.

I am dedicated to the church that is not threatened by science, but rather takes science seriously, respects scientific knowledge and methods, and is willing to modify its spiritual views in response to scientific discovery.

I am dedicated to the church whose members take responsibility for its well-being and rely on their own democratic processes to make thoughtful, hard decisions about their collective future.

I am dedicated to the church that makes room for a wide variety of spiritualties and theologies precisely because religion at its best does not limit people, but enables the expansion of thought, belief and practice.

I am dedicated to the church that teaches us not what to believe, but how to live.

I love this church and this faith. I make no apologies for that love. I hope and trust you love this church and this faith unapologetically. I hope and trust, when you contemplate your financial pledge for the coming fiscal year, you will keep in mind the genius of the liberal and liberating, Unitarian Universalist church, that you will recognize how sorely it is needed in today’s world, that you will remember this is a church that matters.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Asprooth-Jackson, Kelly Weisman, ‘The Church that Doesn’t Matter” Bless the Imperfect: Meditations for Congregational Leaders (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2014) p. 26.

[2] Asprooth Jackson, “The Church that Doesn’t Matter,” p. 27.

Enough With the Dystopias Already

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Dystopian Cityscape with Zombies, by Andre Thouin

“I think it’s okay to tell you that everything works out. That it’s okay. And it’s not easy all the time, not even here, because so much is broken, besides silence, but it is possible, it does feel possible. My friends and I feel possible all the time.”[1] A brief glimpse into a hopeful, however dystopian, post-capitalist future from Alexis Pauline Gumbs—queer black troublemaker, black feminist love evangelist, Afro-Caribbean grandchild, prayer-poet priestess, and time-traveling space cadet who lives and loves in Durham, North Carolina.[2] Her story, “Evidence,” appears in Octavia’s Brood, a 2015 collection of science fiction stories written by social justice movement activists.

There’s a soft spot in my heart for dystopian storytelling. Usually as the story begins, everything has changed. Governments have fallen due to climate catastrophes, pandemics or revolutions. Ruthless regimes, secret corporate cabals, zombies, or heartless machines rule the world. Protagonists struggle to survive, to overcome, or just to come to terms with their new reality. In Gumbs’ story the people have emerged out of a dystopian past in which “so much has been broken,” into a more healthy, creative, spiritually-grounded society. “My friends and I feel possible all the time.”

Writers of young adult mass market dystopian fiction sell millions of books which then become blockbuster movies. My son devours them: Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, James Dashner’s Maze Runner, Veronica Roth’s Divergent. I’ve recently started watching the The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 novel. A few years ago I couldn’t put down her Oryx and Crake series. I found Cormac McCarthy’s The Road disturbing but riveting. As a child I read George Orwell’s 1984, Neville Shute’s On the Beach, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, about a lone survivor of a zombie-producing pandemic which was the basis for the 1964 film, “The Last Man on Earth,” starring Vincent Price, the 1971 film, Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, and the 2007 film, I Am Legend, starring Will Smith. (Speaking of Heston, let’s not forget Planet of the Apes.) I go back often to movies like the Wachowsky sisters’ The Matrix, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and the Road Warrior films. I would be profoundly remiss if I did not mention one of the most influential books of our era, Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, which takes place in the midst of a collapsing California. Its main character, a teenager named Lauren Oya Olamina, crafts a nature-based theology called Earthseed. Butler is often regarded as the mother (and sometimes the grandmother) of Afrofuturism. [3]

You may not know all these references. Dystopian fiction may not be your thing, but it is wildly popular. Some fans love it purely as a form of escape. Others are genuinely intrigued with the philosophical questions the genre raises: how would human beings live under certain extreme conditions—a vastly altered climate, a brutally oppressive regime, a failing or failed modern world? And still others turn to this genre to ask: how should we live now? Given worsening climate conditions, increasing corporate power and wealth, the loss of traditional work due to automation, the rise of authoritarian regimes, how should we live now? What kinds of decisions should we make now? What new ethics should we promote now? What sorts of faith, theology and spirituality do we need now?

I call this sermon “Enough With the Dystopias Already.” In using this title I don’t mean to suggest that those of us who love dystopian fiction should stop consuming it. And I also don’t mean in any way to downplay or deny the very real dystopian experiences in many peoples’ lives. If you live under quarantine in the Hubei province of China, or on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship docked near Tokyo, you are living, at least temporarily, in a kind of dystopia. If you live in an area of the world beset by war, or the direct impacts of climate change, you are living in a kind of dystopia. If your community is recovering from a devastating natural disaster, you are living right now in a kind of dystopia. If your community endures high poverty, high crime, failing schools, widespread opioid use, high unemployment or limited health care options you may experience your day-to-day reality as a kind of dystopia. I don’t mean to disregard any of this.

When I say “enough with the dystopias already,” I’m referring to a tendency I observe in myself and others to catastrophize in response to troubling news, to overstate the severity of a crisis; to follow, for example, the news of the corona virus, and to worry incessantly about it here in the United States, without first trying to understand the data that actually exist. For most people who contract the virus the symptoms are very mild. The death rate, though significant, is much lower than that of previous corona viruses, and the flu is still a much more deadly disease. There are globally accepted best practices for containing dangerous viruses which the vast majority of nations are implementing. I’m not saying we have nothing to worry about. I’m not saying it won’t get worse—I don’t know that. I’m saying that given what health officials know, we should be concerned and cautious, we should pay attention, but there’s no reason to panic.

Another example of catastrophic thinking results from our perceptions of political polarization. Yes, polarization is real. Yes, relationships are breaking down over politics in ways we haven’t seen for generations. Yes, there is an ever-hardening tendency among our political leaders to refuse compromise, to resist the solid, pragmatic ideas at the center and hold relentlessly to ideological positions at the margins. But are we coming undone at the seams? Are we descending into chaos? Should we be panicking? Should we be despairing?

Last Sunday’s New York Times opinion section featured an extended editorial by the conservative columnist Ross Douthat called “The Age of Decadence.” “Everyone,” he writes, “knows that we live in a time of constant acceleration, or vertiginous change, of transformation or looming disaster everywhere you look. Partisans are girding for civil war, robots are coming for our jobs, and the news feels like a multicar pileup every time you fire up Twitter.” There’s a lot of catastrophic thinking going on, predictions of dystopia, but in Douthat’s assessment, catastrophe is not imminent. “The truth of the first decades of the 21st century … is that we probably aren’t entering a 1930s-style crisis for Western liberalism or hurtling toward transhumanism or extinction.” He says we’re not living in a dystopian age, but rather an  age of decadence. That’s not good, but it’s not dire either. Our decadent economy, if lacking in innovation, if unjust and unfair in many ways, is still highly stable. “The United States is an extraordinarily wealthy country, its middle class prosperous beyond the dreams of centuries past, its welfare state effective at easing the pain of recessions.” Yes, we face profound challenges. Yes, we live amidst profound contradictions. But “The decadent society, unlike the full dystopia, allows those signs of contradiction to exist, which means that it’s always possible to imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance.” [4]

Douthat is saying “enough with the dystopias already!” Enough with catastrophic thinking. Our society is more stable than we realize, and that means we still have the capacity to address our most daunting crises. I say “enough with the dystopias already” because the more we catastrophize, the more paralyzed we become, the more we fail to identify and exercise our power for the sake of renewal and renaissance, the more we lose the spirit Alexis Pauline Gumbs raises up in her story: “My friends and I feel possible all the time.”

Our February ministry theme is resilience. Catastrophic thinking about dystopian futures weakens our resilience. As I started contemplating this notion over the past few weeks, I began noticing examples of people who are not paralyzed or polarized, but trying simply to use whatever power they have to make our communities more resilient. At a recent meeting of the Manchester Community Services Council, Manchester Fire Department Battalion Chief for Fire-Rescue-and Emergency Medical Services, Josh Beaulieu, spoke about Mobile Integrated Healthcare, a way municipalities and fire departments are adapting to changes in the health care landscape.[5] Given that the majority of 911 calls are not actual emergencies, can paramedics be trained to deliver health care services that keep people out of the emergency room when they don’t need to be there, or redirect them to more appropriate and less expensive health care resources? Might such training help reduce the number of non-emergency 911 calls? Might it reduce the number of emergency room visits and unnecessary hospital readmissions? Might it enable a city like Manchester to provide better service overall to elders, to people with mental illness, to people with living with addictions?

As Mr. Beaulieu started talking about changes in the health care landscape, my mind moved automatically in a catastrophic direction. The health care system is broken! We don’t have health care justice in our nation! We have big insurance, big pharma and hospitals prioritizing profits above actual health care!  I was about to raise my hand, but it suddenly dawned on me his presentation really wasn’t about that. Here was a local fire official, aware of gaps in the health care system that impact his department’s capacity to fulfill its mission, asking, very simply, how can we make this better? How can we close the health care gaps we encounter in our day-to-day response to 911 calls? He’s not fighting zombies. He’s not curing pandemics. He’s not solving the health care crisis. But he is intent on  adapting to changing circumstances for the sake of providing better care. He’s interested in what is possible. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

I think similarly about how we respond to the climate crisis. Learning about climate change very easily leads to catastrophic thinking, and a feeling of helplessness. This isn’t wrong: we’re facing a very real, very urgent crisis, and the big things that clearly have to happen—the big reductions in carbon emissions, the big infrastructure transitions to renewable energy sources, and the requisite international agreements—seem so beyond the power of local communities to address. The challenge is not to become paralyzed or overwhelmed. There are still thousands of actions we can and must take both to prevent further global warming, but also to adapt to already inevitable changes. We still need to work at transforming our local culture to support local food production, recycling, conservation, sustainable design and development. I’ve recently been learning about the Freecycle Network, a grassroots, global network of people who give and get used stuff for free in their neighborhoods and towns. The point is to reuse items rather than throwing them into landfills.[6] Our UUS:E Sustainable Living Committee has just introduced a similar program called the Library of Things.[7] Our members and friends can now borrow tools and other items from each other in an effort to reduce consumption, resource depletion, and pollution as well as, we hope, foster an even deeper sense of community. It’s a small effort. It’s not winning the Hunger Games or resisting Big Brother. It won’t solve the climate crisis. But it is something we have the power to do here and now, one of thousands of adaptations necessary for living well in the midst of climate change. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

One more quick story. A white supremacist organization recently plastered its stickers all over a local town. A member of our congregation witnessed this, and took it upon themselves to remove the stickers. No heroics. This person wasn’t solving the problem of white supremacy. But they also refused to succumb to fear or despair. They recognized they had the power to do something, and they did it. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

In Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ story, “Evidence,” Alexis after capitalism writes an encouraging letter to her younger self, Alexis during capitalism: “It is on everyone’s mind and heart how to best support the genius that surrounds us all. How to shepherd each of us into the brilliance we come from even though our experience breaking each other apart through capitalism has left much healing to be done. We are more patient than we have ever been. And now that our time is divine and connected with everything, we have developed skills for how to recenter ourselves. We walk. We drink tea. We are still when we need to be. No one is impatient with someone else’s stillness. No one feels guilty for sitting still. Everybody is always learning how to grow.”[8]

Gumbs offers a wonderful vision of a future beloved community. She is also advising us how to live now: patient, centered, still and always learning how to grow; not solving every problem—life is still hard—but each of us slowly adapting to changing conditions. After all is said and done, I’m not sure there’s any other way to persevere through hard times. I’m not sure there’s any other way to transform our culture of decadence into a culture of vibrancy, sustainability and liberation. In this late winter season, let us be mindful of our capacity to grow, “to feel possible all the time.” Let’s hold the space for each of us to feel possible, to contribute what we can. And may this be the outward sign of our inward resilience.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence” in Brown Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015) p. 40.

[2] Brown and Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood, p. 288.

[3] Interesting sidebar: In Butler’s sequel, 1998’s The Parable of the Talents, “a violent movement is being whipped up by a new Presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, a Texas senator and religious zealot who is running on a platform to ‘make American great again.’” See: Aguirre, Abbey, “Octavia Butler’s Prescient Vision of a Zealot Elected to ‘Make America Great Again,’” The New Yorker, July 26th, 2019.

[4] Douthat, Ross, The Age of Decadence, New York Times, Sunday, February 9, 2020. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/opinion/sunday/western-society-decadence.html.

[5] Mr. Beaulieu has an article about this on his Linked-In page. See “The Need to Adapt Fire-based EMS to Today’s Healthcare Environment” at

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/need-adapt-fire-based-ems-todays-healthcare-joshua-beaulieu-mba-lp?articleId=6473040885041946624#comments-6473040885041946624&trk=public_profile_article_view.

[6] Check out the Freestyle Network at https://www.freecycle.org/.

[7] Participate in UUS:E’s Library of Things at http://uuse.org/SUSTAINABLE-LIVING/LOT/#.XkReCWhKjIU.

[8] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence” in Brown Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015) p. 40.

Roots Where None Ought to Be (Searching for Agua Santa)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

My clergy study group used to meet at the former, Catholic Our Lady of Peace retreat center in Narragansett, RI. The original building is an old stone mansion called Hazard Castle. On one side of the mansion is a seven-story stone tower which had fallen into disrepair and had been closed off to visitors many years prior. The first time I saw the tower, all of its windows were boarded up, but I was struck by the good-sized, healthy tree growing out through the boards of a second-floor window and reaching up three or four more stories. It was impressive—a tree growing out of a building.

Our Lady of Peace closed its doors in 2006 and later sold the property to a private school called Middlebridge.[1] The tower is still there, still boarded up. I can’t tell if the tree is still there. If they intend to restore the tower, it would make sense to remove the tree so its roots don’t cause further structural damage. What impressed me then, and what sticks in my mind twenty years later, is that tree, somehow planted, somehow thriving in the second floor of an old stone tower. Roots where none ought to be. Roots taking hold, reaching down through layers of human construction toward the earth, finding water and nutrients, finding what is required to sustain life.

Our ministry theme for February is resilience. I offer this tree with roots where none ought to be as an image, a symbol, a declaration of resilience. I am here. I will not only survive, I will thrive.

I figured someone must’ve posted a photo of that tree online somewhere, but I couldn’t find one. I did, however, go hiking at Waconah Falls State Park in Dalton, MA over this past Thanksgiving weekend. On the rock ledges above the falls, trees plant themselves. Their roots creep over the rocks until they find cracks and fissures where they reach down into the soil beneath, down to where the water pools. A photo of one of these trees is on the front cover of your order of service. I assume this type of tree, and the type of tree on the Hazard Castle tower, have evolved over millennia to grow in this way, to plant themselves on rock surfaces. Perhaps they can survive with less water than other trees.[2] Perhaps, given the power of natural selection, this planting is nothing extraordinary. But that doesn’t lessen the power of the image for me. A tree with roots where none ought to be. Resilience.

This is metaphor for our spiritual lives. When life is hard, like rock, and that’s all you know in the moment, what do your roots reach for? When life is hard, like the floor of a rock tower room, like a rock ledge, and that’s all we know in the moment, we might think of resilience as our capacity to find the cracks and fissures in the hardness of life, to reach into them in search of the cool, refreshing, nourishing life-giving waters that pool in great reservoirs below the surface.

As I read through the standard dictionary definitions, I learn that resilience has something to do with rebounding from difficulty, bouncing back from hard times, returning to where we were before the crisis. There are many references to rubber bands returning to their natural state after being stretched. A resilient community rebuilds after the fire, the hurricane, the earthquake, mourns its dead, accounts for its losses, and slowly resumes its daily patterns. A resilient immune system enables us to fight off an illness and resume life as we knew it. As the world tracks the progress of the new corona virus emerging in Wuhan City in the Hubei Province of China, there is much discussion of resilience—who is most at risk, how best to treat the disease? What do we do as a global community to limit the spread of the virus so that it can run its course and we can return to life as we know it? That’s one understanding of resilience: recovering, returning—bending back into our regular shape.

This definition of resilience is fine, but it’s not sufficient for a spiritual exploration of resilience. It doesn’t speak to the spiritual dimension of our lives. Specifically, it doesn’t speak to the reality that we can’t always return to life as we knew it.

A loved-one begins losing their cognitive abilities, slides slowly into dementia. Life simply will not be the same.

A loved one dies. We may return in time to some semblance of normalcy, but life will never really be the same.

We age. I’m old enough to know that there comes a time in our lives when our bodies simply don’t do what they used to do. Despite our best efforts to stay healthy and strong, our bodies slowly, slowly, slowly break down and we can’t go back to the way life was.

This doesn’t mean we lack resilience.

I’m thinking of all those profoundly hard experiences, experiences that cause suffering—living with and treating cancer, living with chronic disease, mental illness, addiction, losing a job, losing a friend. We don’t return to life as we knew it. Sometimes even those things that bring us the most joy are also profoundly hard and push us beyond life as we knew it—raising children, and sometimes grandchildren; sustaining a marriage through challenging times; being true to the self you love even as that self is rejected because of homophobia or transphobia, sexism or racism. So often we can’t return to the life we knew. That life is gone. Certain features remain—we never change completely. But we can’t live the way we used to. Perhaps, in such moments, we are like a tree, on solid, cold, unforgiving rock. Can we now find the cracks and fissures, the often hidden, hard-to-find pathways to those reservoirs of sacred water below the surface? Spiritual resilience is our capacity to adapt to losing the life we knew and accepting life in new forms, on new terms.

Our friends at the Unitarian Universalist resource hub Soul Matters remind us that the word “resilience comes from the Latin re ‘back’ and saliens ‘the beginning, the starting point, the heart of the embryo.” This reminds me: the true starting point is not how we were living before our loved-one died. The true starting point is not how we were living before the diagnosis, before we realized we are aging, before whatever hard thing is happening in our lives. Those reservoirs below the surface? Those holy waters? They’ve always been there. Consider the the waters that sustain life on our planet. They’ve been feeding this earth and its creatures since life began. Our ancient singled-celled ancestors emerged in those waters as they gathered in pools along primordial shorelines. We each rode their gentle waves in our mother’s womb. When life becomes hard, resilience isn’t about getting back to where we were before the hardness; it’s about our ability to keep reaching for our holy waters, our agua santa, our spiritual resources which are, in fact, vast.

In her poem, “Aurelia: Moon Jellies,” tejana poet, Pat Mora, hints at this spiritual vastness as she describes a jelly fish floating gracefully beneath the ocean’s surface: Without brain or eye or heart, / Aurelia drift, / bodies transparent as embryos. / Tentacles trailing, / they ride unseen / currents, bathed by all they need / in agua santa, old sea, / depths where we begin.[3] The true starting point is not where we were before the hard thing entered our lives. The true starting point is the unseen current that has been carrying us, bathing us in all we need, all along.

When I contemplate the image of the tree on the rock ledge on the cover of your order of service, I imagine, though it sits on rock, it knows the holy water is there, knows it has to find the cracks and fissures, knows even once it finds the soft earth beneath the rock, it still must reach deep down to where the water lies in vast pools. There’s a lesson for us in this image. When the hard thing happens to us, it’s very rare that we begin our journey into it with acceptance and grace. More likely we react to the hard thing with strong emotion—sadness, anger, frustration, disbelief. Depending on what the hard thing is, we may simply feel overwhelmed, unsure of how to proceed, unsure of whom to tell, unsure of how to tell it. We may feel uprooted, disconnected, cut off, lost, adrift. Often the hard thing demands that we focus first on technicalities – arranging for a funeral, arranging for doctor appointments, meeting with a lawyer, re-arranging finances, moving. In the midst of strong emotion and dealing with technicalities, we easily become cut off from our spiritual resources. In such moments I commend to you the tree with roots where none ought to be. It knows water is there. It knows to reach. We know it too. Can we remember?

As we wrestle with the hard things in our lives, may we be like trees with roots where none ought to be. May we remember to reach. May we have moments of epiphany:

Oh yes, I remember now: self care. I need to take care of my body: exercising, stretching, sleeping, eating healthy food, and some comfort food. All this is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

Oh yes, I remember now: soul care. I need to care for my soul: surround myself with beautiful music, artwork, books, nature. All this is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

 Oh yes, I remember now: friendships. I need friends who will support me and care for me, people to whom I can name this hard thing, people whom I can ask for help when I need it, people who will spend time with me, engaged in the simple things that bring joy, the card game, the ice cream cone, the cup of tea, the new drama on TV. All this is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

 Oh yes, I remember now: community. I need to participate as best I can in community, to join with people who share common values, a common purpose, common goals. This, too, is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

 Oh yes, I remember now: prayer. I need to still my mind, calm my mind, center my mind, so that I can encounter the sacred, that reality larger than myself that nourishes me, sustains me, reminds me I am not alone. I need to reach for, to invite, to welcome, to embrace the sacred. This is agua santa

Then, finally, once my roots where none ought to be have found the cracks and fissures, have reached deep into the earth, have touched the holy water, then I need patience. Hard things are hard in part because they take time. We read to you earlier “A Center,” from the Chinese-American poet and novelist, Jin Xuefei, known as Ha Jin: You must hold your quiet center, / where you do what only you can do…. / Don’t move even if earth and heaven quake. / If others think you are insignificant, that’s because you haven’t held on long enough. / As long as you stay put year after year, / eventually you will find a world / beginning to revolve around you.[4]

He is not advising us to cling futilely to things that don’t matter, or to obstinately refuse to let go of attachments that cause needless suffering. He’s offering insight  into resilience. Find your quiet center, and wait. He’s advising us to stay rooted. He’s reminding us that our persistence, our perseverance, our patience, help us stay rooted, help slowly strengthen the connections between ourselves and those agua santa reservoirs below. He’s reminding us that it is not only we who adapt to life’s hardness, but that as we root ourselves, life’s hardness adapts to us.

****

Now, speaking of patience, I want to change the subject, although I am still speaking about resilience. I want to offer an update. As some of you are aware, though I know not all of you are aware, our experience of providing sanctuary to an asylum seeker last year was not easy. Disagreements over how best to approach various challenges resulted in conflict, and we are now working with two facilitators from the Unitarian Universalist Association to help us address this conflict well. While it would be unfair to those involved in the reconciliation process for me to share details of that process, in part because we need to honor confidentiality, I want all of you to rest assured that a reconciliation process is underway. Though it is hard, the people involved are engaging with openness, grace and integrity.

Second, though it is hard, my impression is that everyone involved understands that reconciliation takes time. In those who are participating I observe patience, rootedness, and a deep commitment to this congregation. In short, I see incredible community resilience and it warms my heart.

Finally, I previously had said that while we need to honor confidentiality, this conflict is not a secret. I am willing to meet with anyone who would like to know more. I am still willing to do that, however, one of the goals of this process is for those involved to be able to tell one story about why disagreements became so difficult to manage. I am recognizing that, for the sake of the integrity of the reconciliation process, it is better for me not to tell my version of the story, but rather to let the collective story emerge. We’re not there yet. We’re in an in-between space. We’re a tree on hard ground whose roots are seeking the agua santa reservoir below the surface. We will find it. We will tell a common story. Of that I am certain. I thank all of you for your patience. It is yet another sign of our community resilience.

Amen and blessed be.         

 

 

[1] Snizek, Rick, “Diocese Sells Former Retreat Center,” Rhode Island Catholic, April 29th, 2012. See: https://www.thericatholic.com/stories/diocese-sells-former-retreat-center,4943.

[2] After preaching this sermon, a congregant pointed me toward Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, for insight into the role of moss in enabling such trees to grow on rock surfaces. See: https://www.amazon.com/Gathering-Moss-Natural-Cultural-History/dp/0870714996.

[3] Mora, Pat, “Aurelia: Moon Jellies,” Agua Santa / Holy Water (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995) p. 19.

[4] Ha Jin, “A Center.” See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/152066/a-center.

Fragility and the Struggle for Beloved Community

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me?” There is a wretchedness in our nation, in our faith, and in us. White supremacy. Nobody—at least no American—lives untouched by it. To confront it where it lives in us and the institutions we love, we need amazing grace—if not the grace of an all-loving God reaching in and transforming our lives, then in the very least the grace each of us is capable of, the grace we find when we approach our living with humility, integrity and love. We need amazing grace.

We need it because the conversation about race and racism in the United States is changing dramatically.

A potent example: This past August, the New York Times launched its “1619” project with these words:

“1619. It’s not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619 … when a ship arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. Their arrival inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin. Out of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required [and I would add racism against indigenous, Native American people as well]—grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets to the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day…. The goal of the 1619 Project … is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.”[1]

This is not new. The 1619 thesis has been with us for generations. But I believe this is the first time such a widely-read, mainstream, albeit liberal, newspaper has asserted it with such conviction. I don’t think the Times could have made this claim so successfully even ten years ago. The conversation about race and racism is changing dramatically. This includes an evolving understanding of the nature of white supremacy, not as the values and actions of white supremacists, but as the culture of virtually any historically white institution, a culture that centers white voices, white leadership, white employees, white history, without ever taking substantice measures to become truly antiracist and multicultural.

I can’t say definitively what is driving this change in the conversation. The drivers are complex. But I want to name a set of events from the last decade that stand out to me as pivotal. If they themselves aren’t driving the change, they certainly accompany it very closely.

First, November 2008 and then again in 2012, the nation elected Barack Obama as United States president—the first mixed-race, African American, person of color president.

Second, February 26th, 2012, community watch volunteer George Zimmerman fatally shot black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and was eventually acquitted of murder charges. In response, three activists/organizers, Alicia GarzaPatrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, originated the Black Lives Matter social media hashtag.

Third, August 9th, 2014, Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot black teenager, Michael Brown. This led to the Ferguson Uprising. Black Lives Matter exploded into the American consciousness. Police violence against black and brown people and police militarization was exposed in a new way. Other victims of police violence became household names gained national recognition: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, to name just a few.

Spring, 2016, Native American activists and their allies from across North America began massive protests at the Standing Rock reservation against the Dakota Access Pipeline because it poses too great a threat to water resources and to Native American cultural and sacred sites. The protests highlighted anew the phenomenon of environmental racism and the longstanding mistreatment and abuse of indigenous people.

November 2016, the nation elected Donald Trump as president. Notable for my purposes this morning is the way he deploys racist stereotypes and dog whistles to cast his vision for the country, including bigoted comments about Mexican and central American immigrants and the promotion of policies such as family separation; Islamophobic comments and policies—the idea of a Muslim ban; even his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was/is a coded appeal to white fears of a more multicultural and egalitarian nation. He learned and deployed rhetoric from far right, alt-right, and white supremacist leaders and publications, which, whether he intended it or not, fired up white nationalism and Anti-Semitism in the United States. One result of this firing up was the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, during which a white nationalist drove his car into a group of counter-protestors, killing a young activist, Heather Heyer.

Finally, winter, 2017, within our own denomination, we learned of allegations of racist hiring patterns at our denominational headquarters. The call went out from Black Lives of UU and other non-black People of Color leaders for congregations to engage in a White Supremacy Teach-in. More than 700 congregations responded in some way to that call. As one who has been engaged in UU antiracism efforts since the mid-1990s, the idea that 700 congregations would be willing to explore our own white supremacy culture felt like a quantum leap. I don’t think it would or could have happened a decade ago. If nothing else, it was a sure sign that the conversation on race and racism is also changing dramatically within our faith.

This changing conversation feels to me like progress toward the Kingian vision of beloved community. There’s no way to build an antiracist, multicultural beloved community, either in our country or in our congregations, without a willingness to speak the truth not only about our nation’s white supremacy origins, but about how white supremacy culture continues to shape the institutions we love.

In the near term, the conversation remains incredibly challenging, painful, fraught. Every movement forward generates backlash. White supremacists rallied in Charlottesville precisely because city leaders were engaging in the conversation about white supremacy culture, removing the stature of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and changing the name of a city park from Lee Park to Emancipation Park. One can argue the election of Donald Trump was itself backlash by a significant segment of the population against Barack Obama’s eight-year presidency.

There has been backlash within Unitarian Universalism. Our national leadership has been courageous and very clear about the imperatives of exploring, confronting and transforming our own white supremacy culture. We’re now encountering negative reaction to that vision. For example, we’re hearing the charge that confronting white supremacy culture is the new UU orthodoxy. Those who, for whatever reason, don’t want to engage in this work, are saying they no longer recognize their faith. The church that stands against orthodoxy seems to have a new orthodoxy. On one level, I understand this. One comes to worship on Sunday morning and the minister is talking about confronting our own white supremacy culture. There’s a risk, especially for white people, that this message will be taken as an indictment of one’s character. The minister is calling me a racist, a white supremacist. That’s actually not what’s happening, but if that’s how a person hears the message, it creates cognitive and emotional dissonance. Nobody wants to be called a racist. In that sense, the backlash is understandable.

The charge of new orthodoxy is familiar. When we launched the UUA’s Journey Toward Wholeness antiracism initiative in 1997, critics called antiracism the new orthodoxy. We’ve heard this particular bit of backlash before. But let’s be clear: the real orthodoxy in this conversation is white supremacy. Those who resist white supremacy are subverting orthodoxy, not establishing it.

As historically and still largely white faith communities, our people and our congregations need to be much less concerned about the charge of racism, and much more concerned that racism exists, that it is pervasive, that we are all implicated, that unless we are figuring out how to use our collective resources to interrupt it we are actually enabling it. Moreover, our first and second principles— the inherent worth and dignity of every person and justice, equity and compassion in human relations—still call us to confront and transform it. For that we need amazing grace.

I read to you earlier from Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd’s 2019 book, After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism. She tells the story of overhearing a white woman express her discomfort with the lyrics of the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” “We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”[2] “That song, she said—so ghastly.”[3] Rev. Ladd, who is also white, didn’t engage. She didn’t interrupt the conversation. She owns that she could have interrupted, that it is a white privilege to walk away. As she reflects on the incident, she says “the people declare words of slaughter and blood and power because such words, in the context of history, are the only words that are true. I walked away and did not say out loud that people of color are under no obligation to tone it down so that white people can feel more comfortable and less inconvenienced by the presence of a gripping, ghastly truth like white supremacy.”[4]

She confesses it was not the first time she has remained silent, and it likely won’t be the last Of course, she is speaking for the vast majority of us. This begs the question: Why, given what we know, do we still disengage, hold back, remain silent? Why does actual institutional change come so slowly? Why is there so much resistance in us individually and collectively? I have found the concept of white fragility to be extraordinarily helpful in answering this question and understanding the emotional glue that holds white supremacy culture in place. In her 2018 Beacon Press book, White Fragility, white antiracism educator, Robin DiAngelo describes white fragility as a set of reactions white people often have in response to racial stress. In short, most white people think of themselves as good, moral people. Most white people think of racists as bad, immoral people. Most white people don’t see themselves as somehow connected to racism. So any time something happens that reveals racial ignorance or bias, or any conversation that looks more deeply at history and implicates white people as the long-term, beneficiaries of racism, or any time the minister preaches a sermon on confronting white supremacy culture, white people may experience racial stress. White fragility attempts to manage that stress, often coming in the form of denial or dismissal. The women who objects to the ghastliness of the lyrics in Rev. Ladd’s story is manifesting a form of white fragility, an unwillingness to look too closely at the painful truth of white supremacy.

White fragility generates a range of feelings: guilt and shame, anger or outrage. Perhaps at its heart is a desire to stay comfortable. Rev. Ladd’s decision not to engage was also a form of white fragility—not wanting the discomfort of having that difficult encounter. Instead of allowing for deep listening, self-reflection, learning, and engagement, white fragility shuts down redirects, overpowers or flees from the conversation. In this sense, it is the emotional glue that holds white supremacy culture in place. Want to learn more? Our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee is holding a discussion of DiAngelo’s book on Thursday evening, January 30th. All are welcome.

What feels important to say now is that there is an alternative to white fragility. We might call it grace. If white fragility is defensive in response to intimations of racism, grace is curious, open, willing to go deeper. If white fragility is angry, grace is humble. If white fragility is convinced of its own purity, grace understands nobody and no institution is exempt from racism. If white fragility is withdrawn, grace is engaged. If white fragility seeks comfort, grace recognizes that genuine progress is inherently and inevitably uncomfortable.[5]

The conversation on race and racism in the United States and in Unitarian Universalism is changing dramatically. I want to give a shout out to our UUS:E policy board and, in particular, our president Rob Stolzman, for taking this conversation seriously. They’re asking how we can be sure our policies commit us to hiring a diverse staff over time. They’re asking how we can focus our current staff on the work of building an antiracist, multicultural membership. They’re asking, with grace, how we can become more skilled at confronting our own white supremacy culture.

The conversation is changing. I urge all of us, however we encounter it, not to resist, but with amazing grace, to welcome and embrace it.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Silverstein, Jake, “Editor’s Note,” New York Times Magazine, August 18, 2019, pp. 4-5.

[2] Johnson, James Weldon, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #149.

[3] Ladd, Nancy McDonald, After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism (Boston: Skinner House, 2019) p. 117.

[4] Ladd, After the Good News, pp. 117-118.

[5] In this section I am borrowing content from Robin D’Angelo’s chapter about what a transformed racial paradigm might look like. DiAngelo, Robin,White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018) pp. 141-143.

Rarely So Clear: Thoughts on Integrity

Our ministry theme for January is integrity. For the past few months I’ve anticipated talking about President Trump in this sermon. Especially after Congress’s December 18th vote to impeach him, it would seem strange to preach a sermon on integrity and not address what appears to me to be a glaring lack of integrity in the person who holds our nation’s highest elected office.

One definition of integrity is ‘adherence to a moral code.’ President Trump certainly lives and governs by a set of codes. I want to name the codes I witness in his conduct, with the caveat that I know his supporters witness the same codes and interpret them very differently. Among them are: win by any means, including ignoring or breaking the law. Demean your opponents relentlessly. Demand unswerving, unquestioning loyalty from those who work for you; dismiss them when they waver. Repeat falsehoods incessantly so as to obscure the truth or, when that fails, admit wrongdoing as if it’s no big deal, or, when that fails, file law suits and settle out of court. Project strength. Praise dictators. Speak to people’s fears rather than their hopes and dreams. Exploit the weak and marginalized. And most important for the purposes of this sermon, never admit you—or anything you do—is anything less than perfect. He follows these codes with ruthless consistency. One could argue there is a kind integrity in this consistency. However, the moral dimension is highly dubious. The best I can come up with is some version of “might makes right,” which has a long history as a moral philosophy; though as moral philosophies go, it’s among the most cruel, selfish and prone to criminality. Thou shalt exploit thy neighbor—and thy nation—for thyself.

I’m calling this sermon “Rarely So Clear,” in part because the lack of integrity in a public official is rarely so clear as it is in President Trump. I say this mindful that I haven’t spoken from this pulpit about the impeachment hearings. Now that Congress has voted for impeachment, I think it’s important for you to hear from me directly as your minister—though it likely comes as no surprise: based on the president’s conduct in office, I think the impeachment vote was correct. the president is unfit for office. I think the evidence presented during the impeachment hearings, while clearly not complete, is sufficient to demonstrate that he has violated his oath to uphold the Constitution.

But that’s not the sermon I want to preach about integrity. I don’t want to preach it because I don’t know what the useful spiritual lesson is. If the situation were less clear, if there were gray areas, if the president could acknowledge that not everything he does is perfect, if there were traces of kindness and compassion undergirding his actions, then maybe there’d be a sermon here. But this president refuses to reflect, at least publicly, on his own life, refuses to admit mistakes and wrongdoing, refuses to acknowledge in any way his human frailties and imperfections, refuses to ask for forgiveness. There’s no internal struggle in him, just denial. I think it’s much more instructive to talk about people for whom integrity requires self-probing, struggle and confession. I am far more intrigued by people who we assume have incredible integrity, yet who admit to internal conflict and self-doubt. I am far more intrigued by people who seem to lack integrity, yet who can also admit it, and then identify how they are striving to develop it. Integrity—or the lack thereof—is rarely so clear. The spiritual lessons reside in the lack of clarity.

Integrity is more than adherence to a moral code. It comes from the Latin word ‘integer’ which means whole and complete. In this sense, integrity has something to do with embracing all aspects of oneself—one’s gifts, talents, strengths, and also one’s challenges, vulnerabilities, shortcomings. The spiritual writer Parker Palmer once wrote,  “I now know myself to be a person of weakness and strength, liability and giftedness, darkness and light.  I now know that to be whole means to reject none of it but to embrace all of it.”[1] In order to embrace all of it, one must be aware of and able to reflect on those aspects of self that are not so positive, not so perfect, not the greatest ever. Integrity emerges in the crucible of that full embrace.

I read to you earlier a poem, “Who Am I?” by the theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leader of Germany’s anti-Nazi “Confessing Church” during World War II. The Gestapo arrested him in April of 1943 for anti-Nazi activities. They executed him in April of 1945 for his apparent connections to a plot to assassinate Hitler. We rightly regard Bonhoeffer as a person of great integrity for his moral clarity and his resistance to fascism. There is a popular image of him as a person who accepted his fate with courage and peace of mind. He acknowledges this in the poem: “They often tell me / I emerge from my cell / serene and cheerful and poised…. / They also tell me / I bear days of misfortune / with composure, smiling and regal, / like one accustomed to victory.”

And yet this outward appearance does not match his internal state. He describes himself as “disquieted, yearning, sick, caged like a bird, / fighting for breath itself… / helpless in worry for friends endless distances away, / tired, with nothing left for praying, thinking, working, / weary and ready to take leave of it all.” He’s keenly aware of two versions of himself. “Who am I?” he asks. “This one or the other? / Am I one today and another tomorrow? / Am I both at the same time? Before others a hypocrite / and in my own eyes a contemptibly self-pitying weakling?”[2] It’s rarely so clear.

I’m reminded of the private letters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Here is a person of towering, impeccable moral integrity who, we learn, lived for many years in deep despair, feeling that God had abandoned her, and thus, as she put it, being “on the verge of saying ‘No to God.’” In 1961 she wrote to the German Jesuit priest, Joseph Neuner, “the place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me … I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—Heaven—souls—why these are just words—which mean nothing to me.—My very life seems so contradictory. I help souls—to go where?—Why all this? Where is the soul in my very being? God does not want me.”[3] It’s rarely so clear.

I suppose I’m even reminded of Jesus, on the eve of his execution, retiring to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray after celebrating Passover. He is anything but calm and serene. On the contrary, he is distressed and agitated. He says to his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death.” He asks some of them to stay awake while he prays. When he finds them sleeping he is disappointed, angry, saying “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” He doesn’t want to die. When he prays, he says to God, “take this cup from me.” Though he also understands, like Mother Teresa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “your will be done, not mine.”[4] Jesus displays spiritual groundedness and agitation, courage and fear, conviction and misgivings. The gospel writers are embracing all of him. Integer. Whole. Compete. Integrity.

What appeals to me about Bonhoeffer’s poem is what he calls “this lonely probing of mine”—his willingness to reflect on and name his experience of his own weakness and vulnerability, his exhaustion, his fear. As much as he may want to be the perfect, even beatific person his guards say he is, he knows he isn’t that person. At least to him, the full range of his humanity is on display. He’s doing a noble, principled, courageous thing, but in his eyes, he’s doing it imperfectly. We might even say he’s doing a spiritually perfect thing—sacrificing himself for his principles, for truth, for justice—imperfectly. He’s embracing all of himself. Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

There’s a paradox here. The spiritual life isn’t about attaining a state of perfection. God may not show up. And even if God does, our best selves may not show up. Especially in our most difficult moments, there will be doubt, misgivings, fear, lack of clarity. As long as we inhabit these human bodies, there’s no such thing as perfection. As we strive for some abstract or ideal state of spiritual perfection, our bodies, our nerves, our racing thoughts, our anxieties, our contradictions—our full humanity—easily undercuts our striving. Yet, as we embrace our imperfections, as we let that same, complicated, confounding humanity shine through, that’s when we grow spiritually. Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

I recently encountered a version of this paradox in tennis star Andre Agassi’s 2009 autobiography, Open. Not the kind of book I normally read, but it came highly recommended. I don’t feel completely comfortable talking Bonhoeffer, let alone Mother Teresa and Jesus, in the same sermon as Agassi, who is sometimes remembered for the commercial tagline “image is everything.” But I read his book over the Christmas break and found it compelling because he writes very openly about his sheer lack of integrity as a young player, and how he struggled to develop it.

In 1994, at a low-point in his career, Agassi began working with a new coach—a retired player named Brad Gilbert—who gave him advice no one had ever given him before. Agassi writes, “Brad says my overall problem … is perfectionism.” He quotes Brad: “by trying for a perfect shot with every ball, you’re stacking the odds against yourself…. Just keep the ball moving. Back and forth. Nice and easy. Solid…. When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you’re doing? You’re chasing something that doesn’t exist. You’re making everyone around you miserable. You’re making yourself miserable. Perfection? There’s about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can’t lose to anybody, but it’s not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being, for that matter. It’s the other times.”[5]

Agassi struggles to let go of his perfectionism on the court and in his life. It takes him years to internalize Gilbert’s teaching. Even by the time he wrote the book in his late thirties, he clearly still hadn’t fully figured it out. But he knows this about himself. He knows it’s hard to live a life of integrity. And he knows integrity has something to do with embracing every part of himself. Regarding a speech he’s preparing for students at a charter school he founded in Las Vegas, he says: “My theme, I think, will be contradictions. A friend suggests I brush up on Walt Whitman. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I never knew this was an acceptable point of view…. Now it’s my North Star. And that’s what I’ll tell the students. Life is a tennis match between polar opposites. Winning and losing, love and hate, open and closed. It helps to recognize that painful fact early. Then recognize the polar opposites within yourself, and if you can’t embrace them, or reconcile them, at least accept them and move on. The only thing you cannot do is ignore them.”[6] Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

It’s rarely so clear. Integrity takes more than adherence to a moral code. In fact, unthinking, unreflective adherence to a moral code is a form of perfectionism, which can be as dangerous as having no code at all. Bring your whole self along. Question. Probe. Reflect. Notice your contradictions, your polar opposites. Be honest about them. Be humble about them. In this sometimes painful embrace of the whole self lies our very human path to integrity.

Amen and blessed be.

[1]  Palmer, Parker J., Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999)  p. 70.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, “Who Am I?” Who Am I? Poetic Insights on Personal Identity (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2005) pp. 8-9.

[3] Letter from Mother Teresa to FatherJoseph Neuner, most probably April 11, 1961, in Kolodiejchuk, Brian, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (New York: Doubleday, 2001) pp. 210, 211.

[4] Mark 14: 32-42; Luke 22: 39-46; Matthew 26: 36-46.

[5] Agassi, Andre, Open: An Autobiography (New York: Vintage Books, 2010) pp. 186, 187.

[6] Agassi, Open, pp. 383-384.

The Invitation is Always There

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“If you keep thinking, you miss the flower,”[1] says Buddhist monk and global peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.” This is the meaning he derives from the story of the Buddha’s disciple, Mahakashyapa, a foundational story—an origin story—for Zen Buddhism. We shared Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the story earlier in the service. Unitarian Universalist minister and Soto Zen priest, James Ishmael Ford tells it this way:

A large gathering … came to hear a talk by the Buddha. Instead of speaking about enlightenment he simply held up a flower, twirling it slowly in his fingers. Of the whole assembly only one person understood—the Venerable Mahakashyapa. He smiled. Seeing the smile, the Buddha declared, “I have the all-pervading True Dharma, incomparable Nirvana, exquisite teaching of formless form. It does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside scriptures. I now hand it to Mahakashyapa.”[2] According to tradition, the founder of Zen Buddhism, the semi-mythical Bodhidharma, an Indian Buddhist who travelled to China in the sixth century, was the 28th successor to the Buddha through the lineage of Mahakashyapa.

In addition to being an origin story for Zen Buddhism, this story is also a koan, meaning it is itself an object of meditation. Like any koan, its meaning is not immediately, or perhaps ever, apparent to the rational, thinking mind. In response to any koan, one intuits their way to understanding more than thinks their way to understanding. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.” As I encounter Thich Nhat Hanh’s interpretation of this koan, I recognize that, though I think I understand what his words mean, I would be foolish to think I understand what they mean to someone like Thich Nhat Hanh who’d been meditating for over fifty years at the time he wrote them. Furthermore, though I think I understand what his words mean, and though I think I can talk about them in a sermon, the truth is I’m still thinking about them. I’m still thinking about words that advise me to stop thinking. I’m still thinking and writing about words that assure me the all-pervading truth “does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside of scriptures.”

As simple as Thich Nhat Hanh makes it sound, I have to assume I am still missing something. And what I am missing is not a thought—I have plenty of those. What I am missing is not a set of words—I have plenty of those. What I’m missing is an intuitive experience. The experience of being fully present. Do I know what that means? I like to think so … but, there I go again, thinking. Do any of us really know what being fully present means? Had I gone to hear the Buddha speak on that day, had I witnessed him twirling that flower in his fingers and saying nothing for minutes on end, would I have had the wisdom and the skill to quiet my thinking mind, which likely, and very understandably, would have been asking questions like, ‘What does this mean?’ ‘What is the significance of the flower?’ ‘Why twirl the flower in his fingers?’ ‘What kind of flower is it?’ ‘What is Mahakashyapa smiling about?’ Would I have had the wisdom and the skill to quiet my thinking, questioning, analytical, concept-forming mind and let myself fully experience the present moment, fully experience the flower in the Buddha’s fingers? Would I have smiled?

Maybe. I don’t want to rule it out entirely….

But doubtful.

Our ministry theme for November is attention. Although every religious tradition calls on its adherents to pay attention in some way, to pray, to contemplate, to study scripture, to go on pilgrimage, to worship, to “wake now my senses,” as one of our UU hymns says,[3] in my experience no tradition speaks more beautifully or extensively about paying attention than Buddhism. I remind us that our Unitarian Universalist living tradition draws from many sources, including “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” That’s where I am grounding myself this morning. I’m wondering about paying attention for the purpose of being fully present, and I’m turning to Buddhism for guidance.

How often are we fully present—present to any particular moment, like this moment; present to a person, a loved-one, a child, a neighbor, a stranger; present to an activity, washing dishes, drinking tea, raking leaves; present to suffering, physical or emotional pain, abuse, discrimination; present to nature, the changing seasons, the night sky, the barren November fields. Paying attention for the purpose of being fully present is hard. When I say that, I don’t mean it’s hard because of the many ways technology now intrudes into our lives, the rise of social media, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle. And I’m not saying it’s hard because of the troubling, frightening re-emergence of hatreds in our era that so many of us thought were in decline, or because of the troubling, frightening acceleration of climate change in our era. Yes we live in an age of extraordinary distraction, but that’s not why paying attention for the purpose of being fully present is hard. It has always been hard. Many people came to hear the Buddha speak. Apparently only one of them was fully present. It isn’t a question of what’s going on in the world around us. There is something in our very human nature—in the structure of our bodies, our wiring, our brain chemistry, our neural pathways, our senses—something in the way all of it works together—that makes paying attention for the purpose of being fully present hard no matter what is happening in the wider world.

Buddhists speak of the monkey mind—the way the mind very naturally jumps from one thing to another. Monkey mind is not a condition that some people have and others don’t. As far as I can tell, it’s the normal condition of most human brains. The new issue of the UU World magazine, which arrived last week, features an article by the Rev. Erika Hewitt and religious educator Becky Brooks called “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy.” They write “Chaos is an apt term for what happens between our ears during the practice of meditation. That’s because it’s the mind’s natural state to be whirring, planning, and chattering.” They cite the Rev. Eric Walker Wikstrom, who “describes meditation mantras as ‘giving the tiger a certain amount of meat to keep it quiet,’ suggesting that without that distraction, the mind is like a roving, predatory beast.” They proclaim, “Hear us now, fellow monkey minds: the presence (the loud, active presence) of inner voices, noise, and whirl during meditation does not mean you’re doing it ‘wrong.’ It means you’re human.”[4]

I find this very affirming. I hope you do too. My mind often races around, jumps up and down. Does yours? I notice that even when I’m focused on some task like mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, raking leaves, chopping wood, shoveling snow, or when I’m exercising, despite my focus on the activity, my mind is always monkeying: What’s next on my schedule? What’s happening tonight? What do I have to do to prepare for this meeting, or that class, or next week’s sermon? What time is Max’s basketball game? Where is it? Who’s cooking dinner? Oh, wait—I’m not home for dinner. What are the boys going to eat? Who am I forgetting? X is going into the hospital. Y is coming home from the hospital. Has Mason written the final draft of his college essay? If I don’t do anything about it, the thoughts just keep coming. My body is going through the motions of the task; I have no problem performing the task; but my mind is somewhere else. I’m not fully present.

That’s what monkey mind looks like for me when I’m engaged in a task. What’s fascinating to me is how it works when I’m purposefully not doing anything, when I’m actually attempting to meditate, to quiet my mind, to not think of anything at all,[5] to not miss the flower. Then the monkey really takes off. It’s as if true quiet, true emptiness, true presence free of all thought is frightening to the part of me that thinks. The part of me that thinks really doesn’t want to be extinguished. It resists. Don’t stop thinking!

I figured out many years ago I am not on the path to enlightenment. That is, I don’t feel a compelling personal spiritual call to engage in a dedicated, regular meditation practice. Though, having said that, I want to be clear that I recognize the importance such practices hold for many Unitarian Universalists; and I celebrate the spiritual richness Buddhists and those with an affinity for Buddhism bring to our congregations. I may not be on the path to enlightenment, but  being present—as fully present as possible—is important to me, especially in relation to other people. If my mind is monkeying while I’m washing the dishes, that’s my loss, but no harm done. If my mind is monkeying when a family member, or one of you, or a colleague is talking to me, that’s a problem. And though I may never know what it means to be fully present in a state of deep meditation, nevertheless, I can strive for presence in my day-to-day life. Buddhism can inform that striving. And what I learn from Buddhism is that the invitation to be present is always with us in any given moment. It’s an invitation worth accepting.  We accept the invitation by learning first to notice when and how, and maybe why, the mind starts monkeying; and second, learning to gently pull the mind back to the task at hand, to the attempted quiet, to the relationship, the conversation, the present moment. Our capacity to be present to the world begins with being present to ourselves.

Thich Nhat Hanh invites this presence to self through breathing. In those moments when the mind is monkeying, interrupt it with conscious breathing. He says “our breathing is the link between our body and our mind. Sometimes our mind is thinking of one thing … our body is doing another … mind and body are not unified. By concentrating on our breathing, ‘In’ and ‘Out,’ we bring body and mind back together, and become whole again. Conscious breathing is an important bridge.” He offers this mantra: Breathing in, I calm my body. / Breathing out I smile. / Dwelling in the present moment, / I know this is a wonderful moment![6] Breathing will carry us toward presence, but the mind will monkey again. Remember, that’s the norm. Being present requires a continual interruption of the norm. Conscious breathing is one way to interrupt, to bring mind and body together, to come back to the moment.

It’s not a forceful interruption. It’s not bellicose. It’s not judgmental. It’s a gentle and compassionate interruption. The writer Anne Lamott offers a wonderful image. She says, “Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper. So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen, maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence.”[7] The invitation to be present is always there.

In their recent UU World article, Hewitt and Brooks say something similar: “When (not if!) we get distracted … the heart of meditation is to notice your distraction—your departure—and make the decision to try again. The practice isn’t the doing; it’s the return, the reentry.”[8] Our mind will monkey. The invitation to unite body and mind is always there. The invitation to quiet the mind is always there. The invitation to stop thinking and behold the flower is always there. The invitation to offer that heart-felt, genuine smile is always there. The invitation to move back toward presence is always there.

There’s nothing doctrinal or dogmatic about this. There’s nothing here about right or wrong. We won’t be punished for having stray thoughts. The mind will monkey. That’s normal. The invitation is always there to gently pull it back to presence. I find great comfort in this ongoing—dare I say eternal—invitation.

Why accept the invitation? Why does being present to ourselves matter? In short, it’s a gesture of kindness to ourselves, and as far as I’m concerned, each of us deserves kindness. But beyond that, I think it’s also true that as we develop the capacity for being kind to ourselves, we develop the capacity to return kindness into the world. I like the way Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg puts it in a recent blog post. She writes, “the practice of shepherding our attention back to the present—even an incalculable number of times—helps us find the power to be kind to ourselves…. [When] we react to our compulsions with compassion … we open up, and feel a subtle movement of our hearts. This movement of the heart is like the sea moving close to the ocean floor — it is so subtle, but affects everything above.”[9] It effects everything above. In short, kindness to self begets kindness to others.

Is that really true? Maybe it’s just wishful thinking. I suppose it will always be wishful thinking if we keep confining it to the realm of thought. But if we keep thinking we miss the flower. The point is to accept the invitation, to make that gesture of kindness to ourselves, to strive for presence. Will that enable us to bring more kindness into the world? The invitation is always there. And what is there to lose but a few wandering thoughts? May we accept the invitation.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thich Naht Hanh, “Flower Insights,” Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) p. 43.

[2] Ford, James Ishmael, This Very Moment: A Brief Introduction to Buddhism and Zen for Unitarian Universalists (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) pp. 27-28.

[3] Mikelson, Thomas, “Wake Now My Senses,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #298.

[4] Brooks, Becky and Hewitt, Erika, “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy,” UU World (Winter, 2019). P. 18.

[5] Takashina, Rosen, Zetto Zemmi, in Conze, Edward, tr., Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 1959) p. 138.

[6] Thich Naht Hanh, “Conscious Breathing” and “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment” in Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) pp.8-10.

[7] Lamott, Anne, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1994) p. 99.

[8] Brooks and Hewitt, “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy,” p. 19.

[9] Salzberg, Sharon, “A New Vision of Kindness Starts with Paying Attention,” On Being, June 11th, 2016. See: https://onbeing.org/blog/a-new-vision-of-kindness-starts-with-paying-attention/#.

Whose Are You?

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In her poem, “The Small Plot of Ground,” poet and Episcopal priest Alla Renee Bozarth writes: “To feel alive, / important, and safe, / know your own waters / and hills, but know / more.”[1] Know your own waters and hills, but know more. For me, this morning, these words speak to a fundamental tension within Unitarian Universalism between two essential spiritual questions: “Who am I?” and “Whose am I?” (We can also turn them around and ask “Who are You?” and “Whose are You?” We UUs have become highly skilled in asking and answering the first question, “Who am I?”—in Bozarth’s words, knowing our own waters and hills. We are less skilled in asking and answering the second question, “Whose am I?” Frankly, when we talk about the spiritual life, we sometimes forget there is more to know beyond our own waters and hills. This sermon is about the difference these two questions make in our spiritual lives. It also calls for us to start discerning more intentionally not who we are but whose we are.

In my October newsletter column I wrote that we live in a society that invites us relentlessly (though often disingenuously) to respond to the question “Who am I?” I said I feel this poignantly as my high school senior goes through the process of applying to colleges. The primary question this process invites him to answer is “Who am I?” What are his skills, values, passions and experiences that will make him an asset to a particular student body? What kinds of intelligence does he bring? What is his vision for himself? I hope we have parented him in such a way that he has substantive answers to these questions, that he knows his own waters and hills, that he knows who he is and is able to communicate his isness to college admissions offices. I also hope his seventeen years of Unitarian Universalist religious education have helped him to answer these questions, have instilled in him a sense of who he is, have taught him values, and have enabled him to articulate what he believes.

Of course this question—“Who am I?—runs much deeper than high school seniors applying to college. It’s an ancient philosophical and theological question having to do with the nature of consciousness, the nature of the soul, even the nature of reality. Both eastern and western cultures have asked the question and offered a variety of answers for millennia.

There is a quintessentially American version of this question. We can think of the founding of the United States of America as the pinnacle of a long history of European people slowly rejecting the authority of kings and the church in favor of democratic systems that protect the rights of individuals who are free to conduct their lives, work, and religion in a manner they determine—people who are able to ask the question, “who am I?” and then freely assert their answers. Of course, there were profound historical contradictions: slavery, Indian wars and reservations, women as property. Not everyone had rights. Not everyone could safely ask and answer the question “Who am I?” That is still true today. There are places where it is unsafe to speak openly about being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or non-binary. There are places where it is unsafe to speak openly about being an immigrant, or even an atheist. Nevertheless, as flawed as the tradition may be, the ability to ask this question—“Who am I?—the ability to be a particular individual and to proclaim one’s individuality, lies at the heart of the American identity. It’s the tradition of the rugged individualist, the yeoman farmer, the pioneer, the explorer, the adventurer, the innovator, the competitor, the underdog, the captain of industry. It lies at the heart of “Don’t Tread on Me.” It lies at the heart of the First Amendment to the Constitution: freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petition for the redress of grievances.

It is also fair to say this question lives at the heart of Unitarianism Universalism. Though this is a generalization, we inherited it from the Transcendentalists of the mid-1800s who were beginning to sketch the philosophical portrait of the American individual. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sage of Concord, among other things, was channeling the American revolutionary spirit, as well as his understanding of the ancient philosophers—both eastern and western—in an attempt to articulate an innate human power. He was searching for the roots of human greatness, the sources of human genius. He found his answer in originality. He urged his audiences to live not in conformity, not with foolish consistency, but as creators, innovators, originators. In his 1836 essay, “Nature,” he lamented that people so quickly define themselves by the greatness of past generations. Such definition stifles the human spirit. He asked, “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy [based on our] insight and not [on] tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, not a history of theirs?”[2] In his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” he wrote, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” He wrote, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” He wrote, “Do your work, and I shall know you.” He wrote, “Insist on yourself; never imitate.” He wrote, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”[3] Don’t be someone else, don’t be the crowd, the mob, the church, the government; be yourself. Do something new. Who are you?

Today, when I hear us describe Unitarian Universalism as a non-creedal faith that encourages each individual to pursue their own spiritual path, I hear echoes of that Emersonian self-reliance, and behind it the invitation to ask, “Who am I?” When we invite new members of this congregation to “share with us who you are … share your creativity, your experiences, your questions, your doubts, your beliefs, and all your discoveries of life’s meaning,” we’re encouraging them to ask and answer the question, “Who am I?” When we say church ought to be a place where members and friends offer their gifts and pursue their passions, we’re saying the question, “Who am I?” really matters. When our ninth grade Affirmation students recite their credo statements from this pulpit, we’re not testing to see how well they’ve conformed. We’re affirming their unique answers to the question, Who Am I?”

Know your own waters and hills….

But know more.

****

In the end it is insufficient—both for a nation and for a religion—to only ask the question “Who am I?” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think,” but let’s be real: our words and actions affect others. People do think, and feel, and react, and interact. No matter how much we might imagine a unique spiritual life, pursuing our passions, following our hearts, being true to ourselves, we also participate in communities which place certain obligations on us and which, therefore, at times, conflict with who we are. That’s the tension in our Unitarian Universalist faith.

In my October newsletter column I quoted the 20th-century Quaker teacher, Douglas Steere, who once said, “There is no identity outside of relationship. You cannot be a person by yourself.” Who we are does not spring from some wholly original source. Our relationships shape and influence who we are. Our relationships both constrain and expand who we are. Consider how the arrival of a new child affects a family. It is a joyful moment when a parent welcomes a new child, but the child places enormous demands on not only the parent, but the grandparents and aunts, uncles and friends who may be helping out, and on any siblings who now have to share the attention of the primary caregivers. As a caregiver, suddenly your life feels like it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to this new child who is completely dependent on you. Your life is constrained by the demands of this screaming, eating, pooping, peeing machine. Yet its presence immeasurably enriches and expands the lives of parents and all others involved. Steere says “The ancient question, ‘Who am I?’ inevitably leads to a deeper one: ‘Whose am I?’” Who has some claim on us that we need to honor? Sometimes we must temper who we are based on whose we are.

I read earlier a set of what I call “Whose am I” questions from the Rev. Victoria Safford, who serves the White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. Listen to a few of them again and contemplate your answers:

When you look in the mirror in the morning, whose bones do you see? Whose blood runs in your veins? Who are those people, stretching back in time, beyond memory? Where did you come from? Who is within your circle of concern? Whose care is yours to provide? Who carries you in their heart, thinks of you, whether you think of them or not? Who are your people, the ones who make a force field you can almost touch? To whom are you responsible, accountable?[4]

****

A few weeks ago, the staff of our Unitarian Universalist Association New England Region office presented a workshop on congregational covenants. Kate Kimmerle and I attended. Our covenant is our statement of how we intend to relate to each other as members of this spiritual community. It is our commitment to each other. We’re participating with the New England Region staff in a yearlong program that will help us as a congregation re-imagine our congregational covenant. That workshop helped me understand, in a conscious way, something that has been nagging at me at my unconscious for a while. I have been talking about membership in this congregation too much in terms of who we are, and not enough in terms of whose we are.

When you become a member of this congregation, we emphasize your gifts, your passions, your expectations—your answers to the question “Who am I?” This makes sense. We want to learn who you are. We want you to shine! This is true not just for new members, but for all members! But we spend much less time asking about your people who make a force field around you, the people you hold in your heart and the people who hold you in their hearts. And we spend much less time in conversation about this: when you become a member of a congregation, the congregation becomes an answer to the question, “Whose am I?” That is, as a member, you belong spiritually to the people of this congregation. And the people of this congregation belong spiritually to you. You carry us in your heart. We carry you in our heart. You are accountable to us for living your Unitarian Universalist principles as best you can. We are accountable to you for living our Unitarian Universalist principles as best we can. If it’s only about who you are, then it isn’t a real community—it’s a group of individuals with wonderful gifts and passions. Real community continually asks and answers the question, “Whose are you?”

Knowing who we are is critical. It helps us to stand out, be powerful; a healthy community allows for that. Knowing whose we are is just as critical. It reminds us of how we’re connected, how we are held in our vulnerable times. Knowing who we are helps us assert ourselves and our independence. Knowing whose we are reminds us of larger realities larger in which we are embedded, reminds us of our interdependence. Knowing who we are helps us pursue our passions. Knowing whose we are reminds us of our responsibilities. Knowing who we are encourages healthy growth of the ego. Knowing whose we are tempers the ego, encourages greater humility.

Rev. Safford asks:

At the end of the day, through the longest night, in the valley of the shadow of death and despair, who holds your going out and coming in, your waking and your sleeping? Who, what, holds you in the hollow of its hand?

As Unitarian Universalists, we take great pride in the notion that we each build our own theology, that we each construct our own beliefs. You know what? In the absence of a creed, that is a difficult thing to do. What do we base our beliefs on? Personal experience? The Bible? A favorite theologian or poet? A connection to Buddhism? Taoism? Yoga? We arrive at answers: Atheist, Humanist, Pagan, Theist, Agnostic. I find my spirituality in Nature. I lean toward Buddhism. I’m a liberal Christian. Sometimes we speak eloquently about our theology. Sometime we’re utterly tongue-tied. How do I put my Theism into words that make sense? How do I meaningfully describe my Humanism? I’m a pagan but how do I clearly explain the sustenance I draw from the ancient myths?

For those of you who feel stuck when it comes to naming your own theology, let alone building your own theology, instead of asking “What do I believe,” ask, “Whose am I?” Good theology identifies your connections to others and to larger realities. So does answering the question “Whose am I?” Good theology identifies your sources of support, hope and inspiration in difficult times. So does “Whose am I?” Good theology holds you accountable for conducting your life in an ethical way. So does “Whose am I?” Good theolgoy guides you to seek reconciliation when relationships break down. So does “Whose am I?” Good theology keeps you humble, and names who, or what, holds you in the hollow of its hand. So does “Whose am I?” We need this question in our spiritual lives as much as we need “Who am I?”

What are your answers? Whose are you? Let us start having that conversation here in this beloved community.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Bozarth, Alla Renee, “The Small Plot of Ground,” in Roberts, Elizabeth and Amidon, Elias, eds., Earth Prayers from Around the World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) pp. 132-133.

[2] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Nature,” in Whicher, Stephen, E., ed., Selection From Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 21.

[3] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Self Reliance,” in Whicher, Stephen, E., ed., Selection From Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) pp. 147-168.

[4] Safford, Victoria, excerpt from a sermon entitled “Love’s Conditions,” posted at Quest for Meaning. See: https://www.questformeaning.org/spiritual-themes/whose-are-you/.

O, the Beauty of the World!

Rev. Josh Pawelek and David Garnes

Josh:

A few Sundays ago we were playing “Improvs with Mary,” the game where people shout out words or phrases and Mary plays them on the piano. One of the kids asked Mary to play “Rev. Josh’s sermons.” [To Mary] Care to repeat what you played? [Mary plays briefly.] As I heard it that Sunday, Mary launched into a grim, morose, bring-out-your-dead dirge. You all laughed. I laughed too. To be fair, she concluded with a few bright, melodic flourishes, a hint of daylight resolving the dissonance of the storm. Later, Mary said “it wasn’t grim, it was just very serious. And it was the perfect opportunity to tease the minister.” That she was teasing hadn’t occurred to me. I laughed because I thought she nailed it. I thought, “yep, that’s me.”

My preaching isn’t all grim and serious. But when you come to worship on Sunday morning, especially when I am preaching, no matter how hopeful the message, no matter how good the news, no matter how alright I might suggest things are going to turn out—I strive not to ignore the suffering, hatred and violence that infuse and infect so much of the world; and I strive to remember that it doesn’t automatically stop at the boundaries of this building. We aren’t somehow separate or immune from it all.

In my June newsletter column I said I struggle with this month’s theme of beauty precisely because there is so much ugliness in the world—centuries of oppression based on race and gender and class; a national economy fundamentally addicted to militarism and fossil fuels; fear of and violence toward anyone who doesn’t fit into the gender binary; homophobia, transphobia, sexual violence, gun violence; inequity after inequity built into the very structures of society so that many of us benefit without realizing it.  Climate change. I struggle because a central pillar of my call to ministry is naming and confronting all of it with whatever power is available to me and to us, hopefully, with a big dose of humility. Our Unitarian Universalist principles call me to name and confront all the ugliness in the world and our complicity with it, as inadvertent as it may be. I don’t feel comfortable remaining silent in the face of any of it. We cannot live as if it isn’t there. Denial isn’t a spiritually sound way to live. Hence, Mary’s improv. 

****

Our congregation is celebrating its 50th anniversary year, and thus it seemed important on this particular weekend to remember the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a major milestone at the beginning of the gay rights movement. UUS:E member David Garnes was there. I’ve invited David to share his experience. Certainly one thing his words convey is the ugliness of homophobia in New York City in the 1960s.

 

David:

In the summer of 1969, I’d been a New Yorker for six years. I was living in a brownstone on the Upper West Side, on a quiet, tree-shaded block near Riverside Park and the Hudson. Through a happy coincidence, the eight small apartments were occupied mostly by a number of friends like me—young, single and gay. We were a mix of ethnicities—White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian.

On the hot and humid evening of Friday, June 27, Javier, a grad student  from Argentina who lived on the top floor, arrived home from Greenwich Village with big news. “There’s a  commotion down at the Stonewall,” he told us. “Lots of police and people throwing stuff, and they’ve got the street blocked off.”

We all knew the Stonewall, a bar on Christopher Street in the West Village, crummier than most, and run, like most gay bars, by the Mafia (with, apparently, some collusion from New York City’s Finest). The Stonewall attracted all types of patrons. Watered-down drinks were one dollar (relatively expensive in those days), and the bathrooms tended to flood regularly. It was not an elegant place, but its seediness did not stop us from going back, again and again.

That night, we contemplated heading down to the Village to join the crowd. But the hour was late, and, besides, it didn’t sound like much more than a somewhat stronger reaction than usual to one of the police raids that occurred regularly at the Stonewall and elsewhere.

I’d been in bars that were raided many times. The usual scenario consisted of a short warning (lights flashing, someone shouting, “It’s a raid!”), and the next thing you knew you were being herded, like slow-moving cattle, out onto Christopher Street. Sometimes you had to pass through a gauntlet of cops, a few looking fierce, others impassive, one or two embarrassed.

Occasionally, but not often, some patrons were marched into waiting paddy wagons, taken to the local precinct station, and then released. That particularly ignominy never happened to me. Mostly we dispersed into the street and headed off to another bar, or we waited for an hour or so and then returned to the scene of the crime after whatever arrangements had been made between management and the police. It was a game, somewhat humiliating, especially in retrospect, but one not without a certain sense of wacky adventurousness. You just went along with it; it was part of the deal.

   This raid, however, proved to be different. Sometime the next day—Saturday, June 28, another hot one—a friend who lived near the bar phoned and told me that the demonstration had, in fact, lasted through the night and was picking up steam. “Come on down!” he urged. So a few of us decided to take the IRT local subway down to the west Village and Sheridan Square, a block away from the Stonewall.

As soon as we emerged onto Christopher and 7th Avenue, we found ourselves in the midst of a dense and noisy mob. Surprisingly, the street in front of the Stonewall was not blocked off to pedestrians or traffic, but it was impossible to do more than mill around the periphery. The bar seemed to be closed, and the windows were boarded up. Directly across the street, members of the New York Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) stood in formation, wearing helmets with visors and carrying batons and shields.

I watched as demonstrators scrawled slogans like “SUPPORT GAY POWER” and “LEGALIZE GAY BARS” on the boarded-up window of the bar. Any cars that attempted to enter Christopher Street were rocked and jumped on by the crowds of mostly young men. I saw the top of a parked police cruiser crushed by a concrete block dropped from an upper window.

Chaotic activity seemed to come in waves. From the tiny park adjacent to the square, onlookers hurled bottles, bricks, and other objects, some striking observers as well as the police. Trashcans were set on fire. Many men in the crowd were holding hands and kissing, something I’d never seen happen before on this scale in a public place.

Many participants in the previous night’s events had shown up, a few of them conspicuous by their bandages and wounds. I remember one Puerto Rican kid, arm in a white sling and face completely swollen, bruised, and scabbed.

“What did you do last night?” I asked him.

“Not a freakin’ thing. They just clubbed us. My friend’s got a broken shoulder, and I heard some guy’s in a coma over at Roosevelt.” 

 

****

Josh:

I struggle because I also know we cannot live in denial of the beauty of the world. That isn’t spiritually sound either. There has to be room for beauty, too. In my June column I asked you to tell me what you experience as beautiful. I said this isn’t an idle exercise. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to carry us through difficult times. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to generate joy in the midst of despair. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to inspire us when we are lost and directionless. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to knit us back together when we are broken and torn.

Those of you who responded to my request find beauty in all facets of the natural world, in nature seen, heard, smelled, felt, tasted. You find it in family, friends, pets, random acts of kindness, solar panels, fireworks, and human creativity—music, quilting, children’s hand-made cards.

I remind us there is beauty in the midst of hardship and suffering too: the beauty of the human spirit, human integrity, human resilience, human persistence. There is beauty in the bonds people form as they struggle together to change unjust laws and institutional structures. There is beauty in the way communities come together, grieve, heal, and rebuild in the wake of natural disasters or acts of terror. Last Tuesday we welcomed the state champion youth poets, Connetic Word, for a performance. These young poets have a gift for turning their hard life-experiences—their stories of abuse, racism, homophobia and transphobia—their loneliness and pain—into powerful artistic expressions. Even as their poems use hard language, hard words, hard images to describe the ugliness they’ve experienced, the energy, heart, soul and spirit they put into their craft is beautiful.

There is beauty in people waking up to the ugliness in the world and saying ‘we’ve had enough;’ saying ‘no more;’ saying ‘it’s time to fight back;’ saying ‘it’s time to rise up;’ ‘time for change;’ ‘time to build beloved community;’ time to welcome everyone,’ and really mean everyone;’ time to say ‘I want my life to be different!;’ time to say ‘I commit my life to some cause greater than myself that will serve others and the earth.’

There must be room for beauty too. Let us train our hearts and souls to find it even in the most difficult moments.

****

David:

As I left Sheridan Square that night, I bought the Sunday Times, expensive at 50 cents but always eagerly awaited on Saturdays around 10 pm at subway newsstands throughout the city. On the ride uptown I looked for mention of the riot from the night before. Deep within the paper there was a short article with the headline “4 POLICEMEN HURT IN ‘VILLAGE’ RAID…MELEE NEAR SHERIDAN SQUARE FOLLOWS ACTION AT BAR.”

The report was brief, with no reference to previous raids, arrests, and nothing from the point of view of the protesters. That kind of minimal coverage would continue in the Times for the next several days, though the tabloid Daily News played it up with photos and longer pieces, as did the Village Voice.

As we arrived back at Sheridan Square on Sunday afternoon, I was surprised at the activity still going on. Amazingly, the bar had reopened for business, and a steady stream of customers wandered in and out. But the police were there in full force, including several on horseback. I saw another damaged cruiser, this one with its front windshield shattered. A parking meter lay overturned in the street, and I later learned that it had actually been used on the first night to batter the entrance door of the bar.

I stood awhile, observing, perhaps too chicken to go in the bar, and then left. We later found out the Tactical Police Force eventually cleared the immediate area. I also heard that poet Allen Ginsberg visited the bar in the evening, encouraging the patrons inside. In a later interview he described them as “…beautiful…they’ve lost that wounded look everyone had ten years ago.” Sporadic gatherings occurred over the next few days, but the demonstration was essentially over.

Did I realize that I’d been present at a seminal moment in American sociopolitical history? Perhaps not that weekend, though Stonewall was certainly the most dramatic example I’d personally witnessed in terms of a minority group taking a stand. I’m not sure it was the single event of Stonewall itself those few days, but rather its snowball effect over the following months that signaled the changes that were to come.

After Stonewall, I began to join in gay demonstrations around the city. I clearly remember marching on Fifth Avenue in those early days. Basically, we were a small group of people—men and women—simply walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk. There were no floats, no costumes, perhaps a few signs and banners. I was always very aware of the tourists gawking at us from the sidewalk, and I was never comfortable during those early peaceful protests. But I kept on marching.

Perhaps taking to the street occasionally wasn’t such a big gesture on my part, but it probably wouldn’t have happened at all had it not been for the brave protesters and demonstrators at Stonewall. Occurring in the midst of other social upheaval that pivotal year half a century ago, this small uprising is now rightfully seen as the turning point in the gay civil rights movement.

We’d all had enough.

****

Josh:

I know why I struggle. I worry that naming and reveling in the beauty of the world is a trap, a privilege, an elite myth that obscures the ugliness, the injustices, the suffering, especially the suffering humans perpetuate on one another. And indeed, many people pursue beauty as a form of escape, a form of denial. Mary and I were talking about this and she asked. “how can we have a genuine experience of beauty that doesn’t require us to keep our heads in the sand?” For me, that’s a fundamental question. We agreed—and I hope and trust you do too—there’s a difference between escaping into something beautiful that numbs us to the pain of the world vs. encountering something beautiful that enlightens us, increases consciousness, wakes us up to that pain; wakes us up to the harder, deeper truths of the world. And our task as liberal religious people is to pursue the beauty that wakes us up.

In that pursuit, the chords may sound serious, ominous, foreboding, grim. But beauty resides in the hard truths too. Listen for it: a few bright, melodic flourishes at the end, a hint of daylight resolving the dissonance of the storm. And once you’ve heard it, may it sustain you. May it move you to re-engage with life, inspired, grounded, healed, committed.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

Groundhoggin’

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Across the northern hemisphere, spiritually speaking, these early days of February mark an auspicious time.

In early February we arrive at the middle of winter. We arrive at a cross-quarter time—halfway between solstice and equinox. In the ancient Gaelic calendar, this is the time for the celebration of Imbolc or Oimelc—Imbolc meaning ‘in the belly,’ pregnant; Oimelc referring to ewe’s milk,’ because the sheep are pregnant, ready to give birth. The milk is beginning to flow. Spring is coming.

Among pre-Christian Celtic peoples, as well as in many current-day pagan communities, the celebration of Imbolc—typically on February 2nd—is associated with Brigid or Bríd, the ancient Irish goddess: the exalted one, keeper of the flame, guardian of home and hearth, patron of bards and crafters, a poet, a healer, a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the ancient Irish tribe of gods.

In Catholicism February 1st is feast day of St. Brigid, who was likely a fifth-century Irish nun, remembered for founding monasteries and churches. Catholics attribute a number of miracles to her. Her blood was said to have healing properties. She’s rumored to have turned water into beer. Many historians of religion argue that over time, Brigid the Catholic nun took on the characteristics of Brigid the pagan goddess. These arguments ring true to me. Because the people would not—perhaps could not—give up their goddess, the church Christianized her, elevated her, venerated her. Thus the more ancient patterns and meanings remain to this day, even if they reside in the shadows.

This is also the time of Candlemas—typically February 2nd—the Catholic feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Briefly, in the Torah a newborn male child is circumcised eight days after birth. Thirty three days after that, his mother presents herself at the temple for purification, which she achieves through animal sacrifice.[1] In the Christian book of Luke, Jesus’ family participates in this ritual.[2] I find it fascinating that these rites of purification for Mary and Jesus occur exactly at the cross-quarter moment between solstice and equinox. For me, it signals a deeper, more ancient agricultural and earth-based spirituality living in the shadows of the Biblical stories.

Over the centuries Candlemas has become the time in many Christian denominations—not just Catholic—for the blessing of the candles the church will use in worship for the coming year. Supposedly the candles play a role in warding off illness. Some of you may have childhood memories of holding the blessed candles up to your throats in worship as protection against winter colds and flu.

And of course, animal divination figures prominently at this cross-quarter time. February 2nd is Groundhog Day. 19th-century German immigrants—the Pennsylvania Dutch—my people!—first introduced the idea that groundhogs have the power to predict the timing of spring’s commencement. Weather divination has long been important to agrarian and earth-based people. A farmer ought not to plant seeds if more frost and snow are likely. In some parts of Germany Candlemas was known as Badger Day; for in addition to American groundhogs and British hedgehogs, other animals known to have the ability to predict the coming of spring are bears, foxes and badgers.

It’s an auspicious time. Themes of divination, purification, healing, clearing away, getting ready, birth and the coming of spring abound. And so much seems to lie beneath the surface, in the shadows, hidden just beyond our conscious awareness.

****

I will be the first to own that what we might call the typical Unitarian Universalist (which I’m sure none of you are) doesn’t give much credence to all the magic and ritual that has built up around this cross-quarter time. Animals forecasting the weather? Blessed candles warding off illness? Purification through animal sacrifice? A nun’s blood healing the infirm? The power of ancient gods and goddesses? For many of us our natural inclination is to appraise it all as mythology, metaphor or quaint superstition. Many of you left your childhood religions precisely because these kinds of things didn’t make sense, weren’t rational. Many of you explored Unitarian Universalism because of our commitment to the use of reason in our collective religious life.

For me that commitment remains unwavering; and yet I am also drawn to the kinds of human experiences that occupy spaces our reason can’t easily access. Recently our UUS:E Humanist Study Group read an article by former Unitarian Universalist Association President, the Rev. Bill Schultz called “Our Humanist Legacy.” In it he describes how encounters with psychotherapy and with the death of beloved family members led him to understand the limits of reason in religion. He writes, “I came to have a far deeper appreciation for the irrational in every form and a far greater access to my own feelings, limits, and yearnings than I had had before…. Much of [my religion] seemed … too quickly dismissive of the vast realms of human experience that could not be reached by cognition alone.”[3]

He asks: “What are we to make of all the human experiences whose meanings could not be completely captured in scientific terms—dreams, for example, emotions, religious aspiration, wanton cruelty?…. All this could be reduced to physiological phenomena … but anyone who tried to capture the holistic significance of love or loyalty, guilt or grandeur, in terms of brain cell functioning alone could be rightly accused of displaying a pitiful paucity of imagination.[4]

Like Schultz, while not wanting to jettison reason from our religious lives, I have always been interested in how we cross the line spiritually from the reasonable to the unreasonable, the rational to the irrational, the mundane to the miraculous, the conscious to the unconscious, and so on. As people who take great pride in our reasonable approach to religion, and often lead with it when we describe Unitarian Universalism to others, I think we’re always at risk of missing something spiritually significant if we don’t develop skills for crossing those lines. I’m not talking about crossing a line into some kind of irrational belief or accepting some impossible miracle as true. I mean crossing into those dimensions of our lives reason cannot access.

That takes spiritual skill. Though I don’t claim to be expert in this in any way, the skill I want to introduce to you this morning is the use of intuition. You might say, ‘intuition isn’t a skill. Either you have a hunch about something or you don’t. Either you intuit something or you don’t.’ I say there’s more to it than that. I am convinced we intuit things about our surroundings and our lives all the time, yet for a variety of reasons we don’t notice it when it happens. We’ve learned to ignore it. But we can unlearn. We can develop our capacity to notice and respond to our intuitions more regularly. In honor of this particular cross-quarter moment, I affectionately refer to this skill as groundhoggin.’

What does the groundhog supposedly do? It wakes from its winter slumber, leaves its lair, and pays attention. I read to you earlier from spiritual writer Thomas Moore’s A Religion of One’s Own. He reminds us: “‘intuition’ comes from the Latin word that means ‘to keep watch over.’ To be intuitive is to be prepared to see some new kind of information or insight that is faint and passing. Intuitions come and go quickly, you have to watch for them…. They are … subtle messages coming at you, but so delicate and thin that you might easily let them go by. Because they are not the product of reasoning and factual research, you have to learn to sort them out and eventually trust them.”[5]

Moore writes about reading tea leaves, a global practice with ancient Chinese origins. He doesn’t believe tea leaves have some kind of magical property such that they can tell your fortune or predict the future. He describes a practice of paying attention to whatever images he immediately sees in the leaves—a dog, a horse, a person, a house, a car, tree, etc. Then he uses the image as a prompt for further contemplation. Why might I have seen the image of a car? Do I need to go somewhere? Is there some journey I need to take? Have I been wondering about the role of technology in our lives—the convenience of technology? The danger of technology? Did I forget to change my oil? He does the same kind of practice with the I-Ching, another ancient Chinese divination method. He does it with tarot cards. He speaks also of just noticing synchronicities—when two completely unrelated things happen at the same time in a meaningful way. Why did a certain person come into my life at a specific time? Why did a certain book come to my attention at a specific time?

He’s not saying there is some underlying, magical order to it all, or that some deity is orchestrating every minute aspect of our lives. He’s suggesting there’s an unconscious, irrational part of us that is constantly sensing things in our surroundings, very quickly making meaning out of what it senses, and then offering us images or impressions. But they’re vague. They’re opaque. They’re fleeting. Learning to pay attention to them, learning to keep watch over them, takes practice. As we practices, as we learn to parse out what they mean, we become more intuitive.

In protest, you could very reasonably argue that we’re just making things up here. A tea leaf car is just a tea-leaf car. Certainly there’s truth to that. But I’m mindful of our seventh Unitarian Universalist principle, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” We often interpret this principle as a call to care for the earth; but this principle is also a statement about the relational nature of reality which the study of biology increasingly verifies on a macro level and the study of physics increasingly verifies on a quantum level. All reality is interdependent, interconnected, interrelated. If this is true, then it is reasonable to assert that some connections—in fact, most connections—work beneath the surface of our knowing. They touch us in countless ways, they hold us in countless ways, but we aren’t consciously aware of them. Still, at some deep level, our bodies know. And often that’s what intuition is—a fleeting glimpse of an underlying connection. So why not learn to invite our unconscious, irrational, dreaming mind out into the open? Why not learn to keep watch over what lies beneath, what lies in the shadows? Why not go groundhoggin’?

In her meditation, “Winter Blessing,” the Rev. Kathleen McTigue suggests there is a vast world beyond our knowing. Even when the light goes out. / Mystery shimmers and shines in the world / in even the darkest corners. / It’s there where the roots push life into soil and rock, / in small lives lived under every stone; / there in the silent pulse beneath the tree bark. It’s in the depth of slow tides as they turn,/ there in the sky on moonless nights / when muffling clouds block out the stars. / It’s there in the prison, the hospital, / by the hospice bed, / there at the graveside, in the empty house– / something beating in the dark shelter / of our hearts– / the small shine of hope, the gilt edge of darkness. And then she invites us into a more tangible awareness of it all:  May we be granted the gift of deeper sight / that we might see—with or without the light.[6] As I read it, she’s talking about paying attention, keeping watch over, being intuitive. Groundhoggin!’

And when all else fails, there is Lynn Ungar’s groundhog-inspired advice: Do you want to play your part / in bringing [spring] to birth? Nothing simpler. / Find a spot not too far from the ground / and wait.[7]

****

From time to time we catch a glimpse of something else—some other reality beyond our senses, below the surface. We don’t see it per se; we feel it, imagine it, dream it. Maybe it comes to us in our quiet, contemplative moments. Maybe it comes to us in our moments of great celebration or exertion when we’ve danced, sung, run or stretched our bodies so far beyond their normal positions that somehow we open ourselves up to a world of power and magic, connection and sacredness waiting, always, just beyond our regular lives. Maybe it comes to us because we’ve developed our intuitive capacities.

Perhaps this cross-quarter time, drenched in layers of ritual, history, and superstition, is one such moment when we can pierce the veil and know a greater reality. Perhaps. But even if we can’t pierce it, we can nevertheless pause, lean back, and open ourselves up to the ancient cry, echoing across the generations: The fires are burning! The ewe’s milk is flowing! The earth is breathing. The light is returning! Spring is coming!

Happy Groundhoggin.’

Amen. Blessed be.

_________________________

[1] Leviticus 12.

[2] Luke 2.

[3] Schultz, Bill, “Our Humanist Legacy: 70 Years of Religious Humanism,” UU World, November/December 2003. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/unitarian-universalisms-humanist-legacy

[4] Schultz, “Our Humanist Legacy.”

[5] Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World (New York: Avery, 2015) pp. 204-205.

[6] McTigue, Kathleen, “Winter Blessing,” in Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2011) p. 5.

[7] Ungar, Lynn, “Groundhog Day,” in Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p.30.

Testify! Witness! Re-Imagine!

This is a sermon about how faith communities must respond to the reality of sexual violence in our larger culture. Specifically: how are we, as people of faith, called to heal the trauma with which too many people live as the result of widespread sexual violence?

The immediate impetus for preaching this sermon came in late September, when Professor Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about her experience of sexual assault in high school at the hands of then Supreme Court Nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. That hearing, that tragic episode in our nation’s history, revealed to me some basic truths about our culture:

First, perhaps due to increasing levels of education around rape prevention in high schools and colleges; perhaps due to the increasing willingness of people to file complaints about sexual violence in the work-place; perhaps due to the increasing visibility of the #MeToo movement; perhaps due to the incredible work of organizations like the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence[1]—there is a public recognition—and at times an expectation—that some allegations of sexual violence need to and will be taken seriously.

Second, nevertheless, people who attempt to speak about their experience of sexual violence, from the most mundane office harassment, to the most brutal assaults, still have to fight to be heard and typically have to endure withering criticism for making public allegations in the first place: “Why didn’t they tell anyone when it first happened?” “Why did they wait so long to say anything?” “Why can’t they remember exactly what happened?” Or worse, “What was she wearing?” “She was probably asking for it.” “Boys will be boys.”

Finally, it is easy for people in power—and truly for people in general—to feign concern, sympathy, even empathy for survivors of sexual violence, and then to ultimately ignore them, as if they had never spoken at all. Jude Kavanaugh is now Justice Kavanaugh.

Of course, Blasey Ford’s testimony did not reveal everything about our nation’s culture of sexual violence. As important, as powerful, as believable as her testimony was, it is also true that her various identities—educated, credentialed, successful, white, college professor—may actually have obscured as much as they revealed. Blasey Ford offers one, compelling image of who survivors of sexual assault are. But we need to remember that women of color experience sexual assault. Men and boys of all racial identities experience sexual assault. Gay and lesbian adults and youth experience sexual assault. Transgender people experience sexual assault, especially trans women of color. Immigrants experience sexual assault. Elders experience sexual assault. People with disabilities experience sexual assault. People in the military experience sexual assault. People in churches, in synagogues, in mosques experience sexual assault.

Yes, Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony created a compelling opportunity for faith leaders to talk about the US culture of sexual violence, and it is important to take that opportunity. And, it is also true that it shouldn’t take such a high profile revelation to move faith communities to speak and act out against that culture. It is a long-standing culture. The colonial system that gave rise to our nation and which still operates in our structures and in our national psyche had sexual violence at its heart. The slave system that anchored the economic prosperity of our nation from its earliest days and whose legacy lives on in our structures and in our national psyche had sexual violence at its heart. Sexual violence is one of the great unspoken, unacknowledged, still too invisible truths of our national history and our current national life.

What I want is for the reality of sexual violence in all its forms to be speakable, utterable, nameable, acknowledgeable, visible here. What I want is for us, here, to be able to receive disclosures of sexual violence with compassion and love. What I want is for us to be able to hold, nurture and honor survivors of sexual assault, in ways that give power and agency back to them, in ways that bring healing not only to them but to the wider community. What I want is for us to become active bystanders—people who can’t keep quiet in the face of sexual violence, people who demand respect for others in all situations, people who intervene when they witness sexual violence or the potential for it. What I want is for our congregation to not shy away, but to be able to speak about sexual violence as a public health crisis—as an epidemic—with forthrightness, conviction, and the resolve to treat it like we treat any other epidemic. What I want is for our words and deeds to contribute mightily to the dismantling of our national culture of sexual violence and to the building up of a new culture that recognizes the integrity of all human bodies and promotes agency, respect and justice.

****

Our ministry theme for November is memory. This theme provided a second, perhaps deeper impetus for speaking about sexual violence now. Traumatic events, because of their very nature, can be difficult to remember. They often become buried—a very natural, human response. The mind creates a buffer, a protective layer. Remembering requires the removal of the buffer. Remembering requires re-visiting, re-experiencing, re-living the trauma. For some people, it is truly best not to remember, and that is always a choice we must respect. And yet, in most cases, healing from sexual violence is very difficult without remembering, and without speaking aloud what one remembers. So when I speak of this congregation becoming a place where sexual violence in all its forms is speakable, utterable, nameable, acknowledgeable, visible, I’m asking us to imagine ourselves as a place where traumatic memories can be safely recalled, shared and honored.

Laura Cordes, the outgoing executive director of the CT Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said “I think one of the messages to go along with the ‘memory’ theme is ‘how we respond, matters….’ Victims REMEMBER how people (friends, family members and those in position to help) respond. The memories of the insensitive, shaming, dismissive, and blaming responses contribute to and can be just as harmful as the assault itself and keep survivors from getting the support, validation, healing—LET ALONE JUSTICE—that they deserve.”

In considering how to respond well, I’ve been turning to theologian Serene Jones’ 2009 book, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World for guidance. Serene Jones is the president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and formerly the chair of Gender, Woman, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. Informed by her research  in theology and trauma studies, she offers an overall framework for trauma work in congregations.  

There are three components to this framework: testimony, witness and re-imaginging. Jones says, “First, the person or persons who have experienced trauma need to be able to tell their story. The event needs to be spoken, pulled out of the shadows of the mind into the light of day.” That’s testimony.

“Second, there needs to be someone to witness this testimony, a third-party presence that not only creates the safe space for speaking but also receives the words when they are finally spoken.” That’s witness.

“Third, the testifier and the witness … must begin the process of telling a new, different story together: we must begin to pave a new road through the brain.”[2] That’s re-imagining.

So what might a congregational response look like? I’m not suggesting a random sharing of traumatic memories. I have a specific process in mind. Such sharing needs to be intentionally and lovingly managed through covenanted small groups and with carefully-crafted rituals. I imagine any member or friend of this congregation, living in the aftermath of sexual violence, who feels ready to begin a healing journey, ready to reclaim agency and power, ready to reclaim their life, could request that we create a trained small group to journey with them, to listen to and hold their story, to help them tell a new story, and to ultimately rededicate their life to the sacred power that lies within us, beyond us and between us.

That’s one possibility for how we can hear, hold and support the healing of individual survivors of sexual violence: creating spaces for testimony, witness and re-imagining.

****

With this idea in mind, I’d like to take a moment for us as a congregation to honor victims of sexual violence—people who have survived and, as the case may be, people who died as a result of sexual violence. I offer to you a very simple, candle-lighting ritual. I invite you to breathe deeply. I invite you to relax. I invite you to imagine the face or the name of someone you know who has experienced sexual violence. It might be yourself. It might be a family-member or friend. It might be someone you don’t know well, but you are familiar with their story. It might be someone you only know from a story in the news. Imagine the face or the name of someone you know who has survived sexual violence.

Hold them in your mind’s eye.

Hold them in your heart.

Now, if you would like to light a candle as a way to honor this person’s experience, their suffering, and their journey back to power and agency, please come forward at this time.

[Music]

We pray for all those who have experienced sexual violence.

We pray that they may find healing.

We pray that, if it is their wish, they may find the courage and the strength to speak aloud their experience.

We pray that if and when they speak, there will be a caring, loving community gathered around them, prepared, open, ready to listen, ready to hold them.

We pray that with this caring, loving community, they are able to reclaim the power and agency that was taken from them.

We pray that with this caring, loving community, they are able to re-tell their story, able to re-imagine their life in new directions with new possibilities.

We also pray also for our congregation:

That we may be a congregation that speaks to the world of the realities of sexual violence;

That we may speak with tenderness but also with unflinching resolve;

That we may tell a new story of our own faith as one that promotes human integrity healing, respect, and justice.

And, buoyed by this new story, that we may join the work of dismantling our national culture of sexual violence.

****

Changing culture in a single institution, like a church, is hard enough. Changing the culture of a country may seem beyond comprehension. Such change takes decades. Such change takes millions of committed people. Sometimes when we let the magnitude of the problem—and the magnitude of what is needed to address it—wash over us, we feel powerless to effect change. But we’re really not powerless. Simply by saying that the experience of sexual violence will be uttered, named, spoken aloud, made visible here is an exercise of our power. And the act of creating safe spaces for survivors to speak and be held and begin to rebuild their lives—that is an exercise of power. And I love this notion of the active bystander—one who cannot keep quiet about ending sexual violence; one who intervenes when they witness it happening or anticipate it is about to happen. We can commit ourselves to being active bystanders. That is an exercise of our power. And from there, we can be those who volunteer. We can be those who support. We can be those who advocate. We can be those who lobby. We can be those who testify! Those who witness! Those who re-imagine! We have power. Let’s use it. There is a movement to end sexual violence in our nation. Let’s be part of it. Let’s build that new way.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Learn more about the CT Center to End Sexual Violence at https://endsexualviolencect.org/.

[2] Jones, Serene, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009) p. 32.