The Things That Heal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

This morning I continue exploring our February ministry theme, resilience, by reflecting on the role spirituality plays in healing: healing from illness—physical illness, mental illness; healing from addiction; healing from childhood traumas, from abuse, from rape, from neglect; healing from being the victim of a crime; healing in the wake of the death of a loved one; healing from broken relationships; healing from stressful life circumstances—overwork, exhaustion, job loss, financial struggles, caring for a family member or friend with a chronic illness, distress and anxiety in response to world events—terrorism, global warming, war. I’m sure you can add to the list. Nobody leaves this life without having to heal from something. Nobody leaves this life without suffering in response to something. For me this is an integral facet of the human condition, an inevitable feature of the human experience. Yes, some people need more healing than others, and some suffer more than others, and sometimes the unequal distribution of need and suffering seems immensely unfair. But nobody escapes this fate entirely. So many things can and do happen to our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our souls that unravel us, pull us apart, break us into pieces, leave us living in fragments. How does spirituality help us bind the pieces of ourselves back together? How does it aid in healing? How does it strengthen our resilience?

I want to first critique a common assumption about the role of spirituality in healing, essentially that one’s capacity to heal is determined by the strength of their belief, by the power of their faith in God. Most often this assumption is grounded in the deeper assumption that Biblical stories are literally true. For example, in the book of Mark, Chapter 10, a blind man comes to Jesus pleading, “Teacher, let me see again.” Jesus says to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regains his sight.[1] It could have happened. It could be literally true. And if one believes it is literally true, it is understandable they might conclude strong faith is essential to healing. I don’t reject this idea entirely. I know many people who are convinced that their faith played a significant role in their healing. And certainly strong faith in God can bring a person through very difficult times. But there’s a pernicious ‘other side’ to this assumption. What happens when the person of strong faith doesn’t heal? Does that mean their faith still isn’t strong enough, that they don’t believe correctly, that they aren’t praying right, that they’ve sinned, that God doesn’t find them worthy of healing? Sometimes people say God must have a reason and we aren’t meant to know. But that’s a theological cop out. The reality is, some illnesses have no cure. Some circumstances are beyond help. Sometimes our brokenness is larger than all the resources we have to address it. To fault the strength of one’s faith in such situations is unhelpful and unfair—sometimes it comes across as downright mean. The role of spirituality in healing is far more multifaceted than simply having correct belief.[2]

Taking this critique further, one of the challenges I encounter as a minister entering a hospital to provide pastoral care to one of our members or friends is that people I meet there—doctors, nurses, other staff, and occasionally patients and their families who I meet inadvertently—will sometimes apply this common assumption about faith and healing to me. When they realize I’m a minister, they assume I am Christian. I’m not. They assume I am a traditional theist who worships some version of God the Father. I’m not. They assume I intend to pray to God the Father with my parishioner, which happens, but very rarely. They assume I hope to buttress my parishioner’s faith in God the Father in order to aid in healing—also very rare. I don’t expect people to know how a Unitarian Universalist minister approaches pastoral care—or even what a Unitarian Universalist is—so it makes sense that these assumptions get attached to me. I try to be gracious. If someone pulls me aside and says “pray with me, father,” I pray with them. And those can be very powerful moments for me. But these assumptions don’t begin to describe how I approach my role in healing, and they don’t relate to the ways I witness spirituality aiding in the healing process for Unitarian Universalists who, we know, come in many theological varieties: atheist, theist, humanist, agnostic, Buddhist, mystic, pagan, Jewish, Christian and endless combinations, mixtures and mongrels. Given this diversity, the ways spirituality can aid the healing process are endless—no two situations are exactly alike. But over the years I’ve discerned five liberal commandments for spirituality and healing that emerge out of my journeys with you—Unitarian Universalists—as you seek healing in your lives.

First, get out of the body’s way. Healing begins with confidence in the body’s capacity to repair itself, to return from or adapt to physical and mental illness. Specialized white blood cells fight harmful microbes. Blood clots to heal wounds. Skin and bones fuse back together after breaking. We learn how to live well with anxiety. I recall those times as a child watching cuts scab over and slowly disappear, watching bumps slowly dwindle in size and disappear, watching big, ugly bruises slowly fade and disappear. I remember some cuts and breaks that needed a doctor’s attention, that needed antibiotics, stitches, bandages, splints, casts—they took longer to heal, and the healing often left a scar, but with the proper care and attention, the body’s healing capacities would take over. In fact, much of what the doctor did was simply ensure that the body’s healing capacities could function at their highest level. Even to my childish eye those capacities were remarkable.

Recently my youngest, Max, had four baby teeth removed—his first experience with anesthesia. He was understandably nervous before the procedure. My role as a parent, besides signing the consent forms and paying the bills, was to comfort him. “You’re going to be OK. You’ll be back to normal in no time.” In saying these things, I’m not just mouthing platitudes. I say them because I have confidence in the body’s capacity to heal. I have confidence that with a day of rest, patience, chicken soup, apple sauce, ice cream, extra TV and video games, extra attention and care from his family, his body will heal from the minor trauma of the surgery.

There is a life force, a will to live, an innate power to mend, a natural tendency toward repair. We encounter it not only in ourselves but throughout nature—starfish regenerate lost arms; deer regenerate lost antlers; eco-systems repair damage after earthquakes and oil spills. Trusting in this power may not restore sight to the blind or resurrect the dead, but it will help us remember what we can do to get of the body’s way so it can follow its natural processes of mending, repair and adaptation.

Second, approach healing from a place of openness. This is hard to do, especially when one is in pain. Pain makes us rigid, brittle and single-minded. It closes us off. But human beings heal in many ways, and because healing is not always a given, we need to search for what works. Indeed, some treatments emerge out of years of study and have firm scientific grounding. Sometimes they result in healing, sometimes they don’t. Some treatments are completely irrational, make no logical sense, and have no scientific grounding. Sometimes they result in healing, sometimes they don’t. I want us to be open to as many opportunities for healing as we can find—from the most scientifically grounded to the most implausible, even ludicrous. I put more faith in the former, but I never rule out the latter, and I combine them wherever and whenever possible. Even though we know healing doesn’t always happen, I want us to cultivate an attitude that healing is always a possibility. When it comes to healing, I want us to live with the prayerful sentiment we sang earlier: “Open my heart to all that I seek.”[3] Cast a wide net!         

Go to your doctor. Go to a second doctor, even a third. Follow their advice, except in those moments when it doesn’t feel right in in the depths of your soul—but even then, check with a loved one or a good friend to make sure you’re not in denial. But don’t stop there. Sit still. Sit still some more. Meditate. Pray. And if you do pray, and if you do invoke a holy name, I advise you first to get rid of any god, goddess or higher power who is distant and judgmental, frightening and inscrutable, and who doesn’t love you. Find a god, goddess or higher power who loves you deeply, who longs for you to heal as much as you long to heal. Pray to them with all your mind, all your heart, all your soul. But don’t stop there. Talk about your illness, your brokenness, your dis-ease to people who will listen attentively and support you. Express all your feelings about what is happening to you; express your anger, your rage, your sadness. But also express your joys, the blessings that remain in your life, the things for which you are grateful. Express your hope. Eat well, if you can. Sleep well, if you can. Give and receive lots of hugs. Spend time with pets and other animals. Speak the truth. Remember what matters most to you and spend time contemplating it. Let it bring meaning and purpose to your life in your time of trial. Create. Sing, dance, write, paint, take photographs. And in conversation with your doctor, indulge liberally in alternative therapies: yoga, reiki, the laying on of hands, music therapy—the  retuning of your frequencies—faith healing, exorcism, homeopathy, naturopathy, herbal remedies, old folk remedies, family healing traditions, chicken soup, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, especially if they are culturally relevant to you; Ayurvedic medicine, especially if it is culturally relevant to you—I’m only scratching the surface here, but you get the point. If you have the slightest inclination that it might aid in your healing process—that it might bring your life back into balance, that it might recreate some lost harmony—and it isn’t contraindicated with some other therapy you’re receiving, then try it.

Third, be willing to fight for healing. When necessary, be direct, be assertive, be aggressive. As Unitarian Universalists we talk about discerning who we are, what we’re passionate about, what our purpose is. We talk about being our truest, most authentic selves. On many occasions I’ve watched people struggling to heal, and everything they know about themselves just disappears. They listen to everyone but themselves, and there’s no fight in them. And on many occasions I’ve witnessed just the opposite: People struggling to heal suddenly realize they’re not healing because the healthcare system isn’t responding to them, isn’t seeing them, isn’t caring for them. And when this dawns on them, and they become angry about it, suddenly they gain wonderful, powerful clarity about who they are, about the value and sacredness of their own life, and they find their voice.  And they start fighting. It’s your body, it’s your health, it’s your life: fight for what you need. And if you don’t feel strong enough to fight on your own, look for allies and advocates.

Fourth, discern root causes. Sometimes healing doesn’t come. A cold lingers for weeks; a back aches with no respite; sleep never seems to arrive or doesn’t last; a wound refuses to close; the wrong cells start dividing, start spreading—words and names don’t come as easily to mind as they used to; nerves go numb; physical strength wanes; emotions come more forcefully than they should, and don’t quite match the moment; memory fades; meds lose efficacy; relationships fray. We lose confidence. Why am I not getting better? Why am I not healing? Perhaps you’ve been focusing too much on the symptom, and not its root.

For a simple example, I have pain in my lower back due to arthritis and deteriorating disks. Usually I can help my body manage the pain trough stretching, exercise and taking the occasional ibuprofen. But sometimes the pain persists despite these treatments. I’ve learned that this persistent, untouchable pain almost always correlates with high levels of stress in other parts of my life. The symptom is in my back, but the intervention I need is emotional and spiritual. So often the reason our body’s natural healing tendencies don’t work is not because they are broken, but because they are blocked by stress, fear, grief, anxiety; or they are stunted by a larger culture whose guiding values and practices conflict constantly and relentlessly with the values and practices we hold most dear; or they are weakened because something essential is missing from our lives—healthy relationships, community, safety, peace, meaning, purpose. Sometimes all these things are happening at once and it’s difficult to know why healing isn’t occurring. Often we know the what but not the why. I know arthritis and deteriorating disks cause back pain. But I don’t always know why the pain persists or why it is more intense than usual. I have to stop and examine why I’m experiencing stress and what is weighing on me. I have to discern the root.

Finally, when healing fails, seek wholeness. Healing may not always be possible, but wholeness is our birthright. In her meditation, “Mending,” Nancy Shaffer asks, “How shall we mend you, sweet Soul? / With these, I think, gently, / we can begin: we will mend you / with a rocking chair, some raisins; / a cat, a field of lavender beginning /now to bloom. We will mend you with songs / remembered entirely the first time ever they are heard. / We will mend you with pieces of your own sweet self, sweet Soul—with what you’ve taught / from the very beginning.” She’s not referring to physical healing. She’s referring to returning to a state of balance and harmony, an original state, a primordial state, a womb state. “With what you’ve taught /from the very beginning.” She’s referring to wholeness.

Sometimes our best efforts at healing, and the best efforts of our physicians, simply aren’t enough. What I’ve come to trust is that even in such situations, even when the prognosis is grim, we can still attain wholeness. Sometimes, through the course of our attempts to heal, we realize that we’ve repaired long-broken relationships. We realized that we’ve forgiven those who’ve wronged us. And we’ve accepted forgiveness from those we’ve wronged. Sometimes, through the course of our attempts to heal, we suddenly realize that we’re deeply in touch with our passions, that we’re affirming and celebrating the things that matter most. Even when the body’s natural tendencies toward healing no longer work, we can still be the people of integrity and purpose we long to be. And with that realization comes an experience of completeness, of fulfillment, of enduring, abiding peace. It can happen at any age. That’s wholeness. When healing fails, may wholeness come.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Mark 10: 51-52.

[2] For an excellent and far more nuanced discussion of this longstanding assumption of the role of spirituality in healing, see Bowler, Katie, “Death, The Prosperity Gospel, and Me: Some Christians Believe God Rewards the Faithful, So Why Did I Get Stage 4 Cancer?” New York Times, Sunday Review, February 14, 2016. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=0.

[3] Flurry, Henry S., “Open My Heart” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1013.

When Seeing Isn’t Believing

Rev. Josh Pawelek

IMG_0787I question the definition of religion that begins with belief. To begin with belief—to assume from the beginning that religion requires belief—limits the scope of the religious life too sharply.  

I welcome the definition of religion that begins with discernment of the things that matter most in our lives. Such a definition expands the scope of the religious life and makes religion accessible to people who would otherwise turn away.

I chafe at news reports about religious issues that equate being religious with belief in God.[1] They overlap. They certainly overlap in my spiritual life. But they are not the same thing. I resist the notion that to be religious one must be a believer. I offer instead that the hallmarks of a religious life are questioning, imagining, wondering, being curious, being in dialogue, learning, reasoning, following intuition, being alert, living soulfully, and loving abundantly.

I appeal to the work of Karen Armstrong, one of the world’s most well-known scholars of religion. In her 2006 book, The Great Transformation,” which chronicles the rise of the great world religions during what she calls the Axial Age—approximately 900 to 200 BCE—she says: “It is frequently assumed … that faith is a matter of believing certain creedal propositions. Indeed, it is common to call religious people ‘believers,’ as though assenting to the articles of faith were their chief activity. But most of the Axial philosophers had no interest whatever in doctrine or metaphysics. A person’s theological beliefs were a matter of total indifference to somebody like the Buddha. Some sages steadfastly refused to discuss theology, claiming that it was distracting and damaging. Others argued that it was immature, unrealistic, and perverse to look for the kind of absolute certainty that many people expect religion to provide. All of the traditions that were developed during the Axial Age pushed forward the frontiers of human consciousness and discovered a transcendent dimension in the core of their being, but they did not necessarily regard this as supernatural, and most of them refused to discuss it. Precisely because the experience was ineffable, the only correct attitude was reverent silence…. What mattered was not what you believed, but how you behaved.”[2]

If I may, let me adapt that last sentence. “What matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live.”

The title of this sermon is “When Seeing Isn’t Believing.” I said in my announcement for the service that “nothing dampens the spiritual life more than a strongly held belief.” That was meant to be provocative. It’s not entirely fair. There are many people with strongly held beliefs who also have rich, undampened spiritual lives. I count myself among them. My concern is really with a species of belief: belief marked by absolute certainty— theological certainty, doctrinal certainty, moral certainty. My concern is with beliefs so strong, so staunch, so firm, so dogmatic there is no room for human beings being human—no room for questions, creativity, imagination and curiosity; no room for learning and growing, for changing one’s heart and mind, for making mistakes; no room for sitting, talking and working with those who believe differently; no room for the soul. Often it is true: the stronger the belief, the less room for one’s humanity. In some instances, the stronger the belief—the more anxious, the more fear-based, the more desperate the belief—the less religious the living. The staunch believer is often unwilling to explore gray areas, to question, to engage deeply with difference, to wrestle with doubt. If religion is to begin with belief, I want nothing to do with it. I want a religion that begins with discernment of the things that matter most.

Note: through a rich process of discernment I may arrive at strong beliefs, strong convictions. But I will have gotten there through wondering and questioning, through searching and journeying, through creating and experimenting. I will have gotten there through the use of these wonderful human capacities we all possess in some measure. But I also may go through my discernment process and not arrive at any beliefs. I may arrive at more questions. I may arrive at silence, at mystery, at awe, at wonder, at emptiness, at surrender, at relinquishment—and I would be no less religious!

In using the title, ‘When Seeing Isn’t Believing,’ I’m playing with that old idiom, ‘seeing is believing.’ I don’t reject the idiom. There’s certainly some truth to it. If I can see it—taste it, touch it, smell it, hear it—if I can measure it—then I have some basis for proclaiming it is real. I have no reason to doubt what my senses or my data tell me exists. I believe it. In playing with the idiom, though, I’m offering a way to conceive of the religious life beyond belief. By ‘seeing’ I mean a process of discernment. When I say ‘seeing is not believing,’ I mean it’s important in the beginning to decouple discernment and belief, to remove the assumption that the purpose of the religious life is to believe correctly. Use every capacity you have—your senses, your creativity, your gifts and talents, your passions, your past, your relationships, your dreams, your intuitions, your intellect, your mind—use it all, but don’t use it for the purpose of finding a belief. Use it to find the things that matter most, to identify what it sacred to you. Use it to live a life of meaning and purpose. Use it to serve others. That’s religion. Beliefs may emerge—and if so, then believe! But they may not. Seeing isn’t necessarily believing. Belief does not test the depth of one’s religiousness. What matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live.

I’ve been forming some new ideas about what religious living means. It started when I decided to teach a course on Thomas Moore’s 2014 book A Religion of One’s Own. Thomas Moore is a former Catholic monk, a psychotherapist, and a popular spiritual writer, perhaps most famous for his 1992 book, Care of the Soul. It took me a while to decide to teach this book, mainly because, as a parish minister who wants people to participate in the life of the congregation, promoting the idea that one doesn’t need organized religion to be religious, that one can simply have a religion of and on one’s own, well, that doesn’t seem consistent with growing a congregation. But Moore doesn’t devalue church, synagogue, mosque, temple or sangha. In an increasingly secular, technology-addicted culture where, he says, “there is little room left over for religion,” what matters most to him is that the people he serves learn how to deepen their religious lives and live soulfully. He’s not concerned about where it happens; he’s concerned that it happens. For some it happens on their own. For some it happens in a congregation. For some it happens both ways. As far as I’m concerned, any organized religion that emphasizes discernment, searching and creativity over strict belief and doctrinal adherence is supporting its people in the kind of religious living Moore describes.

I find Moore’s book unexpectedly liberating. He makes a distinction between spirituality and soul work. I didn’t recognize this distinction at first. I thought it was confusing and unnecessary. And then it hit me—it really hit me—this distinction makes religion possible for people regardless of belief. This distinction allows for an atheist and a theist to share common religious language and a common process of discernment while believing entirely differently.

What is the distinction between spirituality and soul work? Here’s a story. During my interview with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) in April of 1999—the 50 minutes that would determine whether I could begin professional ministry—someone on the interview panel said, ‘describe your spiritual life.” I had secretly been dreading this. While I felt confident in my overall ability as a minister, I also felt that my spiritual life needed a lot of work. I didn’t have an intentional spiritual practice. I didn’t have a prayer life. I couldn’t meditate—still can’t today. Nothing that fell into the category of ‘spiritual practice’ appealed to me. I could say “I believe in God,” but I didn’t have a strong or regular experience of God that I could report to the MFC. I wanted more than anything to be honest and straightforward with the panel. I wanted to be myself. But I didn’t think it would go over well to say, “I feel my spiritual life is lacking, but please let me be a minister!” I put my best spin on it. I told them I felt I was still at the beginning of my spiritual life and that I saw spirituality as something that would unfold and deepen through the course of my ministry.

Some jaws dropped. Some faces looked puzzled. I thought, well, that’s it for me; at least I told the truth.  But then someone said, essentially, “Josh, I beg to differ. Your life is full of music and rhythm and running and paying attention to your health and well-being, and you write wonderful prayers and meditations and sermons and you dedicate time and energy to social justice work. You have a deeply spiritual life.”  And I said, essentially, “Oh, yeah, well, of course—that! Then I remember being quiet for a moment. And I smiled. And I said something like, “All those things are meaningful to me. Thank you.” And the interview continued.

I was caught—and many of us get caught—on a definition of spirituality that assumes a connection to spirit or God—to some power beyond the physical world. That definition isn’t wrong, but it wasn’t useful for me at that time. Luckily the interviewers weren’t caught on that definition, and they were content with a much more mundane and earthly list of practices. Thomas Moore is also interested in that more mundane list—but he would distinguish it from my spiritual life. He’d call it my soul work. In pursuing those things I am caring for my soul. If I’m reading Moore correctly, he defines spirituality, like many do, as a practice or way of living that connects one to God or spirit. He says “People often focus on the spiritual side of religion: beliefs, morals, eternity, and the infinite.”[3] He doesn’t argue that spirituality in this sense is wrong, though he seems to find it too abstract to be useful. He suggests that the way into religious living is through the soul. Through soul work one can begin to discern the things that matter most. Through soul work many paths may open up. One may enter into a robust spiritual life, encountering spirit, encountering gods and goddesses. Or one may find beauty, depth and sacredness in the mundane, in the ordinary, in the garden, the simple, hearty meal, the service project, the blade of grass, the lone, wild bird, the freshly fallen snow, the downward facing dog, the quiet mind, a letter to the editor, a cup of tea with a good friend, the surgeon’s skilled hands, a memorable dream, a haunting melody. Or one may discern there is no difference between the gods and the ordinary stuff of life.

Moore resists offering a concrete definition of the soul. In Care of the Soul he said “It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway: the soul prefers to imagine. We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth…. When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars—good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart.”[4] In A Religion of One’s Own, he says soul is “a mysterious word that eludes definition…. We talk about people, places and houses that have soul. Soul is the unreachable depth, felt vitality, and full presence of a person or even a thing…. Soul is the invisible, mysterious and softly radiant element that infuses your being and makes you human.”[5]

Moore’s suggestions for soul work seem simple an obvious at first: spend time in nature, pay attention to your dreams, review your past, take time to feel your feelings and understand them, surround yourself with art, weave eros into your life in healthy ways, listen to your muses and respond creatively to them, read great books, wrestle with your shadow side, notice coincidence and serendipity, learn to follow your intuitions, pursue your passions. They sound simple, but they aren’t when one approaches them with intentionality on a sustained basis. All of these practices are tools for discernment. They help us cultivate depth, help us see into or beyond the mundane to the sacred, help us see beauty, help us see the things that matter most. All of these practices cultivate in us a capacity to engage the world with imagination, to ask “what if?” “What if” is the imagination’s question. What if I leave my job and do the work I feel called to do? What if I do that writing, that painting, that sculpting, that speaking that I feel called to do? What if God is real? What if God isn’t. What if there is a spirit that moves among us and connects all to all? What if there isn’t? What if I act on my anger about injustice and violence and war? What if? What if? What if? Imagine, because what matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live. Religious imagination is a key to depth.

Soul may be difficult to define, but there is a profound invitation here to discover, name and knit together the essential pieces of you—the pieces without which you would not be you; the pieces that, when dampened and muted, you are not you; the pieces that, when buried, overwhelmed and crushed, you are not you. And we are, so often, not our essential selves. But even in this highly secularized and technology-addicted culture, those essential pieces of us poke through. Our soul pokes through. It gives hints here and there, shows up in our dreams and intuitions, rides along at the heart of our strongest desires, and even makes itself known in tea leaves and angel cards. The world picks up on our soul, even when we don’t. The world reflects our soul back to us in melodies that catch our ear, images that catch our eye, smells that activate long-dormant memories. The soul comes to us in insights and aha-moments, eurekas and amens. It comes to us in our deepest fears and our greatest joys. The world reflects back to us, but are we aware? Are we alert? Are we ready? Soul work makes us ready. Soul work enables us to bring together the essential pieces of us, to let them reveal to us the things that matter most, to let them speak, shine, shimmer and sparkle.

Seeing isn’t always believing. What matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live.

Amen and blessed be.  

[1] A good example of this tendency of the media to equate being religious with belief in God is Nuwer, Rachel, “Will Religion Ever Disappear,” BBC online, December 19th, 2014: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20141219-will-religion-ever-disappear?ocid=ww.social.link.email.

[2] Armstrong, Karen, The Great Transformation: The Beginnings of Our Religious Traditions (New York: Anchor Books, 2006) pp. xvii-xviii.

[3] Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World (New York: Avery/Penguin, 2014) p. 3.

[4] Moore, Thomas, Care of the Soul, (New York: HarperCollins, 1992) pp. xi-xii.

[5] Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World (New York: Avery/Penguin, 2014) p. 2.

Perhaps Struggle is All We Have

Moral Monday CTThe first title for this sermon was “Where Do We Go From Here?”—a reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” The intention behind that title is still at work at the heart of this sermon, and is indeed at work at the heart of all my sermons that focus on social justice work. That intention is twofold—to reflect on what it means to engage in social justice work in our time; and then to suggest, as best I can, the most effective ways we—and by “we” I mean we as Unitarian Universalists and we as a unique, liberal faith community—can most effectively participate in social justice work here in Greater Manchester, greater Hartford, and Connecticut. What are the most pressing social justice issues in our time and place? Who is organizing in response to these issues? With whom can we partner? Where and how can we exert our own individual and institutional power to create the greatest positive social change? In short, where do we go from here?

I decided on a different title, a quote from author and The Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent book Between the World and Me: “Perhaps Struggle is All We Have.” This is my seventeenth year in ministry, my thirteenth in this pulpit. I have always made social justice work a centerpiece of my ministry. When I came into the ministry I possessed, as many new ministers do, a strong idealism. I was confident that a certain kind of beloved community could be fashioned within Unitarian Universalism, that we could build anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural identity and practice within our congregations. I also possessed a conviction that the problems of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and environmental injustice could be substantively addressed in my lifetime, that I would come to the end of my career, look back, and know that I, along with the congregations I’ve served—motivated by our principles—had played a role in successful movements to eradicate the most pernicious injustices of our time. I had a vision that I would come to the end of my life and be living in a society where racism is no longer baked into our social, economic and political systems the way it is now. Similarly with sexism, with homophobia, with classism. I had a vision that we would overcome.

I still have that vision. I have not lost my idealism, my confidence or my conviction, except for the part about coming to the end of my career and living in a transformed society. That’s not going to happen. But that’s OK. I’m much more aligned today with the wisdom of the 20th-century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope.”[1]

I haven’t lost my idealism because I’ve witnessed and been part of too many social justice victories. So have you. I know we can win. However, none of those victories was an end-point; none meant, we’re done, we’ve arrived.  Marriage equality was a monumental social justice victory, but it didn’t end homophobia and heterosexism. The Affordable Care Act was a monumental social justice victory, but it has not brought health care justice to every American. Connecticut’s addition of transgender people to its anti-discrimination statutes was a social justice victory, but it didn’t end transphobia. Governor Malloy’s Second Chance Society, which made significant changes to Connecticut’s criminal justice statutes was a social justice victory, but it hasn’t ended mass incarceration of people of color. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Brown vs. Board of Education, Roe vs. Wade—the list goes on and on, victory after victory—but none of them was an end-point. None of them achieved the beloved community. These victories matter not because they conclude our collective social justice struggles, but because they keep them going. They keep us moving toward our vision, toward justice, toward a society that honors the inherent worth and dignity of every person. They remind us we can make real change, we can improve suffering peoples’ lives, we can win and we are thus justified in continuing. The fact that we’ve won in the past assures us we are not naïve to take next steps, to ask “Where do we go from here?” After seventeen years of ministry and 48 years of life, I am still an idealist.

But my idealism is different, tempered. Seventeen years ago I wouldn’t have said that just because history tells us we can win, doesn’t mean we will. I see it more clearly now. There are no guarantees, there never have been. Peoples’ willingness to struggle for what they believe in makes all the difference, but it doesn’t always make a difference. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing to his teenage son, articulating the profound vulnerability of Black bodies in the United States, articulating the historical and ongoing violence against Black bodies in the United States, says, “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.”[2] He challenges the assumption so many liberal activists and people of faith take to heart, that we will eventually win. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[3] Coates says, essentially, “maybe so, but don’t count on it.” He suggests our previous social justice victories can lull is into a false sense of inevitability. “Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point,” he writes. “Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up each morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”[4]

I’ve underlined these words multiple times, highlighted and starred them, dog-eared the page. I’ve come back to them often. They’ve become scripture to me, though I’m not sure I fully understand their meaning. The God of history is an atheist. I need to sit with that, to pray on it, maybe shed tears. The universe prefers struggle over hope. I’m not ready to let hope go. I know Coates isn’t talking to me—he’s talking to his son. But there is something universal here. The universe prefers struggle over hope. Struggle sounds harsh beside the softness, the ‘everything-will-be-alright-ness’ of hope. Struggle is mired in the here and now, in staying alive, waking up, surviving, getting by; in next steps, in ‘where do we go from here?’ In social justice work struggle means painstaking processes of building relationships, attending meetings, taking actions, losing over and over, learning from mistakes, starting again, and being supremely patient. Hope, so much easier, tells us a better future is coming. But that future is impossible without struggle.

Many will object to Coates’ downgrading of hope. Without hope, why go on? Why care? These, of course, are questions of despair. Coates is quite clear: “This is not despair.” Given that there has been and continues to be so much violence and oppression against Black people—and I would add against women, gay, lesbian and bisexual people, transgender people, poor people, low-wage workers, immigrants, refugees, elders—there are unlimited reasons for despair. But Coates is saying hope isn’t a sufficient antidote to despair precisely because there are no guarantees. You might win, but you might not. God might bring your through, but how often does that not happen? Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Aquon Salmon, Malik Jones, Amadou Diallo. Coates adds the heart-rending police murder of Prince Carmen Jones to that long list. The world can let you down in a flash no matter how hopeful you are. Given the pervasiveness of injustice—given the violence, the oppression—given the sheer tenuousness of life, hope for a better future isn’t the source of our integrity. Our willingness to struggle is the source of our integrity. Our willingness to work for human survival, human dignity, human community, peace, justice and planetary sustainability despite our lack of certainty, despite knowing we may lose, despite knowing it all may be for naught—that is the source of our integrity. I am not sure what saves us ultimately, but I am sure our willingness to struggle for what we believe in gives meaning to our lives and saves us today. Recasting Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by struggle.”

I invite you to live with this idea in the coming weeks. Sit with it. Examine it. Pray on it. Shed tears. And I invite you, especially on this weekend as the nation commemorates the life and struggle of Martin Luther King, Jr., to listen not for messages of hope, but for invitations to struggle for justice.

I have a few invitations for you now. Our congregation, primarily through the work of our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee, has been very involved in the Black Lives Matter movement through our partnership with Moral Monday CT. We’ve held workshops on non-violent civil disobedience and a course on “Revolutionary Conversations.” There’ve been actions to address police brutality, income inequality in Greater Hartford, and racist hiring practices at the baseball stadium construction site. We know this kind of engagement is not for everyone, does not appeal to everyone. In fact, in most congregations involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, it is usually only a small cadre of people who are highly involved. Mindful of this, and on behalf of the committee, I invite you to join an open conversation about Black Lives Matter next Sunday at 12:30. We’d like to hear what others in the congregation think and feel about the movement. What do you know? What do you need to know? And we’d like to put at the center of that conversation the question, should we place a Black Lives Matter lawn sign on our property along West Vernon Street? Many congregations have done this. Some have had their signs vandalized or stolen. What do you think? Is this a constructive way for us to express our collective concern for Black lives, to proclaim our ongoing intentions as a congregation to struggle for racial justice? Let’s have a conversation.

Here’s another invitation, though it is less specific. Given Connecticut’s age demographics, the state is going to need 10,000 new Personal Care Assistants in the coming decade. Personal Care Assistants or PCAs are the people who work in someone’s home providing medical care, cooking, cleaning, companionship and sometimes childcare. They work mostly with elders, people with disabilities, or people living with a chronic illness. Sometimes they work for agencies, sometimes as independent contractors. Who are the people who hold these jobs? They are primarily women, who are immigrants, who are people of color—the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. In these jobs they are extraordinarily vulnerable. What many don’t know is that PCAs have not historically been protected under national fair labor standards laws. This has meant that PCAs are not entitled by law to receive the minimum wage, overtime pay, paid time off, or pay for travel between jobs. They are not entitled to receive health insurance or workers’ compensation if injured on the job. They have no legal recourse in the event of harassment in the workplace, and can be dismissed from their job without warning, reason, or severance pay—and often end up homeless because of this. They receive minimal training and have few, if any, professional standards, which compromises the overall care they are able to provide. Is it surprising that a class of jobs held primarily by women who are immigrants who are people of color is more akin to a system of exploitation than legitimate employment?

This is changing. The federal law is changing, and there are efforts underway to change Connecticut’s laws, but the status of PCAs is still tenuous. There are opportunities for us to strengthen these jobs, to make them decent, middle class jobs, so that PCAs can support their families, so that we can slowly lessen the tide of escalating income inequality and the race-based income and wealth gaps in the United States. These opportunities are coming through partnerships with other congregations across the state, with the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford, with a phenomenal organization called the Brazilian Cultural Center, and with a regional faith-based community organizing entity called the InterValley Project. I expect there will be educational forums here later in the winter or early spring. I hope you will feel called to attend those forums, called to learn more about these issues, and called, in some way, to join this struggle.

There are more invitations coming—invitations to become involved in the struggles to resettle refugees, to protect undocumented immigrants, to further advance criminal justice reform, to continue our efforts to support ex-incarcerated people. Yes, the word struggle carries a harshness with it, a hardness. It implies messiness, difficulty, perhaps even suffering. Of course, there is messiness, difficulty and suffering in life whether we choose to struggle or not. But struggle is not only harsh and hard. It is also a source of integrity, a marker of our idealism and compassion. Struggle is the path to a meaningful, purposeful life. It can be filled with joy, with new learnings about self and others, with new relationships, with growth, and it is the only way to achieve our vision. So let us struggle together, knowing there are no guarantees, no irrepressible justice.  Let us struggle together, knowing it may be all we have.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Neibuhr, Reinhold, “We Must Be Saved,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and UUA, 1993) #461.

[2] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015) p. 70.

[3] This quote was likely adapted by King from the Unitarian Transcendentalist minister, Theodore Parker. Parker’s whole quote is less well-known than King’s shortened version: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

[4] Coates, Between the World and Me, pp. 70-71.

Dispatches from the Culture War, 2015

I’m wrestling this morning with two conflicting impulses in me. They arise in response to the American culture war, in response to deep divisions in the country over sexual orientation, gender identity, reproductive rights, sexuality education, marriage, guns, end of life issues, family values, and the age-old and still raging debate between science and religion. While the media often portrays the culture war as between religious people on one side and secular people on the other, it’s rarely that simple. Liberal religious people often line up against conservative religious people in the culture war. It is at once an inter-religions struggle—meaning between religions—and an intra-religious struggle—meaning it plays out within some religions. My conflicting impulses have to do with how I, as a liberal religious person, relate to people on the conservative side of the culture war.

One impulse is to approach such people with openness, curiosity, friendliness. This impulse emerges from a desire to learn, to find common ground, to achieve interfaith understanding, to build community. The other impulse is pugnacious and looking for a fight. This impulse emerges from moral anger and what I call “soul sadness.” For example, I am angry at people whose religion—often in combination with short-sighted and selfish political and economic interests—leads them time and time again to ignore, deny or denounce the findings of science, as if science is a liberal conspiracy, a tool of elitist subterfuge, an enemy. And, yes, I experience a profound, soul-sadness not only because so many people seem to react to science in this way, but because the consequences of such reactions are so destructive for the earth.

Last week I ran into an old acquaintance, someone with whom I had interacted at the edges of the first congregation I served. He attended worship there occasionally. He wondered if I remembered him. Of course I did. I’d eaten a few meals at his home where we used to debate evolution and creationism or “intelligent design,” which was in vogue at that time. When I saw him last week I said I remembered the articles on intelligent design he used to share with me and that I have always appreciated his willingness to be in conversation around what is still a highly divisive topic. He said, “But you’re an evolutionist.” I said, “Yes, I am. And I try to remain open-minded about other ways of understanding reality. I try to remain curious. ” That’s my friendly, learning-oriented, community-building impulse at work. In a religiously pluralistic society it is essential that we nurture and act on this impulse. In the midst of interfaith dialogue—especially dialogue across culture war lines—we grow more knowledgeable, more accepting, more peaceful. In learning another’s point of view, we develop and sharpen our own.

But then my blood boils when people of faith not only refuse to be in dialogue, but ignore, deny or denounce firmly established scientific consensus. One such consensus is that human activity—specifically the burning of fossil fuels—is a significant driver of climate change. More than 13,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers published in over 80 countries since 1991 have confirmed this position. That’s 97 percent of all formal scientific papers published on the topic.[1] Many religions embrace this consensus. On April 29th the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences together issued a report entitled “Climate Change and the Common Good.” The statement affirms that “Today, human activities, involving the unsustainable exploitation of fossil fuels and other forms of natural capital, are having a decisive and unmistakable impact on the planet. The aggressive exploitation of fossil fuels and other natural resources has damaged the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we inhabit…. Some 1000 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other climatically-important ‘greenhouse’ gases have already been accumulated in the atmosphere…. [and] now exceeds the highest levels in at least the last million years.”[2]

In the face of this global scientific consensus, on January 21st of this year, 49 United States Senators, as part of an effort to pass a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, voted against an amendment to the bill that said human activity is a significant contributor to climate change.[3] 49 United States senators proclaimed that the firmly established global scientific consensus is incorrect! A number of them cried foul, saying the amendment was a political stunt. They may be right, but a U.S. Senator’s ability to discern fact from fiction matters when the fate of the planet is at stake. The Senate has the power to shape energy and environmental policy in ways that ensure a sustainable future. It is infuriating every time that strange coalition of hyper-conservative faith, business and political interests drives a large segment of our national leadership to ignore science. In my view such willful ignorance is a sinful evasion of responsibility that demands a fighting response from all people of faith who take science seriously. Two conflicting impulses.

Stan and Sue McMillen inspired my reflections on this topic. They purchased a sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. This is their sermon. Stan suggested a couple of possibilities. First he said, “I have been increasingly concerned that religion continues to divide rather than unite us in justice work.” He’s right. Religious differences drive the culture war, and we need that first impulse—curiosity, openness—to bridge our divides. But then he said “There is another disturbing thread that concerns me: the disparagement of science by religion.” Because that ongoing disparagement will have catastrophic consequences for the planet if allowed to persist without opposition, we also need to cultivate that second impulse, a willingness to fight without apology for a sustainable future.

I’ve been wondering about how one decides which impulse to pursue in any given encounter across culture war lines. I’ve been wondering about how I decide, since I make the decision often, but don’t always stop to think about it—which is why I’m using the word impulse. Here’s my best thinking about when and why to follow either of these impulses.

At the beginning of any encounter with a person of another faith—and I suppose at the beginning of any encounter with any human being—approach them with openness, curiosity, friendliness. Assume common ground exists. Assume the other wants a peaceful, prosperous community, a just and fair society, the best possible future for their children and grandchildren. Assume the other cares about the earth. It won’t always be an accurate assumption, but it is much easier to build a relationship if you begin with the assumption that relationship is possible.

Then look for the common ground. Ask, inquire, explore, listen, learn. Stan expresses a concern that religion continues to divide rather than unite us in justice work. Religion is less likely to divide us if we find our common ground. I have been attending a series of meetings at the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford to work on passage of a bill of rights for domestic workers—people who work in other peoples’ homes providing health care, childcare, eldercare and cleaning services. Because domestic workers aren’t included in the Fair Labor Relations Act and many other national labor laws, they are easily and often exploited with few if any avenues for legal recourse. Passage of a Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights would begin to create a more just domestic work place in Connecticut. In the meeting at the Archdiocese there are Catholics, Pentecostals, Lutherans, UCCs, UUs and labor union. It would be so easy to say “No, I won’t work with the Catholic Church.” UUs and Catholics are diametrically opposed on many culture war issues: marriage equality, transgender civil rights, and most recently aid-in-dying for terminally ill patients. These divisions have been present in these meeting. The Catholics keep talking about aid in dying, in part because they’ve all been working together to defeat it. Most of them didn’t realize I’ve been working in support of it. Those who did were genuinely concerned I would feel alienated. The meeting organizer finally asked if I would share my thoughts about it. I did. But I made it clear that I would never want our disagreement on this or any other issue to prevent us from achieving our mutual goal of a more just work conditions for domestic workers. As much as Catholics and UUs have disagreed over the years, we’ve always shared the common ground of economic justice.

Nevertheless, division is sometimes inevitable. There are moments when we can’t find common ground and the impulse to fight or struggle takes over. Before that happens, it’s important to me to make sure I’m fighting for the right reasons. For me, a difference in theology or belief is never a reason to fight. That is, if someone believes in God and I don’t, that’s not worth fighting over. If someone believes the Koran is God’s final revelation and I believe all sacred scriptures are human inventions, that’s not worth fighting over. If someone accepts Jesus Christ as their savior and I find salvation in the natural world, that’s not worth fighting over. Differences in theology, tradition, practice—these are opportunities for the first impulse—curiosity, learning. But when someone else’s beliefs manifest in the world in ways that cause suffering, exploitation, oppression, in ways that destroy and kills, then it’s time to take a stand, to struggle, to organize, to fight.

I’ve preached about such moments many times. I am mindful that I typically frame fights between people of faith—whether over gay rights or global warming—as fights ultimately between religious liberalism and religious fundamentalism. I name fundamentalism as the problem. Well, I’ve had an evolution in my thinking, and I want to name it now, even though I haven’t fully worked through its meaning. When we fight for something we believe in—really fight, really struggle—we actually take on characteristics of the fundamentalists we oppose. We appear to them as they appear to us: unbending, unyielding, uncompromising—at least that’s the risk. I’m not a religious fundamentalist, but I’ll own that I’m a marriage equality fundamentalist. I’ll own that I’m a reproductive choice fundamentalist, an economic justice fundamentalist, a Black Lives Matter fundamentalist, a path-to-citizenship- for-undocumented immigrants-fundamentalist, an end-the-war-on-drugs fundamentalist. And I’m a climate-change-is-real-and-caused-by-humans-and-must-be-addressed-now-with-the-largest- mobilization-of-people-and-resources-the-world-has-ever-seen” fundamentalist. I’m owning my fundamentalisms. And I know when I move to that place of utter conviction it has the potential to silence conversation, to alienate people who might not completely agree with me, to damage relationships, to poison otherwise common ground. It can keep the culture war going. Thus I know I must pause at times to critique my fundamentalisms, to assure myself that the rationale behind them is still solid, to assure myself that they are and I am still spiritually and theologically grounded. When I move to that place of utter conviction, I better have solid evidence. 

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said something about this back on January 21st when the Senate took that vote on climate change. He voted for the amendment saying he’s now comfortable with climate science. But then he said something that at first seemed silly, but the more I think about it, it’s not. He said, “I think that people on my side”—meaning conservatives—“are really reluctant to embrace how much human activity is causing climate change because our friends on the other side”—meaning liberals—“have made it a religion.”[4]

It’s an interesting use of the word religion. He doesn’t mean religion in the liberal sense where we’re on a journey and our credo is always changing. He means something unchanging. He means fundamentalism. He’s saying “I experience you liberals as Climate Change fundamentalists.” He’s asking for compromise. He’s trying to respond to the first impulse. He’s looking for common ground. But fundamentalism of any sort isn’t interested in common ground. It’s interested in prevailing. And given what climate science is saying, given the great global disruption the models are forecasting, we’re long past time for compromise. Graham is right: those of us who take the science seriously have made it a “religion.” And we need to prevail.

The philosopher of religion Loyal Rue once wrote, “The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed, but if we live in right relationship with reality (wisely), then we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle.”[5] I take science seriously, because it is our best guide to understanding reality—not the only guide, to be sure, but the best. And when I say we are justified in fighting against unnecessary suffering, exploitation, oppression, and the destruction of the earth, I understand each of these things as failures of right relationship to reality. I am hopeful that in any sojourn we may take into “fundamentalism,” it is for the sake of restoring right relationship to reality, it is the path of wisdom, and it will save us.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] “The 97% Consensus on Global Warming” at Skeptical Science: https://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-advanced.htm.

[2] Dasgupta, P., Ramanathan, V., Raven, P., Sanchez Sorondo, M., et al, “Climate Change and the Common Good: A Statement Of the Problem And the Demand For Transformative Solutions,” published April 29, 2015 by the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science. See: http://www.casinapioiv.va/content/dam/accademia/pdf/protect/climate_change_common_good.pdf.

[3]  Kollipara, Puneet and Malakoff, David, “For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?” Science Insider, January 29, 2015.See: http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/01/first-time-years-u-s-senate-voted-climate-change-did-anybody-win.

[4] Kollipara, Puneet and Malakoff, David, “For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?” Science Insider, January 29, 2015.See: http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/01/first-time-years-u-s-senate-voted-climate-change-did-anybody-win. Also see: http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060012413.

[5] This quote is taken from Loyal Rue’s Religion is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature and What to Expect When They Fail (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005). It appeared in Dowd, Michael, “The Evolutionary Significance of Religion: Multi-Level Selection,” Metanexus, February 10, 2012. See: http://metanexus.net/blog/evolutionary-significance-religion-multi-level-selection?utm_source=2012.02.28&utm_campaign=2012.02.28&utm_medium=email.

 

Dreaming Ourselves in a Multigenerational Community

Mr. Barb Greve, MDiv, MCRE

Mr. Barb GreveWhen I was a child I walked among real-life superheroes and I bet you do too. But don’t look now – they’re probably wearing their church clothes. 

There was Playdough Pat, whose superhero powers included being able to make anything out of Playdough in a matter of moments. What was most impressive about Pat’s Playdough powers was that ze seemed to magically know just who in our class needed the most help and was always there to help; whether the help we needed was with our Playdough sculpture or something that was going on in our lives. With a handful of Playdough and a caring heart, Pat was there to help. 

There was Boiler Room Bob, whose fix-it powers never ceased to amaze us. With just a wrench, a screwdriver and a roll of duct tape, Bob could fix anything that needed fixing on a Sunday morning or any other time. Whether it was a broken window or a stopped toilet, a burnt out coffee maker or the sound system, Bob was there to make sure it got fixed. 

There was Octo the Organist, who could inspire all near him to join together to make beautiful music. Octo’s specialty was that it didn’t matter what our musical skills were or how we sounded solo. His power to bring us together extended to making our combined music sound wonderful.  

I’ll always remember Justice Janet, who had an eye on world events and could explain them in such a way as they made sense to everyone, regardless of our ages. Justice Janet tirelessly encouraged us to use our privilege and power to help make the world better. She organized the first town-wide recycling program, started a community garden, regularly ran voter registration drives and was on a first-name basis with all of her local, state and national politicians. 

Playdough Pat, Boiler Room Bob, Octo the Organist and Justice Janet, along with all of their superhero friends, created a community where each person was valued for who they were. They learned that by staying in community and sharing their powers, they could cover each other’s weaknesses and broaden their own strengths. Together they were a force for good in the world, offering love and caring wherever they traveled. 

I bet there are Superheroes sitting among us today. If you watch carefully you’re bound to figure out who they are. Perhaps you’re even one and you don’t yet realize it. 

One of the important messages that the Superheroes of my childhood taught me was that church is a place where we can be fully in one another’s lives. They taught me that, as the Reverend A. Powell Davies wrote, “Religion is not something separate and apart from ordinary life. It is life – life of every kind viewed from the standpoint of meaning and purpose: life lived in the fuller awareness of its human quality and spiritual significance.” 

My hope is that at its core, Religious Education teaches this message of the inextricable connection between religion and life. In the skit earlier, the Ghost of Future RE offered Josh a version of the future where that didn’t happen. What we saw instead was a collection of adults who are lonely, afraid and disengaged from the world. But that doesn’t have to be the future path for you. 

In a recent blog post retired UU minister, the Rev. Tom Schade offered this possible description of a Unitarian Universalist future congregation: 

“Our congregation is where you go if you want your children to grow up to be morally and ethically strong and clear AND open-minded and curious about the world of differences. We are really one big, all ages cooperative Sunday School. Our primary purpose is to help families form themselves around spiritually progressive values: multiculturalism, gender equality, healthy sexuality, right relationships, arts and sciences, etc. Every member, adult, youth and child, contributes to our educational activities. We offer that education/growth experience to every family in our community, regardless of their religious affiliation or none. Most weeks, we have family worship. Some weeks we have a group field trip. Some weeks we engage is a work/service project or an arts project with an artist. But everything is for families and children and the future. All ages and generations are welcome.”[1] 

This is the direction in which you are already moving. Time and again your Transitions Team has indicated a desire to move to a more multigenerational model. You’ve begun to do some things that will bridge the divide between the youngest and the oldest among you: from nametags for all to elders attending children’s chapel. These are great starts. 

Karen Bellavance-Grace offers a model of religious education called Full Week Faith: a mash-up of good old-fashioned family ministry, first century-style mission driven church, and a faithful leveraging of technology and social media to expand the reach and breadth of our ministries.[2] 

In this model the staff are asked to not spend all their time gearing towards Sunday morning and instead balance out their efforts to provide additional ways for families to engage in church life all week long. This might include daily Tweets or Facebook postings, online classes for all ages, and organizing groups to attend sports games, concerts, math Olympiads and such – all events where children from the church are participating. The idea being that members of this community are together attending events out in the community where each other are engaged. 

Karen’s colleague Tandi Rogers even goes as far as dreaming that there is a traveling UU cheerleading squad who shows up at sporting and academic competitions to cheer for all sides, using phrases that incorporate our principles and values. 

There are many other models of how to deliver Religious Education, some include holding multigenerational worship every Sunday followed by an hour of multigenerational learning. Others include no Sunday worship and instead the congregation goes out into the community to do the good works of the church, as described in Rev. Schade’s advertisement. Some models continue to have the ages segregated for worship, but invite additional adults to work with our youngsters by sharing their skills and passions for 3-week workshop sessions. 

UUS:E’s desire to be a more multigenerational community is a wonderful idea and is good for your future. But in order to do this, everyone has to be willing to change. Being a multigenerational community isn’t just about more elders teaching Sunday School. Being a multigenerational community means the whole community worshipping together more frequently; with all of us becoming comfortable with squirming, fidgeting and sounds –and I’m not just talking about those coming from the children! It means continuing to offer opportunities for engagement at all areas of church life for all ages. 

It means that when thinking about social action activities, the social action committee is thinking about ways to engage families with small children. It means that when thinking about building projects the buildings & grounds committee is thinking about who the teens might be engaged in helping (and not just for their strength). It means that when we’re writing newsletter columns and blurbs we are considering how it will read to a 5th grader and when we’re choosing music for worship we’re not just using children and youth to play the music but that we’re also choosing music that has meaning for them. Being a multigenerational community means creating and finding more classes that can work for all ages, such as a common book read and discussion group; using books that are accessible to youngsters and elders. Being a more multigenerational community means that we adults have to make more room for the children. And the reward is that by doing so, we’re inviting them to make more room for us. 

There’s a secret trick to all of this. And it is best told through perhaps my all time favorite religious education story, written by one of the grandmother’s of Unitarian Universalist religious education, Barbara Marshman, and titled The Toadstool and Spindly Plant: 

At the edge of the forest stood a large squat toadstool. Next to him grew a spindly plant about the same height with four leaves. 

One day the toadstool said to his companion, “Hey Skinny, I’ve been watching you. Tell me this – how come when somebody kicks a toadstool, we fall all to pieces. But when someone steps on you, you can straighten right up again as good as new?” 

The skinny plant thought for a while, and then answered, “I guess it’s because I have something down under the ground called roots. They go down deep and when I get stepped on I just hang on tight with my roots until I’m all right again.” 

“Hey, that’s a great idea,” said the toadstool. “How do you go about getting these roots?” 

“Wellllll,” said his friend slowly, “it takes a long time. I’ve been growing mine for almost a year.” 

“A year!” shouted the toadstool, “Who has got that kind of time! A whole year growing something that you can’t even see! Roots may be handy, but that’s the silliest waste of time I ever heard.” And he laughed and laughed. 

Finally, he said to his forest friend, “By the way Spindly, when you’ve got all your fancy roots grown, what do you expect to be?” 

The Spindly plant seemed to grow taller as he spoke. “Do you see that tallest oak tree standing against the winds on the top of that hill? That’s my mother and someday I’m going to be strong and tall just like her.” 

A deep religious faith is like the deep roots of the oak tree. It helps to give us strength to weather the storms of life. Being regularly engaged in multigenerational life here at UUS:E will help you grow deep roots in our faith, like the oak tree grew deep roots in the Earth. These roots will help you feel secure in your community and will ensure that you won’t be like the toadstools and fall apart at the slightest little kick. 

May we each, through multigenerational community, cultivate our roots in order to better bend and sway to the changing times. And you never know, you might wake up one day and realize that you’ve been sitting next to a superhero this whole time. 

May it be so and may we be the ones to make it so.

Amen.

[1] Schade, Thomas. (2015, March 28), UU Growth: Alternative #3 to Community Building Strategy. [The Lively Tradition]. Retrieved from http://www.tomschade.com/2015/03/uu-growth-alternative-3-to-community.html?m=1

[2] Bellavance-Grace, Karen. (2013, October 3), Do Something. the full week faith.  [Full Week Faith]. Retreived from http://fullweekfaith.weebly.com/doing-something-the-full-week-faith.html

On Being/Becoming Generous People

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Our ministry theme for March is generosity. We choose this theme for this time of year quite intentionally. March is the month and today is the day we officially launch our annual appeal during which we ask each of you to make a generous financial pledge for the coming fiscal year. I know I don’t have to sugar-coat this. We’ve talked enough about money, giving and financial stewardship over the years that I’m confident all of us (except those who are very new to the congregation) know that we—and by we I mean you, the members and friends of this congregation, and me, the minister, and the rest of the staff—we, all of us, want all of us to be as generous as possible when we make our financial gifts to this congregation. We take giving very seriously here, and I hope and trust each of you is reflecting now on what UUS:E means to you, and the financial gift you can pledge for the coming year.

Of course, generosity is important no matter what time of year and no matter to whom or to what institution or cause you are directing your generosity. I want us to be generous to UUS:E with our time, talents and treasure; but it is also my hope that we will be generous in all aspects of our lives—generous to our families, our friends, our neighborhoods, our towns or cities, institutions we care about, people in need, people who are suffering, people next door, people on the other side of the planet and, indeed, the planet itself. I want us to be generous people. And I want us to be people who are always becoming more generous. With this in mind, and mindful we are launching our annual appeal, I offer three reflections on generosity:

My first reflection, perhaps somewhat oddly, is about not being generous. It stems from the recognition that at certain times I experience myself not as a generous person, but as something else. I don’t want to admit I sometimes experience myself as selfish, stingy, closed-off, but sometimes that how it feels. I don’t want to give money to everyone who approaches me with an outstretched hand. I don’t want to say ‘yes’ to every idea everyone wants to pursue with my help, or to every worthy cause everyone wants me to support. I don’t always want to call my legislators or the Governor’s office every time someone asks—that could be a full-time job if I made every call I’m asked to make. As much as I love my parents, my wife, my brothers and their wives, my kids and my nephews and nieces, I don’t always want to spend time with them. I don’t always want to help out with the PTO, chaperone the field trip or coach soccer. I don’t want serve on yet another board. I don’t. I don’t. I don’t. And, often, the act of saying “no” or “I don’t want to” or “I’m sorry, I just can’t do it,” or “I’m sorry, there’s no cash in my wallet,” makes me feel incredibly guilty, selfish, stingy, closed. To this day, I’m not entirely sure where this comes from—especially the guilt, since it wasn’t part of my religious upbringing. But guilt is often the first thing I feel when I refuse the invitation to practice generosity.

I’ve learned to remind myself that all spiritual values have their limits when human beings put them into practice. There are practical limits to our compassion, love, wisdom, creativity, hospitality. Generosity is no exception. We cannot respond to every need. We cannot make every wounded person whole. None of us has infinite financial resources, infinite time, infinite compassion, infinite love. This is not a scarcity-mentality. It is a realistic assessment of our capacity. As much as we might want to, we cannot donate a second kidney. We cannot say “yes” to everything no matter how worthy. When we do, we risk exhausting ourselves, impoverishing ourselves, losing ourselves. We risk stressing out, checking out, burning out, disappearing, fading away. We risk becoming resentful, bitter, discouraged, depressed.

It is possible to be generous in an ungrounded way, in a way that potentially does harm to the one being generous. Over the years I have watched people impoverish themselves emotionally, spiritually and financially by giving endlessly to others. We might call them selfless, we might admire them for their sacrifice—sometimes it is truly beautiful—but more often than not, as they deplete their resources, their own life grows more and more tenuous, and their generosity loses its effectiveness. There’s a metaphor that keeps popping up in my life these days, the instructions one receives on an airplane: if the cabin loses pressure and the oxygen masks drop down from the ceiling, put your own mask on first, prior to putting your child’s mask on. If we want our generosity to be as effective as possible, and if we want it to be sustainable—that is, if we want generosity to be an ongoing, deeply-rooted part of our identity—then we need to put our own mask on first. We need to trust that saying “no” doesn’t have to be a sign of selfishness. Saying “no” may simply mean “I’ve reached my current limit.” Saying “no” in some situations sustains us for those situations wherein we say “yes.” Saying “no” in some situations enables us to be ready for and effective in those situations wherein we say “yes.” I’m talking about self-care, which includes saying “no,” and enables us to offer grounded and sustainable generosity to those people, institutions and causes that are most important to us.

My next reflection is about spontaneous generosity or random acts of kindness. Our middle school “Popcorn Theology” class recently watched excerpts from the 2007 film, Evan Almighty, in which actor Steve Carell plays Evan, a newly elected congressman who wants to change the world, and actor Morgan Freeman plays God. God convinces Evan that he must build an ark, just like Noah did in Genesis. Evan asks God if he really intends to flood the earth and start over. God doesn’t answer the question fully, but he indicates his intent isn’t as Biblical as it may seem. In protest, Evan says, “I don’t even know where I would begin.” “Well, I hear that a lot,” says God. “People want to change the world, don’t know where to begin. You wanna know how to change the world, son? One act of random kindness at a time.” Spoiler: ‘ark’ is an abbreviation for ‘act of random kindness.’

Whether we say ‘acts of random kindness’ or ‘random acts of kindness,’ this is very familiar language in our culture, to the point where it has become a hyper cliché. If you know me at all, you know I am underwhelmed by moral and spiritual guidance delivered through clichés. I actually don’t agree that one act of random kindness at a time, even when carried out by millions of people, will change the world. I happen to think the problems facing the world—climate change, poverty, violence, war, and so on—will not evaporate in the face of widespread kindness. I happen to think solving the problems facing the world today requires not random, but highly organized, large-scale, strategic interventions aimed at transforming the local, regional, national and global social, political and economic structures that currently perpetuate those problems. Such interventions cannot be accomplished by kind individuals acting randomly on their own, but rather by multinational, multicultural, multigenerational movements acting in visionary, courageous and sustainable ways over the course of decades. Since change of this sort requires conflict, not all of it will be kind. The world needs more than random acts of kindness.

Having said that, I don’t want to become known as the minister who urged his congregation not to commit random acts of kindness. If you were getting ready to post that message on Facebook, or tweet it, please hold off. Almost all of us have opportunities—many, many opportunities—every day to be kind, compassionate, generous. And we don’t have to go far out of our way to find those opportunities. Offer an encouraging word, a compliment, an affirmation—or just ask, “how are you today?” and really mean it. Reach out to a friend or family member you haven’t heard from in a while. Say “hello,” “I’ve been thinking about you,” “I miss you.” Let the other person have the parking space, even though you got there first. Let the other person cut in front of you in the traffic jam. Lend a hand, hold a door, offer a ride, help with a project—painting a room, raking leaves, shoveling snow, packing for a move, cleaning a garage, attic or basement. Ask, “Is there anything I can do?” and, if the answer is “yes,” do it. Mentor, tutor, coach, counsel, guide. Help with homework. Remember a birthday or an anniversary—the anniversary of a marriage, a death, any significant milestone in a person’s life. Remember with a card, a phone call, a gift. If you discover someone is lonely, talk to them, take them seriously. If someone is overwhelmed, assist them. If someone is grieving, comfort them. If someone is in pain, soothe them. If someone needs to be left alone, let them be alone.

And then there’s the giving of money. So often we encounter people who need money for any number of reasons. And yes, giving money to someone in need can be tricky. When you have money to give and another needs it, it invariably creates an imbalance in the relationship, which can be hard to talk about, hard even to acknowledge. At the risk of minimizing the complexities money brings to human interactions, my hope is that in those times when we have it and others need it, we can give it with humility, with grace, with no strings attached, with no regrets. Having money to give does not make a person better or more worthy, but it does give one an avenue for kindness and generosity that can make a huge difference in another’s life. My hope is that, when we have it to give, we will give it.

Offering our generosity through random acts of kindness won’t change the world. But what a difference it can make, not only in the lives of those who receive our generosity, but in our own lives. What a difference there is between a life in which we close ourselves off to the needs of those around us, compared to a life in which we reach out, make ourselves available, offer a kind word, give money when we have it to give—thoughtfully, carefully, always within our means—but freely, without reservations or misgivings. Generosity honors life, strengthens life, builds life up. Yes, church ought to enable our participation in those larger movements for social, economic, political and environmental change, but it also ought to inspire us to be generous in our face-to-face, human interactions. What a difference generosity makes.

My final reflection, then, brings generosity back to church. Again, I want us to be generous people. And I want us to be people who are always becoming more generous. This certainly means I want us to give as generously as possible to our annual appeal. And it also means I want us to be as generous as possible in all aspects of our lives. So, what is it about church—this particular church—that creates a generous spirit in us, that keeps us not closed but open to those around us, that inspires us to give? I read to you earlier an excerpt from a chapter from Anne Lamott’s Travelling Mercies, called “Why I Make Sam Go to Church.” Sam is her son. She describes how the people of the church welcomed Sam as soon as they found out she was pregnant, and how they continued to welcome him and support their small family through hard times once he was born. She writes of receiving gifts of clothes, casseroles and baggies full of dimes. She writes of the deep and genuine love the people of the church feel for Sam and the deep and genuine love he feels for them. This story jumped out at me because it’s about multigenerational bonds within a church community. What I’ve come to recognize during this congregational year—more fully than I’ve ever recognized before—is that for multigenerational communities to work well the members must be open—intentionally and purposefully open—to a whole range of needs and gifts unique to each generation—open to the needs and gifts of elders, of our children, of our youth and young adults, of parents and of non-parenting adults;  open to all these needs and gifts, learning how they complement each other, how they conflict with each other, and how we can mash them up into a beautiful whole. Multigenerational community demands openness. And I’m convinced the more open we are, the more generous we become.

Last year many of you were able to increase your financial giving, which enabled us to support a very intentional process of enhancing the quality and experience of our multigenerational community. We have been working closely with our interim religious education consultant, Barb Greve and we are finally beginning to introduce some innovations: Everything from the new children’s nametags, to increasing the number of non-parenting adults volunteering or subbing in the children’s religious education program, to inviting small groups of adults to attend children’s worship, to piloting a variety of techniques for multigenerational worship. This spring we’re going to experiment with having children present for the beginning of adult worship on a much more regular basis, and we have many more ideas for making full-week faith a reality over the coming year. The bottom line for me is that we are slowly increasing the opportunities for interaction across the generations. This requires a new degree of openness to change and new relationships. I’m starting to see it—perhaps you are too—and I love what I see. The more open we are, the more generous we become.

Generosity is one of the most significant spiritual values we can cultivate in ourselves and our children. So much of what we do here at UUS:E seeks to instill generosity in us by opening us up—opening us up to the world around us, to pain and suffering and need in the world, to the complexity and beauty of the world, to possibilities, creativity, joy and love: Sunday morning worship, religious education, opportunities to serve—as leaders, as committee members, as stewards, as caregivers, as teachers—opportunities to participate in social justice movements, opportunities to participate in environmental justice movements, opportunities to mark and celebrate life’s milestones—birth, coming of age, marriage, death—opportunities for us to be safely and fully who we are, opportunities to share the details of our lives, to hear and be heard, to see and be seen, to know and be known, to hold and be held, to shape and be shaped, to challenge and be challenged, to soften and be softened, to care and to be cared for, to bring and receive gifts, to love and be loved. All of it opens us up, enables us to be generous people, enables us to continue becoming more generous people.

For your generous gift to this year’s annual appeal, thank you. For your generous spirit, thank you. For all your efforts to become more generous people, thank you.

Amen and blessed be.

 

What Does the World Require of Us? (Revisited for Pawel Jura)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Pawel, August, 2014

Pawel, August, 2014

Our congregation is in mourning after learning of the death, this past Tuesday, of our beloved former Music Director, Pawel Jura. In speaking yesterday with the Rev. Jennifer Brooks, senior interim minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, VA, I learned that the Virginia Medical Examiner has confirmed that Pawel took his own life and that he died peacefully. As more information becomes available, including information about Pawel’s memorial services here and in Fairfax, I will share it with you as best I can. In the coming weeks and months both I and our Acting Director of Religious Education, Gina Campellone, remain available to you for care and consultation about this tragic loss.

My plan for this Sunday had been to preach a sermon called “On Being/Becoming Generous People.” I was going to talk about the progress we’ve made as a congregation to date in our year of transition in our religious education program, and about our progress in deepening our identity as a multigenerational congregation. I was going make the claim that truly multigenerational congregations are generous congregations, that that has been my experience this year: in deepening our multigenerational identity we are becoming more generous people—not just in terms of money, but in terms of our openness to trying new things, new ways of engaging in congregational life, and slowly creating opportunities to build new relationships across generational lines.

In one sense I am still preaching that sermon. Your generosity of heart and spirit in the aftermath of Pawel’s death has been remarkable, has certainly lifted my spirits during the past few days. However, I need to use different words than those I had planned to use, because everything feels different since we heard the news on Wednesday. Pawel’s death and our response to it need to be spoken from this pulpit this morning, because everything feels different and will for some time. Different, but not unfamiliar. At the reception following our vigil in honor of Pawel this past Thursday night, I suddenly recognized what I was feeling. That is, what I was feeling was familiar. I’d been there before. These feelings—most of them—are the same feelings I carried around for months following December 14th, 2012, the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, CT. I know these aren’t similar events—not even close. But so many of the feelings are the same: shock, pain, loss, confusion, an aching grief.

I read over the sermon I preached the Sunday after Sandy Hook and decided to adapt it to this moment. That sermon was called “What Does the World Require of Us?”—a title Pawel suggested. The purpose of that sermon was to help this congregation find emotional and spiritual paths forward in response to a national trauma that happened relatively close to home. The purpose of this sermon (which has the same title—thank you, again, Pawel) is to help this congregation find emotional and spiritual paths forward in response to a very personal trauma—the unexpected death of a loved-one—that happened relatively far away from home.

What was true in response to that infamous school shooting is just as true now in response to Pawel’s death: it is good to be together in our grief. Community is the foundation of our emotional and spiritual way forward. It is good to hug and hold each other. It is good to keep silence together when the words won’t come. It is good to weep together. It is good to pray together. It is good to sing together. Of course, we know this. We know it’s a precious thing to find life-giving community in a world that seems to do everything it can to drive people apart—to alienate, to fragment, to disconnect, to separate. But let’s not risk taking such a precious thing for granted, especially not now. At Thursday’s vigil I mentioned that Pawel had been speaking recently about the quality and specialness of our community here at UUS:E, saying that he missed us. He used the word “homesick” to describe how he was feeling. I said, for his sake and for our sake, “let’s be that community now.” Let’s be that compassionate community, that welcoming community, that loving, serving, justice-seeking, multigenerational, generous community that Pawel loved. In the wake of this unfathomable loss, let us pause, let us breathe, let us be at home in each other’s presence, and let us recognize anew how truly precious it is to be together. Yes, let’s be that community.

What does the world require of us in response to a death such as this? This question seems essential to me if we are to find emotional and spiritual paths forward. In the aftermath of tragedy, what does the world require of us? That’s the question I want to ponder now. And it’s the question I want you to take with you into this week, into these final weeks of winter, into spring. What does the world require of us?

There’s a part of me that answers this question with despair and helplessness, with the exhaustion of the week: “I don’t know what to do.” There’s a part of me that answers this question with anger, especially when the children who knew and loved Pawel are standing before me with tears streaming down their faces, children who may be encountering their first death and it’s not a grandparent, it’s a thirty-six year old man who they thought would be a friend and mentor for life: “I don’t know what to do.” And there’s a part of me that answers this question with confusion and incomprehension. How on earth could this happen? What can we possibly say? What can we possibly do that will make a difference? What does the world require of us? Who in the world knows? That’s my despairing, helpless, exhausted, angry, confused answer to the question, “What does the world require of us?” And let me be crystal clear: we all get to have our version of that answer. We all get to cry such tears. We all get to throw up our hands and say I can’t bear this! We all get to plead with the heavens: How could this happen? We get to have that response because it is real—an honest, human response to such an unexpected and tragic loss. 

But we don’t get to have it forever. I take very seriously the words we heard earlier from the Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox about love in the aftermath of loss. She says, “Oh, my dear, do not despair that love has come and gone. Although we are broken, the love that spilled out of us has joined the love that circles the world and makes it blessed.”[1] I believe it. Did we love someone who has died? Then let us not waste that love. Let us, in Rev. Tarbox’ words, not let it “sink like silt to dry out in the sun.” As painful as it is, let us let it spill out into the world, offering blessing after blessing after blessing. That is what the world requires of us in response to unexpected and tragic loss: that we let our love spill out to bless the world.

I identify three stages to meeting this requirement which I’ll share with you now. First, in the wake of the death of a loved one as dear as Pawel, find your grounding. Breathe deeply, slowly, fully. Fill your lungs with air and remind yourself it comes from green plants and algae. Remind yourself this air you breathe is evidence of your connection to the whole of life. Not separation, but connection.  Breathe in, and as you breathe, relax, rest, be still, be quiet, be calm. Breathe in, and as you breathe, reflect, concentrate, contemplate, focus, pray. Then, still breathing, when you feel ready, start to move. Slowy at first. Gently at first: bend, bow, stretch, lengthen, extend, reach. Keep breathing. And then, when you feel ready: walk, roll, run, dance. Then, still breathing, as you feel ready, begin to create. Creative acts are so essential to moving out of despair and finding our ground. Write, compose, sing, speak, play, act, sculpt, craft, paint, draw. Feel yourself slowly coming back to yourself.

If you can, go outside. I know it’s challenging with three feet of snow on the ground and yet another winter storm on the way. But if you can, touch the ground, the soil, the earth—the beautiful, dark brown earth. Or the snow, the ice. Work in it. Play in it. Remember spring is coming. Think about how you will tend the dark, brown earth after the thaw, how you will till it, turn it, plant seeds in it,  nurture what comes forth. Think about how you will let the dirt get on your hands, under your fingernails, between your toes. Do all of this for grounding. And as you ground yourself, feel yourself coming back to life. Listen for the still small voice. Hear your own truths, your convictions emerging once again. They are there. They’ve never actually left.

The mystic Howard Thurman wrote, “How good it is to center down!”—he’s talking about becoming grounded—“to sit quietly and see oneself pass by! / The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic; / Our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silences, / While something deep within hungers for the still moment and the resting lull. / With full intensity we seek, ere the quiet passes, a fresh sense of order in our living; / A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring  meaning in our chaos.”[2]  Maybe you can find your grounding quickly. Maybe you’re tying and you can’t quite get there yet. Maybe you need more time. It’s ok. Grief does not leave us quickly. Sometimes it never leaves. Take your time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. But have hope: your center is there—it’s real. You’ll find it. The world requires this of us. In the wake of tragic loss, after your time of despair, seek grounding.

Then, second, in the wake of tragic loss, with your despair now trailing behind you, from a place of groundedness emerging within you, attend—however you can—to the grief of those around you. It may not be immediately clear how to do this. So often, we don’t know what we need in the midst of grief. But know that this suffering, this pain, this trauma will ripple around and around through our lives, through our congregation, through the Kensington United Church of Christ where Pawel worked prior to coming to us, through the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, VA where Pawel worked after leaving us. It will ripple through Unitarian Universalism. It will ripple through Manchester and Hartford, through Berlin and South Windsor. It will ripple and ripple and ripple. It will touch people who never knew Pawel. Death does that. If and when you encounter a ripple of grief, attend to it. That is, stay present to it. We attend to grief with our presence. Offer a helping hand, a kind word, a hug, a supportive conversation. If and when you encounter a ripple of grief, don’t look away. Don’t turn away. And if you can’t make eye contact, hold onto the person. Don’t let them go. Take time. Make yourself available. Stay present.

The spiritual writer, Rachel Naomi Remen, says “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[3] The world requires this of us. In fact, our attention to others’ grief is the first way our love spills out in the aftermath of loss. It is the first way we bless the world. In the wake of tragic loss, with your despair finally fading behind you, from a place of groundedness within you, attend however you can to the grief around you.

Third, let your love bless the world. In the wake of tragic loss, having moved beyond despair, having grounded yourself, and while attending to grief as it ripples around you, then comes the time for repair, for healing, for returning to our living, and for extending the blessing. Certainly it is too soon to know what the work of blessing the world will look like in response to Pawel’s death, though I’m confident it will include music—piano concertos and choral anthems, modal chord progressions and haunting melodies, rounds and canons, bell choirs and rock bands, church music and cabarets—and that’s only the beginning. But for now, please know, please trust, please believe that the love spilling out of you even in this moment is not wasted. The love spilling out of you even as we worship has power. The love spilling out of you even in this sacred space can bring more beauty, more passion, more compassion, more comfort, more help, more solace, more peace into the world. The love spilling out of you will bless the world in ways you will know, and in ways you will never know. Indeed the love spilling out of you is even now joining “the love that circles the world and makes it blessed.”

Friends, the truth is we are connected—to each other, to all people, to all life. Our connections make it possible for us to love. And because we love, the world requires certain things of us. In the wake of tragic loss, in the wake of the unexpected death of a loved-one, in the midst of despair, first seek grounding. Then attend to grief—yours, and the grief of those around you. Then work to bless the world. Why try to meet these requirements? Because the world needs blessing. As we remember and mourn Pawel, as we slowly begin to celebrate his life, may we respond with acts of love that bless the world.

Amen. Blessed be.

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

[2] Thurman, Howard, “How Good to Center Down!” in Fluker, Walter and Timber, Catherine, A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) pp. 305-306.

[3] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Bearing Witness,” My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000) p. 105.

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

Rev. Josh Pawelek

First UU Church, New Orleans

First UU Church, New Orleans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

 

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Ibid.

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

Four Reflections on Atonement

Rev. Josh Pawelek


A Reflection on Atonement: Teshuvah For UUs?

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

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

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

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

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

A Second Reflection on Atonement: On Avoiding Conflict Avoidance 

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

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

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

We need the possibility for atonement.

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

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

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

A Third Reflection on Atonement: “Micro-Atonements”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Taking Your Faith to Work

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

 

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Genesis 1: 27.

[6] Genesis 1: 28b.

[7] Genesis 2:15b.

[8] Genesis 2:18b.

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

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

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