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

GenerosityOur 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.

debateEpiscopal 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 equal payearn 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.

rape culture

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


leavesA 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?

leavesA 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. 

Autumn BirdsA 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.

bombingA 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.

hope

[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

water coolerI’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]

Adam from Dust

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.

We are dust

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.

Ring Them Bells!

Rev. Josh Pawelek
End of ChurchIn her 2012 Huffington Post article, “The End of Church,” author and historian of American religion, Diana Butler Bass, says “Something startling is happening in American religion: We are witnessing the end of church or, at the very least, the end of conventional church.”[1] She refers to studies that reveal an increasing disenchantment with organized religion, not just within Roman Catholicism or the aging and typically more liberal mainline Protestant denominations, but also within the more evangelical and conservative denominations such as the Southern Baptist Conference. People are leaving church. She refers to the distinction Americans are increasingly making between being religious—which means being part of an organized religion—and being spiritual—which, in Bass’s terms, means having some kind of visceral experience of faith. People are much less inclined today than just a decade ago to identify themselves as “religious,” and much more inclined to identify themselves as either “spiritual and religious” or “spiritual but not religious.” I notice the famous—to some, infamous—“New Atheist,” Sam Harris, is about to publish a book entitled Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.[2] New York Times columnist Frank Bruni said Harris’ book caught his eye “because it’s so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion.”[3]

When I hear about trends in declining church membership—especially membership in evangelical churches—I admit I often find the news hard to believe. It seems like just yesterday we were hearing about the rapid growth of Christian Fundamentalism, thousands of new mega churches, and the unprecedented political power of the Religious Right during the presidency of George W Bush. Could all that really be declining? Could a new generation of Americans really be rejecting that kind of religiosity which seemed so prevalent and permanent just a decade ago?

Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass

Well, there were numerous articles just this week about the Seattle-based, mega church, Mars Hill, being forced to close some of its fifteen branches and lay off 30-40% of its staff due to budget constraints.[4] These articles cite multiple reasons for Mars Hill’s problems, including financial mismanagement, plagiarism, hyper-homophobia, hyper-sexism, and ongoing negative media attention. This seems consistent with Bass’findings about the emerging negative view of churches in general. In the popular mind churches appear increasingly unresponsive to the spiritual and material needs of the world. They seem wrapped up in their own internal affairs, institutional governance, politics, financial challenges; they often seem unethical; they seem stuck in patterns of congregational life and organization that don’t mesh with the life experiences of real people, especially young adults; they seem unfocused, unclear, and adrift when it comes to having a positive impact on the wider community. Of course, in Bass’ view, the rapid emergence of the “spiritual and religious” and the “spiritual but not religious” identities is ultimately positive. She says it “expresses a grassroots desire for new kinds of faith communities, where institutional structures do not inhibit or impede one’s relationship with God or neighbor. Americans are searching for churches—and temples, synagogues, and mosques—that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.”[5]

When I read sentences like that last one I confess I always have the same gut reaction: that’s exactly what Unitarian Universalist congregations are trying to do and, in many cases, have been doing for generations: offering “pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.” I don’t think I’m alone in that reaction. I think we UUs have tendency (at least historically) to read articles like Bass’ and then to assume the warnings of decline don’t apply to us because somehow we’re getting it right. I remember hearing the term ‘spiritual but not religious’ for the first time in the late 1990s, and saying to myself, and probably to others, “this bodes well for Unitarian Universalism.” Afterall, we were ‘spiritual but not religious’ long before it came into vogue. We were skeptical of religion long before such skepticism became hip, so much so that we have been known in some quarters as the ‘religion for the non-religious.’ And aren’t we the one place in America where atheists, Humanists and agnostics can gather for worship on Sunday morning and be welcomed and embraced in their theological views? So, we’re not like other churches. Right?

Well, we are certainly distinct from other churches, but the reality is we’re not immune from the wider trends in American religious life. I find myself forced to own up to my earlier naiveté in assuming that the prevalence of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ identity would lead automatically to growth in Unitarian Universalist congregations. It hasn’t. Exhibit A is an article in the summer issue of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine by the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley entitled “Into the Beyond.” In it, she points out that “Unitarian Universalist congregations seemed for a while to have bucked these trends, but our U.S. membership has slipped each year since 2008.”[6] In that regard, we’re just like other churches.

Rev. Cooley is the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Program and Strategy Officer. She says her job is to “scare all of us, at least a little bit, because if we don’t pay attention to these trends, we could end up like those near-empty or abandoned churches that are increasingly becoming part of our landscape.”[7] Like Bass, she cites a number of recent studies that give some credence to her warnings. For example, earlier this year the Barna Group, an Evangelical Christian polling firm, found that only 2 out of 10 millennials (adults under 30) feel churchgoing is important.[8] She also cites a 2012 Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project finding that nearly 20% of Americans have no religious affiliation whatsoever.[9]

One of the messages in Rev. Cooley’s article which a few of you found unsettling enough to want to talk to me about it is her discussion of the ways people access and practice Unitarian Universalism beyond the local congregation. She names the reality that there are many people in the wider world who agree with our principles and values, who share our commitments to environmental stewardship, antiracism, and civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, who will partner with us on social justice initiatives, and who may even call themselves Unitarian Universalists, but who, for any number of reasons, can’t or won’t attend or join a UU congregation. Do we ignore them since they aren’t going to be part of our congregation? Or do we figure out how to be in relationship with them? Rev. Cooley leans toward relationship, not only for her work as a UUA staff-member, but for us as well. “Creating new ways for people … to connect, serve, and deepen their spirituality with others, with or without a congregation,” she says, “must become a major shift in the UUA’s mission and also in our congregations.”[10]

“How can people connect to Unitarian Universalism and claim a Unitarian Universalist identity without being part of a congregation?” That’s her question. And while I know the UUA isn’t abandoning congregations, it leads me to ask: if participation in American congregations is declining across the board, and if our denominational officials are looking for ways to reach out to people beyond congregations, then what’s a congregation to do?

I was excited when Dorothy Bognar suggested that she and Tom Chung would sing Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells”[11] for us this morning. Dylan wrote this song for his 1989 album “Oh Mercy.” I don’t claim to know what Dylan meant by any of the lyrics in this song, but he clearly isn’t happy with the church. He refers to the bride running backwards—bride being a reference (I assume) to the church as the “bride of Christ.” He refers to the sun “going down upon the sacred cow.” He sings “Oh the shepherd is asleep.” I find it intriguing to compare his discontent with the church to that of the legions of Americans who today say they have no use for organized religion. Remember, although Dylan is Jewish, he became a born-again Christian around 1980. So when he criticizes the church, he’s writing as an insider who seems to care deeply about the church. He finds the church ineffectual in the face of a general moral and social breakdown in society: “Oh the lines are long and the fighting is strong / And they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong.” He’s upset about what he encounters in the world and he’s critical of a church that seems unresponsive to it. But instead of abandoning the church, instead of throwing up his hands saying, “I have no use for you anymore, I’ll get my spirituality elsewhere,” he’s pleading with the church: Do something! Make a difference! Assert your moral authority! Ring them bells!

That’s the sentiment I want to borrow and channel in response to the question, “What’s a congregation to do? When participation in American churches is declining across the board, and as our denominational officials are—rightly, I think—looking for ways to reach people beyond the traditional, local church, what’s a congregation to do? Ring them bells!

Before you start thinking I’ve lost my mind, please know I know, at least in this building, we don’t have bells. So, I don’t mean we should literally ring bells. Furthermore, I realize one could take this plea to “ring them bells” as a call for the church to just make more noise—to keep being ineffectual, but to do it more loudly. That’s not what I mean either. And furthermore, some commentators have argued Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” is literature in keeping with the ancient Near-Eastern apocalyptic tradition meaning that the bell is ringing out a warning: “Repent! The end of the world is nigh!” And while I do think religions have a role to play in warning about the consequences of human greed, arrogance, hatred and ignorance, especially when it comes to the climate crisis, the church that only rings its bells to warn of impending disaster is offering a very thin slice of what it requires to fully nurture peoples’ spiritual lives.

I think our spiritual lives are assaulted constantly. I know I don’t have to convince those of you gathered here that prominent aspects of our wider culture and economy lead countless people into boredom, anxiety, exhaustion, isolation, desperation. I don’t have to convince those of you gathered here that prominent aspects of our wider culture and economy tunnel our vision, leave us bowling alone,[12] train us to think in sound-bites, offer trivia in place of truth, and speak to us constantly of our fears so that divisions abound and engaging difference becomes taboo. I don’t have to convince you there is a climate crisis. I don’t have to convince you there are food, water and health crises, or a money-in-politics crisis. I don’t have to convince you there is racism, homophobia or sexism, all of it driving people further and further apart. But given all of it, I do want to say this: church matters! That’s the bell I want us to ring. Church matters immensely, and this Unitarian Universalist congregation matters immensely. In the midst of a culture and economy that drive people apart, that obscure any deeper sense of meaning in our lives, that blunt our sense of vocation, that discourage us from organizing for a more just community, churches, if they choose to use it, have incredible power to counter the daily assault on our spiritual lives: to connect us to each other, to help us find meaning, to help us discern our vocation. Churches have the power to bring us together to organize for social and economic justice. And churches have the power to offer us life-giving spiritual experience.[13] Those are the bells I want us to ring. Not just bells of warning, as important as those are. But bells that proclaim a beloved spiritual and religious community exists here, bells that invite us to shape that community as a powerful response to all those forces in the world that would drive us apart.

Churches and denominations may be in decline these days. But there is still a genius to the idea of people gathering faithfully, week after week, united around a set of common principles, giving thanks for the blessings in their lives, caring for one another, teaching their children, hearing the wisdom of their elders, searching together for truth and meaning, and working for a more just, peaceful and loving world. That’s my vision for this church. If that’s religion, then call me religious, and show me where the bell is, ‘cause that’s a noise I want to make!

Bells

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Bass, Diana Butler, “The End of Church,” is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion.

[2] More information about Harris’ new book can be found at his website: http://www.samharris.org/waking-up.

[3] Bruni, Frank, “Between Godliness and Godlessness,” New York Times, September 7, 2014. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-between-godliness-and-godlessness.html?_r=0.

[4] See the Associated Press report at http://www.thestate.com/2014/09/09/3669748/mars-hill-megachurch-closing-branches.html?sp=/99/132/.

[5] Bass, Diana Butler, “The End of Church,” is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion.

[6] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[7] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[8] See “Americans Divided on the Importance of Church” at https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/661-americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church#.VBBtXPldWSr.

[9] See “Nones on the Rise” at http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/.

[10] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[11] Watch Bob Dylan perform “Ring Them Bells” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-gZooq3Ylc.

[12] This is a reference to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

[13] This list riffs off of language Diana Butler Bass’ uses in “The End of Church” athttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion. She says Americans are looking for “pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.”

It’s All Poetry

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In May I heard a report on the news of a suicide bombing somewhere, maybe Iraq, an enormous number of bystanders killed and wounded, a witness explaining to a reporter through a translator that the bomber had screamed Allahu akbar! (God is Great!”) just before detonation. Muslims use this phrase, the takbir, for many reasons. I suspect the fact that militant Islamists say or scream it before committing acts of violence—and that saying or screaming gets reported in the western media—could potentially lead us to hear it as a war cry and not, as it is most commonly used, as the beginning of prayer, or an expression of surprise, or of sympathy for one who is suffering, or of praise for a wonderful performance. Allahu akbar is used for all these reasons and many more.

Takbir

I’ve heard this story of the takbir shouted as prelude to violence many times. I’m sure many of you have as well. It makes me angry—and sad—when people commit murder with God’s name on their tongues. If I’m being honest, it makes me fearful. And if I’m being more honest, it engenders in me a reaction that feels—I’m not quite sure how to name it—self-righteous, superior, haughty, smug, arrogant. It’s a reaction that says clearly these killers misunderstand their religion. They’ve been mis-educated, manipulated, brainwashed. No decent religion teaches killing. It’s a reaction that says “I, an educated, western white man, know better.” And although I’ve learned to check myself whenever I feel that way, here I believe I really do know better (though I also realize I can’t possibly know what has brought the bomber to this point in their life). I don’t believe there is anything I can learn about them that would lead me to say, “Oh, now I get it. That was a good idea.” These fanatical crimes—intended to harm innocents, spread mayhem and invite more violence—will never be OK. I am right about this, and in saying that, I can’t quite escape feeling a tinge of self-righteousness, or whatever it is.

God is GreatBut in that moment back in May a different feeling came over me, a different idea occurred to me. I remembered, as a child, saying “God is great” before dinner. It was that popular children’s prayer: “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for this food.” As I remembered this prayer a wave of recognition rolled over me: the words “God is great,” more than anything else, are a poem—a very short, simple poem; which led me to the further recognition that all prayer, at its heart, is poetry; and that when people are praying, chanting, reciting or singing in virtually any religious context, the words on their tongues are poems. The Biblical Psalms, those enduring cries of praise, thanksgiving, lamentation and awe—“You cradle me in green pastures / You lead me beside the still waters. / You restore my soul”[1]—at their heart these songs of David are poems. And when Jesus, on the first day of his ministry entered the Nazarene synagogue, read from the scroll and upset those in attendance, he was reading a poem: “The Spirit of God is upon me / because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. / He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives / and recovery of sight to the blind, /to let the oppressed go free, / to proclaim the year of God’s favor.”[2]

When the ancient Vedic sages crafted the Upanishads, articulating the core concepts of what would eventually become Hinduism,Ilumination Buddhism and Janism, they wrote poetry. The Bhagavad-Gita, the central text of Hindu spirituality—“I am the Self that dwells in the heart of every mortal creature: / I am the beginning, the life span, and the end of all,”[3]—is a poem. The Tao Te Ching—“The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name”[4]—is poetry. The Analects of Confucius—“What does Heaven ever say? Yet there are the four seasons going round and there are the hundred things coming into being”[5]—beautiful, concise poems. If you’ve ever heard a recitation of the Koran, or if you’ve seen its words laid out on a painstakingly illuminated manuscript, you cannot doubt that what God put in the heart of Muhammad (blessings be upon him) was poetry—a recognition which led me on that day in May to the idea that all religion is, at its heart, poetry. And with that the wave crashed and I knew something I hadn’t known before: when a fanatical Islamist shouts “God is great” and blows him or herself up in a crowded market square, it’s not a case of them misunderstanding their religion. They understand it perfectly. For whatever reason, their religion has taught them to do this. What has happened is that they and their religion have misunderstood poetry.

Of course this begs the question, what is poetry? I am not a poet. I’ve never studied poetry in a systematic way. I’ve never memorized a poem. I might be able to name 20 poets off the top of my head. However, if we accept this idea that all religion at its heart is poetry, then I can name hundreds of poets: Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Rumi, Hafez, Hillel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Ruth (“Where you dwell, I shall dwell”), David, Solomon, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Paul, John Paul, Bonhoeffer, Neimoller (“First they came for the Socialists / and I did not speak out / Because I was not a Socialist”),King (“I have a dream”), Thurman, Thandeka, Tinker, Tagore, Tutu, Theresa of Avila, Theresa of Calcutta, de las Casas, Handsome Lake, Black Elk, Wovoka, Francis (“Who am I to judge?”), St. Francis, Swedenborg, Mary Moody Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Spirit primarily means wind, transgression, the crossing of a line”), Thoreau, Parker (Theodore), Parker (Rebecca), Lyon Fahs, Fosdick, Fuller, Freeman Clarke, Peabody, Stanton, Alcott, Child, Brown, Brown Blackwell, Blackenbery Crook, Nancy Schaffer (“I have been looking for the words that come before words”), Tarbox, Valentin, Herrera, Southern, Peacebang, McTigue, Pescan, Wellemeyer, Ungar, Walsh, Belletini, Mary (Gospel of), Thomas (Gospel of), Q (Gospel of, though theoretical, of course), Thich Nhat Han, Pema Chodron, Sharon Salzberg, Solle, Tillich (“Religion asks for the ultimate source of the power which heals by accepting the unacceptable, it asks for God”), Wright (“God damn America!”), Johnson (Alvan), Cone, Coelho, Kwok Pui Lan, Fox, West, Weston, Davies, Eaton, Eckhart, Murfin (“We build temples in the heart), Bray McNatt, Morrison-Reed, Simons, Niebuhr—all the Neibuhrs—Buber, Barth, Boff, Berrigan, Garrison, Guzman, Starhawk, Spretnak, Adams (Margot), Adams (Jane), Adams (James), Jerzy Popieluszko, Oscar Romero, Hus, Luther, Cervides, Rush, Jefferson, Priestley, Jones (Rufus), Jones (Jenkin Lloyd), Vivekananda, Dharmapala, Krishnamurti, Khalil Gibran, Parker Palmer, Basho, Berry, Bellah, Whitman, Wentworth Higginson, Jesus (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). That’s about 120 “poets” off the top of my head—all people whose words I’ve lifted up in worship over the years. No Google search necessary.

I asked my kids and a friend what poetry is. They said: “Poetry is writing what you think is fun.” “Poetry is freedom in writing.” “Poetry is writing things that rhyme.” “Poetry is writing what you feel.” “Poetry is descriptive.” “Poetry is writing until you have nothing else to write about.” “Poetry is using fewer words.” Good answers. I was hoping they’d mention “fewer words.” In his essay “The Poet,” Emerson said, “It does not need that a poem should be long. Every word was once a poem.”[6] When I asked the kids why poetry uses fewer words, they couldn’t say. They seemed to sense a reason, but couldn’t put it into speech, into whole sentences with beginnings, middles and ends. And that’s the point. There are truths—great truths we humans long to discern. We sometimes call this longing the religious impulse. Yet the same longing that drives poetry. We long to understand the essences of things, the spirit of things, the endless relationships among all things, the forces connecting all to all, the animating power, the constant flow, the eternal, spiraling motion, particles that are waves building and crashing, the rhythm of life, first breaths, finals breaths, breathing in, out, beating lub dub, blood coursing, cycles of life and death, growth and decay, cycles of seconds, hours, days, months, seasons, years, thousands of years, millions of years, movements of suns, moons, planets, galaxies, pulls of tides, the instinct to survive, the will to live, the creative drive, a parent’s boundless love for their child, and “the lone, wild bird in lofty flight.” [7]

Lone Wild Bird

Poetry points to these truths; but only points, because inherent in poetry is the recognition that words alone are insufficient to name them fully. So poetry uses fewer words, and in so doing creates space for other ways of knowing—feeling, sensing, intuiting, dreaming, imagining—ways of entering the place beyond words. Or, as the late poet who was also a spiritual leader, Nancy Shaffer, said in a stanza forever dog-eared, highlighted and triple underlined in my copy of her book, “I have been looking for the words that come before words, the ones older than silence, the ones not mine, that can’t be found by thought—the ones that hold the beginning of the world and are never used up, which arrive loaned, and make me weep.”[8] Was she a poet who was also a spiritual leader, or a spiritual leader who was also a poet? Nevermind, this question no longer matters to me. From this day forward I acknowledge no distinction between poetry and the heart of religion. Poetry uses fewer words to point to the truth and create spaces for all forms of human discernment of the truth. At its best, so does religion. Through its scriptures, prayers, meditations, songs, hymns, chants, sayings, aphorisms, parables, sutras, suras, chapters, verses, liturgies, rituals, worship and witness it points to the truth and creates spaces for all forms of human discernment of the truth. Poetry lives at the heart of religion.

I remember in the early years of my ministry I participated in some of the Boston-area Soulful Sundowns—evening worship services designed for young adults. I would bring my rock band along. The song lyrics became texts for my sermons. The idea was that sacred scripture wasn’t the only source of spiritual insight or ultimate truth—you could find it in the ordinary, the mundane, the everyday. You could find it in rock lyrics, literature, poetry, film. This was not a new idea for Unitarian Universalists. I was just getting used to my own version of it. At the end of the services I would ask people to share their favorite lyrics from their favorite songs and to name the spiritual message they took from those lyrics. I might have mentioned the Tracey Bonham song we heard earlier. “Whether you fall / means nothing at all / it’s whether you get up”[9]—an ode to courage, resilience, second chances, finding inner strength. I’ve always loved bringing the so-called “secular” into church and making it available for spiritual contemplation. And as long as we could cross back and forth, I was content with the line between secular and sacred. But for me, now, that line doesn’t exist. Poetry doesn’t recognize that line, can’t fathom it, won’t sanction it. And when religion draws that line, it fails to understand its own poetic heart.

How do you know a religion has misunderstood poetry? It has started using too many words (which, I suppose, is a commentary hardening hearton most sermons). Paradoxically, the more words we use to describe our truths, the further we get from the feeling of them, the intuiting of them, the dreaming of them, the loving of them. The more words we use to describe our truths, the further we get from the raw experience of them. The more words we use to describe our truths, the more we limit them, the more we drain the life from them, the more we imprison, entomb, harden, calcify, fossilize them. Emerson said “Language is fossil poetry.”[10] How do you know a religion has misunderstood its poetic heart? It has stopped pointing toward the truth and has started acting as if it alone has the truth. It has stopped offering its people opportunities for discernment, for entering into mystery, for searching the vast expanses, for making their own meaning of their own experience. It has stopped trusting its people to make their own way. Instead it has started demanding allegiance to a single, sweeping truth expressed in jagged, unassailable, terminal words; it has started shaping its original sense of awe, its original beauty into strict and hard-sounding doctrines; it has started drawing lines, categorizing, putting everything and everyone into boxes, binding belief, banishing dissent, setting boundaries—who is in and who is out. It has started making threats with eternal consequences; started discriminating; started accepting the unjust status quo; started hearing “God is great” as a call to murder. Indeed, religion misunderstands its poetic heart at the world’s peril.

Contrast this with Molly Vigeant’s poem, “oh, the places our journeys will go,” which she wrote as a credo, a personal belief statement. She says “I wish I could say / I know of / This perfect way / But to be honest / I love / Just looking / No commitment / To just one thing / Listening / To how the birds sing / And finding joy in that / Comfort / Without a resort.” Religion damages the human spirit when it says “Repeat after me. Do not stray from my words.” Molly says there is no perfect way. She’s right. Religion saves us when it opens pathways, sends us searching, urges us on, opens us up, invites us to ponder, creates space, points us toward  truth. Religion is at its best—life-giving, liberating, empowering—when it speaks poetry, uses fewer words, and invites us into the wonderful, creative spaces between them. “You cradle me in green pastures / You lead me beside the still waters. / You restore my soul.”

still waters

When we finally arrive at the spaces between the words, at the words before words, at whatever faint glimmer of truth we humans can grasp, it is a blessing. It can be for us a source of courage, strength and resilience, a source of comfort and solace, a boon to our creativity, and perhaps, most importantly a call to bring love back into the world. Molly says it well: “We are a people / And people are love / Let that be enough.” When the poetic heart of our religion brings us back from our searching with messages of love on out tongues, surely it has done its saving work.

Amen and blessed be.
 

[1] Excerpt from Psalm 23, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #642.

[2] Luke 4: 18-19.

[3] Excerpt from the Bhagavad-Gita, chapter 10, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #611.

[4] Lao Tzu, Tao-te Ching, in Wing-Tsit Chan, tr., The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Macmillan Publishing co., 1963) p.97.

[5] Confucius, The Analects, Book 17: 19 in D.C. Lau, tr., Confucius: The Analects (New York: Penguin Books, 1979) p. 146.

[6] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “The Poet,” in Whicher, Stephen, ed, Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin co., 1957) p. 229. Or read the full text at http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poet. There is a helpful analysis of “The Poet” in Richardson, Robert D., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkely: University of California Press, 1995) pp. 371-5.

[7] MacFayden, H.R., The Lone, Wild Bird, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #15.

[8] Shaffer, Nancy, “In Stillness,” Instructions in Joy (Boston: Skinner House, 2002) p. 5.

[9] Tracey Bonham, “Whether You Fall” is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ADHC80–sY&list=RD_ADHC80–sY#t=31.

[10] Emerson, “The Poet,” in Whicher, ed, Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, p. 231.

 

Fatherhood in Flux

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Parents rushingThe Rev. Kathleen McTigue is right: the realities of parenting do not mesh well with the features of the classic spiritual journey—“the solitary pilgrimage, the focused weeks of prayer or meditation, the ecstatic chanting in the company of other seekers.”[1] But parenting is a journey, and there is enormous spiritual growth to be had. “This ordinary, unsung path,” writes McTigue, “requires tremendous openness to the unanticipated. It meanders around a thousand turns that feel like detours or dead ends. It requires faith that the spirit does not grow in a straight line nor need traditional forms and practices. Real spiritual growth depends on our willingness to be transformed, and very little transforms us as thoroughly as sharing our lives with children.”[2]

Our ministry theme for June is family. This morning I’d like to lift up parenting as a central task of adults in families and explore Classic familysome spiritual dimensions of parenting in our era. Since today is Father’s Day, I’d like to focus my reflections on fatherhood. And I begin with this caveat: the “golden-age” American image of what a family is—happily married, heterosexual, usually white, middle-class parents, living in a freestanding suburban house with a yard, a white picket fence, a dog chewing a bone, and two-point-something well-adjusted children, maybe a baby on the way—that image of family, if it ever existed, was far more rare than we typically imagine. Today we know families come—and always have—in a seemingly endless variety of configurations. Any time a minister (or anyone) proposes to generalize about any aspect of family life, there’s always a risk that some alternative yet valid perspective will be missed.

That is, it’s difficult to name universal truths about families. Because we spend so much time with our own families—however we understand them; because we become so enmeshed in the challenges, joys and traditions of our own families—we can develop tunnel vision when it comes to understanding how other people experience family. My kids live with married, heterosexual professional parents. They have four supportive grandparents close by. They eat three meals a day. They have three cats. They take a family vacation every summer, usually involving a beach. They spend family time playing games, watching movies, hiking and visiting with aunts, uncles and cousins. This is what family is to them. But they have no idea what it might mean to live with one parent, to be an only child, to live with a grandparent in an in-law apartment, to have two moms or two dads, to have a step-parent, to have half-siblings, to be in foster care, to struggle financially, to spend summers on a farm or at a second home in another country. They have no idea what it might mean to have a live-in maid, chauffeur or chef, or to live in a practicing Muslim, Catholic, Mormon or Jewish family.

There’s always the risk, and the reality, that my experience of being a father will not match someone else’s experience of being a father; or that my experience of having a father will not match someone else’s experience of having a father; or that my experience of being a white, middle class, heterosexual, married, working, Unitarian Universalist father will not adequately speak to the experiences of fathers with different identities fathering under different circumstances. The problem is not that experiences vary—diversity in family life is a beautiful feature of early 21st-century America. The problem is that it is so easy to forget that differences are there at all. There is not one experience of fatherhood, motherhood, parenting, or grand-parenting. There is not one experience of family.

The cast of "Modern Family"

The cast of “Modern Family”

I do think it’s safe and accurate to say fatherhood in our era is in flux,[3] especially when it comes to gender roles. Traditional parenting roles for men and women—once quite distinct—have been slowly converging over the past few decades. A great illustration of this is the online hype surrounding a photo blogger Doyin Richards posted on his website Daddy Doin’ Work[4] last fall. He told the story in a January 8th Huffington Post article: I took time off from my corporate job for baby bonding with my 3-month old daughter. It’s a lot of work being a stay at home parent, but it’s so damn rewarding…. One morning … my[wife] was running late for work and was worried that she wouldn’t be able to get [our three-year old daughter’s] hair done before I had to take her to school. I told her that she could leave and I’d handle it. She countered by saying that doing her hair requires attention and the baby would get upset if I left her alone while I played the role of stylist. Again, I told her that I’d handle it. On the way out she said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

That’s when I put [the baby] in the Ergo, stood [the three-year old] on a stool and worked my hair magic. During the process, I thought, There’s no way my wife will believe me if I don’t take a picture of this.That’s when I set my camera up, put it on a 10-second timer, and took the photo…. After 15 minutes of multitasking, the final result was a nice, tight ponytail for big sister and a happily sleeping baby in the carrier. Mission accomplished. I emailed the photo to her with the caption “Boom.” and we both got a good laugh out of it.[5]

Doyin Richards' famous photo. Boom!

Doyin Richards’ famous photo. Boom!

The photo went viral soon after he posted it. He says there were three types of comments: those who think he is the world’s best dad; those who think this is no big deal and he shouldn’t get extra praise; and racists (Richards is black) who assumed he must be a deadbeat if he has time to fix his daughter’s hair, or that the children aren’t actually his because they have lighter skin (his wife is Japanese and White). He identifies with the second group, saying “this is something Dads are supposed to be doing,” and “I am not special in any regard.” That is my response, and I suspect the same would be true of most of you. But it’s worth naming that fathers attending to children in this way are a relatively new phenomenon in the American social landscape. While I’m sure there have always been such fathers, it’s traditionally a mother’s role. Hence Richards’ wife’s quip: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Richards was on paternity leave, which is also a relatively new phenomenon. A June, 2013 Wall Street Journal article, entitled “Why Dads Don’t Take Paternity Leave,” pointed out that 15 % of US companies provide some paid leave for new fathers—and they call that progress. However, even when the benefit exists, many dads elect not to take it. “There’s still a stigma associated with men who put parenting on an equal footing with their jobs…. Most employers still assume that work comes first for men, while women do all the child care…. Many men who openly identify with their parental role at work face pressure or resentment from co-workers…. Men who are active caregivers get teased and insulted at work more than so-called traditional fathers and men without children. Active fathers are seen as distracted and less dedicated to their work—the same perception that harms career prospects for many working mothers…. Such men are accused of being wimpy or henpecked by their wives.”[6]

I go back to Rev. McTigue’s notion that “real spiritual growth depends on our willingness to be transformed.” As fathers become more willing and able to adopt—and excited and passionate about adopting— those aspects of child-rearing traditionally assigned to women, there will be transformation—not just for those men, but for all of us. One of Hilary Clinton’s most significant achievements as Secretary of State was to orient United States foreign policy globally toward the education of girls, arguing that educated mothers are one of the most potent weapons against war, terrorism, violence and extremism. I agree. But imagine also an America in which men play a more immediate and traditionally feminine role in child-rearing? Might that not have a similarly powerful and positive effect on our long-term chances for creating a more just and peaceful world? I, for one, believe that is a transformation worth pursuing and I welcome this blurring of the traditional male and female parenting roles.

But even if roles blur, I wonder to what extent certain parental instincts are more unique to fathers, while others are more unique to mothers. It’s a stereotype, but if men are more aggressive, more prone to use violence, more socialized to see themselves as family leaders, breadwinners and protectors, more distant, more solitary—if fathers feel these things more instinctually and poignantly than mothers—I worry about how these instincts could play out in our era. I worry because I perceive an fearextraordinary level of fear in our society: fear of terrorism, of immigrants, of an assault on gun ownership, of assault weapons, gun violence and mass shootings—70 since the December, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre—fear of the mentally ill, of Big Government, of taxes, of unemployment, of deficits and debt, of Black presidents, of White presidents, of marriage equality, of marijuana, fear of Eric Cantor, of David Brat, of Hilary Clinton, of Islam, of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, of Boko Haram, of Black and Hispanic men, of tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides, droughts, wildfires and nor’easters, of global warming, of power outages and water shortages, of genetically modified food, of corporations, of the Koch brothers, of rising college tuitions and sea levels; fear of fathers fixing daughters’ hair—fear upon fear upon fear. Depending on our politics we think some of it is completely justified, and some of it is completely ridiculous. But it’s there. And if there is a deep-seeded, masculine, fatherly instinct to resort to aggression and violence to protect one’s family, in a fearful era, might we not witness an increasingly violent society?

I’m not sure. There are data that suggest we live in the safest, most peaceable era in human history. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker made this argument in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.[7] Maybe despite deep-seeded instincts towards aggression, and despite widespread fear, a more safe and peaceful world is emerging right before our eyes. But that doesn’t feel right—not if you’re an inner city father living in contested gang territory; not if you’re a Midwest father whose hometown was obliterated by a tornado this past winter; not if you’re a father anywhere whose child’s peer was caught bringing a gun to school. We’ve become a fearful nation in an increasingly fearful world—not all the reasons are spurious. This creates a dilemma for American fathers. Do we, out of fear, embrace those more ancient inclinations which include aggression and violence and thereby risk perpetuating violence? Or do we welcome a new set of values for fathers: nurturing spirits, vulnerable hearts , an embrace of difference, a rejection of violence, a capacity to really partner with whoever our partner may be, and a desire and an ability to fix out daughters’ hair? And maybe it isn’t precisely a dilemma. Maybe it isn’t a matter of losing the ancient instincts altogether, because certainly there’s a time and a place for aggression and even violence. Perhaps the flux fathers are in is calling us towards greater balance: aggression tempered by a drive to nurture, distance moderated by an impulse toward closeness and connection, violence only as a last resort, and briefcases whose contents include little girls’ hair brushes. Though some may call such balance weak or cowardly, I call it strong and courageous.

I asked a number of UUS:E fathers to give me their impressions of fatherhood in our era. Across the range of responses I found both a desire to find a place for the more ancient fatherly instincts and an embrace of the transformation that comes with child-rearing even when it demands a departure from tradition. Rob Stolzman shared the story of a friend, an Alaska native, who remembered her dad going moose hunting for the family. “He never told the family that he was planning on going; he would simply begin to take longer and longer walks into the wilderness with his hunting equipment until one day he wouldn’t come back and would be gone for up to a week.  He didn’t need to speak his intent; he would simply follow his routine and then be gone, but his family knew exactly what was happening.  And it made them ecstatic because they knew when he came back he would be bringing fresh moose.” Rob says, “Our schedules revolve around work and school and children’s activities and we try to squeeze more and more in.  I value the picture of a father, or mother, going about his/her solitary duty, without saying a word, and with not only total understanding and acceptance but celebration from his/her family.  It seems like we are often too busy to stop and acknowledge the happiness and excitement of a family member contributing in a routine, solitary and unassuming way.” Thanks Rob!

William George Richardson Hind's "Moose Hunting Winter Manitoba"

William George Richardson Hind’s “Moose Hunting Winter Manitoba”

Glenn Campellone described the changes parenthood has demanded of him: “By far my greatest challenge has been letting go of the traditions and expectations of my own upbringing.” “Some of the issues we faced (and the solutions we chose) caused me to leave my comfort zone and suspend disbelief, which was extremely difficult for me.  I’m not sure my parents or their generation could have or would have even considered some of the decisions we’ve made.

I’ve rethought “my attitudes toward home schooling.  I’ve come to understand that traditional school environments just don’t work for every student.” I’ve come to understand that the traditional path of “high school to college to corporate career to marriage to children isn’t always the path to happiness.” And I’ve come to understand that” your parents’ religion doesn’t have to be your religion.  Roman Catholicism was all we knew, but we knew it wasn’t working for us…. Once again, it was our  children’s desire to have a spiritual home that opened our eyes to other possibilities and led us to UUS:E.” Thanks Glenn!

Knowing there are fathers who can articulate and celebrate a more traditional view of fatherhood and find in it spiritual value and depth to help us respond in healthy, grounded ways to the seeming insanity of today’s world; and knowing there are fathers who can assess how fatherhood has transformed them and opened them up to greater possibility, to nuance, to seeing grey in a world that so often only offers black and white—this gives me confidence that that elusive balance between the old and the new, that elusive balance so essential to meeting fear with hope, that elusive balance so essential to making peace in the world is utterly possible.

Dad-Hair

            Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “The Parents’ Pilgrimage,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 73.

[2] Ibid., p. 74.

[3] For a general review of various aspects of this flux, see: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/12/5-facts-about-todays-fathers/.

[4] See http://daddydoinwork.com/.

[5] Read Richard’s Huffington Post article at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/doyin-richards/i-have-a-dream-picture-like-this_b_4562414.html. And read a recent National Public Radio article on fatherhood that featured Richard’s story at http://www.npr.org/2014/06/12/321218293/white-house-urges-dads-to-join-work-life-balance-conversation.

[6] “Why Dads Don’t Take Paternity Leave,” Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2013. See: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324049504578541633708283670. Also, and for the record, a May 2013 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research reminds us that only 35% of women work for an employer who offers paid maternity leave, and the United States is one of only four countries globally, and the only high-income country, without a statutory right to paid maternity leave for employees. See: http://www.iwpr.org/publications/pubs/maternity-paternity-and-adoption-leave-in-the-united-states-1.

[7] Listen to / watch Pinker talk about the ideas in BetterAngels at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5X2-i_poNU.