Living in Shades of Gray

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Late November sun shines dimly on cold gray mornings, on leafless gray branches, on still gray ponds. After autumn’s beauty has shown forth, after its grandeur has lifted spirits, after its fanfare has inspired, it all finally gives way to gray skies, empty trees, barren fields, and windswept hills.

In this pre-solstice season, this advent season, this strangely quiet season the gray landscape offers a blank slate on which our racing hearts, our focused minds, our hurried spirits can wander in peace for a time. Stripped of its color and its crops, its farmland lying fallow, the pale sky peering through its empty woodland canopies, the gray world opens around us in all directions, invites us to apprehend its features in new ways, beckons us to notice what isn’t always visible or touchable, but is always present.

DSC_0097In this in-between season before the sun’s return, the gray landscape gives us permission to move off our well-worn paths; gives us permission to  move back from the assumptions and beliefs and truths we hold tightly and close, sometimes without thought or examination; gives us permission to review our familiar patterns from different angles, from different directions, to recognize when they no longer serve us and, if need be, to let them go, to let the late November wind sweep them out across the empty, gray fields, over the empty gray hills, across the frozen gray ponds.

If we open our hearts and minds and spirits to it, this neither-black-nor-white season, this shades-upon-shades-of-gray season will show us new ways that had previously been hidden in the blooming spring; will reveal to us new paths previously covered in summer’s green underbrush; will offer many truths previously concealed in autumn’s rich, splendid color.

DSC_1942In this season may we practice living in shades of gray, hearing different stories, singing different songs, discerning different truths; living in shades, imagining new possibilities, new futures. May we practice living in shades of gray, withholding judgement, embracing humanity in its fullness; living in shades of gray, learning to forgive, learning to be forgiven; living in shades of gray, slowly remembering and naming all those false aspects of ourselves, those pieces of us imposed from beyond us, those boxes and labels that keep us from being our true selves, that keep us from being fully human; living in shades of gray, slowly remembering and naming those histories of genocide and war, those unjust systems, those economic inequalities, those assaults upon the land, those enduring sources of violence that keep all of us from being the beloved community; living in shades of gray, slowly remembering all of it, naming all of it, and
beginning to cast it away, so that when the light returns—and when the gray that has turned to dark finally turns back to green—we will be ready with new selves to create a more compassionate, just and peaceful future.

Before winter snows weigh down trees, bends branches and pile up along driveways and sidewalks, obscuring everything that is open to us now, let us live for a season in shades of gray.

Amen and blessed be.

 

Falling: Thoughts on Forgiveness

IMG_0574Forgiveness is our ministry theme for October. This is a sermon about forgiveness. I’ve given it the title, “Falling,” mainly because autumn has come to New England, the leaves are changing and beginning to fall, and I’ve been caught by the notion that the act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires us to let go of something; to let go like leaves and fall; to let go like leaves and fall and trust that we will land where we need to be.

There are many metaphors that will work in addition to falling. All morning we’ve been singing those words from Rev. Raymond Baughan: “Turn scarlet, leaves.”[1] The act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires us to turn; to turn away from something; to turn away from something that has been holding us, constraining us, defining us—some hurt, anger, distrust, fear, self-pity, self-righteousness, pride. To forgive someone who has wronged us requires us to turn away, to turn toward something new—often something unknown—and to trust we are turning in a good direction.

In our first reading, Rev. Belletini likens forgiving to sinking “like stones in a pool” all those things that weigh us down. “Drop them like hot rocks / into the cool silence,” he urges.[2] Here again, the act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires that we let something go, drop it, plunge it, sink it, trusting that its removal from our lives will serve us well; will enable us, in his words, to “lay back gently, and float, / float on the calm surface of the silence.”[3]

We might add tumbling to the list. We sang Rev. Baughan’s words, “Tumble the shadows into dawn / The morning out of night.”[4] Perhaps forgiving is akin to tumbling—to leaving the solid ground we’ve been occupying; hoping and trusting some new ground will form beneath us, hoping and trusting we will land well. Falling, turning, sinking, dropping, quieting, letting go, surrendering, tumbling. Many words work. This morning, falling. If we are to forgive those who have wronged us, something must fall.

The impact genuine forgiveness has on our lives is well-known: it makes us free. Let’s remember this. Our national culture, at its worst—meaning not all the time, but increasingly—is becoming less forgiving, more tolerant of and comfortable with un-checked and unbridled anger, more content with broken relationships remaining broken, more quick to judge, more quick to assume the worst, more quick to lash out, more quick to publically shame. And public apologies, if they come at all, are shallow, worded to avoid responsibility for wrongdoing, and thus they don’t readily invite forgiveness. Ours is a ‘gotcha’ society, a litigious society, a road rage society, a mass incarceration society, a mass shooting society. The more familiar and habitual these trends become, the more we let them become the status quo, the less free we are. Something must fall.

Last July I had the honor of participating on the National Public Radio show “On Point.” The show was about religion in the public square. The topic of forgiveness came up in response to the way some of the family members of those killed in the June 17th mass shooting at Charleston, South Carolina’s “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church publically forgave the shooter. The quickness with which these family members forgave was puzzling to many people. One of the panelists on the show, Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, MD, responded, “Many people think that [to forgive] means to absolve the offender. But the word ‘to forgive’… is also about releasing the self from the pain, from the action that was committed by the other person…. When I hear people saying that they forgive … they are going to release themselves from … the desire for vengeance that can actually creep into one’s heart.”[5] I don’t pretend to know why or how those family members were able to utter words of forgiveness so quickly after such a monstrous crime, but I think Rev. Coates is correct: they did not want their lives to become defined by overwhelming anger, bitterness, and a desire for vengeance. They wanted release. They wanted to determine the values that would guide them through the chaos. They wanted emotional and spiritual freedom. I also suspect they offered forgiveness not to announce they had completed a process of forgiving, but that they had begun. Forgiveness is a practice, and this would not be the last time they would say those blessed words.

In a sermon entitled, “The Gift of Forgiveness,” minister emeritus of Boston’s King’s Chapel, Rev. Carl Scovel, says “When we forgive, we are freed, not from the hurt, but from the dominating power of the hurt. We are able to give up our anger. The hurt and wrath no longer direct us…. We may still suffer the consequences of the offense, but the offense no longer masters us.” “However it happens, we are free.”[6]

In a meditation entitled, “Forgiveness is Human,” Unitarian Universalist Army chaplain Rev. George Tyger writes, “We often think about forgiveness as releasing another person from an obligation to us…. In truth, through forgiveness, we free ourselves. We free ourselves from the desire to take revenge, the need to get even, and from anger. Without forgiveness, we carry these weights with us wherever we go. With forgiveness, we can put down these burdens.”[7]

Last Sunday from this pulpit Jeannette LeSure shared a powerful and painful story about her decades-long process of forgiving those who had abused her as a child, and forgiving her parents—particularly her mother—for not keeping her safe. Finding the capacity to forgive ultimately freed her not only to reclaim positive memories of her mother as a beautiful, if flawed, person, but also to become more fully the person she longed to be—an artist, a painter with a studio. Without forgetting the wrongs done to her, she can say on this side of forgiveness, “Who cares how my wings got so broken? When I paint in my studio, I soar to where Mommy and I could never travel, and she’s with me in every brushstroke. I just do not care. I am free.”[8]

But how? I can hear many of you, over the years—and me too—saying “I understand forgiveness brings freedom, but understanding the outcome isn’t the same as getting there. How do I actually get there?” “I’m so mad, I’m so hurt, I feel so betrayed. How can I forgive?” Or, “I want so much to not feel this anger and pain anymore, but it won’t leave me, it won’t be gone, it won’t get behind me.” Yes, there is freedom on the other side of forgiveness, but the chasm between that freedom and the experience of being wronged can feel so vast, can feel—for years, for decades, for a lifetime—unbreachable. Something must fall.

What if I told you that leaves are always falling, that falling is their natural state? We don’t notice them falling in spring and summer because they are firmly attached to their branches, but without that attachment, and without the ground on which to settle, they would keep falling and falling and falling in every season. What if I told you that even once they settle on the ground, that settling is just an illusion? The falling continues as gravity pulls their decaying fibers down into the dirt, into the dust, into the muck. The pace of the falling slows greatly once they reach the ground, but it continues even after nothing resembling a leaf remains.

And what if I told you the same is true for us, that without this floor, without the ground, we too, like leaves, would fall and fall and fall? Over the eons, as living creatures, we have adjusted well to the presence of solid ground—we have learned to trust that the earth’s surface more or less holds—but what if I told you that falling is our natural state? You might say that’s silly, not helpful, but take the ground away, and you know as well as I: we’ll all fall.

You might also say, “that’s a very astute observation, Rev., but even so, we have to hold onto something. We can’t live if we’re falling.” That’s true. We need solid ground in order to live. We need flat, even surfaces for walking, running, rolling, driving, dancing. We need chairs to hold our weight as we sit, tables to hold our food as we eat, desks to hold our computers as we work. Most of us lay down on mattresses to sleep. These are the physical handholds, footholds and body-holds that keep us from falling through life. They are more or less reliable. But not all of the things we hold onto are physical. Some are emotional and spiritual. On our best days, we hold onto positive emotions—what makes us feel happy and joyful, content and fulfilled? What makes us feel enthusiastic and excited or calm and serene? If we can have the experiences that create these feelings in us, and then hold onto them, we won’t feel as if we’re falling. We’ll feel stable, steady, solid.

But here is the key to forgiveness: not all emotional and spiritual handholds are positive or pleasant. Some are negative and quite unpleasant, but we reach for them too. We use them to stop falling too. Sometimes we hold on tightly to the experience of being wronged. The thoughts and feelings that spin out from that experience become our thoughts and feelings. They take hold in our bodies. They become habitual. Sometimes they become so familiar to us that we aren’t sure who we are without them. The same is true for the experience of betrayal, of being victimized, harmed, oppressed, let down. Thoughts and feelings spin out from these experiences: we want the wrong-doer, the offender, the perpetrator, the betrayer to feel pain as well; we want them to feel remorse, guilt and shame; we want them to be punished; we want vengeance. We typically don’t like it when we think and feel this way. It isn’t how we imagine ourselves thinking and feeling. But these are real thoughts and feelings, and we have them. Sometimes we keep coming back to them. They become our solid ground. They anchor us. We return to them habitually—and with good reason: they, too, keep us from falling.

No wonder genuine forgiveness is so difficult. In order to forgive we must somehow move off the solid ground of our pain, off the solid ground of our desire to punish, off the solid ground of our anger. In order to forgive we must let go of our hold on these things. We must let go and fall and trust that we will land where we need to be.

How do we do this? Practice. In her short book, Practicing Peace in Times of War, the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, writes about shenpa, which commonly translates as “attachment,” but which she describes as “getting hooked.” She says “Somebody says a harsh word and immediately you can feel a shift. There’s a tightening that rapidly spirals into mentally blaming this person, or wanting revenge, or blaming yourself. Then you speak or act. The charge behind the tightening, behind the urge, behind the story line or action is shenpa.”[9] Chödrön isn’t writing about forgiveness per se, but I suspect shenpa functions as an impediment to forgiveness. We can become hooked on our victimization, on our pain, on a desire to punish, on a desire for vengeance, on anger. The sense of self-righteousness that can flow out of these feelings is very powerful, very addictive. We get high from it—high both from the emotional rush of false power it provides, and from the way it allows us to place ourselves above the wrong-doer, to believe we are better than they. So, forgive? Not easy when we’re hooked on pain and anger.

For Chödrön, the practice of meditation overcomes the effects of shenpa. Meditation, she says, “teaches us to experience the uneasiness [of shenpa] fully [and then] to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to return again and again to the present moment.” She tells us to let the thoughts and feelings arise—because they are real. Let them come … but don’t follow them. Instead, let them dissolve—because eventually they will. She says: keep coming “back to ‘right now,’ even when ‘right now’ doesn’t feel so great. This is how we learn patience, and how we learn to interrupt the chain reaction of habitual responses that otherwise will rule our lives.”[10] “What happens when you don’t follow the habitual response?” she asks? “Gradually you learn to relax into the shaky, impermanent moment.”[11] Or to use my language, gradually, you learn to fall. When we’re no longer holding on, we’re falling. Rev. Belletini might call it floating.

Meditation, we know, is not for everyone. There are other ways to practice. I imagine very simple prayers: If I am angry, then may I feel anger. But let me not follow it. Let it not define my life. If I am in pain, then may I feel pain. But let me not follow it. Let it not rule my life. If I am vengeful, then may I feel vengeful. But let me not follow it. Let it not become the master of my life. I am convinced this is what the family members of the Mother Emanuel victims were doing when the offered forgiveness to the shooter. They were practicing not holding onto pain, anger and vengeance.

So practice. Practice not following the negative thoughts and feelings. Slowly, slowly, slowly their power over you will wane. Slowly, slowly, slowly you will begin to let go. Slowly, slowly, slowly you will fall. As you fall, the deeper truths of your life—and of living—will shine all around you. Forgiveness will come. Freedom will come.

Those words we heard earlier from Rev. David Breeden may make more sense now: “I dug and dug / deeper into the earth / Looking for blue heaven / Choking always / On the piles of dust rising / Then once / At midnight / I slipped / And fell into the sky.”[12] Slowly, slowly, slowly, it will come. May each of us, when we need it, learn to fall.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Baughan, Raymond J., “Turn Scarlet, Leaves,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #485.

[2] Belletini, Mark, Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

[3] Belletini, Mark, Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

[4] Baughan, Raymond J., “Turn Scarlet, Leaves,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #485.

[5] “Politics, Tragedy and Religion in the Public Square” On Point, July 6th, 2015. See: http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/07/06/god-public-life-united-states-scotus-charleston. 21:00.

[6] Scovel, Carl, “The Gift of Forgiveness,” Never Far From Home: Stories From the Radio Pulpit (Boston: Skinner House, 2004) p. 131.

[7][7] Tyger, George, “Forgiveness is Human,” War Zone Faith: An Army Chaplain’s Reflections from Afghanistan (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 73-74.

[8] LeSure, Jeannette, “Forgiveness: Freedom to Fly,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, October 4, 2015. Unpublished.

[9] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 56.

[10] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 59.

[11] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 63.

[12] Breeden, David, “Falling Into the Sky,”eds., Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, Falling Into the Sky: A Meditation Anthology (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) p. 1.

I’m Done Talking About the ‘End of Church!’

IMG_0568Our ministry theme for September is transitions—always a potent theme for this time of year, the beginning of the congregational year, the beginning of the school year, the commencement of the final harvest on New England farms, the arrival of autumn. Indeed, even if there’s no particular threshold we’re crossing in our personal lives at this time, autumn in New England demands that we pay attention to transition. Those words we recited earlier from Rabbi Jack Riemer remind us of this: “Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter. For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.”[1] This is a season of obvious, bold and brilliant transitions.

And, of course, the Rabbi is also making reference to atonement—that solemn, joyful practice at the heart of the Jewish High Holy Days—the Days of Awe—that solemn, joyful practice—both spiritual and social—of making amends, of saying, “I’m sorry,” of asking for forgiveness, of turning, in the Rabbi’s words, from “callousness to sensitivity … envy to contentment … fear to faith;”[2] that most sacred act of returning from separation back to relationship, from isolation back to community, from brokenness back to wholeness. This is indeed a season of transitions.

I want to name a transition in our congregation that is largely behind us now, and then offer a related transition in my thinking about what I’m calling “The State of ‘The Church.’” The transition in our congregation began when we learned in 2013 that our long-time, beloved Director of Religious Education, Vicki Merriam, would be retiring; and then, a year later, that our beloved and now sadly deceased Director of Music, Pawel Jura, would be moving to a new position in Virginia. We said “good-bye” to Vicki in June of 2014, and to Pawel a month later in July; and then we embarked on very intentional, careful and thoughtful periods of transition. Knowing that awesome religious education and awesome music are critical to a thriving Unitarian Universalist congregation, we wanted to transition well. Whatever else our mission says about who we are as a faith community and how we aspire to show up in the world, religious education and music are the programmatic life-blood of our church. We knew this. We wanted to make sure these staff positions and their programs were well-structured and appropriately funded; and we wanted to hire the best possible people. I am confident we have been successful in our efforts. We’ve already welcomed and congratulated Gina Campellone in her role as Director of Religious Education. We’ve already welcomed and congratulated Mary Bopp in her role as Director of Music. I’m not proposing that we do that again today. But I am naming that as a congregation we have come through a period of transition in our staff and major programs. I am overjoyed to be starting the congregational year and, instead of focusing my best energy on staff transitions, I can now return again to the ministry you called me to provide thirteen years ago. That feels great.

Congratulations to you, the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, for coming through this time of transition so well.

End of ChurchOver the past few years you may have noticed the prevalence of a certain topic in my preaching, teaching and committee work. During this period of transition I have continually repeated the message that in the United States the traditional church—that is, a congregation with a building, with Sunday morning worship as its central spiritual practice, with staff, with committees, with many bills to pay—is in serious decline. Some might say it is in free-fall. Across denominations, across faiths, membership is down, attendance is down, participation is down, volunteerism is down, financial giving—especially since the Great Recession of 2008—is down. Churches are moving from full time professional ministers to part-time professional ministers. Churches are closing. Just a year ago, September 14th, 2015, I preached a sermon on “The End of Church” in which I cited all sorts of statistics about all sorts of people who aren’t attending all sorts of churches. I quoted an article that had just appeared in the UU World magazine in which the Rev. Dr. Teresa Cooley cited many of those same statistics, arguing that “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 [national] landscape.”[3] Just this past week there was yet another piece on National Public Radio about Catholic Churches continuing to close in the northeast and midwest.[4] These trends are alive and well.

Another way I—and we—have been talking about the decline of the traditional church is by naming how families with children are less able to participate in congregational life because childhood is changing. In a November, 2013 sermon on the value of multigenerational community, I said, “we’ve finally witnessed the death of Sunday morning as the one, truly sacred time in the United States, the one time when no other events or activities could be scheduled, no shopping malls could be open, and families with children were not forced every week to choose between church and a plethora of other activities and organizations that involve their children and, in some cases, demand—as the price of participation—that their children make whatever [that] other activity is their highest priority. What a difference [from a generation ago], when young people and adults who used to experience their congregation as a major center for social connection, now come to church with hundreds if not thousands of online ‘friends,’ vast social media networks, and unlimited opportunities for screen-based entertainment—entertainment one experiences essentially alone—just a few keystrokes away.”[5]

I think it’s been really important to talk about these trends, this evidence of the end of church, these data of decline in congregational life as we’ve gone through a time of transition in staffing and programs. It’s been really important for us to know what’s going on in American religious life. It’s been really important for us to envision our future with full knowledge of the challenges we may be facing. And while naming these trends and evidence and data can feel negative, grim, sobering even frightening at times, I don’t regret doing it. We needed this information, and we still need it, in order to make wise decisions, in order to sustain our congregation and our faith for future generations.

But now we’ve come through our transition and I don’t want to talk about decline anymore. I don’t want to focus on the end of church any more. I’m done talking about it, especially from the pulpit. I say this knowing full well the trends and issues aren’t going away. Indeed, over the summer a number of posts showed up on my Facebook page describing how difficult professional ministry has become, how hundreds of ministers leave the ministry every month, how those who don’t typically work 60-70 hour weeks, and many other sad statistics. Credible people have studied this. The writers are correct. It is salient stuff.[6] I deeply appreciate the people who post these articles on my page because they do it out of love and concern for me. But I’m done talking about it. I’m done talking about decline. I’m done talking about the end of church. I’m done giving it energy and attention. I’m done talking about all sorts of statistics about all sorts of people who aren’t attending all sorts of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.

Why and I done? Because I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. This church isn’t ending. This church isn’t in decline. And, most importantly, you’re here. That matters. Instead of trying to figure out the needs of people who aren’t here and who may never come here, why not respond to you—to your needs, your energy, your passion? Let’s prioritize you. Let’s talk about the fact that there are people here—present now—with pain and sorrow and misgivings and joy and contentment and milestones to celebrate—people who take church seriously, who understand its value in their lives and in the world. I want to talk about that.

And I want to talk about commitment. I’m committed to our Unitarian Universalist faith and to this Unitarian Universalist congregation. I hope and trust you are committed too. Commitment matters. In a society that increasingly tolerates and even sanctions the erosion of commitment in family life, friendships, work, community and politics, let’s talk about what it means to be committed to a spiritual community—to claim its principles as our own, to embrace its mission as our own, to abide by its covenant, to express its values in public, to sustain it for future generations. What an incredible thing—to be committed in this way: to a church, to a congregation, to a piece of land, to a building, to a sanctuary. I want to talk about that.

And I want to talk about courage. It is becoming abundantly clear to me that, while we have to be vigilant about church growth, and continue to take steps to grow our congregations, the future of our liberal faith doesn’t ultimately hinge on whether more people become Unitarian Universalists: and the future of American liberal religion doesn’t hinge at all on whether more people start attending church again. The future of our faith and the future of American liberal religion hinge on whether or not we—those who are present and committed now—can courageously express our values in words, but more importantly in deeds, in the public square for the sake of healing a profoundly broken society and adapting well to the environmental changes wrought by the global climate crisis. We need to be courageous.

In the past months I’ve seen physical vandalism and online threats against Unitarian Universalist churches that hang Black Lives Matter banners in New Jersey and Chicago. I’ve seen homophobic violence this past week against the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Danbury, CT. Last summer we saw anti-abortion activists disrupt Unitarian Universalist worship in New Orleans. This is frightening. Looking out more broadly I see ongoing, unmitigated, unaddressed gun violence in the United States. I see increasingly violent and racist rhetoric coming from our political leaders and some presidential candidates. I see corporations threatening states—“If we don’t get our way, we’ll leave”—forcing legislators to slowly dismantle social safety nets, and thereby increasing already unsustainable and immoral wealth and income inequality. (Did you see that happen in Connecticut this year?) And I hear raucous, hate-filled, irresponsible voices blasting out across the airwaves, fabricating threats to religious liberty, fabricating threats from Muslims, fabricating threats from immigrants and justifying state-sponsored violence by fabricating racialized demons.

Globally I see the tenacity of terrorist organizations across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia who feed on the misery of poverty, of failed governments and tyranny. And I see the ongoing insanity of climate change denial. I see the fires, the tornados, the droughts, the hurricanes, the snow storms, the super storms and the risings oceans. I see it all and, frankly, I am afraid. I am afraid for my children, for our children, for our communities, for young black men, for what semblance of democracy we still have, and for the planet. Friends, I need to talk about courage. What are our sources of courage in light of abundant reasons to feel fear? Our Unitarian Universalist faith gives guidance in response to this question. Decline? The end of church? Too many soccer games on Sunday mornings? I’m done talking about it. I much prefer to talk about being courageous people of liberal faith, because our era requires courage.

I said in that sermon last year that “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.”[7] That genius hasn’t gone away. That genius still exists. I suspect it will always exist. So let’s talk over the months and years as we continue to build this spiritual community together. What does it mean to be here, now? What does it mean to be committed? Where do we find our sources of courage? Present, committed, courageous. May that be the state of the church.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Riemer, Jack, “On Turning,”Singing the Living Tradition Boston (Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #634.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “Ring Them Bells,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 9/14/14. See: http://uuse.org/ring-them-bells/#.Vfl8Ft9Viko.

[4] Hansi Lo Wang, “’It’s All About Church Closings’: Catholic Parishes Shrink In Northeast, Midwest,” National Public Radio, 9/14/15. See: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/14/436938871/-it-s-all-about-church-closings-catholic-parishes-shrink-in-northeast.

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “On the Meaning of Multigenerational,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 11/17/13. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/on-the-meaning-of-multigenerational/.

[6] Krejcir, Richard J., “What’s Going On With Pastors in America?” See: http://www.intothyword.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=36562

[7] Pawelek, Josh, “Ring Them Bells,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 9/14/14. See: http://uuse.org/ring-them-bells/#.Vfl8Ft9Viko.

A Meditation on the Coming of Autumn

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

O sing Hallelujah, for now is indeed a time for turning, a time of transition. Autumn comes this week. Summer vacation stretches out behind us; children are back in school. Here and there among the green leaves on branches of trees a sliver of gold, a spot of red, a dollop of brown. The final harvest of the year begins. Apples and pears have ripened for picking. Though there will be warm days and beautiful weather ahead—days like we’ve had this past week—the nights are cooler now; the breeze carries on its edge just a hint of late October’s bite.

Autumn in New England is so beautiful, and yet it carries on its edge a hint of sadness, a sense of loss, a reminder that our greatest joys are always woven fine with sorrow, a confirmation that life moves on whether we’re ready or not, that change comes for better or for worse, whether we’re ready or not, that we turn and turn and turn, ready or not. Where spring awakens us to new life blooming, to creativity, abundance and possibility, autumn speaks to us of pulling back, resting, reflecting. Autum has a way, if we let it, of filling our hearts with a yearning for what has been, a deep and wise nostalgia for younger, simpler days, a profund joy for the gift of life, yet also grief for all we’ve lost.

O Sing Halleluja friends, for now is indeed a time for turning, a time of transition. As themigrating flocks slowly head off on their time-honored southern routes, may we on this morning and throughout the coming autumn look back with fondness on who and where we’ve been, on all we’ve come through to be here now. As the leaves slowly begin to change from green to brilliant gold, orange and red, may we forgive ourselves for our mistakes and transgressions and accept them as reminders of our own humanity. And as the leaves begin to fall, may we grieve well for all we have lost. And in grieving well, may we prepare ourselves to receive the new life that is always emerging.

Amen and Blessed be.

Transitions

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

There’s a reading in our hymnal entitled, “Change Alone is Unchanging.”[1] It’s attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraklietos, also known as the weeping philosopher. “In searching for the truth,” he says, “be ready for the unexpected. Change alone is unchanging.” These words ring true to me, the same truth I encounter in Vanessa Rush Southern’s meditation, “Expect Chaos.” She says, “Perhaps change is life. Frustrations and snags are life. Maybe instead of being taught to expect stability and predictability, we should have been taught to expect chaos or at least constant transitions.”[2]

Change alone is unchanging. As long as I’m alive—and conscious of my living—I can expect to experience change. Certainly there will be changes in the wider world around me: nations and governments change; cultures and social norms change; human knowledge and technology change; ecology and climate change; the seasons and the positions of the stars in the night sky change. Certainly there will be changes in the more immediate patterns of my life: my children will grow older and my role in their life will change. My parents will grow older and my role in their lives will change. My wife will grow older; I will grow older. I can reasonably expect changes in my work life. I can reasonably expect changes in where I live. People will come in and out of my life—friends, parishioners, colleagues, peers, activists. I can expect the changes retirement brings. I can expect the changes illness brings. I can expect the changes loss brings—the changes that come when a loved-one dies.

And as a result of all these changes and transitions I can also expect my inner life to change in response: what I believe, what matters to me, the things to which I feel called to dedicate time and energy, my understanding of the Sacred. All of it has already changed through the course of my life. I can only conclude more change lies ahead.

Change alone is unchanging. I suspect this is not news to you. At some place deep in our bones we sense this idea is true. It speaks directly to Unitarian Universalists’ common yearning for a religious life not bound by doctrines, creeds and revelations presented to us as the one, eternal truth, a permanent etchings upon stone tablets, as the final word revealed once long ago and sealed forever. We long for spiritual openness. We are comfortable, even, with spiritual open-endedness. We long for a spiritual community that asks us not to submit to one truth but to explore truth from many perspectives and construct meaning from many sources. We long for a faith informed as much by scientific discovery and changes in human knowledge as it is by ancient wisdom. We certainly don’t long for chaos, and we want our children to experience stability and predictability. But when we encounter this idea that “change alone is unchanging” often something stirs in us. Often our gut response is “yes.” We want to hear more because we experience our lives, all life, the earth, the universe not as static, but as dynamic. Change is life.

But let’s be honest: as a concept, as an intellectual proposition, as a starting place for deeper theological reflection, this idea is fabulous. Change alone is unchanging. But as a practical matter, when it comes to dealing with day-to-day life, when it comes to navigating our life transitions, it’s not so fabulous. It doesn’t matter what height of spiritual discipline you’ve achieved, the unexpected can really mess up your day. Even Jesus lost it from time to time. For human beings (and I’m sure for other creatures as well) change is hard. As spiritually and intellectually exhilarating as the idea of change is, the physical and emotional experience can be a real drag. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is why the ancient Greeks referred to Heraklietos as the weeping philosopher.

Our ministry theme for September is transitions, an obvious theme for this time of year in New England as summer vacation ends, students return to school, the leaves begin to change colors and fall, local farmers begin their final harvest of the year, apples and pears have ripened, and the grocery stores now offer orange and black Halloween promotions. I also note the Jewish High Holy Days occur during this season. This year Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins this evening. For Jews the High Holy Days, which culminate in ten days on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, can be understood as a time of transition, a time of reflecting on the past year and preparing for the next. As we said in our opening words from Rabbi Jack Riemer, “Now is the time for turning…. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits.”[3] Here’s another truth: successfully navigating the transitions of our lives requires us to break with old habits. Perhaps change is life, but we are also creatures of habit and habits by their very nature are hard to break.

When I use the word habit I’m not speaking simply of addictions like smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or overeating, though I certainly include them. I’m speaking more generally of habits as modes of life to which we become deeply accustomed. As an example, I go back to the summer of 1999 when Stephany and I first moved to Connecticut. Over the previous ten years I had grown deeply accustomed to my life in Boston. I was grounded in the student culture in Cambridge. I was grounded in the local rock music scene. I was grounded in my ties to the Unitarian Universalist Association which is headquartered in Boston. My twin brother and some of my best friends lived there. I was embedded in a rich network of peers, clergy, UUs, musicians, activists and Ultimate (Frisbee) players. I knew all the running roots along the Charles River. I knew my way around by car and public transportation. My life had a certain stability and predictability to it. We moved to Connecticut that summer and I became ill. I was chronically dizzy and nauseated. I lacked appetite. I lost weight. I drank ginger tea all the time, hoping it would settle my stomach. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. It took many medical tests to prove to me there was nothing physically wrong with me, and two or three years of therapy to convince me that what had caused these symptoms was anxiety brought on by a major life transition. Put another way, I had been happily and healthily habituated to my life in Boston; and as much as I welcomed a life-change intellectually, making the transition turned out to be immensely difficult. As much as I was genuinely excited to begin my professional career in a new location with new people, when I allowed myself to look closely at the life I had left behind in Boston and get in touch with what leaving meant to me, I realized I was sad. I was grieving my younger Boston self and really didn’t know who my new, professional minister self was. Move to a suburb? What? Buy a house? What? Have children? What?

I’m not suggesting my experience of a big life transition is somehow a universal experience, but I do suspect that at the heart of our major life transitions there is always some amount of grief, some sadness at the loss of what came before, and it stays with us. The Rev. Robert Walsh writes, “Sometimes tears come to my eyes. Is it about the war? Is it from getting older? Or is it just autumn? I’m self-conscious about it, afraid people will think I’m grieving or that I’m a sentimental old fool. I guess they’d be right if they thought those things.”[4]

A book called A General Theory of Love, published in 2000 by three psychiatrists, describes the way our relationships, particularly our very close, intimate relationships, shape us—not only shape our emotions and our outlook on life, but shape our body chemistry, our physiology, the development of our neural pathways. When two people live together in a long-term, intimate relationship, when they share meals, leisure time, vacations, chores, money, a bed, child-rearing, etc., over time their bodies become deeply intertwined. Here’s a quote. “The human body constantly fine-tunes many thousands of physiologic parameters—heart rate and blood pressure, body temperature, immune function, oxygen saturation, levels of sugars, hormones, salts, ions, metabolites…. [But] an individual does not direct all of his own functions. [An intimate partner] transmits regulatory information that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, immune function and more…. The reciprocal process occurs simultaneously: the first person regulates the physiology of the second, even as he himself is regulated.”[5] This is why living when a loved-one has died isn’t just emotionally painful; it physically hurts. This other body that has been regulating aspects of our physiology, this other body to which we have become deeply accustomed—to which we have become habituated—is no longer present, no longer close by.

 

I assume it’s not just intimate loved ones who regulate our bodies in this way, although they may have the most impact. I assume where we live—the place we call home, our neighborhood—regulates our bodies to some degree. Where we work regulates our bodies to some degree. Our daily routine regulates our bodies to some degree. We become habituated in all sorts of ways. We become grounded in all sorts of ways. Thus any transition, any change that requires us to break out of our habits will bring some pain, even if it’s a change we want. I was ready to leave Boston in 1999. It was the right time for a life transition. But I see it so clearly now: despite how right it seemed, my body was still wired for its patterns of life in Boston. And because I didn’t know I grieving that life, I became ill.

One of the standard seminary books on understanding grief is C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, in which he writes about his experience after the death of his wife (whom he refers to as H.) and his recognition of how deeply ingrained in him the habits of being her husband were. He writes, “I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember I have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontierpost across it.”[6] I assume something like this happens with any life transition. A new school means different teachers, different peers, a different pattern to the day—the old ways have to shift. You or your partner receive a life-threatening diagnosis and in the blink of an eye all routine becomes geared towards treatment; life’s daily familiarities and pleasures become elusive such that even food tastes differently. You lose a job—especially one that really matched your identity and sense of calling—and you must break with the habits of that job. You have a baby, and you must break with old habits. You retire, and you must break with old habits. Aging at any time in our lives, but certainly as our bodies and our minds begin to decline, requires that we break with old habits. Or consider becoming sober: for addicts the body is utterly enmeshed with a substance, completely regulated by the need to have that substance. Getting sober is a grief-ridden process. Caroline Knapp, the late Boston-based journalist, said of her addiction to alcohol, “this is a love story. It’s about passion, sensual pleasure, deep pulls, lust, fears, yearning hungers. It’s about needs so strong they’re crippling. It’s about saying good-bye to something you can’t fathom living without.”[7]

At the heart of our life transitions there is always some degree of grief, some sadness at the loss of what came before, some level of pain. “Sometimes tears come to my eyes,” says Rev. Walsh. “I’m self-conscious about it, afraid people will think I’m grieving or that I’m a sentimental old fool. I guess they’d be right if they thought those things.” “Change alone is unchanging,” said the weeping philosopher. But it’s also really, really hard. Even if we’ve moved on in our minds, our bodies long for the way life was.

In the midst of the grief that comes with life transitions we have spiritual resources available to us. Perhaps most importantly we have our own capacity for quieting down, becoming still, being peaceful, paying attention, breathing. When I open worship I ask you to “find that place inside, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, when you yearn for peace.” We don’t typically go there when confronted with a major life transition. We don’t typically go there when the going gets tough, when we’re in pain, when we’ve just lost our job, when we’ve just received the diagnosis, when the funeral director is talking to us about arrangements for a deceased loved-one. We’re just as likely to be screaming or panicking, passing out or curled up on the floor in the fetal position. It takes real discipline to find a place of strength and grounding inside when your sources of strength and grounding outside have just disappeared.

In C.S. Lewis’ theology, that place of quiet and stillness inside would be the door that opens to his relationship with God. But in the midst of grief he writes of that door being shut and bolted: “Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.”[8]

In moments of life transition we need to stop and grieve for the life that is—for better or for worse—slipping away. We need times of quiet and stillness to say, think and feel whatever it is we need to say, think and feel about our old life before we can fully embrace the new. We need times of peacefulness and paying attention in order to break well with old habits.

Caroline Knapp wrote about her experience of finding that place of silence and stillness in community—in AA meetings. She said “When people talk about their deepest pain, a stillness often falls over the room, a hush so deep and so deeply shared it feels like reverence. That stillness keeps me coming, and it helps keep me sober, reminding me what it means to be alive… what it means to be human.”[9]And Rev. Walsh is right. We can expect tears. Because in those silent, still places, where we find comfort and solace, and even joy, there we can grieve, and in grieving well we can make ourselves ready for whatever new life awaits.

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1]Heraklietos of Ephesos, “Change Alone is Unchanging,”Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #655.

[2]Southern, Vanessa Rush, “Expect Chaos,” This Piece of Eden (Boston: Skinner House, 2001) p. 45.

[3]Riemer, Jack, “On Turning,”Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #634.

[4]Walsh, Robert, “Tears” Stone Blessings (Boston: Skinner House, 2010) p. 6.

[5] Lewis, Thomas; Amini, Fari; and Lannon, Richard, A General Theory of Love (New York: Vintage Books, 2000) p. 85.

[6]Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) p. 47.

[7]Knapp, Caroline, Drinking: A Love Story (New York: Delta Book, 1996) p. 5.

[8]Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed (San Francisco:HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) p. 46.

[9]Knapp, Drinking, p. 256.