Stretching Our Hearts

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

Picture by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

Moral Monday CT

June Black Lives Matter! Activities

1) Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Training, Sunday, June 7, 5:00 to 8:00 PM

In advance of a June 8th Moral Monday CT action in Hartford, the UUS:E Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee is hosting a nonviolent civil disobedience training at UUS:E, Sunday evening, June 7th from 5:00 to 8:00. Bishop John Selders will be our lead trainer. All are welcome regardless of level of commitment. Questions? Contact Rev. Josh Pawelek at (860) 652-8961 or revpawelek@sbcglobal.net.

Hartford-area clergy protesting anti-black police violence

And then…..

2) Moral Monday Connecticut, Monday, June 8th beginning at 4:00 PM

Old State House Square, Hartford

There will be a Moral Monday Connecticut / Black Lives Matter rally in Hartford on Monday afternoon, June 8th. The rally will begin at 4:00 PM at the Old State House Square. More information to come. Questions? Contact Rev. Josh Pawelek at (860) 652-8961 or revpawelek@sbcglobal.net.

Moral Monday

 

In the Waiting Time

Guest Minister: the Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

The Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

The Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

I am easily hope-impaired.

For whatever reason, I am the kind of person who looks at a glass and is tempted to tell you that it is half-empty rather than half-full.

I tend to borrow trouble long before it happens. Too often, it’s easier for me to play out worse-case scenarios than to hope for the best.

Now perhaps this is not what you want to hear from a minister. Especially not at the beginning of December with the winter holidays on the horizon. After all, we ministers are here to be the “messengers of hope,” aren’t we? Isn’t it our job to call us all ever towards hope, not to admit to our own hope-related challenges? But it is precisely because I can be hope-impaired, that I do the work of ministry. Because your hope rekindles my own. Because we call each other toward hope.

They say that ministers preach what we ourselves need to hear. And especially in this holiday season, do not we all hold out hope precisely because hope is so hard to find? So I confess to you that I am hope-impaired. 

And, I’ll tell you something else, here on what in the Christian tradition is the second Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the second week of anticipatory joy as we pass the deliberate days towards Christmas, as we revel in the wait: 

I really do not like waiting. 

When I’m in a store, I will put something back on a shelf rather than wait in a long check-out line. Better yet, I’ll shop online, choose a different restaurant, come back later, or change my plans altogether to avoid a line. 

I hate waiting for a bus too. Why stand and wait when I can start walking now? Usually, the bus passes me as I am chugging along down the street. This does not phase me. At least I didn’t wait, I tell myself. It’s a funny logic, I know. 

I remember as a child waiting for special days, like birthdays and Christmas, and feeling as though time was moving as slow as molasses. As a teenager, I would count down days until I could visit out-of-town friends or go to summer camp: month after next, week after next, day after the day after tomorrow. It felt like time crawled until finally it was … today! And somehow, the day, the moment had arrived. 

And then something odd would happen, perhaps this has happened to you: we wait. We count down the days, fritter away the time, fill our minds and our hearts and our impatient hands with tasks or TV, with imagining how it will be, envisioning the long-awaited event, and when it arrives, we wonder what happened to that time. Sometimes the event we waited for arrives and passes, and we are left feeling like we missed it all together.

We collect ourselves and prepare for the next count down. 

This time of year, we tell an age-old story of waiting. The Christmas story is the tale of a world waiting for hope, for joy, for the coming of the babe who would bring peace, hold the powerful to account, “lift up the lowly.” As a mother, the person I find most interesting in this story is Mary the mother of Jesus.

And I am incredibly sympathetic toward her: No one else in the story is pregnant! Mary literally carries the weight of the wait. 

The longest wait of my life was the preparation for my own child to be born. And when she arrived just over a year ago, the midwife placed her on my chest, And I whispered to her again and again: “you’re here.” 

I had felt like she would never come; I could barely imagine what her arrival would be like. Though majorly uncomfortable by the end of my pregnancy, I had tried, as so many well-meaning people had suggested, to enjoy the wait, to dwell in the uneasy space of anticipation, of not knowing.

 I practiced breathing in and breathing out, waiting for our family’s life to change irrevocably, for our hearts to be transformed in ways we could not imagine. 

I worked hard to be present in each moment. I was only successful part of the time.

More often than not, I found I was wishing the time away, distracting myself with internet videos and drawn out phone calls and cleaning closets. 

And then, after so much expectation, so much cleaning and organizing and preparing her room, readying our home as well as our hearts, she was here. And our days and our nights were filled with her presence. The reality of our lives was upended – in the most joyful way. 

The first year of a baby’s life, I’ve found, is a blur of moments and days and months and soon a year has gone by, and here we are again at the beginning of the “The Holiday Season” and the season of Advent, an official time of waiting.

The word Advent comes from the Latin, meaning “a coming, an approach, arrival.” In the Christian calendar, Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child at Christmas – the story from first century Palestine tells us that with him comes hope, love, the undoing of the status quo, a new reign of peace on earth.  

The promise of the babe in the manger is the same as the promise of all new babes: that the reality of our lives will be upended – in the most joyful way. The season of Advent provides the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the new reality. “Let every heart prepare him room…” we sing. 

My colleague Rev. Ashley Horan writes that Advent is the “four weeks when Christians the world over try to sit quietly in the midst of chaos, preparing a place in their hearts where the seeds of love and hope can take root.”  

And doesn’t this ring true this year especially? For we find ourselves these days in the midst of chaos with a justice system that is seemingly anything but just: With no indictment in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and no indictment in the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island and twelve-year-old Tamir Rice dead on a Cleveland playground. So much pain and heartbreak and grief and tears and rage. 

Each day it seems brings a new story of lives lost (we might say stolen), and fear and suspicion ruling the day, a new story of power abused and the ugliest parts of our human nature exposed. 

And still – whether we find meaning in the Christian story or in one of the many other traditions that mark this time of the longest nights of the year – still we are invited in this season to prepare room in our hearts for the seeds of love and hope. 

We are invited, as weary people have done since the beginning of time, the poet Victoria Stafford writes, to “kindle tiny lights and whisper secret music,” to cradle our hopes like newborn children, to wonder what human love looks like in practice, to await a new era with patience and preparation.  

Now is the time for breathing, for being present, for waiting. 

This year, though, we might not feel like waiting for peace is the best move. We may even feel like waiting or telling other people – especially people of color – to wait for justice feels perverse.  

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’” Martin Luther King wrote from his cell in a Birmingham jail in 1963. “This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.’” We must come to see,” he continued, “that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” 

Once again there is no justice and there is no peace. And we may find ourselves more angry than peaceful this season, more riled-up than calm.

We may feel more ready to take action than patiently prepare. We may feel ready to cry out in lament for lives taken without account, ready to join our voices with those who cry for justice in an unjust land. And, with them, we may feel weary. We may even feel hope-impaired. 

And so this Advent we are challenged to wait actively.

This year, something is happening, and we choose to be present to it.

This year, what we are waiting for is growing on the ground on which we stand. The seed has been planted. Something has begun.

 A fellow Union Theological Seminary Alum, known in the blogosphere as Brother Timothie writes this week at the website “Theology of Ferguson”: “I used to think Advent meant that we wait patiently for Jesus to be born. The kind of waiting we perform at doctor’s offices. I was wrong,” he says. “Waiting in Advent means to be active in creating God’s Realm, which is always full of justice.” 

This kind of waiting – this Advent kind of waiting – requires that all of us carry the weight of the wait. Like a mother anticipating the birth of her child, we may find ourselves uncomfortable, drawing on strength we never knew we possessed, trying to imagine what the new reality might look like, knowing only that our work is to continue, to push forward, to give birth to something new, to wait, actively, until we can whisper (or shout) “you’re here” to a new age: an age when, in the words of Ella Baker, immortalized by Sweet Honey in the Rock: the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons; a new age where “justice for all” is no longer just a dream, and it is finally true that (#)Black Lives Matter. 

This kind of waiting does not mean never. This kind of waiting says “this moment is the moment.”

//

 “Now is the moment of magic,” Victoria Stafford writes of this time of year. Now is the moment. Not some future date, not the end of the advent calendar, not the day that the days begin to lengthen again, or that long-awaited morning of presents, now is the moment of magic. The magic is in the waiting time. 

Now, it’s not always easy to find the magic in waiting time, even when life is treating us kindly and we have things to look forward to: a blessed event or a joyful celebration. 

In these cases, we are like excited, impatient children on Christmas Morning, filled with anticipatory joy.

(Each year I, being the older sibling, would instruct my brother that we had to wait until at least 5am before we could tiptoe down to see what Santa had left.)  

In this kind of joy-filled waiting, we make our best attempts at waiting patiently; we make it a practice; we focus on the moment, we work on being present. Perhaps we breathe in and out intentionally to ground ourselves, to make our days deliberate, to experience the blessings that already exist. 

And what about when life is unkind, when we wait for justice too long delayed, or, worse, when we wait for yet another miscarriage of justice, another life lost?  

What about the times when we wait for word of an injured friend, or a dreaded diagnosis, when we wait for illness to set in, or for a child who does not arrive?  

Sometimes we find ourselves waiting for something we had hoped would never happen, waiting for the worst. In those times, breathing in and breathing out feels next to impossible and proclaiming a coming age of hope and peace feels naïve, laughable even.  

Patience goes out the window and we find ourselves wishing time would pass more quickly so that we might be on the other side of a nightmare. How do we live in that kind of waiting time? 

// 

Finding the magic in this season of waiting can be difficult for many of us not just this year, but any year. 

The holidays can bring stress, emotional triggers, and family strife along with those tiny candles. This time can be filled with painful or bittersweet memories right alongside cheer, loneliness in the midst of celebration – which is the worst kind of loneliness there is. We might find ourselves waiting with heavy hearts for December to be over, wishing for the sun, feeling like it might never return. We may feel hope-impaired. 

In our home, the soundtrack to the month of December includes Handel’s Messiah which tends to play on our CD player on a near constant loop. When you listen to something that often, you hear different things each time. 

It’s early, but we’ve started, and the other day, I heard a word that I had never really noticed before in the music: “abide.” But who may abide the day of his coming? the tenor sings. The quote is from the book of Malachi in the Hebrew Bible (3:2). The prophet writes to the Jewish people about the coming of the messiah, a messenger who would arrive to usher in a new age of righteousness and justice. “Who will wait for him?”, the prophet asks. “Who will prepare themselves for this new reality?” The Hebrew word translated here as “abide” can also mean endure, or contain. Abide comes from the Old English meaning remain, wait, dwell. 

To abide is to wait actively,

To have faith in the seeds,

To make room in our hearts for a new reality.

And that is the secret, Henri Nouwen tells us.

“This moment is the moment.”

 

This is a holy way of waiting.

 

It happens one breath at a time. In and out. Each moment the moment.

We live our lives on, one breath at a time, giving thanks for the blessings of the waiting time, giving thanks for the magic of each moment, giving thanks for the communities that hold out hope when we are weary. 

We join our lives and our breath with all who are waiting: waiting for justice, waiting for peace. 

May it be so this season, and always.

Sunrise

 

Resources

Dr. Briallen Hopper, “Ferguson Sermon at Yale,” November 30, 2014:
http://briallenhopper.tumblr.com/post/103995200459/ferguson-sermon-at-yale?og=1

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963.http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

Brother Timothie, “What Shall We Cry Out?: A #StayWokeAdvent Lectionary Reflection,” Theology of Ferguson, December 2, 2014 https://medium.com/@FaithInFerguson/what-shall-we-cry-out-a-staywokeadvent-lectionary-reflection-c407e6ffaaab

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, “One Hug Does Not End Racism: An Advent Message,”
The Huffington Post, November 30, 2014 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-dr-susan-brooks-thistlethwaite/one-hug-does-not-end-raci_b_6243670.html