Ministers Column December 2018

Star of wonder, star of light, star, with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us through this prefect night.

Our theme for December is mystery. My thoughts go immediately to the barren December landscape—the leafless trees, the empty fields, the brownish lawns, the slowly-freezing lakes and ponds, and, perhaps most significant, the long, dark nights. There’s something utterly mysterious about a dark, pre-winter sky, dotted with star light and perhaps a silver sliver of moon. It’s not surprising to me that the birth story of Jesus features a night sky and a shining star (though I’m mindful that we should not equate winter in ancient Israel with winter in 21st-century New England).

I love the long, dark nights at this time of year. To behold the late autumn night sky makes me feel infinitely small and impossibly large at the same time. It makes me feel completely insignificant and also informs me that my life matters. It makes me feel alone, apart, isolated and entirely related to the whole of life. These sets of dual feelings—these both/ands—are part of the mystery of this season. In response, all I can do is pause and wonder.

I choose that word ‘wonder’ very intentionally. Wonder is, I believe, the appropriate response to mystery. Wonder is the appropriate response to phenomena and experiences we cannot explain rationally. Wonder is the appropriate response to profound—and at times profoundly mixed—feelings in the presence of the inexplicable. Wonder is the appropriate response to beauty that takes our breath away. Wonder is the appropriate response to mythical stories that cannot possibly be true, yet which nevertheless contain truth.

In the response to mystery, we have choices. We can choose to downplay or deny the depth of our feelings. I could say, “It’s just night-time. There’s nothing else going on. If I’m feeling something profound, it’s just some chemical reaction in my body making me feel that way.” Or, we can offer supernatural explanations: “God wants me to feel this way.” However, both of these responses, by providing explanations, undercut the power that comes with just letting the mystery be mysterious!

I prefer to wonder. What does it mean that I feel this way—big and small, significant and insignificant, alone and connected? How is it that I can contain all these feelings at once? What does the immense darkness mean to me? What do the stars mean to me? Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it awesome? What if there were a God (goddess, spirit, energy, source) that created all this? What kind of being would that be? What might they expect of me? Of us?

Moreover, when it comes to miraculous Christmas stories of virgin births, angels singing to shepherds and magi following stars, of course, we can explain it all away as mythology. But what if explaining it away wasn’t our first response? What if we simply let our hearts and minds wonder about the meaning of the stories?

When we respond to mystery with hard and fast explanations, we lose something. However, when we respond with wonder, we gain. Wonder creates space for questioning. Wonder allows the mind to traverse paths it may not otherwise traverse. Wonder allows for creative thinking. Wonder allows for an assessment of one’s feelings.

As we enter into the holiday season, mysteries abound. Let us not explain them away too quickly. Let us meet them with wonder.

 

With best wishes for a wonderful holiday season,

—Rev. JoshRev. Joshua Pawelek

Testify! Witness! Re-Imagine!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

Hold them in your mind’s eye.

Hold them in your heart.

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

[Music]

We pray for all those who have experienced sexual violence.

We pray that they may find healing.

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

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

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

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

We also pray also for our congregation:

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

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

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

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

****

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

Less Distant from the Hope of Myself: Reflections on Sanctuary

Our ministry theme for October is sanctuary. For my remarks this morning I had planned to take a break from talking about being a sanctuary congregation. I had planned to take a break from talking about how we as a congregation relate morally to larger social and political realities. I had planned to take a break from talking about how we have the capacity to provide care and shelter to people whose lives have been or are being upended in tragic ways by governments acting immorally. We’ve actually talked a lot about that over the past two years. As a congregation you are familiar with many of these themes. I was going to take a break. I had planned to talk about sanctuary in a more general, and perhaps a more personal spiritual way. I had planned to say that regardless of our life circumstances, regardless of our relative privileges, no matter who we are, there’s a human need for sanctuary, for places of safety and protection, of retreat and reflection, of beauty and creation. We all need sanctuary from time to time.

As I read in our meditation from the Rev. Ann Willever, Just for this moment / let me be still / let me rest / in the quiet of this sacred place / in the presence of the spirit gathered / held gently, yet mightily, by the threads of love / that bind us together.[1] She’s describing that kind of sanctuary we all need from time to time.

That’s still what this sermon is about—with a first caveat that this happens to be the week we are, for the first time, welcoming a guest into our sanctuary space; and with a second caveat that the dynamics of this situation are different—though not entirely—from the scenario we originally anticipated. This situation is easier in some ways, because our guest is not confined to our building. But it is still hard, because his life is so clearly at stake if his asylum claim fails.

For me, it has been a difficult week. It has been difficult because the work of bringing a guest into our building is highly detailed; it requires the input, insight, organization and commitment of many people. I want to thank Judi Durham and Rhona Cohen, who co-lead our Sanctuary Congregation Team, along with all the members of the Team who’ve had a hand in making this transition in the life of our congregation go as smoothly as possible.

It’s been a difficult week because the reality of a human being moving into our building impacts all of us who use the building. It is disruptive, especially for our staff. Gina, Jane, Annie, Mary and Emmy have all prepared for this moment—and yet nobody can fully prepare for something like this until it happens. I am so appreciative of their willingness to stay open, to be flexible, to raise questions we haven’t yet raised, and thereby support all of you in making this transition.

It’s been a difficult week because some of you, appropriately, have expressed concern about our decision-making process, because this situation—providing sanctuary to a person whose deportation order has been put on hold while he’s pursuing an asylum claim—is different from the situation that drove our deliberations last spring—providing sanctuary to a person who has an open deportation order. Those of you who’ve spoken or written to me about this difference, please know that I deeply value your willingness to raise questions. Having disagreements about this is hard, but if we can’t raise questions and be in dialogue, then in my mind we are muting our fifth Unitarian Universalist principle, ‘the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.’

It’s been a difficult week because we’re still trying to figure out what details about our guest’s story are shareable and how best to share them. Transparency is critical in the healthy functioning of a congregation—and yet we have to be careful in this situation: if our guest’s asylum claim fails and he must return home, we don’t want our public sharing here in the United States to inadvertently make his situation at home more dangerous. As a reminder, he is an atheist, and what he calls a free thinker, from a country where atheism is a crime punishable by death.

Having said that, this is a church, and we have never been under any illusions that it would be possible to keep our guest’s presence here a secret. Though we will not hold a press conference, the Manchester Police and Fire Departments are aware that he is living here. There’s no way around that. So what we can say is that our guest comes from a country in the Middle East. He arrived in the United States in mid-September and immediately presented himself to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and requested asylum. ICE detained him at a facility in Greenfield, MA. After ICE background checks and a briefing in the case a federal judge in Hartford determined he was neither a threat nor a flight risk, and allowed him to be released from detention as long as there was a place for him to go. This is where we come in. We are providing a place for him to stay while he pursues his asylum claim. On average, such claims take about 3-4 months to complete—though there are no guarantees.

It’s been a hard, stressful, taxing week. I know during such weeks I am not at my best—not as a minister, not as a pastor, not as a husband, not as a father. Some lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, “When I Am Among the Trees,” resonate with me. I am so distant from the hope of myself, / in which I have goodness, and discernment, / and never hurry through the world / but walk slowly, and bow often.[2]

There have definitely been times this week when I’ve felt distant from the hope of myself.

That could mean many things. I wonder what it might mean for you. It could be the feeling that accompanies a hard week, a week in which you know you aren’t at peak, aren’t your best self. It could be the feeling that accompanies a difficult diagnosis, or a recovery from surgery or illness that is taking much longer than the doctors predicted. It could be the feeling that accompanies the breakdown or loss of a relationship that really matters to you. It could be the weight of the world bearing down, those feelings of overwhelm that come in response to so much unwelcome, disconcerting news. Contemplate, for a moment, those times when you’ve felt distant from the hope of yourself.

[Musical Interlude]

I’d like to say I hope none of you will ever feel distant from the hope of yourself. It would be nice to never feel that way. It would be nice to always know your own goodness, to always have discernment, to never hurry through the world, to walk slowly, to bow often. But we know the world and our lives don’t work this way. We have hard days, hard weeks, hard years. Some moments in our lives are grueling. This is inevitable. What I do hope, for myself and for all of you, is that when you come to those grueling moments, you will also have sanctuaries—places to which you can you can for rest and respite, for comfort, solace and peace—beautiful vibrant places, tranquil, colorful places that soften life’s hard edges, that make living not only bearable but joyful, meaningful, useful.  

That is the idea of sanctuary I want to offer you this morning: places that matter deeply to you; places that help reduce the distance between you and the hope of yourself; places that help you remember your goodness. That’s what a sanctuary does. The poet speaks of the trees as her sanctuary. They call out, “Stay a while.” / The light flows from their branches. / And they call again, “It’s simple, they say, / “and you too have come / into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled / with the light, and to shine.[3] That’s a good statement of the place I’ve been trying to get to this week, a place where I can go easy, be filled with light, shine. I don’t want the hardness of this week—or the hardness of the laws that led our guest to flee is home country—or the hardness of our larger world, our polarized and often hate-filled politics—I don’t want any of it to change me. I don’t want any of it to change you, or to lessen your courage, to dampen your conviction. Where can you go for affirmation that you, too, are filled with light; that you, too, shine.

What is your sanctuary? What is the place that saves you again and again and again; the place where you find room to breathe and stretch, the place that shelters you, if only for a time, from the hardness, the madness, the cruelty of the world? Two weeks ago I asked the members of the Small Group Ministry I facilitate to respond to that very question. It was a wonderful sharing. I remember stories of homes, or certain rooms within homes, of ponds and rivers nearby, of baseball parks, of the powerfully, comforting memories of loved-ones who’ve died, of this place—this Unitarian Universalist meeting house, here atop Elm Hill, on the Manchester-Vernon line, east of the Connecticut River.

Contemplate, for a moment, the sanctuaries in your life.

[Musical Interlude]

I’m offering you the idea of sanctuary as a spiritual resource. Just as taking a sabbath—a day of rest—is a spiritual resource; just as prayer and meditation are spiritual resources; just as yoga is a spiritual resource; just as being together in worshiping community on Sunday morning is a spiritual resource, so is having a sanctuary, a place where you can go for rest, respite, renewal.

The Rev. Kathleen McTigue tells the story of the small hole-in-the-wall café near her office. She describes the café as a sanctuary for her. “It was a wonderful thing just then, to be marooned on this little island of calm amidst the impatience, irritability, and general craziness of life, in a pace where someone makes her living by patiently shaping and then serving two of the world’s most basic and nourishing foods.”[4]

I love the healing imagery at the heart of McTigue’s experience in the café. “It’s easy to believe,” she writes, “that some small corner of the world’s fabric is being patiently, lovingly stitched back together—and that something more gets carried out the door than a bag of bread and warm soup.”[5]

That may be what’s happening here. In providing space for our guest to live, to prepare his asylum case, to engage in activities that will keep him well in mind, body and spirit, perhaps we too are patiently, lovingly stitching some corner of the world’s fabric back together. Indeed, some small bit of fear and loneliness and desperation ebbed this week when our guest came here. His journey is far from over, his fate far from certain, but the fabric in his corner of the world, and in ours, has been strengthened.

Of course, there are many holes, tatters, and runs in the fabric. The edges are worn and frayed. My prayer is that in those moments when the holes and tatters and runs touch our lives, cause us to grow distant from the hope of ourselves, that we have place to go for renewal; that we have sanctuaries in which our small corner of the world’s fabric can be stitched back together. I leave you words from Rev. Willever’s “Autumn:” May whatever pain or sorrow or loss I feel today /be eased / if only for this moment /even as I feel tossed and turned by the wind / a fallen leaf, blown about / with no seeming direction / may I abandon the illusion of control / if only for this moment / and sense the love surrounding me / and the strength of he love within me.[6]

Amen, blessed be.

[1] Willever, Ann, “Autumn” in Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 40-41.

[2] Oliver, Mary “When I Am Among the Trees,” in Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006) p. 4.

[3] Oliver, “When I Am Among the Trees.”

[4] McTigue, Kathleen, “More Than a Cup of Soup,” Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 4-5.

[5] McTigue, “More Than a Coup of Soup.”

[6] Willever, Ann, “Autumn.”

Centering the Margins as Spiritual Practice

Last June at our Bridging Ceremony, at which we recognize graduating high school seniors and welcome them into the community of Unitarian Universalist young adults, the bridgers received a gift from me: The Jefferson Bible, officially known as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Thomas Jefferson is remembered for many things, not the least of which is his commitment to reason in religion. He famously took a scissors to the New Testament gospels in his King James Bible, snipping out all the miracles. For Jefferson, they weren’t reasonable. They couldn’t be verified, and therefore didn’t belong in a sacred scripture. What remained after this purge was the narrative of Jesus’ human life—we read of his execution but not his miraculous resurrection; and we read of his moral teachings—the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, the sayings, etc.        

For more than a century since this little tome was first published in the late 1800s, it has sat prominently in the libraries of Unitarian Universalist congregations. When I was a bridger in 1985, my minister gifted me with a copy, which I still possess and for which I still hold an emotional attachment. I don’t normally give this gift to bridgers. In nearly twenty years of ministry I believe this was only the second time I’ve given it. I wish I had thought more deeply about giving it—and about receiving it 33 years ago. After the service last June, Kristal Kallenberg approached me and asked about the reason for giving it. As soon as she asked I realized it’s not a good gift. Kristal said it didn’t seem right to offer Thomas Jefferson as a moral exemplar for our bridgers. It was Jefferson, after all, who could articulate the moral depravity at the heart of slavery,”[1] and yet who could not summon the political will—or the heart—to work for the abolition of slavery, not even on his own plantation. He could describe the moral life vividly; but when it came to slavery, he could not live it. And he knew it.

I’m not saying The Jefferson Bible has no value, or that it should be censored or banned or removed from our libraries. I’m saying it’s not a good gift for our bridgers.

I wasn’t remembering that our denomination has had huge debates over Jefferson precisely because he was a slaveholder and thus a potent reminder of White Supremacy at the heart of our nation’s founding. There used to be a Thomas Jefferson District of the Unitarian Universalist Association. After decades of intense debate, the district finally changed its name. I was fully aware of this, yet somehow I had compartmentalized The Jefferson Bible into a context-free zone in my mind, as if I could separate Jefferson’s moral vision from his moral behavior. It shouldn’t have happened. We live in an age when activists around the country, including Unitarian Universalists, are fighting for the removal of Confederate monuments and flags from public places precisely because they celebrate White Supremacy. I should have made the connection.

This is embarrassing, given my commitment to anti-racism and the Movement for Black Lives, but I offer no excuses. This is one of the ways and White supremacy operate. I’m thankful to Kristal for being willing to ask the question. I am sorry that she had to dedicate energy to naming something I should have known. I apologize to my colleagues—especially my colleagues of Color, some of whom will feel, in the very least, let down when they read this. I apologize to you, especially those of you who were present and may have felt a pinch, an ouch, a micro-aggression, or even a macro-aggression. And most of all I am apologizing to the bridgers. I am writing to them about my change of heart, and including replacement gifts—

a book of readings compiled for UU young adults called Becoming, and a book of meditations from Unitarian Universalist ministers of Color entitled Voices from the Margins, from which I have been reading throughout this service.

In her meditation entitled “Marginal Wisdom,” the Rev. Leslie Takahashi says, “The day is coming when all will know / That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than monochrome, / That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, / stubborn rocks in its course, / That the margins hold the center.”[2] In her meditation, “Waiting,” the Rev. Marta Valentín[3] beckons her readers to come “into the center / come in from the margins / I will hold you here.”

In the life and culture of any institution, including congregations, there is a center and there are margins. The center is where power is exercised, priorities determined, decisions made, money spent, resources allocated, values articulated, sermons preached, hymns sung, joys and sorrows shared, coffee served, gifts given. The center specifies norms for appropriate behavior and emotional expression; norms for which topics are speakable, and which are taboo; norms for belonging—who is in and who doesn’t really fit. Sometimes these norms are clearly articulated. Sometimes they are assumed, taken for granted, unexamined.

The margins are those places where people experiences themselves as out-of- sync with the center or, worse, excluded. For example, oftentimes as people age, as their mobility, hearing and vision decline, they may begin to feel marginalized from the physical life of the congregation. Another example: Many congregations are adult-focused. Children—and by extension, their parents—occupy the margins. If the center is White, People of Color may experience themselves as marginal. If the center speaks English, people who speak limited English may experience themselves as marginal. If the congregation’s primary theological orientation is Humanist, people who identify as Christian, Theist or Pagan may experience themselves as marginal. People with mental illness may feel marginal. Survivors of sexual violence may feel marginal. Often we have some identities that occupy the center; and others that occupy the margins. We are rarely only one or the other.

The existence of a center and margins is natural and unavoidable in any institution or community. However, here, our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to pay attention to what our center and margins are—to be institutionally self-aware. Who are we including? Who are we excluding? But then further, because we envision a highly inclusive community, a multigenerational, multicultural and multiracial community, a spiritually pluralistic community that can offer many styles of worship, music, and arts, our center must be in constant dialogue with our margins. And further: we must be willing to center that which is marginal.

We often use ‘centering’ as a spiritual term for finding our own inner grounding, our own foundation, our own anchor. But here I’m using centering differently. I am calling centering the the margins a spiritual practice.

Knowing that our congregational center is White, that our culture is a White culture, that it is possible for well-intentioned White people to perpetuate racism and White supremacy inadvertently, what if before making the decision to give a book created by a slaveholder to our bridgers, I had centered the descendants of former African slaves? What if I had simply asked, “if one of our bridgers were African American, how might it feel for them to receive this gift and learn from the minister that it represents a great moral example in the history of our faith and nation?” I can only imagine that it wouldn’t feel good, that it would likely do harm. And if it wouldn’t be good for that child, why would it be good for any of our children?

This week the nation witnessed what many commentators have described as a tragedy: the build-up to, and the actual testimony of, Christine Blasey Ford about her sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Survivors of sexual violence still occupy the margins in our society. The #MeToo movement is challenging this marginalization, demanding that we as a society center the experiences of survivors—take them seriously, believe them, care for them and hold perpetrators accountable. With so many high-profile firings, resignations, failed political careers and campaigns, and guilty verdicts, it seems as if the movement is having an impact—though I am not aware of an overall reduction in sexual violence.

The Senate Judiciary Committee leaders didn’t want to center Blasey Ford’s story, but they also knew they couldn’t ignore her. They had to at least appear to be centering her. They tried so hard not to publicly shame or discredit her ahead of time. Even the President, who consistently engages in character assassination on Twitter, held back for a few days, initially acknowledging that Blasey Ford’s allegations were serious and deserved a hearing. Committee chair Senator Grassley kept reiterating that Blasey Ford could testify whichever way was most comfortable for her. They even recognized how bad the optics were for eleven powerful men to be questioning a woman about her experience of sexual assault. They hired Rachel Miller, a female attorney with extensive experience prosecuting sex crimes, to do their questioning for them. The result was an extensive, unchallenged testimony in which Blasey Ford, though frightened, was able to speak her truth and, from my perspective, was utterly convincing. I believe her.

It was fascinating to watch the Judiciary Committee leadership decenter attorney Miller. She asked Judge Kavanaugh two questions, and then she was essentially gone from the proceedings. Evidently her questions were good for Blasey Ford, but not for Cavanaugh—a potent double standard.

I also want to name—and I’ll talk about how this works in congregations in a moment—that centering a story or experience from the margins is often experienced as a threat by those who occupy the center. Centering a story or experience from the margins often produces feelings of guilt, shame, and anger from the center. I think Judge Kavanaugh offered a perfect example of this. Who could have responded with grace and dignity. Instead, he responded with anger. He was livid. He scolded. He was partisan. He alleged a conspiracy against him. And his supporters on the Committee followed his lead, expressing their own anger and dissapointment

Back to congregations. Congregational cultures are inherently conservative, meaning they exist to conserve specific values and principles, specific ideas about worship, spirituality, and the role religion plays in our lives. So any act of bringing new identities and ways of being into the center from the margins, though it sounds reasonable on the surface, can be quite disruptive. The center often resists. When you, or some part of you, is centered in a congregation—when you feel comfortable at the center, when the center meets your needs, feeds you, fulfills you, when you are emotionally invested in it—the act of centering someone else whose experience, world-view, ideas, culture, or spirituality reside at the margins, can feel threatening. We often feel defensive before we think about it, before we remember, “Oh, yes, this is who we say we are: open to new and different ideas, longing for greater diversity, striving to expand the circle, not close it off.”

I invite you to contemplate centering the margins as a spiritual practice. At its easiest, it’s a practice of deep listening to new stories. At it’s most difficult, it’s a practice of trusting and believing people who are courageous enough to speak about how they’ve been wounded, the ways they’ve felt excluded, the ways they’ve been relegated to the margins. Centering the other requires a softening of the ego, an openness of heart, a willingness to share cultural and spiritual space, a willingness to change. I try to keep four themes in mind.

First, stay focused on what the other is trying to convey from their experience on the margin. If you find yourself defending the center, or saying ‘that’s not how we do it,’ or ‘The Jefferson Bible is an important part of our heritage,’ pause. Breathe. Ease back from defensiveness. Center the person who is speaking. Trust they have something valuable to offer. Trust marginal wisdom to shape the center in positive ways.

Second, avoid the impulse to fix problems immediately. Sometimes stories from the margins reveal flaws in the congregation, ways in which it isn’t aware of itself, ways in which it might be alienating people without realizing it. In the midst of such revelations our allegiance to the center may lead us to want to fix the problem quickly. Unitarian Universalist culture has a habit of moving quickly away from stories of pain and anger into problem-solving. But far too often the people doing the problem-solving aren’t the ones experiencing the problem. Far too often the people doing the problem-solving are recentering themselves and their power to fix, rather than focusing on the story. If someone is sharing a margin story and you find yourself wanting to fix what has happened, pause. Breathe. Ease back from this impulse to fix. Stay with the pain. Learn from the pain. Let your understanding of yourself and your church evolve in response to the pain. The time for fixing will come. For now, center the margins.

Third, beware of guilt, shame and anger. When the story from the margin is about something painful that happened at the center, such feelings are understandable. But if I start talking about my feelings, or worse, if I get angry because I feel I am being challenged, I am now making the story about me. I am decentering the other, and recentering me. “Thank you for telling your story, now let me tell you how YOUR story makes ME feel!” It’s important to notice guilt and shame, but instead of letting them take over the conversation, receive them as cues to refocus attention back on the story, allowing it to live and breathe in the discussion, allowing it to become part of your larger Unitarian Universalist story.

Finally, strive for humility. Indeed, centering the other is an act of humility. The key to honoring and affirming the stories and experiences of people from the cultural margins is humility. The key to not rushing in with solutions is humility. The key to decentering one’s own feelings of guilt and shame is humility. The key to welcoming people from the cultural margins into our cultural center is humility. The key to realizing how deeply the center is connected to the margins is humility.

Rev. Takahashi says “The day is coming when all will know / That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than monochrome, / That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, / stubborn rocks in its course, / That the margins hold the center.”[4] So often, the center of the institution is that static, stubborn rock. Sometimes we need to let go, to swim with the current. The rainbow serves all of us. The monochrome only serves some of us.

I suspect we know this in our heads. We know diversity of ideas, spiritualities and identities is healthy for congregations. But the more we practice centering the margins, the more we will know it in our hearts. It might just be the difference between articulating a moral vision and living it.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Jefferson, Thomas, Notes of the State of Virginia, Query XVIII: Manners, 1781. See: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/notes-on-the-state-of-virginia-query-xviii-manners/.

[2] Takahashi, Leslie, in Morrison-Reed, Mark and James, Jacqui, eds., Voices from the Margins (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012) pp. 30-31.

[3] Valentín, Marta, “Waiting” in Morrison-Reed and James, Voices, pp. 3-4.

[4] Takahashi, Leslie, in Morrison-Reed, Mark and James, Jacqui, eds., Voices from the Margins (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012) pp. 30-31.

Remembering and Imagining: Time Travel as Spiritual Practice

Rev. Josh Pawelek

On your program cover there’s an image of the sankofa bird. Sankofa comes from the Twi language of Ghana in West Africa. A common English translation is “go back and get it.” The sankofa bird is an example of adinkra. Adinkra symbols make up a highly symbolic language—similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics. They are common among the Akan people of Ghana, and have made their way into the wider African diaspora. The symbols express complex thoughts and proverbs. The sankofa bird’s head faces backward as it attempts to catch its lost egg in its mouth. Its feet face forward. One translation is, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have lost,” or “that which was taken.” Learn your past so that it may guide your actions in the present for the purpose of shaping the future. Another translation: “remember the past to protect the future.”[1]

Past, present, future. This sermon is about time travel. In the absence of an actual time machine, how do we visit the past? How do we visit the future? The sankofa bird isn’t a time machine. It is an assertion that the act of visiting matters.

****

I am an admirer of UCONN physics professor Ron Mallett, who convinces me time travel is possible—in theory certainly and, perhaps one day, in practice. I want to share with you a clip from a lecture he gave a few years ago. The lecture outlines his book, Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality.[2]

[While preaching this sermon, I showed the following video until 3:45, though the entire lecture is worth viewing.]

I love Professor Mallett’s questions: “Who of us has not wondered what’s going to happen in the future, what’s going to happen next? Or thought about the past, maybe to visit some significant historical event, or … to change something in our lives?”[3] These are human, spiritual questions. They might emerge in us from any number of sources: curiosity, wonder, anxiety, fear. For Professor Mallett they emerge out of a ten-year-old’s potent grief, a desire to see his father again, to maybe save his life.

There’s a sankofa dimension in Professor Mallett’s pursuit of time travel. Go back and get it. Go back and retrieve what was lost, that precious egg. Throughout his career he has been looking back—while his feet have faced forward, while he’s studied the impact of black holes on time, the intricacies of circulating light created by strong lasers. He’s produced no time machine, but his backward look has motivated him to advance human understanding, thereby shaping the future, and possibly inspiring some as-yet-unborn savant to build the machine he longs for. Who’s to say his father’s life won’t yet be saved?

Go back and get it.

****

In May Rolling Stone magazine featured on its cover singer, composer, actress, filmmaker and founder of the Wondaland artists collective, Janelle Monáe. The article, entitled “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself,” was helping to promote her new album Dirty Computers. If you aren’t familiar with Monáe’s music, you may still know her as the actress who played Teresa in Moonlight, winner of the 2016 Oscar for best picture; or Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures, the story about the black, female NASA mathematicians during the 1960s space race (also a 2016 best picture nomination). I knew Monáe was a musician. I was not familiar with her music. What I’d heard about the Rolling Stone article before actually reading it seemed strange. It seemed to be introducing Monáe as a human being—as if she’d never been one before. There was something to that. “‘Let the rumors be true’” trumpeted the opening paragraph. “Janelle Monáe is not … the immaculate android, the ‘alien from outer space/The cybergirl without a face’ she’s claimed to be over a decade’s worth of albums, videos, concerts and … interviews—she is, instead, a flawed, messy, flesh-and-blood 32-year-old human being.”[4]

Wait, what? Android?

I have been exploring Monáe’s music all summer, including the videos (she calls them ‘emotion pictures’) that accompany her songs with an amazing science fiction story. In a sense she really hasn’t been human until now. She’s been writing, performing and appearing in emotion pictures as a rebellious, time-traveling, messianic android named Cindi Mayweather. In the futuristic city of Metropolis, sentient androids serve humans—they’re essentially slaves—an explicit metaphor for racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression in our society. Cindi Mayweather becomes fully aware of her oppression when she illegally falls in love with a human, gets caught, and is slated for disassembly. She fights back, leading a nonviolent rebellion against the Great Divide, a secret society that uses time travel to suppress freedom and love across eras. Deploying the weapons of music, dance, inclusion and love, her rebellion seeks to unite androids and humans as equals.[5]

To give you just a taste of how Monáe tells these stories, here’s a quick clip from the emotion picture for her 2013 song, “Q.U.E.E.N.”

[While preaching this sermon, I showed this video until 0:55.]

About Monáe’s 2010 album, ArchAndroid, the writer Charles Pulliam-Moore says: “While time travel is established as being an integral part of the album’s story, it’s unclear specifically how you [as the listener/viewer are] supposed to string its timeline together or whether you’re meant to at all. At various points throughout the [album], Cindi’s staring down death at the Droid Patrol’s hands, wandering through an asylum for folks whose dancing is a subversive form of magic, or imploring people to join her as she’s slipping into the time stream…. She weaves in and out of moments throughout time, all the while spreading her messages of love, raging against her oppressors, and encouraging you to do the same.”[6] I call this hyper-sankofa. Cindi Mayweather goes back to find what was lost, but she also goes forward, sideways, up, down and around. She appears in multiple times and spaces at once, always fighting the forces of oppression with love, music, dance, creativity, individuality. Earlier you heard an example of this hyper-sankofa time travel in the reading of the cybernetic chantdown from in the song “Many Moons.”[7]

While all these temporal boundary-crossings are happening in the emotion pictures, Monáe’s music seamlessly crosses boundaries between styles and eras. She combines the sounds not just of R&B, soul, hip hop, funk, spirituals, jazz and big band which we associate with Black artists, but psychedelic rock, Broadway, European classical music and movie soundtracks. The opening song on her new album is a collaboration with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys[8]–possibly the whitest band of all time!

She wants her audience to cross boundaries as well. She used to hand out a pamphlet at her concerts called “Ten Droid Commandments.” The seventh commandment read: “Before the show, feel free to walk about the premises impersonating one of the many inspirations of the ArchAndroid Emotion Picture: … Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, Outkast, Stevie Wonder, Octavia Butler, David Bowie, Andy Warhol or John Williams.”[9] Artistically she goes back again and again to recover the past, weaving it into a present expression that envisions a compelling future. In a sense, she doesn’t need a time machine. She is a time machine, driven by a potent yearning to manifest humanity’s interconnectedness through music—and to invite her audience to manifest it with her. It’s another version of sankofa: redeem the past by transcending its divisions in the present. In so doing, create a future that enables people to exist beyond labels and stereotypes, to freely live multiple, intersecting identities, to be creative, to be whole. There is much at stake in the act of visiting past and future.

****

Some critics and scholars classify Janelle Monáe’s art as Afrofuturism, an artistic movement that imagines Black people and culture in the future. One might think there’s nothing extraordinary about that. Of course there will be Black people and culture in the future.’ But that doesn’t account for a historic lack of Black and other People of Color characters, world-views and stories in our most culturally prominent future visions, especially in science fiction and fantasy. In her book, Afrofuturism, scholar and sci-fi writer Ytasha L. Womak says: “Even in the imaginary future—a space where the mind can stretch beyond the Milky Way to envision routine space travel, cuddly space animals, talking apes, and time machines—[when] people can’t fathom a person of non-Euro descent a hundred years [from now], a cosmic foot has to be put down.”[10] Afrofuturism puts that foot down.

Womak discusses various lineages of black artists—sci-fi and fantasy writers like Octavia Butler; musicians like Sun Ra, George Clinton and Janelle Monae; visual artists, poets, deejays, film-makers, museum curators, conference organizers—people who imagine Black and other peoples of color in the future through their artwork. This comes in response to dominant culture futurism’s failure to imagine Black and other peoples of color in the coming centuries or in imaginary, fantasy settings. In populating the future with Black people, Womak says “Afrofuturism unchains the mind.” It liberates the imagination, liberates creativity. When a person can imagine themself in the future—even a wild, seemingly impossible future, or a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested future—it generates hope, resolve, and action.

But Afrofuturism also looks back. Womack points to artists who refer to their ancestors, or to the ancient histories, mythologies, and cultures of the African continent. She quotes poet Khari B., who says, “It’s the sankofa effect…. One step into the future while looking back…. We’re evolving using the strength and characteristics of things that [brought us to where we are today]. We … pull from our past to build our future.”[11] Go back and get it!

****

I want to leave you with three thoughts regarding how Afrofuturistic time travel might influence a historically white culture Unitarian Universalist congregation.

First, as a person descended most recently from White, European ancestors, it feels critical to me to approach Afrofuturism, as well as sankofa, deeply aware of the ways in which White, European culture historically has—and even today continues to—misunderstand, misrepresent, belittle, denigrate, appropriate, steal, and at times, destroy the cultural expressions of non-European cultures. The short-hand for this is ‘cultural racism.’ Mindful of it, I’m digging deeply into Afrofuturism, stiving to do so with the utmost humility and reverence.

Second. We live in the future’s past. contemplate that for a moment. Since we live in the future’s past, what is our responsibility for creating a future worthy of our principles—one that corrects the flaws of white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism and environmental injustice? One that is inclusive, loving, joyful? Womak says “the idea of time travel, oddly enough, reemphasizes the present.” That is, given the future we imagine, how should we act now? Who should we be today so that a loving, inclusive future becomes a reality? I read to you earlier from the hip-hop artist Gabriel Teodros’ story, “Lalibela.”[12] Teodros has a spoken word piece called “Colored People’s Time Machine,” in which he acknowledges, “I’m the future ancestor to my unborn seeds.”[13] He means we need to be conscious, aware, accountable to the people who are coming after us. We want them to come back and get us, to bring us into their present so that our example can help them shape their future. That’s time tavel.

Finally, I talked about the way Janelle Monáe collapses the boundaries between past, present and future in her music. Gabriel Teodros makes a similar statement in “Colored People’s Time Machine.” He says “Everything’s happening at once, right?” [14] The more human beings consciously travel in time—remembering and imagining, remembering and imagining, remembering and imagining—the more the boundaries between past, present and future actually disappear. Maybe they were never real in the first place. Maybe they are just illusions our minds create to make sense of our existence. Teodros continues: “ I see it in moments and I feel it in dreams  / and it would be so easy If I could let go of me. / It’s a constant process unravelling / You call it hip hop, I call it colored people’s time machine. / Made of music you feel what you don’t see, / I ride the vessel, the vessel is also me.” Arriving at that kind of enlightenment—that sense of oneness in time and space—is the goal of many spiritual practices. Sankofa suggests yet another approach. Go back and get it. Bring it forward. Shape the future by living well in the present. Ride the vessel, knowing you are the vessel.

Go back and get it.

Amen.

Blessed be.

 

________________________________________________________

[1] For a general statement about Sankofa, see the article “Sankofa, What Does it Mean?” at the blog Sankofa: Filling the Digital Divide, Feb. 15, 2013: https://lnwatsonblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/sankofa-what-does-it-mean/.

For a general statement about adinkra, see the article “Adinkra Symbols” at the blog An Afroetic Narrative, 2016: https://afroetic.com/adinkra-symbols/. Also see reflections on sankofa and the sankofa bird in Womack, Ytasha L., Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013) pp. 160-161.

[2] Mallett, Ron L., Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality (Basic Books: New York, 2009).

[3] UConn Talks, “Time Travel Fueled by Love,” with Professor Ron L. Mallett. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etJv4yTY4Ig.

[4] Spanos, Brittany, “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself,” Rolling Stone, Issue 1313/1314, May 17-30, 2018, pp. 34-36. See: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/janelle-monae-frees-herself-629204/.

[5] Sterritt, Laura, “Janelle Monáe’s Hidden Sci-Fi Epic,” Transchordian, October 24th, 2013. See: http://www.transchordian.com/2013/10/metropolis-janelle-monaes-hidden-sci-fi-epic/. Also see Womak, Afrofuturism, pp. 74-76. View further analyses of Janelle Monáe’s work at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMqng3HmPOA and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdylle_hPgQ.

[6] Pulliam-Moore, Charles, “From Metropolis to Dirty Computer: A Guide to Janelle Monáe’s Time-Traveling Musical Odyssey” at io9 We Come From the Future (Gizmodo), May 2, 2018. See: https://io9.gizmodo.com/from-metropolis-to-dirty-computer-a-guide-to-janelle-m-1825580195.

[7] View the emotion picture for Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHgbzNHVg0c.

[8] Listen to Janelle Monae’s “Dirty Computer” featuring Brian Wilson on Yutube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFK6k-pvXmI.

[9] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 75.

[10] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 7. Incidentally, Ytasha Womak is the creator of Rayla 2212—a multimedia series with music, books, animation and games that follows Rayla Illmatic … a rebel strategist and third generation citizen of Planet Hope, an Earth colony gone rogue some two hundred years into the future. Check out: http://rayla2212.com/welcome-to-the-world-of-rayla/.

[11] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 160.

[12] Teodros, Gabriel, “Lalibela,” in Brown, Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood (Oakland: AK Press, 2015) pp. 123-133.

[13] Tedodros, Gabriel, “Colored People’s Time Machine.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuIxAkZXsKI.

[14] Tedodros, Gabriel, “Colored People’s Time Machine.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuIxAkZXsKI.

Only the Mystery Is

Rev. Josh Pawelek

The Outward Orientation

Our ministry theme for July is witness. As far as I can tell, the last time I preached directly on this theme was July, 2012. I had just returned from the “Justice General Assembly”—or Justice GA—in Phoenix, where Unitarian Universalist Association leaders had dedicated the entire five-day assembly to witnessing Arizona’s treatment of undocumented immigrants; and to specifically witnessing against the racial profiling and other anti-immigrant practices of Maricopa County’s now infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In that sermon I talked about a variety of ways to define understand witness. I pointed out that in more conservative, fundamentalist or evangelical churches, the term witness often refers to the act of naming how God is working positively in one’s life—how God is bringing healing, rebirth, a bright future, prosperity, etc., into one’s life. In mainline Protestant, liberal Christian and Unitarian Universalist congregations, the term witness more often refers to the public naming of social, economic and political injustices; and the prophetic call for reform, for social transformation, for justice-making, for building the beloved community.

I also spoke of a pastoral dimension to religious witness. I quoted the oncologist and spiritual writer, Rachel Naomi Remen who once said, “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a 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.”[1] I said that, for me, Remen’s statement names “the heart of what it means to be a religious witness. When someone is suffering, let us in the very least not turn away, not move on to the next agenda item, not think of the next thing we need to say. When someone is suffering, let us stay present to their pain; let us keep our focus on what has happened to them. When someone is suffering, let us stay with them, sit by their side, listen to their story, support them, encourage them.” Even if we have no words and don’t know what to say, even if we feel inadequate, even if the other’s suffering is beyond our comprehension, our silent presence still matters. “When we act as religious witnesses, we make suffering visible so that it cannot be ignored, denied or downplayed by anyone. When we act as religious witnesses we say to those who suffer, ‘you do not have to endure this alone.’ When someone is suffering, in the very least, let us not turn away.”[2]

I notice that each of these forms of religious witness orients us in an outward manner, focuses our attention outward. We reach out, call out, speak out, extend ourselves, lengthen ourselves, enlarge ourselves, give of ourselves, open our hearts beyond the boundaries of self. We suffer with. We peer out beyond ourselves to the sacred, to Nature, to God, to Goddess, to the animating spirit of life. We peer out beyond ourselves to human society, to its systems and institutions that perpetuate injustice, oppression, discrimination, and cruelty toward people, towards animals, toward the earth. We peer out beyond ourselves to family, friends, neighbors and strangers who are suffering, who are in pain, who are hurting; outward to those who are lonely, isolated, stuck, stranded, imprisoned.

To bear witness is to assume an outward orientation—to turn, to move, to reach, to peer out beyond ourselves.

The Inward Orientation

You have heard me say many times, in different ways, that one of the central purposes of the church is to ‘send its people forth,’ to cultivate in the people that outward orientation. The church sends you forth to bear witness to the way the sacred moves in the world and to celebrate that movement. The church sends you forth to bear witness to suffering and to be present to it for the sake of healing and connection. The church sends you forth to bear witness to injustice and oppression and to organize and advocate for a more just and loving community.

But the church would be spiritually negligent were it to send you forth without first preparing you. We prepare for the outward look by taking the inward look. We are more effective and impactful in our outward witness when we pause, first, for inward witness.

I remember learning this lesson during my unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE) at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston in the summer of 1998. CPE is an intensive pastoral care training in a hospital setting. When my supervisors learned I am an adult child of an alcoholic, they guided me into deep reflection on how that alcoholism had shaped me emotionally, and how it might influence my response to hospital patients in treatment for alcoholism and other addictions. What features of my experience might prevent me from being fully present while providing pastoral care to an alcoholic? What assumptions was I carrying about alcoholism and alcoholics that might lead me to misunderstand an individual’s unique circumstances? What deeply-rooted behaviors forged in me through years of living with an alcoholic might subvert my best efforts to provide compassionate care? A lack of clear answers to such questions, an absence of self-knowledge—the failure to peer inward and understand the origins of my adult self—would limit my capacity to provide genuine and effective pastoral care. With no inward witness, the outward witness grows thin, brittle, ambivalent.

I’m mindful of Martin Luther King Jr.’s description of the steps one must take to insure a successful campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. Before placing one’s body in the street, or at the entrance to an official building or a legislator’s office, before offering one’s body to potential violence, to arrest, spiritual purification is essential. In King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he says: “We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’”[3] Again this probing, this searching, this preparing of the self is critical. Am I ready? What will prevent me from engaging? What inner fears and conflicts might weaken my resolve? Who am I really? Who am I becoming? Who do I long to be?

Before the outward witness can succeed, the inward witness is essential.

This is the reason I almost always open our worship services with an invitation to interiority. Find that place inside of you, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, when you yearn for peace; that place where you know your truth, where your conviction resides, where your voice is strong; that place from which you reach out to others who are suffering; that place in which you commune with all that is holy in your life. But I’m also suggesting this morning that that place inside of us is not static, is not some unchanging center. It grows as we grow. Our knowledge of it is never complete. There is always more for us to discover about that place inside of us. It is always possible to peer more deeply within; always possible to extend and enlarge our self-knowledge; always possible to more fully grasp the roots of our anxieties, obsessions and fears—and the roots of the roots. It is always possible to more fully understand the forces that have shaped and formed us for better or for worse. It is always possible to rewrite the stories we and others tell about ourselves so that the words and images and metaphors more accurately speak to who we are, who we’re becoming and who we long to be.

We take the inward look to prepare as best we can for the outward look. The quality of our inward witness determines the quality of our outward witness. The depth of our inward witness lends power and confidence to our outward witness.

Only the Mystery Is

The inward witness doesn’t end merely with self-knowledge. Something more profound rests just beyond the base of our self-knowing. Something more profound rests beneath, around, within – though these are words we use to describe something that is indescribable. Earlier we shared spiritual teacher Adyashanti’s poem, “Have You Noticed?” Here it is again:

I have no more ideas anymore about / God, consciousness, / the absolute or non-duality. / If you want to talk with me / let us meet where / there are no abstractions. / All I want to know is: / Have you noticed? / Something is here / my friend. / Something is here / have you noticed? / Only the Mystery is. / The Mystery is noticing that / only the Mystery is. / Have you noticed?[4]

As we witness through layers and layers of self, layers and layers of experience, layers and layers of who I am, who I am becoming, who I long to be; as we slowly come to terms with the forces that have shaped and formed us, it is possible at times to arrive at a different kind of knowledge, a different kind of awareness—a knowledge and awareness that so many words, concepts, and theories humans use to describe reality actually don’t describe reality, actually serve, in the end, to limit reality, to box it in, to confine it. In actuality life and spirit and soul cannot be captured in words and concepts and theories. In actuality life and spirit and soul are always moving beyond the boundaries human beings establish; always flowing, transcending, subverting; always, like the wind, blowing where they may; always, like the wind, oblivious to the borders humans draw on maps and defend with soldiers, walls and drones.

I have no more ideas anymore about / God, consciousness, / the absolute or non-duality. / If you want to talk with me / let us meet where / there are no abstractions.

Adyashanti’s words remind me of those familiar lines from the 13th-century Persian Sufi poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi:  Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing / and rightdoing there is a field./ I’ll meet you there. / When the soul lies down in that grass / the world is too full to talk about. / Ideas, language, even the phrase each other / doesn’t make any sense.[5] They remind me also of the pronouncements of the ancient Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, who responds to a question about how to rule the world, “What kind of question is this? I am just about to set off with the Creator. And if I get bored with that, then I’ll ride on the Light-and-Lissome Bird out beyond the six directions, wandering in the village of Not-Even-Anything and living in the Broad-and-Borderless field…. Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, follow along with things the way they are.”[6]

These sages sought, in playful ways, to guide their followers to that ‘something more profound,’ that essence that is full because it is empty, assertive because it is silent, mobile because it is still, something because it is nothing; that ground of being in which we rest yet which we can only approach through a quieting of the mind, through the abandonment of words and concepts and theories, through the letting go of any and all notions of the self.

I am confident that the closer we can come to this ‘something more profound,’ to this place wherein, as Adyashanti says elsewhere, no words can penetrate, [7] the more robust our preparation will be for our outward witness in the wider world. The more we can take notice of the mystery within, where human borders and boundaries and barricades make no sense, the better able we are to transcend the borders and boundaries and barricades that relentlessly separate people from each other and from the earth.

Suddenly the inward witness and the outward witness don’t seem so distinct, may even be the same witness, because ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ are human constructions, human words, that don’t quite capture the essence of reality.  

Suddenly we realize, only the Mystery is / …. Have you noticed?

Amen and blessed be. 

 

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

[2] Pawelek, Josh, “Let Us Not Turn Away: Some Reflections on Justice General Assembly,” a sermon preached for the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, July 15, 2012. See: http://uuse.org/let-us-not-turn-away-some-reflections-on-justice-general-assembly/#.WzOvL9JKhPY.

[3] King, Jr., Martin Luther, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. Read the text at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[4] Adyashanti, “Have You Noticed?” My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 108.

[5] Jalal al-Din Rumi, excerpt from “Out Beyond Ideas.” See: https://allpoetry.com/Out-Beyond-Ideas.

[6] Watson, Burton, tr., Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) pp. 90-91.

[7] Adyashanti, My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 115.

[8] Adyashanti, “Have You Noticed?” My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 108.

Rev. Chris Antal to Preach at UUS:E

On Sunday morning, June 24th at 9:00 and 11:00, UUS:E welcomes the Rev. Chris Antal, a former military chaplain who courageously spoke out against United States drone warfare policies while stationed at Kandahar Air Force Base in Afghanistan. Read a short biography of Rev. Antal here. Read his “A Veteran’s Day Confession for America” here.

Rev. Antal joins us courtesy of the Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare.

For a fascinating look into the impact of drone warfare on drone pilots, see Eyal Press’s June 17th New York Times Magazine article, “The Wounds of the Drone Warrior,” which mentions Rev. Antal’s work.

The Blessings of Restlessness

“A Fierce Unrest” by Stephany Pascetta

Rev. Josh Pawelek with Poems by Molly Vigeant

A Restless God

I want to take you back to my last sermon for a moment. Riffing off scholar Jack Miles’ 1995 book God: A Biography, I described the God of the Hebrew Bible as a literary character. Again, the God Miles describes is not the God our Jewish and Christian neighbors worship. He is something wholly different and, frankly, much more reminiscent of a human being who struggles with conflicting emotions, who can’t quite anticipate the consequences of his actions, and who seems to have, at best, modest control over outcomes. There’s always something he wants—or thinks he wants—some yearning, some longing. “That God,” says Miles, “is the divided original whose divided image we remain. His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep.”

Miles makes the provocative argument that all of us in the west—even people who don’t believe in God—have been shaped to some degree—psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, morally—by this literary character. The inner workings of his life—particularly his inner conflicts—mirror the inner workings of the lives of most human beings.

In the story God creates human beings specifically so that he may have an image of himself—so that he may observe his image and thereby learn about himself, gain self-knowledge, grow. There’s a subtext. People wrote the biblical books. Over the course of centuries human beings collectively created this literary character to explore and explain their deepest questions. Which means it’s not just that we are God’s image. God is also our image. Through the centuries the biblical writers, the story-tellers, the prophets, the temple officials, the priests, the rabbis, the ministers have projected out onto God the very same inner conflicts, confusion, lack of control, yearning, longing, etc. that we experience in our daily lives. God isn’t even a projection of our highest ideals and aspirations, as some contend; he is a projection of our base instincts and impulses, which often conflict mightily with our highest ideals and aspirations. His may be the restless breathing we hear in our sleep; but it was restless human beings who imagined him as restless in the first place.

All this is to say that there is a restlessness that lives in us. Or, as the early twentieth-century writer and satirist, Don Marquis, wrote, “a fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things; it was the eager wish to soar that gave the Gods their wings.” A fierce unrest. Sometimes its pulse is very faint; sometimes it roars through us, a raging river. At times we turn to spirituality to soothe it, calm it, tame it. Yet spirituality can have the exact opposite effect. At times it can force us to confront truths about ourselves and the world we’d rather not confront. It can bring us face to face with profound questions of right and wrong, good and evil—and demand that we choose. Spirituality can show us and lead us toward the life we long to live, which is often radically different from the life we actually live. It can reveal to us the kind of community we ought to build, which is often radically different from the community in which we actually live. In that gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ we are restless. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it is God’s restless breathing or ours. There is a restlessness at the heart of all things. When we sense it, it calls us to move. How do we respond?

Click Legs Together

click legs together
1,2,3
click heals together
4,5
tap fingers
1,2,3
snap wrist
4,5

you may call it restless,
I call it defenses
against my mind

the way i sit,
the way i pace
and cant for the life of me
just stand in place

its restless

its exhausting

and its me

i wouldn’t change it for a thing
the way i sing
at every red light
even if the radio is off

the way my mind works in verses,
but never sentences

my impulse
is to write
and write
and write

and most of it never gets written
because my fingers don’t go as fast as my mind

but that’s fine

god hears me

my impulse is
to be like him
my ever restless prayer
is to learn more
but im too restless
to meditate long enough
to get my answer

dear god,
please enter my restless mind

i know may never be divine
i may never be still
but i swear i will learn
if you enstill a restless impulse of love

God, i know i am good enough

love yourself
1,2,3
you’re enough
4,5

stay strong
1,2,3

love yourself
4,5.

Always Caught

We are always caught in that place between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be.’ There is always something about us, about our communities, about the world, that could be better, could be different, could align more directly with our deepest values, could more clearly manifest our highest ideals and aspirations. Always. And thus there is always the potential for us to feel restless. As we move into the summer season, I have two questions for you to consider. First, do you recognize your own restlessness? Are you aware of what churns in you, wakes you at night, races your mind? What is that roaring river raging? What is that ‘ought to be’ that you haven’t yet realized? Second, once you recognize your restlessness, can you understand it as a spiritual condition?

Our restlessness is most confounding, most discomforting, and most likely to erode our well-being when we try to ignore it, escape it, evade it. It becomes a problem when we feel it—the churning, the sleeplessness, the racing mind, the twitchy leg, the anxiety, the gnawing ache, the self-doubt—and instead of asking, ‘where is this leading me?’ or ‘what values are at stake?’ we ask—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—‘how can I just make it go away?’ Our response to it, then, is avoidance. We try to push it down, talk it back. Sometimes this is a necessary response. We’ve got to get through our day. We’ve got to function in our jobs, or as parents, as grandparents, as caregivers, as students, as people with responsibilities, deadlines, tasks, hoops to jump through, etc.

But if we only ever treat our restlessness as a set of uncomfortable, unwelcome feelings to get rid of, there can be problems. I suppose a worst-case scenario is that we engage in destructive behaviors to distract ourselves from our restlessness. We feed addictions, we give into cravings, seek to satisfy immediate urges, embrace whatever may offer some sense of relief. But in pursuing relief in this way, we haven’t dealt with the source of our restlessness.

Another possibility is that we dampen our restlessness so much that our efforts result in a kind of stasis. Our lives become over-ritualized, highly routinized, rule-bound, mechanical. We may appear to be at peace, relaxed, calm. But we haven’t dealt with the source of our restlessness.

Sometimes we can genuinely pacify our restlessness. We’re the lone, wild bird who says, “great spirit come and rest in me,” and something happens. Perhaps through some disciplined spiritual practice we achieve a moment of rest, of solace. Perhaps through prayer, meditation, singing, dancing, stretching we can say “ahhh, I finally feel centered and at peace. I’ve let go. I am relaxed. Namaste.” But it rarely lasts. It’s a false center, a hollow peace. The great spirit may have come to rest, but it has taken flight once again. It has disappeared, because we have not dealt with the source of our restlessness. ‘What is’ and ‘what ought to be’ still aren’t moving toward alignment.. The gap persists. The river still rages. Restlessness reasserts itself.

Push it Down, Smile

push it down,
smile
they need little miss sunshine

well, i need sunshine,
i need suns rays
on a beautiful day
and time to walk
and think
and pray

to keep restlessness
at bay

i dont mind
my ever racing mind
so long as i have time
to let myself process
the thoughts
in my own time
they come so fast
sometimes i need to just relax

restlessness can be a blessing
but if i feel its sting
a little too long
the alarm goes off
before my mind hits the pillow

i’ve been laying for hours
but i never seem to sleep
or complete
whatever task
my brain
asks
and asks
and
ASKS

ever-less nicely to complete

but i can’t

i can’t get to my feet
i worked all day
the restlessness needs to just go away

but its here for a reason.
right?

i’m going to be okay,
whatever i did that day was enough
the sun will rise.
i need to find time
to walk
on a beautiful day
and pray

because restlessness does not
just go away

its here for a reason
not all lessons
are pleasant
some are meant to sting

so that you may learn
your true purpose.

Restlessness as a Spiritual Condition

What if we choose to recognize our restlessness as a spiritual condition? What if, instead of seeking a way to end it, we seek a way into it? What if, instead of seeking to dampen it, we seek to amplify it? What if, instead of asking, ‘how can I just make this go away,’ we ask, ‘where is this leading me?’ or ‘what values are at stake?’ or ‘what ideal, what aspiration beckons in the midst of this discomfort?’
Doing so may invite greater disruption, greater discomfort. It may suggest life changes we hadn’t anticipated. It may be frightening, unnerving, disconcerting. But, as Molly says, “it’s here for a reason, right?” Yes, it usually is. If a fierce unrest seethes at the core of all things, if the essence of reality is motion and rhythm cycling endlessly, aren’t we taking good spiritual care of ourselves if we embrace that motion and rhythm in our own lives? If the source of our restlessness is the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be,’ isn’t the more genuinely spiritual path the one that takes us into that gap—even if it isn’t an immediately peaceful path? Isn’t the more genuinely spiritual path the one that has us acting to bridge the gap?

Coming into this congregational year, I was feeling restless about our social justice work. We are a highly engaged congregation, but as I reflect on what we’ve accomplished over the years, I sometimes wonder what ultimate impact our work has had. I’ve named this wondering in sermons from time to time. I wonder if, despite all the advocacy, the rallying, the marching, the testifying, the witnessing, the commitment to sanctuary, the commitment to Black Lives Matter, the commitment to the GLBTQ community and on and on, our efforts haven’t had much impact. The gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ is as pronounced in the Greater Hartford region as it is anywhere in the country. This is why I have gotten involved in the Poor People’s Campaign. Might a program of sustained, nonviolent direct action get the attention of the powers that be, shift the conversation in this region, reduce the gap? I don’t know. But I’ve felt restless, and in asking ‘where is it leading me,’ this is the direction that has emerged.

I’m aware of people who grow restless in the presence of injustice. Do you just keep doing what you’ve always done when things don’t seem to be changing? Or worse, do you keep looking the other way, making excuses, rationalizing, blaming victims? Or do you boldly choose to rise up, speak truth to power, reform your patterns of living, re-orient your accountabilities?

I’m also mindful of people who grow restless in the context of their work, their careers, their professions; or the patterns of living in their retirement? Do you just hold on, doing what you’ve always been doing without question and reflection? Or do you boldly choose to reinvent yourself, re-educate yourself, follow a new calling?

I’m aware of people who’ve always felt called to create in some way, to make art in some form, but for whatever reason, haven’t made space for it in their lives, haven’t opened themselves up to that particular restlessness. Do you continue to put that call aside, continue to say, ‘I’ll get to it someday,’ continue to repeat the reasons why it’s unrealistic? Or do you boldly choose to create, to express yourself, to produce things of beauty, to be an artisit?

I’m mindful of people who grow restless in their religious context—the religion of their childhood, or the religion they thought held the answers, or the religion that helped them silence their restlessness. But something doesn’t feel right—some preaching, some theology, some hierarchy, some exclusivity—still hasn’t bridged the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be.’ Do you continue in that religion out of habit, fear, guilt? Or do you boldly choose to follow your longing for something that speaks more openly and honestly to that place inside of you, your heart, your soul?

When we ask our restlessness, ‘where are you leading me?’ so often, though the path may be difficult, though the lesson may sting, it leads to a more authentic self. It leads to a life of greater integrity. It leads to growth, to experience, to wisdom, and ultimately, to that place where ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ are more fully aligned.

Find Your Meaning

the fourth Unitarian Universalist principle is:
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning

find your meaning

find your calling
let the restlessness consume you
eat at you
push you
and pull you
in every uncomfortable direction

find your meaning
and let it consume you

i need to write
i need to,
half the time i dont want to

but so much beauty can be found
in this compulsion
to write down
every last verse
to not rehearse
or edit

otherwise things
play around in my head
and I’m ever more restless

anxiety
and adrenaline
are not the same thing

when life is out of control
and your heart’s on parole
and everything is harder
than it should be
remember the beauty
you found in things
when you were just a toddler

when every catastrophe at work
never happened
every worry
was a broken crayon
where did you find beauty then

maybe your restless head
screaming at you
when you lay in bed
is trying to tell you
to find your meaning
go back to your meaning

if that means a new job
what is there to fear
from new learning

money comes and goes
but compassion shows
in every aspect of your life
every strife you face
will dissipate
when you find your meaning

let restlessness consume you
let it teach you
to be you.

The Image of the Image of the Image . . . .

By Rev. Josh Pawelek

Growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation where most of the members identified as Humanists, atheists or agnostics, I heard many arguments against belief in God. One of those arguments outlined the many divine inconsistencies in the Bible. God creates the world, saying it is good, then destroys it. God is the personal God of Abraham, and also God of all nations. God is a warrior who leads Israel to victory; but God also fights and kills the Israelites in retaliation for their transgressions. God is the lawgiver who punishes some but not others. God is just and terrible, loving and cruel, male and female, knowable and mysterious, present and absent. How can we believe in a God who varies so widely across so many pages of scripture?

There are many answers to such questions. We might hear that human beings cannot comprehend the vastness of God, and thus we only ever encounter one divine facet at a time. We might hear that God’s mystery requires us to believe despite the inconsistencies. My Humanist UU elders found such answers unconvincing.

Of course, we were not the first people to notice the inconsistencies. As long as the biblical books have existed there have been scholars, theologians, temple officials, priests, rabbis, ministers and imams who’ve attempted to explain the inconsistencies so that ordinary readers can fathom such a wide-ranging divine personality. Those attempts will continue as long as the God of Abraham remains God in the western religious mind.

I recently read Jack Miles’ 1995 book, God: A Biography.[1] Miles is Professor Emeritus of English and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and Senior Fellow for Religion and International Affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy.[2] I read his book because Fred Sawyer suggested it after he and Phil purchased a sermon at our 2017 Goods and Services Auction. I’m glad I read it. Miles presents God not as the God our Jewish and Christian neighbors worship, but as a literary character—the protagonist in one of civilization’s most enduring stories. In doing so he offers insights into the spiritual conflicts residing at the heart of the human condition and explains an enduring human restlessness.  

God: A Biography tells the story of God as it appears in the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, which is distinct from the Christian Old Testament.[3] They contain the same books, but they order the books differently, which means as literature they tell God’s story differently. The plot unfolds differently. The character of God develops differently.

I also want you to know the difference between historical criticism and literary criticism of the Bible. Historical criticism studies who wrote a particular biblical book—where, when and why they wrote; who their audience was. The historical critic teases out the cultural and religious influences in the writer’s life—their sources.

For example, the very beginning of Genesis describes the creative acts of elohim, translated as God. Elohim creates and blesses and pronounces everything as good. He creates men and women in his image and generously gives them the entire world: “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” Then, a few verses later, an entirely different creation story begins, describing the acts of yahweh, translated as the Lord God. He doesn’t give the whole world to Adam and Eve, he gives them a garden. And when they disobey him, he flies into a passionate rage, punishing them harshly. “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; / in pain you shall bring forth children….’ / And to the man he said…. / ‘cursed is the ground because of you; / in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; / thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you ….  / until you return to the ground, / for out of it you were taken; you are dust, / and to dust you shall return.”[4] The historical critic reveals these are actually two different traditions with two different Gods that have been edited—fused—into one.

The Bible is filled with such fusions. It’s not just elohim and yahweh. In Genesis 6—the story of Noah’s ark—God takes on the traits of the watery Babylonian chaos monster, Tiamat, becoming not only the creator of the world, but also its destroyer. Eventually the Canaanite sky God, el, is woven into God’s personality. El is also the common Ancient Near Eastern word for any god; it appears in the Bible in terms like el shaddai, Almighty God, whom Abraham invokes for ritual circumcision; and el olam, Everlasting God, whom Abraham invokes before the binding of Isaac. In God we find traits of the Mesopotamian personal god. He absorbs the Canaanite war God, Baal. He becomes the Lord of Hosts, the liberator, the lawgiver, the conquerer, the father god to Kings David and Solomon, the arbiter, the executioner, the protector of the poor and oppressed, the Lord of all the nations. For the prophet Isaiah he is the Holy One of Israel, unknowable, mysterious. For Daniel he is the “Ancient of Days.” Despite a concerted effort to remove all evidence of the divine feminine, traces of the Canaanite goddess Asherah persist in God. 

This fusion happened because Israel, throughout its ancient history, was becoming monotheistic. The writer known as the Deuteronomist edited the earliest books of the Bible into a monotheistic story. As Miles puts it, the Deuteronomist’s gift was to make all these distinct materials seem in combination, down to the phrase, ‘the Lord our God,’ not just plausible but inevitable.[5] The historical critic pulls it all apart, reveals the editor at work, tells the story behind the story.

Miles isn’t doing historical criticism. He’s doing a species of literary criticism that picks up all these disparate gods the historical critic has exposed, and reads them back into the character of God as the Bible’s main protagonist. Imagining God as a character, we can understand the inconsistencies not as vestiges of earlier deities, but as God’s experience of inner conflict.[6] For example, God is generous and creative. God is strict and destructive. We might not believe in such a God, but we can ask, ‘what is it like to contend with such competing impulses? And do these impulses not also reside in the human heart? As God the character experiences inner turmoil, he affirms our very human wrestling with our own conflicting impulses.

Contemplate this question: Why did God create? I typically say the biblical creation story is a metaphor for the creative impulse at the heart of all existence. God creates because reality is inherently creative. But that’s not the answer the character God gives. Miles says, “God makes a world because he wants mankind, and he wants mankind because he wants an image.”[7] He doesn’t want a servant, a friend, a spouse; he wants an image of himself.  Why he wants this is not entirely clear. We know nothing about God before creation. We might wonder, ‘is God lonely?’ If so, wouldn’t he create a spouse or friends? That’s not what he does. He creates an image of himself, which suggests that he wants to know himself more fully by observing his image. More than companionship, God longs for self-knowledge.

But he doesn’t always like his image. Adam and Eve disobey. He becomes angry, terrifying. He curses. Apparently, he can’t handle the knowledge that this disobedience lives in him. After releasing his anger, he feels regret, remorse. He wants somehow to make it up to them. The text says “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.”[8] Miles asks, “Having just inflicted labor in childbearing on her and toil in the fields on him, why should he now spare them the inconvenience of making their own clothing? Why if not because, to speak very simply, he feels bad about it?”[9] Miles identifies this moment as God’s first inner conflict, and suggests it is the beginning of western humanity’s interior life as well.[10]

As the Bible progresses, another important dynamic emerges. God wields immense power, but rarely foresees the results of his use of power. Miles calls him ignorant at times. It makes sense. Because he has no history, he has nothing for comparison. He is learning as he goes. Whenever something unexpected happens that he doesn’t like, he tries to fix it, often in a fit of rage. Afterwards he feels regret, tries to atone, restates his promises more generously than before. Then something else unexpected happens. Miles says, “his key experiences … subvert his intentions…. He did not realize when he told mankind to ‘be fertile and increase’ that he was creating an image of himself that was also a rival creator. He did not realize when he destroyed his rival that he would regret the destruction of his image. He did not realize that his covenant with Abraham … would require him … to go to war with Egypt…. He did not realize when he gave [the Israelites] the law that where there is law, there can be transgression, and that, therefore, he himself had turned an implicitly unbreakable covenant into an explicitly breakable one…. The inference one might make looking at the entire course of his history … is that God is only very imperfectly self-conscious and very slightly in control of the consequences of his words and actions.”[11] We may not believe in such a god, but certainly his imperfect self-consciousness and his minimal control of events makes him a compelling literary character and a wonderful mirror for our own internal struggles and limits.

The book of Job provides the story’s literary climax. True to form, God enters into something that doesn’t go how he expects. Job is righteous, steadfastly loyal to God. The satan, translated as the adversary, suggests Job is righteous only because it brings him wealth. Take away his wealth? He will curse God. God says ‘go ahead, impoverish him, torture him. He’ll stay righteous.’ The wager is on. The adversary tortures Job mercilessly. Job maintains his righteousness believing God will vindicate him. But then he does the unexpected. He demands God explain why he must suffer so greatly. He demands an explanation of God’s justice, because his suffering is pointless. God seems to not recognize that’s he’s won. Job has not cursed him. But God is infuriated that Job has questioned him. God speaks from the whirlwind—an ode not to justice but to raw, unfettered power. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”[12] “Will you even put me in the / wrong? / Will you condemn me that you / may be justified? / Have you an arm like God, / and can you thunder with a / voice like his?”[13]

Job responds calmly. The common interpretation is that Job hears God and repents. In the typical English translation Job says “I had heard of you by the hearing / of the ear, / but now my eye sees you; / therefore I despise myself, / and repent in dust and ashes.”[14] Miles says this is incorrect. A careful reading of the ancient Hebrew calls for a different interpretation. Job does not repent. A more authentic translation of Job’s words is, “Now that I’ve seen you / I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay,”[15] meaning divine justice is not a given for anyone; meaning God is as likely to be evil and cruel as he is to be kind and just. God didn’t expect this lesson, this wisdom. Once again he plunges into profound inner turmoil. “After Job,” writes Miles, “God knows his own ambiguity as he has never known it before. He now knows that, though he is not [a] fiend, he has a fiend[ish] side and that mankind’s conscience can be finer than his.”[16] He finds solace in the knowledge that Job is his image. He restores Job’s life and doubles his wealth. Indeed, it is not Job who repents, but God.

From here to the end of the Tanakh God is silent. People speak about him, but he speaks no more. Miles describes him as a sleeper, a bystander, a recluse, a puzzle. What are we to make of this silence? Miles wonders: “Once you have seen yourself in your image, will you want to keep looking?” “Will you lose interest in yourself … once the image has served its purpose and you know who you are?”[17]

Maybe. Maybe God lost interest. Whether he did or not, this story of  a God who could never quite choose one deep impulse over another, has shaped western moral consciousness as much as any other force. “That God,” says Miles, “is the divided original whose divided image we remain. His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep.”[18]

May we never lose interest—not in the things we hold sacred, not in ourselves. May we continue to encounter that restless breathing. May continue to struggle with our own inner conflicts trusting we will grow wise in time. May we continue in self-discovery, even when that discovery is unanticipated, difficult, painful. May we each have a Job in our lives who confronts us with the truth and calls us to our best and highest selves.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Miles, Jack, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

[2] For information on Jack Miles, visit his website at http://www.jackmiles.com/. For information on his forthcoming book, God in the Quir’an, visit: http://www.jackmiles.com/Home/books/god-in-the-qur-an.

[3] In 2002 Miles published a follow-up book on God in the Christian Scriptures called Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.

[4] Selections from Genesis 3: 14-19. (NRSV)

[5] Miles, God, p. 141.

[6] Miles, God, p. 21.

[7] Miles, God, p. 28.

[8] Genesis 3: 20-b. (NRSV)

[9] Miles, God, p. 36.

[10] Miles, God, p. 33.

[11] Miles, God, pp. 250-251.

[12] Job 38: 4a. (NRSV)

[13] Job 40: 8-9. (NRSV)

[14] Job 42: 5-6. (NRSV)

[15] Miles, God, p. 325.

[16] Miles, God, p. 328.

[17] Miles, God, p. 404.

[18] Miles, God, p. 408.

As You Love Yourself

This afternoon we hold our annual meeting. One of the items on the agenda is the adoption of a new vision statement for the congregation. The statement is this:

Unitarian Universalist Society: East will be home to a spiritually alive, richly diverse and growing congregation. We will send forth energy, spirit and strength into our beloved communities. We will love, be present to suffering, comfort, heal, bear witness to oppression, and boldly work toward social and environmental justice.

The word ‘love’ jumps out at me. There’s a story about why love appears in the statement. I want to share it with you. Though I preface my sharing with a concern, which is that, we Unitarian Universalists—and many people of liberal faith—along with the wider culture more generally—tend to gloss over love, are often imprecise in our naming of it. We’ve drained love of it of meaning, have allowed it to become a cliché. This is so true that it is even cliché for a minister to tell you that love has become cliché!” (Just want you to know that I know that.) We each understand love in our own way, yet we rarely, if ever, pause in the course of our congregational life to examine what we actually mean by love, what the various dimensions of love are, and perhaps most importantly, how we demonstrate love with our actions.

You may remember last May, approximately seven hundred Unitarian Universalist congregations participated in White Supremacy Teach-Ins, mostly on Sunday mornings. You may remember the Teach-Ins came in response to allegations of White Supremacy culture operating at the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston. A number of high-ranking UUA staff members resigned over concerns about racism impacting hiring decisions. It was a very painful time. That pain continues as Unitarian Universalism continues to wrestle with race and racism.

I preached a sermon last May about White Supremacy culture. Among other things, I said that while White UUs aren’t White supremacists, our culture, especially when we fail to examine it closely, can produce racist outcomes. This is true of any culturally White institution. Often we don’t recognize it unless someone courageously makes us aware of it.[1]

At that time our Policy Board and Program Council were beginning to plan their fall leadership retreat, during which our leaders would craft a new vision statement. Alan Ayers was the board president at the time. He approached me after that sermon and asked a question that went something like this: “If a group of mostly White UUS:E leaders designs a vision statement for a largely White congregation, could our efforts to achieve that vision inadvertently perpetuate racism?”

Yes. The answer was and is “yes.” I loved that Alan had encountered my words, had not felt defensive, but rather, had been moved to re-think, or at least question, a congregational process. Could we somehow perpetuate racism if we don’t think this through more closely?

We started to think it through more closely. We ultimately decided to invite five prominent People of Color leaders from the Greater Hartford region—all people with whom we have some degree of relationship—to speak to our leadership prior to our visioning work. We wanted their perspectives as People of Color leaders to inform and deepen our visioning process. We asked them, “What is your vision for Manchester and Greater Hartford?” And, “How can our congregation contribute to the fulfillment of that vision?” Did this guarantee that our process would be completely free from that unconscious, unintentional racism we’re naming when we talk about White Supremacy culture? No. But this was an anti-racist way to approach our visioning process.

Pamela Moore Selders leading a song at the CT Poor People’s Campaign

One of the panelists was Pamela Moore Selders. Many of you know her as a co-founder of Moral Monday Connecticut with her husband, Bishop John Selders. They are conveners of the Black Lives Matter movement in Connecticut. They are also organizers for the Poor People’s Campaign in Connecticut.  When I was arrested on Monday at the first Poor People’s Campaign action, it was Pamela’s phone number I had scrawled on my arm for my one phone call.) In response to our questions that evening back in September, Pamela said, essentially, “I need you [mostly White UU congregational leaders] to know that I love being Black. I love the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, my culture, my food, my art. I love being Black.”

And then she said something I will never forget. “I need you  to love yourselves like I love myself.”

When I first heard her say this, there was a small part of me that wondered, “How on earth can we put ‘love ourselves’ in a vision statement without sounding like completely self-absorbed, new-age navel-gazers, without sounding like an insular, in-crowd social club?” And another small part of me said, “Of course we love ourselves. What’s she talking about?”

But the rest of me said “Yes. She’s right. This isn’t about the words on paper. This isn’t ultimately about the final vision statement. This is about the abiding, living, active love that must reside at the foundation of our life together. It cannot be glossed over. It needs constant nurture and attention; and especially in a congregation that has such a long and enduring Humanist identity, it begins with and is rooted in love of self. What an incredible invitation Pamela was making to us.

In the list of sources for our UU living tradition we identify “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” In the Bible I find this most clearly stated in Jesus’ response to the question, ‘which commandment is the first of all?’ He condenses centuries of Jewish teaching and prophetic witness into a few, short, enduring phrases: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”[2] Regarding that second commandment, in my experience, we  tend to focus on the neighbor part. We actually ask ourselves frequently, in a variety of ways,  “Who is our neighbor?” “How can we work in solidarity with our neighbor?” “How can we more fully welcome the stranger, the alien, the other?” This afternoon we decide as a congregation whether or not to offer sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation. That is ultimately a question of who our neighbors are. Essential questions! But how often do we pause to reflect on the “as yourself” part?

That’s an essential question too. The love we offer our neighbor mirrors our love for ourselves. Yet, if we don’t reflect deeply on the quality of love we feel for ourselves—if we just assume that everybody feels love for themselves, so that rather than exploring it we gloss over it, take it for granted, turn it into a cliché—how do we really know the nature of the love we ought to be extending to our neighbor?

When I read in our proposed vision statement the phrase, “we will love,” I recall Pamela’s invitation to love ourselves. In addition to extending love to our neighbor, I read in this phrase an invitation for us to unapologetically take a deep inward look, for each of us to unabashedly explore, experience and name the love we each feel for ourselves; and then for us as a congregation to unabashedly and proudly explore, experience and name the love we feel for ourselves as a congregation. We do this so that the love we offer to each other and into the world is authentic, powerful, and transformative.

This inward look is hard. Genuine love of self is hard. Mary Bopp told me a story this week about a minister she worked with in a previous congregation, who said “of course everybody loves themselves.” Mary said “that’s not true. It’s not as easy as you think.” He said, “sure it is.” She said, “ask your wife if it’s easy.” Apparently he asked his wife, who told him about how women are often socialized to care for others above themselves, and how the capacity for self-love is then easily dampened, suppressed or lost as a result.

There was a lot of Facebook chatter this week about my Poor People’s Campaign arrest on Monday. My cousin made the point that not everyone can risk being arrested, and that I was fortunate to be in a position to. I wrote back to her: “Yes…. I am in a fortunate position. Since I have support in my professional life from the people I serve as minister, my colleagues and my denominational structure, and since I am a straight, white, very privileged man, I feel a certain obligation to take this risk on behalf of those who can’t.” I jumped right to love of neighbor, responsibility to neighbor, accountability to neighbor. That’s important. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had forgotten my own “as yourself” part. The truth is, I do this for myself too. Economic inequality, racism, environmental destruction, and the distorted moral narrative in our country all impact the communities that hold me, and thus they impact me. Interdependent web, yes? I also do this because I love myself and my family.”

My point is that I didn’t intuitively identify self-love as a reason for acting. So many people struggle with cultivating self-love. So many people for so many reasons feel, at some level, unworthy, not good enough, guilty, ashamed, weak. Unitarian Universalism isn’t always helpful here. We have a perfectionist streak running through our history. That may have been what Pamela Moore Selders was sensing when she said “I want you to love yourselves like I love myself.” We don’t always recognize our perfectionism, but it’s there. It has roots in our Puritan, New England spiritual heritage. It’s more visible among our Unitarian forebears, but the Universalists had their perfectionist leanings too. It’s part of American culture, capitalist and industrial culture. We witness it in the unrelenting drive for efficiency, for increased production, profit, growth, or in the words of the 19th-century Unitarian theologian, James Freeman Clarke, in the “progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”  So often we unconsciously measure ourselves against some perfect ideal, and find ourselves lacking. Self-love is hard when perfection is the default.

I wrestle with perfectionism. I feel like I fail often—as a parent, a husband, brother, son. I stumble often as a minister. Did anyone notice? Are they disappointed? I hope not. I second-guess myself. Was that the right thing to say? Is this the right sermon to preach? I know what needs to be done, but I’m not doing it because I’m doing something else that’s taking too much time. Do I have my priorities right? Are people thinking I don’t have my priorities right? Will the people respond well to what I say? Why am I so nervous? I wake up at 2:00 AM, my mind racing about the annual appeal, the worship service, why too few people are volunteering for leadership positions, the person in the hospital I forgot to call.

But Pamela Moore Selders didn’t say, “I need you to do it perfectly.” She said “I need you to love yourselves.”

When I wake at 2:00 AM, is there any love in there? Do I love my hair? My skin? Do I love my culture, my food, my art? Maybe the things on Pamela’s list aren’t the things on my list. But I do have a list. I love my sense of rhythm, that I can sit down at a drum set and drum. I love my Polish and Pennsylvania Dutch heritage; I love my creativity, my connection to nature, my ability to speak in public, my courage, my non-defensiveness, my ability to apologize, my experience of a sacred dimension in my living. I love how I love that sacred dimension. I love my wife, my children, my family, my friends. I love that they love me. I love that I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I love serving as your minister. If I strive to do all of it with perfection, measuring the results against some ideal standard, then I grow anxious and will likely fail. But if I can just revel in the love I feel, be present with it, surrender to it, love myself—ahh!—now I’ve got a solid foundation from which I can love my neighbor. Now I’ve got some sense of how I am called to love the world. 

Members and friends of this congregation: What’s on your list? How deeply do each of you love yourselves? Can you put words to it? Can you describe it? I know it is very difficult for some of you. Sometimes the self-doubt, the feelings of unworthiness are powerful. Do you know what gets in the way of deep self love? How are you actively addressing it? And even if it isn’t difficult, we still don’t typically speak of the ways we love ourselves. There’s something counter-intuitive about it, it feels selfish, self-absorbed. But I want us to feel invited to speak of it, because it is the foundation upon which we love our neighbor.

Furthermore, what is on your collective, congregational list? What do you love about this congregation? Can you say it with pride? Can you celebrate it? What do you love about your minister? Can you tell him? Can he tell you what he loves about you? Can you make abundant room for that conversation? It is indeed prelude to loving our neighbor.

This is my challenge to you: Make your lists. Share them with each other. A bold and heart-filled love of ourselves matters. It is certainly not the end of our journey, but an essential beginning. It is not selfish or self-absorbed, but an essential part of the foundation upon which we build our future together.  And from that foundation, we can go out into the world, knowing so much more clearly how to bless it, how to witness its pain, challenge its injustices, and work for healing and justice. I need you to love yourselves like I love myself.

May you make compelling lists—not of the things you must do, but of the depth of your love: for yourselves, for each other, for the world. May love of self become the source of your deep compassion for yourself, for your neighbor, for the world.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Pawelek, Rev. Joshua Mason, “White Supremacy Teach-In,” a sermon delivered to the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, May 7, 2017. See: http://uuse.org/white-supremacy-teach-in/#.WvxAw4gvxPZ.

[2] Mark 12: 28b-31.