It’s All Poetry

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

Takbir

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

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

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

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

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

Lone Wild Bird

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

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

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

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

still waters

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

Amen and blessed be.
 

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

[2] Luke 4: 18-19.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fatherhood in Flux

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

The cast of "Modern Family"

The cast of “Modern Family”

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

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

Doyin Richards' famous photo. Boom!

Doyin Richards’ famous photo. Boom!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad-Hair

            Amen and blessed be.

 

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

[2] Ibid., p. 74.

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

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

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

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

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

The Prisoner’s Dilemma: We’re All in This Together

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Prisoner's DilemmaTwo members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principle charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. If he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the partner will get three years in prison on the main charge. Oh, yes, there’s a catch. If both prisoners testify against each other, both will be sentenced to two years in jail.

The prisoners are given little time to think this over, but in no case may either learn what the other has decided until he has irrevocably made his decision. Each is informed that the other prisoner is being offered the same deal. Each prisoner is concerned only with his own welfare, the minimizing of his own prison sentence.

The prisoners can reason as follows: “Suppose I testify and the other prisoner doesn’t. Then I get off scot-free (rather than spending a year in jail). Suppose I testify and the other prisoner does too. Then I get two years (rather than three). Either way I’m better off turning state’s evidence. Testifying takes a year off my sentence, no matter what the other guy does.”

The trouble is, the other prisoner can and will come to the very same conclusion. If both parties are rational, both will testify and both will get two years in jail. If only they had both refused to testify, they would have got just a year each![1]

Game Theory

This is the classic formulation of the “prisoner’s dilemma,” first articulated in the early 1950s by mathematician Albert Tucker. He was developing the work of mathematicians Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher who created—some say discovered—this game. They were developing the work of mathematician John Nash. All of them were working in the new field of game theory, originated largely by mathematician John Von Neumann. And all of them, including Von Neumann, worked in the early 1950s for the RAND Corporation, an organization founded after World War II to provide research and analysis for the US military. According to Von Neumann biographer, William Poundstone, “in the public mind, RAND is best known for ‘thinking about the unthinkable,’ about the waging and consequences of nuclear war.”[2] Game theory was one resource RAND scientists brought to bear in their efforts to determine US nuclear strategy. According to Poundstone, “no example of a prisoner’s dilemma has been more popular, both in technical articles and in the popular press, than a nuclear arms rivalry. This is so much the case that the term ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ is sometimes taken to be part of the jargon of nuclear strategy, along with ‘mutual assured destruction.’”[3]

Having said that, I’m not going to talk about the Cold War or nuclear strategy. This sermon was purchased by our beloved Fred Sawyer at last year’s goods and services auction. Fred said, quite clearly, “I don’t want to hear about nuclear weapons or the Cold War. What I want to know is whether or not the prisoner’s dilemma tells us anything useful about morality.” I’m grateful to Fred because the prisoner’s dilemma does say something useful about morality, and I’d much rather explore that than give a history of its use in predicting Cold War Soviet behavior. I’ll first explain the prisoner’s dilemma and what it tells us about morality. Then I’ll reflect on Unitarian Universalist moral impulses in light of the prisoner’s dilemma.

Two words game theorists use to describe what’s happening in a prisoner’s dilemma, and which also help us discern the moral implications of the game’s results, are cooperate and defect. There are two players. They each face a choice: to work together—cooperate—or to work against each other—defect. A player cooperates when they make the decision that best supports the other player. A player defects when they make the decision that least supports the other player. There are four possible outcomes: both players choose to cooperate; both choose to defect; one chooses to cooperate and the other defects; or the other chooses to cooperate and the one defects. There are consequences for each choice, and each player bases their choice on what they think will best serve their interests. In the classic formulation of the prisoner’s dilemma, a player cooperates when they choose not to testify against the other player. A player defects when they choose to testify. In essence, do you sustain your relationship or break it?

This classic formulation is one of many ways to imagine the prisoner’s dilemma. In fact, there are unlimited formulations, both hypothetical and real. Earlier we watched a clip from the British game show, “Golden Balls.”[4] Although this isn’t a true prisoner’s dilemma because the players negotiate before choosing, the game follows the basic prisoner’s dilemma model. There’s a £100,000 jackpot. The players can choose to split it—cooperation—or to steal it—defection. If they both choose to cooperate, they split the money. If one chooses to defect and the other chooses to cooperate, the defector gets all the money. If they both choose to defect, neither gets the money. Do you cooperate or defect?

Game theorists are not necessarily looking for the most moral way to play. They’re looking to see how players understand their self-interest in relation to the other player. They assume players who attempt to maximize their self-interest are behaving rationally. This is, of course, a somewhat loaded assumption, but stay with it for now and I’ll name some objections to it later. For now, since morality has to do with how we treat others—how kind, compassionate, sensitive and fair we are towards others; how generous we are in balancing our needs with the needs of others—we can make a general claim that the most moral way to play the game is to cooperate—to make the choice that best supports the other player. The problem with behaving morally is that if you cooperate but the other player defects, you receive the harshest penalty, often referred to as the “sucker payoff.” The more moral choice always comes with a degree of vulnerability and, at least in the context of the game, it can appear to be the less rational choice. On its face, defection is more selfish—or at least self-interested. While I hesitate to call it the immoral choice (whistle blowers exposing corruption are often defectors), we can make the general claim that it is the less moral way to play in relation to the other player: it sacrifices the other player for the sake of personal gain. If the point is to maximize self-interest, the less moral choice appears to be the more rational choice.

self-interest

This is especially true if you only play the game once. If you only have one opportunity to cooperate or defect, it is always statistically more advantageous—and thus more rational—to defect.  Poundstone calls it common sense.”[5] If your partner cooperates and you defect, you go free. If your partner defects, you’re much better off having defected as well. So it’s best to defect. There’s a paradox here. Mutual cooperation is a better outcome for both players than mutual defection. But to arrive at that better outcome, both must independently choose to act against their own best self-interest. We might say both must behave less rationally. It appears the more moral choice is not the more rational choice. The mathematicians who created/discovered the prisoner’s dilemma had always hoped there was some way to resolve this paradox. In 1992 Poundstone wrote that “Flood and Dresher now believe that the prisoner’s dilemma will never be “solved,” and nearly all game theorists agree with them. The prisoner’s dilemma remains a negative result—a demonstration of what’s wrong with theory, and indeed, what’s wrong with the world.”[6] It reveals the egoism at the heart of human nature.

But there’s a lot to object to here. What if I know the other player? What if I trust they’d never testify against me? What if we had a pact? What if my own moral code won’t let me testify against them? What about the fact that cooperation among criminals isn’t necessarily moral?[7] What about people who act against their self-interest—people who, for example, vote for candidates who favor policies that hurt them economically?  What about the fact that people don’t always behave rationally, or that rationality does not necessarily equate to following self-interest, or that rationality in the absence of emotion, compassion, love, etc., may not be the most reliable guide to effective decision-making? All these factors can and do come into play in a real-life prisoner dilemmas, but there’s no good way to account for them theoretically if you only play the game once. However, it turns out that when we play the game repeatedly, players can introduce a variety of strategies that do account for some of these factors. For example, if you play with the same person over time, unless they play completely randomly, you can get to know how they play; you can start to anticipate what they’re going to do and adjust your play in response. It’s more like a real relationship: the players share a history. Or, if your moral code prevents you from defecting, you can play a strategy of only cooperating. You’ll end up in jail, but you’ll have a clean conscience. Or, if you want to play as a pure egoist and defect every time, that’s a viable strategy, in part because it exploits the kindness of others, but over time others stop trusting you and you spend more time in jail.

There’s a strategy known as Tit for Tat that tends to produce the best overall results in competition with other strategies—that is, over time, it yields the least amount of prison time. Tit for Tat is known for being nice. It always begins with cooperation. That is, it starts the game by trusting that the other player will cooperate. It gives the other player the benefit of the doubt and risks being vulnerable. From there it simply copies what the other player does. If the other player defects, Tit for Tat defects on the next round—a punishment.  If the other player cooperates, Tit for Tat cooperates on the next round—a reward. It’s a punishment and reward strategy, but it always begins with cooperation, and it is by and the large the most successful strategy. This was the conclusion of mathematician Robert Axelrod after extensive research in the 1970s and 80s.[8] Even though it is always in our immediate self-interest to defect, if we’re playing repeatedly—which is more akin to real life—we maximize our self-interest by cooperating. The ethicist John Robinson says, “Alexrod and others … have [successfully shown] how cooperation arises from self-interest, and is a stable strategy in many contexts. They have discovered a reason to be good, an evolutionary explanation for morality that works even though, underneath it all, people are egoists.”[9]

This can be tested even further by having multiple groups of players playing simultaneously and rotating around to each other. Not only does Tit for Tat continue to perform well, but even a small group of Tit for Tat players in the midst of a larger group of more egoistic players can move the whole group towards adopting their strategy and thus orient the whole group—the whole society—towards cooperation. This conclusion affirms that wisdom from the late cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” It also suggests, again, that the more moral choice to cooperate ultimately serves our self-interest better than the less moral choice to defect.

One PlanetThis conclusion certainly resonates with Unitarian Universalist moral impulses—and perhaps the moral impulses at the heart of many religions—although Tit for Tat is not language I would use to describe those moral impulses. Our morality begins in and grows out of relationships. Ours is a covenantal religion. We’re all in this together. As Unitarian Universalists we covenant to affirm and promote seven principles.[10] And as a congregation we have crafted a unique covenant to guide our interactions with one another.[11] We come here to be part of a community. We recognize at a deep level that we benefit from being part of a community, that in community we find grounding to counter all those trends in the larger world that drive people apart, that erode social bonds, that thrive on and exploit our isolation. We know our principles are hard to make real in the world, and even harder to make real in the absence of community. Thus, our first move is cooperation. We’re all in this together.

But it’s not our moral impulse to play a Tit for Tat strategy. It’s not our impulse to defect as soon as the other player defects. It’s not our impulse to punish. Our moral impulse is to sustain relationships, to continue cooperating with the defector, to continue articulating a message—through word and deed—that those who participate in our community, and indeed all those with whom we come into contact, have inherent worth and dignity, are part of the same interdependent web, are deserving of our love and care, deserving of the benefit of the doubt. Our UUS:E covenant even says that if we fail to uphold it we will strive for forgiveness. In the terms of the game, we strive to meet defection with cooperation, again and again and again.

Can this impulse be exploited? Yes.. This impulse would likely land us in prison frequently. Should we tolerate ongoing behaviors that weaken our community? No, of course not. There are times when any faith community needs to draw lines, set boundaries, defect. But we have faith in the power of community. We have faith in the power of relationship. We’re all in this together. And it’s good to know what the data say: over time, self-interest is best attained through cooperation. What’s good for the whole is ultimately good for the individuals who make up the whole. And that’s how we strive to play.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Poundstone, William, Prisoner’s Dilemma: John Von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb (New York: Anchor Books, 1992), pp. 118-119.

[2] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 90.

[3] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 129.

[4] See the clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3Uos2fzIJ0. Also, this Radiolab story, “What’s Left When You’re Right?” incorporates the “Golden Balls” clip and is very entertaining: http://www.radiolab.org/story/whats-left-when-youre-right/.

[5] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 121.

[6] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 123.

[7] Hayden Ben, “Rethinking the Morality of the Prisoner’s Dilemma,” in “The Decision Tree,” Psychology Today, July 28th, 2013. See: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-decision-tree/201307/rethinking-the-morality-the-prisoners-dilemma.

[8] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, pp. 236-248. For more information, see Axelrod, Robert The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

[9] Robinson, John, “The Moral Prisoner’s Dilemma” is at http://intuac.com/userport/john/writing/prisdilemma.html.

[10] For the language which names the seven Unitarian Universalist principles as a covenant, see: http://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/bylaws/articleii/6906.shtml.

[11] See the UUS:E covenant at http://uuse.org/ministries/principles-and-mission/#covenant.

 

Beyond the Last Ridge: Reflections on Devotion

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Last Ridge“I always thought I’d have little girls / and be a good mom, be the mother / I never had, teach them how to make pies / and how to get past wanting to quit, show them / the place in our minds beyond the last ridge / where we can rock the cutter endlessly, the place where there is no time and how to / tightly crimp the edge with alternating thumbs.”[1] Words from Northern California-based poet and artist Lin Max’s “The Piemaker.” I offer these words as a starting place for reflections on devotion, on what it means to be devoted, on what it means to give our hearts so fully that the giving shapes the direction of our lives.

Devotion is our ministry theme for May. Devotion in a religious context may strike some of you as one of those haunting theological words that make some Unitarian Universalists bristle; one of those words that doesn’t quite mesh with a more liberal, modernist, questioning, skeptical, agnostic, atheist or Humanist approach to religion; one of those words you may have left behind if you’re one who left behind a more conservative religious life. Given that, let me be the first to say there are good reasons5-13 ridge 4 why we might bristle. Devotion—especially religious devotion—can and does go horribly wrong. And yet the poet offers a glimpse of something powerful, something of great value devotion imparts to the devoted. It teaches patience. It teaches how not to quit. It reveals “the place in our minds beyond the last ridge … the place where there is no time.” I’m curious about this place. Aren’t you? The poet seems to be referencing the place we might come to in a peak spiritual experience, or at the culmination of a spiritual journey—a place where our body, mind, heart and spirit are aligned; a place where our inner and outer worlds cohere; a place where we know our purpose and we let it be our guide. I’d like to go there. While I’m pretty sure pie making is not my path to it, I’m also fairly confident none of us can get beyond the last ridge without some degree of devotion.

In its most basic, secular sense, if we’re devoted to something or someone, it means we care deeply about that something or someone and our actions demonstrate that care. We feel loving, loyal, supportive, enthusiastic towards that something or someone. We’re willing to take risks on behalf of that something or someone. We give our hearts to that something or someone. For me this is a basic definition of devotion: the ongoing giving of a part of ourselves to something or someone. And in that giving, we become more whole.

A week ago I attend a vigil in North Hartford organized by Mothers United Against Violence to mark the one year anniversary of the murder of a young woman named Shamari Jenkins.[2] The minister who leads this group, the Rev. Henry Brown,[3] is one of the most devoted people I know. A one-time victim of gun-violence, he is crystal clear in his purpose: to support and minister to the families of the victims of violence; and to do whatever he can to end violence on Hartford streets. During the vigil a group of young men joined the crowd. They were drinking whiskey and smoking what looked like pot, though I wasn’t sure. While I know not to make assumptions about anyone based on looks, they looked tough, and the question crossed my mind: could these young men could be dangerous? I had no idea what to do other than ignore them. The police ignored them too. But Rev. Brown didn’t. In the middle of the vigil he confronted them. He scolded them. He said, into his bullhorn, “put that away.” “Show some respect for this family.” “Either you’re here to support this family or not. If not, then leave.” They left.

Rev. Henry Brown of MUAV

Rev. Henry Brown of MUAV

Confronting a group of young, whiskey-drinking men is risky on any corner anywhere. I’m sure Rev. Brown had a much better assessment of the actual risk than I did. And whether it was risky or not, he did it. This giving a piece of himself to a family that has lost a daughter to violence; this giving a piece of himself to make sure their dignity is honored; this giving a piece of himself to say, once again, that we must end violence on our city streets: this is devotion—

to the family, to victims, to neighborhoods where these murders happen, and even to the tough-looking young men he confronted. Rev. Brown knows something of what it’s like beyond the last ridge. He knows his purpose. He patiently conducts his ministry. He resists those demons that council him to quit. He is passionate about what he’s doing.

Rev. Howard Thurman

Rev. Howard Thurman

As a minister—as your minister—the question that seems most critical for me to ask you is “What are you passionate about?” You’ve heard me ask this question from the pulpit. Many of you have heard me ask it in one-on-one meetings or in small groups. I ask this question because I’m convinced people pursuing their passions are truly living their lives. They’re awake, inspired, generous, open, committed. We read earlier from the Christian mystic, Howard Thurman: “Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in good times or in tempests, I may not forget that to which my life is committed.”[4] I’m mindful of another quote from Thurman: “Ask not what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who’ve come alive.”[5] For me this is another way to describe how it feels when we arrive beyond the last ridge: fully alive and blessing the world.

So when I talk about religious devotion here—liberal religious devotion, Unitarian Universalist devotion—I’m looking for the extent to which your life is oriented toward your passions. What portion of your day is devoted to giving some part of yourself to that something or someone you care deeply about? How much opportunity is there in the course of your week to open your heart fully to that something or someone you love? In your life is there sufficient room to take the risks your passion requires? Religious devotion is a quality in us—a quality we can cultivate—marked by focus, patience, practice, purposefulness, resolve, clarity, a striving for what matters most. The word devotion comes from the Latin devovere, which translates as consecrate. When we consecrate something or someone, we make them sacred. I’m suggesting that as we devote our lives to the things and people we’re passionate about, we make them sacred. My continual prayer for us is that we may have in our lives sufficient if not expansive room for consecration—room to devote ourselves to what matters most. Through our devotion, which is always a giving away of some part of ourselves, may we live fully. May we find wholeness. May we bless the world.

Having offered this prayer, let me offer a caution: devotion can sometimes lead to conflict in communities. Rev. Brown is outspoken about the need to end violence on Hartford streets. His devotion inspires him to challenge and critique elected officials, the police, clergy, neighborhoods, drug dealers, gang members—anyone whose actions, or inactions, undermine attempts to end violence, he calls them out. And as you may imagine, there are many who don’t appreciate being called out. He generates conflict—and I think it’s a necessary conflict when we pause to consider what is at stake.

Exploring religious devotion in our own lives, it’s important for us to recognize that our devotion may bring clarity and a singularity of purpose to us, but that others may not share it. When we name it, when we act on it, it can be alienating to those who don’t share our passion. Thus, our devotion can set us apart, make us stand out, make us wonder: Why don’t others take this as seriously as I do? Our devotion can, in fact, lead us into isolation, into loneliness, and into disagreement. This is a basic reality of human communities. To live well with this reality, it is critical that we learn to accept that not everyone shares our passion—that we can invite others to join us, but we can’t force them; and that we are a stronger spiritual community when there is room for many passions: social justice, music, children, elders, learning, multigenerational community, visual arts, cooking, service, worship, leadership, finance, theology, administration, sustainable living, green energy, event planning, fundraising, caring, gardening, visiting, knitting. The more room for passionate devotion, the stronger we are.

knockingA further caution: religious devotion can become overbearing and downright dangerous. In more mild Crusadesterms I’m referring to door-to-door evangelists, to proselytizers who seem unable to respect the existence of other faiths. We often experience them as spiritually tone-deaf, as pious and pushy, though I admire the courage of those who knock on endless doors only to be met with a polite no thank you at best, and derision at worst. In more extreme terms we know some who are deeply devoted are easily manipulated. When given a reason to fear some enemy, some infidel, some non-believer, some other, the devoted can be convinced to commit acts of violence or terrorism. So many perpetrators of religious violence believe they are acting out of devotion to God, believe they fulfilling God’s will for them. Devotion can and does go horribly wrong. If we bristle at the word, it is understandable.

Rev. Davidson Loehr

Rev. Davidson Loehr

A final caution: not all passions are worth pursuing. But how do we know? Here’s a quote from the Rev. Davidson Loehr, a liberal minister who served Unitarian Universalist congregations. In his 2005 book, America Fascism + God, he names the power of gods in our lives, though he’s using god in psychological rather than a traditional religious sense. He says, “I am a theologian, and I … know something about gods. I know how they work, how powerful they are, how invisible they usually are, and I know that beneath nearly every human endeavor with any passion or commitment about it there will be a god operating, doing the things gods do. Gods are those central concerns that our behaviors show we take very seriously. We commit our lives to them, we are driven by them, and in return they promise us something we want, or think we want. Whether what they promise us is good or bad is a measure of whether the god involved is an adequate or an inadequate one.”[6] He’s talking here specifically about the way American society treats capitalism as a god, though a highly inadequate one, since recent economic trends have led to such enormous inequality and poverty. He contends this worship of the inadequate god of capitalism has come at the expense of a much more adequate god, democracy.[7]

I won’t follow this particular thread any further, but I think this concept is important. The sign of an inadequate god is that our devotion to it results either in some kind of harm, or in nothing useful at all. The sign of an adequate god is that our devotion to it results in some tangible good. I was thinking that a good way to discuss devotion with children would be to ask them how they spend their free time. If they’re being honest—as opposed to thinking, he’s the minister, I better say what I think he wants me to say—they might talk about watching television or playing video games. At least my kids would. And we could then have a conversation about whether choosing to spend their time this way results in any good for themselves or for society. Hopefully it would get them thinking about more productive ways to devote themselves. Of course, some kids will talk about sports, nature, art, pets, school or helping their parents. If asked, they can name how devoting their time in this way results in a good for themselves or others. The deeper learning in such a conversation is that how we spend our time is a sign of what is truly important to us, regardless of what we say is important to us. As Rev. Loehr and others would put it, it’s a sign of the god we actually worship.

This can be dicey with adults, especially if we’re prone to feeling guilty. If we answer the question honestly, we may find that we devote quite a bit of time to things that make no difference, things that produce no good for ourselves or society. We may find that despite what we say we’re passionate about, our actions indicate we’re devoted to some other god. Do we watch too much television? Do we spend too much time on our electronic devices? These are fairly innocuous gods. They hurt no one. And often we say “this is how I unwind.” And that’s legitimate, though if our unwinding consistently prevents us from devoting ourselves to our passions, we may have to confront the possibility we are not fully living our lives. And what of devotion to more destructive gods? Alcohol comes to my mind most immediately as an adult child of an alcoholic. An unbalanced devotion to any substance—drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, food—can lead to harm of oneself and others. An unbalanced devotion to money can lead to harm. An unbalanced devotion to power can lead to harm. And there are even more insidious gods. Human beings can devote themselves to nourishing their hatreds and fears, their sense of victimhood when no actual victimization is taking place, their sense of racial and cultural superiority. Such devotions, if unchecked, lead quite easily to violence, oppression and warfare. Devotion can and does go horribly wrong.

Last Ridge

So we approach with caution. But I say, let us err not on the side of caution, but on the side of devotion. If Rev. Loehr is correct—and I believe he is—whether we know it or not, we’re always choosing to worship one god or another. So let us devote ourselves to those gods that bring good to the world: beauty, creativity, peace, justice, community, democracy, love. And not just for a moment, but for our lifetimes, like the pie maker, patiently learning “how to get past wanting to quit,” and finally arriving at “the place in our minds beyond the last ridge.”[8]

May each of us find in our lives sufficient if not expansive room for consecration—room to devote ourselves to what matters most; and through our devotion, which is always a giving away of some part of ourselves, may we live fully, may we find wholeness, may we bless the world. Amen, blessed be.

 

[1] Max, Lin, “Piemaker,” “Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature By Women,” Summer 1992, Volume 14, #1, p. 34.

[2] For the story about the murder of Shamari Jenkins, see: http://articles.courant.com/2013-06-07/community/hc-hartford-bryan-murder-arraignment-0608-2-20130607_1_girlfriend-killed-magnolia-street-police.

[3] Read at December 17th, 2011 Hartford Courant article on Rev. Henry Brown at http://articles.courant.com/2011-12-17/community/hc-hartford-henry-brown-1218-20111217_1_gun-violence-brown-prayer-vigils.

[4] Thurman, Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #498.

[5] My research confirms this quote is from Howard Thurman, though it is not clear where he wrote it or when he said it.

[6] Loehr, Davidson, America Fascism + God (White River Junction, CT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2005) p. 46.

[7] Ibid, p. 52.

[8] Max, Lin, “Piemaker,” “Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature By Women,” Summer 1992, Volume 14, #1, p. 34.

Raising Moral Children (in the Era of Katniss, Ender and King Joffrey)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

TheatersI’m fascinated by the popularity of a series of recent films and TV dramas, based on phenomenally successful books, that depict fictional children living in morally corrupt societies that force them to do morally objectionable things. I’m referring to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.[1] I understand the popularity: the story-telling is excellent. What fascinates me is the question of what it means: what it suggests about our society’s view of children, and whether or not it has anything to teach us about how (or how not) to raise moral children. In referring to us I mean those of us who are parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors of children. I also mean us as the adult members and friends of this multigenerational Unitarian Universalist congregation whose stated vision for religious education is to “provide a solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists.”

The treatment of children’s moral lives in these books and films is different than what we find in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where the teenage characters encounter difficult, even traumatic situations, but they maintain their moral center in part because good and evil are crystal-clear in these stories, but also because they have the support of morally-grounded adults. They have role models. This also isn’t the dynamic we find in William Golding’s 1954 Lord of the Flies, where a group of plane-wrecked boys attempts to govern itself on a tropical island, but descends into savagery in the total absence of adult moral guidance. Rather, in these stories powerful adults design systems that intentionally obstruct children’s moral reasoning. I assume these books are not the first to treat children’s moral lives in this way, though I’m fairly confident this treatment has never been as wildly popular as it has been over the last year or so. Some of you may not be familiar with these books, so I’ll say a little about each.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

The Hunger Games is young adult literature, though tens of millions of adults have read it and seen the films. Some children read it by third or fourth grade. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, governed by a corrupt, oppressive capitol that requires each of 12 districts to send two children every year to fight to the death in an elaborate arena. The heroine, Katniss Everdeen, an older teenager who volunteers for the arena to prevent her younger sister from having to go, cobbles together a moral center, but the adults in her life who would normally support her moral development are damaged in some way and are of very little help to her in this regard as she enters the custody of the morally depraved capitol. That is, she’s largely self-guided in her moral growth, and spends much of her time lost, confused, and searching for a moral anchor that matches her instincts. More than providing her moral clarity, her ordeal in the arena hones her survival skills and draws out her resilience and courage. She learns how to play and win the adults’ game; and she learns how to play it against the adults. But fighting fire with fire doesn’t make fire right. She recognizes this and she suffers psychologically and emotionally.

Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin

Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin

Ender’s Game, published in 1985 but released as a feature film this past November, is typically read by adults but is occasionally assigned in high school English classes. Ender, a gifted child, is being groomed as a starship fleet commander. His training is psychologically and emotionally abusive. He successfully learns military strategy, tactics, politics and leadership, but struggles to discern right and wrong beyond mere obedience to his teachers. He also struggles to find a warm and human sense of self as opposed to the cold, calculating person he observes himself becoming. As with Katniss, there is no adult he can turn to for authentic moral guidance. He masters all the educational games his teachers present to him; but then, without him realizing it, his teachers deploy him as a weapon of mass destruction. When he finally understands the enormity of his crimes, his emotional and psychological suffering are correspondingly enormous.

 

Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon

Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon

Game of Thrones, published in 1996, is the first novel in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series; it’s also a hit HBO series based on the books. Not for children. Its gratuitous violence, sex and violent sex makes The Hunger Games look like what we normally imagine when we use the term child’s play, except that some of Game of Thrones’ more heinous violence is child’s play, ordered by the child king, Joffrey. Joffery has been raised by cunning and brutal adults whose only motivation is the acquisition of power by any means necessary. Joffrey displays no longing to know the difference between right and wrong, or to experience himself as good and decent. He doesn’t know he’s missing a moral core. In essence, he has been nurtured to be a psychopath, and he’s too far gone to recognize the suffering this causes him.

In reviewing a recent episode, New York Times critic Jeremy Egner sums up the main conflict in Game of Thrones. “It’s not right versus wrong, but a many-faceted quarrel over whether ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ even exist.”[2] All three of these series explore this conflict in some form. In Game of Thrones, if right and wrong exist, right is power and wrong is weakness. Any more elaborate moral system is largely absent, or falls apart in the face of violence. In Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games, the child characters know something is horribly wrong about their world, yet an authentic right answer remains elusive. As far as they can tell, the games are rigged to benefit the authorities regardless of who wins. Winning doesn’t assure the end of evil. In fact, winning may just create more evil. In terms of what it takes to raise moral children, I think these books and films get it right: If you teach a child only to be cruel, and then make him king, there’s a good chance he’ll be a cruel king, as Joffrey is. And if you put children in situations where they are forced to do morally objectionable things, and you provide them with no moral guidance beyond “obey the rules” or “just survive,” in the very least they will become confused, angry, and wary of adults in authority, as Katniss and Ender are.

We can draw an obvious lesson about raising moral children fom Game of Thrones: don’t teach children to be cruel. In the The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game, the lesson is less clear. Readers and viewers love Katniss and Ender, suffer with them when they suffer, want them to succeed, enjoy their creativity, intelligence, skills, endurance and courage. There’s a risk here: we can confuse their victories with moral vindication. That is, they win, so they’re right. And if we do this, we miss their deeper struggle: they don’t trust they are right because they’ve had very little opportunity for moral reasoning. They aren’t sure what right is.

Of course, all this is irrelevant fiction. Real life doesn’t work this way. Real life is more like Harry Potter, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, where right and wrong are always crystal-clear. The good inevitably triumph; the bad inevitably falter. Children learn this by watching television and playing video games. Yeah, right.

Jeffrey Lockwood

Jeffrey Lockwood

I found a provocative real-life reflection on raising moral children in the midst of morally ambiguous systems in an essay entitled “Like Father, Like Son,” by the entomologist Jeffery Lockwood. He compares his father’s work during the Cold War testing nuclear weapons to his own work developing powerful insecticides to fight grasshopper infestations. He says, “perhaps there are more similarities between my father’s employer and my institution, nuclear bombs and pesticides, nation states and multinational corporations, and his enemy and mine than I could have imagined when I was [first] hired…. Certainly we both struggle with how to tell our stories to our children and ourselves. It’s tempting to turn them into a screenplay for a James Bond movie. The unambiguously bad guys are blown to bits, but the gory results are not graphically portrayed. This sanitized version of reality creates the illusion that we can drop bombs and spray poisons without immense suffering. But in the end, our children will know otherwise.”[3]

If I’m reading him accurately, children may not detect moral contradictions in adult society when they’re young—contradictions like the production of enough Cold War nuclear weapons to destroy the world thousands of times, or like his own participation in the corporate agricultural system which, he says, ultimately “destroys land and people”[4]—but they’ll see it eventually. They’ll recognize we live in a society that asks us to accept half-truths and dubious justifications for oppression and injustice; a society that takes risks with our health, our lives, our future. We don’t raise moral children by pretending these things don’t exist, or by offering them black and white appraisals of the world, especially as they get older. We must figure out how to talk to children, as best we can, about the contradictions and about how we struggle with them. And when we find ourselves upholding a morally debatable position, say through our work or our politics, we need to own it. We may even need to question the value of our victories.

More importantly, we need to demonstrate with our own decisions and actions how to move these contradictions towards resolution. An Aprl 13th New York Times op-ed entitled “Raising a Moral Child,”[5] highlights the importance of role modeling. Its author, Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, cites research confirming that across cultures and nations, a majority of parents, when asked to report their guiding principles in life, consistently rate caring, compassion, helpfulness and kindness above achievement.[6] However, “despite the significance that it holds in our lives,” says Grant, “teaching children to care about others is no simple task. Inan Israeli studyof nearly 600 families, parents who valued kindness and compassion frequently failed to raise children who shared those values.”[7]

Father SonHe covers some familiar territory in terms of how we respond to children’s good and bad behaviors—in short, praise good behavior and reinforce the message you’re a good person. In response to bad behavior, “[express] disappointment and [explain] why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation.”[8] But what Grant is most excited about is the power of good role models. What we say really does matter much less than what we do. Grant cites research showing that children behave more selfishly when they witness adults behaving selfishly, even when the adults are encouraging them to be generous. And children behave more generously when they witness adults behaving generously, even when the adults are advising them to be selfish. It strikes me that as we here at UUS:E move forward into a more explicitly multigenerational congregational life, and as we build a religious education program that provides that “solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking UUs,” we ought to be asking ourselves as adults: how are we demonstrating to our children and youth that we feel spiritually at home in the world? How are we demonstrating to our children and youth that we have matured into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists? We can assume they’ve heard us say it. But let’s not assume they’ve seen us do it. Let’s do it.

The presence of moral role models in the lives of Katniss, Ender and Joffrey may not have changed their circumstances, but may have enabled them to feel more spiritually at home in the world—or at least more grounded and sure of themselves. Similarly, our moral role-modelling to our children may not alter the half-truths and dubious justifications for oppression and injustice in the world; it may not resolve the pervasive moral contradictions in our society. But I believe it will make a difference in our children’s lives—and that matters.

I’ll close with Jeffrey Lockwood’s reflections on his own moral upbringing. My parents, he says, “would have replaced the ethical admonition ‘First do no harm’… with the more realistic principle ‘First do some good.’ We were a family of positive incrementalists, wherein the task of life was to constantly do better, one step at a time.”[9] “I know that in 1987, we blanketed a typical 10,000-acre grasshopper infestation with five tons of neurotoxic insecticide, and this year we used forty pounds of an insect growth regulator, applied to just one-third of the infested land. I don’t know if doing less evil is the same thing as doing good, but it’s better than doing nothing. I don’t know if gradual, continual progress from within our roles as bit players in the military-industrial complex and industrial agriculture will be sufficient to create a healthy human community embedded within a vibrant diversity of ecosystems, but then I don’t know what else to do.”[10] Even if we don’t know what else to do, may our children bear witness to us “doing some good.”

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] James Dashner’s The Maze Runner series and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series may utilize a version of this same adult-child dynamic, though I’m not as familiar with them (and they don’t have the word game in their titles).

[2] Egner, Jeremy, “‘Game of Thrones’ Recap: A Regression to the Mean,” New York Times, April 20, 2014. See: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/game-of-thrones-recap-a-regression-to-the-mean/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

[3] Lockwood, Jeffery A., Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002) pp. 77-78.

[4] Ibid., p. 95.

[5] Grant, Adam, “Raising a Moral Child,” New York Times, April 13, 2014. For the online version, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/12/opinion/sunday/raising-a-moral-child.html.

[6]For the abstract of “Parents’ Goals and Values for Children: Dimensions of Independence and Interdependence Across Four U.S. Ethnic Groups,” by Suizzo,,see: http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/38/4/506.short. For the abstract of Value Hierarchies Across Cultures: Taking a Similarities Perspective,” by Schwartz, Shalom H. and Bardi, Anat, see: http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/32/3/268.short.

[7] For the abstract of “Accounting for parent-child value congruence: Theoretical considerations and empirical evidence,” by Knafo, Ariel and Schwartz, Shalom H., see: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2008-19090-011.

[8] Grant, Adam, “Raising a Moral Child,” New York Times, April 13, 2014. For the online version, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/12/opinion/sunday/raising-a-moral-child.html.

[9] Lockwood, Jeffery A., Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002) p. 103.

[10] Ibid., p. 104.

Working to Address Mass Incarceration

For the 2013-2014 congregational year, the UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee has been focusing its energies on addressing the problem of mass incarceration. We are working on two projects and hope you’ll want to get involved:

SERVICE: Creating backpacks to help recently released inmates make a successful transition

ADVOCACY: Supporting efforts to pass Senate Bill 259 to reduce the size of drug free zones from 1500 to 200 feet

On 4-16, SJAR meber, Nancy Parker, along with Rev. Josh Pawelek, LaResse Harvery of A Better Way Foundation and Brian Albert of the New Britain NAACP met with Senate President Don Williams and urged him to bring SB 259 up for debate.

On 4-16, SJAR meber, Nancy Parker, along with Rev. Josh Pawelek, LaResse Harvery of A Better Way Foundation and Brian Albert of the New Britain NAACP met with Senate President Don Williams and urged him to bring SB 259 up for debate.

For What the Soul Hungers

Rev. Josh Pawelek

 

"Reconciliation" by Josefina de Vasconcellos

“Reconciliation” by Josefina de Vasconcellos

“Break not the circle of enabling love, where people grow forgiven and forgiving; break not the circle, make it wider still, till it includes, embraces all the living.”[1] I want us to encounter these words this morning as a call to the work of reconciliation. And as we do so I want to draw a distinction between the ideal and the practical. To make the circle wider still, to embrace “all the living”—this is an ideal, a vision of a completely reconciled global community. Though I’m tempted, I won’t set it aside as unrealistic because I’m convinced there is something in our human nature that drives us toward this vision. The hymn is not just fanciful or spiritually pleasing rhetoric; there’s something real driving us and we are called to respond. On the other hand, from a practical standpoint, it’s unrealistic. Our circles will more than likely never embrace all the living; more than likely they’ll remain relatively small. This, too, is real. My message then, is that the work of reconciliation is what matters. We may never achieve the vision of a truly unbroken circle, of a reconciled global community, but we can choose to heed the call and engage in the work of reconciliation wherever and however it presents itself to us. This is one measure of a well-lived spiritual life: we engage in the work of reconciliation wherever and however it presents itself to us.

This past week two stories of people working toward reconciliation drew my attention. First (thanks to former UUS:E member Alison Cohen for pointing it out) on Monday the Bahá’í World New Service published an article about a senior Iranian Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, who created an illuminated work of calligraphy of a paragraph from the writings of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-founder of the Bahá’í faith. Tehrani offered this work of art as a gift to the Bahá’ís of the world and, in particular, the Bahá’ís of Iran. The Bahá’í World New Service called it an “unprecedented symbolic act.” As some of you may know, and as the article points out, “since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, hundreds of Bahá’í have been killed and thousands have been imprisoned. There are currently 115 Bahá’í being held in prison solely on the basis of their religious beliefs. Bahá’í in Iran are denied access to higher education, obstructed from earning a livelihood, prevented from burying their dead in accordance with their own burial rites and subjected to the demolition, desecration and expropriation of their cemeteries, all because of their religion.”[2]

Ayatollah Tehrani's illuminated calligraphy

Ayatollah Tehrani’s illuminated calligraphy

On his own website, Ayatollah Tehrani wrote: “Feeling the need for [a] practical and symbolic action to serve as a reminder of the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful coexistence, of cooperation and mutual support, and of avoidance of hatred, enmity and blind religious prejudice, I have made an illuminated calligraphy of a verse from the Kitáb-i-Aqdas of the Bahá’ís. I have made this as an enduring symbol of respect for the innate dignity of human beings, for … peaceful coexistence regardless of religious affiliation, denomination or belief. And now at the start of this new year … I present this precious symbol … to all the Bahá’ís of the world, particularly to the Bahá’ís of Iran who have suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice.”[3] I could find very little information on Ayatollah Tehrani other than commentators around the world calling him courageous.[4] What I think I see is a religious leader, a person of faith, who looked for the “circle of enabling love,” found it broken, and did what is within his power to mend it, to work toward reconciliation.

The second story (thanks to UUS:E member Nancy Thompson for pointing it out) appeared in the April 6th New York Times Magazine: a series of portraits the photographer Pieter Hugo took last month in southern Rwanda of Hutu perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide and Tutsi survivors who had reconciled with each other.[5] (Monday marked the 20 year anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide.) With the portraits are quotes from the subjects. In one, the perpetrator says, “I burned her house. I attacked her in order to kill her and her children, but God protected them, and they escaped. When I was released from jail, if I saw her, I would run and hide. Then … I decided to ask her for forgiveness. To have good relationships with the person to whom you did evil deeds – we thank God.”

Pieter Hugo’s portrait of Godefroid Mudaheranwa (left) & Evasta Mukanyandwi (right)

Pieter Hugo’s portrait of Godefroid Mudaheranwa (left) & Evasta Mukanyandwi (right)

The survivor says, “I used to hate him. When he came to my house and knelt down before me and asked for forgiveness, I was moved by his sincerity. Now, if I cry for help, he comes to rescue me. When I face any issue, I call him.” From what I know of Rwanda today, the circle is still broken; there is still a long way to go towards reconciliation, though processes are in place so that the work of reconciliation is sustainable. The stories in this article are wonderful examples of people choosing to engage in that work when the opportunity presents itself.

I said there is something in our human nature that drives us toward reconciliation. I find some glimmer of that something in the 1994 book, Music of the Mind, by the late microbiologist and New Zealander, Darryl Reanney. He writes: “In satisfying the body’s hunger you return the balance to what is was; in satisfying the soul’s hunger, you return the balance to what it shall be.”[6] Reanney wasn’t writing about reconciliation per se; I’m not even sure the word appears in the book. But this notion of “satisfying the soul’s hunger” shakes something up in me, wakes me up, challenges me to contemplate where my life is heading—not as in where I want to be in the next five years, but in a more ultimate sense: what am I reaching for with my life? The answer that comes back to me—the answer I think all religions offer in some way—is reconciliation.

What gets shaken up in me is whatever level of complacency or overriding sense of security has crept into my life; whatever unexamined habits or routines have taken hold of my living; whatever patterns or ruts in which I have become stuck. Of course the feeling of being shaken up in the midst of complacency, false security, habits, routines and ruts is not always a good one. Afterall, these things do play an important role in our lives. They allow continuity from day to day. They breed familiarity and comfort, provide a sense of order and stability. They are often tied into satisfying our bodily hungers—returning to whatever balance our bodies seek. But there’s an intense spiritual tension here. Complacency, security, habits, routines, patterns, ruts also tend to blunt, gloss over, hide—at times obliterate—our awareness of the soul’s hunger. I’ll say more about what I understand the soul to be, but let me first make this claim: at its deepest, the soul hungers for reconciliation, for the circle unbroken. When I am shaken out of my complacency, or reminded of the truth that there is no completely reliable security in life, or led to question my habits and routines, or challenged to break out of my ruts—however that happens—in those moments, if I allow myself to be open to what shakes me, I recognize a soul hunger for reconciliation. I recognize there’s a part of me—and I suspect there’s a part of you—that feels profoundly unreconciled: somehow ill-at-ease in the world, perhaps anxious, separate, alienated, at a distance, not quite in right relationship, not quite at home, still searching, hungry. When we fall into complacency, security, habits, routines and ruts we tend to feel it less or not at all. But when we’re shaken up, there it is: unreconciled.

“City Square” by Alberto Giacometti

“City Square” by Alberto Giacometti

This claim may or may not resonate with you. I know some of you feel unreconciled because you’ve told me. For others what I’m describing may feel unfamiliar. Either way, think with me for a moment about why religion exists at all. I’m convinced human beings have created religions in order to respond to this innate soul hunger for reconciliation. Boston University professor of religion, Stephen Prothero, says “where [all religions] begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi tells us that life is out of balance…. Hindus say we are living in the kali yuga, the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden; Zion, heaven, and paradise lie out ahead.”[7] Religion hones in on human dis-ease, anxiety, fear, alienation, suffering and offers a pathway out, an answer: salvation, heaven, Zion, paradise, the promised land, nirvana, moksha, last day resurrection, a just society, the beloved community, the kingdom of God. I contend all of this is a response to the soul’s hunger for reconciliation. Why do religious claims and stories that to many of us seem completely unbelievable, completely at odds with the teachings of science, completely out of touch with what we think reality is, nevertheless have such a powerful hold on the human imagination and such incredible endurance over thousands of years? Because they satisfy the soul’s hunger for reconciliation.

Let’s not get hung up on the word soul. I don’t believe in an entity that resides within us, enables us to reason, drives our will, animates our personality, and lives on after our physical bodies die. I don’t believe in that popular conception of Heaven where our soul encounters St. Peter at the pearly gates. But I do think it’s significant that for thousands of years, theologians and philosophers across a wide range of religions and cultures, east and west, have dedicated enormous energy to explaining why so many human beings report a hopeful desire to be ultimately reconciled with divinity, with the Gods, with Ultimate Reality, to reach a final union, Heaven, Paradise, etc. Their explanation frequently includes some concept of the soul—the spiritual part of human beings—different from the body—that is part of divinity and yearns to overcome the bodily hungers in order to be reconciled once again with divinity. In so many religions, the soul is the bridge between humanity and the divine.

“Solitude of the Soul” by Lorardo Taft

“Solitude of the Soul” by Lorardo Taft

For me soul is a metaphor, a beautiful, soothing poetic word—far less sublime than so many traditions would have it, but important nevertheless. Imagine we’re having a conversation and you’re telling me about something for which you have great passion, something that makes you come alive, something so important to you that you can’t let it go; you’re going to pursue it, you’re going to wrap your life around it. When I see your eyes light up at the prospect of your life so dedicated; when I hear the enthusiasm and the strength in your voice when you speak about it; when I perceive it living very naturally in your body; when I sense the energy you gain from contemplating what your life could be—that glow, that excitement, that conviction, that power—that’s your soul. It’s not a thing. It’s a quality in us. It shines through when we’re being authentic, telling the truth, pursuing our passions. It’s never complacent or static. It never succumbs to a false sense of security. It chafes at the tyranny of our routines, habits and ruts. It is restless. And if we open ourselves to it, it will push, prod, call us further along, higher up, deeper into…. into what? Into fulfillment, satisfaction, wholeness; into our own promised land or beloved community. It drives us to feel at home in the universe, to seek balance, to break not the circle. The soul is our desire to experience oneness, to be reconciled—to each other, to humanity, to all life, to the earth, to the universe, to the cosmos, to all we hold sacred.

I imagine the soul—this desire—has two sources. One is our common experience of our time in our mother’s womb—a time of nurturing darkness and warmth before birth, a time of floating, of being held completely by another, a time of oneness, of no boundary between self and mother. In contemplating this time I wonder: as we are born, as we exit the warmth and safety of the womb, as we wake up from the bliss of unknowing, as we take our first breath, utter our first cry, see our first light; is it not possible that somewhere deep inside, beyond the borders of consciousness, we resolve in that moment to return to that original unity, that darkness, that warmth, that unknowing? And if so, might we not experience this longing through the course of our lives as a soul hunger for reconciliation?

Bronze Sculpture of a Baby Face by Mariola Pierz

Bronze Sculpture of a Baby Face by Mariola Pierz

The second source is like the first, only on a cosmic scale. From what I know of the still-emerging story modern physics tells us of the birth of the universe—the story of the big bang—everything that exists today was, at a moment approximately 14 billion years ago, gathered into one tiny point, a cosmic unity, a circle unbroken; held in infinite, pregnant darkness. It exploded; and, as recent discoveries appear to confirm,[8] it expanded exponentially in just a tiny fraction of the first second—matter and energy pushed out in all directions with astounding, violent force. If we are descendants of that same matter forced out in that original explosion; is it not possible that somewhere deep inside, somewhere beyond the borders of consciousness, something in us longs to return to that original unity, to come home from our exile at the edges of the universe? And if so, might we not experience this longing as a soul hunger for reconciliation imprinted in our tiniest particles at the dawn of time?

“B of the Bang” by Thomas Heatherwick

“B of the Bang” by Thomas Heatherwick

I think this soul hunger for reconciliation is real. And while we don’t always feel it, there come those times when we are shaken up, awakened, called. In those moments perhaps we produce a work of art to mend a broken society; perhaps we forgive one who has wronged us; perhaps we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, free the prisoner, welcome the stranger. Perhaps we work for a more just society. Perhaps we sing. Perhaps we dance. Perhaps we build the beloved community. However and whenever the possibility for reconciliation presents itself to us, may we hear that ancient call. May we do what we can to make the circle whole.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Kaan, Fred, “Break Not the Circle,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #323.

[2] “In an unprecedented symbolic act senior cleric calls for religious co-existence in Iran,” Bahá’í World New Service, April 7, 2014. See: http://news.bahai.org/story/987. For current reports on the oppression of Bahá’ís in Iran, see Iran Press Watch at http://iranpresswatch.org/post/9273/comment-page-1/.

[3] The entire text of Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani’s explanation of his action is at: http://news.bahai.org/sites/news.bahai.org/files/documentlibrary/987_website-statement-translation-en.pdf.

[5] Hugo, Pieter, photographs, Dominus, Susan, text, “My Conscience Was Not Quiet,” New York Times Magazine, April 6, 2014, pp. 36-41. Or see “Portraits of Reconciliation” at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.z_sma=MG_POR_20140404&bicmp=AD&bicmlukp=WT.mc_id&bicmst=1388552400000&bicmet=1420088400000&_r=3.

[6] Reanney, Darryl, Music of the Mind: An Adventure Into Consciousness (London: Souvenir Press, 1995) p. 22.

[7] Prothero, Stephen, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World (New York: HarperOne, 2010) p. 11.

[8] For a review of the recent discovery of evidence supporting the theory of “cosmic inflation,” see http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/march/physics-cosmic-inflation-031714.html.

Sometimes We Fight (or “Drug Free” in America)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Rebecca Parker urges us to “bless the world.”[1] In her 2006 book, Blessing the World: What Can save Us Now, she tells the story of a time when she and a friend were walking with one of her mentors, the process theologian Charles Hartshorne. She writes, “At the threshold where we would part, Charles turned around, took our hands in his, looked us squarely in the eye, and said, ‘Be a blessing to the world.’ One is rarely given such a direct instruction, and it went straight to our hearts. When all is said and done in my life, I hope that I will have been faithful to this charge.”[2]  Be a blessing to the world.

I’ve been wrestling with a claim I made in my March 2nd sermon on surrender. In that sermon I named a variety of reasons why spiritual surrender is difficult. I talked specifically about how the dominant United States culture is a “fighting” culture that frowns upon surrender, weakness, compromise, etc. I critiqued my own instinct to fight, saying “if and when I try to fight my way through some turmoil, some pain, grief, anxiety, winds, storm—whatever it is—I rarely get there. That is, I might win the fight, but in winning I don’t necessarily gain any clarity about how I want to be, feel and act in the world.”[3] I made that claim with a confidence I still feel. I still feel that in cultivating our capacity for surrender—learning to fall, letting go, yielding, remaining quiet, being gentle, backing off, bowing down—we open pathways to deeper spiritual experience, richer lives, clarity, happiness and peace. But even as I made the claim I felt a tug, a pull, a pin-prick, a nagging at the edges of my words. Since then I’ve been wrestling with the knowledge that sometimes it’s essential that we not surrender, that we not fall, not bend, not back off; that we stay and fight. I feel confident about that too. I’m searching this morning for understanding of how and when ‘not surrendering’ is a spiritual act.

I turn to Rebecca Parker’s charge to us to “be a blessing to the world” because, while she doesn’t use the word fight, she leaves room for fighting—fighting for what is of highest worth to us; fighting for what is sacred to us. She says, “And while there is injustice, / anesthetization, or evil / there moves / a holy disturbance, / a benevolent rage, / a revolutionary love / protesting, urging, insisting / that which is sacred will not be defiled.”[4] These are not words of surrender but of engagement. There are times when choosing to bless the world requires a confrontation, an exertion, a protest, an argument. There are times when our choice to bless the world comes legitimately in response to our rage at complacency, at greed, at callousness, at injustice, at evil, and we choose to fight—not fighting in the sense of perpetuating violence, but fighting in the sense of struggling, working, contesting for something that matters. I think our best guide—our measure of when something matters enough to fight for it—is our principles. Do we discern some way in which our principles have been violated? Then we may choose to fight. Can we discern some facet of life where we feel our principles must be brought to bear? Then we may choose to fight. And perhaps more fundamentally, if we’re going to fight for something, does our desire to fight emerge from a deep and abiding love?

I want to tell you about a fight I’ve been party to recently, along with the UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee: the fight to reduce the size of “drug free zones” in Connecticut. If you don’t know anything about this issue, your first response might be, “what on earth is a drug free zone?” If you happen to know that the term refers to zones around schools, daycare centers and public housing, zones that extend 1500 feet in all directions from the property line of these facilities, zones in which, if you are caught in possession of illegal drugs, you will face “enhanced” criminal penalties including mandatory jail time; and if you happen to know that the laws establishing these zones came into being in the late 1980s to keep drug dealers away from children, then it is possible your first response might be, “Why on earth would we want to reduce the size of drug free zones? Won’t that make it easier for drug dealers to gain access to children? If that is your response then you are not alone: many people have a similar response.

Drug Free School Zone

Like “nuclear free zone,” “drug free zone” has a potent, pleasing ring to it. It sounds like a good thing. It sounds, well, safe, healthy, even wholesome. So, it is somewhat disconcerting to find myself fighting to reduce their size. So why do it? There’s a technical reason. And there’s a moral reason which, for me, has to do with our Unitarian Universalist principles.

ABWFThe technical reason is that the zones don’t achieve their stated intent of keeping drug dealers away from children. This past Friday morning, at a legislative breakfast organized by our Social Justice / Antiracim Committee and our partner, A Better Way Foundation, an organization called the Prison Policy Initiative released a report entitled “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss PPI logothe Mark.” The report states: “Connecticut’s [drug free] zone law … arbitrarily increases the time people convicted of drug offenses must spend in prison without any evidence that their underlying offense actually endangered children. In fact, the Legislative Program Review & Investigations Committee looked at a sample of
300 [drug free] zone cases, and found only three cases that involved students, none of which involved adults dealing drugs to children…. Except for those three cases in which students were arrested, all arrests occurring in ‘drug-free’ school zones were not linked in any way by the police to the school, a school activity, or students. The arrests simply occurred within ‘drug-free’ school zones.’ All of the other 297 cases in the legislature’s sample involved only adults.”[5] The point is, if the intent of the law is to keep drug dealers away from children, you’d think arrests would reflect that, but they don’t.

Which brings me to the moral reason to reduce the size of drug free zones. On Friday morning, State Senator Gary Holder-Winfield asked a provocative question: If the drug free zones don’t do what they’re supposed to do, then what do they do? He didn’t answer the question, but I want to share my answer here. Drug free zones ensure that an unreasonably high percentage of young, urban people of color end up in prison or otherwise enmeshed in the criminal justice system. How? Schools, daycare centers and public housing are so ubiquitous in cities, and the drug zones are so large (five football fields in all directions) that there is virtually no area in any Connecticut city that isn’t a drug free zone. In Hartford, pretty much the only area one can possess drugs and not be in a drug free zone is the middle of the landfill or the middle of Brainerd Airport. What this effectively means is that anyone caught possessing or selling drugs in a Connecticut city is automatically subject to the drug free zone’s enhanced penalties. Which is not what happens to people committing the same offenses in suburban and rural towns where drug free zones are more rare because schools and daycare centers are not densely packed and there is much less public housing.

Drug Free Zones in Hartford, CT (Soure: Prison Policy Initiative)

Drug Free Zones in Hartford, CT (Soure: Prison Policy Initiative)

The Prison Policy Initiative report says “Connecticut’s [drug free] zone law effectively imposes a harsher penalty for the same crime depending on whether the person who committed it lives in a large city or a small town. In practice, the law’s effects are even more insidious: the law increases pressures on urban residents, but not rural ones, to plead guilty solely to avoid the enhanced penalty…. Mandatory minimum sentences, such as those created by Connecticut’s [drug free] zone policy, warp the criminal justice system by steering cases away from trial and toward plea agreements. By creating mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement zones in disproportionately urban areas, the legislature has created a two-tiered system of justice.[6] What the report doesn’t say, but which I will say, is because people of color make up much higher percentages of city populations, people of color are disproportionately impacted by these enhanced penalties, and thus the legislature has created not only a two-tiered system of justice, but a racist system of justice. This is where it becomes clear to me that our justice system achieves outcomes that violate our Unitarian Universalist principles: it fails to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It fails to dispense justice equity and compassion to all people. And it fails to advance the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.

Druf Free Zones in Urban Waterbury, CT, compared to neighboring, suburban Prospect CT (source: Prison Policy Initiative)

Drug Free Zones in urban Waterbury, CT, compared to neighboring, suburban Prospect CT (source: Prison Policy Initiative)

I am convinced that one of the United States of America’s greatest moral failures in this post-civil rights era is the mass incarceration of young black and brown men and women as a result of the war on drugs. Just as Jim Crow laws emerged in the decades following the abolition of slavery in order to re-establish white supremacy and control the lives of people of color, so mass incarceration has emerged in the decades following the end of Jim Crow fifty years ago to re-establish white supremacy and control the lives of people of color. I hear myself say this and I hear how extreme it sounds, and yet when you look at how our state’s drug free zone laws penalize urban communities of color radically differently than white suburban and rural communities, it’s hard to deny. After forty years of the war on drugs, the United States has the largest prison population in the world, and people of color make up a huge percentage of that population in numbers that far exceed their relative numbers in the population.

This phenomenon decimates urban lives, urban families, and urban communities. In a March 10th interview for StoptheDrugWar.org, Ohio State University law professor and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander, said:

There is an implicit assumption that we just need to find what works to lift people up by their bootstraps, without acknowledging that we’re waging a war on these communities we claim to be so concerned about. [Our] common narrative … suggests the reasons why there are so many poor people of color trapped at the bottom—bad schools, poverty, broken homes….

But I’ve come to believe we have it backwards. These communities are poor and have failing schools and broken homes not because of their personal failings, but because we’ve declared war on them, spent billions building prisons while allowing schools to fail, targeted children in these communities, stopping, searching, frisking them—and the first arrest is typically for some nonviolent minor drug offense, which occurs with equal frequency in middle class white neighborhoods but typically goes ignored. We saddle them with criminal records, jail them, then release them to a parallel universe where they are discriminated against for the rest of their lives, locked into permanent second-class status….

Rather than providing meaningful support to these families and communities where the jobs have gone overseas and they are struggling to move from an industrial-based economy to a global one, we have declared war on them. We have stood back and said “What is wrong with them?” The more pressing question is “What is wrong with us?”[7]

What is wrong with us is that we—and by ‘we’ I mean all of us in the United States of America—are allowing the destruction of lives, the break-up of families, the decay of urban communities, the excessive criminalization of urban people of color, the excessive incarceration of people for non-violent offenses when what they really need—and what would be so much less expensive—is treatment for substance use disorder and mental illness. We are allowing an egregious waste of financial and human resources by investing in incarceration at the expense of education, jobs, drug treatment and mental health. I believe this. And I don’t feel comfortable just sitting back and watching it happen, even though I could argue that it isn’t my issue, that it doesn’t impact me or my children, the community where I live, or the community I serve. I don’t feel comfortable as a Unitarian Universalist who affirms and promotes seven principles, many of which mass incarceration violates with impunity. I don’t feel comfortable as a minister whose vocation it is not only to provide spiritual and pastoral support and guidance to the members of the congregation I serve, but to bear witness to injustice in the wider community and do what is within my power and my congregation’s power to address it. And I don’t feel comfortable as a human being who has some semblance of a conscience, some modicum of moral sensibility and, I hope, a basic grasp of what is right, what is wrong, and what is fair—as flawed and as limited as that grasp may be. I don’t feel comfortable.

Reducing the size of drug free zones is one way to arrest the madness of mass incarceration. Connecticut can do this this year. There will be a moment in the next month when the bill to reduce the size of drug free zones will come up for debate in the legislature. That is a moment for our voices to be heard. Our Social Justice / Antiracism Committee will do everything they can to let you know when it’s time to advocate. In the meantime, if you want to be part of this effort, we have sign-up sheets in the lobby. Another related project we’re working on is the creation of supply kits for people being released from prison. The transition from prison is difficult. At times former inmates have trouble getting their basic needs met. These kits include toiletries, super market gift cards, socks and underwear, etc. We’re going to start creating these kits as a congregation. You’ll be hearing more about this project over the next few months.

Sometimes we fight. And clearly fighting and surrendering are contrasting if not opposite spiritual endeavors. Though I wonder, is it not possible that fighting for the right reasons is itself a form of spiritual surrender. Rebecca Parker reminds us “there moves / a holy disturbance, / a benevolent rage, / a revolutionary love / protesting, urging, insisting / that which is sacred will not be defiled.” Is it not possible we fight because we finally surrender to that holy disturbance, that benevolent rage, that revolutionary love—and allow it to guide our actions? Perhaps there are times when our principles demand that we surrender the comforts and privileges of our lives so that we may bring a greater love to bear in the world. Perhaps there are times when we realize we’ve spent our days resisting the call of some great cause, and we finally surrender our resistance begin to struggle. Perhaps this is just semantics. Perhaps. But here’s what know: We care called to bless the word. And there are times when that blessing won’t be realized without a fight. Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Parker, Rebecca A., “Benediction,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) pp. 163-165.

[2] Parker, Rebecca A., “Choose to Bless the World,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) p. 161.

[3] Pawelek, Josh M., “Surrender: In Search of the Present Moment,” a sermon delivered on March 2, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/surrender-i-search-of-the-present-moment/.

[4] Parker, Rebecca A., “Benediction,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) pp. 164.

[5] Kajstura, Aleks, “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss the Mark” (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2014). Read the full report at http://www.prisonpolicy.org/zones/ct.html.

[6] Kajstura, Aleks, “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss the Mark”

[7] Read Asha Bandele’s full March 14, 2014 interview with Michelle Alexander at http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2014/mar/10/new_jim_crow_michelle_alexander_talk.

Beloved (Multigenerational) Community

Rev. Josh Pawelek

UU Child Dedication

UU Child Dedication

In her December 2013 blog post, “The Power of Our Child Dedication Some Years Later,” Kim Paquette[1] says: “The beloved members of our [congregation] had been there for my children since before that child dedication ceremony, and had lived up to the promises they had made that day. This congregation took the time to get to know them. They have shared with them, learned from and with them, and have shown them love and respect. The congregation had done this in such a way that it was obvious to my children. My kids feel a part of their spiritual community, and in their time of need, thought to turn there first for support.”[2]

In traditional religious language, Kim is testifying. She’s offering testimony about her congregation’s power, presence and love in her family’s life. It’s not testimony about a perfect congregation, or a perfect family attending a perfect congregation. It’s not testimony about a great religious education program, or a wonderful, thought-provoking sermon, or a profoundly moving worship service, or building a remarkably green building.  It’s not testimony about a congregation that has figured out how to provide high quality ministry to a diverse community of families, children, youth, adults and elders. It’s not testimony about ministering in an era of rapid social change, unprecedented technological growth, deep economic stress, and ongoing, potentially catastrophic environmental challenges. It’s testimony about being held, nurtured, seen. It’s testimony about an experience of mattering. It’s testimony about what we may rightfully call beloved community.

logoAs we officially kick off our 2014 annual appeal; as we ask every member and friend of this congregation to make a financial pledge for the coming fiscal year; as we live for a while with the questions “Why give?” “How much do I give?” and “What does this congregation mean to me?” it is my sincere hope that each of you can recall an experience in your life—perhaps many years ago, perhaps more recently—when you felt you mattered here; when you felt this congregation holding you, nurturing you, seeing you, loving you. It is my sincere hope that each of you can say with confidence that you know something of what it means to be in beloved community, because you’ve found it here. It is my sincere hope that each of you could, if called upon, testify about the power, presence and love of this congregation at some moment in your life. Even those who are new: I sincerely hope you can sense the possibility of finding beloved community here. Because it is here.

In recent weeks there have been no better examples of this than the many ways in which members and friends of our congregation have been present, supportive and loving to people facing life-altering and possibly life-ending medical crises. I’ve been so deeply moved by and so deeply grateful for those of you who wrapped yourselves around Jean Dunn and her family in the final days of her life; those of you who’ve wrapped yourselves around Rhona Cohen and her family after her heart attack nearly four weeks ago; those of you who’ve wrapped yourselves around Jake and Fran VanSchaick since Jake’s recent cancer diagnosis. And that’s just the beginning of the list. This “wrapping around” happens here. Most often it happens organically. Sometimes we arrange it through our Pastoral Care Committee. It’s something I value and admire about this congregation. With your actions even more than your words, you communicate to fellow members and friends facing difficult times: “You’re not alone. We’re here for you. We’ll go through this crisis with you. We’re committed.”

Caring

Of course our beloved community is not limited to the people who gather within these walls. It reaches out into the wider world. An example is the story some of you have heard me tell about Mark Reid, a Jamaican immigrant, a forty-year permanent legal resident of the United States, an honorably-discharged veteran of the United States Army—though not a US citizen. Mark got into trouble with the law in New Haven. He committed a series of crimes, mostly drug related, mostly driven by substance-use disorder. He went to jail. The problem is, when you’re not a citizen, even the smallest crimes can result in deportation. And that’s exactly what started to happen. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, put a detainer on Mark. Once he served his time for his drug offenses, instead of being released back into the community ICE detained him and moved him to a federal detention center in Greenfield, MA. He came to my attention when a veterans’ rights worker referred him to me because she knew I and a number of members of this congregation had been involved in a successful effort to free a West Hartford man from ICE detention a year earlier. I talked about Mark’s situation with our UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee and they were supportive of me working with him and his legal team. I won’t give any more details of Mark’s case here, except to say that he recently posted bond after 18 months of detainment. His case isn’t over—he might still be deported—but he’s free for now.

Mark Reid and Rev. Josh

Mark Reid and Rev. Josh

A week ago Mark and I were doing an interview for a Yale Law School documentary on the case. The interviewer asked Mark to describe me. Mark said, essentially, “I was desperate for anyone to help. I thought I was all alone. When I contacted Rev. Pawelek I didn’t have high hopes. He had no reason to help me. But he said he was with me, that he was committed to me, that he wasn’t going to let me go through this alone. At first I didn’t believe him. How could he really mean it? But he meant it. He never gave up on me, and I couldn’t have gotten here without him.” When I heard him say this I was touched and, frankly, proud of myself for having had such an impact on someone’s life, especially someone whom I felt had experienced an injustice. But what I know—and what I hope you know—is that Mark isn’t just experiencing my ministry. He’s experiencing our beloved community. He’s experiencing our congregational values, our practices, our caring and compassion. There’s a beautiful and compelling spirit here that I witness in the way you treat each other, the way you care for each other in times of crisis, the way you make real the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That spirit inspires and enables me not only to nurture and sustain it here at 153 West Vernon St., but to act on it in the wider world. Our beloved community has an impact well beyond these walls.

Having said that, I’m not suggesting that an experience of beloved community here means the congregation is perfect, that it makes no mistakes, that it has never let you down. One of the risks of being a congregation, of being in covenant with each other, of being vulnerable in each other’s presence—of being human together—is that we inevitably discover we are not perfect, we make mistakes, we let each other down. But we take the risk anyways: we enter into community. And when we let each other down, we agree to begin again in love.[3]

And I’m not suggesting that an experience of beloved community here means you’ve never disagreed with something I’ve said, or something another lay-person has said, or that there has never been conflict, or that there’ve never been stressful times. One of the risks of being a congregation is that we will inevitably disagree, sometimes strongly. But we take the risk anyways: we enter into community, knowing we may disagree, but also trusting we can begin again in love.

disagreement

And I’m not suggesting that an experience of beloved community here means you’ve never felt like you were giving more than you were getting, that you’ve never felt burned out and in need of a break, or that you’ve never felt like you needed something but didn’t receive it. One of the risks of being a congregation is that we will feel these ways from time to time. Even in the most healthy, welcoming, inclusive, loving spiritual communities, all these things are not only possible, they are predictable. But what enables me to say with confidence that the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East is a beloved community, is that I have seen us time and time again take the risk anyways and begin again in love.

When it comes time for you to determine your financial pledge for the coming year, I hope and trust you can recall those times when you felt held, nurtured, seen by this congregation—when you felt this congregation wrapping itself around you in a moment of challenge, or perhaps when you felt yourself wrapping around someone else in their moment of challenge. I hope you can recall those times when you felt the power, the presence and the love of this congregation in your life, the life of your family, or the lives of others beyond these walls. Regardless of anything else we might try to accomplish as a congregation; regardless of any goals we might set, any strategic plan we might develop, any new program we might launch, this is the basic role of the congregation: to hold each other, to nurture each other, to see each other. I urge you: let your experience of this holding, nurturing, seeing be part of your answer to the question: “Why give generously to UUS:E?”

And yet, we do need to manage our institution beyond this basic role of the church. We do need to set goals, engage in strategic planning, launch new programs. We need to think about growth. We need to pay bills. This is also why we give. With that in mind I want to say a few words about our primary goal in this year’s annual appeal—which will likely be our primary goal over the next few years: making a successful transition to a new professional religious educator and a new religious education program for children and youth. Because our long-time Director of Religious Education (DRE), Vicki Merriam, is retiring at the end of June after approximately 35 years of service, we are entering a period of huge change, transition, restructuring; a period of learning and innovating, out-of-the-box thinking, creativity and risk-taking. If we take this time of transition seriously, if we rise to the challenge of surrendering how we’ve always done things in order of make room for new possibilities, if we can live for a while with ambiguity, with not knowing exactly what the future holds, we will transition successfully. Of course, there is no perfect transition. We are also entering a period with many opportunities for mistakes, failures, conflict, letting each other down, disappointing each other and, as always, beginning again in love. We are on the verge of something big.

success

In a very concrete way, your generous financial gift to UUS:E this year helps us insure we can hire the best candidate possible as our Interim DRE for the next 12 to 24 months. Let me remind you we have a search committee in place and they are beginning to receive applications. The Personnel Committee is responsible for determining final salary and benefits. The Policy Board is responsible for hiring the candidate the search committee recommends. I am responsible for orienting and supervising this new staff member. The Religious Education Committee is responsible for working with the Interim DRE to run our religious education program during the transition and to help lay the groundwork for hiring a permanent DRE and launching an exciting new program over the next three years. So, a variety of people have specific jobs related to this transition. But what about everyone else? What about us collectively? Don’t we have some responsibility as a congregation to do whatever we can to assure the success of this transition?

We do. And certainly part of our collective role in this success is to continue and expand our generous financial giving. But this is not just about investing financially to achieve our vision. It’s about investing our whole selves in achieving our vision of a religious education program that not only “provides a solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists,” but also “fosters the connection and commitment of all UUS:E members and friends to our beloved multigenerational community.”[4] We need every member and friend involved. As with our recent building campaign, it’s an all hands on deck moment.

I suppose on one level it starts with discerning how adults can support the religious education program. Can you teach a class? Can you mentor a youth? Can you organize supplies, provide nursery child-care, chaperone a trip, help with a fundraiser? These are some of the traditional ways adults have invested their time. But given the way children’s lives are changing and family life in general is changing in US culture, we’re recognizing that the traditional ways will not be enough. What if it became part of our culture to support our children in their various events outside of UUS:E? When a child in the congregation is playing in a sporting event, will you sign up to be a fan at that event? Will you go to the field and cheer? Or when a child is in a play at school, will you attend the play? When a child is in a concert, will you attend the concert? This already happens to some extent, but what if it became a congregational practice? It’s just one idea. There are many more.

cheering

Can you commit to holding yourself open to all the ways in which our congregation may change in order to achieve this vision? I ask because we can anticipate changes in how we worship, how we manage our schedules, when we hold meetings, how we use technology. Can you unleash your creative energies during this time of transition? Can you be a learner? Can you be a risk-taker? Can you be a thought leader? Can you imagine multigenerational activities we’ve never imagined before? Can you help to organize those activities? Can you learn the names and faces of twenty children and youth in this congregation? How about thirty? Forty? Why stop there? There are more than 90 kids registered. Can you wrap yourself around our religious education program in whatever ways make the most sense to you. Can all our children be seen and known in the way Kim Paquette describes? I think we can do this. And if we do, here’s what I know: When we see and know our children, they see and know us. When we wrap ourselves around them, they will wrap themselves around us, around this congregation, around Unitarian Universalism. And that gets us back to that basic role of the church: holding, nurturing, seeing. That’s where it starts. That’s where a vibrant, loving multigenerational community starts. That’s where beloved community starts. Friends, let us start.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Kim Paquette is Director of Multigenerational Ministries for the Northern New England District of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

[2] Read Kim Paquette’s 12/19/13 blog post, “The Power of Our Child Dedication Ceremony Some Years Later,” at http://multigenministry.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/the-power-of-our-child-dedication-some-years-later/.

[3] Eller-Isaacs, Robert, “A Litany of Atonement,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #637.

[4] From the UUS:E “Future of Religious Education” vision statement, October, 2013.

Agape Church = Ally Church

Danish King Christian X

Danish King Christian X

In his review of Bo Lidegaard’s Countrymen, a recent history of how the Danish people helped the Danish Jews survive the Nazi occupation during World War II, Michael Ignatieff writes: “There was no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there was just us.”[1] The Danes said to the Nazi occupiers, essentially,“If you make the Jews wear yellow stars, we’ll all wear yellow stars too.” In other words, “you’ll have to take all of us.” I offer this story as a starting place for reflection on what it means to be an ally, specifically what it means to be an ally at church and as a church. The Danish people understood themselves not as frightened, defeated Nazi collaborators, but as courageous allies of their Jewish countrymen. We will help you; we will keep you safe; we will stand with you; we will risk our own lives on your behalf; there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. That’s what it means to be an ally.

Opportunities for allyship abound. Right now there are people in this room who need others in this room to be their allies. Right now, all around us in the wider community, there are people who need the partnership and solidarity of a congregation like ours in their struggle to overcome some injustice, some oppression, some poverty, some ongoing abuse or exploitation. I’m mindful that congregations and clergy can and do say a lot about love. We can be eloquent, inspiring and prophetic about love; and we can also very quickly become boring when all it is is words. We can very quickly become irrelevant when it is unclear how we make that love real in the world. My message is this: Loving congregations manifest love through a discipline of allyship. In other words, agape church equals ally church.

We typically translate the ancient Greek word agape as “unconditional love.” Early Christians used it to refer to God’s love for humanity which they experienced as unconditional. When we use it to refer to human love we translate it in a variety of ways: selfless love, impartial love, all-encompassing love, wholehearted love. It is big, broad, vast, deep love—akin to the love God supposedly feels for humanity. It can refer to love between two people, but for the purposes of this sermon I’m using it to refer to love for people in general, love for all humanity.

I’m not a fan of the idea of selfless love, at least not the way we often encounter it: the giving up of oneself in order to serve others. sexism
There are certainly appropriate times for giving oneself up, for self-sacrifice—I think of soldiers sacrificing themselves to save their friends in battle, or parents dedicating their lives to the care of a child with special needs. But I’m also mindful that for too many centuries women were (and often still are) expected to give up their selves in the service of sexist conceptions of marriage, family, society and, it must be said, church. I don’t believe this giving up of the self is good for women; nor is it good for marriage, family, society or church. We each have unique, beautiful, holy selves that add value to the world and ought not to be given up except in extraordinary circumstances. Any system or institution that pressures us to give ourselves up with no choice and no reciprocity is oppressive.

Having said that, in the experience of genuine agape there is what feels like a losing of the self—a merging and mingling of selves in one another, a joining together, a recognition that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. In response to my February 2nd sermon on love, Nancy Thompson offered the words of Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg in our “Dialogue From Your Home” forum. Salzberg says “actual love is the true seeing of our oneness, our non-separateness.”[2] Nancy said further: “I think that’s what’s at the center of existence, non-separateness … you can call it love or God or interdependence or emptiness…. It’s not about you as a distinct, finite being but you as part of being.” Agape isn’t a call to self-sacrifice, though sometimes we do sacrifice ourselves for love; and it isn’t about losing ourselves in our love for others, though it may feel like that. It’s actually an experience of finding ourselves in our love for others—not our discreet biological selves, but our larger, connected, non-separate selves.

Still, I don’t want to get caught up in language and definitions. Love lives beyond words and reason. No amount of mental gymnastics and wordsmithing will get us to a full understanding. What I want to know is not what love is, but what it looks like in practice at church. My message again: loving congregations manifest love through a discipline of allyship.

Hand on ShoulderWe conduct ourselves as allies in two broad ways. First, we respond as allies to what I call natural human suffering—the suffering that is part and parcel of the human condition and which all of us experience through the course of our lives: the suffering that comes with physical and mental illness, with aging, with loss and grief, with despair, anxiety, loneliness and failure, with approaching death. Responding to these forms of suffering is the pastoral role of the church. But I want to suggest that when we respond we are engaging in the discipline of allyship. When you put a hand on the shoulder of someone who has just shared a painful story; when you visit someone in the hospital or in rehab after a surgery; when you cook a meal for a family that has experienced a death; when you provide hospitality at a memorial service; when you give someone a ride to their chemotherapy treatment; when you accompany someone to court; when you go grocery shopping for someone who is homebound; when you give a call just to check in; when you greet someone you’ve never met after a Sunday service; when you sit and talk with someone who is lonely: when you stay present to someone who is hurting for whatever reason—stay with them, focus on them, let them cry, let them rage, let them feel what they’re feeling, let them process their situation, let them be silent, be silent with them, walk with them, get a coffee with them, reassure them, stay with them until they know what they’re going to do next, let them know you won’t abandon them—when you do whatever it is they need done because they actually can’t do it for themselves in that particular moment, you are being an ally.

One of the reasons I love the institutional church is because it provides a space wherein people can manifest agape by being allies to each other in the midst of our suffering. It’s what church is for. Allyship is the central discipline—the primary behavior—in any beloved community.

In practicing allyship it’s always possible that we can feel like we’re giving up a part of ourselves—we’re giving up precious time, energy, emotion, attention, focus. It may feel like we’re sacrificing. It may feel burdensome. And perhaps it is. Perhaps manifesting agape doesn’t always feel good. Perhaps part of the discipline of allyship is learning to accept that there are moments when we must lay aside what we want for ourselves in order to care for and support someone facing more dire circumstances. But in doing so, I contend we also find our larger, connected selves. We find it is not ‘us’ and ‘them;’ it is just us.

In addition to responding to the natural suffering people experience, the church also responds—or ought to respond—to what unnatural suffering—the suffering groups of human beings so easily visit upon other groups of human beings through abuses of power, oppression, discrimination, exploitation, violence, etc. People experiencing such suffering often know exactly what it is they need. They often know exactly what needs to change. They often are willing to fight, struggle, work, strive to make that change happen. They often are willing to lead in the work of change. They they can rarely do it alone. If we’re talking about overcoming racism in the form of mass incarceration or disparities in health care outcomes; or reforming immigration laws so that undocumented people are treated with compassion and given a path to citizenship; or ending gun violence on our city streets; or next steps in overcoming homophobia and heterosexism—whether it’s working to end bullying in schools or working for the rights of LGBT elders; or if we’re talking about exploring our own, unintentional habits of institutional racism, heterosexism, ageism, and on and on, the group experiencing the suffering can rarely do it all alone. They need allies. They need people with privilege and power to agree that the suffering they experience is real. They need people with privilege and power to commit to working for change with them. They need people with privilege and power to take risks on their behalf; to say, We will help you! We will stand with you! We will even risk our own lives and livelihoods on your behalf! There is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. This is exactly what the Danish people did for their Jewish neighbors during the Nazi occupation. This is allyship. This, I’m convinced, is how congregations manifest agape in their ministries within and beyond their walls.

I want to speak in very practical terms about what it means to me, a heterosexual man, to be an ally to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender—GLBT—people here at UUS:E. Some of you know our Welcoming Congregation Steering Group hoped to hang and dedicate a large rainbow flag out in the clerestory this morning. They decided not to do it because they weren’t sure they had the full support of the congregation. They held a forum and invited feedback in a variety of ways. A small minority expressed discomfort, which is important in a community that values the right of conscience—the minority needs to be able to express itself. So, let’s not hang the flag yet. But why do it at all? Why hang a large rainbow flag at UUS:E?

Rainbow Ally

This is how I think and feel about it. Ever since I’ve been UUS:E’s minister, the members and friends of this congregation—straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, men, women, transgender, questioning, old, young, rich, middle class, working class, poor, Humanist, Theist, Agnostic, Pagan and Buddhist—have been working as a congregation for the civil rights of gay and lesbian people—primarily through marriage equality—and for the civil rights of transgender people—primarily through anti-discrimination legislation. This has meant attending rallies, marches, lobby days, knocking on doors and interviewing voters at polling stations to gage public opinion, testifying on bills, writing letters to politicians and newspapers, sending checks to Love Makes a Family, supporting True Colors and listening to more sermons on the subject than probably any of you cared to listen to. The major political and legislative battles are behind us now. We won, so the level of engagement is not nearly as intense as it was. But this activism was a central feature of our ministry for many years. As a congregation, we were following a discipline of allyship. We were saying to GLBT people here and across the state, not only with our words but with our deeds: We will help you; we will stand with you; we will not abandon you; we will not flinch in the face of opposition; you do not have to fight these battles alone; we will risk our own lives and livelihoods on your behalf; there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. When I see a rainbow flag, I don’t see their flag. I see our flag. Though I am clear I gain power and privilege in my life because I am a straight man and I will never fully comprehend what it means to be gay, female or transgender, I am also clear that I’ve made my power and privilege accountable to GLBT people because I strive to be an ally. The rainbow flag represents me too. But not just me, us. It’s our flag because we are an ally church.

But let’s imagine UUS:E had sat on the sidelines throughout these struggles and none of us had been involved. And let’s imagine we now want to be more welcoming to GLBT people and we have a Welcoming Congregation Steering Group to help us. And let’s imagine they want to hang a rainbow flag, because even though we have marriage equality, even though we have protections against discrimination for transgender people, even though ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ has ended, even though there has been amazing progress, church is still a dangerous place for GLBT people, even churches that say they’re welcoming. And GLBT young people still face bullying and still have a suicide rate way out of proportion to the population. A large rainbow flag would send a clear, unequivocal message that GLBT people are safe here, able to be out, able to bring their whole selves. There may be good reasons not to hang the flag. But in my view, this is an ally moment. This is a moment where a group of people who experience unnecessary suffering are saying, “We need this. It will alleviate suffering.” Agape church equals ally church.

“We don’t want to be the gay church.” I’ve never actually heard another human being say these words, but I understand people say it. Supposedly even gay people say it. As a consultant to congregations and clergy wondering how to respond to such statements, I’ve always said something like “assure them that you’re not becoming the gay church, but remind them it’s important to extend a clear welcome.” In preparing this sermon it dawned on me: I don’t feel comfortable saying that anymore—not if I mean what I say about being an ally, not if I know in my heart love means there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;” there is just us. Gay church? I would be honored to be a part of that church, because I know it’s not ultimately about being gay, it’s about manifesting our love and being good allies.

Allyship

We have a mental health ministry. We could become the metal illness church. I would be honored to be part of that church too, because I know it’s not ultimately about mental illness; it’s about love and allyship. We could become an immigrant church, a poor peoples’ church, a church for families of the incarcerated, a church for people living with HIV/AIDS, a church for homeless people, a church for children with autism and ADHD, a church for hungry people, a church for youth and young adults, a church for elders—do you see how we become the beloved community through a discipline of allyship? I would be honored to serve as minister of that church and I hope and trust all of you would be honored to be part of that church too. In the end, such a church is not about any of these identities. It’s about love and allyship. Agape church equals ally church. It’s not us and them; it’s just us. It’s our flag. It’s our yellow star. It’s just us.

I would be honored.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Ignatieff, Michael, “One Country Saved Its Jews. Were They Just Better People? The Surprising Truth About Denmark in the Holocaust,” New Republic, Dec. 14, 2013. See: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115670/denmark-holocaust-bo-lidegaards-countrymen-reviewed.

 

[2] I can’t find the exact location of this quote, but it appears to come from Salzberg’s 1995 “Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.” See: http://www.amazon.com/Lovingkindness-Revolutionary-Happiness-Shambhala-Classics/dp/157062903X.