A Remote Important Region

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Josh at Ministry Days“And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, / a remote important region in all who talk”[1]—words from twentieth-century American poet, William E. Stafford. I don’t pretend to know what the poet meant by the phrase, “a remote important region,” though I suspect it was something he felt, something essential in us he imagined must be real and must be accessible. But it isn’t easily accessible. It is shadowy, remote.

As we come to the end of the 2015-2016 congregational year, I want to reflect on a theme that has caught my heart and with which I’ve been wrestling in my preaching over the past year. Maybe Stafford didn’t have words for this remote, important region; or maybe he did but he didn’t want to name it explicitly; and maybe this isn’t what he meant at all: but when I encounter this appeal “to something shadowy, / a remote, important region,” I imagine he is talking about the body. I imagine he is talking about our physical, sensual bodies that breathe deeply as they enter into worship, sit quietly and comfortably, rise to sing, light chalice flames, meditate and pray, share joys and concerns, give money, hold hands, hug and love; our physical, sensual bodies that revel in pleasure and beauty; our bodies that grow, age, decline, forget, and eventually die; our bodies that witness and sometimes experience horrors and thus hold stress, anxiety, pain; feel fear, anger, despair. Our bodies—shadowy, remote, but utterly important regions. Why remote? Because for too long our faith, like our larger western culture, has kept the body separate from the mind. You’ve heard me come back to this claim again and again this year.

We know body and mind aren’t separate. Anyone who practices yoga or Buddhist meditation has some inkling of this non-separateness, this non-duality. Mystics, healers, yogis, gurus, sages, TED talkers, therapists, life coaches and UU ministers tell us all the time of this non-separateness. I’m telling you again right now. And yet somehow, in practice, our faith, like our larger western culture, resists this knowledge. Religiously speaking, the body remains shadowy, remote. “I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty,” says Stafford, “to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.”

Let’s face it (and I don’t mean this metaphorically): the Unitarian Universalism we inherit is not a deeply embodied faith. Those of you who attended Thomas Moore’s lecture here last weekend heard me say this to him. Historically we favor mind, ideas, words, talk. We stack books by our bedsides. Our clergy start sermons quoting poems. We may not identify as Abrahamic “people of the book,” but surely we are people of the word. Whether we care to admit it or not, we’re good Protestants who privilege the word in worship, expecting preachers to prove their point through reasoned argument. So many of our congregations debate whether it’s OK to clap or shout amen or hallelujah in worship. Sometimes the music moves us so much we want to physically move, but we’re not sure it’s ok. Sex education is great for our children, but feels dicey for adults. And most importantly for my purposes this morning, we’re often unable or unwilling to move anywhere until we’ve crafted the perfect mission and vision statements. We want to get the words right. But the body doesn’t typically occur to us as a religiously significant region. It is remote. Those of you who hail from less wordy faith traditions couldn’t stay there for many good reasons, but sometimes you whisper to me privately that you miss the ritual, the darkness, the incense, the spiritedness, hands raised high, even a living, incarnate God. You miss the invitation to live religiously in the body. We stay mired in mind, which, given what we know about non-separateness, is irrational.

This is what I’ve been coming to terms with over the last year: our minds are sharp and we don’t want to lose them, but alone they are insufficient for the ministry our era demands. There is a growing dissonance between the vision our words proclaim and our bodies’ knowledge of the world. Are you one who has felt this dissonance? We envision a world made fair, a glorious, golden city, a land where justice rolls down like waters. “The moral arc of the universe is long,” we say with Parker and King, “but it bends towards justice.” Do we ever pause to consider whether these wonderful, hopeful visions are remotely realistic? Do we ever peer beneath them to explore honestly what we must do to achieve them and how radically different our lives would be if they became our reality?

Fifty people gunned down on Latinx night at a gay night club in Orlando, FL. Is it possible our vision of a world free of violence is growing not closer but more distant? When we proclaim visions of a world free of racism, sexism, homophobia, violence, or fossil fuel consumption, does something shadowy in you feel dissonance? Do you wonder in some remote region of you how on earth this is really going to happen? Do you get a flash of maybe it won’t happen? And if you do, how quickly do you put it aside? How swiftly does it rise up in you only to find no outlet, only to have your mind tell you not to speak it because it may be misunderstood, may sound cynical, faint-hearted, privileged, or worse, like you’re not a real Unitarian Universalist. Do you tell yourself you shouldn’t feel this way? And what way is it exactly? If you probe, is there hopelessness or despair churning your stomach, tensing your shoulders, dizzying your head? And might you suddenly feel guilty, ashamed or weak for feeling this way? Yet this is one way the body tries to speak in our era. Let’s learn to listen.

Let’s face it. We name wonderful visions Sunday after Sunday, year after year—and I intend to keep naming them—but the naming hasn’t been enough to stem the tide of oppression, income inequality, global warming and so much needless violence. Despite our words, and despite all our good work and the work of so many others, those things are getting worse, not better. No doubt our words help people feel hopeful—and that matters—that is part of our ministry—but let’s come down from the mountaintop of our minds and join our bodies in the desert where they’re already facing it: facing extreme weather patterns and hottest years on record; facing gun violence in the home and almost daily mass shootings; facing opioid addiction; facing mental illness; facing decreasing life expectancy, a hollowed out American middle class looking for work that doesn’t exist, political polarization; the trauma of endless war, terrorism and its threat; mass incarceration, racist police violence, modern slavery, tens of millions of stateless people; and reactionary backlash to any effort to address any of it in a principled, peaceful and just manner. Sometimes it is too much for the mind to take in, but our bodies feel it whether our minds think and reason and vision or not. Our bodies know something of how deep it goes. Just remember how you felt as news of the Orlando shooting unfolded. Unless we can integrate this body-knowledge into our religious lives, our beautiful, hopeful, visionary words will come, in time, to mean nothing.

I was moved by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a letter to his son explaining the historical and ongoing violence against Black bodies in the United States. I preached about it on Martin Luther King Sunday. Coates counsels his son—and his readers—not to become too dependent on visions of a better world. He says, “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.”[2] “You must wake up each morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all.”[3] Hard words. But he’s facing what his body knows! His words collapse the distance between body and mind. Lay the vision aside for a moment. Consult your flesh-bone-and-blood body that breathes and bleeds, laughs and cries, ponders and thinks, makes love, gives birth, ages, dies. What is the body capable of doing in this moment? That question matters as much as what our vision is. Coates’ answer is struggle. It sounds hard. It sounds barren. But he offers to his son as a path to integrity and wholeness. “You are called to struggle,” he says, “not because it assures you of victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.” The more I sit with this, the more I realize I find it so much more hopeful than repeating the words of a vision whose realization grows more distant with each passing year. 

Bishop John Selders of Hartford’s Amistad United Church of Christ is a great friend of this congregation. He was deeply moved by his experiences in Ferguson, MO in the months following the police killing of Michael Brown. He returned from a visit there in December, 2014 and, at a meeting of clergy to discuss convening yet another dialogue with police he said “No. I’m done trying to talk the system out of racism.” What he learned in Ferguson, and what he was teaching us is that it’s time for the creative use of our bodies in the struggle against racism. It’s time for the physical disruption of business as usual. It’s time to take streets. These are the lessons of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. Social justice movements need our bodies as much—or more—than they need our words. As one who’s invested much in the talk of social justice, it was hard for me to transition to body-based struggle. I’ve named that from this pulpit a number of times. I’ve always been affirmed for using words. Would embodied struggle receive the same affirmation? But what a difference it has made for me to say nothing with my mouth and everything with my body, to stand in a street blocking traffic because Black Lives Matter, to spend an evening in jail. And how much more powerful the words that finally do come when the mind speaks what the body knows.

I’ve come to understand over the years many Unitarian Universalists feel paralyzed when it comes to social justice work, not because they don’t agree with the various causes, but because the distance between body and mind is so great. It’s counter-cultural for us, but it’s time to start naming the concerns, pain, anxiety, shakiness, nervousness, hopelessness and despair that can live in the body. This is the leadership our faith needs now. As we name what our bodies know, we give permission for others not only to name it, but to sing, dance, pray and laugh it. As we name what our bodies know, we’ll be making this important region less remote.

There’s a story making its way around the internet. Bill Graver sent it to me a few weeks ago. The teacher asks a group of young students to list the seven wonders of the world. They name the usual Pyramids, Great Wall, Taj Majal, etc. One student isn’t sure she understands. “Well, tell us what you have; we’ll help,” says the teacher. The student hesitates but then says, “it’s different for different people, but the seven wonders of the world are that we can see, taste, smell, hear, touch, feel, and love.” Friends: before we appeal to our lofty, beautiful visions of a world made fair, Let us learn to consult our bodies? The question is not only What do I think about what’s happening? The question is What does the body know about what’s happening? And a corollary: What is the body capable of doing in this moment? And as we ask, let’s be ready to encounter and welcome the hopelessness and despair that lives in our bodies. Let’s face it. Let’s see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it, feel it, love it. We may have to reign in our vision, but we will move farther than we thought possible.

And let us remember: the body doesn’t only hold the world’s pain. It holds the world’s joy too. In a faith community that understands the body as religiously significant, not only does our hopelessness and despair become speakable and thus more manageable, our joy and ecstasy become speakable too. Bringing the body in opens avenues for eye contact, touch, color, fragrance, dance, art, intuition, dreaming; for ‘let’s break bread together,’ for the creative occupation of space in the service of social justice struggle, and for the rediscovery of ritual, darkness, incense, spiritedness, hands raised high in praise, a living, incarnate God and a reenchanted world.

May our bodies find their home in our faith. May we learn to hear their voice. May we struggle for what matters. And may our lives be honorable and sane.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Stafford, William E., “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” See: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/58264.

[2] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015) p. 70.

[3] Coates, Between the World and Me, pp. 70-71.

Congratulations to the Rev. Drew Moeller

On Sunday, May 1, the Rev. Drew Moeller, a long-time member of UUS:E, was called by unanimous vote to be the settled minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor, ME. Congratulations Drew!!!! We are so proud!!!

Rev. Drew at the Bangor UU!

Rev. Drew at the Bangor UU!

 

For Gravity’s Sake

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Did you feel it? I didn’t either.

4-3 gravitational wavesIn the new issue of Smithsonian Magazine, physicist Brian Greene writes: “More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two black holes executed the final steps in a fast-footed pas de deux, concluding with a final embrace so violent it released more energy than the combined output of every star in every galaxy in the observable universe. Yet, unlike starlight, the energy was dark, being carried by the invisible force of gravity. On September 14, 2015, at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, a fragment of that energy, in the form of a ‘gravitational wave,’ reached Earth, reduced by its vast transit across space and time to a mere whisper of its thunderous beginning.”[1] This was not the first time gravitational waves have grazed or graced our planet, but it was the first time scientists detected it. It took fifteen months to determine the data were accurate, but on February 11th, 2016, scientists announced the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), operating identical detection systems simultaneously in Louisiana and Washington, had detected a gravitational wave emanating from the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago on the other side of the universe. [2]

When they pass by a planet or person, gravitational waves squeeze in one direction, and in a perpendicular direction they pull. How often does something more than a billion years old give you a squeeze and a pull?

For a brief explanation of the discovery of gravitational waves, check out Brian Greene’s video: 

I knew immediately I wanted to address this in a sermon. Our theme for April is creation, and that seemed an appropriate time. Historically creation is a reference to the earth, the sun, moon, stars, waters, dry land, plants, trees, fish, animals, human beings—everything God is said to have created in the book of Genesis. I use creation in the broadest sense possible, as a name for all there is, all existence, everything—the visible and the invisible, the near and the far, the new and the ancient. And here comes this invisible ripple in the fabric of space-time—its size a billionth of the diameter of an atom—gently squeezing us in one direction and pulling us in another. Our bodies don’t sense it, but now we have tools that can detect this very slight, very subtle, but very real movement across creation. “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” said an ancient Hebrew priest. Gravitational waves likely weren’t what he had in mind, but there it is, sweeping over us. The universe speaking? [3]

I want to offer some reflections on gravity as a way to deepen the message of my sermon from two weeks ago. In that sermon I spoke about how the modern world—specifically the Western industrialized nations—separated mind from body and separated divinity from the earth after humans had lived for millennia without such separations. In that sermon I offered prayers that we may learn to reunite mind and body, that we may learn to experience divinity present in the earth. I said, “May ours be a religion that gently sinks its people into intimate relationship with Nature, intimate relationship with the divine earth—a relationship that is the ancestral birthright of [us all].”[4]

I named René Descartes and Francis Bacon as two of the leading philosophers of modern science—people responsible for advancing these separations. I did not name Isaac Newton who is often identified as the symbol of Western science. According to science historian, Morris Berman, “Newton defined the method of science itself, the notions of hypothesis and experiment, and the techniques that were to make rational mastery of the environment a viable intellectual exercise.”[5] But there was something different about Newton. Not only did he help invent a whole new way of doing science and a whole new way of understanding Nature—my fourth grader just completed a unit on Newton’s Laws; and not only did he discover gravity; but he was also deeply immersed in the ancient scientific traditions—Occultism, Hermeticism, Alchemy. The 20th-century British economist John Maynard Keynes said “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”[6]

Today, if we learn about alchemy at all, we learn it was spurious, late medieval attempt to turn lead into gold, or to create an elixir to prolong life. It never worked. But this begs a question: if it didn’t work, why was it around for some many hundreds of years? What accounted for its staying power? There was much more to alchemy than these fantastic quests.[7] For my purposes here, it’s enough to know that alchemists did not understand themselves as disembodied observers of the natural world. More to the point, they weren’t observers in the sense that we understand that word today. They were participants. They did not experience a mind-body separation, nor did they experience a separation between themselves and the materials with which they worked. To them, all matter possessed Mind—its own kind of consciousness. Some refer to alchemy as “the search for the God-head in matter.” Everything was alive, and the alchemist was part of it. As they sought to transform matter, they expected themselves to be transformed in the process. Berman says “the alchemist did not confront matter; he permeated it.”[8] Apparently Isaac Newton subscribed to this archaic world-view, and took his role as a steward of the ancient practices quite seriously.

But alchemy’s ascendency also ended with Newton. He lived in an age of great social disruption, class conflict, revolution and war in England. Apparently the more ancient and occult world-views, including alchemy, aligned with the more radical and revolutionary political views. When the English monarchy was restored to power in the 1660s, it became dangerous for anyone to espouse radical and revolutionary views, whether political or scientific. In this climate, the ruling elites saw the new modern science—what they called the mechanical philosophy—as an antidote to the radicalism of the previous decades.[9] A vision of an ordered, mechanical universe translated into an ordered, mechanical society. As a highly public figure, Newton hid his affinity for alchemy and the occult. This affinity was only discovered when his private manuscripts were made public many years later. According to Berman, Newton delved “deeply into the Hermetic wisdom for his answers, while clothing them in the idiom of the mechanical philosophy. The centerpiece of the Newtonian system, gravitational attraction, was in fact the Hermetic principle of sympathetic forces, which Newton saw as a creative principle, a source of divine energy in the universe. Although he presented this idea in mechanical terms, his unpublished writings reveal his commitment to the cornerstone of all occult systems: the notion that mind exists in matter.”[10]

I didn’t know this about Newton. Learning it now, I find it highly ironic that a person who regarded himself as a steward of ancient wisdom, as a magician—a person who sensed God in matter—would become synonymous with a view of Nature and the universe as cold, inert, inanimate, orderly and vast. As physicist Joel Primack and science historian Nancy Ellen Abrams say in their book, The View from the Center of the Universe, after Newton, “the universe that had once felt like a great cathedral filled with angels had vanished, and infinite reaches loomed.”[11] Human beings had lived for millennia with a sense of belonging and confidence because they experienced themselves as intimately embedded in a universe filled with divinity. Now they began to experience existential terror in response to a universe seen as infinite or at least incomprehensively large, almost empty, and with no inherent purpose.”[12] “No place was special,” they say. “There was no secure foothold in the universe, no anchor…. Physics claimed to define physical reality, yet it treated human beings like objects, and those objects were left wondering whether anything in the universe recognized them as more than that. Perhaps they were just a random occurrence on an average planet in a vast and uncaring scheme of things.”[13] “The Newtonian picture left humans drifting in a kind of cosmic homelessness that persists to this day.”[14]

Some might call this sense of cosmic homelessness excessively bleak. Others might call it ‘overdone,’ something only philosophers experience. Obviously not every human being feels it. If anything, humans more commonly feel existential terror in response to more immediate concerns: war, migration, the climate crisis, violence, etc. So perhaps cosmic homelessness isn’t such a big deal. However, it is also true that 325 years since Newton published his Principia, many of us are used to the picture of the universe physics paints. To the extent we can grasp it, we’re used to its impersonal vastness. We’re used to our smallness. We’re even used to the conclusion that there is no larger purpose. Of course, many people don’t accept the astronomers’ conclusions and never have. They continue to resist the idea of a meaningless universe. Billions across the planet still take refuge in other-worldly religious visions, still bow down to a commanding, disembodied God, still look forward to a non-physical eternity in Heaven. As such they still help perpetuate the great separations of modernity—the separation of body and mind, and the separation divinity from the earth.

These separations are hurting us. We need a new alchemy for our time. I included in our liturgy this morning Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “When Something Comes to Me at My Window,” and Heather McHugh’s poem “A Physics,” because, for me, they begin to name an alternative to both cosmic homelessness and anti-scientific blind faith in a disembodied God. They gently sink us into intimate relationship with Nature. They blur the lines between us and Nature. They embrace what the body experiences. And they both start with a reverent shout-out to gravity. “How surely gravity’s law,” says Rilke, “strong as an ocean current, / takes hold of even the smallest thing / and pulls it toward the heart of the world.”[15] McHugh is more veiled. “When you get down to it,” she says. And then the lines between us and Nature blur. “Earth / has our great ranges / of feeling—Rocky, Smoky, Blue— / and a heart that can melt stones. / The still pools fill with sky, / as if aloof, and we have eyes / for all of this—and more, for Earth’s / reminding moon. We too are ruled / by such attractions—spun and swaddled, / rocked and lent a light.”[16] She seems to know something of what the alchemists knew.

Rilke challenges the idea of a disembodied existence. “Only we, in our arrogance,” he says, “push out beyond what we each belong to / for some empty freedom.”[17] And McHugh, though not exactly challenging, clearly sees God as somewhere else. “The whole / idea of love was not to fall. And neither was / the whole idea of God. We put him well / above ourselves, because we meant, / in time, to measure up.”[18] But gravity is real, and we do fall. I think McHugh is saying we’ll never measure up, and if anything, we need to measure down, get down to it, let gravity works its magic, pull God off the pedestal, squeeze God out of disembodied existence, out of other-worldly heaven, out of the judgement seat, out of timelessness into this time, into the body of this world, into the energy of this life. Rilke says, “like children, we begin again / to learn from the things, / because they are in God’s heart; they have never left.”[19] This is an alchemical vision for our time. And McHugh says, “We want the suns and moons of silver in ourselves.”[20] This is an alchemical vision for our time.  

And if this alchemy is still too mired in words, still too abstract, still leaves you wondering, “yes, but how shall I live?” perhaps there’s a lesson in Gary Short’s poem, “Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders,” in the image of a teacher endlessly kicking playground balls to his students at recess. “The balls rise like planets / and the 3rd graders / circle dizzily beneath the falling sky, / their arms outstretched.”[21] That’s how we ought to live: with joy and outstretched arms, awaiting our playground balls—whatever they may be—as they, like we, are pulled gently towards the heart of the world.

There is mighty work ahead. My next two sermons will name what this work is. This reunification of body and mind, of earth and divinity—it is the work of generations. It is work we are doing and must continue to do. And don’t be surprised, if in the midst of this work, you find yourself transformed into something more whole, like an alchemist, such that even your senses work differently, and you awake one fine morning, and you just know—because your body now knows—an ancient wave, rippling its way across the universe has just passed by, has just touched you, has squeezed you and pulled you, softly, as if to say “I know you’re there,” and then continued on its endless way.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Greene, Brian, “The Detection of Gravitational Waves Was a Scientific Breakthrough, but What’s Next?” Smithsonian Magazine, April, 2016. See: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/detection-gravitational-waves-breakthrough-whats-next-180958511/.

[2] Brian Greene Explains the Discovery of Gravitational Waves: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s06_jRK939I.

[3] In addition to Brian Green’s article in Smithsonian Magazine, see also MacDonald, Fiona, “It’s Official: Gravitational Waves Have Been Detected, Einstein Was Right,” Science Alert, Feb. 11, 2016, http://www.sciencealert.com/live-update-big-gravitational-wave-announcement-is-happening-right-now; and Krauss, Lawrence, “Finding Beauty in the Darkness,” New York Times, Feb. 11th, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/finding-beauty-in-the-darkness.html?_r=0.

[4] Pawelek, Josh, “I Am Lush Land and Rugged Rock,” a sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, March 20, 2016: http://uuse.org/i-am-lush-land-and-rugged-rock/#.VvwLLKQrKhc.

[5] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 107.

[6] Quoted in Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 108.

[7] C. G. Jung famously explores the depth and breadth of alchemy in his Collected Works, specifically Vol. 12, Psychology and Alchemy, Vol. 13, Alchemical Studies, and Vol. 14, Mysterium Coniunctionis.

[8] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 82.

[9] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 114.

[10] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 115.

[11] Primack, Joel and Abrams, Nancy Ellen, The View from the Center of the Universe (New York: Riverhead Books, 2006) pp. 80.

[12] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, p. 83.

[13] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, pp. 80-81.

[14] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, p. 82.

[15] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “When Something Comes to Me By My Window,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, trs., Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999) p. 116.

[16] McHugh, Heather, “A Physics,” in Keillor, Garrison, ed., Good Poems (New York: Penguin, 2005) p. 103.

[17] Rilke, Book of Hours, p. 116.

[18] McHugh, Good Poems, p. 103.

[19] Rilke, Book of Hours, p. 116-117.

[20] McHugh, Good Poems, p. 103.

[21] Short, Gary, “Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders.” See: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/03/29.

The Things That Heal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Hygieia: Greek Goddess of Health

Hygieia: Greek Goddess of Health

This morning I continue exploring our February ministry theme, resilience, by reflecting on the role spirituality plays in healing: healing from illness—physical illness, mental illness; healing from addiction; healing from childhood traumas, from abuse, from rape, from neglect; healing from being the victim of a crime; healing in the wake of the death of a loved one; healing from broken relationships; healing from stressful life circumstances—overwork, exhaustion, job loss, financial struggles, caring for a family member or friend with a chronic illness, distress and anxiety in response to world events—terrorism, global warming, war. I’m sure you can add to the list. Nobody leaves this life without having to heal from something. Nobody leaves this life without suffering in response to something. For me this is an integral facet of the human condition, an inevitable feature of the human experience. Yes, some people need more healing than others, and some suffer more than others, and sometimes the unequal distribution of need and suffering seems immensely unfair. But nobody escapes this fate entirely. So many things can and do happen to our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our souls that unravel us, pull us apart, break us into pieces, leave us living in fragments. How does spirituality help us bind the pieces of ourselves back together? How does it aid in healing? How does it strengthen our resilience?

I want to first critique a common assumption about the role of spirituality in healing, essentially that one’s capacity to heal is determined by the strength of their belief, by the power of their faith in God. Most often this assumption is grounded in the deeper assumption that Biblical stories are literally true. For example, in the book of Mark, Chapter 10, a blind man comes to Jesus pleading, “Teacher, let me see again.” Jesus says to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regains his sight.[1] It could have happened. It could be literally true. And if one believes it is literally true, it is understandable they might conclude strong faith is essential to healing. I don’t reject this idea entirely. I know many people who are convinced that their faith played a significant role in their healing. And certainly strong faith in God can bring a person through very difficult times. But there’s a pernicious ‘other side’ to this assumption. What happens when the person of strong faith doesn’t heal? Does that mean their faith still isn’t strong enough, that they don’t believe correctly, that they aren’t praying right, that they’ve sinned, that God doesn’t find them worthy of healing? Sometimes people say God must have a reason and we aren’t meant to know. But that’s a theological cop out. The reality is, some illnesses have no cure. Some circumstances are beyond help. Sometimes our brokenness is larger than all the resources we have to address it. To fault the strength of one’s faith in such situations is unhelpful and unfair—sometimes it comes across as downright mean. The role of spirituality in healing is far more multifaceted than simply having correct belief.[2]

Taking this critique further, one of the challenges I encounter as a minister entering a hospital to provide pastoral care to one of our members or friends is that people I meet there—doctors, nurses, other staff, and occasionally patients and their families who I meet inadvertently—will sometimes apply this common assumption about faith and healing to me. When they realize I’m a minister, they assume I am Christian. I’m not. They assume I am a traditional theist who worships some version of God the Father. I’m not. They assume I intend to pray to God the Father with my parishioner, which happens, but very rarely. They assume I hope to buttress my parishioner’s faith in God the Father in order to aid in healing—also very rare. I don’t expect people to know how a Unitarian Universalist minister approaches pastoral care—or even what a Unitarian Universalist is—so it makes sense that these assumptions get attached to me. I try to be gracious. If someone pulls me aside and says “pray with me, father,” I pray with them. And those can be very powerful moments for me. But these assumptions don’t begin to describe how I approach my role in healing, and they don’t relate to the ways I witness spirituality aiding in the healing process for Unitarian Universalists who, we know, come in many theological varieties: atheist, theist, humanist, agnostic, Buddhist, mystic, pagan, Jewish, Christian and endless combinations, mixtures and mongrels. Given this diversity, the ways spirituality can aid the healing process are endless—no two situations are exactly alike. But over the years I’ve discerned five liberal commandments for spirituality and healing that emerge out of my journeys with you—Unitarian Universalists—as you seek healing in your lives.

First, get out of the body’s way. Healing begins with confidence in the body’s capacity to repair itself, to return from or adapt to physical and mental illness. Specialized white blood cells fight harmful microbes. Blood clots to heal wounds. Skin and bones fuse back together after breaking. We learn how to live well with anxiety. I recall those times as a child watching cuts scab over and slowly disappear, watching bumps slowly dwindle in size and disappear, watching big, ugly bruises slowly fade and disappear. I remember some cuts and breaks that needed a doctor’s attention, that needed antibiotics, stitches, bandages, splints, casts—they took longer to heal, and the healing often left a scar, but with the proper care and attention, the body’s healing capacities would take over. In fact, much of what the doctor did was simply ensure that the body’s healing capacities could function at their highest level. Even to my childish eye those capacities were remarkable.

Recently my youngest, Max, had four baby teeth removed—his first experience with anesthesia. He was understandably nervous before the procedure. My role as a parent, besides signing the consent forms and paying the bills, was to comfort him. “You’re going to be OK. You’ll be back to normal in no time.” In saying these things, I’m not just mouthing platitudes. I say them because I have confidence in the body’s capacity to heal. I have confidence that with a day of rest, patience, chicken soup, apple sauce, ice cream, extra TV and video games, extra attention and care from his family, his body will heal from the minor trauma of the surgery.

There is a life force, a will to live, an innate power to mend, a natural tendency toward repair. We encounter it not only in ourselves but throughout nature—starfish regenerate lost arms; deer regenerate lost antlers; eco-systems repair damage after earthquakes and oil spills. Trusting in this power may not restore sight to the blind or resurrect the dead, but it will help us remember what we can do to get of the body’s way so it can follow its natural processes of mending, repair and adaptation.

Second, approach healing from a place of openness. This is hard to do, especially when one is in pain. Pain makes us rigid, brittle and single-minded. It closes us off. But human beings heal in many ways, and because healing is not always a given, we need to search for what works. Indeed, some treatments emerge out of years of study and have firm scientific grounding. Sometimes they result in healing, sometimes they don’t. Some treatments are completely irrational, make no logical sense, and have no scientific grounding. Sometimes they result in healing, sometimes they don’t. I want us to be open to as many opportunities for healing as we can find—from the most scientifically grounded to the most implausible, even ludicrous. I put more faith in the former, but I never rule out the latter, and I combine them wherever and whenever possible. Even though we know healing doesn’t always happen, I want us to cultivate an attitude that healing is always a possibility. When it comes to healing, I want us to live with the prayerful sentiment we sang earlier: “Open my heart to all that I seek.”[3] Cast a wide net!         

Go to your doctor. Go to a second doctor, even a third. Follow their advice, except in those moments when it doesn’t feel right in in the depths of your soul—but even then, check with a loved one or a good friend to make sure you’re not in denial. But don’t stop there. Sit still. Sit still some more. Meditate. Pray. And if you do pray, and if you do invoke a holy name, I advise you first to get rid of any god, goddess or higher power who is distant and judgmental, frightening and inscrutable, and who doesn’t love you. Find a god, goddess or higher power who loves you deeply, who longs for you to heal as much as you long to heal. Pray to them with all your mind, all your heart, all your soul. But don’t stop there. Talk about your illness, your brokenness, your dis-ease to people who will listen attentively and support you. Express all your feelings about what is happening to you; express your anger, your rage, your sadness. But also express your joys, the blessings that remain in your life, the things for which you are grateful. Express your hope. Eat well, if you can. Sleep well, if you can. Give and receive lots of hugs. Spend time with pets and other animals. Speak the truth. Remember what matters most to you and spend time contemplating it. Let it bring meaning and purpose to your life in your time of trial. Create. Sing, dance, write, paint, take photographs. And in conversation with your doctor, indulge liberally in alternative therapies: yoga, reiki, the laying on of hands, music therapy—the  retuning of your frequencies—faith healing, exorcism, homeopathy, naturopathy, herbal remedies, old folk remedies, family healing traditions, chicken soup, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, especially if they are culturally relevant to you; Ayurvedic medicine, especially if it is culturally relevant to you—I’m only scratching the surface here, but you get the point. If you have the slightest inclination that it might aid in your healing process—that it might bring your life back into balance, that it might recreate some lost harmony—and it isn’t contraindicated with some other therapy you’re receiving, then try it.

Third, be willing to fight for healing. When necessary, be direct, be assertive, be aggressive. As Unitarian Universalists we talk about discerning who we are, what we’re passionate about, what our purpose is. We talk about being our truest, most authentic selves. On many occasions I’ve watched people struggling to heal, and everything they know about themselves just disappears. They listen to everyone but themselves, and there’s no fight in them. And on many occasions I’ve witnessed just the opposite: People struggling to heal suddenly realize they’re not healing because the healthcare system isn’t responding to them, isn’t seeing them, isn’t caring for them. And when this dawns on them, and they become angry about it, suddenly they gain wonderful, powerful clarity about who they are, about the value and sacredness of their own life, and they find their voice.  And they start fighting. It’s your body, it’s your health, it’s your life: fight for what you need. And if you don’t feel strong enough to fight on your own, look for allies and advocates.

Fourth, discern root causes. Sometimes healing doesn’t come. A cold lingers for weeks; a back aches with no respite; sleep never seems to arrive or doesn’t last; a wound refuses to close; the wrong cells start dividing, start spreading—words and names don’t come as easily to mind as they used to; nerves go numb; physical strength wanes; emotions come more forcefully than they should, and don’t quite match the moment; memory fades; meds lose efficacy; relationships fray. We lose confidence. Why am I not getting better? Why am I not healing? Perhaps you’ve been focusing too much on the symptom, and not its root.

For a simple example, I have pain in my lower back due to arthritis and deteriorating disks. Usually I can help my body manage the pain trough stretching, exercise and taking the occasional ibuprofen. But sometimes the pain persists despite these treatments. I’ve learned that this persistent, untouchable pain almost always correlates with high levels of stress in other parts of my life. The symptom is in my back, but the intervention I need is emotional and spiritual. So often the reason our body’s natural healing tendencies don’t work is not because they are broken, but because they are blocked by stress, fear, grief, anxiety; or they are stunted by a larger culture whose guiding values and practices conflict constantly and relentlessly with the values and practices we hold most dear; or they are weakened because something essential is missing from our lives—healthy relationships, community, safety, peace, meaning, purpose. Sometimes all these things are happening at once and it’s difficult to know why healing isn’t occurring. Often we know the what but not the why. I know arthritis and deteriorating disks cause back pain. But I don’t always know why the pain persists or why it is more intense than usual. I have to stop and examine why I’m experiencing stress and what is weighing on me. I have to discern the root.

Finally, when healing fails, seek wholeness. Healing may not always be possible, but wholeness is our birthright. In her meditation, “Mending,” Nancy Shaffer asks, “How shall we mend you, sweet Soul? / With these, I think, gently, / we can begin: we will mend you / with a rocking chair, some raisins; / a cat, a field of lavender beginning /now to bloom. We will mend you with songs / remembered entirely the first time ever they are heard. / We will mend you with pieces of your own sweet self, sweet Soul—with what you’ve taught / from the very beginning.” She’s not referring to physical healing. She’s referring to returning to a state of balance and harmony, an original state, a primordial state, a womb state. “With what you’ve taught /from the very beginning.” She’s referring to wholeness.

Sometimes our best efforts at healing, and the best efforts of our physicians, simply aren’t enough. What I’ve come to trust is that even in such situations, even when the prognosis is grim, we can still attain wholeness. Sometimes, through the course of our attempts to heal, we realize that we’ve repaired long-broken relationships. We realized that we’ve forgiven those who’ve wronged us. And we’ve accepted forgiveness from those we’ve wronged. Sometimes, through the course of our attempts to heal, we suddenly realize that we’re deeply in touch with our passions, that we’re affirming and celebrating the things that matter most. Even when the body’s natural tendencies toward healing no longer work, we can still be the people of integrity and purpose we long to be. And with that realization comes an experience of completeness, of fulfillment, of enduring, abiding peace. It can happen at any age. That’s wholeness. When healing fails, may wholeness come.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Mark 10: 51-52.

[2] For an excellent and far more nuanced discussion of this longstanding assumption of the role of spirituality in healing, see Bowler, Katie, “Death, The Prosperity Gospel, and Me: Some Christians Believe God Rewards the Faithful, So Why Did I Get Stage 4 Cancer?” New York Times, Sunday Review, February 14, 2016. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=0.

[3] Flurry, Henry S., “Open My Heart” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1013.

February 2016 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

Do you have a friend or acquaintance who lives in the Greater Manchester area who you think is a Unitarian Universalist but just doesn’t know it yet? Do you have a friend or acquaintance who lives in either Hartford or Tolland County who you think would identify closely with the Unitarian Universalist principles? Do you have a friend or acquaintance who would thrive in the midst of a loving, liberal religious community? Do you have a child who has a friend who you think would like the religious education program at UUS:E? If your answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then I highly encourage you to invite that friend or acquaintance to join all of us at UUS:E on February 14 for worship and the Chocolate auction.

Unitarian Universalism has a long-standing love-hate relationship with evangelism. Because we UUs refuse to identify our faith as the one, true faith, and because we hold deep respect for other religions, we have often not felt a strong need to spread our “good news.” We’ve relied on those who might appreciate Unitarian Universalism to find us on their own. This is important: we don’t proselytize. We don’t try to impose our faith on others. We pursue interfaith relationships and value religious pluralism, rather than anxiously trying to convert others to our way of believing. However, it is also true that we have good news. It is also true that our principles can save lives. It is also true that the world needs our message of freedom, reason, acceptance, compassion and love. So why not tell others about Unitarian Universalism? Why not invite others in?

Last June the UUS:E Policy Board commissioned a “Growth Team” to develop strategies for growing our congregation specifically, and for growing Unitarian Universalism more broadly. Jason Corsa and Peggy Gagne chair the team. Members include Nancy Pappas, Carol Marion, Michelle Spadaccini, Beth Zambrano, Louisa Graver, Jean Knapp and me. One thing is clear: if we want to grow, we’re going to need to talk to others about our faith. This makes sense. Most experts on church growth will tell you that for congregations of all sizes, the most reliable path to growth is “word of mouth.” If you’re excited about your faith community, then others will be too. Having a good website with up-to-date information also makes a difference, but there is nothing like a face-to-face invitation to make a person feel welcome in your faith community. We’ve designated February 14 as “Bring a Friend to Church” Sunday. I encourage everyone to do just that: invite a friend (or acquaintance) to join you at UUS:E for worship, and then stay for the chocolate auction. Invite a friend or acquaintance who isn’t part of a faith community already. Invite someone who already possesses liberal religious values. Invite someone who may be lonely or looking for community. Invite them.

We’re working on some incentives. We will offer a certain amount of “UUS:E Bucks” to be spent at the Chocolate Auction to everyone who brings a friend on the 14th. But even if your friend can’t make it then, invite them for another Sunday. And even if you can’t think of anyone to invite on the 14th, keep looking. Consider every Sunday to be “Bring a Friend to Church” Sunday. Because we do have good news—news that saves lives—news that matters in a hurting world. There is no reason to keep it a secret!

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

 

With love,

Rev. Josh

When Seeing Isn’t Believing

Rev. Josh Pawelek

IMG_0787I question the definition of religion that begins with belief. To begin with belief—to assume from the beginning that religion requires belief—limits the scope of the religious life too sharply.  

I welcome the definition of religion that begins with discernment of the things that matter most in our lives. Such a definition expands the scope of the religious life and makes religion accessible to people who would otherwise turn away.

I chafe at news reports about religious issues that equate being religious with belief in God.[1] They overlap. They certainly overlap in my spiritual life. But they are not the same thing. I resist the notion that to be religious one must be a believer. I offer instead that the hallmarks of a religious life are questioning, imagining, wondering, being curious, being in dialogue, learning, reasoning, following intuition, being alert, living soulfully, and loving abundantly.

I appeal to the work of Karen Armstrong, one of the world’s most well-known scholars of religion. In her 2006 book, The Great Transformation,” which chronicles the rise of the great world religions during what she calls the Axial Age—approximately 900 to 200 BCE—she says: “It is frequently assumed … that faith is a matter of believing certain creedal propositions. Indeed, it is common to call religious people ‘believers,’ as though assenting to the articles of faith were their chief activity. But most of the Axial philosophers had no interest whatever in doctrine or metaphysics. A person’s theological beliefs were a matter of total indifference to somebody like the Buddha. Some sages steadfastly refused to discuss theology, claiming that it was distracting and damaging. Others argued that it was immature, unrealistic, and perverse to look for the kind of absolute certainty that many people expect religion to provide. All of the traditions that were developed during the Axial Age pushed forward the frontiers of human consciousness and discovered a transcendent dimension in the core of their being, but they did not necessarily regard this as supernatural, and most of them refused to discuss it. Precisely because the experience was ineffable, the only correct attitude was reverent silence…. What mattered was not what you believed, but how you behaved.”[2]

If I may, let me adapt that last sentence. “What matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live.”

The title of this sermon is “When Seeing Isn’t Believing.” I said in my announcement for the service that “nothing dampens the spiritual life more than a strongly held belief.” That was meant to be provocative. It’s not entirely fair. There are many people with strongly held beliefs who also have rich, undampened spiritual lives. I count myself among them. My concern is really with a species of belief: belief marked by absolute certainty— theological certainty, doctrinal certainty, moral certainty. My concern is with beliefs so strong, so staunch, so firm, so dogmatic there is no room for human beings being human—no room for questions, creativity, imagination and curiosity; no room for learning and growing, for changing one’s heart and mind, for making mistakes; no room for sitting, talking and working with those who believe differently; no room for the soul. Often it is true: the stronger the belief, the less room for one’s humanity. In some instances, the stronger the belief—the more anxious, the more fear-based, the more desperate the belief—the less religious the living. The staunch believer is often unwilling to explore gray areas, to question, to engage deeply with difference, to wrestle with doubt. If religion is to begin with belief, I want nothing to do with it. I want a religion that begins with discernment of the things that matter most.

Note: through a rich process of discernment I may arrive at strong beliefs, strong convictions. But I will have gotten there through wondering and questioning, through searching and journeying, through creating and experimenting. I will have gotten there through the use of these wonderful human capacities we all possess in some measure. But I also may go through my discernment process and not arrive at any beliefs. I may arrive at more questions. I may arrive at silence, at mystery, at awe, at wonder, at emptiness, at surrender, at relinquishment—and I would be no less religious!

In using the title, ‘When Seeing Isn’t Believing,’ I’m playing with that old idiom, ‘seeing is believing.’ I don’t reject the idiom. There’s certainly some truth to it. If I can see it—taste it, touch it, smell it, hear it—if I can measure it—then I have some basis for proclaiming it is real. I have no reason to doubt what my senses or my data tell me exists. I believe it. In playing with the idiom, though, I’m offering a way to conceive of the religious life beyond belief. By ‘seeing’ I mean a process of discernment. When I say ‘seeing is not believing,’ I mean it’s important in the beginning to decouple discernment and belief, to remove the assumption that the purpose of the religious life is to believe correctly. Use every capacity you have—your senses, your creativity, your gifts and talents, your passions, your past, your relationships, your dreams, your intuitions, your intellect, your mind—use it all, but don’t use it for the purpose of finding a belief. Use it to find the things that matter most, to identify what it sacred to you. Use it to live a life of meaning and purpose. Use it to serve others. That’s religion. Beliefs may emerge—and if so, then believe! But they may not. Seeing isn’t necessarily believing. Belief does not test the depth of one’s religiousness. What matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live.

I’ve been forming some new ideas about what religious living means. It started when I decided to teach a course on Thomas Moore’s 2014 book A Religion of One’s Own. Thomas Moore is a former Catholic monk, a psychotherapist, and a popular spiritual writer, perhaps most famous for his 1992 book, Care of the Soul. It took me a while to decide to teach this book, mainly because, as a parish minister who wants people to participate in the life of the congregation, promoting the idea that one doesn’t need organized religion to be religious, that one can simply have a religion of and on one’s own, well, that doesn’t seem consistent with growing a congregation. But Moore doesn’t devalue church, synagogue, mosque, temple or sangha. In an increasingly secular, technology-addicted culture where, he says, “there is little room left over for religion,” what matters most to him is that the people he serves learn how to deepen their religious lives and live soulfully. He’s not concerned about where it happens; he’s concerned that it happens. For some it happens on their own. For some it happens in a congregation. For some it happens both ways. As far as I’m concerned, any organized religion that emphasizes discernment, searching and creativity over strict belief and doctrinal adherence is supporting its people in the kind of religious living Moore describes.

I find Moore’s book unexpectedly liberating. He makes a distinction between spirituality and soul work. I didn’t recognize this distinction at first. I thought it was confusing and unnecessary. And then it hit me—it really hit me—this distinction makes religion possible for people regardless of belief. This distinction allows for an atheist and a theist to share common religious language and a common process of discernment while believing entirely differently.

What is the distinction between spirituality and soul work? Here’s a story. During my interview with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) in April of 1999—the 50 minutes that would determine whether I could begin professional ministry—someone on the interview panel said, ‘describe your spiritual life.” I had secretly been dreading this. While I felt confident in my overall ability as a minister, I also felt that my spiritual life needed a lot of work. I didn’t have an intentional spiritual practice. I didn’t have a prayer life. I couldn’t meditate—still can’t today. Nothing that fell into the category of ‘spiritual practice’ appealed to me. I could say “I believe in God,” but I didn’t have a strong or regular experience of God that I could report to the MFC. I wanted more than anything to be honest and straightforward with the panel. I wanted to be myself. But I didn’t think it would go over well to say, “I feel my spiritual life is lacking, but please let me be a minister!” I put my best spin on it. I told them I felt I was still at the beginning of my spiritual life and that I saw spirituality as something that would unfold and deepen through the course of my ministry.

Some jaws dropped. Some faces looked puzzled. I thought, well, that’s it for me; at least I told the truth.  But then someone said, essentially, “Josh, I beg to differ. Your life is full of music and rhythm and running and paying attention to your health and well-being, and you write wonderful prayers and meditations and sermons and you dedicate time and energy to social justice work. You have a deeply spiritual life.”  And I said, essentially, “Oh, yeah, well, of course—that! Then I remember being quiet for a moment. And I smiled. And I said something like, “All those things are meaningful to me. Thank you.” And the interview continued.

I was caught—and many of us get caught—on a definition of spirituality that assumes a connection to spirit or God—to some power beyond the physical world. That definition isn’t wrong, but it wasn’t useful for me at that time. Luckily the interviewers weren’t caught on that definition, and they were content with a much more mundane and earthly list of practices. Thomas Moore is also interested in that more mundane list—but he would distinguish it from my spiritual life. He’d call it my soul work. In pursuing those things I am caring for my soul. If I’m reading Moore correctly, he defines spirituality, like many do, as a practice or way of living that connects one to God or spirit. He says “People often focus on the spiritual side of religion: beliefs, morals, eternity, and the infinite.”[3] He doesn’t argue that spirituality in this sense is wrong, though he seems to find it too abstract to be useful. He suggests that the way into religious living is through the soul. Through soul work one can begin to discern the things that matter most. Through soul work many paths may open up. One may enter into a robust spiritual life, encountering spirit, encountering gods and goddesses. Or one may find beauty, depth and sacredness in the mundane, in the ordinary, in the garden, the simple, hearty meal, the service project, the blade of grass, the lone, wild bird, the freshly fallen snow, the downward facing dog, the quiet mind, a letter to the editor, a cup of tea with a good friend, the surgeon’s skilled hands, a memorable dream, a haunting melody. Or one may discern there is no difference between the gods and the ordinary stuff of life.

Moore resists offering a concrete definition of the soul. In Care of the Soul he said “It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway: the soul prefers to imagine. We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth…. When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars—good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart.”[4] In A Religion of One’s Own, he says soul is “a mysterious word that eludes definition…. We talk about people, places and houses that have soul. Soul is the unreachable depth, felt vitality, and full presence of a person or even a thing…. Soul is the invisible, mysterious and softly radiant element that infuses your being and makes you human.”[5]

Moore’s suggestions for soul work seem simple an obvious at first: spend time in nature, pay attention to your dreams, review your past, take time to feel your feelings and understand them, surround yourself with art, weave eros into your life in healthy ways, listen to your muses and respond creatively to them, read great books, wrestle with your shadow side, notice coincidence and serendipity, learn to follow your intuitions, pursue your passions. They sound simple, but they aren’t when one approaches them with intentionality on a sustained basis. All of these practices are tools for discernment. They help us cultivate depth, help us see into or beyond the mundane to the sacred, help us see beauty, help us see the things that matter most. All of these practices cultivate in us a capacity to engage the world with imagination, to ask “what if?” “What if” is the imagination’s question. What if I leave my job and do the work I feel called to do? What if I do that writing, that painting, that sculpting, that speaking that I feel called to do? What if God is real? What if God isn’t. What if there is a spirit that moves among us and connects all to all? What if there isn’t? What if I act on my anger about injustice and violence and war? What if? What if? What if? Imagine, because what matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live. Religious imagination is a key to depth.

Soul may be difficult to define, but there is a profound invitation here to discover, name and knit together the essential pieces of you—the pieces without which you would not be you; the pieces that, when dampened and muted, you are not you; the pieces that, when buried, overwhelmed and crushed, you are not you. And we are, so often, not our essential selves. But even in this highly secularized and technology-addicted culture, those essential pieces of us poke through. Our soul pokes through. It gives hints here and there, shows up in our dreams and intuitions, rides along at the heart of our strongest desires, and even makes itself known in tea leaves and angel cards. The world picks up on our soul, even when we don’t. The world reflects our soul back to us in melodies that catch our ear, images that catch our eye, smells that activate long-dormant memories. The soul comes to us in insights and aha-moments, eurekas and amens. It comes to us in our deepest fears and our greatest joys. The world reflects back to us, but are we aware? Are we alert? Are we ready? Soul work makes us ready. Soul work enables us to bring together the essential pieces of us, to let them reveal to us the things that matter most, to let them speak, shine, shimmer and sparkle.

Seeing isn’t always believing. What matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live.

Amen and blessed be.  

[1] A good example of this tendency of the media to equate being religious with belief in God is Nuwer, Rachel, “Will Religion Ever Disappear,” BBC online, December 19th, 2014: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20141219-will-religion-ever-disappear?ocid=ww.social.link.email.

[2] Armstrong, Karen, The Great Transformation: The Beginnings of Our Religious Traditions (New York: Anchor Books, 2006) pp. xvii-xviii.

[3] Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World (New York: Avery/Penguin, 2014) p. 3.

[4] Moore, Thomas, Care of the Soul, (New York: HarperCollins, 1992) pp. xi-xii.

[5] Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World (New York: Avery/Penguin, 2014) p. 2.

Water for Flint — UUS:E Fifth Sunday Collection

1-31 Flint Water CrisisBy now, many of us are familiar with the water crisis in Flint, MI. At last Monday’s Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration at Faith Congregational Church in Hartford, Rev. Steve Camp launched a campaign to collect water and water filters for the people of Flint. Many UUS:E members in attendance felt strongly that our congregation ought to participate. Since then, the campaign has been adopted by United Church of Christ congregations throughout southern New England. UUS:E members and friends are invited to participate in this effort in two ways:

First, Faith Congregational Church, now in partnership with a consortium Hartford north-end churches, is arranging for actual water to be delivered from Hartford to Flint. Anyone who would like to donate water, preferably in large containers, is welcome to bring it to the UUS:E meeting house between now and Tuesday, January 26th. Members of the UUS:E Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee will deliver the water to Faith Church.

Second, our ‘fifth Sunday; community outreach offering on January 31st will be donated to the United Church of Christ’s Disaster Ministries collection for water filters and replacement cartridges. 

If you have any questions about this effort or wish to be more involved, please contact Rev. Josh at revpawelek@sbcglobal.net or (860) 652-8961. 
If you are unable to bring water to the meeting house, or plan not to be present on the 31st but wish to donate, you can also donate to the United Way of Genesee County’s effort to raise money for filters and cartridges here.
Rev. Camp says: Friends, I know that this remains a very fluid situation at best. I only ask that you do what you deem appropriate and right by the people of Flint. I intend to keep my eye on the ball, not on who will get credit for doing a good thing. I know that your decision making will make a difference for the people we seek to help and know that I stand ready to be helpful to you in ways I can. Be blessed. Steve.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for your generosity!
–Rev. Josh

Perhaps Struggle is All We Have

Moral Monday CTThe first title for this sermon was “Where Do We Go From Here?”—a reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” The intention behind that title is still at work at the heart of this sermon, and is indeed at work at the heart of all my sermons that focus on social justice work. That intention is twofold—to reflect on what it means to engage in social justice work in our time; and then to suggest, as best I can, the most effective ways we—and by “we” I mean we as Unitarian Universalists and we as a unique, liberal faith community—can most effectively participate in social justice work here in Greater Manchester, greater Hartford, and Connecticut. What are the most pressing social justice issues in our time and place? Who is organizing in response to these issues? With whom can we partner? Where and how can we exert our own individual and institutional power to create the greatest positive social change? In short, where do we go from here?

I decided on a different title, a quote from author and The Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent book Between the World and Me: “Perhaps Struggle is All We Have.” This is my seventeenth year in ministry, my thirteenth in this pulpit. I have always made social justice work a centerpiece of my ministry. When I came into the ministry I possessed, as many new ministers do, a strong idealism. I was confident that a certain kind of beloved community could be fashioned within Unitarian Universalism, that we could build anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural identity and practice within our congregations. I also possessed a conviction that the problems of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and environmental injustice could be substantively addressed in my lifetime, that I would come to the end of my career, look back, and know that I, along with the congregations I’ve served—motivated by our principles—had played a role in successful movements to eradicate the most pernicious injustices of our time. I had a vision that I would come to the end of my life and be living in a society where racism is no longer baked into our social, economic and political systems the way it is now. Similarly with sexism, with homophobia, with classism. I had a vision that we would overcome.

I still have that vision. I have not lost my idealism, my confidence or my conviction, except for the part about coming to the end of my career and living in a transformed society. That’s not going to happen. But that’s OK. I’m much more aligned today with the wisdom of the 20th-century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope.”[1]

I haven’t lost my idealism because I’ve witnessed and been part of too many social justice victories. So have you. I know we can win. However, none of those victories was an end-point; none meant, we’re done, we’ve arrived.  Marriage equality was a monumental social justice victory, but it didn’t end homophobia and heterosexism. The Affordable Care Act was a monumental social justice victory, but it has not brought health care justice to every American. Connecticut’s addition of transgender people to its anti-discrimination statutes was a social justice victory, but it didn’t end transphobia. Governor Malloy’s Second Chance Society, which made significant changes to Connecticut’s criminal justice statutes was a social justice victory, but it hasn’t ended mass incarceration of people of color. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Brown vs. Board of Education, Roe vs. Wade—the list goes on and on, victory after victory—but none of them was an end-point. None of them achieved the beloved community. These victories matter not because they conclude our collective social justice struggles, but because they keep them going. They keep us moving toward our vision, toward justice, toward a society that honors the inherent worth and dignity of every person. They remind us we can make real change, we can improve suffering peoples’ lives, we can win and we are thus justified in continuing. The fact that we’ve won in the past assures us we are not naïve to take next steps, to ask “Where do we go from here?” After seventeen years of ministry and 48 years of life, I am still an idealist.

But my idealism is different, tempered. Seventeen years ago I wouldn’t have said that just because history tells us we can win, doesn’t mean we will. I see it more clearly now. There are no guarantees, there never have been. Peoples’ willingness to struggle for what they believe in makes all the difference, but it doesn’t always make a difference. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing to his teenage son, articulating the profound vulnerability of Black bodies in the United States, articulating the historical and ongoing violence against Black bodies in the United States, says, “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.”[2] He challenges the assumption so many liberal activists and people of faith take to heart, that we will eventually win. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[3] Coates says, essentially, “maybe so, but don’t count on it.” He suggests our previous social justice victories can lull is into a false sense of inevitability. “Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point,” he writes. “Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up each morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”[4]

I’ve underlined these words multiple times, highlighted and starred them, dog-eared the page. I’ve come back to them often. They’ve become scripture to me, though I’m not sure I fully understand their meaning. The God of history is an atheist. I need to sit with that, to pray on it, maybe shed tears. The universe prefers struggle over hope. I’m not ready to let hope go. I know Coates isn’t talking to me—he’s talking to his son. But there is something universal here. The universe prefers struggle over hope. Struggle sounds harsh beside the softness, the ‘everything-will-be-alright-ness’ of hope. Struggle is mired in the here and now, in staying alive, waking up, surviving, getting by; in next steps, in ‘where do we go from here?’ In social justice work struggle means painstaking processes of building relationships, attending meetings, taking actions, losing over and over, learning from mistakes, starting again, and being supremely patient. Hope, so much easier, tells us a better future is coming. But that future is impossible without struggle.

Many will object to Coates’ downgrading of hope. Without hope, why go on? Why care? These, of course, are questions of despair. Coates is quite clear: “This is not despair.” Given that there has been and continues to be so much violence and oppression against Black people—and I would add against women, gay, lesbian and bisexual people, transgender people, poor people, low-wage workers, immigrants, refugees, elders—there are unlimited reasons for despair. But Coates is saying hope isn’t a sufficient antidote to despair precisely because there are no guarantees. You might win, but you might not. God might bring your through, but how often does that not happen? Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Aquon Salmon, Malik Jones, Amadou Diallo. Coates adds the heart-rending police murder of Prince Carmen Jones to that long list. The world can let you down in a flash no matter how hopeful you are. Given the pervasiveness of injustice—given the violence, the oppression—given the sheer tenuousness of life, hope for a better future isn’t the source of our integrity. Our willingness to struggle is the source of our integrity. Our willingness to work for human survival, human dignity, human community, peace, justice and planetary sustainability despite our lack of certainty, despite knowing we may lose, despite knowing it all may be for naught—that is the source of our integrity. I am not sure what saves us ultimately, but I am sure our willingness to struggle for what we believe in gives meaning to our lives and saves us today. Recasting Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by struggle.”

I invite you to live with this idea in the coming weeks. Sit with it. Examine it. Pray on it. Shed tears. And I invite you, especially on this weekend as the nation commemorates the life and struggle of Martin Luther King, Jr., to listen not for messages of hope, but for invitations to struggle for justice.

I have a few invitations for you now. Our congregation, primarily through the work of our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee, has been very involved in the Black Lives Matter movement through our partnership with Moral Monday CT. We’ve held workshops on non-violent civil disobedience and a course on “Revolutionary Conversations.” There’ve been actions to address police brutality, income inequality in Greater Hartford, and racist hiring practices at the baseball stadium construction site. We know this kind of engagement is not for everyone, does not appeal to everyone. In fact, in most congregations involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, it is usually only a small cadre of people who are highly involved. Mindful of this, and on behalf of the committee, I invite you to join an open conversation about Black Lives Matter next Sunday at 12:30. We’d like to hear what others in the congregation think and feel about the movement. What do you know? What do you need to know? And we’d like to put at the center of that conversation the question, should we place a Black Lives Matter lawn sign on our property along West Vernon Street? Many congregations have done this. Some have had their signs vandalized or stolen. What do you think? Is this a constructive way for us to express our collective concern for Black lives, to proclaim our ongoing intentions as a congregation to struggle for racial justice? Let’s have a conversation.

Here’s another invitation, though it is less specific. Given Connecticut’s age demographics, the state is going to need 10,000 new Personal Care Assistants in the coming decade. Personal Care Assistants or PCAs are the people who work in someone’s home providing medical care, cooking, cleaning, companionship and sometimes childcare. They work mostly with elders, people with disabilities, or people living with a chronic illness. Sometimes they work for agencies, sometimes as independent contractors. Who are the people who hold these jobs? They are primarily women, who are immigrants, who are people of color—the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. In these jobs they are extraordinarily vulnerable. What many don’t know is that PCAs have not historically been protected under national fair labor standards laws. This has meant that PCAs are not entitled by law to receive the minimum wage, overtime pay, paid time off, or pay for travel between jobs. They are not entitled to receive health insurance or workers’ compensation if injured on the job. They have no legal recourse in the event of harassment in the workplace, and can be dismissed from their job without warning, reason, or severance pay—and often end up homeless because of this. They receive minimal training and have few, if any, professional standards, which compromises the overall care they are able to provide. Is it surprising that a class of jobs held primarily by women who are immigrants who are people of color is more akin to a system of exploitation than legitimate employment?

This is changing. The federal law is changing, and there are efforts underway to change Connecticut’s laws, but the status of PCAs is still tenuous. There are opportunities for us to strengthen these jobs, to make them decent, middle class jobs, so that PCAs can support their families, so that we can slowly lessen the tide of escalating income inequality and the race-based income and wealth gaps in the United States. These opportunities are coming through partnerships with other congregations across the state, with the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford, with a phenomenal organization called the Brazilian Cultural Center, and with a regional faith-based community organizing entity called the InterValley Project. I expect there will be educational forums here later in the winter or early spring. I hope you will feel called to attend those forums, called to learn more about these issues, and called, in some way, to join this struggle.

There are more invitations coming—invitations to become involved in the struggles to resettle refugees, to protect undocumented immigrants, to further advance criminal justice reform, to continue our efforts to support ex-incarcerated people. Yes, the word struggle carries a harshness with it, a hardness. It implies messiness, difficulty, perhaps even suffering. Of course, there is messiness, difficulty and suffering in life whether we choose to struggle or not. But struggle is not only harsh and hard. It is also a source of integrity, a marker of our idealism and compassion. Struggle is the path to a meaningful, purposeful life. It can be filled with joy, with new learnings about self and others, with new relationships, with growth, and it is the only way to achieve our vision. So let us struggle together, knowing there are no guarantees, no irrepressible justice.  Let us struggle together, knowing it may be all we have.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Neibuhr, Reinhold, “We Must Be Saved,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and UUA, 1993) #461.

[2] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015) p. 70.

[3] This quote was likely adapted by King from the Unitarian Transcendentalist minister, Theodore Parker. Parker’s whole quote is less well-known than King’s shortened version: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

[4] Coates, Between the World and Me, pp. 70-71.

Hinged Between Worlds

1  JanusMindful that a new year has begun, I want to play around with the spirituality of thresholds. The ancient and somewhat obscure Roman god from whom January takes its name—Janus—is the double-faced god who looks both backward and forward. He is the god of transitions, the god of beginnings, the god of doors and entry-ways, the god of thresholds. I suspect that because January 1st is a date in the calendar, we are prone to talking and thinking about our life thresholds in terms of time. Janus looks back on the past and forward to the future. Similarly, a New Year’s resolution marks a transition between our past and our future. “From this day forward, I will do X,” or “I will stop doing Y.” My future self will be different than my past self. Out with the old, in with the new. Indeed, any resolution we make and keep—no matter when it happens—is a door, an entry-way, a threshold between different eras of our lives.

All last week I contemplated how I might preach to you about such thresholds, but for days I got nowhere. Then I saw the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. It was fun. If you’re familiar with Star Wars you know certain characters have a high sensitivity to the Force. Some of them train to become Jedi warriors. As the Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi says in the original Star Wars movie, “The Force is what gives a Jedi … power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”[1] The force surrounds us. This isn’t a temporal image. It’s a spatial image. Though most inhabitants of the Star Wars universe are completely unaware of the force, it is all around them at all times.

This led me to wonder about thresholds not in time, but in space. So many religions speak of unseen worlds, divine realms, angelic spheres, heavens and hells, and invisible sources of spiritual power that, like the Force, surround us at all times. In the Christian New Testament book of Luke, Jesus says “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed. Nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”[2] So, if it’s among us—if it surrounds us—but we can’t observe it, how do we access it? What or where is the threshold? How does one cross from this world of flesh, blood, bark, stone, air, fire and water into the unseen kingdom?

This likely wasn’t the question you brought with you to worship this morning. But it is a question people across the planet bring with them to worship or spiritual practice every day.  How do I get from this world of human frailty and suffering to God’s world, to Heaven, to peace, to bliss, to nirvana, to moksha? Unitarian Universalists typically don’t pose our big spiritual questions with the expectation that the answers lie in a completely different world or state of being. We tend towards a this-worldly spiritual orientation. We ask: “how do we come to terms with this world of human frailty and suffering?” “How do we transform this world so that it is more just, fair and loving? Still, even if you’re like me and you suspect this world we experience with our senses is the only world, and this life with all its joys and sorrows is the only life, isn’t there a place in your heart for stories about hidden worlds, unseen powers, and truths just beyond the surface of our knowing?

Earlier we watched a video clip of ten-year-old Harry Potter stands between platforms nine and ten at King’s Cross station, staring at the brick wall barrier Mrs. Weasley has just instructed him to walk through. “Best to do it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous,” she adds.[3] Not having any options other than to trust what his senses can’t accept, Harry dashes at the wall and crosses through. “A scarlet steam engine was waiting next to a platform…. A sign overhead said Hogwarts Express, eleven o’clock. Harry looked behind him and saw a wrought-iron archway where the barrier had been, with the words Platform Nine and Three-Quarters on it. He had done it.”[4] He has entered a previously unseen world—a world of magic, mystery, power, and truth.

I could’ve shown clips or read passages from any number of movies, books or plays: Lewis Carroll’s 19th century novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—remember the rabbit hole—and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There; J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, in which one arrives at the secret island of Neverland by flying to the “second star on the right and then straight on ‘till morning;” or C.S. Lewis’ 1950 novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which the wardrobe in an old country mansion is the threshold between this world and the fantasy world of Narnia. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series features thresholds between this world and a Hogwarts-like (though much more adult) school of magic called Brakebills, and then thresholds between Brakebills and the Narnia-like (though much more deadly) world of Fillory. My family has become somewhat addicted to the ABC series Once Upon a Time in which the town of Storyville lies hidden in the back woods of Maine and is populated by fairytale characters who travel through portals between a variety of fantastic worlds including the Enchanted Forest, Neverland, Wonderland and Oz.

One of my favorites is the 1999 Wachowski Brothers movie, The Matrix, in which humans live in a computer simulation designed to mask the truth that they are enslaved by machines. Crossing the threshold from the simulated world to the real world requires swallowing the red pill. The guide, Morpheus, makes reference to Lewis Carroll, saying to Neo, whom he is trying to liberate, “You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

This is just the beginning of a list of western popular culture stories in which characters cross thresholds from known to unknown worlds. I’m sure many of you could add other titles. But this trope is not original to modern pop culture. Pop culture borrows it from religion which, at its core, responds to deep and ancient human longings to apprehend a world different from the one we inhabit, to transcend suffering and death, to make sense of mysterious and unexplainable phenomena, to experience God’s world, Heaven, peace, bliss. I suspect the ‘crossing from world to world’ scenario is so common and so beloved in pop culture precisely because it stirs up these deep and ancient human longings in us.

Religion told these stories first. Perhaps the hero’s journey to the underworld is the most ancient motif. The hero may seek the underworld for various reasons: to commune with the dead, to gain immortality, or to rescue someone who is a captive there. (Luke Skywalker’s journey to the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia in Star Wars is this exact motif.) Underworld journeys appear in Sumerian, Egyptian, Vedic, Hindu, Christian, Greek, Roman, Norse, Finnish, Welsh and Mayan mythologies—and that’s just the list from my seminary notes.

1 EzekielIn another version of the know-world-to-unknown-world story, some Hebrew prophets describe a visit to the divine realm to receive their prophetic call. The prophet Ezekiel has one of the more elaborate and, we might say, psychedelic, descriptions of the divine realm. I encourage you to read the first two chapters of Ezekiel—makes Wonderland look tame and sedate. The prophet Isaiah describes God, surrounded by three winged seraphs, sitting on a high and lofty throne in a temple shaking and filling with smoke.[5] Not all prophets make this crossing. Sometimes the prophetic books just begin with an announcement like, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah.” The prophets’ task was not to bring people to the divine realm, but to speak God’s word to the people in order to transform this world into one more in line with God’s vision. In a sense, the prophet becomes a threshold between the people and God.

This is true of Jesus as well, perhaps no more clearly than among second- and third-century Gnostic Christians. Bart Ehrman, professor of religion at the University of North Carolina, says Many Gnostics “believed that the material world we live in is awful at best and evil at worst, that it came about as part of a cosmic catastrophe, and that the spiritual beings who inhabit it (i.e., human spirits) are in fact entrapped or imprisoned here. Most of the people imprisoned in the material world of the body, however, do not realize the true state of things; they are like … someone sound asleep who needs to be awakened.” (The Matrix films use this same premise.) How does one cross the threshold? According to Erhman, in Gnosticism “the human spirit does not come from this world; it comes from … the divine realm. It is only when it realizes its true nature and origin that it can escape this world and return to the blessed existence of its eternal home. Salvation, in other words, comes through saving knowledge…. In Christian Gnostic texts, it is Jesus himself who comes down from the heavenly realm to reveal the necessary knowledge for salvation.”[6]

The Flammarion Engraving

The Flammarion Engraving

The picture on the front cover of your order of service, for me, ties all these different hidden world stories together. It is known as the Flammarion Engraving. Nicholas Camille Flammarion was a late 19th-century French astronomer and author who sought answers to the big questions through scientific study (astronomy) and religion (Spiritism) and, when those were insufficient, he wrote science fiction. The Flammarion Engraving first appeared in his 1888 book, The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology. The artist is unknown. A caption underneath the engraving reads: “A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch.” If you look closely at the picture, you can see that the missionary is reaching through this point between earth and sky to yet another realm. If I’m reading Flammarion correctly, for him there were many thresholds between worlds: the scientific method could reveal previously unknown aspects of reality; spiritual practice, specifically Spiritism, could bridge not only the realms of the living and the dead, but different planets as well; and the human imagination could propose explanations for mysteries science and religion could not adequately explain. When it came to his conviction that alien life exists on other planets, and that human souls could transmigrate to alien bodies on those planets, the line between science, religion and science fiction blurred completely.[7]

Although Flammarion discovered stars and moons, he never found aliens. And apparently his scientific studies of Spiritism ultimately left him doubting that it really worked. Still, I admire his openness to possibility, and I encourage that kind of openness in us. For even if you’re like me and you suspect this world we see, hear, smell, touch and taste is the only world, and this life with all its joys and sorrows is the only life, it is also true that we only grasp a thin layer of what this world and this life really are. We say we are connected to the whole of life, yet how often are we fully awake to our connectedness? We speak of the interdependent web of all existence, yet how often are we fully aware of our place in the web? There may not be thresholds to other worlds, but there are certainly thresholds that lead us more deeply into this world, more deeply into this life, more deeply into knowing, understanding, feeling, caring, loving. You may never get to push your luggage through a brick wall, or tumble down a rabbit hole, or visit God in a shaky, smoke-filled temple, or correctly interpret the secret teachings of Jesus, but you can stay open to hidden possibilities all around you. You can, in the very least, take time each day to pause, to breathe deeply, to experience your own body living, to ponder your place in the web, to become more fully awake to connection and oneness. These are thresholds too. And as you pass through them, you may encounter this one world and this one life differently, and that encounter may have the power to change you.

Even if you’re like me, even if you sense this is the only world and the only life, keep your heart open to possibility. Earlier I shared with you the poem “The Door” from the American poet Jane Hirshfield. She says, “a note waterfalls steadily / through us, / just below hearing.”[8] How often do we come to the threshold, about to hear the note, about to come to some deeper insight, about to witness some deeper truth about this world and this life, and we miss it. For any number of reasons we turn around, turn back, turn away because we’ve closed our hearts to new possibilities? The poet reminds us to breathe. She tells us of “the breath-space held between any call / and its answer.” So often breath is the threshold we are seeking, the act that causes us to slow down and pay attention, or to wake up or to change course. So often breathing gives us the presences of heart and mind to look differently, to listen differently, to feel differently. Breath, in the poet’s words, is “The rest note, / unwritten, / hinged between worlds, / that precedes change and allows it.”[9]

I take it on faith that there are sources of spiritual power all around us, available to us always. And I take it on faith that we are always “hinged between worlds.” Always. My prayer for each of us in these early days of 2016 is that we may keep our hearts open to possibility, so that when we come to thresholds—when that note waterfalling through our lives is about to sing—we may remember to pause, to breathe, to pray, to listen, to hear, to cross through and be changed.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] For a brief clip of this quote from Star Wars, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2YQJsbbWNA.

[2] Luke 17:20 -21 (New Revised Standard Version).

[3] Rowling, J.K., Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1997) p. 93.

[4] Ibid, pp. 93-4.

[5] Isaiah 6: 1-8.

[6] Ehrman, Bart, Lost Christianities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) pp. 59-60.

[7] For more information on Camille Flammarion, see Darling, David, “Flammarion, (Nicolas) Camille, (1842-1925),” Encyclopedia of Science: http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/F/Flammarion.html. For a brief contemporary biography, see Sherard, R.H., “Flammarion the Astronomer,” in McClure’s Magazine, 1894, vol. 2: http://todayinsci.com/F/Flammarion_Camille/FlammarionCamille-Bio.htm.

[8] Hirshfield, Jane, “The Door,” in Sewell, Marilyn, ed., Claiming the Spirit Within (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996) p. 321.

[9] Ibid.

Decolonizing Faith: Some Reflections on the Canonization of Junípero Serra

Rev. Josh Pawelek

My announcement for this sermon said “from Columbus Day to Thanksgiving, images of Native Americans flow in and out of the national consciousness.” They actually flow in and out of our consciousness, culture, language and media every day, but at least for me as a non-Native American person, I realize I am all-too-often unaware not only of the images, but of the actual people, their history, contributions and justice struggles. This has something to do with the legacy of colonization.

In this season we are reminded of the story of the first Thanksgiving, a story of peace between the Pilgrim settlers and the Wampanoags.[1] We know also that the colonial New England clash of civilizations was ultimately catastrophic for First Nations people. Frankly, I’m not aware of any experience of colonization anywhere on the planet that was not catastrophic in some way for First Nations people. I’m wondering this morning about the way whole societies continue to rationalize, excuse, justify and, most insidiously, forget the catastrophe part. I’m wondering how faith communities play a role in that rationalizing, excusing, justifying and forgetting and what spiritual impact it has on the people in those faith communities. I’m wondering about this because I see the legacy of colonization at work. I see it in opposition to Syrian refugees. I see it in anti-immigrant policies and calls for mass deportations. I see it in white supremacists shooting at a Black Lives Matter vigil in Minneapolis, shooting at mosques, shooting at churches. I see it in the continued experience of state-sanctioned violence against people of color. I see it in income and wealth inequality. I see it in our materialistic culture, and in the relentless corporate assault on the earth. In all of it I see an impulse to protect the prizes of the colonial era, even though they are no longer sustainable and so clearly unjust. So, I’m asking what it means to have a collective practice of decolonizing faith. As Unitarian Universalists who proclaim the principle of the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” I believe we are called to discern the truth of our nation’s colonial past, the way it persists not only in our national life but in our faith, and how we can work at overcoming its legacies.[2]

I hold deep admiration for Pope Francis.[3] I admire his clarion call for the decolonization of faith, which begins with apology. In his July address to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, sitting on the dais next to Evo Morales—the first person of the indigenous Aymara people elected President of Bolivia—Francis not only named the violence, poverty and exploitation that result from unbridled capitalism and continue to be the legacy of European colonialism globally, but he also apologized for Roman Catholicism’s role in that legacy. He said, “Many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God…. I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”[4] In an era in which it is so difficult for public figures to apologize for anything, let alone account for the historical sins of their institutions, I find the Pope’s request for forgiveness revolutionary, a critical step towards decolonizing faith in the Roman Catholic context and a model for all religions that share in the legacy of colonialism.

It was mystifying when Francis elevated the 18th-century Spanish missionary Junpero Serra to sainthood in Washington, DC in September. Serra essentially founded the Spanish mission system in California, one of the central institutions of Spanish colonialism.  In his homily, Francis spoke of Serra as separate from the abuses of the system he created: “Junípero Serra … was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He … made them his brothers and sisters. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”[5]

This is not the view of Serra among many Native Americans. To anyone who was listening, the outcry from Native America was deafening. Two days prior to the canonization, Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Native American Morning Star Institute, urged the Pope not to proceed, stating that “Serra’s canonization is a symbol that reverberates through time as anti-Indian…. It is incomprehensible that the Pope could apologize for [the crimes of colonialism], yet confer sainthood on a leading perpetrator of those very crimes.”[6]

In a statement in July, Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun tribal nation said: “Over 100,000 of our ancestors died as a result of the mission system. We have endured generations of trauma and abuse and we are still suffering the results in our families and in our Tribal Nations. At the end of the mission system, the Catholic Church needed an alibi for the intentional enslavement, torture, rapes, theft of our lands, cultures, and languages…. The Church created the myth that we wanted to be at the missions… they said we wanted a better religion, a better way to tend food crops. These are all lies.”[7] In an open letter to Francis, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians said: “In just one generation, the total population of all [Luiseño] villages suffered a greater than 90 percent population loss through disease and abuse brought by Fr. Serra’s missionization…. This rapid population loss in such a compressed time frame triggered a collapse of our indigenous societal structure and way of life and set into motion the atrocities and hardships that our people endured for nearly two centuries.”[8]

Historians tend to agree with the Indians’ assessment. Serra biographer Stephen Hackel[9] says, “If one looks at the legacy of Serra’s missions and what he was trying to do in California, there’s no question that his goal was to radically alter Native culture, to have Indians not speak their Native languages, to practice Spanish culture, to transform Native belief patterns in ways that would make them much less Native.”[10] California historian Robert Senkewicz offers a less oppressive view of Serra, yet agrees that “coercion and force were part of the mission system.”[11]

Regardless of his intentions and the love he claimed to feel for “the unbaptized,” Serra set in motion a system that had horrendous consequences for First Nations people. I don’t pretend to understand the canonization process in the Roman Catholic Church, but I think this canonization was wrong. The idea of “Saint” Serra conflicts with Francis’ bold critique of colonialism and capitalism. This was rationalization, excusing, justifying, forgetting. A truly decolonized faith could not canonize the architect of a system that destroyed countless indigenous lives and cultures.

I have a strong opinion here, but I want to confess something I observed in myself that underscores for me the need for decolonizing faith.  Since the canonization there have been four acts of anti-Serra vandalism—three at historic mission churches in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Carmel and one at a Serra statue in Carmel.[12] Paint has been thrown on church doorways, statues have been overturned—one decapitated—gravesites have been desecrated, graffiti proclaiming “Saint of Genocide” has been spray-painted. My first reaction to hearing this news was, “Well, of course. This is how people feel. Catholics need to understand the symbolic power of this canonization—how much real anger and pain it generates among Native Americans and their allies.” I had a very different reaction in October when I learned that black churches in St. Louis were being burned. I organized the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Board of Trustees to write a letter expressing solidarity to all seven churches that had been burned. But the thought of writing a letter to the three Californian Catholic Churches never occurred to me. I moved into a species of black-and-white thinking: Some are victims, some are perpetrators. Catholics need to understand their legacy and atone for their historical sins.

I am such an expert on what Catholics need to do! When I finally examined why I didn’t have a letter-writing impulse in response to vandalism at Catholic churches, I discovered a set of assumptions in me that boiled down to “they deserved it.” Realizing this made me sad, embarrassed and uncomfortable, not only because of the lack of compassion that lay behind it—I know nobody deserves to have their house of worship vandalized or attacked—but also because in that moment I was engaged in my own forgetting. Remember: as Unitarian Universalists, we are spiritual descendants of the Puritans who did essentially the same thing to indigenous people in New England as the Catholics did in California. Our spiritual forbears fought wars against the indigenous people, divided nations against each other, infected them with diseases, created missions to Christianize them, forced them to adopt European culture and language, forced them into slavery and indentured servitude, forced them onto reservations. It’s just as horrendous a history. And if someone were to throw paint on the doors of any of our churches in New England and then spray-paint graffiti saying “church of genocide,” it wouldn’t be all that different than the recent vandalism at Spanish mission churches. No, we are not holding our colonizing forbears as saints, but the rationale would be largely the same. In this light, my gut-reaction judgement of Catholics was not only shallowly self-righteous, but it also missed a larger point: there’s an opportunity for Catholics, UUs and Protestants to work together on decolonizing faith.

I’m not ready to preach on what I think such interfaith work might look like, but I can say that this work begins with remembering and telling the truth about the past. After remembering and truth-telling comes activism that confronts the legacies of colonialism—racism, environmental injustice, corporate abuses of workers and the land, unjust immigration policies, state-sanctioned violence, excessive war-making and even nation-building. Perhaps our support and presence at yesterday’s “Say ‘Yes’ to Syrian Refugees” rally in Hartford can serve as an example of an large, interfaith group working together to overcome a legacy of colonialism. 

Right now I want to name a way to position ourselves spiritually as individuals and as a faith community for entering into the work of decolonizing faith. I call it living in shades of gray. Colonization succeeded and lives on to the extent the colonizers and their heirs could and can demonize an ‘other.’ Historically it used strict, black-and-white racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender and class categories to exploit and enslave the other, to steal, plunder and rape, to build fences, walls, and prisons, to justify genocide. If you want to see it at work today, look for black and white thinking: Some people are welcomed in, others excluded. Some are rewarded, others punished. Some are saintly, others sinful. Some are legalized, others criminalized. Some are enlightened, others ignorant. Some are saviors, others need saving. Some peoples’ experience matters, others’ doesn’t. Some people get letters of solidarity, others don’t. The colonized mind and the colonized faith make hard distinctions between ‘we’ and ‘they,’ say “if you’re not with us you’re against us.” They do so in a flash, from the gut, without thought. Consider all the voices demanding that Syrian refugees be barred from entry into the United States, or demanding that all undocumented people be deported, or demanding that walls be erected on the borders. It feels to me like an effort to protect some outworn prize of the colonial era–a United States for people of European descent.

To counter this colonial mindset, we need a practice of living in shades of gray where black and white have nothing to cling to, have no hold over us. We need a practice of living in shades of gray where we can hear different stories, sing different songs, discern different truths; where we can imagine new possibilities, new futures; where we can learn to withhold judgement and embrace humanity in its fullness; where we can learn to be forgiving and forgiven; where we can remember and name all those false pieces of ourselves, those pieces of us imposed from beyond us, those labels that keep us from being our true selves, that keep us from being fully human.

May we practice living in shades of gray, slowly remembering and naming those histories of genocide and war, those traumas, those unjust systems, those economic inequalities, those assaults upon the land, those enduring sources of violence that keep all of us from being the beloved community. May we practice living in shades of gray, where we can act in solidarity with all those who struggle for justice for people and the earth, where we can admire a leader despite a decision we’re convinced is wrong; where we can slowly remember and name and apologize and prepare, so that when the light returns—when the gray that has turned to dark turns finally back to green—we will be ready with new selves—decolonized selves—working to create a more compassionate, just and peaceful future—a truly decolonized future.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Tirado, Michelle, “The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story, Indian Country Today Media Network, November 21, 20122. See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/11/22/wampanoag-side-first-thanksgiving-story-64076.

[2] I originally titled this this sermon “Decolonizing Our Faith, Part II” because I offered a sermon entitled “Decolonizing our Faith” in 2012: Pawelek, Josh, “Decolonizing our Faith,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, November 19, 2012. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/decolonizing-our-faith/.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “Pope Francis, Inverted Funnels, and Big Hearts Open,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, October 6, 2013. See: http://uuse.org/pope-francis-inverted-funnels-and-big-hearts-open/#.VkNNa7erTrc.

[4] Pope Francis, “Address at Expo Fair,” World Meeting of Social Movements, Santa Cruz, Bolivia, July 9th, 2015. See: http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2015/07/10/pope_francis_speech_at_world_meeting_of_popular_movements/1157291.

[5] The text to Pope Francis’ homily at the canonization mass of Junípero Serra is at: http://www.cruxnow.com/papal-visit/2015/09/23/pope-francis-homily-at-canonization-mass-of-junipero-serra/.

[6] Harjo, Suzan Shown, “Suzan Shown Harjo to Pope Francis: Don’t Canonize Junípero Serra,” Indian Country Today Media Network, September 21st, 2015. See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/09/21/suzan-shown-harjo-pope-francis-dont-canonize-junipero-serra-161825.

[7] Quoted in Deetz, Nanette, “Sainthood for Genocide Leader? Amah Mutsun Ask Pope Francis to Stop Junipero Serra Canonization,” Indian Country Today Media Network, July 16, 2015, See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/07/16/sainthood-genocide-leader-amah-mutsun-ask-pope-francis-stop-junipero-serra-canonization.

[8] Quoted in “4 Native Entities That Opposed the Canonization of Junípero Serra (to No Avail),” Indian Country Today Media Network, September 24, 2015. See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/09/24/4-native-entities-opposed-canonization-junipero-serra-no-avail-161878.

[9] Hackel is the author of Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013).

[10] Gaynor, Tim, “Sainthood for Founder of California Missions Angers Native American Groups,” Aljazeera America, May 28, 2015. See: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/5/28/sainthood-for-california-missions-founder-angers-native-american-groups.html.

[11] Quoted in Reese, Thomas, “Junipero Serra: Saint or Not?” National Catholic Reporter, May 15, 2015. See: http://ncronline.org/blogs/faith-and-justice/junipero-serra-saint-or-not.

[12] “Vandals Splatter Red Paint in Fourth St. Serra Attack,” Ventura County Star, November 4, 2015. See:  http://www.vcstar.com/news/state/vandals-splatter-red-paint-in-fourth-st-serra-attack.