The Invitation is Always There

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“If you keep thinking, you miss the flower,”[1] says Buddhist monk and global peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.” This is the meaning he derives from the story of the Buddha’s disciple, Mahakashyapa, a foundational story—an origin story—for Zen Buddhism. We shared Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the story earlier in the service. Unitarian Universalist minister and Soto Zen priest, James Ishmael Ford tells it this way:

A large gathering … came to hear a talk by the Buddha. Instead of speaking about enlightenment he simply held up a flower, twirling it slowly in his fingers. Of the whole assembly only one person understood—the Venerable Mahakashyapa. He smiled. Seeing the smile, the Buddha declared, “I have the all-pervading True Dharma, incomparable Nirvana, exquisite teaching of formless form. It does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside scriptures. I now hand it to Mahakashyapa.”[2] According to tradition, the founder of Zen Buddhism, the semi-mythical Bodhidharma, an Indian Buddhist who travelled to China in the sixth century, was the 28th successor to the Buddha through the lineage of Mahakashyapa.

In addition to being an origin story for Zen Buddhism, this story is also a koan, meaning it is itself an object of meditation. Like any koan, its meaning is not immediately, or perhaps ever, apparent to the rational, thinking mind. In response to any koan, one intuits their way to understanding more than thinks their way to understanding. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.” As I encounter Thich Nhat Hanh’s interpretation of this koan, I recognize that, though I think I understand what his words mean, I would be foolish to think I understand what they mean to someone like Thich Nhat Hanh who’d been meditating for over fifty years at the time he wrote them. Furthermore, though I think I understand what his words mean, and though I think I can talk about them in a sermon, the truth is I’m still thinking about them. I’m still thinking about words that advise me to stop thinking. I’m still thinking and writing about words that assure me the all-pervading truth “does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside of scriptures.”

As simple as Thich Nhat Hanh makes it sound, I have to assume I am still missing something. And what I am missing is not a thought—I have plenty of those. What I am missing is not a set of words—I have plenty of those. What I’m missing is an intuitive experience. The experience of being fully present. Do I know what that means? I like to think so … but, there I go again, thinking. Do any of us really know what being fully present means? Had I gone to hear the Buddha speak on that day, had I witnessed him twirling that flower in his fingers and saying nothing for minutes on end, would I have had the wisdom and the skill to quiet my thinking mind, which likely, and very understandably, would have been asking questions like, ‘What does this mean?’ ‘What is the significance of the flower?’ ‘Why twirl the flower in his fingers?’ ‘What kind of flower is it?’ ‘What is Mahakashyapa smiling about?’ Would I have had the wisdom and the skill to quiet my thinking, questioning, analytical, concept-forming mind and let myself fully experience the present moment, fully experience the flower in the Buddha’s fingers? Would I have smiled?

Maybe. I don’t want to rule it out entirely….

But doubtful.

Our ministry theme for November is attention. Although every religious tradition calls on its adherents to pay attention in some way, to pray, to contemplate, to study scripture, to go on pilgrimage, to worship, to “wake now my senses,” as one of our UU hymns says,[3] in my experience no tradition speaks more beautifully or extensively about paying attention than Buddhism. I remind us that our Unitarian Universalist living tradition draws from many sources, including “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” That’s where I am grounding myself this morning. I’m wondering about paying attention for the purpose of being fully present, and I’m turning to Buddhism for guidance.

How often are we fully present—present to any particular moment, like this moment; present to a person, a loved-one, a child, a neighbor, a stranger; present to an activity, washing dishes, drinking tea, raking leaves; present to suffering, physical or emotional pain, abuse, discrimination; present to nature, the changing seasons, the night sky, the barren November fields. Paying attention for the purpose of being fully present is hard. When I say that, I don’t mean it’s hard because of the many ways technology now intrudes into our lives, the rise of social media, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle. And I’m not saying it’s hard because of the troubling, frightening re-emergence of hatreds in our era that so many of us thought were in decline, or because of the troubling, frightening acceleration of climate change in our era. Yes we live in an age of extraordinary distraction, but that’s not why paying attention for the purpose of being fully present is hard. It has always been hard. Many people came to hear the Buddha speak. Apparently only one of them was fully present. It isn’t a question of what’s going on in the world around us. There is something in our very human nature—in the structure of our bodies, our wiring, our brain chemistry, our neural pathways, our senses—something in the way all of it works together—that makes paying attention for the purpose of being fully present hard no matter what is happening in the wider world.

Buddhists speak of the monkey mind—the way the mind very naturally jumps from one thing to another. Monkey mind is not a condition that some people have and others don’t. As far as I can tell, it’s the normal condition of most human brains. The new issue of the UU World magazine, which arrived last week, features an article by the Rev. Erika Hewitt and religious educator Becky Brooks called “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy.” They write “Chaos is an apt term for what happens between our ears during the practice of meditation. That’s because it’s the mind’s natural state to be whirring, planning, and chattering.” They cite the Rev. Eric Walker Wikstrom, who “describes meditation mantras as ‘giving the tiger a certain amount of meat to keep it quiet,’ suggesting that without that distraction, the mind is like a roving, predatory beast.” They proclaim, “Hear us now, fellow monkey minds: the presence (the loud, active presence) of inner voices, noise, and whirl during meditation does not mean you’re doing it ‘wrong.’ It means you’re human.”[4]

I find this very affirming. I hope you do too. My mind often races around, jumps up and down. Does yours? I notice that even when I’m focused on some task like mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, raking leaves, chopping wood, shoveling snow, or when I’m exercising, despite my focus on the activity, my mind is always monkeying: What’s next on my schedule? What’s happening tonight? What do I have to do to prepare for this meeting, or that class, or next week’s sermon? What time is Max’s basketball game? Where is it? Who’s cooking dinner? Oh, wait—I’m not home for dinner. What are the boys going to eat? Who am I forgetting? X is going into the hospital. Y is coming home from the hospital. Has Mason written the final draft of his college essay? If I don’t do anything about it, the thoughts just keep coming. My body is going through the motions of the task; I have no problem performing the task; but my mind is somewhere else. I’m not fully present.

That’s what monkey mind looks like for me when I’m engaged in a task. What’s fascinating to me is how it works when I’m purposefully not doing anything, when I’m actually attempting to meditate, to quiet my mind, to not think of anything at all,[5] to not miss the flower. Then the monkey really takes off. It’s as if true quiet, true emptiness, true presence free of all thought is frightening to the part of me that thinks. The part of me that thinks really doesn’t want to be extinguished. It resists. Don’t stop thinking!

I figured out many years ago I am not on the path to enlightenment. That is, I don’t feel a compelling personal spiritual call to engage in a dedicated, regular meditation practice. Though, having said that, I want to be clear that I recognize the importance such practices hold for many Unitarian Universalists; and I celebrate the spiritual richness Buddhists and those with an affinity for Buddhism bring to our congregations. I may not be on the path to enlightenment, but  being present—as fully present as possible—is important to me, especially in relation to other people. If my mind is monkeying while I’m washing the dishes, that’s my loss, but no harm done. If my mind is monkeying when a family member, or one of you, or a colleague is talking to me, that’s a problem. And though I may never know what it means to be fully present in a state of deep meditation, nevertheless, I can strive for presence in my day-to-day life. Buddhism can inform that striving. And what I learn from Buddhism is that the invitation to be present is always with us in any given moment. It’s an invitation worth accepting.  We accept the invitation by learning first to notice when and how, and maybe why, the mind starts monkeying; and second, learning to gently pull the mind back to the task at hand, to the attempted quiet, to the relationship, the conversation, the present moment. Our capacity to be present to the world begins with being present to ourselves.

Thich Nhat Hanh invites this presence to self through breathing. In those moments when the mind is monkeying, interrupt it with conscious breathing. He says “our breathing is the link between our body and our mind. Sometimes our mind is thinking of one thing … our body is doing another … mind and body are not unified. By concentrating on our breathing, ‘In’ and ‘Out,’ we bring body and mind back together, and become whole again. Conscious breathing is an important bridge.” He offers this mantra: Breathing in, I calm my body. / Breathing out I smile. / Dwelling in the present moment, / I know this is a wonderful moment![6] Breathing will carry us toward presence, but the mind will monkey again. Remember, that’s the norm. Being present requires a continual interruption of the norm. Conscious breathing is one way to interrupt, to bring mind and body together, to come back to the moment.

It’s not a forceful interruption. It’s not bellicose. It’s not judgmental. It’s a gentle and compassionate interruption. The writer Anne Lamott offers a wonderful image. She says, “Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper. So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen, maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence.”[7] The invitation to be present is always there.

In their recent UU World article, Hewitt and Brooks say something similar: “When (not if!) we get distracted … the heart of meditation is to notice your distraction—your departure—and make the decision to try again. The practice isn’t the doing; it’s the return, the reentry.”[8] Our mind will monkey. The invitation to unite body and mind is always there. The invitation to quiet the mind is always there. The invitation to stop thinking and behold the flower is always there. The invitation to offer that heart-felt, genuine smile is always there. The invitation to move back toward presence is always there.

There’s nothing doctrinal or dogmatic about this. There’s nothing here about right or wrong. We won’t be punished for having stray thoughts. The mind will monkey. That’s normal. The invitation is always there to gently pull it back to presence. I find great comfort in this ongoing—dare I say eternal—invitation.

Why accept the invitation? Why does being present to ourselves matter? In short, it’s a gesture of kindness to ourselves, and as far as I’m concerned, each of us deserves kindness. But beyond that, I think it’s also true that as we develop the capacity for being kind to ourselves, we develop the capacity to return kindness into the world. I like the way Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg puts it in a recent blog post. She writes, “the practice of shepherding our attention back to the present—even an incalculable number of times—helps us find the power to be kind to ourselves…. [When] we react to our compulsions with compassion … we open up, and feel a subtle movement of our hearts. This movement of the heart is like the sea moving close to the ocean floor — it is so subtle, but affects everything above.”[9] It effects everything above. In short, kindness to self begets kindness to others.

Is that really true? Maybe it’s just wishful thinking. I suppose it will always be wishful thinking if we keep confining it to the realm of thought. But if we keep thinking we miss the flower. The point is to accept the invitation, to make that gesture of kindness to ourselves, to strive for presence. Will that enable us to bring more kindness into the world? The invitation is always there. And what is there to lose but a few wandering thoughts? May we accept the invitation.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thich Naht Hanh, “Flower Insights,” Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) p. 43.

[2] Ford, James Ishmael, This Very Moment: A Brief Introduction to Buddhism and Zen for Unitarian Universalists (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) pp. 27-28.

[3] Mikelson, Thomas, “Wake Now My Senses,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #298.

[4] Brooks, Becky and Hewitt, Erika, “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy,” UU World (Winter, 2019). P. 18.

[5] Takashina, Rosen, Zetto Zemmi, in Conze, Edward, tr., Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 1959) p. 138.

[6] Thich Naht Hanh, “Conscious Breathing” and “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment” in Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) pp.8-10.

[7] Lamott, Anne, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1994) p. 99.

[8] Brooks and Hewitt, “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy,” p. 19.

[9] Salzberg, Sharon, “A New Vision of Kindness Starts with Paying Attention,” On Being, June 11th, 2016. See: https://onbeing.org/blog/a-new-vision-of-kindness-starts-with-paying-attention/#.

To Love Your Neighbor, Know Your Neighbor Event

Sunday, November, 10th at 2 PM

The CT Council for Interreligious Understanding and Unitarian Universalist Society: East presents a moderated question and answer session designed to increase understanding of the varied religious beliefs and practices of our CT neighbors. Panelists will include members of the Jain, Hindu and Sikh faiths. Bring your questions and meet new friends on Sunday, November 10, 2019, at 2 PM at Unitarian Universalist Society: East.

O, the Beauty of the World!

Rev. Josh Pawelek and David Garnes

Josh:

A few Sundays ago we were playing “Improvs with Mary,” the game where people shout out words or phrases and Mary plays them on the piano. One of the kids asked Mary to play “Rev. Josh’s sermons.” [To Mary] Care to repeat what you played? [Mary plays briefly.] As I heard it that Sunday, Mary launched into a grim, morose, bring-out-your-dead dirge. You all laughed. I laughed too. To be fair, she concluded with a few bright, melodic flourishes, a hint of daylight resolving the dissonance of the storm. Later, Mary said “it wasn’t grim, it was just very serious. And it was the perfect opportunity to tease the minister.” That she was teasing hadn’t occurred to me. I laughed because I thought she nailed it. I thought, “yep, that’s me.”

My preaching isn’t all grim and serious. But when you come to worship on Sunday morning, especially when I am preaching, no matter how hopeful the message, no matter how good the news, no matter how alright I might suggest things are going to turn out—I strive not to ignore the suffering, hatred and violence that infuse and infect so much of the world; and I strive to remember that it doesn’t automatically stop at the boundaries of this building. We aren’t somehow separate or immune from it all.

In my June newsletter column I said I struggle with this month’s theme of beauty precisely because there is so much ugliness in the world—centuries of oppression based on race and gender and class; a national economy fundamentally addicted to militarism and fossil fuels; fear of and violence toward anyone who doesn’t fit into the gender binary; homophobia, transphobia, sexual violence, gun violence; inequity after inequity built into the very structures of society so that many of us benefit without realizing it.  Climate change. I struggle because a central pillar of my call to ministry is naming and confronting all of it with whatever power is available to me and to us, hopefully, with a big dose of humility. Our Unitarian Universalist principles call me to name and confront all the ugliness in the world and our complicity with it, as inadvertent as it may be. I don’t feel comfortable remaining silent in the face of any of it. We cannot live as if it isn’t there. Denial isn’t a spiritually sound way to live. Hence, Mary’s improv. 

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Our congregation is celebrating its 50th anniversary year, and thus it seemed important on this particular weekend to remember the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a major milestone at the beginning of the gay rights movement. UUS:E member David Garnes was there. I’ve invited David to share his experience. Certainly one thing his words convey is the ugliness of homophobia in New York City in the 1960s.

 

David:

In the summer of 1969, I’d been a New Yorker for six years. I was living in a brownstone on the Upper West Side, on a quiet, tree-shaded block near Riverside Park and the Hudson. Through a happy coincidence, the eight small apartments were occupied mostly by a number of friends like me—young, single and gay. We were a mix of ethnicities—White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian.

On the hot and humid evening of Friday, June 27, Javier, a grad student  from Argentina who lived on the top floor, arrived home from Greenwich Village with big news. “There’s a  commotion down at the Stonewall,” he told us. “Lots of police and people throwing stuff, and they’ve got the street blocked off.”

We all knew the Stonewall, a bar on Christopher Street in the West Village, crummier than most, and run, like most gay bars, by the Mafia (with, apparently, some collusion from New York City’s Finest). The Stonewall attracted all types of patrons. Watered-down drinks were one dollar (relatively expensive in those days), and the bathrooms tended to flood regularly. It was not an elegant place, but its seediness did not stop us from going back, again and again.

That night, we contemplated heading down to the Village to join the crowd. But the hour was late, and, besides, it didn’t sound like much more than a somewhat stronger reaction than usual to one of the police raids that occurred regularly at the Stonewall and elsewhere.

I’d been in bars that were raided many times. The usual scenario consisted of a short warning (lights flashing, someone shouting, “It’s a raid!”), and the next thing you knew you were being herded, like slow-moving cattle, out onto Christopher Street. Sometimes you had to pass through a gauntlet of cops, a few looking fierce, others impassive, one or two embarrassed.

Occasionally, but not often, some patrons were marched into waiting paddy wagons, taken to the local precinct station, and then released. That particularly ignominy never happened to me. Mostly we dispersed into the street and headed off to another bar, or we waited for an hour or so and then returned to the scene of the crime after whatever arrangements had been made between management and the police. It was a game, somewhat humiliating, especially in retrospect, but one not without a certain sense of wacky adventurousness. You just went along with it; it was part of the deal.

   This raid, however, proved to be different. Sometime the next day—Saturday, June 28, another hot one—a friend who lived near the bar phoned and told me that the demonstration had, in fact, lasted through the night and was picking up steam. “Come on down!” he urged. So a few of us decided to take the IRT local subway down to the west Village and Sheridan Square, a block away from the Stonewall.

As soon as we emerged onto Christopher and 7th Avenue, we found ourselves in the midst of a dense and noisy mob. Surprisingly, the street in front of the Stonewall was not blocked off to pedestrians or traffic, but it was impossible to do more than mill around the periphery. The bar seemed to be closed, and the windows were boarded up. Directly across the street, members of the New York Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) stood in formation, wearing helmets with visors and carrying batons and shields.

I watched as demonstrators scrawled slogans like “SUPPORT GAY POWER” and “LEGALIZE GAY BARS” on the boarded-up window of the bar. Any cars that attempted to enter Christopher Street were rocked and jumped on by the crowds of mostly young men. I saw the top of a parked police cruiser crushed by a concrete block dropped from an upper window.

Chaotic activity seemed to come in waves. From the tiny park adjacent to the square, onlookers hurled bottles, bricks, and other objects, some striking observers as well as the police. Trashcans were set on fire. Many men in the crowd were holding hands and kissing, something I’d never seen happen before on this scale in a public place.

Many participants in the previous night’s events had shown up, a few of them conspicuous by their bandages and wounds. I remember one Puerto Rican kid, arm in a white sling and face completely swollen, bruised, and scabbed.

“What did you do last night?” I asked him.

“Not a freakin’ thing. They just clubbed us. My friend’s got a broken shoulder, and I heard some guy’s in a coma over at Roosevelt.” 

 

****

Josh:

I struggle because I also know we cannot live in denial of the beauty of the world. That isn’t spiritually sound either. There has to be room for beauty, too. In my June column I asked you to tell me what you experience as beautiful. I said this isn’t an idle exercise. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to carry us through difficult times. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to generate joy in the midst of despair. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to inspire us when we are lost and directionless. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to knit us back together when we are broken and torn.

Those of you who responded to my request find beauty in all facets of the natural world, in nature seen, heard, smelled, felt, tasted. You find it in family, friends, pets, random acts of kindness, solar panels, fireworks, and human creativity—music, quilting, children’s hand-made cards.

I remind us there is beauty in the midst of hardship and suffering too: the beauty of the human spirit, human integrity, human resilience, human persistence. There is beauty in the bonds people form as they struggle together to change unjust laws and institutional structures. There is beauty in the way communities come together, grieve, heal, and rebuild in the wake of natural disasters or acts of terror. Last Tuesday we welcomed the state champion youth poets, Connetic Word, for a performance. These young poets have a gift for turning their hard life-experiences—their stories of abuse, racism, homophobia and transphobia—their loneliness and pain—into powerful artistic expressions. Even as their poems use hard language, hard words, hard images to describe the ugliness they’ve experienced, the energy, heart, soul and spirit they put into their craft is beautiful.

There is beauty in people waking up to the ugliness in the world and saying ‘we’ve had enough;’ saying ‘no more;’ saying ‘it’s time to fight back;’ saying ‘it’s time to rise up;’ ‘time for change;’ ‘time to build beloved community;’ time to welcome everyone,’ and really mean everyone;’ time to say ‘I want my life to be different!;’ time to say ‘I commit my life to some cause greater than myself that will serve others and the earth.’

There must be room for beauty too. Let us train our hearts and souls to find it even in the most difficult moments.

****

David:

As I left Sheridan Square that night, I bought the Sunday Times, expensive at 50 cents but always eagerly awaited on Saturdays around 10 pm at subway newsstands throughout the city. On the ride uptown I looked for mention of the riot from the night before. Deep within the paper there was a short article with the headline “4 POLICEMEN HURT IN ‘VILLAGE’ RAID…MELEE NEAR SHERIDAN SQUARE FOLLOWS ACTION AT BAR.”

The report was brief, with no reference to previous raids, arrests, and nothing from the point of view of the protesters. That kind of minimal coverage would continue in the Times for the next several days, though the tabloid Daily News played it up with photos and longer pieces, as did the Village Voice.

As we arrived back at Sheridan Square on Sunday afternoon, I was surprised at the activity still going on. Amazingly, the bar had reopened for business, and a steady stream of customers wandered in and out. But the police were there in full force, including several on horseback. I saw another damaged cruiser, this one with its front windshield shattered. A parking meter lay overturned in the street, and I later learned that it had actually been used on the first night to batter the entrance door of the bar.

I stood awhile, observing, perhaps too chicken to go in the bar, and then left. We later found out the Tactical Police Force eventually cleared the immediate area. I also heard that poet Allen Ginsberg visited the bar in the evening, encouraging the patrons inside. In a later interview he described them as “…beautiful…they’ve lost that wounded look everyone had ten years ago.” Sporadic gatherings occurred over the next few days, but the demonstration was essentially over.

Did I realize that I’d been present at a seminal moment in American sociopolitical history? Perhaps not that weekend, though Stonewall was certainly the most dramatic example I’d personally witnessed in terms of a minority group taking a stand. I’m not sure it was the single event of Stonewall itself those few days, but rather its snowball effect over the following months that signaled the changes that were to come.

After Stonewall, I began to join in gay demonstrations around the city. I clearly remember marching on Fifth Avenue in those early days. Basically, we were a small group of people—men and women—simply walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk. There were no floats, no costumes, perhaps a few signs and banners. I was always very aware of the tourists gawking at us from the sidewalk, and I was never comfortable during those early peaceful protests. But I kept on marching.

Perhaps taking to the street occasionally wasn’t such a big gesture on my part, but it probably wouldn’t have happened at all had it not been for the brave protesters and demonstrators at Stonewall. Occurring in the midst of other social upheaval that pivotal year half a century ago, this small uprising is now rightfully seen as the turning point in the gay civil rights movement.

We’d all had enough.

****

Josh:

I know why I struggle. I worry that naming and reveling in the beauty of the world is a trap, a privilege, an elite myth that obscures the ugliness, the injustices, the suffering, especially the suffering humans perpetuate on one another. And indeed, many people pursue beauty as a form of escape, a form of denial. Mary and I were talking about this and she asked. “how can we have a genuine experience of beauty that doesn’t require us to keep our heads in the sand?” For me, that’s a fundamental question. We agreed—and I hope and trust you do too—there’s a difference between escaping into something beautiful that numbs us to the pain of the world vs. encountering something beautiful that enlightens us, increases consciousness, wakes us up to that pain; wakes us up to the harder, deeper truths of the world. And our task as liberal religious people is to pursue the beauty that wakes us up.

In that pursuit, the chords may sound serious, ominous, foreboding, grim. But beauty resides in the hard truths too. Listen for it: a few bright, melodic flourishes at the end, a hint of daylight resolving the dissonance of the storm. And once you’ve heard it, may it sustain you. May it move you to re-engage with life, inspired, grounded, healed, committed.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

Memorial Garden Rededication

We Dedicate This Garden

(Rev. Josh Pawelek)

One: As a place to hold the ashes of our deceased loved-ones, our liberal religious siblings, our spiritual ancestors—a place for their spirits to rest…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: As a place to remind us of our highest values, our Unitarian Universalist principles,

our deepest commitments and our most enduring loves…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: As a place for silence, for quiet contemplation, for meditation, and for prayer…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: As a place for communion with Nature, communion with the birds, the deer, the turkeys, the coyotes, the turtles, the trees, the shrubs, the grasses…

All: We dedicate this garden…

One: As a place to experience oneness, to apprehend “the peace of wild things,” the

peace that resides at the heart of creation…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: As a place to receive our ashes when it is our time to die, a place for our spirits to rest, to sing, to dance, in the midst of all the living things that grace this land with their presence…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: Amen and blessed be.

Testify! Witness! Re-Imagine!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

Hold them in your mind’s eye.

Hold them in your heart.

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

[Music]

We pray for all those who have experienced sexual violence.

We pray that they may find healing.

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

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

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

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

We also pray also for our congregation:

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

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

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

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

****

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

Less Distant from the Hope of Myself: Reflections on Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Musical Interlude]

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

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

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

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

[Musical Interlude]

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

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

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

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

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

Amen, blessed be.

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Willever, Ann, “Autumn.”

Medicare for All — Town Hall Meeting

UUS:E’s Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee is now co-sponsoring this event: 

As You Love Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

[2] Mark 12: 28b-31.

A Tale of Two Churches

In the summer of 1984 my family spent two weeks in Poland. We arrived a year after Poland’s communist government had lifted martial law, which it had used to cripple the nearly ten million member Independent Self-governing Labor Union, Solidarity. Although it had been banned and political repression was widespread, Solidarity continued to operate underground. Most people we encountered were openly critical of the government. They were extraordinarily hopeful that not only the Polish government, but the Soviet Union would soon collapse under the weight of the human yearning for freedom.

Whenever we would discuss the political situation with Poles, the conversation would inevitably turn to the Roman Catholic Church. With the full support of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, the Church provided unwavering support for Solidarity and, by extension, the Polish people, in their struggle against communist oppression. The Catholic Church was wildly popular. Even the most scientifically-minded atheists loved the church for its brazen defiance. When we asked, ‘what keeps you hopeful?” always the answer was “the Church.” When we asked, “how can we give money to Solidarity,” always the answer was, “donate to the Church.”  

On our last weekend in Gdansk we worshipped at St. Bridget’s, whose priest, Father Henryk Jankowski, had famously served the Eucharist to striking shipyard workers. Inside that sanctuary you would never know the country was facing political repression. The standing-room-only congregation was on fire, spiritually alive, vibrant, free. I will never forget that congregation singing its closing song, every right hand raised in the air, making a V for victory. It was as if the kingdom had come.

I learned a very specific lesson away from that experience: At its best, the Church—Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Unitarian Universalist, Quaker, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness—fights for justice and freedom, speaks truth to power, sides with the people, loves the people. That’s what it means to be a church. In the language of our Unitarian Universalist principles, the church promotes “justice, equity and compassion in human relations” and draws on the “prophetic words and deeds of people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”

Later that year, October, 1984, this lesson deepened as the world received news that secret police had murdered Poland’s most outspoken anti-communist priest, Father Jerzy Popieluzko—a sobering reminder that in siding with the people, the church and its leaders may become victims of the very oppression they seek to resist.

Fast forward a decade to my first year in seminary. I registered for a class called “The Church and European Revolution,” imagining it would give me insight into the historical trends that informed the Polish Church in the 1980s. I wanted to understand more fully how churches have been involved in struggles against oppression over the centuries.

What I learned, instead, is that the Polish model is exceedingly rare. It seemed that through all of modern European history, the church, whether Catholic or Protestant, was inevitably in league with the ruling powers and resisted revolutionary impulses rising up among the people. The church executed—or sanctioned the execution of—its own priests or ministers if they took revolutionary stances. A notable example comes from the German Peasants War of the mid 1520s. While the towering Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, sided with the German princes and called on the peasants to cease their uprising, the radical, apocalyptic preacher and theologian Thomas Müntzer became a leader of the peasants’ revolt. He was eventually captured, tortured and executed.

In those countries where revolutions succeeded in toppling the ruling powers, most notably France and Russia, the churches were so thoroughly linked to the ruling powers that they became the primary targets of revolutionary violence.

It’s a tale of two churches. On one hand there is the church of the struggling people, the church that seeks liberation, justice, freedom; the church that reads the Beatitudes—‘Blessed are you poor”—and takes them to heart; the church that encounters the Hebrew prophets’ call to “loose the bonds of injustice … to let the oppressed go free”—and takes them to heart.

On the other hand, there is the church that identifies with the powers that be; the church that shies away from prophetic words and deeds so as not to upset the status quo; the church that looks away from oppression and is, by omission if not commission, complicit with unjust systems that trap and impoverish people.  

Stan and Sue McMillen purchased this sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. Stan suggested a few ideas for me to consider. All of them seemed to be versions of this tale of two churches, in particular what he identified as the “apparent abdication in much of the faith-based community [of the responsibility] to condemn racial, gender and sexual orientation injustice and violence.”

Stan pointed to two recent New York Times editorials. First, in a June Op-ed entitled “Is Your God Dead?” [1] Emory University Philosophy professor, George Yancy, said “I have been troubled by the lack of religious and theological outrage against national and global poverty, white racism and supremacism, sexism, classism, homophobia, bullying, building walls, ‘alternative facts,’ visa/immigration bans and xenophobia.” It’s a scathing criticsm. If your God isn’t dead, prove it. Show me the evidence of people who take the words of the prophets to heart. Do something. He says, “I await the day … when those who believe in the ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob’ will lock arms and march on Washington, refusing to live any longer under the weight of so much inhumanity.”

Second, in an Easter Op-ed entitled “We Forgot What Dr. King Believed In,”[2] Georgetown University sociology professor, Michael Eric Dyson, reminds us how even at the height of the Civil Rights movement, not only did many White churches continue to align with the racist status quo, but Black churches and their leaders also rarely risked the level of involvement and confrontation necessary to bring lasting change. In a speech to black ministers in Miami two months before his assassination, King said “the great tragedy is that Christianity failed to see that it had the revolutionary edge.” Dyson says that same edge is lacking today. He describes how churches of all racial identities have failed to address the crises of our times. He calls us to remember and take to heart what Dr. King believed, that “a commitment to God is a commitment to bettering humanity, that the spiritual practices of prayer and worship must be translated into concern for the poor and vulnerable … [that people of faith must] work to defeat racism, speak out in principled opposition to war and combat poverty.”

So, “Yes!” Of course. You know me. As Josh Pawelek, “Yes!” to the church that works for liberation, justice and freedom. “Yes!” to the church that fights oppression. As a Unitarian Universalist, an ordained minister, a person of faith, a husband, a father—as a human being—

“Yes!” to that church. “Yes!” to the Polish Catholic Church that confronted communism. “Yes!” “Yes!” to Father Popieluszko! “Yes!” to Thomas Müntzer. “Yes!” to Rev. Norbert Capek, Rev. Deitrich Bonhoffer and the German Confessing Church for their World War II resistance to the Nazis. “Yes!” to the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, Unitarian Universalists murdered for their participation in the Civil Rights movement. “Yes!” to Martin Luther King, Jr.! “Yes!” to Archbishop Oscar Romero! “Yes!” to the Black Liberation theologian, Dr. James Cone who died last week. To the church that heeds the cries of the prophets, that works in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, that repairs the breach between what is and what ought to be, I offer a resounding “Yes!”

From one angle, it’s hard to argue this congregation, and Unitarian Universalism nationally, has abdicated its responsibility. This church was deeply involved in Connecticut’s campaigns for marriage equality and legal protections for transgender people. We were deeply involved in the passage of an environmental justice bill in 2008; in campaigns for criminal justice and drug policy reform to challenge mass incarceration of people of color; in campaigns for better health care, domestic worker rights, and educational reform; in the work of refugee resettlement; in support of Black Lives Matter. In that regard, Stan isn’t referring to us when he speaks about faith communities abdicating. If he is, Sue [McMillen] might take issue with him. Afterall, she was a member of the City Line Dozen who were arrested in Hartford on October 5th, 2015. As a person of faith, supported by her congregation and her minister, she was protesting stark income inequality between residents of Hartford and those of the surrounding suburbs.

From another angle, however, one could argue our efforts have been woefully insufficient, our arrests largely symbolic. One could argue our pulpit messages have not adequately moved us to the kind of mass action necessary to change the direction of the nation, nor have they moved us to honestly examine our own complicity in systems of oppression. Now, poverty is increasing; the war economy is escalating; movements against women’s reproductive rights, gay and lesbian civil rights and protections for transgender people are gaining ground; movements to restrict voting rights, to end consent decrees intended to reduce police violence, to privatize and build more prisons are gaining ground; movements to transfer wealth from all economic classes to corporations and the wealthy elite are prevailing; movements to undue years of environmental protections and regulations intended to reduce the scale and pace of climate change are gaining ground.

I know you know this. I know you have many feelings about this—from fear and despair, to outrage, to commitment and resolve, to unquenchable hope. I know so many of you want to be part of the solution, but are unsure of your capacity, of your ability to pursue confrontation. You are legitimately concerned that the more firmly we position ourselves in the breach, the more risky our religious life becomes. Might we become targets of hate?

That possibility is always present. But we cannot let hate win. When leaders of color from Greater Hartford spoke to our leadership last fall in preparation for our work of creating a new congregational vision statement, they told us they need us to lead with love, and to be bold! Now is a time for love and boldness.

This is why I fully support this congregation providing sanctuary to immigrants seeking to avoid deportation. Not only will sanctuary help salvage the lives of individuals who take shelter with us; we will be sending a message to Manchester, Connecticut, ICE and the White House that it is morally wrong to destroy families, communities and local economies through a policy of indiscriminate and widespread deportations.

This is also why I feel called to participate in the relaunching of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. From Monday, May 14th, through to the end of June, the Rev. Dr. William Barber of Repairers of the Breach, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharris of the Kairos Center, and  the leaders of many denominations, including Unitarian Universalist Association president, Susan Frederick-Gray, have called for a massive, nationwide campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience to draw attention to the plight of the nation’s poor. Let me quote Dr. Barber’s comments about the campaign in a recent article.[3] Note, as an evangelical Christian he offers a searing critique of evangelical Christian—one that also applies to any church that fails to act on its own principles.

“People are poor not because they are lazy, not because they are unwilling to work hard, but because politicians have blocked living wages and healthcare and undermined union rights and wage increases. Our nation’s moral narrative is shaped by Christian nationalists whose claims run contrary to calls in the Scripture, which is very clear that we need to care for the poor, immigrants and the least among us.

If you claim to be evangelical and Christian and have nothing to say about poverty and racism, then your claim is terribly suspect. There needs to be a new moral discourse in this nation – one that says being poor is not a sin but systemic poverty is.

[Our] Moral Agenda demands … major changes to address systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and our distorted moral narrative, including restoration and expansion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, repeal of the 2017 federal tax law, implementation of federal and state living wage laws, universal single-payer healthcare and clean water for all.

To make sure these demands are heard, poor and disenfranchised people from coast to coast are preparing for 40 days of action centered around statehouses and the US Capitol. Over six weeks this spring, people of all races, colors and creeds are joining together to engage in nonviolent moral fusion direct action, massive voter mobilization and power building from the bottom up….

Now, 50 years after leaders of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign declared silence was betrayal, we are coming together to break the silence.”

We will by publicizing times and locations for campaign trainings—including here next Saturday afternoon—and actions in Connecticut. I am planning to travel to Washington, DC on Sunday, June 10th, in order to participate in the campaign on Monday, June 11th. I’m looking for travelling partners!

It’s a tale of two churches. Certainly, we can point in any direction and find churches whose members are failing to heed the teachings of their own scriptures. And we can point at ourselves and discover similar failures. That abdication of responsibility has always been a feature of the religious landscape.

But that other church—that justice-seeking, prophetic church, that inherent worth and dignity church, that welcome the stranger and the immigrant church, that loving church, that bold, courageous church—that’s a part of the landscape too—and it is about to reveal itself, once again, to a nation hungering for its vision.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Yancy, George, “Is Your God Dead?” New York Times, June 19, 2017, See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/19/opinion/is-your-god-dead.html.

[2] Dyson, Michael Eric, “We Forgot What Doctor King Believed In,” New York Times, April 1, 2018. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/31/opinion/sunday/martin-luther-king-faith.html.

[3] Barber, William, “American Once Faught a War Against Poverty, Now it Wages a War on the Poor,” The Guardian, April 15, 2018. See: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/15/poor-peoples-campaign-systemic-poverty-a-sin?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail.

Out of Sorrow, Soul

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“That distillation of soul—which of all possessions is most precious—comes, if we are faithful, out of sorrow.”[1] A challenging and hopefully liberating idea from the late Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Nancy Shaffer.” Soul—that part of you that is most uniquely you; that part of you without which you would not be you; that part of you that is most genuine, most authentic, most vital, alert, energized, creative, passionate, generous and good; that often hidden part of you that nevertheless springs up from the deep wells of your being in intuitions and insights, ahas and eurekas, amens and hallelujahs. “That distillation of soul—which of all possessions is most precious—comes, if we are faithful, out of sorrow.” Out of sorrow.

A challenging and hopefully liberating idea.

Our ministry theme for February is brokenness. The original title for this sermon was “Living Whole in the Midst of Brokenness.”  I wrote in the church newsletter I would explore resources for maintaining our sense of wholeness when the world feels like it’s breaking. That is still the essence of my message this morning, though I’ve retitled this sermon with an adaptation of Rev. Shaffer’s words, “Out of Sorrow, Soul.”

Rev. Shaffer never shied away from sorrow. So often her words ache with sadness, longing, grief—her own, yes; but she also gives voice to the sadness, longing and grief that lie at the heart of so much human experience. She doesn’t wrap sorrow up in tidy, neat packages, as if to say, ‘there, we’ve fixed that problem, let’s put it on the shelf and move on.’ She doesn’t offer those spirit-killing clichés—‘everything happens for a reason,’ ‘it’s all part of God’s plan,’ ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ She knows sometimes there simply is no reason for the awful things that befall a person, a congregation, community a country; and some things happen that no decent God would ever plan; and sometimes the things that don’t kill us nevertheless stay with us, stay in our bodies, leave us feeling weakened, deflated, sorrowful. She doesn’t shy away from sorrow, and that’s important. These days are full of it.  

For a moment, consider nothing in the wider world. Just consider this congregation. Five long-time members, deeply loved, deeply embedded in the social fabric of this spiritual community, have died in recent months: Nancy Parker, Carolyn Kolwicz, Johanna Conant, Bruce Hockaday and, just this week, Lynn Kayser. Also this week, Pedro Colquicocha, the long-time partner of UUS:E member David Lacoss, died after removal from life support. Those of you who are newer to UUS:E may not have known any of these beloved members of our congregational family, but you will likely sense the sorrow flowing through these halls.

And it may be that I’m just returning from sabbatical, and thus it feels to me that there is a greater-than-usual number of pastoral challenges greeting me all at once; but I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say there are a plethora of difficult, sorrowful events in many of your lives: the deaths of parents, mental health crises, cancer. Some of you are entering into very difficult life transitions, making hard decisions. Some of you have children who are struggling. Perhaps not as sorrowful, but challenging and anxiety-producing nevertheless, some of you are recovering from surgeries, while others are preparing for surgeries.

Just here, within these walls, so many sources of sorrow.

Do I dare shift our attention to the wider world?

We pray for the Parkland, FL mass shooting victims and their families. We pray that the survivors may find comfort, solace, peace. We pray for the shooter that he will somehow find release from whatever demons torment him. We pray for an end to the insanity of gun violence in our nation. We pray, knowing—because we’ve prayed so much, for so many victims and their families, for so many shooters, for so many first responders, for so many communities, including Manchester, CT after the 2010 Hartford Distributors shooting—we pray along with tens of millions of our fellow Americans—we pray, knowing from experience, that our prayers, our vigils, our candles lit, our quiet songs of mourning and hope, are insufficient to address the magnitude of this scourge.

October 2nd, 2017 was the first day of my sabbatical. That was a Monday. The entire country woke up that morning to news of yet another ‘worst’ mass shooting in American history, this time at a country music festival in Las Vegas.

On that same morning, I heard a report on the radio about my long-time acquaintance, Sujitno Sajuti, an Indonesian immigrant, a devout Muslim living in West Hartford, who arrived in the United States legally on an education visa in the early 1980s. He lost his legal status through an unfortunate and complex set of events in the 1990s, and has been trying ever since to regain it. The radio report stated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, had issued an order for his deportation.

It was not a good day to start a sabbatical.

As an aside, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Meriden offered sanctuary to Sujitno and his wife Dahlia. The couple has been living in the church since mid-October. The church has ongoing needs for financial, moral and physical support. If you are interested in helping out with the sanctuary process in Meriden, please feel free to speak with me about opportunities.

I worked on a novel during my sabbatical. On most weekdays, I wrote between six and eight hours a day. I loved it, and I remain eternally grateful to you for providing me with this opportunity. After a few weeks of sitting and writing, I began to experience a feeling that I believe is always with me these days, but that I don’t typically notice. Perhaps I don’t notice it because I don’t have the time to fully experience it during the course of a normal week full of ministry, parenting, household chores, etc. Perhaps I purposefully ignore it. Clearly, the sabbatical process of separating myself out from the regular work of ministry, and perhaps the habit of sitting for long periods and focusing on one task, somehow brought this feeling more directly into my conscious awareness. The best word I have for it is sorrow. Physically I experience it in my upper back, between my shoulder blades. Maybe it spreads out from the back of my heart. It’s not physically painful, it’s a nagging, aching sensation. I don’t have many other words to describe it. It lives in that murky place, that visceral realm we inhabit before words form. Whenever I would pause to give it my full attention, to welcome it into my consciousness, to try to understand it, I would start to cry. The crying never lasted long. It wasn’t overwhelming. It was actually a great relief.

Rev. Shaffer writes:  “I have been looking for the words that come before words: the ones older than silence, the ones not mine, that can’t be found by thought—the ones that hold the beginning of the world, and are never used up, which arrive loaned, and make me weep.”[2]

As I sat with this sorrow, I started to recognize it as the crest of a wave, something I suspect many of us—if not all of us here—experience to some degree, a wave of profound soul-sickness in response to so many troubling trends. A profound soul-sickness over endless shootings and our collective, national inability to do anything that makes us safer as a society; a profound soul-sickness over the parent of gun violence: insatiable American militarism and unceasing war. Soul-sickness over irresponsible nuclear weapons brinksmanship and American drones relentlessly bombing innocent people.

A profound soul-sickness over the ascendancy of fear and hatred of perceived others: a near-constant announcements of deportation orders, calls to rally in support of this Guatamalan name, that Nigerian name, this Indonesian name, that Mexican name, this Ecuadorian name—every name a story, every story a family, every family a community living with the threat of exile and loss.

A profound soul-sickness over calls for religious freedom not even trying anymore to mask ongoing and un-Christian hatred of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people; a profound soul-sickness over continuous #metoo revelations of sexual assault and violence; a profound soul-sickness over the assault on decades of efforts to reduce racism in the criminal justice system; a profound soul-sickness over bills and laws and fiscal policies that unapologetically bankrupt our nation’s future and immorally redistribute yet more wealth to the wealthiest members of society.

A profound soul-sickness over the denial and belittling of basic science, over climate-science denial, over the pursuit of energy policies that are hastening environmental catastrophe.

A profound soul-sickness over the normalization of public-sphere lying.

There’s more, of course.I’m not saying I wasn’t aware of these trends. I’m saying I wasn’t fully in touch with how all of it was making me feel, not until I had the chance to sit for weeks, and then months. For the past few years I thought I was just angry at so much violence and oppression. I didn’t realize how sorrowful I am.

When our own inner world and the wide outer world feel like they’re breaking, when we are soul-sick, how do we cultivate and sustain our own sense of wholeness? I ask not simply so that we here may find comfort and solace in sorrowful times—as important as that is, it risks becoming a kind of escapism. I ask so that we may each be fortified in our own resolve and capacity to be ministers, healers, justice-makers and community-builders among ourselves and in the wider world.

I’m reading Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, by Serene Jones, a Christian theologian and president of Union Theological Seminary. She offers two ‘habits of spirit’ that can move us toward a sense of wholeness in the wake of trauma: mourning and wonder. Habits—meaning part of our daily lives, part of our way of being in the world. She arrives at these habits of spirit not only through her scholarly work, but also through reflection on her own traumatic experiences, losses, struggles and sorrows, which led her to a crisis of faith. She emerged from this crisis through body work. It makes sense. Trauma, loss, grief, sorrow all live in the body: “quick-startle responses,” she writes, “headaches, exhaustion, muscle aches, distractibility, depression.” She reasoned that if trauma lives in the body then “grace capable of touching it should be equally physical.” She signed up for yoga classes and began working with an acupuncturist. These were her “liturgies of flesh.”[3] From observing her bodily response to these practices, she gradually developed her habits of spirit: mourning and wonder.

Mourning: “A disposition in which your heart and mind give into … loss and consent to dwell in the trauma with as much attention as can be mustered. It requires acknowledging how much was lost, how deeply it matters, how unstable the world has become in the aftermath, and how difficult it feels to be ever moving forward.”[4] In other words, let us not shy away from sorrow.

Jones cautions: mourning does not necessarily heal our wounds or bring our sorrow to an end. Sometimes the things that don’t kill us nevertheless stay with us, leave us feeling weakened, deflated, sorrowful. Jones says “The gift of mourning is that fully awakening to the depth of loss enables you to at least learn, perhaps for the first time, that you can hold the loss: you can bear terrors of heart and body and still see your way forward with open eyes.”[5] As long as our losses, sorrows and traumas hold us in their grip, then we live in a truncated world, a constrained world; we lack space in which to move, air to breathe, words to speak. But if we can learn to hold them, grip them, bear them—which allows us some modicum of control over how they impact our lives, even if it’s just a sliver of control—then the world begins to open, our hearts begin to open, our lungs begin to open, our bodies begin to open. Words come. We begin to reassert ourselves. Rev. Shaffer says “This is the gift with which we / escape, stumble out: / we know the essence of this life and who we are.”[6]

If we can mourn well, then wonder becomes possible. Jones says “Wondering is the simple capacity to behold the world around you (and within you), to be awed by its mystery, to be made curious by its difference, and to marvel at its compelling form.”[7] As long as we have the space in our lives that mourning provides—even if it’s just a sliver of emotional space—then we have room to be curious, intrigued, inquisitive, thoughtful. We can wonder. The capacity to wonder, even in the midst of sorrow, pain, loss, trauma, is what enables us to notice and receive those things that are new and good in the world—the support of loved ones, the care of a loving spiritual community, the prayers of strangers, the myriad acts of kindness that happen every day all day long, “liturgies of flesh,” the beauty, grandeur, subtlety and diversity of the natural world, spring poking out around the edges of winter, and our own human depths—even in the midst of sorrow—our genuine, authentic, vital, alert, energized, creative, passionate, generous and good selves. Out of sorrow, soul.

Rev. Shaffer says: “Ever after, whatever we have, / we have enough: begin complete, / even with nothing, even though / aching. In our lifetime we learn this, / while still we can cherish. Come / complete to the end … full.”[8]

When our own inner world, and the wide outer world feel like they’re breaking, when we are soul-sick, how do we cultivate and sustain our own sense of wholeness? I offer you mourning and wonder, two habits of spirit, two paths to the soul, that can ground us, center us, and make us ready to be ministers, healers, justice-makers and community-builders among ourselves and in the wider world.

Mourning and wonder.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Shaffer, Nancy, “Alchemy,” Instructions in Joy (Boston: Skinner House, 2002) p. 52.

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

[3] Jones, Serene, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009) p. 158.

[4] Jones, Trauma and Grace, p. 163.

[5] Jones, Trauma and Grace, p. 163.

[6] Shaffer, Nancy, “Alchemy,” p. 52.

[7] Jones, Trauma and Grace, p. 163.

[8] Shaffer, Nancy, “Alchemy,” p. 52.