Part of All That Ever Was: A 2015 First Harvest Reflection

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Photo by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

Photo by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon picking up garbage around the Mortensen Riverfront Plaza on the Connecticut River in Hartford. This was part of my court-ordered community service after engaging in civil disobedience for Moral Monday CT and the Black Lives Matter movement on June 8th. The Hartford Community Court had deployed our doughty crew to beautify the Hartford riverfront in advance of the Food Truck Festival which took place over the second weekend of July.

The park appeared very clean when we got there, but the more we looked for garbage, the more we found: cigarette butts, candy wrappers, plastic water, juice, soda, athletic drink, and beer bottles, tin cans, hub caps, tires, exhaust pipes, mufflers, shoes, pants, underwear (men’s and women’s), Styrofoam and waxed cardboard take-out food containers, paper and plastic bags, plastic forks, knives and spoons, spent fireworks, etc. I understand that the impact of garbage accumulating along the Connecticut River is relatively small and largely cosmetic when compared to the impact of greenhouse gasses accumulating in the atmosphere. But there is a connection. One of my co-defendants wondered philosophically why apparently so many people feel it is OK to leave their garbage on the ground rather than placing it in garbage cans, which are abundant in the parks along the Connecticut River. My response, which I blurted out without giving much thought, was that it’s the symptom of a spiritual sickness. And that spiritual sickness is our modern-world, industrialized nation, human disconnection from Nature. Our capacity to litter is rooted in our disconnection from Nature.

In this sense, littering is no different from any other activity we engage in that damages either a local environment or the entire planet: we are able to engage in environmentally harmful activities—with impunity—because we have become disconnected from Nature. We engage in activities that assault the integrity of the natural world because we’ve lost our ancestral sense of our place in Nature; because we’ve lost our ancestral knowledge—life-giving, life-directing knowledge—of our dependence on and our interdependence with Nature; because we’ve lost, ultimately, our experience of oneness, our experience of being, in the words of the Rev. Becky Edmiston-Lange, “part of all that ever was.”[1] In order, as a species, to cause the harm we’ve caused, we first had to imagine ourselves as somehow distinct and separate from Nature. We first had to elevate ourselves in our own minds above Nature while simultaneously demoting and demonizing Nature. We had to identify ourselves as the tamers, the domesticators, the controllers, the civilizers, the owners, the sellers, the managers, the harnessers, the subduers, the dominators, the exploiters of Nature. We had to proclaim ourselves to be the masters of Nature. None of this was ever true—we know that now. We were never really any of these things. But we had to believe it in order to create all the toxins, poisons, contaminants, carcinogens, hazardous waste, pollutants, sludge and slurry we’ve created. None of this was ever true, but we had to believe it in order to create our fossil fuel-addicted society. We had to believe it in order to create our convenience-loving, plastic-wrap, disposable, shopaholic culture. We had to be wholly disconnected from Nature to become the people we’ve become. And when I use the words “we” and “people” I’m referring to we-the-people who live in the modern-world, industrialized nation societies where that spiritual sickness—disconnection from Nature—is most advanced.

I don’t want to dwell any further on this spiritual sickness or its symptoms. My sense is that the members and friends of this congregation generally agree the modern-world, industrialized-nation human disconnection from Nature is real and has resulted over time in a complex matrix of corporate and governmental policies, practices and systems for energy, agriculture, construction, sanitation, chemical engineering, genetic engineering, education—relating to virtually every aspect of our lives—that have long-term, negative environmental impacts that will be—and in some instances already are—catastrophic. A human disconnection from Nature was necessary before the evolution of these policies, practices and systems could take place. I assume most of you agree with this statement in part because as a congregation you are so committed to addressing the causes of global warming and climate change, working for environmental justice, countering environmental racism, and pursuing green, sustainable, simple and healthy ways of living. What I’m wondering about this morning, therefore, is not what perpetuates the spiritual sickness, but what will bring healing. What spiritual practices, what ways of thinking and being, will help us re-establish our connection to Nature?

I’m going to share four spiritual practices that answer this question for me. The first is for the heart. I call it “longing.” It is the practice of allowing oneself to feel emotion in response to our experience of Nature. Many of us are familiar with that stirring of emotion—that awe and wonder—that come in the presence of natural beauty, that come in response to witnessing an amazing landscape, a panoramic mountain-top view, a vast ocean, a starry, night sky. Our family recently spent time in the Berkshire Hills around Pittsfield, MA where Stephany’s parents live. Somewhere along the way Max started asking, ‘can we go hiking in the Berkshire Hills?” I heard in this question a nine-year-old’s longing for Nature, to be in awe of the natural world, to be in the midst of natural beauty, to be in the midst of mystery, to feel connected to a landscape that he knew was important to his mother because she spent her childhood there.

Waterfall at Monument Mountain in the Berkshire Hills

Waterfall at Monument Mountain in the Berkshire Hills

I include this kind of emotion in the practice of longing—Max was longing to experience those hills—but I’m also talking about a more complex set of emotions, perhaps a more adult set of emotions, that emerges from a recognition that something has been lost. I read earlier Allison Gammons’ meditation “Spirit of the Falls.” She writes, “A spirit once dwelt here, manifest in the rock that guides the water… / alive in the trees and plants / holding back the dirt, keeping the mountain from  / sliding to the river…. / I felt the spirit in that mist, playing with me, / dancing and laughing as I danced and laughed…. / I search for it now, along the paved trails, / amid the people and noise. / I strive to find it in the mist of the falls.”[2] She’s longing to regain something that has been lost. And we know, quite often, the emotions that attach to the experience of loss are not awe and wonder but sadness, sorrow, grief, melancholy, despair, anguish, heartache. All these emotions are part of the longing I’m describing.

And there’s more. As we recognize more and more that the disconnection from Nature is something that we-the-people have imposed on we-the-people, something we’ve taught, something we’ve solds, something we’ve bought; as we recognize that human greed, arrogance and ignorance, as well as politics, corporate bottom lines and a relentless striving for convenience have done this to us and we-the-people have allowed it to happen such that it now threatens the future of the planet, we may realize we are angry. We may realize we are impatient, indignant, furious, outraged. These emotions are also part of longing.

None of them is easy to feel, but we need to feel them—we need to let them out. As long as they remain unfelt and unacknowledged, our disconnection from Nature continues. Feeling them fully—working through them—readies us for reconnecting. Let us create spaces, then, in which we can feel these emotions. We can certainly create such spaces here in our corporate worship. But I invite you to contemplate how you might create spaces in your own life to feel deeply your complex longing to connect with Nature.

The second spiritual practice is for the mind. I call it re-imagining. For me this is primarily an intellectual practice in two parts. The first part is a practice of surrounding ourselves with voices—writers, poets, musicians, artists, theologians—whose work resists the forces of disconnection and proclaims our interdependence with Nature; whose work announces our oneness with the natural world; whose work affirms we are part of all that ever was. Earlier I read the twentieth-century American poet Lew Sarett’s “Deep Wet Moss,” in which he imagines merging with, embedding into, becoming one with Nature, perhaps at the time of death. “Oh, there will come a day, a twilight, /  when I shall sink to rest / In deep wet moss and cool blue shadows / Upon a mountain’s breast, / and yield a body torn with passions, /  And bruised with earthly scars, / To the cool oblivion of evening, / Of solitude and stars.”[3] And then we sang Z. Budapest’s words “We all come from the Goddess, and to Her we shall return / Like a drop of rain, flowing to the ocean.”[4] This kind writing, these kinds of words, re-imagine us as intimately connected to Nature. Not separate from but part of. Find the voices that speak of this connection. Surround yourself with them. Allow yourself to experience them every day.

Then, part two: inspired by these voices, begin to let your own voice proclaim your connection to Nature. You write the poem. You write the letter to the editor. You write the song. You paint the picture. You sculpt, you dance, you play, you compose, you preach, you add your voice in whatever form it takes to the chorus of voices refusing to live a disconnected life. Re-imagine yourself as profoundly connected to Nature. Re-imagine yourself as your ancient ancestors must have imagined you—they who knew nothing of fossil fuels, but did know the power of sun, wind, and water. Re-imagine yourself for the sake of spiritual healing and wholeness for yourself and for the planet.

The third spiritual practice is for the body. I call it celebration. As we approach August, we also approach in the modern Pagan, Neo-Pagan, and Wiccan calendars, the celebration of the first harvest. This celebration happens at the halfway-point between the Summer Solstice and the Autum Equinox, typically at the very end of July or on August 1st—thus, the end of this week. The celebration has various names. I see it most commonly referred to as Lughnasadh from the Celtic tradition. Lughnasadh refers to the funeral games of Lugh. Lugh was a sun god who established the games in honor of his mother, Tailtiu, supposedly an earth goddess who, as the story goes, died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture—for human survival and sustenance. Other names for this celebration include Lady Day Eve, the Feast of Bread, or the Feast of First Fruits. In a 1962 book, “The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest,” folklorist Máire MacNeill described a variety of first harvest rituals including the “solemn cutting of the first of the corn of which an offering would be made to the deity by bringing it up to a high place and burying it; a meal of the new food and of bilberries … a sacrifice of a sacred bull, a feast of its flesh … and its replacement by a young bull,” and a variety of ritual dance-plays depicting stories of Lugh’s challenges and triumphs.[5] Lughnasadh corresponds to the English festival Lammas or “loaf mass,” the wheat harvest festival, during which it is customary to bring a loaf of bread made from the new wheat crop to church to have it blessed by the priest, after which it was said, historically, to have certain magical properties.

What I’ve always loved about the modern pagan adaptations of these ancient festivals is the way in which they are so immediately tied to the land, to the seasons, to the agricultural cycles, to specific foods the earth produces in specific times and places. They are celebrations of our intimate connection to Nature, our embeddedness in Nature. Margot Adler, the former National Public Radio producer and journalist—a Pagan and a Unitarian Universalist—once said “these festivals renew a sense of living communion with the natural cycles, with the changes of season and land.”[6]

7-26 Great HarvestHaving a spiritual practice of regular celebration asks us not only to pay close attention to planting and harvest-time, to times of dormancy and growth, but when those times come, to enact rituals that honor them, so that our connection to Nature isn’t just something we feel, isn’t just something we think, but is something our bodies physically experience. Today I’ve brought bread. I didn’t bake it myself. This is a honey whole wheat loaf from the newly re-opened Great Harvest Bread Company. Some of you will remember their building on Main St. in Manchester burned down two Octobers ago. They just re-opened in Vernon in June. They baked this bread Friday morning with wheat from a family-owned farm in Montana. Here’s what I’d like to offer to you: As we sing our final song, I’ll invite anyone who wants to come forward to receive and eat a piece of bread: a Lughnasahd / Lammas bread communion, a ritual celebration of the first harvest. I also invite you to contemplate: What rituals can we enact together that invite our bodies to mark the changes in the seasons and the land? What rituals can you enact on your own to do the same?

Finally, before we sing, the fourth spiritual practice is for the soul. I call it worship. Worship is the act of holding up that which is of utmost worth. If we believe that the earth—because it births us, nurtures us, sustains us, carries us, and receives our bodies when we die—is of utmost worth, then it seems to me we ought to offer praise and thanks to it on a regular basis. We ought to worship it. What if we began relating to the earth as divine—just as our ancient ancestors did? What if we began encountering the earth as Gaia once more? As Mother once more? As Goddess once more?  How can we begin to regard the earth in this way in our collective worship?  How can you begin to regard the earth in this way in your personal spiritual life?

These are four spiritual practices for reconnecting modern world, industrialized nation people back to the earth: for the heart, longing; for the mind, re-imagining; for the body, celebration; for the soul, worship of the earth. I offer these to you as we approach the time of first harvest in 2015. I offer them because there is so much at stake. May you reconnect to Nature. May you come to that full awareness—heart, mind, body and soul awareness—you are a part of all that ever was.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Edmiston-Lange, Becky, “Prayers and Dreamings,”in Janamanchi, Abhi, and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds. Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) p. 36.

[2] Gammons, Allison C., “Spirit of the Falls,” in Janamanchi, Abhi, and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds. Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) p. 21.

[3] For the text of Sarett, Lew, “Deep Wet Moss”see: http://www.kewpie.net/helenD/DEEPWETMOSS.htm.

[4] To view a performance of Z. Budapest’s “We All Come From the Goddess,” see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voBZowM0NTs.

[5] MacNeill, Máire, The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest (London: Oxford University Press, 1962) p.426. I also found this quoted on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lughnasadh.

[6] Adler, Margot, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, druids, Goddess Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today (New York: Penguin/Arkana, 1997) p. 111.

Taking Your Faith to Work

Rev. Josh Pawelek

water coolerI’m calling this sermon “Taking Your Faith to Work,” though it’s a misleading title because there are so many different understandings of what it means to have faith and what it might mean to take it out into the world to such places as work (paid or volunteer), or the gym, the senior center, the playground, the mall, the soccer field—any place you might interact with other people. Josh and Christine Hawks-Ladds purchased this sermon at our 2013 Goods and Services Auction. After speaking with Josh about it, and then proposing this title, he said it wasn’t really what they’d had in mind.” If I understood Josh correctly, to him having faith suggested having a set of solid theological beliefs—belief in God, belief in certain doctrines about the nature of God, and perhaps a strongly felt mission to convince others of the existence of that God. That is certainly one way to understand faith. Taking that kind of faith to work would imply looking for opportunities to talk to co-workers about your beliefs and to try to persuade them to join you. A better title for that sermon might be “Proclaiming Your Faith at Work” or “Proselytizing in the Work-Place.” For us it might sound like, “Hey, let me tell you about the seven Unitarian Universalist principles.” Which you can do. But this isn’t that sermon.

Josh also mentioned last June’s Supreme Court decision in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby.[1] The Court decided in favor of the Hobby Lobby owners—the Green family—and the Conestoga Wood Specialties owners—the Hahn family—who petitioned for a faith-based exemption from the Affordable Care Act mandate that corporations pay for employee health insurance that covers contraception. The Greens, who are Evangelical Christians, and the Hahns, who are Mennonites, argued that the mandate forced them to violate their faith by paying for what they believe are abortions caused by certain contraceptives. Later in October I will preach about the slow erosion of reproductive rights in the United States and will likely look more closely at the Hobby Lobby decision. For now, I offer that decision as another possible interpretation of “Taking Your Faith to Work,” in this case by using the courts to impose your faith on your 21,000 employees regardless of the dictates of their faith. A better title for that sermon might be “Explaining Your Boss’s Faith to Your Doctor” or just “Losing Access to Medical Coverage for Scientifically-Proven Methods of Family Planning Because of Your Boss’s Faith.” (If you’re wondering about these titles, I found Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian’s July 7th analysis of the Hobby Lobby decision very helpful.) This is not that sermon.

“Taking Your Faith to Work” could also refer to the way faith-based activists might speak out along that sometimes murky and sometimes not-so-murky line where a company’s drive to make profits runs afoul of social or environmental justice values. An agri-business sprays pesticides on crops to increase yields, but in doing so it slowly poisons groundwater. An energy company invests in fracking—an economic boon to struggling regional economies—but may be generating any number of negative environmental and health consequences. Mining companies profit by their failure to comply with safety regulations; banks make home loans to families that have no chance of paying them back; fast-food chains, big retailers and some nursing homes derive huge profits by not paying their employees a living wage. People of faith, including Unitarian Universalists, are often moved to engage in public protests or shareholder actions in an effort to curtail corporate behavior that risks the health, safety, and livelihood of their workers and the larger community. That sermon might be called “Prioritizing the Common Good at Work.” This isn’t that sermon.

Many people of faith showed up in support of workers striking for higher wages at a Hartford McDonald's in early September, 2014.

Many people of faith showed up in support of workers striking for higher wages at a Hartford McDonald’s in early September, 2014.

So, what sermon is this? Josh said he feels that being part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation has brought an element of civility and spirituality to his everyday life, including his work life. Being a Unitarian Universalist has reminded him that we are all part of one larger community, that the ancient idea of the commons matters; and because of that we have to treat everyone respectfully; we have to honor the inherent worth and dignity of each person, even if we sense others aren’t honoring our worth, even if we experience others as uncaring, callous, selfish, insensitive. This is hard. We know, at times, we fail mightily. Josh reflected on his maturation as a lawyer, saying he didn’t always have the tools and grounding to deal with difficult people in a civil way. “My emotions got the best of me,” he said.

Given our propensity to fail, Josh asks, “When the slings and arrows of the workplace are being thrown at you, how do you respond as a Unitarian Universalist?” How do you treat others? How do you act? At our best, how ought Unitarian Universalists show up at work (whether paid or volunteer), and I would add at the gym, the senior center, the playground, the mall, the soccer field—any place we interact with other people?  That is this sermon. It’s not about how you articulate Unitarian Universalism to others. It’s not, “Hey, let me tell you about the seven principles of my faith.” “Taking Your Faith to Work,” the way I’m using it, means living, acting, behaving in such a way that your religious values have a beneficial impact on people’s lives. Ultimately this isn’t just about Unitarian Universalists; it’s about any person of faith—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, etc. Faith, in this sense, is a belief, a conviction, an expectation that our deepest values matter and will make a difference if we keep them at the center of everything we do. Faith is also a confidence that as we let our values guide our interactions, others will experience us—and we will experience ourselves—as more grounded, more whole, more fully human.

Earlier I read an excerpt from a talk by columnist David Brooks entitled “Should You Live for Your Résumé … or Your Eulogy?”[2] He says, “The résumé virtues are the ones you put on your résumé, which are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that get mentioned in the eulogy, which are deeper: who are you, in your depth, what is the nature of your relationships, are you bold, loving, dependable, consistent? And most of us, including me, would say that the eulogy virtues are the more important of the virtues. But at least in my case, are they the ones that I think about the most? And the answer is no.”

By the way, the eulogy is the statement we make at a memorial service about the person who has died. It’s the telling of their life—not just the chronology of their life events, but the stories that name what mattered most to them. “He loved us. We knew it because he would always stop what he was doing to spend time with us.” “She was so reliable. If she said she was going to do something, she did it. And if you said you were going to do something, she would hold you to your word.” The eulogy attempts to capture the essence of the person—their beliefs, their convictions, their values—which, in my mind, can very simply be called their faith.

I was drawn to Brooks’ talk for this particular Sunday because he mentions Adam, as in Adam the Biblical first man. Recall that Jews celebrated Rosh Hashanah this week. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, marks the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days. In Jewish tradition it celebrates the creation of the world, the creation of Adam and Eve, and the special relationship between God and humanity. In his talk Brooks draws on the 20th-century Orthodox rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s 1965 book, The Lonely Man of Faith,[3]in which he reflects on two distinct characterizations of Adam in the Hebrew book of Genesis. Yes, there are two Adams. I won’t explain this in detail, but suffice it to say that a scholarly or historical critical reading of Genesis reveals the work of multiple authors whose words were compiled over the centuries into one Biblical narrative.[4] The first chapter of Genesis describes the creation of the world differently than the second. The first chapter describes God differently than the second. The first chapter describes Adam differently than the second. Rabbi Soloveitchik used those differences to reflect on what he felt were two, often competing natures in modern human beings.

I haven’t read Lonely Man of Faith, but based on what I’ve read about it, I think I see the distinction Rabbi Soloveitchik was making. Adam 1—the Adam in Genesis 1—is created at the same time as Eve. “So God created humankind in God’s image … male and female God created them.”[5] They are the first humans. God tells them: “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion … over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”[6] Adam 2, the Adam in Genesis 2, is created alone. Eve comes later. There’s no reference to being created in God’s image. God simply forms Adam from the dust of the ground. Nor does God charge him to subdue the earth or to have dominion over every living thing. God puts Adam 2 in the garden to “till it and keep it.”[7] And then God recognizes: “it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”[8]

Adam from Dust

What I take from my reading of these Biblical words in modern English is this: Adam 1 at his best is creative, innovative, a builder. Rabbi Soloveitchik called him “Majestic Man.”  David Brooks says Adam I is the worldly, ambitious, external side of our nature. He wants to know how things work. He savors success and accomplishment. He wants to conquer the world.[9]  Brooks links this nature to the current values of the work place and the culture at large. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these values, but there are risks that accompany them. Adam 1 can be dominating—that is his divine charge, after all. He can take relationships for granted, undervaluing them, for he has never experienced what it means to be alone. Adam 1’s pragmatism may outweigh other human values like listening, compassion and empathy. Others may experience him as heartless.

Adam 2 at his best is humble. He’s not here to subdue the earth, but to keep and tend the garden. And because he has known loneliness, he values relationships differently than Adam 1. He takes others more fully into account. He listens. He is compassionate. Rabbi Soloveitchik called him“Covenantal Man.”Brooks says “Adam II is the humble side of our nature. [He] wants not only to do good but to be good, to live in a way internally that honors God, creation and our possibilities….  [He] wants to hear a calling and obey the world.  [He] savors inner consistency and strength. [While] Adam I asks how things work. Adam II asks why we’re here. [Where] Adam I’s motto is ‘success.’ Adam II’s motto is ‘love, redemption and return.’”[10]

I hear in David Brooks’ talk a deep sadness that the eulogy virtues and the values that underlie them are so absent from our dominant culture. He says “We happen to live in a society that favors Adam I, and often neglects Adam II. And the problem is, that turns you into a shrewd animal who treats life as a game, and you become a cold, calculating creature who slips into a sort of mediocrity.”[11] I hear him longing for a different kind of interaction, a different way of treating the other—not just in the work place but everywhere— the gym, the senior center, the playground, the mall, the soccer field, even the battle field. At our best, as Unitarian Universalists, as liberal religious people, as people of faith who covenant around the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, I think we’re in a position to respond well to that longing; to take our faith out to the world—to let the eulogy virtues shine in the midst of a culture that not only shuns them, but desperately needs them.

The ancient Hebrew writer said “God formed man from the dust of the ground.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I try to remember these bodies we inhabit all come from the dust of the ground, and all return in time to the dust of the ground. We are dust. And knowing this truth—coming to terms with it, feeling it deeply, feeling the profound loneliness that can accompany  it—calls us, I believe, to a place of humility. The Latin humus—ground—is also the root word for humility.

We are dust

When I speak of taking your UU faith to work, I imagine humility as the central hallmark of that faith. It is utterly difficult to recognize and honor the worth of others without humility. What does that look like? It looks like many things: patience; a willingness to listen; an ethic of inclusion; a practice of breathing first, reacting second; stepping back from difficult situations before making a decision; a sincere desire to learn another’s perspective, to comprehend why others act the way they do; understanding not only what is in one’s own best interest in relation to others, but what is in the best interest of the common good; a refusal to subdue; a refusal to dominate; an impulse towards partnership and collaboration; a compassionate and loving heart;  a willingness to acknowledge mistakes, to apologize for hurtful actions, and to forgive those who’ve been hurtful. David Brooks was right to suggest this kind of faith is missing from the work place and so many places in our nation—not because faithful people don’t exist, but because the résumé values are so overly prioritized.

In the service of a new priority, this is my charge to you: be faithful. Take your faith into the work place. Take it to the office, the factory floor, the board room, the warehouse. Take it to the gym, the senior center, the playground, the mall, the soccer field. Take it to the supermarket, the town hall meeting, the homeless shelter, the night club, your child’s first grade class. Take it to the fundraising dinner, the beach, the board of ed., the graduation party. Take it to the nursing home, the hospital, the prison, the police station, the battlefield. Be faithful. Be like dust, humus. Humble. Be this way, trusting that some day, someone will want to tell the story of your life, because your life made a difference in their life, and they loved you for it.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] The text to the decision and the dissenting opinion are at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/13-354_olp1.pdf.

[2] Brooks, David, “Should You Live For Your Résumé . . . or Your Eulogy?” (TED talk, March 2014) at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy?language=en.

[3] Soloveitchik, Joseph, The Lonely Man of Faith, (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2011). See:

http://www.korenpub.com/EN/products/maggid/maggid/9781613290033.

[4] For an accessible review of the history of Biblical authorship, see Friedman, Richard E., Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Harper and Rowe Publishers, 1989).

[5] Genesis 1: 27.

[6] Genesis 1: 28b.

[7] Genesis 2:15b.

[8] Genesis 2:18b.

[9] Brooks, David, “Should You Live For Your Résumé . . . or Your Eulogy?” (TED talk, March 2014) at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy?language=en.

[10] Brooks, David, “Should You Live For Your Résumé . . . or Your Eulogy?” (TED talk, March 2014) at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy?language=en.

[11] Brooks, David, “Should You Live For Your Résumé . . . or Your Eulogy?” (TED talk, March 2014) at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy?language=en.

Elusive Abundance

Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

“Which secret garden will you tend today?”[1] asks the Rev. Kathleen McTigue. The garden of dissatisfaction or the garden of abundance? I’m gonna guess no one here this morning will say, “I prefer to tend the garden of dissatisfaction. That’s me at my best.” Or, “I prefer whining and complaining.” Or, “I love that feeling of not being able to get out of bed in the morning, of being overwhelmed, of always rushing, always reacting, always feeling like everything is urgent and there’s never enough time. Please give me more of that!” I’m guessing—I could be wrong—none of you prefers to tend the garden of dissatisfaction.

Angry Gardener

We prefer not to, but most of us do tend it. This is Rev. McTigue’s point and I agree: “We return again and again to the unkempt and extravagant growth of our favorite gripes, some of them many years old and still full of whining vigor.”[2] There are often good reasons for this. Sometimes we are dissatisfied and complaining is our best and only option. And there are days when we really don’t want to get out of bed because our burdens feel too heavy to bear. But when sitting in worship and the minister asks if you’ll tend the garden of dissatisfaction or abundance,I’m gonna guess you’d prefer abundance. “This garden,” says Rev. McTigue, “grows easily, it blossoms freely, and its richness awaits us each time we open our[selves to it]: life, breath, kindness, friends, love…. All the bounty given to us by every unfolding day.”[3]

autumn harvest

Our ministry theme for October is abundance. September is here for a few more days, but autumn has arrived. The final harvest has begun. Farm stands are full of the bounty of the land—pumpkins, applies, pears, corn, squash and all manner of pies. The sights and smells of earthly abundance are all around us. So I’m ready for this theme. I hope you are too.

I want to begin by exposing and hopefully dispensing with a myth about how one achieves abundance. You may have noticed this: conversations about abundance can easily degenerate into a feel-good cliché that completely ignores reality. The cliché is the often enthusiastically stated claim that all it takes to have abundance in your life is a slight shift in attitude. Rev. McTigue is the last Unitarian Universalist minister I would ever accuse of resorting to cliché, yet it sneaks even into her deeply insightful words. She writes: “There’s another garden growing right along-side [the garden of dissatisfaction], and just a small shift in perspective tumbles us into its grace.”[4]

abundance

Friends, I want desperately for this to be true. I want the garden of abundance to be that close. I want tumbling into its grace to be that easy. Just a snap of the fingers, a turn of the head, an unanticipated moment of peace and wallah! Life, breath, kindness, friends, love, financial health—abundance. I want this for everyone. But in my experience, the people who can get to the garden of abundance with only a slight shift in attitude are people who already live there, but just forgot. They already experience abundance in their lives, but something draws them into the garden of dissatisfaction. It could be something petty, or it could be something serious like the death of a loved-one, a difficult diagnosis or the break-up of a marriage. So they tend the garden of dissatisfaction for a little while until they remember what they already know. Oh yeah, what am I complaining about? I have what I need to sustain me. I have a good life.

But for people who don’t experience abundance in their lives, the suggestion that having abundance only requires a slight shift in attitude is, more often than not, a set-up for failure. It’s rarely that easy. Two weeks ago I spoke about what gets in the way of personal transformation. I named a dense constellation of deep-seeded thoughts behaviors, habits, addictions, long-standing physical and emotional attachments, relationships, commitments, loyalties, assumptions, financial arrangements, family dynamics, children’s needs and much more that has brought us to where we are, makes us who we are, and holds us firmly in place. It doesn’t just change because we want it to. It doesn’t just change because we recognize the garden of abundance is right next door. A shift in attitude may be a good start, but it’s rarely enough. So I don’t hear just change your attitude as sage advice, as wisdom. I hear it as a cliché.

And it’s dangerous cliché, a potentially spirit-killing cliché. It can become a convenient excuse for why scarcity persists in a person’s life. They didn’t do it right! They didn’t shift their attitude correctly. We can blame their lack of abundance on a character flaw, on the fact that they didn’t want their lives to change enough. It’s a form of blaming the victim. And if we think it’s their fault, then there’s no obligation for us to ask about the often very legitimate reasons why they’re living with dissatisfaction. Let’s say a person experiences scarcity in their life because they live with a mental illness. (We know not all people with mental illness experience scarcity, but let’s say this person does.) They can change their attitude all they want, but so often the problem is bigger than their attitude. One reason a person with mental illness might lack abundance is not because of their attitude toward themselves, but because of society’s negative attitude toward people with mental illness. One reason a poor person might lack abundance is not their attitude towards themselves, but society’s negative attitude toward poor people.

Ignoring Poor People

My point is this: it has become a cliché to suggest that one’s attitude makes the difference between scarcity and abundance. While I agree one’s attitude is crucial to living a fulfilling and meaningful life, it is also true that scarcity results from larger social, economic and spiritual realities over which individuals have little control. Scarcity is rarely a purely individual problem. And it stands to reason that abundance is a social phenomenon. We secure the blessings of life—we get our needs met and more—when our communities thrive. We’re not in this alone. So, the advice to an individual to simply change of their attitude is often a set-up for failure.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey

You know who I blame for the prevalence of this cliché? Oprah Winfrey. She’s famous and successful—at least in part—for repeating this cliché over and over again. A salient example: in 2006 she dedicated two shows to an exploration of The Secret, the best-selling book from Australian filmmaker and self-help guru Rhonda Byrne. An Oprah.com article from 2006 says, “Rhonda [Byrne] defines The Secret as the law of attraction … the principle that ‘like attracts like.’” According to Byrne, “We attract into our lives the things we want … based on what we’re thinking and feeling” [5] If we’re experiencing scarcity, it’s because we’ve been thinking about scarcity. If we want abundance, we just have to change our thoughts and feelings.

Oprah is convinced Steven Spielberg invited her to play the role of Sofia in “The Color Purple” because she really wanted the role and couldn’t stop thinking about it. She didn’t tell anyone she wanted the role. She didn’t know Spielberg. But her thoughts led Spielberg to her.[6] In a 2013 book, The Secret: Daily Teachings, Byrne says, “Whatever feelings you have within you are attracting your tomorrow. Worry attracts more worry. Anxiety attracts more anxiety…. Joy attracts more joy. Happiness attracts more happiness….Your job is an inside one. To change your world, all you need to do is change how you feel inside. How easy is that?[7]

Rhonda Byrne

Rhonda Byrne

I haven’t read the entire book, but I’ve read a lot about it and I’ve spoken with people who are absolutely convinced the law of attraction is real and that you can attract money, work, happiness, romance, power—anything you desire—to you simply by thinking about it and—this is important—by not thinking about its opposite: poverty, unemployment, sadness, loneliness, weakness, etc. I just read a story on The Secret website from a devotee whose dog was diagnosed by two different vets with a massive tumor on her liver. This person tells her dog over and over again that she is healed and intentionally never mentions the words sick, cancer, tumor, etc. After four months they return to the vet who, in utter disbelief, tells them the tumor has disappeared.[8]

There are many commentators and critics who debunk the pseudo-science behind concepts like the law of attraction, or who challenge the therapeutic efficacy and even the ethics of counseling people facing serious crises to simply change their thoughts and feelings, or who expose the enormous profits to be gained from selling easy answers to people in distress. One of the best critiques of The Secret and other publishing successes in this genre is Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2009 Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.[9] I won’t say more about it here, except to point out that there are serious, well-researched efforts to expose the short-sightedness as well as the insidiousness of this cliché.

Watch Jon Stewart’s interview with Barbara Ehrenreich here.

But I’m not mocking. I believe the person with the sick dog used the technique she learned from The Secret with complete faith that it would work. For all I know it did. For all I know Oprah’s thoughts attracted Spielberg’s attention. Who am I to say otherwise? But I’m also familiar with the proverbial aspiring actress who never gets a call-back despite how utterly dedicated she is to her craft and how much she thinks about succeeding. Did she not want it enough? And I am worried about the thousands of people who will read the story about a dog’s miraculous remission and who, as a result, will put their faith in the power of a positive attitude to heal their own dog, or their cat, or their own body, or their spouse’s body, or their child’s body, or their parent’s body. They will bring all manner of positive thoughts and feelings to bear; they will avoid all manner of negative words and images; and it won’t work. In fifteen years of ministry I’ve watched far too many loving, hopeful, prayerful, positive people yearn for a loved-one to survive a life-threatening illness and the person still dies. Were these family members not positive enough? Not hopeful enough? Not loving enough? Did they pray the wrong prayers? Did they allow negativity to creep into their thoughts and feelings? Were they tending the wrong garden while their loved-one lay dying? If so, are they responsible for the death? Of course not.

What impresses me about a phenomenon like the Oprah Winfrey Show, which peddled the just change your attitude cliché to tens of millions of viewers for years, and what impresses me about a phenomenon like The Secret, which has sold tens of millions of copies in forty languages across the globe, is not those occasional moments where the law of attraction appears to actually work. What impresses me is that so many millions of people are so hungry for a way out of dissatisfaction. So many people are searching desperately for a different life. So many people feel mired in material and spiritual scarcity. So many people are longing for some inkling of abundance in their lives. Winfrey and Byrne and many others have offered a response to this longing. It begs the question: what do we offer to people longing for abundance? What do each of you offer, what does your minister offer, what does you congregational offer, what does Unitarian Universalism offer, what does liberal religion offer to people who are crying out for some measure of abundance in their lives?

Earlier we sang “Earth was given as a garden, cradle for humanity…. Here was home for all your creatures born of land and sky and sea; all created in your image, all to live in harmony.”[10] This hymn calls to mind an idyllic, if mythological human past, a time of abundance in which every human need was met; a time from which we have grown distant. The hymn invites us to learn what we must learn in order to regain that abundance. “Teach us how to trust each other, how to use for good our power, how to touch the earth with reverence. Then once more will Eden flower,” a references to the Biblical Garden of Eden. I also read earlier from Genesis where God, in Eden, reminds all creatures, “I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.”[11] Again, an image of abundance at the dawn of humanity.

The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole

The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole

I think the spiritual lesson we draw from these kinds of images—whether we find them in ancient scripture, a modern hymn, or a minister’s reference to New England farm-stands overflowing with the earth’s bounty—is that the earth can and will provide everything we need. In more traditional religious contexts we hear, “The Lord will provide.” We’re aware, though, that we’re out of balance, that many people don’t have access to the earth’s bounty—healthy food, clean air, drinkable water, shelter. And many people don’t have access to decent education, health care, work that pays a living wage and on and on. This is why so many people long for abundance and are so drawn to easy answers like just change your attitude which doesn’t address the real roots of scarcity.But “earth was given as a garden” may not be any better. It’s a myth. And given how many people live on the planet today; given what we know about water and food crises, health care costs, climate change, and the damage wrought by production and use of non-renewable energy, I think it’s a fair question whether the earth has the capacity to provide for everyone. That capacity seems stretched to the breaking point in our time.

Pollution

Nevertheless, this spiritual vision of a return to Eden, of achieving some level of abundance for all humanity, is part of our spiritual heritage. I think it’s essential that we hold onto it, that we adapt it to present-day realities, that we preach it, teach it, pray it, write it, sing it, dance it, post it, blog it, tweet it. We—people of faith, people of conscience, people who affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person—need to keep this vision of abundance for all people alive in the world because there are competing visions at work, visions organized around the principles of domination, exploitation, control and unbridled profit. Without a vision of abundance for all people, justice, fairness and equality erode and access to the fruits of the earth remain elusive for many. Vision matters. If we want abundance, we need vision. So, I’ll leave you with this question to ponder for next Sunday: if there are no quick fix, easy answers to the various forms scarcity takes, if just change your attitude is an insufficient though highly seductive response to scarcity, then what is the work—what is the difficult, roll-up-our sleeves work—that will bring that vision of Eden to fruition?

coming back

Amen and Blessed be.



[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Tending the Secret Garden,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 66.

[2] McTigue, “Tending the Secret Garden, p. 66.

[3] McTigue, “Tending the Secret Garden, p. 66.

[4] McTigue, “Tending the Secret Garden, p. 66.

[6] Watch Oprah Winfrey talking to Larry King about the way she experienced the Secret in her own life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYFIN6Csr0k.

[7] Byrne, Rhonda, The Secret Daily Teachings (New York: Atria Books, 2013) Day 3. See http://thesecret.tv/thesecretdailyteachings/

[8] The story, “Huge Tumor Gone,” is at http://thesecret.tv/stories/stories-read.html?id=17592.

[9] Ehrenreich, Barbara, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009). For excerpts and interviews, see http://www.barbaraehrenreich.com/brightsided.htm.

[10][10] Bard, Roberta, “Earth Was Given as a Garden” Singing the Living Tradition  (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #207.

[11] Genesis 1: 29.

Edge Times: A Meditation on the Coming of Spring

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

We’re right on the edge. Spring has come so close. 

Diggin' in the dirt

Snow, when it falls, melts quickly now. Thermometers now read forty, even fifty degrees at mid-day. Morning bird song, though sparse, is unmistakable now. Sharp green shoots will break through the cold but thawing ground any day now. Pale, red buds will begin dotting branches any day now. Spring has come so close and so many of us are ready, on the edge, poised, anticipating, expecting, crouching as if ready to leap, ready to burst forth, ready to bid farewell to our winter tombs, ready for resurrection, ready for rebirth, ready for warm April sun on our backs, ready for dirty hands planting seeds in the dark, brown earth. Continue reading….

Really . . . What’s Real?

The Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

Earlier I read an excerpt from Nick Bostrum’s 2003 article, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”[1] To be clear, he does not prove we are living in a simulation (had he proved it, I suspect we’d all be aware of it by now and waiting to meet our maker— or, umm, programmer). What he proves is that it is rational to think we are living in a computer simulation. Or, in the very least, he proves one can argue it is rational to think we are living in a simulation.

Simulation

One can also argue that while it might be rational to think we are living in a computer simulation, it might not be rational to preach about it. And if the minister decides to preach about it anyways, it would be rational to think it might be one of his less useful sermons. Of course, this is the same challenge I accept every year when I put a sermon up for bid at the UUS:E goods and services auction. As most of you know, every year our beloved Fred Sawyer wins a sermon at the auction and challenges me to preach on a topic or question residing at that murky yet evocative crossroads where science, philosophy and theology meet. “Are you living in a computer simulation?” is no exception.

The Truman Show

I’m not sure, in the end, that answering this question is all that useful. But the fact that some scientists, philosophers and theologians take this question seriously; the fact that there are scientists proposing experimental means to answer the question (even if they’re doing it partly for fun); and the fact that this idea that reality is not the same as what our senses perceive shows up again and again in literature and cinema—in everything from the Bible to Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Whoto The Matrix films to The Truman Show—tells us something about human nature which I suspect is meaningful. [And whether or not it is, it is certainly rational to the come to the auction next Saturday evening, February 9th, from 5:30 to 9:00. It’s great fun. It’s an important fundraiser for the congregation. As always, a sermon or two will be up for bid.]

Horton Hears a Who

Imagine today isn’t February 3, 2013. We think it is, and everything we’ve ever been taught tells us that it is. But imagine today is actually a day far in the future. And imagine that some future society—Bostrum calls them “posthuman”—has developed powerful computers that can run programs that simulate human evolution. Bostrum calls them “ancestor simulations.” They would be so fine-grained that the people in them would have consciousness and would not realize they are living in a virtual reality.[2] Again, Bostrum wants to show it is rational to think we live in such a simulation. To do this he says at least one of three propositions must be true.

First proposition (what I call the gloom and doom proposition): “The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.” If this proposition is true, if human beings will become extinct before developing this level of computing power, then we cannot be living in a computer simulation, and today must be February 3, 2013.

Second proposition (what I call the ethical proposition): “Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history.” Imagine that human beings do not become extinct and successfully develop the capacity to run very fine-grained ancestor simulations. Then imagine that, despite having such capacity, they refuse to do it. Why? Doesn’t it seem logical that if it could be done, it would be done? We already run computer simulations for all sorts of things. We track the paths hurricanes; we train astronauts. Simulations are part of every industry that uses computers. We even have computers that simulate computers. If we could simulate human evolution, we could learn so much about ourselves. We wouldn’t do it for moral reasons. An advanced human society would, we hope, have an advanced morality and would recognize that in creating virtual yet conscious people, it would also be consigning them to a life of potentially great suffering. An accurate simulation would include genocides, wars, holocausts, slavery, nuclear explosions, terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism, gun violence, poverty, famine, starvation, disease and so on. It would be sadistic, morally objectionable and highly unethical to create virtual people who would have to experience these things. Hence, it would be prohibited, even illegal. If that’s true—if every advanced society with this level of computing power prohibits ancestor simulations—then we cannot be living in a simulation. Today must be February 3, 2013.

Third proposition (what I call the what’s really real? proposition): “We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.” That is, if the first proposition is false—human beings don’t become extinct; and if the second proposition is false—advanced societies don’t establish prohibitions against running ancestor simulations—then we are almost certainly living in such a simulation. Today is likely not February 3, 2013.

To understand why this might make sense, consider that Bostrum assumes it would not be just one society that develops this computing power. There would be multiple advanced societies, all of them running multiple simulations at once. And furthermore, at some point in the course of any such simulation the virtual people in it would themselves develop the computing power to run their own ancestor simulations. As Bostrum puts it, “we would have to suspect that the posthumans running our simulation are themselves simulated beings; and their creators, in turn, may also be simulated beings.” It could go on indefinitely.

Simulated Simulators

Michael Rundle, Technology Editor for the Huffington Post, UK, summed up the argument in an article this past December: “any civilization which could evolve to a ‘post-human’ stage would almost certainly learn to run simulations on the scale of a universe. And…given the size of reality—billions of worlds, around billions of suns—it is fairly likely that if this is possible, it has already happened. And if it has? Well, then the statistical likelihood is that we’re located somewhere in that chain of simulations within simulations. The alternative—that we’re the first civilization in the first universe—is virtually (no pun intended) absurd.”[3]

My gut response to all this? I think it’s absurd (no pun needed). It can’t be true. It doesn’t feel right. Something’s missing. It’s too circular. It’s a trick. But I don’t have a rational counter argument. Is it just that I’m so used to thinking I’m an original human in the original universe, that I’m deeply and irrationally attached to this assumption? After all, I’ve never been invited to seriously think otherwise until now. If we assume humans will not become extinct and will one day have the computing power to run ancestor simulations; and if we assume that advanced societies would not prohibit such simulations, then on what basis can we argue we are not now living in a simulation? We wouldn’t know it if we were. It doesn’t feel rational, but it certainly looks rational on paper.

Simulated Cosmic RaysOne rational response to Bostrum is to look for actual evidence. In a recent paper entitled “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation”[4] German physicist Silas R. Beane and colleagues discuss how one might approach this problem. He says in any computer simulation there are “observable consequences” of that simulation. There are certain constraints or limits on the laws of physics within any simulation and they leave a signature. The signatures are very slight, but they ought to be observable within the simulation if one knows how and where to look. So they suggest that we begin with the assumption that our universe is a simulation and then ask: What known phenomena are there in the universe that mirror the kinds of observable consequences we would expect to find? Beane names the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin—GZK—cut off, the outer limit of the energy in cosmic ray particles. What accounts for this cut off? Why does this limit exist? He proposes this limit could be an observable consequence of a computer simulation. I haven’t had time to figure out whether he and his colleagues are just doing this for fun in their spare time or if this is their main research area. Either way, their paper, like Bostrum’s, has a wide popular following. The suggestion that what is real is not the same as what we perceive is a potent one.

Fred was interested in what Bostrum’s theory might say about God and ethics.  It says a lot. Some of you may already be making theological connections. Bostrum said, “it is possible to draw… loose analogies with religious conceptions of the world…. The posthumans running a simulation are like gods in relation to the people inhabiting the simulation: the posthumans created the world we see; they are of superior intelligence; they are “omnipotent” in the sense that they can interfere in the workings of our world even in ways that violate its physical laws; and they are “omniscient” in the sense that they can monitor everything that happens.” This makes sense. If we are living in a computer simulation, it is fair to say that the programmer plays a similar if not the same role in our lives that many feel the God of the Bible plays. Even the idea of resurrection is plausible in a computer simulation. If the programmers don’t like that someone ‘important’ has died, they can just re-insert the file back into the simulation. Or think about incarnation—the divine taking human form. A programmer could place a file of themself into the simulation and walk among us virtual folk, speaking to us of the errors of our ways. To us it would look like incarnation—spirit-becoming-flesh. The programmer would experience it as flesh-becoming-data. But do you see what I’m getting at? This question—“Are you living in a computer simulation?”—is not a new question. It uses modern concepts. It wears the clothing of science. But it’s actually an ancient question, an ancient thought process. Because we can’t explain our origins, we conclude there must be a Creator who exists in another realm.[5]Whether God or programmer, the net effect is the same. We live at the mercy of an all-powerful entity.

Zeus

And whether we’re talking about an all-powerful God or programmer, the problem of evil and suffering remains. This is also an ancient human question, the question of theodicy: How do we explain evil and suffering if God is all-powerful? What about genocides, wars, holocausts and slavery? Why does an all-powerful God allow these things to happen? Why? There’s no good answer. Some will contend God’s purposes are inscrutable and should not be questioned, but that’s never been acceptable to me. So what justification would some future computer programmer have in creating people who feel pain in so many ways, who are exquisitely conscious of their own suffering and that of others; people who are fragile, flawed and know they must, some day, die. It seems sadistic. It makes sense that an advanced society with an advanced morality would prohibit it.

Except that if it turns out we are living in a simulation, I wouldn’t want it to be turned off. I wouldn’t want life just to end in the blink of an eye, without a chance to say goodbye to the people I love, just like I don’t want life to end any other way—though I know it must. Computer simulation or not, I still recognize in me, in you, and in so many of earth’s creatures a fierce and beautiful will to live. No matter what’s real, we’re here and these are our lives. Whether it’s 2013 or some future day, we’re here and these are our lives. And even if our lives are illusions, they feel real. As far as we know, they’re the only lives we have. The point of living has never been to avoid evil and suffering, but rather, when it happens, to respond to it as best we can: to find our sources of resilience, to remain hopeful, to bring love to bear. Regardless of what’s really real, I can find no excuse to live our lives as if they have no consequence.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe in an all-powerful God or an all-powerful programmer. I believe today is February 3, 2013; our bodies are real flesh and blood bodies; and we are among the first people in this universe. That’s what I believe, but I also an open to and curious about any opportunity to connect with a reality greater than or in some way beyond this one. I recall those words of the Apostle Paul, his reminder to the Corinthians to “Look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, what cannot be seen is eternal.”[6] I recall those words of the Sufi poet, Hafez, speaking to the Beloved Presence: “Veil yourself with every enchantment and yet I shall feel you…. You are the breathing of the world.”[7] I’m reminded that from time to time we catch glimpses of something else—some other world, some other realm. Maybe we don’t see it with our eyes—we feel it, we imagine it, we dream it. Maybe it comes to us in our quiet, peaceful moments— our mountain top moments, our walking-at-low-tide-moments—moments when we lean back from our daily lives and suddenly realize we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Maybe it comes to us in our moments of great celebration or exertion—moments when we’ve danced, sung, run, whirled or stretched our bodies so far beyond their normal positions that somehow we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Reality is not always the same as what our senses tell us.

So many religions, folkways and spiritual practices; so many prophets, gurus, teachers, poets, guides and spiritual leaders; so many scriptures, myths, stories and dreams hint at the existence of something else: some Heaven, some Olympus, Elysium, Valhalla, Zion, Sheol, Shangri-La, Shambhala, Svarga Loka, Nirvana, some celestial sphere, some great oneness, some kingdom coming. But our glimpses are always fleeting. We may never know what’s really real. Given this, what seems most rational to me is staying open and curious. And what really matters is not whether a proposition is ultimately true or false, but whether it keeps us resilient in a hurting world, keeps us hopeful, and keeps love overflowing in our hearts.

Curiosity

Amen. Blessed be.


 


[1] Bostrum, Nick, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? “Philosophical Quarterly(2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243?255. (First version: 2001). For a detailed exploration of the various debates sparked by Bostrum’s article, go to http://www.simulation-argument.com/.

[2] Bostrum argues that, though it is controversial, a common assumption in the philosophy of mind known as “substrate independence” suggests that computers should be capable of consciousness. He writes: “It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon?based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon?based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.”

[5] I recommend Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s description of ‘The Cosmological Argument’ for the existence of God in 36 Arguments For the Existence of God (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010) p. 348. In my view this is possibly the most common and most ancient argument for the existence of God. Goldstein convincingly dismantles it.

[6] Second Corinthians 4:18.

[7] Shams Ud-Dun Mohammed Hafiz, “Beloved Presence,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #607.

The Time Where Words End: Reflections on Humility

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Come, my way, my truth, my life, such a way as gives us breathe, such a truth as ends all strife, such a life that killeth death.”[1]

Words of George Herbert, a seventeenth-century Anglican priest and poet; words that invite, beckon, welcome; words that help frame for me the way we arrive at humility.

Humility is our ministry theme for December. For most of us I suspect humility isn’t one of those loaded spiritual words; it isn’t one of those traditional words that raise our hackles, one of those vaguely unpleasant pin-prick words; it isn’t one of those haunting religious words. In fact, for many of us it’s not even religious. It’s as secular as it is spiritual. Humility is a character trait, a demeanor, a manner, a personality type, a way of holding or conducting oneself that creates space for others, that allows others to breathe; it’s a way of moving lightly through the world, walking softly upon the earth; it’s an open, inviting, welcoming, hospitable way of engaging others. It’s a way of service. It’s a virtue. We often know it when we see it and, in general, we appreciate it—even admire it—in others. And there’s something oddly—and at times confoundingly—elusive, even paradoxical, about it.

In short, I’ve learned over the years that when I try to be humble—when humility is my goal—I typically fail. It’s as if I can’t get there from here. I can’t just wake up in the morning and resolve to be humble. I’ve learned I can’t just leave my home after breakfast thinking, I’m going to be humble today, and expect to arrive at humility. Or when I feel badly about yelling at my kids and I say to myself, I’m not gonna do that anymore, I’m gonna be more humble: saying that to myself might get me fifteen seconds of humility (and I’m pretty sure it’s not genuine). Simply resolving to be humble is not the path to humility. Something else needs to happen. Something needs to call me out of myself—or perhaps deeper into myself. Something needs to stop me in my tracks, take my breath away, make me pause, make me still, make me quiet.

Come, my way, my truth, my life. Earlier I shared with you Rev. Mark Belletini’s meditation “Earth.” For me it’s one among many good descriptions of the kind of something that needs to happen in order for humility to rise in us. He writes: “This is our earth. / There are no other earths. / Before its wonder, philosophers fall silent. / Before its mystery, / poets admit their words are shadow, not light. / And all the great names religious teachers / have left to us / Ishtar, Shekinah, Terra Mater, Suchness, Wakan Tanka, / Gaia / suddenly refuse to announce themselves. / And so we too fall silent, / entering the time where words end / and reality begins.[2]

Times where words end. There are moments when one’s voice grows silent, when the self seems to dissolve, when the ego suddenly lies dormant. In such moments I find I more easily remember what matters most. I remember my highest values, my commitments. I feel called to dedicate or re-dedicate my life to some reality or purpose greater than me. I feel called to surrender in some way to that reality or purpose; called to let go and trust I’m being led in a good direction; called to relinquish some aspect of myself, making room for something new. Come, my way, my truth, my life. In such moments, when I’m not actually seeking to be humble, I’m more likely to arrive at humility. That’s the paradox: we can’t just decide to be humble. Humility rises in us as a result of something else: having no words, falling silent, surrendering, letting go, relinquishing; dedicating our lives to some reality or purpose greater than ourselves.

As I began working on this sermon I was focusing on one of Jesus’ parables in the book of Luke. Along the way I started arguing with the parable and decided it was better not to start there. I want to read it to you now and then explain my contention with it, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”[3]

I like this parable for a number of reasons, though mainly for its overall message that humility is a virtue, while unchecked pride, hypocrisy, vanity and their ilk are problematic. What challenges me about this parable is its black and white view of the world and human nature, its either/or thinking about how one ought to relate to the Holy, the stark line it draws between virtue and vice, the strict dichotomy it builds between acts of humbling oneself and acts of exalting oneself. Our lives aren’t always so clear, and I actually don’t want to live in a society with such absolute clarity. I think it’s more realistic—and more honest—to note that humility and pride can and do comingle in us. They balance each other. Both can contribute to our spiritual, mental and physical health and the line between them isn’t always clear.

Here’s an example of how this lack of clarity—perhaps it’s better to say balance—recently manifested in my life. Two Tuesday evenings ago about forty of us were standing outside the Hartford Public Library observing the Transgender Day of Remembrance. During that observation I was invited to speak. I was certainly humbled to receive that invitation. But I was also proud. I was proud to be recognized as an ally of the transgender community. I was proud to be recognized as a local faith leader. I was proud to be recognized for my speaking ability. I was proud to be a faith leader speaking to, for and with people who are so often excluded from faith communities. I was proud to be a Unitarian Universalist. I was proud to be the minister of this congregation. I was proud of our young people who were holding our bright yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” banner. I was overflowing with pride. And in a moment like that there’s no way on earth I’m going to minimize that pride. On the contrary, I’m going to reveal it. I’m going to let it shine. I’m going to speak with volume. I’m going to speak forcefully. I’m going to put some ego into my speech. And if I believed in the kind of God to whom I could describe this scene in prayer—I would probably sound a lot more like the Pharisee than the tax collector. Like the Pharisee’s prayer, my prayer would sound like self-exaltation. No apologies.

But I also know there’s more to it than that. Come, my way, my truth, my life. In the midst of that pride, I also recognize more fundamental reasons for being at the Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s not because I might get to speak. It’s not because I’m a Unitarian Universalist or a faith leader. It’s because I believe that bearing witness to violence and oppression matters. I believe that doing whatever we can to stem the tide of violence against transgender people matters; and that doing whatever we can to stem the tide of violence on city streets and in homes and against undocumented immigrants and between Israel and Hamas and on and on and on matters. It’s because I believe that asserting the value, dignity and integrity of transgender lives matters. And it’s because I hold the larger conviction—and I think we all share it—that all lives matter, that all people are worthy, that all people deserve to be treated with love and compassion, that all people ought to be able to participate fully in the life of our various communities and ought to be welcomed in doing so. This conviction—which is also a commitment—is in me, but it didn’t come from me. I suppose it has many sources, but first and foremost I experience it as a movement of spirit in my life. I feel I’m constantly being led to it. And while I don’t always feel like following, in those moments when I do let go and allow myself to be led, when I do surrender, when I do relinquish, in addition to whatever feeling of pride washes over me, a feeling of humility also rises in me. In that moment it doesn’t matter if the attention is focused on me. It doesn’t matter if I speak. It doesn’t matter if I’m a leader. It doesn’t matter if I’m a Unitarian Universalist. It doesn’t matter if there’s a bright, yellow “Standing on the Side of Love Banner.” It only matters that we’re present and willing to help.

I have a further, perhaps more global concern about drawing a very strict division between humility as a virtue and pride as a vice. In the midst of such moral certitude I get antsy thinking about all the people in the world who are in some way voiceless, powerless, oppressed. I think of the way humility was taught as a virtue to slaves on southern plantations in the hope they would be less likely to rebel against their masters. I’m mindful that humility can be held up as a virtue whose subtle and not-so-subtle purpose is to keep the voiceless from cultivating their voice. No need to speak out. Just accept your station in life. I’m mindful that humility can be held up as a virtue whose subtle and not-so-subtle purpose is to keep the powerless from seeking power. Patience. It’s not your time yet. I’m mindful that humility can be held up as virtue whose subtle and not-so-subtle purpose is to keep the oppressed from seeking their liberation. No need to change the way things are. Look forward to your reward in Heaven. But to the extent such ploys succeed they do not lead to genuine humility. At most they engender a warped and manipulated version of humility—a virtue adopted only because the ego has been assaulted and worn down; a virtue adopted only because pride and self-esteem have been eroded; a virtue adopted only because fear and self-loathing have made healthy exaltation impossible. This is what humility looks like—or certainly can look like—in a black and white, either/or moral landscape. I get antsy. I do not want to be a minister—and I do not want us to be a congregation—who counsels humility in those moments when what a person or a people needs to do is speak up, speak out, name their pride, express their anger, claim their power, advocate, struggle, fight and achieve liberation.

I was speaking with Jerry DeWitt on Friday. He’s the Louisiana-based Pentecostal-minister-turned-atheist who was profiled in the “New York Times Magazine” this past August. He’s now writing a book called After Faith: An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism. We’re zeroing in on a date for him to speak here in April. He was talking to me about how he understands his mission these days which includes his notion—a simple, profound notion—that everyone deserves the opportunity to express themselves. Everyone needs a voice.  I think he’s right, and I trust this is not a controversial idea here. It resonates seamlessly with our first Unitarian Universalist principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It has been central to Unitarian and Universalist identity for generations. I think it is fair to say it has been central to American liberalism since its inception. But ever since I was a child growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation I’ve been hearing, in various forms, a question about balance. Is it possible we’ve placed too much attention on the individual’s voice and not enough attention on what lies beyond the individual? Can we have a lasting faith if, at its core, all we discover is that each individual has the right to express themselves? Isn’t there something greater that binds us together? Or on a more personal level: Is my spiritual life just about self-expression? Is it ultimately just about me?

Of course, my faith can’t be just about me. Our faith can’t be just about each individual voice. It can’t be just about ego, as beautiful, creative and prophetic as the works of our egos may be. There’s got to be more. And there is. I love the way Rev. Walsh answers these questions in his reading, “On Buying a Cemetery Plot.” He says, “I have a desire to be remembered…. Is this vanity? Yeah. But it’s my vanity. And it’s an orderly and traditional kind of vanity. So to heck with it, I bought the plot.”[4] He’s honoring his ego, he’s honoring his voice. He doesn’t name it explicitly, but he’s proud. He wants to be remembered.  Then he shifts. He moves away from his focus on him and his vanity and starts reflecting on death. In the language I’ve been using, he’s orienting himself towards a reality greater than himself—toward a time where words end. He says “Cemeteries help us acknowledge and accept our limits….[and] Until we can live in the presence of death, we will not know the value of life—we will not be fully grateful for the gift of life, and we will not be prepared to make full use of this gift to enjoy and serve the Creation.”[5] I read this as a movement across a continuum from healthy pride to healthy humility, from “I want to be remembered,” to “I want to serve the Creation.” Come, my way, my truth, my life. There are times where words end, moments when our voice grows silent, when our self seems to dissolve, when our ego suddenly lies dormant; moments when we remember what matters most—our highest values, our commitments, the people and places we love; moments when we feel called to dedicate or re-dedicate our lives to some reality or purpose greater than ourselves; moments when we surrender to that reality or purpose; moments when we let go and trust we’re being led in a good direction; moments when it does not matter if we speak, if we’re the hero, the leader, the performer, the sage, the expert, the wise one; moments where it does not matter if we’re Unitarian Universalist or any other faith. In such moments it only matters that we are present and willing to serve the Creation. In such moments words end and a genuine humility can rise in us.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1]Herbert, George, “Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #89.

[2]Bulletin, Mark, “Earth” Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 32.

[3]Luke 18: 9-14.

[4]Walsh, Robert, “On Buying a Cemetery Plot,” Stone Blessings (Boston: Skinner House, 2010) p. 48.

[5] Ibid., p. 48-49.

September Ministry Theme

Transitions

The concept of transition seems to be predicated on a binary condition: presence and absence.

The shift from one physical or metaphysical place to another. Indeed, we in the west have a culture of transition. We’re always moving, expected to move, from point A to point B. Perhaps we create this culture because we are moving from birth to death.

The Transitions

Dr. Sandeep Kumar Kar

The state of darkness
accelerates our delight in the sunlight.
The state of stagnation,
glorifies the state of motion.
The taste of nectar is achieved,
after the bee has thoroughly wandered.
The brightness of the sunlight
and their triumph in outshining,
The twinkling stars,
activates my taste
for the cosmic starlight.
The boredom at noon,
increases my delight,
for the games at twilight
The hurly burly of life,
increases my appetite,
towards the divine.
The state of isolation,
increases my inclination for
the poetic expressions.
All these phenomena hum a common rhyme.
The transition glorifies the succession.

Now I Become Myself

by May Sarton

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before–”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

Risking Creativity

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video here

The difficulty in understanding how [creativity] happens, even when it happens to us” says science writer Jonah Lehrer, “means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force. In fact, [at least in the western world] until the [European] Enlightenment, the imagination was entirely synonymous with higher powers: being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the ingenious gods. (Inspiration, after all, literally means ‘breathed upon.’) Because people couldn’t understand creativity, they assumed that their best ideas came from somewhere else. The imagination was outsourced.”[1] Or as we just sang, “heaven knows where we are going.”[2]

Of course, that’s not the complete lyric. It’s “heaven knows where we are going but we know within.” And so it is with creativity. It may very well be that some power beyond us breathes our creativity upon us, but in our most creative moments, something clearly happens within us. This is the message of Lehrer’s recent book, Imagination: How Creativity Works. He looks at a broad swath of research from a variety of scientific fields and combines this look with stories of famously creative people and businesses to show that creativity is a very natural and human phenomenon. Creativity is, in short—and this may sound somewhat anti-climactic—a bundle of distinct mental processes that combine to give rise to new thoughts.[3] He also says “creativity is our natural state.”[4]

I find this notion very inviting. I hinted in our April newsletter that I think there is a kind of wisdom inherent in all the old creation stories, no matter what culture they’re from. For me, this wisdom is much more profound than the typical plot line of these stories which is always some version of “and so the Gods created the heavens and the earth.” The wisdom inherent in these stories says to me that the world and the universe and the energy and power that sustain them, rather than simply having been created, are themselves inherently and continuously creative. That is, Creation itself is not passively created; it is actively creative. It’s a verb, not a noun. And since we human beings, like all living things, are intimately connected to the world and the universe and the energy and power that sustain them, doesn’t Jonah Lehrer’s statement ring true, that creativity is our natural state? Which leads me finally to the question that feels most relevant to our spiritual lives: how do we return to our natural state? How do we access the creative essence at the heart of who we are?

This question feels relevant because in our lives—in this particular, early 21st century era of human history—in this particular location in which we find ourselves (western, industrialized, technologized, capitalistic, militaristic, democratic United States of America)—there are a myriad of opportunities to become alienated from what is natural, to forget our connectedness, to grow distant from more grounded, holistic ways of living that might more readily nurture and call forth our creativity. We live in a society that doesn’t typically invite us to be creative. There are many examples of this lack of invitation, but the one that comes most quickly to mind is the high value we place on standardized testing in public schools. To be clear, I am not one who finds no value in such tests. They are useful in certain, limited ways. But I am concerned that we are now teaching our children, with unprecedented singular focus, how to comply with standards determined in bureaucratic offices. We are educating our children into a very specific kind of intelligence, into a very rigid mold. We are educating our children to think alike. We are not educating our children to think around, underneath, above, through and beyond standards. We are not educating our children to transcend standards, which is precisely what creativity is for, and precisely what we need as a society in order to solve our most pressing problems and to make advances in science and technology, business and finance, the arts, religion—any field that impacts our lives and life on the planet. Again, human creativity is a bundle of distinct mental processes that combine to give rise to new thoughts, new images, new visions, new combinations, new connections, new ways of relating, new ways of solving problems, new melodies, new harmonies, and so on. This is our natural state, but we are not currently educating our children into their natural state. If anything, we are educating them out of their natural state.

This is not to say there is no creativity in our society. The United States of America continues to be, in so many ways, one of the most creative societies on the planet. But creativity so often feels counter-cultural, even subversive. Creativity, in many settings, is risky. We might say it takes some nerve to muster one’s creative energy. And so creativity has become a phenomenon that people like Jonah Lehrer have to study in order to remind the rest of us what it actually is and why it is so important.

So, how do we return to our natural state? How do we access the creative essence at the heart of who we are? I have spoken in the past about my experience of writer’s block. I’m sitting at my computer trying to synthesize a number of different ideas into a coherent sermon, prayer, essay or article. I’m not only trying to write coherently; I’m also looking for words and sentences that sound good, that feel good to speak, that feel rhythmical and poetic. I’m trying to be creative, but I get to a point where I can’t write anymore. I can’t connect the different ideas. I know the connections are there—I can sense them—but I can’t see them; I can’t see how to put
them into language. I’ve learned in these moments to stop writing. I’ve learned to let it go for a while, to go for a run, play with the kids, take a hot shower, sleep, cook a meal, listen to music—anything to get away from the stress of writing; anything that brings relaxation. And that’s when the connections start to come. That’s when the right words, the right rhythm, the right feel comes. That’s when the creative insight happens. Not in front of the computer, but out on the road, in the shower, or after dreaming.

Lehrer says “every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer…. It’s often only…after we’ve stopped searching for the answer, that the answer arrives.”[5] I would not be surprised if the ancient Taoist Master Lao Tzu was writing about this very phenomenon 2500 years ago. Earlier we heard chapter 48 from the Tao Te Ching: “Less and less do you need to force things / until finally you arrive at non-action. / When nothing is done / nothing is left undone. / True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. / It can’t be gained by interfering.”[6] Lao Tzu does not link this process of letting things go their own way to any external force or divine entity breathing upon us. It is simply how life works. It is the Tao, the way. We know it within. It is our natural state. Our challenge is to live into our natural state.

Still, how to get there? Jonah Lehrer talks about alpha waves in our brains. Scientists measure electrical activity in the brain using an electroencephalogram or EEG machine. Alpha waves show up on the EEG machine when we are relaxed. According to Lehrer, when we are relaxed and the alpha waves are cycling, a section of the brain called the superior inferior temporal gyrus becomes very active. In fact, when scientists measure brain activity at the moment a person is having a creative insight, the superior inferior temporal gyrus typically lights up right before the insight occurs. Though it is still somewhat mysterious, the superior inferior temporal gyrus helps us make what researchers call remote associations. It helps us find the threads of connections between distinct ideas, words, shapes, colors, notes, movements, etc. It helps us order apparently unrelated things into relationships. In this way, it gives rise to new thoughts; it gives rise to new ideas. It helps us be creative. And it functions when we are relaxed. Lehrer says: “The counter-intuitive aspect of this research is that most people assume when you get a really hard problem … that seems impossible, what we have to do is drink another espresso, pop some Ritalin, do whatever it is we need to do to really focus on the problem. But that’s actually…the worst thing we can do because then we just get the wrong answer and it loops in our head like a broken record. Instead, what we should do is [relax]. Take a warm shower, play some ping pong…take a walk in the park, do anything we can to distract ourselves from the problem we’re trying to solve, because it’s when we’re not trying to solve it that the answer will actually pop into our head.”[7]

This was precisely the point in my writing when I hit a wall and had to stop. That was Friday night. I went for a run, took a shower, made dinner, played with the kids, had a glass of wine at a birthday party for my dad, then went back to the computer. Nothing really came to me. It was nice to relax but my superior inferior temporal gyrus wasn’t lighting up the way I had hoped. The thing I couldn’t quite put words to was the feeling of risk that sometimes comes with creativity. That is, after all, the title of this sermon: “Risking Creativity.” I had lost sight of why I chose that title in the first place. What’s so risky about relaxing? What’s so risky about letting things go their own way? Generating alpha waves feels very spiritual to me in the sense that it enables me to access a deeper place within myself; it moves me towards my natural state. It feels like a relief more than a risk.

But it finally came. Our creative moments always come with some risk. I can see it more clearly when I examine the literature on group creativity in institutions, say in a corporate science lab, in a school or university faculty, in government, in congregations. In any of these settings—any place where people work together to reach certain goals—over time certain ways of thinking tend to become dominant. Certain methods of research or teaching tend to become standard. Certain business models tend to become more or less given.  The way we do things, the way we think about things, the way we talk about things, the theories we accept as most accurate, the protocols we use—all of it, over time, becomes etched as if in stone. When this is the case, the people involved become boxed in; they become creatures of habit often without recognizing they’re just repeating long-established, rote patterns. They become less and less creative, even when they’re working in traditionally creative fields. In order to have and express a truly creative insight in such a calcified context, one must become, essentially, an outsider.[8] One must raise their hand and say, “Wait a minute, there’s another way.” That’s risky. it comes with potential costs: marginalization, alienation. What if I meet resistance? What if my boss isn’t interested? What if my minister isn’t interested? What if I’m perceived to be injecting too much chaos into the system? What if I’m perceived to be a trouble-maker? What if they ignore me? Having and expressing a truly creative insight in an institution that isn’t predisposed to innovation always entails some level of risk.

This may be somewhat obvious. In response to a creative idea we often hear some version of the message, But we’ve always don’t it this way. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? Here are all the reasons why your idea won’t work. It’s classic. It’s also a sign that an institution is slowly dying.

In addition to Lehrer’s book I’ve also been looking at a book called Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society by four renowned business and management consultants. They say people and institutions tend to be governed by habit and that we revert to habit when we are fearful or anxious about the future. Although they aren’t using the language of creativity specifically, they are talking about being “present” as a way to access new ideas and possibilities, to imagine and create a more positive future. They talk about learning to be open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense…the importance of letting go of old identities and the need to control and…making choices to serve the evolution of life. Ultimately,” they write, “all these aspects of presence [lead] to a state of ‘letting come,’ [there’s that ancient Taoist wisdom!] of consciously participating in a larger field for change. When this happens, the field shifts, and the forces shaping a situation can move from re-creating the past to manifesting or realizing an emerging future.”[9]

We feel the risk of creativity most keenly when we are fearful and anxious about the future, when we are comfortable with and set in our habits. Creativity calls us to confront our fears and anxieties and it calls us out of our habits. In order to let a new future emerge—in order to be creative—we need to be willing to set a piece of our frightened, anxious, comfortable, habitual selves aside and listen deeply for new connections, new relationships, new visions. To do this we need to be able to recognize and suspend our assumptions, to hold them out in front of us so they have less influence over our thinking, so we can encounter new ideas without being judgmental towards them, without saying “No, this will never work.” Only when we set a piece of our fearful, anxious, comfortable, habitual selves aside can we create space for new ideas to take hold in us.[10] Creative insights come as we set aside some piece of who we are. There’s the risk. In our most creative moments we lose some of our self so that a new self may emerge. This is our natural state. Are we ready for a new self to emerge? Are we ready to risk creativity? I’ll leave you with that question.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) p. xvi.

[2]Amoa, et al, “Woyaya” in Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1020.

[3]Ibid., p. vvii. For a helpful overview of the content of Imagine, check Lehrer’s March 19, 2012 interview on National Public Radio at http://www.npr.org/2012/03/19/148777350/how-creativity-works-its-all-in-your-imagination.

[5]Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) pp. 6-7.

[7]Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) pp. 30-31. Also view http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNVEZ5Whmk8&feature=relmfu.

[8] Lehrer offers excellent statements on the role of outsiders and the ways in which institutions become less creative over time at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ep5Ij-AfkLU and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3PBxGmCWH0.

[9] Senge, P., Scharmer, O.C., Jaworski, J., Flowers, B., Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society (New York: Doubleday, 2004) pp. 13-14.

[10] Ibid., pp. 29-33.

The Promise of Living: An Easter Homily

The promise of living / With hope and thanksgiving / Is born of our loving / Our friends and our labor. / The promise of growing / With faith and with knowing / Is born of our sharing / Our love with our neighbor. These are the opening lyrics from, “The Promise of Living,”[1] which is part of the 20th century American composer Aaron Copland’s opera, “The Tender Land.” The librettist is Horace Everett, which is a pseudonym for Erik Johns, which is a pseudonym for Horace Eugene Johnston, who was an artist and partner of Copland’s.[2]  They lived and worked together for much of the 1950s.

I like this phrase, the promise of living. It speaks to me on Easter morning in a very direct and simple way. It may sound initially as if what I hear in this phrase contradicts the deeper meaning of Easter, but I don’t think it does. Life is a gift, it reminds us, but life doesn’t promise us anything. This beautiful Creation we inhabit and about which human beings have told stories since our very beginnings to explain our very beginnings, doesn’t, in the end, promise us anything. This Earth which rises each spring out of the grey tomb of its winter slumber into new life—this beautiful Earth surely is a gift we receive, yet it makes no promises to us. And this springtime, like every springtime, is a gift to our eyes, our ears, our tongues, our noses, our ready hands and our bare feet—it’s a gift to our spirits; it brings us back to life—but it makes no promises.

This is what I mean: it does not promise us we will live without suffering or heartache. It does not promise us we can avoid fear and loneliness, anxiety and depression. It does not promise us we or our loved-ones will never hear a doctor’s voice delivering a hard diagnosis. It does not promise that our broken relationships will mend. It does not promise that we can somehow prevent hardship in our children’s lives no matter what we do to give them the best childhoods we possibly can. It certainly does not promise us the means to overcome death. And looking beyond our own lives, we recognize there is no promise of a more just society, a more peaceful society, a more loving society. There is no promise that shields us against incidents like the school shooting this past week at Oikos University in Oakland, CA, or the shooting in Tulsa, OK we are now hearing about from Friday. There is no promise that shields our nation from the tragic and terrible murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL last month. But despite this lack of promise; despite the very real possibility that we will encounter personal trials through the course of our lives—loss, pain, grief, disappointment—despite the many challenges we face as a people, we still must live as best we can. And therein lies the promise. As the song says, “The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving is born of our loving, our friends and our labor.”

There are no promises we can count on in any ultimate sense—no promise from God that our lives will turn out the way we imagine; no promise from the universe that our lives will turn out the way we imagine; no promise from the Earth that our lives will turn out the way we imagine—but there are ways we can choose to live in the midst of crisis, ways we can choose to live so that healing is possible, ways we can choose to live so that confronting hardship with grace and dignity is possible, ways we can choose to live so that a more just, compassionate and peaceful society is possible. Easter informs us that living this way is possible, that we can rise from the tombs in which we find ourselves. For me, the promise of living is born of our choosing to rise. For me, the promise of living is born of our choosing to live with love and hope in our hearts.

Easter wraps around the story of Jesus’ arrest, conviction and execution on the cross—the common form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire—followed by his disciples announcing his resurrection—his rising from the death—three days later.  Many times over the years I have pointed out that this story is built on the foundation of Passover, the Jewish spring-time celebration of liberation from slavery in Egypt which began this year began this past Friday. I have also pointed out that Passover itself, in connection with Shavuot which occurs later in the spring, are built on the foundations of even more ancient Middle Eastern planting and harvest festivals.

These stories and these festivals are beautiful and compelling and provocative. They have captured the human imagination for millennia. Their power, for me, does not reside in the notion that they might somehow be literally true and that they therefore offer some inherent promise to us centuries later. Their power, for me, lies in their ability to touch deep wells of human courage, resolve and perseverance in the face of challenge.  Their power, for me, lies in their ability to touch deep wells of human caring, compassion and love in the face of suffering and violence. Their power, for me, lies in how they remind us that no matter what life brings—no matter what pain, disappointment or illness; no matter what violence, injustice or oppression—no matter what winter tomb we find ourselves in—we can choose to live a certain way. We can choose to rise up like new life in spring. Though the landscape of our lives may at times seem barren, empty, and even hostile to life, we can choose to place seeds in the Earth, to nurture and nourish our gardens, to bring forth life, to bring forth a harvest. We can choose, as the song suggests, to share what we have with our neighbor, to rely on and trust in the caring of our friends, to labor with integrity in the fields of our calling—that is, to work hard at what matters to us. We can choose to ask ourselves, in any situation of struggle or crisis, what does love demand that I do? And we can do it. Friends, we can live in response to love. Of this I am sure: If there is to be any promise in our lives, it comes from our choosing to live in response to love. May we so choose.

Amen and Blessed be.  

[1] The UUS:E choir sang this piece as part of our Easter music celebration.  John Williams’ arrangement of “The Promise of Living” is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=bLM_YTnmLto.

Creation Out of Nothing?

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video here

In his new book, A Universe From Nothing,[1] cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss attempts to definitively answer an ancient question: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” I’d like to play around with this question this morning—the question of creation. How did the universe, our planet, and life on our planet come to be? How did it all begin? This question lies at the heart of the religious imagination. This question lies at the heart of the scientific imagination. But perhaps it’s most accurate to say, simply, this question lies at the heart of the human imagination. I say this because most of us, at some point in our lives—or at many points in our lives—have experiences wherein we encounter some feature of our surroundings in a special or unique way—whether by seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting or touching—something takes us by surprise, something takes our breath away—as if we’re encountering it for the very first time—we become awestruck, and we wonder: how did all this all begin? These shining stars, this blazing sun, this waxing and waning moon, this solid, green earth, these rolling oceans, these towering mountains, this moist air, this newborn baby, these breathing lungs, this beating heart: how is it possible all this exists? I suspect most of you have asked this question in some way, have wondered about our origins in some way, at some point in your lives. How did it all begin? Why is there something, rather than nothing?

I also assume most people wonder for a few moments, ask the question—how did this all begin?—and then realize the answer is pretty much beyond the capacity of the human mind to fathom. The wondering ends as they go back to whatever it was they were doing. Except there have always been some people who, for whatever reason, can’t let the question go. They keep wondering. They say, “no, this is not beyond our ability; we can figure this out!” They try to make their human minds fathom creation. They are usually either scientists or theologians. And I notice that, for them, the question mutates a bit. It’s not just, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” It becomes “Did the universe arise out of nothing?” Or “Did the universe arise out of something?” Something from nothing? Or something from something else? The theologians argue amongst themselves. The scientists argue amongst themselves. And of course, as they argue amongst themselves, the theologians—at least the more conservative ones—contend that the scientists are utterly wrong. And the scientists—at least the more secular ones—contend that the theologians are utterly wrong.

For a traditional theological example of the debate over creation from nothing or something, if you were to open a Bible and turn to the very first word on the very first page of the very first book—and if you were reading in ancient Hebrew—the word you would encounter is bereshit. In English the typical translation of bereshit is “In the beginning.” The whole sentence is typically rendered as “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” But another translation is possible. The sentence can also be rendered as “When God set out to create the heavens and the earth.” For centuries, if not millennia, in a variety of languages, theologians have debated which version is more accurate, which version might be more akin to how the ancient Israelites understood it, or which version is more in keeping with the latest church doctrine. It might not sound like an important distinction to our modern ears, especially to those with modern liberal religious ears, but it turns out there’s a lot at stake in how one translates bereshit. In short, the more common translation—“In the beginning”—suggests the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo—creation out of nothing—the doctrine that God existed first, before anything else, and that God caused all material to come into existence in order to create the heavens and the earth. The other, less common translation—“When God set out to create”—suggests the doctrine of creatio ex materia—creation out of material, out of stuff, out of things—the doctrine that something existed before God, and God used it to create the heavens and the earth.[2]

Turning to science, consider Krauss’ book, A Universe From Nothing. Full disclosure: I have not read Krauss’ book, and I probably won’t read it unless Fred Sawyer purchases a sermon (which he has) and asks me to preach on it. I have read Columbia professor of philosophy David Albert’s recent review of the book. Apparently Krauss argues that the laws of quantum mechanics provide “a thoroughly scientific and adamantly secular explanation”[3] of the origins of the universe. In short, the universe emerged from a quantum vacuum state, which Krauss defines as nothing, hence the title of the book, A Universe From Nothing. It’s a scientific version of creatio ex nihilo. Albert, who is also an expert in quantum mechanics, flatly rejects Krauss’ thesis, saying it’s “just not right”[4]—though he doesn’t offer an alternative answer to the creation question in the book review. But fear not! Another book I haven’t read—and won’t read unless Fred Sawyer asks me to—is Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang by physicists Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok.[5] They propose the “Cyclic Universe” theory which suggests “the Big Bang was not the beginning of time but the bridge to a past filled with endlessly repeating cycles of evolution.”[6] A scientific version of creatio ex materia! The universe is recycled from the material of countless prior universes.

Again, I think it’s kinda funny and even provocative that the theologians and the scientists are having the same debate within their respective fields. What they talk about and how they get there are radically different, but it comes down to the same two conclusions: creation from nothing or something.

Our ministry theme for April is creation. I admit we did not choose this theme so that we could spin our heads around theological and scientific arguments about the origins of the universe. We chose this theme primarily to match the season, the beginning of spring in New England, the time in the cycle of the year when Earth’s creative energy is immediate and sensual to us; the time in the cycle of the year when the smells, sights, tastes, sounds and the feel of new life are immediate and sensual to us: the fresh air, the first flowers pushing through the barren ground; the first buds on trees and bushes and shrubs; blooming forsythias, azaleas, daffodils, tulips and dogwoods dotting the land; soil turned over and ready for planting; bird-song chiming in the pre-dawn hours; earth worms digging; moles tunneling through our lawns; mice and voles rummaging through our basements, or garages or sheds; grease ants traipsing through our cupboards or across our kitchen floors; mud after the first spring rains; warmth after the long, grey winter. In the words we heard earlier from e.e. cummings, it is the time in the cycle of the year “for the leaping greenly spirits / of trees / and a blue true dream of sky; and / for everything / which is natural which is infinite / which is yes.”[7] It’s a heady season: impetuous, adolescent, lusty, exhilarating, earthy, feverish, sexy and creative. Yes, spring is Earth’s season for creation.

When I started putting my thoughts together for this sermon, I imagined I was going to say something different about creation. Well, not just different—something really cool, hip, clever, maybe a little quirky, but definitely unexpected and outside the box of the usual ways of answering the question of creation. In our weekly UUS:E eblast I even suggested I would offer a new question entirely. My intuition told me there’d be a new question come Sunday morning. But it never came. I don’t have a new question. It turns out I have deeply partisan convictions when it comes to the debate over creation out of nothing or something. But late Friday afternoon I was still trying to figure it out. Do you remember Friday afternoon? It was beautiful. Having already kicked the boys outside to play in the yard before dinner, I decided to join them. Intuition told me that getting away from the sitting-at-the-computer-trying-to-make-my-brain-fathom-where-the-universe-came-from mode and spending some time outside in the dirt with children might help.

The Outdoor Car Tournament Track!

When I arrived outside, Mason ask if we could hold a “car tournament.” To hold a car tournament we first have to build a track for our Matchbox and Hotwheels cars. Once the track is built, we race the cars down it one after the other. If they fall off the track, they’re out. If they make it all the way down, they move onto the next round. There are fewer and fewer cars each round. When there’s one car left we have a winner. Then we start over. When we do this outside, we build the track out of pieces of wood from an old swing-set/play-scape that I store under the shed. We prop it up with bricks, buckets and other junk we have lying around. It takes a while to build because the long, flat pieces of wood need to line up just right so that the cars can drive over them seamlessly. We really get into it. We lose ourselves in it.

 

And there we were, lost in it, building our track with the bright sun beginning to set in the western sky; dust rising around us from our busy work on the track; the azalea and forsythia bushes in full bloom all around us;  spring’s fragrant, fresh air smell in our nostrils; bees buzzing; and the sounds of other kids playing in other yards echoing around the neighborhood—an utterly different experience from sitting-at-the-computer-trying-to-make-my-brain-fathom-where-the-universe-came-from. It’s hard to find words, but I’m trying to describe a full-bodied, sensual experience—as in all five senses engaged. This is the poet cummings asking “how should tasting touching / hearing seeing / breathing—lifted from the no / of all nothing—human merely / being / doubt unimaginable You?”[8] This is a physical experience, a bodily experience, a yoga experience, an embedded experience, a grounded experience where instinct matters more than thought, where the present moment outweighs the past and the future, where the need for play subdues the need for work, and where creativity abounds—not only in our play, but in the color, the fragrance, the energy, the returning life flowing through everything around us. Spring is Earth’s season for creation. And this is what I observe: we create out of the materials at hand—pieces of wood, bricks, buckets, junk. We do not create out of nothing. And the Earth around us creates out of the materials at hand—water, soil, sunlight, air; not out of nothing. In this little dell at the bottom of our hill, where the ground is soft, where the water runs to after the rains, where moss will blanket the ground by the middle of May—in this little Eden—everything is created from something.

I don’t offer this observation in order to win an argument over the correct way to imagine the origins of the universe. I don’t need to win that argument and besides, the words imagination and correct don’t really belong in the same sentence anyways. I suspect some physicists and theologians alike may object to this, but to some degree all our efforts to answer the questions of creation are acts of imagination. So it strikes me that in addition to physicists and theologians, we also need to consult storytellers and poets for their insights. When we do that a picture of our origins begins to emerge—not a proof, not the findings of literary and linguistic Biblical analysis, not the results of rigorous tests of scientific models, not even something we can say is true in any objective sense—but a picture of what resides in the collective human imagination: creation arises out of something.

My search this week has not been exhaustive, but I cannot find a creation story from any culture—ancient or modern—where creation arises out of nothing. So often creation arises out of some massive explosion, some obliterating flood, some destructive catastrophe that ended an earlier age. I read to you earlier a brief version of “Icanchu’s Drum” from the Wichí people of northern Argentina and Southern Bolivia. The new world arises out of the ashes of the previous world, specifically out of a charcoal stump Icanchu is using as a drum. “Playing without stopping, he chanted with the dark drum’s sounds and danced to its rhythms. At dawn on the New Day, a green shoot sprang from the coal drum and soon flowered as Firstborn tree, the Tree of Trials at the Center of the World. From its branches bloomed the forms of life that flourish in the New World.”[9] In other stories, creation arises out of a kind of disordered, ominous, dark chaos. The Boshongo people of the Congo speak of a primordial, watery darkness in which the God Bumba sleeps.[10] Some of the Chinese origin myths involving the God Pan Gu speak of a big, gooey mess surrounding a large, black egg.[11] Even the Biblical book of Genesis speaks of a wind moving across the face of the waters prior to God’s first act of creation. From our story-telling selves, our poetic selves, our intuitive selves, the picture of creation that emerges is ex materia. Creativity, to become real, to have some physical result in the world, must act upon some thing. Judging by the stories we human beings have told ourselves over the millennia, we have a collective hunch that the universe arose out of something, not nothing.

Friday night one of my best friends in the world called from Boston. His wife had just gone into labor—their first child. I took the call as an affirmation, a sign, a reminder of yet another way to look at origins.  None of us came into the world out of nothing. We came as muscles began to contact; we came as a jolt, a bump, a wind, a cut awakened us from our primordial slumber. We came out of the dark, still waters of our mother’s womb. We came into the world in a gooey mess of blood and amniotic fluid.

In the end, the stories we tell of creation (as distinct from our scientific and theological analyses) are not meant to be factual.  That’s why we call them myths and poems. They are meant to tell us something about ourselves and the universe we inhabit.  But even if we’ve never heard them, our bodies seem to know: however it all began, a creative drive lives at the heart of the universe and lives in each of us; and it is, like spring, heady, impetuous, adolescent, lusty, exhilarating, earthy, feverish, sexy. When we set out to create, our bodies know even if our minds don’t, if we want our creations to be real—if we want them to manifest in ways we can see, hear, taste, smell and touch—then we must create out of the materials at hand. I’m not sure there’s any other way. We must create out of  some thing. In this light, creation out of nothing is just hard to imagine.

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Krauss, Lawrence M., A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012).

[2] I found two blogs that explain the difference between creatio ex nihilo and creatio ex materia. Check out:

http://www.religioustolerance.org/crebegin.htm

http://www.evolutionfairytale.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=3507

[3] Albert, David, “On the Origins of Everything,” New York Times Book Review, March 25, 2012, p. 20.

[4] Ibid., p. 21. The full quote is: “But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states—no less than giraffes or refirgerators or solar systems—are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff.”

[5] Steinhardt, Paul J. & Turok, Neil, Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang (New York: Doubleday, 2007).

[7] cummings, e.e. “I thank you god for most this amazing day” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993) #504.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sullivan, Lawrence E., Icanchu’s Drum: An Orientation to Meaning in South American Religions (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988) frontispiece and p. 92.

[10] Dawkins, Richard The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True (New York: Free Press, 2011) p. 161.

[11] Ibid., p. 161.