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.

Decolonizing Our Faith

READING

An excerpt/adaptation from “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching R(evolutionary) S(ub)-V(ersions)! or Relax! . . . It’s Just Religious Ed” (Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje, Provost and Professor of Cultural Studies and Islamic Studies at the Starr King School for the Ministry)

“Decolonizing” [religion] means looking at how it can subvert the dominating paradigm instead of merely reflecting it or having a merely reactive response to it….  [We must name how] the demonizing of the dark leads to the war against women and their bodies from the Inquisition to the beginning of the dismantling of women’s reproductive rights [and] is connected to the masculinization of the healing industry, to the hardening of Christian religious dogma in northern Europe, to the driving out of the Goddess, to the destruction of the Earth, to the mass killing of kweers of all colors, is connected to the expulsion of the Dark Other, i.e.,  the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain, is connected to the Afrikan slave trade and the invasions of the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, where indigenous peoples, Afrikans, and Asians were enslaved and massacred (and continue to fuel a fear of brown-skinned immigrants and the brutal murdering of dark-skinned peoples, women, kweers, etc.) because they were considered to be like women: incarnations of evil; incarnations of unbridled lust; like women, they were considered to be too connected to the body and to sex; and where the Earth was destroyed because like women, the Earth was considered to be wild and needing to be dominated; like dark-skinned peoples, it needed to be dominated and controlled. This interlocking vortex became reflected in our language, where all that was evil was “dark” and vice-versa. The Dark Other was soon not only people living with brown skin, but anyone who was other: people living with disabilities, women, kweers, etc.

SERMON: Decolonizing Our Faith

“Evening breeze sings to me…. Mother earth awakens me.”[1]

Friends, this sermon is about awakening—waking up, opening our eyes, rising, stretching, greeting the dawn, greeting a new day, greeting a new way of being in the world which, in some respects, is not new at all. That is, greeting a new way of being in the world whose roots are ancient; or greeting an ancient way of being in the world that has been with us all along and even though it has been hidden, suppressed, denied, distorted, discounted, ridiculed, colonized, marginalized, made invisible, lampooned, bamboozled, attacked, assaulted, bombed, burned, bashed, bullied, battered, tainted, taunted, targeted and terrorized it has survived and has been asserting itself anew; has been speaking, calling, singing like the evening breeze, shining like the morning sun. This sermon is about awakening to an ancient way of being which is also new.

Throughout my entire ministry I’ve wrestled with the claim—a philosophical and academic claim—that we live in the end times of the modern world.  Not the Biblical end times—that’s something completely different and involves far too much hellfire and brimstone for me. The era scholars call modernity is slowly coming to a close. I encountered this idea in college in the 1980s and then in seminary in the 1990s. While I’m not convinced anyone knows entirely what this means or what the future holds, I do think naming and reflecting on this claim provides insight into the mission of the liberal church today.

 

I wrestle with this claim because I don’t believe the modern world will transition to something new without considerable conflict. Despite all the wonderful gifts of modernity—modern science, medicine, technology, industry, transportation, democracy, freedom, liberty, individual autonomy, human rights—all of which I fully expect will continue in new forms in whatever era is coming—despite this positive legacy it is also true that the modern world has always held itself in place through violence and oppression. For nearly six centuries modern nations and their leaders have far too often turned to domination and exploitation to achieve their goals: domination and exploitation of the land, of natural resources, of the global working poor and laboring classes, of the global south, of peoples of color, of women, of indigenous peoples and cultures, of (in the words of Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje) “kweers of all colors,”[1] of Jews and Muslims—and sometimes Christians—of Goddess religions, earth-based religions, and all manner of traditional folkways, including healing and agricultural practices.  

The modern world may be ending but its insidious underside—its tendency to resort to violence and oppression—won’t just disappear. Over the centuries it has insinuated itself deeply into modern consciousness, into our social, political and economic structures. It is the constant, unspoken threat of violence at the heart of so many international negotiations. It is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate saying “all options are on the table,” which we know is code for “we reserve the right to bomb you.” It is the rise of drone technology striking up and down the Afghan-Pakistan border and across the Southern Arabian Peninsula. It is gang warfare on city streets and corporate warfare on workers and the environment. It is wealthy nations with no will to address crushing poverty within their borders. It is the crazed search for fossil fuels despite incontrovertible evidence we’ve already combusted the climate beyond recognition. It is theories of “legitimate rape.” It is all the uninvestigated, untried murders of transgender people. None of this will simply disappear with the end of modernity. It must be confronted, challenged, resisted, subverted and undermined in creative, innovative, artistic, nonviolent ways. It must be declawed, defunded, dismantled, disorganized and voted out of office. It must be transformed into something peaceful, just, fair and sustainable. In my view this is our work as free, liberal, loving people of faith. This creative, innovative, artistic, nonviolent work of confronting domination and exploitation is a critical role of the church in these end times of the modern world. In embracing this role I believe we awaken to that ancient way of being which is also new.

Let me tell you how the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has recently said yes to this task of challenging the violence and oppression at the heart of modernity. At our 2012 General Assembly (GA) in Phoenix, delegates voted overwhelmingly to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. I was not familiar with this term until UUA board members started talking about it a year ago. I was familiar with some of the history surrounding it, but not the term itself. In short, the Doctrine of Discovery provided the intellectual, moral and spiritual justification for European colonization and slavery at the dawn of the modern era. Here’s a quote from the UUA website: “The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of international law dating from the late 15th century. It has its roots in … papal decree[s] … that specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples. Hundreds of years of decisions and laws continuing right up to our own time can ultimately be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery—laws that invalidate or ignore the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.”[2]

These original papal decrees were written in Latin, but you can find English translations online. Two in particular stand out. The first, entitled Dum Diversas, issued in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal, is widely regarded as the first official sanction of the African slave trade. Here’s a quote: “We grant you full and free power, through the Apostolic authority of this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and … to lead their persons in perpetual servitude and to apply and appropriate realms, duchies, royal places, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods … to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.”[3]

Then in 1493, in response to Christopher Columbus’ first Atlantic voyage, Pope Alexander VI issued a decree entitled  Inter Caetera to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. “We … out of the fullness of our apostolic power, by the authority of Almighty God … give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever … all the islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south, by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole, namely the north, to the Antarctic pole, namely the south, no matter whether the said mainlands and islands are found and to be found in the direction of India or towards any other quarter.”[4]

A picture emerges of 15th-century European power elites—popes and monarchs—authorizing the domination and exploitation of foreign lands, peoples and resources, and thereby ushering in the modern age.  A few centuries later Protestant rulers of Europe and the United States adopted the Doctrine of Discovery for their own uses. You can see it in Mass Bay and Virginia colony charters; in the Atlantic slave trade; in American expansionism and manifest destiny; in centuries of Indian wars, countless broken treaties, trails of tears, and detainment on reservations. You can see it in the Mexican-American war, the annexation of the American southwest, the colonization of Hawai’i, American imperialism, the history of immigration law, the war on drugs, the war on terror and the mass incarceration of black and brown people in American prisons. You can see it in a variety of United States Supreme Court decisions, the most recent being a 2005 case called City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York. [5] “The case involved a dispute over taxation of ancestral lands…. During oral arguments, it became clear that [the case] would hinge on whether … the Oneida Indian nation ‘has sovereignty status’ with regard to [its] ancestral lands…. In [the first] footnote [of her] decision for the Court majority [Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg writes:] ‘Under the Doctrine of Discovery … fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.’”[6] For me this underscores how deeply modernity’s tendency toward domination and exploitation is quietly woven into our legal system.

When the UUA was designing the 2012 GA and the various ways our delegates would bear witness against Arizona’s harsh immigration laws, our Arizona partners started talking to our leaders about the Doctrine of Discovery. They said, essentially: the reason state and federal governments and the sheriff’s department can treat us this way, can racially profile us, can raid our neighborhoods, can keep us from accessing our ancestral lands, can tear families apart in the middle of the night is because the United States still believes in the Doctrine of Discovery. They asked us: Will your General Assembly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly ask your leaders to work with indigenous people to propose a Congressional resolution calling on the US government to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly call upon the US government to fully implement the standards of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?[7] We said yes. We voted, resoundingly, yes.

This yes is important to me; I hope it’s important to you. This yes meant, first, that as a historically white religious association with a distinct European American heritage we were able to hold ourselves accountable to people of color organizations in Arizona. That’s what it means to be antiracist: white institutional power made accountable to people of color, their institutions, and their organizing for a more just society. But deeper than that: in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery we said yes to decolonizing our faith. That is, we said yes to a vision of our world free from the violence, oppression, domination and exploitation at the heart of modernity. We said yes to working as Unitarian Universalists to achieve that vision. We said yes, we are ready to wake up to a new way of being in the world—a new way of being whose roots are also ancient.

What is that way of being, asserting itself anew, singing now on the evening breeze, waking with the morning sun? If Professor Farajaje is right—and I believe he is—that one of the central strategies of modern domination was the demonization of the Dark Other, which connects the demonization of the earth to the demonization of women, people of color, indigenous peoples and cultures, immigrants, Jews and Muslims, ‘kweers of all colors,’ and on and on, then this new way of being must point us away from demonization, away from division, away from distancing us from them; it must point us towards balance. The modern world has been out of balance since its inception. We need to regain our balance—our own, internal sense of balance and a collective, global sense of balance.

We need balance between the dark and the light, between the beauty each has to offer, and all the beauty that lies between them. We need balance between day and night, dawn and dusk.

 

We need balance between our current habits of consumption and what we truly need for living well—a movement away from the fetishizing of material things and the resulting rape of the earth towards more holistic modes, methods, practices and principles of sustainable living, of renewable energy, of reduced carbon footprints—an honest, realistic balance between the needs of humanity and the needs of the earth accountable to generations upon generations into the future.

 

We need balance between our technological lives and our natural, flesh and blood lives. We need balance between our technological relationships and our natural, face-to-face, body-to-body, person-to-person relationships. We need balance between our online friends and our actual friends.

 

We need balance between male and female energy, between the beauty each has to offer, and all the beauty that lies between them—indeed, a recognition that male and female not only balance, but blend, mix, merge and cross—a wonderful truth of human diversity—the reason we bear witness at the Transgender Day of Remembrance this Tuesday evening, saying no to the murders of transgender people, and yes to the dignity of transgender lives, yes to the human capacity for changing, transitioning, bending, crossing and queering.

We need balance among all faiths and cultures for a world in which no faith or culture dominates, where each faith and culture has access to the public square, yet where each refrains from imposing itself on the others, where each respects the others, where each seeks to understand the others, where all come together on common ground to work for the ongoing advance of justice and equality for all people and for the earth.

We need balance between the tools of war and the tools of peace, and much greater wisdom when it comes to declaring war.

We need a more just balance of wealth, for a world in which the rich and the poor and not so far from each other, not so unfamiliar to each other, not so disconnected from each other.

This sense of balance is that new way of being that has been asserting itself in these waning days of modernity; that new way of being that has been speaking, calling, singing like the evening breeze, shining like the morning sun. And in fact, it has been with us all long. Have you heard it? Its roots are ancient: It is there in the Tao, yin and yang, wu wei, neti neti, namaste, the middle path, shalom, the great commandment, the Sacred Way. Yet is also new. We have tools, knowledge and insights the ancient masters could never have imagined. So let us awaken from our modern slumbers, open our eyes, rise, stretch, and greet the dawn; and in this new day let us first regain what we have lost—our balance; and then let us begin to refashion the world.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] Farajaje-Jones, Elias (now Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje) “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching R(evolutionary) S(ub)-V(ersions)! or Relax! . . . It’s Just Religious Ed”  Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays, 2001 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, 2001) pp. 19-20.

[2] See “What is the Doctrine of Discovery?” at http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/index.shtml. Also, the UUA has produced a helpful introductory video at http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/199378.shtml.

[4] An English translation of Inter Caetera can be found at http://www.doctrineofdiscovery.org/inter%20caetera.htm.

[5] City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, 125 S. Ct. 1478, 148384 (2005).

[6] Frichner, Tonya Gonnella, “Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal Construct Known as the Doctrine of Discovery,” a preliminary study submitted to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, 9th session, February 4th, 2010, p. 19. See: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/E.C.19.2010.13%20EN.pdf

[7] Language to the UUA Board’s Responsive Resolution for repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is at http://www.uua.org/statements/statements/209123.shtml.

 


[1] Composer Unknown, “Evening Breeze” Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1072.

Transitions

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

There’s a reading in our hymnal entitled, “Change Alone is Unchanging.”[1] It’s attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraklietos, also known as the weeping philosopher. “In searching for the truth,” he says, “be ready for the unexpected. Change alone is unchanging.” These words ring true to me, the same truth I encounter in Vanessa Rush Southern’s meditation, “Expect Chaos.” She says, “Perhaps change is life. Frustrations and snags are life. Maybe instead of being taught to expect stability and predictability, we should have been taught to expect chaos or at least constant transitions.”[2]

Change alone is unchanging. As long as I’m alive—and conscious of my living—I can expect to experience change. Certainly there will be changes in the wider world around me: nations and governments change; cultures and social norms change; human knowledge and technology change; ecology and climate change; the seasons and the positions of the stars in the night sky change. Certainly there will be changes in the more immediate patterns of my life: my children will grow older and my role in their life will change. My parents will grow older and my role in their lives will change. My wife will grow older; I will grow older. I can reasonably expect changes in my work life. I can reasonably expect changes in where I live. People will come in and out of my life—friends, parishioners, colleagues, peers, activists. I can expect the changes retirement brings. I can expect the changes illness brings. I can expect the changes loss brings—the changes that come when a loved-one dies.

And as a result of all these changes and transitions I can also expect my inner life to change in response: what I believe, what matters to me, the things to which I feel called to dedicate time and energy, my understanding of the Sacred. All of it has already changed through the course of my life. I can only conclude more change lies ahead.

Change alone is unchanging. I suspect this is not news to you. At some place deep in our bones we sense this idea is true. It speaks directly to Unitarian Universalists’ common yearning for a religious life not bound by doctrines, creeds and revelations presented to us as the one, eternal truth, a permanent etchings upon stone tablets, as the final word revealed once long ago and sealed forever. We long for spiritual openness. We are comfortable, even, with spiritual open-endedness. We long for a spiritual community that asks us not to submit to one truth but to explore truth from many perspectives and construct meaning from many sources. We long for a faith informed as much by scientific discovery and changes in human knowledge as it is by ancient wisdom. We certainly don’t long for chaos, and we want our children to experience stability and predictability. But when we encounter this idea that “change alone is unchanging” often something stirs in us. Often our gut response is “yes.” We want to hear more because we experience our lives, all life, the earth, the universe not as static, but as dynamic. Change is life.

But let’s be honest: as a concept, as an intellectual proposition, as a starting place for deeper theological reflection, this idea is fabulous. Change alone is unchanging. But as a practical matter, when it comes to dealing with day-to-day life, when it comes to navigating our life transitions, it’s not so fabulous. It doesn’t matter what height of spiritual discipline you’ve achieved, the unexpected can really mess up your day. Even Jesus lost it from time to time. For human beings (and I’m sure for other creatures as well) change is hard. As spiritually and intellectually exhilarating as the idea of change is, the physical and emotional experience can be a real drag. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is why the ancient Greeks referred to Heraklietos as the weeping philosopher.

Our ministry theme for September is transitions, an obvious theme for this time of year in New England as summer vacation ends, students return to school, the leaves begin to change colors and fall, local farmers begin their final harvest of the year, apples and pears have ripened, and the grocery stores now offer orange and black Halloween promotions. I also note the Jewish High Holy Days occur during this season. This year Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins this evening. For Jews the High Holy Days, which culminate in ten days on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, can be understood as a time of transition, a time of reflecting on the past year and preparing for the next. As we said in our opening words from Rabbi Jack Riemer, “Now is the time for turning…. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits.”[3] Here’s another truth: successfully navigating the transitions of our lives requires us to break with old habits. Perhaps change is life, but we are also creatures of habit and habits by their very nature are hard to break.

When I use the word habit I’m not speaking simply of addictions like smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or overeating, though I certainly include them. I’m speaking more generally of habits as modes of life to which we become deeply accustomed. As an example, I go back to the summer of 1999 when Stephany and I first moved to Connecticut. Over the previous ten years I had grown deeply accustomed to my life in Boston. I was grounded in the student culture in Cambridge. I was grounded in the local rock music scene. I was grounded in my ties to the Unitarian Universalist Association which is headquartered in Boston. My twin brother and some of my best friends lived there. I was embedded in a rich network of peers, clergy, UUs, musicians, activists and Ultimate (Frisbee) players. I knew all the running roots along the Charles River. I knew my way around by car and public transportation. My life had a certain stability and predictability to it. We moved to Connecticut that summer and I became ill. I was chronically dizzy and nauseated. I lacked appetite. I lost weight. I drank ginger tea all the time, hoping it would settle my stomach. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. It took many medical tests to prove to me there was nothing physically wrong with me, and two or three years of therapy to convince me that what had caused these symptoms was anxiety brought on by a major life transition. Put another way, I had been happily and healthily habituated to my life in Boston; and as much as I welcomed a life-change intellectually, making the transition turned out to be immensely difficult. As much as I was genuinely excited to begin my professional career in a new location with new people, when I allowed myself to look closely at the life I had left behind in Boston and get in touch with what leaving meant to me, I realized I was sad. I was grieving my younger Boston self and really didn’t know who my new, professional minister self was. Move to a suburb? What? Buy a house? What? Have children? What?

 

I’m not suggesting my experience of a big life transition is somehow a universal experience, but I do suspect that at the heart of our major life transitions there is always some amount of grief, some sadness at the loss of what came before, and it stays with us. The Rev. Robert Walsh writes, “Sometimes tears come to my eyes. Is it about the war? Is it from getting older? Or is it just autumn? I’m self-conscious about it, afraid people will think I’m grieving or that I’m a sentimental old fool. I guess they’d be right if they thought those things.”[4]

A book called A General Theory of Love, published in 2000 by three psychiatrists, describes the way our relationships, particularly our very close, intimate relationships, shape us—not only shape our emotions and our outlook on life, but shape our body chemistry, our physiology, the development of our neural pathways. When two people live together in a long-term, intimate relationship, when they share meals, leisure time, vacations, chores, money, a bed, child-rearing, etc., over time their bodies become deeply intertwined. Here’s a quote. “The human body constantly fine-tunes many thousands of physiologic parameters—heart rate and blood pressure, body temperature, immune function, oxygen saturation, levels of sugars, hormones, salts, ions, metabolites…. [But] an individual does not direct all of his own functions. [An intimate partner] transmits regulatory information that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, immune function and more…. The reciprocal process occurs simultaneously: the first person regulates the physiology of the second, even as he himself is regulated.”[5] This is why living when a loved-one has died isn’t just emotionally painful; it physically hurts. This other body that has been regulating aspects of our physiology, this other body to which we have become deeply accustomed—to which we have become habituated—is no longer present, no longer close by.

 

I assume it’s not just intimate loved ones who regulate our bodies in this way, although they may have the most impact. I assume where we live—the place we call home, our neighborhood—regulates our bodies to some degree. Where we work regulates our bodies to some degree. Our daily routine regulates our bodies to some degree. We become habituated in all sorts of ways. We become grounded in all sorts of ways. Thus any transition, any change that requires us to break out of our habits will bring some pain, even if it’s a change we want. I was ready to leave Boston in 1999. It was the right time for a life transition. But I see it so clearly now: despite how right it seemed, my body was still wired for its patterns of life in Boston. And because I didn’t know I grieving that life, I became ill.

One of the standard seminary books on understanding grief is C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, in which he writes about his experience after the death of his wife (whom he refers to as H.) and his recognition of how deeply ingrained in him the habits of being her husband were. He writes, “I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember I have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontierpost across it.”[6] I assume something like this happens with any life transition. A new school means different teachers, different peers, a different pattern to the day—the old ways have to shift. You or your partner receive a life-threatening diagnosis and in the blink of an eye all routine becomes geared towards treatment; life’s daily familiarities and pleasures become elusive such that even food tastes differently. You lose a job—especially one that really matched your identity and sense of calling—and you must break with the habits of that job. You have a baby, and you must break with old habits. You retire, and you must break with old habits. Aging at any time in our lives, but certainly as our bodies and our minds begin to decline, requires that we break with old habits. Or consider becoming sober: for addicts the body is utterly enmeshed with a substance, completely regulated by the need to have that substance. Getting sober is a grief-ridden process. Caroline Knapp, the late Boston-based journalist, said of her addiction to alcohol, “this is a love story. It’s about passion, sensual pleasure, deep pulls, lust, fears, yearning hungers. It’s about needs so strong they’re crippling. It’s about saying good-bye to something you can’t fathom living without.”[7]

At the heart of our life transitions there is always some degree of grief, some sadness at the loss of what came before, some level of pain. “Sometimes tears come to my eyes,” says Rev. Walsh. “I’m self-conscious about it, afraid people will think I’m grieving or that I’m a sentimental old fool. I guess they’d be right if they thought those things.” “Change alone is unchanging,” said the weeping philosopher. But it’s also really, really hard. Even if we’ve moved on in our minds, our bodies long for the way life was.

In the midst of the grief that comes with life transitions we have spiritual resources available to us. Perhaps most importantly we have our own capacity for quieting down, becoming still, being peaceful, paying attention, breathing. When I open worship I ask you to “find that place inside, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, when you yearn for peace.” We don’t typically go there when confronted with a major life transition. We don’t typically go there when the going gets tough, when we’re in pain, when we’ve just lost our job, when we’ve just received the diagnosis, when the funeral director is talking to us about arrangements for a deceased loved-one. We’re just as likely to be screaming or panicking, passing out or curled up on the floor in the fetal position. It takes real discipline to find a place of strength and grounding inside when your sources of strength and grounding outside have just disappeared.

In C.S. Lewis’ theology, that place of quiet and stillness inside would be the door that opens to his relationship with God. But in the midst of grief he writes of that door being shut and bolted: “Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.”[8]

In moments of life transition we need to stop and grieve for the life that is—for better or for worse—slipping away. We need times of quiet and stillness to say, think and feel whatever it is we need to say, think and feel about our old life before we can fully embrace the new. We need times of peacefulness and paying attention in order to break well with old habits.

Caroline Knapp wrote about her experience of finding that place of silence and stillness in community—in AA meetings. She said “When people talk about their deepest pain, a stillness often falls over the room, a hush so deep and so deeply shared it feels like reverence. That stillness keeps me coming, and it helps keep me sober, reminding me what it means to be alive… what it means to be human.”[9]And Rev. Walsh is right. We can expect tears. Because in those silent, still places, where we find comfort and solace, and even joy, there we can grieve, and in grieving well we can make ourselves ready for whatever new life awaits.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1]Heraklietos of Ephesos, “Change Alone is Unchanging,”Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #655.

[2]Southern, Vanessa Rush, “Expect Chaos,” This Piece of Eden (Boston: Skinner House, 2001) p. 45.

[3]Riemer, Jack, “On Turning,”Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #634.

[4]Walsh, Robert, “Tears” Stone Blessings (Boston: Skinner House, 2010) p. 6.

[5] Lewis, Thomas; Amini, Fari; and Lannon, Richard, A General Theory of Love (New York: Vintage Books, 2000) p. 85.

[6]Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) p. 47.

[7]Knapp, Caroline, Drinking: A Love Story (New York: Delta Book, 1996) p. 5.

[8]Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed (San Francisco:HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) p. 46.

[9]Knapp, Drinking, p. 256.

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!

Miracles Abound

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

“The leaf unfurling in the April air, the newborn child, the loving parents’ care, these constant, common miracles we share. Alleluia!”[1] Words from Don Cohen which he wrote in 1980 for the ordination of his wife, the Rev. Helen Lutton Cohen. They remind us that the everyday, mundane world——the leaf unfurling, the newborn child—the world all around us, the world at our finger tips is, if we’re paying attention, astoundingly beautiful; is awe-inspiring; is—though we so often take it for granted—miraculous. The everyday, mundane world is filled with constant, common miracles. As Jenn sang, in the words of rock star Sarah McLachlan, “It’s not unusual / When everything is beautiful / It’s just another ordinary miracle today / The sky knows when it’s time to snow / Don’t need to teach a seed to grow / It’s just another ordinary miracle today.”[2] Check out “Ordinary Miracles” here. I also hear echoes of that Peter Mayer song, “Holy Now,” which we hear in worship from time to time. Mayer sings about feeling sad as a child that the Biblical miracles he learned about in Sunday School don’t happen anymore, but then realizing as an adult that everything’s a miracle.[3] Check out “Holy Now” here.

Our ministry theme for August is miracles. We picked this theme knowing it’s the time of year when we offer the least amount of programming and we probably wouldn’t spend all that much time formally exploring what we mean by miracles; but knowing also that summer, like all seasons, offers its fair share of everyday miracles. I want to speak about the power—or at least the potential power—in our lives of everyday miracles. I’m making a distinction between everyday miracles and the traditional religious definition of a miracle as some extraordinary, phenomenal, even magical event attributed to divine intervention. This ought to be a familiar distinction to many of you. I’m drawing on the Humanist tradition within Unitarian Universalism, a tradition that places strong emphasis on the role of reason in religion and does not answer the questions of life’s mysteries with otherworldly, supernatural answers. Miracles of the extraordinary sort do not figure prominently in Religious Humanism. Consider Thomas Jefferson’s version
of the New Testament in which he cut out all the supernatural elements including the miracles. But even without a belief system that includes extraordinary, divinely inspired miracles, one can still encounter the everyday world as miraculous.

Before the hymn I read a brief passage from Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, in which the futuristic Catholic priest, Quim, acknowledges to his futuristic scientist brother, Miro (who is looking for a healing miracle) that some supposed miracles “might have been hysterical. Some might have been a placebo effect. Some purported healings might have been spontaneous remissions or natural recoveries.”[4] Quim and Miro both make the distinction: some things are miracles in the traditional sense and, if they aren’t miracles, then they’re something else: a placebo effect, natural healing, etc. But I think the body’s capacity to heal itself—sometimes with the help of this-worldly, medical intervention—is miraculous, and I put it in that category of everyday, ordinary miracles.

Earlier we heard two summer meditations from the Rev. Lynn Ungar. They focused our attention on the summer harvest. Blackberries, “summer’s last sweetness,”[5] and watermelon: “How could you be ashamed at the tug of desire?” she asks. “The world has opened itself to you season after season. What is summer’s sweetness but an invitation to respond?”[6] Although Rev. Ungar doesn’t use the word miracle, for me she’s pointing at what it means to witness or experience a miracle. In short, miracles beckon to us. They urge us down pathways for the deepening of our spiritual lives. “What is summer’s sweetness but an invitation to respond?” Miracles are invitations into greater faith, greater hope, greater love.

As a way of beginning to illustrate this, consider that in the Christian New Testament, in the books of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, Jesus performs miracles (the ones Thomas Jefferson didn’t believe.) Jesus cures the sick, heals the lame, resurrects the dead, exorcises demons, transforms water into wine and feeds  thousands with a few loaves and fish. Put aside the question of whether these miracles actually happened. Instead, ask yourself: why would the writers of these books include the miracle stories in their narratives? While we can’t know for sure what the writers intended more than 1900 years ago, one thing of which we can be fairly certain is that each of them was writing to a specific audience and they wanted to help that audience deepen its faith which, in this case, was the emerging Christian faith that Jesus was the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. The writers included miracle stories in their books to help convince their audiences that Jesus was the person they said he was. The miracles lent an air of credibility and authority to their claims. The miracles helped them persuade people to join their budding movement. Certainly today there is a debate even among Christians about whether or not these miracles really happened, but that’s irrelevant here. I’m trying to tease out an important assumption about miracles. That is, if you believe a miracle of any sort has happened, that belief can strengthen and deepen your faith, hope and love. It beckons you down the path of spiritual growth. If a person sincerely believes Jesus performed miracles—and many do—that belief is likely to draw them more deeply into their Christian faith.

So what about blackberries and watermelons in the waning days of August? What about those everyday miracles? How do they beckon? How do they invite us to deepen our spiritual lives? Do they point us towards some reality or truth worthy of our faith? Mason, Max and I have been picking peaches since late July at Scott’s Orchard around the corner from us in Glastonbury. We all get so excited to pick fruit for the week; the orange-red-yellow skin so vivid, the juice so sweet. Something is beckoning. And now the apples are starting to come. Actually, the Paula Reds are almost done, but the Ginger Golds and Mcintoshes are ready for picking. What about these constant, common miracles of late summer? What invitation do they offer? If we’re going to use the language of everyday miracles—and I think we should—if we’re going to accept the idea that miracles abound in the ordinary, mundane world, then we ought to have real responses to these questions. Otherwise, this idea that “everything’s a miracle” becomes just a sweet-sounding, liberal religious cliché.  I want to know: can one’s experience of the miraculousness of the ordinary day lead to a life of greater faith, hope and love?

I believe it can, but following that lead requires a certain discipline on our part. Consider this question: What is typically on your mind and in your heart when you wake up in the morning? Does it have anything to do with how miraculous the world is? I’ll tell you what’s on my mind and in my heart upon waking these days. First and foremost, my back is sore because I threw it out this summer while walking around in sandals too much of the time, sleeping in a few too many lousy motel beds, and tossing my kids into pools and
the ocean a few too many times. So, the first thing I think when I wake up is “I need to take some ibuprofen, heat my back and stretch.” Then, like clockwork virtually every morning, my boys, who’ve gone downstairs to watch TV, start fighting. I think it means they’re hungry. But I’m not ready to get up and deal with my back pain. So I reach my leg down and stomp on the floor, which is right above the television, which is my way of saying “be quiet, stop fighting,” which unfortunately makes my back hurt even more; and while it makes the fighting stop, the ceasefire only lasts about 90 seconds, during which time it inevitably occurs to me that my vacation and study leave are almost over, that Stephany’s vacation is over—she goes back to teaching tomorrow—that the boys will go back to school in a few days—they start Wednesday—and that while I’m looking forward to getting back into our regular routine, it always brings with it a certain amount of stress and anxiety—sometimes an enormous amount of stress and anxiety.

And then, still in midst of that 90 second ceasefire, I might start thinking about the drought plaguing most of the country that hasn’t yet begun to impact the cost of food, but most likely will this fall; or the fires out west which are setting all sorts of records for size, duration & destruction; or the surge of West Nile Virus and other tropical diseases in the United States; all of which brings up my fear that this is just the beginning of the new “weather normal” brought on by global climate change. Then, still in that blessed 90 second ceasefire, I remember the ugliness of the current political campaign season, a result—at least in this election cycle—of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission which prevents the government from restricting the political expenditures of corporations and unions and which therefore has brought to the center of our political consciousness (if we’re paying attention) the strange assumption—which admittedly has a long history in the United States—that corporations are people; compounded in my mind this week by the latest right wing discourse on the difference between legitimate (I’m sorry, I mean forcible) rape and—I don’t know, is there some other kind?—and whether women’s bodies possess some magical ability to prevent pregnancy during rape; and yes, though it may be a political slogan, there is in my view a war against women happening in this nation, just as there is in my view a war against poor people happening in this nation. We’ve confirmed that corporations are people but, at least in the minds of some, women and the poor don’t quite merit that status. 90 seconds have passed and the boys are fighting again. Where’s my ibuprofen? Where’s my heating pad? Where’s my science fiction novel? I need to escape! By the way, if you’re at all familiar with Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, the third in his Ender Wiggin series, then you know it really is no escape from any of this. Suffice it to say, the last thing on my mind and in my heart when I wake up these days is the revelation that everything’s a miracle. The sun breaking through the trees beckons; birds singing their morning songs urge; fresh peaches from trees in our neighborhood sitting on the cutting board in our kitchen awaiting breakfast offer a profound invitation. Everyday miracles abound, but I’m not quite there.

I don’t think I’m alone in this kind of experience. I don’t think I’m alone in forgetting the abundance of miracles all around, in failing to hold that sense of the miraculous at the center of my heart and mind such that it’s there when I wake up in the morning. I don’t think I’m the only one who finds, when I do catch a glimpse of the abundance of everyday miracles—when I become open to how beautiful, incredible, stunning, and miraculous the world is—it’s still difficult to sustain that awareness beyond a few precious, peaceful moments.

I think that difficulty is normal for most people at different points in life. From time to time we get caught up in and focus on the things that bring stress into our lives—raising children, finances, work, retirement, illness, aging, strained relationships, concerns about our adult children, caring for aging parents, existential fears; what does the future hold?—the list goes on.  It’s easy to start feeling trapped by these things; it’s easy to start feeling overwhelmed by these things; it’s easy to start rehearsing the same details, the same scripts, the same dilemmas over and over again. I suspect many of us are familiar with that kind of rut. Being in it can sap our energy and our sense of hope for the future. It can make us wonder, is there anything worthy of my faith? There was a time when I would encounter people spinning around in these kinds of ruts and think to myself, that’s not me, I’m resilient, I can handle that sort of thing, but I don’t have that reaction anymore. I don’t always feel so confident and competent. Maybe it has to do with being a father, or having a sore back. Whatever it is, I accept it and I suspect it’s normal. I suspect it’s part of what it means to mature more fully into adulthood, to start having a sense of one’s limitations. So be it. But when you add to this a palpable layer of anxiety and stress in the larger culture stemming, in my view, from ongoing economic uncertainty, from a growing environmental challenges, from frustration with our political system, from a perceived increase in violence in the larger society, from a general sense of scarcity, it doesn’t surprise me when I notice I’m not waking up to the miraculousness of the world. I’m not surprised at all when people tell me it’s hard to focus on the everyday miracles. “I’m glad those peaches taste so sweet Rev., but I’m troubled today and I may need a little more in order to get through it.”

Yes. Absolutely. But sometimes an everyday miracle is precisely what we need. This is why I used the word discipline earlier. In the midst of troubled thoughts and feelings—whatever their source may be—we need some discipline, some practice, some way of training our awareness on the beauty of the earth, on the gift of life, on the astounding, miraculous fact of our existence. Stress, anxiety, emotional ruts, racing, worrying minds, existential concerns, deep-seeded fears—all these things have their roots in many places—but they have in common a negative spiritual impact. That is, at their worst they sap our spirit. They sap our energy. They undercut our sense of wholeness. They can make us feel unwell in our bodies. They can make us feel small, incomplete and unworthy. They prevent us from recognizing our connections to a reality and a power larger than ourselves. They weaken our faith. They prey on our hopefulness. They even attack our capacity to love. In the midst of it we easily forget that all around us, everyday miracles abound. All around us are invitations to encounter the world differently. All around us, in the words of Lynn Ungar, are reminders that the world opens itself to us, season after season, and we are invited to respond.[7] “Reach gently,” says Ungar, “but reach.”[8] And when she says “reach,” I take it to mean “live.” Live the life you feel called to live, not the life your fears and anxieties dictate. Live boldly, live creatively, live faithfully, live with love at the center of your heart. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our fears but with the beauty of the earth. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our anxieties, but with our hopes. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our small, self-centered, scarcity-oriented selves but with the truth of  our connection to a reality and a power larger than ourselves, pointing us always towards lives of openness, caring, generosity, grace and dignity.

I am at heart a hopeful, faithful, loving person, who at times does not feel very hopeful, faithful or loving. But I’ve learned that if I can discipline myself to stay aware of the everyday miracles, if I can sustain a practice of noticing, observing, welcoming, naming, embracing and responding to everyday miracles, if I can wake up in the morning with miracles in my mind and on my heart, I can remain a hopeful person, a person of deepening faith, a person capable of great love. I trust you can too. Miracles abound. May we respond!

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] Cohen, Don, “The Leaf Unfurling,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #7.

[2] For music with lyrics for Sarah McLachlan’s “Ordinary Miracle,” see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8rh_48pLqA.

[3] For music with lyrics to Peter Mayer’s “Holy Now,” see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiypaURysz4.

[4] Card, Orson Scott, Xenocide (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1991) p. 134.

[5] Ungar, Lynn, “Picking Blackberries,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 46.

[6] Ungar, Lynn, “Watermelon,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 49.

[7] Ungar, Lynn, “Watermelon,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 49.

[8] Ungar, Lynn, “Picking Blackberries,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 47.

 

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.

We Build Temples in the Heart

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video: Here We Build Temples in the Heart

Here we build temples in our hearts. Side by side we gather. . . .  

 

Here we build temples in our hearts. Side by side we come. . . .

Here we build temples in our hearts—
a temple for each heart,

a village of temples,
none shading another,
connected by well-worn paths,
built alike on sacred ground.

A meditation from Patrick Murfin: poet, social justice activist, labor historian, Unitarian Universalist (and many other things) living in Woodstock, IL. I’ve been searching this week for words that offer a metaphor for what Unitarian Universalist congregational life is all about, a metaphor for what we do as a spiritual community, a metaphor to remind us of the value this congregation holds in our lives on this weekend when we kick off our annual appeal and ask each of us to make a generous financial pledge for the coming fiscal year. These words work for me. “Here we build temples in our hearts.”

What might this mean? A temple in the literal sense is a physical structure a place set aside for worship; a place where the people gather to lift up, praise and celebrate that which is most holy to them; where they commune with their gods and goddesses however they understand them; where they offer their sacrifices, conduct their sacred rituals, sing their sacred songs, dance their sacred dances; where they celebrate their holy days, keep their festivals, welcome their newly born, honor their elders and bid farewell to their dead. In his meditation Murfin references some ancient wonders: the 12th century Angkor Wat Hindu temple in Cambodia; the 5000 year old Stonehenge in Wiltshire County, England; the 13th century Cathedral of Chartres in France; and the Doric columns of ancient Greek and Roman temples.

But here we build temples in our hearts, says Murfin, meaning here in our congregations. What are we building? At our best—and let us agree: we aren’t always at our best; no human community ever is—but at our best we are building—in our hearts, in our interior lives—sanctuary.

Sanctuary, meaning a place of refuge from the storms that batter us from time to time, from the tempests that rage around us; a place of refuge from the fret and fever of the day, from the tumult and the strife that cycle through our lives; a place of refuge from the pressure and the stress that are part and parcel of our living in these postmodern times of hyper-connection and hyper-alienation; a place of refuge from our personal trials and despair; a place of refuge from the mean-spirited, hateful culture-war discourse of our national life; a place of retreat where we may go in those moments when we need some measure of comfort, when we need some measure of solace, when we long for peace in a war-torn world, when we seek rest for our weary spirits.

Sanctuary, meaning a place where we can fortify ourselves in those moments when we face challenges and crises; a place where we can access our reserves of courage; a place where we can find our resolve, our conviction, our next step; a place where we feel grounded and rooted, held closely to our foundations, where we find sustenance, where we find the strength to endure and persevere through whatever crisis may come our way; a place where we find the humility and grace to receive the help, counsel, caring and love of those around us; a place where we recognize our dependence on those around us; a place where our pride softens and we are able to ask for help; where we are able to trust that the help we truly need shall come to us, though it comes often in ways we do not expect and cannot anticipate.

Sanctuary, meaning a place for honesty and integrity, a place where we may go in those moments when the contradictions of our lives, the inconsistencies of our lives, require us to reckon with ourselves, to speak our truths to ourselves, to push and nudge and challenge ourselves, to hold ourselves accountable; a place wherein we can finally make the decisions we have been putting off for too long; a place wherein we may find the motivation, the nerve, the audacity to rise to new heights, to stretch into new postures, to reach for new holds on the sheer rock face, to grow in new directions, to allow ourselves to be transformed, because staying where we are for too long—remaining on the beaten path—the familiar path, the easy path, the habitual path—we finally see it!—is no longer viable; a place where we let go of old, unworkable ways of being, so that new ways may emerge; a spring-time place for renewal, a spring-time place for rebirth, a spring-time place for resurrection, a place to praise the breaking dawn, to praise the “life that maketh all things new,” to praise “the first dew fall on the first grass.”

Sanctuary, meaning a place where our passions reside; where, without any fear, we name our desires, our sense of calling, our sense of vocation; where our vision of our best selves and our dreams for the future all seem possible—where we can resolve to pursue our visions and dreams and make them real in our lives, express them with our words, manifest them with our deeds; a place where our creativity flourishes, where we compose the song our life sings, where we choreograph the dance our life dances, where we breathe out the poem our life breathes, where we tell the story our life tells; a place where we can pay attention to our hunches, our flashes of insight, our inklings and intuitions, that tingling up and down our spines that tells us, “yes, this is the right path, as strange and unfamiliar as it may seem;” a place where we can pay attention and respond to our passions without fear of being told we are silly, unrealistic or impractical; where we can pay attention and respond without fear of being told we aren’t good enough, that we’ll never make it, that what we desire for ourselves is impossible; a place where the suggestion, the message, the solution, the answer coming back from our own sacred depths is Yes! Try! Live!—a place wherein, even though you know failure is possible—because failure is always possible—the suggestion, the message, the solution, the answer coming back from our own sacred depths is Yes! Try! Live! Do not settle for a life in which you are not living.

Sanctuary, meaning the place where we come to dedicate and re-dedicate our lives, to commit and recommit our lives, to offer and re-offer our lives; the place where we can dedicate, commit and offer our lives: to the values we treasure, to love in all its forms, to compassion in all its forms, to service in all its forms, to learning in all its forms, to reason in all its forms; the place where we can dedicate, commit and offer our lives: to all our relations, to the promptings and urgings of the spirit, to the pursuit of a more just and fair society, to care and stewardship of the earth, our planet, our parent, our home; a place where we come to discern the sacrifices we must make—and then make them—on the altars of our inner lives, the whisping smoke of our metaphorical burnt offerings filling our nostrils, at once pungent, at once sweet—pleasing, satisfying, life giving: generous sacrifices of our time, our gifts, our wealth; sacrifices for the sake of our community, sacrifices for the sake of our values, sacrifices for the sake of our children, sacrifices for the sake of the future, sacrifices for the sake of some reality larger than ourselves but to which we are intimately connected.

Sanctuary, meaning the most holy place in the temple—the place consecrated for the keeping of sacred things—the place where the God or Goddess resides, where the angels attend—the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies—the place where the stars align on holy nights; the place where heaven and earth meet—the axis mundi, as the scholars call it—the place where we may keep and remember and hold close, hold with great tenderness, hold with great intimacy, all that is sacred to us; the place where we may drink deeply from our spiritual wells; the place where spirit moves into us and out of us; the place where we can grasp and know and trust the divinity in ourselves—our likeness to God, as our Unitarian forebears used to teach; our ultimate reunion with God, as our Universalist forebears used to preach; the place where we can apprehend and grasp our connections, our interdependence, our relatedness to the whole of life, to all that has been, to all there is, to all that shall be.

Here we build temples in our hearts—
a temple for each heart,
a village of temples,
none shading another,
connected by well-worn paths,
built alike on sacred ground.

When I use this language of building temples in our hearts, I am mindful that so much of what we do in this congregation seeks to strengthen and fortify us, seeks to make good on that promise that each of our lives tells a story, each of our lives harbors deep and abiding truths, each of our lives is sacred and worthy. But, ultimately we do not build these temple-sanctuaries in our hearts solely for ourselves. The self matters—it matters immensely—and our religion must take our selves seriously. But our religion, in the end, is not here for the benefit of the self. Our religion is here for the benefit of the world. Our religion builds our temple-sanctuaries—gives us access within ourselves to the paths of refuge, solace, rest, strength, fortitude, passion and integrity—so that we may become bearers of love and compassion into the world; so that we may become bearers of comfort and healing into the world; so that we may discern how best to share our passions with the world, all for the sake of a more peaceful world, a more just world, a more sustainable world.

I think this is good theology. This past week I’ve been involved in a number of conversations about the nature of God—one with the Affirmation students and one with the participants in our adult course, “Theology in a Secular Age.” In both conversations we’ve been naming our inability to believe in a God who somehow is able to reach into and control human affairs—the omnipotent, omniscient God we associate with the beliefs of the more traditional, conservative and fundamentalist religions–the old, white-haired, bearded God who sits on a throne and judges us. We’ve been noting our inability to believe in that God.  We’ve been noting instead that regardless of what one believes about God, whether or not one believes God exists at all, if there is to be more love and compassion in the world, human beings need to make it so. If there is to be more comfort and healing in the world, human beings need to make it so. If there is going to be a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, human beings need to make it so. Regardless of what we may believe about God, the universe or the nature of reality, our Unitarian Universalist congregation teaches us that human beings need to make it so. That is why we build temples in the heart: so that we have the power to make it so.

Hold that thought. Some of you have already made your financial pledge to UUS:E for the coming year. Thank you. Some of you have already signed up to participate in a stewardship pot luck dinner and will be making your pledge then. The rest of you will soon be hearing from a steward, asking for a face-to-face meeting to talk about the value this congregation holds in your life and to ask for your pledge. Thank you for returning their call or email quickly.

We are this year, as always, proposing increases in our budget. Much of this increase is to give our staff a cost of living allowance and to come as close as we can to paying our staff according to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s fair compensation guidelines. We also hope to expand our adult education and Sunday worship service offerings, continue funding our youth advisor and reduce the amount of money we need to borrow from our savings in order to have a balanced budget. As always, we ask that you pledge as generously as you can. We are hoping for a 5% increase in pledge income over last year. If we get a 7.2 % increase we will balance our budget without drawing from savings at all. I am so grateful to our outgoing Finance Chair, Patricia Wildes, and our Treasurer, Bob Hewey, who have done a masterful job preparing our budget and crunching the numbers again and again and again. I am so grateful to the members of the Policy Board who strive so hard to make the best financial decisions they can on your behalf, and who admit they have a hard time saying “no” to good ideas. We have a lot of good ideas! And I am so grateful to Stan McMillen and the Stewardship Committee who work so hard year round to encourage a spirit of generous giving at UUS:E.

They do it for a reason. And we come here for a reason. And it’s not about budgets and staff and numbers and pledges and increased
pledges—though all of those are important. We come because we build temples in the heart. We build temples in the heart, inner sanctuaries, places of refuge and retreat, comfort and solace, honesty and integrity, passion, dedication, commitment and sacredness. We build temples in the heart so that we may live the lives we feel called to live. But we build temples in the heart, not in the end for ourselves, but for a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, because we know: if there is to be a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, human beings must make it so. We build temples in the heart so that we have the power to make it so.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

restless sleepers (the motion picture)

On Feb. 19th, spoken word artist Uni Q. Mical joined UUS:E in worship.

See video here: Uni Q. Mical at UUS:E

 

In response to our February ministry theme of “restlessness” she wrote and presented the following poem.

restless sleepers (the motion picture).  

Uni Q. Mical

THIS IS DEDICATED

to the touch screen generation

whose stretch of imagination

is mastered in megapixels

and clustered onto google pages

who

never look you in the eye in conversation

til they update their status on their thoughts,

verbatim. the cadence

of a drone, dripping from cellular phones

an omnipresent reminder that GPS will guide us home

 

to our parents,

grandparents

who make up this society

riddled with restlessness,

aching with anxiety

whose belief in ourselves

is as long as the song our thumbs sung

to these screens

with no thought process

to where these iPhones come from:

factories with no rest allowed,

14 hr workdays, driven to pressure bouts

gotta meet that demand that only the West allows

would rather jump off a bridge than make another gadget

but we grasp em

too far gone to gaze around at Earth’s magic.

 

What are our passions?

 

walking roads less traveled, or climbing corporate ladders?

so many distractions

it drowned out our heartbeats

so our true selves we fear to fathom.

we’d rather

seek happiness thru plasma TVs

who abuse us as consumers

convincing us we’re never good enough

for our own body, mind, or bloomers

diagnose us with the latest disease to hit the market

so we can have an excuse for just why we see ourselves so harshly

instead of putting our mental cars in park

& departing from our darkness

our minds race at the speed of internet

cramming our psyche into characters,

with stress that eats our intellect

 

But who says this is what we should be?

 

from dawn to dream, we’re in a hurry

crossing off a shopping list

of all the things that keep us worried

from your bulky stomach

to that friend you confronted

to the magazine ad with the shoes you never wanted       til 10 minutes ago.

to what new celeb just had a baby

to will i ever be famous? it’s lookin more like MAYBE

if our vehicles need a tune-up,

our souls are overdue inspection

we’re individuals who make up this mass collective

but each person in this group

spends more time second guessing

than believing in our POWER

to topple a system that convinced us we’re infected

 

for thinkin of the good of the people before the profits,

for knowing 9-5s don’t contribute to our self-knowledge.

for the cost of living changing, but not what’s in our wallets

when CEOs get paid billions for all the work done by the “bottom”.

for standing with uprisings

of people who are more than “equal”

who know we’re people of the sun

and our light is never see-thru.

for those who’ve historically wronged this earth,

its citizens, its water

you can’t charge us for the only fluid that knows no borders.

pumpin foods with chemicals FDA’s too corrupt to regulate

how many fast food burgers does it take to send us to heaven’s gates?

convince us we have issues, and tell us to medicate

got hundreds of pills for all us living in a restless state

yet we’re still not fully healed, choose to keep our wounds concealed

but there ain’t a single prescription that will cure us of this fight

for harmony and peace

such dirty words, diseased

but these were granted to us by the universe for LIFE

we live within a system that oppresses all us within

and thinking differently could make you a memory

but right now, we’re re-righting history

snatched the pen out the victor’s hands

included all of us that aren’t just straight, white, rich, or man

 

and we will live to speak of a new millennia

where the strength of six billion folks

used our bare hands and lifted up

this earth from off her knees

told her to stand still, it’s time to BREATHE

shook us all to our inner core

turned off the TV, computers, phones

and listened to our souls,

FINALLY.