On the Art of Being Lost

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”[1] These words from the Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau ring true to me. They echo the wisdom of more ancient spiritual teachers. The Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, said “Do not be an embodier of fame; do not be a storehouse of schemes; do not be an undertaker of projects…. Embody to the fullest what has no end and wander where there is no trail.”[2] Jesus said “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[3] These teachers are not referring to loss in the sense of losing something or someone. They mean lost as a state of being: not knowing where you are, where you’re going; not knowing what to say, how to act; not knowing how to get back to the familiar, or if it’s even possible to do so; not feeling the solid ground beneath you. Being lost can be frightening, overwhelming, but it also offers blessings. As it takes us out of our everyday experience, away from the familiar, the comfortable, the routine, it invites us to encounter the world from a different perspective. It challenges us to find sources of strength and creativity in us we didn’t know we possessed. It may even require us to ask for help, to rely on the kindness of strangers. Our world actually gets larger. In the process we learn something about ourselves. We wake up, we stretch, we grow, we break through, we transform. These are blessings. Getting lost from time to time is a good thing.

This makes sense to me, but I cannot remember ever being lost and thinking, Oh, great, I’m encountering the world from a different perspective. What a wonderful growth opportunity! The first thought that occurs to me when I’m lost isn’t fit for the pulpit! One of my earliest childhood memories is of being lost in a grocery store. I must have been three years old. I became separated from my mother and brothers. I remember crying very loudly. In fact, I have a memory of being outside of myself, watching myself crying from a few feet away. I was afraid but I suspect there was more than fear in my body. It was my first conscious experience of separation from my mother without knowing where she was or how I could get back to her. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that she might be gone. 

Then there was a family hike. I can’t quite remember which summer it was or which national park—it was either Yellowstone or Kejimkujik in Nova Scotia. My mother was nervous from the start, mainly due to the signs instructing us what to do in the event we encountered bears. My father, perpetually unconcerned, led us onward to a supposedly beautiful lake out in the wilderness where only the most experienced campers camped. We eventually found a small pond full of duckweed and decided that either the map was not drawn to scale, or we were lost. It turned out to be both.

But perhaps the most embarrassing experience of being lost was on my honeymoon in Italy. Steph and I were staying in a hotel in the town of Sarno about an hour’s drive east of Naples. We had spent the day exploring Pompeii and didn’t start heading back until after dark. Steph fell asleep as I drove. I soon stopped recognizing landmarks along the highway, and realized I had no idea where we were. I took a random exit. At the bottom of the ramp was a toll booth. I started speaking to the attendant in English, a reasonable thing to do since many Italians speak English. This Italian was not one of them. But instead of waking Stephany, who is relatively fluent in Italian, I panicked. I started speaking louder English to the attendant. This strategy was unsuccessful. It got worse from there. I won’t go into details, except to say it was not one of my finer moments. Steph eventually woke up. She had a long conversation with the attendant in Italian, which I suspect had very little to do with directions, and very much to do with me. We paid the toll and continued our journey. We knew from the attendant that we were heading in the right direction, though we still didn’t know how to get where we were going. As I remember it, we came upon Sarno by sheer luck. It was a long night.

All this is to say that even though the words of Thoreau, Chuang Tzu and Jesus resonate with me; even though I know being lost offers certain blessings, I don’t like the way it feels. Which is why I had originally not planned to read Thoreau’s famous words in praise of being lost, but rather a more cautionary tale from the American writer and environmentalist Barry Lopez entitled “Within Birds’ Hearing.” In this story the narrator gets lost hiking in the Mojave Desert. It’s grim. “By evening I was winded, irritated, dry hearted,” he explains after many days of wandering. “I would scrape out a place on the ground and fall asleep, too exhausted to eat. My clothing, thin and worn, began to disintegrate. I would awaken dreamless, my tongue swollen from thirst.”[4] He doesn’t speak of the wonderful things he’s learning about himself. He says, “I was overwhelmed by my own foolishness …. I knew the depths of my own stupidity.”[5] He may be having a spiritual experience, but it’s one of suffering. He may be learning about himself, but it’s a lesson of human folly and frailty. If there’s a blessing, it’s that he didn’t die. And this feels really important to me: I want to speak of the spiritual blessings of being lost, but I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s never wise to romanticize wilderness experiences. There is no way to be truly lost and entirely safe at the same time. Anyone who’s ever been truly lost in any kind of wilderness—whether in Nature or in some metaphorical wilderness—the depths of depression or grief or poverty or war—knows it can be terrifying. Lost people don’t always return. The blessings of being lost may not be worth the cost.

Well, Mary Bopp was having none of this. We started working with the Lopez story on Tuesday and she said “you’re taking all the fun out of it.” Unlike me, Mary is drawn to being lost. She told me about the dissonance she feels when visiting a foreign city with friends who want to plan the day in great detail. Rather than following paths prescribed by the local tourism bureau, Mary prefers to wander where there is no trail, to get off the beaten path. She says she enjoys the experience of solo hiking on a trail she’s never been on before. She also told me about her favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who often wrote in an early twentieth-century, late Romantic style in which the music continually modulates from key to key, so that the listener keeps losing their sense of the tonal center. Just when the listener feels like they’re arriving somewhere, the next modulation takes them in a different direction. They get lost. Different keys feel differently, offer different colors, different qualities. A modulation brings the listener into a new musical landscape. Mary loves this! She says it feels like it can go on forever, that there’s something eternal to it. She gets lost in it.

Mary’s appreciation of being lost reminds me of the historian Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She blends memoir, cultural history, nature writing and philosophy into a prolonged and varied reflection on the many ways we can be lost—lost in thought, in love, in a good story, in a city, in nature; lost as one comes of age; lost in the sense of not knowing entirely who one’s ancestors are. Solnit writes: “I love going out of my way, beyond what I know, and finding my way back a few extra miles, by another trail, with a compass that argues with the map.” She writes in praise of “nights alone in motels in remote western towns where I know no one and no one I know knows where I am, nights with strange paintings and floral spreads and cable television that furnish a reprieve from my own biography.” She writes in praise of “moments when I say to myself as feet or car clear a crest or round a bend, I have never seen this place before.”[6]

So let me pull back from my concern with being dangerously lost. Yes, it can happen. Yes, we can become so lost we may never return. But we also cannot limit our lives in fear and expect to grow spiritually. Solnit says “the word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…. I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.” I commend to you the practice of disbanding your army. I commend to you the practice of going beyond what you know. And with all seriousness but tongue somewhere near cheek, I implore you to get lost.

I remember hiking with my boys when they were younger, taking them a few hundred yards off the trail, blindfolding them, spinning them around, taking the blindfolds off, then instructing them to find their way back to the trail. At first it was an exercise in frustration. I would have to give them clues. But eventually they learned to look for landmarks as we walked away from the trail. Find the landmark. Find the way back. Over time they learned to pay attention to their surroundings, to observe and remember details in the landscape.

What trail in your life might you intentionally wander away from blindfolded and spinning? What new neighborhood, town or city might you explore without a map? What new experience do you want—or need—to have? Or consider the life-paths that lay ahead of you. Might there be one that excites you but feels just out of reach or more unknown, more difficult, more risky? Is there a way to start down that path even though you’re not sure where it leads? Or might there be some stasis that has overtaken your life; you know you need to break out of it, but breaking out would mean leaving the familiar behind, being lost for a while. Perhaps now is the time to wander where there’s no trail.

The benefits of intentionally being lost may be as simple as learning a new place, finding a new route, meeting new people, acquiring new skills, or just experiencing the joy of a nice surprise. But they may be more complex: discovering new dimensions of you, finding reservoirs of creativity, strength and resilience you didn’t know were in you. And they may come on a more explicitly spiritual level. Mystics throughout the centuries have described their ecstatic experiences of the divine in the same way we might describe being lost—entering the unknown, the dark, the cloud; feeling ungrounded, unanchored, dislocated; soaring, flying, falling, vertigo. For some being lost is a profound spiritual experience. Solnit suggests that “in relinquishing certainty we approach, if only fleetingly, the divine.”[7]

I’m suggesting we practice being lost. But I’m also mindful that we practice for a reason. Being lost is an inevitable human experience. I’m not referring to getting lost in the actual wilderness, though that is certainly a possibility. I’m referring to being lost in our lives: lost in suffering, in illness, in decline; lost when everything around us is changing; lost when we realize life isn’t unfolding as we hoped. It happens. We lose our confidence, our sense of purpose, our sense of direction. We can feel lost in our schooling, in our careers, in retirement. We can feel lost because we know what we have to do, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. We lose those we love and become lost in grief. The greatest benefit that comes from practicing being lost is that when we become lost for reasons beyond our control, we have some knowledge of how to be and what to do. We know to trust ourselves more than the map which may not be drawn to scale. We know to look for landmarks. We know panicking doesn’t help, though it may be hard to avoid. We know it may be a time to disband our armies. We know openness matters. We know patience matters. We know breathing deeply matters. We know it may be dark and cloudy for a long time, but that we can live with not knowing for longer.

When we’re lost, our world gets larger. I didn’t tell you that when I was lost and crying in the grocery store at age 3, a stranger helped me find my mother. And I didn’t tell you that when our family was lost in the woods, and we really didn’t know which way to go, a young couple happened by and gave us directions back to our car. I won’t say they saved our lives, but their chance appearance definitely kept us from spending a night in the deep woods. And I didn’t tell you that in Barry Lopez’s story about being lost in the Mojave Desert, his narrator is ultimately saved, as he puts it, by “the unceasing kindness of animals.” “Not till we are lost … do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” said Thoreau. Perhaps that is the greatest blessing of being lost: not always, but more often than not, there is someone there to help. Our world gets larger. The extent of our relations is literally infinite, but we forget this. Sometimes being lost is what helps us remember.

 Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1960) p. 118.

[2] Chuang Tzu, in Watson, Burton, tr., Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) p. 94.

[3] Matthew 10:39 (NRSV).

[4] Lopez, Barry, “Introduction: Within Birds’ Hearing,” Field Notes (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) p. 5.

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

[6] Solnit, Rebecca, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Penguin Group, 2005).

[7] “A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2005. See: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/08/08/a-field-guide-to-getting-lost.

The Things That Heal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Hygieia: Greek Goddess of Health

Hygieia: Greek Goddess of Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Mark 10: 51-52.

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

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

February 2016 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.




With love,

Rev. Josh

Perhaps Struggle is All We Have

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

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

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

Hinged Between Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flammarion Engraving

The Flammarion Engraving

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

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

[4] Ibid, pp. 93-4.

[5] Isaiah 6: 1-8.

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

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

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

[9] Ibid.

December 2015 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

As I write these words just before the Thanksgiving holiday, the weather has finally turned cold (or at least nippy) and we’ve had a few gray days after weeks and weeks of beautiful though unseasonably warm, sunny weather. The landscape has grown barren and windswept, the empty fields now await the first snows. As many of you know, I like the gray days. I like the barren landscape. For me, these late autumn days in New England offer an invitation. It’s an invitation to look inward, to reflect, to ponder. It’s an invitation to find solitude, to be quiet and still.

There’s an invitation here. It’s an invitation to let our inner landscape become barren for a time—no rushing, no activity, no lights, no stress. It’s an invitation to burrow down into the cold, brown earth and let the nurturing darkness heal whatever hurts the long year has given us.

How might you respond to this invitation? If you’re not sure, I’ve discovered a wonderful prompt for inner reflection at this time of year. A small group met in November to plan our bi-annual Mental Health Ministry summit, which will take place on December 12th from 9:00 to noon at UUS:E (all are welcome, of course). We latched onto the idea of using Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” as a prompt for reflection. I trust most of you know the story, in which Ebenezer Scrooge receives visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. With these visits, Scrooge has the opportunity to reflect on his life and make choices about how he wants to live the rest of it. We’ll be offering these questions for discussion at the Mental Health Ministry Summit, but I enjoy them so much I’d like to offer them to everyone: If the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future were to visit you, what would they say? And how might you resolve to live differently as a result? Whether or not one identifies with Christmas in some way (not every UU does), I hope you find this a useful exercise.

And even if this prompt doesn’t work for you, perhaps the landscape will. Take a moment before the holidays come blaring into your life; pause and ponder the leafless trees, the empty fields, the dry grasses, the shuttered barns, the grey skies, the dark nights. Pause and ponder: where have you been? Where are you now? Where are you going?

leaves 2

May this be a season of deep and meaningful reflection, before the season of cheer.

With love, Rev. Josh

Living in Shades of Gray

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Late November sun shines dimly on cold gray mornings, on leafless gray branches, on still gray ponds. After autumn’s beauty has shown forth, after its grandeur has lifted spirits, after its fanfare has inspired, it all finally gives way to gray skies, empty trees, barren fields, and windswept hills.

In this pre-solstice season, this advent season, this strangely quiet season the gray landscape offers a blank slate on which our racing hearts, our focused minds, our hurried spirits can wander in peace for a time. Stripped of its color and its crops, its farmland lying fallow, the pale sky peering through its empty woodland canopies, the gray world opens around us in all directions, invites us to apprehend its features in new ways, beckons us to notice what isn’t always visible or touchable, but is always present.

DSC_0097In this in-between season before the sun’s return, the gray landscape gives us permission to move off our well-worn paths; gives us permission to  move back from the assumptions and beliefs and truths we hold tightly and close, sometimes without thought or examination; gives us permission to review our familiar patterns from different angles, from different directions, to recognize when they no longer serve us and, if need be, to let them go, to let the late November wind sweep them out across the empty, gray fields, over the empty gray hills, across the frozen gray ponds.

If we open our hearts and minds and spirits to it, this neither-black-nor-white season, this shades-upon-shades-of-gray season will show us new ways that had previously been hidden in the blooming spring; will reveal to us new paths previously covered in summer’s green underbrush; will offer many truths previously concealed in autumn’s rich, splendid color.

DSC_1942In this season may we practice living in shades of gray, hearing different stories, singing different songs, discerning different truths; living in shades, imagining new possibilities, new futures. May we practice living in shades of gray, withholding judgement, embracing humanity in its fullness; living in shades of gray, learning to forgive, learning to be forgiven; living in shades of gray, slowly remembering and naming all those false aspects of ourselves, those pieces of us imposed from beyond us, those boxes and labels that keep us from being our true selves, that keep us from being fully human; living in shades of gray, slowly remembering and naming those histories of genocide and war, those unjust systems, those economic inequalities, those assaults upon the land, those enduring sources of violence that keep all of us from being the beloved community; living in shades of gray, slowly remembering all of it, naming all of it, and
beginning to cast it away, so that when the light returns—and when the gray that has turned to dark finally turns back to green—we will be ready with new selves to create a more compassionate, just and peaceful future.

Before winter snows weigh down trees, bends branches and pile up along driveways and sidewalks, obscuring everything that is open to us now, let us live for a season in shades of gray.

Amen and blessed be.


Decolonizing Faith: Some Reflections on the Canonization of Junípero Serra

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Terror

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Mourners in Beirut following the November 12th terrorist attack. Credit: Hasan Shaaban/Reuters

Mourners in Beirut following the November 12th terrorist attack. Credit: Hasan Shaaban/Reuters

In light of the Paris terrorist attacks Friday night and the Beirut terrorist attacks on Thursday, I made the decision yesterday morning to bring a different sermon than the one I had planned to preach. This would have been a forgone conclusion had the attacks happened on American soil. They happened far away—Paris is 3,500 miles from here, Beirut is 5,500 miles. I wondered, could we just light a candle and have a moment of silence? That might have been sufficient if the sermon I had planned to preach would have offered some words of comfort, hope and peace—which is precisely the message I imagined I would want this morning if I were sitting where you are. But the sermon I had planned to preach wasn’t going to do that. I knew I couldn’t stand here and preach it to you without feeling a profound disconnect between my words and world events.

I feel grief. I feel a need to mourn. I am angry. I am frightened. I am confused. I suspect many of you feel similarly. With these feelings at heart, I want to offer a three reflections in response to these terrorist attacks. I hope they will bring comfort, peace and hope to you. I hope they will suggest ways to understand some of the reasons why attacks like these are happening and what they mean. And that I hope they will offer some preliminary ideas for how we as residents and citizens of the United States can best respond.


I begin where I always begin in the wake of tragedy: find what grounds you.

It is unfortunate, but we know this first step. We knew it after the Newtown shooting. We knew it after the Boston Marathon bombing. We knew it after the death of our former music director, Pawel Jura. I say unfortunate because over the past fifteen years acts of terror have become not just familiar but highly regular: remember 9/11; remember, around that same time, the suicide bombings of the second Palestinian Intifada (2000-2005); remember the Madrid train bombing (2004), the London underground bombing (2005), the Mumbai attacks (2008), the Norway mass shooting (2011), the Boston Marathon Bombing (2013), the Nairobi Westgate mall attack (2013), the Chibok, Nigeria school girl kidnappings. Remember countless suicide bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria throughout this era. Remember just this year the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, the Kenya University attack, the Tunisia beach attack, the October attack in Turkey that killed 128, the recent Jerusalem attacks. Thursday’s attack in Beirut killed 43, and now Paris again: multiple, coordinated attacks with assault rifles and suicide bombers at a concert hall, a soccer stadium, restaurants; 129 dead, hundreds injured. And following the Paris attacks will come the inevitable and highly under-reported nationalist and white supremacist attacks on Muslim communities throughout Europe and elsewhere, attacks that follow whenever organizations like ISIS commit atrocities in Europe. I won’t begin to add to this list the reality of so many people across the planet, including in the United States, who experience police and military actions as state-sponsored terror. That feels like a different sermon, but it isn’t. The bottom-line is, terrorism works. It makes people afraid. How can it not? Even across an ocean, in the relative safety of the United States, it is frightening. It calls forth those unbidden, stressful questions from our unconscious, ‘am I safe?’ ‘could it happen here?’ ‘Am I prepared?’ For those who are familiar with France and with Paris in particular—those who’ve travelled there, those who’ve lived there, those who have friends and family there—those who might have been there—it is frightening. For those of you who have connections to Beirut and Lebanon, it is frightening. If such large attacks could happen in two cities that are in a perpetual state of heightened alert and vigilance, then they can certainly happen in other cities. They already have. It is frightening.

In order not to be overcome with fear, with anxiety, with despair; in order not to become triggered or wounded; in order not to become numb or desensitized by the images and the media coverage, the Facebook posts and the tweets, find what grounds you. Yesterday, even though I knew I wanted to prepare an entirely different sermon, I made a commitment to not let that work get in the way of the plans I had made with my family. I made breakfast. I took Mason to his archery class. I made lunch. I took Max to his basketball practice. All of us attended the Manchester Art Association Art Auction. We were home at night. We ate dinner together. We watched TV together, which is one of our weekend rituals. Sticking to the plan, engaging in mundane family activities, was grounding for me.

I know it may seem selfish and insensitive to focus on ourselves in the wake of someone else’s tragedy. I understand that, but I don’t think it is. Finding our grounding makes it possible for us to manage the emotions that terrorism generates. Finding our grounding enables us to better understand what has happened, to help if and where possible, and to work toward that goal articulated in our sixth Unitarian Universalist principle: “world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” Ungrounded people cannot do any of this well.

Even if you are one for whom this tragedy feels far away, don’t underestimate the power of these events and so many like them to take a toll on your spiritual and emotional well-being. Don’t underestimate their power to unground you. As I have advised on far too many occasions: start with breathing. Breathe deeply, slowly, fully. Fill your lungs with air and remind yourself it comes from green plants and algae. Remind yourself this air you breathe is evidence of your connection to the whole of life. Not separation, but connection.  Breathe in, and as you breathe, relax, be still, be quiet, be calm. Breathe in, and as you breathe, reach for peace, reach for hope, reach for love. Then, still breathing, when you feel ready, start to move. Move slowly at first, gently at first: bend, bow, stretch, lengthen, extend, reach. Keep breathing. If you can, go outside. Touch the ground, the soil, the earth—the beautiful, dark brown earth. Work in the dark, brown earth. Play in the dark, brown earth. Let the dirt get on your hands, under your fingernails, between your toes. Feel yourself coming back to life. Listen for the still small voice. Hear your own truths, your convictions emerging once again. Then, in time, as you feel ready, create. Creative acts are so essential to moving out of fear and finding our ground: write, compose, sing, speak, act, sculpt, carve, craft, paint, draw. Feel yourself slowly coming back to yourself.[1]

A Ruthless Response

French President François Hollande says the French response will be ruthless. President Obama says the United States stands shoulder to shoulder with France. I confess there is a part of me—a small part, but I won’t deny it is there—that wants a ruthless response, that wants to bomb the perpetrators mercilessly out of existence no matter the consequences. They cannot be allowed to perpetuate this kind of terrorism on the rest of the world. There is nothing that can justify this kind of indiscriminate mass murder of innocent people. Nothing.

This is the part of me that is angry and frightened, but also the part of me that believe it is being pragmatic. A year ago, as the United States-led bombing campaign against ISIS was beginning, I said to you that despite my objection to United States war-making, and despite taking to heart  Dr. King’s warning that ‘returning violence for violence multiplies violence,’[2] I nevertheless have “come to the heart-wrenching conclusion that we cannot abandon the millions of people who live in Iraq and Syria to [the] barbarous tyranny[we are witnessing in that region; and] that there is no solution other than to meet these atrocities not only with every available economic and diplomatic tool, but with resounding military force.” I said “I can barely imagine myself saying such a thing; but a chaotic, relentless, brutal and unfeeling spirit drives the Islamic State. I know of no word to name it other than evil.”[3] The Beirut and Paris attacks, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, are simply more evidence of this evil.

I am sure there will be a ruthless response. And even if a massive, global antiwar movement rose up and said, ‘stop, no more violence, find another way!’ I am fairly confident the response would still be ruthless. It is certainly an understandable response, and it may be the most pragmatic response possible, given that ISIS shows no interest in leaving the battlefield and is, in fact, extending the battlefield. Then again, maybe a ruthless response is not so pragmatic. I note that ISIS claims Friday’s attack was carried out in retaliation for the French bombing of ISIS in Syria, which immediately informs me that returning violence for violence really does multiply violence. And as much as that small part of me is OK with this multiplication because ISIS must be stopped, a much larger part of me actually says, ‘no more violence, find another way.’ Something must give. Some intervention in the cycle of violence must be brought forth. Of course these words sound naïve to that small part of me that wants a ruthless response, that small part of me that believes it is being pragmatic. But to that larger part of me that longs for a more measured, more peaceful, more hopeful response—to that larger part of me that longs for an expansive moral imagination that can see well beyond ruthlessness—it is naïve to think military solutions can remove the threat of terrorism. Violence has only increased the threat. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence. I understand the need for a ruthless response. And I hold out little hope for its long-term success. Somehow, the cycle of violence must be interrupted.

Embrace the Young Dispossessed

When Imam Kashif Abdul-Kareem of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford spoke from this pulpit a few years ago, he said in the talk-back after his sermon that he felt a significant percentage of Muslims globally are being mis-educated  about their faith. He didn’t speak too specifically about what this meant, but he did suggest that many young people were being educated to hate. I suspect the same is true in many countries, in many religions: people—especially young people—are being educated to hate.

I read to you earlier from Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel, the founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core. Patel talks about the faith line, meaning the line between religious totalitarians and religious pluralists, a line that cuts through virtually all major faith traditions. Writing in 2010, he says “we live in an era where the populations of the most religiously volatile area of the world are strikingly young. Seventy-five percent of India’s one billion plus are not yet twenty-five. Eight five percent of the people who live in the Palestinian territories are under age thirty-three. More than two-thirds of the people of Iran are under age thirty. The median age in Iraq is nineteen and a half. All of these people are standing on the faith line. Whose message are they hearing?”[4]

I have two responses to that question. First, while I do not know to what extent young people in these and other countries are hearing the message of the religious pluralists, I am confident the vast majority are not succumbing to the message of religious totalitarianism. Most people who live in these regions don’t become terrorists. Unfortunately, in the wake of terrorist attacks, some politicians, journalists, bloggers and other commentators, especially those with nationalist and racist leanings, become shrill and unskillful in their pronouncements about the perpetrators. One can get the impression, for example, that all Muslims are terrorists. We know this isn’t true. We know Islam as it is most widely practiced is a religion of peace. Our country has a legacy of White supremacist Christian terrorism, yet we know most Christians aren’t terrorists. We know Christianity as it is most widely practiced is a religion of peace.

Second, having said that, many young people across the globe, including in the United States, are becoming increasingly dispossessed. That is, due to poverty, war, modern forms of colonialism, racism and climate change, among many other ills, many people, especially young people, feel hopeless. They feel left out of whatever engines of prosperity exist in their nations, left out of the common good—the concept doesn’t apply to them. They feel abandoned, forgotten, unheard, landless, removed, imprisoned, walled off, barred out, humiliated, dehumanized. Dispossession is a physical, material condition—as in possessing no things, no money, no land—and a spiritual and psychological condition—as in possessing no hope, no sense of self, no sense of a future. The tip of the iceberg is the nearly 60 million people today living as refugees from war, economic collapse and environmental catastrophe. Hundreds of millions more are internally displaced and impoverished. And now we’re beginning to hear more and more about the phenomenon of stateless people. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates there are 10 million stateless people. Statelessness is hyper-dispossession.

I suspect there is a certain percentage of the dispossessed who are susceptible to the message of religious and other forms of totalitarianism. Just like there is a small subset of urban youth in the U.S. who find meaning and empowerment in gangs, there is a small subset of the dispossessed who find meaning and empowerment in totalitarian ideologies and organizations. After a period of involvement with these ideologies and organizations, after a period of mis-education, an even smaller sub-set becomes quite willing to lose their lives in acts of terror.

Yes, I want to discern some way to help ease suffering in Paris. And yes, I want to discern some way to help ease suffering in Beirut. I hope the way will become clear in the coming weeks. But it can’t stop there. There is suffering in Ankara, Jerusalem, Gaza, Nairobi, Chibok, Kandahar and Baghdad, not to mention Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, Cleveland, Hartford, and Manchester. Mindful that terrorism in all its forms impacts so many people across the planet, and mindful that terrorism is a symptom of complex social, political and economic realities, I also recognize that responding to suffering in the aftermath of terrorism will never be enough—and will not always even be feasible. I want to discern how I, how we as a faith community, and how we as a nation, address the root causes of terrorism, one of which is dispossession. I take Eboo Patel’s message to heart. Whatever we can do to advance the message, vision and structures of religious pluralism, here and across the globe, we must do. Much more than a ruthless response, we need to promote viable alternatives to religious totalitarianism. Much more than violence and militarism, we need organizing here and across the planet that replaces dispossession with opportunity, that replaces greed with generosity, scarcity with abundance and inequality with peace, liberty and justice.

Of course, these are easy words to say, hard work to do. If nothing else, remember the dispossessed are everywhere. If nothing else, find some way to work with young people, to support them, to give them some sense of possession—so that they possess themselves, their neighborhoods, their communities, and their future. Indeed, no terrorist ideology can claim the allegiance of people who possess themselves and their own future.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Adapted from Pawelek, Josh, “What Does the World Require of You?” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East on December 16, 2012. See: http://uuse.org/what-does-the-world-require-of-us/#.VkfXznarTrc.

[2] King,Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 62.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “If We Must Go to War,” In “Four Reflections on Atonement,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East on October 15, 2014. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/four-reflections-on-atonement/.

[4] Patel, Eboo, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim and the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010) p. xv.

Would You Be Free From Your Burden of Sin (There’s Power in the Blood)

Susan Campbell


Susan Campbell (credit, Chion Wolf / WNPR)

I will tell you, before I wind up, that I’m really not that much a public speaker. I’m telling you that so when I’m finished, you don’t have to turn to one another and say, “You know what? She’s not really much of a public speaker.” She knows that already, and she’s made peace with that, and she suggests you do the same. The most I can promise you is a speech mostly devoid of exegesis and/or hermeneutics. You’re welcome.

I am a product of the church – small c – of Christ, where every Sunday school lesson and every sermon I sat through was aimed at teaching me how to be a good wife – a worthy help-meet, a word I will hate until the day I go to my glory. At the Fourth and Forest church of Christ in Joplin, Mo., I had my whole life laid out for me. I would choose for my mate one of the young men in my youth group seated to my left or my right on the pew where I parked myself three times a week – more often, if they’d let me. We would get married in a simple service on a Friday night, go to Branson for our honeymoon, and be back to work by Monday. We would rather quickly be graced with babies, and we would raise up our children in the way they should go so that when they were old, they would not depart from us – that’s Proverbs 22:6 — and I would be accorded a Sunday school class to teach and to shepherd – but not one that included men, because that would be usurping authority over men, which we are forbidden to do in I Timothy 2:12. I would eventually be – through my own stewardship and exalted state of help-meeting — the wife of a deacon, and then my husband would be named an elder, and when it was time to go meet Jesus, I would be laying in my lily-white bed surrounded by my loved ones and I would have a little smile on my face, and someone would say, softly, “Oh, look, she’s talking to Jesus.”

But I would not be talking to Jesus. I would be smiling because finally and at last I could blow this clip joint and leave this circumscribed and ridiculously small existence to go and live with God, to sit right next to Her, right where she’s always intended, and not in a back pew, either. And God would be an African American lesbian with big meaty arms that swung when she threw them open to welcome me.

I hoped so much for that to be the case, knowing full well that a large portion of my friends and some of my family would take one look at such a god, and turn around and go on down to hell. For now, I was seeking to save my own soul in a branch of Christianity that keeps getting rediscovered like it’s something new, like it has something to offer. Historically, in times of strife, evangelical Christianity – and its hard kernel of a sub-group, fundamentalism – sees an influx of members anxious to escape the winds and the storm. Fundamentalism with its list of do’s and don’ts has long been the refuge of people who don’t want to think for themselves, who find modern life too confusing and complicated. I say that with as much love as I possibly can. It is infinitely easier to let someone else do your thinking for you, rather than discern your own righteous way. It was the ‘70s, the Me Decade, and all around me, my friends were succumbing to lust and drugs and such, and I was dating Jesus, where I was safe.

But I wasn’t happy. I read my Sunday school lessons and worked them ahead of time – not in the car on the way to church, as did my brothers. I memorized vast swatches of Scripture from the King James’ version – the way Jesus spoke. (And if you don’t get that joke, I feel a little sorry for you.) I carried my Bible like a sword (that’s Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.)

I believed, I believed, I believed, and part of that belief meant that I was responsible for my soul, and for yours, as well. And so every Saturday morning was devoted to knocking doors for Jesus, invading the lives of well-meaning residents of Joplin and Webb City, Mo., as I tried to share with them the gospel, the good news.

But I did not feel bloodlust when I knocked doors for Jesus. Instead, I felt sorry for the people on the other side of the door. I knew I had to save their souls – and that we were a peculiar people to be blessed to be in the one-true-church – but I still felt sorry for them because every Saturday morning, I would interrupt their routine by knocking on their door and saying not “Good morning,” but “Where do you want to spend eternity?”

If they’d had a lick of sense, they’d have answered, “Anywhere you’re not.” Mostly, they were polite, but if I’m perfectly honest, I can say that in all the years I knocked doors, I bagged only one soul, and he eventually left the church, so that’s a big zero for Susan’s Saved Souls column

I just didn’t have the heart for it. I watched too much television and from over-achieving young people’s conferences I kept getting sent to, I kept meeting people who didn’t look or smell like me having interesting, full lives outside the fort of the church. My best friend Alan was Roman Catholic and I didn’t have the heart to send him to hell. My beloved grandmother attended a Holiness church – more to keep my beloved grandfather from hounding her to do so – and I knew she was a good woman and if God was going to send someone like her to hell simply because she sat in a pew across town every Sunday, well, what kind of God was that?

I started to voice these concerns early on – tepidly, at first, because I knew the role of women in my church was not to speak out, but to provide support to their husbands. I argued about the lack of women preachers. I argued about the restrictions on divorce. I argued that we were the only people who would be admitted to heaven. That seemed entirely capricious and unfair. If my theology was exclusive, my DNA was that you reach out to help others. I was trained from the cradle to watch out for people who couldn’t watch out for themselves, by my war hero father. To think that by virtue of where I landed on a Sunday would mean the difference between eternal bliss and my flesh eternally melting from my bones in the fiery pit of hell made no sense. None. Neither did the notion that my flesh would melt and melt again from my bones in hell. How would that work? Science did not support it.

So I sat in Sunday schools with my hands balled into fists listening to my brothers in Christ tell me I was to hide my light under a bushel and be happy about it. Hiding a light under a bushel ran counter to what we’re taught in Matt. 5:15, and I got really, really good at lobbing three scriptures back for every one quoted to me.

Eventually, something had to give. I saw I was not going to change my church’s culture, but leaving took years. Church was a much a part of me as my green eyes, and when I finally made the break, my older brother, who’d started preaching at age 12, but also left the church, put it succinctly: Fundamentalism was like a sword that broke off in us. Your flesh grows around the sword’s hilt. You want to pull it out, but if you do, you think you’ll die. You learn to adapt. You learn to stop thinking of humanity as flawed, and sinful, and burdened – as went the old groaner of a hymn – by sin.  You come to realize that the notion of sin is a burden, that we’d all best focus on the notion of healing the world, not condemning the sinful – unless, of course, we’re willing to judge ourselves by the same measure that we judge others. You come to the idea that judging is completely beside the point. And it’s a waste of time.

It took a long time, but I finally settled on my own theology, from James 1:27, which I read earlier. It bears repeating: Paraphrased, it says: Pure and undefiled religion is this: Visit the widows and the sick, and keep yourself unspotted from the world. I suppose I am a red-letter Christian. I care about what Jesus said, not the Jesus I dated, but the historic Jesus who may have been no more than a really smart rabbi, and not the son of God. Whatever the man’s station, he made some incredibly prophetic statements about social justice. If you want to see a really good political platform, read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. I am not denying the divine. I am embracing it in you, the divine you that deserves my respect, and my help, if I can give it. The divine you that carries in you star dust from a time long forgotten, the divine you that reaches for grace that transcends false denominational boundaries that serve only to lash us to the earth. I embrace you because there is much work to do and if we waste our time arguing dogma, that work won’t get done. I embrace you in a wealthy state where we expect children to do homework while living in shelters, where we seem to have accepted that in capitalism, there are winners and there are losers, while we forget that those so-called losers are our brothers and sisters and cousins and friends and sometimes ourselves. I embrace you while we witness a bruising election season that finds itself in a hole and keeps on digging until there isn’t a serious conversation to be had. I embrace you, regardless of whether you embrace me back, because that – and that alone – is my theology, both the easiest and hardest thing ever.

Thank you.

Susan Campbell is the award-winning author of Dating Jesus (Beacon Press) and Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker (Wesleyan University Press). For more than a quarter-century, she was a columnist at the Hartford Courant, where her work was recognized by the National Women’s Political Caucus, New England Associated Press News Executives, the Society for Professional Journalists, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Sunday Magazine Editors Association. Her column about the shootings at lottery headquarters in March 1998 was part of The Courant’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage. She has appeared on CBS’ “Sunday Morning,” the BBC’s “World Have Your Say,” and various radio shows including WNPR. She also co-writes a religion blog, “Hot Dogma!”