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!”

Now Thank We All Our God

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Rev. Martin Rinkart

Rev. Martin Rinkart

“Now thank we all our God.”[1] Let me tell you the story of the Rev. Martin Rinkart who wrote the original German words to this hymn in 1636. I’m basing my telling of this story on a 2011 sermon[2] by the Rev. Ian Poulton, a priest in the Church of Ireland. I haven’t tried to verify the facts as Poulton presents them, but I do see that the same story is told in a variety of places. Even if the story has been exaggerated over time, even if what I share is only partially true, it still ought to make us pause and wonder what it means to have a grateful heart.

Martin Rinkart was born in 1586 in Leipzig, about 90 miles southwest of Berlin. At age 15 he began studying theology at the University of Leipzig. He became a Lutheran pastor in his early twenties. Poulton says he was regarded as a better musician than a pastor, but he persisted in the Lutheran ministry and held a variety of positions in the region early in his career. In 1617, at age 31, he became pastor at a church in the small city of Eilenburg to the northeast of Leipzig. If you know anything about this era in European history, you might know that 1618 saw the commencement of the Thirty Years’ War, a complicated and brutal war which ended in 1648. Rinkart died in 1649, having served for the duration of the war at the Eilenberg church. That is, he did ministry in a war zone for 31 years.

Here I am quoting Poulton directly: “The war was beyond the understanding of most ordinary people, all they knew was that army after army laid the countryside bare, having no regard for the welfare of civilian populations. Famine and disease became widespread; farms, livestock and crops had been destroyed and weak and hungry people had no resistance against illness. The war was to reduce the male population of Germany by almost half, in total almost a third of the people in the German states lost their lives, mostly through hunger and illness.

By 1636, Martin Rinkart was the only pastor left in Eilenburg. The walled city had become a place filled with refugees, who brought with them further infection to add to that already present, and who placed further strain upon the town’s desperately short food supplies.

The refugees brought plague with them and in 1637 8,000 people in the town were to die from it. The illness had no regard for wealth or age, the town councilors and many of the town’s children were among the victims…. In May 1837, he buried his own wife. He was to bury more than 4,000 people during the plague, which was followed by a severe famine that saw people fighting in the street over a dead crow or cat.”[3]

The most memorial services I’ve ever conducted in a year is eight—and that makes for an exhausting year. For a period from 1636 to 1637 Rinkart was apparently conducting an average of ten or eleven funerals daily. He was witnessing excruciating devastation, a total breakdown of the social order, not to mention the deaths of his wife, children, friends, colleagues, parishioners. I won’t call it unimaginable, because we can imagine it. We may not know about the Thirty Years’ War, but we have knowledge of other wars, of genocides, of the Holocaust, of slavery, of refugees streaming as I speak out of war zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan into Europe—many of them heading for the “promised land,” Germany. Even if we or our families have not been touched directly by these things, even if we cannot know what it feels like to live through them, we can imagine them. But what might be unimaginable, at least to some, is that in the midst of this devastation and horror, in the midst of relentless death, Martin Rinkart sat in his study, read his Bible, and wrote the words, “Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”[4] How was such gratitude possible given everything he was witnessing?

You might hear this story and get caught on questions about Rinkart’s theology. That’s always a risk with Unitarian Universalists. You might think or say, “Really? After all he went through, after what must have been terrible personal pain, he was thankful to God? Didn’t he understand God as all-powerful, wasn’t that his theology, in which case didn’t he hold God at least partially responsible for the devastation? Wasn’t he angry at God for allowing such suffering? Why didn’t he reject God, say ‘there is no God?’ Why didn’t his faith waver? Was he numb? Was he afraid?” If these are your questions, I urge you not to get caught on them. We don’t know what Rinkart’s spiritual struggle might have been, what his inner disappointment with and rage at God might have been. It doesn’t serve us well to get caught on his theology. I don’t believe in Rinkart’s God; I don’t expect you to either. But I want to share in his extraordinary gratitude. I want it in my life. I hope you do too.

It’s easy to feel grateful when our lives are going well. But can we still be thankful, can we still know and trust how truly blessed we are, when our lives are not going well, when things are falling apart, when the dream we had for our lives comes crashing down around us? Let’s get caught on that question. What does it mean to feel grateful even in the midst of despair?

One of the reasons I feel this is an important question for us is because there’s a connection between gratitude and one’s overall health and well-being. Spiritual teachers, theologians and philosophers have named this connection for millennia. So many prayers in so many religious traditions begin or end with the words, “thank you.” And, over the last fifteen years, psychological researchers have verified these connections through clinical studies. I’ll share one frequently-cited 2003 study conducted by psychologists, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough. I’m quoting here from a paper on gratitude and well-being in a Harvard Medical School publication. Emmons and McCullough asked study participants “to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.”[5]

There are many studies that show similar results. Some yield clearer results than others; some suggest not that gratitude is itself the key to well-being, but that people who report a consistent feeling of gratitude also exhibit a variety of behavior and personality traits that lead to greater well-being; and a few studies diverge and show little or no connection between gratitude and well-being.[6] The one result I have not found in my somewhat-more-than-cursory review of this science of thankfulness is a connection between gratitude and a decline in overall health and well-being. That is, no study has shown that gratitude is bad for you!

So, if gratitude is good for us, it makes sense that a practice of being grateful, of naming to oneself and others those things for which we are grateful, of cultivating a gracious spirit, of saying ‘thank you,’ will have a positive effect on our lives. And these might be the easiest of all spiritual practices. You don’t have to learn to quiet the mind in meditation. You don’t have to first puzzle through that pesky question of whether there is a God or not. You don’t have to be in a specific place at a specific time. You don’t need to pay a lot of money to study with a master. You just need a little time, perhaps daily, to name, either to yourself or others, those people and things for which you are grateful.

I confess I feel a bit redundant speaking to you about gratitude on Sunday morning. There are millions upon millions of articles, books, blogs, videos, TED Talks, inspirational speakers, Facebook posts, tweets and various memes about gratitude. This is not secret knowledge. This is not a mystery waiting to be revealed to the earnest seeker. Nancy Parker suggested I view a TED Talk by the Austrian-American, Buddhist-influenced Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast entitled, “Want to Be Happy? Be Grateful[7] I like his notion of what the practice of gratefulness might look like. He actually co-founded an online community called Gratefulness[8] which curates resources on living a grateful life. He counsels us to Stop, Look, Go” or “Stop, Listen, Go.” It’s very simple. Stop whatever you’re doing. Breathe. Come into the present moment. Then look or listen. What are you grateful for in this moment? He says, “Some of the most meaningful things to acknowledge are those we commonly take for granted. Examples include: our senses, a roof over one’s head, clouds, the ability to learn and grow, a pet, food, a friend.”[9] And then go, by which he means identify these things for which we are grateful not as ‘givens’ but as ‘gifts.’ And what do you say when you receive a gift? Thank you.

So many practices suggested out there in the blogosphere and on the self-help shelves are like this: simple, obvious and genuinely important to our health and well-being. But then I encounter a poem like W. S. Merwin’s “Thanks” which we heard earlier, and I perceive a deeper, less obvious, perhaps more urgent reason for gratitude. Recall Merwin’s words: “Back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging / after funerals we are saying thank you / after the news of the dead / whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you … / with the animals dying around us / our lost feelings we are saying thank you / with the forests falling faster than the minutes / of our lives we are saying thank you / with the words going out like cells of a brain / with the cities growing over us / we are saying thank you faster and faster / with nobody listening we are saying thank you / we are saying thank you and waving / dark though it is.”[10]

Merwin isn’t addressing the goal of health and well-being. His isn’t a survey of blessings at the Thanksgiving table. He’s speaking about resilience—how we stay strong in hard times, how we continue “dark though it is.” So much can happen that we don’t expect, can’t plan for. So much can throw us, knock us down, send us reeling, wake us up into sleepless nights and break our sense of connection to what matters. Our bodies betray us with illness and pain; we lose loved ones; sometimes we lose jobs, income, financial security; sometimes we struggle with addiction, mental illness, anxiety. Our culture feels angry and polarized, while poverty—both economic and spiritual—increases; while hunger—both economic and spiritual—increases, such that we stop trusting in abundance and assume scarcity. Wars break out; ideologues with weapons and no rules rampage across vulnerable lands; refugees stream across borders; desperate people stab strangers on the street and desperate police shoot back. The planet warms; the ice caps melt; species disappear; storms rage. Thank you? Thank you? When things break down, resilience is our capacity to repair whatever connections have been broken. Gratitude creates resilience.

Truly, in the end, we can take nothing for granted; because truly, in the end, nothing is simply a given; because truly, in the end, everything and everyone we care about, everything and everyone that matters to us, everything and everyone we love are gifts: gifts from God if you believe in that way; gifts from the universe; gifts from life’s enduring, animating spirit; or gifts out of sheer cosmic coincidence—but gifts nevertheless. Knowing this—believing this—can create resilience in us. Thank you. Thank you. Let us practice gratitude in good times, so that when hard times come, when challenges come, when illness and death come, when warming and war come, we may remain clear about the gifts we have received, about the blessings in our lives, and grow resilient in the midst of our despair. Whether he understood it in these terms or not, I have no doubt Martin Rinkart wrote “Now thank we all our God” at what was surely the lowest point of his life in order to stay resilient, and to encourage resilience in his community.

DSC_1921Friends, may we be relentlessly thankful for all the blessings of our lives, for all the gifts we receive, for the source of our lives, for the power that brought us and this world and this universe into being, for that fundamental creative energy at the heart of all there is, and for all the ways we are connected to each other, and to all life, and to each dry leaf decaying on the wet November ground, and to each blazing star gracing the heavens with its light. Thank you. Thank you. May we learn to pause and know that none of it is a given, and all of it is a gift. Thank you. Thank you. And may these simple, profound words speak in our hearts and on our tongues, again and again, even in our times of greatest despair: thank you, thank you.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Rinkart, Martin, “Now Thank We All Our God,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #32.

[2] Poulton, Ian, “An A-Z of Hymnwriters: Martin Rinkart,” For the Fainthearted, September 14, 2011. See: http://www.forthefainthearted.com/2011/09/14/an-a-z-of-hymnwriters-martin-rinkart/.

[3] For another version of the story, see Oron, Aryeh, “Martin Rinkart (Hymn-Writer), Bach Cantatas Website, July 2008. See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Lib/Rinckart.htm.

[4] Rinkart, Martin, “Now Thank We All Our God,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #32. Poulton says the Biblical inspiration for these words was Ecclesiasticus, Chapter 50, verse 22-24.

[5] “In Praise of Gratitude,” Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Health Publications: Harvard Medical School, November 1, 2011. See: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/in-praise-of-gratitude. Emmons’ and McCullough’s findings were originally published in Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M.E., “Counted Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003; 84: 377–389.

[6] Reviews of recent psychological studies on gratitude are at the following websites: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3010965/



[7] Steindl-Rast, David, “Want to be Happy? Be Grateful.” TED Talk, June, 2013. See: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_steindl_rast_want_to_be_happy_be_grateful?language=en

[8] Check out http://www.gratefulness.org/.

[9] Check out http://www.gratefulness.org/resource/basic-daily-gratefulness-practice/.

[10] Merwin, W. S., “Thanks, Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). See: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/thanks.

November 2015 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

In October I attended a workshop for Unitarian Universalism clergy entitled “Ministry in the Age of Disengagement” with Hartford Seminary sociologist of religion, Scott Thumma. Disengagement refers to the way Americans are disengaging from religious communities across denominations and faiths. I laughed because I had just preached in September on my intention to stop talking about the “end of church.” But there I was in the midst of a workshop, talking about all the data that suggests organized religion is declining in the United States.

Though Unitarian Universalism still seems to be doing marginally better than other liberal Protestant denominations, Professor Thumma’s data is challenging. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the ‘end of church.’ It means we have work to do. Here is an overview of Professor Thumma’s response to widespread religious disengagement:

First, we need to recognize that in our larger culture, the alternatives to religious engagement are compelling. But none of the alternatives offers the combined opportunities for spiritual growth, community connection, and a sustained focus on our highest values that religious communities offer. None. So, those of us who love our religious communities need to make the case to the wider culture that they matter. Some might call this evangelism. Some might call it marketing. I’m not sure I have a good word for it, but I know we need to ‘come out’ in a much bigger and intentional way as Unitarian Universalists. Are you ready?

Second, we need to name our niche. Professor Thumma says that unless you’re a mega church, you just don’t have the resources to be all things to all people. Congregations need to specialize in a few areas. Are we a church for families? A church for religious education? A church for social justice? A church for environmental stewardship? A church for music and arts? Congregations that spread themselves too thin lose their way too easily. So, let’s have a conversation about our niche. What are our unique ministries? Can we stay focused on those, and let go of others? Are you ready?

Finally, we need to innovate. Professor Thumma says, very bluntly, the people who aren’t coming to your church don’t want what you’re offering. That’s a hard truth. What he means is that people may actually want what we offer, but not how we offer it. So do it differently! Innovate. Experiment. Are you ready?

      These are all ideas we’ve considered during the past few years. If anything, Professor Thumma affirms what we already suspect, and he pushes us even harder than we’ve been pushing ourselves. This is, in fact, hard work. It’s difficult for congregations to do things differently. But I think we’re up to the task. Both our newly formed UUS:E growth team (headed by Jason Corsa and Peggy Gagne) and the Religious Education Transition Team (headed by Stan McMillen) are getting us in the habit of innovation. Watch for updates from them. Are you ready? 

With love,

Rev. Josh

Telling it With a Sigh . . . .

Chaplain Emma Peterson

Emma Peterson In my work as a hospital chaplain, I am seeking to hear the stories of the patients and families I encounter. “Tell me the story of your life,” I ask. And my asking often comes in the midst of remarkable upheaval, in the moments where life as they knew it is suddenly so very different from what they hoped for, expected. I arrive in the unsettling, the reconsidering, the knitting back together. I meet people in the minutes just after the breaking, and long before the healing really begins. “Tell me the story of your life,” I say and wait for what comes. At first, there is usually a look of surprise. Eyes widen a bit, and lips purse as if to catch any words that may pass without permission. But there is always an answer. It begins slowly, a drawling “well,” but there is almost always a response that the person I am listening to has considered before.

          Because that’s how humans are. We are constantly working to make sense of the pathways of our lives. We are seeking the aerial view of the map we always believed we were following. We are aching to see the whole picture, as if it would clarify where we came from and where we are going. My life began like this, we say, and then it looked like this, and then it looked a little different, and now I am here. Usually, the people I encounter attempt to conclude their narratives with an air of confidence- an assurance that they were always meant to wind up exactly where they are. Or, they make an attempt at explaining why their life doesn’t look the way they had always hoped. “I turned left here, when I should have turned right.” “I took this job, pursued this love, moved far away or found my way back home.” I did this, and this, and now I am here. See? It all makes sense, and I was at the helm the whole time, for good or for ill.
          Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is arguably the most iconic poem in America. David Orr’s recent examination of the work and its impact on Western popular culture ranks it as a poem cherished in both academic and informal circles. It has been utilized in thousands of advertisements, appropriated onto countless novels and literary collections. It can be quoted without reference to its original source and recognized immediately by almost any audience. Americans love this poem. It speaks to the way we value personal choice, independence, and control over the worlds we exist in. “And that has made all the difference,” we explain over and over- to ourselves, to each other. Its refrain reassures us in moments when we fear we are losing touch with our personal compass. “I took the one less traveled by,” we proclaim proudly as we attempt to explain the mess of pathways, the lack of straight lines, the utter disaster that was our journey from A to B. I got myself here on purpose, we say, trying to convince ourselves all the while.
          But Western popular culture is guilty of a massive mis-reading of Frost’s most loved poem. We have made famous our misconception, popularized it in such a way that Frost’s intent has become far removed from what we want his words to mean. And, as I think is typical of so many stubborn American assertions, we are oblivious to the fact that Frost is actually confessing a deep anxiety of the human spirit. That is, a recognition that our paths are unknown to us until we begin to travel them.”Though as for that, the passing there/had worn them really about the same.” It all looks the same until we turn left or right, until we discover what is coming up around the next bend. We do not create the paths that lay before us, nor do we always dictate which direction we are going in. Frost is shaking his head at our insistence on explaining away our lives, on claiming ownership and control. Frost is opening a vulnerable cavity of awareness, recognizing a lack of actual choice while admitting he will still try to explain it all as his own doing years in the future.
          Neither Frost nor myself are making a claim that we never actually make our own choices. Of course we do. But a self-centric world view, an insistence that we can always, no matter what, determine where we end up, is painfully flawed. Such a view ignores all of the other forces that exist around us all the time. These “forces” I am referring to are both concrete and obvious, our families, our jobs, our personal obligations and the day to day monotony of survival. But I think it’s much, much more vast than that- I want to push beyond the lens of human consciousness, towards a possibility that there may exist forces in this incredible, miracle universe in which we exist. That these forces may actually have a rhythm, an awareness, an intention to them. And that maybe, we, tiny specks that we are, might not be the ones in charge here. We certainly try to appear in charge. Building up our systems and our rules, stomping our feet and proclaiming skywards that we are running the show here! And the world spins endlessly on in response. And This world continues on, storming, growing, dying, erupting. The world and the universe that cradles it was here eons before we ever were, will be here long after, and I’m not really sure if the entire universe sees your personal life plan as congruent to the big picture. Maybe something bigger than you has a better plan for your life, and it intends to get you there- no matter how desperately you aim in the other direction. And so look out, theres a curve ahead, and you may want to ride it instead of fighting it.
          Here’s something about those curves we face. They come, with their swooping, break-neck speed, and they leave whatever came before them behind.  One path always leaves another untravelled. And the loss there is real, and significant in the narratives of our lives. If you are uncertain where the meaning lies, look for the loss. Seek out the grief, and work to understand how its presence has informed your identity. “Sorry I could not travel both/and be one traveller.” In the past decade, I have imagined countless possible lives I could lead. But there is always, really, only room for one. How many people could I have become by now, if only I could seek out all paths, or settle down once I felt I had found my way home. Life doesn’t work that way. And there our traveller stands, on the precipice of possibility, knowing that whatever way he goes, he will lose the other way entirely. He expresses a brief hope to return again and seek the other path. “Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/I doubted if I should ever come back.” In that there is grieved recognition of a life not lived, and another lived instead.
          Just like so many of the patients I encounter, I too have learned how to tell my story. My words are practiced to sound that while I accept a small degree of mystery, I more or less knew my direction from the start. But this is all just well rehearsed nonsense. I don’t know how I wound up where I am, and the only thing I can point to to explain it all is this feeling that has swelled from my heart from the moment I realized that I was not the center of the universe. (Imagine that!) This feeling can only be called faith, a certainty in some divine presence that I know exists, even if I can’t even begin to qualify it. This love, this deep love that feels truly knitted into my very person, has kept me moving ever forward, and it has doubled back to find me each time I declared I was going to ignore it because I had other things to do. If destiny is real, then destiny hurts. But I have come to realize that ignoring the persistent whisper in my heart, the whisper that demands I follow what I have come to understand as my personal call, hurts far more than answering it, loudly, and with praise.
          I was raised in the bosom of small-town Methodist community. The theology of the faith that raised me was conservative, straight forward and simple. Christ, born of Father God and Mary, came here to save humanity. We took communion with homemade bread and warm grape juice, laid the baby Jesus in our manger on Christmas Eve, and covered the cross during Holy Week. I grew up spending Sunday’s being embraced by the bony, warm dry hands of little old ladies. My pastors were men who commanded authority, and who didn’t appreciate the questions I asked as I got older.
          I think I was about ten when I began to feel the persistent tug of cognitive dissonance. One Sunday, our minister preached a sermon about his certainty that Jesus Christ was “the way, the truth, and the light.” Proclaiming Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior was the only path to salvation. At the time, I had a friend Ming June whose parents owned the Chinese take out place on Main Street. She lived in a huge victorian home with a bevy of Chinese men and women who were here to work in the restaurant. In their sparse living room was a massive Buddhist alter, a smiling statue of the one who is awake in the center. Sweet incense burned around the Buddha all day long, orange peels dried at his feet, and small scraps of paper bearing prayers rested in his palms. Ming’s family alter was a sacred space, I knew it to be true, and the thought of her burning in hell for following the wrong prophet both broke my heart and awoke in me an anger that eventually led me away from the Methodist church and Christianity entirely. This burgeoning anger, this swelling of dissent carried with it a strong undercurrent of grief and loss. I ached to hear true gospel. I was coming into myself, developing an in your face liberal and queered identity, and I all I wanted was for someone to tell me God made me as I was, loved me every day, and recognized me even when I couldn’t recognize myself.
          This period of angst lasted an entire decade. I learned to ignore God, in no small part because I already believed God was ignoring me. I felt safely removed from the longing simmering in my heart. But then when I was 21, on a trip to Texas I visited a psychic, a veritable prophet, sitting in her sweltering trailer in July. She was all of four foot five, skin like leather left in the sun, and a voice only achieved when someone is very, very dedicated to chain smoking. She held my hands in hers, and spoke to me with a measured urgency unlike anything I’d heard before. “Ask me a question, dear child,” she implored me, and I did. I asked her what I was going to be when I grew up. My anxiety surrounding the mystery of what was to come next was growing inside me, and I had come to her in hopes of direction. “I don’t know,” she relied, her voice scraping gravel. “But I can tell you this, you are going to work for God.” She shook me up, this tiny psychic angel, and then she sent me on my way. I pushed her out of my mind for seven months, until on one late January afternoon I sat down and resolved to apply to seminary. I wanted answers about God. I wanted to know why I couldn’t hear “blessed assurance” without dissolving into tears. I wanted to know why people in my life, those who knew me and knew me not at all were always telling me to become a pastor. I determined I would answer these questions by hitting the books, and one year later found myself at Yale.
I read the entire Bible, and only found more to reject. I wanted to return to Christ, and while I loved the puzzle of the trinity, I just couldn’t conceive of Jesus beyond a revolutionary and a prophet. This broke my heart, and I spiraled again into grief and loss.
          But then I met Elizabeth Price, a CPE supervisor delighted by my reluctance to name the divine presence I felt always. She accepted me into the ten week chaplaincy program, and it was there I discovered the holy ground I had so long been seeking. In the hospital, where the world comes when it is breaking, the divine was everywhere. I encountered God in each patient I met, mixed in with the starkest possible representations of the human experience. And this stumbling upon what what I believed to be God calling me to chaplain ministry meant I needed to get to work. Gradually, a combination of dear friends and small miracles led me to the Unitarian Universalist Association of New Haven. And there, on that first Sunday morning, was a proclamation of the gospel I had been longing to hear. There it was! It was justice, and mystery, and radical inclusion all at once. I was home, finally, finally. God had found a way and I was home.
          I am not going off the deep end here. Please do not misunderstand this sermon as a spin of the relentlessly damaging adage “everything happens for a reason.” I do not believe everything happens for a reason. But I do believe there is so much more to this world than we, tiny fallible humans can ever hope to understand. I want to believe God, spirit, heavenly creator, knows me intimately and has intentions for what I (and you, too) will do in this world. All I can say is this- I would not be a Unitarian Universalist, I would not be a hospital chaplain, I would not spend every day swelled to capacity for love of the divine if something, something unfathomable and way, way bigger than me didn’t exist.
          In the photo series “Humans of New York” there was a picture taken of a middle-aged woman leaning against an iron fence in some small city neighborhood. The corresponding quote read, “I have this theory. Are you ready for it? So we are on earth for a finite amount of time. And time is a manmade perception. And we perceive time passing through change- seasons, aging, things like that. So to expand our time on earth, we must incite as much change in our lives as possible.” What a remarkable way to cope with the unexpected. And she’s right, at least in terms of how I think of my own life. My strongest memories, my strongest sense of how I have become who I am becoming, are directly connected to transition, to new life, to moving past something and growing in to something new. And most of this change comes with a period of pain, of grief, of reluctance to move beyond the familiar and the comfortable. But after all of that, after I truly put to rest what is no longer mine, there is new and better life. There is a sense of “this is where I am supposed to be.” I never would have gotten anywhere near where I am now if I had been in charge.
          I am telling this with a sigh. But I am no longer making claim that my own choice about left here or right there made all the difference in this strange and incredible life I’m blessed to live. The narrative of my life contains so much more than my own choices. Perhaps I am “giving it up to God.” Perhaps I am choosing to waylay personal responsibility in favor of divine mystery, for the pull of the unexpected, for the chance to see what happens next if I listen for the thread woven so tightly throughout my heart. If it were truly up to me, I likely wouldn’t of sent off that application to seminary in the wee hours of some January morning. I wouldn’t have chosen to witness so much death, so much loss, so much remarkable grace. But here I am. Best to let that be what it is, best to become whatever I am supposed to become.
          And maybe there are signs, sometimes, showing up how we can live in this unbelievable world. In the late afternoon, I am walking the dog around a man made pond. The earth around me is heavily landscaped, displaying appealing beauty with its perfect angles and intentional curves and straight lines. The day is cool and clear, breezy. A monarch butterfly flits past me, filling up my vision with a flash of orange and black, beating wings. She appears so suddenly that I catch my breath, and pause to take note of her arrival. She is lovely, and so bright against the endless blue sky. She circles my body, once, twice, before allowing the wind to carry her on. The breeze is strong, but she rides it like a kite. Her weightlessness has become her strength, and she has surrendered herself to the journey ahead. She will withstand the wind, and it will become a part of her,  taking her where she needs to go.

April 2015 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

Our April ministry theme is transcendence. I’ve been thinking about what this word means to me. At its most basic it means “to surpass” or “go beyond.” In much of traditional Christian theology, God is said to transcend the world, meaning God is distant, other, unknowable, and inscrutable. Transcendent God is greater than finite reality. I’m reminded of the Biblical God’s challenge to Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”(Job 38:4). God’s point here is that God is the all-powerful creator of the universe, one whom mere humans should not question, one whose motives humans cannot fully understand, one whose power humans cannot counter, one whose will humans must obey.

Such a transcendent God has never appealed to me. I’ve always preferred to imagine God as immanent—not far away, but close by; not separate from the earth but infused into it; not cold and distant, but warm, nurturing and present; not a solo act but a partner, a co-creator, a team player. On Sunday, April 12th I will preach on the tension between transcendence and immanence—a good, old-fashioned sermon on theology!

Of course, transcendence can refer to aspects of our lives that aren’t immediately theological. I’m thinking about how we meet challenges and overcome obstacles, how we rise above difficult situations, how we move beyond our old selves in order to welcome new selves more suited to the conditions of our lives. In short, there are many moments in our lives when we are called to transcend. In such moments we often call in turn on our spiritual reserves to stay strong, to stay persistent, to stay courageous, faithful, hopeful, and loving. I plan to preach on his meaning of transcendence on April 26th. If you have transcended a difficult or challenging situation and would like to share your story, I may have a place for you in that service. Please contact me and let me know.


On another note, please mark your calendars: On April 26th at 4:00 PM, UUS:E will host the ordination service for Andrew Moeller. It is a special time in the life of any congregation when we get to confer upon a minister the title of “Reverend.” That’s what we’ll be doing, along with the congregation of the First Parish Church of Northborough, MA on April 26th. UUS:E holds a special place in Drew’s heart, and he holds a special place in ours. Please join us for this milestone event in Drew’s ministerial formation.Reverend Joshua Mason Pawelek, Parish Minister, Unitarian Universalist Society: East

With love,

Rev. Josh

Dreaming Ourselves in a Multigenerational Community

Mr. Barb Greve, MDiv, MCRE

Mr. Barb GreveWhen I was a child I walked among real-life superheroes and I bet you do too. But don’t look now – they’re probably wearing their church clothes. 

There was Playdough Pat, whose superhero powers included being able to make anything out of Playdough in a matter of moments. What was most impressive about Pat’s Playdough powers was that ze seemed to magically know just who in our class needed the most help and was always there to help; whether the help we needed was with our Playdough sculpture or something that was going on in our lives. With a handful of Playdough and a caring heart, Pat was there to help. 

There was Boiler Room Bob, whose fix-it powers never ceased to amaze us. With just a wrench, a screwdriver and a roll of duct tape, Bob could fix anything that needed fixing on a Sunday morning or any other time. Whether it was a broken window or a stopped toilet, a burnt out coffee maker or the sound system, Bob was there to make sure it got fixed. 

There was Octo the Organist, who could inspire all near him to join together to make beautiful music. Octo’s specialty was that it didn’t matter what our musical skills were or how we sounded solo. His power to bring us together extended to making our combined music sound wonderful.  

I’ll always remember Justice Janet, who had an eye on world events and could explain them in such a way as they made sense to everyone, regardless of our ages. Justice Janet tirelessly encouraged us to use our privilege and power to help make the world better. She organized the first town-wide recycling program, started a community garden, regularly ran voter registration drives and was on a first-name basis with all of her local, state and national politicians. 

Playdough Pat, Boiler Room Bob, Octo the Organist and Justice Janet, along with all of their superhero friends, created a community where each person was valued for who they were. They learned that by staying in community and sharing their powers, they could cover each other’s weaknesses and broaden their own strengths. Together they were a force for good in the world, offering love and caring wherever they traveled. 

I bet there are Superheroes sitting among us today. If you watch carefully you’re bound to figure out who they are. Perhaps you’re even one and you don’t yet realize it. 

One of the important messages that the Superheroes of my childhood taught me was that church is a place where we can be fully in one another’s lives. They taught me that, as the Reverend A. Powell Davies wrote, “Religion is not something separate and apart from ordinary life. It is life – life of every kind viewed from the standpoint of meaning and purpose: life lived in the fuller awareness of its human quality and spiritual significance.” 

My hope is that at its core, Religious Education teaches this message of the inextricable connection between religion and life. In the skit earlier, the Ghost of Future RE offered Josh a version of the future where that didn’t happen. What we saw instead was a collection of adults who are lonely, afraid and disengaged from the world. But that doesn’t have to be the future path for you. 

In a recent blog post retired UU minister, the Rev. Tom Schade offered this possible description of a Unitarian Universalist future congregation: 

“Our congregation is where you go if you want your children to grow up to be morally and ethically strong and clear AND open-minded and curious about the world of differences. We are really one big, all ages cooperative Sunday School. Our primary purpose is to help families form themselves around spiritually progressive values: multiculturalism, gender equality, healthy sexuality, right relationships, arts and sciences, etc. Every member, adult, youth and child, contributes to our educational activities. We offer that education/growth experience to every family in our community, regardless of their religious affiliation or none. Most weeks, we have family worship. Some weeks we have a group field trip. Some weeks we engage is a work/service project or an arts project with an artist. But everything is for families and children and the future. All ages and generations are welcome.”[1] 

This is the direction in which you are already moving. Time and again your Transitions Team has indicated a desire to move to a more multigenerational model. You’ve begun to do some things that will bridge the divide between the youngest and the oldest among you: from nametags for all to elders attending children’s chapel. These are great starts. 

Karen Bellavance-Grace offers a model of religious education called Full Week Faith: a mash-up of good old-fashioned family ministry, first century-style mission driven church, and a faithful leveraging of technology and social media to expand the reach and breadth of our ministries.[2] 

In this model the staff are asked to not spend all their time gearing towards Sunday morning and instead balance out their efforts to provide additional ways for families to engage in church life all week long. This might include daily Tweets or Facebook postings, online classes for all ages, and organizing groups to attend sports games, concerts, math Olympiads and such – all events where children from the church are participating. The idea being that members of this community are together attending events out in the community where each other are engaged. 

Karen’s colleague Tandi Rogers even goes as far as dreaming that there is a traveling UU cheerleading squad who shows up at sporting and academic competitions to cheer for all sides, using phrases that incorporate our principles and values. 

There are many other models of how to deliver Religious Education, some include holding multigenerational worship every Sunday followed by an hour of multigenerational learning. Others include no Sunday worship and instead the congregation goes out into the community to do the good works of the church, as described in Rev. Schade’s advertisement. Some models continue to have the ages segregated for worship, but invite additional adults to work with our youngsters by sharing their skills and passions for 3-week workshop sessions. 

UUS:E’s desire to be a more multigenerational community is a wonderful idea and is good for your future. But in order to do this, everyone has to be willing to change. Being a multigenerational community isn’t just about more elders teaching Sunday School. Being a multigenerational community means the whole community worshipping together more frequently; with all of us becoming comfortable with squirming, fidgeting and sounds –and I’m not just talking about those coming from the children! It means continuing to offer opportunities for engagement at all areas of church life for all ages. 

It means that when thinking about social action activities, the social action committee is thinking about ways to engage families with small children. It means that when thinking about building projects the buildings & grounds committee is thinking about who the teens might be engaged in helping (and not just for their strength). It means that when we’re writing newsletter columns and blurbs we are considering how it will read to a 5th grader and when we’re choosing music for worship we’re not just using children and youth to play the music but that we’re also choosing music that has meaning for them. Being a multigenerational community means creating and finding more classes that can work for all ages, such as a common book read and discussion group; using books that are accessible to youngsters and elders. Being a more multigenerational community means that we adults have to make more room for the children. And the reward is that by doing so, we’re inviting them to make more room for us. 

There’s a secret trick to all of this. And it is best told through perhaps my all time favorite religious education story, written by one of the grandmother’s of Unitarian Universalist religious education, Barbara Marshman, and titled The Toadstool and Spindly Plant: 

At the edge of the forest stood a large squat toadstool. Next to him grew a spindly plant about the same height with four leaves. 

One day the toadstool said to his companion, “Hey Skinny, I’ve been watching you. Tell me this – how come when somebody kicks a toadstool, we fall all to pieces. But when someone steps on you, you can straighten right up again as good as new?” 

The skinny plant thought for a while, and then answered, “I guess it’s because I have something down under the ground called roots. They go down deep and when I get stepped on I just hang on tight with my roots until I’m all right again.” 

“Hey, that’s a great idea,” said the toadstool. “How do you go about getting these roots?” 

“Wellllll,” said his friend slowly, “it takes a long time. I’ve been growing mine for almost a year.” 

“A year!” shouted the toadstool, “Who has got that kind of time! A whole year growing something that you can’t even see! Roots may be handy, but that’s the silliest waste of time I ever heard.” And he laughed and laughed. 

Finally, he said to his forest friend, “By the way Spindly, when you’ve got all your fancy roots grown, what do you expect to be?” 

The Spindly plant seemed to grow taller as he spoke. “Do you see that tallest oak tree standing against the winds on the top of that hill? That’s my mother and someday I’m going to be strong and tall just like her.” 

A deep religious faith is like the deep roots of the oak tree. It helps to give us strength to weather the storms of life. Being regularly engaged in multigenerational life here at UUS:E will help you grow deep roots in our faith, like the oak tree grew deep roots in the Earth. These roots will help you feel secure in your community and will ensure that you won’t be like the toadstools and fall apart at the slightest little kick. 

May we each, through multigenerational community, cultivate our roots in order to better bend and sway to the changing times. And you never know, you might wake up one day and realize that you’ve been sitting next to a superhero this whole time. 

May it be so and may we be the ones to make it so.


[1] Schade, Thomas. (2015, March 28), UU Growth: Alternative #3 to Community Building Strategy. [The Lively Tradition]. Retrieved from http://www.tomschade.com/2015/03/uu-growth-alternative-3-to-community.html?m=1

[2] Bellavance-Grace, Karen. (2013, October 3), Do Something. the full week faith.  [Full Week Faith]. Retreived from http://fullweekfaith.weebly.com/doing-something-the-full-week-faith.html

What Does the World Require of Us? (Revisited for Pawel Jura)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Pawel, August, 2014

Pawel, August, 2014

Our congregation is in mourning after learning of the death, this past Tuesday, of our beloved former Music Director, Pawel Jura. In speaking yesterday with the Rev. Jennifer Brooks, senior interim minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, VA, I learned that the Virginia Medical Examiner has confirmed that Pawel took his own life and that he died peacefully. As more information becomes available, including information about Pawel’s memorial services here and in Fairfax, I will share it with you as best I can. In the coming weeks and months both I and our Acting Director of Religious Education, Gina Campellone, remain available to you for care and consultation about this tragic loss.

My plan for this Sunday had been to preach a sermon called “On Being/Becoming Generous People.” I was going to talk about the progress we’ve made as a congregation to date in our year of transition in our religious education program, and about our progress in deepening our identity as a multigenerational congregation. I was going make the claim that truly multigenerational congregations are generous congregations, that that has been my experience this year: in deepening our multigenerational identity we are becoming more generous people—not just in terms of money, but in terms of our openness to trying new things, new ways of engaging in congregational life, and slowly creating opportunities to build new relationships across generational lines.

In one sense I am still preaching that sermon. Your generosity of heart and spirit in the aftermath of Pawel’s death has been remarkable, has certainly lifted my spirits during the past few days. However, I need to use different words than those I had planned to use, because everything feels different since we heard the news on Wednesday. Pawel’s death and our response to it need to be spoken from this pulpit this morning, because everything feels different and will for some time. Different, but not unfamiliar. At the reception following our vigil in honor of Pawel this past Thursday night, I suddenly recognized what I was feeling. That is, what I was feeling was familiar. I’d been there before. These feelings—most of them—are the same feelings I carried around for months following December 14th, 2012, the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, CT. I know these aren’t similar events—not even close. But so many of the feelings are the same: shock, pain, loss, confusion, an aching grief.

I read over the sermon I preached the Sunday after Sandy Hook and decided to adapt it to this moment. That sermon was called “What Does the World Require of Us?”—a title Pawel suggested. The purpose of that sermon was to help this congregation find emotional and spiritual paths forward in response to a national trauma that happened relatively close to home. The purpose of this sermon (which has the same title—thank you, again, Pawel) is to help this congregation find emotional and spiritual paths forward in response to a very personal trauma—the unexpected death of a loved-one—that happened relatively far away from home.

What was true in response to that infamous school shooting is just as true now in response to Pawel’s death: it is good to be together in our grief. Community is the foundation of our emotional and spiritual way forward. It is good to hug and hold each other. It is good to keep silence together when the words won’t come. It is good to weep together. It is good to pray together. It is good to sing together. Of course, we know this. We know it’s a precious thing to find life-giving community in a world that seems to do everything it can to drive people apart—to alienate, to fragment, to disconnect, to separate. But let’s not risk taking such a precious thing for granted, especially not now. At Thursday’s vigil I mentioned that Pawel had been speaking recently about the quality and specialness of our community here at UUS:E, saying that he missed us. He used the word “homesick” to describe how he was feeling. I said, for his sake and for our sake, “let’s be that community now.” Let’s be that compassionate community, that welcoming community, that loving, serving, justice-seeking, multigenerational, generous community that Pawel loved. In the wake of this unfathomable loss, let us pause, let us breathe, let us be at home in each other’s presence, and let us recognize anew how truly precious it is to be together. Yes, let’s be that community.

What does the world require of us in response to a death such as this? This question seems essential to me if we are to find emotional and spiritual paths forward. In the aftermath of tragedy, what does the world require of us? That’s the question I want to ponder now. And it’s the question I want you to take with you into this week, into these final weeks of winter, into spring. What does the world require of us?

There’s a part of me that answers this question with despair and helplessness, with the exhaustion of the week: “I don’t know what to do.” There’s a part of me that answers this question with anger, especially when the children who knew and loved Pawel are standing before me with tears streaming down their faces, children who may be encountering their first death and it’s not a grandparent, it’s a thirty-six year old man who they thought would be a friend and mentor for life: “I don’t know what to do.” And there’s a part of me that answers this question with confusion and incomprehension. How on earth could this happen? What can we possibly say? What can we possibly do that will make a difference? What does the world require of us? Who in the world knows? That’s my despairing, helpless, exhausted, angry, confused answer to the question, “What does the world require of us?” And let me be crystal clear: we all get to have our version of that answer. We all get to cry such tears. We all get to throw up our hands and say I can’t bear this! We all get to plead with the heavens: How could this happen? We get to have that response because it is real—an honest, human response to such an unexpected and tragic loss. 

But we don’t get to have it forever. I take very seriously the words we heard earlier from the Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox about love in the aftermath of loss. She says, “Oh, my dear, do not despair that love has come and gone. Although we are broken, the love that spilled out of us has joined the love that circles the world and makes it blessed.”[1] I believe it. Did we love someone who has died? Then let us not waste that love. Let us, in Rev. Tarbox’ words, not let it “sink like silt to dry out in the sun.” As painful as it is, let us let it spill out into the world, offering blessing after blessing after blessing. That is what the world requires of us in response to unexpected and tragic loss: that we let our love spill out to bless the world.

I identify three stages to meeting this requirement which I’ll share with you now. First, in the wake of the death of a loved one as dear as Pawel, find your grounding. 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, rest, be still, be quiet, be calm. Breathe in, and as you breathe, reflect, concentrate, contemplate, focus, pray. Then, still breathing, when you feel ready, start to move. Slowy at first. Gently at first: bend, bow, stretch, lengthen, extend, reach. Keep breathing. And then, when you feel ready: walk, roll, run, dance. Then, still breathing, as you feel ready, begin to create. Creative acts are so essential to moving out of despair and finding our ground. Write, compose, sing, speak, play, act, sculpt, craft, paint, draw. Feel yourself slowly coming back to yourself.

If you can, go outside. I know it’s challenging with three feet of snow on the ground and yet another winter storm on the way. But if you can, touch the ground, the soil, the earth—the beautiful, dark brown earth. Or the snow, the ice. Work in it. Play in it. Remember spring is coming. Think about how you will tend the dark, brown earth after the thaw, how you will till it, turn it, plant seeds in it,  nurture what comes forth. Think about how you will let the dirt get on your hands, under your fingernails, between your toes. Do all of this for grounding. And as you ground yourself, feel yourself coming back to life. Listen for the still small voice. Hear your own truths, your convictions emerging once again. They are there. They’ve never actually left.

The mystic Howard Thurman wrote, “How good it is to center down!”—he’s talking about becoming grounded—“to sit quietly and see oneself pass by! / The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic; / Our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silences, / While something deep within hungers for the still moment and the resting lull. / With full intensity we seek, ere the quiet passes, a fresh sense of order in our living; / A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring  meaning in our chaos.”[2]  Maybe you can find your grounding quickly. Maybe you’re tying and you can’t quite get there yet. Maybe you need more time. It’s ok. Grief does not leave us quickly. Sometimes it never leaves. Take your time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. But have hope: your center is there—it’s real. You’ll find it. The world requires this of us. In the wake of tragic loss, after your time of despair, seek grounding.

Then, second, in the wake of tragic loss, with your despair now trailing behind you, from a place of groundedness emerging within you, attend—however you can—to the grief of those around you. It may not be immediately clear how to do this. So often, we don’t know what we need in the midst of grief. But know that this suffering, this pain, this trauma will ripple around and around through our lives, through our congregation, through the Kensington United Church of Christ where Pawel worked prior to coming to us, through the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, VA where Pawel worked after leaving us. It will ripple through Unitarian Universalism. It will ripple through Manchester and Hartford, through Berlin and South Windsor. It will ripple and ripple and ripple. It will touch people who never knew Pawel. Death does that. If and when you encounter a ripple of grief, attend to it. That is, stay present to it. We attend to grief with our presence. Offer a helping hand, a kind word, a hug, a supportive conversation. If and when you encounter a ripple of grief, don’t look away. Don’t turn away. And if you can’t make eye contact, hold onto the person. Don’t let them go. Take time. Make yourself available. Stay present.

The spiritual writer, Rachel Naomi Remen, says “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[3] The world requires this of us. In fact, our attention to others’ grief is the first way our love spills out in the aftermath of loss. It is the first way we bless the world. In the wake of tragic loss, with your despair finally fading behind you, from a place of groundedness within you, attend however you can to the grief around you.

Third, let your love bless the world. In the wake of tragic loss, having moved beyond despair, having grounded yourself, and while attending to grief as it ripples around you, then comes the time for repair, for healing, for returning to our living, and for extending the blessing. Certainly it is too soon to know what the work of blessing the world will look like in response to Pawel’s death, though I’m confident it will include music—piano concertos and choral anthems, modal chord progressions and haunting melodies, rounds and canons, bell choirs and rock bands, church music and cabarets—and that’s only the beginning. But for now, please know, please trust, please believe that the love spilling out of you even in this moment is not wasted. The love spilling out of you even as we worship has power. The love spilling out of you even in this sacred space can bring more beauty, more passion, more compassion, more comfort, more help, more solace, more peace into the world. The love spilling out of you will bless the world in ways you will know, and in ways you will never know. Indeed the love spilling out of you is even now joining “the love that circles the world and makes it blessed.”

Friends, the truth is we are connected—to each other, to all people, to all life. Our connections make it possible for us to love. And because we love, the world requires certain things of us. In the wake of tragic loss, in the wake of the unexpected death of a loved-one, in the midst of despair, first seek grounding. Then attend to grief—yours, and the grief of those around you. Then work to bless the world. Why try to meet these requirements? Because the world needs blessing. As we remember and mourn Pawel, as we slowly begin to celebrate his life, may we respond with acts of love that bless the world.

Amen. Blessed be.

[1] Tarbox, Rev. Elizabeth, “Legacy,” Evening Tide (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998) p. 56.

[2] Thurman, Howard, “How Good to Center Down!” in Fluker, Walter and Timber, Catherine, A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) pp. 305-306.

[3] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Bearing Witness,” My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000) p. 105.

Mental Health Ministry: Color Your Holiday!

12-6 MHMFall, 2014 Mental Health Ministry Summit

How Are You Going to Color Your Holidays?

Saturday, December 6th, 9:00 am to Noon at UUS:E

Join us for food, art, conversation, planning and support! All are welcome. The UUS:E Mental Health Ministry Summit is designed for everyone, though it focuses on people who live with a mental illness; people who have lived with a mental illness and are now in recovery; people who live with or care for a family member or friend who has a mental illness; and people who provide caring, support and other services to people with mental illness. This will be a great event to help kick off the holiday season! Questions? Contact Rev. Josh Pawelek at (860) 652-8961 or revpawelek@sbcglobal.net.

2014 Transgender Day of Remembrance

11-20 TDOR


The 16th Annual (Hartford Area) Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place at 7:00pm, Thursday November 20, 2014 at the Metropolitan Community Church of Hartford, 155 Wyllys Street, Hartford CT 06106 (Parish House, Church of the Good Shepherd, entrance in the back)

Office: (860)724-4605 Pastor: (860)990-1225


 Guest speakers

Candlelight vigil



This is a day we reserve each year to memorialize those whose lives were lost due to anti-transgender fear, bigotry and hatred.  Around the world, communities have planned vigils to come together in community to remember those who have died in the past year.  As we gather this year, we remember, we honor, and we commit to action that will prevent more lives being senselessly lost.  Join us for a night of community, compassion, and hope.


This event is FREE.