For What the Soul Hungers

Rev. Josh Pawelek

 

"Reconciliation" by Josefina de Vasconcellos

“Reconciliation” by Josefina de Vasconcellos

“Break not the circle of enabling love, where people grow forgiven and forgiving; break not the circle, make it wider still, till it includes, embraces all the living.”[1] I want us to encounter these words this morning as a call to the work of reconciliation. And as we do so I want to draw a distinction between the ideal and the practical. To make the circle wider still, to embrace “all the living”—this is an ideal, a vision of a completely reconciled global community. Though I’m tempted, I won’t set it aside as unrealistic because I’m convinced there is something in our human nature that drives us toward this vision. The hymn is not just fanciful or spiritually pleasing rhetoric; there’s something real driving us and we are called to respond. On the other hand, from a practical standpoint, it’s unrealistic. Our circles will more than likely never embrace all the living; more than likely they’ll remain relatively small. This, too, is real. My message then, is that the work of reconciliation is what matters. We may never achieve the vision of a truly unbroken circle, of a reconciled global community, but we can choose to heed the call and engage in the work of reconciliation wherever and however it presents itself to us. This is one measure of a well-lived spiritual life: we engage in the work of reconciliation wherever and however it presents itself to us.

This past week two stories of people working toward reconciliation drew my attention. First (thanks to former UUS:E member Alison Cohen for pointing it out) on Monday the Bahá’í World New Service published an article about a senior Iranian Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, who created an illuminated work of calligraphy of a paragraph from the writings of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-founder of the Bahá’í faith. Tehrani offered this work of art as a gift to the Bahá’ís of the world and, in particular, the Bahá’ís of Iran. The Bahá’í World New Service called it an “unprecedented symbolic act.” As some of you may know, and as the article points out, “since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, hundreds of Bahá’í have been killed and thousands have been imprisoned. There are currently 115 Bahá’í being held in prison solely on the basis of their religious beliefs. Bahá’í in Iran are denied access to higher education, obstructed from earning a livelihood, prevented from burying their dead in accordance with their own burial rites and subjected to the demolition, desecration and expropriation of their cemeteries, all because of their religion.”[2]

Ayatollah Tehrani's illuminated calligraphy

Ayatollah Tehrani’s illuminated calligraphy

On his own website, Ayatollah Tehrani wrote: “Feeling the need for [a] practical and symbolic action to serve as a reminder of the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful coexistence, of cooperation and mutual support, and of avoidance of hatred, enmity and blind religious prejudice, I have made an illuminated calligraphy of a verse from the Kitáb-i-Aqdas of the Bahá’ís. I have made this as an enduring symbol of respect for the innate dignity of human beings, for … peaceful coexistence regardless of religious affiliation, denomination or belief. And now at the start of this new year … I present this precious symbol … to all the Bahá’ís of the world, particularly to the Bahá’ís of Iran who have suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice.”[3] I could find very little information on Ayatollah Tehrani other than commentators around the world calling him courageous.[4] What I think I see is a religious leader, a person of faith, who looked for the “circle of enabling love,” found it broken, and did what is within his power to mend it, to work toward reconciliation.

The second story (thanks to UUS:E member Nancy Thompson for pointing it out) appeared in the April 6th New York Times Magazine: a series of portraits the photographer Pieter Hugo took last month in southern Rwanda of Hutu perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide and Tutsi survivors who had reconciled with each other.[5] (Monday marked the 20 year anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide.) With the portraits are quotes from the subjects. In one, the perpetrator says, “I burned her house. I attacked her in order to kill her and her children, but God protected them, and they escaped. When I was released from jail, if I saw her, I would run and hide. Then … I decided to ask her for forgiveness. To have good relationships with the person to whom you did evil deeds – we thank God.”

Pieter Hugo’s portrait of Godefroid Mudaheranwa (left) & Evasta Mukanyandwi (right)

Pieter Hugo’s portrait of Godefroid Mudaheranwa (left) & Evasta Mukanyandwi (right)

The survivor says, “I used to hate him. When he came to my house and knelt down before me and asked for forgiveness, I was moved by his sincerity. Now, if I cry for help, he comes to rescue me. When I face any issue, I call him.” From what I know of Rwanda today, the circle is still broken; there is still a long way to go towards reconciliation, though processes are in place so that the work of reconciliation is sustainable. The stories in this article are wonderful examples of people choosing to engage in that work when the opportunity presents itself.

I said there is something in our human nature that drives us toward reconciliation. I find some glimmer of that something in the 1994 book, Music of the Mind, by the late microbiologist and New Zealander, Darryl Reanney. He writes: “In satisfying the body’s hunger you return the balance to what is was; in satisfying the soul’s hunger, you return the balance to what it shall be.”[6] Reanney wasn’t writing about reconciliation per se; I’m not even sure the word appears in the book. But this notion of “satisfying the soul’s hunger” shakes something up in me, wakes me up, challenges me to contemplate where my life is heading—not as in where I want to be in the next five years, but in a more ultimate sense: what am I reaching for with my life? The answer that comes back to me—the answer I think all religions offer in some way—is reconciliation.

What gets shaken up in me is whatever level of complacency or overriding sense of security has crept into my life; whatever unexamined habits or routines have taken hold of my living; whatever patterns or ruts in which I have become stuck. Of course the feeling of being shaken up in the midst of complacency, false security, habits, routines and ruts is not always a good one. Afterall, these things do play an important role in our lives. They allow continuity from day to day. They breed familiarity and comfort, provide a sense of order and stability. They are often tied into satisfying our bodily hungers—returning to whatever balance our bodies seek. But there’s an intense spiritual tension here. Complacency, security, habits, routines, patterns, ruts also tend to blunt, gloss over, hide—at times obliterate—our awareness of the soul’s hunger. I’ll say more about what I understand the soul to be, but let me first make this claim: at its deepest, the soul hungers for reconciliation, for the circle unbroken. When I am shaken out of my complacency, or reminded of the truth that there is no completely reliable security in life, or led to question my habits and routines, or challenged to break out of my ruts—however that happens—in those moments, if I allow myself to be open to what shakes me, I recognize a soul hunger for reconciliation. I recognize there’s a part of me—and I suspect there’s a part of you—that feels profoundly unreconciled: somehow ill-at-ease in the world, perhaps anxious, separate, alienated, at a distance, not quite in right relationship, not quite at home, still searching, hungry. When we fall into complacency, security, habits, routines and ruts we tend to feel it less or not at all. But when we’re shaken up, there it is: unreconciled.

“City Square” by Alberto Giacometti

“City Square” by Alberto Giacometti

This claim may or may not resonate with you. I know some of you feel unreconciled because you’ve told me. For others what I’m describing may feel unfamiliar. Either way, think with me for a moment about why religion exists at all. I’m convinced human beings have created religions in order to respond to this innate soul hunger for reconciliation. Boston University professor of religion, Stephen Prothero, says “where [all religions] begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi tells us that life is out of balance…. Hindus say we are living in the kali yuga, the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden; Zion, heaven, and paradise lie out ahead.”[7] Religion hones in on human dis-ease, anxiety, fear, alienation, suffering and offers a pathway out, an answer: salvation, heaven, Zion, paradise, the promised land, nirvana, moksha, last day resurrection, a just society, the beloved community, the kingdom of God. I contend all of this is a response to the soul’s hunger for reconciliation. Why do religious claims and stories that to many of us seem completely unbelievable, completely at odds with the teachings of science, completely out of touch with what we think reality is, nevertheless have such a powerful hold on the human imagination and such incredible endurance over thousands of years? Because they satisfy the soul’s hunger for reconciliation.

Let’s not get hung up on the word soul. I don’t believe in an entity that resides within us, enables us to reason, drives our will, animates our personality, and lives on after our physical bodies die. I don’t believe in that popular conception of Heaven where our soul encounters St. Peter at the pearly gates. But I do think it’s significant that for thousands of years, theologians and philosophers across a wide range of religions and cultures, east and west, have dedicated enormous energy to explaining why so many human beings report a hopeful desire to be ultimately reconciled with divinity, with the Gods, with Ultimate Reality, to reach a final union, Heaven, Paradise, etc. Their explanation frequently includes some concept of the soul—the spiritual part of human beings—different from the body—that is part of divinity and yearns to overcome the bodily hungers in order to be reconciled once again with divinity. In so many religions, the soul is the bridge between humanity and the divine.

“Solitude of the Soul” by Lorardo Taft

“Solitude of the Soul” by Lorardo Taft

For me soul is a metaphor, a beautiful, soothing poetic word—far less sublime than so many traditions would have it, but important nevertheless. Imagine we’re having a conversation and you’re telling me about something for which you have great passion, something that makes you come alive, something so important to you that you can’t let it go; you’re going to pursue it, you’re going to wrap your life around it. When I see your eyes light up at the prospect of your life so dedicated; when I hear the enthusiasm and the strength in your voice when you speak about it; when I perceive it living very naturally in your body; when I sense the energy you gain from contemplating what your life could be—that glow, that excitement, that conviction, that power—that’s your soul. It’s not a thing. It’s a quality in us. It shines through when we’re being authentic, telling the truth, pursuing our passions. It’s never complacent or static. It never succumbs to a false sense of security. It chafes at the tyranny of our routines, habits and ruts. It is restless. And if we open ourselves to it, it will push, prod, call us further along, higher up, deeper into…. into what? Into fulfillment, satisfaction, wholeness; into our own promised land or beloved community. It drives us to feel at home in the universe, to seek balance, to break not the circle. The soul is our desire to experience oneness, to be reconciled—to each other, to humanity, to all life, to the earth, to the universe, to the cosmos, to all we hold sacred.

I imagine the soul—this desire—has two sources. One is our common experience of our time in our mother’s womb—a time of nurturing darkness and warmth before birth, a time of floating, of being held completely by another, a time of oneness, of no boundary between self and mother. In contemplating this time I wonder: as we are born, as we exit the warmth and safety of the womb, as we wake up from the bliss of unknowing, as we take our first breath, utter our first cry, see our first light; is it not possible that somewhere deep inside, beyond the borders of consciousness, we resolve in that moment to return to that original unity, that darkness, that warmth, that unknowing? And if so, might we not experience this longing through the course of our lives as a soul hunger for reconciliation?

Bronze Sculpture of a Baby Face by Mariola Pierz

Bronze Sculpture of a Baby Face by Mariola Pierz

The second source is like the first, only on a cosmic scale. From what I know of the still-emerging story modern physics tells us of the birth of the universe—the story of the big bang—everything that exists today was, at a moment approximately 14 billion years ago, gathered into one tiny point, a cosmic unity, a circle unbroken; held in infinite, pregnant darkness. It exploded; and, as recent discoveries appear to confirm,[8] it expanded exponentially in just a tiny fraction of the first second—matter and energy pushed out in all directions with astounding, violent force. If we are descendants of that same matter forced out in that original explosion; is it not possible that somewhere deep inside, somewhere beyond the borders of consciousness, something in us longs to return to that original unity, to come home from our exile at the edges of the universe? And if so, might we not experience this longing as a soul hunger for reconciliation imprinted in our tiniest particles at the dawn of time?

“B of the Bang” by Thomas Heatherwick

“B of the Bang” by Thomas Heatherwick

I think this soul hunger for reconciliation is real. And while we don’t always feel it, there come those times when we are shaken up, awakened, called. In those moments perhaps we produce a work of art to mend a broken society; perhaps we forgive one who has wronged us; perhaps we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, free the prisoner, welcome the stranger. Perhaps we work for a more just society. Perhaps we sing. Perhaps we dance. Perhaps we build the beloved community. However and whenever the possibility for reconciliation presents itself to us, may we hear that ancient call. May we do what we can to make the circle whole.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Kaan, Fred, “Break Not the Circle,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #323.

[2] “In an unprecedented symbolic act senior cleric calls for religious co-existence in Iran,” Bahá’í World New Service, April 7, 2014. See: http://news.bahai.org/story/987. For current reports on the oppression of Bahá’ís in Iran, see Iran Press Watch at http://iranpresswatch.org/post/9273/comment-page-1/.

[3] The entire text of Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani’s explanation of his action is at: http://news.bahai.org/sites/news.bahai.org/files/documentlibrary/987_website-statement-translation-en.pdf.

[5] Hugo, Pieter, photographs, Dominus, Susan, text, “My Conscience Was Not Quiet,” New York Times Magazine, April 6, 2014, pp. 36-41. Or see “Portraits of Reconciliation” at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.z_sma=MG_POR_20140404&bicmp=AD&bicmlukp=WT.mc_id&bicmst=1388552400000&bicmet=1420088400000&_r=3.

[6] Reanney, Darryl, Music of the Mind: An Adventure Into Consciousness (London: Souvenir Press, 1995) p. 22.

[7] Prothero, Stephen, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World (New York: HarperOne, 2010) p. 11.

[8] For a review of the recent discovery of evidence supporting the theory of “cosmic inflation,” see http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/march/physics-cosmic-inflation-031714.html.

Before the Song at the Sea

Matt Meyer

 

Matt Meyer

Matt Meyer

The song at the sea must have been an incredible party.  The Israelites have made it to safety.  The Red Sea has swallowed up their enemies, and their powerful god has liberated them from generations of slavery.   

And you have to imagine that the actual walking through the Red Sea, when the waters had parted, leaving them this magnificent passageway to freedom. Well that must have been pretty incredible too.  

If you’re like me, you have a pretty clear mental image of the event, as Charlton Heston raises his staff and a mighty wind comes and parts the waters.  But there is another story of the way that it happened that has come down to us through the Jewish tradition.  

The story says, that when Moses and his people were trapped between the Egyptian Army and the sea, the people had begun yelling at Moses, asking why he had led them out of the safety of Egypt.  He asked God “what now?”  God rebuked Moses and told him to tell his people to just keep on walking and stop doubting. 

So a man named Nachson, a leader of his tribe, begins to wade on into the water.   He steps in, expecting the waters to part, but they don’t.  So we walks in up to his waist, expecting them to part, but they don’t.  When the water is up to his neck, he expects it to part, and it does not.  It is only when the sea is up to his nostrils, we are told that God opens up the path before him.  

God wanted to free the Israelites, but first they had to do their part.  Liberation didn’t come because they sat back in comfort and asked nicely. If you have ever worked to get our government, or any major institution or corporation, for that matter to change its way, the story of Nachson may feel familiar to you.  He was in almost over his head, before the way started to clear. 

-wade in the water-

 Why would he do such a thing?  What gives a person such solid faith in the path before them? 

Sometimes I hear stories about people I admire, and I try to ask myself, who am I in this story?  To be honest, I’m probably not Nachson.  I’m probably not pharaoh, or Moses either.  I’d like to think, of the bystanders watching Nachson walk into the sea, I would have at least been one of the supportive ones.  “Keep up the good work Nachson, I’ll be right behind you as soon as the path is dry!”

Shane Clairborn, a radical Christian activist, worked to set up an intentional community where people can not only believe in Jesus, but follow the example of Jesus’ life, by holding property in common and loving their neighbors in action as well as words.   To hear him tell his story though, of fundraising and conflict and getting his jaw broken in a rough neighborhood, he often seems to be in a little over his head.  But, Shane says, “Some of us have just caught a glimpse of the promised land, and it is so dazzling that our eyes are forever fixed on it, never to look back at the ways of that old empire again.” 

I imagine that Nachson, had seen somewhere in his heart, a dazzling glimpse of the promised land.   He saw clearly where he and his people were at, with a powerful and angry army coming up behind them, and he saw where they were headed  – through troubled water, and onto freedom.  The path from here to there was clear, and no sea was going to stop him from walking it. 

-wade in the water- 

One of the first real discussions I ever participated in on the subject of racism was a white-identity group at UUA General Assembly many years ago. 

We were in an oversized room in a convention center, a dozen white college and high school students sitting in a circle.  Someone said these words that hit me.  The said, “Racism is the name a system that pushes down one group, People of Color.  But the other half of the system is a process of lifting up another group, white people.  

I have gone on to learn more since then, about what that lifting up and putting down looks like in real life, but that first sentence, that definition, articulated, what had been for me, the missing half of the story on race.  

This other half of the story included me – included my place in things. I started to look back on my life at these invisible forces that, like gravity, shaped the world around me and pushed me, so silently, in a certain direction:          

-that time the police let me go with a warning,

 -the first good paying job I got through a family friend,

-everyone who said I looked like a “natural’ leader,

-the private school I went to,

-the other time the police let me go with a warning,

-the honors classes I took, strangers who naturally trusted me,

-my own trust in the government to be on my side,

-and last but not least, the other time that the police let me go with a warning. 

Coming to look honestly at my place in this old empire of ours has felt at times like being in over my head.  How uncomfortable to realize that despite my best intentions, I am sometimes in the position of the Israelites fleeing the Egyptians and that I am at the same time also the Egyptians.  

Most of the Egyptians weren’t bad people, you know, they were part of an unjust system, where exploitation of the most vulnerable was just built into the their economy.  

The sneaky thing about white privilege is that I did not ask for it.  

It’s like finding some extra money in my pants pocket after doing the laundry.  

All along the way, my employers, and the police, and locally funded schools, and standardized tests, and family connections, and the housing market, have all been slipping money and other privileges into my back pocket, and I never even needed to pay attention to it.  In fact, I was encouraged not to. 

But walking intentionally into uncomfortable conversations about race, going into the discomfort, sometimes up to my neck has given me, if not a glimpse of the promised land, at least a vision of the way toward it. 

Once the Israelites were out in the desert, and the way forward looked difficult, some among them we are told, asked Moses to take them back to the more comfortable land of Egypt and back to slavery, rather than trust that they could cross the sea.  I can understand that. 

What’s a white person to do when we inherit money accumulated by our parents or grandparents in a time when their careers and even their neighborhoods were closed to people of color.  

What’s a man to do when corporations slip an extra 30% in income into our back pockets, just for being male bodied.  

What’s a heterosexual to do when federal marriage law slips some extra money in our back pockets for loving someone of a different gender.  

Looking around to the systems of inequity in this old empire that surrounds us, is uncomfortable. Finding all those dollar bills and benefits in my back pocket, feels a little like being trapped in Egypt as an Egyptian.  Living in comfort made affordable by the cheap labor of exploited people.  The Israelites had a plan for liberation, but what of the middle class Egyptians.  The story doesn’t tell us if any of them felt uncomfortable with their place in things.  

I am stunned by the courage of that Mexican man on the immigration rides in Arizona, who at great personal risk boarded a very public bus in order to speak his truth about humanity in an unjust system. 

But I am equally impressed by the white woman who sat near him and was willing to get into that struggle up to her neck. I had thought perhaps that she would have had nothing to lose, by showing her identification to the authorities, but she sought a greater purpose.  Perhaps she saw a glimpse of the promised land, through the realization of living her values in troubled water. 

Our broken immigration system is troubled water. 

A public school system that fast-tracks some to college and some to jail, is troubled water. 

A consumer culture that urges us to find comfort in things at the expense of relationship is troubled water. 

The separation of people according to racial profiling is troubled water. 

Wading through those troubled waters of injustice can bring us to the other side, where we can realize the promised land of justice, equity and compassion in our human relationships.  

I don’t know if there is a god out there somewhere who has specific opinions about how we go about bringing change to the material world.  My experience though, tells my that god or no god, some plans work better than others.  Sitting back in comfort and asking nicely for change, tends not to work.  It is rare to find a story of societal transformation, without some troubled water.  Without someone moving forward into the depths, holding fast to a vision of the promised land.

-Wade in the water- 

The African-American spiritual, Wade in the Water, comes from the new testament story of the pools of Bethesda, where we’re told a multitude of people waited by it’s shores, because it was known that in certain seasons, god would trouble the water, and the first one into the pool when the water was troubled would be healed of all their ailments. 

In a story of exodus from slavery in our own nation Harriet Tubman was said to sing this song, to tell slaves on the run, that they should follow the water-way, so the dogs would not be follow their scent. 

I can’t say for sure, which character in the Exodus story I would have been.  But I can say that I’ve known some modern-day Nachson’s (say modern-day Nachson) and am planning to try my best to follow them into the water. 

Coming of age in Unitarian Universalist community challenged me to think about how change happens.  From the World as it is to the world as it might be. We have a strong tradition of heresy that, I hope, isn’t coming to an end any time soon. 

I invite you to join me in the heresy of returning any unearned money you find in your back pocket.  I invite you to think of a modern day Nachson in your life and ask them how they do it.  I invite you to wade into the troubled water, of discomfort, of conversation, of action.  I invite you to turn your back on this old empire of ours and join in recommitting to a Unitarian Universalism that speaks of a promised land here and now, and walks steadily into the water to get there together. 

 

February 2014 Ministers Column

Dear Ones:

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”

“Love will guide us.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can   do that.”

“There is more love somewhere”

“If music be the food of love, play on.”

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you your  age.”

“Love is blind, and lovers cannot see, the pretty follies that themselves commit.”

“Doubt that the stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move his aides, Doubt truth to be a liar, But never   doubt I love.”

“You love me. Real or not real?” I tell him, “Real.”

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”

“Love stinks!”

“If I had a flower for every time I thought of you…I could walk through my garden forever.”

“Love, love me do.”

“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people   by halves, it is not my nature.”

“Love me tender, love me sweet.”

“Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures   of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”

“What’s love got to do with it?”

So much has, is and will be said about love. The risk is always that we lose sight of what love is. Of course, love is more than one thing. And because it is rooted in those places in us that so often lie beyond words—and often beyond understanding—it is difficult to say with real precision what love is. But I’d like to try. Our ministry theme for February is love. I’m mindful of a poem from WH Auden, “So Tell Me the Truth About Love.” Well, that’s what I’d like us all to do this month. Let’s explore what we mean in those instances when we use the word. Let’s try to tell the truth about love.

With deep and abiding love (which I will try to name),

Rev. Josh

Interim DRE Search Committee Ready to Roll!

The UUS:E Policy Board has created a search committee to locate an interim Director of Religious Education to follow retiring DRE Vicki Merriam. The search committee held a ‘start-up’ meeting on January 23rd with Karen Bellevance-Grace, Director of Faith Formation for the Clara Barton and Mass Bay Districts of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Members of UUS:E’s Interim DRE Search Committee are Clare DiMaiolo, Andrew Clokey, Jennie Bernstein, Walt Willett, Kristal Kallenberg, Monica Van Beusekom, Peter Marotto and Diana Sherman. UUS:E Vice President, Polly Painter, is serving as liaison to the Policy Board. Rev. Josh serves ex officio. 

Thank you Interim DRE Search Committee members!

UUS:E Interim DRE Search Committee

UUS:E Interim DRE Search Committee

The Interim DRE Search Committee expects to post the job in mid-February, interview candidates in mid- to late-March, and make a final recommendation to the Policy Board in mid-April.

Speechless in the Face of Evil

Rev. Josh Pawelek

PeaceBang writes: “My liberal religious tradition would say that … people who are one bad turn of events away from sheer desperation, may do bad or criminal things because of that desperation. I agree. They certainly might. I certainly might do that if I was in their position. What my liberal religious tradition does not acknowledge is that on top of this level of human misery, fear, need and desperation is a pre-existing human condition called evil.”[1]

Shhh

For the moment I’m less interested in the idea of “a pre-existing condition called evil;” I’ll come to that. I’m more interested first in “what my liberal religious tradition does not acknowledge.” Yes, Unitarian Universalism is not known for its robust discourse on evil. This is not to say we’re oblivious to evil—we aren’t—or that none of us has any direct experience of evil—some of us plainly do. But evil is not the typical starting place for our theological reflection. It doesn’t drive our spiritual lives. When asked to describe the purpose of our spiritual practice, very few of us will answer: “it’s my way of confronting evil.” I can’t tell you how many of you, upon learning our January ministry theme would be evil, asked Why? Why talk about that? One member summed it up well. “Evil,” she wrote. “THAT is, to my mind, an un-Unitarian concept.” She’s right, as is PeaceBang. We are the exact opposite of those charismatic Christian churches anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann described in her New York Times editorial last Sunday. “In these churches, prayer is warfare. The new charismatic Christian churches in Accra (Ghana) imagine a world swarming with evil forces that attack your body, your family and your means of earning a living.” [2] We UUs know human beings can and do inflict enormous pain and suffering on each other. Yet when we imagine the world theologically, we’re more likely to say it’s essentially good. People, essentially good. Creation, essentially good. Evil, at most, plays a minor role.

This is not new. I’ve named it before from this pulpit. Many of my colleagues preach about it. They write blogs, articles and books about it. In his 2005 book, Faith Without Certainty, liberal theologian and UU minister Paul Rasor writes that in order to effectively confront racism it is critical that we understand it theologically as a form of evil. However, he goes on, “it is hard for liberals to talk in these terms because we have no real theology of evil and therefore no language or conceptual reference points adequate to the task.”[3] Six months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an article in the UU World magazine asked whether we were theologically prepared to respond to evil. “Now that terror spreads from shore to shore, now that Islamist militants are calling the United States a terrorist nation because U.S. bombing has killed Afghan civilians, is this one of those rare moments in history so powerful that we have no choice but to re-examine even something so fundamental as our historic trust in the basic goodness of humanity?”[4] 

But this question is older than 9/11. It first came to my attention in the mid-1990s when I entered seminary. I can’t remember who first said it, but I heard it early and often during my ministerial education. It probably sounded like this: Unitarian Universalists have much to say about humanity’s more positive traits—love, caring, compassion, generosity, selflessness—all of which we are capable of expressing in word and deed. But for the more negative human qualities—violence, greed, hatred, selfishness—all of
Darth Vaderwhich we are capable of expressing in word and deed—we don’t have a deep theological understanding of the roots of these things in us and the world.
I remember as a seminarian realizing that I had learned more about evil reading The Lord of the Rings and watching Star Wars than I had attending UU Sunday School in the 70s and 80s. My grandmother—a Bible-reading, pietistic, Pennsylvania Dutch Lutheran with evangelical edges—used to tell my brothers and I stories about Satan, how he tempts you to sin, how he wants your soul in Hell. She was helping us get into Heaven, an act of love; and we loved her for it. But by the time we understood what she was talking about, we were already living in a different theological world with no Satan, Hell, angels, demons, divine punishment and, we were pretty sure, no Heaven—at least not the one she anticipated.

That same UU World article following 9/11 quoted Lois Fahs Timmins—daughter of the great Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs—talking in 1996 about her Sunday School experience in the 1920s and 30s. “‘We spent 95 percent of our time studying good people doing good things, and skipped very lightly over the bad parts of humanity,’ she said…. ‘I was taught not to be judgmental, not to observe or report on the bad behavior of others. Consequently, because of my education, I grew up ignorant about bad human behavior, incompetent to observe it accurately, unskilled in how to respond to it, and ashamed of talking about evil.’”[5]

Genocide

I suspect the charge that Unitarian Universalism doesn’t acknowledge evil is as old as liberal religion itself. Any time we put human goodness at the center of our faith, someone else may ask, “What about genocide? What about fascism, killing fields, gas chambers, mass shootings, torture, racism, slavery, sexual abuse? With its positive view of humanity, liberal religion has always faced this line of questioning. There is, therefore, some truth to the claim that, unlike our counterparts in more conservative religious traditions who encounter the world as a spiritual war zone,[6] we are, at least theologically speaking, speechless in the face of evil.

Speechless

Some truth, yes, but there may be more to our speechlessness than we realize. This is my message: speechlessness in the face of evil is not the same thing as powerlessness in the face of evil. Let me say a few words about what I think evil isn’t; and then a few words about what I think it is, and I hope it will become clear what I mean when I say speechlessness does not equate to powerlessness.

What Evil Isn’t

No SatanFirst, there is no ‘Prince of Darkness.’ This is the Universalist in me speaking. Evil does not result from Satan or his minions swarming around, causing illness, sowing social discord, and harming livelihoods. If you agree, you’re in the minority. Luhrmann says 57 % of Americans believe in demonic possession.[7] Of course, it’s important to me to respect and honor diverse religious world-views, to try to understand what value they may hold for their practitioners. While I might not agree with someone who believes their condition is caused by demons, I also won’t tell them they’re wrong. My pastoral instinct is to receive them with an open-mind and try to fathom how they understand their predicament. If demons are important to them, then we talk about demons. While I can’t do what an evangelical Christian minister or a Catholic priest exorcist might do, I can have a conversation. More often than not, the person just needs to be heard. More often than not, there’s trauma in their background, driving their belief. That is, more often than not some violence has been done to the person. Even if I don’t believe the demon is real, certainly the person’s pain and suffering is. I may be speechless in their theological world, but I’m not powerless. I can still bear witness to trauma. I can still respond to pain and suffering. And so can you.

Second, natural disasters are not evil. Tornadoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, earthquakes, typhoons, floods and fires can and do bring chaos and tragedy. But they are natural and largely indiscriminant, not the result of a vengeful deity. Of course, many people believe natural disasters are divine punishments for some transgression. It makes me angry—and theologically speechless—whenever I hear such pronouncements. I have nothing to say. But, again, speechless does not equate to powerless. In the wake of natural disasters I hope we aren’t wasting time and speech debating theology. I hope we are responding to pain and suffering in whatever ways are within our power.

What Evil Is

I don’t know if evil is a pre-existing condition. I’m also not sure it matters. Whether it pre-exists, or we learn it along the way, or it’s in the social order and we become accustomed to it without ever realizing it—I think there’s some truth to all three—I’m convinced evil Abuse of Poweris real. It has an impact on the world. Recall the UUS:E member who said evil is an un-Unitarian concept. She is also a victim of evil—the survivor of relentless child abuse by more than one family member. (Please know she gave me permission to share with you.) It’s a story of people wielding power harmfully over a more vulnerable, dependent and weaker person—at least a person who is perceived to be weaker. It’s a story of people killing the spirit of another, attacking their emotional and physical well-being, silencing them. Of course there are many more stories like this, and multitudes of stories of all kinds of violence people visit upon people. When any of us hears a story like this, does it matter whether we have a well-developed theology of evil to understand it? In that moment of hearing the story, I wonder if trying to restate the experience of evil in theological terms may do more harm than good. If we’re really hearing the story—if we’re really taking it in, encountering the horror of it—I wonder if the most healthy, realistic and respectful initial human response we can have is speechlessness. Silence. Perhaps this is how we know we’re dealing with evil: We have no words. We have no words because what we’re hearing contradicts everything we love about humanity. We have no words because what we’re hearing shatters our faith in human goodness.  

Speechless

It’s the same with stories about the ways in which our systems and institutions visit violence upon people—the violence of warfare, of suicide bombings, chemical weapons, terrorism, torture, racism, sexism, mass incarceration. And there is that more subtle yet increasingly visible evil of which PeaceBang writes in her blog, that evil that lies atop human misery, fear, need and desperation, that evil of an economic and political system that cares less and less about poor people, unemployed people, homeless people; that system that tolerates an unprecedented, unsustainable and immoral level of income inequality. When we pause to hear the stories of pain and suffering this evil breeds; when we pause to take them in, to let them wash over us, to recognize the insidiousness of this system, is any theology “adequate to the task?” Again, I wonder if the most healthy, realistic and respectful initial human response is speechlessness. Silence. Perhaps this is how we know we’re dealing with evil: We have no words. We have no words because what we’re hearing dashes our hopes for a more just and loving society. We have no words because what we’re hearing shatters our faith in human goodness.  

Speechless

In the end, when encountering abuse, trauma, violence, war, racism, poverty, whether it pre-exists or we learn it along the way or its embedded in the system; whether we name it evil or not, does our theology really manifest best in what we say? Or in what we do? That’s the real question. What do we do to confront evil once we’re aware of it? Speechlessness may look to some like inadequacy. But I find lack of action far more damning. This is the message I take from PeaceBang’s blog. She’s issuing a call to action. She says, “A popular Unitarian Universalist slogan right now says, ‘Go love the hell out of the world.’ Perhaps in 2014 we might make a shared, community resolution to hearten each other for this work, for this steady confrontation with forces that lie, steal, starve and shame a huge percentage of the population which regards its lack of financial success as a personal failure. Perhaps in the new year we might refrain from one or two in-fights … over relatively small matters or semantics and stay focused on the hell in the world, which I believe we can successfully discern if we stay clear about where and what it is.”[8]

Which brings me back to my liberal religious tradition. I know this: if I’m going to confront evil with courage and resolve, I need human goodness at the center of my faith, despite my awareness that people, myself included, aren’t always good. I need the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person—even those who commit atrocities—at the center of my faith. And I need to keep a positive, hopeful attitude about the future at the center of my faith, despite what I know about the human penchant for war, oppression, and destruction of the natural world.

And while I don’t want my children or the children of this congregation to be ignorant of evil, I expect to continue teaching them about good people doing good things. And I want us all to remember that in far too many religious settings historically and today people hear the traumatic message over and over again that they are wicked and sinful by nature and must accept unbelievable teachings and engage in hollow rituals in order to be saved from eternal punishment. And I want us all to remember that in far too many religious settings historically and today people have been identified as evil and consequently abused, imprisoned and murdered based on their sexual orientation, gender, disability, mental illness, skin color, healing practices, culture, folkways,  perceived proximity to the earth, any unorthodox beliefs, and even their scientific world-view and methods. When I read of a congregation shouting “The witches will die. They will die. Die. Die!”[9]—which is not just a phenomenon in the Ghanian Charismatic Christian churches, but happens in a myriad of ways all across the globe—I hear people with a robust theology of evil using it to perpetuate more evil against innocent victims. That’s the risk with any theology of evil. Those who believe it can use it to justify their own evil actions.

Our liberal, Unitarian Universalist, positive view of human nature as loving, compassionate, generous, caring and self-sacrificing—though it may not present the whole picture—is no light-weight, naïve, sheltered theology. It is a life-saving, life-giving, life-enhancing religious response to all those theologies that drive arbitrary wedges between people, that seek to frighten people into faith, and that teach people of their inherent sinfulness rather than their beauty, worth, and potential. If the price of such a faith is speechlessness in the face of evil, then so be it. It may be just what is needed. So, may we find power in the midst of our speechlessness, and may our faith lead us to action—action that loves the hell out of the world.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Read PeaceBang’s “Go Love the Hell Out of the World” at http://www.peacebang.com/2013/12/28/go-love-the-hell-out-of-the-world/.

[2] Read T.M. Luhrmann’s New York Times op ed,”When Demons are Real, at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/29/opinion/sunday/when-demons-are-real.html?_r=0.

[3] Rasor, Paul, Faith Without Certainty (Boston: Skinner House, 2005) p. 176.

[4] Read Warren Ross’ “Confronting Evil: Has Terrorism Shaken Our Religious Principles?” from the January/February 2002 issue of UU World at http://www.uuworld.org/2002/01/feature1.html.

[5] Ross, “Confronting Evil” at http://www.uuworld.org/2002/01/feature1.html.

[6] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.

[7] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.

[9] [9] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.

 

I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, But Everything’s Gone Blue


Blue Christmas“Drops of pain, flow like rain, tell why your tears are falling: for humankind, so frail, unkind, or for your own life’s calling?”[1] Words from Unitarian Universalist songwriter Shelly Jackson Denham. “Tell why your tears are falling.” There’s really only one message I want to bring to you this morning, and that is, very simply, not everyone, every year, can enter fully into the joy, merriment and hopefulness of the holiday season. It isn’t always possible. For some, the bright lights, the season’s greetings, the festive music, the Christmas trees, the messages of peace and good will—all of it clashes with their internal state, clashes with recent painful experiences, clashes with difficult childhood memories of the holidays. For some there is dissonance. We’re dreaming of a white Christmas, and yet for some, everything’s gone blue. We wish you a merry Christmas, and yet for some, “tears are falling.”

We call it “Blue Christmas.” I don’t know how long this term has been in vogue. I don’t remember ever hearing it used in this way prior to 2000. I don’t know if it has any connection to the song, “Blue Christmas,” which Elvis Presley recorded in 1957, and which was first recorded in 1948 by an artist named Doyle O’Dell. Whether or not there’s a connection, the song doesn’t really express the depth of sadness and pain some people can experience during the holiday season. Some churches hold special services—often at night—for people who are grieving, lonely, in despair or anxious during the holidays. Sometimes these services are called Blue Christmas services. Sometimes they’re called “Longest Night” services, a reference to the winter solstice.

Blue Christmas

On one hand, I think it’s important to hold such services. I think it’s important for the church to make a space for people who don’t want to—or simply can’t—be present at holiday services and other activities where the predominant mood is joy. On the other hand, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of saying, essentially, “everyone who’s depressed, you come to church at this special time and we’ll take care of you; the rest of us will have our Christmas joy and holiday merriment on Sunday morning.” As if we can—or even should—somehow keep all the difficult emotions in a separate place so they don’t intrude on “normal” Christmas. I don’t want to isolate Blue Christmas feelings from the regular holiday worship life of the congregation. It makes sense to me to spend time when we’re all together naming the reality of Blue Christmas for many among ourselves and in the wider community. I hope and trust each of us expects to bring our whole self into our spiritual community. I hope and trust each of us expects to bring our whole self into worship. And sometimes that means bringing sad selves, grieving selves, lonely selves, uncertain selves, regretful selves, hopeless selves, selves in pain. And those of us who don’t feel that way, myself included, might have a gut reaction that says, “no, the holidays are about joy, peace, hope, festivity, etc.” But if some of us are feeling blue, that’s part of the holidays too. So, let’s name it and honor it. That, in my view, is what spiritual community is for—to meet each other where we are, no matter where we are.

Blue Christmas

Another reason I feel strongly about observing Blue Christmas in the way we are this morning is that, while I suspect most of us, in most years, experience the joy, merriment and hope of the holiday season, it is also true that our lives can change—sometimes tragically—in the blinking of an eye. I’m thinking of those who’ve lost loved ones over the past year. Christmas can be so hard in the midst of grief. And I’m thinking of the Benson and Mills families, who lost three family members in last weekend’s shooting in Manchester. And I’m thinking of Christine Keith, and her son, 14-year-old son Isaac Miller. Christine was a Unitarian Universalist from the Lansing, MI area. She and Isaac were shot and killed in a similar domestic violence tragedy a week ago Thursday. And I’m thinking of the people of Newtown, Connecticut, marking the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school.

Manchester Vigil

Human beings are resilient in so many ways. We have such incredible capacity to meet challenges and to persevere through hardship. But it’s also true that a fragility lingers at the edges of our lives and none of us can outwit it forever. Loneliness comes. Anxiety comes. Fear comes. Hopelessness comes. Pain comes. Illness comes. Death comes. It might not be us this year. But it might be us next year, or in five years. Naming it now not only affirms people who experience it now, but it prepares each of us for the day when we’re dreaming of a white Christmas, but everything’s gone blue.

And not only might it be us next year, or five years from now, but it’s also more than likely that it has been us at some point in the past. We each carry a bit of Blue Christmas with us every year. How many of us have had to endure a first Christmas without a beloved family member—a grandparent, a parent, a spouse, a child? How many of us have dealt with illness—our own or that of a loved one—through the course of a holiday season? How many of us have had years wherein the joy and merriment of Christmas was overpowered by some anxiety, fear, pain or grief?

My grandmother died some years ago. Reflecting on her death reminds me that for nearly forty years, I would travel to her hometown of Hanover, Pennsylvania after Christmas Day. It was family time—and it was idyllic. I have wonderful memories. Since my grandmother died—and since my children have grown older and we’ve begun to develop new holiday routines—we don’t make that Christmas pilgrimage anymore. Most of the time during the holiday season this change doesn’t faze me. Most of the time I don’t think about it. But every once in a while something grabs my attention, tugs at my heart—I hear a brass quartet playing “Silent Night,” or I pull that John Deere tractor tree ornament out of its box, or I pass by a snow-covered farm on a cold, clear winter night—and I’m back there again, six years old, ten years old, eighteen years old. For a moment my heart aches. For a moment everything is blue.

Blue Christmas Farm

Blue Christmas. It may be any one of us this year. It surely will be each of us some day. It likely has been all of us once upon a time. Therefore, let us be honest about the holidays. Let us name the full range of feelings we may bring, will bring, have brought into this season. Let us name them not because we want to fix them or somehow miraculously make them disappear, but simply because they are real. In the midst of all our Blue Christmases, if nothing else, may we find comfort in being together in the fullness of our humanity. And with the fullness of our humanity laid bare in front of us may we, when we are ready—when we are truly ready—feel once again the joy, peace and hope, that are also real, and eventually come to each of us, like midwinter’s returning sun, like the lightly falling snow.[2]

returning sun

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Winter Night,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #256.

[2] “The lightly falling snow” is borrowed from Connecticut Poet Laureate Dick Allen’s poem, “Solace,” written in response to the December 14, 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Listen to Allen’s reading at http://wnpr.org/post/simple-solemn-tribute-sandy-hook-victims

On the Meaning of “Multigenerational”

Rev.  Josh Pawelek

 

generations

Bellevance-Grace, Director of Faith Formation for the Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay Districts of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) writes: “The world of church is changing. And why not? The world of medicine is changing. The world of journalism is changing. The way we govern, teach, communicate, learn, the way we buy and read books is changing. There’s no good reason to believe that changes would not also impact the way we understand worship and Sunday School and every other aspect of congregational life.”[1] There’s nothing controversial about this statement. We know it’s true. For better and, in some cases, for much worse, the world is changing: climate is changing; the economy is changing; technology, demographics, health care, education, families, and children’s lives are all changing. We know this. The question on my mind and in my heart this morning is how shall we, as a faithful Unitarian Universalist congregation, adapt to all these changes?

Karen Bellevance-Grace

Karen Bellevance-Grace

Though there are many answers to this question, I am convinced that we will successfully adapt to the storm of changes all around us if we focus our energies on building and sustaining UUS:E as a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. This answer has something to do with how we carry out our religious education program for children and youth. But it has much more to do with how all of us intentionally build relationships across generational lines; how we learn from each other, care for each other and love each other across the generations in all aspects of congregational life. With a robust network of dynamic, caring, loving multigenerational relationships, we cannot help but thrive. Without such relationships, we enter a slow decline. We need the wonder, awe and innocence children bring. We need the questioning, testing, sometimes rebellious spirit youth bring. We need the idealism, creativity and energy young adults bring. We need the experience, skills and leadership middle-aged adults bring. We need the wisdom, memory and depth elders bring. We need it all, not in isolated silos and affinity groups, but mixed together—a beautiful, blessed mixing, week in and week out, holding us, teaching us, challenging us, inspiring us. That, for me, is the meaning of multigenerational—a community whose members interact with ease across generational lines; a community in which each generation receives the gifts the others have offer.

Hands

I want to reflect on the state of our multigenerational community here at UUS:E. To begin I want to talk about our search for a new Director of Religious Education (DRE) to succeed our retiring DRE, Vicki Merriam. Vicki is the only DRE this congregation has ever known. Vicki herself is not entirely sure how long she has been in the position. We know it’s over thirty, possibly 35 years. For more than a generation Vicki has guided our religious education program with skill, patience, consistency and grace. Her reputation in our district and nationally is of the highest order. Just last year she was invited to write the curriculum for this year’s Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Guest at Your Table program, which we’ll be experiencing in December. For years she has been a pillar of this congregation, providing links to our traditions and vision for our future. I’m not sure we can fully thank Vicki for all her years of service, for her loyalty and dedication to UUS:E, for the love she has shown our children, but we owe her profound gratitude. I urge each of you, even if you really don’t know Vicki, to thank her, trusting that we wouldn’t be who we are today as a congregation without her service.

I rarely preach about internal congregational dynamics like our DRE search, but this feels really important to me. There’s a lot at stake. One of the reasons I can say this with complete confidence is because so many of you have contributed feedback on the future of religious education at UUS:E. More than 110 of you responded to our online survey—a remarkable participation rate for us. And approximately 100 of you participated in one of our many face-to-face discussions between July and early October. Karen Bellavance-Grace, who is periodically checking in with us on our search process, was amazed by the number of people who participated, and by the thoughtfulness and passion you brought to the conversation. Based on your responses it is clear you care deeply about providing an excellent religious education program not only for our children and youth, but for people of all generations. But perhaps even more significantly—and Karen noticed this immediately when reading through the feedback—you want a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. While there certainly isn’t unanimous agreement about that, or about what it might look like, that is the picture that emerges from the feedback you’ve given: a vibrant, loving multigenerational community.

generations

Well, wait, don’t we already have that? Based on what Vicki and many of you who were here in the 1970s, 80s and 90s have told me, UUS:E had a very strong identity as a vibrant, loving multigenerational community during that time. You were a smaller congregation then. A greater percentage of adults knew a greater percentage of the children’s names and vice versa. Children’s time in general was not as over-structured and over-scheduled then as it is today.  Many of you whose children grew up during that era recall how easy it was to bring them along to church events even if those events weren’t for children. “We’d just let them play in some other part of the building, or outside if the weather was nice enough, or even if it wasn’t.” What a difference 20 years later, when insurance companies expect to see congregations implementing a whole range of safety practices which, among other things, require all children on the premises to be supervised by at least two adults. What a difference 20 years later: we’ve finally witnessed the death of Sunday morning as the one, truly sacred time in the United States, the one time when no other events or activities could be scheduled, no shopping malls could be open, and families with children were not forced every week to choose between church and a plethora of other activities and organizations that involve their children and, in some cases, demand—as the price of participation—that their children make whatever the other activity is their highest priority. What a difference 20 years later, when young people and adults who used to experience their congregation as a major center for social connection, now come to church with hundreds if not thousands of online ‘friends,’ vast social media networks, and unlimited opportunities for screen-based entertainment—entertainment one experiences essentially alone—just a few keystrokes away. What a difference.

Screen-time

These changes and many more have put enormous pressure on faith communities. We hear often how mainline denominations are declining, how even the mega churches aren’t so mega anymore, how a growing number of Americans describe themselves as “nones,” meaning no religious affiliation. While Unitarian Universalism is holding steady in its membership (though not growing at the same rate as the overall American population), and while our congregation continues to grow slowly, we’ve certainly felt the impact of these wider societal changes. And here’s how: we don’t always feel like the vibrant, loving multigenerational congregation that we felt like 20 and 30 years ago. The reason we don’t always feel that way is because—this is my theory—we knew how to make multigenerational community work more or less seamlessly then. We just brought out kids along. But we aren’t so sure about how to make it work now. There’s been so much change. We haven’t fully adapted. We don’t yet know—really know—how to make multigenerational community work in the midst of these changes.

I do know at least one thing. There’s a clear distinction between implementing an excellent religious education program for children and youth, and building and sustaining a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. They are related, but not the same. Implementing the religious education program is the primary responsibility of the DRE and the Religious Education Committee. Building and sustaining a vibrant, loving multigenerational community, is the responsibility of all of us. An excellent religious education program, though immensely important to the future of our faith, is just that—a program. A vibrant, loving multigenerational community isn’t a program. It’s part of our identity. It’s who we are at our core. Programs flow out of identity. What we offer to our people is a function of who we are as a people. We provide an excellent religious education program because we are a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. It’s not the other way around.

Why does this matter? Because Vicki will be retiring and we will be looking for her successor. And we need to be clear: Vicki’s successor is responsible for implementing an excellent religious education program for children and youth ages three to eighteen—a program that is grounded in Unitarian Universalist principles and sources, takes place in a variety of settings, and utilizes diverse teaching methods; a program that provides the solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists. But Vicki’s successor is not responsible for building and sustaining a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. That responsibility belongs to whom? All of us! And Vicki’s successor will thrive if we all take responsibility for our multigenerational community. So, we have work to do.

How do we get there? There are many models for how to do effective multigenerational ministry in our time.[2] But I don’t think the answer is for us to just adopt someone else’s model. Other models can inform us, but UUS:E is at its best when we create our own model from the ground up. So let’s do it. Let’s enter together into a time of experimentation and creativity. What better time than now? Let’s think deeply together about ways we can connect across generations, and then let’s try them. Let’s learn together through trial and error about how best to build and sustain vibrant, loving multigenerational Unitarian Universalist community.

Certainly we can build on our strengths. Affirmation—our coming of age class for 9th graders—creates wonderful relationships across generations through its mentoring program. So maybe we build a mentoring system for other age groups. The Thanksgiving dinner offers a wonderful experience of multigenerational community. Maybe we need more Thanksgiving dinners throughout the year. Let’s also look at the places where we are most challenged. If it is truly difficult for some families to attend services every Sunday due to children’s schedules, maybe there’s a way to offer multigenerational learning at other times of the week. I love the idea to send care packages to our young adults at college, or the idea to hold a camping weekend on our grounds in late spring, or the idea of dedicating one of the garden level rooms as an arts space—not only for kids, but for anyone who wants to be creative and get a little messy.

The point is to ask how we can connect across generations, and then do it. Make the invitations. And this is my hope: After a few years of experimenting and creating, making mistakes and coming to some dead ends, learning together and building relationships, we will transform our congregation. We won’t ask, “How can our children be more integrated into the life of our congregation?” We’ll say, “Wow, the children are really integrated into the life of our congregation!” And not only the children, but the elders the young adults too! And our children will be more fully integrated into the lives of our elders. And our elders will be more fully integrated into the lives of our youth. And our youth will have input into more of our Sunday services. And we’ll know what music they’re listening to. And all of our adults will be discerning their passions and figuring out how to share them with people of all ages. And they’ll also be volunteering in the nursery. And if the youth group is walking against hunger, the elders will go with them. And if the social justice committee is organizing an action against mass incarceration, the children will go with them. And if the elders are organizing a game night, the youth and young adults will join them. And if the religious education director needs volunteers to help teach a 5th and 6th grade class, twelve people will raise their hand and beg to be given this opportunity. We will have a beautiful, blessed mixing, week in and week out, holding us, teaching us, challenging us, inspiring us. That’s what a vibrant, loving multigenerational community looks like to me. We will figure it out. And we will thrive.

connecting generations

Friends, I am convinced this is a major piece of our journey as a congregation in the coming years. It must be. Too many forces in society drive the generations apart, preventing each from receiving the gifts the others offer. Too many forces direct people away from living fully in neighborhoods, from knowing and caring about their actual neighbors. Too many forces drive wedges into what I call sacred family time, including family meal time, family leisure time, family prayer time, family reading time, family art time and, with the death of Sunday morning, family worship time. Too many forces deprive us of the benefits of multigenerational community: the wonder, awe and innocence of children; the questioning, testing, sometimes rebellious spirit of youth; the idealism, creativity and energy of young adults; the experience, skills and leadership of middle-aged adults; the wisdom, memory and depth of elders. The church can and must be that force in society that says no to all that drives us apart. The church can and must be that force in society that says yes to vibrant, loving, multi-generational community; yes to responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking multigenerational community; yes to being together across generations, caring for one another, listening deeply to each other, honoring each other, playing together, working together, singing together, dancing together, breaking bread together, baking bread together, making art together, struggling for a more just and fair world together, struggling for the world together across the generations. In my experience, outside of families that manage to keep some semblance of togetherness—not all do—there is no other institution in society that has more capacity to bring generations together than the church. We may very well be the last refuge of multigenerational community. If that’s true, then I, for one, feel a deep moral obligation to build and sustain vibrant, multigenerational community here at UUS:E. I hope and trust you do too.

Josh and Ezri

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] See the full text to Karen Bellevance-Grace’s paper, “Full Week Faith,” at http://fullweekfaith.weebly.com/introduction-how-to-use-these-resources.html.

[2] There’s a story in the latest issue of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine about a congregation near Cincinnati called Harmony at http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/290443.shtml. See Karen Bellevance-Grace’s paper on Full-Week Faith at http://fullweekfaith.weebly.com/introduction-how-to-use-these-resources.html.

Kimberly Paquette, Multigenerational Ministry director of the Northern New England District of the UUA, has a blog on multigenerational ministry at http://multigenministry.wordpress.com/page/2/?blogsub=confirming.

Rev. Pawelek’s Remarks at Transgender Day of Remembrance 2013

The following are Rev. Josh Pawelek’s remarks at the 2013 Hartford-area Transgender Day of Remembrance.

We have work to do. Oh, how I wish we didn’t. Oh, how I wish we already lived in a world where the rigid rules of gender didn’t apply, didn’t matter so much, weren’t enforced with the murderous brutality we bear witness to this evening. Oh, how I wish we already lived in a world free of that soul-crushing gender binary, free of that spirit killing either/or, free of that put-us-in-a-box-from–birth question, “is it a boy or a girl?” Oh, how I wish we already lived in a world where human beings could simply be who they are—who they are in their hearts, in their minds, in their souls—without fear of reprisal, without having to watch their step, without having to wonder, am I safe? without having to face rejection and bullying, without having to lose their families, their churches, their schools, their neighborhoods. Oh, how I wish we already lived in a world where each of us could live simply as the person we feel most comfortable being, our inner lives completely consistent with our outer lives, our beautiful, precious, sacred selves out, out, out, out, out. Oh, how I wish we already lived in a world where transgender people felt fully at home, safe, welcomed, accepted … everywhere. Oh, how I wish. Continue reading at HartfordFAVS….

TDOR 2013 Banner

TDOR 2013 candles

TDOR 2013 crowd

 

Humanism’s Breaking Heart

Rev. Josh Pawelek

HumanismHumanism isn’t declining in our era because it is dry and cold. And it isn’t declining because it doesn’t make room for God. Humanism is declining in our era because in practice it often fails to make room for actual humans. Continue reading at HartfordFAVS…. 

Virtues for UUs

J. Hughes

 

J. Hughes

J. Hughes

The Protestants gave up the saints, those exemplars of virtue that the Catholics had made into idols. But they kept the virtues.

We UUs went one step further and gave up the idea of virtue.

By virtue here I mean those qualities of mind and moral character that were thought to be the highest goal in life, the most excellent fulfillment of a life well lived, and which also lead to the happiness of ourselves and others.

A model of virtues and moral perfectibility is central to ancient philosophy and to most religions. In Aristotle’s philosophy there were about two dozen virtues, including things like generosity, honesty and intelligence, which he believed led to a wise form of contentment. The Catholics adopted Aristotle and crafted their virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope and charity. Hinduism and Buddhism have lists of virtues which were embodied by their saints, qualities such as energy, resolution, equanimity and penetrating insight.  And cultivating moral character – ren, humanity or goodness - is the central idea of Confucian philosophy, with filial piety and attention to ritual as close seconds.

UUs gave up virtue, however, because we are a religious movement thoroughly filtered through the sieve of Enlightenment thought, a movement that upholds freedom, individualism, reason and equality. Our Enlightenment roots make us especially skeptical of some of the central virtues upheld by the Catholics such as faith and chastity.

As to chastity, Enlightenment thinkers, and religious and political liberals, challenged us to stop having narrow notions of sexual purity and righteous living, and to celebrate the diversity of ways that people can have pleasure and find meaning. Upholding chastity as a virtue now seems puritanical and outdated supplanted by new sexual mores founded on other virtues like caring and respect for other people’s freedom.

As to faith, Enlightenment thinkers, and religious and political liberals, value reason, informed debate, dialogue and persuasion over feeling, dogma and coercion. So we are skeptical that faith is a virtue. Instead we celebrate “the right of conscience,” and “the guidance of reason and the results of science.” Faith for us is actually a vice if it means giving up the “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

But our skepticism about virtue runs deeper than rejecting specific ancient virtues. We are rightly skeptical that there are moral exemplars. Our Enlightenment convictions about the equality of all people in our flawed humanness challenges the idea of putting some on moral pedestals while condemning others as immoral.

We have also grown rightly skeptical of the idea that any one person can embody all the virtues, from humility and charity, to courage and wisdom. The idea of saints and bodhisattvas who embodied all the virtues seems like a superstitious idea in our modern, rational religious tradition, something that we could at best appreciate as Jungian archetype but not a template for personal transformation. Perhaps it is just human nature that the fairest people cannot be the most compassionate, and the most compassionate cannot be the wisest. Just as liberalism cherishes novelty and difference it rejects any uniformity of models of the good life. Perhaps the most we can aspire to is to be extraordinary in just one way, and that’s good enough.

The Enlightenment also changed our ways of thinking about morality from judging acts simply on the basis of whether they broke a rule or whether the person acted from good motivations, virtuously from good moral character, to judging acts by their outcomes.  Of course we uphold moral exemplars like Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Aung San Suu Kyi, but not because we believe that they were enlightened beings who embodied a perfection of virtues – we know they had and have personal pecadilloes – but because their courageous convictions to change society had such momentous consequences.  That is quite different from the tradition of valorizing cave-dwelling ascetics or steadfast martyrs because of the unusually perfect people they were supposed to be rather than the effects they had on the world.

We’ve also grown skeptical that moral character really makes anyone independent of an immoral society. In the horrors of the twentieth century we saw how ordinary people with ordinary morality can so easily be manipulated by circumstances to do monstrous things. We began to suspect that moral character is a mirage, which disappears when people are put under sufficient social pressure.

We might also suspect that there were some specific sociological reasons for our tradition’s turn from virtue, since the joke is that the Universalists believed God was too good to condemn people to eternal damnation, while the upper crust Unitarians believed they were too good to be condemned by God.

At any rate, the result is that, at least compared to most other faiths, in the UU tradition it’s just not very liberal to expect other people to have certain moral virtues. Instead we have enshrined the “acceptance of one another” in our diversity.

But of course there are certain virtues implicit in the UU tradition, virtues that survived the Enlightenment sieve, and that are consistent with Enlightenment values, and those are the virtues of compassion, fairness, tolerance and critical intelligence. In this we UUs are very much a part of modernity. In a study done last year social scientists analyzed the frequency of words associated with virtue in books that had been scanned by Google. They found that there had been a decline in the use of three quarters of the terms in the last century, terms like virtue, character, honesty, patience, honor, truthfulness, kindness, sincerity, courage, generosity, mercy, wisdom and humility. Only a handful of terms saw an increase, terms such as compassion, fairness and tolerance, the virtues we UUs still implicitly embrace.

Jon Haidt’s work on liberal and conservative moral intuitions illuminates why some ancient virtues became vices for liberal religion while we kept others. In Haidt’s model there are six moral intuitions that we inherited from our primate ancestors, three of which we have embraced – compassion, fairness and freedom – and three of which we used our powerful neo-cortices, full of Enlightenment values and higher education, to tell our primate amygdalas to shut up about – loyalty to the tribe, respect for authority, and the need to defend sancitity or moral purity.  When conservatives make what they think are self-evident moral arguments based on those three values they sound like arguments for immorality to Enlightenment liberal ears.

Liberals value universalism over tribal and national loyalty, individual autonomy over respect for authority, and are more likely to be open to finding the sacred in the “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder,” in a wide variety of things and experiences, instead of in the idolatry of specific objects and rituals.

I believe it is important for us to reclaim the idea of moral character and virtue as part of the UU tradition, and not just these few virtues we implicitly kept – compassion, fairness, tolerance and critical intelligence – but a more complete notion of an ideal human character and a more complete catalog of the virtues that that character needs to have cultivated. It is important because our tradition needs to re-discover and re-invent a language for the forms of deep contentment and flourishing that cultivating the virtues can bring. UUs don’t have transcendental bliss, grace, or Enlightenment. But we can have a language for the virtues that actually lead to spiritual growth, transcending mystery and harmony with the interdependent web of existence. If we take the ancients seriously, and a growing body of psychological research, the practice of the virtues are the basis for finding wisdom and grace in life, even if we don’t buy into the mystical and supernatural accounts of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Reclaiming the language of virtue and character is also important for liberal religion because the kinds of free and equal society that we want to build requires the encouragement of many virtues, old and new. Citizenship in a liberal society requires the encouragement and cultivation of a certain kind of character, beyond just the duty to vote.  Liberal citizens have to be willing to pay taxes and bear other obligations of citizenship. The liberal citizen needs a self-critical humility about her own beliefs, a moderate self-restraint in the pursuit of her own values, a commitment to informed debate, a willingness to respect the rule of law and the democratic process, and the wisdom to know when conscience requires civil disobedience, direct action and rebellion.  Without the cultivation of these virtues in its citizens the institutions of liberal democracy don’t work.

To be sure, there are challenges for liberal religion to reclaim the ideas of virtue and character. We have to reject older virtues like chastity and faith that are inconsistent with our values. We have to have a more pluralistic understanding of the perfectibility of human character that respects diversity. We see how quickly the promotion of virtue can become authoritarian in the hands of narrow religious traditions like the Islam of Iran and the Taliban.

We need a model of human perfectibility that avoids putting people on pedestals that they so easily fall off of. That is certainly one of the lessons that my fellow American Buddhists have been learning the hard way for the last two decades.

We have to have a more sophisticated notion of ethics that understands that both motivations and outcomes matter, that it is a virtue to be as intelligent as possible about the effects of our actions on the world. We see in the gridlock of our politics today the result when lawmakers believe that the path of virtue should be followed regardless of the facts or the consequences.

We also have to grapple with our growing understanding that moral character is shaped both by the biology of our brains and by our societies, and that our personal commitment to improve our character may have to include changing both our biology and our societies.

Moral character implies the ability to resist both our own violent and self-centered impulses, and the social pressures to act immorally. Religious traditions have certainly always embraced the importance of moral community, that surrounding oneself with a community that censures unethical behavior and praises ethical behavior is a powerful moral choice in itself.  But as I discussed in the neurotheology RE seminar in the Spring, we are increasingly aware of the ways our capacities for self-control, empathy, fairness and transcendence are partly genetically set, and may be adjusted by drugs and devices.  Among religious traditions UUs are probably uniquely prepared to incorporate these biological constraints and future possibilities into an understanding of human perfectibility.   The psychopath’s broken brain can’t be fixed by moral exhortation or God’s grace, and the right drugs may be more important for their redemption than the call to prayer.

We also need to reclaim virtues like courage and resolution to balance some of the natural weaknesses of the liberal tradition. In our liberal intellectual humility we can find ourselves too reticient to condemn the ignorance and behavior of others, too cautious to call out nonsense in our effort to respect others’ beliefs.

Because of our individualism we find it much more difficult than conservative faiths to organize and sacrifice for collective efforts. With full awareness of the irony, since I’ve been playing hooky from church and organized politics for quite a while, we do need to reclaim the virtues of sacrifice, responsibility and engagement.

Last Spring, just as I finished the Neurotheology RE seminar and suggested that we could do a seminar reflecting on the virtues this coming Spring, a UU curriculum on the virtues for teens was published by the UUA.  I found that a very encouraging sign, even though there is very little overlap between the twelve specific virtues they chose, and the six I want to cover this Spring, which kind of illustrates the complexity of our freely re-engaging with this huge body of thought. Like the teen curriculum though I’m hoping to focus our seminar this Spring on reflections on what the virtues are and how we can practice them in our lives. I may add a little neuroscience and futurism, but just a little.

In closing I offer this reflection from the Roman Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius:

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.