Let Us Not Turn Away: Some Reflections on Justice General Assembly

Rachel Naomi Remen says “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a 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.”[1] This statement, for me, begins to name the heart of what it means to be a religious witness. When someone is suffering, let us in the very least not turn away, not move on to the next agenda item, not think of the next thing we need to say. When someone is suffering, let us stay present to their pain; let us keep our focus on what has happened to them. When someone is suffering, let us stay with them, sit by their side, listen to their story, support them, encourage them. When we act as religious witnesses, we make suffering visible so that it cannot be ignored, denied or downplayed by anyone. When we act as religious witnesses we say to those who suffer, “you do not have to endure this alone.” When someone is suffering, in the very least, let us not turn away.

Our ministry theme for July is witness. We selected this theme in part as a way to reflect further on the actions of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Justice General Assembly[2] or “Justice GA” in Phoenix last month. I will do that, but I first want to speak more generally about what it means to be a religious witness, and in particular what it means to be a liberal religious witness. Witness can and has for some of us become one of those haunting theological words we associate with traditional or conservative religion. When a preacher asks, “Can I get a witness?” we know they want someone to testify about how God is making a difference in their life, how God is making their life better in some way, how God is great.

Liberal religious people in general, and Unitarian Universalists in particular don’t bear witness that way. This is a basic theological difference between liberal and conservative religious understandings of the Sacred. In a conservative religious context, if the preacher asks, “Can I get a witness?” and someone starts testifying about God’s greatness, everyone says “Amen!” “Hallelujah.” Everyone has, more or less, the same concept of God. But liberal religion allows for and encourages doubt, skepticism, questioning and wondering. If the liberal religious preacher were to ask, “Can I get a witness?” and someone were to start testifying about God’s greatness, you might hear “Amen, Hallelujah!” but it’s not likely.  You’d be more likely to hear someone ask (maybe at coffee hour), “What do you mean by God?”  We’d start debating the existence of God and there’d be as many opinions in the room as there are people. We don’t just join the amen chorus. We don’t all have the same concept of God. We don’t all believe in God.  We’re comfortable acknowledging we don’t really know. We ask questions.  We express doubt.

Having said that, I don’t want to sell us theologically short. While liberal religious people don’t typically bear witness to the traditional, conservative idea of God, there are many ways we experience the sacredness of life and many things to which we ascribe sacred meaning or ultimate worth: Human Beings, Family, Community, Learning, Growth, Evolution, Nature, Earth, Cosmos, Ancestors, Spirit, Breath and, for some, Gods and Goddesses. All of this works in our lives. All of this impacts our lives in positive ways. All of this is great. This is what our worship and our congregational life is all about. We do testify. All the time. We do bear witness. All the time. We just do it differently.  We use different language. “Can I get a witness?” doesn’t roll off our tongues the way it does in more conservative churches; but that doesn’t mean the Sacred is absent from our lives. It’s quite the opposite.

That’s the bedrock definition of what it means to be a religious witness—proclaiming the power of the Sacred in one’s life. But where liberal religious people are more comfortable using the word witness is in our response to suffering, especially suffering created by social, political, economic, or environmental injustices.  At the Justice GA in Phoenix the language of witness was pervasive. To bear witness was the reason we went to Phoenix. Reminder: the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) holds its General Assembly every June in a different city. We don’t typically get as deeply involved in local or state issues during GA as we did in Phoenix, but Phoenix was different.

I preached about the difference in June;[3] I’ll explain it briefly for those who missed it. In April, 2010 Arizona became the first state in a string of states to pass a harsh, anti-immigration statute, known as SB1070. It gave local and state police unprecedented—and mostly unconstitutional— powers to enforce federal immigration law. It essentially made racial profiling legal (though its supporters deny this). When Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB1070, civil and migrant rights organizations in Arizona called for a boycott
of the state. At that point, the UUA had to make a decision about whether to go ahead with our GA scheduled to take place in Phoenix in June, 2012. It was a hard decision, but in the end we decided to go to Phoenix, primarily because the civil and migrant rights organizations that were calling for the boycott invited us to come. “But don’t come and conduct business is usual,” they said. “If  you’re going to come, come and bear witness to the suffering of Latino and migrant communities in Arizona. Come, bear witness against an inhumane, unjust law. Come, bear witness against abusive, unjust county prisons. Come, bear witness against a blatantly racist sheriff’s department. Come, but don’t turn away from the suffering and injustice taking place in Phoenix. Come, bear witness.

Phoenix is in Maricopa County, whose Sheriff Joe Arpaio is one of the most ruthless anti-immigrant law enforcement officers in the country, proudly identifying himself as “America’s toughest Sheriff.”[4] County residents, especially in the Latino and migrant communities, have complained bitterly about conditions in his jails for decades, especially his infamous Tent City Jail on Durango Street, where prisoners are confined to army surplus canvass tents. The Sheriff himself has measured the temperature in those tents at over 140 degrees on hot days. Those are good days to deny water to prisoners. In 1997 Amnesty International issued a report citing a long list of human rights abuses and condemning the practices at many of the Maricopa County prisons.[5] This past May, the US Department of Justice filed suit against Sheriff Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, alleging that it discriminates against Latinos, uses excessive force, runs its jail unconstitutionally and has taken illegal action to silence critics.[6]

At the Justice GA we heard from a woman named Isabel Chairez from the Neighborhood Defense Committee (Comites de Defensa del Barrio) of Tonatierra, an indigenous peoples’ cultural organization dedicated to community ecology and self-determination.[7] Tonatierra was one of the organizations with whom we partnered to create Justice GA. Ms. Chairez told her story of being incarcerated at Estrella, Sheriff Arpaio’s jail for women next to Tent City. She said: “Last year, for working to feed my family, I was arrested at my home and my 3-year-old daughter witnessed the police handcuffing me and taking me away. I suffered the horrible conditions at Estrella … where I spent 3 long miserable months. At the time, I was 4 months pregnant and I did not receive adequate care and treatment. We were only fed twice a day … in the morning and late afternoon …. I ate what was given to us; even then I only gained 4 pounds by the time I was six months pregnant.

“I witnessed many ugly things inside that jail. The guards yelled at the women that didn’t speak or understand English. Verbal abuse happened all the time…. In December of 2011, women sued the county for this mistreatment…. One of the hardest things for me was that I was not allowed to walk around when I started feeling uncomfortable with my pregnancy. I was confined to the bed just like all the other women.

“One of my biggest concerns with the arrests, detention, and deportation is how parents are treated like criminals in front of their children. Think of all the children that are being separated from their mothers. My daughter is traumatized from seeing me arrested and taken away. Every time there is a knock on the door, she runs and holds on to me saying ‘Is it the police? I don’t want them to take you away.’”[8]

Rachel Naomi Remen tells us: “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a 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.” On Saturday evening, June 23rd, more than 2000 Justice GA attendees boarded busses that took them to the front gates of Sheriff Arpaio’s Tent City Jail. It was a peaceful witness. We did not attempt to block jail access. We did not engage in civil disobedience. We did not confront the Sheriff or his deputies. We did not confront the small band of counter-protestors—a few of them carrying guns—expressing support for the Sheriff.  We held candles. We chanted. We sang. Our leaders and our partners spoke about the human rights abuses and suffering taking place inside Tent City. They spoke about the culture of fear and cruelty the Sheriff’s Department has established in the county. They spoke about the backwardness and injustice of SB1070. They spoke about the need for comprehensive national immigration reform that upholds the worth and dignity of all people.[9]  This was our witness. More than 2,000 UUs—most of them wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts—doing our part to draw national and global attention to suffering and injustice, lending our collective voice and power to our partners in Phoenix, doing our part to “make what is invisible, visible …. what is deniable, undeniable ….  what is unseen, seen.”[10] That night on Durango St. there was no place else in the world I would rather have been. That night I was deeply proud to be a Unitarian Universalist and inspired to be part of movement to end mass incarceration and deportation; to build a more just and loving society.

The next day there was a man on the sidewalk outside the convention center with a sign that read “UUs: What Have You Done?” which I took to mean your presence here in Phoenix has changed nothing. You have accomplished nothing. On one hand he’s right. Justice GA did not end mass incarceration and deportation.  It did not shut down Tent City. It did not arrest Arpaio. We left Phoenix much the way we found it, and many communities there still live in fear of the sheriff’s department. Some have asked what good a nonviolent witness does in the face of this kind of power. Don’t we need to take more extreme Measures?

That’s a conversation worth having, but I see three things that happened at Justice GA that the man with the sign didn’t see. First, the historically, racially white Unitarian Universalist congregations in Arizona, and the historically, racially white Unitarian Universalist Association built solid, lasting, accountable, relationships with people of color civil rights and migrant rights organizations on the ground in Arizona: Puente Human Rights Movement, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, Mi Familia Vota, Arizona Worker Rights Center; Arizona Advocacy Network, National Council of La Raza, Somos Arizona, Tonatierra, Tierra y Libertad Organization and more.[11] None of these organizations can achieve its vision of a more just and loving society alone. Relationships are essential. Relationships are the essence of successful movements. This kind of relationship-based participation in a national, multicultural, multilingual, multiracial and antiracist movement for social justice is new for Unitarian Universalists. It marks a level of growth in our faith we could barely imagine a decade ago. Justice GA is over, but the truth is we haven’t left Arizona. We are still there through the power of our relationships. The justice movement our partners started is now stronger.

Second, the man with the sign does not understand that 4,000 UUs came to Phoenix and realized that the kinds of injustices that exist there could happen anywhere. It’s called Arizonafication.  4,000 UUs, myself included, left Phoenix determined to build partnerships and coalitions in our own states, determined to halt Arizonafication in our own states, determined to bear witness to suffering and injustice in our own states. The movement for a more just and loving United States of America just grew stronger.

Finally, the man with the sign missed this: Our yellow t-shirts say “Standing on the Side of Love.” It’s not rhetoric. It’s not a cheap platitude. We really mean it. And while I’m sure Sheriff Arpaio and his deputies, and the counter-protestors with guns, and Governor Jan Brewer are capable of great love—loving their families and friends, loving their jobs, their mission, their state, their country—it is not a loving act to tear a mother from her child in the middle of the night. It is not a loving act to put a prisoner in a tent in the desert where the temperature rises to 140 degrees and then deny that prisoner water. It is not a loving act to confine a pregnant woman to a cot when she needs to walk. It is not a loving act to terrorize whole communities who want nothing more than to live in peace.  It is not a loving act to take pride in one’s ability to conduct racial profiling. It is not a loving heart that enjoys mass incarceration and deportation, even if it is legal. When we bear witness to all these atrocities and we say we are standing on the side of love, we mean it. Love matters. A loving heart matters. A loving community matters. A loving nation matters. If you ask me, maybe not now, maybe not next year, but some day, love wins. I believe it. What did we do in Phoenix? We did not turn away. We bore witness to love. It made all the difference.

Amen and Blessed be.



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

[2] For footage and text from the UUA’s Justice General Assembly, see: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/index.shtml.

[8] Ms. Chairez’ testimony at Justice GA is at: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/business/200226.shtml.

[9] Video footage and the fully text of the speeches at the Tent City witness are at: http://www.uua.org/immigration/re/ga/200252.shtml

[10] This language comes from a litany called “Why We Witness,” which was art of the Saturday evening worship at Justice GA, prior to the Tent City Witness. See: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/worship/200328.shtml.

[11] The list of our Justice GA partners is at: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/185401.shtml

No Greater Love (or Not Your Kind of People)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Watch video here.

Last month the rock band Garbage released its most recent album entitled “Not Your Kind of People.”[1] The lyrics to the title track seem so relevant to what I want to say this morning that I’ve decided to share them with you as a starting place:

We are not your kind of people / You seem kind of phoney / everything’s a lie  / We are not your kind of people  / Something in your makeup / don’t see eye to eye / We are not your kind of people / Don’t want to be like you ever in our lives. . . . We are not your kind of people / Speak a different language / We see through your lies  / We are not your kind of people / Won’t be cast as demons / creatures you despise.[2]

I don’t know if the band intends to convey a specific meaning with these lyrics or if they are describing a specific situation. It isn’t clear. I assume at some level they want listeners to find their own meaning and apply it to their own situation. Although the music is gentle (especially for Garbage) the lyrics convey a strong—even harsh—sentiment. We are not your kind of people conveys a feeling of disconnection, separation, alienation—a feeling, even, of brokenness in the human family. It’s akin to the feeling—a mixed feeling to be sure—that arose in me when I watched the film, “No Greater Love,” a 2009 Lionsgate and Thomas Nelson film. (Thomas Nelson is the world’s largest Christian book publisher and is Lionsgate’s exclusive distributor to the Christian entertainment markets.)[3] I don’t normally watch films like this. Alan and Kathy Ayers suggested it to me as background for this sermon which they purchased at last year’s goods and services auction. Alan and Kathy wouldn’t normally watch a film like this either. They watched it thinking it was something else.

Here’s the story-line: in a haze of alcohol and drug-use a young woman, Heather, walks out on her marriage and new-born baby due to her depression and disappears.  Ten years later her “ex” husband, Jeff (who she’d known since childhood), accidentally runs into her again when he sends his son to a summer Bible camp where she is working. They start to get to know each other again.  In turns out that during those ten years of separation Heather has become an evangelical Christian. She’s been saved in the traditional sense. Jeff, who is not religious in any sense, realizes he is still in love with Heather and calls off his engagement to another woman. But Heather’s minister, Chris, tells Jeff they can’t be together because he is a non-believer. (That’s when the not your kind of people feeling started rising in me.) This upsets Jeff; but then he reveals that he never actually executed divorce papers—he and Heather are still legally married. Now Pastor Chris tells them they have to stay together based on their church’s interpretation of Biblical law: under any circumstances marriage is better than divorce.  (We can assume they wouldn’t apply this standard to same-sex marriage, or in the event one of the partners underwent sexual reassignment surgery—that would be a very different movie entirely!) Heather is concerned that her unbelieving husband won’t allow her to practice her Christian faith. Jeff is concerned that Heather is now only staying in the marriage because the Bible and her pastor demand it.

I suspect most people can watch this film and, no matter what spiritual or religious beliefs they profess, get caught up in its romantic plot, and really root for Jeff and Heather to be in love and to be together. I certainly wanted a happy ending. What Alan and Kathy are reacting to, at least on the surface, if I understand what they’ve said, is the role of the pastor and church law and what appears to be Heather’s inability to think for herself beyond trying to fit herself into the framework her church and the Bible demand. And right there is the border between conservative religious people and liberal religious people. There are many ways to describe this border, but in this case the conservative religious person looks to some external authority—the Bible, the Ten Commandments, church law, the minister, a transcendent God—and the liberal religious person looks to some internal authority—conscience, reason, personal experience, “the still small voice in me”[4] as we just sang, “that place inside where we know our truth,” an imminent God, an inner sense of the divine. In this case the conservative religious person assumes the situation is black and white, that a definitive, correct answer exists, and can be found through a careful reading of scripture and church law—and the minister is the expert in these matters, or at least should be. The liberal religious person encounters a whole lot of gray and will search through that gray looking not for the “right” answer but for what is hopefully the “best” answer given all the nuances of the situation. The liberal minister’s job is to help the individual discern their best answer.

While the differences are more complex than I’ve just described them—some liberal religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as conservative; some conservative religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as liberal—they are very real.  Because of them, liberal religious people typically experience conservative religious people as unthinking and irrational. Conservative religious people typically experience liberal religious people as not actually religious, as non-believers, postmodern, relativistic, rudderless, etc. There’s a border here. (Remember: borders is our ministry theme for June.) It cuts through countries, states, cities, towns, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and families. From the perspective on either side of that border it is quite possible to feel we are not your kind of people.

Kathy and Alan asked me to preach on how, as Unitarian Universalists, as liberal religious people, we can best relate to people like Heather and her minister when we encounter them.  How can we relate to people who live on the other side of this border from us? How can we respect beliefs that at times seem illogical or irrational to us?  How do we accept people who hold those beliefs? How can we resist the temptation to judge?  Even in suggesting these kinds of questions, Kathy said she felt she was coming across as arrogant—but said it seemed like the same kind of arrogance she feels conservative religious people direct at her liberal religious identity.  So that’s the question: how do we relate across the religious border?

I’m pretty sure the capacity to relate across religious borders—and across many of the borders that divide people from people—doesn’t come to us naturally. It takes practice. It requires patience. We need to work at it. And I think we acquire it through a developmental process. That is, we develop the capacity to relate well across religious borders as we move beyond an initial sense of excitement about our own faith, an initial sense of pride in our own faith, an initial sense of feeling special because of our own faith to a deeper place of humility, a recognition that our faith is one of many, that there is room within a family, a neighborhood, a workplace, a school, a town, a city, a state, a nation, a planet for many faiths. None is set above. None is set below. None is set apart as special. It’s a movement from pride to humility.

The film “No Greater Love” does not reach that humble place and that’s not why it was made. The proof is in the title. There’s the romantic meaning, which has to do with how Jeff and Heather feel about each other. And then there’s the Biblical meaning. I read to you the Bible verse that contains this phrase, John 15:13, “there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In the film nobody lays down their life for their friends, not even remotely.  So, it seems like a bad title. But if you read the next few verses it becomes clear why this title might make sense. Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”[5] In my experience this is one of those Bible passages often used to justify an attitude of Christian exceptionalism. Not always, but often. Jesus says: “I chose you.” I didn’t choose everyone. I chose you. This is not universalism. This is exceptionalism.  And all through the film, although the characters don’t use the language of chosen-ness, they say it in many ways: We’re different. We’re special. There’s something about us that sets us apart from other people. Can’t you see? And Jeff, the unbeliever, who wants to be with the believing Heather, begins to see this difference; he sees that Heather’s faith has helped her resolve the problems that led her to leave him in the first place, and he admires it. He says, essentially, “I want what you have.”

There’s nothing wrong with a movie studio making a movie like this. There’s nothing wrong with people being excited about their faith, proud of their faith, even feeling special because of their faith. But let’s be clear: humility is a sign of a mature faith, and this is not humility. This film sets Christians—and a certain kind of Christian at that—apart and above other people. Despite its pleasant, romantic vibe, it contributes to a strengthening of the religious border by proclaiming we are not your kind of people. And that’s why liberal religious people, including liberal Christians, might react negatively.

To emphasize this last point, let me be clear: I am not suggesting that religious exceptionalism is somehow unique to religious conservatives. We religious liberals have our own version of it. It’s perhaps more subtle than the religious conservative version, because the language we typically use to describe our liberal faith expresses an openness to other religions, an embrace of religious pluralism. Our Unitarian and Universalist roots inform us all are chosen, all are welcome, all matter, all possess inherent worth and dignity regardless of who they are, what they believe, who they love, how they live. This is beautiful. It’s exciting. It fills me with pride. It makes me feel special. But I am also aware the line between humility is thin. If I’m not vigilant I can very easily fall into that place of assuming my faith is the more enlightened faith. My faith sets me apart. My faith is forged in the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind, not a set of ancient books that tell an exaggerated if not false history of the ancient Near East and promote a patriarchal culture whose values run completely counter to modern, democratic principles. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred, not from a church doctrine designed to control the people, to wage a war on women, to make sexual minorities invisible by preventing them from achieving full legal status, or to inspire holy war against perceived infidels. Can you hear it? I believe the sentences I’ve just uttered are true; they express who I am; they express my social, political and spiritual commitments. But let’s be honest: they can also be heard as an expression of liberal religious exceptionalism.

This is primarily because of the words I chose to use. I emphasized who I am not as much as who I am. I said “not in a set of ancient books” and then spoke about those ancient books in a condescending way. I said “not from a church doctrine,” and then implied that church doctrine is responsible for a whole host of social evils. I built my faith up while tearing the faith of others down. It’s divisive language, it’s fighting language, it’s us vs. them language, its exceptionalist language. It’s not empty rhetoric, but it is rhetoric all the same. It’s easy. I’m pretty good at it. There’s something satisfying about it. But it’s not humble. And it’s not effective if the goal is to relate well across the border.

Meeting the challenge of relating well across the religious border does not require us to change our liberal religious values. It does not require us to moderate our excitement about our liberal faith tradition, or our pride in it, or the way it might make us feel special and grounded and whole. The first step towards spiritual humility at the border is speaking our truth without denigrating others. My faith emerges from the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind. It is consistent with modern democratic principles: freedom, liberty, human rights. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred. It leads me to support reproductive rights for women and families, equal pay for equal work, civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It leads me to reject war and other forms of violence as methods for resolving conflict. It’s the same statement, but it doesn’t intentionally create an us and a them. It says who I am without criticizing who I am not.

But even more important than this is our capacity to bring curiosity to the border; to bring a genuine desire to learn about people who live across the border and to become well-versed in the religious ways of the world. Curiosity does not necessarily change who we are, but it does challenge us to clarify and deepen who we are. How different it would have been—and how much more authentic—if the character of Jeff has said, “Wow, Heather really believes the Bible is true. She strives to conduct her life in response to it. Well, what is true for me? Where do my truths come from? To what truth does my life respond?” Learning another’s faith enables us to become more of who we are, not less. Learning another’s faith challenges us to clarify and deepen our own faith; it challenges us to become more mature in our faith; and it calls us to humility as we approach the borders of our lives.

I suspect it is true there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends or one’s family. But in an age when we are so prone to exceptionalism, often without even realizing it; in an age when we are so divided, especially by religion; in an age when our borders are places of tension and conflict, cheap rhetoric, and deep feelings of  “not your kind of people,” I say it is also a sign of our desire to be more loving, more compassionate, more connected, more related, more peaceful when we approach the borders of our lives with humility, as curious searchers, and as people with strong opinions who may nevertheless be able to find common ground with those who believe differently. It may not be the greatest love, but it is an essential love for our time.

Amen and Blessed be.



[1] For more information on Garbage and “Not Your Kind of People, “ explore:  http://garbage.com/ and  http://www.amazon.com/Not-Your-Kind-People-Deluxe/dp/B007H9B8FS.

[2] Check out the song, “Not Your Kind of People” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEClCAFjYHg.

[4] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Blessed Spirit of My Life,” Singing the Living Tradition, (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993 # 86.

[5] John 15: 13-16.

We Build Temples in the Heart

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video: Here We Build Temples in the Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

Fragments of Your Ancient Name

Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

Video here.

The early 20th century German language poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, writes: “A fracture broke across the rings you’d ripened. / A screaming shattered the voices / that had just come together to speak you, to make of you a bridge / over the chasm of everything. / And what they have stammered ever since / are fragments / of your ancient name.[1] This is certainly not a holiday poem. It’s not particularly seasonal or even Decemberish. It speaks to me about brokenness in the human family, brokenness in the collective human spirit, and even brokenness in God. I offer this poem to you this morning because the midwinter season—this season of the solstice, of the returning sun, of festivals of light, of Advent, of stories of miracles and messiahs, angels and the births of kings; this season of hope and expectation, of promises of peace on earth and good will to all, of shopping and gift-giving, Yule logs, sleigh rides, Santa and mistletoe—the midwinter season, at its best, calls us to encounter ourselves differently, to live differently, to heal the brokenness in the human family, to heal the brokenness in the human spirit, to heal even the brokenness in God. The midwinter season, at its best, calls us away from the fractured rings, away from the chasm of everything, away from fragmentation; it beckons us on towards a deeper meaning for our lives; it beckons us on toward wholeness. We can’t—or don’t—always follow, but it beckons nevertheless.

I want to share some reflections on my childhood to illustrate what I mean by brokenness in the human family, the collective human spirit, and even in God. This sharing may sound familiar to some. I’m revisiting pieces of a sermon I wrote in seminary and then preached several times in the early years of my ministry, including on March 16th, 2003, the very first time I preached for this congregation.

I remember a conversation in a Sunday School class at the Unitarian Society of New Haven in the late 1970s. I was probably ten years old. I think it was our class on the theory of evolution. I can’t remember who the teacher was or who else was in the class.  What I remember vividly is an insight I had in the midst of that conversation that not all natural resources are renewable, that supplies of many natural resources we rely on (like oil) are finite, that our way of life is unsustainable and would inevitably change—perhaps not in my lifetime or that of my children and grandchildren, but certainly within the next few centuries. I offered this observation. The teacher agreed, and then counseled me and my classmates not to worry: science has always found solutions to these kinds of problems; science will find new ways for us to continue living as we are living. Looking back I’m reminded that in that church in the 1970s we still proclaimed a version of the late 19th-century progressive spirituality immortalized in the words of the Rev. James Freeman Clark, “We believe … in human progress onward and upward forever.”

So I didn’t worry. I trusted science. I still do. Growing up with a father who was and is a driven and passionate scientist who has spent his career unraveling the mystery of metastasis, I have learned to trust in science. Being the father of a child who underwent three successful open heart surgeries before the age of three and now lives a normal life and ran a mile in under ten minutes in the middle of October, I am one who trusts in human beings and human progress. This trust is central to what I mean when I call myself a person of faith.

In 2009 my mother’s mother died at age 102 in Hanover, PA. The modern life we are accustomed to, especially here in the United States, was not her life. My faith in science and human progress was not her faith. She and my grandfather were born on farms in rural Pennsylvania Dutch country. She remembered traveling into town by horse and buggy. She remembered walking three-and-a-half miles to St. Bartholomew’s on Sunday mornings where they practiced a modest, agrarian, pietistic Christian faith. I see them now as People of the Earth. They knew the Earth. They knew how to bring forth a yearly bounty from the Earth and its creatures. They knew and respected Nature’s power. They knew hardship and struggle, especially with the advent of the Great Depression. They knew how to adapt to changing circumstances, how to transform hardship into opportunity. They knew something of human limitations, frailties and death. In my view the Earth imparted this knowledge to them, though I’m almost certain they would not name the Earth as their teacher in quite this way. They would be more likely to proclaim that their faith in Jesus Christ carried them through hardship, helped them overcome limitations, and actually saved them from the Earth’s whims and fury.

As a child growing up in a science-oriented, suburban New England household, practicing a rational, Humanistic and often anti-Theistic Unitarian Universalist faith, it was sometimes spiritually disconcerting to visit Hanover. It was in Hanover that I first became aware of people who believed my family and I were destined for eternal punishment because of our rational religion and our rejection of the miracles and the divinity of Jesus. (No one in my mother’s family ever said this, but I heard it at St. Bartholomew’s from time to time.) It was in Hanover that I first recognized my own capacity to judge others harshly when their faith seemed old-fashioned, unexamined and even childlike. And yet God was alive and palpable in Hanover. I listened intently as my grandmother spoke of God’s love. I longed for that love in my life. She spoke of God’s anger too, and hell. I worried about that. I said my prayers at bedtime just in case: Now I lay me down to sleep….  Hanover could be so spiritually disconcerting. I longed for God’s love even as my modern Unitarian Universalist self was intentionally growing distant from God, from the old, unquestioning faith and the old, irrational church that espoused it.

Hanover was disconcerting for other reasons. Even in the 1970s, one could encounter echoes of older life-ways in Hanover: the cool basement rooms with dirt floors and shelves filled with jarred vegetables and fruit for winter sustenance; the antique tractors rusting on back lots; the bleached yellow barns that were there first, before the land was developed for housing and the roads expanded for cars; the beautiful brass bands playing Christmas carols, slightly out of tune, on dark December evenings, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”; the elders’ subtle German accents; the butcher shop down the way; and the fertile land still stretching into the distance, still yielding a rich bounty year after year. For me, a visit to Hanover offered wave after wave of mystical experiences, of heart-beats skipped, of breath-taking beauty, of apprehensions of a simpler, more sustainable life, of pausing, still and quiet, for a few incredible moments in the graveyard where my grandparents had already bought their plots, or sitting in the kitchen in the old house on Frederick Street where my mother and her siblings had grown up; wave after wave of insight into the gifts and blessings of my ancestors, insight into a way of living in harmony with the Earth, respecting the Earth, learning from the Earth; wave after wave of insight into what it means to love and trust a Holy power larger than yourself, to rest in its comforting arms, to praise it for its existence, to thank it for its abundant gifts. But this look—this glorious, deeply spiritual look at what life could be—was a backwards look, a look into a receding world, or so I assumed. It was not human progress onward and upward forever. It was not the future. It looked to my untrained eye like a form of death. Hanover could be so disconcerting.

I didn’t recognize it then, but looking back I see, emerging in me, spiritual fragmentation, mirroring a larger fragmentation in the human family. Without any adult having to say it, without any adult even intending it to happen, somehow I felt compelled to choose between my liberal, Humanist faith, and my grandmother’s traditional, Theistic faith; between my modern, suburban post-industrial lifestyle and my grandmother’s rural, earth-based, old world living. Was the choice really necessary?

We might say, “Fine! So what?!? That’s what growing up is all about, isn’t it? Figuring these things out, making choices, following a path. And you turned out OK Rev.” This is true, but I also can’t ignore the poet’s truth: “A fracture broke across the rings you’d ripened. / A screaming shattered the voices / that had just come together to speak you, to make of you a bridge / over the chasm of everything. / And what they have stammered ever since / are fragments / of your ancient name.”[1] Yes, perhaps growing up requires that we make spiritual choices and box ourselves into certain life ways; but every time we do this we risk growing spiritually fragmented. And for many of us—for many Unitarian Universalists and liberal religious people—the whole idea of God ceases to have any meaning, because the God we typically encounter—often when some well-meaning person tries to convince of God’s reality (sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently)—is a broken God—a judgmental, angry, damning God. They are only stammering a fragment of the ancient name.

What utter fools we humans have been, ripping the Holy apart like this, creating a culture that compels us to choose one piece. What utter fools we’ve been, tearing God into shreds, and then wrapping ourselves in only one shred, or none, growing self-righteous, judging, not recognizing the paucity of our spiritual garment, not recognizing our own shivering in the gathering cold.

I don’t pretend to speak with authority on what a whole God is, but I am convinced human beings have only been able to visit atrocities and injustices, terrorism and wars upon other human beings because we first ripped God apart. I am convinced human beings now confront unprecedented and catastrophic environmental change because we first ripped God apart. I am convinced that our capacity to judge and condemn, alienate and isolate, bomb and torture, exploit and enslave, pollute and plunder, is rooted in our tearing God asunder. When we look out at the world and bear witness to brokenness in the human family and brokenness in the human spirit it is because, after millennia of human existence, we still only stammer fragments of God’s ancient name.

Hanover never should have been a disconcerting experience for a child. Hanover should have been (and I’m thankful it is now) a moment to recognize that the spirit and energy present in humanity, in human innovation, in science, in reason, in our aspirations towards progress—curing disease, advancing technology, eliminating poverty, expanding freedom—is connected to the God who has journeyed as a comforting presence with countless human beings into slavery, into concentration camps, into genocides, into trails of tears, into occupation, into war, into violence; which itself is connected to the God who carried my grandparents through all their times of hardship and struggle, to whom they prayed whether the land was barren or fertile and in whom they placed their trust;  which is itself connected to the Holy Spirit who rode on lush harmonies of brass band Christmas carols, slightly out of tune, on dark, December evenings; which is itself connected to the energy and sustenance stored in jars of vegetables and fruits on cool basement shelves, ready for the long winter months; which is itself connected to ghosts haunting old yellow barns and rusting tractors and to the voices of the ancestors speaking of a more simple and sustainable life; which is connected to Nature, the Earth, the land, the soil that, if respected and treated well by all of us—as the ancients knew—will continue to yield abundance, will continue to sustain life, will continue to enable survival even through the harshest of times; which is itself connected to the Goddess, the Great Mother, the Creative power of the universe; which is itself, in the words of Nancy Shaffer in our second reading this morning, “Peace … / One My Mother knew … / Ancestor … / Wind. / Rain. / Breath …. / Refuge.  / That Which Holds All. / … Water. / … Kuan Yin. / … Womb. / Witness. / Great Kindness. / Great Eagle. / Eternal Stillness;[2] which is itself connected to the God who cries out for atonement for human atrocities; which is itself connected to the God who is clearly powerless to stop human beings from killing each other, yet who offers to us, over and over, through the prophetic urgings of seers and sages and holy people throughout the ages the path of love thy neighbor as thyself; which is itself connected to all the powers and experiences and love that saves us in this life, in a multitude of ways, again and again, if we would only wake up, if we would only notice, if we would only weave back together the tattered shreds, if we would only let God be whole. God’s ancient name must be some version of the word whole.

The midwinter season beckons us toward this wholeness. It’s there in the mixing of the sacred and secular—the nativity scene in the middle of the shopping mall. It’s there in the mixing of the pagan and Christian symbols: the evergreen, that ancient symbol of life prevailing through the winter, decorated with the angels and stars of Luke’s gospel. It’s there in the story of a miraculous birth—the common story of so many gods and goddesses and heroes throughout human history. And it’s there in the message which we associate with Christmas but which resides at the core of so many faith traditions: peace on Earth, goodwill to all. So many fragments come together in this season, pointing us towards a deeper meaning for our lives, calling us to the work of healing the human family and healing the collective human spirit, calling out God’s ancient name, not a fragment; and beckoning us toward wholeness.

Amen and Blessed Be.

_______________________________________________________________________________

[1] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “I Read it Hear in Your Very Word,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna, translators, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 55.

[2] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “I Read it Hear in Your Very Word,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna, translators, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 55.

[3] Shaffer, Nancy, “That Which Holds All,” Instructions in Joy (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002) p. 23.