A Dream in the Heart

Rev. Josh Pawelek

winter scenePeople “cannot continue long to live if the dream in the heart has perished. It is then that they stop hoping, stop looking, and the last embers of their anticipations fade away”[1]—a potent message—perhaps a warning—from the twentieth-century, Christian mystic, Howard Thurman. People “cannot continue long to live if the dream in the heart has perished.  It is then that they stop hoping.”

Hope is our December ministry theme.  Hope and December go hand-in-hand. There’s nothing like this dark mid-winter season to engender in us quiet reflection on hope. There’s nothing like this dark mid-winter season to call forth from us expressions—poems, songs, carols, prayers, stories—of hope.

I’ve talked about hope in past sermons very simply as a positive orientation toward the future, which it certainly is. But that definition doesn’t feel sufficient to me this morning. There are potentially many reasons, both personal and global—I’ll name some through the course of this sermon—reasons that could lead us to conclude a positive orientation toward the future is not justified, or at least unrealistic. I want to push back against that conclusion, and start with a different kind of claim: hope is a capacity inherent in us, inherent in human beings. We might call this the “Emily Dickinson” version of hope, recalling her famous words: “Hope” is the thing with feathers— / That perches in the soul— / And sings the tune without the words— / And never stops—at all.[2]  This idea appeals to me because, if it’s true, if hope is inherent in us like a bird perched in the soul, then in those moments when we experience a loss of hope, we have reason to trust that the loss is not permanent. Even when we feel we have nowhere else to turn, we can turn to ourselves, we turn to what Thurman calls “the inward parts,” and begin to dream again.

When I say hope is inherent in us, I’m not suggesting it is a biological phenomenon. If nothing else, I suspect it lives deep in our cultural DNA. As I said in my December newsletter column, I suspect our ancient ancestors—especially those in the northern latitudes—experienced winter as a challenging, frightening and difficult time, a dark time, a cold time, a hunger time, a worry time, an anxiety time: will we survive? The return of the sun at the winter solstice—that moment of the planet tilting back on its axis, of the great wheel of the earth turning—that moment, every year, must have been inspiring, must have generated profound hope—the days are getting longer now; we’re going to make it! Hundreds of generations later, we inherit that ancient hopefulness.

No wonder the December holiday stories are so enduring and endearing. No wonder their hopefulness still speaks to so many of us thousands of years after they were first written. I’m referring to the story of Hanukah, the festival of lights, which begins this coming Tuesday evening: the cleansing of the sacred spaces, one day’s supply of oil providing lamp-light for eight, the re-dedication of the temple. And I’m referring to the story of Christmas, which Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner described last Sunday as the “tale of a world waiting for hope, for joy, for the coming of the babe who would bring peace, hold the powerful to account and ‘lift up the lowly.’”[3] As these stories return to us each December, as they reverberate through our lives during these days of waning sunlight, those of us who learned them first as children—and even those of us who didn’t—we feel the hopefulness in them. These stories, along with our various holiday rituals—decorating Christmas trees,  decorating our homes, hanging evergreens, preparing special foods, sending greeting cards, lighting lights, lighting the menorah, tickets to “The Nutcracker,” “A Christmas Carol,”—all of it has the power to move us from sad to joyful, exhausted to energized, fearful to courageous, angry to peaceful and despairing to hopeful. These stories and rituals awaken and give voice to that ancient inheritance, that hopefulness inherent in us.

winter sceneAnd it surely needs awakening. We may have an inherent capacity for hope, but it is also part of the human condition to lose hope at times. We know there is much in our lives that has the power to obscure our capacity for hope—to blunt it, weaken it, bury it deep: a difficult diagnosis, a debilitating medical treatment, a mental illness, a lost job, a loss of memory, grief at the death of a loved-one, grief at estrangement from a loved-one, a troubling addiction, a struggling child. Any time we encounter situations like these, it is possible we will slip into depression or despair, possible our motivation will fail, possible we’ll lose hope.

We know also there is much in the wider world that has this same power to separate us from hope: a raging virus, an endless war, an emerging terrorist state, growing poverty, and sign after sign of coming, catastrophic climate change. I think it’s fair to say nobody escapes this life without encountering reasons to lose hope. For some these reasons come in more or less manageable doses; for others they are pervasive and debilitating. Either way, each of us has reasons from time to time not to greet the day with hope in our hearts. Or, in Howard Thurman’s words, to “lose the significance of living.”[4]

Two assaults on hope are weighing on me in this moment. This morning marks the painful two-year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. If there was ever a day in recent memory to lose hope, it was that day, Friday, December 14, 2012. The recognition that one human being could wreak so much havoc on innocents, could cause such enormous suffering—for no discernable reason—was utterly heart-breaking, chilling, numbing, overwhelming. Sixty miles away from the atrocity, I remember feeling physically ill. I couldn’t eat. I dreaded having to tell my children what had happened, but felt I had to before they heard about it from someone else. I remember feeling disgust, anger, helplessness. All of this added up to hopelessness, an inability to access that inherent capacity for hope. For a moment, I think, the nation lost hope, lost the significance of living. What could any of us possibly do to alleviate that pain? What change in the law, what change in our communities, what change in our hearts could possibly heal the wounds of that day? Newtown is no longer front-page news, but as a nation we are still grappling with its meaning, still wondering what dream we ought to be dreaming.

This morning I am also mindful of the anger and rage surging in the nation in response to grand juries in Staten Island, NY and Ferguson, MO who found insufficient evidence to indict police officers who killed unarmed black men in July and August. When we take the time to understand these grand jury decisions in the context of longstanding patterns of police violence in many communities of color across the nation, and when we understand these patterns in the context of ongoing institutional racism in the United States that results in a well-documented race-based wealth gap, a health-gap, an employment gap, a housing gap, an incarceration gap, an education gap—when we take the time to understand, to bear witness, to grasp just how enormous these problems are—it begins to make sense that many people—people of all racial identities—would lose hope, would lose the significance of living, would feel despair, would become angry and full of rage. As a nation we are once again grappling openly with race and racism, and many are wondering what dream we ought to be dreaming.

Again, there are potentially many reasons, both personal and global, for us to conclude that a positive orientation toward the future is not justified, or at least not realistic. We may have an innate capacity for hope, but we also lose hope. Given this, how do we get it back? How do we get back to that part of ourselves that is innately hopeful? In trying to answer this question, I stumbled across the work of the popular researcher/social worker/storyteller, Brené Brown. In her 2010 book, The Gifts of Imperfection, she says “I was shocked to discover that hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process. Emotions play a supporting role, but hope is really a thought process made up of [a] trilogy of goals, pathways, and agency.” She says hope happens when “1) we have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go); 2) we are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative routes (I know how to get there, I’m persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again); and 3) we believe in ourselves (I can do this!).”[5] Her research shows that people who work hard, who are persistent, who are able to tolerate failure, who are willing and able to struggle for what they believe in, are more hopeful than people who don’t work hard and who give up easily. Tenacious people are hopeful people.

She is particularly concerned that our society is no longer teaching the values of hard work, persistence and tolerance for failure to our children, which is precisely what they need to become not only successful but hopeful adults. Interestingly, given her findings, Brown doesn’t think hope is inherent in us. She loves that Emily Dickinson poem, but she calls it “romantic,” says it doesn’t tell us anything useful about what hope actually is. For Brown, hope is a thought process that we can learn and teach to others. 

Here’s one of Brenae Brown’s lectures on hope:

 

Winter SceneThis is important. I love the idea that hope is learnable and teachable, and it strikes me that church ought to be all about the learning and teaching of hope! But my sense is that Brown’s research looks more at people who are successful in school and work settings, and isn’t quite as focused on people in the midst of existential crises, crises where life and death are at stake, crises that call into question the meaning of our existence—patients hearing the news they have a fatal disease; spouses living with grief after their beloved has died unexpectedly; teenagers contemplating suicide after relentless bullying;  soldiers serving in war zones; refugees fleeing across borders, freezing, starving in unfamiliar wilderness; prisoners incarcerated for non-violent crimes; people living in poverty; pro-democracy activists confronting the tyranny of violent, authoritarian regimes; communities responding to police shootings of citizens; communities torn apart by gun violence—whether mass shootings or gang shootings; anyone contemplating the fragility of the earth, the burgeoning climate crisis, the great disruption; anyone wondering how on earth they can make a difference when the problems we face seem so insurmountable. In response to existential crises, Brown’s trilogy of goals, approaches and agency, in my humble opinion, isn’t enough. When people are in the midst of such crises—wrestling with life and death, wrestling with meaning, wrestling with suffering—often the suggestion that they ought to “set an achievable goal” won’t make any sense, won’t be helpful. In such situations people need a different kind of presence, a different kind of guidance. Sometimes the stakes are such that people don’t have the luxury of failure.

I’m crossing a line here from the sociological to the spiritual. Before we set goals to move forward from whatever crisis we find ourselves in, before we can act, fail, adjust, try again, even before we can believe in ourselves, there’s a prior moment of recognition, which for me is the spiritual moment at the heart of our response to any existential crisis—the moment when we imagine a different outcome, the moment when we imagine a different life—a meaningful life—the moment when we imagine a different world—a peaceful world, a just world, a fair world, a loving world, a sustainable world—the moment when we turn our hearts and our bodies toward that different, meaningful life, toward that different, better world. I’m not sure we can emerge from any existential crisis without that moment of imagining. It’s the moment when we return to our capacity for hope. Howard Thurman calls it “the dream in the heart.” He says, “the dream is the quiet persistence in the heart that enables [people] to ride out the storms of their churning experiences…. It is the ever-recurring melody in the midst of the broken harmony and harsh discords of human conflict.”[6] And it doesn’t live somewhere beyond us. It lives within us. Thurman writes: “The dream is no outward thing. It does not take its rise from the environment in which one moves or functions. It lives in the inward parts, it is deep within, where the issues of life and death are ultimately determined.”[7]

winter sceneThis dream in the heart, this ability to imagine—this is the source of hope. It may recede in response to crisis—we may feel hopeless—but this capacity for hope never leaves us. The sun returns at the darkest time of year. And we can always return to our dreaming. It may not be realistic. There may be no rational way to justify it, but as long as we have a dream in our heart, we will be hopeful people. In this holiday season, and in all seasons, in response to all the crises we face, both personal and global, may we keep alive the dream in hearts. May we imagine a different, meaningful life. May we imagine a different, better world. May we hope. And then, may we get to work.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thurman, Howard, “Keep Alive the Dream in the Heart,” in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 304.

[2] Dickinson, Emily, “Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314). See: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171619.

[3] Joiner, Rev. Megan Lloyd, “In the Waiting Time,” a sermon preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, December 7, 2014. See: http://uuse.org/in-the-waiting-time/#.VIii2SvF-Sp.

[4] Thurman, Howard, “Keep Alive the Dream in the Heart,” in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 304. 

[5] Brown, Brené, The Blessings of Imperfection (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010). This particular quote can be found on Hazelden Publishing’s “Behavioral Health Evolution” website at http://www.bhevolution.org/public/cultivating_hope.page.  An excellent, short video of Brené Brown lecturing on her understanding of hope is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJo4qXbz4G4.

[6] Thurman, Howard, “Keep Alive the Dream in the Heart,” in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 305.

[7] Thurman, Howard, “Keep Alive the Dream in the Heart,” in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 305.

 

Beyond the Last Ridge: Reflections on Devotion

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Last Ridge“I always thought I’d have little girls / and be a good mom, be the mother / I never had, teach them how to make pies / and how to get past wanting to quit, show them / the place in our minds beyond the last ridge / where we can rock the cutter endlessly, the place where there is no time and how to / tightly crimp the edge with alternating thumbs.”[1] Words from Northern California-based poet and artist Lin Max’s “The Piemaker.” I offer these words as a starting place for reflections on devotion, on what it means to be devoted, on what it means to give our hearts so fully that the giving shapes the direction of our lives.

Devotion is our ministry theme for May. Devotion in a religious context may strike some of you as one of those haunting theological words that make some Unitarian Universalists bristle; one of those words that doesn’t quite mesh with a more liberal, modernist, questioning, skeptical, agnostic, atheist or Humanist approach to religion; one of those words you may have left behind if you’re one who left behind a more conservative religious life. Given that, let me be the first to say there are good reasons5-13 ridge 4 why we might bristle. Devotion—especially religious devotion—can and does go horribly wrong. And yet the poet offers a glimpse of something powerful, something of great value devotion imparts to the devoted. It teaches patience. It teaches how not to quit. It reveals “the place in our minds beyond the last ridge … the place where there is no time.” I’m curious about this place. Aren’t you? The poet seems to be referencing the place we might come to in a peak spiritual experience, or at the culmination of a spiritual journey—a place where our body, mind, heart and spirit are aligned; a place where our inner and outer worlds cohere; a place where we know our purpose and we let it be our guide. I’d like to go there. While I’m pretty sure pie making is not my path to it, I’m also fairly confident none of us can get beyond the last ridge without some degree of devotion.

In its most basic, secular sense, if we’re devoted to something or someone, it means we care deeply about that something or someone and our actions demonstrate that care. We feel loving, loyal, supportive, enthusiastic towards that something or someone. We’re willing to take risks on behalf of that something or someone. We give our hearts to that something or someone. For me this is a basic definition of devotion: the ongoing giving of a part of ourselves to something or someone. And in that giving, we become more whole.

A week ago I attend a vigil in North Hartford organized by Mothers United Against Violence to mark the one year anniversary of the murder of a young woman named Shamari Jenkins.[2] The minister who leads this group, the Rev. Henry Brown,[3] is one of the most devoted people I know. A one-time victim of gun-violence, he is crystal clear in his purpose: to support and minister to the families of the victims of violence; and to do whatever he can to end violence on Hartford streets. During the vigil a group of young men joined the crowd. They were drinking whiskey and smoking what looked like pot, though I wasn’t sure. While I know not to make assumptions about anyone based on looks, they looked tough, and the question crossed my mind: could these young men could be dangerous? I had no idea what to do other than ignore them. The police ignored them too. But Rev. Brown didn’t. In the middle of the vigil he confronted them. He scolded them. He said, into his bullhorn, “put that away.” “Show some respect for this family.” “Either you’re here to support this family or not. If not, then leave.” They left.

Rev. Henry Brown of MUAV

Rev. Henry Brown of MUAV

Confronting a group of young, whiskey-drinking men is risky on any corner anywhere. I’m sure Rev. Brown had a much better assessment of the actual risk than I did. And whether it was risky or not, he did it. This giving a piece of himself to a family that has lost a daughter to violence; this giving a piece of himself to make sure their dignity is honored; this giving a piece of himself to say, once again, that we must end violence on our city streets: this is devotion—

to the family, to victims, to neighborhoods where these murders happen, and even to the tough-looking young men he confronted. Rev. Brown knows something of what it’s like beyond the last ridge. He knows his purpose. He patiently conducts his ministry. He resists those demons that council him to quit. He is passionate about what he’s doing.

Rev. Howard Thurman

Rev. Howard Thurman

As a minister—as your minister—the question that seems most critical for me to ask you is “What are you passionate about?” You’ve heard me ask this question from the pulpit. Many of you have heard me ask it in one-on-one meetings or in small groups. I ask this question because I’m convinced people pursuing their passions are truly living their lives. They’re awake, inspired, generous, open, committed. We read earlier from the Christian mystic, Howard Thurman: “Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in good times or in tempests, I may not forget that to which my life is committed.”[4] I’m mindful of another quote from Thurman: “Ask not what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who’ve come alive.”[5] For me this is another way to describe how it feels when we arrive beyond the last ridge: fully alive and blessing the world.

So when I talk about religious devotion here—liberal religious devotion, Unitarian Universalist devotion—I’m looking for the extent to which your life is oriented toward your passions. What portion of your day is devoted to giving some part of yourself to that something or someone you care deeply about? How much opportunity is there in the course of your week to open your heart fully to that something or someone you love? In your life is there sufficient room to take the risks your passion requires? Religious devotion is a quality in us—a quality we can cultivate—marked by focus, patience, practice, purposefulness, resolve, clarity, a striving for what matters most. The word devotion comes from the Latin devovere, which translates as consecrate. When we consecrate something or someone, we make them sacred. I’m suggesting that as we devote our lives to the things and people we’re passionate about, we make them sacred. My continual prayer for us is that we may have in our lives sufficient if not expansive room for consecration—room to devote ourselves to what matters most. Through our devotion, which is always a giving away of some part of ourselves, may we live fully. May we find wholeness. May we bless the world.

Having offered this prayer, let me offer a caution: devotion can sometimes lead to conflict in communities. Rev. Brown is outspoken about the need to end violence on Hartford streets. His devotion inspires him to challenge and critique elected officials, the police, clergy, neighborhoods, drug dealers, gang members—anyone whose actions, or inactions, undermine attempts to end violence, he calls them out. And as you may imagine, there are many who don’t appreciate being called out. He generates conflict—and I think it’s a necessary conflict when we pause to consider what is at stake.

Exploring religious devotion in our own lives, it’s important for us to recognize that our devotion may bring clarity and a singularity of purpose to us, but that others may not share it. When we name it, when we act on it, it can be alienating to those who don’t share our passion. Thus, our devotion can set us apart, make us stand out, make us wonder: Why don’t others take this as seriously as I do? Our devotion can, in fact, lead us into isolation, into loneliness, and into disagreement. This is a basic reality of human communities. To live well with this reality, it is critical that we learn to accept that not everyone shares our passion—that we can invite others to join us, but we can’t force them; and that we are a stronger spiritual community when there is room for many passions: social justice, music, children, elders, learning, multigenerational community, visual arts, cooking, service, worship, leadership, finance, theology, administration, sustainable living, green energy, event planning, fundraising, caring, gardening, visiting, knitting. The more room for passionate devotion, the stronger we are.

knockingA further caution: religious devotion can become overbearing and downright dangerous. In more mild Crusadesterms I’m referring to door-to-door evangelists, to proselytizers who seem unable to respect the existence of other faiths. We often experience them as spiritually tone-deaf, as pious and pushy, though I admire the courage of those who knock on endless doors only to be met with a polite no thank you at best, and derision at worst. In more extreme terms we know some who are deeply devoted are easily manipulated. When given a reason to fear some enemy, some infidel, some non-believer, some other, the devoted can be convinced to commit acts of violence or terrorism. So many perpetrators of religious violence believe they are acting out of devotion to God, believe they fulfilling God’s will for them. Devotion can and does go horribly wrong. If we bristle at the word, it is understandable.

Rev. Davidson Loehr

Rev. Davidson Loehr

A final caution: not all passions are worth pursuing. But how do we know? Here’s a quote from the Rev. Davidson Loehr, a liberal minister who served Unitarian Universalist congregations. In his 2005 book, America Fascism + God, he names the power of gods in our lives, though he’s using god in psychological rather than a traditional religious sense. He says, “I am a theologian, and I … know something about gods. I know how they work, how powerful they are, how invisible they usually are, and I know that beneath nearly every human endeavor with any passion or commitment about it there will be a god operating, doing the things gods do. Gods are those central concerns that our behaviors show we take very seriously. We commit our lives to them, we are driven by them, and in return they promise us something we want, or think we want. Whether what they promise us is good or bad is a measure of whether the god involved is an adequate or an inadequate one.”[6] He’s talking here specifically about the way American society treats capitalism as a god, though a highly inadequate one, since recent economic trends have led to such enormous inequality and poverty. He contends this worship of the inadequate god of capitalism has come at the expense of a much more adequate god, democracy.[7]

I won’t follow this particular thread any further, but I think this concept is important. The sign of an inadequate god is that our devotion to it results either in some kind of harm, or in nothing useful at all. The sign of an adequate god is that our devotion to it results in some tangible good. I was thinking that a good way to discuss devotion with children would be to ask them how they spend their free time. If they’re being honest—as opposed to thinking, he’s the minister, I better say what I think he wants me to say—they might talk about watching television or playing video games. At least my kids would. And we could then have a conversation about whether choosing to spend their time this way results in any good for themselves or for society. Hopefully it would get them thinking about more productive ways to devote themselves. Of course, some kids will talk about sports, nature, art, pets, school or helping their parents. If asked, they can name how devoting their time in this way results in a good for themselves or others. The deeper learning in such a conversation is that how we spend our time is a sign of what is truly important to us, regardless of what we say is important to us. As Rev. Loehr and others would put it, it’s a sign of the god we actually worship.

This can be dicey with adults, especially if we’re prone to feeling guilty. If we answer the question honestly, we may find that we devote quite a bit of time to things that make no difference, things that produce no good for ourselves or society. We may find that despite what we say we’re passionate about, our actions indicate we’re devoted to some other god. Do we watch too much television? Do we spend too much time on our electronic devices? These are fairly innocuous gods. They hurt no one. And often we say “this is how I unwind.” And that’s legitimate, though if our unwinding consistently prevents us from devoting ourselves to our passions, we may have to confront the possibility we are not fully living our lives. And what of devotion to more destructive gods? Alcohol comes to my mind most immediately as an adult child of an alcoholic. An unbalanced devotion to any substance—drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, food—can lead to harm of oneself and others. An unbalanced devotion to money can lead to harm. An unbalanced devotion to power can lead to harm. And there are even more insidious gods. Human beings can devote themselves to nourishing their hatreds and fears, their sense of victimhood when no actual victimization is taking place, their sense of racial and cultural superiority. Such devotions, if unchecked, lead quite easily to violence, oppression and warfare. Devotion can and does go horribly wrong.

Last Ridge

So we approach with caution. But I say, let us err not on the side of caution, but on the side of devotion. If Rev. Loehr is correct—and I believe he is—whether we know it or not, we’re always choosing to worship one god or another. So let us devote ourselves to those gods that bring good to the world: beauty, creativity, peace, justice, community, democracy, love. And not just for a moment, but for our lifetimes, like the pie maker, patiently learning “how to get past wanting to quit,” and finally arriving at “the place in our minds beyond the last ridge.”[8]

May each of us find in our lives sufficient if not expansive room for consecration—room to devote ourselves to what matters most; and through our devotion, which is always a giving away of some part of ourselves, may we live fully, may we find wholeness, may we bless the world. Amen, blessed be.

 

[1] Max, Lin, “Piemaker,” “Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature By Women,” Summer 1992, Volume 14, #1, p. 34.

[2] For the story about the murder of Shamari Jenkins, see: http://articles.courant.com/2013-06-07/community/hc-hartford-bryan-murder-arraignment-0608-2-20130607_1_girlfriend-killed-magnolia-street-police.

[3] Read at December 17th, 2011 Hartford Courant article on Rev. Henry Brown at http://articles.courant.com/2011-12-17/community/hc-hartford-henry-brown-1218-20111217_1_gun-violence-brown-prayer-vigils.

[4] Thurman, Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #498.

[5] My research confirms this quote is from Howard Thurman, though it is not clear where he wrote it or when he said it.

[6] Loehr, Davidson, America Fascism + God (White River Junction, CT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2005) p. 46.

[7] Ibid, p. 52.

[8] Max, Lin, “Piemaker,” “Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature By Women,” Summer 1992, Volume 14, #1, p. 34.

What Does the World Require of Us?

In the midst of news reports, candle-light vigils, politicians and clergy speaking words of comfort, conversations with loved-ones and with strangers, advice from trauma specialists, lists of what to say to kids in the aftermath of unspeakable violence; in the midst of prayers, hugs, tears, utter shock, disgust, incomprehensibility, feelings of profound sadness, despair, anger, confusion, vulnerability; in the midst of stories of hiding for dear life in closets, stories of heroism, of self-sacrifice, of unfathomable grief, of outrage, of children close your eyes; in the midst of vows of never again and cries of gun control now; in the midst of the rush to transform this unbridled evil into—not a political opportunity, as some are calling it, but a sacred opportunity, a human opportunity —because it’s long past time to curb this American culture of violence; in the midst of all of this, let us pause, let us breathe, let us just be in each other’s presence and recognize how truly precious it is to be together.

We know this. We know it’s precious to join together in community in a world that seems to do everything it can to drive people apart—to alienate, to fragment, to disconnect, to separate. But this Sunday, after an act of such enormous evil just sixty miles from where we gather—this Sunday when we who weren’t even in the line of fire, we who are blessedly removed from the immediate experience of this evil, but we who still nevertheless long to make sense of what happened, long for comfort, solace and healing—this Sunday when congregations thousands of miles away, all across the nation, are remembering the victims of Friday’s massacre in Newtown—this Sunday we realize anew just how precious it is to be together.  I, for one, am reminded of how much I love each of you. How truly precious it is to be together.

The choir originally planned to sing a piece entitled “Tikkun Olam,” which is Hebrew for the practice of repairing the world. It’s a wonderful piece. You will get to hear it—we’ll be singing it next week. But after the Newtown shooting it didn’t feel right to sing this song this morning. In his remarks at the Friday afternoon press conference in Newtown, Governor Malloy said something akin to “it’s too early to speak of rebuilding.” He’s right. We can’t speak of rebuilding before the families of the victims—and we too—have had time to fully accept what has happened. It still feels so unreal, so impossible. There are presents already bought—maybe even wrapped—for some of these deceased children to open on Christmas morning. It’s not time yet to speak of rebuilding. Rebuilding will come. Repairing will come. Healing will come. Forgiveness will come. Peace will come. But it’s not time yet.

Instead the choir sang, “What Does the World Require of You?” This question seems essential to me. In the aftermath of tragedy, what does the world require of us?  That’s the question I want to ponder now. It’s the question I want you to take with you into this week, into the holidays, into the new year. What does the world require of us? There’s a part of me that answers this question with exasperation, exhaustion, despair, cynicism and helplessness. What can I possibly do? The December 14th Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was not only evil, it was absurd, beyond explanation. What is required of us in the face of such violent absurdity? And keep in mind: if it hadn’t happened on Friday, we might have lit candles of concern this morning for the families of the three people who lost their lives on Tuesday when a gunman opened fire in a mall in Happy Valley, OR. And two weeks before that it was two dead in a university classroom in Casper, Wyoming—the shooter happened to be from Vernon. And before that it was seven dead at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; July 20, twelve dead in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater; May 30, five dead in a Seattle, WA cafe; April 7, three dead in Tulsa, Oklahoma; April 2, seven dead in Oakland, CA; February 27, three dead in Chardon, OH. I’ve been studying the lists. They are long. And I’m not even touching on the gang violence that plagues urban neighborhoods across the nation and leaves a trail of asphalt chalk bodies and tattered yellow police tape, a trail of shattered lives, broken families, fractured communities. I’ve been working to address violence in Hartford for six years now in coalition with a number of North Hartford pastors. We’re talented, committed leaders who want deeply—even desperately—to make a difference, but the impact we’ve had is embarrassingly small—inconsequential by most measures. What does the world require of us? Who in the world knows? What can we possibly say to these families who’ve lost children to such absurd violence? How can we even remotely know what they feel? What can we possibly do for them that will make a difference? Who in the world knows?

That’s my exasperated, exhausted, despairing, cynical and helpless answer to the question, “What does the world require of us?” And let me be crystal clear: we all get to have our version of that answer. We all get to cry tears of confusion, vulnerability, hopelessness. We all get to throw up our hands and say I can’t handle this anymore! We all get to feel helpless in the face of evil. We all get to plead with the heavens: what is happening to us? We get to have that response because it is real—an honest, human response to evil.

But we don’t get to have it forever. And not even for long. The truth is we aren’t separate from one another. The truth is we aren’t disconnected from one another.  There may be brokenness; there may be fragmentation; there may be alienation; but in the end we depend on one another—and we never see it so clearly as we do in the wake of tragedy. We need one another, as we said in our opening words.[1] We don’t live alone. We don’t live alone. We live in families. We live in communities. We live in town and cities. We live in states. We live in a nation. We live in a world. And this means there are requirements!

What does living in this world in the aftermath of tragic violence require of us? I have three answers this morning.

Requirement #1. In the wake of tragic violence, after your time of despair, seek to ground yourself. Start breathing again. Be intentional about it. Breathe deeply, slowly, fully. Fill your lungs with oxygen and remind yourself it comes from green plants and algae. Remind yourself this air you breathe is evidence of your connection to the whole of life. Not separation, but connection.  Breathe in, and as you breathe, relax, rest, be still, be quiet, be calm. Breathe in, and as you breathe, reflect, concentrate, contemplate, focus, pray. Then, still breathing, when you feel ready, start to move. Slowy at first. Gently at first: bend, bow, stretch, lengthen, extend, reach. Keep breathing. And then, when you feel ready: walk, roll, run, dance. Then, still breathing, as you feel ready, begin to create. Creative acts are so essential to moving out of despair and finding our ground. Write, compose, sing, speak, play, act, sculpt, craft, paint, draw. Feel yourself slowly coming back to yourself.

If you can, go outside. Touch the ground, the soil, the earth—the beautiful, dark brown earth. Work in the dark, brown earth. Play in the dark, brown earth. Tend it, till it, turn it, plant seeds, nurture what comes forth. Let the dirt get on your hands, under your fingernails, between your toes. Feel yourself coming back to life. Listen for the still small voice. Hear your own truths, your convictions emerging once again. They are there. They’ve never actually left.

The mystic Howard Thurman wrote, “How good it is to center down!”—he’s talking about becoming grounded—“to sit quietly and see oneself pass by! / The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic; / Our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silences, / While something deep within hungers for the still moment and the resting lull. / With full intensity we seek, ere the quiet passes, a fresh sense of order in our living; / A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring  meaning in our chaos.”[2]  Maybe you can find your grounding quickly. Maybe you’re tying and you can’t quite get there yet. Maybe you need more time. It’s ok. Despair is not easy to overcome. Take your time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. But have hope: your center is there—it’s real. You’ll find it. The world requires this of us. In the wake of tragedy, in the wake of violence, after our time of despair, seek grounding.

Requirement #2. In the wake of tragedy, with your despair now trailing behind you, from a place of groundedness emerging within you, attend—however you can—to suffering. It may not be clear for some time how we can be of service to the families of those who died in the Newtown shooting, especially at a distance. But we can be sure the suffering is extraordinary. We can be sure the suffering will last. We can be sure the suffering will ripple around the state and the nation for years to come. Already I see people on Facebook who know someone who lost a child in the shooting; or who know someone who knows someone who died; or who used to live in that part of the state; or who work in the Newtown schools; or who live in Newtown but whose children attend a different school; or who live one town over; or like Scott and Christine Hapgood, who used to attend here, who asked if we could hold up the name of a friend of theirs,  Laurie Veillette, an EMT who lives in Newtown and was one of the first responders; or like Pat Eaton-Robb—a member here—who’s been in Newtown covering the story for the Associated Press; or like Rev. Jeanne Lloyd—also a UUS:E member—who serves our congregation in Woodbury, two towns over from Newtown, and who will certainly need support as she conducts ministry just a few miles from the site of the shooting. It may not be feasible for us to provide any kind of direct care to the families of the victims, but this suffering, this pain, this trauma will ripple around and around. If and when you encounter it, attend to it. That is, stay present to it. We help alleviate suffering through our presence. Offer a helping hand, a kind word, a hug, a supportive conversation. If and when you encounter it, hold on. Don’t let go. Don’t look away. Don’t turn away. Take time. Make yourself available. Again, stay present.

The doctor-turned-spiritual-writer, 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.”[3] The world requires this of us. In the wake of tragedy, with your despair finally fading behind you, from a place of groundedness, attend however you can to suffering.

Requirement #3. In the wake of tragic violence, having moved beyond despair, having grounded yourself, having attended to suffering, it’s time to engage in the work of repair. It’s time to rebuild what has been destroyed. It’s time to change what isn’t working, to address the sources of suffering—at least those that are within our power to address. And here I want to say a few words about gun control. I don’t believe there is any law or set of laws that can keep us totally safe from the kind of horrific violence we saw in Newtown on Friday. My sense is that if a person is as tormented, confused, angry and violent as this shooter was, and if they become—for whatever reason—driven to commit an act of violence, and they really want to procure a gun, and if they’re persistent, they’ll likely be able to get one regardless of the law. But friends, that is no argument for the United States of America to continue its reckless habits of lax gun control. As I hinted at the beginning of my remarks, working for stricter gun control now is not the politicization of a tragedy; it is a moral imperative whose time is long past due. Changing American guns laws to make ownership more restrictive, to make guns more traceable, to close gun show sale loopholes, to hold dealers accountable when guns they sell are used in crimes, to hold owners accountable when they fail to report when their guns have been stolen, and to limit the kinds of guns people can own (i.e., assault weapons are not necessary for hunting)—all of these changes will save thousands upon thousands of lives. In my view, this is the work of repair emerging from Friday’s tragedy.

I suspect the Newtown shooting will change the direction of the conversation about gun control in this country. It’s a tipping point. And it is my hope this morning that people on both sides of the gun control debate can come together and agree on a sensible, sane approach to gun ownership that continues to protect Second Amendment freedoms but makes change substantial enough to stop the madness of American gun violence.

I suppose that sounds naïve. At least there’s a part of me that fears it is. And perhaps in this moment, just 48 hours after the shooting began at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, it is too soon to talk about repairing what is broken. We aren’t there yet. We’re still trying to get beyond despair to groundedness. But the world requires this of us—after finding our grounding, after attending to suffering, we must work to repair the world.

Some final thoughts: I think it’s possible that on a morning like this morning it all feels like too much. How to find grounding in the midst of despair? It feels like too much. How to bear witness to the suffering inflicted on the people of Newtown, or any suffering we may encounter? It feels like too much? How to engage in the work of repair, especially when we know the immense power of the forces opposing changes in U.S. gun laws? It feels like too much. This brings to mind an excerpt from the Irish writer, Seamus Heanney’s play The Cure at Troy. He writes: “History says, Don’t hope / On this side of the grave.” That is, there are reasons to feel down, to feel demoralized, to feel despair. We’re witnessing one 60 miles down the road. And history is filled with them.  “History says, Don’t hope / On this side of the grave.”

But Heanney doesn’t succumb. He refuses to learn this lesson. And so should we. He continues: “Once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up, / And hope and history rhyme. / So hope for a great sea-change / on the far side of revenge. / Believe that a further shore / Is reachable from here. / Believe in miracles/ And cures and healing wells.”[4]

Friends, the truth is we are connected—to each other, to the people of Newtown, to all people, to all life. We are connected and therefore world requires certain things of us. In the wake of tragic violence, in the midst of despair, first seek grounding. Then attend to suffering. Then work to repair the world. Why try to meet these requirements? Because a further shore is reachable from here. May we reach it.

Amen. Blessed be.



[1] Odell, George E., “We Need One Another,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #468.

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

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

[4] Heanney, Seamus, excerpt from The Cure at Troy, in Murray, Joan, ed., Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001) pp. 64-65.

The Life We Have Lost in Living

Rev. Josh Pawelek

View Video at: The Life We Have Lost in Living

“A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things”—words from the late 19thand early 20th-century American journalist and

Don Marquis

humorist, Don Marquis.[1] I’m not familiar with his work, though I see from my brief research he wrote prolifically. As I sing these words, which many regard as his most famous “serious” poem, I imagine he was fascinated with the human yearning to create, the human yearning for knowledge, the human yearning to solve problems and overcome obstacles. In his view, this yearning—this unrest, as he calls it—drives discovery, drives invention, drives innovation. It is the force behind human evolution: “but for this rebel in our breast,” he writes, “had we remained as brutes.”  Or, “when baffled lips demanded speech, speech trembled into birth.” This unrest, restlessness, yearning, desire, longing, reaching, stretching—whatever we name it, it’s one of those wonderful, intangible qualities in the human heart: it goads and guides us, directs and drives us, incites and inspires us, provokes and pushes us forward toward greater insight and learning, toward greater freedom and justice, toward ever more sophisticated technologies. It is the energy powering the engine of human progress. And in the end it is not only a human quality.  In Marquis’ words, “it leaps from star to star.” This “fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things.”

Howard Thurman

I’m reminded of a passage from the 20th-century American mystic, Howard Thurman. In his 1971 book entitled The Search for Common Ground, he suggested we not think of life as static, set, fixed, determined.[2] Rather, “life is not finished yet; creation is still going on, not only in the spinning of new worlds, systems, nebulae, and galaxies in the infinitude of space, not only in the invisible world where chemical elements are born and nourished to support conglomerates of matter yet to appear at some far-off moment in time, but also in the human body, which is still evolving, in the human mind, which so slowly loosens it corporal bonds, and in the human spirit, which forever drives to know the truth of itself and its fellows.”[3] At the core of all existing things Thurman identifies creativity, movement, drive and inexhaustible potential.

Our ministry theme for February is restlessness. What a brilliant time of year to explore this theme! Winter is beyond its halfway point; and although this particular winter has been underwhelming for us New Englanders, February is the month when we typically start to feel restless. We grow tired of winter (not including the skiers and snowboarders, of course). Thoughts of March mud, April rain and May sun call to us, coax us, tease us gently. We are almost there. Our inner selves leap forward, dragging our rusty bodies into spring. But winter takes its time. Patience, it says. Wait, it advises. Just wait. And so we are restless. Some of us even begin to seethe with a fierce unrest. You know who you are.

Here’s where I get a little confused. Winter says wait. Winter says be still. Winter says, go slowly, rest, sleep, dream, heal. This sounds like excellent spiritual advice, yes? But hold on! What about that fierce unrest seething at the core of all existing things? What about that “rebel in our breast?” What about life not finished yet? What about our human longing, yearning, passion, desire? Don’t we deny that at our peril? Isn’t it also excellent spiritual advice that says give yourself over to that fierce unrest, ride its waves, live the life that is burning in you? It is.

Wait. Don’t wait! Sleep now. Wake now my senses![4] Be patient. Seek liberation! Be still. Move! I’m confused! Sure enough, as I survey the spiritual literature on restlessness, there seem to be two general streams of thought. On one hand our restlessness is a sign we are distracted from our true spiritual work; we somehow need to overcome it. This is winter’s message to our spring-ready selves. Wait. Be still. Be quiet. Focus the breathing. Focus the mind. In her article on restlessness in our February newsletter, Marlene Geary offered this quote from a website called The Buddhist Temple: “Uddhacca means distraction. It may also be called the unsettled state of mind. Just as minute particles of ash fly about when a stone is thrown into a heap of ash, the mind which cannot rest quickly on an object but flits about from object to object is said to be distracted. The mind arising together with uddhacca is called the distracted mind. When one is overpowered by distraction, one will become a drifter, a floater, a loafer, an aimless person.”[5]

On the other hand, our restlessness guides us not away from but toward our true spiritual work. We need to pursue it. Spring beckons. Let’s follow. Creation is ongoing. Let’s create. Spiritual writer Wil Hernandez, in a book on the priest and spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, says “Nouwen was an inconsolably restless soul for much of his entire earthly journey, but no doubt a passionate seeker of himself, of other people, and of his God…. Living as resident aliens in a strange land … what other kind of peace should we expect?  In this world, restlessness, and not contentment is a sign of health.”[6]

Two radically different ways of understanding restlessness. Do we resist or embrace it? What’s a minister to do? And more importantly, which restlessness is this sermon about?

I’ve been trying to recall the times in my life when I’ve felt restless. I drew a blank at first. Me, restless? I live a solidly middle-class life, two kids, two cars, a home in the Connecticut suburbs. It’s a stable and fairly sedentary life. I am content most of the time, satisfied most of the time. I immerse myself in my work. I enjoy my routine. I feel at home and grounded in New England. I seem to have little interest in travel, much to my wife’s great disappointment. Winter’s spiritual advice—be still, be patient—resonates with me.

But I am restless. There’s always been a part of me that refuses to rest. And I’ve always found ways to follow its prompting. I used to be the drummer in a rock band—actually quite a few bands over the years. Rock music in its purest form is America’s quintessential cultural expression of restlessness. With roots deep in the black spirituals of the slave plantations—those plaintive, desperate, hopeful cries for freedom; with roots deep in the blues—that musical wrestling match with suffering, with existential angst, with human failings and frailties; with its legacy of defying convention, of challenging the prevailing order, of distorting the guitar beyond recognition; with its tradition of the singer screaming, yelping, yelling and bending the notes so blue they can’t possibly be transcribed onto paper; with its perennial themes of liberation, independence, leaving home, setting out on the open road, wandering, rambling, loneliness, lost love, broken hearts, broken lives, rebellion, revolution, sex and drugs, rock music is sheer restlessness.

Marlene also quoted lyrics from the Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash: “I was born in a crossfire hurricane, and I howled at my ma in the drivin’ rain.”[7] (Listen/view Jumping Jack Flash) After the first few measures of build-up, the guitar hook explodes, the beat kicks in, Mick Jagger starts howling, and I have all the proof I need that a fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things. I sense at the heart of this music, quoting Marquis again, “that eager wish to soar that gave the gods their wings.”[8]

In my teens, twenties and early thirties rock music gave me an identity, a sense of purpose. It fed my longing, my yearning, my desire to create, my need to live beyond convention, to live my own life rather than the life others might have me live. It was a channel for my restlessness, a pathway for my ambition, a vehicle to leave some lasting mark on the world. But I have to be honest: there was a part of me that just didn’t fit. I wasn’t rebellious. I wasn’t a big risk-taker. I didn’t throw caution to the wind. There wasn’t much suffering and struggling in my life. I wasn’t wandering and rambling. I wasn’t lonely. I certainly wasn’t living a life of excess when it came to sex and drugs. I wasn’t born in a crossfire hurricane. I never howled at my ma in the drivin’ rain. Sure I was restless, but I was also polite, responsible, understated, orderly, and at some level I did care about what other people thought of me. So I started contemplating ministry!

My pending career change was the subject of my very first sermon which I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s regular Tuesday morning service in April, 1993. I had just been accepted to divinity school. I spoke about my frustrations with rock music—the posing and pandering, the focus on image at the expense of substance, the vapidness of the scene, the lack of meaning, the overly dramatic personalities—not to mention the ringing ears, the sore back from carrying too many Marhall stacks up and down long flights of stairs, the stink of cigarette smoke, the five-hour drives from Boston to New York to play for thirty minutes in tiny clubs, and the chronic failure to earn any money. Restlessness is exhausting. I remember, in that sermon, holding up a copy of our hymnal Singing the Living Tradition (which had just been published) and saying “this music calls to me too. This music expresses my values too. This music matches my vision too.” Ministry would be a huge change—a move toward professionalism, toward responsibility and accountability, toward greater maturity and stability, toward a more explicitly spiritual life, a more explicitly ethical life, a whole life—because that restless rock ‘n’ roll life just wasn’t cuttin’ it anymore.

T.S. Eliot

Recalling this time in my life made me think of the poet, T.S. Eliot, whose “Choruses from The Rock” we heard earlier. Eliot was a restless soul in his own way, a profoundly anxious soul. I have the impression his restlessness was so emotionally painful that he spent much of his life trying to overcome  it, trying to tame and subdue it. He was born into a prominent, liberal, Unitarian family in St. Louis in 1888. But liberalism proved to be the source of his anxiety. American individualism frightened him. Modernity frightened him. Democracy frightened him. It all led inexorably, in his view, to chaos. He feared chaos. He wanted order, tradition and ritual in his life.[9] In this poem I find him railing against the fierce unrest seething at the core of all existing things. The innovation it produces is not progress; for Eliot it is just more distraction, more chaos. He longs for stillness and quiet. Listen: “The endless cycle of idea and action,” he writes, “Endless invention, endless experiment, / Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; / Knowledge of speech, but not of silence; / Knowledge of words, and ignorance of The Word. / All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance, / All our ignorance brings us nearer to death, / But nearness to death no nearer to God. / Where is the Life we have lost in living? / Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” [10] (If he’d only known what was coming!) For Eliot the fierce unrest leads only to endless asphalt roads, busyness, mindlessness, ignorance, death. In response he cries out for grounding, for regularity, reliability and repetition—not for something new and innovative, but something enduring and eternal: “O perpetual revolution of configured stars,” he cries, “O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons, / O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!”
Yeah. When I finally decided to enter the ministry, I was seeking something similar—a way out of my rock ‘n’ roll restlessness, or at least what it had become. Where was the life I had lost in living? I was seeking some connection to the eternal.  I was seeking what Eliot calls “that perpetual recurrence of determined seasons.”  I was seeking winter’s spiritual wisdom: Wait. Be still. Go slowly, rest, sleep, dream, heal. I was seeking spring’s rebirth, summer’s play and autumn’s withdrawal back into winter. I need it in my life. What peace! What serenity!

I find that peace in ministry. I find it over and over again. I find the life I had lost in living. But every time I get there and I feel healed and renewed, something else always seems to arise in me. In the midst of that peace and serenity, that silence and stillness; at the heart of that perpetual revolution of configured stars, that perpetual recurrence of determined seasons, those cycles of birth and dying, there’s a pulse. There’s a beat, a rhythm, a cadence, a pattern, a movement, a flicker. Maybe it’s those echoes of the big bang. Maybe it’s the gods and goddesses soaring around. No matter what we call it, it’s life’s rhythm.  As much as we need times of stillness and quiet, we need to dance to this rhythm too. In the midst of that peace and serenity, that silence and stillness, there it is: restlessness, a fierce unrest, a longing, a yearning, a different and new life burning inside, demanding to come out, lest it be lost. A desire to grow as a parent, as a partner, as a leader; a desire to create beautiful and compelling words, beautiful and compelling music, beautiful and compelling worship; a pervasive dissatisfaction with the way things are; a profound anger at injustice and oppression. For example, today I am angry that so many powerful people in our state seem so little interested in creating a health care system that actually prioritizes the health of people over the profits of corporations. On that question, as far as I’m concerned, this is a time for fierce unrest. This is a time for creative moral action and strength.  Sorry T.S. Eliot, this is a time to generate a little chaos. But that will also cycle around to a time of stillness and quiet.

Do you see how restlessness works?  This sermon is not about one approach or the other. The two are intertwined. The two balance each other. The life we lose in living comes from a lack of balance. The life we lose in living comes from too much restlessness or too much rest. We will always need rest after pursing our restlessness. And out of our rest a new restlessness will always emerge. Such is the rhythm of the seasons. Such is the rhythm of the stars. Such is the rhythm of life. May we always be learning to dance to this rhythm.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Marquis, Don, “A Fierce Unrest,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 304.

[2] Thurman, Howard, “Concerning the Search” (chapter in The Search for Common Ground) in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 104.

[3] Thurman, Howard, A Strange Freedom, p. 104.

[4] Mikelson, Thomas J.S., “Wake Now My Senses” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #298.

[6] Hernandez, Wil, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection (Mahwah, NJ: The Paulist Press, 2006) p. 95. Also check out Jason Carter’s reflections on Hernadez’ statement at http://tkalliance.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/spirituality-of-imperfection-restlessness-vs-contentment/

[7] “Jumping Jack Flash.” View/listen at your own risk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9XKVTNs1g4

[8] Marquis, Don, “A Fierce Unrest,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 304.

[9] This description of T.S. Eliot comes I took in Professor Cornel West’s class, “Religion and Cultural Criticism,” Harvard Divinity School, fall, 1995.

[10] Read the full text of Eliot’s “Choruses from The Rock” at:

http://www.tech-samaritan.org/blog/2010/06/16/choruses-from-the-rock-t-s-eliot/

 

 

 

 

As If I Did Not Work At All

Video here.

“Because I loved my work it was as if I did not work at all.”[1]  Words from Donald Hall, a modern American poet born and raised in Hamden, Connecticut—my hometown. When I finally decided to use this reading this morning and to use these words—as if I did not work at all—as a title for this sermon, I did so because they sum up for me what it means, or at least what I believe it feels like, to have a vocation. Vocation is our ministry theme for January, and this morning I want to explore this notion of working—often working very hard—and simultaneously feeling as if I did not work at all. Vocation, in short, is work to which we feel somehow called, work we are passionate about, work that gives us a sense purpose and meaning, work that meshes seamlessly with our gifts, talents and aspirations, work we love.

However, on this weekend when our nation celebrates the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life work—whose vocation—was to provide a ministry of leadership to American movements for civil rights and economic justice, I think it would be an egregious oversight to come into any pulpit in the United States and preach a sermon entitled “As If I Did Not Work At All” without acknowledging that by most estimates there are 13 million people who literally aren’t working at all due to the long-term impact of the 2008 recession. And of course there are likely millions more who are currently able to work but have left the labor force altogether, frustrated, disheartened, demoralized. It feels somewhat awkward to speak about vocation when there are so many people who, due to circumstances beyond their control, are unable to find meaningful work at this time.

Having said that, the fact that so many people are out of work is also not a reason to avoid speaking about this theme.  In fact, in the midst of such high rates of unemployment it may be useful and even inspirational to talk about vocation. I suspect we’ve all heard stories over the past few years about people who lost jobs in the recession and used the ensuing period of unemployment as an opportunity to reinvent themselves: to start a new business, to go back to school, to get involved in civic organizations, to run for office, to care for aging parents. The list of ways we can reinvent ourselves is long. We have such stories in our congregation. When Sam Adlerstein lost his job he decided to start his own consulting business. He says, “I had always struggled with Finance as my vocation, not that I couldn’t do it well.  Rather, it was never a passion.  In fact, when I became a Certified Public Accountant, I didn’t even realize that I could connect work with my natural talents and passions.  That realization, better late than never, has now made a huge difference in my life.”

Priscilla Dutton lost a long-time job and decided to go back to school to pursue her dream of becoming a pastry chef. When I asked if I could mention her in this sermon she said “of course you can and I wish I could attend, but my new vocation is now my life and I’m loving it. I believe very strongly that I wouldn’t be so successful so quickly if I hadn’t followed my passion.” I remember walking into the UUS:E kitchen last spring to find Priscilla in the midst of baking some amazing dessert for our Annual Appeal kick-off dinner. She was covered head to toe with flour. She looked like a ghost. I thought, this person has found her calling. Sometimes losing a job opens a pathway to one’s vocation.

But let’s also remember that one’s job—what one does to earn a living—and one’s vocation—how one pursues one’s passion—are not necessarily the same thing. In fact they’re often quite distinct. We don’t always earn a living through our vocation. Many of you have retired from careers and no longer earn a living through a job, but you still pursue a vocation—like writing, crafts, photography, tutoring, mentoring, social justice organizing and advocacy. And there are others of you who don’t work outside the home earning an income, yet you still pursue a vocation through artistic endeavors, activism and volunteering—including congregational leadership. Here’s another reading from Donald Hall that helps clarify this distinction between a job and a vocation. (Note in this passage he’s using the word work in the way I am using the word vocation.) He writes:

There are jobs, there are chores, and there is work. Reading proof is a chore; checking facts is a chore. When I edit for a magazine or a publisher, I do a job. When I taught school, the classroom fit none of these categories. I enjoyed teaching James Joyce and Thomas Wyatt too much to call it a job. The classroom was a lark because I got to show off, to read poems aloud, to help the young, and to praise authors or books that I loved. But teaching was not entirely larkish: Correcting piles of papers is tedious, even discouraging, because it tends to correct one’s sanguine notions about having altered the young minds arranged in the classroom’s rows. Reading papers was a chore—and after every ten papers, I might tell myself that I could take a break and read a Flannery O’Conner short story. But when I completed the whole pile, then I could reward myself with a real break: When I finished reading and correcting and grading and commenting on seventy-five essay-questions about a ben Jonson or a Tom Clark poem, then—as a reward—I could get to work.[2]

His job and his vocation, in this case, are not the same thing.

But let me step back further and try to name the relationship between vocation and our spiritual lives. I’m currently reading Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief to my boys. This book came out in 2005, the first in the wildly bestselling Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Without going into too much detail, we’re at the point in the story where Percy’s identity as the son of Poseidon has been revealed (sorry, should’ve said “spoiler alert”). He has just learned the news of the theft of Zeus’ lightning bolt, that the pending war between the gods will destroy life on the planet as we know it and, even though he is only twelve years old, that Percy is the one who will need do something about it. His wise councilor, the centaur Chiron, says, Wait—don’t just go running off. First you must visit the oracle.[3] And the oracle, in ancient Greek and Roman religion, is a divine voice that gives hints about one’s future and the wisdom of one’s decisions. Percy has begun to feel called to go on a quest to recover Zeus’ lightning bolt. The oracle is there to say whether or not his call is genuine. This is the ancient origin of vocation, this hearing of divine voices, this receiving of a divine call to engage in some sacred work, some spiritual task, some holy mission. We see this in a variety of forms in Native American spirituality, in indigenous African spirituality and in ancient Near Eastern religions.

We certainly see it in the Bible. The books of the Jewish prophets typically begin with the prophet hearing a divine voice calling them to engage in some sacred task or to bring some message to the people of Israel, often a warning.  No prophet enjoys being called. It upsets their lives. They resist. They refuse. But the call keeps coming. Ultimately they can’t escape it. They eventually accept it and enter into their prophetic vocation.

In its most ancient sense, then, vocation has something to do with hearing divine voices. Vocation and voice have the same etymological roots. This past week I noticed Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator, Rick Santorum, using the language of “call” to describe his campaign in South Carolina. I heard him say a number of times: “We’re called here on a mission.” I haven’t heard him say he feels called by God to run for President, but given his many pronouncements about the role one’s faith must play in public life, I’d be surprised to hear he believes a voice other than God’s is calling him. I am, of course, deeply suspicious of politicians who suggest God has called them to do anything. As I’ve said before from this pulpit, I can’t imagine a God who would take sides in an election campaign or, for that matter, a football game, which has been discussed incessantly in recent weeks in response to the overt sideline prayer-life of Denver Broncos star quarterback Tim Tebow. Nevertheless, I recognize that this ancient notion that our vocation emerges in response to a divine call is still operative for many people around the world.

Perhaps clergy speak of being called or having a calling more than anyone. I feel called to liberal religious ministry. Ministry, at this time in my life, is my vocation. I suspect it will always be my vocation in some form. I work hard at it and it’s true: on my best days I feel as if I do not work at all.  (I won’t mention my worst days—that’s another sermon . . . on imperfection, failure, managing stress and learning how to say no.) I feel called, but I never heard a divine voice—at least not one I recognized—saying “you shall become a minister.” There was no burning bush, no visit to the oracle, no prophetic dream, no flying scroll, no burning coal, no still small voice in the wake of the storm asking “what are you doing here?” There was nothing to refuse, nothing to resist. But I did—and do—feel called; and if pressed to answer what it is that calls me, the most authentic response I can give is, “I’m not sure, but I know it comes from inside.” What I am sure about is that the content of my calling has no better expression than the Unitarian Universalist principles. I feel called to engage the world in a way that respects the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I feel called to engage the world in a way that prioritizes justice, equity and compassion in human relations, that supports spiritual growth, that encourages a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, that utilizes democratic processes, that helps to build a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, and that respects, honors and serves the interdependent web of all existence. These principles speak to something deep inside me. They ground me. They center me. They guide me. And at some point about seventeen years ago it began to make sense: If I could conduct my life—not just my work life, but my whole life—in accordance with these principles, I would find my vocation.

I wasn’t hearing a divine voice, but I was certainly learning to hear and heed an inner voice. I was discovering my passions, discovering my convictions. Such discovery, for me, is a pillar of Unitarian Universalist spirituality. Vicki Merriam—our Director of Religious Education—and I have been discussing how to teach our UU children about vocation this month. While we want to remind them of the ancient idea of a divine voice issuing a call, it seems far more important to us to teach them about hearing and responding to their own voice. Listen to yourself. Listen to your heart. Listen to your passions. Listen to your truth. Listen to your joy. What do you hear? How might you respond? What might your path be and how might you travel it? And for children, of course, the most important question for identifying vocation, which will be the final conversation of the month for our kids, is “What do you want to be when you grow up . . . and why?”

The why is important.  Let me share with you a poem called “There is Ministry.” The author is unknown. I’m going to change the word ministry to vocation as they really are interchangeable in this case. For me this poem begins to answer the why of vocation:

“Vocation occurs in places and circumstances, / likely and unlikely: / in churches, not often enough, but sometimes; / in prisons, and hospices, and hospitals; / by cribs and cradles; / in factories, offices, and stores; / in courtrooms and cocktail lounges / and clinics and garages; / in hovels, mansions, and at bus stops / and diners; / wherever there is a meeting that summons us to our / better selves, / wherever our lostness is found, / our fragments are reunited, / our wounds begin healing, / our spines stiffen, and our muscles grow strong for the task, / there is vocation.”[4]

We often leave the why out of the conversation when we’re talking to children. And, let’s be honest, we adults often forget to ask ourselves why we do what we do. Why are we passionate about a certain activity? Why do our natural gifts and talents lead us in a certain direction? Why do we love a certain kind of work? The why is important, because the work that truly calls to us—no matter what voice we hear—the work that presents itself to us as our vocation—is work that allows us in some way to serve and celebrate life. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation, as we learn to engage in it, allows us in some way to bring joy, healing, justice and love into the world. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation allows us in some way to move from isolation to connection, from fragmentation to wholeness, from a potentially selfish individualism to a generous and caring engagement with a wider community of people and other living things. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation allows us in some way to address the brokenness in society, the injustices in society, the evil in society. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation allows us in some way—in our unique way—to participate in that revolution of values Dr. King named in our opening reading this morning. Maybe not in ancient times but today, vocation, at its core, is our pathway into, in Dr. King’s words—and he said we are called into it— “a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation … a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all [people.]”[5]

But we don’t just turn on that love. It doesn’t work that way. I think we first we need to hear what calls to us at the deep places in ourselves—that place inside where we encounter our truth, where our conviction resides.  That’s where we find our purpose. That’s where we discover the work we love. And once we’ve made that discovery, then with we need to do with our lives the work we love. I’m mindful of that quote about vocation from the mystic, Howard Thurman: “Ask not what you the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” For me, that is the surest path to loving ourselves, loving life, loving others and loving the world; for me, that is the surest path to working and simultaneously feeling as if we did not work at all.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Hall, Donald, Life Work (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993) p. 4.

[2] Hall, Life Work, p. 4.

[3] Riordan, Rick, The Lightning Thief (New York: Disney Hyperion Books, 2005) pp. 138-9.

[4] Unknown Author in Smith, Gary, col., “There is Ministry,” Awakened From the Forest (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1995) pp. 16-17.

[5] King, Martin Luther, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 190.