You are a Visionary

“Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life”—a prayer from the early 17th-century devotional and mystical British poet, George Herbert. We also heard Mark Belletini’s meditation, “Mystical Song,” which riffs on Herbert’s prayer. Come, my way, my truth, my life. I have my own riff in mind this morning. What are the ways of this congregation? Do they serve us well? What new ways might we need to meet the challenges of the coming years? What is the truth that lies at the heart of this congregation? Is it, as Rev. Belletini says, “as exciting as fire, and as bright—as powerful as water, and as fluid—as solid as earth, but as transparent as air?”[1] Will it sustain us in the coming years? What is the life this congregation saves, nurtures and sends forth into the world? Is it a life the world needs? Hold onto whatever answers may be popping into your head and heart as you hear me ask these questions. Your answers are important because they help inform our collective vision for the future of this congregation. I’m going to come back to them. But I want to start with a few words about my upcoming sabbatical.

Today is my last day. Unless there is some extreme circumstance that demands my presence, the next time I lead worship from this pulpit will be February 4th, 2018. I’ve written a number of times about how various aspects of the congregation’s ministry will be conducted during the sabbatical, but it feels important for those of you who haven’t been part of the planning to hear directly from me about the plans.

First, believe this: UUS:E has a very strong, talented, dedicated leadership team and staff. So much that happens here happens with either very little or no direct input, guidance or oversight from me: children’s religious education, most adult religious education, sustainable living and green sanctuary programming, multigenerational events, two fifths of all Sunday morning services, concerts, art shows, Sunday morning hospitality, and most fundraising events including our annual appeal, the holiday fair, and the goods and services auction. We have outstanding leaders. Not just during my sabbatical but always: you are in great hands.

We’ve lined up eight guest preachers over the next four months, including next week Dr. Reza Mansoor, a leader of the Connecticut Muslim Coalition. Later in October, Rev. Jan Carlsson-Bull of the UU Church in Meriden will lead us in responding to the UU call for a second White Supremacy Teach-in. In November you’ll hear from Bailey Saddlemire, a youth who grew up in this congregation until her family moved to Providence a few years ago. She now serves on the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees and has many powerful stories to tell. Later in November, Revs. Carolyn Patierno of All Souls UU in New London and Heather Rion Starr of the Unitarian Society of Hartford will preach. In early December Rev. Kathleen Green, Executive Director of the Yale Humanist Community, will be here. In January Rev. Jean Wahlstrom, a UU minister and member of this congregation, and Bishop John Selders of Amistad United Church of Christ in Hartford and co-founder of Moral Monday CT will preach. As always, the Sunday Services Committee will be bringing a variety of lay-led services. Some will be multigenerational, designed in collaboration with Gina Campellone, our Director of Religious Education. It’s gonna be great!

Perhaps an even larger sabbatical question is “what happens with pastoral care?” There are three parts to this answer. Part One: I mentioned extreme circumstances. I consider death and dying an extreme circumstance, and I expect to provide the ministry I would normally provide in the event someone is actively dying or has died. Having served as your minister for fourteen years, I can’t imagine not being present under these circumstances. I’ve talked to many of you about your memorial services already. In some instances I already know members of your extended family. I know many of you theologically, many of you musically. I know your passions. I love you. There no universe in which it would be OK for me to say, if someone is dying or has died, “I’m on sabbatical, find someone else.” I want to be there. That’s my rule. Some clergy disagree, but that’s how I roll.

Part Two: We have a 10-member Pastoral Friends Committee, ably led by Patricia Wildes. While I am on sabbatical, any request for help of a pastoral nature from the congregation should go to Patricia. She and the Pastoral Friends Committee can organize much of the help people typically need—rides, meals, visits. Patricia will also manage the Minister’s Discretionary Fund for people who need financial assistance.

Part Three: For people experiencing some sort of spiritual crisis who want pastoral support from a professional minister on a short-term basis, we have a list of area clergy—all Unitarian Universalist and one from the United Church of Christ—who are willing to receive calls. Patricia Wildes can help you connect with one of those clergy if needed.

There are many other responsibilities and roles I have at UUS:E that will be on hold. Staff supervision will be on hold, though the staff know if they have any problems they can speak with our Personnel Committee or the Board President, Rob Stolzman. My work with our Emergency Preparedness Team, Mental Health Ministry, Council of Elders, Circle Groups, Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee, Membership Committee, Policy Board, and Program Council will be on hold, though all of these programs and committees will continue. You are always in good hands.

There’s a very obvious opportunity for me in taking a sabbatical. It’s an opportunity to pull back from the daily tasks of ministry, to pull back from being on-call at essentially all times—even during vacations—and to work on a project that I otherwise wouldn’t have time to work on. And, as the word sabbatical implies, it’s an opportunity to rest. I cannot express to the Policy Board and to you the depth of my gratitude for this opportunity. I am aware the vast majority of people don’t get sabbaticals. This is a privilege beyond measure. It is a blessing. You are blessing me with a gift of precious, sacred time. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, thank you, thank.

Within this opportunity is a chance for me to discern which aspects of my ministry remain critical to fulfilling both my vision for myself as a minister and the congregation’s vision for its ministries; and which aspects of my ministry are actually not so critical, not so essential, and might even be getting in the way of fulfilling my vision and yours. Might it be time to let go of some of the ways I conduct my ministry, some of the programs I invest my time in? When I’m in the midst of it all, it can be difficult to do this discernment. Everything feels important all the time. Taking a sabbatical will allow me to recognize why I do what I do the way I do it; what I miss and don’t miss about the ministry; and what feels critical and essential vs. what doesn’t.

There’s a similar opportunity for you. During a sabbatical the congregation has the opportunity to notice, by virtue of the minister’s absence, what it does well, what it does not do so well, where it excels, where it needs improvement. It has the opportunity to discern what ministries it needs a professional minister to conduct; and what ministries lay people can conduct. The minister’s absence causes a natural ferment of thought and reflection. The absence creates space for new insights to emerge. Of course, you don’t want to make any major decisions in the minister’s absence—like voting to expand the building. Please wait until February to do anything that drastic! But my absence, and the presence of a variety of guest voices, creates a very natural opening to new ways, new truths, new life. Come, my way, my truth, my life.

This sabbatical comes at a very opportune time. This congregation is at a point where it needs to establish a new vision. It’s been seven years since we moved into this renovated, green, accessible building. During that time, the world has changed. It’s time for us to re-envision our future. Who do we want to be? What directions do we want to move in? It’s time. Therefore I challenge you—each of you individually and all of you collectively—under the leadership of the Policy Board and Program Council—to reflect on our congregational vision in the coming months. What is the vision for our ministries five or ten years from now? What do we want to achieve? What are the components of our best future congregational self? Come, my way, my truth, my life!

It’s actually your job to answer this question. In Unitarian Universalism we practice congregational  polity. This means the congregation governs itself. The congregation belongs to its people. The people envision their own future together. This doesn’t mean that the minister can’t have a vision—you certainly want a minister who is visionary—but ideally the congregation’s vision and the minister’s vision are in alignment. So please let this sabbatical time be a time of discernment for you.

It has already begun. Our leadership team held a retreat this weekend with the purpose of beginning to craft a new vision. Later this fall they’ll share their initial thoughts with you and request your feedback, which will help us collectively craft a vision statement that the congregation can approve at its annual meeting in May.

I want to tell you just a bit about this weekend. Before we engaged in our own process of visioning, we acknowledged that there are many voices and identities that aren’t present in our membership, especially not in large numbers. Mindful of this, and mindful of the movement within Unitarian Universalism today to understand and confront white supremacy, we invited a group of People of Color leaders from Manchester and Hartford to speak to us Friday night about their vision for this region and their ideas about how a congregation like ours might be able to contribute to that vision. We listened. We heard things—hard, heartfelt, honest things—we wouldn’t have heard otherwise. We were deeply grateful. Then, with their words reverberating in our hearts, we engaged in our visioning work.

Come, my way, my truth, my life. Looking towards the future, what will be our way? Building community—caring, heart-centered, thoughtful, spiritual community. Community that supports those who are vulnerable. Community that speaks for those for whom it is too dangerous to speak. Community that encourages and promotes courageous conversations about difficult, polarizing topics. Community that lets people be who they are, that encourages people be true to themselves rather than feeling they must hide part of who they are just to get by. Multigenerational community. Multicultural community. Multiracial community. Community that expands outward from a tight, robust, fun, liberally religious, deeply spiritual congregation here at 153 West Vernon St. to partners in the wider community: to liberation and social justice organizations, to interfaith and religious organizations—especially religious to minorities who face persecution in American society—to arts organizations, to service organizations—a vast network of connection, interplay, mutual support and caring. Come, my way!

Looking toward the future, what is our truth? The answer is so clear to our leaders: love. Perhaps first and foremost: learning again and again and again to love ourselves. In the midst of white supremacy, in the midst of climate catastrophe, in the midst of political polarization, in the midst of violence and hatred, in the midst of profound inequality and endless need, learn to love ourselves deeply so that we may we have great stores of love with which to bless the world; love for neighbors, love for strangers, love for children, love for elders, love for the lonely and the isolated, love for the demonized and the scapegoated; love across lines of faith, culture, ethnicity and race; love across lines of gender and sexual orientation; love across lines of city and suburb; love so vast and deep that these lines that vex us start to blur, start to disappear; so that our connectedness and our oneness shine forth not only in what we say but in what we do. Come, my truth!

Looking toward the future, what is our life? The answer that came through from our panel on Friday and our discussions on Saturday is authenticity, the life of people who don’t hide, who let their light shine, who speak their truths, who feel, who sing and dance; people who know themselves deeply, share themselves generously, who listen well to other selves, respect and honor other selves, celebrate other selves. What is our life? It is a bold life, not afraid to dream, not afraid to risk, not willing any longer to play it safe when the world’s need is overflowing. What is our life?  It is a committed life, a connected life, a powerful life. It is our energy, spirit and strength sent forth into the world to love, to be present to suffering, to comfort, to heal; to bear witness to oppression and injustice; to resist and dismantle the systems that hold oppression in place, to build a more just, loving and fair society. Come, my life!

That’s my best initial articulation of our emerging vision for this congregation’s future. What I hope is that in the space of this sabbatical time, you individually and as a congregation can continue this conversation and imagine the most compelling UUS:E future possible. Imagine what has never been imagined before. I challenge you to think big. Think boldly. Don’t worry about the technicalities of how some new ministry might come to fruition. Don’t worry about whether or not we have the resources. Take time to imagine amazing what-could-bes. Take time to imagine a spiritually alive, powerful, transformative, life-saving, life-giving, connected congregation. If the vision is compelling, the resources will come. You all have it within you. Be visionary!

“Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life.” May the ways of this congregation meet the needs of a hurting world. May the truth that lies at the heart of this congregation be “as exciting as fire, and as bright—as powerful as water, and as fluid—as solid as earth, but as transparent as air!”[2] May the life this congregation saves, nurtures and sends forth bring love and healing into the world. You each have it within you. In the coming months, be visionary.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Belletini, Mark, “Mystical Song,”Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

[2] Belletini, Mark, “Mystical Song,”Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

This is Not a Drill

Over the last week of August our family rented a cottage on Cape Cod. One day we came home from the beach and discovered a gas leak in the basement. For a few minutes the best word to describe my response was confusion. OK, it’s only in the basement, except I can smell it a little bit upstairs. We have to do something. Let’s call the owner – or should we call the gas company, or the plumber, or 911? It’s dinner time; the boys are getting cranky from hunger; I’m getting cranky from hunger; is it ok to light the grill, which is near the house, but not that near? Can the pilot light on the water heater ignite the gas in the basement? Is it OK to take a shower? Stephany reached the owner on the phone, who thought it was best to call the plumber who had been working on the house earlier that day. That’s when the fire alarm went off. Yikes. For a moment I experienced full-blown panic. Then, for the first time since smelling the gas I took a breath. Just one breath with that loud beeping and that jarring, mechanical voice announcing the presence of a fire, and I somehow gained clarity, calm, and a sense of resolve. I yelled at Stephany to have the owner call the gas company to come turn off the gas. I ordered the boys out of the house to the front yard. I grabbed my phone and some corn chips and salsa. We camped out on the front lawn, away from the house, until the gas company arrived, turned off the gas, vented the house, and fixed the leak. The whole ordeal lasted about 90 minutes.

This was not a drill. If it had been, I would not have given myself high marks for my initial response. Confusion and panic are understandable, but if there’s a gas leak, evacuate first, then be confused. And in hindsight, we should have called 911 immediately. The gas company treated the situation as an emergency and arrived quickly, but I suspect the fire department would have arrived more quickly. 

This experience raises two related questions, both with spiritual ramifications. First, in the midst of a crisis or a disaster—a fire, a flood, a long-term power outage, an earthquake, a medical emergency, a shooting—here or, for that matter, anywhere you happen to be—how do or would you respond emotionally? In such situations it’s rarely our rational mind that responds first. There’s a moment of surprise. Our ancient, limbic, fight-flee-or-freeze instinct kicks in. Fear, anger, panic, confusion kick in. It’s a survival response. It floods the body with adrenalin, quickens the pulse, quickens breathing. It often makes decisions for us. We fight before thinking, “I need to fight.” We flee before thinking, “I need to flee.” We push a child out of the way of an oncoming car before thinking, “I’ve got to save that child.” We say, “Oh my God,” before thinking, “I need to pray.” So, how—and how quickly—do we get to that place of clear, calm resolve? How do we get to thoughtfulness?

That initial gut response is virtually unavoidable. It’s in our nature, our wiring. Hopefully it does what our ancient ancestors needed it to do, which is save our lives or the lives of others.  But once we’ve been surprised, once we’ve been confused, once we’ve reacted emotionally to the threat—our ancient, limbic response becomes increasingly unhelpful. We need calm. We need clarity. How do we move from fight-flee-freeze auto-pilot to calm, clear rationality? How do we move from hot to cool in the midst of a disaster? My sense is that the quality of our day-to-day spiritual lives matters immensely in moments like this. If we don’t have a daily practice of any sort, if we aren’t used to intentionally sinking into a relaxed, focused state of being for at least a few minutes every day, then we have very little to reach for in the midst of a crisis. But if we are accustomed to setting aside time each day to breathe, to pray, to meditate, to settle in, to sink in, to focus our attention, to study and contemplate, to stretch, to engage in ritual, to connect intentionally with a reality larger than ourselves—if it is part of our regular living—then we can use it in the midst of a crisis. Over time our spiritual practices become instinctual too. There’s smoke coming from the kitchen. Your pulse is racing. Take a breath. There’s a foot of water on the basement floor. You’re panicking. Quiet your mind. Someone has fainted in front of you. Imagine that calm state you attain when you exercise or stretch. You hear screams and you know something is wrong. You’re highly agitated. Say that short comforting prayer that’s always been meaningful to you, even if you don’t believe in the power of prayer. Say it with intention. It is a spiritual resource for bringing calm and clarity in the midst of a crisis.

A few years ago a group of us studied spiritual writer Thomas Moore’s A Religion of One’s Own. One of his central ideas is that regular spiritual practice cultivates an alert mind. He means a mind alert to insights, intuitions and synchronicities that come to us as if out of nowhere. Often we don’t notice them, let alone realize the directions in which they are pointing us. Often we ignore them because we aren’t ready for them. Regular spiritual practice—anything that focuses or unclutters the mind—opens us up to receive revelations, says Moore.[1] It strikes me that having a regular spiritual practice contributes to our alertness and readiness to manage ourselves and others in the midst of a crisis.

Last week at the 9:00 service I shared some words from a blog post by the Rev. Dawn Cooley, a staff member in the office of the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Her post was called “Beyond Disaster Relief.” She talks about the way so many people respond to disasters like hurricanes with not only love and compassion but courage and heroism. Without in any way belittling these loving, heroic testaments to the human spirit, Rev. Cooley points out that “Our tendency is to latch onto these stories and think about how great it is that we help each other out when we must. But … why must it take a disaster, such as a hurricane, to get us to treat one another with care and concern?” She quotes a friend who asks: well before the storm, “have I been my brother’s keeper? [Have I cared] about his livelihood before his actual, physical life was at stake…. That’s a question worth sitting with.”[2]

It’s true: the regular, daily quality of our community, of our relationships, of our concern for one another and for strangers, impacts the quality of our response in times of crisis. The more we care about each other and strangers in good times, the better able we’ll be to care for each other and strangers in hard times. Rev. Cooley says “Send love, and care, and financial support to those in Texas and Louisiana [and now Florida], but don’t stop there. Let us work to find ways to implement these actions and attitudes into our daily lives. Urge your representatives and elected officials to create crisis plans, knowing more events like this will happen. Work to create legislation that treats people with dignity at all times. Demand justice for those in need—not just in a natural disaster but at all times…. For better and for worse, we will have many opportunities to practice.”[3] The more we do the work—the spiritual work, the service work, the social justice work—in good times, the better able we’ll be to respond to crises, the more quickly we’ll move from fight-flee-or-freeze to calm, clear rationality when disaster strikes.

Second question. In the response to any crisis, do we actually know the right things to do and in what order they need to be done? This question also has spiritual ramifications. A simple example: imagine that during worship on a Sunday morning, a fire breaks out in the kitchen. We’re here in the sanctuary. We become aware of the fire, and although it isn’t huge, it also doesn’t appear to be under control. Whoever is leading worship calmly invites you to evacuate. People on the left move slowly to the walls and down the aisle to the doors. People on the right move slowly to the walls and down the aisle to the lobby and out the doors. Somebody hit the fire alarm on your way out. Four or five of you have already called 911 (Note: in an emergency it’s best to call 911 from a landline which routes more quickly to local dispatchers. The closest landline to this room is in the kitchen which, in this scenario, is on fire, so call 911 on your cell.) Be mindful of elders, people in wheelchairs, people with babies. Move at their pace. This will not take long. Somebody near the right-hand door, please go downstairs and alert the adults that we’re evacuating due to fire and they must do the same with the children. By the way, conduct a garden level fire drill with the kids every year. We don’t conduct a main level fire drill, but we will start doing them periodically. Here’s why: We’ve successfully evacuated the building, which includes establishing a location for teachers to bring children to their parents, but then what happens? The safest, most helpful place to be now is in a car; and that car is to remain parked. Nobody attempts to leave. The hill at the entrance to our lot is too steep for some of the firetrucks to use. They will use the exit ramp. If anyone tries to leave, they risk blocking emergency responders or, worse, colliding with them. Do we actually know the right things to do and in what order they need to be done so that we do them as effectively as possible?            

Unless we plan and train for crises, we won’t know. One of my jobs as the head of staff, and one of the Policy Board’s jobs in its fiduciary role on behalf of the congregation, is to ensure that we and our building are as safe as possible. One dimension of safety is knowing what to do in a crisis. To that end, the Policy Board charged an Emergency Preparedness Team with the task of creating an Emergency Preparedness Plan. The team includes at large members Cressy Goodwin and Peter Marroto, Bill Graver from the Buildings and Grounds Committee, Sue McMillen from the Pastoral Care Committee, Jane Osborn, our sexton, Annie Gentile, our Office Administrator, Gina Campellone, our Director of Religious Education, and myself. Thanks to all of you who’ve been part of this effort. Under Cressy’s leadership we created the plan earlier this year. It is consistent with guidelines for the town of Manchester and our region, which are consistent with guidelines established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The plan offers concise directions in the event of smoke or fire, a power outage, a medical emergency, an armed and dangerous person entering the building, an unarmed but dangerous person entering the building, storm damage, flooding, septic system failure, hazardous materials spill, loss of water supply, breakdown of our heating and cooling system, and how and when to provide temporary shelter to members and friends. We’ve begun training the staff in using the plan. We’re offering a workshop today at 1:00 for anyone who would like to begin their own training. We’re still figuring out the best ways to provide training to all of you. Knowledge is definitely power in an emergency. An actual fire drill is coming.     

One of my anxieties in talking about this is that it will raise doubts in your minds about how safe we truly are here. In naming the potential for fire, might some of you look around and wonder, Hmmm, if there were a fire in the kitchen, could we really evacuate in time? If there were a shooter in the lobby? What chemical do we have that could spill? But that anxiety comes from me anticipating your fight-flee-or-freeze response. Not talking about it is pure denial. Doing the planning and the training on a regular basis, making it part of the life of the congregation, will enable all of us to respond with calm, clear resolve if a crisis should befall us here. It makes us safer. Doing the planning and the training—that’s the work of being our siblings’ keepers before the crisis comes. That’s caring for each other before the crisis comes. This making ourselves ready, this preparing ourselves, is not just a fiduciary responsibility. It is love in action.

I read to you earlier from my late colleague, the Rev. Robbie Walsh two meditations, “Fault Line” and “Fire at the Parsonage.” He isn’t writing about emergency preparedness, but he it reminding us that disasters happen, that our lives, “already spilling over the brim, could be invaded, sent off in a new direction, turned aside by forces [we] were warned about but not prepared for.”[4] He reminds us that “The world is going to end, and we don’t know when. My world, or yours, may end tomorrow in some unexpected way.”[5] He warns us about the fragility of life, the potential for everything to come crashing down in an instant. “Have we done what we need to do?” he asks. “Have we said the words we should say before the opportunity is gone?”[6]

That is perhaps the greatest spiritual benefit to come to us from emergency planning. In naming the crises that could happen, we accept our fragility, and ultimately our mortality. In doing so we are inevitably reminded of the things that matter most, of the people and pets and places and experiences we love most deeply, of the bonds that hold us close, of the passions that set us free. We are reminded, in Walsh’s words, that “the shifting plates, the restive earth, your room, your precious life, they all proceed from love, the ground on which we [move] together.”[7]

Life is not a drill. May we plan well, because it will make a difference, even if disaster never strikes.

Life is not a drill. May we respond well, because our lives depend on it.

Life is not a drill. May we love deeply before the storm, because our lives can change dramatically in an instant, and we may not get the chance again.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own (New York: Avery, 2014) p. 184.

[2] Rev. Dawn Skjei Cooley “Beyond Disaster Relief, September 5, 2017, http://www.uua.org/southern/blog/beyond-disaster-relief.

[3] Rev. Dawn Skjei Cooley “Beyond Disaster Relief, September 5, 2017, http://www.uua.org/southern/blog/beyond-disaster-relief.

[4] Walsh, Robert, “Fault Line,” Noisy Stones: A Meditation Manual (Boston: Skinner House, 1992) p. 15.

[5] Walsh, Robert, “Fire at the Parsonage,” Noisy Stones: A Meditation Manual (Boston: Skinner House, 1992) p. 14.

[6] Walsh, “Fire at the Parsonage,” p. 14.

[7] Walsh, “Fault Line,” p. 15.

Reinventing the Sacred

In his 2008 book Reinventing the Sacred, complexity theorist Stuart A. Kauffman tells an apocryphal story of the invention of the tractor. Portable engines had been invented for the purpose of powering farm machinery in the early 1800s. The question by mid-century was how to embed an engine directly into the machinery. No reasonably-sized chassis could bear the weight of the engine. Eventually an engineer working on the problem suggested using the sturdy, rigid engine block itself as the chassis.[1] This solution led to the invention of the tractor. This story illustrates Kauffman’s principle of “emergence,” which describes how every new thing—new molecules, species, technologies, economies, cultures—comes into the universe for the first time—not at the very beginning, but as a part of a continuing creative process inherent in the universe. This principle is so compelling to Kauffman that he proposes we call it God. Hence the title of his book, Reinventing the Sacred.

It would never have occurred to me to read this book, but luckily for me, when Fred and Phil Sawyer purchased a sermon at last year’s goods and services auction, Fred assigned it. “Luckily.” As I remember it, Fred handed it to me saying something like, “I got nothing out of it; I’m not a biologist; maybe you can tell us why this matters.” I remember thinking, “I’m not a biologist either!” But I’m always up for a challenge. And reading this book was a challenge.  Much of the science is dense and beyond my comprehension. But I know enough to understand the significance Kauffman attaches to the science. And what he says does matter—not because he has found God, but because his science reveals a mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe—one that can inform us in a profound way what it means to be human. Ready?

I think it’s fair to say the average human isn’t typically aware of a mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe. We might catch fleeting glimpses of it in the midst of worship, or in the presence of beautiful art or nature. If we desire a more sustained experience of it we need to work at it. It requires a prayer life, a devotional life, a meditational life. It requires regular practices that connect mind, body and spirit to each other and to the world. But that’s not what the book is about. Kauffman contends we need a new scientific worldview. In fact, the reason we aren’t typically aware of the mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe is because the reigning scientific worldview, reductionism, blocks such awareness.  

“Reductionism,” says Kauffman, “is the view that society is to be explained in terms of people, people in terms of organs, organs by cells, cells by biochemistry, biochemistry by chemistry, and chemistry by physics…. It is the view that in the end, all of reality is nothing but whatever is ‘down there’ at the … base of physics….”[2] What’s down there? Atoms and subatomic particles like pions, muons, guons and the Higgs boson. A string theorist would say there are vibrating strings down there.

Presumably, there are laws governing the behavior of these microcosmic entities, just as there are laws governing the behavior of planets and stars. If we can articulate these laws, if we can know what each minute entity will do in any given situation, then theoretically it is possible to know everything that will happen. This is reductionism’s goal. We’ve succumbed to the Galilean spell. Kauffman says “since Galileo rolled balls down incline planes and showed that the distance traveled varied with the square of the time elapsed, we scientists have believed that the universe and all in it are governed by natural laws…. Under this spell we have believed reductionism for over 350 years.”[3] The spell is seductive. If we can find the natural laws governing the physical world, then we can know everything that will happen in physics. Kauffman says knowing a natural law means we can pre-state what is going to happen. If we can pre-state everything that will happen in physics, then we can pre-state everything that will happen in chemistry and on up the chain: biochemistry, cells, organs, people, societies.[4] With such knowledge we can unlock every secret in the universe.

But Kauffman also reminds us of a shadowy truth at the heart of reductionism: “The more we comprehend the universe, the more pointless it seems.”[5] That is, physics only tells us what happens. It only tells us facts. There’s no meaning or purpose embedded in the interaction of subatomic particles. If everything—including consciousness—can be reduced to particles colliding, then at the heart of reality there is no meaning or purpose. There is no agency. Nothing utterly new emerges, and there is certainly no God. It’s all utterly pointless.

Kaffman resists this conclusion. He is convinced we aren’t just particles colliding. We have agency. There is meaning and purpose. These things didn’t exist at the beginning of the universe; they have emerged into the universe over time and they cannot be reduced to physics. Kauffman proposes to break the Galilean spell. He makes this proposal based primarily on his understanding of a concept in the theory of evolution called preadaptation. What is preadaptation? Any biological organism has features that are more or less adapted to its environment and enable it to survive and reproduce. But what happens if the environment changes—becomes colder or warmer, wetter or dryer—and the organism’s survival needs change? The study of evolution reveals that in such situations, some of the organism’s features may take on new functions that have no relationship to their original functions. Scientists call this preadaptation.

This is why Kauffman tells the tractor story. The engine block’s original function is to support the components of the engine. But some engineer imagined the engine block could also be used as the tractor’s chassis. The engine block wasn’t designed to be a chassis, but as needs changed, it emerged as a chassis. It was preadapted to function as a chassis even though it wasn’t designed to function as a chassis. Kauffman also talks about screwdrivers, which were designed to turn screws. “But how many other novel uses can the screwdriver be put to? It can be used to open a can of paint … to scrape putty from a frozen window … to defend yourself against an assailant … as an object of art … as a paperweight … to carve your initials on a fine tabletop, spear a fish, crack a coconut, chop down a tree using a rock to hammer if you are on an isolated island making a hut.”[6] When we use a screwdriver for any purpose other than turning screws, we can say it is preadapted for these other functions.

That’s the principle. Returning to actual biology, Kauffman talks about how the three bones in the fish jaw were preadapted to evolve into the bones of the middle ear in mammals. He talks about how ancient fish lungs evolved by preadaptation into the swim bladder. There are countless examples of preadaptation in nature. It is one of the primary mechanisms by which novelty emerges into the universe. And whenever something new emerges into the universe, it also changes its environment, putting survival pressure on other organisms, thus creating opportunities for emergence to continue in endless cycles. Emergence does not violate the laws of physics, but there is also no physical law that fully governs it either. Kauffman says there can be no such law because “we have not the faintest idea of what all possible [environmental changes] might be … and no way to list all possible … environments with respect to all … features of organisms. How would we even get started on creating such a list? Thus we cannot [pre-state] the …  preadaptations that will come to exist in the biosphere.”[7]

Remember the mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe? Here it is. Reductionism can’t explain it because reductionism requires laws. Emergence is a partially lawless phenomenon.

Kauffman calls this mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe God. Throughout the book he is clear he can’t accept the idea of an all-powerful, transcendent, Creator God. But he also can’t accept reductionism’s pointless universe. He believes he has found a third way, a scientifically describable creativity inherent in the universe which, because no natural law governs it completely, is also eternally mysterious. Isn’t God a good name for it? This is how he reinvents the sacred. But there’s no reinvention here. Most theologians would call his theology pantheism, the idea that God is synonymous with the natural world. If the natural world is inherently creative, partially lawless and unknowably mysterious, then God is creative, partially lawless and unknowably mysterious. Pantheism comes in many forms and is quite ancient. I’m a pantheist. Many Unitarian Universalists profess some form of pantheism, even if they don’t use the word.

I’m not blown away by his theologizing, but I’ve loved contemplating what it means to be human in this inherently creative, partially lawless, unknowably mysterious universe. Every time Kauffman illustrates how some biological process, or the human mind, or the biosphere, or the economy or human culture cannot be reduced to physics, cannot be contained within the boundaries of natural law; or how some change in biology, the economy or culture cannot be pre-stated—his science reveals an infinite space all around us and in which virtually anything can happen. He calls it the adjacent possible. Every possible preadaptation, every path to something new exists there, and everything that emerges new into the universe emerges there. This doesn’t mean that every new thing that can happen will happen, but something new will happen. In a sense we are constantly entering a sliver of the adjacent possible.

As an example, he notes “that the early Earth … had only a small diversity of organic molecules, perhaps a hundred or a thousand different compounds. Today there are trillions of different organic compounds spread among the roughly 100 million living species. The biosphere has exploded into its chemically adjacent possible. We will find similar explosions in economics, human history and elsewhere…. The creativity in the universe is tied to the explosions into the adjacent possible.”[8] Every new chemical compound, cell or organism, every new use for a screwdriver, the inner ear, the swim bladder, the automobile, the airplane, the emergence of  smell, sight, hearing, taste, touch through evolution—even every new thought—

brings us into the adjacent possible. And every time something new comes into the world, a new adjacent possible comes into existence. Endless creativity.

I invited Molly Vigeant to compose a poem in response to the prompt: “is the human mind like a computer?” She wrote: my mind connects / each neuron / like a cable to a memory / that means something to me, / my cables connect / finding results to your questions, / to my questions / but i do not display the results / you see my mind / does not work like that laptop …. I gave her this prompt when I was reading Kauffman’s chapter on the human mind. He asks whether or not the human mind is like a computer. He and Molly agree. Our minds do not work like laptops. Computers are algorithmic. They use algorithms to make complex calculations. Humans use algorithms—long division is an example—but is the human mind algorithmic like a computer? For an algorithm to work, there must be boundaries. There must be what Kauffman calls a pre-stated problem space. The algorithm finds a solution within the boundaries of the problem space. Once the problem space is pre-stated, there are many solutions that can be found within the space, but not beyond it. There is no adjacent possible for computers. Laws set limits. The human mind, however, knows no such limits. Molly almost begs us, “Please / don’t call me a computer /when I compose rhymes, call it the power / of a human mind.” Kauffman says, “the human mind, like a ghost ship, keeps slipping free of its computational moorings to sail where it will. It does so because it is nonalgorithmic. This freedom is part of the creativity of the universe.”[9]

Yes! The human imagination crosses boundaries into the adjacent possible all the time: in dreams, in creative endeavor, while under pressure, in the throes of passion, in problem-solving, in prayer, in meditation, while doing yoga, dancing, running, day-dreaming, free and easy wandering. I’m mindful of our opening words from Howard Thurman: “The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of [people] often … causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making.”[10] Any time we’re struggling and realize we need to live differently, the adjacent possible beckons. Any time we encounter difficulty, hurt, tragedy and need to adapt to new circumstances, the adjacent possible beckons. Any time we’ve become weighted down by habit or addiction and need to reinvent ourselves, the adjacent possible beckons. But it cannot be pre-stated. There is no way to know ahead of time what the mind will imagine, what answers will emerge. We’ll know once we’ve found our way there.

This is what it means to be human. We live in a partially lawless universe, not knowing what the future may bring. In this sense we are surrounded by mystery, which can be terrifying. But we are also surrounded by infinite pathways, infinite promise. The adjacent possible is always accessible. Knowing this, trusting this, believing this, let us not fear mystery but rather embrace it. Let us live in consort with the creative heart of the universe. Knowing the adjacent possible is there, may we find inspiration to meet the challenges of our lives. Knowing the adjacent possible is there, may we be hopeful people.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Kauffman, Stuart A., Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 2008) pp. 151-2. Kauffman says this “is how tractors are made,” but he doesn’t cite any sources. A quick google search informs me that “in 1892, John Froelich invented and built the first gasoline/petrol-powered tractor in Clayton County, Iowa, USA. A Van Duzen single-cylinder gasoline engine was mounted on a Robinson engine chassis, which could be controlled and propelled by Froelich’s gear box.” See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tractor.

[2] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, pp. 10-11.

[3] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 131.

[4] Kauffman refers to the early 19th-century French scientist, Simon Pierre LaPlace, saying that “the entire universe and all the events within it, from particles colliding to nations at war, could be understood as nothing but the motion of a very large number of particles.” Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, pp. 14.

[5] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, pp. 18.

[6] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 188.

[7] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 132-3.

[8] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 64.

[9] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 188.

[10] Thurman, Howard, Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (Harper, 1959).

 

No Room For Hate

[Rev. Josh Pawelek’s comments at the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding’s event, “An Interreligious Call to Love They Neighbor and Act for All Americans,” at the Cathedral of St. Jospeh, Hartford, CT, January 29, 2017]

Friends:

It’s an honor to be invited to say a few words this evening about the call at the heart of all our faiths to love our neighbors as ourselves. Thank you to the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding for organizing this event. Thank you to the Archdiocese for hosting. It is good to be together.

Like so many of us, I am concerned, unnerved, angered by the increasing normalization of hate—not only in our country, but in so many countries around the world. This hate is not new. Hate has always been a possibility in human hearts and in the hearts of nations, but in recent times—at least in my lifetime—it has been kept in check largely by human decency, compassion and love. Something has shifted. Hate seems to have found its way out into the open.

Let’s be clear about the difference between anger and hate. There are legitimate reasons for people to be angry. All across society, across faiths, across races, across classes, across the political spectrum from progressive to liberal to moderate to conservative to Tea Party—there are legitimate reasons for people to be angry. There are legitimate reasons for people to protest. There are legitimate reasons for people to engage in civil disobedience.  But hate? There’s no legitimate reason for hate. There’s no social, economic or political problem for which hate is a sustainable solution. There’s certainly no just law or policy that has hate at its core.

As people of faith we are called to resist this resurgent hate. Our ethics call us to resist. Our scriptures call us to resist. Our prophets (peace be upon them) call us to resist. Our Gods call us to resist. Anyone who professes to be a faithful adherent of any religion and yet urges us to hate another group, to exclude another group, to ban another group, to commit violence against another group has grossly misunderstood or purposefully disregarded their own ethics, their own scriptures, their own prophets (peace be upon them), their own God.

Love your neighbor as yourself. In my Unitarian Universalist tradition, this is our first principle. We say “respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This simple principle—love your neighbor as yourself—has always resided at the heart of our respective faiths. It has always been there to guide us. And it has always been an enormously difficult commandment to fulfill. But in the struggle to resist hate in our time, this principle is our plumb line, our north star, our grounding, our guiding light. Love your neighbor as yourself. Does your neighbor have to look like you to worthy of your love? No. Does your neighbor have to speak like you to worthy of your love? No. Does your neighbor have to pray, worship, or believe like you to be worthy of your love? No. Is the immigrant worthy of your love? Yes. Is the refugee worthy of your love? Yes. Is your political opposite worthy of your love? Is the transgender person worthy of your love? Is the coal miner worthy of your love? Is the police officer worthy of your love? Is the prisoner worthy of your love? Is the domestic worker worthy of your love? Is the corporate CEO worthy of your love? Yes, yes, yes.

Oh, there is room for disagreement and debate. There is room for anger, even rage. There is room for winning and losing in the political process. There is room for sticking to your convictions and fighting a principled fight. But there is no room for hate. Resist hate in everything you think, say and do. Let love prevail. Love will prevail. Great love, we pray, that you will prevail. Amen and blessed be.

Transgender Day of Remembrance * MCC Hartford * Sunday the 20th * 6:00 PM

Rev. Pawelek’s prayer at Hartford’s 2016 observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance

 tdor-1

Precious and loving God,

You whom we know by many names and none,

You who reside in the heart of the so many faiths, the heart of the ancestors, the heart of mystery,

You whose spirit is love, whose will is love, whose intention is love, whose purpose is love, whose essence is love:

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Thank you for this day.

Thank you for this sacred time we share together on this day.

Thank you for holding us in this time of sorrow and grief.

Thank you for grounding and centering us as we name those who’ve lost their lives as a result of murderous anti-transgender hatred and violence.

We ask that you hold these beloved dead, that you cradle them, that you embrace them in their eternal rest. Through us, holy God, cry for those who can no longer cry, laugh for those who can no longer laugh, sing for those who can no longer sing, and speak for those who can no longer speak.

Help us to speak loudly and clearly for them so that their living and their dying will not have been in vain; so that we, together, can build a more loving, more just, more caring community, nation and world.

Thank you for grounding and centering us, as we prepare to go out from this time and this place to speak your love into a world that doesn’t feel safe, that doesn’t appear to care, that isn’t motivated to change.

Thank you for instilling in us courage in the face of fear, hope in the face of despair, love in the face of hatred.

Bless those who’ve been murdered. Bless those who love them. Bless us as we mourn, as we remember, as we sing, as we speak, and as we love.

Amen and blessed be.

Sending Forth: Reflections on the 2016 United States Presidential Election

Reaching Out to Those with Whom You Disagree

chalice-usaLast Sunday I stood in this pulpit and spoke of the way the United States presidential campaign had been traumatic to people all across the political spectrum—how so many different groups of people felt triggered by things that were said, done, hidden, revealed, denied, leaked, alleged or tweeted throughout the last eighteen months. Everyone, regardless of party, had their ‘ouch’ moment after moment after moment. The triggering was relentless. Anger on all sides grew and grew. My prescription for the resulting spiritual scarcity or, to use Cornel West’s term, “spiritual blackout,”[1] was—and still is—to cultivate spiritual abundance, which begins with practices—personal and collective—that connect us to realities larger than ourselves. The campaign seemed to stifle connection and thus has led to a widespread experience of spiritual scarcity. Spiritual abundance begins with connection.

I said the campaign revealed and exacerbated already extreme divisions along racial, geographic, educational, social, cultural, religious and political lines. Finding unity after the election will require extraordinary spiritual abundance on all sides. I said something needs to give, something needs to change. I said: “from that connected, centered, expansive place—that place of abundance—when you feel ready, reach out to someone who disagrees with you, invite conversation, listen, learn. They may not be interested, but if they are, then discern solutions, solve problems. In so doing, you begin to fulfill the promise of this nation. You begin to fulfill the promise of democracy. You begin to fulfill the promise of this faith.”[2] That was last Sunday.

I had, and continue to have, very mixed emotions when I counsel you “to reach out to someone who disagrees with you.” I believe this is ultimately what we must do, but I know that for some the act of reaching out feels like, and in all too many cases is, reaching into potential danger, into violence, into micro-aggressions, insults, bullying. Reviewing last week’s sermon now, I realize the reason I felt confident pronouncing those words prior to the election was because I, like virtually everyone else, was operating under the unexamined assumption that Hillary Clinton would win.  I was assuming our reaching out would happen in the wake of a national, electoral repudiation of the blatant racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, climate change denial, and anti-intellectualism that Donald Trump and Mike Pence deployed in order to motivate voters. It’s one thing to reach out when you feel an election result affirms your values—that’s hard enough. But it’s quite another thing to reach out when an election result rejects your values, rejects everything you hold dear, rejects the core principles that, for you, comprise the foundation of civilized society, and promises to destroy social and political structures that make you feel safe and fully included in the body politic. After the 2016 election, I’m not sure what reaching out looks like, at least not yet. I believe it is ultimately what we must do, but I have mixed emotions.

Principles, Not Parties

I am mindful that there are times when Unitarian Universalists speak in public about our faith and what we feel called to do in the world, and a criticism is offered—not a friendly one: “you sound like the spiritual wing of the Democratic Party.” A version of that criticism this week might be, “No wonder so many Unitarian Universalists are so upset about the election results—the Democrats lost.” I’ve always resented this criticism. I want to set the record straight.

First, yes, Unitarian Universalists tend to line at the liberal end of the political spectrum. We are majority Democrats. We vote Green. We vote Working Families Party in Connecticut. Some of us are Libertarians. Some of us are Republicans, though admittedly few. Unitarian Universalists are upset about the 2016 election results for many reasons, but party affiliation is not high on that list. One of the fundamental reasons so many of us are upset is because the result is a repudiation of the principles we hold dear, the principles on which we construct our religious life together. That is as true for UU Republicans as it is for UU Democrats. As Unitarian Universalists, and as Unitarian Universalist congregations, we covenant to affirm and promote: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; the free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Based on what they have said through the course of the campaign and on what they have done through the course of their careers, the election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence to the highest offices in the nation repudiates these life-giving, life-serving, life-celebrating, life-saving principles. That is upsetting.

Shocked, Not Shocked

All across the political spectrum people were shocked at the Trump/Pence victory. What was shocking about it? That Hillary Clinton lost when so many pundits and pollsters predicted she would win. To be fair, Clinton won the popular vote as predicted with just shy of 60.5 million votes to Trump’s approximately 60 million votes. But Trump won in the electoral college. That outcome was shocking because virtually nobody saw it coming.

I notice, however, that many on the political left are talking about their shock not simply at Clinton’s loss, but shock also that so many people voted for a candidate who expressed extreme views, racist views, misogynistic views, constitutionally dubious views, and so on, and a running mate who has worked hard and successfully to weaken worker’s rights as governor of Indiana and who signed into law a bill protecting companies that discriminate against same-sex couples. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard questions like “Who are these people?” “Where did they come from?” “What are they thinking?” “How do they not understand what Trump is saying?” But that mass of 60 million voters shouldn’t be shocking. While it pretty much always appeared that Clinton would win, it also always appeared that the election would be close, especially over the past few months. For those of us who fear President Trump is going to govern in a way that rejects our principles and reverses decades of what we regard as progress on civil rights, environmental protection, industrial regulation, health care, women’s rights, reproductive rights, foreign policy, and on and on, it makes sense that we feel troubled, concerned, frightened. But if we’re shocked that so many people voted for Trump/Pence because of or despite the views they’ve professed in word and deed, then we haven’t been paying attention. It may be deeply troubling, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Keep in mind that had Clinton won as predicted, that same mass of 60 million Trump/Pence voters would still exist and some moment of reckoning would still lay ahead of us.

Are There Really 60 Million Racist, Homophobic, Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Woman, Anti-Muslim Americans?

Putting the election outcome aside for the moment, what does it mean that nearly 60 million people voted for Trump/Pence? Specifically, does that mass of voters actually agree with and affirm their most egregious statements and policy proposals? I don’t think so. And on my best days, I assume no. Absolutely not. I tend to trust the notion I first saw expressed in a September article in The Atlantic that a high percentage of Trump/Pence voters took them seriously but not literally.[3] On my best days I assume that the Trump/Pence vote, especially in rustbelt heartland states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin was not an affirmation of racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia, but rather a cry for economic renewal, a cry of frustration with the government, a cry for help. I said last week that significant numbers of Trump supporters are themselves hurting, frightened, confused, anxious, dispirited. They feel beaten up, forgotten, overlooked, blamed, and taken for granted. All this is true. Their traditional sources of economic security have disappeared. Their life expectancy is declining. Their communities are crumbling. Their health insurance premiums and deductibles are sky-rocketing. Heroin, meth and prescription pain-killers are ravaging their neighborhoods. Neither major political party has been able to stop this decline. Some will argue this is intentional. Others might call it benign neglect. The time had come last Tuesday for them to vote for a candidate who listens to them, who takes them seriously. Whether Trump actually takes them seriously remains to be seen, but on election day he—not she—fit the bill.

And on my best days, if that’s what this vote was really about—a cry for economic renewal; if President Trump and his supporters understand he has just been charged with dismantling the forces driving the nation’s industrial decline, driving the stark, immoral and unsustainable rise in income inequality, driving the erosion of workers’ rights, wages and dignity—and if he and they can understand that he needs to do this in a way that benefits all Americans because the working class is not only White, it is in fact a highly racially diverse class—that’s a conversation I want to be in. Sign me up for that movement. Remember: principles, not party.

Stomper in Chief

I will never overlook the people Trump felt he could stomp on to win the election. He stomped on Mexicans and other Hispanics. He stomped on immigrants. He stomped on Black people. He stomped on women. He stomped on the queer community, especially in his selection of Pence as running mate. He stomped mercilessly on the American Muslim community. I’m tired of going through the list of all the people he stomped on. I don’t personally fit into any of these categories, but I know and love people who fit every identity Trump insulted, maligned and threatened during the campaign. People with those identities are beloved members and friends of this congregation. They are our partners in the community. I know their stories. I know something of their pain, their fear, their longing for peace and prosperity for themselves and their families, and I know their love for the nation. I signed on long ago to be an ally, to work in solidarity with oppressed people for their liberation, to work ultimately for our collective liberation, to build the beloved community.

So I am struggling. I know when we vote for candidates it doesn’t mean that we agree with everything they say or do. But it would make me feel so much better if there were some statement, some indication that the people who voted for Trump/Pence really don’t take them literally when it comes to border walls, climate change denial and ‘locking her up.’ I’d like to hear some acknowledgement that sexual assault is categorically wrong, and brushing off a confession of a pattern of sexual assault as mere locker room talk rather than condemning it actually helps to normalize it and makes the problem worse. I’d like to hear some acknowledgement that “stop and frisk” is not only unconstitutional but also a demonstrably racist practice that cannot possibly heal the racial divides in our nation. I would like to hear some acknowledgement that discrimination against people based on whom they love is wrong and does not belong in federal or state statutes. I would like to hear some acknowledgement of the fact that the vetting process for refugees to be resettled in the United States is the most thorough process of any nation on the planet. It takes on average four years for a Syrian refugee family to get from a camp in Jordan or Lebanon to home in the United States because the vetting process is so thorough; and, most importantly, no act of terror on American soil since 9/11 has ever been committed by a refugee. There is absolutely no evidence that Syrian refugees are terrorists.

You won the election. If you don’t take them literally, please let the rest of us know. It would help immensely in fostering unity.

Spiritual Abundance

Why do you come to church?

I’ve been asking this question in various ways throughout my eighteen years as a minister. It feels really important right now. The answers I hear are good answers, but I wonder now if they are sufficient answers. The answers we give include: my friends are here. I come for community or I love the community. I come to learn, to be challenged, to have something to think about for the week after Sunday. I come for my children so they can be accepted and loved and nurtured for who they are, invited into faith, not frightened into faith. I come for the music. I come because when I’m here I can breathe. I come because when I’m here I can cry. I come because when I’m here I feel connected. I come because when I’m here I can actually be myself. I come for support. I love the energy. I love the minister. I know that the minister loves us.

Each of these answers warms my heart.

But what I don’t hear is this: I come to be sent forth. I come to be sent forth into the world to love my neighbor. I come to be sent forth to love the stranger, the immigrant, the homeless person, the hungry person, the prisoner, the person who just lost their job. I come to be sent forth to love my enemies. I come to be sent forth to bear witness to suffering, to oppression, to injustice. I come to be sent forth to be present to suffering, to comfort, to heal, to resist and dismantle the systems that hold oppression in place, to build a more just and fair society. I come not simply to be reminded of my principles, but to be sent forth into the world to live my principles. I come to be sent forth.

Friends, I don’t think I’ve ever quite understood this until this week: the church is not serving you fully if it is not sending you forth into the world to live your principles proudly, resolutely, urgently, lovingly. The church is not a source of spiritual abundance in your life if it is not sending you forth.

If it wasn’t clear before Tuesday, it should be abundantly clear now. None of us can rest. Your age, your race, your work, your immigration status, your sexual orientation, your gender identity, your economic class, your theology, your political party, even your health to some degree—none of it matters in the sense that none of us can afford to come to church on Sunday and not take to heart the message that we are sent forth into the world to meet cynicism and despair with hope, to meet violence with peace, to meet hatred with love . . . and to organize for a more just and fair society.

From the sanctuary of my heart I promise I will always meet you here, and this place will always be a sanctuary for you. And I promise I will also meet you—and I will ask you to meet me—out in the world where the principles and love we celebrate here are desperately needed, and will make a way. They will make a way. They will bless the world.

I send you forth. Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] West, Cornel, “Spiritual Blackout in America: Election 2016,” Boston Globe, November 3, 2016. See: https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/11/03/spiritual-blackout-america-election/v7lWSybxux1OPoBg56dgsL/story.html.

[2] Pawelek, Josh M., “Given Inches, I Take Yards,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT, November 6, 2016. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/given-inches-i-take-yards/.

[3] Zito, Salena, “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally,” The Atlantic, September 23, 2016. See: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/trump-makes-his-case-in-pittsburgh/501335/.

Watch “Defying the Nazis: The Sharp’s War” online now!

sharp-warThe new documentary “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War” premiered on September 20th on PBS.  3.2 million people tuned in, and we hope you were one of them. If not, it is now possible to watch it online. Unitarians Waitstill and Martha Sharp courageously answered a call to go to Europe in the months leading up to WWII. They were instrumental in saving hundreds of lives. This is their story. This is our story!

Watch “Defying the Nazis: The Sharp’s War”.

Big B Belonging and Huge H Helping

Rev. Josh Pawelek

img_0765The 2016-2017 congregational year is beginning. I am excited for what I expect will be a very normal year.

Wait, what? Normal? Who wants a normal year in ministry?

Here’s what I mean. Ever since we completed our building project six years ago, every one of those six years has brought with it some big issue or collective task that has drawn our attention away from the ordinary, the regular—the normal—conduct of our ministries. After we moved back into this building we spent about 18 months designing a new mission, vision and strategic plan. Important work, but it required us to pause. In essence, we needed to wait until we had a sense of where we wanted to go as a congregation. After that we went through a period of transition with our program staff. First our previous Director of Religious Education, Vicki Merriam announced her retirement. Then our previous Music Director, Pawel Jura, announced that he would be leaving for a new position. We designed an interim period in our religious education program, and then an interim period in our music program. We conducted extensive searches for a new Director of Religious Education and a new Music Director. Those searches overlapped somewhat, but not entirely. Last year was Gina Campellone’s first full year as our permanent Director of Religious Education. It was also Mary Bopp’s first full year as our Music Director. Last year was close to normal, but it was still a ‘breaking in’ year, still a learning year, still a transitional year.

It’s not that our regular ministries ceased during these years. Obviously they didn’t. We kept doing what we do. But we couldn’t quite focus our full attention on them because I and many of our leaders were addressing these other concerns.

But this morning, I am so happy—no, overjoyed—no, ecstatic—to say that Gina and Mary have both very successfully transitioned onto our staff. I am so done with transitions! It’s going to be a normal year in the sense that we can pay full attention to our ministries without needing to focus on some larger trend or shift or change in congregational life. Back to basics. Back to essentials. Back to our core. That’s the state of the church! Hallelujah!

What is normal? What is our core? I suppose we can identify normal by naming what we actually do: Sunday morning worship, religious education, social and environmental justice activism, pastoral care, managing our finances, caring for our buildings and grounds, organizing fundraisers. That’s one way to know what normal is. But I want to explore normal from a different angle by asking you this question:  What deep, human longing lies at the heart of your presence here?

People seek out congregations in response to all sorts of longings: community, guidance, support, inspiration, religious education for their children, a place to be still, to breathe, to grieve or to collect oneself before confronting the challenges of the coming week. Or perhaps they seek to respond in some productive way to the world’s immense hurt. These are not frivolous longings. They aren’t whims or flights of fancy. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who visited this church or any other purely on a whim, without giving it any thought, without hoping to find something meaningful. Sometimes people come to church without admitting to themselves what they’re really seeking—and maybe they don’t quite know. But when you scratch the surface, some deep human longing almost always becomes apparent. People come to congregations in response to longing. And in discerning what those longings are and attending to them, we help people more fully experience their humanity. This is true for any congregation of any faith. We help people find meaning in their lives. We help people connect with the sacred, the holy, the divine. We help people apprehend their embeddedness in some reality larger than themselves. For me, that’s one description of the core of our ministry—what we ought to be doing when things are normal: meeting people—meeting each other—in the midst of our deepest human longings.

What longing lies at the heart of your presence here?

Here’s my answer to the question. As many of you know I’ve just completed my summer vacation and study leave. I take this time every summer, and I’ve discovered over the years that summer reveals to me in stark relief a central dichotomy in the human experience: our capacity to feel connected and whole at certain times in our lives, and our capacity to feel disconnected and broken at other times. That dichotomy is always present, but I seem to notice it more and feel it more intensely during summer. This summer has been no exception. In the early weeks of July our family was living in Pittsfield, MA at Stephany’s parents’ home while Mason and Max attended camps in the area. Steph and I were able to spend time hiking in the Berkshire Hills while the boys were at camp. Those were warm days on quiet trails in still woods, flush with wildlife and the occasional panoramic vista. For a blessed two weeks there were few or no time constraints, no deadlines, no rushing from event to event. There was time for imagination, spontaneity, relaxing. There were moments of spiritual experience: oneness with Nature. Oneness with all life. Oneness with all. Connection. Wholeness. A sense of belonging in the universe. And then, July 5th, news of the latest police shooting of a black man, Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge. And then, July 6th, news of the latest police shooting of a black man, Philando Castile, near St Paul. And then, July 7th, a gunman opens fire on police protecting a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas, killing 5 and wounding 9. And then, July 15th, news of a terrorist attack in Nice, France: nearly 90 people killed as the attacker drove a heavy truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day. More police shot in Baton Rouge two days later. Learning of these acts of violence created a sense of disconnection in me, a sense of brokenness which contrasts enormously with that other experience of wholeness and connection out on the trail. And like it or not this experience of disconnection and brokenness is also a spiritual experience.

This is what I know: the gentle, sustaining, wordless power flowing through everything, connecting everything, making everything whole; and I know the hurting, grieving, violent world. I long to feel whole and connected. And I long to respond in some meaningful way to the world’s immense hurt. In more concise language, I long to belong, and I long to help. In the end, these two longings are why I went into ministry. They are why I go to church. What deep human longing lies at the heart of your presence here?

When I survey the religious landscape in the United States—and in the world to the extent that’s possible—I perceive deep and widespread spiritual longing. Theologian Harvey Cox reminds us that fifty years ago scholars were confidently predicting the demise of religion. Some of you remember or are familiar with the famous April, 1966 Time Magazine cover story proclaiming the death of God. The story examined the secularization of American society and what that implied for the decline of religious life. Yet in his 2009 book, The Future of Faith, Cox says “the soothsayers were wrong. Instead of disappearing, religion—for good or ill—is now exhibiting a new vitality all around the world and making its weight widely felt in the corridors of power.”[1] Ten days ago, Franklin Graham—son of the famous American evangelist Billy Graham—held a rally at the state capitol. I attended in solidarity with protestors who object to Graham’s position against homosexuality, as well as his anti-atheist rhetoric. What struck me was the fact that on a week-day in the rain more than 1,000 people came to hear Franklin Graham speak. Boston University Professor of Religion Stephen Prothero has described the world as “furiously religious.”[2] I sensed some of that fury in Graham’s words and in his supporters who referred to my gay, lesbian and transgender colleagues as abominations.

Certainly, some of the religious vitality and furiousness we witness across the globe emerges out of literal fury and results in extremist rage co-opting and re-interpreting various religious traditions and their sacred scriptures as calls to holy war, terrorism and murder. I suspect most of it, however, emerges out of a more humble, twofold spiritual longing: the longing for the peace and comfort that comes from experiencing or communing with a reality larger than oneself; and the longing to transform and heal, in some small way, the hurting, grieving, violent world. I sensed some of this among Franklin Graham’s supporters as well. In even more basic terms: A longing to belong, and a longing to help. My vision for a normal year in ministry is that we will respond well to these longings.

Belonging

Earlier I shared an excerpt from Rev. Susan Ritchie’s reading, “Let the Wrong Ones In.” She writes of her own experience of belonging to Unitarian Universalism. “Somewhere along the line someone left the door open for me. Someone invited me in, someone made the way for me even though there is no equivalent of me in our forebears’ imagination. And when things have been bad, when I have been bad, this tradition has carried me around in my sorry little basket and given me over and over again the invitation to relationship, the invitation to be human, as human as I dare.”[3] It is my hope, my prayer, my mission that every person who enters through our doors—whether you come for worship on Sunday morning or for a community event, whether you’re renting space in the building or providing a service, whether you’ve been here since the congregation’s founding or you’ve come for the first time this morning—will  experience a similar sense of belonging here.

Having said that, the human longing to belong goes much deeper than belonging to a congregation. Belonging to a congregation is belonging with a small b. Belonging with a big B—or Big B Belonging—is that sense of belonging to the larger human family, or belonging to the whole of life, or belonging to God or Goddess, or to some holy power. Big B Belonging is feeling at home on this earth, feeling at home in this universe, locating yourself within the interdependent web of all existence. Big B Belonging is connecting or relating to a reality larger than yourself in which you find sustenance, strength and comfort; a reality in which you find inspiration and joy; a reality that challenges you, guides you, helps you make moral decisions, calls you to be loving, to practice compassion, to seek justice.

In any year in ministry—no matter what is happening in the life of the congregation—I fully expect to focus on small b belonging. But if that’s all we do, it won’t be enough. I want your experience of small b belonging to become the foundation for that greater, more powerful, more all-encompassing experience of Big B Belonging. That is church at its best. The truth is we don’t always have the time and space to attend to Big B Belonging, but in this normal year in ministry—this year of no transitions—it is my hope that we can move from small b belonging to Big B belonging.

Helping

And then there is the longing to help. How can we help? In any congregational year there are many ways to help here at UUS:E: caring for members and friends of the congregation who are in crisis, volunteering on a committee, as a religious education teacher, on a fundraiser, providing Sunday morning hospitality, greeting, tending to the building and grounds, or working on a social justice project, or a sustainable living project, or—as many of you are doing these days—helping with the Manchester Refugee Resettlement Project working to settle a Syrian refugee family in Manchester. If you are ever unclear about how to offer help in the life of this congregation, please do not hesitate to ask me. There are so many ways to help!

Having said that, I know the longing to help goes much deeper than helping through the auspices of a congregation. So I’ll call helping here “helping with a small h.” But in this normal year I hope we can also explore Huge H Helping—the work of healing and transforming this hurting, grieving, violent world. Think for a moment about any of the common critiques of modern society that are floating around out there: that it is becoming increasingly fragmented, that we are becoming increasingly isolated from each other, that the mediating institutions that once provided the building blocks of community are weakening and disappearing, that we are polarized, that we gravitate online to like-minded people and end up living in digital bubbles of sameness, that we no longer know our neighbors, that we witness callousness, insensitivity and violence far too often without challenging it. I want us to be a congregation that inspires its members and friends to intentionally and courageously subvert these trends. I want us to be the people who fill the gaps and holes and broken places that have opened up in our society. Yes, we need you to help here. But the world needs you to help everywhere. The world needs us to take actions that overcome fragmentation and isolation. The world needs us to be generous, kind, trusting, fair, hospitable and unselfish everywhere. And in the midst of pain, violence, terror, poverty, racism and so many other abuses of power, the world needs us to be present, to respond with love and courage, to seek healing and justice. That’s Huge H Helping. I am hopeful that in this normal year of ministry—this year of no transitions—we can deepen our resolve and capacity to respond to the world’s immense hurt whether we’re doing it here at UUS:E, or as part of larger movements for social and environmental justice, or as individuals just going about our days. I am hopeful that in this normal year in ministry, we can deepen our identity as people who help when help is needed. That’s what I’m looking forward to this year.

Belonging and Helping. Two deep human longings. In the coming year, may we meet each other in the midst of these longings and discover together some great measure of their fulfillment. Amen and blessed be.

[1] Cox, Harvey, The Future of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009) p. 1.

[2] Prothero, Stephen, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperOne, 2010) p. 7.

[3] Ritchie, Susan, “Let the Wrong Ones In” in Montgomery, Kathleen, ed., Bless the Imperfect (Boston: Skinner House, 2014) p. 35.

A Remote Important Region

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Josh at Ministry Days“And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, / a remote important region in all who talk”[1]—words from twentieth-century American poet, William E. Stafford. I don’t pretend to know what the poet meant by the phrase, “a remote important region,” though I suspect it was something he felt, something essential in us he imagined must be real and must be accessible. But it isn’t easily accessible. It is shadowy, remote.

As we come to the end of the 2015-2016 congregational year, I want to reflect on a theme that has caught my heart and with which I’ve been wrestling in my preaching over the past year. Maybe Stafford didn’t have words for this remote, important region; or maybe he did but he didn’t want to name it explicitly; and maybe this isn’t what he meant at all: but when I encounter this appeal “to something shadowy, / a remote, important region,” I imagine he is talking about the body. I imagine he is talking about our physical, sensual bodies that breathe deeply as they enter into worship, sit quietly and comfortably, rise to sing, light chalice flames, meditate and pray, share joys and concerns, give money, hold hands, hug and love; our physical, sensual bodies that revel in pleasure and beauty; our bodies that grow, age, decline, forget, and eventually die; our bodies that witness and sometimes experience horrors and thus hold stress, anxiety, pain; feel fear, anger, despair. Our bodies—shadowy, remote, but utterly important regions. Why remote? Because for too long our faith, like our larger western culture, has kept the body separate from the mind. You’ve heard me come back to this claim again and again this year.

We know body and mind aren’t separate. Anyone who practices yoga or Buddhist meditation has some inkling of this non-separateness, this non-duality. Mystics, healers, yogis, gurus, sages, TED talkers, therapists, life coaches and UU ministers tell us all the time of this non-separateness. I’m telling you again right now. And yet somehow, in practice, our faith, like our larger western culture, resists this knowledge. Religiously speaking, the body remains shadowy, remote. “I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty,” says Stafford, “to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.”

Let’s face it (and I don’t mean this metaphorically): the Unitarian Universalism we inherit is not a deeply embodied faith. Those of you who attended Thomas Moore’s lecture here last weekend heard me say this to him. Historically we favor mind, ideas, words, talk. We stack books by our bedsides. Our clergy start sermons quoting poems. We may not identify as Abrahamic “people of the book,” but surely we are people of the word. Whether we care to admit it or not, we’re good Protestants who privilege the word in worship, expecting preachers to prove their point through reasoned argument. So many of our congregations debate whether it’s OK to clap or shout amen or hallelujah in worship. Sometimes the music moves us so much we want to physically move, but we’re not sure it’s ok. Sex education is great for our children, but feels dicey for adults. And most importantly for my purposes this morning, we’re often unable or unwilling to move anywhere until we’ve crafted the perfect mission and vision statements. We want to get the words right. But the body doesn’t typically occur to us as a religiously significant region. It is remote. Those of you who hail from less wordy faith traditions couldn’t stay there for many good reasons, but sometimes you whisper to me privately that you miss the ritual, the darkness, the incense, the spiritedness, hands raised high, even a living, incarnate God. You miss the invitation to live religiously in the body. We stay mired in mind, which, given what we know about non-separateness, is irrational.

This is what I’ve been coming to terms with over the last year: our minds are sharp and we don’t want to lose them, but alone they are insufficient for the ministry our era demands. There is a growing dissonance between the vision our words proclaim and our bodies’ knowledge of the world. Are you one who has felt this dissonance? We envision a world made fair, a glorious, golden city, a land where justice rolls down like waters. “The moral arc of the universe is long,” we say with Parker and King, “but it bends towards justice.” Do we ever pause to consider whether these wonderful, hopeful visions are remotely realistic? Do we ever peer beneath them to explore honestly what we must do to achieve them and how radically different our lives would be if they became our reality?

Fifty people gunned down on Latinx night at a gay night club in Orlando, FL. Is it possible our vision of a world free of violence is growing not closer but more distant? When we proclaim visions of a world free of racism, sexism, homophobia, violence, or fossil fuel consumption, does something shadowy in you feel dissonance? Do you wonder in some remote region of you how on earth this is really going to happen? Do you get a flash of maybe it won’t happen? And if you do, how quickly do you put it aside? How swiftly does it rise up in you only to find no outlet, only to have your mind tell you not to speak it because it may be misunderstood, may sound cynical, faint-hearted, privileged, or worse, like you’re not a real Unitarian Universalist. Do you tell yourself you shouldn’t feel this way? And what way is it exactly? If you probe, is there hopelessness or despair churning your stomach, tensing your shoulders, dizzying your head? And might you suddenly feel guilty, ashamed or weak for feeling this way? Yet this is one way the body tries to speak in our era. Let’s learn to listen.

Let’s face it. We name wonderful visions Sunday after Sunday, year after year—and I intend to keep naming them—but the naming hasn’t been enough to stem the tide of oppression, income inequality, global warming and so much needless violence. Despite our words, and despite all our good work and the work of so many others, those things are getting worse, not better. No doubt our words help people feel hopeful—and that matters—that is part of our ministry—but let’s come down from the mountaintop of our minds and join our bodies in the desert where they’re already facing it: facing extreme weather patterns and hottest years on record; facing gun violence in the home and almost daily mass shootings; facing opioid addiction; facing mental illness; facing decreasing life expectancy, a hollowed out American middle class looking for work that doesn’t exist, political polarization; the trauma of endless war, terrorism and its threat; mass incarceration, racist police violence, modern slavery, tens of millions of stateless people; and reactionary backlash to any effort to address any of it in a principled, peaceful and just manner. Sometimes it is too much for the mind to take in, but our bodies feel it whether our minds think and reason and vision or not. Our bodies know something of how deep it goes. Just remember how you felt as news of the Orlando shooting unfolded. Unless we can integrate this body-knowledge into our religious lives, our beautiful, hopeful, visionary words will come, in time, to mean nothing.

I was moved by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a letter to his son explaining the historical and ongoing violence against Black bodies in the United States. I preached about it on Martin Luther King Sunday. Coates counsels his son—and his readers—not to become too dependent on visions of a better world. He says, “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.”[2] “You must wake up each morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all.”[3] Hard words. But he’s facing what his body knows! His words collapse the distance between body and mind. Lay the vision aside for a moment. Consult your flesh-bone-and-blood body that breathes and bleeds, laughs and cries, ponders and thinks, makes love, gives birth, ages, dies. What is the body capable of doing in this moment? That question matters as much as what our vision is. Coates’ answer is struggle. It sounds hard. It sounds barren. But he offers to his son as a path to integrity and wholeness. “You are called to struggle,” he says, “not because it assures you of victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.” The more I sit with this, the more I realize I find it so much more hopeful than repeating the words of a vision whose realization grows more distant with each passing year. 

Bishop John Selders of Hartford’s Amistad United Church of Christ is a great friend of this congregation. He was deeply moved by his experiences in Ferguson, MO in the months following the police killing of Michael Brown. He returned from a visit there in December, 2014 and, at a meeting of clergy to discuss convening yet another dialogue with police he said “No. I’m done trying to talk the system out of racism.” What he learned in Ferguson, and what he was teaching us is that it’s time for the creative use of our bodies in the struggle against racism. It’s time for the physical disruption of business as usual. It’s time to take streets. These are the lessons of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. Social justice movements need our bodies as much—or more—than they need our words. As one who’s invested much in the talk of social justice, it was hard for me to transition to body-based struggle. I’ve named that from this pulpit a number of times. I’ve always been affirmed for using words. Would embodied struggle receive the same affirmation? But what a difference it has made for me to say nothing with my mouth and everything with my body, to stand in a street blocking traffic because Black Lives Matter, to spend an evening in jail. And how much more powerful the words that finally do come when the mind speaks what the body knows.

I’ve come to understand over the years many Unitarian Universalists feel paralyzed when it comes to social justice work, not because they don’t agree with the various causes, but because the distance between body and mind is so great. It’s counter-cultural for us, but it’s time to start naming the concerns, pain, anxiety, shakiness, nervousness, hopelessness and despair that can live in the body. This is the leadership our faith needs now. As we name what our bodies know, we give permission for others not only to name it, but to sing, dance, pray and laugh it. As we name what our bodies know, we’ll be making this important region less remote.

There’s a story making its way around the internet. Bill Graver sent it to me a few weeks ago. The teacher asks a group of young students to list the seven wonders of the world. They name the usual Pyramids, Great Wall, Taj Majal, etc. One student isn’t sure she understands. “Well, tell us what you have; we’ll help,” says the teacher. The student hesitates but then says, “it’s different for different people, but the seven wonders of the world are that we can see, taste, smell, hear, touch, feel, and love.” Friends: before we appeal to our lofty, beautiful visions of a world made fair, Let us learn to consult our bodies? The question is not only What do I think about what’s happening? The question is What does the body know about what’s happening? And a corollary: What is the body capable of doing in this moment? And as we ask, let’s be ready to encounter and welcome the hopelessness and despair that lives in our bodies. Let’s face it. Let’s see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it, feel it, love it. We may have to reign in our vision, but we will move farther than we thought possible.

And let us remember: the body doesn’t only hold the world’s pain. It holds the world’s joy too. In a faith community that understands the body as religiously significant, not only does our hopelessness and despair become speakable and thus more manageable, our joy and ecstasy become speakable too. Bringing the body in opens avenues for eye contact, touch, color, fragrance, dance, art, intuition, dreaming; for ‘let’s break bread together,’ for the creative occupation of space in the service of social justice struggle, and for the rediscovery of ritual, darkness, incense, spiritedness, hands raised high in praise, a living, incarnate God and a reenchanted world.

May our bodies find their home in our faith. May we learn to hear their voice. May we struggle for what matters. And may our lives be honorable and sane.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Stafford, William E., “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” See: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/58264.

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

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

On the Art of Being Lost

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Amen and blessed be.

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

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

[3] Matthew 10:39 (NRSV).

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

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

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

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