Less Distant from the Hope of Myself: Reflections on Sanctuary

Our ministry theme for October is sanctuary. For my remarks this morning I had planned to take a break from talking about being a sanctuary congregation. I had planned to take a break from talking about how we as a congregation relate morally to larger social and political realities. I had planned to take a break from talking about how we have the capacity to provide care and shelter to people whose lives have been or are being upended in tragic ways by governments acting immorally. We’ve actually talked a lot about that over the past two years. As a congregation you are familiar with many of these themes. I was going to take a break. I had planned to talk about sanctuary in a more general, and perhaps a more personal spiritual way. I had planned to say that regardless of our life circumstances, regardless of our relative privileges, no matter who we are, there’s a human need for sanctuary, for places of safety and protection, of retreat and reflection, of beauty and creation. We all need sanctuary from time to time.

As I read in our meditation from the Rev. Ann Willever, Just for this moment / let me be still / let me rest / in the quiet of this sacred place / in the presence of the spirit gathered / held gently, yet mightily, by the threads of love / that bind us together.[1] She’s describing that kind of sanctuary we all need from time to time.

That’s still what this sermon is about—with a first caveat that this happens to be the week we are, for the first time, welcoming a guest into our sanctuary space; and with a second caveat that the dynamics of this situation are different—though not entirely—from the scenario we originally anticipated. This situation is easier in some ways, because our guest is not confined to our building. But it is still hard, because his life is so clearly at stake if his asylum claim fails.

For me, it has been a difficult week. It has been difficult because the work of bringing a guest into our building is highly detailed; it requires the input, insight, organization and commitment of many people. I want to thank Judi Durham and Rhona Cohen, who co-lead our Sanctuary Congregation Team, along with all the members of the Team who’ve had a hand in making this transition in the life of our congregation go as smoothly as possible.

It’s been a difficult week because the reality of a human being moving into our building impacts all of us who use the building. It is disruptive, especially for our staff. Gina, Jane, Annie, Mary and Emmy have all prepared for this moment—and yet nobody can fully prepare for something like this until it happens. I am so appreciative of their willingness to stay open, to be flexible, to raise questions we haven’t yet raised, and thereby support all of you in making this transition.

It’s been a difficult week because some of you, appropriately, have expressed concern about our decision-making process, because this situation—providing sanctuary to a person whose deportation order has been put on hold while he’s pursuing an asylum claim—is different from the situation that drove our deliberations last spring—providing sanctuary to a person who has an open deportation order. Those of you who’ve spoken or written to me about this difference, please know that I deeply value your willingness to raise questions. Having disagreements about this is hard, but if we can’t raise questions and be in dialogue, then in my mind we are muting our fifth Unitarian Universalist principle, ‘the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.’

It’s been a difficult week because we’re still trying to figure out what details about our guest’s story are shareable and how best to share them. Transparency is critical in the healthy functioning of a congregation—and yet we have to be careful in this situation: if our guest’s asylum claim fails and he must return home, we don’t want our public sharing here in the United States to inadvertently make his situation at home more dangerous. As a reminder, he is an atheist, and what he calls a free thinker, from a country where atheism is a crime punishable by death.

Having said that, this is a church, and we have never been under any illusions that it would be possible to keep our guest’s presence here a secret. Though we will not hold a press conference, the Manchester Police and Fire Departments are aware that he is living here. There’s no way around that. So what we can say is that our guest comes from a country in the Middle East. He arrived in the United States in mid-September and immediately presented himself to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and requested asylum. ICE detained him at a facility in Greenfield, MA. After ICE background checks and a briefing in the case a federal judge in Hartford determined he was neither a threat nor a flight risk, and allowed him to be released from detention as long as there was a place for him to go. This is where we come in. We are providing a place for him to stay while he pursues his asylum claim. On average, such claims take about 3-4 months to complete—though there are no guarantees.

It’s been a hard, stressful, taxing week. I know during such weeks I am not at my best—not as a minister, not as a pastor, not as a husband, not as a father. Some lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, “When I Am Among the Trees,” resonate with me. I am so distant from the hope of myself, / in which I have goodness, and discernment, / and never hurry through the world / but walk slowly, and bow often.[2]

There have definitely been times this week when I’ve felt distant from the hope of myself.

That could mean many things. I wonder what it might mean for you. It could be the feeling that accompanies a hard week, a week in which you know you aren’t at peak, aren’t your best self. It could be the feeling that accompanies a difficult diagnosis, or a recovery from surgery or illness that is taking much longer than the doctors predicted. It could be the feeling that accompanies the breakdown or loss of a relationship that really matters to you. It could be the weight of the world bearing down, those feelings of overwhelm that come in response to so much unwelcome, disconcerting news. Contemplate, for a moment, those times when you’ve felt distant from the hope of yourself.

[Musical Interlude]

I’d like to say I hope none of you will ever feel distant from the hope of yourself. It would be nice to never feel that way. It would be nice to always know your own goodness, to always have discernment, to never hurry through the world, to walk slowly, to bow often. But we know the world and our lives don’t work this way. We have hard days, hard weeks, hard years. Some moments in our lives are grueling. This is inevitable. What I do hope, for myself and for all of you, is that when you come to those grueling moments, you will also have sanctuaries—places to which you can you can for rest and respite, for comfort, solace and peace—beautiful vibrant places, tranquil, colorful places that soften life’s hard edges, that make living not only bearable but joyful, meaningful, useful.  

That is the idea of sanctuary I want to offer you this morning: places that matter deeply to you; places that help reduce the distance between you and the hope of yourself; places that help you remember your goodness. That’s what a sanctuary does. The poet speaks of the trees as her sanctuary. They call out, “Stay a while.” / The light flows from their branches. / And they call again, “It’s simple, they say, / “and you too have come / into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled / with the light, and to shine.[3] That’s a good statement of the place I’ve been trying to get to this week, a place where I can go easy, be filled with light, shine. I don’t want the hardness of this week—or the hardness of the laws that led our guest to flee is home country—or the hardness of our larger world, our polarized and often hate-filled politics—I don’t want any of it to change me. I don’t want any of it to change you, or to lessen your courage, to dampen your conviction. Where can you go for affirmation that you, too, are filled with light; that you, too, shine.

What is your sanctuary? What is the place that saves you again and again and again; the place where you find room to breathe and stretch, the place that shelters you, if only for a time, from the hardness, the madness, the cruelty of the world? Two weeks ago I asked the members of the Small Group Ministry I facilitate to respond to that very question. It was a wonderful sharing. I remember stories of homes, or certain rooms within homes, of ponds and rivers nearby, of baseball parks, of the powerfully, comforting memories of loved-ones who’ve died, of this place—this Unitarian Universalist meeting house, here atop Elm Hill, on the Manchester-Vernon line, east of the Connecticut River.

Contemplate, for a moment, the sanctuaries in your life.

[Musical Interlude]

I’m offering you the idea of sanctuary as a spiritual resource. Just as taking a sabbath—a day of rest—is a spiritual resource; just as prayer and meditation are spiritual resources; just as yoga is a spiritual resource; just as being together in worshiping community on Sunday morning is a spiritual resource, so is having a sanctuary, a place where you can go for rest, respite, renewal.

The Rev. Kathleen McTigue tells the story of the small hole-in-the-wall café near her office. She describes the café as a sanctuary for her. “It was a wonderful thing just then, to be marooned on this little island of calm amidst the impatience, irritability, and general craziness of life, in a pace where someone makes her living by patiently shaping and then serving two of the world’s most basic and nourishing foods.”[4]

I love the healing imagery at the heart of McTigue’s experience in the café. “It’s easy to believe,” she writes, “that some small corner of the world’s fabric is being patiently, lovingly stitched back together—and that something more gets carried out the door than a bag of bread and warm soup.”[5]

That may be what’s happening here. In providing space for our guest to live, to prepare his asylum case, to engage in activities that will keep him well in mind, body and spirit, perhaps we too are patiently, lovingly stitching some corner of the world’s fabric back together. Indeed, some small bit of fear and loneliness and desperation ebbed this week when our guest came here. His journey is far from over, his fate far from certain, but the fabric in his corner of the world, and in ours, has been strengthened.

Of course, there are many holes, tatters, and runs in the fabric. The edges are worn and frayed. My prayer is that in those moments when the holes and tatters and runs touch our lives, cause us to grow distant from the hope of ourselves, that we have place to go for renewal; that we have sanctuaries in which our small corner of the world’s fabric can be stitched back together. I leave you words from Rev. Willever’s “Autumn:” May whatever pain or sorrow or loss I feel today /be eased / if only for this moment /even as I feel tossed and turned by the wind / a fallen leaf, blown about / with no seeming direction / may I abandon the illusion of control / if only for this moment / and sense the love surrounding me / and the strength of he love within me.[6]

Amen, blessed be.

[1] Willever, Ann, “Autumn” in Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 40-41.

[2] Oliver, Mary “When I Am Among the Trees,” in Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006) p. 4.

[3] Oliver, “When I Am Among the Trees.”

[4] McTigue, Kathleen, “More Than a Cup of Soup,” Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 4-5.

[5] McTigue, “More Than a Coup of Soup.”

[6] Willever, Ann, “Autumn.”

Centering the Margins as Spiritual Practice

Last June at our Bridging Ceremony, at which we recognize graduating high school seniors and welcome them into the community of Unitarian Universalist young adults, the bridgers received a gift from me: The Jefferson Bible, officially known as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Thomas Jefferson is remembered for many things, not the least of which is his commitment to reason in religion. He famously took a scissors to the New Testament gospels in his King James Bible, snipping out all the miracles. For Jefferson, they weren’t reasonable. They couldn’t be verified, and therefore didn’t belong in a sacred scripture. What remained after this purge was the narrative of Jesus’ human life—we read of his execution but not his miraculous resurrection; and we read of his moral teachings—the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, the sayings, etc.        

For more than a century since this little tome was first published in the late 1800s, it has sat prominently in the libraries of Unitarian Universalist congregations. When I was a bridger in 1985, my minister gifted me with a copy, which I still possess and for which I still hold an emotional attachment. I don’t normally give this gift to bridgers. In nearly twenty years of ministry I believe this was only the second time I’ve given it. I wish I had thought more deeply about giving it—and about receiving it 33 years ago. After the service last June, Kristal Kallenberg approached me and asked about the reason for giving it. As soon as she asked I realized it’s not a good gift. Kristal said it didn’t seem right to offer Thomas Jefferson as a moral exemplar for our bridgers. It was Jefferson, after all, who could articulate the moral depravity at the heart of slavery,”[1] and yet who could not summon the political will—or the heart—to work for the abolition of slavery, not even on his own plantation. He could describe the moral life vividly; but when it came to slavery, he could not live it. And he knew it.

I’m not saying The Jefferson Bible has no value, or that it should be censored or banned or removed from our libraries. I’m saying it’s not a good gift for our bridgers.

I wasn’t remembering that our denomination has had huge debates over Jefferson precisely because he was a slaveholder and thus a potent reminder of White Supremacy at the heart of our nation’s founding. There used to be a Thomas Jefferson District of the Unitarian Universalist Association. After decades of intense debate, the district finally changed its name. I was fully aware of this, yet somehow I had compartmentalized The Jefferson Bible into a context-free zone in my mind, as if I could separate Jefferson’s moral vision from his moral behavior. It shouldn’t have happened. We live in an age when activists around the country, including Unitarian Universalists, are fighting for the removal of Confederate monuments and flags from public places precisely because they celebrate White Supremacy. I should have made the connection.

This is embarrassing, given my commitment to anti-racism and the Movement for Black Lives, but I offer no excuses. This is one of the ways and White supremacy operate. I’m thankful to Kristal for being willing to ask the question. I am sorry that she had to dedicate energy to naming something I should have known. I apologize to my colleagues—especially my colleagues of Color, some of whom will feel, in the very least, let down when they read this. I apologize to you, especially those of you who were present and may have felt a pinch, an ouch, a micro-aggression, or even a macro-aggression. And most of all I am apologizing to the bridgers. I am writing to them about my change of heart, and including replacement gifts—

a book of readings compiled for UU young adults called Becoming, and a book of meditations from Unitarian Universalist ministers of Color entitled Voices from the Margins, from which I have been reading throughout this service.

In her meditation entitled “Marginal Wisdom,” the Rev. Leslie Takahashi says, “The day is coming when all will know / That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than monochrome, / That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, / stubborn rocks in its course, / That the margins hold the center.”[2] In her meditation, “Waiting,” the Rev. Marta Valentín[3] beckons her readers to come “into the center / come in from the margins / I will hold you here.”

In the life and culture of any institution, including congregations, there is a center and there are margins. The center is where power is exercised, priorities determined, decisions made, money spent, resources allocated, values articulated, sermons preached, hymns sung, joys and sorrows shared, coffee served, gifts given. The center specifies norms for appropriate behavior and emotional expression; norms for which topics are speakable, and which are taboo; norms for belonging—who is in and who doesn’t really fit. Sometimes these norms are clearly articulated. Sometimes they are assumed, taken for granted, unexamined.

The margins are those places where people experiences themselves as out-of- sync with the center or, worse, excluded. For example, oftentimes as people age, as their mobility, hearing and vision decline, they may begin to feel marginalized from the physical life of the congregation. Another example: Many congregations are adult-focused. Children—and by extension, their parents—occupy the margins. If the center is White, People of Color may experience themselves as marginal. If the center speaks English, people who speak limited English may experience themselves as marginal. If the congregation’s primary theological orientation is Humanist, people who identify as Christian, Theist or Pagan may experience themselves as marginal. People with mental illness may feel marginal. Survivors of sexual violence may feel marginal. Often we have some identities that occupy the center; and others that occupy the margins. We are rarely only one or the other.

The existence of a center and margins is natural and unavoidable in any institution or community. However, here, our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to pay attention to what our center and margins are—to be institutionally self-aware. Who are we including? Who are we excluding? But then further, because we envision a highly inclusive community, a multigenerational, multicultural and multiracial community, a spiritually pluralistic community that can offer many styles of worship, music, and arts, our center must be in constant dialogue with our margins. And further: we must be willing to center that which is marginal.

We often use ‘centering’ as a spiritual term for finding our own inner grounding, our own foundation, our own anchor. But here I’m using centering differently. I am calling centering the the margins a spiritual practice.

Knowing that our congregational center is White, that our culture is a White culture, that it is possible for well-intentioned White people to perpetuate racism and White supremacy inadvertently, what if before making the decision to give a book created by a slaveholder to our bridgers, I had centered the descendants of former African slaves? What if I had simply asked, “if one of our bridgers were African American, how might it feel for them to receive this gift and learn from the minister that it represents a great moral example in the history of our faith and nation?” I can only imagine that it wouldn’t feel good, that it would likely do harm. And if it wouldn’t be good for that child, why would it be good for any of our children?

This week the nation witnessed what many commentators have described as a tragedy: the build-up to, and the actual testimony of, Christine Blasey Ford about her sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Survivors of sexual violence still occupy the margins in our society. The #MeToo movement is challenging this marginalization, demanding that we as a society center the experiences of survivors—take them seriously, believe them, care for them and hold perpetrators accountable. With so many high-profile firings, resignations, failed political careers and campaigns, and guilty verdicts, it seems as if the movement is having an impact—though I am not aware of an overall reduction in sexual violence.

The Senate Judiciary Committee leaders didn’t want to center Blasey Ford’s story, but they also knew they couldn’t ignore her. They had to at least appear to be centering her. They tried so hard not to publicly shame or discredit her ahead of time. Even the President, who consistently engages in character assassination on Twitter, held back for a few days, initially acknowledging that Blasey Ford’s allegations were serious and deserved a hearing. Committee chair Senator Grassley kept reiterating that Blasey Ford could testify whichever way was most comfortable for her. They even recognized how bad the optics were for eleven powerful men to be questioning a woman about her experience of sexual assault. They hired Rachel Miller, a female attorney with extensive experience prosecuting sex crimes, to do their questioning for them. The result was an extensive, unchallenged testimony in which Blasey Ford, though frightened, was able to speak her truth and, from my perspective, was utterly convincing. I believe her.

It was fascinating to watch the Judiciary Committee leadership decenter attorney Miller. She asked Judge Kavanaugh two questions, and then she was essentially gone from the proceedings. Evidently her questions were good for Blasey Ford, but not for Cavanaugh—a potent double standard.

I also want to name—and I’ll talk about how this works in congregations in a moment—that centering a story or experience from the margins is often experienced as a threat by those who occupy the center. Centering a story or experience from the margins often produces feelings of guilt, shame, and anger from the center. I think Judge Kavanaugh offered a perfect example of this. Who could have responded with grace and dignity. Instead, he responded with anger. He was livid. He scolded. He was partisan. He alleged a conspiracy against him. And his supporters on the Committee followed his lead, expressing their own anger and dissapointment

Back to congregations. Congregational cultures are inherently conservative, meaning they exist to conserve specific values and principles, specific ideas about worship, spirituality, and the role religion plays in our lives. So any act of bringing new identities and ways of being into the center from the margins, though it sounds reasonable on the surface, can be quite disruptive. The center often resists. When you, or some part of you, is centered in a congregation—when you feel comfortable at the center, when the center meets your needs, feeds you, fulfills you, when you are emotionally invested in it—the act of centering someone else whose experience, world-view, ideas, culture, or spirituality reside at the margins, can feel threatening. We often feel defensive before we think about it, before we remember, “Oh, yes, this is who we say we are: open to new and different ideas, longing for greater diversity, striving to expand the circle, not close it off.”

I invite you to contemplate centering the margins as a spiritual practice. At its easiest, it’s a practice of deep listening to new stories. At it’s most difficult, it’s a practice of trusting and believing people who are courageous enough to speak about how they’ve been wounded, the ways they’ve felt excluded, the ways they’ve been relegated to the margins. Centering the other requires a softening of the ego, an openness of heart, a willingness to share cultural and spiritual space, a willingness to change. I try to keep four themes in mind.

First, stay focused on what the other is trying to convey from their experience on the margin. If you find yourself defending the center, or saying ‘that’s not how we do it,’ or ‘The Jefferson Bible is an important part of our heritage,’ pause. Breathe. Ease back from defensiveness. Center the person who is speaking. Trust they have something valuable to offer. Trust marginal wisdom to shape the center in positive ways.

Second, avoid the impulse to fix problems immediately. Sometimes stories from the margins reveal flaws in the congregation, ways in which it isn’t aware of itself, ways in which it might be alienating people without realizing it. In the midst of such revelations our allegiance to the center may lead us to want to fix the problem quickly. Unitarian Universalist culture has a habit of moving quickly away from stories of pain and anger into problem-solving. But far too often the people doing the problem-solving aren’t the ones experiencing the problem. Far too often the people doing the problem-solving are recentering themselves and their power to fix, rather than focusing on the story. If someone is sharing a margin story and you find yourself wanting to fix what has happened, pause. Breathe. Ease back from this impulse to fix. Stay with the pain. Learn from the pain. Let your understanding of yourself and your church evolve in response to the pain. The time for fixing will come. For now, center the margins.

Third, beware of guilt, shame and anger. When the story from the margin is about something painful that happened at the center, such feelings are understandable. But if I start talking about my feelings, or worse, if I get angry because I feel I am being challenged, I am now making the story about me. I am decentering the other, and recentering me. “Thank you for telling your story, now let me tell you how YOUR story makes ME feel!” It’s important to notice guilt and shame, but instead of letting them take over the conversation, receive them as cues to refocus attention back on the story, allowing it to live and breathe in the discussion, allowing it to become part of your larger Unitarian Universalist story.

Finally, strive for humility. Indeed, centering the other is an act of humility. The key to honoring and affirming the stories and experiences of people from the cultural margins is humility. The key to not rushing in with solutions is humility. The key to decentering one’s own feelings of guilt and shame is humility. The key to welcoming people from the cultural margins into our cultural center is humility. The key to realizing how deeply the center is connected to the margins is humility.

Rev. Takahashi says “The day is coming when all will know / That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than monochrome, / That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, / stubborn rocks in its course, / That the margins hold the center.”[4] So often, the center of the institution is that static, stubborn rock. Sometimes we need to let go, to swim with the current. The rainbow serves all of us. The monochrome only serves some of us.

I suspect we know this in our heads. We know diversity of ideas, spiritualities and identities is healthy for congregations. But the more we practice centering the margins, the more we will know it in our hearts. It might just be the difference between articulating a moral vision and living it.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Jefferson, Thomas, Notes of the State of Virginia, Query XVIII: Manners, 1781. See: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/notes-on-the-state-of-virginia-query-xviii-manners/.

[2] Takahashi, Leslie, in Morrison-Reed, Mark and James, Jacqui, eds., Voices from the Margins (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012) pp. 30-31.

[3] Valentín, Marta, “Waiting” in Morrison-Reed and James, Voices, pp. 3-4.

[4] Takahashi, Leslie, in Morrison-Reed, Mark and James, Jacqui, eds., Voices from the Margins (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012) pp. 30-31.

Lest We Remain Unused

Subtitle: The Greater-Love-Greater-Inclusion-Greater-Justice-Liberal-Religious-Vision for the United States of America

Rev. Josh Pawelek

What great and noble work uses you up?

What great and noble work calls to you, inspires you, focuses your energy, lets your passions meet the world where it needs them most?

My message this morning is really quite simple. Being fairly confident we each have only one life to live, it matters that we can envision a better world, and then work with all our strength, power, heart, creativity, steadfastness and love to shape the world in response to that vision. In service to our vision it matters, in the poet Rilke’s words, that we not “remain unused.”[1]

We cannot predict the future, but we can imagine it. Really, that’s what I mean when I speak of vision—our best imagining of what the future can be—our own future; our children’s and grandchildren’s futures, for those of us who are parents or grandparents; the future of our neighborhoods, our communities, out towns; the future of our congregation, our Unitarian Universalist Association, our collective UU faith; the future of our country; the future of our environment; the future of the earth. We cannot predict the future, but we can imagine it. And once we’ve imagined, let us not remain unused. Let us instead take to heart Rilke’s claim:“there’s a power in [us] / to grasp and give shape to [our] world.”[2]

Our ministry theme for September is vision. As I speak, you are welcome to reflect on your vision for your own life, especially if you’re not sure what that vision is, or if you’ve encountered barriers to realizing your vision, or if you’re in need of a new vision. But I want to focus my words on our collective vision as members and friends of this Unitarian Universalist congregation. What great and noble work uses us up?

Our congregation adopted a new vision statement at our annual meeting in May. The statement says the “Unitarian Universalist Society: East will be home to a spiritually alive, richly diverse and growing congregation. We will send forth energy, spirit and strength into our beloved communities. We will love, be present to suffering, comfort, heal, bear witness to oppression, and boldly work toward social and environmental justice.” I hope you encounter in these words hints, suggestions and directions for great and noble work we can do together. I am certainly looking forward to being used up in service to this vision. I hope you are too.

Having said that, it feels important to offer the observation that our vision is not really unique among Unitarian Universalist congregations; nor is it unique among liberal congregations of many denominations; nor is it all that different from the visions articulated among many secular organizations, liberal and progressive people in general, and even some pop music and movie stars. Our process for arriving at the specific words in our statement was unique, but the end result fits a pattern. This, by the way, is not a problem. I think it’s a good thing—a sign of our health.

I began thinking about this non-uniqueness when Jenn Richard offered to sing Janelle Monáe’s “Americans” for this morning’s service.”[3] I read the lyrics and thought, well, it’s a secular song—it’s about America. That’s OK. We sing a lot of secular songs. But then I wondered, is it a secular song? It’s not a gospel song. It’s not centered on God or Jesus. But it is prophetic in its call for justice. Monáe emphasizes the spiritual nature of this call by weaving into the song sermon excerpts from a minister named Pastor Sean McMillan. He says “Until women can get equal pay for equal work, this is not my America. / Until same-gender loving people can be who they are, this is not my America. / Until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head, this is not my America. / Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful, this is not my America.” Later he adds “Until Latinos and Latinas don’t have to run from walls, this is not my America. / But I tell you today that the devil is a liar / Because it’s gon’ be my America before it’s all over.”

This is prophecy. For me, it’s a spiritual song. In total, it offers a vision of a more loving, more inclusive, and more just America. Though there are some subtleties within the song, its vision isn’t subtle at all. It is big, bold, obvious. It also feels very consistent with the vison American Unitarian Universalists and other liberal and progressive people of faith often express for our congregations, our local communities, and our nation: greater love, greater inclusion, greater justice.

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that Janelle Monáe is a Unitarian Universalist and doesn’t know it. She’s not a UU. I am suggesting that our collective Unitarian Universalist vision fits comfortably into a more widely-shared liberal vision for our communities, our country and our planet. For now, I’ll call it the “greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America.”

I subscribe to a blog called “The Velveteen Rabbi.” It features the poetry of Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. She lives in western Massachusetts and leads a congregation in North Adams. Earlier this week she sent out the link to her sermon from worship on Rosh Hashanah morning. The sermon is entitled, “A Vision of Better.”[4] I knew I had to tell you about her sermon when she announced that “Our theme for the High Holy Days is vision.” She preaches her version of the greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America. She talks about immigrant children being torn apart from their parents at the border; about the insidious Question #3 on the Massachusetts ballot seeking to abolish anti-discrimination protections for transgender people; about looming threats to reproductive freedom and women’s control over their own bodies; about widespread attempts to suppress voting rights; about attacks on press freedoms; about actual Nazis running for Congress.

She acknowledges to her people that they may feel overwhelmed, that much gets in the way, that the problem we all face is one of fundamental human disconnection. Nevertheless, she preaches, “It’s up to us to see a better world and then make that vision real. In this sense we’re called to be prophets, and then to build our vision into being. In Jewish tradition a prophet is not someone who predicts the future. A prophet is someone who exhorts us to be and to do better. We need to envision a better world than this. Then we need to set our hands to the task of building it.” That’s the Velveteen Rabbi’s version of the ‘greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America.’

We encounter this vision here all the time. You find it in my preaching all the time. We sing it all the time. Channeling the ancient Hebrew prophets, Isaiah and Amos, we sang earlier, “Come build a land where [siblings], anointed by God, may then create peace. Where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.”[5] We sang “We Would Be One,” pledging ourselves “to greater service, with love and justice, strive to make us free.”[6] We heard the echoes of this vision in the meditation from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “All will come again into its strength: / the fields undivided, the waters undammed, / the trees towering and the walls built low…./ The houses welcoming all who knock / and a sense of boundless offering / in all relations, and in you and me.”[7]

Our sixth Unitarian Universalist principle is itself a very short, very concise articulation of this greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious vision. It commits us, very simply, to “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” And the vision statement we adopted last May, in my reading of it, fits squarely within this greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice liberal religious vision.

We know something about the work of making this vision a reality. Because we collectively hold this vision, we voted to become a sanctuary congregation and have made ourselves ready to welcome guests seeking to avoid deportation. Because we collectively hold this vision, we voted to support the Black Lives Matter movement and have worked in solidarity with Moral Monday CT. Because we collectively hold this vision we fought for marriage equality and anti-discrimination protections for transgender people in years past—and we won. Because we collectively hold this vision, we continually engage in actions for social, political, economic and environmental justice. This has been our version, our interpretation, our reaching toward the greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision in the United States of America.

Even so, with any articulation of a vision—with any sermon, any song or hymn, any poem or prose, and principle or precept, any adopted vision statement—there is always the risk that something will get in the way, as Rabbi Barenblat says. There is always the risk we will feel overwhelmed and slowly retreat from the work. In Unitarian Universalism, where we tend to be hyper-focused on verbal expressions of our spiritual and religious commitments, we encounter the unique risk of confusing the speaking of the visionary words with the actual work of bringing the vision into reality. Just because we’ve said it doesn’t mean we’ve done it. Words may inspire the work, but they aren’t the work itself.

Nevertheless, in this moment, words are what I have, so I will use them. I want to make sure our new vision statement does not end up gathering dust in the online equivalent of the proverbial desk drawer. I want it to inform our Unitarian Universalist life together, lest we remain unused.

I challenge each of us to bring the words off the page, to manifest them through what we do in the world. Turn to a neighbor and say, “There is a power in me to grasp and give shape to my world.” [8]  Turn to another neighbor and say, “There is a power in me to grasp and give shape to my world.” I believe this about myself—and I believe it about you. Do you believe it about you? Let me hear you one more time: “There is a power in me to grasp and give shape to my world.”

I hope when you encounter the words in our vision statement that say “we will love,” that you will feel, stirring within you, the power to love, to love fiercely, to love across lines of difference, to love yourself, your neighbor, the stranger, the alien, the refugee, the undocumented person, the enemy—and that you will then bring your love to each other and to the world.

When you encounter the words in our vision statement that say we will be “present to suffering,” that we will offer comfort and healing, I hope you will feel, alive and flowing within you, the power of your own comforting, healing presence. I hope you can begin to imagine yourself approaching pain—somebody’s pain here, somebody’s pain in our larger community—with a gentle, steady resolve, an unwillingness to turn away, an offer of support, a compassionate touch. Remember healing is not just what medical professionals do. Healing happens whenever we take actions that overcome that fundamental human disconnection Rabbi Barenblat names. Healing happens as we make connections and build relationships, as we acknowledge, accept and live into our interdependence with one another and the whole of life.

When you encounter the words in our vision statement that say we will “bear witness to oppression, and boldly work toward social and environmental justice,” I hope you feel rolling and roiling and raging within you the power to confront oppression with clarity and conviction, the power to creatively address our society’s and our world’s most pressing problems, the power to join with others in solidarity, in struggle, in justice movements for the sake of our collective liberation from all the forces that diminish and destroy life.

I hope when you encounter the words to our version of the greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America that you will feel power in you to act, to let the vision use you so that it may, in time, become the new reality.

I like the way Christian mystic Howard Thurman put it in the words we said together at the top of the service: “Holy One, may your fire burn brightly in me that I may, from this moment on, take effective measures within my own powers, to courageously build the kind of world I so deeply desire.”[9]

I like the way the Velveteen Rabbi put it in her sermon: “Be brave enough to envision a world better than the one we know now, and set your hands to bringing that vision to life. That’s the work.”

And I like the way Janelle Monáe concludes her song, “Americans,” with the words, “Please sign your name on the dotted line,” meaning ‘come on, sign up, commit yourself.’

Let’s make our vision real. Let’s not leave this precious life unused.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Alles wird wieder gross sein und gewaltig,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 121.

[2] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Da neight sich die Stunde und ruhrt mich an,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 47.

[3] View the video for Janelle Monáe’s song “Americans” from her 2018 album Dirty Computers at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POZNheF-KdY. Read the lyrics at https://genius.com/Janelle-monae-americans-lyrics.

[4] Barenblat, Rachel, “A Vision of Better.” View the full sermon at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiMutoPy4Nc&t=915s. Also check out the Velveteen Rabbit at https://velveteenrabbi.com/.

[5] Isaiah and Amos, adapted by Zanotti, Barbara, “We’ll Build a Land,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #121.

[6] Wright, Anthony, “We Would Be One,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #318.

[7] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Alles wird wieder gross sein und gewaltig,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 121.

[8] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Da neight sich die Stunde und ruhrt mich an,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 47.

[9] Adapted from Thurman, Howard, “I Confess,” Meditations of the Heart, reprinted in Lifting Our Voices (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2015) #54.

Remembering and Imagining: Time Travel as Spiritual Practice

Rev. Josh Pawelek

On your program cover there’s an image of the sankofa bird. Sankofa comes from the Twi language of Ghana in West Africa. A common English translation is “go back and get it.” The sankofa bird is an example of adinkra. Adinkra symbols make up a highly symbolic language—similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics. They are common among the Akan people of Ghana, and have made their way into the wider African diaspora. The symbols express complex thoughts and proverbs. The sankofa bird’s head faces backward as it attempts to catch its lost egg in its mouth. Its feet face forward. One translation is, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have lost,” or “that which was taken.” Learn your past so that it may guide your actions in the present for the purpose of shaping the future. Another translation: “remember the past to protect the future.”[1]

Past, present, future. This sermon is about time travel. In the absence of an actual time machine, how do we visit the past? How do we visit the future? The sankofa bird isn’t a time machine. It is an assertion that the act of visiting matters.

****

I am an admirer of UCONN physics professor Ron Mallett, who convinces me time travel is possible—in theory certainly and, perhaps one day, in practice. I want to share with you a clip from a lecture he gave a few years ago. The lecture outlines his book, Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality.[2]

[While preaching this sermon, I showed the following video until 3:45, though the entire lecture is worth viewing.]

I love Professor Mallett’s questions: “Who of us has not wondered what’s going to happen in the future, what’s going to happen next? Or thought about the past, maybe to visit some significant historical event, or … to change something in our lives?”[3] These are human, spiritual questions. They might emerge in us from any number of sources: curiosity, wonder, anxiety, fear. For Professor Mallett they emerge out of a ten-year-old’s potent grief, a desire to see his father again, to maybe save his life.

There’s a sankofa dimension in Professor Mallett’s pursuit of time travel. Go back and get it. Go back and retrieve what was lost, that precious egg. Throughout his career he has been looking back—while his feet have faced forward, while he’s studied the impact of black holes on time, the intricacies of circulating light created by strong lasers. He’s produced no time machine, but his backward look has motivated him to advance human understanding, thereby shaping the future, and possibly inspiring some as-yet-unborn savant to build the machine he longs for. Who’s to say his father’s life won’t yet be saved?

Go back and get it.

****

In May Rolling Stone magazine featured on its cover singer, composer, actress, filmmaker and founder of the Wondaland artists collective, Janelle Monáe. The article, entitled “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself,” was helping to promote her new album Dirty Computers. If you aren’t familiar with Monáe’s music, you may still know her as the actress who played Teresa in Moonlight, winner of the 2016 Oscar for best picture; or Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures, the story about the black, female NASA mathematicians during the 1960s space race (also a 2016 best picture nomination). I knew Monáe was a musician. I was not familiar with her music. What I’d heard about the Rolling Stone article before actually reading it seemed strange. It seemed to be introducing Monáe as a human being—as if she’d never been one before. There was something to that. “‘Let the rumors be true’” trumpeted the opening paragraph. “Janelle Monáe is not … the immaculate android, the ‘alien from outer space/The cybergirl without a face’ she’s claimed to be over a decade’s worth of albums, videos, concerts and … interviews—she is, instead, a flawed, messy, flesh-and-blood 32-year-old human being.”[4]

Wait, what? Android?

I have been exploring Monáe’s music all summer, including the videos (she calls them ‘emotion pictures’) that accompany her songs with an amazing science fiction story. In a sense she really hasn’t been human until now. She’s been writing, performing and appearing in emotion pictures as a rebellious, time-traveling, messianic android named Cindi Mayweather. In the futuristic city of Metropolis, sentient androids serve humans—they’re essentially slaves—an explicit metaphor for racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression in our society. Cindi Mayweather becomes fully aware of her oppression when she illegally falls in love with a human, gets caught, and is slated for disassembly. She fights back, leading a nonviolent rebellion against the Great Divide, a secret society that uses time travel to suppress freedom and love across eras. Deploying the weapons of music, dance, inclusion and love, her rebellion seeks to unite androids and humans as equals.[5]

To give you just a taste of how Monáe tells these stories, here’s a quick clip from the emotion picture for her 2013 song, “Q.U.E.E.N.”

[While preaching this sermon, I showed this video until 0:55.]

About Monáe’s 2010 album, ArchAndroid, the writer Charles Pulliam-Moore says: “While time travel is established as being an integral part of the album’s story, it’s unclear specifically how you [as the listener/viewer are] supposed to string its timeline together or whether you’re meant to at all. At various points throughout the [album], Cindi’s staring down death at the Droid Patrol’s hands, wandering through an asylum for folks whose dancing is a subversive form of magic, or imploring people to join her as she’s slipping into the time stream…. She weaves in and out of moments throughout time, all the while spreading her messages of love, raging against her oppressors, and encouraging you to do the same.”[6] I call this hyper-sankofa. Cindi Mayweather goes back to find what was lost, but she also goes forward, sideways, up, down and around. She appears in multiple times and spaces at once, always fighting the forces of oppression with love, music, dance, creativity, individuality. Earlier you heard an example of this hyper-sankofa time travel in the reading of the cybernetic chantdown from in the song “Many Moons.”[7]

While all these temporal boundary-crossings are happening in the emotion pictures, Monáe’s music seamlessly crosses boundaries between styles and eras. She combines the sounds not just of R&B, soul, hip hop, funk, spirituals, jazz and big band which we associate with Black artists, but psychedelic rock, Broadway, European classical music and movie soundtracks. The opening song on her new album is a collaboration with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys[8]–possibly the whitest band of all time!

She wants her audience to cross boundaries as well. She used to hand out a pamphlet at her concerts called “Ten Droid Commandments.” The seventh commandment read: “Before the show, feel free to walk about the premises impersonating one of the many inspirations of the ArchAndroid Emotion Picture: … Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, Outkast, Stevie Wonder, Octavia Butler, David Bowie, Andy Warhol or John Williams.”[9] Artistically she goes back again and again to recover the past, weaving it into a present expression that envisions a compelling future. In a sense, she doesn’t need a time machine. She is a time machine, driven by a potent yearning to manifest humanity’s interconnectedness through music—and to invite her audience to manifest it with her. It’s another version of sankofa: redeem the past by transcending its divisions in the present. In so doing, create a future that enables people to exist beyond labels and stereotypes, to freely live multiple, intersecting identities, to be creative, to be whole. There is much at stake in the act of visiting past and future.

****

Some critics and scholars classify Janelle Monáe’s art as Afrofuturism, an artistic movement that imagines Black people and culture in the future. One might think there’s nothing extraordinary about that. Of course there will be Black people and culture in the future.’ But that doesn’t account for a historic lack of Black and other People of Color characters, world-views and stories in our most culturally prominent future visions, especially in science fiction and fantasy. In her book, Afrofuturism, scholar and sci-fi writer Ytasha L. Womak says: “Even in the imaginary future—a space where the mind can stretch beyond the Milky Way to envision routine space travel, cuddly space animals, talking apes, and time machines—[when] people can’t fathom a person of non-Euro descent a hundred years [from now], a cosmic foot has to be put down.”[10] Afrofuturism puts that foot down.

Womak discusses various lineages of black artists—sci-fi and fantasy writers like Octavia Butler; musicians like Sun Ra, George Clinton and Janelle Monae; visual artists, poets, deejays, film-makers, museum curators, conference organizers—people who imagine Black and other peoples of color in the future through their artwork. This comes in response to dominant culture futurism’s failure to imagine Black and other peoples of color in the coming centuries or in imaginary, fantasy settings. In populating the future with Black people, Womak says “Afrofuturism unchains the mind.” It liberates the imagination, liberates creativity. When a person can imagine themself in the future—even a wild, seemingly impossible future, or a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested future—it generates hope, resolve, and action.

But Afrofuturism also looks back. Womack points to artists who refer to their ancestors, or to the ancient histories, mythologies, and cultures of the African continent. She quotes poet Khari B., who says, “It’s the sankofa effect…. One step into the future while looking back…. We’re evolving using the strength and characteristics of things that [brought us to where we are today]. We … pull from our past to build our future.”[11] Go back and get it!

****

I want to leave you with three thoughts regarding how Afrofuturistic time travel might influence a historically white culture Unitarian Universalist congregation.

First, as a person descended most recently from White, European ancestors, it feels critical to me to approach Afrofuturism, as well as sankofa, deeply aware of the ways in which White, European culture historically has—and even today continues to—misunderstand, misrepresent, belittle, denigrate, appropriate, steal, and at times, destroy the cultural expressions of non-European cultures. The short-hand for this is ‘cultural racism.’ Mindful of it, I’m digging deeply into Afrofuturism, stiving to do so with the utmost humility and reverence.

Second. We live in the future’s past. contemplate that for a moment. Since we live in the future’s past, what is our responsibility for creating a future worthy of our principles—one that corrects the flaws of white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism and environmental injustice? One that is inclusive, loving, joyful? Womak says “the idea of time travel, oddly enough, reemphasizes the present.” That is, given the future we imagine, how should we act now? Who should we be today so that a loving, inclusive future becomes a reality? I read to you earlier from the hip-hop artist Gabriel Teodros’ story, “Lalibela.”[12] Teodros has a spoken word piece called “Colored People’s Time Machine,” in which he acknowledges, “I’m the future ancestor to my unborn seeds.”[13] He means we need to be conscious, aware, accountable to the people who are coming after us. We want them to come back and get us, to bring us into their present so that our example can help them shape their future. That’s time tavel.

Finally, I talked about the way Janelle Monáe collapses the boundaries between past, present and future in her music. Gabriel Teodros makes a similar statement in “Colored People’s Time Machine.” He says “Everything’s happening at once, right?” [14] The more human beings consciously travel in time—remembering and imagining, remembering and imagining, remembering and imagining—the more the boundaries between past, present and future actually disappear. Maybe they were never real in the first place. Maybe they are just illusions our minds create to make sense of our existence. Teodros continues: “ I see it in moments and I feel it in dreams  / and it would be so easy If I could let go of me. / It’s a constant process unravelling / You call it hip hop, I call it colored people’s time machine. / Made of music you feel what you don’t see, / I ride the vessel, the vessel is also me.” Arriving at that kind of enlightenment—that sense of oneness in time and space—is the goal of many spiritual practices. Sankofa suggests yet another approach. Go back and get it. Bring it forward. Shape the future by living well in the present. Ride the vessel, knowing you are the vessel.

Go back and get it.

Amen.

Blessed be.

 

________________________________________________________

[1] For a general statement about Sankofa, see the article “Sankofa, What Does it Mean?” at the blog Sankofa: Filling the Digital Divide, Feb. 15, 2013: https://lnwatsonblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/sankofa-what-does-it-mean/.

For a general statement about adinkra, see the article “Adinkra Symbols” at the blog An Afroetic Narrative, 2016: https://afroetic.com/adinkra-symbols/. Also see reflections on sankofa and the sankofa bird in Womack, Ytasha L., Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013) pp. 160-161.

[2] Mallett, Ron L., Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality (Basic Books: New York, 2009).

[3] UConn Talks, “Time Travel Fueled by Love,” with Professor Ron L. Mallett. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etJv4yTY4Ig.

[4] Spanos, Brittany, “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself,” Rolling Stone, Issue 1313/1314, May 17-30, 2018, pp. 34-36. See: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/janelle-monae-frees-herself-629204/.

[5] Sterritt, Laura, “Janelle Monáe’s Hidden Sci-Fi Epic,” Transchordian, October 24th, 2013. See: http://www.transchordian.com/2013/10/metropolis-janelle-monaes-hidden-sci-fi-epic/. Also see Womak, Afrofuturism, pp. 74-76. View further analyses of Janelle Monáe’s work at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMqng3HmPOA and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdylle_hPgQ.

[6] Pulliam-Moore, Charles, “From Metropolis to Dirty Computer: A Guide to Janelle Monáe’s Time-Traveling Musical Odyssey” at io9 We Come From the Future (Gizmodo), May 2, 2018. See: https://io9.gizmodo.com/from-metropolis-to-dirty-computer-a-guide-to-janelle-m-1825580195.

[7] View the emotion picture for Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHgbzNHVg0c.

[8] Listen to Janelle Monae’s “Dirty Computer” featuring Brian Wilson on Yutube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFK6k-pvXmI.

[9] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 75.

[10] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 7. Incidentally, Ytasha Womak is the creator of Rayla 2212—a multimedia series with music, books, animation and games that follows Rayla Illmatic … a rebel strategist and third generation citizen of Planet Hope, an Earth colony gone rogue some two hundred years into the future. Check out: http://rayla2212.com/welcome-to-the-world-of-rayla/.

[11] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 160.

[12] Teodros, Gabriel, “Lalibela,” in Brown, Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood (Oakland: AK Press, 2015) pp. 123-133.

[13] Tedodros, Gabriel, “Colored People’s Time Machine.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuIxAkZXsKI.

[14] Tedodros, Gabriel, “Colored People’s Time Machine.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuIxAkZXsKI.

Only the Mystery Is

Rev. Josh Pawelek

The Outward Orientation

Our ministry theme for July is witness. As far as I can tell, the last time I preached directly on this theme was July, 2012. I had just returned from the “Justice General Assembly”—or Justice GA—in Phoenix, where Unitarian Universalist Association leaders had dedicated the entire five-day assembly to witnessing Arizona’s treatment of undocumented immigrants; and to specifically witnessing against the racial profiling and other anti-immigrant practices of Maricopa County’s now infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In that sermon I talked about a variety of ways to define understand witness. I pointed out that in more conservative, fundamentalist or evangelical churches, the term witness often refers to the act of naming how God is working positively in one’s life—how God is bringing healing, rebirth, a bright future, prosperity, etc., into one’s life. In mainline Protestant, liberal Christian and Unitarian Universalist congregations, the term witness more often refers to the public naming of social, economic and political injustices; and the prophetic call for reform, for social transformation, for justice-making, for building the beloved community.

I also spoke of a pastoral dimension to religious witness. I quoted the oncologist and spiritual writer, Rachel Naomi Remen who once said, “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[1] I said that, for me, Remen’s statement names “the heart of what it means to be a religious witness. When someone is suffering, let us in the very least not turn away, not move on to the next agenda item, not think of the next thing we need to say. When someone is suffering, let us stay present to their pain; let us keep our focus on what has happened to them. When someone is suffering, let us stay with them, sit by their side, listen to their story, support them, encourage them.” Even if we have no words and don’t know what to say, even if we feel inadequate, even if the other’s suffering is beyond our comprehension, our silent presence still matters. “When we act as religious witnesses, we make suffering visible so that it cannot be ignored, denied or downplayed by anyone. When we act as religious witnesses we say to those who suffer, ‘you do not have to endure this alone.’ When someone is suffering, in the very least, let us not turn away.”[2]

I notice that each of these forms of religious witness orients us in an outward manner, focuses our attention outward. We reach out, call out, speak out, extend ourselves, lengthen ourselves, enlarge ourselves, give of ourselves, open our hearts beyond the boundaries of self. We suffer with. We peer out beyond ourselves to the sacred, to Nature, to God, to Goddess, to the animating spirit of life. We peer out beyond ourselves to human society, to its systems and institutions that perpetuate injustice, oppression, discrimination, and cruelty toward people, towards animals, toward the earth. We peer out beyond ourselves to family, friends, neighbors and strangers who are suffering, who are in pain, who are hurting; outward to those who are lonely, isolated, stuck, stranded, imprisoned.

To bear witness is to assume an outward orientation—to turn, to move, to reach, to peer out beyond ourselves.

The Inward Orientation

You have heard me say many times, in different ways, that one of the central purposes of the church is to ‘send its people forth,’ to cultivate in the people that outward orientation. The church sends you forth to bear witness to the way the sacred moves in the world and to celebrate that movement. The church sends you forth to bear witness to suffering and to be present to it for the sake of healing and connection. The church sends you forth to bear witness to injustice and oppression and to organize and advocate for a more just and loving community.

But the church would be spiritually negligent were it to send you forth without first preparing you. We prepare for the outward look by taking the inward look. We are more effective and impactful in our outward witness when we pause, first, for inward witness.

I remember learning this lesson during my unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE) at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston in the summer of 1998. CPE is an intensive pastoral care training in a hospital setting. When my supervisors learned I am an adult child of an alcoholic, they guided me into deep reflection on how that alcoholism had shaped me emotionally, and how it might influence my response to hospital patients in treatment for alcoholism and other addictions. What features of my experience might prevent me from being fully present while providing pastoral care to an alcoholic? What assumptions was I carrying about alcoholism and alcoholics that might lead me to misunderstand an individual’s unique circumstances? What deeply-rooted behaviors forged in me through years of living with an alcoholic might subvert my best efforts to provide compassionate care? A lack of clear answers to such questions, an absence of self-knowledge—the failure to peer inward and understand the origins of my adult self—would limit my capacity to provide genuine and effective pastoral care. With no inward witness, the outward witness grows thin, brittle, ambivalent.

I’m mindful of Martin Luther King Jr.’s description of the steps one must take to insure a successful campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. Before placing one’s body in the street, or at the entrance to an official building or a legislator’s office, before offering one’s body to potential violence, to arrest, spiritual purification is essential. In King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he says: “We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’”[3] Again this probing, this searching, this preparing of the self is critical. Am I ready? What will prevent me from engaging? What inner fears and conflicts might weaken my resolve? Who am I really? Who am I becoming? Who do I long to be?

Before the outward witness can succeed, the inward witness is essential.

This is the reason I almost always open our worship services with an invitation to interiority. Find that place inside of you, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, when you yearn for peace; that place where you know your truth, where your conviction resides, where your voice is strong; that place from which you reach out to others who are suffering; that place in which you commune with all that is holy in your life. But I’m also suggesting this morning that that place inside of us is not static, is not some unchanging center. It grows as we grow. Our knowledge of it is never complete. There is always more for us to discover about that place inside of us. It is always possible to peer more deeply within; always possible to extend and enlarge our self-knowledge; always possible to more fully grasp the roots of our anxieties, obsessions and fears—and the roots of the roots. It is always possible to more fully understand the forces that have shaped and formed us for better or for worse. It is always possible to rewrite the stories we and others tell about ourselves so that the words and images and metaphors more accurately speak to who we are, who we’re becoming and who we long to be.

We take the inward look to prepare as best we can for the outward look. The quality of our inward witness determines the quality of our outward witness. The depth of our inward witness lends power and confidence to our outward witness.

Only the Mystery Is

The inward witness doesn’t end merely with self-knowledge. Something more profound rests just beyond the base of our self-knowing. Something more profound rests beneath, around, within – though these are words we use to describe something that is indescribable. Earlier we shared spiritual teacher Adyashanti’s poem, “Have You Noticed?” Here it is again:

I have no more ideas anymore about / God, consciousness, / the absolute or non-duality. / If you want to talk with me / let us meet where / there are no abstractions. / All I want to know is: / Have you noticed? / Something is here / my friend. / Something is here / have you noticed? / Only the Mystery is. / The Mystery is noticing that / only the Mystery is. / Have you noticed?[4]

As we witness through layers and layers of self, layers and layers of experience, layers and layers of who I am, who I am becoming, who I long to be; as we slowly come to terms with the forces that have shaped and formed us, it is possible at times to arrive at a different kind of knowledge, a different kind of awareness—a knowledge and awareness that so many words, concepts, and theories humans use to describe reality actually don’t describe reality, actually serve, in the end, to limit reality, to box it in, to confine it. In actuality life and spirit and soul cannot be captured in words and concepts and theories. In actuality life and spirit and soul are always moving beyond the boundaries human beings establish; always flowing, transcending, subverting; always, like the wind, blowing where they may; always, like the wind, oblivious to the borders humans draw on maps and defend with soldiers, walls and drones.

I have no more ideas anymore about / God, consciousness, / the absolute or non-duality. / If you want to talk with me / let us meet where / there are no abstractions.

Adyashanti’s words remind me of those familiar lines from the 13th-century Persian Sufi poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi:  Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing / and rightdoing there is a field./ I’ll meet you there. / When the soul lies down in that grass / the world is too full to talk about. / Ideas, language, even the phrase each other / doesn’t make any sense.[5] They remind me also of the pronouncements of the ancient Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, who responds to a question about how to rule the world, “What kind of question is this? I am just about to set off with the Creator. And if I get bored with that, then I’ll ride on the Light-and-Lissome Bird out beyond the six directions, wandering in the village of Not-Even-Anything and living in the Broad-and-Borderless field…. Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, follow along with things the way they are.”[6]

These sages sought, in playful ways, to guide their followers to that ‘something more profound,’ that essence that is full because it is empty, assertive because it is silent, mobile because it is still, something because it is nothing; that ground of being in which we rest yet which we can only approach through a quieting of the mind, through the abandonment of words and concepts and theories, through the letting go of any and all notions of the self.

I am confident that the closer we can come to this ‘something more profound,’ to this place wherein, as Adyashanti says elsewhere, no words can penetrate, [7] the more robust our preparation will be for our outward witness in the wider world. The more we can take notice of the mystery within, where human borders and boundaries and barricades make no sense, the better able we are to transcend the borders and boundaries and barricades that relentlessly separate people from each other and from the earth.

Suddenly the inward witness and the outward witness don’t seem so distinct, may even be the same witness, because ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ are human constructions, human words, that don’t quite capture the essence of reality.  

Suddenly we realize, only the Mystery is / …. Have you noticed?

Amen and blessed be. 

 

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

[2] Pawelek, Josh, “Let Us Not Turn Away: Some Reflections on Justice General Assembly,” a sermon preached for the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, July 15, 2012. See: http://uuse.org/let-us-not-turn-away-some-reflections-on-justice-general-assembly/#.WzOvL9JKhPY.

[3] King, Jr., Martin Luther, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. Read the text at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[4] Adyashanti, “Have You Noticed?” My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 108.

[5] Jalal al-Din Rumi, excerpt from “Out Beyond Ideas.” See: https://allpoetry.com/Out-Beyond-Ideas.

[6] Watson, Burton, tr., Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) pp. 90-91.

[7] Adyashanti, My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 115.

[8] Adyashanti, “Have You Noticed?” My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 108.

Medicare for All — Town Hall Meeting

UUS:E’s Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee is now co-sponsoring this event: 

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

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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.