On the Art of Being Lost

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Amen and blessed be.

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

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

[3] Matthew 10:39 (NRSV).

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

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

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

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

Beautiful December: A Holiday Homily

Rev. Josh Pawelek

12-21-14Earlier we heard Martha Dallas’ Christmas story about the Bicker Family. Martha Dallas is a Unitarian Universalist religious educator in Burlington, VT. The story really gets rollin’ when there is apparently no Christmas present for Old Father Bicker. Honestly, I’m not sure he cares all that much, but he certainly puts on a good show of being grumpy. “Christmas is ruined,” he complains. When somebody sarcastically suggests that baby Amelia might have his present, he picks her up and asks, “Baby Amelia, is there something you have to give me?” She smiles. He smiles back. And then everyone starts smiling. Then Baby Amelia starts giggling. Old Father Bicker giggles. And then everyone starts giggling. Pretty soon they’re all laughing.  And old Father Bicker says, “Thank you, Baby Amelia, for giving me a smile. And thank you for giving this family the happiest Christmas moment I can ever remember.”

Christmas is saved.

We can all take a lesson from Baby Amelia. We can all bring light and joy into others’ lives—not just in this dark, mid-winter season, but in every season. A smile, a giggle, a laugh can make a difference. Our caring actions and support for those who are suffering and struggling can make a difference. Our witness and our actions on behalf of a more peaceful, just and loving society can make a difference. We can bring light and joy where it is needed most in any season.

I recently read a Hannukah blog post from the Velveteen Rabbi, one of my favorite spiritual writers, which makes this very same point. Reflecting on the Hannukah story and the practice of lighting the menorah lights in December, she writes, “We are all of us afraid of the dark. At night, anxieties suppressed or repressed come swimming to the surface of consciousness: am I safe? Am I loved? Am I needed? Is there meaning in the world, or is it all, ultimately, just a swirl of chaos?”

“Judaism does not ask us to ignore this darkness and the sense of doom it might [draw forth from] us,” she says. “On the contrary, it asks us to face them squarely, and then, ultimately, to defy them. But how?… “The soul of [humanity] is the lamp of God,” the Book of Proverbs tell us (20:27). What this means is that ultimately, our task is not to light candles, but to be candles. We have the potential to be the bits of light that help bring God back into a world gone dark.”

I like this notion: we can wrestle with our own challenges, with our own anxieties, with whatever it is in our lives that frightens us or orients us towards despair by being a light to others—smiling, giggling, laughing, caring, supporting, bearing witness, taking action. Our task is not simply to light candles, but to be candles.

Christmas in the Christian tradition celebrates the birth of Jesus, the birth of the messiah, the king, the peacemaker. In the book of Luke the angels announce his birth, proclaiming peace on earth, good will to all. We’ll read and act out this story on Christmas Eve. In our liberal religious, Unitarian Universalist tradition, we acknowledge that peace and good will don’t just come. The potential for peace and goodwill is always there, but for them to become a reality requires the addition of human hands, human hearts, human caring, human love: our hands, our hearts, our caring, our love. If there is to be peace on earth and goodwill to all, we must play a role. We cannot simply light candles. We must be candles.

December is beautiful for so many reasons. The first snows are beautiful. Frozen ponds are beautiful. Evergreens, standing alone against the backdrop of a grey afternoon, are beautiful. Flocks of Canada geese heading south in great, precise vees are beautiful. And lights kindled like beacons against the gloom of long, dark mid-winter nights are beautiful, just as the sun returning on the solstice is beautiful.

But lighting lights has never been enough. We must be light. We must smile, chuckle, laugh. We must find the lost, heal the broken, comfort the afflicted, embrace those who mourn, feed the hungry, house the homeless, release the prisoners, challenge injustice, dismantle oppression, speak truth to power when power is unresponsive, demand change whenever change is necessary, and bring more love into the world everywhere and always, everywhere and always, everywhere and always. We must be light. December is beautiful because it inspires us, in every season, to be light.  May we be light!

Amen and blessed be.

In the Waiting Time

Guest Minister: the Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

The Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

The Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

I am easily hope-impaired.

For whatever reason, I am the kind of person who looks at a glass and is tempted to tell you that it is half-empty rather than half-full.

I tend to borrow trouble long before it happens. Too often, it’s easier for me to play out worse-case scenarios than to hope for the best.

Now perhaps this is not what you want to hear from a minister. Especially not at the beginning of December with the winter holidays on the horizon. After all, we ministers are here to be the “messengers of hope,” aren’t we? Isn’t it our job to call us all ever towards hope, not to admit to our own hope-related challenges? But it is precisely because I can be hope-impaired, that I do the work of ministry. Because your hope rekindles my own. Because we call each other toward hope.

They say that ministers preach what we ourselves need to hear. And especially in this holiday season, do not we all hold out hope precisely because hope is so hard to find? So I confess to you that I am hope-impaired. 

And, I’ll tell you something else, here on what in the Christian tradition is the second Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the second week of anticipatory joy as we pass the deliberate days towards Christmas, as we revel in the wait: 

I really do not like waiting. 

When I’m in a store, I will put something back on a shelf rather than wait in a long check-out line. Better yet, I’ll shop online, choose a different restaurant, come back later, or change my plans altogether to avoid a line. 

I hate waiting for a bus too. Why stand and wait when I can start walking now? Usually, the bus passes me as I am chugging along down the street. This does not phase me. At least I didn’t wait, I tell myself. It’s a funny logic, I know. 

I remember as a child waiting for special days, like birthdays and Christmas, and feeling as though time was moving as slow as molasses. As a teenager, I would count down days until I could visit out-of-town friends or go to summer camp: month after next, week after next, day after the day after tomorrow. It felt like time crawled until finally it was … today! And somehow, the day, the moment had arrived. 

And then something odd would happen, perhaps this has happened to you: we wait. We count down the days, fritter away the time, fill our minds and our hearts and our impatient hands with tasks or TV, with imagining how it will be, envisioning the long-awaited event, and when it arrives, we wonder what happened to that time. Sometimes the event we waited for arrives and passes, and we are left feeling like we missed it all together.

We collect ourselves and prepare for the next count down. 

This time of year, we tell an age-old story of waiting. The Christmas story is the tale of a world waiting for hope, for joy, for the coming of the babe who would bring peace, hold the powerful to account, “lift up the lowly.” As a mother, the person I find most interesting in this story is Mary the mother of Jesus.

And I am incredibly sympathetic toward her: No one else in the story is pregnant! Mary literally carries the weight of the wait. 

The longest wait of my life was the preparation for my own child to be born. And when she arrived just over a year ago, the midwife placed her on my chest, And I whispered to her again and again: “you’re here.” 

I had felt like she would never come; I could barely imagine what her arrival would be like. Though majorly uncomfortable by the end of my pregnancy, I had tried, as so many well-meaning people had suggested, to enjoy the wait, to dwell in the uneasy space of anticipation, of not knowing.

 I practiced breathing in and breathing out, waiting for our family’s life to change irrevocably, for our hearts to be transformed in ways we could not imagine. 

I worked hard to be present in each moment. I was only successful part of the time.

More often than not, I found I was wishing the time away, distracting myself with internet videos and drawn out phone calls and cleaning closets. 

And then, after so much expectation, so much cleaning and organizing and preparing her room, readying our home as well as our hearts, she was here. And our days and our nights were filled with her presence. The reality of our lives was upended – in the most joyful way. 

The first year of a baby’s life, I’ve found, is a blur of moments and days and months and soon a year has gone by, and here we are again at the beginning of the “The Holiday Season” and the season of Advent, an official time of waiting.

The word Advent comes from the Latin, meaning “a coming, an approach, arrival.” In the Christian calendar, Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child at Christmas – the story from first century Palestine tells us that with him comes hope, love, the undoing of the status quo, a new reign of peace on earth.  

The promise of the babe in the manger is the same as the promise of all new babes: that the reality of our lives will be upended – in the most joyful way. The season of Advent provides the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the new reality. “Let every heart prepare him room…” we sing. 

My colleague Rev. Ashley Horan writes that Advent is the “four weeks when Christians the world over try to sit quietly in the midst of chaos, preparing a place in their hearts where the seeds of love and hope can take root.”  

And doesn’t this ring true this year especially? For we find ourselves these days in the midst of chaos with a justice system that is seemingly anything but just: With no indictment in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and no indictment in the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island and twelve-year-old Tamir Rice dead on a Cleveland playground. So much pain and heartbreak and grief and tears and rage. 

Each day it seems brings a new story of lives lost (we might say stolen), and fear and suspicion ruling the day, a new story of power abused and the ugliest parts of our human nature exposed. 

And still – whether we find meaning in the Christian story or in one of the many other traditions that mark this time of the longest nights of the year – still we are invited in this season to prepare room in our hearts for the seeds of love and hope. 

We are invited, as weary people have done since the beginning of time, the poet Victoria Stafford writes, to “kindle tiny lights and whisper secret music,” to cradle our hopes like newborn children, to wonder what human love looks like in practice, to await a new era with patience and preparation.  

Now is the time for breathing, for being present, for waiting. 

This year, though, we might not feel like waiting for peace is the best move. We may even feel like waiting or telling other people – especially people of color – to wait for justice feels perverse.  

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’” Martin Luther King wrote from his cell in a Birmingham jail in 1963. “This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.’” We must come to see,” he continued, “that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” 

Once again there is no justice and there is no peace. And we may find ourselves more angry than peaceful this season, more riled-up than calm.

We may feel more ready to take action than patiently prepare. We may feel ready to cry out in lament for lives taken without account, ready to join our voices with those who cry for justice in an unjust land. And, with them, we may feel weary. We may even feel hope-impaired. 

And so this Advent we are challenged to wait actively.

This year, something is happening, and we choose to be present to it.

This year, what we are waiting for is growing on the ground on which we stand. The seed has been planted. Something has begun.

 A fellow Union Theological Seminary Alum, known in the blogosphere as Brother Timothie writes this week at the website “Theology of Ferguson”: “I used to think Advent meant that we wait patiently for Jesus to be born. The kind of waiting we perform at doctor’s offices. I was wrong,” he says. “Waiting in Advent means to be active in creating God’s Realm, which is always full of justice.” 

This kind of waiting – this Advent kind of waiting – requires that all of us carry the weight of the wait. Like a mother anticipating the birth of her child, we may find ourselves uncomfortable, drawing on strength we never knew we possessed, trying to imagine what the new reality might look like, knowing only that our work is to continue, to push forward, to give birth to something new, to wait, actively, until we can whisper (or shout) “you’re here” to a new age: an age when, in the words of Ella Baker, immortalized by Sweet Honey in the Rock: the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons; a new age where “justice for all” is no longer just a dream, and it is finally true that (#)Black Lives Matter. 

This kind of waiting does not mean never. This kind of waiting says “this moment is the moment.”

//

 “Now is the moment of magic,” Victoria Stafford writes of this time of year. Now is the moment. Not some future date, not the end of the advent calendar, not the day that the days begin to lengthen again, or that long-awaited morning of presents, now is the moment of magic. The magic is in the waiting time. 

Now, it’s not always easy to find the magic in waiting time, even when life is treating us kindly and we have things to look forward to: a blessed event or a joyful celebration. 

In these cases, we are like excited, impatient children on Christmas Morning, filled with anticipatory joy.

(Each year I, being the older sibling, would instruct my brother that we had to wait until at least 5am before we could tiptoe down to see what Santa had left.)  

In this kind of joy-filled waiting, we make our best attempts at waiting patiently; we make it a practice; we focus on the moment, we work on being present. Perhaps we breathe in and out intentionally to ground ourselves, to make our days deliberate, to experience the blessings that already exist. 

And what about when life is unkind, when we wait for justice too long delayed, or, worse, when we wait for yet another miscarriage of justice, another life lost?  

What about the times when we wait for word of an injured friend, or a dreaded diagnosis, when we wait for illness to set in, or for a child who does not arrive?  

Sometimes we find ourselves waiting for something we had hoped would never happen, waiting for the worst. In those times, breathing in and breathing out feels next to impossible and proclaiming a coming age of hope and peace feels naïve, laughable even.  

Patience goes out the window and we find ourselves wishing time would pass more quickly so that we might be on the other side of a nightmare. How do we live in that kind of waiting time? 

// 

Finding the magic in this season of waiting can be difficult for many of us not just this year, but any year. 

The holidays can bring stress, emotional triggers, and family strife along with those tiny candles. This time can be filled with painful or bittersweet memories right alongside cheer, loneliness in the midst of celebration – which is the worst kind of loneliness there is. We might find ourselves waiting with heavy hearts for December to be over, wishing for the sun, feeling like it might never return. We may feel hope-impaired. 

In our home, the soundtrack to the month of December includes Handel’s Messiah which tends to play on our CD player on a near constant loop. When you listen to something that often, you hear different things each time. 

It’s early, but we’ve started, and the other day, I heard a word that I had never really noticed before in the music: “abide.” But who may abide the day of his coming? the tenor sings. The quote is from the book of Malachi in the Hebrew Bible (3:2). The prophet writes to the Jewish people about the coming of the messiah, a messenger who would arrive to usher in a new age of righteousness and justice. “Who will wait for him?”, the prophet asks. “Who will prepare themselves for this new reality?” The Hebrew word translated here as “abide” can also mean endure, or contain. Abide comes from the Old English meaning remain, wait, dwell. 

To abide is to wait actively,

To have faith in the seeds,

To make room in our hearts for a new reality.

And that is the secret, Henri Nouwen tells us.

“This moment is the moment.”

 

This is a holy way of waiting.

 

It happens one breath at a time. In and out. Each moment the moment.

We live our lives on, one breath at a time, giving thanks for the blessings of the waiting time, giving thanks for the magic of each moment, giving thanks for the communities that hold out hope when we are weary. 

We join our lives and our breath with all who are waiting: waiting for justice, waiting for peace. 

May it be so this season, and always.

Sunrise

 

Resources

Dr. Briallen Hopper, “Ferguson Sermon at Yale,” November 30, 2014:
http://briallenhopper.tumblr.com/post/103995200459/ferguson-sermon-at-yale?og=1

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963.http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

Brother Timothie, “What Shall We Cry Out?: A #StayWokeAdvent Lectionary Reflection,” Theology of Ferguson, December 2, 2014 https://medium.com/@FaithInFerguson/what-shall-we-cry-out-a-staywokeadvent-lectionary-reflection-c407e6ffaaab

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, “One Hug Does Not End Racism: An Advent Message,”
The Huffington Post, November 30, 2014 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-dr-susan-brooks-thistlethwaite/one-hug-does-not-end-raci_b_6243670.html

What If? Reflections on the Great Commandment and the Death of Trayvon Martin

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

 

The Great CommandmentThis summer we’re exploring the six sources of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition in worship. It’s my task this morning to reflect on the fourth source: “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” As I said earlier, this is a direct reference to what Christians call the Great Commandment: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  Both admonitions—love God and love neighbor—were central to the religion and culture of ancient Israel. We find them in the Torah, in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  Jesus combined them into one, enduring statement which appears in each of the synoptic gospels—Mathew, Mark and Luke. Today we attribute the Great Commandment to Jesus, though it likely wasn’t original to him. It’s quite possible his teachers taught him to express the essence of Judaism in this form. Either way, the Great Commandment was central to his ministry and lies at the heart of Christianity.

When I first offered to preach on the Great Commandment as a source of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition I wasn’t sure what I would say. And although it’s often the case that I don’t know what I will say about a topic two or three months ahead of time—or even a few days ahead of time—one of the reasons I wasn’t sure in this case is because the Great Commandment—known as the Golden Rule in secular society— is so simple, so obvious, so common, so central to the religion, spirituality, morality and culture of the United States, so central to the way we introduce children to moral and ethical reasoning in the United States that it sometimes feels like everything that can be said about it has been said about it; that there’s nothing left to say, no way to break new ground, nothing innovative to do with it that hasn’t already been done.

Trayvon Martin

George ZimmermanAnd then, Saturday evening, July 13th, the jury in the George Zimmerman murder trial handed down its verdict: not guilty. The jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, the unarmed, Black youth he shot to death on February 26th, 2012. Not guilty, despite the fact that he started the chain of events that included Martin fighting back and that ended tragically in Martin’s death. Not guilty, despite the fact that a 911 operator asked him to stay in his car. Stepping back from the trial and reflecting just on the shooting that ended Trayvon Martin’s life, it strikes me that despite how simple, how obvious, how common, how central the Great Commandment is to the moral and ethical foundations of our society, it is still so hard to make real in the world. It is still so hard, for so many reasons, to approach strangers with love in our hearts. 2500 years after the ancient Hebrew prophets and priests first introduced these ideas—“You shall not oppress the alien”[1]—2000 years after Jesus articulated the Great Commandment, it is still so hard to live.

Too often fear, anger, resentment or greed motivate us. Too often we—and by “we” I mean everyone, all Americans—make assumptions, we profile, we misread, mistrust, miscommunicate and things go downhill from there. Too often love seems distant, unreliable, elusive and impractical. Too often a loving response seems like sign of weakness. Maybe it’s obvious, but it needs to be said again and again and again: Love what is sacred to you. Love it with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. If it’s God, love God. If it’s the Earth, love the Earth. If it’s the Human Spirit, love the Human Spirit. If it’s the Interdependent Web of All Existence, love the Interdependent Web of All Existence. If it’s your family, love your family. And love your neighbor as yourself.

7-28 Love Thy Neighbor

In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, and now again in the aftermath of the trial, many commentators have speculated on how the outcome might have been different if some critical aspect of the case were different. I call this the What If game. For example, “What if Trayvon Martin were White?” Or, “What if George Zimmerman were Black?” Or, as President Obama asked in his reflections on the verdict on July 19, “What if Trayvon Martin had been carrying a gun?” These what if questions are intended to help us look at the case from a different perspective, to call attention to inconsistencies and double-standards, or to uncover racism and discrimination. They ask us to contemplate scenarios that didn’t happen so that we can gain clarity about the complexities of what did happen.

I’d like to ask some What If questions this morning. They are questions that help me explain what I would expect to see happen differently if the Great Commandment were operating in the moment before George Zimmerman first encountered Trayvon Martin. As I ask these questions, it will sound like I’m talking about George Zimmerman, and on one level I am, as he was the one who started the train of events that resulted in Trayvon Martin’s death. But please understand that I’m not only talking about George Zimmerman. As many commentators have said, we are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we allow the profiling of young Black and Brown men to continue. We are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we continue to value the lives of young Black and Brown people less than the lives of young White people. We are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we continue to look away from institutional and systemic racism and other forms of oppression rather than face them directly. So I’m raising these questions for all of us.

What if?

It’s really hard to love your neighbor as yourself when the sight of your neighbor strikes fear and suspicion into your heart because you believe the prevalent stereotypes about their particular racial group. Well, what if George Zimmerman were antiracist? That is, what if his world-view and values were antiracist? Instead of jumping to the conclusion that a young Black man in a hoodie posed a threat to the neighborhood, what if Mr. Zimmerman recognized that his own gut reaction was a product of widespread racist stereotypes about young men of color? What if he knew that when he has such a gut reaction (which many people of all racial identities admit to having), it is unfair of him to act on it because in truth he has no idea who this person is, what his intentions are, whether or not he lives in the neighborhood, who his parents are, where he goes to school, etc? What if, in that moment when he first saw Mr. Martin, Mr. Zimmerman recognized his own capacity for racial stereotyping ,was shocked at his own thoughts, and said to himself I need to work on that?

What if Mr. Zimmerman knew that when a young Black man dons a hoodie, when he struts and swaggers slowly down the street, when he speaks with bravado in urban youth slang,  and even when he tries to look and act menacing, he is doing so because it’s the only way he knows how to feel powerful in a society that constantly informs him he is powerless, that he will never have power and that his life doesn’t matter? What if Mr. Zimmerman understood that this young Black man—whether he knows it or not—dresses and acts the way he does because he is actually resisting the dominant culture which tells him he ought to dress and act more like a White person, but then simultaneously tells him that he can never be White, that he can never enjoy the full privileges of White society, that he will always be a second class citizen?

What if, instead of calling the police, Mr. Zimmerman knew that young Black men fall victim to police racial profiling far too often, and that even an initially innocuous encounter with police can result in far worse consequences for young Black men than for young White men? What if Mr. Zimmerman was outraged about the mass incarceration of young People of Color in the United States and recognized that the last thing he wanted to do was mobilize public resources and taxpayer dollars to involve yet another young Black man in the criminal justice system, especially when all he was doing was walking slowly down the street?

Antiracist and Proud

What if Mr. Zimmerman knew even a small portion of the way racism in the United States of America still weighs heavily on the lives of People of Color? What if he knew something about the race-based educational achievement gap, race-based disparities in health care access and outcomes, the race-based wealth gap, the Supreme Court’s recent decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, and widespread attempts to disenfranchise People of Color though new voter ID laws? What if he knew something of the legacy of slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, lynching and the racist way in which the GI Bill created segregated White suburbs after World War II? What if knew, whether this kid knows it or not, that racism weighs heavily on his life and, if anything, he needs support, understanding and acceptance, not suspicion and hostility?

Cesar and Delores

What if Mr. Zimmerman was deeply in touch with the Hispanic side of his own racial and cultural identity and heritage and understood that Hispanic people also face racism in the United States? What if he understood that the same forces that conspire to oppress Blacks have and do conspire to oppress Hispanics? What if he knew that the racial profiling of Black people also happens to people who look Hispanic—not just in Sheriff Joe Arpaio Maricopa County around Phoenix, Arizona, but all over the country? What if he understood that young Hispanic men like himself are also far more likely than their White peers to be profiled, arrested, falsely accused, given harsher sentences, incarcerated, denied a job, asked to show ID, prevented from voting, followed in stores, and on and on? What if George Zimmerman understood that when right wing pundits and Tea Party conservatives say they want to “take back the nation,” they mean they want to take it back not only from people who look like Trayvon Martin, but also from people who look like George Zimmerman?

SB 1070 protest

What if George Zimmerman knew that American Hispanics had their own civil rights movement modeled in part on the successes of the Black civil rights movement? What if he knew the history of the United Farm Workers? What if Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta were his personal heroes? What if he identified with the current struggle for immigrants’ rights? What if he identified with the Dreamers?

Cesar and Delores

What if George Zimmerman had looked at Trayvon Martin through an antiracist lens and saw not a threat but someone with whom he could identify, someone with whom he could be with in solidarity? Someone he could call brother and really mean it?

It’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself when you assume your neighbor has no voice worth hearing, no contribution worth making, no value to society. Well, what if George Zimmerman were a community organizer? That is, instead of volunteering for a neighborhood watch and carrying a gun, what if Mr. Zimmerman were working as a community organizer, trying to make his community more welcoming, more accepting, more inclusive, more fair, more just, more loving and more peaceful? What if his primary assumption was that everyone belongs, everyone can contribute, everyone has value? What if Mr. Zimmerman had approached Mr. Martin with an outstretched hand and a clip board? Imagine:

Community Organizer

“Hi, my name’s George, can I talk to you for a minute? I want to ask you a question.” ( Who knows how Trayvon might have responded. He might not want anything to do with this community organizer, but let’s imagine George as persistent.)

“Just one quick question: Are you registered to vote?”

“No, man, I don’t vote.”

“Really? Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you old enough, are you 18?”

“No, man, 17.”

“So, you’ll be 18, which means you’ll be able to vote in the mid-term elections. And you’ll be able to vote in the next presidential election. Doesn’t that matter to you?”

“I don’t know, man.”

“Listen, we’re organizing a meeting at the church down the street. It’s tomorrow night. We’re talking about voting. You know it’s possible there’s gonna be an attempt to make it harder for people to vote in Florida, especially for People of Color.”

[Silence]

“Do you know the Supreme Court just gutted the Voting Rights Act? Do you know there are movements all across the country to make it harder for People of Color and poor people and the elderly to vote? You don’t want that to happen here do you? I don’t. Why don’t you come to our meeting? There’s a lot you could do. Or at least let me sign you up to get updates. Do you have email?”

And if all else fails, George might say, “Hey, do you want to earn $25? I have 300 fliers I need to post around the neighborhood. I’ll pay you $25 to post them. What do ya say?”

Maybe Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have been interested. But I’m asking a serious question. Do we approach teens with suspicion and hostility? Or do we approach them with a sense of hope, with the belief that they matter, with the trust that they can actually understand their social and political context and work to make it better, with the assumption that they can be powerful, that they can contribute to the building of a more just and peaceful society?

Finally, it’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself if you don’t have genuine faith. What if George Zimmerman were a person of deep and abiding faith? What if he were the kind of person who, upon waking in the morning, reminds himself of some version of the Great Commandment, reminds himself to love what is sacred to him? If it’s God, love God. If it’s the Earth, love the Earth. If it’s the Human Spirit, love the Human Spirit. If it’s the Interdependent Web of All Existence, love the Interdependent Web of All Existence. If it’s your family, love your family. And, love your neighbor as yourself.

What if George Zimmerman, when he first saw Trayvon Martin, when he first felt that feeling of fear, anger, suspicion or whatever it was he felt when he saw a young African American man in a hoodie, sauntering slowly through the neighborhood, what if he heeded the wisdom of the Great Commandment? What if he had replaced that feeling of fear with a feeling of profound love for whatever he holds most sacred in his life? And what if, in response to that feeling, he then knew—in his heart, in his mind, in his soul—with every fiber of his being—that this young man is a neighbor—possibly an actual neighbor, but I mean a neighbor in the larger spiritual sense, as in all people are my neighbors, all people are worthy of my love, all people matter.

What if? We saw what happened when hostility and suspicion led the way. I’m putting my faith in love.

Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] Leviticus 19:33.

Miracles Abound

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

“The leaf unfurling in the April air, the newborn child, the loving parents’ care, these constant, common miracles we share. Alleluia!”[1] Words from Don Cohen which he wrote in 1980 for the ordination of his wife, the Rev. Helen Lutton Cohen. They remind us that the everyday, mundane world——the leaf unfurling, the newborn child—the world all around us, the world at our finger tips is, if we’re paying attention, astoundingly beautiful; is awe-inspiring; is—though we so often take it for granted—miraculous. The everyday, mundane world is filled with constant, common miracles. As Jenn sang, in the words of rock star Sarah McLachlan, “It’s not unusual / When everything is beautiful / It’s just another ordinary miracle today / The sky knows when it’s time to snow / Don’t need to teach a seed to grow / It’s just another ordinary miracle today.”[2] Check out “Ordinary Miracles” here. I also hear echoes of that Peter Mayer song, “Holy Now,” which we hear in worship from time to time. Mayer sings about feeling sad as a child that the Biblical miracles he learned about in Sunday School don’t happen anymore, but then realizing as an adult that everything’s a miracle.[3] Check out “Holy Now” here.

Our ministry theme for August is miracles. We picked this theme knowing it’s the time of year when we offer the least amount of programming and we probably wouldn’t spend all that much time formally exploring what we mean by miracles; but knowing also that summer, like all seasons, offers its fair share of everyday miracles. I want to speak about the power—or at least the potential power—in our lives of everyday miracles. I’m making a distinction between everyday miracles and the traditional religious definition of a miracle as some extraordinary, phenomenal, even magical event attributed to divine intervention. This ought to be a familiar distinction to many of you. I’m drawing on the Humanist tradition within Unitarian Universalism, a tradition that places strong emphasis on the role of reason in religion and does not answer the questions of life’s mysteries with otherworldly, supernatural answers. Miracles of the extraordinary sort do not figure prominently in Religious Humanism. Consider Thomas Jefferson’s version
of the New Testament in which he cut out all the supernatural elements including the miracles. But even without a belief system that includes extraordinary, divinely inspired miracles, one can still encounter the everyday world as miraculous.

Before the hymn I read a brief passage from Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, in which the futuristic Catholic priest, Quim, acknowledges to his futuristic scientist brother, Miro (who is looking for a healing miracle) that some supposed miracles “might have been hysterical. Some might have been a placebo effect. Some purported healings might have been spontaneous remissions or natural recoveries.”[4] Quim and Miro both make the distinction: some things are miracles in the traditional sense and, if they aren’t miracles, then they’re something else: a placebo effect, natural healing, etc. But I think the body’s capacity to heal itself—sometimes with the help of this-worldly, medical intervention—is miraculous, and I put it in that category of everyday, ordinary miracles.

Earlier we heard two summer meditations from the Rev. Lynn Ungar. They focused our attention on the summer harvest. Blackberries, “summer’s last sweetness,”[5] and watermelon: “How could you be ashamed at the tug of desire?” she asks. “The world has opened itself to you season after season. What is summer’s sweetness but an invitation to respond?”[6] Although Rev. Ungar doesn’t use the word miracle, for me she’s pointing at what it means to witness or experience a miracle. In short, miracles beckon to us. They urge us down pathways for the deepening of our spiritual lives. “What is summer’s sweetness but an invitation to respond?” Miracles are invitations into greater faith, greater hope, greater love.

As a way of beginning to illustrate this, consider that in the Christian New Testament, in the books of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, Jesus performs miracles (the ones Thomas Jefferson didn’t believe.) Jesus cures the sick, heals the lame, resurrects the dead, exorcises demons, transforms water into wine and feeds  thousands with a few loaves and fish. Put aside the question of whether these miracles actually happened. Instead, ask yourself: why would the writers of these books include the miracle stories in their narratives? While we can’t know for sure what the writers intended more than 1900 years ago, one thing of which we can be fairly certain is that each of them was writing to a specific audience and they wanted to help that audience deepen its faith which, in this case, was the emerging Christian faith that Jesus was the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. The writers included miracle stories in their books to help convince their audiences that Jesus was the person they said he was. The miracles lent an air of credibility and authority to their claims. The miracles helped them persuade people to join their budding movement. Certainly today there is a debate even among Christians about whether or not these miracles really happened, but that’s irrelevant here. I’m trying to tease out an important assumption about miracles. That is, if you believe a miracle of any sort has happened, that belief can strengthen and deepen your faith, hope and love. It beckons you down the path of spiritual growth. If a person sincerely believes Jesus performed miracles—and many do—that belief is likely to draw them more deeply into their Christian faith.

So what about blackberries and watermelons in the waning days of August? What about those everyday miracles? How do they beckon? How do they invite us to deepen our spiritual lives? Do they point us towards some reality or truth worthy of our faith? Mason, Max and I have been picking peaches since late July at Scott’s Orchard around the corner from us in Glastonbury. We all get so excited to pick fruit for the week; the orange-red-yellow skin so vivid, the juice so sweet. Something is beckoning. And now the apples are starting to come. Actually, the Paula Reds are almost done, but the Ginger Golds and Mcintoshes are ready for picking. What about these constant, common miracles of late summer? What invitation do they offer? If we’re going to use the language of everyday miracles—and I think we should—if we’re going to accept the idea that miracles abound in the ordinary, mundane world, then we ought to have real responses to these questions. Otherwise, this idea that “everything’s a miracle” becomes just a sweet-sounding, liberal religious cliché.  I want to know: can one’s experience of the miraculousness of the ordinary day lead to a life of greater faith, hope and love?

I believe it can, but following that lead requires a certain discipline on our part. Consider this question: What is typically on your mind and in your heart when you wake up in the morning? Does it have anything to do with how miraculous the world is? I’ll tell you what’s on my mind and in my heart upon waking these days. First and foremost, my back is sore because I threw it out this summer while walking around in sandals too much of the time, sleeping in a few too many lousy motel beds, and tossing my kids into pools and
the ocean a few too many times. So, the first thing I think when I wake up is “I need to take some ibuprofen, heat my back and stretch.” Then, like clockwork virtually every morning, my boys, who’ve gone downstairs to watch TV, start fighting. I think it means they’re hungry. But I’m not ready to get up and deal with my back pain. So I reach my leg down and stomp on the floor, which is right above the television, which is my way of saying “be quiet, stop fighting,” which unfortunately makes my back hurt even more; and while it makes the fighting stop, the ceasefire only lasts about 90 seconds, during which time it inevitably occurs to me that my vacation and study leave are almost over, that Stephany’s vacation is over—she goes back to teaching tomorrow—that the boys will go back to school in a few days—they start Wednesday—and that while I’m looking forward to getting back into our regular routine, it always brings with it a certain amount of stress and anxiety—sometimes an enormous amount of stress and anxiety.

And then, still in midst of that 90 second ceasefire, I might start thinking about the drought plaguing most of the country that hasn’t yet begun to impact the cost of food, but most likely will this fall; or the fires out west which are setting all sorts of records for size, duration & destruction; or the surge of West Nile Virus and other tropical diseases in the United States; all of which brings up my fear that this is just the beginning of the new “weather normal” brought on by global climate change. Then, still in that blessed 90 second ceasefire, I remember the ugliness of the current political campaign season, a result—at least in this election cycle—of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission which prevents the government from restricting the political expenditures of corporations and unions and which therefore has brought to the center of our political consciousness (if we’re paying attention) the strange assumption—which admittedly has a long history in the United States—that corporations are people; compounded in my mind this week by the latest right wing discourse on the difference between legitimate (I’m sorry, I mean forcible) rape and—I don’t know, is there some other kind?—and whether women’s bodies possess some magical ability to prevent pregnancy during rape; and yes, though it may be a political slogan, there is in my view a war against women happening in this nation, just as there is in my view a war against poor people happening in this nation. We’ve confirmed that corporations are people but, at least in the minds of some, women and the poor don’t quite merit that status. 90 seconds have passed and the boys are fighting again. Where’s my ibuprofen? Where’s my heating pad? Where’s my science fiction novel? I need to escape! By the way, if you’re at all familiar with Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, the third in his Ender Wiggin series, then you know it really is no escape from any of this. Suffice it to say, the last thing on my mind and in my heart when I wake up these days is the revelation that everything’s a miracle. The sun breaking through the trees beckons; birds singing their morning songs urge; fresh peaches from trees in our neighborhood sitting on the cutting board in our kitchen awaiting breakfast offer a profound invitation. Everyday miracles abound, but I’m not quite there.

I don’t think I’m alone in this kind of experience. I don’t think I’m alone in forgetting the abundance of miracles all around, in failing to hold that sense of the miraculous at the center of my heart and mind such that it’s there when I wake up in the morning. I don’t think I’m the only one who finds, when I do catch a glimpse of the abundance of everyday miracles—when I become open to how beautiful, incredible, stunning, and miraculous the world is—it’s still difficult to sustain that awareness beyond a few precious, peaceful moments.

I think that difficulty is normal for most people at different points in life. From time to time we get caught up in and focus on the things that bring stress into our lives—raising children, finances, work, retirement, illness, aging, strained relationships, concerns about our adult children, caring for aging parents, existential fears; what does the future hold?—the list goes on.  It’s easy to start feeling trapped by these things; it’s easy to start feeling overwhelmed by these things; it’s easy to start rehearsing the same details, the same scripts, the same dilemmas over and over again. I suspect many of us are familiar with that kind of rut. Being in it can sap our energy and our sense of hope for the future. It can make us wonder, is there anything worthy of my faith? There was a time when I would encounter people spinning around in these kinds of ruts and think to myself, that’s not me, I’m resilient, I can handle that sort of thing, but I don’t have that reaction anymore. I don’t always feel so confident and competent. Maybe it has to do with being a father, or having a sore back. Whatever it is, I accept it and I suspect it’s normal. I suspect it’s part of what it means to mature more fully into adulthood, to start having a sense of one’s limitations. So be it. But when you add to this a palpable layer of anxiety and stress in the larger culture stemming, in my view, from ongoing economic uncertainty, from a growing environmental challenges, from frustration with our political system, from a perceived increase in violence in the larger society, from a general sense of scarcity, it doesn’t surprise me when I notice I’m not waking up to the miraculousness of the world. I’m not surprised at all when people tell me it’s hard to focus on the everyday miracles. “I’m glad those peaches taste so sweet Rev., but I’m troubled today and I may need a little more in order to get through it.”

Yes. Absolutely. But sometimes an everyday miracle is precisely what we need. This is why I used the word discipline earlier. In the midst of troubled thoughts and feelings—whatever their source may be—we need some discipline, some practice, some way of training our awareness on the beauty of the earth, on the gift of life, on the astounding, miraculous fact of our existence. Stress, anxiety, emotional ruts, racing, worrying minds, existential concerns, deep-seeded fears—all these things have their roots in many places—but they have in common a negative spiritual impact. That is, at their worst they sap our spirit. They sap our energy. They undercut our sense of wholeness. They can make us feel unwell in our bodies. They can make us feel small, incomplete and unworthy. They prevent us from recognizing our connections to a reality and a power larger than ourselves. They weaken our faith. They prey on our hopefulness. They even attack our capacity to love. In the midst of it we easily forget that all around us, everyday miracles abound. All around us are invitations to encounter the world differently. All around us, in the words of Lynn Ungar, are reminders that the world opens itself to us, season after season, and we are invited to respond.[7] “Reach gently,” says Ungar, “but reach.”[8] And when she says “reach,” I take it to mean “live.” Live the life you feel called to live, not the life your fears and anxieties dictate. Live boldly, live creatively, live faithfully, live with love at the center of your heart. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our fears but with the beauty of the earth. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our anxieties, but with our hopes. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our small, self-centered, scarcity-oriented selves but with the truth of  our connection to a reality and a power larger than ourselves, pointing us always towards lives of openness, caring, generosity, grace and dignity.

I am at heart a hopeful, faithful, loving person, who at times does not feel very hopeful, faithful or loving. But I’ve learned that if I can discipline myself to stay aware of the everyday miracles, if I can sustain a practice of noticing, observing, welcoming, naming, embracing and responding to everyday miracles, if I can wake up in the morning with miracles in my mind and on my heart, I can remain a hopeful person, a person of deepening faith, a person capable of great love. I trust you can too. Miracles abound. May we respond!

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Cohen, Don, “The Leaf Unfurling,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #7.

[2] For music with lyrics for Sarah McLachlan’s “Ordinary Miracle,” see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8rh_48pLqA.

[3] For music with lyrics to Peter Mayer’s “Holy Now,” see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiypaURysz4.

[4] Card, Orson Scott, Xenocide (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1991) p. 134.

[5] Ungar, Lynn, “Picking Blackberries,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 46.

[6] Ungar, Lynn, “Watermelon,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 49.

[7] Ungar, Lynn, “Watermelon,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 49.

[8] Ungar, Lynn, “Picking Blackberries,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 47.

 

No Greater Love (or Not Your Kind of People)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Watch video here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Blessed be.



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

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

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

[5] John 15: 13-16.

Rejoice! (A Defense of the Holidays as They Are!)

Gaudete! Rejoice! If you hear me say nothing else this morning, hear my          invitation to rejoice this midwinter season. Gaudete!

I am rejoicing over something that technically has nothing to do with the   holiday season but just happens to be occurring now. The United States war in Iraq has formally ended. The remaining U.S. troops left Iraq this morning. Although I don’t want to imply in any way that the work of rebuilding Iraq is finished—it is not; or that US leaders who brought us into the war ought to feel their actions have been vindicated—they have not; I feel, nevertheless, that the formal conclusion of this war—the formal conclusion of any war—is a reason to rejoice. Gaudete!

There are many traditional religious reasons to rejoice at this time. We are mindful of the central Biblical story of Christmas: an angel bringing tidings of great joy to shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem, news of the birth of a savior, a message of peace on earth and good will to all. We are mindful of the story of Hannukah—which begins on Tuesday—the story of the Maccabees’ resisting Greek rule, liberating the temple in Jerusalem, recommitting to their ancestral religion, purifying and rededicating the altar and the temple, and celebrating! As it says in the Book of First Maccabees, “Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days.”[1] These stories are in the air. Gaudete! Rejoice!

But let’s imagine, just for a moment, that the traditional religious reasons for rejoicing in the midwinter season don’t really speak to you. Those old stories don’t hold any real meaning for you. You cringe when you hear people take seriously the notion of a war on Christmas. And you think, I know there’s a deeper meaning to the season and Rev. Josh and Vicki try really hard to tell those stories in a more universalistic way so that they speak to everyone—that’s their job—but messiahs and angels? nahh. Peace on earth, good will to all? I’d like to think so, but I’m a bit too cynical. And really what I like about the season is shopping, and getting or making gifts for people (and maybe a few for myself) and spending money, and just relaxing with friends and family, and perhaps overindulging in food and drink a little more than I should. That’s OK, isn’t it? I know none of you actually think this. But let’s pretend for a moment that you do.

Are you pretending?

OK. Good. I think you’re onto something. In fact, I’ve said it before, but I haven’t said it in a while (maybe I’ve just been too serious these past few years): We can’t get to the true or the deeper meaning of the season without the shopping, without Hallmark cards and a trip to Macy’s, without the food, without the festival and the spectacle of the holidays, without the gifts—both useful and useless, practical and luxurious—without the general excess and over-indulgence, and without, dare I say it, the commercialization of the season. The season is not only about peace and good will; it is also about fun. It is also about rejoicing just for the sake of rejoicing. We need the glitz and the glam, as corny and as tacky and as crass as it often seems. As long as people have celebrated the return of the sun at the darkest time of the year, they have done so with a certain amount of irreverence, with a certain amount of excess. They have always let down their guard, gotten a little raucous and taken themselves a little less seriously. And there have always been people selling things to draw a profit from the season.

I’m not just saying this. I’m taking my cue from the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt whose wonderful book, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays,[2] reminds us that under Puritan rule in the New England colonies there was no Christmas. Puritans were Biblical literalists; and because there is no mention of an annual celebration of Christmas in the Bible, it wasn’t their practice. Later European immigrants brought midwinter and New Year traditions of partying and gift-giving. That’s where the holidays as we know them today began.  There wasn’t necessarily a deeper religious or theological meaning. It was partying and gift-giving which, over the years, became associated with Christmas.  The business world always saw the potential for profits and commercialized Christmas from its earliest days in America. Schmidt’s argument is that businesses like the big urban department stores (such as Philadelphia’s Wannamaker’s) actually drove the development of the Christmas holiday in the late 19th century and gave us Christmas as we know it today. Only much later did more devoutly religious people start reminding the country of a “deeper” meaning.

Don’t get me wrong: the deeper meaning is important. Peace on earth and good will to all are immensely important and we ought to rejoice when we encounter this meaning in this season. But not all the rejoicing needs to hang on this meaning. I can barely believe I’m saying this, but who says a holiday can’t be a little materialistic? And as Schmidt points out, a common feature of festivity is to overindulge, to eat, drink or spend to excess. The surplus of gifts, the over-spending, the conspicuous consumption (ultimately within our means, to be sure) associated with Christmas gives expression to a kind of festival excess that is fundamental to celebrations and holidays.[3] That is, there is something inside us that really needs the partying and gift giving, really needs Santa Claus and Rudolph and Frosty, really needs mistletoe and evergreens, really needs to go shopping, really needs to visit with family and friends, really needs to sing holiday music and really needs to take life more lightly for at least a few days.

And maybe, just maybe, as the celebration of the holidays fulfills these needs and reverses the normal patterns of our lives for a time, a new openness to generosity and spirit is created in us that isn’t there at other times of the year. And maybe, just maybe, the deeper meaning of the season, the message of hope and peace and goodwill, becomes just a bit easier to hear. So rejoice friends. Gaudete! Rejoice!

Amen and blessed be.



[1] 1 Maccabees 4: 59a.
[2] Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995) pp. 6-7.
[3] Schmidt, Consumer Rites, p. 8.

Fragments of Your Ancient Name

Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

Video here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Blessed Be.

_______________________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

Just Over the Mountain, the Peaceful Valley: An Easter Homily

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

Just over the mountain / The peaceful valley / Few come to know / I may never get there / Ever in this lifetime / But sooner or later / It’s there I will go.[1]

(Thanks to the UUS:E choir, Sandy Johnson and Pawel Jura for such an amazing rendition of this song!)

Friends, I’ve been reflecting on Easter, on the story of Jesus who was executed for speaking from a place of extraordinary spiritual grounding, speaking truthfully, speaking about the conditions under which his people lived, speaking about how his people ought to live in the midst of their oppression, speaking about where their true loyalties ought to lie, where their true sustenance ought to come from, how they ought to orient their lives towards the God of Israel rather than the Roman imperial authorities. For speaking in this way—and for his profound faith, and for all the miracles of healing and exorcism that seemed to flow out of his faith—and for his love for his God and for humanity, that is, for everyone: the sick and the healthy, the broken and the whole, the foolish and the wise, the taxed and the tax collector, the Jew and the Roman, the poor and the rich, the oppressed and the oppressor—for all this speaking and healing and trusting and hoping and loving, the Roman imperial authorities and their local collaborators put him to death.

It’s not hard to imagine that Jesus’ 1st century followers whose lives he touched so deeply and who loved him so fiercely would come to believe, in the days following his crucifixion, that he was still with them in some way. It’s not hard to imagine when we understand that these people were intimately familiar with the common, ancient near-eastern cultural-religious myth that promised a messiah would come to save the people from their oppressors, to turn the world upside down, to make the first last and the last first, to usher in a new era of peace, justice and prosperity, to establish a divine kingdom on earth. It’s not hard to imagine that in their profound grief over Jesus’ death, his followers would naturally say to themselves, “He’s the One! He’s the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God, the Son of Man!” And thus it’s not hard to imagine that the people whose lives he touched so deeply and who loved him so fiercely would come to believe—and begin to tell others—that he had risen from the dead, that the one who they believed could resurrect the dead had himself been resurrected.

I don’t believe he was resurrected. That’s not my theology. But it’s not hard to imagine that those whose lives he touched so deeply and who loved him so fiercely would come to believe it with every fiber of their being.

Why is it not hard to imagine? Because human beings yearn to be free. And the idea that Jesus had been resurrected became, for his followers, a path for them to be free—spiritually free in the midst of their oppression. This is not a typical path for most twenty-first century Unitarian Universalists. For us the resurrection is largely metaphor. But Easter continues to call to us because, at its core, it speaks out of and to that human yearning to be free. Easter bursts with movement towards freedom: movement from death to life, from dark tomb to open air, from bound to unbound, from sadness to joy, from hatred to love, from winter to spring—these are all movements towards spiritual—and physical—freedom. Easter speaks out of and to our yearning to be free from pain and illness, free from sadness and depression, free from societies that perpetuate tyranny and oppression, free from societies that perpetuate poverty and injustice, free from slavery in all its forms. “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” as our children sang earlier. Follow the north star. Look for the freedom quilt. Wade in the water. Si Se Puede. Come into the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey, the land promised to your ancestors. We want to be free to move, to gather, to speak, to express ourselves, to worship, to work, to follow our dreams. There is, in the human heart, a beautiful, compelling, urgent yearning for freedom. Easter speaks out of and to that yearning.

This morning, I want us to remember that freedom is never a given in our lives, that there are forces and powers always working to curtail freedom. Some of those forces and powers are inside us. We encounter them when we’re talking about our personal sense of being free from all the voices, all the negative messages, all the personal demons that would otherwise hold us back from becoming our full selves, our whole selves, our true selves. Some of those forces and powers are beyond us, larger than us. We encounter then when we’re talking about all the institutional and systemic structures arrayed against collective, social, political and economic freedoms. I want us to remember that those forces and powers can and do overcome us at times, that we can grow tired, that the yearning for freedom in the human heart can grow still, dormant, distant, fractured, fragmented, silent—can even appear to die. I want us to remember that so many of the great freedom fighters, the people whose lives express in word and deed the beautiful, compelling, urgent yearning for freedom, come to the mountain and climb it. They climb it with grace, dignity, passion and courage. But far too often they do not live to come into the peaceful valley. And thus Easter and this entire Holy Week are reminders of tragedy, reminders of the horror people are all too willing to visit upon people, reminders of pervasive injustice in the world. Let us remember this. Let us face full on all the challenges to freedom. And then let us resolve, each in our own way, to be reborn, to leave our tombs and breath the fresh, moist air of spring, to begin climbing again, knowing that the climbing is what gives us life, knowing that the climbing is what stirs that “hallelujah!” deep inside each of us, knowing that, in the end, the climbing is what sets us free, even if the peaceful valley eludes us again and again and again.

Happy Easter friends! There is a peaceful valley. Keep climbing.

Amen and Blessed be.


[1] Excerpt from Griffin, Patty, “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song).”
See: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/pattygriffin/uptothemountainmlksong.html
See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kh-DgLX4fVs&feature=related