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