Less Distant from the Hope of Myself: Reflections on Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Musical Interlude]

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

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

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

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

[Musical Interlude]

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

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

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

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

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

Amen, blessed be.

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Willever, Ann, “Autumn.”

Spirit-Filled Risk! (a Sermon for the Annual Appeal)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Religion at its best is no friend of the status quo,” says Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Dan Hotchkiss. “Religion transforms people; no one touches holy ground and stays the same.” [1] And not only does religion transform people, but, at least in this congregation, we expect people to transform our religious experience and practice. We are very explicit about this when we welcome new members into the congregation as we are doing this morning. We say “shake us up with your ideas … stir us up with your conscience … inspire us with your actions, and … stimulate our hopes with your dreams of what life can be.”[2] Let the religion do something good and new in your life, and bring something good and new to the life of the religion. The result is change, transformation, metamorphosis, innovation, growth. The status quo doesn’t stand a chance!

Or does it?

Religion is a collective endeavor. We conduct our religious lives together. And when people do things together, they require some system of organization. They require institutions. “Organization,” says Rev. Hotchkiss, “conserves. Institutions capture, schematize, and codify persistent patterns of activity…. A well-ordered congregation lays down schedules, puts policies on paper, places people in positions, and generally brings order out of chaos.”[3] Perhaps the status quo isn’t in such great jeopardy after all.

It’s a paradox. On one hand, change and transformation. On the other, the inherent conservatism of institutions. Both sides work together. Hotchkiss says, “The stability of a religious institution is necessary for the instability that religious transformation brings.”[4]

This paradox is nowhere more apparent to me than when we ask you, the members and friends of the congregation, to make your annual financial pledge. Like virtually any congregation, and any small, member-based non-profit, we need the steady flow of your generous financial gifts to provide fair salaries and benefits to our staff, to pay for insurance and utilities, to pay our annual dues to the Unitarian Universalist Association, to run our programs, to purchase supplies. Organizational stuff. Institutional stuff.

Yet, what we strive to offer you in return goes far beyond organizational stuff. We strive to offer life-giving, life-enabling, life-empowering, and in some cases, life-saving, spiritual support, sustenance and challenge, so that each of us individually—and all of us collectively—can live as our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to live, and thereby continually transform ourselves, this congregation and the wider world in positive ways. It’s a tall order. We don’t always achieve what we set out to achieve. But that’s what we strive to offer. There’s the paradox: we raise money to maintain institutional stability. We offer ministries that we hope bring change and transformation which, at their best, invite some degree of instability.

Any attempt we make to create a new program or a new staff position, to adopt new energy-efficient technologies or environmentally-friendly practices, to make new social justice commitments, to add new textures in worship, to evolve our emergency plan, to add new adult courses or new models for children’s religious education—any time we move away from the relative comfort of what we know, to the relative discomfort of something new, there is always some degree of risk. It’s not just that we might fail to do what we’re trying to do—that risk is always present. Entering into something new is risky because we might succeed, and success means change.

Our work for marriage equality in the mid-2000s, and for transgender anti-discrimination laws in the late 2000s, changed us. Our commitment to becoming a certified Green Sanctuary changed us. Our building project eight years ago changed us. Our commitment to building a truly multigenerational spiritual community has changed us. Our partnership with Moral Monday Connecticut and our commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement has changed us. Sometimes the changes aren’t so obvious. Sometimes they’re incremental; they come slowly. Sometimes making a commitment is only the beginning of a journey. Sometimes the change begins to happen, but we don’t do the work of sustaining it, and we begin to slide back to the way things ‘used to be.’ But regardless of the pace, whatever changes us demands that we encounter ourselves, our congregation and our community differently. Such encounter expands our knowledge, our consciousness, our world-view, our relationships, our boundaries. For me, such encounter is deeply spiritual. For me, the risks we take as a congregation are spirit-filled risks.

Even when we appear to be wisely maintaining our institution, paying salaries, insurance premiums, utility bills, running our programs—institutional stuff—we are simultaneously taking spirit-filled risks.

Perhaps the most significant goal the Policy Board has set for this year’s annual appeal is creating and hiring a Membership Coordinator. Creating a new position is always risky. It changes the fabric of the congregation. But we’re going for it this year. Our Growth Team and the Policy Board have been exploring and implementing a variety of strategies to grow our congregation—spiritual growth, membership growth, financial growth, and growth of our visibility in the wider community. But so many indicators point to the need for a staff member to focus on the deeper, sometimes intangible aspects of membership that go beyond the capacity, training and hours of our already very committed and involved Membership Committee volunteers.

Membership Coordinators are responsible for connecting with visitors to the congregation, and helping them discern whether membership is right for them. They also help increase opportunities for member engagement in congregational activities such as small group ministries, circle groups, adult religious education, social justice work, etc. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country report that hiring a Membership Coordinator not only leads to growth in membership and financial giving, but also increases opportunities for spiritual growth, learning and connection among members. It’s risky. It might not work. It might not have the impact we want it to have.

But what if it does work? We’ve been growing very slowly over the years, but what if  people start joining UUS:E at a higher rate? What if more people start finding opportunities for spiritual growth, connection, and learning here? What if more people have opportunities to share their stories, to be vulnerable with each other, to offer care and support in times of crisis? What if more people discover and take to heart the Unitarian Universalist principles, the central idea of the free church, the notion of the prophethood and the priesthood of all believers, the old Universalist idea that all are worthy of love? What if more people discover and take to heart the social and environmental justice commitments of this congregation and our denomination? What if twenty-five more people join us through the course of a year? What if fifty more people join us? What if a hundred more people join us? What if we have to add a third service on Sunday afternoons? What if we had the excruciating problem of having to find room for more parking spaces? What if we could realistically explore planting a new Unitarian Universalist congregation in downtown Manchester? It would be disruptive. It would be transformative. We would not be the same congregation we are now. I say that’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

I hope and trust most of you know that a group of UUS:E members feel so strongly about taking this spirit-filled risk, that they have created a giving challenge. For every one of us who increases our annual pledge between 5% and 10%, they will match the increase. I am deeply appreciative of the generosity of Larry Lunden, Rob and Tammy Stolzman, Fred and Phil Sawyer, and another family who wishes to remain anonymous. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

In the current year, and in the coming year, we are investing money in the long-term growth of our youth program. Some of you know that for years we’ve struggled to maintain a vibrant youth program. Many congregations in many denominations report similar experiences. This struggle is confounding to me. It is heart-breaking. The teenage years are some of the most vulnerable, turbulent, confusing—and hopefully fun and enjoyable—years of anyone’s life. Youth benefit immensely from ministries geared toward them. I know I benefitted immensely from my UU youth group as a teenager, so much so that I can’t imagine being the person I am today without having had that experience. Youth need places to ask questions, to wrestle with difficult decisions, to process feelings, to be affirmed and held and loved as budding adults; but also to have clear boundaries set for them, to learn responsibility, community service, and leadership skills. If I ever leave this position of minister at UUS:E, and we have not turned our youth ministry into a vibrant, life-giving, life-saving ministry, I will count it as my greatest failure.

What if, in time, our youth, and their friends, and even youth they barely know but who heard them talking about our youth ministry—really wanted to be here, wanted to participate in our Sunday services and our social and environmental justice work, wanted to hang out here, felt safe and supported here, had some of their most important friendships here, knew thirty adults besides their parents by name—and those adults knew them by name and could help them find after-school jobs or internships and could write college recommendations for them? What if that one kid who was sad—maybe that gay kid, that trans kid, that queer kid—who didn’t feel affirmed at home or at school—and was contemplating self-harm—actually found this church and discovered that incredible gift—that they matter, that people care about them, that they have a wonderful future ahead of them? What if that one kid, lost, struggling, possibly abused—that one kid falling through the cracks in the system, capable of great violence—actually found this place, and discovered that incredible gift—that they matter, that people care about them, that they have a wonderful future ahead of them?

What if we had that kind of youth program? It would be disruptive. It would change us. It would transform us. I say that’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

The UUS:E Music Committee and the Policy Board are beginning to talk about an expansion of our music program. What if, in time, we had more opportunities for members and friends to explore music as a spiritual practice? More hymn sings, more kirtans, more singing circles, more small performance groups, chamber groups, jazz, rock, and gospel groups? What if we had a true concert series with a diverse array of cutting-edge, multicultural artists performing at UUS:E on a regular basis? And what if we expanded that out to include visual arts, dance, theater, comedy, story-telling—all geared toward exploring those very compelling and life-giving connections between the arts and spirituality, the arts and mystical experience, the arts and social justice, the arts and environmental stewardship?

What if we had that kind of music program? It would be disruptive. It would change and transform us. I say that’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking!

We’re about to begin a congregation-wide conversation on becoming a sanctuary congregation. This doesn’t have an immediate financial implication for us, but it certainly could in future. While becoming a sanctuary congregation could mean many things, perhaps the most salient question is whether we will offer physical sanctuary to a person or a family who is seeking to avoid deportation. What if we were to do that? What if we said to an undocumented parent and grandparent of United States citizens—a worker, a taxpayer, a provider who was nevertheless facing deportation—“Come, live with us until your legal status can be worked out?” Or, in the words of the Rev. Kathleen McTigue, which opened our service this morning, “You who are fearful, who live with shadows / hovering over your shoulders, / come in. / This place is sanctuary, and it is for you.”[5]

Like so many Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country who have already provided sanctuary, it would be a clear demonstration of our second principle, “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” in action. And it would be disruptive. It would change and transform us. Given the need in the nation right now, given the unconscionable lack of compassion on display in Washington, DC these days, given the injustices of our current immigration system, I say it is a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

We’re also exploring becoming a founding member of a new Greater Hartford interfaith organization. What if we are successful? What if we help found a new interfaith coalition that has forty or fifty congregational members, all of them committed to working together across lines of faith, race, class and geography to build a more just and loving greater Hartford and state of Connecticut? What if we build deep relationships with other people of faith across the region? What if we join together with them, discern our common values, our common ground, our common commitments, our common longings, and then set to work, organizing, advocating, lobbying, testifying, marching, singing, praying and, most importantly, building the power capable of making substantive, lasting social change—building that rare kind of faith-based social, economic and political power that we will simply never have on our own? This is not some idealistic, liberal fantasy. This can really happen.

I say it’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

New ideas are risky. Change is risky. Upsetting the status quo is risky. Inviting the instability of transformation is risky. But in the end, taking spirit-filled risks is what makes congregations come alive, makes them thrive, enables them to achieve their vision.

Our annual appeal has begun. When your steward contacts you, please follow up with them quickly. Yes, we are asking each of us to make as generous a financial pledge as possible for the coming year. We are asking so that we can maintain institutional and organization stability, pay salaries, bills, etc. But please know that every dollar you give to UUS:E also funds a life-giving, life-enabling, life-empowering, and in some cases, life-saving, spirit-filled risk. Thank you for your generosity.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Hotchkiss, Dan, “The Paradox of Organized Religion,” Bless the Imperfect: Meditations or Congregational Leaders (Boston: Skinner House, 2014) p. 34.

[2] This language comes from the UUS:E “New Member Welcome.”

[3] Hotchkiss, “Paradox,” p. 34.

[4] Hotchkiss, “Paradox,” p. 34.

[5] McTigue, Kathleen, “This Place is Sanctuary,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations(Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 54.

Fatherhood in Flux

Rev. Josh Pawelek

The Rev. Kathleen McTigue is right: the realities of parenting do not mesh well with the features of the classic spiritual journey—“the solitary pilgrimage, the focused weeks of prayer or meditation, the ecstatic chanting in the company of other seekers.”[1] But parenting is a journey, and there is enormous spiritual growth to be had. “This ordinary, unsung path,” writes McTigue, “requires tremendous openness to the unanticipated. It meanders around a thousand turns that feel like detours or dead ends. It requires faith that the spirit does not grow in a straight line nor need traditional forms and practices. Real spiritual growth depends on our willingness to be transformed, and very little transforms us as thoroughly as sharing our lives with children.”[2]

Our ministry theme for June is family. This morning I’d like to lift up parenting as a central task of adults in families and explore some spiritual dimensions of parenting in our era. Since today is Father’s Day, I’d like to focus my reflections on fatherhood. And I begin with this caveat: the “golden-age” American image of what a family is—happily married, heterosexual, usually white, middle-class parents, living in a freestanding suburban house with a yard, a white picket fence, a dog chewing a bone, and two-point-something well-adjusted children, maybe a baby on the way—that image of family, if it ever existed, was far more rare than we typically imagine. Today we know families come—and always have—in a seemingly endless variety of configurations. Any time a minister (or anyone) proposes to generalize about any aspect of family life, there’s always a risk that some alternative yet valid perspective will be missed.

That is, it’s difficult to name universal truths about families. Because we spend so much time with our own families—however we understand them; because we become so enmeshed in the challenges, joys and traditions of our own families—we can develop tunnel vision when it comes to understanding how other people experience family. My kids live with married, heterosexual professional parents. They have four supportive grandparents close by. They eat three meals a day. They have three cats. They take a family vacation every summer, usually involving a beach. They spend family time playing games, watching movies, hiking and visiting with aunts, uncles and cousins. This is what family is to them. But they have no idea what it might mean to live with one parent, to be an only child, to live with a grandparent in an in-law apartment, to have two moms or two dads, to have a step-parent, to have half-siblings, to be in foster care, to struggle financially, to spend summers on a farm or at a second home in another country. They have no idea what it might mean to have a live-in maid, chauffeur or chef, or to live in a practicing Muslim, Catholic, Mormon or Jewish family.

There’s always the risk, and the reality, that my experience of being a father will not match someone else’s experience of being a father; or that my experience of having a father will not match someone else’s experience of having a father; or that my experience of being a white, middle class, heterosexual, married, working, Unitarian Universalist father will not adequately speak to the experiences of fathers with different identities fathering under different circumstances. The problem is not that experiences vary—diversity in family life is a beautiful feature of early 21st-century America. The problem is that it is so easy to forget that differences are there at all. There is not one experience of fatherhood, motherhood, parenting, or grand-parenting. There is not one experience of family.

I do think it’s safe and accurate to say fatherhood in our era is in flux,[3] especially when it comes to gender roles. Traditional parenting roles for men and women—once quite distinct—have been slowly converging over the past few decades. A great illustration of this is the online hype surrounding a photo blogger Doyin Richards posted on his website Daddy Doin’ Work[4] last fall. He told the story in a January 8th Huffington Post article: I took time off from my corporate job for baby bonding with my 3-month old daughter. It’s a lot of work being a stay at home parent, but it’s so damn rewarding…. One morning … my[wife] was running late for work and was worried that she wouldn’t be able to get [our three-year old daughter’s] hair done before I had to take her to school. I told her that she could leave and I’d handle it. She countered by saying that doing her hair requires attention and the baby would get upset if I left her alone while I played the role of stylist. Again, I told her that I’d handle it. On the way out she said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

That’s when I put [the baby] in the Ergo, stood [the three-year old] on a stool and worked my hair magic. During the process, I thought, There’s no way my wife will believe me if I don’t take a picture of this.That’s when I set my camera up, put it on a 10-second timer, and took the photo…. After 15 minutes of multitasking, the final result was a nice, tight ponytail for big sister and a happily sleeping baby in the carrier. Mission accomplished. I emailed the photo to her with the caption “Boom.” and we both got a good laugh out of it.[5]

The photo went viral soon after he posted it. He says there were three types of comments: those who think he is the world’s best dad; those who think this is no big deal and he shouldn’t get extra praise; and racists (Richards is black) who assumed he must be a deadbeat if he has time to fix his daughter’s hair, or that the children aren’t actually his because they have lighter skin (his wife is Japanese and White). He identifies with the second group, saying “this is something Dads are supposed to be doing,” and “I am not special in any regard.” That is my response, and I suspect the same would be true of most of you. But it’s worth naming that fathers attending to children in this way are a relatively new phenomenon in the American social landscape. While I’m sure there have always been such fathers, it’s traditionally a mother’s role. Hence Richards’ wife’s quip: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Richards was on paternity leave, which is also a relatively new phenomenon. A June, 2013 Wall Street Journal article, entitled “Why Dads Don’t Take Paternity Leave,” pointed out that 15 % of US companies provide some paid leave for new fathers—and they call that progress. However, even when the benefit exists, many dads elect not to take it. “There’s still a stigma associated with men who put parenting on an equal footing with their jobs…. Most employers still assume that work comes first for men, while women do all the child care…. Many men who openly identify with their parental role at work face pressure or resentment from co-workers…. Men who are active caregivers get teased and insulted at work more than so-called traditional fathers and men without children. Active fathers are seen as distracted and less dedicated to their work—the same perception that harms career prospects for many working mothers…. Such men are accused of being wimpy or henpecked by their wives.”[6]

I go back to Rev. McTigue’s notion that “real spiritual growth depends on our willingness to be transformed.” As fathers become more willing and able to adopt—and excited and passionate about adopting— those aspects of child-rearing traditionally assigned to women, there will be transformation—not just for those men, but for all of us. One of Hilary Clinton’s most significant achievements as Secretary of State was to orient United States foreign policy globally toward the education of girls, arguing that educated mothers are one of the most potent weapons against war, terrorism, violence and extremism. I agree. But imagine also an America in which men play a more immediate and traditionally feminine role in child-rearing? Might that not have a similarly powerful and positive effect on our long-term chances for creating a more just and peaceful world? I, for one, believe that is a transformation worth pursuing and I welcome this blurring of the traditional male and female parenting roles.

But even if roles blur, I wonder to what extent certain parental instincts are more unique to fathers, while others are more unique to mothers. It’s a stereotype, but if men are more aggressive, more prone to use violence, more socialized to see themselves as family leaders, breadwinners and protectors, more distant, more solitary—if fathers feel these things more instinctually and poignantly than mothers—I worry about how these instincts could play out in our era. I worry because I perceive an extraordinary level of fear in our society: fear of terrorism, of immigrants, of an assault on gun ownership, of assault weapons, gun violence and mass shootings—70 since the December, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre—fear of the mentally ill, of Big Government, of taxes, of unemployment, of deficits and debt, of Black presidents, of White presidents, of marriage equality, of marijuana, fear of Eric Cantor, of David Brat, of Hilary Clinton, of Islam, of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, of Boko Haram, of Black and Hispanic men, of tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides, droughts, wildfires and nor’easters, of global warming, of power outages and water shortages, of genetically modified food, of corporations, of the Koch brothers, of rising college tuitions and sea levels; fear of fathers fixing daughters’ hair—fear upon fear upon fear. Depending on our politics we think some of it is completely justified, and some of it is completely ridiculous. But it’s there. And if there is a deep-seeded, masculine, fatherly instinct to resort to aggression and violence to protect one’s family, in a fearful era, might we not witness an increasingly violent society?

I’m not sure. There are data that suggest we live in the safest, most peaceable era in human history. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker made this argument in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.[7] Maybe despite deep-seeded instincts towards aggression, and despite widespread fear, a more safe and peaceful world is emerging right before our eyes. But that doesn’t feel right—not if you’re an inner city father living in contested gang territory; not if you’re a Midwest father whose hometown was obliterated by a tornado this past winter; not if you’re a father anywhere whose child’s peer was caught bringing a gun to school. We’ve become a fearful nation in an increasingly fearful world—not all the reasons are spurious. This creates a dilemma for American fathers. Do we, out of fear, embrace those more ancient inclinations which include aggression and violence and thereby risk perpetuating violence? Or do we welcome a new set of values for fathers: nurturing spirits, vulnerable hearts , an embrace of difference, a rejection of violence, a capacity to really partner with whoever our partner may be, and a desire and an ability to fix out daughters’ hair? And maybe it isn’t precisely a dilemma. Maybe it isn’t a matter of losing the ancient instincts altogether, because certainly there’s a time and a place for aggression and even violence. Perhaps the flux fathers are in is calling us towards greater balance: aggression tempered by a drive to nurture, distance moderated by an impulse toward closeness and connection, violence only as a last resort, and briefcases whose contents include little girls’ hair brushes. Though some may call such balance weak or cowardly, I call it strong and courageous.

I asked a number of UUS:E fathers to give me their impressions of fatherhood in our era. Across the range of responses I found both a desire to find a place for the more ancient fatherly instincts and an embrace of the transformation that comes with child-rearing even when it demands a departure from tradition. Rob Stolzman shared the story of a friend, an Alaska native, who remembered her dad going moose hunting for the family. “He never told the family that he was planning on going; he would simply begin to take longer and longer walks into the wilderness with his hunting equipment until one day he wouldn’t come back and would be gone for up to a week.  He didn’t need to speak his intent; he would simply follow his routine and then be gone, but his family knew exactly what was happening.  And it made them ecstatic because they knew when he came back he would be bringing fresh moose.” Rob says, “Our schedules revolve around work and school and children’s activities and we try to squeeze more and more in.  I value the picture of a father, or mother, going about his/her solitary duty, without saying a word, and with not only total understanding and acceptance but celebration from his/her family.  It seems like we are often too busy to stop and acknowledge the happiness and excitement of a family member contributing in a routine, solitary and unassuming way.” Thanks Rob!

Glenn Campellone described the changes parenthood has demanded of him: “By far my greatest challenge has been letting go of the traditions and expectations of my own upbringing.” “Some of the issues we faced (and the solutions we chose) caused me to leave my comfort zone and suspend disbelief, which was extremely difficult for me.  I’m not sure my parents or their generation could have or would have even considered some of the decisions we’ve made.

I’ve rethought “my attitudes toward home schooling.  I’ve come to understand that traditional school environments just don’t work for every student.” I’ve come to understand that the traditional path of “high school to college to corporate career to marriage to children isn’t always the path to happiness.” And I’ve come to understand that” your parents’ religion doesn’t have to be your religion.  Roman Catholicism was all we knew, but we knew it wasn’t working for us…. Once again, it was our  children’s desire to have a spiritual home that opened our eyes to other possibilities and led us to UUS:E.” Thanks Glenn!

Knowing there are fathers who can articulate and celebrate a more traditional view of fatherhood and find in it spiritual value and depth to help us respond in healthy, grounded ways to the seeming insanity of today’s world; and knowing there are fathers who can assess how fatherhood has transformed them and opened them up to greater possibility, to nuance, to seeing grey in a world that so often only offers black and white—this gives me confidence that that elusive balance between the old and the new, that elusive balance so essential to meeting fear with hope, that elusive balance so essential to making peace in the world is utterly possible.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “The Parents’ Pilgrimage,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 73.

[2] Ibid., p. 74.

[3] For a general review of various aspects of this flux, see: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/12/5-facts-about-todays-fathers/.

[4] See http://daddydoinwork.com/.

[5] Read Richard’s Huffington Post article at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/doyin-richards/i-have-a-dream-picture-like-this_b_4562414.html. And read a recent National Public Radio article on fatherhood that featured Richard’s story at http://www.npr.org/2014/06/12/321218293/white-house-urges-dads-to-join-work-life-balance-conversation.

[6] “Why Dads Don’t Take Paternity Leave,” Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2013. See: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324049504578541633708283670. Also, and for the record, a May 2013 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research reminds us that only 35% of women work for an employer who offers paid maternity leave, and the United States is one of only four countries globally, and the only high-income country, without a statutory right to paid maternity leave for employees. See: http://www.iwpr.org/publications/pubs/maternity-paternity-and-adoption-leave-in-the-united-states-1.

[7] Listen to / watch Pinker talk about the ideas in BetterAngels at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5X2-i_poNU.

Elusive Abundance

Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

“Which secret garden will you tend today?”[1] asks the Rev. Kathleen McTigue. The garden of dissatisfaction or the garden of abundance? I’m gonna guess no one here this morning will say, “I prefer to tend the garden of dissatisfaction. That’s me at my best.” Or, “I prefer whining and complaining.” Or, “I love that feeling of not being able to get out of bed in the morning, of being overwhelmed, of always rushing, always reacting, always feeling like everything is urgent and there’s never enough time. Please give me more of that!” I’m guessing—I could be wrong—none of you prefers to tend the garden of dissatisfaction.

We prefer not to, but most of us do tend it. This is Rev. McTigue’s point and I agree: “We return again and again to the unkempt and extravagant growth of our favorite gripes, some of them many years old and still full of whining vigor.”[2] There are often good reasons for this. Sometimes we are dissatisfied and complaining is our best and only option. And there are days when we really don’t want to get out of bed because our burdens feel too heavy to bear. But when sitting in worship and the minister asks if you’ll tend the garden of dissatisfaction or abundance,I’m gonna guess you’d prefer abundance. “This garden,” says Rev. McTigue, “grows easily, it blossoms freely, and its richness awaits us each time we open our[selves to it]: life, breath, kindness, friends, love…. All the bounty given to us by every unfolding day.”[3]

Our ministry theme for October is abundance. September is here for a few more days, but autumn has arrived. The final harvest has begun. Farm stands are full of the bounty of the land—pumpkins, applies, pears, corn, squash and all manner of pies. The sights and smells of earthly abundance are all around us. So I’m ready for this theme. I hope you are too.

I want to begin by exposing and hopefully dispensing with a myth about how one achieves abundance. You may have noticed this: conversations about abundance can easily degenerate into a feel-good cliché that completely ignores reality. The cliché is the often enthusiastically stated claim that all it takes to have abundance in your life is a slight shift in attitude. Rev. McTigue is the last Unitarian Universalist minister I would ever accuse of resorting to cliché, yet it sneaks even into her deeply insightful words. She writes: “There’s another garden growing right along-side [the garden of dissatisfaction], and just a small shift in perspective tumbles us into its grace.”[4]

Friends, I want desperately for this to be true. I want the garden of abundance to be that close. I want tumbling into its grace to be that easy. Just a snap of the fingers, a turn of the head, an unanticipated moment of peace and wallah! Life, breath, kindness, friends, love, financial health—abundance. I want this for everyone. But in my experience, the people who can get to the garden of abundance with only a slight shift in attitude are people who already live there, but just forgot. They already experience abundance in their lives, but something draws them into the garden of dissatisfaction. It could be something petty, or it could be something serious like the death of a loved-one, a difficult diagnosis or the break-up of a marriage. So they tend the garden of dissatisfaction for a little while until they remember what they already know. Oh yeah, what am I complaining about? I have what I need to sustain me. I have a good life.

But for people who don’t experience abundance in their lives, the suggestion that having abundance only requires a slight shift in attitude is, more often than not, a set-up for failure. It’s rarely that easy. Two weeks ago I spoke about what gets in the way of personal transformation. I named a dense constellation of deep-seeded thoughts behaviors, habits, addictions, long-standing physical and emotional attachments, relationships, commitments, loyalties, assumptions, financial arrangements, family dynamics, children’s needs and much more that has brought us to where we are, makes us who we are, and holds us firmly in place. It doesn’t just change because we want it to. It doesn’t just change because we recognize the garden of abundance is right next door. A shift in attitude may be a good start, but it’s rarely enough. So I don’t hear just change your attitude as sage advice, as wisdom. I hear it as a cliché.

And it’s dangerous cliché, a potentially spirit-killing cliché. It can become a convenient excuse for why scarcity persists in a person’s life. They didn’t do it right! They didn’t shift their attitude correctly. We can blame their lack of abundance on a character flaw, on the fact that they didn’t want their lives to change enough. It’s a form of blaming the victim. And if we think it’s their fault, then there’s no obligation for us to ask about the often very legitimate reasons why they’re living with dissatisfaction. Let’s say a person experiences scarcity in their life because they live with a mental illness. (We know not all people with mental illness experience scarcity, but let’s say this person does.) They can change their attitude all they want, but so often the problem is bigger than their attitude. One reason a person with mental illness might lack abundance is not because of their attitude toward themselves, but because of society’s negative attitude toward people with mental illness. One reason a poor person might lack abundance is not their attitude towards themselves, but society’s negative attitude toward poor people.

My point is this: it has become a cliché to suggest that one’s attitude makes the difference between scarcity and abundance. While I agree one’s attitude is crucial to living a fulfilling and meaningful life, it is also true that scarcity results from larger social, economic and spiritual realities over which individuals have little control. Scarcity is rarely a purely individual problem. And it stands to reason that abundance is a social phenomenon. We secure the blessings of life—we get our needs met and more—when our communities thrive. We’re not in this alone. So, the advice to an individual to simply change of their attitude is often a set-up for failure.

You know who I blame for the prevalence of this cliché? Oprah Winfrey. She’s famous and successful—at least in part—for repeating this cliché over and over again. A salient example: in 2006 she dedicated two shows to an exploration of The Secret, the best-selling book from Australian filmmaker and self-help guru Rhonda Byrne. An Oprah.com article from 2006 says, “Rhonda [Byrne] defines The Secret as the law of attraction … the principle that ‘like attracts like.’” According to Byrne, “We attract into our lives the things we want … based on what we’re thinking and feeling” [5] If we’re experiencing scarcity, it’s because we’ve been thinking about scarcity. If we want abundance, we just have to change our thoughts and feelings.

Oprah is convinced Steven Spielberg invited her to play the role of Sofia in “The Color Purple” because she really wanted the role and couldn’t stop thinking about it. She didn’t tell anyone she wanted the role. She didn’t know Spielberg. But her thoughts led Spielberg to her.[6] In a 2013 book, The Secret: Daily Teachings, Byrne says, “Whatever feelings you have within you are attracting your tomorrow. Worry attracts more worry. Anxiety attracts more anxiety…. Joy attracts more joy. Happiness attracts more happiness….Your job is an inside one. To change your world, all you need to do is change how you feel inside. How easy is that?[7]

I haven’t read the entire book, but I’ve read a lot about it and I’ve spoken with people who are absolutely convinced the law of attraction is real and that you can attract money, work, happiness, romance, power—anything you desire—to you simply by thinking about it and—this is important—by not thinking about its opposite: poverty, unemployment, sadness, loneliness, weakness, etc. I just read a story on The Secret website from a devotee whose dog was diagnosed by two different vets with a massive tumor on her liver. This person tells her dog over and over again that she is healed and intentionally never mentions the words sick, cancer, tumor, etc. After four months they return to the vet who, in utter disbelief, tells them the tumor has disappeared.[8]

There are many commentators and critics who debunk the pseudo-science behind concepts like the law of attraction, or who challenge the therapeutic efficacy and even the ethics of counseling people facing serious crises to simply change their thoughts and feelings, or who expose the enormous profits to be gained from selling easy answers to people in distress. One of the best critiques of The Secret and other publishing successes in this genre is Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2009 Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.[9] I won’t say more about it here, except to point out that there are serious, well-researched efforts to expose the short-sightedness as well as the insidiousness of this cliché.

Watch Jon Stewart’s interview with Barbara Ehrenreich here.

But I’m not mocking. I believe the person with the sick dog used the technique she learned from The Secret with complete faith that it would work. For all I know it did. For all I know Oprah’s thoughts attracted Spielberg’s attention. Who am I to say otherwise? But I’m also familiar with the proverbial aspiring actress who never gets a call-back despite how utterly dedicated she is to her craft and how much she thinks about succeeding. Did she not want it enough? And I am worried about the thousands of people who will read the story about a dog’s miraculous remission and who, as a result, will put their faith in the power of a positive attitude to heal their own dog, or their cat, or their own body, or their spouse’s body, or their child’s body, or their parent’s body. They will bring all manner of positive thoughts and feelings to bear; they will avoid all manner of negative words and images; and it won’t work. In fifteen years of ministry I’ve watched far too many loving, hopeful, prayerful, positive people yearn for a loved-one to survive a life-threatening illness and the person still dies. Were these family members not positive enough? Not hopeful enough? Not loving enough? Did they pray the wrong prayers? Did they allow negativity to creep into their thoughts and feelings? Were they tending the wrong garden while their loved-one lay dying? If so, are they responsible for the death? Of course not.

What impresses me about a phenomenon like the Oprah Winfrey Show, which peddled the just change your attitude cliché to tens of millions of viewers for years, and what impresses me about a phenomenon like The Secret, which has sold tens of millions of copies in forty languages across the globe, is not those occasional moments where the law of attraction appears to actually work. What impresses me is that so many millions of people are so hungry for a way out of dissatisfaction. So many people are searching desperately for a different life. So many people feel mired in material and spiritual scarcity. So many people are longing for some inkling of abundance in their lives. Winfrey and Byrne and many others have offered a response to this longing. It begs the question: what do we offer to people longing for abundance? What do each of you offer, what does your minister offer, what does you congregational offer, what does Unitarian Universalism offer, what does liberal religion offer to people who are crying out for some measure of abundance in their lives?

Earlier we sang “Earth was given as a garden, cradle for humanity…. Here was home for all your creatures born of land and sky and sea; all created in your image, all to live in harmony.”[10] This hymn calls to mind an idyllic, if mythological human past, a time of abundance in which every human need was met; a time from which we have grown distant. The hymn invites us to learn what we must learn in order to regain that abundance. “Teach us how to trust each other, how to use for good our power, how to touch the earth with reverence. Then once more will Eden flower,” a references to the Biblical Garden of Eden. I also read earlier from Genesis where God, in Eden, reminds all creatures, “I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.”[11] Again, an image of abundance at the dawn of humanity.

I think the spiritual lesson we draw from these kinds of images—whether we find them in ancient scripture, a modern hymn, or a minister’s reference to New England farm-stands overflowing with the earth’s bounty—is that the earth can and will provide everything we need. In more traditional religious contexts we hear, “The Lord will provide.” We’re aware, though, that we’re out of balance, that many people don’t have access to the earth’s bounty—healthy food, clean air, drinkable water, shelter. And many people don’t have access to decent education, health care, work that pays a living wage and on and on. This is why so many people long for abundance and are so drawn to easy answers like just change your attitude which doesn’t address the real roots of scarcity.But “earth was given as a garden” may not be any better. It’s a myth. And given how many people live on the planet today; given what we know about water and food crises, health care costs, climate change, and the damage wrought by production and use of non-renewable energy, I think it’s a fair question whether the earth has the capacity to provide for everyone. That capacity seems stretched to the breaking point in our time.

Nevertheless, this spiritual vision of a return to Eden, of achieving some level of abundance for all humanity, is part of our spiritual heritage. I think it’s essential that we hold onto it, that we adapt it to present-day realities, that we preach it, teach it, pray it, write it, sing it, dance it, post it, blog it, tweet it. We—people of faith, people of conscience, people who affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person—need to keep this vision of abundance for all people alive in the world because there are competing visions at work, visions organized around the principles of domination, exploitation, control and unbridled profit. Without a vision of abundance for all people, justice, fairness and equality erode and access to the fruits of the earth remain elusive for many. Vision matters. If we want abundance, we need vision. So, I’ll leave you with this question to ponder for next Sunday: if there are no quick fix, easy answers to the various forms scarcity takes, if just change your attitude is an insufficient though highly seductive response to scarcity, then what is the work—what is the difficult, roll-up-our sleeves work—that will bring that vision of Eden to fruition?

Amen and Blessed be.

 


[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Tending the Secret Garden,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 66.

[2] McTigue, “Tending the Secret Garden, p. 66.

[3] McTigue, “Tending the Secret Garden, p. 66.

[4] McTigue, “Tending the Secret Garden, p. 66.

[6] Watch Oprah Winfrey talking to Larry King about the way she experienced the Secret in her own life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYFIN6Csr0k.

[7] Byrne, Rhonda, The Secret Daily Teachings (New York: Atria Books, 2013) Day 3. See http://thesecret.tv/thesecretdailyteachings/

[8] The story, “Huge Tumor Gone,” is at http://thesecret.tv/stories/stories-read.html?id=17592.

[9] Ehrenreich, Barbara, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009). For excerpts and interviews, see http://www.barbaraehrenreich.com/brightsided.htm.

[10][10] Bard, Roberta, “Earth Was Given as a Garden” Singing the Living Tradition  (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #207.

[11] Genesis 1: 29.

A Life Redeemed

 

 

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“What happens when we recycle bottles and cans?” asks Kathleen Mctigue in her meditation.[1] “They are transformed; they are made into something else. Though it may seem a homely analogy for something as lofty as our souls,” she continues, “that’s exactly what we’re after. In our inconsistent and often clumsy ways, we’re aiming for transformation. Each time we take ourselves in hand and change our direction, ask forgiveness and start anew, we reaffirm our belief that we are redeemable.”

Our April ministry theme is redemption. The spiritual questions I’m introducing into our congregational life this morning are “What redeems you?” and “What redeems us?” I suspect for many of us the answers to these questions do not flow easily off our tongues. There may be some stumbling blocks. Redemption is one of those haunting religious words for Unitarian Universalists. Its history leaves an odd—even unpleasant—taste in our mouth. What is that taste?

Broadly speaking, when the minister suggests that we are somehow in need of redemption, even if we call it something else like change or transformation, there’s always the possibility—the risk—that the congregation will hear it as an allegation that there’s something wrong with us, that we’re somehow broken and need fixing, that we’re fallen and need salvation, that we’re estranged and need reconciliation. This contradicts an oft-stated assumption at the heart of our spirituality, that each of us—all people—possess inherent worth and dignity just as we are; that our spiritual lives are not about becoming someone or something else—better, fixed, perfect, saved—but rather becoming more fully who we already are. As we just sang, “Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again.”[2] It’s not that we think we’re perfect as we are. We know we’re not. But we are who we are, and if we understand the quest for redemption as an attempt to reach some idealized spiritual standard, it will likely distract us from that central spiritual task of learning to accept and embrace who we are.

That’s one potential stumbling block. We typically encounter another when we consider a particular way (not the only way, but a particular way) Christians (not all Christians, but some) have interpreted and used the suffering and death of Jesus as a model for what it means to live a spiritual life. In short—and please understand I am speaking very generally about a highly nuanced conversation that has been going on for nearly 2000 years—humanity’s sinfulness is so great that there is nothing anyone can do to fully redeem themselves. There is no price any human can pay to bring themselves into right relationship with God. We are stuck where we are. But we aren’t without hope because God has the power to redeem humanity. To exercise this power, God takes a human form, lives a human life, and suffers a violent human death. In so doing, God pays the price for human sinfulness. God’s suffering and death redeem humanity. Some Christians argue that this redemption only works if one professes faith in it. Others, like our Universalist (and some Unitarian) forebears, felt that Jesus’ suffering and death redeem all people regardless of belief.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this understanding of redemption will be a stumbling block for many of us if our goal is to reclaim redemption as a useful spiritual concept. For so many of us, myself included, it’s just unbelievable. And, to be sure, there are many Christians who wrestle with this unbelievability as well. But I want to be very careful not to disparage the beliefs of others. That’s not my intent. While I may find it unbelievable, I also recognize this particular belief has provided immense comfort and inspired incredible strength and resilience to millions upon millions of people throughout history. For people who’ve lived—and who live—under the yoke of social, political and economic injustice, the idea that God would take human form and experience human suffering—the idea that God’s story is the story of a victim succumbing to but then overcoming violence and oppression—has profound resonance. In the midst of suffering, the idea that “God paid the ultimate price for my redemption” is a source of great hope and courage. For those who have nothing else, such faith is everything. It literally saves lives. Far be it from me to argue it is incorrect simply because I don’t believe it.

Having said that, it is also true that this scheme of redemption is at times applied in a way I find highly abusive and I have no misgivings about naming it and confronting it when I encounter it—the same way I would name and confront religiously motivated terrorism, honor killings, sexism or homophobia. It’s the idea that because Jesus suffered on the cross, one’s suffering at the hands of others is somehow warranted, that one’s suffering at the hands of others is itself redemptive because it mirrors Jesus’ suffering. Slaves were at times told to endure their suffering at the hands of their masters because it was Christ-like and they would be rewarded in Heaven. Battered women are at times told to endure their suffering at the hands of their abusers just as Jesus endured his. This is not OK, not a path to redemption. I agree with the cliché that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” I understand suffering is part of the human condition. I have witnessed people suffer through disease, grief, even the violence of oppression and emerge from it stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more loving. This is part of the beauty of the human spirit. But I object to the notion that the violence anyone suffers at the hands of others is inherently redemptive and we should just accept it, or that God—and this is the implication—wants some people to suffer at the hands of others because it’s good for their souls. In my view, this is an abuse of Christianity for the purpose of justifying violence whether in the home or on some more grand scale. It is an attempt at misdirection, an attempt to make violence invisible by calling it something else, rather than exposing it for what it is: a diminishing of the human spirit. Or, in more traditional language, evil.

So, there are stumbling blocks in our encounter with redemption. If you’re wary about a sermon entitled “A Life Redeemed,” there are any number of reasons why your wariness makes sense. Nevertheless, I find spiritual potency and power in this word. I believe it can help us think differently about those places where we’re stuck. It can, in Rev. McTigue’s words, help us “loosen the pinching in our hearts and live with more wonder, serenity, kindness and wisdom.”[3] It may can us deepen our spiritual lives. What redeems you? What redeems us?

As I seek to answer these questions for myself, it feels important to name that whether I experience myself as redeemed or not, my gut tells me there are no cosmic consequences. This isn’t about the eternal status of my soul, Heaven and Hell, divine punishment or reward. I have this life to live in this world as best as I can. If I’m going to experience redemption, it’s going to be in this life in this world, not in some other life in some other world. It’s going to be “this-worldly” redemption. As Rev. McTigue says, this “isn’t about saving us, but instead shaping us, and it’s the most certain redemption available in this sweet world.”[4]

I like this idea of shaping as a metaphor for this-worldly redemption. Imagine you’re a sculptor and your life is the sculpture. Each day you mold, form and fashion your sculpture, you shape your life, and in the evening you review your work. Some evenings you like what you’ve created. The sculpture captures exactly what you envision for your life. But even so, you recognize the next day may bring new experiences, new insights, new feelings, and thus the work of shaping continues. Of course, some evenings you review your work and realize you haven’t gotten it right. You’re close, but not quite there. Or you’re way off the mark. The way you’ve lived, the decisions you’ve made, the way you’ve treated others, the way you’ve presented yourself to the world—none of it aligns with your vision for yourself. You want to do better, not because you fear divine punishment, but because you feel in your heart you can do better. So, the next day you start to reshape your sculpture: new angles, new edges, new interplay of light and shadow, a different expression, a different posture. This opportunity to make changes, to try again, to reshape your life, is the path to “this-worldly redemption.” Rev. McTigue says, “Each time we take ourselves in hand and change our direction, ask forgiveness and start anew, we reaffirm our belief that we are redeemable.”[5] Each day we have the opportunity to exchange the life we needed to live yesterday for the life we need to live today.

Do we pay a price for this-worldly redemption? Sometimes. If the shaping of our lives today includes recognizing and acknowledging we were wrong yesterday, admitting we hurt someone yesterday, admitting we had a role to play in the breakdown of a relationship yesterday, then yes, one could argue we pay a price. One could argue that offering a heartfelt apology is the price we pay for forgiveness, and sometimes we don’t experience redemption until we’ve been forgiven. This works for me, nut I’m not convinced “paying a price” is a helpful way to think about this-worldly redemption. It reminds me of European elites in the Middle Ages purchasing indulgences to erase sinful behavior and thereby get into Heaven. It reminds me of wealthy corporations going to court, losing, paying a hefty fine—because they can—and then going back to business as usual. Paying a price doesn’t always guarantee a transformed life. Sometimes paying a price is a way of avoiding the work that redeems us. I prefer to imagine a sculptor shaping and reshaping their work, day in and day out. Not everyone can pay; but certainly we each have some capacity to shape and sculpt our lives.

Let me flip this around for a moment. If we each have this capacity; if we can be redeemed by the work of our own hands, what happens if we don’t pursue it? What happens if days and weeks and years go by and the sculptor hasn’t touched the sculpture, hasn’t even looked at it? You’ve brought nothing new to your work for a long time—no new ideas, no new feelings, no new experiences. You wake up and the last thing you want to do is the work of shaping a life. Your muse isn’t singing. At best you’re going through the motions of a life. You don’t feel creative. You lack desire. You’re stuck. Perhaps we call this depression, perhaps melancholy, sadness, despair, a funk, a rut; maybe it’s boredom. Maybe it’s genuine confusion about your direction in life. Maybe it’s fear you won’t succeed. Maybe it’s that generalized anxiety about the future so many people report these days. Whatever form it takes, this condition is real and common. Sometimes it emerges in response to a genuine crisis in one’s life: the death of a loved-one, the loss of work, the experience of violence or betrayal. Sometimes it emerges in response to the ways life can overwhelm us—too many obligations, too many hours at work, too many details, too many conflicts, too little self-care. Sometimes it’s culturally induced, as in those situations where certain cultural norms—norms for beauty, body-type, success, wealth, happiness, sexuality, family, mental health—seem unattainable. When we can’t reach them we feel diminished, unworthy, imperfect, unsavable and broken, even when we know such norms are arbitrary, unfair, manipulative and often racist, classist, sexist and homophobic.

Again, this experience is real and common. But it’s not destiny. The more I engage in ministry, the more I am convinced we each have a calling. We each have natural gifts. We each have something about which we are passionate—something that lights us up and energizes us, something that makes us come alive. Yes, it is very easy in our culture to grow distant from it. Yes, it is very easy to become alienated from it. But the self that lives in response to a sense of calling, in response to passion—that is our true self. That is the self we encounter in that internal place where our conviction resides, where our voice is strong, where we know our truth. This is who we really are. In those times when we grow distant from this self, it’s as if we’ve actually become someone else—someone we never intended to be. We’ve somehow allowed ourselves to be shaped by forces larger than ourselves into a life we never chose for ourselves. Perhaps we’ve been spiritually kidnapped or hijacked. No matter how we name it, in response to such alienation the work of redemption is the work of returning to our true self, the work of accepting and embracing who we really are, the work of pursuing our calling, the work of exchanging the sculptor who refuses to sculpt for one who welcomes each day as an opportunity to shape a life. In all those moments when we come back to our true self, we experience a life redeemed.

If this begins to answer the question, “What redeems you?”—and I hope it does—I also don’t want to lose the question, “What redeems us?” That is, what redeems us collectively? I raise this question because I believe there is much more to this-worldly redemption than the work of redeeming our individual lives. This is not a new message from this pulpit. We live in proximity to infuriating, entrenched and devastating social and economic injustices. We live in proximity to crushing poverty. We live in proximity to urban and suburban violence, domestic violence, gang violence and, despite Connecticut’s new gun laws, I think it’s fair to say we still live with the potential for mass shootings. We live in a time of war. We live suddenly again this week with the renewed threat of nuclear conflict. We live with the specter of environmental collapse. We live with all those false division between people, divisions of race, class, religion, sexuality, politics and on and on. And we live in the midst of immense suffering—not the kind that occurs naturally and inevitably in the course of human living, but the kind human beings visit upon each other, sometimes with calculated, malicious intent; sometimes simply by refusing to see it, by looking away, by calling it something else. All of this may have longstanding historical roots. All of this may have the shine or the stink of inevitability and intractability. All of this may point to some apparently fatal flaw in human nature. But none of it—none of it!—is right. None of it is acceptable. None of it is destiny. Unless we give up. But friends, giving up runs counter to the human spirit. Those who give up and accept the reality of oppression are either those who’ve been spiritually kidnapped or spiritually hijacked by greed, power or fear; or those who’ve accepted the lie that their suffering will be rewarded in some other life.

What redeems us in us in light of the reality of injustice and oppression are our collective efforts to subvert and transform them. What redeems us are our collective words and deeds that help shape a more just society. What redeems us are our collective attempts to build the beloved community.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Backside Redemption,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2011) pp. 42-44.

[2] Carlebach, Shlomo, “Return Again,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1011.

[3] McTigue, Shine and Shadow, p. 44.

[4] Ibid., p. 44.

[5] Ibid., p. 43.