Sexism: Still Way Too Normal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

feministTwo phenomena—women’s basic economic inequality and widespread sexual violence against women—should surprise nobody. They are well-documented and receive considerable media attention. For every dollar men earn in the United States, women on average earn 79 cents.[1] In 2012 18.3% of women reported having experienced rape at some point in their lives and 19% of female college students reported an experience of rape or attempted rape since entering college. [2] Yet huge swaths of American society at best pay no attention or pay attention but don’t care and, at worst, affirm the data as consistent with a conservative, patriarchal world-view—often articulated as God’s will—that assigns women a subordinate status to men and, while claiming to honor women, imagines them not as legitimate wage-earners, not as in control of their own bodies, not as self-determining, moral decision-makers, not as heads of families, but rather as, essentially, the property, the play-things, the servants of men. This may sound overstated, but the persistence of the wage gap, sexual violence, behavioral double standards for women in the workplace and politics, inequities in funding for sports programs, inequities in funding for health research, the hyper-sexualization of women throughout society, multi-billion dollar industries causing and then preying on women’s insecurities about body image, weight, and beauty, increasing rates of sex trafficking and other forms of slavery in every state in the union, and a constant wave of smaller, daily anti-woman indignities suggest to me that the old view of women as fundamentally less human than men remains inordinately powerful in society.

I searched for “feminism” on YouTube. For every solidly, pro-feminist video in the queue there were at least ten misinformed, misogynistic, Make America Great Again, anti-feminist rants. I’m not sure what that says about my algorithms, but I have no hesitancy in stating there is a war on women.

This sermon is about sexism, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to say it was not my idea. A large group of bidders who wanted me to preach on women’s issues won this sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. Rhiannon Smith and Linda Duncan led this group and have been forwarding articles and statistics to me for the past 6 months. Rhiannon said, “We applaud the recent attention given in Sunday services to racial injustices in light of current events. We think that gender injustices have received less attention but also are central to our social justice advocacy as UUs. Specifically, we would like for the service to focus on the marginalization of women in the workforce, politics, and other arenas of power. For example, the service might address the wage gap, the underrepresentation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and politics, micro-aggressions against women, the disproportionate amount of attention paid to female politicians’ clothing and appearance rather than their ideas, [and] demeaning female politicians in the media….  We had 26 contributors in support of this service, so clearly this is a topic of importance to many people.”

I have preached on racism many, many times. I have preached on homophobia, on transphobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism and on the experiences of people with disabilities. But I don’t remember ever preaching a straight up, let’s talk about sexism sermon. I have preached on issues understood historically as “women’s issues” such as abortion and sexual abuse. I’ve preached about violence against women, the plight of incarcerated women, the challenges facing the primarily female personal care assistant workforce, and the need for paid sick days, family medical leave, a higher minimum wage and gun control which can all be framed as women’s issues. But I cannot remember ever preaching a sermon with the word sexism in its title. I’m embarrassed to say this sermon was not my idea because it should have been—and it should have been a long time ago. I identify as a feminist. I believe sexism is real. I believe I understand sexism well for one who doesn’t experience it. I believe sexism must be confronted. I believe our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to confront it. I am grateful for being challenged to confront sexism in this way.

I’ve been reflecting on why preaching on sexism has felt less urgent to me than preaching on other oppressions. One reason is that Unitarian Universalism had made enormous strides in confronting its own sexism by the time I entered the ministry. Such confrontation began in earnest in 1977 when the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly passed the Women and Religion resolution.[3] One of the more immediate results of that resolution was the removal of sexist and male-centered language from our institutional life. One of its long-term results was the achievement of gender parity in the professional ministry by the late 1990s.[4] That achievement has fundamentally transformed Unitarian Universalism. As a man coming into a profession in 1999 where half my colleagues were women, I had to be attentive to sexist stereotypes and power imbalances in a way I wouldn’t have been if the ministry had continued as a primarily male profession. I know this because I hear my elder male colleagues talk about what it was like in the 60s and 70s. There was no expectation that they would pay attention to sexism, let alone pay attention to it in their ministries and in our faith. And as women started coming into the ministry, there was enormous tension. How do you include women in a club that has heretofore been vastly male?

A major, visible milestone we haven’t achieved in Unitarian Universalism is the election of a woman as UUA president. That glass ceiling will be shattered at the June, 2017 General Assembly when one of three women running for the position will be elected. Will we be a post-sexist religion at that point? No. In fact, once we’ve elected a woman president, we may very quickly become more aware of how deeply our sexism runs.

Another reason the struggle against sexism has felt less urgent to me is that in Unitarian Universalism I have always been surrounded by strong, outspoken, talented, insightful women. I’m not looking for points. I’m stating a fact. In the congregations I’ve served there have been women doctors, lawyers, athletes, writers, poets, politicians, policy-makers, activists, mathematicians, engineers, psychotherapists, college professors, soldiers, research scientists, marketers, computer programmers, IT specialists, ministers, business owners, photographers, sculptors, biologists, chemists and corporate leaders, not to mention many women working in more traditionally female roles as teachers, nurses, social workers, homeschoolers, and secretaries—and the vast majority of these women, while pursuing these careers, have been raising children, running households and volunteering at church in every role from Sunday morning greeter to congregation president. I’ve been surrounded by strong women, and I am clear that the success of my ministry has depended on their presence.

1960s and 70s second wave feminism envisioned women living, learning, working and earning in all the ways men were accustomed to living, learning, working and earning. While that vision certainly has not become a concrete reality for all women, I see evidence of it having come to fruition in the lives of many Unitarian Universalist women—in their education, careers, earning power relative to women of earlier generations, the life choices they’ve been able to make and their leadership roles in society. But it is precisely the success of that vision in the lives of many UU women that has dulled my sense of urgency around addressing sexism directly. The problem of sexism is slightly less visible here.

But it’s real, and I take it as a truth that regardless of any woman’s education, career, family planning decisions, race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability or age, all women encounter a bedrock sexism in our society. The more privileged a woman is, perhaps the more she is able to withstand sexism’s most pernicious effects—though even that isn’t a given—but I’m convinced no woman avoids it entirely. Sexism is still way too normal.

It’s not only in those big statistics: 79 cents to the man’s dollar; 1 in 5 women sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Sexism also resides in day-to-day experiences, little slights that add up to a gendered burden men don’t carry. Linda Duncan referred to this as the “social inequality” that comes with being a woman. She talked about micro-aggressions: harassment on the street and in the office; the assumption that women are overly emotional; the strong, decisive woman perceived as bitchy while her male counterpart is praised for the same behavior; the experience of offering a good idea, only to have it ignored until a man offers it a few minutes later; the hyper-focus on looks, clothes and weight; and the ubiquitous, “give me a smile, honey.”

Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s public art series, “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” is an effort to combat street harassment. “Starting in her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood,” quotes a 2013 Ms. Magazine article, “Fazlalizadeh has peppered walls with black-and-white drawings of brazenfaced women accompanied by bold slogans such as, ‘Women are not outside for your entertainment.’ When a man tells a woman to smile,” says Fazlalizadeh, “he’s expecting her to entertain him. ‘It’s the same as saying, Dance for me; jump for me. Smile is never really a question; it’s a command.’”[5] Even if the man who asks a woman to smile believes he’s just being friendly, he is still telling her what to do with her body.

I found a video on You Tube by a young women named Whitney Way Thore telling the story of trying to buy a pack of gum at a convenient store. The clerk told her to smile. She was angry. People suggested he was just trying to be helpful. She pointed out that helping typically doesn’t require the one being helped to do something for the helper. “I want to help you, so let me tell you what to do with your body.” Thore calls it a “manipulative power play.”[6]

It’s a manifestation of that old, patriarchal world-view that says women are property, playthings, servants. The man may not even realize he’s acting out of that world-view, but he doesn’t need to know. It’s still operating. For women it is exhausting.

Why, because in all these situations women have to make a calculation. Am I safe? Should I say something? Should I ignore it? Should I confront it? Is it me? That’s the gendered burden men don’t carry—the stress of having to calculate. Often the easiest, safest path is non-confrontation, finding some way to de-escalate the situation, but that takes a toll too. In an article for Huffpost Women entitled “That Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About,” blogger Gretchen Kelly says, “We have all learned, either by instinct or by trial and error, how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable. How to avoid angering a man or endangering ourselves. We have all, on many occasions, ignored an offensive comment. We’ve all laughed off an inappropriate come-on. We’ve all swallowed our anger when being belittled or condescended to. It doesn’t feel good. It feels icky. Dirty. But we do it because to not do it could put us in danger or get us fired or labeled a bitch. So we usually take the path of least precariousness.”[7] In an article in The Guardian Thursday entitled “The Struggle to Speak Up: How Women Are Pushed to De-escalate Sexist Incidents,” Rose Hackman says “To the initial weight of having to deal with … acts of dominance is the added mental drain of having to evaluate how best to deal with it and not risk a violent backlash. De-escalating is just another form of the “emotional work” women provide with little recognition of its ongoing exertion and toll.”[8]

Earlier we heard Jenn Richard sing Ani DiFranco’s “Not a Pretty Girl.” This is a resistance song—a declaration of non-compliance with sexism, a proclamation that she refuses to play the roles society assigns to women. “I am not a pretty girl, / That is not what I do. / I ain’t no damsel in distress, / And I don’t need to be rescued.”[9] Taking a cue from this song, why not as individuals and as a congregation adopt an attitude and a posture and a program of resistance to sexism? Many of us already resist in big and small ways. Why not be more explicit, more intentional? Why not proclaim and celebrate our resistance? Why not say, “anti-sexism is central to who we are?”

Unitarian Universalism has made great strides in addressing its own sexism. But knowing that our past achievements can dull our sense of urgency, let’s take a bold new look at ourselves, a deeper look: how might sexism be operating in our collective life? Let’s commit to being a place where women don’t have to calculate, aren’t responsible for the emotional work of de-escalating sexism, and can name it not only without fear of repercussion, but with the expectation that people will want to learn more. And let’s be a place where men are encouraged to take on the gendered burden, where men are skilled in anti-sexist language and behavior and know strategies for resistance as allies to women. And let’s be a place where we have those nuanced conversations, where we understand how different women experience sexism differently—how sexism is different for white women than it is for women of color, different for straight women than it is for lesbians, different for trans women, poor women, rich women, developing nation women, women with disabilities, women with and without children, married women, unmarried women, divorced women, elder women, young women, girls, fat women, skinny women—let’s strive to understand the many ways different women experience sexism.

And let’s develop a women’s social justice platform. We have platforms for racial justice, GLBT justice, environmental justice. We ought to have a  women’s justice platform including equal pay for equal work, an end to sexual and other forms of violence, paid sick days and family medical leave, a living wage, an end to the taxation of menstrual products and diapers, reproductive choice and full access to reproductive health services and information and—relevant to CT politics during the recent legislative session—knowing that a woman is five times more likely to be murdered by a partner when the partner owns a gun, a women’s justice platform must include removal of all guns from the partner’s possession if a judge grants a woman a restraining order, even if that restraining order is temporary.

Let’s look out into the wider community at the organizations that are doing anti-sexist and women’s justice work and figure out ways to partner with them. And if we find that there are many different organizations working on many different women’s issues, let’s be part of the effort to unite them, so that we can resist together, transform together—so that there is a clear, unmistakable, unapologetic social justice movement for women. Let’s be fully in the movement to end sexism here and everywhere.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Hill, Catherine, “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap”  (The American Association of University Women, Spring, 2016) p. 7. See: http://www.aauw.org/files/2016/02/SimpleTruth_Spring2016.pdf.

[2] “Sexual Violence: Facts as a Glance,” Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention, 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/sv-datasheet-a.pdf.

[3] See the text of the 1977 UUA business resolution, “Women and Religion” at http://www.uua.org/statements/women-and-religion.

[4]For more on the long-term impact of the Women and Religion resolution, see French, Kimberly, “Thirty years of feminist transformation: The 1977 Women and Religion resolution transformed the Unitarian Universalist Association” UU World (Summer, 2007): http://www.uuworld.org/articles/thirty-years-feminist-transformation.

[5] Little, Anita, “If These Walls Could Talk: Fighting Harassment With Street Art,” Ms. Magazine, Fall, 2013. See: http://www.msmagazine.com/Fall2013/national.html.

[6] Thore, Whitney Way, “Stop Telling Me to Smile.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RWz9D0166k.

[7] Kelly, Gretchen, “That Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About,” Huffpost Women, November 23, 2015. See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gretchen-kelly/the-thing-all-women-do-you-dont-know-about_b_8630416.html#sthashSvFmyyeWdpuf.

[8] Hackman, Rose, “The Struggle to Speak Up: How Women Are Pushed to De-escalate Sexist Incidents,” The Guardian, May 12, 2016. See: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/12/women-sexual-harrassment-sexism-deescalation?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail.

[9] DiFranco, Annie, “Not a Pretty Girl.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cZ-nAfSkW4&list=RD3cZ-nAfSkW4#t=50.

For Gravity’s Sake

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Did you feel it? I didn’t either.

4-3 gravitational wavesIn the new issue of Smithsonian Magazine, physicist Brian Greene writes: “More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two black holes executed the final steps in a fast-footed pas de deux, concluding with a final embrace so violent it released more energy than the combined output of every star in every galaxy in the observable universe. Yet, unlike starlight, the energy was dark, being carried by the invisible force of gravity. On September 14, 2015, at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, a fragment of that energy, in the form of a ‘gravitational wave,’ reached Earth, reduced by its vast transit across space and time to a mere whisper of its thunderous beginning.”[1] This was not the first time gravitational waves have grazed or graced our planet, but it was the first time scientists detected it. It took fifteen months to determine the data were accurate, but on February 11th, 2016, scientists announced the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), operating identical detection systems simultaneously in Louisiana and Washington, had detected a gravitational wave emanating from the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago on the other side of the universe. [2]

When they pass by a planet or person, gravitational waves squeeze in one direction, and in a perpendicular direction they pull. How often does something more than a billion years old give you a squeeze and a pull?

For a brief explanation of the discovery of gravitational waves, check out Brian Greene’s video: 

I knew immediately I wanted to address this in a sermon. Our theme for April is creation, and that seemed an appropriate time. Historically creation is a reference to the earth, the sun, moon, stars, waters, dry land, plants, trees, fish, animals, human beings—everything God is said to have created in the book of Genesis. I use creation in the broadest sense possible, as a name for all there is, all existence, everything—the visible and the invisible, the near and the far, the new and the ancient. And here comes this invisible ripple in the fabric of space-time—its size a billionth of the diameter of an atom—gently squeezing us in one direction and pulling us in another. Our bodies don’t sense it, but now we have tools that can detect this very slight, very subtle, but very real movement across creation. “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” said an ancient Hebrew priest. Gravitational waves likely weren’t what he had in mind, but there it is, sweeping over us. The universe speaking? [3]

I want to offer some reflections on gravity as a way to deepen the message of my sermon from two weeks ago. In that sermon I spoke about how the modern world—specifically the Western industrialized nations—separated mind from body and separated divinity from the earth after humans had lived for millennia without such separations. In that sermon I offered prayers that we may learn to reunite mind and body, that we may learn to experience divinity present in the earth. I said, “May ours be a religion that gently sinks its people into intimate relationship with Nature, intimate relationship with the divine earth—a relationship that is the ancestral birthright of [us all].”[4]

I named René Descartes and Francis Bacon as two of the leading philosophers of modern science—people responsible for advancing these separations. I did not name Isaac Newton who is often identified as the symbol of Western science. According to science historian, Morris Berman, “Newton defined the method of science itself, the notions of hypothesis and experiment, and the techniques that were to make rational mastery of the environment a viable intellectual exercise.”[5] But there was something different about Newton. Not only did he help invent a whole new way of doing science and a whole new way of understanding Nature—my fourth grader just completed a unit on Newton’s Laws; and not only did he discover gravity; but he was also deeply immersed in the ancient scientific traditions—Occultism, Hermeticism, Alchemy. The 20th-century British economist John Maynard Keynes said “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”[6]

Today, if we learn about alchemy at all, we learn it was spurious, late medieval attempt to turn lead into gold, or to create an elixir to prolong life. It never worked. But this begs a question: if it didn’t work, why was it around for some many hundreds of years? What accounted for its staying power? There was much more to alchemy than these fantastic quests.[7] For my purposes here, it’s enough to know that alchemists did not understand themselves as disembodied observers of the natural world. More to the point, they weren’t observers in the sense that we understand that word today. They were participants. They did not experience a mind-body separation, nor did they experience a separation between themselves and the materials with which they worked. To them, all matter possessed Mind—its own kind of consciousness. Some refer to alchemy as “the search for the God-head in matter.” Everything was alive, and the alchemist was part of it. As they sought to transform matter, they expected themselves to be transformed in the process. Berman says “the alchemist did not confront matter; he permeated it.”[8] Apparently Isaac Newton subscribed to this archaic world-view, and took his role as a steward of the ancient practices quite seriously.

But alchemy’s ascendency also ended with Newton. He lived in an age of great social disruption, class conflict, revolution and war in England. Apparently the more ancient and occult world-views, including alchemy, aligned with the more radical and revolutionary political views. When the English monarchy was restored to power in the 1660s, it became dangerous for anyone to espouse radical and revolutionary views, whether political or scientific. In this climate, the ruling elites saw the new modern science—what they called the mechanical philosophy—as an antidote to the radicalism of the previous decades.[9] A vision of an ordered, mechanical universe translated into an ordered, mechanical society. As a highly public figure, Newton hid his affinity for alchemy and the occult. This affinity was only discovered when his private manuscripts were made public many years later. According to Berman, Newton delved “deeply into the Hermetic wisdom for his answers, while clothing them in the idiom of the mechanical philosophy. The centerpiece of the Newtonian system, gravitational attraction, was in fact the Hermetic principle of sympathetic forces, which Newton saw as a creative principle, a source of divine energy in the universe. Although he presented this idea in mechanical terms, his unpublished writings reveal his commitment to the cornerstone of all occult systems: the notion that mind exists in matter.”[10]

I didn’t know this about Newton. Learning it now, I find it highly ironic that a person who regarded himself as a steward of ancient wisdom, as a magician—a person who sensed God in matter—would become synonymous with a view of Nature and the universe as cold, inert, inanimate, orderly and vast. As physicist Joel Primack and science historian Nancy Ellen Abrams say in their book, The View from the Center of the Universe, after Newton, “the universe that had once felt like a great cathedral filled with angels had vanished, and infinite reaches loomed.”[11] Human beings had lived for millennia with a sense of belonging and confidence because they experienced themselves as intimately embedded in a universe filled with divinity. Now they began to experience existential terror in response to a universe seen as infinite or at least incomprehensively large, almost empty, and with no inherent purpose.”[12] “No place was special,” they say. “There was no secure foothold in the universe, no anchor…. Physics claimed to define physical reality, yet it treated human beings like objects, and those objects were left wondering whether anything in the universe recognized them as more than that. Perhaps they were just a random occurrence on an average planet in a vast and uncaring scheme of things.”[13] “The Newtonian picture left humans drifting in a kind of cosmic homelessness that persists to this day.”[14]

Some might call this sense of cosmic homelessness excessively bleak. Others might call it ‘overdone,’ something only philosophers experience. Obviously not every human being feels it. If anything, humans more commonly feel existential terror in response to more immediate concerns: war, migration, the climate crisis, violence, etc. So perhaps cosmic homelessness isn’t such a big deal. However, it is also true that 325 years since Newton published his Principia, many of us are used to the picture of the universe physics paints. To the extent we can grasp it, we’re used to its impersonal vastness. We’re used to our smallness. We’re even used to the conclusion that there is no larger purpose. Of course, many people don’t accept the astronomers’ conclusions and never have. They continue to resist the idea of a meaningless universe. Billions across the planet still take refuge in other-worldly religious visions, still bow down to a commanding, disembodied God, still look forward to a non-physical eternity in Heaven. As such they still help perpetuate the great separations of modernity—the separation of body and mind, and the separation divinity from the earth.

These separations are hurting us. We need a new alchemy for our time. I included in our liturgy this morning Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “When Something Comes to Me at My Window,” and Heather McHugh’s poem “A Physics,” because, for me, they begin to name an alternative to both cosmic homelessness and anti-scientific blind faith in a disembodied God. They gently sink us into intimate relationship with Nature. They blur the lines between us and Nature. They embrace what the body experiences. And they both start with a reverent shout-out to gravity. “How surely gravity’s law,” says Rilke, “strong as an ocean current, / takes hold of even the smallest thing / and pulls it toward the heart of the world.”[15] McHugh is more veiled. “When you get down to it,” she says. And then the lines between us and Nature blur. “Earth / has our great ranges / of feeling—Rocky, Smoky, Blue— / and a heart that can melt stones. / The still pools fill with sky, / as if aloof, and we have eyes / for all of this—and more, for Earth’s / reminding moon. We too are ruled / by such attractions—spun and swaddled, / rocked and lent a light.”[16] She seems to know something of what the alchemists knew.

Rilke challenges the idea of a disembodied existence. “Only we, in our arrogance,” he says, “push out beyond what we each belong to / for some empty freedom.”[17] And McHugh, though not exactly challenging, clearly sees God as somewhere else. “The whole / idea of love was not to fall. And neither was / the whole idea of God. We put him well / above ourselves, because we meant, / in time, to measure up.”[18] But gravity is real, and we do fall. I think McHugh is saying we’ll never measure up, and if anything, we need to measure down, get down to it, let gravity works its magic, pull God off the pedestal, squeeze God out of disembodied existence, out of other-worldly heaven, out of the judgement seat, out of timelessness into this time, into the body of this world, into the energy of this life. Rilke says, “like children, we begin again / to learn from the things, / because they are in God’s heart; they have never left.”[19] This is an alchemical vision for our time. And McHugh says, “We want the suns and moons of silver in ourselves.”[20] This is an alchemical vision for our time.  

And if this alchemy is still too mired in words, still too abstract, still leaves you wondering, “yes, but how shall I live?” perhaps there’s a lesson in Gary Short’s poem, “Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders,” in the image of a teacher endlessly kicking playground balls to his students at recess. “The balls rise like planets / and the 3rd graders / circle dizzily beneath the falling sky, / their arms outstretched.”[21] That’s how we ought to live: with joy and outstretched arms, awaiting our playground balls—whatever they may be—as they, like we, are pulled gently towards the heart of the world.

There is mighty work ahead. My next two sermons will name what this work is. This reunification of body and mind, of earth and divinity—it is the work of generations. It is work we are doing and must continue to do. And don’t be surprised, if in the midst of this work, you find yourself transformed into something more whole, like an alchemist, such that even your senses work differently, and you awake one fine morning, and you just know—because your body now knows—an ancient wave, rippling its way across the universe has just passed by, has just touched you, has squeezed you and pulled you, softly, as if to say “I know you’re there,” and then continued on its endless way.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Greene, Brian, “The Detection of Gravitational Waves Was a Scientific Breakthrough, but What’s Next?” Smithsonian Magazine, April, 2016. See: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/detection-gravitational-waves-breakthrough-whats-next-180958511/.

[2] Brian Greene Explains the Discovery of Gravitational Waves: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s06_jRK939I.

[3] In addition to Brian Green’s article in Smithsonian Magazine, see also MacDonald, Fiona, “It’s Official: Gravitational Waves Have Been Detected, Einstein Was Right,” Science Alert, Feb. 11, 2016, http://www.sciencealert.com/live-update-big-gravitational-wave-announcement-is-happening-right-now; and Krauss, Lawrence, “Finding Beauty in the Darkness,” New York Times, Feb. 11th, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/finding-beauty-in-the-darkness.html?_r=0.

[4] Pawelek, Josh, “I Am Lush Land and Rugged Rock,” a sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, March 20, 2016: http://uuse.org/i-am-lush-land-and-rugged-rock/#.VvwLLKQrKhc.

[5] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 107.

[6] Quoted in Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 108.

[7] C. G. Jung famously explores the depth and breadth of alchemy in his Collected Works, specifically Vol. 12, Psychology and Alchemy, Vol. 13, Alchemical Studies, and Vol. 14, Mysterium Coniunctionis.

[8] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 82.

[9] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 114.

[10] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 115.

[11] Primack, Joel and Abrams, Nancy Ellen, The View from the Center of the Universe (New York: Riverhead Books, 2006) pp. 80.

[12] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, p. 83.

[13] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, pp. 80-81.

[14] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, p. 82.

[15] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “When Something Comes to Me By My Window,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, trs., Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999) p. 116.

[16] McHugh, Heather, “A Physics,” in Keillor, Garrison, ed., Good Poems (New York: Penguin, 2005) p. 103.

[17] Rilke, Book of Hours, p. 116.

[18] McHugh, Good Poems, p. 103.

[19] Rilke, Book of Hours, p. 116-117.

[20] McHugh, Good Poems, p. 103.

[21] Short, Gary, “Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders.” See: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/03/29.

I Am Lush Land and Rugged Rock

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Lush Land and Rugged RockThis past week I’ve been in Boston at a meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Board of Trustees. Every morning, prior to commencing our work, we worship. One morning my colleague Jennifer Ryu was our worship leader. When we entered the worship space, there were no chairs. (Imagine how you might feel if you entered the UUS:E sanctuary on Sunday morning and discovered no chairs!) Jen’s plan was for us to stand for worship—and not only stand but move around the room, stretch, dance. We might call this “embodied worship.” Jen wanted us to get out of our heads. She wanted us to move, sense and feel more than think and analyze. She concluded the service with the poem, ‘For the Senses,” by the Irish priest and poet, John O’Donohue. “May the touch of your skin / Register the beauty / Of the otherness / That surrounds you.” Jen’s embodied worship felt strange, yes, but even more strangely familiar. Since the turn of the year I find myself increasingly drawn to a theology of embodiment. It has been pushing and pulling at me, poking up at me like spring-time crocuses. It’s as if the universe has been speaking to me about embodiment. On some days it has been quite vocal in its desire to get my attention. Embodiment keeps showing up when I’m least expecting it—in books I’m reading, in music I’m listening to, in random conversations, in my dreams. Those of you taking the adult religious education class on Thomas Moore’s book know that our next session is all about the body and Eros! So when Jen offered embodied worship, there it was again.

We human beings are part of Nature—intimately part of it. Not above it, beyond it, or distant from it, but part of it, participating in it, in relationship to it. This relationship is not abstract, not a purely intellectual concept. It isn’t enough simply to proclaim our seventh Unitarian Universalist principle, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” and be done with it. This relationship is visceral, sensuous. We experience it in and with our bodies. It is solid, concrete. We can touch it, hold it, taste it, smell it, see it. We are rooted in Nature, embedded in Nature. We are subject to its whims and fancies, blown by its winds, drenched by its rains, scorched by its fires, parched by its droughts. Its bounty sates our hunger. Its waters quench our thirst. Its nearest star warms our backs and gives us life. Its beauty calms and buoys are spirits. Its gravity draws us ever downward to the earth.

Nevertheless, in practice we modern people of the industrialized western nations have a difficult and confusing relationship with Nature. On one hand we love it, we revel in it, we praise it in poetry and hymns. On the other hand we consume Nature voraciously. We manipulate, exploit, brutalize and destroy it. How can these essentially opposite approaches to Nature live together so seamlessly in us? There are two reasons—we might say two sins. One is the separation of the mind from the body. The other is the separation of divinity from the earth. I fear we cannot fully live as intimate participants in Nature until we atone for these two sins.

A few reflections on mind-body separation. We know mind and body are not separate. Every self-appointed self-help authority from here to Xanadu says this all the time. Modern day mystics, healers, yogis, swamis, gurus, sages, TED talkers, therapists, Unitarian Universalist ministers and many other spiritual personalities will tell you there’s no separation between mind and body. Anyone who practices yoga has some inkling of this non-separateness. But at some point in our history mind and body became separate, and despite our best intentions, they’ve never been fully reunited. Modern science helped create this separation. In fact, the 17th-century philosophical innovation that enabled the emergence of modern science in western Europe was the separation of mind from body. Modern science assumed a disembodied human mind that could float above Nature and know it through impartial observation. Cogito ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am,” said René Descartes in 1637.[1] Not, “I feel.” Not, “I sense.” Feelings and senses could deceive and thus could not serve as a reliable source of knowledge. But the mind could reason, and if it did so according to certain, basic rules—the scientific method—the mind could know everything. According to science historian Morris Berman, “the idea that [we] can know all there is to know by way of … reason, included for Descartes the assumption that mind and body, subject and object, were radically disparate entities. Thinking, it would seem, separates me form the world I confront. I perceive my body and its functions, but ‘I’ am not my body.”[2]

The mind-body split had profound implications for how human beings related to Nature. Human beings stopped understanding themselves as participating in Nature and began to locate themselves—at least their knowing minds—outside of Nature. And this meant we could essentially do whatever we wanted to Nature in the quest to gain knowledge. In 1620 Francis Bacon—another architect of modern science—said “the secrets of nature reveal themselves more readily under vexations … than when they go their own way.”[3] Morris Berman says Bacon’s statement is remarkable, “for it suggests for the first time that the knowledge of nature comes about under artificial conditions. Vex nature, disturb it, alter it, anything—but do not leave it alone. Then, and only then, will you know it.” A scientific experiment is, in other words, “an artificial situation in which nature’s secrets are extracted, as it were, under duress.”[4]

I suspect I sound very anti-science. Please know I am not anti-science. As the child of a scientist, I have a deep appreciation for the scientific method. As the father of a child whose life was saved by what were then fairly recent advances in modern surgery and medicine, I have a soft spot in my heart for the science that produced those innovations. Hooray for science! Hooray for the insight that human beings could develop knowledge about Nature, about the world, about how things work through a method that requires stepping back and observing, that requires the artificial conditions of experimentation. Science has given us so much: sailing ships, steam engines, automobiles, airplanes, telephones, televisions, lightbulbs, lasers, semi-conductors, computers, artificial intelligence, the internet, rockets, robots, modern medicine. To be sure, the fruits of science’s advances do not extend to every person on the planet, but for those who benefit, the results have been life-saving and life-extending.

But there is that “other hand.” We have vexed Nature unceasingly, vexed the earth relentlessly. We are witnessing the evidence of that vexation in rising global temperatures and sea levels, monster storms, multi-year draughts, massive fires. At some point, human beings experimented with oil, natural gas and coal and gained a certain kind of knowledge: we can burn this stuff in power plants to create cheap energy! They were correct. But their knowledge was limited and short-sighted. Understanding how to unlock the energy stored in carbon did not provide knowledge of the long-term atmospheric consequences of using that energy on mass scale. It turns out the observations of the disembodied mind were not so objective after all, and  we are paying for it now, precisely because our minds and our bodies are one, and our bodies are feeling the climate crisis.

The first sin goes hand-in-hand with the second, the separation of divinity from the earth. Modern science wasn’t the first discipline to suggest a disembodied, distant observer with the power to manipulate Nature. Religion did it first, though at a relatively late date in human history. For the vast span of human life on the planet gods and goddesses lived right here on earth, infusing everything, enchanting everything, making everything alive, filling everything with power, even with consciousness. Divinity was part of Nature, participated in Nature, related to Nature. The gods and goddesses were earth-based. They were as material as anything else. And in response, human beings lived as participants in Nature, were rooted in Nature, were subject to its whims and fancies, blown by its winds, drenched by its rains, scorched by its fires, parched by its droughts.

Slowly, a new theology emerged and took hold in various places. 4,000 years ago, 3,000 years ago. At its center was a sky god, a war god, a god from another realm—above, beyond, distant, controlling —a god not of matter but of spirit. That god emerged often for political reasons, often for the sake of conquest. Maybe at times that god took a human form, lived among humans, died among humans and—miracle of miracles—was resurrected among humans—lived again—but didn’t stay on earth!—but still ultimately left the material body behind, ascended to Heaven, gave up participation in Nature, and in doing so, cemented in human minds the idea that our physical bodies don’t matter. What mattered was disembodied spirit.

The strict monotheistic religions were most likely to preach this message. Their followers learned to view Nature as mere matter that did not possess spirit—was cold, inert, dead, and thus by definition corrupt and profane. Nature was dangerously sensual, not spiritual. Likewise, the human body, as mere matter, was corrupt and profane; its passions and desires were to be avoided and even feared. In such religious systems humans felt God’s presence, but God lived somewhere else. Humans couldn’t go there, so they imagined elaborate schemes of salvation to get there at the end of life, or at the end of time, when they were no longer matter, when the body had returned to the earth, and only disembodied spirit remained. Indeed, even today, the great monotheistic faiths offer the life of disembodied spirit as real life, and contend this flesh-and-blood life, this sensual life, this felt life, this bodily life is an illusion to overcome.

“I am lush land and rugged rock,” writes Jezibell Anat in her meditation, “Gaia”—as I interpret it, a modern day challenge to any religion that would strip the earth of divinity, that would identify as corrupt and profane our human bodies and the land that sustains us.  I am “the massive, monumental Mother. / I am the founding force, / the germinating ground. / Touch me, / I am soft as moss and hard as diamond / …. Stand on me, I will sustain you. / Dig your roots into me, I will nourish you…. / I am the abundance of fertile fields, / the beauty of golden lilies / …. I am the rotting vine, / the moldy grain, / …. All matter returns to me, / for I am renewal. / I am the sphere of the seasons. / when your span has ended, / I will bring you home.” [5]  I cannot, in the end, experience this life and this earth as an illusion. This life and this earth, are too precious, too dear, to beautiful, too real.

Humanity has been struggling for generations to atone for the sins of separation. We, Unitarian Universalists, people of liberal faith, must continue to do our part, and today is a good day to recommit. Spring arrives today. We’ve sung songs about the earth, about Gaia, about Mother and Grandmother. We’ve called out to the four directions, aligned ourselves on the face of the planet—a powerful act of embodiment. Yes, a snowstorm is coming—winter lingers—but spring arrives today! We know from experience the earth is about to come back to life, to be reborn, to bud, to blossom, to bloom, to shine forth in 1,000 shades of green, to turn moist and fragrant and beautiful. A disembodied mind might wonder if this is an illusion, might imagine ways to test it, but our bodies encounter it with every available sense and know it is real and worthy of our reverence.

Spring arrives today! May ours be a religion as much for the body as for the mind. May ours be a religion that honors and reveres the physical, the sensual, the felt, the touched, the seen, the heard, the tasted, the held. Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion that promotes embodiment, that invites us and teaches us to live fully in our bodies, to worship with our bodies, to work with our bodies; to move, dance, sing, drum, prepare food, plant seeds, stretch, sit still—fully attentive and fully in our bodies. Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion that prays not only with words but with movement—clearing the ground of winter’s detritus, picking up sticks, raking, digging in dirt.  Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion that urges us to register, in the touch of our skin, the beauty of the otherness that surrounds us.[6]

Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion that meets us here in this world, in this life—not in some other world, in some other life. Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion whose mission is to knit mind and body more fully together for the sake of saving lives now, not at the end of time. Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion that witnesses and discovers and proclaims and knows the sacredness of the earth, the holiness of the earth. May ours be a religion that asserts our ancient ancestors’ faith in the divine sun, the divine moon, the divine ground, the divine fields, the divine fish, the divine animals, the divine forests, the divine seasons—a religion whose psalms announce: “I am lush land and rugged rock!”

Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion that gently sinks its people into intimate relationship with Nature, intimate relationship with the divine earth—a relationship that is the ancestral birthright of all of us. Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion that assures its people as they gaze up into the night sky and witness the light of 100 billion stars, no matter how small and insignificant they may feel, this earth, this sacred, holy, divine earth is home. Spring arrives today. We are home. Your body knows. Our bodies know. The great body, the “massive, monumental Mother,” of which we are all a part, knows.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] René Descartes’ Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences was originally published in 1637.

[2] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 21.

[3] Bacon, Francis, New Organon, Book I, Aphorism XCVIII, in Dick, Hugh G., ed., Selected Writings of Francis Bacon (New York: The Modern Library, 1955).

[4] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 17.

[5] Anat, Jezibell, “Gaia,” in Janamanchi Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 28-29.

[6] This is a reference to John O’Donohue’s poem, “For the Senses.”

February 2016 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

Do you have a friend or acquaintance who lives in the Greater Manchester area who you think is a Unitarian Universalist but just doesn’t know it yet? Do you have a friend or acquaintance who lives in either Hartford or Tolland County who you think would identify closely with the Unitarian Universalist principles? Do you have a friend or acquaintance who would thrive in the midst of a loving, liberal religious community? Do you have a child who has a friend who you think would like the religious education program at UUS:E? If your answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then I highly encourage you to invite that friend or acquaintance to join all of us at UUS:E on February 14 for worship and the Chocolate auction.

Unitarian Universalism has a long-standing love-hate relationship with evangelism. Because we UUs refuse to identify our faith as the one, true faith, and because we hold deep respect for other religions, we have often not felt a strong need to spread our “good news.” We’ve relied on those who might appreciate Unitarian Universalism to find us on their own. This is important: we don’t proselytize. We don’t try to impose our faith on others. We pursue interfaith relationships and value religious pluralism, rather than anxiously trying to convert others to our way of believing. However, it is also true that we have good news. It is also true that our principles can save lives. It is also true that the world needs our message of freedom, reason, acceptance, compassion and love. So why not tell others about Unitarian Universalism? Why not invite others in?

Last June the UUS:E Policy Board commissioned a “Growth Team” to develop strategies for growing our congregation specifically, and for growing Unitarian Universalism more broadly. Jason Corsa and Peggy Gagne chair the team. Members include Nancy Pappas, Carol Marion, Michelle Spadaccini, Beth Zambrano, Louisa Graver, Jean Knapp and me. One thing is clear: if we want to grow, we’re going to need to talk to others about our faith. This makes sense. Most experts on church growth will tell you that for congregations of all sizes, the most reliable path to growth is “word of mouth.” If you’re excited about your faith community, then others will be too. Having a good website with up-to-date information also makes a difference, but there is nothing like a face-to-face invitation to make a person feel welcome in your faith community. We’ve designated February 14 as “Bring a Friend to Church” Sunday. I encourage everyone to do just that: invite a friend (or acquaintance) to join you at UUS:E for worship, and then stay for the chocolate auction. Invite a friend or acquaintance who isn’t part of a faith community already. Invite someone who already possesses liberal religious values. Invite someone who may be lonely or looking for community. Invite them.

We’re working on some incentives. We will offer a certain amount of “UUS:E Bucks” to be spent at the Chocolate Auction to everyone who brings a friend on the 14th. But even if your friend can’t make it then, invite them for another Sunday. And even if you can’t think of anyone to invite on the 14th, keep looking. Consider every Sunday to be “Bring a Friend to Church” Sunday. Because we do have good news—news that saves lives—news that matters in a hurting world. There is no reason to keep it a secret!

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

 

With love,

Rev. Josh

January 2016 Minister’s Column

Hallelujah

Dear Ones:

By most accounts, January takes its name from the somewhat obscure, ancient Roman god, Janus. Scholars refer to Janus as the two-headed god, the god of beginnings, the god of transitions, the god of doors and entryways. The Greek author Plutarch of Chaeronea once said that the doors of Janus’ shrine were kept open in times of war, and closed in times of peace.

If I have my facts correct, Janus is one of the older gods in the Roman pantheon, and there is little written about him that survives to this day. Thus, much of what scholars and others say about him is speculation. Nevertheless, there he is—at least in the name of our first month—presiding over the transition from one year to the next. One could argue—and many do—there is nothing particularly special about January 1st, that the transition from December 31st to January 1st is no more significant than, say, the transition from March 2nd to March 3rd, or the transition from August 27th to August 28th. There’s an arbitrariness to the assignment of New Year’s Day to January 1st. As the Rev. Kathleen McTigue has said, “The first of January is another day dawning, the sun rising as the sun always rises.” New Year’s Day could have been any day, really.

But maybe that isn’t the point. Maybe the point is that transitions matter whenever they happen. Maybe the point is that we ought to pay special attention to the big transitions in our lives, because they have a spiritual—even sacred—quality to them. Contemplate the major transitions in your life: moving from one location to another, choosing when and how to be educated (or not), choosing a career (or not), getting married (or not), having children (or not), ending a marriage, watching children come of age, watching children leave home (or not), experiencing the death of a loved one, changing one’s world view or values, changing one’s religion. Transitions shake us up, force us to encounter the world differently, wake us up to aspects of reality we may not have noticed before. They require us to grow, sometimes in painful ways—ways we just as soon would rather avoid. We certainly carry ourselves with us across the major thresholds of our lives, but we’re never entirely the same person when we finally arrive on the other side. That change, that growth, that transformation of ourselves is what feels spiritual and sacred to me. So let’s pay attention to how we are changing. It matters.

This puts me in a prayerful mood. Hello January, beginning of the year. Hello Janus, god of beginnings. Hello Janus, god of doorways. Hello Janus, god of transitions. Hello Janus: if nothing else, you are the symbol of all the hopes and fears we attach to the transitions in our lives—those we’ve faced in the past, those we face today, those we know we shall face in the future. Hello Janus: if nothing else, you are a reminder that our lives, as much as we may love them, will not and cannot stay the same forever. As this new year dawns, may we welcome the transitions of our lives with grace and dignity. May we embrace the transitions of our lives with courage and strength. May we enter into the transitions of our lives with faith that though we may be different once we’ve arrived on the other side, we will also be wiser and more compassionate for having crossed. May we transition well.

Amen and blessed be.            Rev. Joshua Pawelek

With love,

Rev. Josh

Now Thank We All Our God

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Rev. Martin Rinkart

Rev. Martin Rinkart

“Now thank we all our God.”[1] Let me tell you the story of the Rev. Martin Rinkart who wrote the original German words to this hymn in 1636. I’m basing my telling of this story on a 2011 sermon[2] by the Rev. Ian Poulton, a priest in the Church of Ireland. I haven’t tried to verify the facts as Poulton presents them, but I do see that the same story is told in a variety of places. Even if the story has been exaggerated over time, even if what I share is only partially true, it still ought to make us pause and wonder what it means to have a grateful heart.

Martin Rinkart was born in 1586 in Leipzig, about 90 miles southwest of Berlin. At age 15 he began studying theology at the University of Leipzig. He became a Lutheran pastor in his early twenties. Poulton says he was regarded as a better musician than a pastor, but he persisted in the Lutheran ministry and held a variety of positions in the region early in his career. In 1617, at age 31, he became pastor at a church in the small city of Eilenburg to the northeast of Leipzig. If you know anything about this era in European history, you might know that 1618 saw the commencement of the Thirty Years’ War, a complicated and brutal war which ended in 1648. Rinkart died in 1649, having served for the duration of the war at the Eilenberg church. That is, he did ministry in a war zone for 31 years.

Here I am quoting Poulton directly: “The war was beyond the understanding of most ordinary people, all they knew was that army after army laid the countryside bare, having no regard for the welfare of civilian populations. Famine and disease became widespread; farms, livestock and crops had been destroyed and weak and hungry people had no resistance against illness. The war was to reduce the male population of Germany by almost half, in total almost a third of the people in the German states lost their lives, mostly through hunger and illness.

By 1636, Martin Rinkart was the only pastor left in Eilenburg. The walled city had become a place filled with refugees, who brought with them further infection to add to that already present, and who placed further strain upon the town’s desperately short food supplies.

The refugees brought plague with them and in 1637 8,000 people in the town were to die from it. The illness had no regard for wealth or age, the town councilors and many of the town’s children were among the victims…. In May 1837, he buried his own wife. He was to bury more than 4,000 people during the plague, which was followed by a severe famine that saw people fighting in the street over a dead crow or cat.”[3]

The most memorial services I’ve ever conducted in a year is eight—and that makes for an exhausting year. For a period from 1636 to 1637 Rinkart was apparently conducting an average of ten or eleven funerals daily. He was witnessing excruciating devastation, a total breakdown of the social order, not to mention the deaths of his wife, children, friends, colleagues, parishioners. I won’t call it unimaginable, because we can imagine it. We may not know about the Thirty Years’ War, but we have knowledge of other wars, of genocides, of the Holocaust, of slavery, of refugees streaming as I speak out of war zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan into Europe—many of them heading for the “promised land,” Germany. Even if we or our families have not been touched directly by these things, even if we cannot know what it feels like to live through them, we can imagine them. But what might be unimaginable, at least to some, is that in the midst of this devastation and horror, in the midst of relentless death, Martin Rinkart sat in his study, read his Bible, and wrote the words, “Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”[4] How was such gratitude possible given everything he was witnessing?

You might hear this story and get caught on questions about Rinkart’s theology. That’s always a risk with Unitarian Universalists. You might think or say, “Really? After all he went through, after what must have been terrible personal pain, he was thankful to God? Didn’t he understand God as all-powerful, wasn’t that his theology, in which case didn’t he hold God at least partially responsible for the devastation? Wasn’t he angry at God for allowing such suffering? Why didn’t he reject God, say ‘there is no God?’ Why didn’t his faith waver? Was he numb? Was he afraid?” If these are your questions, I urge you not to get caught on them. We don’t know what Rinkart’s spiritual struggle might have been, what his inner disappointment with and rage at God might have been. It doesn’t serve us well to get caught on his theology. I don’t believe in Rinkart’s God; I don’t expect you to either. But I want to share in his extraordinary gratitude. I want it in my life. I hope you do too.

It’s easy to feel grateful when our lives are going well. But can we still be thankful, can we still know and trust how truly blessed we are, when our lives are not going well, when things are falling apart, when the dream we had for our lives comes crashing down around us? Let’s get caught on that question. What does it mean to feel grateful even in the midst of despair?

One of the reasons I feel this is an important question for us is because there’s a connection between gratitude and one’s overall health and well-being. Spiritual teachers, theologians and philosophers have named this connection for millennia. So many prayers in so many religious traditions begin or end with the words, “thank you.” And, over the last fifteen years, psychological researchers have verified these connections through clinical studies. I’ll share one frequently-cited 2003 study conducted by psychologists, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough. I’m quoting here from a paper on gratitude and well-being in a Harvard Medical School publication. Emmons and McCullough asked study participants “to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.”[5]

There are many studies that show similar results. Some yield clearer results than others; some suggest not that gratitude is itself the key to well-being, but that people who report a consistent feeling of gratitude also exhibit a variety of behavior and personality traits that lead to greater well-being; and a few studies diverge and show little or no connection between gratitude and well-being.[6] The one result I have not found in my somewhat-more-than-cursory review of this science of thankfulness is a connection between gratitude and a decline in overall health and well-being. That is, no study has shown that gratitude is bad for you!

So, if gratitude is good for us, it makes sense that a practice of being grateful, of naming to oneself and others those things for which we are grateful, of cultivating a gracious spirit, of saying ‘thank you,’ will have a positive effect on our lives. And these might be the easiest of all spiritual practices. You don’t have to learn to quiet the mind in meditation. You don’t have to first puzzle through that pesky question of whether there is a God or not. You don’t have to be in a specific place at a specific time. You don’t need to pay a lot of money to study with a master. You just need a little time, perhaps daily, to name, either to yourself or others, those people and things for which you are grateful.

I confess I feel a bit redundant speaking to you about gratitude on Sunday morning. There are millions upon millions of articles, books, blogs, videos, TED Talks, inspirational speakers, Facebook posts, tweets and various memes about gratitude. This is not secret knowledge. This is not a mystery waiting to be revealed to the earnest seeker. Nancy Parker suggested I view a TED Talk by the Austrian-American, Buddhist-influenced Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast entitled, “Want to Be Happy? Be Grateful[7] I like his notion of what the practice of gratefulness might look like. He actually co-founded an online community called Gratefulness[8] which curates resources on living a grateful life. He counsels us to Stop, Look, Go” or “Stop, Listen, Go.” It’s very simple. Stop whatever you’re doing. Breathe. Come into the present moment. Then look or listen. What are you grateful for in this moment? He says, “Some of the most meaningful things to acknowledge are those we commonly take for granted. Examples include: our senses, a roof over one’s head, clouds, the ability to learn and grow, a pet, food, a friend.”[9] And then go, by which he means identify these things for which we are grateful not as ‘givens’ but as ‘gifts.’ And what do you say when you receive a gift? Thank you.

So many practices suggested out there in the blogosphere and on the self-help shelves are like this: simple, obvious and genuinely important to our health and well-being. But then I encounter a poem like W. S. Merwin’s “Thanks” which we heard earlier, and I perceive a deeper, less obvious, perhaps more urgent reason for gratitude. Recall Merwin’s words: “Back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging / after funerals we are saying thank you / after the news of the dead / whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you … / with the animals dying around us / our lost feelings we are saying thank you / with the forests falling faster than the minutes / of our lives we are saying thank you / with the words going out like cells of a brain / with the cities growing over us / we are saying thank you faster and faster / with nobody listening we are saying thank you / we are saying thank you and waving / dark though it is.”[10]

Merwin isn’t addressing the goal of health and well-being. His isn’t a survey of blessings at the Thanksgiving table. He’s speaking about resilience—how we stay strong in hard times, how we continue “dark though it is.” So much can happen that we don’t expect, can’t plan for. So much can throw us, knock us down, send us reeling, wake us up into sleepless nights and break our sense of connection to what matters. Our bodies betray us with illness and pain; we lose loved ones; sometimes we lose jobs, income, financial security; sometimes we struggle with addiction, mental illness, anxiety. Our culture feels angry and polarized, while poverty—both economic and spiritual—increases; while hunger—both economic and spiritual—increases, such that we stop trusting in abundance and assume scarcity. Wars break out; ideologues with weapons and no rules rampage across vulnerable lands; refugees stream across borders; desperate people stab strangers on the street and desperate police shoot back. The planet warms; the ice caps melt; species disappear; storms rage. Thank you? Thank you? When things break down, resilience is our capacity to repair whatever connections have been broken. Gratitude creates resilience.

Truly, in the end, we can take nothing for granted; because truly, in the end, nothing is simply a given; because truly, in the end, everything and everyone we care about, everything and everyone that matters to us, everything and everyone we love are gifts: gifts from God if you believe in that way; gifts from the universe; gifts from life’s enduring, animating spirit; or gifts out of sheer cosmic coincidence—but gifts nevertheless. Knowing this—believing this—can create resilience in us. Thank you. Thank you. Let us practice gratitude in good times, so that when hard times come, when challenges come, when illness and death come, when warming and war come, we may remain clear about the gifts we have received, about the blessings in our lives, and grow resilient in the midst of our despair. Whether he understood it in these terms or not, I have no doubt Martin Rinkart wrote “Now thank we all our God” at what was surely the lowest point of his life in order to stay resilient, and to encourage resilience in his community.

DSC_1921Friends, may we be relentlessly thankful for all the blessings of our lives, for all the gifts we receive, for the source of our lives, for the power that brought us and this world and this universe into being, for that fundamental creative energy at the heart of all there is, and for all the ways we are connected to each other, and to all life, and to each dry leaf decaying on the wet November ground, and to each blazing star gracing the heavens with its light. Thank you. Thank you. May we learn to pause and know that none of it is a given, and all of it is a gift. Thank you. Thank you. And may these simple, profound words speak in our hearts and on our tongues, again and again, even in our times of greatest despair: thank you, thank you.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Rinkart, Martin, “Now Thank We All Our God,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #32.

[2] Poulton, Ian, “An A-Z of Hymnwriters: Martin Rinkart,” For the Fainthearted, September 14, 2011. See: http://www.forthefainthearted.com/2011/09/14/an-a-z-of-hymnwriters-martin-rinkart/.

[3] For another version of the story, see Oron, Aryeh, “Martin Rinkart (Hymn-Writer), Bach Cantatas Website, July 2008. See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Lib/Rinckart.htm.

[4] Rinkart, Martin, “Now Thank We All Our God,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #32. Poulton says the Biblical inspiration for these words was Ecclesiasticus, Chapter 50, verse 22-24.

[5] “In Praise of Gratitude,” Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Health Publications: Harvard Medical School, November 1, 2011. See: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/in-praise-of-gratitude. Emmons’ and McCullough’s findings were originally published in Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M.E., “Counted Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003; 84: 377–389.

[6] Reviews of recent psychological studies on gratitude are at the following websites: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3010965/

http://www.professional-counselling.com/support-files/gratitude-and-psychological-well-being.pdf

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/2Wood-GratitudeWell-BeingReview.pdf

[7] Steindl-Rast, David, “Want to be Happy? Be Grateful.” TED Talk, June, 2013. See: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_steindl_rast_want_to_be_happy_be_grateful?language=en

[8] Check out http://www.gratefulness.org/.

[9] Check out http://www.gratefulness.org/resource/basic-daily-gratefulness-practice/.

[10] Merwin, W. S., “Thanks, Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). See: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/thanks.

November 2015 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

In October I attended a workshop for Unitarian Universalism clergy entitled “Ministry in the Age of Disengagement” with Hartford Seminary sociologist of religion, Scott Thumma. Disengagement refers to the way Americans are disengaging from religious communities across denominations and faiths. I laughed because I had just preached in September on my intention to stop talking about the “end of church.” But there I was in the midst of a workshop, talking about all the data that suggests organized religion is declining in the United States.

Though Unitarian Universalism still seems to be doing marginally better than other liberal Protestant denominations, Professor Thumma’s data is challenging. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the ‘end of church.’ It means we have work to do. Here is an overview of Professor Thumma’s response to widespread religious disengagement:

First, we need to recognize that in our larger culture, the alternatives to religious engagement are compelling. But none of the alternatives offers the combined opportunities for spiritual growth, community connection, and a sustained focus on our highest values that religious communities offer. None. So, those of us who love our religious communities need to make the case to the wider culture that they matter. Some might call this evangelism. Some might call it marketing. I’m not sure I have a good word for it, but I know we need to ‘come out’ in a much bigger and intentional way as Unitarian Universalists. Are you ready?

Second, we need to name our niche. Professor Thumma says that unless you’re a mega church, you just don’t have the resources to be all things to all people. Congregations need to specialize in a few areas. Are we a church for families? A church for religious education? A church for social justice? A church for environmental stewardship? A church for music and arts? Congregations that spread themselves too thin lose their way too easily. So, let’s have a conversation about our niche. What are our unique ministries? Can we stay focused on those, and let go of others? Are you ready?

Finally, we need to innovate. Professor Thumma says, very bluntly, the people who aren’t coming to your church don’t want what you’re offering. That’s a hard truth. What he means is that people may actually want what we offer, but not how we offer it. So do it differently! Innovate. Experiment. Are you ready?

      These are all ideas we’ve considered during the past few years. If anything, Professor Thumma affirms what we already suspect, and he pushes us even harder than we’ve been pushing ourselves. This is, in fact, hard work. It’s difficult for congregations to do things differently. But I think we’re up to the task. Both our newly formed UUS:E growth team (headed by Jason Corsa and Peggy Gagne) and the Religious Education Transition Team (headed by Stan McMillen) are getting us in the habit of innovation. Watch for updates from them. Are you ready? 

With love,

Rev. Josh

I’m Done Talking About the ‘End of Church!’

IMG_0568Our ministry theme for September is transitions—always a potent theme for this time of year, the beginning of the congregational year, the beginning of the school year, the commencement of the final harvest on New England farms, the arrival of autumn. Indeed, even if there’s no particular threshold we’re crossing in our personal lives at this time, autumn in New England demands that we pay attention to transition. Those words we recited earlier from Rabbi Jack Riemer remind us of this: “Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter. For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.”[1] This is a season of obvious, bold and brilliant transitions.

And, of course, the Rabbi is also making reference to atonement—that solemn, joyful practice at the heart of the Jewish High Holy Days—the Days of Awe—that solemn, joyful practice—both spiritual and social—of making amends, of saying, “I’m sorry,” of asking for forgiveness, of turning, in the Rabbi’s words, from “callousness to sensitivity … envy to contentment … fear to faith;”[2] that most sacred act of returning from separation back to relationship, from isolation back to community, from brokenness back to wholeness. This is indeed a season of transitions.

I want to name a transition in our congregation that is largely behind us now, and then offer a related transition in my thinking about what I’m calling “The State of ‘The Church.’” The transition in our congregation began when we learned in 2013 that our long-time, beloved Director of Religious Education, Vicki Merriam, would be retiring; and then, a year later, that our beloved and now sadly deceased Director of Music, Pawel Jura, would be moving to a new position in Virginia. We said “good-bye” to Vicki in June of 2014, and to Pawel a month later in July; and then we embarked on very intentional, careful and thoughtful periods of transition. Knowing that awesome religious education and awesome music are critical to a thriving Unitarian Universalist congregation, we wanted to transition well. Whatever else our mission says about who we are as a faith community and how we aspire to show up in the world, religious education and music are the programmatic life-blood of our church. We knew this. We wanted to make sure these staff positions and their programs were well-structured and appropriately funded; and we wanted to hire the best possible people. I am confident we have been successful in our efforts. We’ve already welcomed and congratulated Gina Campellone in her role as Director of Religious Education. We’ve already welcomed and congratulated Mary Bopp in her role as Director of Music. I’m not proposing that we do that again today. But I am naming that as a congregation we have come through a period of transition in our staff and major programs. I am overjoyed to be starting the congregational year and, instead of focusing my best energy on staff transitions, I can now return again to the ministry you called me to provide thirteen years ago. That feels great.

Congratulations to you, the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, for coming through this time of transition so well.

End of ChurchOver the past few years you may have noticed the prevalence of a certain topic in my preaching, teaching and committee work. During this period of transition I have continually repeated the message that in the United States the traditional church—that is, a congregation with a building, with Sunday morning worship as its central spiritual practice, with staff, with committees, with many bills to pay—is in serious decline. Some might say it is in free-fall. Across denominations, across faiths, membership is down, attendance is down, participation is down, volunteerism is down, financial giving—especially since the Great Recession of 2008—is down. Churches are moving from full time professional ministers to part-time professional ministers. Churches are closing. Just a year ago, September 14th, 2015, I preached a sermon on “The End of Church” in which I cited all sorts of statistics about all sorts of people who aren’t attending all sorts of churches. I quoted an article that had just appeared in the UU World magazine in which the Rev. Dr. Teresa Cooley cited many of those same statistics, arguing that “if we don’t pay attention to these trends, we could end up like those near-empty or abandoned churches that are increasingly becoming part of our [national] landscape.”[3] Just this past week there was yet another piece on National Public Radio about Catholic Churches continuing to close in the northeast and midwest.[4] These trends are alive and well.

Another way I—and we—have been talking about the decline of the traditional church is by naming how families with children are less able to participate in congregational life because childhood is changing. In a November, 2013 sermon on the value of multigenerational community, I said, “we’ve finally witnessed the death of Sunday morning as the one, truly sacred time in the United States, the one time when no other events or activities could be scheduled, no shopping malls could be open, and families with children were not forced every week to choose between church and a plethora of other activities and organizations that involve their children and, in some cases, demand—as the price of participation—that their children make whatever [that] other activity is their highest priority. What a difference [from a generation ago], when young people and adults who used to experience their congregation as a major center for social connection, now come to church with hundreds if not thousands of online ‘friends,’ vast social media networks, and unlimited opportunities for screen-based entertainment—entertainment one experiences essentially alone—just a few keystrokes away.”[5]

I think it’s been really important to talk about these trends, this evidence of the end of church, these data of decline in congregational life as we’ve gone through a time of transition in staffing and programs. It’s been really important for us to know what’s going on in American religious life. It’s been really important for us to envision our future with full knowledge of the challenges we may be facing. And while naming these trends and evidence and data can feel negative, grim, sobering even frightening at times, I don’t regret doing it. We needed this information, and we still need it, in order to make wise decisions, in order to sustain our congregation and our faith for future generations.

But now we’ve come through our transition and I don’t want to talk about decline anymore. I don’t want to focus on the end of church any more. I’m done talking about it, especially from the pulpit. I say this knowing full well the trends and issues aren’t going away. Indeed, over the summer a number of posts showed up on my Facebook page describing how difficult professional ministry has become, how hundreds of ministers leave the ministry every month, how those who don’t typically work 60-70 hour weeks, and many other sad statistics. Credible people have studied this. The writers are correct. It is salient stuff.[6] I deeply appreciate the people who post these articles on my page because they do it out of love and concern for me. But I’m done talking about it. I’m done talking about decline. I’m done talking about the end of church. I’m done giving it energy and attention. I’m done talking about all sorts of statistics about all sorts of people who aren’t attending all sorts of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.

Why and I done? Because I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. This church isn’t ending. This church isn’t in decline. And, most importantly, you’re here. That matters. Instead of trying to figure out the needs of people who aren’t here and who may never come here, why not respond to you—to your needs, your energy, your passion? Let’s prioritize you. Let’s talk about the fact that there are people here—present now—with pain and sorrow and misgivings and joy and contentment and milestones to celebrate—people who take church seriously, who understand its value in their lives and in the world. I want to talk about that.

And I want to talk about commitment. I’m committed to our Unitarian Universalist faith and to this Unitarian Universalist congregation. I hope and trust you are committed too. Commitment matters. In a society that increasingly tolerates and even sanctions the erosion of commitment in family life, friendships, work, community and politics, let’s talk about what it means to be committed to a spiritual community—to claim its principles as our own, to embrace its mission as our own, to abide by its covenant, to express its values in public, to sustain it for future generations. What an incredible thing—to be committed in this way: to a church, to a congregation, to a piece of land, to a building, to a sanctuary. I want to talk about that.

And I want to talk about courage. It is becoming abundantly clear to me that, while we have to be vigilant about church growth, and continue to take steps to grow our congregations, the future of our liberal faith doesn’t ultimately hinge on whether more people become Unitarian Universalists: and the future of American liberal religion doesn’t hinge at all on whether more people start attending church again. The future of our faith and the future of American liberal religion hinge on whether or not we—those who are present and committed now—can courageously express our values in words, but more importantly in deeds, in the public square for the sake of healing a profoundly broken society and adapting well to the environmental changes wrought by the global climate crisis. We need to be courageous.

In the past months I’ve seen physical vandalism and online threats against Unitarian Universalist churches that hang Black Lives Matter banners in New Jersey and Chicago. I’ve seen homophobic violence this past week against the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Danbury, CT. Last summer we saw anti-abortion activists disrupt Unitarian Universalist worship in New Orleans. This is frightening. Looking out more broadly I see ongoing, unmitigated, unaddressed gun violence in the United States. I see increasingly violent and racist rhetoric coming from our political leaders and some presidential candidates. I see corporations threatening states—“If we don’t get our way, we’ll leave”—forcing legislators to slowly dismantle social safety nets, and thereby increasing already unsustainable and immoral wealth and income inequality. (Did you see that happen in Connecticut this year?) And I hear raucous, hate-filled, irresponsible voices blasting out across the airwaves, fabricating threats to religious liberty, fabricating threats from Muslims, fabricating threats from immigrants and justifying state-sponsored violence by fabricating racialized demons.

Globally I see the tenacity of terrorist organizations across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia who feed on the misery of poverty, of failed governments and tyranny. And I see the ongoing insanity of climate change denial. I see the fires, the tornados, the droughts, the hurricanes, the snow storms, the super storms and the risings oceans. I see it all and, frankly, I am afraid. I am afraid for my children, for our children, for our communities, for young black men, for what semblance of democracy we still have, and for the planet. Friends, I need to talk about courage. What are our sources of courage in light of abundant reasons to feel fear? Our Unitarian Universalist faith gives guidance in response to this question. Decline? The end of church? Too many soccer games on Sunday mornings? I’m done talking about it. I much prefer to talk about being courageous people of liberal faith, because our era requires courage.

I said in that sermon last year that “churches and denominations may be in decline these days. But there is still a genius to the idea of people gathering faithfully, week after week, united around a set of common principles, giving thanks for the blessings in their lives, caring for one another, teaching their children, hearing the wisdom of their elders, searching together for truth and meaning, and working for a more just, peaceful and loving world.”[7] That genius hasn’t gone away. That genius still exists. I suspect it will always exist. So let’s talk over the months and years as we continue to build this spiritual community together. What does it mean to be here, now? What does it mean to be committed? Where do we find our sources of courage? Present, committed, courageous. May that be the state of the church.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Riemer, Jack, “On Turning,”Singing the Living Tradition Boston (Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #634.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “Ring Them Bells,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 9/14/14. See: http://uuse.org/ring-them-bells/#.Vfl8Ft9Viko.

[4] Hansi Lo Wang, “’It’s All About Church Closings’: Catholic Parishes Shrink In Northeast, Midwest,” National Public Radio, 9/14/15. See: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/14/436938871/-it-s-all-about-church-closings-catholic-parishes-shrink-in-northeast.

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “On the Meaning of Multigenerational,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 11/17/13. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/on-the-meaning-of-multigenerational/.

[6] Krejcir, Richard J., “What’s Going On With Pastors in America?” See: http://www.intothyword.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=36562

[7] Pawelek, Josh, “Ring Them Bells,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 9/14/14. See: http://uuse.org/ring-them-bells/#.Vfl8Ft9Viko.

Stretching Our Hearts

Rev. Josh Pawelek

6-21 Stretching hearts“What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?” asked the Rev. A. Powel Davies more than half a century ago.[1] I love this question. I love the image of our hearts stretching. Of course, there’s nothing extraordinary about a religious leader asking a question like this. It’s a version of the question that lies at the core of so many religions. It’s the question of ethics, of justice. How shall we live? How can we bring love and compassion into the world, into our encounters with family members, friends, strangers? How can we live peacefully with others, especially those who are different from us in some way? How can we break down the strange and foolish walls that divide the human family? How can we stretch our hearts?

Indeed, the strange and foolish walls were very real half a century ago, and they are very real now. We didn’t need Thursday morning’s news of a white supremacist mass shooting at Charleston, South Carolina’s “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church to be convinced of this. But there it was again, a gut-wrenching and profound failure of “love your neighbor”—not only in the small heart of the killer, but in the small and atrophied heart of the social, cultural and political systems that produced him.  Despite all the progress humanity has made over centuries—despite its enlightenment, its knowledge, its scientific advancements, its faith, its modern conceptions of human rights and social justice—despite it all, the human family feels, to me, as divided as ever; as if we are somehow fated to revert back to a fight-or-flight limbic response to conflict; as if we’ll never be able to overcome the allure and the power of simplistic and false dualisms—‘us vs. them,’ ‘good vs. evil’—whether we’re talking about international, national or local conflicts, or conflicts within the intimacy of our own families—conflicts that seem intractable despite our earnest desire to see them resolved. Despite all our achievements, love—deep abiding love—seems so difficult to sustain. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” though still a potent ethical principle, seems worn down, battered, beaten. Our collective heart seems small and ineffectual.

Maybe it’s always been this way. Maybe every age has its insurmountable conflicts. Maybe the goal of a more peaceful, just and loving society always feels elusive to those who care about it most. Maybe each of us struggles to be more loving and compassionate and never quite meets the mark we set for ourselves. In ancient Greek mythology, Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, was for eternity compelled to roll an immense boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down again and again each time he approached the summit. Maybe we each roll our own boulders; and maybe collectively we roll boulders; and we almost get where we think we’re going, and then suddenly, in a flash, we lose our grip—a mass shooting in a church or an elementary school tears through a town, a loved one’s life falls apart, a foreign war we thought had ended suddenly begins again, a suicide rips through a community, a school system fails, a chronic illness debilitates, entrenched poverty crushes—and in a flash the boulder rolls back down the mountain. Maybe there’s always a layer of human existence that is like this.

Maybe, but that’s no excuse to give up. There is also in the human heart a yearning to do better, a yearning to not let hate destroy kindness and compassion, a yearning to make love—deep, abiding love— real in the world. Those families of the nine who died in Charleston, when they faced the killer in court, said, essentially, “you’ve hurt us; we forgive you.” So let us ask the question, and keep asking it, and never stop asking it: “What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?”

The heart in this question is, of course, a metaphor in which our physical hearts which pump our blood refer to our spiritual hearts—our center, our grounding, the source of our passion and compassion, the place inside where we commune with what is sacred to us, the home in us of love and warmth and joy. It’s the thing that soars when we fall in love, and the thing that breaks when a loved-one dies. How do we stretch that?

My heart has been stretching and growing and breaking and healing and stretching and growing and breaking again all year long, and I sure hope some strange and foolish walls have begun to crumble as a result. I want to say a few words about the way I experience my heart stretching, because it may be more or less the same—or radically different—than the way you experience your heart stretching. One thing I’ve always known about myself, but which I’ve had to contend with at a much deeper level this year than ever before—is that as much as I think I want to stretch and grow and change—as much as I preach the value of stretching and growing and changing—as much as I proclaim that we come to church to be transformed and to tear down those strange and foolish walls—my body doesn’t like it. Some bodies love it. Mine doesn’t. When my heart starts stretching, my body usually says, “wait, before you do that, here’s a slight headache,” or “here’s a backache for you,” or “here are some allergies you’ve never had before,” or, my least favorite, “here is some unexplainable dizziness. Enjoy!”

I’ve spoken about this before. The reasons why some people have somatic reactions to different kinds of stress are always complex. My simplest understanding of why it happens to me has to do with being raised in a family with an alcoholic parent. As is the case with many adult children of alcoholics, there is, in me, a deep-seeded impulse to not “rock the boat,” to keep the peace, to not create tension, to please others, to accommodate others. I know some of you know condition well. The challenge here is that stretching one’s heart in order to overcome strange and foolish walls inevitably creates tension. Stretching creates tension. It’s good tension, productive tension, creative tension, justice-seeking tension. And it’s necessary: the change we seek won’t come without it.

The insight I’ve had about myself this year is that my body actually mistakes good tension that will lead to good change for bad, unproductive, uncreative tension that will lead nowhere. As a child, perhaps it made sense to avoid tension of any sort and my mind and my body were in agreement: keep steady, keep the peace, keep out of trouble, keep, keep, keep, keep, keep. But now, as an adult, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve changed it for good reasons. I understand some tension is necessary. My mind affirms my heart’s desire to stretch, but my body still says “no, we can’t do that.” It’s unnerving when this happens, but it’s also become for me an important sign: my body feels a certain way because my heart is trying to stretch. And while I have to take my body seriously and attend to how it is feeling, my personal challenge is to teach my body to work with my heart. I can’t let my heart stay little. None of us can. The world needs deep, abiding love. These strange and foolish walls must come down.

Perhaps my most potent experience of intentional heart stretching has been my participation in Moral Monday CT which, as many of you know, held a Black Lives Matter rally in Hartford on June 8th, which included nonviolent civil disobedience—the blocking of a busy, rush hour intersection—for which 17 people were arrested, including me and three other members of our congregation. That didn’t just happen. It required months of heart-stretching. I started telling you the story in my MLK sermon in January. I said then that, given the high visibility of police killings of unarmed people of color—Staten Island, Ferguson, Cleveland, etc.—on top of what we already know about racism in the United States—mass incarceration, health disparities, educational disparities, income disparities, wealth disparities—it was clearly time to do more than talk. The powers that be will listen to talk, but talk alone doesn’t produce the kind of tension needed to subvert racism at its roots. We recognized that we need to use our bodies in a different way, that we need to occupy public space in a different way. I said in that sermon that nonviolent civil disobedience is coming, though I still wasn’t sure what that really meant. I was beginning to stretch my heart, and in my body I felt anxious, dizzy, achy. My body was not intending to do anything differently. As far as my body was concerned, we had a good thing going: “Just keep talking. You’re good at that. People like when you talk. But you in a street at rush hour? They might not like that!”

There is too much at stake. I was determined to stretch. We prepared ourselves to do what we needed to do. We conducted nonviolent civil disobedience training here at UUS:E in early February. That was stretching. Then we did a trial run on Monday, February 23rd in Hartford, stretching further. My body came along—still didn’t like what we were doing, and it let me know.

We picked June 8th as the date for our first major action. We conducted a final training here the night before. And then around 5:00 pm on the 8th we walked into the street. My heart soared. In that street was where I needed to be in that moment, more than anywhere else in the world. My body hated it. I became so dizzy after a while that I walked off the line to talk to our medics. They checked me over, gave me some sugar and water, and said it looked like stress. So I walked back out into the street, heart soaring, body still protesting—“we’re really rockin’ the boat now”—and got myself arrested.

Picture by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

Picture by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

My body is still trying to figure it out. It’s going to take a while. But my heart has stretched. And if I had any misgivings about what I had done after the fact, they vanished on Thursday morning with the news from Charleston. Black Lives Matter. These strange and foolish walls must come down. Deep, abiding love will bring them down.

As momentous as that particular experience has been for me, there has been so much more. My heart has been stretching around multigenerational community here at UUS:E. My heart has been stretching around new directions in our music program as we integrate Mary Bopp onto our staff. My heart is beginning to stretch around new growth strategies for our congregation. My heart has been stretching in response to having a teenager in the house. There’s been a lot of good tension, a lot of good, slow, measured change, and more is coming. My body still wants nothing to with it, but I know where that comes from, and I trust its resistance will eventually fade. I don’t want a little heart. I want a loosened, supple, open, expansive, generous heart. I want to be a vehicle for deep, abiding love to come into the world.

Rev. Davies asked, “What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?” What can we do to bring more love into the world? What can we do to assure we are loving our neighbors as ourselves? My response is to start small. Start simply by naming the strange and foolish walls in your life or out in the wider world that that you feel must come down. Name them not just to yourself, but to others. Naming them out loud is the beginning of commitment. Name them, and then ask yourself what you need to dismantle them. Find others who’ve stretched in the way you aspire to stretch, and ask them how they did it. What preparation do you need? What training? What support? Where can you practice before you take your action? Who will work with you? Is your body on board?

And here’s what we also need to remember: as much as we prepare ourselves, as much as we stretch, as much as we love, there will be moments when it falls apart. Events, often beyond our control, will crash through our lives. We’ll lose our grip on the boulder. We’ll tumble down. We’ll find ourselves at the base of the mountain looking up, tired, sad, angry, demoralized, wondering how to get back up again. I’m thinking, of course, about Pawel Jura’s death by suicide in late winter, which deeply impacted this congregation, brought so much of our congregational life to standstill. I’m thinking now also about the death of Carol Shapiro, whose bodily remains were finally identified last week, after eight years. Receiving this news brought me back to the time she disappeared. It was similar to Pawel’s death in the sense that everything came to a halt—boulders tumbling down the mountain.

Our hearts stretch differently in moments like this. No preparation, no training, no practice, no warm-up. They stretch too quickly. They stretch beyond their capacity. They stretch to the breaking point. They break. When Pawel died I found a reading from the late Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox about what happens to love in the wake of loss. She wrote, “Oh, my dear, do not despair that love has come and gone. Although we are broken, the love that spilled out of us has joined the love that circles the world and makes it blessed.”[2] Looking back on that time now, looking back at all those broken hearts—including mine: so much love spilled out. Deep, abiding love. Whatever strange and foolish walls might have existed among us, they melted away in the presence of that love. They melted away as you held each other, ministered to each other, carried each other, cried with each other, sang with each other.

This isn’t an answer to A. Powell Davies’ question about stretching our hearts. We don’t wish for broken hearts. We don’t wish tragedy upon ourselves or anyone. But strange and foolish walls have a tendency to vanish in the wake of tragedy. We saw it after 9/11. We saw it after Sandy Hook. We saw it after the Boston Marathon bombing. We see it in the outpouring of love for “Mother Emanuel,” for Charleston, for South Carolina. We hear it in those powerful, loving words, “we forgive you.”

In the end, it shouldn’t take a tragedy to get there. It shouldn’t take a tragedy for love—deep, abiding love—to come pouring out, every day, all the time. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to wake us up to the littleness of our hearts. Yes, we are up against so much. The strange and foolish walls are multitudinous and well-fortified. In Sisyphusian style we lose our boulders down the mountain. And maybe this is an enduring part of the human condition. But it can’t be an excuse for giving up. It can’t be an excuse for not stretching our hearts. Stretching is part of their design. I’ve learned that this year. So, my counsel is for all of us to name our strange and foolish walls, and start stretching—warm-up, practice, get training, talk to those who’ve done it before. And then do what we need to do to make that deep, abiding love real in the world, to let it circle the world, to let it bless the world. We have it in us. Stretch, and keep stretching. No wall can stand forever.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Davies, A. Powell, “Strange and Foolish Walls,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #662.

[2] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Legacy,” Evening Tide (Boston: Skinner House, 1998) p, 56.

Dispatches from the Culture War, 2015

Culture WarI’m wrestling this morning with two conflicting impulses in me. They arise in response to the American culture war, in response to deep divisions in the country over sexual orientation, gender identity, reproductive rights, sexuality education, marriage, guns, end of life issues, family values, and the age-old and still raging debate between science and religion. While the media often portrays the culture war as between religious people on one side and secular people on the other, it’s rarely that simple. Liberal religious people often line up against conservative religious people in the culture war. It is at once an inter-religions struggle—meaning between religions—and an intra-religious struggle—meaning it plays out within some religions. My conflicting impulses have to do with how I, as a liberal religious person, relate to people on the conservative side of the culture war.

One impulse is to approach such people with openness, curiosity, friendliness. This impulse emerges from a desire to learn, to find common ground, to achieve interfaith understanding, to build community. The other impulse is pugnacious and looking for a fight. This impulse emerges from moral anger and what I call “soul sadness.” For example, I am angry at people whose religion—often in combination with short-sighted and selfish political and economic interests—leads them time and time again to ignore, deny or denounce the findings of science, as if science is a liberal conspiracy, a tool of elitist subterfuge, an enemy. And, yes, I experience a profound, soul-sadness not only because so many people seem to react to science in this way, but because the consequences of such reactions are so destructive for the earth.

Last week I ran into an old acquaintance, someone with whom I had interacted at the edges of the first congregation I served. He attended worship there occasionally. He wondered if I remembered him. Of course I did. I’d eaten a few meals at his home where we used to debate evolution and creationism or “intelligent design,” which was in vogue at that time. When I saw him last week I said I remembered the articles on intelligent design he used to share with me and that I have always appreciated his willingness to be in conversation around what is still a highly divisive topic. He said, “But you’re an evolutionist.” I said, “Yes, I am. And I try to remain open-minded about other ways of understanding reality. I try to remain curious. ” That’s my friendly, learning-oriented, community-building impulse at work. In a religiously pluralistic society it is essential that we nurture and act on this impulse. In the midst of interfaith dialogue—especially dialogue across culture war lines—we grow more knowledgeable, more accepting, more peaceful. In learning another’s point of view, we develop and sharpen our own.

But then my blood boils when people of faith not only refuse to be in dialogue, but ignore, deny or denounce firmly established scientific consensus. One such consensus is that human activity—specifically the burning of fossil fuels—is a significant driver of climate change. More than 13,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers published in over 80 countries since 1991 have confirmed this position. That’s 97 percent of all formal scientific papers published on the topic.[1] Many religions embrace this consensus. On April 29th the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences together issued a report entitled “Climate Change and the Common Good.” The statement affirms that “Today, human activities, involving the unsustainable exploitation of fossil fuels and other forms of natural capital, are having a decisive and unmistakable impact on the planet. The aggressive exploitation of fossil fuels and other natural resources has damaged the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we inhabit…. Some 1000 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other climatically-important ‘greenhouse’ gases have already been accumulated in the atmosphere…. [and] now exceeds the highest levels in at least the last million years.”[2]

In the face of this global scientific consensus, on January 21st of this year, 49 United States Senators, as part of an effort to pass a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, voted against an amendment to the bill that said human activity is a significant contributor to climate change.[3] 49 United States senators proclaimed that the firmly established global scientific consensus is incorrect! A number of them cried foul, saying the amendment was a political stunt. They may be right, but a U.S. Senator’s ability to discern fact from fiction matters when the fate of the planet is at stake. The Senate has the power to shape energy and environmental policy in ways that ensure a sustainable future. It is infuriating every time that strange coalition of hyper-conservative faith, business and political interests drives a large segment of our national leadership to ignore science. In my view such willful ignorance is a sinful evasion of responsibility that demands a fighting response from all people of faith who take science seriously. Two conflicting impulses.

Stan and Sue McMillen inspired my reflections on this topic. They purchased a sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. This is their sermon. Stan suggested a couple of possibilities. First he said, “I have been increasingly concerned that religion continues to divide rather than unite us in justice work.” He’s right. Religious differences drive the culture war, and we need that first impulse—curiosity, openness—to bridge our divides. But then he said “There is another disturbing thread that concerns me: the disparagement of science by religion.” Because that ongoing disparagement will have catastrophic consequences for the planet if allowed to persist without opposition, we also need to cultivate that second impulse, a willingness to fight without apology for a sustainable future.

I’ve been wondering about how one decides which impulse to pursue in any given encounter across culture war lines. I’ve been wondering about how I decide, since I make the decision often, but don’t always stop to think about it—which is why I’m using the word impulse. Here’s my best thinking about when and why to follow either of these impulses.

At the beginning of any encounter with a person of another faith—and I suppose at the beginning of any encounter with any human being—approach them with openness, curiosity, friendliness. Assume common ground exists. Assume the other wants a peaceful, prosperous community, a just and fair society, the best possible future for their children and grandchildren. Assume the other cares about the earth. It won’t always be an accurate assumption, but it is much easier to build a relationship if you begin with the assumption that relationship is possible.

Then look for the common ground. Ask, inquire, explore, listen, learn. Stan expresses a concern that religion continues to divide rather than unite us in justice work. Religion is less likely to divide us if we find our common ground. I have been attending a series of meetings at the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford to work on passage of a bill of rights for domestic workers—people who work in other peoples’ homes providing health care, childcare, eldercare and cleaning services. Because domestic workers aren’t included in the Fair Labor Relations Act and many other national labor laws, they are easily and often exploited with few if any avenues for legal recourse. Passage of a Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights would begin to create a more just domestic work place in Connecticut. In the meeting at the Archdiocese there are Catholics, Pentecostals, Lutherans, UCCs, UUs and labor union. It would be so easy to say “No, I won’t work with the Catholic Church.” UUs and Catholics are diametrically opposed on many culture war issues: marriage equality, transgender civil rights, and most recently aid-in-dying for terminally ill patients. These divisions have been present in these meeting. The Catholics keep talking about aid in dying, in part because they’ve all been working together to defeat it. Most of them didn’t realize I’ve been working in support of it. Those who did were genuinely concerned I would feel alienated. The meeting organizer finally asked if I would share my thoughts about it. I did. But I made it clear that I would never want our disagreement on this or any other issue to prevent us from achieving our mutual goal of a more just work conditions for domestic workers. As much as Catholics and UUs have disagreed over the years, we’ve always shared the common ground of economic justice.

Nevertheless, division is sometimes inevitable. There are moments when we can’t find common ground and the impulse to fight or struggle takes over. Before that happens, it’s important to me to make sure I’m fighting for the right reasons. For me, a difference in theology or belief is never a reason to fight. That is, if someone believes in God and I don’t, that’s not worth fighting over. If someone believes the Koran is God’s final revelation and I believe all sacred scriptures are human inventions, that’s not worth fighting over. If someone accepts Jesus Christ as their savior and I find salvation in the natural world, that’s not worth fighting over. Differences in theology, tradition, practice—these are opportunities for the first impulse—curiosity, learning. But when someone else’s beliefs manifest in the world in ways that cause suffering, exploitation, oppression, in ways that destroy and kills, then it’s time to take a stand, to struggle, to organize, to fight.

I’ve preached about such moments many times. I am mindful that I typically frame fights between people of faith—whether over gay rights or global warming—as fights ultimately between religious liberalism and religious fundamentalism. I name fundamentalism as the problem. Well, I’ve had an evolution in my thinking, and I want to name it now, even though I haven’t fully worked through its meaning. When we fight for something we believe in—really fight, really struggle—we actually take on characteristics of the fundamentalists we oppose. We appear to them as they appear to us: unbending, unyielding, uncompromising—at least that’s the risk. I’m not a religious fundamentalist, but I’ll own that I’m a marriage equality fundamentalist. I’ll own that I’m a reproductive choice fundamentalist, an economic justice fundamentalist, a Black Lives Matter fundamentalist, a path-to-citizenship- for-undocumented immigrants-fundamentalist, an end-the-war-on-drugs fundamentalist. And I’m a climate-change-is-real-and-caused-by-humans-and-must-be-addressed-now-with-the-largest- mobilization-of-people-and-resources-the-world-has-ever-seen” fundamentalist. I’m owning my fundamentalisms. And I know when I move to that place of utter conviction it has the potential to silence conversation, to alienate people who might not completely agree with me, to damage relationships, to poison otherwise common ground. It can keep the culture war going. Thus I know I must pause at times to critique my fundamentalisms, to assure myself that the rationale behind them is still solid, to assure myself that they are and I am still spiritually and theologically grounded. When I move to that place of utter conviction, I better have solid evidence. 

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said something about this back on January 21st when the Senate took that vote on climate change. He voted for the amendment saying he’s now comfortable with climate science. But then he said something that at first seemed silly, but the more I think about it, it’s not. He said, “I think that people on my side”—meaning conservatives—“are really reluctant to embrace how much human activity is causing climate change because our friends on the other side”—meaning liberals—“have made it a religion.”[4]

It’s an interesting use of the word religion. He doesn’t mean religion in the liberal sense where we’re on a journey and our credo is always changing. He means something unchanging. He means fundamentalism. He’s saying “I experience you liberals as Climate Change fundamentalists.” He’s asking for compromise. He’s trying to respond to the first impulse. He’s looking for common ground. But fundamentalism of any sort isn’t interested in common ground. It’s interested in prevailing. And given what climate science is saying, given the great global disruption the models are forecasting, we’re long past time for compromise. Graham is right: those of us who take the science seriously have made it a “religion.” And we need to prevail.

The philosopher of religion Loyal Rue once wrote, “The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed, but if we live in right relationship with reality (wisely), then we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle.”[5] I take science seriously, because it is our best guide to understanding reality—not the only guide, to be sure, but the best. And when I say we are justified in fighting against unnecessary suffering, exploitation, oppression, and the destruction of the earth, I understand each of these things as failures of right relationship to reality. I am hopeful that in any sojourn we may take into “fundamentalism,” it is for the sake of restoring right relationship to reality, it is the path of wisdom, and it will save us.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] “The 97% Consensus on Global Warming” at Skeptical Science: https://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-advanced.htm.

[2] Dasgupta, P., Ramanathan, V., Raven, P., Sanchez Sorondo, M., et al, “Climate Change and the Common Good: A Statement Of the Problem And the Demand For Transformative Solutions,” published April 29, 2015 by the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science. See: http://www.casinapioiv.va/content/dam/accademia/pdf/protect/climate_change_common_good.pdf.

[3]  Kollipara, Puneet and Malakoff, David, “For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?” Science Insider, January 29, 2015.See: http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/01/first-time-years-u-s-senate-voted-climate-change-did-anybody-win.

[4] Kollipara, Puneet and Malakoff, David, “For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?” Science Insider, January 29, 2015.See: http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/01/first-time-years-u-s-senate-voted-climate-change-did-anybody-win. Also see: http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060012413.

[5] This quote is taken from Loyal Rue’s Religion is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature and What to Expect When They Fail (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005). It appeared in Dowd, Michael, “The Evolutionary Significance of Religion: Multi-Level Selection,” Metanexus, February 10, 2012. See: http://metanexus.net/blog/evolutionary-significance-religion-multi-level-selection?utm_source=2012.02.28&utm_campaign=2012.02.28&utm_medium=email.