Before the Song at the Sea

Matt Meyer

 

Matt Meyer

Matt Meyer

The song at the sea must have been an incredible party.  The Israelites have made it to safety.  The Red Sea has swallowed up their enemies, and their powerful god has liberated them from generations of slavery.   

And you have to imagine that the actual walking through the Red Sea, when the waters had parted, leaving them this magnificent passageway to freedom. Well that must have been pretty incredible too.  

If you’re like me, you have a pretty clear mental image of the event, as Charlton Heston raises his staff and a mighty wind comes and parts the waters.  But there is another story of the way that it happened that has come down to us through the Jewish tradition.  

The story says, that when Moses and his people were trapped between the Egyptian Army and the sea, the people had begun yelling at Moses, asking why he had led them out of the safety of Egypt.  He asked God “what now?”  God rebuked Moses and told him to tell his people to just keep on walking and stop doubting. 

So a man named Nachson, a leader of his tribe, begins to wade on into the water.   He steps in, expecting the waters to part, but they don’t.  So we walks in up to his waist, expecting them to part, but they don’t.  When the water is up to his neck, he expects it to part, and it does not.  It is only when the sea is up to his nostrils, we are told that God opens up the path before him.  

God wanted to free the Israelites, but first they had to do their part.  Liberation didn’t come because they sat back in comfort and asked nicely. If you have ever worked to get our government, or any major institution or corporation, for that matter to change its way, the story of Nachson may feel familiar to you.  He was in almost over his head, before the way started to clear. 

-wade in the water-

 Why would he do such a thing?  What gives a person such solid faith in the path before them? 

Sometimes I hear stories about people I admire, and I try to ask myself, who am I in this story?  To be honest, I’m probably not Nachson.  I’m probably not pharaoh, or Moses either.  I’d like to think, of the bystanders watching Nachson walk into the sea, I would have at least been one of the supportive ones.  “Keep up the good work Nachson, I’ll be right behind you as soon as the path is dry!”

Shane Clairborn, a radical Christian activist, worked to set up an intentional community where people can not only believe in Jesus, but follow the example of Jesus’ life, by holding property in common and loving their neighbors in action as well as words.   To hear him tell his story though, of fundraising and conflict and getting his jaw broken in a rough neighborhood, he often seems to be in a little over his head.  But, Shane says, “Some of us have just caught a glimpse of the promised land, and it is so dazzling that our eyes are forever fixed on it, never to look back at the ways of that old empire again.” 

I imagine that Nachson, had seen somewhere in his heart, a dazzling glimpse of the promised land.   He saw clearly where he and his people were at, with a powerful and angry army coming up behind them, and he saw where they were headed  – through troubled water, and onto freedom.  The path from here to there was clear, and no sea was going to stop him from walking it. 

-wade in the water- 

One of the first real discussions I ever participated in on the subject of racism was a white-identity group at UUA General Assembly many years ago. 

We were in an oversized room in a convention center, a dozen white college and high school students sitting in a circle.  Someone said these words that hit me.  The said, “Racism is the name a system that pushes down one group, People of Color.  But the other half of the system is a process of lifting up another group, white people.  

I have gone on to learn more since then, about what that lifting up and putting down looks like in real life, but that first sentence, that definition, articulated, what had been for me, the missing half of the story on race.  

This other half of the story included me – included my place in things. I started to look back on my life at these invisible forces that, like gravity, shaped the world around me and pushed me, so silently, in a certain direction:          

-that time the police let me go with a warning,

 -the first good paying job I got through a family friend,

-everyone who said I looked like a “natural’ leader,

-the private school I went to,

-the other time the police let me go with a warning,

-the honors classes I took, strangers who naturally trusted me,

-my own trust in the government to be on my side,

-and last but not least, the other time that the police let me go with a warning. 

Coming to look honestly at my place in this old empire of ours has felt at times like being in over my head.  How uncomfortable to realize that despite my best intentions, I am sometimes in the position of the Israelites fleeing the Egyptians and that I am at the same time also the Egyptians.  

Most of the Egyptians weren’t bad people, you know, they were part of an unjust system, where exploitation of the most vulnerable was just built into the their economy.  

The sneaky thing about white privilege is that I did not ask for it.  

It’s like finding some extra money in my pants pocket after doing the laundry.  

All along the way, my employers, and the police, and locally funded schools, and standardized tests, and family connections, and the housing market, have all been slipping money and other privileges into my back pocket, and I never even needed to pay attention to it.  In fact, I was encouraged not to. 

But walking intentionally into uncomfortable conversations about race, going into the discomfort, sometimes up to my neck has given me, if not a glimpse of the promised land, at least a vision of the way toward it. 

Once the Israelites were out in the desert, and the way forward looked difficult, some among them we are told, asked Moses to take them back to the more comfortable land of Egypt and back to slavery, rather than trust that they could cross the sea.  I can understand that. 

What’s a white person to do when we inherit money accumulated by our parents or grandparents in a time when their careers and even their neighborhoods were closed to people of color.  

What’s a man to do when corporations slip an extra 30% in income into our back pockets, just for being male bodied.  

What’s a heterosexual to do when federal marriage law slips some extra money in our back pockets for loving someone of a different gender.  

Looking around to the systems of inequity in this old empire that surrounds us, is uncomfortable. Finding all those dollar bills and benefits in my back pocket, feels a little like being trapped in Egypt as an Egyptian.  Living in comfort made affordable by the cheap labor of exploited people.  The Israelites had a plan for liberation, but what of the middle class Egyptians.  The story doesn’t tell us if any of them felt uncomfortable with their place in things.  

I am stunned by the courage of that Mexican man on the immigration rides in Arizona, who at great personal risk boarded a very public bus in order to speak his truth about humanity in an unjust system. 

But I am equally impressed by the white woman who sat near him and was willing to get into that struggle up to her neck. I had thought perhaps that she would have had nothing to lose, by showing her identification to the authorities, but she sought a greater purpose.  Perhaps she saw a glimpse of the promised land, through the realization of living her values in troubled water. 

Our broken immigration system is troubled water. 

A public school system that fast-tracks some to college and some to jail, is troubled water. 

A consumer culture that urges us to find comfort in things at the expense of relationship is troubled water. 

The separation of people according to racial profiling is troubled water. 

Wading through those troubled waters of injustice can bring us to the other side, where we can realize the promised land of justice, equity and compassion in our human relationships.  

I don’t know if there is a god out there somewhere who has specific opinions about how we go about bringing change to the material world.  My experience though, tells my that god or no god, some plans work better than others.  Sitting back in comfort and asking nicely for change, tends not to work.  It is rare to find a story of societal transformation, without some troubled water.  Without someone moving forward into the depths, holding fast to a vision of the promised land.

-Wade in the water- 

The African-American spiritual, Wade in the Water, comes from the new testament story of the pools of Bethesda, where we’re told a multitude of people waited by it’s shores, because it was known that in certain seasons, god would trouble the water, and the first one into the pool when the water was troubled would be healed of all their ailments. 

In a story of exodus from slavery in our own nation Harriet Tubman was said to sing this song, to tell slaves on the run, that they should follow the water-way, so the dogs would not be follow their scent. 

I can’t say for sure, which character in the Exodus story I would have been.  But I can say that I’ve known some modern-day Nachson’s (say modern-day Nachson) and am planning to try my best to follow them into the water. 

Coming of age in Unitarian Universalist community challenged me to think about how change happens.  From the World as it is to the world as it might be. We have a strong tradition of heresy that, I hope, isn’t coming to an end any time soon. 

I invite you to join me in the heresy of returning any unearned money you find in your back pocket.  I invite you to think of a modern day Nachson in your life and ask them how they do it.  I invite you to wade into the troubled water, of discomfort, of conversation, of action.  I invite you to turn your back on this old empire of ours and join in recommitting to a Unitarian Universalism that speaks of a promised land here and now, and walks steadily into the water to get there together. 

 

Interim DRE Search Committee Ready to Roll!

The UUS:E Policy Board has created a search committee to locate an interim Director of Religious Education to follow retiring DRE Vicki Merriam. The search committee held a ‘start-up’ meeting on January 23rd with Karen Bellevance-Grace, Director of Faith Formation for the Clara Barton and Mass Bay Districts of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Members of UUS:E’s Interim DRE Search Committee are Clare DiMaiolo, Andrew Clokey, Jennie Bernstein, Walt Willett, Kristal Kallenberg, Monica Van Beusekom, Peter Marotto and Diana Sherman. UUS:E Vice President, Polly Painter, is serving as liaison to the Policy Board. Rev. Josh serves ex officio. 

Thank you Interim DRE Search Committee members!

UUS:E Interim DRE Search Committee

UUS:E Interim DRE Search Committee

The Interim DRE Search Committee expects to post the job in mid-February, interview candidates in mid- to late-March, and make a final recommendation to the Policy Board in mid-April.

Confronting Evil: A Role for Violence?

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”[1] Enduring words from Martin Luther King, Jr.; words that matter to me; words that matter to Unitarian Universalists; words I have repeated again and again over ten years in this pulpit—not only King’s articulation of them, but also as they manifested in the words and deeds of Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Ceasar Chavez, Delores Huerta, Rosa Parks, Albert Schweitzer, Dorothy Day, Henry David Thoreau, Jesus, the Buddha, the Hebrew prophets. We rightly trumpet the values of nonviolence, peace, justice and love, not only on this long, January weekend when the nation pauses to remember King’s life, but whenever we witness violence, oppression, injustice, poverty, inequality—these social , political and economic evils that are real in our nation and still place harsh, often deadly limits on the lives of so many people across the globe.

For King nonviolence was virtually inviolable. I say virtually only because I hear it said that regarding certain historical events—the conflict with Nazi Germany, perhaps—he conceded the necessity of violent confrontation with evil.[2] What I’m wrestling with this morning is not the depth of King’s commitment to nonviolence, but ours—as Unitarian Universalists, as people of faith. We repeat and affirm the value of nonviolence again and again—it resonates deeply with us. Though our Unitarian Universalist principles and sources do not use the term nonviolence, they clearly imply it. But are there limits? In confronting evil—and I’m speaking specifically about larger, systemic evils—abuses of power, often carried out through war, often perceived by victims as terrorism, whether we’re talking about al Qaeda suicide bombings or United States drone strikes, whether we’re talking about human rights violations and torture in countries like China, North Korea and Iran, or human rights violations and torture in the United States; or systemic evils that cut along lines of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, that lead to widespread poverty, inequality, hopelessness, despair, nihilism, suffering and death—in confronting such evils, is there a role for violence?

The question makes me cringe. To my ears it sounds strange. On my tongue it feels wrong, especially on the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Frankly, it has never occurred to me to ask this question from the pulpit. It’s not that we UUs can’t imagine scenarios where violence is necessary; it’s that we don’t spend a lot of energy reflecting on them. We tend to focus our attention on situations in which violence seems unnecessary and tragic—gang violence, domestic violence, state violence, unjust wars, terrorism, etc. Everything I believe in, the influence of King, Gandhi, Jesus and others on my thinking, my approach to ministry, my understanding of effective social justice work, and that place in my heart where I know my truth—it all cries out: No, there is no place for violence in the confrontation with evil! “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence.”[3] After years of affirming the power and the moral superiority of nonviolence, my gut response to the question is a resounding No!

But there’s one difference for me this year, which has always been there, but which I hadn’t looked at closely until now. Nelson Mandela died on December 5th. He was and continues to be a global moral hero—the father of South Africa, Madiba, the liberator, the freedom fighter, the 27 year prisoner who expanded the moral imagination of the world with his call for truth and reconciliation when revenge would have been so easy. Mandela went to prison for committing acts of violence which he admitted in great detail at the 1964 Rivonia trial. And although it is true that through the course of his imprisonment he found sustenance and hope as he recognized the humanity of his oppressors, he also never renounced violence. In answer to the question, is there a role for violence in the confrontation with evil, Mandela’s life suggests there is.

Following his conviction and sentencing, the prevailing view of Mandela in white South Africa, as well as in many western countries, was that he was a Communist terrorist. It was the height of the Cold War. The South African government garnered western support by portraying its enemies as Communists (many of them were) and itself as, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “strategically essential to the free world.”[4] Reagan put Mandela on the US international terrorist list. It sounds unbelievable, but he was not removed from that list until 2008.

There’s a debate over the extent to which Mandela was a Communist. He says he wasn’t, though he certainly considered the South African Communist Party an ally.[5] I don’t find the question compelling. What matters to me is his leadership in the African National Congress (ANC) which, through the first 50 years of its existence, pursued its goal of a non-racial state through nonviolent means. Mandela and his ANC colleagues were deeply committed to nonviolence. “It may not be easy for the Court to understand,” he said at the Rivonia trial, “but…for a long time the people had been talking of violence—of the day when they would fight the White Man and win back their country—and we, the ANC, had always prevailed upon them to avoid violence and to pursue peaceful methods.”[6] After reading his autobiography and many of the tributes that emerged in the wake of his death, after watching him act as a free man on the world stage through my entire adult life, I’m convinced nonviolence (peace, reconciliation, love, etc.) continued to be his highest aspirations, the approach he would choose under virtually any situation—but not every situation. He also said, without apology, “nonviolence was a tactic that should be abandoned when it no longer worked.”[7]

By the early 1960s, white South Africans had voted to form the Republic of South Africa; blacks had no vote, no representation, no voice; the ANC and its allies had been banned; the government routinely used brutal, deadly force to break up nonviolent demonstrations; the apartheid state was in full bloom. As Mandela said at Rivonia, “the hard facts were that fifty years of nonviolence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights.”[8] The ANC now faced the question, is there a role for violence in the confrontation with evil?

Mandela was one of the first to say yes. Recalling the ANC deliberations on the question he wrote, “I argued that the state had given us no alternative to violence. I said it was wrong and immoral to subject our people to armed attacks by the state without offering them some kind of alternative. I mentioned…that people on their own had taken up arms. Violence would begin whether we initiated it or not. Would it not be better to guide this violence ourselves, according to principles where we save lives by attacking symbols of oppression, and not people? If we did not take the lead now…we would soon be latecomers…to a movement we did not control.”[9]

The ANC sanctioned the creation of a military organization known as Umkhonto we Sizweor Spear of the Nation (MK). Mandela, a self-described military novice, was given command and told to start an army. He did. That story in itself is phenomenal. What stands out to me is his attempt to identify and hold onto principles of engagement as he entered into violent conflict. MK identified four forms of political violence: sabotage, guerilla warfare, terrorism, and open revolution. They regarded sabotage as the most principled because it could be used in a way that would minimize or prevent loss of human life. “Our strategy,” he wrote, “was to make selective forays against military installations, power plants, telephone lines, and transportations links; targets that would not only hamper the military effectiveness of the state, but frighten National Party supporters, scare away foreign capital, and weaken the economy. This we hoped would bring the government to the bargaining table. Strict instructions were given to members of MK that we would countenance no loss of life.”[10] For this he was sentenced to life in prison.

In December,1964, Martin Luther King, Jr., on his way to Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize, spoke in London about South Africa. He said: “In our struggle for freedom and justice in the United States…we feel a powerful sense of identification with those in the far more deadly struggle for freedom in South Africa. We know how Africans there, and their friends of other races, strove for half a century to win their freedom by nonviolent methods. We….know how this nonviolence was only met by increasing violence from the state, increasing repression…. Clearly there is much in Mississippi and Alabama to remind South Africans of their own country, yet even in Mississippi we can organize to register Negro voters, we can speak to the press, we can in short organize the people in nonviolent action. But in South Africa even the mildest form of nonviolent resistance meets with years of imprisonment, and leaders over many years have been restricted and silenced and imprisoned. We can understand how in that situation people felt so desperate that they turned to other methods, such as sabotage.”[11] King offers no judgment, no yes or no. Just understanding. Perhaps this is one of those moments when he recognized the necessity of confronting evil with violence.

Many times over 27 years the government offered Mandela release in exchange for renouncing violence, but he wouldn’t accept such offers. Many times the government offered to negotiate if he and the ANC would renounce violence, but he and they never did. “I responded,” he wrote, “that the state was responsible for the violence and that it is always the oppressor, not the oppressed, who dictates the form of the struggle. If the oppressor uses violence, the oppressed have no alternative but to respond violently. In our case it was simply a legitimate form of self-defense. I ventured that if the state decided to use peaceful methods, the ANC would also use peaceful means. ‘It is up to you,’ I said, ‘not us, to renounce violence.’”[12]

I offer this story this morning not to chip away at the moral foundations of nonviolence. Indeed, Mandela’s pursuit of truth and reconciliation as president after a century of racist atrocities announced to the world those foundations are unassailable, enduring and worthy of our ongoing loyalty. But a careful study of his whole life helps us identify the outer limits of nonviolence, helps us say with appropriately uneasy confidence, yes, there is a role for violence in the confrontation with evil. The dilemma of this yes is King’s warning that “returning violence for violence multiplies violence.” Certainly South Africa witnessed such multiplication before the end of apartheid. And while such multiplication may not be a forgone conclusion, it is always likely. No perpetrator of violence, no matter how principled their intentions, no matter how just their cause, can imagine, let alone control, all the consequences of their actions. Once unleashed, violence takes on a life of its own. It may have a role to play, but given its multiplying effect, it must be a role of absolute last resort.

A further risk in acknowledging a role for violence in the confrontation with evil is the descent into the cynical belief that violence is inevitable, that there is an aspect of human nature prone to violence and thus we ought always be prepared for it at some level. For me this is not the lesson of Mandela’s life. For fifty years the ANC refused to prepare for violence. We know King refused. We know Gandhi refused. And Mandela refused once he had sufficient power to pursue a nonviolent future for his country. Whether or not human beings are prone to violence, there are countless stories of people refusing to use it or only turning to it under extraordinary circumstances. Let’s remember that. However prone we may be, in those moments when we witness and resolve to confront evil, let us always begin by placing our confidence in nonviolence, reconciliation and love. Let us always call perpetrators of evil again and again and again back to those unassailable, enduring moral foundations. Let us believe, in those immortal words of King, that what self-centered [people] have torn down [people] other-centered can build up…. [and] that one day humanity will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land.[13]

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] King,Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 62, 63.

[2] Howard Zinn mentioned this in a December 2001 article in The Progressive entitled, “A Just Cause, Not a Just War.” See: http://www.progressive.org/0901/zinn1101.html

[3] King,Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 62.

[5] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) pp. 251-252.

[6] See Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock at the opening of the defense case in the Rivonia trial, April 20, 1964 at the ANC website: http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=3430.

[7] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) p. 272.

[8] See Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock at the opening of the defense case in Rivonia trial, April 20, 1964 at the ANC website: http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=3430

[9] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) p. 272.

[10] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) p. 283.

[11] See King’s speech on South Africa at http://www.rfksafilm.org/html/speeches/africaking.php.

[12] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) p. 537.

Joy Shall Be Yours in the Morning: A Humanist Christmas Homily

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Night is falling, snow is coming on a frosty, December evening. Mole and Rat are sprucing up Mole’s home in Chapter 5 of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. They’ve just arrived there, somewhat unexpectedly, after a long journey. They are tired and hungry. Mole is anxious and a little embarrassed by his meager possessions and barren cupboards; but he’s relieved to be home after so much time away, surrounded by familiar things. Rat is trying to give Mole a proper homecoming, figuring out how to add an air of festivity to their night, when suddenly a group of field-mice come to the door singing carols with shrill little voices. “Joy shall be yours in the morning,” their song proclaims. A feast ensues. And in the end it is a wonderful homecoming for Mole. Later, as he drifts off to sleep, he is content, at peace, and mindful of how blessed he is to have this home “to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.” Joy shall be yours in the morning.

It’s a version of the timeless theme we return to in this season, year after year: cold and darkness give way to warmth and light; anxiety and distress give way to contentment and peace; brokenness to wholeness; lost to found; despair to hope; sorrow and suffering give way, in the end, to joy. The messenger of peace, hope and love isn’t born on a sunny, summer day. That birth speaks to us, inspires us, moves us because it takes place—at least in our imagination—in the bleak midwinter.

I confess I sometimes feel uncomfortable mapping this narrative onto our lives. I sometimes feel disingenuous as a pastor offering a bright vision of the future, when it’s difficult to say with confidence what the future will bring. There are times when, in the presence of someone who is grieving, someone who is in great pain, someone who is angry at an injustice that has been done to them, I wonder: who am I to say, it will get better, when I’m not always convinced it will? Who am I to say, time heals all wounds, when I’ve witnessed wounds that seem to never heal? Who am I to offer hope when I’m aware of so many people in situations that breed hopelessness: the slave, the prisoner, the war refugee, the victim of violence, the homeless family, the hungry family, the person living with loss, the person living with illness.

I want us to say to each other and to the world, Be hopeful! I want us to say to each other and to the world, Fear not! I want us to say to each other and to the world, Peace on earth, good will to all! I want us to say to each other and to the world, Joy shall be yours in the morning! But I don’t want us to make false promises. I don’t want these words to ring hollow. I don’t want these words simply to be the rote things we say at Christmas time and then return to some other words, some other life once the light has returned. I want them to be real. I want them to mean something. I want them to have the power to change us in whatever way we need change in our lives.

This seems to be the lesson I keep learning—throughout my ministry, but certainly in this holiday season when we in Connecticut are so mindful of the tragedy in Newtown one year ago; when we in Manchester are so mindful of a horrendous incident of domestic violence just two Saturdays ago; when we in the United States continue to witness the humanitarian crisis resulting from the war in Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan—the list is long, it’s always long, always too long—the lesson is that we human beings never seem to reach the promised land. No matter how much we say it, there is no guarantee that joy shall be ours in the morning. No matter how much we say it, not everyone who hopes will live to see the dawn. Love is alive in the world—the power of love is real—but it somehow fails to touch every heart. So, therefore, these Christmas time words of hope, peace, love and joy do not refer to some inevitable future which will come if we are patient or if we have the correct faith. They do not refer to some divinely ordained new heaven and new earth which will come at the end of history. Rather, they describe our longing. They describe the world we want to live in.They describe our highest values and aspirations. They describe our best selves.

But since we cannot count on world to change on its own, we must count on us. That’s the lesson. We must count on us! The work of bringing peace into the world must be our work—not because we are convinced there will be peace, but because we long for peace. The work of bringing love into the world must be our work—not because we trust love will touch every heart, but because we long for love to touch every heart. The work of creating a better future—a more fair, just and compassionate future—must be our work, not because we have any evidence that the world is consistently moving in that direction, but because we long for a more just, fair, compassionate world.

So, in these last few days before Christmas I offer a prayer. Not a promise, but a prayer. May we embrace the stories, the words and the timeless themes of this season. May they wash over us, speak to us, inspire us and move us to make them real in the world. And as the light returns, as the carols sing of hope, peace and love, may we be able to say with conviction: these are the things to which our lives are dedicated. And with our lives so dedicated may we, with the coming of the dawn, discover joy—a deep, lasting precious joy.

Amen and blessed be.

On the Meaning of “Multigenerational”

Rev.  Josh Pawelek

 

 

Bellevance-Grace, Director of Faith Formation for the Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay Districts of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) writes: “The world of church is changing. And why not? The world of medicine is changing. The world of journalism is changing. The way we govern, teach, communicate, learn, the way we buy and read books is changing. There’s no good reason to believe that changes would not also impact the way we understand worship and Sunday School and every other aspect of congregational life.”[1] There’s nothing controversial about this statement. We know it’s true. For better and, in some cases, for much worse, the world is changing: climate is changing; the economy is changing; technology, demographics, health care, education, families, and children’s lives are all changing. We know this. The question on my mind and in my heart this morning is how shall we, as a faithful Unitarian Universalist congregation, adapt to all these changes?

Though there are many answers to this question, I am convinced that we will successfully adapt to the storm of changes all around us if we focus our energies on building and sustaining UUS:E as a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. This answer has something to do with how we carry out our religious education program for children and youth. But it has much more to do with how all of us intentionally build relationships across generational lines; how we learn from each other, care for each other and love each other across the generations in all aspects of congregational life. With a robust network of dynamic, caring, loving multigenerational relationships, we cannot help but thrive. Without such relationships, we enter a slow decline. We need the wonder, awe and innocence children bring. We need the questioning, testing, sometimes rebellious spirit youth bring. We need the idealism, creativity and energy young adults bring. We need the experience, skills and leadership middle-aged adults bring. We need the wisdom, memory and depth elders bring. We need it all, not in isolated silos and affinity groups, but mixed together—a beautiful, blessed mixing, week in and week out, holding us, teaching us, challenging us, inspiring us. That, for me, is the meaning of multigenerational—a community whose members interact with ease across generational lines; a community in which each generation receives the gifts the others have offer.

I want to reflect on the state of our multigenerational community here at UUS:E. To begin I want to talk about our search for a new Director of Religious Education (DRE) to succeed our retiring DRE, Vicki Merriam. Vicki is the only DRE this congregation has ever known. Vicki herself is not entirely sure how long she has been in the position. We know it’s over thirty, possibly 35 years. For more than a generation Vicki has guided our religious education program with skill, patience, consistency and grace. Her reputation in our district and nationally is of the highest order. Just last year she was invited to write the curriculum for this year’s Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Guest at Your Table program, which we’ll be experiencing in December. For years she has been a pillar of this congregation, providing links to our traditions and vision for our future. I’m not sure we can fully thank Vicki for all her years of service, for her loyalty and dedication to UUS:E, for the love she has shown our children, but we owe her profound gratitude. I urge each of you, even if you really don’t know Vicki, to thank her, trusting that we wouldn’t be who we are today as a congregation without her service.

I rarely preach about internal congregational dynamics like our DRE search, but this feels really important to me. There’s a lot at stake. One of the reasons I can say this with complete confidence is because so many of you have contributed feedback on the future of religious education at UUS:E. More than 110 of you responded to our online survey—a remarkable participation rate for us. And approximately 100 of you participated in one of our many face-to-face discussions between July and early October. Karen Bellavance-Grace, who is periodically checking in with us on our search process, was amazed by the number of people who participated, and by the thoughtfulness and passion you brought to the conversation. Based on your responses it is clear you care deeply about providing an excellent religious education program not only for our children and youth, but for people of all generations. But perhaps even more significantly—and Karen noticed this immediately when reading through the feedback—you want a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. While there certainly isn’t unanimous agreement about that, or about what it might look like, that is the picture that emerges from the feedback you’ve given: a vibrant, loving multigenerational community.

Well, wait, don’t we already have that? Based on what Vicki and many of you who were here in the 1970s, 80s and 90s have told me, UUS:E had a very strong identity as a vibrant, loving multigenerational community during that time. You were a smaller congregation then. A greater percentage of adults knew a greater percentage of the children’s names and vice versa. Children’s time in general was not as over-structured and over-scheduled then as it is today.  Many of you whose children grew up during that era recall how easy it was to bring them along to church events even if those events weren’t for children. “We’d just let them play in some other part of the building, or outside if the weather was nice enough, or even if it wasn’t.” What a difference 20 years later, when insurance companies expect to see congregations implementing a whole range of safety practices which, among other things, require all children on the premises to be supervised by at least two adults. What a difference 20 years later: 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 the other activity is their highest priority. What a difference 20 years later, 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. What a difference.

These changes and many more have put enormous pressure on faith communities. We hear often how mainline denominations are declining, how even the mega churches aren’t so mega anymore, how a growing number of Americans describe themselves as “nones,” meaning no religious affiliation. While Unitarian Universalism is holding steady in its membership (though not growing at the same rate as the overall American population), and while our congregation continues to grow slowly, we’ve certainly felt the impact of these wider societal changes. And here’s how: we don’t always feel like the vibrant, loving multigenerational congregation that we felt like 20 and 30 years ago. The reason we don’t always feel that way is because—this is my theory—we knew how to make multigenerational community work more or less seamlessly then. We just brought out kids along. But we aren’t so sure about how to make it work now. There’s been so much change. We haven’t fully adapted. We don’t yet know—really know—how to make multigenerational community work in the midst of these changes.

I do know at least one thing. There’s a clear distinction between implementing an excellent religious education program for children and youth, and building and sustaining a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. They are related, but not the same. Implementing the religious education program is the primary responsibility of the DRE and the Religious Education Committee. Building and sustaining a vibrant, loving multigenerational community, is the responsibility of all of us. An excellent religious education program, though immensely important to the future of our faith, is just that—a program. A vibrant, loving multigenerational community isn’t a program. It’s part of our identity. It’s who we are at our core. Programs flow out of identity. What we offer to our people is a function of who we are as a people. We provide an excellent religious education program because we are a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. It’s not the other way around.

Why does this matter? Because Vicki will be retiring and we will be looking for her successor. And we need to be clear: Vicki’s successor is responsible for implementing an excellent religious education program for children and youth ages three to eighteen—a program that is grounded in Unitarian Universalist principles and sources, takes place in a variety of settings, and utilizes diverse teaching methods; a program that provides the solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists. But Vicki’s successor is not responsible for building and sustaining a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. That responsibility belongs to whom? All of us! And Vicki’s successor will thrive if we all take responsibility for our multigenerational community. So, we have work to do.

How do we get there? There are many models for how to do effective multigenerational ministry in our time.[2] But I don’t think the answer is for us to just adopt someone else’s model. Other models can inform us, but UUS:E is at its best when we create our own model from the ground up. So let’s do it. Let’s enter together into a time of experimentation and creativity. What better time than now? Let’s think deeply together about ways we can connect across generations, and then let’s try them. Let’s learn together through trial and error about how best to build and sustain vibrant, loving multigenerational Unitarian Universalist community.

Certainly we can build on our strengths. Affirmation—our coming of age class for 9th graders—creates wonderful relationships across generations through its mentoring program. So maybe we build a mentoring system for other age groups. The Thanksgiving dinner offers a wonderful experience of multigenerational community. Maybe we need more Thanksgiving dinners throughout the year. Let’s also look at the places where we are most challenged. If it is truly difficult for some families to attend services every Sunday due to children’s schedules, maybe there’s a way to offer multigenerational learning at other times of the week. I love the idea to send care packages to our young adults at college, or the idea to hold a camping weekend on our grounds in late spring, or the idea of dedicating one of the garden level rooms as an arts space—not only for kids, but for anyone who wants to be creative and get a little messy.

The point is to ask how we can connect across generations, and then do it. Make the invitations. And this is my hope: After a few years of experimenting and creating, making mistakes and coming to some dead ends, learning together and building relationships, we will transform our congregation. We won’t ask, “How can our children be more integrated into the life of our congregation?” We’ll say, “Wow, the children are really integrated into the life of our congregation!” And not only the children, but the elders the young adults too! And our children will be more fully integrated into the lives of our elders. And our elders will be more fully integrated into the lives of our youth. And our youth will have input into more of our Sunday services. And we’ll know what music they’re listening to. And all of our adults will be discerning their passions and figuring out how to share them with people of all ages. And they’ll also be volunteering in the nursery. And if the youth group is walking against hunger, the elders will go with them. And if the social justice committee is organizing an action against mass incarceration, the children will go with them. And if the elders are organizing a game night, the youth and young adults will join them. And if the religious education director needs volunteers to help teach a 5th and 6th grade class, twelve people will raise their hand and beg to be given this opportunity. We will have a beautiful, blessed mixing, week in and week out, holding us, teaching us, challenging us, inspiring us. That’s what a vibrant, loving multigenerational community looks like to me. We will figure it out. And we will thrive.

Friends, I am convinced this is a major piece of our journey as a congregation in the coming years. It must be. Too many forces in society drive the generations apart, preventing each from receiving the gifts the others offer. Too many forces direct people away from living fully in neighborhoods, from knowing and caring about their actual neighbors. Too many forces drive wedges into what I call sacred family time, including family meal time, family leisure time, family prayer time, family reading time, family art time and, with the death of Sunday morning, family worship time. Too many forces deprive us of the benefits of multigenerational community: the wonder, awe and innocence of children; the questioning, testing, sometimes rebellious spirit of youth; the idealism, creativity and energy of young adults; the experience, skills and leadership of middle-aged adults; the wisdom, memory and depth of elders. The church can and must be that force in society that says no to all that drives us apart. The church can and must be that force in society that says yes to vibrant, loving, multi-generational community; yes to responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking multigenerational community; yes to being together across generations, caring for one another, listening deeply to each other, honoring each other, playing together, working together, singing together, dancing together, breaking bread together, baking bread together, making art together, struggling for a more just and fair world together, struggling for the world together across the generations. In my experience, outside of families that manage to keep some semblance of togetherness—not all do—there is no other institution in society that has more capacity to bring generations together than the church. We may very well be the last refuge of multigenerational community. If that’s true, then I, for one, feel a deep moral obligation to build and sustain vibrant, multigenerational community here at UUS:E. I hope and trust you do too.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] See the full text to Karen Bellevance-Grace’s paper, “Full Week Faith,” at http://fullweekfaith.weebly.com/introduction-how-to-use-these-resources.html.

[2] There’s a story in the latest issue of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine about a congregation near Cincinnati called Harmony at http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/290443.shtml. See Karen Bellevance-Grace’s paper on Full-Week Faith at http://fullweekfaith.weebly.com/introduction-how-to-use-these-resources.html.

Kimberly Paquette, Multigenerational Ministry director of the Northern New England District of the UUA, has a blog on multigenerational ministry at http://multigenministry.wordpress.com/page/2/?blogsub=confirming.

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

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, man, I don’t vote.”

“Really? Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you old enough, are you 18?”

“No, man, 17.”

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

“I don’t know, man.”

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

[Silence]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] Leviticus 19:33.

Rally to Save Funding for HUSKY Parents

HUSKY A Rally - April 17, 2013

Rev. Josh Pawelek and Rhona Cohen, chair of UUS:E’s Social Justice / Antiracism Committee, were in attendance at a rally on Wednesday morning, April 17th, calling on legislators and the governor to maintain funding for HUSKY parents. HUSKY is Connecticut’s program for providing health coverage to low income children, parents, relative caregivers, elders, individuals with disabilities, adults without minor children, and pregnant women. (HUSKY stands for “Healthcare for UninSured Kids and Youth.) Governor Malloy’s current budget proposal would drop coverage for parents who earn between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty line, and direct them to purchase their insurance on Connecticut’s new Health Care Exchange, known as Access Health CT.  However, virtually every analysis of this idea concludes that HUSKY parents would not be able to afford to purchase insurance through the Exchange. (Read the first bullet point here.) This would effectively leave HUSKY parents without access to affordable healthcare. Thus the Gov’s proposal seeks to balance the state budget on the backs of those who can least afford it. 

Rhona Cohen and Rev. Joel Cruz

Rhona Cohen and Rev. Joel Cruz

The UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee has been involved in efforts to expand health care in the state of CT for many years. And Rev. Josh has been a leader with the Interfaith Fellowship for Universal Healthcare (IFUHC) for the last six years. Other IFUHC members at the rally were Imam Kashif Abdul-Kareem of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford and Rev. (and Hartford City Councilor) Joel Cruz of Hartford’s House of Praise and Worship, Inc.  We’ve believed for a while now that CT’s health care system can come close to covering every resident through a patchwork of different public and private programs. But the failure to fund coverage for HUSKY parents will put a big hole in that patchwork. The failure to fund HUSKY parents moves us backwards, not forwards.

At the rally, Teresa Younger, Executive Director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, pointed out that we’re not talking about whether or not these families have enough money to afford cable tv. She said this is about having enough money to buy food and medicine and not having to choose one over the other. We can do better for the most vulnerable among us.

DSC_1379

 

Easter Homily: The Rhythm of Life is a Powerful Beat

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?”[1] 

I like this song on Easter morning. It reminds us we live in a world where far too many people, for far too many reasons need safe harbor, need of sanctuary, shelter, safety; need caring, love and compassion, comfort and solace, respite and rest. It reminds us we live in a world where far too many people, for far too many reasons, need real help, need choices, opportunity, access, a “seat at the table,” a voice; need freedom, liberation, justice, peace. But the song doesn’t just point to needs. That’s easy enough. It also seeks to inspire in us a certain commitment. It asks everyone—those singing and those listening: will you, will I, will we be people who harbor those in need? Will you, will I, will we be people who take the side of the oppressed, who take the side of the incarcerated, of immigrants without papers, families without homes, workers without work, children in failing schools, women who’ve been battered, victims of violence, people whose land has been stolen, people struggling with addiction, people living with mental illness, people living with HIV/AIDS, and certainly people who still experience the pain of discrimination and second class citizenship because their committed, loving relationships are not recognized in law.


Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you? As much as any of us might want to answer this question with a resounding, “Yes,” it’s not easy. There are always risks. If I take the side of the persecuted, the oppressed, the victims of violence, isn’t it possible the same forces threatening their lives might seek to threaten mine? When the Roman guards were leading Jesus to his execution, when the mob had gathered to jeer at their scapegoat on his way to Golgotha to be crucified, his disciples were nowhere to be found. Just one day earlier Peter had said to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you.”[2] And yet on the day of the crucifixion—Good Friday—Peter three times denies knowing Jesus. Risks always accompany taking the side of persecuted people. Peter wasn’t willing to take them.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the whole point of the Easter story is to expose the violence people do to people—to name it, to reveal it, to show how entire communities can resort to it, as if it will somehow solve their problems. Virtually everyone in the story sanctions the murder of Jesus in some way. Only the three women—the three Mary’s—who gather at the foot of the cross are willing to be with Jesus in his suffering.

If I’m correct that the point of the story is to definitively and unwaveringly reveal the reality of violence in human communities, then the story’s message is that violence is wrong, that violence, persecution and oppression redeem nothing. The story asks its hearers and readers to consider the question, which side are you on? Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?

Jesus is crucified. The next day is the Sabbath, the day of rest. On the third day the women return to the tomb where Jesus has been laid. They discover the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, and with slight variations depending on which version one reads, they hear the news that Jesus has risen from death: the Easter miracle.

I think most of you know that while I view Jesus’ execution as a largely settled historical fact—there are multiple reports of it in the Jewish and Roman historical records—I view the resurrection as metaphor—a potent and multi-layered symbol. For me, the value of this symbol begins with its unmistakable affirmation that the Sacred—however we understand the Sacred—is fundamentally opposed to and will always seek to overcome violence in human communities. In the face of violence, injustice and death, the Sacred affirms life. It encourages us not to succumb to fear as Peter did, but in the very least to sit faithfully by the side of those who are suffering, to call for water to moisten their parched throats; and when the opportunity presents itself to say, “Yes, I do know this person who is being persecuted. This person is visible to me and this persecution is wrong.” It makes available to us sources of love far more powerful than any violence any persecutor can bring to bear.”

The value of this symbol lies in its power to remind us in the deepest places of our being that though violence, persecution, oppression and injustice may at times seem overwhelming, may at times seem to have prevailed; and though the many ways in which we suffer as human beings—physical illness, mental illness, depression, loss, grief, broken dreams, broken relationships, personal failures—may at times seem insurmountable, there is nevertheless a rhythm of life and its beat is powerful; its beat never stops; its beat keeps coming around and around. Days keep dawning. Waves keep crashing. Tides keep pulling. Hearts keep beating. Lungs keep breathing. Love keeps coming. That’s the rhythm and it has the power to help us overcome; to bring us back to our true selves, back to our most authentic selves, back to life.

Even after the longest winters of our lives, spring arrives—that’s the rhythm! Stones roll away. Prophets proclaim good news. Wounds heal. Communities come together, find their purpose, start to organize, build life anew. Birds, once again, sing at the break of day. Buds, once again, appear on branches. Grass, once again, grows high and green. Hope, once again, rises in our hearts. If we can attune ourselves to the rhythm of life, if we can catch its pulse and start to sing, dance, create along with its ancient, powerful, undying beat that began in the heart of that one, tiny seed,[3] then we too can come back to life refreshed, rejuvenated, resurrected, filled with joy, filled with passion, filled with new-found courage to meet our challenges, to bear witness to suffering and violence, to struggle for justice, to pursue our dreams. If we can catch its pulse and start to sing, dance and create along with its ancient beat then we too can rest securely in the knowledge and the faith that our pain and grief will subside in time and that beloved community is possible, a more just society is possible, a healthy planet is possible; that we are justified in being hopeful people and that, in the end, love prevails. Love prevails. Love prevails.

Oh yes: the rhythm of life is an awesome and powerful beat. On this Easter morning, as spring finally arrives all around us, may we feel its pulse. May we start to dance. May we add our joyful noise to its undying song.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] This refers to Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s Sweet Honey in the Rock piece, “Would You Harbor Me?” See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0XBXJjoXJ4. To purchase this song, find the “Sacred Ground” album at http://www.sweethoney.com/discography.php.

[2] Luke 13:37b.

[3] Earlier in this service we read Carol Martignacco’s The Everything Seed. For more info see: http://www.amazon.com/The-Everything-Seed-Story-Beginnings/dp/1582461619.

How Do We Know? or Spiritual Discernment in the Information Age

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

[Video Here]

 

“Light shine in. Luminate our inward view. Help us to see with clarity.”[1] I offer these words as a way to begin exploring our January ministry theme, discernment. When we discern, we attempt to “see with clarity.”

I love this theme for kickin’ off the new year. It can take us beyond the standard new year’s resolutions which—not always, but often—emerge out of guilt, anxiety, self-nagging: I will lose weight. I will be more open-minded. I will exercise more regularly. I will drink less. I will finally write that novel I’ve been aching to write but keep putting off. I will make an effort to connect more with family and friends. I will unplug. These kinds of resolutions are important. They play a role in our efforts at self-improvement. They help us set personal goals. None of them is easy. But so often we make them in an attempt to fix something we imagine is wrong with us. So often they come from a negative-leaning self-appraisal. And so often that negativity comes from outside of us. That is, it reflects societal values—or what we assume are societal values—what can be quite shallow values—and it has very little to do with what we really want for ourselves. Again, there’s a place for such resolutions in our lives, but I think we can and ought to go further and deeper as the year begins. Exploring discernment as a central feature of our spiritual lives moves us away from making resolutions to fix something about ourselves that may or may not need fixing, and moves us towards discovering what is true for us, what really matters in our lives, and what kinds of living will bring meaning and fulfillment. I like how Kathleen McTigue put it in our opening words: “The new year can be new ground for the seeds of our dreams.”[2]

So, what do I mean by discernment? To begin, I commend to you Jerry Lusa’s essay in our January newsletter (which is also at uuse.org[3]). Jerry writes, “Discernment is about finding the essence of things.” Discernment is about “going past the mere perception of something and making detailed judgments about [it]. It is the ability to judge well.”  He includes a quote from Anne Hill, a California-based neo-pagan writer, publisher, teacher, musician and blogger. She says discernment is “the ability to tell truth from fiction, to know when we have lost our center and how to find it again.”[4]

One could argue—and Jerry’s essay hints at this—that we practice discernment all day long in every context imaginable. Much of our discerning is about our daily routines and feels more or less inconsequential. We discern what we shall eat for breakfast. We discern whether we should take an alternate route in heavy traffic. We discern whether we shall read or watch television before we go to bed. Meaningful living and a life of the spirit aren’t necessarily tied to this level of “everyday” discernment, though certainly one could also argue from a Buddhist, or perhaps a Taoist, perspective that the more mindful we are about even the most mundane aspects of our day, the more meaningful our living will be.

So whether we’re seeking clarity about the mundane or the transcendent, the common or the extraordinary, the secular or the sacred, discernment becomes relevant to our spiritual lives—in fact, it becomes an essential and intimate feature of our spiritual lives—when we pursue it as an intentional process—a thought process, a contemplative process, a process of reasoning, reflecting or ruminating; a process of assessing or analyzing; a process of deliberating, of musing, of praying, of feeling, of intuiting—any process that we use intentionally to bring some sense of order and meaning to our lives; to help us distinguish between truth and falsehood; to help us distinguish between what matters most and what matters least; to help us distinguish between what is coming from within and what is coming from without. It’s any process we use intentionally to guide us to our center—or to guide us back to our center if we’ve lost it; to guide us to our own voice—or to guide us back to our own voice if it has grown silent; to guide us to our most authentic self—or back to that self if we’ve somehow grown distant from it; or to guide us to some reality greater than ourselves that we experience as sacred, holy, life-affirming, life-giving, saving, salving, healing, sustaining. In short, spiritual discernment is an intentional process that leads us deeper into ourselves or out beyond ourselves. “Light shine in. Luminate our inward view. Help us to see with clarity.”

And once we arrive there, once we’ve gained clarity, once we have truth, once we have our authentic self or that reality greater than self, then we have the capacity, the grounding, the confidence, the nerve, the will to make good decisions, to judge well, to select wisely, to act with integrity, to move forward on our path, to plant the seeds of our dreams.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

It’s not easy. I think what I’m describing as discernment is very difficult. Even with great intentionality, great focus, great discipline, the line between truth and falsehood is not always clear. The line between what matters most and what matters least is not always clear. Our most authentic self is not always clear. And certainly the nature of some life-giving, sustaining reality greater than ourselves is not always clear. Light shines in but doesn’t always luminate.

This week I’ve been imagining our capacity for discernment as a continuum. On one end of the continuum discernment begins, and there are reasons it is difficult to begin. On the other end … it ends. Discernment meets its limit—we can only gain so much clarity. I want to say a few words about each end of the continuum.

At the beginning we have a situation about which we need clarity. We have raw data, information, thoughts, sensations, joys and sorrows, problems to solve, dilemmas to manage, decisions to make, conflicts to resolve. Discernment begins as we pause, as we lean back, as we enter into that intentional process of thinking, contemplating, reflecting, musing or praying in order to gain clarity about the situation. And, keep in mind, we’re not simply thinking about the situation. We’re thinking beneath the situation; we’re looking for our truth in relation to it, our sense of what matters, our voice, our center, and at times we’re looking for our relationship to a life-giving, life-affirming reality beyond ourselves. But note: the act of pausing to think about a situation, let alone beneath a situation, is difficult in its own right. I’m pretty sure it’s not a natural human tendency. It’s a skill we develop. It takes practice. How often do we admonish our children and grandchildren to “think before you act?” How many times as children did we hear that advice? And ignore it? Pausing, leaning back, taking a breath—for the sake of discernment—is not a natural human tendency.

But there’s more to the difficulty in this information age. The world has changed remarkably in the last decade. When we lean back from a situation today, we are more and more likely to find ourselves leaning into a mighty river of information. When we lean back from a situation today, we are less and less able to pause and  reflect on a situation because the space—mental or otherwise—in which we had hoped to do our reflecting is filling up with more and more information. We are firmly ensconced in the information age. Things move and change so quickly that whenever we pause to discern, we risk falling behind—at least that’s how it feels, and the feeling is potent.

And then one of our devices beeps. Our pop-tune ring-tones interrupt. Even with our phones on ‘vibrate,’ it’s still an interruption. We have to see who’s calling, or texting; who’s pushing what new message.

And of course, sometimes we mean to pause for discernment, but instead we check out our Facebook page. Ohh, my friend (who is not an actual friend) posted an article with an interesting headline at Huffington Post. I’ll check it out. Hmm. Not so interesting, but there’s another author I know. They link to her blog. I’ll check it out. Hmm. This is funny. And wise. Might work for a sermon. Think I’ll tweet it. Oh, a colleague just tweeted the link to a sermon video. I’ll check it out. Uh, this is great, but I don’t have time to watch the whole thing. Wait, Colbert said what? I have to check it out. Hilarious. Ooh, a new video from one of my favorite bands. Gotta check it out. Very cool. I have to share this. Quick, back to Facebook. And so it goes.

Within the span of a decade the number of ways for people to communicate, connect, network, conduct business, report, offer opinion, advertise, sell, barter, share ideas, books, music, movies and inventions has exploded—perhaps not beyond measure but certainly beyond our wildest Y2K imaginings. Information now comes at us constantly. Constantly. We live in a message-saturated society with the potential for hundreds, if not thousands of voices to enter our consciousness every day from all corners. I suspect we’ve all developed unconscious filters to help us ignore most of it; but even still, the flow of information is staggering.

Don’t misconstrue my intent. I am not complaining. I’m not lamenting. I’m not pining away for some lost pre-internet golden age where there were three corporate TV networks, rotary phones, and newspapers printed on actual paper. (Remember Newsweek?) I’m not interested in going back. I’m not one of those clergy who talks about how much we’ve lost in this information age—how terrible it is that we interact as much online as we do in person, how we’ve lost some bit of our soul because of it. We have lost something. No question. But I feel strongly that as long as we can manage ourselves rather than the information managing us, then we’ve gained far more than we’ve lost. I like all the new tools. I’m not an early adopter, but I adopt. I feel very much at home working with email, websites, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, I-tunes, and I’m moving towards e-books. I like figuring out how to use the tools to best express and promote our liberal religious message. But I’m also aware that in an information-soaked, data-infused, message-saturated, device-permeated culture, spiritual discernment becomes all the more difficult: discerning the line between truth and fiction, discerning what matters most, discerning one’s voice, discerning one’s authentic self becomes all the more difficult because there is so much information. How do we know which information is accurate? How do we know which information is relevant? How do we know which information will guide us in a healthy, productive, life-giving direction? Where on earth is clarity?

The answer, at least for me this morning, strangely, lies at the other end of the continuum where our capacity for discernment ends. Earlier I read Tracey Smith’s poem “It and Co.” For me this poem as a provocative yet oddly comforting statement about the limits of our capacity to discern. I take “It” to be a reality larger than ourselves—reality in an ultimate sense—God, Goddess, Gaia, the earth, the universe, the cosmos. The “Co.”—the company—is us, humans. We are curious.  We are curious about It. We are trying—we’ve been trying for millennia—to discern the essence of It, but the light we shine never reaches far enough. We never gain clarity. “Is It us,” Smith asks, “or what contains us?” And then: “It is elegant / But coy. It avoids the blunt ends / Of our fingers as we point. We / Have gone looking for It everywhere: / In Bibles and bandwidth, / …. Still It resists the matter of false vs. real …. / It is like some novels: / Vast and unreadable.”[5]

She’s got us out at the far reaches of the universe, the limits of our perception, the end of the continuum. She’s got us at the door to the Holy of Holies, but we can’t peer in. She’s got us at the entrance to the mountaintop cave, but we can’t peer out. In traditional religious language, we can’t gaze upon the face of God. There’s no more clarity to gain no matter how much light we shine in. This ultimate reality is “vast and unreadable.” It “avoids the blunt end of our fingers as we point.” It rests behind an unpiercable veil. It is, in the end, utterly mysterious. And knowing this is important. Because here is a space that will never fill up with information.

Here we can pause, lean back, breathe. And while we can’t name what we’re leaning on, here we also aren’t caught in a river of constant data. Here we aren’t drowning in a sea of new facts and opinions. Here we can discern. We can’t discern It with a capital I. But we can move beyond the beginning of the continuum where information is flowing relentlessly. We can look closely at the situations of our lives. We can gain clarity. We can’t discern ultimate reality, but in the space it provides we can certainly discern our truth, our own voice, our most authentic self, and the things that matter beyond ourselves.

And we don’t have to go to the far reaches of the universe to enter this space.  There are hints of this everywhere: in the dark of winter; in the cry of a newborn baby; at the mountain peak; in the lover’s embrace; in the watery depths; in the nonviolent resistor’s courage; in crashing waves and tidal pools; in the wild abandon of children in summer (acting before they think); in those old stone fences running through New England woods; in the farmer rising before dawn; in crocuses breaking through the still frozen March ground; in elders sharing their stories and their wisdom by the light of a blazing fire. In all of it some mystery abides just below the surface constantly calling to us, constantly beckoning—some vast and unreadable essence, some beautiful and compelling but obscure essence, some take-your-breath-away, put-goose-bumps-on-your-fore-arms, send-chills-up-and-down-your-spine essence, some holy hallelujah cry just below the surface. And yes, the second we try to name it, the second we point our blunt fingers at it, the second we shine too bright a light, it slips away. But it keeps calling.

Some will find this confounding. I don’t. I find it comforting. There is something deeply comforting for me in the constant presence of a mystery constantly calling out to us, constantly presenting itself to us, constantly inviting us to seek, to search, to discern, even if it remains elusive. Its presence makes us curious. Mystery makes us curious. One of the most central and endearing human qualities is curiosity. If the presence of a vast and unreadable mystery inspires curiosity in us, then it invites us to be human. It invites us to discern. It invites us to plant the seeds of our dreams. Consider this: the absence of mystery doesn’t offer such invitations. Curiosity is a lot more challenging in the absence of mystery. I prefer the mystery. I know it may never be revealed, but there’s a lot we can clarify along the way. Thus, may we continue to seek. May we continue to discern.

Amen and blessed be. And Happy New Year!

 


[1] Kimball, Richard S., “Winds Be Still,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 83.

[2] McTigue, Kathleen, “New Year’s Day,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #544.

[3] Navigate to http://uuse.org/topics/monthly-ministry-theme/ and scroll down to “January Ministry Theme: Discernment” (posted 12/31/2012).

[4] Anne Hill, The Baby and the Bathwater (Bodega Bay, CA: Serpentine Music, 2012).

[5] Smith, Tracy K., “It  & Co.”  Life on Mars (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011) p. 17.

Love Keeps Coming: A Christmas Eve Homily

I found Colin McEnroe’s editorial in the Hartford Courant this weekend very moving. He was reflecting, one week later, on the December 14 tragedy in Newtown. He said, “If there’s an elixir, some potion we can drink, it’s almost certainly love. Right? Love is the only possible bright sparkling rope bridge we can clutch as we stutter-step through the dark universe.

“What a joke,” he goes on. “Our only good piece of equipment is love, the thing we fail at so often. We’ve been talking all week about weapons, but our only sure-fire weapon against chaos and nothingness is love….

I don’t know what comes next. But I am reminded to love.”[1]

I don’t know if he intended this as a Christmas message, but there it is: “We are reminded to love.”

Many of you know this past Friday I had the honor of participating in Tom Ashbrook’s National Public Radio On Point conversation about the spiritual challenge of Newtown. I believe Tom Ashbrook is a hopeful person, a positive person. But I also know that he, like all of us, was shaken to his core by this tragic event; and he wasn’t going to let his guests off easy. He wasn’t going to let us simply proclaim, “we should be hopeful.” He really wanted to know why. Given what we’ve witnessed, why should we be hopeful this holiday season? And how? How can any of us justify a feeling of hopefulness after this?

I suppose I ought to add: given all of it—given a culture of violence and crass materialism; given our national addiction to militarism; given our political polarization; given racism, classism, homophobia; given homelessness and poverty; given all the ways in which we are isolated from one another, separated, fragmented, alienated; given pervasive loneliness; given all of it, how can we justify an attitude of hopefulness? That’s what I was hearing Tom Ashbrook ask on the radio Friday.

It’s a fair question. And I suppose it’s the ultimate question any person of any kind of faith whatsoever is challenged to answer: why hope, when there is so much around us that says, again and again and again, there’s no reason to be hopeful?

Well, I’m not sure there is an answer—not a good one—not one that will suffice in the face of a tragedy like Newtown. Maybe we really do live in a cold and impersonal universe; and terrible, tragic things will happen from time to time; and evil things are just as likely to happen as good things. “It’s just the way things are,” said one of Friday’s On Point callers. “And it’s naïve to think you can somehow change it.”

But I do think we can change it. I really do. I don’t know exactly why I think this. If I did, I suppose I would have my answer to the question, Why be hopeful? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that our ancient ancestors learned to trust that the sun would return at the darkest time of year. Maybe it has something to do with the way a candle flame looks in the darkness—small, thin, even frail, but beautiful and heart-warming nevertheless. Maybe it has something to do with the grandeur of stars in a cold winter night sky. Maybe it has something to do with the ways people come together in the aftermath of tragedy, holding each other, supporting each other, bearing witness to suffering. Maybe it has something to do with the little kindnesses people seem to offer each other, over and over, in a million different ways. And maybe it has something to do with our capacity for love, this “joke,” says Colin McEnroe, this “thing we fail at so often,” yet this thing which is our only “sure-fire weapon against chaos and nothingness.” Time and time again, in the midst of pain and suffering—not always, but often—people find ways to love one another. As selfish and mean-spirited as we humans can be, we are capable of incredible love. I don’t ignore the mean-spirited part—I know it’s real; I just choose, most of the time, to focus on the love part.

Colin McEnroe said, “I don’t know what comes next. But I am reminded to love.” It may not be a good answer or even a sufficient one, to the question, “Why be hopeful?” It may be a naïve answer. It may even come across to some as a weak answer. But for me it’s the answer that makes sense.  It’s the only reasonable answer to an otherwise violent and chaotic world.

This is what I know: Love comes into world, again and again and again. It comes as a new-born baby, and it comes in the wise eyes of our elders. It comes with angels singing proclamations of peace on earth and good will to all, and it comes silently, a hand held in the midst of grief. It comes with gifts from wise men. It comes with Herod’s soldiers breathing down its neck, hoping to destroy it. It comes despite our best efforts to thwart it. It comes when we don’t think we’ll ever find it. It comes sometimes because we seek it out. It comes sometimes when it wasn’t what we were looking for. It comes sometimes in strength and abundance, and sometimes it comes thin and fragile.  Sometimes it makes all the difference and we can say with confidence, “love wins.” Sometimes it loses and at least for a time, hope disappears.  But love keeps coming, like the returning sun at midwinter. It keeps coming, like stars in the night sky. It keeps coming, like one small candle lit against the darkness. It keeps coming. And I, for one, am hopeful. I hope you are too. Love keeps coming.

My prayer for each of us this evening is that we encounter love, and that we rediscover, even if we’re not sure why, our reasons to hope.  

Merry Christmas. Amen. Blessed be.