A Curious Ministry

I’ve been reviewing the “literature” on curiosity. A quick Google search reveals there are quite a few recently published self-help books, new age manuals, spiritual guides, TED talks, motivational speeches, scholarly articles, cool quotes, etc. on the importance of being curious. For example, in a July, 2017 article in The Atlantic entitled “Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning,” University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Scott Barry Kaufman says “In recent years, curiosity has been linked to happiness, creativity, satisfying intimate relationships, increased personal growth after traumatic experiences, and increased meaning in life…. Having a ‘hungry mind’ has been shown to be a core determinant of academic achievement, rivaling the prediction power of IQ.”[1]

In May, 2017, Christian minister and spiritual director Casey Tygrett published Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice of Asking Questions. He says, “Faith is impossible without curiosity. We don’t step out, we don’t take risks, unless we’re curious about what will happen next.” He cites research that shows young children are inherently curious, asking between three and four hundred questions a day until age four. He refers to Jesus’s admonition, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it,”[2] and suggests that faith is most powerful when we approach it with a child’s curiosity.[3] A recent article entitled “Nurturing a Holy Curiosity” in ByFaith, the online magazine of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., makes a similar claim. The writer, Ann Kroeker, says “We’re all born with a God-given sense of curiosity—children exhibit it, exploring their world each moment, whether they’re batting their infant feet at a plastic spinning toy or holding a magnifying glass tight in a preschool fist to watch ants emerge from an anthill.”[4] Both Tygrett and and Kroeker point out that Jesus was curious, that throughout his brief ministry he was constantly asking questions,[5] and that with his questions he was inviting his followers to be curious as well.

By the way, that phrase, “holy curiosity,” comes from a 1955 LIFE Magazine interview with the physicist Albert Einstein. He said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning; curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of the mystery every day. The important thing is to not stop questioning; never lose a holy curiosity.”[6]

I also like a quote from the 19th-century Unitarian minister turned Transcendentalist leader, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret.[7]

Then there’s the literature in quotes, the legion of self-help, new-age, pop-psychology, click-bait blog posts on curiosity. Huffpost recently published “Five Benefits of Being a Curious Person.”[8] The website Fast Company: “8 Habits of Curious People.”[9] The website Lifehack: “4 Reasons Why Curiosity is Important and How to Develop It.”[10] The Career and Life Coaching firm, Jody Michael Associates: “7 Benefits of Intellectual Curiosity.”[11] The website Experience Life published “The Power of Curiosity: Discover How Cultivating an Inquiring Mind Can Help You Lead a Happier, Healthier Life.”[12] Greater Good Magazine published “Why Curious People Have Better Relationships.”[13] It goes on and on.

Wading through all this material, we learn that curious people are more healthy, more intelligent, have more fulfilling social relationships, report greater happiness and experience a greater sense of meaning in their lives. In order to obtain these benefits we are encouraged to welcome uncertainty, seek the unfamiliar, take more risks, ask many, many questions, be more playful, channel our inner child, listen without judgement, replace our need to be right with an openness to the insights and opinions of others, never label anything as boring, read a diverse array of authors, identify and pursue our passions.

I don’t knock any of this—not even the faux-spiritual, self-help, new-age, click-bait stuff. None of it is wrong. Many of the writers reference reputable psychological studies as the basis for the claims they make. But even if they don’t, all of it—at least at a surface level—is good advice (though they don’t always explain what they mean by ‘welcoming uncertainty,’ and ‘seeking the unfamiliar’). Nevertheless, what emerges for me as I review this “literature,” is that the human quality of being curious aligns very naturally with Unitarian Universalism. Our fourth principle, “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning,”[14] implies that curiosity lives at the heart of our faith. We search because, at some level, we are curious about something we don’t know. Our emphasis on questioning conventional wisdom, questioning traditional theologies, questioning God, questioning authority, questioning the uses of power, questioning religious doctrine and dogma, questioning either/or, black/white, binary conceptions of the world—all of it implies that our liberal faith requires, even demands, a curious spirit.  

James Luther Adams, one of the more well-known Unitarian theologians of the twentieth century, once wrote that “revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been fully captured. Nothing is complete.”[15] There is always more to discover. No religion contains all truth. No scripture expresses all truth. No field of scientific inquiry explains all truth. No political party, no ideology, no world-view, no theory, no philosophy, no nation, no culture holds the entire truth. Revelation is not sealed for all time, it is continuous. In the words of American comedian, Gracie Allen. “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” In a universe that is still unfolding, still evolving, still growing, still becoming, curiosity is an essential spiritual quality. If we want our lives to peer beyond the boundaries of the known into the unknown; if we want to cross thresholds, think new thoughts, welcome new insights; if we want access to truths that exist beyond what passes for truth here and now; if we want to keep growing in heart, mind and spirit; if we intend to continue searching for what is true and meaningful for us; then curiosity is an essential spiritual quality, and asking good questions is an essential spiritual discipline.

How might that quality and that discipline become real here, within these halls?

Virtually every Sunday I address you from this pulpit, I say the words, “Each of our lives tells a story worth knowing.” I believe these words. I repeat them purposefully to counter certain peculiar challenges of our age wherein, despite our seemingly boundless interconnectivity, it is remarkably easy for our stories to remain untold or, if told, to be ignored, forgotten, lost. I remind us that each of our lives tells a story worth knowing because we live in an age in which, regardless of one’s level of wealth and privilege, it is remarkably easy to become isolated, lonely, even abandoned. Have you noticed that Britain just appointed a new “Minister of Loneliness” to help battle the loneliness epidemic?[16]

I’m convinced that one of the reasons we become involved in religious communities—whether we admit it to ourselves or not—is so that others will acknowledge us, recognize us, value us, embrace us—so that others will know our story.  Even the shy ones among us, the ones who can’t imagine speaking on Sunday morning. Even the fearful ones, the ones carrying guilt, shame, regret, embarrassment, self-loathing. The ones recovering from addiction, mental illness, trauma. There is something in us—our deepest self, our truest self, our most authentic self—that yearns to be known, held and loved; not through status updates on Facebook, but known, held and loved by real flesh-blood-and-bone people. There is something in us that yearns to be known, held and loved, and deserves to be known, held and loved.

Sometimes the greatest ministry we offer to each other—the way we know, hold and love each other—is through encountering each other’s stories. And what inspires us to offer such a ministry? Curiosity. When we are curious about each other’s stories—really, truly, genuinely curious—when we listen with open hearts and minds—we offer a humanizing ministry, a ministry of recognition, acknowledgment, embrace.

Continuous revelation is not only out there in the natural world, in the expanding universe, or the universe of ideas. Our lives and our stories are sources of continuous revelation as well.

Earlier I shared with you a story from the Rev. Elea Kemler, about a young boy she visited in a psychiatric unit. When she visited, they would play checkers. The boy would sing as he spoke to her. “He began this musical conversation,” she writes, “on the second visit —humming under his breath as he moved his pieces — and then he started adding words. Mostly, the words were about what was happening on the board. ‘I am going to juuuuummmp you,’ he sang. ‘If I move like this, you cannot juuummmmp me,’ I sang back. I wondered if he was singing me another, truer song underneath, so I was listening carefully and trying to choose what to sing back.”[17] 

She says, “I wondered.”

Can we approach each other—in our hard times, yes, but even in our good times, our joyful times, our celebratory times—with that same sense of wonder?

I’m interested. Can you tell me…?

I’m fascinated. How did you…?

I’m intrigued. How old were you when you decided…?

May I ask you about…?

Can you tell me more?

Where are you from?

Who are your people?

Which is your child?

As a colleague, the Rev. Marta Valentin asks, “How is your heart?”

Were you scared?

How did you get through it?

What have you learned?

You had this same operation. What can you tell me about it?

‘One day at a time’—what does that really mean to you?

Do you miss her?

Do you miss him?

What’s next for you?

 I’m curious. Tell me about yourself.

I’m curious. Tell me what you’re passionate about.

I’m curious. Tell me your story.

Obviously, a person has to want to share, has to feel safe enough to share, must be willing to risk being vulnerable in that moment—our stories are so precious, our hurts so tender, our fears so raw. It may not be the right time to share. But I ask you to contemplate the difference in experience between a person who is invited to share some piece of their story and a person who never receives such an invitation. The former knows their story matters to someone, even if they can’t share. The latter cannot be sure, and may suspect they don’t matter.

Our curiosity about each other’s stories is a sign of our willingness to know, to hold, to love. Our curiosity about each other’s stories is the foundation of a caring congregation. It is also the foundation for our social and environmental justice work.

I say this because just last weekend we hosted a training in faith-based community organizing for thirty-five people from congregations across the Greater Hartford region, including six of us from UUS:E. If there is one central learning we took away from the training, it is that successful community organizing emerges out of our relationships. We’re proposing to build a powerful faith-based community organization for greater Hartford. Naturally, people ask: what are we going to do? What issues are we going to work on? What injustices are we going to confront and transform? What truth are we going to speak to power? But the trainers kept asking us a different question. “How well do you know each other?” And even before we get to know people in other congregations, they asked: “How well do you know the people in your own congregation?” “What is the quality of the relationships in your own congregation?” “Do you know each other’s stories?” “Do you know what keeps people in your congregation awake at night?”

They began training us in a very simple, but very profound tool, the one-on-one meeting—two people sitting down together, telling each other their stories, building a relationship. All throughout the training they made us practice meeting each other one-on-one. You can’t fake it. You have to be genuinely curious about a person in order to begin building a relationship with them. Without solid relationships, we’ll never build sufficient power to bring lasting social and environmental justice. With solid relationships, with a relational culture within and among congregations, we’ll be able to build the power to do virtually anything we can imagine. Our curiosity about each other matters immensely.

There’s a quote from the 20th-century Trappist monk, writer, mystic and activist, Thomas Merton, which our trainers referenced during our time together. In his autobiographical novel, My Argument with the Gestapo, Merton says, “If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. Between these two answers you can determine the identity of any person.”[18]

Do you consider yourself a curious person? I hope so. Ours is a faith for curious people. Our principles assume we are curious people. Those who believe revelation is not sealed but continuous must be curious people. I urge you to be curious about the person sitting next to you. Be curious about the person you encounter here who you’ve never met before. Be curious about people you’ve known for years—for surely you don’t know all there is to know. Be curious about their stories. Trust there is a truer song underneath. And trust that your curiosity manifests your care, builds important relationships, builds a relational culture, and creates the power necessary to fashion a more just and loving community.

 Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Kaufman, Scott Barry, “Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning” The Atlantic, July 24, 2017. See: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/the-underrated-gift-of-curiosity/534573/.

[2] Luke 18:17.

[3] Tygrett, Casey, Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice of Asking Questions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017). Promotional Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjalXouMwYo.

[4] http://byfaithonline.com/nurturing-a-holy-curiosity/.

[5] For example, consider this compilation of 135 questions Jesus asked in the Christian New Testament: https://mondaymorningreview.wordpress.com/2010/05/14/137questionsjesusasked/.

[6] Einstein, Albert, statement to William Miller, as quoted in LIFE Magazine, May 2nd, 1955.

[7] The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Letters and Social Aims [Vol. 8] (Boston, New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904) p. 226. See: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/4957107.0008.001/1:13?rgn=div1;view=fulltext.

[8] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/09/benefits-of-being-a-curious-person_n_6109060.html.

[9] https://www.fastcompany.com/3045148/8-habits-of-curious-people.

[10] https://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/4-reasons-why-curiosity-is-important-and-how-to-develop-it.html.

[11] https://www.jodymichael.com/blog/7-benefits-intellectual-curiosity/.

[12] https://experiencelife.com/article/the-power-of-curiosity/.

[13] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_curious_people_have_better_relationships.

[14] For a listing of the Unitarian Universalist Association principles, see: https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles.

[15] Adams, James Luther, in Stackhouse, Max L., ed., On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Beacon Press, 1977) p. 12.

[16] http://www.businessinsider.com/britain-appoints-loneliness-minister-to-combat-epidemic-2018-1.

[17] Kemler, Elea, “Another, Truer Song, published in Braver/Wiser at the Unitarian Universalist Association. See: https://www.uua.org/braverwiser/another-truer-song.

[18] Merton, Thomas, My Argument with the Gestapo: A Macaronic Journal (New York: New Direction Books, 1969) pp. 160-161.

Out of Sorrow, Soul

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“That distillation of soul—which of all possessions is most precious—comes, if we are faithful, out of sorrow.”[1] A challenging and hopefully liberating idea from the late Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Nancy Shaffer.” Soul—that part of you that is most uniquely you; that part of you without which you would not be you; that part of you that is most genuine, most authentic, most vital, alert, energized, creative, passionate, generous and good; that often hidden part of you that nevertheless springs up from the deep wells of your being in intuitions and insights, ahas and eurekas, amens and hallelujahs. “That distillation of soul—which of all possessions is most precious—comes, if we are faithful, out of sorrow.” Out of sorrow.

A challenging and hopefully liberating idea.

Our ministry theme for February is brokenness. The original title for this sermon was “Living Whole in the Midst of Brokenness.”  I wrote in the church newsletter I would explore resources for maintaining our sense of wholeness when the world feels like it’s breaking. That is still the essence of my message this morning, though I’ve retitled this sermon with an adaptation of Rev. Shaffer’s words, “Out of Sorrow, Soul.”

Rev. Shaffer never shied away from sorrow. So often her words ache with sadness, longing, grief—her own, yes; but she also gives voice to the sadness, longing and grief that lie at the heart of so much human experience. She doesn’t wrap sorrow up in tidy, neat packages, as if to say, ‘there, we’ve fixed that problem, let’s put it on the shelf and move on.’ She doesn’t offer those spirit-killing clichés—‘everything happens for a reason,’ ‘it’s all part of God’s plan,’ ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ She knows sometimes there simply is no reason for the awful things that befall a person, a congregation, community a country; and some things happen that no decent God would ever plan; and sometimes the things that don’t kill us nevertheless stay with us, stay in our bodies, leave us feeling weakened, deflated, sorrowful. She doesn’t shy away from sorrow, and that’s important. These days are full of it.  

For a moment, consider nothing in the wider world. Just consider this congregation. Five long-time members, deeply loved, deeply embedded in the social fabric of this spiritual community, have died in recent months: Nancy Parker, Carolyn Kolwicz, Johanna Conant, Bruce Hockaday and, just this week, Lynn Kayser. Also this week, Pedro Colquicocha, the long-time partner of UUS:E member David Lacoss, died after removal from life support. Those of you who are newer to UUS:E may not have known any of these beloved members of our congregational family, but you will likely sense the sorrow flowing through these halls.

And it may be that I’m just returning from sabbatical, and thus it feels to me that there is a greater-than-usual number of pastoral challenges greeting me all at once; but I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say there are a plethora of difficult, sorrowful events in many of your lives: the deaths of parents, mental health crises, cancer. Some of you are entering into very difficult life transitions, making hard decisions. Some of you have children who are struggling. Perhaps not as sorrowful, but challenging and anxiety-producing nevertheless, some of you are recovering from surgeries, while others are preparing for surgeries.

Just here, within these walls, so many sources of sorrow.

Do I dare shift our attention to the wider world?

We pray for the Parkland, FL mass shooting victims and their families. We pray that the survivors may find comfort, solace, peace. We pray for the shooter that he will somehow find release from whatever demons torment him. We pray for an end to the insanity of gun violence in our nation. We pray, knowing—because we’ve prayed so much, for so many victims and their families, for so many shooters, for so many first responders, for so many communities, including Manchester, CT after the 2010 Hartford Distributors shooting—we pray along with tens of millions of our fellow Americans—we pray, knowing from experience, that our prayers, our vigils, our candles lit, our quiet songs of mourning and hope, are insufficient to address the magnitude of this scourge.

October 2nd, 2017 was the first day of my sabbatical. That was a Monday. The entire country woke up that morning to news of yet another ‘worst’ mass shooting in American history, this time at a country music festival in Las Vegas.

On that same morning, I heard a report on the radio about my long-time acquaintance, Sujitno Sajuti, an Indonesian immigrant, a devout Muslim living in West Hartford, who arrived in the United States legally on an education visa in the early 1980s. He lost his legal status through an unfortunate and complex set of events in the 1990s, and has been trying ever since to regain it. The radio report stated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, had issued an order for his deportation.

It was not a good day to start a sabbatical.

As an aside, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Meriden offered sanctuary to Sujitno and his wife Dahlia. The couple has been living in the church since mid-October. The church has ongoing needs for financial, moral and physical support. If you are interested in helping out with the sanctuary process in Meriden, please feel free to speak with me about opportunities.

I worked on a novel during my sabbatical. On most weekdays, I wrote between six and eight hours a day. I loved it, and I remain eternally grateful to you for providing me with this opportunity. After a few weeks of sitting and writing, I began to experience a feeling that I believe is always with me these days, but that I don’t typically notice. Perhaps I don’t notice it because I don’t have the time to fully experience it during the course of a normal week full of ministry, parenting, household chores, etc. Perhaps I purposefully ignore it. Clearly, the sabbatical process of separating myself out from the regular work of ministry, and perhaps the habit of sitting for long periods and focusing on one task, somehow brought this feeling more directly into my conscious awareness. The best word I have for it is sorrow. Physically I experience it in my upper back, between my shoulder blades. Maybe it spreads out from the back of my heart. It’s not physically painful, it’s a nagging, aching sensation. I don’t have many other words to describe it. It lives in that murky place, that visceral realm we inhabit before words form. Whenever I would pause to give it my full attention, to welcome it into my consciousness, to try to understand it, I would start to cry. The crying never lasted long. It wasn’t overwhelming. It was actually a great relief.

Rev. Shaffer writes:  “I have been looking for the words that come before words: the ones older than silence, the ones not mine, that can’t be found by thought—the ones that hold the beginning of the world, and are never used up, which arrive loaned, and make me weep.”[2]

As I sat with this sorrow, I started to recognize it as the crest of a wave, something I suspect many of us—if not all of us here—experience to some degree, a wave of profound soul-sickness in response to so many troubling trends. A profound soul-sickness over endless shootings and our collective, national inability to do anything that makes us safer as a society; a profound soul-sickness over the parent of gun violence: insatiable American militarism and unceasing war. Soul-sickness over irresponsible nuclear weapons brinksmanship and American drones relentlessly bombing innocent people.

A profound soul-sickness over the ascendancy of fear and hatred of perceived others: a near-constant announcements of deportation orders, calls to rally in support of this Guatamalan name, that Nigerian name, this Indonesian name, that Mexican name, this Ecuadorian name—every name a story, every story a family, every family a community living with the threat of exile and loss.

A profound soul-sickness over calls for religious freedom not even trying anymore to mask ongoing and un-Christian hatred of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people; a profound soul-sickness over continuous #metoo revelations of sexual assault and violence; a profound soul-sickness over the assault on decades of efforts to reduce racism in the criminal justice system; a profound soul-sickness over bills and laws and fiscal policies that unapologetically bankrupt our nation’s future and immorally redistribute yet more wealth to the wealthiest members of society.

A profound soul-sickness over the denial and belittling of basic science, over climate-science denial, over the pursuit of energy policies that are hastening environmental catastrophe.

A profound soul-sickness over the normalization of public-sphere lying.

There’s more, of course.I’m not saying I wasn’t aware of these trends. I’m saying I wasn’t fully in touch with how all of it was making me feel, not until I had the chance to sit for weeks, and then months. For the past few years I thought I was just angry at so much violence and oppression. I didn’t realize how sorrowful I am.

When our own inner world and the wide outer world feel like they’re breaking, when we are soul-sick, how do we cultivate and sustain our own sense of wholeness? I ask not simply so that we here may find comfort and solace in sorrowful times—as important as that is, it risks becoming a kind of escapism. I ask so that we may each be fortified in our own resolve and capacity to be ministers, healers, justice-makers and community-builders among ourselves and in the wider world.

I’m reading Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, by Serene Jones, a Christian theologian and president of Union Theological Seminary. She offers two ‘habits of spirit’ that can move us toward a sense of wholeness in the wake of trauma: mourning and wonder. Habits—meaning part of our daily lives, part of our way of being in the world. She arrives at these habits of spirit not only through her scholarly work, but also through reflection on her own traumatic experiences, losses, struggles and sorrows, which led her to a crisis of faith. She emerged from this crisis through body work. It makes sense. Trauma, loss, grief, sorrow all live in the body: “quick-startle responses,” she writes, “headaches, exhaustion, muscle aches, distractibility, depression.” She reasoned that if trauma lives in the body then “grace capable of touching it should be equally physical.” She signed up for yoga classes and began working with an acupuncturist. These were her “liturgies of flesh.”[3] From observing her bodily response to these practices, she gradually developed her habits of spirit: mourning and wonder.

Mourning: “A disposition in which your heart and mind give into … loss and consent to dwell in the trauma with as much attention as can be mustered. It requires acknowledging how much was lost, how deeply it matters, how unstable the world has become in the aftermath, and how difficult it feels to be ever moving forward.”[4] In other words, let us not shy away from sorrow.

Jones cautions: mourning does not necessarily heal our wounds or bring our sorrow to an end. Sometimes the things that don’t kill us nevertheless stay with us, leave us feeling weakened, deflated, sorrowful. Jones says “The gift of mourning is that fully awakening to the depth of loss enables you to at least learn, perhaps for the first time, that you can hold the loss: you can bear terrors of heart and body and still see your way forward with open eyes.”[5] As long as our losses, sorrows and traumas hold us in their grip, then we live in a truncated world, a constrained world; we lack space in which to move, air to breathe, words to speak. But if we can learn to hold them, grip them, bear them—which allows us some modicum of control over how they impact our lives, even if it’s just a sliver of control—then the world begins to open, our hearts begin to open, our lungs begin to open, our bodies begin to open. Words come. We begin to reassert ourselves. Rev. Shaffer says “This is the gift with which we / escape, stumble out: / we know the essence of this life and who we are.”[6]

If we can mourn well, then wonder becomes possible. Jones says “Wondering is the simple capacity to behold the world around you (and within you), to be awed by its mystery, to be made curious by its difference, and to marvel at its compelling form.”[7] As long as we have the space in our lives that mourning provides—even if it’s just a sliver of emotional space—then we have room to be curious, intrigued, inquisitive, thoughtful. We can wonder. The capacity to wonder, even in the midst of sorrow, pain, loss, trauma, is what enables us to notice and receive those things that are new and good in the world—the support of loved ones, the care of a loving spiritual community, the prayers of strangers, the myriad acts of kindness that happen every day all day long, “liturgies of flesh,” the beauty, grandeur, subtlety and diversity of the natural world, spring poking out around the edges of winter, and our own human depths—even in the midst of sorrow—our genuine, authentic, vital, alert, energized, creative, passionate, generous and good selves. Out of sorrow, soul.

Rev. Shaffer says: “Ever after, whatever we have, / we have enough: begin complete, / even with nothing, even though / aching. In our lifetime we learn this, / while still we can cherish. Come / complete to the end … full.”[8]

When our own inner world, and the wide outer world feel like they’re breaking, when we are soul-sick, how do we cultivate and sustain our own sense of wholeness? I offer you mourning and wonder, two habits of spirit, two paths to the soul, that can ground us, center us, and make us ready to be ministers, healers, justice-makers and community-builders among ourselves and in the wider world.

Mourning and wonder.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Shaffer, Nancy, “Alchemy,” Instructions in Joy (Boston: Skinner House, 2002) p. 52.

[2] Shaffer, Nancy, “In Stillness,” Instructions in Joy (Boston: Skinner House, 2002) p. 5.

[3] Jones, Serene, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009) p. 158.

[4] Jones, Trauma and Grace, p. 163.

[5] Jones, Trauma and Grace, p. 163.

[6] Shaffer, Nancy, “Alchemy,” p. 52.

[7] Jones, Trauma and Grace, p. 163.

[8] Shaffer, Nancy, “Alchemy,” p. 52.

 

No Room For Hate

[Rev. Josh Pawelek’s comments at the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding’s event, “An Interreligious Call to Love They Neighbor and Act for All Americans,” at the Cathedral of St. Jospeh, Hartford, CT, January 29, 2017]

Friends:

It’s an honor to be invited to say a few words this evening about the call at the heart of all our faiths to love our neighbors as ourselves. Thank you to the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding for organizing this event. Thank you to the Archdiocese for hosting. It is good to be together.

Like so many of us, I am concerned, unnerved, angered by the increasing normalization of hate—not only in our country, but in so many countries around the world. This hate is not new. Hate has always been a possibility in human hearts and in the hearts of nations, but in recent times—at least in my lifetime—it has been kept in check largely by human decency, compassion and love. Something has shifted. Hate seems to have found its way out into the open.

Let’s be clear about the difference between anger and hate. There are legitimate reasons for people to be angry. All across society, across faiths, across races, across classes, across the political spectrum from progressive to liberal to moderate to conservative to Tea Party—there are legitimate reasons for people to be angry. There are legitimate reasons for people to protest. There are legitimate reasons for people to engage in civil disobedience.  But hate? There’s no legitimate reason for hate. There’s no social, economic or political problem for which hate is a sustainable solution. There’s certainly no just law or policy that has hate at its core.

As people of faith we are called to resist this resurgent hate. Our ethics call us to resist. Our scriptures call us to resist. Our prophets (peace be upon them) call us to resist. Our Gods call us to resist. Anyone who professes to be a faithful adherent of any religion and yet urges us to hate another group, to exclude another group, to ban another group, to commit violence against another group has grossly misunderstood or purposefully disregarded their own ethics, their own scriptures, their own prophets (peace be upon them), their own God.

Love your neighbor as yourself. In my Unitarian Universalist tradition, this is our first principle. We say “respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This simple principle—love your neighbor as yourself—has always resided at the heart of our respective faiths. It has always been there to guide us. And it has always been an enormously difficult commandment to fulfill. But in the struggle to resist hate in our time, this principle is our plumb line, our north star, our grounding, our guiding light. Love your neighbor as yourself. Does your neighbor have to look like you to worthy of your love? No. Does your neighbor have to speak like you to worthy of your love? No. Does your neighbor have to pray, worship, or believe like you to be worthy of your love? No. Is the immigrant worthy of your love? Yes. Is the refugee worthy of your love? Yes. Is your political opposite worthy of your love? Is the transgender person worthy of your love? Is the coal miner worthy of your love? Is the police officer worthy of your love? Is the prisoner worthy of your love? Is the domestic worker worthy of your love? Is the corporate CEO worthy of your love? Yes, yes, yes.

Oh, there is room for disagreement and debate. There is room for anger, even rage. There is room for winning and losing in the political process. There is room for sticking to your convictions and fighting a principled fight. But there is no room for hate. Resist hate in everything you think, say and do. Let love prevail. Love will prevail. Great love, we pray, that you will prevail. Amen and blessed be.

Given Inches, I Take Yards

bird“I know my soul will unfurl its wings”[1]—words from Unitarian Universalist minister, Mary Grigolia. As I sing these words I conjure an image of me rising up, me soaring, me flying, me pursuing my passions, my calling, my dreams; and an image of us rising up, us soaring, us flying, us pursuing our passions, our calling, our dreams. This image affirms for me that we are indeed, as the Sikh chant says, “bountiful, blissful, beautiful.”[2] A similar image and a similar affirmation come to mind as I encounter Naomi Replansky’s poem, “Housing Shortage.” “Excuse me for living,” she writes, “But, since I am living, / Given inches, I take yards, / Taking yards, dream of miles, / And a landscape, unbounded / And vast in abandon.”[3]

Our November ministry theme is abundance. I read Replansky’s poem as a description of the movement from spiritual scarcity to spiritual abundance. She begins in a place of limitation and constraint: “I tried to live small. / I took a narrow bed. / I held my elbows to my sides. / I tried to step carefully / And to think softly / And to breathe shallowly / In my portion of air /And to disturb no one.” Yet something in her cannot be held back. She says, “see how I spread out and I cannot help it.” She resolves to live big, to take yards, to dream of miles and a landscape unbounded.

Spiritual abundance means different things to different people, and I don’t want to offer a definition that might limit what it means to you. But for me, this morning, a sign of spiritual abundance is a strong and joyful sense of self. I witness it in the way a person smiles, the way they glow, the way they light up, the way they immerse themselves in a conversation or a project. Spiritual abundance fires in the heart a desire and willingness to live not behind masks, not within armor, not inside closets, but outwardly as your strong and joyful self. Spiritual abundance brings clarity about your vision for your life and a desire and willingness to pursue that vision. It brings clarity about how you want to live and then striving as best you can to live that way. It brings clarity about your values and principles, about your passions and gifts. It is Henry David Thoreau proclaiming, “I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.”[4] It is Rev. Grigolia singing “I know my soul will unfurl its wings.” It is Naomi Replanski saying “Excuse me for living.”

Spiritual abundance springs from our experience of connection to realities greater than ourselves: connection to family and friends; connection to communities—like this congregation, your neighborhood, your kids’ school, the senior center, the yoga studio, the choir, the singing circle, the Kirtan, the sangha, the book group; connections to the earth, a garden, the land, the planet; connections to Nature, the seasons, the sun, the moon, the stars; connections to spirit; connections to God, the gods, the Goddess; connections that pull you out of yourself, provide a greater perspective on what matters, and give you flashes of  insight and intuition into the mysteries of life; connections that reflect back to you the purpose of your life, making you feel strong and joyful, making you feel bountiful, blissful, beautiful. That’s what I mean by spiritual abundance this morning.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is somehow my normal state or that it is most peoples’ normal state. It doesn’t just happen. It takes work to get there. Experiencing the kinds of connections I’m referring to takes practice, intention, discipline. It takes worshipping, reading, prayer in all its forms, meditation in all its forms. It takes bending, bowing stretching, moving, rising, reaching. It takes dancing, singing, chanting, journaling, drawing, painting, sculpting, composing; not to mention organizing, advocating, demonstrating, marching, witnessing, serving, healing, feeding, housing and getting your hands dirty in the nurturing dark, brown earth.

Most days I’m ready for this work. I’m disciplined. I set the intention. But I have been struggling to get there in recent months. I have not been my best self. I have not been rising up, soaring, flying. If you have been experiencing a similar difficulty in recent months or over the last year, I am not surprised. I’m hearing it from lots of people in many different contexts. And it has everything to do with the campaign for United States president.

votingI haven’t spoken much about the current campaign from the pulpit, in part because so much has been said about it in so many forums; in part because I—and we as a congregation—do need to be careful not to endorse, either directly or indirectly, a candidate for any office; and in part because Unitarian Universalists vote whether the minister discusses the campaign or not. There is such a thing as the “pre-election” sermon where the minister urges the congregation to vote—the “Souls to the Polls” sermon. I’ve never given that sermon. A 2008 study revealed that 90% of Unitarian Universalists are registered to vote, which was well above the 76% of the general population who are registered.[5] I suspect more than 90% of you are registered and planning to vote on Tuesday. Our fifth Unitarian Universalist principle is “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” It has always been my impression that the people in this congregation take that principle very seriously when it comes to voting in civic elections. For that reason, I’ve never felt a strong call to preach a pre-election, get-out-and-vote sermon.

But I’ve also never felt such a strong sense of personal and national spiritual scarcity because of a campaign. I’ve experienced ugly and disheartening campaigns before. I’ve felt cynicism rise in me in response to things I’ve observed in previous campaigns. I have witnessed campaigns where the actions of one side seemed unfair and even abusive to the other side—the infamous “swift-boating” of John Kerry in 2004 is an example. But this is the first time I’ve ever felt that a presidential campaign was actually abusive to the electorate. So many things that have been said and done in this presidential campaign, from the primaries to today, have been painful to different groups of people. Survivors of sexual assault have been triggered. Women in general have been triggered. Blacks and Hispanics have been triggered. Muslims have been triggered. Immigrants have been triggered. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have been triggered. People with disabilities have been triggered. Christian Evangelicals have been triggered. Catholics have been triggered. Police have been triggered. Gold Star families have been triggered. White, working class men have been triggered. People without college degrees have been triggered. Traditional conservatives have been triggered. Bernie Sanders supporters have been triggered. Nasty woman. Basket of deplorables. Ouch. This campaign is causing pain.

Anxious voters will go to the polls on Tuesday with fear, rage and disbelief in their hearts. We’ve witnessed verbal and physical violence at campaign rallies, and there is still the possibility of violence at polling places.  We’ve heard appeals to intimidate voters. We’ve heard constant claims that the election is rigged. Just recently we’ve watched the FBI Director insert himself into the campaign in a way that, though technically legal, certainly violated the spirit of the law. Through criminal computer and email hacks we’ve glimpsed a variety of dubious, ‘behind-the-scenes’ interactions between people who aren’t supposed to be interacting—again, nothing blatantly illegal, but certainly violations of the spirit of the law.

On Wednesday morning a radio commentator on National Public Radio said, “it’s less than a week away from election day and there’s still time for several more stomach-churning events.” On one level she was being funny, but I take her words literally, because this election is making people sick. I’m not speaking metaphorically. I’m not speaking about the damage being done to our democratic traditions, which is sickening enough.  I’m speaking about the fact that people all across the political spectrum are literally sickened by what they are witnessing. I’ve certainly encountered it here at UUS:E. Many of my colleagues report the same thing. I spoke to a colleague the other day who said so many people had come to her for pastoral care in relation to the election that she felt the need to go into therapy just to get through it. I don’t feel I’m overstating this: The 2016 presidential campaign is abusing the electorate.

I have felt angry, frustrated, dumbfounded, frightened. I have been moving through my days with a sense of foreboding, with anxiety, with a pressing desire to just get away from it. I also find myself constantly seduced into a place of self-righteousness because in my Facebook and other social media feeds the other side—they, them, those people—are caricatured constantly as racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, immigrant-phobic and isolationist. They are presented as stupid, mean-spirited, potentially violent, dangerous. The temptation is to laugh, to get angry, to write them off, yet that just creates more anger, hate, and polarization. When I pause to assess my spiritual well-being, I am not doing very well. Outwardly I may be angry and cynical. But spiritually I am small, constrained, limited. Adapting Replansky’s words, I am holding my elbows to my sides. I am trying to step carefully. I am thinking softly. I am breathing shallowly. I am not bountiful, not blissful, not beautiful. My wings are not unfurled. My landscape is not vast in abandon. That is how the campaign has impacted me. I suspect many of you will report something similar.

“How do we come back from this?” is a question many are asking? How do we heal our communities, our nation, ourselves? I have some preliminary answers.

First, go to the polls and vote. However, my challenge to you is to vote from a place of abundance, not scarcity. If you’re imagining going to the polls with anything like anger, fear or confusion in your heart; if you’re one who is ‘holding your nose’ as you vote, how might you approach the ballot box differently? How might you say, adapting Replansky again, “Excuse me for voting!” And instead of voting the paltry inches we’ve been given, how might you vote yards? I say, vote despite the campaign. Vote because you affirm democracy, even as you recognize its flaws. Vote not because you’re choosing the lesser of two evils. Vote because your vote is a manifestation of your voice, and your voice matters.

Second, before you vote, given the abusiveness of this campaign, do something—some practice, some ritual, some artwork, some dance, some prayer—do something that connects you to a reality larger than yourself. Especially if you’re among those who’ve been hurting, who’ve felt sickened, who’ve been unnerved by the revelation of deep divisions in our society, shout it out: Excuse me for living!” And do something to connect yourself to a reality larger than yourself. You’ve been given inches, so take yards. And don’t be content with just yards. “Dream of miles,” says the poet, “And a landscape, unbounded.” And maybe, just maybe that strong sense of self will begin to emerge. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll feel joy as you vote.

But don’t let it end at the ballot box. If this campaign has any value, it is because it has finally exposed all the hatred, anger, fear, racism, sexism—all the brutal ugliness—that still resides in our nation. We need ongoing wisdom and grace to respond well to this phenomenon, to heal it, to transform it. We need spiritual abundance. With spiritual scarcity we stay in enclaves of like-minded people. We fail to seek out and understand opinions and principles different from our own. With spiritual scarcity we are easily seduced into believing in the righteousness of our own views, and the depravity of the views of others. But with spiritual abundance, with wings unfurled, with a landscape unbounded, there is room to engage, room to listen, room to heal. However, in creating such room, I’m not suggesting that we give sanctuary to racism, sexism, or homophobia. I’m not suggesting that people who refuse to recognize the reality of oppression should not be challenged on their refusal. And I am not suggesting that we tolerate glib affirmations of sexual assault or religious bans or the construction of border walls. But I am suggesting that many, many people who respond positively to such things—or seem to—are themselves hurting, frightened, confused, anxious, dispirited. They feel beaten up, forgotten, overlooked, blamed, and taken for granted. Regardless of who wins the election, these feelings aren’t going away.

I know it’s hard at times to feel sympathetic. It’s hard for me. But it is also clear to me that something has to give. Something has to change. Somehow the masses of people who occupy the different sides of our polarized electorate have to learn to hear each other, have to learn to engage constructively, have to work together. If we could for once take the election year rhetoric out of it, take the insults out of it, perhaps we could get back to being the people, to finding common ground, to governing together, to compromising. I know: it sounds like pie in the sky. It sounds impractical, unrealistic, impossible. But that is only because we the people suffer in a state of spiritual scarcity. Cornel West has called it a “spiritual blackout.”[6]

So excuse me for living! Before we speak of impossibilities, let’s pursue spiritual abundance. Start today. Whatever connects you to a reality larger than yourself, go do it. Repeat it on Monday. Vote on Tuesday. Repeat again on Wednesday. Repeat until the inches become yards become miles become a landscape unbounded. Repeat until your wings unfurl. And from that connected, centered, expansive place—that place of abundance—when you feel ready, reach out to someone who disagrees with you, invite conversation, listen, learn. They may not be interested, but if they are, then discern solutions, solve problems. In so doing, you begin to fulfill the promise of this nation. You begin to fulfill the promise of democracy. You begin to fulfill the promise of this faith. You’ve been given inches. Take yards. Start today.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Grigolia, Mary, “I know This Rose Will Open,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #396.

[2] Kaur, Madeleine Bachan, “Bountiful, Blissful, Beautiful,” Soul Songs, 2006. See: http://www.huemanbeing.com/soul-songs. See also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqFZTmXyddI&app=desktop. See also: http://www.sikhnet.com/gurbani/artist/bachan-kaur.

[3] Replansky, Naomi, “Housing Shortage,” in Marilyn Sewell, ed., Cries of the Spirit: In Celebration of Women’s Spirituality (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991) pp. 34-35.

[4] Thoreau, Henry David, “To Live Deliberately,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #660.

[5] “Unitarian Universalist Demographic Data from the American Religious Identity Survey and the Faith Communities Today Survey,” 2008, p. 19. See: http://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/documents/congservices/2012_uudemo_survey.pdf.

[6] West, Cornel, “Spiritual Blackout in America: Election 2016” Boston Globe, November 3, 2016. See: https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/11/03/spiritual-blackout-america-election/v7lWSybxux1OPoBg56dgsL/story.html.

Are You Politically Correct?

wheelchair

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I begin with a trigger warning. If you are a person who is triggered by the concept of trigger warnings, be forewarned: In general I support trigger warnings—in academia, and in sermons. Also, a further trigger warning: if you think political correctness is running amok in the United States, know it is my firm conviction that it is not. I contend most allegations of political correctness are attempts to ignore, deny or demean the real pain and suffering that real people feel due to exclusion and oppression.

I want to tell you my experience of what happened during and after the opening worship at Ministry Days in Columbus, OH last June. Ministry Days is an annual gathering of Unitarian Universalist and associated clergy that takes place ever year during the two days prior to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly. The Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association or UUMA organizes Ministry Days. I am currently serving in the fourth and final year of a term on the UUMA Board of Trustees. During this term I have been responsible for leading the work of the UUMA’s Committee for Antiracism, Anti-oppression, and Multiculturalism.[1]

The story begins last winter when the incoming president of the UUMA asked my committee to lead the opening worship at Ministry Days. We designed our worship service around an adaptation of the New Testament story of Peter getting out of the boat and walking on water. In the story Peter walks on water briefly, but then becomes frightened and sinks. Many people interpret that story to mean that Peter’s faith wasn’t strong enough. Our point was to say, “wait a minute – he walked on water! Isn’t that amazing?” We selected hymns with a walking theme: “One More Step” and “Guide My Feet.” In our homilies we used the Peter story as a metaphor for our work on antiracism and muliculturalism within the UUMA and in the institutions we serve as clergy. We acknowledged that this is the hard and necessary work of institutional change, that we have to do it if we want to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world, that we have to take risks, that we have to get out of the comfort of our boats and attempt to walk on water. And we will only get so far before we sink. Then we tread water until someone helps us reach dry land; and when we’re ready, we try again. Our work continues.

All the worship elements fit together wonderfully … unless you happen to be one of our clergy colleagues who doesn’t walk with ease or doesn’t walk at all. It turns out our constant references to walking were painful to some of our colleagues with physical disabilities. After hearing us speak, sing and pray about walking, stepping, marching, feet and legs again and again, and after hearing it without any acknowledgement that not everybody walks, some of our colleagues started to feel excluded, isolated, and invisible. Some expressed their pain to us directly. Some expressed it on their written evaluations of Ministry Days. Some wrote about it on Facebook. People were upset.

As soon as it came to my attention, which was as soon as the service ended, I recognized what had happened. We had failed to account for the way this metaphor might be received by colleagues with disabilities. We had failed to account for the ways colleagues living with any kind of disability might be wary of, annoyed at, or hurt by the use of any kind of body-based metaphors without, in the very least, a recognition that these metaphors are not universally meaningful. As a result, some of our colleagues experienced a form of ableism. According to the UUA’s Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry,[2] ableism is the term “used to describe the discrimination against, and the exclusion of, individuals with mental health and physical disabilities from full participation in available community options, such as employment, housing, and recreation.”[3] Nobody accused us of discrimination, but our language made some people feel excluded, made them feel like second class UUMA members. And when you arrive at Ministry Days after a long, possibly difficult year in ministry, when you’re finally together with beloved colleagues expecting to settle into worship and be fed and nurtured, but instead you encounter language that causes you pain? Ouch!

I was mortified, embarrassed, sad. Among my colleagues I have a reputation for being a person who doesn’t make these kinds of mistakes, a person who anticipates how certain words and metaphors will be received, a person who strives mightily not to exclude, not to cause harm. Furthermore, this was the Committee for Antiracism, Anti-Oppression and Multiculturalism. We’re the people who are supposed to model inclusive, multicultural worship.

But we weren’t defensive. We listened. We took responsibility. The next day, at the end of the UUMA business meeting, I offered an apology.[4] And when my remarks were later published on the UUMA website, I added that, given what had happened, and given other experiences of ableism our colleagues with disabilities and their allies had discussed with us, the UUMA board had decided to conduct an accessibility audit. Over the coming year we would examine all the ways we gather and work together as colleagues, discern how our institutional culture may exclude colleagues with disabilities, and then recommend best practices for avoiding those exclusions in the future, including best practicehttp://www.uuma.org/news/295634/Response-to-Concerns-Raised-About-Ministry-Days.htms around our use of language. 

It was hard to offer a public apology. But I felt good about it. It felt like we were responding from a place of integrity and humility. People who said they felt excluded the day before thanked me for the apology. One even said it ought to be used in the seminaries as an example of a real apology. Healing was happening.

Or so I thought. A firestorm erupted online in response to my apology. It quickly became clear that some colleagues felt the people who complained about ableism were being too sensitive. “It’s just a metaphor.” “It wasn’t a condemnation of them.” “How are they going to survive in ministry if they can’t handle a simple metaphor?” Some argued that I and our committee and the UUMA board had been manipulated into apologizing and committing to conducting an audit—that we were reacting to pain and anger, but not to real substance. Thus, they felt no apology was necessary. No, this was a case of political correctness running amok in Unitarian Universalism. They predicted our audit would lead us to request that UU clergy no longer use body-based metaphors. No more seeing. No more hearing. No more “running this race.” No more “standing on the side of love”­­—the slippery slope to censorship!

I don’t know the origins of the term “Political Correctness” or PC. I remember when the term arrived suddenly at Oberlin College in the late 1980s when I was a student there. Oberlin was and continues to be a very liberal school. Its students have been known for their advocacy for progressive causes for nearly two centuries. I remember liberals using PC to refer in a serious way to holding a set of progressive views. You were PC if you were antiracist, supportive of gay and lesbian equality, supportive of South African divestment, supportive of environmentalism and the greening of the campus. PC also had related to language. We didn’t say Black, we said African American. We interrogated language that equated dark with evil, and light with good. We didn’t say “man” to refer to all humanity. We didn’t say mentally retarded, we said people with developmental disabilities. We learned to use “person-first” language—not that disabled person, but that person with a disability. We tried to speak in a way that was affirming of people different from ourselves, that more accurately reflected their experience, that honored their integrity.  And although some alleged we were becoming “language police,” I remember owning my own political correctness. I wanted to get it right. I didn’t want to hurt people with my words. And truth be told, I didn’t want to sound ignorant of the great diversity of identity and experience all around me.

I also remember that PC was not only a serious label; it was also tongue-in-cheek, way of saying, “yes, we know what we believe in, we know what causes we support, we want to be more inclusive and compassionate in our language, but let’s not take ourselves so seriously that we stop listening to views that differ from our own. Let’s not approach our causes so earnestly that we alienate the people we hope to influence.”

By the time I arrived in Boston in the 1990s, PC was no longer a positive term. It had become a criticism of liberalism on college campuses and elsewhere. Alan Bloom had published The Closing of the American Mind; Dinesh D’Souza had published Illiberal Education—both strong, conservative critiques of liberal political correctness and multicultural education in the United States. Today PC is a purely pejorative term. It’s a put down. People use it as a way of saying, “you’re being excessively liberal in your views.” “You’re being silly, naïve, ridiculous.” “You’re being too sensitive.”

Perhaps the latest version of pushback against a perceived, PC mania is the attempt to abandon trigger warnings on college campuses. A trigger warning alerts an audience that a potentially difficult topic is going to be discussed. It helps people who have a history of trauma in relation to that topic prepare themselves mentally and emotionally to take part in the discussion. It is a compassionate gesture, but compassion isn’t prevailing in the debate over trigger warnings. A University of Chicago letter to incoming freshmen in August stated “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”[5]

As a Unitarian Universalist I am conflicted. Our faith tradition highly values freedom of thought, speech, expression, conscience and religion. We value spiritual freedom. We value the rights and integrity of the individual. We welcome the free interchange of ideas. We welcome debate and discussion, especially around controversial issues. And the idea of creating intellectual or spiritual safe space in which to retreat from ideas at odds with our own would seem to run contrary to our fourth principle, “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and our fifth principle, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.” So, trigger warnings, political correctness, safe spaces—all those things that stifle the free interplay of ideas—potentially mute our capacity to learn and grow in the presence of controversial ideas, and thus they seem to be at odds with Unitarian Universalism’s core principles.

But I am conflicted. If I use walking as a metaphor to describe the spiritual life over and over again in my worship services, and a person who cannot walk tells me they feel excluded or invisible, is it sufficient for me to respond, “Sorry, that’s the free interchange of ideas. You’re trampling on my freedom to express myself spiritually. It’s your job—not mine—to translate my metaphor into your life circumstances?” No. It isn’t sufficient. It’s actually quite callous. Isn’t it the case that the person who says, “Wait a minute, you’re excluding me,” or “You’re speaking as if your metaphor works for everyone but it doesn’t,” or “Your comments feel racist or homophobic or sexist and we need to talk about that,” or “Before you preach about rape and sexual abuse, please provide a trigger warning because some of us are living with post-traumatic stress and we need to prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally to hear your message”—isn’t it the case that the person who says any of these things is actually the one inviting the free interplay of ideas? And in not engaging with them, in shutting them down by throwing the principle of freedom at them, by calling them too sensitive, by calling them manipulative—or, worse, bullies—and by charging them with political correctness, aren’t I the one retreating from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own? 

I said at the beginning of my remarks that most allegations of political correctness are attempts to ignore, deny or demean the real pain and suffering that real people feel due to exclusion and oppression. Knowing that, when someone raises a concern with me about how they’ve been ignored, denied or demeaned, or when they offer me a new set of metaphors and different words that are more inclusive of them, or when they pull me aside simply to share that something I said or did caused them pain, I take them seriously. I listen. As my dear colleague, Rev. Mitra Rahnema said at Ministry Days, “I’m not going to argue the existence of oppression”–meaning that if someone is raising it as a concern, we need to talk about it, not shut it out. I take them seriously and I listen because they are inviting a real conversation, one from which I have something to learn. Those kinds of conversations lead to a wider welcome, greater inclusion, more peace, and ultimately more justice. Those kinds of conversations lead more surely to the beloved community than taking refuge in the freedom to say whatever I want without opposition. Call me politically correct. Call me too sensitive. Tell me I’ve been manipulated and bullied. I don’t think so. When we listen and respond with love, humility and, when necessary, apology, we are on our way to beloved community.

Amen and blessed be.

Addendum: “Answering the Call of Love”

For many years, Unitarian Universalists with disabilities and their allies have raised concerns about the song, “Standing on the Side of Love,” by the Rev. Jason Shelton, Associate Minister for Music at the First Unitarian Church of Nashville, TN. Standing on the side of love is one of those metaphors that makes some people with physical disabilities—specifically people who have trouble standing or who can’t stand—feel excluded. They understand it’s a metaphor, not to be taken literally. But so many metaphors are body-based, and when they are used over and over again without any acknowledgement that they are derived from physical experiences that are not universal, it makes sense that after a while, some people will start to feel excluded.  Surely we can find other words, other metaphors that are more inclusive. And in the very least we ought to acknowledge when they are not.

Rev. Jason Shelton has always been aware of the concerns raised about “Standing on the Side of Love.” He has understood the concerns. He has listened to them. And I suspect he has lost sleep over them. He hasn’t always known what to do about the concerns, in part because the title and the lyrics are published. It’s#1014 in Singing the Journey, “Standing on the Side of Love.” Jason was involved in the conversations our colleagues were having at Ministry Days and afterwards. And I think it’s fair to say that he and I are of like minds on this topic. It matters that we listen. It matters that we engage, even if it’s uncomfortable; and if we can do things differently and even make sacrifices for the sake of inclusion, justice and beloved community, then we ought to do them. Jason preached a powerful sermon on this topic in Nashville on August 14th.[6] In that sermon he said that as much as he is attached to standing on the side of love, love matters more than his lyrics, and he is willing to change the words. He said it came to him in the middle of the night: “Answering the Call of Love.” This word change, he said, is a way of actually embodying the meaning of the song. “What love calls us to do,” he said, “is to be in deeper relationship with one another, to see one another more clearly, to respond to those needs and to let go of our attachments—and God knows I’m attached to those words. But love is more important.” And then the congregation sang, “Answering the Call to Love.” I invite us to sing it now with these new words.

[1] To learn more about the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s Committee for Antiracism, Anti-oppression and Multiculturalism, see: https://uuma.site-ym.com/?page=comaraom.

[2] Visit the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry (AIM) program website at http://www.uua.org/accessibility/aim.

[3] Visit the AIM glossary at http://www.uua.org/accessibility/aim/aim-glossary.

[4] Read the full text to the apology at the UUMA website: http://www.uuma.org/news/295634/Response-to-Concerns-Raised-About-Ministry-Days.htm.

[5] Vivanco, Leonor and Rhodes, Dawn, “U. of C. tells incoming freshmen it does not support ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘safe spaces,’” Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2016. See: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-university-of-chicago-safe-spaces-letter-met-20160825-story.html?utm_source=Week+of+8.29.16&utm_campaign=Week+of+8.29.16&utm_medium=email.

[6] Shelton, Jason, “In Body or In Spirit,” a sermon delivered to the First Unitarian Church of Nashville, TN on August 14, 2016. Visit: http://www.thefuun.org/sermons-audio-archives/ and scroll down to the archives for August.

I Am Lush Land and Rugged Rock

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decolonizing Faith: Some Reflections on the Canonization of Junípero Serra

Rev. Josh Pawelek

My announcement for this sermon said “from Columbus Day to Thanksgiving, images of Native Americans flow in and out of the national consciousness.” They actually flow in and out of our consciousness, culture, language and media every day, but at least for me as a non-Native American person, I realize I am all-too-often unaware not only of the images, but of the actual people, their history, contributions and justice struggles. This has something to do with the legacy of colonization.

In this season we are reminded of the story of the first Thanksgiving, a story of peace between the Pilgrim settlers and the Wampanoags.[1] We know also that the colonial New England clash of civilizations was ultimately catastrophic for First Nations people. Frankly, I’m not aware of any experience of colonization anywhere on the planet that was not catastrophic in some way for First Nations people. I’m wondering this morning about the way whole societies continue to rationalize, excuse, justify and, most insidiously, forget the catastrophe part. I’m wondering how faith communities play a role in that rationalizing, excusing, justifying and forgetting and what spiritual impact it has on the people in those faith communities. I’m wondering about this because I see the legacy of colonization at work. I see it in opposition to Syrian refugees. I see it in anti-immigrant policies and calls for mass deportations. I see it in white supremacists shooting at a Black Lives Matter vigil in Minneapolis, shooting at mosques, shooting at churches. I see it in the continued experience of state-sanctioned violence against people of color. I see it in income and wealth inequality. I see it in our materialistic culture, and in the relentless corporate assault on the earth. In all of it I see an impulse to protect the prizes of the colonial era, even though they are no longer sustainable and so clearly unjust. So, I’m asking what it means to have a collective practice of decolonizing faith. As Unitarian Universalists who proclaim the principle of the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” I believe we are called to discern the truth of our nation’s colonial past, the way it persists not only in our national life but in our faith, and how we can work at overcoming its legacies.[2]

I hold deep admiration for Pope Francis.[3] I admire his clarion call for the decolonization of faith, which begins with apology. In his July address to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, sitting on the dais next to Evo Morales—the first person of the indigenous Aymara people elected President of Bolivia—Francis not only named the violence, poverty and exploitation that result from unbridled capitalism and continue to be the legacy of European colonialism globally, but he also apologized for Roman Catholicism’s role in that legacy. He said, “Many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God…. I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”[4] In an era in which it is so difficult for public figures to apologize for anything, let alone account for the historical sins of their institutions, I find the Pope’s request for forgiveness revolutionary, a critical step towards decolonizing faith in the Roman Catholic context and a model for all religions that share in the legacy of colonialism.

It was mystifying when Francis elevated the 18th-century Spanish missionary Junpero Serra to sainthood in Washington, DC in September. Serra essentially founded the Spanish mission system in California, one of the central institutions of Spanish colonialism.  In his homily, Francis spoke of Serra as separate from the abuses of the system he created: “Junípero Serra … was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He … made them his brothers and sisters. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”[5]

This is not the view of Serra among many Native Americans. To anyone who was listening, the outcry from Native America was deafening. Two days prior to the canonization, Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Native American Morning Star Institute, urged the Pope not to proceed, stating that “Serra’s canonization is a symbol that reverberates through time as anti-Indian…. It is incomprehensible that the Pope could apologize for [the crimes of colonialism], yet confer sainthood on a leading perpetrator of those very crimes.”[6]

In a statement in July, Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun tribal nation said: “Over 100,000 of our ancestors died as a result of the mission system. We have endured generations of trauma and abuse and we are still suffering the results in our families and in our Tribal Nations. At the end of the mission system, the Catholic Church needed an alibi for the intentional enslavement, torture, rapes, theft of our lands, cultures, and languages…. The Church created the myth that we wanted to be at the missions… they said we wanted a better religion, a better way to tend food crops. These are all lies.”[7] In an open letter to Francis, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians said: “In just one generation, the total population of all [Luiseño] villages suffered a greater than 90 percent population loss through disease and abuse brought by Fr. Serra’s missionization…. This rapid population loss in such a compressed time frame triggered a collapse of our indigenous societal structure and way of life and set into motion the atrocities and hardships that our people endured for nearly two centuries.”[8]

Historians tend to agree with the Indians’ assessment. Serra biographer Stephen Hackel[9] says, “If one looks at the legacy of Serra’s missions and what he was trying to do in California, there’s no question that his goal was to radically alter Native culture, to have Indians not speak their Native languages, to practice Spanish culture, to transform Native belief patterns in ways that would make them much less Native.”[10] California historian Robert Senkewicz offers a less oppressive view of Serra, yet agrees that “coercion and force were part of the mission system.”[11]

Regardless of his intentions and the love he claimed to feel for “the unbaptized,” Serra set in motion a system that had horrendous consequences for First Nations people. I don’t pretend to understand the canonization process in the Roman Catholic Church, but I think this canonization was wrong. The idea of “Saint” Serra conflicts with Francis’ bold critique of colonialism and capitalism. This was rationalization, excusing, justifying, forgetting. A truly decolonized faith could not canonize the architect of a system that destroyed countless indigenous lives and cultures.

I have a strong opinion here, but I want to confess something I observed in myself that underscores for me the need for decolonizing faith.  Since the canonization there have been four acts of anti-Serra vandalism—three at historic mission churches in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Carmel and one at a Serra statue in Carmel.[12] Paint has been thrown on church doorways, statues have been overturned—one decapitated—gravesites have been desecrated, graffiti proclaiming “Saint of Genocide” has been spray-painted. My first reaction to hearing this news was, “Well, of course. This is how people feel. Catholics need to understand the symbolic power of this canonization—how much real anger and pain it generates among Native Americans and their allies.” I had a very different reaction in October when I learned that black churches in St. Louis were being burned. I organized the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Board of Trustees to write a letter expressing solidarity to all seven churches that had been burned. But the thought of writing a letter to the three Californian Catholic Churches never occurred to me. I moved into a species of black-and-white thinking: Some are victims, some are perpetrators. Catholics need to understand their legacy and atone for their historical sins.

I am such an expert on what Catholics need to do! When I finally examined why I didn’t have a letter-writing impulse in response to vandalism at Catholic churches, I discovered a set of assumptions in me that boiled down to “they deserved it.” Realizing this made me sad, embarrassed and uncomfortable, not only because of the lack of compassion that lay behind it—I know nobody deserves to have their house of worship vandalized or attacked—but also because in that moment I was engaged in my own forgetting. Remember: as Unitarian Universalists, we are spiritual descendants of the Puritans who did essentially the same thing to indigenous people in New England as the Catholics did in California. Our spiritual forbears fought wars against the indigenous people, divided nations against each other, infected them with diseases, created missions to Christianize them, forced them to adopt European culture and language, forced them into slavery and indentured servitude, forced them onto reservations. It’s just as horrendous a history. And if someone were to throw paint on the doors of any of our churches in New England and then spray-paint graffiti saying “church of genocide,” it wouldn’t be all that different than the recent vandalism at Spanish mission churches. No, we are not holding our colonizing forbears as saints, but the rationale would be largely the same. In this light, my gut-reaction judgement of Catholics was not only shallowly self-righteous, but it also missed a larger point: there’s an opportunity for Catholics, UUs and Protestants to work together on decolonizing faith.

I’m not ready to preach on what I think such interfaith work might look like, but I can say that this work begins with remembering and telling the truth about the past. After remembering and truth-telling comes activism that confronts the legacies of colonialism—racism, environmental injustice, corporate abuses of workers and the land, unjust immigration policies, state-sanctioned violence, excessive war-making and even nation-building. Perhaps our support and presence at yesterday’s “Say ‘Yes’ to Syrian Refugees” rally in Hartford can serve as an example of an large, interfaith group working together to overcome a legacy of colonialism. 

Right now I want to name a way to position ourselves spiritually as individuals and as a faith community for entering into the work of decolonizing faith. I call it living in shades of gray. Colonization succeeded and lives on to the extent the colonizers and their heirs could and can demonize an ‘other.’ Historically it used strict, black-and-white racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender and class categories to exploit and enslave the other, to steal, plunder and rape, to build fences, walls, and prisons, to justify genocide. If you want to see it at work today, look for black and white thinking: Some people are welcomed in, others excluded. Some are rewarded, others punished. Some are saintly, others sinful. Some are legalized, others criminalized. Some are enlightened, others ignorant. Some are saviors, others need saving. Some peoples’ experience matters, others’ doesn’t. Some people get letters of solidarity, others don’t. The colonized mind and the colonized faith make hard distinctions between ‘we’ and ‘they,’ say “if you’re not with us you’re against us.” They do so in a flash, from the gut, without thought. Consider all the voices demanding that Syrian refugees be barred from entry into the United States, or demanding that all undocumented people be deported, or demanding that walls be erected on the borders. It feels to me like an effort to protect some outworn prize of the colonial era–a United States for people of European descent.

To counter this colonial mindset, we need a practice of living in shades of gray where black and white have nothing to cling to, have no hold over us. We need a practice of living in shades of gray where we can hear different stories, sing different songs, discern different truths; where we can imagine new possibilities, new futures; where we can learn to withhold judgement and embrace humanity in its fullness; where we can learn to be forgiving and forgiven; where we can remember and name all those false pieces of ourselves, those pieces of us imposed from beyond us, those labels that keep us from being our true selves, that keep us from being fully human.

May we practice living in shades of gray, slowly remembering and naming those histories of genocide and war, those traumas, those unjust systems, those economic inequalities, those assaults upon the land, those enduring sources of violence that keep all of us from being the beloved community. May we practice living in shades of gray, where we can act in solidarity with all those who struggle for justice for people and the earth, where we can admire a leader despite a decision we’re convinced is wrong; where we can slowly remember and name and apologize and prepare, so that when the light returns—when the gray that has turned to dark turns finally back to green—we will be ready with new selves—decolonized selves—working to create a more compassionate, just and peaceful future—a truly decolonized future.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Tirado, Michelle, “The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story, Indian Country Today Media Network, November 21, 20122. See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/11/22/wampanoag-side-first-thanksgiving-story-64076.

[2] I originally titled this this sermon “Decolonizing Our Faith, Part II” because I offered a sermon entitled “Decolonizing our Faith” in 2012: Pawelek, Josh, “Decolonizing our Faith,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, November 19, 2012. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/decolonizing-our-faith/.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “Pope Francis, Inverted Funnels, and Big Hearts Open,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, October 6, 2013. See: http://uuse.org/pope-francis-inverted-funnels-and-big-hearts-open/#.VkNNa7erTrc.

[4] Pope Francis, “Address at Expo Fair,” World Meeting of Social Movements, Santa Cruz, Bolivia, July 9th, 2015. See: http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2015/07/10/pope_francis_speech_at_world_meeting_of_popular_movements/1157291.

[5] The text to Pope Francis’ homily at the canonization mass of Junípero Serra is at: http://www.cruxnow.com/papal-visit/2015/09/23/pope-francis-homily-at-canonization-mass-of-junipero-serra/.

[6] Harjo, Suzan Shown, “Suzan Shown Harjo to Pope Francis: Don’t Canonize Junípero Serra,” Indian Country Today Media Network, September 21st, 2015. See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/09/21/suzan-shown-harjo-pope-francis-dont-canonize-junipero-serra-161825.

[7] Quoted in Deetz, Nanette, “Sainthood for Genocide Leader? Amah Mutsun Ask Pope Francis to Stop Junipero Serra Canonization,” Indian Country Today Media Network, July 16, 2015, See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/07/16/sainthood-genocide-leader-amah-mutsun-ask-pope-francis-stop-junipero-serra-canonization.

[8] Quoted in “4 Native Entities That Opposed the Canonization of Junípero Serra (to No Avail),” Indian Country Today Media Network, September 24, 2015. See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/09/24/4-native-entities-opposed-canonization-junipero-serra-no-avail-161878.

[9] Hackel is the author of Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013).

[10] Gaynor, Tim, “Sainthood for Founder of California Missions Angers Native American Groups,” Aljazeera America, May 28, 2015. See: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/5/28/sainthood-for-california-missions-founder-angers-native-american-groups.html.

[11] Quoted in Reese, Thomas, “Junipero Serra: Saint or Not?” National Catholic Reporter, May 15, 2015. See: http://ncronline.org/blogs/faith-and-justice/junipero-serra-saint-or-not.

[12] “Vandals Splatter Red Paint in Fourth St. Serra Attack,” Ventura County Star, November 4, 2015. See:  http://www.vcstar.com/news/state/vandals-splatter-red-paint-in-fourth-st-serra-attack.

November 2015 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

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

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

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

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

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

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

With love,

Rev. Josh

How to Encourage a Restless Soul

Rev. Josh Pawelek with poetry by Molly Vigeant

Part I

Surely at 3 am i should be asleep6-7 stars

but the night is awake

alive

with shining stars

i’m revived

 

I dry my eyes

from the day’s weep

and worries of the week

 

Wandering i go

away away

to find my home

so far

alone

 

restless souls 

are running

and the songs

i’ve been humming

seem to come out in screams

as though the voices

are needs

 

and this night

that’s so bright

with the moon

in this sky,

watch planes go by

like shooting stars

so far,

alone,

but i’m on my way home

 

for, sure on this shining night

i weep for the wondering

and those wandering

far, far alone

in the shadows 

of the stars

 

i weep for the wondering / and those wandering / far, far alone / in the shadows /of the stars”—Molly’s riff on the early twentieth-century American writer, film critic, and poet, James Agee’s poem,“Description of Elysium,” set to music by the composer Samuel Barber as “Sure On This Shining Night.” “I weep for wonder wand’ring far / alone / of shadows on the stars.[1] Thank you to Mary for suggesting this piece. Thank you to Janet for singing. And thanks to Molly for bringing her poetic response. Our June ministry theme is restlessness. These images of wondering and wandering at night, alone, weeping, and contemplating star shadows struck me as a great description of restlessness. We expect one who is restless to be up at night. We expect one who is restless to be wondering and wandering and, possibly at times, weeping.

We might also expect one who is restless to be troubled, stressed, worried—these are often the reasons our minds race at night—or at any time. We might expect one who is restless to be alone, perhaps lonely, with their thoughts, their struggles. We might expect one who is restless to offer some version of Molly’s stanza: “the songs / i’ve been humming / seem to come out in screams / as though the voices / are needs.” And for all these reasons and more we might attach a negative value to restlessness—“it’s keeping me awake,” “it’s increasing my worry,” “I can’t make it stop.”

And yet Molly says “Surely at 3 am i should be asleep / but the night is awake / alive / with shining stars / i’m revived.” And, the poet, James Agee—by all accounts a restless soul who struggled with personal demons—is “sure on this shining night.” Sure, as in confident, positive, hopeful some good will come. At another part of “Description of Elysium” he writes: “Sure on this shining night/ Of starmade shadows round, / Kindness must watch for me / This side the ground. / The late year lies down the north. / All is healed, all is health. / High summer holds the earth. / Hearts all whole.” He is restless, but also sure on this shining night.

So, let me suggest there is a restlessness that we ought not seek to subdue, a restlessness we ought not seek to silence, a restlessness we ought to encourage, a restlessness that, when it comes, we ought to welcome. We ought to wonder about it. We ought to wander with it.

Let me suggest there is a restlessness at the core of everything: a “Great Restlessness,” a great, restless motion at the heart of the universe; great, restless cycles of planets and stars and galaxies revolving, whirling, rotating, spinning; great restless earth rhythms: the seasons, the tides, the waxing and waning of the moon, the rising and setting of the sun, night and day, dusk and dawn, waves crashing, rivers running—all of it repeated in our own bodies: pulsing blood, beating hearts, breath—continuous, life-giving breath. Ongoing, unceasing, restless. Agee’s contemporary, the journalist, humorist and poet, Don Marquis, said “A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things.”[2] Let me suggest that sometimes our own, inner restlessness is calling us to align ourselves with this great, outer restlessness. It is not simply a call to personal change, to creativity, to some new endeavor—though it can be all these things—it’s a call to return to harmony with the earth, with the stars, with all there is. For this reason, let us encourage restless souls.

Part II

So you want to encourage a restless soul?

Are you sure?

 

We’re an odd type

We often spend days in solitude

And nights scribbling on napkins

 

We spend weekdays at work

And weeknights at work

And weekends at work

 

Work isn’t always a place

Sometimes the work is in your mind

Just thought after thought

Trying to disguise

The whirlpool of thoughts

That should never occupy any mind

 

Restless souls can be productive,

Creative,

And are always beautiful.

 

So what are you encouraging exactly?

 

Is it the rhythm

Of my walk

Or my talk

 

Or the beat

when I speak?

 

Or are you encouraging

The strings on my guitar

To vibrate

To the beat

 

Maybe it’s the ring of my voice

Slightly out of place

In a choir,

For solo

I make my own beautiful rhythm.

 

What in the world are you encouraging restless souls for?

 

Please tell me It’s for the beauty of a scattered mind

That loves a little bit of everything

All at once

 

Or is it the way we describe

Sunlight as reflections off the moon

Because our walks seem to be

Guided by stars

 

No, no

Encourage the way

We treat each day

Like it’s our last,

Because you just never know

 

Please tell me,

What are you encouraging exactly,

 

Because I want the world to know

Restless isn’t just tired,

Or angry

Or sad

 

It’s beautiful as any true emotion

And loved,

At least by me.

 

When I speak of encouraging restless souls, I’m encouraging us not to fight whatever restlessness we may be experiencing, not to resist it, but to explore it, to wonder about it, to wander with it, to weep with it if necessary—all with the spiritual goal of becoming more aligned with, more in tune with, more in sync with, more in harmony with the Great Restlessness at the core of all things, the restlessness that is all around us and also within us—the motion, the rhythm, the movement, the spinning, the whirling, the cycles of growth, decay, death and rebirth—all of it. A restless soul seeks the Great Restlessness—yearns for it, longs for it. I’m encouraging that seeking, that yearning, that longing.

Of course, we’re rarely aware of the Great Restlessness. We’re rarely aware of the universe expanding, the stars moving away, away, away, the galaxies spinning, or our own trail blazing at amazing speeds through space and time. We’re so used to gravity. We lack a large enough perspective. We take so much movement for granted. We aren’t even typically aware of our own hearts beating, our own blood coursing. The restless soul cultivates such awareness.

I recognize this is somewhat abstract. What might this look like in practical terms? What might cultivating such awareness look like as spiritual practice? Well, if the Great Restlessness is inherently rhythmical—cycles, tides, seasons, etc.—and if it is embedded in our bodies, then to experience it in practical terms we have to let our bodies be rhythmical. Restless souls embody their spirituality through rhythm. Through rhythm their bodies become vehicles for connection to and expression of the Great Restlessness.

The great commandment for restless souls is “Be rhythmical!” I’m a drummer, so perhaps rhythm occurs to me very easily as a component of spiritual practice. I go immediately to drumming. But rhythm lives in everyone, not just drummers. Any instrument will do. And if you don’t play an instrument, dance: bop, hop, bob, boogie, twist, turn, shimmy, skip, spin, tango, rhumba. If you don’t dance, just stretch: arc, bend, bow, flex, lengthen, extend, soften, widen. Strike the warrior pose, the mountain pose, downward dog, tree, bridge, cobra, pigeon, crow. Words have rhythm: write poetry, write prose, write your novel, scrawl, scribble, print, type. Prayer and meditation have rhythm: offer praise, give thanks, invoke, recite, chant, sing, bow your head, raise your hands, lie prostrate, walk a labyrinth. Rhythm lives in each of us—run, walk, roll, cook, plant, prune, tend, harvest, dig in the dirt.

And work at it. Molly says restless souls “spend weekdays at work / And weeknights at work / And weekends at work.” She’s talking about being relentlessly creative—working at poetry, at music, at art; working at words. That’s what she’s passionate about. When your time belongs completely to you, what do you work at? What do you practice?  To what do you dedicate yourself? What work do you do to channel the anxious, worried, idle restlessness of your day so that it connects you to the Great Restlessness? I was struck by a passage in The Prophet by the early twentieth-century Lebanese poet, artist and writer—also a contemporary of Agee and Marquis—Khalil Gibran. He wrote “you work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. For to be idle is to become a stranger unto seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite. When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.”[3]

When we let our bodies be rhythmical, we begin to embody the Great Restlessness. With our rhythm, we give it form and structure. We have some say in it. We have it, so that it doesn’t have us, so it doesn’t worry us and keep us awake when we should be asleep. When we let our bodies be rhythmical we race our minds into the Great Restlessness, so that they are not left to race aimlessly from unconnected thought to unconnected thought. Let us encourage rhythm.

Part III 

to awake a restless soul

is to take your heart

off parole

 

to let them sleep

is to reinvent

and lament

 

to give back

is to have

a heart attack

 

restless souls

need sleep too

they’re souls staring down

a beautiful few

 

to wonder

to wander

to follow

the “lost”

 

is to give hope

to the restless

and they’re

midnight thoughts

 

restless souls

need sleep too,

but to awake the restless

is too beautiful

to do

 

so goodnight

sweet angel

sleep tight,

say prayers

 

when you awake,

they’ll be no scares

your mind will still be restless

but your legs

rested

just enough

to follow your dreams

 

“Restless souls need sleep too,” says Molly. At some point we need rest. As the story goes, God created for six days and then took rest. We need our regular Sabbath, our regular time of not acting, of not moving, of stillness and quiet. Though the intricate rhythms of the Great Restlessness never cease, rest is part of our creaturely rhythm, part of our daily cycle. Our cells can only do their work for so long before they begin crying out for the body to sleep.

That cycle, we know, doesn’t always work. It breaks down. We can’t always sleep when we want to. We wake in the night, our minds racing. At times we are restless precisely when we need rest.

At yesterday’s UUS:E Mental Health Ministry summit about 15 of us discussed our experiences of restlessness, along with what sustains us in our restless times. Those present spoke of meditation, prayer, walking in woods, being near water—still water, running water, waterfalls, streams, rivers, ocean waves—walking beaches. They spoke of gardening, planting, tending, or just digging in the dirt—getting hands dirty. I couldn’t help myself: All of it has rhythm, I proclaimed with glee! All of it allows us to embody the Great Restlessness in some way. What sustains us in our restless times? What enables us finally to rest? Not fighting against our restlessness, but moving into it, owning it, finding our rhythm, regaining balance, re-establishing the cycle.

I pointed out that those of us who have or are raising children often speak of needing to “run” our kids to make sure they sleep well at night. And of course, most children run themselves if we let them. I remember my youngest, Max, digging in dirt at the base of a pine tree for hours on end, transfixed, oblivious to time, lost in the rhythm of digging. Of course, everyone at the summit pointed out that it’s true for adults too. A day with no rhythm is recipe for continued restlessness.

I love the sense of paradox here. To rest well, we must first respond to our restlessness with focused activity, with creativity, with music, with dance, with prayer, with work, with rhythm. For our Sabbath to be effective, we must spend the week working with passion and devotion at whatever it is we do.

Our restlessness always contains a message to us that at some place in our lives we are not aligned with, not in tune with, not in sync with, not living in harmony with the Great Restlessness at the core of all things. Rhythm is the path to alignment and harmony. As such, rhythm precedes genuine rest. And rest makes more rhythm possible.

Thus, my spiritual prescription of restlessness is rhythm. Find yours, embody the Great Restlessness, and then let us say, goodnight / sweet angel / sleep tight, / say prayers / when you awake, / they’ll be no scares /your mind will still be restless / but your legs / rested / just enough / to follow your dreams.”

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Agee, James“Description of Elysium” in Fitzgerald, Robert, ed.  The collected poems of James Agee (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968) pp. 5-7; first published in Permit me voyage by James Agee (Yale University Press, 1934).For the text to “Sure On This Shining Night,” see: http://allpoetry.com/Sure-On-This-Shining-Night.

[2] Marquis, Don, “A Fierce Unrest,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 304. This quote was the basis for my previous sermon on restlessness, “The Life We Have Lost in Living,” preached on February 12, 2012. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/the-life-we-have-lost-in-living/.

[3] Gibran, Kahlil, The Prophet (New York: Alfed A. Knopf, 1923, 1951) p. 25.

From Radical Transcendence to Radical Immanence

Rev. Josh Pawelek

uuse chaliceBecause I’m in the middle of teaching our Building Your Own Theology class and inviting the participants to look deeply into themselves and their experiences in an effort to name what they believe; and because I am moved and inspired by what they are saying in class; and also because it’s been a hard few months here at UUS:E and I am looking for my own sources of grounding, comfort, solace, and peace; and also because our ministry theme for April is transcendence; and finally because it’s just plain fun for me—for all these reasons I’ve decided to share with you this morning my current thoughts on God—how I believe.

There’s a story floating through the sermons of many ministers—it’s often attributed to the late Rev. Forrest Church, though I’m not sure it’s original to him—in which the parishioner says to the minister,” I try and I try and I try, but I find I just don’t believe in God.” The minister responds, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.” It’s possible some ministers tell this story as a way of saying “I know, there are many versions of God out there—jealous, angry, punitive gods; capricious, whimsical, unpredictable gods; callous, arrogant, selfish gods; homophobic, sexist, racist gods; imperialistic, nationalistic, violent war gods—but I know who God really is, and after I’m done listening to you tell me about the god you don’t believe in, I’m going to tell you about a god you can believe in.” To be clear, that’s not my intention here. I don’t move through the world harboring the secret conviction that the God I believe in is somehow right when all those other Gods are wrong. I don’t come to a sermon like this with the assumption that if you just open your heart to what I have to say, you’ll get it, you’ll see the light, you’ll believe.

However, there is a religious impulse in humanity: a longing to connect and commune with a reality larger than ourselves; a yearning to serve, to help, to heal, to be good; a drive to imagine, to conceive, to create, to shape, to build; an instinct to worship, to praise, to offer thanks; a hunger for a better world—a more fair, just, peaceful, loving and sustainable world. Human beings express and act on this religious impulse in countless ways, through the construction over time of countless religions, theologies, spiritualties, rituals, practices, holidays, festivals, folkways, and self-help regimens— a vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous, always multifaceted testament to humanity’s longing to encounter the Holy. When I speak to you about God in my life, I am not attempting to extract the one true belief out of the whole and then proclaim, “Here it is!” When I speak to you about God in my life, I’m simply adding one more, small voice to the vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous landscape of human religion. I hope not that you will believe as I believe, but that you will be inspired to respond to the religious impulse that moves you and thus make your contribution to that vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous human religious whole.

Our April ministry theme is transcendence, a term often given as a quality of God. Transcendence hangs out with its close friends otherworldly, supernatural, ultimate, boundless, sublime, infinite, absolute, eternal. In his Handbook of Theological Terms[1] Van Harvey says transcendence “has been used to designate any ideal or thing or being that ‘stands over against’…. It conveys ‘otherness.’” God “is said to transcend the world in the sense that his being is not identical with or his power not exhausted by the [earthly realm].” “When this idea of transcendence has been radicalized … it has led to the view that [God] is ‘wholly other’ and, therefore, unknowable.”[2]

Radical transcendence. Sit with that for a moment. A radically transcendent God exists ‘over and above’ the world, over and above humanity. A radically transcendent God lives somewhere else. A radically transcendent God is distant, separate, detached, beyond, unreachable, unknowable, inscrutable, wholly other. I read earlier from the introduction to the twentieth-century, Neo-Reformed—sometimes called Neo-Orthodox—Swiss theologian, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans. Commenting on the Apostle Paul Barth says “However great and important a man Paul may have been, the essential theme of his mission is not within him but above him—unapproachably distant and unutterably strange.” Barth often used the Latin term deus absconditus, the hidden God.

There are religious people of all sorts who are quite comfortable with a radically transcendent God. I’m mindful of a quote, also attributed to the late Rev. Forrest Church: “The power which I cannot explain or know or name I call God. God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being.” We might call this a liberal version of deus absconditus. I find it enormously and refreshingly sane and wise to locate God in mystery, to believe in a God we cannot explain or know or name. Such belief requires us to admit our own limits; to acknowledge we don’t know everything; to find peace in the darkness; to accept that we cannot control every outcome; to accept that we must, at times, let go, that we must, at times, surrender. This is humility. At its best a wholly other God leads us to humility in our interactions with others and with the world.

The problem is, I’m not sure most gods like being radically transcendent. It seems difficult for them to remain distant and unknowable, shrouded in mystery. It’s hard for them. All too often transcendent gods leave their otherworldly home and visit earth; they descend; they come down to play, provoke, punish—to send plagues and swarms of locusts, to cause droughts and floods. One of my favorite stories of a radically transcendent God who makes himself known is the Hebrew Book of Job, a somewhat unique piece of Jewish wisdom literature from which we read earlier. Job was a righteous man—God-fearing, obedient. Satan wagers with God that he can induce Job to curse God. God accepts the wager, and Satan proceeds to destroy Job’s life, ruining his livelihood, killing off his family members and livestock, afflicting his body with horrible diseases. Job never curses God, but when he wonders why he’s been made to suffer so horribly, God becomes angry and sarcastic saying, essentially, “You didn’t make the world. I made the world. I can do whatever I want, it’s not your place to question, and you wouldn’t understand anyways.” One of the enduring critiques of transcendent gods is that they do whatever they want, that they’re capricious and arbitrary, that they mis-use and abuse their power without feeling a need to justify their actions—at least without justification we mere mortals would understand. They don’t stay radically transcendent. They descend.

But perhaps the problem doesn’t lie so much with the gods themselves, as with the people who speak for them. Many people don’t find an unknowable, radically transcendent god all that helpful or interesting. They’re uncomfortable with theological silence, uncomfortable with mystery, often because they need a God who can help them achieve certain social or political goals on earth. They want a transcendent god with all the power and the glory, but not the radical version. They want a knowable God who, more than anything, instills fear.

My mind wanders to Jonathan Edwards’ infamous 1741 Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon, which became the model for American hell-fire and brimstone preaching: “There is nothing that keeps wicked Men at any one Moment, out of Hell, but the meer Pleasure of GOD. By the meer Pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign Pleasure, his arbitrary Will, restrained by no Obligation, hinder’d by no manner of Difficulty.”[3] (I think this sermon should have been called God in the Hands of an Angry Preacher!). There’s often a political dimension to this kind of knowable, transcendent God—he’s a king, an autocrat, a dictator, a tyrant. He rules from the top of a hierarchy. People who promote such a God on earth often occupy parallel social and political positions—or would like to—and they favor this kind of God precisely because his power, anger and arbitrariness engender fear not only to keep a populace from rebelling, but also to motivate sufficient numbers of followers to commit violence in God’s name.

I’m aware there are ten thousand other versions of knowable transcendent God, many of them quite friendly, but knowing how easy it is for transcendent God to be coopted into the service of selfish human aims, I’ve tended in my life to seek God not in some otherworldly place, not in some higher realm, but right here, among us, around us, within us, infused in the dark, brown earth, thawing with the lake ice as winter turns to spring, sinking into to early April mud, tunneling with the earth worms, falling warmly with early April rain, rolling and crashing with the great ocean waves, rising and setting with the sun and the moon, coursing through our bodies, pulsing with our blood, beating with our hearts, breathing with our lungs.

I’ve longed for God to be nearby, close, present, immediate—like a friend, a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a lover—a wise counselor when my way is unclear, a source of inspiration when my well runs dry, a muse for my creativity, a provider of comfort and solace when life is hard, a bringer of peace in the midst of chaos—a still, small voice, speaking from that place within me where I know my truth, where my conviction resides, where my voice is strong.

I’ve longed for a God not beyond knowing, not unapproachable, not in Heaven, not on Olympus, not in the underworld, but right here in meaningful human interaction: the helping hand, the smile, the caring gesture, the thoughtful gift, the offered prayer, the full embrace, deep listening, meaningful conversation, the good night kiss, “I love you,” “thank you,” “I miss you,” “I’m sorry,” “What can I do?”

I’ve longed for God not ‘wholly other’ but wholly familiar: in the music, the rhythm, the harmonies, the hymns, the silence spaces between the notes, the beat that goes on and on; and in the holy quiet, in the ritual words, in the heartfelt sharing, in the chalice flame.

I’ve longed for God not to punish and judge and condemn, but to urge us in all manner of ways to build the beloved community, to welcome, to include, to be curious and adaptable, to apologize and forgive, to work for a more just human society, to work for a more sustainable earth, to work on behalf of the generations to come , to love, to love, to love.

I’ve longed not for a transcendent God, but an immanent God. In his Handbook of Theological Terms Van Harvey says “Immanence is the technical term used to denote the nearness or presence or indwelling of God in the creation. It is usually contrasted with Transcendence.”[4] Often God is both transcendent and immanent, so I don’t want you to draw too fine a distinction. The point I am making is very personal: Transcendent God, the God of Heaven, the God of the Whirlwind, the Creator of the Universe, the Almighty, the Strict Father—none of that has ever appealed to me. It may be because I don’t feel strongly about the afterlife. I’m not longing to see God after I die. I’m longing to live the best life I can live now, and thus I long for an immanent God—God here and now.

Those of you who’ve been listening closely to me over the years know that as much as I tell you I long for immanent God, I never say I know God is real, mainly because I can’t prove it. And I rarely say I believe in God, mainly because so many people confuse what they believe to be true with what they know to be true, and I don’t want to do that. Remember: we know something is true when we have some way of proving it. We believe something is true when it’s really important to us and we have no way of proving it. When someone says I believe X about God, what I hear them saying is “I really want X to be true,” or “I long for X to be true.” Belief isn’t knowledge. It’s longing. It’s wanting. It’s desire. I long for immanent God to be real, and I’ve learned through experience that the best way to satiate that longing is to live “as if” immanent God were real; to live as if every inch of the earth is sacred and matters; to live as if every human being is sacred and matters, every creature, every drop of water, every stone, every blade of grass is sacred and matters. Live as if it were so. You won’t prove anything God, but that’s not what matters. Living well, living the best life we can live here and now matters.

A final thought about immanence. Van Harvey’s Handbook of Theological Terms mentioned radical transcendence, but not radical immanence. If radical transcendence is the extreme otherness of God, radical immanence must be the extreme sameness of God. My mind wandered, again, this time to the passage from Daniel Quinn’s The Holy which we read earlier. The main character Tim is sitting in the dessert, perhaps sleeping. He wakes up to discover what he first imagines is “an alien creature towering over him—a visitor from the stars, bristling with silver spikes and armored in glossy green.” Soon “he saw that the creature meant him no harm—accepted him as an equal, seemed to enfold him in its own aura of vibrant power and dignity, as if to say, ‘It’s all right. I see you too are alive. No more is required. We are comrades.”[5] Eventually Tim and the reader realize the visitor is a cactus and Tim is somehow able to see—for a brief moment— into its essence, the “vibrant, sublime energy emanating from within.” Eventually he runs up a hill so he can peer down into the valley and behold the same energy coursing through the entire landscape: “Every leaf of every tree was radiant, lustrous—incandescent with power that was unmistakably divine.”[6] This passage struck me as a description of radical immanence.

I’ve never had an experience like that, though I know people who have. And I have certainly had those kinds of spiritual experiences—sometimes in nature, sometimes in response to music, sometimes in the midst of prayer—when I feel utterly related, when I feel at one with all there is. Such experiences are short-lived, fleeting, but they offer powerful opportunities to sense, to intuit, to grasp one’s connectedness to the whole of life; opportunities to sense, to intuit, to grasp the reality of our interdependence with the whole of life. Extreme sameness. Radical immanence. Is it God? I don’t know. But I promise you I will strive to live as if it were so.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992).

[2] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992) pp. 242-243.

[3] Edwards, Jonathan, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God, 1741. Read the text at http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=etas.

[4] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992), p. 127.

[5] Quinn, Daniel, The Holy (New York: Context Books, 2002) p. 378.

[6] Quinn, Daniel, The Holy (New York: Context Books, 2002) p. 379.