On the Art of Being Lost

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”[1] These words from the Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau ring true to me. They echo the wisdom of more ancient spiritual teachers. The Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, said “Do not be an embodier of fame; do not be a storehouse of schemes; do not be an undertaker of projects…. Embody to the fullest what has no end and wander where there is no trail.”[2] Jesus said “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[3] These teachers are not referring to loss in the sense of losing something or someone. They mean lost as a state of being: not knowing where you are, where you’re going; not knowing what to say, how to act; not knowing how to get back to the familiar, or if it’s even possible to do so; not feeling the solid ground beneath you. Being lost can be frightening, overwhelming, but it also offers blessings. As it takes us out of our everyday experience, away from the familiar, the comfortable, the routine, it invites us to encounter the world from a different perspective. It challenges us to find sources of strength and creativity in us we didn’t know we possessed. It may even require us to ask for help, to rely on the kindness of strangers. Our world actually gets larger. In the process we learn something about ourselves. We wake up, we stretch, we grow, we break through, we transform. These are blessings. Getting lost from time to time is a good thing.

This makes sense to me, but I cannot remember ever being lost and thinking, Oh, great, I’m encountering the world from a different perspective. What a wonderful growth opportunity! The first thought that occurs to me when I’m lost isn’t fit for the pulpit! One of my earliest childhood memories is of being lost in a grocery store. I must have been three years old. I became separated from my mother and brothers. I remember crying very loudly. In fact, I have a memory of being outside of myself, watching myself crying from a few feet away. I was afraid but I suspect there was more than fear in my body. It was my first conscious experience of separation from my mother without knowing where she was or how I could get back to her. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that she might be gone. 

Then there was a family hike. I can’t quite remember which summer it was or which national park—it was either Yellowstone or Kejimkujik in Nova Scotia. My mother was nervous from the start, mainly due to the signs instructing us what to do in the event we encountered bears. My father, perpetually unconcerned, led us onward to a supposedly beautiful lake out in the wilderness where only the most experienced campers camped. We eventually found a small pond full of duckweed and decided that either the map was not drawn to scale, or we were lost. It turned out to be both.

But perhaps the most embarrassing experience of being lost was on my honeymoon in Italy. Steph and I were staying in a hotel in the town of Sarno about an hour’s drive east of Naples. We had spent the day exploring Pompeii and didn’t start heading back until after dark. Steph fell asleep as I drove. I soon stopped recognizing landmarks along the highway, and realized I had no idea where we were. I took a random exit. At the bottom of the ramp was a toll booth. I started speaking to the attendant in English, a reasonable thing to do since many Italians speak English. This Italian was not one of them. But instead of waking Stephany, who is relatively fluent in Italian, I panicked. I started speaking louder English to the attendant. This strategy was unsuccessful. It got worse from there. I won’t go into details, except to say it was not one of my finer moments. Steph eventually woke up. She had a long conversation with the attendant in Italian, which I suspect had very little to do with directions, and very much to do with me. We paid the toll and continued our journey. We knew from the attendant that we were heading in the right direction, though we still didn’t know how to get where we were going. As I remember it, we came upon Sarno by sheer luck. It was a long night.

All this is to say that even though the words of Thoreau, Chuang Tzu and Jesus resonate with me; even though I know being lost offers certain blessings, I don’t like the way it feels. Which is why I had originally not planned to read Thoreau’s famous words in praise of being lost, but rather a more cautionary tale from the American writer and environmentalist Barry Lopez entitled “Within Birds’ Hearing.” In this story the narrator gets lost hiking in the Mojave Desert. It’s grim. “By evening I was winded, irritated, dry hearted,” he explains after many days of wandering. “I would scrape out a place on the ground and fall asleep, too exhausted to eat. My clothing, thin and worn, began to disintegrate. I would awaken dreamless, my tongue swollen from thirst.”[4] He doesn’t speak of the wonderful things he’s learning about himself. He says, “I was overwhelmed by my own foolishness …. I knew the depths of my own stupidity.”[5] He may be having a spiritual experience, but it’s one of suffering. He may be learning about himself, but it’s a lesson of human folly and frailty. If there’s a blessing, it’s that he didn’t die. And this feels really important to me: I want to speak of the spiritual blessings of being lost, but I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s never wise to romanticize wilderness experiences. There is no way to be truly lost and entirely safe at the same time. Anyone who’s ever been truly lost in any kind of wilderness—whether in Nature or in some metaphorical wilderness—the depths of depression or grief or poverty or war—knows it can be terrifying. Lost people don’t always return. The blessings of being lost may not be worth the cost.

Well, Mary Bopp was having none of this. We started working with the Lopez story on Tuesday and she said “you’re taking all the fun out of it.” Unlike me, Mary is drawn to being lost. She told me about the dissonance she feels when visiting a foreign city with friends who want to plan the day in great detail. Rather than following paths prescribed by the local tourism bureau, Mary prefers to wander where there is no trail, to get off the beaten path. She says she enjoys the experience of solo hiking on a trail she’s never been on before. She also told me about her favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who often wrote in an early twentieth-century, late Romantic style in which the music continually modulates from key to key, so that the listener keeps losing their sense of the tonal center. Just when the listener feels like they’re arriving somewhere, the next modulation takes them in a different direction. They get lost. Different keys feel differently, offer different colors, different qualities. A modulation brings the listener into a new musical landscape. Mary loves this! She says it feels like it can go on forever, that there’s something eternal to it. She gets lost in it.

Mary’s appreciation of being lost reminds me of the historian Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She blends memoir, cultural history, nature writing and philosophy into a prolonged and varied reflection on the many ways we can be lost—lost in thought, in love, in a good story, in a city, in nature; lost as one comes of age; lost in the sense of not knowing entirely who one’s ancestors are. Solnit writes: “I love going out of my way, beyond what I know, and finding my way back a few extra miles, by another trail, with a compass that argues with the map.” She writes in praise of “nights alone in motels in remote western towns where I know no one and no one I know knows where I am, nights with strange paintings and floral spreads and cable television that furnish a reprieve from my own biography.” She writes in praise of “moments when I say to myself as feet or car clear a crest or round a bend, I have never seen this place before.”[6]

So let me pull back from my concern with being dangerously lost. Yes, it can happen. Yes, we can become so lost we may never return. But we also cannot limit our lives in fear and expect to grow spiritually. Solnit says “the word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…. I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.” I commend to you the practice of disbanding your army. I commend to you the practice of going beyond what you know. And with all seriousness but tongue somewhere near cheek, I implore you to get lost.

I remember hiking with my boys when they were younger, taking them a few hundred yards off the trail, blindfolding them, spinning them around, taking the blindfolds off, then instructing them to find their way back to the trail. At first it was an exercise in frustration. I would have to give them clues. But eventually they learned to look for landmarks as we walked away from the trail. Find the landmark. Find the way back. Over time they learned to pay attention to their surroundings, to observe and remember details in the landscape.

What trail in your life might you intentionally wander away from blindfolded and spinning? What new neighborhood, town or city might you explore without a map? What new experience do you want—or need—to have? Or consider the life-paths that lay ahead of you. Might there be one that excites you but feels just out of reach or more unknown, more difficult, more risky? Is there a way to start down that path even though you’re not sure where it leads? Or might there be some stasis that has overtaken your life; you know you need to break out of it, but breaking out would mean leaving the familiar behind, being lost for a while. Perhaps now is the time to wander where there’s no trail.

The benefits of intentionally being lost may be as simple as learning a new place, finding a new route, meeting new people, acquiring new skills, or just experiencing the joy of a nice surprise. But they may be more complex: discovering new dimensions of you, finding reservoirs of creativity, strength and resilience you didn’t know were in you. And they may come on a more explicitly spiritual level. Mystics throughout the centuries have described their ecstatic experiences of the divine in the same way we might describe being lost—entering the unknown, the dark, the cloud; feeling ungrounded, unanchored, dislocated; soaring, flying, falling, vertigo. For some being lost is a profound spiritual experience. Solnit suggests that “in relinquishing certainty we approach, if only fleetingly, the divine.”[7]

I’m suggesting we practice being lost. But I’m also mindful that we practice for a reason. Being lost is an inevitable human experience. I’m not referring to getting lost in the actual wilderness, though that is certainly a possibility. I’m referring to being lost in our lives: lost in suffering, in illness, in decline; lost when everything around us is changing; lost when we realize life isn’t unfolding as we hoped. It happens. We lose our confidence, our sense of purpose, our sense of direction. We can feel lost in our schooling, in our careers, in retirement. We can feel lost because we know what we have to do, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. We lose those we love and become lost in grief. The greatest benefit that comes from practicing being lost is that when we become lost for reasons beyond our control, we have some knowledge of how to be and what to do. We know to trust ourselves more than the map which may not be drawn to scale. We know to look for landmarks. We know panicking doesn’t help, though it may be hard to avoid. We know it may be a time to disband our armies. We know openness matters. We know patience matters. We know breathing deeply matters. We know it may be dark and cloudy for a long time, but that we can live with not knowing for longer.

When we’re lost, our world gets larger. I didn’t tell you that when I was lost and crying in the grocery store at age 3, a stranger helped me find my mother. And I didn’t tell you that when our family was lost in the woods, and we really didn’t know which way to go, a young couple happened by and gave us directions back to our car. I won’t say they saved our lives, but their chance appearance definitely kept us from spending a night in the deep woods. And I didn’t tell you that in Barry Lopez’s story about being lost in the Mojave Desert, his narrator is ultimately saved, as he puts it, by “the unceasing kindness of animals.” “Not till we are lost … do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” said Thoreau. Perhaps that is the greatest blessing of being lost: not always, but more often than not, there is someone there to help. Our world gets larger. The extent of our relations is literally infinite, but we forget this. Sometimes being lost is what helps us remember.

 Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1960) p. 118.

[2] Chuang Tzu, in Watson, Burton, tr., Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) p. 94.

[3] Matthew 10:39 (NRSV).

[4] Lopez, Barry, “Introduction: Within Birds’ Hearing,” Field Notes (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) p. 5.

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

[6] Solnit, Rebecca, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Penguin Group, 2005).

[7] “A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2005. See: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/08/08/a-field-guide-to-getting-lost.

For Gravity’s Sake

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Did you feel it? I didn’t either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Things That Heal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Hygieia: Greek Goddess of Health

Hygieia: Greek Goddess of Health

This morning I continue exploring our February ministry theme, resilience, by reflecting on the role spirituality plays in healing: healing from illness—physical illness, mental illness; healing from addiction; healing from childhood traumas, from abuse, from rape, from neglect; healing from being the victim of a crime; healing in the wake of the death of a loved one; healing from broken relationships; healing from stressful life circumstances—overwork, exhaustion, job loss, financial struggles, caring for a family member or friend with a chronic illness, distress and anxiety in response to world events—terrorism, global warming, war. I’m sure you can add to the list. Nobody leaves this life without having to heal from something. Nobody leaves this life without suffering in response to something. For me this is an integral facet of the human condition, an inevitable feature of the human experience. Yes, some people need more healing than others, and some suffer more than others, and sometimes the unequal distribution of need and suffering seems immensely unfair. But nobody escapes this fate entirely. So many things can and do happen to our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our souls that unravel us, pull us apart, break us into pieces, leave us living in fragments. How does spirituality help us bind the pieces of ourselves back together? How does it aid in healing? How does it strengthen our resilience?

I want to first critique a common assumption about the role of spirituality in healing, essentially that one’s capacity to heal is determined by the strength of their belief, by the power of their faith in God. Most often this assumption is grounded in the deeper assumption that Biblical stories are literally true. For example, in the book of Mark, Chapter 10, a blind man comes to Jesus pleading, “Teacher, let me see again.” Jesus says to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regains his sight.[1] It could have happened. It could be literally true. And if one believes it is literally true, it is understandable they might conclude strong faith is essential to healing. I don’t reject this idea entirely. I know many people who are convinced that their faith played a significant role in their healing. And certainly strong faith in God can bring a person through very difficult times. But there’s a pernicious ‘other side’ to this assumption. What happens when the person of strong faith doesn’t heal? Does that mean their faith still isn’t strong enough, that they don’t believe correctly, that they aren’t praying right, that they’ve sinned, that God doesn’t find them worthy of healing? Sometimes people say God must have a reason and we aren’t meant to know. But that’s a theological cop out. The reality is, some illnesses have no cure. Some circumstances are beyond help. Sometimes our brokenness is larger than all the resources we have to address it. To fault the strength of one’s faith in such situations is unhelpful and unfair—sometimes it comes across as downright mean. The role of spirituality in healing is far more multifaceted than simply having correct belief.[2]

Taking this critique further, one of the challenges I encounter as a minister entering a hospital to provide pastoral care to one of our members or friends is that people I meet there—doctors, nurses, other staff, and occasionally patients and their families who I meet inadvertently—will sometimes apply this common assumption about faith and healing to me. When they realize I’m a minister, they assume I am Christian. I’m not. They assume I am a traditional theist who worships some version of God the Father. I’m not. They assume I intend to pray to God the Father with my parishioner, which happens, but very rarely. They assume I hope to buttress my parishioner’s faith in God the Father in order to aid in healing—also very rare. I don’t expect people to know how a Unitarian Universalist minister approaches pastoral care—or even what a Unitarian Universalist is—so it makes sense that these assumptions get attached to me. I try to be gracious. If someone pulls me aside and says “pray with me, father,” I pray with them. And those can be very powerful moments for me. But these assumptions don’t begin to describe how I approach my role in healing, and they don’t relate to the ways I witness spirituality aiding in the healing process for Unitarian Universalists who, we know, come in many theological varieties: atheist, theist, humanist, agnostic, Buddhist, mystic, pagan, Jewish, Christian and endless combinations, mixtures and mongrels. Given this diversity, the ways spirituality can aid the healing process are endless—no two situations are exactly alike. But over the years I’ve discerned five liberal commandments for spirituality and healing that emerge out of my journeys with you—Unitarian Universalists—as you seek healing in your lives.

First, get out of the body’s way. Healing begins with confidence in the body’s capacity to repair itself, to return from or adapt to physical and mental illness. Specialized white blood cells fight harmful microbes. Blood clots to heal wounds. Skin and bones fuse back together after breaking. We learn how to live well with anxiety. I recall those times as a child watching cuts scab over and slowly disappear, watching bumps slowly dwindle in size and disappear, watching big, ugly bruises slowly fade and disappear. I remember some cuts and breaks that needed a doctor’s attention, that needed antibiotics, stitches, bandages, splints, casts—they took longer to heal, and the healing often left a scar, but with the proper care and attention, the body’s healing capacities would take over. In fact, much of what the doctor did was simply ensure that the body’s healing capacities could function at their highest level. Even to my childish eye those capacities were remarkable.

Recently my youngest, Max, had four baby teeth removed—his first experience with anesthesia. He was understandably nervous before the procedure. My role as a parent, besides signing the consent forms and paying the bills, was to comfort him. “You’re going to be OK. You’ll be back to normal in no time.” In saying these things, I’m not just mouthing platitudes. I say them because I have confidence in the body’s capacity to heal. I have confidence that with a day of rest, patience, chicken soup, apple sauce, ice cream, extra TV and video games, extra attention and care from his family, his body will heal from the minor trauma of the surgery.

There is a life force, a will to live, an innate power to mend, a natural tendency toward repair. We encounter it not only in ourselves but throughout nature—starfish regenerate lost arms; deer regenerate lost antlers; eco-systems repair damage after earthquakes and oil spills. Trusting in this power may not restore sight to the blind or resurrect the dead, but it will help us remember what we can do to get of the body’s way so it can follow its natural processes of mending, repair and adaptation.

Second, approach healing from a place of openness. This is hard to do, especially when one is in pain. Pain makes us rigid, brittle and single-minded. It closes us off. But human beings heal in many ways, and because healing is not always a given, we need to search for what works. Indeed, some treatments emerge out of years of study and have firm scientific grounding. Sometimes they result in healing, sometimes they don’t. Some treatments are completely irrational, make no logical sense, and have no scientific grounding. Sometimes they result in healing, sometimes they don’t. I want us to be open to as many opportunities for healing as we can find—from the most scientifically grounded to the most implausible, even ludicrous. I put more faith in the former, but I never rule out the latter, and I combine them wherever and whenever possible. Even though we know healing doesn’t always happen, I want us to cultivate an attitude that healing is always a possibility. When it comes to healing, I want us to live with the prayerful sentiment we sang earlier: “Open my heart to all that I seek.”[3] Cast a wide net!         

Go to your doctor. Go to a second doctor, even a third. Follow their advice, except in those moments when it doesn’t feel right in in the depths of your soul—but even then, check with a loved one or a good friend to make sure you’re not in denial. But don’t stop there. Sit still. Sit still some more. Meditate. Pray. And if you do pray, and if you do invoke a holy name, I advise you first to get rid of any god, goddess or higher power who is distant and judgmental, frightening and inscrutable, and who doesn’t love you. Find a god, goddess or higher power who loves you deeply, who longs for you to heal as much as you long to heal. Pray to them with all your mind, all your heart, all your soul. But don’t stop there. Talk about your illness, your brokenness, your dis-ease to people who will listen attentively and support you. Express all your feelings about what is happening to you; express your anger, your rage, your sadness. But also express your joys, the blessings that remain in your life, the things for which you are grateful. Express your hope. Eat well, if you can. Sleep well, if you can. Give and receive lots of hugs. Spend time with pets and other animals. Speak the truth. Remember what matters most to you and spend time contemplating it. Let it bring meaning and purpose to your life in your time of trial. Create. Sing, dance, write, paint, take photographs. And in conversation with your doctor, indulge liberally in alternative therapies: yoga, reiki, the laying on of hands, music therapy—the  retuning of your frequencies—faith healing, exorcism, homeopathy, naturopathy, herbal remedies, old folk remedies, family healing traditions, chicken soup, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, especially if they are culturally relevant to you; Ayurvedic medicine, especially if it is culturally relevant to you—I’m only scratching the surface here, but you get the point. If you have the slightest inclination that it might aid in your healing process—that it might bring your life back into balance, that it might recreate some lost harmony—and it isn’t contraindicated with some other therapy you’re receiving, then try it.

Third, be willing to fight for healing. When necessary, be direct, be assertive, be aggressive. As Unitarian Universalists we talk about discerning who we are, what we’re passionate about, what our purpose is. We talk about being our truest, most authentic selves. On many occasions I’ve watched people struggling to heal, and everything they know about themselves just disappears. They listen to everyone but themselves, and there’s no fight in them. And on many occasions I’ve witnessed just the opposite: People struggling to heal suddenly realize they’re not healing because the healthcare system isn’t responding to them, isn’t seeing them, isn’t caring for them. And when this dawns on them, and they become angry about it, suddenly they gain wonderful, powerful clarity about who they are, about the value and sacredness of their own life, and they find their voice.  And they start fighting. It’s your body, it’s your health, it’s your life: fight for what you need. And if you don’t feel strong enough to fight on your own, look for allies and advocates.

Fourth, discern root causes. Sometimes healing doesn’t come. A cold lingers for weeks; a back aches with no respite; sleep never seems to arrive or doesn’t last; a wound refuses to close; the wrong cells start dividing, start spreading—words and names don’t come as easily to mind as they used to; nerves go numb; physical strength wanes; emotions come more forcefully than they should, and don’t quite match the moment; memory fades; meds lose efficacy; relationships fray. We lose confidence. Why am I not getting better? Why am I not healing? Perhaps you’ve been focusing too much on the symptom, and not its root.

For a simple example, I have pain in my lower back due to arthritis and deteriorating disks. Usually I can help my body manage the pain trough stretching, exercise and taking the occasional ibuprofen. But sometimes the pain persists despite these treatments. I’ve learned that this persistent, untouchable pain almost always correlates with high levels of stress in other parts of my life. The symptom is in my back, but the intervention I need is emotional and spiritual. So often the reason our body’s natural healing tendencies don’t work is not because they are broken, but because they are blocked by stress, fear, grief, anxiety; or they are stunted by a larger culture whose guiding values and practices conflict constantly and relentlessly with the values and practices we hold most dear; or they are weakened because something essential is missing from our lives—healthy relationships, community, safety, peace, meaning, purpose. Sometimes all these things are happening at once and it’s difficult to know why healing isn’t occurring. Often we know the what but not the why. I know arthritis and deteriorating disks cause back pain. But I don’t always know why the pain persists or why it is more intense than usual. I have to stop and examine why I’m experiencing stress and what is weighing on me. I have to discern the root.

Finally, when healing fails, seek wholeness. Healing may not always be possible, but wholeness is our birthright. In her meditation, “Mending,” Nancy Shaffer asks, “How shall we mend you, sweet Soul? / With these, I think, gently, / we can begin: we will mend you / with a rocking chair, some raisins; / a cat, a field of lavender beginning /now to bloom. We will mend you with songs / remembered entirely the first time ever they are heard. / We will mend you with pieces of your own sweet self, sweet Soul—with what you’ve taught / from the very beginning.” She’s not referring to physical healing. She’s referring to returning to a state of balance and harmony, an original state, a primordial state, a womb state. “With what you’ve taught /from the very beginning.” She’s referring to wholeness.

Sometimes our best efforts at healing, and the best efforts of our physicians, simply aren’t enough. What I’ve come to trust is that even in such situations, even when the prognosis is grim, we can still attain wholeness. Sometimes, through the course of our attempts to heal, we realize that we’ve repaired long-broken relationships. We realized that we’ve forgiven those who’ve wronged us. And we’ve accepted forgiveness from those we’ve wronged. Sometimes, through the course of our attempts to heal, we suddenly realize that we’re deeply in touch with our passions, that we’re affirming and celebrating the things that matter most. Even when the body’s natural tendencies toward healing no longer work, we can still be the people of integrity and purpose we long to be. And with that realization comes an experience of completeness, of fulfillment, of enduring, abiding peace. It can happen at any age. That’s wholeness. When healing fails, may wholeness come.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Mark 10: 51-52.

[2] For an excellent and far more nuanced discussion of this longstanding assumption of the role of spirituality in healing, see Bowler, Katie, “Death, The Prosperity Gospel, and Me: Some Christians Believe God Rewards the Faithful, So Why Did I Get Stage 4 Cancer?” New York Times, Sunday Review, February 14, 2016. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=0.

[3] Flurry, Henry S., “Open My Heart” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1013.

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

Part of All That Ever Was: A 2015 First Harvest Reflection

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Photo by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

Photo by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon picking up garbage around the Mortensen Riverfront Plaza on the Connecticut River in Hartford. This was part of my court-ordered community service after engaging in civil disobedience for Moral Monday CT and the Black Lives Matter movement on June 8th. The Hartford Community Court had deployed our doughty crew to beautify the Hartford riverfront in advance of the Food Truck Festival which took place over the second weekend of July.

The park appeared very clean when we got there, but the more we looked for garbage, the more we found: cigarette butts, candy wrappers, plastic water, juice, soda, athletic drink, and beer bottles, tin cans, hub caps, tires, exhaust pipes, mufflers, shoes, pants, underwear (men’s and women’s), Styrofoam and waxed cardboard take-out food containers, paper and plastic bags, plastic forks, knives and spoons, spent fireworks, etc. I understand that the impact of garbage accumulating along the Connecticut River is relatively small and largely cosmetic when compared to the impact of greenhouse gasses accumulating in the atmosphere. But there is a connection. One of my co-defendants wondered philosophically why apparently so many people feel it is OK to leave their garbage on the ground rather than placing it in garbage cans, which are abundant in the parks along the Connecticut River. My response, which I blurted out without giving much thought, was that it’s the symptom of a spiritual sickness. And that spiritual sickness is our modern-world, industrialized nation, human disconnection from Nature. Our capacity to litter is rooted in our disconnection from Nature.

In this sense, littering is no different from any other activity we engage in that damages either a local environment or the entire planet: we are able to engage in environmentally harmful activities—with impunity—because we have become disconnected from Nature. We engage in activities that assault the integrity of the natural world because we’ve lost our ancestral sense of our place in Nature; because we’ve lost our ancestral knowledge—life-giving, life-directing knowledge—of our dependence on and our interdependence with Nature; because we’ve lost, ultimately, our experience of oneness, our experience of being, in the words of the Rev. Becky Edmiston-Lange, “part of all that ever was.”[1] In order, as a species, to cause the harm we’ve caused, we first had to imagine ourselves as somehow distinct and separate from Nature. We first had to elevate ourselves in our own minds above Nature while simultaneously demoting and demonizing Nature. We had to identify ourselves as the tamers, the domesticators, the controllers, the civilizers, the owners, the sellers, the managers, the harnessers, the subduers, the dominators, the exploiters of Nature. We had to proclaim ourselves to be the masters of Nature. None of this was ever true—we know that now. We were never really any of these things. But we had to believe it in order to create all the toxins, poisons, contaminants, carcinogens, hazardous waste, pollutants, sludge and slurry we’ve created. None of this was ever true, but we had to believe it in order to create our fossil fuel-addicted society. We had to believe it in order to create our convenience-loving, plastic-wrap, disposable, shopaholic culture. We had to be wholly disconnected from Nature to become the people we’ve become. And when I use the words “we” and “people” I’m referring to we-the-people who live in the modern-world, industrialized nation societies where that spiritual sickness—disconnection from Nature—is most advanced.

I don’t want to dwell any further on this spiritual sickness or its symptoms. My sense is that the members and friends of this congregation generally agree the modern-world, industrialized-nation human disconnection from Nature is real and has resulted over time in a complex matrix of corporate and governmental policies, practices and systems for energy, agriculture, construction, sanitation, chemical engineering, genetic engineering, education—relating to virtually every aspect of our lives—that have long-term, negative environmental impacts that will be—and in some instances already are—catastrophic. A human disconnection from Nature was necessary before the evolution of these policies, practices and systems could take place. I assume most of you agree with this statement in part because as a congregation you are so committed to addressing the causes of global warming and climate change, working for environmental justice, countering environmental racism, and pursuing green, sustainable, simple and healthy ways of living. What I’m wondering about this morning, therefore, is not what perpetuates the spiritual sickness, but what will bring healing. What spiritual practices, what ways of thinking and being, will help us re-establish our connection to Nature?

I’m going to share four spiritual practices that answer this question for me. The first is for the heart. I call it “longing.” It is the practice of allowing oneself to feel emotion in response to our experience of Nature. Many of us are familiar with that stirring of emotion—that awe and wonder—that come in the presence of natural beauty, that come in response to witnessing an amazing landscape, a panoramic mountain-top view, a vast ocean, a starry, night sky. Our family recently spent time in the Berkshire Hills around Pittsfield, MA where Stephany’s parents live. Somewhere along the way Max started asking, ‘can we go hiking in the Berkshire Hills?” I heard in this question a nine-year-old’s longing for Nature, to be in awe of the natural world, to be in the midst of natural beauty, to be in the midst of mystery, to feel connected to a landscape that he knew was important to his mother because she spent her childhood there.

Waterfall at Monument Mountain in the Berkshire Hills

Waterfall at Monument Mountain in the Berkshire Hills

I include this kind of emotion in the practice of longing—Max was longing to experience those hills—but I’m also talking about a more complex set of emotions, perhaps a more adult set of emotions, that emerges from a recognition that something has been lost. I read earlier Allison Gammons’ meditation “Spirit of the Falls.” She writes, “A spirit once dwelt here, manifest in the rock that guides the water… / alive in the trees and plants / holding back the dirt, keeping the mountain from  / sliding to the river…. / I felt the spirit in that mist, playing with me, / dancing and laughing as I danced and laughed…. / I search for it now, along the paved trails, / amid the people and noise. / I strive to find it in the mist of the falls.”[2] She’s longing to regain something that has been lost. And we know, quite often, the emotions that attach to the experience of loss are not awe and wonder but sadness, sorrow, grief, melancholy, despair, anguish, heartache. All these emotions are part of the longing I’m describing.

And there’s more. As we recognize more and more that the disconnection from Nature is something that we-the-people have imposed on we-the-people, something we’ve taught, something we’ve solds, something we’ve bought; as we recognize that human greed, arrogance and ignorance, as well as politics, corporate bottom lines and a relentless striving for convenience have done this to us and we-the-people have allowed it to happen such that it now threatens the future of the planet, we may realize we are angry. We may realize we are impatient, indignant, furious, outraged. These emotions are also part of longing.

None of them is easy to feel, but we need to feel them—we need to let them out. As long as they remain unfelt and unacknowledged, our disconnection from Nature continues. Feeling them fully—working through them—readies us for reconnecting. Let us create spaces, then, in which we can feel these emotions. We can certainly create such spaces here in our corporate worship. But I invite you to contemplate how you might create spaces in your own life to feel deeply your complex longing to connect with Nature.

The second spiritual practice is for the mind. I call it re-imagining. For me this is primarily an intellectual practice in two parts. The first part is a practice of surrounding ourselves with voices—writers, poets, musicians, artists, theologians—whose work resists the forces of disconnection and proclaims our interdependence with Nature; whose work announces our oneness with the natural world; whose work affirms we are part of all that ever was. Earlier I read the twentieth-century American poet Lew Sarett’s “Deep Wet Moss,” in which he imagines merging with, embedding into, becoming one with Nature, perhaps at the time of death. “Oh, there will come a day, a twilight, /  when I shall sink to rest / In deep wet moss and cool blue shadows / Upon a mountain’s breast, / and yield a body torn with passions, /  And bruised with earthly scars, / To the cool oblivion of evening, / Of solitude and stars.”[3] And then we sang Z. Budapest’s words “We all come from the Goddess, and to Her we shall return / Like a drop of rain, flowing to the ocean.”[4] This kind writing, these kinds of words, re-imagine us as intimately connected to Nature. Not separate from but part of. Find the voices that speak of this connection. Surround yourself with them. Allow yourself to experience them every day.

Then, part two: inspired by these voices, begin to let your own voice proclaim your connection to Nature. You write the poem. You write the letter to the editor. You write the song. You paint the picture. You sculpt, you dance, you play, you compose, you preach, you add your voice in whatever form it takes to the chorus of voices refusing to live a disconnected life. Re-imagine yourself as profoundly connected to Nature. Re-imagine yourself as your ancient ancestors must have imagined you—they who knew nothing of fossil fuels, but did know the power of sun, wind, and water. Re-imagine yourself for the sake of spiritual healing and wholeness for yourself and for the planet.

The third spiritual practice is for the body. I call it celebration. As we approach August, we also approach in the modern Pagan, Neo-Pagan, and Wiccan calendars, the celebration of the first harvest. This celebration happens at the halfway-point between the Summer Solstice and the Autum Equinox, typically at the very end of July or on August 1st—thus, the end of this week. The celebration has various names. I see it most commonly referred to as Lughnasadh from the Celtic tradition. Lughnasadh refers to the funeral games of Lugh. Lugh was a sun god who established the games in honor of his mother, Tailtiu, supposedly an earth goddess who, as the story goes, died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture—for human survival and sustenance. Other names for this celebration include Lady Day Eve, the Feast of Bread, or the Feast of First Fruits. In a 1962 book, “The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest,” folklorist Máire MacNeill described a variety of first harvest rituals including the “solemn cutting of the first of the corn of which an offering would be made to the deity by bringing it up to a high place and burying it; a meal of the new food and of bilberries … a sacrifice of a sacred bull, a feast of its flesh … and its replacement by a young bull,” and a variety of ritual dance-plays depicting stories of Lugh’s challenges and triumphs.[5] Lughnasadh corresponds to the English festival Lammas or “loaf mass,” the wheat harvest festival, during which it is customary to bring a loaf of bread made from the new wheat crop to church to have it blessed by the priest, after which it was said, historically, to have certain magical properties.

What I’ve always loved about the modern pagan adaptations of these ancient festivals is the way in which they are so immediately tied to the land, to the seasons, to the agricultural cycles, to specific foods the earth produces in specific times and places. They are celebrations of our intimate connection to Nature, our embeddedness in Nature. Margot Adler, the former National Public Radio producer and journalist—a Pagan and a Unitarian Universalist—once said “these festivals renew a sense of living communion with the natural cycles, with the changes of season and land.”[6]

7-26 Great HarvestHaving a spiritual practice of regular celebration asks us not only to pay close attention to planting and harvest-time, to times of dormancy and growth, but when those times come, to enact rituals that honor them, so that our connection to Nature isn’t just something we feel, isn’t just something we think, but is something our bodies physically experience. Today I’ve brought bread. I didn’t bake it myself. This is a honey whole wheat loaf from the newly re-opened Great Harvest Bread Company. Some of you will remember their building on Main St. in Manchester burned down two Octobers ago. They just re-opened in Vernon in June. They baked this bread Friday morning with wheat from a family-owned farm in Montana. Here’s what I’d like to offer to you: As we sing our final song, I’ll invite anyone who wants to come forward to receive and eat a piece of bread: a Lughnasahd / Lammas bread communion, a ritual celebration of the first harvest. I also invite you to contemplate: What rituals can we enact together that invite our bodies to mark the changes in the seasons and the land? What rituals can you enact on your own to do the same?

Finally, before we sing, the fourth spiritual practice is for the soul. I call it worship. Worship is the act of holding up that which is of utmost worth. If we believe that the earth—because it births us, nurtures us, sustains us, carries us, and receives our bodies when we die—is of utmost worth, then it seems to me we ought to offer praise and thanks to it on a regular basis. We ought to worship it. What if we began relating to the earth as divine—just as our ancient ancestors did? What if we began encountering the earth as Gaia once more? As Mother once more? As Goddess once more?  How can we begin to regard the earth in this way in our collective worship?  How can you begin to regard the earth in this way in your personal spiritual life?

These are four spiritual practices for reconnecting modern world, industrialized nation people back to the earth: for the heart, longing; for the mind, re-imagining; for the body, celebration; for the soul, worship of the earth. I offer these to you as we approach the time of first harvest in 2015. I offer them because there is so much at stake. May you reconnect to Nature. May you come to that full awareness—heart, mind, body and soul awareness—you are a part of all that ever was.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Edmiston-Lange, Becky, “Prayers and Dreamings,”in Janamanchi, Abhi, and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds. Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) p. 36.

[2] Gammons, Allison C., “Spirit of the Falls,” in Janamanchi, Abhi, and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds. Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) p. 21.

[3] For the text of Sarett, Lew, “Deep Wet Moss”see: http://www.kewpie.net/helenD/DEEPWETMOSS.htm.

[4] To view a performance of Z. Budapest’s “We All Come From the Goddess,” see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voBZowM0NTs.

[5] MacNeill, Máire, The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest (London: Oxford University Press, 1962) p.426. I also found this quoted on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lughnasadh.

[6] Adler, Margot, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, druids, Goddess Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today (New York: Penguin/Arkana, 1997) p. 111.

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.

On Being/Becoming Generous People

Rev. Josh Pawelek

GenerosityOur ministry theme for March is generosity. We choose this theme for this time of year quite intentionally. March is the month and today is the day we officially launch our annual appeal during which we ask each of you to make a generous financial pledge for the coming fiscal year. I know I don’t have to sugar-coat this. We’ve talked enough about money, giving and financial stewardship over the years that I’m confident all of us (except those who are very new to the congregation) know that we—and by we I mean you, the members and friends of this congregation, and me, the minister, and the rest of the staff—we, all of us, want all of us to be as generous as possible when we make our financial gifts to this congregation. We take giving very seriously here, and I hope and trust each of you is reflecting now on what UUS:E means to you, and the financial gift you can pledge for the coming year.

Of course, generosity is important no matter what time of year and no matter to whom or to what institution or cause you are directing your generosity. I want us to be generous to UUS:E with our time, talents and treasure; but it is also my hope that we will be generous in all aspects of our lives—generous to our families, our friends, our neighborhoods, our towns or cities, institutions we care about, people in need, people who are suffering, people next door, people on the other side of the planet and, indeed, the planet itself. I want us to be generous people. And I want us to be people who are always becoming more generous. With this in mind, and mindful we are launching our annual appeal, I offer three reflections on generosity:

My first reflection, perhaps somewhat oddly, is about not being generous. It stems from the recognition that at certain times I experience myself not as a generous person, but as something else. I don’t want to admit I sometimes experience myself as selfish, stingy, closed-off, but sometimes that how it feels. I don’t want to give money to everyone who approaches me with an outstretched hand. I don’t want to say ‘yes’ to every idea everyone wants to pursue with my help, or to every worthy cause everyone wants me to support. I don’t always want to call my legislators or the Governor’s office every time someone asks—that could be a full-time job if I made every call I’m asked to make. As much as I love my parents, my wife, my brothers and their wives, my kids and my nephews and nieces, I don’t always want to spend time with them. I don’t always want to help out with the PTO, chaperone the field trip or coach soccer. I don’t want serve on yet another board. I don’t. I don’t. I don’t. And, often, the act of saying “no” or “I don’t want to” or “I’m sorry, I just can’t do it,” or “I’m sorry, there’s no cash in my wallet,” makes me feel incredibly guilty, selfish, stingy, closed. To this day, I’m not entirely sure where this comes from—especially the guilt, since it wasn’t part of my religious upbringing. But guilt is often the first thing I feel when I refuse the invitation to practice generosity.

I’ve learned to remind myself that all spiritual values have their limits when human beings put them into practice. There are practical limits to our compassion, love, wisdom, creativity, hospitality. Generosity is no exception. We cannot respond to every need. We cannot make every wounded person whole. None of us has infinite financial resources, infinite time, infinite compassion, infinite love. This is not a scarcity-mentality. It is a realistic assessment of our capacity. As much as we might want to, we cannot donate a second kidney. We cannot say “yes” to everything no matter how worthy. When we do, we risk exhausting ourselves, impoverishing ourselves, losing ourselves. We risk stressing out, checking out, burning out, disappearing, fading away. We risk becoming resentful, bitter, discouraged, depressed.

It is possible to be generous in an ungrounded way, in a way that potentially does harm to the one being generous. Over the years I have watched people impoverish themselves emotionally, spiritually and financially by giving endlessly to others. We might call them selfless, we might admire them for their sacrifice—sometimes it is truly beautiful—but more often than not, as they deplete their resources, their own life grows more and more tenuous, and their generosity loses its effectiveness. There’s a metaphor that keeps popping up in my life these days, the instructions one receives on an airplane: if the cabin loses pressure and the oxygen masks drop down from the ceiling, put your own mask on first, prior to putting your child’s mask on. If we want our generosity to be as effective as possible, and if we want it to be sustainable—that is, if we want generosity to be an ongoing, deeply-rooted part of our identity—then we need to put our own mask on first. We need to trust that saying “no” doesn’t have to be a sign of selfishness. Saying “no” may simply mean “I’ve reached my current limit.” Saying “no” in some situations sustains us for those situations wherein we say “yes.” Saying “no” in some situations enables us to be ready for and effective in those situations wherein we say “yes.” I’m talking about self-care, which includes saying “no,” and enables us to offer grounded and sustainable generosity to those people, institutions and causes that are most important to us.

My next reflection is about spontaneous generosity or random acts of kindness. Our middle school “Popcorn Theology” class recently watched excerpts from the 2007 film, Evan Almighty, in which actor Steve Carell plays Evan, a newly elected congressman who wants to change the world, and actor Morgan Freeman plays God. God convinces Evan that he must build an ark, just like Noah did in Genesis. Evan asks God if he really intends to flood the earth and start over. God doesn’t answer the question fully, but he indicates his intent isn’t as Biblical as it may seem. In protest, Evan says, “I don’t even know where I would begin.” “Well, I hear that a lot,” says God. “People want to change the world, don’t know where to begin. You wanna know how to change the world, son? One act of random kindness at a time.” Spoiler: ‘ark’ is an abbreviation for ‘act of random kindness.’

Whether we say ‘acts of random kindness’ or ‘random acts of kindness,’ this is very familiar language in our culture, to the point where it has become a hyper cliché. If you know me at all, you know I am underwhelmed by moral and spiritual guidance delivered through clichés. I actually don’t agree that one act of random kindness at a time, even when carried out by millions of people, will change the world. I happen to think the problems facing the world—climate change, poverty, violence, war, and so on—will not evaporate in the face of widespread kindness. I happen to think solving the problems facing the world today requires not random, but highly organized, large-scale, strategic interventions aimed at transforming the local, regional, national and global social, political and economic structures that currently perpetuate those problems. Such interventions cannot be accomplished by kind individuals acting randomly on their own, but rather by multinational, multicultural, multigenerational movements acting in visionary, courageous and sustainable ways over the course of decades. Since change of this sort requires conflict, not all of it will be kind. The world needs more than random acts of kindness.

Having said that, I don’t want to become known as the minister who urged his congregation not to commit random acts of kindness. If you were getting ready to post that message on Facebook, or tweet it, please hold off. Almost all of us have opportunities—many, many opportunities—every day to be kind, compassionate, generous. And we don’t have to go far out of our way to find those opportunities. Offer an encouraging word, a compliment, an affirmation—or just ask, “how are you today?” and really mean it. Reach out to a friend or family member you haven’t heard from in a while. Say “hello,” “I’ve been thinking about you,” “I miss you.” Let the other person have the parking space, even though you got there first. Let the other person cut in front of you in the traffic jam. Lend a hand, hold a door, offer a ride, help with a project—painting a room, raking leaves, shoveling snow, packing for a move, cleaning a garage, attic or basement. Ask, “Is there anything I can do?” and, if the answer is “yes,” do it. Mentor, tutor, coach, counsel, guide. Help with homework. Remember a birthday or an anniversary—the anniversary of a marriage, a death, any significant milestone in a person’s life. Remember with a card, a phone call, a gift. If you discover someone is lonely, talk to them, take them seriously. If someone is overwhelmed, assist them. If someone is grieving, comfort them. If someone is in pain, soothe them. If someone needs to be left alone, let them be alone.

And then there’s the giving of money. So often we encounter people who need money for any number of reasons. And yes, giving money to someone in need can be tricky. When you have money to give and another needs it, it invariably creates an imbalance in the relationship, which can be hard to talk about, hard even to acknowledge. At the risk of minimizing the complexities money brings to human interactions, my hope is that in those times when we have it and others need it, we can give it with humility, with grace, with no strings attached, with no regrets. Having money to give does not make a person better or more worthy, but it does give one an avenue for kindness and generosity that can make a huge difference in another’s life. My hope is that, when we have it to give, we will give it.

Offering our generosity through random acts of kindness won’t change the world. But what a difference it can make, not only in the lives of those who receive our generosity, but in our own lives. What a difference there is between a life in which we close ourselves off to the needs of those around us, compared to a life in which we reach out, make ourselves available, offer a kind word, give money when we have it to give—thoughtfully, carefully, always within our means—but freely, without reservations or misgivings. Generosity honors life, strengthens life, builds life up. Yes, church ought to enable our participation in those larger movements for social, economic, political and environmental change, but it also ought to inspire us to be generous in our face-to-face, human interactions. What a difference generosity makes.

My final reflection, then, brings generosity back to church. Again, I want us to be generous people. And I want us to be people who are always becoming more generous. This certainly means I want us to give as generously as possible to our annual appeal. And it also means I want us to be as generous as possible in all aspects of our lives. So, what is it about church—this particular church—that creates a generous spirit in us, that keeps us not closed but open to those around us, that inspires us to give? I read to you earlier an excerpt from a chapter from Anne Lamott’s Travelling Mercies, called “Why I Make Sam Go to Church.” Sam is her son. She describes how the people of the church welcomed Sam as soon as they found out she was pregnant, and how they continued to welcome him and support their small family through hard times once he was born. She writes of receiving gifts of clothes, casseroles and baggies full of dimes. She writes of the deep and genuine love the people of the church feel for Sam and the deep and genuine love he feels for them. This story jumped out at me because it’s about multigenerational bonds within a church community. What I’ve come to recognize during this congregational year—more fully than I’ve ever recognized before—is that for multigenerational communities to work well the members must be open—intentionally and purposefully open—to a whole range of needs and gifts unique to each generation—open to the needs and gifts of elders, of our children, of our youth and young adults, of parents and of non-parenting adults;  open to all these needs and gifts, learning how they complement each other, how they conflict with each other, and how we can mash them up into a beautiful whole. Multigenerational community demands openness. And I’m convinced the more open we are, the more generous we become.

Last year many of you were able to increase your financial giving, which enabled us to support a very intentional process of enhancing the quality and experience of our multigenerational community. We have been working closely with our interim religious education consultant, Barb Greve and we are finally beginning to introduce some innovations: Everything from the new children’s nametags, to increasing the number of non-parenting adults volunteering or subbing in the children’s religious education program, to inviting small groups of adults to attend children’s worship, to piloting a variety of techniques for multigenerational worship. This spring we’re going to experiment with having children present for the beginning of adult worship on a much more regular basis, and we have many more ideas for making full-week faith a reality over the coming year. The bottom line for me is that we are slowly increasing the opportunities for interaction across the generations. This requires a new degree of openness to change and new relationships. I’m starting to see it—perhaps you are too—and I love what I see. The more open we are, the more generous we become.

Generosity is one of the most significant spiritual values we can cultivate in ourselves and our children. So much of what we do here at UUS:E seeks to instill generosity in us by opening us up—opening us up to the world around us, to pain and suffering and need in the world, to the complexity and beauty of the world, to possibilities, creativity, joy and love: Sunday morning worship, religious education, opportunities to serve—as leaders, as committee members, as stewards, as caregivers, as teachers—opportunities to participate in social justice movements, opportunities to participate in environmental justice movements, opportunities to mark and celebrate life’s milestones—birth, coming of age, marriage, death—opportunities for us to be safely and fully who we are, opportunities to share the details of our lives, to hear and be heard, to see and be seen, to know and be known, to hold and be held, to shape and be shaped, to challenge and be challenged, to soften and be softened, to care and to be cared for, to bring and receive gifts, to love and be loved. All of it opens us up, enables us to be generous people, enables us to continue becoming more generous people.

For your generous gift to this year’s annual appeal, thank you. For your generous spirit, thank you. For all your efforts to become more generous people, thank you.

Amen and blessed be.

 

On Human Brokenness

Rev. Josh Pawelek and Nancy Thompson

Nancy Thompson is a graduate of the Buddhist teacher training program at The Interdependence Project, a secular Buddhist center in New York City, and is a student of Lama Tsultrim Allione. She joined UUS:E in 1995 with her family and began studying Buddhism in 2006. She leads the UUS:E Buddhist Group and teaches meditation at Samadhi Yoga Studio in Manchester.

I

Nancy

I was born into a Roman Catholic family in May 1957. When I was less than month old, I was taken to Holy Name of Jesus Church and cleansed of my sins by a priest who poured water over my forehead as my aunt held me. A rational person might wonder what I could have done in my first four weeks of life to require spiritual cleansing. Most likely, nothing. Catholics believe that we all enter the world tainted by original sin, the sin created when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the apple.

Move forward 50 years. I’m sitting in a small office in a former gun factory turned meditation center in New Haven, facing a Tibetan Buddhist teacher in orange robes. He asks why I have decided to take refuge, the formal vow that makes me an official Buddhist.

If he were a western teacher, fluent in English and irony, I might talk about my Roman Catholic baptism. Instead I keep it simple. I talk about how I am drawn to the idea of basic goodness – also known as buddhanature, inherent richness, essential nature (it’s like Eskimos and snow; Buddhists have many words for it) – how it has transformed my life to see myself as essentially good, working to remove the overlay of social conditioning and perceptions and expectations that cover up that goodness, rather than essentially bad. As a Catholic, I said every week, as part of Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word and my soul will be healed.” As a Buddhist, I don’t need to be fixed; I’m not broken, and I have all the tools I need for a tune-up inside of me.

Buddhism

Josh

I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist family. There was never a hint of the unworthiness or inherent sinfulness Nancy refers to in her religious upbringing. However, living in a town that, at the time, was fifty percent Catholic, I remember feeling somewhat jealous of my Catholic friends. Many aspects of their lives seemed lovingly held by their church and community. We were held too, but there just weren’t that many UU kids at school. I can’t remember how much we talked across our elementary school lines of faith about sin and hell, but I remember knowing at an early age that our church was theologically different. Our Universalist forbears had long ago given up the concept of hell—an all-loving God would never sentence people to eternal punishment. And our Unitarian forbears had championed the idea that human beings could work toward perfection. “Salvation by character,” they called it. We were worthy beyond measure.

My Pennsylvania Dutch, somewhat evangelical grandmother used to talk to me and my brothers about hell, about fearing God. But her admonitions were never enough to talk us out of our sense of being whole, good, worthy.

chalice

Forty years later, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, while I still embrace those core messages of our spiritual forebears, and while I don’t experiencing lingering feelings of religious or spiritual guilt so many Americans are raised to feel, I do wonder sometimes if I’m missing something. I may be moving in the opposite direction Nancy has moved on her journey to Buddhism. I wonder if there is a condition we might call brokenness. It’s not an inherent condition, not something we’re born with. But as a minister, as one to whom people come to speak of their pain, their mistakes, their illnesses, their suffering, the ways they’ve been hurt and the ways they’ve hurt others, it strikes me that we can break, that there are times when we need fixing. Sometimes that wonderful, comforting message that we are perfect just as we are, that we don’t need to be fixed, isn’t enough. It doesn’t ring true to the person who feels broken, and it doesn’t help them in the midst of their suffering. Something else is needed.

II

Nancy

Buddhism starts, literally, with brokenness. The Buddha’s First Noble Truth – dukkha – is often translated as “suffering,” but the word actually refers to a wheel and an axle that don’t fit together quite right, like the shopping cart with the wobbly wheel. Life contains big dramatic events that qualify as suffering – the Buddha mentioned old age, sickness, and death – but more often it is like a shopping cart with a wonky wheel that doesn’t move as smoothly as we want.

The thing is, we – the awareness that recognizes the problem – aren’t broken. The cart, for that matter, is functional: It holds things and moves, just not smoothly.

The breakdown is in our relationship to the wobbly wheels on the shopping cart of life. We encounter difficulties and we get angry or frustrated or confused or sad that things aren’t going the way we think they should. We are not able to make the world behave the way we want. And so we suffer.

Wobbly wheel

There’s a disconnect between our thinking mind and our innate, unbroken, unbreakable, perfect nature. Buddhists call that buddhanature. You can call it God, spirit, the light in each and every one of us, that which is worthy of respect and dignity.

We are perfect just as we are. But we forget that because we’re told over and over that we’re not – we eat too much, sin too often, drive the wrong car, use the wrong words, wear the wrong clothes.  The challenge of a spiritual path is to find our way home to that sense of our own basic goodness.

Josh

Somehow, Google knows our February ministry theme is brokenness. Last week I opened my email and found a message from Google featuring a quote from a self-helpish, inspirational website called HpLyrikz.com. The quote said, “I still get very high and very low in life. Daily. But I’ve finally accepted the fact that sensitive is just how I was made, that I don’t have to hide it, and I don’t have to fix it. I’m not broken.” Google must’ve noticed I’d been searching for resources on “brokenneness,” and thought this quote might appeal. I also noticed the quote had been shared millions of times. I traced it back to a 2013 TED talk by Glennon Doyle Melton called “Lessons from the Mental Hospital.” Glennon Doyle Melton is a writer, blogger and organizer. She’s a person in recovery. She grounds her work in her stories of living with addiction, eating disorders, mental illness.

GDM on HpLyrikz

As much as I want to affirm this idea that “I’m not broken,” as much as it resonates with my religious upbringing, I find myself bristling. It’s not that she’s wrong. She’s not. It’s that she makes this statement in the middle of telling her story, and then a million other people repost the statement, but they don’t mention the story. Now the statement is out on the web but without any context. The part in the story where she was addicted to drugs, had eating disorders, wound up in a psychiatric unit—the part in the story where she had to work really, really hard to heal—emotionally, physically, psychologically—the part in the story where those feelings of being broken still live in her even though she has them in check now—is lost. When I read about Melton’s life story, I wonder if it might not be more accurate to say that there was a time in her life when she was broken, when she was lost, when she was a “wretch,” as the hymn says. I wonder if it is useful to speak of human brokenness—to wrestle with the possibility not that we are somehow born broken, but that we can break. I wonder if it is useful—and I suspect it is—to wrestle with this idea before we make the leap to “I’m not broken.”

Having said that, Nancy’s discussion of buddhanature resonates deeply with me. It appeals to the lessons of my liberal religious upbringing. It makes sense to me that, if there is an original human condition, it is akin to buddhanature—it is the essential perfection that, in the language of our Unitarian Universalist principles, endows us—and, indeed, all life—with inherent worth and dignity. When we say, “We are perfect just as we are,” it’s true. But we forget it, often easily. We forget it perhaps because we were never taught this truth as children; or because we’ve made mistakes and we haven’t forgiven ourselves; or because, as Nancy suggested, others tell us negative stories about ourselves: “we eat too much, sin too often, drive the car, use the wrong words, wear the wrong clothes;” or we tell ourselves these stories. And some people forget it because they’ve experienced some trauma, some abuse, some oppression, some war, some mental or psychological breakdown so profound that they feel broken. And for such people, the message “you’re perfect just the way you are,” isn’t entirely accurate. It doesn’t meet them where they are. It contradicts their experience. They may have a long struggle ahead of them before they can genuinely feel perfect just the way they are. But what has always been—and will always be—an article of faith for me, not just as a pastor, but as a husband, father, brother, friend, colleague, neighbor, and stranger, is that the experience of brokenness is temporary. That is, some form of healing—spiritual or otherwise—is always possible. Returning to wholeness—spiritual or otherwise—is always possible. Returning home to that sense of our own basic goodness is always possible.

III

Nancy

I don’t think people have to be broken before they can feel whole. I don’t think you have to be lost to be found, to be blind before you can see. Brokenness isn’t just struggle or dissatisfaction – it’s a bone-deep questioning of your worth in the world, your ability to function. I can’t judge the authenticity of someone else’s experience of that; it doesn’t leave visible marks.

I want to share a story with you about what happens when you see people’s perfection rather than their brokenness. It comes from a friend of mine, Lisa, who is a Buddhist, a dedicated meditator, and a middle school science teacher. She shared this story on Facebook, and I’m going to just read what she wrote:

“I have this 12 year old student with SEVERE OCD. He’s a brilliant science student, kind, respectful, soft, funny. Most days he can’t even sit in the classroom seat. He can’t touch papers that other people have touched. He can’t handle any of the objects I bring to class to share. He annoys some of the teachers with this behavior.

“Today he dropped his pencil case on the floor and all his “clean,” well-organized world possessions got destroyed (in his mind). He started panicking and pacing and basically losing his cool. I responded by not feeding his story. I told him it was OK. I told him HE was OK. I told him to look me in the eyes. I showed him my confidence in his ability to handle this. I gave him clear direct instructions, he trusted me enough to follow them. I showed him how to breathe. I showed him how to manage his anxious biochemistry. By the end we laughed.

“I love this kid’s struggle. I love his process. I’m forever grateful that my job puts me in a place and time where I can be of service to grow a good human.”

She had prefaced the story with this statement: “Those of you that feel like weirdos or weak or high maintenance or just plain broken, you’re not. OK? You’re just not. It’s your brain and it’s telling you some shifty stuff.”

Lisa’s story shows what happens when you know, REALLY know, deep in your bones, that you are inherently perfect. You realize that everyone else is too, no matter how broken they may seem to themselves or to the world that hasn’t yet learned to see perfection. And you want to help them see that for themselves. That’s the work of a bodhisattva, a person who vows to lead all beings to enlightenment before going there.

The poet Galway Kinnell writes: “Sometimes it is necessary / to reteach a thing its loveliness, / to put a hand on its brow / of the flower / and retell it in words and in touch / it is lovely / until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing.

Sometimes we need to know that we are seen as perfect in order to see that in ourselves. When I took the refuge vow, the formal ceremony of committing to Buddhism, I was given the Tibetan name Khunzang Lamo, which translates to Always Good Divine Lady. That’s a touchstone for me when I don’t feel that way.

Josh

The poet, Galway Kinnel, continues: “As Saint Francis / put his hand on the creased forehead / of the sow, and told her in words and in touch / blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow / began remembering all down her thick length,/ from the earthen snout all the way / through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,/ from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine / down through the great broken heart / to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering / from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:the long, perfect loveliness of sow.”

If a person describes their condition to me as one of brokenness, I won’t counter with “You’re perfect just the way you are.” To the best of my ability I will be with them in their experience of brokenness. So often, our healing begins when those around us acknowledge that what we are experiencing is real. But even as I validate stories of brokenness, I will also remember the simple theological lessons of my Unitarian Universalist upbringing—all are saved, all are loved, all are capable of perfection. I will remember the teachings of the Buddha about our buddhanature. I will remember the teachings of Jesus, who said “the kingdom of god is within you” (Luke 17:21). I will remember the pronouncements of scientists and cosmologist who remind us of our common origin in the hearts of stars. As I remember, I will offer blessings of earth in words and touch.

Meet People

I urge you to do likewise. For as we remember, we are more likely to see the “long, perfect loveliness” in the person experiencing brokenness—and the more likely they will see it too. And as we bless, we help the one experiencing brokenness tell a new story about themselves—a story that enables healing, fosters wholeness, and inspires goodness.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

A Dream in the Heart

Rev. Josh Pawelek

winter scenePeople “cannot continue long to live if the dream in the heart has perished. It is then that they stop hoping, stop looking, and the last embers of their anticipations fade away”[1]—a potent message—perhaps a warning—from the twentieth-century, Christian mystic, Howard Thurman. People “cannot continue long to live if the dream in the heart has perished.  It is then that they stop hoping.”

Hope is our December ministry theme.  Hope and December go hand-in-hand. There’s nothing like this dark mid-winter season to engender in us quiet reflection on hope. There’s nothing like this dark mid-winter season to call forth from us expressions—poems, songs, carols, prayers, stories—of hope.

I’ve talked about hope in past sermons very simply as a positive orientation toward the future, which it certainly is. But that definition doesn’t feel sufficient to me this morning. There are potentially many reasons, both personal and global—I’ll name some through the course of this sermon—reasons that could lead us to conclude a positive orientation toward the future is not justified, or at least unrealistic. I want to push back against that conclusion, and start with a different kind of claim: hope is a capacity inherent in us, inherent in human beings. We might call this the “Emily Dickinson” version of hope, recalling her famous words: “Hope” is the thing with feathers— / That perches in the soul— / And sings the tune without the words— / And never stops—at all.[2]  This idea appeals to me because, if it’s true, if hope is inherent in us like a bird perched in the soul, then in those moments when we experience a loss of hope, we have reason to trust that the loss is not permanent. Even when we feel we have nowhere else to turn, we can turn to ourselves, we turn to what Thurman calls “the inward parts,” and begin to dream again.

When I say hope is inherent in us, I’m not suggesting it is a biological phenomenon. If nothing else, I suspect it lives deep in our cultural DNA. As I said in my December newsletter column, I suspect our ancient ancestors—especially those in the northern latitudes—experienced winter as a challenging, frightening and difficult time, a dark time, a cold time, a hunger time, a worry time, an anxiety time: will we survive? The return of the sun at the winter solstice—that moment of the planet tilting back on its axis, of the great wheel of the earth turning—that moment, every year, must have been inspiring, must have generated profound hope—the days are getting longer now; we’re going to make it! Hundreds of generations later, we inherit that ancient hopefulness.

No wonder the December holiday stories are so enduring and endearing. No wonder their hopefulness still speaks to so many of us thousands of years after they were first written. I’m referring to the story of Hanukah, the festival of lights, which begins this coming Tuesday evening: the cleansing of the sacred spaces, one day’s supply of oil providing lamp-light for eight, the re-dedication of the temple. And I’m referring to the story of Christmas, which Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner described last Sunday as the “tale of a world waiting for hope, for joy, for the coming of the babe who would bring peace, hold the powerful to account and ‘lift up the lowly.’”[3] As these stories return to us each December, as they reverberate through our lives during these days of waning sunlight, those of us who learned them first as children—and even those of us who didn’t—we feel the hopefulness in them. These stories, along with our various holiday rituals—decorating Christmas trees,  decorating our homes, hanging evergreens, preparing special foods, sending greeting cards, lighting lights, lighting the menorah, tickets to “The Nutcracker,” “A Christmas Carol,”—all of it has the power to move us from sad to joyful, exhausted to energized, fearful to courageous, angry to peaceful and despairing to hopeful. These stories and rituals awaken and give voice to that ancient inheritance, that hopefulness inherent in us.

winter sceneAnd it surely needs awakening. We may have an inherent capacity for hope, but it is also part of the human condition to lose hope at times. We know there is much in our lives that has the power to obscure our capacity for hope—to blunt it, weaken it, bury it deep: a difficult diagnosis, a debilitating medical treatment, a mental illness, a lost job, a loss of memory, grief at the death of a loved-one, grief at estrangement from a loved-one, a troubling addiction, a struggling child. Any time we encounter situations like these, it is possible we will slip into depression or despair, possible our motivation will fail, possible we’ll lose hope.

We know also there is much in the wider world that has this same power to separate us from hope: a raging virus, an endless war, an emerging terrorist state, growing poverty, and sign after sign of coming, catastrophic climate change. I think it’s fair to say nobody escapes this life without encountering reasons to lose hope. For some these reasons come in more or less manageable doses; for others they are pervasive and debilitating. Either way, each of us has reasons from time to time not to greet the day with hope in our hearts. Or, in Howard Thurman’s words, to “lose the significance of living.”[4]

Two assaults on hope are weighing on me in this moment. This morning marks the painful two-year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. If there was ever a day in recent memory to lose hope, it was that day, Friday, December 14, 2012. The recognition that one human being could wreak so much havoc on innocents, could cause such enormous suffering—for no discernable reason—was utterly heart-breaking, chilling, numbing, overwhelming. Sixty miles away from the atrocity, I remember feeling physically ill. I couldn’t eat. I dreaded having to tell my children what had happened, but felt I had to before they heard about it from someone else. I remember feeling disgust, anger, helplessness. All of this added up to hopelessness, an inability to access that inherent capacity for hope. For a moment, I think, the nation lost hope, lost the significance of living. What could any of us possibly do to alleviate that pain? What change in the law, what change in our communities, what change in our hearts could possibly heal the wounds of that day? Newtown is no longer front-page news, but as a nation we are still grappling with its meaning, still wondering what dream we ought to be dreaming.

This morning I am also mindful of the anger and rage surging in the nation in response to grand juries in Staten Island, NY and Ferguson, MO who found insufficient evidence to indict police officers who killed unarmed black men in July and August. When we take the time to understand these grand jury decisions in the context of longstanding patterns of police violence in many communities of color across the nation, and when we understand these patterns in the context of ongoing institutional racism in the United States that results in a well-documented race-based wealth gap, a health-gap, an employment gap, a housing gap, an incarceration gap, an education gap—when we take the time to understand, to bear witness, to grasp just how enormous these problems are—it begins to make sense that many people—people of all racial identities—would lose hope, would lose the significance of living, would feel despair, would become angry and full of rage. As a nation we are once again grappling openly with race and racism, and many are wondering what dream we ought to be dreaming.

Again, there are potentially many reasons, both personal and global, for us to conclude that a positive orientation toward the future is not justified, or at least not realistic. We may have an innate capacity for hope, but we also lose hope. Given this, how do we get it back? How do we get back to that part of ourselves that is innately hopeful? In trying to answer this question, I stumbled across the work of the popular researcher/social worker/storyteller, Brené Brown. In her 2010 book, The Gifts of Imperfection, she says “I was shocked to discover that hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process. Emotions play a supporting role, but hope is really a thought process made up of [a] trilogy of goals, pathways, and agency.” She says hope happens when “1) we have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go); 2) we are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative routes (I know how to get there, I’m persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again); and 3) we believe in ourselves (I can do this!).”[5] Her research shows that people who work hard, who are persistent, who are able to tolerate failure, who are willing and able to struggle for what they believe in, are more hopeful than people who don’t work hard and who give up easily. Tenacious people are hopeful people.

She is particularly concerned that our society is no longer teaching the values of hard work, persistence and tolerance for failure to our children, which is precisely what they need to become not only successful but hopeful adults. Interestingly, given her findings, Brown doesn’t think hope is inherent in us. She loves that Emily Dickinson poem, but she calls it “romantic,” says it doesn’t tell us anything useful about what hope actually is. For Brown, hope is a thought process that we can learn and teach to others. 

Here’s one of Brenae Brown’s lectures on hope:

 

Winter SceneThis is important. I love the idea that hope is learnable and teachable, and it strikes me that church ought to be all about the learning and teaching of hope! But my sense is that Brown’s research looks more at people who are successful in school and work settings, and isn’t quite as focused on people in the midst of existential crises, crises where life and death are at stake, crises that call into question the meaning of our existence—patients hearing the news they have a fatal disease; spouses living with grief after their beloved has died unexpectedly; teenagers contemplating suicide after relentless bullying;  soldiers serving in war zones; refugees fleeing across borders, freezing, starving in unfamiliar wilderness; prisoners incarcerated for non-violent crimes; people living in poverty; pro-democracy activists confronting the tyranny of violent, authoritarian regimes; communities responding to police shootings of citizens; communities torn apart by gun violence—whether mass shootings or gang shootings; anyone contemplating the fragility of the earth, the burgeoning climate crisis, the great disruption; anyone wondering how on earth they can make a difference when the problems we face seem so insurmountable. In response to existential crises, Brown’s trilogy of goals, approaches and agency, in my humble opinion, isn’t enough. When people are in the midst of such crises—wrestling with life and death, wrestling with meaning, wrestling with suffering—often the suggestion that they ought to “set an achievable goal” won’t make any sense, won’t be helpful. In such situations people need a different kind of presence, a different kind of guidance. Sometimes the stakes are such that people don’t have the luxury of failure.

I’m crossing a line here from the sociological to the spiritual. Before we set goals to move forward from whatever crisis we find ourselves in, before we can act, fail, adjust, try again, even before we can believe in ourselves, there’s a prior moment of recognition, which for me is the spiritual moment at the heart of our response to any existential crisis—the moment when we imagine a different outcome, the moment when we imagine a different life—a meaningful life—the moment when we imagine a different world—a peaceful world, a just world, a fair world, a loving world, a sustainable world—the moment when we turn our hearts and our bodies toward that different, meaningful life, toward that different, better world. I’m not sure we can emerge from any existential crisis without that moment of imagining. It’s the moment when we return to our capacity for hope. Howard Thurman calls it “the dream in the heart.” He says, “the dream is the quiet persistence in the heart that enables [people] to ride out the storms of their churning experiences…. It is the ever-recurring melody in the midst of the broken harmony and harsh discords of human conflict.”[6] And it doesn’t live somewhere beyond us. It lives within us. Thurman writes: “The dream is no outward thing. It does not take its rise from the environment in which one moves or functions. It lives in the inward parts, it is deep within, where the issues of life and death are ultimately determined.”[7]

winter sceneThis dream in the heart, this ability to imagine—this is the source of hope. It may recede in response to crisis—we may feel hopeless—but this capacity for hope never leaves us. The sun returns at the darkest time of year. And we can always return to our dreaming. It may not be realistic. There may be no rational way to justify it, but as long as we have a dream in our heart, we will be hopeful people. In this holiday season, and in all seasons, in response to all the crises we face, both personal and global, may we keep alive the dream in hearts. May we imagine a different, meaningful life. May we imagine a different, better world. May we hope. And then, may we get to work.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thurman, Howard, “Keep Alive the Dream in the Heart,” in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 304.

[2] Dickinson, Emily, “Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314). See: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171619.

[3] Joiner, Rev. Megan Lloyd, “In the Waiting Time,” a sermon preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, December 7, 2014. See: http://uuse.org/in-the-waiting-time/#.VIii2SvF-Sp.

[4] Thurman, Howard, “Keep Alive the Dream in the Heart,” in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 304. 

[5] Brown, Brené, The Blessings of Imperfection (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010). This particular quote can be found on Hazelden Publishing’s “Behavioral Health Evolution” website at http://www.bhevolution.org/public/cultivating_hope.page.  An excellent, short video of Brené Brown lecturing on her understanding of hope is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJo4qXbz4G4.

[6] Thurman, Howard, “Keep Alive the Dream in the Heart,” in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 305.

[7] Thurman, Howard, “Keep Alive the Dream in the Heart,” in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 305.

 

A Sufficient Quantity of Faith

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Faith


In an interview with Krista Tippett for the American Public Media show “On Being,” Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints, said, “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals…. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”[1] She offers this thought as part of a broader, ongoing, playful yet pointed critique of American Protestantism, which she describes both as “Western individualism run amok in religion” and the “personal me-and-Jesus, how-I-feel, what-my-piety-is, [what]-my-personal-prayer-life-[is]—all of that stuff.”[2] As Unitarian Universalists it is easy to assume this critique doesn’t apply to us because, well, she’s not talking to us; she’s talking to Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, etc. We don’t get all the jokes about high church Christian theology, but that’s OK. Her message isn’t really for us.

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Except maybe it is. I actually think Bolz-Weber’s critique applies more to us than any other tradition, mainly because something at the heart of mid-19th-century Unitarianism—160, 170 years ago—something in its liberal world-view, its revolutionary spirit—something in its encounter with the artistry and theology of European Romanticism, something in it led many of our 19th-century Unitarian forebears to prioritize the individual spiritual search over and above the authority of the church. Something led the Unitarian-minister-turned-Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1841 to pen those enduring words, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”[3] Something led Emerson’s poetic descendent, Walt Whitman, in 1871 to contend “that only in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality may the spirituality of religion come forth at all.”[4] Something led the author and Unitarian minister, John Weiss, also in 1871, to declare that “America is an opportunity to make a Religion out of the sacredness of the individual.”[5]

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

While there were certainly Unitarians who prioritized the centrality of the church in this era, the emphasis on the sacredness of the individual began with us and still lives and breathes in Unitarian Universalism today. It may appear different than today’s American Protestant ‘me-and-Jesus’ individualism, but they share the same historical roots. This isn’t commonly understood, but current-day American Christianity has adapted its forms of individualistic spirituality from the Unitarians, Universalists, Transcendentalists and other liberal religionists of the mid-19th century.[6] So, what if faith isn’t given in sufficient quantity to individuals? What if faith is only given in sufficient quantity to communities? What might that mean for us?

Our November ministry theme is faith. The last time we used faith as a monthly theme was November, 2010. I recently re-read a sermon I preached on faith at that time, wondering how my thinking has evolved.[7] That sermon was helpful (I hope) in offering to UUs a more relevant definition of faith than the one the larger culture tends to use. If someone knocks at your door and wants to have a conversation about religion, you kinda know what they mean by faith. It likely has something to do with accepting Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior, plus the good news that such acceptance is the path to eternal life. Beneath that good news is almost always a set of doctrines about who Jesus is, who God is, and why their church understands these things correctly. This kind of faith requires us to accept propositions for which we have no evidence other than that “the Bible says it.” It requires us to believe the unbelievable. That’s the common definition of faith in our larger culture. It’s certainly a valid definition—not everything we believe must have a rational explanation.[8] But as inheritors of the 19th-century Unitarian appeal to the sacredness of the individual, we need a different definition.

door knocking

In that November, 2010 sermon I quoted Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, who says that the essence of faith, whetherconnected to a deity or not … lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.”[9] Similarly, the 20th century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, suggested that faith is the act of placing our confidence in something. He held no expectation that that something be unbelievable or other-worldly. He said “faith should take into account the realm of fact…. Every person is concerned with a basic fact, something in which one has confidence.”[10] This is a definition of faith that can work for people who don’t or can’t believe the unbelievable, for people who need their religious and spiritual lives to be grounded in a reality they can experience through their senses: through touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, smelling; through raising children, caring for others, working for a just society, or digging in dirt. This is a definition of faith that arises not from religious doctrines, but from the concrete experience of our daily lives, the realm of fact.

James Luther Adams

James Luther Adams

There is much in which we place our confidence. We are deeply faithful people. As I wrote in my November newsletter column, “we have faith in humanity, creativity, nature, love. We have faith in science, democracy, community, fairness, humility. We have faith in gratitude, children, education, diversity, the earth. We have faith in the seasons, the tides, the warmth of the sun, the darkness of night. We have faith in our neighbors, our principles, our interfaith partners, the words and deeds of prophetic people of all eras. We have faith in modern medicine, ancient healing arts, the comforting assurance of family and friends, the kindness of strangers. We have faith in reason, the power of speaking truth, compassion, honesty. Some have faith in God—a deep and sustaining faith. Some have faith in the ancestors—a deep and sustaining faith. And did I mention love? We put our faith in love.

When I invite you, at the beginning of worship, to find that place inside of you, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, that place where you may go when you yearn for peace, that place where you may go to commune with whatever is holy in your life, that place where you know your truth, where your voice is strong, I am asking you to remember what is most reliable to you. I am asking you to remember those things in which you place your highest confidence. I am asserting that we are people of faith just as much as those who come knocking on doors, or who stand on city street corners yelling, Repent! or who experience a personal, intimate relationship with their lord and savior. By locating that place inside of you, I am keeping continuity with our spiritual forebears. That mid-19th century tradition of honoring the sacredness of the individual remains vibrant among us. For me, our UU identity is so deeply embedded in this tradition that, were we to give it up, we would cease being who we are.

It’s also important to name that not just our UU identity, but a big part of the American identity is rooted in this individualistic tradition, so much so that, without it, we wouldn’t quite recognize America. It would take a series of sermons to unpack this claim, but if in recent years you’ve felt a shift in the American character, it may have to do not with the loss of this tradition but, as the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt contends, with its cooptation by market forces, with its commercialization, with what some call the “‘Oprahfication’ of American religion and culture…the spread of the feel-good spirituality that [Oprah] Winfrey urges upon her fans,”[11] and with what we might describe as the hyper-expressions of this tradition—narcissism and self-absorption that have eviscerated religious and civic connections[12] and, in my view, have spurred the rise of various religious fundamentalisms in the United States.

As far as I can tell, Nadia Bolz-Weber isn’t criticizing the individualistic spiritual tradition in American religion. In fact, she’s a shining example of it. But she is criticizing shallow, surface expressions of this tradition—“me and Jesus and all that stuff.” She’s criticizing the shadow side—the fact that we pay lip service to the sacredness of each individual but often don’t live as if it matters. She’s rightly wary about what individualism in religion can and has become. She understands how hyper-individualism in spiritual and secular settings has taken a toll on community cohesiveness. So, she asks all people of faith to take a TIME OUT! “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals…. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”

faith

You could hear this as a re-assertion of the authority of the church over the individual, a call to doctrinal conformity, but she has too many tattoos for that to be true. She’s offering a course correction to Western individualism run amok in religion. She’s calling for balance. She’s reminding us that individualism can only take us so far. No matter how sacred, precious, worthy, and profoundly beautiful each individual soul is, none of us can make it alone. She uses the example of the Apostles Creed, saying “nobody believes every line of the Creed…. But in a room [full] of people … for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right?”[13] It’s funny, not because it’s a joke, but because it’s true. As a Lutheran minister, she knows that were she to demand that every Lutheran believe every line of the Creed all the time, she would make Lutheranism inaccessible to people who need church in their lives but can’t believe in that “perfect” way. If I were to demand that each UU embody our principles perfectly all the time, I would similarly make Unitarian Universalism inaccessible to many.

The truth is we don’t bring our best selves to each new day. We don’t always live the ideals we aspire to live, let alone those our church calls us to live. We may come to church in profound pain, feeling wounded, broken, lost, empty, anxious or in despair from a difficult diagnosis, a lost job, lost memory, the death of a loved-one, a struggling child, a raging virus, an endless war, catastrophic climate change. Sometimes our faith fails. Whatever we place our confidence in can let us down, can go missing, can forsake us. Faith isn’t given in sufficient quantity to individuals. Sometimes we simply don’t have enough.

angst

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough. This is my evolution since 2010: Together we have enough. Faith is given to communities in sufficient quantities. Bolz-Weber says there are times she can’t adhere to the Biblical admonition to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. But, “if I’m at the point where I cannot pray for someone,” she says, “I will say ‘I cannot pray for this person, I really need you to do it for me.’”[14] That’s the power of community: if I can’t get there, there is someone else who can get there for me. There is someone else who can carry my faith until I’m able to carry it again.

This led me to reflect on the ways we’ve responded in worship to mass shootings. I’m remembering in particular the Hartford Distributors shooting in August, 2010 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December, 2012—both so close to us here in Manchester. These were worst-nightmares-come-true—the human potential for evil becoming real before our eyes. Many of us, myself included, felt our faith in humanity faltering in a very specific way. We questioned the validity of our first UU principle—the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In the aftermath of such shootings our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We say their names in worship. But what of the shooters? They have crossed a moral line, have launched themselves beyond the pale, have made themselves enemies in the Biblical sense. Our hearts don’t naturally go out to them. Instead we recoil at the thought of them. Yes, we are admonished to love the enemy. Yes, we UUs affirm the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person—but surely that doesn’t apply to these shooters? For so many of us it is enormously difficult to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of the perpetrator in the aftermath of horrendous evil. Even the act of just saying their name in worship feels like too much.  And yet there were people in our community in both instances who felt strongly that the names of the perpetrators needed to be said, that in addition to their crimes their deaths also needed acknowledgement. To name them in this way does not condone their crimes. It is simply to remember that they were human too. Though something went horribly wrong, they came into this world surrounded by hope and promise too, and their deaths—though different—are tragic too. These shootings were profoundly difficult moments for me, and I was so grateful to know others were keeping my faith for me.

hands

Someone will remember. Even when we can’t, someone will carry our faith for us. And there will be times when we maintain faith for others who can’t—after the difficult diagnosis, the lost job, the loss of memory, the death of a loved-one, as a child struggles, a virus rages, a war continues and climate changes. That compelling tradition of affirming the sacredness of the individual continues to live and breathe in our congregations. But there are times when it isn’t enough. When we come to those times, may we always remember: faith is given in sufficient quantity to communities. And in the midst of community, may we have faith.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] The text to this interview is posted at http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace. Or watch the interview at http://vimeo.com/73913123. The segment I refer to in this sermon begins at 1:08:53.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Self Reliance,” in Whicher, Stephen E., ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 149.

[4] Whitman, Walt, Democratic Vistas, quoted in Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 4.

[5] Ibid., vi.

[6] My primary resource for making this claim is Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

[7] Pawelek, Josh, “I Know This Rose Will Open: On Being a Person of Faith,” Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT,  November 14th, 2010:  http://uuse.org/i-know-this-rose-will-open-reflections-on-being-a-person-of-faith/#.VFOMF_nF-Sp.

[8] Ibid., third paragraph.

[9] Salzberg, Sharon, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002) p. xiii.

[10] Adams, James Luther in Beach, George K., ed, An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991) p. 21.

[11] Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 285.

[12] Schmidt names this phenomenon in the final chapter of Restless Souls. Another take on what I call the “shadow side” of the American tradition of spiritual individualism is Claude Fischer’s blog-post “Self-Absorbed” at http://madeinamericathebook.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/self-absorbed/.

[13] The text to this interview is posted at http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace. Or watch the interview at http://vimeo.com/73913123. The segment I refer to in this sermon begins at 1:08:53.

[14] Ibid.