A Sufficient Quantity of Faith

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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.

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]

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.

 

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Fatherhood in Flux

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

 

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

[2] Ibid., p. 74.

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

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

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

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

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

The Prisoner’s Dilemma: We’re All in This Together

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principle charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. If he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the partner will get three years in prison on the main charge. Oh, yes, there’s a catch. If both prisoners testify against each other, both will be sentenced to two years in jail.

The prisoners are given little time to think this over, but in no case may either learn what the other has decided until he has irrevocably made his decision. Each is informed that the other prisoner is being offered the same deal. Each prisoner is concerned only with his own welfare, the minimizing of his own prison sentence.

The prisoners can reason as follows: “Suppose I testify and the other prisoner doesn’t. Then I get off scot-free (rather than spending a year in jail). Suppose I testify and the other prisoner does too. Then I get two years (rather than three). Either way I’m better off turning state’s evidence. Testifying takes a year off my sentence, no matter what the other guy does.”

The trouble is, the other prisoner can and will come to the very same conclusion. If both parties are rational, both will testify and both will get two years in jail. If only they had both refused to testify, they would have got just a year each![1]

This is the classic formulation of the “prisoner’s dilemma,” first articulated in the early 1950s by mathematician Albert Tucker. He was developing the work of mathematicians Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher who created—some say discovered—this game. They were developing the work of mathematician John Nash. All of them were working in the new field of game theory, originated largely by mathematician John Von Neumann. And all of them, including Von Neumann, worked in the early 1950s for the RAND Corporation, an organization founded after World War II to provide research and analysis for the US military. According to Von Neumann biographer, William Poundstone, “in the public mind, RAND is best known for ‘thinking about the unthinkable,’ about the waging and consequences of nuclear war.”[2] Game theory was one resource RAND scientists brought to bear in their efforts to determine US nuclear strategy. According to Poundstone, “no example of a prisoner’s dilemma has been more popular, both in technical articles and in the popular press, than a nuclear arms rivalry. This is so much the case that the term ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ is sometimes taken to be part of the jargon of nuclear strategy, along with ‘mutual assured destruction.’”[3]

Having said that, I’m not going to talk about the Cold War or nuclear strategy. This sermon was purchased by our beloved Fred Sawyer at last year’s goods and services auction. Fred said, quite clearly, “I don’t want to hear about nuclear weapons or the Cold War. What I want to know is whether or not the prisoner’s dilemma tells us anything useful about morality.” I’m grateful to Fred because the prisoner’s dilemma does say something useful about morality, and I’d much rather explore that than give a history of its use in predicting Cold War Soviet behavior. I’ll first explain the prisoner’s dilemma and what it tells us about morality. Then I’ll reflect on Unitarian Universalist moral impulses in light of the prisoner’s dilemma.

Two words game theorists use to describe what’s happening in a prisoner’s dilemma, and which also help us discern the moral implications of the game’s results, are cooperate and defect. There are two players. They each face a choice: to work together—cooperate—or to work against each other—defect. A player cooperates when they make the decision that best supports the other player. A player defects when they make the decision that least supports the other player. There are four possible outcomes: both players choose to cooperate; both choose to defect; one chooses to cooperate and the other defects; or the other chooses to cooperate and the one defects. There are consequences for each choice, and each player bases their choice on what they think will best serve their interests. In the classic formulation of the prisoner’s dilemma, a player cooperates when they choose not to testify against the other player. A player defects when they choose to testify. In essence, do you sustain your relationship or break it?

This classic formulation is one of many ways to imagine the prisoner’s dilemma. In fact, there are unlimited formulations, both hypothetical and real. Earlier we watched a clip from the British game show, “Golden Balls.”[4] Although this isn’t a true prisoner’s dilemma because the players negotiate before choosing, the game follows the basic prisoner’s dilemma model. There’s a £100,000 jackpot. The players can choose to split it—cooperation—or to steal it—defection. If they both choose to cooperate, they split the money. If one chooses to defect and the other chooses to cooperate, the defector gets all the money. If they both choose to defect, neither gets the money. Do you cooperate or defect?

Game theorists are not necessarily looking for the most moral way to play. They’re looking to see how players understand their self-interest in relation to the other player. They assume players who attempt to maximize their self-interest are behaving rationally. This is, of course, a somewhat loaded assumption, but stay with it for now and I’ll name some objections to it later. For now, since morality has to do with how we treat others—how kind, compassionate, sensitive and fair we are towards others; how generous we are in balancing our needs with the needs of others—we can make a general claim that the most moral way to play the game is to cooperate—to make the choice that best supports the other player. The problem with behaving morally is that if you cooperate but the other player defects, you receive the harshest penalty, often referred to as the “sucker payoff.” The more moral choice always comes with a degree of vulnerability and, at least in the context of the game, it can appear to be the less rational choice. On its face, defection is more selfish—or at least self-interested. While I hesitate to call it the immoral choice (whistle blowers exposing corruption are often defectors), we can make the general claim that it is the less moral way to play in relation to the other player: it sacrifices the other player for the sake of personal gain. If the point is to maximize self-interest, the less moral choice appears to be the more rational choice.

This is especially true if you only play the game once. If you only have one opportunity to cooperate or defect, it is always statistically more advantageous—and thus more rational—to defect.  Poundstone calls it common sense.”[5] If your partner cooperates and you defect, you go free. If your partner defects, you’re much better off having defected as well. So it’s best to defect. There’s a paradox here. Mutual cooperation is a better outcome for both players than mutual defection. But to arrive at that better outcome, both must independently choose to act against their own best self-interest. We might say both must behave less rationally. It appears the more moral choice is not the more rational choice. The mathematicians who created/discovered the prisoner’s dilemma had always hoped there was some way to resolve this paradox. In 1992 Poundstone wrote that “Flood and Dresher now believe that the prisoner’s dilemma will never be “solved,” and nearly all game theorists agree with them. The prisoner’s dilemma remains a negative result—a demonstration of what’s wrong with theory, and indeed, what’s wrong with the world.”[6] It reveals the egoism at the heart of human nature.

But there’s a lot to object to here. What if I know the other player? What if I trust they’d never testify against me? What if we had a pact? What if my own moral code won’t let me testify against them? What about the fact that cooperation among criminals isn’t necessarily moral?[7] What about people who act against their self-interest—people who, for example, vote for candidates who favor policies that hurt them economically?  What about the fact that people don’t always behave rationally, or that rationality does not necessarily equate to following self-interest, or that rationality in the absence of emotion, compassion, love, etc., may not be the most reliable guide to effective decision-making? All these factors can and do come into play in a real-life prisoner dilemmas, but there’s no good way to account for them theoretically if you only play the game once. However, it turns out that when we play the game repeatedly, players can introduce a variety of strategies that do account for some of these factors. For example, if you play with the same person over time, unless they play completely randomly, you can get to know how they play; you can start to anticipate what they’re going to do and adjust your play in response. It’s more like a real relationship: the players share a history. Or, if your moral code prevents you from defecting, you can play a strategy of only cooperating. You’ll end up in jail, but you’ll have a clean conscience. Or, if you want to play as a pure egoist and defect every time, that’s a viable strategy, in part because it exploits the kindness of others, but over time others stop trusting you and you spend more time in jail.

There’s a strategy known as Tit for Tat that tends to produce the best overall results in competition with other strategies—that is, over time, it yields the least amount of prison time. Tit for Tat is known for being nice. It always begins with cooperation. That is, it starts the game by trusting that the other player will cooperate. It gives the other player the benefit of the doubt and risks being vulnerable. From there it simply copies what the other player does. If the other player defects, Tit for Tat defects on the next round—a punishment.  If the other player cooperates, Tit for Tat cooperates on the next round—a reward. It’s a punishment and reward strategy, but it always begins with cooperation, and it is by and the large the most successful strategy. This was the conclusion of mathematician Robert Axelrod after extensive research in the 1970s and 80s.[8] Even though it is always in our immediate self-interest to defect, if we’re playing repeatedly—which is more akin to real life—we maximize our self-interest by cooperating. The ethicist John Robinson says, “Alexrod and others … have [successfully shown] how cooperation arises from self-interest, and is a stable strategy in many contexts. They have discovered a reason to be good, an evolutionary explanation for morality that works even though, underneath it all, people are egoists.”[9]

This can be tested even further by having multiple groups of players playing simultaneously and rotating around to each other. Not only does Tit for Tat continue to perform well, but even a small group of Tit for Tat players in the midst of a larger group of more egoistic players can move the whole group towards adopting their strategy and thus orient the whole group—the whole society—towards cooperation. This conclusion affirms that wisdom from the late cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” It also suggests, again, that the more moral choice to cooperate ultimately serves our self-interest better than the less moral choice to defect.

This conclusion certainly resonates with Unitarian Universalist moral impulses—and perhaps the moral impulses at the heart of many religions—although Tit for Tat is not language I would use to describe those moral impulses. Our morality begins in and grows out of relationships. Ours is a covenantal religion. We’re all in this together. As Unitarian Universalists we covenant to affirm and promote seven principles.[10] And as a congregation we have crafted a unique covenant to guide our interactions with one another.[11] We come here to be part of a community. We recognize at a deep level that we benefit from being part of a community, that in community we find grounding to counter all those trends in the larger world that drive people apart, that erode social bonds, that thrive on and exploit our isolation. We know our principles are hard to make real in the world, and even harder to make real in the absence of community. Thus, our first move is cooperation. We’re all in this together.

But it’s not our moral impulse to play a Tit for Tat strategy. It’s not our impulse to defect as soon as the other player defects. It’s not our impulse to punish. Our moral impulse is to sustain relationships, to continue cooperating with the defector, to continue articulating a message—through word and deed—that those who participate in our community, and indeed all those with whom we come into contact, have inherent worth and dignity, are part of the same interdependent web, are deserving of our love and care, deserving of the benefit of the doubt. Our UUS:E covenant even says that if we fail to uphold it we will strive for forgiveness. In the terms of the game, we strive to meet defection with cooperation, again and again and again.

Can this impulse be exploited? Yes.. This impulse would likely land us in prison frequently. Should we tolerate ongoing behaviors that weaken our community? No, of course not. There are times when any faith community needs to draw lines, set boundaries, defect. But we have faith in the power of community. We have faith in the power of relationship. We’re all in this together. And it’s good to know what the data say: over time, self-interest is best attained through cooperation. What’s good for the whole is ultimately good for the individuals who make up the whole. And that’s how we strive to play.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Poundstone, William, Prisoner’s Dilemma: John Von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb (New York: Anchor Books, 1992), pp. 118-119.

[2] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 90.

[3] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 129.

[4] See the clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3Uos2fzIJ0. Also, this Radiolab story, “What’s Left When You’re Right?” incorporates the “Golden Balls” clip and is very entertaining: http://www.radiolab.org/story/whats-left-when-youre-right/.

[5] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 121.

[6] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 123.

[7] Hayden Ben, “Rethinking the Morality of the Prisoner’s Dilemma,” in “The Decision Tree,” Psychology Today, July 28th, 2013. See: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-decision-tree/201307/rethinking-the-morality-the-prisoners-dilemma.

[8] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, pp. 236-248. For more information, see Axelrod, Robert The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

[9] Robinson, John, “The Moral Prisoner’s Dilemma” is at http://intuac.com/userport/john/writing/prisdilemma.html.

[10] For the language which names the seven Unitarian Universalist principles as a covenant, see: http://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/bylaws/articleii/6906.shtml.

[11] See the UUS:E covenant at http://uuse.org/ministries/principles-and-mission/#covenant.

 

Raising Moral Children (in the Era of Katniss, Ender and King Joffrey)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I’m fascinated by the popularity of a series of recent films and TV dramas, based on phenomenally successful books, that depict fictional children living in morally corrupt societies that force them to do morally objectionable things. I’m referring to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.[1] I understand the popularity: the story-telling is excellent. What fascinates me is the question of what it means: what it suggests about our society’s view of children, and whether or not it has anything to teach us about how (or how not) to raise moral children. In referring to us I mean those of us who are parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors of children. I also mean us as the adult members and friends of this multigenerational Unitarian Universalist congregation whose stated vision for religious education is to “provide a solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists.”

The treatment of children’s moral lives in these books and films is different than what we find in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where the teenage characters encounter difficult, even traumatic situations, but they maintain their moral center in part because good and evil are crystal-clear in these stories, but also because they have the support of morally-grounded adults. They have role models. This also isn’t the dynamic we find in William Golding’s 1954 Lord of the Flies, where a group of plane-wrecked boys attempts to govern itself on a tropical island, but descends into savagery in the total absence of adult moral guidance. Rather, in these stories powerful adults design systems that intentionally obstruct children’s moral reasoning. I assume these books are not the first to treat children’s moral lives in this way, though I’m fairly confident this treatment has never been as wildly popular as it has been over the last year or so. Some of you may not be familiar with these books, so I’ll say a little about each.

The Hunger Games is young adult literature, though tens of millions of adults have read it and seen the films. Some children read it by third or fourth grade. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, governed by a corrupt, oppressive capitol that requires each of 12 districts to send two children every year to fight to the death in an elaborate arena. The heroine, Katniss Everdeen, an older teenager who volunteers for the arena to prevent her younger sister from having to go, cobbles together a moral center, but the adults in her life who would normally support her moral development are damaged in some way and are of very little help to her in this regard as she enters the custody of the morally depraved capitol. That is, she’s largely self-guided in her moral growth, and spends much of her time lost, confused, and searching for a moral anchor that matches her instincts. More than providing her moral clarity, her ordeal in the arena hones her survival skills and draws out her resilience and courage. She learns how to play and win the adults’ game; and she learns how to play it against the adults. But fighting fire with fire doesn’t make fire right. She recognizes this and she suffers psychologically and emotionally.

Ender’s Game, published in 1985 but released as a feature film this past November, is typically read by adults but is occasionally assigned in high school English classes. Ender, a gifted child, is being groomed as a starship fleet commander. His training is psychologically and emotionally abusive. He successfully learns military strategy, tactics, politics and leadership, but struggles to discern right and wrong beyond mere obedience to his teachers. He also struggles to find a warm and human sense of self as opposed to the cold, calculating person he observes himself becoming. As with Katniss, there is no adult he can turn to for authentic moral guidance. He masters all the educational games his teachers present to him; but then, without him realizing it, his teachers deploy him as a weapon of mass destruction. When he finally understands the enormity of his crimes, his emotional and psychological suffering are correspondingly enormous.

Game of Thrones, published in 1996, is the first novel in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series; it’s also a hit HBO series based on the books. Not for children. Its gratuitous violence, sex and violent sex makes The Hunger Games look like what we normally imagine when we use the term child’s play, except that some of Game of Thrones’ more heinous violence is child’s play, ordered by the child king, Joffrey. Joffery has been raised by cunning and brutal adults whose only motivation is the acquisition of power by any means necessary. Joffrey displays no longing to know the difference between right and wrong, or to experience himself as good and decent. He doesn’t know he’s missing a moral core. In essence, he has been nurtured to be a psychopath, and he’s too far gone to recognize the suffering this causes him.

In reviewing a recent episode, New York Times critic Jeremy Egner sums up the main conflict in Game of Thrones. “It’s not right versus wrong, but a many-faceted quarrel over whether ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ even exist.”[2] All three of these series explore this conflict in some form. In Game of Thrones, if right and wrong exist, right is power and wrong is weakness. Any more elaborate moral system is largely absent, or falls apart in the face of violence. In Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games, the child characters know something is horribly wrong about their world, yet an authentic right answer remains elusive. As far as they can tell, the games are rigged to benefit the authorities regardless of who wins. Winning doesn’t assure the end of evil. In fact, winning may just create more evil. In terms of what it takes to raise moral children, I think these books and films get it right: If you teach a child only to be cruel, and then make him king, there’s a good chance he’ll be a cruel king, as Joffrey is. And if you put children in situations where they are forced to do morally objectionable things, and you provide them with no moral guidance beyond “obey the rules” or “just survive,” in the very least they will become confused, angry, and wary of adults in authority, as Katniss and Ender are.

We can draw an obvious lesson about raising moral children fom Game of Thrones: don’t teach children to be cruel. In the The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game, the lesson is less clear. Readers and viewers love Katniss and Ender, suffer with them when they suffer, want them to succeed, enjoy their creativity, intelligence, skills, endurance and courage. There’s a risk here: we can confuse their victories with moral vindication. That is, they win, so they’re right. And if we do this, we miss their deeper struggle: they don’t trust they are right because they’ve had very little opportunity for moral reasoning. They aren’t sure what right is.

Of course, all this is irrelevant fiction. Real life doesn’t work this way. Real life is more like Harry Potter, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, where right and wrong are always crystal-clear. The good inevitably triumph; the bad inevitably falter. Children learn this by watching television and playing video games. Yeah, right.

I found a provocative real-life reflection on raising moral children in the midst of morally ambiguous systems in an essay entitled “Like Father, Like Son,” by the entomologist Jeffery Lockwood. He compares his father’s work during the Cold War testing nuclear weapons to his own work developing powerful insecticides to fight grasshopper infestations. He says, “perhaps there are more similarities between my father’s employer and my institution, nuclear bombs and pesticides, nation states and multinational corporations, and his enemy and mine than I could have imagined when I was [first] hired…. Certainly we both struggle with how to tell our stories to our children and ourselves. It’s tempting to turn them into a screenplay for a James Bond movie. The unambiguously bad guys are blown to bits, but the gory results are not graphically portrayed. This sanitized version of reality creates the illusion that we can drop bombs and spray poisons without immense suffering. But in the end, our children will know otherwise.”[3]

If I’m reading him accurately, children may not detect moral contradictions in adult society when they’re young—contradictions like the production of enough Cold War nuclear weapons to destroy the world thousands of times, or like his own participation in the corporate agricultural system which, he says, ultimately “destroys land and people”[4]—but they’ll see it eventually. They’ll recognize we live in a society that asks us to accept half-truths and dubious justifications for oppression and injustice; a society that takes risks with our health, our lives, our future. We don’t raise moral children by pretending these things don’t exist, or by offering them black and white appraisals of the world, especially as they get older. We must figure out how to talk to children, as best we can, about the contradictions and about how we struggle with them. And when we find ourselves upholding a morally debatable position, say through our work or our politics, we need to own it. We may even need to question the value of our victories.

More importantly, we need to demonstrate with our own decisions and actions how to move these contradictions towards resolution. An Aprl 13th New York Times op-ed entitled “Raising a Moral Child,”[5] highlights the importance of role modeling. Its author, Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, cites research confirming that across cultures and nations, a majority of parents, when asked to report their guiding principles in life, consistently rate caring, compassion, helpfulness and kindness above achievement.[6] However, “despite the significance that it holds in our lives,” says Grant, “teaching children to care about others is no simple task. Inan Israeli studyof nearly 600 families, parents who valued kindness and compassion frequently failed to raise children who shared those values.”[7]

He covers some familiar territory in terms of how we respond to children’s good and bad behaviors—in short, praise good behavior and reinforce the message you’re a good person. In response to bad behavior, “[express] disappointment and [explain] why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation.”[8] But what Grant is most excited about is the power of good role models. What we say really does matter much less than what we do. Grant cites research showing that children behave more selfishly when they witness adults behaving selfishly, even when the adults are encouraging them to be generous. And children behave more generously when they witness adults behaving generously, even when the adults are advising them to be selfish. It strikes me that as we here at UUS:E move forward into a more explicitly multigenerational congregational life, and as we build a religious education program that provides that “solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking UUs,” we ought to be asking ourselves as adults: how are we demonstrating to our children and youth that we feel spiritually at home in the world? How are we demonstrating to our children and youth that we have matured into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists? We can assume they’ve heard us say it. But let’s not assume they’ve seen us do it. Let’s do it.

The presence of moral role models in the lives of Katniss, Ender and Joffrey may not have changed their circumstances, but may have enabled them to feel more spiritually at home in the world—or at least more grounded and sure of themselves. Similarly, our moral role-modelling to our children may not alter the half-truths and dubious justifications for oppression and injustice in the world; it may not resolve the pervasive moral contradictions in our society. But I believe it will make a difference in our children’s lives—and that matters.

I’ll close with Jeffrey Lockwood’s reflections on his own moral upbringing. My parents, he says, “would have replaced the ethical admonition ‘First do no harm’… with the more realistic principle ‘First do some good.’ We were a family of positive incrementalists, wherein the task of life was to constantly do better, one step at a time.”[9] “I know that in 1987, we blanketed a typical 10,000-acre grasshopper infestation with five tons of neurotoxic insecticide, and this year we used forty pounds of an insect growth regulator, applied to just one-third of the infested land. I don’t know if doing less evil is the same thing as doing good, but it’s better than doing nothing. I don’t know if gradual, continual progress from within our roles as bit players in the military-industrial complex and industrial agriculture will be sufficient to create a healthy human community embedded within a vibrant diversity of ecosystems, but then I don’t know what else to do.”[10] Even if we don’t know what else to do, may our children bear witness to us “doing some good.”

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] James Dashner’s The Maze Runner series and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series may utilize a version of this same adult-child dynamic, though I’m not as familiar with them (and they don’t have the word game in their titles).

[2] Egner, Jeremy, “‘Game of Thrones’ Recap: A Regression to the Mean,” New York Times, April 20, 2014. See: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/game-of-thrones-recap-a-regression-to-the-mean/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

[3] Lockwood, Jeffery A., Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002) pp. 77-78.

[4] Ibid., p. 95.

[5] Grant, Adam, “Raising a Moral Child,” New York Times, April 13, 2014. For the online version, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/12/opinion/sunday/raising-a-moral-child.html.

[6]For the abstract of “Parents’ Goals and Values for Children: Dimensions of Independence and Interdependence Across Four U.S. Ethnic Groups,” by Suizzo,,see: http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/38/4/506.short. For the abstract of Value Hierarchies Across Cultures: Taking a Similarities Perspective,” by Schwartz, Shalom H. and Bardi, Anat, see: http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/32/3/268.short.

[7] For the abstract of “Accounting for parent-child value congruence: Theoretical considerations and empirical evidence,” by Knafo, Ariel and Schwartz, Shalom H., see: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2008-19090-011.

[8] Grant, Adam, “Raising a Moral Child,” New York Times, April 13, 2014. For the online version, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/12/opinion/sunday/raising-a-moral-child.html.

[9] Lockwood, Jeffery A., Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002) p. 103.

[10] Ibid., p. 104.

Working to Address Mass Incarceration

For the 2013-2014 congregational year, the UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee has been focusing its energies on addressing the problem of mass incarceration. We are working on two projects and hope you’ll want to get involved:

SERVICE: Creating backpacks to help recently released inmates make a successful transition

ADVOCACY: Supporting efforts to pass Senate Bill 259 to reduce the size of drug free zones from 1500 to 200 feet

On 4-16, SJAR meber, Nancy Parker, along with Rev. Josh Pawelek, LaResse Harvery of A Better Way Foundation and Brian Albert of the New Britain NAACP met with Senate President Don Williams and urged him to bring SB 259 up for debate.

On 4-16, SJAR meber, Nancy Parker, along with Rev. Josh Pawelek, LaResse Harvery of A Better Way Foundation and Brian Albert of the New Britain NAACP met with Senate President Don Williams and urged him to bring SB 259 up for debate.

For What the Soul Hungers

Rev. Josh Pawelek

 

“Break not the circle of enabling love, where people grow forgiven and forgiving; break not the circle, make it wider still, till it includes, embraces all the living.”[1] I want us to encounter these words this morning as a call to the work of reconciliation. And as we do so I want to draw a distinction between the ideal and the practical. To make the circle wider still, to embrace “all the living”—this is an ideal, a vision of a completely reconciled global community. Though I’m tempted, I won’t set it aside as unrealistic because I’m convinced there is something in our human nature that drives us toward this vision. The hymn is not just fanciful or spiritually pleasing rhetoric; there’s something real driving us and we are called to respond. On the other hand, from a practical standpoint, it’s unrealistic. Our circles will more than likely never embrace all the living; more than likely they’ll remain relatively small. This, too, is real. My message then, is that the work of reconciliation is what matters. We may never achieve the vision of a truly unbroken circle, of a reconciled global community, but we can choose to heed the call and engage in the work of reconciliation wherever and however it presents itself to us. This is one measure of a well-lived spiritual life: we engage in the work of reconciliation wherever and however it presents itself to us.

This past week two stories of people working toward reconciliation drew my attention. First (thanks to former UUS:E member Alison Cohen for pointing it out) on Monday the Bahá’í World New Service published an article about a senior Iranian Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, who created an illuminated work of calligraphy of a paragraph from the writings of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-founder of the Bahá’í faith. Tehrani offered this work of art as a gift to the Bahá’ís of the world and, in particular, the Bahá’ís of Iran. The Bahá’í World New Service called it an “unprecedented symbolic act.” As some of you may know, and as the article points out, “since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, hundreds of Bahá’í have been killed and thousands have been imprisoned. There are currently 115 Bahá’í being held in prison solely on the basis of their religious beliefs. Bahá’í in Iran are denied access to higher education, obstructed from earning a livelihood, prevented from burying their dead in accordance with their own burial rites and subjected to the demolition, desecration and expropriation of their cemeteries, all because of their religion.”[2]

On his own website, Ayatollah Tehrani wrote: “Feeling the need for [a] practical and symbolic action to serve as a reminder of the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful coexistence, of cooperation and mutual support, and of avoidance of hatred, enmity and blind religious prejudice, I have made an illuminated calligraphy of a verse from the Kitáb-i-Aqdas of the Bahá’ís. I have made this as an enduring symbol of respect for the innate dignity of human beings, for … peaceful coexistence regardless of religious affiliation, denomination or belief. And now at the start of this new year … I present this precious symbol … to all the Bahá’ís of the world, particularly to the Bahá’ís of Iran who have suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice.”[3] I could find very little information on Ayatollah Tehrani other than commentators around the world calling him courageous.[4] What I think I see is a religious leader, a person of faith, who looked for the “circle of enabling love,” found it broken, and did what is within his power to mend it, to work toward reconciliation.

The second story (thanks to UUS:E member Nancy Thompson for pointing it out) appeared in the April 6th New York Times Magazine: a series of portraits the photographer Pieter Hugo took last month in southern Rwanda of Hutu perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide and Tutsi survivors who had reconciled with each other.[5] (Monday marked the 20 year anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide.) With the portraits are quotes from the subjects. In one, the perpetrator says, “I burned her house. I attacked her in order to kill her and her children, but God protected them, and they escaped. When I was released from jail, if I saw her, I would run and hide. Then … I decided to ask her for forgiveness. To have good relationships with the person to whom you did evil deeds – we thank God.”

The survivor says, “I used to hate him. When he came to my house and knelt down before me and asked for forgiveness, I was moved by his sincerity. Now, if I cry for help, he comes to rescue me. When I face any issue, I call him.” From what I know of Rwanda today, the circle is still broken; there is still a long way to go towards reconciliation, though processes are in place so that the work of reconciliation is sustainable. The stories in this article are wonderful examples of people choosing to engage in that work when the opportunity presents itself.

I said there is something in our human nature that drives us toward reconciliation. I find some glimmer of that something in the 1994 book, Music of the Mind, by the late microbiologist and New Zealander, Darryl Reanney. He writes: “In satisfying the body’s hunger you return the balance to what is was; in satisfying the soul’s hunger, you return the balance to what it shall be.”[6] Reanney wasn’t writing about reconciliation per se; I’m not even sure the word appears in the book. But this notion of “satisfying the soul’s hunger” shakes something up in me, wakes me up, challenges me to contemplate where my life is heading—not as in where I want to be in the next five years, but in a more ultimate sense: what am I reaching for with my life? The answer that comes back to me—the answer I think all religions offer in some way—is reconciliation.

What gets shaken up in me is whatever level of complacency or overriding sense of security has crept into my life; whatever unexamined habits or routines have taken hold of my living; whatever patterns or ruts in which I have become stuck. Of course the feeling of being shaken up in the midst of complacency, false security, habits, routines and ruts is not always a good one. Afterall, these things do play an important role in our lives. They allow continuity from day to day. They breed familiarity and comfort, provide a sense of order and stability. They are often tied into satisfying our bodily hungers—returning to whatever balance our bodies seek. But there’s an intense spiritual tension here. Complacency, security, habits, routines, patterns, ruts also tend to blunt, gloss over, hide—at times obliterate—our awareness of the soul’s hunger. I’ll say more about what I understand the soul to be, but let me first make this claim: at its deepest, the soul hungers for reconciliation, for the circle unbroken. When I am shaken out of my complacency, or reminded of the truth that there is no completely reliable security in life, or led to question my habits and routines, or challenged to break out of my ruts—however that happens—in those moments, if I allow myself to be open to what shakes me, I recognize a soul hunger for reconciliation. I recognize there’s a part of me—and I suspect there’s a part of you—that feels profoundly unreconciled: somehow ill-at-ease in the world, perhaps anxious, separate, alienated, at a distance, not quite in right relationship, not quite at home, still searching, hungry. When we fall into complacency, security, habits, routines and ruts we tend to feel it less or not at all. But when we’re shaken up, there it is: unreconciled.

This claim may or may not resonate with you. I know some of you feel unreconciled because you’ve told me. For others what I’m describing may feel unfamiliar. Either way, think with me for a moment about why religion exists at all. I’m convinced human beings have created religions in order to respond to this innate soul hunger for reconciliation. Boston University professor of religion, Stephen Prothero, says “where [all religions] begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi tells us that life is out of balance…. Hindus say we are living in the kali yuga, the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden; Zion, heaven, and paradise lie out ahead.”[7] Religion hones in on human dis-ease, anxiety, fear, alienation, suffering and offers a pathway out, an answer: salvation, heaven, Zion, paradise, the promised land, nirvana, moksha, last day resurrection, a just society, the beloved community, the kingdom of God. I contend all of this is a response to the soul’s hunger for reconciliation. Why do religious claims and stories that to many of us seem completely unbelievable, completely at odds with the teachings of science, completely out of touch with what we think reality is, nevertheless have such a powerful hold on the human imagination and such incredible endurance over thousands of years? Because they satisfy the soul’s hunger for reconciliation.

Let’s not get hung up on the word soul. I don’t believe in an entity that resides within us, enables us to reason, drives our will, animates our personality, and lives on after our physical bodies die. I don’t believe in that popular conception of Heaven where our soul encounters St. Peter at the pearly gates. But I do think it’s significant that for thousands of years, theologians and philosophers across a wide range of religions and cultures, east and west, have dedicated enormous energy to explaining why so many human beings report a hopeful desire to be ultimately reconciled with divinity, with the Gods, with Ultimate Reality, to reach a final union, Heaven, Paradise, etc. Their explanation frequently includes some concept of the soul—the spiritual part of human beings—different from the body—that is part of divinity and yearns to overcome the bodily hungers in order to be reconciled once again with divinity. In so many religions, the soul is the bridge between humanity and the divine.

For me soul is a metaphor, a beautiful, soothing poetic word—far less sublime than so many traditions would have it, but important nevertheless. Imagine we’re having a conversation and you’re telling me about something for which you have great passion, something that makes you come alive, something so important to you that you can’t let it go; you’re going to pursue it, you’re going to wrap your life around it. When I see your eyes light up at the prospect of your life so dedicated; when I hear the enthusiasm and the strength in your voice when you speak about it; when I perceive it living very naturally in your body; when I sense the energy you gain from contemplating what your life could be—that glow, that excitement, that conviction, that power—that’s your soul. It’s not a thing. It’s a quality in us. It shines through when we’re being authentic, telling the truth, pursuing our passions. It’s never complacent or static. It never succumbs to a false sense of security. It chafes at the tyranny of our routines, habits and ruts. It is restless. And if we open ourselves to it, it will push, prod, call us further along, higher up, deeper into…. into what? Into fulfillment, satisfaction, wholeness; into our own promised land or beloved community. It drives us to feel at home in the universe, to seek balance, to break not the circle. The soul is our desire to experience oneness, to be reconciled—to each other, to humanity, to all life, to the earth, to the universe, to the cosmos, to all we hold sacred.

I imagine the soul—this desire—has two sources. One is our common experience of our time in our mother’s womb—a time of nurturing darkness and warmth before birth, a time of floating, of being held completely by another, a time of oneness, of no boundary between self and mother. In contemplating this time I wonder: as we are born, as we exit the warmth and safety of the womb, as we wake up from the bliss of unknowing, as we take our first breath, utter our first cry, see our first light; is it not possible that somewhere deep inside, beyond the borders of consciousness, we resolve in that moment to return to that original unity, that darkness, that warmth, that unknowing? And if so, might we not experience this longing through the course of our lives as a soul hunger for reconciliation?

The second source is like the first, only on a cosmic scale. From what I know of the still-emerging story modern physics tells us of the birth of the universe—the story of the big bang—everything that exists today was, at a moment approximately 14 billion years ago, gathered into one tiny point, a cosmic unity, a circle unbroken; held in infinite, pregnant darkness. It exploded; and, as recent discoveries appear to confirm,[8] it expanded exponentially in just a tiny fraction of the first second—matter and energy pushed out in all directions with astounding, violent force. If we are descendants of that same matter forced out in that original explosion; is it not possible that somewhere deep inside, somewhere beyond the borders of consciousness, something in us longs to return to that original unity, to come home from our exile at the edges of the universe? And if so, might we not experience this longing as a soul hunger for reconciliation imprinted in our tiniest particles at the dawn of time?

I think this soul hunger for reconciliation is real. And while we don’t always feel it, there come those times when we are shaken up, awakened, called. In those moments perhaps we produce a work of art to mend a broken society; perhaps we forgive one who has wronged us; perhaps we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, free the prisoner, welcome the stranger. Perhaps we work for a more just society. Perhaps we sing. Perhaps we dance. Perhaps we build the beloved community. However and whenever the possibility for reconciliation presents itself to us, may we hear that ancient call. May we do what we can to make the circle whole.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] Kaan, Fred, “Break Not the Circle,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #323.

[2] “In an unprecedented symbolic act senior cleric calls for religious co-existence in Iran,” Bahá’í World New Service, April 7, 2014. See: http://news.bahai.org/story/987. For current reports on the oppression of Bahá’ís in Iran, see Iran Press Watch at http://iranpresswatch.org/post/9273/comment-page-1/.

[3] The entire text of Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani’s explanation of his action is at: http://news.bahai.org/sites/news.bahai.org/files/documentlibrary/987_website-statement-translation-en.pdf.

[5] Hugo, Pieter, photographs, Dominus, Susan, text, “My Conscience Was Not Quiet,” New York Times Magazine, April 6, 2014, pp. 36-41. Or see “Portraits of Reconciliation” at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.z_sma=MG_POR_20140404&bicmp=AD&bicmlukp=WT.mc_id&bicmst=1388552400000&bicmet=1420088400000&_r=3.

[6] Reanney, Darryl, Music of the Mind: An Adventure Into Consciousness (London: Souvenir Press, 1995) p. 22.

[7] Prothero, Stephen, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World (New York: HarperOne, 2010) p. 11.

[8] For a review of the recent discovery of evidence supporting the theory of “cosmic inflation,” see http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/march/physics-cosmic-inflation-031714.html.

Sometimes We Fight (or “Drug Free” in America)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Rebecca Parker urges us to “bless the world.”[1] In her 2006 book, Blessing the World: What Can save Us Now, she tells the story of a time when she and a friend were walking with one of her mentors, the process theologian Charles Hartshorne. She writes, “At the threshold where we would part, Charles turned around, took our hands in his, looked us squarely in the eye, and said, ‘Be a blessing to the world.’ One is rarely given such a direct instruction, and it went straight to our hearts. When all is said and done in my life, I hope that I will have been faithful to this charge.”[2]  Be a blessing to the world.

I’ve been wrestling with a claim I made in my March 2nd sermon on surrender. In that sermon I named a variety of reasons why spiritual surrender is difficult. I talked specifically about how the dominant United States culture is a “fighting” culture that frowns upon surrender, weakness, compromise, etc. I critiqued my own instinct to fight, saying “if and when I try to fight my way through some turmoil, some pain, grief, anxiety, winds, storm—whatever it is—I rarely get there. That is, I might win the fight, but in winning I don’t necessarily gain any clarity about how I want to be, feel and act in the world.”[3] I made that claim with a confidence I still feel. I still feel that in cultivating our capacity for surrender—learning to fall, letting go, yielding, remaining quiet, being gentle, backing off, bowing down—we open pathways to deeper spiritual experience, richer lives, clarity, happiness and peace. But even as I made the claim I felt a tug, a pull, a pin-prick, a nagging at the edges of my words. Since then I’ve been wrestling with the knowledge that sometimes it’s essential that we not surrender, that we not fall, not bend, not back off; that we stay and fight. I feel confident about that too. I’m searching this morning for understanding of how and when ‘not surrendering’ is a spiritual act.

I turn to Rebecca Parker’s charge to us to “be a blessing to the world” because, while she doesn’t use the word fight, she leaves room for fighting—fighting for what is of highest worth to us; fighting for what is sacred to us. She says, “And while there is injustice, / anesthetization, or evil / there moves / a holy disturbance, / a benevolent rage, / a revolutionary love / protesting, urging, insisting / that which is sacred will not be defiled.”[4] These are not words of surrender but of engagement. There are times when choosing to bless the world requires a confrontation, an exertion, a protest, an argument. There are times when our choice to bless the world comes legitimately in response to our rage at complacency, at greed, at callousness, at injustice, at evil, and we choose to fight—not fighting in the sense of perpetuating violence, but fighting in the sense of struggling, working, contesting for something that matters. I think our best guide—our measure of when something matters enough to fight for it—is our principles. Do we discern some way in which our principles have been violated? Then we may choose to fight. Can we discern some facet of life where we feel our principles must be brought to bear? Then we may choose to fight. And perhaps more fundamentally, if we’re going to fight for something, does our desire to fight emerge from a deep and abiding love?

I want to tell you about a fight I’ve been party to recently, along with the UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee: the fight to reduce the size of “drug free zones” in Connecticut. If you don’t know anything about this issue, your first response might be, “what on earth is a drug free zone?” If you happen to know that the term refers to zones around schools, daycare centers and public housing, zones that extend 1500 feet in all directions from the property line of these facilities, zones in which, if you are caught in possession of illegal drugs, you will face “enhanced” criminal penalties including mandatory jail time; and if you happen to know that the laws establishing these zones came into being in the late 1980s to keep drug dealers away from children, then it is possible your first response might be, “Why on earth would we want to reduce the size of drug free zones? Won’t that make it easier for drug dealers to gain access to children? If that is your response then you are not alone: many people have a similar response.

Like “nuclear free zone,” “drug free zone” has a potent, pleasing ring to it. It sounds like a good thing. It sounds, well, safe, healthy, even wholesome. So, it is somewhat disconcerting to find myself fighting to reduce their size. So why do it? There’s a technical reason. And there’s a moral reason which, for me, has to do with our Unitarian Universalist principles.

The technical reason is that the zones don’t achieve their stated intent of keeping drug dealers away from children. This past Friday morning, at a legislative breakfast organized by our Social Justice / Antiracim Committee and our partner, A Better Way Foundation, an organization called the Prison Policy Initiative released a report entitled “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss PPI logothe Mark.” The report states: “Connecticut’s [drug free] zone law … arbitrarily increases the time people convicted of drug offenses must spend in prison without any evidence that their underlying offense actually endangered children. In fact, the Legislative Program Review & Investigations Committee looked at a sample of
300 [drug free] zone cases, and found only three cases that involved students, none of which involved adults dealing drugs to children…. Except for those three cases in which students were arrested, all arrests occurring in ‘drug-free’ school zones were not linked in any way by the police to the school, a school activity, or students. The arrests simply occurred within ‘drug-free’ school zones.’ All of the other 297 cases in the legislature’s sample involved only adults.”[5] The point is, if the intent of the law is to keep drug dealers away from children, you’d think arrests would reflect that, but they don’t.

Which brings me to the moral reason to reduce the size of drug free zones. On Friday morning, State Senator Gary Holder-Winfield asked a provocative question: If the drug free zones don’t do what they’re supposed to do, then what do they do? He didn’t answer the question, but I want to share my answer here. Drug free zones ensure that an unreasonably high percentage of young, urban people of color end up in prison or otherwise enmeshed in the criminal justice system. How? Schools, daycare centers and public housing are so ubiquitous in cities, and the drug zones are so large (five football fields in all directions) that there is virtually no area in any Connecticut city that isn’t a drug free zone. In Hartford, pretty much the only area one can possess drugs and not be in a drug free zone is the middle of the landfill or the middle of Brainerd Airport. What this effectively means is that anyone caught possessing or selling drugs in a Connecticut city is automatically subject to the drug free zone’s enhanced penalties. Which is not what happens to people committing the same offenses in suburban and rural towns where drug free zones are more rare because schools and daycare centers are not densely packed and there is much less public housing.

Drug Free Zones in Hartford, CT (Soure: Prison Policy Initiative)

Drug Free Zones in Hartford, CT (Soure: Prison Policy Initiative)

The Prison Policy Initiative report says “Connecticut’s [drug free] zone law effectively imposes a harsher penalty for the same crime depending on whether the person who committed it lives in a large city or a small town. In practice, the law’s effects are even more insidious: the law increases pressures on urban residents, but not rural ones, to plead guilty solely to avoid the enhanced penalty…. Mandatory minimum sentences, such as those created by Connecticut’s [drug free] zone policy, warp the criminal justice system by steering cases away from trial and toward plea agreements. By creating mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement zones in disproportionately urban areas, the legislature has created a two-tiered system of justice.[6] What the report doesn’t say, but which I will say, is because people of color make up much higher percentages of city populations, people of color are disproportionately impacted by these enhanced penalties, and thus the legislature has created not only a two-tiered system of justice, but a racist system of justice. This is where it becomes clear to me that our justice system achieves outcomes that violate our Unitarian Universalist principles: it fails to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It fails to dispense justice equity and compassion to all people. And it fails to advance the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.

Druf Free Zones in Urban Waterbury, CT, compared to neighboring, suburban Prospect CT (source: Prison Policy Initiative)

Drug Free Zones in urban Waterbury, CT, compared to neighboring, suburban Prospect CT (source: Prison Policy Initiative)

I am convinced that one of the United States of America’s greatest moral failures in this post-civil rights era is the mass incarceration of young black and brown men and women as a result of the war on drugs. Just as Jim Crow laws emerged in the decades following the abolition of slavery in order to re-establish white supremacy and control the lives of people of color, so mass incarceration has emerged in the decades following the end of Jim Crow fifty years ago to re-establish white supremacy and control the lives of people of color. I hear myself say this and I hear how extreme it sounds, and yet when you look at how our state’s drug free zone laws penalize urban communities of color radically differently than white suburban and rural communities, it’s hard to deny. After forty years of the war on drugs, the United States has the largest prison population in the world, and people of color make up a huge percentage of that population in numbers that far exceed their relative numbers in the population.

This phenomenon decimates urban lives, urban families, and urban communities. In a March 10th interview for StoptheDrugWar.org, Ohio State University law professor and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander, said:

There is an implicit assumption that we just need to find what works to lift people up by their bootstraps, without acknowledging that we’re waging a war on these communities we claim to be so concerned about. [Our] common narrative … suggests the reasons why there are so many poor people of color trapped at the bottom—bad schools, poverty, broken homes….

But I’ve come to believe we have it backwards. These communities are poor and have failing schools and broken homes not because of their personal failings, but because we’ve declared war on them, spent billions building prisons while allowing schools to fail, targeted children in these communities, stopping, searching, frisking them—and the first arrest is typically for some nonviolent minor drug offense, which occurs with equal frequency in middle class white neighborhoods but typically goes ignored. We saddle them with criminal records, jail them, then release them to a parallel universe where they are discriminated against for the rest of their lives, locked into permanent second-class status….

Rather than providing meaningful support to these families and communities where the jobs have gone overseas and they are struggling to move from an industrial-based economy to a global one, we have declared war on them. We have stood back and said “What is wrong with them?” The more pressing question is “What is wrong with us?”[7]

What is wrong with us is that we—and by ‘we’ I mean all of us in the United States of America—are allowing the destruction of lives, the break-up of families, the decay of urban communities, the excessive criminalization of urban people of color, the excessive incarceration of people for non-violent offenses when what they really need—and what would be so much less expensive—is treatment for substance use disorder and mental illness. We are allowing an egregious waste of financial and human resources by investing in incarceration at the expense of education, jobs, drug treatment and mental health. I believe this. And I don’t feel comfortable just sitting back and watching it happen, even though I could argue that it isn’t my issue, that it doesn’t impact me or my children, the community where I live, or the community I serve. I don’t feel comfortable as a Unitarian Universalist who affirms and promotes seven principles, many of which mass incarceration violates with impunity. I don’t feel comfortable as a minister whose vocation it is not only to provide spiritual and pastoral support and guidance to the members of the congregation I serve, but to bear witness to injustice in the wider community and do what is within my power and my congregation’s power to address it. And I don’t feel comfortable as a human being who has some semblance of a conscience, some modicum of moral sensibility and, I hope, a basic grasp of what is right, what is wrong, and what is fair—as flawed and as limited as that grasp may be. I don’t feel comfortable.

Reducing the size of drug free zones is one way to arrest the madness of mass incarceration. Connecticut can do this this year. There will be a moment in the next month when the bill to reduce the size of drug free zones will come up for debate in the legislature. That is a moment for our voices to be heard. Our Social Justice / Antiracism Committee will do everything they can to let you know when it’s time to advocate. In the meantime, if you want to be part of this effort, we have sign-up sheets in the lobby. Another related project we’re working on is the creation of supply kits for people being released from prison. The transition from prison is difficult. At times former inmates have trouble getting their basic needs met. These kits include toiletries, super market gift cards, socks and underwear, etc. We’re going to start creating these kits as a congregation. You’ll be hearing more about this project over the next few months.

Sometimes we fight. And clearly fighting and surrendering are contrasting if not opposite spiritual endeavors. Though I wonder, is it not possible that fighting for the right reasons is itself a form of spiritual surrender. Rebecca Parker reminds us “there moves / a holy disturbance, / a benevolent rage, / a revolutionary love / protesting, urging, insisting / that which is sacred will not be defiled.” Is it not possible we fight because we finally surrender to that holy disturbance, that benevolent rage, that revolutionary love—and allow it to guide our actions? Perhaps there are times when our principles demand that we surrender the comforts and privileges of our lives so that we may bring a greater love to bear in the world. Perhaps there are times when we realize we’ve spent our days resisting the call of some great cause, and we finally surrender our resistance begin to struggle. Perhaps this is just semantics. Perhaps. But here’s what know: We care called to bless the word. And there are times when that blessing won’t be realized without a fight. Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] Parker, Rebecca A., “Benediction,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) pp. 163-165.

[2] Parker, Rebecca A., “Choose to Bless the World,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) p. 161.

[3] Pawelek, Josh M., “Surrender: In Search of the Present Moment,” a sermon delivered on March 2, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/surrender-i-search-of-the-present-moment/.

[4] Parker, Rebecca A., “Benediction,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) pp. 164.

[5] Kajstura, Aleks, “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss the Mark” (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2014). Read the full report at http://www.prisonpolicy.org/zones/ct.html.

[6] Kajstura, Aleks, “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss the Mark”

[7] Read Asha Bandele’s full March 14, 2014 interview with Michelle Alexander at http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2014/mar/10/new_jim_crow_michelle_alexander_talk.

Beloved (Multigenerational) Community

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In her December 2013 blog post, “The Power of Our Child Dedication Some Years Later,” Kim Paquette[1] says: “The beloved members of our [congregation] had been there for my children since before that child dedication ceremony, and had lived up to the promises they had made that day. This congregation took the time to get to know them. They have shared with them, learned from and with them, and have shown them love and respect. The congregation had done this in such a way that it was obvious to my children. My kids feel a part of their spiritual community, and in their time of need, thought to turn there first for support.”[2]

In traditional religious language, Kim is testifying. She’s offering testimony about her congregation’s power, presence and love in her family’s life. It’s not testimony about a perfect congregation, or a perfect family attending a perfect congregation. It’s not testimony about a great religious education program, or a wonderful, thought-provoking sermon, or a profoundly moving worship service, or building a remarkably green building.  It’s not testimony about a congregation that has figured out how to provide high quality ministry to a diverse community of families, children, youth, adults and elders. It’s not testimony about ministering in an era of rapid social change, unprecedented technological growth, deep economic stress, and ongoing, potentially catastrophic environmental challenges. It’s testimony about being held, nurtured, seen. It’s testimony about an experience of mattering. It’s testimony about what we may rightfully call beloved community.

As we officially kick off our 2014 annual appeal; as we ask every member and friend of this congregation to make a financial pledge for the coming fiscal year; as we live for a while with the questions “Why give?” “How much do I give?” and “What does this congregation mean to me?” it is my sincere hope that each of you can recall an experience in your life—perhaps many years ago, perhaps more recently—when you felt you mattered here; when you felt this congregation holding you, nurturing you, seeing you, loving you. It is my sincere hope that each of you can say with confidence that you know something of what it means to be in beloved community, because you’ve found it here. It is my sincere hope that each of you could, if called upon, testify about the power, presence and love of this congregation at some moment in your life. Even those who are new: I sincerely hope you can sense the possibility of finding beloved community here. Because it is here.

In recent weeks there have been no better examples of this than the many ways in which members and friends of our congregation have been present, supportive and loving to people facing life-altering and possibly life-ending medical crises. I’ve been so deeply moved by and so deeply grateful for those of you who wrapped yourselves around Jean Dunn and her family in the final days of her life; those of you who’ve wrapped yourselves around Rhona Cohen and her family after her heart attack nearly four weeks ago; those of you who’ve wrapped yourselves around Jake and Fran VanSchaick since Jake’s recent cancer diagnosis. And that’s just the beginning of the list. This “wrapping around” happens here. Most often it happens organically. Sometimes we arrange it through our Pastoral Care Committee. It’s something I value and admire about this congregation. With your actions even more than your words, you communicate to fellow members and friends facing difficult times: “You’re not alone. We’re here for you. We’ll go through this crisis with you. We’re committed.”

Of course our beloved community is not limited to the people who gather within these walls. It reaches out into the wider world. An example is the story some of you have heard me tell about Mark Reid, a Jamaican immigrant, a forty-year permanent legal resident of the United States, an honorably-discharged veteran of the United States Army—though not a US citizen. Mark got into trouble with the law in New Haven. He committed a series of crimes, mostly drug related, mostly driven by substance-use disorder. He went to jail. The problem is, when you’re not a citizen, even the smallest crimes can result in deportation. And that’s exactly what started to happen. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, put a detainer on Mark. Once he served his time for his drug offenses, instead of being released back into the community ICE detained him and moved him to a federal detention center in Greenfield, MA. He came to my attention when a veterans’ rights worker referred him to me because she knew I and a number of members of this congregation had been involved in a successful effort to free a West Hartford man from ICE detention a year earlier. I talked about Mark’s situation with our UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee and they were supportive of me working with him and his legal team. I won’t give any more details of Mark’s case here, except to say that he recently posted bond after 18 months of detainment. His case isn’t over—he might still be deported—but he’s free for now.

A week ago Mark and I were doing an interview for a Yale Law School documentary on the case. The interviewer asked Mark to describe me. Mark said, essentially, “I was desperate for anyone to help. I thought I was all alone. When I contacted Rev. Pawelek I didn’t have high hopes. He had no reason to help me. But he said he was with me, that he was committed to me, that he wasn’t going to let me go through this alone. At first I didn’t believe him. How could he really mean it? But he meant it. He never gave up on me, and I couldn’t have gotten here without him.” When I heard him say this I was touched and, frankly, proud of myself for having had such an impact on someone’s life, especially someone whom I felt had experienced an injustice. But what I know—and what I hope you know—is that Mark isn’t just experiencing my ministry. He’s experiencing our beloved community. He’s experiencing our congregational values, our practices, our caring and compassion. There’s a beautiful and compelling spirit here that I witness in the way you treat each other, the way you care for each other in times of crisis, the way you make real the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That spirit inspires and enables me not only to nurture and sustain it here at 153 West Vernon St., but to act on it in the wider world. Our beloved community has an impact well beyond these walls.

Having said that, I’m not suggesting that an experience of beloved community here means the congregation is perfect, that it makes no mistakes, that it has never let you down. One of the risks of being a congregation, of being in covenant with each other, of being vulnerable in each other’s presence—of being human together—is that we inevitably discover we are not perfect, we make mistakes, we let each other down. But we take the risk anyways: we enter into community. And when we let each other down, we agree to begin again in love.[3]

And I’m not suggesting that an experience of beloved community here means you’ve never disagreed with something I’ve said, or something another lay-person has said, or that there has never been conflict, or that there’ve never been stressful times. One of the risks of being a congregation is that we will inevitably disagree, sometimes strongly. But we take the risk anyways: we enter into community, knowing we may disagree, but also trusting we can begin again in love.

And I’m not suggesting that an experience of beloved community here means you’ve never felt like you were giving more than you were getting, that you’ve never felt burned out and in need of a break, or that you’ve never felt like you needed something but didn’t receive it. One of the risks of being a congregation is that we will feel these ways from time to time. Even in the most healthy, welcoming, inclusive, loving spiritual communities, all these things are not only possible, they are predictable. But what enables me to say with confidence that the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East is a beloved community, is that I have seen us time and time again take the risk anyways and begin again in love.

When it comes time for you to determine your financial pledge for the coming year, I hope and trust you can recall those times when you felt held, nurtured, seen by this congregation—when you felt this congregation wrapping itself around you in a moment of challenge, or perhaps when you felt yourself wrapping around someone else in their moment of challenge. I hope you can recall those times when you felt the power, the presence and the love of this congregation in your life, the life of your family, or the lives of others beyond these walls. Regardless of anything else we might try to accomplish as a congregation; regardless of any goals we might set, any strategic plan we might develop, any new program we might launch, this is the basic role of the congregation: to hold each other, to nurture each other, to see each other. I urge you: let your experience of this holding, nurturing, seeing be part of your answer to the question: “Why give generously to UUS:E?”

And yet, we do need to manage our institution beyond this basic role of the church. We do need to set goals, engage in strategic planning, launch new programs. We need to think about growth. We need to pay bills. This is also why we give. With that in mind I want to say a few words about our primary goal in this year’s annual appeal—which will likely be our primary goal over the next few years: making a successful transition to a new professional religious educator and a new religious education program for children and youth. Because our long-time Director of Religious Education (DRE), Vicki Merriam, is retiring at the end of June after approximately 35 years of service, we are entering a period of huge change, transition, restructuring; a period of learning and innovating, out-of-the-box thinking, creativity and risk-taking. If we take this time of transition seriously, if we rise to the challenge of surrendering how we’ve always done things in order of make room for new possibilities, if we can live for a while with ambiguity, with not knowing exactly what the future holds, we will transition successfully. Of course, there is no perfect transition. We are also entering a period with many opportunities for mistakes, failures, conflict, letting each other down, disappointing each other and, as always, beginning again in love. We are on the verge of something big.

In a very concrete way, your generous financial gift to UUS:E this year helps us insure we can hire the best candidate possible as our Interim DRE for the next 12 to 24 months. Let me remind you we have a search committee in place and they are beginning to receive applications. The Personnel Committee is responsible for determining final salary and benefits. The Policy Board is responsible for hiring the candidate the search committee recommends. I am responsible for orienting and supervising this new staff member. The Religious Education Committee is responsible for working with the Interim DRE to run our religious education program during the transition and to help lay the groundwork for hiring a permanent DRE and launching an exciting new program over the next three years. So, a variety of people have specific jobs related to this transition. But what about everyone else? What about us collectively? Don’t we have some responsibility as a congregation to do whatever we can to assure the success of this transition?

We do. And certainly part of our collective role in this success is to continue and expand our generous financial giving. But this is not just about investing financially to achieve our vision. It’s about investing our whole selves in achieving our vision of a religious education program that not only “provides a solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists,” but also “fosters the connection and commitment of all UUS:E members and friends to our beloved multigenerational community.”[4] We need every member and friend involved. As with our recent building campaign, it’s an all hands on deck moment.

I suppose on one level it starts with discerning how adults can support the religious education program. Can you teach a class? Can you mentor a youth? Can you organize supplies, provide nursery child-care, chaperone a trip, help with a fundraiser? These are some of the traditional ways adults have invested their time. But given the way children’s lives are changing and family life in general is changing in US culture, we’re recognizing that the traditional ways will not be enough. What if it became part of our culture to support our children in their various events outside of UUS:E? When a child in the congregation is playing in a sporting event, will you sign up to be a fan at that event? Will you go to the field and cheer? Or when a child is in a play at school, will you attend the play? When a child is in a concert, will you attend the concert? This already happens to some extent, but what if it became a congregational practice? It’s just one idea. There are many more.

Can you commit to holding yourself open to all the ways in which our congregation may change in order to achieve this vision? I ask because we can anticipate changes in how we worship, how we manage our schedules, when we hold meetings, how we use technology. Can you unleash your creative energies during this time of transition? Can you be a learner? Can you be a risk-taker? Can you be a thought leader? Can you imagine multigenerational activities we’ve never imagined before? Can you help to organize those activities? Can you learn the names and faces of twenty children and youth in this congregation? How about thirty? Forty? Why stop there? There are more than 90 kids registered. Can you wrap yourself around our religious education program in whatever ways make the most sense to you. Can all our children be seen and known in the way Kim Paquette describes? I think we can do this. And if we do, here’s what I know: When we see and know our children, they see and know us. When we wrap ourselves around them, they will wrap themselves around us, around this congregation, around Unitarian Universalism. And that gets us back to that basic role of the church: holding, nurturing, seeing. That’s where it starts. That’s where a vibrant, loving multigenerational community starts. That’s where beloved community starts. Friends, let us start.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] Kim Paquette is Director of Multigenerational Ministries for the Northern New England District of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

[2] Read Kim Paquette’s 12/19/13 blog post, “The Power of Our Child Dedication Ceremony Some Years Later,” at http://multigenministry.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/the-power-of-our-child-dedication-some-years-later/.

[3] Eller-Isaacs, Robert, “A Litany of Atonement,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #637.

[4] From the UUS:E “Future of Religious Education” vision statement, October, 2013.

Surrender: In Search of the Present Moment

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Winds be still. Storm clouds pass and silence come.”[1] This is not the first time I’ve started a sermon with a quote from this particular hymn. It’s not one of those hymns I learned as a child; but it’s become one of those hymns I long to hear and sing in challenging times. These past few weeks have been, to say the least, challenging times for me. They’ve been challenging for a variety of reasons—multiple serious health crises in the congregation and the situation described in the letter our board and I sent to all members this week having to do with a painful issue here—are just two reasons. There are others. I admit I am experiencing far more than my normal level of stress and, perhaps more fundamentally, I am heart-sick; I am sad.

“Winds be still. Storm clouds pass and silence come.” If one takes these words literally, and if one doesn’t have the music to go with them, one could interpret them as commands: winds be still! Storm clouds pass! Silence come! But we know that’s not the intent.  If nothing else, the music doesn’t allow for such an interpretation. There’s no demand being made here. These words are a prayer. They’re a request, a plea, an appeal, an ask; they express to the universe—to whatever the singer regards as most holy—a longing, a yearning, a desire that a quiet peace may arise in the midst of difficult times, even if only for a moment. They’re a prayer that in the midst of that quiet peace, clarity and understanding may come.

Those of you who’ve heard me name what prayer is to me know I don’t expect some all-powerful entity to answer my prayers in any way, let alone do as I say. The God I believe in doesn’t have the power to still the winds, be they real or metaphorical. They will still on their own when they are ready. The God I believe in doesn’t have the power to make storm clouds pass, be they real or metaphorical. They pass on their own when they are ready. And the God I believe in doesn’t have the power to bring a peaceful moment to me. Such moments come when I make myself ready for them. I believe in the power of prayer, not because it gives me what I need and want, but because it reminds me of how I aspire to be in the world—loving and compassionate. It reminds me of how I aspire to feel in the morning when I wake, as I go about my day, and as I lay down to sleep at night—peaceful, serene, open. And it reminds me of what I aspire to achieve in my life and my work—a more just society, a more sustainable community, a more peaceful world. When I pray I am not asking for something magical to happen. I am simply orienting myself toward how I aspire to be, feel and act in the world. As I pray, I have a fighting chance of remembering these things. As I pray I have a fighting chance of getting there.

Except fight is the wrong word. It’s not a fight at all. If and when I try to fight my way through some turmoil, some pain, grief, anxiety, winds, storm—whatever it is—I rarely get there. That is, I might win the fight, but in winning I don’t necessarily gain any clarity about how I want to be, feel and act in the world. More often than not, fighting forces us to compromise those things. Getting to that moment wherein I can truly remember and orient myself toward how I want to be, feel and act in the world almost always requires surrender: Surrender to whatever fierce winds are blowing; surrender to whatever ominous storm clouds abound overhead; surrender to feelings of self-doubt and unsureness; surrender to pain, anxiety, grief, anger, being overwhelmed; surrender to forces larger than me; surrender to forces over which I have no control. It may seem counter-intuitive, it may seem weak, but surrender is often our surest path back to ourselves, back to clarity, back to wholeness. Surrender is often what saves us so that we can live the lives we aspire to live.

Our ministry theme for March is surrender. I like this theme. It shows up in my preaching and writing regularly, though I may use other words and phrases like “letting go” or “falling” or “accepting things as they are,” or “embracing life as it is.” This theme really matters to me, perhaps because I’m concerned I don’t surrender very well. Like love, like apologizing, like offering forgiveness, surrender is difficult. You’ve heard me say this before. In fact, surrender was our ministry theme three years ago this month and I preached a sermon at that time called “The Art of Surrender.”[2]  (I’m sure those of you who were there remember it word-for-word. It was electrifying.) As a reminder, the reason we use theme-based ministry is because it invites us to revisit a specific theme in our spiritual lives at least once every three years, just as the Christian lectionary invites Christians to read through the Bible in worship over the course of three years. Presumably, as we encounter these themes over the course of years—as we cycle back to them continually—we deepen our understanding of them.

Three years ago I said surrender is difficult. I still feel this poignantly. Our egos get in the way of our capacity for surrender, as does our pride, as does our fear of vulnerability, as does our unwillingness to change even when we know change is necessary. Sometimes we’re ashamed to appear weak. Sometimes we’re ashamed to appear as if we’re giving up. Sometimes the fight is so strong in us we don’t know when to quit. Sometimes we just can’t hear the good advice of our loved-ones telling us to let it go, let it go, let it go.

And of course, our culture—that is, our dominant, United States culture—is a fighting culture that frowns upon surrender. Our dominant culture values and rewards winning and success. It cheers Wall Street bull markets. It idolizes the competitive spirit.  It spends billions of dollars every year consuming competitive professional and college sports. A salient manifestation of this fighting culture is the fact that our nation’s military spending accounts for 40% of all military spending on the planet. We outspend China, our nearest competitor, by nearly 5 to 1.[3] Cuts to US military spending proposed this past week totaling $1 trillion over the next ten years leave barely a blemish on this spending dominance. We’re not just ready for a fight. We’re ready to dispense “shock and awe.” We’re ready for winning anywhere in the world at any time.  Like it or not, it’s a prominent part of who we are as a people. I’m not critiquing this fighting culture—I’ll save that for a different Sunday morning. I’m simply making the point that it’s a fighting culture, and being enmeshed in it makes surrender in any form challenging, even if we’re only talking about surrender in the context of our internal lives, in the face of our own personal high winds and battering storms.

In that sermon three years ago I focused on the absence of a language of surrender in our Unitarian Universalist principles and in our hymns. We put significant emphasis on the self—on discovering our unique selves, on valuing our selves, on proclaiming our selves—who we are, what we’re passionate about, what we love. And thus the idea of surrendering the self into some greater reality seems counter-intuitive. Yesterday, after Jeanne Lloyd’s father’s memorial service, Carol Simpson asked me what I was preaching on. I said “surrender.” She reminded me, “that’s not an easy thing for UUs to do.” She’s right.

Having said this, we nevertheless encounter the spiritual advice to surrender all the time. We encounter the advice to let go, to fall, to accept things as they are, to embrace the world as it is, to go with the flow, to enter the mystery. I often start with the Taoist philosophers of ancient China, who offered surrender as an alternative to infighting within families, communities and governments; an alternative to greed and corruption; an alternative to militarism and oppression as tools of leadership. Surrender, for them, was the path of wisdom, the path of peace—a way to lead without appearing to lead. They looked at nature for affirmation of this principle and for guidance on how to do it. Lao Tzu, in chapter 76 of the Tao-te ching says: “All things, the grass as well as the trees, are tender and supple while alive. When dead, they are withered and dried. Therefore, the stiff and the hard are companions of death. The tender and the weak are companions of life.”[4] Be soft, be gentle, bow down, bend in the wind, move with the current, yield, remain quiet, observe, listen.  Fighting—the path of rigidity, the path of holding on tightly—would  ultimately lead one to break, to snap, to wither, to die. “If the army is strong,” said Lao Tzu, “it will not win.” Fighting was the path of foolishness. Perhaps Lao Tzu’s most famous statement of this principle comes in Chapter 22 of the Tao-te Ching: “To yield is to be preserved whole.”[5]

The spiritual writer I come back to again and again on this theme is the late Philip Simmons. I’ve quoted many times from his last book, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, a series of reflections on living with ALS—Lou Gehrig’s Disease—a series of reflections on finding meaning, peace and joy in life as one surrenders to the reality of death. If I stay in ministry long enough I will eventually quote this entire book. “Learning to fall” is another way of naming the act of surrender. Simmons writes: “At its deepest levels life is not a problem but a mystery. The distinction…is fundamental: problems are to be solved, true mysteries are not. Personally, I wish I could have learned this lesson more easily…. But each of us finds his or her own way to mystery. At one time or another, each of us confronts an experience so powerful, bewildering, joyous, or terrifying that all our efforts to see it as a ‘problem’ are futile. Each of us is brought to the cliff’s edge. At such moments we can either back away in bitterness or confusion, or leap forward into mystery. And what does mystery ask of us? Only that we be in its presence, that we fully, consciously, hand ourselves over. That is all, and that is everything. We can participate in mystery only by letting go of solutions. This letting go is the first lesson of falling, and the hardest.”[6] This point is so important: holding on tightly, hanging on at all costs, striving to win, fighting—all of it so often leads to a diminishment of ourselves, a compromising of ourselves, a losing of ourselves. But in the space we create in our lives as we surrender—if we really surrender—there is new meaning. There is new joy. There is new peace. There is a new reminder of how we aspire to be, feel, and act in the world.

That’s essentially where I stopped three years ago. I didn’t quote Lao Tzu or Philip Simmons in that particular sermon, but there are many other compelling scriptures and writings that speak to this principle and remind us there are times when the best course of action, the path to peace, to serenity, to greater clarity, to wholeness, the path back to our true selves—or we might say to our next selves—is surrender. What leaves me cold about that sermon three years ago—what was missing then and what I hope I can describe here and now is not the what of surrender—I think we get that—but the how of surrender. What does one actually do in order to surrender?

“Winds be still. Storm clouds pass and silence come.”[7] Surrender is an act of prayer. Not the kind of prayer that lists all the things we want to have happen; not the kind of prayer that looks to some magical outcome or miracle to take place. It’s the kind of prayer that begins “I don’t know.” I don’t know. It’s the kind of prayer that begins, “I am not in control.” I am not in control. It’s the kind of prayer that begins with the recognition: “I have something to learn.” I have something to learn. And perhaps most fundamentally, it’s the kind of prayer that begins with the affirmation: “I am here, now.” I am here, now. Though the past—our history—shapes us, makes us who we are, often weighs heavily on us, and cannot and should not be forgotten, surrender requires that we step away from the past for a moment, that we let its hold on us loosen, that we let it, in the words of the Rev. Mark Belletini, “take [its] Sabbath now, [its] brief and simple rest.”[8] Likewise, while the future calls to us, beckons to us, prods us, fills us with both anticipation and dread, with both excitement and stress, surrender requires that we step away from the future for a moment, let its voice grow quiet, let its vision cease to direct us. Surrender requires that we come fully into the present moment, where future and past are ghosts. In that moment we may encounter no more than silence. We may receive no more than a brief respite from the winds that batter our lives and the storm clouds that drench us. But we may, and often do, receive much more: peace of mind, peace of heart, a more grounded and steady understanding of what to do next, and that precious reminder of how we aspire to be in the world, how we aspire to feel in the world, how we aspire to act in the world.

Rev. Belletini says it so well: “Let the breathing in this room be free and flowing. / Let pulses trance a slower rhythm in the wrist. / Let the coming silence be like hands / pulling back a curtain, / revealing the table set with the feast of life / which is present here and now / and has been the whole while, / present to those who give up living in either the past / or the future.”[9] The words of surrender are not “I give up.” They are not a cynical, “you win.” They are not “I quit.” The words of surrender are “I don’t know. I am not in control. I have something to learn. I am here, now.”

The act of surrendering is not a losing of the self, though it may feel like the self we have been clinging to is disappearing. The act of surrendering is not an act of weakness, though it may feel like weakness. The act of surrendering is not something to be feared, though it may feel frightening. On the contrary, the act of surrendering is a return to the self we most aspire to be. As Lao Tzu said, “To yield is to be preserved whole.”[10]

As we rise to meet all the challenges of our lives—all the winds, all the storm clouds, all the pain and anxiety, all the turmoil great and small—may we remember the value of surrender, trusting that the present moment truly does offer a table set with the feast of life. I don’t know. I am not in control. I have something to learn. I am here, now.

Amen and blessed be.

 


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

[3] This chart from globalissues.org is instructive: http://www.globalissues.org/article/75/world-military-spending#InContextUSMilitarySpendingVersusRestoftheWorld. This 2/24/14 CNBC article is also helpful: http://www.cnbc.com/id/101440355.

[4] Wing-Tsit Chan, tr., Lao Tzu, Chapter 76, The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 233.

[5] Wing-Tsit Chan, tr., Lao Tzu, Chapter 76, The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 139.

[6] Simmons, Philip, Learning to Fall: the Blessings of an Imperfect Life (New York: Bantam Books, 2000) p. 8.

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

[8] Belletini, Mark, “Slower and Slower,” Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008) p. 12.

[9] Belletini, Mark, “Slower and Slower,” Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008) p. 12.

[10] Wing-Tsit Chan, tr., Lao Tzu, Chapter 76, The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 139.