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

 

"Reconciliation" by Josefina de Vasconcellos

“Reconciliation” by Josefina de Vasconcellos

“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]

Ayatollah Tehrani's illuminated calligraphy

Ayatollah Tehrani’s illuminated calligraphy

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.”

Pieter Hugo’s portrait of Godefroid Mudaheranwa (left) & Evasta Mukanyandwi (right)

Pieter Hugo’s portrait of Godefroid Mudaheranwa (left) & Evasta Mukanyandwi (right)

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.

“City Square” by Alberto Giacometti

“City Square” by Alberto Giacometti

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.

“Solitude of the Soul” by Lorardo Taft

“Solitude of the Soul” by Lorardo Taft

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?

Bronze Sculpture of a Baby Face by Mariola Pierz

Bronze Sculpture of a Baby Face by Mariola Pierz

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?

“B of the Bang” by Thomas Heatherwick

“B of the Bang” by Thomas Heatherwick

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.

Drug Free School Zone

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.

ABWFThe 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

UU Child Dedication

UU Child Dedication

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.

logoAs 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.”

Caring

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.

Mark Reid and Rev. Josh

Mark Reid and Rev. Josh

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.

disagreement

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.

success

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.

cheering

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“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.

Prayer 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 othersurrender 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.

Lau TzuHaving 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]

Philip Simmons

Philip Simmons

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.

present moment

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.

Agape Church = Ally Church

Danish King Christian X

Danish King Christian X

In his review of Bo Lidegaard’s Countrymen, a recent history of how the Danish people helped the Danish Jews survive the Nazi occupation during World War II, Michael Ignatieff writes: “There was no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there was just us.”[1] The Danes said to the Nazi occupiers, essentially,“If you make the Jews wear yellow stars, we’ll all wear yellow stars too.” In other words, “you’ll have to take all of us.” I offer this story as a starting place for reflection on what it means to be an ally, specifically what it means to be an ally at church and as a church. The Danish people understood themselves not as frightened, defeated Nazi collaborators, but as courageous allies of their Jewish countrymen. We will help you; we will keep you safe; we will stand with you; we will risk our own lives on your behalf; there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. That’s what it means to be an ally.

Opportunities for allyship abound. Right now there are people in this room who need others in this room to be their allies. Right now, all around us in the wider community, there are people who need the partnership and solidarity of a congregation like ours in their struggle to overcome some injustice, some oppression, some poverty, some ongoing abuse or exploitation. I’m mindful that congregations and clergy can and do say a lot about love. We can be eloquent, inspiring and prophetic about love; and we can also very quickly become boring when all it is is words. We can very quickly become irrelevant when it is unclear how we make that love real in the world. My message is this: Loving congregations manifest love through a discipline of allyship. In other words, agape church equals ally church.

We typically translate the ancient Greek word agape as “unconditional love.” Early Christians used it to refer to God’s love for humanity which they experienced as unconditional. When we use it to refer to human love we translate it in a variety of ways: selfless love, impartial love, all-encompassing love, wholehearted love. It is big, broad, vast, deep love—akin to the love God supposedly feels for humanity. It can refer to love between two people, but for the purposes of this sermon I’m using it to refer to love for people in general, love for all humanity.

I’m not a fan of the idea of selfless love, at least not the way we often encounter it: the giving up of oneself in order to serve others. sexism
There are certainly appropriate times for giving oneself up, for self-sacrifice—I think of soldiers sacrificing themselves to save their friends in battle, or parents dedicating their lives to the care of a child with special needs. But I’m also mindful that for too many centuries women were (and often still are) expected to give up their selves in the service of sexist conceptions of marriage, family, society and, it must be said, church. I don’t believe this giving up of the self is good for women; nor is it good for marriage, family, society or church. We each have unique, beautiful, holy selves that add value to the world and ought not to be given up except in extraordinary circumstances. Any system or institution that pressures us to give ourselves up with no choice and no reciprocity is oppressive.

Having said that, in the experience of genuine agape there is what feels like a losing of the self—a merging and mingling of selves in one another, a joining together, a recognition that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. In response to my February 2nd sermon on love, Nancy Thompson offered the words of Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg in our “Dialogue From Your Home” forum. Salzberg says “actual love is the true seeing of our oneness, our non-separateness.”[2] Nancy said further: “I think that’s what’s at the center of existence, non-separateness … you can call it love or God or interdependence or emptiness…. It’s not about you as a distinct, finite being but you as part of being.” Agape isn’t a call to self-sacrifice, though sometimes we do sacrifice ourselves for love; and it isn’t about losing ourselves in our love for others, though it may feel like that. It’s actually an experience of finding ourselves in our love for others—not our discreet biological selves, but our larger, connected, non-separate selves.

Still, I don’t want to get caught up in language and definitions. Love lives beyond words and reason. No amount of mental gymnastics and wordsmithing will get us to a full understanding. What I want to know is not what love is, but what it looks like in practice at church. My message again: loving congregations manifest love through a discipline of allyship.

Hand on ShoulderWe conduct ourselves as allies in two broad ways. First, we respond as allies to what I call natural human suffering—the suffering that is part and parcel of the human condition and which all of us experience through the course of our lives: the suffering that comes with physical and mental illness, with aging, with loss and grief, with despair, anxiety, loneliness and failure, with approaching death. Responding to these forms of suffering is the pastoral role of the church. But I want to suggest that when we respond we are engaging in the discipline of allyship. When you put a hand on the shoulder of someone who has just shared a painful story; when you visit someone in the hospital or in rehab after a surgery; when you cook a meal for a family that has experienced a death; when you provide hospitality at a memorial service; when you give someone a ride to their chemotherapy treatment; when you accompany someone to court; when you go grocery shopping for someone who is homebound; when you give a call just to check in; when you greet someone you’ve never met after a Sunday service; when you sit and talk with someone who is lonely: when you stay present to someone who is hurting for whatever reason—stay with them, focus on them, let them cry, let them rage, let them feel what they’re feeling, let them process their situation, let them be silent, be silent with them, walk with them, get a coffee with them, reassure them, stay with them until they know what they’re going to do next, let them know you won’t abandon them—when you do whatever it is they need done because they actually can’t do it for themselves in that particular moment, you are being an ally.

One of the reasons I love the institutional church is because it provides a space wherein people can manifest agape by being allies to each other in the midst of our suffering. It’s what church is for. Allyship is the central discipline—the primary behavior—in any beloved community.

In practicing allyship it’s always possible that we can feel like we’re giving up a part of ourselves—we’re giving up precious time, energy, emotion, attention, focus. It may feel like we’re sacrificing. It may feel burdensome. And perhaps it is. Perhaps manifesting agape doesn’t always feel good. Perhaps part of the discipline of allyship is learning to accept that there are moments when we must lay aside what we want for ourselves in order to care for and support someone facing more dire circumstances. But in doing so, I contend we also find our larger, connected selves. We find it is not ‘us’ and ‘them;’ it is just us.

In addition to responding to the natural suffering people experience, the church also responds—or ought to respond—to what unnatural suffering—the suffering groups of human beings so easily visit upon other groups of human beings through abuses of power, oppression, discrimination, exploitation, violence, etc. People experiencing such suffering often know exactly what it is they need. They often know exactly what needs to change. They often are willing to fight, struggle, work, strive to make that change happen. They often are willing to lead in the work of change. They they can rarely do it alone. If we’re talking about overcoming racism in the form of mass incarceration or disparities in health care outcomes; or reforming immigration laws so that undocumented people are treated with compassion and given a path to citizenship; or ending gun violence on our city streets; or next steps in overcoming homophobia and heterosexism—whether it’s working to end bullying in schools or working for the rights of LGBT elders; or if we’re talking about exploring our own, unintentional habits of institutional racism, heterosexism, ageism, and on and on, the group experiencing the suffering can rarely do it all alone. They need allies. They need people with privilege and power to agree that the suffering they experience is real. They need people with privilege and power to commit to working for change with them. They need people with privilege and power to take risks on their behalf; to say, We will help you! We will stand with you! We will even risk our own lives and livelihoods on your behalf! There is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. This is exactly what the Danish people did for their Jewish neighbors during the Nazi occupation. This is allyship. This, I’m convinced, is how congregations manifest agape in their ministries within and beyond their walls.

I want to speak in very practical terms about what it means to me, a heterosexual man, to be an ally to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender—GLBT—people here at UUS:E. Some of you know our Welcoming Congregation Steering Group hoped to hang and dedicate a large rainbow flag out in the clerestory this morning. They decided not to do it because they weren’t sure they had the full support of the congregation. They held a forum and invited feedback in a variety of ways. A small minority expressed discomfort, which is important in a community that values the right of conscience—the minority needs to be able to express itself. So, let’s not hang the flag yet. But why do it at all? Why hang a large rainbow flag at UUS:E?

Rainbow Ally

This is how I think and feel about it. Ever since I’ve been UUS:E’s minister, the members and friends of this congregation—straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, men, women, transgender, questioning, old, young, rich, middle class, working class, poor, Humanist, Theist, Agnostic, Pagan and Buddhist—have been working as a congregation for the civil rights of gay and lesbian people—primarily through marriage equality—and for the civil rights of transgender people—primarily through anti-discrimination legislation. This has meant attending rallies, marches, lobby days, knocking on doors and interviewing voters at polling stations to gage public opinion, testifying on bills, writing letters to politicians and newspapers, sending checks to Love Makes a Family, supporting True Colors and listening to more sermons on the subject than probably any of you cared to listen to. The major political and legislative battles are behind us now. We won, so the level of engagement is not nearly as intense as it was. But this activism was a central feature of our ministry for many years. As a congregation, we were following a discipline of allyship. We were saying to GLBT people here and across the state, not only with our words but with our deeds: We will help you; we will stand with you; we will not abandon you; we will not flinch in the face of opposition; you do not have to fight these battles alone; we will risk our own lives and livelihoods on your behalf; there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. When I see a rainbow flag, I don’t see their flag. I see our flag. Though I am clear I gain power and privilege in my life because I am a straight man and I will never fully comprehend what it means to be gay, female or transgender, I am also clear that I’ve made my power and privilege accountable to GLBT people because I strive to be an ally. The rainbow flag represents me too. But not just me, us. It’s our flag because we are an ally church.

But let’s imagine UUS:E had sat on the sidelines throughout these struggles and none of us had been involved. And let’s imagine we now want to be more welcoming to GLBT people and we have a Welcoming Congregation Steering Group to help us. And let’s imagine they want to hang a rainbow flag, because even though we have marriage equality, even though we have protections against discrimination for transgender people, even though ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ has ended, even though there has been amazing progress, church is still a dangerous place for GLBT people, even churches that say they’re welcoming. And GLBT young people still face bullying and still have a suicide rate way out of proportion to the population. A large rainbow flag would send a clear, unequivocal message that GLBT people are safe here, able to be out, able to bring their whole selves. There may be good reasons not to hang the flag. But in my view, this is an ally moment. This is a moment where a group of people who experience unnecessary suffering are saying, “We need this. It will alleviate suffering.” Agape church equals ally church.

“We don’t want to be the gay church.” I’ve never actually heard another human being say these words, but I understand people say it. Supposedly even gay people say it. As a consultant to congregations and clergy wondering how to respond to such statements, I’ve always said something like “assure them that you’re not becoming the gay church, but remind them it’s important to extend a clear welcome.” In preparing this sermon it dawned on me: I don’t feel comfortable saying that anymore—not if I mean what I say about being an ally, not if I know in my heart love means there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;” there is just us. Gay church? I would be honored to be a part of that church, because I know it’s not ultimately about being gay, it’s about manifesting our love and being good allies.

Allyship

We have a mental health ministry. We could become the metal illness church. I would be honored to be part of that church too, because I know it’s not ultimately about mental illness; it’s about love and allyship. We could become an immigrant church, a poor peoples’ church, a church for families of the incarcerated, a church for people living with HIV/AIDS, a church for homeless people, a church for children with autism and ADHD, a church for hungry people, a church for youth and young adults, a church for elders—do you see how we become the beloved community through a discipline of allyship? I would be honored to serve as minister of that church and I hope and trust all of you would be honored to be part of that church too. In the end, such a church is not about any of these identities. It’s about love and allyship. Agape church equals ally church. It’s not us and them; it’s just us. It’s our flag. It’s our yellow star. It’s just us.

I would be honored.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Ignatieff, Michael, “One Country Saved Its Jews. Were They Just Better People? The Surprising Truth About Denmark in the Holocaust,” New Republic, Dec. 14, 2013. See: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115670/denmark-holocaust-bo-lidegaards-countrymen-reviewed.

 

[2] I can’t find the exact location of this quote, but it appears to come from Salzberg’s 1995 “Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.” See: http://www.amazon.com/Lovingkindness-Revolutionary-Happiness-Shambhala-Classics/dp/157062903X.

 

Health Care Reform in Connecticut and You!

Announcing a Special Presentation on the Affordable Care Act and the Connecticut Health Insurance Marketplace!

Where: UUS:E, main meeting room, 153 West Vernon St., Manchester, CT

When: Tuesday Evening, February 11, 7:00 to 8:30

Presented by Rhona Cohen

Sponsored by the UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee

12-10 Prezi

The federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the CT health insurance marketplace or “Access Health CT” are helping us move toward affordable and quality care. This presentation will cover: 

  • Who can apply for insurance through Access Health CT and how much will it cost?
  • How are we benefiting from the ACA ?
  • How will people and small businesses be able to access the state’s market place, which is called Access Health CT?

Get answers to these and other questions.

For more information contact Rev. Josh Pawelek at revpawelek@sbcglobal.net or 860-652-8961 or Rhona Cohen at 860-805-3926 or rhona@ctneweconomy.org.   

Before the Song at the Sea

Matt Meyer

 

Matt Meyer

Matt Meyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

-wade in the water-

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

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

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

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

-wade in the water- 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-the private school I went to,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our broken immigration system is troubled water. 

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

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

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

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

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

-Wade in the water- 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Getting Better at Love

flowers“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”[1]—Pete Seeger’s famous question.  Actually, if I have the story right, he got the flower question, and the questions about the girls picking them, and the men going off to war, from a 19th-century Cossack folk song mentioned in the Russian novelist Mikhail Sholokhov’s four volume epic novel And Quiet Flows the Don. Pete read it in the early 1950s. The lines from the folk song stayed with him. He eventually adapted it into his now iconic American anti-war ballad, adding the lines “long time passing” and “when will they ever learn?”—also a famous question. It’s a rhetorical question. We’re not supposed to answer it. We’re supposed to lament whatever it is in human beings that drives us to make war. On the surface these lyrics are mournful, but at the heart of the song is a confidence that there is a better way, that we can and will learn, that we can and will move beyond our penchant for violence and conflict. That’s the hope and the vision for which Pete Seeger is famous.

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger

Nevertheless, I chose this song for us this morning not only as a way to honor Pete’s life and to mark his death last Monday, but also as a simple statement about humanity’s seemingly endless capacity to not put its highest values into practice. When will we ever learn?

Our ministry theme for February is love and, yes, if you’re wondering, the fact that Valentine’s Day happens in February has something to do with selecting this theme. Valentine’s Day has to do with eros, romantic love, sexual love, relationships, intimacy. If we dig a little deeper, Valentine’s Day lies atop more ancient European pagan fertility and purification festivals that occur at the halfway point between winter and spring; festivals such as the Roman Lupercalia and even the Gaelic Imbolc—which is today, February 2nd. Imbolc translates as “in the belly,” referring to pregnant sheep. It’s about fertility, pending birth, the anticipation of new life in spring. There’s a layer to it which is earthy, sensual, lusty. Eros.

As we explore love this month I don’t want to lose sight of the value of eros in our lives, the value of romance, sexuality and other forms of intimacy through the lifespan. Nor do I want us to lose sight of how difficult it can be to sustain intimate, romantic relationships, how much intentional work and effort are necessary to ensure such relationships last. The truth is they don’t always last. The shine can wear off. The romance can wane. Intimate, romantic relationships can hit snags, fall into ruts, develop bad habits. They can break down. They can end. Sometimes the ending is for the best. Sometimes the ending is very painful for all involved. My point is that in the work of sustaining intimate, romantic relationships we don’t always handle things skillfully. We don’t always know the right thing to do. And even when we know what the right thing to do is, we don’t always do it. We don’t always know how to bring our best selves forward. There are times when we might ask, “When will we ever learn?”

2-1 spats

Of course, there are other kinds of love. When Pete Seeger sang “I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,” he wasn’t singing about eros. He was singing about agape or caritas—that love of neighbor, love of enemy, love of stranger, love of alien—that boundless, all-encompassing love for all humanity, for all creation, that lies in some form, in some articulation at the heart of virtually every religion. That love, also, is difficult to sustain, is hard to remember, hard to keep in the forefront of our hearts and minds, hard to conjure up when we most need it, when it would make the most difference. And we know our collective human inability to practice agape leads us back, time and again, to conflict, polarization, infighting, war. Hence, “Where have all the flowers gone?” “When will we ever learn?”

2-1 Mclaren

There’s a quote going around the internet that says, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”[2] I sense people feel compelled to share it because they recognize how easy it is for any of us not to practice agape. They recognize how distracted we can be by our own concerns; how quick we are to judge, ignore, write off; how needlessly defensive we can be; how much mental and emotional distance we can put between ourselves and another human being without even thinking about it. This quote reminds us to not let this happen, to assume everyone we encounter is worthy of our attention, our compassion, our love—just as we are worthy of theirs. We shouldn’t need an internet quote to remind us of this wisdom, but there it is.

Franz Wright

Franz Wright

I read earlier a single line from Franz Wright’s poem, “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard,” published in 2003. “How is it that I didn’t spend my whole life being happy, loving other human beings’ faces.”[3] This is one of the poems he wrote after coming through a long struggle with addiction which apparently included a number of hospitalizations and suicidality. From what I’ve read, he gained strength and a renewed sense of his own capacity to love by reconnecting with the Catholic Church and, even more importantly I think, reconnecting with God. Even so, his question reminds us of this human tendency to fall short of our highest aspirations, especially when it comes to love. Looking back on his earlier life he’s still somewhat mystified. What got in the way? How was love not my first inclination towards people? Why did I not know this then. How did I not learn this sooner?

Rev. Kate Braestrup wrestles with similar questions in her book, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity. She names her experience of falling short in this brief story:

“‘How do you do it all?’ a woman who doesn’t know me asked when she heard that in addition to being a law enforcement chaplain and a writer, I am [also] a mother of six children (including steps).

‘I do quite a lot of it badly,’ I said.”[4]

Kate Braestrup

Kate Braestrup

I don’t think she’s just being modest when she says this, nor is it just for effect. She knows she does a lot of it badly. She doesn’t think she’s a bad person or somehow defective when it comes to love. She clearly loves deeply—her husband, her children, the officers she serves as chaplain, Unitarian Universalists, God, the world. But her experience tells her that being loving in all the ways we can be loving is hard, sometimes mystifying work which we often fail to do well. I appreciate her willingness to name this, if for no other reason than that it gives me permission to name the same truth about myself. Ministers are supposed to know something about being loving. You could argue it’s our job to be loving. Those of you who heard my wife Stephany speak here at my ten-year anniversary party in November got a glimpse into our home life and learned that whatever high-minded principles I may spout off on Sunday morning, the preaching and the practicing don’t always sync up when I’m out of the public eye. And I’m pretty sure they don’t always sync up when I’m in the public eye.

I’ve recently begun dreading the day when my kids finally realize not only that ministers—of all people—probably shouldn’t yell at their children as much as their father yells at them, but that they have stories they could tell to all of you about my parental shortcomings and mistakes that will wipe away the rest of whatever dim shine remains on my reputation as a loving parent. It’s not that I don’t love them deeply or that I’m bad parent or husband. It’s that I get ticked off and I lose it from time to time. And even though I always resolve never to let that happen again, it happens again. Acting in a loving manner, bringing love to bear in every encounter—loving other human beings’ faces—isn’t impossible. But it requires enormous energy, discipline, focus, resolve and courage. It’s hard work.

Knowing this, I love Rev. Braestrup instinct, which is, essentially, “keep trying.” What else can we do? Keep trying. She writes: “All loves have much in common, and any one will offer a useful, if not painless, education in the limitations and possibilities of being human. If you can give your committed love to a person, an idea, or a cause, even should that person, idea, or cause be taken from you, or proven false, you will be a better lover—of anyone, of anything—for the experience…. The point of being human is to get better (and better)…at love.”[5]

How? How do we get better at love? I want to take you briefly through some preliminary answers to this question. They aren’t the only answers, but they’re the ones that call to me this morning. First, patience. When the Apostle Paul starts naming love’s qualities in that famous passage from First Corinthians, the first thing he says is “love is patient.”[6] Love grows and deepens slowly. It cannot be rushed. It doesn’t roll with the 24-hour news cycle. It isn’t a Facebook status. You can’t tweet it to your followers. There’s nothing 2-1  snow on branchesvirtual about it. It takes time and presence. It takes a long view of life. This is the message of Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox’s meditation, “Valentine.” Dare we “hurry such a thing as friendship?” she asks. “Let us write our vows slowly, knowing some of the words like snowflakes will fall away, that from time to time a misunderstanding will come like a gust of wind or a bird’s foot to a snow covered branch, disrupting the careful gifts of love. Let us work on our manuscript, mirroring nature’s patience, until the love is whole and the drift of our days is done.” [7] Our culture feels sped up these days, and we at times feel the need to do everything we can to speed up ourselves. But the faster life moves the less opportunity we have to really know each other—to hear each other, to learn each other, to tell each other our stories. Love demands that we slow down and be present to each other. Love, in this sense, is today, radically counter-cultural.

Patience also creates a gateway for love to enter into our most difficult situations—situations where anger and rage, frustration and 2-1 breathedisappointment, fear and anxiety come quickly to the surface, come pouring out of us before we even have a chance to think. In difficult situations—an argument with a spouse, frustration with a child, a conflict at church, anger at someone else’s driving, tension at work, some kind of injustice—whatever it may be—anger, rage, frustration, disappointment, fear or anxiety may be very understandable, may be justifiable, may even be necessary. But the quickness with which they rise in us often prevents us from bringing love to bear as well. On my better days, when I feel anger or frustration rising in the heat of a moment, I remind myself simply to breathe, to wait, to not speak, to listen more closely not only to the other, but to what love asks of me in the situation. Patience makes all the difference. Our impatience limits the sound and quality of love’s voice. But patience—breathing, pausing, waiting, not speaking, listening—patience creates a gateway for love to rise in us.

A final thought on patience: I’m mindful that so many people enter into social justice struggles out of a genuine and abiding love for humanity. Agape. So many people enter into social justice struggles with the conviction that, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”[8] But love rarely drives out hate in an instant. Love rarely drives out hate in a day or even a decade. Love drives out hate because it takes the long view, because it persists and endures. Love drives out hate because it keeps coming, keeps trying, keeps organizing, singing, speaking, marching, demonstrating, taking arrest, taking all the punishments hate dishes out. “Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Love is patient. As the Abolitionist movement was launching in the United States in the 1820s and 1830s, very few of those who were there at the beginning thought they would see the end of slavery in their lifetimes. But that didn’t deter them. Genuine, abiding love for humanity does not cower or fade at the thought of a lifetime or even multiple lifetimes of struggle. Such love is patient beyond measure—not inactive, not complacent, not resigned—but patient.

And one final answer to the question of how we get better at love. Trust. By this I don’t mean trusting the person or people we love. I mean trusting love itself; trusting that love has power greater than any other power we can bring to bear; trusting that when we act out of love, regardless of how it is received, we can move any situation over time towards healing, peace, justice, and reconciliation. I mean trusting that love matters, that in the end love wins.

2-1 trust love 1

I used to say all the time that love lives at the heart of creation. I suppose anyone who professes belief in a loving God is saying something like this. Franz Wright puts it in very simple terms in a poem called “Walden.” He writes, “There is a power that wants me to love.”[9] I am drawn to such statements. I want them to be true. But I’ve been making claims like this less and less in recent years, mainly because I feel less able to name what I actually mean when I make them. Love at the heart of creation? Where does this love actually live? What does it look like? What evidence do I have? I think it may be more accurate to conclude that the universe is, ultimately, cold and impersonal, unconscious and unfeeling, that there is no love at the heart of everything. And if so, so be it. I wouldn’t be the first to draw this conclusion.

But I still trust love. I still trust in its power to bring healing, peace, reconciliation, justice. Even though love in all its forms seems so difficult to sustain; even though love can feel like such a naïve answer to the world’s problems, I still trust it. I trust that if we keep trying to let love rise in us, to let love speak through us, to bring love to bear—if we keep trying—we will learn. We will love other human beings’ faces. The flowers will come back, if we keep trying.  Humanity will learn, if we keep trying. May we keep trying.

2-1 trust love 2

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Pete Seeger’s story about the writing of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is at http://performingsongwriter.com/pete-seeger-flowers-gone/.

 

[2] The original version of this quote is usually attributed to the 19th century Scottish author and theologian Ian Maclaren.

[3] Wright, Franz, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) p. 72.

[4] Braestrup, Kate, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2010) p.81.

[5] Braestrup, Kate, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2010) pp. 8-9.

[6] First Corinthians 13.

[7] Tarbox, Elizabeth, Valentine, Evening Tide (Boston: Skinner House, 1998) p. 45.

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

[9] Wright, Franz, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) p. 70.

Interim DRE Search Committee Ready to Roll!

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

Thank you Interim DRE Search Committee members!

UUS:E Interim DRE Search Committee

UUS:E Interim DRE Search Committee

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