A Church That Matters: A Sermon for the Annual Appeal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

According to the Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson, “In the church that doesn’t matter, no one has to ask for money, or even talk about it much; there is always enough to go around. There is always enough because no matter how much there is, there is always less to do with it than that. The vision always shrinks to under-match the means. So canvas season is always a breeze.”[1]

He’s kidding, except he’s not.

Every year there’s a moment when I panic about our annual appeal. Costs rise every year. The finance committee dutifully builds a budget that accounts for all the rising costs. They generate different versions of the budget—a conservative version that limits spending increases to a bare minimum; a mid-level version that may be a stretch, but funds our highest priority goals; and then an “everything budget” that funds everything we want to do, but which usually requires around a 10 percent increase in financial giving. At least for the past few years, the Policy Board has looked at these various proposals and, mindful that a 3% increase in giving is a very successful annual appeal for us, they nevertheless want to make sure that the everything budget is visible during the annual appeal, so that you will know what your financial generosity can make possible. This year that everything budget includes fully and sustainably funding our Membership Coordinator position (which we hope to rehire over the summer); paying full dues to the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance; funding a variety of building security measures; and paying salaries and benefits to our staff in line with Unitarian Universalist association recommendations. At the Policy Board meetings, we get really, really excited about what is possible. We want you to feel that same excitement.

Then I panic. How are we going to pull this off? People already make incredibly generous financial gifts; how can we keep asking for more? Most people’s income doesn’t increase three to ten percent every year, so how can we justify asking for increases? I worry you are going to think we’re out of touch with the fiscal realities of your lives.

But then, inevitably, I remember. This liberal religious, Unitarian Universalist congregation matters. And because this congregation matters, because we care deeply about it, the vision always expands, the possibilities always increase, opportunities always abound. Every year we imagine more than we can achieve—more social justice work and partnerships, more music and arts, more pastoral ministry, more spiritual growth, more outreach, more volunteerism, more youth and junior youth programming. We will always have an everything budget to reach for. We will always be visioning, dreaming and imaging beyond where we are precisely because this church matters. We will always be taking risks and experiencing some failure precisely because this church matters.

It’s never going to be easy, because none of you are here for a church that isn’t worth fighting over, a church that doesn’t inspire passion, a church that doesn’t touch your heart and move you to put your principles into action.

Our annual appeal has begun. Let’s thank the Stewardship Committee members. They run the annual appeal. Their purpose is to encourage generosity toward this congregation—not only financial generosity, but generosity in terms of commitment, spirit and love. Adam Bender chairs the committee. Members include Louisa Graver, Stan McMillen, Phil Sawyer and Larry Lunden. A great team! They organize the pledging potlucks. They organize and train the stewards who will reach out to many of you to ask for your financial pledge for the coming fiscal year. (As always, if a steward contacts you, please get back to them as soon as possible so they can meet with you.) Thank you Stewardship Committee. We deeply appreciate all the work you do on behalf of this church that matters.

We have big goals this year. As many of you know, we’ve made a big push over the last two years to hire a Membership Coordinator whose job is to oversee our membership ministry, including welcoming and nurturing visitors and fostering the engagement of current members and friends. Among the congregations in our denomination showing the greatest growth, the majority of them point to the presence of a membership professional as a primary reason for their growth. We filled the position last year. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. That was very disappointing. We’ve taken lessons from that experience. All of us who’ve worked hard to establish this position still believe it is the right direction for UUS:E, especially in this era when congregations in all denominations are facing strong headwinds and declining membership. Your generous pledge to the annual appeal will help us hire a membership coordinator in the coming year and sustain the position until it becomes self-sustaining. I want to thank members of the Growth Strategy Team Carol Marion, Michelle Spadaccini, Nancy Pappas, Louisa Graver, and Edie Lacey for all the work they’ve done to imagine, create and bring this position into being. Friends: Your extra financial generosity can make this happen!

In October, after three years of organizing, thirty-five congregations from across Hartford County founded the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance or GHIAA, a faith-based social justice organization. We come together across lines of faith, race, culture and geography, discern our common values, pool our resources, identify issues where our collective power will make a difference, and then exercise our power. Already we are having an impact. GHIAA has supported a group called the North End Power Team in their No More Slumlords campaign, which is successfully holding Hartford slumlords accountable for housing code violations, and which has also led the city of Hartford to update its housing codes for the first time in forty years. GHIAA is also currently engaged in the Clean Slate campaign, an effort to remove some misdemeanor and felony convictions from peoples’ records after incarceration so they can more fully enter back into regular life, find work, housing and educational opportunities. Many of you have already signed postcards in our lobby to your legislators and the governor urging them to support Clean Slate.

We’re also supporting legislation to repeal Connecticut’s welfare liens statutes. Currently our state and New York are the only two states that have mechanisms for clawing back public assistance money from people who’ve received it. This practice sends people who’ve made their way out of poverty right back into poverty—a classic example of balancing the state budget on the backs of poor people. It is unconscionable, immoral, cruel, and economically unwise. We’re going to end this practice.

GHIAA is also working in the areas of health care, gun violence, and education. Our UUS:E GHIAA core team will keep you informed of opportunities to get involved. If anyone wants to become part of our GHIAA core team, or if you want to work on one of GHIAA’s issue committees, please connect with me and I can point you in the right direction. But what does any of this have to do with our budget? UUS:E has been with GHIAA from the beginning, but we have not become a formal member. You will make that decision at our annual meeting in May. Membership comes with dues. We pay dues because it is our organization. In our everything budget, we pay dues of $5,000 to GHIAA. In the first few years we should be able to get some financial assistance from the Unitarian Universalist Association, but ultimately our dues are our expression of our commitment to a more just and equitable Greater Hartford region. Your extra generosity can make this happen!

Many of you know our congregation has been developing its emergency response plan in earnest for a number of years now. Along the way we’ve recognized there are many things we can do to make our building more secure. Some of you have noticed that we’ve begun installing a public address system using a series of wall units. There are many other upgrades we’d like to adopt, including a video surveillance system, reinforced glass around entry ways and more training opportunities. Our everything budget enables us to begin pursuing these upgrades in the coming year. Your extra generous gift to UUS:E can make this happen!

And yes, we want to treat our staff well. In our everything budget we bring our staff salaries in line with the midpoint of the annual UUA recommendations.

Like every year, there’s much we want to achieve. Why? Because this church matters. Many of you can envision more and more possibilities precisely because you love this church, and you want it to be the best, most effective, most meaningful, most loving church it can be.

But your generous donation to UUS:E is not just about these particular goals. These goals express something much deeper, much more profound and, frankly, much more urgent. Scholars of congregational vitality in the United States tell us organized religion is declining for a host of reasons—people are disillusioned with the church; they see hypocrisy and abuse; they see the church unable and unwilling to address problems in the larger society. We hear family life and kids’ schedules no longer mesh with a regular Sunday morning commitment. We hear the explosion of online entertainment, social media and gaming have greater appeal than church. I said a number of years ago I would no longer preach about the end of church, and I won’t. Suffice to say congregations in all denominations face headwinds.

But there’s a reason we’re still here. There is still a genius to the idea of the local congregation, and none of the headwinds negate that genius. At its best, your local congregation articulates and attempts to live by the values you hold dear; it welcomes you as you are, accompanies you on your life journey, holds you in your times of sorrow and grief, and celebrates with you in your times of joy and success. It helps you and your family mark your life transitions: birth, coming of age, marriage, death. Perhaps most importantly its gathers every week for worship—for holding up that which is worthy of our attention and commitment—and then sends us forth into the world ready to make a positive difference with our living. The local congregation is a powerful answer to the isolation and anxiety so many people feel today. It is a powerful answer to all the forces that divide people from people and weaken communities. And that is why, in Rev. Asprooth-Jackson’s words, “we get out of bed on Sunday morning, answer that email, make something for the [chocolate auction] and give our time and attention to a meeting every third Thursday.” That is why, “We still decide again and again to ask tough questions, take real risks, do the work that needs doing, and tell the truth.”[2] Local congregations of all kinds matter.

Having said that, for me there is a still greater genius at the core of the liberal and liberating church, including this Unitarian Universalist congregation. I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist and I have dedicated my life to our UU faith. I suspect the reasons I am here are consistent with the reasons you are here.

I am dedicated to the church that begins with the premise not that some are saved and some are damned, but that each human being has inherent worth and dignity.

I am dedicated to the church that refuses to contain its peoples’ spiritual lives within doctrines and dogmas but rather says “we trust you to freely and responsibly conduct your search for truth and meaning.”

I am dedicated to the church that teaches we are not separate from but rather exist in intimate relationship with the earth, that teaches the earth does not belong to us, rather we belong to it, and we are therefore called not just to care for the earth but to fight for its survival and well-bring.

I am dedicated to the church that understands the limits of its charity and therefore seeks to transform systems of injustice that create the need for charity in the first place.

I am dedicated to the church that seeks liberation for oppressed people not on its own but in accountable relationship to and in solidarity with oppressed people and their allies.

I am dedicated to the church that knows it doesn’t have all the answers, knows it isn’t perfect, knows change is inherent in our living, and therefore approaches the world from a position of humble questioning rather than unexamined or arrogant theological knowing.

I am dedicated to the church that is not threatened by science, but rather takes science seriously, respects scientific knowledge and methods, and is willing to modify its spiritual views in response to scientific discovery.

I am dedicated to the church whose members take responsibility for its well-being and rely on their own democratic processes to make thoughtful, hard decisions about their collective future.

I am dedicated to the church that makes room for a wide variety of spiritualties and theologies precisely because religion at its best does not limit people, but enables the expansion of thought, belief and practice.

I am dedicated to the church that teaches us not what to believe, but how to live.

I love this church and this faith. I make no apologies for that love. I hope and trust you love this church and this faith unapologetically. I hope and trust, when you contemplate your financial pledge for the coming fiscal year, you will keep in mind the genius of the liberal and liberating, Unitarian Universalist church, that you will recognize how sorely it is needed in today’s world, that you will remember this is a church that matters.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Asprooth-Jackson, Kelly Weisman, ‘The Church that Doesn’t Matter” Bless the Imperfect: Meditations for Congregational Leaders (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2014) p. 26.

[2] Asprooth Jackson, “The Church that Doesn’t Matter,” p. 27.

Enough With the Dystopias Already

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Dystopian Cityscape with Zombies, by Andre Thouin

“I think it’s okay to tell you that everything works out. That it’s okay. And it’s not easy all the time, not even here, because so much is broken, besides silence, but it is possible, it does feel possible. My friends and I feel possible all the time.”[1] A brief glimpse into a hopeful, however dystopian, post-capitalist future from Alexis Pauline Gumbs—queer black troublemaker, black feminist love evangelist, Afro-Caribbean grandchild, prayer-poet priestess, and time-traveling space cadet who lives and loves in Durham, North Carolina.[2] Her story, “Evidence,” appears in Octavia’s Brood, a 2015 collection of science fiction stories written by social justice movement activists.

There’s a soft spot in my heart for dystopian storytelling. Usually as the story begins, everything has changed. Governments have fallen due to climate catastrophes, pandemics or revolutions. Ruthless regimes, secret corporate cabals, zombies, or heartless machines rule the world. Protagonists struggle to survive, to overcome, or just to come to terms with their new reality. In Gumbs’ story the people have emerged out of a dystopian past in which “so much has been broken,” into a more healthy, creative, spiritually-grounded society. “My friends and I feel possible all the time.”

Writers of young adult mass market dystopian fiction sell millions of books which then become blockbuster movies. My son devours them: Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, James Dashner’s Maze Runner, Veronica Roth’s Divergent. I’ve recently started watching the The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 novel. A few years ago I couldn’t put down her Oryx and Crake series. I found Cormac McCarthy’s The Road disturbing but riveting. As a child I read George Orwell’s 1984, Neville Shute’s On the Beach, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, about a lone survivor of a zombie-producing pandemic which was the basis for the 1964 film, “The Last Man on Earth,” starring Vincent Price, the 1971 film, Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, and the 2007 film, I Am Legend, starring Will Smith. (Speaking of Heston, let’s not forget Planet of the Apes.) I go back often to movies like the Wachowsky sisters’ The Matrix, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and the Road Warrior films. I would be profoundly remiss if I did not mention one of the most influential books of our era, Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, which takes place in the midst of a collapsing California. Its main character, a teenager named Lauren Oya Olamina, crafts a nature-based theology called Earthseed. Butler is often regarded as the mother (and sometimes the grandmother) of Afrofuturism. [3]

You may not know all these references. Dystopian fiction may not be your thing, but it is wildly popular. Some fans love it purely as a form of escape. Others are genuinely intrigued with the philosophical questions the genre raises: how would human beings live under certain extreme conditions—a vastly altered climate, a brutally oppressive regime, a failing or failed modern world? And still others turn to this genre to ask: how should we live now? Given worsening climate conditions, increasing corporate power and wealth, the loss of traditional work due to automation, the rise of authoritarian regimes, how should we live now? What kinds of decisions should we make now? What new ethics should we promote now? What sorts of faith, theology and spirituality do we need now?

I call this sermon “Enough With the Dystopias Already.” In using this title I don’t mean to suggest that those of us who love dystopian fiction should stop consuming it. And I also don’t mean in any way to downplay or deny the very real dystopian experiences in many peoples’ lives. If you live under quarantine in the Hubei province of China, or on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship docked near Tokyo, you are living, at least temporarily, in a kind of dystopia. If you live in an area of the world beset by war, or the direct impacts of climate change, you are living in a kind of dystopia. If your community is recovering from a devastating natural disaster, you are living right now in a kind of dystopia. If your community endures high poverty, high crime, failing schools, widespread opioid use, high unemployment or limited health care options you may experience your day-to-day reality as a kind of dystopia. I don’t mean to disregard any of this.

When I say “enough with the dystopias already,” I’m referring to a tendency I observe in myself and others to catastrophize in response to troubling news, to overstate the severity of a crisis; to follow, for example, the news of the corona virus, and to worry incessantly about it here in the United States, without first trying to understand the data that actually exist. For most people who contract the virus the symptoms are very mild. The death rate, though significant, is much lower than that of previous corona viruses, and the flu is still a much more deadly disease. There are globally accepted best practices for containing dangerous viruses which the vast majority of nations are implementing. I’m not saying we have nothing to worry about. I’m not saying it won’t get worse—I don’t know that. I’m saying that given what health officials know, we should be concerned and cautious, we should pay attention, but there’s no reason to panic.

Another example of catastrophic thinking results from our perceptions of political polarization. Yes, polarization is real. Yes, relationships are breaking down over politics in ways we haven’t seen for generations. Yes, there is an ever-hardening tendency among our political leaders to refuse compromise, to resist the solid, pragmatic ideas at the center and hold relentlessly to ideological positions at the margins. But are we coming undone at the seams? Are we descending into chaos? Should we be panicking? Should we be despairing?

Last Sunday’s New York Times opinion section featured an extended editorial by the conservative columnist Ross Douthat called “The Age of Decadence.” “Everyone,” he writes, “knows that we live in a time of constant acceleration, or vertiginous change, of transformation or looming disaster everywhere you look. Partisans are girding for civil war, robots are coming for our jobs, and the news feels like a multicar pileup every time you fire up Twitter.” There’s a lot of catastrophic thinking going on, predictions of dystopia, but in Douthat’s assessment, catastrophe is not imminent. “The truth of the first decades of the 21st century … is that we probably aren’t entering a 1930s-style crisis for Western liberalism or hurtling toward transhumanism or extinction.” He says we’re not living in a dystopian age, but rather an  age of decadence. That’s not good, but it’s not dire either. Our decadent economy, if lacking in innovation, if unjust and unfair in many ways, is still highly stable. “The United States is an extraordinarily wealthy country, its middle class prosperous beyond the dreams of centuries past, its welfare state effective at easing the pain of recessions.” Yes, we face profound challenges. Yes, we live amidst profound contradictions. But “The decadent society, unlike the full dystopia, allows those signs of contradiction to exist, which means that it’s always possible to imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance.” [4]

Douthat is saying “enough with the dystopias already!” Enough with catastrophic thinking. Our society is more stable than we realize, and that means we still have the capacity to address our most daunting crises. I say “enough with the dystopias already” because the more we catastrophize, the more paralyzed we become, the more we fail to identify and exercise our power for the sake of renewal and renaissance, the more we lose the spirit Alexis Pauline Gumbs raises up in her story: “My friends and I feel possible all the time.”

Our February ministry theme is resilience. Catastrophic thinking about dystopian futures weakens our resilience. As I started contemplating this notion over the past few weeks, I began noticing examples of people who are not paralyzed or polarized, but trying simply to use whatever power they have to make our communities more resilient. At a recent meeting of the Manchester Community Services Council, Manchester Fire Department Battalion Chief for Fire-Rescue-and Emergency Medical Services, Josh Beaulieu, spoke about Mobile Integrated Healthcare, a way municipalities and fire departments are adapting to changes in the health care landscape.[5] Given that the majority of 911 calls are not actual emergencies, can paramedics be trained to deliver health care services that keep people out of the emergency room when they don’t need to be there, or redirect them to more appropriate and less expensive health care resources? Might such training help reduce the number of non-emergency 911 calls? Might it reduce the number of emergency room visits and unnecessary hospital readmissions? Might it enable a city like Manchester to provide better service overall to elders, to people with mental illness, to people with living with addictions?

As Mr. Beaulieu started talking about changes in the health care landscape, my mind moved automatically in a catastrophic direction. The health care system is broken! We don’t have health care justice in our nation! We have big insurance, big pharma and hospitals prioritizing profits above actual health care!  I was about to raise my hand, but it suddenly dawned on me his presentation really wasn’t about that. Here was a local fire official, aware of gaps in the health care system that impact his department’s capacity to fulfill its mission, asking, very simply, how can we make this better? How can we close the health care gaps we encounter in our day-to-day response to 911 calls? He’s not fighting zombies. He’s not curing pandemics. He’s not solving the health care crisis. But he is intent on  adapting to changing circumstances for the sake of providing better care. He’s interested in what is possible. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

I think similarly about how we respond to the climate crisis. Learning about climate change very easily leads to catastrophic thinking, and a feeling of helplessness. This isn’t wrong: we’re facing a very real, very urgent crisis, and the big things that clearly have to happen—the big reductions in carbon emissions, the big infrastructure transitions to renewable energy sources, and the requisite international agreements—seem so beyond the power of local communities to address. The challenge is not to become paralyzed or overwhelmed. There are still thousands of actions we can and must take both to prevent further global warming, but also to adapt to already inevitable changes. We still need to work at transforming our local culture to support local food production, recycling, conservation, sustainable design and development. I’ve recently been learning about the Freecycle Network, a grassroots, global network of people who give and get used stuff for free in their neighborhoods and towns. The point is to reuse items rather than throwing them into landfills.[6] Our UUS:E Sustainable Living Committee has just introduced a similar program called the Library of Things.[7] Our members and friends can now borrow tools and other items from each other in an effort to reduce consumption, resource depletion, and pollution as well as, we hope, foster an even deeper sense of community. It’s a small effort. It’s not winning the Hunger Games or resisting Big Brother. It won’t solve the climate crisis. But it is something we have the power to do here and now, one of thousands of adaptations necessary for living well in the midst of climate change. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

One more quick story. A white supremacist organization recently plastered its stickers all over a local town. A member of our congregation witnessed this, and took it upon themselves to remove the stickers. No heroics. This person wasn’t solving the problem of white supremacy. But they also refused to succumb to fear or despair. They recognized they had the power to do something, and they did it. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

In Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ story, “Evidence,” Alexis after capitalism writes an encouraging letter to her younger self, Alexis during capitalism: “It is on everyone’s mind and heart how to best support the genius that surrounds us all. How to shepherd each of us into the brilliance we come from even though our experience breaking each other apart through capitalism has left much healing to be done. We are more patient than we have ever been. And now that our time is divine and connected with everything, we have developed skills for how to recenter ourselves. We walk. We drink tea. We are still when we need to be. No one is impatient with someone else’s stillness. No one feels guilty for sitting still. Everybody is always learning how to grow.”[8]

Gumbs offers a wonderful vision of a future beloved community. She is also advising us how to live now: patient, centered, still and always learning how to grow; not solving every problem—life is still hard—but each of us slowly adapting to changing conditions. After all is said and done, I’m not sure there’s any other way to persevere through hard times. I’m not sure there’s any other way to transform our culture of decadence into a culture of vibrancy, sustainability and liberation. In this late winter season, let us be mindful of our capacity to grow, “to feel possible all the time.” Let’s hold the space for each of us to feel possible, to contribute what we can. And may this be the outward sign of our inward resilience.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence” in Brown Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015) p. 40.

[2] Brown and Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood, p. 288.

[3] Interesting sidebar: In Butler’s sequel, 1998’s The Parable of the Talents, “a violent movement is being whipped up by a new Presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, a Texas senator and religious zealot who is running on a platform to ‘make American great again.’” See: Aguirre, Abbey, “Octavia Butler’s Prescient Vision of a Zealot Elected to ‘Make America Great Again,’” The New Yorker, July 26th, 2019.

[4] Douthat, Ross, The Age of Decadence, New York Times, Sunday, February 9, 2020. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/opinion/sunday/western-society-decadence.html.

[5] Mr. Beaulieu has an article about this on his Linked-In page. See “The Need to Adapt Fire-based EMS to Today’s Healthcare Environment” at

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/need-adapt-fire-based-ems-todays-healthcare-joshua-beaulieu-mba-lp?articleId=6473040885041946624#comments-6473040885041946624&trk=public_profile_article_view.

[6] Check out the Freestyle Network at https://www.freecycle.org/.

[7] Participate in UUS:E’s Library of Things at http://uuse.org/SUSTAINABLE-LIVING/LOT/#.XkReCWhKjIU.

[8] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence” in Brown Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015) p. 40.

Fragility and the Struggle for Beloved Community

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me?” There is a wretchedness in our nation, in our faith, and in us. White supremacy. Nobody—at least no American—lives untouched by it. To confront it where it lives in us and the institutions we love, we need amazing grace—if not the grace of an all-loving God reaching in and transforming our lives, then in the very least the grace each of us is capable of, the grace we find when we approach our living with humility, integrity and love. We need amazing grace.

We need it because the conversation about race and racism in the United States is changing dramatically.

A potent example: This past August, the New York Times launched its “1619” project with these words:

“1619. It’s not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619 … when a ship arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. Their arrival inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin. Out of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required [and I would add racism against indigenous, Native American people as well]—grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets to the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day…. The goal of the 1619 Project … is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.”[1]

This is not new. The 1619 thesis has been with us for generations. But I believe this is the first time such a widely-read, mainstream, albeit liberal, newspaper has asserted it with such conviction. I don’t think the Times could have made this claim so successfully even ten years ago. The conversation about race and racism is changing dramatically. This includes an evolving understanding of the nature of white supremacy, not as the values and actions of white supremacists, but as the culture of virtually any historically white institution, a culture that centers white voices, white leadership, white employees, white history, without ever taking substantice measures to become truly antiracist and multicultural.

I can’t say definitively what is driving this change in the conversation. The drivers are complex. But I want to name a set of events from the last decade that stand out to me as pivotal. If they themselves aren’t driving the change, they certainly accompany it very closely.

First, November 2008 and then again in 2012, the nation elected Barack Obama as United States president—the first mixed-race, African American, person of color president.

Second, February 26th, 2012, community watch volunteer George Zimmerman fatally shot black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and was eventually acquitted of murder charges. In response, three activists/organizers, Alicia GarzaPatrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, originated the Black Lives Matter social media hashtag.

Third, August 9th, 2014, Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot black teenager, Michael Brown. This led to the Ferguson Uprising. Black Lives Matter exploded into the American consciousness. Police violence against black and brown people and police militarization was exposed in a new way. Other victims of police violence became household names gained national recognition: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, to name just a few.

Spring, 2016, Native American activists and their allies from across North America began massive protests at the Standing Rock reservation against the Dakota Access Pipeline because it poses too great a threat to water resources and to Native American cultural and sacred sites. The protests highlighted anew the phenomenon of environmental racism and the longstanding mistreatment and abuse of indigenous people.

November 2016, the nation elected Donald Trump as president. Notable for my purposes this morning is the way he deploys racist stereotypes and dog whistles to cast his vision for the country, including bigoted comments about Mexican and central American immigrants and the promotion of policies such as family separation; Islamophobic comments and policies—the idea of a Muslim ban; even his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was/is a coded appeal to white fears of a more multicultural and egalitarian nation. He learned and deployed rhetoric from far right, alt-right, and white supremacist leaders and publications, which, whether he intended it or not, fired up white nationalism and Anti-Semitism in the United States. One result of this firing up was the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, during which a white nationalist drove his car into a group of counter-protestors, killing a young activist, Heather Heyer.

Finally, winter, 2017, within our own denomination, we learned of allegations of racist hiring patterns at our denominational headquarters. The call went out from Black Lives of UU and other non-black People of Color leaders for congregations to engage in a White Supremacy Teach-in. More than 700 congregations responded in some way to that call. As one who has been engaged in UU antiracism efforts since the mid-1990s, the idea that 700 congregations would be willing to explore our own white supremacy culture felt like a quantum leap. I don’t think it would or could have happened a decade ago. If nothing else, it was a sure sign that the conversation on race and racism is also changing dramatically within our faith.

This changing conversation feels to me like progress toward the Kingian vision of beloved community. There’s no way to build an antiracist, multicultural beloved community, either in our country or in our congregations, without a willingness to speak the truth not only about our nation’s white supremacy origins, but about how white supremacy culture continues to shape the institutions we love.

In the near term, the conversation remains incredibly challenging, painful, fraught. Every movement forward generates backlash. White supremacists rallied in Charlottesville precisely because city leaders were engaging in the conversation about white supremacy culture, removing the stature of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and changing the name of a city park from Lee Park to Emancipation Park. One can argue the election of Donald Trump was itself backlash by a significant segment of the population against Barack Obama’s eight-year presidency.

There has been backlash within Unitarian Universalism. Our national leadership has been courageous and very clear about the imperatives of exploring, confronting and transforming our own white supremacy culture. We’re now encountering negative reaction to that vision. For example, we’re hearing the charge that confronting white supremacy culture is the new UU orthodoxy. Those who, for whatever reason, don’t want to engage in this work, are saying they no longer recognize their faith. The church that stands against orthodoxy seems to have a new orthodoxy. On one level, I understand this. One comes to worship on Sunday morning and the minister is talking about confronting our own white supremacy culture. There’s a risk, especially for white people, that this message will be taken as an indictment of one’s character. The minister is calling me a racist, a white supremacist. That’s actually not what’s happening, but if that’s how a person hears the message, it creates cognitive and emotional dissonance. Nobody wants to be called a racist. In that sense, the backlash is understandable.

The charge of new orthodoxy is familiar. When we launched the UUA’s Journey Toward Wholeness antiracism initiative in 1997, critics called antiracism the new orthodoxy. We’ve heard this particular bit of backlash before. But let’s be clear: the real orthodoxy in this conversation is white supremacy. Those who resist white supremacy are subverting orthodoxy, not establishing it.

As historically and still largely white faith communities, our people and our congregations need to be much less concerned about the charge of racism, and much more concerned that racism exists, that it is pervasive, that we are all implicated, that unless we are figuring out how to use our collective resources to interrupt it we are actually enabling it. Moreover, our first and second principles— the inherent worth and dignity of every person and justice, equity and compassion in human relations—still call us to confront and transform it. For that we need amazing grace.

I read to you earlier from Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd’s 2019 book, After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism. She tells the story of overhearing a white woman express her discomfort with the lyrics of the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” “We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”[2] “That song, she said—so ghastly.”[3] Rev. Ladd, who is also white, didn’t engage. She didn’t interrupt the conversation. She owns that she could have interrupted, that it is a white privilege to walk away. As she reflects on the incident, she says “the people declare words of slaughter and blood and power because such words, in the context of history, are the only words that are true. I walked away and did not say out loud that people of color are under no obligation to tone it down so that white people can feel more comfortable and less inconvenienced by the presence of a gripping, ghastly truth like white supremacy.”[4]

She confesses it was not the first time she has remained silent, and it likely won’t be the last Of course, she is speaking for the vast majority of us. This begs the question: Why, given what we know, do we still disengage, hold back, remain silent? Why does actual institutional change come so slowly? Why is there so much resistance in us individually and collectively? I have found the concept of white fragility to be extraordinarily helpful in answering this question and understanding the emotional glue that holds white supremacy culture in place. In her 2018 Beacon Press book, White Fragility, white antiracism educator, Robin DiAngelo describes white fragility as a set of reactions white people often have in response to racial stress. In short, most white people think of themselves as good, moral people. Most white people think of racists as bad, immoral people. Most white people don’t see themselves as somehow connected to racism. So any time something happens that reveals racial ignorance or bias, or any conversation that looks more deeply at history and implicates white people as the long-term, beneficiaries of racism, or any time the minister preaches a sermon on confronting white supremacy culture, white people may experience racial stress. White fragility attempts to manage that stress, often coming in the form of denial or dismissal. The women who objects to the ghastliness of the lyrics in Rev. Ladd’s story is manifesting a form of white fragility, an unwillingness to look too closely at the painful truth of white supremacy.

White fragility generates a range of feelings: guilt and shame, anger or outrage. Perhaps at its heart is a desire to stay comfortable. Rev. Ladd’s decision not to engage was also a form of white fragility—not wanting the discomfort of having that difficult encounter. Instead of allowing for deep listening, self-reflection, learning, and engagement, white fragility shuts down redirects, overpowers or flees from the conversation. In this sense, it is the emotional glue that holds white supremacy culture in place. Want to learn more? Our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee is holding a discussion of DiAngelo’s book on Thursday evening, January 30th. All are welcome.

What feels important to say now is that there is an alternative to white fragility. We might call it grace. If white fragility is defensive in response to intimations of racism, grace is curious, open, willing to go deeper. If white fragility is angry, grace is humble. If white fragility is convinced of its own purity, grace understands nobody and no institution is exempt from racism. If white fragility is withdrawn, grace is engaged. If white fragility seeks comfort, grace recognizes that genuine progress is inherently and inevitably uncomfortable.[5]

The conversation on race and racism in the United States and in Unitarian Universalism is changing dramatically. I want to give a shout out to our UUS:E policy board and, in particular, our president Rob Stolzman, for taking this conversation seriously. They’re asking how we can be sure our policies commit us to hiring a diverse staff over time. They’re asking how we can focus our current staff on the work of building an antiracist, multicultural membership. They’re asking, with grace, how we can become more skilled at confronting our own white supremacy culture.

The conversation is changing. I urge all of us, however we encounter it, not to resist, but with amazing grace, to welcome and embrace it.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Silverstein, Jake, “Editor’s Note,” New York Times Magazine, August 18, 2019, pp. 4-5.

[2] Johnson, James Weldon, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #149.

[3] Ladd, Nancy McDonald, After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism (Boston: Skinner House, 2019) p. 117.

[4] Ladd, After the Good News, pp. 117-118.

[5] In this section I am borrowing content from Robin D’Angelo’s chapter about what a transformed racial paradigm might look like. DiAngelo, Robin,White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018) pp. 141-143.

Faithfully Unfolding

Rev. Josh Pawelek

What are you waiting for?

I assume most of us encounter these words less as a genuinely curious question and more as a directive to stop procrastinating. If you’re really serious about making a change in your life, doing something new, getting out of your rut, your bad habits, pursuing your passions and dreams, going back to school, finding a new job, retiring, committing your life more deeply to the people you love, to service, to movements for liberation and justice—whatever you’ve identified as a possible new direction for your life—what are you waiting for? Get off the couch. Seize the day! Grab the moment! Take the bull by the horns. Don’t just stand there, do something! In the words of our 19th-century spiritual forebear Henry David Thoreau, it’s time to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life!”[1] In the words of the Nike company, “just do it!”

What are you waiting for?

As if it were always that simple.

Our larger culture places high value on action, on doing, producing, performing, achieving, accomplishing. In those moments when we have no good answer to the question—what are you waiting for?—chances are we’ll feel something negative about ourselves, in the very least a tinge of guilt, and at worst, full-blown self-loathing.

I’m reminded of a story from the late Dutch priest, Henri Nouwen. He called it “A Story of Waiting.” “I was invited to visit a friend who was very sick. He was … fifty-three years old [and] had lived a very active, useful, faithful, creative life. Actually, he was a social activist who had cared deeply for people. When he was fifty he found out he had cancer, and the cancer became more and more severe. When I came to him, he said to me, ‘Henri, here I am lying in this bed, and I don’t even know how to think about being sick. My whole way of thinking about myself is in terms of action, in terms of doing things for people. My life is valuable because I’ve been able to do many things for many people. And suddenly here I am passive and I can’t do anything anymore….’ As we talked I realized that he and many others were constantly thinking ‘How much more can I still do?’ Somehow this man had learned to think about himself as a man who was worth only what he was doing.”[2]

I’m reminded also of words from the late spiritual writer Philip Simmons who, in his essay, “The Art of Doing Nothing,” argued that “we [human beings] want to know we matter, we want to know our lives are worthwhile. And when we’re not sure, we work that much harder.”[3] That is, when we’re concerned at some deep level about our worth, we gravitate toward doing. As if we have to prove ourselves. What are you waiting for?

Sometimes we wait for good reason—we’re unsure of how to proceed; we’re uneasy about the risks; we’re concerned about the impact our doing will have on others. Sometimes we wait for good reason, yet it appears to others—and perhaps to ourselves—that we’re somehow flawed, paralyzed with fear, trapped in our own inertia, confused, unmotivated, lazy. Even when asked with care, what are you waiting for? becomes a negative judgement, a subtle indictment of our character.

Let’s lean back from judgement for a moment. Let’s be curious about the impulse to wait. I want us to more fully understand the spiritual value of waiting. I want us to recognize there are things worth waiting for that matter more than whatever we think we should be doing. Maybe procrastination, in some instances, is a sign of wisdom. Maybe waiting is a spiritual skill.  But how would we know? We’ve attached so much negative judgement to it, it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than a character flaw.

My colleague, the Rev. Jen Crow, preached a sermon some years ago entitled “Waiting as an Act of Faith.” She said, “I bring you a counter-cultural message, especially in this season of what can become holiday madness—a message of stillness, of waiting, of trust and hopeful expectation, a message that encourages us … to consider the phrase …. Don’t just do something … stand there.”[4]  Or sit there, lie there. Pause, rest, breath, pray, be still. Wait.

The Christian liturgical year begins today. It’s the first Sunday of Advent, a four-week season of waiting prior to Christmas. Expectancy and hope infuse this waiting as the Christian world anticipates celebrating the birth of Jesus, the savior, the peacemaker—God incarnate. Of course, this spiritual waiting mixes and merges with waiting for Christmas presents, Santa Claus, reindeer, etc. For children whose families celebrate Christmas, waiting for presents is both excruciatingly annoying and exquisitely joyful. That joy alone tell us there is something precious in the waiting.

The Christian liturgical calendar rests atop more ancient spiritual calendars based on northern hemisphere agricultural cycles—planting, growing and harvesting, followed by waiting through long winter months. The natural world tells us this is a season of waiting. Earlier I shared words from the Rev. Karen Hering: “Hidden in the heart / of late autumn’s barren / fields is the ripening / of seasons yet to come. / Roots clinging to frozen ground / wait patiently / for their next long drink. / Seeds fallen from last summer’s blooms / sleep beneath blankets of quilted leaves / and feathered snow.”[5] Now that the harvest is done, roots, seeds, fields and people are waiting.

The darkness of the post-harvest season also beckons us away from doing toward introspection and reflection—hallmarks of the spiritual skill of waiting. In the words of the Rev. Mark Belletini, “Less Light. / A time to carefully focus on things / that the spotlight has missed…. / Less light. / No need to look frantically / for what we might be missing. / Eyes closed and breath steady…. / Less light. / A blessing to all who never quite find time / to sit in the dark silence during the noisy summer…. Less Light. A gift of the tilting earth.”[6]

If we were pre-industrial, agrarian people, and we had completed our late autumn tasks, harvested and stored food supplies for the winter, prepared wood for the fires that will keep us warm, we would now be entering into a long period of waiting, not just for the return of the sun at the solstice, but for eventual spring thaws and the resumption of outdoor life. We would be accustomed to waiting. We would know how to do it! We would likely look forward to it. We would have methods for passing the long winter hours, teaching our children the ways of our people, telling stories of who we are and where we’ve come from. Our physical activity would naturally be less than in the other seasons. We would likely sleep more. We might not even think of it as waiting. We might just think of it as living.

But that’s not who we are. We who live in developed, post-industrial, post-modern societies—we who have, for the most part, abandoned intimate relationship with the land, with the seasons, with the cycles of food production—we who have grown accustomed to convenience and seemingly endless supplies of energy and heat and who can therefore expect—and be expected to—work and live through the winter months as if they differ in no way from spring, summer and autumn—we don’t wait well. Either we dedicate enormous energy to doing, because that is what our culture values, or we beat ourselves up for not doing enough.

There’s much we miss when our primary mode of being is doing. What if we learned to subvert the impulse to just do it? What if we learned how to wait well? I ask because I believe spiritual waiting brings us more fully into alignment with the sacred dimensions of our lives. I’m taking a cue this morning from the process theologian Jay McDaniel, who recently wrote a short piece called “A Process Theology of Waiting.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with process theology, know that process theologians view the as a dynamic, nearly infinite and always unfolding set of relationships. Process theologians understand God as the sum total of those relationships—everything that has happened and all that will happen, from the interactions of sub-atomic particles to the interactions of galaxies. As such, God—divinity, the sacred—is continually emerging, continually becoming. And one important response for us is waiting—waiting to notice what is emerging. Whether we recognize it or not, says Jay McDaniel, “much of our life is spent in waiting. This is inescapable, because every present moment contains a future that has not yet arrived.”[7] Imagine that! Waiting is an inherent part of who we are.

If we only ever focus our attention on what we need to do, we deny that part of ourselves that waits in each moment. Though we may want things to emerge more quickly, though we may want answers and clarity now, the sacred typically doesn’t move at our pace. And as Rev. Belletini says, “few paths in this life are clearly lit.”[8] As much as we may feel called to act, we are also called to wait, and in that waiting to notice what is emerging within that dynamic, nearly infinite set of relationships, and to align ourselves with it as best we can. Waiting also a reminds us wee don’t always have control over what is happening around us or to us. As much as we may want to seize the day, sometimes the day seizes us and our task is to adapt with as much grace as we can muster. That takes time and patience. That takes waiting. I like the way Rev. Hering alludes to this: “Fruits of the future, / words unripened into speech, / truth present but unseen, evidence yet to be awakened / by the faithful / unfolding / of time and love.”[9]

Regarding the fifty-three year old cancer patient, Henri Nouwen says: “[My friend] realized that after [a life of] hard work he had to wait. He came to see that his vocation as a human being would be fulfilled not just in his actions but also in his passion [meaning, in this case, his suffering and experience of things happening to him that were beyond his control].” Together they began to witness how the sacred was moving in their lives, bringing something new they hadn’t noticed before. Nouwen puts it in Catholic language, “together we began to understand that precisely in this waiting the glory of God and our new life both become visible.”[10]

Earlier I shared a meditation from Rev. Vanessa Rush Southern. She writes, “I couldn’t hear myself think above the din of my surroundings / and when I finally did, I was surprised by what I heard. / I’d lived my life in restless banter, / but with a pause I met what had eluded me— / the part of me (and Her) that waited to be born.”[11] She refers to a variety of relationships—child, friend, lover, parent, Destiny, God—that had become invisible to her precisely because she did not wait. Like the universe, like the quantum world, like spirit, like God, the fact of our relationships means we are in a constant state of emerging. But if we believe we must always be doing something—anything!—we risk missing what is faithfully unfolding in our lives.

What is faithfully unfolding in your life? I like that as a different way of asking the question. Instead of what are you waiting for? ask what is faithfully unfolding in your life?

You will eventually encounter the question, what are you waiting for? You may be encountering it in this very moment. How will it feel to experience the question not as an indictment of inactivity, but as an invitation to reflect on the sacred dimensions of your life? Whatever you hold as sacred, how is it making itself apparent to you in this moment? How is it emerging anew in your life? How will it feel to experience the question as in invitation to ponder your place in that dynamic and nearly infinite set of relationships? Before doing anything, how will it feel to wait, trusting not only that the sun will return, that the springtime will come, but that something meaningful is always faithfully unfolding in your life, that the sacred will, on its on schedule, break forth, bringing renewal and wisdom?

The harvest is done. Winter is near. Advent begins. This is a season of waiting, and waiting is a gift we give to ourselves that assures us what we need most will emerge in its proper time? May we wait well.

Amen and blessed be.

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

[2] Nouwen, Henri, “A Spirituality of Waiting.” See: https://bgbc.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/A-Spirituality-of-Waiting-by-Henri-Houwen.pdf.

[3] Simmons, Philip, “The Art of Doing Nothing,” Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (New York: Bantam Books, 2002) p. 122.

[4] Crow, Jen, “Waiting as an Act of Faith,” Quest for Meaning, December, 2012. See: https://www.questformeaning.org/spiritual-themes/waiting-as-an-act-of-faith/.

[5] Hering, Karen, “Hidden in the Heart,” in Janamanchi, Abhi, and Janamanchi Abhimanyu, Falling Into the Sky: A Meditation Anthology (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013) p. 57.

[6] Belletini, Mark, “Late Fall,” in Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008) p. 58.

[7] McDaniel, Jay, “A Process Theology of Waiting,” OpenHorizons.org. See: https://www.openhorizons.org/a-process-theology-of-waiting.html.

[8] Belletini,  “Late Fall,” in Sonata for Voice and Silence, p. 58.

[9] Hering, Karen, “Hidden in the Heart,” Falling Into the Sky, p. 57.

[10] Nouwen, Henri, “A Spirituality of Waiting.” See: https://bgbc.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/A-Spirituality-of-Waiting-by-Henri-Houwen.pdf.

[11] Southern, Vanessa Rush, “Advent: A Responsive Reading,” in This Piece of Eden: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2001) p. 3.

The Invitation is Always There

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“If you keep thinking, you miss the flower,”[1] says Buddhist monk and global peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.” This is the meaning he derives from the story of the Buddha’s disciple, Mahakashyapa, a foundational story—an origin story—for Zen Buddhism. We shared Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the story earlier in the service. Unitarian Universalist minister and Soto Zen priest, James Ishmael Ford tells it this way:

A large gathering … came to hear a talk by the Buddha. Instead of speaking about enlightenment he simply held up a flower, twirling it slowly in his fingers. Of the whole assembly only one person understood—the Venerable Mahakashyapa. He smiled. Seeing the smile, the Buddha declared, “I have the all-pervading True Dharma, incomparable Nirvana, exquisite teaching of formless form. It does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside scriptures. I now hand it to Mahakashyapa.”[2] According to tradition, the founder of Zen Buddhism, the semi-mythical Bodhidharma, an Indian Buddhist who travelled to China in the sixth century, was the 28th successor to the Buddha through the lineage of Mahakashyapa.

In addition to being an origin story for Zen Buddhism, this story is also a koan, meaning it is itself an object of meditation. Like any koan, its meaning is not immediately, or perhaps ever, apparent to the rational, thinking mind. In response to any koan, one intuits their way to understanding more than thinks their way to understanding. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.” As I encounter Thich Nhat Hanh’s interpretation of this koan, I recognize that, though I think I understand what his words mean, I would be foolish to think I understand what they mean to someone like Thich Nhat Hanh who’d been meditating for over fifty years at the time he wrote them. Furthermore, though I think I understand what his words mean, and though I think I can talk about them in a sermon, the truth is I’m still thinking about them. I’m still thinking about words that advise me to stop thinking. I’m still thinking and writing about words that assure me the all-pervading truth “does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside of scriptures.”

As simple as Thich Nhat Hanh makes it sound, I have to assume I am still missing something. And what I am missing is not a thought—I have plenty of those. What I am missing is not a set of words—I have plenty of those. What I’m missing is an intuitive experience. The experience of being fully present. Do I know what that means? I like to think so … but, there I go again, thinking. Do any of us really know what being fully present means? Had I gone to hear the Buddha speak on that day, had I witnessed him twirling that flower in his fingers and saying nothing for minutes on end, would I have had the wisdom and the skill to quiet my thinking mind, which likely, and very understandably, would have been asking questions like, ‘What does this mean?’ ‘What is the significance of the flower?’ ‘Why twirl the flower in his fingers?’ ‘What kind of flower is it?’ ‘What is Mahakashyapa smiling about?’ Would I have had the wisdom and the skill to quiet my thinking, questioning, analytical, concept-forming mind and let myself fully experience the present moment, fully experience the flower in the Buddha’s fingers? Would I have smiled?

Maybe. I don’t want to rule it out entirely….

But doubtful.

Our ministry theme for November is attention. Although every religious tradition calls on its adherents to pay attention in some way, to pray, to contemplate, to study scripture, to go on pilgrimage, to worship, to “wake now my senses,” as one of our UU hymns says,[3] in my experience no tradition speaks more beautifully or extensively about paying attention than Buddhism. I remind us that our Unitarian Universalist living tradition draws from many sources, including “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” That’s where I am grounding myself this morning. I’m wondering about paying attention for the purpose of being fully present, and I’m turning to Buddhism for guidance.

How often are we fully present—present to any particular moment, like this moment; present to a person, a loved-one, a child, a neighbor, a stranger; present to an activity, washing dishes, drinking tea, raking leaves; present to suffering, physical or emotional pain, abuse, discrimination; present to nature, the changing seasons, the night sky, the barren November fields. Paying attention for the purpose of being fully present is hard. When I say that, I don’t mean it’s hard because of the many ways technology now intrudes into our lives, the rise of social media, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle. And I’m not saying it’s hard because of the troubling, frightening re-emergence of hatreds in our era that so many of us thought were in decline, or because of the troubling, frightening acceleration of climate change in our era. Yes we live in an age of extraordinary distraction, but that’s not why paying attention for the purpose of being fully present is hard. It has always been hard. Many people came to hear the Buddha speak. Apparently only one of them was fully present. It isn’t a question of what’s going on in the world around us. There is something in our very human nature—in the structure of our bodies, our wiring, our brain chemistry, our neural pathways, our senses—something in the way all of it works together—that makes paying attention for the purpose of being fully present hard no matter what is happening in the wider world.

Buddhists speak of the monkey mind—the way the mind very naturally jumps from one thing to another. Monkey mind is not a condition that some people have and others don’t. As far as I can tell, it’s the normal condition of most human brains. The new issue of the UU World magazine, which arrived last week, features an article by the Rev. Erika Hewitt and religious educator Becky Brooks called “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy.” They write “Chaos is an apt term for what happens between our ears during the practice of meditation. That’s because it’s the mind’s natural state to be whirring, planning, and chattering.” They cite the Rev. Eric Walker Wikstrom, who “describes meditation mantras as ‘giving the tiger a certain amount of meat to keep it quiet,’ suggesting that without that distraction, the mind is like a roving, predatory beast.” They proclaim, “Hear us now, fellow monkey minds: the presence (the loud, active presence) of inner voices, noise, and whirl during meditation does not mean you’re doing it ‘wrong.’ It means you’re human.”[4]

I find this very affirming. I hope you do too. My mind often races around, jumps up and down. Does yours? I notice that even when I’m focused on some task like mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, raking leaves, chopping wood, shoveling snow, or when I’m exercising, despite my focus on the activity, my mind is always monkeying: What’s next on my schedule? What’s happening tonight? What do I have to do to prepare for this meeting, or that class, or next week’s sermon? What time is Max’s basketball game? Where is it? Who’s cooking dinner? Oh, wait—I’m not home for dinner. What are the boys going to eat? Who am I forgetting? X is going into the hospital. Y is coming home from the hospital. Has Mason written the final draft of his college essay? If I don’t do anything about it, the thoughts just keep coming. My body is going through the motions of the task; I have no problem performing the task; but my mind is somewhere else. I’m not fully present.

That’s what monkey mind looks like for me when I’m engaged in a task. What’s fascinating to me is how it works when I’m purposefully not doing anything, when I’m actually attempting to meditate, to quiet my mind, to not think of anything at all,[5] to not miss the flower. Then the monkey really takes off. It’s as if true quiet, true emptiness, true presence free of all thought is frightening to the part of me that thinks. The part of me that thinks really doesn’t want to be extinguished. It resists. Don’t stop thinking!

I figured out many years ago I am not on the path to enlightenment. That is, I don’t feel a compelling personal spiritual call to engage in a dedicated, regular meditation practice. Though, having said that, I want to be clear that I recognize the importance such practices hold for many Unitarian Universalists; and I celebrate the spiritual richness Buddhists and those with an affinity for Buddhism bring to our congregations. I may not be on the path to enlightenment, but  being present—as fully present as possible—is important to me, especially in relation to other people. If my mind is monkeying while I’m washing the dishes, that’s my loss, but no harm done. If my mind is monkeying when a family member, or one of you, or a colleague is talking to me, that’s a problem. And though I may never know what it means to be fully present in a state of deep meditation, nevertheless, I can strive for presence in my day-to-day life. Buddhism can inform that striving. And what I learn from Buddhism is that the invitation to be present is always with us in any given moment. It’s an invitation worth accepting.  We accept the invitation by learning first to notice when and how, and maybe why, the mind starts monkeying; and second, learning to gently pull the mind back to the task at hand, to the attempted quiet, to the relationship, the conversation, the present moment. Our capacity to be present to the world begins with being present to ourselves.

Thich Nhat Hanh invites this presence to self through breathing. In those moments when the mind is monkeying, interrupt it with conscious breathing. He says “our breathing is the link between our body and our mind. Sometimes our mind is thinking of one thing … our body is doing another … mind and body are not unified. By concentrating on our breathing, ‘In’ and ‘Out,’ we bring body and mind back together, and become whole again. Conscious breathing is an important bridge.” He offers this mantra: Breathing in, I calm my body. / Breathing out I smile. / Dwelling in the present moment, / I know this is a wonderful moment![6] Breathing will carry us toward presence, but the mind will monkey again. Remember, that’s the norm. Being present requires a continual interruption of the norm. Conscious breathing is one way to interrupt, to bring mind and body together, to come back to the moment.

It’s not a forceful interruption. It’s not bellicose. It’s not judgmental. It’s a gentle and compassionate interruption. The writer Anne Lamott offers a wonderful image. She says, “Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper. So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen, maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence.”[7] The invitation to be present is always there.

In their recent UU World article, Hewitt and Brooks say something similar: “When (not if!) we get distracted … the heart of meditation is to notice your distraction—your departure—and make the decision to try again. The practice isn’t the doing; it’s the return, the reentry.”[8] Our mind will monkey. The invitation to unite body and mind is always there. The invitation to quiet the mind is always there. The invitation to stop thinking and behold the flower is always there. The invitation to offer that heart-felt, genuine smile is always there. The invitation to move back toward presence is always there.

There’s nothing doctrinal or dogmatic about this. There’s nothing here about right or wrong. We won’t be punished for having stray thoughts. The mind will monkey. That’s normal. The invitation is always there to gently pull it back to presence. I find great comfort in this ongoing—dare I say eternal—invitation.

Why accept the invitation? Why does being present to ourselves matter? In short, it’s a gesture of kindness to ourselves, and as far as I’m concerned, each of us deserves kindness. But beyond that, I think it’s also true that as we develop the capacity for being kind to ourselves, we develop the capacity to return kindness into the world. I like the way Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg puts it in a recent blog post. She writes, “the practice of shepherding our attention back to the present—even an incalculable number of times—helps us find the power to be kind to ourselves…. [When] we react to our compulsions with compassion … we open up, and feel a subtle movement of our hearts. This movement of the heart is like the sea moving close to the ocean floor — it is so subtle, but affects everything above.”[9] It effects everything above. In short, kindness to self begets kindness to others.

Is that really true? Maybe it’s just wishful thinking. I suppose it will always be wishful thinking if we keep confining it to the realm of thought. But if we keep thinking we miss the flower. The point is to accept the invitation, to make that gesture of kindness to ourselves, to strive for presence. Will that enable us to bring more kindness into the world? The invitation is always there. And what is there to lose but a few wandering thoughts? May we accept the invitation.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thich Naht Hanh, “Flower Insights,” Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) p. 43.

[2] Ford, James Ishmael, This Very Moment: A Brief Introduction to Buddhism and Zen for Unitarian Universalists (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) pp. 27-28.

[3] Mikelson, Thomas, “Wake Now My Senses,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #298.

[4] Brooks, Becky and Hewitt, Erika, “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy,” UU World (Winter, 2019). P. 18.

[5] Takashina, Rosen, Zetto Zemmi, in Conze, Edward, tr., Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 1959) p. 138.

[6] Thich Naht Hanh, “Conscious Breathing” and “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment” in Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) pp.8-10.

[7] Lamott, Anne, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1994) p. 99.

[8] Brooks and Hewitt, “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy,” p. 19.

[9] Salzberg, Sharon, “A New Vision of Kindness Starts with Paying Attention,” On Being, June 11th, 2016. See: https://onbeing.org/blog/a-new-vision-of-kindness-starts-with-paying-attention/#.

Whose Are You?

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In her poem, “The Small Plot of Ground,” poet and Episcopal priest Alla Renee Bozarth writes: “To feel alive, / important, and safe, / know your own waters / and hills, but know / more.”[1] Know your own waters and hills, but know more. For me, this morning, these words speak to a fundamental tension within Unitarian Universalism between two essential spiritual questions: “Who am I?” and “Whose am I?” (We can also turn them around and ask “Who are You?” and “Whose are You?” We UUs have become highly skilled in asking and answering the first question, “Who am I?”—in Bozarth’s words, knowing our own waters and hills. We are less skilled in asking and answering the second question, “Whose am I?” Frankly, when we talk about the spiritual life, we sometimes forget there is more to know beyond our own waters and hills. This sermon is about the difference these two questions make in our spiritual lives. It also calls for us to start discerning more intentionally not who we are but whose we are.

In my October newsletter column I wrote that we live in a society that invites us relentlessly (though often disingenuously) to respond to the question “Who am I?” I said I feel this poignantly as my high school senior goes through the process of applying to colleges. The primary question this process invites him to answer is “Who am I?” What are his skills, values, passions and experiences that will make him an asset to a particular student body? What kinds of intelligence does he bring? What is his vision for himself? I hope we have parented him in such a way that he has substantive answers to these questions, that he knows his own waters and hills, that he knows who he is and is able to communicate his isness to college admissions offices. I also hope his seventeen years of Unitarian Universalist religious education have helped him to answer these questions, have instilled in him a sense of who he is, have taught him values, and have enabled him to articulate what he believes.

Of course this question—“Who am I?—runs much deeper than high school seniors applying to college. It’s an ancient philosophical and theological question having to do with the nature of consciousness, the nature of the soul, even the nature of reality. Both eastern and western cultures have asked the question and offered a variety of answers for millennia.

There is a quintessentially American version of this question. We can think of the founding of the United States of America as the pinnacle of a long history of European people slowly rejecting the authority of kings and the church in favor of democratic systems that protect the rights of individuals who are free to conduct their lives, work, and religion in a manner they determine—people who are able to ask the question, “who am I?” and then freely assert their answers. Of course, there were profound historical contradictions: slavery, Indian wars and reservations, women as property. Not everyone had rights. Not everyone could safely ask and answer the question “Who am I?” That is still true today. There are places where it is unsafe to speak openly about being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or non-binary. There are places where it is unsafe to speak openly about being an immigrant, or even an atheist. Nevertheless, as flawed as the tradition may be, the ability to ask this question—“Who am I?—the ability to be a particular individual and to proclaim one’s individuality, lies at the heart of the American identity. It’s the tradition of the rugged individualist, the yeoman farmer, the pioneer, the explorer, the adventurer, the innovator, the competitor, the underdog, the captain of industry. It lies at the heart of “Don’t Tread on Me.” It lies at the heart of the First Amendment to the Constitution: freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petition for the redress of grievances.

It is also fair to say this question lives at the heart of Unitarianism Universalism. Though this is a generalization, we inherited it from the Transcendentalists of the mid-1800s who were beginning to sketch the philosophical portrait of the American individual. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sage of Concord, among other things, was channeling the American revolutionary spirit, as well as his understanding of the ancient philosophers—both eastern and western—in an attempt to articulate an innate human power. He was searching for the roots of human greatness, the sources of human genius. He found his answer in originality. He urged his audiences to live not in conformity, not with foolish consistency, but as creators, innovators, originators. In his 1836 essay, “Nature,” he lamented that people so quickly define themselves by the greatness of past generations. Such definition stifles the human spirit. He asked, “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy [based on our] insight and not [on] tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, not a history of theirs?”[2] In his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” he wrote, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” He wrote, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” He wrote, “Do your work, and I shall know you.” He wrote, “Insist on yourself; never imitate.” He wrote, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”[3] Don’t be someone else, don’t be the crowd, the mob, the church, the government; be yourself. Do something new. Who are you?

Today, when I hear us describe Unitarian Universalism as a non-creedal faith that encourages each individual to pursue their own spiritual path, I hear echoes of that Emersonian self-reliance, and behind it the invitation to ask, “Who am I?” When we invite new members of this congregation to “share with us who you are … share your creativity, your experiences, your questions, your doubts, your beliefs, and all your discoveries of life’s meaning,” we’re encouraging them to ask and answer the question, “Who am I?” When we say church ought to be a place where members and friends offer their gifts and pursue their passions, we’re saying the question, “Who am I?” really matters. When our ninth grade Affirmation students recite their credo statements from this pulpit, we’re not testing to see how well they’ve conformed. We’re affirming their unique answers to the question, Who Am I?”

Know your own waters and hills….

But know more.

****

In the end it is insufficient—both for a nation and for a religion—to only ask the question “Who am I?” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think,” but let’s be real: our words and actions affect others. People do think, and feel, and react, and interact. No matter how much we might imagine a unique spiritual life, pursuing our passions, following our hearts, being true to ourselves, we also participate in communities which place certain obligations on us and which, therefore, at times, conflict with who we are. That’s the tension in our Unitarian Universalist faith.

In my October newsletter column I quoted the 20th-century Quaker teacher, Douglas Steere, who once said, “There is no identity outside of relationship. You cannot be a person by yourself.” Who we are does not spring from some wholly original source. Our relationships shape and influence who we are. Our relationships both constrain and expand who we are. Consider how the arrival of a new child affects a family. It is a joyful moment when a parent welcomes a new child, but the child places enormous demands on not only the parent, but the grandparents and aunts, uncles and friends who may be helping out, and on any siblings who now have to share the attention of the primary caregivers. As a caregiver, suddenly your life feels like it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to this new child who is completely dependent on you. Your life is constrained by the demands of this screaming, eating, pooping, peeing machine. Yet its presence immeasurably enriches and expands the lives of parents and all others involved. Steere says “The ancient question, ‘Who am I?’ inevitably leads to a deeper one: ‘Whose am I?’” Who has some claim on us that we need to honor? Sometimes we must temper who we are based on whose we are.

I read earlier a set of what I call “Whose am I” questions from the Rev. Victoria Safford, who serves the White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. Listen to a few of them again and contemplate your answers:

When you look in the mirror in the morning, whose bones do you see? Whose blood runs in your veins? Who are those people, stretching back in time, beyond memory? Where did you come from? Who is within your circle of concern? Whose care is yours to provide? Who carries you in their heart, thinks of you, whether you think of them or not? Who are your people, the ones who make a force field you can almost touch? To whom are you responsible, accountable?[4]

****

A few weeks ago, the staff of our Unitarian Universalist Association New England Region office presented a workshop on congregational covenants. Kate Kimmerle and I attended. Our covenant is our statement of how we intend to relate to each other as members of this spiritual community. It is our commitment to each other. We’re participating with the New England Region staff in a yearlong program that will help us as a congregation re-imagine our congregational covenant. That workshop helped me understand, in a conscious way, something that has been nagging at me at my unconscious for a while. I have been talking about membership in this congregation too much in terms of who we are, and not enough in terms of whose we are.

When you become a member of this congregation, we emphasize your gifts, your passions, your expectations—your answers to the question “Who am I?” This makes sense. We want to learn who you are. We want you to shine! This is true not just for new members, but for all members! But we spend much less time asking about your people who make a force field around you, the people you hold in your heart and the people who hold you in their hearts. And we spend much less time in conversation about this: when you become a member of a congregation, the congregation becomes an answer to the question, “Whose am I?” That is, as a member, you belong spiritually to the people of this congregation. And the people of this congregation belong spiritually to you. You carry us in your heart. We carry you in our heart. You are accountable to us for living your Unitarian Universalist principles as best you can. We are accountable to you for living our Unitarian Universalist principles as best we can. If it’s only about who you are, then it isn’t a real community—it’s a group of individuals with wonderful gifts and passions. Real community continually asks and answers the question, “Whose are you?”

Knowing who we are is critical. It helps us to stand out, be powerful; a healthy community allows for that. Knowing whose we are is just as critical. It reminds us of how we’re connected, how we are held in our vulnerable times. Knowing who we are helps us assert ourselves and our independence. Knowing whose we are reminds us of larger realities larger in which we are embedded, reminds us of our interdependence. Knowing who we are helps us pursue our passions. Knowing whose we are reminds us of our responsibilities. Knowing who we are encourages healthy growth of the ego. Knowing whose we are tempers the ego, encourages greater humility.

Rev. Safford asks:

At the end of the day, through the longest night, in the valley of the shadow of death and despair, who holds your going out and coming in, your waking and your sleeping? Who, what, holds you in the hollow of its hand?

As Unitarian Universalists, we take great pride in the notion that we each build our own theology, that we each construct our own beliefs. You know what? In the absence of a creed, that is a difficult thing to do. What do we base our beliefs on? Personal experience? The Bible? A favorite theologian or poet? A connection to Buddhism? Taoism? Yoga? We arrive at answers: Atheist, Humanist, Pagan, Theist, Agnostic. I find my spirituality in Nature. I lean toward Buddhism. I’m a liberal Christian. Sometimes we speak eloquently about our theology. Sometime we’re utterly tongue-tied. How do I put my Theism into words that make sense? How do I meaningfully describe my Humanism? I’m a pagan but how do I clearly explain the sustenance I draw from the ancient myths?

For those of you who feel stuck when it comes to naming your own theology, let alone building your own theology, instead of asking “What do I believe,” ask, “Whose am I?” Good theology identifies your connections to others and to larger realities. So does answering the question “Whose am I?” Good theology identifies your sources of support, hope and inspiration in difficult times. So does “Whose am I?” Good theology holds you accountable for conducting your life in an ethical way. So does “Whose am I?” Good theolgoy guides you to seek reconciliation when relationships break down. So does “Whose am I?” Good theology keeps you humble, and names who, or what, holds you in the hollow of its hand. So does “Whose am I?” We need this question in our spiritual lives as much as we need “Who am I?”

What are your answers? Whose are you? Let us start having that conversation here in this beloved community.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Bozarth, Alla Renee, “The Small Plot of Ground,” in Roberts, Elizabeth and Amidon, Elias, eds., Earth Prayers from Around the World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) pp. 132-133.

[2] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Nature,” in Whicher, Stephen, E., ed., Selection From Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 21.

[3] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Self Reliance,” in Whicher, Stephen, E., ed., Selection From Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) pp. 147-168.

[4] Safford, Victoria, excerpt from a sermon entitled “Love’s Conditions,” posted at Quest for Meaning. See: https://www.questformeaning.org/spiritual-themes/whose-are-you/.

Soul Advocacy

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Spiritual writer and medical doctor, Rachel Naomi Remen,[1] once pointed out that “in [our] culture the soul … too often goes homeless.” Her solution to this condition is listening. ‘Listening,” she says, “creates holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear truths in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.”[2] The remedy to the soul’s homelessness is listening.

****

Most of you have heard by now that we finally, and very thankfully, have a report in response to the congregational survey we conducted a year ago. Our Growth Strategy Team is working hard at producing a summary to share with you. There are copies of the full, 323-page report in our office if anyone would like to read it in its entirety. As I was studying the report this summer I noticed a set of comments about social and environmental justice advocacy. We have a strong identity as a congregation that engages in social and environmental justice advocacy: Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights, sanctuary, domestic worker rights, environmental racism, renewable energy, climate change. We’ve recently established a partnership with the Verplanck Elementary School in Manchester which may, in time, involve different forms of advocacy in solidarity with the students and their families. We’re currently signing people up to attend the October 28th launch of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. Participation in that organization, in time, will involve advocacy. Not every UUS:E member is involved in these activities, but these activities do shape the identity of the congregation.

The comments I’m referring to were asking, essentially, “is that kind of advocacy the essence of who we are?” “Does that kind of advocacy provide a sufficient or sustainable foundation for the identity of a congregation?” Or more bluntly, “what about our own congregational community? What about our needs right here?” And even more bluntly, “what if I disagree? Is it OK to say that?” I don’t read these comments as assertions that progressive churches should not be acting on their principles in the public sphere. I read these comments as asking, simply and forthrightly, that we not forget the other reasons we gather on Sunday mornings. We gather in worship to hold up and celebrate all that is worthy of our attention, time, energy and commitment.[3] We gather to be in multigenerational community, wherein our children learn from adults, and our adults from children. We gather to be held in our grief and affirmed in our joy. We gather to celebrate our milestones. We gather for our own and our collective spiritual growth and deepening. We gather because in our larger culture the soul too often goes homeless; and here, we hope, the soul finds a home. If we somehow forget these reasons for gathering, if we do not tend well to this soul homelessness, then our social and environmental justice advocacy will be ultimately ineffectual.

One way to describe what we do here on Sunday morning and throughout the week is “soul advocacy.” Our social and environmental justice advocacy beyond the walls of our meeting house must be grounded in, and is thus dependent on, the soul advocacy that happens within the walls of our meeting house.

****

Soul advocacy. This term came to me as I was contemplating the survey report this summer. However, I was sure it is not unique to me. I googled it. Sure enough, it’s pretty common. People who use it fall into two categories: new-age-self-help gurus and Christian motivational speakers. In either case, nobody ever explains what the soul actually is. People use the word ‘soul’ all the time, and just assume that the rest of us know what they’re talking about. Yet, if there’s one thing I know about Unitarian Universalists, it’s that the minister can’t use traditional religious terms—especially terms as ambiguous and mushy as ‘soul’—and expect a group of UUs not to wonder what they mean. So I want to spend a little time on what I mean by ‘soul’ right now.

Soul isn’t a clear Biblical concept. Neither the Hebrew nor the Christian scriptures offer a well-developed conception of the soul. In the western world, soul is a classical Greek idea, the  Platonic idea of an indestructible, immortal entity that is part of us, though it seeks liberation from the physical body. It seeks to return to the source, the One, or God. It wasn’t until the European Middle Ages that Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas successfully synchronized the ancient Greek ideas with Christian thought. Even then, and certainly today, Christianity has never spoken with one voice on what the soul is. Catholics and Protestants have differed. Liberal and Conservative Christians have differed.[4] Aquinas lived at almost exactly the same time as the Sufi poet and mystic, Jal?l ad-D?n Muhammad R?m?, who is well-known for his beautiful meditations on the soul. My sense is that, similar to Christianity, there have been ongoing discussions of the soul in Islamic philosophy over the centuries as well. And there are similar, longstanding dialogues within Eastern religious traditions.

These have largely been dialogues among theologians and scholars. What has filtered down into popular western culture is an understanding of the soul as an entity that resides within us, has something to do with who we are—our personality—and lives on in some way after our physical bodies die. Popular culture is filled with references to this understanding of soul. Some of you may be familiar with the Netflix show “The Good Place,” a thoughtful, hilarious meditation on the afterlife and how one’s soul enters the good place, or not. I’m also thinking of the Saturday morning cartoon trope in which a character predictably dies in some spectacular way, and then a whispy, ethereal version of them leaves the crumpled, physical body and floats upwards, sometimes all the way to Heaven where it encounters a version of St. Peter at the pearly gates. Sometimes the direction is downward to a much less benign fate. (For those of a certain age I’m thinking of the misfortunes of Wile E. Coyote, but I see it in today’s cartoons as well.) (I’m also thinking of the Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze movie Ghost.) That whispy, ethereal version of the character is the cartoon representation of the soul.

This is, indeed, a popular culture conception of what the soul is and what happens to it after death. And certainly there are religious people who believe that the goal of the religious life—and the goal of soul advocacy—is to ensure that whispy ethereal version of us achieves eternal life in Heaven.

But that isn’t at all what I mean by the soul. It isn’t what Rachel Naomi Remen and other modern spiritual writers mean. It isn’t what the new-age-self-help gurus mean. And it isn’t what many Christian, Jewish and Muslim theologians and philosophers mean. For me it’s important to bring the soul down to earth, to ground it, to advocate not for its other-worldly, eternal status, but rather for its health, well-being and visibility in this life.

In a sermon I preached about five years ago, I said “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 is restless. And if we open ourselves to it, it will push, prod, call us further along, higher up, deeper into…. fulfillment, satisfaction, wholeness.[5] The soul is that part of you that is most uniquely you and without which you would not be you.

When Dr. Remen says “in our culture the soul … too often goes homeless,” I hear her saying that this quality in us, this best self, this true self, this passionate self, this source of our creativity and our desire for wholeness—that’s what goes homeless. That’s what too easily gets shut down, overlooked, cut-off, silenced, ignored, or forgotten through the course of a normally busy, a lonely, isolated day, or a technology-saturated day. That’s what becomes an afterthought in the midst of pain and suffering, in the midst of anxiety, stress and fear, in the midst anticipated crisis or actual crisis. And that’s the soul we advocate for here, when we gather in this place.

How do we do that? Soul advocacy begins with listening. Dr. Remen says  “the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart. When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”[6] Of course, the word ‘advocacy’ often assumes taking an action, marshalling resources, speaking truth to power, fighting for rights, fighting for justice. There’s an underlying assertiveness to it, and underlying aggressiveness. Soul advocacy is different. ‘Passive’ isn’t quite the right word, but it may look like passivity, because the one doing soul advocacy is quiet, open, attentive, listening. The one doing soul advocacy creates space, and offers into that space a welcoming, inviting, curious attitude. “You speak (or draw, dance, sing, cry). The soul advocate holds what you communicate with care and tenderness.”

Soul advocacy is as simple as that. Listening, focusing, caring, being present, staying with. Our willingness to listen invites the speaker’s soul to come forward from wherever it is hiding. Our willingness to listen creates space for the speaker’s soul to surface, to emerge, to reveal itself not only to us but to the speaker as well. “When you listen generously to people,” says Dr. Remen, “they can hear truths in themselves, often for the first time.” Our willingness to listen not only to the usual pleasantries, the small talk, the weather, but also to the desires, the yearnings, the longings, the passions, as well as the struggles, the challenges, the pain and the painstaking movement through it—that is soul advocacy. Where do we really get to proclaim this part of our selves, let alone openly wrestle with it? Where do people deeply listen to us? Hopefully our families and close friends create such spaces for us, though this is not the case for everyone. Does your soul get to come out at work? Maybe, if it’s a very special work place. School? Maybe. If it’s a very special school. I’m sure there are places many of you can name where your soul does not feel hidden or homeless. But certainly religious community ought to be one of those places where soul advocacy happens regularly.

We share joys and concerns publicly as part of our Sunday morning worship. It’s an opportunity for people to speak from their depths. The rest of us listen. That’s soul advocacy.

Most of our committee meetings begin with some form of check-in. This, too, is an opportunity to speak from the depths for those who choose to do so. The rest of us listen. That’s soul advocacy.

In our small group ministries, our spiritual affinity groups, our religious education classes, during pastoral visits, memorial services, and when we welcome new members into the congregation—there are opportunities to speak from our depths. The rest of us listen. That’s  soul advocacy. When the listening creates a space for the speaker to begin to shine, to glow, to sing; when it creates a space for the speaker to confidently share from a place of vulnerability or pain; when it creates a space for the soul to come home, then our soul advocacy is successfull.

Is it always successful? Do we always get it right? No. We don’t. I know there are times when I’ve left a meeting and realized later that someone offered a sharing of great depth to which I wasn’t fully attentive. We don’t always listen well. We don’t always listen skillfully. We don’t always succeed in our soul advocacy. I suspect that is, at least to some degree, the reason why some survey respondents raised concerns about social and environmental justice advocacy. If a person is living with soul homelessness, it makes sense that they would raise questions about where our collective focus is, where our attention is. So I’m reminding us: our act of listening to each isn’t just good manners. It’s spiritual practice. It’s soul advocacy.

Listening, if we’re doing it well, is an inherently relational act. The listener gains as much value as the one they listen to. I love the way Dr. Remen puts it: “In the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.” That is the kind of spiritual foundation soul advocacy creates in a congregation. My prayer for us as we enter more fully now into the congregational year is that through our connections to each other, through our listening, through our soul advocacy, we may encounter that singing.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] For information on what Dr. Remen is up to currently, see her website: http://www.rachelremen.com/about/.

[2] Remen, Rachel Naomi, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 220.

[3] Arnason, Wayne, and Rolenz, Kathleen, Worship that Works: Theory and Practice for Unitarian Universalists (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008).

[4] This brief synopsis is drawn from Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Touchstone, 1997) pp. 226-227.

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “For What the Soul Hungers,” a sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, April 14, 2014. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/for-what-the-soul-hungers/.

[6] Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom, pp. 143-144.

Yes, And….

Rev. Josh Pawelek

This summer my wife, Stephany, and I enrolled in an improv class at Sea Tea Improv in Hartford. Although I’ve always enjoyed improv. the idea of taking a class had never occurred to me. It was Stephany’s idea—something we could do together, something that would push us, at least a little, out of our comfort zones. Personal growth.

When we registered for the class I felt confident—I got this; I like meeting new people; I’m comfortable speaking in front of strangers; I’m comfortable speaking extemporaneously. But as the day of the first session approached, I grew more and more nervous—maybe I don’t got this; maybe I have no idea what this is really about. And worse: Isn’t improv for people with that rapid-fire-think-on-your-feet sense of humor which I don’t have? Even worse: What if I’m not a genuinely funny person?

At the first session in June, it became clear to me very quickly that I don’t got this. I have some skills in extemporaneous speaking. I get asked to speak or pray or center a group on the spur of the moment all the time. But in those instances I typically have at least a few minutes to contemplate what I will say. Improv isn’t like that. Nobody says, “you have 5 minutes to prepare a skit about a strange visit to the doctor’s office, or a complicated family gathering, or an awkward dinner conversation. In improv there’s no preparation. Preparation defeats the purpose. You come out on stage with your partner or team, and the host invites the audience to offer prompts. The prompts are typically a relationship (parent-child, spouses, friends, co-workers, an undertaker and a corpse, etc), or a location (a city street, a dessert island, a park bench, backstage at Woodstock, etc.), or an event (NASCAR, a picnic, an auction, a baseball game, an exorcism, etc.). That’s all you get. And from there you improvise. No thinking, no discussing, no planning head of time. Just go. Well, I rarely, if ever, operate like that. That first class? I did not have it.

Although there’s no preparation in improv, there are basic rules to follow. You and your partner or team are creating a scene, which may be absolutely ridiculous—sometimes the more ridiculous the better—but the audience has to be able to follow it. That’s what the rules are for. We learned the acronym CROW. C is for “character.” As the scene begins, give yourself and your scene partners names or identities. If my scene partner says to me, “Hi Mordecai,” then I am Mordecai. R is for “relationship.” Establish how your characters are connected to each other. If I respond, “Hey Dad,” then the audience knows Mordecai is talking to his father. O is for “objective.” Establish what you are trying to do. I might say, “Hey Dad, I see you aren’t wearing any socks.” And Dad might say, “The cat took my socks, have you seen the cat?” Now the audience knows we’re looking for Dad’s socks, and to find the socks we need to find the cat. W is for “where.” Establish where the scene is taking place. I might say, “Dad, we’re in a pet store. There are at least 50 cats here.” Now the audience knows where we are.

There’s an improv principle underlying all of this, known as “yes, and.” “Yes, and” means that whatever your scene partner gives you—as a name, a relationship, an objective, a location—you accept it s a gift. You say yes, and build the scene from there. So if my scene partner calls me Mordecai, I don’t say, “That’s not my name. I’m Bob.” I am Mordecai. And if I call my scene partner Dad, they’re Dad. They might have been thinking something else. They might have been thinking I’m his spouse, or I’m his next-door neighbor, or his daughter, or his psychic. But I’ve said Dad, so my partner says “yes” to being Dad, and we build the scene from there.If I say, “you aren’t wearing any socks,” they don’t respond, “No, I am wearing socks, look they’re navy blue.” They say, “yes, I’m not wearing any socks, and the cat took them?” If my scene partner says, “the cat took my socks down to the basement.” I don’t say, “basement? That’s not where this scene should take place. Don’t you think it would be more funny if we were in a pet store, or a zoo, or even a pet cemetery?” I respond, “Yes, the basement. The cat must be doing the laundry again.” Or something like that. The point is, in improve the rule is to affirm your partner’s idea and build from there. “Yes, and.” Receive your partner’s ideas as gifts you can use to develop the scene. Don’t contradict their idea. Make them look good.

I struggled with this principle. It made sense. It sounded easy enough. But whenever I’d stand up to do a scene, my partner would name my character, and my gut reaction would be, that can’t be my name. Or my partner would give me a location—a bar—and an objective—we’re drinking and trying to pick up women; and all I could think was no, absolutely not; I don’t want to be in this bar, plus my real-life wife is watching. That actually happened at the first class; my scene partner was really, really good. But I failed at “yes, and.” I kept reminding my scene partner that I was the designated driver and very shy anyways.

Over the eight sessions of the class I discovered that once I had an idea for a scene in my mind, if my scene partner went in a different direction, I had a very hard time letting go of my idea. I might say “yes” to my partner’s CROW, but then I would try to work back to the scene I wanted to do. That was more of a “yes, and let’s do something different,” or “yes, but,” the “but” essentially contradicting what my partner had offered. Not a real “yes.” A very disingenuous “yes.” A passive-aggressive “yes.” Contradicting your partner does not make them look good.

“Yes, and” is improv’s golden rule. It doesn’t always work in real life. Sometimes we have to say “no” to an idea. Sometimes we have to say “no” for safety’s sake. Sometimes we have to disagree. Sometimes we have to assert ourselves despite whatever our partners have offered. Sometimes we have to speak our true name. Sometimes, “Yes, but” is the necessary response. “Yes, and” does not always apply. And yet “yes, and” also strikes me as an important principle for living a meaningful spiritual life.

As a reminder, I define spirituality as the practice or the experience of connecting with a reality larger than oneself. That reality could be physical and this-worldly—connecting with community, with nature, with land, with the earth. It could be metaphysical—connecting with god, goddess, spirit, divinity, the sacred. Whatever that reality larger than yourself is, to connect with it, we first have to say “yes” to it. “Yes, I want community.” “Yes, I want a connection to the land.” “Yes, I want to know the Goddess.” “Yes, I want to discern and honor what is sacred.” At the heart of that “yes” is vulnerability, risk. Saying yes to connection often requires a leap of faith. Why? Because genuine connection changes us. Genuine connection expands us, moves us, grows us. It doesn’t always allow us to hold onto our idea of how events are going to unfold, or even our idea of what is important. It won’t always honor the lines we’ve been rehearsing. It changes the scene we thought we were in.

When I couldn’t let go of my pre-conceived idea for an improv scene, the scene wouldn’t go well. As I learned to let go and receive my partner’s offerings as gifts, it worked. Yes, and.

So often it’s the same with our spiritual lives. Yes, and … we may change. Yes, and … we may grow. Yes, and … we may have to re-examine our priorities. To make way for the “and,” we have to let go, soften our hard edges, relax our impulse to be in control. To make way for the “and,” we need to distrust our own certainty. To make way for the “and, we have to let our ego recede, let our attachments wane. That experience can be exhilarating. It can be ecstatic. It can be powerful. And it can be frightening, unnerving and disorienting, precisely because saying “yes, and” makes us vulnerable. The “yes, and” of connecting with realities larger than ourselves may lead us in directions we hadn’t anticipated—new life choices, new relationships, even new faith. It may give us a new name, a new identity, a new sense of self.

It may not last. We may go back to the safety of our old ideas, old habits, our well-worn paths, the dictates of our ego—that’s a “yes, but.” Tt may be necessary, but that’s not growth. In our spiritual lives, “yes, and” leads to growth. With “yes, and” we receive whatever gifts the larger reality offers—challenge, direction, conviction, purpose, peace, serenity, oneness, love—we receive them “and” build from there.

****

This will sound like I’m changing the subject, but really I’m not. Most of you will remember last fall our Growth Strategy Team asked you to take a survey about your experience of our congregation. We were attempting to identify reasons why people become members and maintain their membership, and why people choose not to become members; or why people become members but don’t maintain their membership. It took a lot longer to analyze and interpret all the data than we expected, but a report has been written. It’s long: 327 pages. I really like it, though before I say any more about it, some thank yous are in order. First I want to thank the members of our Growth Strategy Team who worked on the survey and, week after week, urged all of you to take it, despite its length: Michelle Spadaccini chairs that team. Thank you Michelle. Joining her are Carol Marion, Edie Lacey, Nancy Pappas, Louisa Graver and Jennifer Klee. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Joel Devonshire, Rhiannon Smith and Josh Tryon worked on the survey as consultants in various capacities. Thank you. And most importantly, the person who designed the survey, interpreted the data and wrote the report, is Jessica Offir. Jessica is excellent at what she does. She spent months and months of her life producing it. I’m blown away by her commitment to this project. Jessica: Thank you!

There’s a lot to say about the report, including that there are some concerns about the data. I won’t explain the concerns now except to say there is a preface to the report that offers an explanation. The Growth Strategy Team is working on a summary of the report. We will also print out a number of hard copies that you can sign out of the office, and we’ll communicate when those are ready.

For now, I want to share that one of the messages I take from reading the report is “yes, and.” Like many congregations, perhaps like every congregation, we fall into routines over time. We do things as a community a certain way. We do things, more or less, the way we’ve always done them. And the more we as a congregation get used to conducting our life together in certain ways, the harder it becomes to embrace new ideas. This is especially important for how we as a congregation relate to our newest members, because most people who are new to a congregation, though they may really like it as it is, may also wonder why we do certain things certain ways. They may have suggestions for doing things differently. The report suggests that we don’t do as good a job as we think we do in figuring out what those new ideas are. Even some people who’ve been here a long time report that their new ideas, their proposed innovations, their out-of-the-box thoughts aren’t always heard. We don’t say “yes, and” enough. We need to say it more. It is essential if we want to tap into the wealth of new ideas that’s sitting right here.

“Yes, but that’s how we’ve always done it,” is not the right answer for congregational growth. “Yes, but we tried that before and it didn’t work,” is not the right answer for congregational growth. “Yes, but people probably aren’t interested in that,” is not the right answer for congregational growth. “Yes, and,” is the answer. Idea for something new on Sunday morning? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new programs? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new sources of revenue? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new ways of doing outreach? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new community partners? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new approaches to Unitarian Universalist theology? “Yes, and!” New ideas about how to talk about gender identity? “Yes, and!” New ideas for multigenerational community? “Yes, and!” New ideas for music? “Yes, and!” New idea for how to be church? “Yes, and!”

Lauren read to you earlier Rev. Theresa Soto’s mediation, “Finding Our Dreams.” Soto writes, “Be brave enough / to name your dream. Nurture it. And / allow the rhythm of your breath / to bring your dreams to life.”[1] I want all of us to experience this congregation as a place where we can name our dreams. Yet there’s more to it than individuals naming and nurturing their dreams. They are offering gifts. As a covenanted spiritual community, we must be brave enough to listen, even if we had a different idea in mind, even if we thought we were in a different scene. And once we’ve heard new dreams expressed, may the rhythm of our collective breath bring those dreams to life.

That’s how we grow in our spiritual lives. That’s how we grow as a congregation.

Amen.

Blessed be.

Yes, and.

[1] Soto, Theresa I, “Finding Our Dreams,” Spilling the Light: Meditations on Hope and Resilience (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2019) p. 7.

The Dream Keeper: Reflections on Easter Sunday, 2019

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I love these words from the poet, Langston Hughes, which we’ve heard set to beautiful music this morning.“Bring me all of your dreams, / You dreamer, / Bring me all your / Heart melodies / That I may wrap them / In a blue cloud-cloth / Away from the too-rough fingers / Of the world.”

He speaks of the ‘too-rough fingers of the world.’ Langston Hughes knew just how rough the world could be. He knew about the pain and suffering people experience—both the pain and suffering of the human condition; and the pain and suffering human beings perpetuate against each other—the pain and suffering of violence, oppression, war, genocide.

What happens when the world is too rough? People begin to feel isolated and lost. People begin to feel fear and despair. People’s bright dreams for themselves, their families, their communities and the world grow dim. The poet responds to a deep human longing when he says “Bring me all of your dreams, / You dreamer, / Bring me all your / Heart melodies / That I may wrap them / In a blue cloud-cloth / Away from the too-rough fingers / Of the world.”

Each of us encounters times in our lives when we do not feel hopeful about the future. Each of us encounters times in our lives when our dreams grow dim. I imagine this is how the disciples and friends of Jesus felt after he was crucified. I imagine this is how Jesus’ mother felt. He had been saying all along that he would be going away to a place where they could not follow. He had been saying all along, ‘there will be a time when I am no longer with you.’ But they couldn’t quite imagine what that meant. They couldn’t quite imagine life without him. They felt so strongly about his ministry, his teachings, his healings, his nonviolence, his commitment to his God and his faith, his love for all people no matter their station in life. They loved him so much. They attached their dreams to him. And then he was gone, his crucified  body lain in a tomb, a stone rolled in front of the entrance.

In the midst of their pain, their grief, their profound sense of loss, his disciples somehow made their Easter proclamation: “He is risen.” He has come back to us. He lives again! They made him their dream keeper. They imagined him receiving their dreams, their heart melodies, and wrapping them in a blue cloud cloth, away from the too rough fingers of the world; because the fingers of the world, in that moment, felt more rough than they could ever have imagined. They made him their dream keeper, and as such he continued to live beyond death.

That’s one way to understand the resurrection.

Today we dream of an earth made fair and all her people one. We dream of an end to violence and war and oppression. We dream of a just and loving community. We dream of a sustainable future for our planet and for coming generations. We dream, but there is always a risk that the too rough fingers of the world will conspire to shatter our dreams. When that happens, who is your dream keeper? In those moments when you feel isolated and lost, fearful and despairing, who keeps your dreams for you? Who keeps your dreams until you are ready to dream them again? Is it a friend? Is it a spouse, a partner in life? Is it your parent? Your child? Your sibling? A neighbor? A fellow member of this congregation? Is there a god or goddess who keeps your dreams when you are not able? Does the earth keep your dreams? The mountain, the oceans, the river, the trees? Who sings your heart melody during the long hours of your silent time in the tomb? Who keeps your dreams, so that when you are ready, you may rise again, you may be reborn, you may be resurrected, ready to live life, ready for joy, ready for love, ready for compassion, ready to engage. Who keeps you dreams, so that when you are ready, you may hold the dreams of others who are in despair. Who keeps your dreams, so that when you are ready, you may rise to the sounds of bird song on beautiful spring mornings? Who keeps your dreams, so that when you are ready, you may rise to the sounds to the gentle, happy voices of loved-ones welcoming you back to yourself? Who keeps your dreams, so that when you are ready, you may rise to cries of Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia?

May you always have someone to keep your dreams when you are not able.

May you always be available to hold the dreams of others when they are not able.

May we be each other’s dream keepers.

Amen, blessed be and Alleluia!

Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Jesus journeys from the Mount of Olives down into Jerusalem. He rides a donkey. Nearly 2,000 years later, the average reader may not pause to contemplate this image—its oddness, its humor, its political theatrics, its peaceful message recalling certain Jewish prophecies about the coming of the messiah,[1] and yet contradicting the image Jews and others had of God. Yet, if we take the whole story at face value—Jewish and Christian scriptures together as one, long, seamless narrative—this is God. Or, as the Book of John says, Jesus is “the Word [that] was God.”[2] This is the creator, the divine warrior, the lawgiver, the Lord of Hosts making a “triumphal entry” into the holy city, not in a chariot, not in a palanquin, not on some mythical beast, lion or war horse, but on a donkey. Why is the creator of the universe riding this stubborn, ungainly and, perhaps to some, humiliating mode of transportation?

A more fundamental question: Why crucifixion? Why such a demeaning, disgraceful, bloody execution per order of the Roman authorities? Why not raise up an army out of the Galilean dust and destroy the Roman legions, just as he had destroyed Pharaoh’s army a thousand years earlier? His power is infinite. Why choose powerlessness?

These questions come courtesy of Fred and Phil Sawyer, who purchased this sermon at our 2018 goods and services auction. Last spring Fred and Phil had me preach on Jack Miles’ 1995 book, God: A Biography.[3] This year it’s Miles’ 2001 follow-up, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. Miles is Professor Emeritus of English and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and Senior Fellow for Religion and International Affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy.[4] He presents God not as the God our Jewish and Christian siblings worship, not as God deconstructed through modern Biblical criticism, but God as a literary character.

Miles isn’t a Biblical literalist. He doesn’t approach the Bible as a factual record of events. He also isn’t doing modern historical criticism. Historical critics ask who wrote a particular biblical book, where, when and why they wrote, what social, cultural and religious forces impacted their point of view, who their audience was. Instead, Miles treats the Bible as a long story in which God is the protagonist. He takes the story at face value. Whatever God says or does, that’s what he works with. This is neither the Jesus of Christian faith, nor the historical Jesus. This is Jesus the literary character. And a great character has the power to teach us something about our very human selves, even if that character is God.

In God: A Biography, Miles tells the story of God in the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, in which, after the book of Job, God is essentially silent. People speak about him, but he speaks no more. Miles describes him as a sleeper, a bystander, a recluse. He wonders if God has grown weary of his deep inner turmoil in relation to humanity.[5]

In Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, Miles tells the story of God in the Christian New Testament as a response to his silence at the end of the Tanakh. We discover the root of God’s inner turmoil: He has not kept his promise to his people. His promise was big: land, nationhood, prosperity, victory in battle, innumerable blessings and, for later Jewish exiles, a glorious homecoming. But God hasn’t delivered.

Miles says, “the action of the New Testament begins with the memory of a broken promise”[6] The Book of Luke, chapter 3, in describing John the Baptist, repeats the promise as proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah: “Clear the way for the Lord! / Make straight his paths. / Let every valley be raised, / Every mountain and hill lowered, / The crooked made straight / And the rough smooth / So that all flesh will see the salvation of God.”[7] But Isaiah spoke these words 700 years earlier. “Isaiah,” says Miles, “describes a triumphal march that never occurred. Mountains were going to be leveled and valleys filled to create a parade route for the Israelite exiles marching home from Babylon—but the parade was cancelled. The exiles to whom the Lord spoke through Isaiah did not return home in glory. Many of them never returned at all, and those who did merely exchanged one imperial ruler for another.”[8] Now, with Roman oppression steadily worsening, God’s unfulfilled promise has led him to a moment of crisis.

What does he do? He appears on earth. Not as a burning bush, a pillar of cloud or fire, or a whirlwind—nothing dramatic. He joins humanity the way all humans do. He is born. An innocent, helpless baby. Furthermore, he is born into a family and a nation experiencing a great humiliation: the Roman census. Miles says, “In ancient Israel, it was a grievous sin … to conduct a census, perhaps because the practice of people-counting was understood to be … connected … with taxation and forced labor.”[9] King David once conducted a census. God was so angry he sent a pestilence upon Israel, killing seventy thousand.[10] In subjecting Jesus and his young parents to the census, the story emphasizes their helplessness in the face of an onerous foreign power. Because it is a census of the whole world, the story “makes clear that it is … not just the Jewish condition God is taking on … [but] that of all oppressed people at the mercy of officious power.”[11] In response to the crisis of his broken promise, God comes as a helpless infant, born to helpless parents, living in a helpless nation.

John the Baptist, announcing the coming of the messiah, calls Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”[12] As Miles says, “A lion would be more to the purpose, a rapacious and terrifying cat.”[13] But no, Jesus is a lamb, implying gentleness, meekness, innocence. But wait—the Baptist also says “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”[14] Not so lamblike.

What’s going on? Two Jewish traditions are merging in this character. First, the Baptist’s Jewish audience would be familiar with the practice of sacrificing a lamb for the expiation of certain sins. What sins? We might call them sins you can’t do anything about, sins that are part of the human condition, like bleeding during menstruation or living with certain diseases, like leprosy These aren’t sins one commits. We can more accurately describe them as natural conditions, often associated in ancient times with words like ‘unclean’ or ‘impure.’ The Torah requires such “sinners” to make amends to God, often by sacrificing a lamb.[15] Miles points out that such sins harken back to the first time God cursed humanity, sentencing them to endless labor, painful childbirth, and death.[16] The book of Leviticus describes the ritual sacrifice required to make amends for the “sin” of leprosy. Miles says “the ceremony functioned as expiation not really for any sin of the leper himself but effectively for the sin that brought that [original] curse.”[17] Thousands of years later, God has still never reversed those original curses. People were essentially helpless in the face of them. “The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?” Wait, what? Is he to be sacrificed?

But there are others species of sin, most notably the sort humans do to each other: exploitation, extortion, robbery, murder, etc. These are the sins one commits. These are also the sins Rome was committing against the Jews. There is no sacrificial lamb for these sins. Ideally, the perpetrator repents and makes amends, ‘an eye for eye,’ as it were. If not, the victim can either submit or fight back. In the Book of Luke, after Jesus’ Baptism, a voice comes from Heaven, saying “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[18] Miles reminds us this line comes from Psalm 2, which follows those words with “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, / and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, / and smash them to bits like a potter’s pot.”[19] That is, “we’re gonna fight back.”

This is the tradition of the messianic warlord coming to liberate! Jesus is both the lamb and the warlord. Miles calls them “two native Jewish ideas made daring and new by unforeseen combination,”[20] though the reader doesn’t know yet how this combination will unfold. What we know is that Jesus has come to the river for baptism. He has come to repent. But this is God. Repent for what? What has he done wrong? Ah, he hasn’t kept his promise. And apparently he isn’t going to. He can’t. That’s the realization that lives at the heart of his crisis, the reason for his repentance. As Miles says, “If [God] cannot defeat Israel’s enemies … then he must admit defeat.”[21] This admission makes way for new possibilities.

Miles says, “Instead of baldly declaring he is unable to defeat his enemies, God … now declare[s] that he has no enemies, that he now refuses to recognize the distinction between friend and foe. He … announce[s] that he now loves all people indiscriminately, as the sun shines equally everywhere, and then urge[s]—as the law of a new, broadened covenant—that his creatures extend to one another the same infinite [love] that henceforth he will extend, individually and collectively, to all of them.”[22] This is his solution to the sins that people commit. He’s no longer telling them what they “shall not do.” He’s telling them what they shall do: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who scorn you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other cheek as well.”[23] The messianic warlord is taking on characteristics of the lamb.

This is a radical change in God’s identity, so radical that it troubles the Romans. But why should the Romans care? After all, Jesus is not a militant. In fact, he preaches “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” At times he upholds Roman law instead of the Torah. Jesus’ concerns, it turns out, are larger than Rome. Miles says, “The Lord is playing for higher stakes.”[24] Throughout the story Jesus heals paralytics, lepers and bleeding women. He raises the dead. He does not say, “you are healed.” He says “your sins are forgiven.” He’s referring to those original curses God has never rescinded. People still suffer and die because of his curses. This is a deeper dimension of the crisis. Can he resolve that? Can he somehow transform the human condition that has resulted from his curses?

As much as this is a story about defeating one’s oppressors with the power of love, it is also a story about transcending the human condition—the end of suffering, the end of death. Jesus, the messianic warlord who meets his earthly enemies as a lamb, also has a cosmic enemy, Satan. Those original curses? He now associates them with Satan. “Even when speaking of his own defeat,” says Miles, “Jesus does not speak of the Romans. He speaks instead, at the most crucial moments, of Satan; in so doing, he identifies his enemy not as Rome … but as death itself.”[25]

I asked earlier, why the cross? Why does the creator of the universe submit to a humiliating, demeaning and bloody human execution? To undo those original curses, to take away the sins of the world. Miles says: “When Jesus dies, death wins, and the Devil wins for the moment; but when Jesus rises from the dead, life wins and the Devil loses for all time. By rising from the dead, God Incarnate [doesn’t] defeat Rome, but he [does] defeat death. He … win[s] a victory of a new sort, over a newly identified enemy, and in the process he … redefines the traditional covenant terms of victory and defeat.”[26]

It’s a powerful story. And like all great stories, it tells us something about ourselves. It reminds us there are two kinds of suffering. One is the suffering humans inflict on each other, the suffering of injustices embedded in systems designed to privilege some and exploit, marginalize, disempower, abuse, and even destroy others. The second is existential suffering, the suffering inherent in our living, the suffering that comes from illness, loss, and death. Both kinds of suffering can generate crises in us, and thus there is a deep yearning in us to transcend. Ad so we try. We try, each in our own way, to bring love into the world, instead of hate, instead of violence. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes our love makes all the difference. But then there is that pesky problem of death. What are we to do about death other than learn to accept it as the final stage of our very human lives? Might we live again? That’s a question of faith. Where did the resurrection story come from? That’s a matter for the historical critics. Do we long to transcend suffering? A good story speaks to that longing.

In the end, we aren’t God. But sometimes it’s nice to imagine how sweet eternity could be.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Zechariah 9:9.

[2] John 1:1.

[3] Miles, Jack, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

[4] For information on Jack Miles, visit his website at http://www.jackmiles.com/.

[5] Miles, Jack, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996) p. 404.

[6] Miles, Crisis, pp. 18.

[7] Isaiah 40:3-5 quoted in Luke 3:4-6.

[8] Miles, Crisis, pp. 18-19.

[9] Miles, Crisis, pp. 86-87.

[10] Second Samuel 24: 1-15.

[11] Miles, Crisis, p. 87.

[12] John 1:29.

[13] Miles, Crisis, p. 23.

[14] Luke 3: 16-17.

[15] For example, see Leviticus 14 for instructions on how to make amends for the sin of leprosy.

[16] Genesis 3:19.

[17] Miles, Crisis, p. 25.

[18] Luke 3: 22.

[19] Psalm 2: 7-9.

[20] Miles, Crisis, p. 27.

[21] Miles, Crisis, p. 108.

[22] Miles, Crisis, p. 108.

[23] Luke 6:27-29.

[24] Miles, Crisis, p. 178.

[25] Miles, Crisis, p. 163.

[26] Miles, Crisis, p. 163.