Sunrise Song: An Easter Homily

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Listen to one telling of the Easter story from the Christian New Testament Book of Mark, Chapter 16, verses 1-8. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, it happens just beyond sunrise on the morning of the third day after Roman authorities have overseen the crucifixion of Jesus. His body has been lying in a tomb, which the writer describes as a room hewn out of the rock—a cave. A large stone has been rolled in front of the entrance to the tomb.

The writer says, “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

This is Christianity’s central story, its miracle among miracles, the culmination of its gospel, the heart of its good news. It is no accident that the celebration of Easter takes place in spring-time. It is no accident that we encounter this miraculous story in the weeks following the vernal equinox, when the greening, rejuvenating earth offers natural miracle after natural miracle. It is no accident that we speak of an incarnated god—a god with a flesh-blood-and-bone body—dying a human death and coming back to life just as the earth around us is coming back to life after months and months of winter darkness and slumber. It is no accident the early Christian church eventually placed Easter in northern hemisphere springtime. Indeed, Easter sits atop a multitude of more ancient human celebrations of fertility and planting, celebrations of spring’s rebirth out of winter’s death-like sleep.

Contemplate the tomb for a moment—the cave hewn out of the rock, the large stone set in front of the entrance. Contemplate that dim, dark, misshapen room; that confining, constricting space. Such a potent, enduring image. Through the years it has come to symbolize so much that confines and constricts humans beings yearning for some kind of release, some kind of freedom, some kind of rebirth, some kind of resurrection. In our most difficult times, who doesn’t want to live again?

“So Night wrapped her great arms around the sun, and the night was very long indeed.”

What tomb, if any, constrains, confines, constricts you in the long night of winter?

What tomb, if any, prevents you from facing and making difficult decisions?

What tomb, if any, obscures your way forward?

What tomb, if any, isolates you from others, cuts you off from family, friends, neighbors—from those with whom you need to be in relationship?

What tomb, if any, numbs your heart to the suffering of others; numbs your heart to abuses of power, to injustice, to environmental degradation?

What tomb, if any, dampens your spirit, shrinks your soul?

What tomb, if any, keeps you anxious, fearful, angry; makes you forget  life’s sweetness, life’s joy; makes you forget life’s blessings, life’s grace, life’s beauty; makes you forget the precious, amazing sacred gift of life?

Sometimes, all it takes for us to remember life’s sweetness and joy is a small shift in perspective. Sometimes, all it takes for us to remember the many blessings in our lives is a small shift in our point of view. Sometimes all it takes for us to remember how precious our lives are is the arrival of spring, the rising sun on glistening mornings—soft, warm, yellow light greeting us with the predawn birdsong. Sometimes all it takes is a sunrise song.

“Early in the morning, the old ones woke the children. Together they climbed a high hill and faced to the east, the direction of sunrise. They sang songs to the sun and ran around trying to keep warm. They waited and waited to see what dawn would bring.           

The sky began to turn from black to indigo to blue. Slowly the sky grew light. A golden glow crept over the horizon. Night opened her great arms, and in a burst of brightness, the sun appeared, new and strong and shining.”[1]

Sometimes it’s easy, but sometimes it’s not so easy. Sometimes, despite spring, it is still difficult to remember the sweetness, joy, blessing, grace, beauty in life. Sometimes it is still difficult to remember how precious the gift of life is. Sometimes our suffering doesn’t end, even when we change our perspective, even when we sing. Sometimes the suffering of those for whom we pray doesn’t end; the suffering of those with whom we act in solidarity doesn’t end. Sometimes it feels like we need an Easter miracle.

“And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”

‘And what if there’s no such thing as miracles?’ you may ask. What if it’s just a myth, just a story, as so many of us have long suspected? What if Jesus was just a man whom the Romans crucified, like tens of thousands of other victims of their brutal imperial oppression? What if they rolled the stone in place, and that was the end? And what if anything that seems miraculous has a logical explanation? What if his disciples, and Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome loved him so much that they imagined he returned to them in the flesh, and their imaginings were so vivid that they believed? And, in time, all those they told believed too?

There may be a logical explanation for everything, and thus there may be no such thing as miracles. But those tombs? The ones that constrain, confine, and constrict us and others? The ones that make us forget all the sweetness and goodness in life, all the blessings, all the grace? Those tombs are real. And because they are real, we yearn for life beyond them. We yearn to live again. Which is why Easter lives on in our hearts whether we believe the stories or not. Because the tombs are real, I say we have no choice but to keep singing sunrise songs. The alternative is despair. Keep singing sunrise songs. Keep praying sunrise prayers. Keep dancing sunrise dances. Keep chanting sunrise chants. Keep stretching sunrise stretches. Keep telling sunrise stories of rebirth and rejuvenation. Keep telling sunrise stories of hope and aspiration. Keep telling sunrise stories of better days, of peaceful living, or loving relationships.

My prayer for each of us on this Easter morning is that we will keep singing sunrise songs; and my hope is that stones will roll away, the tombs that constrain, constrict and confine us and all humanity will open, and that the release, the freedom, the rebirth, the resurrection we seek will come, as sure as winter’s long night turns to spring’s green day.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] From CIRCLE ROUND by Starhawk and Diane Baker and Anne Hill, copyright (C) 2000 by Miriam Simas, Anne Hill and Diane Baker. See: https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/loveguide/session11/168878.shtml.

A Curious Ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She says, “I wondered.”

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

I’m interested. Can you tell me…?

I’m fascinated. How did you…?

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

May I ask you about…?

Can you tell me more?

Where are you from?

Who are your people?

Which is your child?

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

Were you scared?

How did you get through it?

What have you learned?

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

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

Do you miss her?

Do you miss him?

What’s next for you?

 I’m curious. Tell me about yourself.

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

I’m curious. Tell me your story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Amen and blessed be.

 

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

[2] Luke 18:17.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spirit-Filled Risk! (a Sermon for the Annual Appeal)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Religion at its best is no friend of the status quo,” says Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Dan Hotchkiss. “Religion transforms people; no one touches holy ground and stays the same.” [1] And not only does religion transform people, but, at least in this congregation, we expect people to transform our religious experience and practice. We are very explicit about this when we welcome new members into the congregation as we are doing this morning. We say “shake us up with your ideas … stir us up with your conscience … inspire us with your actions, and … stimulate our hopes with your dreams of what life can be.”[2] Let the religion do something good and new in your life, and bring something good and new to the life of the religion. The result is change, transformation, metamorphosis, innovation, growth. The status quo doesn’t stand a chance!

Or does it?

Religion is a collective endeavor. We conduct our religious lives together. And when people do things together, they require some system of organization. They require institutions. “Organization,” says Rev. Hotchkiss, “conserves. Institutions capture, schematize, and codify persistent patterns of activity…. A well-ordered congregation lays down schedules, puts policies on paper, places people in positions, and generally brings order out of chaos.”[3] Perhaps the status quo isn’t in such great jeopardy after all.

It’s a paradox. On one hand, change and transformation. On the other, the inherent conservatism of institutions. Both sides work together. Hotchkiss says, “The stability of a religious institution is necessary for the instability that religious transformation brings.”[4]

This paradox is nowhere more apparent to me than when we ask you, the members and friends of the congregation, to make your annual financial pledge. Like virtually any congregation, and any small, member-based non-profit, we need the steady flow of your generous financial gifts to provide fair salaries and benefits to our staff, to pay for insurance and utilities, to pay our annual dues to the Unitarian Universalist Association, to run our programs, to purchase supplies. Organizational stuff. Institutional stuff.

Yet, what we strive to offer you in return goes far beyond organizational stuff. We strive to offer life-giving, life-enabling, life-empowering, and in some cases, life-saving, spiritual support, sustenance and challenge, so that each of us individually—and all of us collectively—can live as our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to live, and thereby continually transform ourselves, this congregation and the wider world in positive ways. It’s a tall order. We don’t always achieve what we set out to achieve. But that’s what we strive to offer. There’s the paradox: we raise money to maintain institutional stability. We offer ministries that we hope bring change and transformation which, at their best, invite some degree of instability.

Any attempt we make to create a new program or a new staff position, to adopt new energy-efficient technologies or environmentally-friendly practices, to make new social justice commitments, to add new textures in worship, to evolve our emergency plan, to add new adult courses or new models for children’s religious education—any time we move away from the relative comfort of what we know, to the relative discomfort of something new, there is always some degree of risk. It’s not just that we might fail to do what we’re trying to do—that risk is always present. Entering into something new is risky because we might succeed, and success means change.

Our work for marriage equality in the mid-2000s, and for transgender anti-discrimination laws in the late 2000s, changed us. Our commitment to becoming a certified Green Sanctuary changed us. Our building project eight years ago changed us. Our commitment to building a truly multigenerational spiritual community has changed us. Our partnership with Moral Monday Connecticut and our commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement has changed us. Sometimes the changes aren’t so obvious. Sometimes they’re incremental; they come slowly. Sometimes making a commitment is only the beginning of a journey. Sometimes the change begins to happen, but we don’t do the work of sustaining it, and we begin to slide back to the way things ‘used to be.’ But regardless of the pace, whatever changes us demands that we encounter ourselves, our congregation and our community differently. Such encounter expands our knowledge, our consciousness, our world-view, our relationships, our boundaries. For me, such encounter is deeply spiritual. For me, the risks we take as a congregation are spirit-filled risks.

Even when we appear to be wisely maintaining our institution, paying salaries, insurance premiums, utility bills, running our programs—institutional stuff—we are simultaneously taking spirit-filled risks.

Perhaps the most significant goal the Policy Board has set for this year’s annual appeal is creating and hiring a Membership Coordinator. Creating a new position is always risky. It changes the fabric of the congregation. But we’re going for it this year. Our Growth Team and the Policy Board have been exploring and implementing a variety of strategies to grow our congregation—spiritual growth, membership growth, financial growth, and growth of our visibility in the wider community. But so many indicators point to the need for a staff member to focus on the deeper, sometimes intangible aspects of membership that go beyond the capacity, training and hours of our already very committed and involved Membership Committee volunteers.

Membership Coordinators are responsible for connecting with visitors to the congregation, and helping them discern whether membership is right for them. They also help increase opportunities for member engagement in congregational activities such as small group ministries, circle groups, adult religious education, social justice work, etc. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country report that hiring a Membership Coordinator not only leads to growth in membership and financial giving, but also increases opportunities for spiritual growth, learning and connection among members. It’s risky. It might not work. It might not have the impact we want it to have.

But what if it does work? We’ve been growing very slowly over the years, but what if  people start joining UUS:E at a higher rate? What if more people start finding opportunities for spiritual growth, connection, and learning here? What if more people have opportunities to share their stories, to be vulnerable with each other, to offer care and support in times of crisis? What if more people discover and take to heart the Unitarian Universalist principles, the central idea of the free church, the notion of the prophethood and the priesthood of all believers, the old Universalist idea that all are worthy of love? What if more people discover and take to heart the social and environmental justice commitments of this congregation and our denomination? What if twenty-five more people join us through the course of a year? What if fifty more people join us? What if a hundred more people join us? What if we have to add a third service on Sunday afternoons? What if we had the excruciating problem of having to find room for more parking spaces? What if we could realistically explore planting a new Unitarian Universalist congregation in downtown Manchester? It would be disruptive. It would be transformative. We would not be the same congregation we are now. I say that’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

I hope and trust most of you know that a group of UUS:E members feel so strongly about taking this spirit-filled risk, that they have created a giving challenge. For every one of us who increases our annual pledge between 5% and 10%, they will match the increase. I am deeply appreciative of the generosity of Larry Lunden, Rob and Tammy Stolzman, Fred and Phil Sawyer, and another family who wishes to remain anonymous. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

In the current year, and in the coming year, we are investing money in the long-term growth of our youth program. Some of you know that for years we’ve struggled to maintain a vibrant youth program. Many congregations in many denominations report similar experiences. This struggle is confounding to me. It is heart-breaking. The teenage years are some of the most vulnerable, turbulent, confusing—and hopefully fun and enjoyable—years of anyone’s life. Youth benefit immensely from ministries geared toward them. I know I benefitted immensely from my UU youth group as a teenager, so much so that I can’t imagine being the person I am today without having had that experience. Youth need places to ask questions, to wrestle with difficult decisions, to process feelings, to be affirmed and held and loved as budding adults; but also to have clear boundaries set for them, to learn responsibility, community service, and leadership skills. If I ever leave this position of minister at UUS:E, and we have not turned our youth ministry into a vibrant, life-giving, life-saving ministry, I will count it as my greatest failure.

What if, in time, our youth, and their friends, and even youth they barely know but who heard them talking about our youth ministry—really wanted to be here, wanted to participate in our Sunday services and our social and environmental justice work, wanted to hang out here, felt safe and supported here, had some of their most important friendships here, knew thirty adults besides their parents by name—and those adults knew them by name and could help them find after-school jobs or internships and could write college recommendations for them? What if that one kid who was sad—maybe that gay kid, that trans kid, that queer kid—who didn’t feel affirmed at home or at school—and was contemplating self-harm—actually found this church and discovered that incredible gift—that they matter, that people care about them, that they have a wonderful future ahead of them? What if that one kid, lost, struggling, possibly abused—that one kid falling through the cracks in the system, capable of great violence—actually found this place, and discovered that incredible gift—that they matter, that people care about them, that they have a wonderful future ahead of them?

What if we had that kind of youth program? It would be disruptive. It would change us. It would transform us. I say that’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

The UUS:E Music Committee and the Policy Board are beginning to talk about an expansion of our music program. What if, in time, we had more opportunities for members and friends to explore music as a spiritual practice? More hymn sings, more kirtans, more singing circles, more small performance groups, chamber groups, jazz, rock, and gospel groups? What if we had a true concert series with a diverse array of cutting-edge, multicultural artists performing at UUS:E on a regular basis? And what if we expanded that out to include visual arts, dance, theater, comedy, story-telling—all geared toward exploring those very compelling and life-giving connections between the arts and spirituality, the arts and mystical experience, the arts and social justice, the arts and environmental stewardship?

What if we had that kind of music program? It would be disruptive. It would change and transform us. I say that’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking!

We’re about to begin a congregation-wide conversation on becoming a sanctuary congregation. This doesn’t have an immediate financial implication for us, but it certainly could in future. While becoming a sanctuary congregation could mean many things, perhaps the most salient question is whether we will offer physical sanctuary to a person or a family who is seeking to avoid deportation. What if we were to do that? What if we said to an undocumented parent and grandparent of United States citizens—a worker, a taxpayer, a provider who was nevertheless facing deportation—“Come, live with us until your legal status can be worked out?” Or, in the words of the Rev. Kathleen McTigue, which opened our service this morning, “You who are fearful, who live with shadows / hovering over your shoulders, / come in. / This place is sanctuary, and it is for you.”[5]

Like so many Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country who have already provided sanctuary, it would be a clear demonstration of our second principle, “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” in action. And it would be disruptive. It would change and transform us. Given the need in the nation right now, given the unconscionable lack of compassion on display in Washington, DC these days, given the injustices of our current immigration system, I say it is a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

We’re also exploring becoming a founding member of a new Greater Hartford interfaith organization. What if we are successful? What if we help found a new interfaith coalition that has forty or fifty congregational members, all of them committed to working together across lines of faith, race, class and geography to build a more just and loving greater Hartford and state of Connecticut? What if we build deep relationships with other people of faith across the region? What if we join together with them, discern our common values, our common ground, our common commitments, our common longings, and then set to work, organizing, advocating, lobbying, testifying, marching, singing, praying and, most importantly, building the power capable of making substantive, lasting social change—building that rare kind of faith-based social, economic and political power that we will simply never have on our own? This is not some idealistic, liberal fantasy. This can really happen.

I say it’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

New ideas are risky. Change is risky. Upsetting the status quo is risky. Inviting the instability of transformation is risky. But in the end, taking spirit-filled risks is what makes congregations come alive, makes them thrive, enables them to achieve their vision.

Our annual appeal has begun. When your steward contacts you, please follow up with them quickly. Yes, we are asking each of us to make as generous a financial pledge as possible for the coming year. We are asking so that we can maintain institutional and organization stability, pay salaries, bills, etc. But please know that every dollar you give to UUS:E also funds a life-giving, life-enabling, life-empowering, and in some cases, life-saving, spirit-filled risk. Thank you for your generosity.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Hotchkiss, Dan, “The Paradox of Organized Religion,” Bless the Imperfect: Meditations or Congregational Leaders (Boston: Skinner House, 2014) p. 34.

[2] This language comes from the UUS:E “New Member Welcome.”

[3] Hotchkiss, “Paradox,” p. 34.

[4] Hotchkiss, “Paradox,” p. 34.

[5] McTigue, Kathleen, “This Place is Sanctuary,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations(Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 54.

You are a Visionary

“Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life”—a prayer from the early 17th-century devotional and mystical British poet, George Herbert. We also heard Mark Belletini’s meditation, “Mystical Song,” which riffs on Herbert’s prayer. Come, my way, my truth, my life. I have my own riff in mind this morning. What are the ways of this congregation? Do they serve us well? What new ways might we need to meet the challenges of the coming years? What is the truth that lies at the heart of this congregation? Is it, as Rev. Belletini says, “as exciting as fire, and as bright—as powerful as water, and as fluid—as solid as earth, but as transparent as air?”[1] Will it sustain us in the coming years? What is the life this congregation saves, nurtures and sends forth into the world? Is it a life the world needs? Hold onto whatever answers may be popping into your head and heart as you hear me ask these questions. Your answers are important because they help inform our collective vision for the future of this congregation. I’m going to come back to them. But I want to start with a few words about my upcoming sabbatical.

Today is my last day. Unless there is some extreme circumstance that demands my presence, the next time I lead worship from this pulpit will be February 4th, 2018. I’ve written a number of times about how various aspects of the congregation’s ministry will be conducted during the sabbatical, but it feels important for those of you who haven’t been part of the planning to hear directly from me about the plans.

First, believe this: UUS:E has a very strong, talented, dedicated leadership team and staff. So much that happens here happens with either very little or no direct input, guidance or oversight from me: children’s religious education, most adult religious education, sustainable living and green sanctuary programming, multigenerational events, two fifths of all Sunday morning services, concerts, art shows, Sunday morning hospitality, and most fundraising events including our annual appeal, the holiday fair, and the goods and services auction. We have outstanding leaders. Not just during my sabbatical but always: you are in great hands.

We’ve lined up eight guest preachers over the next four months, including next week Dr. Reza Mansoor, a leader of the Connecticut Muslim Coalition. Later in October, Rev. Jan Carlsson-Bull of the UU Church in Meriden will lead us in responding to the UU call for a second White Supremacy Teach-in. In November you’ll hear from Bailey Saddlemire, a youth who grew up in this congregation until her family moved to Providence a few years ago. She now serves on the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees and has many powerful stories to tell. Later in November, Revs. Carolyn Patierno of All Souls UU in New London and Heather Rion Starr of the Unitarian Society of Hartford will preach. In early December Rev. Kathleen Green, Executive Director of the Yale Humanist Community, will be here. In January Rev. Jean Wahlstrom, a UU minister and member of this congregation, and Bishop John Selders of Amistad United Church of Christ in Hartford and co-founder of Moral Monday CT will preach. As always, the Sunday Services Committee will be bringing a variety of lay-led services. Some will be multigenerational, designed in collaboration with Gina Campellone, our Director of Religious Education. It’s gonna be great!

Perhaps an even larger sabbatical question is “what happens with pastoral care?” There are three parts to this answer. Part One: I mentioned extreme circumstances. I consider death and dying an extreme circumstance, and I expect to provide the ministry I would normally provide in the event someone is actively dying or has died. Having served as your minister for fourteen years, I can’t imagine not being present under these circumstances. I’ve talked to many of you about your memorial services already. In some instances I already know members of your extended family. I know many of you theologically, many of you musically. I know your passions. I love you. There no universe in which it would be OK for me to say, if someone is dying or has died, “I’m on sabbatical, find someone else.” I want to be there. That’s my rule. Some clergy disagree, but that’s how I roll.

Part Two: We have a 10-member Pastoral Friends Committee, ably led by Patricia Wildes. While I am on sabbatical, any request for help of a pastoral nature from the congregation should go to Patricia. She and the Pastoral Friends Committee can organize much of the help people typically need—rides, meals, visits. Patricia will also manage the Minister’s Discretionary Fund for people who need financial assistance.

Part Three: For people experiencing some sort of spiritual crisis who want pastoral support from a professional minister on a short-term basis, we have a list of area clergy—all Unitarian Universalist and one from the United Church of Christ—who are willing to receive calls. Patricia Wildes can help you connect with one of those clergy if needed.

There are many other responsibilities and roles I have at UUS:E that will be on hold. Staff supervision will be on hold, though the staff know if they have any problems they can speak with our Personnel Committee or the Board President, Rob Stolzman. My work with our Emergency Preparedness Team, Mental Health Ministry, Council of Elders, Circle Groups, Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee, Membership Committee, Policy Board, and Program Council will be on hold, though all of these programs and committees will continue. You are always in good hands.

There’s a very obvious opportunity for me in taking a sabbatical. It’s an opportunity to pull back from the daily tasks of ministry, to pull back from being on-call at essentially all times—even during vacations—and to work on a project that I otherwise wouldn’t have time to work on. And, as the word sabbatical implies, it’s an opportunity to rest. I cannot express to the Policy Board and to you the depth of my gratitude for this opportunity. I am aware the vast majority of people don’t get sabbaticals. This is a privilege beyond measure. It is a blessing. You are blessing me with a gift of precious, sacred time. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, thank you, thank.

Within this opportunity is a chance for me to discern which aspects of my ministry remain critical to fulfilling both my vision for myself as a minister and the congregation’s vision for its ministries; and which aspects of my ministry are actually not so critical, not so essential, and might even be getting in the way of fulfilling my vision and yours. Might it be time to let go of some of the ways I conduct my ministry, some of the programs I invest my time in? When I’m in the midst of it all, it can be difficult to do this discernment. Everything feels important all the time. Taking a sabbatical will allow me to recognize why I do what I do the way I do it; what I miss and don’t miss about the ministry; and what feels critical and essential vs. what doesn’t.

There’s a similar opportunity for you. During a sabbatical the congregation has the opportunity to notice, by virtue of the minister’s absence, what it does well, what it does not do so well, where it excels, where it needs improvement. It has the opportunity to discern what ministries it needs a professional minister to conduct; and what ministries lay people can conduct. The minister’s absence causes a natural ferment of thought and reflection. The absence creates space for new insights to emerge. Of course, you don’t want to make any major decisions in the minister’s absence—like voting to expand the building. Please wait until February to do anything that drastic! But my absence, and the presence of a variety of guest voices, creates a very natural opening to new ways, new truths, new life. Come, my way, my truth, my life.

This sabbatical comes at a very opportune time. This congregation is at a point where it needs to establish a new vision. It’s been seven years since we moved into this renovated, green, accessible building. During that time, the world has changed. It’s time for us to re-envision our future. Who do we want to be? What directions do we want to move in? It’s time. Therefore I challenge you—each of you individually and all of you collectively—under the leadership of the Policy Board and Program Council—to reflect on our congregational vision in the coming months. What is the vision for our ministries five or ten years from now? What do we want to achieve? What are the components of our best future congregational self? Come, my way, my truth, my life!

It’s actually your job to answer this question. In Unitarian Universalism we practice congregational  polity. This means the congregation governs itself. The congregation belongs to its people. The people envision their own future together. This doesn’t mean that the minister can’t have a vision—you certainly want a minister who is visionary—but ideally the congregation’s vision and the minister’s vision are in alignment. So please let this sabbatical time be a time of discernment for you.

It has already begun. Our leadership team held a retreat this weekend with the purpose of beginning to craft a new vision. Later this fall they’ll share their initial thoughts with you and request your feedback, which will help us collectively craft a vision statement that the congregation can approve at its annual meeting in May.

I want to tell you just a bit about this weekend. Before we engaged in our own process of visioning, we acknowledged that there are many voices and identities that aren’t present in our membership, especially not in large numbers. Mindful of this, and mindful of the movement within Unitarian Universalism today to understand and confront white supremacy, we invited a group of People of Color leaders from Manchester and Hartford to speak to us Friday night about their vision for this region and their ideas about how a congregation like ours might be able to contribute to that vision. We listened. We heard things—hard, heartfelt, honest things—we wouldn’t have heard otherwise. We were deeply grateful. Then, with their words reverberating in our hearts, we engaged in our visioning work.

Come, my way, my truth, my life. Looking towards the future, what will be our way? Building community—caring, heart-centered, thoughtful, spiritual community. Community that supports those who are vulnerable. Community that speaks for those for whom it is too dangerous to speak. Community that encourages and promotes courageous conversations about difficult, polarizing topics. Community that lets people be who they are, that encourages people be true to themselves rather than feeling they must hide part of who they are just to get by. Multigenerational community. Multicultural community. Multiracial community. Community that expands outward from a tight, robust, fun, liberally religious, deeply spiritual congregation here at 153 West Vernon St. to partners in the wider community: to liberation and social justice organizations, to interfaith and religious organizations—especially religious to minorities who face persecution in American society—to arts organizations, to service organizations—a vast network of connection, interplay, mutual support and caring. Come, my way!

Looking toward the future, what is our truth? The answer is so clear to our leaders: love. Perhaps first and foremost: learning again and again and again to love ourselves. In the midst of white supremacy, in the midst of climate catastrophe, in the midst of political polarization, in the midst of violence and hatred, in the midst of profound inequality and endless need, learn to love ourselves deeply so that we may we have great stores of love with which to bless the world; love for neighbors, love for strangers, love for children, love for elders, love for the lonely and the isolated, love for the demonized and the scapegoated; love across lines of faith, culture, ethnicity and race; love across lines of gender and sexual orientation; love across lines of city and suburb; love so vast and deep that these lines that vex us start to blur, start to disappear; so that our connectedness and our oneness shine forth not only in what we say but in what we do. Come, my truth!

Looking toward the future, what is our life? The answer that came through from our panel on Friday and our discussions on Saturday is authenticity, the life of people who don’t hide, who let their light shine, who speak their truths, who feel, who sing and dance; people who know themselves deeply, share themselves generously, who listen well to other selves, respect and honor other selves, celebrate other selves. What is our life? It is a bold life, not afraid to dream, not afraid to risk, not willing any longer to play it safe when the world’s need is overflowing. What is our life?  It is a committed life, a connected life, a powerful life. It is our energy, spirit and strength sent forth into the world to love, to be present to suffering, to comfort, to heal; to bear witness to oppression and injustice; to resist and dismantle the systems that hold oppression in place, to build a more just, loving and fair society. Come, my life!

That’s my best initial articulation of our emerging vision for this congregation’s future. What I hope is that in the space of this sabbatical time, you individually and as a congregation can continue this conversation and imagine the most compelling UUS:E future possible. Imagine what has never been imagined before. I challenge you to think big. Think boldly. Don’t worry about the technicalities of how some new ministry might come to fruition. Don’t worry about whether or not we have the resources. Take time to imagine amazing what-could-bes. Take time to imagine a spiritually alive, powerful, transformative, life-saving, life-giving, connected congregation. If the vision is compelling, the resources will come. You all have it within you. Be visionary!

“Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life.” May the ways of this congregation meet the needs of a hurting world. May the truth that lies at the heart of this congregation be “as exciting as fire, and as bright—as powerful as water, and as fluid—as solid as earth, but as transparent as air!”[2] May the life this congregation saves, nurtures and sends forth bring love and healing into the world. You each have it within you. In the coming months, be visionary.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Belletini, Mark, “Mystical Song,”Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

[2] Belletini, Mark, “Mystical Song,”Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

Reclaiming Humanism

Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika addressing the 2017 UUA General Assembly

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Unitarian Universalism knew Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika[1] as Hayward Henry, chair of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC), a Black Power organization within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Under his leadership BUUC advocated—initially successfully—for the UUA to dedicate one million dollars to a Black Affairs Council (BAC) to organize and fund projects for Black self-determination around the United States.[2] This funding was highly controversial. Almost as soon as the 1968 Cleveland General Assembly voted on a plan to disburse the money, the UUA’s board of trustees began backtracking on the commitment.[3] The controversy continued over the next few years, only a portion of the money was disbursed, and as many as 1500 Black Unitarian Universalists left the denomination, profoundly disappointed in the UUA’s inability to fulfill its promises. I had always understood this leave-taking was due primarily to the funding controversy. However, when Dr. Sanyika spoke at the 2017 New Orleans General Assembly, he offered a different interpretation. 

(The section I’m quoting begins at 15:00) “When we were within this denomination,” he said, “ we initiated a dialogue on something called Black Humanism…. When we left in 1969, that was not a walk out. It was an exodus. It was an exodus because we no longer felt we had a home. We no longer felt the love and care. We no longer felt that Black Humanism was on the agenda to be discussed…. We’ve always said human agency is at the center of transformation, but you can’t do it without divine reconciliation. We said we can be theist and non-theist—I know some of you want to argue that point…. I don’t mind talking about it, because we were no longer talking about kindergarten theology with no spookistic white guy sittin’ up in no sky…. We were criticizing the church, across the board. Not just UUism…. there can be no Humanism without discussing Black Humanism. It can’t be. Why? Because we are a part of the human family who has contributed to the discourse on what it means to be human. So we invite that conversation with everybody who claims to have some form of Humanism in their background. But you must remember you have a history of Christian Humanism in your background too. So, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and say there is nothing but humanity, because once you do that you reinforce White Supremacy without even knowing you’re doing it. So, the conversation about Black Humanism is really a conversation about salvation. But it’s about the salvation of all humanity…. Just like Black Lives Matter, Black Humanism matters. But so does all humanity, so does all other Humanism that seeks justice and transformation and peace.”[4]

Dr. Sanyika says the exodus happened not simply because the denomination was unwilling to fully fund BAC. Black people also left for explicitly theological reasons. The UUA, whose dominant theological identity was Humanist, would not make space for Black Humanism. At least some Black UU Humanists were theistic,[5] meaning they maintained belief in God—though clearly not God in any traditional sense—“no spookistic white guy sittin’ up in no sky.” But the dominant form of Humanism in Unitarian Universalism was atheistic. Its theological assumption was, essentially, “there is nothing but humanity.” Black Humanism—at least the strand Dr. Sanyika represents—needed more. “We’ve always said human agency is at the center of transformation, but you can’t do it without divine reconciliation.” Finding no room for such reconciliation in the UUA, they left.

I’d never heard this argument before. It shook me up—in a good way. It inspired me to take stock of my own UU Humanist identity and reclaim it. I am a Unitarian Universalist Humanist, yet it has taken me a long time to speak those words with conviction. I have been ambivalent about my Humanism. But we live in uncertain times. We live with a variety of threats to our liberal faith, to democracy, to our health, to our social cohesion, to our planet. This is no time for spiritual ambivalence. I want to tell you about my journey into ambivalence and why Dr. Sanyika’s words have drawn me out of it.

As a child in the Unitarian Society of New Haven, most adults identified theologically as Humanists. I understood that to mean a few things. First and foremost, it meant placing human beings at the center of the religious life, specifically free and autonomous human beings. Humanism prioritized free thought, free inquiry, the free and the responsible search for truth and meaning. It embraced the results of science. It allowed and encouraged people to change their beliefs in response to new evidence. Humanism said the individual arrives at authentic, personal belief through the exercise of reason.

In our church most Humanists were atheists. Our Humanism removed God from the center of religion. The gods remained available to us as objects of study; but God was no longer the object of worship on Sunday morning, no longer integral to the spiritual life of the community. At its best this atheistic UU Humanism stood for human liberation. At its best it replaced the capricious whims of inscrutable deities and oppressive religious and secular hierarchies with individual human agency and creativity. At the heart of the world’s scriptures, it found poetry and wisdom rather than rigid doctrines and forever-sealed truths. It called for social and economic justice in this life on this earth, not in some future new life on some future new earth. It invited every human being to do their own thinking and feeling on spiritual matters rather than accept without question the pronouncements of religious authorities. At its best. I am forever grateful to this atheistic UU Humanism for imparting to me a strong religious identity, for nurturing me, loving me, instilling confidence in me, and sending me forth into the world with a hopeful, committed heart.

So where did my ambivalence come from? We weren’t always at our best. Our atheistic Humanist UU congregation developed a spiritual allergy to any God-talk that approached belief. It got nervous, even angry, around any God-talk that sought to bring God back to the center. We kept our spiritual distance from theism, and although I didn’t recognize it as a child, I learned to not take theism seriously, a message which runs counter to our third UU principles, “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” People who believed in God, especially in a traditional God, were not as enlightened as we Humanists—not as rational, thoughtful, or discriminating in their understanding of ultimate things. We believed believers had been duped, deceived, misled, manipulated. How could they not see it? Their religion was outdated, anachronistic, an opiate, a crutch, a source of ‘pie in the sky,’ but not true spiritual freedom, not liberation. Their God was that spookistic white guy. Wouldn’t they be more happy not having all the answers?

We could be smug. Not always, and not everyone, but it was there. Nor was it unique to that church. Those of you who’ve been long-time members of this congregation report dynamics similar to waht I’m describing. Atheistic Humanism was the dominant spiritual identity in the majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the late 60s and early 70s when my family first became involved—the same era when theistic Black Humanism was asking for a seat at the UU theological table. My understanding is that this ‘not-our-best’ dynamic was denomination-wide, and it likely had something to do with why Dr. Sanyika said “We non longer felt that Black Humanism was on the agenda to be discussed.”

Nevertheless, as a child, and even as a college student, I didn’t recognize the distance between myself and traditional theists—or any theists for that matter. It wasn’t until I entered seminary in the 1990s that I began to question my atheistic Humanism. Seminary was the first time I had to defend my religious identity in a diverse, interfaith community where people with more traditional views of God were visible, vocal, progressive and intelligent. This was the first time I encountered theists who were thinking deeply about God, reasoning, arguing, weighing evidence, not accepting without question, even contemplating atheism. And their faith was flourishing. I began to understand that theism isn’t one thing, that God isn’t only the spookistic white guy up in the sky. In fact, I never meant anyone who believed in that guy. I loved the religious identity of my childhood, but I realized that clinging to it too tightly in the seminary environment might actually prevent me from engaging in the free thought and interplay of ideas I valued so highly. Slowly, I began to suspect that, along with humanity, there might be a place for God at the center.

Through the course of my seminary training and into the early years of my ministry, I discovered truths about the human experience which hadn’t been offered to me as a child, and which ultimately made my atheistic UU Humanism feel inadequate. There were moments wherein my rational mind just didn’t cut it. There were moments of heartbreak and pain, vulnerability and fear—my own and that of others—and there were no adequate words to say, no evidence to weigh, no inquiry to conduct. In such moments all I could do was trust—without any evidence—that I or they would eventually arrive at the other side of heartbreak and pain.

There were moments of decision, moments when I could no longer stay in whatever pattern I was in; moments in which I needed to change; moments in which, no matter how much I prepared, I was not ready. I could not reason my way to an answer, could not anticipate what the full impact of my decision would be. All I could do is surrender, let go and fall into something new.

There were moments of intense joy, hope, love and there were no words! Just energy flowing, spirit animating; the recognition that I was experiencing a reality vastly larger than me.

There were moments wherein I was arrogant, prideful, smug and I needed some power beyond me to sit me down and counsel me on the virtue of humility, to demand that I stop talking and start listening.

There were moments of awe in the presence of beauty, and the only possible response from me was reverent silence.

And there were moments when I thought I was carrying myself, but suddenly realized never in my life had I ever carried myself alone. Communities carried me. Ancestors carried me. The earth carried me. Flowing energy and animating spirit carried me. I realized my life is carried, held, fed, nurtured, challenged by countless realities larger than me. Humanity, I realized, isn’t alone at the center of religion. I became comfortable using the word God to name the totality of these larger realities. I became a theist. I didn’t jettison humanity from the center—that would be folly. I simply put God back.

Our childhood spiritual lessons run deep. For me, Humanism was atheistic. I thought I had to lay it aside. That has been the source of my ambivalence. Of course, my ambivalence isn’t rational. I’ve always known you could be a Humanist and a theist. The Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association states clearly there is room for theism within Humanism.[6] I just haven’t used the Humanist label, perhaps out of respect for my atheistic Humanist UU elders. But my ambivalence hasn’t been serving me well in these uncertain times. It’s as if a part of me is missing, though I didn’t fully realize that until I heard Dr. Sanyika say “We’ve always said human agency is at the center of transformation, but you can’t do it without divine reconciliation.” At that moment I knew I wanted my Humanism back.   

Of course, I cannot claim a home in Black Humanism. That’s not my journey. I am also mindful that some Black Humanists are atheists. And I also am not suggesting that atheist UU Humanists—or any atheists—ought to become theists. I continue to support atheists in this congregation and elsewhere, and I will continue to speak out against the marginalization of atheists in American public life.

But I know this about me: While I need humanity at the center of my religion, I also need clarity about what realities larger than me are carrying me—what communities, what ground, what land, what ancestors, what beauty, what spirit, what visions of the future carry me? Coming to such clarity and letting it guide my life is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but when pain, heartbreak, vulnerability and fear are ascendant, I also need realities larger than myself into which I can place my trust. When life-changing decisions must be made without knowing fully the consequences of those decisions, I need realties larger than myself to catch me as I surrender, let go, fall. Learning to trust such larger realities is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but I also need sources of joy, hope and love larger than myself. Learning to draw on such sources is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but I also need realities larger than myself to quiet me, center me, ground me, surround me with silence, beseech me to listen, and keep me humble. Bowing down to such realities is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but I also need realities larger than myself to inspire and embolden me to take action for justice and liberation not only for my human siblings, but for the earth and all its creatures. Taking such action is a form of divine reconciliation.

I am a Unitarian Universalist Humanist. I say this with no ambivalence. Knowing that we live in uncertain times and with news of white nationalists and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, each of us needs every piece of ourselves to remain clear about what’s happening, courageous in our actions, and spiritually whole, so that we respond at our best.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] To learn more about Dr. Sanyika, I recommend this powerful, short 2015 film by Darius Clark Monroe entitled Two Cities: A Portrait of Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika at https://vimeo.com/137993474.

[2] One of the more well-known recipients of an early BAC grant was Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa.

[3] For a historical timeline of the controversy, see: http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/river/workshop15/178882.shtml.

[4] Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, address to the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, June 23rd, 2017. See: http://smallscreen.uua.org/videos/ga2017-303-dr-sanyika-presentation.

[5] For a relatively recent article on Black Humanism, see Pinn, Anthony B, “Anybody There? Reflections on African American Humanism,” Journal of the HUUmanists Association, vo. 31, #3, 1997. http://huumanists.org/publications/journal/anybody-there-reflections-african-american-humanism.

[6] See the ‘frequently asked questions’ section of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association website at http://huumanists.org/faq-page#n4639.

Reinventing the Sacred

In his 2008 book Reinventing the Sacred, complexity theorist Stuart A. Kauffman tells an apocryphal story of the invention of the tractor. Portable engines had been invented for the purpose of powering farm machinery in the early 1800s. The question by mid-century was how to embed an engine directly into the machinery. No reasonably-sized chassis could bear the weight of the engine. Eventually an engineer working on the problem suggested using the sturdy, rigid engine block itself as the chassis.[1] This solution led to the invention of the tractor. This story illustrates Kauffman’s principle of “emergence,” which describes how every new thing—new molecules, species, technologies, economies, cultures—comes into the universe for the first time—not at the very beginning, but as a part of a continuing creative process inherent in the universe. This principle is so compelling to Kauffman that he proposes we call it God. Hence the title of his book, Reinventing the Sacred.

It would never have occurred to me to read this book, but luckily for me, when Fred and Phil Sawyer purchased a sermon at last year’s goods and services auction, Fred assigned it. “Luckily.” As I remember it, Fred handed it to me saying something like, “I got nothing out of it; I’m not a biologist; maybe you can tell us why this matters.” I remember thinking, “I’m not a biologist either!” But I’m always up for a challenge. And reading this book was a challenge.  Much of the science is dense and beyond my comprehension. But I know enough to understand the significance Kauffman attaches to the science. And what he says does matter—not because he has found God, but because his science reveals a mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe—one that can inform us in a profound way what it means to be human. Ready?

I think it’s fair to say the average human isn’t typically aware of a mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe. We might catch fleeting glimpses of it in the midst of worship, or in the presence of beautiful art or nature. If we desire a more sustained experience of it we need to work at it. It requires a prayer life, a devotional life, a meditational life. It requires regular practices that connect mind, body and spirit to each other and to the world. But that’s not what the book is about. Kauffman contends we need a new scientific worldview. In fact, the reason we aren’t typically aware of the mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe is because the reigning scientific worldview, reductionism, blocks such awareness.  

“Reductionism,” says Kauffman, “is the view that society is to be explained in terms of people, people in terms of organs, organs by cells, cells by biochemistry, biochemistry by chemistry, and chemistry by physics…. It is the view that in the end, all of reality is nothing but whatever is ‘down there’ at the … base of physics….”[2] What’s down there? Atoms and subatomic particles like pions, muons, guons and the Higgs boson. A string theorist would say there are vibrating strings down there.

Presumably, there are laws governing the behavior of these microcosmic entities, just as there are laws governing the behavior of planets and stars. If we can articulate these laws, if we can know what each minute entity will do in any given situation, then theoretically it is possible to know everything that will happen. This is reductionism’s goal. We’ve succumbed to the Galilean spell. Kauffman says “since Galileo rolled balls down incline planes and showed that the distance traveled varied with the square of the time elapsed, we scientists have believed that the universe and all in it are governed by natural laws…. Under this spell we have believed reductionism for over 350 years.”[3] The spell is seductive. If we can find the natural laws governing the physical world, then we can know everything that will happen in physics. Kauffman says knowing a natural law means we can pre-state what is going to happen. If we can pre-state everything that will happen in physics, then we can pre-state everything that will happen in chemistry and on up the chain: biochemistry, cells, organs, people, societies.[4] With such knowledge we can unlock every secret in the universe.

But Kauffman also reminds us of a shadowy truth at the heart of reductionism: “The more we comprehend the universe, the more pointless it seems.”[5] That is, physics only tells us what happens. It only tells us facts. There’s no meaning or purpose embedded in the interaction of subatomic particles. If everything—including consciousness—can be reduced to particles colliding, then at the heart of reality there is no meaning or purpose. There is no agency. Nothing utterly new emerges, and there is certainly no God. It’s all utterly pointless.

Kaffman resists this conclusion. He is convinced we aren’t just particles colliding. We have agency. There is meaning and purpose. These things didn’t exist at the beginning of the universe; they have emerged into the universe over time and they cannot be reduced to physics. Kauffman proposes to break the Galilean spell. He makes this proposal based primarily on his understanding of a concept in the theory of evolution called preadaptation. What is preadaptation? Any biological organism has features that are more or less adapted to its environment and enable it to survive and reproduce. But what happens if the environment changes—becomes colder or warmer, wetter or dryer—and the organism’s survival needs change? The study of evolution reveals that in such situations, some of the organism’s features may take on new functions that have no relationship to their original functions. Scientists call this preadaptation.

This is why Kauffman tells the tractor story. The engine block’s original function is to support the components of the engine. But some engineer imagined the engine block could also be used as the tractor’s chassis. The engine block wasn’t designed to be a chassis, but as needs changed, it emerged as a chassis. It was preadapted to function as a chassis even though it wasn’t designed to function as a chassis. Kauffman also talks about screwdrivers, which were designed to turn screws. “But how many other novel uses can the screwdriver be put to? It can be used to open a can of paint … to scrape putty from a frozen window … to defend yourself against an assailant … as an object of art … as a paperweight … to carve your initials on a fine tabletop, spear a fish, crack a coconut, chop down a tree using a rock to hammer if you are on an isolated island making a hut.”[6] When we use a screwdriver for any purpose other than turning screws, we can say it is preadapted for these other functions.

That’s the principle. Returning to actual biology, Kauffman talks about how the three bones in the fish jaw were preadapted to evolve into the bones of the middle ear in mammals. He talks about how ancient fish lungs evolved by preadaptation into the swim bladder. There are countless examples of preadaptation in nature. It is one of the primary mechanisms by which novelty emerges into the universe. And whenever something new emerges into the universe, it also changes its environment, putting survival pressure on other organisms, thus creating opportunities for emergence to continue in endless cycles. Emergence does not violate the laws of physics, but there is also no physical law that fully governs it either. Kauffman says there can be no such law because “we have not the faintest idea of what all possible [environmental changes] might be … and no way to list all possible … environments with respect to all … features of organisms. How would we even get started on creating such a list? Thus we cannot [pre-state] the …  preadaptations that will come to exist in the biosphere.”[7]

Remember the mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe? Here it is. Reductionism can’t explain it because reductionism requires laws. Emergence is a partially lawless phenomenon.

Kauffman calls this mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe God. Throughout the book he is clear he can’t accept the idea of an all-powerful, transcendent, Creator God. But he also can’t accept reductionism’s pointless universe. He believes he has found a third way, a scientifically describable creativity inherent in the universe which, because no natural law governs it completely, is also eternally mysterious. Isn’t God a good name for it? This is how he reinvents the sacred. But there’s no reinvention here. Most theologians would call his theology pantheism, the idea that God is synonymous with the natural world. If the natural world is inherently creative, partially lawless and unknowably mysterious, then God is creative, partially lawless and unknowably mysterious. Pantheism comes in many forms and is quite ancient. I’m a pantheist. Many Unitarian Universalists profess some form of pantheism, even if they don’t use the word.

I’m not blown away by his theologizing, but I’ve loved contemplating what it means to be human in this inherently creative, partially lawless, unknowably mysterious universe. Every time Kauffman illustrates how some biological process, or the human mind, or the biosphere, or the economy or human culture cannot be reduced to physics, cannot be contained within the boundaries of natural law; or how some change in biology, the economy or culture cannot be pre-stated—his science reveals an infinite space all around us and in which virtually anything can happen. He calls it the adjacent possible. Every possible preadaptation, every path to something new exists there, and everything that emerges new into the universe emerges there. This doesn’t mean that every new thing that can happen will happen, but something new will happen. In a sense we are constantly entering a sliver of the adjacent possible.

As an example, he notes “that the early Earth … had only a small diversity of organic molecules, perhaps a hundred or a thousand different compounds. Today there are trillions of different organic compounds spread among the roughly 100 million living species. The biosphere has exploded into its chemically adjacent possible. We will find similar explosions in economics, human history and elsewhere…. The creativity in the universe is tied to the explosions into the adjacent possible.”[8] Every new chemical compound, cell or organism, every new use for a screwdriver, the inner ear, the swim bladder, the automobile, the airplane, the emergence of  smell, sight, hearing, taste, touch through evolution—even every new thought—

brings us into the adjacent possible. And every time something new comes into the world, a new adjacent possible comes into existence. Endless creativity.

I invited Molly Vigeant to compose a poem in response to the prompt: “is the human mind like a computer?” She wrote: my mind connects / each neuron / like a cable to a memory / that means something to me, / my cables connect / finding results to your questions, / to my questions / but i do not display the results / you see my mind / does not work like that laptop …. I gave her this prompt when I was reading Kauffman’s chapter on the human mind. He asks whether or not the human mind is like a computer. He and Molly agree. Our minds do not work like laptops. Computers are algorithmic. They use algorithms to make complex calculations. Humans use algorithms—long division is an example—but is the human mind algorithmic like a computer? For an algorithm to work, there must be boundaries. There must be what Kauffman calls a pre-stated problem space. The algorithm finds a solution within the boundaries of the problem space. Once the problem space is pre-stated, there are many solutions that can be found within the space, but not beyond it. There is no adjacent possible for computers. Laws set limits. The human mind, however, knows no such limits. Molly almost begs us, “Please / don’t call me a computer /when I compose rhymes, call it the power / of a human mind.” Kauffman says, “the human mind, like a ghost ship, keeps slipping free of its computational moorings to sail where it will. It does so because it is nonalgorithmic. This freedom is part of the creativity of the universe.”[9]

Yes! The human imagination crosses boundaries into the adjacent possible all the time: in dreams, in creative endeavor, while under pressure, in the throes of passion, in problem-solving, in prayer, in meditation, while doing yoga, dancing, running, day-dreaming, free and easy wandering. I’m mindful of our opening words from Howard Thurman: “The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of [people] often … causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making.”[10] Any time we’re struggling and realize we need to live differently, the adjacent possible beckons. Any time we encounter difficulty, hurt, tragedy and need to adapt to new circumstances, the adjacent possible beckons. Any time we’ve become weighted down by habit or addiction and need to reinvent ourselves, the adjacent possible beckons. But it cannot be pre-stated. There is no way to know ahead of time what the mind will imagine, what answers will emerge. We’ll know once we’ve found our way there.

This is what it means to be human. We live in a partially lawless universe, not knowing what the future may bring. In this sense we are surrounded by mystery, which can be terrifying. But we are also surrounded by infinite pathways, infinite promise. The adjacent possible is always accessible. Knowing this, trusting this, believing this, let us not fear mystery but rather embrace it. Let us live in consort with the creative heart of the universe. Knowing the adjacent possible is there, may we find inspiration to meet the challenges of our lives. Knowing the adjacent possible is there, may we be hopeful people.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Kauffman, Stuart A., Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 2008) pp. 151-2. Kauffman says this “is how tractors are made,” but he doesn’t cite any sources. A quick google search informs me that “in 1892, John Froelich invented and built the first gasoline/petrol-powered tractor in Clayton County, Iowa, USA. A Van Duzen single-cylinder gasoline engine was mounted on a Robinson engine chassis, which could be controlled and propelled by Froelich’s gear box.” See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tractor.

[2] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, pp. 10-11.

[3] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 131.

[4] Kauffman refers to the early 19th-century French scientist, Simon Pierre LaPlace, saying that “the entire universe and all the events within it, from particles colliding to nations at war, could be understood as nothing but the motion of a very large number of particles.” Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, pp. 14.

[5] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, pp. 18.

[6] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 188.

[7] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 132-3.

[8] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 64.

[9] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 188.

[10] Thurman, Howard, Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (Harper, 1959).

 

White Supremacy Teach-In

Rev. Josh Pawelek

During last year’s presidential campaign there was an almost constant outcry from white conservative and working class voters who were tired of being called racist. They were especially tired of progressive white people on the coasts and in large cities calling them racist. ‘Just because we want to end illegal immigration doesn’t mean we’re racist.’ ‘Just because we support law and order doesn’t mean we’re racist.’ ‘Just because we support a temporary Muslim ban doesn’t mean we’re racist.’ Even traditional white supremacists started asking, ‘if it’s ok to say black lives matter, why is it racist to say white lives matter?

As you may expect, I have responses to each of these arguments. Each of them, if enacted in real life, have racist outcomes, regardless of the intent of the people who promote them. But this White Supremacy Teach-In is not about other peoples’ racism. It is about how white supremacy continues to operate in our beloved Unitarian Universalist faith. I remember hearing that outcry during the campaign. I remember wondering for a moment: have I become a coastal elite, looking down my hypocritical nose at heartland, rust-belt and southern white people who support a candidate who expresses racist views? Some of you asked that same question: ‘Are we those coastal elites at whom conservative white voters are so angry?’ And to some degree, at least for me, the answer is ‘yes.’ I was—and continue to be—angry at not only the racism, but the misogyny, homophobia, religious bigotry and classism driving major policy proposals and executive orders in Washington, DC, and having a negative social, economic and political impact not only on people of color, indigenous people, women, GLBTQ people, Muslims, but on many of those angry white voters as well.

But if that is the extent of my analysis, then shame on me. If the problem, as I assess it, lies only with those people out there and not with me too, then not only have I become that stereotype of the liberal, coastal elite, but I don’t really understand how white supremacy works. If all I really do is point fingers at other people, am I not excusing myself from taking any responsibility for the problem? Whenever I heard that outcry—stop calling us racist!—I wondered if there might be some legitimacy to the request, but only for a moment. It’s not a legitimate request. But the reason I feel confident saying that is because I know the problem does not lie simply with Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Jeff sessions, Breitbart and Fox News, or police over-reaching, ICE deporting, and big energy companies building pipelines across lands sacred to indigenous people. It lies with white liberals too. It lies with me too. As much as our nation was founded on egalitarian ideals, it was also founded on an unexamined assumption and vision of white supremacy. Despite centuries of resistance, that foundation has yet to be sufficiently eroded, and thus white supremacy continues to move through virtually all aspects of our lives, including our religious lives. I don’t give those other white people a pass, because I don’t give a pass to myself, my family, my community or to this faith I love deeply.

Our Unitarian Universalist principles name the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the imperative of justice, equity and compassion in human relations. As such they call us to be constantly vigilant about confronting white supremacy and other forms of oppression in ourselves and in the world, and I could and should be preaching this sermon at any time. But why today? And, for that matter, why are more than 600 Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country doing the same thing today?

It’s been a rough few months for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. As many of you know, in early April, the Rev. Peter Morales resigned as President of the UUA in the midst of allegations of racism in hiring practices. For background, I want to read a section of a March 27th UU World magazine article entitled, “Critics Decry ‘White Supremacy’ in Hiring Practices.

“The hiring in March of a white male minister to a regional leadership position within the [UUA], an organization in which almost all the top staff positions are held by white people, has sparked controversy over whether the UUA is living its stated racial justice values.” News of this hiring “emerged as UU religious professionals of color were gathered in Baltimore for [an] annual … retreat on March 17. One of those religious professionals [who identifies racially as Chicana-Latina] … told colleagues at the retreat that she had been a finalist for the job but had been told she was not “the right fit for the team….”

Over the next week, charges spread on social media that the UUA had hired another white person over [a] woman of color who was a qualified finalist for the Southern Region job. Critics pointed out that the five regional leads, who supervise the fifty members of the UUA’s Congregational Life staff … were all white ministers….

UUA Moderator Jim Key said the Board of Trustees has received a dozen emails and letters expressing unhappiness over the lack of diversity in UUA staffing…. One of those emails—a letter signed by 121 UU ministers and other religious professionals—said that ‘the practice of hiring white people nearly to the exclusion of hiring people of color is alarming….’ Noting that people of color make up no more than 11 percent of any rank of UUA employees except service workers, where they are 84 percent …, the letter called for a change in hiring practices and a public conversation about monitoring the Association’s success in creating a multicultural staff.”[1]

Over the next few weeks the controversy grew. On April 1st Rev. Morales resign, saying he had lost the trust of too many people to effectively lead the UUA at this time.[2]  Eventually more senior staff announced resignations.

As soon as the controversy erupted, many Unitarian Universalists religious professionals of color and their white allies began using the term white supremacy to describe it. (Actually, many of us have been using this term for decades, but this is the first time in my memory that Unitarian Universalists are engaging deeply with it.) The organization Black Lives UU and some of its partners called for congregations to dedicate their worship services on April 30th or May 7th to a “white supremacy teach-in.” That’s the reason for today’s service.

Wait. What? White supremacy? In Unitarian Universalism? How can white supremacy apply to our justice-seeking, Black-Lives-Matter supporting, refugee resettling, criminal-justice reforming, GBLTQ-welcoming, earth-saving, answering-the-call-of-love, liberal faith? There must be some mistake. White supremacy applies to those other white people—the Alt Right, the people who want border walls and Muslims bans, who desecrate Jewish cemeteries, who commit hate crimes. Well, yes, but in pointing my finger at someone else, I am likely excusing myself from taking responsibility for the problem. Let’s explore this.    

When my people of color, indigenous people and white antiracist colleagues—people who I know and love and have worked with for many years—use the term white supremacy to describe Unitarian Universalism, I’ve learned to listen. I’ve learned to open my heart, approach the conversation with curiosity, and try to understand why the term makes sense. I’ve learned people don’t use this term merely to be provocative. They don’t use it to be mean. They don’t use it to make white people feel guilty. They use it to make sense of their own painful experiences within Unitarian Universalism. They use it to help themselves and others understand why decent, compassionate, loving, justice-seeking white people can nevertheless do and say things that are hurtful, often with no awareness. They use it to help themselves and others understand why spiritually open, love-centered, justice-seeking institutions can fail to practice stated commitments to diversity, multiculturalism and antiracism. In using this term, no one is calling anyone else a white supremacist. No one is likening the UUA or our congregations to the KKK or the Alt Right. But they are pointing out how our institutions center white people, white identity, experience, culture, ministers, history and spirituality; and how it makes them feel excluded, ‘less than,’ and invisible. When a hiring pattern favoring white people for high level positions becomes apparent, it is evidence that a deep-seeded white supremacy is operating. Not a hateful, violent white supremacy, but one that nevertheless has a painful impact on the lives of people of color in our denomination.

Remember that the Unitarian and Universalist denominations were founded by white people to serve the spiritual needs of white people in the decades following the founding of the United States, which was by law a country for white people.[3] People of color were present among our spiritual forebears, but they were highly marginalized, in part because they had a less-than-human legal status in the larger society. White identity, values, culture, spirituality, music, food and concerns were at the center of early Unitarian and Universalist institutional life. That’s the white supremacy we’re talking about—that unexamined assumption that the center is always white. Today much has changed about our faith. And much has changed about America.  But if our institutions have never made a serious commitment to decentering whiteness, then it is always possible for white supremacy to operate. Even in the midst of our support for Black Lives Matter, refugee resettlement, former inmates, domestic workers and undocumented people—all of it essential work expressing our commitment to confronting racism—we can still perpetuate white supremacy.

Does it operate here? Yes. It’s not easy to say that, but yes. We were talking about this at the Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee meeting this past Tuesday. The UUA has a stated goal of hiring a diverse, multicultural staff. They failed to reach that goal, but at least they have such a goal. We can’t say the same thing. Over the past five years, as we’ve done hiring for two major positions, we never specified that a racially diverse staff should be an outcome of our hiring efforts. One could argue ‘that’s not white supremacy—we just want to hire the best person for the job regardless of race,’ or, ‘it’s impractical to set racial quotas with such a small staff.’ There are hundreds of arguments like these. But if we never affirm that we want racial and cultural diversity in our staff, in our leadership team, in our membership, in the artists whose work adorns our walls, in our Sunday speakers, or in our partners in the wider community, then we’ll never give ourselves the opportunity to think through how these goals might be achievable; whiteness will continue to be our unexamined institutional center; and the risk of white supremacy operating here will remain.

What can we do? If white supremacy operates because whiteness occupies the center of our institutions, then our task is to learn the art of decentering whiteness and centering the experiences of people of color and indigenous people. This is not a punishment or a demotion for white people. It does not mean white people are bad or any less deserving of love, care and support, or that we somehow have less inherent worth and dignity. But it does ask white people to intentionally make room for, to listen to, to follow, to be accountable to, to act in solidarity with people of color and indigenous people.

In my conversations with people of color here and in other UU congregations, people say it can be exhausting to be among white people who never seem to fully acknowledge the profound differences in life experience. One person says, “I would like someone to recognize that to be Black in America is to have lived an entire life perceived as inferior and illegitimate, directly and indirectly, daily from early childhood to adulthood compounded over a lifetime and that it is a significantly different way of existing and experiencing America than [for] those [who] benefit from white privilege. These differences need to be acknowledged.” And it’s not just the experience of oppression that people of color can bring to institutional center; they also bring traditions of resistance to oppression, as well as different experiences of culture, family, spirituality, language, history, creativity, vision. It strikes me that if these different experiences were regularly spoken aloud and fully embraced at the center of our congregational life, it would be much more difficult for white supremacy to operate in that unexamined, often unconscious way. It would be more visible, easier to confront; and our congregation would start to change in beautiful and compelling ways.

I’m describing a huge shift in the way Unitarian Universalism approaches its institutional life. I have no illusions that making this shift will be easy, or that we will not consciously and unconsciously seek ways to avoid it—old habits do indeed die hard. But I am convinced our principles call us to embrace this shift.

I leave you with words adapted from white UU antiracism activist, Chris Crass, who says: “White supremacy, you cannot have me. You cannot have my family; you cannot have my faith; you cannot have my congregation. I will not bow to the … fear you put on me. For today, I choose to rise?—?to rise for racial justice, to rise and show up for my siblings of color and indigenous siblings…. They have courageously led us into a fight to make ourselves the faith that these times call us to be: the faith of salvation from the death culture, the faith of [rituals, ceremonies, theologies, and sacred actions] that nourish and grow beloved community. I might be scared. I might be out of my comfort zone. I might not know what I’m supposed to do. I might even disagree…. Yet, I’m going to show up … with my community, with my faith … and say ‘yes’ to racial justice, ‘yes’ to being on the journey, ‘yes’ to building a new way, ‘yes’ to shattering that which does not serve this goal. I’m going to find sources of strength, hope and courage I didn’t even realize existed. Today I say ‘yes’ to getting free from supremacy systems and ‘yes’ to a Unitarian Universalist faith that is alive for racial justice, on a path to be a spiritual home for more and more people hungry for beloved community working for collective liberation.”[4]

[1] McArdle, Elaine, “Critics See White Supremacy in UUA Hiring Practices,” UU World, March 27, 2017. See: http://www.uuworld.org/articles/critics-challenge-uua-hiring-practices.

[2] Walton, Chris, “UUA President Resigns Amid Controversy Over Hiring Practices,” UU World, March 30, 2017. See: http://www.uuworld.org/articles/peter-morales-resigns.

[3] The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person” who had been in the U.S. for two years. In effect, it left out indentured servants, slaves, and most women. See: http://rs6.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=226.

[4] Crass, Chris, “Let’s Move Beyond Fear of the words ‘White Supremacy’ and say Yes to Racial Justice!” April 28, 2017. See: https://medium.com/@chriscrass/im-scared-too-and-together-let-s-say-yes-917dd4317786.

 

Surrender: A Path to Power

 

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Our ministry theme for March is surrender. In reviewing my past sermons on this theme, I notice a tendency in me—and not only in me, but among Unitarian Universalists and liberal religious people in general, among at least some of the American Buddhist and Yoga bloggers, and certainly on self-help bookshelves —a tendency to speak and write about surrender as this wonderful, liberating act that fills you with peace and joy. All you have to do is let go. All you have to do is be present, be in the moment, go with the flow, let what is yearning to emerge emerge, let the world be the world, accept that you don’t have control over outcomes, be soft, be gentle, bow down, bend in the wind, move with the current, yield, remain quiet.[1] It’s all good advice—solid, sound spiritual wisdom. I often ground it in a reference to the ancient Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu, who writes in Chapter 22 of the Tao-te Ching “To yield [i.e, to surrender] is to be preserved whole.”[2] But there’s a risk in offering this advice. The risk, always, is that we make what is exceedingly difficult sound exceedingly easy. The risk is that we provide a kind of false hope. How does one let go when holding on for dear life?

I am thankful to Penny Field for coordinating last week’s service on addiction. To the addict, the advice to just let go, just be present, just accept that you don’t have control over outcomes isn’t wrong, but on one level it’s laughable, because surrender in the context of addiction is so exceedingly difficult. And it’s not just addiction. Surrendering to illness is difficult. Surrendering to loss and grief are difficult. Surrendering to the need to work on a relationship or to accept the reality of a broken relationship: difficult. Surrendering to the need to make major life changes—career changes, retirement, relationship changes, moving to a new community, becoming a parent: difficult. Surrendering to the need to accept and be and proclaim who you really are, even when the people in your life don’t accept you and won’t support you: difficult. The advice is always good—just let go, be present to what is, let what is yearning to emerge, emerge—but the risk is that we make what is exceedingly difficult sound exceedingly simple.

Prior to my mini-sabbatical this past month, Mary Bopp and I were talking about how to address surrender differently, how to speak about surrender in a way that accounts for how difficult it can be. Mary reminded me that engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience is an act of surrender. People who engage in nonviolent civil disobedience have made a decision to accept the consequences of their actions, including—historically and today—harassment, harsh language, having people spit in their face, beatings, firehoses, police dogs, bombings, jail time, death threats and even, at times, death. As they accept the consequences of their actions without retaliating, they are committing acts of surrender. And the hope at the heart of their surrender is that their actions will dramatize the injustice in a particular social, economic or political system, and thereby create conditions that will force that system to change. Change comes as a result of someone—or some ones—engaging in acts of surrender. Hence the title of this sermon, “Surrender: A Path to Power.”

This idea of nonviolent civil disobedience as surrender came home to me a few years ago, when Bishop John Selders, the co-founder of Moral Monday CT—a leading Black Lives Matter organization in our state—and a good friend to this congregation, was talking about why a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience was necessary now. I’m not quoting him exactly, but he essentially pointed out that we all move through our lives and the world in the midst of profound injustice. We can identify a thousand different—though often related—injustices in the wider world when we put our minds to it. It’s not as if we who can identify injustice don’t try to do anything about it. We do. Many of us are quite willing and able to call or write a letter to an elected official, attend a city council meeting, participate in a rally or march, testify at the legislature on an important bill, make a donation, help settle a refugee family, etc. But even when we take these actions, so often their ultimate outcome is much less than we’d hoped for. So often we take our actions in good faith, month after month, year after year, and find ourselves still living in the midst of profound injustice. Bishop Selders was making the point that the way we engage matters. He was noticing that too often we take our actions in such a way that we maintain our own standing in society. We stay respectable. We express our concerns to those in power but we don’t hold them accountable. We don’t create any real tension. We don’t take genuine risks. And nothing really changes. He said—and this is a quote—“I can’t live like that anymore.”

It’s relatively easy to talk to a legislator about a bill. It’s relatively easy to march. We can do these things without too much risk to ourselves or our way of life. It is something else entirely to use one’s body to break a law in order to dramatize an injustice and, as a result, risk physical harm, fines, jail, etc. Moving from a willingness to engage in low-risk actions for social justice to a willingness to engage in high-risk actions for social justice requires surrender. The person who is willing to use their body to conduct nonviolent civil disobedience surrenders their attachment to whatever comfort they have in life, to whatever standing they have in society, and to the possibility that they will suffer violence in retaliation for their actions. That’s essentially what Bishop Selders was saying: I don’t want to live my life in a way that ultimately supports the status quo. I am ready to take bigger risks. I am ready to surrender for the sake of a more just society. And I am trusting the counter-intuitive proposition that through acts of surrender I will gain the power to change society.

I began reading up on people who famously organized nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns. As I read, I noticed a common dimension in those campaigns that is rarely discussed when we recount the histories: self purification. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” When he later described how they conducted self purification as part of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, he says: “We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’”[3] He doesn’t indicate that they prayed together or sang together as part of self purification, but I suspect both prayer and song were part of the process.

I looked for examples of self purification in the nonviolent campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi. I haven’t yet found instances of Gandhi using that term specifically, but he clearly engaged in disciplined spiritual preparation before taking action. In a book entitled Prophets of a Just Society, the historian and political scientist, Jake C. Miller says about Gandhi’s movement that “while there were many who gave lip-service to the doctrine of nonviolence, fewer were willing to undergo the suffering that was involved in its implementation. Although it was easy to talk about replacing hatred with love, some protestors were not able to meet the challenge when they came face to face with grave provocation. Thus, in order to ensure the success of civil disobedience as a weapon, it was necessary to prepare would-be-protesters for the difficult role they were expected to play. Self purification was regarded as essential in this process. Fasting, meditating and praying were essential components in Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent resistance. He perceived fasting and similar acts of discipline as a means of self-restraint, but he insisted that if physical fasting is not accompanied by mental fasting, it is bound to end in hypocrisy and disaster.”[4]

Self purification—this preparation, this getting ready, this praying, fasting, meditating, singing, studying, this fortifying oneself, steeling oneself, bracing oneself, grounding oneself—this is not itself an act of surrender. Self purification is prelude to successful surrender. Self purification produces surrender that is more likely to result in change, more likely to have power in the world.

I wonder: in our various discussions of all the other ways we need to surrender at certain times in our lives, do we speak of a distinct self purification component? I usually don’t. But how radically would it alter the typical spiritual advice on surrender if we spoke first of self purification? Instead of the usual catch-alls—“just let go” or “just go with the flow” or “just be present to whatever happens”—how different would it sound and feel if the spiritual advice focused on practices of self purification before acts of surrender? Mindful that letting go, going with the flow, being present can be enormously painful, frightening, overwhelming, might we more effectively approach that real pain and fear and stress by engaging in self purification first—by praying some kind of sacred prayer, making some kind of sacred vow, bathing in some sacred waters, singing some sacred song, dancing some sacred dance, sitting in some sacred silence first? We surrender old ways so that we may take on new ways—new ways of living, thinking, feeling, being. We surrender not for petty reasons but because we desperately need to make a change. So instead of the catch-alls, which, the more I contemplate them just sound trite and platitudinous, what if the person seeking surrender were advised to perform a ritual of self purification, a symbolic emptying out of the old and a welcoming in of the new, an enactment of the transition to a new reality as a precursor to actual surrender?

I read to you earlier from the Buddhacarita, the chronicles of the life of the Buddha written by the first century Indian priest, Ashyaghosha. I read the passage in which Siddh?rtha Gautama sits beneath the Bodhi tree with the goal of attaining enlightenment. In this passage he is on the verge of a deeply profound act of surrender. He is surrendering his attachment to his experience of having a self. He is letting go of his self, literally going with the flow. What stood out to me reading the passage this time is that he didn’t just sit down and surrender. He sat down and made a vow. He fortified himself before his actual surrender. This vow feels to me like an act of self purification. And looking at it through that lens, there’s also a resonance with the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights movement, especially the practice of the sit-in. Ashyaghosha writes “He then adopted the cross-legged posture, which is the best of all, because so immovable…. And he said to himself: ‘I shall not change … my position so long as I have not done what I set out to do!’”[5]

I am also mindful of Jesus, on the night before his crucifixion, struggling to accept the consequences of his actions and his ministry, wracked with fear and anxiety, preparing to surrender not just to the authorities but to his death on the cross. What does he do? He prays. Matthew 26: 39 in the Christian New Testament says, “And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’” This prayer is not the act of surrender; it is self purification prior to surrender.

In the Hebrew scriptures, Exodus 3, Moses encounters a burning bush in the desert, and notices the flames do not consume the bush. He wants to look more closely. If you know the story, you know God is about to call him to return to Egypt and liberate the Israelites from bondage. Moses eventually surrenders to this call. But the burning bush is prelude to surrender. And what does he do? He takes off his shoes because this is holy ground. For me, this is an image of self purification prior to an act of surrender.

When you find you can no longer “live that way,” whether we’re talking about no longer living a life that tacitly supports injustice, no longer living a life mired in addiction, no longer living a life that is unsustainable in some way, a life that needs to move in some way, a life that needs to grieve, to accept some hard truth, to stop fighting whatever it is you’ve been fighting for so long, a life that is too rigid, too controlling, too in charge; when you can no longer live that way and it’s time to surrender, be wary of advisors who urge you with platitudes to let go without first guiding you in the ways of self purification. Our lives are too short for going through motions that leave us essentially unchanged. Purify first. Pray, fast, meditate, sing, dance, take off your shoes, study, make a vow. Self purification comes first. Then, and only then, attempt to sit in that immoveable way. Then and only then, surrender, and change your life. Then and only then, surrender, and change the world.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] This list is quoted from my March 2, 2014 sermon, “Surrender: In Search of the Present Moment,” delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT.

[2] Wing-Tsit Chan, tr., Lao Tzu, Chapter 22, The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 139.

[3] King, Jr., Martin Luther, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. Read the text at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[4] Miller, Jake C., Prophets of a Just Society (Nova Publishers,   2001) p. 35.

[5] Ashyaghosha, “The Buddhacarita,” in Conze, Edward, Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 1959) p. 48.

No Room For Hate

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

Friends:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the Wood Drake Rests Not: Reflections on Mental Health Ministry

Visible and Speakable

Our congregation has conducted a Mental Health Ministry for the last six or seven years. Sharon Gresk was the original visionary behind this ministry. She remains one of our in-house experts on offering pastoral support to people with mental illness. The current leaders of this ministry are Sarah Karstaedt and Christine Joyner. I am grateful for their ongoing commitment. The Mental Health Ministry has sponsored a variety of programs and activities. We’ve held affinity groups for people with mental illness, for people in recovery, for caregivers. We’ve taught courses on mental illness. We’ve sponsored forums like this afternoon’s National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) event. We’ve hosted performances of the Free at Last Players. We’ve sought continuing education for ourselves. We’re connected to an emerging network of faith communities, mental health chaplains and mental health care providers exploring the role of religion in addressing mental illness in the greater Hartford region. Twice a year we hold a Mental Health Ministry Summit when we gather for community, spiritual practice, continuing education and planning.

The heart of this ministry has been making mental illness visible and speakable here at UUS:E. Visibility and speakability are not easy qualities to measure, but when people speak openly about their mental illness, their medications, their addiction or their path to recovery; when people speak openly about family members or friends struggling with mental illness; when people arrive at our summit and find a vibrant, supportive, welcoming community; when people are not afraid to share, “hey, I’m having a bad week,” “I’m feeling down,” “I need help”—it says to me the heart of this ministry is alive and well.  

This is how it should be. Mental illness is a difficult, painful reality in the lives of many people and their families. In past services we’ve invited you to stand if mental illness has touched your life, the life of someone in your family or the life of a friend. Virtually everyone stands. Yet, despite the reality that mental illness is very common, there is still enormous stigma attached to it; still subtle, but widespread discrimination against people with mental illness; still a lack of parity in funding for mental health treatment compared to treatment for physical illness. Faith communities are not innocent when it comes to perpetuating the stigma. In fact, faith communities are some of the worst offenders. For a variety of reasons faith communities are, more often than not, fearful, silent and unwelcoming toward people with mental illness. The reasons might be theological, cultural, social, economic. Whatever they are, it is my firm conviction that faith communities cannot claim to be welcoming to all, cannot claim to be ‘for all people, cannot claim to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person if mental illness remains invisible and unspeakable. Has our Mental Health Ministry been perfect? No. But have increased the visibility and speakability of mental illness? Yes, absolutely. Whenever a member or friend of this congregation with mental illness tells me this place feels like home to them because they do not have to hide this particular part of themselves, it is a moment of immense pride for me as the congregation’s minister. But it’s not perfect, and thus I’d like to share a few reflections on broad future directions for our mental health ministry based on what I’ve learn from people who participate in it.

Where the Wood Drake Rests Not, or

Let’s Not Confuse Spiritual Care with Medical Care

Our hymnal includes beloved words by the poet Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” “When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water…. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”[1] I have preached from these words many times; I will preach from them again. They offer a remedy for fear and despair, for angst, anxiety, worry, panic, hopelessness, sorrow, melancholy, desperation, dispiritedness, despondency, depression. So often in response to any of these feelings the remedy we offer as Unitarian Universalists is some version of “go and lie down where the wood drake rests.” Reconnect with the natural world. As one of the Mental Health Ministry participants described it: “Go for a walk, smell the roses, write in a journal, visit a beach, be in nature, etc.”

Sylvia Plath was an American poet who committed suicide in 1963. Here death came just a few weeks after the publication of her novel, The Bell Jar, which is widely understood as the story of her struggle with mental illness.  Earlier I read her 1961 poem, “I Am Vertical.” It offers a very different take on ‘lying down’ in the natural world—a provocative contrast to “The Peace of Wild Things.” Where Berry offers ‘lying down’ as a spiritual practice to center, calm and reconnect oneself, for Plath ‘lying down’ is fraught. It reminds her, “I am not a tree with my root in the soil / Sucking up minerals and motherly love.” It reminds her, I am not “the beauty of a garden bed.” She craves that sense of connection and identity but it never happens. “Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars, / The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors. / I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.” There is sadness here, a sense of distance and isolation. The hardest thing about this poem, which we dare not miss: she imagines she is closest to connection when she is asleep, when her “thoughts [have] gone dim.” Only her death will bring anything close to the peace of wild things: “I shall be useful when I lie down finally: / The trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.”[2]

Reading Sylvia Plath next to “Peace of Wild Things” reminds me to stay vigilant about the difference between ministry and medicine. Neither of these poems make this distinction, but the contrast between them points to it. “Peace of Wild Things” offers a spiritual remedy. It says, “do something to connect with a reality larger than yourself.” For many people it is an effective remedy, especially if the angst, anxiety, or despair they’re experiencing is primarily spiritual in nature. But is it sufficient for a person with mental illness, especially a person whose mental illness is chemical in nature—not emerging from spiritual disconnection, but rather from an internal neuro-chemical imbalance? Spiritual dis-ease is not the same thing as mental illness. The two conditions may appear the same, may overlap, may occur simultaneously—spiritual dis-ease is often a symptom of mental illness—but they are not the same. Spiritual leaders and faith communities must be careful not to inadvertently offer spiritual remedies as treatment for mental illness. It can be quite problematic to gloss over mental illness with a purely spiritual assessment.

For example, sometimes medication is the only treatment that keeps a person’s mental illness under control. In my experience, the more severe the illness, the more this is true. If clergy and congregations only ever address mental illness in purely spiritual terms—which, in a more fundamentalist setting might be the assessment that one is possessed by demons; and in a more liberal setting might be the implication that really all you need is a dose of the great outdoors—there is always a risk that a person on medication may hear the message that their medication is unnecessary. If they’re looking for an excuse to not take their meds, there it is. Go lie down where the wood drake rests. My instinct is that this kind of lack of compliance will be relatively rare here, but it happens. We need to send a clear message: spiritual remedies complement, but do not replace, medical treatments. As a church we don’t and can’t provide medical treatment, but we can make sure the spiritual remedies we offer support and affirm the  medical treatment people are receiving.

Another example. A person living with mental illness might take the minister’s spiritual advice to heart—might take that walk, spend time outdoors, lie down where the wood drake rests, pray long and hard. It might even have a positive impact. But their mental illness remains unchanged. The risk is that they may begin to feel they aren’t doing their spiritual practice right, that there’s ‘something else’ wrong with them, that they aren’t faithful enough, that they aren’t a good Unitarian Universalist. Because this is hard to admit, they may not talk about it. They may pull away, become more isolated at precisely the time they need their congregation most.

Another example. Sometimes spiritual practice just isn’t an option. As one caregiver said, “I can’t stop and smell the roses, I can’t go for a walk, I can’t take time to myself.  Every single moment of our existence is about keeping everyone safe and managing the disaster.  The roses might as well be on fire, and who has time to care if they are?” Again, the result is disconnection and isolation.

Hearing and understanding these concerns brings much more nuance to the way we address mental illness theologically and spiritually. I’ve learned that mental illness can make access to some of our typical theological language and spiritual practices difficult. Not everyone can lie down comfortably where the wood drake rests. Mental illness challenges all of us to think more broadly about the scope of our welcome, the limits of our inclusion. It pushes us to examine the gap between our words and our actions. It demands that we pay close attention to its medical dimensions as we address its spiritual dimensions. I don’t yet have answers to this challenge. But in the coming years I’d like to see us think and talk and pray our way into theological language and spiritual practices that take the reality of mental illness more fully into account. Spiritual practices for those who are verticle!

Weep–You Are Not Alone

I’ve been hearing the first line of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem “Solitude” my entire life. “Laugh, and the world laughs with you.” I never knew the rest of the poem until this week. “Weep, and you weep alone…. / “Sing, and the hills will answer; /Sigh, it is lost on the air; / The echoes bound to a joyful sound, / But shrink from voicing care. / Rejoice, and men will seek you; Grieve, and they turn and go; They want full measure of all your pleasure, / But they do not need your woe.”[3] Apparently Wilcox was not writing from a place of compassion for depressed people. She was a proponent of ‘positive thinking,’ and with this poem she was essentially saying, “don’t be sad, because no one wants to be around sad people.” I don’t agree with her, but she’s speaking a hard truth. Most people don’t readily choose to spend time with those who are depressed, down, anxious. We do it when someone we love feels this way. But it’s not typically our first choice. We want the full measure of all your pleasure, but we do not need your woe.”

Nobody knows this truth more keenly than people who live with mental illness—their own, or that of a family member or friend. When I asked participants in our Mental Health Ministry what message they wanted the rest of the congregation to hear about mental illness, by far the most common response was isolation. Some comments stand out:

“Mental illness is not something people like to talk about because you can’t tie a pretty bow on it and make it better.  People often have advice like … ‘take time to myself, [go for a walk, smell the roses] … I just need to be able to take a shower…. I need company. I’ve had to give up so much. I am still isolated.  I am afraid to rejoin things because I know it’s going to happen again.” Another members says, “not talking about mental illness increases the stigma and makes those living with it feel invisible, unworthy, and left out.” Another says, “the isolation can be painful and dangerous. Isolation caused by shame or even by simply not knowing where to find like-suffering people compounds the problems.” Yet another says, “as a caretaker is that the situation is very isolating. Caregivers really need time with non-ill people, and I think you could remind the congregation of this simple fact.”

Visibility and speakability are important but not sufficient. A more robust compassion and presence come next—Mental Health Ministry 2.0. Building a congregational practice of deep compassion and presence at the heart of our Mental Health Ministry will lessen the gaps between our words and actions, and reduce peoples’ experience of isolation. Mindful of that, I felt called to write a new version of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s “Solitude,” a version that has at its heart compassion for and presence with people with mental illness, a version that welcomes the full range of human emotion and human psychiatric realities, a version that meets us fully not only in our joy but in the mess, the disaster, that sometimes unrelenting, unfixable despair. I call it “Multitude.”

Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Weep—you are not alone; / For the good green earth, though it knows great mirth, / adopts your sorrow as its own. / Sing, and the hills will answer; / A sigh rides high in the air; / The echoes bound to a joyful sound, / But they’ll come around voicing care. / Rejoice, and all will seek you; Grieve, still they won’t let you go; / They want full measure of all your pleasure, / But they’ll not abandon you in your woe. / Be glad, and your friends are many; Be sad, and you’ll lose not one, / There are none to decline your nectared wine, / But they’ll stay through your bitter draft’s run. / Feast, and your halls are crowded; / Fast, and the world is not shy. / Succeed and give, and it helps you live, / And dear, tender souls help you die. / There is room in the halls of pleasure / For a large and lordly train, / And that is why we’ll all tarry on, / Together in our deepest pain.

Of course this is aspirational. We are not there yet. But it is time for Mental Health Ministry 2.0. Let’s move beyond visibility and speakability to a more tangible compassion and presence, a more nuanced theology and spirituality, an in-depth understanding of the medical dimensions of mental illness, and an ever-expanding sense of home for all who enter these halls.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Berry, Wendell, “The Peace of Wild Things,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #483.

[2] Plath, Sylvia, “I Am Vertical” in Hughes, Ted, ed., The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (New York: Haper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008) p. 162. See: http://www.neuroticpoets.com/plath/poem/vertical/.

[3] Wilcox, Ella Wheeler, “Solitude.” See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45937.