Only the Mystery Is

Rev. Josh Pawelek

The Outward Orientation

Our ministry theme for July is witness. As far as I can tell, the last time I preached directly on this theme was July, 2012. I had just returned from the “Justice General Assembly”—or Justice GA—in Phoenix, where Unitarian Universalist Association leaders had dedicated the entire five-day assembly to witnessing Arizona’s treatment of undocumented immigrants; and to specifically witnessing against the racial profiling and other anti-immigrant practices of Maricopa County’s now infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In that sermon I talked about a variety of ways to define understand witness. I pointed out that in more conservative, fundamentalist or evangelical churches, the term witness often refers to the act of naming how God is working positively in one’s life—how God is bringing healing, rebirth, a bright future, prosperity, etc., into one’s life. In mainline Protestant, liberal Christian and Unitarian Universalist congregations, the term witness more often refers to the public naming of social, economic and political injustices; and the prophetic call for reform, for social transformation, for justice-making, for building the beloved community.

I also spoke of a pastoral dimension to religious witness. I quoted the oncologist and spiritual writer, Rachel Naomi Remen who once said, “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[1] I said that, for me, Remen’s statement names “the heart of what it means to be a religious witness. When someone is suffering, let us in the very least not turn away, not move on to the next agenda item, not think of the next thing we need to say. When someone is suffering, let us stay present to their pain; let us keep our focus on what has happened to them. When someone is suffering, let us stay with them, sit by their side, listen to their story, support them, encourage them.” Even if we have no words and don’t know what to say, even if we feel inadequate, even if the other’s suffering is beyond our comprehension, our silent presence still matters. “When we act as religious witnesses, we make suffering visible so that it cannot be ignored, denied or downplayed by anyone. When we act as religious witnesses we say to those who suffer, ‘you do not have to endure this alone.’ When someone is suffering, in the very least, let us not turn away.”[2]

I notice that each of these forms of religious witness orients us in an outward manner, focuses our attention outward. We reach out, call out, speak out, extend ourselves, lengthen ourselves, enlarge ourselves, give of ourselves, open our hearts beyond the boundaries of self. We suffer with. We peer out beyond ourselves to the sacred, to Nature, to God, to Goddess, to the animating spirit of life. We peer out beyond ourselves to human society, to its systems and institutions that perpetuate injustice, oppression, discrimination, and cruelty toward people, towards animals, toward the earth. We peer out beyond ourselves to family, friends, neighbors and strangers who are suffering, who are in pain, who are hurting; outward to those who are lonely, isolated, stuck, stranded, imprisoned.

To bear witness is to assume an outward orientation—to turn, to move, to reach, to peer out beyond ourselves.

The Inward Orientation

You have heard me say many times, in different ways, that one of the central purposes of the church is to ‘send its people forth,’ to cultivate in the people that outward orientation. The church sends you forth to bear witness to the way the sacred moves in the world and to celebrate that movement. The church sends you forth to bear witness to suffering and to be present to it for the sake of healing and connection. The church sends you forth to bear witness to injustice and oppression and to organize and advocate for a more just and loving community.

But the church would be spiritually negligent were it to send you forth without first preparing you. We prepare for the outward look by taking the inward look. We are more effective and impactful in our outward witness when we pause, first, for inward witness.

I remember learning this lesson during my unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE) at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston in the summer of 1998. CPE is an intensive pastoral care training in a hospital setting. When my supervisors learned I am an adult child of an alcoholic, they guided me into deep reflection on how that alcoholism had shaped me emotionally, and how it might influence my response to hospital patients in treatment for alcoholism and other addictions. What features of my experience might prevent me from being fully present while providing pastoral care to an alcoholic? What assumptions was I carrying about alcoholism and alcoholics that might lead me to misunderstand an individual’s unique circumstances? What deeply-rooted behaviors forged in me through years of living with an alcoholic might subvert my best efforts to provide compassionate care? A lack of clear answers to such questions, an absence of self-knowledge—the failure to peer inward and understand the origins of my adult self—would limit my capacity to provide genuine and effective pastoral care. With no inward witness, the outward witness grows thin, brittle, ambivalent.

I’m mindful of Martin Luther King Jr.’s description of the steps one must take to insure a successful campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. Before placing one’s body in the street, or at the entrance to an official building or a legislator’s office, before offering one’s body to potential violence, to arrest, spiritual purification is essential. In King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 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] Again this probing, this searching, this preparing of the self is critical. Am I ready? What will prevent me from engaging? What inner fears and conflicts might weaken my resolve? Who am I really? Who am I becoming? Who do I long to be?

Before the outward witness can succeed, the inward witness is essential.

This is the reason I almost always open our worship services with an invitation to interiority. Find that place inside of you, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, when you yearn for peace; that place where you know your truth, where your conviction resides, where your voice is strong; that place from which you reach out to others who are suffering; that place in which you commune with all that is holy in your life. But I’m also suggesting this morning that that place inside of us is not static, is not some unchanging center. It grows as we grow. Our knowledge of it is never complete. There is always more for us to discover about that place inside of us. It is always possible to peer more deeply within; always possible to extend and enlarge our self-knowledge; always possible to more fully grasp the roots of our anxieties, obsessions and fears—and the roots of the roots. It is always possible to more fully understand the forces that have shaped and formed us for better or for worse. It is always possible to rewrite the stories we and others tell about ourselves so that the words and images and metaphors more accurately speak to who we are, who we’re becoming and who we long to be.

We take the inward look to prepare as best we can for the outward look. The quality of our inward witness determines the quality of our outward witness. The depth of our inward witness lends power and confidence to our outward witness.

Only the Mystery Is

The inward witness doesn’t end merely with self-knowledge. Something more profound rests just beyond the base of our self-knowing. Something more profound rests beneath, around, within – though these are words we use to describe something that is indescribable. Earlier we shared spiritual teacher Adyashanti’s poem, “Have You Noticed?” Here it is again:

I have no more ideas anymore about / God, consciousness, / the absolute or non-duality. / If you want to talk with me / let us meet where / there are no abstractions. / All I want to know is: / Have you noticed? / Something is here / my friend. / Something is here / have you noticed? / Only the Mystery is. / The Mystery is noticing that / only the Mystery is. / Have you noticed?[4]

As we witness through layers and layers of self, layers and layers of experience, layers and layers of who I am, who I am becoming, who I long to be; as we slowly come to terms with the forces that have shaped and formed us, it is possible at times to arrive at a different kind of knowledge, a different kind of awareness—a knowledge and awareness that so many words, concepts, and theories humans use to describe reality actually don’t describe reality, actually serve, in the end, to limit reality, to box it in, to confine it. In actuality life and spirit and soul cannot be captured in words and concepts and theories. In actuality life and spirit and soul are always moving beyond the boundaries human beings establish; always flowing, transcending, subverting; always, like the wind, blowing where they may; always, like the wind, oblivious to the borders humans draw on maps and defend with soldiers, walls and drones.

I have no more ideas anymore about / God, consciousness, / the absolute or non-duality. / If you want to talk with me / let us meet where / there are no abstractions.

Adyashanti’s words remind me of those familiar lines from the 13th-century Persian Sufi poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi:  Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing / and rightdoing there is a field./ I’ll meet you there. / When the soul lies down in that grass / the world is too full to talk about. / Ideas, language, even the phrase each other / doesn’t make any sense.[5] They remind me also of the pronouncements of the ancient Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, who responds to a question about how to rule the world, “What kind of question is this? I am just about to set off with the Creator. And if I get bored with that, then I’ll ride on the Light-and-Lissome Bird out beyond the six directions, wandering in the village of Not-Even-Anything and living in the Broad-and-Borderless field…. Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, follow along with things the way they are.”[6]

These sages sought, in playful ways, to guide their followers to that ‘something more profound,’ that essence that is full because it is empty, assertive because it is silent, mobile because it is still, something because it is nothing; that ground of being in which we rest yet which we can only approach through a quieting of the mind, through the abandonment of words and concepts and theories, through the letting go of any and all notions of the self.

I am confident that the closer we can come to this ‘something more profound,’ to this place wherein, as Adyashanti says elsewhere, no words can penetrate, [7] the more robust our preparation will be for our outward witness in the wider world. The more we can take notice of the mystery within, where human borders and boundaries and barricades make no sense, the better able we are to transcend the borders and boundaries and barricades that relentlessly separate people from each other and from the earth.

Suddenly the inward witness and the outward witness don’t seem so distinct, may even be the same witness, because ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ are human constructions, human words, that don’t quite capture the essence of reality.  

Suddenly we realize, only the Mystery is / …. Have you noticed?

Amen and blessed be. 

 

[1] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Bearing Witness,” My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000) p. 105.

[2] Pawelek, Josh, “Let Us Not Turn Away: Some Reflections on Justice General Assembly,” a sermon preached for the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, July 15, 2012. See: http://uuse.org/let-us-not-turn-away-some-reflections-on-justice-general-assembly/#.WzOvL9JKhPY.

[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] Adyashanti, “Have You Noticed?” My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 108.

[5] Jalal al-Din Rumi, excerpt from “Out Beyond Ideas.” See: https://allpoetry.com/Out-Beyond-Ideas.

[6] Watson, Burton, tr., Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) pp. 90-91.

[7] Adyashanti, My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 115.

[8] Adyashanti, “Have You Noticed?” My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 108.

The Blessings of Restlessness

“A Fierce Unrest” by Stephany Pascetta

Rev. Josh Pawelek with Poems by Molly Vigeant

A Restless God

I want to take you back to my last sermon for a moment. Riffing off scholar Jack Miles’ 1995 book God: A Biography, I described the God of the Hebrew Bible as a literary character. Again, the God Miles describes is not the God our Jewish and Christian neighbors worship. He is something wholly different and, frankly, much more reminiscent of a human being who struggles with conflicting emotions, who can’t quite anticipate the consequences of his actions, and who seems to have, at best, modest control over outcomes. There’s always something he wants—or thinks he wants—some yearning, some longing. “That God,” says Miles, “is the divided original whose divided image we remain. His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep.”

Miles makes the provocative argument that all of us in the west—even people who don’t believe in God—have been shaped to some degree—psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, morally—by this literary character. The inner workings of his life—particularly his inner conflicts—mirror the inner workings of the lives of most human beings.

In the story God creates human beings specifically so that he may have an image of himself—so that he may observe his image and thereby learn about himself, gain self-knowledge, grow. There’s a subtext. People wrote the biblical books. Over the course of centuries human beings collectively created this literary character to explore and explain their deepest questions. Which means it’s not just that we are God’s image. God is also our image. Through the centuries the biblical writers, the story-tellers, the prophets, the temple officials, the priests, the rabbis, the ministers have projected out onto God the very same inner conflicts, confusion, lack of control, yearning, longing, etc. that we experience in our daily lives. God isn’t even a projection of our highest ideals and aspirations, as some contend; he is a projection of our base instincts and impulses, which often conflict mightily with our highest ideals and aspirations. His may be the restless breathing we hear in our sleep; but it was restless human beings who imagined him as restless in the first place.

All this is to say that there is a restlessness that lives in us. Or, as the early twentieth-century writer and satirist, Don Marquis, wrote, “a fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things; it was the eager wish to soar that gave the Gods their wings.” A fierce unrest. Sometimes its pulse is very faint; sometimes it roars through us, a raging river. At times we turn to spirituality to soothe it, calm it, tame it. Yet spirituality can have the exact opposite effect. At times it can force us to confront truths about ourselves and the world we’d rather not confront. It can bring us face to face with profound questions of right and wrong, good and evil—and demand that we choose. Spirituality can show us and lead us toward the life we long to live, which is often radically different from the life we actually live. It can reveal to us the kind of community we ought to build, which is often radically different from the community in which we actually live. In that gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ we are restless. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it is God’s restless breathing or ours. There is a restlessness at the heart of all things. When we sense it, it calls us to move. How do we respond?

Click Legs Together

click legs together
1,2,3
click heals together
4,5
tap fingers
1,2,3
snap wrist
4,5

you may call it restless,
I call it defenses
against my mind

the way i sit,
the way i pace
and cant for the life of me
just stand in place

its restless

its exhausting

and its me

i wouldn’t change it for a thing
the way i sing
at every red light
even if the radio is off

the way my mind works in verses,
but never sentences

my impulse
is to write
and write
and write

and most of it never gets written
because my fingers don’t go as fast as my mind

but that’s fine

god hears me

my impulse is
to be like him
my ever restless prayer
is to learn more
but im too restless
to meditate long enough
to get my answer

dear god,
please enter my restless mind

i know may never be divine
i may never be still
but i swear i will learn
if you enstill a restless impulse of love

God, i know i am good enough

love yourself
1,2,3
you’re enough
4,5

stay strong
1,2,3

love yourself
4,5.

Always Caught

We are always caught in that place between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be.’ There is always something about us, about our communities, about the world, that could be better, could be different, could align more directly with our deepest values, could more clearly manifest our highest ideals and aspirations. Always. And thus there is always the potential for us to feel restless. As we move into the summer season, I have two questions for you to consider. First, do you recognize your own restlessness? Are you aware of what churns in you, wakes you at night, races your mind? What is that roaring river raging? What is that ‘ought to be’ that you haven’t yet realized? Second, once you recognize your restlessness, can you understand it as a spiritual condition?

Our restlessness is most confounding, most discomforting, and most likely to erode our well-being when we try to ignore it, escape it, evade it. It becomes a problem when we feel it—the churning, the sleeplessness, the racing mind, the twitchy leg, the anxiety, the gnawing ache, the self-doubt—and instead of asking, ‘where is this leading me?’ or ‘what values are at stake?’ we ask—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—‘how can I just make it go away?’ Our response to it, then, is avoidance. We try to push it down, talk it back. Sometimes this is a necessary response. We’ve got to get through our day. We’ve got to function in our jobs, or as parents, as grandparents, as caregivers, as students, as people with responsibilities, deadlines, tasks, hoops to jump through, etc.

But if we only ever treat our restlessness as a set of uncomfortable, unwelcome feelings to get rid of, there can be problems. I suppose a worst-case scenario is that we engage in destructive behaviors to distract ourselves from our restlessness. We feed addictions, we give into cravings, seek to satisfy immediate urges, embrace whatever may offer some sense of relief. But in pursuing relief in this way, we haven’t dealt with the source of our restlessness.

Another possibility is that we dampen our restlessness so much that our efforts result in a kind of stasis. Our lives become over-ritualized, highly routinized, rule-bound, mechanical. We may appear to be at peace, relaxed, calm. But we haven’t dealt with the source of our restlessness.

Sometimes we can genuinely pacify our restlessness. We’re the lone, wild bird who says, “great spirit come and rest in me,” and something happens. Perhaps through some disciplined spiritual practice we achieve a moment of rest, of solace. Perhaps through prayer, meditation, singing, dancing, stretching we can say “ahhh, I finally feel centered and at peace. I’ve let go. I am relaxed. Namaste.” But it rarely lasts. It’s a false center, a hollow peace. The great spirit may have come to rest, but it has taken flight once again. It has disappeared, because we have not dealt with the source of our restlessness. ‘What is’ and ‘what ought to be’ still aren’t moving toward alignment.. The gap persists. The river still rages. Restlessness reasserts itself.

Push it Down, Smile

push it down,
smile
they need little miss sunshine

well, i need sunshine,
i need suns rays
on a beautiful day
and time to walk
and think
and pray

to keep restlessness
at bay

i dont mind
my ever racing mind
so long as i have time
to let myself process
the thoughts
in my own time
they come so fast
sometimes i need to just relax

restlessness can be a blessing
but if i feel its sting
a little too long
the alarm goes off
before my mind hits the pillow

i’ve been laying for hours
but i never seem to sleep
or complete
whatever task
my brain
asks
and asks
and
ASKS

ever-less nicely to complete

but i can’t

i can’t get to my feet
i worked all day
the restlessness needs to just go away

but its here for a reason.
right?

i’m going to be okay,
whatever i did that day was enough
the sun will rise.
i need to find time
to walk
on a beautiful day
and pray

because restlessness does not
just go away

its here for a reason
not all lessons
are pleasant
some are meant to sting

so that you may learn
your true purpose.

Restlessness as a Spiritual Condition

What if we choose to recognize our restlessness as a spiritual condition? What if, instead of seeking a way to end it, we seek a way into it? What if, instead of seeking to dampen it, we seek to amplify it? What if, instead of asking, ‘how can I just make this go away,’ we ask, ‘where is this leading me?’ or ‘what values are at stake?’ or ‘what ideal, what aspiration beckons in the midst of this discomfort?’
Doing so may invite greater disruption, greater discomfort. It may suggest life changes we hadn’t anticipated. It may be frightening, unnerving, disconcerting. But, as Molly says, “it’s here for a reason, right?” Yes, it usually is. If a fierce unrest seethes at the core of all things, if the essence of reality is motion and rhythm cycling endlessly, aren’t we taking good spiritual care of ourselves if we embrace that motion and rhythm in our own lives? If the source of our restlessness is the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be,’ isn’t the more genuinely spiritual path the one that takes us into that gap—even if it isn’t an immediately peaceful path? Isn’t the more genuinely spiritual path the one that has us acting to bridge the gap?

Coming into this congregational year, I was feeling restless about our social justice work. We are a highly engaged congregation, but as I reflect on what we’ve accomplished over the years, I sometimes wonder what ultimate impact our work has had. I’ve named this wondering in sermons from time to time. I wonder if, despite all the advocacy, the rallying, the marching, the testifying, the witnessing, the commitment to sanctuary, the commitment to Black Lives Matter, the commitment to the GLBTQ community and on and on, our efforts haven’t had much impact. The gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ is as pronounced in the Greater Hartford region as it is anywhere in the country. This is why I have gotten involved in the Poor People’s Campaign. Might a program of sustained, nonviolent direct action get the attention of the powers that be, shift the conversation in this region, reduce the gap? I don’t know. But I’ve felt restless, and in asking ‘where is it leading me,’ this is the direction that has emerged.

I’m aware of people who grow restless in the presence of injustice. Do you just keep doing what you’ve always done when things don’t seem to be changing? Or worse, do you keep looking the other way, making excuses, rationalizing, blaming victims? Or do you boldly choose to rise up, speak truth to power, reform your patterns of living, re-orient your accountabilities?

I’m also mindful of people who grow restless in the context of their work, their careers, their professions; or the patterns of living in their retirement? Do you just hold on, doing what you’ve always been doing without question and reflection? Or do you boldly choose to reinvent yourself, re-educate yourself, follow a new calling?

I’m aware of people who’ve always felt called to create in some way, to make art in some form, but for whatever reason, haven’t made space for it in their lives, haven’t opened themselves up to that particular restlessness. Do you continue to put that call aside, continue to say, ‘I’ll get to it someday,’ continue to repeat the reasons why it’s unrealistic? Or do you boldly choose to create, to express yourself, to produce things of beauty, to be an artisit?

I’m mindful of people who grow restless in their religious context—the religion of their childhood, or the religion they thought held the answers, or the religion that helped them silence their restlessness. But something doesn’t feel right—some preaching, some theology, some hierarchy, some exclusivity—still hasn’t bridged the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be.’ Do you continue in that religion out of habit, fear, guilt? Or do you boldly choose to follow your longing for something that speaks more openly and honestly to that place inside of you, your heart, your soul?

When we ask our restlessness, ‘where are you leading me?’ so often, though the path may be difficult, though the lesson may sting, it leads to a more authentic self. It leads to a life of greater integrity. It leads to growth, to experience, to wisdom, and ultimately, to that place where ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ are more fully aligned.

Find Your Meaning

the fourth Unitarian Universalist principle is:
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning

find your meaning

find your calling
let the restlessness consume you
eat at you
push you
and pull you
in every uncomfortable direction

find your meaning
and let it consume you

i need to write
i need to,
half the time i dont want to

but so much beauty can be found
in this compulsion
to write down
every last verse
to not rehearse
or edit

otherwise things
play around in my head
and I’m ever more restless

anxiety
and adrenaline
are not the same thing

when life is out of control
and your heart’s on parole
and everything is harder
than it should be
remember the beauty
you found in things
when you were just a toddler

when every catastrophe at work
never happened
every worry
was a broken crayon
where did you find beauty then

maybe your restless head
screaming at you
when you lay in bed
is trying to tell you
to find your meaning
go back to your meaning

if that means a new job
what is there to fear
from new learning

money comes and goes
but compassion shows
in every aspect of your life
every strife you face
will dissipate
when you find your meaning

let restlessness consume you
let it teach you
to be you.

The Image of the Image of the Image . . . .

By Rev. Josh Pawelek

Growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation where most of the members identified as Humanists, atheists or agnostics, I heard many arguments against belief in God. One of those arguments outlined the many divine inconsistencies in the Bible. God creates the world, saying it is good, then destroys it. God is the personal God of Abraham, and also God of all nations. God is a warrior who leads Israel to victory; but God also fights and kills the Israelites in retaliation for their transgressions. God is the lawgiver who punishes some but not others. God is just and terrible, loving and cruel, male and female, knowable and mysterious, present and absent. How can we believe in a God who varies so widely across so many pages of scripture?

There are many answers to such questions. We might hear that human beings cannot comprehend the vastness of God, and thus we only ever encounter one divine facet at a time. We might hear that God’s mystery requires us to believe despite the inconsistencies. My Humanist UU elders found such answers unconvincing.

Of course, we were not the first people to notice the inconsistencies. As long as the biblical books have existed there have been scholars, theologians, temple officials, priests, rabbis, ministers and imams who’ve attempted to explain the inconsistencies so that ordinary readers can fathom such a wide-ranging divine personality. Those attempts will continue as long as the God of Abraham remains God in the western religious mind.

I recently read Jack Miles’ 1995 book, God: A Biography.[1] Miles is Professor Emeritus of English and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and Senior Fellow for Religion and International Affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy.[2] I read his book because Fred Sawyer suggested it after he and Phil purchased a sermon at our 2017 Goods and Services Auction. I’m glad I read it. Miles presents God not as the God our Jewish and Christian neighbors worship, but as a literary character—the protagonist in one of civilization’s most enduring stories. In doing so he offers insights into the spiritual conflicts residing at the heart of the human condition and explains an enduring human restlessness.  

God: A Biography tells the story of God as it appears in the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, which is distinct from the Christian Old Testament.[3] They contain the same books, but they order the books differently, which means as literature they tell God’s story differently. The plot unfolds differently. The character of God develops differently.

I also want you to know the difference between historical criticism and literary criticism of the Bible. Historical criticism studies who wrote a particular biblical book—where, when and why they wrote; who their audience was. The historical critic teases out the cultural and religious influences in the writer’s life—their sources.

For example, the very beginning of Genesis describes the creative acts of elohim, translated as God. Elohim creates and blesses and pronounces everything as good. He creates men and women in his image and generously gives them the entire world: “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” Then, a few verses later, an entirely different creation story begins, describing the acts of yahweh, translated as the Lord God. He doesn’t give the whole world to Adam and Eve, he gives them a garden. And when they disobey him, he flies into a passionate rage, punishing them harshly. “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; / in pain you shall bring forth children….’ / And to the man he said…. / ‘cursed is the ground because of you; / in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; / thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you ….  / until you return to the ground, / for out of it you were taken; you are dust, / and to dust you shall return.”[4] The historical critic reveals these are actually two different traditions with two different Gods that have been edited—fused—into one.

The Bible is filled with such fusions. It’s not just elohim and yahweh. In Genesis 6—the story of Noah’s ark—God takes on the traits of the watery Babylonian chaos monster, Tiamat, becoming not only the creator of the world, but also its destroyer. Eventually the Canaanite sky God, el, is woven into God’s personality. El is also the common Ancient Near Eastern word for any god; it appears in the Bible in terms like el shaddai, Almighty God, whom Abraham invokes for ritual circumcision; and el olam, Everlasting God, whom Abraham invokes before the binding of Isaac. In God we find traits of the Mesopotamian personal god. He absorbs the Canaanite war God, Baal. He becomes the Lord of Hosts, the liberator, the lawgiver, the conquerer, the father god to Kings David and Solomon, the arbiter, the executioner, the protector of the poor and oppressed, the Lord of all the nations. For the prophet Isaiah he is the Holy One of Israel, unknowable, mysterious. For Daniel he is the “Ancient of Days.” Despite a concerted effort to remove all evidence of the divine feminine, traces of the Canaanite goddess Asherah persist in God. 

This fusion happened because Israel, throughout its ancient history, was becoming monotheistic. The writer known as the Deuteronomist edited the earliest books of the Bible into a monotheistic story. As Miles puts it, the Deuteronomist’s gift was to make all these distinct materials seem in combination, down to the phrase, ‘the Lord our God,’ not just plausible but inevitable.[5] The historical critic pulls it all apart, reveals the editor at work, tells the story behind the story.

Miles isn’t doing historical criticism. He’s doing a species of literary criticism that picks up all these disparate gods the historical critic has exposed, and reads them back into the character of God as the Bible’s main protagonist. Imagining God as a character, we can understand the inconsistencies not as vestiges of earlier deities, but as God’s experience of inner conflict.[6] For example, God is generous and creative. God is strict and destructive. We might not believe in such a God, but we can ask, ‘what is it like to contend with such competing impulses? And do these impulses not also reside in the human heart? As God the character experiences inner turmoil, he affirms our very human wrestling with our own conflicting impulses.

Contemplate this question: Why did God create? I typically say the biblical creation story is a metaphor for the creative impulse at the heart of all existence. God creates because reality is inherently creative. But that’s not the answer the character God gives. Miles says, “God makes a world because he wants mankind, and he wants mankind because he wants an image.”[7] He doesn’t want a servant, a friend, a spouse; he wants an image of himself.  Why he wants this is not entirely clear. We know nothing about God before creation. We might wonder, ‘is God lonely?’ If so, wouldn’t he create a spouse or friends? That’s not what he does. He creates an image of himself, which suggests that he wants to know himself more fully by observing his image. More than companionship, God longs for self-knowledge.

But he doesn’t always like his image. Adam and Eve disobey. He becomes angry, terrifying. He curses. Apparently, he can’t handle the knowledge that this disobedience lives in him. After releasing his anger, he feels regret, remorse. He wants somehow to make it up to them. The text says “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.”[8] Miles asks, “Having just inflicted labor in childbearing on her and toil in the fields on him, why should he now spare them the inconvenience of making their own clothing? Why if not because, to speak very simply, he feels bad about it?”[9] Miles identifies this moment as God’s first inner conflict, and suggests it is the beginning of western humanity’s interior life as well.[10]

As the Bible progresses, another important dynamic emerges. God wields immense power, but rarely foresees the results of his use of power. Miles calls him ignorant at times. It makes sense. Because he has no history, he has nothing for comparison. He is learning as he goes. Whenever something unexpected happens that he doesn’t like, he tries to fix it, often in a fit of rage. Afterwards he feels regret, tries to atone, restates his promises more generously than before. Then something else unexpected happens. Miles says, “his key experiences … subvert his intentions…. He did not realize when he told mankind to ‘be fertile and increase’ that he was creating an image of himself that was also a rival creator. He did not realize when he destroyed his rival that he would regret the destruction of his image. He did not realize that his covenant with Abraham … would require him … to go to war with Egypt…. He did not realize when he gave [the Israelites] the law that where there is law, there can be transgression, and that, therefore, he himself had turned an implicitly unbreakable covenant into an explicitly breakable one…. The inference one might make looking at the entire course of his history … is that God is only very imperfectly self-conscious and very slightly in control of the consequences of his words and actions.”[11] We may not believe in such a god, but certainly his imperfect self-consciousness and his minimal control of events makes him a compelling literary character and a wonderful mirror for our own internal struggles and limits.

The book of Job provides the story’s literary climax. True to form, God enters into something that doesn’t go how he expects. Job is righteous, steadfastly loyal to God. The satan, translated as the adversary, suggests Job is righteous only because it brings him wealth. Take away his wealth? He will curse God. God says ‘go ahead, impoverish him, torture him. He’ll stay righteous.’ The wager is on. The adversary tortures Job mercilessly. Job maintains his righteousness believing God will vindicate him. But then he does the unexpected. He demands God explain why he must suffer so greatly. He demands an explanation of God’s justice, because his suffering is pointless. God seems to not recognize that’s he’s won. Job has not cursed him. But God is infuriated that Job has questioned him. God speaks from the whirlwind—an ode not to justice but to raw, unfettered power. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”[12] “Will you even put me in the / wrong? / Will you condemn me that you / may be justified? / Have you an arm like God, / and can you thunder with a / voice like his?”[13]

Job responds calmly. The common interpretation is that Job hears God and repents. In the typical English translation Job says “I had heard of you by the hearing / of the ear, / but now my eye sees you; / therefore I despise myself, / and repent in dust and ashes.”[14] Miles says this is incorrect. A careful reading of the ancient Hebrew calls for a different interpretation. Job does not repent. A more authentic translation of Job’s words is, “Now that I’ve seen you / I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay,”[15] meaning divine justice is not a given for anyone; meaning God is as likely to be evil and cruel as he is to be kind and just. God didn’t expect this lesson, this wisdom. Once again he plunges into profound inner turmoil. “After Job,” writes Miles, “God knows his own ambiguity as he has never known it before. He now knows that, though he is not [a] fiend, he has a fiend[ish] side and that mankind’s conscience can be finer than his.”[16] He finds solace in the knowledge that Job is his image. He restores Job’s life and doubles his wealth. Indeed, it is not Job who repents, but God.

From here to the end of the Tanakh God is silent. People speak about him, but he speaks no more. Miles describes him as a sleeper, a bystander, a recluse, a puzzle. What are we to make of this silence? Miles wonders: “Once you have seen yourself in your image, will you want to keep looking?” “Will you lose interest in yourself … once the image has served its purpose and you know who you are?”[17]

Maybe. Maybe God lost interest. Whether he did or not, this story of  a God who could never quite choose one deep impulse over another, has shaped western moral consciousness as much as any other force. “That God,” says Miles, “is the divided original whose divided image we remain. His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep.”[18]

May we never lose interest—not in the things we hold sacred, not in ourselves. May we continue to encounter that restless breathing. May continue to struggle with our own inner conflicts trusting we will grow wise in time. May we continue in self-discovery, even when that discovery is unanticipated, difficult, painful. May we each have a Job in our lives who confronts us with the truth and calls us to our best and highest selves.

Amen and blessed be.

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

[2] For information on Jack Miles, visit his website at http://www.jackmiles.com/. For information on his forthcoming book, God in the Quir’an, visit: http://www.jackmiles.com/Home/books/god-in-the-qur-an.

[3] In 2002 Miles published a follow-up book on God in the Christian Scriptures called Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.

[4] Selections from Genesis 3: 14-19. (NRSV)

[5] Miles, God, p. 141.

[6] Miles, God, p. 21.

[7] Miles, God, p. 28.

[8] Genesis 3: 20-b. (NRSV)

[9] Miles, God, p. 36.

[10] Miles, God, p. 33.

[11] Miles, God, pp. 250-251.

[12] Job 38: 4a. (NRSV)

[13] Job 40: 8-9. (NRSV)

[14] Job 42: 5-6. (NRSV)

[15] Miles, God, p. 325.

[16] Miles, God, p. 328.

[17] Miles, God, p. 404.

[18] Miles, God, p. 408.

As You Love Yourself

This afternoon we hold our annual meeting. One of the items on the agenda is the adoption of a new vision statement for the congregation. The statement is this:

Unitarian Universalist Society: East will be home to a spiritually alive, richly diverse and growing congregation. We will send forth energy, spirit and strength into our beloved communities. We will love, be present to suffering, comfort, heal, bear witness to oppression, and boldly work toward social and environmental justice.

The word ‘love’ jumps out at me. There’s a story about why love appears in the statement. I want to share it with you. Though I preface my sharing with a concern, which is that, we Unitarian Universalists—and many people of liberal faith—along with the wider culture more generally—tend to gloss over love, are often imprecise in our naming of it. We’ve drained love of it of meaning, have allowed it to become a cliché. This is so true that it is even cliché for a minister to tell you that love has become cliché!” (Just want you to know that I know that.) We each understand love in our own way, yet we rarely, if ever, pause in the course of our congregational life to examine what we actually mean by love, what the various dimensions of love are, and perhaps most importantly, how we demonstrate love with our actions.

You may remember last May, approximately seven hundred Unitarian Universalist congregations participated in White Supremacy Teach-Ins, mostly on Sunday mornings. You may remember the Teach-Ins came in response to allegations of White Supremacy culture operating at the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston. A number of high-ranking UUA staff members resigned over concerns about racism impacting hiring decisions. It was a very painful time. That pain continues as Unitarian Universalism continues to wrestle with race and racism.

I preached a sermon last May about White Supremacy culture. Among other things, I said that while White UUs aren’t White supremacists, our culture, especially when we fail to examine it closely, can produce racist outcomes. This is true of any culturally White institution. Often we don’t recognize it unless someone courageously makes us aware of it.[1]

At that time our Policy Board and Program Council were beginning to plan their fall leadership retreat, during which our leaders would craft a new vision statement. Alan Ayers was the board president at the time. He approached me after that sermon and asked a question that went something like this: “If a group of mostly White UUS:E leaders designs a vision statement for a largely White congregation, could our efforts to achieve that vision inadvertently perpetuate racism?”

Yes. The answer was and is “yes.” I loved that Alan had encountered my words, had not felt defensive, but rather, had been moved to re-think, or at least question, a congregational process. Could we somehow perpetuate racism if we don’t think this through more closely?

We started to think it through more closely. We ultimately decided to invite five prominent People of Color leaders from the Greater Hartford region—all people with whom we have some degree of relationship—to speak to our leadership prior to our visioning work. We wanted their perspectives as People of Color leaders to inform and deepen our visioning process. We asked them, “What is your vision for Manchester and Greater Hartford?” And, “How can our congregation contribute to the fulfillment of that vision?” Did this guarantee that our process would be completely free from that unconscious, unintentional racism we’re naming when we talk about White Supremacy culture? No. But this was an anti-racist way to approach our visioning process.

Pamela Moore Selders leading a song at the CT Poor People’s Campaign

One of the panelists was Pamela Moore Selders. Many of you know her as a co-founder of Moral Monday Connecticut with her husband, Bishop John Selders. They are conveners of the Black Lives Matter movement in Connecticut. They are also organizers for the Poor People’s Campaign in Connecticut.  When I was arrested on Monday at the first Poor People’s Campaign action, it was Pamela’s phone number I had scrawled on my arm for my one phone call.) In response to our questions that evening back in September, Pamela said, essentially, “I need you [mostly White UU congregational leaders] to know that I love being Black. I love the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, my culture, my food, my art. I love being Black.”

And then she said something I will never forget. “I need you  to love yourselves like I love myself.”

When I first heard her say this, there was a small part of me that wondered, “How on earth can we put ‘love ourselves’ in a vision statement without sounding like completely self-absorbed, new-age navel-gazers, without sounding like an insular, in-crowd social club?” And another small part of me said, “Of course we love ourselves. What’s she talking about?”

But the rest of me said “Yes. She’s right. This isn’t about the words on paper. This isn’t ultimately about the final vision statement. This is about the abiding, living, active love that must reside at the foundation of our life together. It cannot be glossed over. It needs constant nurture and attention; and especially in a congregation that has such a long and enduring Humanist identity, it begins with and is rooted in love of self. What an incredible invitation Pamela was making to us.

In the list of sources for our UU living tradition we identify “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” In the Bible I find this most clearly stated in Jesus’ response to the question, ‘which commandment is the first of all?’ He condenses centuries of Jewish teaching and prophetic witness into a few, short, enduring phrases: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”[2] Regarding that second commandment, in my experience, we  tend to focus on the neighbor part. We actually ask ourselves frequently, in a variety of ways,  “Who is our neighbor?” “How can we work in solidarity with our neighbor?” “How can we more fully welcome the stranger, the alien, the other?” This afternoon we decide as a congregation whether or not to offer sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation. That is ultimately a question of who our neighbors are. Essential questions! But how often do we pause to reflect on the “as yourself” part?

That’s an essential question too. The love we offer our neighbor mirrors our love for ourselves. Yet, if we don’t reflect deeply on the quality of love we feel for ourselves—if we just assume that everybody feels love for themselves, so that rather than exploring it we gloss over it, take it for granted, turn it into a cliché—how do we really know the nature of the love we ought to be extending to our neighbor?

When I read in our proposed vision statement the phrase, “we will love,” I recall Pamela’s invitation to love ourselves. In addition to extending love to our neighbor, I read in this phrase an invitation for us to unapologetically take a deep inward look, for each of us to unabashedly explore, experience and name the love we each feel for ourselves; and then for us as a congregation to unabashedly and proudly explore, experience and name the love we feel for ourselves as a congregation. We do this so that the love we offer to each other and into the world is authentic, powerful, and transformative.

This inward look is hard. Genuine love of self is hard. Mary Bopp told me a story this week about a minister she worked with in a previous congregation, who said “of course everybody loves themselves.” Mary said “that’s not true. It’s not as easy as you think.” He said, “sure it is.” She said, “ask your wife if it’s easy.” Apparently he asked his wife, who told him about how women are often socialized to care for others above themselves, and how the capacity for self-love is then easily dampened, suppressed or lost as a result.

There was a lot of Facebook chatter this week about my Poor People’s Campaign arrest on Monday. My cousin made the point that not everyone can risk being arrested, and that I was fortunate to be in a position to. I wrote back to her: “Yes…. I am in a fortunate position. Since I have support in my professional life from the people I serve as minister, my colleagues and my denominational structure, and since I am a straight, white, very privileged man, I feel a certain obligation to take this risk on behalf of those who can’t.” I jumped right to love of neighbor, responsibility to neighbor, accountability to neighbor. That’s important. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had forgotten my own “as yourself” part. The truth is, I do this for myself too. Economic inequality, racism, environmental destruction, and the distorted moral narrative in our country all impact the communities that hold me, and thus they impact me. Interdependent web, yes? I also do this because I love myself and my family.”

My point is that I didn’t intuitively identify self-love as a reason for acting. So many people struggle with cultivating self-love. So many people for so many reasons feel, at some level, unworthy, not good enough, guilty, ashamed, weak. Unitarian Universalism isn’t always helpful here. We have a perfectionist streak running through our history. That may have been what Pamela Moore Selders was sensing when she said “I want you to love yourselves like I love myself.” We don’t always recognize our perfectionism, but it’s there. It has roots in our Puritan, New England spiritual heritage. It’s more visible among our Unitarian forebears, but the Universalists had their perfectionist leanings too. It’s part of American culture, capitalist and industrial culture. We witness it in the unrelenting drive for efficiency, for increased production, profit, growth, or in the words of the 19th-century Unitarian theologian, James Freeman Clarke, in the “progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”  So often we unconsciously measure ourselves against some perfect ideal, and find ourselves lacking. Self-love is hard when perfection is the default.

I wrestle with perfectionism. I feel like I fail often—as a parent, a husband, brother, son. I stumble often as a minister. Did anyone notice? Are they disappointed? I hope not. I second-guess myself. Was that the right thing to say? Is this the right sermon to preach? I know what needs to be done, but I’m not doing it because I’m doing something else that’s taking too much time. Do I have my priorities right? Are people thinking I don’t have my priorities right? Will the people respond well to what I say? Why am I so nervous? I wake up at 2:00 AM, my mind racing about the annual appeal, the worship service, why too few people are volunteering for leadership positions, the person in the hospital I forgot to call.

But Pamela Moore Selders didn’t say, “I need you to do it perfectly.” She said “I need you to love yourselves.”

When I wake at 2:00 AM, is there any love in there? Do I love my hair? My skin? Do I love my culture, my food, my art? Maybe the things on Pamela’s list aren’t the things on my list. But I do have a list. I love my sense of rhythm, that I can sit down at a drum set and drum. I love my Polish and Pennsylvania Dutch heritage; I love my creativity, my connection to nature, my ability to speak in public, my courage, my non-defensiveness, my ability to apologize, my experience of a sacred dimension in my living. I love how I love that sacred dimension. I love my wife, my children, my family, my friends. I love that they love me. I love that I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I love serving as your minister. If I strive to do all of it with perfection, measuring the results against some ideal standard, then I grow anxious and will likely fail. But if I can just revel in the love I feel, be present with it, surrender to it, love myself—ahh!—now I’ve got a solid foundation from which I can love my neighbor. Now I’ve got some sense of how I am called to love the world. 

Members and friends of this congregation: What’s on your list? How deeply do each of you love yourselves? Can you put words to it? Can you describe it? I know it is very difficult for some of you. Sometimes the self-doubt, the feelings of unworthiness are powerful. Do you know what gets in the way of deep self love? How are you actively addressing it? And even if it isn’t difficult, we still don’t typically speak of the ways we love ourselves. There’s something counter-intuitive about it, it feels selfish, self-absorbed. But I want us to feel invited to speak of it, because it is the foundation upon which we love our neighbor.

Furthermore, what is on your collective, congregational list? What do you love about this congregation? Can you say it with pride? Can you celebrate it? What do you love about your minister? Can you tell him? Can he tell you what he loves about you? Can you make abundant room for that conversation? It is indeed prelude to loving our neighbor.

This is my challenge to you: Make your lists. Share them with each other. A bold and heart-filled love of ourselves matters. It is certainly not the end of our journey, but an essential beginning. It is not selfish or self-absorbed, but an essential part of the foundation upon which we build our future together.  And from that foundation, we can go out into the world, knowing so much more clearly how to bless it, how to witness its pain, challenge its injustices, and work for healing and justice. I need you to love yourselves like I love myself.

May you make compelling lists—not of the things you must do, but of the depth of your love: for yourselves, for each other, for the world. May love of self become the source of your deep compassion for yourself, for your neighbor, for the world.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Pawelek, Rev. Joshua Mason, “White Supremacy Teach-In,” a sermon delivered to the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, May 7, 2017. See: http://uuse.org/white-supremacy-teach-in/#.WvxAw4gvxPZ.

[2] Mark 12: 28b-31.

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

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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).