Testify! Witness! Re-Imagine!

This is a sermon about how faith communities must respond to the reality of sexual violence in our larger culture. Specifically: how are we, as people of faith, called to heal the trauma with which too many people live as the result of widespread sexual violence?

The immediate impetus for preaching this sermon came in late September, when Professor Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about her experience of sexual assault in high school at the hands of then Supreme Court Nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. That hearing, that tragic episode in our nation’s history, revealed to me some basic truths about our culture:

First, perhaps due to increasing levels of education around rape prevention in high schools and colleges; perhaps due to the increasing willingness of people to file complaints about sexual violence in the work-place; perhaps due to the increasing visibility of the #MeToo movement; perhaps due to the incredible work of organizations like the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence[1]—there is a public recognition—and at times an expectation—that some allegations of sexual violence need to and will be taken seriously.

Second, nevertheless, people who attempt to speak about their experience of sexual violence, from the most mundane office harassment, to the most brutal assaults, still have to fight to be heard and typically have to endure withering criticism for making public allegations in the first place: “Why didn’t they tell anyone when it first happened?” “Why did they wait so long to say anything?” “Why can’t they remember exactly what happened?” Or worse, “What was she wearing?” “She was probably asking for it.” “Boys will be boys.”

Finally, it is easy for people in power—and truly for people in general—to feign concern, sympathy, even empathy for survivors of sexual violence, and then to ultimately ignore them, as if they had never spoken at all. Jude Kavanaugh is now Justice Kavanaugh.

Of course, Blasey Ford’s testimony did not reveal everything about our nation’s culture of sexual violence. As important, as powerful, as believable as her testimony was, it is also true that her various identities—educated, credentialed, successful, white, college professor—may actually have obscured as much as they revealed. Blasey Ford offers one, compelling image of who survivors of sexual assault are. But we need to remember that women of color experience sexual assault. Men and boys of all racial identities experience sexual assault. Gay and lesbian adults and youth experience sexual assault. Transgender people experience sexual assault, especially trans women of color. Immigrants experience sexual assault. Elders experience sexual assault. People with disabilities experience sexual assault. People in the military experience sexual assault. People in churches, in synagogues, in mosques experience sexual assault.

Yes, Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony created a compelling opportunity for faith leaders to talk about the US culture of sexual violence, and it is important to take that opportunity. And, it is also true that it shouldn’t take such a high profile revelation to move faith communities to speak and act out against that culture. It is a long-standing culture. The colonial system that gave rise to our nation and which still operates in our structures and in our national psyche had sexual violence at its heart. The slave system that anchored the economic prosperity of our nation from its earliest days and whose legacy lives on in our structures and in our national psyche had sexual violence at its heart. Sexual violence is one of the great unspoken, unacknowledged, still too invisible truths of our national history and our current national life.

What I want is for the reality of sexual violence in all its forms to be speakable, utterable, nameable, acknowledgeable, visible here. What I want is for us, here, to be able to receive disclosures of sexual violence with compassion and love. What I want is for us to be able to hold, nurture and honor survivors of sexual assault, in ways that give power and agency back to them, in ways that bring healing not only to them but to the wider community. What I want is for us to become active bystanders—people who can’t keep quiet in the face of sexual violence, people who demand respect for others in all situations, people who intervene when they witness sexual violence or the potential for it. What I want is for our congregation to not shy away, but to be able to speak about sexual violence as a public health crisis—as an epidemic—with forthrightness, conviction, and the resolve to treat it like we treat any other epidemic. What I want is for our words and deeds to contribute mightily to the dismantling of our national culture of sexual violence and to the building up of a new culture that recognizes the integrity of all human bodies and promotes agency, respect and justice.

****

Our ministry theme for November is memory. This theme provided a second, perhaps deeper impetus for speaking about sexual violence now. Traumatic events, because of their very nature, can be difficult to remember. They often become buried—a very natural, human response. The mind creates a buffer, a protective layer. Remembering requires the removal of the buffer. Remembering requires re-visiting, re-experiencing, re-living the trauma. For some people, it is truly best not to remember, and that is always a choice we must respect. And yet, in most cases, healing from sexual violence is very difficult without remembering, and without speaking aloud what one remembers. So when I speak of this congregation becoming a place where sexual violence in all its forms is speakable, utterable, nameable, acknowledgeable, visible, I’m asking us to imagine ourselves as a place where traumatic memories can be safely recalled, shared and honored.

Laura Cordes, the outgoing executive director of the CT Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said “I think one of the messages to go along with the ‘memory’ theme is ‘how we respond, matters….’ Victims REMEMBER how people (friends, family members and those in position to help) respond. The memories of the insensitive, shaming, dismissive, and blaming responses contribute to and can be just as harmful as the assault itself and keep survivors from getting the support, validation, healing—LET ALONE JUSTICE—that they deserve.”

In considering how to respond well, I’ve been turning to theologian Serene Jones’ 2009 book, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World for guidance. Serene Jones is the president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and formerly the chair of Gender, Woman, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. Informed by her research  in theology and trauma studies, she offers an overall framework for trauma work in congregations.  

There are three components to this framework: testimony, witness and re-imaginging. Jones says, “First, the person or persons who have experienced trauma need to be able to tell their story. The event needs to be spoken, pulled out of the shadows of the mind into the light of day.” That’s testimony.

“Second, there needs to be someone to witness this testimony, a third-party presence that not only creates the safe space for speaking but also receives the words when they are finally spoken.” That’s witness.

“Third, the testifier and the witness … must begin the process of telling a new, different story together: we must begin to pave a new road through the brain.”[2] That’s re-imagining.

So what might a congregational response look like? I’m not suggesting a random sharing of traumatic memories. I have a specific process in mind. Such sharing needs to be intentionally and lovingly managed through covenanted small groups and with carefully-crafted rituals. I imagine any member or friend of this congregation, living in the aftermath of sexual violence, who feels ready to begin a healing journey, ready to reclaim agency and power, ready to reclaim their life, could request that we create a trained small group to journey with them, to listen to and hold their story, to help them tell a new story, and to ultimately rededicate their life to the sacred power that lies within us, beyond us and between us.

That’s one possibility for how we can hear, hold and support the healing of individual survivors of sexual violence: creating spaces for testimony, witness and re-imagining.

****

With this idea in mind, I’d like to take a moment for us as a congregation to honor victims of sexual violence—people who have survived and, as the case may be, people who died as a result of sexual violence. I offer to you a very simple, candle-lighting ritual. I invite you to breathe deeply. I invite you to relax. I invite you to imagine the face or the name of someone you know who has experienced sexual violence. It might be yourself. It might be a family-member or friend. It might be someone you don’t know well, but you are familiar with their story. It might be someone you only know from a story in the news. Imagine the face or the name of someone you know who has survived sexual violence.

Hold them in your mind’s eye.

Hold them in your heart.

Now, if you would like to light a candle as a way to honor this person’s experience, their suffering, and their journey back to power and agency, please come forward at this time.

[Music]

We pray for all those who have experienced sexual violence.

We pray that they may find healing.

We pray that, if it is their wish, they may find the courage and the strength to speak aloud their experience.

We pray that if and when they speak, there will be a caring, loving community gathered around them, prepared, open, ready to listen, ready to hold them.

We pray that with this caring, loving community, they are able to reclaim the power and agency that was taken from them.

We pray that with this caring, loving community, they are able to re-tell their story, able to re-imagine their life in new directions with new possibilities.

We also pray also for our congregation:

That we may be a congregation that speaks to the world of the realities of sexual violence;

That we may speak with tenderness but also with unflinching resolve;

That we may tell a new story of our own faith as one that promotes human integrity healing, respect, and justice.

And, buoyed by this new story, that we may join the work of dismantling our national culture of sexual violence.

****

Changing culture in a single institution, like a church, is hard enough. Changing the culture of a country may seem beyond comprehension. Such change takes decades. Such change takes millions of committed people. Sometimes when we let the magnitude of the problem—and the magnitude of what is needed to address it—wash over us, we feel powerless to effect change. But we’re really not powerless. Simply by saying that the experience of sexual violence will be uttered, named, spoken aloud, made visible here is an exercise of our power. And the act of creating safe spaces for survivors to speak and be held and begin to rebuild their lives—that is an exercise of power. And I love this notion of the active bystander—one who cannot keep quiet about ending sexual violence; one who intervenes when they witness it happening or anticipate it is about to happen. We can commit ourselves to being active bystanders. That is an exercise of our power. And from there, we can be those who volunteer. We can be those who support. We can be those who advocate. We can be those who lobby. We can be those who testify! Those who witness! Those who re-imagine! We have power. Let’s use it. There is a movement to end sexual violence in our nation. Let’s be part of it. Let’s build that new way.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Learn more about the CT Center to End Sexual Violence at https://endsexualviolencect.org/.

[2] Jones, Serene, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009) p. 32.

Less Distant from the Hope of Myself: Reflections on Sanctuary

Our ministry theme for October is sanctuary. For my remarks this morning I had planned to take a break from talking about being a sanctuary congregation. I had planned to take a break from talking about how we as a congregation relate morally to larger social and political realities. I had planned to take a break from talking about how we have the capacity to provide care and shelter to people whose lives have been or are being upended in tragic ways by governments acting immorally. We’ve actually talked a lot about that over the past two years. As a congregation you are familiar with many of these themes. I was going to take a break. I had planned to talk about sanctuary in a more general, and perhaps a more personal spiritual way. I had planned to say that regardless of our life circumstances, regardless of our relative privileges, no matter who we are, there’s a human need for sanctuary, for places of safety and protection, of retreat and reflection, of beauty and creation. We all need sanctuary from time to time.

As I read in our meditation from the Rev. Ann Willever, Just for this moment / let me be still / let me rest / in the quiet of this sacred place / in the presence of the spirit gathered / held gently, yet mightily, by the threads of love / that bind us together.[1] She’s describing that kind of sanctuary we all need from time to time.

That’s still what this sermon is about—with a first caveat that this happens to be the week we are, for the first time, welcoming a guest into our sanctuary space; and with a second caveat that the dynamics of this situation are different—though not entirely—from the scenario we originally anticipated. This situation is easier in some ways, because our guest is not confined to our building. But it is still hard, because his life is so clearly at stake if his asylum claim fails.

For me, it has been a difficult week. It has been difficult because the work of bringing a guest into our building is highly detailed; it requires the input, insight, organization and commitment of many people. I want to thank Judi Durham and Rhona Cohen, who co-lead our Sanctuary Congregation Team, along with all the members of the Team who’ve had a hand in making this transition in the life of our congregation go as smoothly as possible.

It’s been a difficult week because the reality of a human being moving into our building impacts all of us who use the building. It is disruptive, especially for our staff. Gina, Jane, Annie, Mary and Emmy have all prepared for this moment—and yet nobody can fully prepare for something like this until it happens. I am so appreciative of their willingness to stay open, to be flexible, to raise questions we haven’t yet raised, and thereby support all of you in making this transition.

It’s been a difficult week because some of you, appropriately, have expressed concern about our decision-making process, because this situation—providing sanctuary to a person whose deportation order has been put on hold while he’s pursuing an asylum claim—is different from the situation that drove our deliberations last spring—providing sanctuary to a person who has an open deportation order. Those of you who’ve spoken or written to me about this difference, please know that I deeply value your willingness to raise questions. Having disagreements about this is hard, but if we can’t raise questions and be in dialogue, then in my mind we are muting our fifth Unitarian Universalist principle, ‘the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.’

It’s been a difficult week because we’re still trying to figure out what details about our guest’s story are shareable and how best to share them. Transparency is critical in the healthy functioning of a congregation—and yet we have to be careful in this situation: if our guest’s asylum claim fails and he must return home, we don’t want our public sharing here in the United States to inadvertently make his situation at home more dangerous. As a reminder, he is an atheist, and what he calls a free thinker, from a country where atheism is a crime punishable by death.

Having said that, this is a church, and we have never been under any illusions that it would be possible to keep our guest’s presence here a secret. Though we will not hold a press conference, the Manchester Police and Fire Departments are aware that he is living here. There’s no way around that. So what we can say is that our guest comes from a country in the Middle East. He arrived in the United States in mid-September and immediately presented himself to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and requested asylum. ICE detained him at a facility in Greenfield, MA. After ICE background checks and a briefing in the case a federal judge in Hartford determined he was neither a threat nor a flight risk, and allowed him to be released from detention as long as there was a place for him to go. This is where we come in. We are providing a place for him to stay while he pursues his asylum claim. On average, such claims take about 3-4 months to complete—though there are no guarantees.

It’s been a hard, stressful, taxing week. I know during such weeks I am not at my best—not as a minister, not as a pastor, not as a husband, not as a father. Some lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, “When I Am Among the Trees,” resonate with me. I am so distant from the hope of myself, / in which I have goodness, and discernment, / and never hurry through the world / but walk slowly, and bow often.[2]

There have definitely been times this week when I’ve felt distant from the hope of myself.

That could mean many things. I wonder what it might mean for you. It could be the feeling that accompanies a hard week, a week in which you know you aren’t at peak, aren’t your best self. It could be the feeling that accompanies a difficult diagnosis, or a recovery from surgery or illness that is taking much longer than the doctors predicted. It could be the feeling that accompanies the breakdown or loss of a relationship that really matters to you. It could be the weight of the world bearing down, those feelings of overwhelm that come in response to so much unwelcome, disconcerting news. Contemplate, for a moment, those times when you’ve felt distant from the hope of yourself.

[Musical Interlude]

I’d like to say I hope none of you will ever feel distant from the hope of yourself. It would be nice to never feel that way. It would be nice to always know your own goodness, to always have discernment, to never hurry through the world, to walk slowly, to bow often. But we know the world and our lives don’t work this way. We have hard days, hard weeks, hard years. Some moments in our lives are grueling. This is inevitable. What I do hope, for myself and for all of you, is that when you come to those grueling moments, you will also have sanctuaries—places to which you can you can for rest and respite, for comfort, solace and peace—beautiful vibrant places, tranquil, colorful places that soften life’s hard edges, that make living not only bearable but joyful, meaningful, useful.  

That is the idea of sanctuary I want to offer you this morning: places that matter deeply to you; places that help reduce the distance between you and the hope of yourself; places that help you remember your goodness. That’s what a sanctuary does. The poet speaks of the trees as her sanctuary. They call out, “Stay a while.” / The light flows from their branches. / And they call again, “It’s simple, they say, / “and you too have come / into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled / with the light, and to shine.[3] That’s a good statement of the place I’ve been trying to get to this week, a place where I can go easy, be filled with light, shine. I don’t want the hardness of this week—or the hardness of the laws that led our guest to flee is home country—or the hardness of our larger world, our polarized and often hate-filled politics—I don’t want any of it to change me. I don’t want any of it to change you, or to lessen your courage, to dampen your conviction. Where can you go for affirmation that you, too, are filled with light; that you, too, shine.

What is your sanctuary? What is the place that saves you again and again and again; the place where you find room to breathe and stretch, the place that shelters you, if only for a time, from the hardness, the madness, the cruelty of the world? Two weeks ago I asked the members of the Small Group Ministry I facilitate to respond to that very question. It was a wonderful sharing. I remember stories of homes, or certain rooms within homes, of ponds and rivers nearby, of baseball parks, of the powerfully, comforting memories of loved-ones who’ve died, of this place—this Unitarian Universalist meeting house, here atop Elm Hill, on the Manchester-Vernon line, east of the Connecticut River.

Contemplate, for a moment, the sanctuaries in your life.

[Musical Interlude]

I’m offering you the idea of sanctuary as a spiritual resource. Just as taking a sabbath—a day of rest—is a spiritual resource; just as prayer and meditation are spiritual resources; just as yoga is a spiritual resource; just as being together in worshiping community on Sunday morning is a spiritual resource, so is having a sanctuary, a place where you can go for rest, respite, renewal.

The Rev. Kathleen McTigue tells the story of the small hole-in-the-wall café near her office. She describes the café as a sanctuary for her. “It was a wonderful thing just then, to be marooned on this little island of calm amidst the impatience, irritability, and general craziness of life, in a pace where someone makes her living by patiently shaping and then serving two of the world’s most basic and nourishing foods.”[4]

I love the healing imagery at the heart of McTigue’s experience in the café. “It’s easy to believe,” she writes, “that some small corner of the world’s fabric is being patiently, lovingly stitched back together—and that something more gets carried out the door than a bag of bread and warm soup.”[5]

That may be what’s happening here. In providing space for our guest to live, to prepare his asylum case, to engage in activities that will keep him well in mind, body and spirit, perhaps we too are patiently, lovingly stitching some corner of the world’s fabric back together. Indeed, some small bit of fear and loneliness and desperation ebbed this week when our guest came here. His journey is far from over, his fate far from certain, but the fabric in his corner of the world, and in ours, has been strengthened.

Of course, there are many holes, tatters, and runs in the fabric. The edges are worn and frayed. My prayer is that in those moments when the holes and tatters and runs touch our lives, cause us to grow distant from the hope of ourselves, that we have place to go for renewal; that we have sanctuaries in which our small corner of the world’s fabric can be stitched back together. I leave you words from Rev. Willever’s “Autumn:” May whatever pain or sorrow or loss I feel today /be eased / if only for this moment /even as I feel tossed and turned by the wind / a fallen leaf, blown about / with no seeming direction / may I abandon the illusion of control / if only for this moment / and sense the love surrounding me / and the strength of he love within me.[6]

Amen, blessed be.

[1] Willever, Ann, “Autumn” in Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 40-41.

[2] Oliver, Mary “When I Am Among the Trees,” in Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006) p. 4.

[3] Oliver, “When I Am Among the Trees.”

[4] McTigue, Kathleen, “More Than a Cup of Soup,” Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 4-5.

[5] McTigue, “More Than a Coup of Soup.”

[6] Willever, Ann, “Autumn.”

Lest We Remain Unused

Subtitle: The Greater-Love-Greater-Inclusion-Greater-Justice-Liberal-Religious-Vision for the United States of America

Rev. Josh Pawelek

What great and noble work uses you up?

What great and noble work calls to you, inspires you, focuses your energy, lets your passions meet the world where it needs them most?

My message this morning is really quite simple. Being fairly confident we each have only one life to live, it matters that we can envision a better world, and then work with all our strength, power, heart, creativity, steadfastness and love to shape the world in response to that vision. In service to our vision it matters, in the poet Rilke’s words, that we not “remain unused.”[1]

We cannot predict the future, but we can imagine it. Really, that’s what I mean when I speak of vision—our best imagining of what the future can be—our own future; our children’s and grandchildren’s futures, for those of us who are parents or grandparents; the future of our neighborhoods, our communities, out towns; the future of our congregation, our Unitarian Universalist Association, our collective UU faith; the future of our country; the future of our environment; the future of the earth. We cannot predict the future, but we can imagine it. And once we’ve imagined, let us not remain unused. Let us instead take to heart Rilke’s claim:“there’s a power in [us] / to grasp and give shape to [our] world.”[2]

Our ministry theme for September is vision. As I speak, you are welcome to reflect on your vision for your own life, especially if you’re not sure what that vision is, or if you’ve encountered barriers to realizing your vision, or if you’re in need of a new vision. But I want to focus my words on our collective vision as members and friends of this Unitarian Universalist congregation. What great and noble work uses us up?

Our congregation adopted a new vision statement at our annual meeting in May. The statement says the “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.” I hope you encounter in these words hints, suggestions and directions for great and noble work we can do together. I am certainly looking forward to being used up in service to this vision. I hope you are too.

Having said that, it feels important to offer the observation that our vision is not really unique among Unitarian Universalist congregations; nor is it unique among liberal congregations of many denominations; nor is it all that different from the visions articulated among many secular organizations, liberal and progressive people in general, and even some pop music and movie stars. Our process for arriving at the specific words in our statement was unique, but the end result fits a pattern. This, by the way, is not a problem. I think it’s a good thing—a sign of our health.

I began thinking about this non-uniqueness when Jenn Richard offered to sing Janelle Monáe’s “Americans” for this morning’s service.”[3] I read the lyrics and thought, well, it’s a secular song—it’s about America. That’s OK. We sing a lot of secular songs. But then I wondered, is it a secular song? It’s not a gospel song. It’s not centered on God or Jesus. But it is prophetic in its call for justice. Monáe emphasizes the spiritual nature of this call by weaving into the song sermon excerpts from a minister named Pastor Sean McMillan. He says “Until women can get equal pay for equal work, this is not my America. / Until same-gender loving people can be who they are, this is not my America. / Until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head, this is not my America. / Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful, this is not my America.” Later he adds “Until Latinos and Latinas don’t have to run from walls, this is not my America. / But I tell you today that the devil is a liar / Because it’s gon’ be my America before it’s all over.”

This is prophecy. For me, it’s a spiritual song. In total, it offers a vision of a more loving, more inclusive, and more just America. Though there are some subtleties within the song, its vision isn’t subtle at all. It is big, bold, obvious. It also feels very consistent with the vison American Unitarian Universalists and other liberal and progressive people of faith often express for our congregations, our local communities, and our nation: greater love, greater inclusion, greater justice.

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that Janelle Monáe is a Unitarian Universalist and doesn’t know it. She’s not a UU. I am suggesting that our collective Unitarian Universalist vision fits comfortably into a more widely-shared liberal vision for our communities, our country and our planet. For now, I’ll call it the “greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America.”

I subscribe to a blog called “The Velveteen Rabbi.” It features the poetry of Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. She lives in western Massachusetts and leads a congregation in North Adams. Earlier this week she sent out the link to her sermon from worship on Rosh Hashanah morning. The sermon is entitled, “A Vision of Better.”[4] I knew I had to tell you about her sermon when she announced that “Our theme for the High Holy Days is vision.” She preaches her version of the greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America. She talks about immigrant children being torn apart from their parents at the border; about the insidious Question #3 on the Massachusetts ballot seeking to abolish anti-discrimination protections for transgender people; about looming threats to reproductive freedom and women’s control over their own bodies; about widespread attempts to suppress voting rights; about attacks on press freedoms; about actual Nazis running for Congress.

She acknowledges to her people that they may feel overwhelmed, that much gets in the way, that the problem we all face is one of fundamental human disconnection. Nevertheless, she preaches, “It’s up to us to see a better world and then make that vision real. In this sense we’re called to be prophets, and then to build our vision into being. In Jewish tradition a prophet is not someone who predicts the future. A prophet is someone who exhorts us to be and to do better. We need to envision a better world than this. Then we need to set our hands to the task of building it.” That’s the Velveteen Rabbi’s version of the ‘greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America.’

We encounter this vision here all the time. You find it in my preaching all the time. We sing it all the time. Channeling the ancient Hebrew prophets, Isaiah and Amos, we sang earlier, “Come build a land where [siblings], anointed by God, may then create peace. Where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.”[5] We sang “We Would Be One,” pledging ourselves “to greater service, with love and justice, strive to make us free.”[6] We heard the echoes of this vision in the meditation from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “All will come again into its strength: / the fields undivided, the waters undammed, / the trees towering and the walls built low…./ The houses welcoming all who knock / and a sense of boundless offering / in all relations, and in you and me.”[7]

Our sixth Unitarian Universalist principle is itself a very short, very concise articulation of this greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious vision. It commits us, very simply, to “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” And the vision statement we adopted last May, in my reading of it, fits squarely within this greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice liberal religious vision.

We know something about the work of making this vision a reality. Because we collectively hold this vision, we voted to become a sanctuary congregation and have made ourselves ready to welcome guests seeking to avoid deportation. Because we collectively hold this vision, we voted to support the Black Lives Matter movement and have worked in solidarity with Moral Monday CT. Because we collectively hold this vision we fought for marriage equality and anti-discrimination protections for transgender people in years past—and we won. Because we collectively hold this vision, we continually engage in actions for social, political, economic and environmental justice. This has been our version, our interpretation, our reaching toward the greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision in the United States of America.

Even so, with any articulation of a vision—with any sermon, any song or hymn, any poem or prose, and principle or precept, any adopted vision statement—there is always the risk that something will get in the way, as Rabbi Barenblat says. There is always the risk we will feel overwhelmed and slowly retreat from the work. In Unitarian Universalism, where we tend to be hyper-focused on verbal expressions of our spiritual and religious commitments, we encounter the unique risk of confusing the speaking of the visionary words with the actual work of bringing the vision into reality. Just because we’ve said it doesn’t mean we’ve done it. Words may inspire the work, but they aren’t the work itself.

Nevertheless, in this moment, words are what I have, so I will use them. I want to make sure our new vision statement does not end up gathering dust in the online equivalent of the proverbial desk drawer. I want it to inform our Unitarian Universalist life together, lest we remain unused.

I challenge each of us to bring the words off the page, to manifest them through what we do in the world. Turn to a neighbor and say, “There is a power in me to grasp and give shape to my world.” [8]  Turn to another neighbor and say, “There is a power in me to grasp and give shape to my world.” I believe this about myself—and I believe it about you. Do you believe it about you? Let me hear you one more time: “There is a power in me to grasp and give shape to my world.”

I hope when you encounter the words in our vision statement that say “we will love,” that you will feel, stirring within you, the power to love, to love fiercely, to love across lines of difference, to love yourself, your neighbor, the stranger, the alien, the refugee, the undocumented person, the enemy—and that you will then bring your love to each other and to the world.

When you encounter the words in our vision statement that say we will be “present to suffering,” that we will offer comfort and healing, I hope you will feel, alive and flowing within you, the power of your own comforting, healing presence. I hope you can begin to imagine yourself approaching pain—somebody’s pain here, somebody’s pain in our larger community—with a gentle, steady resolve, an unwillingness to turn away, an offer of support, a compassionate touch. Remember healing is not just what medical professionals do. Healing happens whenever we take actions that overcome that fundamental human disconnection Rabbi Barenblat names. Healing happens as we make connections and build relationships, as we acknowledge, accept and live into our interdependence with one another and the whole of life.

When you encounter the words in our vision statement that say we will “bear witness to oppression, and boldly work toward social and environmental justice,” I hope you feel rolling and roiling and raging within you the power to confront oppression with clarity and conviction, the power to creatively address our society’s and our world’s most pressing problems, the power to join with others in solidarity, in struggle, in justice movements for the sake of our collective liberation from all the forces that diminish and destroy life.

I hope when you encounter the words to our version of the greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America that you will feel power in you to act, to let the vision use you so that it may, in time, become the new reality.

I like the way Christian mystic Howard Thurman put it in the words we said together at the top of the service: “Holy One, may your fire burn brightly in me that I may, from this moment on, take effective measures within my own powers, to courageously build the kind of world I so deeply desire.”[9]

I like the way the Velveteen Rabbi put it in her sermon: “Be brave enough to envision a world better than the one we know now, and set your hands to bringing that vision to life. That’s the work.”

And I like the way Janelle Monáe concludes her song, “Americans,” with the words, “Please sign your name on the dotted line,” meaning ‘come on, sign up, commit yourself.’

Let’s make our vision real. Let’s not leave this precious life unused.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Alles wird wieder gross sein und gewaltig,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 121.

[2] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Da neight sich die Stunde und ruhrt mich an,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 47.

[3] View the video for Janelle Monáe’s song “Americans” from her 2018 album Dirty Computers at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POZNheF-KdY. Read the lyrics at https://genius.com/Janelle-monae-americans-lyrics.

[4] Barenblat, Rachel, “A Vision of Better.” View the full sermon at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiMutoPy4Nc&t=915s. Also check out the Velveteen Rabbit at https://velveteenrabbi.com/.

[5] Isaiah and Amos, adapted by Zanotti, Barbara, “We’ll Build a Land,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #121.

[6] Wright, Anthony, “We Would Be One,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #318.

[7] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Alles wird wieder gross sein und gewaltig,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 121.

[8] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Da neight sich die Stunde und ruhrt mich an,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 47.

[9] Adapted from Thurman, Howard, “I Confess,” Meditations of the Heart, reprinted in Lifting Our Voices (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2015) #54.

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.