I’m Done Talking About the ‘End of Church!’

IMG_0568Our ministry theme for September is transitions—always a potent theme for this time of year, the beginning of the congregational year, the beginning of the school year, the commencement of the final harvest on New England farms, the arrival of autumn. Indeed, even if there’s no particular threshold we’re crossing in our personal lives at this time, autumn in New England demands that we pay attention to transition. Those words we recited earlier from Rabbi Jack Riemer remind us of this: “Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter. For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.”[1] This is a season of obvious, bold and brilliant transitions.

And, of course, the Rabbi is also making reference to atonement—that solemn, joyful practice at the heart of the Jewish High Holy Days—the Days of Awe—that solemn, joyful practice—both spiritual and social—of making amends, of saying, “I’m sorry,” of asking for forgiveness, of turning, in the Rabbi’s words, from “callousness to sensitivity … envy to contentment … fear to faith;”[2] that most sacred act of returning from separation back to relationship, from isolation back to community, from brokenness back to wholeness. This is indeed a season of transitions.

I want to name a transition in our congregation that is largely behind us now, and then offer a related transition in my thinking about what I’m calling “The State of ‘The Church.’” The transition in our congregation began when we learned in 2013 that our long-time, beloved Director of Religious Education, Vicki Merriam, would be retiring; and then, a year later, that our beloved and now sadly deceased Director of Music, Pawel Jura, would be moving to a new position in Virginia. We said “good-bye” to Vicki in June of 2014, and to Pawel a month later in July; and then we embarked on very intentional, careful and thoughtful periods of transition. Knowing that awesome religious education and awesome music are critical to a thriving Unitarian Universalist congregation, we wanted to transition well. Whatever else our mission says about who we are as a faith community and how we aspire to show up in the world, religious education and music are the programmatic life-blood of our church. We knew this. We wanted to make sure these staff positions and their programs were well-structured and appropriately funded; and we wanted to hire the best possible people. I am confident we have been successful in our efforts. We’ve already welcomed and congratulated Gina Campellone in her role as Director of Religious Education. We’ve already welcomed and congratulated Mary Bopp in her role as Director of Music. I’m not proposing that we do that again today. But I am naming that as a congregation we have come through a period of transition in our staff and major programs. I am overjoyed to be starting the congregational year and, instead of focusing my best energy on staff transitions, I can now return again to the ministry you called me to provide thirteen years ago. That feels great.

Congratulations to you, the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, for coming through this time of transition so well.

End of ChurchOver the past few years you may have noticed the prevalence of a certain topic in my preaching, teaching and committee work. During this period of transition I have continually repeated the message that in the United States the traditional church—that is, a congregation with a building, with Sunday morning worship as its central spiritual practice, with staff, with committees, with many bills to pay—is in serious decline. Some might say it is in free-fall. Across denominations, across faiths, membership is down, attendance is down, participation is down, volunteerism is down, financial giving—especially since the Great Recession of 2008—is down. Churches are moving from full time professional ministers to part-time professional ministers. Churches are closing. Just a year ago, September 14th, 2015, I preached a sermon on “The End of Church” in which I cited all sorts of statistics about all sorts of people who aren’t attending all sorts of churches. I quoted an article that had just appeared in the UU World magazine in which the Rev. Dr. Teresa Cooley cited many of those same statistics, arguing that “if we don’t pay attention to these trends, we could end up like those near-empty or abandoned churches that are increasingly becoming part of our [national] landscape.”[3] Just this past week there was yet another piece on National Public Radio about Catholic Churches continuing to close in the northeast and midwest.[4] These trends are alive and well.

Another way I—and we—have been talking about the decline of the traditional church is by naming how families with children are less able to participate in congregational life because childhood is changing. In a November, 2013 sermon on the value of multigenerational community, I said, “we’ve finally witnessed the death of Sunday morning as the one, truly sacred time in the United States, the one time when no other events or activities could be scheduled, no shopping malls could be open, and families with children were not forced every week to choose between church and a plethora of other activities and organizations that involve their children and, in some cases, demand—as the price of participation—that their children make whatever [that] other activity is their highest priority. What a difference [from a generation ago], when young people and adults who used to experience their congregation as a major center for social connection, now come to church with hundreds if not thousands of online ‘friends,’ vast social media networks, and unlimited opportunities for screen-based entertainment—entertainment one experiences essentially alone—just a few keystrokes away.”[5]

I think it’s been really important to talk about these trends, this evidence of the end of church, these data of decline in congregational life as we’ve gone through a time of transition in staffing and programs. It’s been really important for us to know what’s going on in American religious life. It’s been really important for us to envision our future with full knowledge of the challenges we may be facing. And while naming these trends and evidence and data can feel negative, grim, sobering even frightening at times, I don’t regret doing it. We needed this information, and we still need it, in order to make wise decisions, in order to sustain our congregation and our faith for future generations.

But now we’ve come through our transition and I don’t want to talk about decline anymore. I don’t want to focus on the end of church any more. I’m done talking about it, especially from the pulpit. I say this knowing full well the trends and issues aren’t going away. Indeed, over the summer a number of posts showed up on my Facebook page describing how difficult professional ministry has become, how hundreds of ministers leave the ministry every month, how those who don’t typically work 60-70 hour weeks, and many other sad statistics. Credible people have studied this. The writers are correct. It is salient stuff.[6] I deeply appreciate the people who post these articles on my page because they do it out of love and concern for me. But I’m done talking about it. I’m done talking about decline. I’m done talking about the end of church. I’m done giving it energy and attention. I’m done talking about all sorts of statistics about all sorts of people who aren’t attending all sorts of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.

Why and I done? Because I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. This church isn’t ending. This church isn’t in decline. And, most importantly, you’re here. That matters. Instead of trying to figure out the needs of people who aren’t here and who may never come here, why not respond to you—to your needs, your energy, your passion? Let’s prioritize you. Let’s talk about the fact that there are people here—present now—with pain and sorrow and misgivings and joy and contentment and milestones to celebrate—people who take church seriously, who understand its value in their lives and in the world. I want to talk about that.

And I want to talk about commitment. I’m committed to our Unitarian Universalist faith and to this Unitarian Universalist congregation. I hope and trust you are committed too. Commitment matters. In a society that increasingly tolerates and even sanctions the erosion of commitment in family life, friendships, work, community and politics, let’s talk about what it means to be committed to a spiritual community—to claim its principles as our own, to embrace its mission as our own, to abide by its covenant, to express its values in public, to sustain it for future generations. What an incredible thing—to be committed in this way: to a church, to a congregation, to a piece of land, to a building, to a sanctuary. I want to talk about that.

And I want to talk about courage. It is becoming abundantly clear to me that, while we have to be vigilant about church growth, and continue to take steps to grow our congregations, the future of our liberal faith doesn’t ultimately hinge on whether more people become Unitarian Universalists: and the future of American liberal religion doesn’t hinge at all on whether more people start attending church again. The future of our faith and the future of American liberal religion hinge on whether or not we—those who are present and committed now—can courageously express our values in words, but more importantly in deeds, in the public square for the sake of healing a profoundly broken society and adapting well to the environmental changes wrought by the global climate crisis. We need to be courageous.

In the past months I’ve seen physical vandalism and online threats against Unitarian Universalist churches that hang Black Lives Matter banners in New Jersey and Chicago. I’ve seen homophobic violence this past week against the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Danbury, CT. Last summer we saw anti-abortion activists disrupt Unitarian Universalist worship in New Orleans. This is frightening. Looking out more broadly I see ongoing, unmitigated, unaddressed gun violence in the United States. I see increasingly violent and racist rhetoric coming from our political leaders and some presidential candidates. I see corporations threatening states—“If we don’t get our way, we’ll leave”—forcing legislators to slowly dismantle social safety nets, and thereby increasing already unsustainable and immoral wealth and income inequality. (Did you see that happen in Connecticut this year?) And I hear raucous, hate-filled, irresponsible voices blasting out across the airwaves, fabricating threats to religious liberty, fabricating threats from Muslims, fabricating threats from immigrants and justifying state-sponsored violence by fabricating racialized demons.

Globally I see the tenacity of terrorist organizations across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia who feed on the misery of poverty, of failed governments and tyranny. And I see the ongoing insanity of climate change denial. I see the fires, the tornados, the droughts, the hurricanes, the snow storms, the super storms and the risings oceans. I see it all and, frankly, I am afraid. I am afraid for my children, for our children, for our communities, for young black men, for what semblance of democracy we still have, and for the planet. Friends, I need to talk about courage. What are our sources of courage in light of abundant reasons to feel fear? Our Unitarian Universalist faith gives guidance in response to this question. Decline? The end of church? Too many soccer games on Sunday mornings? I’m done talking about it. I much prefer to talk about being courageous people of liberal faith, because our era requires courage.

I said in that sermon last year that “churches and denominations may be in decline these days. But there is still a genius to the idea of people gathering faithfully, week after week, united around a set of common principles, giving thanks for the blessings in their lives, caring for one another, teaching their children, hearing the wisdom of their elders, searching together for truth and meaning, and working for a more just, peaceful and loving world.”[7] That genius hasn’t gone away. That genius still exists. I suspect it will always exist. So let’s talk over the months and years as we continue to build this spiritual community together. What does it mean to be here, now? What does it mean to be committed? Where do we find our sources of courage? Present, committed, courageous. May that be the state of the church.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Riemer, Jack, “On Turning,”Singing the Living Tradition Boston (Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #634.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “Ring Them Bells,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 9/14/14. See: http://uuse.org/ring-them-bells/#.Vfl8Ft9Viko.

[4] Hansi Lo Wang, “’It’s All About Church Closings’: Catholic Parishes Shrink In Northeast, Midwest,” National Public Radio, 9/14/15. See: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/14/436938871/-it-s-all-about-church-closings-catholic-parishes-shrink-in-northeast.

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “On the Meaning of Multigenerational,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 11/17/13. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/on-the-meaning-of-multigenerational/.

[6] Krejcir, Richard J., “What’s Going On With Pastors in America?” See: http://www.intothyword.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=36562

[7] Pawelek, Josh, “Ring Them Bells,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 9/14/14. See: http://uuse.org/ring-them-bells/#.Vfl8Ft9Viko.

What Does the World Require of Us? (Revisited for Pawel Jura)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Pawel, August, 2014

Pawel, August, 2014

Our congregation is in mourning after learning of the death, this past Tuesday, of our beloved former Music Director, Pawel Jura. In speaking yesterday with the Rev. Jennifer Brooks, senior interim minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, VA, I learned that the Virginia Medical Examiner has confirmed that Pawel took his own life and that he died peacefully. As more information becomes available, including information about Pawel’s memorial services here and in Fairfax, I will share it with you as best I can. In the coming weeks and months both I and our Acting Director of Religious Education, Gina Campellone, remain available to you for care and consultation about this tragic loss.

My plan for this Sunday had been to preach a sermon called “On Being/Becoming Generous People.” I was going to talk about the progress we’ve made as a congregation to date in our year of transition in our religious education program, and about our progress in deepening our identity as a multigenerational congregation. I was going make the claim that truly multigenerational congregations are generous congregations, that that has been my experience this year: in deepening our multigenerational identity we are becoming more generous people—not just in terms of money, but in terms of our openness to trying new things, new ways of engaging in congregational life, and slowly creating opportunities to build new relationships across generational lines.

In one sense I am still preaching that sermon. Your generosity of heart and spirit in the aftermath of Pawel’s death has been remarkable, has certainly lifted my spirits during the past few days. However, I need to use different words than those I had planned to use, because everything feels different since we heard the news on Wednesday. Pawel’s death and our response to it need to be spoken from this pulpit this morning, because everything feels different and will for some time. Different, but not unfamiliar. At the reception following our vigil in honor of Pawel this past Thursday night, I suddenly recognized what I was feeling. That is, what I was feeling was familiar. I’d been there before. These feelings—most of them—are the same feelings I carried around for months following December 14th, 2012, the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, CT. I know these aren’t similar events—not even close. But so many of the feelings are the same: shock, pain, loss, confusion, an aching grief.

I read over the sermon I preached the Sunday after Sandy Hook and decided to adapt it to this moment. That sermon was called “What Does the World Require of Us?”—a title Pawel suggested. The purpose of that sermon was to help this congregation find emotional and spiritual paths forward in response to a national trauma that happened relatively close to home. The purpose of this sermon (which has the same title—thank you, again, Pawel) is to help this congregation find emotional and spiritual paths forward in response to a very personal trauma—the unexpected death of a loved-one—that happened relatively far away from home.

What was true in response to that infamous school shooting is just as true now in response to Pawel’s death: it is good to be together in our grief. Community is the foundation of our emotional and spiritual way forward. It is good to hug and hold each other. It is good to keep silence together when the words won’t come. It is good to weep together. It is good to pray together. It is good to sing together. Of course, we know this. We know it’s a precious thing to find life-giving community in a world that seems to do everything it can to drive people apart—to alienate, to fragment, to disconnect, to separate. But let’s not risk taking such a precious thing for granted, especially not now. At Thursday’s vigil I mentioned that Pawel had been speaking recently about the quality and specialness of our community here at UUS:E, saying that he missed us. He used the word “homesick” to describe how he was feeling. I said, for his sake and for our sake, “let’s be that community now.” Let’s be that compassionate community, that welcoming community, that loving, serving, justice-seeking, multigenerational, generous community that Pawel loved. In the wake of this unfathomable loss, let us pause, let us breathe, let us be at home in each other’s presence, and let us recognize anew how truly precious it is to be together. Yes, let’s be that community.

What does the world require of us in response to a death such as this? This question seems essential to me if we are to find emotional and spiritual paths forward. In the aftermath of tragedy, what does the world require of us? That’s the question I want to ponder now. And it’s the question I want you to take with you into this week, into these final weeks of winter, into spring. What does the world require of us?

There’s a part of me that answers this question with despair and helplessness, with the exhaustion of the week: “I don’t know what to do.” There’s a part of me that answers this question with anger, especially when the children who knew and loved Pawel are standing before me with tears streaming down their faces, children who may be encountering their first death and it’s not a grandparent, it’s a thirty-six year old man who they thought would be a friend and mentor for life: “I don’t know what to do.” And there’s a part of me that answers this question with confusion and incomprehension. How on earth could this happen? What can we possibly say? What can we possibly do that will make a difference? What does the world require of us? Who in the world knows? That’s my despairing, helpless, exhausted, angry, confused answer to the question, “What does the world require of us?” And let me be crystal clear: we all get to have our version of that answer. We all get to cry such tears. We all get to throw up our hands and say I can’t bear this! We all get to plead with the heavens: How could this happen? We get to have that response because it is real—an honest, human response to such an unexpected and tragic loss. 

But we don’t get to have it forever. I take very seriously the words we heard earlier from the Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox about love in the aftermath of loss. She says, “Oh, my dear, do not despair that love has come and gone. Although we are broken, the love that spilled out of us has joined the love that circles the world and makes it blessed.”[1] I believe it. Did we love someone who has died? Then let us not waste that love. Let us, in Rev. Tarbox’ words, not let it “sink like silt to dry out in the sun.” As painful as it is, let us let it spill out into the world, offering blessing after blessing after blessing. That is what the world requires of us in response to unexpected and tragic loss: that we let our love spill out to bless the world.

I identify three stages to meeting this requirement which I’ll share with you now. First, in the wake of the death of a loved one as dear as Pawel, find your grounding. Breathe deeply, slowly, fully. Fill your lungs with air and remind yourself it comes from green plants and algae. Remind yourself this air you breathe is evidence of your connection to the whole of life. Not separation, but connection.  Breathe in, and as you breathe, relax, rest, be still, be quiet, be calm. Breathe in, and as you breathe, reflect, concentrate, contemplate, focus, pray. Then, still breathing, when you feel ready, start to move. Slowy at first. Gently at first: bend, bow, stretch, lengthen, extend, reach. Keep breathing. And then, when you feel ready: walk, roll, run, dance. Then, still breathing, as you feel ready, begin to create. Creative acts are so essential to moving out of despair and finding our ground. Write, compose, sing, speak, play, act, sculpt, craft, paint, draw. Feel yourself slowly coming back to yourself.

If you can, go outside. I know it’s challenging with three feet of snow on the ground and yet another winter storm on the way. But if you can, touch the ground, the soil, the earth—the beautiful, dark brown earth. Or the snow, the ice. Work in it. Play in it. Remember spring is coming. Think about how you will tend the dark, brown earth after the thaw, how you will till it, turn it, plant seeds in it,  nurture what comes forth. Think about how you will let the dirt get on your hands, under your fingernails, between your toes. Do all of this for grounding. And as you ground yourself, feel yourself coming back to life. Listen for the still small voice. Hear your own truths, your convictions emerging once again. They are there. They’ve never actually left.

The mystic Howard Thurman wrote, “How good it is to center down!”—he’s talking about becoming grounded—“to sit quietly and see oneself pass by! / The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic; / Our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silences, / While something deep within hungers for the still moment and the resting lull. / With full intensity we seek, ere the quiet passes, a fresh sense of order in our living; / A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring  meaning in our chaos.”[2]  Maybe you can find your grounding quickly. Maybe you’re tying and you can’t quite get there yet. Maybe you need more time. It’s ok. Grief does not leave us quickly. Sometimes it never leaves. Take your time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. But have hope: your center is there—it’s real. You’ll find it. The world requires this of us. In the wake of tragic loss, after your time of despair, seek grounding.

Then, second, in the wake of tragic loss, with your despair now trailing behind you, from a place of groundedness emerging within you, attend—however you can—to the grief of those around you. It may not be immediately clear how to do this. So often, we don’t know what we need in the midst of grief. But know that this suffering, this pain, this trauma will ripple around and around through our lives, through our congregation, through the Kensington United Church of Christ where Pawel worked prior to coming to us, through the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, VA where Pawel worked after leaving us. It will ripple through Unitarian Universalism. It will ripple through Manchester and Hartford, through Berlin and South Windsor. It will ripple and ripple and ripple. It will touch people who never knew Pawel. Death does that. If and when you encounter a ripple of grief, attend to it. That is, stay present to it. We attend to grief with our presence. Offer a helping hand, a kind word, a hug, a supportive conversation. If and when you encounter a ripple of grief, don’t look away. Don’t turn away. And if you can’t make eye contact, hold onto the person. Don’t let them go. Take time. Make yourself available. Stay present.

The spiritual writer, Rachel Naomi Remen, says “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, 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.”[3] The world requires this of us. In fact, our attention to others’ grief is the first way our love spills out in the aftermath of loss. It is the first way we bless the world. In the wake of tragic loss, with your despair finally fading behind you, from a place of groundedness within you, attend however you can to the grief around you.

Third, let your love bless the world. In the wake of tragic loss, having moved beyond despair, having grounded yourself, and while attending to grief as it ripples around you, then comes the time for repair, for healing, for returning to our living, and for extending the blessing. Certainly it is too soon to know what the work of blessing the world will look like in response to Pawel’s death, though I’m confident it will include music—piano concertos and choral anthems, modal chord progressions and haunting melodies, rounds and canons, bell choirs and rock bands, church music and cabarets—and that’s only the beginning. But for now, please know, please trust, please believe that the love spilling out of you even in this moment is not wasted. The love spilling out of you even as we worship has power. The love spilling out of you even in this sacred space can bring more beauty, more passion, more compassion, more comfort, more help, more solace, more peace into the world. The love spilling out of you will bless the world in ways you will know, and in ways you will never know. Indeed the love spilling out of you is even now joining “the love that circles the world and makes it blessed.”

Friends, the truth is we are connected—to each other, to all people, to all life. Our connections make it possible for us to love. And because we love, the world requires certain things of us. In the wake of tragic loss, in the wake of the unexpected death of a loved-one, in the midst of despair, first seek grounding. Then attend to grief—yours, and the grief of those around you. Then work to bless the world. Why try to meet these requirements? Because the world needs blessing. As we remember and mourn Pawel, as we slowly begin to celebrate his life, may we respond with acts of love that bless the world.

Amen. Blessed be.

[1] Tarbox, Rev. Elizabeth, “Legacy,” Evening Tide (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998) p. 56.

[2] Thurman, Howard, “How Good to Center Down!” in Fluker, Walter and Timber, Catherine, A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) pp. 305-306.

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