Agape Church = Ally Church

Danish King Christian X

Danish King Christian X

In his review of Bo Lidegaard’s Countrymen, a recent history of how the Danish people helped the Danish Jews survive the Nazi occupation during World War II, Michael Ignatieff writes: “There was no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there was just us.”[1] The Danes said to the Nazi occupiers, essentially,“If you make the Jews wear yellow stars, we’ll all wear yellow stars too.” In other words, “you’ll have to take all of us.” I offer this story as a starting place for reflection on what it means to be an ally, specifically what it means to be an ally at church and as a church. The Danish people understood themselves not as frightened, defeated Nazi collaborators, but as courageous allies of their Jewish countrymen. We will help you; we will keep you safe; we will stand with you; we will risk our own lives on your behalf; there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. That’s what it means to be an ally.

Opportunities for allyship abound. Right now there are people in this room who need others in this room to be their allies. Right now, all around us in the wider community, there are people who need the partnership and solidarity of a congregation like ours in their struggle to overcome some injustice, some oppression, some poverty, some ongoing abuse or exploitation. I’m mindful that congregations and clergy can and do say a lot about love. We can be eloquent, inspiring and prophetic about love; and we can also very quickly become boring when all it is is words. We can very quickly become irrelevant when it is unclear how we make that love real in the world. My message is this: Loving congregations manifest love through a discipline of allyship. In other words, agape church equals ally church.

We typically translate the ancient Greek word agape as “unconditional love.” Early Christians used it to refer to God’s love for humanity which they experienced as unconditional. When we use it to refer to human love we translate it in a variety of ways: selfless love, impartial love, all-encompassing love, wholehearted love. It is big, broad, vast, deep love—akin to the love God supposedly feels for humanity. It can refer to love between two people, but for the purposes of this sermon I’m using it to refer to love for people in general, love for all humanity.

I’m not a fan of the idea of selfless love, at least not the way we often encounter it: the giving up of oneself in order to serve others. sexism
There are certainly appropriate times for giving oneself up, for self-sacrifice—I think of soldiers sacrificing themselves to save their friends in battle, or parents dedicating their lives to the care of a child with special needs. But I’m also mindful that for too many centuries women were (and often still are) expected to give up their selves in the service of sexist conceptions of marriage, family, society and, it must be said, church. I don’t believe this giving up of the self is good for women; nor is it good for marriage, family, society or church. We each have unique, beautiful, holy selves that add value to the world and ought not to be given up except in extraordinary circumstances. Any system or institution that pressures us to give ourselves up with no choice and no reciprocity is oppressive.

Having said that, in the experience of genuine agape there is what feels like a losing of the self—a merging and mingling of selves in one another, a joining together, a recognition that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. In response to my February 2nd sermon on love, Nancy Thompson offered the words of Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg in our “Dialogue From Your Home” forum. Salzberg says “actual love is the true seeing of our oneness, our non-separateness.”[2] Nancy said further: “I think that’s what’s at the center of existence, non-separateness … you can call it love or God or interdependence or emptiness…. It’s not about you as a distinct, finite being but you as part of being.” Agape isn’t a call to self-sacrifice, though sometimes we do sacrifice ourselves for love; and it isn’t about losing ourselves in our love for others, though it may feel like that. It’s actually an experience of finding ourselves in our love for others—not our discreet biological selves, but our larger, connected, non-separate selves.

Still, I don’t want to get caught up in language and definitions. Love lives beyond words and reason. No amount of mental gymnastics and wordsmithing will get us to a full understanding. What I want to know is not what love is, but what it looks like in practice at church. My message again: loving congregations manifest love through a discipline of allyship.

Hand on ShoulderWe conduct ourselves as allies in two broad ways. First, we respond as allies to what I call natural human suffering—the suffering that is part and parcel of the human condition and which all of us experience through the course of our lives: the suffering that comes with physical and mental illness, with aging, with loss and grief, with despair, anxiety, loneliness and failure, with approaching death. Responding to these forms of suffering is the pastoral role of the church. But I want to suggest that when we respond we are engaging in the discipline of allyship. When you put a hand on the shoulder of someone who has just shared a painful story; when you visit someone in the hospital or in rehab after a surgery; when you cook a meal for a family that has experienced a death; when you provide hospitality at a memorial service; when you give someone a ride to their chemotherapy treatment; when you accompany someone to court; when you go grocery shopping for someone who is homebound; when you give a call just to check in; when you greet someone you’ve never met after a Sunday service; when you sit and talk with someone who is lonely: when you stay present to someone who is hurting for whatever reason—stay with them, focus on them, let them cry, let them rage, let them feel what they’re feeling, let them process their situation, let them be silent, be silent with them, walk with them, get a coffee with them, reassure them, stay with them until they know what they’re going to do next, let them know you won’t abandon them—when you do whatever it is they need done because they actually can’t do it for themselves in that particular moment, you are being an ally.

One of the reasons I love the institutional church is because it provides a space wherein people can manifest agape by being allies to each other in the midst of our suffering. It’s what church is for. Allyship is the central discipline—the primary behavior—in any beloved community.

In practicing allyship it’s always possible that we can feel like we’re giving up a part of ourselves—we’re giving up precious time, energy, emotion, attention, focus. It may feel like we’re sacrificing. It may feel burdensome. And perhaps it is. Perhaps manifesting agape doesn’t always feel good. Perhaps part of the discipline of allyship is learning to accept that there are moments when we must lay aside what we want for ourselves in order to care for and support someone facing more dire circumstances. But in doing so, I contend we also find our larger, connected selves. We find it is not ‘us’ and ‘them;’ it is just us.

In addition to responding to the natural suffering people experience, the church also responds—or ought to respond—to what unnatural suffering—the suffering groups of human beings so easily visit upon other groups of human beings through abuses of power, oppression, discrimination, exploitation, violence, etc. People experiencing such suffering often know exactly what it is they need. They often know exactly what needs to change. They often are willing to fight, struggle, work, strive to make that change happen. They often are willing to lead in the work of change. They they can rarely do it alone. If we’re talking about overcoming racism in the form of mass incarceration or disparities in health care outcomes; or reforming immigration laws so that undocumented people are treated with compassion and given a path to citizenship; or ending gun violence on our city streets; or next steps in overcoming homophobia and heterosexism—whether it’s working to end bullying in schools or working for the rights of LGBT elders; or if we’re talking about exploring our own, unintentional habits of institutional racism, heterosexism, ageism, and on and on, the group experiencing the suffering can rarely do it all alone. They need allies. They need people with privilege and power to agree that the suffering they experience is real. They need people with privilege and power to commit to working for change with them. They need people with privilege and power to take risks on their behalf; to say, We will help you! We will stand with you! We will even risk our own lives and livelihoods on your behalf! There is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. This is exactly what the Danish people did for their Jewish neighbors during the Nazi occupation. This is allyship. This, I’m convinced, is how congregations manifest agape in their ministries within and beyond their walls.

I want to speak in very practical terms about what it means to me, a heterosexual man, to be an ally to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender—GLBT—people here at UUS:E. Some of you know our Welcoming Congregation Steering Group hoped to hang and dedicate a large rainbow flag out in the clerestory this morning. They decided not to do it because they weren’t sure they had the full support of the congregation. They held a forum and invited feedback in a variety of ways. A small minority expressed discomfort, which is important in a community that values the right of conscience—the minority needs to be able to express itself. So, let’s not hang the flag yet. But why do it at all? Why hang a large rainbow flag at UUS:E?

Rainbow Ally

This is how I think and feel about it. Ever since I’ve been UUS:E’s minister, the members and friends of this congregation—straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, men, women, transgender, questioning, old, young, rich, middle class, working class, poor, Humanist, Theist, Agnostic, Pagan and Buddhist—have been working as a congregation for the civil rights of gay and lesbian people—primarily through marriage equality—and for the civil rights of transgender people—primarily through anti-discrimination legislation. This has meant attending rallies, marches, lobby days, knocking on doors and interviewing voters at polling stations to gage public opinion, testifying on bills, writing letters to politicians and newspapers, sending checks to Love Makes a Family, supporting True Colors and listening to more sermons on the subject than probably any of you cared to listen to. The major political and legislative battles are behind us now. We won, so the level of engagement is not nearly as intense as it was. But this activism was a central feature of our ministry for many years. As a congregation, we were following a discipline of allyship. We were saying to GLBT people here and across the state, not only with our words but with our deeds: We will help you; we will stand with you; we will not abandon you; we will not flinch in the face of opposition; you do not have to fight these battles alone; we will risk our own lives and livelihoods on your behalf; there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. When I see a rainbow flag, I don’t see their flag. I see our flag. Though I am clear I gain power and privilege in my life because I am a straight man and I will never fully comprehend what it means to be gay, female or transgender, I am also clear that I’ve made my power and privilege accountable to GLBT people because I strive to be an ally. The rainbow flag represents me too. But not just me, us. It’s our flag because we are an ally church.

But let’s imagine UUS:E had sat on the sidelines throughout these struggles and none of us had been involved. And let’s imagine we now want to be more welcoming to GLBT people and we have a Welcoming Congregation Steering Group to help us. And let’s imagine they want to hang a rainbow flag, because even though we have marriage equality, even though we have protections against discrimination for transgender people, even though ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ has ended, even though there has been amazing progress, church is still a dangerous place for GLBT people, even churches that say they’re welcoming. And GLBT young people still face bullying and still have a suicide rate way out of proportion to the population. A large rainbow flag would send a clear, unequivocal message that GLBT people are safe here, able to be out, able to bring their whole selves. There may be good reasons not to hang the flag. But in my view, this is an ally moment. This is a moment where a group of people who experience unnecessary suffering are saying, “We need this. It will alleviate suffering.” Agape church equals ally church.

“We don’t want to be the gay church.” I’ve never actually heard another human being say these words, but I understand people say it. Supposedly even gay people say it. As a consultant to congregations and clergy wondering how to respond to such statements, I’ve always said something like “assure them that you’re not becoming the gay church, but remind them it’s important to extend a clear welcome.” In preparing this sermon it dawned on me: I don’t feel comfortable saying that anymore—not if I mean what I say about being an ally, not if I know in my heart love means there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;” there is just us. Gay church? I would be honored to be a part of that church, because I know it’s not ultimately about being gay, it’s about manifesting our love and being good allies.

Allyship

We have a mental health ministry. We could become the metal illness church. I would be honored to be part of that church too, because I know it’s not ultimately about mental illness; it’s about love and allyship. We could become an immigrant church, a poor peoples’ church, a church for families of the incarcerated, a church for people living with HIV/AIDS, a church for homeless people, a church for children with autism and ADHD, a church for hungry people, a church for youth and young adults, a church for elders—do you see how we become the beloved community through a discipline of allyship? I would be honored to serve as minister of that church and I hope and trust all of you would be honored to be part of that church too. In the end, such a church is not about any of these identities. It’s about love and allyship. Agape church equals ally church. It’s not us and them; it’s just us. It’s our flag. It’s our yellow star. It’s just us.

I would be honored.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Ignatieff, Michael, “One Country Saved Its Jews. Were They Just Better People? The Surprising Truth About Denmark in the Holocaust,” New Republic, Dec. 14, 2013. See: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115670/denmark-holocaust-bo-lidegaards-countrymen-reviewed.

 

[2] I can’t find the exact location of this quote, but it appears to come from Salzberg’s 1995 “Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.” See: http://www.amazon.com/Lovingkindness-Revolutionary-Happiness-Shambhala-Classics/dp/157062903X.

 

Meditation for the New Year

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Now that the holidays draw to their close….

Ash

Now that the lamp oil has lasted beyond all expectations, now that the temple has been cleansed and purified, now that the Yule log has burned down to ash, now that the sun has begun its slow winter return, now that the angels have sung their good tidings, now that the new year has been warmly welcomed, now that the wise men have finally arrived in Bethlehem bearing precious gifts….

Wise Men

Let us resolve not to rush through our lives, hurried and distracted, but to be fully present to each day, mindful in each activity, attentive to each person….

Let us resolve to discern the purpose of our lives, and to pursue that purpose with discipline, passion and courage—not just for ourselves, but for the common good….

Let us resolve to stay aware of our connections to larger realities—to other people, to creatures, to the land, to the earth, to the whole of life, to the whole of creation, to all we hold sacred….

And with the music of midwinter still ringing in our ears, let us resolve not only to say what needs to be said, but to do what needs to be done for the sake of building a more just, peaceful, and loving world….

Indeed, in this new year may we bring many gifts: to ourselves, to our families, to our communities, to the world….

earth

Amen and blessed be.

Virtues for UUs

J. Hughes

 

J. Hughes

J. Hughes

The Protestants gave up the saints, those exemplars of virtue that the Catholics had made into idols. But they kept the virtues.

We UUs went one step further and gave up the idea of virtue.

By virtue here I mean those qualities of mind and moral character that were thought to be the highest goal in life, the most excellent fulfillment of a life well lived, and which also lead to the happiness of ourselves and others.

A model of virtues and moral perfectibility is central to ancient philosophy and to most religions. In Aristotle’s philosophy there were about two dozen virtues, including things like generosity, honesty and intelligence, which he believed led to a wise form of contentment. The Catholics adopted Aristotle and crafted their virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope and charity. Hinduism and Buddhism have lists of virtues which were embodied by their saints, qualities such as energy, resolution, equanimity and penetrating insight.  And cultivating moral character – ren, humanity or goodness is the central idea of Confucian philosophy, with filial piety and attention to ritual as close seconds.

UUs gave up virtue, however, because we are a religious movement thoroughly filtered through the sieve of Enlightenment thought, a movement that upholds freedom, individualism, reason and equality. Our Enlightenment roots make us especially skeptical of some of the central virtues upheld by the Catholics such as faith and chastity.

As to chastity, Enlightenment thinkers, and religious and political liberals, challenged us to stop having narrow notions of sexual purity and righteous living, and to celebrate the diversity of ways that people can have pleasure and find meaning. Upholding chastity as a virtue now seems puritanical and outdated supplanted by new sexual mores founded on other virtues like caring and respect for other people’s freedom.

As to faith, Enlightenment thinkers, and religious and political liberals, value reason, informed debate, dialogue and persuasion over feeling, dogma and coercion. So we are skeptical that faith is a virtue. Instead we celebrate “the right of conscience,” and “the guidance of reason and the results of science.” Faith for us is actually a vice if it means giving up the “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

But our skepticism about virtue runs deeper than rejecting specific ancient virtues. We are rightly skeptical that there are moral exemplars. Our Enlightenment convictions about the equality of all people in our flawed humanness challenges the idea of putting some on moral pedestals while condemning others as immoral.

We have also grown rightly skeptical of the idea that any one person can embody all the virtues, from humility and charity, to courage and wisdom. The idea of saints and bodhisattvas who embodied all the virtues seems like a superstitious idea in our modern, rational religious tradition, something that we could at best appreciate as Jungian archetype but not a template for personal transformation. Perhaps it is just human nature that the fairest people cannot be the most compassionate, and the most compassionate cannot be the wisest. Just as liberalism cherishes novelty and difference it rejects any uniformity of models of the good life. Perhaps the most we can aspire to is to be extraordinary in just one way, and that’s good enough.

The Enlightenment also changed our ways of thinking about morality from judging acts simply on the basis of whether they broke a rule or whether the person acted from good motivations, virtuously from good moral character, to judging acts by their outcomes.  Of course we uphold moral exemplars like Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Aung San Suu Kyi, but not because we believe that they were enlightened beings who embodied a perfection of virtues – we know they had and have personal pecadilloes – but because their courageous convictions to change society had such momentous consequences.  That is quite different from the tradition of valorizing cave-dwelling ascetics or steadfast martyrs because of the unusually perfect people they were supposed to be rather than the effects they had on the world.

We’ve also grown skeptical that moral character really makes anyone independent of an immoral society. In the horrors of the twentieth century we saw how ordinary people with ordinary morality can so easily be manipulated by circumstances to do monstrous things. We began to suspect that moral character is a mirage, which disappears when people are put under sufficient social pressure.

We might also suspect that there were some specific sociological reasons for our tradition’s turn from virtue, since the joke is that the Universalists believed God was too good to condemn people to eternal damnation, while the upper crust Unitarians believed they were too good to be condemned by God.

At any rate, the result is that, at least compared to most other faiths, in the UU tradition it’s just not very liberal to expect other people to have certain moral virtues. Instead we have enshrined the “acceptance of one another” in our diversity.

But of course there are certain virtues implicit in the UU tradition, virtues that survived the Enlightenment sieve, and that are consistent with Enlightenment values, and those are the virtues of compassion, fairness, tolerance and critical intelligence. In this we UUs are very much a part of modernity. In a study done last year social scientists analyzed the frequency of words associated with virtue in books that had been scanned by Google. They found that there had been a decline in the use of three quarters of the terms in the last century, terms like virtue, character, honesty, patience, honor, truthfulness, kindness, sincerity, courage, generosity, mercy, wisdom and humility. Only a handful of terms saw an increase, terms such as compassion, fairness and tolerance, the virtues we UUs still implicitly embrace.

Jon Haidt’s work on liberal and conservative moral intuitions illuminates why some ancient virtues became vices for liberal religion while we kept others. In Haidt’s model there are six moral intuitions that we inherited from our primate ancestors, three of which we have embraced – compassion, fairness and freedom – and three of which we used our powerful neo-cortices, full of Enlightenment values and higher education, to tell our primate amygdalas to shut up about – loyalty to the tribe, respect for authority, and the need to defend sancitity or moral purity.  When conservatives make what they think are self-evident moral arguments based on those three values they sound like arguments for immorality to Enlightenment liberal ears.

Liberals value universalism over tribal and national loyalty, individual autonomy over respect for authority, and are more likely to be open to finding the sacred in the “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder,” in a wide variety of things and experiences, instead of in the idolatry of specific objects and rituals.

I believe it is important for us to reclaim the idea of moral character and virtue as part of the UU tradition, and not just these few virtues we implicitly kept – compassion, fairness, tolerance and critical intelligence – but a more complete notion of an ideal human character and a more complete catalog of the virtues that that character needs to have cultivated. It is important because our tradition needs to re-discover and re-invent a language for the forms of deep contentment and flourishing that cultivating the virtues can bring. UUs don’t have transcendental bliss, grace, or Enlightenment. But we can have a language for the virtues that actually lead to spiritual growth, transcending mystery and harmony with the interdependent web of existence. If we take the ancients seriously, and a growing body of psychological research, the practice of the virtues are the basis for finding wisdom and grace in life, even if we don’t buy into the mystical and supernatural accounts of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Reclaiming the language of virtue and character is also important for liberal religion because the kinds of free and equal society that we want to build requires the encouragement of many virtues, old and new. Citizenship in a liberal society requires the encouragement and cultivation of a certain kind of character, beyond just the duty to vote.  Liberal citizens have to be willing to pay taxes and bear other obligations of citizenship. The liberal citizen needs a self-critical humility about her own beliefs, a moderate self-restraint in the pursuit of her own values, a commitment to informed debate, a willingness to respect the rule of law and the democratic process, and the wisdom to know when conscience requires civil disobedience, direct action and rebellion.  Without the cultivation of these virtues in its citizens the institutions of liberal democracy don’t work.

To be sure, there are challenges for liberal religion to reclaim the ideas of virtue and character. We have to reject older virtues like chastity and faith that are inconsistent with our values. We have to have a more pluralistic understanding of the perfectibility of human character that respects diversity. We see how quickly the promotion of virtue can become authoritarian in the hands of narrow religious traditions like the Islam of Iran and the Taliban.

We need a model of human perfectibility that avoids putting people on pedestals that they so easily fall off of. That is certainly one of the lessons that my fellow American Buddhists have been learning the hard way for the last two decades.

We have to have a more sophisticated notion of ethics that understands that both motivations and outcomes matter, that it is a virtue to be as intelligent as possible about the effects of our actions on the world. We see in the gridlock of our politics today the result when lawmakers believe that the path of virtue should be followed regardless of the facts or the consequences.

We also have to grapple with our growing understanding that moral character is shaped both by the biology of our brains and by our societies, and that our personal commitment to improve our character may have to include changing both our biology and our societies.

Moral character implies the ability to resist both our own violent and self-centered impulses, and the social pressures to act immorally. Religious traditions have certainly always embraced the importance of moral community, that surrounding oneself with a community that censures unethical behavior and praises ethical behavior is a powerful moral choice in itself.  But as I discussed in the neurotheology RE seminar in the Spring, we are increasingly aware of the ways our capacities for self-control, empathy, fairness and transcendence are partly genetically set, and may be adjusted by drugs and devices.  Among religious traditions UUs are probably uniquely prepared to incorporate these biological constraints and future possibilities into an understanding of human perfectibility.   The psychopath’s broken brain can’t be fixed by moral exhortation or God’s grace, and the right drugs may be more important for their redemption than the call to prayer.

We also need to reclaim virtues like courage and resolution to balance some of the natural weaknesses of the liberal tradition. In our liberal intellectual humility we can find ourselves too reticient to condemn the ignorance and behavior of others, too cautious to call out nonsense in our effort to respect others’ beliefs.

Because of our individualism we find it much more difficult than conservative faiths to organize and sacrifice for collective efforts. With full awareness of the irony, since I’ve been playing hooky from church and organized politics for quite a while, we do need to reclaim the virtues of sacrifice, responsibility and engagement.

Last Spring, just as I finished the Neurotheology RE seminar and suggested that we could do a seminar reflecting on the virtues this coming Spring, a UU curriculum on the virtues for teens was published by the UUA.  I found that a very encouraging sign, even though there is very little overlap between the twelve specific virtues they chose, and the six I want to cover this Spring, which kind of illustrates the complexity of our freely re-engaging with this huge body of thought. Like the teen curriculum though I’m hoping to focus our seminar this Spring on reflections on what the virtues are and how we can practice them in our lives. I may add a little neuroscience and futurism, but just a little.

In closing I offer this reflection from the Roman Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius:

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

Into the Wilderness

Rev. Josh Pawelek.

6-9 water gapI remember a moment, about twenty-five years ago, driving home from college on spring break with my friend Rob. We were heading east on Interstate 80, late in the day, crossing through the Delaware Water Gap where the Delaware River cuts through a ridge in the Appalachian. The sun was setting. Dark shadows lengthened across the thickly forested, low-lying mountains. I’ve been to more remote areas, but at that moment, for whatever reason, it felt pretty remote. I made some remark about the wilderness, how one could disappear into it—into those dark hills. I don’t remember his exact words, but Rob responded that the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. There’s a relationship. Although I wasn’t sure what to make of his statement at the time, it struck me as important. So I’ve held onto it.

Today I still think Rob is right. The wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. They mirror each other. They speak to each other. The darkness of the mountainside at dusk speaks to darkness in us. The emptiness of the sky overhead speaks to emptiness in us. The fullness of lakes after spring thaws speaks to fullness in us. The lush forest speaks to what is growing and vibrant in us. The vastness of the desert speaks to vastness in us. The raging river speaks to what is raging and uncontainable in us. Perhaps those features of wilderness that excite us, that call to us, that fill us with awe speak to what we find exciting in ourselves, speak to our passions. Perhaps what we fear in the wilderness—what makes us pause, turn back, flee—speaks to what we fear most in ourselves. There’s a relationship.

Lush Forests

Our June ministry theme is wilderness. I love this theme at this time of year as the days grow warm and summer arrives. For me, summer—whether we’re talking about summer the season, or our spiritual summers, which can come in any season—summer is the time for exploring and experimenting, for stretching and growing, for traveling to the borders of our lives—to the edges, the boundaries, the margins, the fringes, the frontiers. Summer is the time for venturing out, for crossing into the unknown, for wandering in the wilderness that lies beyond our well-worn paths.

Perhaps the most familiar use of wilderness as a spiritual concept comes from the Jewish and Christian traditions. Here wilderness is the place where one finds challenges that must be overcome; the place of suffering and misery that must be endured; the place of temptation that must be withstood; the place to which scapegoats, criminals, lepers and all the supposedly unpure people are exiled. Many of you have a basic familiarity with the story from the Hebrew scriptures of the ancient Israelites wandering in the wilderness Sinaiof Sinai for forty years following their exodus from centuries of slavery in Egypt. Many preachers use the Israelite wandering as a metaphor for whatever struggle or challenge we’re facing in our lives. We have to wander in the “wilderness” of that struggle or challenge in order to find ourselves, to prove ourselves, to come of age, to complete our quest. We have to wander in the wilderness in order to grow in some necessary way. We have to wander in the wilderness before we can be whole, before we can come home, before we can come fully into our “Promised Land,” whatever it may be. This is a powerful narrative. It’s a sustaining narrative. Struggling people can endure more easily if they believe their struggle will ultimately end and some good will come of it.

But if we’re being honest about the Biblical record, that’s not entirely what God had in mind. The wilderness time was a punishment. God had done great things for the Israelites in Egypt, but they still don’t believe God can bring them into Canaan, the “Promised Land.” They don’t believe it because spies they’ve sent into Canaan come back saying, essentially, “We’ll never defeat the Canaanites. They’re bigger than us.” In the Book of Numbers, Chapter 13, verse 32, the spies say “all the people we saw are of great size…. And to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”[1]

Upon hearing this report, the people start complaining—the latest in a long string of complaints. They say it would have been better to die in Egypt. They wonder if they should give up and go back to Egypt. This lack of faith angers God. It’s the last straw. God wants to disinherit them and strike them down with a plague immediately. After a long negotiation with Moses, God forgives them, but says, nevertheless, “none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it.”[2] Their children will enter the Promised Land, but for the complaint-ridden exodus generation: “Your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness.”[3] They are consigned to the wilderness not to discover faith anew, but because they lack it. It’s a punishment. And it’s for the remainder of their lives.

Jesus: The Temptation by Rosetta Jallow

Jesus: The Temptation by Rosetta Jallow

In the Christian scriptures Jesus goes into the wilderness after his baptism. [4] He fasts for forty days and then, in the midst of his hunger, Satan appears and tempts or tests Jesus. Jesus resists temptation. He passes the test. Satan departs. Here again we have this narrative of struggle in the wilderness—in this case a story of encountering and overcoming evil. Again, this kind of narrative is powerful and sustaining. We all have our wilderness struggles. Stories of overcoming obstacles and returning home, returning to friends and family, returning to a life renewed speak to and inspire us in the midst of our pain and suffering. Some of the best sermons ever preached locate the congregation in some wilderness, fortify them for the struggle, the test, the temptation—whatever it is—and then, from the mountaintop, paint with words that stunning picture of a land flowing with milk and honey, a promised land, a home at long last, a home we will reach if we can endure just a little bit longer.

 

That’s not the sermon I’m preaching this morning.

Twenty-five years ago my friend Rob said “the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us.” My concern is that the “Promised Land” narrative—as powerful, sustaining and inspirational as it is—is often too black and white, too either/or. It doesn’t allow us to fully value wilderness as a spiritual asset. It makes wilderness a place of suffering and trial, a place of punishment, a place where evil lives, but not a place that might offer its own wisdom, its own sacred power, its own sustaining wells. We move through it, always trying to overcome it and leave it behind. We privilege civilization; we abandon wilderness. And in so doing, I say we abandon something in ourselves. I’m convinced that something matters deeply.

Jon D. Levenson

Jon D. Levenson

Back to the Hebrew scriptures. Jon D. Levenson is a professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School. In his 1985 book, Sinai & Zion, he points out that scholars are unable to locate the site of Mount Sinai with any certainty. Mount Sinai is the place in the wilderness where Moses talks to God, where he receives the Ten Commandments, where God’s covenant with Israel is articulated. One can argue it is the most significant site in early Jewish tradition. It’s the place where the Sacred speaks. The inability to locate it, says Levenson, is not simply a failure of “the modern science of topography. Rather, there is a mysterious extraterrestrial quality to the mountain…. [It] seems to exist in a no man’s land…. ‘The mountain of God’…. is out of the domain of Egypt and out of the domain of the Midianites, [in] an area associated, by contrast, with the impenetrable regions of the arid wilderness, where the authority of the state cannot reach. YHWH’s self-disclosure takes place in remote parts rather than within the established and settled cult of the city. Even his mode of manifestation reflects the uncontrollable and unpredictable character of the wilderness rather than the decorum one associates with a long-established, urban religion, rooted in familiar traditions…. The deity is like his worshippers: mobile, rootless and unpredictable. ‘I shall be where I shall be’—nothing more definite can be said. This is a God who is free, unconfined by the boundaries that man erects.”[5]

Our spiritual lives may, on one hand, involve the familiar, the known—rituals, practices, prayers, meditations, worship, activism, service, gardening, the singing of comforting hymns, the dancing of familiar dances, being in community with people we know and love. We need these things in our lives. We need them to feel rooted, planted, grounded. But we also know that any repeated practice, any too familiar pathway, any rote repetition of words or principles, any unexamined theology can become stifling if it’s all we do. It starts to box us in, lull us to sleep, generate in us laziness, apathy, boredom. Thus, on the other hand, our spiritual lives also need access to wilderness—not because we lack a site for our encounter with evil, not because we’ve been consigned there for complaining too much, not because we’re on some hero quest in search of dragons to slay. We need access to wilderness because we are part of it and it is part of us. Its dark mountainsides can speak to us of our own darkness in a way civilization can’t. Its empty skies teach us of our own emptiness. Its full lakes after spring thaws inform us of our own fullness. Its rivers know our rage. Its deserts know our vastness. Its oceans know our depths. Its forests know our lushness. We need access to wilderness because it offers raw, unbridled truth—a truth not always easy to encounter, but with its guidance we can live with a kind of immediacy and presence civilization only dreams of—the immediacy and presence we so often notice in the way wild things live. Civilization as we know it is only the tiniest blip on the screen of human existence. Wilderness, not civilization, is the norm for that existence; and thus wilderness, not civilization, is our heritage, our birthright. Wilderness is our home as much as any Promised Land we may inhabit, either now or in the future.

We need opportunities to search for our sources of faith at the foot of holy, mysterious mountains rising out of remote landscapes beyond all established jurisdictions. We need encounters with the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable. We need wind rushing against our backs. We need experiences for which there are no words. Such encounters have the power to jolt us out of our settled, habitual ways of thinking, being and doing. Such experiences have the power to set our spirits free. Such encounters have the power to change us. I loved this quote from Vancouver School of Theology student, Emma Pavey, from a paper she delivered this past weekend. She said “we are ambivalent toward wilderness: it represents lostness, wandering, chaos and isolation, but also grants ‘thin’ moments of transformation.”[6]

So how to get there? Scholars don’t know the location of Mount Sinai. But maybe that’s ok. Rob said the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. Perhaps the Sacred that lives and speaks freely and truthfully out beyond the bounds of all established jurisdictions also lives and speaks in the wilderness places in us—in our darkness, our vastness, our rage, our emptiness, our fullness. But how do we access that wilderness? Like the wilderness around us, the wilderness within us can also be inscrutable, unknowable, beyond words. So often it exists beneath our awareness, in our unconscious depths, in our dreams, in our intuitions and hunches. We know portions of the landscape, but so much lies beyond knowing.

Emptiness

Earlier I read Meg Barnhouse’s meditation, “Going to an Inner Party.” I suggest she offers here one route into our inner wilderness. She says, “I love the flickering things that bump along the edges of mainstream consciousness. These glimpses of an inner wisdom flash like fish in a creek, and if I can grab one by the tail I feel like I have a treasure.”[7] She’s saying our unconscious puts words and ideas together without thought, as if by accident, or perhaps by accident. She’s learned to pay attention to these accidents. She’s learned to receive them as pearls of wisdom, and as sources of joy. The meaning isn’t always clear. There’s lots of interpretation involved. She finds it mostly amusing. But something deep within is speaking. And she’s listening. And it’s giving her a chance to look at the world differently, to make new connections she wouldn’t have made otherwise. That’s what wilderness does for us. Her meditation reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comments in his 1844 essay, “The Poet” about the effect poetry has on us. In response to “tropes, fables, oracles and all poetic forms,” he wrote, we get “a new sense, and [find] within [our] world another world, or nests of worlds.”[8]

worlds within worlds

We get back to our wilderness by listening to the flickering things that bump along the edges of consciousness. We get back to our wilderness by noting our dreams, by following our intuition, trusting our gut, letting ourselves feel deeply all our joys and sorrows. We get back to our wilderness by allowing ourselves moments of spontaneity and unpredictability. We get back to our wilderness by living, as best we can, like wild things, like children: immediate, unbridled, alert, raw, honest. It’s my faith that as we get back to our wilderness we’ll discover that the things we hold sacred live and speak there too.

Rob Laurens

Rob Laurens

My friend Rob once wrote a song called “The Blue of the Road.” It’s a song about driving, perhaps on I-80, heading east through the Appalachians, as the sun begins to set. In that song he says, “there in that wild blue ride the insights of your life, that wisdom unlooked for, the solution to the gnawing ache in your heart, and the laughing simplicity of effortless release, letting go. Like the answer to a prayer, the matter of course toward what is still right and true in your life…. When all is chaotic, when the days of your life are as dry autumn leaves scattered across the main streets of your home town. Get back to these great arteries, these long edges of grace that cut through the wilderness, these wonderful highways that put you at one with yourself and the last seeds of your American dream, and reopen your heart, and cause you to remember what you’ve always known: this great frontier has been with you all along.”[9]

 

Amen and blessed be.

Blue of the Road



[1] Numbers 13: 32, 33b. (New Revised Standard Version)

[2] Numbers 14: 22-23. (New Revised Standard Version)

[3] Numbers 14: 29a. (New Revised Standard Version)

[4] Matthew 4:1-11. Luke 4:1-13. Mark 1:9-13.

[5] Levenson, Jon D., Sinai & Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1985) pp. 21-22.

[6] See the abstract to Emma Pavey’s paper, “Wilderness and the Secular Age,” delivered at the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association’s Annual Meeting on June 2, 2013 at http://www.academia.edu/2626584/Wilderness_and_the_secular_age_-_abstract.

[7] Barnhouse, Meg. “Goning to an Inner Party,” The Rock of Ages at the Taj Mahal (Boston: Skinner House, 1999) p. 63.

[8] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “The Poet,” quoted in Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) p. 374.

[9] Rob Laurens, “The Blue of the Road,”appears on his 1999 album, “The Honey on the Mountain.” See http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/roblaurens.

Rooted, Planted, Grounded

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Come back as a flowerThere it was again, the phone call. This time it was my father. “Did you see what happened at the Boston Marathon? Turn on the television. It’s awful.”

There it was again, that feeling of profound sadness. Tears welling up. Utter disbelief. How can this be real?

There it was again, that feeling of fear. Am I safe to leave my home? Are my children safe? What will I tell them? They love Boston. We visit friends and family there. Mason was born there. I’ll bet we’ve walked up and down Boylston Street at least twenty times in his eleven years of life. His beloved green line runs right beneath the spot where those bombs exploded. Continue reading at HartfordFAVS….

A Life Redeemed

 

 

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Bottles

“What happens when we recycle bottles and cans?” asks Kathleen Mctigue in her meditation.[1] “They are transformed; they are made into something else. Though it may seem a homely analogy for something as lofty as our souls,” she continues, “that’s exactly what we’re after. In our inconsistent and often clumsy ways, we’re aiming for transformation. Each time we take ourselves in hand and change our direction, ask forgiveness and start anew, we reaffirm our belief that we are redeemable.”

redeemed bottles

Our April ministry theme is redemption. The spiritual questions I’m introducing into our congregational life this morning are “What redeems you?” and “What redeems us?” I suspect for many of us the answers to these questions do not flow easily off our tongues. There may be some stumbling blocks. Redemption is one of those haunting religious words for Unitarian Universalists. Its history leaves an odd—even unpleasant—taste in our mouth. What is that taste?

pointing fingerBroadly speaking, when the minister suggests that we are somehow in need of redemption, even if we call it something else like change or transformation, there’s always the possibility—the risk—that the congregation will hear it as an allegation that there’s something wrong with us, that we’re somehow broken and need fixing, that we’re fallen and need salvation, that we’re estranged and need reconciliation. This contradicts an oft-stated assumption at the heart of our spirituality, that each of us—all people—possess inherent worth and dignity just as we are; that our spiritual lives are not about becoming someone or something else—better, fixed, perfect, saved—but rather becoming more fully who we already are. As we just sang, “Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again.”[2] It’s not that we think we’re perfect as we are. We know we’re not. But we are who we are, and if we understand the quest for redemption as an attempt to reach some idealized spiritual standard, it will likely distract us from that central spiritual task of learning to accept and embrace who we are.

That’s one potential stumbling block. We typically encounter another when we consider a particular way (not the only way, but a particular way) Christians (not all Christians, but some) have interpreted and used the suffering and death of Jesus as a model for what Crucifixion iconit means to live a spiritual life. In short—and please understand I am speaking very generally about a highly nuanced conversation that has been going on for nearly 2000 years—humanity’s sinfulness is so great that there is nothing anyone can do to fully redeem themselves. There is no price any human can pay to bring themselves into right relationship with God. We are stuck where we are. But we aren’t without hope because God has the power to redeem humanity. To exercise this power, God takes a human form, lives a human life, and suffers a violent human death. In so doing, God pays the price for human sinfulness. God’s suffering and death redeem humanity. Some Christians argue that this redemption only works if one professes faith in it. Others, like our Universalist (and some Unitarian) forebears, felt that Jesus’ suffering and death redeem all people regardless of belief.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this understanding of redemption will be a stumbling block for many of us if our goal is to reclaim Walesa communionredemption as a useful spiritual concept. For so many of us, myself included, it’s just unbelievable. And, to be sure, there are many Christians who wrestle with this unbelievability as well. But I want to be very careful not to disparage the beliefs of others. That’s not my intent. While I may find it unbelievable, I also recognize this particular belief has provided immense comfort and inspired incredible strength and resilience to millions upon millions of people throughout history. For people who’ve lived—and who live—under the yoke of social, political and economic injustice, the idea that God would take human form and experience human suffering—the idea that God’s story is the story of a victim succumbing to but then overcoming violence and oppression—has profound resonance. In the midst of suffering, the idea that “God paid the ultimate price for my redemption” is a source of great hope and courage. For those who have nothing else, such faith is everything. It literally saves lives. Far be it from me to argue it is incorrect simply because I don’t believe it.

Having said that, it is also true that this scheme of redemption is at times applied in a way I find highly abusive and I have no misgivings about naming it and confronting it when I encounter it—the same way I would name and confront religiously motivated terrorism, honor killings, sexism or homophobia. It’s the idea that because Jesus suffered on the cross, one’s suffering at the hands of others is somehow warranted, that one’s suffering at the hands of others is itself redemptive because it mirrors Jesus’ suffering. Slaves sacred violencewere at times told to endure their suffering at the hands of their masters because it was Christ-like and they would be rewarded in Heaven. Battered women are at times told to endure their suffering at the hands of their abusers just as Jesus endured his. This is not OK, not a path to redemption. I agree with the cliché that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” I understand suffering is part of the human condition. I have witnessed people suffer through disease, grief, even the violence of oppression and emerge from it stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more loving. This is part of the beauty of the human spirit. But I object to the notion that the violence anyone suffers at the hands of others is inherently redemptive and we should just accept it, or that God—and this is the implication—wants some people to suffer at the hands of others because it’s good for their souls. In my view, this is an abuse of Christianity for the purpose of justifying violence whether in the home or on some more grand scale. It is an attempt at misdirection, an attempt to make violence invisible by calling it something else, rather than exposing it for what it is: a diminishing of the human spirit. Or, in more traditional language, evil.

So, there are stumbling blocks in our encounter with redemption. If you’re wary about a sermon entitled “A Life Redeemed,” there are any number of reasons why your wariness makes sense. Nevertheless, I find spiritual potency and power in this word. I believe it can help us think differently about those places where we’re stuck. It can, in Rev. McTigue’s words, help us “loosen the pinching in our hearts and live with more wonder, serenity, kindness and wisdom.”[3] It may can us deepen our spiritual lives. What redeems you? What redeems us?

As I seek to answer these questions for myself, it feels important to name that whether I experience myself as redeemed or not, my gut tells me there are no cosmic consequences. This isn’t about the eternal status of my soul, Heaven and Hell, divine punishment or reward. I have this life to live in this world as best as I can. If I’m going to experience redemption, it’s going to be in this life in this world, not in some other life in some other world. It’s going to be “this-worldly” redemption. As Rev. McTigue says, this “isn’t about saving us, but instead shaping us, and it’s the most certain redemption available in this sweet world.”[4]

earth

I like this idea of shaping as a metaphor for this-worldly redemption. Imagine you’re a sculptor and your life is the sculpture. Each day you mold, form and fashion your sculpture, you shape your life, and in the evening you review your work. Some evenings you like what you’ve created. The sculpture captures exactly what you envision for your life. But even so, you recognize the next day may bring new experiences, new insights, new feelings, and thus the work of shaping continues. Of course, some evenings you review your Sculptorwork and realize you haven’t gotten it right. You’re close, but not quite there. Or you’re way off the mark. The way you’ve lived, the decisions you’ve made, the way you’ve treated others, the way you’ve presented yourself to the world—none of it aligns with your vision for yourself. You want to do better, not because you fear divine punishment, but because you feel in your heart you can do better. So, the next day you start to reshape your sculpture: new angles, new edges, new interplay of light and shadow, a different expression, a different posture. This opportunity to make changes, to try again, to reshape your life, is the path to “this-worldly redemption.” Rev. McTigue says, “Each time we take ourselves in hand and change our direction, ask forgiveness and start anew, we reaffirm our belief that we are redeemable.”[5] Each day we have the opportunity to exchange the life we needed to live yesterday for the life we need to live today.

Do we pay a price for this-worldly redemption? Sometimes. If the shaping of our lives today includes recognizing and acknowledging we were wrong yesterday, admitting we hurt someone yesterday, admitting we had a role to play in the breakdown of a relationship yesterday, then yes, one could argue we pay a price. One could argue that offering a heartfelt apology is the price we pay for forgiveness, and sometimes we don’t experience redemption until we’ve been forgiven. This works for me, nut I’m not convinced “paying a price” is a helpful way to think about this-worldly redemption. It reminds me of European elites in the Middle Ages purchasing indulgences to erase sinful behavior and thereby get into Heaven. It reminds me of wealthy corporations going to court, losing, paying a hefty fine—because they can—and then going back to business as usual. Paying a price doesn’t always guarantee a transformed life. Sometimes paying a price is a way of avoiding the work that redeems us. I prefer to imagine a sculptor shaping and reshaping their work, day in and day out. Not everyone can pay; but certainly we each have some capacity to shape and sculpt our lives.

Sculptors

Let me flip this around for a moment. If we each have this capacity; if we can be redeemed by the work of our own hands, what happens if we don’t pursue it? What happens if days and weeks and years go by and the sculptor hasn’t touched the sculpture, hasn’t even looked at it? You’ve brought nothing new to your work for a long time—no new ideas, no new feelings, no new experiences. You wake depressionup and the last thing you want to do is the work of shaping a life. Your muse isn’t singing. At best you’re going through the motions of a life. You don’t feel creative. You lack desire. You’re stuck. Perhaps we call this depression, perhaps melancholy, sadness, despair, a funk, a rut; maybe it’s boredom. Maybe it’s genuine confusion about your direction in life. Maybe it’s fear you won’t succeed. Maybe it’s that generalized anxiety about the future so many people report these days. Whatever form it takes, this condition is real and common. Sometimes it emerges in response to a genuine crisis in one’s life: the death of a loved-one, the loss of work, the experience of violence or betrayal. Sometimes it emerges in response to the ways life can overwhelm us—too many obligations, too many hours at work, too many details, too many conflicts, too little self-care. Sometimes it’s culturally induced, as in those situations where certain cultural norms—norms for beauty, body-type, success, wealth, happiness, sexuality, family, mental health—seem unattainable. When we can’t reach them we feel diminished, unworthy, imperfect, unsavable and broken, even when we know such norms are arbitrary, unfair, manipulative and often racist, classist, sexist and homophobic.

Again, this experience is real and common. But it’s not destiny. The more I engage in ministry, the more I am convinced we each have a calling. We each have natural gifts. We each have something about which we are passionate—something that lights us up and energizes us, something that makes us come alive. Yes, it is very easy in our culture to grow distant from it. Yes, it is very easy to become alienated from it. But the self that lives in response to a sense of calling, in response to passion—that is our true self. That is the self we encounter in that internal place where our conviction resides, where our voice is strong, where we know our truth. This is who we really are. In those times when we grow distant from this self, it’s as if we’ve actually become someone else—someone we never intended to be. We’ve somehow allowed ourselves to be shaped by forces larger than ourselves into a life we never chose for ourselves. Perhaps we’ve been spiritually kidnapped or hijacked. No matter how we name it, in response to such alienation the work of redemption is the work of returning to our true self, the work of accepting and embracing who we really are, the work of pursuing our calling, the work of exchanging the sculptor who refuses to sculpt for one who welcomes each day as an opportunity to shape a life. In all those moments when we come back to our true self, we experience a life redeemed.

Sculptor

If this begins to answer the question, “What redeems you?”—and I hope it does—I also don’t want to lose the question, “What redeems us?” That is, what redeems us collectively? I raise this question because I believe there is much more to this-worldly redemption than the work of redeeming our individual lives. This is not a new message from this pulpit. We live in proximity to infuriating, entrenched and devastating social and economic injustices. We live in proximity to crushing poverty. We live in proximity to urban and suburban violence, domestic violence, gang violence and, despite Connecticut’s new gun laws, I think it’s fair to say we still live with the Helppotential for mass shootings. We live in a time of war. We live suddenly again this week with the renewed threat of nuclear conflict. We live with the specter of environmental collapse. We live with all those false division between people, divisions of race, class, religion, sexuality, politics and on and on. And we live in the midst of immense suffering—not the kind that occurs naturally and inevitably in the course of human living, but the kind human beings visit upon each other, sometimes with calculated, malicious intent; sometimes simply by refusing to see it, by looking away, by calling it something else. All of this may have longstanding historical roots. All of this may have the shine or the stink of inevitability and intractability. All of this may point to some apparently fatal flaw in human nature. But none of it—none of it!—is right. None of it is acceptable. None of it is destiny. Unless we give up. But friends, giving up runs counter to the human spirit. Those who give up and accept the reality of oppression are either those who’ve been spiritually kidnapped or spiritually hijacked by greed, power or fear; or those who’ve accepted the lie that their suffering will be rewarded in some other life.

What redeems us in us in light of the reality of injustice and oppression are our collective efforts to subvert and transform them. What redeems us are our collective words and deeds that help shape a more just society. What redeems us are our collective attempts to build the beloved community.

beloved community

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Backside Redemption,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2011) pp. 42-44.

[2] Carlebach, Shlomo, “Return Again,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1011.

[3] McTigue, Shine and Shadow, p. 44.

[4] Ibid., p. 44.

[5] Ibid., p. 43.

Really . . . What’s Real?

The Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

Earlier I read an excerpt from Nick Bostrum’s 2003 article, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”[1] To be clear, he does not prove we are living in a simulation (had he proved it, I suspect we’d all be aware of it by now and waiting to meet our maker— or, umm, programmer). What he proves is that it is rational to think we are living in a computer simulation. Or, in the very least, he proves one can argue it is rational to think we are living in a simulation.

Simulation

One can also argue that while it might be rational to think we are living in a computer simulation, it might not be rational to preach about it. And if the minister decides to preach about it anyways, it would be rational to think it might be one of his less useful sermons. Of course, this is the same challenge I accept every year when I put a sermon up for bid at the UUS:E goods and services auction. As most of you know, every year our beloved Fred Sawyer wins a sermon at the auction and challenges me to preach on a topic or question residing at that murky yet evocative crossroads where science, philosophy and theology meet. “Are you living in a computer simulation?” is no exception.

The Truman Show

I’m not sure, in the end, that answering this question is all that useful. But the fact that some scientists, philosophers and theologians take this question seriously; the fact that there are scientists proposing experimental means to answer the question (even if they’re doing it partly for fun); and the fact that this idea that reality is not the same as what our senses perceive shows up again and again in literature and cinema—in everything from the Bible to Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Whoto The Matrix films to The Truman Show—tells us something about human nature which I suspect is meaningful. [And whether or not it is, it is certainly rational to the come to the auction next Saturday evening, February 9th, from 5:30 to 9:00. It’s great fun. It’s an important fundraiser for the congregation. As always, a sermon or two will be up for bid.]

Horton Hears a Who

Imagine today isn’t February 3, 2013. We think it is, and everything we’ve ever been taught tells us that it is. But imagine today is actually a day far in the future. And imagine that some future society—Bostrum calls them “posthuman”—has developed powerful computers that can run programs that simulate human evolution. Bostrum calls them “ancestor simulations.” They would be so fine-grained that the people in them would have consciousness and would not realize they are living in a virtual reality.[2] Again, Bostrum wants to show it is rational to think we live in such a simulation. To do this he says at least one of three propositions must be true.

First proposition (what I call the gloom and doom proposition): “The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.” If this proposition is true, if human beings will become extinct before developing this level of computing power, then we cannot be living in a computer simulation, and today must be February 3, 2013.

Second proposition (what I call the ethical proposition): “Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history.” Imagine that human beings do not become extinct and successfully develop the capacity to run very fine-grained ancestor simulations. Then imagine that, despite having such capacity, they refuse to do it. Why? Doesn’t it seem logical that if it could be done, it would be done? We already run computer simulations for all sorts of things. We track the paths hurricanes; we train astronauts. Simulations are part of every industry that uses computers. We even have computers that simulate computers. If we could simulate human evolution, we could learn so much about ourselves. We wouldn’t do it for moral reasons. An advanced human society would, we hope, have an advanced morality and would recognize that in creating virtual yet conscious people, it would also be consigning them to a life of potentially great suffering. An accurate simulation would include genocides, wars, holocausts, slavery, nuclear explosions, terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism, gun violence, poverty, famine, starvation, disease and so on. It would be sadistic, morally objectionable and highly unethical to create virtual people who would have to experience these things. Hence, it would be prohibited, even illegal. If that’s true—if every advanced society with this level of computing power prohibits ancestor simulations—then we cannot be living in a simulation. Today must be February 3, 2013.

Third proposition (what I call the what’s really real? proposition): “We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.” That is, if the first proposition is false—human beings don’t become extinct; and if the second proposition is false—advanced societies don’t establish prohibitions against running ancestor simulations—then we are almost certainly living in such a simulation. Today is likely not February 3, 2013.

To understand why this might make sense, consider that Bostrum assumes it would not be just one society that develops this computing power. There would be multiple advanced societies, all of them running multiple simulations at once. And furthermore, at some point in the course of any such simulation the virtual people in it would themselves develop the computing power to run their own ancestor simulations. As Bostrum puts it, “we would have to suspect that the posthumans running our simulation are themselves simulated beings; and their creators, in turn, may also be simulated beings.” It could go on indefinitely.

Simulated Simulators

Michael Rundle, Technology Editor for the Huffington Post, UK, summed up the argument in an article this past December: “any civilization which could evolve to a ‘post-human’ stage would almost certainly learn to run simulations on the scale of a universe. And…given the size of reality—billions of worlds, around billions of suns—it is fairly likely that if this is possible, it has already happened. And if it has? Well, then the statistical likelihood is that we’re located somewhere in that chain of simulations within simulations. The alternative—that we’re the first civilization in the first universe—is virtually (no pun intended) absurd.”[3]

My gut response to all this? I think it’s absurd (no pun needed). It can’t be true. It doesn’t feel right. Something’s missing. It’s too circular. It’s a trick. But I don’t have a rational counter argument. Is it just that I’m so used to thinking I’m an original human in the original universe, that I’m deeply and irrationally attached to this assumption? After all, I’ve never been invited to seriously think otherwise until now. If we assume humans will not become extinct and will one day have the computing power to run ancestor simulations; and if we assume that advanced societies would not prohibit such simulations, then on what basis can we argue we are not now living in a simulation? We wouldn’t know it if we were. It doesn’t feel rational, but it certainly looks rational on paper.

Simulated Cosmic RaysOne rational response to Bostrum is to look for actual evidence. In a recent paper entitled “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation”[4] German physicist Silas R. Beane and colleagues discuss how one might approach this problem. He says in any computer simulation there are “observable consequences” of that simulation. There are certain constraints or limits on the laws of physics within any simulation and they leave a signature. The signatures are very slight, but they ought to be observable within the simulation if one knows how and where to look. So they suggest that we begin with the assumption that our universe is a simulation and then ask: What known phenomena are there in the universe that mirror the kinds of observable consequences we would expect to find? Beane names the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin—GZK—cut off, the outer limit of the energy in cosmic ray particles. What accounts for this cut off? Why does this limit exist? He proposes this limit could be an observable consequence of a computer simulation. I haven’t had time to figure out whether he and his colleagues are just doing this for fun in their spare time or if this is their main research area. Either way, their paper, like Bostrum’s, has a wide popular following. The suggestion that what is real is not the same as what we perceive is a potent one.

Fred was interested in what Bostrum’s theory might say about God and ethics.  It says a lot. Some of you may already be making theological connections. Bostrum said, “it is possible to draw… loose analogies with religious conceptions of the world…. The posthumans running a simulation are like gods in relation to the people inhabiting the simulation: the posthumans created the world we see; they are of superior intelligence; they are “omnipotent” in the sense that they can interfere in the workings of our world even in ways that violate its physical laws; and they are “omniscient” in the sense that they can monitor everything that happens.” This makes sense. If we are living in a computer simulation, it is fair to say that the programmer plays a similar if not the same role in our lives that many feel the God of the Bible plays. Even the idea of resurrection is plausible in a computer simulation. If the programmers don’t like that someone ‘important’ has died, they can just re-insert the file back into the simulation. Or think about incarnation—the divine taking human form. A programmer could place a file of themself into the simulation and walk among us virtual folk, speaking to us of the errors of our ways. To us it would look like incarnation—spirit-becoming-flesh. The programmer would experience it as flesh-becoming-data. But do you see what I’m getting at? This question—“Are you living in a computer simulation?”—is not a new question. It uses modern concepts. It wears the clothing of science. But it’s actually an ancient question, an ancient thought process. Because we can’t explain our origins, we conclude there must be a Creator who exists in another realm.[5]Whether God or programmer, the net effect is the same. We live at the mercy of an all-powerful entity.

Zeus

And whether we’re talking about an all-powerful God or programmer, the problem of evil and suffering remains. This is also an ancient human question, the question of theodicy: How do we explain evil and suffering if God is all-powerful? What about genocides, wars, holocausts and slavery? Why does an all-powerful God allow these things to happen? Why? There’s no good answer. Some will contend God’s purposes are inscrutable and should not be questioned, but that’s never been acceptable to me. So what justification would some future computer programmer have in creating people who feel pain in so many ways, who are exquisitely conscious of their own suffering and that of others; people who are fragile, flawed and know they must, some day, die. It seems sadistic. It makes sense that an advanced society with an advanced morality would prohibit it.

Except that if it turns out we are living in a simulation, I wouldn’t want it to be turned off. I wouldn’t want life just to end in the blink of an eye, without a chance to say goodbye to the people I love, just like I don’t want life to end any other way—though I know it must. Computer simulation or not, I still recognize in me, in you, and in so many of earth’s creatures a fierce and beautiful will to live. No matter what’s real, we’re here and these are our lives. Whether it’s 2013 or some future day, we’re here and these are our lives. And even if our lives are illusions, they feel real. As far as we know, they’re the only lives we have. The point of living has never been to avoid evil and suffering, but rather, when it happens, to respond to it as best we can: to find our sources of resilience, to remain hopeful, to bring love to bear. Regardless of what’s really real, I can find no excuse to live our lives as if they have no consequence.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe in an all-powerful God or an all-powerful programmer. I believe today is February 3, 2013; our bodies are real flesh and blood bodies; and we are among the first people in this universe. That’s what I believe, but I also an open to and curious about any opportunity to connect with a reality greater than or in some way beyond this one. I recall those words of the Apostle Paul, his reminder to the Corinthians to “Look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, what cannot be seen is eternal.”[6] I recall those words of the Sufi poet, Hafez, speaking to the Beloved Presence: “Veil yourself with every enchantment and yet I shall feel you…. You are the breathing of the world.”[7] I’m reminded that from time to time we catch glimpses of something else—some other world, some other realm. Maybe we don’t see it with our eyes—we feel it, we imagine it, we dream it. Maybe it comes to us in our quiet, peaceful moments— our mountain top moments, our walking-at-low-tide-moments—moments when we lean back from our daily lives and suddenly realize we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Maybe it comes to us in our moments of great celebration or exertion—moments when we’ve danced, sung, run, whirled or stretched our bodies so far beyond their normal positions that somehow we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Reality is not always the same as what our senses tell us.

So many religions, folkways and spiritual practices; so many prophets, gurus, teachers, poets, guides and spiritual leaders; so many scriptures, myths, stories and dreams hint at the existence of something else: some Heaven, some Olympus, Elysium, Valhalla, Zion, Sheol, Shangri-La, Shambhala, Svarga Loka, Nirvana, some celestial sphere, some great oneness, some kingdom coming. But our glimpses are always fleeting. We may never know what’s really real. Given this, what seems most rational to me is staying open and curious. And what really matters is not whether a proposition is ultimately true or false, but whether it keeps us resilient in a hurting world, keeps us hopeful, and keeps love overflowing in our hearts.

Curiosity

Amen. Blessed be.


 


[1] Bostrum, Nick, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? “Philosophical Quarterly(2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243?255. (First version: 2001). For a detailed exploration of the various debates sparked by Bostrum’s article, go to http://www.simulation-argument.com/.

[2] Bostrum argues that, though it is controversial, a common assumption in the philosophy of mind known as “substrate independence” suggests that computers should be capable of consciousness. He writes: “It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon?based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon?based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.”

[5] I recommend Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s description of ‘The Cosmological Argument’ for the existence of God in 36 Arguments For the Existence of God (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010) p. 348. In my view this is possibly the most common and most ancient argument for the existence of God. Goldstein convincingly dismantles it.

[6] Second Corinthians 4:18.

[7] Shams Ud-Dun Mohammed Hafiz, “Beloved Presence,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #607.

Instead of Rifles: Reflections on American Violence

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

[Video here.]

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.”[1]

the Cornel West Theory, circa 2009The band is the Cornel West Theory from Washington, DC. The piece, from their 2009 album “Second Rome” is called “Rifles.” The speaker of these particular words—the poet—is the Rev. Yvonne Gilmore.[2] On this Sunday one day before the nation celebrates the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.; on this Sunday one day before the nation inaugurates President Barack Hussein Obama to a second term; on this Sunday just over a month after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT that left 28 people dead including 20 first graders; on this Sunday after a week in which the debate over gun control in our state and our nation has been feverish and fierce; on this Sunday at the beginning of a new year, following a year in which Hartford witnessed 22 homicides, 17 of which involved guns; on this 2013 Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, following a year in which the United States witnessed more than 10,000 gun-related homicides (depending on how one counts) and more than 30,000 gun-related deaths—the majority of them being suicides;[3] on this Sunday I find these words from Rev. Gilmore to be both a deeply pastoral and powerfully prophetic response to violence, one that speaks to us about what is necessary for the work of repair, healing, justice in a grieving nation.

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.” I don’t pretend to understand every reference in this piece. But I understand it enough to know it addresses those urban youth who are caught up in these seemingly endless, intractable cycles of drug and gang violence, repeated from city to city across the nation, this “bullet play,” as Rev. Gilmore calls it, “this petty crime on the front lines.” The other poet in the piece, Tim Hicks, offers a litany of violence-laced images and makes veiled and not-so-veiled references to the troubling experience of young, urban black and brown-skinned men within the United States criminal justice system, a system we know is fundamentally flawed; a system that, after decades of America’s war on drugs, has resulted in the mass incarceration of young black and brown-skinned men and, increasingly, women; a system that Ohio State University law professor and civil rights advocate, Michelle Alexander, among others, calls the New Jim Crow[4]—Jim Crow being the popular name for the Michelle Alexanderpost-Civil War, post-Reconstruction system of both legal and illegal methods of keeping black and other peoples of color from participating fully in American society—the broken and racist system the Civil Rights movement sought to overcome; the system Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS sought to correct once and for all; the system the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Urban League, the NAACP and so many others (including the Unitarian Universalist Association) sought to dismantle forever; the system the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Little Rock Nine, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, the freedom riders, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo and King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail sought to end forever; the system the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act sought to abolish forever.

1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

That was the old Jim Crow and somehow, in 2013—the fiftieth anniversary year of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,”—here it is again, the new Jim Crow.

New Jim Crow

The poet says: “I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.” This piece addresses urban violence. It does not address the more rare phenomenon of mass shootings, like the Newtown tragedy, like the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, like the Tucson, Arizona assassination attempt on the life of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords—shootings which typically seem to disturb and galvanize the nation much more than the endless reports of tragic gang-related homicides in cities. This piece, “Rifles,” does not address what we might call suburban gun violence, but Rev. Gilmore’s wish still applies. And let us make no mistake: the two phenomena—urban and suburban gun violence—are intimately related.

Down the hill from Sandy Hook Elementary School, 12-14-12

Shafiq AbdussaburShafiq Abdussabur is a New Haven, CT police officer and the current Chair of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers. He named this intimate relationship between urban and suburban violence this past Tuesday on WNPR’s “Where We Live.” He was talking about the differences between urban and suburban violence—differences in the profiles of the shooters, differences in how they come by their weapons, differences in what kind of weapons education and training they typically have, and differences in the factors that lead to violence. But then he said this: At the end of the day there’s still people killing people with guns, [whether] legally possessed [or] illegally possessed…. And the key here is this: It’s our young people…. We’re missing something with our young people in both suburban America and urban America.”[5]

I agree. We’re missing something with our young people. That’s the essence of what I’m calling the intimate relationship between Fallingurban and suburban violence. There are tears in the social fabric—cracks, clefts, rifts, gaps, holes, fractures, fissures, ruptures. They are many, they are increasing and they cannot be narrowed down to one factor or one simple solution. They are social, economic, educational, psychological and spiritual. They emerge out of poverty, broken families, lack of resources, boredom, bullying, sexism, violence in the media, violence in video games, failing schools, warped national priorities, hyper-militarism, political polarization and on and on. Not every child falls into these tears in the social fabric. Thankfully most don’t. But those who do become stressed, numb, frightened, angry, isolated, alienated, stunted in their moral development, stunted in their ability to discern right from wrong, and they can become—not always, but sometimes—violent.

In urban areas in particular the appeal of gangs—safety, camaraderie, intimacy, money, power, even purpose—is overwhelming for young people who’ve become alienated. But what a set-up: As a society we fail them. We drive them away. We drive them into dangerous, violent situations. If they aren’t killed, eventually we arrest and imprison them. It’s the new Jim Crow.

the New Jim Crow

In the suburbs alienation plays out differently. The presence of more wealth, more employment, better access to health care, more effective schools, fewer illegal weapons, less demand on social service providers, more overall privilege keeps most gang activity at bay, and we who live in suburbs report a greater feeling of safety relative to our urban neighbors. Except the Newtown shooting and others like it tells us something different, tells us there are young people falling into those tears in the social fabric, falling off the radar screen. The potential for explosive violence haunts suburban—and we should add rural—America as well.

Aurora, CO

Another important layer to this conversation: most of the violence young people act out once they’ve fallen into these tears in the social fabric is towards themselves. This has understandably not been named prominently in the wake of the Newtown shooting, but I think it’s important to say that the shooter, as outwardly violent as he was that morning, was also suicidal, was also expecting to commit violence toward himself. “I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.”

Obama & Biden

This past Wednesday, President Obama and Vice President Biden, responding to the Newtown shooting, launched the most comprehensive and aggressive gun control effort since the Gun Control Act of 1968. In addition to demanding that Congress pass a new assault weapons ban, institute background checks for all gun sales, ban gun magazines with capacities of more than 10 bullets; and toughen penalties on people who sell guns to those who can’t legally own them, they also announced 23 executive actions dealing with a range of issues including a call for a new national dialogue on mental illness.[6] Here’s what I feel about it: Bravo. Bravo Barack and Joe. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your reasonableness and your sanity. Thank you for proposals that seek to reduce both suburban and urban gun violence while actually not infringing on the right of law-abiding American citizens to keep and bear arms. Thank you.

I recognize some will disagree with my claim that the administration’s proposals do not infringe on 2nd Amendment rights. One could argue that if Congress puts an assault weapons ban back into place, then the government is technically infringing on the right to bear arms. My only response is that I’m still waiting to hear a rational argument for the right to bear an assault weapon. I’m trying to remain open. But the arguments I tend to hear sound like the following: It’s my right. I should be able to have any gun I want. It’s the American way. It’s none of your business. These are not convincing arguments, and because assault weapons are being used in mass shootings more and more, I feel strongly that it is my business. It’s everyone’s business. I support gun ownership. I understand hunting and target practice and self-defense. I do not see a rational argument for owning assault weapons, and therefore I do not feel the Administration’s proposals threaten the right to bear arms.

Obama with children

I also took note of the President’s comments about children: “This is our first task as a society,” he said, “keeping our children safe.  This is how we will be judged.  And their voices should compel us to change.”[7]  I am convinced President Obama believes these words about as deeply as anything else he believes. But he can believe this and still be missing something about our children. I think it’s one thing to protect children from gun violence. It’s another thing to keep children from falling through the tears in the social fabric. He can take this moment to push through the most aggressive gun control measures in a generation and actually succeed in reducing gun violence and still be missing something about our children. And we can choose, individually and as a congregation, to get involved in this post-Newtown effort to control guns in a sane and reasonable way—I personally expect to be involved—and we can still be missing something about our children. We can pass all the laws we possibly can to control guns and young people will still be falling into these ever-widening tears in the social fabric, and some of them will find ways to act out violently towards themselves, others, or both. It is time in this nation for a change of heart in relation to children and young people that is bigger and more lasting than anything our political process can ever hope to achieve. It’s time for a national change of heart in relation to children and young people that requires more than legislation.

Don't Shoot

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles,” enough to carry you through your times of fear and anger, enough to carry you out of alienation and isolation, enough to carry you past the impulse to commit a violent act. I only know one way to make a child love themself enough to carry themself with their head held high, with pride in their heart, with a positive sense of potential and possibility, with trust in their own future: Love them first. Love them—all of them—unconditionally, with everything we’ve got. I’m not talking about parents loving their own children, although that is certainly part of it. I’m talking about all of us—society—resolving to love every child unconditionally and doing everything and anything we can—with that love at the center—to repair these tears in the social fabric into which too many children are falling.

Love our kids

Some might say this sounds naïve, overly idealistic, unrealistic or just plain impossible. Fine. But I prefer to let Dr. King’s words speak to us on this question. I prefer to let Dr. King speak to us across the decades about how we are missing something about our children, about the way too many children become alienated and prone to violence, about the way too many children become caught up in the new Jim Crow. He said: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality…. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits…. I still believe that one day [humanity] will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land.”[8] It may be naïve, overly idealistic, unrealistic or just plain impossible to think we can mend the tears in our social fabric. But I also think it’s foolish–utterly foolish–to keep doing what we’re doing and think things will get better on their own.

Hoodies

It’s time for an all-encompassing national change of heart. Imagine a society in which young black and brown-skinned men, walking down the street, perhaps wearing their hoodies, perhaps being loud and boisterous, instill in the hearts of passersby not a feeling of fear, but a recognition: these are our children too. Imagine a society in which children and young people of a variety of races, from a variety of countries, speaking a variety of languages, all in one school system—like Manchester, like Hartford—instill in the hearts of all taxpayers not a feeling of resentment and anger but a recognition: these are our children too. Imagine a society in which gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children and young people instill in the hearts of others not the urge to bully, bash, exclude or correct them, but a recognition: these are our children too. Imagine a society in which a child or young person who seems isolated and alienated, moody and withdrawn, perhaps suffering from mental illness, who seems to resist all interventions by parents, school social workers and medical professionals instills in the hearts of still other adults who see the situation unfolding not a desire to turn away, ignore the child, give up on the child, forsake the child, say to themselves ‘this is not my problem,’ but rather a recognition: this is my child too and I will err on the side of reaching out, offering support, being a presence in this child’s life, being an adult they can trust and count on. These children falling though the tears in the social fabric are our children too.

Love our kids

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.” Friends, in the wake of the Newtown shooting and aware of longstanding and seemingly intractable violence in urban neighborhoods, yes, let’s be involved in efforts to control guns. Let’s be involved in efforts to destigmatize mental illness, to prevent the criminalization of mental illness, and to establish real mental health parity in federal and state law. Let’s be involved in efforts to enhance school climate and school safety. Let’s do all of this. But’s let’s be honest: what’s missing in this nation is profound and unconditional love for all children. The proof is that too many fall into the cracks and gaps and tears. I challenge all of us to discern in the coming weeks and months, as the debate over gun control rages, how we can fill our lives with love for children and young people who are falling—to recognize they are our children too—to help them love themselves enough to carry them instead of rifles, and thereby bring healing, repair and justice to a grieving nation.

love

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Watch the video of “Rifles” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dm8SnaH24W0

[2] Rev. Gilmore is pastor of New Song Community Church in Columbus, OH: http://www.newsong4newlife.com/

[3] I’ve drawn these numbers from this December 19, 2012 article at Bloomberg News: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-19/american-gun-deaths-to-exceed-traffic-fatalities-by-2015.html. I also suggest the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (http://www.cdc.gov/features/ViolentDeathsAmerica/) and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence at (http://www.bradycampaign.org/) as good sources for data on gun violence.

[4] Information on Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness , is at http://www.newjimcrow.com/.

[5] Listen to the entire “Where We Live” roundtable on gun violence at http://cptv.vo.llnwd.net/o2/ypmwebcontent/Catie/Where%20We%20Live%2001-15-2013.mp3

[7] The full text to the remarks from Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama are at http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/01/16/transcript-obama-remarks-on-gun-violence/

 

[8] The text to King’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech is at http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-acceptance_en.html.  The video of the speech is at http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1853.

P.E.A.C.E.

P is For (Chris Sims)

Peace can enhance a performance. Endurance peacefully is enormous. Eradicating indifference, this is significant.

We pursue the kindred with a purpose. Peace is incredible. Indicating that we can stop hating.

Hope in peace is definitely possible. Predicting bright futures, we connect in person, on cell phones, through the connections on our computers.

Connecting, six degrees of separation, we imagine a most peaceful nation. Liberation. A continuation.

Visualizing a world yet to come. Peace is the sun. We sit on Sundays hoping for a peaceful transformation.

P makes a sound. We pronounce prophetically the “peace language.” Which equates love, life, positive energy, divinity. Peace is who I am. Peace is what I was born to be.

We take peace to the people, peace to the streets, peace to the Occupy movement, peace as improvement to politics gone bad. Peace is needed now, not to be considered something we used to have.

Worldwide: marches, gatherings, demonstrations, war torn nations, in soup lines, empty factories and assembly lines, we all seek peace.

 

E is for Energy (Rev. Josh Pawelek)

Energy is necessary for peace. Energy unleashed and available for the work of hands holding hands, hands holding hammers for pounding nails, hands holding sandbags before storms, hands holding blankets around homeless children, women, men.

Hands holding signs against war, holding signs against greed, holding signs against hate, holding signs for peace, for fairness, for justice, for loving who you love, for being who you are.

Hands holding hands, keeping us together, connected, one, whole, unified.

Energy is necessary for the making of peace because so much energy is harnessed for the making of war. So many hands hold in place systems that build the weapons of war: the same systems that can’t seem to house every person, can’t seem to feed every person, can’t seem to give health care to every person. The same systems that put a bullet in every gang-banger’s gun, that launch a drone strike over every village in Waziristan, that build a new Jim Crow prison cell for one out of every three black and brown men.

This is no time for entropy, for running down to disorder.

This is a time for organizing our energy for the waging of peace, organizing our hearts for the collective, common yearning for peace, organizing our voices for the collective common speaking of peace, organizing our melodies for the collective, common singing of peace, organizing our bodies for the collective, common dancing of peace, organizing our lives for collective, common peaceful living.

Peace is gonna take energy, organized energy.

 

A is for Ascension (Chris Sims)

A is for us ascension, not for us depending on politicians to pull us out of poverty and homelessness. There is no peace in not having any progress.

We can ascend if only we begin to take another look at being our brothers and sisters  keeper. At “we are the change we’ve been waiting for.” Taking a collective attitude towards allowing ourselves to recognize our own leadership.

Peaceful people asking the right questions of our leaders, our representatives, our school districts, our bosses. The losses have cost us too much.

What impoverished woman knows peace? What homeless man sees peace? What unequally educated child experiences peace?

We can acquire this ascension. We can remain determined. We can create our own jobs. Self-sufficiency in a time where talk is too much. We need real answers.

All we have is us. All we need is us.

Conversations, collectives, calls for action.

We will rise. We will elevate. We will accomplish a better way by being in unison and peace amongst one another.

 

C is for Contemplation (Rev. Josh Pawelek)

Yes we will accomplish a better way.

We each have a role to play in making peace, crafting peace, waging peace, sustaining peace.

What is my role? What is your role?

Ah. . . . Good question. Pause. Wait a moment. Wait another moment. Breathe. It’s OK. Take time for contemplation. Don’t skip this part. The movement won’t move that quickly, won’t leave you behind, won’t leave us behind. Building a lasting peace takes time—takes time after time after time.

Take time for contemplation, because starting out, we must be centered.

Starting out, we must be grounded.

Starting out, we must be mindful.

Starting out, we must be peaceful inside.

Starting out we must know, trust, believe in our minds, hearts, bones, spirits:

All life is sacred.

All life is holy.

All life is music, is magic, is mystery.

All life matters.

Knowing, trusting, believing this in our minds, hearts, bones, spirits will keep us steady,

keep us focused,

keep us resilient,

keep us strong,

keep us gentle,

keep us creative,

keep us courageous

keep us keeping our siblings.

Take time for contemplation. Don’t skip this part. Only peaceful people build peaceful neighborhoods, peaceful communities, peaceful cities, peaceful nations, a peaceful world.

Take time for contemplation.

 

E is For…  (Chris Sims)

Elevation; equality; Echoes of ancestors and freedom fighters Who once fought for peace. Who could see the coming nations living in a land of peace.

E is for elegance: the elegance of children smiling, because they know peace and can teach us adults more about peace.

E is for education: we must educate one another about calm, serenity, collective behavior that creates peace.

Positive. Energy. Always. Creates. Elevation.

We need that in this leading nation. This struggling nation.

Peace is patience. Peace is power. Let peace be the word of the hour. The word of the hour.

May all of the children whisper peace in their sleep. May all of the women sing about peace. May all of the men gather in peace as we live in multitudes and moments of community.

Imagine Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, John Lennon’s, and Ghandi’s peace existing today.

May we have peace.

May we seek peace.

E is for an eternal peace.

Peace for eternity.

I Can Believe

Rev. Josh Pawelek

This past summer I read Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods. Jenn Richard recommended it back in June. It sounded like good summer reading for me, and it was. In this story all the gods are still alive. That is, any god any group of people ever brought with them to America—whether as explorers, immigrants or slaves—as well as the gods of the Native American nations, many of whom arrived in more ancient times travelling with immigrants across the Bering Strait between what are now Russia and Alaska—any god any person ever worshipped in America is still alive. Except … no one worships them anymore. Nobody remembers them. So, they lack power. They’re weak. That’s the premise: gods and goddesses are powerful when people worship them. As people forget them they fade. They don’t die, but they become shadows of their former selves. They’re immortal, but they struggle to survive. They live in dingy tenement buildings in forgotten towns. They make their livings through odd jobs, petty crime, prostitution. They aren’t particularly admirable beings.

These forgotten gods also believe they’re facing a new threat to their meager existence. Make no mistake, Americans still practice worship—but not in churches, synagogues and mosques. Neil Gaiman has something else in mind: Americans worship technology and entertainment. If our ancestors couldn’t live without their Gods, we post-moderns can’t live without our computers, televisions and cell phones. As we humans spend more and more time enmeshed with our electronic devices, turning to them not only for information, but also for comfort, companionship, guidance, and even community, our relationship to them begins to look more and more like worship. These devices—and the industries that produce and deploy them—become the new gods—our solace and our salvation.  Thus the old gods feel threatened. The book’s plot unfolds around preparations for a final battle between the old and the new.

Along the way we meet the character Sam, a student at the University of Wisconsin studying art history and women’s studies, an aspiring sculptor, a barista at a local coffee shop. She apparently has some divine qualities, though she’s a minor character and we don’t learn much about her. When I first read her monologue about her beliefs, beginning with “I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not,”[1] I became very excited. I could write a sermon about this!  I love her brazen embrace of contradictions, the way she runs warring theological ideas together as if they have always co-existed peacefully. She says, “I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.”[2] I read her monologue over and over again, wondering: is she describing a deeply examined, mature faith, a faith strong and nuanced enough to embrace these contradictions and yet still guide her and sustain her through all life’s challenges? Could this really work? Or is she just showing off her liberal arts education, sophomorically spouting some version of whatever conspiracy theory occurs to her, and expressing nothing more than a rebellious, youthful exuberance that won’t offer sufficient spiritual sustenance as she grows older? Is she describing an authentic, generous spirituality, or is she just too lazy to make a serious theological choice?

I ask these questions because, even though she’s fictional, I want Sam’s widespread believing to be real. I want this kind of believing to be useful for our spiritual lives. Frankly, I’m even a bit envious of Sam’s beliefs. I have an experience of feeling caught between two contradictory beliefs and recognizing that ministry would flow so much more smoothly if I could just believe both and not worry about having to choose one over the other. Some of you will remember I raise the question from time to time in my sermons about whether we live in the midst of one truth or many truths. To make the case for there being only one, ultimate truth, I might refer to the ancient South Asian story of the blind men and the elephant where each man touches a part of the elephant and describes the elephant based on the part he touches. The man who touches the leg says the elephant is like a pillar. The man who touches the tail says the elephant is like a rope, and so on. The elephant is a metaphor for the existence of one truth. The whole elephant may be beyond our reach; we may each, at best, have access to only a small piece of it, but no matter what we believe, we’re all touching the same elephant—we all touch a piece of the one truth. [3] But then, to make the case for there being many distinct truths, even contradictory truths, I might just ask how it is possible for me, as one who ministers to a congregation that includes atheists, theists, agnostics, Buddhists, Jews, Pagans and Christians, to say there is only one truth. If there is only one, then some of us—most of us, in fact—are wrong. That doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not convinced atheists and theists are somehow touching the same elephant. I’m not convinced Buddhists and Christians are somehow touching the same elephant. I’m not convinced all religions, at their core, are ultimately the same.[4] So which is it, one truth or many?

I inevitably feel some pressure to answer this question definitively. But I can’t. I’m persuaded by both arguments—I love the idea that there is one truth beyond our knowing; I love the idea that there are many distinct truths in one room. I can’t give up on either of these claims and I’ve never known quite how to resolve what feels to me like a deep contradiction. There’s a part of me that’s always felt like a bit of a fraud for not being able to offer a definitive answer. But when I reflect more deeply, I realize the problem is not the presence of a contradiction: the problem is the pressure to choose one side in this or any other theological debate and be done with it. The problem is the pressure to choose one spiritual identity and be done with it. Do you believe in God or are you an atheist? Define yourself. Are you a UU Christian, a UU Buddhist, a UU Pagan, a UU Theist, a UU Humanist? Define yourself. In your spiritual practice are you contemplative? Are you community-oriented? Are you ritualistic? Are you a social justice activist? Define yourself.

I understand why we crave definition. Having a clear self-definition, spiritual or otherwise, helps us communicate to the rest of the world: this is me! This is who I am. See me. Hear me. Distinguish me. Validate me. Value me. But sometimes succumbing to the pressure to define does more harm than good. What happens if you have a hunch that both sides of an argument are somehow true? What happens if you have a feeling that both sides of a contradiction are somehow true? What if two religions express radically different cosmologies, but your intuition tells you both are somehow true? Or what if you sense something is true even though it doesn’t make any sense, even though everything you’ve ever been taught tells you it can’t be true. I think it’s so important for us in situations like this, as liberal religious people, as spiritual seekers, as Unitarian Universalists to learn to follow our hunches, our feelings, our intuitions. If we’re forced to define our position, if we have to choose a side, if we have to reject an idea because we’ve been taught it can’t be true, then we risk missing something. We cut ourselves off from a range of possibilities.

Think of what we know about light. Sam reminds us in her monologue that light is both a wave and a particle—a contradiction. One of the first lessons aspiring physicists learn in the study of quantum mechanics is that as soon as we measure light—as soon as we try to define it—the wave collapses into the particle. We can observe the particle, but we miss the wave. The range of possibilities vanishes in that moment.

Sam also mentions “a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time.” This is a reference to Shrödinger’s Cat, a famous
thought experiment put forth in 1935 by the Austrian physicist Erwin Shrödinger as a way to talk about problems in quantum mechanics. The cat inside the box is both alive and dead—a contradiction—and only when we open the box does it become one or the other. The quantum world—the sub-atomic world—is like this. There are actually infinite possibilities at any given time.  When we measure—when we open the box—when we touch the elephant—we collapse these infinite possibilities into one definite state. But this doesn’t mean the other possibilities weren’t real. The fact that we can only observe the particle doesn’t mean the wave was a fiction.

I’m making a similar claim about our spiritual lives, about our beliefs. When we define ourselves spiritually or theologically by saying “I believe X” or “I don’t believe Y,” we risk shutting out a wider range of possibilities. Sometimes that’s fine. Sometimes we need to do it. Sometimes we are very comfortable with a clearly defined identity: humanist, atheist, theist, Christian, Buddhist, etc. But there’s always a risk. We risk missing something. What appeals to me about Sam’s expression of belief is her unwillingness to miss anything. She says, essentially, I will not collapse the wave; I will not open the box; I will not resolve my contradictions; I will accept and embrace them, I will live with them, and in so doing I will inhabit a universe of possibility.

I confess that, despite feeling drawn to Sam’s way of believing, I’m not exactly sure how to do it. My intellect doesn’t want to go there. It’s hard for me to say with a straight face, “I believe in a personal god and I believe in an impersonal god and I believe in a godless universe.” It’s hard for me to say it with the conviction that Sam brings to it which, again, is why I wonder whether it’s a truly tenable spirituality. She is, after all, a work of fiction. But in the very least, were Sam or anyone to put such live-with-the-contradictions believing into practice, they would have access to a wide range of spiritual resources to meet life’s challenges. I think back to the time when my son’s heart condition was diagnosed in utero and we realized it was going to be a difficult medical path for a few years and possibly for his entire life; or the time when my brother’s daughter was still-born, or when my father was at the peak of his struggle with alcoholism—hard, painful times in my life. I’ve learned that people progress spiritually through such times, that there’s an arc to the spiritual experience of struggle and difficulty, and sometimes it includes a period of such despair, confusion and loneliness that all one can do is let go and trust. It strikes me that in such times belief in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do makes sense. Such belief, which includes longing for an end to pain, becomes a spiritual resource. Such belief can reduce anxiety, bring calm, bring a sense of being held, bring a sense of resilience. It can carry a person through hardship at the moment when they feel they can’t take another step.

Then there are those moments—those mystical moments—when people report an experience of profound unity, a oneness with everything there is, a connection to all life. Unitarian Universalists who have such experiences typically report having them outdoors, when surrounded by the natural world—the mountain top view, crashing waves, leaves in autumn, the rebirth of spring, sunrise and sunset. Of course, communion with nature is only one source of these mystical moments. They come in worship, in community, through working to achieve a vision, through creative endeavor, through activism. Wherever and whenever it comes, people report experiencing the world as sacred, experiencing life as sacred, experiencing everything as holy now. It stikes me that in such moments a belief in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive makes sense. A belief in some divine essence at the heart of creation makes sense. And such belief becomes a spiritual resource. It inspires reverence for life. It inspires us to care for the earth and for each other. It inspires us to renew our commitments and to live by our principles. It inspires us to be hopeful, loving people.

Then there are those moments when we take stock of what we know about life and the world and how it all fits together. We take stock of the myths people have told throughout the ages, the supernatural explanations for things that at one time were unexplainable but which now even children comprehend. We bear witness to the enormous power of the human mind to understand the universe. We watched just this week as NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, discovered what appears to be an ancient streambed on the surface of the red planet. We watched this past July as scientists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland discovered the Higgs boson, the sub-atomic particle that accounts, at least in theory, for the existence of mass in the universe. Like the theory of evolution, this so-called “god particle” offers a compelling, non-supernatural alternative to the creation story in the Book of Genesis. We take stock of the findings of science and human achievement and in response, belief in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck makes sense. And such belief becomes a spiritual resource, calling on us to trust ourselves—to trust our instincts and our intellect, to trust our feelings and our intuitions, to trust in our own creativity and our capacity for innovation, to trust, ultimately, in the human spirit.

There. Three contradictory theologies that when taken together offer a rich set of spiritual resources. I’m still wondering: is this an authentic, generous spirituality, or simply a failure to make a serious theological choice? For now I’m going with the former. Light is both a particle and a wave, and while we can only observe the particle, we know the wave is there. We know the wave is real. And so it is with our spiritual lives. While we have to define ourselves from time to time, my instincts tell me we inhabit a universe of possibility—and I don’t want to miss anything if I can help it. Are there pantheons full of ancient deities still longing for the life and power human worship gives them? Are there new gods of technology and entertainment vying for our dedication? Who knows? But either way it seems to me, if such a universe of possibility awaits, then it is good and right to say “I can believe.”

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Gaiman, Neil,  American Gods (New York: Harpertorch, 2001) p. 394.

[2] Ibid., pps. 394-395.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “One Truth, Many Truths . . . Any Truths?” Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, May 8, 2011. See: http://uuse.org/one-truth-many-truths-any-truths/

[4] Ibid.