For What the Soul Hungers

Rev. Josh Pawelek

 

"Reconciliation" by Josefina de Vasconcellos

“Reconciliation” by Josefina de Vasconcellos

“Break not the circle of enabling love, where people grow forgiven and forgiving; break not the circle, make it wider still, till it includes, embraces all the living.”[1] I want us to encounter these words this morning as a call to the work of reconciliation. And as we do so I want to draw a distinction between the ideal and the practical. To make the circle wider still, to embrace “all the living”—this is an ideal, a vision of a completely reconciled global community. Though I’m tempted, I won’t set it aside as unrealistic because I’m convinced there is something in our human nature that drives us toward this vision. The hymn is not just fanciful or spiritually pleasing rhetoric; there’s something real driving us and we are called to respond. On the other hand, from a practical standpoint, it’s unrealistic. Our circles will more than likely never embrace all the living; more than likely they’ll remain relatively small. This, too, is real. My message then, is that the work of reconciliation is what matters. We may never achieve the vision of a truly unbroken circle, of a reconciled global community, but we can choose to heed the call and engage in the work of reconciliation wherever and however it presents itself to us. This is one measure of a well-lived spiritual life: we engage in the work of reconciliation wherever and however it presents itself to us.

This past week two stories of people working toward reconciliation drew my attention. First (thanks to former UUS:E member Alison Cohen for pointing it out) on Monday the Bahá’í World New Service published an article about a senior Iranian Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, who created an illuminated work of calligraphy of a paragraph from the writings of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-founder of the Bahá’í faith. Tehrani offered this work of art as a gift to the Bahá’ís of the world and, in particular, the Bahá’ís of Iran. The Bahá’í World New Service called it an “unprecedented symbolic act.” As some of you may know, and as the article points out, “since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, hundreds of Bahá’í have been killed and thousands have been imprisoned. There are currently 115 Bahá’í being held in prison solely on the basis of their religious beliefs. Bahá’í in Iran are denied access to higher education, obstructed from earning a livelihood, prevented from burying their dead in accordance with their own burial rites and subjected to the demolition, desecration and expropriation of their cemeteries, all because of their religion.”[2]

Ayatollah Tehrani's illuminated calligraphy

Ayatollah Tehrani’s illuminated calligraphy

On his own website, Ayatollah Tehrani wrote: “Feeling the need for [a] practical and symbolic action to serve as a reminder of the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful coexistence, of cooperation and mutual support, and of avoidance of hatred, enmity and blind religious prejudice, I have made an illuminated calligraphy of a verse from the Kitáb-i-Aqdas of the Bahá’ís. I have made this as an enduring symbol of respect for the innate dignity of human beings, for … peaceful coexistence regardless of religious affiliation, denomination or belief. And now at the start of this new year … I present this precious symbol … to all the Bahá’ís of the world, particularly to the Bahá’ís of Iran who have suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice.”[3] I could find very little information on Ayatollah Tehrani other than commentators around the world calling him courageous.[4] What I think I see is a religious leader, a person of faith, who looked for the “circle of enabling love,” found it broken, and did what is within his power to mend it, to work toward reconciliation.

The second story (thanks to UUS:E member Nancy Thompson for pointing it out) appeared in the April 6th New York Times Magazine: a series of portraits the photographer Pieter Hugo took last month in southern Rwanda of Hutu perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide and Tutsi survivors who had reconciled with each other.[5] (Monday marked the 20 year anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide.) With the portraits are quotes from the subjects. In one, the perpetrator says, “I burned her house. I attacked her in order to kill her and her children, but God protected them, and they escaped. When I was released from jail, if I saw her, I would run and hide. Then … I decided to ask her for forgiveness. To have good relationships with the person to whom you did evil deeds – we thank God.”

Pieter Hugo’s portrait of Godefroid Mudaheranwa (left) & Evasta Mukanyandwi (right)

Pieter Hugo’s portrait of Godefroid Mudaheranwa (left) & Evasta Mukanyandwi (right)

The survivor says, “I used to hate him. When he came to my house and knelt down before me and asked for forgiveness, I was moved by his sincerity. Now, if I cry for help, he comes to rescue me. When I face any issue, I call him.” From what I know of Rwanda today, the circle is still broken; there is still a long way to go towards reconciliation, though processes are in place so that the work of reconciliation is sustainable. The stories in this article are wonderful examples of people choosing to engage in that work when the opportunity presents itself.

I said there is something in our human nature that drives us toward reconciliation. I find some glimmer of that something in the 1994 book, Music of the Mind, by the late microbiologist and New Zealander, Darryl Reanney. He writes: “In satisfying the body’s hunger you return the balance to what is was; in satisfying the soul’s hunger, you return the balance to what it shall be.”[6] Reanney wasn’t writing about reconciliation per se; I’m not even sure the word appears in the book. But this notion of “satisfying the soul’s hunger” shakes something up in me, wakes me up, challenges me to contemplate where my life is heading—not as in where I want to be in the next five years, but in a more ultimate sense: what am I reaching for with my life? The answer that comes back to me—the answer I think all religions offer in some way—is reconciliation.

What gets shaken up in me is whatever level of complacency or overriding sense of security has crept into my life; whatever unexamined habits or routines have taken hold of my living; whatever patterns or ruts in which I have become stuck. Of course the feeling of being shaken up in the midst of complacency, false security, habits, routines and ruts is not always a good one. Afterall, these things do play an important role in our lives. They allow continuity from day to day. They breed familiarity and comfort, provide a sense of order and stability. They are often tied into satisfying our bodily hungers—returning to whatever balance our bodies seek. But there’s an intense spiritual tension here. Complacency, security, habits, routines, patterns, ruts also tend to blunt, gloss over, hide—at times obliterate—our awareness of the soul’s hunger. I’ll say more about what I understand the soul to be, but let me first make this claim: at its deepest, the soul hungers for reconciliation, for the circle unbroken. When I am shaken out of my complacency, or reminded of the truth that there is no completely reliable security in life, or led to question my habits and routines, or challenged to break out of my ruts—however that happens—in those moments, if I allow myself to be open to what shakes me, I recognize a soul hunger for reconciliation. I recognize there’s a part of me—and I suspect there’s a part of you—that feels profoundly unreconciled: somehow ill-at-ease in the world, perhaps anxious, separate, alienated, at a distance, not quite in right relationship, not quite at home, still searching, hungry. When we fall into complacency, security, habits, routines and ruts we tend to feel it less or not at all. But when we’re shaken up, there it is: unreconciled.

“City Square” by Alberto Giacometti

“City Square” by Alberto Giacometti

This claim may or may not resonate with you. I know some of you feel unreconciled because you’ve told me. For others what I’m describing may feel unfamiliar. Either way, think with me for a moment about why religion exists at all. I’m convinced human beings have created religions in order to respond to this innate soul hunger for reconciliation. Boston University professor of religion, Stephen Prothero, says “where [all religions] begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi tells us that life is out of balance…. Hindus say we are living in the kali yuga, the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden; Zion, heaven, and paradise lie out ahead.”[7] Religion hones in on human dis-ease, anxiety, fear, alienation, suffering and offers a pathway out, an answer: salvation, heaven, Zion, paradise, the promised land, nirvana, moksha, last day resurrection, a just society, the beloved community, the kingdom of God. I contend all of this is a response to the soul’s hunger for reconciliation. Why do religious claims and stories that to many of us seem completely unbelievable, completely at odds with the teachings of science, completely out of touch with what we think reality is, nevertheless have such a powerful hold on the human imagination and such incredible endurance over thousands of years? Because they satisfy the soul’s hunger for reconciliation.

Let’s not get hung up on the word soul. I don’t believe in an entity that resides within us, enables us to reason, drives our will, animates our personality, and lives on after our physical bodies die. I don’t believe in that popular conception of Heaven where our soul encounters St. Peter at the pearly gates. But I do think it’s significant that for thousands of years, theologians and philosophers across a wide range of religions and cultures, east and west, have dedicated enormous energy to explaining why so many human beings report a hopeful desire to be ultimately reconciled with divinity, with the Gods, with Ultimate Reality, to reach a final union, Heaven, Paradise, etc. Their explanation frequently includes some concept of the soul—the spiritual part of human beings—different from the body—that is part of divinity and yearns to overcome the bodily hungers in order to be reconciled once again with divinity. In so many religions, the soul is the bridge between humanity and the divine.

“Solitude of the Soul” by Lorardo Taft

“Solitude of the Soul” by Lorardo Taft

For me soul is a metaphor, a beautiful, soothing poetic word—far less sublime than so many traditions would have it, but important nevertheless. Imagine we’re having a conversation and you’re telling me about something for which you have great passion, something that makes you come alive, something so important to you that you can’t let it go; you’re going to pursue it, you’re going to wrap your life around it. When I see your eyes light up at the prospect of your life so dedicated; when I hear the enthusiasm and the strength in your voice when you speak about it; when I perceive it living very naturally in your body; when I sense the energy you gain from contemplating what your life could be—that glow, that excitement, that conviction, that power—that’s your soul. It’s not a thing. It’s a quality in us. It shines through when we’re being authentic, telling the truth, pursuing our passions. It’s never complacent or static. It never succumbs to a false sense of security. It chafes at the tyranny of our routines, habits and ruts. It is restless. And if we open ourselves to it, it will push, prod, call us further along, higher up, deeper into…. into what? Into fulfillment, satisfaction, wholeness; into our own promised land or beloved community. It drives us to feel at home in the universe, to seek balance, to break not the circle. The soul is our desire to experience oneness, to be reconciled—to each other, to humanity, to all life, to the earth, to the universe, to the cosmos, to all we hold sacred.

I imagine the soul—this desire—has two sources. One is our common experience of our time in our mother’s womb—a time of nurturing darkness and warmth before birth, a time of floating, of being held completely by another, a time of oneness, of no boundary between self and mother. In contemplating this time I wonder: as we are born, as we exit the warmth and safety of the womb, as we wake up from the bliss of unknowing, as we take our first breath, utter our first cry, see our first light; is it not possible that somewhere deep inside, beyond the borders of consciousness, we resolve in that moment to return to that original unity, that darkness, that warmth, that unknowing? And if so, might we not experience this longing through the course of our lives as a soul hunger for reconciliation?

Bronze Sculpture of a Baby Face by Mariola Pierz

Bronze Sculpture of a Baby Face by Mariola Pierz

The second source is like the first, only on a cosmic scale. From what I know of the still-emerging story modern physics tells us of the birth of the universe—the story of the big bang—everything that exists today was, at a moment approximately 14 billion years ago, gathered into one tiny point, a cosmic unity, a circle unbroken; held in infinite, pregnant darkness. It exploded; and, as recent discoveries appear to confirm,[8] it expanded exponentially in just a tiny fraction of the first second—matter and energy pushed out in all directions with astounding, violent force. If we are descendants of that same matter forced out in that original explosion; is it not possible that somewhere deep inside, somewhere beyond the borders of consciousness, something in us longs to return to that original unity, to come home from our exile at the edges of the universe? And if so, might we not experience this longing as a soul hunger for reconciliation imprinted in our tiniest particles at the dawn of time?

“B of the Bang” by Thomas Heatherwick

“B of the Bang” by Thomas Heatherwick

I think this soul hunger for reconciliation is real. And while we don’t always feel it, there come those times when we are shaken up, awakened, called. In those moments perhaps we produce a work of art to mend a broken society; perhaps we forgive one who has wronged us; perhaps we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, free the prisoner, welcome the stranger. Perhaps we work for a more just society. Perhaps we sing. Perhaps we dance. Perhaps we build the beloved community. However and whenever the possibility for reconciliation presents itself to us, may we hear that ancient call. May we do what we can to make the circle whole.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Kaan, Fred, “Break Not the Circle,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #323.

[2] “In an unprecedented symbolic act senior cleric calls for religious co-existence in Iran,” Bahá’í World New Service, April 7, 2014. See: http://news.bahai.org/story/987. For current reports on the oppression of Bahá’ís in Iran, see Iran Press Watch at http://iranpresswatch.org/post/9273/comment-page-1/.

[3] The entire text of Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani’s explanation of his action is at: http://news.bahai.org/sites/news.bahai.org/files/documentlibrary/987_website-statement-translation-en.pdf.

[5] Hugo, Pieter, photographs, Dominus, Susan, text, “My Conscience Was Not Quiet,” New York Times Magazine, April 6, 2014, pp. 36-41. Or see “Portraits of Reconciliation” at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.z_sma=MG_POR_20140404&bicmp=AD&bicmlukp=WT.mc_id&bicmst=1388552400000&bicmet=1420088400000&_r=3.

[6] Reanney, Darryl, Music of the Mind: An Adventure Into Consciousness (London: Souvenir Press, 1995) p. 22.

[7] Prothero, Stephen, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World (New York: HarperOne, 2010) p. 11.

[8] For a review of the recent discovery of evidence supporting the theory of “cosmic inflation,” see http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/march/physics-cosmic-inflation-031714.html.

Sometimes We Fight (or “Drug Free” in America)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Rebecca Parker urges us to “bless the world.”[1] In her 2006 book, Blessing the World: What Can save Us Now, she tells the story of a time when she and a friend were walking with one of her mentors, the process theologian Charles Hartshorne. She writes, “At the threshold where we would part, Charles turned around, took our hands in his, looked us squarely in the eye, and said, ‘Be a blessing to the world.’ One is rarely given such a direct instruction, and it went straight to our hearts. When all is said and done in my life, I hope that I will have been faithful to this charge.”[2]  Be a blessing to the world.

I’ve been wrestling with a claim I made in my March 2nd sermon on surrender. In that sermon I named a variety of reasons why spiritual surrender is difficult. I talked specifically about how the dominant United States culture is a “fighting” culture that frowns upon surrender, weakness, compromise, etc. I critiqued my own instinct to fight, saying “if and when I try to fight my way through some turmoil, some pain, grief, anxiety, winds, storm—whatever it is—I rarely get there. That is, I might win the fight, but in winning I don’t necessarily gain any clarity about how I want to be, feel and act in the world.”[3] I made that claim with a confidence I still feel. I still feel that in cultivating our capacity for surrender—learning to fall, letting go, yielding, remaining quiet, being gentle, backing off, bowing down—we open pathways to deeper spiritual experience, richer lives, clarity, happiness and peace. But even as I made the claim I felt a tug, a pull, a pin-prick, a nagging at the edges of my words. Since then I’ve been wrestling with the knowledge that sometimes it’s essential that we not surrender, that we not fall, not bend, not back off; that we stay and fight. I feel confident about that too. I’m searching this morning for understanding of how and when ‘not surrendering’ is a spiritual act.

I turn to Rebecca Parker’s charge to us to “be a blessing to the world” because, while she doesn’t use the word fight, she leaves room for fighting—fighting for what is of highest worth to us; fighting for what is sacred to us. She says, “And while there is injustice, / anesthetization, or evil / there moves / a holy disturbance, / a benevolent rage, / a revolutionary love / protesting, urging, insisting / that which is sacred will not be defiled.”[4] These are not words of surrender but of engagement. There are times when choosing to bless the world requires a confrontation, an exertion, a protest, an argument. There are times when our choice to bless the world comes legitimately in response to our rage at complacency, at greed, at callousness, at injustice, at evil, and we choose to fight—not fighting in the sense of perpetuating violence, but fighting in the sense of struggling, working, contesting for something that matters. I think our best guide—our measure of when something matters enough to fight for it—is our principles. Do we discern some way in which our principles have been violated? Then we may choose to fight. Can we discern some facet of life where we feel our principles must be brought to bear? Then we may choose to fight. And perhaps more fundamentally, if we’re going to fight for something, does our desire to fight emerge from a deep and abiding love?

I want to tell you about a fight I’ve been party to recently, along with the UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee: the fight to reduce the size of “drug free zones” in Connecticut. If you don’t know anything about this issue, your first response might be, “what on earth is a drug free zone?” If you happen to know that the term refers to zones around schools, daycare centers and public housing, zones that extend 1500 feet in all directions from the property line of these facilities, zones in which, if you are caught in possession of illegal drugs, you will face “enhanced” criminal penalties including mandatory jail time; and if you happen to know that the laws establishing these zones came into being in the late 1980s to keep drug dealers away from children, then it is possible your first response might be, “Why on earth would we want to reduce the size of drug free zones? Won’t that make it easier for drug dealers to gain access to children? If that is your response then you are not alone: many people have a similar response.

Drug Free School Zone

Like “nuclear free zone,” “drug free zone” has a potent, pleasing ring to it. It sounds like a good thing. It sounds, well, safe, healthy, even wholesome. So, it is somewhat disconcerting to find myself fighting to reduce their size. So why do it? There’s a technical reason. And there’s a moral reason which, for me, has to do with our Unitarian Universalist principles.

ABWFThe technical reason is that the zones don’t achieve their stated intent of keeping drug dealers away from children. This past Friday morning, at a legislative breakfast organized by our Social Justice / Antiracim Committee and our partner, A Better Way Foundation, an organization called the Prison Policy Initiative released a report entitled “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss PPI logothe Mark.” The report states: “Connecticut’s [drug free] zone law … arbitrarily increases the time people convicted of drug offenses must spend in prison without any evidence that their underlying offense actually endangered children. In fact, the Legislative Program Review & Investigations Committee looked at a sample of
300 [drug free] zone cases, and found only three cases that involved students, none of which involved adults dealing drugs to children…. Except for those three cases in which students were arrested, all arrests occurring in ‘drug-free’ school zones were not linked in any way by the police to the school, a school activity, or students. The arrests simply occurred within ‘drug-free’ school zones.’ All of the other 297 cases in the legislature’s sample involved only adults.”[5] The point is, if the intent of the law is to keep drug dealers away from children, you’d think arrests would reflect that, but they don’t.

Which brings me to the moral reason to reduce the size of drug free zones. On Friday morning, State Senator Gary Holder-Winfield asked a provocative question: If the drug free zones don’t do what they’re supposed to do, then what do they do? He didn’t answer the question, but I want to share my answer here. Drug free zones ensure that an unreasonably high percentage of young, urban people of color end up in prison or otherwise enmeshed in the criminal justice system. How? Schools, daycare centers and public housing are so ubiquitous in cities, and the drug zones are so large (five football fields in all directions) that there is virtually no area in any Connecticut city that isn’t a drug free zone. In Hartford, pretty much the only area one can possess drugs and not be in a drug free zone is the middle of the landfill or the middle of Brainerd Airport. What this effectively means is that anyone caught possessing or selling drugs in a Connecticut city is automatically subject to the drug free zone’s enhanced penalties. Which is not what happens to people committing the same offenses in suburban and rural towns where drug free zones are more rare because schools and daycare centers are not densely packed and there is much less public housing.

Drug Free Zones in Hartford, CT (Soure: Prison Policy Initiative)

Drug Free Zones in Hartford, CT (Soure: Prison Policy Initiative)

The Prison Policy Initiative report says “Connecticut’s [drug free] zone law effectively imposes a harsher penalty for the same crime depending on whether the person who committed it lives in a large city or a small town. In practice, the law’s effects are even more insidious: the law increases pressures on urban residents, but not rural ones, to plead guilty solely to avoid the enhanced penalty…. Mandatory minimum sentences, such as those created by Connecticut’s [drug free] zone policy, warp the criminal justice system by steering cases away from trial and toward plea agreements. By creating mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement zones in disproportionately urban areas, the legislature has created a two-tiered system of justice.[6] What the report doesn’t say, but which I will say, is because people of color make up much higher percentages of city populations, people of color are disproportionately impacted by these enhanced penalties, and thus the legislature has created not only a two-tiered system of justice, but a racist system of justice. This is where it becomes clear to me that our justice system achieves outcomes that violate our Unitarian Universalist principles: it fails to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It fails to dispense justice equity and compassion to all people. And it fails to advance the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.

Druf Free Zones in Urban Waterbury, CT, compared to neighboring, suburban Prospect CT (source: Prison Policy Initiative)

Drug Free Zones in urban Waterbury, CT, compared to neighboring, suburban Prospect CT (source: Prison Policy Initiative)

I am convinced that one of the United States of America’s greatest moral failures in this post-civil rights era is the mass incarceration of young black and brown men and women as a result of the war on drugs. Just as Jim Crow laws emerged in the decades following the abolition of slavery in order to re-establish white supremacy and control the lives of people of color, so mass incarceration has emerged in the decades following the end of Jim Crow fifty years ago to re-establish white supremacy and control the lives of people of color. I hear myself say this and I hear how extreme it sounds, and yet when you look at how our state’s drug free zone laws penalize urban communities of color radically differently than white suburban and rural communities, it’s hard to deny. After forty years of the war on drugs, the United States has the largest prison population in the world, and people of color make up a huge percentage of that population in numbers that far exceed their relative numbers in the population.

This phenomenon decimates urban lives, urban families, and urban communities. In a March 10th interview for StoptheDrugWar.org, Ohio State University law professor and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander, said:

There is an implicit assumption that we just need to find what works to lift people up by their bootstraps, without acknowledging that we’re waging a war on these communities we claim to be so concerned about. [Our] common narrative … suggests the reasons why there are so many poor people of color trapped at the bottom—bad schools, poverty, broken homes….

But I’ve come to believe we have it backwards. These communities are poor and have failing schools and broken homes not because of their personal failings, but because we’ve declared war on them, spent billions building prisons while allowing schools to fail, targeted children in these communities, stopping, searching, frisking them—and the first arrest is typically for some nonviolent minor drug offense, which occurs with equal frequency in middle class white neighborhoods but typically goes ignored. We saddle them with criminal records, jail them, then release them to a parallel universe where they are discriminated against for the rest of their lives, locked into permanent second-class status….

Rather than providing meaningful support to these families and communities where the jobs have gone overseas and they are struggling to move from an industrial-based economy to a global one, we have declared war on them. We have stood back and said “What is wrong with them?” The more pressing question is “What is wrong with us?”[7]

What is wrong with us is that we—and by ‘we’ I mean all of us in the United States of America—are allowing the destruction of lives, the break-up of families, the decay of urban communities, the excessive criminalization of urban people of color, the excessive incarceration of people for non-violent offenses when what they really need—and what would be so much less expensive—is treatment for substance use disorder and mental illness. We are allowing an egregious waste of financial and human resources by investing in incarceration at the expense of education, jobs, drug treatment and mental health. I believe this. And I don’t feel comfortable just sitting back and watching it happen, even though I could argue that it isn’t my issue, that it doesn’t impact me or my children, the community where I live, or the community I serve. I don’t feel comfortable as a Unitarian Universalist who affirms and promotes seven principles, many of which mass incarceration violates with impunity. I don’t feel comfortable as a minister whose vocation it is not only to provide spiritual and pastoral support and guidance to the members of the congregation I serve, but to bear witness to injustice in the wider community and do what is within my power and my congregation’s power to address it. And I don’t feel comfortable as a human being who has some semblance of a conscience, some modicum of moral sensibility and, I hope, a basic grasp of what is right, what is wrong, and what is fair—as flawed and as limited as that grasp may be. I don’t feel comfortable.

Reducing the size of drug free zones is one way to arrest the madness of mass incarceration. Connecticut can do this this year. There will be a moment in the next month when the bill to reduce the size of drug free zones will come up for debate in the legislature. That is a moment for our voices to be heard. Our Social Justice / Antiracism Committee will do everything they can to let you know when it’s time to advocate. In the meantime, if you want to be part of this effort, we have sign-up sheets in the lobby. Another related project we’re working on is the creation of supply kits for people being released from prison. The transition from prison is difficult. At times former inmates have trouble getting their basic needs met. These kits include toiletries, super market gift cards, socks and underwear, etc. We’re going to start creating these kits as a congregation. You’ll be hearing more about this project over the next few months.

Sometimes we fight. And clearly fighting and surrendering are contrasting if not opposite spiritual endeavors. Though I wonder, is it not possible that fighting for the right reasons is itself a form of spiritual surrender. Rebecca Parker reminds us “there moves / a holy disturbance, / a benevolent rage, / a revolutionary love / protesting, urging, insisting / that which is sacred will not be defiled.” Is it not possible we fight because we finally surrender to that holy disturbance, that benevolent rage, that revolutionary love—and allow it to guide our actions? Perhaps there are times when our principles demand that we surrender the comforts and privileges of our lives so that we may bring a greater love to bear in the world. Perhaps there are times when we realize we’ve spent our days resisting the call of some great cause, and we finally surrender our resistance begin to struggle. Perhaps this is just semantics. Perhaps. But here’s what know: We care called to bless the word. And there are times when that blessing won’t be realized without a fight. Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Parker, Rebecca A., “Benediction,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) pp. 163-165.

[2] Parker, Rebecca A., “Choose to Bless the World,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) p. 161.

[3] Pawelek, Josh M., “Surrender: In Search of the Present Moment,” a sermon delivered on March 2, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/surrender-i-search-of-the-present-moment/.

[4] Parker, Rebecca A., “Benediction,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) pp. 164.

[5] Kajstura, Aleks, “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss the Mark” (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2014). Read the full report at http://www.prisonpolicy.org/zones/ct.html.

[6] Kajstura, Aleks, “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss the Mark”

[7] Read Asha Bandele’s full March 14, 2014 interview with Michelle Alexander at http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2014/mar/10/new_jim_crow_michelle_alexander_talk.

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.

 

Getting Better at Love

flowers“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”[1]—Pete Seeger’s famous question.  Actually, if I have the story right, he got the flower question, and the questions about the girls picking them, and the men going off to war, from a 19th-century Cossack folk song mentioned in the Russian novelist Mikhail Sholokhov’s four volume epic novel And Quiet Flows the Don. Pete read it in the early 1950s. The lines from the folk song stayed with him. He eventually adapted it into his now iconic American anti-war ballad, adding the lines “long time passing” and “when will they ever learn?”—also a famous question. It’s a rhetorical question. We’re not supposed to answer it. We’re supposed to lament whatever it is in human beings that drives us to make war. On the surface these lyrics are mournful, but at the heart of the song is a confidence that there is a better way, that we can and will learn, that we can and will move beyond our penchant for violence and conflict. That’s the hope and the vision for which Pete Seeger is famous.

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger

Nevertheless, I chose this song for us this morning not only as a way to honor Pete’s life and to mark his death last Monday, but also as a simple statement about humanity’s seemingly endless capacity to not put its highest values into practice. When will we ever learn?

Our ministry theme for February is love and, yes, if you’re wondering, the fact that Valentine’s Day happens in February has something to do with selecting this theme. Valentine’s Day has to do with eros, romantic love, sexual love, relationships, intimacy. If we dig a little deeper, Valentine’s Day lies atop more ancient European pagan fertility and purification festivals that occur at the halfway point between winter and spring; festivals such as the Roman Lupercalia and even the Gaelic Imbolc—which is today, February 2nd. Imbolc translates as “in the belly,” referring to pregnant sheep. It’s about fertility, pending birth, the anticipation of new life in spring. There’s a layer to it which is earthy, sensual, lusty. Eros.

As we explore love this month I don’t want to lose sight of the value of eros in our lives, the value of romance, sexuality and other forms of intimacy through the lifespan. Nor do I want us to lose sight of how difficult it can be to sustain intimate, romantic relationships, how much intentional work and effort are necessary to ensure such relationships last. The truth is they don’t always last. The shine can wear off. The romance can wane. Intimate, romantic relationships can hit snags, fall into ruts, develop bad habits. They can break down. They can end. Sometimes the ending is for the best. Sometimes the ending is very painful for all involved. My point is that in the work of sustaining intimate, romantic relationships we don’t always handle things skillfully. We don’t always know the right thing to do. And even when we know what the right thing to do is, we don’t always do it. We don’t always know how to bring our best selves forward. There are times when we might ask, “When will we ever learn?”

2-1 spats

Of course, there are other kinds of love. When Pete Seeger sang “I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,” he wasn’t singing about eros. He was singing about agape or caritas—that love of neighbor, love of enemy, love of stranger, love of alien—that boundless, all-encompassing love for all humanity, for all creation, that lies in some form, in some articulation at the heart of virtually every religion. That love, also, is difficult to sustain, is hard to remember, hard to keep in the forefront of our hearts and minds, hard to conjure up when we most need it, when it would make the most difference. And we know our collective human inability to practice agape leads us back, time and again, to conflict, polarization, infighting, war. Hence, “Where have all the flowers gone?” “When will we ever learn?”

2-1 Mclaren

There’s a quote going around the internet that says, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”[2] I sense people feel compelled to share it because they recognize how easy it is for any of us not to practice agape. They recognize how distracted we can be by our own concerns; how quick we are to judge, ignore, write off; how needlessly defensive we can be; how much mental and emotional distance we can put between ourselves and another human being without even thinking about it. This quote reminds us to not let this happen, to assume everyone we encounter is worthy of our attention, our compassion, our love—just as we are worthy of theirs. We shouldn’t need an internet quote to remind us of this wisdom, but there it is.

Franz Wright

Franz Wright

I read earlier a single line from Franz Wright’s poem, “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard,” published in 2003. “How is it that I didn’t spend my whole life being happy, loving other human beings’ faces.”[3] This is one of the poems he wrote after coming through a long struggle with addiction which apparently included a number of hospitalizations and suicidality. From what I’ve read, he gained strength and a renewed sense of his own capacity to love by reconnecting with the Catholic Church and, even more importantly I think, reconnecting with God. Even so, his question reminds us of this human tendency to fall short of our highest aspirations, especially when it comes to love. Looking back on his earlier life he’s still somewhat mystified. What got in the way? How was love not my first inclination towards people? Why did I not know this then. How did I not learn this sooner?

Rev. Kate Braestrup wrestles with similar questions in her book, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity. She names her experience of falling short in this brief story:

“‘How do you do it all?’ a woman who doesn’t know me asked when she heard that in addition to being a law enforcement chaplain and a writer, I am [also] a mother of six children (including steps).

‘I do quite a lot of it badly,’ I said.”[4]

Kate Braestrup

Kate Braestrup

I don’t think she’s just being modest when she says this, nor is it just for effect. She knows she does a lot of it badly. She doesn’t think she’s a bad person or somehow defective when it comes to love. She clearly loves deeply—her husband, her children, the officers she serves as chaplain, Unitarian Universalists, God, the world. But her experience tells her that being loving in all the ways we can be loving is hard, sometimes mystifying work which we often fail to do well. I appreciate her willingness to name this, if for no other reason than that it gives me permission to name the same truth about myself. Ministers are supposed to know something about being loving. You could argue it’s our job to be loving. Those of you who heard my wife Stephany speak here at my ten-year anniversary party in November got a glimpse into our home life and learned that whatever high-minded principles I may spout off on Sunday morning, the preaching and the practicing don’t always sync up when I’m out of the public eye. And I’m pretty sure they don’t always sync up when I’m in the public eye.

I’ve recently begun dreading the day when my kids finally realize not only that ministers—of all people—probably shouldn’t yell at their children as much as their father yells at them, but that they have stories they could tell to all of you about my parental shortcomings and mistakes that will wipe away the rest of whatever dim shine remains on my reputation as a loving parent. It’s not that I don’t love them deeply or that I’m bad parent or husband. It’s that I get ticked off and I lose it from time to time. And even though I always resolve never to let that happen again, it happens again. Acting in a loving manner, bringing love to bear in every encounter—loving other human beings’ faces—isn’t impossible. But it requires enormous energy, discipline, focus, resolve and courage. It’s hard work.

Knowing this, I love Rev. Braestrup instinct, which is, essentially, “keep trying.” What else can we do? Keep trying. She writes: “All loves have much in common, and any one will offer a useful, if not painless, education in the limitations and possibilities of being human. If you can give your committed love to a person, an idea, or a cause, even should that person, idea, or cause be taken from you, or proven false, you will be a better lover—of anyone, of anything—for the experience…. The point of being human is to get better (and better)…at love.”[5]

How? How do we get better at love? I want to take you briefly through some preliminary answers to this question. They aren’t the only answers, but they’re the ones that call to me this morning. First, patience. When the Apostle Paul starts naming love’s qualities in that famous passage from First Corinthians, the first thing he says is “love is patient.”[6] Love grows and deepens slowly. It cannot be rushed. It doesn’t roll with the 24-hour news cycle. It isn’t a Facebook status. You can’t tweet it to your followers. There’s nothing 2-1  snow on branchesvirtual about it. It takes time and presence. It takes a long view of life. This is the message of Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox’s meditation, “Valentine.” Dare we “hurry such a thing as friendship?” she asks. “Let us write our vows slowly, knowing some of the words like snowflakes will fall away, that from time to time a misunderstanding will come like a gust of wind or a bird’s foot to a snow covered branch, disrupting the careful gifts of love. Let us work on our manuscript, mirroring nature’s patience, until the love is whole and the drift of our days is done.” [7] Our culture feels sped up these days, and we at times feel the need to do everything we can to speed up ourselves. But the faster life moves the less opportunity we have to really know each other—to hear each other, to learn each other, to tell each other our stories. Love demands that we slow down and be present to each other. Love, in this sense, is today, radically counter-cultural.

Patience also creates a gateway for love to enter into our most difficult situations—situations where anger and rage, frustration and 2-1 breathedisappointment, fear and anxiety come quickly to the surface, come pouring out of us before we even have a chance to think. In difficult situations—an argument with a spouse, frustration with a child, a conflict at church, anger at someone else’s driving, tension at work, some kind of injustice—whatever it may be—anger, rage, frustration, disappointment, fear or anxiety may be very understandable, may be justifiable, may even be necessary. But the quickness with which they rise in us often prevents us from bringing love to bear as well. On my better days, when I feel anger or frustration rising in the heat of a moment, I remind myself simply to breathe, to wait, to not speak, to listen more closely not only to the other, but to what love asks of me in the situation. Patience makes all the difference. Our impatience limits the sound and quality of love’s voice. But patience—breathing, pausing, waiting, not speaking, listening—patience creates a gateway for love to rise in us.

A final thought on patience: I’m mindful that so many people enter into social justice struggles out of a genuine and abiding love for humanity. Agape. So many people enter into social justice struggles with the conviction that, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”[8] But love rarely drives out hate in an instant. Love rarely drives out hate in a day or even a decade. Love drives out hate because it takes the long view, because it persists and endures. Love drives out hate because it keeps coming, keeps trying, keeps organizing, singing, speaking, marching, demonstrating, taking arrest, taking all the punishments hate dishes out. “Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Love is patient. As the Abolitionist movement was launching in the United States in the 1820s and 1830s, very few of those who were there at the beginning thought they would see the end of slavery in their lifetimes. But that didn’t deter them. Genuine, abiding love for humanity does not cower or fade at the thought of a lifetime or even multiple lifetimes of struggle. Such love is patient beyond measure—not inactive, not complacent, not resigned—but patient.

And one final answer to the question of how we get better at love. Trust. By this I don’t mean trusting the person or people we love. I mean trusting love itself; trusting that love has power greater than any other power we can bring to bear; trusting that when we act out of love, regardless of how it is received, we can move any situation over time towards healing, peace, justice, and reconciliation. I mean trusting that love matters, that in the end love wins.

2-1 trust love 1

I used to say all the time that love lives at the heart of creation. I suppose anyone who professes belief in a loving God is saying something like this. Franz Wright puts it in very simple terms in a poem called “Walden.” He writes, “There is a power that wants me to love.”[9] I am drawn to such statements. I want them to be true. But I’ve been making claims like this less and less in recent years, mainly because I feel less able to name what I actually mean when I make them. Love at the heart of creation? Where does this love actually live? What does it look like? What evidence do I have? I think it may be more accurate to conclude that the universe is, ultimately, cold and impersonal, unconscious and unfeeling, that there is no love at the heart of everything. And if so, so be it. I wouldn’t be the first to draw this conclusion.

But I still trust love. I still trust in its power to bring healing, peace, reconciliation, justice. Even though love in all its forms seems so difficult to sustain; even though love can feel like such a naïve answer to the world’s problems, I still trust it. I trust that if we keep trying to let love rise in us, to let love speak through us, to bring love to bear—if we keep trying—we will learn. We will love other human beings’ faces. The flowers will come back, if we keep trying.  Humanity will learn, if we keep trying. May we keep trying.

2-1 trust love 2

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Pete Seeger’s story about the writing of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is at http://performingsongwriter.com/pete-seeger-flowers-gone/.

 

[2] The original version of this quote is usually attributed to the 19th century Scottish author and theologian Ian Maclaren.

[3] Wright, Franz, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) p. 72.

[4] Braestrup, Kate, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2010) p.81.

[5] Braestrup, Kate, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2010) pp. 8-9.

[6] First Corinthians 13.

[7] Tarbox, Elizabeth, Valentine, Evening Tide (Boston: Skinner House, 1998) p. 45.

[8] King, Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?(Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 63.

[9] Wright, Franz, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) p. 70.

Speechless in the Face of Evil

Rev. Josh Pawelek

PeaceBang writes: “My liberal religious tradition would say that … people who are one bad turn of events away from sheer desperation, may do bad or criminal things because of that desperation. I agree. They certainly might. I certainly might do that if I was in their position. What my liberal religious tradition does not acknowledge is that on top of this level of human misery, fear, need and desperation is a pre-existing human condition called evil.”[1]

Shhh

For the moment I’m less interested in the idea of “a pre-existing condition called evil;” I’ll come to that. I’m more interested first in “what my liberal religious tradition does not acknowledge.” Yes, Unitarian Universalism is not known for its robust discourse on evil. This is not to say we’re oblivious to evil—we aren’t—or that none of us has any direct experience of evil—some of us plainly do. But evil is not the typical starting place for our theological reflection. It doesn’t drive our spiritual lives. When asked to describe the purpose of our spiritual practice, very few of us will answer: “it’s my way of confronting evil.” I can’t tell you how many of you, upon learning our January ministry theme would be evil, asked Why? Why talk about that? One member summed it up well. “Evil,” she wrote. “THAT is, to my mind, an un-Unitarian concept.” She’s right, as is PeaceBang. We are the exact opposite of those charismatic Christian churches anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann described in her New York Times editorial last Sunday. “In these churches, prayer is warfare. The new charismatic Christian churches in Accra (Ghana) imagine a world swarming with evil forces that attack your body, your family and your means of earning a living.” [2] We UUs know human beings can and do inflict enormous pain and suffering on each other. Yet when we imagine the world theologically, we’re more likely to say it’s essentially good. People, essentially good. Creation, essentially good. Evil, at most, plays a minor role.

This is not new. I’ve named it before from this pulpit. Many of my colleagues preach about it. They write blogs, articles and books about it. In his 2005 book, Faith Without Certainty, liberal theologian and UU minister Paul Rasor writes that in order to effectively confront racism it is critical that we understand it theologically as a form of evil. However, he goes on, “it is hard for liberals to talk in these terms because we have no real theology of evil and therefore no language or conceptual reference points adequate to the task.”[3] Six months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an article in the UU World magazine asked whether we were theologically prepared to respond to evil. “Now that terror spreads from shore to shore, now that Islamist militants are calling the United States a terrorist nation because U.S. bombing has killed Afghan civilians, is this one of those rare moments in history so powerful that we have no choice but to re-examine even something so fundamental as our historic trust in the basic goodness of humanity?”[4] 

But this question is older than 9/11. It first came to my attention in the mid-1990s when I entered seminary. I can’t remember who first said it, but I heard it early and often during my ministerial education. It probably sounded like this: Unitarian Universalists have much to say about humanity’s more positive traits—love, caring, compassion, generosity, selflessness—all of which we are capable of expressing in word and deed. But for the more negative human qualities—violence, greed, hatred, selfishness—all of
Darth Vaderwhich we are capable of expressing in word and deed—we don’t have a deep theological understanding of the roots of these things in us and the world.
I remember as a seminarian realizing that I had learned more about evil reading The Lord of the Rings and watching Star Wars than I had attending UU Sunday School in the 70s and 80s. My grandmother—a Bible-reading, pietistic, Pennsylvania Dutch Lutheran with evangelical edges—used to tell my brothers and I stories about Satan, how he tempts you to sin, how he wants your soul in Hell. She was helping us get into Heaven, an act of love; and we loved her for it. But by the time we understood what she was talking about, we were already living in a different theological world with no Satan, Hell, angels, demons, divine punishment and, we were pretty sure, no Heaven—at least not the one she anticipated.

That same UU World article following 9/11 quoted Lois Fahs Timmins—daughter of the great Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs—talking in 1996 about her Sunday School experience in the 1920s and 30s. “‘We spent 95 percent of our time studying good people doing good things, and skipped very lightly over the bad parts of humanity,’ she said…. ‘I was taught not to be judgmental, not to observe or report on the bad behavior of others. Consequently, because of my education, I grew up ignorant about bad human behavior, incompetent to observe it accurately, unskilled in how to respond to it, and ashamed of talking about evil.’”[5]

Genocide

I suspect the charge that Unitarian Universalism doesn’t acknowledge evil is as old as liberal religion itself. Any time we put human goodness at the center of our faith, someone else may ask, “What about genocide? What about fascism, killing fields, gas chambers, mass shootings, torture, racism, slavery, sexual abuse? With its positive view of humanity, liberal religion has always faced this line of questioning. There is, therefore, some truth to the claim that, unlike our counterparts in more conservative religious traditions who encounter the world as a spiritual war zone,[6] we are, at least theologically speaking, speechless in the face of evil.

Speechless

Some truth, yes, but there may be more to our speechlessness than we realize. This is my message: speechlessness in the face of evil is not the same thing as powerlessness in the face of evil. Let me say a few words about what I think evil isn’t; and then a few words about what I think it is, and I hope it will become clear what I mean when I say speechlessness does not equate to powerlessness.

What Evil Isn’t

No SatanFirst, there is no ‘Prince of Darkness.’ This is the Universalist in me speaking. Evil does not result from Satan or his minions swarming around, causing illness, sowing social discord, and harming livelihoods. If you agree, you’re in the minority. Luhrmann says 57 % of Americans believe in demonic possession.[7] Of course, it’s important to me to respect and honor diverse religious world-views, to try to understand what value they may hold for their practitioners. While I might not agree with someone who believes their condition is caused by demons, I also won’t tell them they’re wrong. My pastoral instinct is to receive them with an open-mind and try to fathom how they understand their predicament. If demons are important to them, then we talk about demons. While I can’t do what an evangelical Christian minister or a Catholic priest exorcist might do, I can have a conversation. More often than not, the person just needs to be heard. More often than not, there’s trauma in their background, driving their belief. That is, more often than not some violence has been done to the person. Even if I don’t believe the demon is real, certainly the person’s pain and suffering is. I may be speechless in their theological world, but I’m not powerless. I can still bear witness to trauma. I can still respond to pain and suffering. And so can you.

Second, natural disasters are not evil. Tornadoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, earthquakes, typhoons, floods and fires can and do bring chaos and tragedy. But they are natural and largely indiscriminant, not the result of a vengeful deity. Of course, many people believe natural disasters are divine punishments for some transgression. It makes me angry—and theologically speechless—whenever I hear such pronouncements. I have nothing to say. But, again, speechless does not equate to powerless. In the wake of natural disasters I hope we aren’t wasting time and speech debating theology. I hope we are responding to pain and suffering in whatever ways are within our power.

What Evil Is

I don’t know if evil is a pre-existing condition. I’m also not sure it matters. Whether it pre-exists, or we learn it along the way, or it’s in the social order and we become accustomed to it without ever realizing it—I think there’s some truth to all three—I’m convinced evil Abuse of Poweris real. It has an impact on the world. Recall the UUS:E member who said evil is an un-Unitarian concept. She is also a victim of evil—the survivor of relentless child abuse by more than one family member. (Please know she gave me permission to share with you.) It’s a story of people wielding power harmfully over a more vulnerable, dependent and weaker person—at least a person who is perceived to be weaker. It’s a story of people killing the spirit of another, attacking their emotional and physical well-being, silencing them. Of course there are many more stories like this, and multitudes of stories of all kinds of violence people visit upon people. When any of us hears a story like this, does it matter whether we have a well-developed theology of evil to understand it? In that moment of hearing the story, I wonder if trying to restate the experience of evil in theological terms may do more harm than good. If we’re really hearing the story—if we’re really taking it in, encountering the horror of it—I wonder if the most healthy, realistic and respectful initial human response we can have is speechlessness. Silence. Perhaps this is how we know we’re dealing with evil: We have no words. We have no words because what we’re hearing contradicts everything we love about humanity. We have no words because what we’re hearing shatters our faith in human goodness.  

Speechless

It’s the same with stories about the ways in which our systems and institutions visit violence upon people—the violence of warfare, of suicide bombings, chemical weapons, terrorism, torture, racism, sexism, mass incarceration. And there is that more subtle yet increasingly visible evil of which PeaceBang writes in her blog, that evil that lies atop human misery, fear, need and desperation, that evil of an economic and political system that cares less and less about poor people, unemployed people, homeless people; that system that tolerates an unprecedented, unsustainable and immoral level of income inequality. When we pause to hear the stories of pain and suffering this evil breeds; when we pause to take them in, to let them wash over us, to recognize the insidiousness of this system, is any theology “adequate to the task?” Again, I wonder if the most healthy, realistic and respectful initial human response is speechlessness. Silence. Perhaps this is how we know we’re dealing with evil: We have no words. We have no words because what we’re hearing dashes our hopes for a more just and loving society. We have no words because what we’re hearing shatters our faith in human goodness.  

Speechless

In the end, when encountering abuse, trauma, violence, war, racism, poverty, whether it pre-exists or we learn it along the way or its embedded in the system; whether we name it evil or not, does our theology really manifest best in what we say? Or in what we do? That’s the real question. What do we do to confront evil once we’re aware of it? Speechlessness may look to some like inadequacy. But I find lack of action far more damning. This is the message I take from PeaceBang’s blog. She’s issuing a call to action. She says, “A popular Unitarian Universalist slogan right now says, ‘Go love the hell out of the world.’ Perhaps in 2014 we might make a shared, community resolution to hearten each other for this work, for this steady confrontation with forces that lie, steal, starve and shame a huge percentage of the population which regards its lack of financial success as a personal failure. Perhaps in the new year we might refrain from one or two in-fights … over relatively small matters or semantics and stay focused on the hell in the world, which I believe we can successfully discern if we stay clear about where and what it is.”[8]

Which brings me back to my liberal religious tradition. I know this: if I’m going to confront evil with courage and resolve, I need human goodness at the center of my faith, despite my awareness that people, myself included, aren’t always good. I need the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person—even those who commit atrocities—at the center of my faith. And I need to keep a positive, hopeful attitude about the future at the center of my faith, despite what I know about the human penchant for war, oppression, and destruction of the natural world.

And while I don’t want my children or the children of this congregation to be ignorant of evil, I expect to continue teaching them about good people doing good things. And I want us all to remember that in far too many religious settings historically and today people hear the traumatic message over and over again that they are wicked and sinful by nature and must accept unbelievable teachings and engage in hollow rituals in order to be saved from eternal punishment. And I want us all to remember that in far too many religious settings historically and today people have been identified as evil and consequently abused, imprisoned and murdered based on their sexual orientation, gender, disability, mental illness, skin color, healing practices, culture, folkways,  perceived proximity to the earth, any unorthodox beliefs, and even their scientific world-view and methods. When I read of a congregation shouting “The witches will die. They will die. Die. Die!”[9]—which is not just a phenomenon in the Ghanian Charismatic Christian churches, but happens in a myriad of ways all across the globe—I hear people with a robust theology of evil using it to perpetuate more evil against innocent victims. That’s the risk with any theology of evil. Those who believe it can use it to justify their own evil actions.

Our liberal, Unitarian Universalist, positive view of human nature as loving, compassionate, generous, caring and self-sacrificing—though it may not present the whole picture—is no light-weight, naïve, sheltered theology. It is a life-saving, life-giving, life-enhancing religious response to all those theologies that drive arbitrary wedges between people, that seek to frighten people into faith, and that teach people of their inherent sinfulness rather than their beauty, worth, and potential. If the price of such a faith is speechlessness in the face of evil, then so be it. It may be just what is needed. So, may we find power in the midst of our speechlessness, and may our faith lead us to action—action that loves the hell out of the world.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Read PeaceBang’s “Go Love the Hell Out of the World” at http://www.peacebang.com/2013/12/28/go-love-the-hell-out-of-the-world/.

[2] Read T.M. Luhrmann’s New York Times op ed,”When Demons are Real, at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/29/opinion/sunday/when-demons-are-real.html?_r=0.

[3] Rasor, Paul, Faith Without Certainty (Boston: Skinner House, 2005) p. 176.

[4] Read Warren Ross’ “Confronting Evil: Has Terrorism Shaken Our Religious Principles?” from the January/February 2002 issue of UU World at http://www.uuworld.org/2002/01/feature1.html.

[5] Ross, “Confronting Evil” at http://www.uuworld.org/2002/01/feature1.html.

[6] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.

[7] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.

[9] [9] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.

 

Joy Shall Be Yours in the Morning: A Humanist Christmas Homily

Rev. Josh Pawelek
Mole and RatNight is falling, snow is coming on a frosty, December evening. Mole and Rat are sprucing up Mole’s home in Chapter 5 of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. They’ve just arrived there, somewhat unexpectedly, after a long journey. They are tired and hungry. Mole is anxious and a little embarrassed by his meager possessions and barren cupboards; but he’s relieved to be home after so much time away, surrounded by familiar things. Rat is trying to give Mole a proper homecoming, figuring out how to add an air of festivity to their night, when suddenly a group of field-mice come to the door singing carols with shrill little voices. “Joy shall be yours in the morning,” their song proclaims. A feast ensues. And in the end it is a wonderful homecoming for Mole. Later, as he drifts off to sleep, he is content, at peace, and mindful of how blessed he is to have this home “to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.” Joy shall be yours in the morning.

It’s a version of the timeless theme we return to in this season, year after year: cold and darkness give way to warmth and light; anxiety and distress give way to contentment and peace; brokenness to wholeness; lost to found; despair to hope; sorrow and suffering give way, in the end, to joy. The messenger of peace, hope and love isn’t born on a sunny, summer day. That birth speaks to us, inspires us, moves us because it takes place—at least in our imagination—in the bleak midwinter.

Bleak midwinter

I confess I sometimes feel uncomfortable mapping this narrative onto our lives. I sometimes feel disingenuous as a pastor offering a bright vision of the future, when it’s difficult to say with confidence what the future will bring. There are times when, in the presence of someone who is grieving, someone who is in great pain, someone who is angry at an injustice that has been done to them, I wonder: who am I to say, it will get better, when I’m not always convinced it will? Who am I to say, time heals all wounds, when I’ve witnessed wounds that seem to never heal? Who am I to offer hope when I’m aware of so many people in situations that breed hopelessness: the slave, the prisoner, the war refugee, the victim of violence, the homeless family, the hungry family, the person living with loss, the person living with illness.

Homeless and Hungry

I want us to say to each other and to the world, Be hopeful! I want us to say to each other and to the world, Fear not! I want us to say to each other and to the world, Peace on earth, good will to all! I want us to say to each other and to the world, Joy shall be yours in the morning! But I don’t want us to make false promises. I don’t want these words to ring hollow. I don’t want these words simply to be the rote things we say at Christmas time and then return to some other words, some other life once the light has returned. I want them to be real. I want them to mean something. I want them to have the power to change us in whatever way we need change in our lives.

This seems to be the lesson I keep learning—throughout my ministry, but certainly in this holiday season when we in Connecticut are so mindful of the tragedy in Newtown one year ago; when we in Manchester are so mindful of a horrendous incident of domestic violence just two Saturdays ago; when we in the United States continue to witness the humanitarian crisis resulting from the war in Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan—the list is long, it’s always long, always too long—the lesson is that we human beings never seem to reach the promised land. No matter how much we say it, there is no guarantee that joy shall be ours in the morning. No matter how much we say it, not everyone who hopes will live to see the dawn. Love is alive in the world—the power of love is real—but it somehow fails to touch every heart. So, therefore, these Christmas time words of hope, peace, love and joy do not refer to some inevitable future which will come if we are patient or if we have the correct faith. They do not refer to some divinely ordained new heaven and new earth which will come at the end of history. Rather, they describe our longing. They describe the world we want to live in.They describe our highest values and aspirations. They describe our best selves.

But since we cannot count on world to change on its own, we must count on us. That’s the lesson. We must count on us! The work of bringing peace into the world must be our work—not because we are convinced there will be peace, but because we long for peace. The work of bringing love into the world must be our work—not because we trust love will touch every heart, but because we long for love to touch every heart. The work of creating a better future—a more fair, just and compassionate future—must be our work, not because we have any evidence that the world is consistently moving in that direction, but because we long for a more just, fair, compassionate world.

It's up to us!

So, in these last few days before Christmas I offer a prayer. Not a promise, but a prayer. May we embrace the stories, the words and the timeless themes of this season. May they wash over us, speak to us, inspire us and move us to make them real in the world. And as the light returns, as the carols sing of hope, peace and love, may we be able to say with conviction: these are the things to which our lives are dedicated. And with our lives so dedicated may we, with the coming of the dawn, discover joy—a deep, lasting precious joy.

returning sun

Amen and blessed be.

I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, But Everything’s Gone Blue


Blue Christmas“Drops of pain, flow like rain, tell why your tears are falling: for humankind, so frail, unkind, or for your own life’s calling?”[1] Words from Unitarian Universalist songwriter Shelly Jackson Denham. “Tell why your tears are falling.” There’s really only one message I want to bring to you this morning, and that is, very simply, not everyone, every year, can enter fully into the joy, merriment and hopefulness of the holiday season. It isn’t always possible. For some, the bright lights, the season’s greetings, the festive music, the Christmas trees, the messages of peace and good will—all of it clashes with their internal state, clashes with recent painful experiences, clashes with difficult childhood memories of the holidays. For some there is dissonance. We’re dreaming of a white Christmas, and yet for some, everything’s gone blue. We wish you a merry Christmas, and yet for some, “tears are falling.”

We call it “Blue Christmas.” I don’t know how long this term has been in vogue. I don’t remember ever hearing it used in this way prior to 2000. I don’t know if it has any connection to the song, “Blue Christmas,” which Elvis Presley recorded in 1957, and which was first recorded in 1948 by an artist named Doyle O’Dell. Whether or not there’s a connection, the song doesn’t really express the depth of sadness and pain some people can experience during the holiday season. Some churches hold special services—often at night—for people who are grieving, lonely, in despair or anxious during the holidays. Sometimes these services are called Blue Christmas services. Sometimes they’re called “Longest Night” services, a reference to the winter solstice.

Blue Christmas

On one hand, I think it’s important to hold such services. I think it’s important for the church to make a space for people who don’t want to—or simply can’t—be present at holiday services and other activities where the predominant mood is joy. On the other hand, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of saying, essentially, “everyone who’s depressed, you come to church at this special time and we’ll take care of you; the rest of us will have our Christmas joy and holiday merriment on Sunday morning.” As if we can—or even should—somehow keep all the difficult emotions in a separate place so they don’t intrude on “normal” Christmas. I don’t want to isolate Blue Christmas feelings from the regular holiday worship life of the congregation. It makes sense to me to spend time when we’re all together naming the reality of Blue Christmas for many among ourselves and in the wider community. I hope and trust each of us expects to bring our whole self into our spiritual community. I hope and trust each of us expects to bring our whole self into worship. And sometimes that means bringing sad selves, grieving selves, lonely selves, uncertain selves, regretful selves, hopeless selves, selves in pain. And those of us who don’t feel that way, myself included, might have a gut reaction that says, “no, the holidays are about joy, peace, hope, festivity, etc.” But if some of us are feeling blue, that’s part of the holidays too. So, let’s name it and honor it. That, in my view, is what spiritual community is for—to meet each other where we are, no matter where we are.

Blue Christmas

Another reason I feel strongly about observing Blue Christmas in the way we are this morning is that, while I suspect most of us, in most years, experience the joy, merriment and hope of the holiday season, it is also true that our lives can change—sometimes tragically—in the blinking of an eye. I’m thinking of those who’ve lost loved ones over the past year. Christmas can be so hard in the midst of grief. And I’m thinking of the Benson and Mills families, who lost three family members in last weekend’s shooting in Manchester. And I’m thinking of Christine Keith, and her son, 14-year-old son Isaac Miller. Christine was a Unitarian Universalist from the Lansing, MI area. She and Isaac were shot and killed in a similar domestic violence tragedy a week ago Thursday. And I’m thinking of the people of Newtown, Connecticut, marking the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school.

Manchester Vigil

Human beings are resilient in so many ways. We have such incredible capacity to meet challenges and to persevere through hardship. But it’s also true that a fragility lingers at the edges of our lives and none of us can outwit it forever. Loneliness comes. Anxiety comes. Fear comes. Hopelessness comes. Pain comes. Illness comes. Death comes. It might not be us this year. But it might be us next year, or in five years. Naming it now not only affirms people who experience it now, but it prepares each of us for the day when we’re dreaming of a white Christmas, but everything’s gone blue.

And not only might it be us next year, or five years from now, but it’s also more than likely that it has been us at some point in the past. We each carry a bit of Blue Christmas with us every year. How many of us have had to endure a first Christmas without a beloved family member—a grandparent, a parent, a spouse, a child? How many of us have dealt with illness—our own or that of a loved one—through the course of a holiday season? How many of us have had years wherein the joy and merriment of Christmas was overpowered by some anxiety, fear, pain or grief?

My grandmother died some years ago. Reflecting on her death reminds me that for nearly forty years, I would travel to her hometown of Hanover, Pennsylvania after Christmas Day. It was family time—and it was idyllic. I have wonderful memories. Since my grandmother died—and since my children have grown older and we’ve begun to develop new holiday routines—we don’t make that Christmas pilgrimage anymore. Most of the time during the holiday season this change doesn’t faze me. Most of the time I don’t think about it. But every once in a while something grabs my attention, tugs at my heart—I hear a brass quartet playing “Silent Night,” or I pull that John Deere tractor tree ornament out of its box, or I pass by a snow-covered farm on a cold, clear winter night—and I’m back there again, six years old, ten years old, eighteen years old. For a moment my heart aches. For a moment everything is blue.

Blue Christmas Farm

Blue Christmas. It may be any one of us this year. It surely will be each of us some day. It likely has been all of us once upon a time. Therefore, let us be honest about the holidays. Let us name the full range of feelings we may bring, will bring, have brought into this season. Let us name them not because we want to fix them or somehow miraculously make them disappear, but simply because they are real. In the midst of all our Blue Christmases, if nothing else, may we find comfort in being together in the fullness of our humanity. And with the fullness of our humanity laid bare in front of us may we, when we are ready—when we are truly ready—feel once again the joy, peace and hope, that are also real, and eventually come to each of us, like midwinter’s returning sun, like the lightly falling snow.[2]

returning sun

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Winter Night,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #256.

[2] “The lightly falling snow” is borrowed from Connecticut Poet Laureate Dick Allen’s poem, “Solace,” written in response to the December 14, 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Listen to Allen’s reading at http://wnpr.org/post/simple-solemn-tribute-sandy-hook-victims

On Setting Out and Coming Home

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

BashoMatsuo Basho, the late 17th century Japanese poet, master of haibun,[1] speaks of a strong desire to wander, as if it’s the essence of who he is. In the opening lines of his travel sketch, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, he says: “the gods seemed to have possessed my soul and turned it inside out, and roadside images seemed to invite me from every corner, so that it was impossible for me to stay idle at home.”[2] Throughout all his travel sketches he seems always to be setting out on a journey, leaving home, leaving friends. We might call him, in those haunting words of the Sufi poet, Rumi, “a lover of leaving.”[3] At the conclusion of The Narrow Road he speaks of a wonderful reunion with friends. “Everybody was overjoyed to see me as if I had returned unexpectedly from the dead.” But his homecoming is short-lived. Though filled with the fatigue of journeying, he sets out again, and offers this final poem: As firmly cemented clam-shells / Fall apart in autumn, / So I must take to the road again, / Farewell my friends.[4]

David Garnes

David Garnes

In contrast to Basho’s relentless journeying, I offer (UUS:E member) David Garnes’ story of his 81-year old grandmother Sarah Rose Tyre Gordon Munro Macaulay Garnes’ return to her beloved Scotland at age 81 after 57 years of absence.[5] (I’ll call her Sarah from here on.) Her homecoming, like Basho’s reunion with friends, is joyous. It’s also a dramatic and heart-warming story—going back to the place of her birth, seeing long-lost family members after more than half a century. But where Basho is always setting out, Sarah’s journey is one of returning, coming home. And it’s more than that. In telling us about Sarah’s homecoming David also reminds us of her setting out from Scotland in 1911 to make a new home in America. And despite many hardships, including the untimely deaths of her husband, her son and a grandchild; raising her children alone; working at two jobs to avoid welfare, she succeeded. She built a home and a loving family. And David says “she was probably the happiest person I’ve ever known.”[6] Where Basho’s spiritual instinct was to set out, Sarah’s was to come home.

The question I’d like you to consider this morning and in the coming weeks is this: when you contemplate your own spiritual journey, are you setting out or coming home?

Our November ministry theme is journeys, so I want to explore this notion that we take spiritual journeys. Unitarian Universalists often say things like, “our lives are spiritual journeys,” but we don’t always explain what this means. This makes sense when we pause to consider that one of the purposes of any religion is to help its practitioners move along the path of their spiritual journey. Where some religions offer specific paths toward specific goals—which makes the journey relatively easy to explain—others, like Unitarian Universalism, are more open-ended, the directions less specified, the paths more numerous, and spontaneity, creativity and curiosity more valued than the discipline of sticking to pre-ordained rules. This open-endedness makes the typical Unitarian Universalist spiritual journey more difficult to explain. In fact, it makes the word typical more or less useless. But even so, I think it’s important that we have ways of articulating what we mean when we say, “Our lives are spiritual journeys.”

trail

For me, spirituality is fundamentally about connection. An effective spiritual practice connects us to some reality larger than ourselves: to family, humanity, nature, the land, life, the planet, the cosmos, spirit, divinity, the gods and goddesses, the ancestors. When I speak of our spiritual lives, I’m speaking of all the ways we connect to whatever is of utmost worth to us, whatever we hold sacred, whatever we regard as holy. When I speak of our spiritual journeys, I’m referring not so much to the full span of our lives, but to certain discrete portions of our lives, such as the journey of our young adult years, the journey of parenting, the journey of career, the journey into elderhood; or, I’m speaking of our journey through certain ordeals or challenges, such as losing a job, the break-up of a marriage, the death of a loved-one; or I’m speaking about our journey through certain joyous milestones or blessings such as the birth of a child or, many years later, welcoming that same child into adulthood.

What makes any of these journeys spiritual is that they enable us to deepen our sense of connection over time. We don’t necessarily recognize it when it’s happening, but at various points along the way, when we have a moment to pause and reflect on our lives, we might notice that we’ve completed some significant journey, or that we’ve come through some uniquely challenging experience, and we might realize that we’re not the same person we were when we started; that we possess some knowledge about life and living we didn’t possess when we started; that we are wiser than when we began; that we feel more whole, more at ease in the world, more comfortable in our own skin. Perhaps, at the end of our journey, we realize we are better able to give and receive love; perhaps we are more compassionate in our treatment of others; perhaps we’ve discovered our gifts and we are finally using them in the service of others; perhaps we’ve come to terms with a painful loss; perhaps we are more at peace with the reality of our own death. All of this suggests to me that through the course of our journeying we have deepened our connections to those things we hold sacred, those things that matter most: family, humanity, nature, the land, the earth, life, the planet, the cosmos, spirit, divinity, the gods and goddesses, the ancestors, and on and on and on.

path by sea

But we don’t always realize we’re embarking on a spiritual journey. More often than not our journeys begin with a twinge, a gnawing at the back of our minds or the edge of our hearts, a discomfort or dissonance, a low-level anxiety, a frustration, a sense that something in our life is out of alignment, a sense that something is lacking, or a longing we’re slowly beginning to recognize but aren’t quite sure how to fulfill. We may feel this way because some new situation has arisen—a baby has come, a job has been lost, an aging parent has moved in—and we more or less know our life needs to change; or it may just be a twinge with no apparent source.

That twinge, that gnawing, that longing—if it’s real—doesn’t go away. It begins to take on the quality of voice. That is, it speaks to us, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes with a roar, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally. It questions and cajoles, it makes gentle pleas and strident demands. The word calling is appropriate here. This voice, however we experience it, calls us to pursue some different, perhaps more noble purpose; calls us to pursue some deeply felt passion; calls us to live better in some way, to grow in knowledge and wisdom, to meet whatever challenge confronts us. We might hear it in the voice of a spouse or a good friend, a boss or a co-worker. We might hear it in the voice of our minister! Or the voice of our doctor, or maybe in the voice of a total stranger. We might hear it as our inner voice—that still, small voice; that voice of our most authentic self that knows what we really want for our lives, even before our waking minds know. We might hear it as a voice from without—a holy voice, a sacred voice, a divine voice, a spirit voice. We might hear it in our dreams, in prayer, in meditation, in the shower, while exercising, stretching, singing, dancing, creating. When we finally respond to the voice, when we finally start to move, I find we tend to move in one of two directions. Either we’re setting out, or we’re coming home.

setting out

We set out when we feel stuck where we are, when we need something new, some connection we’ve never had, some knowledge we cannot acquire by staying home. We set out when we feel constrained and need freedom, when we find it hard to breathe and we need the fresh air of the open road. The work of setting out includes experimenting, exploring, creating, searching. Setting out requires courage, curiosity, strength, nerve, an adventurous spirit, a willingness to take risks, even arrogance at times. Basho’s travel sketches are a wonderful example of setting out. For him, home is a place of idleness. He goes stir-crazy. On the road he is alive and passionate. On the road he expects to catch glimpses of eternity and let it inspire his poetry.[7]

I find a similar spiritual mentality in the 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman, who wrote the words: “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before me, / The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. / Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune, / Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, / Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, / Strong and content I travel the open road.[8]” Again, a yearning for freedom, a confident, adventurous spirit, a willingness to cut ties, a desire to explore. This is setting out.

homeWe come home when we’re longing for foundations, for roots, for love, intimacy, care and nurture. We come home when we’re yearning for community, for familiar faces and places, familiar food, smell, touch, land, seasons. The work of coming home includes listening, sharing, sacrificing, forgiving and building community. Coming home requires its own kinds of courage and strength; its own kinds of persistence and endurance. It requires vulnerability, humility, and a willingness to set one’s own needs aside at times to meet the needs of others. David Garnes’ story about Sarah is a testament to her spiritual journey of coming home. We can hear it in the fond memories of a loving grandmother.  He writes, “sometimes the most memorable characters in your life aren’t the famous people you meet at a party, or the speaker whose lecture inspires…. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, it’s the person who read to you night after night as a kid, who slipped you a nickel for an ice cream cone, and who was always there for you, arms wide open, no matter what.”[9]

If you ask me about my spiritual journey, these days I lean towards coming home. Don’t get me wrong: I value setting out. It’s been very important in shaping my sense of who I am and what I value. But my instinct is that home is becoming more and more elusive in our era. I won’t rehearse the litany of ills that beset families or the social and economic conditions that make it increasingly difficult to build and sustain vital neighborhoods and communities. Suffice to say, I experience many forces in the larger world that drive wedges between people who ought to be in community together, who ought to be encountering each other with loving, compassionate hearts, who ought to be working together for the common good, who ought to see beyond the narrow tunnel of their own self-interest. This is the source of my tinge, my gnawing, my low-level anxiety, my longing. The voices I hear in my dreams, in prayer, in meditation, in the shower, while exercising, stretching, singing, dancing, creating all urge me to come more fully home.

***

Last night as I was putting what I thought were the finishing touches on this sermon, I found a poem by a colleague named Rick Hoyt who serves the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. His poem is called “Beyond Borders” and it reminds me that we set out and come home many times through the course of our lives; and that setting out and coming home are both critical parts of the same process. Rev. Hoyt says: “Go forth / Because we are always going forth from somewhere / Going from our homes, our childhoods / Going from our cities and countries / Going from innocence to experience to enlightenment / Going into mystery and questions / Going into desert / Getting to the other side. / Go forth, / Leave behind the comfort and community of one place / Head into the anxiety and loneliness of another. / Carry with you the love and laughter of this place / And let it light your way / Carry with you the wisdom you learned and the good memories / May they give you strength for your journey/ And when you have been away long enough, far enough / Done what you’d set off to do / Been there so long / That place too, starts to feel like home / Come back /Come back to the one, universal / Everywhere and every when and everyone inclusive home, / This beloved community of all creation/ That you can never really leave.[10]

earth

Amen and blessed be.



[1] For a basic definition of haibun see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haibun.

[2] Matsuo Bash?, in Nobuyuki Yuasa, tr., The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (London: Penguin Books, 1966) p.97.

[3] Rumi, Jelaluddin, “Come, Come, Whoever You Are,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #188.

[4] Ibid., p. 142.

[5] Garnes, David, “Time Travel 1968” in From My Life: Travels and Adventures (Manchester, CT: self-published, 2010) pp. 139-145.

[6] Ibid., p. 144.

[7] Nobuyuki Yuasa, tr., The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (London: Penguin Books, 1966) p.37.

[8] See the full text to Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178711

[9] Garnes, David, “Time Travel 1968” in From My Life: Travels and Adventures (Manchester, CT: self-published, 2010) pp. 144.

[10] Hoyt, Rick, “Beyond Borders” inJanamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 17-18.

Humanism’s Breaking Heart

Rev. Josh Pawelek

HumanismHumanism isn’t declining in our era because it is dry and cold. And it isn’t declining because it doesn’t make room for God. Humanism is declining in our era because in practice it often fails to make room for actual humans. Continue reading at HartfordFAVS…. 

Pope Francis, Inverted Funnels and Big Hearts Open

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

Inverted FunnelAlthough both the religious and secular media reported that Pope Francis declined to move into the Papal apartment in the Vatican because it was too luxurious, because he did not want to project an image of opulence, because he did not want the Papacy to be associated with wealth, treasure and affluence when so many people in the world, including Catholics, live in crushing poverty—and although it still makes sense to me that these reasons did influence his decision—in his recently published interview with Antonio Spadaro in the weekly Catholic journal, America, he named a different reason. He said, “The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious…. In the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.” [1] Make no mistake: he’s not speaking only of the architecture of the Papal apartment and the rooms at St. Martha’s House where he now lives. He’s also speaking of the architecture of the human heart. He’s telling not only Catholics but the world—he’s telling all of us—what it means to have true abundance in our lives. It’s subtle, but it’s not just a suggestion. I read it as a long overdue proclamation. The final measure of abundance is not what we have. The final measure of abundance is the openness of our hearts. Thus, the work of achieving abundance begins with the opening of our hearts.

Once again, our ministry theme for October is abundance. In last Sunday’s sermon I referred to area farm-stands filled with the produce of theautumn harvest year’s final harvest—pumpkins, apples, pears, squash, corn. For me, the New England farm-stand in autumn has always been a powerful symbol of abundance, a seasonal reminder that the earth provides for our sustenance, that we are closer to and more dependent on the land than we often realize. And given this dependence, it is an appropriate response to feel and express deep gratitude for the bounty of the earth. Through the course of this past week the leaves have begun to change colors in earnest from green to yellow, gold, orange, auburn, crimson, brown. The beauty and the majesty of the leaves changing in autumn—this stunning, vivid reminder of the constant, steady movement of the planet, of the constant, steady cycles of the seasons—planting, growing, harvesting, resting; this stunning, vivid reminder of the constant, steady turning of the earth, of the natural turning of our own lives, of all the cycles of life, of all the joyful-sorrowful-poignant-mysterious-confounding-inspiring realities of being alive and knowing we shall some day die—all of it refers back eventually to the land that sustains, nurtures and blesses us with its stunning, life-giving abundance.

changing leaves

And yet we are mindful that this abundance all around us here, in the gentle hills and valleys east of the Connecticut River, is not abundance the whole world enjoys. It is not even an abundance everyone who lives here enjoys. It is not an abundance every member and friend of this congregation enjoys. We are mindful that far too many people here and around the globe live in crushing poverty, live with stark scarcity, have never seen a thousand pumpkins for sale by the side of the road, cannot imagine apples and pears ripening on a thousand trees, ready for picking; cannot conceive of grocery stores in buildings larger than most rural villages, stocked to the rafters with all manner of food from all over the world, selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of food every day, all day long. Due to larger arrangements of economic and political power, due to the dynamics of globalization, due to failed agricultural and economic development policies, due to urbanization, due to climate change and a host of other pernicious problems, the abundance we may experience in our region in autumn is also partially a myth, a deception, an illusion. It is real, but not the whole truth.

poverty

Last Sunday I spoke about the cruel reality that abundance in terms of access to food, water, shelter, financial security, health care, decent education and work that pays a living wage remains elusive for many, many people. And many more people who have access to these things now, live on the verge of losing them. The widespread tension, anxiety, distress and depression that result from this lack or potential lack of material abundance can lead people to latch onto easy, quick-fix, self-help schemes: “The answer is positive thinking.” “The answer is the ‘law of attraction.’” “Just adopt the habits of highly successful people.” “You can have everything you want, just change your thoughts and feelings.” “Just change your attitude.” “It’s easy.” “Just buy my book filled with secret knowledge.” “Just pray this way and prosperity will be yours.” “God wants you to prosper.” “Just send me money and God will prosper you.”

Of course, we have to acknowledge that the purveyors of easy answers—these people who start all their sentences with just—are at least offering something to people who are desperately hungry for some semblance of abundance in their lives. And, although just change your attitude is rarely sufficient, on occasion it’s exactly the message a person needed to hear. Sometimes it works. So my question to you was and is, if not easy answers, then what do we offer to people hungry for some semblance of abundance in their lives? What do you, your minister, your congregation, Unitarian Universalism, liberal religious people, progressive people of faith Roll up your sleevesoffer to those who experience scarcity daily? Though certainly the autumn bounty and the leaves and the beauty of the land all around us are signs of real abundance in this region for some who live here, I suggested that, given what we know about scarcity among us, around us and across the planet, we ought to regard this annual autumn bounty as a symbol of what could be; as a guiding, directing even commanding principle that some degree of abundance ought to be available to all people; that all people ought to be able to live with some version of Eden in their daily lives. In the very least, we must offer this vision to a hurting world. But visions don’t just become reality. There’s no magic trick. There’s no thought, feeling or attitude we can just change to make it so. Achieving a vision requires work—long-term personal spiritual work, and long-term collective social change work. So what is it? What is the long-term, roll-up-your-sleeves work that will bring that vision of Eden to fruition?

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, on the eve of becoming Pope Francis

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, on the eve of becoming Pope Francis

I knew nothing of Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he became Pope Francis. And, according to him, I probably wouldn’t have liked him, I probably wouldn’t have been inspired by him had I known who he was before becoming Pope. By his own admission, he was an authoritarian leader who made harsh, sometimes rash decisions without taking the advice of others; decisions that often—if I’m reading accurately between the lines—were inconsistent with what was actually in his heart. So he sits down for this interview with Antonio Spadaro who asks him, essentially, who are you? And knowing the entire world is paying attention, Francis tells him. And, at least for me, the answers are extraordinary, not only because he offers beautiful, compelling metaphors that speak simultaneously to the Catholic Church and to the world, but also because what he is saying about who he is, about his own spiritual life, his relationship with God, his long view, his enduring patience, his humility, his openness and much more—what he is saying, as I read it, is that our experience of abundance correlates with the openness of our hearts. This is not a promise that you can have everything you want. It’s not a sentence that begins with just. It’s not a pseudo-science or a conversation about the mechanics of positive thinking. It’s not self-help. It is much more than a slight shift in attitude. It is a fundamental way of being human. We attain abundance with big hearts open. How do we cultivate big hearts open? Here are some ways:

Embrace uncertainty. Be willing to doubt. Pope Francis said, “If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good…. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself.”[2] That is, if I am absolutely convinced of the truth and the correctness of my position, then my heart is a reversed funnel, letting others in only in dribs and drabs; letting in only those who agree with me. If I embrace uncertainty and am willing to doubt myself, then I make space for others in my life. I make space for my own growth. That is abundance.

Value people more than rules. Pope Francis said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods…. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” He said, “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.”[3] That is, if I insist on following rules before getting to know people, before building relationships, before meeting peoples’ immediate needs, before healing wounds; if I insist on the higher value of my truths, my principles, my doctrines, my faith, my power, my world-view, and thereby fail to encounter the person right in front of me, then my heart is a reversed funnel. I lock out multitudes. If I put people first and work out the rules later, that is abundance.

Accompany people, whoever they are. Pope Francis said, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.”[4] Perhaps the greatest gift we have to give, yet which in the midst of scarcity is so profoundly difficult to give, is our presence, our ability to accompany people who need accompaniment, our companionship. If I cannot dedicate at least a portion of my life to accompanying others, then my heart is a reversed funnel. But if I can go when called, if I can literally be there for others and welcome their accompaniment when I need it, that is abundance.

being present

Organize your spiritual life around daily practices that increase your ability to love. Pope Francis said, “Finding God in all things is not an ‘empirical eureka.’ When we desire to encounter God, we would like to verify him immediately by an empirical method. But you cannot meet God this way. God is found in the gentle breeze perceived by Elijah. A contemplative attitude is necessary: it is the feeling that you are moving along the good path of understanding and affection toward things and situations. Profound peace, spiritual consolation, love of God and love of all things in God—this is the sign that you are on this right path.” That is, no matter what I believe, if my spiritual practice becomes simply a recitation or a confirmation of my belief, a black and white proof of the veracity of my belief, then my heart is a reversed funnel. If, no matter what I believe, my spiritual practice lifts me up on that gentle breeze, opens me up, increases my understanding of and affection towards the world, and brings me peace, consolation and love—love of that which is sacred to me and love of all things in that which is sacred to me—that is abundance.

I feel strongly that these paths to abundance—which I understand to be personal spiritual paths—are universal. That is, they ought to work for anyone. However, I perceive one danger in naming these paths. I want to be clear: I am not saying to people who live with scarcity—poor people, oppressed people, anxious people, depressed people—that they, that you, ought to just open your heart. I say this because it is also true that what we have—what we own, possess, etc.—is still an important measure of our abundance. What we have access to is an important measure of our abundance. The quality of our material lives is an important  measure of our abundance. Abundance is not purely a spiritual condition, it is also a material condition and I don’t want to lose sight of that. Doing the difficult spiritual work of cultivating ‘big hearts open’ is not a path to material abundance. So, I go back to that vision of a new Eden, a world in which everyone has what they need to survive—food, water, shelter, friends, education, health care, work, etc. —and also some—not all, but some—of what we want, the things we don’t actually need, but which give us some modicum of joy, pleasure, entertainment, relaxation and which often feed and nourish our souls. We don’t live in that world yet. It’s likely that world has never existed. But if you ask me what we offer to people—to the millions upon millions of people—who are hungering for abundance, it must be a willingness to work together for that world. So I offer this final way of cultivating a big heart open:

Rise up and, with patience and thoughtfulness, start moving, start building. Pope Francis said, “We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces. God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting.”[5]

Occupy NYI find this fascinating, challenging, provocative, and utterly true. There are times for protest. There are times for sit-ins and boycotts. There are times for Tiananmen Square and Tahrir Square. There is a time for Zucotti Park. There are times to take arrest for the sake of exposing unjust laws. And, any movement for social change whose main strategy is occupation—occupying space—sitting down and refusing to move, but not building an alternative source of sustainable, institutionalized power, not building some structure capable of promoting a different set of values—such movements become, in time, reversed funnels. They risk succumbing to their own fury, to their own internal divisions. Anger and rage, as legitimate and deserved as they often are, will only go so far. Disorder and chaos will only attract so many others to the cause.

But, if we are building something sustainable to secure and promote peace, nonviolence, justice, fairness, equality, compassion, reason, liberty, freedom, healing and love—fearless, generous, unlimited, undying love; if we are not just occupying space but actually working to bring such a new reality into existence; if we have each dedicated a portion of our lives to bringing this new Eden into existence; if we are working thoughtfully, slowly and patiently, yet always moving, always building; then, even if the powers that be seem to thwart us at every turn, we are living with big hearts open. Then we are living with abundance.

Keep on buildin'....

Keep on buildin’….

Amen and blessed be.