On Setting Out and Coming Home

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

Matsuo 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]

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.”

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.

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.

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.

We 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]

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.

Pope Francis, Inverted Funnels and Big Hearts Open

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

Although 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 the 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.

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.

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 offer 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?

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.

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]

I 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.

Amen and blessed be.

Elusive Abundance

Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

“Which secret garden will you tend today?”[1] asks the Rev. Kathleen McTigue. The garden of dissatisfaction or the garden of abundance? I’m gonna guess no one here this morning will say, “I prefer to tend the garden of dissatisfaction. That’s me at my best.” Or, “I prefer whining and complaining.” Or, “I love that feeling of not being able to get out of bed in the morning, of being overwhelmed, of always rushing, always reacting, always feeling like everything is urgent and there’s never enough time. Please give me more of that!” I’m guessing—I could be wrong—none of you prefers to tend the garden of dissatisfaction.

We prefer not to, but most of us do tend it. This is Rev. McTigue’s point and I agree: “We return again and again to the unkempt and extravagant growth of our favorite gripes, some of them many years old and still full of whining vigor.”[2] There are often good reasons for this. Sometimes we are dissatisfied and complaining is our best and only option. And there are days when we really don’t want to get out of bed because our burdens feel too heavy to bear. But when sitting in worship and the minister asks if you’ll tend the garden of dissatisfaction or abundance,I’m gonna guess you’d prefer abundance. “This garden,” says Rev. McTigue, “grows easily, it blossoms freely, and its richness awaits us each time we open our[selves to it]: life, breath, kindness, friends, love…. All the bounty given to us by every unfolding day.”[3]

Our ministry theme for October is abundance. September is here for a few more days, but autumn has arrived. The final harvest has begun. Farm stands are full of the bounty of the land—pumpkins, applies, pears, corn, squash and all manner of pies. The sights and smells of earthly abundance are all around us. So I’m ready for this theme. I hope you are too.

I want to begin by exposing and hopefully dispensing with a myth about how one achieves abundance. You may have noticed this: conversations about abundance can easily degenerate into a feel-good cliché that completely ignores reality. The cliché is the often enthusiastically stated claim that all it takes to have abundance in your life is a slight shift in attitude. Rev. McTigue is the last Unitarian Universalist minister I would ever accuse of resorting to cliché, yet it sneaks even into her deeply insightful words. She writes: “There’s another garden growing right along-side [the garden of dissatisfaction], and just a small shift in perspective tumbles us into its grace.”[4]

Friends, I want desperately for this to be true. I want the garden of abundance to be that close. I want tumbling into its grace to be that easy. Just a snap of the fingers, a turn of the head, an unanticipated moment of peace and wallah! Life, breath, kindness, friends, love, financial health—abundance. I want this for everyone. But in my experience, the people who can get to the garden of abundance with only a slight shift in attitude are people who already live there, but just forgot. They already experience abundance in their lives, but something draws them into the garden of dissatisfaction. It could be something petty, or it could be something serious like the death of a loved-one, a difficult diagnosis or the break-up of a marriage. So they tend the garden of dissatisfaction for a little while until they remember what they already know. Oh yeah, what am I complaining about? I have what I need to sustain me. I have a good life.

But for people who don’t experience abundance in their lives, the suggestion that having abundance only requires a slight shift in attitude is, more often than not, a set-up for failure. It’s rarely that easy. Two weeks ago I spoke about what gets in the way of personal transformation. I named a dense constellation of deep-seeded thoughts behaviors, habits, addictions, long-standing physical and emotional attachments, relationships, commitments, loyalties, assumptions, financial arrangements, family dynamics, children’s needs and much more that has brought us to where we are, makes us who we are, and holds us firmly in place. It doesn’t just change because we want it to. It doesn’t just change because we recognize the garden of abundance is right next door. A shift in attitude may be a good start, but it’s rarely enough. So I don’t hear just change your attitude as sage advice, as wisdom. I hear it as a cliché.

And it’s dangerous cliché, a potentially spirit-killing cliché. It can become a convenient excuse for why scarcity persists in a person’s life. They didn’t do it right! They didn’t shift their attitude correctly. We can blame their lack of abundance on a character flaw, on the fact that they didn’t want their lives to change enough. It’s a form of blaming the victim. And if we think it’s their fault, then there’s no obligation for us to ask about the often very legitimate reasons why they’re living with dissatisfaction. Let’s say a person experiences scarcity in their life because they live with a mental illness. (We know not all people with mental illness experience scarcity, but let’s say this person does.) They can change their attitude all they want, but so often the problem is bigger than their attitude. One reason a person with mental illness might lack abundance is not because of their attitude toward themselves, but because of society’s negative attitude toward people with mental illness. One reason a poor person might lack abundance is not their attitude towards themselves, but society’s negative attitude toward poor people.

My point is this: it has become a cliché to suggest that one’s attitude makes the difference between scarcity and abundance. While I agree one’s attitude is crucial to living a fulfilling and meaningful life, it is also true that scarcity results from larger social, economic and spiritual realities over which individuals have little control. Scarcity is rarely a purely individual problem. And it stands to reason that abundance is a social phenomenon. We secure the blessings of life—we get our needs met and more—when our communities thrive. We’re not in this alone. So, the advice to an individual to simply change of their attitude is often a set-up for failure.

You know who I blame for the prevalence of this cliché? Oprah Winfrey. She’s famous and successful—at least in part—for repeating this cliché over and over again. A salient example: in 2006 she dedicated two shows to an exploration of The Secret, the best-selling book from Australian filmmaker and self-help guru Rhonda Byrne. An Oprah.com article from 2006 says, “Rhonda [Byrne] defines The Secret as the law of attraction … the principle that ‘like attracts like.’” According to Byrne, “We attract into our lives the things we want … based on what we’re thinking and feeling” [5] If we’re experiencing scarcity, it’s because we’ve been thinking about scarcity. If we want abundance, we just have to change our thoughts and feelings.

Oprah is convinced Steven Spielberg invited her to play the role of Sofia in “The Color Purple” because she really wanted the role and couldn’t stop thinking about it. She didn’t tell anyone she wanted the role. She didn’t know Spielberg. But her thoughts led Spielberg to her.[6] In a 2013 book, The Secret: Daily Teachings, Byrne says, “Whatever feelings you have within you are attracting your tomorrow. Worry attracts more worry. Anxiety attracts more anxiety…. Joy attracts more joy. Happiness attracts more happiness….Your job is an inside one. To change your world, all you need to do is change how you feel inside. How easy is that?[7]

I haven’t read the entire book, but I’ve read a lot about it and I’ve spoken with people who are absolutely convinced the law of attraction is real and that you can attract money, work, happiness, romance, power—anything you desire—to you simply by thinking about it and—this is important—by not thinking about its opposite: poverty, unemployment, sadness, loneliness, weakness, etc. I just read a story on The Secret website from a devotee whose dog was diagnosed by two different vets with a massive tumor on her liver. This person tells her dog over and over again that she is healed and intentionally never mentions the words sick, cancer, tumor, etc. After four months they return to the vet who, in utter disbelief, tells them the tumor has disappeared.[8]

There are many commentators and critics who debunk the pseudo-science behind concepts like the law of attraction, or who challenge the therapeutic efficacy and even the ethics of counseling people facing serious crises to simply change their thoughts and feelings, or who expose the enormous profits to be gained from selling easy answers to people in distress. One of the best critiques of The Secret and other publishing successes in this genre is Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2009 Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.[9] I won’t say more about it here, except to point out that there are serious, well-researched efforts to expose the short-sightedness as well as the insidiousness of this cliché.

Watch Jon Stewart’s interview with Barbara Ehrenreich here.

But I’m not mocking. I believe the person with the sick dog used the technique she learned from The Secret with complete faith that it would work. For all I know it did. For all I know Oprah’s thoughts attracted Spielberg’s attention. Who am I to say otherwise? But I’m also familiar with the proverbial aspiring actress who never gets a call-back despite how utterly dedicated she is to her craft and how much she thinks about succeeding. Did she not want it enough? And I am worried about the thousands of people who will read the story about a dog’s miraculous remission and who, as a result, will put their faith in the power of a positive attitude to heal their own dog, or their cat, or their own body, or their spouse’s body, or their child’s body, or their parent’s body. They will bring all manner of positive thoughts and feelings to bear; they will avoid all manner of negative words and images; and it won’t work. In fifteen years of ministry I’ve watched far too many loving, hopeful, prayerful, positive people yearn for a loved-one to survive a life-threatening illness and the person still dies. Were these family members not positive enough? Not hopeful enough? Not loving enough? Did they pray the wrong prayers? Did they allow negativity to creep into their thoughts and feelings? Were they tending the wrong garden while their loved-one lay dying? If so, are they responsible for the death? Of course not.

What impresses me about a phenomenon like the Oprah Winfrey Show, which peddled the just change your attitude cliché to tens of millions of viewers for years, and what impresses me about a phenomenon like The Secret, which has sold tens of millions of copies in forty languages across the globe, is not those occasional moments where the law of attraction appears to actually work. What impresses me is that so many millions of people are so hungry for a way out of dissatisfaction. So many people are searching desperately for a different life. So many people feel mired in material and spiritual scarcity. So many people are longing for some inkling of abundance in their lives. Winfrey and Byrne and many others have offered a response to this longing. It begs the question: what do we offer to people longing for abundance? What do each of you offer, what does your minister offer, what does you congregational offer, what does Unitarian Universalism offer, what does liberal religion offer to people who are crying out for some measure of abundance in their lives?

Earlier we sang “Earth was given as a garden, cradle for humanity…. Here was home for all your creatures born of land and sky and sea; all created in your image, all to live in harmony.”[10] This hymn calls to mind an idyllic, if mythological human past, a time of abundance in which every human need was met; a time from which we have grown distant. The hymn invites us to learn what we must learn in order to regain that abundance. “Teach us how to trust each other, how to use for good our power, how to touch the earth with reverence. Then once more will Eden flower,” a references to the Biblical Garden of Eden. I also read earlier from Genesis where God, in Eden, reminds all creatures, “I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.”[11] Again, an image of abundance at the dawn of humanity.

I think the spiritual lesson we draw from these kinds of images—whether we find them in ancient scripture, a modern hymn, or a minister’s reference to New England farm-stands overflowing with the earth’s bounty—is that the earth can and will provide everything we need. In more traditional religious contexts we hear, “The Lord will provide.” We’re aware, though, that we’re out of balance, that many people don’t have access to the earth’s bounty—healthy food, clean air, drinkable water, shelter. And many people don’t have access to decent education, health care, work that pays a living wage and on and on. This is why so many people long for abundance and are so drawn to easy answers like just change your attitude which doesn’t address the real roots of scarcity.But “earth was given as a garden” may not be any better. It’s a myth. And given how many people live on the planet today; given what we know about water and food crises, health care costs, climate change, and the damage wrought by production and use of non-renewable energy, I think it’s a fair question whether the earth has the capacity to provide for everyone. That capacity seems stretched to the breaking point in our time.

Nevertheless, this spiritual vision of a return to Eden, of achieving some level of abundance for all humanity, is part of our spiritual heritage. I think it’s essential that we hold onto it, that we adapt it to present-day realities, that we preach it, teach it, pray it, write it, sing it, dance it, post it, blog it, tweet it. We—people of faith, people of conscience, people who affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person—need to keep this vision of abundance for all people alive in the world because there are competing visions at work, visions organized around the principles of domination, exploitation, control and unbridled profit. Without a vision of abundance for all people, justice, fairness and equality erode and access to the fruits of the earth remain elusive for many. Vision matters. If we want abundance, we need vision. So, I’ll leave you with this question to ponder for next Sunday: if there are no quick fix, easy answers to the various forms scarcity takes, if just change your attitude is an insufficient though highly seductive response to scarcity, then what is the work—what is the difficult, roll-up-our sleeves work—that will bring that vision of Eden to fruition?

Amen and Blessed be.

 


[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Tending the Secret Garden,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 66.

[2] McTigue, “Tending the Secret Garden, p. 66.

[3] McTigue, “Tending the Secret Garden, p. 66.

[4] McTigue, “Tending the Secret Garden, p. 66.

[6] Watch Oprah Winfrey talking to Larry King about the way she experienced the Secret in her own life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYFIN6Csr0k.

[7] Byrne, Rhonda, The Secret Daily Teachings (New York: Atria Books, 2013) Day 3. See http://thesecret.tv/thesecretdailyteachings/

[8] The story, “Huge Tumor Gone,” is at http://thesecret.tv/stories/stories-read.html?id=17592.

[9] Ehrenreich, Barbara, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009). For excerpts and interviews, see http://www.barbaraehrenreich.com/brightsided.htm.

[10][10] Bard, Roberta, “Earth Was Given as a Garden” Singing the Living Tradition  (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #207.

[11] Genesis 1: 29.

What If? Reflections on the Great Commandment and the Death of Trayvon Martin

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

 

This summer we’re exploring the six sources of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition in worship. It’s my task this morning to reflect on the fourth source: “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” As I said earlier, this is a direct reference to what Christians call the Great Commandment: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  Both admonitions—love God and love neighbor—were central to the religion and culture of ancient Israel. We find them in the Torah, in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  Jesus combined them into one, enduring statement which appears in each of the synoptic gospels—Mathew, Mark and Luke. Today we attribute the Great Commandment to Jesus, though it likely wasn’t original to him. It’s quite possible his teachers taught him to express the essence of Judaism in this form. Either way, the Great Commandment was central to his ministry and lies at the heart of Christianity.

When I first offered to preach on the Great Commandment as a source of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition I wasn’t sure what I would say. And although it’s often the case that I don’t know what I will say about a topic two or three months ahead of time—or even a few days ahead of time—one of the reasons I wasn’t sure in this case is because the Great Commandment—known as the Golden Rule in secular society— is so simple, so obvious, so common, so central to the religion, spirituality, morality and culture of the United States, so central to the way we introduce children to moral and ethical reasoning in the United States that it sometimes feels like everything that can be said about it has been said about it; that there’s nothing left to say, no way to break new ground, nothing innovative to do with it that hasn’t already been done.

And then, Saturday evening, July 13th, the jury in the George Zimmerman murder trial handed down its verdict: not guilty. The jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, the unarmed, Black youth he shot to death on February 26th, 2012. Not guilty, despite the fact that he started the chain of events that included Martin fighting back and that ended tragically in Martin’s death. Not guilty, despite the fact that a 911 operator asked him to stay in his car. Stepping back from the trial and reflecting just on the shooting that ended Trayvon Martin’s life, it strikes me that despite how simple, how obvious, how common, how central the Great Commandment is to the moral and ethical foundations of our society, it is still so hard to make real in the world. It is still so hard, for so many reasons, to approach strangers with love in our hearts. 2500 years after the ancient Hebrew prophets and priests first introduced these ideas—“You shall not oppress the alien”[1]—2000 years after Jesus articulated the Great Commandment, it is still so hard to live.

Too often fear, anger, resentment or greed motivate us. Too often we—and by “we” I mean everyone, all Americans—make assumptions, we profile, we misread, mistrust, miscommunicate and things go downhill from there. Too often love seems distant, unreliable, elusive and impractical. Too often a loving response seems like sign of weakness. Maybe it’s obvious, but it needs to be said again and again and again: Love what is sacred to you. Love it with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. If it’s God, love God. If it’s the Earth, love the Earth. If it’s the Human Spirit, love the Human Spirit. If it’s the Interdependent Web of All Existence, love the Interdependent Web of All Existence. If it’s your family, love your family. And love your neighbor as yourself.

In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, and now again in the aftermath of the trial, many commentators have speculated on how the outcome might have been different if some critical aspect of the case were different. I call this the What If game. For example, “What if Trayvon Martin were White?” Or, “What if George Zimmerman were Black?” Or, as President Obama asked in his reflections on the verdict on July 19, “What if Trayvon Martin had been carrying a gun?” These what if questions are intended to help us look at the case from a different perspective, to call attention to inconsistencies and double-standards, or to uncover racism and discrimination. They ask us to contemplate scenarios that didn’t happen so that we can gain clarity about the complexities of what did happen.

I’d like to ask some What If questions this morning. They are questions that help me explain what I would expect to see happen differently if the Great Commandment were operating in the moment before George Zimmerman first encountered Trayvon Martin. As I ask these questions, it will sound like I’m talking about George Zimmerman, and on one level I am, as he was the one who started the train of events that resulted in Trayvon Martin’s death. But please understand that I’m not only talking about George Zimmerman. As many commentators have said, we are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we allow the profiling of young Black and Brown men to continue. We are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we continue to value the lives of young Black and Brown people less than the lives of young White people. We are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we continue to look away from institutional and systemic racism and other forms of oppression rather than face them directly. So I’m raising these questions for all of us.

It’s really hard to love your neighbor as yourself when the sight of your neighbor strikes fear and suspicion into your heart because you believe the prevalent stereotypes about their particular racial group. Well, what if George Zimmerman were antiracist? That is, what if his world-view and values were antiracist? Instead of jumping to the conclusion that a young Black man in a hoodie posed a threat to the neighborhood, what if Mr. Zimmerman recognized that his own gut reaction was a product of widespread racist stereotypes about young men of color? What if he knew that when he has such a gut reaction (which many people of all racial identities admit to having), it is unfair of him to act on it because in truth he has no idea who this person is, what his intentions are, whether or not he lives in the neighborhood, who his parents are, where he goes to school, etc? What if, in that moment when he first saw Mr. Martin, Mr. Zimmerman recognized his own capacity for racial stereotyping ,was shocked at his own thoughts, and said to himself I need to work on that?

What if Mr. Zimmerman knew that when a young Black man dons a hoodie, when he struts and swaggers slowly down the street, when he speaks with bravado in urban youth slang,  and even when he tries to look and act menacing, he is doing so because it’s the only way he knows how to feel powerful in a society that constantly informs him he is powerless, that he will never have power and that his life doesn’t matter? What if Mr. Zimmerman understood that this young Black man—whether he knows it or not—dresses and acts the way he does because he is actually resisting the dominant culture which tells him he ought to dress and act more like a White person, but then simultaneously tells him that he can never be White, that he can never enjoy the full privileges of White society, that he will always be a second class citizen?

What if, instead of calling the police, Mr. Zimmerman knew that young Black men fall victim to police racial profiling far too often, and that even an initially innocuous encounter with police can result in far worse consequences for young Black men than for young White men? What if Mr. Zimmerman was outraged about the mass incarceration of young People of Color in the United States and recognized that the last thing he wanted to do was mobilize public resources and taxpayer dollars to involve yet another young Black man in the criminal justice system, especially when all he was doing was walking slowly down the street?

What if Mr. Zimmerman knew even a small portion of the way racism in the United States of America still weighs heavily on the lives of People of Color? What if he knew something about the race-based educational achievement gap, race-based disparities in health care access and outcomes, the race-based wealth gap, the Supreme Court’s recent decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, and widespread attempts to disenfranchise People of Color though new voter ID laws? What if he knew something of the legacy of slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, lynching and the racist way in which the GI Bill created segregated White suburbs after World War II? What if knew, whether this kid knows it or not, that racism weighs heavily on his life and, if anything, he needs support, understanding and acceptance, not suspicion and hostility?

 

What if Mr. Zimmerman was deeply in touch with the Hispanic side of his own racial and cultural identity and heritage and understood that Hispanic people also face racism in the United States? What if he understood that the same forces that conspire to oppress Blacks have and do conspire to oppress Hispanics? What if he knew that the racial profiling of Black people also happens to people who look Hispanic—not just in Sheriff Joe Arpaio Maricopa County around Phoenix, Arizona, but all over the country? What if he understood that young Hispanic men like himself are also far more likely than their White peers to be profiled, arrested, falsely accused, given harsher sentences, incarcerated, denied a job, asked to show ID, prevented from voting, followed in stores, and on and on? What if George Zimmerman understood that when right wing pundits and Tea Party conservatives say they want to “take back the nation,” they mean they want to take it back not only from people who look like Trayvon Martin, but also from people who look like George Zimmerman?

What if George Zimmerman knew that American Hispanics had their own civil rights movement modeled in part on the successes of the Black civil rights movement? What if he knew the history of the United Farm Workers? What if Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta were his personal heroes? What if he identified with the current struggle for immigrants’ rights? What if he identified with the Dreamers?

What if George Zimmerman had looked at Trayvon Martin through an antiracist lens and saw not a threat but someone with whom he could identify, someone with whom he could be with in solidarity? Someone he could call brother and really mean it?

It’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself when you assume your neighbor has no voice worth hearing, no contribution worth making, no value to society. Well, what if George Zimmerman were a community organizer? That is, instead of volunteering for a neighborhood watch and carrying a gun, what if Mr. Zimmerman were working as a community organizer, trying to make his community more welcoming, more accepting, more inclusive, more fair, more just, more loving and more peaceful? What if his primary assumption was that everyone belongs, everyone can contribute, everyone has value? What if Mr. Zimmerman had approached Mr. Martin with an outstretched hand and a clip board? Imagine:

“Hi, my name’s George, can I talk to you for a minute? I want to ask you a question.” ( Who knows how Trayvon might have responded. He might not want anything to do with this community organizer, but let’s imagine George as persistent.)

“Just one quick question: Are you registered to vote?”

“No, man, I don’t vote.”

“Really? Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you old enough, are you 18?”

“No, man, 17.”

“So, you’ll be 18, which means you’ll be able to vote in the mid-term elections. And you’ll be able to vote in the next presidential election. Doesn’t that matter to you?”

“I don’t know, man.”

“Listen, we’re organizing a meeting at the church down the street. It’s tomorrow night. We’re talking about voting. You know it’s possible there’s gonna be an attempt to make it harder for people to vote in Florida, especially for People of Color.”

[Silence]

“Do you know the Supreme Court just gutted the Voting Rights Act? Do you know there are movements all across the country to make it harder for People of Color and poor people and the elderly to vote? You don’t want that to happen here do you? I don’t. Why don’t you come to our meeting? There’s a lot you could do. Or at least let me sign you up to get updates. Do you have email?”

And if all else fails, George might say, “Hey, do you want to earn $25? I have 300 fliers I need to post around the neighborhood. I’ll pay you $25 to post them. What do ya say?”

Maybe Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have been interested. But I’m asking a serious question. Do we approach teens with suspicion and hostility? Or do we approach them with a sense of hope, with the belief that they matter, with the trust that they can actually understand their social and political context and work to make it better, with the assumption that they can be powerful, that they can contribute to the building of a more just and peaceful society?

Finally, it’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself if you don’t have genuine faith. What if George Zimmerman were a person of deep and abiding faith? What if he were the kind of person who, upon waking in the morning, reminds himself of some version of the Great Commandment, reminds himself to love what is sacred to him? If it’s God, love God. If it’s the Earth, love the Earth. If it’s the Human Spirit, love the Human Spirit. If it’s the Interdependent Web of All Existence, love the Interdependent Web of All Existence. If it’s your family, love your family. And, love your neighbor as yourself.

What if George Zimmerman, when he first saw Trayvon Martin, when he first felt that feeling of fear, anger, suspicion or whatever it was he felt when he saw a young African American man in a hoodie, sauntering slowly through the neighborhood, what if he heeded the wisdom of the Great Commandment? What if he had replaced that feeling of fear with a feeling of profound love for whatever he holds most sacred in his life? And what if, in response to that feeling, he then knew—in his heart, in his mind, in his soul—with every fiber of his being—that this young man is a neighbor—possibly an actual neighbor, but I mean a neighbor in the larger spiritual sense, as in all people are my neighbors, all people are worthy of my love, all people matter.

What if? We saw what happened when hostility and suspicion led the way. I’m putting my faith in love.

Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] Leviticus 19:33.

Rev. Josh on the Stan Simpson Show

Rev. Josh Pawelek was invited to appear on the Stan Simpson show this week to talk about the aftermath of the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. Clips from the show can be viewed here and here.

Rev.  Josh on Stan Simpson

Rev. Pawelek’s Remarks at Senator Blumenthal’s Press Conference on DOMA

Rev. JoshHere is footage from Rev. Josh’s remarks at Senator Blumenthal’s July 1st press conference in response to the Supreme Court ruling on the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Other speakers included Senator Chris Murphy, CT State Comptroller Keven Lembo, former Lover Makes A Family Executive Director Anne Stanback, and True Colors Executive Director, Robin McHaelen, in addition to members of same gender loving families who have been involved in the struggle for marriage equality in CT. 

 

More photos from the event:

love wins!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Senator Blumenthal

 

 

 

 

 

 


Anne Stanback

 

 

A Wilderness Faith

Reflecting on his service in Afghanistan, U.S. Army chaplain and Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. George Tyger, writes, “I know love / For it is love that has kept me alive / Not bombs / Not bullets / Not body armor / These only kept me from dying / Love keeps me living.”[1] That is essentially the message of this sermon. If our Unitarian Universalist faith is to serve us well in the wilderness—and I’ll say more about how I’m using the word wilderness this morning—then love must live at its center.

I’ve heard it said, and perhaps you have too, that Unitarian Universalism is not a real religion, that our faith works fine when life is good, but offers no reliable assurances in the face of tragedy, injustice, evil, death; that our faith works fine for those who come for worship on Sunday morning, but does not travel well beyond the walls of our buildings. I’ve not yet finished reading George Tyger’s War Zone Faith, but if his ministry in 2011 and 2012 to the 1500 soldiers of the 1st Squadron, 10th US Calvary Regiment stationed in and around Kandahar City, Afghanistan—the “spiritual home of the Taliban”—is any indication, then I feel confident Unitarian Universalism’s liberal faith—its appeal to reason, its tolerance for ambiguity and difference, its call for social justice, its assertion of human dignity and its emphasis on love—holds up under some of the most dangerous conditions on the planet. If Rev. Tyger’s testimony is any indication, this liberal faith travels remarkably well.

Though let me be clear: I am not suggesting that any Unitarian Universalist minister, including me, could do what Rev. Tyger does, or that all one has to do is show up in a war zone and start talking about the love at the heart of his or her Unitarian Universalist faith. That’s not what Rev. Tyger does. He has a gift for battlefield ministry. And while he is clear in his writing that he doesn’t want us to romanticize his ministry or present overstated caricatures of his service, in my view his ability to provide chaplaincy to soldiers in combat is extraordinary. His Unitarian Universalism holds up well in a war zone because of who he is, because of his rare courage, and because of his unique ability to communicate his loving faith—to make it relevant in the midst of bullets, bombs, body armor and body bags. When I  say our UU faith travels well beyond the walls of our buildings, I also acknowledge that no faith travels all by itself. People carry their faith with them, and specific people carry their faith into specific situations. Our faith has the greatest impact in the world when our gifts and talents are well-suited to the demands of the situation we find ourselves in—whether we feel called to be there or whether we arrive there by accident. Rev. Tyger has a gift for battlefield ministry. For me, this begs the questions, “What is your gift?” and “Where and how does your love for people and the world express itself most clearly?” I invite you to take these questions into this summer season. It’s important that we know the answer to these questions because, in the end, the measure of the “realness” of any religion has little to do with what that religion says or writes about itself—or how catchy its promotional videos are. It has everything to do with how that religion inspires its people to live their faith by using their gifts to bring more love into the world.

I want to share some thoughts on living our faith not only beyond the walls of our congregation, but in any situation we might call a wilderness situation. As a reminder, our ministry theme for June is wilderness. A few weeks ago I preached about the connection between the wilderness around us and the wilderness within us. I suggested that traditional religion often identifies wilderness as a place of trial, challenge and temptation—a place where something bad happens, where some wicked thing lurks—and if we can overcome it, meet the challenge, resist the temptation, then we can return to the safety of civilization having matured in our faith, having deepened our humanity. While I do think this is one important narrative for understanding the role wilderness plays in our spiritual lives, I also made the case for a second narrative. Wilderness is not only the place where we face challenges and trials. It is also the place where we encounter the things we hold most sacred; where the Holy actually lives and speaks out beyond the bounds of all established jurisdictions; where we find solace and peace; and where we gain strength to resist the various evils civilization has created and perpetuated among human beings.

This morning I want to explore how we engage the wilderness around us. I’m combining elements of both spiritual wilderness narratives. I’m not talking about the forests, the jungles, the deserts or the mountains—though I do believe the Holy lives and speaks there. Rather, I’m talking about difficult, challenging situations, painful situations that demand a faithful response from us—whether they occur in the actual wilderness of the natural world, or in the heart of civilization; whether they occur within the walls of our meeting house, or beyond them. I’m talking about the wilderness of the devastating diagnosis, the death of a loved-one, or the loss of a job. The Holy lives and speaks there too. It must. I’m talking about the wilderness of mental illness, of addiction, of loneliness. I’m talking about the wilderness of estrangement in families, the breakdown of relationships, watching a loved-one engage again and again in self destructive behavior. The Holy lives and speaks there too. It must.

I’m also talking about the wilderness of war zones, the wilderness of bullets, bombs and body bags, because the Holy must live and speak there too. I’m talking about the wilderness of more than one in five American children living in poverty,[2] because the Holy must live and speak there too. I’m talking about failing schools, gun violence, mass incarceration and the erosion of civil rights for people of color because, in addition to its positive rulings on DOMA and Prop 8 this week, the Supreme Court also eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, opening the doors to a myriad of efforts to restrict access to voting and, in my view, thereby stunting and even reversing the progress of American democracy. The Holy cries out in that wilderness too, demanding a faithful response. I’m also talking about the wilderness of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, because yes, the Supreme Court struck down DOMA—an enormous victory for people standing on the side of love and justice. But there are still 38 state DOMAs on the books; and while some of those, I expect, will disappear quickly, most of them will not go down without a fight. Winning that fight will require people of faith to continue bearing witness to the injustice of marriage inequality and to express the tenets of their religion in the public square with courage and conviction. The Holy must live and speak in that struggle too.

Oftentimes the wilderness—whatever form it takes in our lives—feels overwhelming. The word “bewildering” makes sense. It is hard to comprehend at first. There’s an opaqueness to it. It is often unbelievable. Receiving a cancer diagnosis, unless you have some strong prior indication, is unbelievable. The tragic death of a loved-one is unbelievable. The statistics on the number of Black and Hispanic men wrapped up in the criminal justice system are unbelievable. The statistics on the educational achievement gap are unbelievable. Child poverty, unbelievable.  Lack of access to quality, affordable health care, still unbelievable. So many lives are at stake. Always at first the wilderness seems overwhelming, unapproachable, insurmountable, dangerous, deadly, bewildering.

Consider this generalization about Unitarian Universalists. Unitarian Universalists often respond to wilderness situations not from the heart but from the head. If this statement rings true to you, please understand it is far less true than it sounds, but it is true enough—and out there in the larger culture enough—that some people allege ours is not a real religion. It’s not the only reason people make this allegation, but it’s one of them. Often our first response to wilderness situations is to seek information and data. These days we Google it. Don’t hear me wrong, I feel strongly that in order to respond faithfully to the wilderness around us, we do need to acquire information about what is going on. We need the facts. Information makes the wilderness less opaque, less bewildering, less unapproachable (though not necessarily less dangerous). Speaking specifically about the wilderness of injustice and oppression, it is essential that we analyze it; that we figure out how it works, why it is so pervasive in so many aspects of our society, and why it is so difficult to dismantle. In conducting such analyses, we ask questions like “Where is the money coming from?” Or “What is the money paying for?” We ask questions like, “Who benefits from this injustice?” or “Who has the power in this institution?” We ask historical questions like, “Why did this injustice come into being in the first place?” In the language of community organizing, we call this a power analysis. For years, working on antiracism organizing within the Unitarian Universalist Association and in different cities and towns in Connecticut I’ve heard myself say over and over again—because I was trained to say it—“We need a common power analysis of racism before we can work to dismantle it.” And those words are true. But in reflecting on this aspect of my ministry over the last fifteen years, I recognize that sometimes I’ve become too mired in analysis. I’ve stayed too much in my head. And my faithful response has been less than effective. There’s some truth to the generalization.

As essential as it is to have an accurate analysis of unjust and oppressive systems, we cannot confuse having an analysis with having a faith adequate for the wilderness. We need something more. We need love. I’m reminding myself of this as much as I’m preaching it to you. Rev Tyger says, “I know love / For it is love that has kept me alive / Not bombs / Not bullets / Not body armor / These only kept me from dying / Love keeps me living.”[3] When I call myself a person of faith, it means I enter the wilderness with a much deeper question than the many analytical questions I might be asking in order to overcome my bewilderment and quell my anxiety. When I enter the wilderness as a person of faith I am looking, quite simply, for opportunities to feel and express love for others. When we enter the wilderness as people of faith, the deeper question is “How can we bring love to bear in this situation?” When we enter the wilderness as people of faith, the deeper question is “How can we be a loving presence to those who are suffering?” “What gifts can we share that will make love come alive in this moment?”

Having the facts is essential. Knowing what’s really going on is essential. Doing the power analysis is essential. But the Holy that lives and speaks in the wilderness—in the depths of pain, suffering, loneliness, depression; in the war zone, the grieving spouse, the broken family the impoverished neighborhood, the failing school, the over-crowded emergency room, the addict’s needle, the prison cell—the Holy that lives and speaks there, no matter how we understand it, no matter what name we ascribe to it, cries out for a courageous, loving response. The heart of a faith adequate for the wilderness is love. In the end, the measure of the “realness” of a religion has little to do with what that religion says about itself. It has everything to do with how that religion inspires its people to live their faith by using their gifts to bring more love into the world. What are your gifts? Where and how does your love for people and the world express itself most clearly?

Tomorrow I have the honor of saying a few words at a press conference Senator Blumenthal is holding in response to the Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and Prop 8. (I received this invitation because I served for many years as chairperson of CT Clergy for Marriage Equality and, later, CT Clergy for Full Equality.) There are many ways to talk about these rulings that involve facts. If you read Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion—which I highly recommend—you’ll find it very factual, very analytical. [4] I expect nothing less from a Supreme Court Justice’s opinion. He clearly understands the nature and the full extent of the injustice DOMA visited upon gay and lesbian couples and their children. Reading his opinion I learned facts I hadn’t known before, like the fact that under DOMA the partner of a gay or lesbian veteran could not be buried next to their beloved in a veterans cemetery.

But I don’t want to address facts tomorrow. I want to speak of love, because I am a person of faith, and a Unitarian Universalist, and love has been at the center of our faithful response to this particular wilderness for a generation. In fact, I want to remind the media that it has largely mischaracterized the sides in the American debate over marriage equality. It has largely reported the debate as one between secular, non-religious people in favor of marriage equality, and religious people against it. But that has never been the case. Unitarian Univeralists, the United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, American Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Presbyterians, the Metropolitan Community Church, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, even some Pentecostals—and the list goes on—have been coming again and again into the wilderness of homophobic laws, of painful silences and closets, of fear and hatred towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people, of bullying, bashing and suicides—people of faith have been coming into this wilderness and proclaiming a message of love, singing “we are standing on the side of love,”[5] singing “Love will guide us,”[6] praying prayers of love, praying, in the words of Rev. Tyger when he gave the invocation at last Tuesday’s LGBT pride celebration at the Pentagon that “love refuses to be constrained by culture, by creed or by fear,”[7]—coming into this wilderness and bearing witness to a Holy power in the world so vast that no one is left out, that all may come as they are, that all may love according to the dictates of their own heart. If I may be so bold, we are winning in this wilderness struggle, because love wins. Love wins.

We’ve heard it said that the poor will always be among us. Some say there will always be poverty. If nothing else, it’s a Biblical notion. I’ve never been convinced of its truth. But I am convinced there will always be wilderness, and that the encounter with wilderness is part of the human condition, part of the human experience. Therefore, we will always need love—to give it and to receive it—to courageously speak it, proclaim it, sing it, pray it. Love is the essence of a faith adequate for the wilderness. Love wins. I believe it. May we go out from this place and into this summer season ready to give and receive love.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] Tyger, George, War Zone Faith: An Army Chaplain’s Reflections From Afghanistan (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013) p. xiv.

[3] Tyger, George, War Zone Faith: An Army Chaplain’s Reflections From Afghanistan (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013) p. xiv.

[5] Shelton, Jason, “Standing on the Side of Love,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1014.

[6] Rogers, Sally, “Love Will Guide Us,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUS, 1993) #131.

[7] The Pentagon’s June 25 LGBT Pride event is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7vkpOYQiIo&feature=share.

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Rev. Pawelek’s Comments on the Supreme Court’s DOMA Ruling

Friends: 

I’m overwhelmed with joy. The Supreme Court’s rulings striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8 are not only legal victories. They are victories for justice, morality, decency, equality and inclusion. They are affirmations that there is no second-class citizenship in the United States of America. They are affirmatiosn that gay and lesbian relationships matter as much as heterosexual relationships. They are affirmations that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people matter as much as everyone else. I am so proud not only of Unitarian Universalist ministers and lay-people who’ve been on the front lines of this struggle for decades, but of all people of faith in this country who value equality and justice above archaic, mean-spirited interpretations of scripture and church tradition. I believe in a God who’s love is so large that no one is left out. All may come as they are. All may love as they feel called in their hearts to love. Today, this theology feels consistent with the law of the land. Again, I am overwhelmed with joy. 

Into the Wilderness

Rev. Josh Pawelek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rob Laurens

Rob Laurens

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

 

Amen and blessed be.

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Welcoming Congregation: Welcome as Spiritual Practice

Alex Kapitan, LGBTQ and Multicultural Programs Administrator, Unitarian Universalist Association.


Alex KapitanHello! And welcome, welcome, welcome again!

How many folks here are here for the first time? Can you raise your hand if you’ve never worshipped here before? Fabulous! I’m so glad you’re here. And how many folks are here for the second or third time? I’m so glad you came back! I am actually one of you—I have only visited this congregation once before. I’m so delighted to be back with you today, and completely honored to be speaking to you from up here! I want to thank the leaders who invited me here and made it possible for me to join you today—Rev. Josh, the worship team, and the Welcoming Congregation Steering Group.

Like Rev. Josh mentioned, my name is Alex Kapitan and I work for the Unitarian Universalist Association in our national office in Boston. I’m part of our Multicultural Growth & Witness staff group and one of the things I get to do is support the Welcoming Congregation Program.

This is always an exciting time of year for Welcoming Congregations because in many parts of this country June is claimed as Pride month, and congregations like this one get a great chance to publicly share their own pride at being welcoming, inclusive, and affirming of all things gay, and lesbian, and bi, and trans, and queer. And that is certainly something to be proud of!

 UU Society East was originally recognized as a Welcoming Congregation in May of 1999, 14 years ago. And that recognition took place after years of intentional work—5 and a half years, to be precise. It was in 1993 that UUSE began the journey by engaging in a workshop series—only a few years after the Welcoming Congregation Program was launched by the Unitarian Universalist Association. And when you took stock in 1999 and voted on whether to seek recognition as a Welcoming Congregation, the vote was unanimously in favor. Can I get some applause and some pride for that?! Thank you for your longstanding commitment.

Today, as you have many times over the past 14 years, you are recommitting yourselves to that promise you made in 1999—the promise of being a place of welcome, inclusion, affirmation, and advocacy for people that dominant culture, and certainly many mainstream religions, have deemed abnormal.

I am so delighted and honored to be here in this sacred place, in this Welcoming Congregation, to share with you a little bit of my vision for what it can mean to be a Welcoming Congregation in this new century, and how we can collectively live our welcome as a spiritual practice.

Before I dive in completely, I’d like to invite you to look inward for a moment. Please find a comfortable position. Feel the floor, the chair you are in. Breathe deeply. Think of a time when you felt a profound sense of welcome. (pause)

Hold that experience in your mind, and consider whether the space you were in or the interaction you had was changed because you were there. What effect did your presence have? Stay present, and consider what it felt like in your body to experience that welcome. What was the effect it had on you? If you’ve never had an experience like this, or if you can’t think of one, imagine what it would feel like. (pause)

Now imagine what it would be like to feel that way—that full and total welcome, that belonging—every time you entered this space. And better yet, imagine what it would be like to know with every fiber of your being that that sense of welcome and belonging was unconditional—that there was nothing about you, no part of you, whether worn on your sleeve or hidden deep inside, that would make you unworthy of welcome, of belonging, of love.

Do you know what I mean when I ask you to imagine being free from the sense that there is something about you that is inherently wrong, or bad, or simply enormously different?

Back in 1999 UUSE’s Welcoming Congregation Task Force said that as a Welcoming Congregation you were striving to overcome the “heterosexual assumption”—that dominant cultural norm that shows up even when we aren’t aware of it, the norm that the default is straight, and being something other than straight is different, not normal, less-than. Many people with same-sex attractions have experienced fear and shame moving through a world that tells them that straight is normal and good, and it’s an experience that is shared by many people here.  

But I’m actually talking about more than that one particular difference right now. I’m talking about what else you are carrying that makes you feel visibly or invisibly marked as different. What is it about you that makes you feel like the orange in a row of apples, with a song playing in the background—one of these things is not like the other… one of these things, doesn’t belong?

We come here carrying hidden trauma of all kinds—internal scars from childhoods full of landmines, or young adulthoods full of heartbreak, or ongoing depression that is barely held at bay enough to be here today. We have been subject to violence of all kinds—physical, emotional, spiritual. We come here with a huge diversity of experiences—far more than we think—in terms of financial means, educational background, ability, age, sexuality, gender identity and expression, race and ethnicity, relationship and family structure, language, nationality, body size, personality types, spiritual paths and beliefs. All of us carry weight from feeling different in some way—maybe we feel that sense of difference most when we are with our families of origin; maybe we feel it most when we are out in mainstream culture, maybe we feel it most here in this space. What are you carrying? (pause)

What would it be like if you could trust, unequivocally, that you were valued here for the pieces of yourself that make you feel different, not despite those pieces. That in this space there was nothing about you that could make people reverse their welcome or reject you from the circle of belonging?

When I think about Beloved Community, this is what I think about and long for. A community of radical welcome, where each person affirms the piece of the divine that lives in themself and in every other being. Where we can hold each other in all of our messiness and all of our brokenness, where love and compassion reign supreme. Where each of us fully, completely, belongs.

That’s my vision of Beloved Community. But how does it become manifest? I’ll tell you what I think. I think that being a Welcoming Congregation is how we practice Beloved Community.

 In its infancy, the Welcoming Congregation Program asked people of faith to deeply engage with the question of what was standing in their way of being fully welcoming and inclusive of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. By intentionally engaging with this question, we were invited to grapple with the assumptions—like that “heterosexual assumption”—that were forever present in our community around who belongs. Who belongs here. Who is one of us. Who belongs, and how do we communicate that circle of belonging—consciously and unconsciously, verbally and nonverbally. How does the language we use, the songs we sing, the way we teach our children, our hiring practices, our requirements for membership, and a hundred other basic elements of how we create and live out community here—how do all these things communicate who and what is valued, and who and what doesn’t belong?

At its very core, the Welcoming Congregation Program asks congregations to challenge their own sense of where the boundaries of belonging are—to draw the circle wider. To practice this, so that we can keep practicing it and keep drawing that circle wider, little by little, step by step, slowly but surely. To make it a core practice to continue to ask, “where are the boundaries of belonging now?” “how can we expand them further?”

This is a big ask. It’s a big deal to first look at where that circle is drawn, and it’s an even bigger deal to acknowledge that there’s room to grow. And then it’s a huge deal to actually take steps toward expanding the circle, and then to keep taking steps—to never stop and say “right on, we’ve arrived. We are done now.”

This is a process of transformation. Every time. Redefining the boundary of belonging and redefining who “we” are means change. And with change comes growing pains. I know that you know this, because I know that UUSE has engaged with this sort of transformation many times. Not only when you spent 5 and a half years stretching yourselves through the Welcoming Congregation Program, but other times as well—like the more recent time that you literally transformed your building in a way that made it more accessible to people who use wheelchairs and other folks with limited mobility. Now that’s transformation. You drew the circle of belonging wider to say yes, folks who are not able to easily navigate stairs belong here, and we have to transform our very space in order to communicate that.

This process of transformation is a spiritual practice. It’s spiritual, because removing the barriers to authentic relationship with ourselves and each other and moving toward manifesting the Beloved Community is the most deeply spiritual work I know. And it’s practice, because it doesn’t magically happen—naming ourselves as a Welcoming Congregation, or as an ally, doesn’t automatically transform us. This welcome takes practice.

So how do we engage in welcome as a spiritual practice? How do we get to the place where you, and every other person here, feels that profound sense of welcome and belonging and trust every time you enter this space? And on the other hand, because it takes both of these things, how do we get to the place where you and every other person here can venture into the uncertainty and risk of truly being messy and still being in relationship, knowing that the trust and belonging of this space can hold that messiness?

Well, before we talk about how to practice welcome, let’s take a second to chat about what gets in the way of that for us. I’m going to go back to that “heterosexual assumption” again. That’s just one example of the millions of unnamed and generally unconscious assumptions that we are barraged with as we move through this culture—assumptions about what is normal and what is different—who is an apple and who is an orange. Think again about one or more ways in which you are reminded that you are different, whether here or in some other part of your life.

Some of us here are introverted and constantly feel as though people expect us to be extroverted—that we would be more valuable if we were extroverted. Some of us here have no desire to be a parent, but everywhere we go the expectation is of course we want to have kids someday, that that’s the right way to be. Some of us here are hard of hearing, and the assumption is always that we should be able to hear perfectly. Some of us here never graduated from high school, and there are a thousand ways that we are reminded that that makes us somehow less-than.

There are a lot of ways that I feel like an orange in a sea of apples, but I’ll give you the biggest example from my life. Every time I’m out in public and have to go to the bathroom, I’m reminded that I’m different. One of the linchpins of our culture’s worldview is that all people are men or women—no overlap and no other options. But I’m not a woman or a man, and so everywhere I go I’m faced with a thousand reminders, small and huge, that I’m supposed to be a woman or a man, that the way I am is not normal, is wrong, is downright impossible. That I don’t exist. Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and girls. Brothers and sisters. Pink or blue. He or she. Every time someone points me toward the women’s locker room, I shrivel inside. Every time I buy a plane ticket now and I have to provide my “gender,” I feel like I’m participating in my own invisibility. Every time someone assumes my pronouns and says Alex, she, her, I have an out-of-body experience. “Who are they talking about?” my internal self asks. I’m gone. I’m not there anymore. I can put on a smile and survive, but I’m no longer fully present. Each time I’m reminded that I’m different or that according to our dominant culture I don’t exist, it’s like a feather or a pebble or a stone is added to the burden that I carry. One feather or pebble or stone is nothing, but they sure do accumulate. They accumulate over the course of my day, over the course of my month, over the course of my lifetime. Those stones don’t go away. To the point where I have to decide, do I want to take that on today? Do I have the emotional reserves to take that on today? Would I rather stay away from the places where I’m most likely to encounter feathers and pebbles and stones.

The more experiences of being different a person carries, the more we are reminded that we’re different. The bigger the difference, the more we are reminded that we’re different. The more our difference shows up in every aspect of our lives, rather than just in one or two parts of our life, the more we are reminded that we’re different.

And unfortunately, the more assumptions we each make about each other, the harder it is to be in real relationship, to create Beloved Community. Because every time we make an assumption, we are unconsciously perpetuating the norms of our culture.

And that sucks. Because we have been taught our whole lives to make assumptions. We have been taught, in ways we don’t even know, to identify who is “like us” and who is not, and then to put value judgments on that. We have been taught to be uncomfortable with difference.

But I need you to know something that is completely core to practicing welcome as a spiritual practice—I need you to know that you are a good person. This is something central to our Unitarian Universalist faith. You are inherently good. No matter what you do that hurts yourself or hurts someone else, it will never make you a bad person. All of us are works in progress. For me, being a person of faith and being part of a faith community is what helps hold me and call me back to my higher self. It’s what makes it possible for me to take risks.

When someone calls me “she,” that sucks for me. But that doesn’t make that person a bad person, because they’ve been taught to look at me and make a snap judgment as to whether I am a she or a he. Unfortunately, it does take a toll on me. It may be a small thing to that person who calls me “she,” but to me it’s a pebble on top of a sheer ton of other pebbles, other reminders I’ve had that day or that week that I’m not real or I don’t belong.

People have all kinds of reactions to the information that they are using a pronoun for me that hurts me. I’ve seen confusion, anger, dismissal, denial, rejection, self-deprecation. When we are challenged around things like this, often the place we go is a place of feeling as though we are being told we are a bad person, when really what we are being offered is the opportunity to stretch and grow and be in more authentic relationship. The person who messes up my pronouns isn’t a bad person, they are a human person. It’s what we do with the negative or difficult emotions that come up for us when we encounter difference that counts. I’m gonna say that again: It’s what we do with the negative or difficult emotions that come up for us when we encounter difference that counts. Because that’s where the practice comes in.

What would it be like if those assumptions that fill our every interaction and encounter were gone? If we met each other, and encountered the world, through curiosity and care, intimately in touch with the knowledge that we actually know absolutely nothing about each other until we take the risk of entering into authentic relationship, approaching each other with openness and with wonder. Until we embrace the platinum rule—have you heard of the platinum rule? It says, do unto others as they would have you do unto them. Because how I want to be treated isn’t necessarily how you want to be treated, and the only way to know how you want to be treated is to get to know you in a real way.

I know that’s a tall order—I’m full of them, you might be starting to catch onto that. But the good news is that it starts small. Practicing welcome starts small. It starts with conversation. It starts when you don’t settle for what is comfortable, but take one small risk at a time. During social hour, who can you talk to who you’ve never talked to before? Who is on the margins of the room? When you do talk to people you already know, what do you talk about? Do you stay to “safe” topics or do you talk about what deeply moved you about the service, or how you are struggling. It starts with conversation.

It also starts with love and compassion for your own self and for others. It starts with gentle, personal work to practice sitting with discomfort. When you experience a negative emotional reaction in the face of something new or strange or unexpected, can you sit with that discomfort? Can you breathe and notice what’s coming up for you? Can you pause before you speak? When you are tempted by defensiveness, reactivity, dismissiveness, can you instead practice love and compassion for yourself and for the people around you?

And then it starts with noticing the cultural norms here in this place, collectively working to understand where the circle of belonging has been unconsciously drawn. All communities draw that circle of belonging somewhere—where is that edge for you? What are the assumptions that you unconsciously make about who “we” are here? Who is going to collect those feathers and pebbles and stones and maybe even boulders when they come here—those overt and also under the surface reminders that they are different from what’s most valued here.

Every time an assumption shows up, it impacts someone here. Someone feels devalued for having an experience that doesn’t line up with that assumption. Someone knows that they will never invite their brother to come here, or their best friend. Someone wonders if this is really a place where their child will be fully valued as they continue to grow. It starts with noticing where your collective edges are. Just noticing them. And then practicing pushing back on them. Questioning the assumptions that are being made. Using language a little differently.

And it starts with the people who are already here. For some of us here, this is a place in our lives where we actually do feel that sense of welcome and belonging already. For others of us here, this is a place that maybe comes close or maybe doesn’t even come close, but we are here anyway. Some of us feel like this place is the best chance we have of not experiencing stones and boulders, so we’ll settle for feathers and pebbles. How can the circle be expanded for us—the people who are already here but don’t feel as though we can be totally present here?

 In closing, my invitation to you is this: As you are continuing the amazing work and ministry that the Welcoming Congregation Steering Group is doing, and the amazing work and ministry that has come before and made you who you are today, never settle for what is comfortable. There is a common perception out there that LGBTQ equals “gay” and that “gay” equals white, college educated, middle class, able-bodied. My invitation to you is to keep layering on race, class, age, ability, to layer on gender nonconformity, fluid sexualities like bi and queer. To layer on other marginalizing experiences. What does welcome look like then, when you bring all of this into who you are making a home for? Into who belongs here. When the commitment of being a Welcoming Congregation is looking for your edges and working to push them back? When the goal becomes centering care, curiosity, and compassion in all of your interactions? In deepening your relationships with each other here in this community and breaking down the walls and assumptions that separate us?

I’m not asking you to make it happen all at once and right away. I am saying that by practicing welcome in this way, by extending the circle of belonging bit by bit and embracing transformation as part of engaging in welcome as a spiritual practice, you will expand the circle of belonging far wider than just to lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer people—although you will reach many many more of us as well in the process—and you will bring much needed healing to people who have been members of this community for years. And that is what being a Welcoming Congregation can be. That is what practicing Beloved Community looks like.

May we make it so. Ashe, Amen, and Blessed be.