The Time Where Words End: Reflections on Humility

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Come, my way, my truth, my life, such a way as gives us breathe, such a truth as ends all strife, such a life that killeth death.”[1]

Words of George Herbert, a seventeenth-century Anglican priest and poet; words that invite, beckon, welcome; words that help frame for me the way we arrive at humility.

Humility is our ministry theme for December. For most of us I suspect humility isn’t one of those loaded spiritual words; it isn’t one of those traditional words that raise our hackles, one of those vaguely unpleasant pin-prick words; it isn’t one of those haunting religious words. In fact, for many of us it’s not even religious. It’s as secular as it is spiritual. Humility is a character trait, a demeanor, a manner, a personality type, a way of holding or conducting oneself that creates space for others, that allows others to breathe; it’s a way of moving lightly through the world, walking softly upon the earth; it’s an open, inviting, welcoming, hospitable way of engaging others. It’s a way of service. It’s a virtue. We often know it when we see it and, in general, we appreciate it—even admire it—in others. And there’s something oddly—and at times confoundingly—elusive, even paradoxical, about it.

In short, I’ve learned over the years that when I try to be humble—when humility is my goal—I typically fail. It’s as if I can’t get there from here. I can’t just wake up in the morning and resolve to be humble. I’ve learned I can’t just leave my home after breakfast thinking, I’m going to be humble today, and expect to arrive at humility. Or when I feel badly about yelling at my kids and I say to myself, I’m not gonna do that anymore, I’m gonna be more humble: saying that to myself might get me fifteen seconds of humility (and I’m pretty sure it’s not genuine). Simply resolving to be humble is not the path to humility. Something else needs to happen. Something needs to call me out of myself—or perhaps deeper into myself. Something needs to stop me in my tracks, take my breath away, make me pause, make me still, make me quiet.

Come, my way, my truth, my life. Earlier I shared with you Rev. Mark Belletini’s meditation “Earth.” For me it’s one among many good descriptions of the kind of something that needs to happen in order for humility to rise in us. He writes: “This is our earth. / There are no other earths. / Before its wonder, philosophers fall silent. / Before its mystery, / poets admit their words are shadow, not light. / And all the great names religious teachers / have left to us / Ishtar, Shekinah, Terra Mater, Suchness, Wakan Tanka, / Gaia / suddenly refuse to announce themselves. / And so we too fall silent, / entering the time where words end / and reality begins.[2]

Times where words end. There are moments when one’s voice grows silent, when the self seems to dissolve, when the ego suddenly lies dormant. In such moments I find I more easily remember what matters most. I remember my highest values, my commitments. I feel called to dedicate or re-dedicate my life to some reality or purpose greater than me. I feel called to surrender in some way to that reality or purpose; called to let go and trust I’m being led in a good direction; called to relinquish some aspect of myself, making room for something new. Come, my way, my truth, my life. In such moments, when I’m not actually seeking to be humble, I’m more likely to arrive at humility. That’s the paradox: we can’t just decide to be humble. Humility rises in us as a result of something else: having no words, falling silent, surrendering, letting go, relinquishing; dedicating our lives to some reality or purpose greater than ourselves.

As I began working on this sermon I was focusing on one of Jesus’ parables in the book of Luke. Along the way I started arguing with the parable and decided it was better not to start there. I want to read it to you now and then explain my contention with it, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”[3]

I like this parable for a number of reasons, though mainly for its overall message that humility is a virtue, while unchecked pride, hypocrisy, vanity and their ilk are problematic. What challenges me about this parable is its black and white view of the world and human nature, its either/or thinking about how one ought to relate to the Holy, the stark line it draws between virtue and vice, the strict dichotomy it builds between acts of humbling oneself and acts of exalting oneself. Our lives aren’t always so clear, and I actually don’t want to live in a society with such absolute clarity. I think it’s more realistic—and more honest—to note that humility and pride can and do comingle in us. They balance each other. Both can contribute to our spiritual, mental and physical health and the line between them isn’t always clear.

Here’s an example of how this lack of clarity—perhaps it’s better to say balance—recently manifested in my life. Two Tuesday evenings ago about forty of us were standing outside the Hartford Public Library observing the Transgender Day of Remembrance. During that observation I was invited to speak. I was certainly humbled to receive that invitation. But I was also proud. I was proud to be recognized as an ally of the transgender community. I was proud to be recognized as a local faith leader. I was proud to be recognized for my speaking ability. I was proud to be a faith leader speaking to, for and with people who are so often excluded from faith communities. I was proud to be a Unitarian Universalist. I was proud to be the minister of this congregation. I was proud of our young people who were holding our bright yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” banner. I was overflowing with pride. And in a moment like that there’s no way on earth I’m going to minimize that pride. On the contrary, I’m going to reveal it. I’m going to let it shine. I’m going to speak with volume. I’m going to speak forcefully. I’m going to put some ego into my speech. And if I believed in the kind of God to whom I could describe this scene in prayer—I would probably sound a lot more like the Pharisee than the tax collector. Like the Pharisee’s prayer, my prayer would sound like self-exaltation. No apologies.

But I also know there’s more to it than that. Come, my way, my truth, my life. In the midst of that pride, I also recognize more fundamental reasons for being at the Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s not because I might get to speak. It’s not because I’m a Unitarian Universalist or a faith leader. It’s because I believe that bearing witness to violence and oppression matters. I believe that doing whatever we can to stem the tide of violence against transgender people matters; and that doing whatever we can to stem the tide of violence on city streets and in homes and against undocumented immigrants and between Israel and Hamas and on and on and on matters. It’s because I believe that asserting the value, dignity and integrity of transgender lives matters. And it’s because I hold the larger conviction—and I think we all share it—that all lives matter, that all people are worthy, that all people deserve to be treated with love and compassion, that all people ought to be able to participate fully in the life of our various communities and ought to be welcomed in doing so. This conviction—which is also a commitment—is in me, but it didn’t come from me. I suppose it has many sources, but first and foremost I experience it as a movement of spirit in my life. I feel I’m constantly being led to it. And while I don’t always feel like following, in those moments when I do let go and allow myself to be led, when I do surrender, when I do relinquish, in addition to whatever feeling of pride washes over me, a feeling of humility also rises in me. In that moment it doesn’t matter if the attention is focused on me. It doesn’t matter if I speak. It doesn’t matter if I’m a leader. It doesn’t matter if I’m a Unitarian Universalist. It doesn’t matter if there’s a bright, yellow “Standing on the Side of Love Banner.” It only matters that we’re present and willing to help.

I have a further, perhaps more global concern about drawing a very strict division between humility as a virtue and pride as a vice. In the midst of such moral certitude I get antsy thinking about all the people in the world who are in some way voiceless, powerless, oppressed. I think of the way humility was taught as a virtue to slaves on southern plantations in the hope they would be less likely to rebel against their masters. I’m mindful that humility can be held up as a virtue whose subtle and not-so-subtle purpose is to keep the voiceless from cultivating their voice. No need to speak out. Just accept your station in life. I’m mindful that humility can be held up as a virtue whose subtle and not-so-subtle purpose is to keep the powerless from seeking power. Patience. It’s not your time yet. I’m mindful that humility can be held up as virtue whose subtle and not-so-subtle purpose is to keep the oppressed from seeking their liberation. No need to change the way things are. Look forward to your reward in Heaven. But to the extent such ploys succeed they do not lead to genuine humility. At most they engender a warped and manipulated version of humility—a virtue adopted only because the ego has been assaulted and worn down; a virtue adopted only because pride and self-esteem have been eroded; a virtue adopted only because fear and self-loathing have made healthy exaltation impossible. This is what humility looks like—or certainly can look like—in a black and white, either/or moral landscape. I get antsy. I do not want to be a minister—and I do not want us to be a congregation—who counsels humility in those moments when what a person or a people needs to do is speak up, speak out, name their pride, express their anger, claim their power, advocate, struggle, fight and achieve liberation.

I was speaking with Jerry DeWitt on Friday. He’s the Louisiana-based Pentecostal-minister-turned-atheist who was profiled in the “New York Times Magazine” this past August. He’s now writing a book called After Faith: An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism. We’re zeroing in on a date for him to speak here in April. He was talking to me about how he understands his mission these days which includes his notion—a simple, profound notion—that everyone deserves the opportunity to express themselves. Everyone needs a voice.  I think he’s right, and I trust this is not a controversial idea here. It resonates seamlessly with our first Unitarian Universalist principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It has been central to Unitarian and Universalist identity for generations. I think it is fair to say it has been central to American liberalism since its inception. But ever since I was a child growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation I’ve been hearing, in various forms, a question about balance. Is it possible we’ve placed too much attention on the individual’s voice and not enough attention on what lies beyond the individual? Can we have a lasting faith if, at its core, all we discover is that each individual has the right to express themselves? Isn’t there something greater that binds us together? Or on a more personal level: Is my spiritual life just about self-expression? Is it ultimately just about me?

Of course, my faith can’t be just about me. Our faith can’t be just about each individual voice. It can’t be just about ego, as beautiful, creative and prophetic as the works of our egos may be. There’s got to be more. And there is. I love the way Rev. Walsh answers these questions in his reading, “On Buying a Cemetery Plot.” He says, “I have a desire to be remembered…. Is this vanity? Yeah. But it’s my vanity. And it’s an orderly and traditional kind of vanity. So to heck with it, I bought the plot.”[4] He’s honoring his ego, he’s honoring his voice. He doesn’t name it explicitly, but he’s proud. He wants to be remembered.  Then he shifts. He moves away from his focus on him and his vanity and starts reflecting on death. In the language I’ve been using, he’s orienting himself towards a reality greater than himself—toward a time where words end. He says “Cemeteries help us acknowledge and accept our limits….[and] Until we can live in the presence of death, we will not know the value of life—we will not be fully grateful for the gift of life, and we will not be prepared to make full use of this gift to enjoy and serve the Creation.”[5] I read this as a movement across a continuum from healthy pride to healthy humility, from “I want to be remembered,” to “I want to serve the Creation.” Come, my way, my truth, my life. There are times where words end, moments when our voice grows silent, when our self seems to dissolve, when our ego suddenly lies dormant; moments when we remember what matters most—our highest values, our commitments, the people and places we love; moments when we feel called to dedicate or re-dedicate our lives to some reality or purpose greater than ourselves; moments when we surrender to that reality or purpose; moments when we let go and trust we’re being led in a good direction; moments when it does not matter if we speak, if we’re the hero, the leader, the performer, the sage, the expert, the wise one; moments where it does not matter if we’re Unitarian Universalist or any other faith. In such moments it only matters that we are present and willing to serve the Creation. In such moments words end and a genuine humility can rise in us.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1]Herbert, George, “Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #89.

[2]Bulletin, Mark, “Earth” Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 32.

[3]Luke 18: 9-14.

[4]Walsh, Robert, “On Buying a Cemetery Plot,” Stone Blessings (Boston: Skinner House, 2010) p. 48.

[5] Ibid., p. 48-49.

Transitions

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

There’s a reading in our hymnal entitled, “Change Alone is Unchanging.”[1] It’s attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraklietos, also known as the weeping philosopher. “In searching for the truth,” he says, “be ready for the unexpected. Change alone is unchanging.” These words ring true to me, the same truth I encounter in Vanessa Rush Southern’s meditation, “Expect Chaos.” She says, “Perhaps change is life. Frustrations and snags are life. Maybe instead of being taught to expect stability and predictability, we should have been taught to expect chaos or at least constant transitions.”[2]

Change alone is unchanging. As long as I’m alive—and conscious of my living—I can expect to experience change. Certainly there will be changes in the wider world around me: nations and governments change; cultures and social norms change; human knowledge and technology change; ecology and climate change; the seasons and the positions of the stars in the night sky change. Certainly there will be changes in the more immediate patterns of my life: my children will grow older and my role in their life will change. My parents will grow older and my role in their lives will change. My wife will grow older; I will grow older. I can reasonably expect changes in my work life. I can reasonably expect changes in where I live. People will come in and out of my life—friends, parishioners, colleagues, peers, activists. I can expect the changes retirement brings. I can expect the changes illness brings. I can expect the changes loss brings—the changes that come when a loved-one dies.

And as a result of all these changes and transitions I can also expect my inner life to change in response: what I believe, what matters to me, the things to which I feel called to dedicate time and energy, my understanding of the Sacred. All of it has already changed through the course of my life. I can only conclude more change lies ahead.

Change alone is unchanging. I suspect this is not news to you. At some place deep in our bones we sense this idea is true. It speaks directly to Unitarian Universalists’ common yearning for a religious life not bound by doctrines, creeds and revelations presented to us as the one, eternal truth, a permanent etchings upon stone tablets, as the final word revealed once long ago and sealed forever. We long for spiritual openness. We are comfortable, even, with spiritual open-endedness. We long for a spiritual community that asks us not to submit to one truth but to explore truth from many perspectives and construct meaning from many sources. We long for a faith informed as much by scientific discovery and changes in human knowledge as it is by ancient wisdom. We certainly don’t long for chaos, and we want our children to experience stability and predictability. But when we encounter this idea that “change alone is unchanging” often something stirs in us. Often our gut response is “yes.” We want to hear more because we experience our lives, all life, the earth, the universe not as static, but as dynamic. Change is life.

But let’s be honest: as a concept, as an intellectual proposition, as a starting place for deeper theological reflection, this idea is fabulous. Change alone is unchanging. But as a practical matter, when it comes to dealing with day-to-day life, when it comes to navigating our life transitions, it’s not so fabulous. It doesn’t matter what height of spiritual discipline you’ve achieved, the unexpected can really mess up your day. Even Jesus lost it from time to time. For human beings (and I’m sure for other creatures as well) change is hard. As spiritually and intellectually exhilarating as the idea of change is, the physical and emotional experience can be a real drag. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is why the ancient Greeks referred to Heraklietos as the weeping philosopher.

Our ministry theme for September is transitions, an obvious theme for this time of year in New England as summer vacation ends, students return to school, the leaves begin to change colors and fall, local farmers begin their final harvest of the year, apples and pears have ripened, and the grocery stores now offer orange and black Halloween promotions. I also note the Jewish High Holy Days occur during this season. This year Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins this evening. For Jews the High Holy Days, which culminate in ten days on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, can be understood as a time of transition, a time of reflecting on the past year and preparing for the next. As we said in our opening words from Rabbi Jack Riemer, “Now is the time for turning…. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits.”[3] Here’s another truth: successfully navigating the transitions of our lives requires us to break with old habits. Perhaps change is life, but we are also creatures of habit and habits by their very nature are hard to break.

When I use the word habit I’m not speaking simply of addictions like smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or overeating, though I certainly include them. I’m speaking more generally of habits as modes of life to which we become deeply accustomed. As an example, I go back to the summer of 1999 when Stephany and I first moved to Connecticut. Over the previous ten years I had grown deeply accustomed to my life in Boston. I was grounded in the student culture in Cambridge. I was grounded in the local rock music scene. I was grounded in my ties to the Unitarian Universalist Association which is headquartered in Boston. My twin brother and some of my best friends lived there. I was embedded in a rich network of peers, clergy, UUs, musicians, activists and Ultimate (Frisbee) players. I knew all the running roots along the Charles River. I knew my way around by car and public transportation. My life had a certain stability and predictability to it. We moved to Connecticut that summer and I became ill. I was chronically dizzy and nauseated. I lacked appetite. I lost weight. I drank ginger tea all the time, hoping it would settle my stomach. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. It took many medical tests to prove to me there was nothing physically wrong with me, and two or three years of therapy to convince me that what had caused these symptoms was anxiety brought on by a major life transition. Put another way, I had been happily and healthily habituated to my life in Boston; and as much as I welcomed a life-change intellectually, making the transition turned out to be immensely difficult. As much as I was genuinely excited to begin my professional career in a new location with new people, when I allowed myself to look closely at the life I had left behind in Boston and get in touch with what leaving meant to me, I realized I was sad. I was grieving my younger Boston self and really didn’t know who my new, professional minister self was. Move to a suburb? What? Buy a house? What? Have children? What?

I’m not suggesting my experience of a big life transition is somehow a universal experience, but I do suspect that at the heart of our major life transitions there is always some amount of grief, some sadness at the loss of what came before, and it stays with us. The Rev. Robert Walsh writes, “Sometimes tears come to my eyes. Is it about the war? Is it from getting older? Or is it just autumn? I’m self-conscious about it, afraid people will think I’m grieving or that I’m a sentimental old fool. I guess they’d be right if they thought those things.”[4]

A book called A General Theory of Love, published in 2000 by three psychiatrists, describes the way our relationships, particularly our very close, intimate relationships, shape us—not only shape our emotions and our outlook on life, but shape our body chemistry, our physiology, the development of our neural pathways. When two people live together in a long-term, intimate relationship, when they share meals, leisure time, vacations, chores, money, a bed, child-rearing, etc., over time their bodies become deeply intertwined. Here’s a quote. “The human body constantly fine-tunes many thousands of physiologic parameters—heart rate and blood pressure, body temperature, immune function, oxygen saturation, levels of sugars, hormones, salts, ions, metabolites…. [But] an individual does not direct all of his own functions. [An intimate partner] transmits regulatory information that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, immune function and more…. The reciprocal process occurs simultaneously: the first person regulates the physiology of the second, even as he himself is regulated.”[5] This is why living when a loved-one has died isn’t just emotionally painful; it physically hurts. This other body that has been regulating aspects of our physiology, this other body to which we have become deeply accustomed—to which we have become habituated—is no longer present, no longer close by.

 

I assume it’s not just intimate loved ones who regulate our bodies in this way, although they may have the most impact. I assume where we live—the place we call home, our neighborhood—regulates our bodies to some degree. Where we work regulates our bodies to some degree. Our daily routine regulates our bodies to some degree. We become habituated in all sorts of ways. We become grounded in all sorts of ways. Thus any transition, any change that requires us to break out of our habits will bring some pain, even if it’s a change we want. I was ready to leave Boston in 1999. It was the right time for a life transition. But I see it so clearly now: despite how right it seemed, my body was still wired for its patterns of life in Boston. And because I didn’t know I grieving that life, I became ill.

One of the standard seminary books on understanding grief is C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, in which he writes about his experience after the death of his wife (whom he refers to as H.) and his recognition of how deeply ingrained in him the habits of being her husband were. He writes, “I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember I have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontierpost across it.”[6] I assume something like this happens with any life transition. A new school means different teachers, different peers, a different pattern to the day—the old ways have to shift. You or your partner receive a life-threatening diagnosis and in the blink of an eye all routine becomes geared towards treatment; life’s daily familiarities and pleasures become elusive such that even food tastes differently. You lose a job—especially one that really matched your identity and sense of calling—and you must break with the habits of that job. You have a baby, and you must break with old habits. You retire, and you must break with old habits. Aging at any time in our lives, but certainly as our bodies and our minds begin to decline, requires that we break with old habits. Or consider becoming sober: for addicts the body is utterly enmeshed with a substance, completely regulated by the need to have that substance. Getting sober is a grief-ridden process. Caroline Knapp, the late Boston-based journalist, said of her addiction to alcohol, “this is a love story. It’s about passion, sensual pleasure, deep pulls, lust, fears, yearning hungers. It’s about needs so strong they’re crippling. It’s about saying good-bye to something you can’t fathom living without.”[7]

At the heart of our life transitions there is always some degree of grief, some sadness at the loss of what came before, some level of pain. “Sometimes tears come to my eyes,” says Rev. Walsh. “I’m self-conscious about it, afraid people will think I’m grieving or that I’m a sentimental old fool. I guess they’d be right if they thought those things.” “Change alone is unchanging,” said the weeping philosopher. But it’s also really, really hard. Even if we’ve moved on in our minds, our bodies long for the way life was.

In the midst of the grief that comes with life transitions we have spiritual resources available to us. Perhaps most importantly we have our own capacity for quieting down, becoming still, being peaceful, paying attention, breathing. When I open worship I ask you to “find that place inside, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, when you yearn for peace.” We don’t typically go there when confronted with a major life transition. We don’t typically go there when the going gets tough, when we’re in pain, when we’ve just lost our job, when we’ve just received the diagnosis, when the funeral director is talking to us about arrangements for a deceased loved-one. We’re just as likely to be screaming or panicking, passing out or curled up on the floor in the fetal position. It takes real discipline to find a place of strength and grounding inside when your sources of strength and grounding outside have just disappeared.

In C.S. Lewis’ theology, that place of quiet and stillness inside would be the door that opens to his relationship with God. But in the midst of grief he writes of that door being shut and bolted: “Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.”[8]

In moments of life transition we need to stop and grieve for the life that is—for better or for worse—slipping away. We need times of quiet and stillness to say, think and feel whatever it is we need to say, think and feel about our old life before we can fully embrace the new. We need times of peacefulness and paying attention in order to break well with old habits.

Caroline Knapp wrote about her experience of finding that place of silence and stillness in community—in AA meetings. She said “When people talk about their deepest pain, a stillness often falls over the room, a hush so deep and so deeply shared it feels like reverence. That stillness keeps me coming, and it helps keep me sober, reminding me what it means to be alive… what it means to be human.”[9]And Rev. Walsh is right. We can expect tears. Because in those silent, still places, where we find comfort and solace, and even joy, there we can grieve, and in grieving well we can make ourselves ready for whatever new life awaits.

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1]Heraklietos of Ephesos, “Change Alone is Unchanging,”Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #655.

[2]Southern, Vanessa Rush, “Expect Chaos,” This Piece of Eden (Boston: Skinner House, 2001) p. 45.

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

[4]Walsh, Robert, “Tears” Stone Blessings (Boston: Skinner House, 2010) p. 6.

[5] Lewis, Thomas; Amini, Fari; and Lannon, Richard, A General Theory of Love (New York: Vintage Books, 2000) p. 85.

[6]Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) p. 47.

[7]Knapp, Caroline, Drinking: A Love Story (New York: Delta Book, 1996) p. 5.

[8]Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed (San Francisco:HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) p. 46.

[9]Knapp, Drinking, p. 256.