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

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Pawel, August, 2014

Pawel, August, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The spiritual writer, Rachel Naomi Remen, says “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[3] The world requires this of us. In fact, our attention to others’ grief is the first way our love spills out in the aftermath of loss. It is the first way we bless the world. In the wake of tragic loss, with your despair finally fading behind you, from a place of groundedness within you, attend however you can to the grief around you.

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

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

Amen. Blessed be.

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

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

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

Beyond the Last Ridge: Reflections on Devotion

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Last Ridge“I always thought I’d have little girls / and be a good mom, be the mother / I never had, teach them how to make pies / and how to get past wanting to quit, show them / the place in our minds beyond the last ridge / where we can rock the cutter endlessly, the place where there is no time and how to / tightly crimp the edge with alternating thumbs.”[1] Words from Northern California-based poet and artist Lin Max’s “The Piemaker.” I offer these words as a starting place for reflections on devotion, on what it means to be devoted, on what it means to give our hearts so fully that the giving shapes the direction of our lives.

Devotion is our ministry theme for May. Devotion in a religious context may strike some of you as one of those haunting theological words that make some Unitarian Universalists bristle; one of those words that doesn’t quite mesh with a more liberal, modernist, questioning, skeptical, agnostic, atheist or Humanist approach to religion; one of those words you may have left behind if you’re one who left behind a more conservative religious life. Given that, let me be the first to say there are good reasons5-13 ridge 4 why we might bristle. Devotion—especially religious devotion—can and does go horribly wrong. And yet the poet offers a glimpse of something powerful, something of great value devotion imparts to the devoted. It teaches patience. It teaches how not to quit. It reveals “the place in our minds beyond the last ridge … the place where there is no time.” I’m curious about this place. Aren’t you? The poet seems to be referencing the place we might come to in a peak spiritual experience, or at the culmination of a spiritual journey—a place where our body, mind, heart and spirit are aligned; a place where our inner and outer worlds cohere; a place where we know our purpose and we let it be our guide. I’d like to go there. While I’m pretty sure pie making is not my path to it, I’m also fairly confident none of us can get beyond the last ridge without some degree of devotion.

In its most basic, secular sense, if we’re devoted to something or someone, it means we care deeply about that something or someone and our actions demonstrate that care. We feel loving, loyal, supportive, enthusiastic towards that something or someone. We’re willing to take risks on behalf of that something or someone. We give our hearts to that something or someone. For me this is a basic definition of devotion: the ongoing giving of a part of ourselves to something or someone. And in that giving, we become more whole.

A week ago I attend a vigil in North Hartford organized by Mothers United Against Violence to mark the one year anniversary of the murder of a young woman named Shamari Jenkins.[2] The minister who leads this group, the Rev. Henry Brown,[3] is one of the most devoted people I know. A one-time victim of gun-violence, he is crystal clear in his purpose: to support and minister to the families of the victims of violence; and to do whatever he can to end violence on Hartford streets. During the vigil a group of young men joined the crowd. They were drinking whiskey and smoking what looked like pot, though I wasn’t sure. While I know not to make assumptions about anyone based on looks, they looked tough, and the question crossed my mind: could these young men could be dangerous? I had no idea what to do other than ignore them. The police ignored them too. But Rev. Brown didn’t. In the middle of the vigil he confronted them. He scolded them. He said, into his bullhorn, “put that away.” “Show some respect for this family.” “Either you’re here to support this family or not. If not, then leave.” They left.

Rev. Henry Brown of MUAV

Rev. Henry Brown of MUAV

Confronting a group of young, whiskey-drinking men is risky on any corner anywhere. I’m sure Rev. Brown had a much better assessment of the actual risk than I did. And whether it was risky or not, he did it. This giving a piece of himself to a family that has lost a daughter to violence; this giving a piece of himself to make sure their dignity is honored; this giving a piece of himself to say, once again, that we must end violence on our city streets: this is devotion—

to the family, to victims, to neighborhoods where these murders happen, and even to the tough-looking young men he confronted. Rev. Brown knows something of what it’s like beyond the last ridge. He knows his purpose. He patiently conducts his ministry. He resists those demons that council him to quit. He is passionate about what he’s doing.

Rev. Howard Thurman

Rev. Howard Thurman

As a minister—as your minister—the question that seems most critical for me to ask you is “What are you passionate about?” You’ve heard me ask this question from the pulpit. Many of you have heard me ask it in one-on-one meetings or in small groups. I ask this question because I’m convinced people pursuing their passions are truly living their lives. They’re awake, inspired, generous, open, committed. We read earlier from the Christian mystic, Howard Thurman: “Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in good times or in tempests, I may not forget that to which my life is committed.”[4] I’m mindful of another quote from Thurman: “Ask not what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who’ve come alive.”[5] For me this is another way to describe how it feels when we arrive beyond the last ridge: fully alive and blessing the world.

So when I talk about religious devotion here—liberal religious devotion, Unitarian Universalist devotion—I’m looking for the extent to which your life is oriented toward your passions. What portion of your day is devoted to giving some part of yourself to that something or someone you care deeply about? How much opportunity is there in the course of your week to open your heart fully to that something or someone you love? In your life is there sufficient room to take the risks your passion requires? Religious devotion is a quality in us—a quality we can cultivate—marked by focus, patience, practice, purposefulness, resolve, clarity, a striving for what matters most. The word devotion comes from the Latin devovere, which translates as consecrate. When we consecrate something or someone, we make them sacred. I’m suggesting that as we devote our lives to the things and people we’re passionate about, we make them sacred. My continual prayer for us is that we may have in our lives sufficient if not expansive room for consecration—room to devote ourselves to what matters most. Through our devotion, which is always a giving away of some part of ourselves, may we live fully. May we find wholeness. May we bless the world.

Having offered this prayer, let me offer a caution: devotion can sometimes lead to conflict in communities. Rev. Brown is outspoken about the need to end violence on Hartford streets. His devotion inspires him to challenge and critique elected officials, the police, clergy, neighborhoods, drug dealers, gang members—anyone whose actions, or inactions, undermine attempts to end violence, he calls them out. And as you may imagine, there are many who don’t appreciate being called out. He generates conflict—and I think it’s a necessary conflict when we pause to consider what is at stake.

Exploring religious devotion in our own lives, it’s important for us to recognize that our devotion may bring clarity and a singularity of purpose to us, but that others may not share it. When we name it, when we act on it, it can be alienating to those who don’t share our passion. Thus, our devotion can set us apart, make us stand out, make us wonder: Why don’t others take this as seriously as I do? Our devotion can, in fact, lead us into isolation, into loneliness, and into disagreement. This is a basic reality of human communities. To live well with this reality, it is critical that we learn to accept that not everyone shares our passion—that we can invite others to join us, but we can’t force them; and that we are a stronger spiritual community when there is room for many passions: social justice, music, children, elders, learning, multigenerational community, visual arts, cooking, service, worship, leadership, finance, theology, administration, sustainable living, green energy, event planning, fundraising, caring, gardening, visiting, knitting. The more room for passionate devotion, the stronger we are.

knockingA further caution: religious devotion can become overbearing and downright dangerous. In more mild Crusadesterms I’m referring to door-to-door evangelists, to proselytizers who seem unable to respect the existence of other faiths. We often experience them as spiritually tone-deaf, as pious and pushy, though I admire the courage of those who knock on endless doors only to be met with a polite no thank you at best, and derision at worst. In more extreme terms we know some who are deeply devoted are easily manipulated. When given a reason to fear some enemy, some infidel, some non-believer, some other, the devoted can be convinced to commit acts of violence or terrorism. So many perpetrators of religious violence believe they are acting out of devotion to God, believe they fulfilling God’s will for them. Devotion can and does go horribly wrong. If we bristle at the word, it is understandable.

Rev. Davidson Loehr

Rev. Davidson Loehr

A final caution: not all passions are worth pursuing. But how do we know? Here’s a quote from the Rev. Davidson Loehr, a liberal minister who served Unitarian Universalist congregations. In his 2005 book, America Fascism + God, he names the power of gods in our lives, though he’s using god in psychological rather than a traditional religious sense. He says, “I am a theologian, and I … know something about gods. I know how they work, how powerful they are, how invisible they usually are, and I know that beneath nearly every human endeavor with any passion or commitment about it there will be a god operating, doing the things gods do. Gods are those central concerns that our behaviors show we take very seriously. We commit our lives to them, we are driven by them, and in return they promise us something we want, or think we want. Whether what they promise us is good or bad is a measure of whether the god involved is an adequate or an inadequate one.”[6] He’s talking here specifically about the way American society treats capitalism as a god, though a highly inadequate one, since recent economic trends have led to such enormous inequality and poverty. He contends this worship of the inadequate god of capitalism has come at the expense of a much more adequate god, democracy.[7]

I won’t follow this particular thread any further, but I think this concept is important. The sign of an inadequate god is that our devotion to it results either in some kind of harm, or in nothing useful at all. The sign of an adequate god is that our devotion to it results in some tangible good. I was thinking that a good way to discuss devotion with children would be to ask them how they spend their free time. If they’re being honest—as opposed to thinking, he’s the minister, I better say what I think he wants me to say—they might talk about watching television or playing video games. At least my kids would. And we could then have a conversation about whether choosing to spend their time this way results in any good for themselves or for society. Hopefully it would get them thinking about more productive ways to devote themselves. Of course, some kids will talk about sports, nature, art, pets, school or helping their parents. If asked, they can name how devoting their time in this way results in a good for themselves or others. The deeper learning in such a conversation is that how we spend our time is a sign of what is truly important to us, regardless of what we say is important to us. As Rev. Loehr and others would put it, it’s a sign of the god we actually worship.

This can be dicey with adults, especially if we’re prone to feeling guilty. If we answer the question honestly, we may find that we devote quite a bit of time to things that make no difference, things that produce no good for ourselves or society. We may find that despite what we say we’re passionate about, our actions indicate we’re devoted to some other god. Do we watch too much television? Do we spend too much time on our electronic devices? These are fairly innocuous gods. They hurt no one. And often we say “this is how I unwind.” And that’s legitimate, though if our unwinding consistently prevents us from devoting ourselves to our passions, we may have to confront the possibility we are not fully living our lives. And what of devotion to more destructive gods? Alcohol comes to my mind most immediately as an adult child of an alcoholic. An unbalanced devotion to any substance—drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, food—can lead to harm of oneself and others. An unbalanced devotion to money can lead to harm. An unbalanced devotion to power can lead to harm. And there are even more insidious gods. Human beings can devote themselves to nourishing their hatreds and fears, their sense of victimhood when no actual victimization is taking place, their sense of racial and cultural superiority. Such devotions, if unchecked, lead quite easily to violence, oppression and warfare. Devotion can and does go horribly wrong.

Last Ridge

So we approach with caution. But I say, let us err not on the side of caution, but on the side of devotion. If Rev. Loehr is correct—and I believe he is—whether we know it or not, we’re always choosing to worship one god or another. So let us devote ourselves to those gods that bring good to the world: beauty, creativity, peace, justice, community, democracy, love. And not just for a moment, but for our lifetimes, like the pie maker, patiently learning “how to get past wanting to quit,” and finally arriving at “the place in our minds beyond the last ridge.”[8]

May each of us find in our lives sufficient if not expansive room for consecration—room to devote ourselves to what matters most; and through our devotion, which is always a giving away of some part of ourselves, may we live fully, may we find wholeness, may we bless the world. Amen, blessed be.

 

[1] Max, Lin, “Piemaker,” “Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature By Women,” Summer 1992, Volume 14, #1, p. 34.

[2] For the story about the murder of Shamari Jenkins, see: http://articles.courant.com/2013-06-07/community/hc-hartford-bryan-murder-arraignment-0608-2-20130607_1_girlfriend-killed-magnolia-street-police.

[3] Read at December 17th, 2011 Hartford Courant article on Rev. Henry Brown at http://articles.courant.com/2011-12-17/community/hc-hartford-henry-brown-1218-20111217_1_gun-violence-brown-prayer-vigils.

[4] Thurman, Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #498.

[5] My research confirms this quote is from Howard Thurman, though it is not clear where he wrote it or when he said it.

[6] Loehr, Davidson, America Fascism + God (White River Junction, CT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2005) p. 46.

[7] Ibid, p. 52.

[8] Max, Lin, “Piemaker,” “Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature By Women,” Summer 1992, Volume 14, #1, p. 34.

Speechless in the Face of Evil

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

Shhh

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

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

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

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

Genocide

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

Speechless

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

What Evil Isn’t

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

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

What Evil Is

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

Speechless

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

Speechless

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pope Francis, Inverted Funnels and Big Hearts Open

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

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

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

changing leaves

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

poverty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

being present

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

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

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

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

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

Keep on buildin'....

Keep on buildin’….

Amen and blessed be.

Living With a Living Tradition

Rev. Josh Pawelek

6 Sources

This summer the Sunday Services Committee and I have been exploring the six sources of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition in our worship services. While our seven principles express our vision for how we want to be together and how we want to be in the world, the six sources are the wells from which we draw our beliefs and deepen our spiritual lives. I’m aware that as I go through my days these sources are all around me, present, available. I find them in the people I meet, the places I visit, the books I read. I encounter them in the land, in our history, in the daily news, in dreams. Sometimes I go to them for insight. Sometimes they sneak up on me, surprise me, awaken me. Part of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist is to be familiar with how these sources present themselves to us, how they help us form our beliefs, how they deepen or, as I like to say, moisten, our spiritual lives. They live, breathe, pulse, dance. And when taken together, they really do give rise to a living tradition. This morning I want to briefly reflect on each of the six sources and share with you how I’ve encountered them this summer.

Nancy ShafferEarlier I read from Rev. Nancy Shaffer’s book, While Still There is Light, in which she chronicles her experience of living with an aggressive and, ultimately, fatal brain tumor.[1] She explores death and dying, fighting and struggling, acceptance, sorrow, joy, friendship, love and more. Emotionally raw, unrefined, unfinished, it’s not your classic escapist summer reading. In the beginning of the book she describes what she calls a “primary spiritual experience.” As hospital staff were prepping her for surgery to remove the tumor she was overcome with an intense feeling of “being held in love, / the entire tunnel of love / and wondering whether the whole team / felt held in love / and whether we altered the course of neurosurgery / by holding the team and me in love.”[2]

Rev. Shaffer’s “primary spiritual experience” is an example of our first source: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” Hers is common enough: in the midst of fear and anxiety she finds comfort and solace, a powerful feeling of being held, of being loved even while lying on the cold, sterile operating room table. Unitarian Universalists most typically report having such experiences in Nature—in response to a majestic mountain-top view, or in the presence of water, or while gazing out at the night sky, or with the fragrance of spring’s first blossoms, or with autumn’s changing leaves, or with the first snowfall. Others report such experiences in response to music, or while singing, reciting poetry, gardening, praying, meditating, dancing, worshipping, exercising, acting for justice, working with children, caring for a loved-one, building—or just being in—community. The list is seemingly endless.

Such experiences vary from person to person. Some don’t report them at all. They are typically fleeting. Like dreams, they are difficult to sustain. They are vague in the sense that they are not creatures of the mind. Rather, they are creatures of the heart, the soul, the spirit. They are feelings, hunches, instincts, intuitions. They are cries of Hallelujah! They don’t necessarily tell us anything concrete about the world. They don’t give us new facts. But somehow they affirm our deepest longings and our strongest sense of what is true. They tell us that we actually do belong here; or we actually are connected to the whole of life; or we actually are part of a reality larger than ourselves; or we actually are justified in being hopeful about the future; or we actually are loved—held in a loving embrace—even if we cannot name what holds us.

During the first week of August I was walking on the beach in Panama City Beach, Florida. I noticed something moving under the Stingrayswaves two or three yards away. It was a stingray swimming—perhaps fluttering—slowly along the ocean floor, its pace matched to mine. Then I saw three more stingrays, all moving along at the same slow speed. I walked with them for about a hundred yards before they changed direction and headed out to sea. I’ve seen stingrays in the ocean before. They certainly aren’t the most beautiful fish. But it was one of those awe-filled moments for me, walking along with these oddly graceful cousins of sharks. I can’t say exactly what it was, but I felt connected and somehow held—part of some reality larger than myself. I felt peace. I felt gratitude. Hallelujah. Amen. Blessed be.

Our second source is “words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with the transforming power of love.” For so many Unitarian Universalists the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s stands out as the quintessential moment of prophetic witness in American history. Many UUs supported and I Have a Dreamparticipated in that movement, including two who were famously murdered by white segregationists: Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. Because of this we often look back to that time for prophetic words and deeds to inspire us in our social justice efforts today. While I hope I have shared with you over the years words and deeds of prophetic women and men from a wide range of movements—women’s suffrage, feminism, gay and lesbian civil rights, marriage equality, transgender anti-discrimination, anti-apartheid, anti-slavery and Abolitionism, immigrants’ rights, migrant workers’ rights, the American Indian Movement, the Arab Spring, environmental justice, anti-colonialism, anti-racism and anti-oppression—while I hope I have brought voices from these movements consistently into this pulpit and counseled us not to rely solely for inspiration on the words and deeds of the Civil Rights Movement—I want to remind us that this coming week—August 28th specifically—marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. This week we ought to let the prophetic words and deeds of the American Civil Rights movement wash over us, nurture us, inspire us and call us back to that enduring vision of a racially and economically just United States of America, call us back to the many ways we can work to make that vision a reality.

Our third source is “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” For me this source speaks to a basic yet also radical Unitarian Universalist orientation to the world. That is, we trust we have something to learn from other religions. Other religions are not to be ignored, looked down upon, or feared, but rather respected, honored, and studied. It’s a reminder that any revelation we believe we’ve received is not final, that whatever wisdom we possess is incomplete, that our knowledge is limited. The presence of other faiths is not threatening. That presence challenges us to grow more deeply in our own faith.

On our way back from Panama City Beach we spent a day at Colonial Williamsburg. If you’ve been there you know it’s a living history museum featuring hundreds of colonial era buildings, shops and farms filled with actors in period dress and thousands of tourists, not in period dress. Into this mix, on a near 100? day, strolls a Muslim family. The husband and sons are dressed like all the other tourists, in shorts and t-shirts. The woman—who I assume is the wife and mother in this family—is dressed in a jet-black, full-body hijab. She is completely covered. Only her eyes are exposed. I notice other tourists staring at her. I notice I’m staring at her. Her presence in Colonial Williamsburg is somehow jarring. Given the current tension in the United States over the place of Muslims in society, given the widespread stereotype of Muslims as potential terrorists, given the many, many myths about Islam that hold sway in the popular American mind, I have to assume that at least some of the tourists—and perhaps the actors too—wonder what she is doing there. At least that’s my fear—and it’s based on what I know of the experiences of my Muslim colleagues and acquaintances. People question them all the time. Are they legitimate Americans? Especially here. Williamsburg is one of the cradles of American democracy, and many Americans see Islam as anti-democratic and anti-American. I don’t think my assumption is implausible: that some of the tourists and staff may, at least in their immediate gut reaction, question whether or not this woman belongs here.

Hijab

But I also know there are possibly as many as 10 million Muslim Americans. The Muslims I know, who include African and Caucasian Americans, Middle Easterners and Southeast Asians identify with the nation’s democratic principles; they see Islam as completely compatible with a free society; and they long to be accepted as full members of that society. I also know that devout Muslim women cover themselves. Are there some Muslim women who chaff at this practice? I’m sure there are, but I’ve never met one. What I know from Muslim women who take pride in this practice is that the covering symbolizes modesty and morality, that it is consistent with the teaching of the Koran, and that wearing it in public is a form of spiritual discipline. And knowing all this I find myself admiring this woman in the jet-black, full-body hijab, strolling down the main street of Colonial Williamsburg. And in thinking about her spiritual discipline and, frankly, her courage, I begin to wonder: what is my spiritual discipline? And I recognize that witnessing the spiritual discipline of another faith, far from being threatening, teaches me, makes me think, and challenges me to dig deeper into my own faith.

Our fourth source is “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as ourselves.” I preached about this on July 28th in response to the verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial. I won’t say more about it now, except to remind us that George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict, while understandable from a technical legal standpoint, was disheartening, demoralizing and enraging for many Americans of all races. In response to the verdict I heard and read many people around the country making some reference to the Great Commandment, to loving our neighbors as ourselves. This story led many people to decry the apparent lack of love at the heart of our public encounters, and to hold up George Zimmerman’s treatment of Trayvon Martin, and perhaps Trayvon Martin’s treatment of George Zimmerman, as emblematic of a crisis in our capacity to love one another in the public square. Whether or not you believe such a crisis really exists, I take it as a fundamental truth that opportunities to love our neighbors as ourselves present themselves to us every day. My prayer always is that we may heed the ancient teachings and choose love.

Humanism

The fifth source is “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” I’m going to be teaching a course this fall called “The Humanist-Theist Debate, Then and Now.” So this summer I’ve been studying the relationship between Humanism and Theism primarily in Unitarianism over the past century. Through the course of this study I’ve realized that we define Humanism in far too narrow terms these days. We say things like, “Humanism is another word for Atheism,” and leave it at that. I know I’m guilty of using this theological shorthand. While it’s true that most UUs who identify as Humanists are also Atheists, Humanism is much broader than Atheism. When we talk about Humanism as a source for our living tradition, we are referring to the power of the human mind and the knowledge brought forth through the exercise of reason. We’re referring to the power of the human heart and the wisdom brought forth through acts of courage, compassion and commitment. We’re referring to the power of the scientific method to uncover the truths of our world and the universe. We’re referring to the power of human invention and innovation. We’re referring to the power of values such as freedom, democracy, justice and the human capacity to shape the world in response to these values. Through the course of this study I’ve been feeling more and more called to revisit Humanism, to reclaim it and to present it and live it in all its breadth and depth.

Finally, our sixth source is “spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” I want to tell you a story from our time in Panama City Beach,“The Pirate Cruise Story.” A pirate cruise is a tourist attraction. The boat is decorated like a pirate ship, though it has a full bar and blasts Jimmy Buffet music over the loudspeakers. There are about 50-60 kids on the boat, along with their parents and some grandparents. The kids do pirate activities like finding treasure, practicing sword-fighting, and firing the ship’s canons at unsuspecting sunbathers on the beach.

(Image Removed)

I had the privilege of sitting behind the captain. He was probably sixty years old, stocky, grizzled, eye-patch, big sword. In between giving the kid orders, he would talk to the adults about the natural features of the area. He was knowledgeable about the surrounding land and water. I couldn’t tell if he was spiritually grounded in a traditional earth-based religion. I thought probably not. But with his knowledge and love for the land and water around Panama City Beach, he struck me as someone who grew up steeped in it, someone who knew something about the sacred circle of life and how to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature. He did not strike me as an environmentalist, mainly because he kept saying things like, “We can’t sail in this channel or the environmental people will be all over me.” He clearly was not a big fan of the environmental people.

Eventually we sailed out into the Gulf of Mexico, just beyond a large jetty. There were a number of tourist boats—much smaller than ours—floating in what looked like a big circle. I noticed people diving off some of the boats into the middle of the circle. Soon it became clear they were swimming with dolphins. Our pirate captain was livid. He sailed our comparatively monstrous ship right into the middle of the circle of smaller boats. He cranked up his PA system and starting speaking to us—but really to everyone in the area—about the new statutes prohibiting this kind of interaction with dolphins. In short, dolphins are to be left alone. If you build relationships with them, especially through feeding them, they become dependent and lose their ability to survive in the wild. It destroys their natural rhythm. He yelled out that the first lawsuits to be filed under these new statutes were about to be heard in court and the defendants were facing steep fines, as much as half a million dollars. Now that was some mighty fine pirating! Argh!

Feeding Dolphins

The reminder for me—the lesson—is how important it is to know and to love the land and the water where you live; to treat the circle of life as sacred—because it is; and to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature. When we love the land and the water, we will fight to protect it, preserve it, sustain it.

Six sources all around us, constantly available. Sometimes we seek them out. Sometimes they sneak up on us, surprise us, awaken us. Six sources helping us form our beliefs and moisten our spiritual lives, reminding us of our values, affirming our deepest longings and our strongest sense of what is true. Six sources living, breathing, pulsing, dancing. Six sources giving rise to a living tradition.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] Shaffer, Nancy, While Still There Is Light (Boston: Skinner House, 2013).

[2] Shaffer, While Still There Is Light, p. 4.

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

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

 

The Great CommandmentThis 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.

Trayvon Martin

George ZimmermanAnd 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.

7-28 Love Thy Neighbor

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.

What if?

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?

Antiracist and Proud

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?

Cesar and Delores

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?

SB 1070 protest

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?

Cesar and Delores

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:

Community Organizer

“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.

Into the Wilderness

Rev. Josh Pawelek.

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

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

Lush Forests

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

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

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

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

Jesus: The Temptation by Rosetta Jallow

Jesus: The Temptation by Rosetta Jallow

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

 

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

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

Jon D. Levenson

Jon D. Levenson

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

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

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

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

Emptiness

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

worlds within worlds

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

Rob Laurens

Rob Laurens

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

 

Amen and blessed be.

Blue of the Road



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rooted, Planted, Grounded

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

A Life Redeemed

 

 

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Bottles

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

redeemed bottles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

earth

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

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

Sculptors

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

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

Sculptor

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

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

beloved community

Amen and Blessed Be.



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

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

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

[4] Ibid., p. 44.

[5] Ibid., p. 43.