On Giving Honor — UUS:E Virtual Worship, May 24, 2020

Watch our May 24th virtual Sunday Service here. 

Bridging / Thoughts on Reopening — UUS:E Virtual Worship, May 17, 2020

Friends: You can watch the video of our May 17th service, including our bridging ceremony,  on the UUS:E Youtube channel.

The text to Rev. Josh Pawelek’s homily is here:

I want to share a few thoughts on what it means for us to get back to normal. By “us” I mean not only those of us in this service – but us as the wider communities of Manchester and Greater Hartford, us as the people of Connecticut, us as a nation.

Earlier we conducted our bridging ceremony. I want to offer congratulations again to John, Sarah, Nate and Mason. And I want to affirm that it’s a very strange and unnerving time to be bridging into young adulthood. The University of California announced this week that it would only be offering online learning for the coming academic year. I suspect each of you will be encountering similar decisions by the schools you are planning to attend this fall. There are many unknowns, and yet one thing we do know is that you will not be launching into young adulthood the way high school graduates always have. Please know that whatever happens, we are here for you. We are committed to supporting you, along with all the other UUS:E young adults who are experiencing disruption at this formative time in their lives.

What about the rest of us? What kind of future are we bridging into?

On Thursday the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Safe Congregation Team released guidance on how to safely return to in-person congregational gatherings. While that guidance is not definitive for us, we need to take it seriously. And the bottom line is sobering. They recommend not returning to regular in-person gatherings until May of 2021. In making this recommendation they are asking us to account for the most vulnerable people among us – not only in our congregation, but also in the wider community. That is, if our UUS:E community were to gather too soon and become instrumental in the spread of a new outbreak, it would not only negatively impact our people, which for me is unacceptable; it would negatively impact people in the wider community. That is also unacceptable. The UUA’s guidance is grounded first and foremost in “our abiding care and concern for the most vulnerable, inside and outside our congregations” and the “recognition that we are part of an interdependent web and, as such, our risk-taking and our protective actions affect far more than just ourselves.”[1]

We won’t be re-opening any time soon, which means we’re going to have to be innovative and creative in all the ways we offering programming, and especially in how we keep our congregational community connected. And when we finally do re-open, we will not be the same community. This social distancing time is going to change us. We are not bridging back to our old ‘normal.’ Something new awaits. We will discover this ‘something new’ as a congregation over the coming year.

The UUA’s guidance flies in the face of the widespread impulse to re-open the country. Connecticut begins re-opening on Wednesday. Other states have already begun re-opening, even states where the infection rate is still on the rise. Here’s my question: Are those in charge of re-opening taking the most vulnerable people into account? Are those in charge of re-opening acting out of an “abiding care and concern for the most vulnerable?” Do those pushing the hardest for re-opening recognize “that we are part of an interdependent web and, as such, our risk-taking and our protective actions affect far more than just ourselves?”

Ten days ago I was in a meeting with clergy from the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. It was so striking to hear urban and suburban faith leaders compare notes on their experience of the pandemic. Case in point: the membership of our largely white, suburban congregation has had very little exposure to the coronavirus, and only a few positive tests. We have had no deaths. Yet my colleagues serving largely black, urban congregations report widespread infection and multiple deaths. One highly community-oriented pastor said he was getting at least a phone call a day to conduct a memorial service for someone who had died of Covid-19. Other pastors reported widespread food insecurity and economic hardship. The pandemic has exposed beyond a shadow of a doubt the many race-based economic, social and health disparities in our nation. The high infection and death rates among people of color aren’t a novelty. They are a clear-as-day symptom of the old normal. On the GHIAA call this pastor, speaking through quiet tears, said “we cannot go back to that.”

Friends: I don’t know what the future holds. None of us does. But as a society we cannot bridge back to the old normal. We cannot go back to being the wealthiest nation in the world without understanding that for that wealth to exist the way it does, tens of millions of low-wage workers, immigrants, undocumented people, Black and Latinx people must live with intolerable insecurity, just a breath away from economic ruin or personal health crisis or both.

We’ve been trying to help, raising money to address food insecurity, to support undocumented people facing ICE proceedings, to support domestic workers who’ve gotten sick, and now to support non-union rest stop workers who’ve lost their jobs. These efforts matter because they help vulnerable people survive the pandemic. But let’s be clear: they don’t change the old normal. Are we ready to be in the fight for a new society?

I hope we are. The old normal was a moral failing on the part of our nation. Now, with the coronavirus, it’s a moral catastrophe unfolding before our eyes. We cannot go back to where we were. In all your conversations about re-opening, and in every interaction you may have with officials who have a role to play in the re-opening, demand two things:

All re-opening decisions must be grounded in a demonstrable and “abiding care and concern for the most vulnerable.”

All re-opening decisions must start from a “recognition that we are part of an interdependent web and, as such, our risk-taking and our protective actions affect far more than just ourselves.”

If these values can be brought to bear in the re-opening phase, we will be on our way to a better future for everyone. In my view, fighting for this future now is a moral imperative. May we find our way into this fight.

Amen and blessed be.

 

Epidemics, Violence and Healing: Women in Indigenous Communities

Virtual Worship at UUS:E, Sunday, May 3rd, 2020, with special guest speaker, endawnis Spears of the Akomawt Educational Initiative.

Watch the service on YouTube here.

This morning’s opening words are “Poem 31” from Lifting Hearts Off The Ground: Declaring Indigenous Rights in Poetry by Lyla June Johnston (Diné/Tsétséhéstáhese/ European lineages).

This morning’s story is Jingle Dancer (by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu).

In Search of Compassion in Challenging Times — UUS:E Virtual Worship — April 26, 2020

Read the text to Penny Field’s homily on compassion:

In Search of Compassion in Challenging Times         

I want to begin by sharing a personal story: Paul and I began sheltering in place on March 12. I had a lot of fear of getting the virus and having complications so I didn’t want to need to grocery shop for several months. I did a big grocery shop on the 11th and the house was well stocked but very soon after I noticed that I was thinking about food all of the time. I noticed how worried I felt about how I would keep getting fresh greens without going to the store or what we do if we ran out of this or that. Or what if the food supplies dried up? I could not stop thinking about food. I intellectually knew that we had plenty and I didn’t need to worry but some part of me was thinking about it constantly. And then I would feel a huge wave of shame about the fact that I have so much privilege, I have plenty of food, I have an extra freezer filled with great things and I’m still feeling this anxiety. What’s wrong with me?

I’ve been thinking a lot about compassion in these days of the coronavirus. What exactly is compassion and how can we all experience more of it? Compassion is a bit of a tricky word. It’s one that we think we understand the meaning of but often, when asked to define it’s hard to articulate what we understand compassion to be. Usually, people use words like “sympathy” or “empathy” or talk about the feeling of wanting to help those less fortunate. But I think it’s more than that.

Sympathy, and even empathy, place the person feeling that as separate from those receiving it. Aww I feel sorry for you!  Let me help you with that! Of course, wanting to help is never a bad thing but true compassion is something different. Something more. Kristen Neff, one of the first researchers in the field of self-compassion, has developed a definition that I think does a very good job capturing the true meaning of the word. She defines compassion as the ability to hold suffering with loving kindness

This sounds simple but it’s harder than you might think. To hold suffering with kindness we first have to really notice and acknowledge the suffering. Opening up to the awareness of someone else’s pain can feel quite uncomfortable. It’s why so many people walk by the homeless, the mentally ill, the panhandlers, and completely ignore them or have a judgement like: I’m not giving them money, they’ll just buy drugs. To be mindful of the suffering is to really see the human being and to acknowledge their pain: That must be so hard! Something terrible must have happened to that person that they are in this situation now. Truly being mindful of suffering can be very challenging.

And for some of us, we may be able to be present with other people’s suffering and even able to offer help but can’t seem muster much compassion for ourselves and don’t even think to try. How many of us are harshly critical of our own pain and have trouble being kind to ourselves? We might confuse self-compassion with feeling sorry for ourselves or we have a loud inner critic that thinks we can somehow “should” ourselves into better behavior. There I was in my anxiety about if there would be enough food for me during this pandemic and what did I say to myself? I said, “What’s wrong with me?” instead of “Wow. This feels really scary and it’s hard to be this afraid.”

To hold suffering, others’ or your own, with kindness not only requires really noticing the pain but it also calls us to pay attention to how we all suffer and how your suffering is or easily could be mine. This is our opportunity to reach for connection inside of the suffering. The Latin root for the word compassion is PATI, which means to suffer, and the pre-fix COM means with. COMPATI literally means to suffer with. Compassion brings people together in the suffering.

This, too, can be really hard. It’s so human to want to be separate from others’ suffering. It feels safer to think: That could never happen to me or If so and so would just stop doing that they wouldn’t be in that trouble. It’s a survival instinct to protect me and mine from perceived danger and often, other people’s suffering is perceived as a danger so we don’t habitually look for how that trouble could so easily also be ours. But if we can notice suffering and look for how we know that pain too, or how it’s so human to suffer in that way, then we are reaching for the invisible string that ties us all together.  We are choosing love as our religion.

This truth that we are all connected, what UUs name as the interconnected web of life; that we all suffer in strikingly similar ways, has never been so apparent as now, during this global pandemic. We are suffering the shared trauma of a completely unknown future. So many of the feelings associated with this time are shared by everyone, even if the actual day to day realities are radically different.

If you are someone who has a home and is able to shelter in place that does not mean you don’t have fear about the future. If you are able to work from home, that does not mean you don’t have fear of financial insecurity. If you are sheltering with family or friends, that does not mean you are not lonely or missing connecting in person with people. If you are fortunate enough to have a well-stocked pantry, that does not mean you don’t suffer from food insecurity.

And if you have feelings of guilt about your privilege you are not alone. It’s human and so many of us share those feelings and we can begin to practice compassion for ourselves. Can we notice our fears, our grief, our anger and can we acknowledge how human those feelings are? Can we then hold those feelings with an attitude of kindness as opposed to guilt or self-criticism?

Because I have a regular compassion practice, eventually I was able to make space for and truly notice and sit with my anxiety about having enough food. When I did that, I realized that my fear was deeply connected to childhood and ancestral issues. My mother was a depression baby and she raised me with all kinds of deprivations around food. Everything I wanted to eat was either too expensive or too fattening. This had a huge impact on my relationship with food and so the ability to be generous with food and have access to a wide array of delicious things for myself and to share with others became a big part of my identity. Of course I would have fears around food access.

And as I sat with that, I remembered that my mother’s mother escaped the pogroms to travel alone to the US, and that her mother lived in poverty in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe. I began to understand that as a Jew, there was likely true food insecurity back to times of my earliest ancestors. That recognition allowed me to release the shame about my own fears and opened the door to a deep feeling of connection to all of the people who are suffering from actual food insecurity during this time of the pandemic. From a place of true compassion for myself and others, I could make donations to several local food banks and participate in a local initiative to bring food to the homeless. I could hold the suffering with kindness and feel my common humanity.

Whatever you are experiencing during this time, I wish for you the ability to practice true compassion for yourself and others. Whatever you are feeling, whatever you are struggling with, it’s human and we all have those feelings. If we can be mindful, pay attention to pain, to fear, to grief, to boredom, and remember our common humanity, we can truly feel that invisible string that connects us all and with kindness we can, be gentle with ourselves and from that place, reach out to those in need as if they were our own loved ones. As the Brandy Carlile song says:

we can be each other’s wheels and road

for each other’s heavy load,

see us through thick and thin,

for love and loss until the end.

Amen and blessed be

 

 

“Hope Is….” — UUS:E Virtual Sunday Service, Easter, April 12, 2020

Friends:

The UUS:E virtual Easter Service, “Hope Is….” can be viewed at here.

Here is the text to Rev. Pawelek’s Easter homily, “Tending to Bodies.”

It is Easter morning. As the story goes, it is now the third day since Jesus has been crucified, his body stashed in a nearby tomb hewn into the rock.

In the New Testament book of Mark we read: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

These are ancient words, written most likely in the fourth or fifth decade after Jesus’ death. Every year, as I read these words at Easter time, I listen carefully for what they might be saying to us across the millennia. What I notice this morning is that the three women who go to the tomb aren’t looking for a resurrected Jesus. They aren’t hoping beyond hope that somehow he has risen from the dead. No. They are going to the tomb to anoint his body with spices. In the wake of a terrible death—a state-sponsored execution—in the midst of what for them could be nothing less than an unbearable trauma—they are doing something simple, something ritualistic, something cultural, something people in their world normally do when a loved-one dies, something profoundly human: they are going to the tomb to anoint his body with spices. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing heroic. Nothing dramatic. They are tending to their beloved’s body.

As they approach the tomb, wondering who can help them roll away the stone, they find that the stone has already been rolled away; Jesus’ body is gone; a young man in a white robe who is not Jesus—we never learn who he is—tells them Jesus has been raised. Resurrection! New Life! A spring-inspired word! Hope beyond hope!

Next year I might read these words differently, and differently still the year after that. But this year, this Easter, coming in the midst of this coronavirus time, this quarantine time, this lockdown time; coming in the midst of this unnerving, anxiety-producing, sleep-denying, utterly frightening global pandemic, the ancient gospel writer tells us, tend to the body! Tending to the body is a critical prelude to “he has been raised.”

Tend to the body.

Tend to your own body – give it what it needs. Tend to the bodies of your loved-ones—whether they are halfway across the room from you, or halfway across the country from you. Keep social distance, yes, but tend to the bodies of your neighbors. Tend to the bodies of the most vulnerable, those who cannot leave their homes, those who have no home, those who are at high risk if they contract the virus. Keep social distance, yes, but end to the bodies of those who have lost work, or who don’t have enough food and other supplies, or who must work in dangerous situations without sufficient protective gear. Tend to this church body as you are able. Tend to the body of the larger community as you are able. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing heroic. Nothing dramatic. Simply tend to bodies however you can. That is all Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome intended to do in the midst of their trauma. That is what we need to do in this moment. In fact, it may very well be all we can do.

And perhaps an unexpected, awesome and, as the writer says, terrifying revelation is waiting for us too. Some version of “He has been raised!” Life again! A spring-inspired word! Hallelujah!

When we carefully and intentionally tend to bodies at a moment such as this, I believe we touch the spirit at the heart of Easter. We help ourselves and others who have fallen into fear and despair regain grounding. We help ourselves and others who have lost faith in the goodness of humanity know and trust that there is still decency in the world. We help ourselves and others know that we care for one another, that our connections are strong, that it’s OK to ask for help, that we will not abandon anyone if it is in our power to help. For me, this year, this morning, tending to bodies is the message of Easter. That’s how we help bring ourselves and others out of our tombs. That’s how we and others proclaim resurrection! Life again! Life anew!

Tending to the body. That’s what brings hope in a moment such as this!

There are some pictures on our website—some of you may have seen them in the eblast yesterday—of Hartford Hospital workers wearing face masks that UUS:E members made in their homes. The workers gave us permission to share the pictures. The people who made the masks were tending to the workers’ bodies even though they didn’t know for sure who would ultimately wear the masks. The person who delivered the masks to the workers was tending to their bodies. The workers who wore the masks were tending to their own bodies, which in turn enables them tend to the bodies of patients in the hospital.

Those of you who are helping out with food drops are tending to bodies. Those of you who have indicated you are willing to help are tending to bodies. Those of you who are keeping touch with members and friends of our congregation are tending to bodies. Those of you who are sending cards to those who have lost loved-ones to Covid-19—you are tending to bodies. Those of you who have donated to MACC and Hartford Deportation Defense—you are tending to bodies. Every time we do these simple, human things—these unheroic, unexceptional, undramatic things—we tap into the spirit at the heart of Easter. We speak a spring-inspired word. We say “Yes” to life. We say “Life Again!” We say “Life Anew!” Like the three women at the tomb, we may be awe-struck in this moment. Like the three women at the tomb, we may be terrified in this moment. But like the three women at the tomb, in these very simple actions we also find hope when we least expect it.

My message to you this Easter morning: Be like the women at the tomb. Tend to bodies. That is what we must do now. That is our path out of our own tombs. That is our path to new life. That is our path to hope.

Amen and blessed be.

Deepening Connections — Virtual Worship, March 22, 2020

From Rev. Josh:

For those who are interested, the story Gina read, Tom Percival’s Ruby Finds a Worry,” can by viewed here.

I mentioned a March 12th New Yorker article by Robin Wright which you can find here. (Thanks to Nancy Pappas for suggesting this article.)

I shared some suggestions for conversation questions from New York Times Style section  columnist Daniel Jones’ 2015 piece, “36 Questions that Lead to Love.” You can read that article here.  (Thanks to Beth Hudson-Hankins for suggesting this article.)

And here are the words to my prayer:

This is so hard. We are praying. We are praying that our prayers may do some good.

We are praying for health care workers. We are praying prayers of profound gratitude for their heroic efforts not only to address Covid19, but to respond to all the other health concerns that don’t go away simply because we’re living with a pandemic. We know they are already overworked, stretched thin, carrying their own fears and anxieties. We pray that they may stay strong, stay healthy, get the resources and rest they need to continue in their incredible, life-saving work.

We are praying for first responders. We are praying prayers of profound gratitude for their heroic efforts to respond to emergencies in the midst of a pandemic. We know they are already overworked, stretched thin, carrying their own fears and anxieties. We pray that they may stay strong, stay healthy, get the resources and rest they need to continue in their incredible, life-saving work.

We are praying for everyone whose work supports food production and food distribution, but most importantly we are praying for grocery store workers at Stop and Shop, Big Y, Shopright, Priceright, Highland Park Market, Whole Foods, Aldi, C-Town Supermarkets, IGA, Shaws, Price Chopper, BJ’s, Costco and all the rest. We have such gratitude for those workers keeping shelves stocked as best they can, cleaning, helping. We pray that they may stay strong, stay healthy, get the resources and rest they need to continue in their incredible, life-saving work.

We pray for all those who have lost jobs, who have had to close down businesses, who have had to lay off staff, who have lost regular income. We are praying for all those who are trying to figure out childcare now that their children are home from school. We pray that they may stay strong, stay healthy, get the resources and rest they need to continue making their way, day-to-day, finding solutions to perplexing problems.

We are praying for all those who are and will be sick with Covid19. We are praying for the families of those who have died.

We pray that our efforts at social distancing will help, will help limit community spread, will help “flatten the curve,” will help save lives.

We don’t know what impact our prayers may have, but we know that as we pray, we orient ourselves toward doing what we need to do for ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods, for the most vulnerable in our region. May our prayers center us, ground us, calm us, and enable us to endure this crisis with grace, dignity and love.

Amen and blessed be.

A Church That Matters: A Sermon for the Annual Appeal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

According to the Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson, “In the church that doesn’t matter, no one has to ask for money, or even talk about it much; there is always enough to go around. There is always enough because no matter how much there is, there is always less to do with it than that. The vision always shrinks to under-match the means. So canvas season is always a breeze.”[1]

He’s kidding, except he’s not.

Every year there’s a moment when I panic about our annual appeal. Costs rise every year. The finance committee dutifully builds a budget that accounts for all the rising costs. They generate different versions of the budget—a conservative version that limits spending increases to a bare minimum; a mid-level version that may be a stretch, but funds our highest priority goals; and then an “everything budget” that funds everything we want to do, but which usually requires around a 10 percent increase in financial giving. At least for the past few years, the Policy Board has looked at these various proposals and, mindful that a 3% increase in giving is a very successful annual appeal for us, they nevertheless want to make sure that the everything budget is visible during the annual appeal, so that you will know what your financial generosity can make possible. This year that everything budget includes fully and sustainably funding our Membership Coordinator position (which we hope to rehire over the summer); paying full dues to the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance; funding a variety of building security measures; and paying salaries and benefits to our staff in line with Unitarian Universalist association recommendations. At the Policy Board meetings, we get really, really excited about what is possible. We want you to feel that same excitement.

Then I panic. How are we going to pull this off? People already make incredibly generous financial gifts; how can we keep asking for more? Most people’s income doesn’t increase three to ten percent every year, so how can we justify asking for increases? I worry you are going to think we’re out of touch with the fiscal realities of your lives.

But then, inevitably, I remember. This liberal religious, Unitarian Universalist congregation matters. And because this congregation matters, because we care deeply about it, the vision always expands, the possibilities always increase, opportunities always abound. Every year we imagine more than we can achieve—more social justice work and partnerships, more music and arts, more pastoral ministry, more spiritual growth, more outreach, more volunteerism, more youth and junior youth programming. We will always have an everything budget to reach for. We will always be visioning, dreaming and imaging beyond where we are precisely because this church matters. We will always be taking risks and experiencing some failure precisely because this church matters.

It’s never going to be easy, because none of you are here for a church that isn’t worth fighting over, a church that doesn’t inspire passion, a church that doesn’t touch your heart and move you to put your principles into action.

Our annual appeal has begun. Let’s thank the Stewardship Committee members. They run the annual appeal. Their purpose is to encourage generosity toward this congregation—not only financial generosity, but generosity in terms of commitment, spirit and love. Adam Bender chairs the committee. Members include Louisa Graver, Stan McMillen, Phil Sawyer and Larry Lunden. A great team! They organize the pledging potlucks. They organize and train the stewards who will reach out to many of you to ask for your financial pledge for the coming fiscal year. (As always, if a steward contacts you, please get back to them as soon as possible so they can meet with you.) Thank you Stewardship Committee. We deeply appreciate all the work you do on behalf of this church that matters.

We have big goals this year. As many of you know, we’ve made a big push over the last two years to hire a Membership Coordinator whose job is to oversee our membership ministry, including welcoming and nurturing visitors and fostering the engagement of current members and friends. Among the congregations in our denomination showing the greatest growth, the majority of them point to the presence of a membership professional as a primary reason for their growth. We filled the position last year. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. That was very disappointing. We’ve taken lessons from that experience. All of us who’ve worked hard to establish this position still believe it is the right direction for UUS:E, especially in this era when congregations in all denominations are facing strong headwinds and declining membership. Your generous pledge to the annual appeal will help us hire a membership coordinator in the coming year and sustain the position until it becomes self-sustaining. I want to thank members of the Growth Strategy Team Carol Marion, Michelle Spadaccini, Nancy Pappas, Louisa Graver, and Edie Lacey for all the work they’ve done to imagine, create and bring this position into being. Friends: Your extra financial generosity can make this happen!

In October, after three years of organizing, thirty-five congregations from across Hartford County founded the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance or GHIAA, a faith-based social justice organization. We come together across lines of faith, race, culture and geography, discern our common values, pool our resources, identify issues where our collective power will make a difference, and then exercise our power. Already we are having an impact. GHIAA has supported a group called the North End Power Team in their No More Slumlords campaign, which is successfully holding Hartford slumlords accountable for housing code violations, and which has also led the city of Hartford to update its housing codes for the first time in forty years. GHIAA is also currently engaged in the Clean Slate campaign, an effort to remove some misdemeanor and felony convictions from peoples’ records after incarceration so they can more fully enter back into regular life, find work, housing and educational opportunities. Many of you have already signed postcards in our lobby to your legislators and the governor urging them to support Clean Slate.

We’re also supporting legislation to repeal Connecticut’s welfare liens statutes. Currently our state and New York are the only two states that have mechanisms for clawing back public assistance money from people who’ve received it. This practice sends people who’ve made their way out of poverty right back into poverty—a classic example of balancing the state budget on the backs of poor people. It is unconscionable, immoral, cruel, and economically unwise. We’re going to end this practice.

GHIAA is also working in the areas of health care, gun violence, and education. Our UUS:E GHIAA core team will keep you informed of opportunities to get involved. If anyone wants to become part of our GHIAA core team, or if you want to work on one of GHIAA’s issue committees, please connect with me and I can point you in the right direction. But what does any of this have to do with our budget? UUS:E has been with GHIAA from the beginning, but we have not become a formal member. You will make that decision at our annual meeting in May. Membership comes with dues. We pay dues because it is our organization. In our everything budget, we pay dues of $5,000 to GHIAA. In the first few years we should be able to get some financial assistance from the Unitarian Universalist Association, but ultimately our dues are our expression of our commitment to a more just and equitable Greater Hartford region. Your extra generosity can make this happen!

Many of you know our congregation has been developing its emergency response plan in earnest for a number of years now. Along the way we’ve recognized there are many things we can do to make our building more secure. Some of you have noticed that we’ve begun installing a public address system using a series of wall units. There are many other upgrades we’d like to adopt, including a video surveillance system, reinforced glass around entry ways and more training opportunities. Our everything budget enables us to begin pursuing these upgrades in the coming year. Your extra generous gift to UUS:E can make this happen!

And yes, we want to treat our staff well. In our everything budget we bring our staff salaries in line with the midpoint of the annual UUA recommendations.

Like every year, there’s much we want to achieve. Why? Because this church matters. Many of you can envision more and more possibilities precisely because you love this church, and you want it to be the best, most effective, most meaningful, most loving church it can be.

But your generous donation to UUS:E is not just about these particular goals. These goals express something much deeper, much more profound and, frankly, much more urgent. Scholars of congregational vitality in the United States tell us organized religion is declining for a host of reasons—people are disillusioned with the church; they see hypocrisy and abuse; they see the church unable and unwilling to address problems in the larger society. We hear family life and kids’ schedules no longer mesh with a regular Sunday morning commitment. We hear the explosion of online entertainment, social media and gaming have greater appeal than church. I said a number of years ago I would no longer preach about the end of church, and I won’t. Suffice to say congregations in all denominations face headwinds.

But there’s a reason we’re still here. There is still a genius to the idea of the local congregation, and none of the headwinds negate that genius. At its best, your local congregation articulates and attempts to live by the values you hold dear; it welcomes you as you are, accompanies you on your life journey, holds you in your times of sorrow and grief, and celebrates with you in your times of joy and success. It helps you and your family mark your life transitions: birth, coming of age, marriage, death. Perhaps most importantly its gathers every week for worship—for holding up that which is worthy of our attention and commitment—and then sends us forth into the world ready to make a positive difference with our living. The local congregation is a powerful answer to the isolation and anxiety so many people feel today. It is a powerful answer to all the forces that divide people from people and weaken communities. And that is why, in Rev. Asprooth-Jackson’s words, “we get out of bed on Sunday morning, answer that email, make something for the [chocolate auction] and give our time and attention to a meeting every third Thursday.” That is why, “We still decide again and again to ask tough questions, take real risks, do the work that needs doing, and tell the truth.”[2] Local congregations of all kinds matter.

Having said that, for me there is a still greater genius at the core of the liberal and liberating church, including this Unitarian Universalist congregation. I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist and I have dedicated my life to our UU faith. I suspect the reasons I am here are consistent with the reasons you are here.

I am dedicated to the church that begins with the premise not that some are saved and some are damned, but that each human being has inherent worth and dignity.

I am dedicated to the church that refuses to contain its peoples’ spiritual lives within doctrines and dogmas but rather says “we trust you to freely and responsibly conduct your search for truth and meaning.”

I am dedicated to the church that teaches we are not separate from but rather exist in intimate relationship with the earth, that teaches the earth does not belong to us, rather we belong to it, and we are therefore called not just to care for the earth but to fight for its survival and well-bring.

I am dedicated to the church that understands the limits of its charity and therefore seeks to transform systems of injustice that create the need for charity in the first place.

I am dedicated to the church that seeks liberation for oppressed people not on its own but in accountable relationship to and in solidarity with oppressed people and their allies.

I am dedicated to the church that knows it doesn’t have all the answers, knows it isn’t perfect, knows change is inherent in our living, and therefore approaches the world from a position of humble questioning rather than unexamined or arrogant theological knowing.

I am dedicated to the church that is not threatened by science, but rather takes science seriously, respects scientific knowledge and methods, and is willing to modify its spiritual views in response to scientific discovery.

I am dedicated to the church whose members take responsibility for its well-being and rely on their own democratic processes to make thoughtful, hard decisions about their collective future.

I am dedicated to the church that makes room for a wide variety of spiritualties and theologies precisely because religion at its best does not limit people, but enables the expansion of thought, belief and practice.

I am dedicated to the church that teaches us not what to believe, but how to live.

I love this church and this faith. I make no apologies for that love. I hope and trust you love this church and this faith unapologetically. I hope and trust, when you contemplate your financial pledge for the coming fiscal year, you will keep in mind the genius of the liberal and liberating, Unitarian Universalist church, that you will recognize how sorely it is needed in today’s world, that you will remember this is a church that matters.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Asprooth-Jackson, Kelly Weisman, ‘The Church that Doesn’t Matter” Bless the Imperfect: Meditations for Congregational Leaders (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2014) p. 26.

[2] Asprooth Jackson, “The Church that Doesn’t Matter,” p. 27.

Enough With the Dystopias Already

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Dystopian Cityscape with Zombies, by Andre Thouin

“I think it’s okay to tell you that everything works out. That it’s okay. And it’s not easy all the time, not even here, because so much is broken, besides silence, but it is possible, it does feel possible. My friends and I feel possible all the time.”[1] A brief glimpse into a hopeful, however dystopian, post-capitalist future from Alexis Pauline Gumbs—queer black troublemaker, black feminist love evangelist, Afro-Caribbean grandchild, prayer-poet priestess, and time-traveling space cadet who lives and loves in Durham, North Carolina.[2] Her story, “Evidence,” appears in Octavia’s Brood, a 2015 collection of science fiction stories written by social justice movement activists.

There’s a soft spot in my heart for dystopian storytelling. Usually as the story begins, everything has changed. Governments have fallen due to climate catastrophes, pandemics or revolutions. Ruthless regimes, secret corporate cabals, zombies, or heartless machines rule the world. Protagonists struggle to survive, to overcome, or just to come to terms with their new reality. In Gumbs’ story the people have emerged out of a dystopian past in which “so much has been broken,” into a more healthy, creative, spiritually-grounded society. “My friends and I feel possible all the time.”

Writers of young adult mass market dystopian fiction sell millions of books which then become blockbuster movies. My son devours them: Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, James Dashner’s Maze Runner, Veronica Roth’s Divergent. I’ve recently started watching the The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 novel. A few years ago I couldn’t put down her Oryx and Crake series. I found Cormac McCarthy’s The Road disturbing but riveting. As a child I read George Orwell’s 1984, Neville Shute’s On the Beach, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, about a lone survivor of a zombie-producing pandemic which was the basis for the 1964 film, “The Last Man on Earth,” starring Vincent Price, the 1971 film, Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, and the 2007 film, I Am Legend, starring Will Smith. (Speaking of Heston, let’s not forget Planet of the Apes.) I go back often to movies like the Wachowsky sisters’ The Matrix, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and the Road Warrior films. I would be profoundly remiss if I did not mention one of the most influential books of our era, Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, which takes place in the midst of a collapsing California. Its main character, a teenager named Lauren Oya Olamina, crafts a nature-based theology called Earthseed. Butler is often regarded as the mother (and sometimes the grandmother) of Afrofuturism. [3]

You may not know all these references. Dystopian fiction may not be your thing, but it is wildly popular. Some fans love it purely as a form of escape. Others are genuinely intrigued with the philosophical questions the genre raises: how would human beings live under certain extreme conditions—a vastly altered climate, a brutally oppressive regime, a failing or failed modern world? And still others turn to this genre to ask: how should we live now? Given worsening climate conditions, increasing corporate power and wealth, the loss of traditional work due to automation, the rise of authoritarian regimes, how should we live now? What kinds of decisions should we make now? What new ethics should we promote now? What sorts of faith, theology and spirituality do we need now?

I call this sermon “Enough With the Dystopias Already.” In using this title I don’t mean to suggest that those of us who love dystopian fiction should stop consuming it. And I also don’t mean in any way to downplay or deny the very real dystopian experiences in many peoples’ lives. If you live under quarantine in the Hubei province of China, or on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship docked near Tokyo, you are living, at least temporarily, in a kind of dystopia. If you live in an area of the world beset by war, or the direct impacts of climate change, you are living in a kind of dystopia. If your community is recovering from a devastating natural disaster, you are living right now in a kind of dystopia. If your community endures high poverty, high crime, failing schools, widespread opioid use, high unemployment or limited health care options you may experience your day-to-day reality as a kind of dystopia. I don’t mean to disregard any of this.

When I say “enough with the dystopias already,” I’m referring to a tendency I observe in myself and others to catastrophize in response to troubling news, to overstate the severity of a crisis; to follow, for example, the news of the corona virus, and to worry incessantly about it here in the United States, without first trying to understand the data that actually exist. For most people who contract the virus the symptoms are very mild. The death rate, though significant, is much lower than that of previous corona viruses, and the flu is still a much more deadly disease. There are globally accepted best practices for containing dangerous viruses which the vast majority of nations are implementing. I’m not saying we have nothing to worry about. I’m not saying it won’t get worse—I don’t know that. I’m saying that given what health officials know, we should be concerned and cautious, we should pay attention, but there’s no reason to panic.

Another example of catastrophic thinking results from our perceptions of political polarization. Yes, polarization is real. Yes, relationships are breaking down over politics in ways we haven’t seen for generations. Yes, there is an ever-hardening tendency among our political leaders to refuse compromise, to resist the solid, pragmatic ideas at the center and hold relentlessly to ideological positions at the margins. But are we coming undone at the seams? Are we descending into chaos? Should we be panicking? Should we be despairing?

Last Sunday’s New York Times opinion section featured an extended editorial by the conservative columnist Ross Douthat called “The Age of Decadence.” “Everyone,” he writes, “knows that we live in a time of constant acceleration, or vertiginous change, of transformation or looming disaster everywhere you look. Partisans are girding for civil war, robots are coming for our jobs, and the news feels like a multicar pileup every time you fire up Twitter.” There’s a lot of catastrophic thinking going on, predictions of dystopia, but in Douthat’s assessment, catastrophe is not imminent. “The truth of the first decades of the 21st century … is that we probably aren’t entering a 1930s-style crisis for Western liberalism or hurtling toward transhumanism or extinction.” He says we’re not living in a dystopian age, but rather an  age of decadence. That’s not good, but it’s not dire either. Our decadent economy, if lacking in innovation, if unjust and unfair in many ways, is still highly stable. “The United States is an extraordinarily wealthy country, its middle class prosperous beyond the dreams of centuries past, its welfare state effective at easing the pain of recessions.” Yes, we face profound challenges. Yes, we live amidst profound contradictions. But “The decadent society, unlike the full dystopia, allows those signs of contradiction to exist, which means that it’s always possible to imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance.” [4]

Douthat is saying “enough with the dystopias already!” Enough with catastrophic thinking. Our society is more stable than we realize, and that means we still have the capacity to address our most daunting crises. I say “enough with the dystopias already” because the more we catastrophize, the more paralyzed we become, the more we fail to identify and exercise our power for the sake of renewal and renaissance, the more we lose the spirit Alexis Pauline Gumbs raises up in her story: “My friends and I feel possible all the time.”

Our February ministry theme is resilience. Catastrophic thinking about dystopian futures weakens our resilience. As I started contemplating this notion over the past few weeks, I began noticing examples of people who are not paralyzed or polarized, but trying simply to use whatever power they have to make our communities more resilient. At a recent meeting of the Manchester Community Services Council, Manchester Fire Department Battalion Chief for Fire-Rescue-and Emergency Medical Services, Josh Beaulieu, spoke about Mobile Integrated Healthcare, a way municipalities and fire departments are adapting to changes in the health care landscape.[5] Given that the majority of 911 calls are not actual emergencies, can paramedics be trained to deliver health care services that keep people out of the emergency room when they don’t need to be there, or redirect them to more appropriate and less expensive health care resources? Might such training help reduce the number of non-emergency 911 calls? Might it reduce the number of emergency room visits and unnecessary hospital readmissions? Might it enable a city like Manchester to provide better service overall to elders, to people with mental illness, to people with living with addictions?

As Mr. Beaulieu started talking about changes in the health care landscape, my mind moved automatically in a catastrophic direction. The health care system is broken! We don’t have health care justice in our nation! We have big insurance, big pharma and hospitals prioritizing profits above actual health care!  I was about to raise my hand, but it suddenly dawned on me his presentation really wasn’t about that. Here was a local fire official, aware of gaps in the health care system that impact his department’s capacity to fulfill its mission, asking, very simply, how can we make this better? How can we close the health care gaps we encounter in our day-to-day response to 911 calls? He’s not fighting zombies. He’s not curing pandemics. He’s not solving the health care crisis. But he is intent on  adapting to changing circumstances for the sake of providing better care. He’s interested in what is possible. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

I think similarly about how we respond to the climate crisis. Learning about climate change very easily leads to catastrophic thinking, and a feeling of helplessness. This isn’t wrong: we’re facing a very real, very urgent crisis, and the big things that clearly have to happen—the big reductions in carbon emissions, the big infrastructure transitions to renewable energy sources, and the requisite international agreements—seem so beyond the power of local communities to address. The challenge is not to become paralyzed or overwhelmed. There are still thousands of actions we can and must take both to prevent further global warming, but also to adapt to already inevitable changes. We still need to work at transforming our local culture to support local food production, recycling, conservation, sustainable design and development. I’ve recently been learning about the Freecycle Network, a grassroots, global network of people who give and get used stuff for free in their neighborhoods and towns. The point is to reuse items rather than throwing them into landfills.[6] Our UUS:E Sustainable Living Committee has just introduced a similar program called the Library of Things.[7] Our members and friends can now borrow tools and other items from each other in an effort to reduce consumption, resource depletion, and pollution as well as, we hope, foster an even deeper sense of community. It’s a small effort. It’s not winning the Hunger Games or resisting Big Brother. It won’t solve the climate crisis. But it is something we have the power to do here and now, one of thousands of adaptations necessary for living well in the midst of climate change. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

One more quick story. A white supremacist organization recently plastered its stickers all over a local town. A member of our congregation witnessed this, and took it upon themselves to remove the stickers. No heroics. This person wasn’t solving the problem of white supremacy. But they also refused to succumb to fear or despair. They recognized they had the power to do something, and they did it. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

In Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ story, “Evidence,” Alexis after capitalism writes an encouraging letter to her younger self, Alexis during capitalism: “It is on everyone’s mind and heart how to best support the genius that surrounds us all. How to shepherd each of us into the brilliance we come from even though our experience breaking each other apart through capitalism has left much healing to be done. We are more patient than we have ever been. And now that our time is divine and connected with everything, we have developed skills for how to recenter ourselves. We walk. We drink tea. We are still when we need to be. No one is impatient with someone else’s stillness. No one feels guilty for sitting still. Everybody is always learning how to grow.”[8]

Gumbs offers a wonderful vision of a future beloved community. She is also advising us how to live now: patient, centered, still and always learning how to grow; not solving every problem—life is still hard—but each of us slowly adapting to changing conditions. After all is said and done, I’m not sure there’s any other way to persevere through hard times. I’m not sure there’s any other way to transform our culture of decadence into a culture of vibrancy, sustainability and liberation. In this late winter season, let us be mindful of our capacity to grow, “to feel possible all the time.” Let’s hold the space for each of us to feel possible, to contribute what we can. And may this be the outward sign of our inward resilience.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence” in Brown Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015) p. 40.

[2] Brown and Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood, p. 288.

[3] Interesting sidebar: In Butler’s sequel, 1998’s The Parable of the Talents, “a violent movement is being whipped up by a new Presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, a Texas senator and religious zealot who is running on a platform to ‘make American great again.’” See: Aguirre, Abbey, “Octavia Butler’s Prescient Vision of a Zealot Elected to ‘Make America Great Again,’” The New Yorker, July 26th, 2019.

[4] Douthat, Ross, The Age of Decadence, New York Times, Sunday, February 9, 2020. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/opinion/sunday/western-society-decadence.html.

[5] Mr. Beaulieu has an article about this on his Linked-In page. See “The Need to Adapt Fire-based EMS to Today’s Healthcare Environment” at

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/need-adapt-fire-based-ems-todays-healthcare-joshua-beaulieu-mba-lp?articleId=6473040885041946624#comments-6473040885041946624&trk=public_profile_article_view.

[6] Check out the Freestyle Network at https://www.freecycle.org/.

[7] Participate in UUS:E’s Library of Things at http://uuse.org/SUSTAINABLE-LIVING/LOT/#.XkReCWhKjIU.

[8] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence” in Brown Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015) p. 40.

Rarely So Clear: Thoughts on Integrity

Our ministry theme for January is integrity. For the past few months I’ve anticipated talking about President Trump in this sermon. Especially after Congress’s December 18th vote to impeach him, it would seem strange to preach a sermon on integrity and not address what appears to me to be a glaring lack of integrity in the person who holds our nation’s highest elected office.

One definition of integrity is ‘adherence to a moral code.’ President Trump certainly lives and governs by a set of codes. I want to name the codes I witness in his conduct, with the caveat that I know his supporters witness the same codes and interpret them very differently. Among them are: win by any means, including ignoring or breaking the law. Demean your opponents relentlessly. Demand unswerving, unquestioning loyalty from those who work for you; dismiss them when they waver. Repeat falsehoods incessantly so as to obscure the truth or, when that fails, admit wrongdoing as if it’s no big deal, or, when that fails, file law suits and settle out of court. Project strength. Praise dictators. Speak to people’s fears rather than their hopes and dreams. Exploit the weak and marginalized. And most important for the purposes of this sermon, never admit you—or anything you do—is anything less than perfect. He follows these codes with ruthless consistency. One could argue there is a kind integrity in this consistency. However, the moral dimension is highly dubious. The best I can come up with is some version of “might makes right,” which has a long history as a moral philosophy; though as moral philosophies go, it’s among the most cruel, selfish and prone to criminality. Thou shalt exploit thy neighbor—and thy nation—for thyself.

I’m calling this sermon “Rarely So Clear,” in part because the lack of integrity in a public official is rarely so clear as it is in President Trump. I say this mindful that I haven’t spoken from this pulpit about the impeachment hearings. Now that Congress has voted for impeachment, I think it’s important for you to hear from me directly as your minister—though it likely comes as no surprise: based on the president’s conduct in office, I think the impeachment vote was correct. the president is unfit for office. I think the evidence presented during the impeachment hearings, while clearly not complete, is sufficient to demonstrate that he has violated his oath to uphold the Constitution.

But that’s not the sermon I want to preach about integrity. I don’t want to preach it because I don’t know what the useful spiritual lesson is. If the situation were less clear, if there were gray areas, if the president could acknowledge that not everything he does is perfect, if there were traces of kindness and compassion undergirding his actions, then maybe there’d be a sermon here. But this president refuses to reflect, at least publicly, on his own life, refuses to admit mistakes and wrongdoing, refuses to acknowledge in any way his human frailties and imperfections, refuses to ask for forgiveness. There’s no internal struggle in him, just denial. I think it’s much more instructive to talk about people for whom integrity requires self-probing, struggle and confession. I am far more intrigued by people who we assume have incredible integrity, yet who admit to internal conflict and self-doubt. I am far more intrigued by people who seem to lack integrity, yet who can also admit it, and then identify how they are striving to develop it. Integrity—or the lack thereof—is rarely so clear. The spiritual lessons reside in the lack of clarity.

Integrity is more than adherence to a moral code. It comes from the Latin word ‘integer’ which means whole and complete. In this sense, integrity has something to do with embracing all aspects of oneself—one’s gifts, talents, strengths, and also one’s challenges, vulnerabilities, shortcomings. The spiritual writer Parker Palmer once wrote,  “I now know myself to be a person of weakness and strength, liability and giftedness, darkness and light.  I now know that to be whole means to reject none of it but to embrace all of it.”[1] In order to embrace all of it, one must be aware of and able to reflect on those aspects of self that are not so positive, not so perfect, not the greatest ever. Integrity emerges in the crucible of that full embrace.

I read to you earlier a poem, “Who Am I?” by the theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leader of Germany’s anti-Nazi “Confessing Church” during World War II. The Gestapo arrested him in April of 1943 for anti-Nazi activities. They executed him in April of 1945 for his apparent connections to a plot to assassinate Hitler. We rightly regard Bonhoeffer as a person of great integrity for his moral clarity and his resistance to fascism. There is a popular image of him as a person who accepted his fate with courage and peace of mind. He acknowledges this in the poem: “They often tell me / I emerge from my cell / serene and cheerful and poised…. / They also tell me / I bear days of misfortune / with composure, smiling and regal, / like one accustomed to victory.”

And yet this outward appearance does not match his internal state. He describes himself as “disquieted, yearning, sick, caged like a bird, / fighting for breath itself… / helpless in worry for friends endless distances away, / tired, with nothing left for praying, thinking, working, / weary and ready to take leave of it all.” He’s keenly aware of two versions of himself. “Who am I?” he asks. “This one or the other? / Am I one today and another tomorrow? / Am I both at the same time? Before others a hypocrite / and in my own eyes a contemptibly self-pitying weakling?”[2] It’s rarely so clear.

I’m reminded of the private letters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Here is a person of towering, impeccable moral integrity who, we learn, lived for many years in deep despair, feeling that God had abandoned her, and thus, as she put it, being “on the verge of saying ‘No to God.’” In 1961 she wrote to the German Jesuit priest, Joseph Neuner, “the place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me … I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—Heaven—souls—why these are just words—which mean nothing to me.—My very life seems so contradictory. I help souls—to go where?—Why all this? Where is the soul in my very being? God does not want me.”[3] It’s rarely so clear.

I suppose I’m even reminded of Jesus, on the eve of his execution, retiring to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray after celebrating Passover. He is anything but calm and serene. On the contrary, he is distressed and agitated. He says to his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death.” He asks some of them to stay awake while he prays. When he finds them sleeping he is disappointed, angry, saying “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” He doesn’t want to die. When he prays, he says to God, “take this cup from me.” Though he also understands, like Mother Teresa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “your will be done, not mine.”[4] Jesus displays spiritual groundedness and agitation, courage and fear, conviction and misgivings. The gospel writers are embracing all of him. Integer. Whole. Compete. Integrity.

What appeals to me about Bonhoeffer’s poem is what he calls “this lonely probing of mine”—his willingness to reflect on and name his experience of his own weakness and vulnerability, his exhaustion, his fear. As much as he may want to be the perfect, even beatific person his guards say he is, he knows he isn’t that person. At least to him, the full range of his humanity is on display. He’s doing a noble, principled, courageous thing, but in his eyes, he’s doing it imperfectly. We might even say he’s doing a spiritually perfect thing—sacrificing himself for his principles, for truth, for justice—imperfectly. He’s embracing all of himself. Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

There’s a paradox here. The spiritual life isn’t about attaining a state of perfection. God may not show up. And even if God does, our best selves may not show up. Especially in our most difficult moments, there will be doubt, misgivings, fear, lack of clarity. As long as we inhabit these human bodies, there’s no such thing as perfection. As we strive for some abstract or ideal state of spiritual perfection, our bodies, our nerves, our racing thoughts, our anxieties, our contradictions—our full humanity—easily undercuts our striving. Yet, as we embrace our imperfections, as we let that same, complicated, confounding humanity shine through, that’s when we grow spiritually. Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

I recently encountered a version of this paradox in tennis star Andre Agassi’s 2009 autobiography, Open. Not the kind of book I normally read, but it came highly recommended. I don’t feel completely comfortable talking Bonhoeffer, let alone Mother Teresa and Jesus, in the same sermon as Agassi, who is sometimes remembered for the commercial tagline “image is everything.” But I read his book over the Christmas break and found it compelling because he writes very openly about his sheer lack of integrity as a young player, and how he struggled to develop it.

In 1994, at a low-point in his career, Agassi began working with a new coach—a retired player named Brad Gilbert—who gave him advice no one had ever given him before. Agassi writes, “Brad says my overall problem … is perfectionism.” He quotes Brad: “by trying for a perfect shot with every ball, you’re stacking the odds against yourself…. Just keep the ball moving. Back and forth. Nice and easy. Solid…. When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you’re doing? You’re chasing something that doesn’t exist. You’re making everyone around you miserable. You’re making yourself miserable. Perfection? There’s about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can’t lose to anybody, but it’s not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being, for that matter. It’s the other times.”[5]

Agassi struggles to let go of his perfectionism on the court and in his life. It takes him years to internalize Gilbert’s teaching. Even by the time he wrote the book in his late thirties, he clearly still hadn’t fully figured it out. But he knows this about himself. He knows it’s hard to live a life of integrity. And he knows integrity has something to do with embracing every part of himself. Regarding a speech he’s preparing for students at a charter school he founded in Las Vegas, he says: “My theme, I think, will be contradictions. A friend suggests I brush up on Walt Whitman. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I never knew this was an acceptable point of view…. Now it’s my North Star. And that’s what I’ll tell the students. Life is a tennis match between polar opposites. Winning and losing, love and hate, open and closed. It helps to recognize that painful fact early. Then recognize the polar opposites within yourself, and if you can’t embrace them, or reconcile them, at least accept them and move on. The only thing you cannot do is ignore them.”[6] Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

It’s rarely so clear. Integrity takes more than adherence to a moral code. In fact, unthinking, unreflective adherence to a moral code is a form of perfectionism, which can be as dangerous as having no code at all. Bring your whole self along. Question. Probe. Reflect. Notice your contradictions, your polar opposites. Be honest about them. Be humble about them. In this sometimes painful embrace of the whole self lies our very human path to integrity.

Amen and blessed be.

[1]  Palmer, Parker J., Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999)  p. 70.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, “Who Am I?” Who Am I? Poetic Insights on Personal Identity (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2005) pp. 8-9.

[3] Letter from Mother Teresa to FatherJoseph Neuner, most probably April 11, 1961, in Kolodiejchuk, Brian, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (New York: Doubleday, 2001) pp. 210, 211.

[4] Mark 14: 32-42; Luke 22: 39-46; Matthew 26: 36-46.

[5] Agassi, Andre, Open: An Autobiography (New York: Vintage Books, 2010) pp. 186, 187.

[6] Agassi, Open, pp. 383-384.

And So the Light Returns

Rev. Josh Pawelek

And so the light returns. Our human senses aren’t so finely attuned that we can notice the difference immediately. The daylight hours are still very short. The season is still dark. Nevertheless, we know the earth has shifted and is now slowly leaning its northern latitudes back toward the sun. We know this because the science of astronomy confirms it. We know also that ancient humans across the planet knew that the winter solstice marked a shift, that the day-light hours would lengthen from this point on until a corresponding shift at the summer solstice; though in many ancient cosmologies it was the sun, not the earth, that was understood to be making the shift. It was the sun God—and sometimes the sun goddess—returning, being born, chasing or being chased by the moon or some other sky deity, sacrificing him or herself so that there would be light, bringing a torch to brighten the darkness, riding a flaming chariot across the sky, coming from afar as a great fireball. There are countless myths and stories known today, and surely many, many more that have been lost through the ages. Whether or not the ancients had the science right, they knew a shift had occurred. They knew the light was returning. They had reason to celebrate, reason to hope.

Here we are, southern New England, the United States, 2019. The planetary shift, the Winter Solstice, happened last night at 11:19 pm. Christmas arrives a few days hence. I’ve always heard it said that upon converting to Christianity the Roman Empire selected December 25th as the date for Christmas not because there is any evidence for that date in the Bible (which there isn’t) but because it was already the date for the birthday of the Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, the supreme deity, often, in later years, associated with Mithras, or Mithra, who was not Roman in origin, but an angelic figure in the ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism. There is some evidence that the Romans held many misperceptions about this deity, and that their cult of Mithras, which I believe first emerged within the Roman military well after the beginnings of Christianity, was not at all consistent with the Persian understanding of Mithra or with the Persian practices associated with him. And whether the Roman cult got it right or not, my casual research this past week suggests that nobody really knows for sure when, how or why December 25th became the date for Christmas. Scholars look back on the era and make an educated guess that it must have had something to do with the Cult of Mithras already using that date for the birth of its patron deity. But as far as I can tell, there is no record of an official imperial decree identifying December 25th as the date for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. I read a passage from Clement A. Miles earlier. Although this late 19th, early 20th century scholar is likely not a super-reliable source himself, I like the way he put it a century ago: “There is no direct evidence of deliberate substitution, but at all events ecclesiastical writers soon after the foundation of Christmas made good use of the idea that the birthday of the Savior had replaced the birthday of the sun.”[1]

In hindsight, the link between the Christian savior and the sun God seems obvious. I’m mindful of the opening paragraph in the Gospel of John which states, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[2] Light has always been one of the dominant metaphors people use to describe Jesus. What better time of year, then, to celebrate his birth than the time when the earth begins moving back toward the source of light (and warmth and energy), the sun?

Here we are, the United States, 2019. The planetary shift has happened. It’s fascinating to me, and I suppose at the same time completely unsurprising, that other light-oriented festivals are drawn into the Christmas orbit at this time of year. For example, today is the first day of the Jewish celebration of Hannukah, a relatively minor Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Jewish temple after the victory in 165 BC of the Maccabees over Syrian occupying forces. The eight candles on the menorah refer to a legend that, upon entering the temple and finding only enough lamp oil for one day, that oil miraculously provided eight days of light. Hannukah isn’t a Jewish alternative to Christmas, though it often feels that way in our larger culture.

Kwanzaa, the modern, African American celebration, also involving the lighting of candles on the kinara, begins on December 26th. Although there is some evidence that its creator, Maulana Karenga, actually did intend it as an alternative to Christmas, he later said it was not meant to replace any religion or religious observance. If I have my facts right, the model for this celebration has nothing to do with the timing of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, but rather the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere. Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili term, matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits of the harvest.” In this sense, it recalls southern African first harvest festivals, a reference to mid-summer rather than mid-winter.

Yule, or Yuletide, is the ancient Germanic mid-winter celebration, many of whose symbols show up in current day celebrations of the holiday season, many of which, like the decorating of evergreens in homes, merge rather seamlessly with the celebration of Christmas. Perhaps the most ubiquitous Yule practice having to do with light is the burning of a Yule log either on Christmas Day or for the entire twelve days of Christmas, if you have a large enough log to fit in a large enough fireplace. As I mentioned earlier, our UUS:E Pagan Study Group will be offering a Yule ritual this afternoon at 2:00 PM. All are welcome. Due to fire codes, and the absence of a fireplace, no yule logs will be burnt.

These festivals of light, and I suppose others with which I’m less familiar, mix and merge with each other, sometimes conflict with each other, throughout the holiday season.  Light and symbols of light are pervasive. References to the sun, stars, flame, fire, candles, a blazing hearth fill the music of the season, the rituals, the department story displays, decorations on homes and church services. Light means something to human beings. Whether the cult of Mithras really understood its Persian spiritual sources, something about the mystical power of the sun spoke to them, as it did to so many ancient people and to us today. Hannukah is not a Jewish alternative to Christmas, but somehow the symbol of the menorah lights speaks even to non-Jews in this season. Even if we’ve never lived in a house or apartment with a fireplace, somehow the Yule image of a large, burning log fits very naturally with this season. Light means something to human beings. After this November-December period of blessed, restful darkness, of quiet and stillness, of taking an inward look, of Advent waiting for the birth of something new, the light returns. It reaches in, catches our attention. Sometimes its beauty takes our breath away. I’m wondering, this morning, what meaning the returning light holds for us.

I may just be speaking for myself, but my sense is the returning light—all the ways we encounter it in this season—speaks to us at a very instinctual and spiritual level, informing us there is a sacred dimension to our lives; and we have the capacity to manifest that sacred dimension in how we live—what we say, what we do, how we treat others. We make it real through our love, compassion, caring, kindness, generosity, creativity, passion and joy. These qualities, these values, these commitments have power. With them we can make positive changes in our lives, positive changes in our communities, and positive changes in the world. I’m not saying this is what the returning light meant to ancient people. I’m not saying this is what the returning light meant to the early Christians, or the Maccabees, or the German pagans, or adherents to the Roman cult of Mithras. I’m trying to name, as best I can, what the returning light means to us – liberal religious, Unitarian Universalists, living in New England in the United States of America, just after the winter solstice, December 22, 2019. The returning light is a potent spiritual metaphor, informing us there is a sacred dimension to our lives; and we manifest that sacred dimension through our love, compassion, caring, kindness, generosity, creativity, passion and joy. These qualities are powerful, healing, life-giving.

We forget this sacred dimension. We forget it all the time. We fall short of our aspirations. We miss our marks. We fail to keep certain commitments. It is enormously difficult to remain loving, compassionate, caring, kind, generous, creative, passionate, and joyful. It is also understandable. Our lives take all sorts of twists and turns. We have hard days, hard weeks, hard months, hard years. We lose so much. We grieve for so much. We suffer—some far more than others, yes—but no one who inhabits a human body can avoid some degree of suffering in their life. No one who participates in any sort of human community, from a family to a nation, can avoid the pain of disagreement and conflict. So we easily forget the things to which we said we were committed. We easily forget our highest values. We easily forget the power we have to manifest the sacred dimension of our lives. The returning light helps us remember. The returning light calls us back to the sacred dimension of our living.

Perhaps another way to express this is that the light returning at the darkest time of year calls forth the light that already exists in us. The returning light awakens the light sleeping in us, finds the light hiding in us, liberates the light imprisoned in us, welcomes the light waiting in us.

I read to you earlier from the artist, author and Methodist minister, Jan Richardson, “Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light.” I want to share these words again with you now. Before I do, I invite you to contemplate the sacred dimension of your life. How do you name that right now? And even more importantly, how do you manifest it? How does it guide your engagement with the world? As I read Richardson’s words, whenever you hear the word ‘light,’ hear it as if she’s referring to the sacred dimension of your life.

[Read Richardson’s poem here.]

And so the light returns. Granted, in real time winter is just beginning; the daylight hours will remain short for now. But in terms of our spiritual seasons, the period of darkness has ended. The time for quiet and stillness, turning inward and waiting has ended. Now the festivals of light begin. When you encounter holiday lights in the coming days, I urge you to let them speak to you of the sacred dimension in your life. Let them remind you of the power you have to manifest sacredness in the world through how you live, through your words and your deeds, through the way you treat others. Let the lights remind you of your highest aspirations, your convictions, your dreams. Let the lights call you to love, compassion, caring, kindness, generosity, creativity, passion and joy. Yes, may the lights of the season call out to the light that lives in your imperfect, struggling, suffering human body. And may that light in you spill out into the world.

Happy Holidays. Happy Hannukah. Happy Yuletide. Happy Solstice. Happy Kwanzaa. Merry Christmas.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan (1912). See: http://www.worldspirituality.org/december-25.html.

[2] John 1: 3b-5.

[3] Richardson, Jan, “Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light,” The Advent Door: Entering a Contemplative Christmas. See: http://adventdoor.com/2014/12/12/advent-3-testify-to-the-light/.