From Radical Transcendence to Radical Immanence

Rev. Josh Pawelek

uuse chaliceBecause I’m in the middle of teaching our Building Your Own Theology class and inviting the participants to look deeply into themselves and their experiences in an effort to name what they believe; and because I am moved and inspired by what they are saying in class; and also because it’s been a hard few months here at UUS:E and I am looking for my own sources of grounding, comfort, solace, and peace; and also because our ministry theme for April is transcendence; and finally because it’s just plain fun for me—for all these reasons I’ve decided to share with you this morning my current thoughts on God—how I believe.

There’s a story floating through the sermons of many ministers—it’s often attributed to the late Rev. Forrest Church, though I’m not sure it’s original to him—in which the parishioner says to the minister,” I try and I try and I try, but I find I just don’t believe in God.” The minister responds, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.” It’s possible some ministers tell this story as a way of saying “I know, there are many versions of God out there—jealous, angry, punitive gods; capricious, whimsical, unpredictable gods; callous, arrogant, selfish gods; homophobic, sexist, racist gods; imperialistic, nationalistic, violent war gods—but I know who God really is, and after I’m done listening to you tell me about the god you don’t believe in, I’m going to tell you about a god you can believe in.” To be clear, that’s not my intention here. I don’t move through the world harboring the secret conviction that the God I believe in is somehow right when all those other Gods are wrong. I don’t come to a sermon like this with the assumption that if you just open your heart to what I have to say, you’ll get it, you’ll see the light, you’ll believe.

However, there is a religious impulse in humanity: a longing to connect and commune with a reality larger than ourselves; a yearning to serve, to help, to heal, to be good; a drive to imagine, to conceive, to create, to shape, to build; an instinct to worship, to praise, to offer thanks; a hunger for a better world—a more fair, just, peaceful, loving and sustainable world. Human beings express and act on this religious impulse in countless ways, through the construction over time of countless religions, theologies, spiritualties, rituals, practices, holidays, festivals, folkways, and self-help regimens— a vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous, always multifaceted testament to humanity’s longing to encounter the Holy. When I speak to you about God in my life, I am not attempting to extract the one true belief out of the whole and then proclaim, “Here it is!” When I speak to you about God in my life, I’m simply adding one more, small voice to the vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous landscape of human religion. I hope not that you will believe as I believe, but that you will be inspired to respond to the religious impulse that moves you and thus make your contribution to that vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous human religious whole.

Our April ministry theme is transcendence, a term often given as a quality of God. Transcendence hangs out with its close friends otherworldly, supernatural, ultimate, boundless, sublime, infinite, absolute, eternal. In his Handbook of Theological Terms[1] Van Harvey says transcendence “has been used to designate any ideal or thing or being that ‘stands over against’…. It conveys ‘otherness.’” God “is said to transcend the world in the sense that his being is not identical with or his power not exhausted by the [earthly realm].” “When this idea of transcendence has been radicalized … it has led to the view that [God] is ‘wholly other’ and, therefore, unknowable.”[2]

Radical transcendence. Sit with that for a moment. A radically transcendent God exists ‘over and above’ the world, over and above humanity. A radically transcendent God lives somewhere else. A radically transcendent God is distant, separate, detached, beyond, unreachable, unknowable, inscrutable, wholly other. I read earlier from the introduction to the twentieth-century, Neo-Reformed—sometimes called Neo-Orthodox—Swiss theologian, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans. Commenting on the Apostle Paul Barth says “However great and important a man Paul may have been, the essential theme of his mission is not within him but above him—unapproachably distant and unutterably strange.” Barth often used the Latin term deus absconditus, the hidden God.

There are religious people of all sorts who are quite comfortable with a radically transcendent God. I’m mindful of a quote, also attributed to the late Rev. Forrest Church: “The power which I cannot explain or know or name I call God. God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being.” We might call this a liberal version of deus absconditus. I find it enormously and refreshingly sane and wise to locate God in mystery, to believe in a God we cannot explain or know or name. Such belief requires us to admit our own limits; to acknowledge we don’t know everything; to find peace in the darkness; to accept that we cannot control every outcome; to accept that we must, at times, let go, that we must, at times, surrender. This is humility. At its best a wholly other God leads us to humility in our interactions with others and with the world.

The problem is, I’m not sure most gods like being radically transcendent. It seems difficult for them to remain distant and unknowable, shrouded in mystery. It’s hard for them. All too often transcendent gods leave their otherworldly home and visit earth; they descend; they come down to play, provoke, punish—to send plagues and swarms of locusts, to cause droughts and floods. One of my favorite stories of a radically transcendent God who makes himself known is the Hebrew Book of Job, a somewhat unique piece of Jewish wisdom literature from which we read earlier. Job was a righteous man—God-fearing, obedient. Satan wagers with God that he can induce Job to curse God. God accepts the wager, and Satan proceeds to destroy Job’s life, ruining his livelihood, killing off his family members and livestock, afflicting his body with horrible diseases. Job never curses God, but when he wonders why he’s been made to suffer so horribly, God becomes angry and sarcastic saying, essentially, “You didn’t make the world. I made the world. I can do whatever I want, it’s not your place to question, and you wouldn’t understand anyways.” One of the enduring critiques of transcendent gods is that they do whatever they want, that they’re capricious and arbitrary, that they mis-use and abuse their power without feeling a need to justify their actions—at least without justification we mere mortals would understand. They don’t stay radically transcendent. They descend.

But perhaps the problem doesn’t lie so much with the gods themselves, as with the people who speak for them. Many people don’t find an unknowable, radically transcendent god all that helpful or interesting. They’re uncomfortable with theological silence, uncomfortable with mystery, often because they need a God who can help them achieve certain social or political goals on earth. They want a transcendent god with all the power and the glory, but not the radical version. They want a knowable God who, more than anything, instills fear.

My mind wanders to Jonathan Edwards’ infamous 1741 Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon, which became the model for American hell-fire and brimstone preaching: “There is nothing that keeps wicked Men at any one Moment, out of Hell, but the meer Pleasure of GOD. By the meer Pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign Pleasure, his arbitrary Will, restrained by no Obligation, hinder’d by no manner of Difficulty.”[3] (I think this sermon should have been called God in the Hands of an Angry Preacher!). There’s often a political dimension to this kind of knowable, transcendent God—he’s a king, an autocrat, a dictator, a tyrant. He rules from the top of a hierarchy. People who promote such a God on earth often occupy parallel social and political positions—or would like to—and they favor this kind of God precisely because his power, anger and arbitrariness engender fear not only to keep a populace from rebelling, but also to motivate sufficient numbers of followers to commit violence in God’s name.

I’m aware there are ten thousand other versions of knowable transcendent God, many of them quite friendly, but knowing how easy it is for transcendent God to be coopted into the service of selfish human aims, I’ve tended in my life to seek God not in some otherworldly place, not in some higher realm, but right here, among us, around us, within us, infused in the dark, brown earth, thawing with the lake ice as winter turns to spring, sinking into to early April mud, tunneling with the earth worms, falling warmly with early April rain, rolling and crashing with the great ocean waves, rising and setting with the sun and the moon, coursing through our bodies, pulsing with our blood, beating with our hearts, breathing with our lungs.

I’ve longed for God to be nearby, close, present, immediate—like a friend, a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a lover—a wise counselor when my way is unclear, a source of inspiration when my well runs dry, a muse for my creativity, a provider of comfort and solace when life is hard, a bringer of peace in the midst of chaos—a still, small voice, speaking from that place within me where I know my truth, where my conviction resides, where my voice is strong.

I’ve longed for a God not beyond knowing, not unapproachable, not in Heaven, not on Olympus, not in the underworld, but right here in meaningful human interaction: the helping hand, the smile, the caring gesture, the thoughtful gift, the offered prayer, the full embrace, deep listening, meaningful conversation, the good night kiss, “I love you,” “thank you,” “I miss you,” “I’m sorry,” “What can I do?”

I’ve longed for God not ‘wholly other’ but wholly familiar: in the music, the rhythm, the harmonies, the hymns, the silence spaces between the notes, the beat that goes on and on; and in the holy quiet, in the ritual words, in the heartfelt sharing, in the chalice flame.

I’ve longed for God not to punish and judge and condemn, but to urge us in all manner of ways to build the beloved community, to welcome, to include, to be curious and adaptable, to apologize and forgive, to work for a more just human society, to work for a more sustainable earth, to work on behalf of the generations to come , to love, to love, to love.

I’ve longed not for a transcendent God, but an immanent God. In his Handbook of Theological Terms Van Harvey says “Immanence is the technical term used to denote the nearness or presence or indwelling of God in the creation. It is usually contrasted with Transcendence.”[4] Often God is both transcendent and immanent, so I don’t want you to draw too fine a distinction. The point I am making is very personal: Transcendent God, the God of Heaven, the God of the Whirlwind, the Creator of the Universe, the Almighty, the Strict Father—none of that has ever appealed to me. It may be because I don’t feel strongly about the afterlife. I’m not longing to see God after I die. I’m longing to live the best life I can live now, and thus I long for an immanent God—God here and now.

Those of you who’ve been listening closely to me over the years know that as much as I tell you I long for immanent God, I never say I know God is real, mainly because I can’t prove it. And I rarely say I believe in God, mainly because so many people confuse what they believe to be true with what they know to be true, and I don’t want to do that. Remember: we know something is true when we have some way of proving it. We believe something is true when it’s really important to us and we have no way of proving it. When someone says I believe X about God, what I hear them saying is “I really want X to be true,” or “I long for X to be true.” Belief isn’t knowledge. It’s longing. It’s wanting. It’s desire. I long for immanent God to be real, and I’ve learned through experience that the best way to satiate that longing is to live “as if” immanent God were real; to live as if every inch of the earth is sacred and matters; to live as if every human being is sacred and matters, every creature, every drop of water, every stone, every blade of grass is sacred and matters. Live as if it were so. You won’t prove anything God, but that’s not what matters. Living well, living the best life we can live here and now matters.

A final thought about immanence. Van Harvey’s Handbook of Theological Terms mentioned radical transcendence, but not radical immanence. If radical transcendence is the extreme otherness of God, radical immanence must be the extreme sameness of God. My mind wandered, again, this time to the passage from Daniel Quinn’s The Holy which we read earlier. The main character Tim is sitting in the dessert, perhaps sleeping. He wakes up to discover what he first imagines is “an alien creature towering over him—a visitor from the stars, bristling with silver spikes and armored in glossy green.” Soon “he saw that the creature meant him no harm—accepted him as an equal, seemed to enfold him in its own aura of vibrant power and dignity, as if to say, ‘It’s all right. I see you too are alive. No more is required. We are comrades.”[5] Eventually Tim and the reader realize the visitor is a cactus and Tim is somehow able to see—for a brief moment— into its essence, the “vibrant, sublime energy emanating from within.” Eventually he runs up a hill so he can peer down into the valley and behold the same energy coursing through the entire landscape: “Every leaf of every tree was radiant, lustrous—incandescent with power that was unmistakably divine.”[6] This passage struck me as a description of radical immanence.

I’ve never had an experience like that, though I know people who have. And I have certainly had those kinds of spiritual experiences—sometimes in nature, sometimes in response to music, sometimes in the midst of prayer—when I feel utterly related, when I feel at one with all there is. Such experiences are short-lived, fleeting, but they offer powerful opportunities to sense, to intuit, to grasp one’s connectedness to the whole of life; opportunities to sense, to intuit, to grasp the reality of our interdependence with the whole of life. Extreme sameness. Radical immanence. Is it God? I don’t know. But I promise you I will strive to live as if it were so.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992).

[2] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992) pp. 242-243.

[3] Edwards, Jonathan, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God, 1741. Read the text at http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=etas.

[4] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992), p. 127.

[5] Quinn, Daniel, The Holy (New York: Context Books, 2002) p. 378.

[6] Quinn, Daniel, The Holy (New York: Context Books, 2002) p. 379.

Ring Them Bells!

Rev. Josh Pawelek
End of ChurchIn her 2012 Huffington Post article, “The End of Church,” author and historian of American religion, Diana Butler Bass, says “Something startling is happening in American religion: We are witnessing the end of church or, at the very least, the end of conventional church.”[1] She refers to studies that reveal an increasing disenchantment with organized religion, not just within Roman Catholicism or the aging and typically more liberal mainline Protestant denominations, but also within the more evangelical and conservative denominations such as the Southern Baptist Conference. People are leaving church. She refers to the distinction Americans are increasingly making between being religious—which means being part of an organized religion—and being spiritual—which, in Bass’s terms, means having some kind of visceral experience of faith. People are much less inclined today than just a decade ago to identify themselves as “religious,” and much more inclined to identify themselves as either “spiritual and religious” or “spiritual but not religious.” I notice the famous—to some, infamous—“New Atheist,” Sam Harris, is about to publish a book entitled Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.[2] New York Times columnist Frank Bruni said Harris’ book caught his eye “because it’s so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion.”[3]

When I hear about trends in declining church membership—especially membership in evangelical churches—I admit I often find the news hard to believe. It seems like just yesterday we were hearing about the rapid growth of Christian Fundamentalism, thousands of new mega churches, and the unprecedented political power of the Religious Right during the presidency of George W Bush. Could all that really be declining? Could a new generation of Americans really be rejecting that kind of religiosity which seemed so prevalent and permanent just a decade ago?

Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass

Well, there were numerous articles just this week about the Seattle-based, mega church, Mars Hill, being forced to close some of its fifteen branches and lay off 30-40% of its staff due to budget constraints.[4] These articles cite multiple reasons for Mars Hill’s problems, including financial mismanagement, plagiarism, hyper-homophobia, hyper-sexism, and ongoing negative media attention. This seems consistent with Bass’findings about the emerging negative view of churches in general. In the popular mind churches appear increasingly unresponsive to the spiritual and material needs of the world. They seem wrapped up in their own internal affairs, institutional governance, politics, financial challenges; they often seem unethical; they seem stuck in patterns of congregational life and organization that don’t mesh with the life experiences of real people, especially young adults; they seem unfocused, unclear, and adrift when it comes to having a positive impact on the wider community. Of course, in Bass’ view, the rapid emergence of the “spiritual and religious” and the “spiritual but not religious” identities is ultimately positive. She says it “expresses a grassroots desire for new kinds of faith communities, where institutional structures do not inhibit or impede one’s relationship with God or neighbor. Americans are searching for churches—and temples, synagogues, and mosques—that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.”[5]

When I read sentences like that last one I confess I always have the same gut reaction: that’s exactly what Unitarian Universalist congregations are trying to do and, in many cases, have been doing for generations: offering “pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.” I don’t think I’m alone in that reaction. I think we UUs have tendency (at least historically) to read articles like Bass’ and then to assume the warnings of decline don’t apply to us because somehow we’re getting it right. I remember hearing the term ‘spiritual but not religious’ for the first time in the late 1990s, and saying to myself, and probably to others, “this bodes well for Unitarian Universalism.” Afterall, we were ‘spiritual but not religious’ long before it came into vogue. We were skeptical of religion long before such skepticism became hip, so much so that we have been known in some quarters as the ‘religion for the non-religious.’ And aren’t we the one place in America where atheists, Humanists and agnostics can gather for worship on Sunday morning and be welcomed and embraced in their theological views? So, we’re not like other churches. Right?

Well, we are certainly distinct from other churches, but the reality is we’re not immune from the wider trends in American religious life. I find myself forced to own up to my earlier naiveté in assuming that the prevalence of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ identity would lead automatically to growth in Unitarian Universalist congregations. It hasn’t. Exhibit A is an article in the summer issue of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine by the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley entitled “Into the Beyond.” In it, she points out that “Unitarian Universalist congregations seemed for a while to have bucked these trends, but our U.S. membership has slipped each year since 2008.”[6] In that regard, we’re just like other churches.

Rev. Cooley is the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Program and Strategy Officer. She says her job is to “scare all of us, at least a little bit, because if we don’t pay attention to these trends, we could end up like those near-empty or abandoned churches that are increasingly becoming part of our landscape.”[7] Like Bass, she cites a number of recent studies that give some credence to her warnings. For example, earlier this year the Barna Group, an Evangelical Christian polling firm, found that only 2 out of 10 millennials (adults under 30) feel churchgoing is important.[8] She also cites a 2012 Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project finding that nearly 20% of Americans have no religious affiliation whatsoever.[9]

One of the messages in Rev. Cooley’s article which a few of you found unsettling enough to want to talk to me about it is her discussion of the ways people access and practice Unitarian Universalism beyond the local congregation. She names the reality that there are many people in the wider world who agree with our principles and values, who share our commitments to environmental stewardship, antiracism, and civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, who will partner with us on social justice initiatives, and who may even call themselves Unitarian Universalists, but who, for any number of reasons, can’t or won’t attend or join a UU congregation. Do we ignore them since they aren’t going to be part of our congregation? Or do we figure out how to be in relationship with them? Rev. Cooley leans toward relationship, not only for her work as a UUA staff-member, but for us as well. “Creating new ways for people … to connect, serve, and deepen their spirituality with others, with or without a congregation,” she says, “must become a major shift in the UUA’s mission and also in our congregations.”[10]

“How can people connect to Unitarian Universalism and claim a Unitarian Universalist identity without being part of a congregation?” That’s her question. And while I know the UUA isn’t abandoning congregations, it leads me to ask: if participation in American congregations is declining across the board, and if our denominational officials are looking for ways to reach out to people beyond congregations, then what’s a congregation to do?

I was excited when Dorothy Bognar suggested that she and Tom Chung would sing Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells”[11] for us this morning. Dylan wrote this song for his 1989 album “Oh Mercy.” I don’t claim to know what Dylan meant by any of the lyrics in this song, but he clearly isn’t happy with the church. He refers to the bride running backwards—bride being a reference (I assume) to the church as the “bride of Christ.” He refers to the sun “going down upon the sacred cow.” He sings “Oh the shepherd is asleep.” I find it intriguing to compare his discontent with the church to that of the legions of Americans who today say they have no use for organized religion. Remember, although Dylan is Jewish, he became a born-again Christian around 1980. So when he criticizes the church, he’s writing as an insider who seems to care deeply about the church. He finds the church ineffectual in the face of a general moral and social breakdown in society: “Oh the lines are long and the fighting is strong / And they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong.” He’s upset about what he encounters in the world and he’s critical of a church that seems unresponsive to it. But instead of abandoning the church, instead of throwing up his hands saying, “I have no use for you anymore, I’ll get my spirituality elsewhere,” he’s pleading with the church: Do something! Make a difference! Assert your moral authority! Ring them bells!

That’s the sentiment I want to borrow and channel in response to the question, “What’s a congregation to do? When participation in American churches is declining across the board, and as our denominational officials are—rightly, I think—looking for ways to reach people beyond the traditional, local church, what’s a congregation to do? Ring them bells!

Before you start thinking I’ve lost my mind, please know I know, at least in this building, we don’t have bells. So, I don’t mean we should literally ring bells. Furthermore, I realize one could take this plea to “ring them bells” as a call for the church to just make more noise—to keep being ineffectual, but to do it more loudly. That’s not what I mean either. And furthermore, some commentators have argued Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” is literature in keeping with the ancient Near-Eastern apocalyptic tradition meaning that the bell is ringing out a warning: “Repent! The end of the world is nigh!” And while I do think religions have a role to play in warning about the consequences of human greed, arrogance, hatred and ignorance, especially when it comes to the climate crisis, the church that only rings its bells to warn of impending disaster is offering a very thin slice of what it requires to fully nurture peoples’ spiritual lives.

I think our spiritual lives are assaulted constantly. I know I don’t have to convince those of you gathered here that prominent aspects of our wider culture and economy lead countless people into boredom, anxiety, exhaustion, isolation, desperation. I don’t have to convince those of you gathered here that prominent aspects of our wider culture and economy tunnel our vision, leave us bowling alone,[12] train us to think in sound-bites, offer trivia in place of truth, and speak to us constantly of our fears so that divisions abound and engaging difference becomes taboo. I don’t have to convince you there is a climate crisis. I don’t have to convince you there are food, water and health crises, or a money-in-politics crisis. I don’t have to convince you there is racism, homophobia or sexism, all of it driving people further and further apart. But given all of it, I do want to say this: church matters! That’s the bell I want us to ring. Church matters immensely, and this Unitarian Universalist congregation matters immensely. In the midst of a culture and economy that drive people apart, that obscure any deeper sense of meaning in our lives, that blunt our sense of vocation, that discourage us from organizing for a more just community, churches, if they choose to use it, have incredible power to counter the daily assault on our spiritual lives: to connect us to each other, to help us find meaning, to help us discern our vocation. Churches have the power to bring us together to organize for social and economic justice. And churches have the power to offer us life-giving spiritual experience.[13] Those are the bells I want us to ring. Not just bells of warning, as important as those are. But bells that proclaim a beloved spiritual and religious community exists here, bells that invite us to shape that community as a powerful response to all those forces in the world that would drive us apart.

Churches and denominations may be in decline these days. But there is still a genius to the idea of people gathering faithfully, week after week, united around a set of common principles, giving thanks for the blessings in their lives, caring for one another, teaching their children, hearing the wisdom of their elders, searching together for truth and meaning, and working for a more just, peaceful and loving world. That’s my vision for this church. If that’s religion, then call me religious, and show me where the bell is, ‘cause that’s a noise I want to make!

Bells

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Bass, Diana Butler, “The End of Church,” is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion.

[2] More information about Harris’ new book can be found at his website: http://www.samharris.org/waking-up.

[3] Bruni, Frank, “Between Godliness and Godlessness,” New York Times, September 7, 2014. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-between-godliness-and-godlessness.html?_r=0.

[4] See the Associated Press report at http://www.thestate.com/2014/09/09/3669748/mars-hill-megachurch-closing-branches.html?sp=/99/132/.

[5] Bass, Diana Butler, “The End of Church,” is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion.

[6] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[7] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[8] See “Americans Divided on the Importance of Church” at https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/661-americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church#.VBBtXPldWSr.

[9] See “Nones on the Rise” at http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/.

[10] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[11] Watch Bob Dylan perform “Ring Them Bells” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-gZooq3Ylc.

[12] This is a reference to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

[13] This list riffs off of language Diana Butler Bass’ uses in “The End of Church” athttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion. She says Americans are looking for “pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.”

Raising Moral Children (in the Era of Katniss, Ender and King Joffrey)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

TheatersI’m fascinated by the popularity of a series of recent films and TV dramas, based on phenomenally successful books, that depict fictional children living in morally corrupt societies that force them to do morally objectionable things. I’m referring to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.[1] I understand the popularity: the story-telling is excellent. What fascinates me is the question of what it means: what it suggests about our society’s view of children, and whether or not it has anything to teach us about how (or how not) to raise moral children. In referring to us I mean those of us who are parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors of children. I also mean us as the adult members and friends of this multigenerational Unitarian Universalist congregation whose stated vision for religious education is to “provide a solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists.”

The treatment of children’s moral lives in these books and films is different than what we find in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where the teenage characters encounter difficult, even traumatic situations, but they maintain their moral center in part because good and evil are crystal-clear in these stories, but also because they have the support of morally-grounded adults. They have role models. This also isn’t the dynamic we find in William Golding’s 1954 Lord of the Flies, where a group of plane-wrecked boys attempts to govern itself on a tropical island, but descends into savagery in the total absence of adult moral guidance. Rather, in these stories powerful adults design systems that intentionally obstruct children’s moral reasoning. I assume these books are not the first to treat children’s moral lives in this way, though I’m fairly confident this treatment has never been as wildly popular as it has been over the last year or so. Some of you may not be familiar with these books, so I’ll say a little about each.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

The Hunger Games is young adult literature, though tens of millions of adults have read it and seen the films. Some children read it by third or fourth grade. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, governed by a corrupt, oppressive capitol that requires each of 12 districts to send two children every year to fight to the death in an elaborate arena. The heroine, Katniss Everdeen, an older teenager who volunteers for the arena to prevent her younger sister from having to go, cobbles together a moral center, but the adults in her life who would normally support her moral development are damaged in some way and are of very little help to her in this regard as she enters the custody of the morally depraved capitol. That is, she’s largely self-guided in her moral growth, and spends much of her time lost, confused, and searching for a moral anchor that matches her instincts. More than providing her moral clarity, her ordeal in the arena hones her survival skills and draws out her resilience and courage. She learns how to play and win the adults’ game; and she learns how to play it against the adults. But fighting fire with fire doesn’t make fire right. She recognizes this and she suffers psychologically and emotionally.

Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin

Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin

Ender’s Game, published in 1985 but released as a feature film this past November, is typically read by adults but is occasionally assigned in high school English classes. Ender, a gifted child, is being groomed as a starship fleet commander. His training is psychologically and emotionally abusive. He successfully learns military strategy, tactics, politics and leadership, but struggles to discern right and wrong beyond mere obedience to his teachers. He also struggles to find a warm and human sense of self as opposed to the cold, calculating person he observes himself becoming. As with Katniss, there is no adult he can turn to for authentic moral guidance. He masters all the educational games his teachers present to him; but then, without him realizing it, his teachers deploy him as a weapon of mass destruction. When he finally understands the enormity of his crimes, his emotional and psychological suffering are correspondingly enormous.

 

Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon

Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon

Game of Thrones, published in 1996, is the first novel in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series; it’s also a hit HBO series based on the books. Not for children. Its gratuitous violence, sex and violent sex makes The Hunger Games look like what we normally imagine when we use the term child’s play, except that some of Game of Thrones’ more heinous violence is child’s play, ordered by the child king, Joffrey. Joffery has been raised by cunning and brutal adults whose only motivation is the acquisition of power by any means necessary. Joffrey displays no longing to know the difference between right and wrong, or to experience himself as good and decent. He doesn’t know he’s missing a moral core. In essence, he has been nurtured to be a psychopath, and he’s too far gone to recognize the suffering this causes him.

In reviewing a recent episode, New York Times critic Jeremy Egner sums up the main conflict in Game of Thrones. “It’s not right versus wrong, but a many-faceted quarrel over whether ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ even exist.”[2] All three of these series explore this conflict in some form. In Game of Thrones, if right and wrong exist, right is power and wrong is weakness. Any more elaborate moral system is largely absent, or falls apart in the face of violence. In Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games, the child characters know something is horribly wrong about their world, yet an authentic right answer remains elusive. As far as they can tell, the games are rigged to benefit the authorities regardless of who wins. Winning doesn’t assure the end of evil. In fact, winning may just create more evil. In terms of what it takes to raise moral children, I think these books and films get it right: If you teach a child only to be cruel, and then make him king, there’s a good chance he’ll be a cruel king, as Joffrey is. And if you put children in situations where they are forced to do morally objectionable things, and you provide them with no moral guidance beyond “obey the rules” or “just survive,” in the very least they will become confused, angry, and wary of adults in authority, as Katniss and Ender are.

We can draw an obvious lesson about raising moral children fom Game of Thrones: don’t teach children to be cruel. In the The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game, the lesson is less clear. Readers and viewers love Katniss and Ender, suffer with them when they suffer, want them to succeed, enjoy their creativity, intelligence, skills, endurance and courage. There’s a risk here: we can confuse their victories with moral vindication. That is, they win, so they’re right. And if we do this, we miss their deeper struggle: they don’t trust they are right because they’ve had very little opportunity for moral reasoning. They aren’t sure what right is.

Of course, all this is irrelevant fiction. Real life doesn’t work this way. Real life is more like Harry Potter, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, where right and wrong are always crystal-clear. The good inevitably triumph; the bad inevitably falter. Children learn this by watching television and playing video games. Yeah, right.

Jeffrey Lockwood

Jeffrey Lockwood

I found a provocative real-life reflection on raising moral children in the midst of morally ambiguous systems in an essay entitled “Like Father, Like Son,” by the entomologist Jeffery Lockwood. He compares his father’s work during the Cold War testing nuclear weapons to his own work developing powerful insecticides to fight grasshopper infestations. He says, “perhaps there are more similarities between my father’s employer and my institution, nuclear bombs and pesticides, nation states and multinational corporations, and his enemy and mine than I could have imagined when I was [first] hired…. Certainly we both struggle with how to tell our stories to our children and ourselves. It’s tempting to turn them into a screenplay for a James Bond movie. The unambiguously bad guys are blown to bits, but the gory results are not graphically portrayed. This sanitized version of reality creates the illusion that we can drop bombs and spray poisons without immense suffering. But in the end, our children will know otherwise.”[3]

If I’m reading him accurately, children may not detect moral contradictions in adult society when they’re young—contradictions like the production of enough Cold War nuclear weapons to destroy the world thousands of times, or like his own participation in the corporate agricultural system which, he says, ultimately “destroys land and people”[4]—but they’ll see it eventually. They’ll recognize we live in a society that asks us to accept half-truths and dubious justifications for oppression and injustice; a society that takes risks with our health, our lives, our future. We don’t raise moral children by pretending these things don’t exist, or by offering them black and white appraisals of the world, especially as they get older. We must figure out how to talk to children, as best we can, about the contradictions and about how we struggle with them. And when we find ourselves upholding a morally debatable position, say through our work or our politics, we need to own it. We may even need to question the value of our victories.

More importantly, we need to demonstrate with our own decisions and actions how to move these contradictions towards resolution. An Aprl 13th New York Times op-ed entitled “Raising a Moral Child,”[5] highlights the importance of role modeling. Its author, Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, cites research confirming that across cultures and nations, a majority of parents, when asked to report their guiding principles in life, consistently rate caring, compassion, helpfulness and kindness above achievement.[6] However, “despite the significance that it holds in our lives,” says Grant, “teaching children to care about others is no simple task. Inan Israeli studyof nearly 600 families, parents who valued kindness and compassion frequently failed to raise children who shared those values.”[7]

Father SonHe covers some familiar territory in terms of how we respond to children’s good and bad behaviors—in short, praise good behavior and reinforce the message you’re a good person. In response to bad behavior, “[express] disappointment and [explain] why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation.”[8] But what Grant is most excited about is the power of good role models. What we say really does matter much less than what we do. Grant cites research showing that children behave more selfishly when they witness adults behaving selfishly, even when the adults are encouraging them to be generous. And children behave more generously when they witness adults behaving generously, even when the adults are advising them to be selfish. It strikes me that as we here at UUS:E move forward into a more explicitly multigenerational congregational life, and as we build a religious education program that provides that “solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking UUs,” we ought to be asking ourselves as adults: how are we demonstrating to our children and youth that we feel spiritually at home in the world? How are we demonstrating to our children and youth that we have matured into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists? We can assume they’ve heard us say it. But let’s not assume they’ve seen us do it. Let’s do it.

The presence of moral role models in the lives of Katniss, Ender and Joffrey may not have changed their circumstances, but may have enabled them to feel more spiritually at home in the world—or at least more grounded and sure of themselves. Similarly, our moral role-modelling to our children may not alter the half-truths and dubious justifications for oppression and injustice in the world; it may not resolve the pervasive moral contradictions in our society. But I believe it will make a difference in our children’s lives—and that matters.

I’ll close with Jeffrey Lockwood’s reflections on his own moral upbringing. My parents, he says, “would have replaced the ethical admonition ‘First do no harm’… with the more realistic principle ‘First do some good.’ We were a family of positive incrementalists, wherein the task of life was to constantly do better, one step at a time.”[9] “I know that in 1987, we blanketed a typical 10,000-acre grasshopper infestation with five tons of neurotoxic insecticide, and this year we used forty pounds of an insect growth regulator, applied to just one-third of the infested land. I don’t know if doing less evil is the same thing as doing good, but it’s better than doing nothing. I don’t know if gradual, continual progress from within our roles as bit players in the military-industrial complex and industrial agriculture will be sufficient to create a healthy human community embedded within a vibrant diversity of ecosystems, but then I don’t know what else to do.”[10] Even if we don’t know what else to do, may our children bear witness to us “doing some good.”

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] James Dashner’s The Maze Runner series and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series may utilize a version of this same adult-child dynamic, though I’m not as familiar with them (and they don’t have the word game in their titles).

[2] Egner, Jeremy, “‘Game of Thrones’ Recap: A Regression to the Mean,” New York Times, April 20, 2014. See: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/game-of-thrones-recap-a-regression-to-the-mean/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

[3] Lockwood, Jeffery A., Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002) pp. 77-78.

[4] Ibid., p. 95.

[5] Grant, Adam, “Raising a Moral Child,” New York Times, April 13, 2014. For the online version, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/12/opinion/sunday/raising-a-moral-child.html.

[6]For the abstract of “Parents’ Goals and Values for Children: Dimensions of Independence and Interdependence Across Four U.S. Ethnic Groups,” by Suizzo,,see: http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/38/4/506.short. For the abstract of Value Hierarchies Across Cultures: Taking a Similarities Perspective,” by Schwartz, Shalom H. and Bardi, Anat, see: http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/32/3/268.short.

[7] For the abstract of “Accounting for parent-child value congruence: Theoretical considerations and empirical evidence,” by Knafo, Ariel and Schwartz, Shalom H., see: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2008-19090-011.

[8] Grant, Adam, “Raising a Moral Child,” New York Times, April 13, 2014. For the online version, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/12/opinion/sunday/raising-a-moral-child.html.

[9] Lockwood, Jeffery A., Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002) p. 103.

[10] Ibid., p. 104.

Beloved (Multigenerational) Community

Rev. Josh Pawelek

UU Child Dedication

UU Child Dedication

In her December 2013 blog post, “The Power of Our Child Dedication Some Years Later,” Kim Paquette[1] says: “The beloved members of our [congregation] had been there for my children since before that child dedication ceremony, and had lived up to the promises they had made that day. This congregation took the time to get to know them. They have shared with them, learned from and with them, and have shown them love and respect. The congregation had done this in such a way that it was obvious to my children. My kids feel a part of their spiritual community, and in their time of need, thought to turn there first for support.”[2]

In traditional religious language, Kim is testifying. She’s offering testimony about her congregation’s power, presence and love in her family’s life. It’s not testimony about a perfect congregation, or a perfect family attending a perfect congregation. It’s not testimony about a great religious education program, or a wonderful, thought-provoking sermon, or a profoundly moving worship service, or building a remarkably green building.  It’s not testimony about a congregation that has figured out how to provide high quality ministry to a diverse community of families, children, youth, adults and elders. It’s not testimony about ministering in an era of rapid social change, unprecedented technological growth, deep economic stress, and ongoing, potentially catastrophic environmental challenges. It’s testimony about being held, nurtured, seen. It’s testimony about an experience of mattering. It’s testimony about what we may rightfully call beloved community.

logoAs we officially kick off our 2014 annual appeal; as we ask every member and friend of this congregation to make a financial pledge for the coming fiscal year; as we live for a while with the questions “Why give?” “How much do I give?” and “What does this congregation mean to me?” it is my sincere hope that each of you can recall an experience in your life—perhaps many years ago, perhaps more recently—when you felt you mattered here; when you felt this congregation holding you, nurturing you, seeing you, loving you. It is my sincere hope that each of you can say with confidence that you know something of what it means to be in beloved community, because you’ve found it here. It is my sincere hope that each of you could, if called upon, testify about the power, presence and love of this congregation at some moment in your life. Even those who are new: I sincerely hope you can sense the possibility of finding beloved community here. Because it is here.

In recent weeks there have been no better examples of this than the many ways in which members and friends of our congregation have been present, supportive and loving to people facing life-altering and possibly life-ending medical crises. I’ve been so deeply moved by and so deeply grateful for those of you who wrapped yourselves around Jean Dunn and her family in the final days of her life; those of you who’ve wrapped yourselves around Rhona Cohen and her family after her heart attack nearly four weeks ago; those of you who’ve wrapped yourselves around Jake and Fran VanSchaick since Jake’s recent cancer diagnosis. And that’s just the beginning of the list. This “wrapping around” happens here. Most often it happens organically. Sometimes we arrange it through our Pastoral Care Committee. It’s something I value and admire about this congregation. With your actions even more than your words, you communicate to fellow members and friends facing difficult times: “You’re not alone. We’re here for you. We’ll go through this crisis with you. We’re committed.”

Caring

Of course our beloved community is not limited to the people who gather within these walls. It reaches out into the wider world. An example is the story some of you have heard me tell about Mark Reid, a Jamaican immigrant, a forty-year permanent legal resident of the United States, an honorably-discharged veteran of the United States Army—though not a US citizen. Mark got into trouble with the law in New Haven. He committed a series of crimes, mostly drug related, mostly driven by substance-use disorder. He went to jail. The problem is, when you’re not a citizen, even the smallest crimes can result in deportation. And that’s exactly what started to happen. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, put a detainer on Mark. Once he served his time for his drug offenses, instead of being released back into the community ICE detained him and moved him to a federal detention center in Greenfield, MA. He came to my attention when a veterans’ rights worker referred him to me because she knew I and a number of members of this congregation had been involved in a successful effort to free a West Hartford man from ICE detention a year earlier. I talked about Mark’s situation with our UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee and they were supportive of me working with him and his legal team. I won’t give any more details of Mark’s case here, except to say that he recently posted bond after 18 months of detainment. His case isn’t over—he might still be deported—but he’s free for now.

Mark Reid and Rev. Josh

Mark Reid and Rev. Josh

A week ago Mark and I were doing an interview for a Yale Law School documentary on the case. The interviewer asked Mark to describe me. Mark said, essentially, “I was desperate for anyone to help. I thought I was all alone. When I contacted Rev. Pawelek I didn’t have high hopes. He had no reason to help me. But he said he was with me, that he was committed to me, that he wasn’t going to let me go through this alone. At first I didn’t believe him. How could he really mean it? But he meant it. He never gave up on me, and I couldn’t have gotten here without him.” When I heard him say this I was touched and, frankly, proud of myself for having had such an impact on someone’s life, especially someone whom I felt had experienced an injustice. But what I know—and what I hope you know—is that Mark isn’t just experiencing my ministry. He’s experiencing our beloved community. He’s experiencing our congregational values, our practices, our caring and compassion. There’s a beautiful and compelling spirit here that I witness in the way you treat each other, the way you care for each other in times of crisis, the way you make real the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That spirit inspires and enables me not only to nurture and sustain it here at 153 West Vernon St., but to act on it in the wider world. Our beloved community has an impact well beyond these walls.

Having said that, I’m not suggesting that an experience of beloved community here means the congregation is perfect, that it makes no mistakes, that it has never let you down. One of the risks of being a congregation, of being in covenant with each other, of being vulnerable in each other’s presence—of being human together—is that we inevitably discover we are not perfect, we make mistakes, we let each other down. But we take the risk anyways: we enter into community. And when we let each other down, we agree to begin again in love.[3]

And I’m not suggesting that an experience of beloved community here means you’ve never disagreed with something I’ve said, or something another lay-person has said, or that there has never been conflict, or that there’ve never been stressful times. One of the risks of being a congregation is that we will inevitably disagree, sometimes strongly. But we take the risk anyways: we enter into community, knowing we may disagree, but also trusting we can begin again in love.

disagreement

And I’m not suggesting that an experience of beloved community here means you’ve never felt like you were giving more than you were getting, that you’ve never felt burned out and in need of a break, or that you’ve never felt like you needed something but didn’t receive it. One of the risks of being a congregation is that we will feel these ways from time to time. Even in the most healthy, welcoming, inclusive, loving spiritual communities, all these things are not only possible, they are predictable. But what enables me to say with confidence that the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East is a beloved community, is that I have seen us time and time again take the risk anyways and begin again in love.

When it comes time for you to determine your financial pledge for the coming year, I hope and trust you can recall those times when you felt held, nurtured, seen by this congregation—when you felt this congregation wrapping itself around you in a moment of challenge, or perhaps when you felt yourself wrapping around someone else in their moment of challenge. I hope you can recall those times when you felt the power, the presence and the love of this congregation in your life, the life of your family, or the lives of others beyond these walls. Regardless of anything else we might try to accomplish as a congregation; regardless of any goals we might set, any strategic plan we might develop, any new program we might launch, this is the basic role of the congregation: to hold each other, to nurture each other, to see each other. I urge you: let your experience of this holding, nurturing, seeing be part of your answer to the question: “Why give generously to UUS:E?”

And yet, we do need to manage our institution beyond this basic role of the church. We do need to set goals, engage in strategic planning, launch new programs. We need to think about growth. We need to pay bills. This is also why we give. With that in mind I want to say a few words about our primary goal in this year’s annual appeal—which will likely be our primary goal over the next few years: making a successful transition to a new professional religious educator and a new religious education program for children and youth. Because our long-time Director of Religious Education (DRE), Vicki Merriam, is retiring at the end of June after approximately 35 years of service, we are entering a period of huge change, transition, restructuring; a period of learning and innovating, out-of-the-box thinking, creativity and risk-taking. If we take this time of transition seriously, if we rise to the challenge of surrendering how we’ve always done things in order of make room for new possibilities, if we can live for a while with ambiguity, with not knowing exactly what the future holds, we will transition successfully. Of course, there is no perfect transition. We are also entering a period with many opportunities for mistakes, failures, conflict, letting each other down, disappointing each other and, as always, beginning again in love. We are on the verge of something big.

success

In a very concrete way, your generous financial gift to UUS:E this year helps us insure we can hire the best candidate possible as our Interim DRE for the next 12 to 24 months. Let me remind you we have a search committee in place and they are beginning to receive applications. The Personnel Committee is responsible for determining final salary and benefits. The Policy Board is responsible for hiring the candidate the search committee recommends. I am responsible for orienting and supervising this new staff member. The Religious Education Committee is responsible for working with the Interim DRE to run our religious education program during the transition and to help lay the groundwork for hiring a permanent DRE and launching an exciting new program over the next three years. So, a variety of people have specific jobs related to this transition. But what about everyone else? What about us collectively? Don’t we have some responsibility as a congregation to do whatever we can to assure the success of this transition?

We do. And certainly part of our collective role in this success is to continue and expand our generous financial giving. But this is not just about investing financially to achieve our vision. It’s about investing our whole selves in achieving our vision of a religious education program that not only “provides a solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists,” but also “fosters the connection and commitment of all UUS:E members and friends to our beloved multigenerational community.”[4] We need every member and friend involved. As with our recent building campaign, it’s an all hands on deck moment.

I suppose on one level it starts with discerning how adults can support the religious education program. Can you teach a class? Can you mentor a youth? Can you organize supplies, provide nursery child-care, chaperone a trip, help with a fundraiser? These are some of the traditional ways adults have invested their time. But given the way children’s lives are changing and family life in general is changing in US culture, we’re recognizing that the traditional ways will not be enough. What if it became part of our culture to support our children in their various events outside of UUS:E? When a child in the congregation is playing in a sporting event, will you sign up to be a fan at that event? Will you go to the field and cheer? Or when a child is in a play at school, will you attend the play? When a child is in a concert, will you attend the concert? This already happens to some extent, but what if it became a congregational practice? It’s just one idea. There are many more.

cheering

Can you commit to holding yourself open to all the ways in which our congregation may change in order to achieve this vision? I ask because we can anticipate changes in how we worship, how we manage our schedules, when we hold meetings, how we use technology. Can you unleash your creative energies during this time of transition? Can you be a learner? Can you be a risk-taker? Can you be a thought leader? Can you imagine multigenerational activities we’ve never imagined before? Can you help to organize those activities? Can you learn the names and faces of twenty children and youth in this congregation? How about thirty? Forty? Why stop there? There are more than 90 kids registered. Can you wrap yourself around our religious education program in whatever ways make the most sense to you. Can all our children be seen and known in the way Kim Paquette describes? I think we can do this. And if we do, here’s what I know: When we see and know our children, they see and know us. When we wrap ourselves around them, they will wrap themselves around us, around this congregation, around Unitarian Universalism. And that gets us back to that basic role of the church: holding, nurturing, seeing. That’s where it starts. That’s where a vibrant, loving multigenerational community starts. That’s where beloved community starts. Friends, let us start.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Kim Paquette is Director of Multigenerational Ministries for the Northern New England District of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

[2] Read Kim Paquette’s 12/19/13 blog post, “The Power of Our Child Dedication Ceremony Some Years Later,” at http://multigenministry.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/the-power-of-our-child-dedication-some-years-later/.

[3] Eller-Isaacs, Robert, “A Litany of Atonement,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #637.

[4] From the UUS:E “Future of Religious Education” vision statement, October, 2013.

Getting Better at Love

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

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger

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

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

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

2-1 spats

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

2-1 Mclaren

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

Franz Wright

Franz Wright

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

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

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

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

Kate Braestrup

Kate Braestrup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2-1 trust love 1

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

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

2-1 trust love 2

Amen and blessed be.



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

 

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

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

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

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

[6] First Corinthians 13.

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

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

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

Speechless in the Face of Evil

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

Shhh

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

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

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

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

Genocide

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

Speechless

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

What Evil Isn’t

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

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

What Evil Is

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

Speechless

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

Speechless

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Meditation for the New Year

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Now that the holidays draw to their close….

Ash

Now that the lamp oil has lasted beyond all expectations, now that the temple has been cleansed and purified, now that the Yule log has burned down to ash, now that the sun has begun its slow winter return, now that the angels have sung their good tidings, now that the new year has been warmly welcomed, now that the wise men have finally arrived in Bethlehem bearing precious gifts….

Wise Men

Let us resolve not to rush through our lives, hurried and distracted, but to be fully present to each day, mindful in each activity, attentive to each person….

Let us resolve to discern the purpose of our lives, and to pursue that purpose with discipline, passion and courage—not just for ourselves, but for the common good….

Let us resolve to stay aware of our connections to larger realities—to other people, to creatures, to the land, to the earth, to the whole of life, to the whole of creation, to all we hold sacred….

And with the music of midwinter still ringing in our ears, let us resolve not only to say what needs to be said, but to do what needs to be done for the sake of building a more just, peaceful, and loving world….

Indeed, in this new year may we bring many gifts: to ourselves, to our families, to our communities, to the world….

earth

Amen and blessed be.

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.

Elusive Abundance

Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

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

Angry Gardener

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

autumn harvest

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

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

abundance

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

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

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

Ignoring Poor People

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

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey

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

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

Rhonda Byrne

Rhonda Byrne

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

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

Watch Jon Stewart’s interview with Barbara Ehrenreich here.

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

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

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

The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole

The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole

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

Pollution

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

coming back

Amen and Blessed be.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Genesis 1: 29.

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.