Rev. Josh Pawelek
“Winds be still. Storm clouds pass and silence come.” This is not the first time I’ve started a sermon with a quote from this particular hymn. It’s not one of those hymns I learned as a child; but it’s become one of those hymns I long to hear and sing in challenging times. These past few weeks have been, to say the least, challenging times for me. They’ve been challenging for a variety of reasons—multiple serious health crises in the congregation and the situation described in the letter our board and I sent to all members this week having to do with a painful issue here—are just two reasons. There are others. I admit I am experiencing far more than my normal level of stress and, perhaps more fundamentally, I am heart-sick; I am sad.
“Winds be still. Storm clouds pass and silence come.” If one takes these words literally, and if one doesn’t have the music to go with them, one could interpret them as commands: winds be still! Storm clouds pass! Silence come! But we know that’s not the intent. If nothing else, the music doesn’t allow for such an interpretation. There’s no demand being made here. These words are a prayer. They’re a request, a plea, an appeal, an ask; they express to the universe—to whatever the singer regards as most holy—a longing, a yearning, a desire that a quiet peace may arise in the midst of difficult times, even if only for a moment. They’re a prayer that in the midst of that quiet peace, clarity and understanding may come.
Those of you who’ve heard me name what prayer is to me know I don’t expect some all-powerful entity to answer my prayers in any way, let alone do as I say. The God I believe in doesn’t have the power to still the winds, be they real or metaphorical. They will still on their own when they are ready. The God I believe in doesn’t have the power to make storm clouds pass, be they real or metaphorical. They pass on their own when they are ready. And the God I believe in doesn’t have the power to bring a peaceful moment to me. Such moments come when I make myself ready for them. I believe in the power of prayer, not because it gives me what I need and want, but because it reminds me of how I aspire to be in the world—loving and compassionate. It reminds me of how I aspire to feel in the morning when I wake, as I go about my day, and as I lay down to sleep at night—peaceful, serene, open. And it reminds me of what I aspire to achieve in my life and my work—a more just society, a more sustainable community, a more peaceful world. When I pray I am not asking for something magical to happen. I am simply orienting myself toward how I aspire to be, feel and act in the world. As I pray, I have a fighting chance of remembering these things. As I pray I have a fighting chance of getting there.
Except fight is the wrong word. It’s not a fight at all. If and when I try to fight my way through some turmoil, some pain, grief, anxiety, winds, storm—whatever it is—I rarely get there. That is, I might win the fight, but in winning I don’t necessarily gain any clarity about how I want to be, feel and act in the world. More often than not, fighting forces us to compromise those things. Getting to that moment wherein I can truly remember and orient myself toward how I want to be, feel and act in the world almost always requires surrender: Surrender to whatever fierce winds are blowing; surrender to whatever ominous storm clouds abound overhead; surrender to feelings of self-doubt and unsureness; surrender to pain, anxiety, grief, anger, being overwhelmed; surrender to forces larger than me; surrender to forces over which I have no control. It may seem counter-intuitive, it may seem weak, but surrender is often our surest path back to ourselves, back to clarity, back to wholeness. Surrender is often what saves us so that we can live the lives we aspire to live.
Our ministry theme for March is surrender. I like this theme. It shows up in my preaching and writing regularly, though I may use other words and phrases like “letting go” or “falling” or “accepting things as they are,” or “embracing life as it is.” This theme really matters to me, perhaps because I’m concerned I don’t surrender very well. Like love, like apologizing, like offering forgiveness, surrender is difficult. You’ve heard me say this before. In fact, surrender was our ministry theme three years ago this month and I preached a sermon at that time called “The Art of Surrender.” (I’m sure those of you who were there remember it word-for-word. It was electrifying.) As a reminder, the reason we use theme-based ministry is because it invites us to revisit a specific theme in our spiritual lives at least once every three years, just as the Christian lectionary invites Christians to read through the Bible in worship over the course of three years. Presumably, as we encounter these themes over the course of years—as we cycle back to them continually—we deepen our understanding of them.
Three years ago I said surrender is difficult. I still feel this poignantly. Our egos get in the way of our capacity for surrender, as does our pride, as does our fear of vulnerability, as does our unwillingness to change even when we know change is necessary. Sometimes we’re ashamed to appear weak. Sometimes we’re ashamed to appear as if we’re giving up. Sometimes the fight is so strong in us we don’t know when to quit. Sometimes we just can’t hear the good advice of our loved-ones telling us to let it go, let it go, let it go.
And of course, our culture—that is, our dominant, United States culture—is a fighting culture that frowns upon surrender. Our dominant culture values and rewards winning and success. It cheers Wall Street bull markets. It idolizes the competitive spirit. It spends billions of dollars every year consuming competitive professional and college sports. A salient manifestation of this fighting culture is the fact that our nation’s military spending accounts for 40% of all military spending on the planet. We outspend China, our nearest competitor, by nearly 5 to 1. Cuts to US military spending proposed this past week totaling $1 trillion over the next ten years leave barely a blemish on this spending dominance. We’re not just ready for a fight. We’re ready to dispense “shock and awe.” We’re ready for winning anywhere in the world at any time. Like it or not, it’s a prominent part of who we are as a people. I’m not critiquing this fighting culture—I’ll save that for a different Sunday morning. I’m simply making the point that it’s a fighting culture, and being enmeshed in it makes surrender in any form challenging, even if we’re only talking about surrender in the context of our internal lives, in the face of our own personal high winds and battering storms.
In that sermon three years ago I focused on the absence of a language of surrender in our Unitarian Universalist principles and in our hymns. We put significant emphasis on the self—on discovering our unique selves, on valuing our selves, on proclaiming our selves—who we are, what we’re passionate about, what we love. And thus the idea of surrendering the self into some greater reality seems counter-intuitive. Yesterday, after Jeanne Lloyd’s father’s memorial service, Carol Simpson asked me what I was preaching on. I said “surrender.” She reminded me, “that’s not an easy thing for UUs to do.” She’s right.
Having said this, we nevertheless encounter the spiritual advice to surrender all the time. We encounter the advice to let go, to fall, to accept things as they are, to embrace the world as it is, to go with the flow, to enter the mystery. I often start with the Taoist philosophers of ancient China, who offered surrender as an alternative to infighting within families, communities and governments; an alternative to greed and corruption; an alternative to militarism and oppression as tools of leadership. Surrender, for them, was the path of wisdom, the path of peace—a way to lead without appearing to lead. They looked at nature for affirmation of this principle and for guidance on how to do it. Lao Tzu, in chapter 76 of the Tao-te ching says: “All things, the grass as well as the trees, are tender and supple while alive. When dead, they are withered and dried. Therefore, the stiff and the hard are companions of death. The tender and the weak are companions of life.” Be soft, be gentle, bow down, bend in the wind, move with the current, yield, remain quiet, observe, listen. Fighting—the path of rigidity, the path of holding on tightly—would ultimately lead one to break, to snap, to wither, to die. “If the army is strong,” said Lao Tzu, “it will not win.” Fighting was the path of foolishness. Perhaps Lao Tzu’s most famous statement of this principle comes in Chapter 22 of the Tao-te Ching: “To yield is to be preserved whole.”
The spiritual writer I come back to again and again on this theme is the late Philip Simmons. I’ve quoted many times from his last book, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, a series of reflections on living with ALS—Lou Gehrig’s Disease—a series of reflections on finding meaning, peace and joy in life as one surrenders to the reality of death. If I stay in ministry long enough I will eventually quote this entire book. “Learning to fall” is another way of naming the act of surrender. Simmons writes: “At its deepest levels life is not a problem but a mystery. The distinction…is fundamental: problems are to be solved, true mysteries are not. Personally, I wish I could have learned this lesson more easily…. But each of us finds his or her own way to mystery. At one time or another, each of us confronts an experience so powerful, bewildering, joyous, or terrifying that all our efforts to see it as a ‘problem’ are futile. Each of us is brought to the cliff’s edge. At such moments we can either back away in bitterness or confusion, or leap forward into mystery. And what does mystery ask of us? Only that we be in its presence, that we fully, consciously, hand ourselves over. That is all, and that is everything. We can participate in mystery only by letting go of solutions. This letting go is the first lesson of falling, and the hardest.” This point is so important: holding on tightly, hanging on at all costs, striving to win, fighting—all of it so often leads to a diminishment of ourselves, a compromising of ourselves, a losing of ourselves. But in the space we create in our lives as we surrender—if we really surrender—there is new meaning. There is new joy. There is new peace. There is a new reminder of how we aspire to be, feel, and act in the world.
That’s essentially where I stopped three years ago. I didn’t quote Lao Tzu or Philip Simmons in that particular sermon, but there are many other compelling scriptures and writings that speak to this principle and remind us there are times when the best course of action, the path to peace, to serenity, to greater clarity, to wholeness, the path back to our true selves—or we might say to our next selves—is surrender. What leaves me cold about that sermon three years ago—what was missing then and what I hope I can describe here and now is not the what of surrender—I think we get that—but the how of surrender. What does one actually do in order to surrender?
“Winds be still. Storm clouds pass and silence come.” Surrender is an act of prayer. Not the kind of prayer that lists all the things we want to have happen; not the kind of prayer that looks to some magical outcome or miracle to take place. It’s the kind of prayer that begins “I don’t know.” I don’t know. It’s the kind of prayer that begins, “I am not in control.” I am not in control. It’s the kind of prayer that begins with the recognition: “I have something to learn.” I have something to learn. And perhaps most fundamentally, it’s the kind of prayer that begins with the affirmation: “I am here, now.” I am here, now. Though the past—our history—shapes us, makes us who we are, often weighs heavily on us, and cannot and should not be forgotten, surrender requires that we step away from the past for a moment, that we let its hold on us loosen, that we let it, in the words of the Rev. Mark Belletini, “take [its] Sabbath now, [its] brief and simple rest.” Likewise, while the future calls to us, beckons to us, prods us, fills us with both anticipation and dread, with both excitement and stress, surrender requires that we step away from the future for a moment, let its voice grow quiet, let its vision cease to direct us. Surrender requires that we come fully into the present moment, where future and past are ghosts. In that moment we may encounter no more than silence. We may receive no more than a brief respite from the winds that batter our lives and the storm clouds that drench us. But we may, and often do, receive much more: peace of mind, peace of heart, a more grounded and steady understanding of what to do next, and that precious reminder of how we aspire to be in the world, how we aspire to feel in the world, how we aspire to act in the world.
Rev. Belletini says it so well: “Let the breathing in this room be free and flowing. / Let pulses trance a slower rhythm in the wrist. / Let the coming silence be like hands / pulling back a curtain, / revealing the table set with the feast of life / which is present here and now / and has been the whole while, / present to those who give up living in either the past / or the future.” The words of surrender are not “I give up.” They are not a cynical, “you win.” They are not “I quit.” The words of surrender are “I don’t know. I am not in control. I have something to learn. I am here, now.”
The act of surrendering is not a losing of the self, though it may feel like the self we have been clinging to is disappearing. The act of surrendering is not an act of weakness, though it may feel like weakness. The act of surrendering is not something to be feared, though it may feel frightening. On the contrary, the act of surrendering is a return to the self we most aspire to be. As Lao Tzu said, “To yield is to be preserved whole.”
As we rise to meet all the challenges of our lives—all the winds, all the storm clouds, all the pain and anxiety, all the turmoil great and small—may we remember the value of surrender, trusting that the present moment truly does offer a table set with the feast of life. I don’t know. I am not in control. I have something to learn. I am here, now.
Amen and blessed be.
 Kimball, Richard S., “Winds Be Still,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 83.
 This chart from globalissues.org is instructive: http://www.globalissues.org/article/75/world-military-spending#InContextUSMilitarySpendingVersusRestoftheWorld. This 2/24/14 CNBC article is also helpful: http://www.cnbc.com/id/101440355.
 Wing-Tsit Chan, tr., Lao Tzu, Chapter 76, The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 233.
 Wing-Tsit Chan, tr., Lao Tzu, Chapter 76, The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 139.
 Simmons, Philip, Learning to Fall: the Blessings of an Imperfect Life (New York: Bantam Books, 2000) p. 8.
 Kimball, Richard S., “Winds Be Still,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 83.
 Belletini, Mark, “Slower and Slower,” Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008) p. 12.
 Belletini, Mark, “Slower and Slower,” Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008) p. 12.
 Wing-Tsit Chan, tr., Lao Tzu, Chapter 76, The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 139.
An excerpt/adaptation from “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching R(evolutionary) S(ub)-V(ersions)! or Relax! . . . It’s Just Religious Ed” (Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje, Provost and Professor of Cultural Studies and Islamic Studies at the Starr King School for the Ministry)
“Decolonizing” [religion] means looking at how it can subvert the dominating paradigm instead of merely reflecting it or having a merely reactive response to it…. [We must name how] the demonizing of the dark leads to the war against women and their bodies from the Inquisition to the beginning of the dismantling of women’s reproductive rights [and] is connected to the masculinization of the healing industry, to the hardening of Christian religious dogma in northern Europe, to the driving out of the Goddess, to the destruction of the Earth, to the mass killing of kweers of all colors, is connected to the expulsion of the Dark Other, i.e., the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain, is connected to the Afrikan slave trade and the invasions of the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, where indigenous peoples, Afrikans, and Asians were enslaved and massacred (and continue to fuel a fear of brown-skinned immigrants and the brutal murdering of dark-skinned peoples, women, kweers, etc.) because they were considered to be like women: incarnations of evil; incarnations of unbridled lust; like women, they were considered to be too connected to the body and to sex; and where the Earth was destroyed because like women, the Earth was considered to be wild and needing to be dominated; like dark-skinned peoples, it needed to be dominated and controlled. This interlocking vortex became reflected in our language, where all that was evil was “dark” and vice-versa. The Dark Other was soon not only people living with brown skin, but anyone who was other: people living with disabilities, women, kweers, etc.
SERMON: Decolonizing Our Faith
“Evening breeze sings to me…. Mother earth awakens me.”
Friends, this sermon is about awakening—waking up, opening our eyes, rising, stretching, greeting the dawn, greeting a new day, greeting a new way of being in the world which, in some respects, is not new at all. That is, greeting a new way of being in the world whose roots are ancient; or greeting an ancient way of being in the world that has been with us all along and even though it has been hidden, suppressed, denied, distorted, discounted, ridiculed, colonized, marginalized, made invisible, lampooned, bamboozled, attacked, assaulted, bombed, burned, bashed, bullied, battered, tainted, taunted, targeted and terrorized it has survived and has been asserting itself anew; has been speaking, calling, singing like the evening breeze, shining like the morning sun. This sermon is about awakening to an ancient way of being which is also new.
Throughout my entire ministry I’ve wrestled with the claim—a philosophical and academic claim—that we live in the end times of the modern world. Not the Biblical end times—that’s something completely different and involves far too much hellfire and brimstone for me. The era scholars call modernity is slowly coming to a close. I encountered this idea in college in the 1980s and then in seminary in the 1990s. While I’m not convinced anyone knows entirely what this means or what the future holds, I do think naming and reflecting on this claim provides insight into the mission of the liberal church today.
I wrestle with this claim because I don’t believe the modern world will transition to something new without considerable conflict. Despite all the wonderful gifts of modernity—modern science, medicine, technology, industry, transportation, democracy, freedom, liberty, individual autonomy, human rights—all of which I fully expect will continue in new forms in whatever era is coming—despite this positive legacy it is also true that the modern world has always held itself in place through violence and oppression. For nearly six centuries modern nations and their leaders have far too often turned to domination and exploitation to achieve their goals: domination and exploitation of the land, of natural resources, of the global working poor and laboring classes, of the global south, of peoples of color, of women, of indigenous peoples and cultures, of (in the words of Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje) “kweers of all colors,” of Jews and Muslims—and sometimes Christians—of Goddess religions, earth-based religions, and all manner of traditional folkways, including healing and agricultural practices.
The modern world may be ending but its insidious underside—its tendency to resort to violence and oppression—won’t just disappear. Over the centuries it has insinuated itself deeply into modern consciousness, into our social, political and economic structures. It is the constant, unspoken threat of violence at the heart of so many international negotiations. It is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate saying “all options are on the table,” which we know is code for “we reserve the right to bomb you.” It is the rise of drone technology striking up and down the Afghan-Pakistan border and across the Southern Arabian Peninsula. It is gang warfare on city streets and corporate warfare on workers and the environment. It is wealthy nations with no will to address crushing poverty within their borders. It is the crazed search for fossil fuels despite incontrovertible evidence we’ve already combusted the climate beyond recognition. It is theories of “legitimate rape.” It is all the uninvestigated, untried murders of transgender people. None of this will simply disappear with the end of modernity. It must be confronted, challenged, resisted, subverted and undermined in creative, innovative, artistic, nonviolent ways. It must be declawed, defunded, dismantled, disorganized and voted out of office. It must be transformed into something peaceful, just, fair and sustainable. In my view this is our work as free, liberal, loving people of faith. This creative, innovative, artistic, nonviolent work of confronting domination and exploitation is a critical role of the church in these end times of the modern world. In embracing this role I believe we awaken to that ancient way of being which is also new.
Let me tell you how the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has recently said yes to this task of challenging the violence and oppression at the heart of modernity. At our 2012 General Assembly (GA) in Phoenix, delegates voted overwhelmingly to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. I was not familiar with this term until UUA board members started talking about it a year ago. I was familiar with some of the history surrounding it, but not the term itself. In short, the Doctrine of Discovery provided the intellectual, moral and spiritual justification for European colonization and slavery at the dawn of the modern era. Here’s a quote from the UUA website: “The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of international law dating from the late 15th century. It has its roots in … papal decree[s] … that specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples. Hundreds of years of decisions and laws continuing right up to our own time can ultimately be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery—laws that invalidate or ignore the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.”
These original papal decrees were written in Latin, but you can find English translations online. Two in particular stand out. The first, entitled Dum Diversas, issued in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal, is widely regarded as the first official sanction of the African slave trade. Here’s a quote: “We grant you full and free power, through the Apostolic authority of this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and … to lead their persons in perpetual servitude and to apply and appropriate realms, duchies, royal places, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods … to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.”
Then in 1493, in response to Christopher Columbus’ first Atlantic voyage, Pope Alexander VI issued a decree entitled Inter Caetera to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. “We … out of the fullness of our apostolic power, by the authority of Almighty God … give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever … all the islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south, by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole, namely the north, to the Antarctic pole, namely the south, no matter whether the said mainlands and islands are found and to be found in the direction of India or towards any other quarter.”
A picture emerges of 15th-century European power elites—popes and monarchs—authorizing the domination and exploitation of foreign lands, peoples and resources, and thereby ushering in the modern age. A few centuries later Protestant rulers of Europe and the United States adopted the Doctrine of Discovery for their own uses. You can see it in Mass Bay and Virginia colony charters; in the Atlantic slave trade; in American expansionism and manifest destiny; in centuries of Indian wars, countless broken treaties, trails of tears, and detainment on reservations. You can see it in the Mexican-American war, the annexation of the American southwest, the colonization of Hawai’i, American imperialism, the history of immigration law, the war on drugs, the war on terror and the mass incarceration of black and brown people in American prisons. You can see it in a variety of United States Supreme Court decisions, the most recent being a 2005 case called City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York.  “The case involved a dispute over taxation of ancestral lands…. During oral arguments, it became clear that [the case] would hinge on whether … the Oneida Indian nation ‘has sovereignty status’ with regard to [its] ancestral lands…. In [the first] footnote [of her] decision for the Court majority [Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg writes:] ‘Under the Doctrine of Discovery … fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.’” For me this underscores how deeply modernity’s tendency toward domination and exploitation is quietly woven into our legal system.
When the UUA was designing the 2012 GA and the various ways our delegates would bear witness against Arizona’s harsh immigration laws, our Arizona partners started talking to our leaders about the Doctrine of Discovery. They said, essentially: the reason state and federal governments and the sheriff’s department can treat us this way, can racially profile us, can raid our neighborhoods, can keep us from accessing our ancestral lands, can tear families apart in the middle of the night is because the United States still believes in the Doctrine of Discovery. They asked us: Will your General Assembly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly ask your leaders to work with indigenous people to propose a Congressional resolution calling on the US government to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly call upon the US government to fully implement the standards of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? We said yes. We voted, resoundingly, yes.
This yes is important to me; I hope it’s important to you. This yes meant, first, that as a historically white religious association with a distinct European American heritage we were able to hold ourselves accountable to people of color organizations in Arizona. That’s what it means to be antiracist: white institutional power made accountable to people of color, their institutions, and their organizing for a more just society. But deeper than that: in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery we said yes to decolonizing our faith. That is, we said yes to a vision of our world free from the violence, oppression, domination and exploitation at the heart of modernity. We said yes to working as Unitarian Universalists to achieve that vision. We said yes, we are ready to wake up to a new way of being in the world—a new way of being whose roots are also ancient.
What is that way of being, asserting itself anew, singing now on the evening breeze, waking with the morning sun? If Professor Farajaje is right—and I believe he is—that one of the central strategies of modern domination was the demonization of the Dark Other, which connects the demonization of the earth to the demonization of women, people of color, indigenous peoples and cultures, immigrants, Jews and Muslims, ‘kweers of all colors,’ and on and on, then this new way of being must point us away from demonization, away from division, away from distancing us from them; it must point us towards balance. The modern world has been out of balance since its inception. We need to regain our balance—our own, internal sense of balance and a collective, global sense of balance.
We need balance between the dark and the light, between the beauty each has to offer, and all the beauty that lies between them. We need balance between day and night, dawn and dusk.
We need balance between our current habits of consumption and what we truly need for living well—a movement away from the fetishizing of material things and the resulting rape of the earth towards more holistic modes, methods, practices and principles of sustainable living, of renewable energy, of reduced carbon footprints—an honest, realistic balance between the needs of humanity and the needs of the earth accountable to generations upon generations into the future.
We need balance between our technological lives and our natural, flesh and blood lives. We need balance between our technological relationships and our natural, face-to-face, body-to-body, person-to-person relationships. We need balance between our online friends and our actual friends.
We need balance between male and female energy, between the beauty each has to offer, and all the beauty that lies between them—indeed, a recognition that male and female not only balance, but blend, mix, merge and cross—a wonderful truth of human diversity—the reason we bear witness at the Transgender Day of Remembrance this Tuesday evening, saying no to the murders of transgender people, and yes to the dignity of transgender lives, yes to the human capacity for changing, transitioning, bending, crossing and queering.
We need balance among all faiths and cultures for a world in which no faith or culture dominates, where each faith and culture has access to the public square, yet where each refrains from imposing itself on the others, where each respects the others, where each seeks to understand the others, where all come together on common ground to work for the ongoing advance of justice and equality for all people and for the earth.
We need balance between the tools of war and the tools of peace, and much greater wisdom when it comes to declaring war.
We need a more just balance of wealth, for a world in which the rich and the poor and not so far from each other, not so unfamiliar to each other, not so disconnected from each other.
This sense of balance is that new way of being that has been asserting itself in these waning days of modernity; that new way of being that has been speaking, calling, singing like the evening breeze, shining like the morning sun. And in fact, it has been with us all long. Have you heard it? Its roots are ancient: It is there in the Tao, yin and yang, wu wei, neti neti, namaste, the middle path, shalom, the great commandment, the Sacred Way. Yet is also new. We have tools, knowledge and insights the ancient masters could never have imagined. So let us awaken from our modern slumbers, open our eyes, rise, stretch, and greet the dawn; and in this new day let us first regain what we have lost—our balance; and then let us begin to refashion the world.
Amen and Blessed Be.
 Farajaje-Jones, Elias (now Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje) “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching R(evolutionary) S(ub)-V(ersions)! or Relax! . . . It’s Just Religious Ed” Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays, 2001 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, 2001) pp. 19-20.
 See “What is the Doctrine of Discovery?” at http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/index.shtml. Also, the UUA has produced a helpful introductory video at http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/199378.shtml.
 An English translation of Dum Diversas can be found at http://unamsanctamcatholicam.blogspot.com/2011/02/dum-diversas-english-translation.html.
 An English translation of Inter Caetera can be found at http://www.doctrineofdiscovery.org/inter%20caetera.htm.
 City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, 125 S. Ct. 1478, 148384 (2005).
 Frichner, Tonya Gonnella, “Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal Construct Known as the Doctrine of Discovery,” a preliminary study submitted to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, 9th session, February 4th, 2010, p. 19. See: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/E.C.19.2010.13%20EN.pdf
 Language to the UUA Board’s Responsive Resolution for repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is at http://www.uua.org/statements/statements/209123.shtml.
 Composer Unknown, “Evening Breeze” Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1072.
Rev. Josh Pawelek
The difficulty in understanding how [creativity] happens, even when it happens to us” says science writer Jonah Lehrer, “means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force. In fact, [at least in the western world] until the [European] Enlightenment, the imagination was entirely synonymous with higher powers: being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the ingenious gods. (Inspiration, after all, literally means ‘breathed upon.’) Because people couldn’t understand creativity, they assumed that their best ideas came from somewhere else. The imagination was outsourced.” Or as we just sang, “heaven knows where we are going.”
Of course, that’s not the complete lyric. It’s “heaven knows where we are going but we know within.” And so it is with creativity. It may very well be that some power beyond us breathes our creativity upon us, but in our most creative moments, something clearly happens within us. This is the message of Lehrer’s recent book, Imagination: How Creativity Works. He looks at a broad swath of research from a variety of scientific fields and combines this look with stories of famously creative people and businesses to show that creativity is a very natural and human phenomenon. Creativity is, in short—and this may sound somewhat anti-climactic—a bundle of distinct mental processes that combine to give rise to new thoughts. He also says “creativity is our natural state.”
I find this notion very inviting. I hinted in our April newsletter that I think there is a kind of wisdom inherent in all the old creation stories, no matter what culture they’re from. For me, this wisdom is much more profound than the typical plot line of these stories which is always some version of “and so the Gods created the heavens and the earth.” The wisdom inherent in these stories says to me that the world and the universe and the energy and power that sustain them, rather than simply having been created, are themselves inherently and continuously creative. That is, Creation itself is not passively created; it is actively creative. It’s a verb, not a noun. And since we human beings, like all living things, are intimately connected to the world and the universe and the energy and power that sustain them, doesn’t Jonah Lehrer’s statement ring true, that creativity is our natural state? Which leads me finally to the question that feels most relevant to our spiritual lives: how do we return to our natural state? How do we access the creative essence at the heart of who we are?
This question feels relevant because in our lives—in this particular, early 21st century era of human history—in this particular location in which we find ourselves (western, industrialized, technologized, capitalistic, militaristic, democratic United States of America)—there are a myriad of opportunities to become alienated from what is natural, to forget our connectedness, to grow distant from more grounded, holistic ways of living that might more readily nurture and call forth our creativity. We live in a society that doesn’t typically invite us to be creative. There are many examples of this lack of invitation, but the one that comes most quickly to mind is the high value we place on standardized testing in public schools. To be clear, I am not one who finds no value in such tests. They are useful in certain, limited ways. But I am concerned that we are now teaching our children, with unprecedented singular focus, how to comply with standards determined in bureaucratic offices. We are educating our children into a very specific kind of intelligence, into a very rigid mold. We are educating our children to think alike. We are not educating our children to think around, underneath, above, through and beyond standards. We are not educating our children to transcend standards, which is precisely what creativity is for, and precisely what we need as a society in order to solve our most pressing problems and to make advances in science and technology, business and finance, the arts, religion—any field that impacts our lives and life on the planet. Again, human creativity is a bundle of distinct mental processes that combine to give rise to new thoughts, new images, new visions, new combinations, new connections, new ways of relating, new ways of solving problems, new melodies, new harmonies, and so on. This is our natural state, but we are not currently educating our children into their natural state. If anything, we are educating them out of their natural state.
This is not to say there is no creativity in our society. The United States of America continues to be, in so many ways, one of the most creative societies on the planet. But creativity so often feels counter-cultural, even subversive. Creativity, in many settings, is risky. We might say it takes some nerve to muster one’s creative energy. And so creativity has become a phenomenon that people like Jonah Lehrer have to study in order to remind the rest of us what it actually is and why it is so important.
So, how do we return to our natural state? How do we access the creative essence at the heart of who we are? I have spoken in the past about my experience of writer’s block. I’m sitting at my computer trying to synthesize a number of different ideas into a coherent sermon, prayer, essay or article. I’m not only trying to write coherently; I’m also looking for words and sentences that sound good, that feel good to speak, that feel rhythmical and poetic. I’m trying to be creative, but I get to a point where I can’t write anymore. I can’t connect the different ideas. I know the connections are there—I can sense them—but I can’t see them; I can’t see how to put
them into language. I’ve learned in these moments to stop writing. I’ve learned to let it go for a while, to go for a run, play with the kids, take a hot shower, sleep, cook a meal, listen to music—anything to get away from the stress of writing; anything that brings relaxation. And that’s when the connections start to come. That’s when the right words, the right rhythm, the right feel comes. That’s when the creative insight happens. Not in front of the computer, but out on the road, in the shower, or after dreaming.
Lehrer says “every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer…. It’s often only…after we’ve stopped searching for the answer, that the answer arrives.” I would not be surprised if the ancient Taoist Master Lao Tzu was writing about this very phenomenon 2500 years ago. Earlier we heard chapter 48 from the Tao Te Ching: “Less and less do you need to force things / until finally you arrive at non-action. / When nothing is done / nothing is left undone. / True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. / It can’t be gained by interfering.” Lao Tzu does not link this process of letting things go their own way to any external force or divine entity breathing upon us. It is simply how life works. It is the Tao, the way. We know it within. It is our natural state. Our challenge is to live into our natural state.
Still, how to get there? Jonah Lehrer talks about alpha waves in our brains. Scientists measure electrical activity in the brain using an electroencephalogram or EEG machine. Alpha waves show up on the EEG machine when we are relaxed. According to Lehrer, when we are relaxed and the alpha waves are cycling, a section of the brain called the superior inferior temporal gyrus becomes very active. In fact, when scientists measure brain activity at the moment a person is having a creative insight, the superior inferior temporal gyrus typically lights up right before the insight occurs. Though it is still somewhat mysterious, the superior inferior temporal gyrus helps us make what researchers call remote associations. It helps us find the threads of connections between distinct ideas, words, shapes, colors, notes, movements, etc. It helps us order apparently unrelated things into relationships. In this way, it gives rise to new thoughts; it gives rise to new ideas. It helps us be creative. And it functions when we are relaxed. Lehrer says: “The counter-intuitive aspect of this research is that most people assume when you get a really hard problem … that seems impossible, what we have to do is drink another espresso, pop some Ritalin, do whatever it is we need to do to really focus on the problem. But that’s actually…the worst thing we can do because then we just get the wrong answer and it loops in our head like a broken record. Instead, what we should do is [relax]. Take a warm shower, play some ping pong…take a walk in the park, do anything we can to distract ourselves from the problem we’re trying to solve, because it’s when we’re not trying to solve it that the answer will actually pop into our head.”
This was precisely the point in my writing when I hit a wall and had to stop. That was Friday night. I went for a run, took a shower, made dinner, played with the kids, had a glass of wine at a birthday party for my dad, then went back to the computer. Nothing really came to me. It was nice to relax but my superior inferior temporal gyrus wasn’t lighting up the way I had hoped. The thing I couldn’t quite put words to was the feeling of risk that sometimes comes with creativity. That is, after all, the title of this sermon: “Risking Creativity.” I had lost sight of why I chose that title in the first place. What’s so risky about relaxing? What’s so risky about letting things go their own way? Generating alpha waves feels very spiritual to me in the sense that it enables me to access a deeper place within myself; it moves me towards my natural state. It feels like a relief more than a risk.
But it finally came. Our creative moments always come with some risk. I can see it more clearly when I examine the literature on group creativity in institutions, say in a corporate science lab, in a school or university faculty, in government, in congregations. In any of these settings—any place where people work together to reach certain goals—over time certain ways of thinking tend to become dominant. Certain methods of research or teaching tend to become standard. Certain business models tend to become more or less given. The way we do things, the way we think about things, the way we talk about things, the theories we accept as most accurate, the protocols we use—all of it, over time, becomes etched as if in stone. When this is the case, the people involved become boxed in; they become creatures of habit often without recognizing they’re just repeating long-established, rote patterns. They become less and less creative, even when they’re working in traditionally creative fields. In order to have and express a truly creative insight in such a calcified context, one must become, essentially, an outsider. One must raise their hand and say, “Wait a minute, there’s another way.” That’s risky. it comes with potential costs: marginalization, alienation. What if I meet resistance? What if my boss isn’t interested? What if my minister isn’t interested? What if I’m perceived to be injecting too much chaos into the system? What if I’m perceived to be a trouble-maker? What if they ignore me? Having and expressing a truly creative insight in an institution that isn’t predisposed to innovation always entails some level of risk.
This may be somewhat obvious. In response to a creative idea we often hear some version of the message, But we’ve always don’t it this way. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? Here are all the reasons why your idea won’t work. It’s classic. It’s also a sign that an institution is slowly dying.
In addition to Lehrer’s book I’ve also been looking at a book called Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society by four renowned business and management consultants. They say people and institutions tend to be governed by habit and that we revert to habit when we are fearful or anxious about the future. Although they aren’t using the language of creativity specifically, they are talking about being “present” as a way to access new ideas and possibilities, to imagine and create a more positive future. They talk about learning to be open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense…the importance of letting go of old identities and the need to control and…making choices to serve the evolution of life. Ultimately,” they write, “all these aspects of presence [lead] to a state of ‘letting come,’ [there’s that ancient Taoist wisdom!] of consciously participating in a larger field for change. When this happens, the field shifts, and the forces shaping a situation can move from re-creating the past to manifesting or realizing an emerging future.”
We feel the risk of creativity most keenly when we are fearful and anxious about the future, when we are comfortable with and set in our habits. Creativity calls us to confront our fears and anxieties and it calls us out of our habits. In order to let a new future emerge—in order to be creative—we need to be willing to set a piece of our frightened, anxious, comfortable, habitual selves aside and listen deeply for new connections, new relationships, new visions. To do this we need to be able to recognize and suspend our assumptions, to hold them out in front of us so they have less influence over our thinking, so we can encounter new ideas without being judgmental towards them, without saying “No, this will never work.” Only when we set a piece of our fearful, anxious, comfortable, habitual selves aside can we create space for new ideas to take hold in us. Creative insights come as we set aside some piece of who we are. There’s the risk. In our most creative moments we lose some of our self so that a new self may emerge. This is our natural state. Are we ready for a new self to emerge? Are we ready to risk creativity? I’ll leave you with that question.
Amen and blessed be.
 Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) p. xvi.
Amoa, et al, “Woyaya” in Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1020.
Ibid., p. vvii. For a helpful overview of the content of Imagine, check Lehrer’s March 19, 2012 interview on National Public Radio at http://www.npr.org/2012/03/19/148777350/how-creativity-works-its-all-in-your-imagination.
Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) pp. 6-7.
S. Mitchell, tr., Tao TeChing, athttp://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html
Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) pp. 30-31. Also view http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNVEZ5Whmk8&feature=relmfu.
 Lehrer offers excellent statements on the role of outsiders and the ways in which institutions become less creative over time at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ep5Ij-AfkLU and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3PBxGmCWH0.
 Senge, P., Scharmer, O.C., Jaworski, J., Flowers, B., Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society (New York: Doubleday, 2004) pp. 13-14.
 Ibid., pp. 29-33.