Don’t Cut HUSKY Parents

Rhona Cohen training Members of the UUS:E Social Justice Committee attended a lobbying effort in support of HUSKY parents at Connecticut’s Legislative Office Building on Wednesday, May 22nd. The goal of the action, organized by the Interfaith Fellowship for Universal Health Care, was to draw attention to the plight of HUSKY parents living between 133% 1nd 185% of the federal poverty line. These parents currently receive their health insurance through Connecticut’s health care public option, HUSKY. Governor Malloy has proposed cutting funding to these HUSKY parents–a move that would impact 37,000 CT families–and direct them to purchase their health insurance on CT’s new health care exchange. While this is a reasonable idea on its face, the cost of health care for these families would rise from between $600 to $1800 per year, even with federal subsidies. Many of these families would simply not be able to afford such an increase. While the Interfaith Fellowship for Universal Health Care supports the new health care exchange and wants to see it succeed, it does not feel cutting HUSKY parent funding will achieve the goal of health care for all. On the contrary, it will make health care more difficult–if not impossible–to obtain for the parents in 37,000 families who currently have access to it. If you feel moved, please urge your CT legislator not to support a budget that includes funding for HUSKY parents. 

 

 

 

For All That Is Our Life: A Stewardship Sermon

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

This coming week marks the anniversary of a milestone in my life and in the life of this congregation. Ten years ago this week, Wednesday, March 19th, 2003 is perhaps most memorable as the day the United States launched its invasion of Iraq—the second Gulf War. That same week, here in New England, spring was in the air after what had then been a record-setting winter—a record that more recent winters have obliterated. During that sunny, soggy week I changed the sermon I had planned to deliver here on Sunday, March 23rd. I preached instead on my concern about the invasion and what it suggested to me about a growing malignancy in the American character. I also shared my instinct that war is, in the end, an aberration—inconsistent with a greater peace that lies at the heart of Creation. That same day—March 23rd—the members of this congregation—many of you were there—voted unanimously to call me as your settled minister, the fourth settled minister in UUS:E’s then thirty-four year history. It was my first formal calling, a huge milestone in my life. So, for me—and I trust for you—this is a very significant anniversary week. Next Sunday, spring’s first Sunday in 2013, we begin our second decade of ministry tog

In September of that first year I preached a sermon called “Taking Time.” I want to share an excerpt with you because in it I invited us to peer ten years into the future—to now, to today. I asked those present to take a moment and imagine: what will this congregation be like [in 2013]? How might we have grown? Will the building be larger? Will there be more members? More children? Will we be a truly green sanctuary? Will we be fully accessible?

On Sunday mornings many of us will be here…. Our bodies will be ten years older, our hair perhaps grayer (if we still have any at all), our faces perhaps sporting a few more wrinkles. And some of us will not be here. This is perhaps the saddest part of imagining the future: for any number of reasons, some of us will no longer be here. Some will have died. I urge us not to shy away from this sad truth. [Instead, let’s take time] for saying goodbye to our loved-ones, for honoring their lives, for experiencing and expressing the fullness of our grief.

And then imagine the world in 2013. Will there still be a war on terror? Will there be gay marriage? Will there be a Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition? Will our towns and cities east of the river be thriving or declining?

There was much more, but that gives you a flavor. It was a sermon about beginning what we hoped would be a deep and lasting shared ministry, about not rushing the building of that ministry but taking our time. I said we need to take time so that time does not take us. But taking time—being thoughtful and patient—is not always our natural instinct, here or anywhere. So often, time seems to take us. We feel there is never enough time. We do tend to rush, to keep busy. For better or for worse—and it’s often worse—our larger culture affirms us in our rushing, our multi-tasking, our high productivity, even when the product is sub- standard. I can point to moments over the last decade when the work of this congregation has felt frenetic, frenzied, even overwhelming; when we felt as if we didn’t have enough time to do things well. And in such moments we were more likely to make mistakes, to not listen deeply to each other, to not bring our best selves to the process. Still, I think mostly we have heeded the advice in that sermon. We have taken our time. We’ve been patient and thoughtful. We’ve listened to each other, made good decisions. We’ve allowed things to come in their own season. And I believe we are better for it. Looking back over ten years, though I have some regrets, they are few and they are vastly overshadowed by the immense pride I take in what we’ve accomplished together. I am unapologetically proud. I am also humbled by the fondness and affection you continue to express for me. And I am filled with joy and excitement at the prospect of continuing this shared ministry into a second decade. From the deepest place in my heart I thank you.

Our ministry theme for March is inheritance. Two Sundays ago I spoke about our liberal spiritual inheritance, in particular the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the sacredness of all living things. I talked about a conflict we experience over the purpose of that principle in our spiritual lives. Do we come to church to hear that message and thereby experience our own liberation? Or do we come to church so that we may be sent back out into the world to engage in acts of liberation in the world. Ny answer was both. We come to receive the good news of our spiritual inheritance. And we come to be sent back out into the world.

That is one way to explore the theme of inheritance. I also reminded us that in March we begin our annual appeal, which also has something to do with inheritance. Last night was the kick-off celebration and this is my stewardship sermon. So, here’s my appeal. Please make the most generous financial gift possible to this congregation, not only to support its day-to-day functioning, but so that it can fulfill its mission and continue to thrive. In asking this, I’m mindful that we here today inherit this congregation from those who came before, from those who’ve given so generously over the years of their time, energy, talent and money to establish and grow this beacon of liberal religion here on beautiful Elm Hill in Manchester’s northeast corner east of the Connecticut River. I’m mindful that when we give our financial gifts to UUS:E we are ensuring that future generations will inherit this congregation from us, embrace its mission, continue its traditions, and keep the beacon burning brightly.

UUS:E

Having now been here now ten years, I can look back at our shared ministry and begin to envision what coming generations will inherit from us. And I love what I see. I asked in that 2003 sermon, will we have a larger building? I don’t think many of us took the idea seriously. Certainly none of us could imagine what we would go through to create this peaceful, elegant, efficient, holy space. But we took that risk, that leap of faith. We went through it. And now we have something tangible, beautiful and sacred to pass on to future generations.

In that sermon I asked, will we be a truly green sanctuary? Will the building be fully accessible? Well, over the past decade, green and accessible have become central features of our congregational identity. It’s not been easy. The work is ongoing. We still struggle to live fully into these identities. But they are part of who we are. They are wonderful expressions of our spiritual inheritance, of our good news that all people matter, that the earth matters. This, too, is something sacred we will pass on to future generations.

And of course our ministry has not only been about what happens here at 153 West Vernon St. We know the congregation, ultimately, is not the building; it’s the people and what they do with their spiritual inheritance. I asked in that sermon ten years ago, Will there be gay marriage?” Today we have marriage equality in Connecticut. Our congregation wasn’t responsible for the Supreme Court decision that gave us marriage equality, but keep in mind: no one person was responsible. We have marriage equality in Connecticut because there was a movement to achieve it. Tens of thousands of people participated in that movement. And members of this congregation were there all along the way. And when I said I would stop signing marriage licenses to protest discrimination, you supported me. When I agreed to take on the leadership of Connecticut Clergy for Marriage Equality, you supported me. When I was invited to speak at rallies and marches you came with me. We were part of a movement to change the hearts and minds of the people of Connecticut. We were part of a movement to change the culture of Connecticut from one that was, on the issue of same-sex relationships, closed-minded, conservative and at times mean-spirited, to one that was open, accepting and loving. We were part of that! We entered that movement grounded in our spiritual inheritance and now we have something precious, wonderful and sacred to pass on to future generations. I’m just scratching the surface of our shared ministry, but looking back I am filled with pride.

Our 2013 annual appeal has begun. It’s time to pledge our financial gifts for next year. Many of you have signed up for group stewarding. Others will meet one-on-one with a steward. When the steward contacts you, please respond to them quickly. They don’t mean to be pushy. They do what they do out of a deep love for this congregation, for Unitarian Universalism, and for our liberal spiritual inheritance. They want to hear from you not only about your financial contribution but about what this congregation and this faith mean to you. They’ll remind you about the goals for this year’s appeal. In many ways the goals are mundane; they relate to the healthy functioning of the church: we want to expand religious education opportunities, reduce our dependency on fundraisers, pay all staff according to Unitarian Universalist Association guidelines. There’s more. They are clear, concrete goals, but I’m also aware that annual appeal goals don’t—and really can’t—express the ways in which our ministry touches and transforms lives and leaves something lasting and holy for future generations to inherit.

What I hope we have done these past ten years, and what I fully expect we shall continue doing in the coming decade is to constantly proclaim in word and deed, within these walls and beyond them, a drum-beat of good news, that message that each person matters; that each of us has something of value to contribute; that each of our lives tells a story worth hearing; that there’s a river flowin’ in our souls and it’s tellin’ us we’re somebody; that each of us possesses inherent worth and dignity—meaning it’s in you, no one can take it away. Inherent, meaning not contingent on the color of your skin, or the money in your wallet, or who you love or how old you are; not contingent on whether you walk on your legs or roll in a wheelchair, or how you express your gender to the world, or what you do for work or whether you live in a home or on the street; and not contingent on what you believe, whether you pass some spiritual test or confess the right creed. Your worth is inherent. It’s universal. Here we celebrate it. It’s good and essential news in a world that tries in so many ways to crush the human spirit.

And of course the good news extends beyond people. Those solar panels on our south-facing roof? They’ll save us a lot of money on our electricity bill. But we know they make a much more profound statement that we recognize our connection not only to each other, but to local ecosystems, to the environment, to the earth. We recognize the immense damage that has resulted from the burning of fossil fuels, the surpassing of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We recognize it’s time to change our global habits of energy consumption and that we need to start with ourselves. You see the organic garden? Those geothermal pumps? Those compost bins? Those marmoleum floors? It’s all part of the same proclamation, the same good news: the earth matters. The natural world matters. Living in harmony with the earth matters. And the survival of everything—everything!—depends on humanity hearing this message, taking it to heart, and making it real.

Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, people won’t look back and ask, “Did they achieve their annual appeal goals?” But I hope and trust they’ll know—without asking—that this congregation stayed true to its spiritual inheritance, that it valued each and every person, that it made room for everyone who wanted to quench their soul-thirst and deepen their spirits, that it inspired and empowered people, that it taught people, listened to people, connected people; that it fought for justice, that it resisted violence, that it subverted racism, that it was part of the movement to end mass incarceration, that is was part of the movement to end the achievement gap in public education, that it tutored children, that it struggled for affordable, accessible health care for all people, that it proudly flew a rainbow flag; and that it cared for the earth and future generations enough to change its own ways, enough to speak boldly in the wider community about our interdependence with the whole of life. And it did none of this for prestige, none of it for accolades, special recognition or awards. It did these things simply and humbly for the sake of saving lives—and not only saving them but fortifying them for the work of building the beloved community here and everywhere. These are just some of the intangible yet utterly essential roles this congregation will play in the coming decade of our shared ministry. They aren’t explicitly stated in our annual appeal goals, but make no mistake: when you make a generous financial gift to this congregation, you are making a gift that helps save lives, that helps liberate people, that builds the beloved community. I cannot speak more plainly about what I firmly believe we are doing here at 153 West Vernon St on Elm Hill in Manchester.

Well, I can speak a bit more plainly. Our liberal spiritual inheritance doesn’t stand on its own. It needs a foundation of love. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”[1] I read earlier from the Rev. Kate Braestrup’s Here If You Need Me. She’s writing to her brother who really doesn’t understand or approve of her having become a minister; and she’s writing about the experience of receiving devastating news. Her own devastating news was the car accident death of her husband. And her job as a chaplain to the Maine State Game Wardens requires her from time to time to deliver hard news to people. She says, “Your life, too, will swing suddenly and cruelly in a new direction with breathtaking speed. If you are really wise—and it’s surprising and wondrous…how many people have this wisdom in them—you will know enough to look around for love. It will be there, standing right on the hinge, holding out its arms to you. If you are wise, whoever you are, you will let go, fall against that love, and be held.”[2]

Friends, she’s right about the way life can change in an instant. And she’s right that love will find us in those moments if we let it. What I hope has been true about my ministry and about our shared ministry these past ten years is that I’ve been that kind of minister and we’ve been that kind of congregation in whom people in the midst of pain and loss can find love: loving words, loving arms, a loving presence, a loving community. I would hope that despite those moments of rushing, thoughtlessness, rubbing each other the wrong way and missing our mark, you will still find at the heart of everything we do, a profound love for humanity and the earth. That love is real, and it makes all the difference.

As we enter our second decade of shared ministry, my prayer for each of us is that we may find that love here when we need it; offer it to others when it is needed; and thereby continue to grow a congregation for all that is our life; a congregation worthy of passing on to those who come after us.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] First Corinthians 13:1.

[2] Braestrup, Kate, Here If You Need Me (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2007) pp. 205-206.

“Dealing With Our Spiritual Stuff” or “Reclaiming our Liberal Inheritance”

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

 

 

“There’s a river flowin’ in my soul”—words from Alabama civil rights attorney, state judge, play-write, songwriter, and community-builder Rose Sanders, also known as Faya Ora Rose Touré.[1] “There’s a river flowin’ in my soul and it’s tellin’ me that I’m somebody.”[2]

I am somebody. You are somebody. I matter. You matter. I don’t know for sure what Touré had in mind when she wrote “There’s a River Flowin’ in My Soul,” but given her long and distinguished career as a civil rights attorney and activist, her dedication to the black community in Alabama, across the nation and even globally, her focus on reforming educational systems to address the race-based achievement gap, I’m guessing she wrote this song originally to inspire young black people in her community who were experiencing the impacts of institutional racism and generational poverty, and hearing messages from the larger culture, over and over again, that they don’t matter, that they are nobody—which of course is a lie. The song is meant to dispel a lie. It is meant to speak truth to a larger power—what some might call a demonic power—that keeps telling the pernicious and often deadly lie that some people matter and some people don’t.

This sermon is about our spiritual inheritance as Unitarian Universalist and more generally as liberal religious people. Touré’s song, though I assume not written explicitly for us, certainly speaks to and affirms the foundation of our spiritual inheritance, our principle of the “inherent worth and dignity of every person;” the notion—which we receive from both the Universalist and Unitarian sides of our heritage—that everyone matters, no one is left behind, all are welcome, all are worthy of love, all are saved—no exceptions. Two hundred years ago, in its various liberal Christian forms, this was a radical, liberating and loving message in an American religious landscape that was quite grim and fearful, filled with warnings of God’s judgment and wrath, filled with images of eternal suffering amidst hellfire and brimstone. Today, though we don’t typically express it in its traditional Christian forms, this message of inherent human worth and dignity, which we have extended to include all life—the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part—remains a radical, liberating and loving message in a global religious landscape that on one side features a variety of divisive fundamentalisms preaching a variety of eternal damnations and even on occasion inciting followers to commit acts of sacred violence; and on the other side features growing pockets of people who, for a variety of reasons, could care less about religion, viewing it as outdated, hypocritical, insular, irrelevant and, often, abusive.

I’m grateful to Faya Ora Rose Touré for her song. There’s a river flowin’ in my soul, and in your soul. I am somebody. You are somebody. I matter. You matter. This is one way of expressing our spiritual inheritance. This is one way of expressing a radical, liberating, loving message to a hurting, fearful, violent, apathetic 21st century global community. However….

Did you know that was coming? If you’ve been paying attention to me over the years, you know, at about this point in the sermon, it’s time for however or but or still or yet or except that or on the other hand. This morning is no exception.

We chose inheritance as this month’s ministry theme for a number of reasons. Most importantly, we chose it to remind ourselves it is critical, from time to time, to reflect on the gifts of those who came before us, those upon whose shoulders we rest, the legacies our spiritual forebears bequeath to us, the principles that reside at the heart of our religious heritage. It’s important to know where we’ve come from. Such knowledge helps us know who we are today, helps us confront the challenges we face today, helps us imagine and plan for our future.

We also chose inheritance because we kick off our annual appeal this month. We’re going to be asking each of us to make the most generous financial gift possible to this congregation, not only to support its day-to-day, week-to-week functioning, but so that it can keep its promises, fulfill its mission, and continue to thrive. We remind ourselves that those of us here today inherit this congregation from those who came before, from those who’ve given so generously over the years of their time, energy, talent and money to establish and grow this beacon of liberal religion here on beautiful Elm Hill in Manchester’s northeast corner, near the Vernon line, east of the Connecticut River. When you give a financial gift to UUS:E you are helping to ensure that future generations will inherit this congregation, embrace its mission, continue its traditions, and keep the beacon burning brightly.

However, don’t we hear stories about disputes over inheritance tearing families apart? One sibling gets a greater share of the estate than the others and legal wrangling ensues. I don’t know how often this happens. I’ve definitely seen it happen. It’s sad and often inexplicable when it happens, though I’m also mindful that conflict in families is normal. It only becomes a problem when it isn’t managed well. My guess is most disputes over inheritance happen in families that have a history of not managing conflict well. We might say they have stuff to work out—“stuff” being the polite way of saying it. They need to deal with their stuff. And when we say this, we’re not ultimately talking about material or money. We’re talking about the quality of their relationships. Strong relationships—trusting, respectful, supportive, loving relationships—can withstand virtually any conflict.

I want to suggest that Unitarian Universalists and liberal religious people in general have a dispute over our inheritance and we need to deal with our spiritual stuff. It’s not a dispute over money—though certainly there are individual congregations who are conflicted about money. I don’t know a congregation that doesn’t have some level of tension with regard to money. It’s normal and it’s not what I’m talking about. I think Unitarian Universalists experience a very deep though largely unspoken and even unrecognized conflict over what to do with our spiritual inheritance—how to use it, how to spend it, what it’s for, what it even means to be liberal religious people in this hurting, fearful, violent, apathetic, 21st-century global community. We all receive the inheritance, but what do we do with it?

As a way of understanding this conflict, consider this question: Why do you come to services on Sunday mornings—at this church or any church, or any religious organization? I’ll give you two options for answers. First, you come to get your spiritual needs met. You come in search of community, personal connections, comfort, solace, peace, beauty, a place to breathe, to heal, to learn, to grow, to gain insight, to get religious education for your children and yourself, to be reminded there’s a river flowin’ in your soul tellin’ you you’re somebody. You come for your spiritual inheritance, that message that you have worth and dignity, that you matter.

Or, second, you come because you see suffering and injustice in the world. You’re looking for a spiritual home that will direct you back out into the world as an agent of healing and transformation, a builder of community, a justice-maker, a peace-bringer. You don’t come to receive your spiritual inheritance for your own sake. You come because you want to take that message out to the world and make it real in the world, for everyone, and for the world.

It may not seem like it at first glance, but these two responses are in conflict. They don’t have to be. They shouldn’t be. But they tend to be. I think both sides of this conflict are important, both have a role to play in congregational life. But I contend if we don’t understand how they relate to each other, how they interact with each other—if we favor one over the other—we squander our spiritual inheritance.

Earlier I read to you from the 20th-century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams. Adams was fond of asking his parishioners, students and readers, “What is the essence of liberalism?” His answer? Liberalism is filled with tension and ambiguity. It is “divided against itself.”[3] He siad this in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, but we experience the same internal division today. I don’t know this for a fact, but I speculate that after World War II, Adams observed the birth of the baby boom generation, the beginnings of white and wealth flight from American cities, the rise of a new consumption-based American economy, the emergence of suburbs, and the corresponding founding of new, largely wealthy congregations far away from the urban, sometimes poor, sometimes ethnic neighborhoods where they had previously been located. These new, suburban congregations of the post-war era were designed primarily to provide ministry to and meet the spiritual needs of their own members. This is a general rule—there are many exceptions, especially during the civil rights movement—but post-war suburban congregations were insular and internally focused: focused on healing the spiritual hurts of their own members; focused on developing their own institutional programs; focused on maintaining their endowments for some future they couldn’t actually name; focused on their own children’s religious education; and not focused, except in a very distant way—usually through charitable giving and mission trips—on the world beyond; not focused on social and economic justice; not focused on prophetic and transformational ministries and partnerships in the larger community; and definitely not focused on earth-based and eco-justice ministries.

 

Adams witnessed this pattern and he was angry. He said: “The faith of a church or of a nation is an adequate faith only when it inspires and enables people to give of their time and energy to shape the various institutions—social, economic and political—of the common life. A faith in the commanding, sustaining, transforming reality is one that tries to shape history.”[4] Remember, he’s a liberal. When he talks about faith, he’s talking about liberal faith. When he writes about the church, he’s writing about the liberal church. How should the liberal church shape history? It should liberate people “from tyranny, provincialism, and arbitrariness and thus contribute to the meaningful fulfillment of human existence.”[5] “Any other faith,” he said, “is thoroughly undependable; it is also, in the end, impotent. It is not a faith that molds history. It is a faith that enables history to crush humanity. Its ministry prepares people to adjust to the crushing by focusing on, and salving, the personal experiences of hurt.”[6] What were those post-war suburban churches doing? They were meeting the needs of their members, salving their personal experiences of hurt. They were not shaping history through acts of liberation. They were retreating from history. That’s the conflict. That’s the tension. Do you come to get your needs met, or do you come to shape history? That’s our spiritual stuff. If we’re not crystal clear about it, we squander our spiritual inheritance. Why do we come to church?

I love James Luther Adams. For me a foundational aspect of the liberal religious identity is being part of movements to liberate people from injustice and oppression as well as movements to sustain the earth. But as much as I love Adams, his critique of the church is not entirely fair. He’s not being completely honest about the realities of congregational life then or now. The inner conflict he describes is real. ut the question isn’t which side is more important. The question is how do the two sides work together?

The church has to meet the spiritual needs of its members. The world does take a toll on us—even the most privileged among us. Life weighs us down from time to time. We come with hurts, wounds, loss and pain. We need the message that there’s a river flowin’ in our soul and it’s tellin’ us we’re somebody, that we’re loved, that we matter—no exceptions.

We absolutely need to hear that—and we deserve to hear it. Because it’s true. And because it’s our spiritual inheritance. Shame on us if we don’t avail ourselves of it. But if that’s all we do—if we remain internally-focused—if church is only about meeting our own needs—then Adams is correct: our faith is inadequate, self-serving and oblivious; as he says, it’s “a form of assistance to the powers of evil in public life.”[7]

On the other hand, let’s imagine we pay no attention to our own spiritual needs. Let’s imagine a church that sends its people out to liberate the world, yet those people are themselves hurting, wounded, thirsty, dry, exhausted. They can’t speak from a place of spiritual depth because their church does not nurture their spirits. They aren’t centered or grounded because they have no place to breath, to reflect, to be still, to pray. They feel no joy because they have no place to sing and dance. They feel alone because they have no place to connect. They’re in no condition to shape history. They are in no condition to liberate anyone because they have failed to liberate themselves.

But if we come to church to get our spiritual needs met—to breath, meditate and pray, to sing and dance, to encounter beauty, to learn, grow and stretch, to reconnect, to be rejuvenated, to be inspired—so that we may then go out beyond these walls and shape history for the sake of liberation, for the sake of spreading the good news of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to proclaim to all people “there’s a river flowin’ in your soul and it’s tellin’ you you’re somebody,” then we’re not only receiving our spiritual inheritance, we’re using it as it was intended.

It is about us; and it is about the world. We need to sustain and strengthen this congregation precisely so that it can meet our spiritual needs, precisely so that we can participate in acts of liberation. In this way, we reclaim, again and again, our liberal religious spiritual inheritance.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] See biographical information for Faya Ora Rose Touré at http://www.answers.com/topic/faya-ora-rose-tour.

[2] Sanders, Rose, “There’s a River Flowin’ in My Soul,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1007.

[3] Adams, James Luther, “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith” in Stackhouse, Max, ed., On Being Human Religiously (Boston: UUA, 1976) p. 5.

[4] Ibid. p. 18.

[5] Ibid., p. 5.

[6] Ibid., p. 18.

[7] Ibid., p. 18.

Instead of Rifles: Reflections on American Violence

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

[Video here.]

 

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.”[1]

The band is the Cornel West Theory from Washington, DC. The piece, from their 2009 album “Second Rome” is called “Rifles.” The speaker of these particular words—the poet—is the Rev. Yvonne Gilmore.[2] On this Sunday one day before the nation celebrates the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.; on this Sunday one day before the nation inaugurates President Barack Hussein Obama to a second term; on this Sunday just over a month after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT that left 28 people dead including 20 first graders; on this Sunday after a week in which the debate over gun control in our state and our nation has been feverish and fierce; on this Sunday at the beginning of a new year, following a year in which Hartford witnessed 22 homicides, 17 of which involved guns; on this 2013 Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, following a year in which the United States witnessed more than 10,000 gun-related homicides (depending on how one counts) and more than 30,000 gun-related deaths—the majority of them being suicides;[3] on this Sunday I find these words from Rev. Gilmore to be both a deeply pastoral and powerfully prophetic response to violence, one that speaks to us about what is necessary for the work of repair, healing, justice in a grieving nation.

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.” I don’t pretend to understand every reference in this piece. But I understand it enough to know it addresses those urban youth who are caught up in these seemingly endless, intractable cycles of drug and gang violence, repeated from city to city across the nation, this “bullet play,” as Rev. Gilmore calls it, “this petty crime on the front lines.” The other poet in the piece, Tim Hicks, offers a litany of violence-laced images and makes veiled and not-so-veiled references to the troubling experience of young, urban black and brown-skinned men within the United States criminal justice system, a system we know is fundamentally flawed; a system that, after decades of America’s war on drugs, has resulted in the mass incarceration of young black and brown-skinned men and, increasingly, women; a system that Ohio State University law professor and civil rights advocate, Michelle Alexander, among others, calls the New Jim Crow[4]—Jim Crow being the popular name for the post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction system of both legal and illegal methods of keeping black and other peoples of color from participating fully in American society—the broken and racist system the Civil Rights movement sought to overcome; the system Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS sought to correct once and for all; the system the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Urban League, the NAACP and so many others (including the Unitarian Universalist Association) sought to dismantle forever; the system the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Little Rock Nine, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, the freedom riders, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo and King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail sought to end forever; the system the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act sought to abolish forever.

That was the old Jim Crow and somehow, in 2013—the fiftieth anniversary year of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,”—here it is again, the new Jim Crow.

The poet says: “I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.” This piece addresses urban violence. It does not address the more rare phenomenon of mass shootings, like the Newtown tragedy, like the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, like the Tucson, Arizona assassination attempt on the life of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords—shootings which typically seem to disturb and galvanize the nation much more than the endless reports of tragic gang-related homicides in cities. This piece, “Rifles,” does not address what we might call suburban gun violence, but Rev. Gilmore’s wish still applies. And let us make no mistake: the two phenomena—urban and suburban gun violence—are intimately related.

Shafiq Abdussabur is a New Haven, CT police officer and the current Chair of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers. He named this intimate relationship between urban and suburban violence this past Tuesday on WNPR’s “Where We Live.” He was talking about the differences between urban and suburban violence—differences in the profiles of the shooters, differences in how they come by their weapons, differences in what kind of weapons education and training they typically have, and differences in the factors that lead to violence. But then he said this: At the end of the day there’s still people killing people with guns, [whether] legally possessed [or] illegally possessed…. And the key here is this: It’s our young people…. We’re missing something with our young people in both suburban America and urban America.”[5]

I agree. We’re missing something with our young people. That’s the essence of what I’m calling the intimate relationship between urban and suburban violence. There are tears in the social fabric—cracks, clefts, rifts, gaps, holes, fractures, fissures, ruptures. They are many, they are increasing and they cannot be narrowed down to one factor or one simple solution. They are social, economic, educational, psychological and spiritual. They emerge out of poverty, broken families, lack of resources, boredom, bullying, sexism, violence in the media, violence in video games, failing schools, warped national priorities, hyper-militarism, political polarization and on and on. Not every child falls into these tears in the social fabric. Thankfully most don’t. But those who do become stressed, numb, frightened, angry, isolated, alienated, stunted in their moral development, stunted in their ability to discern right from wrong, and they can become—not always, but sometimes—violent.

In urban areas in particular the appeal of gangs—safety, camaraderie, intimacy, money, power, even purpose—is overwhelming for young people who’ve become alienated. But what a set-up: As a society we fail them. We drive them away. We drive them into dangerous, violent situations. If they aren’t killed, eventually we arrest and imprison them. It’s the new Jim Crow.

 

In the suburbs alienation plays out differently. The presence of more wealth, more employment, better access to health care, more effective schools, fewer illegal weapons, less demand on social service providers, more overall privilege keeps most gang activity at bay, and we who live in suburbs report a greater feeling of safety relative to our urban neighbors. Except the Newtown shooting and others like it tells us something different, tells us there are young people falling into those tears in the social fabric, falling off the radar screen. The potential for explosive violence haunts suburban—and we should add rural—America as well.

Another important layer to this conversation: most of the violence young people act out once they’ve fallen into these tears in the social fabric is towards themselves. This has understandably not been named prominently in the wake of the Newtown shooting, but I think it’s important to say that the shooter, as outwardly violent as he was that morning, was also suicidal, was also expecting to commit violence toward himself. “I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.”

This past Wednesday, President Obama and Vice President Biden, responding to the Newtown shooting, launched the most comprehensive and aggressive gun control effort since the Gun Control Act of 1968. In addition to demanding that Congress pass a new assault weapons ban, institute background checks for all gun sales, ban gun magazines with capacities of more than 10 bullets; and toughen penalties on people who sell guns to those who can’t legally own them, they also announced 23 executive actions dealing with a range of issues including a call for a new national dialogue on mental illness.[6] Here’s what I feel about it: Bravo. Bravo Barack and Joe. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your reasonableness and your sanity. Thank you for proposals that seek to reduce both suburban and urban gun violence while actually not infringing on the right of law-abiding American citizens to keep and bear arms. Thank you.

I recognize some will disagree with my claim that the administration’s proposals do not infringe on 2nd Amendment rights. One could argue that if Congress puts an assault weapons ban back into place, then the government is technically infringing on the right to bear arms. My only response is that I’m still waiting to hear a rational argument for the right to bear an assault weapon. I’m trying to remain open. But the arguments I tend to hear sound like the following: It’s my right. I should be able to have any gun I want. It’s the American way. It’s none of your business. These are not convincing arguments, and because assault weapons are being used in mass shootings more and more, I feel strongly that it is my business. It’s everyone’s business. I support gun ownership. I understand hunting and target practice and self-defense. I do not see a rational argument for owning assault weapons, and therefore I do not feel the Administration’s proposals threaten the right to bear arms.

I also took note of the President’s comments about children: “This is our first task as a society,” he said, “keeping our children safe.  This is how we will be judged.  And their voices should compel us to change.”[7]  I am convinced President Obama believes these words about as deeply as anything else he believes. But he can believe this and still be missing something about our children. I think it’s one thing to protect children from gun violence. It’s another thing to keep children from falling through the tears in the social fabric. He can take this moment to push through the most aggressive gun control measures in a generation and actually succeed in reducing gun violence and still be missing something about our children. And we can choose, individually and as a congregation, to get involved in this post-Newtown effort to control guns in a sane and reasonable way—I personally expect to be involved—and we can still be missing something about our children. We can pass all the laws we possibly can to control guns and young people will still be falling into these ever-widening tears in the social fabric, and some of them will find ways to act out violently towards themselves, others, or both. It is time in this nation for a change of heart in relation to children and young people that is bigger and more lasting than anything our political process can ever hope to achieve. It’s time for a national change of heart in relation to children and young people that requires more than legislation.

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles,” enough to carry you through your times of fear and anger, enough to carry you out of alienation and isolation, enough to carry you past the impulse to commit a violent act. I only know one way to make a child love themself enough to carry themself with their head held high, with pride in their heart, with a positive sense of potential and possibility, with trust in their own future: Love them first. Love them—all of them—unconditionally, with everything we’ve got. I’m not talking about parents loving their own children, although that is certainly part of it. I’m talking about all of us—society—resolving to love every child unconditionally and doing everything and anything we can—with that love at the center—to repair these tears in the social fabric into which too many children are falling.

Some might say this sounds naïve, overly idealistic, unrealistic or just plain impossible. Fine. But I prefer to let Dr. King’s words speak to us on this question. I prefer to let Dr. King speak to us across the decades about how we are missing something about our children, about the way too many children become alienated and prone to violence, about the way too many children become caught up in the new Jim Crow. He said: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality…. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits…. I still believe that one day [humanity] will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land.”[8] It may be naïve, overly idealistic, unrealistic or just plain impossible to think we can mend the tears in our social fabric. But I also think it’s foolish–utterly foolish–to keep doing what we’re doing and think things will get better on their own.

It’s time for an all-encompassing national change of heart. Imagine a society in which young black and brown-skinned men, walking down the street, perhaps wearing their hoodies, perhaps being loud and boisterous, instill in the hearts of passersby not a feeling of fear, but a recognition: these are our children too. Imagine a society in which children and young people of a variety of races, from a variety of countries, speaking a variety of languages, all in one school system—like Manchester, like Hartford—instill in the hearts of all taxpayers not a feeling of resentment and anger but a recognition: these are our children too. Imagine a society in which gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children and young people instill in the hearts of others not the urge to bully, bash, exclude or correct them, but a recognition: these are our children too. Imagine a society in which a child or young person who seems isolated and alienated, moody and withdrawn, perhaps suffering from mental illness, who seems to resist all interventions by parents, school social workers and medical professionals instills in the hearts of still other adults who see the situation unfolding not a desire to turn away, ignore the child, give up on the child, forsake the child, say to themselves ‘this is not my problem,’ but rather a recognition: this is my child too and I will err on the side of reaching out, offering support, being a presence in this child’s life, being an adult they can trust and count on. These children falling though the tears in the social fabric are our children too.

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.” Friends, in the wake of the Newtown shooting and aware of longstanding and seemingly intractable violence in urban neighborhoods, yes, let’s be involved in efforts to control guns. Let’s be involved in efforts to destigmatize mental illness, to prevent the criminalization of mental illness, and to establish real mental health parity in federal and state law. Let’s be involved in efforts to enhance school climate and school safety. Let’s do all of this. But’s let’s be honest: what’s missing in this nation is profound and unconditional love for all children. The proof is that too many fall into the cracks and gaps and tears. I challenge all of us to discern in the coming weeks and months, as the debate over gun control rages, how we can fill our lives with love for children and young people who are falling—to recognize they are our children too—to help them love themselves enough to carry them instead of rifles, and thereby bring healing, repair and justice to a grieving nation.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] Watch the video of “Rifles” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dm8SnaH24W0

[2] Rev. Gilmore is pastor of New Song Community Church in Columbus, OH: http://www.newsong4newlife.com/

[3] I’ve drawn these numbers from this December 19, 2012 article at Bloomberg News: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-19/american-gun-deaths-to-exceed-traffic-fatalities-by-2015.html. I also suggest the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (http://www.cdc.gov/features/ViolentDeathsAmerica/) and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence at (http://www.bradycampaign.org/) as good sources for data on gun violence.

[4] Information on Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness , is at http://www.newjimcrow.com/.

[5] Listen to the entire “Where We Live” roundtable on gun violence at http://cptv.vo.llnwd.net/o2/ypmwebcontent/Catie/Where%20We%20Live%2001-15-2013.mp3

[7] The full text to the remarks from Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama are at http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/01/16/transcript-obama-remarks-on-gun-violence/

 

[8] The text to King’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech is at http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-acceptance_en.html.  The video of the speech is at http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1853.

What Does the World Require of Us?

In the midst of news reports, candle-light vigils, politicians and clergy speaking words of comfort, conversations with loved-ones and with strangers, advice from trauma specialists, lists of what to say to kids in the aftermath of unspeakable violence; in the midst of prayers, hugs, tears, utter shock, disgust, incomprehensibility, feelings of profound sadness, despair, anger, confusion, vulnerability; in the midst of stories of hiding for dear life in closets, stories of heroism, of self-sacrifice, of unfathomable grief, of outrage, of children close your eyes; in the midst of vows of never again and cries of gun control now; in the midst of the rush to transform this unbridled evil into—not a political opportunity, as some are calling it, but a sacred opportunity, a human opportunity —because it’s long past time to curb this American culture of violence; in the midst of all of this, let us pause, let us breathe, let us just be in each other’s presence and recognize how truly precious it is to be together.

We know this. We know it’s precious to join together in community in a world that seems to do everything it can to drive people apart—to alienate, to fragment, to disconnect, to separate. But this Sunday, after an act of such enormous evil just sixty miles from where we gather—this Sunday when we who weren’t even in the line of fire, we who are blessedly removed from the immediate experience of this evil, but we who still nevertheless long to make sense of what happened, long for comfort, solace and healing—this Sunday when congregations thousands of miles away, all across the nation, are remembering the victims of Friday’s massacre in Newtown—this Sunday we realize anew just how precious it is to be together.  I, for one, am reminded of how much I love each of you. How truly precious it is to be together.

The choir originally planned to sing a piece entitled “Tikkun Olam,” which is Hebrew for the practice of repairing the world. It’s a wonderful piece. You will get to hear it—we’ll be singing it next week. But after the Newtown shooting it didn’t feel right to sing this song this morning. In his remarks at the Friday afternoon press conference in Newtown, Governor Malloy said something akin to “it’s too early to speak of rebuilding.” He’s right. We can’t speak of rebuilding before the families of the victims—and we too—have had time to fully accept what has happened. It still feels so unreal, so impossible. There are presents already bought—maybe even wrapped—for some of these deceased children to open on Christmas morning. It’s not time yet to speak of rebuilding. Rebuilding will come. Repairing will come. Healing will come. Forgiveness will come. Peace will come. But it’s not time yet.

Instead the choir sang, “What Does the World Require of You?” This question seems essential to me. In the aftermath of tragedy, what does the world require of us?  That’s the question I want to ponder now. It’s the question I want you to take with you into this week, into the holidays, into the new year. What does the world require of us? There’s a part of me that answers this question with exasperation, exhaustion, despair, cynicism and helplessness. What can I possibly do? The December 14th Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was not only evil, it was absurd, beyond explanation. What is required of us in the face of such violent absurdity? And keep in mind: if it hadn’t happened on Friday, we might have lit candles of concern this morning for the families of the three people who lost their lives on Tuesday when a gunman opened fire in a mall in Happy Valley, OR. And two weeks before that it was two dead in a university classroom in Casper, Wyoming—the shooter happened to be from Vernon. And before that it was seven dead at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; July 20, twelve dead in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater; May 30, five dead in a Seattle, WA cafe; April 7, three dead in Tulsa, Oklahoma; April 2, seven dead in Oakland, CA; February 27, three dead in Chardon, OH. I’ve been studying the lists. They are long. And I’m not even touching on the gang violence that plagues urban neighborhoods across the nation and leaves a trail of asphalt chalk bodies and tattered yellow police tape, a trail of shattered lives, broken families, fractured communities. I’ve been working to address violence in Hartford for six years now in coalition with a number of North Hartford pastors. We’re talented, committed leaders who want deeply—even desperately—to make a difference, but the impact we’ve had is embarrassingly small—inconsequential by most measures. What does the world require of us? Who in the world knows? What can we possibly say to these families who’ve lost children to such absurd violence? How can we even remotely know what they feel? What can we possibly do for them that will make a difference? Who in the world knows?

That’s my exasperated, exhausted, despairing, cynical and helpless answer to the question, “What does the world require of us?” And let me be crystal clear: we all get to have our version of that answer. We all get to cry tears of confusion, vulnerability, hopelessness. We all get to throw up our hands and say I can’t handle this anymore! We all get to feel helpless in the face of evil. We all get to plead with the heavens: what is happening to us? We get to have that response because it is real—an honest, human response to evil.

But we don’t get to have it forever. And not even for long. The truth is we aren’t separate from one another. The truth is we aren’t disconnected from one another.  There may be brokenness; there may be fragmentation; there may be alienation; but in the end we depend on one another—and we never see it so clearly as we do in the wake of tragedy. We need one another, as we said in our opening words.[1] We don’t live alone. We don’t live alone. We live in families. We live in communities. We live in town and cities. We live in states. We live in a nation. We live in a world. And this means there are requirements!

What does living in this world in the aftermath of tragic violence require of us? I have three answers this morning.

Requirement #1. In the wake of tragic violence, after your time of despair, seek to ground yourself. Start breathing again. Be intentional about it. Breathe deeply, slowly, fully. Fill your lungs with oxygen and remind yourself it comes from green plants and algae. Remind yourself this air you breathe is evidence of your connection to the whole of life. Not separation, but connection.  Breathe in, and as you breathe, relax, rest, be still, be quiet, be calm. Breathe in, and as you breathe, reflect, concentrate, contemplate, focus, pray. Then, still breathing, when you feel ready, start to move. Slowy at first. Gently at first: bend, bow, stretch, lengthen, extend, reach. Keep breathing. And then, when you feel ready: walk, roll, run, dance. Then, still breathing, as you feel ready, begin to create. Creative acts are so essential to moving out of despair and finding our ground. Write, compose, sing, speak, play, act, sculpt, craft, paint, draw. Feel yourself slowly coming back to yourself.

If you can, go outside. Touch the ground, the soil, the earth—the beautiful, dark brown earth. Work in the dark, brown earth. Play in the dark, brown earth. Tend it, till it, turn it, plant seeds, nurture what comes forth. Let the dirt get on your hands, under your fingernails, between your toes. Feel yourself coming back to life. Listen for the still small voice. Hear your own truths, your convictions emerging once again. They are there. They’ve never actually left.

The mystic Howard Thurman wrote, “How good it is to center down!”—he’s talking about becoming grounded—“to sit quietly and see oneself pass by! / The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic; / Our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silences, / While something deep within hungers for the still moment and the resting lull. / With full intensity we seek, ere the quiet passes, a fresh sense of order in our living; / A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring  meaning in our chaos.”[2]  Maybe you can find your grounding quickly. Maybe you’re tying and you can’t quite get there yet. Maybe you need more time. It’s ok. Despair is not easy to overcome. Take your time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. But have hope: your center is there—it’s real. You’ll find it. The world requires this of us. In the wake of tragedy, in the wake of violence, after our time of despair, seek grounding.

Requirement #2. In the wake of tragedy, with your despair now trailing behind you, from a place of groundedness emerging within you, attend—however you can—to suffering. It may not be clear for some time how we can be of service to the families of those who died in the Newtown shooting, especially at a distance. But we can be sure the suffering is extraordinary. We can be sure the suffering will last. We can be sure the suffering will ripple around the state and the nation for years to come. Already I see people on Facebook who know someone who lost a child in the shooting; or who know someone who knows someone who died; or who used to live in that part of the state; or who work in the Newtown schools; or who live in Newtown but whose children attend a different school; or who live one town over; or like Scott and Christine Hapgood, who used to attend here, who asked if we could hold up the name of a friend of theirs,  Laurie Veillette, an EMT who lives in Newtown and was one of the first responders; or like Pat Eaton-Robb—a member here—who’s been in Newtown covering the story for the Associated Press; or like Rev. Jeanne Lloyd—also a UUS:E member—who serves our congregation in Woodbury, two towns over from Newtown, and who will certainly need support as she conducts ministry just a few miles from the site of the shooting. It may not be feasible for us to provide any kind of direct care to the families of the victims, but this suffering, this pain, this trauma will ripple around and around. If and when you encounter it, attend to it. That is, stay present to it. We help alleviate suffering through our presence. Offer a helping hand, a kind word, a hug, a supportive conversation. If and when you encounter it, hold on. Don’t let go. Don’t look away. Don’t turn away. Take time. Make yourself available. Again, stay present.

The doctor-turned-spiritual-writer, Rachel Naomi Remen, says “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[3] The world requires this of us. In the wake of tragedy, with your despair finally fading behind you, from a place of groundedness, attend however you can to suffering.

Requirement #3. In the wake of tragic violence, having moved beyond despair, having grounded yourself, having attended to suffering, it’s time to engage in the work of repair. It’s time to rebuild what has been destroyed. It’s time to change what isn’t working, to address the sources of suffering—at least those that are within our power to address. And here I want to say a few words about gun control. I don’t believe there is any law or set of laws that can keep us totally safe from the kind of horrific violence we saw in Newtown on Friday. My sense is that if a person is as tormented, confused, angry and violent as this shooter was, and if they become—for whatever reason—driven to commit an act of violence, and they really want to procure a gun, and if they’re persistent, they’ll likely be able to get one regardless of the law. But friends, that is no argument for the United States of America to continue its reckless habits of lax gun control. As I hinted at the beginning of my remarks, working for stricter gun control now is not the politicization of a tragedy; it is a moral imperative whose time is long past due. Changing American guns laws to make ownership more restrictive, to make guns more traceable, to close gun show sale loopholes, to hold dealers accountable when guns they sell are used in crimes, to hold owners accountable when they fail to report when their guns have been stolen, and to limit the kinds of guns people can own (i.e., assault weapons are not necessary for hunting)—all of these changes will save thousands upon thousands of lives. In my view, this is the work of repair emerging from Friday’s tragedy.

 

I suspect the Newtown shooting will change the direction of the conversation about gun control in this country. It’s a tipping point. And it is my hope this morning that people on both sides of the gun control debate can come together and agree on a sensible, sane approach to gun ownership that continues to protect Second Amendment freedoms but makes change substantial enough to stop the madness of American gun violence.

I suppose that sounds naïve. At least there’s a part of me that fears it is. And perhaps in this moment, just 48 hours after the shooting began at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, it is too soon to talk about repairing what is broken. We aren’t there yet. We’re still trying to get beyond despair to groundedness. But the world requires this of us—after finding our grounding, after attending to suffering, we must work to repair the world.

Some final thoughts: I think it’s possible that on a morning like this morning it all feels like too much. How to find grounding in the midst of despair? It feels like too much. How to bear witness to the suffering inflicted on the people of Newtown, or any suffering we may encounter? It feels like too much? How to engage in the work of repair, especially when we know the immense power of the forces opposing changes in U.S. gun laws? It feels like too much. This brings to mind an excerpt from the Irish writer, Seamus Heanney’s play The Cure at Troy. He writes: “History says, Don’t hope / On this side of the grave.” That is, there are reasons to feel down, to feel demoralized, to feel despair. We’re witnessing one 60 miles down the road. And history is filled with them.  “History says, Don’t hope / On this side of the grave.”

But Heanney doesn’t succumb. He refuses to learn this lesson. And so should we. He continues: “Once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up, / And hope and history rhyme. / So hope for a great sea-change / on the far side of revenge. / Believe that a further shore / Is reachable from here. / Believe in miracles/ And cures and healing wells.”[4]

Friends, the truth is we are connected—to each other, to the people of Newtown, to all people, to all life. We are connected and therefore world requires certain things of us. In the wake of tragic violence, in the midst of despair, first seek grounding. Then attend to suffering. Then work to repair the world. Why try to meet these requirements? Because a further shore is reachable from here. May we reach it.

Amen. Blessed be.

 


[1] Odell, George E., “We Need One Another,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #468.

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

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

[4] Heanney, Seamus, excerpt from The Cure at Troy, in Murray, Joan, ed., Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001) pp. 64-65.

The Time Where Words End: Reflections on Humility

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Come, my way, my truth, my life, such a way as gives us breathe, such a truth as ends all strife, such a life that killeth death.”[1]  Words of George Herbert, a seventeenth-century Anglican priest and poet; words that invite, beckon, welcome; words that help frame for me the way we arrive at humility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


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

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

[3]Luke 18: 9-14.

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

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

P.E.A.C.E.

P is For (Chris Sims)

Peace can enhance a performance. Endurance peacefully is enormous. Eradicating indifference, this is significant.

We pursue the kindred with a purpose. Peace is incredible. Indicating that we can stop hating.

Hope in peace is definitely possible. Predicting bright futures, we connect in person, on cell phones, through the connections on our computers.

Connecting, six degrees of separation, we imagine a most peaceful nation. Liberation. A continuation.

Visualizing a world yet to come. Peace is the sun. We sit on Sundays hoping for a peaceful transformation.

P makes a sound. We pronounce prophetically the “peace language.” Which equates love, life, positive energy, divinity. Peace is who I am. Peace is what I was born to be.

We take peace to the people, peace to the streets, peace to the Occupy movement, peace as improvement to politics gone bad. Peace is needed now, not to be considered something we used to have.

Worldwide: marches, gatherings, demonstrations, war torn nations, in soup lines, empty factories and assembly lines, we all seek peace.

 

E is for Energy (Rev. Josh Pawelek)

Energy is necessary for peace. Energy unleashed and available for the work of hands holding hands, hands holding hammers for pounding nails, hands holding sandbags before storms, hands holding blankets around homeless children, women, men.

Hands holding signs against war, holding signs against greed, holding signs against hate, holding signs for peace, for fairness, for justice, for loving who you love, for being who you are.

Hands holding hands, keeping us together, connected, one, whole, unified.

Energy is necessary for the making of peace because so much energy is harnessed for the making of war. So many hands hold in place systems that build the weapons of war: the same systems that can’t seem to house every person, can’t seem to feed every person, can’t seem to give health care to every person. The same systems that put a bullet in every gang-banger’s gun, that launch a drone strike over every village in Waziristan, that build a new Jim Crow prison cell for one out of every three black and brown men.

This is no time for entropy, for running down to disorder.

This is a time for organizing our energy for the waging of peace, organizing our hearts for the collective, common yearning for peace, organizing our voices for the collective common speaking of peace, organizing our melodies for the collective, common singing of peace, organizing our bodies for the collective, common dancing of peace, organizing our lives for collective, common peaceful living.

Peace is gonna take energy, organized energy.

 

A is for Ascension (Chris Sims)

A is for us ascension, not for us depending on politicians to pull us out of poverty and homelessness. There is no peace in not having any progress.

We can ascend if only we begin to take another look at being our brothers and sisters  keeper. At “we are the change we’ve been waiting for.” Taking a collective attitude towards allowing ourselves to recognize our own leadership.

Peaceful people asking the right questions of our leaders, our representatives, our school districts, our bosses. The losses have cost us too much.

What impoverished woman knows peace? What homeless man sees peace? What unequally educated child experiences peace?

We can acquire this ascension. We can remain determined. We can create our own jobs. Self-sufficiency in a time where talk is too much. We need real answers.

All we have is us. All we need is us.

Conversations, collectives, calls for action.

We will rise. We will elevate. We will accomplish a better way by being in unison and peace amongst one another.

 

C is for Contemplation (Rev. Josh Pawelek)

Yes we will accomplish a better way.

We each have a role to play in making peace, crafting peace, waging peace, sustaining peace.

What is my role? What is your role?

Ah. . . . Good question. Pause. Wait a moment. Wait another moment. Breathe. It’s OK. Take time for contemplation. Don’t skip this part. The movement won’t move that quickly, won’t leave you behind, won’t leave us behind. Building a lasting peace takes time—takes time after time after time.

Take time for contemplation, because starting out, we must be centered.

Starting out, we must be grounded.

Starting out, we must be mindful.

Starting out, we must be peaceful inside.

Starting out we must know, trust, believe in our minds, hearts, bones, spirits:

All life is sacred.

All life is holy.

All life is music, is magic, is mystery.

All life matters.

Knowing, trusting, believing this in our minds, hearts, bones, spirits will keep us steady,

keep us focused,

keep us resilient,

keep us strong,

keep us gentle,

keep us creative,

keep us courageous

keep us keeping our siblings.

Take time for contemplation. Don’t skip this part. Only peaceful people build peaceful neighborhoods, peaceful communities, peaceful cities, peaceful nations, a peaceful world.

Take time for contemplation.

 

E is For…  (Chris Sims)

Elevation; equality; Echoes of ancestors and freedom fighters Who once fought for peace. Who could see the coming nations living in a land of peace.

E is for elegance: the elegance of children smiling, because they know peace and can teach us adults more about peace.

E is for education: we must educate one another about calm, serenity, collective behavior that creates peace.

Positive. Energy. Always. Creates. Elevation.

We need that in this leading nation. This struggling nation.

Peace is patience. Peace is power. Let peace be the word of the hour. The word of the hour.

May all of the children whisper peace in their sleep. May all of the women sing about peace. May all of the men gather in peace as we live in multitudes and moments of community.

Imagine Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, John Lennon’s, and Ghandi’s peace existing today.

May we have peace.

May we seek peace.

E is for an eternal peace.

Peace for eternity.

 

Being Thankful in a Thankless World

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In her meditation, “Saying Grace,” the Rev. Kathleen McTigue reminds us “wise women and men from every [faith] tradition teach that gratitude is at the heart of the spiritual life because it leads us to all the rest.”[1] This rings true to me. Pausing before a meal—even a brief pause—to be mindful of how the food actually arrived on the plate can lead us back through all those people who had some hand in getting it to the plate: the cashiers, the shelf-stockers, the grocery store managers, the truck drivers, the loaders, the processors, the pickers, the planters, the slaughterhouse workers—and then beyond the people, back further to soil, water, sun—and then further still to the insight that “everything hinges on everything else,” that we are fundamentally dependent, that we do not exist apart from a reality greater than ourselves. I think Rev. McTigue is right. A pause—even a brief pause—to express our gratitude can lead us to “all the rest.” Perhaps most importantly it can instill in us the desire to give back in some way, to live not simply as recipients of the earth’s abundance, but as people who actively engage the wider world, people who work for justice and peace, people who work for healing and repair, people who work to sustain the earth and all its creatures. Heart-felt gratitude ought to yield some kind of participation, commitment, action. Indeed, the final words of Rev. McTigue’s prayer of gratitude are that we may be strong for the work of our world.[2]

Similarly, in a 2007 article in the Unitarian Universalist World Magazine entitled “The Heart of our Faith,” the Rev. Galen Guengerich writes that where the central discipline of Judaism is obeying God’s commandments, and the central discipline of Christianity is loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and the central discipline of Islam is submitting to the will of God, the central discipline of Unitarian Universalism ought to be gratitude.[3] He says a discipline of gratitude—that is, integrating into our lives daily rituals that enable us to recognize and name the things for which we are grateful—inevitably “reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and the world around us for everything that matters.” And from this recognition of dependence flows what he calls an “ethic of gratitude” which “demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return.”[4] Heart-felt gratitude ought to yield some kind of engagement, participation, commitment, action. May we be strong for the work of our world.

Our ministry theme for October is gratitude. It’s an obvious theme for this time of year. The thanksgiving season is beginning. Farmers are bringing in the final harvest here in New England and throughout the planet’s more northern reaches. Harvest festivals and thanksgiving celebrations are common in many parts of the northern hemisphere at this time of year. Being a father of elementary school students I can anticipate assignments related to gratitude and thanksgiving. My boys will create adorable, little booklets about the things for which they are thankful. They will trace their hands to make turkeys. And many ministers preach sermons on gratitude at this time of year. I become a bit squeamish when it’s my turn to preach that sermon since there are only so many ways to name the importance of gratitude in our lives. Yet we keep preaching it. I’ve yet to find a colleague in any faith tradition who thinks gratitude is overrated.

So this is the message I want you to take with you today: a discipline of gratitude—finding some way to regularly call forth a feeling of gratitude for all that is good in our lives—reminds us of our dependence on a reality larger than ourselves and ought to inspire us to give back to our communities and to the world in some sustained way. While I’m convinced no controversy surrounds this message; and while I’m utterly confident that you already know this, that gratitude is a no-brainer, that we should be grateful for all the blessings of our lives, the fact remains: gratitude is never as simple as it sounds. We don’t always come to it easily. We can’t just make ourselves feel a certain way. For most of us, gratitude takes practice.

Most of you are parents. Some of you are actively parenting. Others have raised their children into adulthood. I suspect most of you who are parents—and even those of you who aren’t parents but who have been around children in that elementary school age range—have had the experience of doing something nice for a child—taking them to a movie, buying some toy they’ve asked for, taking them to their favorite restaurant—something slightly out of the ordinary and very nice—only to then watch the child behave like a selfish, impulsive, entitled little demon. When it happens, you the parent can’t imagine this is the child you’ve been raising. It’s mystifying. You didn’t teach them to act like this. You didn’t model this behavior for them. You’ve spoken clearly to them, many times, about appropriate behavior, especially in public places. You try to shut it down with your own polite reasoning, but it doesn’t work. The child escalates. You begin to get angry. The next words out of your mouth—your tone bordering on sarcastic—are some version of “a little thanks would be nice,” or “How about ‘thank you’?” Does this ring a bell? I can’t recall my parents ever saying this to me, but I remember being a selfish, impulsive, entitled little demon and I’m positive my ears heard some version of those words. “A little thanks would be nice.”

I suspect there are exceptions to this rule, but I’m pretty sure we aren’t born grateful. We may be born with the capacity to feel gratitude, but expressing it doesn’t come naturally. The phrase “thank you” doesn’t roll off our tongues once we’ve learned rudimentary speech, at least not as quickly as “I want,” “gimme” and “mine.” Of course children are more complex than their selfish impulses. Most children seem inherently trusting, loving, joyful, filled with awe, creative and truthful in the sense that they don’t naturally censor themselves. But “thank you” is not one of their inclinations. Not at first. They need to be taught.

I also suspect that even once a child learns to say “thank you,” we still haven’t taught them to recognize and name the feeling of gratitude when it rises in them. What we’ve actually taught them is how to be polite regardless of how they feel. That is, we might hear them say “thank you,” but it’s only because we’ve told them to, not because they actually feel it. I suspect our ability to recognize and name feelings of genuine gratitude develops as we age and mature. I suspect we’re not able to feel deep and abiding gratitude—and name it—until we stop taking our living for granted, which most children do unless they’ve experienced some kind of loss or struggle and they’ve have had to grow up too fast. I suspect we’re not able to feel truly grateful “for all that is our life,”[5] as the hymn says, until we’ve had the kinds of experiences that move us out of childhood, experiences that enable us to gain perspective on our lives, to view our lives from multiple angles, to compare our lives to other lives, to recognize how hard life can be at times, to recognize that it means something when someone else does something nice for us unbidden, when someone else lends us a hand when we’re in need, when someone else supports us in our times of crisis and struggle, when someone else notices our good work. I suspect we’re not able to feel truly grateful and name it until we’ve gained some sense of what’s at stake in our lives and in the world; until we’ve had the experience of making difficult, life-altering decisions; until we’ve experienced suffering and loss; until we’ve come to understand our limits, our fragility, our dependence. We feel genuine gratitude when we finally recognize our lives and the lives of others as precious, as sacred, as holy, and as unlikely, mysterious, miraculous gifts.

And when we finally arrive there, when we finally arrive at that feeling of being blessed in some way, perhaps by someone else’s kindness or the by recognizing the opportunities we’ve had—whatever it is—that deeply felt “thank you,” more often than not, also instills in us a desire to give back in some way. Heart-felt gratitude leads to some kind of engagement, participation, commitment, action. May we be strong for the work of our world.

But it still takes practice. I’ve given this sermon the title, “Being Thankful in a Thankless World.” I trust you all know I am not as cynical and hopeless about the world as this title suggests, but I do observe trends in our culture—behavioral trends—that drive a wedge between us and our capacity to feel gratitude. In doing my research for this sermon I was drawn to a blog post entitled “The Thankless World of the Conscientious Science Writer”[6] from Cynthia Closkey,[7] who who runs a web design firm called Big Big Design.[8] Closkey’s post led me to another post entitled “You’ve Got Mail, You Idiot,”[9] by an independent science writer named Christie Aschwanden,[10] who says that after twelve years of science writing she has learned the hard lesson that if you “tell readers that they’re wrong about something they know in their heart to be true … they will send you hate mail.” For example, she wrote an article stating that what determines whether cancer progresses is tumor biology, not a person’s attitude toward their cancer. She received a letter in response stating, “You are no scientist. You should not write. You are a foolish person.” Her article on climate change elicted this: “Get beyond your pathetic left-wing angst over the envirofacist lies.” An article contending that “taking a multivitamin won’t make you any healthier,” brought forth this gem: “You call yourself a ‘science writer’??!! Your article was all lies.”[11]

What Aschwanden is describing is not unique to her. It’s actually a widespread mode of social interaction in our nation. It’s the ‘gotcha” mentality, the red-state blue-state mentality, the liberal vs. conservative mentality. It’s road rage. It’s the phenomenon of negative political ads and this idea that a political debate can now be won not on the strength or veracity of a candidate’s arguments but simply by how frequently they interrupt their opponent, as if their belligerence and rudeness reveals some measure of their fitness for leadership. At the end of Thursday evening’s Vice Presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz asked a question submitted to her from a decorated war veteran, something along the lines of “aren’t you embarrassed by the volume of negative political ads? Why can’t the candidates refrain from tearing each other down and start to build the country up?” In their responses, both candidates thanked the veteran for his service and proceeded to tear each other down. I found it not only embarrassing, but infuriating.

I’m naming this particular kind of behavior because it has become so ubiquitous in politics, journalism, religion, and so many areas of public life. We can lean away from it and observe it and lament how common it has become—I can name it and critique it right here in this sermon—but it seems to be increasing. And I admit I get caught up in it from time to time. There is something seductive about it. I think it speaks to us at a pre-rational level. It grabs our emotions before we have time to think. It’s reptilian. It’s childish. It reminds me of my kids fighting in the back seat of the car over who touched who or who crossed over onto whose side. But for them it’s developmentally appropriate. For adults it’s not. In adults it invites us to close ranks, close down, lock in, box in, shut out, ignore, dismiss, interrupt and even, at times, attack. These are precisely the behaviors that prevent us from gaining perspective on our lives; from viewing our lives from multiple angles; from remembering how hard life can be at times; from remembering what it’s like to experience suffering and loss, and that there are far more important things at stake than belittling someone with whom we disagree—all of which we need in order to feel genuine gratitude.

That is, the contentious, polarizing, sound-bite craving, zinger-worshipping aspects of our culture lead us toward petty conflict and away from gratitude. I actually don’t believe we live in a thankless world, but in the midst of this cultural nastiness, gratitude takes practice. Gratitude requires discipline. It’s not the discipline of politeness, for while children need to learn please and thank you, our politeness is not an indication of how we actually feel. Perhaps this discipline of gratitude begins with saying grace, with finding ways to name all we’re thankful for. But I think gratitude arises ultimately from a discipline of deep self-reflection, a discipline of bearing witness to all that is our life and allowing ourselves to fully grasp our limits, our fragility, and our dependence on one another and the world around us. Grasping these things, I believe, leads us in turn to the recognition that our lives and the lives of others are indeed precious, sacred, holy. Grasping these things, I believe, leads us to the recognition that our lives and the lives of others, in the grand scheme of things, are unlikely, mysterious, miraculous gifts. Such recognitions make it possible for us to feel thankful in a thankless world.

Earlier we spoke together words from the poet Denise Levertov that capture for me the heart of this self-reflection I’m calling for. She says “an awe so quiet I don’t know where it began. A gratitude had begun to sing in me.”[12] As the thanksgiving season begins in New England, my prayer for each of us is that we may find ways to keep our hearts and minds above and beyond the fray; that we may find ways to reflect on all that is our lives; that we may experience awe in response to the gift of life; that gratitude—deep and abiding gratitude—may rise up in us like a song; and that we may be strengthened for the work of our world.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Saying Grace,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 68.

[2] Ibid., p. 69.

[3] Guengerich, Galen, “The Heart of Our Faith,” UU World Magazine, Spring 2007. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/11144.shtml.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Findlow, Bruce, “For All That is Our Life,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #128.

[12] Levertov, Denise, “An Awe So Quiet,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #479.

 

I Can Believe

Rev. Josh Pawelek

This past summer I read Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods. Jenn Richard recommended it back in June. It sounded like good summer reading for me, and it was. In this story all the gods are still alive. That is, any god any group of people ever brought with them to America—whether as explorers, immigrants or slaves—as well as the gods of the Native American nations, many of whom arrived in more ancient times travelling with immigrants across the Bering Strait between what are now Russia and Alaska—any god any person ever worshipped in America is still alive. Except … no one worships them anymore. Nobody remembers them. So, they lack power. They’re weak. That’s the premise: gods and goddesses are powerful when people worship them. As people forget them they fade. They don’t die, but they become shadows of their former selves. They’re immortal, but they struggle to survive. They live in dingy tenement buildings in forgotten towns. They make their livings through odd jobs, petty crime, prostitution. They aren’t particularly admirable beings.

These forgotten gods also believe they’re facing a new threat to their meager existence. Make no mistake, Americans still practice worship—but not in churches, synagogues and mosques. Neil Gaiman has something else in mind: Americans worship technology and entertainment. If our ancestors couldn’t live without their Gods, we post-moderns can’t live without our computers, televisions and cell phones. As we humans spend more and more time enmeshed with our electronic devices, turning to them not only for information, but also for comfort, companionship, guidance, and even community, our relationship to them begins to look more and more like worship. These devices—and the industries that produce and deploy them—become the new gods—our solace and our salvation.  Thus the old gods feel threatened. The book’s plot unfolds around preparations for a final battle between the old and the new.

Along the way we meet the character Sam, a student at the University of Wisconsin studying art history and women’s studies, an aspiring sculptor, a barista at a local coffee shop. She apparently has some divine qualities, though she’s a minor character and we don’t learn much about her. When I first read her monologue about her beliefs, beginning with “I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not,”[1] I became very excited. I could write a sermon about this!  I love her brazen embrace of contradictions, the way she runs warring theological ideas together as if they have always co-existed peacefully. She says, “I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.”[2] I read her monologue over and over again, wondering: is she describing a deeply examined, mature faith, a faith strong and nuanced enough to embrace these contradictions and yet still guide her and sustain her through all life’s challenges? Could this really work? Or is she just showing off her liberal arts education, sophomorically spouting some version of whatever conspiracy theory occurs to her, and expressing nothing more than a rebellious, youthful exuberance that won’t offer sufficient spiritual sustenance as she grows older? Is she describing an authentic, generous spirituality, or is she just too lazy to make a serious theological choice?

I ask these questions because, even though she’s fictional, I want Sam’s widespread believing to be real. I want this kind of believing to be useful for our spiritual lives. Frankly, I’m even a bit envious of Sam’s beliefs. I have an experience of feeling caught between two contradictory beliefs and recognizing that ministry would flow so much more smoothly if I could just believe both and not worry about having to choose one over the other. Some of you will remember I raise the question from time to time in my sermons about whether we live in the midst of one truth or many truths. To make the case for there being only one, ultimate truth, I might refer to the ancient South Asian story of the blind men and the elephant where each man touches a part of the elephant and describes the elephant based on the part he touches. The man who touches the leg says the elephant is like a pillar. The man who touches the tail says the elephant is like a rope, and so on. The elephant is a metaphor for the existence of one truth. The whole elephant may be beyond our reach; we may each, at best, have access to only a small piece of it, but no matter what we believe, we’re all touching the same elephant—we all touch a piece of the one truth. [3] But then, to make the case for there being many distinct truths, even contradictory truths, I might just ask how it is possible for me, as one who ministers to a congregation that includes atheists, theists, agnostics, Buddhists, Jews, Pagans and Christians, to say there is only one truth. If there is only one, then some of us—most of us, in fact—are wrong. That doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not convinced atheists and theists are somehow touching the same elephant. I’m not convinced Buddhists and Christians are somehow touching the same elephant. I’m not convinced all religions, at their core, are ultimately the same.[4] So which is it, one truth or many?

I inevitably feel some pressure to answer this question definitively. But I can’t. I’m persuaded by both arguments—I love the idea that there is one truth beyond our knowing; I love the idea that there are many distinct truths in one room. I can’t give up on either of these claims and I’ve never known quite how to resolve what feels to me like a deep contradiction. There’s a part of me that’s always felt like a bit of a fraud for not being able to offer a definitive answer. But when I reflect more deeply, I realize the problem is not the presence of a contradiction: the problem is the pressure to choose one side in this or any other theological debate and be done with it. The problem is the pressure to choose one spiritual identity and be done with it. Do you believe in God or are you an atheist? Define yourself. Are you a UU Christian, a UU Buddhist, a UU Pagan, a UU Theist, a UU Humanist? Define yourself. In your spiritual practice are you contemplative? Are you community-oriented? Are you ritualistic? Are you a social justice activist? Define yourself.

I understand why we crave definition. Having a clear self-definition, spiritual or otherwise, helps us communicate to the rest of the world: this is me! This is who I am. See me. Hear me. Distinguish me. Validate me. Value me. But sometimes succumbing to the pressure to define does more harm than good. What happens if you have a hunch that both sides of an argument are somehow true? What happens if you have a feeling that both sides of a contradiction are somehow true? What if two religions express radically different cosmologies, but your intuition tells you both are somehow true? Or what if you sense something is true even though it doesn’t make any sense, even though everything you’ve ever been taught tells you it can’t be true. I think it’s so important for us in situations like this, as liberal religious people, as spiritual seekers, as Unitarian Universalists to learn to follow our hunches, our feelings, our intuitions. If we’re forced to define our position, if we have to choose a side, if we have to reject an idea because we’ve been taught it can’t be true, then we risk missing something. We cut ourselves off from a range of possibilities.

Think of what we know about light. Sam reminds us in her monologue that light is both a wave and a particle—a contradiction. One of the first lessons aspiring physicists learn in the study of quantum mechanics is that as soon as we measure light—as soon as we try to define it—the wave collapses into the particle. We can observe the particle, but we miss the wave. The range of possibilities vanishes in that moment.

 

Sam also mentions “a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time.” This is a reference to Shrödinger’s Cat, a famous
thought experiment put forth in 1935 by the Austrian physicist Erwin Shrödinger as a way to talk about problems in quantum mechanics. The cat inside the box is both alive and dead—a contradiction—and only when we open the box does it become one or the other. The quantum world—the sub-atomic world—is like this. There are actually infinite possibilities at any given time.  When we measure—when we open the box—when we touch the elephant—we collapse these infinite possibilities into one definite state. But this doesn’t mean the other possibilities weren’t real. The fact that we can only observe the particle doesn’t mean the wave was a fiction.

I’m making a similar claim about our spiritual lives, about our beliefs. When we define ourselves spiritually or theologically by saying “I believe X” or “I don’t believe Y,” we risk shutting out a wider range of possibilities. Sometimes that’s fine. Sometimes we need to do it. Sometimes we are very comfortable with a clearly defined identity: humanist, atheist, theist, Christian, Buddhist, etc. But there’s always a risk. We risk missing something. What appeals to me about Sam’s expression of belief is her unwillingness to miss anything. She says, essentially, I will not collapse the wave; I will not open the box; I will not resolve my contradictions; I will accept and embrace them, I will live with them, and in so doing I will inhabit a universe of possibility.

I confess that, despite feeling drawn to Sam’s way of believing, I’m not exactly sure how to do it. My intellect doesn’t want to go there. It’s hard for me to say with a straight face, “I believe in a personal god and I believe in an impersonal god and I believe in a godless universe.” It’s hard for me to say it with the conviction that Sam brings to it which, again, is why I wonder whether it’s a truly tenable spirituality. She is, after all, a work of fiction. But in the very least, were Sam or anyone to put such live-with-the-contradictions believing into practice, they would have access to a wide range of spiritual resources to meet life’s challenges. I think back to the time when my son’s heart condition was diagnosed in utero and we realized it was going to be a difficult medical path for a few years and possibly for his entire life; or the time when my brother’s daughter was still-born, or when my father was at the peak of his struggle with alcoholism—hard, painful times in my life. I’ve learned that people progress spiritually through such times, that there’s an arc to the spiritual experience of struggle and difficulty, and sometimes it includes a period of such despair, confusion and loneliness that all one can do is let go and trust. It strikes me that in such times belief in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do makes sense. Such belief, which includes longing for an end to pain, becomes a spiritual resource. Such belief can reduce anxiety, bring calm, bring a sense of being held, bring a sense of resilience. It can carry a person through hardship at the moment when they feel they can’t take another step.

Then there are those moments—those mystical moments—when people report an experience of profound unity, a oneness with everything there is, a connection to all life. Unitarian Universalists who have such experiences typically report having them outdoors, when surrounded by the natural world—the mountain top view, crashing waves, leaves in autumn, the rebirth of spring, sunrise and sunset. Of course, communion with nature is only one source of these mystical moments. They come in worship, in community, through working to achieve a vision, through creative endeavor, through activism. Wherever and whenever it comes, people report experiencing the world as sacred, experiencing life as sacred, experiencing everything as holy now. It stikes me that in such moments a belief in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive makes sense. A belief in some divine essence at the heart of creation makes sense. And such belief becomes a spiritual resource. It inspires reverence for life. It inspires us to care for the earth and for each other. It inspires us to renew our commitments and to live by our principles. It inspires us to be hopeful, loving people.

Then there are those moments when we take stock of what we know about life and the world and how it all fits together. We take stock of the myths people have told throughout the ages, the supernatural explanations for things that at one time were unexplainable but which now even children comprehend. We bear witness to the enormous power of the human mind to understand the universe. We watched just this week as NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, discovered what appears to be an ancient streambed on the surface of the red planet. We watched this past July as scientists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland discovered the Higgs boson, the sub-atomic particle that accounts, at least in theory, for the existence of mass in the universe. Like the theory of evolution, this so-called “god particle” offers a compelling, non-supernatural alternative to the creation story in the Book of Genesis. We take stock of the findings of science and human achievement and in response, belief in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck makes sense. And such belief becomes a spiritual resource, calling on us to trust ourselves—to trust our instincts and our intellect, to trust our feelings and our intuitions, to trust in our own creativity and our capacity for innovation, to trust, ultimately, in the human spirit.

There. Three contradictory theologies that when taken together offer a rich set of spiritual resources. I’m still wondering: is this an authentic, generous spirituality, or simply a failure to make a serious theological choice? For now I’m going with the former. Light is both a particle and a wave, and while we can only observe the particle, we know the wave is there. We know the wave is real. And so it is with our spiritual lives. While we have to define ourselves from time to time, my instincts tell me we inhabit a universe of possibility—and I don’t want to miss anything if I can help it. Are there pantheons full of ancient deities still longing for the life and power human worship gives them? Are there new gods of technology and entertainment vying for our dedication? Who knows? But either way it seems to me, if such a universe of possibility awaits, then it is good and right to say “I can believe.”

Amen and blessed be.

 

 


[1] Gaiman, Neil,  American Gods (New York: Harpertorch, 2001) p. 394.

[2] Ibid., pps. 394-395.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “One Truth, Many Truths . . . Any Truths?” Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, May 8, 2011. See: http://uuse.org/one-truth-many-truths-any-truths/

[4] Ibid.

Transitions

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9]Knapp, Drinking, p. 256.