Rev. Drew Moeller settles into the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor, ME

Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor Shawl Ministry with Rev. Drew Moeller

The Rev. Drew Moeller poses with the Shawl Ministry knitters at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor, ME. He will preach his first sermon on September 11. They are a great congregation and would love to have you visit.

Perhaps Struggle is All We Have

Moral Monday CTThe first title for this sermon was “Where Do We Go From Here?”—a reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” The intention behind that title is still at work at the heart of this sermon, and is indeed at work at the heart of all my sermons that focus on social justice work. That intention is twofold—to reflect on what it means to engage in social justice work in our time; and then to suggest, as best I can, the most effective ways we—and by “we” I mean we as Unitarian Universalists and we as a unique, liberal faith community—can most effectively participate in social justice work here in Greater Manchester, greater Hartford, and Connecticut. What are the most pressing social justice issues in our time and place? Who is organizing in response to these issues? With whom can we partner? Where and how can we exert our own individual and institutional power to create the greatest positive social change? In short, where do we go from here?

I decided on a different title, a quote from author and The Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent book Between the World and Me: “Perhaps Struggle is All We Have.” This is my seventeenth year in ministry, my thirteenth in this pulpit. I have always made social justice work a centerpiece of my ministry. When I came into the ministry I possessed, as many new ministers do, a strong idealism. I was confident that a certain kind of beloved community could be fashioned within Unitarian Universalism, that we could build anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural identity and practice within our congregations. I also possessed a conviction that the problems of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and environmental injustice could be substantively addressed in my lifetime, that I would come to the end of my career, look back, and know that I, along with the congregations I’ve served—motivated by our principles—had played a role in successful movements to eradicate the most pernicious injustices of our time. I had a vision that I would come to the end of my life and be living in a society where racism is no longer baked into our social, economic and political systems the way it is now. Similarly with sexism, with homophobia, with classism. I had a vision that we would overcome.

I still have that vision. I have not lost my idealism, my confidence or my conviction, except for the part about coming to the end of my career and living in a transformed society. That’s not going to happen. But that’s OK. I’m much more aligned today with the wisdom of the 20th-century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope.”[1]

I haven’t lost my idealism because I’ve witnessed and been part of too many social justice victories. So have you. I know we can win. However, none of those victories was an end-point; none meant, we’re done, we’ve arrived.  Marriage equality was a monumental social justice victory, but it didn’t end homophobia and heterosexism. The Affordable Care Act was a monumental social justice victory, but it has not brought health care justice to every American. Connecticut’s addition of transgender people to its anti-discrimination statutes was a social justice victory, but it didn’t end transphobia. Governor Malloy’s Second Chance Society, which made significant changes to Connecticut’s criminal justice statutes was a social justice victory, but it hasn’t ended mass incarceration of people of color. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Brown vs. Board of Education, Roe vs. Wade—the list goes on and on, victory after victory—but none of them was an end-point. None of them achieved the beloved community. These victories matter not because they conclude our collective social justice struggles, but because they keep them going. They keep us moving toward our vision, toward justice, toward a society that honors the inherent worth and dignity of every person. They remind us we can make real change, we can improve suffering peoples’ lives, we can win and we are thus justified in continuing. The fact that we’ve won in the past assures us we are not naïve to take next steps, to ask “Where do we go from here?” After seventeen years of ministry and 48 years of life, I am still an idealist.

But my idealism is different, tempered. Seventeen years ago I wouldn’t have said that just because history tells us we can win, doesn’t mean we will. I see it more clearly now. There are no guarantees, there never have been. Peoples’ willingness to struggle for what they believe in makes all the difference, but it doesn’t always make a difference. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing to his teenage son, articulating the profound vulnerability of Black bodies in the United States, articulating the historical and ongoing violence against Black bodies in the United States, says, “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.”[2] He challenges the assumption so many liberal activists and people of faith take to heart, that we will eventually win. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[3] Coates says, essentially, “maybe so, but don’t count on it.” He suggests our previous social justice victories can lull is into a false sense of inevitability. “Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point,” he writes. “Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up each morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”[4]

I’ve underlined these words multiple times, highlighted and starred them, dog-eared the page. I’ve come back to them often. They’ve become scripture to me, though I’m not sure I fully understand their meaning. The God of history is an atheist. I need to sit with that, to pray on it, maybe shed tears. The universe prefers struggle over hope. I’m not ready to let hope go. I know Coates isn’t talking to me—he’s talking to his son. But there is something universal here. The universe prefers struggle over hope. Struggle sounds harsh beside the softness, the ‘everything-will-be-alright-ness’ of hope. Struggle is mired in the here and now, in staying alive, waking up, surviving, getting by; in next steps, in ‘where do we go from here?’ In social justice work struggle means painstaking processes of building relationships, attending meetings, taking actions, losing over and over, learning from mistakes, starting again, and being supremely patient. Hope, so much easier, tells us a better future is coming. But that future is impossible without struggle.

Many will object to Coates’ downgrading of hope. Without hope, why go on? Why care? These, of course, are questions of despair. Coates is quite clear: “This is not despair.” Given that there has been and continues to be so much violence and oppression against Black people—and I would add against women, gay, lesbian and bisexual people, transgender people, poor people, low-wage workers, immigrants, refugees, elders—there are unlimited reasons for despair. But Coates is saying hope isn’t a sufficient antidote to despair precisely because there are no guarantees. You might win, but you might not. God might bring your through, but how often does that not happen? Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Aquon Salmon, Malik Jones, Amadou Diallo. Coates adds the heart-rending police murder of Prince Carmen Jones to that long list. The world can let you down in a flash no matter how hopeful you are. Given the pervasiveness of injustice—given the violence, the oppression—given the sheer tenuousness of life, hope for a better future isn’t the source of our integrity. Our willingness to struggle is the source of our integrity. Our willingness to work for human survival, human dignity, human community, peace, justice and planetary sustainability despite our lack of certainty, despite knowing we may lose, despite knowing it all may be for naught—that is the source of our integrity. I am not sure what saves us ultimately, but I am sure our willingness to struggle for what we believe in gives meaning to our lives and saves us today. Recasting Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by struggle.”

I invite you to live with this idea in the coming weeks. Sit with it. Examine it. Pray on it. Shed tears. And I invite you, especially on this weekend as the nation commemorates the life and struggle of Martin Luther King, Jr., to listen not for messages of hope, but for invitations to struggle for justice.

I have a few invitations for you now. Our congregation, primarily through the work of our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee, has been very involved in the Black Lives Matter movement through our partnership with Moral Monday CT. We’ve held workshops on non-violent civil disobedience and a course on “Revolutionary Conversations.” There’ve been actions to address police brutality, income inequality in Greater Hartford, and racist hiring practices at the baseball stadium construction site. We know this kind of engagement is not for everyone, does not appeal to everyone. In fact, in most congregations involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, it is usually only a small cadre of people who are highly involved. Mindful of this, and on behalf of the committee, I invite you to join an open conversation about Black Lives Matter next Sunday at 12:30. We’d like to hear what others in the congregation think and feel about the movement. What do you know? What do you need to know? And we’d like to put at the center of that conversation the question, should we place a Black Lives Matter lawn sign on our property along West Vernon Street? Many congregations have done this. Some have had their signs vandalized or stolen. What do you think? Is this a constructive way for us to express our collective concern for Black lives, to proclaim our ongoing intentions as a congregation to struggle for racial justice? Let’s have a conversation.

Here’s another invitation, though it is less specific. Given Connecticut’s age demographics, the state is going to need 10,000 new Personal Care Assistants in the coming decade. Personal Care Assistants or PCAs are the people who work in someone’s home providing medical care, cooking, cleaning, companionship and sometimes childcare. They work mostly with elders, people with disabilities, or people living with a chronic illness. Sometimes they work for agencies, sometimes as independent contractors. Who are the people who hold these jobs? They are primarily women, who are immigrants, who are people of color—the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. In these jobs they are extraordinarily vulnerable. What many don’t know is that PCAs have not historically been protected under national fair labor standards laws. This has meant that PCAs are not entitled by law to receive the minimum wage, overtime pay, paid time off, or pay for travel between jobs. They are not entitled to receive health insurance or workers’ compensation if injured on the job. They have no legal recourse in the event of harassment in the workplace, and can be dismissed from their job without warning, reason, or severance pay—and often end up homeless because of this. They receive minimal training and have few, if any, professional standards, which compromises the overall care they are able to provide. Is it surprising that a class of jobs held primarily by women who are immigrants who are people of color is more akin to a system of exploitation than legitimate employment?

This is changing. The federal law is changing, and there are efforts underway to change Connecticut’s laws, but the status of PCAs is still tenuous. There are opportunities for us to strengthen these jobs, to make them decent, middle class jobs, so that PCAs can support their families, so that we can slowly lessen the tide of escalating income inequality and the race-based income and wealth gaps in the United States. These opportunities are coming through partnerships with other congregations across the state, with the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford, with a phenomenal organization called the Brazilian Cultural Center, and with a regional faith-based community organizing entity called the InterValley Project. I expect there will be educational forums here later in the winter or early spring. I hope you will feel called to attend those forums, called to learn more about these issues, and called, in some way, to join this struggle.

There are more invitations coming—invitations to become involved in the struggles to resettle refugees, to protect undocumented immigrants, to further advance criminal justice reform, to continue our efforts to support ex-incarcerated people. Yes, the word struggle carries a harshness with it, a hardness. It implies messiness, difficulty, perhaps even suffering. Of course, there is messiness, difficulty and suffering in life whether we choose to struggle or not. But struggle is not only harsh and hard. It is also a source of integrity, a marker of our idealism and compassion. Struggle is the path to a meaningful, purposeful life. It can be filled with joy, with new learnings about self and others, with new relationships, with growth, and it is the only way to achieve our vision. So let us struggle together, knowing there are no guarantees, no irrepressible justice.  Let us struggle together, knowing it may be all we have.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Neibuhr, Reinhold, “We Must Be Saved,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and UUA, 1993) #461.

[2] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015) p. 70.

[3] This quote was likely adapted by King from the Unitarian Transcendentalist minister, Theodore Parker. Parker’s whole quote is less well-known than King’s shortened version: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

[4] Coates, Between the World and Me, pp. 70-71.

On Human Brokenness

Rev. Josh Pawelek and Nancy Thompson

Nancy Thompson is a graduate of the Buddhist teacher training program at The Interdependence Project, a secular Buddhist center in New York City, and is a student of Lama Tsultrim Allione. She joined UUS:E in 1995 with her family and began studying Buddhism in 2006. She leads the UUS:E Buddhist Group and teaches meditation at Samadhi Yoga Studio in Manchester.

I

Nancy

I was born into a Roman Catholic family in May 1957. When I was less than month old, I was taken to Holy Name of Jesus Church and cleansed of my sins by a priest who poured water over my forehead as my aunt held me. A rational person might wonder what I could have done in my first four weeks of life to require spiritual cleansing. Most likely, nothing. Catholics believe that we all enter the world tainted by original sin, the sin created when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the apple.

Move forward 50 years. I’m sitting in a small office in a former gun factory turned meditation center in New Haven, facing a Tibetan Buddhist teacher in orange robes. He asks why I have decided to take refuge, the formal vow that makes me an official Buddhist.

If he were a western teacher, fluent in English and irony, I might talk about my Roman Catholic baptism. Instead I keep it simple. I talk about how I am drawn to the idea of basic goodness – also known as buddhanature, inherent richness, essential nature (it’s like Eskimos and snow; Buddhists have many words for it) – how it has transformed my life to see myself as essentially good, working to remove the overlay of social conditioning and perceptions and expectations that cover up that goodness, rather than essentially bad. As a Catholic, I said every week, as part of Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word and my soul will be healed.” As a Buddhist, I don’t need to be fixed; I’m not broken, and I have all the tools I need for a tune-up inside of me.

Buddhism

Josh

I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist family. There was never a hint of the unworthiness or inherent sinfulness Nancy refers to in her religious upbringing. However, living in a town that, at the time, was fifty percent Catholic, I remember feeling somewhat jealous of my Catholic friends. Many aspects of their lives seemed lovingly held by their church and community. We were held too, but there just weren’t that many UU kids at school. I can’t remember how much we talked across our elementary school lines of faith about sin and hell, but I remember knowing at an early age that our church was theologically different. Our Universalist forbears had long ago given up the concept of hell—an all-loving God would never sentence people to eternal punishment. And our Unitarian forbears had championed the idea that human beings could work toward perfection. “Salvation by character,” they called it. We were worthy beyond measure.

My Pennsylvania Dutch, somewhat evangelical grandmother used to talk to me and my brothers about hell, about fearing God. But her admonitions were never enough to talk us out of our sense of being whole, good, worthy.

chalice

Forty years later, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, while I still embrace those core messages of our spiritual forebears, and while I don’t experiencing lingering feelings of religious or spiritual guilt so many Americans are raised to feel, I do wonder sometimes if I’m missing something. I may be moving in the opposite direction Nancy has moved on her journey to Buddhism. I wonder if there is a condition we might call brokenness. It’s not an inherent condition, not something we’re born with. But as a minister, as one to whom people come to speak of their pain, their mistakes, their illnesses, their suffering, the ways they’ve been hurt and the ways they’ve hurt others, it strikes me that we can break, that there are times when we need fixing. Sometimes that wonderful, comforting message that we are perfect just as we are, that we don’t need to be fixed, isn’t enough. It doesn’t ring true to the person who feels broken, and it doesn’t help them in the midst of their suffering. Something else is needed.

II

Nancy

Buddhism starts, literally, with brokenness. The Buddha’s First Noble Truth – dukkha – is often translated as “suffering,” but the word actually refers to a wheel and an axle that don’t fit together quite right, like the shopping cart with the wobbly wheel. Life contains big dramatic events that qualify as suffering – the Buddha mentioned old age, sickness, and death – but more often it is like a shopping cart with a wonky wheel that doesn’t move as smoothly as we want.

The thing is, we – the awareness that recognizes the problem – aren’t broken. The cart, for that matter, is functional: It holds things and moves, just not smoothly.

The breakdown is in our relationship to the wobbly wheels on the shopping cart of life. We encounter difficulties and we get angry or frustrated or confused or sad that things aren’t going the way we think they should. We are not able to make the world behave the way we want. And so we suffer.

Wobbly wheel

There’s a disconnect between our thinking mind and our innate, unbroken, unbreakable, perfect nature. Buddhists call that buddhanature. You can call it God, spirit, the light in each and every one of us, that which is worthy of respect and dignity.

We are perfect just as we are. But we forget that because we’re told over and over that we’re not – we eat too much, sin too often, drive the wrong car, use the wrong words, wear the wrong clothes.  The challenge of a spiritual path is to find our way home to that sense of our own basic goodness.

Josh

Somehow, Google knows our February ministry theme is brokenness. Last week I opened my email and found a message from Google featuring a quote from a self-helpish, inspirational website called HpLyrikz.com. The quote said, “I still get very high and very low in life. Daily. But I’ve finally accepted the fact that sensitive is just how I was made, that I don’t have to hide it, and I don’t have to fix it. I’m not broken.” Google must’ve noticed I’d been searching for resources on “brokenneness,” and thought this quote might appeal. I also noticed the quote had been shared millions of times. I traced it back to a 2013 TED talk by Glennon Doyle Melton called “Lessons from the Mental Hospital.” Glennon Doyle Melton is a writer, blogger and organizer. She’s a person in recovery. She grounds her work in her stories of living with addiction, eating disorders, mental illness.

GDM on HpLyrikz

As much as I want to affirm this idea that “I’m not broken,” as much as it resonates with my religious upbringing, I find myself bristling. It’s not that she’s wrong. She’s not. It’s that she makes this statement in the middle of telling her story, and then a million other people repost the statement, but they don’t mention the story. Now the statement is out on the web but without any context. The part in the story where she was addicted to drugs, had eating disorders, wound up in a psychiatric unit—the part in the story where she had to work really, really hard to heal—emotionally, physically, psychologically—the part in the story where those feelings of being broken still live in her even though she has them in check now—is lost. When I read about Melton’s life story, I wonder if it might not be more accurate to say that there was a time in her life when she was broken, when she was lost, when she was a “wretch,” as the hymn says. I wonder if it is useful to speak of human brokenness—to wrestle with the possibility not that we are somehow born broken, but that we can break. I wonder if it is useful—and I suspect it is—to wrestle with this idea before we make the leap to “I’m not broken.”

Having said that, Nancy’s discussion of buddhanature resonates deeply with me. It appeals to the lessons of my liberal religious upbringing. It makes sense to me that, if there is an original human condition, it is akin to buddhanature—it is the essential perfection that, in the language of our Unitarian Universalist principles, endows us—and, indeed, all life—with inherent worth and dignity. When we say, “We are perfect just as we are,” it’s true. But we forget it, often easily. We forget it perhaps because we were never taught this truth as children; or because we’ve made mistakes and we haven’t forgiven ourselves; or because, as Nancy suggested, others tell us negative stories about ourselves: “we eat too much, sin too often, drive the car, use the wrong words, wear the wrong clothes;” or we tell ourselves these stories. And some people forget it because they’ve experienced some trauma, some abuse, some oppression, some war, some mental or psychological breakdown so profound that they feel broken. And for such people, the message “you’re perfect just the way you are,” isn’t entirely accurate. It doesn’t meet them where they are. It contradicts their experience. They may have a long struggle ahead of them before they can genuinely feel perfect just the way they are. But what has always been—and will always be—an article of faith for me, not just as a pastor, but as a husband, father, brother, friend, colleague, neighbor, and stranger, is that the experience of brokenness is temporary. That is, some form of healing—spiritual or otherwise—is always possible. Returning to wholeness—spiritual or otherwise—is always possible. Returning home to that sense of our own basic goodness is always possible.

III

Nancy

I don’t think people have to be broken before they can feel whole. I don’t think you have to be lost to be found, to be blind before you can see. Brokenness isn’t just struggle or dissatisfaction – it’s a bone-deep questioning of your worth in the world, your ability to function. I can’t judge the authenticity of someone else’s experience of that; it doesn’t leave visible marks.

I want to share a story with you about what happens when you see people’s perfection rather than their brokenness. It comes from a friend of mine, Lisa, who is a Buddhist, a dedicated meditator, and a middle school science teacher. She shared this story on Facebook, and I’m going to just read what she wrote:

“I have this 12 year old student with SEVERE OCD. He’s a brilliant science student, kind, respectful, soft, funny. Most days he can’t even sit in the classroom seat. He can’t touch papers that other people have touched. He can’t handle any of the objects I bring to class to share. He annoys some of the teachers with this behavior.

“Today he dropped his pencil case on the floor and all his “clean,” well-organized world possessions got destroyed (in his mind). He started panicking and pacing and basically losing his cool. I responded by not feeding his story. I told him it was OK. I told him HE was OK. I told him to look me in the eyes. I showed him my confidence in his ability to handle this. I gave him clear direct instructions, he trusted me enough to follow them. I showed him how to breathe. I showed him how to manage his anxious biochemistry. By the end we laughed.

“I love this kid’s struggle. I love his process. I’m forever grateful that my job puts me in a place and time where I can be of service to grow a good human.”

She had prefaced the story with this statement: “Those of you that feel like weirdos or weak or high maintenance or just plain broken, you’re not. OK? You’re just not. It’s your brain and it’s telling you some shifty stuff.”

Lisa’s story shows what happens when you know, REALLY know, deep in your bones, that you are inherently perfect. You realize that everyone else is too, no matter how broken they may seem to themselves or to the world that hasn’t yet learned to see perfection. And you want to help them see that for themselves. That’s the work of a bodhisattva, a person who vows to lead all beings to enlightenment before going there.

The poet Galway Kinnell writes: “Sometimes it is necessary / to reteach a thing its loveliness, / to put a hand on its brow / of the flower / and retell it in words and in touch / it is lovely / until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing.

Sometimes we need to know that we are seen as perfect in order to see that in ourselves. When I took the refuge vow, the formal ceremony of committing to Buddhism, I was given the Tibetan name Khunzang Lamo, which translates to Always Good Divine Lady. That’s a touchstone for me when I don’t feel that way.

Josh

The poet, Galway Kinnel, continues: “As Saint Francis / put his hand on the creased forehead / of the sow, and told her in words and in touch / blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow / began remembering all down her thick length,/ from the earthen snout all the way / through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,/ from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine / down through the great broken heart / to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering / from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:the long, perfect loveliness of sow.”

If a person describes their condition to me as one of brokenness, I won’t counter with “You’re perfect just the way you are.” To the best of my ability I will be with them in their experience of brokenness. So often, our healing begins when those around us acknowledge that what we are experiencing is real. But even as I validate stories of brokenness, I will also remember the simple theological lessons of my Unitarian Universalist upbringing—all are saved, all are loved, all are capable of perfection. I will remember the teachings of the Buddha about our buddhanature. I will remember the teachings of Jesus, who said “the kingdom of god is within you” (Luke 17:21). I will remember the pronouncements of scientists and cosmologist who remind us of our common origin in the hearts of stars. As I remember, I will offer blessings of earth in words and touch.

Meet People

I urge you to do likewise. For as we remember, we are more likely to see the “long, perfect loveliness” in the person experiencing brokenness—and the more likely they will see it too. And as we bless, we help the one experiencing brokenness tell a new story about themselves—a story that enables healing, fosters wholeness, and inspires goodness.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

Beautiful December: A Holiday Homily

Rev. Josh Pawelek

12-21-14Earlier we heard Martha Dallas’ Christmas story about the Bicker Family. Martha Dallas is a Unitarian Universalist religious educator in Burlington, VT. The story really gets rollin’ when there is apparently no Christmas present for Old Father Bicker. Honestly, I’m not sure he cares all that much, but he certainly puts on a good show of being grumpy. “Christmas is ruined,” he complains. When somebody sarcastically suggests that baby Amelia might have his present, he picks her up and asks, “Baby Amelia, is there something you have to give me?” She smiles. He smiles back. And then everyone starts smiling. Then Baby Amelia starts giggling. Old Father Bicker giggles. And then everyone starts giggling. Pretty soon they’re all laughing.  And old Father Bicker says, “Thank you, Baby Amelia, for giving me a smile. And thank you for giving this family the happiest Christmas moment I can ever remember.”

Christmas is saved.

We can all take a lesson from Baby Amelia. We can all bring light and joy into others’ lives—not just in this dark, mid-winter season, but in every season. A smile, a giggle, a laugh can make a difference. Our caring actions and support for those who are suffering and struggling can make a difference. Our witness and our actions on behalf of a more peaceful, just and loving society can make a difference. We can bring light and joy where it is needed most in any season.

I recently read a Hannukah blog post from the Velveteen Rabbi, one of my favorite spiritual writers, which makes this very same point. Reflecting on the Hannukah story and the practice of lighting the menorah lights in December, she writes, “We are all of us afraid of the dark. At night, anxieties suppressed or repressed come swimming to the surface of consciousness: am I safe? Am I loved? Am I needed? Is there meaning in the world, or is it all, ultimately, just a swirl of chaos?”

“Judaism does not ask us to ignore this darkness and the sense of doom it might [draw forth from] us,” she says. “On the contrary, it asks us to face them squarely, and then, ultimately, to defy them. But how?… “The soul of [humanity] is the lamp of God,” the Book of Proverbs tell us (20:27). What this means is that ultimately, our task is not to light candles, but to be candles. We have the potential to be the bits of light that help bring God back into a world gone dark.”

I like this notion: we can wrestle with our own challenges, with our own anxieties, with whatever it is in our lives that frightens us or orients us towards despair by being a light to others—smiling, giggling, laughing, caring, supporting, bearing witness, taking action. Our task is not simply to light candles, but to be candles.

Christmas in the Christian tradition celebrates the birth of Jesus, the birth of the messiah, the king, the peacemaker. In the book of Luke the angels announce his birth, proclaiming peace on earth, good will to all. We’ll read and act out this story on Christmas Eve. In our liberal religious, Unitarian Universalist tradition, we acknowledge that peace and good will don’t just come. The potential for peace and goodwill is always there, but for them to become a reality requires the addition of human hands, human hearts, human caring, human love: our hands, our hearts, our caring, our love. If there is to be peace on earth and goodwill to all, we must play a role. We cannot simply light candles. We must be candles.

December is beautiful for so many reasons. The first snows are beautiful. Frozen ponds are beautiful. Evergreens, standing alone against the backdrop of a grey afternoon, are beautiful. Flocks of Canada geese heading south in great, precise vees are beautiful. And lights kindled like beacons against the gloom of long, dark mid-winter nights are beautiful, just as the sun returning on the solstice is beautiful.

But lighting lights has never been enough. We must be light. We must smile, chuckle, laugh. We must find the lost, heal the broken, comfort the afflicted, embrace those who mourn, feed the hungry, house the homeless, release the prisoners, challenge injustice, dismantle oppression, speak truth to power when power is unresponsive, demand change whenever change is necessary, and bring more love into the world everywhere and always, everywhere and always, everywhere and always. We must be light. December is beautiful because it inspires us, in every season, to be light.  May we be light!

Amen and blessed be.

Easter Homily: The Rhythm of Life is a Powerful Beat

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?”[1] 

Underground Railroad patch

I like this song on Easter morning. It reminds us we live in a world where far too many people, for far too many reasons need safe harbor, need of sanctuary, shelter, safety; need caring, love and compassion, comfort and solace, respite and rest. It reminds us we live in a world where far too many people, for far too many reasons, need real help, need choices, opportunity, access, a “seat at the table,” a voice; need freedom, liberation, justice, peace. But the song doesn’t just point to needs. That’s easy enough. It also seeks to inspire in us a certain commitment. It asks everyone—those singing and those listening: will you, will I, will we be people who harbor those in need? Will you, will I, will we be people who take the side of the oppressed, who take the side of the incarcerated, of immigrants without papers, families without homes, workers without work, children in failing schools, women who’ve been battered, victims of violence, people whose land has been stolen, people struggling with addiction, people living with mental illness, people living with HIV/AIDS, and certainly people who still experience the pain of discrimination and second class citizenship because their committed, loving relationships are not recognized in law.

UUSe at the Marriage Equality Rally


Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you? As much as any of us might want to answer this question with a resounding, “Yes,” it’s not easy. There are always risks. If I take the side of the persecuted, the oppressed, the victims of violence, isn’t it possible the same forces threatening their lives might seek to threaten mine? When the Roman guards were leading Jesus to his execution, when the mob had gathered to jeer at their scapegoat on his way to Golgotha to be crucified, his disciples were nowhere to be found. Just one day earlier Peter had said to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you.”[2] And yet on the day of the crucifixion—Good Friday—Peter three times denies knowing Jesus. Risks always accompany taking the side of persecuted people. Peter wasn’t willing to take them.

Underground railroad

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the whole point of the Easter story is to expose the violence people do to people—to name it, to reveal it, to show how entire communities can resort to it, as if it will somehow solve their problems. Virtually everyone in the story sanctions the murder of Jesus in some way. Only the three women—the three Mary’s—who gather at the foot of the cross are willing to be with Jesus in his suffering.

If I’m correct that the point of the story is to definitively and unwaveringly reveal the reality of violence in human communities, then the story’s message is that violence is wrong, that violence, persecution and oppression redeem nothing. The story asks its hearers and readers to consider the question, which side are you on? Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?

Golgotha

Jesus is crucified. The next day is the Sabbath, the day of rest. On the third day the women return to the tomb where Jesus has been laid. They discover the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, and with slight variations depending on which version one reads, they hear the news that Jesus has risen from death: the Easter miracle.

Sunrise

I think most of you know that while I view Jesus’ execution as a largely settled historical fact—there are multiple reports of it in the Jewish and Roman historical records—I view the resurrection as metaphor—a potent and multi-layered symbol. For me, the value of this symbol begins with its unmistakable affirmation that the Sacred—however we understand the Sacred—is fundamentally opposed to and will always seek to overcome violence in human communities. In the face of violence, injustice and death, the Sacred affirms life. It encourages us not to succumb to fear as Peter did, but in the very least to sit faithfully by the side of those who are suffering, to call for water to moisten their parched throats; and when the opportunity presents itself to say, “Yes, I do know this person who is being persecuted. This person is visible to me and this persecution is wrong.” It makes available to us sources of love far more powerful than any violence any persecutor can bring to bear.”

The value of this symbol lies in its power to remind us in the deepest places of our being that though violence, persecution, oppression and injustice may at times seem overwhelming, may at times seem to have prevailed; and though the many ways in which we suffer as human beings—physical illness, mental illness, depression, loss, grief, broken dreams, broken relationships, personal failures—may at times seem insurmountable, there is nevertheless a rhythm of life and its beat is powerful; its beat never stops; its beat keeps coming around and around. Days keep dawning. Waves keep crashing. Tides keep pulling. Hearts keep beating. Lungs keep breathing. Love keeps coming. That’s the rhythm and it has the power to help us overcome; to bring us back to our true selves, back to our most authentic selves, back to life.

Sunrise

 Even after the longest winters of our lives, spring arrives—that’s the rhythm! Stones roll away. Prophets proclaim good news. Wounds heal. Communities come together, find their purpose, start to organize, build life anew. Birds, once again, sing at the break of day. Buds, once again, appear on branches. Grass, once again, grows high and green. Hope, once again, rises in our hearts. If we can attune ourselves to the rhythm of life, if we can catch its pulse and start to sing, dance, create along with its ancient, powerful, undying beat that began in the heart of that one, tiny seed,[3] then we too can come back to life refreshed, rejuvenated, resurrected, filled with joy, filled with passion, filled with new-found courage to meet our challenges, to bear witness to suffering and violence, to struggle for justice, to pursue our dreams. If we can catch its pulse and start to sing, dance and create along with its ancient beat then we too can rest securely in the knowledge and the faith that our pain and grief will subside in time and that beloved community is possible, a more just society is possible, a healthy planet is possible; that we are justified in being hopeful people and that, in the end, love prevails. Love prevails. Love prevails.

Sunrise dance

Oh yes: the rhythm of life is an awesome and powerful beat. On this Easter morning, as spring finally arrives all around us, may we feel its pulse. May we start to dance. May we add our joyful noise to its undying song.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] This refers to Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s Sweet Honey in the Rock piece, “Would You Harbor Me?” See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0XBXJjoXJ4. To purchase this song, find the “Sacred Ground” album at http://www.sweethoney.com/discography.php.

[2] Luke 13:37b.

[3] Earlier in this service we read Carol Martignacco’s The Everything Seed. For more info see: http://www.amazon.com/The-Everything-Seed-Story-Beginnings/dp/1582461619.

The Life We Have Lost in Living

Rev. Josh Pawelek

View Video at: The Life We Have Lost in Living

“A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things”—words from the late 19thand early 20th-century American journalist and

Don Marquis

humorist, Don Marquis.[1] I’m not familiar with his work, though I see from my brief research he wrote prolifically. As I sing these words, which many regard as his most famous “serious” poem, I imagine he was fascinated with the human yearning to create, the human yearning for knowledge, the human yearning to solve problems and overcome obstacles. In his view, this yearning—this unrest, as he calls it—drives discovery, drives invention, drives innovation. It is the force behind human evolution: “but for this rebel in our breast,” he writes, “had we remained as brutes.”  Or, “when baffled lips demanded speech, speech trembled into birth.” This unrest, restlessness, yearning, desire, longing, reaching, stretching—whatever we name it, it’s one of those wonderful, intangible qualities in the human heart: it goads and guides us, directs and drives us, incites and inspires us, provokes and pushes us forward toward greater insight and learning, toward greater freedom and justice, toward ever more sophisticated technologies. It is the energy powering the engine of human progress. And in the end it is not only a human quality.  In Marquis’ words, “it leaps from star to star.” This “fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things.”

Howard Thurman

I’m reminded of a passage from the 20th-century American mystic, Howard Thurman. In his 1971 book entitled The Search for Common Ground, he suggested we not think of life as static, set, fixed, determined.[2] Rather, “life is not finished yet; creation is still going on, not only in the spinning of new worlds, systems, nebulae, and galaxies in the infinitude of space, not only in the invisible world where chemical elements are born and nourished to support conglomerates of matter yet to appear at some far-off moment in time, but also in the human body, which is still evolving, in the human mind, which so slowly loosens it corporal bonds, and in the human spirit, which forever drives to know the truth of itself and its fellows.”[3] At the core of all existing things Thurman identifies creativity, movement, drive and inexhaustible potential.

Our ministry theme for February is restlessness. What a brilliant time of year to explore this theme! Winter is beyond its halfway point; and although this particular winter has been underwhelming for us New Englanders, February is the month when we typically start to feel restless. We grow tired of winter (not including the skiers and snowboarders, of course). Thoughts of March mud, April rain and May sun call to us, coax us, tease us gently. We are almost there. Our inner selves leap forward, dragging our rusty bodies into spring. But winter takes its time. Patience, it says. Wait, it advises. Just wait. And so we are restless. Some of us even begin to seethe with a fierce unrest. You know who you are.

Here’s where I get a little confused. Winter says wait. Winter says be still. Winter says, go slowly, rest, sleep, dream, heal. This sounds like excellent spiritual advice, yes? But hold on! What about that fierce unrest seething at the core of all existing things? What about that “rebel in our breast?” What about life not finished yet? What about our human longing, yearning, passion, desire? Don’t we deny that at our peril? Isn’t it also excellent spiritual advice that says give yourself over to that fierce unrest, ride its waves, live the life that is burning in you? It is.

Wait. Don’t wait! Sleep now. Wake now my senses![4] Be patient. Seek liberation! Be still. Move! I’m confused! Sure enough, as I survey the spiritual literature on restlessness, there seem to be two general streams of thought. On one hand our restlessness is a sign we are distracted from our true spiritual work; we somehow need to overcome it. This is winter’s message to our spring-ready selves. Wait. Be still. Be quiet. Focus the breathing. Focus the mind. In her article on restlessness in our February newsletter, Marlene Geary offered this quote from a website called The Buddhist Temple: “Uddhacca means distraction. It may also be called the unsettled state of mind. Just as minute particles of ash fly about when a stone is thrown into a heap of ash, the mind which cannot rest quickly on an object but flits about from object to object is said to be distracted. The mind arising together with uddhacca is called the distracted mind. When one is overpowered by distraction, one will become a drifter, a floater, a loafer, an aimless person.”[5]

On the other hand, our restlessness guides us not away from but toward our true spiritual work. We need to pursue it. Spring beckons. Let’s follow. Creation is ongoing. Let’s create. Spiritual writer Wil Hernandez, in a book on the priest and spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, says “Nouwen was an inconsolably restless soul for much of his entire earthly journey, but no doubt a passionate seeker of himself, of other people, and of his God…. Living as resident aliens in a strange land … what other kind of peace should we expect?  In this world, restlessness, and not contentment is a sign of health.”[6]

Two radically different ways of understanding restlessness. Do we resist or embrace it? What’s a minister to do? And more importantly, which restlessness is this sermon about?

I’ve been trying to recall the times in my life when I’ve felt restless. I drew a blank at first. Me, restless? I live a solidly middle-class life, two kids, two cars, a home in the Connecticut suburbs. It’s a stable and fairly sedentary life. I am content most of the time, satisfied most of the time. I immerse myself in my work. I enjoy my routine. I feel at home and grounded in New England. I seem to have little interest in travel, much to my wife’s great disappointment. Winter’s spiritual advice—be still, be patient—resonates with me.

But I am restless. There’s always been a part of me that refuses to rest. And I’ve always found ways to follow its prompting. I used to be the drummer in a rock band—actually quite a few bands over the years. Rock music in its purest form is America’s quintessential cultural expression of restlessness. With roots deep in the black spirituals of the slave plantations—those plaintive, desperate, hopeful cries for freedom; with roots deep in the blues—that musical wrestling match with suffering, with existential angst, with human failings and frailties; with its legacy of defying convention, of challenging the prevailing order, of distorting the guitar beyond recognition; with its tradition of the singer screaming, yelping, yelling and bending the notes so blue they can’t possibly be transcribed onto paper; with its perennial themes of liberation, independence, leaving home, setting out on the open road, wandering, rambling, loneliness, lost love, broken hearts, broken lives, rebellion, revolution, sex and drugs, rock music is sheer restlessness.

Marlene also quoted lyrics from the Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash: “I was born in a crossfire hurricane, and I howled at my ma in the drivin’ rain.”[7] (Listen/view Jumping Jack Flash) After the first few measures of build-up, the guitar hook explodes, the beat kicks in, Mick Jagger starts howling, and I have all the proof I need that a fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things. I sense at the heart of this music, quoting Marquis again, “that eager wish to soar that gave the gods their wings.”[8]

In my teens, twenties and early thirties rock music gave me an identity, a sense of purpose. It fed my longing, my yearning, my desire to create, my need to live beyond convention, to live my own life rather than the life others might have me live. It was a channel for my restlessness, a pathway for my ambition, a vehicle to leave some lasting mark on the world. But I have to be honest: there was a part of me that just didn’t fit. I wasn’t rebellious. I wasn’t a big risk-taker. I didn’t throw caution to the wind. There wasn’t much suffering and struggling in my life. I wasn’t wandering and rambling. I wasn’t lonely. I certainly wasn’t living a life of excess when it came to sex and drugs. I wasn’t born in a crossfire hurricane. I never howled at my ma in the drivin’ rain. Sure I was restless, but I was also polite, responsible, understated, orderly, and at some level I did care about what other people thought of me. So I started contemplating ministry!

My pending career change was the subject of my very first sermon which I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s regular Tuesday morning service in April, 1993. I had just been accepted to divinity school. I spoke about my frustrations with rock music—the posing and pandering, the focus on image at the expense of substance, the vapidness of the scene, the lack of meaning, the overly dramatic personalities—not to mention the ringing ears, the sore back from carrying too many Marhall stacks up and down long flights of stairs, the stink of cigarette smoke, the five-hour drives from Boston to New York to play for thirty minutes in tiny clubs, and the chronic failure to earn any money. Restlessness is exhausting. I remember, in that sermon, holding up a copy of our hymnal Singing the Living Tradition (which had just been published) and saying “this music calls to me too. This music expresses my values too. This music matches my vision too.” Ministry would be a huge change—a move toward professionalism, toward responsibility and accountability, toward greater maturity and stability, toward a more explicitly spiritual life, a more explicitly ethical life, a whole life—because that restless rock ‘n’ roll life just wasn’t cuttin’ it anymore.

T.S. Eliot

Recalling this time in my life made me think of the poet, T.S. Eliot, whose “Choruses from The Rock” we heard earlier. Eliot was a restless soul in his own way, a profoundly anxious soul. I have the impression his restlessness was so emotionally painful that he spent much of his life trying to overcome  it, trying to tame and subdue it. He was born into a prominent, liberal, Unitarian family in St. Louis in 1888. But liberalism proved to be the source of his anxiety. American individualism frightened him. Modernity frightened him. Democracy frightened him. It all led inexorably, in his view, to chaos. He feared chaos. He wanted order, tradition and ritual in his life.[9] In this poem I find him railing against the fierce unrest seething at the core of all existing things. The innovation it produces is not progress; for Eliot it is just more distraction, more chaos. He longs for stillness and quiet. Listen: “The endless cycle of idea and action,” he writes, “Endless invention, endless experiment, / Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; / Knowledge of speech, but not of silence; / Knowledge of words, and ignorance of The Word. / All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance, / All our ignorance brings us nearer to death, / But nearness to death no nearer to God. / Where is the Life we have lost in living? / Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” [10] (If he’d only known what was coming!) For Eliot the fierce unrest leads only to endless asphalt roads, busyness, mindlessness, ignorance, death. In response he cries out for grounding, for regularity, reliability and repetition—not for something new and innovative, but something enduring and eternal: “O perpetual revolution of configured stars,” he cries, “O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons, / O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!”
Yeah. When I finally decided to enter the ministry, I was seeking something similar—a way out of my rock ‘n’ roll restlessness, or at least what it had become. Where was the life I had lost in living? I was seeking some connection to the eternal.  I was seeking what Eliot calls “that perpetual recurrence of determined seasons.”  I was seeking winter’s spiritual wisdom: Wait. Be still. Go slowly, rest, sleep, dream, heal. I was seeking spring’s rebirth, summer’s play and autumn’s withdrawal back into winter. I need it in my life. What peace! What serenity!

I find that peace in ministry. I find it over and over again. I find the life I had lost in living. But every time I get there and I feel healed and renewed, something else always seems to arise in me. In the midst of that peace and serenity, that silence and stillness; at the heart of that perpetual revolution of configured stars, that perpetual recurrence of determined seasons, those cycles of birth and dying, there’s a pulse. There’s a beat, a rhythm, a cadence, a pattern, a movement, a flicker. Maybe it’s those echoes of the big bang. Maybe it’s the gods and goddesses soaring around. No matter what we call it, it’s life’s rhythm.  As much as we need times of stillness and quiet, we need to dance to this rhythm too. In the midst of that peace and serenity, that silence and stillness, there it is: restlessness, a fierce unrest, a longing, a yearning, a different and new life burning inside, demanding to come out, lest it be lost. A desire to grow as a parent, as a partner, as a leader; a desire to create beautiful and compelling words, beautiful and compelling music, beautiful and compelling worship; a pervasive dissatisfaction with the way things are; a profound anger at injustice and oppression. For example, today I am angry that so many powerful people in our state seem so little interested in creating a health care system that actually prioritizes the health of people over the profits of corporations. On that question, as far as I’m concerned, this is a time for fierce unrest. This is a time for creative moral action and strength.  Sorry T.S. Eliot, this is a time to generate a little chaos. But that will also cycle around to a time of stillness and quiet.

Do you see how restlessness works?  This sermon is not about one approach or the other. The two are intertwined. The two balance each other. The life we lose in living comes from a lack of balance. The life we lose in living comes from too much restlessness or too much rest. We will always need rest after pursing our restlessness. And out of our rest a new restlessness will always emerge. Such is the rhythm of the seasons. Such is the rhythm of the stars. Such is the rhythm of life. May we always be learning to dance to this rhythm.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Marquis, Don, “A Fierce Unrest,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 304.

[2] Thurman, Howard, “Concerning the Search” (chapter in The Search for Common Ground) in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 104.

[3] Thurman, Howard, A Strange Freedom, p. 104.

[4] Mikelson, Thomas J.S., “Wake Now My Senses” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #298.

[6] Hernandez, Wil, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection (Mahwah, NJ: The Paulist Press, 2006) p. 95. Also check out Jason Carter’s reflections on Hernadez’ statement at http://tkalliance.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/spirituality-of-imperfection-restlessness-vs-contentment/

[7] “Jumping Jack Flash.” View/listen at your own risk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9XKVTNs1g4

[8] Marquis, Don, “A Fierce Unrest,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 304.

[9] This description of T.S. Eliot comes I took in Professor Cornel West’s class, “Religion and Cultural Criticism,” Harvard Divinity School, fall, 1995.

[10] Read the full text of Eliot’s “Choruses from The Rock” at:

http://www.tech-samaritan.org/blog/2010/06/16/choruses-from-the-rock-t-s-eliot/