Beautiful December: A Holiday Homily

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Earlier 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] 

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.


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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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

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.”

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.

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/