February 2014 Ministers Column

Dear Ones:

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”

“Love will guide us.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can   do that.”

“There is more love somewhere”

“If music be the food of love, play on.”

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you your  age.”

“Love is blind, and lovers cannot see, the pretty follies that themselves commit.”

“Doubt that the stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move his aides, Doubt truth to be a liar, But never   doubt I love.”

“You love me. Real or not real?” I tell him, “Real.”

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”

“Love stinks!”

“If I had a flower for every time I thought of you…I could walk through my garden forever.”

“Love, love me do.”

“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people   by halves, it is not my nature.”

“Love me tender, love me sweet.”

“Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures   of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”

“What’s love got to do with it?”

So much has, is and will be said about love. The risk is always that we lose sight of what love is. Of course, love is more than one thing. And because it is rooted in those places in us that so often lie beyond words—and often beyond understanding—it is difficult to say with real precision what love is. But I’d like to try. Our ministry theme for February is love. I’m mindful of a poem from WH Auden, “So Tell Me the Truth About Love.” Well, that’s what I’d like us all to do this month. Let’s explore what we mean in those instances when we use the word. Let’s try to tell the truth about love.

With deep and abiding love (which I will try to name),

Rev. Josh

Speechless in the Face of Evil

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Evil Isn’t

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

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

What Evil Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On Setting Out and Coming Home

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

Matsuo Basho, the late 17th century Japanese poet, master of haibun,[1] speaks of a strong desire to wander, as if it’s the essence of who he is. In the opening lines of his travel sketch, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, he says: “the gods seemed to have possessed my soul and turned it inside out, and roadside images seemed to invite me from every corner, so that it was impossible for me to stay idle at home.”[2] Throughout all his travel sketches he seems always to be setting out on a journey, leaving home, leaving friends. We might call him, in those haunting words of the Sufi poet, Rumi, “a lover of leaving.”[3] At the conclusion of The Narrow Road he speaks of a wonderful reunion with friends. “Everybody was overjoyed to see me as if I had returned unexpectedly from the dead.” But his homecoming is short-lived. Though filled with the fatigue of journeying, he sets out again, and offers this final poem: As firmly cemented clam-shells / Fall apart in autumn, / So I must take to the road again, / Farewell my friends.[4]

In contrast to Basho’s relentless journeying, I offer (UUS:E member) David Garnes’ story of his 81-year old grandmother Sarah Rose Tyre Gordon Munro Macaulay Garnes’ return to her beloved Scotland at age 81 after 57 years of absence.[5] (I’ll call her Sarah from here on.) Her homecoming, like Basho’s reunion with friends, is joyous. It’s also a dramatic and heart-warming story—going back to the place of her birth, seeing long-lost family members after more than half a century. But where Basho is always setting out, Sarah’s journey is one of returning, coming home. And it’s more than that. In telling us about Sarah’s homecoming David also reminds us of her setting out from Scotland in 1911 to make a new home in America. And despite many hardships, including the untimely deaths of her husband, her son and a grandchild; raising her children alone; working at two jobs to avoid welfare, she succeeded. She built a home and a loving family. And David says “she was probably the happiest person I’ve ever known.”[6] Where Basho’s spiritual instinct was to set out, Sarah’s was to come home.

The question I’d like you to consider this morning and in the coming weeks is this: when you contemplate your own spiritual journey, are you setting out or coming home?

Our November ministry theme is journeys, so I want to explore this notion that we take spiritual journeys. Unitarian Universalists often say things like, “our lives are spiritual journeys,” but we don’t always explain what this means. This makes sense when we pause to consider that one of the purposes of any religion is to help its practitioners move along the path of their spiritual journey. Where some religions offer specific paths toward specific goals—which makes the journey relatively easy to explain—others, like Unitarian Universalism, are more open-ended, the directions less specified, the paths more numerous, and spontaneity, creativity and curiosity more valued than the discipline of sticking to pre-ordained rules. This open-endedness makes the typical Unitarian Universalist spiritual journey more difficult to explain. In fact, it makes the word typical more or less useless. But even so, I think it’s important that we have ways of articulating what we mean when we say, “Our lives are spiritual journeys.”

For me, spirituality is fundamentally about connection. An effective spiritual practice connects us to some reality larger than ourselves: to family, humanity, nature, the land, life, the planet, the cosmos, spirit, divinity, the gods and goddesses, the ancestors. When I speak of our spiritual lives, I’m speaking of all the ways we connect to whatever is of utmost worth to us, whatever we hold sacred, whatever we regard as holy. When I speak of our spiritual journeys, I’m referring not so much to the full span of our lives, but to certain discrete portions of our lives, such as the journey of our young adult years, the journey of parenting, the journey of career, the journey into elderhood; or, I’m speaking of our journey through certain ordeals or challenges, such as losing a job, the break-up of a marriage, the death of a loved-one; or I’m speaking about our journey through certain joyous milestones or blessings such as the birth of a child or, many years later, welcoming that same child into adulthood.

What makes any of these journeys spiritual is that they enable us to deepen our sense of connection over time. We don’t necessarily recognize it when it’s happening, but at various points along the way, when we have a moment to pause and reflect on our lives, we might notice that we’ve completed some significant journey, or that we’ve come through some uniquely challenging experience, and we might realize that we’re not the same person we were when we started; that we possess some knowledge about life and living we didn’t possess when we started; that we are wiser than when we began; that we feel more whole, more at ease in the world, more comfortable in our own skin. Perhaps, at the end of our journey, we realize we are better able to give and receive love; perhaps we are more compassionate in our treatment of others; perhaps we’ve discovered our gifts and we are finally using them in the service of others; perhaps we’ve come to terms with a painful loss; perhaps we are more at peace with the reality of our own death. All of this suggests to me that through the course of our journeying we have deepened our connections to those things we hold sacred, those things that matter most: family, humanity, nature, the land, the earth, life, the planet, the cosmos, spirit, divinity, the gods and goddesses, the ancestors, and on and on and on.

But we don’t always realize we’re embarking on a spiritual journey. More often than not our journeys begin with a twinge, a gnawing at the back of our minds or the edge of our hearts, a discomfort or dissonance, a low-level anxiety, a frustration, a sense that something in our life is out of alignment, a sense that something is lacking, or a longing we’re slowly beginning to recognize but aren’t quite sure how to fulfill. We may feel this way because some new situation has arisen—a baby has come, a job has been lost, an aging parent has moved in—and we more or less know our life needs to change; or it may just be a twinge with no apparent source.

That twinge, that gnawing, that longing—if it’s real—doesn’t go away. It begins to take on the quality of voice. That is, it speaks to us, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes with a roar, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally. It questions and cajoles, it makes gentle pleas and strident demands. The word calling is appropriate here. This voice, however we experience it, calls us to pursue some different, perhaps more noble purpose; calls us to pursue some deeply felt passion; calls us to live better in some way, to grow in knowledge and wisdom, to meet whatever challenge confronts us. We might hear it in the voice of a spouse or a good friend, a boss or a co-worker. We might hear it in the voice of our minister! Or the voice of our doctor, or maybe in the voice of a total stranger. We might hear it as our inner voice—that still, small voice; that voice of our most authentic self that knows what we really want for our lives, even before our waking minds know. We might hear it as a voice from without—a holy voice, a sacred voice, a divine voice, a spirit voice. We might hear it in our dreams, in prayer, in meditation, in the shower, while exercising, stretching, singing, dancing, creating. When we finally respond to the voice, when we finally start to move, I find we tend to move in one of two directions. Either we’re setting out, or we’re coming home.

We set out when we feel stuck where we are, when we need something new, some connection we’ve never had, some knowledge we cannot acquire by staying home. We set out when we feel constrained and need freedom, when we find it hard to breathe and we need the fresh air of the open road. The work of setting out includes experimenting, exploring, creating, searching. Setting out requires courage, curiosity, strength, nerve, an adventurous spirit, a willingness to take risks, even arrogance at times. Basho’s travel sketches are a wonderful example of setting out. For him, home is a place of idleness. He goes stir-crazy. On the road he is alive and passionate. On the road he expects to catch glimpses of eternity and let it inspire his poetry.[7]

I find a similar spiritual mentality in the 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman, who wrote the words: “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before me, / The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. / Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune, / Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, / Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, / Strong and content I travel the open road.[8]” Again, a yearning for freedom, a confident, adventurous spirit, a willingness to cut ties, a desire to explore. This is setting out.

We come home when we’re longing for foundations, for roots, for love, intimacy, care and nurture. We come home when we’re yearning for community, for familiar faces and places, familiar food, smell, touch, land, seasons. The work of coming home includes listening, sharing, sacrificing, forgiving and building community. Coming home requires its own kinds of courage and strength; its own kinds of persistence and endurance. It requires vulnerability, humility, and a willingness to set one’s own needs aside at times to meet the needs of others. David Garnes’ story about Sarah is a testament to her spiritual journey of coming home. We can hear it in the fond memories of a loving grandmother.  He writes, “sometimes the most memorable characters in your life aren’t the famous people you meet at a party, or the speaker whose lecture inspires…. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, it’s the person who read to you night after night as a kid, who slipped you a nickel for an ice cream cone, and who was always there for you, arms wide open, no matter what.”[9]

If you ask me about my spiritual journey, these days I lean towards coming home. Don’t get me wrong: I value setting out. It’s been very important in shaping my sense of who I am and what I value. But my instinct is that home is becoming more and more elusive in our era. I won’t rehearse the litany of ills that beset families or the social and economic conditions that make it increasingly difficult to build and sustain vital neighborhoods and communities. Suffice to say, I experience many forces in the larger world that drive wedges between people who ought to be in community together, who ought to be encountering each other with loving, compassionate hearts, who ought to be working together for the common good, who ought to see beyond the narrow tunnel of their own self-interest. This is the source of my tinge, my gnawing, my low-level anxiety, my longing. The voices I hear in my dreams, in prayer, in meditation, in the shower, while exercising, stretching, singing, dancing, creating all urge me to come more fully home.

***

Last night as I was putting what I thought were the finishing touches on this sermon, I found a poem by a colleague named Rick Hoyt who serves the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. His poem is called “Beyond Borders” and it reminds me that we set out and come home many times through the course of our lives; and that setting out and coming home are both critical parts of the same process. Rev. Hoyt says: “Go forth / Because we are always going forth from somewhere / Going from our homes, our childhoods / Going from our cities and countries / Going from innocence to experience to enlightenment / Going into mystery and questions / Going into desert / Getting to the other side. / Go forth, / Leave behind the comfort and community of one place / Head into the anxiety and loneliness of another. / Carry with you the love and laughter of this place / And let it light your way / Carry with you the wisdom you learned and the good memories / May they give you strength for your journey/ And when you have been away long enough, far enough / Done what you’d set off to do / Been there so long / That place too, starts to feel like home / Come back /Come back to the one, universal / Everywhere and every when and everyone inclusive home, / This beloved community of all creation/ That you can never really leave.[10]

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] For a basic definition of haibun see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haibun.

[2] Matsuo Bash?, in Nobuyuki Yuasa, tr., The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (London: Penguin Books, 1966) p.97.

[3] Rumi, Jelaluddin, “Come, Come, Whoever You Are,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #188.

[4] Ibid., p. 142.

[5] Garnes, David, “Time Travel 1968” in From My Life: Travels and Adventures (Manchester, CT: self-published, 2010) pp. 139-145.

[6] Ibid., p. 144.

[7] Nobuyuki Yuasa, tr., The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (London: Penguin Books, 1966) p.37.

[8] See the full text to Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178711

[9] Garnes, David, “Time Travel 1968” in From My Life: Travels and Adventures (Manchester, CT: self-published, 2010) pp. 144.

[10] Hoyt, Rick, “Beyond Borders” inJanamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 17-18.

Elusive Abundance

Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch Jon Stewart’s interview with Barbara Ehrenreich here.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Blessed be.

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Genesis 1: 29.

Into the Wilderness

Rev. Josh Pawelek.

I remember a moment, about twenty-five years ago, driving home from college on spring break with my friend Rob. We were heading east on Interstate 80, late in the day, crossing through the Delaware Water Gap where the Delaware River cuts through a ridge in the Appalachian. The sun was setting. Dark shadows lengthened across the thickly forested, low-lying mountains. I’ve been to more remote areas, but at that moment, for whatever reason, it felt pretty remote. I made some remark about the wilderness, how one could disappear into it—into those dark hills. I don’t remember his exact words, but Rob responded that the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. There’s a relationship. Although I wasn’t sure what to make of his statement at the time, it struck me as important. So I’ve held onto it.

Today I still think Rob is right. The wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. They mirror each other. They speak to each other. The darkness of the mountainside at dusk speaks to darkness in us. The emptiness of the sky overhead speaks to emptiness in us. The fullness of lakes after spring thaws speaks to fullness in us. The lush forest speaks to what is growing and vibrant in us. The vastness of the desert speaks to vastness in us. The raging river speaks to what is raging and uncontainable in us. Perhaps those features of wilderness that excite us, that call to us, that fill us with awe speak to what we find exciting in ourselves, speak to our passions. Perhaps what we fear in the wilderness—what makes us pause, turn back, flee—speaks to what we fear most in ourselves. There’s a relationship.

Our June ministry theme is wilderness. I love this theme at this time of year as the days grow warm and summer arrives. For me, summer—whether we’re talking about summer the season, or our spiritual summers, which can come in any season—summer is the time for exploring and experimenting, for stretching and growing, for traveling to the borders of our lives—to the edges, the boundaries, the margins, the fringes, the frontiers. Summer is the time for venturing out, for crossing into the unknown, for wandering in the wilderness that lies beyond our well-worn paths.

Perhaps the most familiar use of wilderness as a spiritual concept comes from the Jewish and Christian traditions. Here wilderness is the place where one finds challenges that must be overcome; the place of suffering and misery that must be endured; the place of temptation that must be withstood; the place to which scapegoats, criminals, lepers and all the supposedly unpure people are exiled. Many of you have a basic familiarity with the story from the Hebrew scriptures of the ancient Israelites wandering in the wilderness of Sinai for forty years following their exodus from centuries of slavery in Egypt. Many preachers use the Israelite wandering as a metaphor for whatever struggle or challenge we’re facing in our lives. We have to wander in the “wilderness” of that struggle or challenge in order to find ourselves, to prove ourselves, to come of age, to complete our quest. We have to wander in the wilderness in order to grow in some necessary way. We have to wander in the wilderness before we can be whole, before we can come home, before we can come fully into our “Promised Land,” whatever it may be. This is a powerful narrative. It’s a sustaining narrative. Struggling people can endure more easily if they believe their struggle will ultimately end and some good will come of it.

But if we’re being honest about the Biblical record, that’s not entirely what God had in mind. The wilderness time was a punishment. God had done great things for the Israelites in Egypt, but they still don’t believe God can bring them into Canaan, the “Promised Land.” They don’t believe it because spies they’ve sent into Canaan come back saying, essentially, “We’ll never defeat the Canaanites. They’re bigger than us.” In the Book of Numbers, Chapter 13, verse 32, the spies say “all the people we saw are of great size…. And to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”[1]

Upon hearing this report, the people start complaining—the latest in a long string of complaints. They say it would have been better to die in Egypt. They wonder if they should give up and go back to Egypt. This lack of faith angers God. It’s the last straw. God wants to disinherit them and strike them down with a plague immediately. After a long negotiation with Moses, God forgives them, but says, nevertheless, “none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it.”[2] Their children will enter the Promised Land, but for the complaint-ridden exodus generation: “Your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness.”[3] They are consigned to the wilderness not to discover faith anew, but because they lack it. It’s a punishment. And it’s for the remainder of their lives.

In the Christian scriptures Jesus goes into the wilderness after his baptism. [4] He fasts for forty days and then, in the midst of his hunger, Satan appears and tempts or tests Jesus. Jesus resists temptation. He passes the test. Satan departs. Here again we have this narrative of struggle in the wilderness—in this case a story of encountering and overcoming evil. Again, this kind of narrative is powerful and sustaining. We all have our wilderness struggles. Stories of overcoming obstacles and returning home, returning to friends and family, returning to a life renewed speak to and inspire us in the midst of our pain and suffering. Some of the best sermons ever preached locate the congregation in some wilderness, fortify them for the struggle, the test, the temptation—whatever it is—and then, from the mountaintop, paint with words that stunning picture of a land flowing with milk and honey, a promised land, a home at long last, a home we will reach if we can endure just a little bit longer.

That’s not the sermon I’m preaching this morning.

Twenty-five years ago my friend Rob said “the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us.” My concern is that the “Promised Land” narrative—as powerful, sustaining and inspirational as it is—is often too black and white, too either/or. It doesn’t allow us to fully value wilderness as a spiritual asset. It makes wilderness a place of suffering and trial, a place of punishment, a place where evil lives, but not a place that might offer its own wisdom, its own sacred power, its own sustaining wells. We move through it, always trying to overcome it and leave it behind. We privilege civilization; we abandon wilderness. And in so doing, I say we abandon something in ourselves. I’m convinced that something matters deeply.

Back to the Hebrew scriptures. Jon D. Levenson is a professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School. In his 1985 book, Sinai & Zion, he points out that scholars are unable to locate the site of Mount Sinai with any certainty. Mount Sinai is the place in the wilderness where Moses talks to God, where he receives the Ten Commandments, where God’s covenant with Israel is articulated. One can argue it is the most significant site in early Jewish tradition. It’s the place where the Sacred speaks. The inability to locate it, says Levenson, is not simply a failure of “the modern science of topography. Rather, there is a mysterious extraterrestrial quality to the mountain…. [It] seems to exist in a no man’s land…. ‘The mountain of God’…. is out of the domain of Egypt and out of the domain of the Midianites, [in] an area associated, by contrast, with the impenetrable regions of the arid wilderness, where the authority of the state cannot reach. YHWH’s self-disclosure takes place in remote parts rather than within the established and settled cult of the city. Even his mode of manifestation reflects the uncontrollable and unpredictable character of the wilderness rather than the decorum one associates with a long-established, urban religion, rooted in familiar traditions…. The deity is like his worshippers: mobile, rootless and unpredictable. ‘I shall be where I shall be’—nothing more definite can be said. This is a God who is free, unconfined by the boundaries that man erects.”[5]

Our spiritual lives may, on one hand, involve the familiar, the known—rituals, practices, prayers, meditations, worship, activism, service, gardening, the singing of comforting hymns, the dancing of familiar dances, being in community with people we know and love. We need these things in our lives. We need them to feel rooted, planted, grounded. But we also know that any repeated practice, any too familiar pathway, any rote repetition of words or principles, any unexamined theology can become stifling if it’s all we do. It starts to box us in, lull us to sleep, generate in us laziness, apathy, boredom. Thus, on the other hand, our spiritual lives also need access to wilderness—not because we lack a site for our encounter with evil, not because we’ve been consigned there for complaining too much, not because we’re on some hero quest in search of dragons to slay. We need access to wilderness because we are part of it and it is part of us. Its dark mountainsides can speak to us of our own darkness in a way civilization can’t. Its empty skies teach us of our own emptiness. Its full lakes after spring thaws inform us of our own fullness. Its rivers know our rage. Its deserts know our vastness. Its oceans know our depths. Its forests know our lushness. We need access to wilderness because it offers raw, unbridled truth—a truth not always easy to encounter, but with its guidance we can live with a kind of immediacy and presence civilization only dreams of—the immediacy and presence we so often notice in the way wild things live. Civilization as we know it is only the tiniest blip on the screen of human existence. Wilderness, not civilization, is the norm for that existence; and thus wilderness, not civilization, is our heritage, our birthright. Wilderness is our home as much as any Promised Land we may inhabit, either now or in the future.

We need opportunities to search for our sources of faith at the foot of holy, mysterious mountains rising out of remote landscapes beyond all established jurisdictions. We need encounters with the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable. We need wind rushing against our backs. We need experiences for which there are no words. Such encounters have the power to jolt us out of our settled, habitual ways of thinking, being and doing. Such experiences have the power to set our spirits free. Such encounters have the power to change us. I loved this quote from Vancouver School of Theology student, Emma Pavey, from a paper she delivered this past weekend. She said “we are ambivalent toward wilderness: it represents lostness, wandering, chaos and isolation, but also grants ‘thin’ moments of transformation.”[6]

So how to get there? Scholars don’t know the location of Mount Sinai. But maybe that’s ok. Rob said the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. Perhaps the Sacred that lives and speaks freely and truthfully out beyond the bounds of all established jurisdictions also lives and speaks in the wilderness places in us—in our darkness, our vastness, our rage, our emptiness, our fullness. But how do we access that wilderness? Like the wilderness around us, the wilderness within us can also be inscrutable, unknowable, beyond words. So often it exists beneath our awareness, in our unconscious depths, in our dreams, in our intuitions and hunches. We know portions of the landscape, but so much lies beyond knowing.

Earlier I read Meg Barnhouse’s meditation, “Going to an Inner Party.” I suggest she offers here one route into our inner wilderness. She says, “I love the flickering things that bump along the edges of mainstream consciousness. These glimpses of an inner wisdom flash like fish in a creek, and if I can grab one by the tail I feel like I have a treasure.”[7] She’s saying our unconscious puts words and ideas together without thought, as if by accident, or perhaps by accident. She’s learned to pay attention to these accidents. She’s learned to receive them as pearls of wisdom, and as sources of joy. The meaning isn’t always clear. There’s lots of interpretation involved. She finds it mostly amusing. But something deep within is speaking. And she’s listening. And it’s giving her a chance to look at the world differently, to make new connections she wouldn’t have made otherwise. That’s what wilderness does for us. Her meditation reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comments in his 1844 essay, “The Poet” about the effect poetry has on us. In response to “tropes, fables, oracles and all poetic forms,” he wrote, we get “a new sense, and [find] within [our] world another world, or nests of worlds.”[8]

We get back to our wilderness by listening to the flickering things that bump along the edges of consciousness. We get back to our wilderness by noting our dreams, by following our intuition, trusting our gut, letting ourselves feel deeply all our joys and sorrows. We get back to our wilderness by allowing ourselves moments of spontaneity and unpredictability. We get back to our wilderness by living, as best we can, like wild things, like children: immediate, unbridled, alert, raw, honest. It’s my faith that as we get back to our wilderness we’ll discover that the things we hold sacred live and speak there too.

Rob Laurens

Rob Laurens

My friend Rob once wrote a song called “The Blue of the Road.” It’s a song about driving, perhaps on I-80, heading east through the Appalachians, as the sun begins to set. In that song he says, “there in that wild blue ride the insights of your life, that wisdom unlooked for, the solution to the gnawing ache in your heart, and the laughing simplicity of effortless release, letting go. Like the answer to a prayer, the matter of course toward what is still right and true in your life…. When all is chaotic, when the days of your life are as dry autumn leaves scattered across the main streets of your home town. Get back to these great arteries, these long edges of grace that cut through the wilderness, these wonderful highways that put you at one with yourself and the last seeds of your American dream, and reopen your heart, and cause you to remember what you’ve always known: this great frontier has been with you all along.”[9]

 

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] Numbers 13: 32, 33b. (New Revised Standard Version)

[2] Numbers 14: 22-23. (New Revised Standard Version)

[3] Numbers 14: 29a. (New Revised Standard Version)

[4] Matthew 4:1-11. Luke 4:1-13. Mark 1:9-13.

[5] Levenson, Jon D., Sinai & Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1985) pp. 21-22.

[6] See the abstract to Emma Pavey’s paper, “Wilderness and the Secular Age,” delivered at the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association’s Annual Meeting on June 2, 2013 at http://www.academia.edu/2626584/Wilderness_and_the_secular_age_-_abstract.

[7] Barnhouse, Meg. “Goning to an Inner Party,” The Rock of Ages at the Taj Mahal (Boston: Skinner House, 1999) p. 63.

[8] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “The Poet,” quoted in Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) p. 374.

[9] Rob Laurens, “The Blue of the Road,”appears on his 1999 album, “The Honey on the Mountain.” See http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/roblaurens.

A Life Redeemed

 

 

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“What happens when we recycle bottles and cans?” asks Kathleen Mctigue in her meditation.[1] “They are transformed; they are made into something else. Though it may seem a homely analogy for something as lofty as our souls,” she continues, “that’s exactly what we’re after. In our inconsistent and often clumsy ways, we’re aiming for transformation. Each time we take ourselves in hand and change our direction, ask forgiveness and start anew, we reaffirm our belief that we are redeemable.”

Our April ministry theme is redemption. The spiritual questions I’m introducing into our congregational life this morning are “What redeems you?” and “What redeems us?” I suspect for many of us the answers to these questions do not flow easily off our tongues. There may be some stumbling blocks. Redemption is one of those haunting religious words for Unitarian Universalists. Its history leaves an odd—even unpleasant—taste in our mouth. What is that taste?

Broadly speaking, when the minister suggests that we are somehow in need of redemption, even if we call it something else like change or transformation, there’s always the possibility—the risk—that the congregation will hear it as an allegation that there’s something wrong with us, that we’re somehow broken and need fixing, that we’re fallen and need salvation, that we’re estranged and need reconciliation. This contradicts an oft-stated assumption at the heart of our spirituality, that each of us—all people—possess inherent worth and dignity just as we are; that our spiritual lives are not about becoming someone or something else—better, fixed, perfect, saved—but rather becoming more fully who we already are. As we just sang, “Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again.”[2] It’s not that we think we’re perfect as we are. We know we’re not. But we are who we are, and if we understand the quest for redemption as an attempt to reach some idealized spiritual standard, it will likely distract us from that central spiritual task of learning to accept and embrace who we are.

That’s one potential stumbling block. We typically encounter another when we consider a particular way (not the only way, but a particular way) Christians (not all Christians, but some) have interpreted and used the suffering and death of Jesus as a model for what it means to live a spiritual life. In short—and please understand I am speaking very generally about a highly nuanced conversation that has been going on for nearly 2000 years—humanity’s sinfulness is so great that there is nothing anyone can do to fully redeem themselves. There is no price any human can pay to bring themselves into right relationship with God. We are stuck where we are. But we aren’t without hope because God has the power to redeem humanity. To exercise this power, God takes a human form, lives a human life, and suffers a violent human death. In so doing, God pays the price for human sinfulness. God’s suffering and death redeem humanity. Some Christians argue that this redemption only works if one professes faith in it. Others, like our Universalist (and some Unitarian) forebears, felt that Jesus’ suffering and death redeem all people regardless of belief.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this understanding of redemption will be a stumbling block for many of us if our goal is to reclaim redemption as a useful spiritual concept. For so many of us, myself included, it’s just unbelievable. And, to be sure, there are many Christians who wrestle with this unbelievability as well. But I want to be very careful not to disparage the beliefs of others. That’s not my intent. While I may find it unbelievable, I also recognize this particular belief has provided immense comfort and inspired incredible strength and resilience to millions upon millions of people throughout history. For people who’ve lived—and who live—under the yoke of social, political and economic injustice, the idea that God would take human form and experience human suffering—the idea that God’s story is the story of a victim succumbing to but then overcoming violence and oppression—has profound resonance. In the midst of suffering, the idea that “God paid the ultimate price for my redemption” is a source of great hope and courage. For those who have nothing else, such faith is everything. It literally saves lives. Far be it from me to argue it is incorrect simply because I don’t believe it.

Having said that, it is also true that this scheme of redemption is at times applied in a way I find highly abusive and I have no misgivings about naming it and confronting it when I encounter it—the same way I would name and confront religiously motivated terrorism, honor killings, sexism or homophobia. It’s the idea that because Jesus suffered on the cross, one’s suffering at the hands of others is somehow warranted, that one’s suffering at the hands of others is itself redemptive because it mirrors Jesus’ suffering. Slaves were at times told to endure their suffering at the hands of their masters because it was Christ-like and they would be rewarded in Heaven. Battered women are at times told to endure their suffering at the hands of their abusers just as Jesus endured his. This is not OK, not a path to redemption. I agree with the cliché that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” I understand suffering is part of the human condition. I have witnessed people suffer through disease, grief, even the violence of oppression and emerge from it stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more loving. This is part of the beauty of the human spirit. But I object to the notion that the violence anyone suffers at the hands of others is inherently redemptive and we should just accept it, or that God—and this is the implication—wants some people to suffer at the hands of others because it’s good for their souls. In my view, this is an abuse of Christianity for the purpose of justifying violence whether in the home or on some more grand scale. It is an attempt at misdirection, an attempt to make violence invisible by calling it something else, rather than exposing it for what it is: a diminishing of the human spirit. Or, in more traditional language, evil.

So, there are stumbling blocks in our encounter with redemption. If you’re wary about a sermon entitled “A Life Redeemed,” there are any number of reasons why your wariness makes sense. Nevertheless, I find spiritual potency and power in this word. I believe it can help us think differently about those places where we’re stuck. It can, in Rev. McTigue’s words, help us “loosen the pinching in our hearts and live with more wonder, serenity, kindness and wisdom.”[3] It may can us deepen our spiritual lives. What redeems you? What redeems us?

As I seek to answer these questions for myself, it feels important to name that whether I experience myself as redeemed or not, my gut tells me there are no cosmic consequences. This isn’t about the eternal status of my soul, Heaven and Hell, divine punishment or reward. I have this life to live in this world as best as I can. If I’m going to experience redemption, it’s going to be in this life in this world, not in some other life in some other world. It’s going to be “this-worldly” redemption. As Rev. McTigue says, this “isn’t about saving us, but instead shaping us, and it’s the most certain redemption available in this sweet world.”[4]

I like this idea of shaping as a metaphor for this-worldly redemption. Imagine you’re a sculptor and your life is the sculpture. Each day you mold, form and fashion your sculpture, you shape your life, and in the evening you review your work. Some evenings you like what you’ve created. The sculpture captures exactly what you envision for your life. But even so, you recognize the next day may bring new experiences, new insights, new feelings, and thus the work of shaping continues. Of course, some evenings you review your work and realize you haven’t gotten it right. You’re close, but not quite there. Or you’re way off the mark. The way you’ve lived, the decisions you’ve made, the way you’ve treated others, the way you’ve presented yourself to the world—none of it aligns with your vision for yourself. You want to do better, not because you fear divine punishment, but because you feel in your heart you can do better. So, the next day you start to reshape your sculpture: new angles, new edges, new interplay of light and shadow, a different expression, a different posture. This opportunity to make changes, to try again, to reshape your life, is the path to “this-worldly redemption.” Rev. McTigue says, “Each time we take ourselves in hand and change our direction, ask forgiveness and start anew, we reaffirm our belief that we are redeemable.”[5] Each day we have the opportunity to exchange the life we needed to live yesterday for the life we need to live today.

Do we pay a price for this-worldly redemption? Sometimes. If the shaping of our lives today includes recognizing and acknowledging we were wrong yesterday, admitting we hurt someone yesterday, admitting we had a role to play in the breakdown of a relationship yesterday, then yes, one could argue we pay a price. One could argue that offering a heartfelt apology is the price we pay for forgiveness, and sometimes we don’t experience redemption until we’ve been forgiven. This works for me, nut I’m not convinced “paying a price” is a helpful way to think about this-worldly redemption. It reminds me of European elites in the Middle Ages purchasing indulgences to erase sinful behavior and thereby get into Heaven. It reminds me of wealthy corporations going to court, losing, paying a hefty fine—because they can—and then going back to business as usual. Paying a price doesn’t always guarantee a transformed life. Sometimes paying a price is a way of avoiding the work that redeems us. I prefer to imagine a sculptor shaping and reshaping their work, day in and day out. Not everyone can pay; but certainly we each have some capacity to shape and sculpt our lives.

Let me flip this around for a moment. If we each have this capacity; if we can be redeemed by the work of our own hands, what happens if we don’t pursue it? What happens if days and weeks and years go by and the sculptor hasn’t touched the sculpture, hasn’t even looked at it? You’ve brought nothing new to your work for a long time—no new ideas, no new feelings, no new experiences. You wake up and the last thing you want to do is the work of shaping a life. Your muse isn’t singing. At best you’re going through the motions of a life. You don’t feel creative. You lack desire. You’re stuck. Perhaps we call this depression, perhaps melancholy, sadness, despair, a funk, a rut; maybe it’s boredom. Maybe it’s genuine confusion about your direction in life. Maybe it’s fear you won’t succeed. Maybe it’s that generalized anxiety about the future so many people report these days. Whatever form it takes, this condition is real and common. Sometimes it emerges in response to a genuine crisis in one’s life: the death of a loved-one, the loss of work, the experience of violence or betrayal. Sometimes it emerges in response to the ways life can overwhelm us—too many obligations, too many hours at work, too many details, too many conflicts, too little self-care. Sometimes it’s culturally induced, as in those situations where certain cultural norms—norms for beauty, body-type, success, wealth, happiness, sexuality, family, mental health—seem unattainable. When we can’t reach them we feel diminished, unworthy, imperfect, unsavable and broken, even when we know such norms are arbitrary, unfair, manipulative and often racist, classist, sexist and homophobic.

Again, this experience is real and common. But it’s not destiny. The more I engage in ministry, the more I am convinced we each have a calling. We each have natural gifts. We each have something about which we are passionate—something that lights us up and energizes us, something that makes us come alive. Yes, it is very easy in our culture to grow distant from it. Yes, it is very easy to become alienated from it. But the self that lives in response to a sense of calling, in response to passion—that is our true self. That is the self we encounter in that internal place where our conviction resides, where our voice is strong, where we know our truth. This is who we really are. In those times when we grow distant from this self, it’s as if we’ve actually become someone else—someone we never intended to be. We’ve somehow allowed ourselves to be shaped by forces larger than ourselves into a life we never chose for ourselves. Perhaps we’ve been spiritually kidnapped or hijacked. No matter how we name it, in response to such alienation the work of redemption is the work of returning to our true self, the work of accepting and embracing who we really are, the work of pursuing our calling, the work of exchanging the sculptor who refuses to sculpt for one who welcomes each day as an opportunity to shape a life. In all those moments when we come back to our true self, we experience a life redeemed.

If this begins to answer the question, “What redeems you?”—and I hope it does—I also don’t want to lose the question, “What redeems us?” That is, what redeems us collectively? I raise this question because I believe there is much more to this-worldly redemption than the work of redeeming our individual lives. This is not a new message from this pulpit. We live in proximity to infuriating, entrenched and devastating social and economic injustices. We live in proximity to crushing poverty. We live in proximity to urban and suburban violence, domestic violence, gang violence and, despite Connecticut’s new gun laws, I think it’s fair to say we still live with the potential for mass shootings. We live in a time of war. We live suddenly again this week with the renewed threat of nuclear conflict. We live with the specter of environmental collapse. We live with all those false division between people, divisions of race, class, religion, sexuality, politics and on and on. And we live in the midst of immense suffering—not the kind that occurs naturally and inevitably in the course of human living, but the kind human beings visit upon each other, sometimes with calculated, malicious intent; sometimes simply by refusing to see it, by looking away, by calling it something else. All of this may have longstanding historical roots. All of this may have the shine or the stink of inevitability and intractability. All of this may point to some apparently fatal flaw in human nature. But none of it—none of it!—is right. None of it is acceptable. None of it is destiny. Unless we give up. But friends, giving up runs counter to the human spirit. Those who give up and accept the reality of oppression are either those who’ve been spiritually kidnapped or spiritually hijacked by greed, power or fear; or those who’ve accepted the lie that their suffering will be rewarded in some other life.

What redeems us in us in light of the reality of injustice and oppression are our collective efforts to subvert and transform them. What redeems us are our collective words and deeds that help shape a more just society. What redeems us are our collective attempts to build the beloved community.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Backside Redemption,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2011) pp. 42-44.

[2] Carlebach, Shlomo, “Return Again,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1011.

[3] McTigue, Shine and Shadow, p. 44.

[4] Ibid., p. 44.

[5] Ibid., p. 43.

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.

Rev. Josh Pawelek’s Testimony on Drug-Free School Zones, Monday, March 11

drug free school zoneThe American public is becoming increasingly aware of the phenomenon of mass incarceration of people of color—specifically Black and Hispanic men—due largely (though not exclusively) to the “war on drugs.” Popular books such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, make it abundantly clear that our criminal justice system features a patchwork of laws that result in the incarceration of Black and Hispanic men in numbers that far exceed their relative proportion in the general population. This racialized mass incarceration is unfair, misguided, unsustainable and racist. Read more….

Really . . . What’s Real?

The Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

Earlier I read an excerpt from Nick Bostrum’s 2003 article, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”[1] To be clear, he does not prove we are living in a simulation (had he proved it, I suspect we’d all be aware of it by now and waiting to meet our maker— or, umm, programmer). What he proves is that it is rational to think we are living in a computer simulation. Or, in the very least, he proves one can argue it is rational to think we are living in a simulation.

One can also argue that while it might be rational to think we are living in a computer simulation, it might not be rational to preach about it. And if the minister decides to preach about it anyways, it would be rational to think it might be one of his less useful sermons. Of course, this is the same challenge I accept every year when I put a sermon up for bid at the UUS:E goods and services auction. As most of you know, every year our beloved Fred Sawyer wins a sermon at the auction and challenges me to preach on a topic or question residing at that murky yet evocative crossroads where science, philosophy and theology meet. “Are you living in a computer simulation?” is no exception.

I’m not sure, in the end, that answering this question is all that useful. But the fact that some scientists, philosophers and theologians take this question seriously; the fact that there are scientists proposing experimental means to answer the question (even if they’re doing it partly for fun); and the fact that this idea that reality is not the same as what our senses perceive shows up again and again in literature and cinema—in everything from the Bible to Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Whoto The Matrix films to The Truman Show—tells us something about human nature which I suspect is meaningful. [And whether or not it is, it is certainly rational to the come to the auction next Saturday evening, February 9th, from 5:30 to 9:00. It’s great fun. It’s an important fundraiser for the congregation. As always, a sermon or two will be up for bid.]

Imagine today isn’t February 3, 2013. We think it is, and everything we’ve ever been taught tells us that it is. But imagine today is actually a day far in the future. And imagine that some future society—Bostrum calls them “posthuman”—has developed powerful computers that can run programs that simulate human evolution. Bostrum calls them “ancestor simulations.” They would be so fine-grained that the people in them would have consciousness and would not realize they are living in a virtual reality.[2] Again, Bostrum wants to show it is rational to think we live in such a simulation. To do this he says at least one of three propositions must be true.

First proposition (what I call the gloom and doom proposition): “The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.” If this proposition is true, if human beings will become extinct before developing this level of computing power, then we cannot be living in a computer simulation, and today must be February 3, 2013.

Second proposition (what I call the ethical proposition): “Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history.” Imagine that human beings do not become extinct and successfully develop the capacity to run very fine-grained ancestor simulations. Then imagine that, despite having such capacity, they refuse to do it. Why? Doesn’t it seem logical that if it could be done, it would be done? We already run computer simulations for all sorts of things. We track the paths hurricanes; we train astronauts. Simulations are part of every industry that uses computers. We even have computers that simulate computers. If we could simulate human evolution, we could learn so much about ourselves. We wouldn’t do it for moral reasons. An advanced human society would, we hope, have an advanced morality and would recognize that in creating virtual yet conscious people, it would also be consigning them to a life of potentially great suffering. An accurate simulation would include genocides, wars, holocausts, slavery, nuclear explosions, terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism, gun violence, poverty, famine, starvation, disease and so on. It would be sadistic, morally objectionable and highly unethical to create virtual people who would have to experience these things. Hence, it would be prohibited, even illegal. If that’s true—if every advanced society with this level of computing power prohibits ancestor simulations—then we cannot be living in a simulation. Today must be February 3, 2013.

Third proposition (what I call the what’s really real? proposition): “We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.” That is, if the first proposition is false—human beings don’t become extinct; and if the second proposition is false—advanced societies don’t establish prohibitions against running ancestor simulations—then we are almost certainly living in such a simulation. Today is likely not February 3, 2013.

To understand why this might make sense, consider that Bostrum assumes it would not be just one society that develops this computing power. There would be multiple advanced societies, all of them running multiple simulations at once. And furthermore, at some point in the course of any such simulation the virtual people in it would themselves develop the computing power to run their own ancestor simulations. As Bostrum puts it, “we would have to suspect that the posthumans running our simulation are themselves simulated beings; and their creators, in turn, may also be simulated beings.” It could go on indefinitely.

Michael Rundle, Technology Editor for the Huffington Post, UK, summed up the argument in an article this past December: “any civilization which could evolve to a ‘post-human’ stage would almost certainly learn to run simulations on the scale of a universe. And…given the size of reality—billions of worlds, around billions of suns—it is fairly likely that if this is possible, it has already happened. And if it has? Well, then the statistical likelihood is that we’re located somewhere in that chain of simulations within simulations. The alternative—that we’re the first civilization in the first universe—is virtually (no pun intended) absurd.”[3]

My gut response to all this? I think it’s absurd (no pun needed). It can’t be true. It doesn’t feel right. Something’s missing. It’s too circular. It’s a trick. But I don’t have a rational counter argument. Is it just that I’m so used to thinking I’m an original human in the original universe, that I’m deeply and irrationally attached to this assumption? After all, I’ve never been invited to seriously think otherwise until now. If we assume humans will not become extinct and will one day have the computing power to run ancestor simulations; and if we assume that advanced societies would not prohibit such simulations, then on what basis can we argue we are not now living in a simulation? We wouldn’t know it if we were. It doesn’t feel rational, but it certainly looks rational on paper.

One rational response to Bostrum is to look for actual evidence. In a recent paper entitled “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation”[4] German physicist Silas R. Beane and colleagues discuss how one might approach this problem. He says in any computer simulation there are “observable consequences” of that simulation. There are certain constraints or limits on the laws of physics within any simulation and they leave a signature. The signatures are very slight, but they ought to be observable within the simulation if one knows how and where to look. So they suggest that we begin with the assumption that our universe is a simulation and then ask: What known phenomena are there in the universe that mirror the kinds of observable consequences we would expect to find? Beane names the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin—GZK—cut off, the outer limit of the energy in cosmic ray particles. What accounts for this cut off? Why does this limit exist? He proposes this limit could be an observable consequence of a computer simulation. I haven’t had time to figure out whether he and his colleagues are just doing this for fun in their spare time or if this is their main research area. Either way, their paper, like Bostrum’s, has a wide popular following. The suggestion that what is real is not the same as what we perceive is a potent one.

Fred was interested in what Bostrum’s theory might say about God and ethics.  It says a lot. Some of you may already be making theological connections. Bostrum said, “it is possible to draw… loose analogies with religious conceptions of the world…. The posthumans running a simulation are like gods in relation to the people inhabiting the simulation: the posthumans created the world we see; they are of superior intelligence; they are “omnipotent” in the sense that they can interfere in the workings of our world even in ways that violate its physical laws; and they are “omniscient” in the sense that they can monitor everything that happens.” This makes sense. If we are living in a computer simulation, it is fair to say that the programmer plays a similar if not the same role in our lives that many feel the God of the Bible plays. Even the idea of resurrection is plausible in a computer simulation. If the programmers don’t like that someone ‘important’ has died, they can just re-insert the file back into the simulation. Or think about incarnation—the divine taking human form. A programmer could place a file of themself into the simulation and walk among us virtual folk, speaking to us of the errors of our ways. To us it would look like incarnation—spirit-becoming-flesh. The programmer would experience it as flesh-becoming-data. But do you see what I’m getting at? This question—“Are you living in a computer simulation?”—is not a new question. It uses modern concepts. It wears the clothing of science. But it’s actually an ancient question, an ancient thought process. Because we can’t explain our origins, we conclude there must be a Creator who exists in another realm.[5]Whether God or programmer, the net effect is the same. We live at the mercy of an all-powerful entity.

And whether we’re talking about an all-powerful God or programmer, the problem of evil and suffering remains. This is also an ancient human question, the question of theodicy: How do we explain evil and suffering if God is all-powerful? What about genocides, wars, holocausts and slavery? Why does an all-powerful God allow these things to happen? Why? There’s no good answer. Some will contend God’s purposes are inscrutable and should not be questioned, but that’s never been acceptable to me. So what justification would some future computer programmer have in creating people who feel pain in so many ways, who are exquisitely conscious of their own suffering and that of others; people who are fragile, flawed and know they must, some day, die. It seems sadistic. It makes sense that an advanced society with an advanced morality would prohibit it.

Except that if it turns out we are living in a simulation, I wouldn’t want it to be turned off. I wouldn’t want life just to end in the blink of an eye, without a chance to say goodbye to the people I love, just like I don’t want life to end any other way—though I know it must. Computer simulation or not, I still recognize in me, in you, and in so many of earth’s creatures a fierce and beautiful will to live. No matter what’s real, we’re here and these are our lives. Whether it’s 2013 or some future day, we’re here and these are our lives. And even if our lives are illusions, they feel real. As far as we know, they’re the only lives we have. The point of living has never been to avoid evil and suffering, but rather, when it happens, to respond to it as best we can: to find our sources of resilience, to remain hopeful, to bring love to bear. Regardless of what’s really real, I can find no excuse to live our lives as if they have no consequence.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe in an all-powerful God or an all-powerful programmer. I believe today is February 3, 2013; our bodies are real flesh and blood bodies; and we are among the first people in this universe. That’s what I believe, but I also an open to and curious about any opportunity to connect with a reality greater than or in some way beyond this one. I recall those words of the Apostle Paul, his reminder to the Corinthians to “Look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, what cannot be seen is eternal.”[6] I recall those words of the Sufi poet, Hafez, speaking to the Beloved Presence: “Veil yourself with every enchantment and yet I shall feel you…. You are the breathing of the world.”[7] I’m reminded that from time to time we catch glimpses of something else—some other world, some other realm. Maybe we don’t see it with our eyes—we feel it, we imagine it, we dream it. Maybe it comes to us in our quiet, peaceful moments— our mountain top moments, our walking-at-low-tide-moments—moments when we lean back from our daily lives and suddenly realize we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Maybe it comes to us in our moments of great celebration or exertion—moments when we’ve danced, sung, run, whirled or stretched our bodies so far beyond their normal positions that somehow we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Reality is not always the same as what our senses tell us.

So many religions, folkways and spiritual practices; so many prophets, gurus, teachers, poets, guides and spiritual leaders; so many scriptures, myths, stories and dreams hint at the existence of something else: some Heaven, some Olympus, Elysium, Valhalla, Zion, Sheol, Shangri-La, Shambhala, Svarga Loka, Nirvana, some celestial sphere, some great oneness, some kingdom coming. But our glimpses are always fleeting. We may never know what’s really real. Given this, what seems most rational to me is staying open and curious. And what really matters is not whether a proposition is ultimately true or false, but whether it keeps us resilient in a hurting world, keeps us hopeful, and keeps love overflowing in our hearts.

 

Amen. Blessed be.


 


[1] Bostrum, Nick, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? “Philosophical Quarterly(2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243?255. (First version: 2001). For a detailed exploration of the various debates sparked by Bostrum’s article, go to http://www.simulation-argument.com/.

[2] Bostrum argues that, though it is controversial, a common assumption in the philosophy of mind known as “substrate independence” suggests that computers should be capable of consciousness. He writes: “It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon?based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon?based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.”

[5] I recommend Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s description of ‘The Cosmological Argument’ for the existence of God in 36 Arguments For the Existence of God (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010) p. 348. In my view this is possibly the most common and most ancient argument for the existence of God. Goldstein convincingly dismantles it.

[6] Second Corinthians 4:18.

[7] Shams Ud-Dun Mohammed Hafiz, “Beloved Presence,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #607.

Beyond the Gap

Bridging the Achievement Gap

AGap 1

UUS:E’s Nancy Parker was among the group at MCC on Main

The race-based Achievement Gap was met head on at 903 Main Street, better known as MCC on Main, Thursday night, Jan 31st.  Sponsored by Manchester Community College’s Institute for Community Outreach and a local community action group from UUS:E called “Beyond the Gap” —  the event drew broad participation from community members across all walks of life. They gathered to share their thoughts, experiences and opinions about this critical issue with the long-term goal of establishing some real solutions to this pervasive problem. Members and friends of UUS:E were among the participants.

View more photos HERE.

Stay tuned for more information and events from the MCC/Beyond the Gap partnership in the coming months. (For more information, contact Rev. Josh or Polly Painter at ppainter42@gmail.com)