Love Keeps Coming: A Christmas Eve Homily

I found Colin McEnroe’s editorial in the Hartford Courant this weekend very moving. He was reflecting, one week later, on the December 14 tragedy in Newtown. He said, “If there’s an elixir, some potion we can drink, it’s almost certainly love. Right? Love is the only possible bright sparkling rope bridge we can clutch as we stutter-step through the dark universe.

“What a joke,” he goes on. “Our only good piece of equipment is love, the thing we fail at so often. We’ve been talking all week about weapons, but our only sure-fire weapon against chaos and nothingness is love….

I don’t know what comes next. But I am reminded to love.”[1]

I don’t know if he intended this as a Christmas message, but there it is: “We are reminded to love.”

Many of you know this past Friday I had the honor of participating in Tom Ashbrook’s National Public Radio On Point conversation about the spiritual challenge of Newtown. I believe Tom Ashbrook is a hopeful person, a positive person. But I also know that he, like all of us, was shaken to his core by this tragic event; and he wasn’t going to let his guests off easy. He wasn’t going to let us simply proclaim, “we should be hopeful.” He really wanted to know why. Given what we’ve witnessed, why should we be hopeful this holiday season? And how? How can any of us justify a feeling of hopefulness after this?

I suppose I ought to add: given all of it—given a culture of violence and crass materialism; given our national addiction to militarism; given our political polarization; given racism, classism, homophobia; given homelessness and poverty; given all the ways in which we are isolated from one another, separated, fragmented, alienated; given pervasive loneliness; given all of it, how can we justify an attitude of hopefulness? That’s what I was hearing Tom Ashbrook ask on the radio Friday.

It’s a fair question. And I suppose it’s the ultimate question any person of any kind of faith whatsoever is challenged to answer: why hope, when there is so much around us that says, again and again and again, there’s no reason to be hopeful?

Well, I’m not sure there is an answer—not a good one—not one that will suffice in the face of a tragedy like Newtown. Maybe we really do live in a cold and impersonal universe; and terrible, tragic things will happen from time to time; and evil things are just as likely to happen as good things. “It’s just the way things are,” said one of Friday’s On Point callers. “And it’s naïve to think you can somehow change it.”

But I do think we can change it. I really do. I don’t know exactly why I think this. If I did, I suppose I would have my answer to the question, Why be hopeful? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that our ancient ancestors learned to trust that the sun would return at the darkest time of year. Maybe it has something to do with the way a candle flame looks in the darkness—small, thin, even frail, but beautiful and heart-warming nevertheless. Maybe it has something to do with the grandeur of stars in a cold winter night sky. Maybe it has something to do with the ways people come together in the aftermath of tragedy, holding each other, supporting each other, bearing witness to suffering. Maybe it has something to do with the little kindnesses people seem to offer each other, over and over, in a million different ways. And maybe it has something to do with our capacity for love, this “joke,” says Colin McEnroe, this “thing we fail at so often,” yet this thing which is our only “sure-fire weapon against chaos and nothingness.” Time and time again, in the midst of pain and suffering—not always, but often—people find ways to love one another. As selfish and mean-spirited as we humans can be, we are capable of incredible love. I don’t ignore the mean-spirited part—I know it’s real; I just choose, most of the time, to focus on the love part.

Colin McEnroe said, “I don’t know what comes next. But I am reminded to love.” It may not be a good answer or even a sufficient one, to the question, “Why be hopeful?” It may be a naïve answer. It may even come across to some as a weak answer. But for me it’s the answer that makes sense.  It’s the only reasonable answer to an otherwise violent and chaotic world.

This is what I know: Love comes into world, again and again and again. It comes as a new-born baby, and it comes in the wise eyes of our elders. It comes with angels singing proclamations of peace on earth and good will to all, and it comes silently, a hand held in the midst of grief. It comes with gifts from wise men. It comes with Herod’s soldiers breathing down its neck, hoping to destroy it. It comes despite our best efforts to thwart it. It comes when we don’t think we’ll ever find it. It comes sometimes because we seek it out. It comes sometimes when it wasn’t what we were looking for. It comes sometimes in strength and abundance, and sometimes it comes thin and fragile.  Sometimes it makes all the difference and we can say with confidence, “love wins.” Sometimes it loses and at least for a time, hope disappears.  But love keeps coming, like the returning sun at midwinter. It keeps coming, like stars in the night sky. It keeps coming, like one small candle lit against the darkness. It keeps coming. And I, for one, am hopeful. I hope you are too. Love keeps coming.

My prayer for each of us this evening is that we encounter love, and that we rediscover, even if we’re not sure why, our reasons to hope.  

Merry Christmas. Amen. Blessed be.

What Does the World Require of Us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Amen. Blessed be.

 


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

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

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

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

Being Thankful in a Thankless World

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

 


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

[2] Ibid., p. 69.

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

[4] Ibid.

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

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

 

I Can Believe

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

 

 


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

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

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

[4] Ibid.

Miracles Abound

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

“The leaf unfurling in the April air, the newborn child, the loving parents’ care, these constant, common miracles we share. Alleluia!”[1] Words from Don Cohen which he wrote in 1980 for the ordination of his wife, the Rev. Helen Lutton Cohen. They remind us that the everyday, mundane world——the leaf unfurling, the newborn child—the world all around us, the world at our finger tips is, if we’re paying attention, astoundingly beautiful; is awe-inspiring; is—though we so often take it for granted—miraculous. The everyday, mundane world is filled with constant, common miracles. As Jenn sang, in the words of rock star Sarah McLachlan, “It’s not unusual / When everything is beautiful / It’s just another ordinary miracle today / The sky knows when it’s time to snow / Don’t need to teach a seed to grow / It’s just another ordinary miracle today.”[2] Check out “Ordinary Miracles” here. I also hear echoes of that Peter Mayer song, “Holy Now,” which we hear in worship from time to time. Mayer sings about feeling sad as a child that the Biblical miracles he learned about in Sunday School don’t happen anymore, but then realizing as an adult that everything’s a miracle.[3] Check out “Holy Now” here.

Our ministry theme for August is miracles. We picked this theme knowing it’s the time of year when we offer the least amount of programming and we probably wouldn’t spend all that much time formally exploring what we mean by miracles; but knowing also that summer, like all seasons, offers its fair share of everyday miracles. I want to speak about the power—or at least the potential power—in our lives of everyday miracles. I’m making a distinction between everyday miracles and the traditional religious definition of a miracle as some extraordinary, phenomenal, even magical event attributed to divine intervention. This ought to be a familiar distinction to many of you. I’m drawing on the Humanist tradition within Unitarian Universalism, a tradition that places strong emphasis on the role of reason in religion and does not answer the questions of life’s mysteries with otherworldly, supernatural answers. Miracles of the extraordinary sort do not figure prominently in Religious Humanism. Consider Thomas Jefferson’s version
of the New Testament in which he cut out all the supernatural elements including the miracles. But even without a belief system that includes extraordinary, divinely inspired miracles, one can still encounter the everyday world as miraculous.

Before the hymn I read a brief passage from Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, in which the futuristic Catholic priest, Quim, acknowledges to his futuristic scientist brother, Miro (who is looking for a healing miracle) that some supposed miracles “might have been hysterical. Some might have been a placebo effect. Some purported healings might have been spontaneous remissions or natural recoveries.”[4] Quim and Miro both make the distinction: some things are miracles in the traditional sense and, if they aren’t miracles, then they’re something else: a placebo effect, natural healing, etc. But I think the body’s capacity to heal itself—sometimes with the help of this-worldly, medical intervention—is miraculous, and I put it in that category of everyday, ordinary miracles.

Earlier we heard two summer meditations from the Rev. Lynn Ungar. They focused our attention on the summer harvest. Blackberries, “summer’s last sweetness,”[5] and watermelon: “How could you be ashamed at the tug of desire?” she asks. “The world has opened itself to you season after season. What is summer’s sweetness but an invitation to respond?”[6] Although Rev. Ungar doesn’t use the word miracle, for me she’s pointing at what it means to witness or experience a miracle. In short, miracles beckon to us. They urge us down pathways for the deepening of our spiritual lives. “What is summer’s sweetness but an invitation to respond?” Miracles are invitations into greater faith, greater hope, greater love.

As a way of beginning to illustrate this, consider that in the Christian New Testament, in the books of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, Jesus performs miracles (the ones Thomas Jefferson didn’t believe.) Jesus cures the sick, heals the lame, resurrects the dead, exorcises demons, transforms water into wine and feeds  thousands with a few loaves and fish. Put aside the question of whether these miracles actually happened. Instead, ask yourself: why would the writers of these books include the miracle stories in their narratives? While we can’t know for sure what the writers intended more than 1900 years ago, one thing of which we can be fairly certain is that each of them was writing to a specific audience and they wanted to help that audience deepen its faith which, in this case, was the emerging Christian faith that Jesus was the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. The writers included miracle stories in their books to help convince their audiences that Jesus was the person they said he was. The miracles lent an air of credibility and authority to their claims. The miracles helped them persuade people to join their budding movement. Certainly today there is a debate even among Christians about whether or not these miracles really happened, but that’s irrelevant here. I’m trying to tease out an important assumption about miracles. That is, if you believe a miracle of any sort has happened, that belief can strengthen and deepen your faith, hope and love. It beckons you down the path of spiritual growth. If a person sincerely believes Jesus performed miracles—and many do—that belief is likely to draw them more deeply into their Christian faith.

So what about blackberries and watermelons in the waning days of August? What about those everyday miracles? How do they beckon? How do they invite us to deepen our spiritual lives? Do they point us towards some reality or truth worthy of our faith? Mason, Max and I have been picking peaches since late July at Scott’s Orchard around the corner from us in Glastonbury. We all get so excited to pick fruit for the week; the orange-red-yellow skin so vivid, the juice so sweet. Something is beckoning. And now the apples are starting to come. Actually, the Paula Reds are almost done, but the Ginger Golds and Mcintoshes are ready for picking. What about these constant, common miracles of late summer? What invitation do they offer? If we’re going to use the language of everyday miracles—and I think we should—if we’re going to accept the idea that miracles abound in the ordinary, mundane world, then we ought to have real responses to these questions. Otherwise, this idea that “everything’s a miracle” becomes just a sweet-sounding, liberal religious cliché.  I want to know: can one’s experience of the miraculousness of the ordinary day lead to a life of greater faith, hope and love?

I believe it can, but following that lead requires a certain discipline on our part. Consider this question: What is typically on your mind and in your heart when you wake up in the morning? Does it have anything to do with how miraculous the world is? I’ll tell you what’s on my mind and in my heart upon waking these days. First and foremost, my back is sore because I threw it out this summer while walking around in sandals too much of the time, sleeping in a few too many lousy motel beds, and tossing my kids into pools and
the ocean a few too many times. So, the first thing I think when I wake up is “I need to take some ibuprofen, heat my back and stretch.” Then, like clockwork virtually every morning, my boys, who’ve gone downstairs to watch TV, start fighting. I think it means they’re hungry. But I’m not ready to get up and deal with my back pain. So I reach my leg down and stomp on the floor, which is right above the television, which is my way of saying “be quiet, stop fighting,” which unfortunately makes my back hurt even more; and while it makes the fighting stop, the ceasefire only lasts about 90 seconds, during which time it inevitably occurs to me that my vacation and study leave are almost over, that Stephany’s vacation is over—she goes back to teaching tomorrow—that the boys will go back to school in a few days—they start Wednesday—and that while I’m looking forward to getting back into our regular routine, it always brings with it a certain amount of stress and anxiety—sometimes an enormous amount of stress and anxiety.

And then, still in midst of that 90 second ceasefire, I might start thinking about the drought plaguing most of the country that hasn’t yet begun to impact the cost of food, but most likely will this fall; or the fires out west which are setting all sorts of records for size, duration & destruction; or the surge of West Nile Virus and other tropical diseases in the United States; all of which brings up my fear that this is just the beginning of the new “weather normal” brought on by global climate change. Then, still in that blessed 90 second ceasefire, I remember the ugliness of the current political campaign season, a result—at least in this election cycle—of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission which prevents the government from restricting the political expenditures of corporations and unions and which therefore has brought to the center of our political consciousness (if we’re paying attention) the strange assumption—which admittedly has a long history in the United States—that corporations are people; compounded in my mind this week by the latest right wing discourse on the difference between legitimate (I’m sorry, I mean forcible) rape and—I don’t know, is there some other kind?—and whether women’s bodies possess some magical ability to prevent pregnancy during rape; and yes, though it may be a political slogan, there is in my view a war against women happening in this nation, just as there is in my view a war against poor people happening in this nation. We’ve confirmed that corporations are people but, at least in the minds of some, women and the poor don’t quite merit that status. 90 seconds have passed and the boys are fighting again. Where’s my ibuprofen? Where’s my heating pad? Where’s my science fiction novel? I need to escape! By the way, if you’re at all familiar with Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, the third in his Ender Wiggin series, then you know it really is no escape from any of this. Suffice it to say, the last thing on my mind and in my heart when I wake up these days is the revelation that everything’s a miracle. The sun breaking through the trees beckons; birds singing their morning songs urge; fresh peaches from trees in our neighborhood sitting on the cutting board in our kitchen awaiting breakfast offer a profound invitation. Everyday miracles abound, but I’m not quite there.

I don’t think I’m alone in this kind of experience. I don’t think I’m alone in forgetting the abundance of miracles all around, in failing to hold that sense of the miraculous at the center of my heart and mind such that it’s there when I wake up in the morning. I don’t think I’m the only one who finds, when I do catch a glimpse of the abundance of everyday miracles—when I become open to how beautiful, incredible, stunning, and miraculous the world is—it’s still difficult to sustain that awareness beyond a few precious, peaceful moments.

I think that difficulty is normal for most people at different points in life. From time to time we get caught up in and focus on the things that bring stress into our lives—raising children, finances, work, retirement, illness, aging, strained relationships, concerns about our adult children, caring for aging parents, existential fears; what does the future hold?—the list goes on.  It’s easy to start feeling trapped by these things; it’s easy to start feeling overwhelmed by these things; it’s easy to start rehearsing the same details, the same scripts, the same dilemmas over and over again. I suspect many of us are familiar with that kind of rut. Being in it can sap our energy and our sense of hope for the future. It can make us wonder, is there anything worthy of my faith? There was a time when I would encounter people spinning around in these kinds of ruts and think to myself, that’s not me, I’m resilient, I can handle that sort of thing, but I don’t have that reaction anymore. I don’t always feel so confident and competent. Maybe it has to do with being a father, or having a sore back. Whatever it is, I accept it and I suspect it’s normal. I suspect it’s part of what it means to mature more fully into adulthood, to start having a sense of one’s limitations. So be it. But when you add to this a palpable layer of anxiety and stress in the larger culture stemming, in my view, from ongoing economic uncertainty, from a growing environmental challenges, from frustration with our political system, from a perceived increase in violence in the larger society, from a general sense of scarcity, it doesn’t surprise me when I notice I’m not waking up to the miraculousness of the world. I’m not surprised at all when people tell me it’s hard to focus on the everyday miracles. “I’m glad those peaches taste so sweet Rev., but I’m troubled today and I may need a little more in order to get through it.”

Yes. Absolutely. But sometimes an everyday miracle is precisely what we need. This is why I used the word discipline earlier. In the midst of troubled thoughts and feelings—whatever their source may be—we need some discipline, some practice, some way of training our awareness on the beauty of the earth, on the gift of life, on the astounding, miraculous fact of our existence. Stress, anxiety, emotional ruts, racing, worrying minds, existential concerns, deep-seeded fears—all these things have their roots in many places—but they have in common a negative spiritual impact. That is, at their worst they sap our spirit. They sap our energy. They undercut our sense of wholeness. They can make us feel unwell in our bodies. They can make us feel small, incomplete and unworthy. They prevent us from recognizing our connections to a reality and a power larger than ourselves. They weaken our faith. They prey on our hopefulness. They even attack our capacity to love. In the midst of it we easily forget that all around us, everyday miracles abound. All around us are invitations to encounter the world differently. All around us, in the words of Lynn Ungar, are reminders that the world opens itself to us, season after season, and we are invited to respond.[7] “Reach gently,” says Ungar, “but reach.”[8] And when she says “reach,” I take it to mean “live.” Live the life you feel called to live, not the life your fears and anxieties dictate. Live boldly, live creatively, live faithfully, live with love at the center of your heart. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our fears but with the beauty of the earth. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our anxieties, but with our hopes. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our small, self-centered, scarcity-oriented selves but with the truth of  our connection to a reality and a power larger than ourselves, pointing us always towards lives of openness, caring, generosity, grace and dignity.

I am at heart a hopeful, faithful, loving person, who at times does not feel very hopeful, faithful or loving. But I’ve learned that if I can discipline myself to stay aware of the everyday miracles, if I can sustain a practice of noticing, observing, welcoming, naming, embracing and responding to everyday miracles, if I can wake up in the morning with miracles in my mind and on my heart, I can remain a hopeful person, a person of deepening faith, a person capable of great love. I trust you can too. Miracles abound. May we respond!

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] Cohen, Don, “The Leaf Unfurling,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #7.

[2] For music with lyrics for Sarah McLachlan’s “Ordinary Miracle,” see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8rh_48pLqA.

[3] For music with lyrics to Peter Mayer’s “Holy Now,” see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiypaURysz4.

[4] Card, Orson Scott, Xenocide (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1991) p. 134.

[5] Ungar, Lynn, “Picking Blackberries,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 46.

[6] Ungar, Lynn, “Watermelon,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 49.

[7] Ungar, Lynn, “Watermelon,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 49.

[8] Ungar, Lynn, “Picking Blackberries,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 47.

 

July Ministry Theme

Witness

Meditations

By Rebecca Parker

In the midst of a world
marked by tragedy and beauty
there must be those
who bear witness
against unnecessary destruction
and who, with faith,
stand and lead
in freedom,
with grace and power.
There must be those who
speak honestly
and do not avoid seeing
what must be seen
of sorrow and outrage,
or tenderness,
and wonder.

There must be those whose
grief troubles the water
while their voices sing
and speak
refreshed worlds.

There must be those
whose exuberance
rises with lovely energy
that articulates
earth’s joys.

There must be those who
are restless for
respectful and loving
companionship among human beings,
whose presence invites people
to be themselves without fear.

There must be those
who gather with the congregation
of remembrance and compassion
draw water from
old wells,
and walk the simple path
of love for neighbor.

And,

There must be communities of people
who seek to do justice
love kindness and walk humbly with God,
who call on the strength of
soul-force
to heal,
transform,
and bless life.

There must be
religious witness.

Hindus: The First Universalists?

On Sunday morning, June 24th, UUS:E was honored to welcome Dr. A. V. (Sheenu) Srinivasan.

Dr. A. V. (Sheenu) Srinivasan has functioned as a Hindu priest for four decades performing a wide variety of Hindu religious ceremonies of worship, weddings, housewarmings, and bhajans or kirtans. He has written extensively on Hinduism. Dr. Srinivasan’s most recent publication (2011) is Hinduism for Dummies. His publication, The Vedic Wedding: Origins, Tradition and Practice, is widely acclaimed and won the USA Book News 2007 Best Book Award in the category of Eastern Religions. With a contemporary format for Vedic (Hindu) weddings which retains all essential Vedic rites in an hour long ceremony, he has blended this approach with those of other creeds in many interfaith weddings. In addition, he has published a series of booklets on “How to Conduct Puja to …” providing simple set of instructions to perform a worship ceremony to Soorya (Sun god), Shiva, Rama, Krishna, Ganapati, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati and the Navagrahas (nine planets).

A popular writer and speaker, Dr. Srinivasan has published/presented numerous papers on a variety of cultural, social and religious issues in the U.S. and India. He has given courses on the classical literature of India at the University of Connecticut and Wesleyan University. Principal founder member of the Connecticut Valley Hindu Temple Society in 1979, he also founded the Raga Club of Connecticut in 2006.

The text to his sermon is below. We were also blessed to welcome  Joseph Getter, who offered traditional music from Southern India on the bamboo flute.

Hindus: The First Universalists: Audio Version (click here to listen to the MP3 or right-click or command-click to save)

 

Hindus: The Earliest Universalists?

by Dr. Sheenu Srinivasan*

Moksha and Hindus

For Hindus the goal of life is moksha or liberation from the wheel of rebirth. Ancient Hindu
sages sought to define the path towards moksha through the centuries. The most relevant
question in this context was posed in a compelling episode in the second Hindu epic, the
Mahabharata. The hero of the epic, prince Yudhishtira was challenged with this question:

“What is the path?”

His answer:

What great men have followed –THAT is the path
Because arguments are futile, the Vedas are complex
and different, no single saint has the whole truth and
the truth is mysteriously hidden

This prescription is simple, practical and straightforward and results from several centuries of
attempts by Hindu sages to seek answers to one of the most vexing questions pertaining to
individual liberation. Hindu ancestors, we are told, busied themselves in addressing the
fundamental problems of life: Who are we? Why are we here? Why do we die? Is there a
purpose to life? Who controls our life? Questions for which humanity is still seeking
answers.

The Revelations: They “heard it”

While Hindu ancestors contemplated fundamental questions about life on this earth, we learn
that their penance resulted in certain truths revealed to them and these are
referred to as Shruti. They comprise the most sacred scriptures of the Hindus: the Vedas. The
word Veda means knowledge.

The most fundamental truth emerging out of the penance on the banks of the river Indus is
described by the Indologist Sir Monier Monier-Williams (1819-1899) as “a creed based on
an original, simple, pantheistic doctrine, …” (See HINDUISM, Society for Promoting
Christian Knowledge, 1906, page 11). This meant that the earliest thought about a belief
system identified a Supreme Spirit. It excluded nothing. By definition it included all living
and non-living, ugly and beautiful, noble and evil, gentle and harsh, sophisticated and crude,
darkness and light … EVERYTHING.

This supreme spirit is identified as Brahman, a universal spirit that is always referred to as
“It” and not as a He or a She; this is the basis for the famous saying: Tat-Tvamasi i.e. Thou
art That, meaning “You are verily Brahman.” Brahman was understood to be the only thing
real in the universe. All else is therefore unreal, false or illusory and untrue. Brahman sounds like an abstract entity, but is entirely real and in every sense the Supreme Soul, Supreme
Being, Creator, the One and Only Reality. And if some wanted to call it God, so be it.
This pantheistic doctrine led to the firm declaration: ekameva advitiyam i.e. ‘There is but one
without a second’ referring to Brahman. The root word for Brahman is (brh) ‘to grow’ to
indicate infinite growth and expansion of the concept, from visible living or non-living
objects at the lowest level to the highest forms including humans. Brahman has no form.
Brahman is everywhere, the pure and formless One, limitless and all-pervading; the
Almighty and All-merciful. Think of this concept as each of us representing a ray of light
from that great source of light. Hindus believe that we are Brahman; (aham brahmasmi) i.e.
“I am Spirit” makes that assertion.

However, that belief comes with a very important caveat which ends up being the most basic
identifier of our life as humans. And that caveat is that when we are born as humans, we
inherit what I refer to as Brahman plus. The plus is known as maya (illusion) that comes with
the package. The illusion lets us forget our true nature that we are truly Brahman and
therefore our identification is not with the Supreme Spirit but something incredibly less
significant and reduced to a mere “ I ” identifying with the physical body and mind. This
illusion is like impurities that may creep in while developing a pure metal. These impurities
need to be removed to enjoy the beauty of the pure metal. Or think of this illusion as a
coating on this brilliant diamond that is the Brahman within us. Think of this as the cocoon a
caterpillar builds using its own saliva and imprisons itself. This saliva and the resulting
cocoon are the results of our actions and therefore need to be controlled. Hindu philosophy proclaims that we can remove this coating, this illusion and recognize our true self. Swami Vivekananda stated this eloquently in his speech to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago on September 11, 1893.

“Here I stand and if I shut my eyes, and try to conceive my existence, “I”, “I”, “I”, what is the
idea before me? The idea of a body? Am I, then, nothing but a combination of material
substances? The Vedas declare, “No”. “I am a spirit living in a body. I am not the body. The
body will die, but I shall not die. Here am I in this body; it will fall, but I shall go on living.”

From the One to the very many

But this was too abstract to some and therefore the attempts to visualize something more
tangible came about. Personifying and deifying components of this universe became a Hindu
specialty. When we step on the earth after waking up, we beg forgiveness from goddess
Mother Earth for stepping on her. We chant our salutations to the divinities in the seven
sacred rivers as we bathe. We salute Prana, the sacred breath of life when we partake food.
Thus we also tend to associate rituals with everything we do including as routine a step as
eating. The Upanishads warn us to be aware of the fundamentals and not be distracted by
mere rituals. Rituals and worships and ceremonies are and should be just a first step towards
realization.

Sir Monier Monier Williams (ibid) explains this development as follows:

“It is a creed based on an original, simple, pantheistic doctrine, but branching out into an
endless variety of polytheistic superstitions. Like the sacred fig-tree of India, which from a
single stem sends out numerous branches destined to send roots to the ground and become
trees themselves, till the parent stock is lost in a dense forest of its own offshoots, so has this
pantheistic creed rooted itself firmly in the Hindu mind, and spread its ramifications so
luxuriantly that the simplicity of its root-dogma is lost in an exuberant outgrowth of
monstrous mythology.”

True. But that is the price to pay when individual preferences towards a goal are respected!
And the “root-dogma” is not quite lost.

Seeking alternatives to the intellectual pursuit

From that most fundamental doctrine of The One, the ancients observed, with a sense of awe
and reverence, life sustaining natural forces such as the sun, the wind, rain, fire, and so on.
They could have stayed with that sophisticated, abstract concept of the universe, the supreme
spirit. But they did not. They needed more than philosophy.

So the ancients worshipped these natural forces. They bathed in the rivers. Lifting a handful
of water and looking at the sun, they offered it to him. They built a fire and made offerings to
the fire. They worshipped trees, animals, planets and even hand made tools used in
enterprises. When a Hindu stands before a deity and offers worship, the core belief that that
worship is to The One is in the background of the mind. An often quoted part of a verse in
the Rg. Veda (ekam sat vipra: bahudha vadanti) proclaims that “Truth is One but the wise
express it many ways.”

The basics are intact

In its August 31, 2009 issue, Newsweek proclaimed that “We are all Hindus now”. The
billion plus Hindus around the world may not have thought that but probably nod in
agreement. Hinduism, the mother of all religions, has a unique perspective on life and has as
its adherents a broad spectrum of people who span from the extremely orthodox immersed in
elaborate ritual worship to those who openly declare that they do not believe in God. The late
Swami Satchidananda of Woodstock fame used to say about the latter group: “That is what
they believe in!” They were not excluded.

Chapter 6, verse 72 of the Mahopanishad declares with no ambiguity

ayam bandhurayam neti laghuchetasam
udara caritanam tu vasudhaiva kutumbakam

This is my relative and that is a stranger is what small minded persons think, but for the
magnanimous the whole world is a family.

That the whole world is a family with each member of that family a Brahman is a Hindu
belief that connects the individual with the vast universe.

Therefore when I see you as audience, I notice you do not all look alike of course, but you
are indeed alike when I identify you with that “free, unbounded, holy, pure, and perfect”
souls.

A parable

That ability to see the real you comes with study and constant reminder of the true nature of
man. That ability is there in each of us and we need to remind ourselves of that reality
frequently. The Upanishadic mandate is unquestionably to begin that spiritual journey and
rise above mere rituals. To illustrate that spiritual journey I made up the following scenario in
my book:

You’re climbing some rock-cut steps to an ancient temple on a hill. But this temple is not to a
deity. It has no priests. It has no bells to ring, and you do not bring any offerings beyond your
self in body and spirit. As you climb, at each step, one after another, you discard a dogma.
You reject ritualistic approaches. You sweat through the futility of pride and vanity and settle
for humility. You seek satisfaction beyond pleasure of the senses — something deeper.
As you climb higher and higher, you recognize that ignorance of your real nature is the
source of all problems, so your goal is to destroy ignorance. Another step up and you realize
that you do not need to abandon anything but simply remain detached! As the ancient Hindus
said, real knowledge and infinite joy are yours, and they didn’t mince words. And with the
next step, you realize that simply believing is not enough; you must experience it yourself.
Yourself. One more step, and you rise above mere intellect and stand on the threshold of a
mystic experience with your heart and intuition tuned to that experience. Experience and only
experience counts here on this hill.

The sanctum sanctorum—the holiest of holy places—at this temple contains Bliss. Yes, bliss.
That is what the ancient Hindus considered worth living (dying?) for. Bliss is your birth
right, proclaims the Upanishads. Your interest is nothing but spiritual illumination. You have
entered the temple of the Upanishads. You have reached the source of joy. Now you can
begin your earnest inquiry into the ultimate Truth.

With this background I may perhaps summarize our core beliefs:

1. In general Hinduism has no hierarchy: No person who is the equivalent of a pope.
2. We have no single book. The Four Vedas, the Upanishads, the two major epics and
the Bhagavad Gita provide lessons and examples.
3. No concept of original sin – only of karma: a bank of good deeds and bad deeds with
consequences which follow an individual from one life cycle to the next until a pure
life allows one to escape rebirth.
4. Modern Hinduism or Vedanta puts stress on being and not simply believing
5. Through 5,000 years and more, absorbing every ritual and idea that has arisen or
arrived on Indian soil,
6. This tolerant view leads not just to recognition of the validity of different faiths but
other choices.
7. Nature plays an important role in Hindu worship.
8. Hinduism does not believe in proselytization. It lets you be. The philosopher
statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan said in his book The Hindu View of Life,
“Hinduism requires every man to think steadily on life’s mystery until he reaches the
highest revelation. While the lesser forms (including idols and images) are tolerated
in the interests of those who cannot suddenly transcend them, there is all through an
insistence on the larger idea of purer worship … Every man has a right to choose that
form of belief and worship which most appeals to him … Hinduism is not a sect but a
fellowship of all who accept the law of right and earnestly seek for the truth.”

These fundamental beliefs have paved the way for the Hindu towards development of a
philosophical outlook on life. These fundamentals comprise a code of behavior that form the
contemporary Hindu view of life that Dr. Radhakrishnan says is “an attempt to discover the
ideal possibilities of human life”.

So our approaches and beliefs may be somewhat different or in some aspects, quite different,
but we are indeed one because in each of us there is a soul that is perfect and eternal. That is
the uniting factor that brings us together as a community. That community spirit is especially
needed now as we face very trying times with close to 50% of our population facing poverty,
with student loans exceeding a trillion and the approval rate for the congress is less that 10%.
The Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people too, breathing just like you and me.
Day in day out we are bombarded with a lot of noise on television, radio and newspapers,
whose intent it may not be, but its effect surely is, to divide us and discourage us. The
institutions on which society must depend on seem to be falling apart. While I don’t want to
dwell on these aspects at length here this morning, suffice it to say that the most reliable
umbrella under which we can and must now gather and seek shelter to come together as a
community of concerned citizens. Under that umbrella we can gain strength once again,
achieve a certain level of quiet and tranquility and try to restore ourselves to a level
normalcy.

I find your philosophy so close to Hindu thought; I could not do better than quote a single
paragraph from a speech by Swami Vivekananda which sums up the outlook of Hindus, like
nothing else written by anyone, anywhere and at any time. On September 11, 1893, Swami
Vivekananda addressing the Parliament of Religions in Chicago said “… if there is ever to be
a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in time or place; which will
be infinite, like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of
Krishna and Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminical or Buddhist,
Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all of these, and still have infinite space for
development; which in its catholicity will embrace in its infinite arms, and find a place for
every human being, …. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or
intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose
whole scope, whose whole force, will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its own true
and divine nature.”

With that I salute you for giving me this opportunity to be among you.
_____________________________________________________________________
*www.avsrinivasan.com

No Greater Love (or Not Your Kind of People)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Watch video here.

Last month the rock band Garbage released its most recent album entitled “Not Your Kind of People.”[1] The lyrics to the title track seem so relevant to what I want to say this morning that I’ve decided to share them with you as a starting place:

We are not your kind of people / You seem kind of phoney / everything’s a lie  / We are not your kind of people  / Something in your makeup / don’t see eye to eye / We are not your kind of people / Don’t want to be like you ever in our lives. . . . We are not your kind of people / Speak a different language / We see through your lies  / We are not your kind of people / Won’t be cast as demons / creatures you despise.[2]

I don’t know if the band intends to convey a specific meaning with these lyrics or if they are describing a specific situation. It isn’t clear. I assume at some level they want listeners to find their own meaning and apply it to their own situation. Although the music is gentle (especially for Garbage) the lyrics convey a strong—even harsh—sentiment. We are not your kind of people conveys a feeling of disconnection, separation, alienation—a feeling, even, of brokenness in the human family. It’s akin to the feeling—a mixed feeling to be sure—that arose in me when I watched the film, “No Greater Love,” a 2009 Lionsgate and Thomas Nelson film. (Thomas Nelson is the world’s largest Christian book publisher and is Lionsgate’s exclusive distributor to the Christian entertainment markets.)[3] I don’t normally watch films like this. Alan and Kathy Ayers suggested it to me as background for this sermon which they purchased at last year’s goods and services auction. Alan and Kathy wouldn’t normally watch a film like this either. They watched it thinking it was something else.

Here’s the story-line: in a haze of alcohol and drug-use a young woman, Heather, walks out on her marriage and new-born baby due to her depression and disappears.  Ten years later her “ex” husband, Jeff (who she’d known since childhood), accidentally runs into her again when he sends his son to a summer Bible camp where she is working. They start to get to know each other again.  In turns out that during those ten years of separation Heather has become an evangelical Christian. She’s been saved in the traditional sense. Jeff, who is not religious in any sense, realizes he is still in love with Heather and calls off his engagement to another woman. But Heather’s minister, Chris, tells Jeff they can’t be together because he is a non-believer. (That’s when the not your kind of people feeling started rising in me.) This upsets Jeff; but then he reveals that he never actually executed divorce papers—he and Heather are still legally married. Now Pastor Chris tells them they have to stay together based on their church’s interpretation of Biblical law: under any circumstances marriage is better than divorce.  (We can assume they wouldn’t apply this standard to same-sex marriage, or in the event one of the partners underwent sexual reassignment surgery—that would be a very different movie entirely!) Heather is concerned that her unbelieving husband won’t allow her to practice her Christian faith. Jeff is concerned that Heather is now only staying in the marriage because the Bible and her pastor demand it.

I suspect most people can watch this film and, no matter what spiritual or religious beliefs they profess, get caught up in its romantic plot, and really root for Jeff and Heather to be in love and to be together. I certainly wanted a happy ending. What Alan and Kathy are reacting to, at least on the surface, if I understand what they’ve said, is the role of the pastor and church law and what appears to be Heather’s inability to think for herself beyond trying to fit herself into the framework her church and the Bible demand. And right there is the border between conservative religious people and liberal religious people. There are many ways to describe this border, but in this case the conservative religious person looks to some external authority—the Bible, the Ten Commandments, church law, the minister, a transcendent God—and the liberal religious person looks to some internal authority—conscience, reason, personal experience, “the still small voice in me”[4] as we just sang, “that place inside where we know our truth,” an imminent God, an inner sense of the divine. In this case the conservative religious person assumes the situation is black and white, that a definitive, correct answer exists, and can be found through a careful reading of scripture and church law—and the minister is the expert in these matters, or at least should be. The liberal religious person encounters a whole lot of gray and will search through that gray looking not for the “right” answer but for what is hopefully the “best” answer given all the nuances of the situation. The liberal minister’s job is to help the individual discern their best answer.

While the differences are more complex than I’ve just described them—some liberal religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as conservative; some conservative religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as liberal—they are very real.  Because of them, liberal religious people typically experience conservative religious people as unthinking and irrational. Conservative religious people typically experience liberal religious people as not actually religious, as non-believers, postmodern, relativistic, rudderless, etc. There’s a border here. (Remember: borders is our ministry theme for June.) It cuts through countries, states, cities, towns, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and families. From the perspective on either side of that border it is quite possible to feel we are not your kind of people.

Kathy and Alan asked me to preach on how, as Unitarian Universalists, as liberal religious people, we can best relate to people like Heather and her minister when we encounter them.  How can we relate to people who live on the other side of this border from us? How can we respect beliefs that at times seem illogical or irrational to us?  How do we accept people who hold those beliefs? How can we resist the temptation to judge?  Even in suggesting these kinds of questions, Kathy said she felt she was coming across as arrogant—but said it seemed like the same kind of arrogance she feels conservative religious people direct at her liberal religious identity.  So that’s the question: how do we relate across the religious border?

I’m pretty sure the capacity to relate across religious borders—and across many of the borders that divide people from people—doesn’t come to us naturally. It takes practice. It requires patience. We need to work at it. And I think we acquire it through a developmental process. That is, we develop the capacity to relate well across religious borders as we move beyond an initial sense of excitement about our own faith, an initial sense of pride in our own faith, an initial sense of feeling special because of our own faith to a deeper place of humility, a recognition that our faith is one of many, that there is room within a family, a neighborhood, a workplace, a school, a town, a city, a state, a nation, a planet for many faiths. None is set above. None is set below. None is set apart as special. It’s a movement from pride to humility.

The film “No Greater Love” does not reach that humble place and that’s not why it was made. The proof is in the title. There’s the romantic meaning, which has to do with how Jeff and Heather feel about each other. And then there’s the Biblical meaning. I read to you the Bible verse that contains this phrase, John 15:13, “there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In the film nobody lays down their life for their friends, not even remotely.  So, it seems like a bad title. But if you read the next few verses it becomes clear why this title might make sense. Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”[5] In my experience this is one of those Bible passages often used to justify an attitude of Christian exceptionalism. Not always, but often. Jesus says: “I chose you.” I didn’t choose everyone. I chose you. This is not universalism. This is exceptionalism.  And all through the film, although the characters don’t use the language of chosen-ness, they say it in many ways: We’re different. We’re special. There’s something about us that sets us apart from other people. Can’t you see? And Jeff, the unbeliever, who wants to be with the believing Heather, begins to see this difference; he sees that Heather’s faith has helped her resolve the problems that led her to leave him in the first place, and he admires it. He says, essentially, “I want what you have.”

There’s nothing wrong with a movie studio making a movie like this. There’s nothing wrong with people being excited about their faith, proud of their faith, even feeling special because of their faith. But let’s be clear: humility is a sign of a mature faith, and this is not humility. This film sets Christians—and a certain kind of Christian at that—apart and above other people. Despite its pleasant, romantic vibe, it contributes to a strengthening of the religious border by proclaiming we are not your kind of people. And that’s why liberal religious people, including liberal Christians, might react negatively.

To emphasize this last point, let me be clear: I am not suggesting that religious exceptionalism is somehow unique to religious conservatives. We religious liberals have our own version of it. It’s perhaps more subtle than the religious conservative version, because the language we typically use to describe our liberal faith expresses an openness to other religions, an embrace of religious pluralism. Our Unitarian and Universalist roots inform us all are chosen, all are welcome, all matter, all possess inherent worth and dignity regardless of who they are, what they believe, who they love, how they live. This is beautiful. It’s exciting. It fills me with pride. It makes me feel special. But I am also aware the line between humility is thin. If I’m not vigilant I can very easily fall into that place of assuming my faith is the more enlightened faith. My faith sets me apart. My faith is forged in the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind, not a set of ancient books that tell an exaggerated if not false history of the ancient Near East and promote a patriarchal culture whose values run completely counter to modern, democratic principles. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred, not from a church doctrine designed to control the people, to wage a war on women, to make sexual minorities invisible by preventing them from achieving full legal status, or to inspire holy war against perceived infidels. Can you hear it? I believe the sentences I’ve just uttered are true; they express who I am; they express my social, political and spiritual commitments. But let’s be honest: they can also be heard as an expression of liberal religious exceptionalism.

This is primarily because of the words I chose to use. I emphasized who I am not as much as who I am. I said “not in a set of ancient books” and then spoke about those ancient books in a condescending way. I said “not from a church doctrine,” and then implied that church doctrine is responsible for a whole host of social evils. I built my faith up while tearing the faith of others down. It’s divisive language, it’s fighting language, it’s us vs. them language, its exceptionalist language. It’s not empty rhetoric, but it is rhetoric all the same. It’s easy. I’m pretty good at it. There’s something satisfying about it. But it’s not humble. And it’s not effective if the goal is to relate well across the border.

Meeting the challenge of relating well across the religious border does not require us to change our liberal religious values. It does not require us to moderate our excitement about our liberal faith tradition, or our pride in it, or the way it might make us feel special and grounded and whole. The first step towards spiritual humility at the border is speaking our truth without denigrating others. My faith emerges from the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind. It is consistent with modern democratic principles: freedom, liberty, human rights. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred. It leads me to support reproductive rights for women and families, equal pay for equal work, civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It leads me to reject war and other forms of violence as methods for resolving conflict. It’s the same statement, but it doesn’t intentionally create an us and a them. It says who I am without criticizing who I am not.

But even more important than this is our capacity to bring curiosity to the border; to bring a genuine desire to learn about people who live across the border and to become well-versed in the religious ways of the world. Curiosity does not necessarily change who we are, but it does challenge us to clarify and deepen who we are. How different it would have been—and how much more authentic—if the character of Jeff has said, “Wow, Heather really believes the Bible is true. She strives to conduct her life in response to it. Well, what is true for me? Where do my truths come from? To what truth does my life respond?” Learning another’s faith enables us to become more of who we are, not less. Learning another’s faith challenges us to clarify and deepen our own faith; it challenges us to become more mature in our faith; and it calls us to humility as we approach the borders of our lives.

I suspect it is true there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends or one’s family. But in an age when we are so prone to exceptionalism, often without even realizing it; in an age when we are so divided, especially by religion; in an age when our borders are places of tension and conflict, cheap rhetoric, and deep feelings of  “not your kind of people,” I say it is also a sign of our desire to be more loving, more compassionate, more connected, more related, more peaceful when we approach the borders of our lives with humility, as curious searchers, and as people with strong opinions who may nevertheless be able to find common ground with those who believe differently. It may not be the greatest love, but it is an essential love for our time.

Amen and Blessed be.



[1] For more information on Garbage and “Not Your Kind of People, “ explore:  http://garbage.com/ and  http://www.amazon.com/Not-Your-Kind-People-Deluxe/dp/B007H9B8FS.

[2] Check out the song, “Not Your Kind of People” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEClCAFjYHg.

[4] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Blessed Spirit of My Life,” Singing the Living Tradition, (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993 # 86.

[5] John 15: 13-16.

The Desert Belongs to No One and the Sky is Wide Open

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“The desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open.”[1] Words of the poet, Salah Al Hamdani. This is a sermon about borders—borders that divide people from people: not only national borders, which exist in so many cases as the results of long ago wars over land and resources—wars where might made right and the victor determined where and how the lines would be drawn; but also the borders of identity, as in the way race can become a border that divides us, the way class can become a border that divides us, the way sexual orientation, gender, age, ability, politics, religion can become borders that divide us. Still, if you take only one idea from this sermon, don’t let it be the message that people are divided. Instead, remember the words of the poet: the desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open. The desert and the sky don’t recognize the borders we humans draw. Yes, we draw them, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not, and sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it. We draw them, but there is also something in us—and by ‘us’ I mean liberal religious people, though I hope this is true for most people—there is something in us that rejects the idea of a divided human family. There is something in us that cannot tolerate a divided human family. Perhaps for Unitarian Universalists our sixth principle points most clearly towards this something in us: “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” There is something in us that longs to transcend the borders that divide us. There is something in us that knows the desert belongs to no one, that knows the sky is wide open. This morning I want to call forth and nurture that something in us. I want to call forth and nurture that something in us that believes we elevate our humanity and assert our dignity when we move across any border that isolates us from other human beings. This is the message I want you to hear: When it comes to the question of borders, if you are in doubt, err on the side of crossing.

For me this is not only a political and social message. It is also a spiritual message.  I come back time and time again to the words of one of Unitarian Universalism’s spiritual forebears, the 19th century Unitarian minister turned Transcendentalist philosopher and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once said, “Spirit primarily means wind; transgression; the crossing of a line; supercilious; the raising of an eyebrow.”[2] Although it was not the point he was making, I have always heard in these words a claim about what it means to be a spiritual person. Like the desert that belongs to no one, like the sky that is wide open, wind knows no borders. It blows where it blows. It transgresses. It crosses lines. It picks things up from one place and puts them down in another. If spirit primarily means wind, then I say being a spiritual person means cultivating a willingness and a desire to cross the lines that separate us from the rest of life. Being a spiritual person means actively transgressing our habitual ways of thinking, our creeds and dogmas, our unexamined assumptions and conventions that keep us separate from the rest of life. To be a spiritual person means being willing to cross borders, especially those that arbitrarily and unfairly separate us from the rest of life. If you are in doubt, err on the side of crossing.

In two weeks I will travel to Phoenix, AZ for the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly or “GA.” As some of you already know, this year’s GA is different than usual. This year, we convene in a state that is under boycott. Local immigrants’ rights organizations such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network[3] and Puente[4] (which means ‘bridge”) called for the boycott in April, 2010 when Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law. At the time SB 1070 was one of the most radical anti-immigration statutes in the country, giving unprecedented powers to state and local police, sanctioning racial profiling, and blurring the line between state and federal authority related to the enforcement of immigration law. (Similarly radical laws have been passed in other states since that time such as Georgia’s HB 87[5] and Alabama’s HB 56.[6]) Given that the Unitarian Universalist Association had already scheduled its 2012 GA to take place in Phoenix, and given that Unitarian Universalists, despite having a range of opinions on the subject of illegal immigration, generally agree that laws like SB 1070 go too far in their violation of human rights and human dignity, the call for the boycott created a dilemma. Would we go to Phoenix and bring the millions of dollars that we typically pump into the local economy during GA, thereby tacitly supporting an unjust law? Or would we pull out of Phoenix and forfeit the more than $600,000 we’d already paid to reserve the convention center and hotels?

Two months after SB 1070 became law, our 2010 General Assembly convened in Minneapolis and wrestled with this dilemma. Should we go to Phoenix in 2012? Should we go to the border, or not? In the end, we decided to go. With input from the UU congregations in Arizona—especially in Phoenix—and with input from the grassroots organizers of the Arizona boycott, and after what the vast majority of participants described as a healthy and principled debate, we decided to stick with our plan to meet in Phoenix, but agreed that this will be a “Justice GA.” Instead of conducting business as usual, we will use our GA as an opportunity to learn firsthand about the plight of undocumented immigrants and their families; to bear witness to the injustices of AZ’s immigration law, the injustices that come with mass detention and deportation; and to call for federal immigration reform that respects the human dignity not only of immigrants but of working people in general.

Our ministry theme for June is borders. We chose this theme in reference to the Phoenix Justice GA. The reference is, of course, to national borders. There is no question that our national borders have become politically and economically divisive in recent years. They have also become a spiritual issue for many faith communities. What is our relationship to people who migrate across the border, especially those who are undocumented?  How are we called to treat immigrants? Does the old Biblical injunction to “welcome the stranger?” have any bearing on this national conversation? As a society we don’t agree on the answers to these questions. Certainly not all Unitarian Universalists agree on the answers to these questions. But the Unitarian Universalist Association has taken a very bold public stance in support of civil rights and humane treatment for undocumented immigrants, and I like to think that that is something we all can agree on.

For example, last Monday the Unitarian Universalist Standing on the Side of Love campaign called attention to a tragic anniversary. In an email to campaign followers, Dan Furmansky, the campaign director told the story of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas who was tased and beaten while in the custody of the United States Border Patrol on May 28, 2010. He was 42 years old. He died that night. “A San Diego resident since he was a teenager, Anastasio was captured at the U.S.-Mexico border while trying to return to his wife, Maria, and his five children after having been deported. The incident, captured on camera, offers a chilling glimpse of his screams and pleas for his life as a dozen agents stand over him. Border Patrol has refused to release the names of the agents responsible or reveal whether those involved have been disciplined.”[7] Rojas was murdered by Border Patrol agents. The murder was filmed. The film is on the internet. But no one has been held accountable. I don’t know anything about Mr. Rojas. I don’t know the circumstances that brought him to the US as a teenager. I don’t know why he was deported 25 years later. But, in the end, none of it matters: he didn’t deserve to die for trying to reunite with his wife and children. That’s what I’m talking about when I say we need to support civil rights for immigrants. That’s what I’m talking about when I say we need to respect the human dignity of immigrants. That’s why it feels so important for me to be present for Justice GA.

Was Mr. Rojas breaking the law when he crossed the US-Mexico border? Certainly. But can any of us imagine being separated from our children in that way, and not feeling compelled to do everything in our power to reunite with them? Can any of us imagine being forcibly removed from our community of 25 years—a community we’ve known as home since our childhood—and sent into what is essentially a foreign land, and not feeling compelled to do everything in our power to return? If it were me I don’t know if I’d have the courage or the nerve to cross back, but I’m convinced my spirit would be screaming, “Go! Transgress. Cross the line.” And if I were Mr. Rojas’ pastor and he came to me for counsel—“Pastor what should I do? My whole life is on the other side of this border”—although I would not feel remotely confident in my ability to counsel anyone in such a situation, even knowing how the story ends, I simply cannot imagine advising him to stay in Mexico and start a new life. I would want him to explore how long it would take for him to legally enter the US—it would likely be decades. If he could not tolerate that many years, I would consider with him the risks of crossing because I am aware people die in the desert, and they die in custody. But in the end, the desert belongs to no one, the sky is wide open. If his spirit were crying out for him to cross (as it clearly was), I would pray with him, tell him to be careful, to carry water, to not resist if he is caught. I would bless his journey. And his death would now weigh heavily on my heart and soul.

Earlier I read Sam Hamill’s poem, “Homeland Security,”[8] in which he pokes holes in this concept which predates the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, but which entered into the nation’s political life—and its spiritual life—with new-found vehemence and vigor, with a new-found hyper vigilance in the wake of those attacks. (“If you see something, say something.”) Hamill is saying we live with a false sense of homeland; we accept a lie about what the homeland is. The homeland we secure today is built on a legacy of violence. He names “our old genocides, the Indian Wars.” He names “those who sailed west with cargoes of human flesh in chains.” These legacies of imperialism, colonialism and racism live on in us (and by “us’ I mean the American people); they have made us a people rife with borders, a people prone to strengthening borders. “We cry, ‘We!’” says Sam Hamill. “We cry, ‘Them!’” These legacies of we and them permeate the American soul. They permeate the American spirit. I’m not just referring to the physical border Anastasio Hernandez Rojas crossed hoping to reunite with his family. I’m also referring to the psychic borders—for example, the one marked by racial difference that George Zimmerman perceived Trayvon Martin to be crossing before confronting him and eventually killing him this past February 26th in Sanford, Florida. In the aftermath of such atrocities, the legacies of we and them do battle within each of us and among all of us. That is, our collective instinct to secure the homeland does battle with that something in us that seeks to transcend borders. Our collective instinct to be wary and fearful of the other does battle with that something in us that is curious about and wants to be in relationship with the other. All the ways we divide people from people—race, class, ethnicity, culture, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, politics, faith and on and on—all of it does battle with what we know in our hearts: the desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open. All of it does battle with the notion that spirit primarily means wind, transgression, the crossing of a line.

The way we, the American people, speak of homeland today implies borders—strong, well-defended borders. It is not my intention to suggest that somehow we need more porous borders or that excessive airport security is not necessary to insure safety, or that the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all would become a reality if we somehow just did it. Our borders are with us for now. But that does not mean we cannot integrate Sam Hamill’s notion that the homeland is also “a state of grace, of peace, a whole new world that patiently awaits …. A taste of mind, a light flooding the garden, a transcendent moment of compassionate awareness, one extraordinary line in some old poem that reveals or exemplifies a possibility … in time … in time….”[9]  It is possible to have borders and still uphold human rights. It is possible to have borders and still respect human dignity. It is possible to have borders and simultaneously know and honor the people on the other side. It is possible to have borders that don’t tear families apart in the middle of night. That is the message of our justice GA in Phoenix.

I’m pretty sure there will always be a need for borders, that the presence of borders in our lives is, to some extent, inescapable. Nevertheless, we know in our hearts the desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open. Spirit primarily means wind and a parent who loves their children, if they become separated, will do whatever is in their power to reunite with them. Knowing how perilous it can be to cross borders in our time, I do not give this advice lightly: when it comes to the question of borders, if you are in doubt, first be sure you know the risks, but err on the side of crossing.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 


[1] Al Hamdani, Salah, “In the Mirror of Baghdad,” Baghdad Mon Amour (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2008) p. 180.

[2] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Nature,” in Whicher, Stephen E., ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 31.

[7] This quote is from Mr. Furmansky’s May 28, 2012 email. Mr. Rojas’ story and video of the tasing and beating that led to his death can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/20/anastasio-hernandez-rojas-death-border-patrol-tasing-footage_n_1441124.html#s=450562 and http://act.presente.org/sign/anastasio/?source=presente_website.

[8] Hamill, Sam, “Homeland Security” Measured By Stone (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2007) pp. 84-85.

[9] Ibid., p. 85.

What Safety Requires

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

See Video here.

“Building bridges between our divisions, I reach out to you, will you reach out to me? With all of our voices, and all of our visions, friends, we could make such sweet harmony.”[1] I will not be surprised at all if you find this song to be wildly out of sync with the story I read from the Rev. Tom Schade, “Troubled People in the Church,” about a man who disrupted church activities, behaved disrespectfully, made people feel uncomfortable and, at the suggestion of police, was barred from church property.[2] The song and the story are out of sync. The song is about building bridges between people who are divided. The story is about a division—between a troubled man and a church—that is, at least in this moment, unbridgeable. In a moment like this our good news that all are welcome, that each may enter as they are, hits a wall—Tom Schade calls it a brick wall. It turns out there are circumstances when not all are welcome, when not all may enter as they are. Sometimes our collective safety requires that we set limits.

When I write these words—our collective safety requires that we set limits—when I hear myself speak them—something about them doesn’t feel right. And the source of that feeling is clear to me. Unitarian Universalists gather our congregations around seven principles.[3] As is the case with any principles, we ask a lot of them.  We often embrace them as ideals. We often expect a kind of ethical clarity to emerge from them. We often regard them as pure and elegant statements of human wisdom, as essential guides for living. We treat them as inviolable—at least we aspire to. So when our safety is at stake, when we are forced to bar someone from church property, when we utter the words “You are not welcome here,” it might feel like a violation of our principles. In kicking someone out, isn’t it possible we’ve disregarded their inherent worth and dignity—our first principle? Isn’t it possible we’ve failed to treat them with justice, equity and compassion—our second principle? Isn’t it possible we have failed to accept them and encourage them in their spiritual growth—our third principle? Isn’t it possible we’ve trampled upon their right of conscience, that we’ve somehow violated the democratic process—our fifth principle? In my view the answer is no, we haven’t failed on any of these counts. We haven’t violated our principles. But it can feel that way.

Our ministry theme for May is relatedness. When I look back over my sermons from this congregational year—and really over the last decade—relatedness is a central—even essential—spiritual theme for me. The language of relatedness on my lips should be familiar to you. I often refer to the biological and physical fact of our relatedness. With every breath we take we are reminded, if we are paying attention, of our relatedness to and our dependence on the green plants and algae that convert the sun’s energy into oxygen. We would not exist in the absence of this relatedness. This is a fact. Furthermore, it is not wrong to say that we are related to the planets and the stars. We are made of the same stuff and we come from the same place—the same primordial soup—13.75 billion years ago. As the late physicist Darryl Reanney once wrote of the mysterious beginnings of the universe, “somehow, out of that mystery there exploded a fireball of unimaginable power. And this we can say confidently: all that was, all that is and all that shall be, was contained in that fireball.”[4]  I often speak—we often speak—of a oneness with all there is, a connectedness to all there is, an interdependence with all there is. Our condition is not ultimately one of separateness. Our condition is ultimately one of relatedness.

This fact of our relatedness has ethical implications. From our perception of ourselves as related to the whole of life emerges our sense of obligation to care for life. From our perception of relatedness to other people emerges our sense of obligation—even our desire—to care for other people; to create a more just, equitable and sustainable world for all people. From our perception of our relatedness to other people emerges our capacity for compassion towards other people.

Well, when our spiritual task is to perceive our relatedness to the whole of life and, in response, strive to bring justice, equity and compassion to other people—to build bridges between our divisions, as the song says—it will always feel somewhat disconcerting when we need to prevent someone from coming onto church property, when we have to say to someone, “You are not welcome.” Setting such a limit doesn’t feel very compassionate.  I had to say it to a member of the congregation I served prior to coming here. It’s a harsh thing to say. It’s a hard thing to say. It’s distasteful.  I can assure you it is the last thing clergy want to contend with. But there’s a lesson here: The ideals to which our principles point cannot always be realized in practice, especially when the health and safety of the community is at stake. And the fact of our relatedness to the whole of life—the fact of our oneness, our connectedness, our interdependence—does not mean there should be no boundaries, no borders, no limits.  Borders, boundaries and limits are also facts of life. I like the way Rev. Schade puts it: “Animals have skins; trees have bark and eggs have shells for a reason.”[5]

I confess I have an agenda this morning, and here it is: As a congregation we are about to begin a conversation which will last for many months, possibly longer, about policies to ensure congregational safety. The incident at the First Unitarian Church in Worcester didn’t happen here, but something like it could happen. No house of worship has control over who decides to visit its public events. If the incident had happened here, how would we have dealt with it? Answering that kind of question is the purpose of a safe congregation policy.

Of course, a disruptive person like that is one kind of threat to the health and safety of a congregation. There are others. The one that is most prevalent in the public mind today—and has done more to shape attitudes and practices around congregational safety than anything else in recent memory—is the child sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. While there were many unique factors in the Roman Catholic structure that created the conditions for this tragedy to become as widespread as it did, I contend no religious body should consider itself completely immune from this kind of threat. It’s never the path of wisdom to convince ourselves that it—whatever it may be—can’t happen here. It is a good practice, a healthy practice, a safe practice to put in writing what our expectations are and how we intend to maintain safety for everyone.

Ever since I’ve been serving as your minister, our leadership has talked about the need for a comprehensive safe congregation policy. We began working on the policy four years ago. We’ve been moving ahead slowly and methodically. We’re being proactive rather than reactive. That is, we feel our congregation is already very safe and we’re trying to codify in writing what that means. We are not reacting to a specific breach of safety. Congregations that try to create safety policies in reaction to a breach of safety often overreact and, in a state of panic and chaos, create policies that are too restrictive and impossible to put into practice. We haven’t been reacting. We’ve been researching what works; we’ve been studying best practices. We’ve been striving for balance. Over the last five years, many people have worked on different versions of the policy. Rich Thralls led a team in writing the first draft. David Cloakey and John Saddlemire spent some time with it. Denielle Burl, who officially became a member of UUS:E this morning, did a total re-write for us last summer. Our former president, Jo Anne Gillespie, and I have prepared the most recent version, with input from Vicki Merriam, our Director of Religious Education; Josh Hawks-Ladds, Wayne Starkey, and Crystal Ross from our Personnel Committee, and the current Policy Board members. My point here is that a lot of people, over many years, have had a hand in creating this comprehensive safe congregation policy. I am deeply thankful to all of them as this is not easy material to wrestle with.

But we’re not done. We’re not officially putting the policy into practice until all of you have had a chance to read it, wrestle with it, and provide input. We want the entire congregation to be familiar with a variety of critical safety issues and how we would respond to them in the unlikely event they occurred. We want you to feel as comfortable as possible with topics that, by their very nature, are uncomfortable. For example, what kinds of behavior qualify as disruptive? (Your sense of ‘disruptive’ might not be the same as your neighbor’s.) What kinds of behavior would lead us to remove someone from membership or bar them from our property? (It is unlikely it will ever happen, but having some consensus around this as a congregation—and writing it down—is one of the structures that will ensure it will never happen.)

It gets more uncomfortable: What if someone who has been convicted of a sexual offense—someone who has served time in prison—wants to start attending services and other activities? Can we welcome such a person and maintain safety? (Congregations have had to deal with this very situation.) Even more uncomfortable: How do we respond in the event that some kind of abuse takes place on our property or at one of our programs? Do we know our obligations under state law when it comes to reporting suspected child abuse? And finally, while we already require criminal background checks as part of our hiring process, there are some congregations that now require them for any volunteer who works with children. We aren’t proposing that now, but should we move in that direction? These are hard questions to answer, but being a truly safe congregation requires that we answer them, together.

There was a time when congregations never talked about these kinds of issues. People could barely conceive of these things, let along imagine they could happen at a church. People who did dare to talk about them found themselves discreetly and not so discreetly shushed. Today, we can imagine them. They’re in the media with great frequency. They’re in the public consciousness. We do ourselves a great service by talking about them and agreeing collectively what we will and will not tolerate and how we will respond to breaches of safety in the unlikely event they occur. As we have these conversations I expect to find, and even encourage, a range of opinion and some amount of healthy conflict around how much freedom to allow and how much freedom to curtail; around where the rights and needs and conscience of the individual bump up against the rights and needs and conscience of the community; around how much skin, bark and shell we require in order to ensure safety.

Liberal religious congregations like ours are places where freedom matters: freedom of belief, freedom of conscience, freedom to search and explore, freedom to question, freedom to doubt, freedom to engage with others, freedom of expression, freedom to speak (as in from this pulpit), freedom to love who we love (whether straight or gay). We deeply value freedom. Some might feel that in the act of naming limits on behavior in a safe congregation policy we might be putting ourselves on a slippery slope—that if we can put limits on certain egregious behaviors, perhaps we will feel emboldened to put limits on less egregious behaviors and our freedom will slowly begin to whither. We will slowly stifle its essence and its power in our lives. So what’s the right balance? Because we also know freedom suffers when people don’t feel safe. If, for example, someone rudely dismisses you in an angry and threatening tone every time you speak, you likely won’t feel free to speak. We could argue that the person who treats you this way has the freedom to speak to you however they want—this is a free church—but if the result is the silencing of your voice and the diminishing of your spirit, then we don’t have safety and the congregation is at that point failing to carry out that part of its mission which says we are “an open-minded, spiritual community seeking truth and meaning in its many forms.” We don’t want a slippery slope that begins to stifle our freedoms, but we do want balance, and that means being clear as a community about what safety requires.

Rev. Schade talks about this in the context of providing ministry to people with mental illness. About the disruptive person who visited their church he asks, “is he mentally ill?” His answer?  “It does not matter; bad behavior is not acceptable, no matter the cause. This congregation,” he goes on, “includes many people who suffer with various forms of mental illness. In fact, if a church is to serve people [with mental illness], it needs to be a place where health and safety can be expected.”[6] He’s right. Mental illness in adults—often, but not always—can be linked to a pervasive lack of safety in one’s earlier life. Providing a truly safe congregation is the first step to providing effective ministry to people with mental illness. We can extend that notion. If the church is to provide effective ministry to anyone, it needs to be a place where health and safety can be expected. Without some explicit foundation of safety, we cannot pursue our ministry to its fullest. Without some explicit foundation of safety, we cannot freely practice our religion. Without some explicit foundation of safety, we risk the erosion of our principles and the weakening of our prized freedoms.

Our relatedness to the whole of life is not just a pretty spiritual metaphor. It is a fact. When we commit to honoring the inherent worth and dignity of all people—our first UU principle—our commitment is grounded in the fact of our relatedness. When we commit to practices of justice, equity and compassion in human relations—our second UU principle—our commitment is grounded in that fact of our relatedness. But “animals have skins; trees have bark and eggs have shells for a reason.” Our relatedness happens in the midst of borders and boundaries; some divisions are not bridgeable; and our collective safety—the collective safety of any human group—requires the setting of limits. We look to our principles with faith and love in our hearts, trusting they are the surest path to our ideals: that all are welcome, that all may belong as they are, that we each may live according to the dictates of conscience. But we know our ideals are not reachable in all instances; we know life can me messy and harsh and we are sometimes called to make decisions and take actions that may feel like we’re moving against our principles. So we do our best. Friends, we do our best. We agree on those instances where our ideals are not practical. We establish safety as best we can. We do so, trusting that our freedoms will flourish, that our ministries will thrive.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] The Women of Greenham Common Peace Occupation in England, 1983, “Building Bridges” in Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1023.

[2] Schade, Tom, “Troubled People in the Church,” May 2, 2012. See: http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Troubled-People-in-Church.html?soid=1102662658575&aid=BBJ4iQi4cxI.

[4] Reanney, Darryl, Music of the Mind: An Adventure in Consciousness (London: Souvenir Press, 1995) p. 18.

[5] Schade, Tom, “Troubled People in the Church,” May 2, 2012.

[6] Schade, Tom, “Troubled People in the Church,” May 2, 2012.