Risking Creativity

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video here

The difficulty in understanding how [creativity] happens, even when it happens to us” says science writer Jonah Lehrer, “means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force. In fact, [at least in the western world] until the [European] Enlightenment, the imagination was entirely synonymous with higher powers: being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the ingenious gods. (Inspiration, after all, literally means ‘breathed upon.’) Because people couldn’t understand creativity, they assumed that their best ideas came from somewhere else. The imagination was outsourced.”[1] Or as we just sang, “heaven knows where we are going.”[2]

Of course, that’s not the complete lyric. It’s “heaven knows where we are going but we know within.” And so it is with creativity. It may very well be that some power beyond us breathes our creativity upon us, but in our most creative moments, something clearly happens within us. This is the message of Lehrer’s recent book, Imagination: How Creativity Works. He looks at a broad swath of research from a variety of scientific fields and combines this look with stories of famously creative people and businesses to show that creativity is a very natural and human phenomenon. Creativity is, in short—and this may sound somewhat anti-climactic—a bundle of distinct mental processes that combine to give rise to new thoughts.[3] He also says “creativity is our natural state.”[4]

I find this notion very inviting. I hinted in our April newsletter that I think there is a kind of wisdom inherent in all the old creation stories, no matter what culture they’re from. For me, this wisdom is much more profound than the typical plot line of these stories which is always some version of “and so the Gods created the heavens and the earth.” The wisdom inherent in these stories says to me that the world and the universe and the energy and power that sustain them, rather than simply having been created, are themselves inherently and continuously creative. That is, Creation itself is not passively created; it is actively creative. It’s a verb, not a noun. And since we human beings, like all living things, are intimately connected to the world and the universe and the energy and power that sustain them, doesn’t Jonah Lehrer’s statement ring true, that creativity is our natural state? Which leads me finally to the question that feels most relevant to our spiritual lives: how do we return to our natural state? How do we access the creative essence at the heart of who we are?

This question feels relevant because in our lives—in this particular, early 21st century era of human history—in this particular location in which we find ourselves (western, industrialized, technologized, capitalistic, militaristic, democratic United States of America)—there are a myriad of opportunities to become alienated from what is natural, to forget our connectedness, to grow distant from more grounded, holistic ways of living that might more readily nurture and call forth our creativity. We live in a society that doesn’t typically invite us to be creative. There are many examples of this lack of invitation, but the one that comes most quickly to mind is the high value we place on standardized testing in public schools. To be clear, I am not one who finds no value in such tests. They are useful in certain, limited ways. But I am concerned that we are now teaching our children, with unprecedented singular focus, how to comply with standards determined in bureaucratic offices. We are educating our children into a very specific kind of intelligence, into a very rigid mold. We are educating our children to think alike. We are not educating our children to think around, underneath, above, through and beyond standards. We are not educating our children to transcend standards, which is precisely what creativity is for, and precisely what we need as a society in order to solve our most pressing problems and to make advances in science and technology, business and finance, the arts, religion—any field that impacts our lives and life on the planet. Again, human creativity is a bundle of distinct mental processes that combine to give rise to new thoughts, new images, new visions, new combinations, new connections, new ways of relating, new ways of solving problems, new melodies, new harmonies, and so on. This is our natural state, but we are not currently educating our children into their natural state. If anything, we are educating them out of their natural state.

This is not to say there is no creativity in our society. The United States of America continues to be, in so many ways, one of the most creative societies on the planet. But creativity so often feels counter-cultural, even subversive. Creativity, in many settings, is risky. We might say it takes some nerve to muster one’s creative energy. And so creativity has become a phenomenon that people like Jonah Lehrer have to study in order to remind the rest of us what it actually is and why it is so important.

So, how do we return to our natural state? How do we access the creative essence at the heart of who we are? I have spoken in the past about my experience of writer’s block. I’m sitting at my computer trying to synthesize a number of different ideas into a coherent sermon, prayer, essay or article. I’m not only trying to write coherently; I’m also looking for words and sentences that sound good, that feel good to speak, that feel rhythmical and poetic. I’m trying to be creative, but I get to a point where I can’t write anymore. I can’t connect the different ideas. I know the connections are there—I can sense them—but I can’t see them; I can’t see how to put
them into language. I’ve learned in these moments to stop writing. I’ve learned to let it go for a while, to go for a run, play with the kids, take a hot shower, sleep, cook a meal, listen to music—anything to get away from the stress of writing; anything that brings relaxation. And that’s when the connections start to come. That’s when the right words, the right rhythm, the right feel comes. That’s when the creative insight happens. Not in front of the computer, but out on the road, in the shower, or after dreaming.

Lehrer says “every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer…. It’s often only…after we’ve stopped searching for the answer, that the answer arrives.”[5] I would not be surprised if the ancient Taoist Master Lao Tzu was writing about this very phenomenon 2500 years ago. Earlier we heard chapter 48 from the Tao Te Ching: “Less and less do you need to force things / until finally you arrive at non-action. / When nothing is done / nothing is left undone. / True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. / It can’t be gained by interfering.”[6] Lao Tzu does not link this process of letting things go their own way to any external force or divine entity breathing upon us. It is simply how life works. It is the Tao, the way. We know it within. It is our natural state. Our challenge is to live into our natural state.

Still, how to get there? Jonah Lehrer talks about alpha waves in our brains. Scientists measure electrical activity in the brain using an electroencephalogram or EEG machine. Alpha waves show up on the EEG machine when we are relaxed. According to Lehrer, when we are relaxed and the alpha waves are cycling, a section of the brain called the superior inferior temporal gyrus becomes very active. In fact, when scientists measure brain activity at the moment a person is having a creative insight, the superior inferior temporal gyrus typically lights up right before the insight occurs. Though it is still somewhat mysterious, the superior inferior temporal gyrus helps us make what researchers call remote associations. It helps us find the threads of connections between distinct ideas, words, shapes, colors, notes, movements, etc. It helps us order apparently unrelated things into relationships. In this way, it gives rise to new thoughts; it gives rise to new ideas. It helps us be creative. And it functions when we are relaxed. Lehrer says: “The counter-intuitive aspect of this research is that most people assume when you get a really hard problem … that seems impossible, what we have to do is drink another espresso, pop some Ritalin, do whatever it is we need to do to really focus on the problem. But that’s actually…the worst thing we can do because then we just get the wrong answer and it loops in our head like a broken record. Instead, what we should do is [relax]. Take a warm shower, play some ping pong…take a walk in the park, do anything we can to distract ourselves from the problem we’re trying to solve, because it’s when we’re not trying to solve it that the answer will actually pop into our head.”[7]

This was precisely the point in my writing when I hit a wall and had to stop. That was Friday night. I went for a run, took a shower, made dinner, played with the kids, had a glass of wine at a birthday party for my dad, then went back to the computer. Nothing really came to me. It was nice to relax but my superior inferior temporal gyrus wasn’t lighting up the way I had hoped. The thing I couldn’t quite put words to was the feeling of risk that sometimes comes with creativity. That is, after all, the title of this sermon: “Risking Creativity.” I had lost sight of why I chose that title in the first place. What’s so risky about relaxing? What’s so risky about letting things go their own way? Generating alpha waves feels very spiritual to me in the sense that it enables me to access a deeper place within myself; it moves me towards my natural state. It feels like a relief more than a risk.

But it finally came. Our creative moments always come with some risk. I can see it more clearly when I examine the literature on group creativity in institutions, say in a corporate science lab, in a school or university faculty, in government, in congregations. In any of these settings—any place where people work together to reach certain goals—over time certain ways of thinking tend to become dominant. Certain methods of research or teaching tend to become standard. Certain business models tend to become more or less given.  The way we do things, the way we think about things, the way we talk about things, the theories we accept as most accurate, the protocols we use—all of it, over time, becomes etched as if in stone. When this is the case, the people involved become boxed in; they become creatures of habit often without recognizing they’re just repeating long-established, rote patterns. They become less and less creative, even when they’re working in traditionally creative fields. In order to have and express a truly creative insight in such a calcified context, one must become, essentially, an outsider.[8] One must raise their hand and say, “Wait a minute, there’s another way.” That’s risky. it comes with potential costs: marginalization, alienation. What if I meet resistance? What if my boss isn’t interested? What if my minister isn’t interested? What if I’m perceived to be injecting too much chaos into the system? What if I’m perceived to be a trouble-maker? What if they ignore me? Having and expressing a truly creative insight in an institution that isn’t predisposed to innovation always entails some level of risk.

This may be somewhat obvious. In response to a creative idea we often hear some version of the message, But we’ve always don’t it this way. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? Here are all the reasons why your idea won’t work. It’s classic. It’s also a sign that an institution is slowly dying.

In addition to Lehrer’s book I’ve also been looking at a book called Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society by four renowned business and management consultants. They say people and institutions tend to be governed by habit and that we revert to habit when we are fearful or anxious about the future. Although they aren’t using the language of creativity specifically, they are talking about being “present” as a way to access new ideas and possibilities, to imagine and create a more positive future. They talk about learning to be open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense…the importance of letting go of old identities and the need to control and…making choices to serve the evolution of life. Ultimately,” they write, “all these aspects of presence [lead] to a state of ‘letting come,’ [there’s that ancient Taoist wisdom!] of consciously participating in a larger field for change. When this happens, the field shifts, and the forces shaping a situation can move from re-creating the past to manifesting or realizing an emerging future.”[9]

We feel the risk of creativity most keenly when we are fearful and anxious about the future, when we are comfortable with and set in our habits. Creativity calls us to confront our fears and anxieties and it calls us out of our habits. In order to let a new future emerge—in order to be creative—we need to be willing to set a piece of our frightened, anxious, comfortable, habitual selves aside and listen deeply for new connections, new relationships, new visions. To do this we need to be able to recognize and suspend our assumptions, to hold them out in front of us so they have less influence over our thinking, so we can encounter new ideas without being judgmental towards them, without saying “No, this will never work.” Only when we set a piece of our fearful, anxious, comfortable, habitual selves aside can we create space for new ideas to take hold in us.[10] Creative insights come as we set aside some piece of who we are. There’s the risk. In our most creative moments we lose some of our self so that a new self may emerge. This is our natural state. Are we ready for a new self to emerge? Are we ready to risk creativity? I’ll leave you with that question.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) p. xvi.

[2]Amoa, et al, “Woyaya” in Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1020.

[3]Ibid., p. vvii. For a helpful overview of the content of Imagine, check Lehrer’s March 19, 2012 interview on National Public Radio at http://www.npr.org/2012/03/19/148777350/how-creativity-works-its-all-in-your-imagination.

[5]Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) pp. 6-7.

[7]Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) pp. 30-31. Also view http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNVEZ5Whmk8&feature=relmfu.

[8] Lehrer offers excellent statements on the role of outsiders and the ways in which institutions become less creative over time at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ep5Ij-AfkLU and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3PBxGmCWH0.

[9] Senge, P., Scharmer, O.C., Jaworski, J., Flowers, B., Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society (New York: Doubleday, 2004) pp. 13-14.

[10] Ibid., pp. 29-33.

The Promise of Living: An Easter Homily

The promise of living / With hope and thanksgiving / Is born of our loving / Our friends and our labor. / The promise of growing / With faith and with knowing / Is born of our sharing / Our love with our neighbor. These are the opening lyrics from, “The Promise of Living,”[1] which is part of the 20th century American composer Aaron Copland’s opera, “The Tender Land.” The librettist is Horace Everett, which is a pseudonym for Erik Johns, which is a pseudonym for Horace Eugene Johnston, who was an artist and partner of Copland’s.[2]  They lived and worked together for much of the 1950s.

I like this phrase, the promise of living. It speaks to me on Easter morning in a very direct and simple way. It may sound initially as if what I hear in this phrase contradicts the deeper meaning of Easter, but I don’t think it does. Life is a gift, it reminds us, but life doesn’t promise us anything. This beautiful Creation we inhabit and about which human beings have told stories since our very beginnings to explain our very beginnings, doesn’t, in the end, promise us anything. This Earth which rises each spring out of the grey tomb of its winter slumber into new life—this beautiful Earth surely is a gift we receive, yet it makes no promises to us. And this springtime, like every springtime, is a gift to our eyes, our ears, our tongues, our noses, our ready hands and our bare feet—it’s a gift to our spirits; it brings us back to life—but it makes no promises.

This is what I mean: it does not promise us we will live without suffering or heartache. It does not promise us we can avoid fear and loneliness, anxiety and depression. It does not promise us we or our loved-ones will never hear a doctor’s voice delivering a hard diagnosis. It does not promise that our broken relationships will mend. It does not promise that we can somehow prevent hardship in our children’s lives no matter what we do to give them the best childhoods we possibly can. It certainly does not promise us the means to overcome death. And looking beyond our own lives, we recognize there is no promise of a more just society, a more peaceful society, a more loving society. There is no promise that shields us against incidents like the school shooting this past week at Oikos University in Oakland, CA, or the shooting in Tulsa, OK we are now hearing about from Friday. There is no promise that shields our nation from the tragic and terrible murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL last month. But despite this lack of promise; despite the very real possibility that we will encounter personal trials through the course of our lives—loss, pain, grief, disappointment—despite the many challenges we face as a people, we still must live as best we can. And therein lies the promise. As the song says, “The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving is born of our loving, our friends and our labor.”

There are no promises we can count on in any ultimate sense—no promise from God that our lives will turn out the way we imagine; no promise from the universe that our lives will turn out the way we imagine; no promise from the Earth that our lives will turn out the way we imagine—but there are ways we can choose to live in the midst of crisis, ways we can choose to live so that healing is possible, ways we can choose to live so that confronting hardship with grace and dignity is possible, ways we can choose to live so that a more just, compassionate and peaceful society is possible. Easter informs us that living this way is possible, that we can rise from the tombs in which we find ourselves. For me, the promise of living is born of our choosing to rise. For me, the promise of living is born of our choosing to live with love and hope in our hearts.

Easter wraps around the story of Jesus’ arrest, conviction and execution on the cross—the common form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire—followed by his disciples announcing his resurrection—his rising from the death—three days later.  Many times over the years I have pointed out that this story is built on the foundation of Passover, the Jewish spring-time celebration of liberation from slavery in Egypt which began this year began this past Friday. I have also pointed out that Passover itself, in connection with Shavuot which occurs later in the spring, are built on the foundations of even more ancient Middle Eastern planting and harvest festivals.

These stories and these festivals are beautiful and compelling and provocative. They have captured the human imagination for millennia. Their power, for me, does not reside in the notion that they might somehow be literally true and that they therefore offer some inherent promise to us centuries later. Their power, for me, lies in their ability to touch deep wells of human courage, resolve and perseverance in the face of challenge.  Their power, for me, lies in their ability to touch deep wells of human caring, compassion and love in the face of suffering and violence. Their power, for me, lies in how they remind us that no matter what life brings—no matter what pain, disappointment or illness; no matter what violence, injustice or oppression—no matter what winter tomb we find ourselves in—we can choose to live a certain way. We can choose to rise up like new life in spring. Though the landscape of our lives may at times seem barren, empty, and even hostile to life, we can choose to place seeds in the Earth, to nurture and nourish our gardens, to bring forth life, to bring forth a harvest. We can choose, as the song suggests, to share what we have with our neighbor, to rely on and trust in the caring of our friends, to labor with integrity in the fields of our calling—that is, to work hard at what matters to us. We can choose to ask ourselves, in any situation of struggle or crisis, what does love demand that I do? And we can do it. Friends, we can live in response to love. Of this I am sure: If there is to be any promise in our lives, it comes from our choosing to live in response to love. May we so choose.

Amen and Blessed be.  

[1] The UUS:E choir sang this piece as part of our Easter music celebration.  John Williams’ arrangement of “The Promise of Living” is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=bLM_YTnmLto.

We Build Temples in the Heart

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video: Here We Build Temples in the Heart

Here we build temples in our hearts. Side by side we gather. . . .  

 

Here we build temples in our hearts. Side by side we come. . . .

Here we build temples in our hearts—
a temple for each heart,

a village of temples,
none shading another,
connected by well-worn paths,
built alike on sacred ground.

A meditation from Patrick Murfin: poet, social justice activist, labor historian, Unitarian Universalist (and many other things) living in Woodstock, IL. I’ve been searching this week for words that offer a metaphor for what Unitarian Universalist congregational life is all about, a metaphor for what we do as a spiritual community, a metaphor to remind us of the value this congregation holds in our lives on this weekend when we kick off our annual appeal and ask each of us to make a generous financial pledge for the coming fiscal year. These words work for me. “Here we build temples in our hearts.”

What might this mean? A temple in the literal sense is a physical structure a place set aside for worship; a place where the people gather to lift up, praise and celebrate that which is most holy to them; where they commune with their gods and goddesses however they understand them; where they offer their sacrifices, conduct their sacred rituals, sing their sacred songs, dance their sacred dances; where they celebrate their holy days, keep their festivals, welcome their newly born, honor their elders and bid farewell to their dead. In his meditation Murfin references some ancient wonders: the 12th century Angkor Wat Hindu temple in Cambodia; the 5000 year old Stonehenge in Wiltshire County, England; the 13th century Cathedral of Chartres in France; and the Doric columns of ancient Greek and Roman temples.

But here we build temples in our hearts, says Murfin, meaning here in our congregations. What are we building? At our best—and let us agree: we aren’t always at our best; no human community ever is—but at our best we are building—in our hearts, in our interior lives—sanctuary.

Sanctuary, meaning a place of refuge from the storms that batter us from time to time, from the tempests that rage around us; a place of refuge from the fret and fever of the day, from the tumult and the strife that cycle through our lives; a place of refuge from the pressure and the stress that are part and parcel of our living in these postmodern times of hyper-connection and hyper-alienation; a place of refuge from our personal trials and despair; a place of refuge from the mean-spirited, hateful culture-war discourse of our national life; a place of retreat where we may go in those moments when we need some measure of comfort, when we need some measure of solace, when we long for peace in a war-torn world, when we seek rest for our weary spirits.

Sanctuary, meaning a place where we can fortify ourselves in those moments when we face challenges and crises; a place where we can access our reserves of courage; a place where we can find our resolve, our conviction, our next step; a place where we feel grounded and rooted, held closely to our foundations, where we find sustenance, where we find the strength to endure and persevere through whatever crisis may come our way; a place where we find the humility and grace to receive the help, counsel, caring and love of those around us; a place where we recognize our dependence on those around us; a place where our pride softens and we are able to ask for help; where we are able to trust that the help we truly need shall come to us, though it comes often in ways we do not expect and cannot anticipate.

Sanctuary, meaning a place for honesty and integrity, a place where we may go in those moments when the contradictions of our lives, the inconsistencies of our lives, require us to reckon with ourselves, to speak our truths to ourselves, to push and nudge and challenge ourselves, to hold ourselves accountable; a place wherein we can finally make the decisions we have been putting off for too long; a place wherein we may find the motivation, the nerve, the audacity to rise to new heights, to stretch into new postures, to reach for new holds on the sheer rock face, to grow in new directions, to allow ourselves to be transformed, because staying where we are for too long—remaining on the beaten path—the familiar path, the easy path, the habitual path—we finally see it!—is no longer viable; a place where we let go of old, unworkable ways of being, so that new ways may emerge; a spring-time place for renewal, a spring-time place for rebirth, a spring-time place for resurrection, a place to praise the breaking dawn, to praise the “life that maketh all things new,” to praise “the first dew fall on the first grass.”

Sanctuary, meaning a place where our passions reside; where, without any fear, we name our desires, our sense of calling, our sense of vocation; where our vision of our best selves and our dreams for the future all seem possible—where we can resolve to pursue our visions and dreams and make them real in our lives, express them with our words, manifest them with our deeds; a place where our creativity flourishes, where we compose the song our life sings, where we choreograph the dance our life dances, where we breathe out the poem our life breathes, where we tell the story our life tells; a place where we can pay attention to our hunches, our flashes of insight, our inklings and intuitions, that tingling up and down our spines that tells us, “yes, this is the right path, as strange and unfamiliar as it may seem;” a place where we can pay attention and respond to our passions without fear of being told we are silly, unrealistic or impractical; where we can pay attention and respond without fear of being told we aren’t good enough, that we’ll never make it, that what we desire for ourselves is impossible; a place where the suggestion, the message, the solution, the answer coming back from our own sacred depths is Yes! Try! Live!—a place wherein, even though you know failure is possible—because failure is always possible—the suggestion, the message, the solution, the answer coming back from our own sacred depths is Yes! Try! Live! Do not settle for a life in which you are not living.

Sanctuary, meaning the place where we come to dedicate and re-dedicate our lives, to commit and recommit our lives, to offer and re-offer our lives; the place where we can dedicate, commit and offer our lives: to the values we treasure, to love in all its forms, to compassion in all its forms, to service in all its forms, to learning in all its forms, to reason in all its forms; the place where we can dedicate, commit and offer our lives: to all our relations, to the promptings and urgings of the spirit, to the pursuit of a more just and fair society, to care and stewardship of the earth, our planet, our parent, our home; a place where we come to discern the sacrifices we must make—and then make them—on the altars of our inner lives, the whisping smoke of our metaphorical burnt offerings filling our nostrils, at once pungent, at once sweet—pleasing, satisfying, life giving: generous sacrifices of our time, our gifts, our wealth; sacrifices for the sake of our community, sacrifices for the sake of our values, sacrifices for the sake of our children, sacrifices for the sake of the future, sacrifices for the sake of some reality larger than ourselves but to which we are intimately connected.

Sanctuary, meaning the most holy place in the temple—the place consecrated for the keeping of sacred things—the place where the God or Goddess resides, where the angels attend—the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies—the place where the stars align on holy nights; the place where heaven and earth meet—the axis mundi, as the scholars call it—the place where we may keep and remember and hold close, hold with great tenderness, hold with great intimacy, all that is sacred to us; the place where we may drink deeply from our spiritual wells; the place where spirit moves into us and out of us; the place where we can grasp and know and trust the divinity in ourselves—our likeness to God, as our Unitarian forebears used to teach; our ultimate reunion with God, as our Universalist forebears used to preach; the place where we can apprehend and grasp our connections, our interdependence, our relatedness to the whole of life, to all that has been, to all there is, to all that shall be.

Here we build temples in our hearts—
a temple for each heart,
a village of temples,
none shading another,
connected by well-worn paths,
built alike on sacred ground.

When I use this language of building temples in our hearts, I am mindful that so much of what we do in this congregation seeks to strengthen and fortify us, seeks to make good on that promise that each of our lives tells a story, each of our lives harbors deep and abiding truths, each of our lives is sacred and worthy. But, ultimately we do not build these temple-sanctuaries in our hearts solely for ourselves. The self matters—it matters immensely—and our religion must take our selves seriously. But our religion, in the end, is not here for the benefit of the self. Our religion is here for the benefit of the world. Our religion builds our temple-sanctuaries—gives us access within ourselves to the paths of refuge, solace, rest, strength, fortitude, passion and integrity—so that we may become bearers of love and compassion into the world; so that we may become bearers of comfort and healing into the world; so that we may discern how best to share our passions with the world, all for the sake of a more peaceful world, a more just world, a more sustainable world.

I think this is good theology. This past week I’ve been involved in a number of conversations about the nature of God—one with the Affirmation students and one with the participants in our adult course, “Theology in a Secular Age.” In both conversations we’ve been naming our inability to believe in a God who somehow is able to reach into and control human affairs—the omnipotent, omniscient God we associate with the beliefs of the more traditional, conservative and fundamentalist religions–the old, white-haired, bearded God who sits on a throne and judges us. We’ve been noting our inability to believe in that God.  We’ve been noting instead that regardless of what one believes about God, whether or not one believes God exists at all, if there is to be more love and compassion in the world, human beings need to make it so. If there is to be more comfort and healing in the world, human beings need to make it so. If there is going to be a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, human beings need to make it so. Regardless of what we may believe about God, the universe or the nature of reality, our Unitarian Universalist congregation teaches us that human beings need to make it so. That is why we build temples in the heart: so that we have the power to make it so.

Hold that thought. Some of you have already made your financial pledge to UUS:E for the coming year. Thank you. Some of you have already signed up to participate in a stewardship pot luck dinner and will be making your pledge then. The rest of you will soon be hearing from a steward, asking for a face-to-face meeting to talk about the value this congregation holds in your life and to ask for your pledge. Thank you for returning their call or email quickly.

We are this year, as always, proposing increases in our budget. Much of this increase is to give our staff a cost of living allowance and to come as close as we can to paying our staff according to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s fair compensation guidelines. We also hope to expand our adult education and Sunday worship service offerings, continue funding our youth advisor and reduce the amount of money we need to borrow from our savings in order to have a balanced budget. As always, we ask that you pledge as generously as you can. We are hoping for a 5% increase in pledge income over last year. If we get a 7.2 % increase we will balance our budget without drawing from savings at all. I am so grateful to our outgoing Finance Chair, Patricia Wildes, and our Treasurer, Bob Hewey, who have done a masterful job preparing our budget and crunching the numbers again and again and again. I am so grateful to the members of the Policy Board who strive so hard to make the best financial decisions they can on your behalf, and who admit they have a hard time saying “no” to good ideas. We have a lot of good ideas! And I am so grateful to Stan McMillen and the Stewardship Committee who work so hard year round to encourage a spirit of generous giving at UUS:E.

They do it for a reason. And we come here for a reason. And it’s not about budgets and staff and numbers and pledges and increased
pledges—though all of those are important. We come because we build temples in the heart. We build temples in the heart, inner sanctuaries, places of refuge and retreat, comfort and solace, honesty and integrity, passion, dedication, commitment and sacredness. We build temples in the heart so that we may live the lives we feel called to live. But we build temples in the heart, not in the end for ourselves, but for a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, because we know: if there is to be a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, human beings must make it so. We build temples in the heart so that we have the power to make it so.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

The Life We Have Lost in Living

Rev. Josh Pawelek

View Video at: The Life We Have Lost in Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Let’s Make the Connections: A Sermon About Mental Health and Mental Illness

Sharon Gresk, (UUS:E Mental Health Ministry)

Beginning in March of 1990, I was hospitalized for seven weeks at the Institute of Living, in Hartford. I’ve never made this information much of a secret in spite of the fact that the last words of advice I remember receiving as I left were basically this: “Your clinical depression is considered a serious mental illness and it will be best for you if you don’t tell people about your condition. If you do, you may lose friends and certainly will lose job opportunities.”

I was stunned. It was 1990. Don’t talk about it? Obviously, this was the stigma of mental illness and they were asking me to be part of it. Don’t talk about it? How would I ever let others who might be having similar problems, know that there was help available, there was light at the end of the dark tunnel, that they, too, could live happy, friend-filled, productive lives, if I didn’t talk about it? HOW WOULD THE STIGMA EVER END?

So—I disregarded the advice. Every time I shared my story there were always someone who said, “Wow, I thought I was the only one!” or simply, “Me too.” And, as a result, connections began. Many brain disorders, or mental illnesses, or brain dis-eases, or whatever name they are being called this year to be politically correct, are actually chemical imbalances in the brain. Those who have talked to their doctor about their problems may have found the help they need there, or they may have been referred to a psychiatrist, who gave them the medication – or a cocktail of medications – they needed to regain this chemical balance for their brain. Often, besides medication, talk therapy is added with a social worker, a therapist, or a psychologist. Once again, more connections are made.

To bring the realization here of how many people are included in this web of connections, I would like to try something. Would those of you, who have yourself or who have a family member or a close friend who has been involved in the mental health system, please stand up? … Thank you. …We do have so many connections. 2007 is the year I refer to as “my lost year.” It was an entire year spent on trying to regulate my medications. This is a “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” method which meant much of the time I could hardly drag myself even to services because my depression was out of control. It was also the year that people seemed to come out of no where to talk to me about their depression. We talked, but I finally went to Josh and told him that I felt that all our wonderful social justice work that was being done for folks outside our church wasn’t enough. I felt we had many people who came to our church every Sunday who needed to know they were welcome and could find folks who would understand them here. He agreed, but neither of us quite knew where to find the time or how to get started. We did try a small Affinity Group. It met once.

It wasn’t until I became Pastoral Care committee head, when JoAnne Gillespie came to a meeting to discuss the Visioning Statement that the idea of a Mental Health Ministry really came into focus for me. I had done some searching on the internet and and had found we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.

This is an excerpt from an article by Rev. Barbara Meyers, a community minister from Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont, California, written in 2006.

“Since the 1990s there has been an explosion of studies on religion and how it affects physical and mental healing. Most of this published empirical data suggests that religious commitment plays a significantly beneficial role in preventing mental and physical illness, improving how people cope with mental and physical illness, and facilitating recovery from illness.

  • Those aspects which seem to be most helpful are that religion:
  • offers a sense of hope, meaning, and purpose, and thus emotional well-being
  • affords solutions to many kinds of emotional and situational conflicts
  • establishes moral guidelines to serve self and others
  • promotes social cohesion
  • offers a social identity and a place to belong

The principles of Unitarian Universalism significantly contribute to such helpful religious characteristics. In particular, the principles of:

  • the inherent worth and dignity of every person
  • a free and responsible search for truth and meaning
  • justice, equity and compassion in human relationships
  • acceptance of one another and spiritual growth in our congregations

Each of these speak directly to the emotional and social well-being of Unitarian Universalists. Since both spiritual and rational world views are embraced in our sources of religious truth, self-direction and internal control are enhanced. Furthermore, religious characteristics that have been found empirically to be harmful to mental health, including guilt, devaluing human nature, punishment in hell, and paranoia about evil, are not generally true of Unitarian Universalists.”

Barbara’s information continued on with how to reach the congregation and we followed her advice.

We put out a notice for everyone who was interested in anything to do with mental health, to meet on March 29th in the morning—it was scheduled to be the first meeting in the new building! You may also remember the Annual Appeal Kick-off was scheduled for that same evening. Remember the Kick-off was NOT held in the new building?—and neither was the meeting. But, it was the only morning Josh had open for months so we decided to meet at my house.

Much to my surprise, 15 members of our church came to 20 Jensen Street for the meeting from 9 to noon. Our house is far from grand in scale, so we all squashed into our little cape cod living room to talk. The introductions alone took nearly an hour and a half. Each person had an open-hearted story to tell and the trust level in the room was amazing. By 11:45 they had introduced subjects like, “How do you ever get through the red tape to get much needed services, especially when your insurance is very limited?” to statements like “Often, very intelligent people appear to be “too high functioning” by mental health providers, and are often denied services because it is thought they don’t need them.

Many people confuse high intelligence with automatic real world success and emotional stability so so you’re basically left high and dry,” and on to “I’m NOT my mental illness, my mental illness is only a part of me” Everyone was just getting warmed up…and it was time to quit. We asked the group what they wanted to see happen next. Some wanted a support group (not a therapy group), some wanted a family and friends support group, and others wanted to have an education component so that they could learn and understand what they had not personally experienced, to be able to offer compassion and understanding when it is needed.

As far as I’ve ever been able to figure, I think having a culture and climate where we can talk about depression, or any other brain disorder, is of utmost importance. Somehow, we need to make a shift in our thinking to include brain disorders the same way we consider body disorders. Whether someone has cancer or depression they didn’t do anything to cause themselves to have them. They also don’t expect to be shunned because of either of them, but it happens. A lot of it has to do with how we name it, what language we use to describe it. We are dealing with people who are our friends or family members, people we love. We are looking at ways to show compassion for one another. We need to connect on a very human heart-to-heart level.

Our shared ministry at UUS:East is a cherished tradition. We are all well aware that this ministry goes far beyond Sunday services. When I hear of UUs who do so much for social justice to include those who are shunned by many in our society today, our anti-racism movement, helping feed the poor and homeless, the Rainbow coalition, and countless others, I know our Mental Health Ministry has to be counted among them. We need to continue to make the connections.

We have started an Affinity group that is run as a Small Group Ministry. We’ve been getting together the 1st and 3rd Monday of each month since June. When I asked everyone who was at the meeting the first Monday in August, how they were feeling about the group there were a variety of comments.

One person simply said, “I like it a lot. I feel like the church is helping me.” After some discussion these additional thoughts emerged: “The mental health small group has provided validation for us, reducing the isolation and feeling of stigma that can be associated with brain disorders. It has encouraged us to bring the topic “out of the closet” and into the forefront, as we’ve done with Gay rights and racial diversity as UUs.”

That was followed by: “Sometimes at church we focus on ideal situations — kids with great scholastic achievement, people receiving accolades and honors, when many of us are struggling with less than ideal stuff in our own lives. We, or our loved ones, have mental health problems and/or substance abuse issues. How can we share the tough stuff with each other, as well as the wonderful stuff, and feel safe doing that? This small group has given us a safe place but it would be nice to feel safe sharing difficult news with the greater congregation.”

So, what happens next? In many ways, it’s up to you. Are we ready, as a congregation, to make these sometimes difficult connections? Hopefully we can to start a family and friends support group this fall. To do this we will need one or two folks to step up to help lead this group…anyone willing to help out, see me after the service!

For the education component I have purchased Barbara Meyer’s book that includes seven workshops for members of the congregation. They are outlined and ready to be taught. She suggests we have professional mental health workers and those who have experienced brain disorders to work together to teach these workshops. I’m amazed how many members we have who are in the mental health field, and how many have been touched by mental health issues. I’m hoping to get at least 14 people to agree to take the training workshop to prepare for doing these 7 workshops (that way each pair only has to teach one class!) So, if you’re ready, there are many ways to participate in the connections of the Mental Health Ministry!

One last thought. This is from “Einstein’s God” by Krista Tippett as she interview of Parker Palmer. Here he’s speaking for himself about his depression. “I had folks coming to me, of course, who wanted to be helpful, and sadly, many of them weren’t. These were the people who would say, “Gosh, Parker, why are you sitting in here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go…feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.” And that leaves a depressed person even more depressed. Because while you know intellectually that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. Other people would come and say, “Gosh Parker, why are you so depressed? You’re such a good person. You’ve helped so many people.” And that would leave me feeling more depressed because I would feel I’ve just defrauded another person who, if they really knew what a schmuck I was, would cast me into the darkness where I already am.”

But there was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock. He sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. What he mainly did for me was be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. It became a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering, but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where this person who is on the dark side of the moon, can get a little confidence so that they can come around to the other side.