Sending Forth: Reflections on the 2016 United States Presidential Election

Reaching Out to Those with Whom You Disagree

chalice-usaLast Sunday I stood in this pulpit and spoke of the way the United States presidential campaign had been traumatic to people all across the political spectrum—how so many different groups of people felt triggered by things that were said, done, hidden, revealed, denied, leaked, alleged or tweeted throughout the last eighteen months. Everyone, regardless of party, had their ‘ouch’ moment after moment after moment. The triggering was relentless. Anger on all sides grew and grew. My prescription for the resulting spiritual scarcity or, to use Cornel West’s term, “spiritual blackout,”[1] was—and still is—to cultivate spiritual abundance, which begins with practices—personal and collective—that connect us to realities larger than ourselves. The campaign seemed to stifle connection and thus has led to a widespread experience of spiritual scarcity. Spiritual abundance begins with connection.

I said the campaign revealed and exacerbated already extreme divisions along racial, geographic, educational, social, cultural, religious and political lines. Finding unity after the election will require extraordinary spiritual abundance on all sides. I said something needs to give, something needs to change. I said: “from that connected, centered, expansive place—that place of abundance—when you feel ready, reach out to someone who disagrees with you, invite conversation, listen, learn. They may not be interested, but if they are, then discern solutions, solve problems. In so doing, you begin to fulfill the promise of this nation. You begin to fulfill the promise of democracy. You begin to fulfill the promise of this faith.”[2] That was last Sunday.

I had, and continue to have, very mixed emotions when I counsel you “to reach out to someone who disagrees with you.” I believe this is ultimately what we must do, but I know that for some the act of reaching out feels like, and in all too many cases is, reaching into potential danger, into violence, into micro-aggressions, insults, bullying. Reviewing last week’s sermon now, I realize the reason I felt confident pronouncing those words prior to the election was because I, like virtually everyone else, was operating under the unexamined assumption that Hillary Clinton would win.  I was assuming our reaching out would happen in the wake of a national, electoral repudiation of the blatant racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, climate change denial, and anti-intellectualism that Donald Trump and Mike Pence deployed in order to motivate voters. It’s one thing to reach out when you feel an election result affirms your values—that’s hard enough. But it’s quite another thing to reach out when an election result rejects your values, rejects everything you hold dear, rejects the core principles that, for you, comprise the foundation of civilized society, and promises to destroy social and political structures that make you feel safe and fully included in the body politic. After the 2016 election, I’m not sure what reaching out looks like, at least not yet. I believe it is ultimately what we must do, but I have mixed emotions.

Principles, Not Parties

I am mindful that there are times when Unitarian Universalists speak in public about our faith and what we feel called to do in the world, and a criticism is offered—not a friendly one: “you sound like the spiritual wing of the Democratic Party.” A version of that criticism this week might be, “No wonder so many Unitarian Universalists are so upset about the election results—the Democrats lost.” I’ve always resented this criticism. I want to set the record straight.

First, yes, Unitarian Universalists tend to line at the liberal end of the political spectrum. We are majority Democrats. We vote Green. We vote Working Families Party in Connecticut. Some of us are Libertarians. Some of us are Republicans, though admittedly few. Unitarian Universalists are upset about the 2016 election results for many reasons, but party affiliation is not high on that list. One of the fundamental reasons so many of us are upset is because the result is a repudiation of the principles we hold dear, the principles on which we construct our religious life together. That is as true for UU Republicans as it is for UU Democrats. As Unitarian Universalists, and as Unitarian Universalist congregations, we covenant to affirm and promote: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; the free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Based on what they have said through the course of the campaign and on what they have done through the course of their careers, the election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence to the highest offices in the nation repudiates these life-giving, life-serving, life-celebrating, life-saving principles. That is upsetting.

Shocked, Not Shocked

All across the political spectrum people were shocked at the Trump/Pence victory. What was shocking about it? That Hillary Clinton lost when so many pundits and pollsters predicted she would win. To be fair, Clinton won the popular vote as predicted with just shy of 60.5 million votes to Trump’s approximately 60 million votes. But Trump won in the electoral college. That outcome was shocking because virtually nobody saw it coming.

I notice, however, that many on the political left are talking about their shock not simply at Clinton’s loss, but shock also that so many people voted for a candidate who expressed extreme views, racist views, misogynistic views, constitutionally dubious views, and so on, and a running mate who has worked hard and successfully to weaken worker’s rights as governor of Indiana and who signed into law a bill protecting companies that discriminate against same-sex couples. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard questions like “Who are these people?” “Where did they come from?” “What are they thinking?” “How do they not understand what Trump is saying?” But that mass of 60 million voters shouldn’t be shocking. While it pretty much always appeared that Clinton would win, it also always appeared that the election would be close, especially over the past few months. For those of us who fear President Trump is going to govern in a way that rejects our principles and reverses decades of what we regard as progress on civil rights, environmental protection, industrial regulation, health care, women’s rights, reproductive rights, foreign policy, and on and on, it makes sense that we feel troubled, concerned, frightened. But if we’re shocked that so many people voted for Trump/Pence because of or despite the views they’ve professed in word and deed, then we haven’t been paying attention. It may be deeply troubling, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Keep in mind that had Clinton won as predicted, that same mass of 60 million Trump/Pence voters would still exist and some moment of reckoning would still lay ahead of us.

Are There Really 60 Million Racist, Homophobic, Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Woman, Anti-Muslim Americans?

Putting the election outcome aside for the moment, what does it mean that nearly 60 million people voted for Trump/Pence? Specifically, does that mass of voters actually agree with and affirm their most egregious statements and policy proposals? I don’t think so. And on my best days, I assume no. Absolutely not. I tend to trust the notion I first saw expressed in a September article in The Atlantic that a high percentage of Trump/Pence voters took them seriously but not literally.[3] On my best days I assume that the Trump/Pence vote, especially in rustbelt heartland states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin was not an affirmation of racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia, but rather a cry for economic renewal, a cry of frustration with the government, a cry for help. I said last week that significant numbers of Trump supporters are themselves hurting, frightened, confused, anxious, dispirited. They feel beaten up, forgotten, overlooked, blamed, and taken for granted. All this is true. Their traditional sources of economic security have disappeared. Their life expectancy is declining. Their communities are crumbling. Their health insurance premiums and deductibles are sky-rocketing. Heroin, meth and prescription pain-killers are ravaging their neighborhoods. Neither major political party has been able to stop this decline. Some will argue this is intentional. Others might call it benign neglect. The time had come last Tuesday for them to vote for a candidate who listens to them, who takes them seriously. Whether Trump actually takes them seriously remains to be seen, but on election day he—not she—fit the bill.

And on my best days, if that’s what this vote was really about—a cry for economic renewal; if President Trump and his supporters understand he has just been charged with dismantling the forces driving the nation’s industrial decline, driving the stark, immoral and unsustainable rise in income inequality, driving the erosion of workers’ rights, wages and dignity—and if he and they can understand that he needs to do this in a way that benefits all Americans because the working class is not only White, it is in fact a highly racially diverse class—that’s a conversation I want to be in. Sign me up for that movement. Remember: principles, not party.

Stomper in Chief

I will never overlook the people Trump felt he could stomp on to win the election. He stomped on Mexicans and other Hispanics. He stomped on immigrants. He stomped on Black people. He stomped on women. He stomped on the queer community, especially in his selection of Pence as running mate. He stomped mercilessly on the American Muslim community. I’m tired of going through the list of all the people he stomped on. I don’t personally fit into any of these categories, but I know and love people who fit every identity Trump insulted, maligned and threatened during the campaign. People with those identities are beloved members and friends of this congregation. They are our partners in the community. I know their stories. I know something of their pain, their fear, their longing for peace and prosperity for themselves and their families, and I know their love for the nation. I signed on long ago to be an ally, to work in solidarity with oppressed people for their liberation, to work ultimately for our collective liberation, to build the beloved community.

So I am struggling. I know when we vote for candidates it doesn’t mean that we agree with everything they say or do. But it would make me feel so much better if there were some statement, some indication that the people who voted for Trump/Pence really don’t take them literally when it comes to border walls, climate change denial and ‘locking her up.’ I’d like to hear some acknowledgement that sexual assault is categorically wrong, and brushing off a confession of a pattern of sexual assault as mere locker room talk rather than condemning it actually helps to normalize it and makes the problem worse. I’d like to hear some acknowledgement that “stop and frisk” is not only unconstitutional but also a demonstrably racist practice that cannot possibly heal the racial divides in our nation. I would like to hear some acknowledgement that discrimination against people based on whom they love is wrong and does not belong in federal or state statutes. I would like to hear some acknowledgement of the fact that the vetting process for refugees to be resettled in the United States is the most thorough process of any nation on the planet. It takes on average four years for a Syrian refugee family to get from a camp in Jordan or Lebanon to home in the United States because the vetting process is so thorough; and, most importantly, no act of terror on American soil since 9/11 has ever been committed by a refugee. There is absolutely no evidence that Syrian refugees are terrorists.

You won the election. If you don’t take them literally, please let the rest of us know. It would help immensely in fostering unity.

Spiritual Abundance

Why do you come to church?

I’ve been asking this question in various ways throughout my eighteen years as a minister. It feels really important right now. The answers I hear are good answers, but I wonder now if they are sufficient answers. The answers we give include: my friends are here. I come for community or I love the community. I come to learn, to be challenged, to have something to think about for the week after Sunday. I come for my children so they can be accepted and loved and nurtured for who they are, invited into faith, not frightened into faith. I come for the music. I come because when I’m here I can breathe. I come because when I’m here I can cry. I come because when I’m here I feel connected. I come because when I’m here I can actually be myself. I come for support. I love the energy. I love the minister. I know that the minister loves us.

Each of these answers warms my heart.

But what I don’t hear is this: I come to be sent forth. I come to be sent forth into the world to love my neighbor. I come to be sent forth to love the stranger, the immigrant, the homeless person, the hungry person, the prisoner, the person who just lost their job. I come to be sent forth to love my enemies. I come to be sent forth to bear witness to suffering, to oppression, to injustice. I come to be sent forth to be present to suffering, to comfort, to heal, to resist and dismantle the systems that hold oppression in place, to build a more just and fair society. I come not simply to be reminded of my principles, but to be sent forth into the world to live my principles. I come to be sent forth.

Friends, I don’t think I’ve ever quite understood this until this week: the church is not serving you fully if it is not sending you forth into the world to live your principles proudly, resolutely, urgently, lovingly. The church is not a source of spiritual abundance in your life if it is not sending you forth.

If it wasn’t clear before Tuesday, it should be abundantly clear now. None of us can rest. Your age, your race, your work, your immigration status, your sexual orientation, your gender identity, your economic class, your theology, your political party, even your health to some degree—none of it matters in the sense that none of us can afford to come to church on Sunday and not take to heart the message that we are sent forth into the world to meet cynicism and despair with hope, to meet violence with peace, to meet hatred with love . . . and to organize for a more just and fair society.

From the sanctuary of my heart I promise I will always meet you here, and this place will always be a sanctuary for you. And I promise I will also meet you—and I will ask you to meet me—out in the world where the principles and love we celebrate here are desperately needed, and will make a way. They will make a way. They will bless the world.

I send you forth. Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] West, Cornel, “Spiritual Blackout in America: Election 2016,” Boston Globe, November 3, 2016. See: https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/11/03/spiritual-blackout-america-election/v7lWSybxux1OPoBg56dgsL/story.html.

[2] Pawelek, Josh M., “Given Inches, I Take Yards,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT, November 6, 2016. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/given-inches-i-take-yards/.

[3] Zito, Salena, “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally,” The Atlantic, September 23, 2016. See: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/trump-makes-his-case-in-pittsburgh/501335/.

Sometimes We Fight (or “Drug Free” in America)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Rebecca Parker urges us to “bless the world.”[1] In her 2006 book, Blessing the World: What Can save Us Now, she tells the story of a time when she and a friend were walking with one of her mentors, the process theologian Charles Hartshorne. She writes, “At the threshold where we would part, Charles turned around, took our hands in his, looked us squarely in the eye, and said, ‘Be a blessing to the world.’ One is rarely given such a direct instruction, and it went straight to our hearts. When all is said and done in my life, I hope that I will have been faithful to this charge.”[2]  Be a blessing to the world.

I’ve been wrestling with a claim I made in my March 2nd sermon on surrender. In that sermon I named a variety of reasons why spiritual surrender is difficult. I talked specifically about how the dominant United States culture is a “fighting” culture that frowns upon surrender, weakness, compromise, etc. I critiqued my own instinct to fight, saying “if and when I try to fight my way through some turmoil, some pain, grief, anxiety, winds, storm—whatever it is—I rarely get there. That is, I might win the fight, but in winning I don’t necessarily gain any clarity about how I want to be, feel and act in the world.”[3] I made that claim with a confidence I still feel. I still feel that in cultivating our capacity for surrender—learning to fall, letting go, yielding, remaining quiet, being gentle, backing off, bowing down—we open pathways to deeper spiritual experience, richer lives, clarity, happiness and peace. But even as I made the claim I felt a tug, a pull, a pin-prick, a nagging at the edges of my words. Since then I’ve been wrestling with the knowledge that sometimes it’s essential that we not surrender, that we not fall, not bend, not back off; that we stay and fight. I feel confident about that too. I’m searching this morning for understanding of how and when ‘not surrendering’ is a spiritual act.

I turn to Rebecca Parker’s charge to us to “be a blessing to the world” because, while she doesn’t use the word fight, she leaves room for fighting—fighting for what is of highest worth to us; fighting for what is sacred to us. She says, “And while there is injustice, / anesthetization, or evil / there moves / a holy disturbance, / a benevolent rage, / a revolutionary love / protesting, urging, insisting / that which is sacred will not be defiled.”[4] These are not words of surrender but of engagement. There are times when choosing to bless the world requires a confrontation, an exertion, a protest, an argument. There are times when our choice to bless the world comes legitimately in response to our rage at complacency, at greed, at callousness, at injustice, at evil, and we choose to fight—not fighting in the sense of perpetuating violence, but fighting in the sense of struggling, working, contesting for something that matters. I think our best guide—our measure of when something matters enough to fight for it—is our principles. Do we discern some way in which our principles have been violated? Then we may choose to fight. Can we discern some facet of life where we feel our principles must be brought to bear? Then we may choose to fight. And perhaps more fundamentally, if we’re going to fight for something, does our desire to fight emerge from a deep and abiding love?

I want to tell you about a fight I’ve been party to recently, along with the UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee: the fight to reduce the size of “drug free zones” in Connecticut. If you don’t know anything about this issue, your first response might be, “what on earth is a drug free zone?” If you happen to know that the term refers to zones around schools, daycare centers and public housing, zones that extend 1500 feet in all directions from the property line of these facilities, zones in which, if you are caught in possession of illegal drugs, you will face “enhanced” criminal penalties including mandatory jail time; and if you happen to know that the laws establishing these zones came into being in the late 1980s to keep drug dealers away from children, then it is possible your first response might be, “Why on earth would we want to reduce the size of drug free zones? Won’t that make it easier for drug dealers to gain access to children? If that is your response then you are not alone: many people have a similar response.

Drug Free School Zone

Like “nuclear free zone,” “drug free zone” has a potent, pleasing ring to it. It sounds like a good thing. It sounds, well, safe, healthy, even wholesome. So, it is somewhat disconcerting to find myself fighting to reduce their size. So why do it? There’s a technical reason. And there’s a moral reason which, for me, has to do with our Unitarian Universalist principles.

ABWFThe technical reason is that the zones don’t achieve their stated intent of keeping drug dealers away from children. This past Friday morning, at a legislative breakfast organized by our Social Justice / Antiracim Committee and our partner, A Better Way Foundation, an organization called the Prison Policy Initiative released a report entitled “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss PPI logothe Mark.” The report states: “Connecticut’s [drug free] zone law … arbitrarily increases the time people convicted of drug offenses must spend in prison without any evidence that their underlying offense actually endangered children. In fact, the Legislative Program Review & Investigations Committee looked at a sample of
300 [drug free] zone cases, and found only three cases that involved students, none of which involved adults dealing drugs to children…. Except for those three cases in which students were arrested, all arrests occurring in ‘drug-free’ school zones were not linked in any way by the police to the school, a school activity, or students. The arrests simply occurred within ‘drug-free’ school zones.’ All of the other 297 cases in the legislature’s sample involved only adults.”[5] The point is, if the intent of the law is to keep drug dealers away from children, you’d think arrests would reflect that, but they don’t.

Which brings me to the moral reason to reduce the size of drug free zones. On Friday morning, State Senator Gary Holder-Winfield asked a provocative question: If the drug free zones don’t do what they’re supposed to do, then what do they do? He didn’t answer the question, but I want to share my answer here. Drug free zones ensure that an unreasonably high percentage of young, urban people of color end up in prison or otherwise enmeshed in the criminal justice system. How? Schools, daycare centers and public housing are so ubiquitous in cities, and the drug zones are so large (five football fields in all directions) that there is virtually no area in any Connecticut city that isn’t a drug free zone. In Hartford, pretty much the only area one can possess drugs and not be in a drug free zone is the middle of the landfill or the middle of Brainerd Airport. What this effectively means is that anyone caught possessing or selling drugs in a Connecticut city is automatically subject to the drug free zone’s enhanced penalties. Which is not what happens to people committing the same offenses in suburban and rural towns where drug free zones are more rare because schools and daycare centers are not densely packed and there is much less public housing.

Drug Free Zones in Hartford, CT (Soure: Prison Policy Initiative)

Drug Free Zones in Hartford, CT (Soure: Prison Policy Initiative)

The Prison Policy Initiative report says “Connecticut’s [drug free] zone law effectively imposes a harsher penalty for the same crime depending on whether the person who committed it lives in a large city or a small town. In practice, the law’s effects are even more insidious: the law increases pressures on urban residents, but not rural ones, to plead guilty solely to avoid the enhanced penalty…. Mandatory minimum sentences, such as those created by Connecticut’s [drug free] zone policy, warp the criminal justice system by steering cases away from trial and toward plea agreements. By creating mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement zones in disproportionately urban areas, the legislature has created a two-tiered system of justice.[6] What the report doesn’t say, but which I will say, is because people of color make up much higher percentages of city populations, people of color are disproportionately impacted by these enhanced penalties, and thus the legislature has created not only a two-tiered system of justice, but a racist system of justice. This is where it becomes clear to me that our justice system achieves outcomes that violate our Unitarian Universalist principles: it fails to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It fails to dispense justice equity and compassion to all people. And it fails to advance the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.

Druf Free Zones in Urban Waterbury, CT, compared to neighboring, suburban Prospect CT (source: Prison Policy Initiative)

Drug Free Zones in urban Waterbury, CT, compared to neighboring, suburban Prospect CT (source: Prison Policy Initiative)

I am convinced that one of the United States of America’s greatest moral failures in this post-civil rights era is the mass incarceration of young black and brown men and women as a result of the war on drugs. Just as Jim Crow laws emerged in the decades following the abolition of slavery in order to re-establish white supremacy and control the lives of people of color, so mass incarceration has emerged in the decades following the end of Jim Crow fifty years ago to re-establish white supremacy and control the lives of people of color. I hear myself say this and I hear how extreme it sounds, and yet when you look at how our state’s drug free zone laws penalize urban communities of color radically differently than white suburban and rural communities, it’s hard to deny. After forty years of the war on drugs, the United States has the largest prison population in the world, and people of color make up a huge percentage of that population in numbers that far exceed their relative numbers in the population.

This phenomenon decimates urban lives, urban families, and urban communities. In a March 10th interview for StoptheDrugWar.org, Ohio State University law professor and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander, said:

There is an implicit assumption that we just need to find what works to lift people up by their bootstraps, without acknowledging that we’re waging a war on these communities we claim to be so concerned about. [Our] common narrative … suggests the reasons why there are so many poor people of color trapped at the bottom—bad schools, poverty, broken homes….

But I’ve come to believe we have it backwards. These communities are poor and have failing schools and broken homes not because of their personal failings, but because we’ve declared war on them, spent billions building prisons while allowing schools to fail, targeted children in these communities, stopping, searching, frisking them—and the first arrest is typically for some nonviolent minor drug offense, which occurs with equal frequency in middle class white neighborhoods but typically goes ignored. We saddle them with criminal records, jail them, then release them to a parallel universe where they are discriminated against for the rest of their lives, locked into permanent second-class status….

Rather than providing meaningful support to these families and communities where the jobs have gone overseas and they are struggling to move from an industrial-based economy to a global one, we have declared war on them. We have stood back and said “What is wrong with them?” The more pressing question is “What is wrong with us?”[7]

What is wrong with us is that we—and by ‘we’ I mean all of us in the United States of America—are allowing the destruction of lives, the break-up of families, the decay of urban communities, the excessive criminalization of urban people of color, the excessive incarceration of people for non-violent offenses when what they really need—and what would be so much less expensive—is treatment for substance use disorder and mental illness. We are allowing an egregious waste of financial and human resources by investing in incarceration at the expense of education, jobs, drug treatment and mental health. I believe this. And I don’t feel comfortable just sitting back and watching it happen, even though I could argue that it isn’t my issue, that it doesn’t impact me or my children, the community where I live, or the community I serve. I don’t feel comfortable as a Unitarian Universalist who affirms and promotes seven principles, many of which mass incarceration violates with impunity. I don’t feel comfortable as a minister whose vocation it is not only to provide spiritual and pastoral support and guidance to the members of the congregation I serve, but to bear witness to injustice in the wider community and do what is within my power and my congregation’s power to address it. And I don’t feel comfortable as a human being who has some semblance of a conscience, some modicum of moral sensibility and, I hope, a basic grasp of what is right, what is wrong, and what is fair—as flawed and as limited as that grasp may be. I don’t feel comfortable.

Reducing the size of drug free zones is one way to arrest the madness of mass incarceration. Connecticut can do this this year. There will be a moment in the next month when the bill to reduce the size of drug free zones will come up for debate in the legislature. That is a moment for our voices to be heard. Our Social Justice / Antiracism Committee will do everything they can to let you know when it’s time to advocate. In the meantime, if you want to be part of this effort, we have sign-up sheets in the lobby. Another related project we’re working on is the creation of supply kits for people being released from prison. The transition from prison is difficult. At times former inmates have trouble getting their basic needs met. These kits include toiletries, super market gift cards, socks and underwear, etc. We’re going to start creating these kits as a congregation. You’ll be hearing more about this project over the next few months.

Sometimes we fight. And clearly fighting and surrendering are contrasting if not opposite spiritual endeavors. Though I wonder, is it not possible that fighting for the right reasons is itself a form of spiritual surrender. Rebecca Parker reminds us “there moves / a holy disturbance, / a benevolent rage, / a revolutionary love / protesting, urging, insisting / that which is sacred will not be defiled.” Is it not possible we fight because we finally surrender to that holy disturbance, that benevolent rage, that revolutionary love—and allow it to guide our actions? Perhaps there are times when our principles demand that we surrender the comforts and privileges of our lives so that we may bring a greater love to bear in the world. Perhaps there are times when we realize we’ve spent our days resisting the call of some great cause, and we finally surrender our resistance begin to struggle. Perhaps this is just semantics. Perhaps. But here’s what know: We care called to bless the word. And there are times when that blessing won’t be realized without a fight. Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Parker, Rebecca A., “Benediction,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) pp. 163-165.

[2] Parker, Rebecca A., “Choose to Bless the World,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) p. 161.

[3] Pawelek, Josh M., “Surrender: In Search of the Present Moment,” a sermon delivered on March 2, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/surrender-i-search-of-the-present-moment/.

[4] Parker, Rebecca A., “Benediction,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) pp. 164.

[5] Kajstura, Aleks, “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss the Mark” (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2014). Read the full report at http://www.prisonpolicy.org/zones/ct.html.

[6] Kajstura, Aleks, “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss the Mark”

[7] Read Asha Bandele’s full March 14, 2014 interview with Michelle Alexander at http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2014/mar/10/new_jim_crow_michelle_alexander_talk.

As If I Did Not Work At All

Video here.

“Because I loved my work it was as if I did not work at all.”[1]  Words from Donald Hall, a modern American poet born and raised in Hamden, Connecticut—my hometown. When I finally decided to use this reading this morning and to use these words—as if I did not work at all—as a title for this sermon, I did so because they sum up for me what it means, or at least what I believe it feels like, to have a vocation. Vocation is our ministry theme for January, and this morning I want to explore this notion of working—often working very hard—and simultaneously feeling as if I did not work at all. Vocation, in short, is work to which we feel somehow called, work we are passionate about, work that gives us a sense purpose and meaning, work that meshes seamlessly with our gifts, talents and aspirations, work we love.

However, on this weekend when our nation celebrates the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life work—whose vocation—was to provide a ministry of leadership to American movements for civil rights and economic justice, I think it would be an egregious oversight to come into any pulpit in the United States and preach a sermon entitled “As If I Did Not Work At All” without acknowledging that by most estimates there are 13 million people who literally aren’t working at all due to the long-term impact of the 2008 recession. And of course there are likely millions more who are currently able to work but have left the labor force altogether, frustrated, disheartened, demoralized. It feels somewhat awkward to speak about vocation when there are so many people who, due to circumstances beyond their control, are unable to find meaningful work at this time.

Having said that, the fact that so many people are out of work is also not a reason to avoid speaking about this theme.  In fact, in the midst of such high rates of unemployment it may be useful and even inspirational to talk about vocation. I suspect we’ve all heard stories over the past few years about people who lost jobs in the recession and used the ensuing period of unemployment as an opportunity to reinvent themselves: to start a new business, to go back to school, to get involved in civic organizations, to run for office, to care for aging parents. The list of ways we can reinvent ourselves is long. We have such stories in our congregation. When Sam Adlerstein lost his job he decided to start his own consulting business. He says, “I had always struggled with Finance as my vocation, not that I couldn’t do it well.  Rather, it was never a passion.  In fact, when I became a Certified Public Accountant, I didn’t even realize that I could connect work with my natural talents and passions.  That realization, better late than never, has now made a huge difference in my life.”

Priscilla Dutton lost a long-time job and decided to go back to school to pursue her dream of becoming a pastry chef. When I asked if I could mention her in this sermon she said “of course you can and I wish I could attend, but my new vocation is now my life and I’m loving it. I believe very strongly that I wouldn’t be so successful so quickly if I hadn’t followed my passion.” I remember walking into the UUS:E kitchen last spring to find Priscilla in the midst of baking some amazing dessert for our Annual Appeal kick-off dinner. She was covered head to toe with flour. She looked like a ghost. I thought, this person has found her calling. Sometimes losing a job opens a pathway to one’s vocation.

But let’s also remember that one’s job—what one does to earn a living—and one’s vocation—how one pursues one’s passion—are not necessarily the same thing. In fact they’re often quite distinct. We don’t always earn a living through our vocation. Many of you have retired from careers and no longer earn a living through a job, but you still pursue a vocation—like writing, crafts, photography, tutoring, mentoring, social justice organizing and advocacy. And there are others of you who don’t work outside the home earning an income, yet you still pursue a vocation through artistic endeavors, activism and volunteering—including congregational leadership. Here’s another reading from Donald Hall that helps clarify this distinction between a job and a vocation. (Note in this passage he’s using the word work in the way I am using the word vocation.) He writes:

There are jobs, there are chores, and there is work. Reading proof is a chore; checking facts is a chore. When I edit for a magazine or a publisher, I do a job. When I taught school, the classroom fit none of these categories. I enjoyed teaching James Joyce and Thomas Wyatt too much to call it a job. The classroom was a lark because I got to show off, to read poems aloud, to help the young, and to praise authors or books that I loved. But teaching was not entirely larkish: Correcting piles of papers is tedious, even discouraging, because it tends to correct one’s sanguine notions about having altered the young minds arranged in the classroom’s rows. Reading papers was a chore—and after every ten papers, I might tell myself that I could take a break and read a Flannery O’Conner short story. But when I completed the whole pile, then I could reward myself with a real break: When I finished reading and correcting and grading and commenting on seventy-five essay-questions about a ben Jonson or a Tom Clark poem, then—as a reward—I could get to work.[2]

His job and his vocation, in this case, are not the same thing.

But let me step back further and try to name the relationship between vocation and our spiritual lives. I’m currently reading Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief to my boys. This book came out in 2005, the first in the wildly bestselling Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Without going into too much detail, we’re at the point in the story where Percy’s identity as the son of Poseidon has been revealed (sorry, should’ve said “spoiler alert”). He has just learned the news of the theft of Zeus’ lightning bolt, that the pending war between the gods will destroy life on the planet as we know it and, even though he is only twelve years old, that Percy is the one who will need do something about it. His wise councilor, the centaur Chiron, says, Wait—don’t just go running off. First you must visit the oracle.[3] And the oracle, in ancient Greek and Roman religion, is a divine voice that gives hints about one’s future and the wisdom of one’s decisions. Percy has begun to feel called to go on a quest to recover Zeus’ lightning bolt. The oracle is there to say whether or not his call is genuine. This is the ancient origin of vocation, this hearing of divine voices, this receiving of a divine call to engage in some sacred work, some spiritual task, some holy mission. We see this in a variety of forms in Native American spirituality, in indigenous African spirituality and in ancient Near Eastern religions.

We certainly see it in the Bible. The books of the Jewish prophets typically begin with the prophet hearing a divine voice calling them to engage in some sacred task or to bring some message to the people of Israel, often a warning.  No prophet enjoys being called. It upsets their lives. They resist. They refuse. But the call keeps coming. Ultimately they can’t escape it. They eventually accept it and enter into their prophetic vocation.

In its most ancient sense, then, vocation has something to do with hearing divine voices. Vocation and voice have the same etymological roots. This past week I noticed Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator, Rick Santorum, using the language of “call” to describe his campaign in South Carolina. I heard him say a number of times: “We’re called here on a mission.” I haven’t heard him say he feels called by God to run for President, but given his many pronouncements about the role one’s faith must play in public life, I’d be surprised to hear he believes a voice other than God’s is calling him. I am, of course, deeply suspicious of politicians who suggest God has called them to do anything. As I’ve said before from this pulpit, I can’t imagine a God who would take sides in an election campaign or, for that matter, a football game, which has been discussed incessantly in recent weeks in response to the overt sideline prayer-life of Denver Broncos star quarterback Tim Tebow. Nevertheless, I recognize that this ancient notion that our vocation emerges in response to a divine call is still operative for many people around the world.

Perhaps clergy speak of being called or having a calling more than anyone. I feel called to liberal religious ministry. Ministry, at this time in my life, is my vocation. I suspect it will always be my vocation in some form. I work hard at it and it’s true: on my best days I feel as if I do not work at all.  (I won’t mention my worst days—that’s another sermon . . . on imperfection, failure, managing stress and learning how to say no.) I feel called, but I never heard a divine voice—at least not one I recognized—saying “you shall become a minister.” There was no burning bush, no visit to the oracle, no prophetic dream, no flying scroll, no burning coal, no still small voice in the wake of the storm asking “what are you doing here?” There was nothing to refuse, nothing to resist. But I did—and do—feel called; and if pressed to answer what it is that calls me, the most authentic response I can give is, “I’m not sure, but I know it comes from inside.” What I am sure about is that the content of my calling has no better expression than the Unitarian Universalist principles. I feel called to engage the world in a way that respects the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I feel called to engage the world in a way that prioritizes justice, equity and compassion in human relations, that supports spiritual growth, that encourages a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, that utilizes democratic processes, that helps to build a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, and that respects, honors and serves the interdependent web of all existence. These principles speak to something deep inside me. They ground me. They center me. They guide me. And at some point about seventeen years ago it began to make sense: If I could conduct my life—not just my work life, but my whole life—in accordance with these principles, I would find my vocation.

I wasn’t hearing a divine voice, but I was certainly learning to hear and heed an inner voice. I was discovering my passions, discovering my convictions. Such discovery, for me, is a pillar of Unitarian Universalist spirituality. Vicki Merriam—our Director of Religious Education—and I have been discussing how to teach our UU children about vocation this month. While we want to remind them of the ancient idea of a divine voice issuing a call, it seems far more important to us to teach them about hearing and responding to their own voice. Listen to yourself. Listen to your heart. Listen to your passions. Listen to your truth. Listen to your joy. What do you hear? How might you respond? What might your path be and how might you travel it? And for children, of course, the most important question for identifying vocation, which will be the final conversation of the month for our kids, is “What do you want to be when you grow up . . . and why?”

The why is important.  Let me share with you a poem called “There is Ministry.” The author is unknown. I’m going to change the word ministry to vocation as they really are interchangeable in this case. For me this poem begins to answer the why of vocation:

“Vocation occurs in places and circumstances, / likely and unlikely: / in churches, not often enough, but sometimes; / in prisons, and hospices, and hospitals; / by cribs and cradles; / in factories, offices, and stores; / in courtrooms and cocktail lounges / and clinics and garages; / in hovels, mansions, and at bus stops / and diners; / wherever there is a meeting that summons us to our / better selves, / wherever our lostness is found, / our fragments are reunited, / our wounds begin healing, / our spines stiffen, and our muscles grow strong for the task, / there is vocation.”[4]

We often leave the why out of the conversation when we’re talking to children. And, let’s be honest, we adults often forget to ask ourselves why we do what we do. Why are we passionate about a certain activity? Why do our natural gifts and talents lead us in a certain direction? Why do we love a certain kind of work? The why is important, because the work that truly calls to us—no matter what voice we hear—the work that presents itself to us as our vocation—is work that allows us in some way to serve and celebrate life. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation, as we learn to engage in it, allows us in some way to bring joy, healing, justice and love into the world. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation allows us in some way to move from isolation to connection, from fragmentation to wholeness, from a potentially selfish individualism to a generous and caring engagement with a wider community of people and other living things. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation allows us in some way to address the brokenness in society, the injustices in society, the evil in society. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation allows us in some way—in our unique way—to participate in that revolution of values Dr. King named in our opening reading this morning. Maybe not in ancient times but today, vocation, at its core, is our pathway into, in Dr. King’s words—and he said we are called into it— “a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation … a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all [people.]”[5]

But we don’t just turn on that love. It doesn’t work that way. I think we first we need to hear what calls to us at the deep places in ourselves—that place inside where we encounter our truth, where our conviction resides.  That’s where we find our purpose. That’s where we discover the work we love. And once we’ve made that discovery, then with we need to do with our lives the work we love. I’m mindful of that quote about vocation from the mystic, Howard Thurman: “Ask not what you the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” For me, that is the surest path to loving ourselves, loving life, loving others and loving the world; for me, that is the surest path to working and simultaneously feeling as if we did not work at all.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Hall, Donald, Life Work (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993) p. 4.

[2] Hall, Life Work, p. 4.

[3] Riordan, Rick, The Lightning Thief (New York: Disney Hyperion Books, 2005) pp. 138-9.

[4] Unknown Author in Smith, Gary, col., “There is Ministry,” Awakened From the Forest (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1995) pp. 16-17.

[5] King, Martin Luther, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 190.