Covid-19 — More Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19

  “Shared expectations lead to predictability.”

01      Q: How can I protect myself if someone else gets groceries for me?

A: When you or others bring groceries to your home, leave them outside until you are ready to safely disinfect the items.  Remove each product from shopping bags and using a standard disinfectant, wipe or spray the outer surfaces of each plastic, metal or glass product container, leaving the surface appearing “wet” for at least 10 seconds.  Place on a clean disinfected surface.   Pour or dump items such as bread, cereal and crackers in properly cleaned storage containers, safely placing the wrappers and coverings aside.  Thoroughly wash all fruit and vegetables with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.  Valuable suggestions and methods to carry out these important procedures are discussed and demonstrated in this 13-minute video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=sjDuwc9KBps&feature=emb_logJPhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=sjDuwc9KBps&feature=emb_logo

 02      Q: I sent my family and friends the 13-minute video on safely unpacking groceries.  My son tells me not to do this – it has been debunked.  He sent me back an Internet article saying the CDC does not recommend sanitizing groceries nor does the World Health Organization.  The FDA stated there is no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus.  Is this true?

A: It is true that neither the CDC nor the WHO specify groceries in its recommendations for sanitizing.  But that doesn’t mean they recommend not doing it!  They also haven’t specified sanitizing automobile steering wheels, computer keyboards, and tray tables.  But all of these are covered under the broad guideline defining the need to disinfect “surfaces.”  It is also true that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not reported any studies of virus contamination of food.  But the absence of such studies doesn’t prove that food can’t be contaminated.

Following these conclusions that protective actions are not necessary can be quite dangerous.  Consider the following.  A cereal package was handled by a stocking clerk loading store shelves while coughing.  If we believe the scientific fact that this virus remains viable – can infect others – on cardboard for up to 24 hours, why would anyone assume that handling that carton a few hours later at home was safe?  Until proven otherwise, we have to assume that all surfaces can be contaminated by coronavirus-19.

03  Q: How long does coronavirus-19 remain infectious on different surfaces?

A: Many early reports answered this question with widely differing time intervals.  To clarify this scientifically, the National Institute of Health in March 2020 published the definitive answer:

  • “In aerosols for up to 3 hours”; (this refers to airborne particles)
  • “On copper for up to 4 hours”;
  • “On cardboard for up to 24 hours”;
  • “On plastic and stainless steel for up to up to 3 days.”
    • Per previous guidance – all “hard surfaces” are in this above group.)
  • In a related earlier study, similar coronavirus particles remained infectious for 2 years or more when frozen.

These data guides us in how best to schedule disinfecting surfaces.

04  Q: If you send out for prepared meals, should we worry that the delivered food may be contaminated with coronavirus-19 particles?

          A: The safest prepared food to order from others is likely cooked and “served hot” meals.  Have these delivered and left outside with no personal contact.  Remove cardboard or paper containers placing the meals on clean dishes and bring inside.  Wash hands or use hand sanitizer.  Using a microwave, reheat the food until steam is visible.  Heat destroys virus particles.  Cold meals including salads cannot be microwaved, washed with soap and water, or have disinfectant chemicals put on them.  Existing research doesn’t yet provide a definitive answer, but indications are the risk is probably quite low.

05  Q: How did authorities come up with 6 feet as the distance for “social- separation?”

A: We are asked to follow many guidelines, but are given minimal information why these rules were developed.  One leading way infection occurs is by hand contact with the virus on surfaces, then touching the face.  The other common way of transmission is direct contact with the virus suspended in the air.  There is a greater risk of infection when the virus particles are in greater concentration.  We hear that an infected person releases the virus when they exhale the virus “droplets” that come in contact with a healthy person’s mouth or nose.  The term “droplets” can be misleading – it implies visible specks of water that quickly drop to the ground.  A more accurate term is often used: “aerosol” transmission.  Breathe on a mirror, and the invisible aerosol mist appears as a visible patch of condensed moisture.

When anyone infected coughs or sneezes, a denser aerosol spray of microscopic virus particles is discharged over greater distance than when breathing normally.  They float in the air, and drift away becoming increasingly less concentrated over time and distance.  Consider this “thought experiment” (you don’t need to actually do this while shopping!)  Using a spray can of room air freshener, point it away from you and release a short split-second puff of spray.  Imaging walking forward and note how long you can go before you can’t smell the resulting spray.  Next, imagine spraying another short puff into your bent elbow.  Note how closer to you the scent remains – how aerosol particles are more confined in their density and spread.   Imagine that the distance you can smell the aerosol odor as the same distance that coronavirus-19 particles are spread in concentrations that enable them to infect you.

Many situations influence the concentration and spread of this aerosol.  Outdoors, especially when there is a breeze, these distances are nearer the source.  In a living room with the windows closed, they concentration may be farther away.  Rather than asking us to remember and calculate for each situation we may be in, authorities have agreed upon the distance of 6 feet separation as being uniformly safe for different situations.

 

 

Speak Up Storytelling Returns to UUS:E

Pity the Fool: Stories of Fools and Foolishness

Saturday, April 4, 2020 7:00 PM

Unitarian Universalist Society: East

153 West Vernon St. Manchester, CT

Tickets: $18. Purchase tickets here.

Or purchase tickets on the night of the show. For sliding scale, contact Josh Pawelek at minister@uuse.org or (860) 652-8961.

Back by popular demand: Unitarian Universalist Society: East  Welcomes Speak Up Storytelling for a command performance and evening of amazing fun! Six brave souls will tell stories of fools and foolishness. Speak Up is a Hartford-based storytelling organization that seeks to promote the art of personal storytelling to a wide audience and foster and support a community of storytellers throughout Connecticut. Speak Up brings professional and amateur storytellers to the stage to share true stories from their lives. Speak Up founders and producers Matthew and Elysha Dicks work closely with storytellers to help them craft their stories for the stage, and they also teach storytelling workshops for storytellers and professionals at every level.

 

 

Roots Where None Ought to Be (Searching for Agua Santa)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

My clergy study group used to meet at the former, Catholic Our Lady of Peace retreat center in Narragansett, RI. The original building is an old stone mansion called Hazard Castle. On one side of the mansion is a seven-story stone tower which had fallen into disrepair and had been closed off to visitors many years prior. The first time I saw the tower, all of its windows were boarded up, but I was struck by the good-sized, healthy tree growing out through the boards of a second-floor window and reaching up three or four more stories. It was impressive—a tree growing out of a building.

Our Lady of Peace closed its doors in 2006 and later sold the property to a private school called Middlebridge.[1] The tower is still there, still boarded up. I can’t tell if the tree is still there. If they intend to restore the tower, it would make sense to remove the tree so its roots don’t cause further structural damage. What impressed me then, and what sticks in my mind twenty years later, is that tree, somehow planted, somehow thriving in the second floor of an old stone tower. Roots where none ought to be. Roots taking hold, reaching down through layers of human construction toward the earth, finding water and nutrients, finding what is required to sustain life.

Our ministry theme for February is resilience. I offer this tree with roots where none ought to be as an image, a symbol, a declaration of resilience. I am here. I will not only survive, I will thrive.

I figured someone must’ve posted a photo of that tree online somewhere, but I couldn’t find one. I did, however, go hiking at Waconah Falls State Park in Dalton, MA over this past Thanksgiving weekend. On the rock ledges above the falls, trees plant themselves. Their roots creep over the rocks until they find cracks and fissures where they reach down into the soil beneath, down to where the water pools. A photo of one of these trees is on the front cover of your order of service. I assume this type of tree, and the type of tree on the Hazard Castle tower, have evolved over millennia to grow in this way, to plant themselves on rock surfaces. Perhaps they can survive with less water than other trees.[2] Perhaps, given the power of natural selection, this planting is nothing extraordinary. But that doesn’t lessen the power of the image for me. A tree with roots where none ought to be. Resilience.

This is metaphor for our spiritual lives. When life is hard, like rock, and that’s all you know in the moment, what do your roots reach for? When life is hard, like the floor of a rock tower room, like a rock ledge, and that’s all we know in the moment, we might think of resilience as our capacity to find the cracks and fissures in the hardness of life, to reach into them in search of the cool, refreshing, nourishing life-giving waters that pool in great reservoirs below the surface.

As I read through the standard dictionary definitions, I learn that resilience has something to do with rebounding from difficulty, bouncing back from hard times, returning to where we were before the crisis. There are many references to rubber bands returning to their natural state after being stretched. A resilient community rebuilds after the fire, the hurricane, the earthquake, mourns its dead, accounts for its losses, and slowly resumes its daily patterns. A resilient immune system enables us to fight off an illness and resume life as we knew it. As the world tracks the progress of the new corona virus emerging in Wuhan City in the Hubei Province of China, there is much discussion of resilience—who is most at risk, how best to treat the disease? What do we do as a global community to limit the spread of the virus so that it can run its course and we can return to life as we know it? That’s one understanding of resilience: recovering, returning—bending back into our regular shape.

This definition of resilience is fine, but it’s not sufficient for a spiritual exploration of resilience. It doesn’t speak to the spiritual dimension of our lives. Specifically, it doesn’t speak to the reality that we can’t always return to life as we knew it.

A loved-one begins losing their cognitive abilities, slides slowly into dementia. Life simply will not be the same.

A loved one dies. We may return in time to some semblance of normalcy, but life will never really be the same.

We age. I’m old enough to know that there comes a time in our lives when our bodies simply don’t do what they used to do. Despite our best efforts to stay healthy and strong, our bodies slowly, slowly, slowly break down and we can’t go back to the way life was.

This doesn’t mean we lack resilience.

I’m thinking of all those profoundly hard experiences, experiences that cause suffering—living with and treating cancer, living with chronic disease, mental illness, addiction, losing a job, losing a friend. We don’t return to life as we knew it. Sometimes even those things that bring us the most joy are also profoundly hard and push us beyond life as we knew it—raising children, and sometimes grandchildren; sustaining a marriage through challenging times; being true to the self you love even as that self is rejected because of homophobia or transphobia, sexism or racism. So often we can’t return to the life we knew. That life is gone. Certain features remain—we never change completely. But we can’t live the way we used to. Perhaps, in such moments, we are like a tree, on solid, cold, unforgiving rock. Can we now find the cracks and fissures, the often hidden, hard-to-find pathways to those reservoirs of sacred water below the surface? Spiritual resilience is our capacity to adapt to losing the life we knew and accepting life in new forms, on new terms.

Our friends at the Unitarian Universalist resource hub Soul Matters remind us that the word “resilience comes from the Latin re ‘back’ and saliens ‘the beginning, the starting point, the heart of the embryo.” This reminds me: the true starting point is not how we were living before our loved-one died. The true starting point is not how we were living before the diagnosis, before we realized we are aging, before whatever hard thing is happening in our lives. Those reservoirs below the surface? Those holy waters? They’ve always been there. Consider the the waters that sustain life on our planet. They’ve been feeding this earth and its creatures since life began. Our ancient singled-celled ancestors emerged in those waters as they gathered in pools along primordial shorelines. We each rode their gentle waves in our mother’s womb. When life becomes hard, resilience isn’t about getting back to where we were before the hardness; it’s about our ability to keep reaching for our holy waters, our agua santa, our spiritual resources which are, in fact, vast.

In her poem, “Aurelia: Moon Jellies,” tejana poet, Pat Mora, hints at this spiritual vastness as she describes a jelly fish floating gracefully beneath the ocean’s surface: Without brain or eye or heart, / Aurelia drift, / bodies transparent as embryos. / Tentacles trailing, / they ride unseen / currents, bathed by all they need / in agua santa, old sea, / depths where we begin.[3] The true starting point is not where we were before the hard thing entered our lives. The true starting point is the unseen current that has been carrying us, bathing us in all we need, all along.

When I contemplate the image of the tree on the rock ledge on the cover of your order of service, I imagine, though it sits on rock, it knows the holy water is there, knows it has to find the cracks and fissures, knows even once it finds the soft earth beneath the rock, it still must reach deep down to where the water lies in vast pools. There’s a lesson for us in this image. When the hard thing happens to us, it’s very rare that we begin our journey into it with acceptance and grace. More likely we react to the hard thing with strong emotion—sadness, anger, frustration, disbelief. Depending on what the hard thing is, we may simply feel overwhelmed, unsure of how to proceed, unsure of whom to tell, unsure of how to tell it. We may feel uprooted, disconnected, cut off, lost, adrift. Often the hard thing demands that we focus first on technicalities – arranging for a funeral, arranging for doctor appointments, meeting with a lawyer, re-arranging finances, moving. In the midst of strong emotion and dealing with technicalities, we easily become cut off from our spiritual resources. In such moments I commend to you the tree with roots where none ought to be. It knows water is there. It knows to reach. We know it too. Can we remember?

As we wrestle with the hard things in our lives, may we be like trees with roots where none ought to be. May we remember to reach. May we have moments of epiphany:

Oh yes, I remember now: self care. I need to take care of my body: exercising, stretching, sleeping, eating healthy food, and some comfort food. All this is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

Oh yes, I remember now: soul care. I need to care for my soul: surround myself with beautiful music, artwork, books, nature. All this is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

 Oh yes, I remember now: friendships. I need friends who will support me and care for me, people to whom I can name this hard thing, people whom I can ask for help when I need it, people who will spend time with me, engaged in the simple things that bring joy, the card game, the ice cream cone, the cup of tea, the new drama on TV. All this is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

 Oh yes, I remember now: community. I need to participate as best I can in community, to join with people who share common values, a common purpose, common goals. This, too, is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

 Oh yes, I remember now: prayer. I need to still my mind, calm my mind, center my mind, so that I can encounter the sacred, that reality larger than myself that nourishes me, sustains me, reminds me I am not alone. I need to reach for, to invite, to welcome, to embrace the sacred. This is agua santa

Then, finally, once my roots where none ought to be have found the cracks and fissures, have reached deep into the earth, have touched the holy water, then I need patience. Hard things are hard in part because they take time. We read to you earlier “A Center,” from the Chinese-American poet and novelist, Jin Xuefei, known as Ha Jin: You must hold your quiet center, / where you do what only you can do…. / Don’t move even if earth and heaven quake. / If others think you are insignificant, that’s because you haven’t held on long enough. / As long as you stay put year after year, / eventually you will find a world / beginning to revolve around you.[4]

He is not advising us to cling futilely to things that don’t matter, or to obstinately refuse to let go of attachments that cause needless suffering. He’s offering insight  into resilience. Find your quiet center, and wait. He’s advising us to stay rooted. He’s reminding us that our persistence, our perseverance, our patience, help us stay rooted, help slowly strengthen the connections between ourselves and those agua santa reservoirs below. He’s reminding us that it is not only we who adapt to life’s hardness, but that as we root ourselves, life’s hardness adapts to us.

****

Now, speaking of patience, I want to change the subject, although I am still speaking about resilience. I want to offer an update. As some of you are aware, though I know not all of you are aware, our experience of providing sanctuary to an asylum seeker last year was not easy. Disagreements over how best to approach various challenges resulted in conflict, and we are now working with two facilitators from the Unitarian Universalist Association to help us address this conflict well. While it would be unfair to those involved in the reconciliation process for me to share details of that process, in part because we need to honor confidentiality, I want all of you to rest assured that a reconciliation process is underway. Though it is hard, the people involved are engaging with openness, grace and integrity.

Second, though it is hard, my impression is that everyone involved understands that reconciliation takes time. In those who are participating I observe patience, rootedness, and a deep commitment to this congregation. In short, I see incredible community resilience and it warms my heart.

Finally, I previously had said that while we need to honor confidentiality, this conflict is not a secret. I am willing to meet with anyone who would like to know more. I am still willing to do that, however, one of the goals of this process is for those involved to be able to tell one story about why disagreements became so difficult to manage. I am recognizing that, for the sake of the integrity of the reconciliation process, it is better for me not to tell my version of the story, but rather to let the collective story emerge. We’re not there yet. We’re in an in-between space. We’re a tree on hard ground whose roots are seeking the agua santa reservoir below the surface. We will find it. We will tell a common story. Of that I am certain. I thank all of you for your patience. It is yet another sign of our community resilience.

Amen and blessed be.         

 

 

[1] Snizek, Rick, “Diocese Sells Former Retreat Center,” Rhode Island Catholic, April 29th, 2012. See: https://www.thericatholic.com/stories/diocese-sells-former-retreat-center,4943.

[2] After preaching this sermon, a congregant pointed me toward Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, for insight into the role of moss in enabling such trees to grow on rock surfaces. See: https://www.amazon.com/Gathering-Moss-Natural-Cultural-History/dp/0870714996.

[3] Mora, Pat, “Aurelia: Moon Jellies,” Agua Santa / Holy Water (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995) p. 19.

[4] Ha Jin, “A Center.” See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/152066/a-center.

Rarely So Clear: Thoughts on Integrity

Our ministry theme for January is integrity. For the past few months I’ve anticipated talking about President Trump in this sermon. Especially after Congress’s December 18th vote to impeach him, it would seem strange to preach a sermon on integrity and not address what appears to me to be a glaring lack of integrity in the person who holds our nation’s highest elected office.

One definition of integrity is ‘adherence to a moral code.’ President Trump certainly lives and governs by a set of codes. I want to name the codes I witness in his conduct, with the caveat that I know his supporters witness the same codes and interpret them very differently. Among them are: win by any means, including ignoring or breaking the law. Demean your opponents relentlessly. Demand unswerving, unquestioning loyalty from those who work for you; dismiss them when they waver. Repeat falsehoods incessantly so as to obscure the truth or, when that fails, admit wrongdoing as if it’s no big deal, or, when that fails, file law suits and settle out of court. Project strength. Praise dictators. Speak to people’s fears rather than their hopes and dreams. Exploit the weak and marginalized. And most important for the purposes of this sermon, never admit you—or anything you do—is anything less than perfect. He follows these codes with ruthless consistency. One could argue there is a kind integrity in this consistency. However, the moral dimension is highly dubious. The best I can come up with is some version of “might makes right,” which has a long history as a moral philosophy; though as moral philosophies go, it’s among the most cruel, selfish and prone to criminality. Thou shalt exploit thy neighbor—and thy nation—for thyself.

I’m calling this sermon “Rarely So Clear,” in part because the lack of integrity in a public official is rarely so clear as it is in President Trump. I say this mindful that I haven’t spoken from this pulpit about the impeachment hearings. Now that Congress has voted for impeachment, I think it’s important for you to hear from me directly as your minister—though it likely comes as no surprise: based on the president’s conduct in office, I think the impeachment vote was correct. the president is unfit for office. I think the evidence presented during the impeachment hearings, while clearly not complete, is sufficient to demonstrate that he has violated his oath to uphold the Constitution.

But that’s not the sermon I want to preach about integrity. I don’t want to preach it because I don’t know what the useful spiritual lesson is. If the situation were less clear, if there were gray areas, if the president could acknowledge that not everything he does is perfect, if there were traces of kindness and compassion undergirding his actions, then maybe there’d be a sermon here. But this president refuses to reflect, at least publicly, on his own life, refuses to admit mistakes and wrongdoing, refuses to acknowledge in any way his human frailties and imperfections, refuses to ask for forgiveness. There’s no internal struggle in him, just denial. I think it’s much more instructive to talk about people for whom integrity requires self-probing, struggle and confession. I am far more intrigued by people who we assume have incredible integrity, yet who admit to internal conflict and self-doubt. I am far more intrigued by people who seem to lack integrity, yet who can also admit it, and then identify how they are striving to develop it. Integrity—or the lack thereof—is rarely so clear. The spiritual lessons reside in the lack of clarity.

Integrity is more than adherence to a moral code. It comes from the Latin word ‘integer’ which means whole and complete. In this sense, integrity has something to do with embracing all aspects of oneself—one’s gifts, talents, strengths, and also one’s challenges, vulnerabilities, shortcomings. The spiritual writer Parker Palmer once wrote,  “I now know myself to be a person of weakness and strength, liability and giftedness, darkness and light.  I now know that to be whole means to reject none of it but to embrace all of it.”[1] In order to embrace all of it, one must be aware of and able to reflect on those aspects of self that are not so positive, not so perfect, not the greatest ever. Integrity emerges in the crucible of that full embrace.

I read to you earlier a poem, “Who Am I?” by the theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leader of Germany’s anti-Nazi “Confessing Church” during World War II. The Gestapo arrested him in April of 1943 for anti-Nazi activities. They executed him in April of 1945 for his apparent connections to a plot to assassinate Hitler. We rightly regard Bonhoeffer as a person of great integrity for his moral clarity and his resistance to fascism. There is a popular image of him as a person who accepted his fate with courage and peace of mind. He acknowledges this in the poem: “They often tell me / I emerge from my cell / serene and cheerful and poised…. / They also tell me / I bear days of misfortune / with composure, smiling and regal, / like one accustomed to victory.”

And yet this outward appearance does not match his internal state. He describes himself as “disquieted, yearning, sick, caged like a bird, / fighting for breath itself… / helpless in worry for friends endless distances away, / tired, with nothing left for praying, thinking, working, / weary and ready to take leave of it all.” He’s keenly aware of two versions of himself. “Who am I?” he asks. “This one or the other? / Am I one today and another tomorrow? / Am I both at the same time? Before others a hypocrite / and in my own eyes a contemptibly self-pitying weakling?”[2] It’s rarely so clear.

I’m reminded of the private letters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Here is a person of towering, impeccable moral integrity who, we learn, lived for many years in deep despair, feeling that God had abandoned her, and thus, as she put it, being “on the verge of saying ‘No to God.’” In 1961 she wrote to the German Jesuit priest, Joseph Neuner, “the place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me … I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—Heaven—souls—why these are just words—which mean nothing to me.—My very life seems so contradictory. I help souls—to go where?—Why all this? Where is the soul in my very being? God does not want me.”[3] It’s rarely so clear.

I suppose I’m even reminded of Jesus, on the eve of his execution, retiring to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray after celebrating Passover. He is anything but calm and serene. On the contrary, he is distressed and agitated. He says to his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death.” He asks some of them to stay awake while he prays. When he finds them sleeping he is disappointed, angry, saying “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” He doesn’t want to die. When he prays, he says to God, “take this cup from me.” Though he also understands, like Mother Teresa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “your will be done, not mine.”[4] Jesus displays spiritual groundedness and agitation, courage and fear, conviction and misgivings. The gospel writers are embracing all of him. Integer. Whole. Compete. Integrity.

What appeals to me about Bonhoeffer’s poem is what he calls “this lonely probing of mine”—his willingness to reflect on and name his experience of his own weakness and vulnerability, his exhaustion, his fear. As much as he may want to be the perfect, even beatific person his guards say he is, he knows he isn’t that person. At least to him, the full range of his humanity is on display. He’s doing a noble, principled, courageous thing, but in his eyes, he’s doing it imperfectly. We might even say he’s doing a spiritually perfect thing—sacrificing himself for his principles, for truth, for justice—imperfectly. He’s embracing all of himself. Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

There’s a paradox here. The spiritual life isn’t about attaining a state of perfection. God may not show up. And even if God does, our best selves may not show up. Especially in our most difficult moments, there will be doubt, misgivings, fear, lack of clarity. As long as we inhabit these human bodies, there’s no such thing as perfection. As we strive for some abstract or ideal state of spiritual perfection, our bodies, our nerves, our racing thoughts, our anxieties, our contradictions—our full humanity—easily undercuts our striving. Yet, as we embrace our imperfections, as we let that same, complicated, confounding humanity shine through, that’s when we grow spiritually. Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

I recently encountered a version of this paradox in tennis star Andre Agassi’s 2009 autobiography, Open. Not the kind of book I normally read, but it came highly recommended. I don’t feel completely comfortable talking Bonhoeffer, let alone Mother Teresa and Jesus, in the same sermon as Agassi, who is sometimes remembered for the commercial tagline “image is everything.” But I read his book over the Christmas break and found it compelling because he writes very openly about his sheer lack of integrity as a young player, and how he struggled to develop it.

In 1994, at a low-point in his career, Agassi began working with a new coach—a retired player named Brad Gilbert—who gave him advice no one had ever given him before. Agassi writes, “Brad says my overall problem … is perfectionism.” He quotes Brad: “by trying for a perfect shot with every ball, you’re stacking the odds against yourself…. Just keep the ball moving. Back and forth. Nice and easy. Solid…. When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you’re doing? You’re chasing something that doesn’t exist. You’re making everyone around you miserable. You’re making yourself miserable. Perfection? There’s about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can’t lose to anybody, but it’s not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being, for that matter. It’s the other times.”[5]

Agassi struggles to let go of his perfectionism on the court and in his life. It takes him years to internalize Gilbert’s teaching. Even by the time he wrote the book in his late thirties, he clearly still hadn’t fully figured it out. But he knows this about himself. He knows it’s hard to live a life of integrity. And he knows integrity has something to do with embracing every part of himself. Regarding a speech he’s preparing for students at a charter school he founded in Las Vegas, he says: “My theme, I think, will be contradictions. A friend suggests I brush up on Walt Whitman. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I never knew this was an acceptable point of view…. Now it’s my North Star. And that’s what I’ll tell the students. Life is a tennis match between polar opposites. Winning and losing, love and hate, open and closed. It helps to recognize that painful fact early. Then recognize the polar opposites within yourself, and if you can’t embrace them, or reconcile them, at least accept them and move on. The only thing you cannot do is ignore them.”[6] Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

It’s rarely so clear. Integrity takes more than adherence to a moral code. In fact, unthinking, unreflective adherence to a moral code is a form of perfectionism, which can be as dangerous as having no code at all. Bring your whole self along. Question. Probe. Reflect. Notice your contradictions, your polar opposites. Be honest about them. Be humble about them. In this sometimes painful embrace of the whole self lies our very human path to integrity.

Amen and blessed be.

[1]  Palmer, Parker J., Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999)  p. 70.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, “Who Am I?” Who Am I? Poetic Insights on Personal Identity (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2005) pp. 8-9.

[3] Letter from Mother Teresa to FatherJoseph Neuner, most probably April 11, 1961, in Kolodiejchuk, Brian, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (New York: Doubleday, 2001) pp. 210, 211.

[4] Mark 14: 32-42; Luke 22: 39-46; Matthew 26: 36-46.

[5] Agassi, Andre, Open: An Autobiography (New York: Vintage Books, 2010) pp. 186, 187.

[6] Agassi, Open, pp. 383-384.

The Invitation is Always There

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“If you keep thinking, you miss the flower,”[1] says Buddhist monk and global peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.” This is the meaning he derives from the story of the Buddha’s disciple, Mahakashyapa, a foundational story—an origin story—for Zen Buddhism. We shared Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the story earlier in the service. Unitarian Universalist minister and Soto Zen priest, James Ishmael Ford tells it this way:

A large gathering … came to hear a talk by the Buddha. Instead of speaking about enlightenment he simply held up a flower, twirling it slowly in his fingers. Of the whole assembly only one person understood—the Venerable Mahakashyapa. He smiled. Seeing the smile, the Buddha declared, “I have the all-pervading True Dharma, incomparable Nirvana, exquisite teaching of formless form. It does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside scriptures. I now hand it to Mahakashyapa.”[2] According to tradition, the founder of Zen Buddhism, the semi-mythical Bodhidharma, an Indian Buddhist who travelled to China in the sixth century, was the 28th successor to the Buddha through the lineage of Mahakashyapa.

In addition to being an origin story for Zen Buddhism, this story is also a koan, meaning it is itself an object of meditation. Like any koan, its meaning is not immediately, or perhaps ever, apparent to the rational, thinking mind. In response to any koan, one intuits their way to understanding more than thinks their way to understanding. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.” As I encounter Thich Nhat Hanh’s interpretation of this koan, I recognize that, though I think I understand what his words mean, I would be foolish to think I understand what they mean to someone like Thich Nhat Hanh who’d been meditating for over fifty years at the time he wrote them. Furthermore, though I think I understand what his words mean, and though I think I can talk about them in a sermon, the truth is I’m still thinking about them. I’m still thinking about words that advise me to stop thinking. I’m still thinking and writing about words that assure me the all-pervading truth “does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside of scriptures.”

As simple as Thich Nhat Hanh makes it sound, I have to assume I am still missing something. And what I am missing is not a thought—I have plenty of those. What I am missing is not a set of words—I have plenty of those. What I’m missing is an intuitive experience. The experience of being fully present. Do I know what that means? I like to think so … but, there I go again, thinking. Do any of us really know what being fully present means? Had I gone to hear the Buddha speak on that day, had I witnessed him twirling that flower in his fingers and saying nothing for minutes on end, would I have had the wisdom and the skill to quiet my thinking mind, which likely, and very understandably, would have been asking questions like, ‘What does this mean?’ ‘What is the significance of the flower?’ ‘Why twirl the flower in his fingers?’ ‘What kind of flower is it?’ ‘What is Mahakashyapa smiling about?’ Would I have had the wisdom and the skill to quiet my thinking, questioning, analytical, concept-forming mind and let myself fully experience the present moment, fully experience the flower in the Buddha’s fingers? Would I have smiled?

Maybe. I don’t want to rule it out entirely….

But doubtful.

Our ministry theme for November is attention. Although every religious tradition calls on its adherents to pay attention in some way, to pray, to contemplate, to study scripture, to go on pilgrimage, to worship, to “wake now my senses,” as one of our UU hymns says,[3] in my experience no tradition speaks more beautifully or extensively about paying attention than Buddhism. I remind us that our Unitarian Universalist living tradition draws from many sources, including “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” That’s where I am grounding myself this morning. I’m wondering about paying attention for the purpose of being fully present, and I’m turning to Buddhism for guidance.

How often are we fully present—present to any particular moment, like this moment; present to a person, a loved-one, a child, a neighbor, a stranger; present to an activity, washing dishes, drinking tea, raking leaves; present to suffering, physical or emotional pain, abuse, discrimination; present to nature, the changing seasons, the night sky, the barren November fields. Paying attention for the purpose of being fully present is hard. When I say that, I don’t mean it’s hard because of the many ways technology now intrudes into our lives, the rise of social media, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle. And I’m not saying it’s hard because of the troubling, frightening re-emergence of hatreds in our era that so many of us thought were in decline, or because of the troubling, frightening acceleration of climate change in our era. Yes we live in an age of extraordinary distraction, but that’s not why paying attention for the purpose of being fully present is hard. It has always been hard. Many people came to hear the Buddha speak. Apparently only one of them was fully present. It isn’t a question of what’s going on in the world around us. There is something in our very human nature—in the structure of our bodies, our wiring, our brain chemistry, our neural pathways, our senses—something in the way all of it works together—that makes paying attention for the purpose of being fully present hard no matter what is happening in the wider world.

Buddhists speak of the monkey mind—the way the mind very naturally jumps from one thing to another. Monkey mind is not a condition that some people have and others don’t. As far as I can tell, it’s the normal condition of most human brains. The new issue of the UU World magazine, which arrived last week, features an article by the Rev. Erika Hewitt and religious educator Becky Brooks called “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy.” They write “Chaos is an apt term for what happens between our ears during the practice of meditation. That’s because it’s the mind’s natural state to be whirring, planning, and chattering.” They cite the Rev. Eric Walker Wikstrom, who “describes meditation mantras as ‘giving the tiger a certain amount of meat to keep it quiet,’ suggesting that without that distraction, the mind is like a roving, predatory beast.” They proclaim, “Hear us now, fellow monkey minds: the presence (the loud, active presence) of inner voices, noise, and whirl during meditation does not mean you’re doing it ‘wrong.’ It means you’re human.”[4]

I find this very affirming. I hope you do too. My mind often races around, jumps up and down. Does yours? I notice that even when I’m focused on some task like mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, raking leaves, chopping wood, shoveling snow, or when I’m exercising, despite my focus on the activity, my mind is always monkeying: What’s next on my schedule? What’s happening tonight? What do I have to do to prepare for this meeting, or that class, or next week’s sermon? What time is Max’s basketball game? Where is it? Who’s cooking dinner? Oh, wait—I’m not home for dinner. What are the boys going to eat? Who am I forgetting? X is going into the hospital. Y is coming home from the hospital. Has Mason written the final draft of his college essay? If I don’t do anything about it, the thoughts just keep coming. My body is going through the motions of the task; I have no problem performing the task; but my mind is somewhere else. I’m not fully present.

That’s what monkey mind looks like for me when I’m engaged in a task. What’s fascinating to me is how it works when I’m purposefully not doing anything, when I’m actually attempting to meditate, to quiet my mind, to not think of anything at all,[5] to not miss the flower. Then the monkey really takes off. It’s as if true quiet, true emptiness, true presence free of all thought is frightening to the part of me that thinks. The part of me that thinks really doesn’t want to be extinguished. It resists. Don’t stop thinking!

I figured out many years ago I am not on the path to enlightenment. That is, I don’t feel a compelling personal spiritual call to engage in a dedicated, regular meditation practice. Though, having said that, I want to be clear that I recognize the importance such practices hold for many Unitarian Universalists; and I celebrate the spiritual richness Buddhists and those with an affinity for Buddhism bring to our congregations. I may not be on the path to enlightenment, but  being present—as fully present as possible—is important to me, especially in relation to other people. If my mind is monkeying while I’m washing the dishes, that’s my loss, but no harm done. If my mind is monkeying when a family member, or one of you, or a colleague is talking to me, that’s a problem. And though I may never know what it means to be fully present in a state of deep meditation, nevertheless, I can strive for presence in my day-to-day life. Buddhism can inform that striving. And what I learn from Buddhism is that the invitation to be present is always with us in any given moment. It’s an invitation worth accepting.  We accept the invitation by learning first to notice when and how, and maybe why, the mind starts monkeying; and second, learning to gently pull the mind back to the task at hand, to the attempted quiet, to the relationship, the conversation, the present moment. Our capacity to be present to the world begins with being present to ourselves.

Thich Nhat Hanh invites this presence to self through breathing. In those moments when the mind is monkeying, interrupt it with conscious breathing. He says “our breathing is the link between our body and our mind. Sometimes our mind is thinking of one thing … our body is doing another … mind and body are not unified. By concentrating on our breathing, ‘In’ and ‘Out,’ we bring body and mind back together, and become whole again. Conscious breathing is an important bridge.” He offers this mantra: Breathing in, I calm my body. / Breathing out I smile. / Dwelling in the present moment, / I know this is a wonderful moment![6] Breathing will carry us toward presence, but the mind will monkey again. Remember, that’s the norm. Being present requires a continual interruption of the norm. Conscious breathing is one way to interrupt, to bring mind and body together, to come back to the moment.

It’s not a forceful interruption. It’s not bellicose. It’s not judgmental. It’s a gentle and compassionate interruption. The writer Anne Lamott offers a wonderful image. She says, “Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper. So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen, maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence.”[7] The invitation to be present is always there.

In their recent UU World article, Hewitt and Brooks say something similar: “When (not if!) we get distracted … the heart of meditation is to notice your distraction—your departure—and make the decision to try again. The practice isn’t the doing; it’s the return, the reentry.”[8] Our mind will monkey. The invitation to unite body and mind is always there. The invitation to quiet the mind is always there. The invitation to stop thinking and behold the flower is always there. The invitation to offer that heart-felt, genuine smile is always there. The invitation to move back toward presence is always there.

There’s nothing doctrinal or dogmatic about this. There’s nothing here about right or wrong. We won’t be punished for having stray thoughts. The mind will monkey. That’s normal. The invitation is always there to gently pull it back to presence. I find great comfort in this ongoing—dare I say eternal—invitation.

Why accept the invitation? Why does being present to ourselves matter? In short, it’s a gesture of kindness to ourselves, and as far as I’m concerned, each of us deserves kindness. But beyond that, I think it’s also true that as we develop the capacity for being kind to ourselves, we develop the capacity to return kindness into the world. I like the way Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg puts it in a recent blog post. She writes, “the practice of shepherding our attention back to the present—even an incalculable number of times—helps us find the power to be kind to ourselves…. [When] we react to our compulsions with compassion … we open up, and feel a subtle movement of our hearts. This movement of the heart is like the sea moving close to the ocean floor — it is so subtle, but affects everything above.”[9] It effects everything above. In short, kindness to self begets kindness to others.

Is that really true? Maybe it’s just wishful thinking. I suppose it will always be wishful thinking if we keep confining it to the realm of thought. But if we keep thinking we miss the flower. The point is to accept the invitation, to make that gesture of kindness to ourselves, to strive for presence. Will that enable us to bring more kindness into the world? The invitation is always there. And what is there to lose but a few wandering thoughts? May we accept the invitation.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thich Naht Hanh, “Flower Insights,” Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) p. 43.

[2] Ford, James Ishmael, This Very Moment: A Brief Introduction to Buddhism and Zen for Unitarian Universalists (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) pp. 27-28.

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

[4] Brooks, Becky and Hewitt, Erika, “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy,” UU World (Winter, 2019). P. 18.

[5] Takashina, Rosen, Zetto Zemmi, in Conze, Edward, tr., Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 1959) p. 138.

[6] Thich Naht Hanh, “Conscious Breathing” and “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment” in Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) pp.8-10.

[7] Lamott, Anne, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1994) p. 99.

[8] Brooks and Hewitt, “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy,” p. 19.

[9] Salzberg, Sharon, “A New Vision of Kindness Starts with Paying Attention,” On Being, June 11th, 2016. See: https://onbeing.org/blog/a-new-vision-of-kindness-starts-with-paying-attention/#.

Soul Advocacy

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Spiritual writer and medical doctor, Rachel Naomi Remen,[1] once pointed out that “in [our] culture the soul … too often goes homeless.” Her solution to this condition is listening. ‘Listening,” she says, “creates holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear truths in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.”[2] The remedy to the soul’s homelessness is listening.

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Most of you have heard by now that we finally, and very thankfully, have a report in response to the congregational survey we conducted a year ago. Our Growth Strategy Team is working hard at producing a summary to share with you. There are copies of the full, 323-page report in our office if anyone would like to read it in its entirety. As I was studying the report this summer I noticed a set of comments about social and environmental justice advocacy. We have a strong identity as a congregation that engages in social and environmental justice advocacy: Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights, sanctuary, domestic worker rights, environmental racism, renewable energy, climate change. We’ve recently established a partnership with the Verplanck Elementary School in Manchester which may, in time, involve different forms of advocacy in solidarity with the students and their families. We’re currently signing people up to attend the October 28th launch of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. Participation in that organization, in time, will involve advocacy. Not every UUS:E member is involved in these activities, but these activities do shape the identity of the congregation.

The comments I’m referring to were asking, essentially, “is that kind of advocacy the essence of who we are?” “Does that kind of advocacy provide a sufficient or sustainable foundation for the identity of a congregation?” Or more bluntly, “what about our own congregational community? What about our needs right here?” And even more bluntly, “what if I disagree? Is it OK to say that?” I don’t read these comments as assertions that progressive churches should not be acting on their principles in the public sphere. I read these comments as asking, simply and forthrightly, that we not forget the other reasons we gather on Sunday mornings. We gather in worship to hold up and celebrate all that is worthy of our attention, time, energy and commitment.[3] We gather to be in multigenerational community, wherein our children learn from adults, and our adults from children. We gather to be held in our grief and affirmed in our joy. We gather to celebrate our milestones. We gather for our own and our collective spiritual growth and deepening. We gather because in our larger culture the soul too often goes homeless; and here, we hope, the soul finds a home. If we somehow forget these reasons for gathering, if we do not tend well to this soul homelessness, then our social and environmental justice advocacy will be ultimately ineffectual.

One way to describe what we do here on Sunday morning and throughout the week is “soul advocacy.” Our social and environmental justice advocacy beyond the walls of our meeting house must be grounded in, and is thus dependent on, the soul advocacy that happens within the walls of our meeting house.

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Soul advocacy. This term came to me as I was contemplating the survey report this summer. However, I was sure it is not unique to me. I googled it. Sure enough, it’s pretty common. People who use it fall into two categories: new-age-self-help gurus and Christian motivational speakers. In either case, nobody ever explains what the soul actually is. People use the word ‘soul’ all the time, and just assume that the rest of us know what they’re talking about. Yet, if there’s one thing I know about Unitarian Universalists, it’s that the minister can’t use traditional religious terms—especially terms as ambiguous and mushy as ‘soul’—and expect a group of UUs not to wonder what they mean. So I want to spend a little time on what I mean by ‘soul’ right now.

Soul isn’t a clear Biblical concept. Neither the Hebrew nor the Christian scriptures offer a well-developed conception of the soul. In the western world, soul is a classical Greek idea, the  Platonic idea of an indestructible, immortal entity that is part of us, though it seeks liberation from the physical body. It seeks to return to the source, the One, or God. It wasn’t until the European Middle Ages that Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas successfully synchronized the ancient Greek ideas with Christian thought. Even then, and certainly today, Christianity has never spoken with one voice on what the soul is. Catholics and Protestants have differed. Liberal and Conservative Christians have differed.[4] Aquinas lived at almost exactly the same time as the Sufi poet and mystic, Jal?l ad-D?n Muhammad R?m?, who is well-known for his beautiful meditations on the soul. My sense is that, similar to Christianity, there have been ongoing discussions of the soul in Islamic philosophy over the centuries as well. And there are similar, longstanding dialogues within Eastern religious traditions.

These have largely been dialogues among theologians and scholars. What has filtered down into popular western culture is an understanding of the soul as an entity that resides within us, has something to do with who we are—our personality—and lives on in some way after our physical bodies die. Popular culture is filled with references to this understanding of soul. Some of you may be familiar with the Netflix show “The Good Place,” a thoughtful, hilarious meditation on the afterlife and how one’s soul enters the good place, or not. I’m also thinking of the Saturday morning cartoon trope in which a character predictably dies in some spectacular way, and then a whispy, ethereal version of them leaves the crumpled, physical body and floats upwards, sometimes all the way to Heaven where it encounters a version of St. Peter at the pearly gates. Sometimes the direction is downward to a much less benign fate. (For those of a certain age I’m thinking of the misfortunes of Wile E. Coyote, but I see it in today’s cartoons as well.) (I’m also thinking of the Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze movie Ghost.) That whispy, ethereal version of the character is the cartoon representation of the soul.

This is, indeed, a popular culture conception of what the soul is and what happens to it after death. And certainly there are religious people who believe that the goal of the religious life—and the goal of soul advocacy—is to ensure that whispy ethereal version of us achieves eternal life in Heaven.

But that isn’t at all what I mean by the soul. It isn’t what Rachel Naomi Remen and other modern spiritual writers mean. It isn’t what the new-age-self-help gurus mean. And it isn’t what many Christian, Jewish and Muslim theologians and philosophers mean. For me it’s important to bring the soul down to earth, to ground it, to advocate not for its other-worldly, eternal status, but rather for its health, well-being and visibility in this life.

In a sermon I preached about five years ago, I said “Imagine we’re having a conversation and you’re telling me about something for which you have great passion, something that makes you come alive, something so important to you that you can’t let it go; you’re going to pursue it, you’re going to wrap your life around it. When I see your eyes light up at the prospect of your life so dedicated; when I hear the enthusiasm and the strength in your voice when you speak about it; when I perceive it living very naturally in your body; when I sense the energy you gain from contemplating what your life could be—that glow, that excitement, that conviction, that power—that’s your soul. It’s not a thing. It’s a quality in us. It shines through when we’re being authentic, telling the truth, pursuing our passions. It’s never complacent or static…. It is restless. And if we open ourselves to it, it will push, prod, call us further along, higher up, deeper into…. fulfillment, satisfaction, wholeness.[5] The soul is that part of you that is most uniquely you and without which you would not be you.

When Dr. Remen says “in our culture the soul … too often goes homeless,” I hear her saying that this quality in us, this best self, this true self, this passionate self, this source of our creativity and our desire for wholeness—that’s what goes homeless. That’s what too easily gets shut down, overlooked, cut-off, silenced, ignored, or forgotten through the course of a normally busy, a lonely, isolated day, or a technology-saturated day. That’s what becomes an afterthought in the midst of pain and suffering, in the midst of anxiety, stress and fear, in the midst anticipated crisis or actual crisis. And that’s the soul we advocate for here, when we gather in this place.

How do we do that? Soul advocacy begins with listening. Dr. Remen says  “the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart. When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”[6] Of course, the word ‘advocacy’ often assumes taking an action, marshalling resources, speaking truth to power, fighting for rights, fighting for justice. There’s an underlying assertiveness to it, and underlying aggressiveness. Soul advocacy is different. ‘Passive’ isn’t quite the right word, but it may look like passivity, because the one doing soul advocacy is quiet, open, attentive, listening. The one doing soul advocacy creates space, and offers into that space a welcoming, inviting, curious attitude. “You speak (or draw, dance, sing, cry). The soul advocate holds what you communicate with care and tenderness.”

Soul advocacy is as simple as that. Listening, focusing, caring, being present, staying with. Our willingness to listen invites the speaker’s soul to come forward from wherever it is hiding. Our willingness to listen creates space for the speaker’s soul to surface, to emerge, to reveal itself not only to us but to the speaker as well. “When you listen generously to people,” says Dr. Remen, “they can hear truths in themselves, often for the first time.” Our willingness to listen not only to the usual pleasantries, the small talk, the weather, but also to the desires, the yearnings, the longings, the passions, as well as the struggles, the challenges, the pain and the painstaking movement through it—that is soul advocacy. Where do we really get to proclaim this part of our selves, let alone openly wrestle with it? Where do people deeply listen to us? Hopefully our families and close friends create such spaces for us, though this is not the case for everyone. Does your soul get to come out at work? Maybe, if it’s a very special work place. School? Maybe. If it’s a very special school. I’m sure there are places many of you can name where your soul does not feel hidden or homeless. But certainly religious community ought to be one of those places where soul advocacy happens regularly.

We share joys and concerns publicly as part of our Sunday morning worship. It’s an opportunity for people to speak from their depths. The rest of us listen. That’s soul advocacy.

Most of our committee meetings begin with some form of check-in. This, too, is an opportunity to speak from the depths for those who choose to do so. The rest of us listen. That’s soul advocacy.

In our small group ministries, our spiritual affinity groups, our religious education classes, during pastoral visits, memorial services, and when we welcome new members into the congregation—there are opportunities to speak from our depths. The rest of us listen. That’s  soul advocacy. When the listening creates a space for the speaker to begin to shine, to glow, to sing; when it creates a space for the speaker to confidently share from a place of vulnerability or pain; when it creates a space for the soul to come home, then our soul advocacy is successfull.

Is it always successful? Do we always get it right? No. We don’t. I know there are times when I’ve left a meeting and realized later that someone offered a sharing of great depth to which I wasn’t fully attentive. We don’t always listen well. We don’t always listen skillfully. We don’t always succeed in our soul advocacy. I suspect that is, at least to some degree, the reason why some survey respondents raised concerns about social and environmental justice advocacy. If a person is living with soul homelessness, it makes sense that they would raise questions about where our collective focus is, where our attention is. So I’m reminding us: our act of listening to each isn’t just good manners. It’s spiritual practice. It’s soul advocacy.

Listening, if we’re doing it well, is an inherently relational act. The listener gains as much value as the one they listen to. I love the way Dr. Remen puts it: “In the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.” That is the kind of spiritual foundation soul advocacy creates in a congregation. My prayer for us as we enter more fully now into the congregational year is that through our connections to each other, through our listening, through our soul advocacy, we may encounter that singing.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] For information on what Dr. Remen is up to currently, see her website: http://www.rachelremen.com/about/.

[2] Remen, Rachel Naomi, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 220.

[3] Arnason, Wayne, and Rolenz, Kathleen, Worship that Works: Theory and Practice for Unitarian Universalists (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008).

[4] This brief synopsis is drawn from Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Touchstone, 1997) pp. 226-227.

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “For What the Soul Hungers,” a sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, April 14, 2014. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/for-what-the-soul-hungers/.

[6] Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom, pp. 143-144.

Adventures in Spiritual Plumb-Bobbing

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“If only for once it were still”—words from the late 19th-early 20th-century Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.[1] I suspect every society in every age has had and will have its high pace, its franticness, its urgency, anxieties and stresses, its underlying sense of crisis. And in response I suspect every society in every age has had and will have its poets, its artists, its spiritual leaders who cry out some form of the words, “If only for once it were still.” If only for once I—we—could be at peace, at rest, quiet, tranquil, safe, unguarded, serene. “If only for once it were still.”

We here in this congregation are well-rehearsed at witnessing, naming and feeling the anxieties, stresses and underlying crises of our own time. Certainly we witness, name and feel various manifestations of the climate crisis. We witness, name and feel various manifestations of economic crisis in our communities, our nation and the world. We witness, name and feel our nation’s political crisis—a deepening divide between liberal and conservative world-views, red vs. blue, coasts vs. heartland, rural vs. urban. We witness, name and feel the gun violence crisis, the opioid crisis, the resurgence of white nationalism. We pay attention to and attempt to address these crises. They have real and sometimes crushing impacts on our lives or the lives of people we love, on our community life, on our common national life. Our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to witness, name, feel and respond to these crises. Respect for human worth; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; faith democratic processes; the goal of world community; respect for the interdependent web of all existence—our principles demand that we pay attention and respond to the crises of our times. What is our role? What can we do? There’s an intensity to this liberal faith in this frantic age. And in the midst of it, the poet’s cry is ours as well: “If only for once it were still.”

Rilke lived in what surely felt like an age of rapid technological growth. He was born in 1875, before the invention of the electric lightbulb, the modern automobile and airplanes. All of these things were in mass production by the time of his death in 1926. Still, he didn’t have television or computers. He didn’t have cable, the internet, social media, or smart phones. I’m naming these technologies because as amazing and powerful as they are, they also clearly heighten the franticness of our age. They heighten the anxiety. They heighten the feeling of crisis by bringing it ever closer to us, by enabling us to dive into the news cycle at any time, by making the world accessible to us and us accessible to the world virtually anywhere, any time of day if we don’t turn our devices off. And when we do dive in, the messages, images, advertisements and headlines arrive with dizzying speed which often, ironically, obscures the crises we want to understand. “If only for once it were still.”

I find cable news shows to be a signature example of how technology brings crisis and anxiety closer while simultaneously obscuring them by making it more difficult to focus on what really matters. Picture in your mind’s eye how a typical cable news show looks. There’s usually a headline at the top of the screen, along with a fancy, eye-catching graphic, photo or video. Then there’s a talking head or a panel of experts in the middle of the screen, along with various ads in boxes to the right or left; local weather in another box, the date and time in yet another, sports scores and stock prices in other boxes, and the constant flow of more headlines and information running across the bottom of the screen, completely unrelated to what the talking heads are talking about. Where are you supposed to look? There are 10 or 12 options on the screen. And if your ears are listening to the talking heads, but your eyes are reading the headline roll, what is the quality of the information you are receiving? It’s as if the screen is inviting us to multitask as we watch. Yet, everything I’ve ever read about multitasking suggests it is a myth—not a real human capacity. Our conscious minds can only really focus our attention well on one thing at a time.[2] “If only for once it were still.”

I was ordained to the Unitarian Universalist ministry in 1999, just around the time the cable news industry was taking off, about six months after the founding of Google, but well before the advent of social media and smart phones. I remember much that was spoken and sung at my ordination, but the Rev. Thomas Mikelson, one of my mentors in ministry, offered a simple piece of wisdom I shall never forget. He said “Go deep rather than wide. Wide is easy and tempting, but deep is where saving ministry lies.”

What I experience in this moment, twenty years later, is that we live in a larger culture that daily pulls us relentlessly widthwise, even as our souls hunger for depth. We live in a larger culture filled with seemingly endless, heart-breaking stories about harm done to people, to the environment, to institutions, to neighborliness, to civility, even to the truth—all of it vying for our attention, drawing our focus in myriad directions at once. We live in a larger culture whose front page, unfortunately, resides on screens with tens if not hundreds of options to click on, each click leading to tens if not hundreds of new options, our attention and focus drawn relentlessly widthwise, but rarely, if ever, deep. “If only for once it were still.”

I’d been talking to Mary Bopp about this widthwise pull as we prepared for this morning’s service. She suggested a piece of music entitled “Plumb,” p-l-u-m-b, as in ‘plumbing the depths.’ I immediately thought of the plumb line and the piece of metal at the end of the plumb line, the plumb bob. The plumb line is one of humanity’s most ancient construction tools. If I understand correctly, the builder suspends the plumb line. Gravity pulls the bob toward the center of the earth so that the line is perfectly vertical. [Pause] (You’ve got to wait until the bob comes to rest. For once it is still.) The builder uses the plumb line’s verticality to assess the verticality of the wall they are building. The plumb line is a vertical reference point for the builder.

This feels like a fruitful metaphor for talking about our spiritual lives. In the midst of a culture that pulls us relentlessly widthwise, makes multiple, simultaneous demands on our attention, what is our plumb line? What points straight down to our center, our core? What is our truth? In the midst of the pulling, the franticness, the anxiety, the crises, can we drop our line, pause until the bob stills, and, as we sang, return to the home of our soul, to who we are, to what we are, to where we are;[3] and from there know more clearly how to focus our energy?

It’s a powerful spiritual metaphor, though it carries certain risks. Plumb lines are mentioned in the Bible. One of the more famous references appears in the book of Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord God, / See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,/ a tested stone, / a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: / ‘One who trusts will not panic.’ / And I will make justice the line, / and righteousness the plummet;/ hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, / and waters will overwhelm the shelter [of falsehood].”[4] Using the plumb line as a spiritual metaphor Isaiah is calling out the Israelites who have strayed from God’s justice and righteousness and threatening divine retribution.

We read earlier form the book of Amos, another well-known passage: “The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord asked me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ ‘A plumb line,’ I replied. Then the Lord said, ‘Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.'”[5] Amos is also calling out the Israelites, reminding them that God has spared them so far, but now God has set a line and those who don’t measure up will not be spared. Essentially God is using the divine plumb line to determine who gets punished.

That’s not what I had in mind.

My concern always with these sorts of scriptural passages is not that they somehow mar the majesty, beauty and complexity of ancient Israel, but that they might be used today to divide people from each other; that the so-called righteous might use their plumb line to identify and cast out the so-called unrighteous; that so-called believers might use their plumb line to identify and cast out non-believers; that those who understand themselves as morally upright, upstanding, straight—like a plumb line—might use it to persecute those who don’t measure up. We could be talking about how religious institutions and people have historically persecuted gay and lesbian people, gender non-conforming people, people with physical or mental disabilities, poor people, Native Americans, pagans, folk healers, witches, interfaith couples, divorced people, unwed mothers, and more because they didn’t or don’t measure up. It makes sense to me that in times of crisis, in times of high anxiety some people (including us) can and/or will gravitate toward a very strict spiritual plumb line. It gives structure, meaning and purpose to their lives, which is a good thing, but the shadow side is that it can also become a tool of division, of persecution. If that’s the case, I think it’s better if the walls lean a bit. It’s better if things are a little off, in fact it’s much better that way.

Of course there is another use for the plumb line and bob: plumbing the depths or what sailors might call depth sounding. Quoting from an article on the historical website Vintage News, “The most primitive tool for depth sounding was called a sounding line, or lead line: a thin rope of a certain length, with a lead plummet on its end. The lead lines were swung or cast by the “leadsman” …. At bigger depths, sailors used to tie marks made of leather, calico, serge or some other material. Those marks were placed at certain intervals and shaped and attached so that they could be easily read during day or night. Marks were placed at every second or third fathom…. After dropping the lead, the leadsman called out the depths. If a particular depth was exactly at a mark, [they] would say: “by the mark,” and then say the number. If the depth was somewhere between two numbers, [they] would say: “by the deep” and then say an estimated number of fathoms.”[6]

So far I don’t see any risks using depth sounding as a spiritual metaphor, except that sometimes the water is deep and dark. We don’t always know what we’ll find when the bob settles on the bottom. Is our line long enough for the bob to reach the bottom? But in the midst of a culture that pulls us relentlessly widthwise, it’s really important to practice plumbing the depths. Hence, “Adventures in Spiritual Plumb Bobbing.”

We heard earlier a meditation from the Rev. David O. Rankin, “Singing in the Night.”[7] His practice for spiritual plumb bobbing is prayer. He says “I love to pray, to go deep down into the silence: / To strip myself of all pride, selfishness, and coldness of heart.” Perhaps that’s his first mark. “To peel off thought after thought, passion after passion.” By the mark, 2 fathoms. “To remember how short a time ago I was nothing, and in how short a time again I will not be here.” By the mark, 5 fathoms. “To dwell on all joys, all ecstasies, all tender relations that give my life zest and meaning.” By the mark, 7 fathoms. “To peek through a mystic window and look upon the fabric of life—how still it breathes, how solemn its march, how profound its perspective.” By the deep, about 10 fathoms. “And to think how little I know, how very little, except the calm, calm of the silence, and the singing, singing in the night.” By the deep.

It’s not enough to know how deep. What do we bring back from the depths? On a website called “Historical Naval Fiction,” I learned that if a sailor wasn’t familiar with the ocean floor where they were sailing, they could fill a hollow indentation on the bottom of the bob “with tallow or another sticky substance so that a sample of the bottom could then be brought up…. The nature of the bottom might be mud, sand, shingle or shell … or if nothing attached to the tallow, rock.”[8]

What might we bring back from our depths? What might stick to the tallow on our spiritual plumb bobs? Rilke hoped to bring God back. “If only for once it were still…. / I could possess you, / Even for the brevity of a smile, / To offer you / To all that lives, In gladness.” Perhaps what we bring back is what we need most in the moment. Perhaps the act of being still, centering, peering within, reminds us what is most important: Gratitude. Humility. Truth. Purpose. Principles. Mission. Acceptance.  Hope. Community. Faith. Love. Hopefully what sticks will help us stay focused, attentive and awake in the midst of uncertainty, anxiety and crisis, in the midst of a culture that pulls us relentlessly width-wise.

Our ministry theme for September is expectation. My expectation for the year is that we shall take adventures in spiritual plumb bobbing, that in those aspects of our lives that matter most, we shall not go wide, but rather deep.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Rilke, Rainer Maria in Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna, tr., “Wenn es nur einmal so ganz stille wäre,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 53.

[2] Napier,Nancy K. “The Myth of Multitasking,” Psychology Today, May 12, 2014. See: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creativity-without-borders/201405/the-myth-multitasking

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

[4] Isaiah 28: 16-17. (New Revised Standard Version)

[5] Amos 7: 7-8. (New International Version)

[6] Docevski, Boban, “Depth sounding techniques that preceded the modern day SONAR technology,” Vintage News, February 23, 2017. See:

https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/02/23/depth-sounding-techniques-that-preceded-the-modern-day-sonar-technology/

[7] Rankin, David O., in Benard, Mary, ed., “Singing in the Night,” Singing in the Night: Collected Meditations, Vol. 5 (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2004) p. 3.

[8] “Taking Soundings, Historical Naval Fiction. See: https://www.historicnavalfiction.com/general-hnf-info/naval-facts/taking-soundings.

Connetic Word Tag Sale at UUS:E

Connecticut’s Slam Poetry Team, Connetic Word, is running a tag sale in the UUS:E parking lot this coming Saturday, September 7th from 9:30 to 3:00 to help raise funds to cover the cost of their recent trip to the Brave New Voices competition in Las Vegas. Come out and support this very talented group of YOUNG PEOPLE!!!

 

The Summer Day

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Summer Day

On August 18, the service was based on the Mary Oliver poem, “The Summer Day.” Five people responded to this powerful poem which asks about creation, prayer, and paying attention and ends with the query: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The speakers range in age from 15 to 87. They are Anya Stolzman, Desiree Holian-Borgnis , Stacey Musulin, Marsha Howland, and Mary Heaney.

Anya Stolzman

What will I do with this wild and precious life? How does someone even begin to answer that? When I sat down to write my response to the poem, I was struck by how little idea I had to even start. It was an intimidating prospect, and I didn’t quite know how to approach it. But, after a little while of intense soul searching, I was able to come up with one general idea to share today:

I want to travel. I want to see the world, to experience its sights and flavors, to learn its love and diversity. The world is a gift, and it has so much to offer. I want to know it’s deepest secrets, it’s narratives and fantasies. Nature’s beauty is precious, in the rainforests where waterfalls crash down to earth, and in the deserts where the sunset paints a scenery full of shimmering gold and rusty orange. In the cities where people connect and feel joy together, the lights winking among the tall buildings, and in silent forests where a thought is the only noise. In the sky and the sea, both shining in the moonlight, deep and mysterious. In the mountains and tundra, crisp and lonely, but steadfast against the horizon. From the darkest caves to the brightest peaks, the world is beautiful. The people in it are beautiful, too. Full of light and hope, and sometimes sorrow and despair, good people are the treasure that the earth hides under its layers, the treasure worth searching for.

Traveling holds a certain magic to it, for me at least. Every time I see or taste something new, or learn a new perspective, I feel like it adds something to me. Traveling is what has shaped me into who I am, and every scene and experience turns into a cherished memory. And traveling doesn’t have to be big or small; even staying in-state can hold the same merit as going across the ocean. Living in Alaska meant a lot to me; I loved the mountain air and the dark mornings and the summers that barely got up to 70 degrees. It was what first gave me a taste of travel in a way that mattered; before that, I had only really traveled when we were moving. What I remember most about Alaska is when the family would get in the car and drive places. Often it would just be a drive to school, or to downtown. But sometimes we would go elsewhere; we’d drive on freeways that swept through forests and led to winding roads that sat between sharp cliff faces and the rolling waves of a river. These roads were special; they led away from the big city, and into long stretches of nature occasionally interrupted by quaint little boating towns that smelled like dead fish (a smell that still stirs some nostalgia in me, even if it is fairly disgusting). We would usually pull up into a small dirt parking lot, at the base of a semi-steep mountainside, ready for a two-hour hike filled with loud singing, and a few times we went to see a glacier, it’s colossal white mass blocking the horizon and looking massive compared to the tiny people that clamored around in the valley below it. And when we left Alaska, we drove across the country for two weeks. Things like that were what initially gave me a desire and love of travel; and New England has much to offer as well.

Going to places like New York is a blast, as its energy is infectious, and going to Wisconsin to see family is always nice. We often go to the shoreline for lobster rolls and to spend the day at the beach, or Harkness Park. And sometimes we spend the weekend in Massachusetts or New Jersey, just for the sake of it. And besides that, there’s so much more to see. I want to visit France, and drive out into the country, where small cottage towns lay quietly between the rolling hills. I want to see the sunset in Brazil, peaking over the crystal ocean, and to see the yellow beaches and tropical rainforests where birds sing together. I want to try fish and chips in England, and I want to hike the mountains in Norway. I want to see the yellow fields in Scotland, and I want to see the Irish dancers in their beautiful dresses and loud shoes. To go to a bustling marketplace in India, or to try the legendary street food in China. To see the old Aztec temples and the current Mayan villages, to talk to the people and learn their stories. It’s my dream to explore the earth, for its nature and its gifts. And that’s how I want to spend my one lifetime; unwrapping the world’s gifts, seeking it’s buried treasure and the map to its book of stories. To know it’s love and compassion, spread by the people it holds dear. I plan to take great leaps forward into new places, like a grasshopper would bound through a field. Because this is one wild and precious life, and I plan on living it while holding the earth and its miracles close to my heart, where they belong. Thank you.

Desiree Holian-Borgnis

What will I do with my one wild and precious life? My answers range from whatever I feel like at the time to, what I planned to do two years ago. I am a planner by nature, but am trying to allow for more spontaneity. I try to look at all the possible outcomes, roadblocks and deterrents to what I want. I live by my agenda and always have a notebook with me…as well as a book to read and at least one knitting project. I worry about the future, money and the environment.

I often think about how I can be more. More successful, happier, a better wife, mother, friend…the list goes on.  If I change jobs will I make more money, be more successful? If I join that direct sales company will I be able to quit my job and be home more? If I do exactly what my Organization board on Pinterest says will my stress and anxiety disappear? The short answer is NO. The long answer is still NO, but there are a lot of twists and turns and self-doubt along the way.

I find myself seeking out the next thing without always appreciating and enjoying the thing at hand. I’ve accomplished something so what is next? I went on my annual camping trip so now it’s all dull and mundane until my next big trip, meeting, or special day. I’m not sure where this comes from, except to blame it on my being an elder millennial who sees everyone’s curated life on a variety of social media and feels like if they can do it so can I. I should be able to sell all of my earthly belongings and travel the world having amazing adventures with my husband and children #thebucketlistfamily. These are people who always seem to be living their one wild and precious best life.

This year I have been trying to go with the flow more. If we wake up on a Saturday morning it is beautiful, we may decide to go for a hike instead of doing our normal grocery shopping and errands. This has been difficult for me as I need to always know what to expect, but with two children things don’t always go to plan and by that, I mean never.

Last year Kevin and I went across the country on a road trip for our ten-year anniversary. We stopped in Lexington, KY, Kansas City, Kansas and finally made it to Estes Park, CO for four days before trudging all the way back. On this trip we didn’t know a lot of places to go and we didn’t have anyone to lean on if something happened or we had questions. We had to explore which is something that I am not used to or to be honest comfortable with. We had a blast and since then it has been my goal to try more things, do more self-care and name things about myself that are holding me back. I have discovered that yoga in a lavender field is intoxicating and singing mantras at the kirtan is a spiritual experience. I have also discovered that driving 12,000 feet up a mountain causes me to have a pan attack. The point being that I tried something new, even though I was scared.

I am trying to find things that truly make me happy. There are some things I know already: snuggling, reading, knitting, watching Real Housewives of …well anywhere. I think that during the survival stage of parenting I forgot that I also really enjoy laying in the grass, cooking, quiet, and sometimes being alone with only the sounds of nature in my ear.

Being in nature is something that has always grounded me. When life gets crazy just put your feet in the dirt. I am trying to do this more. I will do this more. It is important for my body, mind and soul. What else can I do, but the thing that stills me and makes me feel whole.

What will I do with my one wild and precious life? I will fall down in the grass, be idle and blessed and stroll through the fields with my family and friends, finding true joy in life. As long as I have it in my agenda.

Stacey Musulin

(W)hat is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

 “The Summer Day,” describes the act of carefully observing a grasshopper, of paying attention and noticing the actions of that small creature at the same time asking the big questions: Who is the Creator? What is prayer? Why are we here in the world?

Recently, I was skimming through Rev. Josh’s book “Hear the Earth Call,” and an essay entitled, “Our Lives’ Design” seemed to address a similar theme. Here is part of that essay:

(W)e humans have evolved to the point where we are able to gaze out at the heavens and observe our universe; and … that observation… engenders a spiritual yearning in us…a spiritual identity marked by ongoing curiosity, wonder, openness, awe, a desire for knowledge, a passion for truth, and gratitude – deep and profound gratitude that the universe is the way it is, and we are here to bear witness to it. (T)his curiosity, this wonder, this gratitude – is in fact the essence of our lives’ design.

I hear in both Rev. Josh and Mary Oliver’s works that awareness, curiosity, openness, and gratitude are part of our spiritual identity, our purpose, our lives design. We may differ in our individual definitions of God, prayer, or our purpose in life, but we are unified in our noticing, our questioning, and our engaging with the world around us.

(W)hat is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Is there a part of you that thinks, “I can’t take a whole day off to walk in a meadow to connect with grasshoppers!” (Me too!) There are so many things that compete for our time and attention. We focus on caring for those we love, the list of necessary household chores, the calendars filled with important appointments & meetings, and our overflowing inboxes at work.

The good news is that we don’t need to lie in the grass with a grasshopper to know our lives’ design and purpose. Instead we can shift our attention to focus on the everyday people, places, and things we encounter.

I’m not saying that getting away from it all isn’t important. Summer vacations are important. It helps us reset because it’s easier to feel that “curiosity, wonder, openness, and awe” when we aren’t distracted by our typical “To Do” lists.

However, the best benefits of spiritual practice come if it is something we try to do every day, not just on vacation or when we come to service. What we do doesn’t need to match anyone else’s definition of prayer or meditation. So, DO take the time and lie in the grass with the grasshoppers when you can, but when you are away from the meadow, notice the child, the partner, the neighbor, the bird, the tree, the sky…whoever and whatever you encounter in your everyday life. Really notice and be grateful for the life around you. That awareness can be part of your practice if you choose.

Summer is fleeting. Seasons turn. This cycle of life isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since those changes bring new, wonderful things to notice. Still, some of what we love about life right now must be like the grasshopper: “float away” and often “too soon.”

So, let’s enjoy these August days while they are here…and keep pondering

(W)hat is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Marsha Howland

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Several years ago, I encountered “The Summer Day” for the first time. I fell in love with it — and especially with that last question.

Not long after, I began planning my memorial service — not as a morbid thing at all, but as a kind of gift to my family and to myself. One of the first things I decided was that a reading of “The Summer Day” would end the service. What a wonderful question with which to leave the guests:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Within a couple of years of deciding this for my own memorial service, I got a call from a friend whose sister had just died after a long fight with cancer. She asked me to recommend a poem to read at her sister’s memorial service, and of course I suggested Mary Oliver’s extraordinary poem. My friend told me it was perfect. And of course, it was.

But of course, the poem is really a call to the living:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

And so, I have to ask myself this question. The answer is very important.

I have never been “wild” in the traditional sense. The “wildest” thing I’ve done recently was to show up at our WUUdstock festival costumed as a hippie. I didn’t win a prize, but damn I felt good!

So, yes, I’m sort of quiet and reserved — on the outside. Inside I have a vibrant imagination that I put to work in my poetry. And that gives me a great deal of joy.

But what about my being quiet and reserved? Have those characteristics held me back? Of course, they have.

Focused on my career — which I enjoyed very much and found very rewarding — I didn’t have much of a social life. And, until later in life, I didn’t acknowledge to others OR to myself that I’m a lesbian. Once I did, I took action, despite believing that as I got increasingly older it became increasingly unlikely that I would find someone with whom to share my life. I got annoyed with friends who kept giving me the cliché, “It’s never too late.”

Well, they were right. My hopeful/hopeless persistence brought a wonderful woman into my life just a bit over a year ago. I was 66 years old.

But my story isn’t nearly as important as yours. Every story is different, of course, and your story can’t be written unless you pick up a pen. That’s why I encourage each of you to look at yourself in a mirror and ask this magnificent question:

“. . . what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Mary Heaney

One month ago, I celebrated my 87th birthday.

I admit it: I’ve become one of those irritating, annoying elders who persist in admonishing young people with the assertion that “If I knew at your age what I know now, things would be very different!” Way back when I was the victim of this ominous earful, I had no idea what on earth my elders were talking about. Eventually, I learned that this was just another way of saying that “youth is wasted on the young” and that I had a long way to go and a lot to learn.

I came to understand that I must travel my own hills and valleys and follow my own path. That path, tortuous at times, has brought me to the life I now lead. Rather than fate and destiny, I’m a strong believer in chance and coincidence; yet deep inside there’s a sense of the rightness of things, of being precisely where I need to be.

Suppose my son Ted had not moved to Connecticut. I would have had no impetus to move here. Ted would not have met Carol, and my grandchildren (if any) would not be exactly as they are. (Unthinkable!) In an abundance of caution about moving from my lifelong home state, I rented instead of purchasing a home, intended as a temporary measure. Sixteen years later I’m still a renter, the ideal situation for me at this stage of life. I’m here to stay.

Though I was Unitarian prior to moving here, my spiritual home would not have been UUS:E. I would not have known this blessed place or any of you, who have welcomed me, respected me, accepted me for who I am, and helped me through tough times–physical, emotional, and spiritual–awarding me the most joyous friendships anyone could dream of. People here mean what they say when it comes to accepting one another and recognizing every person’s inherent worth and dignity. I am inspired and enlightened by all of you.

Truly, life has never been more settled, contented, or serene.

So, in response to Mary Oliver’s query as to what I intend to do with the rest of my life, why in the world would I want anything to change? I love my life just as it is now. I intend to do whatever I must to keep it this way: to take good care of my health, enjoy my extraordinary family and friends, luxuriate in my passion for books, theater, film, and music, and adhere to UU principles. An Episcopal prayer reminds me to “live so honestly and fearlessly that no outward failure can dishearten me or take away the joy of conscious integrity.”

Yes, this IS my one life, and yes, it IS precious. But I’ve no desire for it to be “wild” in any way. I am at a place where peace is a priority, and I believe I’ve found that peace within myself at long last. And as for being that irritating, annoying elder—I’m working on that!

Quoting Edna St. Vincent Millay: O World, I cannot hold thee close enough!

Yes, And….

Rev. Josh Pawelek

This summer my wife, Stephany, and I enrolled in an improv class at Sea Tea Improv in Hartford. Although I’ve always enjoyed improv. the idea of taking a class had never occurred to me. It was Stephany’s idea—something we could do together, something that would push us, at least a little, out of our comfort zones. Personal growth.

When we registered for the class I felt confident—I got this; I like meeting new people; I’m comfortable speaking in front of strangers; I’m comfortable speaking extemporaneously. But as the day of the first session approached, I grew more and more nervous—maybe I don’t got this; maybe I have no idea what this is really about. And worse: Isn’t improv for people with that rapid-fire-think-on-your-feet sense of humor which I don’t have? Even worse: What if I’m not a genuinely funny person?

At the first session in June, it became clear to me very quickly that I don’t got this. I have some skills in extemporaneous speaking. I get asked to speak or pray or center a group on the spur of the moment all the time. But in those instances I typically have at least a few minutes to contemplate what I will say. Improv isn’t like that. Nobody says, “you have 5 minutes to prepare a skit about a strange visit to the doctor’s office, or a complicated family gathering, or an awkward dinner conversation. In improv there’s no preparation. Preparation defeats the purpose. You come out on stage with your partner or team, and the host invites the audience to offer prompts. The prompts are typically a relationship (parent-child, spouses, friends, co-workers, an undertaker and a corpse, etc), or a location (a city street, a dessert island, a park bench, backstage at Woodstock, etc.), or an event (NASCAR, a picnic, an auction, a baseball game, an exorcism, etc.). That’s all you get. And from there you improvise. No thinking, no discussing, no planning head of time. Just go. Well, I rarely, if ever, operate like that. That first class? I did not have it.

Although there’s no preparation in improv, there are basic rules to follow. You and your partner or team are creating a scene, which may be absolutely ridiculous—sometimes the more ridiculous the better—but the audience has to be able to follow it. That’s what the rules are for. We learned the acronym CROW. C is for “character.” As the scene begins, give yourself and your scene partners names or identities. If my scene partner says to me, “Hi Mordecai,” then I am Mordecai. R is for “relationship.” Establish how your characters are connected to each other. If I respond, “Hey Dad,” then the audience knows Mordecai is talking to his father. O is for “objective.” Establish what you are trying to do. I might say, “Hey Dad, I see you aren’t wearing any socks.” And Dad might say, “The cat took my socks, have you seen the cat?” Now the audience knows we’re looking for Dad’s socks, and to find the socks we need to find the cat. W is for “where.” Establish where the scene is taking place. I might say, “Dad, we’re in a pet store. There are at least 50 cats here.” Now the audience knows where we are.

There’s an improv principle underlying all of this, known as “yes, and.” “Yes, and” means that whatever your scene partner gives you—as a name, a relationship, an objective, a location—you accept it s a gift. You say yes, and build the scene from there. So if my scene partner calls me Mordecai, I don’t say, “That’s not my name. I’m Bob.” I am Mordecai. And if I call my scene partner Dad, they’re Dad. They might have been thinking something else. They might have been thinking I’m his spouse, or I’m his next-door neighbor, or his daughter, or his psychic. But I’ve said Dad, so my partner says “yes” to being Dad, and we build the scene from there.If I say, “you aren’t wearing any socks,” they don’t respond, “No, I am wearing socks, look they’re navy blue.” They say, “yes, I’m not wearing any socks, and the cat took them?” If my scene partner says, “the cat took my socks down to the basement.” I don’t say, “basement? That’s not where this scene should take place. Don’t you think it would be more funny if we were in a pet store, or a zoo, or even a pet cemetery?” I respond, “Yes, the basement. The cat must be doing the laundry again.” Or something like that. The point is, in improve the rule is to affirm your partner’s idea and build from there. “Yes, and.” Receive your partner’s ideas as gifts you can use to develop the scene. Don’t contradict their idea. Make them look good.

I struggled with this principle. It made sense. It sounded easy enough. But whenever I’d stand up to do a scene, my partner would name my character, and my gut reaction would be, that can’t be my name. Or my partner would give me a location—a bar—and an objective—we’re drinking and trying to pick up women; and all I could think was no, absolutely not; I don’t want to be in this bar, plus my real-life wife is watching. That actually happened at the first class; my scene partner was really, really good. But I failed at “yes, and.” I kept reminding my scene partner that I was the designated driver and very shy anyways.

Over the eight sessions of the class I discovered that once I had an idea for a scene in my mind, if my scene partner went in a different direction, I had a very hard time letting go of my idea. I might say “yes” to my partner’s CROW, but then I would try to work back to the scene I wanted to do. That was more of a “yes, and let’s do something different,” or “yes, but,” the “but” essentially contradicting what my partner had offered. Not a real “yes.” A very disingenuous “yes.” A passive-aggressive “yes.” Contradicting your partner does not make them look good.

“Yes, and” is improv’s golden rule. It doesn’t always work in real life. Sometimes we have to say “no” to an idea. Sometimes we have to say “no” for safety’s sake. Sometimes we have to disagree. Sometimes we have to assert ourselves despite whatever our partners have offered. Sometimes we have to speak our true name. Sometimes, “Yes, but” is the necessary response. “Yes, and” does not always apply. And yet “yes, and” also strikes me as an important principle for living a meaningful spiritual life.

As a reminder, I define spirituality as the practice or the experience of connecting with a reality larger than oneself. That reality could be physical and this-worldly—connecting with community, with nature, with land, with the earth. It could be metaphysical—connecting with god, goddess, spirit, divinity, the sacred. Whatever that reality larger than yourself is, to connect with it, we first have to say “yes” to it. “Yes, I want community.” “Yes, I want a connection to the land.” “Yes, I want to know the Goddess.” “Yes, I want to discern and honor what is sacred.” At the heart of that “yes” is vulnerability, risk. Saying yes to connection often requires a leap of faith. Why? Because genuine connection changes us. Genuine connection expands us, moves us, grows us. It doesn’t always allow us to hold onto our idea of how events are going to unfold, or even our idea of what is important. It won’t always honor the lines we’ve been rehearsing. It changes the scene we thought we were in.

When I couldn’t let go of my pre-conceived idea for an improv scene, the scene wouldn’t go well. As I learned to let go and receive my partner’s offerings as gifts, it worked. Yes, and.

So often it’s the same with our spiritual lives. Yes, and … we may change. Yes, and … we may grow. Yes, and … we may have to re-examine our priorities. To make way for the “and,” we have to let go, soften our hard edges, relax our impulse to be in control. To make way for the “and,” we need to distrust our own certainty. To make way for the “and, we have to let our ego recede, let our attachments wane. That experience can be exhilarating. It can be ecstatic. It can be powerful. And it can be frightening, unnerving and disorienting, precisely because saying “yes, and” makes us vulnerable. The “yes, and” of connecting with realities larger than ourselves may lead us in directions we hadn’t anticipated—new life choices, new relationships, even new faith. It may give us a new name, a new identity, a new sense of self.

It may not last. We may go back to the safety of our old ideas, old habits, our well-worn paths, the dictates of our ego—that’s a “yes, but.” Tt may be necessary, but that’s not growth. In our spiritual lives, “yes, and” leads to growth. With “yes, and” we receive whatever gifts the larger reality offers—challenge, direction, conviction, purpose, peace, serenity, oneness, love—we receive them “and” build from there.

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This will sound like I’m changing the subject, but really I’m not. Most of you will remember last fall our Growth Strategy Team asked you to take a survey about your experience of our congregation. We were attempting to identify reasons why people become members and maintain their membership, and why people choose not to become members; or why people become members but don’t maintain their membership. It took a lot longer to analyze and interpret all the data than we expected, but a report has been written. It’s long: 327 pages. I really like it, though before I say any more about it, some thank yous are in order. First I want to thank the members of our Growth Strategy Team who worked on the survey and, week after week, urged all of you to take it, despite its length: Michelle Spadaccini chairs that team. Thank you Michelle. Joining her are Carol Marion, Edie Lacey, Nancy Pappas, Louisa Graver and Jennifer Klee. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Joel Devonshire, Rhiannon Smith and Josh Tryon worked on the survey as consultants in various capacities. Thank you. And most importantly, the person who designed the survey, interpreted the data and wrote the report, is Jessica Offir. Jessica is excellent at what she does. She spent months and months of her life producing it. I’m blown away by her commitment to this project. Jessica: Thank you!

There’s a lot to say about the report, including that there are some concerns about the data. I won’t explain the concerns now except to say there is a preface to the report that offers an explanation. The Growth Strategy Team is working on a summary of the report. We will also print out a number of hard copies that you can sign out of the office, and we’ll communicate when those are ready.

For now, I want to share that one of the messages I take from reading the report is “yes, and.” Like many congregations, perhaps like every congregation, we fall into routines over time. We do things as a community a certain way. We do things, more or less, the way we’ve always done them. And the more we as a congregation get used to conducting our life together in certain ways, the harder it becomes to embrace new ideas. This is especially important for how we as a congregation relate to our newest members, because most people who are new to a congregation, though they may really like it as it is, may also wonder why we do certain things certain ways. They may have suggestions for doing things differently. The report suggests that we don’t do as good a job as we think we do in figuring out what those new ideas are. Even some people who’ve been here a long time report that their new ideas, their proposed innovations, their out-of-the-box thoughts aren’t always heard. We don’t say “yes, and” enough. We need to say it more. It is essential if we want to tap into the wealth of new ideas that’s sitting right here.

“Yes, but that’s how we’ve always done it,” is not the right answer for congregational growth. “Yes, but we tried that before and it didn’t work,” is not the right answer for congregational growth. “Yes, but people probably aren’t interested in that,” is not the right answer for congregational growth. “Yes, and,” is the answer. Idea for something new on Sunday morning? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new programs? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new sources of revenue? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new ways of doing outreach? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new community partners? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new approaches to Unitarian Universalist theology? “Yes, and!” New ideas about how to talk about gender identity? “Yes, and!” New ideas for multigenerational community? “Yes, and!” New ideas for music? “Yes, and!” New idea for how to be church? “Yes, and!”

Lauren read to you earlier Rev. Theresa Soto’s mediation, “Finding Our Dreams.” Soto writes, “Be brave enough / to name your dream. Nurture it. And / allow the rhythm of your breath / to bring your dreams to life.”[1] I want all of us to experience this congregation as a place where we can name our dreams. Yet there’s more to it than individuals naming and nurturing their dreams. They are offering gifts. As a covenanted spiritual community, we must be brave enough to listen, even if we had a different idea in mind, even if we thought we were in a different scene. And once we’ve heard new dreams expressed, may the rhythm of our collective breath bring those dreams to life.

That’s how we grow in our spiritual lives. That’s how we grow as a congregation.

Amen.

Blessed be.

Yes, and.

[1] Soto, Theresa I, “Finding Our Dreams,” Spilling the Light: Meditations on Hope and Resilience (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2019) p. 7.