On Giving Honor — UUS:E Virtual Worship, May 24, 2020

Watch our May 24th virtual Sunday Service here. 

Bridging / Thoughts on Reopening — UUS:E Virtual Worship, May 17, 2020

Friends: You can watch the video of our May 17th service, including our bridging ceremony,  on the UUS:E Youtube channel.

The text to Rev. Josh Pawelek’s homily is here:

I want to share a few thoughts on what it means for us to get back to normal. By “us” I mean not only those of us in this service – but us as the wider communities of Manchester and Greater Hartford, us as the people of Connecticut, us as a nation.

Earlier we conducted our bridging ceremony. I want to offer congratulations again to John, Sarah, Nate and Mason. And I want to affirm that it’s a very strange and unnerving time to be bridging into young adulthood. The University of California announced this week that it would only be offering online learning for the coming academic year. I suspect each of you will be encountering similar decisions by the schools you are planning to attend this fall. There are many unknowns, and yet one thing we do know is that you will not be launching into young adulthood the way high school graduates always have. Please know that whatever happens, we are here for you. We are committed to supporting you, along with all the other UUS:E young adults who are experiencing disruption at this formative time in their lives.

What about the rest of us? What kind of future are we bridging into?

On Thursday the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Safe Congregation Team released guidance on how to safely return to in-person congregational gatherings. While that guidance is not definitive for us, we need to take it seriously. And the bottom line is sobering. They recommend not returning to regular in-person gatherings until May of 2021. In making this recommendation they are asking us to account for the most vulnerable people among us – not only in our congregation, but also in the wider community. That is, if our UUS:E community were to gather too soon and become instrumental in the spread of a new outbreak, it would not only negatively impact our people, which for me is unacceptable; it would negatively impact people in the wider community. That is also unacceptable. The UUA’s guidance is grounded first and foremost in “our abiding care and concern for the most vulnerable, inside and outside our congregations” and the “recognition that we are part of an interdependent web and, as such, our risk-taking and our protective actions affect far more than just ourselves.”[1]

We won’t be re-opening any time soon, which means we’re going to have to be innovative and creative in all the ways we offering programming, and especially in how we keep our congregational community connected. And when we finally do re-open, we will not be the same community. This social distancing time is going to change us. We are not bridging back to our old ‘normal.’ Something new awaits. We will discover this ‘something new’ as a congregation over the coming year.

The UUA’s guidance flies in the face of the widespread impulse to re-open the country. Connecticut begins re-opening on Wednesday. Other states have already begun re-opening, even states where the infection rate is still on the rise. Here’s my question: Are those in charge of re-opening taking the most vulnerable people into account? Are those in charge of re-opening acting out of an “abiding care and concern for the most vulnerable?” Do those pushing the hardest for re-opening recognize “that we are part of an interdependent web and, as such, our risk-taking and our protective actions affect far more than just ourselves?”

Ten days ago I was in a meeting with clergy from the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. It was so striking to hear urban and suburban faith leaders compare notes on their experience of the pandemic. Case in point: the membership of our largely white, suburban congregation has had very little exposure to the coronavirus, and only a few positive tests. We have had no deaths. Yet my colleagues serving largely black, urban congregations report widespread infection and multiple deaths. One highly community-oriented pastor said he was getting at least a phone call a day to conduct a memorial service for someone who had died of Covid-19. Other pastors reported widespread food insecurity and economic hardship. The pandemic has exposed beyond a shadow of a doubt the many race-based economic, social and health disparities in our nation. The high infection and death rates among people of color aren’t a novelty. They are a clear-as-day symptom of the old normal. On the GHIAA call this pastor, speaking through quiet tears, said “we cannot go back to that.”

Friends: I don’t know what the future holds. None of us does. But as a society we cannot bridge back to the old normal. We cannot go back to being the wealthiest nation in the world without understanding that for that wealth to exist the way it does, tens of millions of low-wage workers, immigrants, undocumented people, Black and Latinx people must live with intolerable insecurity, just a breath away from economic ruin or personal health crisis or both.

We’ve been trying to help, raising money to address food insecurity, to support undocumented people facing ICE proceedings, to support domestic workers who’ve gotten sick, and now to support non-union rest stop workers who’ve lost their jobs. These efforts matter because they help vulnerable people survive the pandemic. But let’s be clear: they don’t change the old normal. Are we ready to be in the fight for a new society?

I hope we are. The old normal was a moral failing on the part of our nation. Now, with the coronavirus, it’s a moral catastrophe unfolding before our eyes. We cannot go back to where we were. In all your conversations about re-opening, and in every interaction you may have with officials who have a role to play in the re-opening, demand two things:

All re-opening decisions must be grounded in a demonstrable and “abiding care and concern for the most vulnerable.”

All re-opening decisions must start from a “recognition that we are part of an interdependent web and, as such, our risk-taking and our protective actions affect far more than just ourselves.”

If these values can be brought to bear in the re-opening phase, we will be on our way to a better future for everyone. In my view, fighting for this future now is a moral imperative. May we find our way into this fight.

Amen and blessed be.

 

Flower Communion, UUS:E Virtual Worship, May 10, 2020

Virtual Flower Communion at UUS:E, Sunday May 10, 2020.

Watch the recording of this service on YouTube here.

Watch the flower communion slide show created by Joe Madar here.

Watch Gina Campellone’s telling of “The Flower Ceremony, a Plain and Simple Beauty” (adapted from a story by Janeen K. Grohsmeyer in her book Lamp in Every Corner: Our UU Storybook) complete with beautiful drawings from the Gonzalez family here.

Epidemics, Violence and Healing: Women in Indigenous Communities

Virtual Worship at UUS:E, Sunday, May 3rd, 2020, with special guest speaker, endawnis Spears of the Akomawt Educational Initiative.

Watch the service on YouTube here.

This morning’s opening words are “Poem 31” from Lifting Hearts Off The Ground: Declaring Indigenous Rights in Poetry by Lyla June Johnston (Diné/Tsétséhéstáhese/ European lineages).

This morning’s story is Jingle Dancer (by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu).

In Search of Compassion in Challenging Times — UUS:E Virtual Worship — April 26, 2020

You can watch UUS:E virtual Sunday Service from April 26, 2020 on YouTube here.

Read the text to Penny Field’s homily on compassion:

In Search of Compassion in Challenging Times         

I want to begin by sharing a personal story: Paul and I began sheltering in place on March 12. I had a lot of fear of getting the virus and having complications so I didn’t want to need to grocery shop for several months. I did a big grocery shop on the 11th and the house was well stocked but very soon after I noticed that I was thinking about food all of the time. I noticed how worried I felt about how I would keep getting fresh greens without going to the store or what we do if we ran out of this or that. Or what if the food supplies dried up? I could not stop thinking about food. I intellectually knew that we had plenty and I didn’t need to worry but some part of me was thinking about it constantly. And then I would feel a huge wave of shame about the fact that I have so much privilege, I have plenty of food, I have an extra freezer filled with great things and I’m still feeling this anxiety. What’s wrong with me?

I’ve been thinking a lot about compassion in these days of the coronavirus. What exactly is compassion and how can we all experience more of it? Compassion is a bit of a tricky word. It’s one that we think we understand the meaning of but often, when asked to define it’s hard to articulate what we understand compassion to be. Usually, people use words like “sympathy” or “empathy” or talk about the feeling of wanting to help those less fortunate. But I think it’s more than that.

Sympathy, and even empathy, place the person feeling that as separate from those receiving it. Aww I feel sorry for you!  Let me help you with that! Of course, wanting to help is never a bad thing but true compassion is something different. Something more. Kristen Neff, one of the first researchers in the field of self-compassion, has developed a definition that I think does a very good job capturing the true meaning of the word. She defines compassion as the ability to hold suffering with loving kindness

This sounds simple but it’s harder than you might think. To hold suffering with kindness we first have to really notice and acknowledge the suffering. Opening up to the awareness of someone else’s pain can feel quite uncomfortable. It’s why so many people walk by the homeless, the mentally ill, the panhandlers, and completely ignore them or have a judgement like: I’m not giving them money, they’ll just buy drugs. To be mindful of the suffering is to really see the human being and to acknowledge their pain: That must be so hard! Something terrible must have happened to that person that they are in this situation now. Truly being mindful of suffering can be very challenging.

And for some of us, we may be able to be present with other people’s suffering and even able to offer help but can’t seem muster much compassion for ourselves and don’t even think to try. How many of us are harshly critical of our own pain and have trouble being kind to ourselves? We might confuse self-compassion with feeling sorry for ourselves or we have a loud inner critic that thinks we can somehow “should” ourselves into better behavior. There I was in my anxiety about if there would be enough food for me during this pandemic and what did I say to myself? I said, “What’s wrong with me?” instead of “Wow. This feels really scary and it’s hard to be this afraid.”

To hold suffering, others’ or your own, with kindness not only requires really noticing the pain but it also calls us to pay attention to how we all suffer and how your suffering is or easily could be mine. This is our opportunity to reach for connection inside of the suffering. The Latin root for the word compassion is PATI, which means to suffer, and the pre-fix COM means with. COMPATI literally means to suffer with. Compassion brings people together in the suffering.

This, too, can be really hard. It’s so human to want to be separate from others’ suffering. It feels safer to think: That could never happen to me or If so and so would just stop doing that they wouldn’t be in that trouble. It’s a survival instinct to protect me and mine from perceived danger and often, other people’s suffering is perceived as a danger so we don’t habitually look for how that trouble could so easily also be ours. But if we can notice suffering and look for how we know that pain too, or how it’s so human to suffer in that way, then we are reaching for the invisible string that ties us all together.  We are choosing love as our religion.

This truth that we are all connected, what UUs name as the interconnected web of life; that we all suffer in strikingly similar ways, has never been so apparent as now, during this global pandemic. We are suffering the shared trauma of a completely unknown future. So many of the feelings associated with this time are shared by everyone, even if the actual day to day realities are radically different.

If you are someone who has a home and is able to shelter in place that does not mean you don’t have fear about the future. If you are able to work from home, that does not mean you don’t have fear of financial insecurity. If you are sheltering with family or friends, that does not mean you are not lonely or missing connecting in person with people. If you are fortunate enough to have a well-stocked pantry, that does not mean you don’t suffer from food insecurity.

And if you have feelings of guilt about your privilege you are not alone. It’s human and so many of us share those feelings and we can begin to practice compassion for ourselves. Can we notice our fears, our grief, our anger and can we acknowledge how human those feelings are? Can we then hold those feelings with an attitude of kindness as opposed to guilt or self-criticism?

Because I have a regular compassion practice, eventually I was able to make space for and truly notice and sit with my anxiety about having enough food. When I did that, I realized that my fear was deeply connected to childhood and ancestral issues. My mother was a depression baby and she raised me with all kinds of deprivations around food. Everything I wanted to eat was either too expensive or too fattening. This had a huge impact on my relationship with food and so the ability to be generous with food and have access to a wide array of delicious things for myself and to share with others became a big part of my identity. Of course I would have fears around food access.

And as I sat with that, I remembered that my mother’s mother escaped the pogroms to travel alone to the US, and that her mother lived in poverty in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe. I began to understand that as a Jew, there was likely true food insecurity back to times of my earliest ancestors. That recognition allowed me to release the shame about my own fears and opened the door to a deep feeling of connection to all of the people who are suffering from actual food insecurity during this time of the pandemic. From a place of true compassion for myself and others, I could make donations to several local food banks and participate in a local initiative to bring food to the homeless. I could hold the suffering with kindness and feel my common humanity.

Whatever you are experiencing during this time, I wish for you the ability to practice true compassion for yourself and others. Whatever you are feeling, whatever you are struggling with, it’s human and we all have those feelings. If we can be mindful, pay attention to pain, to fear, to grief, to boredom, and remember our common humanity, we can truly feel that invisible string that connects us all and with kindness we can, be gentle with ourselves and from that place, reach out to those in need as if they were our own loved ones. As the Brandy Carlile song says:

we can be each other’s wheels and road

for each other’s heavy load,

see us through thick and thin,

for love and loss until the end.

Amen and blessed be

 

 

For the Earth Forever Turning — UUS:E Virtual Earth Day Service

Click here to watch the video of UUS:E’s April 19th Earth Day Service.

“Hope Is….” — UUS:E Virtual Sunday Service, Easter, April 12, 2020

Friends:

The UUS:E virtual Easter Service, “Hope Is….” can be viewed at here.

Here is the text to Rev. Pawelek’s Easter homily, “Tending to Bodies.”

It is Easter morning. As the story goes, it is now the third day since Jesus has been crucified, his body stashed in a nearby tomb hewn into the rock.

In the New Testament book of Mark we read: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

These are ancient words, written most likely in the fourth or fifth decade after Jesus’ death. Every year, as I read these words at Easter time, I listen carefully for what they might be saying to us across the millennia. What I notice this morning is that the three women who go to the tomb aren’t looking for a resurrected Jesus. They aren’t hoping beyond hope that somehow he has risen from the dead. No. They are going to the tomb to anoint his body with spices. In the wake of a terrible death—a state-sponsored execution—in the midst of what for them could be nothing less than an unbearable trauma—they are doing something simple, something ritualistic, something cultural, something people in their world normally do when a loved-one dies, something profoundly human: they are going to the tomb to anoint his body with spices. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing heroic. Nothing dramatic. They are tending to their beloved’s body.

As they approach the tomb, wondering who can help them roll away the stone, they find that the stone has already been rolled away; Jesus’ body is gone; a young man in a white robe who is not Jesus—we never learn who he is—tells them Jesus has been raised. Resurrection! New Life! A spring-inspired word! Hope beyond hope!

Next year I might read these words differently, and differently still the year after that. But this year, this Easter, coming in the midst of this coronavirus time, this quarantine time, this lockdown time; coming in the midst of this unnerving, anxiety-producing, sleep-denying, utterly frightening global pandemic, the ancient gospel writer tells us, tend to the body! Tending to the body is a critical prelude to “he has been raised.”

Tend to the body.

Tend to your own body – give it what it needs. Tend to the bodies of your loved-ones—whether they are halfway across the room from you, or halfway across the country from you. Keep social distance, yes, but tend to the bodies of your neighbors. Tend to the bodies of the most vulnerable, those who cannot leave their homes, those who have no home, those who are at high risk if they contract the virus. Keep social distance, yes, but end to the bodies of those who have lost work, or who don’t have enough food and other supplies, or who must work in dangerous situations without sufficient protective gear. Tend to this church body as you are able. Tend to the body of the larger community as you are able. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing heroic. Nothing dramatic. Simply tend to bodies however you can. That is all Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome intended to do in the midst of their trauma. That is what we need to do in this moment. In fact, it may very well be all we can do.

And perhaps an unexpected, awesome and, as the writer says, terrifying revelation is waiting for us too. Some version of “He has been raised!” Life again! A spring-inspired word! Hallelujah!

When we carefully and intentionally tend to bodies at a moment such as this, I believe we touch the spirit at the heart of Easter. We help ourselves and others who have fallen into fear and despair regain grounding. We help ourselves and others who have lost faith in the goodness of humanity know and trust that there is still decency in the world. We help ourselves and others know that we care for one another, that our connections are strong, that it’s OK to ask for help, that we will not abandon anyone if it is in our power to help. For me, this year, this morning, tending to bodies is the message of Easter. That’s how we help bring ourselves and others out of our tombs. That’s how we and others proclaim resurrection! Life again! Life anew!

Tending to the body. That’s what brings hope in a moment such as this!

There are some pictures on our website—some of you may have seen them in the eblast yesterday—of Hartford Hospital workers wearing face masks that UUS:E members made in their homes. The workers gave us permission to share the pictures. The people who made the masks were tending to the workers’ bodies even though they didn’t know for sure who would ultimately wear the masks. The person who delivered the masks to the workers was tending to their bodies. The workers who wore the masks were tending to their own bodies, which in turn enables them tend to the bodies of patients in the hospital.

Those of you who are helping out with food drops are tending to bodies. Those of you who have indicated you are willing to help are tending to bodies. Those of you who are keeping touch with members and friends of our congregation are tending to bodies. Those of you who are sending cards to those who have lost loved-ones to Covid-19—you are tending to bodies. Those of you who have donated to MACC and Hartford Deportation Defense—you are tending to bodies. Every time we do these simple, human things—these unheroic, unexceptional, undramatic things—we tap into the spirit at the heart of Easter. We speak a spring-inspired word. We say “Yes” to life. We say “Life Again!” We say “Life Anew!” Like the three women at the tomb, we may be awe-struck in this moment. Like the three women at the tomb, we may be terrified in this moment. But like the three women at the tomb, in these very simple actions we also find hope when we least expect it.

My message to you this Easter morning: Be like the women at the tomb. Tend to bodies. That is what we must do now. That is our path out of our own tombs. That is our path to new life. That is our path to hope.

Amen and blessed be.

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.