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.

****

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.

O, the Beauty of the World!

Rev. Josh Pawelek and David Garnes

Josh:

A few Sundays ago we were playing “Improvs with Mary,” the game where people shout out words or phrases and Mary plays them on the piano. One of the kids asked Mary to play “Rev. Josh’s sermons.” [To Mary] Care to repeat what you played? [Mary plays briefly.] As I heard it that Sunday, Mary launched into a grim, morose, bring-out-your-dead dirge. You all laughed. I laughed too. To be fair, she concluded with a few bright, melodic flourishes, a hint of daylight resolving the dissonance of the storm. Later, Mary said “it wasn’t grim, it was just very serious. And it was the perfect opportunity to tease the minister.” That she was teasing hadn’t occurred to me. I laughed because I thought she nailed it. I thought, “yep, that’s me.”

My preaching isn’t all grim and serious. But when you come to worship on Sunday morning, especially when I am preaching, no matter how hopeful the message, no matter how good the news, no matter how alright I might suggest things are going to turn out—I strive not to ignore the suffering, hatred and violence that infuse and infect so much of the world; and I strive to remember that it doesn’t automatically stop at the boundaries of this building. We aren’t somehow separate or immune from it all.

In my June newsletter column I said I struggle with this month’s theme of beauty precisely because there is so much ugliness in the world—centuries of oppression based on race and gender and class; a national economy fundamentally addicted to militarism and fossil fuels; fear of and violence toward anyone who doesn’t fit into the gender binary; homophobia, transphobia, sexual violence, gun violence; inequity after inequity built into the very structures of society so that many of us benefit without realizing it.  Climate change. I struggle because a central pillar of my call to ministry is naming and confronting all of it with whatever power is available to me and to us, hopefully, with a big dose of humility. Our Unitarian Universalist principles call me to name and confront all the ugliness in the world and our complicity with it, as inadvertent as it may be. I don’t feel comfortable remaining silent in the face of any of it. We cannot live as if it isn’t there. Denial isn’t a spiritually sound way to live. Hence, Mary’s improv. 

****

Our congregation is celebrating its 50th anniversary year, and thus it seemed important on this particular weekend to remember the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a major milestone at the beginning of the gay rights movement. UUS:E member David Garnes was there. I’ve invited David to share his experience. Certainly one thing his words convey is the ugliness of homophobia in New York City in the 1960s.

 

David:

In the summer of 1969, I’d been a New Yorker for six years. I was living in a brownstone on the Upper West Side, on a quiet, tree-shaded block near Riverside Park and the Hudson. Through a happy coincidence, the eight small apartments were occupied mostly by a number of friends like me—young, single and gay. We were a mix of ethnicities—White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian.

On the hot and humid evening of Friday, June 27, Javier, a grad student  from Argentina who lived on the top floor, arrived home from Greenwich Village with big news. “There’s a  commotion down at the Stonewall,” he told us. “Lots of police and people throwing stuff, and they’ve got the street blocked off.”

We all knew the Stonewall, a bar on Christopher Street in the West Village, crummier than most, and run, like most gay bars, by the Mafia (with, apparently, some collusion from New York City’s Finest). The Stonewall attracted all types of patrons. Watered-down drinks were one dollar (relatively expensive in those days), and the bathrooms tended to flood regularly. It was not an elegant place, but its seediness did not stop us from going back, again and again.

That night, we contemplated heading down to the Village to join the crowd. But the hour was late, and, besides, it didn’t sound like much more than a somewhat stronger reaction than usual to one of the police raids that occurred regularly at the Stonewall and elsewhere.

I’d been in bars that were raided many times. The usual scenario consisted of a short warning (lights flashing, someone shouting, “It’s a raid!”), and the next thing you knew you were being herded, like slow-moving cattle, out onto Christopher Street. Sometimes you had to pass through a gauntlet of cops, a few looking fierce, others impassive, one or two embarrassed.

Occasionally, but not often, some patrons were marched into waiting paddy wagons, taken to the local precinct station, and then released. That particularly ignominy never happened to me. Mostly we dispersed into the street and headed off to another bar, or we waited for an hour or so and then returned to the scene of the crime after whatever arrangements had been made between management and the police. It was a game, somewhat humiliating, especially in retrospect, but one not without a certain sense of wacky adventurousness. You just went along with it; it was part of the deal.

   This raid, however, proved to be different. Sometime the next day—Saturday, June 28, another hot one—a friend who lived near the bar phoned and told me that the demonstration had, in fact, lasted through the night and was picking up steam. “Come on down!” he urged. So a few of us decided to take the IRT local subway down to the west Village and Sheridan Square, a block away from the Stonewall.

As soon as we emerged onto Christopher and 7th Avenue, we found ourselves in the midst of a dense and noisy mob. Surprisingly, the street in front of the Stonewall was not blocked off to pedestrians or traffic, but it was impossible to do more than mill around the periphery. The bar seemed to be closed, and the windows were boarded up. Directly across the street, members of the New York Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) stood in formation, wearing helmets with visors and carrying batons and shields.

I watched as demonstrators scrawled slogans like “SUPPORT GAY POWER” and “LEGALIZE GAY BARS” on the boarded-up window of the bar. Any cars that attempted to enter Christopher Street were rocked and jumped on by the crowds of mostly young men. I saw the top of a parked police cruiser crushed by a concrete block dropped from an upper window.

Chaotic activity seemed to come in waves. From the tiny park adjacent to the square, onlookers hurled bottles, bricks, and other objects, some striking observers as well as the police. Trashcans were set on fire. Many men in the crowd were holding hands and kissing, something I’d never seen happen before on this scale in a public place.

Many participants in the previous night’s events had shown up, a few of them conspicuous by their bandages and wounds. I remember one Puerto Rican kid, arm in a white sling and face completely swollen, bruised, and scabbed.

“What did you do last night?” I asked him.

“Not a freakin’ thing. They just clubbed us. My friend’s got a broken shoulder, and I heard some guy’s in a coma over at Roosevelt.” 

 

****

Josh:

I struggle because I also know we cannot live in denial of the beauty of the world. That isn’t spiritually sound either. There has to be room for beauty, too. In my June column I asked you to tell me what you experience as beautiful. I said this isn’t an idle exercise. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to carry us through difficult times. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to generate joy in the midst of despair. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to inspire us when we are lost and directionless. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to knit us back together when we are broken and torn.

Those of you who responded to my request find beauty in all facets of the natural world, in nature seen, heard, smelled, felt, tasted. You find it in family, friends, pets, random acts of kindness, solar panels, fireworks, and human creativity—music, quilting, children’s hand-made cards.

I remind us there is beauty in the midst of hardship and suffering too: the beauty of the human spirit, human integrity, human resilience, human persistence. There is beauty in the bonds people form as they struggle together to change unjust laws and institutional structures. There is beauty in the way communities come together, grieve, heal, and rebuild in the wake of natural disasters or acts of terror. Last Tuesday we welcomed the state champion youth poets, Connetic Word, for a performance. These young poets have a gift for turning their hard life-experiences—their stories of abuse, racism, homophobia and transphobia—their loneliness and pain—into powerful artistic expressions. Even as their poems use hard language, hard words, hard images to describe the ugliness they’ve experienced, the energy, heart, soul and spirit they put into their craft is beautiful.

There is beauty in people waking up to the ugliness in the world and saying ‘we’ve had enough;’ saying ‘no more;’ saying ‘it’s time to fight back;’ saying ‘it’s time to rise up;’ ‘time for change;’ ‘time to build beloved community;’ time to welcome everyone,’ and really mean everyone;’ time to say ‘I want my life to be different!;’ time to say ‘I commit my life to some cause greater than myself that will serve others and the earth.’

There must be room for beauty too. Let us train our hearts and souls to find it even in the most difficult moments.

****

David:

As I left Sheridan Square that night, I bought the Sunday Times, expensive at 50 cents but always eagerly awaited on Saturdays around 10 pm at subway newsstands throughout the city. On the ride uptown I looked for mention of the riot from the night before. Deep within the paper there was a short article with the headline “4 POLICEMEN HURT IN ‘VILLAGE’ RAID…MELEE NEAR SHERIDAN SQUARE FOLLOWS ACTION AT BAR.”

The report was brief, with no reference to previous raids, arrests, and nothing from the point of view of the protesters. That kind of minimal coverage would continue in the Times for the next several days, though the tabloid Daily News played it up with photos and longer pieces, as did the Village Voice.

As we arrived back at Sheridan Square on Sunday afternoon, I was surprised at the activity still going on. Amazingly, the bar had reopened for business, and a steady stream of customers wandered in and out. But the police were there in full force, including several on horseback. I saw another damaged cruiser, this one with its front windshield shattered. A parking meter lay overturned in the street, and I later learned that it had actually been used on the first night to batter the entrance door of the bar.

I stood awhile, observing, perhaps too chicken to go in the bar, and then left. We later found out the Tactical Police Force eventually cleared the immediate area. I also heard that poet Allen Ginsberg visited the bar in the evening, encouraging the patrons inside. In a later interview he described them as “…beautiful…they’ve lost that wounded look everyone had ten years ago.” Sporadic gatherings occurred over the next few days, but the demonstration was essentially over.

Did I realize that I’d been present at a seminal moment in American sociopolitical history? Perhaps not that weekend, though Stonewall was certainly the most dramatic example I’d personally witnessed in terms of a minority group taking a stand. I’m not sure it was the single event of Stonewall itself those few days, but rather its snowball effect over the following months that signaled the changes that were to come.

After Stonewall, I began to join in gay demonstrations around the city. I clearly remember marching on Fifth Avenue in those early days. Basically, we were a small group of people—men and women—simply walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk. There were no floats, no costumes, perhaps a few signs and banners. I was always very aware of the tourists gawking at us from the sidewalk, and I was never comfortable during those early peaceful protests. But I kept on marching.

Perhaps taking to the street occasionally wasn’t such a big gesture on my part, but it probably wouldn’t have happened at all had it not been for the brave protesters and demonstrators at Stonewall. Occurring in the midst of other social upheaval that pivotal year half a century ago, this small uprising is now rightfully seen as the turning point in the gay civil rights movement.

We’d all had enough.

****

Josh:

I know why I struggle. I worry that naming and reveling in the beauty of the world is a trap, a privilege, an elite myth that obscures the ugliness, the injustices, the suffering, especially the suffering humans perpetuate on one another. And indeed, many people pursue beauty as a form of escape, a form of denial. Mary and I were talking about this and she asked. “how can we have a genuine experience of beauty that doesn’t require us to keep our heads in the sand?” For me, that’s a fundamental question. We agreed—and I hope and trust you do too—there’s a difference between escaping into something beautiful that numbs us to the pain of the world vs. encountering something beautiful that enlightens us, increases consciousness, wakes us up to that pain; wakes us up to the harder, deeper truths of the world. And our task as liberal religious people is to pursue the beauty that wakes us up.

In that pursuit, the chords may sound serious, ominous, foreboding, grim. But beauty resides in the hard truths too. Listen for it: a few bright, melodic flourishes at the end, a hint of daylight resolving the dissonance of the storm. And once you’ve heard it, may it sustain you. May it move you to re-engage with life, inspired, grounded, healed, committed.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

The Dream Keeper: Reflections on Easter Sunday, 2019

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I love these words from the poet, Langston Hughes, which we’ve heard set to beautiful music this morning.“Bring me all of your dreams, / You dreamer, / Bring me all your / Heart melodies / That I may wrap them / In a blue cloud-cloth / Away from the too-rough fingers / Of the world.”

He speaks of the ‘too-rough fingers of the world.’ Langston Hughes knew just how rough the world could be. He knew about the pain and suffering people experience—both the pain and suffering of the human condition; and the pain and suffering human beings perpetuate against each other—the pain and suffering of violence, oppression, war, genocide.

What happens when the world is too rough? People begin to feel isolated and lost. People begin to feel fear and despair. People’s bright dreams for themselves, their families, their communities and the world grow dim. The poet responds to a deep human longing when he says “Bring me all of your dreams, / You dreamer, / Bring me all your / Heart melodies / That I may wrap them / In a blue cloud-cloth / Away from the too-rough fingers / Of the world.”

Each of us encounters times in our lives when we do not feel hopeful about the future. Each of us encounters times in our lives when our dreams grow dim. I imagine this is how the disciples and friends of Jesus felt after he was crucified. I imagine this is how Jesus’ mother felt. He had been saying all along that he would be going away to a place where they could not follow. He had been saying all along, ‘there will be a time when I am no longer with you.’ But they couldn’t quite imagine what that meant. They couldn’t quite imagine life without him. They felt so strongly about his ministry, his teachings, his healings, his nonviolence, his commitment to his God and his faith, his love for all people no matter their station in life. They loved him so much. They attached their dreams to him. And then he was gone, his crucified  body lain in a tomb, a stone rolled in front of the entrance.

In the midst of their pain, their grief, their profound sense of loss, his disciples somehow made their Easter proclamation: “He is risen.” He has come back to us. He lives again! They made him their dream keeper. They imagined him receiving their dreams, their heart melodies, and wrapping them in a blue cloud cloth, away from the too rough fingers of the world; because the fingers of the world, in that moment, felt more rough than they could ever have imagined. They made him their dream keeper, and as such he continued to live beyond death.

That’s one way to understand the resurrection.

Today we dream of an earth made fair and all her people one. We dream of an end to violence and war and oppression. We dream of a just and loving community. We dream of a sustainable future for our planet and for coming generations. We dream, but there is always a risk that the too rough fingers of the world will conspire to shatter our dreams. When that happens, who is your dream keeper? In those moments when you feel isolated and lost, fearful and despairing, who keeps your dreams for you? Who keeps your dreams until you are ready to dream them again? Is it a friend? Is it a spouse, a partner in life? Is it your parent? Your child? Your sibling? A neighbor? A fellow member of this congregation? Is there a god or goddess who keeps your dreams when you are not able? Does the earth keep your dreams? The mountain, the oceans, the river, the trees? Who sings your heart melody during the long hours of your silent time in the tomb? Who keeps your dreams, so that when you are ready, you may rise again, you may be reborn, you may be resurrected, ready to live life, ready for joy, ready for love, ready for compassion, ready to engage. Who keeps you dreams, so that when you are ready, you may hold the dreams of others who are in despair. Who keeps your dreams, so that when you are ready, you may rise to the sounds of bird song on beautiful spring mornings? Who keeps your dreams, so that when you are ready, you may rise to the sounds to the gentle, happy voices of loved-ones welcoming you back to yourself? Who keeps your dreams, so that when you are ready, you may rise to cries of Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia?

May you always have someone to keep your dreams when you are not able.

May you always be available to hold the dreams of others when they are not able.

May we be each other’s dream keepers.

Amen, blessed be and Alleluia!

Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Jesus journeys from the Mount of Olives down into Jerusalem. He rides a donkey. Nearly 2,000 years later, the average reader may not pause to contemplate this image—its oddness, its humor, its political theatrics, its peaceful message recalling certain Jewish prophecies about the coming of the messiah,[1] and yet contradicting the image Jews and others had of God. Yet, if we take the whole story at face value—Jewish and Christian scriptures together as one, long, seamless narrative—this is God. Or, as the Book of John says, Jesus is “the Word [that] was God.”[2] This is the creator, the divine warrior, the lawgiver, the Lord of Hosts making a “triumphal entry” into the holy city, not in a chariot, not in a palanquin, not on some mythical beast, lion or war horse, but on a donkey. Why is the creator of the universe riding this stubborn, ungainly and, perhaps to some, humiliating mode of transportation?

A more fundamental question: Why crucifixion? Why such a demeaning, disgraceful, bloody execution per order of the Roman authorities? Why not raise up an army out of the Galilean dust and destroy the Roman legions, just as he had destroyed Pharaoh’s army a thousand years earlier? His power is infinite. Why choose powerlessness?

These questions come courtesy of Fred and Phil Sawyer, who purchased this sermon at our 2018 goods and services auction. Last spring Fred and Phil had me preach on Jack Miles’ 1995 book, God: A Biography.[3] This year it’s Miles’ 2001 follow-up, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. Miles is Professor Emeritus of English and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and Senior Fellow for Religion and International Affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy.[4] He presents God not as the God our Jewish and Christian siblings worship, not as God deconstructed through modern Biblical criticism, but God as a literary character.

Miles isn’t a Biblical literalist. He doesn’t approach the Bible as a factual record of events. He also isn’t doing modern historical criticism. Historical critics ask who wrote a particular biblical book, where, when and why they wrote, what social, cultural and religious forces impacted their point of view, who their audience was. Instead, Miles treats the Bible as a long story in which God is the protagonist. He takes the story at face value. Whatever God says or does, that’s what he works with. This is neither the Jesus of Christian faith, nor the historical Jesus. This is Jesus the literary character. And a great character has the power to teach us something about our very human selves, even if that character is God.

In God: A Biography, Miles tells the story of God in the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, in which, after the book of Job, God is essentially silent. People speak about him, but he speaks no more. Miles describes him as a sleeper, a bystander, a recluse. He wonders if God has grown weary of his deep inner turmoil in relation to humanity.[5]

In Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, Miles tells the story of God in the Christian New Testament as a response to his silence at the end of the Tanakh. We discover the root of God’s inner turmoil: He has not kept his promise to his people. His promise was big: land, nationhood, prosperity, victory in battle, innumerable blessings and, for later Jewish exiles, a glorious homecoming. But God hasn’t delivered.

Miles says, “the action of the New Testament begins with the memory of a broken promise”[6] The Book of Luke, chapter 3, in describing John the Baptist, repeats the promise as proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah: “Clear the way for the Lord! / Make straight his paths. / Let every valley be raised, / Every mountain and hill lowered, / The crooked made straight / And the rough smooth / So that all flesh will see the salvation of God.”[7] But Isaiah spoke these words 700 years earlier. “Isaiah,” says Miles, “describes a triumphal march that never occurred. Mountains were going to be leveled and valleys filled to create a parade route for the Israelite exiles marching home from Babylon—but the parade was cancelled. The exiles to whom the Lord spoke through Isaiah did not return home in glory. Many of them never returned at all, and those who did merely exchanged one imperial ruler for another.”[8] Now, with Roman oppression steadily worsening, God’s unfulfilled promise has led him to a moment of crisis.

What does he do? He appears on earth. Not as a burning bush, a pillar of cloud or fire, or a whirlwind—nothing dramatic. He joins humanity the way all humans do. He is born. An innocent, helpless baby. Furthermore, he is born into a family and a nation experiencing a great humiliation: the Roman census. Miles says, “In ancient Israel, it was a grievous sin … to conduct a census, perhaps because the practice of people-counting was understood to be … connected … with taxation and forced labor.”[9] King David once conducted a census. God was so angry he sent a pestilence upon Israel, killing seventy thousand.[10] In subjecting Jesus and his young parents to the census, the story emphasizes their helplessness in the face of an onerous foreign power. Because it is a census of the whole world, the story “makes clear that it is … not just the Jewish condition God is taking on … [but] that of all oppressed people at the mercy of officious power.”[11] In response to the crisis of his broken promise, God comes as a helpless infant, born to helpless parents, living in a helpless nation.

John the Baptist, announcing the coming of the messiah, calls Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”[12] As Miles says, “A lion would be more to the purpose, a rapacious and terrifying cat.”[13] But no, Jesus is a lamb, implying gentleness, meekness, innocence. But wait—the Baptist also says “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”[14] Not so lamblike.

What’s going on? Two Jewish traditions are merging in this character. First, the Baptist’s Jewish audience would be familiar with the practice of sacrificing a lamb for the expiation of certain sins. What sins? We might call them sins you can’t do anything about, sins that are part of the human condition, like bleeding during menstruation or living with certain diseases, like leprosy These aren’t sins one commits. We can more accurately describe them as natural conditions, often associated in ancient times with words like ‘unclean’ or ‘impure.’ The Torah requires such “sinners” to make amends to God, often by sacrificing a lamb.[15] Miles points out that such sins harken back to the first time God cursed humanity, sentencing them to endless labor, painful childbirth, and death.[16] The book of Leviticus describes the ritual sacrifice required to make amends for the “sin” of leprosy. Miles says “the ceremony functioned as expiation not really for any sin of the leper himself but effectively for the sin that brought that [original] curse.”[17] Thousands of years later, God has still never reversed those original curses. People were essentially helpless in the face of them. “The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?” Wait, what? Is he to be sacrificed?

But there are others species of sin, most notably the sort humans do to each other: exploitation, extortion, robbery, murder, etc. These are the sins one commits. These are also the sins Rome was committing against the Jews. There is no sacrificial lamb for these sins. Ideally, the perpetrator repents and makes amends, ‘an eye for eye,’ as it were. If not, the victim can either submit or fight back. In the Book of Luke, after Jesus’ Baptism, a voice comes from Heaven, saying “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[18] Miles reminds us this line comes from Psalm 2, which follows those words with “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, / and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, / and smash them to bits like a potter’s pot.”[19] That is, “we’re gonna fight back.”

This is the tradition of the messianic warlord coming to liberate! Jesus is both the lamb and the warlord. Miles calls them “two native Jewish ideas made daring and new by unforeseen combination,”[20] though the reader doesn’t know yet how this combination will unfold. What we know is that Jesus has come to the river for baptism. He has come to repent. But this is God. Repent for what? What has he done wrong? Ah, he hasn’t kept his promise. And apparently he isn’t going to. He can’t. That’s the realization that lives at the heart of his crisis, the reason for his repentance. As Miles says, “If [God] cannot defeat Israel’s enemies … then he must admit defeat.”[21] This admission makes way for new possibilities.

Miles says, “Instead of baldly declaring he is unable to defeat his enemies, God … now declare[s] that he has no enemies, that he now refuses to recognize the distinction between friend and foe. He … announce[s] that he now loves all people indiscriminately, as the sun shines equally everywhere, and then urge[s]—as the law of a new, broadened covenant—that his creatures extend to one another the same infinite [love] that henceforth he will extend, individually and collectively, to all of them.”[22] This is his solution to the sins that people commit. He’s no longer telling them what they “shall not do.” He’s telling them what they shall do: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who scorn you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other cheek as well.”[23] The messianic warlord is taking on characteristics of the lamb.

This is a radical change in God’s identity, so radical that it troubles the Romans. But why should the Romans care? After all, Jesus is not a militant. In fact, he preaches “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” At times he upholds Roman law instead of the Torah. Jesus’ concerns, it turns out, are larger than Rome. Miles says, “The Lord is playing for higher stakes.”[24] Throughout the story Jesus heals paralytics, lepers and bleeding women. He raises the dead. He does not say, “you are healed.” He says “your sins are forgiven.” He’s referring to those original curses God has never rescinded. People still suffer and die because of his curses. This is a deeper dimension of the crisis. Can he resolve that? Can he somehow transform the human condition that has resulted from his curses?

As much as this is a story about defeating one’s oppressors with the power of love, it is also a story about transcending the human condition—the end of suffering, the end of death. Jesus, the messianic warlord who meets his earthly enemies as a lamb, also has a cosmic enemy, Satan. Those original curses? He now associates them with Satan. “Even when speaking of his own defeat,” says Miles, “Jesus does not speak of the Romans. He speaks instead, at the most crucial moments, of Satan; in so doing, he identifies his enemy not as Rome … but as death itself.”[25]

I asked earlier, why the cross? Why does the creator of the universe submit to a humiliating, demeaning and bloody human execution? To undo those original curses, to take away the sins of the world. Miles says: “When Jesus dies, death wins, and the Devil wins for the moment; but when Jesus rises from the dead, life wins and the Devil loses for all time. By rising from the dead, God Incarnate [doesn’t] defeat Rome, but he [does] defeat death. He … win[s] a victory of a new sort, over a newly identified enemy, and in the process he … redefines the traditional covenant terms of victory and defeat.”[26]

It’s a powerful story. And like all great stories, it tells us something about ourselves. It reminds us there are two kinds of suffering. One is the suffering humans inflict on each other, the suffering of injustices embedded in systems designed to privilege some and exploit, marginalize, disempower, abuse, and even destroy others. The second is existential suffering, the suffering inherent in our living, the suffering that comes from illness, loss, and death. Both kinds of suffering can generate crises in us, and thus there is a deep yearning in us to transcend. Ad so we try. We try, each in our own way, to bring love into the world, instead of hate, instead of violence. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes our love makes all the difference. But then there is that pesky problem of death. What are we to do about death other than learn to accept it as the final stage of our very human lives? Might we live again? That’s a question of faith. Where did the resurrection story come from? That’s a matter for the historical critics. Do we long to transcend suffering? A good story speaks to that longing.

In the end, we aren’t God. But sometimes it’s nice to imagine how sweet eternity could be.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Zechariah 9:9.

[2] John 1:1.

[3] Miles, Jack, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

[4] For information on Jack Miles, visit his website at http://www.jackmiles.com/.

[5] Miles, Jack, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996) p. 404.

[6] Miles, Crisis, pp. 18.

[7] Isaiah 40:3-5 quoted in Luke 3:4-6.

[8] Miles, Crisis, pp. 18-19.

[9] Miles, Crisis, pp. 86-87.

[10] Second Samuel 24: 1-15.

[11] Miles, Crisis, p. 87.

[12] John 1:29.

[13] Miles, Crisis, p. 23.

[14] Luke 3: 16-17.

[15] For example, see Leviticus 14 for instructions on how to make amends for the sin of leprosy.

[16] Genesis 3:19.

[17] Miles, Crisis, p. 25.

[18] Luke 3: 22.

[19] Psalm 2: 7-9.

[20] Miles, Crisis, p. 27.

[21] Miles, Crisis, p. 108.

[22] Miles, Crisis, p. 108.

[23] Luke 6:27-29.

[24] Miles, Crisis, p. 178.

[25] Miles, Crisis, p. 163.

[26] Miles, Crisis, p. 163.

On Pilgrimage

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Scene from the Edmund Pettis Bridge, March 2015

In March of 2015 I travelled to Selma, AL for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day—March 7th, 1965—state and local police brutally attacked voting rights marchers as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activists organized that first march in response to the February 17th, 1965 police shooting of civil rights worker Jimmy Lee Jackson in Marion, AL. Martin Luther King, Jr. began a second march on March 9th but halted it at the bridge. King then led a third march beginning on March 21st and completing the 54 miles to Montgomery on March 25th with 25,000 people—including my father—joining by the end.

The Voting Rights marches hold a special place in the heart of our faith because so many of our ministers heeded King’s call for clergy to join him in Selma; and because White supremacists murdered one of those ministers, the Rev. James Reeb, on March 11th, 1965, as well as UU layperson, Viola Liuzzo, on March 25th.

While walking in a mass of 100,000 people through downtown Selma, I came upon the Reeb memorial, an 8-foot thick granite monument with a bronze image of Reeb in his trademark bow tie and glasses. There it was. There he was. A Unitarian Universalist martyr. There’s no other word for it. I felt I needed to do something with my body—kneel, bow my head, pray. I stepped over to it. I read the text. I looked at Reeb’s image. I touched the granite. I bowed my head and offered a silent ‘thank you.’ Then I rejoined the march.

Being present in Selma for the 50th anniversary observation was a peak spiritual experience for me, an awe-filled moment, a moment of knowing and trusting I am on a good path in my ministry and my life. This was a pilgrimage—a journey to a sacred site—a site where something momentous happened. Stumbling across the Reeb memorial was an unanticipated pilgrimage within a pilgrimage—a visit to a sacred Unitarian Universalist site within the larger sacred history of the Civil Rights movement.

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Our March ministry theme is journeys. Two weeks ago I spoke of the vastness within each of us, and offered a set of pathways for journeying into that vastness. This morning I’m addressing the vastness beyond us. I want to share my reflections on outward journeys, specifically the practice of pilgrimage.

I remember in seminary studying journeys as a phenomenon across religions and cultures. We likely began with one of the more ancient recorded journey stories, the late third millennium Mesopotamian poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh. First, Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his friend Enkidu, seek fame and renown. They journey to the legendary Cedar Forest—the realm of the gods—where they slay its guardian Humbaba and then cut down a swath of the sacred trees. In retaliation, the gods kill Enkidu. Distraught, Gilgamesh undertakes a second, much longer journey in search of eternal life.

We likely discussed Gilgamesh’s journeys along with those of the Greek hero Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, and his Roman counterpart, Aeneas, in Virgil’s Aeneid. These stories are examples of the “hero’s journey,” in which, in the words of scholar Joseph Campbell, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with [newfound] power.[1]

We might have compared these mythological journeys to various journeys in the Hebrew scriptures. For example, in Genesis 12, God promises land, national greatness and blessings to Abram—eventually Abraham—who departs with his family from Haran in Mesopotamia, journeying west into Canaan in search of that promised land. We might also have talked about the story of Moses as a possible example of the hero’s journey. Whether or not Moses fits the model, it is certainly true that, from the book of Exodus on, the Torah describes the Israelites’ 40-year period of wandering in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership. In this sense, the Torah is the story of the Israelite’s journey toward fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus, at the outset of his ministry, journeys into the wilderness for forty days where Satan tempts him. Then, for approximately three years he conducts a travelling ministry, moving from village to village around Galilee. He eventually journeys south to Jerusalem where authorities put him to death.

Turning eastward, before becoming the Buddha, Siddh?rtha Gautama, who lived a privileged, sheltered, royal life, desires to see the world beyond the palace and journeys out along the royal highway. The gods of the Pure Abode conspire to reveal the reality of human suffering to him. On three, successive trips he witnesses old age, illness and death, revelations which launch him on his path to enlightenment. There are easily thousands of such stories about the journeys of heroes, saviors, divine figures, and founders of religions. They are often origin stories—as in ‘this is the story of how Rome was founded,’ or ‘this is the story of how the Israelites came to the Promised Land.’

Pilgrimage is a different kind of journey—not the journey of the hero or founder, but the journey of the follower. Pilgrimage is a visit to a site after the hero or founder has made it sacred—for example, a site where Abraham is said to have once set up his tent; or where Jesus is said to have performed a miracle; or where a martyr gave their life for their principles. Some pilgrimages require the performance of certain rituals upon arrival. Journeying to consult the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece or to make a Passover sacrifice at the temple in ancient Jerusalem come to mind.

In Islam, there is a fairly unique occurrence in which the founder of the religion, the Prophet Muhammed, makes a pilgrimage. In this sense, the founder is also a follower. Remember that Muhammed, at the urging of the Angel Gabriel, recited the verses of the Koran over the last third of his life. A number of verses mention the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael laying the foundations for their house. Islamic tradition identifies the house as the Kaaba in Mecca, the most sacred site in Islam. Tradition holds that Adam originally built it, but it was destroyed. Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt it. People had been making pilgrimages there for ages before the founding of Islam.

At some point, Muhammed recited the verses that call on all Muslims to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. In the Koran’s third sura, known as “The Family of Imran,” an English translation says: “Indeed, the first House [of worship] established for [humanity] was that at Makkah…. In it are clear signs [such as] the standing place of Abraham. And whoever enters it shall be safe. And [due] to Allah from the people is a pilgrimage to the House—for whoever is able to find thereto a way.” [2] Knowing this verse, Muhammed knew he needed to make the Hajj. For many years Mecca’s non-Muslim leaders prevented him from entering the city; but he finally completed shortly before his death. Muslims refer to it as the “Farewell Pilgrimage,” after which he delivered the farewell sermon, which is notable for many reasons, one of them being his assertion of the equal worth of all people. One modern translation says: “an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab.”[3]

We hear echoes of this sentiment when Malcolm X describes his 1964 Hajj in his autobiography, one of the more famous pilgrimage stories in American literature. It transformed him. Among other things, it altered his view of White people. Previously he had assumed all White people are devils. What shocked him during the Hajj was his experience of White Muslims. “There were tens of thousands of pilgrims,” he said, “from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to back-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity … that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist.”[4]

Later he says, speaking of how the Hajj transformed him, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”[5] He hadn’t changed his views about the power and violence of American racism; but his pilgrimage experience expanded his understanding of humanity. It also deepened and sharpened his Muslim faith, gave him a global perspective, and led him to organize internationally.

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Unitarian Universalism has nothing like the Hajj. Given our eclectic theology, that makes sense. Yet, pilgrimage is a valuable spiritual practice. It deepens faith. It affirms, inspires, and strengthens connections to spiritual ancestors. Because it involves following—followership—it emphasizes humility. So, I wonder: what qualifies as a UU pilgrimage?

The teachers in our middle school Building Bridges class taught a session on Islam in which they discussed the Hajj. They asked the kids what a ‘UU Mecca’ experience might be. Their response? “A cruise near a rain forest with yoga and coffee,” which tells me that our children are paying attention and we have some work to do.

Our Affirmation class makes a pilgrimage to Boston. They visit historical churches, like King’s Chapel—the first American congregation to declare itself Unitarian; and Arlington Street Church, whose congregation in 1803 called the Rev. William Ellery Channing, perhaps the most important preacher of Unitarian theology in that era.

Greater Boston is filled with UU pilgrimage sites as so much of our early history happened there. The Gloucester UU Church, founded in 1779 as the Independent Christian Church, was the first Universalist Church in America. Its minister, the Rev. John Murray, had been branded a heretic in England for his Universalism. Its members refused to pay taxes to support the state church. In 1786 they won a landmark court ruling declaring they could not be taxed to support a church to which they did not belong.

Concord, MA was the center of the Transcendentalist movement, which grew out of the Unitarian churches and, in time, became highly influential on Unitarian and Universalist theology and spirituality. In Concord one can visit the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau wrote his modern scripture, Walden; or the Orchard House where Louisa May Olcott wrote Little Women.

I’ve mentioned Selma, where James Reeb was murdered in the midst of the Voting Rights marches. Viola Liuzzo’s memorial is along U.S. Route 80 between Selma and Montgomery. Other sites that come to mind include the Lewis Howard Latimer House in Flushing, NY and the Whitney M. Young Birth Place and Museum in Simpsonville, KY. Latimer, a founder of the First Unitarian Church in Flushing, was an inventor who prepared the mechanical drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent application. He was also the only African American who worked in the original engineering division of the Edison Company. Young, a member of the UU congregation in White Plains led the National Urban League through the 1960s and was one of the “Big Six” organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The forest spring — a sacred site at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East

Further afield, there is a rich Unitarian history and a thriving network of churches in Transylvania, Romania. There are similar histories and networks in the Philippines and in the Khasi Hills of eastern India. These are all locations to which American UUs make regular pilgrimages.

This is only the beginning of a list that answers the question, ‘What are sacred Unitarian and Universalist sites—sites where we can follow our founders, our heroes; deepen our Unitarian Universalist identity; expand our view of being human; and find inspiration to continue in the struggles to which our faith calls us?’ What sites might you add to the list?

A concluding thought: Many of you travel to different parts of the United States and Canada—for work, for vacation, to visit family. You sometimes visit the local UU congregation. Any time you do this—even if you are visiting the nearby congregations in Hartford, West Hartford, Meriden, or Storrs, you are making a pilgrimage. You are entering a sacred site, participating in its rituals, touching its history—the history of people who cared deeply about their faith and worked to sustain it for future generations.

May we all have the opportunity, at some point in our lives, to make pilgrimages – to be faithful followers, to deepen our faith, to find inspiration, to bring it all home for the flourishing of this sacred site.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949) p.23.

[2] Sura 3: 96-97.

[3] View the full text of the final sermon at http://www.cyberistan.org/islamic/sermon.html.

[4] Malcolm X and Haley, Alex, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine Books, 2015 edition) pp. 346-347.

[5] Malcolm X, Autobiography, pp. 373.