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.

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!

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.

 

 

Connetic Word

Connetic Word Live at UUS:E

Tuesday, June 25th, 7:00 PM

153 West Vernon St., Manchester

 

This group of youth artists is absolutely incredible. We are so proud of them for earning a spot to compete at Brave New Voices 2019. Please, come out to UUS:E on 6/25, show your support for youth voices and safe artistic spaces!  Enjoy an awesome night of poetry. 

Free will offering: Help Connetic Word travel to Brave New Voices this summer in Las Vegas!

Centering as Spiritual Practice, continued….

In March many Unitarian Universalist transgender and non-binary people were angry and hurt after the Unitarian Universalist Association’s UU World magazine published an article entitled “After L, G and B.”[1] The article was written by a cisgender woman about her struggles to understand and love transgender people in her family and within our faith. (For anyone unfamiliar with the term cisgender, it refers to people whose gender identity matches their biological sex.) Many cis UUs—and some trans UUs—wondered why the article generated so much negative reaction. After all, don’t we expect our denominational magazine to feature stories that challenge our understanding of gender? Given that most UUs are cisgender people; doesn’t it make sense for a cisgender person to write an article about her struggle to learn about, accept and love transgender people? Doesn’t that help the cause?

It doesn’t—not at this point in our history. This sermon is about why.

In late March, two Muslim UUs, one an ordained minister, the other a seminarian, published an open letter entitled “About Us Without Us: A Call to Our Unitarian Universalist Siblings from Muslim Unitarian Universalists.”[2] The letter expresses anger and pain at the way UUs relate both to Muslim UUs and to Muslims in general. They contend that “Unitarian Universalists have been culturally misappropriating and exotifying Islamic traditions in many ways for many years.” They ask: “Are Muslim UUs really welcome in UU spaces? Or is it simply our pain and our poetry” that are welcomed? Upon reading this letter, some of us might wonder, “with all the Islamophobia in the wider culture, with all the attacks on Muslims, mosque burnings, threatening phone calls, FBI surveillance and the President’s Muslim ban, why criticize us? We connect with and support Muslims in the wider community. We support Muslim immigrants and refugees. This congregation is hosting a very public forum on Islam in America next Sunday. Aren’t we doing a good job?

Not good enough. This sermon is about why.

Both of these stories come amidst a backdrop of calls throughout our denomination to confront our own White Supremacy culture. Although this call has been with us in a variety of forms for decades, we began encountering this specific call to recognize, confront and transform our own White Supremacy culture in the late winter of 2017, after revelations of racist hiring patterns at our denominational headquarters.[3] People understandably ask, does this challenge really apply to us? Afterall, as a denomination, we’ve made a very public commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement, to immigrants, to sanctuary for those facing deportation, to indigenous peoples’ struggles over water rights. We’ve repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. In an era when avowed racists are organizing across the country and online, how is ours a culture of White Supremacy? How is that even possible? Well, it is—even at this point in our history. This sermon is about why.

A common thread unites these stories. People on Unitarian Universalism’s institutional margins are demanding a genuine place at the institutional center. Further, people on the margins are demanding the power to redesign the center so that it serves their interests as well as it serves the interests of those of us for whom it was originally designed.

This sermon continues a sermon I preached last September entitled “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice.” Except I’m editing the title. I read to you earlier from Theresa I. Soto’s meditation entitled “dear trans*, non-binary, genderqueer and gender-expansive friends and kin: (and those of us whose gender is survival).” Soto says “no one can rename you Other, it can’t stick, as you offer the gift of being and saying who you are.”[4] No one can rename you Other—but that’s exactly what the title of my September sermon did. “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice.” Soto inspires me to reflect on how I use the word ‘other’ when I address these issues. I don’t really want to use it anymore, mainly because so many of those historical others aren’t other at all. They’re right here, members of our congregations: trans people, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, people with disabilities. As gender-queer UU religious professional and consultant, CB Beal wrote in March, “We’re right … here.”[5]  Imagine a congregation where we notice and celebrate the differences, but no difference or set of differences makes a person “other.” As Soto says, “it can’t stick.”

Here’s what I said last September:

In the life and culture of any institution, including congregations, there is a center and there are margins. The center is where power is exercised, priorities determined, decisions made, money spent, resources allocated, values articulated, sermons preached, hymns sung, joys and sorrows shared, coffee served, gifts given. The center specifies norms for appropriate behavior and emotional expression; norms for which topics are speakable, and which are taboo; norms for belonging—who is in and who doesn’t really fit. Sometimes these norms are clearly articulated. Sometimes they are assumed, taken for granted, unexamined.

The margins are those places where people experiences themselves as out-of- sync with the center or, worse, excluded. For example, oftentimes as people age, as their mobility, hearing and vision decline, they may begin to feel marginalized from the physical life of the congregation….  If the center is White, People of Color may experience themselves as marginal. If the center speaks English, people who speak limited or no English may experience themselves as marginal…. [if mental illness is unspeakable,] people with mental illness may feel marginal. [If sexual violence is unspeakable,] survivors of sexual violence may feel marginal. Often we have some identities that occupy the center; and others that occupy the margins. We are rarely only one or the other.

The existence of a center and margins is natural and unavoidable in any institution…. However, here, our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to pay attention to what our center and margins are—to be institutionally self-aware. Who are we including? Who are we excluding? But then further, because we envision a highly inclusive community, a multigenerational, multicultural and multiracial community, a spiritually pluralistic community … our center must be in constant dialogue with our margins…. We must be willing to center that which is marginal.[6]

One could argue that in publishing a feature article about how to understand, welcome and love transgender people, UU World was centering transgender people. Transgender UU leaders emphatically said “No!” They said no because the article contained certain factual errors and unexamined assumptions, for example, the assumption that it’s OK to ask trans people about certain body parts when, for anyone else, such questions would be an invasion of privacy. They said no because the article failed to fully name the violence to which so many trans people are now exposed given the Trump Administration’s determined attacks on transgender rights; and it failed to name at all the ways in which trans people continue to experience marginalization within our faith.

But perhaps most significantly, they said no because a cisgender woman wrote the article. UU World centered her story, not the stories of transgender people. CB Beal wrote: “When we speak of inclusion but we mean that white people will write about the lives of black people, that cisgender people will write about the lives of transgender people, that heterosexual people will write about the lives of queer people, that able-bodied people will write about the lives and experiences of people who are disabled by our society, we are doing the opposite of inclusion. It is this which causes me the most harm.”[7]

Furthermore, UU World’s editor had given an early draft of the article to a leader in the UU transgender community, Alex Kapitan, and asked for feedback. Alex said, ‘don’t publish this article,’ and provided alternative suggestions. The editor chose to ignore Alex’s feedback, even though he’d asked for it. That’s not centering. That’s marginalizing. (Read Alex Kapitan’s full statement). Alex Kapitan was offering a way to reshape the center. The center said no. That’s why people were angry and hurt.[8]

Institutional centers don’t want to, don’t like to, and don’t need to change. They are inherently conservative, predisposed to continue doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” Even when they say they want change, they have many tools at their disposal—some conscious, some unconscious—to help them not change. They can go on receiving open letters about anger, hurt, disappointment in perpetuity, and if they don’t really want to change, they won’t. But our Unitarian Universalist institutional centers have been saying for a generation that change is necessary—that our ongoing relevance and even our survival as a liberal religion depend on it. Our institutional centers have been promising change, and some real seeds have been planted in fertile soil. Now, with increasing frequency, visibility and courage, people on our margins are calling for the fulfillment of those promises. The uproar over the UU World article was one such call. The letter from UU Muslims was another. The demand from People of Color organizations to confront our White Supremacy culture is yet another. Such calls are becoming more and more central to our collective spiritual lives.

Change isn’t just coming. It’s here. And this has implications for any of us with identities that reside comfortably at the center of our UU institutional life: white people, straight people, cisgender people, able-bodied people, middle-class people. What do we do? In the wake of the UU World article, the Transforming Hearts Collective—a group of four trans and queer faith leaders that supports congregations in becoming radically welcoming spiritual homes for queer and trans people of all races, classes, abilities, sexualities, and ages—published a list of behaviors that will help transform the center of our institutional life in relation to transgender people. They said: Believe trans people; listen more than you talk; be willing to remain in discomfort; have hard conversations, with love; value relationships over perfectionism; don’t expect every trans person to want to educate you, but honor those who do; stay in your heart rather than your head; don’t ask a trans person anything you wouldn’t ask a cis person; comfort those who are hurting and build awareness with other cis people; uplift trans voices.[9]

I urge you not to encounter these suggestions simply as “things to do.” I say this because all too often, when those of us who occupy the center learn there’s a problem, or that someone’s been offended or hurt in some way, our impulse is to do something to get past the pain and anger as quickly as possible, to fix the problem, to make it go away—so we can return to the status quo. That’s not what this list is for. This list is not for doing so much as it is for being. It’s not a ‘to do’ list, it’s a ‘to be’ list.

Similarly, in her book White Fragility, Robin Diangelo offers a list of behaviors for White people to engage in when confronted with their own racism. Her list includes: Don’t just dismiss feedback. Don’t get angry. Don’t make excuses. Believe. Listen. Apologize. Reflect. Process. Engage.[10] Again, it’s not a ‘to do’ list. It’s a ‘to be’ list. It describes a way of being that is open, receptive, spacious, ego-less. This is how people on the margins need people in the center to be in order for them to come fully into the center and begin their work of redesign.  

A note on apology. Mindful that people at the institutional center, people with privileged identities will inevitably make mistakes as we undergo these changes, apology is an essential skill. The UU World editor, Chris Walton, offered a powerful apology. He wrote: “I am profoundly saddened and deeply sorry to have caused pain to people who matter to me and whose dignity and worth I had thought we were promoting with the piece. As the magazine’s editor, I was wrong to decide to publish this essay and I apologize for the pain it has caused.”[11]

Centering is immensely difficult work. But I believe we are close to or at a tipping point. I suppose there are many who might disagree with me, but I see our various centers (congregational, regional, and national) learning not to dismiss the margins. I see reflection happening, apologies happening, structures evolving, new practices are emerging, and accountability shifting. Yes, this transformation is painfully slow, but I see us tipping.

Theresa Soto promises “we will find the people ready to be / on the freedom for the people way.”[12] I really want Soto to find those people at the center of our UU congregations. I believe we—and by ‘we’ I really do mean all of us—are the people ready to be on the freedom for the people way. I pray that we may be those people. I challenge: let’s be those people! I encourage: we can be those people. And I eagerly anticipate the day when we can say with confidence: we are those people.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] French, Kimberly, “After L, G and B,” UU World, March 1, 2019. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/after-l-g-b?fbclid=IwAR3qQ-2rO9yhMpcx_O_LloGxwZGGZ5qsuXCrnEkK9pYP4w9PB7hqJ6VQh8Y.

[2] Hammamy, Ranwa and Saeed, Sana, “About Us Without Us: A Call to Our Unitarian Universalist Siblings from Muslim Unitarian Universalists,” unpublished open letter, late March, 2019. See: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1J9ccz9cmg2mmLu9hbVQqOYkYcoyUxL7YfmvpnqPIeNw/edit?fbclid=IwAR1zkpRxCzSzjE8GM4R4SKK0dCxmvcbR4AJBmdN2l5MHf5cKhVu6f1-Kwxk.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “White Supremacy Teach-In,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, May 7, 2017. See: http://uuse.org/white-supremacy-teach-in/#.XQQjx4hKhPY.

[4] Soto, Theresa I, “dear trans*, non-binary, genderqueer and gender-expansive friends and kin: (and those of us whose gender is survival)” Spilling the Light: Meditations on Hope and Resilience (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2019) pp. 12-13.

[5]Beal, CB, “Centering the Marginalized: symphony and triptych,” Medium.com, March 6, 2019. See:  https://medium.com/@jpc_cb/centering-the-marginalized-symphony-and-triptych-9dabc93cd461.

[6] Pawelek, Josh, “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, September 30, 2018. See: http://uuse.org/centering-the-margins-as-spiritual-practice/#.XQQotohKhPY.

[7] Beal, CB, “Centering the Marginalized: symphony and triptych,” Medium.com, March 6, 2019. See:  https://medium.com/@jpc_cb/centering-the-marginalized-symphony-and-triptych-9dabc93cd461.

[8] Read Alex Kapitan’s full statement at Kapitan, Alex, “What It Takes to De-Center Privilege: The Failure of this Week’s UU World Article,” Roots Grow the Tree: A Dailogue, March 6, 2019. See: https://rootsgrowthetree.com/2019/03/06/what-it-takes-to-de-center-privilege/.

[9] “Tips for Talking About the UU World Article,” Transforming Hearts Collective, March 8, 2019. See: https://www.transformingheartscollective.org/stories/2019/3/8/tips-for-talking-about-the-uu-world-article?fbclid=IwAR3a3AgGXiiwn7OerWOXV3645Pe5Qh4ZeiaHQQEXqAfwFNy8i5Xzl8g1n8s.

[10] Diangelo, Robin, White Fracility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018) p. 141.

[11] Walton, Chris, “Our Story Hurt People,” UU World, March 6, 2019. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/apology-spring-2019.

[12] Soto, Theresa I, “dear trans…” Spilling the Light, pp. 12-13.

Memorial Garden Rededication

We Dedicate This Garden

(Rev. Josh Pawelek)

One: As a place to hold the ashes of our deceased loved-ones, our liberal religious siblings, our spiritual ancestors—a place for their spirits to rest…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: As a place to remind us of our highest values, our Unitarian Universalist principles,

our deepest commitments and our most enduring loves…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: As a place for silence, for quiet contemplation, for meditation, and for prayer…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: As a place for communion with Nature, communion with the birds, the deer, the turkeys, the coyotes, the turtles, the trees, the shrubs, the grasses…

All: We dedicate this garden…

One: As a place to experience oneness, to apprehend “the peace of wild things,” the

peace that resides at the heart of creation…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: As a place to receive our ashes when it is our time to die, a place for our spirits to rest, to sing, to dance, in the midst of all the living things that grace this land with their presence…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: Amen and blessed be.

Working Towards a Public Option for Health Care

UUS:E’s Rev. Josh Pawelek and Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee member Al Benford participated in a meeting on 5/13 at the Governor’s Office in a quiet attempt to build support for a health care public option in CT.  Read the article at CT News Junkie.

 

The Wages of Trust is Life

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Spiritually speaking, where—or in what, or in whom—do you place your trust? Do you place your trust in God? Goddess? Spirit? Do you place your trust in the universe? In Nature? Do you place your trust in yourself? Do you place your trust in family, friends, neighbors? Do you place your trust in the people sitting around you—the members and friends of this congregation? I ask because where we place our trust matters. It shapes who we are and whose we are. And it shapes how we are in the world. Spiritually speaking, where do you place your trust?

Our ministry theme for February is trust. I wrote in my newsletter column that trust occupies a different location within Unitarian Universalism than it does in most other faith traditions. Unitarian Universalism is primarily a this-worldly, relational and covenantal faith. We explicitly gather around a set of seven principles—guidelines for how we are going to be together, how we are going to treat each other, how we are going to relate to the wider community and the world. We are non-doctrinal, meaning we do not gather around a specific theology or doctrine. What does this mean for trust? It means we place our primary trust in each other. In this sense, our trust is horizontal. It extends from person to person within the congregation and out into the wider community.

In more doctrinal faiths, people gather around a theological assertion, a commonly-held belief. As such they tend to place their primary trust in God. In this sense, their trust is vertical, extending “up” to God, or to wherever God lives. This does not mean that they don’t trust each other or that they don’t have agreements about how they are going to treat each other—they do. But they place their primary trust in God.

I call this sermon “The Wages of Trust is Life.” This title plays with a verse in the Christian New Testament book of Romans in which the Apostle Paul asserts, “for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.”[1] That is, if you live a sinful life the result will be death. If you put your faith in Jesus Christ the result will be eternal life. This is a doctrinal statement. Paul was among the first followers of Jesus to articulate in writing this doctrine about Jesus; a doctrine which lives at the heart of Christianity today. It has been a compelling doctrine for billions of people over the nearly 2,000 years since Paul wrote to the Roman Christian community. It is a compelling doctrine for a majority of the more than two billion Christians on the planet today. That’s a lot of vertical trust!

But our collective trust is horizontal. As a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we place our trust in each other. We don’t promise eternal life. Sorry. But we do promise a life worth living. And that matters. A life of community, companionship, partners for the journey, caring, compassion, support, mutual encouragement, mutual challenge, listening, love. These are the fruits of our trust in each other; and this is why I say, humbly, the wages of trust is life.

We aren’t the only ones whose trust is horizontal. From Christianity’s earliest days, Christians have debated the question: to what extent is religion about adherence to a doctrine? To what extent is religion about how we treat one another? A group of us are reading Jesus and After: The First Eighty Years by University of Massachusetts professor, E. Bruce Brooks. Brooks engages in a linguistic analysis of the Bible and other texts to show that prior to Paul’s efforts to establish Christianity as a doctrinal religion, there were Christians, centered primarily in Jerusalem but also living in communities throughout the ancient Near East, who knew nothing of Paul’s doctrines, and who focused primarily on being good to each other and their neighbors.

Brooks points out that in the earliest versions of the Gospel of Mark, which is the earliest of the four New Testament Gospels, a man comes to Jesus and asks, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus doesn’t give Paul’s answer. He doesn’t respond with doctrine. He doesn’t say ‘you have to believe.’ He advises the man to keep the commandments. He names five of the ten commandments from the Hebrew Bible—the five which have to do specifically with how we treat others: do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honor your parents. He also adds a sixth commandment which is not in the original ten: do not defraud. What is significant for Brooks is that Jesus doesn’t name any of the commandments that have to do with humanity’s relationship to or belief in God. He doesn’t mention ‘have no other gods before me,’ ‘make no graven images,’ or ‘speak not God’s name in vain.’ In this very early version of Christianity, in the decade following Jesus’ death, the emphasis is not on belief or doctrine, but on ethical human behavior, on living a good life.[2]

This tension between right belief and right living, or what some call ‘works,’ continued throughout the first century. Brooks refers to a famous passage from an early version of the Epistle of James. James was attempting to counter the emphasis on doctrine coming from Paul and his followers: “What good is it,” James wrote, “if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a [sibling] is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them: ‘Go in peace. Keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”[3] For shorthand, you might be familiar with the phrase, ‘deeds not creeds.’ I feel a certain spiritual kindship with these early, Pre-Pauline Christians—at least Brooks’ understanding of them. There’s an air of horizontalness about them. It is no coincidence that this passage from James appears in our Unitarian Universalist hymnal.

One can reasonably ask—and our critics do ask—if you don’t have a commonly-held belief, what holds you together? The answer is covenant. Our covenants hold us together.

Covenant is an Ancient Near Eastern concept. The Hebrew word berit or beriyth translates variously as covenant, treaty, compact, alliance or agreement. It appears 3oo times in the Bible. Its earliest, pre-Bibilical usage was political. It referred to a treaty whereby one king pledged allegiance to another, more powerful king. Most scholars agree this political model provided the template for Israel’s spiritual covenant with God, which is the heart of Judaism. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God regularly revises the covenant, making promises of land, prosperity, freedom, protection, victory in war, national greatness and on and on. The people agree to remain loyal to God and uphold God’s law. Then they typically miss the mark in some way. They fall out of covenant. God commissions prophets to call the Israelites back into covenant. They come back, the covenant gets revised, and so on. The covenants within Christianity are revisions and adaptations of God’s covenant with Israel The covenants within Islam refer back to the Christian and Jewish covenants.

Covenants were very important to our spiritual forebears in colonial New England, the Puritans. Although their faith was certainly doctrinal in emphasis, they also placed great trust in each other. The late Unitarian historian, Conrad Wright, wrote that “when the New England Puritans gathered their churches, they wrote out covenants, by which the members agreed to walk together in mutual fellowship, in commitment to one another as well as to Christ Jesus.” [4] This metaphor of walking together was very important to the Puritans. It’s a reference to the Hebrew prophet Amos who asked “Do two walk together who have not made an agreement?”[5] Walking together is another way of saying ‘we trust one another.’

Wright said “the earliest New England covenants … were simple statements. [For example,] the Salem covenant of 1629 is as follows: ‘We covenant with the Lord and one with an other; and doe bynd our selves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies….’ While there are words here with theological significance, such as ‘Lord,’ and ‘God’ … it should be remarked that this was not a creedal statement. The operative words here are: ‘we … doe bynd our selves … to walke together.’ They are not ‘we believe.’”[6]

Over time, theological disagreements emerged within the New England churches. The Orthodox clung to the old doctrines. Liberals rejected them. The Orthodox demanded doctrinal purity. Slowly the liberals moved on, establishing the first Unitarian congregations in the United States. Wright says that “very early in our history as a separate religious body we insisted that creedal statements are not the proper basis for religious fellowship; more than that, that theological diversity is not only to be tolerated, but to be embraced as a good thing…. [Today] we assert the right and duty of each one of us to adhere to his or her understanding of religious truth, and we accept the obligation to respect one another, even if we do not always agree.”[7]

Our early American Unitarian forebears rejected the old doctrines, but they kept their covenantal practices. They remained a covenantal faith. When this congregation was founded in 1969, Unitarian Universalism’s covenant featured six principles, including strengthening one another in a free and disciplined search for truth; cherishing and spreading the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity; affirming, defending and promoting the supreme worth and dignity of every human being and the use of democratic processes in human relationships; striving for a world community founded in peace and justice; supporting, extending and strengthening liberal religion; and cooperating with people of good will in every land.[8] In 1985 we changed our principles to their current language: “We covenant to affirm and promote: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

In 1989 this congregation created its own covenant and mission; and in 2012 we crafted our current congregational covenant, which supplements the Unitarian Universalist principles with more specific statements about how we intend to relate to one another here, including treating each other with respect, engaging each other with love and kindness, listening openly, speaking our truths thoughtfully, embracing conflict as an opportunity for growth, nurturing generosity, maintaining a sense of humor, being mindful of power dynamics based on identities such as race, class, sexual orientation and gender, and seeking forgiveness when we miss the mark. We’re now beginning a process of reviewing and updating that covenant. On March 14th the Policy Board will hold open forums to discuss possible updates.

None of these covenants are statements of belief. They do not express doctrines or creeds. They state our highest values. They express how we intend to relate to each other, how we intend to show up in the world, how we intend to live. We enter into this religious community trusting that each of us will do our best to live by these covenants, trusting that each of us is seeking relationships that have dignity, justice, compassion, a sense of interconnection, and love at their core. As Unitarian Universalists, we agree that such relationships here and now, in this life, in this world, matter immensely. That’s what unites us! That’s what gives us life. Indeed, the wages of trust is life.

****

The other night my 16-year-old asked what I thought happens after we die. Some faiths answer that question with a doctrine. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” My answer was “I don’t know.” That seemed OK to him, but for me, as a dad who wants to give his child all the hope and confidence in the world, it felt significantly less than satisfactory. We then had a philosophical conversation about what it might mean to simply cease existing, or whether there might be such a thing as soul that lives on after we die. That was a ‘head’ conversation. But lurking beneath was a ‘heart’ conversation, a longing, a yearning for something more, perhaps a sadness that our time on earth is short, that we really may not encounter each other again after this life is done, that nothing is truly eternal.

Yet, in such moments I’m also reminded: if this is the only life, then let’s live an amazing life. Let’s live the best life we can possibly live. Let’s life lives of integrity, lives that seek justice for people and the earth; lives that build beloved community; lives that search earnestly for truth and meaning; lives that recognize and value our interdependence with all other life. And this is why a covenantal faith is so important. None of us can live such a life on our own. We need one another. We need each other’s care and support and compassion and love. We may not be able to trust in some ancient notion of eternal life, but we can put our trust in each other to live this good life. Indeed, the wages of trust is life.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Romans 6:23 (New Revised Standard Version).

[2] Brooks, Bruce E., Jesus and After: The First Eighty Years (Amherst, MA: Warring States Project, UMASS Amherst, 2017) pp. 19-20.

[3] Ibid., pp. 85-86. Also, I am quoting the language of James 2: 14-17 that appears in #668, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).

[4] Wright, Conrad, Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches (Boston: Skinner House, 1989) pp. 7.

[5] Amos 3:3.

[6] Wright, Walking Together, p. 7.

[7] Wright, Walking Together, p. 27.

[8] The full text, complete with male-centered language, is at https://www.uuworld.org/articles/the-uuas-original-principles-1961.

Groundhoggin’

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Across the northern hemisphere, spiritually speaking, these early days of February mark an auspicious time.

In early February we arrive at the middle of winter. We arrive at a cross-quarter time—halfway between solstice and equinox. In the ancient Gaelic calendar, this is the time for the celebration of Imbolc or Oimelc—Imbolc meaning ‘in the belly,’ pregnant; Oimelc referring to ewe’s milk,’ because the sheep are pregnant, ready to give birth. The milk is beginning to flow. Spring is coming.

Among pre-Christian Celtic peoples, as well as in many current-day pagan communities, the celebration of Imbolc—typically on February 2nd—is associated with Brigid or Bríd, the ancient Irish goddess: the exalted one, keeper of the flame, guardian of home and hearth, patron of bards and crafters, a poet, a healer, a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the ancient Irish tribe of gods.

In Catholicism February 1st is feast day of St. Brigid, who was likely a fifth-century Irish nun, remembered for founding monasteries and churches. Catholics attribute a number of miracles to her. Her blood was said to have healing properties. She’s rumored to have turned water into beer. Many historians of religion argue that over time, Brigid the Catholic nun took on the characteristics of Brigid the pagan goddess. These arguments ring true to me. Because the people would not—perhaps could not—give up their goddess, the church Christianized her, elevated her, venerated her. Thus the more ancient patterns and meanings remain to this day, even if they reside in the shadows.

This is also the time of Candlemas—typically February 2nd—the Catholic feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Briefly, in the Torah a newborn male child is circumcised eight days after birth. Thirty three days after that, his mother presents herself at the temple for purification, which she achieves through animal sacrifice.[1] In the Christian book of Luke, Jesus’ family participates in this ritual.[2] I find it fascinating that these rites of purification for Mary and Jesus occur exactly at the cross-quarter moment between solstice and equinox. For me, it signals a deeper, more ancient agricultural and earth-based spirituality living in the shadows of the Biblical stories.

Over the centuries Candlemas has become the time in many Christian denominations—not just Catholic—for the blessing of the candles the church will use in worship for the coming year. Supposedly the candles play a role in warding off illness. Some of you may have childhood memories of holding the blessed candles up to your throats in worship as protection against winter colds and flu.

And of course, animal divination figures prominently at this cross-quarter time. February 2nd is Groundhog Day. 19th-century German immigrants—the Pennsylvania Dutch—my people!—first introduced the idea that groundhogs have the power to predict the timing of spring’s commencement. Weather divination has long been important to agrarian and earth-based people. A farmer ought not to plant seeds if more frost and snow are likely. In some parts of Germany Candlemas was known as Badger Day; for in addition to American groundhogs and British hedgehogs, other animals known to have the ability to predict the coming of spring are bears, foxes and badgers.

It’s an auspicious time. Themes of divination, purification, healing, clearing away, getting ready, birth and the coming of spring abound. And so much seems to lie beneath the surface, in the shadows, hidden just beyond our conscious awareness.

****

I will be the first to own that what we might call the typical Unitarian Universalist (which I’m sure none of you are) doesn’t give much credence to all the magic and ritual that has built up around this cross-quarter time. Animals forecasting the weather? Blessed candles warding off illness? Purification through animal sacrifice? A nun’s blood healing the infirm? The power of ancient gods and goddesses? For many of us our natural inclination is to appraise it all as mythology, metaphor or quaint superstition. Many of you left your childhood religions precisely because these kinds of things didn’t make sense, weren’t rational. Many of you explored Unitarian Universalism because of our commitment to the use of reason in our collective religious life.

For me that commitment remains unwavering; and yet I am also drawn to the kinds of human experiences that occupy spaces our reason can’t easily access. Recently our UUS:E Humanist Study Group read an article by former Unitarian Universalist Association President, the Rev. Bill Schultz called “Our Humanist Legacy.” In it he describes how encounters with psychotherapy and with the death of beloved family members led him to understand the limits of reason in religion. He writes, “I came to have a far deeper appreciation for the irrational in every form and a far greater access to my own feelings, limits, and yearnings than I had had before…. Much of [my religion] seemed … too quickly dismissive of the vast realms of human experience that could not be reached by cognition alone.”[3]

He asks: “What are we to make of all the human experiences whose meanings could not be completely captured in scientific terms—dreams, for example, emotions, religious aspiration, wanton cruelty?…. All this could be reduced to physiological phenomena … but anyone who tried to capture the holistic significance of love or loyalty, guilt or grandeur, in terms of brain cell functioning alone could be rightly accused of displaying a pitiful paucity of imagination.[4]

Like Schultz, while not wanting to jettison reason from our religious lives, I have always been interested in how we cross the line spiritually from the reasonable to the unreasonable, the rational to the irrational, the mundane to the miraculous, the conscious to the unconscious, and so on. As people who take great pride in our reasonable approach to religion, and often lead with it when we describe Unitarian Universalism to others, I think we’re always at risk of missing something spiritually significant if we don’t develop skills for crossing those lines. I’m not talking about crossing a line into some kind of irrational belief or accepting some impossible miracle as true. I mean crossing into those dimensions of our lives reason cannot access.

That takes spiritual skill. Though I don’t claim to be expert in this in any way, the skill I want to introduce to you this morning is the use of intuition. You might say, ‘intuition isn’t a skill. Either you have a hunch about something or you don’t. Either you intuit something or you don’t.’ I say there’s more to it than that. I am convinced we intuit things about our surroundings and our lives all the time, yet for a variety of reasons we don’t notice it when it happens. We’ve learned to ignore it. But we can unlearn. We can develop our capacity to notice and respond to our intuitions more regularly. In honor of this particular cross-quarter moment, I affectionately refer to this skill as groundhoggin.’

What does the groundhog supposedly do? It wakes from its winter slumber, leaves its lair, and pays attention. I read to you earlier from spiritual writer Thomas Moore’s A Religion of One’s Own. He reminds us: “‘intuition’ comes from the Latin word that means ‘to keep watch over.’ To be intuitive is to be prepared to see some new kind of information or insight that is faint and passing. Intuitions come and go quickly, you have to watch for them…. They are … subtle messages coming at you, but so delicate and thin that you might easily let them go by. Because they are not the product of reasoning and factual research, you have to learn to sort them out and eventually trust them.”[5]

Moore writes about reading tea leaves, a global practice with ancient Chinese origins. He doesn’t believe tea leaves have some kind of magical property such that they can tell your fortune or predict the future. He describes a practice of paying attention to whatever images he immediately sees in the leaves—a dog, a horse, a person, a house, a car, tree, etc. Then he uses the image as a prompt for further contemplation. Why might I have seen the image of a car? Do I need to go somewhere? Is there some journey I need to take? Have I been wondering about the role of technology in our lives—the convenience of technology? The danger of technology? Did I forget to change my oil? He does the same kind of practice with the I-Ching, another ancient Chinese divination method. He does it with tarot cards. He speaks also of just noticing synchronicities—when two completely unrelated things happen at the same time in a meaningful way. Why did a certain person come into my life at a specific time? Why did a certain book come to my attention at a specific time?

He’s not saying there is some underlying, magical order to it all, or that some deity is orchestrating every minute aspect of our lives. He’s suggesting there’s an unconscious, irrational part of us that is constantly sensing things in our surroundings, very quickly making meaning out of what it senses, and then offering us images or impressions. But they’re vague. They’re opaque. They’re fleeting. Learning to pay attention to them, learning to keep watch over them, takes practice. As we practices, as we learn to parse out what they mean, we become more intuitive.

In protest, you could very reasonably argue that we’re just making things up here. A tea leaf car is just a tea-leaf car. Certainly there’s truth to that. But I’m mindful of our seventh Unitarian Universalist principle, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” We often interpret this principle as a call to care for the earth; but this principle is also a statement about the relational nature of reality which the study of biology increasingly verifies on a macro level and the study of physics increasingly verifies on a quantum level. All reality is interdependent, interconnected, interrelated. If this is true, then it is reasonable to assert that some connections—in fact, most connections—work beneath the surface of our knowing. They touch us in countless ways, they hold us in countless ways, but we aren’t consciously aware of them. Still, at some deep level, our bodies know. And often that’s what intuition is—a fleeting glimpse of an underlying connection. So why not learn to invite our unconscious, irrational, dreaming mind out into the open? Why not learn to keep watch over what lies beneath, what lies in the shadows? Why not go groundhoggin’?

In her meditation, “Winter Blessing,” the Rev. Kathleen McTigue suggests there is a vast world beyond our knowing. Even when the light goes out. / Mystery shimmers and shines in the world / in even the darkest corners. / It’s there where the roots push life into soil and rock, / in small lives lived under every stone; / there in the silent pulse beneath the tree bark. It’s in the depth of slow tides as they turn,/ there in the sky on moonless nights / when muffling clouds block out the stars. / It’s there in the prison, the hospital, / by the hospice bed, / there at the graveside, in the empty house– / something beating in the dark shelter / of our hearts– / the small shine of hope, the gilt edge of darkness. And then she invites us into a more tangible awareness of it all:  May we be granted the gift of deeper sight / that we might see—with or without the light.[6] As I read it, she’s talking about paying attention, keeping watch over, being intuitive. Groundhoggin!’

And when all else fails, there is Lynn Ungar’s groundhog-inspired advice: Do you want to play your part / in bringing [spring] to birth? Nothing simpler. / Find a spot not too far from the ground / and wait.[7]

****

From time to time we catch a glimpse of something else—some other reality beyond our senses, below the surface. We don’t see it per se; we feel it, imagine it, dream it. Maybe it comes to us in our quiet, contemplative moments. Maybe it comes to us in our moments of great celebration or exertion when we’ve danced, sung, run or stretched our bodies so far beyond their normal positions that somehow we open ourselves up to a world of power and magic, connection and sacredness waiting, always, just beyond our regular lives. Maybe it comes to us because we’ve developed our intuitive capacities.

Perhaps this cross-quarter time, drenched in layers of ritual, history, and superstition, is one such moment when we can pierce the veil and know a greater reality. Perhaps. But even if we can’t pierce it, we can nevertheless pause, lean back, and open ourselves up to the ancient cry, echoing across the generations: The fires are burning! The ewe’s milk is flowing! The earth is breathing. The light is returning! Spring is coming!

Happy Groundhoggin.’

Amen. Blessed be.

_________________________

[1] Leviticus 12.

[2] Luke 2.

[3] Schultz, Bill, “Our Humanist Legacy: 70 Years of Religious Humanism,” UU World, November/December 2003. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/unitarian-universalisms-humanist-legacy

[4] Schultz, “Our Humanist Legacy.”

[5] Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World (New York: Avery, 2015) pp. 204-205.

[6] McTigue, Kathleen, “Winter Blessing,” in Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2011) p. 5.

[7] Ungar, Lynn, “Groundhog Day,” in Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p.30.

Centering the Margins as Spiritual Practice

Last June at our Bridging Ceremony, at which we recognize graduating high school seniors and welcome them into the community of Unitarian Universalist young adults, the bridgers received a gift from me: The Jefferson Bible, officially known as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Thomas Jefferson is remembered for many things, not the least of which is his commitment to reason in religion. He famously took a scissors to the New Testament gospels in his King James Bible, snipping out all the miracles. For Jefferson, they weren’t reasonable. They couldn’t be verified, and therefore didn’t belong in a sacred scripture. What remained after this purge was the narrative of Jesus’ human life—we read of his execution but not his miraculous resurrection; and we read of his moral teachings—the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, the sayings, etc.        

For more than a century since this little tome was first published in the late 1800s, it has sat prominently in the libraries of Unitarian Universalist congregations. When I was a bridger in 1985, my minister gifted me with a copy, which I still possess and for which I still hold an emotional attachment. I don’t normally give this gift to bridgers. In nearly twenty years of ministry I believe this was only the second time I’ve given it. I wish I had thought more deeply about giving it—and about receiving it 33 years ago. After the service last June, Kristal Kallenberg approached me and asked about the reason for giving it. As soon as she asked I realized it’s not a good gift. Kristal said it didn’t seem right to offer Thomas Jefferson as a moral exemplar for our bridgers. It was Jefferson, after all, who could articulate the moral depravity at the heart of slavery,”[1] and yet who could not summon the political will—or the heart—to work for the abolition of slavery, not even on his own plantation. He could describe the moral life vividly; but when it came to slavery, he could not live it. And he knew it.

I’m not saying The Jefferson Bible has no value, or that it should be censored or banned or removed from our libraries. I’m saying it’s not a good gift for our bridgers.

I wasn’t remembering that our denomination has had huge debates over Jefferson precisely because he was a slaveholder and thus a potent reminder of White Supremacy at the heart of our nation’s founding. There used to be a Thomas Jefferson District of the Unitarian Universalist Association. After decades of intense debate, the district finally changed its name. I was fully aware of this, yet somehow I had compartmentalized The Jefferson Bible into a context-free zone in my mind, as if I could separate Jefferson’s moral vision from his moral behavior. It shouldn’t have happened. We live in an age when activists around the country, including Unitarian Universalists, are fighting for the removal of Confederate monuments and flags from public places precisely because they celebrate White Supremacy. I should have made the connection.

This is embarrassing, given my commitment to anti-racism and the Movement for Black Lives, but I offer no excuses. This is one of the ways and White supremacy operate. I’m thankful to Kristal for being willing to ask the question. I am sorry that she had to dedicate energy to naming something I should have known. I apologize to my colleagues—especially my colleagues of Color, some of whom will feel, in the very least, let down when they read this. I apologize to you, especially those of you who were present and may have felt a pinch, an ouch, a micro-aggression, or even a macro-aggression. And most of all I am apologizing to the bridgers. I am writing to them about my change of heart, and including replacement gifts—

a book of readings compiled for UU young adults called Becoming, and a book of meditations from Unitarian Universalist ministers of Color entitled Voices from the Margins, from which I have been reading throughout this service.

In her meditation entitled “Marginal Wisdom,” the Rev. Leslie Takahashi says, “The day is coming when all will know / That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than monochrome, / That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, / stubborn rocks in its course, / That the margins hold the center.”[2] In her meditation, “Waiting,” the Rev. Marta Valentín[3] beckons her readers to come “into the center / come in from the margins / I will hold you here.”

In the life and culture of any institution, including congregations, there is a center and there are margins. The center is where power is exercised, priorities determined, decisions made, money spent, resources allocated, values articulated, sermons preached, hymns sung, joys and sorrows shared, coffee served, gifts given. The center specifies norms for appropriate behavior and emotional expression; norms for which topics are speakable, and which are taboo; norms for belonging—who is in and who doesn’t really fit. Sometimes these norms are clearly articulated. Sometimes they are assumed, taken for granted, unexamined.

The margins are those places where people experiences themselves as out-of- sync with the center or, worse, excluded. For example, oftentimes as people age, as their mobility, hearing and vision decline, they may begin to feel marginalized from the physical life of the congregation. Another example: Many congregations are adult-focused. Children—and by extension, their parents—occupy the margins. If the center is White, People of Color may experience themselves as marginal. If the center speaks English, people who speak limited English may experience themselves as marginal. If the congregation’s primary theological orientation is Humanist, people who identify as Christian, Theist or Pagan may experience themselves as marginal. People with mental illness may feel marginal. Survivors of sexual violence may feel marginal. Often we have some identities that occupy the center; and others that occupy the margins. We are rarely only one or the other.

The existence of a center and margins is natural and unavoidable in any institution or community. However, here, our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to pay attention to what our center and margins are—to be institutionally self-aware. Who are we including? Who are we excluding? But then further, because we envision a highly inclusive community, a multigenerational, multicultural and multiracial community, a spiritually pluralistic community that can offer many styles of worship, music, and arts, our center must be in constant dialogue with our margins. And further: we must be willing to center that which is marginal.

We often use ‘centering’ as a spiritual term for finding our own inner grounding, our own foundation, our own anchor. But here I’m using centering differently. I am calling centering the the margins a spiritual practice.

Knowing that our congregational center is White, that our culture is a White culture, that it is possible for well-intentioned White people to perpetuate racism and White supremacy inadvertently, what if before making the decision to give a book created by a slaveholder to our bridgers, I had centered the descendants of former African slaves? What if I had simply asked, “if one of our bridgers were African American, how might it feel for them to receive this gift and learn from the minister that it represents a great moral example in the history of our faith and nation?” I can only imagine that it wouldn’t feel good, that it would likely do harm. And if it wouldn’t be good for that child, why would it be good for any of our children?

This week the nation witnessed what many commentators have described as a tragedy: the build-up to, and the actual testimony of, Christine Blasey Ford about her sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Survivors of sexual violence still occupy the margins in our society. The #MeToo movement is challenging this marginalization, demanding that we as a society center the experiences of survivors—take them seriously, believe them, care for them and hold perpetrators accountable. With so many high-profile firings, resignations, failed political careers and campaigns, and guilty verdicts, it seems as if the movement is having an impact—though I am not aware of an overall reduction in sexual violence.

The Senate Judiciary Committee leaders didn’t want to center Blasey Ford’s story, but they also knew they couldn’t ignore her. They had to at least appear to be centering her. They tried so hard not to publicly shame or discredit her ahead of time. Even the President, who consistently engages in character assassination on Twitter, held back for a few days, initially acknowledging that Blasey Ford’s allegations were serious and deserved a hearing. Committee chair Senator Grassley kept reiterating that Blasey Ford could testify whichever way was most comfortable for her. They even recognized how bad the optics were for eleven powerful men to be questioning a woman about her experience of sexual assault. They hired Rachel Miller, a female attorney with extensive experience prosecuting sex crimes, to do their questioning for them. The result was an extensive, unchallenged testimony in which Blasey Ford, though frightened, was able to speak her truth and, from my perspective, was utterly convincing. I believe her.

It was fascinating to watch the Judiciary Committee leadership decenter attorney Miller. She asked Judge Kavanaugh two questions, and then she was essentially gone from the proceedings. Evidently her questions were good for Blasey Ford, but not for Cavanaugh—a potent double standard.

I also want to name—and I’ll talk about how this works in congregations in a moment—that centering a story or experience from the margins is often experienced as a threat by those who occupy the center. Centering a story or experience from the margins often produces feelings of guilt, shame, and anger from the center. I think Judge Kavanaugh offered a perfect example of this. Who could have responded with grace and dignity. Instead, he responded with anger. He was livid. He scolded. He was partisan. He alleged a conspiracy against him. And his supporters on the Committee followed his lead, expressing their own anger and dissapointment

Back to congregations. Congregational cultures are inherently conservative, meaning they exist to conserve specific values and principles, specific ideas about worship, spirituality, and the role religion plays in our lives. So any act of bringing new identities and ways of being into the center from the margins, though it sounds reasonable on the surface, can be quite disruptive. The center often resists. When you, or some part of you, is centered in a congregation—when you feel comfortable at the center, when the center meets your needs, feeds you, fulfills you, when you are emotionally invested in it—the act of centering someone else whose experience, world-view, ideas, culture, or spirituality reside at the margins, can feel threatening. We often feel defensive before we think about it, before we remember, “Oh, yes, this is who we say we are: open to new and different ideas, longing for greater diversity, striving to expand the circle, not close it off.”

I invite you to contemplate centering the margins as a spiritual practice. At its easiest, it’s a practice of deep listening to new stories. At it’s most difficult, it’s a practice of trusting and believing people who are courageous enough to speak about how they’ve been wounded, the ways they’ve felt excluded, the ways they’ve been relegated to the margins. Centering the other requires a softening of the ego, an openness of heart, a willingness to share cultural and spiritual space, a willingness to change. I try to keep four themes in mind.

First, stay focused on what the other is trying to convey from their experience on the margin. If you find yourself defending the center, or saying ‘that’s not how we do it,’ or ‘The Jefferson Bible is an important part of our heritage,’ pause. Breathe. Ease back from defensiveness. Center the person who is speaking. Trust they have something valuable to offer. Trust marginal wisdom to shape the center in positive ways.

Second, avoid the impulse to fix problems immediately. Sometimes stories from the margins reveal flaws in the congregation, ways in which it isn’t aware of itself, ways in which it might be alienating people without realizing it. In the midst of such revelations our allegiance to the center may lead us to want to fix the problem quickly. Unitarian Universalist culture has a habit of moving quickly away from stories of pain and anger into problem-solving. But far too often the people doing the problem-solving aren’t the ones experiencing the problem. Far too often the people doing the problem-solving are recentering themselves and their power to fix, rather than focusing on the story. If someone is sharing a margin story and you find yourself wanting to fix what has happened, pause. Breathe. Ease back from this impulse to fix. Stay with the pain. Learn from the pain. Let your understanding of yourself and your church evolve in response to the pain. The time for fixing will come. For now, center the margins.

Third, beware of guilt, shame and anger. When the story from the margin is about something painful that happened at the center, such feelings are understandable. But if I start talking about my feelings, or worse, if I get angry because I feel I am being challenged, I am now making the story about me. I am decentering the other, and recentering me. “Thank you for telling your story, now let me tell you how YOUR story makes ME feel!” It’s important to notice guilt and shame, but instead of letting them take over the conversation, receive them as cues to refocus attention back on the story, allowing it to live and breathe in the discussion, allowing it to become part of your larger Unitarian Universalist story.

Finally, strive for humility. Indeed, centering the other is an act of humility. The key to honoring and affirming the stories and experiences of people from the cultural margins is humility. The key to not rushing in with solutions is humility. The key to decentering one’s own feelings of guilt and shame is humility. The key to welcoming people from the cultural margins into our cultural center is humility. The key to realizing how deeply the center is connected to the margins is humility.

Rev. Takahashi says “The day is coming when all will know / That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than monochrome, / That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, / stubborn rocks in its course, / That the margins hold the center.”[4] So often, the center of the institution is that static, stubborn rock. Sometimes we need to let go, to swim with the current. The rainbow serves all of us. The monochrome only serves some of us.

I suspect we know this in our heads. We know diversity of ideas, spiritualities and identities is healthy for congregations. But the more we practice centering the margins, the more we will know it in our hearts. It might just be the difference between articulating a moral vision and living it.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Jefferson, Thomas, Notes of the State of Virginia, Query XVIII: Manners, 1781. See: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/notes-on-the-state-of-virginia-query-xviii-manners/.

[2] Takahashi, Leslie, in Morrison-Reed, Mark and James, Jacqui, eds., Voices from the Margins (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012) pp. 30-31.

[3] Valentín, Marta, “Waiting” in Morrison-Reed and James, Voices, pp. 3-4.

[4] Takahashi, Leslie, in Morrison-Reed, Mark and James, Jacqui, eds., Voices from the Margins (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012) pp. 30-31.