Falling: Thoughts on Forgiveness

IMG_0574Forgiveness is our ministry theme for October. This is a sermon about forgiveness. I’ve given it the title, “Falling,” mainly because autumn has come to New England, the leaves are changing and beginning to fall, and I’ve been caught by the notion that the act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires us to let go of something; to let go like leaves and fall; to let go like leaves and fall and trust that we will land where we need to be.

There are many metaphors that will work in addition to falling. All morning we’ve been singing those words from Rev. Raymond Baughan: “Turn scarlet, leaves.”[1] The act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires us to turn; to turn away from something; to turn away from something that has been holding us, constraining us, defining us—some hurt, anger, distrust, fear, self-pity, self-righteousness, pride. To forgive someone who has wronged us requires us to turn away, to turn toward something new—often something unknown—and to trust we are turning in a good direction.

In our first reading, Rev. Belletini likens forgiving to sinking “like stones in a pool” all those things that weigh us down. “Drop them like hot rocks / into the cool silence,” he urges.[2] Here again, the act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires that we let something go, drop it, plunge it, sink it, trusting that its removal from our lives will serve us well; will enable us, in his words, to “lay back gently, and float, / float on the calm surface of the silence.”[3]

We might add tumbling to the list. We sang Rev. Baughan’s words, “Tumble the shadows into dawn / The morning out of night.”[4] Perhaps forgiving is akin to tumbling—to leaving the solid ground we’ve been occupying; hoping and trusting some new ground will form beneath us, hoping and trusting we will land well. Falling, turning, sinking, dropping, quieting, letting go, surrendering, tumbling. Many words work. This morning, falling. If we are to forgive those who have wronged us, something must fall.

The impact genuine forgiveness has on our lives is well-known: it makes us free. Let’s remember this. Our national culture, at its worst—meaning not all the time, but increasingly—is becoming less forgiving, more tolerant of and comfortable with un-checked and unbridled anger, more content with broken relationships remaining broken, more quick to judge, more quick to assume the worst, more quick to lash out, more quick to publically shame. And public apologies, if they come at all, are shallow, worded to avoid responsibility for wrongdoing, and thus they don’t readily invite forgiveness. Ours is a ‘gotcha’ society, a litigious society, a road rage society, a mass incarceration society, a mass shooting society. The more familiar and habitual these trends become, the more we let them become the status quo, the less free we are. Something must fall.

Last July I had the honor of participating on the National Public Radio show “On Point.” The show was about religion in the public square. The topic of forgiveness came up in response to the way some of the family members of those killed in the June 17th mass shooting at Charleston, South Carolina’s “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church publically forgave the shooter. The quickness with which these family members forgave was puzzling to many people. One of the panelists on the show, Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, MD, responded, “Many people think that [to forgive] means to absolve the offender. But the word ‘to forgive’… is also about releasing the self from the pain, from the action that was committed by the other person…. When I hear people saying that they forgive … they are going to release themselves from … the desire for vengeance that can actually creep into one’s heart.”[5] I don’t pretend to know why or how those family members were able to utter words of forgiveness so quickly after such a monstrous crime, but I think Rev. Coates is correct: they did not want their lives to become defined by overwhelming anger, bitterness, and a desire for vengeance. They wanted release. They wanted to determine the values that would guide them through the chaos. They wanted emotional and spiritual freedom. I also suspect they offered forgiveness not to announce they had completed a process of forgiving, but that they had begun. Forgiveness is a practice, and this would not be the last time they would say those blessed words.

In a sermon entitled, “The Gift of Forgiveness,” minister emeritus of Boston’s King’s Chapel, Rev. Carl Scovel, says “When we forgive, we are freed, not from the hurt, but from the dominating power of the hurt. We are able to give up our anger. The hurt and wrath no longer direct us…. We may still suffer the consequences of the offense, but the offense no longer masters us.” “However it happens, we are free.”[6]

In a meditation entitled, “Forgiveness is Human,” Unitarian Universalist Army chaplain Rev. George Tyger writes, “We often think about forgiveness as releasing another person from an obligation to us…. In truth, through forgiveness, we free ourselves. We free ourselves from the desire to take revenge, the need to get even, and from anger. Without forgiveness, we carry these weights with us wherever we go. With forgiveness, we can put down these burdens.”[7]

Last Sunday from this pulpit Jeannette LeSure shared a powerful and painful story about her decades-long process of forgiving those who had abused her as a child, and forgiving her parents—particularly her mother—for not keeping her safe. Finding the capacity to forgive ultimately freed her not only to reclaim positive memories of her mother as a beautiful, if flawed, person, but also to become more fully the person she longed to be—an artist, a painter with a studio. Without forgetting the wrongs done to her, she can say on this side of forgiveness, “Who cares how my wings got so broken? When I paint in my studio, I soar to where Mommy and I could never travel, and she’s with me in every brushstroke. I just do not care. I am free.”[8]

But how? I can hear many of you, over the years—and me too—saying “I understand forgiveness brings freedom, but understanding the outcome isn’t the same as getting there. How do I actually get there?” “I’m so mad, I’m so hurt, I feel so betrayed. How can I forgive?” Or, “I want so much to not feel this anger and pain anymore, but it won’t leave me, it won’t be gone, it won’t get behind me.” Yes, there is freedom on the other side of forgiveness, but the chasm between that freedom and the experience of being wronged can feel so vast, can feel—for years, for decades, for a lifetime—unbreachable. Something must fall.

What if I told you that leaves are always falling, that falling is their natural state? We don’t notice them falling in spring and summer because they are firmly attached to their branches, but without that attachment, and without the ground on which to settle, they would keep falling and falling and falling in every season. What if I told you that even once they settle on the ground, that settling is just an illusion? The falling continues as gravity pulls their decaying fibers down into the dirt, into the dust, into the muck. The pace of the falling slows greatly once they reach the ground, but it continues even after nothing resembling a leaf remains.

And what if I told you the same is true for us, that without this floor, without the ground, we too, like leaves, would fall and fall and fall? Over the eons, as living creatures, we have adjusted well to the presence of solid ground—we have learned to trust that the earth’s surface more or less holds—but what if I told you that falling is our natural state? You might say that’s silly, not helpful, but take the ground away, and you know as well as I: we’ll all fall.

You might also say, “that’s a very astute observation, Rev., but even so, we have to hold onto something. We can’t live if we’re falling.” That’s true. We need solid ground in order to live. We need flat, even surfaces for walking, running, rolling, driving, dancing. We need chairs to hold our weight as we sit, tables to hold our food as we eat, desks to hold our computers as we work. Most of us lay down on mattresses to sleep. These are the physical handholds, footholds and body-holds that keep us from falling through life. They are more or less reliable. But not all of the things we hold onto are physical. Some are emotional and spiritual. On our best days, we hold onto positive emotions—what makes us feel happy and joyful, content and fulfilled? What makes us feel enthusiastic and excited or calm and serene? If we can have the experiences that create these feelings in us, and then hold onto them, we won’t feel as if we’re falling. We’ll feel stable, steady, solid.

But here is the key to forgiveness: not all emotional and spiritual handholds are positive or pleasant. Some are negative and quite unpleasant, but we reach for them too. We use them to stop falling too. Sometimes we hold on tightly to the experience of being wronged. The thoughts and feelings that spin out from that experience become our thoughts and feelings. They take hold in our bodies. They become habitual. Sometimes they become so familiar to us that we aren’t sure who we are without them. The same is true for the experience of betrayal, of being victimized, harmed, oppressed, let down. Thoughts and feelings spin out from these experiences: we want the wrong-doer, the offender, the perpetrator, the betrayer to feel pain as well; we want them to feel remorse, guilt and shame; we want them to be punished; we want vengeance. We typically don’t like it when we think and feel this way. It isn’t how we imagine ourselves thinking and feeling. But these are real thoughts and feelings, and we have them. Sometimes we keep coming back to them. They become our solid ground. They anchor us. We return to them habitually—and with good reason: they, too, keep us from falling.

No wonder genuine forgiveness is so difficult. In order to forgive we must somehow move off the solid ground of our pain, off the solid ground of our desire to punish, off the solid ground of our anger. In order to forgive we must let go of our hold on these things. We must let go and fall and trust that we will land where we need to be.

How do we do this? Practice. In her short book, Practicing Peace in Times of War, the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, writes about shenpa, which commonly translates as “attachment,” but which she describes as “getting hooked.” She says “Somebody says a harsh word and immediately you can feel a shift. There’s a tightening that rapidly spirals into mentally blaming this person, or wanting revenge, or blaming yourself. Then you speak or act. The charge behind the tightening, behind the urge, behind the story line or action is shenpa.”[9] Chödrön isn’t writing about forgiveness per se, but I suspect shenpa functions as an impediment to forgiveness. We can become hooked on our victimization, on our pain, on a desire to punish, on a desire for vengeance, on anger. The sense of self-righteousness that can flow out of these feelings is very powerful, very addictive. We get high from it—high both from the emotional rush of false power it provides, and from the way it allows us to place ourselves above the wrong-doer, to believe we are better than they. So, forgive? Not easy when we’re hooked on pain and anger.

For Chödrön, the practice of meditation overcomes the effects of shenpa. Meditation, she says, “teaches us to experience the uneasiness [of shenpa] fully [and then] to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to return again and again to the present moment.” She tells us to let the thoughts and feelings arise—because they are real. Let them come … but don’t follow them. Instead, let them dissolve—because eventually they will. She says: keep coming “back to ‘right now,’ even when ‘right now’ doesn’t feel so great. This is how we learn patience, and how we learn to interrupt the chain reaction of habitual responses that otherwise will rule our lives.”[10] “What happens when you don’t follow the habitual response?” she asks? “Gradually you learn to relax into the shaky, impermanent moment.”[11] Or to use my language, gradually, you learn to fall. When we’re no longer holding on, we’re falling. Rev. Belletini might call it floating.

Meditation, we know, is not for everyone. There are other ways to practice. I imagine very simple prayers: If I am angry, then may I feel anger. But let me not follow it. Let it not define my life. If I am in pain, then may I feel pain. But let me not follow it. Let it not rule my life. If I am vengeful, then may I feel vengeful. But let me not follow it. Let it not become the master of my life. I am convinced this is what the family members of the Mother Emanuel victims were doing when the offered forgiveness to the shooter. They were practicing not holding onto pain, anger and vengeance.

So practice. Practice not following the negative thoughts and feelings. Slowly, slowly, slowly their power over you will wane. Slowly, slowly, slowly you will begin to let go. Slowly, slowly, slowly you will fall. As you fall, the deeper truths of your life—and of living—will shine all around you. Forgiveness will come. Freedom will come.

Those words we heard earlier from Rev. David Breeden may make more sense now: “I dug and dug / deeper into the earth / Looking for blue heaven / Choking always / On the piles of dust rising / Then once / At midnight / I slipped / And fell into the sky.”[12] Slowly, slowly, slowly, it will come. May each of us, when we need it, learn to fall.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Baughan, Raymond J., “Turn Scarlet, Leaves,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #485.

[2] Belletini, Mark, Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

[3] Belletini, Mark, Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

[4] Baughan, Raymond J., “Turn Scarlet, Leaves,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #485.

[5] “Politics, Tragedy and Religion in the Public Square” On Point, July 6th, 2015. See: http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/07/06/god-public-life-united-states-scotus-charleston. 21:00.

[6] Scovel, Carl, “The Gift of Forgiveness,” Never Far From Home: Stories From the Radio Pulpit (Boston: Skinner House, 2004) p. 131.

[7][7] Tyger, George, “Forgiveness is Human,” War Zone Faith: An Army Chaplain’s Reflections from Afghanistan (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 73-74.

[8] LeSure, Jeannette, “Forgiveness: Freedom to Fly,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, October 4, 2015. Unpublished.

[9] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 56.

[10] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 59.

[11] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 63.

[12] Breeden, David, “Falling Into the Sky,”eds., Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, Falling Into the Sky: A Meditation Anthology (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) p. 1.

I’m Done Talking About the ‘End of Church!’

IMG_0568Our ministry theme for September is transitions—always a potent theme for this time of year, the beginning of the congregational year, the beginning of the school year, the commencement of the final harvest on New England farms, the arrival of autumn. Indeed, even if there’s no particular threshold we’re crossing in our personal lives at this time, autumn in New England demands that we pay attention to transition. Those words we recited earlier from Rabbi Jack Riemer remind us of this: “Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter. For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.”[1] This is a season of obvious, bold and brilliant transitions.

And, of course, the Rabbi is also making reference to atonement—that solemn, joyful practice at the heart of the Jewish High Holy Days—the Days of Awe—that solemn, joyful practice—both spiritual and social—of making amends, of saying, “I’m sorry,” of asking for forgiveness, of turning, in the Rabbi’s words, from “callousness to sensitivity … envy to contentment … fear to faith;”[2] that most sacred act of returning from separation back to relationship, from isolation back to community, from brokenness back to wholeness. This is indeed a season of transitions.

I want to name a transition in our congregation that is largely behind us now, and then offer a related transition in my thinking about what I’m calling “The State of ‘The Church.’” The transition in our congregation began when we learned in 2013 that our long-time, beloved Director of Religious Education, Vicki Merriam, would be retiring; and then, a year later, that our beloved and now sadly deceased Director of Music, Pawel Jura, would be moving to a new position in Virginia. We said “good-bye” to Vicki in June of 2014, and to Pawel a month later in July; and then we embarked on very intentional, careful and thoughtful periods of transition. Knowing that awesome religious education and awesome music are critical to a thriving Unitarian Universalist congregation, we wanted to transition well. Whatever else our mission says about who we are as a faith community and how we aspire to show up in the world, religious education and music are the programmatic life-blood of our church. We knew this. We wanted to make sure these staff positions and their programs were well-structured and appropriately funded; and we wanted to hire the best possible people. I am confident we have been successful in our efforts. We’ve already welcomed and congratulated Gina Campellone in her role as Director of Religious Education. We’ve already welcomed and congratulated Mary Bopp in her role as Director of Music. I’m not proposing that we do that again today. But I am naming that as a congregation we have come through a period of transition in our staff and major programs. I am overjoyed to be starting the congregational year and, instead of focusing my best energy on staff transitions, I can now return again to the ministry you called me to provide thirteen years ago. That feels great.

Congratulations to you, the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, for coming through this time of transition so well.

End of ChurchOver the past few years you may have noticed the prevalence of a certain topic in my preaching, teaching and committee work. During this period of transition I have continually repeated the message that in the United States the traditional church—that is, a congregation with a building, with Sunday morning worship as its central spiritual practice, with staff, with committees, with many bills to pay—is in serious decline. Some might say it is in free-fall. Across denominations, across faiths, membership is down, attendance is down, participation is down, volunteerism is down, financial giving—especially since the Great Recession of 2008—is down. Churches are moving from full time professional ministers to part-time professional ministers. Churches are closing. Just a year ago, September 14th, 2015, I preached a sermon on “The End of Church” in which I cited all sorts of statistics about all sorts of people who aren’t attending all sorts of churches. I quoted an article that had just appeared in the UU World magazine in which the Rev. Dr. Teresa Cooley cited many of those same statistics, arguing that “if we don’t pay attention to these trends, we could end up like those near-empty or abandoned churches that are increasingly becoming part of our [national] landscape.”[3] Just this past week there was yet another piece on National Public Radio about Catholic Churches continuing to close in the northeast and midwest.[4] These trends are alive and well.

Another way I—and we—have been talking about the decline of the traditional church is by naming how families with children are less able to participate in congregational life because childhood is changing. In a November, 2013 sermon on the value of multigenerational community, I said, “we’ve finally witnessed the death of Sunday morning as the one, truly sacred time in the United States, the one time when no other events or activities could be scheduled, no shopping malls could be open, and families with children were not forced every week to choose between church and a plethora of other activities and organizations that involve their children and, in some cases, demand—as the price of participation—that their children make whatever [that] other activity is their highest priority. What a difference [from a generation ago], when young people and adults who used to experience their congregation as a major center for social connection, now come to church with hundreds if not thousands of online ‘friends,’ vast social media networks, and unlimited opportunities for screen-based entertainment—entertainment one experiences essentially alone—just a few keystrokes away.”[5]

I think it’s been really important to talk about these trends, this evidence of the end of church, these data of decline in congregational life as we’ve gone through a time of transition in staffing and programs. It’s been really important for us to know what’s going on in American religious life. It’s been really important for us to envision our future with full knowledge of the challenges we may be facing. And while naming these trends and evidence and data can feel negative, grim, sobering even frightening at times, I don’t regret doing it. We needed this information, and we still need it, in order to make wise decisions, in order to sustain our congregation and our faith for future generations.

But now we’ve come through our transition and I don’t want to talk about decline anymore. I don’t want to focus on the end of church any more. I’m done talking about it, especially from the pulpit. I say this knowing full well the trends and issues aren’t going away. Indeed, over the summer a number of posts showed up on my Facebook page describing how difficult professional ministry has become, how hundreds of ministers leave the ministry every month, how those who don’t typically work 60-70 hour weeks, and many other sad statistics. Credible people have studied this. The writers are correct. It is salient stuff.[6] I deeply appreciate the people who post these articles on my page because they do it out of love and concern for me. But I’m done talking about it. I’m done talking about decline. I’m done talking about the end of church. I’m done giving it energy and attention. I’m done talking about all sorts of statistics about all sorts of people who aren’t attending all sorts of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.

Why and I done? Because I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. This church isn’t ending. This church isn’t in decline. And, most importantly, you’re here. That matters. Instead of trying to figure out the needs of people who aren’t here and who may never come here, why not respond to you—to your needs, your energy, your passion? Let’s prioritize you. Let’s talk about the fact that there are people here—present now—with pain and sorrow and misgivings and joy and contentment and milestones to celebrate—people who take church seriously, who understand its value in their lives and in the world. I want to talk about that.

And I want to talk about commitment. I’m committed to our Unitarian Universalist faith and to this Unitarian Universalist congregation. I hope and trust you are committed too. Commitment matters. In a society that increasingly tolerates and even sanctions the erosion of commitment in family life, friendships, work, community and politics, let’s talk about what it means to be committed to a spiritual community—to claim its principles as our own, to embrace its mission as our own, to abide by its covenant, to express its values in public, to sustain it for future generations. What an incredible thing—to be committed in this way: to a church, to a congregation, to a piece of land, to a building, to a sanctuary. I want to talk about that.

And I want to talk about courage. It is becoming abundantly clear to me that, while we have to be vigilant about church growth, and continue to take steps to grow our congregations, the future of our liberal faith doesn’t ultimately hinge on whether more people become Unitarian Universalists: and the future of American liberal religion doesn’t hinge at all on whether more people start attending church again. The future of our faith and the future of American liberal religion hinge on whether or not we—those who are present and committed now—can courageously express our values in words, but more importantly in deeds, in the public square for the sake of healing a profoundly broken society and adapting well to the environmental changes wrought by the global climate crisis. We need to be courageous.

In the past months I’ve seen physical vandalism and online threats against Unitarian Universalist churches that hang Black Lives Matter banners in New Jersey and Chicago. I’ve seen homophobic violence this past week against the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Danbury, CT. Last summer we saw anti-abortion activists disrupt Unitarian Universalist worship in New Orleans. This is frightening. Looking out more broadly I see ongoing, unmitigated, unaddressed gun violence in the United States. I see increasingly violent and racist rhetoric coming from our political leaders and some presidential candidates. I see corporations threatening states—“If we don’t get our way, we’ll leave”—forcing legislators to slowly dismantle social safety nets, and thereby increasing already unsustainable and immoral wealth and income inequality. (Did you see that happen in Connecticut this year?) And I hear raucous, hate-filled, irresponsible voices blasting out across the airwaves, fabricating threats to religious liberty, fabricating threats from Muslims, fabricating threats from immigrants and justifying state-sponsored violence by fabricating racialized demons.

Globally I see the tenacity of terrorist organizations across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia who feed on the misery of poverty, of failed governments and tyranny. And I see the ongoing insanity of climate change denial. I see the fires, the tornados, the droughts, the hurricanes, the snow storms, the super storms and the risings oceans. I see it all and, frankly, I am afraid. I am afraid for my children, for our children, for our communities, for young black men, for what semblance of democracy we still have, and for the planet. Friends, I need to talk about courage. What are our sources of courage in light of abundant reasons to feel fear? Our Unitarian Universalist faith gives guidance in response to this question. Decline? The end of church? Too many soccer games on Sunday mornings? I’m done talking about it. I much prefer to talk about being courageous people of liberal faith, because our era requires courage.

I said in that sermon last year that “churches and denominations may be in decline these days. But there is still a genius to the idea of people gathering faithfully, week after week, united around a set of common principles, giving thanks for the blessings in their lives, caring for one another, teaching their children, hearing the wisdom of their elders, searching together for truth and meaning, and working for a more just, peaceful and loving world.”[7] That genius hasn’t gone away. That genius still exists. I suspect it will always exist. So let’s talk over the months and years as we continue to build this spiritual community together. What does it mean to be here, now? What does it mean to be committed? Where do we find our sources of courage? Present, committed, courageous. May that be the state of the church.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Riemer, Jack, “On Turning,”Singing the Living Tradition Boston (Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #634.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “Ring Them Bells,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 9/14/14. See: http://uuse.org/ring-them-bells/#.Vfl8Ft9Viko.

[4] Hansi Lo Wang, “’It’s All About Church Closings’: Catholic Parishes Shrink In Northeast, Midwest,” National Public Radio, 9/14/15. See: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/14/436938871/-it-s-all-about-church-closings-catholic-parishes-shrink-in-northeast.

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “On the Meaning of Multigenerational,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 11/17/13. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/on-the-meaning-of-multigenerational/.

[6] Krejcir, Richard J., “What’s Going On With Pastors in America?” See: http://www.intothyword.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=36562

[7] Pawelek, Josh, “Ring Them Bells,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 9/14/14. See: http://uuse.org/ring-them-bells/#.Vfl8Ft9Viko.

Part of All That Ever Was: A 2015 First Harvest Reflection

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Photo by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

Photo by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon picking up garbage around the Mortensen Riverfront Plaza on the Connecticut River in Hartford. This was part of my court-ordered community service after engaging in civil disobedience for Moral Monday CT and the Black Lives Matter movement on June 8th. The Hartford Community Court had deployed our doughty crew to beautify the Hartford riverfront in advance of the Food Truck Festival which took place over the second weekend of July.

The park appeared very clean when we got there, but the more we looked for garbage, the more we found: cigarette butts, candy wrappers, plastic water, juice, soda, athletic drink, and beer bottles, tin cans, hub caps, tires, exhaust pipes, mufflers, shoes, pants, underwear (men’s and women’s), Styrofoam and waxed cardboard take-out food containers, paper and plastic bags, plastic forks, knives and spoons, spent fireworks, etc. I understand that the impact of garbage accumulating along the Connecticut River is relatively small and largely cosmetic when compared to the impact of greenhouse gasses accumulating in the atmosphere. But there is a connection. One of my co-defendants wondered philosophically why apparently so many people feel it is OK to leave their garbage on the ground rather than placing it in garbage cans, which are abundant in the parks along the Connecticut River. My response, which I blurted out without giving much thought, was that it’s the symptom of a spiritual sickness. And that spiritual sickness is our modern-world, industrialized nation, human disconnection from Nature. Our capacity to litter is rooted in our disconnection from Nature.

In this sense, littering is no different from any other activity we engage in that damages either a local environment or the entire planet: we are able to engage in environmentally harmful activities—with impunity—because we have become disconnected from Nature. We engage in activities that assault the integrity of the natural world because we’ve lost our ancestral sense of our place in Nature; because we’ve lost our ancestral knowledge—life-giving, life-directing knowledge—of our dependence on and our interdependence with Nature; because we’ve lost, ultimately, our experience of oneness, our experience of being, in the words of the Rev. Becky Edmiston-Lange, “part of all that ever was.”[1] In order, as a species, to cause the harm we’ve caused, we first had to imagine ourselves as somehow distinct and separate from Nature. We first had to elevate ourselves in our own minds above Nature while simultaneously demoting and demonizing Nature. We had to identify ourselves as the tamers, the domesticators, the controllers, the civilizers, the owners, the sellers, the managers, the harnessers, the subduers, the dominators, the exploiters of Nature. We had to proclaim ourselves to be the masters of Nature. None of this was ever true—we know that now. We were never really any of these things. But we had to believe it in order to create all the toxins, poisons, contaminants, carcinogens, hazardous waste, pollutants, sludge and slurry we’ve created. None of this was ever true, but we had to believe it in order to create our fossil fuel-addicted society. We had to believe it in order to create our convenience-loving, plastic-wrap, disposable, shopaholic culture. We had to be wholly disconnected from Nature to become the people we’ve become. And when I use the words “we” and “people” I’m referring to we-the-people who live in the modern-world, industrialized nation societies where that spiritual sickness—disconnection from Nature—is most advanced.

I don’t want to dwell any further on this spiritual sickness or its symptoms. My sense is that the members and friends of this congregation generally agree the modern-world, industrialized-nation human disconnection from Nature is real and has resulted over time in a complex matrix of corporate and governmental policies, practices and systems for energy, agriculture, construction, sanitation, chemical engineering, genetic engineering, education—relating to virtually every aspect of our lives—that have long-term, negative environmental impacts that will be—and in some instances already are—catastrophic. A human disconnection from Nature was necessary before the evolution of these policies, practices and systems could take place. I assume most of you agree with this statement in part because as a congregation you are so committed to addressing the causes of global warming and climate change, working for environmental justice, countering environmental racism, and pursuing green, sustainable, simple and healthy ways of living. What I’m wondering about this morning, therefore, is not what perpetuates the spiritual sickness, but what will bring healing. What spiritual practices, what ways of thinking and being, will help us re-establish our connection to Nature?

I’m going to share four spiritual practices that answer this question for me. The first is for the heart. I call it “longing.” It is the practice of allowing oneself to feel emotion in response to our experience of Nature. Many of us are familiar with that stirring of emotion—that awe and wonder—that come in the presence of natural beauty, that come in response to witnessing an amazing landscape, a panoramic mountain-top view, a vast ocean, a starry, night sky. Our family recently spent time in the Berkshire Hills around Pittsfield, MA where Stephany’s parents live. Somewhere along the way Max started asking, ‘can we go hiking in the Berkshire Hills?” I heard in this question a nine-year-old’s longing for Nature, to be in awe of the natural world, to be in the midst of natural beauty, to be in the midst of mystery, to feel connected to a landscape that he knew was important to his mother because she spent her childhood there.

Waterfall at Monument Mountain in the Berkshire Hills

Waterfall at Monument Mountain in the Berkshire Hills

I include this kind of emotion in the practice of longing—Max was longing to experience those hills—but I’m also talking about a more complex set of emotions, perhaps a more adult set of emotions, that emerges from a recognition that something has been lost. I read earlier Allison Gammons’ meditation “Spirit of the Falls.” She writes, “A spirit once dwelt here, manifest in the rock that guides the water… / alive in the trees and plants / holding back the dirt, keeping the mountain from  / sliding to the river…. / I felt the spirit in that mist, playing with me, / dancing and laughing as I danced and laughed…. / I search for it now, along the paved trails, / amid the people and noise. / I strive to find it in the mist of the falls.”[2] She’s longing to regain something that has been lost. And we know, quite often, the emotions that attach to the experience of loss are not awe and wonder but sadness, sorrow, grief, melancholy, despair, anguish, heartache. All these emotions are part of the longing I’m describing.

And there’s more. As we recognize more and more that the disconnection from Nature is something that we-the-people have imposed on we-the-people, something we’ve taught, something we’ve solds, something we’ve bought; as we recognize that human greed, arrogance and ignorance, as well as politics, corporate bottom lines and a relentless striving for convenience have done this to us and we-the-people have allowed it to happen such that it now threatens the future of the planet, we may realize we are angry. We may realize we are impatient, indignant, furious, outraged. These emotions are also part of longing.

None of them is easy to feel, but we need to feel them—we need to let them out. As long as they remain unfelt and unacknowledged, our disconnection from Nature continues. Feeling them fully—working through them—readies us for reconnecting. Let us create spaces, then, in which we can feel these emotions. We can certainly create such spaces here in our corporate worship. But I invite you to contemplate how you might create spaces in your own life to feel deeply your complex longing to connect with Nature.

The second spiritual practice is for the mind. I call it re-imagining. For me this is primarily an intellectual practice in two parts. The first part is a practice of surrounding ourselves with voices—writers, poets, musicians, artists, theologians—whose work resists the forces of disconnection and proclaims our interdependence with Nature; whose work announces our oneness with the natural world; whose work affirms we are part of all that ever was. Earlier I read the twentieth-century American poet Lew Sarett’s “Deep Wet Moss,” in which he imagines merging with, embedding into, becoming one with Nature, perhaps at the time of death. “Oh, there will come a day, a twilight, /  when I shall sink to rest / In deep wet moss and cool blue shadows / Upon a mountain’s breast, / and yield a body torn with passions, /  And bruised with earthly scars, / To the cool oblivion of evening, / Of solitude and stars.”[3] And then we sang Z. Budapest’s words “We all come from the Goddess, and to Her we shall return / Like a drop of rain, flowing to the ocean.”[4] This kind writing, these kinds of words, re-imagine us as intimately connected to Nature. Not separate from but part of. Find the voices that speak of this connection. Surround yourself with them. Allow yourself to experience them every day.

Then, part two: inspired by these voices, begin to let your own voice proclaim your connection to Nature. You write the poem. You write the letter to the editor. You write the song. You paint the picture. You sculpt, you dance, you play, you compose, you preach, you add your voice in whatever form it takes to the chorus of voices refusing to live a disconnected life. Re-imagine yourself as profoundly connected to Nature. Re-imagine yourself as your ancient ancestors must have imagined you—they who knew nothing of fossil fuels, but did know the power of sun, wind, and water. Re-imagine yourself for the sake of spiritual healing and wholeness for yourself and for the planet.

The third spiritual practice is for the body. I call it celebration. As we approach August, we also approach in the modern Pagan, Neo-Pagan, and Wiccan calendars, the celebration of the first harvest. This celebration happens at the halfway-point between the Summer Solstice and the Autum Equinox, typically at the very end of July or on August 1st—thus, the end of this week. The celebration has various names. I see it most commonly referred to as Lughnasadh from the Celtic tradition. Lughnasadh refers to the funeral games of Lugh. Lugh was a sun god who established the games in honor of his mother, Tailtiu, supposedly an earth goddess who, as the story goes, died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture—for human survival and sustenance. Other names for this celebration include Lady Day Eve, the Feast of Bread, or the Feast of First Fruits. In a 1962 book, “The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest,” folklorist Máire MacNeill described a variety of first harvest rituals including the “solemn cutting of the first of the corn of which an offering would be made to the deity by bringing it up to a high place and burying it; a meal of the new food and of bilberries … a sacrifice of a sacred bull, a feast of its flesh … and its replacement by a young bull,” and a variety of ritual dance-plays depicting stories of Lugh’s challenges and triumphs.[5] Lughnasadh corresponds to the English festival Lammas or “loaf mass,” the wheat harvest festival, during which it is customary to bring a loaf of bread made from the new wheat crop to church to have it blessed by the priest, after which it was said, historically, to have certain magical properties.

What I’ve always loved about the modern pagan adaptations of these ancient festivals is the way in which they are so immediately tied to the land, to the seasons, to the agricultural cycles, to specific foods the earth produces in specific times and places. They are celebrations of our intimate connection to Nature, our embeddedness in Nature. Margot Adler, the former National Public Radio producer and journalist—a Pagan and a Unitarian Universalist—once said “these festivals renew a sense of living communion with the natural cycles, with the changes of season and land.”[6]

7-26 Great HarvestHaving a spiritual practice of regular celebration asks us not only to pay close attention to planting and harvest-time, to times of dormancy and growth, but when those times come, to enact rituals that honor them, so that our connection to Nature isn’t just something we feel, isn’t just something we think, but is something our bodies physically experience. Today I’ve brought bread. I didn’t bake it myself. This is a honey whole wheat loaf from the newly re-opened Great Harvest Bread Company. Some of you will remember their building on Main St. in Manchester burned down two Octobers ago. They just re-opened in Vernon in June. They baked this bread Friday morning with wheat from a family-owned farm in Montana. Here’s what I’d like to offer to you: As we sing our final song, I’ll invite anyone who wants to come forward to receive and eat a piece of bread: a Lughnasahd / Lammas bread communion, a ritual celebration of the first harvest. I also invite you to contemplate: What rituals can we enact together that invite our bodies to mark the changes in the seasons and the land? What rituals can you enact on your own to do the same?

Finally, before we sing, the fourth spiritual practice is for the soul. I call it worship. Worship is the act of holding up that which is of utmost worth. If we believe that the earth—because it births us, nurtures us, sustains us, carries us, and receives our bodies when we die—is of utmost worth, then it seems to me we ought to offer praise and thanks to it on a regular basis. We ought to worship it. What if we began relating to the earth as divine—just as our ancient ancestors did? What if we began encountering the earth as Gaia once more? As Mother once more? As Goddess once more?  How can we begin to regard the earth in this way in our collective worship?  How can you begin to regard the earth in this way in your personal spiritual life?

These are four spiritual practices for reconnecting modern world, industrialized nation people back to the earth: for the heart, longing; for the mind, re-imagining; for the body, celebration; for the soul, worship of the earth. I offer these to you as we approach the time of first harvest in 2015. I offer them because there is so much at stake. May you reconnect to Nature. May you come to that full awareness—heart, mind, body and soul awareness—you are a part of all that ever was.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Edmiston-Lange, Becky, “Prayers and Dreamings,”in Janamanchi, Abhi, and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds. Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) p. 36.

[2] Gammons, Allison C., “Spirit of the Falls,” in Janamanchi, Abhi, and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds. Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) p. 21.

[3] For the text of Sarett, Lew, “Deep Wet Moss”see: http://www.kewpie.net/helenD/DEEPWETMOSS.htm.

[4] To view a performance of Z. Budapest’s “We All Come From the Goddess,” see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voBZowM0NTs.

[5] MacNeill, Máire, The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest (London: Oxford University Press, 1962) p.426. I also found this quoted on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lughnasadh.

[6] Adler, Margot, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, druids, Goddess Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today (New York: Penguin/Arkana, 1997) p. 111.

Rev. Pawelek Featured on NPR’s “On Point”

UUS:E’s minister, Rev. Josh Pawelek, had the privilege of being a panelist on National Public Radio’s “On Point” program, Monday morning July 6th. Listen to the podcast here. The show was entitled, “Politics, Tragedy and Religion in the Public Sphere.” It was guest-hosted by Michel Martin.

President Barack Obama speaks during services honoring the life of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Friday, June 26, 2015, in Charleston, S.C., at the College of Charleston TD Arena. Pinckney was one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church last week in Charleston.  (AP)

Stretching Our Hearts

Rev. Josh Pawelek

6-21 Stretching hearts“What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?” asked the Rev. A. Powel Davies more than half a century ago.[1] I love this question. I love the image of our hearts stretching. Of course, there’s nothing extraordinary about a religious leader asking a question like this. It’s a version of the question that lies at the core of so many religions. It’s the question of ethics, of justice. How shall we live? How can we bring love and compassion into the world, into our encounters with family members, friends, strangers? How can we live peacefully with others, especially those who are different from us in some way? How can we break down the strange and foolish walls that divide the human family? How can we stretch our hearts?

Indeed, the strange and foolish walls were very real half a century ago, and they are very real now. We didn’t need Thursday morning’s news of a white supremacist mass shooting at Charleston, South Carolina’s “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church to be convinced of this. But there it was again, a gut-wrenching and profound failure of “love your neighbor”—not only in the small heart of the killer, but in the small and atrophied heart of the social, cultural and political systems that produced him.  Despite all the progress humanity has made over centuries—despite its enlightenment, its knowledge, its scientific advancements, its faith, its modern conceptions of human rights and social justice—despite it all, the human family feels, to me, as divided as ever; as if we are somehow fated to revert back to a fight-or-flight limbic response to conflict; as if we’ll never be able to overcome the allure and the power of simplistic and false dualisms—‘us vs. them,’ ‘good vs. evil’—whether we’re talking about international, national or local conflicts, or conflicts within the intimacy of our own families—conflicts that seem intractable despite our earnest desire to see them resolved. Despite all our achievements, love—deep abiding love—seems so difficult to sustain. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” though still a potent ethical principle, seems worn down, battered, beaten. Our collective heart seems small and ineffectual.

Maybe it’s always been this way. Maybe every age has its insurmountable conflicts. Maybe the goal of a more peaceful, just and loving society always feels elusive to those who care about it most. Maybe each of us struggles to be more loving and compassionate and never quite meets the mark we set for ourselves. In ancient Greek mythology, Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, was for eternity compelled to roll an immense boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down again and again each time he approached the summit. Maybe we each roll our own boulders; and maybe collectively we roll boulders; and we almost get where we think we’re going, and then suddenly, in a flash, we lose our grip—a mass shooting in a church or an elementary school tears through a town, a loved one’s life falls apart, a foreign war we thought had ended suddenly begins again, a suicide rips through a community, a school system fails, a chronic illness debilitates, entrenched poverty crushes—and in a flash the boulder rolls back down the mountain. Maybe there’s always a layer of human existence that is like this.

Maybe, but that’s no excuse to give up. There is also in the human heart a yearning to do better, a yearning to not let hate destroy kindness and compassion, a yearning to make love—deep, abiding love— real in the world. Those families of the nine who died in Charleston, when they faced the killer in court, said, essentially, “you’ve hurt us; we forgive you.” So let us ask the question, and keep asking it, and never stop asking it: “What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?”

The heart in this question is, of course, a metaphor in which our physical hearts which pump our blood refer to our spiritual hearts—our center, our grounding, the source of our passion and compassion, the place inside where we commune with what is sacred to us, the home in us of love and warmth and joy. It’s the thing that soars when we fall in love, and the thing that breaks when a loved-one dies. How do we stretch that?

My heart has been stretching and growing and breaking and healing and stretching and growing and breaking again all year long, and I sure hope some strange and foolish walls have begun to crumble as a result. I want to say a few words about the way I experience my heart stretching, because it may be more or less the same—or radically different—than the way you experience your heart stretching. One thing I’ve always known about myself, but which I’ve had to contend with at a much deeper level this year than ever before—is that as much as I think I want to stretch and grow and change—as much as I preach the value of stretching and growing and changing—as much as I proclaim that we come to church to be transformed and to tear down those strange and foolish walls—my body doesn’t like it. Some bodies love it. Mine doesn’t. When my heart starts stretching, my body usually says, “wait, before you do that, here’s a slight headache,” or “here’s a backache for you,” or “here are some allergies you’ve never had before,” or, my least favorite, “here is some unexplainable dizziness. Enjoy!”

I’ve spoken about this before. The reasons why some people have somatic reactions to different kinds of stress are always complex. My simplest understanding of why it happens to me has to do with being raised in a family with an alcoholic parent. As is the case with many adult children of alcoholics, there is, in me, a deep-seeded impulse to not “rock the boat,” to keep the peace, to not create tension, to please others, to accommodate others. I know some of you know condition well. The challenge here is that stretching one’s heart in order to overcome strange and foolish walls inevitably creates tension. Stretching creates tension. It’s good tension, productive tension, creative tension, justice-seeking tension. And it’s necessary: the change we seek won’t come without it.

The insight I’ve had about myself this year is that my body actually mistakes good tension that will lead to good change for bad, unproductive, uncreative tension that will lead nowhere. As a child, perhaps it made sense to avoid tension of any sort and my mind and my body were in agreement: keep steady, keep the peace, keep out of trouble, keep, keep, keep, keep, keep. But now, as an adult, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve changed it for good reasons. I understand some tension is necessary. My mind affirms my heart’s desire to stretch, but my body still says “no, we can’t do that.” It’s unnerving when this happens, but it’s also become for me an important sign: my body feels a certain way because my heart is trying to stretch. And while I have to take my body seriously and attend to how it is feeling, my personal challenge is to teach my body to work with my heart. I can’t let my heart stay little. None of us can. The world needs deep, abiding love. These strange and foolish walls must come down.

Perhaps my most potent experience of intentional heart stretching has been my participation in Moral Monday CT which, as many of you know, held a Black Lives Matter rally in Hartford on June 8th, which included nonviolent civil disobedience—the blocking of a busy, rush hour intersection—for which 17 people were arrested, including me and three other members of our congregation. That didn’t just happen. It required months of heart-stretching. I started telling you the story in my MLK sermon in January. I said then that, given the high visibility of police killings of unarmed people of color—Staten Island, Ferguson, Cleveland, etc.—on top of what we already know about racism in the United States—mass incarceration, health disparities, educational disparities, income disparities, wealth disparities—it was clearly time to do more than talk. The powers that be will listen to talk, but talk alone doesn’t produce the kind of tension needed to subvert racism at its roots. We recognized that we need to use our bodies in a different way, that we need to occupy public space in a different way. I said in that sermon that nonviolent civil disobedience is coming, though I still wasn’t sure what that really meant. I was beginning to stretch my heart, and in my body I felt anxious, dizzy, achy. My body was not intending to do anything differently. As far as my body was concerned, we had a good thing going: “Just keep talking. You’re good at that. People like when you talk. But you in a street at rush hour? They might not like that!”

There is too much at stake. I was determined to stretch. We prepared ourselves to do what we needed to do. We conducted nonviolent civil disobedience training here at UUS:E in early February. That was stretching. Then we did a trial run on Monday, February 23rd in Hartford, stretching further. My body came along—still didn’t like what we were doing, and it let me know.

We picked June 8th as the date for our first major action. We conducted a final training here the night before. And then around 5:00 pm on the 8th we walked into the street. My heart soared. In that street was where I needed to be in that moment, more than anywhere else in the world. My body hated it. I became so dizzy after a while that I walked off the line to talk to our medics. They checked me over, gave me some sugar and water, and said it looked like stress. So I walked back out into the street, heart soaring, body still protesting—“we’re really rockin’ the boat now”—and got myself arrested.

Picture by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

Picture by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

My body is still trying to figure it out. It’s going to take a while. But my heart has stretched. And if I had any misgivings about what I had done after the fact, they vanished on Thursday morning with the news from Charleston. Black Lives Matter. These strange and foolish walls must come down. Deep, abiding love will bring them down.

As momentous as that particular experience has been for me, there has been so much more. My heart has been stretching around multigenerational community here at UUS:E. My heart has been stretching around new directions in our music program as we integrate Mary Bopp onto our staff. My heart is beginning to stretch around new growth strategies for our congregation. My heart has been stretching in response to having a teenager in the house. There’s been a lot of good tension, a lot of good, slow, measured change, and more is coming. My body still wants nothing to with it, but I know where that comes from, and I trust its resistance will eventually fade. I don’t want a little heart. I want a loosened, supple, open, expansive, generous heart. I want to be a vehicle for deep, abiding love to come into the world.

Rev. Davies asked, “What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?” What can we do to bring more love into the world? What can we do to assure we are loving our neighbors as ourselves? My response is to start small. Start simply by naming the strange and foolish walls in your life or out in the wider world that that you feel must come down. Name them not just to yourself, but to others. Naming them out loud is the beginning of commitment. Name them, and then ask yourself what you need to dismantle them. Find others who’ve stretched in the way you aspire to stretch, and ask them how they did it. What preparation do you need? What training? What support? Where can you practice before you take your action? Who will work with you? Is your body on board?

And here’s what we also need to remember: as much as we prepare ourselves, as much as we stretch, as much as we love, there will be moments when it falls apart. Events, often beyond our control, will crash through our lives. We’ll lose our grip on the boulder. We’ll tumble down. We’ll find ourselves at the base of the mountain looking up, tired, sad, angry, demoralized, wondering how to get back up again. I’m thinking, of course, about Pawel Jura’s death by suicide in late winter, which deeply impacted this congregation, brought so much of our congregational life to standstill. I’m thinking now also about the death of Carol Shapiro, whose bodily remains were finally identified last week, after eight years. Receiving this news brought me back to the time she disappeared. It was similar to Pawel’s death in the sense that everything came to a halt—boulders tumbling down the mountain.

Our hearts stretch differently in moments like this. No preparation, no training, no practice, no warm-up. They stretch too quickly. They stretch beyond their capacity. They stretch to the breaking point. They break. When Pawel died I found a reading from the late Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox about what happens to love in the wake of loss. She wrote, “Oh, my dear, do not despair that love has come and gone. Although we are broken, the love that spilled out of us has joined the love that circles the world and makes it blessed.”[2] Looking back on that time now, looking back at all those broken hearts—including mine: so much love spilled out. Deep, abiding love. Whatever strange and foolish walls might have existed among us, they melted away in the presence of that love. They melted away as you held each other, ministered to each other, carried each other, cried with each other, sang with each other.

This isn’t an answer to A. Powell Davies’ question about stretching our hearts. We don’t wish for broken hearts. We don’t wish tragedy upon ourselves or anyone. But strange and foolish walls have a tendency to vanish in the wake of tragedy. We saw it after 9/11. We saw it after Sandy Hook. We saw it after the Boston Marathon bombing. We see it in the outpouring of love for “Mother Emanuel,” for Charleston, for South Carolina. We hear it in those powerful, loving words, “we forgive you.”

In the end, it shouldn’t take a tragedy to get there. It shouldn’t take a tragedy for love—deep, abiding love—to come pouring out, every day, all the time. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to wake us up to the littleness of our hearts. Yes, we are up against so much. The strange and foolish walls are multitudinous and well-fortified. In Sisyphusian style we lose our boulders down the mountain. And maybe this is an enduring part of the human condition. But it can’t be an excuse for giving up. It can’t be an excuse for not stretching our hearts. Stretching is part of their design. I’ve learned that this year. So, my counsel is for all of us to name our strange and foolish walls, and start stretching—warm-up, practice, get training, talk to those who’ve done it before. And then do what we need to do to make that deep, abiding love real in the world, to let it circle the world, to let it bless the world. We have it in us. Stretch, and keep stretching. No wall can stand forever.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Davies, A. Powell, “Strange and Foolish Walls,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #662.

[2] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Legacy,” Evening Tide (Boston: Skinner House, 1998) p, 56.

How to Encourage a Restless Soul

Rev. Josh Pawelek with poetry by Molly Vigeant

Part I

Surely at 3 am i should be asleep6-7 stars

but the night is awake


with shining stars

i’m revived


I dry my eyes

from the day’s weep

and worries of the week


Wandering i go

away away

to find my home

so far



restless souls 

are running

and the songs

i’ve been humming

seem to come out in screams

as though the voices

are needs


and this night

that’s so bright

with the moon

in this sky,

watch planes go by

like shooting stars

so far,


but i’m on my way home


for, sure on this shining night

i weep for the wondering

and those wandering

far, far alone

in the shadows 

of the stars


i weep for the wondering / and those wandering / far, far alone / in the shadows /of the stars”—Molly’s riff on the early twentieth-century American writer, film critic, and poet, James Agee’s poem,“Description of Elysium,” set to music by the composer Samuel Barber as “Sure On This Shining Night.” “I weep for wonder wand’ring far / alone / of shadows on the stars.[1] Thank you to Mary for suggesting this piece. Thank you to Janet for singing. And thanks to Molly for bringing her poetic response. Our June ministry theme is restlessness. These images of wondering and wandering at night, alone, weeping, and contemplating star shadows struck me as a great description of restlessness. We expect one who is restless to be up at night. We expect one who is restless to be wondering and wandering and, possibly at times, weeping.

We might also expect one who is restless to be troubled, stressed, worried—these are often the reasons our minds race at night—or at any time. We might expect one who is restless to be alone, perhaps lonely, with their thoughts, their struggles. We might expect one who is restless to offer some version of Molly’s stanza: “the songs / i’ve been humming / seem to come out in screams / as though the voices / are needs.” And for all these reasons and more we might attach a negative value to restlessness—“it’s keeping me awake,” “it’s increasing my worry,” “I can’t make it stop.”

And yet Molly says “Surely at 3 am i should be asleep / but the night is awake / alive / with shining stars / i’m revived.” And, the poet, James Agee—by all accounts a restless soul who struggled with personal demons—is “sure on this shining night.” Sure, as in confident, positive, hopeful some good will come. At another part of “Description of Elysium” he writes: “Sure on this shining night/ Of starmade shadows round, / Kindness must watch for me / This side the ground. / The late year lies down the north. / All is healed, all is health. / High summer holds the earth. / Hearts all whole.” He is restless, but also sure on this shining night.

So, let me suggest there is a restlessness that we ought not seek to subdue, a restlessness we ought not seek to silence, a restlessness we ought to encourage, a restlessness that, when it comes, we ought to welcome. We ought to wonder about it. We ought to wander with it.

Let me suggest there is a restlessness at the core of everything: a “Great Restlessness,” a great, restless motion at the heart of the universe; great, restless cycles of planets and stars and galaxies revolving, whirling, rotating, spinning; great restless earth rhythms: the seasons, the tides, the waxing and waning of the moon, the rising and setting of the sun, night and day, dusk and dawn, waves crashing, rivers running—all of it repeated in our own bodies: pulsing blood, beating hearts, breath—continuous, life-giving breath. Ongoing, unceasing, restless. Agee’s contemporary, the journalist, humorist and poet, Don Marquis, said “A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things.”[2] Let me suggest that sometimes our own, inner restlessness is calling us to align ourselves with this great, outer restlessness. It is not simply a call to personal change, to creativity, to some new endeavor—though it can be all these things—it’s a call to return to harmony with the earth, with the stars, with all there is. For this reason, let us encourage restless souls.

Part II

So you want to encourage a restless soul?

Are you sure?


We’re an odd type

We often spend days in solitude

And nights scribbling on napkins


We spend weekdays at work

And weeknights at work

And weekends at work


Work isn’t always a place

Sometimes the work is in your mind

Just thought after thought

Trying to disguise

The whirlpool of thoughts

That should never occupy any mind


Restless souls can be productive,


And are always beautiful.


So what are you encouraging exactly?


Is it the rhythm

Of my walk

Or my talk


Or the beat

when I speak?


Or are you encouraging

The strings on my guitar

To vibrate

To the beat


Maybe it’s the ring of my voice

Slightly out of place

In a choir,

For solo

I make my own beautiful rhythm.


What in the world are you encouraging restless souls for?


Please tell me It’s for the beauty of a scattered mind

That loves a little bit of everything

All at once


Or is it the way we describe

Sunlight as reflections off the moon

Because our walks seem to be

Guided by stars


No, no

Encourage the way

We treat each day

Like it’s our last,

Because you just never know


Please tell me,

What are you encouraging exactly,


Because I want the world to know

Restless isn’t just tired,

Or angry

Or sad


It’s beautiful as any true emotion

And loved,

At least by me.


When I speak of encouraging restless souls, I’m encouraging us not to fight whatever restlessness we may be experiencing, not to resist it, but to explore it, to wonder about it, to wander with it, to weep with it if necessary—all with the spiritual goal of becoming more aligned with, more in tune with, more in sync with, more in harmony with the Great Restlessness at the core of all things, the restlessness that is all around us and also within us—the motion, the rhythm, the movement, the spinning, the whirling, the cycles of growth, decay, death and rebirth—all of it. A restless soul seeks the Great Restlessness—yearns for it, longs for it. I’m encouraging that seeking, that yearning, that longing.

Of course, we’re rarely aware of the Great Restlessness. We’re rarely aware of the universe expanding, the stars moving away, away, away, the galaxies spinning, or our own trail blazing at amazing speeds through space and time. We’re so used to gravity. We lack a large enough perspective. We take so much movement for granted. We aren’t even typically aware of our own hearts beating, our own blood coursing. The restless soul cultivates such awareness.

I recognize this is somewhat abstract. What might this look like in practical terms? What might cultivating such awareness look like as spiritual practice? Well, if the Great Restlessness is inherently rhythmical—cycles, tides, seasons, etc.—and if it is embedded in our bodies, then to experience it in practical terms we have to let our bodies be rhythmical. Restless souls embody their spirituality through rhythm. Through rhythm their bodies become vehicles for connection to and expression of the Great Restlessness.

The great commandment for restless souls is “Be rhythmical!” I’m a drummer, so perhaps rhythm occurs to me very easily as a component of spiritual practice. I go immediately to drumming. But rhythm lives in everyone, not just drummers. Any instrument will do. And if you don’t play an instrument, dance: bop, hop, bob, boogie, twist, turn, shimmy, skip, spin, tango, rhumba. If you don’t dance, just stretch: arc, bend, bow, flex, lengthen, extend, soften, widen. Strike the warrior pose, the mountain pose, downward dog, tree, bridge, cobra, pigeon, crow. Words have rhythm: write poetry, write prose, write your novel, scrawl, scribble, print, type. Prayer and meditation have rhythm: offer praise, give thanks, invoke, recite, chant, sing, bow your head, raise your hands, lie prostrate, walk a labyrinth. Rhythm lives in each of us—run, walk, roll, cook, plant, prune, tend, harvest, dig in the dirt.

And work at it. Molly says restless souls “spend weekdays at work / And weeknights at work / And weekends at work.” She’s talking about being relentlessly creative—working at poetry, at music, at art; working at words. That’s what she’s passionate about. When your time belongs completely to you, what do you work at? What do you practice?  To what do you dedicate yourself? What work do you do to channel the anxious, worried, idle restlessness of your day so that it connects you to the Great Restlessness? I was struck by a passage in The Prophet by the early twentieth-century Lebanese poet, artist and writer—also a contemporary of Agee and Marquis—Khalil Gibran. He wrote “you work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. For to be idle is to become a stranger unto seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite. When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.”[3]

When we let our bodies be rhythmical, we begin to embody the Great Restlessness. With our rhythm, we give it form and structure. We have some say in it. We have it, so that it doesn’t have us, so it doesn’t worry us and keep us awake when we should be asleep. When we let our bodies be rhythmical we race our minds into the Great Restlessness, so that they are not left to race aimlessly from unconnected thought to unconnected thought. Let us encourage rhythm.

Part III 

to awake a restless soul

is to take your heart

off parole


to let them sleep

is to reinvent

and lament


to give back

is to have

a heart attack


restless souls

need sleep too

they’re souls staring down

a beautiful few


to wonder

to wander

to follow

the “lost”


is to give hope

to the restless

and they’re

midnight thoughts


restless souls

need sleep too,

but to awake the restless

is too beautiful

to do


so goodnight

sweet angel

sleep tight,

say prayers


when you awake,

they’ll be no scares

your mind will still be restless

but your legs


just enough

to follow your dreams


“Restless souls need sleep too,” says Molly. At some point we need rest. As the story goes, God created for six days and then took rest. We need our regular Sabbath, our regular time of not acting, of not moving, of stillness and quiet. Though the intricate rhythms of the Great Restlessness never cease, rest is part of our creaturely rhythm, part of our daily cycle. Our cells can only do their work for so long before they begin crying out for the body to sleep.

That cycle, we know, doesn’t always work. It breaks down. We can’t always sleep when we want to. We wake in the night, our minds racing. At times we are restless precisely when we need rest.

At yesterday’s UUS:E Mental Health Ministry summit about 15 of us discussed our experiences of restlessness, along with what sustains us in our restless times. Those present spoke of meditation, prayer, walking in woods, being near water—still water, running water, waterfalls, streams, rivers, ocean waves—walking beaches. They spoke of gardening, planting, tending, or just digging in the dirt—getting hands dirty. I couldn’t help myself: All of it has rhythm, I proclaimed with glee! All of it allows us to embody the Great Restlessness in some way. What sustains us in our restless times? What enables us finally to rest? Not fighting against our restlessness, but moving into it, owning it, finding our rhythm, regaining balance, re-establishing the cycle.

I pointed out that those of us who have or are raising children often speak of needing to “run” our kids to make sure they sleep well at night. And of course, most children run themselves if we let them. I remember my youngest, Max, digging in dirt at the base of a pine tree for hours on end, transfixed, oblivious to time, lost in the rhythm of digging. Of course, everyone at the summit pointed out that it’s true for adults too. A day with no rhythm is recipe for continued restlessness.

I love the sense of paradox here. To rest well, we must first respond to our restlessness with focused activity, with creativity, with music, with dance, with prayer, with work, with rhythm. For our Sabbath to be effective, we must spend the week working with passion and devotion at whatever it is we do.

Our restlessness always contains a message to us that at some place in our lives we are not aligned with, not in tune with, not in sync with, not living in harmony with the Great Restlessness at the core of all things. Rhythm is the path to alignment and harmony. As such, rhythm precedes genuine rest. And rest makes more rhythm possible.

Thus, my spiritual prescription of restlessness is rhythm. Find yours, embody the Great Restlessness, and then let us say, goodnight / sweet angel / sleep tight, / say prayers / when you awake, / they’ll be no scares /your mind will still be restless / but your legs / rested / just enough / to follow your dreams.”

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Agee, James“Description of Elysium” in Fitzgerald, Robert, ed.  The collected poems of James Agee (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968) pp. 5-7; first published in Permit me voyage by James Agee (Yale University Press, 1934).For the text to “Sure On This Shining Night,” see: http://allpoetry.com/Sure-On-This-Shining-Night.

[2] Marquis, Don, “A Fierce Unrest,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 304. This quote was the basis for my previous sermon on restlessness, “The Life We Have Lost in Living,” preached on February 12, 2012. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/the-life-we-have-lost-in-living/.

[3] Gibran, Kahlil, The Prophet (New York: Alfed A. Knopf, 1923, 1951) p. 25.

On Ancestors, Slavery, and Religious Dissent

Rev. Josh Pawelek

A Rogerene Interruption“Heroes of faith in every age, far seeing, self-denying, wrought an increasing heritage, monarch and creed defying. Faith of the free!”[1]—words from 20th-century Unitarian minister Vincent Silliman. I wanted us to sing this hymn before this sermon because it points to a dynamic in our faith that at times proves confusing both to Unitarian Universalists and to those who observe us from outside. Liberalism in the United States has both political and religious roots, and continues today to express itself both politically and religiously. In both politics and religion the American liberal tradition—at its best—orients us towards freedom, liberty, justice, equality, inclusion, human rights and, I add today, environmental sustainability. In both politics and religion the American liberal tradition—at its best—calls us to protest, to dissent, to offer prophetic witness when we encounter barriers to freedom, when we encounter injustice, inequality, exclusion, human rights violations and threats to environmental sustainability. The “faith of the larger liberty” is both political and religious. It is “monarch and creed defying.”

What occasionally causes confusion is the way our religious yearnings blend with our political concerns. We might come to worship on Sunday morning looking for explicitly spiritual sustenance, and suddenly the service takes on a political tone or reflects on a political issue. How is this religious? some might wonder, forgetting that this blending is an aspect of our liberal tradition. It might happen on a Sunday morning, but it also happens at the state capitol or, as it did for me last Monday, on the corner of Barbour and Westland Streets in North Harford, advocating with other clergy and Governor Malloy for drug policy reform.

Recall that the Puritans who founded colonial New England—the Puritans from whom our Unitarian ancestors were directly descended—were both political and religious. They were religious dissenters at a time when religious dissent had immediate political implications. And of course, for their dissent they were persecuted. As children many of us learned the Puritans left England in search of religious freedom. This idea of the free church would eventually become a centerpiece of not only the American liberal tradition, but of American democracy itself. The 20th-century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams said that in America “the conception of the democratic society is … a descendent of the conception of the free church.”[2]

That’s likely overstated, but there is a connection between the Puritan quest for religious liberty and the later American quest for political liberty. What I always find ironic is that, had they had our word ‘liberal’ in their vocabulary, they would have rejected it. They were anything but liberal. They were coercive theocrats who adhered to strict Calvinist doctrine and who could not conceive of the separation of church and state. Politics and religion were completely intertwined. They established a state church and levied taxes on all citizens to pay for it. They enforced attendance at Sunday worship. Though they originated as dissenters, they could not tolerate dissent within their own society, and often confronted it with state violence.

The Puritans brought the traditions of religious freedom and dissent to the New World, but they were not responsible for carrying them forward. Throughout the colonial era, individuals, groups, sects—including eventually Unitarians and Universalists—continued to rise up in defiance of Puritan religious orthodoxy and political rule until the congregational church was dis-established in the 1800s. One such new sect which formed in the late 1600s was the Rogerenes, named for their founder, John Rogers, whose father, James Rogers, a wealthy New London, CT merchant, was the 8th Great Grandfather of UUS:E member, Fred Sawyer. Oh yes! This is the sermon James Rogers’ 21st-century Unitarian Universalist descendant purchased at last year’s UUS:E goods and services auction!

Fred leant me a copy of Allegra di Bonaventura’s 2013 book, For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England.[3] (She’s an assistant dean at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale.) Di Bonaventura weaves together the stories of five colonial New London families—the Winthrops, the Livingstons, the Hempsteads, the Rogers (who founded the Rogerenes), and the Jacksons who were slaves of African descent. The book provides an intimate and rare portrait of slavery in colonial New England—a story not often told. It also offers an intimate and rare portrait of colonial New England family life, marriage, romance, death, work, commerce, politics, law, punishment, religion, religious dissent, and religious activism. I highly recommend it and I am grateful to Fred for suggesting it.

Fred is interested in his ancestors, the Rogers, and what lessons their lives might hold for us. For me it has always been an important spiritual practice to take time to remember that we are here because others came before us and bequeathed to us, if nothing else, the gift of life. It is important to look back and honor our ancestors—both our blood relatives, and our spiritual forebears—those “heroes of faith” about whom we sing in “Faith of the Larger Liberty.”

What happens, however, when we look back and discover some difficult fact about our ancestors? For example, white people who discover that their ancestors owned slaves. Given what we know about slavery—countless lives lost, bodies violated, families separated, work stolen, language and culture assaulted—and given the reality that we still live with the legacy of slavery and witness in, for example, our criminal justice system, attempts to reinscribe it through polices that lead to mass incarceration of people of color, learning that one’s ancestors held slaves can be very disconcerting. Upon learning that the Rogers held slaves, Fred seemed not troubled, but accepting and curious. What do we do with this information? He’s interested in understanding not only what it meant to hold slaves in this era, but also what it meant to set them free. Many Rogerenes ultimately freed their slaves and, in later generations, became outspoken opponents of slavery. While the historical record isn’t entirely clear on why they began freeing their slaves, and while they did it slowly and with some ambivalence, we can make some claims about it with a high degree of certainty. First, their religious experience led them to oppose slavery. Second, there were great risks involved in such opposition. Di Bonaventura points out that Puritan clergymen, as town leaders and moral arbiters, “led in slaveholding as a group, owning bondsmen in greater numbers than did their parishioners.”[4] To oppose slavery was to oppose the theocracy itself.  Religious yearnings blending with political concerns.

The Rogerenes were adept at opposing the theocracy. Who were they? They were a religious sect responding to an ongoing experience of the Holy Spirit. The founder, John Rogers, son of James Rogers, became acquainted with an English sect known as Seventh-Day Baptists or Sabbatarians in Newport, RI while on business trips there. Sabbatarians worship on Saturday. Rogers took to it wholeheartedly, and started a Sabbatarian church in New London. Once he had converted his father and some of his siblings, he broke off from the Newport church and started his own sect which eventually became known as the Rogerenes. Described as fanatics and outlaws, they worshipped not only on Saturdays, but any day of the week and—worse—they engaged in menial labor on Sundays. They refused to pay taxes in support of the established church. They called for the separation of church and state. They welcomed men and women of every background as full congregants—African slaves, free blacks, Indians, Europeans, rich poor, men, women, children—they were truly egalitarian in this sense. They lived together, ate together, worshipped together and baptized each other in the Thames river. Di Bonaventura speculates that their experience of egalitarian spiritual community is what led them to become uncomfortable with slaveholding. It was difficult to proclaim spiritual equality while continuing to benefit from a profound social, political and economic inequality. Over the years they provided emotional, spiritual, legal and financial support to their slaves, most notably to John and Joan Jackson who were involved in 45 lawsuits in CT and MA over a period of decades, starting with John’s attempts to win Joan’s freedom, and then in their combined attempts to win their children’s freedom.

Although di Bonaventura doesn’t mention it, I’m reminded of that well-known passage from the Christian New Testment book of Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[5] They seemed to be living a version of this vision.

The Rogerenes hid nothing. they seemed undaunted by Puritan power. This is likely due to the fact that they were wealthy themselves, and as much as the Puritan hierarchy detested them, it needed their wealth to fund the ongoing development of New London. In a sense, the Rogerenes could afford to be provocative. Even so, the Puritan authorities did not sit idly by. They had the Rogerenes arrested, fined, publicly punished, incarcerated. Here’s a passage from For Adam’s Sake that gives a sense of how both sides operated. In this passage, local authorities have caught John Rogers and his brother-in-law, Samuel Fox, eel fishing on Sunday and convict them of ‘sabbath-breaking.’

Fox paid his fine…. John Rogers was not so compliant. He refused to pay and was imprisoned in the makeshift New London jail.

The Sunday after her brother’s incarceration, Bathshua (Fox’s wife) staged a protest…. She entered the meetinginghouse in the midst of Mr. Saltonstall’s morning service and loudly announced before the assembled congregation that she had performed menial labor in violation of the law. Authorities seized her immediately and put her in the stocks. The commotion of her outburst and apprehension … allowed her brother to escape. When Saltonstall later began the afternoon service, John Rogers appeared back in action—thrusting open the meetinghouse doors pushing a wheelbarrow. It must have been quite a site when the Rogerene leader rolled up toward the pulpit, shrilly calling out his wares (the wheelbarrow almost certainly contained shoes of his own making; the wealthy merchant had taken up the humble craft of cobbling as biblically sanctioned manual labor)…. Members of the congregation pounced on Rogers… Town authorities [then forced] the Rogerene leader to stand fifteen minutes on a ladder with a rope around his neck…. The exercise made little impression on Rogers and they flung him back in jail.

From his crude confinement, John Rogers hung a handwritten “Proclamation” out a window, declaring his opposition to “the Doctrines of Devils”…. For this … the authorities charged him with blasphemy, an accusation that led to his transfer to a more secure imprisonment in Hartford, where he awaited trial and certain conviction in the General Court…. At his sentencing the court required Rogers to submit a bond to secure his good behavior. Rogers deemed the order a sacrilege and refused to comply, so he remained in prison.

[He] ended up serving more than three years in prison at a time when long-term incarceration was extremely rare and highly impractical…. Once Rogers finally did finish out his term, Saltonstall, whose delicate pride had been wounded in the attacks on his sermonizing, brought a civil suit against him for defamation. Saltonstall also served on the bench of the court that determined the outcome—a conflict of interest which the colonial court blithely tolerated—so it was no surprise when the plaintiff-judge won a spectacular and highly retaliatory damage award of six hundred pounds.[6]

In discerning what the Rogerene story may mean for us 300 years later, I want to make three points. First, I don’t support the interruption of someone else’s worship service. You may recall that anti-abortion activists invaded a UU service in New Orleans last July and that I was appalled. To some degree I feel for Mr. Saltonstall’s flock. But the Rogers lived in a different era, where there was no separation of church and state, where the religious and political authority were the same, where the minister was also the judge who heard his own case and decided that case in his own favor. In such a society where alternative religious viewpoints are illegal, interrupting Sunday worship may be the only option when political and religious freedom is at stake. What resonates for me is their willingness to speak out, their willingness to accept consequences in order to express their deeply held convictions. As Unitarian Universalists we are not formal heirs of the Rogerenes, and yet something in their story, their spirit, their courage, their willingness to speak and act on their truths, their concern for freedom both religious and political—something in them resonates with our UU spirit, our UU convictions, our UU principles. They swim in that same great river that eventually became the American liberal tradition we have inherited.  They are kindred spirits in this “Faith of the Larger Liberty.”

Second, the Rogerenes apparently achieved something that was remarkable and difficult in their time, something which remains remarkable and difficult today and yet which we are called to achieve: a diverse, egalitarian, beloved spiritual community. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” We might add: there is no longer gay or straight, trans or cis, young or old, documented or undocumented, rich or poor, imprisoned or free, addicted or sober, mentally ill or mentally well—at our core we are all one, we are all connected, we are all worthy of welcome, respect and love.

Finally, the Rogers family held slaves. They clearly benefitted from holding slaves—it was one source of their wealth. And yet their religious convictions caused them to become increasingly uncomfortable with slaveholding. I said earlier we continue to live today with the legacy of slavery in America. We continue to live in the midst of extraordinary racism. I feel blessed to inherit a liberal religious tradition that calls me to examine and confront this legacy, to confront it within the church, to confront it within the halls of government, to confront it on urban and suburban streets, to confront it with that New England spirit that is both monarch and creed defying.

While we UUs are not formal spiritual descendants of the Rogerenes, I’d like to suggest that we share some of the Rogerene religious and political DNA. We might say we both descend from a common ancestor–a common free church, free faith liberal spirit. We encounter in them not only a distant cousin, but a spiritual ancestor swimming in that great river that gave rise to the faith of the larger liberty, and whose memory we can invoke as we endeavor to build that land where justice rolls down like waters, and peace like an ever-flowing stream; where all are one, all connected, and all worthy of welcome, respect and love.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Silliman, Vincent B., “Faith of the Larger Liberty,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #287.

[2] Adams, James Luther, in Stackhouse, Max, On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976) p. 9.

[3] Di Bonaventura, Allegra, For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013).

[4] Di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, p. 32.

[5] Galatians 3:28.

[6] Di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, pp. 49-51.

Dispatches from the Culture War, 2015

Culture WarI’m wrestling this morning with two conflicting impulses in me. They arise in response to the American culture war, in response to deep divisions in the country over sexual orientation, gender identity, reproductive rights, sexuality education, marriage, guns, end of life issues, family values, and the age-old and still raging debate between science and religion. While the media often portrays the culture war as between religious people on one side and secular people on the other, it’s rarely that simple. Liberal religious people often line up against conservative religious people in the culture war. It is at once an inter-religions struggle—meaning between religions—and an intra-religious struggle—meaning it plays out within some religions. My conflicting impulses have to do with how I, as a liberal religious person, relate to people on the conservative side of the culture war.

One impulse is to approach such people with openness, curiosity, friendliness. This impulse emerges from a desire to learn, to find common ground, to achieve interfaith understanding, to build community. The other impulse is pugnacious and looking for a fight. This impulse emerges from moral anger and what I call “soul sadness.” For example, I am angry at people whose religion—often in combination with short-sighted and selfish political and economic interests—leads them time and time again to ignore, deny or denounce the findings of science, as if science is a liberal conspiracy, a tool of elitist subterfuge, an enemy. And, yes, I experience a profound, soul-sadness not only because so many people seem to react to science in this way, but because the consequences of such reactions are so destructive for the earth.

Last week I ran into an old acquaintance, someone with whom I had interacted at the edges of the first congregation I served. He attended worship there occasionally. He wondered if I remembered him. Of course I did. I’d eaten a few meals at his home where we used to debate evolution and creationism or “intelligent design,” which was in vogue at that time. When I saw him last week I said I remembered the articles on intelligent design he used to share with me and that I have always appreciated his willingness to be in conversation around what is still a highly divisive topic. He said, “But you’re an evolutionist.” I said, “Yes, I am. And I try to remain open-minded about other ways of understanding reality. I try to remain curious. ” That’s my friendly, learning-oriented, community-building impulse at work. In a religiously pluralistic society it is essential that we nurture and act on this impulse. In the midst of interfaith dialogue—especially dialogue across culture war lines—we grow more knowledgeable, more accepting, more peaceful. In learning another’s point of view, we develop and sharpen our own.

But then my blood boils when people of faith not only refuse to be in dialogue, but ignore, deny or denounce firmly established scientific consensus. One such consensus is that human activity—specifically the burning of fossil fuels—is a significant driver of climate change. More than 13,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers published in over 80 countries since 1991 have confirmed this position. That’s 97 percent of all formal scientific papers published on the topic.[1] Many religions embrace this consensus. On April 29th the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences together issued a report entitled “Climate Change and the Common Good.” The statement affirms that “Today, human activities, involving the unsustainable exploitation of fossil fuels and other forms of natural capital, are having a decisive and unmistakable impact on the planet. The aggressive exploitation of fossil fuels and other natural resources has damaged the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we inhabit…. Some 1000 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other climatically-important ‘greenhouse’ gases have already been accumulated in the atmosphere…. [and] now exceeds the highest levels in at least the last million years.”[2]

In the face of this global scientific consensus, on January 21st of this year, 49 United States Senators, as part of an effort to pass a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, voted against an amendment to the bill that said human activity is a significant contributor to climate change.[3] 49 United States senators proclaimed that the firmly established global scientific consensus is incorrect! A number of them cried foul, saying the amendment was a political stunt. They may be right, but a U.S. Senator’s ability to discern fact from fiction matters when the fate of the planet is at stake. The Senate has the power to shape energy and environmental policy in ways that ensure a sustainable future. It is infuriating every time that strange coalition of hyper-conservative faith, business and political interests drives a large segment of our national leadership to ignore science. In my view such willful ignorance is a sinful evasion of responsibility that demands a fighting response from all people of faith who take science seriously. Two conflicting impulses.

Stan and Sue McMillen inspired my reflections on this topic. They purchased a sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. This is their sermon. Stan suggested a couple of possibilities. First he said, “I have been increasingly concerned that religion continues to divide rather than unite us in justice work.” He’s right. Religious differences drive the culture war, and we need that first impulse—curiosity, openness—to bridge our divides. But then he said “There is another disturbing thread that concerns me: the disparagement of science by religion.” Because that ongoing disparagement will have catastrophic consequences for the planet if allowed to persist without opposition, we also need to cultivate that second impulse, a willingness to fight without apology for a sustainable future.

I’ve been wondering about how one decides which impulse to pursue in any given encounter across culture war lines. I’ve been wondering about how I decide, since I make the decision often, but don’t always stop to think about it—which is why I’m using the word impulse. Here’s my best thinking about when and why to follow either of these impulses.

At the beginning of any encounter with a person of another faith—and I suppose at the beginning of any encounter with any human being—approach them with openness, curiosity, friendliness. Assume common ground exists. Assume the other wants a peaceful, prosperous community, a just and fair society, the best possible future for their children and grandchildren. Assume the other cares about the earth. It won’t always be an accurate assumption, but it is much easier to build a relationship if you begin with the assumption that relationship is possible.

Then look for the common ground. Ask, inquire, explore, listen, learn. Stan expresses a concern that religion continues to divide rather than unite us in justice work. Religion is less likely to divide us if we find our common ground. I have been attending a series of meetings at the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford to work on passage of a bill of rights for domestic workers—people who work in other peoples’ homes providing health care, childcare, eldercare and cleaning services. Because domestic workers aren’t included in the Fair Labor Relations Act and many other national labor laws, they are easily and often exploited with few if any avenues for legal recourse. Passage of a Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights would begin to create a more just domestic work place in Connecticut. In the meeting at the Archdiocese there are Catholics, Pentecostals, Lutherans, UCCs, UUs and labor union. It would be so easy to say “No, I won’t work with the Catholic Church.” UUs and Catholics are diametrically opposed on many culture war issues: marriage equality, transgender civil rights, and most recently aid-in-dying for terminally ill patients. These divisions have been present in these meeting. The Catholics keep talking about aid in dying, in part because they’ve all been working together to defeat it. Most of them didn’t realize I’ve been working in support of it. Those who did were genuinely concerned I would feel alienated. The meeting organizer finally asked if I would share my thoughts about it. I did. But I made it clear that I would never want our disagreement on this or any other issue to prevent us from achieving our mutual goal of a more just work conditions for domestic workers. As much as Catholics and UUs have disagreed over the years, we’ve always shared the common ground of economic justice.

Nevertheless, division is sometimes inevitable. There are moments when we can’t find common ground and the impulse to fight or struggle takes over. Before that happens, it’s important to me to make sure I’m fighting for the right reasons. For me, a difference in theology or belief is never a reason to fight. That is, if someone believes in God and I don’t, that’s not worth fighting over. If someone believes the Koran is God’s final revelation and I believe all sacred scriptures are human inventions, that’s not worth fighting over. If someone accepts Jesus Christ as their savior and I find salvation in the natural world, that’s not worth fighting over. Differences in theology, tradition, practice—these are opportunities for the first impulse—curiosity, learning. But when someone else’s beliefs manifest in the world in ways that cause suffering, exploitation, oppression, in ways that destroy and kills, then it’s time to take a stand, to struggle, to organize, to fight.

I’ve preached about such moments many times. I am mindful that I typically frame fights between people of faith—whether over gay rights or global warming—as fights ultimately between religious liberalism and religious fundamentalism. I name fundamentalism as the problem. Well, I’ve had an evolution in my thinking, and I want to name it now, even though I haven’t fully worked through its meaning. When we fight for something we believe in—really fight, really struggle—we actually take on characteristics of the fundamentalists we oppose. We appear to them as they appear to us: unbending, unyielding, uncompromising—at least that’s the risk. I’m not a religious fundamentalist, but I’ll own that I’m a marriage equality fundamentalist. I’ll own that I’m a reproductive choice fundamentalist, an economic justice fundamentalist, a Black Lives Matter fundamentalist, a path-to-citizenship- for-undocumented immigrants-fundamentalist, an end-the-war-on-drugs fundamentalist. And I’m a climate-change-is-real-and-caused-by-humans-and-must-be-addressed-now-with-the-largest- mobilization-of-people-and-resources-the-world-has-ever-seen” fundamentalist. I’m owning my fundamentalisms. And I know when I move to that place of utter conviction it has the potential to silence conversation, to alienate people who might not completely agree with me, to damage relationships, to poison otherwise common ground. It can keep the culture war going. Thus I know I must pause at times to critique my fundamentalisms, to assure myself that the rationale behind them is still solid, to assure myself that they are and I am still spiritually and theologically grounded. When I move to that place of utter conviction, I better have solid evidence. 

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said something about this back on January 21st when the Senate took that vote on climate change. He voted for the amendment saying he’s now comfortable with climate science. But then he said something that at first seemed silly, but the more I think about it, it’s not. He said, “I think that people on my side”—meaning conservatives—“are really reluctant to embrace how much human activity is causing climate change because our friends on the other side”—meaning liberals—“have made it a religion.”[4]

It’s an interesting use of the word religion. He doesn’t mean religion in the liberal sense where we’re on a journey and our credo is always changing. He means something unchanging. He means fundamentalism. He’s saying “I experience you liberals as Climate Change fundamentalists.” He’s asking for compromise. He’s trying to respond to the first impulse. He’s looking for common ground. But fundamentalism of any sort isn’t interested in common ground. It’s interested in prevailing. And given what climate science is saying, given the great global disruption the models are forecasting, we’re long past time for compromise. Graham is right: those of us who take the science seriously have made it a “religion.” And we need to prevail.

The philosopher of religion Loyal Rue once wrote, “The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed, but if we live in right relationship with reality (wisely), then we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle.”[5] I take science seriously, because it is our best guide to understanding reality—not the only guide, to be sure, but the best. And when I say we are justified in fighting against unnecessary suffering, exploitation, oppression, and the destruction of the earth, I understand each of these things as failures of right relationship to reality. I am hopeful that in any sojourn we may take into “fundamentalism,” it is for the sake of restoring right relationship to reality, it is the path of wisdom, and it will save us.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] “The 97% Consensus on Global Warming” at Skeptical Science: https://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-advanced.htm.

[2] Dasgupta, P., Ramanathan, V., Raven, P., Sanchez Sorondo, M., et al, “Climate Change and the Common Good: A Statement Of the Problem And the Demand For Transformative Solutions,” published April 29, 2015 by the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science. See: http://www.casinapioiv.va/content/dam/accademia/pdf/protect/climate_change_common_good.pdf.

[3]  Kollipara, Puneet and Malakoff, David, “For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?” Science Insider, January 29, 2015.See: http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/01/first-time-years-u-s-senate-voted-climate-change-did-anybody-win.

[4] Kollipara, Puneet and Malakoff, David, “For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?” Science Insider, January 29, 2015.See: http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/01/first-time-years-u-s-senate-voted-climate-change-did-anybody-win. Also see: http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060012413.

[5] This quote is taken from Loyal Rue’s Religion is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature and What to Expect When They Fail (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005). It appeared in Dowd, Michael, “The Evolutionary Significance of Religion: Multi-Level Selection,” Metanexus, February 10, 2012. See: http://metanexus.net/blog/evolutionary-significance-religion-multi-level-selection?utm_source=2012.02.28&utm_campaign=2012.02.28&utm_medium=email.


From Radical Transcendence to Radical Immanence

Rev. Josh Pawelek

uuse chaliceBecause I’m in the middle of teaching our Building Your Own Theology class and inviting the participants to look deeply into themselves and their experiences in an effort to name what they believe; and because I am moved and inspired by what they are saying in class; and also because it’s been a hard few months here at UUS:E and I am looking for my own sources of grounding, comfort, solace, and peace; and also because our ministry theme for April is transcendence; and finally because it’s just plain fun for me—for all these reasons I’ve decided to share with you this morning my current thoughts on God—how I believe.

There’s a story floating through the sermons of many ministers—it’s often attributed to the late Rev. Forrest Church, though I’m not sure it’s original to him—in which the parishioner says to the minister,” I try and I try and I try, but I find I just don’t believe in God.” The minister responds, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.” It’s possible some ministers tell this story as a way of saying “I know, there are many versions of God out there—jealous, angry, punitive gods; capricious, whimsical, unpredictable gods; callous, arrogant, selfish gods; homophobic, sexist, racist gods; imperialistic, nationalistic, violent war gods—but I know who God really is, and after I’m done listening to you tell me about the god you don’t believe in, I’m going to tell you about a god you can believe in.” To be clear, that’s not my intention here. I don’t move through the world harboring the secret conviction that the God I believe in is somehow right when all those other Gods are wrong. I don’t come to a sermon like this with the assumption that if you just open your heart to what I have to say, you’ll get it, you’ll see the light, you’ll believe.

However, there is a religious impulse in humanity: a longing to connect and commune with a reality larger than ourselves; a yearning to serve, to help, to heal, to be good; a drive to imagine, to conceive, to create, to shape, to build; an instinct to worship, to praise, to offer thanks; a hunger for a better world—a more fair, just, peaceful, loving and sustainable world. Human beings express and act on this religious impulse in countless ways, through the construction over time of countless religions, theologies, spiritualties, rituals, practices, holidays, festivals, folkways, and self-help regimens— a vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous, always multifaceted testament to humanity’s longing to encounter the Holy. When I speak to you about God in my life, I am not attempting to extract the one true belief out of the whole and then proclaim, “Here it is!” When I speak to you about God in my life, I’m simply adding one more, small voice to the vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous landscape of human religion. I hope not that you will believe as I believe, but that you will be inspired to respond to the religious impulse that moves you and thus make your contribution to that vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous human religious whole.

Our April ministry theme is transcendence, a term often given as a quality of God. Transcendence hangs out with its close friends otherworldly, supernatural, ultimate, boundless, sublime, infinite, absolute, eternal. In his Handbook of Theological Terms[1] Van Harvey says transcendence “has been used to designate any ideal or thing or being that ‘stands over against’…. It conveys ‘otherness.’” God “is said to transcend the world in the sense that his being is not identical with or his power not exhausted by the [earthly realm].” “When this idea of transcendence has been radicalized … it has led to the view that [God] is ‘wholly other’ and, therefore, unknowable.”[2]

Radical transcendence. Sit with that for a moment. A radically transcendent God exists ‘over and above’ the world, over and above humanity. A radically transcendent God lives somewhere else. A radically transcendent God is distant, separate, detached, beyond, unreachable, unknowable, inscrutable, wholly other. I read earlier from the introduction to the twentieth-century, Neo-Reformed—sometimes called Neo-Orthodox—Swiss theologian, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans. Commenting on the Apostle Paul Barth says “However great and important a man Paul may have been, the essential theme of his mission is not within him but above him—unapproachably distant and unutterably strange.” Barth often used the Latin term deus absconditus, the hidden God.

There are religious people of all sorts who are quite comfortable with a radically transcendent God. I’m mindful of a quote, also attributed to the late Rev. Forrest Church: “The power which I cannot explain or know or name I call God. God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being.” We might call this a liberal version of deus absconditus. I find it enormously and refreshingly sane and wise to locate God in mystery, to believe in a God we cannot explain or know or name. Such belief requires us to admit our own limits; to acknowledge we don’t know everything; to find peace in the darkness; to accept that we cannot control every outcome; to accept that we must, at times, let go, that we must, at times, surrender. This is humility. At its best a wholly other God leads us to humility in our interactions with others and with the world.

The problem is, I’m not sure most gods like being radically transcendent. It seems difficult for them to remain distant and unknowable, shrouded in mystery. It’s hard for them. All too often transcendent gods leave their otherworldly home and visit earth; they descend; they come down to play, provoke, punish—to send plagues and swarms of locusts, to cause droughts and floods. One of my favorite stories of a radically transcendent God who makes himself known is the Hebrew Book of Job, a somewhat unique piece of Jewish wisdom literature from which we read earlier. Job was a righteous man—God-fearing, obedient. Satan wagers with God that he can induce Job to curse God. God accepts the wager, and Satan proceeds to destroy Job’s life, ruining his livelihood, killing off his family members and livestock, afflicting his body with horrible diseases. Job never curses God, but when he wonders why he’s been made to suffer so horribly, God becomes angry and sarcastic saying, essentially, “You didn’t make the world. I made the world. I can do whatever I want, it’s not your place to question, and you wouldn’t understand anyways.” One of the enduring critiques of transcendent gods is that they do whatever they want, that they’re capricious and arbitrary, that they mis-use and abuse their power without feeling a need to justify their actions—at least without justification we mere mortals would understand. They don’t stay radically transcendent. They descend.

But perhaps the problem doesn’t lie so much with the gods themselves, as with the people who speak for them. Many people don’t find an unknowable, radically transcendent god all that helpful or interesting. They’re uncomfortable with theological silence, uncomfortable with mystery, often because they need a God who can help them achieve certain social or political goals on earth. They want a transcendent god with all the power and the glory, but not the radical version. They want a knowable God who, more than anything, instills fear.

My mind wanders to Jonathan Edwards’ infamous 1741 Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon, which became the model for American hell-fire and brimstone preaching: “There is nothing that keeps wicked Men at any one Moment, out of Hell, but the meer Pleasure of GOD. By the meer Pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign Pleasure, his arbitrary Will, restrained by no Obligation, hinder’d by no manner of Difficulty.”[3] (I think this sermon should have been called God in the Hands of an Angry Preacher!). There’s often a political dimension to this kind of knowable, transcendent God—he’s a king, an autocrat, a dictator, a tyrant. He rules from the top of a hierarchy. People who promote such a God on earth often occupy parallel social and political positions—or would like to—and they favor this kind of God precisely because his power, anger and arbitrariness engender fear not only to keep a populace from rebelling, but also to motivate sufficient numbers of followers to commit violence in God’s name.

I’m aware there are ten thousand other versions of knowable transcendent God, many of them quite friendly, but knowing how easy it is for transcendent God to be coopted into the service of selfish human aims, I’ve tended in my life to seek God not in some otherworldly place, not in some higher realm, but right here, among us, around us, within us, infused in the dark, brown earth, thawing with the lake ice as winter turns to spring, sinking into to early April mud, tunneling with the earth worms, falling warmly with early April rain, rolling and crashing with the great ocean waves, rising and setting with the sun and the moon, coursing through our bodies, pulsing with our blood, beating with our hearts, breathing with our lungs.

I’ve longed for God to be nearby, close, present, immediate—like a friend, a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a lover—a wise counselor when my way is unclear, a source of inspiration when my well runs dry, a muse for my creativity, a provider of comfort and solace when life is hard, a bringer of peace in the midst of chaos—a still, small voice, speaking from that place within me where I know my truth, where my conviction resides, where my voice is strong.

I’ve longed for a God not beyond knowing, not unapproachable, not in Heaven, not on Olympus, not in the underworld, but right here in meaningful human interaction: the helping hand, the smile, the caring gesture, the thoughtful gift, the offered prayer, the full embrace, deep listening, meaningful conversation, the good night kiss, “I love you,” “thank you,” “I miss you,” “I’m sorry,” “What can I do?”

I’ve longed for God not ‘wholly other’ but wholly familiar: in the music, the rhythm, the harmonies, the hymns, the silence spaces between the notes, the beat that goes on and on; and in the holy quiet, in the ritual words, in the heartfelt sharing, in the chalice flame.

I’ve longed for God not to punish and judge and condemn, but to urge us in all manner of ways to build the beloved community, to welcome, to include, to be curious and adaptable, to apologize and forgive, to work for a more just human society, to work for a more sustainable earth, to work on behalf of the generations to come , to love, to love, to love.

I’ve longed not for a transcendent God, but an immanent God. In his Handbook of Theological Terms Van Harvey says “Immanence is the technical term used to denote the nearness or presence or indwelling of God in the creation. It is usually contrasted with Transcendence.”[4] Often God is both transcendent and immanent, so I don’t want you to draw too fine a distinction. The point I am making is very personal: Transcendent God, the God of Heaven, the God of the Whirlwind, the Creator of the Universe, the Almighty, the Strict Father—none of that has ever appealed to me. It may be because I don’t feel strongly about the afterlife. I’m not longing to see God after I die. I’m longing to live the best life I can live now, and thus I long for an immanent God—God here and now.

Those of you who’ve been listening closely to me over the years know that as much as I tell you I long for immanent God, I never say I know God is real, mainly because I can’t prove it. And I rarely say I believe in God, mainly because so many people confuse what they believe to be true with what they know to be true, and I don’t want to do that. Remember: we know something is true when we have some way of proving it. We believe something is true when it’s really important to us and we have no way of proving it. When someone says I believe X about God, what I hear them saying is “I really want X to be true,” or “I long for X to be true.” Belief isn’t knowledge. It’s longing. It’s wanting. It’s desire. I long for immanent God to be real, and I’ve learned through experience that the best way to satiate that longing is to live “as if” immanent God were real; to live as if every inch of the earth is sacred and matters; to live as if every human being is sacred and matters, every creature, every drop of water, every stone, every blade of grass is sacred and matters. Live as if it were so. You won’t prove anything God, but that’s not what matters. Living well, living the best life we can live here and now matters.

A final thought about immanence. Van Harvey’s Handbook of Theological Terms mentioned radical transcendence, but not radical immanence. If radical transcendence is the extreme otherness of God, radical immanence must be the extreme sameness of God. My mind wandered, again, this time to the passage from Daniel Quinn’s The Holy which we read earlier. The main character Tim is sitting in the dessert, perhaps sleeping. He wakes up to discover what he first imagines is “an alien creature towering over him—a visitor from the stars, bristling with silver spikes and armored in glossy green.” Soon “he saw that the creature meant him no harm—accepted him as an equal, seemed to enfold him in its own aura of vibrant power and dignity, as if to say, ‘It’s all right. I see you too are alive. No more is required. We are comrades.”[5] Eventually Tim and the reader realize the visitor is a cactus and Tim is somehow able to see—for a brief moment— into its essence, the “vibrant, sublime energy emanating from within.” Eventually he runs up a hill so he can peer down into the valley and behold the same energy coursing through the entire landscape: “Every leaf of every tree was radiant, lustrous—incandescent with power that was unmistakably divine.”[6] This passage struck me as a description of radical immanence.

I’ve never had an experience like that, though I know people who have. And I have certainly had those kinds of spiritual experiences—sometimes in nature, sometimes in response to music, sometimes in the midst of prayer—when I feel utterly related, when I feel at one with all there is. Such experiences are short-lived, fleeting, but they offer powerful opportunities to sense, to intuit, to grasp one’s connectedness to the whole of life; opportunities to sense, to intuit, to grasp the reality of our interdependence with the whole of life. Extreme sameness. Radical immanence. Is it God? I don’t know. But I promise you I will strive to live as if it were so.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992).

[2] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992) pp. 242-243.

[3] Edwards, Jonathan, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God, 1741. Read the text at http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=etas.

[4] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992), p. 127.

[5] Quinn, Daniel, The Holy (New York: Context Books, 2002) p. 378.

[6] Quinn, Daniel, The Holy (New York: Context Books, 2002) p. 379.

Dreaming Ourselves in a Multigenerational Community

Mr. Barb Greve, MDiv, MCRE

Mr. Barb GreveWhen I was a child I walked among real-life superheroes and I bet you do too. But don’t look now – they’re probably wearing their church clothes. 

There was Playdough Pat, whose superhero powers included being able to make anything out of Playdough in a matter of moments. What was most impressive about Pat’s Playdough powers was that ze seemed to magically know just who in our class needed the most help and was always there to help; whether the help we needed was with our Playdough sculpture or something that was going on in our lives. With a handful of Playdough and a caring heart, Pat was there to help. 

There was Boiler Room Bob, whose fix-it powers never ceased to amaze us. With just a wrench, a screwdriver and a roll of duct tape, Bob could fix anything that needed fixing on a Sunday morning or any other time. Whether it was a broken window or a stopped toilet, a burnt out coffee maker or the sound system, Bob was there to make sure it got fixed. 

There was Octo the Organist, who could inspire all near him to join together to make beautiful music. Octo’s specialty was that it didn’t matter what our musical skills were or how we sounded solo. His power to bring us together extended to making our combined music sound wonderful.  

I’ll always remember Justice Janet, who had an eye on world events and could explain them in such a way as they made sense to everyone, regardless of our ages. Justice Janet tirelessly encouraged us to use our privilege and power to help make the world better. She organized the first town-wide recycling program, started a community garden, regularly ran voter registration drives and was on a first-name basis with all of her local, state and national politicians. 

Playdough Pat, Boiler Room Bob, Octo the Organist and Justice Janet, along with all of their superhero friends, created a community where each person was valued for who they were. They learned that by staying in community and sharing their powers, they could cover each other’s weaknesses and broaden their own strengths. Together they were a force for good in the world, offering love and caring wherever they traveled. 

I bet there are Superheroes sitting among us today. If you watch carefully you’re bound to figure out who they are. Perhaps you’re even one and you don’t yet realize it. 

One of the important messages that the Superheroes of my childhood taught me was that church is a place where we can be fully in one another’s lives. They taught me that, as the Reverend A. Powell Davies wrote, “Religion is not something separate and apart from ordinary life. It is life – life of every kind viewed from the standpoint of meaning and purpose: life lived in the fuller awareness of its human quality and spiritual significance.” 

My hope is that at its core, Religious Education teaches this message of the inextricable connection between religion and life. In the skit earlier, the Ghost of Future RE offered Josh a version of the future where that didn’t happen. What we saw instead was a collection of adults who are lonely, afraid and disengaged from the world. But that doesn’t have to be the future path for you. 

In a recent blog post retired UU minister, the Rev. Tom Schade offered this possible description of a Unitarian Universalist future congregation: 

“Our congregation is where you go if you want your children to grow up to be morally and ethically strong and clear AND open-minded and curious about the world of differences. We are really one big, all ages cooperative Sunday School. Our primary purpose is to help families form themselves around spiritually progressive values: multiculturalism, gender equality, healthy sexuality, right relationships, arts and sciences, etc. Every member, adult, youth and child, contributes to our educational activities. We offer that education/growth experience to every family in our community, regardless of their religious affiliation or none. Most weeks, we have family worship. Some weeks we have a group field trip. Some weeks we engage is a work/service project or an arts project with an artist. But everything is for families and children and the future. All ages and generations are welcome.”[1] 

This is the direction in which you are already moving. Time and again your Transitions Team has indicated a desire to move to a more multigenerational model. You’ve begun to do some things that will bridge the divide between the youngest and the oldest among you: from nametags for all to elders attending children’s chapel. These are great starts. 

Karen Bellavance-Grace offers a model of religious education called Full Week Faith: a mash-up of good old-fashioned family ministry, first century-style mission driven church, and a faithful leveraging of technology and social media to expand the reach and breadth of our ministries.[2] 

In this model the staff are asked to not spend all their time gearing towards Sunday morning and instead balance out their efforts to provide additional ways for families to engage in church life all week long. This might include daily Tweets or Facebook postings, online classes for all ages, and organizing groups to attend sports games, concerts, math Olympiads and such – all events where children from the church are participating. The idea being that members of this community are together attending events out in the community where each other are engaged. 

Karen’s colleague Tandi Rogers even goes as far as dreaming that there is a traveling UU cheerleading squad who shows up at sporting and academic competitions to cheer for all sides, using phrases that incorporate our principles and values. 

There are many other models of how to deliver Religious Education, some include holding multigenerational worship every Sunday followed by an hour of multigenerational learning. Others include no Sunday worship and instead the congregation goes out into the community to do the good works of the church, as described in Rev. Schade’s advertisement. Some models continue to have the ages segregated for worship, but invite additional adults to work with our youngsters by sharing their skills and passions for 3-week workshop sessions. 

UUS:E’s desire to be a more multigenerational community is a wonderful idea and is good for your future. But in order to do this, everyone has to be willing to change. Being a multigenerational community isn’t just about more elders teaching Sunday School. Being a multigenerational community means the whole community worshipping together more frequently; with all of us becoming comfortable with squirming, fidgeting and sounds –and I’m not just talking about those coming from the children! It means continuing to offer opportunities for engagement at all areas of church life for all ages. 

It means that when thinking about social action activities, the social action committee is thinking about ways to engage families with small children. It means that when thinking about building projects the buildings & grounds committee is thinking about who the teens might be engaged in helping (and not just for their strength). It means that when we’re writing newsletter columns and blurbs we are considering how it will read to a 5th grader and when we’re choosing music for worship we’re not just using children and youth to play the music but that we’re also choosing music that has meaning for them. Being a multigenerational community means creating and finding more classes that can work for all ages, such as a common book read and discussion group; using books that are accessible to youngsters and elders. Being a more multigenerational community means that we adults have to make more room for the children. And the reward is that by doing so, we’re inviting them to make more room for us. 

There’s a secret trick to all of this. And it is best told through perhaps my all time favorite religious education story, written by one of the grandmother’s of Unitarian Universalist religious education, Barbara Marshman, and titled The Toadstool and Spindly Plant: 

At the edge of the forest stood a large squat toadstool. Next to him grew a spindly plant about the same height with four leaves. 

One day the toadstool said to his companion, “Hey Skinny, I’ve been watching you. Tell me this – how come when somebody kicks a toadstool, we fall all to pieces. But when someone steps on you, you can straighten right up again as good as new?” 

The skinny plant thought for a while, and then answered, “I guess it’s because I have something down under the ground called roots. They go down deep and when I get stepped on I just hang on tight with my roots until I’m all right again.” 

“Hey, that’s a great idea,” said the toadstool. “How do you go about getting these roots?” 

“Wellllll,” said his friend slowly, “it takes a long time. I’ve been growing mine for almost a year.” 

“A year!” shouted the toadstool, “Who has got that kind of time! A whole year growing something that you can’t even see! Roots may be handy, but that’s the silliest waste of time I ever heard.” And he laughed and laughed. 

Finally, he said to his forest friend, “By the way Spindly, when you’ve got all your fancy roots grown, what do you expect to be?” 

The Spindly plant seemed to grow taller as he spoke. “Do you see that tallest oak tree standing against the winds on the top of that hill? That’s my mother and someday I’m going to be strong and tall just like her.” 

A deep religious faith is like the deep roots of the oak tree. It helps to give us strength to weather the storms of life. Being regularly engaged in multigenerational life here at UUS:E will help you grow deep roots in our faith, like the oak tree grew deep roots in the Earth. These roots will help you feel secure in your community and will ensure that you won’t be like the toadstools and fall apart at the slightest little kick. 

May we each, through multigenerational community, cultivate our roots in order to better bend and sway to the changing times. And you never know, you might wake up one day and realize that you’ve been sitting next to a superhero this whole time. 

May it be so and may we be the ones to make it so.


[1] Schade, Thomas. (2015, March 28), UU Growth: Alternative #3 to Community Building Strategy. [The Lively Tradition]. Retrieved from http://www.tomschade.com/2015/03/uu-growth-alternative-3-to-community.html?m=1

[2] Bellavance-Grace, Karen. (2013, October 3), Do Something. the full week faith.  [Full Week Faith]. Retreived from http://fullweekfaith.weebly.com/doing-something-the-full-week-faith.html