Watch “Defying the Nazis: The Sharp’s War” online now!

sharp-warThe new documentary “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War” premiered on September 20th on PBS.  3.2 million people tuned in, and we hope you were one of them. If not, it is now possible to watch it online. Unitarians Waitstill and Martha Sharp courageously answered a call to go to Europe in the months leading up to WWII. They were instrumental in saving hundreds of lives. This is their story. This is our story!

Watch “Defying the Nazis: The Sharp’s War”.

Big B Belonging and Huge H Helping

Rev. Josh Pawelek

img_0765The 2016-2017 congregational year is beginning. I am excited for what I expect will be a very normal year.

Wait, what? Normal? Who wants a normal year in ministry?

Here’s what I mean. Ever since we completed our building project six years ago, every one of those six years has brought with it some big issue or collective task that has drawn our attention away from the ordinary, the regular—the normal—conduct of our ministries. After we moved back into this building we spent about 18 months designing a new mission, vision and strategic plan. Important work, but it required us to pause. In essence, we needed to wait until we had a sense of where we wanted to go as a congregation. After that we went through a period of transition with our program staff. First our previous Director of Religious Education, Vicki Merriam announced her retirement. Then our previous Music Director, Pawel Jura, announced that he would be leaving for a new position. We designed an interim period in our religious education program, and then an interim period in our music program. We conducted extensive searches for a new Director of Religious Education and a new Music Director. Those searches overlapped somewhat, but not entirely. Last year was Gina Campellone’s first full year as our permanent Director of Religious Education. It was also Mary Bopp’s first full year as our Music Director. Last year was close to normal, but it was still a ‘breaking in’ year, still a learning year, still a transitional year.

It’s not that our regular ministries ceased during these years. Obviously they didn’t. We kept doing what we do. But we couldn’t quite focus our full attention on them because I and many of our leaders were addressing these other concerns.

But this morning, I am so happy—no, overjoyed—no, ecstatic—to say that Gina and Mary have both very successfully transitioned onto our staff. I am so done with transitions! It’s going to be a normal year in the sense that we can pay full attention to our ministries without needing to focus on some larger trend or shift or change in congregational life. Back to basics. Back to essentials. Back to our core. That’s the state of the church! Hallelujah!

What is normal? What is our core? I suppose we can identify normal by naming what we actually do: Sunday morning worship, religious education, social and environmental justice activism, pastoral care, managing our finances, caring for our buildings and grounds, organizing fundraisers. That’s one way to know what normal is. But I want to explore normal from a different angle by asking you this question:  What deep, human longing lies at the heart of your presence here?

People seek out congregations in response to all sorts of longings: community, guidance, support, inspiration, religious education for their children, a place to be still, to breathe, to grieve or to collect oneself before confronting the challenges of the coming week. Or perhaps they seek to respond in some productive way to the world’s immense hurt. These are not frivolous longings. They aren’t whims or flights of fancy. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who visited this church or any other purely on a whim, without giving it any thought, without hoping to find something meaningful. Sometimes people come to church without admitting to themselves what they’re really seeking—and maybe they don’t quite know. But when you scratch the surface, some deep human longing almost always becomes apparent. People come to congregations in response to longing. And in discerning what those longings are and attending to them, we help people more fully experience their humanity. This is true for any congregation of any faith. We help people find meaning in their lives. We help people connect with the sacred, the holy, the divine. We help people apprehend their embeddedness in some reality larger than themselves. For me, that’s one description of the core of our ministry—what we ought to be doing when things are normal: meeting people—meeting each other—in the midst of our deepest human longings.

What longing lies at the heart of your presence here?

Here’s my answer to the question. As many of you know I’ve just completed my summer vacation and study leave. I take this time every summer, and I’ve discovered over the years that summer reveals to me in stark relief a central dichotomy in the human experience: our capacity to feel connected and whole at certain times in our lives, and our capacity to feel disconnected and broken at other times. That dichotomy is always present, but I seem to notice it more and feel it more intensely during summer. This summer has been no exception. In the early weeks of July our family was living in Pittsfield, MA at Stephany’s parents’ home while Mason and Max attended camps in the area. Steph and I were able to spend time hiking in the Berkshire Hills while the boys were at camp. Those were warm days on quiet trails in still woods, flush with wildlife and the occasional panoramic vista. For a blessed two weeks there were few or no time constraints, no deadlines, no rushing from event to event. There was time for imagination, spontaneity, relaxing. There were moments of spiritual experience: oneness with Nature. Oneness with all life. Oneness with all. Connection. Wholeness. A sense of belonging in the universe. And then, July 5th, news of the latest police shooting of a black man, Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge. And then, July 6th, news of the latest police shooting of a black man, Philando Castile, near St Paul. And then, July 7th, a gunman opens fire on police protecting a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas, killing 5 and wounding 9. And then, July 15th, news of a terrorist attack in Nice, France: nearly 90 people killed as the attacker drove a heavy truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day. More police shot in Baton Rouge two days later. Learning of these acts of violence created a sense of disconnection in me, a sense of brokenness which contrasts enormously with that other experience of wholeness and connection out on the trail. And like it or not this experience of disconnection and brokenness is also a spiritual experience.

This is what I know: the gentle, sustaining, wordless power flowing through everything, connecting everything, making everything whole; and I know the hurting, grieving, violent world. I long to feel whole and connected. And I long to respond in some meaningful way to the world’s immense hurt. In more concise language, I long to belong, and I long to help. In the end, these two longings are why I went into ministry. They are why I go to church. What deep human longing lies at the heart of your presence here?

When I survey the religious landscape in the United States—and in the world to the extent that’s possible—I perceive deep and widespread spiritual longing. Theologian Harvey Cox reminds us that fifty years ago scholars were confidently predicting the demise of religion. Some of you remember or are familiar with the famous April, 1966 Time Magazine cover story proclaiming the death of God. The story examined the secularization of American society and what that implied for the decline of religious life. Yet in his 2009 book, The Future of Faith, Cox says “the soothsayers were wrong. Instead of disappearing, religion—for good or ill—is now exhibiting a new vitality all around the world and making its weight widely felt in the corridors of power.”[1] Ten days ago, Franklin Graham—son of the famous American evangelist Billy Graham—held a rally at the state capitol. I attended in solidarity with protestors who object to Graham’s position against homosexuality, as well as his anti-atheist rhetoric. What struck me was the fact that on a week-day in the rain more than 1,000 people came to hear Franklin Graham speak. Boston University Professor of Religion Stephen Prothero has described the world as “furiously religious.”[2] I sensed some of that fury in Graham’s words and in his supporters who referred to my gay, lesbian and transgender colleagues as abominations.

Certainly, some of the religious vitality and furiousness we witness across the globe emerges out of literal fury and results in extremist rage co-opting and re-interpreting various religious traditions and their sacred scriptures as calls to holy war, terrorism and murder. I suspect most of it, however, emerges out of a more humble, twofold spiritual longing: the longing for the peace and comfort that comes from experiencing or communing with a reality larger than oneself; and the longing to transform and heal, in some small way, the hurting, grieving, violent world. I sensed some of this among Franklin Graham’s supporters as well. In even more basic terms: A longing to belong, and a longing to help. My vision for a normal year in ministry is that we will respond well to these longings.

Belonging

Earlier I shared an excerpt from Rev. Susan Ritchie’s reading, “Let the Wrong Ones In.” She writes of her own experience of belonging to Unitarian Universalism. “Somewhere along the line someone left the door open for me. Someone invited me in, someone made the way for me even though there is no equivalent of me in our forebears’ imagination. And when things have been bad, when I have been bad, this tradition has carried me around in my sorry little basket and given me over and over again the invitation to relationship, the invitation to be human, as human as I dare.”[3] It is my hope, my prayer, my mission that every person who enters through our doors—whether you come for worship on Sunday morning or for a community event, whether you’re renting space in the building or providing a service, whether you’ve been here since the congregation’s founding or you’ve come for the first time this morning—will  experience a similar sense of belonging here.

Having said that, the human longing to belong goes much deeper than belonging to a congregation. Belonging to a congregation is belonging with a small b. Belonging with a big B—or Big B Belonging—is that sense of belonging to the larger human family, or belonging to the whole of life, or belonging to God or Goddess, or to some holy power. Big B Belonging is feeling at home on this earth, feeling at home in this universe, locating yourself within the interdependent web of all existence. Big B Belonging is connecting or relating to a reality larger than yourself in which you find sustenance, strength and comfort; a reality in which you find inspiration and joy; a reality that challenges you, guides you, helps you make moral decisions, calls you to be loving, to practice compassion, to seek justice.

In any year in ministry—no matter what is happening in the life of the congregation—I fully expect to focus on small b belonging. But if that’s all we do, it won’t be enough. I want your experience of small b belonging to become the foundation for that greater, more powerful, more all-encompassing experience of Big B Belonging. That is church at its best. The truth is we don’t always have the time and space to attend to Big B Belonging, but in this normal year in ministry—this year of no transitions—it is my hope that we can move from small b belonging to Big B belonging.

Helping

And then there is the longing to help. How can we help? In any congregational year there are many ways to help here at UUS:E: caring for members and friends of the congregation who are in crisis, volunteering on a committee, as a religious education teacher, on a fundraiser, providing Sunday morning hospitality, greeting, tending to the building and grounds, or working on a social justice project, or a sustainable living project, or—as many of you are doing these days—helping with the Manchester Refugee Resettlement Project working to settle a Syrian refugee family in Manchester. If you are ever unclear about how to offer help in the life of this congregation, please do not hesitate to ask me. There are so many ways to help!

Having said that, I know the longing to help goes much deeper than helping through the auspices of a congregation. So I’ll call helping here “helping with a small h.” But in this normal year I hope we can also explore Huge H Helping—the work of healing and transforming this hurting, grieving, violent world. Think for a moment about any of the common critiques of modern society that are floating around out there: that it is becoming increasingly fragmented, that we are becoming increasingly isolated from each other, that the mediating institutions that once provided the building blocks of community are weakening and disappearing, that we are polarized, that we gravitate online to like-minded people and end up living in digital bubbles of sameness, that we no longer know our neighbors, that we witness callousness, insensitivity and violence far too often without challenging it. I want us to be a congregation that inspires its members and friends to intentionally and courageously subvert these trends. I want us to be the people who fill the gaps and holes and broken places that have opened up in our society. Yes, we need you to help here. But the world needs you to help everywhere. The world needs us to take actions that overcome fragmentation and isolation. The world needs us to be generous, kind, trusting, fair, hospitable and unselfish everywhere. And in the midst of pain, violence, terror, poverty, racism and so many other abuses of power, the world needs us to be present, to respond with love and courage, to seek healing and justice. That’s Huge H Helping. I am hopeful that in this normal year of ministry—this year of no transitions—we can deepen our resolve and capacity to respond to the world’s immense hurt whether we’re doing it here at UUS:E, or as part of larger movements for social and environmental justice, or as individuals just going about our days. I am hopeful that in this normal year in ministry, we can deepen our identity as people who help when help is needed. That’s what I’m looking forward to this year.

Belonging and Helping. Two deep human longings. In the coming year, may we meet each other in the midst of these longings and discover together some great measure of their fulfillment. Amen and blessed be.

[1] Cox, Harvey, The Future of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009) p. 1.

[2] Prothero, Stephen, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperOne, 2010) p. 7.

[3] Ritchie, Susan, “Let the Wrong Ones In” in Montgomery, Kathleen, ed., Bless the Imperfect (Boston: Skinner House, 2014) p. 35.

Special Screening: “Requiem for the American Dream” with Noam Chomsky

chomskyThursday, September 29th at 3:00 and 7:00 at UUS:E
If social media is any indication, there are many of us looking to voice our opinions regarding the current state of politics. On September 29th, at 3:00pm and again at 7:00pm, you are invited to a viewing of Noam Chomsky’s documentary, “Requiem for the American Dream” followed by a discussion of how it relates to today’s political environment, led by Bill and Carolyn Emerson.  The video will spark discussion about some of the problems we are facing and how we all can get involved to start correcting them. All of us have biases, none of us have definitive answers. Perhaps through listening to one another and collaborating we can come up with some innovative ideas.  Attempting political change as individuals is nearly impossible. No one can do it alone. Only together can we make a difference. All are welcome.
Need childcare? Other questions? Please contact the UUS:E office at (860) 646-5151.

A Remote Important Region

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Josh at Ministry Days“And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, / a remote important region in all who talk”[1]—words from twentieth-century American poet, William E. Stafford. I don’t pretend to know what the poet meant by the phrase, “a remote important region,” though I suspect it was something he felt, something essential in us he imagined must be real and must be accessible. But it isn’t easily accessible. It is shadowy, remote.

As we come to the end of the 2015-2016 congregational year, I want to reflect on a theme that has caught my heart and with which I’ve been wrestling in my preaching over the past year. Maybe Stafford didn’t have words for this remote, important region; or maybe he did but he didn’t want to name it explicitly; and maybe this isn’t what he meant at all: but when I encounter this appeal “to something shadowy, / a remote, important region,” I imagine he is talking about the body. I imagine he is talking about our physical, sensual bodies that breathe deeply as they enter into worship, sit quietly and comfortably, rise to sing, light chalice flames, meditate and pray, share joys and concerns, give money, hold hands, hug and love; our physical, sensual bodies that revel in pleasure and beauty; our bodies that grow, age, decline, forget, and eventually die; our bodies that witness and sometimes experience horrors and thus hold stress, anxiety, pain; feel fear, anger, despair. Our bodies—shadowy, remote, but utterly important regions. Why remote? Because for too long our faith, like our larger western culture, has kept the body separate from the mind. You’ve heard me come back to this claim again and again this year.

We know body and mind aren’t separate. Anyone who practices yoga or Buddhist meditation has some inkling of this non-separateness, this non-duality. Mystics, healers, yogis, gurus, sages, TED talkers, therapists, life coaches and UU ministers tell us all the time of this non-separateness. I’m telling you again right now. And yet somehow, in practice, our faith, like our larger western culture, resists this knowledge. Religiously speaking, the body remains shadowy, remote. “I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty,” says Stafford, “to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.”

Let’s face it (and I don’t mean this metaphorically): the Unitarian Universalism we inherit is not a deeply embodied faith. Those of you who attended Thomas Moore’s lecture here last weekend heard me say this to him. Historically we favor mind, ideas, words, talk. We stack books by our bedsides. Our clergy start sermons quoting poems. We may not identify as Abrahamic “people of the book,” but surely we are people of the word. Whether we care to admit it or not, we’re good Protestants who privilege the word in worship, expecting preachers to prove their point through reasoned argument. So many of our congregations debate whether it’s OK to clap or shout amen or hallelujah in worship. Sometimes the music moves us so much we want to physically move, but we’re not sure it’s ok. Sex education is great for our children, but feels dicey for adults. And most importantly for my purposes this morning, we’re often unable or unwilling to move anywhere until we’ve crafted the perfect mission and vision statements. We want to get the words right. But the body doesn’t typically occur to us as a religiously significant region. It is remote. Those of you who hail from less wordy faith traditions couldn’t stay there for many good reasons, but sometimes you whisper to me privately that you miss the ritual, the darkness, the incense, the spiritedness, hands raised high, even a living, incarnate God. You miss the invitation to live religiously in the body. We stay mired in mind, which, given what we know about non-separateness, is irrational.

This is what I’ve been coming to terms with over the last year: our minds are sharp and we don’t want to lose them, but alone they are insufficient for the ministry our era demands. There is a growing dissonance between the vision our words proclaim and our bodies’ knowledge of the world. Are you one who has felt this dissonance? We envision a world made fair, a glorious, golden city, a land where justice rolls down like waters. “The moral arc of the universe is long,” we say with Parker and King, “but it bends towards justice.” Do we ever pause to consider whether these wonderful, hopeful visions are remotely realistic? Do we ever peer beneath them to explore honestly what we must do to achieve them and how radically different our lives would be if they became our reality?

Fifty people gunned down on Latinx night at a gay night club in Orlando, FL. Is it possible our vision of a world free of violence is growing not closer but more distant? When we proclaim visions of a world free of racism, sexism, homophobia, violence, or fossil fuel consumption, does something shadowy in you feel dissonance? Do you wonder in some remote region of you how on earth this is really going to happen? Do you get a flash of maybe it won’t happen? And if you do, how quickly do you put it aside? How swiftly does it rise up in you only to find no outlet, only to have your mind tell you not to speak it because it may be misunderstood, may sound cynical, faint-hearted, privileged, or worse, like you’re not a real Unitarian Universalist. Do you tell yourself you shouldn’t feel this way? And what way is it exactly? If you probe, is there hopelessness or despair churning your stomach, tensing your shoulders, dizzying your head? And might you suddenly feel guilty, ashamed or weak for feeling this way? Yet this is one way the body tries to speak in our era. Let’s learn to listen.

Let’s face it. We name wonderful visions Sunday after Sunday, year after year—and I intend to keep naming them—but the naming hasn’t been enough to stem the tide of oppression, income inequality, global warming and so much needless violence. Despite our words, and despite all our good work and the work of so many others, those things are getting worse, not better. No doubt our words help people feel hopeful—and that matters—that is part of our ministry—but let’s come down from the mountaintop of our minds and join our bodies in the desert where they’re already facing it: facing extreme weather patterns and hottest years on record; facing gun violence in the home and almost daily mass shootings; facing opioid addiction; facing mental illness; facing decreasing life expectancy, a hollowed out American middle class looking for work that doesn’t exist, political polarization; the trauma of endless war, terrorism and its threat; mass incarceration, racist police violence, modern slavery, tens of millions of stateless people; and reactionary backlash to any effort to address any of it in a principled, peaceful and just manner. Sometimes it is too much for the mind to take in, but our bodies feel it whether our minds think and reason and vision or not. Our bodies know something of how deep it goes. Just remember how you felt as news of the Orlando shooting unfolded. Unless we can integrate this body-knowledge into our religious lives, our beautiful, hopeful, visionary words will come, in time, to mean nothing.

I was moved by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a letter to his son explaining the historical and ongoing violence against Black bodies in the United States. I preached about it on Martin Luther King Sunday. Coates counsels his son—and his readers—not to become too dependent on visions of a better world. He says, “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.”[2] “You must wake up each morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all.”[3] Hard words. But he’s facing what his body knows! His words collapse the distance between body and mind. Lay the vision aside for a moment. Consult your flesh-bone-and-blood body that breathes and bleeds, laughs and cries, ponders and thinks, makes love, gives birth, ages, dies. What is the body capable of doing in this moment? That question matters as much as what our vision is. Coates’ answer is struggle. It sounds hard. It sounds barren. But he offers to his son as a path to integrity and wholeness. “You are called to struggle,” he says, “not because it assures you of victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.” The more I sit with this, the more I realize I find it so much more hopeful than repeating the words of a vision whose realization grows more distant with each passing year. 

Bishop John Selders of Hartford’s Amistad United Church of Christ is a great friend of this congregation. He was deeply moved by his experiences in Ferguson, MO in the months following the police killing of Michael Brown. He returned from a visit there in December, 2014 and, at a meeting of clergy to discuss convening yet another dialogue with police he said “No. I’m done trying to talk the system out of racism.” What he learned in Ferguson, and what he was teaching us is that it’s time for the creative use of our bodies in the struggle against racism. It’s time for the physical disruption of business as usual. It’s time to take streets. These are the lessons of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. Social justice movements need our bodies as much—or more—than they need our words. As one who’s invested much in the talk of social justice, it was hard for me to transition to body-based struggle. I’ve named that from this pulpit a number of times. I’ve always been affirmed for using words. Would embodied struggle receive the same affirmation? But what a difference it has made for me to say nothing with my mouth and everything with my body, to stand in a street blocking traffic because Black Lives Matter, to spend an evening in jail. And how much more powerful the words that finally do come when the mind speaks what the body knows.

I’ve come to understand over the years many Unitarian Universalists feel paralyzed when it comes to social justice work, not because they don’t agree with the various causes, but because the distance between body and mind is so great. It’s counter-cultural for us, but it’s time to start naming the concerns, pain, anxiety, shakiness, nervousness, hopelessness and despair that can live in the body. This is the leadership our faith needs now. As we name what our bodies know, we give permission for others not only to name it, but to sing, dance, pray and laugh it. As we name what our bodies know, we’ll be making this important region less remote.

There’s a story making its way around the internet. Bill Graver sent it to me a few weeks ago. The teacher asks a group of young students to list the seven wonders of the world. They name the usual Pyramids, Great Wall, Taj Majal, etc. One student isn’t sure she understands. “Well, tell us what you have; we’ll help,” says the teacher. The student hesitates but then says, “it’s different for different people, but the seven wonders of the world are that we can see, taste, smell, hear, touch, feel, and love.” Friends: before we appeal to our lofty, beautiful visions of a world made fair, Let us learn to consult our bodies? The question is not only What do I think about what’s happening? The question is What does the body know about what’s happening? And a corollary: What is the body capable of doing in this moment? And as we ask, let’s be ready to encounter and welcome the hopelessness and despair that lives in our bodies. Let’s face it. Let’s see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it, feel it, love it. We may have to reign in our vision, but we will move farther than we thought possible.

And let us remember: the body doesn’t only hold the world’s pain. It holds the world’s joy too. In a faith community that understands the body as religiously significant, not only does our hopelessness and despair become speakable and thus more manageable, our joy and ecstasy become speakable too. Bringing the body in opens avenues for eye contact, touch, color, fragrance, dance, art, intuition, dreaming; for ‘let’s break bread together,’ for the creative occupation of space in the service of social justice struggle, and for the rediscovery of ritual, darkness, incense, spiritedness, hands raised high in praise, a living, incarnate God and a reenchanted world.

May our bodies find their home in our faith. May we learn to hear their voice. May we struggle for what matters. And may our lives be honorable and sane.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Stafford, William E., “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” See: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/58264.

[2] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015) p. 70.

[3] Coates, Between the World and Me, pp. 70-71.

On the Art of Being Lost

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”[1] These words from the Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau ring true to me. They echo the wisdom of more ancient spiritual teachers. The Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, said “Do not be an embodier of fame; do not be a storehouse of schemes; do not be an undertaker of projects…. Embody to the fullest what has no end and wander where there is no trail.”[2] Jesus said “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[3] These teachers are not referring to loss in the sense of losing something or someone. They mean lost as a state of being: not knowing where you are, where you’re going; not knowing what to say, how to act; not knowing how to get back to the familiar, or if it’s even possible to do so; not feeling the solid ground beneath you. Being lost can be frightening, overwhelming, but it also offers blessings. As it takes us out of our everyday experience, away from the familiar, the comfortable, the routine, it invites us to encounter the world from a different perspective. It challenges us to find sources of strength and creativity in us we didn’t know we possessed. It may even require us to ask for help, to rely on the kindness of strangers. Our world actually gets larger. In the process we learn something about ourselves. We wake up, we stretch, we grow, we break through, we transform. These are blessings. Getting lost from time to time is a good thing.

This makes sense to me, but I cannot remember ever being lost and thinking, Oh, great, I’m encountering the world from a different perspective. What a wonderful growth opportunity! The first thought that occurs to me when I’m lost isn’t fit for the pulpit! One of my earliest childhood memories is of being lost in a grocery store. I must have been three years old. I became separated from my mother and brothers. I remember crying very loudly. In fact, I have a memory of being outside of myself, watching myself crying from a few feet away. I was afraid but I suspect there was more than fear in my body. It was my first conscious experience of separation from my mother without knowing where she was or how I could get back to her. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that she might be gone. 

Then there was a family hike. I can’t quite remember which summer it was or which national park—it was either Yellowstone or Kejimkujik in Nova Scotia. My mother was nervous from the start, mainly due to the signs instructing us what to do in the event we encountered bears. My father, perpetually unconcerned, led us onward to a supposedly beautiful lake out in the wilderness where only the most experienced campers camped. We eventually found a small pond full of duckweed and decided that either the map was not drawn to scale, or we were lost. It turned out to be both.

But perhaps the most embarrassing experience of being lost was on my honeymoon in Italy. Steph and I were staying in a hotel in the town of Sarno about an hour’s drive east of Naples. We had spent the day exploring Pompeii and didn’t start heading back until after dark. Steph fell asleep as I drove. I soon stopped recognizing landmarks along the highway, and realized I had no idea where we were. I took a random exit. At the bottom of the ramp was a toll booth. I started speaking to the attendant in English, a reasonable thing to do since many Italians speak English. This Italian was not one of them. But instead of waking Stephany, who is relatively fluent in Italian, I panicked. I started speaking louder English to the attendant. This strategy was unsuccessful. It got worse from there. I won’t go into details, except to say it was not one of my finer moments. Steph eventually woke up. She had a long conversation with the attendant in Italian, which I suspect had very little to do with directions, and very much to do with me. We paid the toll and continued our journey. We knew from the attendant that we were heading in the right direction, though we still didn’t know how to get where we were going. As I remember it, we came upon Sarno by sheer luck. It was a long night.

All this is to say that even though the words of Thoreau, Chuang Tzu and Jesus resonate with me; even though I know being lost offers certain blessings, I don’t like the way it feels. Which is why I had originally not planned to read Thoreau’s famous words in praise of being lost, but rather a more cautionary tale from the American writer and environmentalist Barry Lopez entitled “Within Birds’ Hearing.” In this story the narrator gets lost hiking in the Mojave Desert. It’s grim. “By evening I was winded, irritated, dry hearted,” he explains after many days of wandering. “I would scrape out a place on the ground and fall asleep, too exhausted to eat. My clothing, thin and worn, began to disintegrate. I would awaken dreamless, my tongue swollen from thirst.”[4] He doesn’t speak of the wonderful things he’s learning about himself. He says, “I was overwhelmed by my own foolishness …. I knew the depths of my own stupidity.”[5] He may be having a spiritual experience, but it’s one of suffering. He may be learning about himself, but it’s a lesson of human folly and frailty. If there’s a blessing, it’s that he didn’t die. And this feels really important to me: I want to speak of the spiritual blessings of being lost, but I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s never wise to romanticize wilderness experiences. There is no way to be truly lost and entirely safe at the same time. Anyone who’s ever been truly lost in any kind of wilderness—whether in Nature or in some metaphorical wilderness—the depths of depression or grief or poverty or war—knows it can be terrifying. Lost people don’t always return. The blessings of being lost may not be worth the cost.

Well, Mary Bopp was having none of this. We started working with the Lopez story on Tuesday and she said “you’re taking all the fun out of it.” Unlike me, Mary is drawn to being lost. She told me about the dissonance she feels when visiting a foreign city with friends who want to plan the day in great detail. Rather than following paths prescribed by the local tourism bureau, Mary prefers to wander where there is no trail, to get off the beaten path. She says she enjoys the experience of solo hiking on a trail she’s never been on before. She also told me about her favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who often wrote in an early twentieth-century, late Romantic style in which the music continually modulates from key to key, so that the listener keeps losing their sense of the tonal center. Just when the listener feels like they’re arriving somewhere, the next modulation takes them in a different direction. They get lost. Different keys feel differently, offer different colors, different qualities. A modulation brings the listener into a new musical landscape. Mary loves this! She says it feels like it can go on forever, that there’s something eternal to it. She gets lost in it.

Mary’s appreciation of being lost reminds me of the historian Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She blends memoir, cultural history, nature writing and philosophy into a prolonged and varied reflection on the many ways we can be lost—lost in thought, in love, in a good story, in a city, in nature; lost as one comes of age; lost in the sense of not knowing entirely who one’s ancestors are. Solnit writes: “I love going out of my way, beyond what I know, and finding my way back a few extra miles, by another trail, with a compass that argues with the map.” She writes in praise of “nights alone in motels in remote western towns where I know no one and no one I know knows where I am, nights with strange paintings and floral spreads and cable television that furnish a reprieve from my own biography.” She writes in praise of “moments when I say to myself as feet or car clear a crest or round a bend, I have never seen this place before.”[6]

So let me pull back from my concern with being dangerously lost. Yes, it can happen. Yes, we can become so lost we may never return. But we also cannot limit our lives in fear and expect to grow spiritually. Solnit says “the word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…. I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.” I commend to you the practice of disbanding your army. I commend to you the practice of going beyond what you know. And with all seriousness but tongue somewhere near cheek, I implore you to get lost.

I remember hiking with my boys when they were younger, taking them a few hundred yards off the trail, blindfolding them, spinning them around, taking the blindfolds off, then instructing them to find their way back to the trail. At first it was an exercise in frustration. I would have to give them clues. But eventually they learned to look for landmarks as we walked away from the trail. Find the landmark. Find the way back. Over time they learned to pay attention to their surroundings, to observe and remember details in the landscape.

What trail in your life might you intentionally wander away from blindfolded and spinning? What new neighborhood, town or city might you explore without a map? What new experience do you want—or need—to have? Or consider the life-paths that lay ahead of you. Might there be one that excites you but feels just out of reach or more unknown, more difficult, more risky? Is there a way to start down that path even though you’re not sure where it leads? Or might there be some stasis that has overtaken your life; you know you need to break out of it, but breaking out would mean leaving the familiar behind, being lost for a while. Perhaps now is the time to wander where there’s no trail.

The benefits of intentionally being lost may be as simple as learning a new place, finding a new route, meeting new people, acquiring new skills, or just experiencing the joy of a nice surprise. But they may be more complex: discovering new dimensions of you, finding reservoirs of creativity, strength and resilience you didn’t know were in you. And they may come on a more explicitly spiritual level. Mystics throughout the centuries have described their ecstatic experiences of the divine in the same way we might describe being lost—entering the unknown, the dark, the cloud; feeling ungrounded, unanchored, dislocated; soaring, flying, falling, vertigo. For some being lost is a profound spiritual experience. Solnit suggests that “in relinquishing certainty we approach, if only fleetingly, the divine.”[7]

I’m suggesting we practice being lost. But I’m also mindful that we practice for a reason. Being lost is an inevitable human experience. I’m not referring to getting lost in the actual wilderness, though that is certainly a possibility. I’m referring to being lost in our lives: lost in suffering, in illness, in decline; lost when everything around us is changing; lost when we realize life isn’t unfolding as we hoped. It happens. We lose our confidence, our sense of purpose, our sense of direction. We can feel lost in our schooling, in our careers, in retirement. We can feel lost because we know what we have to do, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. We lose those we love and become lost in grief. The greatest benefit that comes from practicing being lost is that when we become lost for reasons beyond our control, we have some knowledge of how to be and what to do. We know to trust ourselves more than the map which may not be drawn to scale. We know to look for landmarks. We know panicking doesn’t help, though it may be hard to avoid. We know it may be a time to disband our armies. We know openness matters. We know patience matters. We know breathing deeply matters. We know it may be dark and cloudy for a long time, but that we can live with not knowing for longer.

When we’re lost, our world gets larger. I didn’t tell you that when I was lost and crying in the grocery store at age 3, a stranger helped me find my mother. And I didn’t tell you that when our family was lost in the woods, and we really didn’t know which way to go, a young couple happened by and gave us directions back to our car. I won’t say they saved our lives, but their chance appearance definitely kept us from spending a night in the deep woods. And I didn’t tell you that in Barry Lopez’s story about being lost in the Mojave Desert, his narrator is ultimately saved, as he puts it, by “the unceasing kindness of animals.” “Not till we are lost … do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” said Thoreau. Perhaps that is the greatest blessing of being lost: not always, but more often than not, there is someone there to help. Our world gets larger. The extent of our relations is literally infinite, but we forget this. Sometimes being lost is what helps us remember.

 Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1960) p. 118.

[2] Chuang Tzu, in Watson, Burton, tr., Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) p. 94.

[3] Matthew 10:39 (NRSV).

[4] Lopez, Barry, “Introduction: Within Birds’ Hearing,” Field Notes (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) p. 5.

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

[6] Solnit, Rebecca, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Penguin Group, 2005).

[7] “A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2005. See: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/08/08/a-field-guide-to-getting-lost.

Sexism: Still Way Too Normal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

feministTwo phenomena—women’s basic economic inequality and widespread sexual violence against women—should surprise nobody. They are well-documented and receive considerable media attention. For every dollar men earn in the United States, women on average earn 79 cents.[1] In 2012 18.3% of women reported having experienced rape at some point in their lives and 19% of female college students reported an experience of rape or attempted rape since entering college. [2] Yet huge swaths of American society at best pay no attention or pay attention but don’t care and, at worst, affirm the data as consistent with a conservative, patriarchal world-view—often articulated as God’s will—that assigns women a subordinate status to men and, while claiming to honor women, imagines them not as legitimate wage-earners, not as in control of their own bodies, not as self-determining, moral decision-makers, not as heads of families, but rather as, essentially, the property, the play-things, the servants of men. This may sound overstated, but the persistence of the wage gap, sexual violence, behavioral double standards for women in the workplace and politics, inequities in funding for sports programs, inequities in funding for health research, the hyper-sexualization of women throughout society, multi-billion dollar industries causing and then preying on women’s insecurities about body image, weight, and beauty, increasing rates of sex trafficking and other forms of slavery in every state in the union, and a constant wave of smaller, daily anti-woman indignities suggest to me that the old view of women as fundamentally less human than men remains inordinately powerful in society.

I searched for “feminism” on YouTube. For every solidly, pro-feminist video in the queue there were at least ten misinformed, misogynistic, Make America Great Again, anti-feminist rants. I’m not sure what that says about my algorithms, but I have no hesitancy in stating there is a war on women.

This sermon is about sexism, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to say it was not my idea. A large group of bidders who wanted me to preach on women’s issues won this sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. Rhiannon Smith and Linda Duncan led this group and have been forwarding articles and statistics to me for the past 6 months. Rhiannon said, “We applaud the recent attention given in Sunday services to racial injustices in light of current events. We think that gender injustices have received less attention but also are central to our social justice advocacy as UUs. Specifically, we would like for the service to focus on the marginalization of women in the workforce, politics, and other arenas of power. For example, the service might address the wage gap, the underrepresentation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and politics, micro-aggressions against women, the disproportionate amount of attention paid to female politicians’ clothing and appearance rather than their ideas, [and] demeaning female politicians in the media….  We had 26 contributors in support of this service, so clearly this is a topic of importance to many people.”

I have preached on racism many, many times. I have preached on homophobia, on transphobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism and on the experiences of people with disabilities. But I don’t remember ever preaching a straight up, let’s talk about sexism sermon. I have preached on issues understood historically as “women’s issues” such as abortion and sexual abuse. I’ve preached about violence against women, the plight of incarcerated women, the challenges facing the primarily female personal care assistant workforce, and the need for paid sick days, family medical leave, a higher minimum wage and gun control which can all be framed as women’s issues. But I cannot remember ever preaching a sermon with the word sexism in its title. I’m embarrassed to say this sermon was not my idea because it should have been—and it should have been a long time ago. I identify as a feminist. I believe sexism is real. I believe I understand sexism well for one who doesn’t experience it. I believe sexism must be confronted. I believe our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to confront it. I am grateful for being challenged to confront sexism in this way.

I’ve been reflecting on why preaching on sexism has felt less urgent to me than preaching on other oppressions. One reason is that Unitarian Universalism had made enormous strides in confronting its own sexism by the time I entered the ministry. Such confrontation began in earnest in 1977 when the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly passed the Women and Religion resolution.[3] One of the more immediate results of that resolution was the removal of sexist and male-centered language from our institutional life. One of its long-term results was the achievement of gender parity in the professional ministry by the late 1990s.[4] That achievement has fundamentally transformed Unitarian Universalism. As a man coming into a profession in 1999 where half my colleagues were women, I had to be attentive to sexist stereotypes and power imbalances in a way I wouldn’t have been if the ministry had continued as a primarily male profession. I know this because I hear my elder male colleagues talk about what it was like in the 60s and 70s. There was no expectation that they would pay attention to sexism, let alone pay attention to it in their ministries and in our faith. And as women started coming into the ministry, there was enormous tension. How do you include women in a club that has heretofore been vastly male?

A major, visible milestone we haven’t achieved in Unitarian Universalism is the election of a woman as UUA president. That glass ceiling will be shattered at the June, 2017 General Assembly when one of three women running for the position will be elected. Will we be a post-sexist religion at that point? No. In fact, once we’ve elected a woman president, we may very quickly become more aware of how deeply our sexism runs.

Another reason the struggle against sexism has felt less urgent to me is that in Unitarian Universalism I have always been surrounded by strong, outspoken, talented, insightful women. I’m not looking for points. I’m stating a fact. In the congregations I’ve served there have been women doctors, lawyers, athletes, writers, poets, politicians, policy-makers, activists, mathematicians, engineers, psychotherapists, college professors, soldiers, research scientists, marketers, computer programmers, IT specialists, ministers, business owners, photographers, sculptors, biologists, chemists and corporate leaders, not to mention many women working in more traditionally female roles as teachers, nurses, social workers, homeschoolers, and secretaries—and the vast majority of these women, while pursuing these careers, have been raising children, running households and volunteering at church in every role from Sunday morning greeter to congregation president. I’ve been surrounded by strong women, and I am clear that the success of my ministry has depended on their presence.

1960s and 70s second wave feminism envisioned women living, learning, working and earning in all the ways men were accustomed to living, learning, working and earning. While that vision certainly has not become a concrete reality for all women, I see evidence of it having come to fruition in the lives of many Unitarian Universalist women—in their education, careers, earning power relative to women of earlier generations, the life choices they’ve been able to make and their leadership roles in society. But it is precisely the success of that vision in the lives of many UU women that has dulled my sense of urgency around addressing sexism directly. The problem of sexism is slightly less visible here.

But it’s real, and I take it as a truth that regardless of any woman’s education, career, family planning decisions, race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability or age, all women encounter a bedrock sexism in our society. The more privileged a woman is, perhaps the more she is able to withstand sexism’s most pernicious effects—though even that isn’t a given—but I’m convinced no woman avoids it entirely. Sexism is still way too normal.

It’s not only in those big statistics: 79 cents to the man’s dollar; 1 in 5 women sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Sexism also resides in day-to-day experiences, little slights that add up to a gendered burden men don’t carry. Linda Duncan referred to this as the “social inequality” that comes with being a woman. She talked about micro-aggressions: harassment on the street and in the office; the assumption that women are overly emotional; the strong, decisive woman perceived as bitchy while her male counterpart is praised for the same behavior; the experience of offering a good idea, only to have it ignored until a man offers it a few minutes later; the hyper-focus on looks, clothes and weight; and the ubiquitous, “give me a smile, honey.”

Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s public art series, “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” is an effort to combat street harassment. “Starting in her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood,” quotes a 2013 Ms. Magazine article, “Fazlalizadeh has peppered walls with black-and-white drawings of brazenfaced women accompanied by bold slogans such as, ‘Women are not outside for your entertainment.’ When a man tells a woman to smile,” says Fazlalizadeh, “he’s expecting her to entertain him. ‘It’s the same as saying, Dance for me; jump for me. Smile is never really a question; it’s a command.’”[5] Even if the man who asks a woman to smile believes he’s just being friendly, he is still telling her what to do with her body.

I found a video on You Tube by a young women named Whitney Way Thore telling the story of trying to buy a pack of gum at a convenient store. The clerk told her to smile. She was angry. People suggested he was just trying to be helpful. She pointed out that helping typically doesn’t require the one being helped to do something for the helper. “I want to help you, so let me tell you what to do with your body.” Thore calls it a “manipulative power play.”[6]

It’s a manifestation of that old, patriarchal world-view that says women are property, playthings, servants. The man may not even realize he’s acting out of that world-view, but he doesn’t need to know. It’s still operating. For women it is exhausting.

Why, because in all these situations women have to make a calculation. Am I safe? Should I say something? Should I ignore it? Should I confront it? Is it me? That’s the gendered burden men don’t carry—the stress of having to calculate. Often the easiest, safest path is non-confrontation, finding some way to de-escalate the situation, but that takes a toll too. In an article for Huffpost Women entitled “That Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About,” blogger Gretchen Kelly says, “We have all learned, either by instinct or by trial and error, how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable. How to avoid angering a man or endangering ourselves. We have all, on many occasions, ignored an offensive comment. We’ve all laughed off an inappropriate come-on. We’ve all swallowed our anger when being belittled or condescended to. It doesn’t feel good. It feels icky. Dirty. But we do it because to not do it could put us in danger or get us fired or labeled a bitch. So we usually take the path of least precariousness.”[7] In an article in The Guardian Thursday entitled “The Struggle to Speak Up: How Women Are Pushed to De-escalate Sexist Incidents,” Rose Hackman says “To the initial weight of having to deal with … acts of dominance is the added mental drain of having to evaluate how best to deal with it and not risk a violent backlash. De-escalating is just another form of the “emotional work” women provide with little recognition of its ongoing exertion and toll.”[8]

Earlier we heard Jenn Richard sing Ani DiFranco’s “Not a Pretty Girl.” This is a resistance song—a declaration of non-compliance with sexism, a proclamation that she refuses to play the roles society assigns to women. “I am not a pretty girl, / That is not what I do. / I ain’t no damsel in distress, / And I don’t need to be rescued.”[9] Taking a cue from this song, why not as individuals and as a congregation adopt an attitude and a posture and a program of resistance to sexism? Many of us already resist in big and small ways. Why not be more explicit, more intentional? Why not proclaim and celebrate our resistance? Why not say, “anti-sexism is central to who we are?”

Unitarian Universalism has made great strides in addressing its own sexism. But knowing that our past achievements can dull our sense of urgency, let’s take a bold new look at ourselves, a deeper look: how might sexism be operating in our collective life? Let’s commit to being a place where women don’t have to calculate, aren’t responsible for the emotional work of de-escalating sexism, and can name it not only without fear of repercussion, but with the expectation that people will want to learn more. And let’s be a place where men are encouraged to take on the gendered burden, where men are skilled in anti-sexist language and behavior and know strategies for resistance as allies to women. And let’s be a place where we have those nuanced conversations, where we understand how different women experience sexism differently—how sexism is different for white women than it is for women of color, different for straight women than it is for lesbians, different for trans women, poor women, rich women, developing nation women, women with disabilities, women with and without children, married women, unmarried women, divorced women, elder women, young women, girls, fat women, skinny women—let’s strive to understand the many ways different women experience sexism.

And let’s develop a women’s social justice platform. We have platforms for racial justice, GLBT justice, environmental justice. We ought to have a  women’s justice platform including equal pay for equal work, an end to sexual and other forms of violence, paid sick days and family medical leave, a living wage, an end to the taxation of menstrual products and diapers, reproductive choice and full access to reproductive health services and information and—relevant to CT politics during the recent legislative session—knowing that a woman is five times more likely to be murdered by a partner when the partner owns a gun, a women’s justice platform must include removal of all guns from the partner’s possession if a judge grants a woman a restraining order, even if that restraining order is temporary.

Let’s look out into the wider community at the organizations that are doing anti-sexist and women’s justice work and figure out ways to partner with them. And if we find that there are many different organizations working on many different women’s issues, let’s be part of the effort to unite them, so that we can resist together, transform together—so that there is a clear, unmistakable, unapologetic social justice movement for women. Let’s be fully in the movement to end sexism here and everywhere.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Hill, Catherine, “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap”  (The American Association of University Women, Spring, 2016) p. 7. See: http://www.aauw.org/files/2016/02/SimpleTruth_Spring2016.pdf.

[2] “Sexual Violence: Facts as a Glance,” Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention, 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/sv-datasheet-a.pdf.

[3] See the text of the 1977 UUA business resolution, “Women and Religion” at http://www.uua.org/statements/women-and-religion.

[4]For more on the long-term impact of the Women and Religion resolution, see French, Kimberly, “Thirty years of feminist transformation: The 1977 Women and Religion resolution transformed the Unitarian Universalist Association” UU World (Summer, 2007): http://www.uuworld.org/articles/thirty-years-feminist-transformation.

[5] Little, Anita, “If These Walls Could Talk: Fighting Harassment With Street Art,” Ms. Magazine, Fall, 2013. See: http://www.msmagazine.com/Fall2013/national.html.

[6] Thore, Whitney Way, “Stop Telling Me to Smile.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RWz9D0166k.

[7] Kelly, Gretchen, “That Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About,” Huffpost Women, November 23, 2015. See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gretchen-kelly/the-thing-all-women-do-you-dont-know-about_b_8630416.html#sthashSvFmyyeWdpuf.

[8] Hackman, Rose, “The Struggle to Speak Up: How Women Are Pushed to De-escalate Sexist Incidents,” The Guardian, May 12, 2016. See: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/12/women-sexual-harrassment-sexism-deescalation?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail.

[9] DiFranco, Annie, “Not a Pretty Girl.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cZ-nAfSkW4&list=RD3cZ-nAfSkW4#t=50.

Congratulations to the Rev. Drew Moeller

On Sunday, May 1, the Rev. Drew Moeller, a long-time member of UUS:E, was called by unanimous vote to be the settled minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor, ME. Congratulations Drew!!!! We are so proud!!!

Rev. Drew at the Bangor UU!

Rev. Drew at the Bangor UU!

 

Once Upon a Time, We Were Together

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Image by Nancy Madar

Image by Nancy Madar

“Once upon a time, we were together”—words from Indian-born, Canadian poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar. “Follow the trail / To young Douglas firs, tree farmed, / close to power lines, radio towers visible, / western Hemlocks, also planted. / coastal streams built over, where coho once, pink once, chinook, / chum, salmon, steelhead— / Once upon a time, we were together.”[1] These words—like words of so many poets, novelists, artists, theologians, philosophers, prophets, healers, shamans, clergy, naturalists, farmers, elders—like so many words written, spoken, sung, imagined and dreamed throughout the modern era—express profound longing for something that has been lost. Here the poet notes lines of trees planted like power lines, in even rows upon land that is neither linear nor even. She notes how the world has built itself over ancient coastal streams where so many species of salmon once ran. But it’s not just that the trees now stand in straight lines rather than in natural groves, copses and thickets; it’s not just that streams and salmon no longer run—these losses are lamentable enough. She’s naming deeper, hidden loss—difficult to feel, and more poignant when we finally do feel it. She’s naming the lost human relationship with trees, with streams, with salmon. “Once upon a time, we were together.”

That’s the beginning of a story—“once upon a time, we were together.” It’s the human story. It’s our story. It is my prayer that this story will circle ‘round, ending where it began. And in the interest of the story ending where it began, I want to introduce you to the work of Morris Berman, specifically his 1981 book, The Reenchantment of the World. Berman describes himself as a sacred humanist. He is a historian, cultural critic, philosopher, professor, novelist, poet, pundit, blogger, the author of many books, including 2012’s Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline,[2] and a leader of the Wafers.[3] W-A-F: ‘Why America Failed.’ One who subscribes to the notion that America has failed is a Wafer. When he wrote Reenchantment Berman was—or at least seemed—hopeful that the industrialized West would undergo a revolution in culture, society, politics, economics and science necessary to avert the kinds of crises we currently face. Today he is differently hopeful. He puts his hope in what he calls New Monastic Individuals. He is not hopeful about the United Sates. He offers a searing critique of America and its people. In a recent interview he said “I’m not an optimist…. [The United States] is going … the way of the Roman empire and [will] just fall apart.”[4]

I asked him online if he could offer some reflections on the impact of Reenchantment since 1981. He wrote back to me, “My Dear Reverend,” and offered 1,000 apologies for not having time to offer such reflections. He was warm and welcoming. He hoped my flock appreciates how I’m using the book. I asked if he could give me a one-word answer—do you still stand by the book, yes or no? He said “yes, but with a lot of modification.”

The Reenchantment of the World was extraordinarily meaningful to me. It is the book I needed to read now. It woke me up to knowledge that has always been present in me, but which I struggle to keep before me. It’s the knowledge, essentially, that once upon a time, we were together. Once upon a time we human beings were together in mind and body, a seamless whole. Once upon a time, we human being were together with Nature, a seamless whole. And once upon a time, Nature and divinity were together, a seamless whole. Berman says: “The view of nature which predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this environment. The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging…. Member[s] of this cosmos [were] not … alienated observer[s] of it but … direct participant[s] in its drama. [Their] personal destiny was bound with its destiny, and this relationship gave meaning to life. This type of consciousness—participating consciousness—involves merger, or identification with one’s surroundings, and bespeaks a psychic wholeness that has long since passed from the scene.”[5]

But I didn’t just wake up to this knowledge of ancient, inherent togetherness. I woke up to the fact that we modern western people lost it. We lost this oneness of which poets, prophets and philosophers speak. We lost participating consciousness. We’re not even sure what that term means. We talk about an interdependent web, about everything coming from the same primordial, Big Bang fireball, about being star stuff, about being once cosmic family, one earth, one human family, everyone and everything related to everyone and everything else. But these are just words that live in our minds. They enable us to think about relatedness, but they don’t have the power to bring us fully, viscerally, sensually into an actual, ongoing felt experience of relatedness. Participating consciousness has that power. We lost it. And I’m convinced that in the deepest places in us we long for it because, in the deepest places in us we know: once upon a time, we were together.

In the first half of Reenchantment Berman analyzes how the architects of Modernity—the people who established modern science, technology, industry, capitalism, nation states, and corporate and governmental dominance of the environment—separated mind from body, separated humanity from Nature, separated earth from divinity. However, the early modernists never disproved the reality of participating consciousness. They didn’t need to. They rejected it and proceeded to build institutions, structures and systems that denied it. We’ve inherited those institutions, structures and systems. Understand this: The sustained, visceral human experience of oneness with Nature didn’t go away because it was proven to be wrong. It went away because it stood in the way of modern science’s need to separate body and mind. It went away because it stood in the way of capitalism’s need to dominate Nature. It went away because it stood in the way of modernist Christianity’s need to civilize the so-called heathens. It went away with a sword at its back, a gun at its head and flames lapping around its feet. 

"Head East" by James Starkey “Head East” by James Starkey (Itaziptco Lakota)

“Head East” by James Starkey “Head East” by James Starkey (Itaziptco Lakota)

A horrific example of this in more recent American history is the Indian School movement which forced Indian children—accustomed to a more earth-based, participating consciousness—to attend boarding schools where missionaries stripped them of their language, culture, religion and relationship to Nature and imposed modern consciousness on them. Berman doesn’t mention this example, but he does argue that widespread mental illness in our culture is a symptom of the loss of participating consciousness. That’s an overstatement, to be sure. Cultures with participating consciousness also have mental illness. But someone on his blog quoted writer Kent Nerburn’s claim that high rates of suicide in Canada’s First Nation communities are the ongoing result of “full-blown cultural PTSD, born of the boarding … school experiences.”[6] The loss of participating consciousness can make some people and some communities sick for generations. Berman says “for more than 99 percent of human history, the world was enchanted and [humans] saw [themselves] as an integral part of it. The complete reversal of this perception in a mere four hundred years or so has destroyed the continuity of the human experience and the integrity of the human psyche. It has very nearly wrecked the planet as well.”[7]

 400 years after the dawn of Modernity, most westerners—I include us in the category of ‘most westerners’—have been socialized into a culture that cannot and will not recognize participating consciousness. We don’t know what it is. We don’t have words for it. We don’t know what it feels like. We don’t know how we could be human differently. Berman theorizes about it, but he too is a creature of Modernity. We can romanticize about what pre-conquest Native American culture was like and how it supported participating consciousness. We can romanticize about what pre-modern European culture was like and how it supported participating consciousness. I get chills up my spine recalling that Isaac Newtown was secretly an alchemist, immersed in the older, occult world-view in which human beings permeated Nature. But we can’t really know. At best, we catch brief glimpses—in dreams and intuitions, in our inspired moments of creativity, in the endorphin rush of exercise or yoga, in those exhilarating moments of communion with Nature we describe as spiritual—but it’s always only a glimpse, always fleeting, never enough.

I’ve always said: “spiritual experiences are fleeting.” But I think that’s a lie. This is one of the ways Reenchanment has woken me up. The only reason these experiences are fleeting is because there’s no room for them in our modern consciousness. They don’t fit. They’re strange. They’re abnormal. But imagine a culture with a different philosophical foundation, a different relationship to Earth, different assumptions about what constitutes scientific knowledge and how we obtain it, different economic relationships, different corporate priorities. In such a culture such experiences might not be fleeting at all, might not come only at the margins of awareness or the edges of sleep; might actually be more … normal. Imagine that! That’s the revolution Berman was imagining: the emergence of an entirely different culture that could support and affirm participating consciousness. Our hope, he said, “lies in a reenchantment of the world.”[8]

In the second half of Reenchantment Berman offers the metaphysical basis for such a world. [9] He proposes a holistic, cybernetic theory of Mind, grounded in the research of the cultural anthropologist, Gregory Bateson. It’s a sweeping, multifaceted proposal drawing on studies of childbirth, child-rearing, learning theories, alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous, analogue vs. digital knowledge, Schizophrenia, tribal rituals, circuitry and coding, the principle of incompleteness…. the scope is mindboggling.[10]

One message I take from it all is that a culture that can experience a reenchanted world will be holistic. Holism is the idea that every component of a system is in relationship with every other component of that system. One cannot understand the whole by examining the parts in isolation from each other. Breaking a thing down into its constituent parts for study is called atomism, and it lives at the heart of the Modern world-view. It assumes the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. But to truly understand the whole one must examine relationships, systems, processes, energy flows. Because it includes these things, the whole is inevitably larger than the sum of its parts. In 1981 Berman saw signs of an emerging holistic culture in feminism, the environmental movement, racial self-determination movements, and in religious renewal, which I suspect referred to the increasing American interest in eastern religions, yoga, Native American spirituality and paganism.[11] He said these movements “represent the repressed ‘shadows’ of industrial civilization. The feminine, the wilderness, the child, the body, the creative mind and heart, the occult, and the peoples of nonurban, regional peripheries … that have never bought into the ethos of the industrial heartland.”[12] What unites these various movements is recovery. “Their goal,” he says, “is the recovery of our bodies, our health, our sexuality, our natural environment, our archaic traditions, our unconscious mind, our rootedness in the land, our sense of community and connectedness to one another.” [13]  

“Final Planting” by Sharon Gresk (Bicycle wheels re-purposed as a trellis for climbing vines–a symbol of recovery!)

“Final Planting” by Sharon Gresk (Bicycle wheels re-purposed as a trellis for climbing vines–a symbol of recovery!)

This sounds oddly akin to what we’re trying to do in this Unitarian Universalist congregation. Those of you taking the class on Thomas Moore’s A Religion of One’s Own, for example, are doing recovery work. We’re exploring dreams, sensuality, eros, creativity, wilderness, community; we’re exploring how to access the unconscious by paying attention to intuition, hunches, art, music and serendipitous occurrences. We’re knitting mind and body back together. But how does this recovery lead to participating consciousness, to an ongoing, intimate, felt relationship with Nature? How does this work reenchant the world?

A leap is required here, a leap out of the Modern mind. Are you ready? Ask yourself: what is the unconscious? What is your unconscious? Can you give a definition of the unconscious that adequately explains what it really is, where it resides, what it’s made of, why it seems so opaque, so difficult to visit? What blocks us from just peering into it? Is that what we’ve lost—the capacity to peer into our unconscious? No. Here’s the leap: We’ve been tricked into believing there’s a vast, numinous realm hidden in ourselves and that it’s healthy to peer into to the extent we can, because it is the source, the cause of our neuroses and worse. That’s a modern idea—that we each possess our own, discreet vast, hidden realm called the unconscious. It’s a lie. Only the tiniest, most miniscule portion of what we call the unconscious lies immediately within us. If we want to encounter it in its true breadth and depth, the direction in which to peer is not in; the direction is out, to Nature.

This is the most important message I take from Reenchantment: The physical, sensual, visceral world of Nature and what we call the human unconscious are one and the same. That’s what we’ve lost. Those intuitions, hunches, dreams and moments of communion? Those aren’t inscrutable messages from some vast, hidden realm. They are your consciousness trying to participate! They are your consciousness trying to participate in Nature in the midst of a non-holistic modern culture that cannot and does not recognize the intimacy and beauty of your relationship with Nature and has, historically, used violence to make it go away. No wonder these experiences are so fleeting. They are dangerous. Newton knew this! No wonder that modern sense of cosmic homelessness, that modern malaise, that modern existential anxiety. No wonder excessive, hyper war-making! No wonder a planet entering environmental collapse! “If we are in an ecological, systemic, permeable relationship with the ‘natural world,’” says Berman, “then we necessarily investigate ‘that world,’ when we explore what it in the ‘human unconscious,’” [14] and (my words) we necessarily investigate the ‘human unconscious’ when we explore what is in the ‘natural world.’

From a modern perspective, this sounds wrong. And I know it’s still too abstract. So, I have an assignment for you, a thought-feeling experiment. Go outside, breathe deeply, and imagine that every natural thing you encounter, every natural thing you see, taste, hear, smell, touch is your unconscious. You don’t need to accept it as true. Just imagine it is. Your unconscious: entirely knowable, not hidden at all, not opaque at all, not actually ‘un-anything.’ It’s been right in front of you your entire life. All around you. You knew it as a child. Everyone knows it as a child. I’ve been following this assignment for weeks. This grass-my unconscious-this grass. This tree-my unconscious-this tree. This night sky-my unconscious-this night sky. This cloud-me. This horse-me. Dirt-me. Stone-me. Forest-me. Us. Together.

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

Do the assignment. Not just once. Do it again and again, and don’t stop. See where this imagining takes you. What new/old knowledge comes? What does it explain to you that didn’t make sense before? I find it explains a lot. And in my private moments I’ve been weeping with joy. The world is enchanted.

It’s hard to stay in the world of this assignment. Our culture can’t support it and doesn’t really allow it. But I urge you to try. We’ve got to start somewhere. And remember, once upon a time, we were together. So our story began. My prayer is that our story will circle ‘round to end at its beginning.  

“Max Picking Blueberries” by Josh Pawelek (Every child knows something about participating consciousness!)

“Max Picking Blueberries” by Josh Pawelek (Every child knows something about participating consciousness!)

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Saklikar, Renée Sarojini, “Before Is Also a Place: To the Eve River.” See p. 37 of the 2016 “Poem in Your Pocket Day” website: https://www.google.com/search?q=%E2%80%9CBefore+Is+Also+a+Place%3A+To+the+Eve+River%E2%80%9D&oq=%E2%80%9CBefore+Is+Also+a+Place%3A+To+the+Eve+River%E2%80%9D&aqs=chrome..69i57.1086j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8.

[2] Berman, Morris, Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

[3] Check out Morris Berman’s website, Dark Ages America, at http://morrisberman.blogspot.com/.

[4] “Resistance Radio – Morris Berman – 03.13.16” (Progressive Radio Network): http://prn.fm/resistance-radio-morris-berman-03-13-16/.

[5] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984) p. 2.

[6] Nerburn, Kent, “An Important But Hidden Story that Needs to be Heard,” Kent Nerburn: Wandering, Wondering and Writing, April 14, 2016. See: http://kentnerburn.com/an-important-but-hidden-story-that-needs-to-be-heard/. The article on the high suicide rate among First Nations people to which he is responding is here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/11/canada-first-nation-suicide-attempts-attawapiskat.

[7] Berman, Reenchantment, pp. 9-10.

[8] Berman, Reenchantment, p. 10.

[9] Berman, Reenchantment, pp. 142-143. He wanted a metaphysics that wouldn’t return us to a naïve animism or to a hunter-gatherer existence, and one that didn’t close down the enterprise of science but instead opened up new ways of doing science.

[10] Berman followed Reenchantment with two more books—Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West in 1989 and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality in 2000.

[11] Sounds strangely (or not) akin to the spiritual interests and identities of many Unitarian Universalists. Just sayin.’

[12] The separatist Basque region of Spain is an example of such a nonurban, regional periphery.

[13] Berman, Reenchantment, pp. 281-282.

[14] Berman, Reenchantment, p. 142.

For Gravity’s Sake

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Did you feel it? I didn’t either.

4-3 gravitational wavesIn the new issue of Smithsonian Magazine, physicist Brian Greene writes: “More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two black holes executed the final steps in a fast-footed pas de deux, concluding with a final embrace so violent it released more energy than the combined output of every star in every galaxy in the observable universe. Yet, unlike starlight, the energy was dark, being carried by the invisible force of gravity. On September 14, 2015, at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, a fragment of that energy, in the form of a ‘gravitational wave,’ reached Earth, reduced by its vast transit across space and time to a mere whisper of its thunderous beginning.”[1] This was not the first time gravitational waves have grazed or graced our planet, but it was the first time scientists detected it. It took fifteen months to determine the data were accurate, but on February 11th, 2016, scientists announced the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), operating identical detection systems simultaneously in Louisiana and Washington, had detected a gravitational wave emanating from the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago on the other side of the universe. [2]

When they pass by a planet or person, gravitational waves squeeze in one direction, and in a perpendicular direction they pull. How often does something more than a billion years old give you a squeeze and a pull?

For a brief explanation of the discovery of gravitational waves, check out Brian Greene’s video: 

I knew immediately I wanted to address this in a sermon. Our theme for April is creation, and that seemed an appropriate time. Historically creation is a reference to the earth, the sun, moon, stars, waters, dry land, plants, trees, fish, animals, human beings—everything God is said to have created in the book of Genesis. I use creation in the broadest sense possible, as a name for all there is, all existence, everything—the visible and the invisible, the near and the far, the new and the ancient. And here comes this invisible ripple in the fabric of space-time—its size a billionth of the diameter of an atom—gently squeezing us in one direction and pulling us in another. Our bodies don’t sense it, but now we have tools that can detect this very slight, very subtle, but very real movement across creation. “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” said an ancient Hebrew priest. Gravitational waves likely weren’t what he had in mind, but there it is, sweeping over us. The universe speaking? [3]

I want to offer some reflections on gravity as a way to deepen the message of my sermon from two weeks ago. In that sermon I spoke about how the modern world—specifically the Western industrialized nations—separated mind from body and separated divinity from the earth after humans had lived for millennia without such separations. In that sermon I offered prayers that we may learn to reunite mind and body, that we may learn to experience divinity present in the earth. I said, “May ours be a religion that gently sinks its people into intimate relationship with Nature, intimate relationship with the divine earth—a relationship that is the ancestral birthright of [us all].”[4]

I named René Descartes and Francis Bacon as two of the leading philosophers of modern science—people responsible for advancing these separations. I did not name Isaac Newton who is often identified as the symbol of Western science. According to science historian, Morris Berman, “Newton defined the method of science itself, the notions of hypothesis and experiment, and the techniques that were to make rational mastery of the environment a viable intellectual exercise.”[5] But there was something different about Newton. Not only did he help invent a whole new way of doing science and a whole new way of understanding Nature—my fourth grader just completed a unit on Newton’s Laws; and not only did he discover gravity; but he was also deeply immersed in the ancient scientific traditions—Occultism, Hermeticism, Alchemy. The 20th-century British economist John Maynard Keynes said “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”[6]

Today, if we learn about alchemy at all, we learn it was spurious, late medieval attempt to turn lead into gold, or to create an elixir to prolong life. It never worked. But this begs a question: if it didn’t work, why was it around for some many hundreds of years? What accounted for its staying power? There was much more to alchemy than these fantastic quests.[7] For my purposes here, it’s enough to know that alchemists did not understand themselves as disembodied observers of the natural world. More to the point, they weren’t observers in the sense that we understand that word today. They were participants. They did not experience a mind-body separation, nor did they experience a separation between themselves and the materials with which they worked. To them, all matter possessed Mind—its own kind of consciousness. Some refer to alchemy as “the search for the God-head in matter.” Everything was alive, and the alchemist was part of it. As they sought to transform matter, they expected themselves to be transformed in the process. Berman says “the alchemist did not confront matter; he permeated it.”[8] Apparently Isaac Newton subscribed to this archaic world-view, and took his role as a steward of the ancient practices quite seriously.

But alchemy’s ascendency also ended with Newton. He lived in an age of great social disruption, class conflict, revolution and war in England. Apparently the more ancient and occult world-views, including alchemy, aligned with the more radical and revolutionary political views. When the English monarchy was restored to power in the 1660s, it became dangerous for anyone to espouse radical and revolutionary views, whether political or scientific. In this climate, the ruling elites saw the new modern science—what they called the mechanical philosophy—as an antidote to the radicalism of the previous decades.[9] A vision of an ordered, mechanical universe translated into an ordered, mechanical society. As a highly public figure, Newton hid his affinity for alchemy and the occult. This affinity was only discovered when his private manuscripts were made public many years later. According to Berman, Newton delved “deeply into the Hermetic wisdom for his answers, while clothing them in the idiom of the mechanical philosophy. The centerpiece of the Newtonian system, gravitational attraction, was in fact the Hermetic principle of sympathetic forces, which Newton saw as a creative principle, a source of divine energy in the universe. Although he presented this idea in mechanical terms, his unpublished writings reveal his commitment to the cornerstone of all occult systems: the notion that mind exists in matter.”[10]

I didn’t know this about Newton. Learning it now, I find it highly ironic that a person who regarded himself as a steward of ancient wisdom, as a magician—a person who sensed God in matter—would become synonymous with a view of Nature and the universe as cold, inert, inanimate, orderly and vast. As physicist Joel Primack and science historian Nancy Ellen Abrams say in their book, The View from the Center of the Universe, after Newton, “the universe that had once felt like a great cathedral filled with angels had vanished, and infinite reaches loomed.”[11] Human beings had lived for millennia with a sense of belonging and confidence because they experienced themselves as intimately embedded in a universe filled with divinity. Now they began to experience existential terror in response to a universe seen as infinite or at least incomprehensively large, almost empty, and with no inherent purpose.”[12] “No place was special,” they say. “There was no secure foothold in the universe, no anchor…. Physics claimed to define physical reality, yet it treated human beings like objects, and those objects were left wondering whether anything in the universe recognized them as more than that. Perhaps they were just a random occurrence on an average planet in a vast and uncaring scheme of things.”[13] “The Newtonian picture left humans drifting in a kind of cosmic homelessness that persists to this day.”[14]

Some might call this sense of cosmic homelessness excessively bleak. Others might call it ‘overdone,’ something only philosophers experience. Obviously not every human being feels it. If anything, humans more commonly feel existential terror in response to more immediate concerns: war, migration, the climate crisis, violence, etc. So perhaps cosmic homelessness isn’t such a big deal. However, it is also true that 325 years since Newton published his Principia, many of us are used to the picture of the universe physics paints. To the extent we can grasp it, we’re used to its impersonal vastness. We’re used to our smallness. We’re even used to the conclusion that there is no larger purpose. Of course, many people don’t accept the astronomers’ conclusions and never have. They continue to resist the idea of a meaningless universe. Billions across the planet still take refuge in other-worldly religious visions, still bow down to a commanding, disembodied God, still look forward to a non-physical eternity in Heaven. As such they still help perpetuate the great separations of modernity—the separation of body and mind, and the separation divinity from the earth.

These separations are hurting us. We need a new alchemy for our time. I included in our liturgy this morning Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “When Something Comes to Me at My Window,” and Heather McHugh’s poem “A Physics,” because, for me, they begin to name an alternative to both cosmic homelessness and anti-scientific blind faith in a disembodied God. They gently sink us into intimate relationship with Nature. They blur the lines between us and Nature. They embrace what the body experiences. And they both start with a reverent shout-out to gravity. “How surely gravity’s law,” says Rilke, “strong as an ocean current, / takes hold of even the smallest thing / and pulls it toward the heart of the world.”[15] McHugh is more veiled. “When you get down to it,” she says. And then the lines between us and Nature blur. “Earth / has our great ranges / of feeling—Rocky, Smoky, Blue— / and a heart that can melt stones. / The still pools fill with sky, / as if aloof, and we have eyes / for all of this—and more, for Earth’s / reminding moon. We too are ruled / by such attractions—spun and swaddled, / rocked and lent a light.”[16] She seems to know something of what the alchemists knew.

Rilke challenges the idea of a disembodied existence. “Only we, in our arrogance,” he says, “push out beyond what we each belong to / for some empty freedom.”[17] And McHugh, though not exactly challenging, clearly sees God as somewhere else. “The whole / idea of love was not to fall. And neither was / the whole idea of God. We put him well / above ourselves, because we meant, / in time, to measure up.”[18] But gravity is real, and we do fall. I think McHugh is saying we’ll never measure up, and if anything, we need to measure down, get down to it, let gravity works its magic, pull God off the pedestal, squeeze God out of disembodied existence, out of other-worldly heaven, out of the judgement seat, out of timelessness into this time, into the body of this world, into the energy of this life. Rilke says, “like children, we begin again / to learn from the things, / because they are in God’s heart; they have never left.”[19] This is an alchemical vision for our time. And McHugh says, “We want the suns and moons of silver in ourselves.”[20] This is an alchemical vision for our time.  

And if this alchemy is still too mired in words, still too abstract, still leaves you wondering, “yes, but how shall I live?” perhaps there’s a lesson in Gary Short’s poem, “Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders,” in the image of a teacher endlessly kicking playground balls to his students at recess. “The balls rise like planets / and the 3rd graders / circle dizzily beneath the falling sky, / their arms outstretched.”[21] That’s how we ought to live: with joy and outstretched arms, awaiting our playground balls—whatever they may be—as they, like we, are pulled gently towards the heart of the world.

There is mighty work ahead. My next two sermons will name what this work is. This reunification of body and mind, of earth and divinity—it is the work of generations. It is work we are doing and must continue to do. And don’t be surprised, if in the midst of this work, you find yourself transformed into something more whole, like an alchemist, such that even your senses work differently, and you awake one fine morning, and you just know—because your body now knows—an ancient wave, rippling its way across the universe has just passed by, has just touched you, has squeezed you and pulled you, softly, as if to say “I know you’re there,” and then continued on its endless way.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Greene, Brian, “The Detection of Gravitational Waves Was a Scientific Breakthrough, but What’s Next?” Smithsonian Magazine, April, 2016. See: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/detection-gravitational-waves-breakthrough-whats-next-180958511/.

[2] Brian Greene Explains the Discovery of Gravitational Waves: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s06_jRK939I.

[3] In addition to Brian Green’s article in Smithsonian Magazine, see also MacDonald, Fiona, “It’s Official: Gravitational Waves Have Been Detected, Einstein Was Right,” Science Alert, Feb. 11, 2016, http://www.sciencealert.com/live-update-big-gravitational-wave-announcement-is-happening-right-now; and Krauss, Lawrence, “Finding Beauty in the Darkness,” New York Times, Feb. 11th, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/finding-beauty-in-the-darkness.html?_r=0.

[4] Pawelek, Josh, “I Am Lush Land and Rugged Rock,” a sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, March 20, 2016: http://uuse.org/i-am-lush-land-and-rugged-rock/#.VvwLLKQrKhc.

[5] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 107.

[6] Quoted in Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 108.

[7] C. G. Jung famously explores the depth and breadth of alchemy in his Collected Works, specifically Vol. 12, Psychology and Alchemy, Vol. 13, Alchemical Studies, and Vol. 14, Mysterium Coniunctionis.

[8] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 82.

[9] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 114.

[10] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 115.

[11] Primack, Joel and Abrams, Nancy Ellen, The View from the Center of the Universe (New York: Riverhead Books, 2006) pp. 80.

[12] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, p. 83.

[13] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, pp. 80-81.

[14] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, p. 82.

[15] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “When Something Comes to Me By My Window,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, trs., Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999) p. 116.

[16] McHugh, Heather, “A Physics,” in Keillor, Garrison, ed., Good Poems (New York: Penguin, 2005) p. 103.

[17] Rilke, Book of Hours, p. 116.

[18] McHugh, Good Poems, p. 103.

[19] Rilke, Book of Hours, p. 116-117.

[20] McHugh, Good Poems, p. 103.

[21] Short, Gary, “Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders.” See: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/03/29.

Your Money and Your Life (the Sequel)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

TithesLook closely. There is always an opportunity to practice generosity. There is always a chance, no matter what burden we carry, to give of ourselves. The more I reflect on this truth, the more I realize that being fully human—being whole—demands that we practice generosity. Our hearts are meant to be open, spacious, and roomy. Our hands are meant to help. Our goodness, compassion and love are meant to pour out. An open and generous heart is the hallmark of a well-lived spiritual life. It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the highest outward manifestations of any religion is generosity! When we take our Unitarian Universalist principles seriously, when we let them guide our living, generosity is the natural outcome.

Those are, with some adaptation, words from a sermon I preached in 2003, entitled, “Your Money and Your Life.” It was a sermon about giving money to the church. It was about tithing, about giving a certain percentage of your money to the church. It was ambitious for the newly installed minister who had only been on the job for four months to preach about tithing to Unitarian Universalists who historically and generally speaking have been wary of the concept and, frankly, have been somewhat reserved—especially in New England—when it comes to asking for money. Well friends, I am still ambitious, not only for myself and my values, not only  for our congregation and its mission, but for Unitarian Universalism and its capacity to change the world. And because I am ambitious I want to revisit that sermon from 2003, especially the part about tithing. We launch our 2016 Annual Appeal this weekend. The Policy Board, with my support, has set an ambitious goal—an increase of 6% over last year—and I’m feeling ambitious, which really means I’m feeling incredibly positive, hopeful, excited and joyful about our ability to raise the money we need to provide great worship, great religious education for children, youth and adults, great pastoral care, great opportunities for connecting and building community, great social and environmental justice activism, great leadership development, great concerts, art shows and guest speakers.

When I began my ministry I was clueless about congregational fundraising. There were courses about fundraising in seminary, but I didn’t pay attention. Some people love fundraising, but there’s something in me that cringes when it comes to asking for money. It didn’t help that the congregation I served as a student had a nearly $10 million endowment at the time (this was during the dot-com bubble). The interest from that endowment, along with a number of very lucrative rental agreements, provided annual revenues far above what the congregation’s members and friends were giving every year. Stephany and I were living on her part-time salary in those years. We felt we had no money to give to the church, and nobody asked us. I learned a lot during those years, and I am forever grateful for what I learned; but I didn’t learn how to do fundraising and, even more importantly, I didn’t learn the value of making a financial gift to the congregation I love.

It wasn’t until a few years after seminary that I attended a workshop by a Unitarian Universalist fundraising consultant named Mike Durall. I remember him making a distinction between low expectation and high expectation congregations. High expectation congregations ask their members and friends to make a commitment. Low expectation congregations don’t High expectation congregations have a strong vision for their future. Low expectation congregations don’t. High expectation congregations talk about money, and directly ask their members and friends to tithe. Low expectation congregations don’t. Durall said he found it difficult to work with Unitarian Universalist congregations because so often he experienced them as low expectation congregations. He liked working with High Expectation congregations like the Mormons. He said we could learn a lot from the Mormons.

I had two transformative insights that day. One had to do with how I conduct my ministry. I realized that I was setting low expectations. I was operating as if my job as a minister is to set an example of what it means to be a committed Unitarian Universalist, and then trust that people would just naturally follow my example, and naturally they would all want to do that. That assumption was misinformed for a number of reasons. First, just setting an example and leaving it up to lay people to decide whether or not to follow without actually inviting them to follow is about the lowest expectation one can set. If I want people to do something, I need to motivate them to do something. I need to invite, ask, arm-twist, cajole, organize, empower. Furthermore, as a staff member with a seminary education and the title Rev. in front of my name, there are ways of being a Unitarian Universalist that I can pursue precisely because my job gives me the authority and the time to do so. Lay people who have rich, busy, and often demanding lives outside the congregation, in so many instances, can’t follow my example even if they want to. Thus my role as a minister is not to set an example for everyone to follow, but rather to work with people to discern what being a committed Unitarian Universalist means to them, asking them directly to make that commitment, and then supporting them in keeping that commitment.

The second insight had to do with money—my money specifically. Mike Durall said, essentially, your congregation ought to be the place in your life that expresses your highest, dearest, deepest values. It ought to be the place you come back to week after week to hear those values proclaimed in a world that is in so many ways antagonistic to them. It ought to be the place that helps you keep those values at the center of your life. “Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve,” said Howard Thurman, “that in good times and in tempests, I may not forget that to which my life is committed.”[1] Church ought to do that for you. And then Durall asked, what’s a church like that worth? I knew the answer in my bones: it is worth everything. Our highest, dearest, deepest values matter immensely. Shouldn’t we have the highest expectations possible of the institution we ask to uphold, proclaim and act on those values? “Yes, yes, yes,” I shouted out. Others did too. And shouldn’t that institution have high expectations of us as well? Shouldn’t it elevate us, raise us up? Shouldn’t it call on us to bring those values into the world every day of our lives? “Yes, yes, yes.” And if we’re going to have high expectations of our beloved church, shouldn’t we be giving as generously as possible so that the church can do what we need it to do?” “Yes, yes, yes!”

But then, to myself: “Ohhh, wait a minute. Something is wrong here. I am an ordained, fellowshipped Unitarian Universalist minister. I have just completed a nearly $50,000 graduate degree in order to become a minister. I am dedicating my life to Unitarian Universalism and the congregations I serve. I expect Unitarian Universalist congregations to be there for my children and grandchildren, to provide them with the same, open-minded, spiritually-grounded, justice-seeking religious education I was blessed to receive as a child. I am relying on Unitarian Universalism to participate in and, when necessary, lead the national conversations on environmental justice, racial justice, economic justice, gender justice, marriage equality. I am counting on Unitarian Universalism to be there for all the milestones in my family’s life—births, dedications, affirmations, marriages, deaths. When I die I fully expect a Unitarian Universalist minister will officiate my memorial service. I look to Unitarian Universalism to elevate me, to raise me up. I proudly proclaim myself a Unitarian Universalist. My life depends on this, and yet I am giving less than half a percent of my annual income to the church.” This utter disconnect hit me so hard I had to leave the room to collect myself. My expectations of myself changed radically that day, from low to high. I am forever grateful to Mike Durall for challenging me to rethink my financial commitment to my beloved faith.

I’m reminded of an old image—I suppose it’s from old movies: the robber sneaks up from behind and says, “your money or your life!” It’s always presented as a choice: your money or your life. But we know that’s not what the robber means. The robber is not saying, “either give me all your money, or let me kill you, and in that case you can keep your money.” The robber doesn’t actually separate our money out from our lives. And similarly, we cannot talk authentically about generous living without talking about money. It’s not a real choice. So let’s transform the image. If generosity—including financial generosity—is the hallmark of a well-lived spiritual life, then I reason that our capacity to be generous gives us greater life! Our capacity to give of our money is part of what makes us whole. It is not a choice—our money or our life. It is a shift in perspective: through generosity we live our lives to their fullest; we become fully human; we fulfill the promise of our principles. Our money and our life.

Most of you know what tithing is. I believe it originated in the Ancient Near East. It appears in the Hebrew book of Genesis as a tribute paid to a secular leader, an offering given to the priests and the temple, or as a gift given directly to God. The Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob both, at different times, pledge one tenth of everything they have. Abraham pledged one tenth to King Melchizidek of Salem after winning a battle. Jacob, in the story we heard earlier, pledged one tenth to God after God visits him in a dream. But tithes are not always one tenth. Often the amount isn’t specified. In the Christian New Testament, as far as I can tell, there is no mandate to share one tenth, though there are many admonishments to give freely, promises that the giver shall be rewarded, and reminders that God loves a cheerful giver.

I don’t think Unitarian Universalists will ever become like the Mormons. It certainly isn’t likely that our congregation will establish a formal expectation of tithing. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have high expectations. We do. We ask that you consider what it would mean to give a certain percentage of your income or wealth to UUS:E every year. What would it mean to give 10%? What would it mean to give 7%, 5%, 3%? Can you commit to a certain percentage every year? And can you commit to increasing that percentage over time? This is important to me, because a congregation whose members tithe can be very powerful—can provide any ministry, serve any constituency, offer any program, achieve any vision. Anything. And by my best guess—and I think this is conservative—if every single one of us tithed at 10%, our annual congregational income would be over $1.5 million. That’s exciting to contemplate! Dream with me for a moment. Our mortgage would be gone! Our endowment could grow by a few hundred thousand dollars every year with no extra appeals. We would have money abundantly available to members who fall on financial hard times. We could fill all our staffing needs and pay excellent salaries and benefits. And imagine how our values could be put to work in the wider world, by making generous grants to organizations and people in the community whose work is consistent with UU principles, by founding new service organizations to meet unmet needs, and by supporting social and environmental justice campaigns that change the world. And we would never have to do another extra fundraiser!

I am dreaming. So let’s make it a little more realistic. Let’s cut back from 10% to 5%, a half tithe. What if we raised around $750,000 dollars every year? Every piece of the dream I just named would still be entirely possible—on a smaller scale, yes, but entirely possible. I think it’s worth dreaming. And I think it’s worth asking “What is it worth?” That’s our theme for this year’s appeal. What is it worth? That church that affirms your values, proclaims your values, acts on your values, and calls you to do that same—what is it worth? That church that offers a safe and familiar place to rest, to breathe, to heal, to rejuvenate, to connect, to commune—what is it worth? That church that offers a challenging place to question, to reason, to think and rethink, to feel, to intuit, to grow—what is it worth? That church that strives to provide your children and grandchildren with religious learning opportunities not through the rote memorization of catechisms and insinuations of guilt, but through experiences of wonder and awe, comfort, love, trust, gratitude and joy—what is it worth? That church that responds when you or your family are in crisis and need a helping hand, a supportive presence, a ride, a meal, a prayer, a conversation, a memorial service—what is it worth? That church that puts itself out there and fights in a principled, respectful way for economic justice, gender justice, racial justice, environmental justice—what is it worth? That church that keeps fresh before you the moments of your High Resolve, so that in good times and in tempests, you will not forget that to which your life is committed”[2]—what is it worth?

I know 5% is unrealistic for many. Even in good economic times, 5% is hard to imagine. And that is why we don’t formally ask anyone to tithe. It’s ultimately a personal and private decision on your part. Stephany and I have pledged $6,000 to UUS:E this year, which is just short of 5% of our adjusted gross income from last year. Many of you strive to tithe—3%, 5%. Some higher. Thank you. And for those of you who don’t, I ask simply you consider what it would mean. What is it worth? We need you. We have high expectations. You have high expectations of UUS:E. And UUS:E has high expectations of you. Let’s have a great Annual Appeal. May our financial gifts be a measure of the high expectations we hold. May we give generously. May our money and our lives go hand in hand.

Amen and Blessed be.

[1] Thurman, Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #498.

[2] Thurman, Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #498.