When Seeing Isn’t Believing

Rev. Josh Pawelek

IMG_0787I question the definition of religion that begins with belief. To begin with belief—to assume from the beginning that religion requires belief—limits the scope of the religious life too sharply.  

I welcome the definition of religion that begins with discernment of the things that matter most in our lives. Such a definition expands the scope of the religious life and makes religion accessible to people who would otherwise turn away.

I chafe at news reports about religious issues that equate being religious with belief in God.[1] They overlap. They certainly overlap in my spiritual life. But they are not the same thing. I resist the notion that to be religious one must be a believer. I offer instead that the hallmarks of a religious life are questioning, imagining, wondering, being curious, being in dialogue, learning, reasoning, following intuition, being alert, living soulfully, and loving abundantly.

I appeal to the work of Karen Armstrong, one of the world’s most well-known scholars of religion. In her 2006 book, The Great Transformation,” which chronicles the rise of the great world religions during what she calls the Axial Age—approximately 900 to 200 BCE—she says: “It is frequently assumed … that faith is a matter of believing certain creedal propositions. Indeed, it is common to call religious people ‘believers,’ as though assenting to the articles of faith were their chief activity. But most of the Axial philosophers had no interest whatever in doctrine or metaphysics. A person’s theological beliefs were a matter of total indifference to somebody like the Buddha. Some sages steadfastly refused to discuss theology, claiming that it was distracting and damaging. Others argued that it was immature, unrealistic, and perverse to look for the kind of absolute certainty that many people expect religion to provide. All of the traditions that were developed during the Axial Age pushed forward the frontiers of human consciousness and discovered a transcendent dimension in the core of their being, but they did not necessarily regard this as supernatural, and most of them refused to discuss it. Precisely because the experience was ineffable, the only correct attitude was reverent silence…. What mattered was not what you believed, but how you behaved.”[2]

If I may, let me adapt that last sentence. “What matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live.”

The title of this sermon is “When Seeing Isn’t Believing.” I said in my announcement for the service that “nothing dampens the spiritual life more than a strongly held belief.” That was meant to be provocative. It’s not entirely fair. There are many people with strongly held beliefs who also have rich, undampened spiritual lives. I count myself among them. My concern is really with a species of belief: belief marked by absolute certainty— theological certainty, doctrinal certainty, moral certainty. My concern is with beliefs so strong, so staunch, so firm, so dogmatic there is no room for human beings being human—no room for questions, creativity, imagination and curiosity; no room for learning and growing, for changing one’s heart and mind, for making mistakes; no room for sitting, talking and working with those who believe differently; no room for the soul. Often it is true: the stronger the belief, the less room for one’s humanity. In some instances, the stronger the belief—the more anxious, the more fear-based, the more desperate the belief—the less religious the living. The staunch believer is often unwilling to explore gray areas, to question, to engage deeply with difference, to wrestle with doubt. If religion is to begin with belief, I want nothing to do with it. I want a religion that begins with discernment of the things that matter most.

Note: through a rich process of discernment I may arrive at strong beliefs, strong convictions. But I will have gotten there through wondering and questioning, through searching and journeying, through creating and experimenting. I will have gotten there through the use of these wonderful human capacities we all possess in some measure. But I also may go through my discernment process and not arrive at any beliefs. I may arrive at more questions. I may arrive at silence, at mystery, at awe, at wonder, at emptiness, at surrender, at relinquishment—and I would be no less religious!

In using the title, ‘When Seeing Isn’t Believing,’ I’m playing with that old idiom, ‘seeing is believing.’ I don’t reject the idiom. There’s certainly some truth to it. If I can see it—taste it, touch it, smell it, hear it—if I can measure it—then I have some basis for proclaiming it is real. I have no reason to doubt what my senses or my data tell me exists. I believe it. In playing with the idiom, though, I’m offering a way to conceive of the religious life beyond belief. By ‘seeing’ I mean a process of discernment. When I say ‘seeing is not believing,’ I mean it’s important in the beginning to decouple discernment and belief, to remove the assumption that the purpose of the religious life is to believe correctly. Use every capacity you have—your senses, your creativity, your gifts and talents, your passions, your past, your relationships, your dreams, your intuitions, your intellect, your mind—use it all, but don’t use it for the purpose of finding a belief. Use it to find the things that matter most, to identify what it sacred to you. Use it to live a life of meaning and purpose. Use it to serve others. That’s religion. Beliefs may emerge—and if so, then believe! But they may not. Seeing isn’t necessarily believing. Belief does not test the depth of one’s religiousness. What matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live.

I’ve been forming some new ideas about what religious living means. It started when I decided to teach a course on Thomas Moore’s 2014 book A Religion of One’s Own. Thomas Moore is a former Catholic monk, a psychotherapist, and a popular spiritual writer, perhaps most famous for his 1992 book, Care of the Soul. It took me a while to decide to teach this book, mainly because, as a parish minister who wants people to participate in the life of the congregation, promoting the idea that one doesn’t need organized religion to be religious, that one can simply have a religion of and on one’s own, well, that doesn’t seem consistent with growing a congregation. But Moore doesn’t devalue church, synagogue, mosque, temple or sangha. In an increasingly secular, technology-addicted culture where, he says, “there is little room left over for religion,” what matters most to him is that the people he serves learn how to deepen their religious lives and live soulfully. He’s not concerned about where it happens; he’s concerned that it happens. For some it happens on their own. For some it happens in a congregation. For some it happens both ways. As far as I’m concerned, any organized religion that emphasizes discernment, searching and creativity over strict belief and doctrinal adherence is supporting its people in the kind of religious living Moore describes.

I find Moore’s book unexpectedly liberating. He makes a distinction between spirituality and soul work. I didn’t recognize this distinction at first. I thought it was confusing and unnecessary. And then it hit me—it really hit me—this distinction makes religion possible for people regardless of belief. This distinction allows for an atheist and a theist to share common religious language and a common process of discernment while believing entirely differently.

What is the distinction between spirituality and soul work? Here’s a story. During my interview with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) in April of 1999—the 50 minutes that would determine whether I could begin professional ministry—someone on the interview panel said, ‘describe your spiritual life.” I had secretly been dreading this. While I felt confident in my overall ability as a minister, I also felt that my spiritual life needed a lot of work. I didn’t have an intentional spiritual practice. I didn’t have a prayer life. I couldn’t meditate—still can’t today. Nothing that fell into the category of ‘spiritual practice’ appealed to me. I could say “I believe in God,” but I didn’t have a strong or regular experience of God that I could report to the MFC. I wanted more than anything to be honest and straightforward with the panel. I wanted to be myself. But I didn’t think it would go over well to say, “I feel my spiritual life is lacking, but please let me be a minister!” I put my best spin on it. I told them I felt I was still at the beginning of my spiritual life and that I saw spirituality as something that would unfold and deepen through the course of my ministry.

Some jaws dropped. Some faces looked puzzled. I thought, well, that’s it for me; at least I told the truth.  But then someone said, essentially, “Josh, I beg to differ. Your life is full of music and rhythm and running and paying attention to your health and well-being, and you write wonderful prayers and meditations and sermons and you dedicate time and energy to social justice work. You have a deeply spiritual life.”  And I said, essentially, “Oh, yeah, well, of course—that! Then I remember being quiet for a moment. And I smiled. And I said something like, “All those things are meaningful to me. Thank you.” And the interview continued.

I was caught—and many of us get caught—on a definition of spirituality that assumes a connection to spirit or God—to some power beyond the physical world. That definition isn’t wrong, but it wasn’t useful for me at that time. Luckily the interviewers weren’t caught on that definition, and they were content with a much more mundane and earthly list of practices. Thomas Moore is also interested in that more mundane list—but he would distinguish it from my spiritual life. He’d call it my soul work. In pursuing those things I am caring for my soul. If I’m reading Moore correctly, he defines spirituality, like many do, as a practice or way of living that connects one to God or spirit. He says “People often focus on the spiritual side of religion: beliefs, morals, eternity, and the infinite.”[3] He doesn’t argue that spirituality in this sense is wrong, though he seems to find it too abstract to be useful. He suggests that the way into religious living is through the soul. Through soul work one can begin to discern the things that matter most. Through soul work many paths may open up. One may enter into a robust spiritual life, encountering spirit, encountering gods and goddesses. Or one may find beauty, depth and sacredness in the mundane, in the ordinary, in the garden, the simple, hearty meal, the service project, the blade of grass, the lone, wild bird, the freshly fallen snow, the downward facing dog, the quiet mind, a letter to the editor, a cup of tea with a good friend, the surgeon’s skilled hands, a memorable dream, a haunting melody. Or one may discern there is no difference between the gods and the ordinary stuff of life.

Moore resists offering a concrete definition of the soul. In Care of the Soul he said “It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway: the soul prefers to imagine. We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth…. When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars—good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart.”[4] In A Religion of One’s Own, he says soul is “a mysterious word that eludes definition…. We talk about people, places and houses that have soul. Soul is the unreachable depth, felt vitality, and full presence of a person or even a thing…. Soul is the invisible, mysterious and softly radiant element that infuses your being and makes you human.”[5]

Moore’s suggestions for soul work seem simple an obvious at first: spend time in nature, pay attention to your dreams, review your past, take time to feel your feelings and understand them, surround yourself with art, weave eros into your life in healthy ways, listen to your muses and respond creatively to them, read great books, wrestle with your shadow side, notice coincidence and serendipity, learn to follow your intuitions, pursue your passions. They sound simple, but they aren’t when one approaches them with intentionality on a sustained basis. All of these practices are tools for discernment. They help us cultivate depth, help us see into or beyond the mundane to the sacred, help us see beauty, help us see the things that matter most. All of these practices cultivate in us a capacity to engage the world with imagination, to ask “what if?” “What if” is the imagination’s question. What if I leave my job and do the work I feel called to do? What if I do that writing, that painting, that sculpting, that speaking that I feel called to do? What if God is real? What if God isn’t. What if there is a spirit that moves among us and connects all to all? What if there isn’t? What if I act on my anger about injustice and violence and war? What if? What if? What if? Imagine, because what matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live. Religious imagination is a key to depth.

Soul may be difficult to define, but there is a profound invitation here to discover, name and knit together the essential pieces of you—the pieces without which you would not be you; the pieces that, when dampened and muted, you are not you; the pieces that, when buried, overwhelmed and crushed, you are not you. And we are, so often, not our essential selves. But even in this highly secularized and technology-addicted culture, those essential pieces of us poke through. Our soul pokes through. It gives hints here and there, shows up in our dreams and intuitions, rides along at the heart of our strongest desires, and even makes itself known in tea leaves and angel cards. The world picks up on our soul, even when we don’t. The world reflects our soul back to us in melodies that catch our ear, images that catch our eye, smells that activate long-dormant memories. The soul comes to us in insights and aha-moments, eurekas and amens. It comes to us in our deepest fears and our greatest joys. The world reflects back to us, but are we aware? Are we alert? Are we ready? Soul work makes us ready. Soul work enables us to bring together the essential pieces of us, to let them reveal to us the things that matter most, to let them speak, shine, shimmer and sparkle.

Seeing isn’t always believing. What matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live.

Amen and blessed be.  

[1] A good example of this tendency of the media to equate being religious with belief in God is Nuwer, Rachel, “Will Religion Ever Disappear,” BBC online, December 19th, 2014: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20141219-will-religion-ever-disappear?ocid=ww.social.link.email.

[2] Armstrong, Karen, The Great Transformation: The Beginnings of Our Religious Traditions (New York: Anchor Books, 2006) pp. xvii-xviii.

[3] Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World (New York: Avery/Penguin, 2014) p. 3.

[4] Moore, Thomas, Care of the Soul, (New York: HarperCollins, 1992) pp. xi-xii.

[5] Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World (New York: Avery/Penguin, 2014) p. 2.

Water for Flint — UUS:E Fifth Sunday Collection

1-31 Flint Water CrisisBy now, many of us are familiar with the water crisis in Flint, MI. At last Monday’s Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration at Faith Congregational Church in Hartford, Rev. Steve Camp launched a campaign to collect water and water filters for the people of Flint. Many UUS:E members in attendance felt strongly that our congregation ought to participate. Since then, the campaign has been adopted by United Church of Christ congregations throughout southern New England. UUS:E members and friends are invited to participate in this effort in two ways:

First, Faith Congregational Church, now in partnership with a consortium Hartford north-end churches, is arranging for actual water to be delivered from Hartford to Flint. Anyone who would like to donate water, preferably in large containers, is welcome to bring it to the UUS:E meeting house between now and Tuesday, January 26th. Members of the UUS:E Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee will deliver the water to Faith Church.

Second, our ‘fifth Sunday; community outreach offering on January 31st will be donated to the United Church of Christ’s Disaster Ministries collection for water filters and replacement cartridges. 

If you have any questions about this effort or wish to be more involved, please contact Rev. Josh at revpawelek@sbcglobal.net or (860) 652-8961. 
If you are unable to bring water to the meeting house, or plan not to be present on the 31st but wish to donate, you can also donate to the United Way of Genesee County’s effort to raise money for filters and cartridges here.
Rev. Camp says: Friends, I know that this remains a very fluid situation at best. I only ask that you do what you deem appropriate and right by the people of Flint. I intend to keep my eye on the ball, not on who will get credit for doing a good thing. I know that your decision making will make a difference for the people we seek to help and know that I stand ready to be helpful to you in ways I can. Be blessed. Steve.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for your generosity!
–Rev. Josh

Perhaps Struggle is All We Have

Moral Monday CTThe first title for this sermon was “Where Do We Go From Here?”—a reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” The intention behind that title is still at work at the heart of this sermon, and is indeed at work at the heart of all my sermons that focus on social justice work. That intention is twofold—to reflect on what it means to engage in social justice work in our time; and then to suggest, as best I can, the most effective ways we—and by “we” I mean we as Unitarian Universalists and we as a unique, liberal faith community—can most effectively participate in social justice work here in Greater Manchester, greater Hartford, and Connecticut. What are the most pressing social justice issues in our time and place? Who is organizing in response to these issues? With whom can we partner? Where and how can we exert our own individual and institutional power to create the greatest positive social change? In short, where do we go from here?

I decided on a different title, a quote from author and The Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent book Between the World and Me: “Perhaps Struggle is All We Have.” This is my seventeenth year in ministry, my thirteenth in this pulpit. I have always made social justice work a centerpiece of my ministry. When I came into the ministry I possessed, as many new ministers do, a strong idealism. I was confident that a certain kind of beloved community could be fashioned within Unitarian Universalism, that we could build anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural identity and practice within our congregations. I also possessed a conviction that the problems of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and environmental injustice could be substantively addressed in my lifetime, that I would come to the end of my career, look back, and know that I, along with the congregations I’ve served—motivated by our principles—had played a role in successful movements to eradicate the most pernicious injustices of our time. I had a vision that I would come to the end of my life and be living in a society where racism is no longer baked into our social, economic and political systems the way it is now. Similarly with sexism, with homophobia, with classism. I had a vision that we would overcome.

I still have that vision. I have not lost my idealism, my confidence or my conviction, except for the part about coming to the end of my career and living in a transformed society. That’s not going to happen. But that’s OK. I’m much more aligned today with the wisdom of the 20th-century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope.”[1]

I haven’t lost my idealism because I’ve witnessed and been part of too many social justice victories. So have you. I know we can win. However, none of those victories was an end-point; none meant, we’re done, we’ve arrived.  Marriage equality was a monumental social justice victory, but it didn’t end homophobia and heterosexism. The Affordable Care Act was a monumental social justice victory, but it has not brought health care justice to every American. Connecticut’s addition of transgender people to its anti-discrimination statutes was a social justice victory, but it didn’t end transphobia. Governor Malloy’s Second Chance Society, which made significant changes to Connecticut’s criminal justice statutes was a social justice victory, but it hasn’t ended mass incarceration of people of color. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Brown vs. Board of Education, Roe vs. Wade—the list goes on and on, victory after victory—but none of them was an end-point. None of them achieved the beloved community. These victories matter not because they conclude our collective social justice struggles, but because they keep them going. They keep us moving toward our vision, toward justice, toward a society that honors the inherent worth and dignity of every person. They remind us we can make real change, we can improve suffering peoples’ lives, we can win and we are thus justified in continuing. The fact that we’ve won in the past assures us we are not naïve to take next steps, to ask “Where do we go from here?” After seventeen years of ministry and 48 years of life, I am still an idealist.

But my idealism is different, tempered. Seventeen years ago I wouldn’t have said that just because history tells us we can win, doesn’t mean we will. I see it more clearly now. There are no guarantees, there never have been. Peoples’ willingness to struggle for what they believe in makes all the difference, but it doesn’t always make a difference. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing to his teenage son, articulating the profound vulnerability of Black bodies in the United States, articulating the historical and ongoing violence against Black bodies in the United States, says, “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.”[2] He challenges the assumption so many liberal activists and people of faith take to heart, that we will eventually win. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[3] Coates says, essentially, “maybe so, but don’t count on it.” He suggests our previous social justice victories can lull is into a false sense of inevitability. “Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point,” he writes. “Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up each morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”[4]

I’ve underlined these words multiple times, highlighted and starred them, dog-eared the page. I’ve come back to them often. They’ve become scripture to me, though I’m not sure I fully understand their meaning. The God of history is an atheist. I need to sit with that, to pray on it, maybe shed tears. The universe prefers struggle over hope. I’m not ready to let hope go. I know Coates isn’t talking to me—he’s talking to his son. But there is something universal here. The universe prefers struggle over hope. Struggle sounds harsh beside the softness, the ‘everything-will-be-alright-ness’ of hope. Struggle is mired in the here and now, in staying alive, waking up, surviving, getting by; in next steps, in ‘where do we go from here?’ In social justice work struggle means painstaking processes of building relationships, attending meetings, taking actions, losing over and over, learning from mistakes, starting again, and being supremely patient. Hope, so much easier, tells us a better future is coming. But that future is impossible without struggle.

Many will object to Coates’ downgrading of hope. Without hope, why go on? Why care? These, of course, are questions of despair. Coates is quite clear: “This is not despair.” Given that there has been and continues to be so much violence and oppression against Black people—and I would add against women, gay, lesbian and bisexual people, transgender people, poor people, low-wage workers, immigrants, refugees, elders—there are unlimited reasons for despair. But Coates is saying hope isn’t a sufficient antidote to despair precisely because there are no guarantees. You might win, but you might not. God might bring your through, but how often does that not happen? Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Aquon Salmon, Malik Jones, Amadou Diallo. Coates adds the heart-rending police murder of Prince Carmen Jones to that long list. The world can let you down in a flash no matter how hopeful you are. Given the pervasiveness of injustice—given the violence, the oppression—given the sheer tenuousness of life, hope for a better future isn’t the source of our integrity. Our willingness to struggle is the source of our integrity. Our willingness to work for human survival, human dignity, human community, peace, justice and planetary sustainability despite our lack of certainty, despite knowing we may lose, despite knowing it all may be for naught—that is the source of our integrity. I am not sure what saves us ultimately, but I am sure our willingness to struggle for what we believe in gives meaning to our lives and saves us today. Recasting Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by struggle.”

I invite you to live with this idea in the coming weeks. Sit with it. Examine it. Pray on it. Shed tears. And I invite you, especially on this weekend as the nation commemorates the life and struggle of Martin Luther King, Jr., to listen not for messages of hope, but for invitations to struggle for justice.

I have a few invitations for you now. Our congregation, primarily through the work of our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee, has been very involved in the Black Lives Matter movement through our partnership with Moral Monday CT. We’ve held workshops on non-violent civil disobedience and a course on “Revolutionary Conversations.” There’ve been actions to address police brutality, income inequality in Greater Hartford, and racist hiring practices at the baseball stadium construction site. We know this kind of engagement is not for everyone, does not appeal to everyone. In fact, in most congregations involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, it is usually only a small cadre of people who are highly involved. Mindful of this, and on behalf of the committee, I invite you to join an open conversation about Black Lives Matter next Sunday at 12:30. We’d like to hear what others in the congregation think and feel about the movement. What do you know? What do you need to know? And we’d like to put at the center of that conversation the question, should we place a Black Lives Matter lawn sign on our property along West Vernon Street? Many congregations have done this. Some have had their signs vandalized or stolen. What do you think? Is this a constructive way for us to express our collective concern for Black lives, to proclaim our ongoing intentions as a congregation to struggle for racial justice? Let’s have a conversation.

Here’s another invitation, though it is less specific. Given Connecticut’s age demographics, the state is going to need 10,000 new Personal Care Assistants in the coming decade. Personal Care Assistants or PCAs are the people who work in someone’s home providing medical care, cooking, cleaning, companionship and sometimes childcare. They work mostly with elders, people with disabilities, or people living with a chronic illness. Sometimes they work for agencies, sometimes as independent contractors. Who are the people who hold these jobs? They are primarily women, who are immigrants, who are people of color—the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. In these jobs they are extraordinarily vulnerable. What many don’t know is that PCAs have not historically been protected under national fair labor standards laws. This has meant that PCAs are not entitled by law to receive the minimum wage, overtime pay, paid time off, or pay for travel between jobs. They are not entitled to receive health insurance or workers’ compensation if injured on the job. They have no legal recourse in the event of harassment in the workplace, and can be dismissed from their job without warning, reason, or severance pay—and often end up homeless because of this. They receive minimal training and have few, if any, professional standards, which compromises the overall care they are able to provide. Is it surprising that a class of jobs held primarily by women who are immigrants who are people of color is more akin to a system of exploitation than legitimate employment?

This is changing. The federal law is changing, and there are efforts underway to change Connecticut’s laws, but the status of PCAs is still tenuous. There are opportunities for us to strengthen these jobs, to make them decent, middle class jobs, so that PCAs can support their families, so that we can slowly lessen the tide of escalating income inequality and the race-based income and wealth gaps in the United States. These opportunities are coming through partnerships with other congregations across the state, with the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford, with a phenomenal organization called the Brazilian Cultural Center, and with a regional faith-based community organizing entity called the InterValley Project. I expect there will be educational forums here later in the winter or early spring. I hope you will feel called to attend those forums, called to learn more about these issues, and called, in some way, to join this struggle.

There are more invitations coming—invitations to become involved in the struggles to resettle refugees, to protect undocumented immigrants, to further advance criminal justice reform, to continue our efforts to support ex-incarcerated people. Yes, the word struggle carries a harshness with it, a hardness. It implies messiness, difficulty, perhaps even suffering. Of course, there is messiness, difficulty and suffering in life whether we choose to struggle or not. But struggle is not only harsh and hard. It is also a source of integrity, a marker of our idealism and compassion. Struggle is the path to a meaningful, purposeful life. It can be filled with joy, with new learnings about self and others, with new relationships, with growth, and it is the only way to achieve our vision. So let us struggle together, knowing there are no guarantees, no irrepressible justice.  Let us struggle together, knowing it may be all we have.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Neibuhr, Reinhold, “We Must Be Saved,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and UUA, 1993) #461.

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

[3] This quote was likely adapted by King from the Unitarian Transcendentalist minister, Theodore Parker. Parker’s whole quote is less well-known than King’s shortened version: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

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

Hinged Between Worlds

1  JanusMindful that a new year has begun, I want to play around with the spirituality of thresholds. The ancient and somewhat obscure Roman god from whom January takes its name—Janus—is the double-faced god who looks both backward and forward. He is the god of transitions, the god of beginnings, the god of doors and entry-ways, the god of thresholds. I suspect that because January 1st is a date in the calendar, we are prone to talking and thinking about our life thresholds in terms of time. Janus looks back on the past and forward to the future. Similarly, a New Year’s resolution marks a transition between our past and our future. “From this day forward, I will do X,” or “I will stop doing Y.” My future self will be different than my past self. Out with the old, in with the new. Indeed, any resolution we make and keep—no matter when it happens—is a door, an entry-way, a threshold between different eras of our lives.

All last week I contemplated how I might preach to you about such thresholds, but for days I got nowhere. Then I saw the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. It was fun. If you’re familiar with Star Wars you know certain characters have a high sensitivity to the Force. Some of them train to become Jedi warriors. As the Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi says in the original Star Wars movie, “The Force is what gives a Jedi … power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”[1] The force surrounds us. This isn’t a temporal image. It’s a spatial image. Though most inhabitants of the Star Wars universe are completely unaware of the force, it is all around them at all times.

This led me to wonder about thresholds not in time, but in space. So many religions speak of unseen worlds, divine realms, angelic spheres, heavens and hells, and invisible sources of spiritual power that, like the Force, surround us at all times. In the Christian New Testament book of Luke, Jesus says “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed. Nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”[2] So, if it’s among us—if it surrounds us—but we can’t observe it, how do we access it? What or where is the threshold? How does one cross from this world of flesh, blood, bark, stone, air, fire and water into the unseen kingdom?

This likely wasn’t the question you brought with you to worship this morning. But it is a question people across the planet bring with them to worship or spiritual practice every day.  How do I get from this world of human frailty and suffering to God’s world, to Heaven, to peace, to bliss, to nirvana, to moksha? Unitarian Universalists typically don’t pose our big spiritual questions with the expectation that the answers lie in a completely different world or state of being. We tend towards a this-worldly spiritual orientation. We ask: “how do we come to terms with this world of human frailty and suffering?” “How do we transform this world so that it is more just, fair and loving? Still, even if you’re like me and you suspect this world we experience with our senses is the only world, and this life with all its joys and sorrows is the only life, isn’t there a place in your heart for stories about hidden worlds, unseen powers, and truths just beyond the surface of our knowing?

Earlier we watched a video clip of ten-year-old Harry Potter stands between platforms nine and ten at King’s Cross station, staring at the brick wall barrier Mrs. Weasley has just instructed him to walk through. “Best to do it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous,” she adds.[3] Not having any options other than to trust what his senses can’t accept, Harry dashes at the wall and crosses through. “A scarlet steam engine was waiting next to a platform…. A sign overhead said Hogwarts Express, eleven o’clock. Harry looked behind him and saw a wrought-iron archway where the barrier had been, with the words Platform Nine and Three-Quarters on it. He had done it.”[4] He has entered a previously unseen world—a world of magic, mystery, power, and truth.

I could’ve shown clips or read passages from any number of movies, books or plays: Lewis Carroll’s 19th century novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—remember the rabbit hole—and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There; J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, in which one arrives at the secret island of Neverland by flying to the “second star on the right and then straight on ‘till morning;” or C.S. Lewis’ 1950 novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which the wardrobe in an old country mansion is the threshold between this world and the fantasy world of Narnia. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series features thresholds between this world and a Hogwarts-like (though much more adult) school of magic called Brakebills, and then thresholds between Brakebills and the Narnia-like (though much more deadly) world of Fillory. My family has become somewhat addicted to the ABC series Once Upon a Time in which the town of Storyville lies hidden in the back woods of Maine and is populated by fairytale characters who travel through portals between a variety of fantastic worlds including the Enchanted Forest, Neverland, Wonderland and Oz.

One of my favorites is the 1999 Wachowski Brothers movie, The Matrix, in which humans live in a computer simulation designed to mask the truth that they are enslaved by machines. Crossing the threshold from the simulated world to the real world requires swallowing the red pill. The guide, Morpheus, makes reference to Lewis Carroll, saying to Neo, whom he is trying to liberate, “You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

This is just the beginning of a list of western popular culture stories in which characters cross thresholds from known to unknown worlds. I’m sure many of you could add other titles. But this trope is not original to modern pop culture. Pop culture borrows it from religion which, at its core, responds to deep and ancient human longings to apprehend a world different from the one we inhabit, to transcend suffering and death, to make sense of mysterious and unexplainable phenomena, to experience God’s world, Heaven, peace, bliss. I suspect the ‘crossing from world to world’ scenario is so common and so beloved in pop culture precisely because it stirs up these deep and ancient human longings in us.

Religion told these stories first. Perhaps the hero’s journey to the underworld is the most ancient motif. The hero may seek the underworld for various reasons: to commune with the dead, to gain immortality, or to rescue someone who is a captive there. (Luke Skywalker’s journey to the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia in Star Wars is this exact motif.) Underworld journeys appear in Sumerian, Egyptian, Vedic, Hindu, Christian, Greek, Roman, Norse, Finnish, Welsh and Mayan mythologies—and that’s just the list from my seminary notes.

1 EzekielIn another version of the know-world-to-unknown-world story, some Hebrew prophets describe a visit to the divine realm to receive their prophetic call. The prophet Ezekiel has one of the more elaborate and, we might say, psychedelic, descriptions of the divine realm. I encourage you to read the first two chapters of Ezekiel—makes Wonderland look tame and sedate. The prophet Isaiah describes God, surrounded by three winged seraphs, sitting on a high and lofty throne in a temple shaking and filling with smoke.[5] Not all prophets make this crossing. Sometimes the prophetic books just begin with an announcement like, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah.” The prophets’ task was not to bring people to the divine realm, but to speak God’s word to the people in order to transform this world into one more in line with God’s vision. In a sense, the prophet becomes a threshold between the people and God.

This is true of Jesus as well, perhaps no more clearly than among second- and third-century Gnostic Christians. Bart Ehrman, professor of religion at the University of North Carolina, says Many Gnostics “believed that the material world we live in is awful at best and evil at worst, that it came about as part of a cosmic catastrophe, and that the spiritual beings who inhabit it (i.e., human spirits) are in fact entrapped or imprisoned here. Most of the people imprisoned in the material world of the body, however, do not realize the true state of things; they are like … someone sound asleep who needs to be awakened.” (The Matrix films use this same premise.) How does one cross the threshold? According to Erhman, in Gnosticism “the human spirit does not come from this world; it comes from … the divine realm. It is only when it realizes its true nature and origin that it can escape this world and return to the blessed existence of its eternal home. Salvation, in other words, comes through saving knowledge…. In Christian Gnostic texts, it is Jesus himself who comes down from the heavenly realm to reveal the necessary knowledge for salvation.”[6]

The Flammarion Engraving

The Flammarion Engraving

The picture on the front cover of your order of service, for me, ties all these different hidden world stories together. It is known as the Flammarion Engraving. Nicholas Camille Flammarion was a late 19th-century French astronomer and author who sought answers to the big questions through scientific study (astronomy) and religion (Spiritism) and, when those were insufficient, he wrote science fiction. The Flammarion Engraving first appeared in his 1888 book, The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology. The artist is unknown. A caption underneath the engraving reads: “A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch.” If you look closely at the picture, you can see that the missionary is reaching through this point between earth and sky to yet another realm. If I’m reading Flammarion correctly, for him there were many thresholds between worlds: the scientific method could reveal previously unknown aspects of reality; spiritual practice, specifically Spiritism, could bridge not only the realms of the living and the dead, but different planets as well; and the human imagination could propose explanations for mysteries science and religion could not adequately explain. When it came to his conviction that alien life exists on other planets, and that human souls could transmigrate to alien bodies on those planets, the line between science, religion and science fiction blurred completely.[7]

Although Flammarion discovered stars and moons, he never found aliens. And apparently his scientific studies of Spiritism ultimately left him doubting that it really worked. Still, I admire his openness to possibility, and I encourage that kind of openness in us. For even if you’re like me and you suspect this world we see, hear, smell, touch and taste is the only world, and this life with all its joys and sorrows is the only life, it is also true that we only grasp a thin layer of what this world and this life really are. We say we are connected to the whole of life, yet how often are we fully awake to our connectedness? We speak of the interdependent web of all existence, yet how often are we fully aware of our place in the web? There may not be thresholds to other worlds, but there are certainly thresholds that lead us more deeply into this world, more deeply into this life, more deeply into knowing, understanding, feeling, caring, loving. You may never get to push your luggage through a brick wall, or tumble down a rabbit hole, or visit God in a shaky, smoke-filled temple, or correctly interpret the secret teachings of Jesus, but you can stay open to hidden possibilities all around you. You can, in the very least, take time each day to pause, to breathe deeply, to experience your own body living, to ponder your place in the web, to become more fully awake to connection and oneness. These are thresholds too. And as you pass through them, you may encounter this one world and this one life differently, and that encounter may have the power to change you.

Even if you’re like me, even if you sense this is the only world and the only life, keep your heart open to possibility. Earlier I shared with you the poem “The Door” from the American poet Jane Hirshfield. She says, “a note waterfalls steadily / through us, / just below hearing.”[8] How often do we come to the threshold, about to hear the note, about to come to some deeper insight, about to witness some deeper truth about this world and this life, and we miss it. For any number of reasons we turn around, turn back, turn away because we’ve closed our hearts to new possibilities? The poet reminds us to breathe. She tells us of “the breath-space held between any call / and its answer.” So often breath is the threshold we are seeking, the act that causes us to slow down and pay attention, or to wake up or to change course. So often breathing gives us the presences of heart and mind to look differently, to listen differently, to feel differently. Breath, in the poet’s words, is “The rest note, / unwritten, / hinged between worlds, / that precedes change and allows it.”[9]

I take it on faith that there are sources of spiritual power all around us, available to us always. And I take it on faith that we are always “hinged between worlds.” Always. My prayer for each of us in these early days of 2016 is that we may keep our hearts open to possibility, so that when we come to thresholds—when that note waterfalling through our lives is about to sing—we may remember to pause, to breathe, to pray, to listen, to hear, to cross through and be changed.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] For a brief clip of this quote from Star Wars, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2YQJsbbWNA.

[2] Luke 17:20 -21 (New Revised Standard Version).

[3] Rowling, J.K., Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1997) p. 93.

[4] Ibid, pp. 93-4.

[5] Isaiah 6: 1-8.

[6] Ehrman, Bart, Lost Christianities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) pp. 59-60.

[7] For more information on Camille Flammarion, see Darling, David, “Flammarion, (Nicolas) Camille, (1842-1925),” Encyclopedia of Science: http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/F/Flammarion.html. For a brief contemporary biography, see Sherard, R.H., “Flammarion the Astronomer,” in McClure’s Magazine, 1894, vol. 2: http://todayinsci.com/F/Flammarion_Camille/FlammarionCamille-Bio.htm.

[8] Hirshfield, Jane, “The Door,” in Sewell, Marilyn, ed., Claiming the Spirit Within (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996) p. 321.

[9] Ibid.

January 2016 Minister’s Column

Hallelujah

Dear Ones:

By most accounts, January takes its name from the somewhat obscure, ancient Roman god, Janus. Scholars refer to Janus as the two-headed god, the god of beginnings, the god of transitions, the god of doors and entryways. The Greek author Plutarch of Chaeronea once said that the doors of Janus’ shrine were kept open in times of war, and closed in times of peace.

If I have my facts correct, Janus is one of the older gods in the Roman pantheon, and there is little written about him that survives to this day. Thus, much of what scholars and others say about him is speculation. Nevertheless, there he is—at least in the name of our first month—presiding over the transition from one year to the next. One could argue—and many do—there is nothing particularly special about January 1st, that the transition from December 31st to January 1st is no more significant than, say, the transition from March 2nd to March 3rd, or the transition from August 27th to August 28th. There’s an arbitrariness to the assignment of New Year’s Day to January 1st. As the Rev. Kathleen McTigue has said, “The first of January is another day dawning, the sun rising as the sun always rises.” New Year’s Day could have been any day, really.

But maybe that isn’t the point. Maybe the point is that transitions matter whenever they happen. Maybe the point is that we ought to pay special attention to the big transitions in our lives, because they have a spiritual—even sacred—quality to them. Contemplate the major transitions in your life: moving from one location to another, choosing when and how to be educated (or not), choosing a career (or not), getting married (or not), having children (or not), ending a marriage, watching children come of age, watching children leave home (or not), experiencing the death of a loved one, changing one’s world view or values, changing one’s religion. Transitions shake us up, force us to encounter the world differently, wake us up to aspects of reality we may not have noticed before. They require us to grow, sometimes in painful ways—ways we just as soon would rather avoid. We certainly carry ourselves with us across the major thresholds of our lives, but we’re never entirely the same person when we finally arrive on the other side. That change, that growth, that transformation of ourselves is what feels spiritual and sacred to me. So let’s pay attention to how we are changing. It matters.

This puts me in a prayerful mood. Hello January, beginning of the year. Hello Janus, god of beginnings. Hello Janus, god of doorways. Hello Janus, god of transitions. Hello Janus: if nothing else, you are the symbol of all the hopes and fears we attach to the transitions in our lives—those we’ve faced in the past, those we face today, those we know we shall face in the future. Hello Janus: if nothing else, you are a reminder that our lives, as much as we may love them, will not and cannot stay the same forever. As this new year dawns, may we welcome the transitions of our lives with grace and dignity. May we embrace the transitions of our lives with courage and strength. May we enter into the transitions of our lives with faith that though we may be different once we’ve arrived on the other side, we will also be wiser and more compassionate for having crossed. May we transition well.

Amen and blessed be.            Rev. Joshua Pawelek

With love,

Rev. Josh

On Terror

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Mourners in Beirut following the November 12th terrorist attack. Credit: Hasan Shaaban/Reuters

Mourners in Beirut following the November 12th terrorist attack. Credit: Hasan Shaaban/Reuters

In light of the Paris terrorist attacks Friday night and the Beirut terrorist attacks on Thursday, I made the decision yesterday morning to bring a different sermon than the one I had planned to preach. This would have been a forgone conclusion had the attacks happened on American soil. They happened far away—Paris is 3,500 miles from here, Beirut is 5,500 miles. I wondered, could we just light a candle and have a moment of silence? That might have been sufficient if the sermon I had planned to preach would have offered some words of comfort, hope and peace—which is precisely the message I imagined I would want this morning if I were sitting where you are. But the sermon I had planned to preach wasn’t going to do that. I knew I couldn’t stand here and preach it to you without feeling a profound disconnect between my words and world events.

I feel grief. I feel a need to mourn. I am angry. I am frightened. I am confused. I suspect many of you feel similarly. With these feelings at heart, I want to offer a three reflections in response to these terrorist attacks. I hope they will bring comfort, peace and hope to you. I hope they will suggest ways to understand some of the reasons why attacks like these are happening and what they mean. And that I hope they will offer some preliminary ideas for how we as residents and citizens of the United States can best respond.

Grounding

I begin where I always begin in the wake of tragedy: find what grounds you.

It is unfortunate, but we know this first step. We knew it after the Newtown shooting. We knew it after the Boston Marathon bombing. We knew it after the death of our former music director, Pawel Jura. I say unfortunate because over the past fifteen years acts of terror have become not just familiar but highly regular: remember 9/11; remember, around that same time, the suicide bombings of the second Palestinian Intifada (2000-2005); remember the Madrid train bombing (2004), the London underground bombing (2005), the Mumbai attacks (2008), the Norway mass shooting (2011), the Boston Marathon Bombing (2013), the Nairobi Westgate mall attack (2013), the Chibok, Nigeria school girl kidnappings. Remember countless suicide bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria throughout this era. Remember just this year the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, the Kenya University attack, the Tunisia beach attack, the October attack in Turkey that killed 128, the recent Jerusalem attacks. Thursday’s attack in Beirut killed 43, and now Paris again: multiple, coordinated attacks with assault rifles and suicide bombers at a concert hall, a soccer stadium, restaurants; 129 dead, hundreds injured. And following the Paris attacks will come the inevitable and highly under-reported nationalist and white supremacist attacks on Muslim communities throughout Europe and elsewhere, attacks that follow whenever organizations like ISIS commit atrocities in Europe. I won’t begin to add to this list the reality of so many people across the planet, including in the United States, who experience police and military actions as state-sponsored terror. That feels like a different sermon, but it isn’t. The bottom-line is, terrorism works. It makes people afraid. How can it not? Even across an ocean, in the relative safety of the United States, it is frightening. It calls forth those unbidden, stressful questions from our unconscious, ‘am I safe?’ ‘could it happen here?’ ‘Am I prepared?’ For those who are familiar with France and with Paris in particular—those who’ve travelled there, those who’ve lived there, those who have friends and family there—those who might have been there—it is frightening. For those of you who have connections to Beirut and Lebanon, it is frightening. If such large attacks could happen in two cities that are in a perpetual state of heightened alert and vigilance, then they can certainly happen in other cities. They already have. It is frightening.

In order not to be overcome with fear, with anxiety, with despair; in order not to become triggered or wounded; in order not to become numb or desensitized by the images and the media coverage, the Facebook posts and the tweets, find what grounds you. Yesterday, even though I knew I wanted to prepare an entirely different sermon, I made a commitment to not let that work get in the way of the plans I had made with my family. I made breakfast. I took Mason to his archery class. I made lunch. I took Max to his basketball practice. All of us attended the Manchester Art Association Art Auction. We were home at night. We ate dinner together. We watched TV together, which is one of our weekend rituals. Sticking to the plan, engaging in mundane family activities, was grounding for me.

I know it may seem selfish and insensitive to focus on ourselves in the wake of someone else’s tragedy. I understand that, but I don’t think it is. Finding our grounding makes it possible for us to manage the emotions that terrorism generates. Finding our grounding enables us to better understand what has happened, to help if and where possible, and to work toward that goal articulated in our sixth Unitarian Universalist principle: “world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” Ungrounded people cannot do any of this well.

Even if you are one for whom this tragedy feels far away, don’t underestimate the power of these events and so many like them to take a toll on your spiritual and emotional well-being. Don’t underestimate their power to unground you. As I have advised on far too many occasions: start with breathing. Breathe deeply, slowly, fully. Fill your lungs with air and remind yourself it comes from green plants and algae. Remind yourself this air you breathe is evidence of your connection to the whole of life. Not separation, but connection.  Breathe in, and as you breathe, relax, be still, be quiet, be calm. Breathe in, and as you breathe, reach for peace, reach for hope, reach for love. Then, still breathing, when you feel ready, start to move. Move slowly at first, gently at first: bend, bow, stretch, lengthen, extend, reach. Keep breathing. If you can, go outside. Touch the ground, the soil, the earth—the beautiful, dark brown earth. Work in the dark, brown earth. Play in the dark, brown earth. Let the dirt get on your hands, under your fingernails, between your toes. Feel yourself coming back to life. Listen for the still small voice. Hear your own truths, your convictions emerging once again. Then, in time, as you feel ready, create. Creative acts are so essential to moving out of fear and finding our ground: write, compose, sing, speak, act, sculpt, carve, craft, paint, draw. Feel yourself slowly coming back to yourself.[1]

A Ruthless Response

French President François Hollande says the French response will be ruthless. President Obama says the United States stands shoulder to shoulder with France. I confess there is a part of me—a small part, but I won’t deny it is there—that wants a ruthless response, that wants to bomb the perpetrators mercilessly out of existence no matter the consequences. They cannot be allowed to perpetuate this kind of terrorism on the rest of the world. There is nothing that can justify this kind of indiscriminate mass murder of innocent people. Nothing.

This is the part of me that is angry and frightened, but also the part of me that believe it is being pragmatic. A year ago, as the United States-led bombing campaign against ISIS was beginning, I said to you that despite my objection to United States war-making, and despite taking to heart  Dr. King’s warning that ‘returning violence for violence multiplies violence,’[2] I nevertheless have “come to the heart-wrenching conclusion that we cannot abandon the millions of people who live in Iraq and Syria to [the] barbarous tyranny[we are witnessing in that region; and] that there is no solution other than to meet these atrocities not only with every available economic and diplomatic tool, but with resounding military force.” I said “I can barely imagine myself saying such a thing; but a chaotic, relentless, brutal and unfeeling spirit drives the Islamic State. I know of no word to name it other than evil.”[3] The Beirut and Paris attacks, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, are simply more evidence of this evil.

I am sure there will be a ruthless response. And even if a massive, global antiwar movement rose up and said, ‘stop, no more violence, find another way!’ I am fairly confident the response would still be ruthless. It is certainly an understandable response, and it may be the most pragmatic response possible, given that ISIS shows no interest in leaving the battlefield and is, in fact, extending the battlefield. Then again, maybe a ruthless response is not so pragmatic. I note that ISIS claims Friday’s attack was carried out in retaliation for the French bombing of ISIS in Syria, which immediately informs me that returning violence for violence really does multiply violence. And as much as that small part of me is OK with this multiplication because ISIS must be stopped, a much larger part of me actually says, ‘no more violence, find another way.’ Something must give. Some intervention in the cycle of violence must be brought forth. Of course these words sound naïve to that small part of me that wants a ruthless response, that small part of me that believes it is being pragmatic. But to that larger part of me that longs for a more measured, more peaceful, more hopeful response—to that larger part of me that longs for an expansive moral imagination that can see well beyond ruthlessness—it is naïve to think military solutions can remove the threat of terrorism. Violence has only increased the threat. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence. I understand the need for a ruthless response. And I hold out little hope for its long-term success. Somehow, the cycle of violence must be interrupted.

Embrace the Young Dispossessed

When Imam Kashif Abdul-Kareem of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford spoke from this pulpit a few years ago, he said in the talk-back after his sermon that he felt a significant percentage of Muslims globally are being mis-educated  about their faith. He didn’t speak too specifically about what this meant, but he did suggest that many young people were being educated to hate. I suspect the same is true in many countries, in many religions: people—especially young people—are being educated to hate.

I read to you earlier from Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel, the founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core. Patel talks about the faith line, meaning the line between religious totalitarians and religious pluralists, a line that cuts through virtually all major faith traditions. Writing in 2010, he says “we live in an era where the populations of the most religiously volatile area of the world are strikingly young. Seventy-five percent of India’s one billion plus are not yet twenty-five. Eight five percent of the people who live in the Palestinian territories are under age thirty-three. More than two-thirds of the people of Iran are under age thirty. The median age in Iraq is nineteen and a half. All of these people are standing on the faith line. Whose message are they hearing?”[4]

I have two responses to that question. First, while I do not know to what extent young people in these and other countries are hearing the message of the religious pluralists, I am confident the vast majority are not succumbing to the message of religious totalitarianism. Most people who live in these regions don’t become terrorists. Unfortunately, in the wake of terrorist attacks, some politicians, journalists, bloggers and other commentators, especially those with nationalist and racist leanings, become shrill and unskillful in their pronouncements about the perpetrators. One can get the impression, for example, that all Muslims are terrorists. We know this isn’t true. We know Islam as it is most widely practiced is a religion of peace. Our country has a legacy of White supremacist Christian terrorism, yet we know most Christians aren’t terrorists. We know Christianity as it is most widely practiced is a religion of peace.

Second, having said that, many young people across the globe, including in the United States, are becoming increasingly dispossessed. That is, due to poverty, war, modern forms of colonialism, racism and climate change, among many other ills, many people, especially young people, feel hopeless. They feel left out of whatever engines of prosperity exist in their nations, left out of the common good—the concept doesn’t apply to them. They feel abandoned, forgotten, unheard, landless, removed, imprisoned, walled off, barred out, humiliated, dehumanized. Dispossession is a physical, material condition—as in possessing no things, no money, no land—and a spiritual and psychological condition—as in possessing no hope, no sense of self, no sense of a future. The tip of the iceberg is the nearly 60 million people today living as refugees from war, economic collapse and environmental catastrophe. Hundreds of millions more are internally displaced and impoverished. And now we’re beginning to hear more and more about the phenomenon of stateless people. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates there are 10 million stateless people. Statelessness is hyper-dispossession.

I suspect there is a certain percentage of the dispossessed who are susceptible to the message of religious and other forms of totalitarianism. Just like there is a small subset of urban youth in the U.S. who find meaning and empowerment in gangs, there is a small subset of the dispossessed who find meaning and empowerment in totalitarian ideologies and organizations. After a period of involvement with these ideologies and organizations, after a period of mis-education, an even smaller sub-set becomes quite willing to lose their lives in acts of terror.

Yes, I want to discern some way to help ease suffering in Paris. And yes, I want to discern some way to help ease suffering in Beirut. I hope the way will become clear in the coming weeks. But it can’t stop there. There is suffering in Ankara, Jerusalem, Gaza, Nairobi, Chibok, Kandahar and Baghdad, not to mention Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, Cleveland, Hartford, and Manchester. Mindful that terrorism in all its forms impacts so many people across the planet, and mindful that terrorism is a symptom of complex social, political and economic realities, I also recognize that responding to suffering in the aftermath of terrorism will never be enough—and will not always even be feasible. I want to discern how I, how we as a faith community, and how we as a nation, address the root causes of terrorism, one of which is dispossession. I take Eboo Patel’s message to heart. Whatever we can do to advance the message, vision and structures of religious pluralism, here and across the globe, we must do. Much more than a ruthless response, we need to promote viable alternatives to religious totalitarianism. Much more than violence and militarism, we need organizing here and across the planet that replaces dispossession with opportunity, that replaces greed with generosity, scarcity with abundance and inequality with peace, liberty and justice.

Of course, these are easy words to say, hard work to do. If nothing else, remember the dispossessed are everywhere. If nothing else, find some way to work with young people, to support them, to give them some sense of possession—so that they possess themselves, their neighborhoods, their communities, and their future. Indeed, no terrorist ideology can claim the allegiance of people who possess themselves and their own future.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Adapted from Pawelek, Josh, “What Does the World Require of You?” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East on December 16, 2012. See: http://uuse.org/what-does-the-world-require-of-us/#.VkfXznarTrc.

[2] King,Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 62.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “If We Must Go to War,” In “Four Reflections on Atonement,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East on October 15, 2014. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/four-reflections-on-atonement/.

[4] Patel, Eboo, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim and the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010) p. xv.

Would You Be Free From Your Burden of Sin (There’s Power in the Blood)

Susan Campbell

Susan Campbell (CREDIT CHION WOLF / WNPR)

Susan Campbell (credit, Chion Wolf / WNPR)

I will tell you, before I wind up, that I’m really not that much a public speaker. I’m telling you that so when I’m finished, you don’t have to turn to one another and say, “You know what? She’s not really much of a public speaker.” She knows that already, and she’s made peace with that, and she suggests you do the same. The most I can promise you is a speech mostly devoid of exegesis and/or hermeneutics. You’re welcome.

I am a product of the church – small c – of Christ, where every Sunday school lesson and every sermon I sat through was aimed at teaching me how to be a good wife – a worthy help-meet, a word I will hate until the day I go to my glory. At the Fourth and Forest church of Christ in Joplin, Mo., I had my whole life laid out for me. I would choose for my mate one of the young men in my youth group seated to my left or my right on the pew where I parked myself three times a week – more often, if they’d let me. We would get married in a simple service on a Friday night, go to Branson for our honeymoon, and be back to work by Monday. We would rather quickly be graced with babies, and we would raise up our children in the way they should go so that when they were old, they would not depart from us – that’s Proverbs 22:6 — and I would be accorded a Sunday school class to teach and to shepherd – but not one that included men, because that would be usurping authority over men, which we are forbidden to do in I Timothy 2:12. I would eventually be – through my own stewardship and exalted state of help-meeting — the wife of a deacon, and then my husband would be named an elder, and when it was time to go meet Jesus, I would be laying in my lily-white bed surrounded by my loved ones and I would have a little smile on my face, and someone would say, softly, “Oh, look, she’s talking to Jesus.”

But I would not be talking to Jesus. I would be smiling because finally and at last I could blow this clip joint and leave this circumscribed and ridiculously small existence to go and live with God, to sit right next to Her, right where she’s always intended, and not in a back pew, either. And God would be an African American lesbian with big meaty arms that swung when she threw them open to welcome me.

I hoped so much for that to be the case, knowing full well that a large portion of my friends and some of my family would take one look at such a god, and turn around and go on down to hell. For now, I was seeking to save my own soul in a branch of Christianity that keeps getting rediscovered like it’s something new, like it has something to offer. Historically, in times of strife, evangelical Christianity – and its hard kernel of a sub-group, fundamentalism – sees an influx of members anxious to escape the winds and the storm. Fundamentalism with its list of do’s and don’ts has long been the refuge of people who don’t want to think for themselves, who find modern life too confusing and complicated. I say that with as much love as I possibly can. It is infinitely easier to let someone else do your thinking for you, rather than discern your own righteous way. It was the ‘70s, the Me Decade, and all around me, my friends were succumbing to lust and drugs and such, and I was dating Jesus, where I was safe.

But I wasn’t happy. I read my Sunday school lessons and worked them ahead of time – not in the car on the way to church, as did my brothers. I memorized vast swatches of Scripture from the King James’ version – the way Jesus spoke. (And if you don’t get that joke, I feel a little sorry for you.) I carried my Bible like a sword (that’s Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.)

I believed, I believed, I believed, and part of that belief meant that I was responsible for my soul, and for yours, as well. And so every Saturday morning was devoted to knocking doors for Jesus, invading the lives of well-meaning residents of Joplin and Webb City, Mo., as I tried to share with them the gospel, the good news.

But I did not feel bloodlust when I knocked doors for Jesus. Instead, I felt sorry for the people on the other side of the door. I knew I had to save their souls – and that we were a peculiar people to be blessed to be in the one-true-church – but I still felt sorry for them because every Saturday morning, I would interrupt their routine by knocking on their door and saying not “Good morning,” but “Where do you want to spend eternity?”

If they’d had a lick of sense, they’d have answered, “Anywhere you’re not.” Mostly, they were polite, but if I’m perfectly honest, I can say that in all the years I knocked doors, I bagged only one soul, and he eventually left the church, so that’s a big zero for Susan’s Saved Souls column

I just didn’t have the heart for it. I watched too much television and from over-achieving young people’s conferences I kept getting sent to, I kept meeting people who didn’t look or smell like me having interesting, full lives outside the fort of the church. My best friend Alan was Roman Catholic and I didn’t have the heart to send him to hell. My beloved grandmother attended a Holiness church – more to keep my beloved grandfather from hounding her to do so – and I knew she was a good woman and if God was going to send someone like her to hell simply because she sat in a pew across town every Sunday, well, what kind of God was that?

I started to voice these concerns early on – tepidly, at first, because I knew the role of women in my church was not to speak out, but to provide support to their husbands. I argued about the lack of women preachers. I argued about the restrictions on divorce. I argued that we were the only people who would be admitted to heaven. That seemed entirely capricious and unfair. If my theology was exclusive, my DNA was that you reach out to help others. I was trained from the cradle to watch out for people who couldn’t watch out for themselves, by my war hero father. To think that by virtue of where I landed on a Sunday would mean the difference between eternal bliss and my flesh eternally melting from my bones in the fiery pit of hell made no sense. None. Neither did the notion that my flesh would melt and melt again from my bones in hell. How would that work? Science did not support it.

So I sat in Sunday schools with my hands balled into fists listening to my brothers in Christ tell me I was to hide my light under a bushel and be happy about it. Hiding a light under a bushel ran counter to what we’re taught in Matt. 5:15, and I got really, really good at lobbing three scriptures back for every one quoted to me.

Eventually, something had to give. I saw I was not going to change my church’s culture, but leaving took years. Church was a much a part of me as my green eyes, and when I finally made the break, my older brother, who’d started preaching at age 12, but also left the church, put it succinctly: Fundamentalism was like a sword that broke off in us. Your flesh grows around the sword’s hilt. You want to pull it out, but if you do, you think you’ll die. You learn to adapt. You learn to stop thinking of humanity as flawed, and sinful, and burdened – as went the old groaner of a hymn – by sin.  You come to realize that the notion of sin is a burden, that we’d all best focus on the notion of healing the world, not condemning the sinful – unless, of course, we’re willing to judge ourselves by the same measure that we judge others. You come to the idea that judging is completely beside the point. And it’s a waste of time.

It took a long time, but I finally settled on my own theology, from James 1:27, which I read earlier. It bears repeating: Paraphrased, it says: Pure and undefiled religion is this: Visit the widows and the sick, and keep yourself unspotted from the world. I suppose I am a red-letter Christian. I care about what Jesus said, not the Jesus I dated, but the historic Jesus who may have been no more than a really smart rabbi, and not the son of God. Whatever the man’s station, he made some incredibly prophetic statements about social justice. If you want to see a really good political platform, read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. I am not denying the divine. I am embracing it in you, the divine you that deserves my respect, and my help, if I can give it. The divine you that carries in you star dust from a time long forgotten, the divine you that reaches for grace that transcends false denominational boundaries that serve only to lash us to the earth. I embrace you because there is much work to do and if we waste our time arguing dogma, that work won’t get done. I embrace you in a wealthy state where we expect children to do homework while living in shelters, where we seem to have accepted that in capitalism, there are winners and there are losers, while we forget that those so-called losers are our brothers and sisters and cousins and friends and sometimes ourselves. I embrace you while we witness a bruising election season that finds itself in a hole and keeps on digging until there isn’t a serious conversation to be had. I embrace you, regardless of whether you embrace me back, because that – and that alone – is my theology, both the easiest and hardest thing ever.

Thank you.

Susan Campbell is the award-winning author of Dating Jesus (Beacon Press) and Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker (Wesleyan University Press). For more than a quarter-century, she was a columnist at the Hartford Courant, where her work was recognized by the National Women’s Political Caucus, New England Associated Press News Executives, the Society for Professional Journalists, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Sunday Magazine Editors Association. Her column about the shootings at lottery headquarters in March 1998 was part of The Courant’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage. She has appeared on CBS’ “Sunday Morning,” the BBC’s “World Have Your Say,” and various radio shows including WNPR. She also co-writes a religion blog, “Hot Dogma!”

Now Thank We All Our God

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Rev. Martin Rinkart

Rev. Martin Rinkart

“Now thank we all our God.”[1] Let me tell you the story of the Rev. Martin Rinkart who wrote the original German words to this hymn in 1636. I’m basing my telling of this story on a 2011 sermon[2] by the Rev. Ian Poulton, a priest in the Church of Ireland. I haven’t tried to verify the facts as Poulton presents them, but I do see that the same story is told in a variety of places. Even if the story has been exaggerated over time, even if what I share is only partially true, it still ought to make us pause and wonder what it means to have a grateful heart.

Martin Rinkart was born in 1586 in Leipzig, about 90 miles southwest of Berlin. At age 15 he began studying theology at the University of Leipzig. He became a Lutheran pastor in his early twenties. Poulton says he was regarded as a better musician than a pastor, but he persisted in the Lutheran ministry and held a variety of positions in the region early in his career. In 1617, at age 31, he became pastor at a church in the small city of Eilenburg to the northeast of Leipzig. If you know anything about this era in European history, you might know that 1618 saw the commencement of the Thirty Years’ War, a complicated and brutal war which ended in 1648. Rinkart died in 1649, having served for the duration of the war at the Eilenberg church. That is, he did ministry in a war zone for 31 years.

Here I am quoting Poulton directly: “The war was beyond the understanding of most ordinary people, all they knew was that army after army laid the countryside bare, having no regard for the welfare of civilian populations. Famine and disease became widespread; farms, livestock and crops had been destroyed and weak and hungry people had no resistance against illness. The war was to reduce the male population of Germany by almost half, in total almost a third of the people in the German states lost their lives, mostly through hunger and illness.

By 1636, Martin Rinkart was the only pastor left in Eilenburg. The walled city had become a place filled with refugees, who brought with them further infection to add to that already present, and who placed further strain upon the town’s desperately short food supplies.

The refugees brought plague with them and in 1637 8,000 people in the town were to die from it. The illness had no regard for wealth or age, the town councilors and many of the town’s children were among the victims…. In May 1837, he buried his own wife. He was to bury more than 4,000 people during the plague, which was followed by a severe famine that saw people fighting in the street over a dead crow or cat.”[3]

The most memorial services I’ve ever conducted in a year is eight—and that makes for an exhausting year. For a period from 1636 to 1637 Rinkart was apparently conducting an average of ten or eleven funerals daily. He was witnessing excruciating devastation, a total breakdown of the social order, not to mention the deaths of his wife, children, friends, colleagues, parishioners. I won’t call it unimaginable, because we can imagine it. We may not know about the Thirty Years’ War, but we have knowledge of other wars, of genocides, of the Holocaust, of slavery, of refugees streaming as I speak out of war zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan into Europe—many of them heading for the “promised land,” Germany. Even if we or our families have not been touched directly by these things, even if we cannot know what it feels like to live through them, we can imagine them. But what might be unimaginable, at least to some, is that in the midst of this devastation and horror, in the midst of relentless death, Martin Rinkart sat in his study, read his Bible, and wrote the words, “Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”[4] How was such gratitude possible given everything he was witnessing?

You might hear this story and get caught on questions about Rinkart’s theology. That’s always a risk with Unitarian Universalists. You might think or say, “Really? After all he went through, after what must have been terrible personal pain, he was thankful to God? Didn’t he understand God as all-powerful, wasn’t that his theology, in which case didn’t he hold God at least partially responsible for the devastation? Wasn’t he angry at God for allowing such suffering? Why didn’t he reject God, say ‘there is no God?’ Why didn’t his faith waver? Was he numb? Was he afraid?” If these are your questions, I urge you not to get caught on them. We don’t know what Rinkart’s spiritual struggle might have been, what his inner disappointment with and rage at God might have been. It doesn’t serve us well to get caught on his theology. I don’t believe in Rinkart’s God; I don’t expect you to either. But I want to share in his extraordinary gratitude. I want it in my life. I hope you do too.

It’s easy to feel grateful when our lives are going well. But can we still be thankful, can we still know and trust how truly blessed we are, when our lives are not going well, when things are falling apart, when the dream we had for our lives comes crashing down around us? Let’s get caught on that question. What does it mean to feel grateful even in the midst of despair?

One of the reasons I feel this is an important question for us is because there’s a connection between gratitude and one’s overall health and well-being. Spiritual teachers, theologians and philosophers have named this connection for millennia. So many prayers in so many religious traditions begin or end with the words, “thank you.” And, over the last fifteen years, psychological researchers have verified these connections through clinical studies. I’ll share one frequently-cited 2003 study conducted by psychologists, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough. I’m quoting here from a paper on gratitude and well-being in a Harvard Medical School publication. Emmons and McCullough asked study participants “to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.”[5]

There are many studies that show similar results. Some yield clearer results than others; some suggest not that gratitude is itself the key to well-being, but that people who report a consistent feeling of gratitude also exhibit a variety of behavior and personality traits that lead to greater well-being; and a few studies diverge and show little or no connection between gratitude and well-being.[6] The one result I have not found in my somewhat-more-than-cursory review of this science of thankfulness is a connection between gratitude and a decline in overall health and well-being. That is, no study has shown that gratitude is bad for you!

So, if gratitude is good for us, it makes sense that a practice of being grateful, of naming to oneself and others those things for which we are grateful, of cultivating a gracious spirit, of saying ‘thank you,’ will have a positive effect on our lives. And these might be the easiest of all spiritual practices. You don’t have to learn to quiet the mind in meditation. You don’t have to first puzzle through that pesky question of whether there is a God or not. You don’t have to be in a specific place at a specific time. You don’t need to pay a lot of money to study with a master. You just need a little time, perhaps daily, to name, either to yourself or others, those people and things for which you are grateful.

I confess I feel a bit redundant speaking to you about gratitude on Sunday morning. There are millions upon millions of articles, books, blogs, videos, TED Talks, inspirational speakers, Facebook posts, tweets and various memes about gratitude. This is not secret knowledge. This is not a mystery waiting to be revealed to the earnest seeker. Nancy Parker suggested I view a TED Talk by the Austrian-American, Buddhist-influenced Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast entitled, “Want to Be Happy? Be Grateful[7] I like his notion of what the practice of gratefulness might look like. He actually co-founded an online community called Gratefulness[8] which curates resources on living a grateful life. He counsels us to Stop, Look, Go” or “Stop, Listen, Go.” It’s very simple. Stop whatever you’re doing. Breathe. Come into the present moment. Then look or listen. What are you grateful for in this moment? He says, “Some of the most meaningful things to acknowledge are those we commonly take for granted. Examples include: our senses, a roof over one’s head, clouds, the ability to learn and grow, a pet, food, a friend.”[9] And then go, by which he means identify these things for which we are grateful not as ‘givens’ but as ‘gifts.’ And what do you say when you receive a gift? Thank you.

So many practices suggested out there in the blogosphere and on the self-help shelves are like this: simple, obvious and genuinely important to our health and well-being. But then I encounter a poem like W. S. Merwin’s “Thanks” which we heard earlier, and I perceive a deeper, less obvious, perhaps more urgent reason for gratitude. Recall Merwin’s words: “Back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging / after funerals we are saying thank you / after the news of the dead / whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you … / with the animals dying around us / our lost feelings we are saying thank you / with the forests falling faster than the minutes / of our lives we are saying thank you / with the words going out like cells of a brain / with the cities growing over us / we are saying thank you faster and faster / with nobody listening we are saying thank you / we are saying thank you and waving / dark though it is.”[10]

Merwin isn’t addressing the goal of health and well-being. His isn’t a survey of blessings at the Thanksgiving table. He’s speaking about resilience—how we stay strong in hard times, how we continue “dark though it is.” So much can happen that we don’t expect, can’t plan for. So much can throw us, knock us down, send us reeling, wake us up into sleepless nights and break our sense of connection to what matters. Our bodies betray us with illness and pain; we lose loved ones; sometimes we lose jobs, income, financial security; sometimes we struggle with addiction, mental illness, anxiety. Our culture feels angry and polarized, while poverty—both economic and spiritual—increases; while hunger—both economic and spiritual—increases, such that we stop trusting in abundance and assume scarcity. Wars break out; ideologues with weapons and no rules rampage across vulnerable lands; refugees stream across borders; desperate people stab strangers on the street and desperate police shoot back. The planet warms; the ice caps melt; species disappear; storms rage. Thank you? Thank you? When things break down, resilience is our capacity to repair whatever connections have been broken. Gratitude creates resilience.

Truly, in the end, we can take nothing for granted; because truly, in the end, nothing is simply a given; because truly, in the end, everything and everyone we care about, everything and everyone that matters to us, everything and everyone we love are gifts: gifts from God if you believe in that way; gifts from the universe; gifts from life’s enduring, animating spirit; or gifts out of sheer cosmic coincidence—but gifts nevertheless. Knowing this—believing this—can create resilience in us. Thank you. Thank you. Let us practice gratitude in good times, so that when hard times come, when challenges come, when illness and death come, when warming and war come, we may remain clear about the gifts we have received, about the blessings in our lives, and grow resilient in the midst of our despair. Whether he understood it in these terms or not, I have no doubt Martin Rinkart wrote “Now thank we all our God” at what was surely the lowest point of his life in order to stay resilient, and to encourage resilience in his community.

DSC_1921Friends, may we be relentlessly thankful for all the blessings of our lives, for all the gifts we receive, for the source of our lives, for the power that brought us and this world and this universe into being, for that fundamental creative energy at the heart of all there is, and for all the ways we are connected to each other, and to all life, and to each dry leaf decaying on the wet November ground, and to each blazing star gracing the heavens with its light. Thank you. Thank you. May we learn to pause and know that none of it is a given, and all of it is a gift. Thank you. Thank you. And may these simple, profound words speak in our hearts and on our tongues, again and again, even in our times of greatest despair: thank you, thank you.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Rinkart, Martin, “Now Thank We All Our God,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #32.

[2] Poulton, Ian, “An A-Z of Hymnwriters: Martin Rinkart,” For the Fainthearted, September 14, 2011. See: http://www.forthefainthearted.com/2011/09/14/an-a-z-of-hymnwriters-martin-rinkart/.

[3] For another version of the story, see Oron, Aryeh, “Martin Rinkart (Hymn-Writer), Bach Cantatas Website, July 2008. See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Lib/Rinckart.htm.

[4] Rinkart, Martin, “Now Thank We All Our God,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #32. Poulton says the Biblical inspiration for these words was Ecclesiasticus, Chapter 50, verse 22-24.

[5] “In Praise of Gratitude,” Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Health Publications: Harvard Medical School, November 1, 2011. See: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/in-praise-of-gratitude. Emmons’ and McCullough’s findings were originally published in Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M.E., “Counted Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003; 84: 377–389.

[6] Reviews of recent psychological studies on gratitude are at the following websites: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3010965/

http://www.professional-counselling.com/support-files/gratitude-and-psychological-well-being.pdf

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/2Wood-GratitudeWell-BeingReview.pdf

[7] Steindl-Rast, David, “Want to be Happy? Be Grateful.” TED Talk, June, 2013. See: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_steindl_rast_want_to_be_happy_be_grateful?language=en

[8] Check out http://www.gratefulness.org/.

[9] Check out http://www.gratefulness.org/resource/basic-daily-gratefulness-practice/.

[10] Merwin, W. S., “Thanks, Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). See: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/thanks.

Telling it With a Sigh . . . .

Chaplain Emma Peterson

Emma Peterson In my work as a hospital chaplain, I am seeking to hear the stories of the patients and families I encounter. “Tell me the story of your life,” I ask. And my asking often comes in the midst of remarkable upheaval, in the moments where life as they knew it is suddenly so very different from what they hoped for, expected. I arrive in the unsettling, the reconsidering, the knitting back together. I meet people in the minutes just after the breaking, and long before the healing really begins. “Tell me the story of your life,” I say and wait for what comes. At first, there is usually a look of surprise. Eyes widen a bit, and lips purse as if to catch any words that may pass without permission. But there is always an answer. It begins slowly, a drawling “well,” but there is almost always a response that the person I am listening to has considered before.

          Because that’s how humans are. We are constantly working to make sense of the pathways of our lives. We are seeking the aerial view of the map we always believed we were following. We are aching to see the whole picture, as if it would clarify where we came from and where we are going. My life began like this, we say, and then it looked like this, and then it looked a little different, and now I am here. Usually, the people I encounter attempt to conclude their narratives with an air of confidence- an assurance that they were always meant to wind up exactly where they are. Or, they make an attempt at explaining why their life doesn’t look the way they had always hoped. “I turned left here, when I should have turned right.” “I took this job, pursued this love, moved far away or found my way back home.” I did this, and this, and now I am here. See? It all makes sense, and I was at the helm the whole time, for good or for ill.
          Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is arguably the most iconic poem in America. David Orr’s recent examination of the work and its impact on Western popular culture ranks it as a poem cherished in both academic and informal circles. It has been utilized in thousands of advertisements, appropriated onto countless novels and literary collections. It can be quoted without reference to its original source and recognized immediately by almost any audience. Americans love this poem. It speaks to the way we value personal choice, independence, and control over the worlds we exist in. “And that has made all the difference,” we explain over and over- to ourselves, to each other. Its refrain reassures us in moments when we fear we are losing touch with our personal compass. “I took the one less traveled by,” we proclaim proudly as we attempt to explain the mess of pathways, the lack of straight lines, the utter disaster that was our journey from A to B. I got myself here on purpose, we say, trying to convince ourselves all the while.
          But Western popular culture is guilty of a massive mis-reading of Frost’s most loved poem. We have made famous our misconception, popularized it in such a way that Frost’s intent has become far removed from what we want his words to mean. And, as I think is typical of so many stubborn American assertions, we are oblivious to the fact that Frost is actually confessing a deep anxiety of the human spirit. That is, a recognition that our paths are unknown to us until we begin to travel them.”Though as for that, the passing there/had worn them really about the same.” It all looks the same until we turn left or right, until we discover what is coming up around the next bend. We do not create the paths that lay before us, nor do we always dictate which direction we are going in. Frost is shaking his head at our insistence on explaining away our lives, on claiming ownership and control. Frost is opening a vulnerable cavity of awareness, recognizing a lack of actual choice while admitting he will still try to explain it all as his own doing years in the future.
          Neither Frost nor myself are making a claim that we never actually make our own choices. Of course we do. But a self-centric world view, an insistence that we can always, no matter what, determine where we end up, is painfully flawed. Such a view ignores all of the other forces that exist around us all the time. These “forces” I am referring to are both concrete and obvious, our families, our jobs, our personal obligations and the day to day monotony of survival. But I think it’s much, much more vast than that- I want to push beyond the lens of human consciousness, towards a possibility that there may exist forces in this incredible, miracle universe in which we exist. That these forces may actually have a rhythm, an awareness, an intention to them. And that maybe, we, tiny specks that we are, might not be the ones in charge here. We certainly try to appear in charge. Building up our systems and our rules, stomping our feet and proclaiming skywards that we are running the show here! And the world spins endlessly on in response. And This world continues on, storming, growing, dying, erupting. The world and the universe that cradles it was here eons before we ever were, will be here long after, and I’m not really sure if the entire universe sees your personal life plan as congruent to the big picture. Maybe something bigger than you has a better plan for your life, and it intends to get you there- no matter how desperately you aim in the other direction. And so look out, theres a curve ahead, and you may want to ride it instead of fighting it.
          Here’s something about those curves we face. They come, with their swooping, break-neck speed, and they leave whatever came before them behind.  One path always leaves another untravelled. And the loss there is real, and significant in the narratives of our lives. If you are uncertain where the meaning lies, look for the loss. Seek out the grief, and work to understand how its presence has informed your identity. “Sorry I could not travel both/and be one traveller.” In the past decade, I have imagined countless possible lives I could lead. But there is always, really, only room for one. How many people could I have become by now, if only I could seek out all paths, or settle down once I felt I had found my way home. Life doesn’t work that way. And there our traveller stands, on the precipice of possibility, knowing that whatever way he goes, he will lose the other way entirely. He expresses a brief hope to return again and seek the other path. “Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/I doubted if I should ever come back.” In that there is grieved recognition of a life not lived, and another lived instead.
          Just like so many of the patients I encounter, I too have learned how to tell my story. My words are practiced to sound that while I accept a small degree of mystery, I more or less knew my direction from the start. But this is all just well rehearsed nonsense. I don’t know how I wound up where I am, and the only thing I can point to to explain it all is this feeling that has swelled from my heart from the moment I realized that I was not the center of the universe. (Imagine that!) This feeling can only be called faith, a certainty in some divine presence that I know exists, even if I can’t even begin to qualify it. This love, this deep love that feels truly knitted into my very person, has kept me moving ever forward, and it has doubled back to find me each time I declared I was going to ignore it because I had other things to do. If destiny is real, then destiny hurts. But I have come to realize that ignoring the persistent whisper in my heart, the whisper that demands I follow what I have come to understand as my personal call, hurts far more than answering it, loudly, and with praise.
          I was raised in the bosom of small-town Methodist community. The theology of the faith that raised me was conservative, straight forward and simple. Christ, born of Father God and Mary, came here to save humanity. We took communion with homemade bread and warm grape juice, laid the baby Jesus in our manger on Christmas Eve, and covered the cross during Holy Week. I grew up spending Sunday’s being embraced by the bony, warm dry hands of little old ladies. My pastors were men who commanded authority, and who didn’t appreciate the questions I asked as I got older.
          I think I was about ten when I began to feel the persistent tug of cognitive dissonance. One Sunday, our minister preached a sermon about his certainty that Jesus Christ was “the way, the truth, and the light.” Proclaiming Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior was the only path to salvation. At the time, I had a friend Ming June whose parents owned the Chinese take out place on Main Street. She lived in a huge victorian home with a bevy of Chinese men and women who were here to work in the restaurant. In their sparse living room was a massive Buddhist alter, a smiling statue of the one who is awake in the center. Sweet incense burned around the Buddha all day long, orange peels dried at his feet, and small scraps of paper bearing prayers rested in his palms. Ming’s family alter was a sacred space, I knew it to be true, and the thought of her burning in hell for following the wrong prophet both broke my heart and awoke in me an anger that eventually led me away from the Methodist church and Christianity entirely. This burgeoning anger, this swelling of dissent carried with it a strong undercurrent of grief and loss. I ached to hear true gospel. I was coming into myself, developing an in your face liberal and queered identity, and I all I wanted was for someone to tell me God made me as I was, loved me every day, and recognized me even when I couldn’t recognize myself.
          This period of angst lasted an entire decade. I learned to ignore God, in no small part because I already believed God was ignoring me. I felt safely removed from the longing simmering in my heart. But then when I was 21, on a trip to Texas I visited a psychic, a veritable prophet, sitting in her sweltering trailer in July. She was all of four foot five, skin like leather left in the sun, and a voice only achieved when someone is very, very dedicated to chain smoking. She held my hands in hers, and spoke to me with a measured urgency unlike anything I’d heard before. “Ask me a question, dear child,” she implored me, and I did. I asked her what I was going to be when I grew up. My anxiety surrounding the mystery of what was to come next was growing inside me, and I had come to her in hopes of direction. “I don’t know,” she relied, her voice scraping gravel. “But I can tell you this, you are going to work for God.” She shook me up, this tiny psychic angel, and then she sent me on my way. I pushed her out of my mind for seven months, until on one late January afternoon I sat down and resolved to apply to seminary. I wanted answers about God. I wanted to know why I couldn’t hear “blessed assurance” without dissolving into tears. I wanted to know why people in my life, those who knew me and knew me not at all were always telling me to become a pastor. I determined I would answer these questions by hitting the books, and one year later found myself at Yale.
I read the entire Bible, and only found more to reject. I wanted to return to Christ, and while I loved the puzzle of the trinity, I just couldn’t conceive of Jesus beyond a revolutionary and a prophet. This broke my heart, and I spiraled again into grief and loss.
          But then I met Elizabeth Price, a CPE supervisor delighted by my reluctance to name the divine presence I felt always. She accepted me into the ten week chaplaincy program, and it was there I discovered the holy ground I had so long been seeking. In the hospital, where the world comes when it is breaking, the divine was everywhere. I encountered God in each patient I met, mixed in with the starkest possible representations of the human experience. And this stumbling upon what what I believed to be God calling me to chaplain ministry meant I needed to get to work. Gradually, a combination of dear friends and small miracles led me to the Unitarian Universalist Association of New Haven. And there, on that first Sunday morning, was a proclamation of the gospel I had been longing to hear. There it was! It was justice, and mystery, and radical inclusion all at once. I was home, finally, finally. God had found a way and I was home.
          I am not going off the deep end here. Please do not misunderstand this sermon as a spin of the relentlessly damaging adage “everything happens for a reason.” I do not believe everything happens for a reason. But I do believe there is so much more to this world than we, tiny fallible humans can ever hope to understand. I want to believe God, spirit, heavenly creator, knows me intimately and has intentions for what I (and you, too) will do in this world. All I can say is this- I would not be a Unitarian Universalist, I would not be a hospital chaplain, I would not spend every day swelled to capacity for love of the divine if something, something unfathomable and way, way bigger than me didn’t exist.
          In the photo series “Humans of New York” there was a picture taken of a middle-aged woman leaning against an iron fence in some small city neighborhood. The corresponding quote read, “I have this theory. Are you ready for it? So we are on earth for a finite amount of time. And time is a manmade perception. And we perceive time passing through change- seasons, aging, things like that. So to expand our time on earth, we must incite as much change in our lives as possible.” What a remarkable way to cope with the unexpected. And she’s right, at least in terms of how I think of my own life. My strongest memories, my strongest sense of how I have become who I am becoming, are directly connected to transition, to new life, to moving past something and growing in to something new. And most of this change comes with a period of pain, of grief, of reluctance to move beyond the familiar and the comfortable. But after all of that, after I truly put to rest what is no longer mine, there is new and better life. There is a sense of “this is where I am supposed to be.” I never would have gotten anywhere near where I am now if I had been in charge.
          I am telling this with a sigh. But I am no longer making claim that my own choice about left here or right there made all the difference in this strange and incredible life I’m blessed to live. The narrative of my life contains so much more than my own choices. Perhaps I am “giving it up to God.” Perhaps I am choosing to waylay personal responsibility in favor of divine mystery, for the pull of the unexpected, for the chance to see what happens next if I listen for the thread woven so tightly throughout my heart. If it were truly up to me, I likely wouldn’t of sent off that application to seminary in the wee hours of some January morning. I wouldn’t have chosen to witness so much death, so much loss, so much remarkable grace. But here I am. Best to let that be what it is, best to become whatever I am supposed to become.
          And maybe there are signs, sometimes, showing up how we can live in this unbelievable world. In the late afternoon, I am walking the dog around a man made pond. The earth around me is heavily landscaped, displaying appealing beauty with its perfect angles and intentional curves and straight lines. The day is cool and clear, breezy. A monarch butterfly flits past me, filling up my vision with a flash of orange and black, beating wings. She appears so suddenly that I catch my breath, and pause to take note of her arrival. She is lovely, and so bright against the endless blue sky. She circles my body, once, twice, before allowing the wind to carry her on. The breeze is strong, but she rides it like a kite. Her weightlessness has become her strength, and she has surrendered herself to the journey ahead. She will withstand the wind, and it will become a part of her,  taking her where she needs to go.

UUS:E Members Stand on the Hartford City Line for the Black Lives Matter

 

Photo by Rev. Heather Rion Starr

Photo by Rev. Heather Rion Starr

On Monday, October 5th, several members of UUSE joined a hundred others at a Moral Monday CT rally for racial  and economic justice.  The rally began at the Unitarian Society of Hartford. Unitarian Universalist Association staff from Boston were in attendance.  Particiapants marched out to the corner of Bloomfield and Albany Avenues under the banner “Black Lives Matter”, where about 30 of us moved into the intersection and stopped traffic for approximately 20 minutes.  Four members of UUS:E were among the City Line Dozen arrested: Al Benford, Sue McMillen, Joan Macomber and Christine Joyner.

In addition, Rhona Cohen and Lisa P. Sementilli, Co-Chairs of the UUS:E Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee were there along with Rev. Pawelek, Polly Painter, Nancy Parker, Gene Sestero, Bob Hewey, Carol Simpson and many others.

Why the Hartford City Line? We were there to dramatize the stark economic difference between Hartford and the surrounding suburbs. Hartford is Connecticut’s capital city—the insurance city—and yet one of the poorest cities in the nation.  Hartford is 84% black and Latino.  Per capita income is less than $17,000/year and about half of the city’s children live in poverty. The corner of Prospect and Albany is the dividing line between wealth and poverty, a potent symbol of racial and economic injustice in Hartford. That’s why we stood there for this particular action.

If you didn’t make it but want to help:

There is more to come. Moral Monday CT leader, Bishop John Selders said, “we will continue to carry the gospel of justice beyond the City Line.”

More coverage: 

http://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/12-Arrested-in-Black-Lives-Matter-Protest-in-Hartford-330770352.html

http://foxct.com/2015/10/05/protesters-chant-black-lives-matter-at-moral-monday-rally-in-hartford/

http://www.courant.com/breaking-news/hc-hartford-protest-1006-20151005-story.html