Remembering and Imagining: Time Travel as Spiritual Practice

Rev. Josh Pawelek

On your program cover there’s an image of the sankofa bird. Sankofa comes from the Twi language of Ghana in West Africa. A common English translation is “go back and get it.” The sankofa bird is an example of adinkra. Adinkra symbols make up a highly symbolic language—similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics. They are common among the Akan people of Ghana, and have made their way into the wider African diaspora. The symbols express complex thoughts and proverbs. The sankofa bird’s head faces backward as it attempts to catch its lost egg in its mouth. Its feet face forward. One translation is, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have lost,” or “that which was taken.” Learn your past so that it may guide your actions in the present for the purpose of shaping the future. Another translation: “remember the past to protect the future.”[1]

Past, present, future. This sermon is about time travel. In the absence of an actual time machine, how do we visit the past? How do we visit the future? The sankofa bird isn’t a time machine. It is an assertion that the act of visiting matters.

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I am an admirer of UCONN physics professor Ron Mallett, who convinces me time travel is possible—in theory certainly and, perhaps one day, in practice. I want to share with you a clip from a lecture he gave a few years ago. The lecture outlines his book, Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality.[2]

[While preaching this sermon, I showed the following video until 3:45, though the entire lecture is worth viewing.]

I love Professor Mallett’s questions: “Who of us has not wondered what’s going to happen in the future, what’s going to happen next? Or thought about the past, maybe to visit some significant historical event, or … to change something in our lives?”[3] These are human, spiritual questions. They might emerge in us from any number of sources: curiosity, wonder, anxiety, fear. For Professor Mallett they emerge out of a ten-year-old’s potent grief, a desire to see his father again, to maybe save his life.

There’s a sankofa dimension in Professor Mallett’s pursuit of time travel. Go back and get it. Go back and retrieve what was lost, that precious egg. Throughout his career he has been looking back—while his feet have faced forward, while he’s studied the impact of black holes on time, the intricacies of circulating light created by strong lasers. He’s produced no time machine, but his backward look has motivated him to advance human understanding, thereby shaping the future, and possibly inspiring some as-yet-unborn savant to build the machine he longs for. Who’s to say his father’s life won’t yet be saved?

Go back and get it.

****

In May Rolling Stone magazine featured on its cover singer, composer, actress, filmmaker and founder of the Wondaland artists collective, Janelle Monáe. The article, entitled “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself,” was helping to promote her new album Dirty Computers. If you aren’t familiar with Monáe’s music, you may still know her as the actress who played Teresa in Moonlight, winner of the 2016 Oscar for best picture; or Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures, the story about the black, female NASA mathematicians during the 1960s space race (also a 2016 best picture nomination). I knew Monáe was a musician. I was not familiar with her music. What I’d heard about the Rolling Stone article before actually reading it seemed strange. It seemed to be introducing Monáe as a human being—as if she’d never been one before. There was something to that. “‘Let the rumors be true’” trumpeted the opening paragraph. “Janelle Monáe is not … the immaculate android, the ‘alien from outer space/The cybergirl without a face’ she’s claimed to be over a decade’s worth of albums, videos, concerts and … interviews—she is, instead, a flawed, messy, flesh-and-blood 32-year-old human being.”[4]

Wait, what? Android?

I have been exploring Monáe’s music all summer, including the videos (she calls them ‘emotion pictures’) that accompany her songs with an amazing science fiction story. In a sense she really hasn’t been human until now. She’s been writing, performing and appearing in emotion pictures as a rebellious, time-traveling, messianic android named Cindi Mayweather. In the futuristic city of Metropolis, sentient androids serve humans—they’re essentially slaves—an explicit metaphor for racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression in our society. Cindi Mayweather becomes fully aware of her oppression when she illegally falls in love with a human, gets caught, and is slated for disassembly. She fights back, leading a nonviolent rebellion against the Great Divide, a secret society that uses time travel to suppress freedom and love across eras. Deploying the weapons of music, dance, inclusion and love, her rebellion seeks to unite androids and humans as equals.[5]

To give you just a taste of how Monáe tells these stories, here’s a quick clip from the emotion picture for her 2013 song, “Q.U.E.E.N.”

[While preaching this sermon, I showed this video until 0:55.]

About Monáe’s 2010 album, ArchAndroid, the writer Charles Pulliam-Moore says: “While time travel is established as being an integral part of the album’s story, it’s unclear specifically how you [as the listener/viewer are] supposed to string its timeline together or whether you’re meant to at all. At various points throughout the [album], Cindi’s staring down death at the Droid Patrol’s hands, wandering through an asylum for folks whose dancing is a subversive form of magic, or imploring people to join her as she’s slipping into the time stream…. She weaves in and out of moments throughout time, all the while spreading her messages of love, raging against her oppressors, and encouraging you to do the same.”[6] I call this hyper-sankofa. Cindi Mayweather goes back to find what was lost, but she also goes forward, sideways, up, down and around. She appears in multiple times and spaces at once, always fighting the forces of oppression with love, music, dance, creativity, individuality. Earlier you heard an example of this hyper-sankofa time travel in the reading of the cybernetic chantdown from in the song “Many Moons.”[7]

While all these temporal boundary-crossings are happening in the emotion pictures, Monáe’s music seamlessly crosses boundaries between styles and eras. She combines the sounds not just of R&B, soul, hip hop, funk, spirituals, jazz and big band which we associate with Black artists, but psychedelic rock, Broadway, European classical music and movie soundtracks. The opening song on her new album is a collaboration with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys[8]–possibly the whitest band of all time!

She wants her audience to cross boundaries as well. She used to hand out a pamphlet at her concerts called “Ten Droid Commandments.” The seventh commandment read: “Before the show, feel free to walk about the premises impersonating one of the many inspirations of the ArchAndroid Emotion Picture: … Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, Outkast, Stevie Wonder, Octavia Butler, David Bowie, Andy Warhol or John Williams.”[9] Artistically she goes back again and again to recover the past, weaving it into a present expression that envisions a compelling future. In a sense, she doesn’t need a time machine. She is a time machine, driven by a potent yearning to manifest humanity’s interconnectedness through music—and to invite her audience to manifest it with her. It’s another version of sankofa: redeem the past by transcending its divisions in the present. In so doing, create a future that enables people to exist beyond labels and stereotypes, to freely live multiple, intersecting identities, to be creative, to be whole. There is much at stake in the act of visiting past and future.

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Some critics and scholars classify Janelle Monáe’s art as Afrofuturism, an artistic movement that imagines Black people and culture in the future. One might think there’s nothing extraordinary about that. Of course there will be Black people and culture in the future.’ But that doesn’t account for a historic lack of Black and other People of Color characters, world-views and stories in our most culturally prominent future visions, especially in science fiction and fantasy. In her book, Afrofuturism, scholar and sci-fi writer Ytasha L. Womak says: “Even in the imaginary future—a space where the mind can stretch beyond the Milky Way to envision routine space travel, cuddly space animals, talking apes, and time machines—[when] people can’t fathom a person of non-Euro descent a hundred years [from now], a cosmic foot has to be put down.”[10] Afrofuturism puts that foot down.

Womak discusses various lineages of black artists—sci-fi and fantasy writers like Octavia Butler; musicians like Sun Ra, George Clinton and Janelle Monae; visual artists, poets, deejays, film-makers, museum curators, conference organizers—people who imagine Black and other peoples of color in the future through their artwork. This comes in response to dominant culture futurism’s failure to imagine Black and other peoples of color in the coming centuries or in imaginary, fantasy settings. In populating the future with Black people, Womak says “Afrofuturism unchains the mind.” It liberates the imagination, liberates creativity. When a person can imagine themself in the future—even a wild, seemingly impossible future, or a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested future—it generates hope, resolve, and action.

But Afrofuturism also looks back. Womack points to artists who refer to their ancestors, or to the ancient histories, mythologies, and cultures of the African continent. She quotes poet Khari B., who says, “It’s the sankofa effect…. One step into the future while looking back…. We’re evolving using the strength and characteristics of things that [brought us to where we are today]. We … pull from our past to build our future.”[11] Go back and get it!

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I want to leave you with three thoughts regarding how Afrofuturistic time travel might influence a historically white culture Unitarian Universalist congregation.

First, as a person descended most recently from White, European ancestors, it feels critical to me to approach Afrofuturism, as well as sankofa, deeply aware of the ways in which White, European culture historically has—and even today continues to—misunderstand, misrepresent, belittle, denigrate, appropriate, steal, and at times, destroy the cultural expressions of non-European cultures. The short-hand for this is ‘cultural racism.’ Mindful of it, I’m digging deeply into Afrofuturism, stiving to do so with the utmost humility and reverence.

Second. We live in the future’s past. contemplate that for a moment. Since we live in the future’s past, what is our responsibility for creating a future worthy of our principles—one that corrects the flaws of white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism and environmental injustice? One that is inclusive, loving, joyful? Womak says “the idea of time travel, oddly enough, reemphasizes the present.” That is, given the future we imagine, how should we act now? Who should we be today so that a loving, inclusive future becomes a reality? I read to you earlier from the hip-hop artist Gabriel Teodros’ story, “Lalibela.”[12] Teodros has a spoken word piece called “Colored People’s Time Machine,” in which he acknowledges, “I’m the future ancestor to my unborn seeds.”[13] He means we need to be conscious, aware, accountable to the people who are coming after us. We want them to come back and get us, to bring us into their present so that our example can help them shape their future. That’s time tavel.

Finally, I talked about the way Janelle Monáe collapses the boundaries between past, present and future in her music. Gabriel Teodros makes a similar statement in “Colored People’s Time Machine.” He says “Everything’s happening at once, right?” [14] The more human beings consciously travel in time—remembering and imagining, remembering and imagining, remembering and imagining—the more the boundaries between past, present and future actually disappear. Maybe they were never real in the first place. Maybe they are just illusions our minds create to make sense of our existence. Teodros continues: “ I see it in moments and I feel it in dreams  / and it would be so easy If I could let go of me. / It’s a constant process unravelling / You call it hip hop, I call it colored people’s time machine. / Made of music you feel what you don’t see, / I ride the vessel, the vessel is also me.” Arriving at that kind of enlightenment—that sense of oneness in time and space—is the goal of many spiritual practices. Sankofa suggests yet another approach. Go back and get it. Bring it forward. Shape the future by living well in the present. Ride the vessel, knowing you are the vessel.

Go back and get it.

Amen.

Blessed be.

 

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[1] For a general statement about Sankofa, see the article “Sankofa, What Does it Mean?” at the blog Sankofa: Filling the Digital Divide, Feb. 15, 2013: https://lnwatsonblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/sankofa-what-does-it-mean/.

For a general statement about adinkra, see the article “Adinkra Symbols” at the blog An Afroetic Narrative, 2016: https://afroetic.com/adinkra-symbols/. Also see reflections on sankofa and the sankofa bird in Womack, Ytasha L., Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013) pp. 160-161.

[2] Mallett, Ron L., Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality (Basic Books: New York, 2009).

[3] UConn Talks, “Time Travel Fueled by Love,” with Professor Ron L. Mallett. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etJv4yTY4Ig.

[4] Spanos, Brittany, “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself,” Rolling Stone, Issue 1313/1314, May 17-30, 2018, pp. 34-36. See: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/janelle-monae-frees-herself-629204/.

[5] Sterritt, Laura, “Janelle Monáe’s Hidden Sci-Fi Epic,” Transchordian, October 24th, 2013. See: http://www.transchordian.com/2013/10/metropolis-janelle-monaes-hidden-sci-fi-epic/. Also see Womak, Afrofuturism, pp. 74-76. View further analyses of Janelle Monáe’s work at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMqng3HmPOA and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdylle_hPgQ.

[6] Pulliam-Moore, Charles, “From Metropolis to Dirty Computer: A Guide to Janelle Monáe’s Time-Traveling Musical Odyssey” at io9 We Come From the Future (Gizmodo), May 2, 2018. See: https://io9.gizmodo.com/from-metropolis-to-dirty-computer-a-guide-to-janelle-m-1825580195.

[7] View the emotion picture for Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHgbzNHVg0c.

[8] Listen to Janelle Monae’s “Dirty Computer” featuring Brian Wilson on Yutube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFK6k-pvXmI.

[9] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 75.

[10] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 7. Incidentally, Ytasha Womak is the creator of Rayla 2212—a multimedia series with music, books, animation and games that follows Rayla Illmatic … a rebel strategist and third generation citizen of Planet Hope, an Earth colony gone rogue some two hundred years into the future. Check out: http://rayla2212.com/welcome-to-the-world-of-rayla/.

[11] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 160.

[12] Teodros, Gabriel, “Lalibela,” in Brown, Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood (Oakland: AK Press, 2015) pp. 123-133.

[13] Tedodros, Gabriel, “Colored People’s Time Machine.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuIxAkZXsKI.

[14] Tedodros, Gabriel, “Colored People’s Time Machine.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuIxAkZXsKI.

Only the Mystery Is

Rev. Josh Pawelek

The Outward Orientation

Our ministry theme for July is witness. As far as I can tell, the last time I preached directly on this theme was July, 2012. I had just returned from the “Justice General Assembly”—or Justice GA—in Phoenix, where Unitarian Universalist Association leaders had dedicated the entire five-day assembly to witnessing Arizona’s treatment of undocumented immigrants; and to specifically witnessing against the racial profiling and other anti-immigrant practices of Maricopa County’s now infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In that sermon I talked about a variety of ways to define understand witness. I pointed out that in more conservative, fundamentalist or evangelical churches, the term witness often refers to the act of naming how God is working positively in one’s life—how God is bringing healing, rebirth, a bright future, prosperity, etc., into one’s life. In mainline Protestant, liberal Christian and Unitarian Universalist congregations, the term witness more often refers to the public naming of social, economic and political injustices; and the prophetic call for reform, for social transformation, for justice-making, for building the beloved community.

I also spoke of a pastoral dimension to religious witness. I quoted the oncologist and spiritual writer, Rachel Naomi Remen who once said, “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[1] I said that, for me, Remen’s statement names “the heart of what it means to be a religious witness. When someone is suffering, let us in the very least not turn away, not move on to the next agenda item, not think of the next thing we need to say. When someone is suffering, let us stay present to their pain; let us keep our focus on what has happened to them. When someone is suffering, let us stay with them, sit by their side, listen to their story, support them, encourage them.” Even if we have no words and don’t know what to say, even if we feel inadequate, even if the other’s suffering is beyond our comprehension, our silent presence still matters. “When we act as religious witnesses, we make suffering visible so that it cannot be ignored, denied or downplayed by anyone. When we act as religious witnesses we say to those who suffer, ‘you do not have to endure this alone.’ When someone is suffering, in the very least, let us not turn away.”[2]

I notice that each of these forms of religious witness orients us in an outward manner, focuses our attention outward. We reach out, call out, speak out, extend ourselves, lengthen ourselves, enlarge ourselves, give of ourselves, open our hearts beyond the boundaries of self. We suffer with. We peer out beyond ourselves to the sacred, to Nature, to God, to Goddess, to the animating spirit of life. We peer out beyond ourselves to human society, to its systems and institutions that perpetuate injustice, oppression, discrimination, and cruelty toward people, towards animals, toward the earth. We peer out beyond ourselves to family, friends, neighbors and strangers who are suffering, who are in pain, who are hurting; outward to those who are lonely, isolated, stuck, stranded, imprisoned.

To bear witness is to assume an outward orientation—to turn, to move, to reach, to peer out beyond ourselves.

The Inward Orientation

You have heard me say many times, in different ways, that one of the central purposes of the church is to ‘send its people forth,’ to cultivate in the people that outward orientation. The church sends you forth to bear witness to the way the sacred moves in the world and to celebrate that movement. The church sends you forth to bear witness to suffering and to be present to it for the sake of healing and connection. The church sends you forth to bear witness to injustice and oppression and to organize and advocate for a more just and loving community.

But the church would be spiritually negligent were it to send you forth without first preparing you. We prepare for the outward look by taking the inward look. We are more effective and impactful in our outward witness when we pause, first, for inward witness.

I remember learning this lesson during my unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE) at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston in the summer of 1998. CPE is an intensive pastoral care training in a hospital setting. When my supervisors learned I am an adult child of an alcoholic, they guided me into deep reflection on how that alcoholism had shaped me emotionally, and how it might influence my response to hospital patients in treatment for alcoholism and other addictions. What features of my experience might prevent me from being fully present while providing pastoral care to an alcoholic? What assumptions was I carrying about alcoholism and alcoholics that might lead me to misunderstand an individual’s unique circumstances? What deeply-rooted behaviors forged in me through years of living with an alcoholic might subvert my best efforts to provide compassionate care? A lack of clear answers to such questions, an absence of self-knowledge—the failure to peer inward and understand the origins of my adult self—would limit my capacity to provide genuine and effective pastoral care. With no inward witness, the outward witness grows thin, brittle, ambivalent.

I’m mindful of Martin Luther King Jr.’s description of the steps one must take to insure a successful campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. Before placing one’s body in the street, or at the entrance to an official building or a legislator’s office, before offering one’s body to potential violence, to arrest, spiritual purification is essential. In King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he says: “We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’”[3] Again this probing, this searching, this preparing of the self is critical. Am I ready? What will prevent me from engaging? What inner fears and conflicts might weaken my resolve? Who am I really? Who am I becoming? Who do I long to be?

Before the outward witness can succeed, the inward witness is essential.

This is the reason I almost always open our worship services with an invitation to interiority. Find that place inside of you, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, when you yearn for peace; that place where you know your truth, where your conviction resides, where your voice is strong; that place from which you reach out to others who are suffering; that place in which you commune with all that is holy in your life. But I’m also suggesting this morning that that place inside of us is not static, is not some unchanging center. It grows as we grow. Our knowledge of it is never complete. There is always more for us to discover about that place inside of us. It is always possible to peer more deeply within; always possible to extend and enlarge our self-knowledge; always possible to more fully grasp the roots of our anxieties, obsessions and fears—and the roots of the roots. It is always possible to more fully understand the forces that have shaped and formed us for better or for worse. It is always possible to rewrite the stories we and others tell about ourselves so that the words and images and metaphors more accurately speak to who we are, who we’re becoming and who we long to be.

We take the inward look to prepare as best we can for the outward look. The quality of our inward witness determines the quality of our outward witness. The depth of our inward witness lends power and confidence to our outward witness.

Only the Mystery Is

The inward witness doesn’t end merely with self-knowledge. Something more profound rests just beyond the base of our self-knowing. Something more profound rests beneath, around, within – though these are words we use to describe something that is indescribable. Earlier we shared spiritual teacher Adyashanti’s poem, “Have You Noticed?” Here it is again:

I have no more ideas anymore about / God, consciousness, / the absolute or non-duality. / If you want to talk with me / let us meet where / there are no abstractions. / All I want to know is: / Have you noticed? / Something is here / my friend. / Something is here / have you noticed? / Only the Mystery is. / The Mystery is noticing that / only the Mystery is. / Have you noticed?[4]

As we witness through layers and layers of self, layers and layers of experience, layers and layers of who I am, who I am becoming, who I long to be; as we slowly come to terms with the forces that have shaped and formed us, it is possible at times to arrive at a different kind of knowledge, a different kind of awareness—a knowledge and awareness that so many words, concepts, and theories humans use to describe reality actually don’t describe reality, actually serve, in the end, to limit reality, to box it in, to confine it. In actuality life and spirit and soul cannot be captured in words and concepts and theories. In actuality life and spirit and soul are always moving beyond the boundaries human beings establish; always flowing, transcending, subverting; always, like the wind, blowing where they may; always, like the wind, oblivious to the borders humans draw on maps and defend with soldiers, walls and drones.

I have no more ideas anymore about / God, consciousness, / the absolute or non-duality. / If you want to talk with me / let us meet where / there are no abstractions.

Adyashanti’s words remind me of those familiar lines from the 13th-century Persian Sufi poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi:  Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing / and rightdoing there is a field./ I’ll meet you there. / When the soul lies down in that grass / the world is too full to talk about. / Ideas, language, even the phrase each other / doesn’t make any sense.[5] They remind me also of the pronouncements of the ancient Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, who responds to a question about how to rule the world, “What kind of question is this? I am just about to set off with the Creator. And if I get bored with that, then I’ll ride on the Light-and-Lissome Bird out beyond the six directions, wandering in the village of Not-Even-Anything and living in the Broad-and-Borderless field…. Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, follow along with things the way they are.”[6]

These sages sought, in playful ways, to guide their followers to that ‘something more profound,’ that essence that is full because it is empty, assertive because it is silent, mobile because it is still, something because it is nothing; that ground of being in which we rest yet which we can only approach through a quieting of the mind, through the abandonment of words and concepts and theories, through the letting go of any and all notions of the self.

I am confident that the closer we can come to this ‘something more profound,’ to this place wherein, as Adyashanti says elsewhere, no words can penetrate, [7] the more robust our preparation will be for our outward witness in the wider world. The more we can take notice of the mystery within, where human borders and boundaries and barricades make no sense, the better able we are to transcend the borders and boundaries and barricades that relentlessly separate people from each other and from the earth.

Suddenly the inward witness and the outward witness don’t seem so distinct, may even be the same witness, because ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ are human constructions, human words, that don’t quite capture the essence of reality.  

Suddenly we realize, only the Mystery is / …. Have you noticed?

Amen and blessed be. 

 

[1] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Bearing Witness,” My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000) p. 105.

[2] Pawelek, Josh, “Let Us Not Turn Away: Some Reflections on Justice General Assembly,” a sermon preached for the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, July 15, 2012. See: http://uuse.org/let-us-not-turn-away-some-reflections-on-justice-general-assembly/#.WzOvL9JKhPY.

[3] King, Jr., Martin Luther, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. Read the text at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[4] Adyashanti, “Have You Noticed?” My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 108.

[5] Jalal al-Din Rumi, excerpt from “Out Beyond Ideas.” See: https://allpoetry.com/Out-Beyond-Ideas.

[6] Watson, Burton, tr., Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) pp. 90-91.

[7] Adyashanti, My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 115.

[8] Adyashanti, “Have You Noticed?” My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 108.

The Blessings of Restlessness

“A Fierce Unrest” by Stephany Pascetta

Rev. Josh Pawelek with Poems by Molly Vigeant

A Restless God

I want to take you back to my last sermon for a moment. Riffing off scholar Jack Miles’ 1995 book God: A Biography, I described the God of the Hebrew Bible as a literary character. Again, the God Miles describes is not the God our Jewish and Christian neighbors worship. He is something wholly different and, frankly, much more reminiscent of a human being who struggles with conflicting emotions, who can’t quite anticipate the consequences of his actions, and who seems to have, at best, modest control over outcomes. There’s always something he wants—or thinks he wants—some yearning, some longing. “That God,” says Miles, “is the divided original whose divided image we remain. His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep.”

Miles makes the provocative argument that all of us in the west—even people who don’t believe in God—have been shaped to some degree—psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, morally—by this literary character. The inner workings of his life—particularly his inner conflicts—mirror the inner workings of the lives of most human beings.

In the story God creates human beings specifically so that he may have an image of himself—so that he may observe his image and thereby learn about himself, gain self-knowledge, grow. There’s a subtext. People wrote the biblical books. Over the course of centuries human beings collectively created this literary character to explore and explain their deepest questions. Which means it’s not just that we are God’s image. God is also our image. Through the centuries the biblical writers, the story-tellers, the prophets, the temple officials, the priests, the rabbis, the ministers have projected out onto God the very same inner conflicts, confusion, lack of control, yearning, longing, etc. that we experience in our daily lives. God isn’t even a projection of our highest ideals and aspirations, as some contend; he is a projection of our base instincts and impulses, which often conflict mightily with our highest ideals and aspirations. His may be the restless breathing we hear in our sleep; but it was restless human beings who imagined him as restless in the first place.

All this is to say that there is a restlessness that lives in us. Or, as the early twentieth-century writer and satirist, Don Marquis, wrote, “a fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things; it was the eager wish to soar that gave the Gods their wings.” A fierce unrest. Sometimes its pulse is very faint; sometimes it roars through us, a raging river. At times we turn to spirituality to soothe it, calm it, tame it. Yet spirituality can have the exact opposite effect. At times it can force us to confront truths about ourselves and the world we’d rather not confront. It can bring us face to face with profound questions of right and wrong, good and evil—and demand that we choose. Spirituality can show us and lead us toward the life we long to live, which is often radically different from the life we actually live. It can reveal to us the kind of community we ought to build, which is often radically different from the community in which we actually live. In that gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ we are restless. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it is God’s restless breathing or ours. There is a restlessness at the heart of all things. When we sense it, it calls us to move. How do we respond?

Click Legs Together

click legs together
1,2,3
click heals together
4,5
tap fingers
1,2,3
snap wrist
4,5

you may call it restless,
I call it defenses
against my mind

the way i sit,
the way i pace
and cant for the life of me
just stand in place

its restless

its exhausting

and its me

i wouldn’t change it for a thing
the way i sing
at every red light
even if the radio is off

the way my mind works in verses,
but never sentences

my impulse
is to write
and write
and write

and most of it never gets written
because my fingers don’t go as fast as my mind

but that’s fine

god hears me

my impulse is
to be like him
my ever restless prayer
is to learn more
but im too restless
to meditate long enough
to get my answer

dear god,
please enter my restless mind

i know may never be divine
i may never be still
but i swear i will learn
if you enstill a restless impulse of love

God, i know i am good enough

love yourself
1,2,3
you’re enough
4,5

stay strong
1,2,3

love yourself
4,5.

Always Caught

We are always caught in that place between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be.’ There is always something about us, about our communities, about the world, that could be better, could be different, could align more directly with our deepest values, could more clearly manifest our highest ideals and aspirations. Always. And thus there is always the potential for us to feel restless. As we move into the summer season, I have two questions for you to consider. First, do you recognize your own restlessness? Are you aware of what churns in you, wakes you at night, races your mind? What is that roaring river raging? What is that ‘ought to be’ that you haven’t yet realized? Second, once you recognize your restlessness, can you understand it as a spiritual condition?

Our restlessness is most confounding, most discomforting, and most likely to erode our well-being when we try to ignore it, escape it, evade it. It becomes a problem when we feel it—the churning, the sleeplessness, the racing mind, the twitchy leg, the anxiety, the gnawing ache, the self-doubt—and instead of asking, ‘where is this leading me?’ or ‘what values are at stake?’ we ask—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—‘how can I just make it go away?’ Our response to it, then, is avoidance. We try to push it down, talk it back. Sometimes this is a necessary response. We’ve got to get through our day. We’ve got to function in our jobs, or as parents, as grandparents, as caregivers, as students, as people with responsibilities, deadlines, tasks, hoops to jump through, etc.

But if we only ever treat our restlessness as a set of uncomfortable, unwelcome feelings to get rid of, there can be problems. I suppose a worst-case scenario is that we engage in destructive behaviors to distract ourselves from our restlessness. We feed addictions, we give into cravings, seek to satisfy immediate urges, embrace whatever may offer some sense of relief. But in pursuing relief in this way, we haven’t dealt with the source of our restlessness.

Another possibility is that we dampen our restlessness so much that our efforts result in a kind of stasis. Our lives become over-ritualized, highly routinized, rule-bound, mechanical. We may appear to be at peace, relaxed, calm. But we haven’t dealt with the source of our restlessness.

Sometimes we can genuinely pacify our restlessness. We’re the lone, wild bird who says, “great spirit come and rest in me,” and something happens. Perhaps through some disciplined spiritual practice we achieve a moment of rest, of solace. Perhaps through prayer, meditation, singing, dancing, stretching we can say “ahhh, I finally feel centered and at peace. I’ve let go. I am relaxed. Namaste.” But it rarely lasts. It’s a false center, a hollow peace. The great spirit may have come to rest, but it has taken flight once again. It has disappeared, because we have not dealt with the source of our restlessness. ‘What is’ and ‘what ought to be’ still aren’t moving toward alignment.. The gap persists. The river still rages. Restlessness reasserts itself.

Push it Down, Smile

push it down,
smile
they need little miss sunshine

well, i need sunshine,
i need suns rays
on a beautiful day
and time to walk
and think
and pray

to keep restlessness
at bay

i dont mind
my ever racing mind
so long as i have time
to let myself process
the thoughts
in my own time
they come so fast
sometimes i need to just relax

restlessness can be a blessing
but if i feel its sting
a little too long
the alarm goes off
before my mind hits the pillow

i’ve been laying for hours
but i never seem to sleep
or complete
whatever task
my brain
asks
and asks
and
ASKS

ever-less nicely to complete

but i can’t

i can’t get to my feet
i worked all day
the restlessness needs to just go away

but its here for a reason.
right?

i’m going to be okay,
whatever i did that day was enough
the sun will rise.
i need to find time
to walk
on a beautiful day
and pray

because restlessness does not
just go away

its here for a reason
not all lessons
are pleasant
some are meant to sting

so that you may learn
your true purpose.

Restlessness as a Spiritual Condition

What if we choose to recognize our restlessness as a spiritual condition? What if, instead of seeking a way to end it, we seek a way into it? What if, instead of seeking to dampen it, we seek to amplify it? What if, instead of asking, ‘how can I just make this go away,’ we ask, ‘where is this leading me?’ or ‘what values are at stake?’ or ‘what ideal, what aspiration beckons in the midst of this discomfort?’
Doing so may invite greater disruption, greater discomfort. It may suggest life changes we hadn’t anticipated. It may be frightening, unnerving, disconcerting. But, as Molly says, “it’s here for a reason, right?” Yes, it usually is. If a fierce unrest seethes at the core of all things, if the essence of reality is motion and rhythm cycling endlessly, aren’t we taking good spiritual care of ourselves if we embrace that motion and rhythm in our own lives? If the source of our restlessness is the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be,’ isn’t the more genuinely spiritual path the one that takes us into that gap—even if it isn’t an immediately peaceful path? Isn’t the more genuinely spiritual path the one that has us acting to bridge the gap?

Coming into this congregational year, I was feeling restless about our social justice work. We are a highly engaged congregation, but as I reflect on what we’ve accomplished over the years, I sometimes wonder what ultimate impact our work has had. I’ve named this wondering in sermons from time to time. I wonder if, despite all the advocacy, the rallying, the marching, the testifying, the witnessing, the commitment to sanctuary, the commitment to Black Lives Matter, the commitment to the GLBTQ community and on and on, our efforts haven’t had much impact. The gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ is as pronounced in the Greater Hartford region as it is anywhere in the country. This is why I have gotten involved in the Poor People’s Campaign. Might a program of sustained, nonviolent direct action get the attention of the powers that be, shift the conversation in this region, reduce the gap? I don’t know. But I’ve felt restless, and in asking ‘where is it leading me,’ this is the direction that has emerged.

I’m aware of people who grow restless in the presence of injustice. Do you just keep doing what you’ve always done when things don’t seem to be changing? Or worse, do you keep looking the other way, making excuses, rationalizing, blaming victims? Or do you boldly choose to rise up, speak truth to power, reform your patterns of living, re-orient your accountabilities?

I’m also mindful of people who grow restless in the context of their work, their careers, their professions; or the patterns of living in their retirement? Do you just hold on, doing what you’ve always been doing without question and reflection? Or do you boldly choose to reinvent yourself, re-educate yourself, follow a new calling?

I’m aware of people who’ve always felt called to create in some way, to make art in some form, but for whatever reason, haven’t made space for it in their lives, haven’t opened themselves up to that particular restlessness. Do you continue to put that call aside, continue to say, ‘I’ll get to it someday,’ continue to repeat the reasons why it’s unrealistic? Or do you boldly choose to create, to express yourself, to produce things of beauty, to be an artisit?

I’m mindful of people who grow restless in their religious context—the religion of their childhood, or the religion they thought held the answers, or the religion that helped them silence their restlessness. But something doesn’t feel right—some preaching, some theology, some hierarchy, some exclusivity—still hasn’t bridged the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be.’ Do you continue in that religion out of habit, fear, guilt? Or do you boldly choose to follow your longing for something that speaks more openly and honestly to that place inside of you, your heart, your soul?

When we ask our restlessness, ‘where are you leading me?’ so often, though the path may be difficult, though the lesson may sting, it leads to a more authentic self. It leads to a life of greater integrity. It leads to growth, to experience, to wisdom, and ultimately, to that place where ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ are more fully aligned.

Find Your Meaning

the fourth Unitarian Universalist principle is:
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning

find your meaning

find your calling
let the restlessness consume you
eat at you
push you
and pull you
in every uncomfortable direction

find your meaning
and let it consume you

i need to write
i need to,
half the time i dont want to

but so much beauty can be found
in this compulsion
to write down
every last verse
to not rehearse
or edit

otherwise things
play around in my head
and I’m ever more restless

anxiety
and adrenaline
are not the same thing

when life is out of control
and your heart’s on parole
and everything is harder
than it should be
remember the beauty
you found in things
when you were just a toddler

when every catastrophe at work
never happened
every worry
was a broken crayon
where did you find beauty then

maybe your restless head
screaming at you
when you lay in bed
is trying to tell you
to find your meaning
go back to your meaning

if that means a new job
what is there to fear
from new learning

money comes and goes
but compassion shows
in every aspect of your life
every strife you face
will dissipate
when you find your meaning

let restlessness consume you
let it teach you
to be you.

The Image of the Image of the Image . . . .

By Rev. Josh Pawelek

Growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation where most of the members identified as Humanists, atheists or agnostics, I heard many arguments against belief in God. One of those arguments outlined the many divine inconsistencies in the Bible. God creates the world, saying it is good, then destroys it. God is the personal God of Abraham, and also God of all nations. God is a warrior who leads Israel to victory; but God also fights and kills the Israelites in retaliation for their transgressions. God is the lawgiver who punishes some but not others. God is just and terrible, loving and cruel, male and female, knowable and mysterious, present and absent. How can we believe in a God who varies so widely across so many pages of scripture?

There are many answers to such questions. We might hear that human beings cannot comprehend the vastness of God, and thus we only ever encounter one divine facet at a time. We might hear that God’s mystery requires us to believe despite the inconsistencies. My Humanist UU elders found such answers unconvincing.

Of course, we were not the first people to notice the inconsistencies. As long as the biblical books have existed there have been scholars, theologians, temple officials, priests, rabbis, ministers and imams who’ve attempted to explain the inconsistencies so that ordinary readers can fathom such a wide-ranging divine personality. Those attempts will continue as long as the God of Abraham remains God in the western religious mind.

I recently read Jack Miles’ 1995 book, God: A Biography.[1] Miles is Professor Emeritus of English and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and Senior Fellow for Religion and International Affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy.[2] I read his book because Fred Sawyer suggested it after he and Phil purchased a sermon at our 2017 Goods and Services Auction. I’m glad I read it. Miles presents God not as the God our Jewish and Christian neighbors worship, but as a literary character—the protagonist in one of civilization’s most enduring stories. In doing so he offers insights into the spiritual conflicts residing at the heart of the human condition and explains an enduring human restlessness.  

God: A Biography tells the story of God as it appears in the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, which is distinct from the Christian Old Testament.[3] They contain the same books, but they order the books differently, which means as literature they tell God’s story differently. The plot unfolds differently. The character of God develops differently.

I also want you to know the difference between historical criticism and literary criticism of the Bible. Historical criticism studies who wrote a particular biblical book—where, when and why they wrote; who their audience was. The historical critic teases out the cultural and religious influences in the writer’s life—their sources.

For example, the very beginning of Genesis describes the creative acts of elohim, translated as God. Elohim creates and blesses and pronounces everything as good. He creates men and women in his image and generously gives them the entire world: “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” Then, a few verses later, an entirely different creation story begins, describing the acts of yahweh, translated as the Lord God. He doesn’t give the whole world to Adam and Eve, he gives them a garden. And when they disobey him, he flies into a passionate rage, punishing them harshly. “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; / in pain you shall bring forth children….’ / And to the man he said…. / ‘cursed is the ground because of you; / in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; / thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you ….  / until you return to the ground, / for out of it you were taken; you are dust, / and to dust you shall return.”[4] The historical critic reveals these are actually two different traditions with two different Gods that have been edited—fused—into one.

The Bible is filled with such fusions. It’s not just elohim and yahweh. In Genesis 6—the story of Noah’s ark—God takes on the traits of the watery Babylonian chaos monster, Tiamat, becoming not only the creator of the world, but also its destroyer. Eventually the Canaanite sky God, el, is woven into God’s personality. El is also the common Ancient Near Eastern word for any god; it appears in the Bible in terms like el shaddai, Almighty God, whom Abraham invokes for ritual circumcision; and el olam, Everlasting God, whom Abraham invokes before the binding of Isaac. In God we find traits of the Mesopotamian personal god. He absorbs the Canaanite war God, Baal. He becomes the Lord of Hosts, the liberator, the lawgiver, the conquerer, the father god to Kings David and Solomon, the arbiter, the executioner, the protector of the poor and oppressed, the Lord of all the nations. For the prophet Isaiah he is the Holy One of Israel, unknowable, mysterious. For Daniel he is the “Ancient of Days.” Despite a concerted effort to remove all evidence of the divine feminine, traces of the Canaanite goddess Asherah persist in God. 

This fusion happened because Israel, throughout its ancient history, was becoming monotheistic. The writer known as the Deuteronomist edited the earliest books of the Bible into a monotheistic story. As Miles puts it, the Deuteronomist’s gift was to make all these distinct materials seem in combination, down to the phrase, ‘the Lord our God,’ not just plausible but inevitable.[5] The historical critic pulls it all apart, reveals the editor at work, tells the story behind the story.

Miles isn’t doing historical criticism. He’s doing a species of literary criticism that picks up all these disparate gods the historical critic has exposed, and reads them back into the character of God as the Bible’s main protagonist. Imagining God as a character, we can understand the inconsistencies not as vestiges of earlier deities, but as God’s experience of inner conflict.[6] For example, God is generous and creative. God is strict and destructive. We might not believe in such a God, but we can ask, ‘what is it like to contend with such competing impulses? And do these impulses not also reside in the human heart? As God the character experiences inner turmoil, he affirms our very human wrestling with our own conflicting impulses.

Contemplate this question: Why did God create? I typically say the biblical creation story is a metaphor for the creative impulse at the heart of all existence. God creates because reality is inherently creative. But that’s not the answer the character God gives. Miles says, “God makes a world because he wants mankind, and he wants mankind because he wants an image.”[7] He doesn’t want a servant, a friend, a spouse; he wants an image of himself.  Why he wants this is not entirely clear. We know nothing about God before creation. We might wonder, ‘is God lonely?’ If so, wouldn’t he create a spouse or friends? That’s not what he does. He creates an image of himself, which suggests that he wants to know himself more fully by observing his image. More than companionship, God longs for self-knowledge.

But he doesn’t always like his image. Adam and Eve disobey. He becomes angry, terrifying. He curses. Apparently, he can’t handle the knowledge that this disobedience lives in him. After releasing his anger, he feels regret, remorse. He wants somehow to make it up to them. The text says “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.”[8] Miles asks, “Having just inflicted labor in childbearing on her and toil in the fields on him, why should he now spare them the inconvenience of making their own clothing? Why if not because, to speak very simply, he feels bad about it?”[9] Miles identifies this moment as God’s first inner conflict, and suggests it is the beginning of western humanity’s interior life as well.[10]

As the Bible progresses, another important dynamic emerges. God wields immense power, but rarely foresees the results of his use of power. Miles calls him ignorant at times. It makes sense. Because he has no history, he has nothing for comparison. He is learning as he goes. Whenever something unexpected happens that he doesn’t like, he tries to fix it, often in a fit of rage. Afterwards he feels regret, tries to atone, restates his promises more generously than before. Then something else unexpected happens. Miles says, “his key experiences … subvert his intentions…. He did not realize when he told mankind to ‘be fertile and increase’ that he was creating an image of himself that was also a rival creator. He did not realize when he destroyed his rival that he would regret the destruction of his image. He did not realize that his covenant with Abraham … would require him … to go to war with Egypt…. He did not realize when he gave [the Israelites] the law that where there is law, there can be transgression, and that, therefore, he himself had turned an implicitly unbreakable covenant into an explicitly breakable one…. The inference one might make looking at the entire course of his history … is that God is only very imperfectly self-conscious and very slightly in control of the consequences of his words and actions.”[11] We may not believe in such a god, but certainly his imperfect self-consciousness and his minimal control of events makes him a compelling literary character and a wonderful mirror for our own internal struggles and limits.

The book of Job provides the story’s literary climax. True to form, God enters into something that doesn’t go how he expects. Job is righteous, steadfastly loyal to God. The satan, translated as the adversary, suggests Job is righteous only because it brings him wealth. Take away his wealth? He will curse God. God says ‘go ahead, impoverish him, torture him. He’ll stay righteous.’ The wager is on. The adversary tortures Job mercilessly. Job maintains his righteousness believing God will vindicate him. But then he does the unexpected. He demands God explain why he must suffer so greatly. He demands an explanation of God’s justice, because his suffering is pointless. God seems to not recognize that’s he’s won. Job has not cursed him. But God is infuriated that Job has questioned him. God speaks from the whirlwind—an ode not to justice but to raw, unfettered power. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”[12] “Will you even put me in the / wrong? / Will you condemn me that you / may be justified? / Have you an arm like God, / and can you thunder with a / voice like his?”[13]

Job responds calmly. The common interpretation is that Job hears God and repents. In the typical English translation Job says “I had heard of you by the hearing / of the ear, / but now my eye sees you; / therefore I despise myself, / and repent in dust and ashes.”[14] Miles says this is incorrect. A careful reading of the ancient Hebrew calls for a different interpretation. Job does not repent. A more authentic translation of Job’s words is, “Now that I’ve seen you / I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay,”[15] meaning divine justice is not a given for anyone; meaning God is as likely to be evil and cruel as he is to be kind and just. God didn’t expect this lesson, this wisdom. Once again he plunges into profound inner turmoil. “After Job,” writes Miles, “God knows his own ambiguity as he has never known it before. He now knows that, though he is not [a] fiend, he has a fiend[ish] side and that mankind’s conscience can be finer than his.”[16] He finds solace in the knowledge that Job is his image. He restores Job’s life and doubles his wealth. Indeed, it is not Job who repents, but God.

From here to the end of the Tanakh God is silent. People speak about him, but he speaks no more. Miles describes him as a sleeper, a bystander, a recluse, a puzzle. What are we to make of this silence? Miles wonders: “Once you have seen yourself in your image, will you want to keep looking?” “Will you lose interest in yourself … once the image has served its purpose and you know who you are?”[17]

Maybe. Maybe God lost interest. Whether he did or not, this story of  a God who could never quite choose one deep impulse over another, has shaped western moral consciousness as much as any other force. “That God,” says Miles, “is the divided original whose divided image we remain. His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep.”[18]

May we never lose interest—not in the things we hold sacred, not in ourselves. May we continue to encounter that restless breathing. May continue to struggle with our own inner conflicts trusting we will grow wise in time. May we continue in self-discovery, even when that discovery is unanticipated, difficult, painful. May we each have a Job in our lives who confronts us with the truth and calls us to our best and highest selves.

Amen and blessed be.

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

[2] For information on Jack Miles, visit his website at http://www.jackmiles.com/. For information on his forthcoming book, God in the Quir’an, visit: http://www.jackmiles.com/Home/books/god-in-the-qur-an.

[3] In 2002 Miles published a follow-up book on God in the Christian Scriptures called Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.

[4] Selections from Genesis 3: 14-19. (NRSV)

[5] Miles, God, p. 141.

[6] Miles, God, p. 21.

[7] Miles, God, p. 28.

[8] Genesis 3: 20-b. (NRSV)

[9] Miles, God, p. 36.

[10] Miles, God, p. 33.

[11] Miles, God, pp. 250-251.

[12] Job 38: 4a. (NRSV)

[13] Job 40: 8-9. (NRSV)

[14] Job 42: 5-6. (NRSV)

[15] Miles, God, p. 325.

[16] Miles, God, p. 328.

[17] Miles, God, p. 404.

[18] Miles, God, p. 408.

As You Love Yourself

This afternoon we hold our annual meeting. One of the items on the agenda is the adoption of a new vision statement for the congregation. The statement is this:

Unitarian Universalist Society: East will be home to a spiritually alive, richly diverse and growing congregation. We will send forth energy, spirit and strength into our beloved communities. We will love, be present to suffering, comfort, heal, bear witness to oppression, and boldly work toward social and environmental justice.

The word ‘love’ jumps out at me. There’s a story about why love appears in the statement. I want to share it with you. Though I preface my sharing with a concern, which is that, we Unitarian Universalists—and many people of liberal faith—along with the wider culture more generally—tend to gloss over love, are often imprecise in our naming of it. We’ve drained love of it of meaning, have allowed it to become a cliché. This is so true that it is even cliché for a minister to tell you that love has become cliché!” (Just want you to know that I know that.) We each understand love in our own way, yet we rarely, if ever, pause in the course of our congregational life to examine what we actually mean by love, what the various dimensions of love are, and perhaps most importantly, how we demonstrate love with our actions.

You may remember last May, approximately seven hundred Unitarian Universalist congregations participated in White Supremacy Teach-Ins, mostly on Sunday mornings. You may remember the Teach-Ins came in response to allegations of White Supremacy culture operating at the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston. A number of high-ranking UUA staff members resigned over concerns about racism impacting hiring decisions. It was a very painful time. That pain continues as Unitarian Universalism continues to wrestle with race and racism.

I preached a sermon last May about White Supremacy culture. Among other things, I said that while White UUs aren’t White supremacists, our culture, especially when we fail to examine it closely, can produce racist outcomes. This is true of any culturally White institution. Often we don’t recognize it unless someone courageously makes us aware of it.[1]

At that time our Policy Board and Program Council were beginning to plan their fall leadership retreat, during which our leaders would craft a new vision statement. Alan Ayers was the board president at the time. He approached me after that sermon and asked a question that went something like this: “If a group of mostly White UUS:E leaders designs a vision statement for a largely White congregation, could our efforts to achieve that vision inadvertently perpetuate racism?”

Yes. The answer was and is “yes.” I loved that Alan had encountered my words, had not felt defensive, but rather, had been moved to re-think, or at least question, a congregational process. Could we somehow perpetuate racism if we don’t think this through more closely?

We started to think it through more closely. We ultimately decided to invite five prominent People of Color leaders from the Greater Hartford region—all people with whom we have some degree of relationship—to speak to our leadership prior to our visioning work. We wanted their perspectives as People of Color leaders to inform and deepen our visioning process. We asked them, “What is your vision for Manchester and Greater Hartford?” And, “How can our congregation contribute to the fulfillment of that vision?” Did this guarantee that our process would be completely free from that unconscious, unintentional racism we’re naming when we talk about White Supremacy culture? No. But this was an anti-racist way to approach our visioning process.

Pamela Moore Selders leading a song at the CT Poor People’s Campaign

One of the panelists was Pamela Moore Selders. Many of you know her as a co-founder of Moral Monday Connecticut with her husband, Bishop John Selders. They are conveners of the Black Lives Matter movement in Connecticut. They are also organizers for the Poor People’s Campaign in Connecticut.  When I was arrested on Monday at the first Poor People’s Campaign action, it was Pamela’s phone number I had scrawled on my arm for my one phone call.) In response to our questions that evening back in September, Pamela said, essentially, “I need you [mostly White UU congregational leaders] to know that I love being Black. I love the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, my culture, my food, my art. I love being Black.”

And then she said something I will never forget. “I need you  to love yourselves like I love myself.”

When I first heard her say this, there was a small part of me that wondered, “How on earth can we put ‘love ourselves’ in a vision statement without sounding like completely self-absorbed, new-age navel-gazers, without sounding like an insular, in-crowd social club?” And another small part of me said, “Of course we love ourselves. What’s she talking about?”

But the rest of me said “Yes. She’s right. This isn’t about the words on paper. This isn’t ultimately about the final vision statement. This is about the abiding, living, active love that must reside at the foundation of our life together. It cannot be glossed over. It needs constant nurture and attention; and especially in a congregation that has such a long and enduring Humanist identity, it begins with and is rooted in love of self. What an incredible invitation Pamela was making to us.

In the list of sources for our UU living tradition we identify “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” In the Bible I find this most clearly stated in Jesus’ response to the question, ‘which commandment is the first of all?’ He condenses centuries of Jewish teaching and prophetic witness into a few, short, enduring phrases: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”[2] Regarding that second commandment, in my experience, we  tend to focus on the neighbor part. We actually ask ourselves frequently, in a variety of ways,  “Who is our neighbor?” “How can we work in solidarity with our neighbor?” “How can we more fully welcome the stranger, the alien, the other?” This afternoon we decide as a congregation whether or not to offer sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation. That is ultimately a question of who our neighbors are. Essential questions! But how often do we pause to reflect on the “as yourself” part?

That’s an essential question too. The love we offer our neighbor mirrors our love for ourselves. Yet, if we don’t reflect deeply on the quality of love we feel for ourselves—if we just assume that everybody feels love for themselves, so that rather than exploring it we gloss over it, take it for granted, turn it into a cliché—how do we really know the nature of the love we ought to be extending to our neighbor?

When I read in our proposed vision statement the phrase, “we will love,” I recall Pamela’s invitation to love ourselves. In addition to extending love to our neighbor, I read in this phrase an invitation for us to unapologetically take a deep inward look, for each of us to unabashedly explore, experience and name the love we each feel for ourselves; and then for us as a congregation to unabashedly and proudly explore, experience and name the love we feel for ourselves as a congregation. We do this so that the love we offer to each other and into the world is authentic, powerful, and transformative.

This inward look is hard. Genuine love of self is hard. Mary Bopp told me a story this week about a minister she worked with in a previous congregation, who said “of course everybody loves themselves.” Mary said “that’s not true. It’s not as easy as you think.” He said, “sure it is.” She said, “ask your wife if it’s easy.” Apparently he asked his wife, who told him about how women are often socialized to care for others above themselves, and how the capacity for self-love is then easily dampened, suppressed or lost as a result.

There was a lot of Facebook chatter this week about my Poor People’s Campaign arrest on Monday. My cousin made the point that not everyone can risk being arrested, and that I was fortunate to be in a position to. I wrote back to her: “Yes…. I am in a fortunate position. Since I have support in my professional life from the people I serve as minister, my colleagues and my denominational structure, and since I am a straight, white, very privileged man, I feel a certain obligation to take this risk on behalf of those who can’t.” I jumped right to love of neighbor, responsibility to neighbor, accountability to neighbor. That’s important. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had forgotten my own “as yourself” part. The truth is, I do this for myself too. Economic inequality, racism, environmental destruction, and the distorted moral narrative in our country all impact the communities that hold me, and thus they impact me. Interdependent web, yes? I also do this because I love myself and my family.”

My point is that I didn’t intuitively identify self-love as a reason for acting. So many people struggle with cultivating self-love. So many people for so many reasons feel, at some level, unworthy, not good enough, guilty, ashamed, weak. Unitarian Universalism isn’t always helpful here. We have a perfectionist streak running through our history. That may have been what Pamela Moore Selders was sensing when she said “I want you to love yourselves like I love myself.” We don’t always recognize our perfectionism, but it’s there. It has roots in our Puritan, New England spiritual heritage. It’s more visible among our Unitarian forebears, but the Universalists had their perfectionist leanings too. It’s part of American culture, capitalist and industrial culture. We witness it in the unrelenting drive for efficiency, for increased production, profit, growth, or in the words of the 19th-century Unitarian theologian, James Freeman Clarke, in the “progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”  So often we unconsciously measure ourselves against some perfect ideal, and find ourselves lacking. Self-love is hard when perfection is the default.

I wrestle with perfectionism. I feel like I fail often—as a parent, a husband, brother, son. I stumble often as a minister. Did anyone notice? Are they disappointed? I hope not. I second-guess myself. Was that the right thing to say? Is this the right sermon to preach? I know what needs to be done, but I’m not doing it because I’m doing something else that’s taking too much time. Do I have my priorities right? Are people thinking I don’t have my priorities right? Will the people respond well to what I say? Why am I so nervous? I wake up at 2:00 AM, my mind racing about the annual appeal, the worship service, why too few people are volunteering for leadership positions, the person in the hospital I forgot to call.

But Pamela Moore Selders didn’t say, “I need you to do it perfectly.” She said “I need you to love yourselves.”

When I wake at 2:00 AM, is there any love in there? Do I love my hair? My skin? Do I love my culture, my food, my art? Maybe the things on Pamela’s list aren’t the things on my list. But I do have a list. I love my sense of rhythm, that I can sit down at a drum set and drum. I love my Polish and Pennsylvania Dutch heritage; I love my creativity, my connection to nature, my ability to speak in public, my courage, my non-defensiveness, my ability to apologize, my experience of a sacred dimension in my living. I love how I love that sacred dimension. I love my wife, my children, my family, my friends. I love that they love me. I love that I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I love serving as your minister. If I strive to do all of it with perfection, measuring the results against some ideal standard, then I grow anxious and will likely fail. But if I can just revel in the love I feel, be present with it, surrender to it, love myself—ahh!—now I’ve got a solid foundation from which I can love my neighbor. Now I’ve got some sense of how I am called to love the world. 

Members and friends of this congregation: What’s on your list? How deeply do each of you love yourselves? Can you put words to it? Can you describe it? I know it is very difficult for some of you. Sometimes the self-doubt, the feelings of unworthiness are powerful. Do you know what gets in the way of deep self love? How are you actively addressing it? And even if it isn’t difficult, we still don’t typically speak of the ways we love ourselves. There’s something counter-intuitive about it, it feels selfish, self-absorbed. But I want us to feel invited to speak of it, because it is the foundation upon which we love our neighbor.

Furthermore, what is on your collective, congregational list? What do you love about this congregation? Can you say it with pride? Can you celebrate it? What do you love about your minister? Can you tell him? Can he tell you what he loves about you? Can you make abundant room for that conversation? It is indeed prelude to loving our neighbor.

This is my challenge to you: Make your lists. Share them with each other. A bold and heart-filled love of ourselves matters. It is certainly not the end of our journey, but an essential beginning. It is not selfish or self-absorbed, but an essential part of the foundation upon which we build our future together.  And from that foundation, we can go out into the world, knowing so much more clearly how to bless it, how to witness its pain, challenge its injustices, and work for healing and justice. I need you to love yourselves like I love myself.

May you make compelling lists—not of the things you must do, but of the depth of your love: for yourselves, for each other, for the world. May love of self become the source of your deep compassion for yourself, for your neighbor, for the world.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Pawelek, Rev. Joshua Mason, “White Supremacy Teach-In,” a sermon delivered to the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, May 7, 2017. See: http://uuse.org/white-supremacy-teach-in/#.WvxAw4gvxPZ.

[2] Mark 12: 28b-31.

A Tale of Two Churches

In the summer of 1984 my family spent two weeks in Poland. We arrived a year after Poland’s communist government had lifted martial law, which it had used to cripple the nearly ten million member Independent Self-governing Labor Union, Solidarity. Although it had been banned and political repression was widespread, Solidarity continued to operate underground. Most people we encountered were openly critical of the government. They were extraordinarily hopeful that not only the Polish government, but the Soviet Union would soon collapse under the weight of the human yearning for freedom.

Whenever we would discuss the political situation with Poles, the conversation would inevitably turn to the Roman Catholic Church. With the full support of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, the Church provided unwavering support for Solidarity and, by extension, the Polish people, in their struggle against communist oppression. The Catholic Church was wildly popular. Even the most scientifically-minded atheists loved the church for its brazen defiance. When we asked, ‘what keeps you hopeful?” always the answer was “the Church.” When we asked, “how can we give money to Solidarity,” always the answer was, “donate to the Church.”  

On our last weekend in Gdansk we worshipped at St. Bridget’s, whose priest, Father Henryk Jankowski, had famously served the Eucharist to striking shipyard workers. Inside that sanctuary you would never know the country was facing political repression. The standing-room-only congregation was on fire, spiritually alive, vibrant, free. I will never forget that congregation singing its closing song, every right hand raised in the air, making a V for victory. It was as if the kingdom had come.

I learned a very specific lesson away from that experience: At its best, the Church—Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Unitarian Universalist, Quaker, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness—fights for justice and freedom, speaks truth to power, sides with the people, loves the people. That’s what it means to be a church. In the language of our Unitarian Universalist principles, the church promotes “justice, equity and compassion in human relations” and draws on the “prophetic words and deeds of people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”

Later that year, October, 1984, this lesson deepened as the world received news that secret police had murdered Poland’s most outspoken anti-communist priest, Father Jerzy Popieluzko—a sobering reminder that in siding with the people, the church and its leaders may become victims of the very oppression they seek to resist.

Fast forward a decade to my first year in seminary. I registered for a class called “The Church and European Revolution,” imagining it would give me insight into the historical trends that informed the Polish Church in the 1980s. I wanted to understand more fully how churches have been involved in struggles against oppression over the centuries.

What I learned, instead, is that the Polish model is exceedingly rare. It seemed that through all of modern European history, the church, whether Catholic or Protestant, was inevitably in league with the ruling powers and resisted revolutionary impulses rising up among the people. The church executed—or sanctioned the execution of—its own priests or ministers if they took revolutionary stances. A notable example comes from the German Peasants War of the mid 1520s. While the towering Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, sided with the German princes and called on the peasants to cease their uprising, the radical, apocalyptic preacher and theologian Thomas Müntzer became a leader of the peasants’ revolt. He was eventually captured, tortured and executed.

In those countries where revolutions succeeded in toppling the ruling powers, most notably France and Russia, the churches were so thoroughly linked to the ruling powers that they became the primary targets of revolutionary violence.

It’s a tale of two churches. On one hand there is the church of the struggling people, the church that seeks liberation, justice, freedom; the church that reads the Beatitudes—‘Blessed are you poor”—and takes them to heart; the church that encounters the Hebrew prophets’ call to “loose the bonds of injustice … to let the oppressed go free”—and takes them to heart.

On the other hand, there is the church that identifies with the powers that be; the church that shies away from prophetic words and deeds so as not to upset the status quo; the church that looks away from oppression and is, by omission if not commission, complicit with unjust systems that trap and impoverish people.  

Stan and Sue McMillen purchased this sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. Stan suggested a few ideas for me to consider. All of them seemed to be versions of this tale of two churches, in particular what he identified as the “apparent abdication in much of the faith-based community [of the responsibility] to condemn racial, gender and sexual orientation injustice and violence.”

Stan pointed to two recent New York Times editorials. First, in a June Op-ed entitled “Is Your God Dead?” [1] Emory University Philosophy professor, George Yancy, said “I have been troubled by the lack of religious and theological outrage against national and global poverty, white racism and supremacism, sexism, classism, homophobia, bullying, building walls, ‘alternative facts,’ visa/immigration bans and xenophobia.” It’s a scathing criticsm. If your God isn’t dead, prove it. Show me the evidence of people who take the words of the prophets to heart. Do something. He says, “I await the day … when those who believe in the ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob’ will lock arms and march on Washington, refusing to live any longer under the weight of so much inhumanity.”

Second, in an Easter Op-ed entitled “We Forgot What Dr. King Believed In,”[2] Georgetown University sociology professor, Michael Eric Dyson, reminds us how even at the height of the Civil Rights movement, not only did many White churches continue to align with the racist status quo, but Black churches and their leaders also rarely risked the level of involvement and confrontation necessary to bring lasting change. In a speech to black ministers in Miami two months before his assassination, King said “the great tragedy is that Christianity failed to see that it had the revolutionary edge.” Dyson says that same edge is lacking today. He describes how churches of all racial identities have failed to address the crises of our times. He calls us to remember and take to heart what Dr. King believed, that “a commitment to God is a commitment to bettering humanity, that the spiritual practices of prayer and worship must be translated into concern for the poor and vulnerable … [that people of faith must] work to defeat racism, speak out in principled opposition to war and combat poverty.”

So, “Yes!” Of course. You know me. As Josh Pawelek, “Yes!” to the church that works for liberation, justice and freedom. “Yes!” to the church that fights oppression. As a Unitarian Universalist, an ordained minister, a person of faith, a husband, a father—as a human being—

“Yes!” to that church. “Yes!” to the Polish Catholic Church that confronted communism. “Yes!” “Yes!” to Father Popieluszko! “Yes!” to Thomas Müntzer. “Yes!” to Rev. Norbert Capek, Rev. Deitrich Bonhoffer and the German Confessing Church for their World War II resistance to the Nazis. “Yes!” to the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, Unitarian Universalists murdered for their participation in the Civil Rights movement. “Yes!” to Martin Luther King, Jr.! “Yes!” to Archbishop Oscar Romero! “Yes!” to the Black Liberation theologian, Dr. James Cone who died last week. To the church that heeds the cries of the prophets, that works in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, that repairs the breach between what is and what ought to be, I offer a resounding “Yes!”

From one angle, it’s hard to argue this congregation, and Unitarian Universalism nationally, has abdicated its responsibility. This church was deeply involved in Connecticut’s campaigns for marriage equality and legal protections for transgender people. We were deeply involved in the passage of an environmental justice bill in 2008; in campaigns for criminal justice and drug policy reform to challenge mass incarceration of people of color; in campaigns for better health care, domestic worker rights, and educational reform; in the work of refugee resettlement; in support of Black Lives Matter. In that regard, Stan isn’t referring to us when he speaks about faith communities abdicating. If he is, Sue [McMillen] might take issue with him. Afterall, she was a member of the City Line Dozen who were arrested in Hartford on October 5th, 2015. As a person of faith, supported by her congregation and her minister, she was protesting stark income inequality between residents of Hartford and those of the surrounding suburbs.

From another angle, however, one could argue our efforts have been woefully insufficient, our arrests largely symbolic. One could argue our pulpit messages have not adequately moved us to the kind of mass action necessary to change the direction of the nation, nor have they moved us to honestly examine our own complicity in systems of oppression. Now, poverty is increasing; the war economy is escalating; movements against women’s reproductive rights, gay and lesbian civil rights and protections for transgender people are gaining ground; movements to restrict voting rights, to end consent decrees intended to reduce police violence, to privatize and build more prisons are gaining ground; movements to transfer wealth from all economic classes to corporations and the wealthy elite are prevailing; movements to undue years of environmental protections and regulations intended to reduce the scale and pace of climate change are gaining ground.

I know you know this. I know you have many feelings about this—from fear and despair, to outrage, to commitment and resolve, to unquenchable hope. I know so many of you want to be part of the solution, but are unsure of your capacity, of your ability to pursue confrontation. You are legitimately concerned that the more firmly we position ourselves in the breach, the more risky our religious life becomes. Might we become targets of hate?

That possibility is always present. But we cannot let hate win. When leaders of color from Greater Hartford spoke to our leadership last fall in preparation for our work of creating a new congregational vision statement, they told us they need us to lead with love, and to be bold! Now is a time for love and boldness.

This is why I fully support this congregation providing sanctuary to immigrants seeking to avoid deportation. Not only will sanctuary help salvage the lives of individuals who take shelter with us; we will be sending a message to Manchester, Connecticut, ICE and the White House that it is morally wrong to destroy families, communities and local economies through a policy of indiscriminate and widespread deportations.

This is also why I feel called to participate in the relaunching of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. From Monday, May 14th, through to the end of June, the Rev. Dr. William Barber of Repairers of the Breach, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharris of the Kairos Center, and  the leaders of many denominations, including Unitarian Universalist Association president, Susan Frederick-Gray, have called for a massive, nationwide campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience to draw attention to the plight of the nation’s poor. Let me quote Dr. Barber’s comments about the campaign in a recent article.[3] Note, as an evangelical Christian he offers a searing critique of evangelical Christian—one that also applies to any church that fails to act on its own principles.

“People are poor not because they are lazy, not because they are unwilling to work hard, but because politicians have blocked living wages and healthcare and undermined union rights and wage increases. Our nation’s moral narrative is shaped by Christian nationalists whose claims run contrary to calls in the Scripture, which is very clear that we need to care for the poor, immigrants and the least among us.

If you claim to be evangelical and Christian and have nothing to say about poverty and racism, then your claim is terribly suspect. There needs to be a new moral discourse in this nation – one that says being poor is not a sin but systemic poverty is.

[Our] Moral Agenda demands … major changes to address systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and our distorted moral narrative, including restoration and expansion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, repeal of the 2017 federal tax law, implementation of federal and state living wage laws, universal single-payer healthcare and clean water for all.

To make sure these demands are heard, poor and disenfranchised people from coast to coast are preparing for 40 days of action centered around statehouses and the US Capitol. Over six weeks this spring, people of all races, colors and creeds are joining together to engage in nonviolent moral fusion direct action, massive voter mobilization and power building from the bottom up….

Now, 50 years after leaders of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign declared silence was betrayal, we are coming together to break the silence.”

We will by publicizing times and locations for campaign trainings—including here next Saturday afternoon—and actions in Connecticut. I am planning to travel to Washington, DC on Sunday, June 10th, in order to participate in the campaign on Monday, June 11th. I’m looking for travelling partners!

It’s a tale of two churches. Certainly, we can point in any direction and find churches whose members are failing to heed the teachings of their own scriptures. And we can point at ourselves and discover similar failures. That abdication of responsibility has always been a feature of the religious landscape.

But that other church—that justice-seeking, prophetic church, that inherent worth and dignity church, that welcome the stranger and the immigrant church, that loving church, that bold, courageous church—that’s a part of the landscape too—and it is about to reveal itself, once again, to a nation hungering for its vision.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Yancy, George, “Is Your God Dead?” New York Times, June 19, 2017, See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/19/opinion/is-your-god-dead.html.

[2] Dyson, Michael Eric, “We Forgot What Doctor King Believed In,” New York Times, April 1, 2018. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/31/opinion/sunday/martin-luther-king-faith.html.

[3] Barber, William, “American Once Faught a War Against Poverty, Now it Wages a War on the Poor,” The Guardian, April 15, 2018. See: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/15/poor-peoples-campaign-systemic-poverty-a-sin?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail.

Plant seeds. Dig in the dirt. Water, weed, feed.


by Mary Lawrence

Plant seeds. Dig in the dirt. Water, weed, feed. Nurture with love. Then hope and pray. This is how we grow a garden. This is also how we grow community. We are planting seeds of peace, love, and justice with the UUS:E Peas & Love Community Garden, creating a space for connection with nature and each other.

In the words of botanist and Potawatomi Nation member, Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, [it] activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”

The UUS:E community garden is an extension of the Sustainable Living Committee’s mission to minimize our carbon footprint and live in harmony with Mother Nature. We use natural, organic compost created onsite from dried leaves and plant-based scraps collected in our church kitchen, amendments such as dried kelp and coco coir, straw and bark mulch, companion planting, and green manure cover crops. By using these regenerative veganic growing methods, we eliminate the use of chemicals and dependence on the animal agriculture industry, where factory farms pollute the environment and disrupt natural ecosystems.

Through the garden we are reminded that nature is not just something to admire from a distance. Nor is it something to control and dominate. Nature is part of who we are: in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the ground we walk on and share with other beings, in the sun that warms our skin… we are infinitely connected. And we are infinitely indebted.

The garden is here for all of us, as a resource for anyone who seeks to learn where their food comes from, how it grows, and how nutritious and delicious meals can be that are made from the harvest. Today is our first planting day, so please, come visit, and check out what’s growing over the next few months (fingers crossed)! In addition to feeding UUS:E members, produce will also be donated to the Manchester Area Conference of Churches food pantry to feed people in need, so that anyone who wants to eat healthfully can, regardless of age, race, gender, income, or ability.

When we reciprocate the gifts from Mother Nature, we secure the sacred bond of mutual respect, honor, and protection. We erase unconscious lines of separation. We recognize our responsibility in maintaining this precious relationship. We consider how our daily decisions have repercussions for all. We grow in ways unimaginable.

Many years before the first Earth Day, Rachel Carson wrote these ominous words in the groundbreaking book Silent Spring, which inspired me to stop and think when I read it 20 years ago: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance, to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

On this day, Earth Day, we reflect on our place in the world and how grateful we are for the beautiful planet we call home. We also reflect on our responsibility, and the decision we make when we come to that fork in the road. So plant seeds! Take a packet, dig in your garden, or fill a pot with soil, and know that in this synergistic act of combining seed with soil with water, you are reciprocating the gift, honoring Mother Nature, and making a commitment to preserve and protect this planet.

Toward Silence

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I shared with you the opening paragraphs of Morris Berman’s 1989 book, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West. He describes childhood memories of family gatherings—though it could be a dinner party, a date, a classroom, the lunch table at school or the office, a job interview, a work meeting—any gathering where people are interacting, talking, chatting, connecting, achieving good chemistry—where extended silences appear to be unwelcome. Most of us have had the experience of an unanticipated pause in the conversation, an awkward, uncomfortable silence.

Berman says, “it is as though silence could disclose some sort of terribly frightening Void. And what is being avoided are questions of who we are and what we are actually doing with each other. These questions live in our bodies, and silence forces them to the surface.”[1] This is probably an overstatement. Not all awkward silence holds existential significance. But when it happens to me, I definitely feel a sense of relief when the chatter starts up again, when the conversation carries on, when the chemistry recatalyzes. There’s something in that silence that I—and perhaps we—don’t typically want to explore. When it happens, we don’t say, “ah, this is nice, let’s continue not talking.”

Of course Berman isn’t only talking about awkward dinner party silences. He’s offering a metaphor for all the silences and empty spaces that hover around the edges of our awareness. Whatever resides in that silence, he’s convinced it matters. He challenges us to explore it, rather than start up the chatter again. I find a striking resonance with various passages from the ancient Taoist masters; Chuang Tzu’s “fasting of the mind”[2]; and Lao Tzu’s admonition to “Shut the mouth. / Shut the doors. / Blunt the sharpness. / Untie the tangles. / Soften the light. / Become one with the dusty world.”[3]

****

Our April ministry theme is transcendence, a nod to spring’s rebirth transcending winter’s death-like slumber; Easter’s resurrection transcending death on the cross; Passover’s story of the Israelites transcending slavery in ancient Egypt. I’ve been reviewing my previous sermons on this theme, and I discover, not surprisingly, that I come to it with mixed feelings. Transcending adversity or oppression, yes; transcending something in ourselves that holds us back, yes; but transcendence as a quality of God, no. In his Handbook of Theological Terms, which I’ve quoted in sermons before, Van Harvey says transcendence “has been used to designate any ideal or thing or being that ‘stands over against’…. It conveys ‘otherness.’” God “is said to transcend the world in the sense that his being is not identical with or his power not exhausted by the [earthly realm].” “When this idea of transcendence has been radicalized … it has led to the view that [God] is ‘wholly other’ and, therefore, unknowable.”[4]

This transcendent God doesn’t speak to me—neither literally, nor metaphorically. I’ve always dismissed this God in favor of a radically immanent one. Quoting a previous sermon, “I’ve longed for God to be nearby, close, present, immediate—like a friend, a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a lover—a wise counselor when my way is unclear, a source of inspiration when my well runs dry, a muse for my creativity, a provider of comfort and solace when life is hard, a bringer of peace in the midst of chaos.”[5]

****

I originally titled this sermon “I Sing the Body Transcendent.” I thought I was being clever. I thought I could expose God as utterly immanent. I reasoned that human beings cannot have a spiritual experience without our bodies being involved in some way. Whatever counts for you as spiritual experience—whether it is based in emotions, perceptions, thoughts, physical activity, ritual, prayer, meditation—something happens in the body. I wrote in the newsletter that, though God is often described as transcendent, “people across the planet purport to commune with God through spiritual practices that use the body. Do our bodies transcend?” I imagined the answer would be no: our bodies stay here—at this pulpit, in these chairs, weighty, grounded, bounded by age and time, caught in gravity’s pull. If God is real, then God must come to us. God cannot be wholly other. God must be immanent.

We have a monthly meeting called God-Talk. Every fourth Tuesday at 4:30, a small group meets for exploration of what God means in our lives. I asked participants what they thought about my clever idea. They didn’t think much of it. They felt I was simplifying something that doesn’t need simplification. They felt I was reducing concepts like soul, spirit, and mind to purely mechanical, bodily functions, when they are more than that. Not only did they not find my answer all that compelling, I’m pretty sure they didn’t find the question compelling.

But something about the question wouldn’t let me go. I turned to Morris Berman’s Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West. His work on human consciousness and its grounding in bodily experience has been extremely influential on my spiritual growth. Nevertheless, I find reading him frustrating because he compiles vast mountains of evidence, theory and analysis from a wide range of disciplines to point in certain directions, to hint at certain possibilities, but without ever confirming anything. What he says feels right to me, but I’m never quite sure it’s true. As a Berman disciple once suggested, his work comes with a wink; as if to say, ‘yeah, I know, maybe not; but it could be right.”

From here on, I’m winking.

****

One experience common to all humanity is the womb. In the womb, and to some extent through the earliest periods of infancy, we live in complete oneness with our environment. There is no ‘I’ or ‘you,’ no ‘us’ or ‘them.’ There is oneness, what Lao Tzu might call profound union.[6]  Berman argues this is a completely embodied experience. Though we are unconscious, our bodies feel it, and it feels good.  

Then, inevitably …  rupture. We are launched out of oneness. Some contend the rupture happens at birth, others locate it whenever consciousness begins. Berman says, “up to this point, all of us feel ourselves more or less continuous with the external environment. Coming to consciousness means a rupture in that continuity, the emergence of a divide between Self and Other. With the thought, ‘I am I,’ a new level of existence opens up for us. There is a tear in the fabric.”[7]  

This tear, though it has psychological, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions, is fundamentally physical. Our bodies experienced oneness in the womb; thus they experience rupture more keenly than our other faculties do. There’s a barreness, a void, something missing, perhaps a broken feeling. The Hungarian psychoanalyst, Michael Balint, called it the “basic fault.”[8] The British novelist, John Fowles, called it the “nemo.”[9] Berman argues this basic fault nags at us, haunts us, drives us, motivates us. He says, “the enormous power of this feeling … derives from the fact that the basic fault has a biological foundation. It is laid down in the tissue of the body at a primary level, and as a result can never quite be eradicated.”[10]

Berman’s primary question in Coming to Our Senses, is what do we do with this basic fault? What do we do with this rupture that lives deep in our cells, and comes to the surface, often unbidden, not only in awkward dinner party silences, but also in our anxiety, fear, yearning, addiction, attachment, lust for power, desire for control, need for order and stability? His answer? We fill it up.

To be clear, by ‘we,’ he means people living in modern, western societies. He conceives of the basic fault as a western, more than an eastern phenomenon. We fill it up with anything that might recreate the experience of original unity, anything that can bring a moment of relief, comfort, solace, ecstasy, anything that might approximate our body’s womb experience. We fill it with food, alcohol, drugs, sex, video games and other screen-based entertainments. We fill it, perhaps more ominously, with ideologies and isms. Note how nationalism makes some people feel powerful and whole; how being American, makes some feel powerful and whole; how racism, sexism or homophobia make some feel powerful and whole; how fighting against those things, having a cause, makes some feel powerful and whole; or even how having a favorite sports team makes some feel powerful and whole. We fill it up with stories we tell about our people, how we’re moving through history toward some better era in which there will be justice and peace. We fill it up with religion, with visions of Heaven, Paradise, the Promised Land. Note how belief in an all-powerful God, or a resurrected God, a prosperity God, a liberation God, a judging God—some transcendent God to whom we must ascend—makes some feel powerful and whole.

So often we believe we’re transcending, but all we’re really doing is filling the basic fault, attempting a return to the womb, to that bodily feeling of oneness. But none of it works.  None of it fulfills, satisfies, quenches indefinitely. None of it ultimately transcends anything. This is Berman’s central insight. The basic fault—no matter how it manifests in us—cannot be sufficiently filled by anything—no food, no substance, no ideology, no ism, no religion, no heaven, no God—because it is physical, because it is an unavoidable feature of the human condition that can never be fully eradicated.

****

I don’t know if the basic fault is real. There’s a lot it doesn’t explain. But let’s say it’s real and we can’t eradicate it. Or let’s say it isn’t real, but there are other sources of rupture in our lives, and the physical effects are enormously difficult to eradicate, so we live with something like the basic fault. Either way, we can treat our bodies differently. We can tend to our bodies where the basic fault resides. But such tending to the body is counter-cultural. This is Berman’s enduring cultural criticism. We so quickly seek to fill the basic fault; we so readily seek to transcend our condition, because we live in a modern, western culture that, in myriad ways, discounts, devalues, ignores, abuses, embarrasses, starves, stuffs, and shames the body. It’s difficult for us to be truly comfortable in and close to our bodies. And, Berman says, “When you’ve lost your body, you need an ism.”[11]

Tending to our bodies begins with accepting the physical root of the rupture. Instead of seeking transcendence, Berman says “learn to live with the Abyss; recognizing the [basic fault] for what it is. Far more important than finding a [new ism, ideology, paradigm, God, Heaven, etc.] is coming face to face with the immense yearning that underlies the need for [it] in the first place. This means exploring what we fear most … the empty space or silence that exists between concepts and paradigms, but never in them.”[12] He’s essentially saying, ‘let your yearning be. Resist the temptation to fill it up.’

“Do our bodies transcend?” It’s the wrong question. We seek transcendence to fill a void in our lives that doesn’t actually need filling. Instead of transcendence, try silence. As Lao Tzu said, “Shut the mouth. / Shut the doors. / Blunt the sharpness. / Untie the tangles. / Soften the light. / Become one with the dusty world.”[13] As Chuang Tzu said, “the Way gathers in emptiness alone.”[14]

Entering into silence, becoming comfortable with it, learning to just be, begins to relieve us of the need to fill the basic fault. When we’re not dedicating energy to filling it up, we can live more fully in our bodies; we can tend to our bodies physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually where they hurt, where pain, fear and anxiety persist.

So often, transcendence is a denial of who we really are, where we really hurt, and what we’re actually doing. “The true enlightenment,” says Berman, “is to really know, really feel, your … somatic nature,”[15]—your body, your body’s integrity, your body’s magnificence. He advises us not to go up, but to go across, or even down.

****

“The real goal of a spiritual tradition should not be ascent, but openness, vulnerability, and this does not require great experiences but, on the contrary, very ordinary ones. Charisma is easy; presence, self-remembering, is terribly difficult, and where the real work lies.”[16]

****

We have bodies. We are incarnate beings. “Incarnation means living in life, not transcending it.”[17]

****

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Berman, Morris, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West (Brattleboro: Echo Point Books and Media, 1989) p. 20.

[2] Chuang Tzu, in Watson, Burton, tr., Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) p. 54.

[3] Lao Tzu, in Wing-Tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu (Tao-te ching) (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 199.

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

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “From Radical Transcendence to Radical Immanence,” a sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT, April 13th, 2015. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/from-radical-transcendence-to-radical-immanence/.

[6] Lao Tzu, in Wing-Tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu (Tao-te ching) (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 199.

[7] Berman, Senses, p. 25.

[8] Berman, Senses, p. 24.

[9] Berman, Senses, p. 20.

[10] Berman, Senses, p. 24.

[11] Berman, Senses, p. 343.

[12] Berman, Senses, p. 307.

[13] Lao Tzu, The Way of Lao Tzu, p. 199.

[14] Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, p. 54.

[15] Berman, Senses, p. 310.

[16] Berman, Senses, p. 310.

[17] Berman, Senses, p. 315.

Sunrise Song: An Easter Homily

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Listen to one telling of the Easter story from the Christian New Testament Book of Mark, Chapter 16, verses 1-8. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, it happens just beyond sunrise on the morning of the third day after Roman authorities have overseen the crucifixion of Jesus. His body has been lying in a tomb, which the writer describes as a room hewn out of the rock—a cave. A large stone has been rolled in front of the entrance to the tomb.

The writer says, “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

This is Christianity’s central story, its miracle among miracles, the culmination of its gospel, the heart of its good news. It is no accident that the celebration of Easter takes place in spring-time. It is no accident that we encounter this miraculous story in the weeks following the vernal equinox, when the greening, rejuvenating earth offers natural miracle after natural miracle. It is no accident that we speak of an incarnated god—a god with a flesh-blood-and-bone body—dying a human death and coming back to life just as the earth around us is coming back to life after months and months of winter darkness and slumber. It is no accident the early Christian church eventually placed Easter in northern hemisphere springtime. Indeed, Easter sits atop a multitude of more ancient human celebrations of fertility and planting, celebrations of spring’s rebirth out of winter’s death-like sleep.

Contemplate the tomb for a moment—the cave hewn out of the rock, the large stone set in front of the entrance. Contemplate that dim, dark, misshapen room; that confining, constricting space. Such a potent, enduring image. Through the years it has come to symbolize so much that confines and constricts humans beings yearning for some kind of release, some kind of freedom, some kind of rebirth, some kind of resurrection. In our most difficult times, who doesn’t want to live again?

“So Night wrapped her great arms around the sun, and the night was very long indeed.”

What tomb, if any, constrains, confines, constricts you in the long night of winter?

What tomb, if any, prevents you from facing and making difficult decisions?

What tomb, if any, obscures your way forward?

What tomb, if any, isolates you from others, cuts you off from family, friends, neighbors—from those with whom you need to be in relationship?

What tomb, if any, numbs your heart to the suffering of others; numbs your heart to abuses of power, to injustice, to environmental degradation?

What tomb, if any, dampens your spirit, shrinks your soul?

What tomb, if any, keeps you anxious, fearful, angry; makes you forget  life’s sweetness, life’s joy; makes you forget life’s blessings, life’s grace, life’s beauty; makes you forget the precious, amazing sacred gift of life?

Sometimes, all it takes for us to remember life’s sweetness and joy is a small shift in perspective. Sometimes, all it takes for us to remember the many blessings in our lives is a small shift in our point of view. Sometimes all it takes for us to remember how precious our lives are is the arrival of spring, the rising sun on glistening mornings—soft, warm, yellow light greeting us with the predawn birdsong. Sometimes all it takes is a sunrise song.

“Early in the morning, the old ones woke the children. Together they climbed a high hill and faced to the east, the direction of sunrise. They sang songs to the sun and ran around trying to keep warm. They waited and waited to see what dawn would bring.           

The sky began to turn from black to indigo to blue. Slowly the sky grew light. A golden glow crept over the horizon. Night opened her great arms, and in a burst of brightness, the sun appeared, new and strong and shining.”[1]

Sometimes it’s easy, but sometimes it’s not so easy. Sometimes, despite spring, it is still difficult to remember the sweetness, joy, blessing, grace, beauty in life. Sometimes it is still difficult to remember how precious the gift of life is. Sometimes our suffering doesn’t end, even when we change our perspective, even when we sing. Sometimes the suffering of those for whom we pray doesn’t end; the suffering of those with whom we act in solidarity doesn’t end. Sometimes it feels like we need an Easter miracle.

“And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”

‘And what if there’s no such thing as miracles?’ you may ask. What if it’s just a myth, just a story, as so many of us have long suspected? What if Jesus was just a man whom the Romans crucified, like tens of thousands of other victims of their brutal imperial oppression? What if they rolled the stone in place, and that was the end? And what if anything that seems miraculous has a logical explanation? What if his disciples, and Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome loved him so much that they imagined he returned to them in the flesh, and their imaginings were so vivid that they believed? And, in time, all those they told believed too?

There may be a logical explanation for everything, and thus there may be no such thing as miracles. But those tombs? The ones that constrain, confine, and constrict us and others? The ones that make us forget all the sweetness and goodness in life, all the blessings, all the grace? Those tombs are real. And because they are real, we yearn for life beyond them. We yearn to live again. Which is why Easter lives on in our hearts whether we believe the stories or not. Because the tombs are real, I say we have no choice but to keep singing sunrise songs. The alternative is despair. Keep singing sunrise songs. Keep praying sunrise prayers. Keep dancing sunrise dances. Keep chanting sunrise chants. Keep stretching sunrise stretches. Keep telling sunrise stories of rebirth and rejuvenation. Keep telling sunrise stories of hope and aspiration. Keep telling sunrise stories of better days, of peaceful living, or loving relationships.

My prayer for each of us on this Easter morning is that we will keep singing sunrise songs; and my hope is that stones will roll away, the tombs that constrain, constrict and confine us and all humanity will open, and that the release, the freedom, the rebirth, the resurrection we seek will come, as sure as winter’s long night turns to spring’s green day.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] From CIRCLE ROUND by Starhawk and Diane Baker and Anne Hill, copyright (C) 2000 by Miriam Simas, Anne Hill and Diane Baker. See: https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/loveguide/session11/168878.shtml.

A Curious Ministry

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I’ve been reviewing the “literature” on curiosity. A quick Google search reveals there are quite a few recently published self-help books, new age manuals, spiritual guides, TED talks, motivational speeches, scholarly articles, cool quotes, etc. on the importance of being curious. For example, in a July, 2017 article in The Atlantic entitled “Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning,” University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Scott Barry Kaufman says “In recent years, curiosity has been linked to happiness, creativity, satisfying intimate relationships, increased personal growth after traumatic experiences, and increased meaning in life…. Having a ‘hungry mind’ has been shown to be a core determinant of academic achievement, rivaling the prediction power of IQ.”[1]

In May, 2017, Christian minister and spiritual director Casey Tygrett published Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice of Asking Questions. He says, “Faith is impossible without curiosity. We don’t step out, we don’t take risks, unless we’re curious about what will happen next.” He cites research that shows young children are inherently curious, asking between three and four hundred questions a day until age four. He refers to Jesus’s admonition, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it,”[2] and suggests that faith is most powerful when we approach it with a child’s curiosity.[3] A recent article entitled “Nurturing a Holy Curiosity” in ByFaith, the online magazine of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., makes a similar claim. The writer, Ann Kroeker, says “We’re all born with a God-given sense of curiosity—children exhibit it, exploring their world each moment, whether they’re batting their infant feet at a plastic spinning toy or holding a magnifying glass tight in a preschool fist to watch ants emerge from an anthill.”[4] Both Tygrett and and Kroeker point out that Jesus was curious, that throughout his brief ministry he was constantly asking questions,[5] and that with his questions he was inviting his followers to be curious as well.

By the way, that phrase, “holy curiosity,” comes from a 1955 LIFE Magazine interview with the physicist Albert Einstein. He said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning; curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of the mystery every day. The important thing is to not stop questioning; never lose a holy curiosity.”[6]

I also like a quote from the 19th-century Unitarian minister turned Transcendentalist leader, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret.[7]

Then there’s the literature in quotes, the legion of self-help, new-age, pop-psychology, click-bait blog posts on curiosity. Huffpost recently published “Five Benefits of Being a Curious Person.”[8] The website Fast Company: “8 Habits of Curious People.”[9] The website Lifehack: “4 Reasons Why Curiosity is Important and How to Develop It.”[10] The Career and Life Coaching firm, Jody Michael Associates: “7 Benefits of Intellectual Curiosity.”[11] The website Experience Life published “The Power of Curiosity: Discover How Cultivating an Inquiring Mind Can Help You Lead a Happier, Healthier Life.”[12] Greater Good Magazine published “Why Curious People Have Better Relationships.”[13] It goes on and on.

Wading through all this material, we learn that curious people are more healthy, more intelligent, have more fulfilling social relationships, report greater happiness and experience a greater sense of meaning in their lives. In order to obtain these benefits we are encouraged to welcome uncertainty, seek the unfamiliar, take more risks, ask many, many questions, be more playful, channel our inner child, listen without judgement, replace our need to be right with an openness to the insights and opinions of others, never label anything as boring, read a diverse array of authors, identify and pursue our passions.

I don’t knock any of this—not even the faux-spiritual, self-help, new-age, click-bait stuff. None of it is wrong. Many of the writers reference reputable psychological studies as the basis for the claims they make. But even if they don’t, all of it—at least at a surface level—is good advice (though they don’t always explain what they mean by ‘welcoming uncertainty,’ and ‘seeking the unfamiliar’). Nevertheless, what emerges for me as I review this “literature,” is that the human quality of being curious aligns very naturally with Unitarian Universalism. Our fourth principle, “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning,”[14] implies that curiosity lives at the heart of our faith. We search because, at some level, we are curious about something we don’t know. Our emphasis on questioning conventional wisdom, questioning traditional theologies, questioning God, questioning authority, questioning the uses of power, questioning religious doctrine and dogma, questioning either/or, black/white, binary conceptions of the world—all of it implies that our liberal faith requires, even demands, a curious spirit.  

James Luther Adams, one of the more well-known Unitarian theologians of the twentieth century, once wrote that “revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been fully captured. Nothing is complete.”[15] There is always more to discover. No religion contains all truth. No scripture expresses all truth. No field of scientific inquiry explains all truth. No political party, no ideology, no world-view, no theory, no philosophy, no nation, no culture holds the entire truth. Revelation is not sealed for all time, it is continuous. In the words of American comedian, Gracie Allen. “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” In a universe that is still unfolding, still evolving, still growing, still becoming, curiosity is an essential spiritual quality. If we want our lives to peer beyond the boundaries of the known into the unknown; if we want to cross thresholds, think new thoughts, welcome new insights; if we want access to truths that exist beyond what passes for truth here and now; if we want to keep growing in heart, mind and spirit; if we intend to continue searching for what is true and meaningful for us; then curiosity is an essential spiritual quality, and asking good questions is an essential spiritual discipline.

How might that quality and that discipline become real here, within these halls?

Virtually every Sunday I address you from this pulpit, I say the words, “Each of our lives tells a story worth knowing.” I believe these words. I repeat them purposefully to counter certain peculiar challenges of our age wherein, despite our seemingly boundless interconnectivity, it is remarkably easy for our stories to remain untold or, if told, to be ignored, forgotten, lost. I remind us that each of our lives tells a story worth knowing because we live in an age in which, regardless of one’s level of wealth and privilege, it is remarkably easy to become isolated, lonely, even abandoned. Have you noticed that Britain just appointed a new “Minister of Loneliness” to help battle the loneliness epidemic?[16]

I’m convinced that one of the reasons we become involved in religious communities—whether we admit it to ourselves or not—is so that others will acknowledge us, recognize us, value us, embrace us—so that others will know our story.  Even the shy ones among us, the ones who can’t imagine speaking on Sunday morning. Even the fearful ones, the ones carrying guilt, shame, regret, embarrassment, self-loathing. The ones recovering from addiction, mental illness, trauma. There is something in us—our deepest self, our truest self, our most authentic self—that yearns to be known, held and loved; not through status updates on Facebook, but known, held and loved by real flesh-blood-and-bone people. There is something in us that yearns to be known, held and loved, and deserves to be known, held and loved.

Sometimes the greatest ministry we offer to each other—the way we know, hold and love each other—is through encountering each other’s stories. And what inspires us to offer such a ministry? Curiosity. When we are curious about each other’s stories—really, truly, genuinely curious—when we listen with open hearts and minds—we offer a humanizing ministry, a ministry of recognition, acknowledgment, embrace.

Continuous revelation is not only out there in the natural world, in the expanding universe, or the universe of ideas. Our lives and our stories are sources of continuous revelation as well.

Earlier I shared with you a story from the Rev. Elea Kemler, about a young boy she visited in a psychiatric unit. When she visited, they would play checkers. The boy would sing as he spoke to her. “He began this musical conversation,” she writes, “on the second visit —humming under his breath as he moved his pieces — and then he started adding words. Mostly, the words were about what was happening on the board. ‘I am going to juuuuummmp you,’ he sang. ‘If I move like this, you cannot juuummmmp me,’ I sang back. I wondered if he was singing me another, truer song underneath, so I was listening carefully and trying to choose what to sing back.”[17] 

She says, “I wondered.”

Can we approach each other—in our hard times, yes, but even in our good times, our joyful times, our celebratory times—with that same sense of wonder?

I’m interested. Can you tell me…?

I’m fascinated. How did you…?

I’m intrigued. How old were you when you decided…?

May I ask you about…?

Can you tell me more?

Where are you from?

Who are your people?

Which is your child?

As a colleague, the Rev. Marta Valentin asks, “How is your heart?”

Were you scared?

How did you get through it?

What have you learned?

You had this same operation. What can you tell me about it?

‘One day at a time’—what does that really mean to you?

Do you miss her?

Do you miss him?

What’s next for you?

 I’m curious. Tell me about yourself.

I’m curious. Tell me what you’re passionate about.

I’m curious. Tell me your story.

Obviously, a person has to want to share, has to feel safe enough to share, must be willing to risk being vulnerable in that moment—our stories are so precious, our hurts so tender, our fears so raw. It may not be the right time to share. But I ask you to contemplate the difference in experience between a person who is invited to share some piece of their story and a person who never receives such an invitation. The former knows their story matters to someone, even if they can’t share. The latter cannot be sure, and may suspect they don’t matter.

Our curiosity about each other’s stories is a sign of our willingness to know, to hold, to love. Our curiosity about each other’s stories is the foundation of a caring congregation. It is also the foundation for our social and environmental justice work.

I say this because just last weekend we hosted a training in faith-based community organizing for thirty-five people from congregations across the Greater Hartford region, including six of us from UUS:E. If there is one central learning we took away from the training, it is that successful community organizing emerges out of our relationships. We’re proposing to build a powerful faith-based community organization for greater Hartford. Naturally, people ask: what are we going to do? What issues are we going to work on? What injustices are we going to confront and transform? What truth are we going to speak to power? But the trainers kept asking us a different question. “How well do you know each other?” And even before we get to know people in other congregations, they asked: “How well do you know the people in your own congregation?” “What is the quality of the relationships in your own congregation?” “Do you know each other’s stories?” “Do you know what keeps people in your congregation awake at night?”

They began training us in a very simple, but very profound tool, the one-on-one meeting—two people sitting down together, telling each other their stories, building a relationship. All throughout the training they made us practice meeting each other one-on-one. You can’t fake it. You have to be genuinely curious about a person in order to begin building a relationship with them. Without solid relationships, we’ll never build sufficient power to bring lasting social and environmental justice. With solid relationships, with a relational culture within and among congregations, we’ll be able to build the power to do virtually anything we can imagine. Our curiosity about each other matters immensely.

There’s a quote from the 20th-century Trappist monk, writer, mystic and activist, Thomas Merton, which our trainers referenced during our time together. In his autobiographical novel, My Argument with the Gestapo, Merton says, “If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. Between these two answers you can determine the identity of any person.”[18]

Do you consider yourself a curious person? I hope so. Ours is a faith for curious people. Our principles assume we are curious people. Those who believe revelation is not sealed but continuous must be curious people. I urge you to be curious about the person sitting next to you. Be curious about the person you encounter here who you’ve never met before. Be curious about people you’ve known for years—for surely you don’t know all there is to know. Be curious about their stories. Trust there is a truer song underneath. And trust that your curiosity manifests your care, builds important relationships, builds a relational culture, and creates the power necessary to fashion a more just and loving community.

 Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Kaufman, Scott Barry, “Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning” The Atlantic, July 24, 2017. See: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/the-underrated-gift-of-curiosity/534573/.

[2] Luke 18:17.

[3] Tygrett, Casey, Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice of Asking Questions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017). Promotional Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjalXouMwYo.

[4] http://byfaithonline.com/nurturing-a-holy-curiosity/.

[5] For example, consider this compilation of 135 questions Jesus asked in the Christian New Testament: https://mondaymorningreview.wordpress.com/2010/05/14/137questionsjesusasked/.

[6] Einstein, Albert, statement to William Miller, as quoted in LIFE Magazine, May 2nd, 1955.

[7] The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Letters and Social Aims [Vol. 8] (Boston, New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904) p. 226. See: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/4957107.0008.001/1:13?rgn=div1;view=fulltext.

[8] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/09/benefits-of-being-a-curious-person_n_6109060.html.

[9] https://www.fastcompany.com/3045148/8-habits-of-curious-people.

[10] https://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/4-reasons-why-curiosity-is-important-and-how-to-develop-it.html.

[11] https://www.jodymichael.com/blog/7-benefits-intellectual-curiosity/.

[12] https://experiencelife.com/article/the-power-of-curiosity/.

[13] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_curious_people_have_better_relationships.

[14] For a listing of the Unitarian Universalist Association principles, see: https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles.

[15] Adams, James Luther, in Stackhouse, Max L., ed., On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Beacon Press, 1977) p. 12.

[16] http://www.businessinsider.com/britain-appoints-loneliness-minister-to-combat-epidemic-2018-1.

[17] Kemler, Elea, “Another, Truer Song, published in Braver/Wiser at the Unitarian Universalist Association. See: https://www.uua.org/braverwiser/another-truer-song.

[18] Merton, Thomas, My Argument with the Gestapo: A Macaronic Journal (New York: New Direction Books, 1969) pp. 160-161.