Congratulations to the Rev. Drew Moeller

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

Drew Moeller

 

Once Upon a Time, We Were Together

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Image by Nancy Madar

Image by Nancy Madar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A leap is required here, a leap out of the Modern mind. I’m nervous. I’m concerned you’re going to hear what I have to say and you’re going to think it’s crazy, irrelevant. If that thought occurs to you, remind yourself that once upon a time we were together. Suggest to yourself instead that Modern consciousness is crazy. Are you ready? Ask yourself: what is the unconscious? What is your unconscious? Can you give a definition of the unconscious that adequately explains dreams, disease, mental illness, addiction, anxiety, neuroses, and those exhilarating moments of communion with Nature all at the same time? Have you ever found a sufficient, reasonable, plausible definition of what the unconscious really is, where it resides, what it’s made of, why it seems so opaque, so difficult to visit? What blocks us from just peering into it? Is that what we’ve lost—the capacity to peer into our unconscious? No. Here’s the leap: We’ve been tricked into believing there’s a vast, numinous realm hidden in ourselves and that it’s healthy to peer into to the extent we can, because it is the source, the cause of our neuroses and worse. That’s a modern idea—that we each possess our own, discreet vast, hidden realm called the unconscious. It’s a lie. Only the tiniest, most miniscule portion of what we call the unconscious lies immediately within us. If we want to encounter it in its true breadth and depth, the direction in which to peer is not in; the direction is out, to Nature.

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

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

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Berman, Reenchantment, p. 10.

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Berman, Reenchantment, p. 142.

For Gravity’s Sake

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Did you feel it? I didn’t either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Money and Your Life (the Sequel)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Blessed be.

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

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

The Things That Heal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Hygieia: Greek Goddess of Health

Hygieia: Greek Goddess of Health

This morning I continue exploring our February ministry theme, resilience, by reflecting on the role spirituality plays in healing: healing from illness—physical illness, mental illness; healing from addiction; healing from childhood traumas, from abuse, from rape, from neglect; healing from being the victim of a crime; healing in the wake of the death of a loved one; healing from broken relationships; healing from stressful life circumstances—overwork, exhaustion, job loss, financial struggles, caring for a family member or friend with a chronic illness, distress and anxiety in response to world events—terrorism, global warming, war. I’m sure you can add to the list. Nobody leaves this life without having to heal from something. Nobody leaves this life without suffering in response to something. For me this is an integral facet of the human condition, an inevitable feature of the human experience. Yes, some people need more healing than others, and some suffer more than others, and sometimes the unequal distribution of need and suffering seems immensely unfair. But nobody escapes this fate entirely. So many things can and do happen to our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our souls that unravel us, pull us apart, break us into pieces, leave us living in fragments. How does spirituality help us bind the pieces of ourselves back together? How does it aid in healing? How does it strengthen our resilience?

I want to first critique a common assumption about the role of spirituality in healing, essentially that one’s capacity to heal is determined by the strength of their belief, by the power of their faith in God. Most often this assumption is grounded in the deeper assumption that Biblical stories are literally true. For example, in the book of Mark, Chapter 10, a blind man comes to Jesus pleading, “Teacher, let me see again.” Jesus says to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regains his sight.[1] It could have happened. It could be literally true. And if one believes it is literally true, it is understandable they might conclude strong faith is essential to healing. I don’t reject this idea entirely. I know many people who are convinced that their faith played a significant role in their healing. And certainly strong faith in God can bring a person through very difficult times. But there’s a pernicious ‘other side’ to this assumption. What happens when the person of strong faith doesn’t heal? Does that mean their faith still isn’t strong enough, that they don’t believe correctly, that they aren’t praying right, that they’ve sinned, that God doesn’t find them worthy of healing? Sometimes people say God must have a reason and we aren’t meant to know. But that’s a theological cop out. The reality is, some illnesses have no cure. Some circumstances are beyond help. Sometimes our brokenness is larger than all the resources we have to address it. To fault the strength of one’s faith in such situations is unhelpful and unfair—sometimes it comes across as downright mean. The role of spirituality in healing is far more multifaceted than simply having correct belief.[2]

Taking this critique further, one of the challenges I encounter as a minister entering a hospital to provide pastoral care to one of our members or friends is that people I meet there—doctors, nurses, other staff, and occasionally patients and their families who I meet inadvertently—will sometimes apply this common assumption about faith and healing to me. When they realize I’m a minister, they assume I am Christian. I’m not. They assume I am a traditional theist who worships some version of God the Father. I’m not. They assume I intend to pray to God the Father with my parishioner, which happens, but very rarely. They assume I hope to buttress my parishioner’s faith in God the Father in order to aid in healing—also very rare. I don’t expect people to know how a Unitarian Universalist minister approaches pastoral care—or even what a Unitarian Universalist is—so it makes sense that these assumptions get attached to me. I try to be gracious. If someone pulls me aside and says “pray with me, father,” I pray with them. And those can be very powerful moments for me. But these assumptions don’t begin to describe how I approach my role in healing, and they don’t relate to the ways I witness spirituality aiding in the healing process for Unitarian Universalists who, we know, come in many theological varieties: atheist, theist, humanist, agnostic, Buddhist, mystic, pagan, Jewish, Christian and endless combinations, mixtures and mongrels. Given this diversity, the ways spirituality can aid the healing process are endless—no two situations are exactly alike. But over the years I’ve discerned five liberal commandments for spirituality and healing that emerge out of my journeys with you—Unitarian Universalists—as you seek healing in your lives.

First, get out of the body’s way. Healing begins with confidence in the body’s capacity to repair itself, to return from or adapt to physical and mental illness. Specialized white blood cells fight harmful microbes. Blood clots to heal wounds. Skin and bones fuse back together after breaking. We learn how to live well with anxiety. I recall those times as a child watching cuts scab over and slowly disappear, watching bumps slowly dwindle in size and disappear, watching big, ugly bruises slowly fade and disappear. I remember some cuts and breaks that needed a doctor’s attention, that needed antibiotics, stitches, bandages, splints, casts—they took longer to heal, and the healing often left a scar, but with the proper care and attention, the body’s healing capacities would take over. In fact, much of what the doctor did was simply ensure that the body’s healing capacities could function at their highest level. Even to my childish eye those capacities were remarkable.

Recently my youngest, Max, had four baby teeth removed—his first experience with anesthesia. He was understandably nervous before the procedure. My role as a parent, besides signing the consent forms and paying the bills, was to comfort him. “You’re going to be OK. You’ll be back to normal in no time.” In saying these things, I’m not just mouthing platitudes. I say them because I have confidence in the body’s capacity to heal. I have confidence that with a day of rest, patience, chicken soup, apple sauce, ice cream, extra TV and video games, extra attention and care from his family, his body will heal from the minor trauma of the surgery.

There is a life force, a will to live, an innate power to mend, a natural tendency toward repair. We encounter it not only in ourselves but throughout nature—starfish regenerate lost arms; deer regenerate lost antlers; eco-systems repair damage after earthquakes and oil spills. Trusting in this power may not restore sight to the blind or resurrect the dead, but it will help us remember what we can do to get of the body’s way so it can follow its natural processes of mending, repair and adaptation.

Second, approach healing from a place of openness. This is hard to do, especially when one is in pain. Pain makes us rigid, brittle and single-minded. It closes us off. But human beings heal in many ways, and because healing is not always a given, we need to search for what works. Indeed, some treatments emerge out of years of study and have firm scientific grounding. Sometimes they result in healing, sometimes they don’t. Some treatments are completely irrational, make no logical sense, and have no scientific grounding. Sometimes they result in healing, sometimes they don’t. I want us to be open to as many opportunities for healing as we can find—from the most scientifically grounded to the most implausible, even ludicrous. I put more faith in the former, but I never rule out the latter, and I combine them wherever and whenever possible. Even though we know healing doesn’t always happen, I want us to cultivate an attitude that healing is always a possibility. When it comes to healing, I want us to live with the prayerful sentiment we sang earlier: “Open my heart to all that I seek.”[3] Cast a wide net!         

Go to your doctor. Go to a second doctor, even a third. Follow their advice, except in those moments when it doesn’t feel right in in the depths of your soul—but even then, check with a loved one or a good friend to make sure you’re not in denial. But don’t stop there. Sit still. Sit still some more. Meditate. Pray. And if you do pray, and if you do invoke a holy name, I advise you first to get rid of any god, goddess or higher power who is distant and judgmental, frightening and inscrutable, and who doesn’t love you. Find a god, goddess or higher power who loves you deeply, who longs for you to heal as much as you long to heal. Pray to them with all your mind, all your heart, all your soul. But don’t stop there. Talk about your illness, your brokenness, your dis-ease to people who will listen attentively and support you. Express all your feelings about what is happening to you; express your anger, your rage, your sadness. But also express your joys, the blessings that remain in your life, the things for which you are grateful. Express your hope. Eat well, if you can. Sleep well, if you can. Give and receive lots of hugs. Spend time with pets and other animals. Speak the truth. Remember what matters most to you and spend time contemplating it. Let it bring meaning and purpose to your life in your time of trial. Create. Sing, dance, write, paint, take photographs. And in conversation with your doctor, indulge liberally in alternative therapies: yoga, reiki, the laying on of hands, music therapy—the  retuning of your frequencies—faith healing, exorcism, homeopathy, naturopathy, herbal remedies, old folk remedies, family healing traditions, chicken soup, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, especially if they are culturally relevant to you; Ayurvedic medicine, especially if it is culturally relevant to you—I’m only scratching the surface here, but you get the point. If you have the slightest inclination that it might aid in your healing process—that it might bring your life back into balance, that it might recreate some lost harmony—and it isn’t contraindicated with some other therapy you’re receiving, then try it.

Third, be willing to fight for healing. When necessary, be direct, be assertive, be aggressive. As Unitarian Universalists we talk about discerning who we are, what we’re passionate about, what our purpose is. We talk about being our truest, most authentic selves. On many occasions I’ve watched people struggling to heal, and everything they know about themselves just disappears. They listen to everyone but themselves, and there’s no fight in them. And on many occasions I’ve witnessed just the opposite: People struggling to heal suddenly realize they’re not healing because the healthcare system isn’t responding to them, isn’t seeing them, isn’t caring for them. And when this dawns on them, and they become angry about it, suddenly they gain wonderful, powerful clarity about who they are, about the value and sacredness of their own life, and they find their voice.  And they start fighting. It’s your body, it’s your health, it’s your life: fight for what you need. And if you don’t feel strong enough to fight on your own, look for allies and advocates.

Fourth, discern root causes. Sometimes healing doesn’t come. A cold lingers for weeks; a back aches with no respite; sleep never seems to arrive or doesn’t last; a wound refuses to close; the wrong cells start dividing, start spreading—words and names don’t come as easily to mind as they used to; nerves go numb; physical strength wanes; emotions come more forcefully than they should, and don’t quite match the moment; memory fades; meds lose efficacy; relationships fray. We lose confidence. Why am I not getting better? Why am I not healing? Perhaps you’ve been focusing too much on the symptom, and not its root.

For a simple example, I have pain in my lower back due to arthritis and deteriorating disks. Usually I can help my body manage the pain trough stretching, exercise and taking the occasional ibuprofen. But sometimes the pain persists despite these treatments. I’ve learned that this persistent, untouchable pain almost always correlates with high levels of stress in other parts of my life. The symptom is in my back, but the intervention I need is emotional and spiritual. So often the reason our body’s natural healing tendencies don’t work is not because they are broken, but because they are blocked by stress, fear, grief, anxiety; or they are stunted by a larger culture whose guiding values and practices conflict constantly and relentlessly with the values and practices we hold most dear; or they are weakened because something essential is missing from our lives—healthy relationships, community, safety, peace, meaning, purpose. Sometimes all these things are happening at once and it’s difficult to know why healing isn’t occurring. Often we know the what but not the why. I know arthritis and deteriorating disks cause back pain. But I don’t always know why the pain persists or why it is more intense than usual. I have to stop and examine why I’m experiencing stress and what is weighing on me. I have to discern the root.

Finally, when healing fails, seek wholeness. Healing may not always be possible, but wholeness is our birthright. In her meditation, “Mending,” Nancy Shaffer asks, “How shall we mend you, sweet Soul? / With these, I think, gently, / we can begin: we will mend you / with a rocking chair, some raisins; / a cat, a field of lavender beginning /now to bloom. We will mend you with songs / remembered entirely the first time ever they are heard. / We will mend you with pieces of your own sweet self, sweet Soul—with what you’ve taught / from the very beginning.” She’s not referring to physical healing. She’s referring to returning to a state of balance and harmony, an original state, a primordial state, a womb state. “With what you’ve taught /from the very beginning.” She’s referring to wholeness.

Sometimes our best efforts at healing, and the best efforts of our physicians, simply aren’t enough. What I’ve come to trust is that even in such situations, even when the prognosis is grim, we can still attain wholeness. Sometimes, through the course of our attempts to heal, we realize that we’ve repaired long-broken relationships. We realized that we’ve forgiven those who’ve wronged us. And we’ve accepted forgiveness from those we’ve wronged. Sometimes, through the course of our attempts to heal, we suddenly realize that we’re deeply in touch with our passions, that we’re affirming and celebrating the things that matter most. Even when the body’s natural tendencies toward healing no longer work, we can still be the people of integrity and purpose we long to be. And with that realization comes an experience of completeness, of fulfillment, of enduring, abiding peace. It can happen at any age. That’s wholeness. When healing fails, may wholeness come.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Mark 10: 51-52.

[2] For an excellent and far more nuanced discussion of this longstanding assumption of the role of spirituality in healing, see Bowler, Katie, “Death, The Prosperity Gospel, and Me: Some Christians Believe God Rewards the Faithful, So Why Did I Get Stage 4 Cancer?” New York Times, Sunday Review, February 14, 2016. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=0.

[3] Flurry, Henry S., “Open My Heart” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1013.

When Seeing Isn’t Believing

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.  

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

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

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

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

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

Water for Flint — UUS:E Fifth Sunday Collection

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

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

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

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

Perhaps Struggle is All We Have

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

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

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

Hinged Between Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flammarion Engraving

The Flammarion Engraving

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

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

[4] Ibid, pp. 93-4.

[5] Isaiah 6: 1-8.

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

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

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

[9] Ibid.

January 2016 Minister’s Column

Hallelujah

Dear Ones:

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.            Rev. Joshua Pawelek

With love,

Rev. Josh