The Art of Return or Building the Beloved Community, Part I

Video here: The Art of Return

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

Nancy Shaffer writes: “Because we are imperfect and love so / deeply we never will have enough days / we need the gift of starting over, beginning / again: just this constant good, this saving hope.”[1]

These words remind me of my experience of church as a kid, and especially as a teenager. I’m remembering specifically a pattern in my inner life, the way something at church—something in the sermon, the children’s story, a prayer or meditation, or something we learned in our Sunday School class—something always seemed to remind me of the person I aspired to be—a good and decent person, a caring and compassionate person, morally centered and spiritually grounded. You might say at church I heard a call to be that person. And I would go out from church determined to be that person in the coming week. I would leave church feeling really good about being that person, feeling confident in my ability to be that person.

And then it would begin to slip away. The call would grow faint. I’d forget. Other, less lofty influences would present themselves. Other, less wholesome impulses would take over. I’d get in a petty squabble with one of my brothers or my parents. I’d fall prey to peer pressure at school—or after school. I’d use language I knew I wasn’t supposed to use. I’d occasionally use substances I knew I wasn’t supposed to use. I would fall short of my mark. In more traditional religious language, I would sin (usually very small sins, and occasionally not so small). I’d do something stupid, get caught, and get in trouble; like the time a friend and I realized that if we jumped high enough we could reach the ceiling tiles in the hallway and dislodge them. That was at Sleeping Giant Junior High School. How we got caught is a long story for another sermon (about integrity and betrayal), but after about 100 tiles dislodged, we clearly deserved the three-day suspension that followed. And even if I didn’t commit some “official” transgression, even I didn’t sin, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that, in the very least, in the days that followed church I would get caught up in the weekly routine—homework, music lessons, sports, skateboarding—and that feeling from Sunday morning—that good feeling about being the person I aspired to be, about being the person I felt called to be—that feeling would wane and, most of the time, disappear.

But every Sunday morning, somehow, some way, I would encounter it again. I would hear the call again. I would set off after church again, determined to be that person again. I don’t think this is the unique experience of one teenager. Certainly in my adult life I continue to experience this pattern of trying to be the person I aspire to be, trying to be my best, most authentic self, the person I believe the divine power at the heart of creation calls me to be, and then, falling short, missing the mark, forgetting.

I had the opportunity a few years back to write a chapter for the book Reverend X: How Generation X Ministers are Shaping Unitarian Universalism. In that chapter I described this pattern. I said that on my best days I am able to be that person I feel called to be, “a theistic Unitarian Universalist, accountable, antiracist, feminist, queer ally, liberal, suburban American pastor dedicated to transformative preaching, teaching, healing and social justice struggle. I am fearless, engaged, full of conviction and connected to a variety of justice-seeking communities.” But so much of the time I miss that mark. So much of the time I don’t get there. On the days that aren’t my best days (which are certainly more numerous than my best days) I said I am “juggling too many tasks and not doing any of them well; not spending enough time with my wife and kids; stressed out, moody, [feeling] a little guilty, and not grounded.”[2]

I know this pattern isn’t unique to me. In fact, at the risk of generalizing, I believe this pattern is a central feature of the human experience. It is difficult to measure up to our brightest vision for ourselves. I read earlier from a Conservative Jewish prayer, often recited at the beginning of the Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It says “We aim toward lofty heights, but temptation overcomes us. Greed and vanity blind our eyes, envy and arrogance eat into the marrow of our bones, false ambitions bring us bitter remorse, and selfishness dwarfs our souls. We are creatures of haphazard living. We stumble and fall; we grope and wander.”[3] It’s a Jewish prayer, but in my view it describes a universal human experience, this pattern of missing the mark, of not sustaining ourselves as our best selves. The prayerful response to this experience is not frustration, not despair, not hopelessness, but rather an invitation to try again. It makes its claim about human failings and frailties and then it invites those in prayer to return, in this case to return to the God of the Israelites, the God of the Torah. “O Lord, strengthen us in our weak moments and guide our faltering footsteps. Speak to our hearts with the still small voice of Thy spirit so that we may search our ways and return unto Thee. Cause us to be forgiving even as we ask to be forgiven.”[4]

So many spiritual paths in so many religions are not about heading out to discover something completely new we have never encountered before; rather, they invite us to head back, to look inward, to rediscover ourselves, to return to what we’ve always known, to return to the person we aspire to be, the person we long to be, the person we feel called to be by whatever power is sacred in our lives. Nancy Shaffer says: “We need the gift of starting over, beginning / again: just this constant good, this saving hope.” Or as we just sang, in the words of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, “Return again, return again, return to the home of your soul.”[5]

Sometimes—in fact, often—the only person who notices I’ve missed my mark is me. Maybe I’m just good at hiding it. Actually, I think most of us get good at hiding it. That’s normal. We don’t want the world to see our failings if we can help it. And if that’s the case, then this process of return, of starting again, is a matter of contending with ourselves, talking to ourselves, challenging ourselves, motivating ourselves. It’s private and internal unless we choose to share it with others.

At other times, maybe the people with whom I am closest notice that I’ve missed the mark. Maybe they mention it to me. My father did that recently. He took me aside and said, “Josh, you’re a bit too quick to yell at your children. You can’t yell the kid out of them. Let them be. They’ll learn from their own mistakes. Lord knows you did!” I didn’t like this at first, but we talked about it and I agreed I was missing the mark. I could start again. What a blessing. I felt lucky to have a parent who was willing and able to challenge me, gently, when I needed challenging.

But then come those times when our missing the mark harms someone else, when it damages a relationship or violates a covenant; when it pulls us out of right relationship. Then our return cannot simply be an inward journey. If we have harmed someone, then our return must be social. It must be, to some degree, public. It requires an encounter with the person or people whom we’ve harmed. It requires an apology. It requires a demonstration of heartfelt remorse and a request for forgiveness. It requires acceptance of the consequences of one’s actions, including punishment if necessary and appropriate. Using traditional religious language, it requires atonement.

This is our theological theme for October, atonement. We often explore this theme at this time of year in reference to the Jewish High Holy Days. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a time when Jews are expected to atone for their sins both against God and against other people. The latter is a highly social and often public experience. It requires a willingness to make oneself vulnerable, because you cannot atone for sins against other people without going to them and saying some version of the words “I am sorry.” “Will you forgive me?” I call this an experience of vulnerability because there is always that risk that the one you’ve harmed will not offer forgiveness. But the risk is worth taking.

In my recent newsletter column I reminded us that Jews have a very clear mandate to seek atonement. In the Book of Leviticus God specifies to Moses that the tenth day of the seventh month shall be a day of atonement.[6] I also reminded us that Unitarian Universalism, being the modern liberal, religious tradition that it is, has no such mandate. We do not say: “You must admit your wrongdoings and seek forgiveness from those whom you’ve harmed.” We do not say it, but that does not mean it is not important. On the contrary, because falling short of our best aspirations is such a central human experience, because we are imperfect, because we inevitably cause each other pain, atonement is essential for sustaining relationships and communities.

I have deep faith that the act of saying “I’m sorry,” and really meaning it, brings healing and repairs relationships.

I have deep faith that the act of saying “I accept your apology” or “I forgive you,” and really meaning it, brings healing and repairs relationships.

I also know such acts can be profoundly difficult. I don’t like to admit that I’m wrong or that I’ve made a mistake or that I’ve missed the mark. I didn’t like it when my father pulled me aside and offered his observations. I especially don’t like to admit that I’ve hurt someone. But the alternative is far worse. Without atonement we experience distance, separation, broken relationships, a weakening of the bonds that bind each to all, an erosion of a community’s vitality, a stifling of open discourse and creativity, a loss of intimacy, a failure of trust. We don’t need a mandate to seek atonement. But the lack of a mandate should not be an excuse to avoid it either. Because we are imperfect, we need to practice atonement.

I want to say a few words about atonement and building Beloved Community. I began this sermon suggesting that as individuals we each have a vision for our best selves, that we often fall short of that vision, and that coming to church helps us return to that vision. Well, communities also have visions of their best selves. The notion of Beloved Community is one way to name that vision. Certainly in our times the notion is most commonly associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., whose vision of the beloved community was a national and even global vision, a community marked by human relatedness, justice for everyone and an end to economic inequality.[7]

Next Sunday I want to speak about that larger Kingian-style vision of Beloved Community, but for now I want to say that this congregation has a vision of its best self. We have a vision for our best self as a spiritual community, the beloved community we aspire to be. We build that community together. And, in the process of building, because there are so many ways to build, we will disagree. We will argue. We will fail to hear each other. We will hurt each other’s feelings. We will wound each other. There is something inevitable about this. Nancy Shaffer captures this beautifully: “Because we weep not only at jade plants caught in freeze and precious papers left in rain but … also … at words said once as though they might be rearranged but which, once loose, refuse to return and we are helpless.”[8] We aspire to be our best selves, but in an unthinking instant we are, all of us, capable of saying and doing things that cause harm. This is a central aspect of the human experience and there is no reason to think it won’t happen here. It has happened. It is happening. It will happen. And, it is not a problem. It is normal, even inevitable. It happens in families, in towns and cities and nations, in governments, in schools, in workplaces and in congregations—any place where human beings exist in community. It emerges as a problem only when a community has no process for its members to atone, to say, “I see I’ve hurt you. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me? Can we start again?”

Without atonement, a conflict can grow like a cancer. With atonement, a conflict can be put into perspective, can be held and managed well, and the community can begin reaching for its best self again.

Because we are imperfect, because we miss our mark, because we bruise one another, building the Beloved Community requires atonement. Building the Beloved Community requires that we each learn the art of return. And isn’t that one of the blessings of this spiritual community? We are invited, again and again, to return to our best selves, to forgive and be forgiven, to know and be known, to love and be loved. In the words of Rev. Shaffer, “we need the gift of starting over, beginning again: just this constant good, this saving hope.”[9]

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Shaffer, Nancy “Because We Spill Not Only Milk” Instructions in Joy (Boston: Skinner House, 2002) p. 7.

[2] Pawelek, Joshua M., “Dead Rock Stars, Global Insecurity, and the Spiritual Life of Generation X,”Lebak, Tamara and Lortie, Bret, eds., Reverend X: How Generation X Ministers are Shaping Unitarian Universalism (Tulsa: Jenkin Lloyd Jones Press, 2008) p. 2.

[3] Silverman, Morris, ed., High Holy Day Prayer Book (Hartford: Prayer Book Press, 1951) p. 205.

[4] Ibid., p. 205.

[5] Carlebach, Shlomo, “Return Again” Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1011.

[6] Leviticus 23: 27-28.

[7] Smith, Kenneth L. and Zep, Ira G., Search for the Beloved community: The Thinking of Martin Luther King. Jr. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1974). For a quick synopsis of their analysis, see the authors’ 1974 Christian Century article at

[8] Shaffer, Instructions in Joy, p. 7.

[9] Shaffer, Instructions in Joy, p. 7.