March Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

This month marks a milestone for me, Duffy Schade and Sharon Gresk. After more years than I care to count, we are finally ready to publish a book we’ve been working on entitled Hear the Earth Call. It was Duffy’s idea originally. She offered to sift through my sermons and prayers in search of meaningful excerpts addressing our experience of Nature. Once she had collected a series of excerpts, she began matching her own photographs to them. Along the way we brought Sharon Gresk onto the team to design the book. Our Sunday service on April 23rd will feature readings from Hear the Earth Call and a viewing of some of the photographs in the book. (We will also begin taking orders. All proceeds go to UUS:E!)

Mindful that our ministry theme for April is reconciliation, I would like to share with you part of the Epilogue from Hear the Earth Call. It speaks to the way Nature reminds us of inherent oneness in the universe:

“Let us imagine there was a beginning to everything—a primordium—a paradise of sorts—a tiny, compressed moment wherein all boundaries blur, so that shapes and spaces cannot be distinguished, matter and energy cannot be distinguished, light and shadow cannot be distinguished, past, present and future cannot be distinguished—a complete unity, all in one; one in all; a tiny potent moment in which a vast multitude of possibilities resides. This moment, this original unity, pregnant, about to burst forth with immeasurable creative power, if it did exist—and scientists say it did—by definition, must contain all truth…. More precisely, this moment—this astounding, glorious, eloquent unity is truth.

“Let us imagine everything we do in our lives, every decision, every emotion,  every thought—everything; even the misguided, harmful things—if we look deeply enough at why we do what we do and feel what we feel, if we look for the motivation

underlying our motivations, if we look in the most intimate way, illuminating our most inner, most vulnerable selves, we realize at our core is a longing—a profound and fierce longing—to return to that primordial moment, that sublime, original unity.

“Let us imagine, that from time to time, each of us in our own way has experiences—experiences of transcending mystery and wonder—brief, fleeting experiences: flashes, visions, dreams, deja vus, feelings, flickers, intuitions, insights, connections, A-has!, eurekas!—marked physically by butterflies and goose bumps—moments of awe, exultation, joy, amazement, and sometimes fear, dread, terror. And let us imagine these moments occur in both likely and unlikely places: in the sun rising over the ocean; the sound and call of the pounding surf; the view from the mountain top; the great circle of Midwest sky; humming birds and squirrels taking a meal at the backyard feeder; the exuberance of new love … spring’s rebirth; summer’s tomatoes served freshly cut with salt, pepper and oil; autumn’s vivid, colorful decay; winter’s barrenness; the cry of the newborn … the final breath before death…. Let us imagine, in these moments—these precious, grace-filled moments, we recognize, if only for an instant, that original unity of all things. We come screaming out of the birth canal into the soft light, into the wet morning, into life’s mud and muck and mess, and we know—a profound heart-and-soul-knowing—truth. The words before words sing in our hearts, and we know truth.”

Amen and blessed be.

Rev. Josh

January Ministers Column

Dear Ones:

First, HAPPY NEW YEAR! I hope you’ve had a peaceful and restful holiday season. Winter is here. Cold, snow and ice are here. Snow-blowing, shoveling, sanding and salting are here. Freezing and shivering are here. Hats, mittens, gloves, heavy coats and boots are here. Frozen car batteries are here. The dark season continues, though we know longer daylight hours are slowly returning. I hope and pray that this winter treats you well. I hope and pray that 2017 will be a good year for you. And no matter what challenges you face in this new year, I hope and trust you will find at UUS:E a place to lay your burdens down—to let others hold them for a while, so that you may regain the energy and strength you need to move through life with integrity and grace.

****

No, it’s not a rumor. Some of you have begun to hear the news that I have a sabbatical coming up. It is true. In fact, I have two sabbaticals coming up. I have accrued quite a bit of sabbatical time (10 months at the end of this current congregational year). The UUS:E Policy Board has graciously agreed to let me begin catching up on this unused time and take a one-month sabbatical in the current congregational year. I will take that time from February 12 to March 12. And the Policy Board has also granted my request to take a full (four month) sabbatical from October, 2017 to February,2018. During my sabbatical time, I am planning to return to the writing I was doing during my last sabbatical. Hopefully, I will come out of it with a completed novel!

Ministerial sabbaticals can be anxiety-producing for members and friends who rely on the minister’s presence, especially on Sunday mornings. Please know that the Sunday Services Committee is working with me to plan compelling, life-affirming worship services during the month I am away in the current congregational year. We are also in the early stages of inviting local Unitarian Universalist ministers to preach during my full sabbatical next year. The Sunday Services Committee is a talented group of people, many of whom were on the committee during my last sabbatical. They know what to do! They will provide excellent services in my absence.

Ministerial sabbaticals can also be anxiety-producing for members and friends who rely on the minister for pastoral care. It is true that people who seek a regular level of pastoral care from me will not have access to that care during my sabbatical. However, for pastoral crises that require ministerial presence, we will have a list of local UU (and possibly other) clergy who are available. And in the event of a pending death or an actual death, I will certainly come away from my sabbatical to provide care and to conduct a memorial service. All the other regular caring activities performed by our Pastoral Friends Committee will continue without interruption during my sabbaticals.

If you have any questions or concerns about what happens at UUS:E when the minister is on sabbatical, please do not hesitate to contact me. I like to think we are taking care of every important detail, but you may have a question or concern we haven’t yet thought of. And whether or not we’ve thought of everything, UUS:E has strong leaders and a strong staff who function wonderfully, whether I am present or not!

Rev. Joshua PawelekWith love,

Rev. Josh

Special Ministers Column

A Special Column from Rev. Josh on our Ministry Theme: Evil

I found this column I wrote from the last time (three years ago) when our theme for the month was ’Evil’. Since it still seems relevant, I offer it to you for your reflection.

Dear Ones,

Our ministry theme for January is ’Evil’. A number of you have already told me you’re not clear on why we’ve chosen this theme. I’ve had to confess that I lobbied pretty hard to include it this year. Certainly, ‘evil’ is one of those haunting religious words that many liberal religious people find little value in discussing. “It’s something religious conservatives talk about, but not us.” I get that. But ‘evil’ is used commonly in both religious and secular contexts, and it feels important to me that we name what we mean, if and when we use it. So, here are a few of my preliminary thoughts about what evil is and isn’t:

  • Evil is not the result of the machinations of some divine entity or fallen angel. There is no so-called “prince of darkness.”
  • Natural disasters may cause much suffering, but they are not evil, nor do they originate from the wrath of a divine entity.
  • Evil is not in any way inherent in the world, nature, or human beings, though human beings and human institutions certainly have the capacity to act in evil ways.
  • In attempting to identify what evil is, I begin with human behavior and ask questions like these: What kinds of behaviors destroy the human spirit? What kinds of behaviors diminish human dignity? What kinds of behaviors prevent human freedom and agency? What kinds of behaviors cause physical and emotional damage among human beings?
  • It is possible for good people to participate (wittingly and unwittingly) in the evil of human systems and institutions. For example, if we agree that the current fossil-fuel-based global energy system is destroying the planet, and if we agree that this destruction is a form of evil, then what are we to make of our own participation in this system? And, if we can identify racism operating in various systems and institutions in our country, and if we agree that racism is a form of evil, then what are we to make of our own participation in those systems and institutions?
  • I don’t expect agreement (anywhere) on a single definition of evil. I expect a wide variety of views and a large grey area. However, the absence of agreement should not lead to the absence of action. Whether we use the term ‘evil’ or not, there are atrocities that require our faithful response.

Evil is not an easy or pleasant theme to explore. But I do think it behooves us to explore it with intention from time to time. That’s my goal this month—an exploration. I hope you find this exploration meaningful.

Rev. Joshua PawelekWith love,

Rev. Josh

December Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

Our ministry theme for December is joy. As I sit down to begin contemplating joy, we are just a week out from the presidential election. If you’re not sure about my views and feelings related to the whole election cycle, you can visit the UUS:E website and find my sermon from November 6. If you’re not sure about my views and feelings related to the election results, you can visit the UUS:E website and find my sermon from November 13. (And if you don’t use computers, and you’d like to read those sermons, please give me a call. I’ll send you hard copies).

Perhaps needless to say, joy is not high on my emotional list these days. And yet, I think cultivating joy is essential. Joy is essential not only as a foundation for engagement in the wider world, but it is also essential to our health and well-being, to our sense of confidence, to our sense of self-worth, and to our capacity for hope. So, in the interest of finding joy as I write, I offer my answer to the question, “What brings joy to my life?”

In no particular order:

  • Playing the drums in worship;
  • Hearing people laugh when I’m preaching;
  • Working with the UUS:E staff (I’m not just saying this—each of them brings joy to my life!);
  • A good night’s sleep;
  • Yard work, as long as everyone’s willing to help (and sometimes even if they aren’t);
  • A day off;
  • A meaningful pastoral visit;
  • Watching my sons do something creative that I don’t expect them to do;
  • Watching leaves fall (can’t say why, other than that the experience connects me to mystery).
  • Trevor Noah;
  • A hearty breakfast (hard to do when you’re trying to go vegan!!)
  • The darkness of this late autumn/early winter season—again, mystery (I’ll be preaching on this on December 11);
  • The occasional Dogfish Head ale;
  • My wife’s rock-solidness—mind, soul, body;
  • A good book;
  • Lamp light;
  • ”Spirit of Life” and “Love Will Guide Us;”
  • Hermione Granger, Frodo, Ender, and Paul Muad Dib;
  • Great colleagues, UU and non-UU alike;
  • 153 West Vernon St. on Elm Hill in Manchester, East of the Connecticut River.

I’m just getting started. But before I run out of room, let me ask you: What brings joy to your life? Send me a note. Give me a call. I’d like to hear your answer to this questions.

With love,

Rev. Josh

November Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

Our November ministry theme is abundance. I’ve been wondering: what are the good things we possess in abundance? This feels like such an important question to me, in part because 2016 has been a year of perceived scarcity. This year’s election cycle has focused so much on what we lack, on what’s wrong with the United States, and on what’s wrong with the world, that it’s easy to forget what we possess in abundance. Not only the election, but multiple, high-profile acts of violence (terrorist attacks, police violence and anti-police violence) have drawn our attention to anger and rage, to the ways in which the very fabric of our society seems frayed and torn. To the extent we focus our attention on these acts (and sometimes we do need to focus on them) there is always the possibility that we will begin to feel small, isolated, frightened and angry ourselves. At times like these, it is essential that we ask: What are the good things we have in abundance?

Of course, the answer is different for different people. Some will name family and friends who love and support them. Some will name the UUS:E community that loves and supports them, and hopefully challenges them to live a principled life. Some will name opportunities for growth and learning. Others will name opportunities for service. Still others will name meaningful work. Some will name only the basics: access to food, clean water, shelter—and even these are lacking at times. Others will name access to health care, higher education, technology, and transportation; or access to clean, breathable air, green spaces, hiking trails, Nature. And some will speak of their relationship with the Sacred, God, the Great Mystery—whatever name they choose. Yes, we each have different answers to the question, but I’ve never encountered anyone who doesn’t have some semblance of an answer, even at the lowest moments of their lives. What are the good things we have in abundance?

As we gain clarity about our answers to this question, we also gain strength, centeredness and resilience to meet the cynicism and mistrust that seem so pervasive in our nation. That is, when we approach life from an understanding of what we possess in abundance as opposed to what we lack, we give ourselves grounding. We give ourselves a center.

When anger and rage threaten to destabilize our nation, we will more easily remember that there is more to life than anger and rage if we understand the good things we possess in abundance,

When fear of the “other” threatens to divide our communities, we will more easily remember that there are options other than fear; that there are ways to work together and stay united—if we have a deep sense of abundance.

When violence erupts, we will more easily remember to respond with love and compassion, if we are grounded in an understanding of abundance.

If we are clear about the good things we possess in abundance, then, when people complain about increasing scarcity, lack and unfairness, we will know to listen and learn, trusting there is a way beyond scarcity, trusting there is enough for everyone.

As New England farmers bring in the final harvest of the year; as crimson, gold, orange and brown leaves pile up in yards and woods; as we enter the Thanksgiving season – let’s give priority to asking and answering this question: What are the good things we have in abundance?

With love,

Rev. Josh

October Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

Our October ministry theme is suffering. I admit it’s not the most inviting theme. Nor is it the most uplifting, inspiring or motivating theme. Suffering. Do we have to talk about it?

But we know there is immense suffering in the world. We know all human beings suffer at times through the course of our living. We know animals and other non-human creatures suffer. We hear it spoken aloud virtually every Sunday morning in our ritual of sharing joys and concerns. We know part of being alive is suffering. So we would be remiss—even foolish—not to reflect on the meaning of suffering in our lives, or to focus only on the more positive aspects of the human experience. If part of being alive is suffering, then we need to talk about it. We owe it to ourselves to prepare for the times when we and those we love will suffer.

Some suffering is unavoidable, and nobody’s fault. Sometimes we get sick. Sometimes the hurricane or the fire or the earthquake strikes where we are. Our initial response might be “why me?” but the answers aren’t very satisfying. Luck of the draw? Accident? Wrong place at the wrong time? Genetics? Natural disaster? Certainly, as Buddhism asserts, our suffering stems from our attachments. We are attached in so many ways to things, people, outcomes and desires. The deeper our attachments, the more profound our suffering. Practices that enables us to decrease the strength of our attachments reduce the power of suffering in our lives. Even so, there is no way to prevent pain 100%. We can change our relationship to pain and perhaps reduce its intensity, but nobody gets out of this life without pain. Given this, my hope and prayer for us—and for everyone—is that nobody suffers alone.

In those times when you suffer, you have an open invitation to reach out to me and the UUS:E congregation for love and support. And when others are suffering, I urge you to respond with love and support. Let’s not turn away. The spiritual writer Rachel Naomi Remen says “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.” I take these words to heart.

Of course, some suffering is avoidable. Some suffering isn’t a result of accidents or bad luck or genetics, but is rather created by human beings out of greed, hatred and fear. The suffering that comes from poverty is, in fact, avoidable. The suffering that comes as a result of war is avoidable. The suffering that comes as a result of systems of injustice is avoidable. But avoiding such suffering, we know, takes enormous effort on the part of people who envision a more just and loving world. I feel very strongly that our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to make such efforts—that we are called to spend our lives working to reduce the avoidable suffering that arises from human greed, hatred and fear. This is why we work for environmental justice. This is why we are supporting the resettlement of refugees from war-zones. This is why we support the Black Lives Matter movement. There is too much avoidable suffering in the world, and we are called to respond.

There will always be suffering. Let us be people who respond with our presence and compassion when suffering is unavoidable. And when it is avoidable, let us be people who challenge and transform it!

With love,

Rev. Josh

September 2016 Minister Column

Dear Ones:

As I write I begin my 14th year as UUS:E’s minister. Sometimes it’s hard to believe I’ve been serving since August, 2003. Yet sometimes August, 2003 feels like yesterday. (Except when I see pictures from those early years—I had a lot more hair then!)

Mine is definitely an ‘above average’ duration for a congregation-based ministry. I’ve encountered a variety of different studies on how long the average minister remains in a pulpit, and the numbers range from approximately five to eight years. Given that range, there’s no other way to describe my tenure at UUS:E, other than that it is a long-term ministry. There are many benefits to long-term ministries. The one that comes to my mind most quickly is that a long-term minister gets to know the members of a congregation on a very deep level. This is helpful in times of crisis, since the long-term minister is often already aware of dynamics in members’ lives when a crisis happens. And it is also helpful in the day-to-day operations of the congregation, in working with volunteers, and in knowing the congregation’s strengths and weaknesses. A minister’s long-term relationships with members of the congregation make the day-to-day operations flow more smoothly.

Of course, there are drawbacks to long-term ministries as well. Over time, ministers and congregations can get so used to each other that they fall into ruts. They stick to the familiar and the comfortable. They stop innovating. They stagnate. The first step in avoiding stagnation is being aware that it can happen. The second step lies in the minister and the congregation challenging themselves to not be complacent with how things are, to keep offering new programs, new ways of worshipping, new ways of connecting. I like to think we do a pretty good job of staying creative and fresh at UUS:E. But I never want to take this for granted—which means that if you have an idea for how I or we can do things differently at UUS:E, please do not hesitate to share your thoughts with me. I want to hear what you have to say!

I cannot express how grateful I am to have the opportunity to work with one congregation over the long-term. It has been, and continues to be, an honor to serve as your minister, and I look forward to serving for many more years.

****

Although UUS:E never really takes a break, our 2016-2017 congregational year officially begins on Sunday, September 11th with our annual homecoming service. Please join us for this fun, meaningful family service! And let’s have another great year together.

With love,

Rev. Josh

July 2016 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

I have a request. I’d like to hear from as many UUS:E members and friends as possible what your favorite sermons of mine have been over the years. Please write to me at revpawelek@sbcglobal.net or leave a message on my home office phone, 860-652-8961. If you don’t remember titles, that’s OK. (I don’t remember most of the titles either!) If you can tell me what the sermon was about, or if there was a particular story or message that you remember, that should be enough to help me identify which sermon you are referring to. And if you can’t remember specific sermons but there’s a certain type of sermon that you like, you can inform me of that too.

I’m making this request mainly so I can identify what has stuck with you over the years. I’m trying to discern which sermons have had the most impact on you, or have meant the most to you, or have been the most helpful to you. I want to learn what works best for the congregation.

I’m also planning to “re-preach” the two sermons that get named most frequently in this little survey. I will update them and preach one on July 31st and the other on August 28th.

When you send me an email or leave a phone message, you will get a message informing you that I am on vacation and study leave. That is true. But don’t worry. I want to hear from you in response to this question. What have been your one or two favorite sermons of mine?

***

Speaking of vacation and study leave, I will be taking approximately six weeks off for this purpose between July 5th and August 21st. As is always the case, I am available for pastoral emergencies during my vacation and study leave. I request that people only contact me in the event of emergencies (and to tell me about your favorite sermons!)

During the summer our family will be spending some time in the Berkshires with Stephany’s parents. The boys will be participating in various camps there. We’ll be taking a road trip to Baltimore. And we’ll also be spending a week on Cape Cod with my parents and my brothers’ families. My primary focus of study this summer will be the work of Morris Berman. Some of you may remember the sermon I preached on May 1st in response to his first book on human consciousness, The Reenchantment of the World. This summer I will be studying his other two books on human consciousness, Coming to Our Senses and Wandering God. I will also wade into his series on the United States of America, Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed. My goal is to teach an Adult Religious Education course on his work sometime next year.

***

Finally, as many of you know, UUS:E has made plans to hire a ministerial intern and become a teaching congregation. Well, we were poised to begin the internship in September, however our candidate ultimately accepted an offer from another congregation. This means that we will not be commencing with this program in the fall. I was very disheartened by this news. Such is life. We will eventually do this, just not next year.

With love,

Rev. Josh

June 2016 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

Our ministry theme for June is Wilderness. I’ve been thinking about how to approach this theme differently than I have in the past. This month I offer you the idea of being lost. In most contexts, lost is precisely what we least want to be. We might feel lost in our lives—lost in terms of the direction we want to take, lost in terms of career, lost in terms of our social lives, lost in terms of our spiritual lives. Feeling lost in any of these ways typically doesn’t feel good. We might feel lost when we lack a skill or a capacity—when there’s something we need to do, but we don’t know how to do it. Feeling lost in this way also doesn’t feel good. We might become lost when driving—perhaps our GPS didn’t work, or we don’t have a map, or the map we do have isn’t accurate, or the place we’re trying to find isn’t on the map. Or, we might be lost in the woods, in the forest, in the desert, at sea, in the wilderness. For anyone who’s ever been truly lost in any kind of wilderness, you know it can be terrifying. People who are lost in the wilderness don’t always return.

I remember being lost in a grocery store at age three. I remember being lost in a forest for a frightening fifteen minutes as a teenager. I remember feeling emotionally and spiritually lost at times during my young adult years. Being lost never felt good, and I suspect our default mode is to avoid being lost as much as possible.

But I also suspect being lost may bring some benefits. Being lost at times may be precisely what we need to wake us up, to shake us out of whatever stasis we’ve entered, to relieve us of boredom. Being lost may be precisely what we need to rekindle the fire within, to revive us, to inspire our creativity, to help us learn what we need to learn. Being lost may be the very condition that moves us out of dangerous certainty, that helps us “think outside the box,” that opens new directions in our lives.

This makes sense in theory. But how does a minister advise parishioners to get lost? (Ha ha! I couldn’t resist writing that!) It may be good advice, but it also may be dangerous advice. Is there a way to mimic the experience of being lost without actually being lost? Is there a safe way to be lost? Is there a way to be lost in a laboratory or computer simulation? Is there a religious education class on the art of being lost? I’m not sure. It seems to me the benefits of being lost only come if one is truly lost, if there is something truly important at stake. There’s no completely “safe” way to be lost. So, I’m not sure how to advise any of you to get lost!

Still, there’s something about it that feels like good advice. There’s something about being lost that is good for the soul. I don’t want to lose that. So, as summer approaches, I invite us to explore what being lost means to us. If you’ve ever been lost in your life, what was that experience like? What did it take to find your way back? What skills did you learn? What new confidences did you develop? And if you feel lost in your life right now, as difficult and challenging as it may be, before you find your way back, ask yourself: What is this experience teaching you about yourself? It may be the best thing that ever happened to you.

In the coming summer season, may we each find a way to get lost!

With love,

Rev. Josh

May 2016 Minister’s Column

Hallelujah

Dear Ones:

Our ministry theme for May is enlightenment. There are a number of ways to approach this theme. Buddhist enlightenment comes most readily to mind. In recent years Nancy Thompson has been a very helpful guide for our exploration of Buddhism. Thank you Nancy! For those reading online, you can read some of her insights here. Nancy describes enlightenment as a state of “being awake” to our true nature. And what is our true nature? She cites Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of the global Buddhist community Shambhala, who describes enlightenment as “a state in which body and mind are synchronized. It’s the fusion of awareness and what it is aware of, the obliteration of the boundaries between perception, perceiver, and perceived.” (UUS:E’s Buddhist group meets first Tuesdays at 7:00 PM. All are welcome!)

Another way into this theme is through an exploration of “The Enlightenment”—the period in western history stretching from roughly the 1650s to 1800 marked by revolutions in philosophy, theology, science, industry and politics. These revolutions supplanted an entrenched set of medieval assumptions about how the natural world works, how the universe is structured, how to conduct scientific research, and what constitutes a civilized society. The Enlightenment provided the intellectual ground for what scholars call “Modernity.” The Enlightenment created the context for incredible advances in science, technology, democracy and human rights.

350 years after the dawn of The Enlightenment, however, many of its assumptions have been overturned or are in desperate need of overturning. One of my favorite theologians is the eco-postmodernist and feminist theologian Charlene Spretnak. In her 1991 book, States of Grace, she describes the problems Enlightenment thinking has generated over the centuries, and she turns to what she calls the ancient wisdom traditions—Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Goddess spirituality, and the prophetic dimension of the Abrahamic faiths—to address those problems. Her analysis of Modernity is very similar to that of science historian Morris Berman in his 1981 book, The Reenchantment of the World. (I will be preaching on this book on May 1st). Spretnak and Berman both articulate a need in our era to overcome the two great “separations” of The Enlightenment: The separation of mind from body, and the separation of divinity from the earth. Spiritual writer Thomas Moore, who will speak at UUS:E on June 11th, also offers many insights into how to overcome these great separations.

What might it mean to be human in the absence of these separations? There isn’t one clear answer to this question. But we need answers. We need new ways of being human. Spretnak’s insight that the ancient wisdom traditions knew something of what we need today is right on. Consider Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s description of enlightenment above: “a state in which body and mind are synchronized … the obliteration of the boundaries between perception, perceiver, and perceived.” Whatever these words may mean, they describe mind, body and earth united. I am convinced we already know how to live whole and holistic lives. We know, but we’ve forgotten. Thus, remembering is spiritual work. We need to wake up to what our ancestors knew. Our efforts at moving forward into healthy ways of being human, and of being human communities, will benefit from a look back to ancient human wisdom.

With love,

Rev. Josh