February 2016 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

Do you have a friend or acquaintance who lives in the Greater Manchester area who you think is a Unitarian Universalist but just doesn’t know it yet? Do you have a friend or acquaintance who lives in either Hartford or Tolland County who you think would identify closely with the Unitarian Universalist principles? Do you have a friend or acquaintance who would thrive in the midst of a loving, liberal religious community? Do you have a child who has a friend who you think would like the religious education program at UUS:E? If your answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then I highly encourage you to invite that friend or acquaintance to join all of us at UUS:E on February 14 for worship and the Chocolate auction.

Unitarian Universalism has a long-standing love-hate relationship with evangelism. Because we UUs refuse to identify our faith as the one, true faith, and because we hold deep respect for other religions, we have often not felt a strong need to spread our “good news.” We’ve relied on those who might appreciate Unitarian Universalism to find us on their own. This is important: we don’t proselytize. We don’t try to impose our faith on others. We pursue interfaith relationships and value religious pluralism, rather than anxiously trying to convert others to our way of believing. However, it is also true that we have good news. It is also true that our principles can save lives. It is also true that the world needs our message of freedom, reason, acceptance, compassion and love. So why not tell others about Unitarian Universalism? Why not invite others in?

Last June the UUS:E Policy Board commissioned a “Growth Team” to develop strategies for growing our congregation specifically, and for growing Unitarian Universalism more broadly. Jason Corsa and Peggy Gagne chair the team. Members include Nancy Pappas, Carol Marion, Michelle Spadaccini, Beth Zambrano, Louisa Graver, Jean Knapp and me. One thing is clear: if we want to grow, we’re going to need to talk to others about our faith. This makes sense. Most experts on church growth will tell you that for congregations of all sizes, the most reliable path to growth is “word of mouth.” If you’re excited about your faith community, then others will be too. Having a good website with up-to-date information also makes a difference, but there is nothing like a face-to-face invitation to make a person feel welcome in your faith community. We’ve designated February 14 as “Bring a Friend to Church” Sunday. I encourage everyone to do just that: invite a friend (or acquaintance) to join you at UUS:E for worship, and then stay for the chocolate auction. Invite a friend or acquaintance who isn’t part of a faith community already. Invite someone who already possesses liberal religious values. Invite someone who may be lonely or looking for community. Invite them.

We’re working on some incentives. We will offer a certain amount of “UUS:E Bucks” to be spent at the Chocolate Auction to everyone who brings a friend on the 14th. But even if your friend can’t make it then, invite them for another Sunday. And even if you can’t think of anyone to invite on the 14th, keep looking. Consider every Sunday to be “Bring a Friend to Church” Sunday. Because we do have good news—news that saves lives—news that matters in a hurting world. There is no reason to keep it a secret!

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

 

With love,

Rev. Josh

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

December 2015 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

As I write these words just before the Thanksgiving holiday, the weather has finally turned cold (or at least nippy) and we’ve had a few gray days after weeks and weeks of beautiful though unseasonably warm, sunny weather. The landscape has grown barren and windswept, the empty fields now await the first snows. As many of you know, I like the gray days. I like the barren landscape. For me, these late autumn days in New England offer an invitation. It’s an invitation to look inward, to reflect, to ponder. It’s an invitation to find solitude, to be quiet and still.

There’s an invitation here. It’s an invitation to let our inner landscape become barren for a time—no rushing, no activity, no lights, no stress. It’s an invitation to burrow down into the cold, brown earth and let the nurturing darkness heal whatever hurts the long year has given us.

How might you respond to this invitation? If you’re not sure, I’ve discovered a wonderful prompt for inner reflection at this time of year. A small group met in November to plan our bi-annual Mental Health Ministry summit, which will take place on December 12th from 9:00 to noon at UUS:E (all are welcome, of course). We latched onto the idea of using Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” as a prompt for reflection. I trust most of you know the story, in which Ebenezer Scrooge receives visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. With these visits, Scrooge has the opportunity to reflect on his life and make choices about how he wants to live the rest of it. We’ll be offering these questions for discussion at the Mental Health Ministry Summit, but I enjoy them so much I’d like to offer them to everyone: If the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future were to visit you, what would they say? And how might you resolve to live differently as a result? Whether or not one identifies with Christmas in some way (not every UU does), I hope you find this a useful exercise.

And even if this prompt doesn’t work for you, perhaps the landscape will. Take a moment before the holidays come blaring into your life; pause and ponder the leafless trees, the empty fields, the dry grasses, the shuttered barns, the grey skies, the dark nights. Pause and ponder: where have you been? Where are you now? Where are you going?

leaves 2

May this be a season of deep and meaningful reflection, before the season of cheer.

With love, Rev. Josh

November 2015 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

In October I attended a workshop for Unitarian Universalism clergy entitled “Ministry in the Age of Disengagement” with Hartford Seminary sociologist of religion, Scott Thumma. Disengagement refers to the way Americans are disengaging from religious communities across denominations and faiths. I laughed because I had just preached in September on my intention to stop talking about the “end of church.” But there I was in the midst of a workshop, talking about all the data that suggests organized religion is declining in the United States.

Though Unitarian Universalism still seems to be doing marginally better than other liberal Protestant denominations, Professor Thumma’s data is challenging. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the ‘end of church.’ It means we have work to do. Here is an overview of Professor Thumma’s response to widespread religious disengagement:

First, we need to recognize that in our larger culture, the alternatives to religious engagement are compelling. But none of the alternatives offers the combined opportunities for spiritual growth, community connection, and a sustained focus on our highest values that religious communities offer. None. So, those of us who love our religious communities need to make the case to the wider culture that they matter. Some might call this evangelism. Some might call it marketing. I’m not sure I have a good word for it, but I know we need to ‘come out’ in a much bigger and intentional way as Unitarian Universalists. Are you ready?

Second, we need to name our niche. Professor Thumma says that unless you’re a mega church, you just don’t have the resources to be all things to all people. Congregations need to specialize in a few areas. Are we a church for families? A church for religious education? A church for social justice? A church for environmental stewardship? A church for music and arts? Congregations that spread themselves too thin lose their way too easily. So, let’s have a conversation about our niche. What are our unique ministries? Can we stay focused on those, and let go of others? Are you ready?

Finally, we need to innovate. Professor Thumma says, very bluntly, the people who aren’t coming to your church don’t want what you’re offering. That’s a hard truth. What he means is that people may actually want what we offer, but not how we offer it. So do it differently! Innovate. Experiment. Are you ready?

      These are all ideas we’ve considered during the past few years. If anything, Professor Thumma affirms what we already suspect, and he pushes us even harder than we’ve been pushing ourselves. This is, in fact, hard work. It’s difficult for congregations to do things differently. But I think we’re up to the task. Both our newly formed UUS:E growth team (headed by Jason Corsa and Peggy Gagne) and the Religious Education Transition Team (headed by Stan McMillen) are getting us in the habit of innovation. Watch for updates from them. Are you ready? 

With love,

Rev. Josh

October 2015 Ministers Column

Dear Ones:

[Note: this column contains some gender-neutral pronouns!]

As many of you have heard me say in worship over the past few weeks, the Sunday Services Committee and I would like to make a shift in our Sunday morning ritual of sharing joys and sorrows. While we want the sharing to be robust, we also want everyone to feel they have an opportunity to do so. We’ve learned that some members and friends consistently opt not to share because they feel the overall ritual lasts too long. Thus, we are requesting that all those who share limit their sharing to one or two sentences. We feel strongly that sharing can effectively be done in one or two sentences. For example, “Please light a candle for my aunt who has been diagnosed with cancer.” “My child made the honor roll.” “My friend is getting out of prison.” “Thanks to everyone who helped with the fall clean-up.” There is no need—and truly no time—to provide the back-story. We recognize that this ritual is not a time for story-telling. We trust that if you share a simple sentence or two during the ritual, those who want or need to know the story behind your sharing will find you following the service.

On behalf of the Sunday Services Committee, I want to thank you for taking this request seriously. We feel it is the best way to insure that all those who want to share feel that they can share without taking time away from other elements in the service. If you have any questions or concerns about this change, please do not hesitate to contact me or a member of the Sunday Services Committee.

On another note, I’d like to remind everyone that UUS:E has a Committee on Ministry, selected by me and appointed by the Policy Board for two-year terms. The Committee on Ministry exists to support the minister in his/zir/her ministry. They provide valuable feedback to the minister about how he/ze/she is performing the regular tasks of ministry, and about how he/ze/she is achieving his/zir/her goals for the year. This year’s committee includes Sande Hartdagen, Bob Knapp, Liz Nelsen, Jeff Schlechtweg and Carol Simpson. You are encouraged to reach out to any of them if you have any questions about UUS:E’s professional minister.

Last spring the Committee on Ministry conducted a survey of the congregation regarding its appraisal of my ministry. Their report on the results of the survey is printed in this newsletter. I am profoundly pleased with the survey results. While people provided heart-felt criticism where they deemed necessary, the overall results indicate an ongoing affirmation of my ministry at UUS:E. I am deeply thankful for that affirmation—still strong at the beginning of year 13! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

With love,

Rev. Josh

September 2015 Ministers Column

Dear Ones:

Hmmm. I’ve been noticing changing leaves. Not many, but they’re there. And by the time you read these words, there will be more of them. Red, yellow, gold, orange and brown leaves. Summer is winding down. Autumn is beautiful in New England, and there’s always a part of me that can’t wait for autumn’s cool, crisp mornings, ripe apples, and beautiful changing leaves. But I still want summer to last a bit longer.

First things first. The 13th person who contacts me at revpawelek@sbcglobal.net will receive lunch—on me, and with me. But there’s a catch. When you contact me at revpawelek@sbcglobal.net, you must explain to me in writing why the number 13 is important to me—and to UUS:E—at this point in time. This shouldn’t be too difficult. If you need a hint, let me know.

I am looking forward to another awesome year at UUS:E. And what is truly exciting to me at this moment is that we are not searching for new staff members! That was last year. You may remember that last September we were “in search” for a new Music Director, and Gina Campellone was serving as our “Acting” Director of Religious Education. Hiring new staff is a lot of work—not only for me, but for everyone involved. Thanks to the hard work of many dedicated UUS:E members, Mary Bopp has been with UUS:E as our Music Director since February; and since July 1, Gina has been our Director of Religious Education. I love working with both of them and I look forward to the many ways we will collaborate in the coming years. With Jane Osborn as our sexton, Annie Gentile as our Office Administrator, and Grahame Slogesky as our RE Assistant, our staff is in place and ready to work hard to support UUS:E’s mission. Hooray! And I really mean that—HOORAY! UUS:E has a wonderful staff. Please say ‘thanks’ when you get a chance.

Looking forward to the coming congregational year, some of the highlights for me include: Bishop John Selders’ Adult Religious Education course entitled “Revolutionary Conversations,” which will explore theologians whose work undergirds the Black Lives Matter movement; the creation of a small group for theists and all those who want to look more deeply at what it means to believe in God in a secular age; an ArtsMash evening with the Hartford region’s original story-telling organization, “Speak Out;” art shows with UUS:E artists; poetry slams; the work of the UUS:E growth strategy team and the development of our “Growth Through Service” initiative; participation in Moral Monday Connecticut actions in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement; and all the day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month interactions with the members and friends of UUS:E. It is going to be a year of amazing ministry. I can’t wait. I hope you can’t wait either.

Now, why is the number 13 so important to me—and to UUS:E—at this moment in time? Let me know at revpawelek@sbcglobal.net. The 13th person to contact me gets lunch, on me, with me.

With love,
Rev. Josh

August 2015 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

I am writing to you on a very, very humid day in mid-July. My family and I have just returned from a week in the Berkshires (where it was much less humid) with my in-laws. We are getting ready for a trip to Washington, DC where we will, among other things, tour the White House! Later on in August we will spend a week on Cape Cod visiting with my parents.

Most years I don’t write an August column, but this year I wanted to take a moment to say “thank you” for what turned out to be a very positive fiscal year for UUS:E. (For the details, please see the message in this newsletter from the Finance Committee.) In short, every Sunday when I introduce our offering, I remind us that “our congregation is supported by the very generous financial giving of members and friends.” I want to underscore here just how true that statement is. The members and friends of UUS:E are extraordinarily generous in their giving to UUS:E. I, for one, deeply appreciate it. While no congregation is free from financial constraints and worries in our times, and while we certainly aren’t in a position to ‘rest on our financial laurels,’ I think it is nevertheless fair to say that UUS:E continues to perform well financially due to the commitment each of you makes. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your generosity.

Looking ahead to the coming year, those of you who attended our annual meeting in May know that we are exploring the feasibility of conducting a limited capital campaign to help reduce our mortgage. Special thanks goes to Stacey Wyatt for chairing this effort! Some of you will be asked to participate in an interview process as part of this feasibility study. If you are asked, I hope you will be able to participate. We will announce the results of the study at a congregational meeting after our Homecoming services on September 13th.

Here’s a quick plug for two upcoming events on Sunday, August 23rd. First, we are blessed to be joined in worship by New York-based violinist, Sharon Gunderson. Accompanied by our Director of Music, Mary Bopp, Sharon will be playing Edvard Grieg’s “Violin Sonata No. 3 in C Minor.” I will offer some reflections on Grieg, who became a Unitarian during his life and expressed a profound commitment to individual religious freedom. Also, on the 23rd at 12:30 we will be conducting a special memorial service for pets and animal companions who have died in recent years. All are welcome. There’s more info in this newsletter.

It’s summer. I am taking my vacation and study leave, but I remain available for pastoral emergencies. If you need to reach me, our office administrator, Annie Gentile, has my contact information. For now, I hope you are enjoying summer.

With love,

Rev. Josh

June 2015 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

Our June ministry theme is restlessness. For a number of reasons, this theme feels very relevant to me these days. I suppose the most obvious reason is that summer is upon us. As I’ve said many times before, when I contemplate the spiritual characteristics of summer, words like ‘restlessness,’ ‘wandering,’ ‘journeying,’ ‘exploration,’ ‘creativity’ and ‘play’ come to mind! As a spiritual season, summer is an outward time, a time for experimentation, a time for trying new things, a time for transcending boundaries, a time for crossing thresholds. Summer is a season to embrace our restlessness, to follow where it leads. Where might your restlessness be leading you?

Another reason is that I feel restless relates to the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the past year this movement has been growing, building, developing and organizing all across the country. I find myself personally in a restless place in relation to Black Lives Matter. Certainly my restlessness is leading me towards the June 2nd nonviolent civil disobedience training at UUS:E and the June 8th Moral Monday CT action in Hartford (there’s more info about both of these events in this newsletter). Still, I want to do more. I want to make a bigger contribution. But I’m not entirely clear what that means. I know the answers will come. I know I will make my contribution. I know I will find my place. And I know we will find our place as a UU congregation that cares about racial justice in the United States. But until then, I feel restless.

Though it isn’t a comfortable state of being, restlessness can be a good thing. When we embrace it, it can lead us in new directions we might not otherwise pursue. It can help us cross thresholds we might not otherwise cross. It can move us to transcend boundaries we might not otherwise transcend. It’s important to pay attention when we feel restless. It’s important to ask, what’s behind it? What is its source? Why is that source calling to me? What new chapter of my life awaits?

On the other hand, restlessness can be problematic. Perhaps we are restless because there’s too much stress in our lives, or too much anxiety, or too little time. If our restlessness is generated from anxiety, worry, etc., it is likely keeping us awake precisely when we need to sleep. It may be keeping us unfocused precisely when we need to focus. It may not be something we need to embrace but, rather, something we need to soothe, to calm, to tame in order to live a more meaningful life. Our June 7th Sunday service is entitled, “How to Encourage a Restless Soul.” There’s a double-meaning here. Sometimes we want to respond to the call that lies behind our restlessness. Other times, our restlessness is leading nowhere, and we want to engage in those practices that will ease our anxiety and worry. How do we know which kind of restlessness it is?

For the month of June, consider this question: In which direction does your restless soul need encouragement?

With love,

Rev. Josh

May 2015 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

Our May ministry theme is compassion. I realize I’m not going to be preaching about compassion this month as it is time to preach my auction sermons! (See the worship calendar in this newsletter for brief descriptions of those sermons.) The last time compassion was our ministry theme was November, 2011. At that time, I quoted from the Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh: “Please call me by my true names, / so I can wake up, / and so the door of my heart can be left open, / the door of compassion.” These words come from his 1991 book, Peace is Every Step. The story Thich Nhat Hanh gives as background to this quote is still, for me, one of the most powerful descriptions of the source of compassion in human beings I’ve ever encountered. What follows is an excerpt adapted from my sermon on compassion in 2011.

Thich Nhat Hanh received a letter telling a tragic story about a young girl—a boat person, a refugee —who, having been raped by pirates, threw herself into the ocean and drowned. In Peace is Every Step he writes, “When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate…. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we 5/become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, you shoot all of us, because all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.” When Thich Nhat Hanh says “call me by my true names,” he is saying, essentially, not only am I me, I am also the young girl. And not only am I the young girl, I am also the pirate. He asks: “Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other?” Can we look at a tragic situation half-way around the planet and recognize the people in that situation in ourselves?

We are interconnected—with each other, with the entire mass of humanity, past, present and future. Thich Nhat Hanh would add we are each interconnected with all there is, past, present and future. He uses the term “interbeing” to express this fundamental condition of interconnectedness. We have many true names. This is not just something Buddhists teach, nor is it just abstract liberal religious language. It’s a truth claim. We are interconnected. I remind us of this truth in part because it’s easy to forget; because we wake up to it from time to time, but then fall back to sleep; because we learn it but then quickly unlearn it; because even though we know it in our heads, we don’t always live it. I remind us of this truth because our capacity to be compassionate people ultimately depends on our ability to remember it, to wake up to it, to relearn it, to feel it in our hearts. “Please call me by my true names, / so I can wake up, / and so the door of my heart can be left open, / the door of compassion.” 5/we all learn to call each other by our true names!

With love,

Rev. Josh

April 2015 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

Our April ministry theme is transcendence. I’ve been thinking about what this word means to me. At its most basic it means “to surpass” or “go beyond.” In much of traditional Christian theology, God is said to transcend the world, meaning God is distant, other, unknowable, and inscrutable. Transcendent God is greater than finite reality. I’m reminded of the Biblical God’s challenge to Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”(Job 38:4). God’s point here is that God is the all-powerful creator of the universe, one whom mere humans should not question, one whose motives humans cannot fully understand, one whose power humans cannot counter, one whose will humans must obey.

Such a transcendent God has never appealed to me. I’ve always preferred to imagine God as immanent—not far away, but close by; not separate from the earth but infused into it; not cold and distant, but warm, nurturing and present; not a solo act but a partner, a co-creator, a team player. On Sunday, April 12th I will preach on the tension between transcendence and immanence—a good, old-fashioned sermon on theology!

Of course, transcendence can refer to aspects of our lives that aren’t immediately theological. I’m thinking about how we meet challenges and overcome obstacles, how we rise above difficult situations, how we move beyond our old selves in order to welcome new selves more suited to the conditions of our lives. In short, there are many moments in our lives when we are called to transcend. In such moments we often call in turn on our spiritual reserves to stay strong, to stay persistent, to stay courageous, faithful, hopeful, and loving. I plan to preach on his meaning of transcendence on April 26th. If you have transcended a difficult or challenging situation and would like to share your story, I may have a place for you in that service. Please contact me and let me know.

***

On another note, please mark your calendars: On April 26th at 4:00 PM, UUS:E will host the ordination service for Andrew Moeller. It is a special time in the life of any congregation when we get to confer upon a minister the title of “Reverend.” That’s what we’ll be doing, along with the congregation of the First Parish Church of Northborough, MA on April 26th. UUS:E holds a special place in Drew’s heart, and he holds a special place in ours. Please join us for this milestone event in Drew’s ministerial formation.Reverend Joshua Mason Pawelek, Parish Minister, Unitarian Universalist Society: East

With love,

Rev. Josh