September Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

As summer begins to wind down, I begin my 15th year as the Unitarian Universalist Society: East’s minister. If I have my facts correct, I am now the congregation’s longest-serving minister in its 48-year history!

This congregational year will be different than usual in that I will be taking a long overdue sabbatical from October 2nd to February 3rd. During my sabbatical, I will be working on a novel that I started on my first sabbatical in 2007. My goal is to complete this novel, though writing fiction is so different from writing sermons, that I have no idea whether achieving this goal will actually be possible. I am very much looking forward to this project, and I cannot express enough my gratitude to the Policy Board and to the congregation for granting me this time.

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 my time away. Local UU ministers will be filling the pulpit on many Sundays. 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.

For pastoral crises that require ministerial presence, we will have a list of local UU (and possibly other) clergy who are available. 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 have not 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!

Despite my absence this fall, UUS:E is brimming over with activity and there are many exciting ventures, including our Youth Group “Experilearn” project, our congregational growth initiatives, work on our new congregational vision statement, and our discernment around what it means to be a “Sanctuary Congregation.” All of this is over and above our long-standing programs such as children’s religious education, adult religious education, music, sustainable living, membership, social justice, the holiday fair and much, much more.

When I return in February, I am looking forward to teaching courses on UU Humanism and UU Paganism, updating UUS:E’s Safe Congregation policy in light of new “best practices,” finalizing UUS:E’s vision statement, and hopefully adding a part-time Membership Coordinator to our staff.

As always, there is much more that lies ahead. For now, our annual season of Homecoming is here. Though our spiritual community never officially stops, we do say “welcome home” in September. So, WELCOME HOME friends! I hope you have a wonderful year at UUS:E.

With love,

–Rev. Josh

June Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

The following meditation, entitled “Cooling Down,” is adapted from our new publication, Hear the Earth Call.

Summer approaches in earnest. May’s cool, dry, sunny days give way to June’s drenching, muggy heat. We melt. We wither. We stick. We shrink. We welcome any rain, any breeze. We welcome an ice-cold drink of anything on these hot, humid June afternoons. Whatever cools us down we welcome: lemonade, ice cream, popsicles, freeze pops, Italian ice, gelato, sherbet, sorbet, swimming pools, fountains, sprinklers, shade, shadows, clouds, dusk, sunset, evening, vespers, twilight, night,

A life of the spirit is like this. So often our greatest spiritual insights, our greatest truths, those elements of human experience that link us to the sacred and the transcendent—love, beauty, sorrow, joy, suffering, death—so often they too inhabit the cool places, the dark places. So often we encounter them in the life- giving shade, the cooling rain, the gentle breeze, the roaring thunder, the darkening night, the deepening dream, the widening ocean, the quenching of our thirst. So often we encounter them not in the glaring light and blazing heat but in the cool, dark places where we perceive less with our minds and more with our hearts.

As summer approaches, as the temperature and humidity continue to rise, along with our anxieties about what things cost, about war, about violence, about the earth; as we welcome that which cools our bodies, may we also welcome that which soothes our spirits. In our moments of spiritual melting, withering, sticking and shrinking may we welcome, too, those insights, those truths, those sacred and transcendent experiences that provide respite from whatever wears us down and dries out our souls. May we welcome and drink in the deepest truths of our lives, like the sip of a cold glass of lemonade, out on the porch, as a cool evening breeze begins to whisper on a hot June night.

Hear the Earth Call is a collection of my nature writing, accompanied by the photography of Duffy Schade, and designed by Sharon Gresk. The first printing will be arriving soon. If you have not yet purchased a copy and would like to, please contact the Unitarian Universalist Society: East office. All proceeds from book sales go to Unitarian Universalist Society: East.

Our ministry theme for June is “journeys.” As summer approaches, as the heat and humidity rise, it is my hope and prayer that each of you, in the midst of whatever journey you are on, has the opportunity to pause and to find rest, respite, insight and wisdom in the cool places, in the afternoon shadows, the evening breeze, the silver night, the morning dew. May the coolness refresh you and make you ready to continue on your way

With Love, Rev. Josh

May Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

It’s been a rough few months for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA). As many of you know, in early April, the Rev. Peter Morales resigned as President of the UUA in the midst of allegations of racism in hiring practices. More resignations followed. What many of you may not know is that, in the wake of these resignations, there has been a great deal of conflict, much of it playing out on social media among clergy and other religious professionals. While some of the conflict is productive, some isn’t. People aren’t treating each other well. At times it feels like our faith is being torn apart. This is heart-breaking.

White supremacy is at the heart of this conflict. It feels really, really important for me to name that and for all of us to stay focused on it. When it became apparent that hiring decisions at the UUA were consistently favoring qualified white candidates over qualified candidates of color, something had to be said. Because the UUA has a stated commitment to hiring a diverse staff and a long-held commitment to conducting itself in antiracist ways, something had to be said.

Unitarian Universalist religious professionals of color were the first to say it publically in early March. Very soon after that, many religious professionals of color and their white allies starting referring to “white supremacy” at the UUA. The organization Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism and some of its partners called for congregations to dedicate their worship services on April 30th or May 7th to a “white supremacy teach-in.” (We will be participating!)

Much of the current conflict has spun out around the use of the term “white supremacy.”

This should not be hard to understand. We typically think of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neo-Nazis and other hate groups as white supremacists. During last year’s presidential campaign, so many of us were upset that Donald Trump’s team intentionally courted voters of the “Alt-Right,” a code-word for white supremacist agitators. But Unitarian Universalists? How could anyone in their right mind use that term to describe us? How could “white supremacy” apply to our justice-seeking, Black-

Lives-Matter supporting, refugee resettling, criminal-justice reforming, earth-saving, GBLTQ- welcoming, answering-the-call-of-love, liberal faith?

Well, unfortunately, it can apply, and, all too often, it does. But I want to be crystal clear that attaching this term to Unitarian Universalism is in no way an attempt to equate our beloved faith with the KKK and other hate groups. To speak of white supremacist outcomes inside an organization (e.g., only hiring white people) does not mean that the people in that organization are white supremacists. But it does mean that the culture of the organization may harm people of color despite the good intentions of white leaders. That is what happened at the UUA.

I also want to be crystal clear that Unitarian Universalism isn’t somehow alone in this. Virtually every historically white institution in the United States has embedded within it some degree of white supremacy. This goes back to the founding of the United States and its legacies of genocide, colonization and slavery.

The question is, are we willing and able to recognize it? If religious professionals of color say it, can those of us who are white refrain from reacting negatively to the use of the term “white supremacy,” and instead open our hearts, approach the conversation with curiosity, and try to learn—really learn—why the term is being used? I hope and trust that we can. See you on May 7th!

Amen and blessed be.

Rev. Josh

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