Enough With the Dystopias Already

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Dystopian Cityscape with Zombies, by Andre Thouin

“I think it’s okay to tell you that everything works out. That it’s okay. And it’s not easy all the time, not even here, because so much is broken, besides silence, but it is possible, it does feel possible. My friends and I feel possible all the time.”[1] A brief glimpse into a hopeful, however dystopian, post-capitalist future from Alexis Pauline Gumbs—queer black troublemaker, black feminist love evangelist, Afro-Caribbean grandchild, prayer-poet priestess, and time-traveling space cadet who lives and loves in Durham, North Carolina.[2] Her story, “Evidence,” appears in Octavia’s Brood, a 2015 collection of science fiction stories written by social justice movement activists.

There’s a soft spot in my heart for dystopian storytelling. Usually as the story begins, everything has changed. Governments have fallen due to climate catastrophes, pandemics or revolutions. Ruthless regimes, secret corporate cabals, zombies, or heartless machines rule the world. Protagonists struggle to survive, to overcome, or just to come to terms with their new reality. In Gumbs’ story the people have emerged out of a dystopian past in which “so much has been broken,” into a more healthy, creative, spiritually-grounded society. “My friends and I feel possible all the time.”

Writers of young adult mass market dystopian fiction sell millions of books which then become blockbuster movies. My son devours them: Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, James Dashner’s Maze Runner, Veronica Roth’s Divergent. I’ve recently started watching the The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 novel. A few years ago I couldn’t put down her Oryx and Crake series. I found Cormac McCarthy’s The Road disturbing but riveting. As a child I read George Orwell’s 1984, Neville Shute’s On the Beach, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, about a lone survivor of a zombie-producing pandemic which was the basis for the 1964 film, “The Last Man on Earth,” starring Vincent Price, the 1971 film, Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, and the 2007 film, I Am Legend, starring Will Smith. (Speaking of Heston, let’s not forget Planet of the Apes.) I go back often to movies like the Wachowsky sisters’ The Matrix, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and the Road Warrior films. I would be profoundly remiss if I did not mention one of the most influential books of our era, Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, which takes place in the midst of a collapsing California. Its main character, a teenager named Lauren Oya Olamina, crafts a nature-based theology called Earthseed. Butler is often regarded as the mother (and sometimes the grandmother) of Afrofuturism. [3]

You may not know all these references. Dystopian fiction may not be your thing, but it is wildly popular. Some fans love it purely as a form of escape. Others are genuinely intrigued with the philosophical questions the genre raises: how would human beings live under certain extreme conditions—a vastly altered climate, a brutally oppressive regime, a failing or failed modern world? And still others turn to this genre to ask: how should we live now? Given worsening climate conditions, increasing corporate power and wealth, the loss of traditional work due to automation, the rise of authoritarian regimes, how should we live now? What kinds of decisions should we make now? What new ethics should we promote now? What sorts of faith, theology and spirituality do we need now?

I call this sermon “Enough With the Dystopias Already.” In using this title I don’t mean to suggest that those of us who love dystopian fiction should stop consuming it. And I also don’t mean in any way to downplay or deny the very real dystopian experiences in many peoples’ lives. If you live under quarantine in the Hubei province of China, or on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship docked near Tokyo, you are living, at least temporarily, in a kind of dystopia. If you live in an area of the world beset by war, or the direct impacts of climate change, you are living in a kind of dystopia. If your community is recovering from a devastating natural disaster, you are living right now in a kind of dystopia. If your community endures high poverty, high crime, failing schools, widespread opioid use, high unemployment or limited health care options you may experience your day-to-day reality as a kind of dystopia. I don’t mean to disregard any of this.

When I say “enough with the dystopias already,” I’m referring to a tendency I observe in myself and others to catastrophize in response to troubling news, to overstate the severity of a crisis; to follow, for example, the news of the corona virus, and to worry incessantly about it here in the United States, without first trying to understand the data that actually exist. For most people who contract the virus the symptoms are very mild. The death rate, though significant, is much lower than that of previous corona viruses, and the flu is still a much more deadly disease. There are globally accepted best practices for containing dangerous viruses which the vast majority of nations are implementing. I’m not saying we have nothing to worry about. I’m not saying it won’t get worse—I don’t know that. I’m saying that given what health officials know, we should be concerned and cautious, we should pay attention, but there’s no reason to panic.

Another example of catastrophic thinking results from our perceptions of political polarization. Yes, polarization is real. Yes, relationships are breaking down over politics in ways we haven’t seen for generations. Yes, there is an ever-hardening tendency among our political leaders to refuse compromise, to resist the solid, pragmatic ideas at the center and hold relentlessly to ideological positions at the margins. But are we coming undone at the seams? Are we descending into chaos? Should we be panicking? Should we be despairing?

Last Sunday’s New York Times opinion section featured an extended editorial by the conservative columnist Ross Douthat called “The Age of Decadence.” “Everyone,” he writes, “knows that we live in a time of constant acceleration, or vertiginous change, of transformation or looming disaster everywhere you look. Partisans are girding for civil war, robots are coming for our jobs, and the news feels like a multicar pileup every time you fire up Twitter.” There’s a lot of catastrophic thinking going on, predictions of dystopia, but in Douthat’s assessment, catastrophe is not imminent. “The truth of the first decades of the 21st century … is that we probably aren’t entering a 1930s-style crisis for Western liberalism or hurtling toward transhumanism or extinction.” He says we’re not living in a dystopian age, but rather an  age of decadence. That’s not good, but it’s not dire either. Our decadent economy, if lacking in innovation, if unjust and unfair in many ways, is still highly stable. “The United States is an extraordinarily wealthy country, its middle class prosperous beyond the dreams of centuries past, its welfare state effective at easing the pain of recessions.” Yes, we face profound challenges. Yes, we live amidst profound contradictions. But “The decadent society, unlike the full dystopia, allows those signs of contradiction to exist, which means that it’s always possible to imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance.” [4]

Douthat is saying “enough with the dystopias already!” Enough with catastrophic thinking. Our society is more stable than we realize, and that means we still have the capacity to address our most daunting crises. I say “enough with the dystopias already” because the more we catastrophize, the more paralyzed we become, the more we fail to identify and exercise our power for the sake of renewal and renaissance, the more we lose the spirit Alexis Pauline Gumbs raises up in her story: “My friends and I feel possible all the time.”

Our February ministry theme is resilience. Catastrophic thinking about dystopian futures weakens our resilience. As I started contemplating this notion over the past few weeks, I began noticing examples of people who are not paralyzed or polarized, but trying simply to use whatever power they have to make our communities more resilient. At a recent meeting of the Manchester Community Services Council, Manchester Fire Department Battalion Chief for Fire-Rescue-and Emergency Medical Services, Josh Beaulieu, spoke about Mobile Integrated Healthcare, a way municipalities and fire departments are adapting to changes in the health care landscape.[5] Given that the majority of 911 calls are not actual emergencies, can paramedics be trained to deliver health care services that keep people out of the emergency room when they don’t need to be there, or redirect them to more appropriate and less expensive health care resources? Might such training help reduce the number of non-emergency 911 calls? Might it reduce the number of emergency room visits and unnecessary hospital readmissions? Might it enable a city like Manchester to provide better service overall to elders, to people with mental illness, to people with living with addictions?

As Mr. Beaulieu started talking about changes in the health care landscape, my mind moved automatically in a catastrophic direction. The health care system is broken! We don’t have health care justice in our nation! We have big insurance, big pharma and hospitals prioritizing profits above actual health care!  I was about to raise my hand, but it suddenly dawned on me his presentation really wasn’t about that. Here was a local fire official, aware of gaps in the health care system that impact his department’s capacity to fulfill its mission, asking, very simply, how can we make this better? How can we close the health care gaps we encounter in our day-to-day response to 911 calls? He’s not fighting zombies. He’s not curing pandemics. He’s not solving the health care crisis. But he is intent on  adapting to changing circumstances for the sake of providing better care. He’s interested in what is possible. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

I think similarly about how we respond to the climate crisis. Learning about climate change very easily leads to catastrophic thinking, and a feeling of helplessness. This isn’t wrong: we’re facing a very real, very urgent crisis, and the big things that clearly have to happen—the big reductions in carbon emissions, the big infrastructure transitions to renewable energy sources, and the requisite international agreements—seem so beyond the power of local communities to address. The challenge is not to become paralyzed or overwhelmed. There are still thousands of actions we can and must take both to prevent further global warming, but also to adapt to already inevitable changes. We still need to work at transforming our local culture to support local food production, recycling, conservation, sustainable design and development. I’ve recently been learning about the Freecycle Network, a grassroots, global network of people who give and get used stuff for free in their neighborhoods and towns. The point is to reuse items rather than throwing them into landfills.[6] Our UUS:E Sustainable Living Committee has just introduced a similar program called the Library of Things.[7] Our members and friends can now borrow tools and other items from each other in an effort to reduce consumption, resource depletion, and pollution as well as, we hope, foster an even deeper sense of community. It’s a small effort. It’s not winning the Hunger Games or resisting Big Brother. It won’t solve the climate crisis. But it is something we have the power to do here and now, one of thousands of adaptations necessary for living well in the midst of climate change. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

One more quick story. A white supremacist organization recently plastered its stickers all over a local town. A member of our congregation witnessed this, and took it upon themselves to remove the stickers. No heroics. This person wasn’t solving the problem of white supremacy. But they also refused to succumb to fear or despair. They recognized they had the power to do something, and they did it. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

In Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ story, “Evidence,” Alexis after capitalism writes an encouraging letter to her younger self, Alexis during capitalism: “It is on everyone’s mind and heart how to best support the genius that surrounds us all. How to shepherd each of us into the brilliance we come from even though our experience breaking each other apart through capitalism has left much healing to be done. We are more patient than we have ever been. And now that our time is divine and connected with everything, we have developed skills for how to recenter ourselves. We walk. We drink tea. We are still when we need to be. No one is impatient with someone else’s stillness. No one feels guilty for sitting still. Everybody is always learning how to grow.”[8]

Gumbs offers a wonderful vision of a future beloved community. She is also advising us how to live now: patient, centered, still and always learning how to grow; not solving every problem—life is still hard—but each of us slowly adapting to changing conditions. After all is said and done, I’m not sure there’s any other way to persevere through hard times. I’m not sure there’s any other way to transform our culture of decadence into a culture of vibrancy, sustainability and liberation. In this late winter season, let us be mindful of our capacity to grow, “to feel possible all the time.” Let’s hold the space for each of us to feel possible, to contribute what we can. And may this be the outward sign of our inward resilience.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence” in Brown Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015) p. 40.

[2] Brown and Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood, p. 288.

[3] Interesting sidebar: In Butler’s sequel, 1998’s The Parable of the Talents, “a violent movement is being whipped up by a new Presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, a Texas senator and religious zealot who is running on a platform to ‘make American great again.’” See: Aguirre, Abbey, “Octavia Butler’s Prescient Vision of a Zealot Elected to ‘Make America Great Again,’” The New Yorker, July 26th, 2019.

[4] Douthat, Ross, The Age of Decadence, New York Times, Sunday, February 9, 2020. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/opinion/sunday/western-society-decadence.html.

[5] Mr. Beaulieu has an article about this on his Linked-In page. See “The Need to Adapt Fire-based EMS to Today’s Healthcare Environment” at

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/need-adapt-fire-based-ems-todays-healthcare-joshua-beaulieu-mba-lp?articleId=6473040885041946624#comments-6473040885041946624&trk=public_profile_article_view.

[6] Check out the Freestyle Network at https://www.freecycle.org/.

[7] Participate in UUS:E’s Library of Things at http://uuse.org/SUSTAINABLE-LIVING/LOT/#.XkReCWhKjIU.

[8] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence” in Brown Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015) p. 40.

Roots Where None Ought to Be (Searching for Agua Santa)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

My clergy study group used to meet at the former, Catholic Our Lady of Peace retreat center in Narragansett, RI. The original building is an old stone mansion called Hazard Castle. On one side of the mansion is a seven-story stone tower which had fallen into disrepair and had been closed off to visitors many years prior. The first time I saw the tower, all of its windows were boarded up, but I was struck by the good-sized, healthy tree growing out through the boards of a second-floor window and reaching up three or four more stories. It was impressive—a tree growing out of a building.

Our Lady of Peace closed its doors in 2006 and later sold the property to a private school called Middlebridge.[1] The tower is still there, still boarded up. I can’t tell if the tree is still there. If they intend to restore the tower, it would make sense to remove the tree so its roots don’t cause further structural damage. What impressed me then, and what sticks in my mind twenty years later, is that tree, somehow planted, somehow thriving in the second floor of an old stone tower. Roots where none ought to be. Roots taking hold, reaching down through layers of human construction toward the earth, finding water and nutrients, finding what is required to sustain life.

Our ministry theme for February is resilience. I offer this tree with roots where none ought to be as an image, a symbol, a declaration of resilience. I am here. I will not only survive, I will thrive.

I figured someone must’ve posted a photo of that tree online somewhere, but I couldn’t find one. I did, however, go hiking at Waconah Falls State Park in Dalton, MA over this past Thanksgiving weekend. On the rock ledges above the falls, trees plant themselves. Their roots creep over the rocks until they find cracks and fissures where they reach down into the soil beneath, down to where the water pools. A photo of one of these trees is on the front cover of your order of service. I assume this type of tree, and the type of tree on the Hazard Castle tower, have evolved over millennia to grow in this way, to plant themselves on rock surfaces. Perhaps they can survive with less water than other trees.[2] Perhaps, given the power of natural selection, this planting is nothing extraordinary. But that doesn’t lessen the power of the image for me. A tree with roots where none ought to be. Resilience.

This is metaphor for our spiritual lives. When life is hard, like rock, and that’s all you know in the moment, what do your roots reach for? When life is hard, like the floor of a rock tower room, like a rock ledge, and that’s all we know in the moment, we might think of resilience as our capacity to find the cracks and fissures in the hardness of life, to reach into them in search of the cool, refreshing, nourishing life-giving waters that pool in great reservoirs below the surface.

As I read through the standard dictionary definitions, I learn that resilience has something to do with rebounding from difficulty, bouncing back from hard times, returning to where we were before the crisis. There are many references to rubber bands returning to their natural state after being stretched. A resilient community rebuilds after the fire, the hurricane, the earthquake, mourns its dead, accounts for its losses, and slowly resumes its daily patterns. A resilient immune system enables us to fight off an illness and resume life as we knew it. As the world tracks the progress of the new corona virus emerging in Wuhan City in the Hubei Province of China, there is much discussion of resilience—who is most at risk, how best to treat the disease? What do we do as a global community to limit the spread of the virus so that it can run its course and we can return to life as we know it? That’s one understanding of resilience: recovering, returning—bending back into our regular shape.

This definition of resilience is fine, but it’s not sufficient for a spiritual exploration of resilience. It doesn’t speak to the spiritual dimension of our lives. Specifically, it doesn’t speak to the reality that we can’t always return to life as we knew it.

A loved-one begins losing their cognitive abilities, slides slowly into dementia. Life simply will not be the same.

A loved one dies. We may return in time to some semblance of normalcy, but life will never really be the same.

We age. I’m old enough to know that there comes a time in our lives when our bodies simply don’t do what they used to do. Despite our best efforts to stay healthy and strong, our bodies slowly, slowly, slowly break down and we can’t go back to the way life was.

This doesn’t mean we lack resilience.

I’m thinking of all those profoundly hard experiences, experiences that cause suffering—living with and treating cancer, living with chronic disease, mental illness, addiction, losing a job, losing a friend. We don’t return to life as we knew it. Sometimes even those things that bring us the most joy are also profoundly hard and push us beyond life as we knew it—raising children, and sometimes grandchildren; sustaining a marriage through challenging times; being true to the self you love even as that self is rejected because of homophobia or transphobia, sexism or racism. So often we can’t return to the life we knew. That life is gone. Certain features remain—we never change completely. But we can’t live the way we used to. Perhaps, in such moments, we are like a tree, on solid, cold, unforgiving rock. Can we now find the cracks and fissures, the often hidden, hard-to-find pathways to those reservoirs of sacred water below the surface? Spiritual resilience is our capacity to adapt to losing the life we knew and accepting life in new forms, on new terms.

Our friends at the Unitarian Universalist resource hub Soul Matters remind us that the word “resilience comes from the Latin re ‘back’ and saliens ‘the beginning, the starting point, the heart of the embryo.” This reminds me: the true starting point is not how we were living before our loved-one died. The true starting point is not how we were living before the diagnosis, before we realized we are aging, before whatever hard thing is happening in our lives. Those reservoirs below the surface? Those holy waters? They’ve always been there. Consider the the waters that sustain life on our planet. They’ve been feeding this earth and its creatures since life began. Our ancient singled-celled ancestors emerged in those waters as they gathered in pools along primordial shorelines. We each rode their gentle waves in our mother’s womb. When life becomes hard, resilience isn’t about getting back to where we were before the hardness; it’s about our ability to keep reaching for our holy waters, our agua santa, our spiritual resources which are, in fact, vast.

In her poem, “Aurelia: Moon Jellies,” tejana poet, Pat Mora, hints at this spiritual vastness as she describes a jelly fish floating gracefully beneath the ocean’s surface: Without brain or eye or heart, / Aurelia drift, / bodies transparent as embryos. / Tentacles trailing, / they ride unseen / currents, bathed by all they need / in agua santa, old sea, / depths where we begin.[3] The true starting point is not where we were before the hard thing entered our lives. The true starting point is the unseen current that has been carrying us, bathing us in all we need, all along.

When I contemplate the image of the tree on the rock ledge on the cover of your order of service, I imagine, though it sits on rock, it knows the holy water is there, knows it has to find the cracks and fissures, knows even once it finds the soft earth beneath the rock, it still must reach deep down to where the water lies in vast pools. There’s a lesson for us in this image. When the hard thing happens to us, it’s very rare that we begin our journey into it with acceptance and grace. More likely we react to the hard thing with strong emotion—sadness, anger, frustration, disbelief. Depending on what the hard thing is, we may simply feel overwhelmed, unsure of how to proceed, unsure of whom to tell, unsure of how to tell it. We may feel uprooted, disconnected, cut off, lost, adrift. Often the hard thing demands that we focus first on technicalities – arranging for a funeral, arranging for doctor appointments, meeting with a lawyer, re-arranging finances, moving. In the midst of strong emotion and dealing with technicalities, we easily become cut off from our spiritual resources. In such moments I commend to you the tree with roots where none ought to be. It knows water is there. It knows to reach. We know it too. Can we remember?

As we wrestle with the hard things in our lives, may we be like trees with roots where none ought to be. May we remember to reach. May we have moments of epiphany:

Oh yes, I remember now: self care. I need to take care of my body: exercising, stretching, sleeping, eating healthy food, and some comfort food. All this is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

Oh yes, I remember now: soul care. I need to care for my soul: surround myself with beautiful music, artwork, books, nature. All this is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

 Oh yes, I remember now: friendships. I need friends who will support me and care for me, people to whom I can name this hard thing, people whom I can ask for help when I need it, people who will spend time with me, engaged in the simple things that bring joy, the card game, the ice cream cone, the cup of tea, the new drama on TV. All this is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

 Oh yes, I remember now: community. I need to participate as best I can in community, to join with people who share common values, a common purpose, common goals. This, too, is holy water, agua santa for hard times.

 Oh yes, I remember now: prayer. I need to still my mind, calm my mind, center my mind, so that I can encounter the sacred, that reality larger than myself that nourishes me, sustains me, reminds me I am not alone. I need to reach for, to invite, to welcome, to embrace the sacred. This is agua santa

Then, finally, once my roots where none ought to be have found the cracks and fissures, have reached deep into the earth, have touched the holy water, then I need patience. Hard things are hard in part because they take time. We read to you earlier “A Center,” from the Chinese-American poet and novelist, Jin Xuefei, known as Ha Jin: You must hold your quiet center, / where you do what only you can do…. / Don’t move even if earth and heaven quake. / If others think you are insignificant, that’s because you haven’t held on long enough. / As long as you stay put year after year, / eventually you will find a world / beginning to revolve around you.[4]

He is not advising us to cling futilely to things that don’t matter, or to obstinately refuse to let go of attachments that cause needless suffering. He’s offering insight  into resilience. Find your quiet center, and wait. He’s advising us to stay rooted. He’s reminding us that our persistence, our perseverance, our patience, help us stay rooted, help slowly strengthen the connections between ourselves and those agua santa reservoirs below. He’s reminding us that it is not only we who adapt to life’s hardness, but that as we root ourselves, life’s hardness adapts to us.

****

Now, speaking of patience, I want to change the subject, although I am still speaking about resilience. I want to offer an update. As some of you are aware, though I know not all of you are aware, our experience of providing sanctuary to an asylum seeker last year was not easy. Disagreements over how best to approach various challenges resulted in conflict, and we are now working with two facilitators from the Unitarian Universalist Association to help us address this conflict well. While it would be unfair to those involved in the reconciliation process for me to share details of that process, in part because we need to honor confidentiality, I want all of you to rest assured that a reconciliation process is underway. Though it is hard, the people involved are engaging with openness, grace and integrity.

Second, though it is hard, my impression is that everyone involved understands that reconciliation takes time. In those who are participating I observe patience, rootedness, and a deep commitment to this congregation. In short, I see incredible community resilience and it warms my heart.

Finally, I previously had said that while we need to honor confidentiality, this conflict is not a secret. I am willing to meet with anyone who would like to know more. I am still willing to do that, however, one of the goals of this process is for those involved to be able to tell one story about why disagreements became so difficult to manage. I am recognizing that, for the sake of the integrity of the reconciliation process, it is better for me not to tell my version of the story, but rather to let the collective story emerge. We’re not there yet. We’re in an in-between space. We’re a tree on hard ground whose roots are seeking the agua santa reservoir below the surface. We will find it. We will tell a common story. Of that I am certain. I thank all of you for your patience. It is yet another sign of our community resilience.

Amen and blessed be.         

 

 

[1] Snizek, Rick, “Diocese Sells Former Retreat Center,” Rhode Island Catholic, April 29th, 2012. See: https://www.thericatholic.com/stories/diocese-sells-former-retreat-center,4943.

[2] After preaching this sermon, a congregant pointed me toward Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, for insight into the role of moss in enabling such trees to grow on rock surfaces. See: https://www.amazon.com/Gathering-Moss-Natural-Cultural-History/dp/0870714996.

[3] Mora, Pat, “Aurelia: Moon Jellies,” Agua Santa / Holy Water (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995) p. 19.

[4] Ha Jin, “A Center.” See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/152066/a-center.

Fragility and the Struggle for Beloved Community

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me?” There is a wretchedness in our nation, in our faith, and in us. White supremacy. Nobody—at least no American—lives untouched by it. To confront it where it lives in us and the institutions we love, we need amazing grace—if not the grace of an all-loving God reaching in and transforming our lives, then in the very least the grace each of us is capable of, the grace we find when we approach our living with humility, integrity and love. We need amazing grace.

We need it because the conversation about race and racism in the United States is changing dramatically.

A potent example: This past August, the New York Times launched its “1619” project with these words:

“1619. It’s not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619 … when a ship arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. Their arrival inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin. Out of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required [and I would add racism against indigenous, Native American people as well]—grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets to the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day…. The goal of the 1619 Project … is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.”[1]

This is not new. The 1619 thesis has been with us for generations. But I believe this is the first time such a widely-read, mainstream, albeit liberal, newspaper has asserted it with such conviction. I don’t think the Times could have made this claim so successfully even ten years ago. The conversation about race and racism is changing dramatically. This includes an evolving understanding of the nature of white supremacy, not as the values and actions of white supremacists, but as the culture of virtually any historically white institution, a culture that centers white voices, white leadership, white employees, white history, without ever taking substantice measures to become truly antiracist and multicultural.

I can’t say definitively what is driving this change in the conversation. The drivers are complex. But I want to name a set of events from the last decade that stand out to me as pivotal. If they themselves aren’t driving the change, they certainly accompany it very closely.

First, November 2008 and then again in 2012, the nation elected Barack Obama as United States president—the first mixed-race, African American, person of color president.

Second, February 26th, 2012, community watch volunteer George Zimmerman fatally shot black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and was eventually acquitted of murder charges. In response, three activists/organizers, Alicia GarzaPatrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, originated the Black Lives Matter social media hashtag.

Third, August 9th, 2014, Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot black teenager, Michael Brown. This led to the Ferguson Uprising. Black Lives Matter exploded into the American consciousness. Police violence against black and brown people and police militarization was exposed in a new way. Other victims of police violence became household names gained national recognition: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, to name just a few.

Spring, 2016, Native American activists and their allies from across North America began massive protests at the Standing Rock reservation against the Dakota Access Pipeline because it poses too great a threat to water resources and to Native American cultural and sacred sites. The protests highlighted anew the phenomenon of environmental racism and the longstanding mistreatment and abuse of indigenous people.

November 2016, the nation elected Donald Trump as president. Notable for my purposes this morning is the way he deploys racist stereotypes and dog whistles to cast his vision for the country, including bigoted comments about Mexican and central American immigrants and the promotion of policies such as family separation; Islamophobic comments and policies—the idea of a Muslim ban; even his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was/is a coded appeal to white fears of a more multicultural and egalitarian nation. He learned and deployed rhetoric from far right, alt-right, and white supremacist leaders and publications, which, whether he intended it or not, fired up white nationalism and Anti-Semitism in the United States. One result of this firing up was the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, during which a white nationalist drove his car into a group of counter-protestors, killing a young activist, Heather Heyer.

Finally, winter, 2017, within our own denomination, we learned of allegations of racist hiring patterns at our denominational headquarters. The call went out from Black Lives of UU and other non-black People of Color leaders for congregations to engage in a White Supremacy Teach-in. More than 700 congregations responded in some way to that call. As one who has been engaged in UU antiracism efforts since the mid-1990s, the idea that 700 congregations would be willing to explore our own white supremacy culture felt like a quantum leap. I don’t think it would or could have happened a decade ago. If nothing else, it was a sure sign that the conversation on race and racism is also changing dramatically within our faith.

This changing conversation feels to me like progress toward the Kingian vision of beloved community. There’s no way to build an antiracist, multicultural beloved community, either in our country or in our congregations, without a willingness to speak the truth not only about our nation’s white supremacy origins, but about how white supremacy culture continues to shape the institutions we love.

In the near term, the conversation remains incredibly challenging, painful, fraught. Every movement forward generates backlash. White supremacists rallied in Charlottesville precisely because city leaders were engaging in the conversation about white supremacy culture, removing the stature of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and changing the name of a city park from Lee Park to Emancipation Park. One can argue the election of Donald Trump was itself backlash by a significant segment of the population against Barack Obama’s eight-year presidency.

There has been backlash within Unitarian Universalism. Our national leadership has been courageous and very clear about the imperatives of exploring, confronting and transforming our own white supremacy culture. We’re now encountering negative reaction to that vision. For example, we’re hearing the charge that confronting white supremacy culture is the new UU orthodoxy. Those who, for whatever reason, don’t want to engage in this work, are saying they no longer recognize their faith. The church that stands against orthodoxy seems to have a new orthodoxy. On one level, I understand this. One comes to worship on Sunday morning and the minister is talking about confronting our own white supremacy culture. There’s a risk, especially for white people, that this message will be taken as an indictment of one’s character. The minister is calling me a racist, a white supremacist. That’s actually not what’s happening, but if that’s how a person hears the message, it creates cognitive and emotional dissonance. Nobody wants to be called a racist. In that sense, the backlash is understandable.

The charge of new orthodoxy is familiar. When we launched the UUA’s Journey Toward Wholeness antiracism initiative in 1997, critics called antiracism the new orthodoxy. We’ve heard this particular bit of backlash before. But let’s be clear: the real orthodoxy in this conversation is white supremacy. Those who resist white supremacy are subverting orthodoxy, not establishing it.

As historically and still largely white faith communities, our people and our congregations need to be much less concerned about the charge of racism, and much more concerned that racism exists, that it is pervasive, that we are all implicated, that unless we are figuring out how to use our collective resources to interrupt it we are actually enabling it. Moreover, our first and second principles— the inherent worth and dignity of every person and justice, equity and compassion in human relations—still call us to confront and transform it. For that we need amazing grace.

I read to you earlier from Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd’s 2019 book, After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism. She tells the story of overhearing a white woman express her discomfort with the lyrics of the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” “We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”[2] “That song, she said—so ghastly.”[3] Rev. Ladd, who is also white, didn’t engage. She didn’t interrupt the conversation. She owns that she could have interrupted, that it is a white privilege to walk away. As she reflects on the incident, she says “the people declare words of slaughter and blood and power because such words, in the context of history, are the only words that are true. I walked away and did not say out loud that people of color are under no obligation to tone it down so that white people can feel more comfortable and less inconvenienced by the presence of a gripping, ghastly truth like white supremacy.”[4]

She confesses it was not the first time she has remained silent, and it likely won’t be the last Of course, she is speaking for the vast majority of us. This begs the question: Why, given what we know, do we still disengage, hold back, remain silent? Why does actual institutional change come so slowly? Why is there so much resistance in us individually and collectively? I have found the concept of white fragility to be extraordinarily helpful in answering this question and understanding the emotional glue that holds white supremacy culture in place. In her 2018 Beacon Press book, White Fragility, white antiracism educator, Robin DiAngelo describes white fragility as a set of reactions white people often have in response to racial stress. In short, most white people think of themselves as good, moral people. Most white people think of racists as bad, immoral people. Most white people don’t see themselves as somehow connected to racism. So any time something happens that reveals racial ignorance or bias, or any conversation that looks more deeply at history and implicates white people as the long-term, beneficiaries of racism, or any time the minister preaches a sermon on confronting white supremacy culture, white people may experience racial stress. White fragility attempts to manage that stress, often coming in the form of denial or dismissal. The women who objects to the ghastliness of the lyrics in Rev. Ladd’s story is manifesting a form of white fragility, an unwillingness to look too closely at the painful truth of white supremacy.

White fragility generates a range of feelings: guilt and shame, anger or outrage. Perhaps at its heart is a desire to stay comfortable. Rev. Ladd’s decision not to engage was also a form of white fragility—not wanting the discomfort of having that difficult encounter. Instead of allowing for deep listening, self-reflection, learning, and engagement, white fragility shuts down redirects, overpowers or flees from the conversation. In this sense, it is the emotional glue that holds white supremacy culture in place. Want to learn more? Our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee is holding a discussion of DiAngelo’s book on Thursday evening, January 30th. All are welcome.

What feels important to say now is that there is an alternative to white fragility. We might call it grace. If white fragility is defensive in response to intimations of racism, grace is curious, open, willing to go deeper. If white fragility is angry, grace is humble. If white fragility is convinced of its own purity, grace understands nobody and no institution is exempt from racism. If white fragility is withdrawn, grace is engaged. If white fragility seeks comfort, grace recognizes that genuine progress is inherently and inevitably uncomfortable.[5]

The conversation on race and racism in the United States and in Unitarian Universalism is changing dramatically. I want to give a shout out to our UUS:E policy board and, in particular, our president Rob Stolzman, for taking this conversation seriously. They’re asking how we can be sure our policies commit us to hiring a diverse staff over time. They’re asking how we can focus our current staff on the work of building an antiracist, multicultural membership. They’re asking, with grace, how we can become more skilled at confronting our own white supremacy culture.

The conversation is changing. I urge all of us, however we encounter it, not to resist, but with amazing grace, to welcome and embrace it.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Silverstein, Jake, “Editor’s Note,” New York Times Magazine, August 18, 2019, pp. 4-5.

[2] Johnson, James Weldon, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #149.

[3] Ladd, Nancy McDonald, After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism (Boston: Skinner House, 2019) p. 117.

[4] Ladd, After the Good News, pp. 117-118.

[5] In this section I am borrowing content from Robin D’Angelo’s chapter about what a transformed racial paradigm might look like. DiAngelo, Robin,White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018) pp. 141-143.

Rarely So Clear: Thoughts on Integrity

Our ministry theme for January is integrity. For the past few months I’ve anticipated talking about President Trump in this sermon. Especially after Congress’s December 18th vote to impeach him, it would seem strange to preach a sermon on integrity and not address what appears to me to be a glaring lack of integrity in the person who holds our nation’s highest elected office.

One definition of integrity is ‘adherence to a moral code.’ President Trump certainly lives and governs by a set of codes. I want to name the codes I witness in his conduct, with the caveat that I know his supporters witness the same codes and interpret them very differently. Among them are: win by any means, including ignoring or breaking the law. Demean your opponents relentlessly. Demand unswerving, unquestioning loyalty from those who work for you; dismiss them when they waver. Repeat falsehoods incessantly so as to obscure the truth or, when that fails, admit wrongdoing as if it’s no big deal, or, when that fails, file law suits and settle out of court. Project strength. Praise dictators. Speak to people’s fears rather than their hopes and dreams. Exploit the weak and marginalized. And most important for the purposes of this sermon, never admit you—or anything you do—is anything less than perfect. He follows these codes with ruthless consistency. One could argue there is a kind integrity in this consistency. However, the moral dimension is highly dubious. The best I can come up with is some version of “might makes right,” which has a long history as a moral philosophy; though as moral philosophies go, it’s among the most cruel, selfish and prone to criminality. Thou shalt exploit thy neighbor—and thy nation—for thyself.

I’m calling this sermon “Rarely So Clear,” in part because the lack of integrity in a public official is rarely so clear as it is in President Trump. I say this mindful that I haven’t spoken from this pulpit about the impeachment hearings. Now that Congress has voted for impeachment, I think it’s important for you to hear from me directly as your minister—though it likely comes as no surprise: based on the president’s conduct in office, I think the impeachment vote was correct. the president is unfit for office. I think the evidence presented during the impeachment hearings, while clearly not complete, is sufficient to demonstrate that he has violated his oath to uphold the Constitution.

But that’s not the sermon I want to preach about integrity. I don’t want to preach it because I don’t know what the useful spiritual lesson is. If the situation were less clear, if there were gray areas, if the president could acknowledge that not everything he does is perfect, if there were traces of kindness and compassion undergirding his actions, then maybe there’d be a sermon here. But this president refuses to reflect, at least publicly, on his own life, refuses to admit mistakes and wrongdoing, refuses to acknowledge in any way his human frailties and imperfections, refuses to ask for forgiveness. There’s no internal struggle in him, just denial. I think it’s much more instructive to talk about people for whom integrity requires self-probing, struggle and confession. I am far more intrigued by people who we assume have incredible integrity, yet who admit to internal conflict and self-doubt. I am far more intrigued by people who seem to lack integrity, yet who can also admit it, and then identify how they are striving to develop it. Integrity—or the lack thereof—is rarely so clear. The spiritual lessons reside in the lack of clarity.

Integrity is more than adherence to a moral code. It comes from the Latin word ‘integer’ which means whole and complete. In this sense, integrity has something to do with embracing all aspects of oneself—one’s gifts, talents, strengths, and also one’s challenges, vulnerabilities, shortcomings. The spiritual writer Parker Palmer once wrote,  “I now know myself to be a person of weakness and strength, liability and giftedness, darkness and light.  I now know that to be whole means to reject none of it but to embrace all of it.”[1] In order to embrace all of it, one must be aware of and able to reflect on those aspects of self that are not so positive, not so perfect, not the greatest ever. Integrity emerges in the crucible of that full embrace.

I read to you earlier a poem, “Who Am I?” by the theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leader of Germany’s anti-Nazi “Confessing Church” during World War II. The Gestapo arrested him in April of 1943 for anti-Nazi activities. They executed him in April of 1945 for his apparent connections to a plot to assassinate Hitler. We rightly regard Bonhoeffer as a person of great integrity for his moral clarity and his resistance to fascism. There is a popular image of him as a person who accepted his fate with courage and peace of mind. He acknowledges this in the poem: “They often tell me / I emerge from my cell / serene and cheerful and poised…. / They also tell me / I bear days of misfortune / with composure, smiling and regal, / like one accustomed to victory.”

And yet this outward appearance does not match his internal state. He describes himself as “disquieted, yearning, sick, caged like a bird, / fighting for breath itself… / helpless in worry for friends endless distances away, / tired, with nothing left for praying, thinking, working, / weary and ready to take leave of it all.” He’s keenly aware of two versions of himself. “Who am I?” he asks. “This one or the other? / Am I one today and another tomorrow? / Am I both at the same time? Before others a hypocrite / and in my own eyes a contemptibly self-pitying weakling?”[2] It’s rarely so clear.

I’m reminded of the private letters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Here is a person of towering, impeccable moral integrity who, we learn, lived for many years in deep despair, feeling that God had abandoned her, and thus, as she put it, being “on the verge of saying ‘No to God.’” In 1961 she wrote to the German Jesuit priest, Joseph Neuner, “the place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me … I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—Heaven—souls—why these are just words—which mean nothing to me.—My very life seems so contradictory. I help souls—to go where?—Why all this? Where is the soul in my very being? God does not want me.”[3] It’s rarely so clear.

I suppose I’m even reminded of Jesus, on the eve of his execution, retiring to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray after celebrating Passover. He is anything but calm and serene. On the contrary, he is distressed and agitated. He says to his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death.” He asks some of them to stay awake while he prays. When he finds them sleeping he is disappointed, angry, saying “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” He doesn’t want to die. When he prays, he says to God, “take this cup from me.” Though he also understands, like Mother Teresa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “your will be done, not mine.”[4] Jesus displays spiritual groundedness and agitation, courage and fear, conviction and misgivings. The gospel writers are embracing all of him. Integer. Whole. Compete. Integrity.

What appeals to me about Bonhoeffer’s poem is what he calls “this lonely probing of mine”—his willingness to reflect on and name his experience of his own weakness and vulnerability, his exhaustion, his fear. As much as he may want to be the perfect, even beatific person his guards say he is, he knows he isn’t that person. At least to him, the full range of his humanity is on display. He’s doing a noble, principled, courageous thing, but in his eyes, he’s doing it imperfectly. We might even say he’s doing a spiritually perfect thing—sacrificing himself for his principles, for truth, for justice—imperfectly. He’s embracing all of himself. Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

There’s a paradox here. The spiritual life isn’t about attaining a state of perfection. God may not show up. And even if God does, our best selves may not show up. Especially in our most difficult moments, there will be doubt, misgivings, fear, lack of clarity. As long as we inhabit these human bodies, there’s no such thing as perfection. As we strive for some abstract or ideal state of spiritual perfection, our bodies, our nerves, our racing thoughts, our anxieties, our contradictions—our full humanity—easily undercuts our striving. Yet, as we embrace our imperfections, as we let that same, complicated, confounding humanity shine through, that’s when we grow spiritually. Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

I recently encountered a version of this paradox in tennis star Andre Agassi’s 2009 autobiography, Open. Not the kind of book I normally read, but it came highly recommended. I don’t feel completely comfortable talking Bonhoeffer, let alone Mother Teresa and Jesus, in the same sermon as Agassi, who is sometimes remembered for the commercial tagline “image is everything.” But I read his book over the Christmas break and found it compelling because he writes very openly about his sheer lack of integrity as a young player, and how he struggled to develop it.

In 1994, at a low-point in his career, Agassi began working with a new coach—a retired player named Brad Gilbert—who gave him advice no one had ever given him before. Agassi writes, “Brad says my overall problem … is perfectionism.” He quotes Brad: “by trying for a perfect shot with every ball, you’re stacking the odds against yourself…. Just keep the ball moving. Back and forth. Nice and easy. Solid…. When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you’re doing? You’re chasing something that doesn’t exist. You’re making everyone around you miserable. You’re making yourself miserable. Perfection? There’s about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can’t lose to anybody, but it’s not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being, for that matter. It’s the other times.”[5]

Agassi struggles to let go of his perfectionism on the court and in his life. It takes him years to internalize Gilbert’s teaching. Even by the time he wrote the book in his late thirties, he clearly still hadn’t fully figured it out. But he knows this about himself. He knows it’s hard to live a life of integrity. And he knows integrity has something to do with embracing every part of himself. Regarding a speech he’s preparing for students at a charter school he founded in Las Vegas, he says: “My theme, I think, will be contradictions. A friend suggests I brush up on Walt Whitman. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I never knew this was an acceptable point of view…. Now it’s my North Star. And that’s what I’ll tell the students. Life is a tennis match between polar opposites. Winning and losing, love and hate, open and closed. It helps to recognize that painful fact early. Then recognize the polar opposites within yourself, and if you can’t embrace them, or reconcile them, at least accept them and move on. The only thing you cannot do is ignore them.”[6] Integer. Whole. Complete. Integrity.

It’s rarely so clear. Integrity takes more than adherence to a moral code. In fact, unthinking, unreflective adherence to a moral code is a form of perfectionism, which can be as dangerous as having no code at all. Bring your whole self along. Question. Probe. Reflect. Notice your contradictions, your polar opposites. Be honest about them. Be humble about them. In this sometimes painful embrace of the whole self lies our very human path to integrity.

Amen and blessed be.

[1]  Palmer, Parker J., Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999)  p. 70.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, “Who Am I?” Who Am I? Poetic Insights on Personal Identity (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2005) pp. 8-9.

[3] Letter from Mother Teresa to FatherJoseph Neuner, most probably April 11, 1961, in Kolodiejchuk, Brian, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (New York: Doubleday, 2001) pp. 210, 211.

[4] Mark 14: 32-42; Luke 22: 39-46; Matthew 26: 36-46.

[5] Agassi, Andre, Open: An Autobiography (New York: Vintage Books, 2010) pp. 186, 187.

[6] Agassi, Open, pp. 383-384.

And So the Light Returns

Rev. Josh Pawelek

And so the light returns. Our human senses aren’t so finely attuned that we can notice the difference immediately. The daylight hours are still very short. The season is still dark. Nevertheless, we know the earth has shifted and is now slowly leaning its northern latitudes back toward the sun. We know this because the science of astronomy confirms it. We know also that ancient humans across the planet knew that the winter solstice marked a shift, that the day-light hours would lengthen from this point on until a corresponding shift at the summer solstice; though in many ancient cosmologies it was the sun, not the earth, that was understood to be making the shift. It was the sun God—and sometimes the sun goddess—returning, being born, chasing or being chased by the moon or some other sky deity, sacrificing him or herself so that there would be light, bringing a torch to brighten the darkness, riding a flaming chariot across the sky, coming from afar as a great fireball. There are countless myths and stories known today, and surely many, many more that have been lost through the ages. Whether or not the ancients had the science right, they knew a shift had occurred. They knew the light was returning. They had reason to celebrate, reason to hope.

Here we are, southern New England, the United States, 2019. The planetary shift, the Winter Solstice, happened last night at 11:19 pm. Christmas arrives a few days hence. I’ve always heard it said that upon converting to Christianity the Roman Empire selected December 25th as the date for Christmas not because there is any evidence for that date in the Bible (which there isn’t) but because it was already the date for the birthday of the Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, the supreme deity, often, in later years, associated with Mithras, or Mithra, who was not Roman in origin, but an angelic figure in the ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism. There is some evidence that the Romans held many misperceptions about this deity, and that their cult of Mithras, which I believe first emerged within the Roman military well after the beginnings of Christianity, was not at all consistent with the Persian understanding of Mithra or with the Persian practices associated with him. And whether the Roman cult got it right or not, my casual research this past week suggests that nobody really knows for sure when, how or why December 25th became the date for Christmas. Scholars look back on the era and make an educated guess that it must have had something to do with the Cult of Mithras already using that date for the birth of its patron deity. But as far as I can tell, there is no record of an official imperial decree identifying December 25th as the date for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. I read a passage from Clement A. Miles earlier. Although this late 19th, early 20th century scholar is likely not a super-reliable source himself, I like the way he put it a century ago: “There is no direct evidence of deliberate substitution, but at all events ecclesiastical writers soon after the foundation of Christmas made good use of the idea that the birthday of the Savior had replaced the birthday of the sun.”[1]

In hindsight, the link between the Christian savior and the sun God seems obvious. I’m mindful of the opening paragraph in the Gospel of John which states, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[2] Light has always been one of the dominant metaphors people use to describe Jesus. What better time of year, then, to celebrate his birth than the time when the earth begins moving back toward the source of light (and warmth and energy), the sun?

Here we are, the United States, 2019. The planetary shift has happened. It’s fascinating to me, and I suppose at the same time completely unsurprising, that other light-oriented festivals are drawn into the Christmas orbit at this time of year. For example, today is the first day of the Jewish celebration of Hannukah, a relatively minor Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Jewish temple after the victory in 165 BC of the Maccabees over Syrian occupying forces. The eight candles on the menorah refer to a legend that, upon entering the temple and finding only enough lamp oil for one day, that oil miraculously provided eight days of light. Hannukah isn’t a Jewish alternative to Christmas, though it often feels that way in our larger culture.

Kwanzaa, the modern, African American celebration, also involving the lighting of candles on the kinara, begins on December 26th. Although there is some evidence that its creator, Maulana Karenga, actually did intend it as an alternative to Christmas, he later said it was not meant to replace any religion or religious observance. If I have my facts right, the model for this celebration has nothing to do with the timing of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, but rather the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere. Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili term, matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits of the harvest.” In this sense, it recalls southern African first harvest festivals, a reference to mid-summer rather than mid-winter.

Yule, or Yuletide, is the ancient Germanic mid-winter celebration, many of whose symbols show up in current day celebrations of the holiday season, many of which, like the decorating of evergreens in homes, merge rather seamlessly with the celebration of Christmas. Perhaps the most ubiquitous Yule practice having to do with light is the burning of a Yule log either on Christmas Day or for the entire twelve days of Christmas, if you have a large enough log to fit in a large enough fireplace. As I mentioned earlier, our UUS:E Pagan Study Group will be offering a Yule ritual this afternoon at 2:00 PM. All are welcome. Due to fire codes, and the absence of a fireplace, no yule logs will be burnt.

These festivals of light, and I suppose others with which I’m less familiar, mix and merge with each other, sometimes conflict with each other, throughout the holiday season.  Light and symbols of light are pervasive. References to the sun, stars, flame, fire, candles, a blazing hearth fill the music of the season, the rituals, the department story displays, decorations on homes and church services. Light means something to human beings. Whether the cult of Mithras really understood its Persian spiritual sources, something about the mystical power of the sun spoke to them, as it did to so many ancient people and to us today. Hannukah is not a Jewish alternative to Christmas, but somehow the symbol of the menorah lights speaks even to non-Jews in this season. Even if we’ve never lived in a house or apartment with a fireplace, somehow the Yule image of a large, burning log fits very naturally with this season. Light means something to human beings. After this November-December period of blessed, restful darkness, of quiet and stillness, of taking an inward look, of Advent waiting for the birth of something new, the light returns. It reaches in, catches our attention. Sometimes its beauty takes our breath away. I’m wondering, this morning, what meaning the returning light holds for us.

I may just be speaking for myself, but my sense is the returning light—all the ways we encounter it in this season—speaks to us at a very instinctual and spiritual level, informing us there is a sacred dimension to our lives; and we have the capacity to manifest that sacred dimension in how we live—what we say, what we do, how we treat others. We make it real through our love, compassion, caring, kindness, generosity, creativity, passion and joy. These qualities, these values, these commitments have power. With them we can make positive changes in our lives, positive changes in our communities, and positive changes in the world. I’m not saying this is what the returning light meant to ancient people. I’m not saying this is what the returning light meant to the early Christians, or the Maccabees, or the German pagans, or adherents to the Roman cult of Mithras. I’m trying to name, as best I can, what the returning light means to us – liberal religious, Unitarian Universalists, living in New England in the United States of America, just after the winter solstice, December 22, 2019. The returning light is a potent spiritual metaphor, informing us there is a sacred dimension to our lives; and we manifest that sacred dimension through our love, compassion, caring, kindness, generosity, creativity, passion and joy. These qualities are powerful, healing, life-giving.

We forget this sacred dimension. We forget it all the time. We fall short of our aspirations. We miss our marks. We fail to keep certain commitments. It is enormously difficult to remain loving, compassionate, caring, kind, generous, creative, passionate, and joyful. It is also understandable. Our lives take all sorts of twists and turns. We have hard days, hard weeks, hard months, hard years. We lose so much. We grieve for so much. We suffer—some far more than others, yes—but no one who inhabits a human body can avoid some degree of suffering in their life. No one who participates in any sort of human community, from a family to a nation, can avoid the pain of disagreement and conflict. So we easily forget the things to which we said we were committed. We easily forget our highest values. We easily forget the power we have to manifest the sacred dimension of our lives. The returning light helps us remember. The returning light calls us back to the sacred dimension of our living.

Perhaps another way to express this is that the light returning at the darkest time of year calls forth the light that already exists in us. The returning light awakens the light sleeping in us, finds the light hiding in us, liberates the light imprisoned in us, welcomes the light waiting in us.

I read to you earlier from the artist, author and Methodist minister, Jan Richardson, “Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light.” I want to share these words again with you now. Before I do, I invite you to contemplate the sacred dimension of your life. How do you name that right now? And even more importantly, how do you manifest it? How does it guide your engagement with the world? As I read Richardson’s words, whenever you hear the word ‘light,’ hear it as if she’s referring to the sacred dimension of your life.

[Read Richardson’s poem here.]

And so the light returns. Granted, in real time winter is just beginning; the daylight hours will remain short for now. But in terms of our spiritual seasons, the period of darkness has ended. The time for quiet and stillness, turning inward and waiting has ended. Now the festivals of light begin. When you encounter holiday lights in the coming days, I urge you to let them speak to you of the sacred dimension in your life. Let them remind you of the power you have to manifest sacredness in the world through how you live, through your words and your deeds, through the way you treat others. Let the lights remind you of your highest aspirations, your convictions, your dreams. Let the lights call you to love, compassion, caring, kindness, generosity, creativity, passion and joy. Yes, may the lights of the season call out to the light that lives in your imperfect, struggling, suffering human body. And may that light in you spill out into the world.

Happy Holidays. Happy Hannukah. Happy Yuletide. Happy Solstice. Happy Kwanzaa. Merry Christmas.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan (1912). See: http://www.worldspirituality.org/december-25.html.

[2] John 1: 3b-5.

[3] Richardson, Jan, “Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light,” The Advent Door: Entering a Contemplative Christmas. See: http://adventdoor.com/2014/12/12/advent-3-testify-to-the-light/.

Faithfully Unfolding

Rev. Josh Pawelek

What are you waiting for?

I assume most of us encounter these words less as a genuinely curious question and more as a directive to stop procrastinating. If you’re really serious about making a change in your life, doing something new, getting out of your rut, your bad habits, pursuing your passions and dreams, going back to school, finding a new job, retiring, committing your life more deeply to the people you love, to service, to movements for liberation and justice—whatever you’ve identified as a possible new direction for your life—what are you waiting for? Get off the couch. Seize the day! Grab the moment! Take the bull by the horns. Don’t just stand there, do something! In the words of our 19th-century spiritual forebear Henry David Thoreau, it’s time to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life!”[1] In the words of the Nike company, “just do it!”

What are you waiting for?

As if it were always that simple.

Our larger culture places high value on action, on doing, producing, performing, achieving, accomplishing. In those moments when we have no good answer to the question—what are you waiting for?—chances are we’ll feel something negative about ourselves, in the very least a tinge of guilt, and at worst, full-blown self-loathing.

I’m reminded of a story from the late Dutch priest, Henri Nouwen. He called it “A Story of Waiting.” “I was invited to visit a friend who was very sick. He was … fifty-three years old [and] had lived a very active, useful, faithful, creative life. Actually, he was a social activist who had cared deeply for people. When he was fifty he found out he had cancer, and the cancer became more and more severe. When I came to him, he said to me, ‘Henri, here I am lying in this bed, and I don’t even know how to think about being sick. My whole way of thinking about myself is in terms of action, in terms of doing things for people. My life is valuable because I’ve been able to do many things for many people. And suddenly here I am passive and I can’t do anything anymore….’ As we talked I realized that he and many others were constantly thinking ‘How much more can I still do?’ Somehow this man had learned to think about himself as a man who was worth only what he was doing.”[2]

I’m reminded also of words from the late spiritual writer Philip Simmons who, in his essay, “The Art of Doing Nothing,” argued that “we [human beings] want to know we matter, we want to know our lives are worthwhile. And when we’re not sure, we work that much harder.”[3] That is, when we’re concerned at some deep level about our worth, we gravitate toward doing. As if we have to prove ourselves. What are you waiting for?

Sometimes we wait for good reason—we’re unsure of how to proceed; we’re uneasy about the risks; we’re concerned about the impact our doing will have on others. Sometimes we wait for good reason, yet it appears to others—and perhaps to ourselves—that we’re somehow flawed, paralyzed with fear, trapped in our own inertia, confused, unmotivated, lazy. Even when asked with care, what are you waiting for? becomes a negative judgement, a subtle indictment of our character.

Let’s lean back from judgement for a moment. Let’s be curious about the impulse to wait. I want us to more fully understand the spiritual value of waiting. I want us to recognize there are things worth waiting for that matter more than whatever we think we should be doing. Maybe procrastination, in some instances, is a sign of wisdom. Maybe waiting is a spiritual skill.  But how would we know? We’ve attached so much negative judgement to it, it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than a character flaw.

My colleague, the Rev. Jen Crow, preached a sermon some years ago entitled “Waiting as an Act of Faith.” She said, “I bring you a counter-cultural message, especially in this season of what can become holiday madness—a message of stillness, of waiting, of trust and hopeful expectation, a message that encourages us … to consider the phrase …. Don’t just do something … stand there.”[4]  Or sit there, lie there. Pause, rest, breath, pray, be still. Wait.

The Christian liturgical year begins today. It’s the first Sunday of Advent, a four-week season of waiting prior to Christmas. Expectancy and hope infuse this waiting as the Christian world anticipates celebrating the birth of Jesus, the savior, the peacemaker—God incarnate. Of course, this spiritual waiting mixes and merges with waiting for Christmas presents, Santa Claus, reindeer, etc. For children whose families celebrate Christmas, waiting for presents is both excruciatingly annoying and exquisitely joyful. That joy alone tell us there is something precious in the waiting.

The Christian liturgical calendar rests atop more ancient spiritual calendars based on northern hemisphere agricultural cycles—planting, growing and harvesting, followed by waiting through long winter months. The natural world tells us this is a season of waiting. Earlier I shared words from the Rev. Karen Hering: “Hidden in the heart / of late autumn’s barren / fields is the ripening / of seasons yet to come. / Roots clinging to frozen ground / wait patiently / for their next long drink. / Seeds fallen from last summer’s blooms / sleep beneath blankets of quilted leaves / and feathered snow.”[5] Now that the harvest is done, roots, seeds, fields and people are waiting.

The darkness of the post-harvest season also beckons us away from doing toward introspection and reflection—hallmarks of the spiritual skill of waiting. In the words of the Rev. Mark Belletini, “Less Light. / A time to carefully focus on things / that the spotlight has missed…. / Less light. / No need to look frantically / for what we might be missing. / Eyes closed and breath steady…. / Less light. / A blessing to all who never quite find time / to sit in the dark silence during the noisy summer…. Less Light. A gift of the tilting earth.”[6]

If we were pre-industrial, agrarian people, and we had completed our late autumn tasks, harvested and stored food supplies for the winter, prepared wood for the fires that will keep us warm, we would now be entering into a long period of waiting, not just for the return of the sun at the solstice, but for eventual spring thaws and the resumption of outdoor life. We would be accustomed to waiting. We would know how to do it! We would likely look forward to it. We would have methods for passing the long winter hours, teaching our children the ways of our people, telling stories of who we are and where we’ve come from. Our physical activity would naturally be less than in the other seasons. We would likely sleep more. We might not even think of it as waiting. We might just think of it as living.

But that’s not who we are. We who live in developed, post-industrial, post-modern societies—we who have, for the most part, abandoned intimate relationship with the land, with the seasons, with the cycles of food production—we who have grown accustomed to convenience and seemingly endless supplies of energy and heat and who can therefore expect—and be expected to—work and live through the winter months as if they differ in no way from spring, summer and autumn—we don’t wait well. Either we dedicate enormous energy to doing, because that is what our culture values, or we beat ourselves up for not doing enough.

There’s much we miss when our primary mode of being is doing. What if we learned to subvert the impulse to just do it? What if we learned how to wait well? I ask because I believe spiritual waiting brings us more fully into alignment with the sacred dimensions of our lives. I’m taking a cue this morning from the process theologian Jay McDaniel, who recently wrote a short piece called “A Process Theology of Waiting.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with process theology, know that process theologians view the as a dynamic, nearly infinite and always unfolding set of relationships. Process theologians understand God as the sum total of those relationships—everything that has happened and all that will happen, from the interactions of sub-atomic particles to the interactions of galaxies. As such, God—divinity, the sacred—is continually emerging, continually becoming. And one important response for us is waiting—waiting to notice what is emerging. Whether we recognize it or not, says Jay McDaniel, “much of our life is spent in waiting. This is inescapable, because every present moment contains a future that has not yet arrived.”[7] Imagine that! Waiting is an inherent part of who we are.

If we only ever focus our attention on what we need to do, we deny that part of ourselves that waits in each moment. Though we may want things to emerge more quickly, though we may want answers and clarity now, the sacred typically doesn’t move at our pace. And as Rev. Belletini says, “few paths in this life are clearly lit.”[8] As much as we may feel called to act, we are also called to wait, and in that waiting to notice what is emerging within that dynamic, nearly infinite set of relationships, and to align ourselves with it as best we can. Waiting also a reminds us wee don’t always have control over what is happening around us or to us. As much as we may want to seize the day, sometimes the day seizes us and our task is to adapt with as much grace as we can muster. That takes time and patience. That takes waiting. I like the way Rev. Hering alludes to this: “Fruits of the future, / words unripened into speech, / truth present but unseen, evidence yet to be awakened / by the faithful / unfolding / of time and love.”[9]

Regarding the fifty-three year old cancer patient, Henri Nouwen says: “[My friend] realized that after [a life of] hard work he had to wait. He came to see that his vocation as a human being would be fulfilled not just in his actions but also in his passion [meaning, in this case, his suffering and experience of things happening to him that were beyond his control].” Together they began to witness how the sacred was moving in their lives, bringing something new they hadn’t noticed before. Nouwen puts it in Catholic language, “together we began to understand that precisely in this waiting the glory of God and our new life both become visible.”[10]

Earlier I shared a meditation from Rev. Vanessa Rush Southern. She writes, “I couldn’t hear myself think above the din of my surroundings / and when I finally did, I was surprised by what I heard. / I’d lived my life in restless banter, / but with a pause I met what had eluded me— / the part of me (and Her) that waited to be born.”[11] She refers to a variety of relationships—child, friend, lover, parent, Destiny, God—that had become invisible to her precisely because she did not wait. Like the universe, like the quantum world, like spirit, like God, the fact of our relationships means we are in a constant state of emerging. But if we believe we must always be doing something—anything!—we risk missing what is faithfully unfolding in our lives.

What is faithfully unfolding in your life? I like that as a different way of asking the question. Instead of what are you waiting for? ask what is faithfully unfolding in your life?

You will eventually encounter the question, what are you waiting for? You may be encountering it in this very moment. How will it feel to experience the question not as an indictment of inactivity, but as an invitation to reflect on the sacred dimensions of your life? Whatever you hold as sacred, how is it making itself apparent to you in this moment? How is it emerging anew in your life? How will it feel to experience the question as in invitation to ponder your place in that dynamic and nearly infinite set of relationships? Before doing anything, how will it feel to wait, trusting not only that the sun will return, that the springtime will come, but that something meaningful is always faithfully unfolding in your life, that the sacred will, on its on schedule, break forth, bringing renewal and wisdom?

The harvest is done. Winter is near. Advent begins. This is a season of waiting, and waiting is a gift we give to ourselves that assures us what we need most will emerge in its proper time? May we wait well.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thoreau, Henry David, “To Live Deliberately,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #660.

[2] Nouwen, Henri, “A Spirituality of Waiting.” See: https://bgbc.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/A-Spirituality-of-Waiting-by-Henri-Houwen.pdf.

[3] Simmons, Philip, “The Art of Doing Nothing,” Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (New York: Bantam Books, 2002) p. 122.

[4] Crow, Jen, “Waiting as an Act of Faith,” Quest for Meaning, December, 2012. See: https://www.questformeaning.org/spiritual-themes/waiting-as-an-act-of-faith/.

[5] Hering, Karen, “Hidden in the Heart,” in Janamanchi, Abhi, and Janamanchi Abhimanyu, Falling Into the Sky: A Meditation Anthology (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013) p. 57.

[6] Belletini, Mark, “Late Fall,” in Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008) p. 58.

[7] McDaniel, Jay, “A Process Theology of Waiting,” OpenHorizons.org. See: https://www.openhorizons.org/a-process-theology-of-waiting.html.

[8] Belletini,  “Late Fall,” in Sonata for Voice and Silence, p. 58.

[9] Hering, Karen, “Hidden in the Heart,” Falling Into the Sky, p. 57.

[10] Nouwen, Henri, “A Spirituality of Waiting.” See: https://bgbc.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/A-Spirituality-of-Waiting-by-Henri-Houwen.pdf.

[11] Southern, Vanessa Rush, “Advent: A Responsive Reading,” in This Piece of Eden: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2001) p. 3.

The Invitation is Always There

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“If you keep thinking, you miss the flower,”[1] says Buddhist monk and global peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.” This is the meaning he derives from the story of the Buddha’s disciple, Mahakashyapa, a foundational story—an origin story—for Zen Buddhism. We shared Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the story earlier in the service. Unitarian Universalist minister and Soto Zen priest, James Ishmael Ford tells it this way:

A large gathering … came to hear a talk by the Buddha. Instead of speaking about enlightenment he simply held up a flower, twirling it slowly in his fingers. Of the whole assembly only one person understood—the Venerable Mahakashyapa. He smiled. Seeing the smile, the Buddha declared, “I have the all-pervading True Dharma, incomparable Nirvana, exquisite teaching of formless form. It does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside scriptures. I now hand it to Mahakashyapa.”[2] According to tradition, the founder of Zen Buddhism, the semi-mythical Bodhidharma, an Indian Buddhist who travelled to China in the sixth century, was the 28th successor to the Buddha through the lineage of Mahakashyapa.

In addition to being an origin story for Zen Buddhism, this story is also a koan, meaning it is itself an object of meditation. Like any koan, its meaning is not immediately, or perhaps ever, apparent to the rational, thinking mind. In response to any koan, one intuits their way to understanding more than thinks their way to understanding. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.” As I encounter Thich Nhat Hanh’s interpretation of this koan, I recognize that, though I think I understand what his words mean, I would be foolish to think I understand what they mean to someone like Thich Nhat Hanh who’d been meditating for over fifty years at the time he wrote them. Furthermore, though I think I understand what his words mean, and though I think I can talk about them in a sermon, the truth is I’m still thinking about them. I’m still thinking about words that advise me to stop thinking. I’m still thinking and writing about words that assure me the all-pervading truth “does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside of scriptures.”

As simple as Thich Nhat Hanh makes it sound, I have to assume I am still missing something. And what I am missing is not a thought—I have plenty of those. What I am missing is not a set of words—I have plenty of those. What I’m missing is an intuitive experience. The experience of being fully present. Do I know what that means? I like to think so … but, there I go again, thinking. Do any of us really know what being fully present means? Had I gone to hear the Buddha speak on that day, had I witnessed him twirling that flower in his fingers and saying nothing for minutes on end, would I have had the wisdom and the skill to quiet my thinking mind, which likely, and very understandably, would have been asking questions like, ‘What does this mean?’ ‘What is the significance of the flower?’ ‘Why twirl the flower in his fingers?’ ‘What kind of flower is it?’ ‘What is Mahakashyapa smiling about?’ Would I have had the wisdom and the skill to quiet my thinking, questioning, analytical, concept-forming mind and let myself fully experience the present moment, fully experience the flower in the Buddha’s fingers? Would I have smiled?

Maybe. I don’t want to rule it out entirely….

But doubtful.

Our ministry theme for November is attention. Although every religious tradition calls on its adherents to pay attention in some way, to pray, to contemplate, to study scripture, to go on pilgrimage, to worship, to “wake now my senses,” as one of our UU hymns says,[3] in my experience no tradition speaks more beautifully or extensively about paying attention than Buddhism. I remind us that our Unitarian Universalist living tradition draws from many sources, including “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” That’s where I am grounding myself this morning. I’m wondering about paying attention for the purpose of being fully present, and I’m turning to Buddhism for guidance.

How often are we fully present—present to any particular moment, like this moment; present to a person, a loved-one, a child, a neighbor, a stranger; present to an activity, washing dishes, drinking tea, raking leaves; present to suffering, physical or emotional pain, abuse, discrimination; present to nature, the changing seasons, the night sky, the barren November fields. Paying attention for the purpose of being fully present is hard. When I say that, I don’t mean it’s hard because of the many ways technology now intrudes into our lives, the rise of social media, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle. And I’m not saying it’s hard because of the troubling, frightening re-emergence of hatreds in our era that so many of us thought were in decline, or because of the troubling, frightening acceleration of climate change in our era. Yes we live in an age of extraordinary distraction, but that’s not why paying attention for the purpose of being fully present is hard. It has always been hard. Many people came to hear the Buddha speak. Apparently only one of them was fully present. It isn’t a question of what’s going on in the world around us. There is something in our very human nature—in the structure of our bodies, our wiring, our brain chemistry, our neural pathways, our senses—something in the way all of it works together—that makes paying attention for the purpose of being fully present hard no matter what is happening in the wider world.

Buddhists speak of the monkey mind—the way the mind very naturally jumps from one thing to another. Monkey mind is not a condition that some people have and others don’t. As far as I can tell, it’s the normal condition of most human brains. The new issue of the UU World magazine, which arrived last week, features an article by the Rev. Erika Hewitt and religious educator Becky Brooks called “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy.” They write “Chaos is an apt term for what happens between our ears during the practice of meditation. That’s because it’s the mind’s natural state to be whirring, planning, and chattering.” They cite the Rev. Eric Walker Wikstrom, who “describes meditation mantras as ‘giving the tiger a certain amount of meat to keep it quiet,’ suggesting that without that distraction, the mind is like a roving, predatory beast.” They proclaim, “Hear us now, fellow monkey minds: the presence (the loud, active presence) of inner voices, noise, and whirl during meditation does not mean you’re doing it ‘wrong.’ It means you’re human.”[4]

I find this very affirming. I hope you do too. My mind often races around, jumps up and down. Does yours? I notice that even when I’m focused on some task like mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, raking leaves, chopping wood, shoveling snow, or when I’m exercising, despite my focus on the activity, my mind is always monkeying: What’s next on my schedule? What’s happening tonight? What do I have to do to prepare for this meeting, or that class, or next week’s sermon? What time is Max’s basketball game? Where is it? Who’s cooking dinner? Oh, wait—I’m not home for dinner. What are the boys going to eat? Who am I forgetting? X is going into the hospital. Y is coming home from the hospital. Has Mason written the final draft of his college essay? If I don’t do anything about it, the thoughts just keep coming. My body is going through the motions of the task; I have no problem performing the task; but my mind is somewhere else. I’m not fully present.

That’s what monkey mind looks like for me when I’m engaged in a task. What’s fascinating to me is how it works when I’m purposefully not doing anything, when I’m actually attempting to meditate, to quiet my mind, to not think of anything at all,[5] to not miss the flower. Then the monkey really takes off. It’s as if true quiet, true emptiness, true presence free of all thought is frightening to the part of me that thinks. The part of me that thinks really doesn’t want to be extinguished. It resists. Don’t stop thinking!

I figured out many years ago I am not on the path to enlightenment. That is, I don’t feel a compelling personal spiritual call to engage in a dedicated, regular meditation practice. Though, having said that, I want to be clear that I recognize the importance such practices hold for many Unitarian Universalists; and I celebrate the spiritual richness Buddhists and those with an affinity for Buddhism bring to our congregations. I may not be on the path to enlightenment, but  being present—as fully present as possible—is important to me, especially in relation to other people. If my mind is monkeying while I’m washing the dishes, that’s my loss, but no harm done. If my mind is monkeying when a family member, or one of you, or a colleague is talking to me, that’s a problem. And though I may never know what it means to be fully present in a state of deep meditation, nevertheless, I can strive for presence in my day-to-day life. Buddhism can inform that striving. And what I learn from Buddhism is that the invitation to be present is always with us in any given moment. It’s an invitation worth accepting.  We accept the invitation by learning first to notice when and how, and maybe why, the mind starts monkeying; and second, learning to gently pull the mind back to the task at hand, to the attempted quiet, to the relationship, the conversation, the present moment. Our capacity to be present to the world begins with being present to ourselves.

Thich Nhat Hanh invites this presence to self through breathing. In those moments when the mind is monkeying, interrupt it with conscious breathing. He says “our breathing is the link between our body and our mind. Sometimes our mind is thinking of one thing … our body is doing another … mind and body are not unified. By concentrating on our breathing, ‘In’ and ‘Out,’ we bring body and mind back together, and become whole again. Conscious breathing is an important bridge.” He offers this mantra: Breathing in, I calm my body. / Breathing out I smile. / Dwelling in the present moment, / I know this is a wonderful moment![6] Breathing will carry us toward presence, but the mind will monkey again. Remember, that’s the norm. Being present requires a continual interruption of the norm. Conscious breathing is one way to interrupt, to bring mind and body together, to come back to the moment.

It’s not a forceful interruption. It’s not bellicose. It’s not judgmental. It’s a gentle and compassionate interruption. The writer Anne Lamott offers a wonderful image. She says, “Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper. So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen, maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence.”[7] The invitation to be present is always there.

In their recent UU World article, Hewitt and Brooks say something similar: “When (not if!) we get distracted … the heart of meditation is to notice your distraction—your departure—and make the decision to try again. The practice isn’t the doing; it’s the return, the reentry.”[8] Our mind will monkey. The invitation to unite body and mind is always there. The invitation to quiet the mind is always there. The invitation to stop thinking and behold the flower is always there. The invitation to offer that heart-felt, genuine smile is always there. The invitation to move back toward presence is always there.

There’s nothing doctrinal or dogmatic about this. There’s nothing here about right or wrong. We won’t be punished for having stray thoughts. The mind will monkey. That’s normal. The invitation is always there to gently pull it back to presence. I find great comfort in this ongoing—dare I say eternal—invitation.

Why accept the invitation? Why does being present to ourselves matter? In short, it’s a gesture of kindness to ourselves, and as far as I’m concerned, each of us deserves kindness. But beyond that, I think it’s also true that as we develop the capacity for being kind to ourselves, we develop the capacity to return kindness into the world. I like the way Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg puts it in a recent blog post. She writes, “the practice of shepherding our attention back to the present—even an incalculable number of times—helps us find the power to be kind to ourselves…. [When] we react to our compulsions with compassion … we open up, and feel a subtle movement of our hearts. This movement of the heart is like the sea moving close to the ocean floor — it is so subtle, but affects everything above.”[9] It effects everything above. In short, kindness to self begets kindness to others.

Is that really true? Maybe it’s just wishful thinking. I suppose it will always be wishful thinking if we keep confining it to the realm of thought. But if we keep thinking we miss the flower. The point is to accept the invitation, to make that gesture of kindness to ourselves, to strive for presence. Will that enable us to bring more kindness into the world? The invitation is always there. And what is there to lose but a few wandering thoughts? May we accept the invitation.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thich Naht Hanh, “Flower Insights,” Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) p. 43.

[2] Ford, James Ishmael, This Very Moment: A Brief Introduction to Buddhism and Zen for Unitarian Universalists (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) pp. 27-28.

[3] Mikelson, Thomas, “Wake Now My Senses,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #298.

[4] Brooks, Becky and Hewitt, Erika, “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy,” UU World (Winter, 2019). P. 18.

[5] Takashina, Rosen, Zetto Zemmi, in Conze, Edward, tr., Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 1959) p. 138.

[6] Thich Naht Hanh, “Conscious Breathing” and “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment” in Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) pp.8-10.

[7] Lamott, Anne, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1994) p. 99.

[8] Brooks and Hewitt, “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy,” p. 19.

[9] Salzberg, Sharon, “A New Vision of Kindness Starts with Paying Attention,” On Being, June 11th, 2016. See: https://onbeing.org/blog/a-new-vision-of-kindness-starts-with-paying-attention/#.

Whose Are You?

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In her poem, “The Small Plot of Ground,” poet and Episcopal priest Alla Renee Bozarth writes: “To feel alive, / important, and safe, / know your own waters / and hills, but know / more.”[1] Know your own waters and hills, but know more. For me, this morning, these words speak to a fundamental tension within Unitarian Universalism between two essential spiritual questions: “Who am I?” and “Whose am I?” (We can also turn them around and ask “Who are You?” and “Whose are You?” We UUs have become highly skilled in asking and answering the first question, “Who am I?”—in Bozarth’s words, knowing our own waters and hills. We are less skilled in asking and answering the second question, “Whose am I?” Frankly, when we talk about the spiritual life, we sometimes forget there is more to know beyond our own waters and hills. This sermon is about the difference these two questions make in our spiritual lives. It also calls for us to start discerning more intentionally not who we are but whose we are.

In my October newsletter column I wrote that we live in a society that invites us relentlessly (though often disingenuously) to respond to the question “Who am I?” I said I feel this poignantly as my high school senior goes through the process of applying to colleges. The primary question this process invites him to answer is “Who am I?” What are his skills, values, passions and experiences that will make him an asset to a particular student body? What kinds of intelligence does he bring? What is his vision for himself? I hope we have parented him in such a way that he has substantive answers to these questions, that he knows his own waters and hills, that he knows who he is and is able to communicate his isness to college admissions offices. I also hope his seventeen years of Unitarian Universalist religious education have helped him to answer these questions, have instilled in him a sense of who he is, have taught him values, and have enabled him to articulate what he believes.

Of course this question—“Who am I?—runs much deeper than high school seniors applying to college. It’s an ancient philosophical and theological question having to do with the nature of consciousness, the nature of the soul, even the nature of reality. Both eastern and western cultures have asked the question and offered a variety of answers for millennia.

There is a quintessentially American version of this question. We can think of the founding of the United States of America as the pinnacle of a long history of European people slowly rejecting the authority of kings and the church in favor of democratic systems that protect the rights of individuals who are free to conduct their lives, work, and religion in a manner they determine—people who are able to ask the question, “who am I?” and then freely assert their answers. Of course, there were profound historical contradictions: slavery, Indian wars and reservations, women as property. Not everyone had rights. Not everyone could safely ask and answer the question “Who am I?” That is still true today. There are places where it is unsafe to speak openly about being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or non-binary. There are places where it is unsafe to speak openly about being an immigrant, or even an atheist. Nevertheless, as flawed as the tradition may be, the ability to ask this question—“Who am I?—the ability to be a particular individual and to proclaim one’s individuality, lies at the heart of the American identity. It’s the tradition of the rugged individualist, the yeoman farmer, the pioneer, the explorer, the adventurer, the innovator, the competitor, the underdog, the captain of industry. It lies at the heart of “Don’t Tread on Me.” It lies at the heart of the First Amendment to the Constitution: freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petition for the redress of grievances.

It is also fair to say this question lives at the heart of Unitarianism Universalism. Though this is a generalization, we inherited it from the Transcendentalists of the mid-1800s who were beginning to sketch the philosophical portrait of the American individual. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sage of Concord, among other things, was channeling the American revolutionary spirit, as well as his understanding of the ancient philosophers—both eastern and western—in an attempt to articulate an innate human power. He was searching for the roots of human greatness, the sources of human genius. He found his answer in originality. He urged his audiences to live not in conformity, not with foolish consistency, but as creators, innovators, originators. In his 1836 essay, “Nature,” he lamented that people so quickly define themselves by the greatness of past generations. Such definition stifles the human spirit. He asked, “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy [based on our] insight and not [on] tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, not a history of theirs?”[2] In his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” he wrote, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” He wrote, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” He wrote, “Do your work, and I shall know you.” He wrote, “Insist on yourself; never imitate.” He wrote, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”[3] Don’t be someone else, don’t be the crowd, the mob, the church, the government; be yourself. Do something new. Who are you?

Today, when I hear us describe Unitarian Universalism as a non-creedal faith that encourages each individual to pursue their own spiritual path, I hear echoes of that Emersonian self-reliance, and behind it the invitation to ask, “Who am I?” When we invite new members of this congregation to “share with us who you are … share your creativity, your experiences, your questions, your doubts, your beliefs, and all your discoveries of life’s meaning,” we’re encouraging them to ask and answer the question, “Who am I?” When we say church ought to be a place where members and friends offer their gifts and pursue their passions, we’re saying the question, “Who am I?” really matters. When our ninth grade Affirmation students recite their credo statements from this pulpit, we’re not testing to see how well they’ve conformed. We’re affirming their unique answers to the question, Who Am I?”

Know your own waters and hills….

But know more.

****

In the end it is insufficient—both for a nation and for a religion—to only ask the question “Who am I?” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think,” but let’s be real: our words and actions affect others. People do think, and feel, and react, and interact. No matter how much we might imagine a unique spiritual life, pursuing our passions, following our hearts, being true to ourselves, we also participate in communities which place certain obligations on us and which, therefore, at times, conflict with who we are. That’s the tension in our Unitarian Universalist faith.

In my October newsletter column I quoted the 20th-century Quaker teacher, Douglas Steere, who once said, “There is no identity outside of relationship. You cannot be a person by yourself.” Who we are does not spring from some wholly original source. Our relationships shape and influence who we are. Our relationships both constrain and expand who we are. Consider how the arrival of a new child affects a family. It is a joyful moment when a parent welcomes a new child, but the child places enormous demands on not only the parent, but the grandparents and aunts, uncles and friends who may be helping out, and on any siblings who now have to share the attention of the primary caregivers. As a caregiver, suddenly your life feels like it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to this new child who is completely dependent on you. Your life is constrained by the demands of this screaming, eating, pooping, peeing machine. Yet its presence immeasurably enriches and expands the lives of parents and all others involved. Steere says “The ancient question, ‘Who am I?’ inevitably leads to a deeper one: ‘Whose am I?’” Who has some claim on us that we need to honor? Sometimes we must temper who we are based on whose we are.

I read earlier a set of what I call “Whose am I” questions from the Rev. Victoria Safford, who serves the White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. Listen to a few of them again and contemplate your answers:

When you look in the mirror in the morning, whose bones do you see? Whose blood runs in your veins? Who are those people, stretching back in time, beyond memory? Where did you come from? Who is within your circle of concern? Whose care is yours to provide? Who carries you in their heart, thinks of you, whether you think of them or not? Who are your people, the ones who make a force field you can almost touch? To whom are you responsible, accountable?[4]

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A few weeks ago, the staff of our Unitarian Universalist Association New England Region office presented a workshop on congregational covenants. Kate Kimmerle and I attended. Our covenant is our statement of how we intend to relate to each other as members of this spiritual community. It is our commitment to each other. We’re participating with the New England Region staff in a yearlong program that will help us as a congregation re-imagine our congregational covenant. That workshop helped me understand, in a conscious way, something that has been nagging at me at my unconscious for a while. I have been talking about membership in this congregation too much in terms of who we are, and not enough in terms of whose we are.

When you become a member of this congregation, we emphasize your gifts, your passions, your expectations—your answers to the question “Who am I?” This makes sense. We want to learn who you are. We want you to shine! This is true not just for new members, but for all members! But we spend much less time asking about your people who make a force field around you, the people you hold in your heart and the people who hold you in their hearts. And we spend much less time in conversation about this: when you become a member of a congregation, the congregation becomes an answer to the question, “Whose am I?” That is, as a member, you belong spiritually to the people of this congregation. And the people of this congregation belong spiritually to you. You carry us in your heart. We carry you in our heart. You are accountable to us for living your Unitarian Universalist principles as best you can. We are accountable to you for living our Unitarian Universalist principles as best we can. If it’s only about who you are, then it isn’t a real community—it’s a group of individuals with wonderful gifts and passions. Real community continually asks and answers the question, “Whose are you?”

Knowing who we are is critical. It helps us to stand out, be powerful; a healthy community allows for that. Knowing whose we are is just as critical. It reminds us of how we’re connected, how we are held in our vulnerable times. Knowing who we are helps us assert ourselves and our independence. Knowing whose we are reminds us of larger realities larger in which we are embedded, reminds us of our interdependence. Knowing who we are helps us pursue our passions. Knowing whose we are reminds us of our responsibilities. Knowing who we are encourages healthy growth of the ego. Knowing whose we are tempers the ego, encourages greater humility.

Rev. Safford asks:

At the end of the day, through the longest night, in the valley of the shadow of death and despair, who holds your going out and coming in, your waking and your sleeping? Who, what, holds you in the hollow of its hand?

As Unitarian Universalists, we take great pride in the notion that we each build our own theology, that we each construct our own beliefs. You know what? In the absence of a creed, that is a difficult thing to do. What do we base our beliefs on? Personal experience? The Bible? A favorite theologian or poet? A connection to Buddhism? Taoism? Yoga? We arrive at answers: Atheist, Humanist, Pagan, Theist, Agnostic. I find my spirituality in Nature. I lean toward Buddhism. I’m a liberal Christian. Sometimes we speak eloquently about our theology. Sometime we’re utterly tongue-tied. How do I put my Theism into words that make sense? How do I meaningfully describe my Humanism? I’m a pagan but how do I clearly explain the sustenance I draw from the ancient myths?

For those of you who feel stuck when it comes to naming your own theology, let alone building your own theology, instead of asking “What do I believe,” ask, “Whose am I?” Good theology identifies your connections to others and to larger realities. So does answering the question “Whose am I?” Good theology identifies your sources of support, hope and inspiration in difficult times. So does “Whose am I?” Good theology holds you accountable for conducting your life in an ethical way. So does “Whose am I?” Good theolgoy guides you to seek reconciliation when relationships break down. So does “Whose am I?” Good theology keeps you humble, and names who, or what, holds you in the hollow of its hand. So does “Whose am I?” We need this question in our spiritual lives as much as we need “Who am I?”

What are your answers? Whose are you? Let us start having that conversation here in this beloved community.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Bozarth, Alla Renee, “The Small Plot of Ground,” in Roberts, Elizabeth and Amidon, Elias, eds., Earth Prayers from Around the World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) pp. 132-133.

[2] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Nature,” in Whicher, Stephen, E., ed., Selection From Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 21.

[3] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Self Reliance,” in Whicher, Stephen, E., ed., Selection From Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) pp. 147-168.

[4] Safford, Victoria, excerpt from a sermon entitled “Love’s Conditions,” posted at Quest for Meaning. See: https://www.questformeaning.org/spiritual-themes/whose-are-you/.

Soul Advocacy

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Spiritual writer and medical doctor, Rachel Naomi Remen,[1] once pointed out that “in [our] culture the soul … too often goes homeless.” Her solution to this condition is listening. ‘Listening,” she says, “creates holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear truths in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.”[2] The remedy to the soul’s homelessness is listening.

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Most of you have heard by now that we finally, and very thankfully, have a report in response to the congregational survey we conducted a year ago. Our Growth Strategy Team is working hard at producing a summary to share with you. There are copies of the full, 323-page report in our office if anyone would like to read it in its entirety. As I was studying the report this summer I noticed a set of comments about social and environmental justice advocacy. We have a strong identity as a congregation that engages in social and environmental justice advocacy: Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights, sanctuary, domestic worker rights, environmental racism, renewable energy, climate change. We’ve recently established a partnership with the Verplanck Elementary School in Manchester which may, in time, involve different forms of advocacy in solidarity with the students and their families. We’re currently signing people up to attend the October 28th launch of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. Participation in that organization, in time, will involve advocacy. Not every UUS:E member is involved in these activities, but these activities do shape the identity of the congregation.

The comments I’m referring to were asking, essentially, “is that kind of advocacy the essence of who we are?” “Does that kind of advocacy provide a sufficient or sustainable foundation for the identity of a congregation?” Or more bluntly, “what about our own congregational community? What about our needs right here?” And even more bluntly, “what if I disagree? Is it OK to say that?” I don’t read these comments as assertions that progressive churches should not be acting on their principles in the public sphere. I read these comments as asking, simply and forthrightly, that we not forget the other reasons we gather on Sunday mornings. We gather in worship to hold up and celebrate all that is worthy of our attention, time, energy and commitment.[3] We gather to be in multigenerational community, wherein our children learn from adults, and our adults from children. We gather to be held in our grief and affirmed in our joy. We gather to celebrate our milestones. We gather for our own and our collective spiritual growth and deepening. We gather because in our larger culture the soul too often goes homeless; and here, we hope, the soul finds a home. If we somehow forget these reasons for gathering, if we do not tend well to this soul homelessness, then our social and environmental justice advocacy will be ultimately ineffectual.

One way to describe what we do here on Sunday morning and throughout the week is “soul advocacy.” Our social and environmental justice advocacy beyond the walls of our meeting house must be grounded in, and is thus dependent on, the soul advocacy that happens within the walls of our meeting house.

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Soul advocacy. This term came to me as I was contemplating the survey report this summer. However, I was sure it is not unique to me. I googled it. Sure enough, it’s pretty common. People who use it fall into two categories: new-age-self-help gurus and Christian motivational speakers. In either case, nobody ever explains what the soul actually is. People use the word ‘soul’ all the time, and just assume that the rest of us know what they’re talking about. Yet, if there’s one thing I know about Unitarian Universalists, it’s that the minister can’t use traditional religious terms—especially terms as ambiguous and mushy as ‘soul’—and expect a group of UUs not to wonder what they mean. So I want to spend a little time on what I mean by ‘soul’ right now.

Soul isn’t a clear Biblical concept. Neither the Hebrew nor the Christian scriptures offer a well-developed conception of the soul. In the western world, soul is a classical Greek idea, the  Platonic idea of an indestructible, immortal entity that is part of us, though it seeks liberation from the physical body. It seeks to return to the source, the One, or God. It wasn’t until the European Middle Ages that Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas successfully synchronized the ancient Greek ideas with Christian thought. Even then, and certainly today, Christianity has never spoken with one voice on what the soul is. Catholics and Protestants have differed. Liberal and Conservative Christians have differed.[4] Aquinas lived at almost exactly the same time as the Sufi poet and mystic, Jal?l ad-D?n Muhammad R?m?, who is well-known for his beautiful meditations on the soul. My sense is that, similar to Christianity, there have been ongoing discussions of the soul in Islamic philosophy over the centuries as well. And there are similar, longstanding dialogues within Eastern religious traditions.

These have largely been dialogues among theologians and scholars. What has filtered down into popular western culture is an understanding of the soul as an entity that resides within us, has something to do with who we are—our personality—and lives on in some way after our physical bodies die. Popular culture is filled with references to this understanding of soul. Some of you may be familiar with the Netflix show “The Good Place,” a thoughtful, hilarious meditation on the afterlife and how one’s soul enters the good place, or not. I’m also thinking of the Saturday morning cartoon trope in which a character predictably dies in some spectacular way, and then a whispy, ethereal version of them leaves the crumpled, physical body and floats upwards, sometimes all the way to Heaven where it encounters a version of St. Peter at the pearly gates. Sometimes the direction is downward to a much less benign fate. (For those of a certain age I’m thinking of the misfortunes of Wile E. Coyote, but I see it in today’s cartoons as well.) (I’m also thinking of the Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze movie Ghost.) That whispy, ethereal version of the character is the cartoon representation of the soul.

This is, indeed, a popular culture conception of what the soul is and what happens to it after death. And certainly there are religious people who believe that the goal of the religious life—and the goal of soul advocacy—is to ensure that whispy ethereal version of us achieves eternal life in Heaven.

But that isn’t at all what I mean by the soul. It isn’t what Rachel Naomi Remen and other modern spiritual writers mean. It isn’t what the new-age-self-help gurus mean. And it isn’t what many Christian, Jewish and Muslim theologians and philosophers mean. For me it’s important to bring the soul down to earth, to ground it, to advocate not for its other-worldly, eternal status, but rather for its health, well-being and visibility in this life.

In a sermon I preached about five years ago, I said “Imagine we’re having a conversation and you’re telling me about something for which you have great passion, something that makes you come alive, something so important to you that you can’t let it go; you’re going to pursue it, you’re going to wrap your life around it. When I see your eyes light up at the prospect of your life so dedicated; when I hear the enthusiasm and the strength in your voice when you speak about it; when I perceive it living very naturally in your body; when I sense the energy you gain from contemplating what your life could be—that glow, that excitement, that conviction, that power—that’s your soul. It’s not a thing. It’s a quality in us. It shines through when we’re being authentic, telling the truth, pursuing our passions. It’s never complacent or static…. It is restless. And if we open ourselves to it, it will push, prod, call us further along, higher up, deeper into…. fulfillment, satisfaction, wholeness.[5] The soul is that part of you that is most uniquely you and without which you would not be you.

When Dr. Remen says “in our culture the soul … too often goes homeless,” I hear her saying that this quality in us, this best self, this true self, this passionate self, this source of our creativity and our desire for wholeness—that’s what goes homeless. That’s what too easily gets shut down, overlooked, cut-off, silenced, ignored, or forgotten through the course of a normally busy, a lonely, isolated day, or a technology-saturated day. That’s what becomes an afterthought in the midst of pain and suffering, in the midst of anxiety, stress and fear, in the midst anticipated crisis or actual crisis. And that’s the soul we advocate for here, when we gather in this place.

How do we do that? Soul advocacy begins with listening. Dr. Remen says  “the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart. When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”[6] Of course, the word ‘advocacy’ often assumes taking an action, marshalling resources, speaking truth to power, fighting for rights, fighting for justice. There’s an underlying assertiveness to it, and underlying aggressiveness. Soul advocacy is different. ‘Passive’ isn’t quite the right word, but it may look like passivity, because the one doing soul advocacy is quiet, open, attentive, listening. The one doing soul advocacy creates space, and offers into that space a welcoming, inviting, curious attitude. “You speak (or draw, dance, sing, cry). The soul advocate holds what you communicate with care and tenderness.”

Soul advocacy is as simple as that. Listening, focusing, caring, being present, staying with. Our willingness to listen invites the speaker’s soul to come forward from wherever it is hiding. Our willingness to listen creates space for the speaker’s soul to surface, to emerge, to reveal itself not only to us but to the speaker as well. “When you listen generously to people,” says Dr. Remen, “they can hear truths in themselves, often for the first time.” Our willingness to listen not only to the usual pleasantries, the small talk, the weather, but also to the desires, the yearnings, the longings, the passions, as well as the struggles, the challenges, the pain and the painstaking movement through it—that is soul advocacy. Where do we really get to proclaim this part of our selves, let alone openly wrestle with it? Where do people deeply listen to us? Hopefully our families and close friends create such spaces for us, though this is not the case for everyone. Does your soul get to come out at work? Maybe, if it’s a very special work place. School? Maybe. If it’s a very special school. I’m sure there are places many of you can name where your soul does not feel hidden or homeless. But certainly religious community ought to be one of those places where soul advocacy happens regularly.

We share joys and concerns publicly as part of our Sunday morning worship. It’s an opportunity for people to speak from their depths. The rest of us listen. That’s soul advocacy.

Most of our committee meetings begin with some form of check-in. This, too, is an opportunity to speak from the depths for those who choose to do so. The rest of us listen. That’s soul advocacy.

In our small group ministries, our spiritual affinity groups, our religious education classes, during pastoral visits, memorial services, and when we welcome new members into the congregation—there are opportunities to speak from our depths. The rest of us listen. That’s  soul advocacy. When the listening creates a space for the speaker to begin to shine, to glow, to sing; when it creates a space for the speaker to confidently share from a place of vulnerability or pain; when it creates a space for the soul to come home, then our soul advocacy is successfull.

Is it always successful? Do we always get it right? No. We don’t. I know there are times when I’ve left a meeting and realized later that someone offered a sharing of great depth to which I wasn’t fully attentive. We don’t always listen well. We don’t always listen skillfully. We don’t always succeed in our soul advocacy. I suspect that is, at least to some degree, the reason why some survey respondents raised concerns about social and environmental justice advocacy. If a person is living with soul homelessness, it makes sense that they would raise questions about where our collective focus is, where our attention is. So I’m reminding us: our act of listening to each isn’t just good manners. It’s spiritual practice. It’s soul advocacy.

Listening, if we’re doing it well, is an inherently relational act. The listener gains as much value as the one they listen to. I love the way Dr. Remen puts it: “In the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.” That is the kind of spiritual foundation soul advocacy creates in a congregation. My prayer for us as we enter more fully now into the congregational year is that through our connections to each other, through our listening, through our soul advocacy, we may encounter that singing.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] For information on what Dr. Remen is up to currently, see her website: http://www.rachelremen.com/about/.

[2] Remen, Rachel Naomi, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 220.

[3] Arnason, Wayne, and Rolenz, Kathleen, Worship that Works: Theory and Practice for Unitarian Universalists (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008).

[4] This brief synopsis is drawn from Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Touchstone, 1997) pp. 226-227.

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “For What the Soul Hungers,” a sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, April 14, 2014. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/for-what-the-soul-hungers/.

[6] Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom, pp. 143-144.

Adventures in Spiritual Plumb-Bobbing

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“If only for once it were still”—words from the late 19th-early 20th-century Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.[1] I suspect every society in every age has had and will have its high pace, its franticness, its urgency, anxieties and stresses, its underlying sense of crisis. And in response I suspect every society in every age has had and will have its poets, its artists, its spiritual leaders who cry out some form of the words, “If only for once it were still.” If only for once I—we—could be at peace, at rest, quiet, tranquil, safe, unguarded, serene. “If only for once it were still.”

We here in this congregation are well-rehearsed at witnessing, naming and feeling the anxieties, stresses and underlying crises of our own time. Certainly we witness, name and feel various manifestations of the climate crisis. We witness, name and feel various manifestations of economic crisis in our communities, our nation and the world. We witness, name and feel our nation’s political crisis—a deepening divide between liberal and conservative world-views, red vs. blue, coasts vs. heartland, rural vs. urban. We witness, name and feel the gun violence crisis, the opioid crisis, the resurgence of white nationalism. We pay attention to and attempt to address these crises. They have real and sometimes crushing impacts on our lives or the lives of people we love, on our community life, on our common national life. Our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to witness, name, feel and respond to these crises. Respect for human worth; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; faith democratic processes; the goal of world community; respect for the interdependent web of all existence—our principles demand that we pay attention and respond to the crises of our times. What is our role? What can we do? There’s an intensity to this liberal faith in this frantic age. And in the midst of it, the poet’s cry is ours as well: “If only for once it were still.”

Rilke lived in what surely felt like an age of rapid technological growth. He was born in 1875, before the invention of the electric lightbulb, the modern automobile and airplanes. All of these things were in mass production by the time of his death in 1926. Still, he didn’t have television or computers. He didn’t have cable, the internet, social media, or smart phones. I’m naming these technologies because as amazing and powerful as they are, they also clearly heighten the franticness of our age. They heighten the anxiety. They heighten the feeling of crisis by bringing it ever closer to us, by enabling us to dive into the news cycle at any time, by making the world accessible to us and us accessible to the world virtually anywhere, any time of day if we don’t turn our devices off. And when we do dive in, the messages, images, advertisements and headlines arrive with dizzying speed which often, ironically, obscures the crises we want to understand. “If only for once it were still.”

I find cable news shows to be a signature example of how technology brings crisis and anxiety closer while simultaneously obscuring them by making it more difficult to focus on what really matters. Picture in your mind’s eye how a typical cable news show looks. There’s usually a headline at the top of the screen, along with a fancy, eye-catching graphic, photo or video. Then there’s a talking head or a panel of experts in the middle of the screen, along with various ads in boxes to the right or left; local weather in another box, the date and time in yet another, sports scores and stock prices in other boxes, and the constant flow of more headlines and information running across the bottom of the screen, completely unrelated to what the talking heads are talking about. Where are you supposed to look? There are 10 or 12 options on the screen. And if your ears are listening to the talking heads, but your eyes are reading the headline roll, what is the quality of the information you are receiving? It’s as if the screen is inviting us to multitask as we watch. Yet, everything I’ve ever read about multitasking suggests it is a myth—not a real human capacity. Our conscious minds can only really focus our attention well on one thing at a time.[2] “If only for once it were still.”

I was ordained to the Unitarian Universalist ministry in 1999, just around the time the cable news industry was taking off, about six months after the founding of Google, but well before the advent of social media and smart phones. I remember much that was spoken and sung at my ordination, but the Rev. Thomas Mikelson, one of my mentors in ministry, offered a simple piece of wisdom I shall never forget. He said “Go deep rather than wide. Wide is easy and tempting, but deep is where saving ministry lies.”

What I experience in this moment, twenty years later, is that we live in a larger culture that daily pulls us relentlessly widthwise, even as our souls hunger for depth. We live in a larger culture filled with seemingly endless, heart-breaking stories about harm done to people, to the environment, to institutions, to neighborliness, to civility, even to the truth—all of it vying for our attention, drawing our focus in myriad directions at once. We live in a larger culture whose front page, unfortunately, resides on screens with tens if not hundreds of options to click on, each click leading to tens if not hundreds of new options, our attention and focus drawn relentlessly widthwise, but rarely, if ever, deep. “If only for once it were still.”

I’d been talking to Mary Bopp about this widthwise pull as we prepared for this morning’s service. She suggested a piece of music entitled “Plumb,” p-l-u-m-b, as in ‘plumbing the depths.’ I immediately thought of the plumb line and the piece of metal at the end of the plumb line, the plumb bob. The plumb line is one of humanity’s most ancient construction tools. If I understand correctly, the builder suspends the plumb line. Gravity pulls the bob toward the center of the earth so that the line is perfectly vertical. [Pause] (You’ve got to wait until the bob comes to rest. For once it is still.) The builder uses the plumb line’s verticality to assess the verticality of the wall they are building. The plumb line is a vertical reference point for the builder.

This feels like a fruitful metaphor for talking about our spiritual lives. In the midst of a culture that pulls us relentlessly widthwise, makes multiple, simultaneous demands on our attention, what is our plumb line? What points straight down to our center, our core? What is our truth? In the midst of the pulling, the franticness, the anxiety, the crises, can we drop our line, pause until the bob stills, and, as we sang, return to the home of our soul, to who we are, to what we are, to where we are;[3] and from there know more clearly how to focus our energy?

It’s a powerful spiritual metaphor, though it carries certain risks. Plumb lines are mentioned in the Bible. One of the more famous references appears in the book of Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord God, / See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,/ a tested stone, / a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: / ‘One who trusts will not panic.’ / And I will make justice the line, / and righteousness the plummet;/ hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, / and waters will overwhelm the shelter [of falsehood].”[4] Using the plumb line as a spiritual metaphor Isaiah is calling out the Israelites who have strayed from God’s justice and righteousness and threatening divine retribution.

We read earlier form the book of Amos, another well-known passage: “The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord asked me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ ‘A plumb line,’ I replied. Then the Lord said, ‘Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.'”[5] Amos is also calling out the Israelites, reminding them that God has spared them so far, but now God has set a line and those who don’t measure up will not be spared. Essentially God is using the divine plumb line to determine who gets punished.

That’s not what I had in mind.

My concern always with these sorts of scriptural passages is not that they somehow mar the majesty, beauty and complexity of ancient Israel, but that they might be used today to divide people from each other; that the so-called righteous might use their plumb line to identify and cast out the so-called unrighteous; that so-called believers might use their plumb line to identify and cast out non-believers; that those who understand themselves as morally upright, upstanding, straight—like a plumb line—might use it to persecute those who don’t measure up. We could be talking about how religious institutions and people have historically persecuted gay and lesbian people, gender non-conforming people, people with physical or mental disabilities, poor people, Native Americans, pagans, folk healers, witches, interfaith couples, divorced people, unwed mothers, and more because they didn’t or don’t measure up. It makes sense to me that in times of crisis, in times of high anxiety some people (including us) can and/or will gravitate toward a very strict spiritual plumb line. It gives structure, meaning and purpose to their lives, which is a good thing, but the shadow side is that it can also become a tool of division, of persecution. If that’s the case, I think it’s better if the walls lean a bit. It’s better if things are a little off, in fact it’s much better that way.

Of course there is another use for the plumb line and bob: plumbing the depths or what sailors might call depth sounding. Quoting from an article on the historical website Vintage News, “The most primitive tool for depth sounding was called a sounding line, or lead line: a thin rope of a certain length, with a lead plummet on its end. The lead lines were swung or cast by the “leadsman” …. At bigger depths, sailors used to tie marks made of leather, calico, serge or some other material. Those marks were placed at certain intervals and shaped and attached so that they could be easily read during day or night. Marks were placed at every second or third fathom…. After dropping the lead, the leadsman called out the depths. If a particular depth was exactly at a mark, [they] would say: “by the mark,” and then say the number. If the depth was somewhere between two numbers, [they] would say: “by the deep” and then say an estimated number of fathoms.”[6]

So far I don’t see any risks using depth sounding as a spiritual metaphor, except that sometimes the water is deep and dark. We don’t always know what we’ll find when the bob settles on the bottom. Is our line long enough for the bob to reach the bottom? But in the midst of a culture that pulls us relentlessly widthwise, it’s really important to practice plumbing the depths. Hence, “Adventures in Spiritual Plumb Bobbing.”

We heard earlier a meditation from the Rev. David O. Rankin, “Singing in the Night.”[7] His practice for spiritual plumb bobbing is prayer. He says “I love to pray, to go deep down into the silence: / To strip myself of all pride, selfishness, and coldness of heart.” Perhaps that’s his first mark. “To peel off thought after thought, passion after passion.” By the mark, 2 fathoms. “To remember how short a time ago I was nothing, and in how short a time again I will not be here.” By the mark, 5 fathoms. “To dwell on all joys, all ecstasies, all tender relations that give my life zest and meaning.” By the mark, 7 fathoms. “To peek through a mystic window and look upon the fabric of life—how still it breathes, how solemn its march, how profound its perspective.” By the deep, about 10 fathoms. “And to think how little I know, how very little, except the calm, calm of the silence, and the singing, singing in the night.” By the deep.

It’s not enough to know how deep. What do we bring back from the depths? On a website called “Historical Naval Fiction,” I learned that if a sailor wasn’t familiar with the ocean floor where they were sailing, they could fill a hollow indentation on the bottom of the bob “with tallow or another sticky substance so that a sample of the bottom could then be brought up…. The nature of the bottom might be mud, sand, shingle or shell … or if nothing attached to the tallow, rock.”[8]

What might we bring back from our depths? What might stick to the tallow on our spiritual plumb bobs? Rilke hoped to bring God back. “If only for once it were still…. / I could possess you, / Even for the brevity of a smile, / To offer you / To all that lives, In gladness.” Perhaps what we bring back is what we need most in the moment. Perhaps the act of being still, centering, peering within, reminds us what is most important: Gratitude. Humility. Truth. Purpose. Principles. Mission. Acceptance.  Hope. Community. Faith. Love. Hopefully what sticks will help us stay focused, attentive and awake in the midst of uncertainty, anxiety and crisis, in the midst of a culture that pulls us relentlessly width-wise.

Our ministry theme for September is expectation. My expectation for the year is that we shall take adventures in spiritual plumb bobbing, that in those aspects of our lives that matter most, we shall not go wide, but rather deep.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Rilke, Rainer Maria in Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna, tr., “Wenn es nur einmal so ganz stille wäre,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 53.

[2] Napier,Nancy K. “The Myth of Multitasking,” Psychology Today, May 12, 2014. See: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creativity-without-borders/201405/the-myth-multitasking

[3] Carlebach, Shlomo, “Return Again,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1011.

[4] Isaiah 28: 16-17. (New Revised Standard Version)

[5] Amos 7: 7-8. (New International Version)

[6] Docevski, Boban, “Depth sounding techniques that preceded the modern day SONAR technology,” Vintage News, February 23, 2017. See:

https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/02/23/depth-sounding-techniques-that-preceded-the-modern-day-sonar-technology/

[7] Rankin, David O., in Benard, Mary, ed., “Singing in the Night,” Singing in the Night: Collected Meditations, Vol. 5 (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2004) p. 3.

[8] “Taking Soundings, Historical Naval Fiction. See: https://www.historicnavalfiction.com/general-hnf-info/naval-facts/taking-soundings.