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.

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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.

The Summer Day

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Summer Day

On August 18, the service was based on the Mary Oliver poem, “The Summer Day.” Five people responded to this powerful poem which asks about creation, prayer, and paying attention and ends with the query: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The speakers range in age from 15 to 87. They are Anya Stolzman, Desiree Holian-Borgnis , Stacey Musulin, Marsha Howland, and Mary Heaney.

Anya Stolzman

What will I do with this wild and precious life? How does someone even begin to answer that? When I sat down to write my response to the poem, I was struck by how little idea I had to even start. It was an intimidating prospect, and I didn’t quite know how to approach it. But, after a little while of intense soul searching, I was able to come up with one general idea to share today:

I want to travel. I want to see the world, to experience its sights and flavors, to learn its love and diversity. The world is a gift, and it has so much to offer. I want to know it’s deepest secrets, it’s narratives and fantasies. Nature’s beauty is precious, in the rainforests where waterfalls crash down to earth, and in the deserts where the sunset paints a scenery full of shimmering gold and rusty orange. In the cities where people connect and feel joy together, the lights winking among the tall buildings, and in silent forests where a thought is the only noise. In the sky and the sea, both shining in the moonlight, deep and mysterious. In the mountains and tundra, crisp and lonely, but steadfast against the horizon. From the darkest caves to the brightest peaks, the world is beautiful. The people in it are beautiful, too. Full of light and hope, and sometimes sorrow and despair, good people are the treasure that the earth hides under its layers, the treasure worth searching for.

Traveling holds a certain magic to it, for me at least. Every time I see or taste something new, or learn a new perspective, I feel like it adds something to me. Traveling is what has shaped me into who I am, and every scene and experience turns into a cherished memory. And traveling doesn’t have to be big or small; even staying in-state can hold the same merit as going across the ocean. Living in Alaska meant a lot to me; I loved the mountain air and the dark mornings and the summers that barely got up to 70 degrees. It was what first gave me a taste of travel in a way that mattered; before that, I had only really traveled when we were moving. What I remember most about Alaska is when the family would get in the car and drive places. Often it would just be a drive to school, or to downtown. But sometimes we would go elsewhere; we’d drive on freeways that swept through forests and led to winding roads that sat between sharp cliff faces and the rolling waves of a river. These roads were special; they led away from the big city, and into long stretches of nature occasionally interrupted by quaint little boating towns that smelled like dead fish (a smell that still stirs some nostalgia in me, even if it is fairly disgusting). We would usually pull up into a small dirt parking lot, at the base of a semi-steep mountainside, ready for a two-hour hike filled with loud singing, and a few times we went to see a glacier, it’s colossal white mass blocking the horizon and looking massive compared to the tiny people that clamored around in the valley below it. And when we left Alaska, we drove across the country for two weeks. Things like that were what initially gave me a desire and love of travel; and New England has much to offer as well.

Going to places like New York is a blast, as its energy is infectious, and going to Wisconsin to see family is always nice. We often go to the shoreline for lobster rolls and to spend the day at the beach, or Harkness Park. And sometimes we spend the weekend in Massachusetts or New Jersey, just for the sake of it. And besides that, there’s so much more to see. I want to visit France, and drive out into the country, where small cottage towns lay quietly between the rolling hills. I want to see the sunset in Brazil, peaking over the crystal ocean, and to see the yellow beaches and tropical rainforests where birds sing together. I want to try fish and chips in England, and I want to hike the mountains in Norway. I want to see the yellow fields in Scotland, and I want to see the Irish dancers in their beautiful dresses and loud shoes. To go to a bustling marketplace in India, or to try the legendary street food in China. To see the old Aztec temples and the current Mayan villages, to talk to the people and learn their stories. It’s my dream to explore the earth, for its nature and its gifts. And that’s how I want to spend my one lifetime; unwrapping the world’s gifts, seeking it’s buried treasure and the map to its book of stories. To know it’s love and compassion, spread by the people it holds dear. I plan to take great leaps forward into new places, like a grasshopper would bound through a field. Because this is one wild and precious life, and I plan on living it while holding the earth and its miracles close to my heart, where they belong. Thank you.

Desiree Holian-Borgnis

What will I do with my one wild and precious life? My answers range from whatever I feel like at the time to, what I planned to do two years ago. I am a planner by nature, but am trying to allow for more spontaneity. I try to look at all the possible outcomes, roadblocks and deterrents to what I want. I live by my agenda and always have a notebook with me…as well as a book to read and at least one knitting project. I worry about the future, money and the environment.

I often think about how I can be more. More successful, happier, a better wife, mother, friend…the list goes on.  If I change jobs will I make more money, be more successful? If I join that direct sales company will I be able to quit my job and be home more? If I do exactly what my Organization board on Pinterest says will my stress and anxiety disappear? The short answer is NO. The long answer is still NO, but there are a lot of twists and turns and self-doubt along the way.

I find myself seeking out the next thing without always appreciating and enjoying the thing at hand. I’ve accomplished something so what is next? I went on my annual camping trip so now it’s all dull and mundane until my next big trip, meeting, or special day. I’m not sure where this comes from, except to blame it on my being an elder millennial who sees everyone’s curated life on a variety of social media and feels like if they can do it so can I. I should be able to sell all of my earthly belongings and travel the world having amazing adventures with my husband and children #thebucketlistfamily. These are people who always seem to be living their one wild and precious best life.

This year I have been trying to go with the flow more. If we wake up on a Saturday morning it is beautiful, we may decide to go for a hike instead of doing our normal grocery shopping and errands. This has been difficult for me as I need to always know what to expect, but with two children things don’t always go to plan and by that, I mean never.

Last year Kevin and I went across the country on a road trip for our ten-year anniversary. We stopped in Lexington, KY, Kansas City, Kansas and finally made it to Estes Park, CO for four days before trudging all the way back. On this trip we didn’t know a lot of places to go and we didn’t have anyone to lean on if something happened or we had questions. We had to explore which is something that I am not used to or to be honest comfortable with. We had a blast and since then it has been my goal to try more things, do more self-care and name things about myself that are holding me back. I have discovered that yoga in a lavender field is intoxicating and singing mantras at the kirtan is a spiritual experience. I have also discovered that driving 12,000 feet up a mountain causes me to have a pan attack. The point being that I tried something new, even though I was scared.

I am trying to find things that truly make me happy. There are some things I know already: snuggling, reading, knitting, watching Real Housewives of …well anywhere. I think that during the survival stage of parenting I forgot that I also really enjoy laying in the grass, cooking, quiet, and sometimes being alone with only the sounds of nature in my ear.

Being in nature is something that has always grounded me. When life gets crazy just put your feet in the dirt. I am trying to do this more. I will do this more. It is important for my body, mind and soul. What else can I do, but the thing that stills me and makes me feel whole.

What will I do with my one wild and precious life? I will fall down in the grass, be idle and blessed and stroll through the fields with my family and friends, finding true joy in life. As long as I have it in my agenda.

Stacey Musulin

(W)hat is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

 “The Summer Day,” describes the act of carefully observing a grasshopper, of paying attention and noticing the actions of that small creature at the same time asking the big questions: Who is the Creator? What is prayer? Why are we here in the world?

Recently, I was skimming through Rev. Josh’s book “Hear the Earth Call,” and an essay entitled, “Our Lives’ Design” seemed to address a similar theme. Here is part of that essay:

(W)e humans have evolved to the point where we are able to gaze out at the heavens and observe our universe; and … that observation… engenders a spiritual yearning in us…a spiritual identity marked by ongoing curiosity, wonder, openness, awe, a desire for knowledge, a passion for truth, and gratitude – deep and profound gratitude that the universe is the way it is, and we are here to bear witness to it. (T)his curiosity, this wonder, this gratitude – is in fact the essence of our lives’ design.

I hear in both Rev. Josh and Mary Oliver’s works that awareness, curiosity, openness, and gratitude are part of our spiritual identity, our purpose, our lives design. We may differ in our individual definitions of God, prayer, or our purpose in life, but we are unified in our noticing, our questioning, and our engaging with the world around us.

(W)hat is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Is there a part of you that thinks, “I can’t take a whole day off to walk in a meadow to connect with grasshoppers!” (Me too!) There are so many things that compete for our time and attention. We focus on caring for those we love, the list of necessary household chores, the calendars filled with important appointments & meetings, and our overflowing inboxes at work.

The good news is that we don’t need to lie in the grass with a grasshopper to know our lives’ design and purpose. Instead we can shift our attention to focus on the everyday people, places, and things we encounter.

I’m not saying that getting away from it all isn’t important. Summer vacations are important. It helps us reset because it’s easier to feel that “curiosity, wonder, openness, and awe” when we aren’t distracted by our typical “To Do” lists.

However, the best benefits of spiritual practice come if it is something we try to do every day, not just on vacation or when we come to service. What we do doesn’t need to match anyone else’s definition of prayer or meditation. So, DO take the time and lie in the grass with the grasshoppers when you can, but when you are away from the meadow, notice the child, the partner, the neighbor, the bird, the tree, the sky…whoever and whatever you encounter in your everyday life. Really notice and be grateful for the life around you. That awareness can be part of your practice if you choose.

Summer is fleeting. Seasons turn. This cycle of life isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since those changes bring new, wonderful things to notice. Still, some of what we love about life right now must be like the grasshopper: “float away” and often “too soon.”

So, let’s enjoy these August days while they are here…and keep pondering

(W)hat is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Marsha Howland

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Several years ago, I encountered “The Summer Day” for the first time. I fell in love with it — and especially with that last question.

Not long after, I began planning my memorial service — not as a morbid thing at all, but as a kind of gift to my family and to myself. One of the first things I decided was that a reading of “The Summer Day” would end the service. What a wonderful question with which to leave the guests:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Within a couple of years of deciding this for my own memorial service, I got a call from a friend whose sister had just died after a long fight with cancer. She asked me to recommend a poem to read at her sister’s memorial service, and of course I suggested Mary Oliver’s extraordinary poem. My friend told me it was perfect. And of course, it was.

But of course, the poem is really a call to the living:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

And so, I have to ask myself this question. The answer is very important.

I have never been “wild” in the traditional sense. The “wildest” thing I’ve done recently was to show up at our WUUdstock festival costumed as a hippie. I didn’t win a prize, but damn I felt good!

So, yes, I’m sort of quiet and reserved — on the outside. Inside I have a vibrant imagination that I put to work in my poetry. And that gives me a great deal of joy.

But what about my being quiet and reserved? Have those characteristics held me back? Of course, they have.

Focused on my career — which I enjoyed very much and found very rewarding — I didn’t have much of a social life. And, until later in life, I didn’t acknowledge to others OR to myself that I’m a lesbian. Once I did, I took action, despite believing that as I got increasingly older it became increasingly unlikely that I would find someone with whom to share my life. I got annoyed with friends who kept giving me the cliché, “It’s never too late.”

Well, they were right. My hopeful/hopeless persistence brought a wonderful woman into my life just a bit over a year ago. I was 66 years old.

But my story isn’t nearly as important as yours. Every story is different, of course, and your story can’t be written unless you pick up a pen. That’s why I encourage each of you to look at yourself in a mirror and ask this magnificent question:

“. . . what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Mary Heaney

One month ago, I celebrated my 87th birthday.

I admit it: I’ve become one of those irritating, annoying elders who persist in admonishing young people with the assertion that “If I knew at your age what I know now, things would be very different!” Way back when I was the victim of this ominous earful, I had no idea what on earth my elders were talking about. Eventually, I learned that this was just another way of saying that “youth is wasted on the young” and that I had a long way to go and a lot to learn.

I came to understand that I must travel my own hills and valleys and follow my own path. That path, tortuous at times, has brought me to the life I now lead. Rather than fate and destiny, I’m a strong believer in chance and coincidence; yet deep inside there’s a sense of the rightness of things, of being precisely where I need to be.

Suppose my son Ted had not moved to Connecticut. I would have had no impetus to move here. Ted would not have met Carol, and my grandchildren (if any) would not be exactly as they are. (Unthinkable!) In an abundance of caution about moving from my lifelong home state, I rented instead of purchasing a home, intended as a temporary measure. Sixteen years later I’m still a renter, the ideal situation for me at this stage of life. I’m here to stay.

Though I was Unitarian prior to moving here, my spiritual home would not have been UUS:E. I would not have known this blessed place or any of you, who have welcomed me, respected me, accepted me for who I am, and helped me through tough times–physical, emotional, and spiritual–awarding me the most joyous friendships anyone could dream of. People here mean what they say when it comes to accepting one another and recognizing every person’s inherent worth and dignity. I am inspired and enlightened by all of you.

Truly, life has never been more settled, contented, or serene.

So, in response to Mary Oliver’s query as to what I intend to do with the rest of my life, why in the world would I want anything to change? I love my life just as it is now. I intend to do whatever I must to keep it this way: to take good care of my health, enjoy my extraordinary family and friends, luxuriate in my passion for books, theater, film, and music, and adhere to UU principles. An Episcopal prayer reminds me to “live so honestly and fearlessly that no outward failure can dishearten me or take away the joy of conscious integrity.”

Yes, this IS my one life, and yes, it IS precious. But I’ve no desire for it to be “wild” in any way. I am at a place where peace is a priority, and I believe I’ve found that peace within myself at long last. And as for being that irritating, annoying elder—I’m working on that!

Quoting Edna St. Vincent Millay: O World, I cannot hold thee close enough!

Yes, And….

Rev. Josh Pawelek

This summer my wife, Stephany, and I enrolled in an improv class at Sea Tea Improv in Hartford. Although I’ve always enjoyed improv. the idea of taking a class had never occurred to me. It was Stephany’s idea—something we could do together, something that would push us, at least a little, out of our comfort zones. Personal growth.

When we registered for the class I felt confident—I got this; I like meeting new people; I’m comfortable speaking in front of strangers; I’m comfortable speaking extemporaneously. But as the day of the first session approached, I grew more and more nervous—maybe I don’t got this; maybe I have no idea what this is really about. And worse: Isn’t improv for people with that rapid-fire-think-on-your-feet sense of humor which I don’t have? Even worse: What if I’m not a genuinely funny person?

At the first session in June, it became clear to me very quickly that I don’t got this. I have some skills in extemporaneous speaking. I get asked to speak or pray or center a group on the spur of the moment all the time. But in those instances I typically have at least a few minutes to contemplate what I will say. Improv isn’t like that. Nobody says, “you have 5 minutes to prepare a skit about a strange visit to the doctor’s office, or a complicated family gathering, or an awkward dinner conversation. In improv there’s no preparation. Preparation defeats the purpose. You come out on stage with your partner or team, and the host invites the audience to offer prompts. The prompts are typically a relationship (parent-child, spouses, friends, co-workers, an undertaker and a corpse, etc), or a location (a city street, a dessert island, a park bench, backstage at Woodstock, etc.), or an event (NASCAR, a picnic, an auction, a baseball game, an exorcism, etc.). That’s all you get. And from there you improvise. No thinking, no discussing, no planning head of time. Just go. Well, I rarely, if ever, operate like that. That first class? I did not have it.

Although there’s no preparation in improv, there are basic rules to follow. You and your partner or team are creating a scene, which may be absolutely ridiculous—sometimes the more ridiculous the better—but the audience has to be able to follow it. That’s what the rules are for. We learned the acronym CROW. C is for “character.” As the scene begins, give yourself and your scene partners names or identities. If my scene partner says to me, “Hi Mordecai,” then I am Mordecai. R is for “relationship.” Establish how your characters are connected to each other. If I respond, “Hey Dad,” then the audience knows Mordecai is talking to his father. O is for “objective.” Establish what you are trying to do. I might say, “Hey Dad, I see you aren’t wearing any socks.” And Dad might say, “The cat took my socks, have you seen the cat?” Now the audience knows we’re looking for Dad’s socks, and to find the socks we need to find the cat. W is for “where.” Establish where the scene is taking place. I might say, “Dad, we’re in a pet store. There are at least 50 cats here.” Now the audience knows where we are.

There’s an improv principle underlying all of this, known as “yes, and.” “Yes, and” means that whatever your scene partner gives you—as a name, a relationship, an objective, a location—you accept it s a gift. You say yes, and build the scene from there. So if my scene partner calls me Mordecai, I don’t say, “That’s not my name. I’m Bob.” I am Mordecai. And if I call my scene partner Dad, they’re Dad. They might have been thinking something else. They might have been thinking I’m his spouse, or I’m his next-door neighbor, or his daughter, or his psychic. But I’ve said Dad, so my partner says “yes” to being Dad, and we build the scene from there.If I say, “you aren’t wearing any socks,” they don’t respond, “No, I am wearing socks, look they’re navy blue.” They say, “yes, I’m not wearing any socks, and the cat took them?” If my scene partner says, “the cat took my socks down to the basement.” I don’t say, “basement? That’s not where this scene should take place. Don’t you think it would be more funny if we were in a pet store, or a zoo, or even a pet cemetery?” I respond, “Yes, the basement. The cat must be doing the laundry again.” Or something like that. The point is, in improve the rule is to affirm your partner’s idea and build from there. “Yes, and.” Receive your partner’s ideas as gifts you can use to develop the scene. Don’t contradict their idea. Make them look good.

I struggled with this principle. It made sense. It sounded easy enough. But whenever I’d stand up to do a scene, my partner would name my character, and my gut reaction would be, that can’t be my name. Or my partner would give me a location—a bar—and an objective—we’re drinking and trying to pick up women; and all I could think was no, absolutely not; I don’t want to be in this bar, plus my real-life wife is watching. That actually happened at the first class; my scene partner was really, really good. But I failed at “yes, and.” I kept reminding my scene partner that I was the designated driver and very shy anyways.

Over the eight sessions of the class I discovered that once I had an idea for a scene in my mind, if my scene partner went in a different direction, I had a very hard time letting go of my idea. I might say “yes” to my partner’s CROW, but then I would try to work back to the scene I wanted to do. That was more of a “yes, and let’s do something different,” or “yes, but,” the “but” essentially contradicting what my partner had offered. Not a real “yes.” A very disingenuous “yes.” A passive-aggressive “yes.” Contradicting your partner does not make them look good.

“Yes, and” is improv’s golden rule. It doesn’t always work in real life. Sometimes we have to say “no” to an idea. Sometimes we have to say “no” for safety’s sake. Sometimes we have to disagree. Sometimes we have to assert ourselves despite whatever our partners have offered. Sometimes we have to speak our true name. Sometimes, “Yes, but” is the necessary response. “Yes, and” does not always apply. And yet “yes, and” also strikes me as an important principle for living a meaningful spiritual life.

As a reminder, I define spirituality as the practice or the experience of connecting with a reality larger than oneself. That reality could be physical and this-worldly—connecting with community, with nature, with land, with the earth. It could be metaphysical—connecting with god, goddess, spirit, divinity, the sacred. Whatever that reality larger than yourself is, to connect with it, we first have to say “yes” to it. “Yes, I want community.” “Yes, I want a connection to the land.” “Yes, I want to know the Goddess.” “Yes, I want to discern and honor what is sacred.” At the heart of that “yes” is vulnerability, risk. Saying yes to connection often requires a leap of faith. Why? Because genuine connection changes us. Genuine connection expands us, moves us, grows us. It doesn’t always allow us to hold onto our idea of how events are going to unfold, or even our idea of what is important. It won’t always honor the lines we’ve been rehearsing. It changes the scene we thought we were in.

When I couldn’t let go of my pre-conceived idea for an improv scene, the scene wouldn’t go well. As I learned to let go and receive my partner’s offerings as gifts, it worked. Yes, and.

So often it’s the same with our spiritual lives. Yes, and … we may change. Yes, and … we may grow. Yes, and … we may have to re-examine our priorities. To make way for the “and,” we have to let go, soften our hard edges, relax our impulse to be in control. To make way for the “and,” we need to distrust our own certainty. To make way for the “and, we have to let our ego recede, let our attachments wane. That experience can be exhilarating. It can be ecstatic. It can be powerful. And it can be frightening, unnerving and disorienting, precisely because saying “yes, and” makes us vulnerable. The “yes, and” of connecting with realities larger than ourselves may lead us in directions we hadn’t anticipated—new life choices, new relationships, even new faith. It may give us a new name, a new identity, a new sense of self.

It may not last. We may go back to the safety of our old ideas, old habits, our well-worn paths, the dictates of our ego—that’s a “yes, but.” Tt may be necessary, but that’s not growth. In our spiritual lives, “yes, and” leads to growth. With “yes, and” we receive whatever gifts the larger reality offers—challenge, direction, conviction, purpose, peace, serenity, oneness, love—we receive them “and” build from there.

****

This will sound like I’m changing the subject, but really I’m not. Most of you will remember last fall our Growth Strategy Team asked you to take a survey about your experience of our congregation. We were attempting to identify reasons why people become members and maintain their membership, and why people choose not to become members; or why people become members but don’t maintain their membership. It took a lot longer to analyze and interpret all the data than we expected, but a report has been written. It’s long: 327 pages. I really like it, though before I say any more about it, some thank yous are in order. First I want to thank the members of our Growth Strategy Team who worked on the survey and, week after week, urged all of you to take it, despite its length: Michelle Spadaccini chairs that team. Thank you Michelle. Joining her are Carol Marion, Edie Lacey, Nancy Pappas, Louisa Graver and Jennifer Klee. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Joel Devonshire, Rhiannon Smith and Josh Tryon worked on the survey as consultants in various capacities. Thank you. And most importantly, the person who designed the survey, interpreted the data and wrote the report, is Jessica Offir. Jessica is excellent at what she does. She spent months and months of her life producing it. I’m blown away by her commitment to this project. Jessica: Thank you!

There’s a lot to say about the report, including that there are some concerns about the data. I won’t explain the concerns now except to say there is a preface to the report that offers an explanation. The Growth Strategy Team is working on a summary of the report. We will also print out a number of hard copies that you can sign out of the office, and we’ll communicate when those are ready.

For now, I want to share that one of the messages I take from reading the report is “yes, and.” Like many congregations, perhaps like every congregation, we fall into routines over time. We do things as a community a certain way. We do things, more or less, the way we’ve always done them. And the more we as a congregation get used to conducting our life together in certain ways, the harder it becomes to embrace new ideas. This is especially important for how we as a congregation relate to our newest members, because most people who are new to a congregation, though they may really like it as it is, may also wonder why we do certain things certain ways. They may have suggestions for doing things differently. The report suggests that we don’t do as good a job as we think we do in figuring out what those new ideas are. Even some people who’ve been here a long time report that their new ideas, their proposed innovations, their out-of-the-box thoughts aren’t always heard. We don’t say “yes, and” enough. We need to say it more. It is essential if we want to tap into the wealth of new ideas that’s sitting right here.

“Yes, but that’s how we’ve always done it,” is not the right answer for congregational growth. “Yes, but we tried that before and it didn’t work,” is not the right answer for congregational growth. “Yes, but people probably aren’t interested in that,” is not the right answer for congregational growth. “Yes, and,” is the answer. Idea for something new on Sunday morning? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new programs? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new sources of revenue? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new ways of doing outreach? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new community partners? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new approaches to Unitarian Universalist theology? “Yes, and!” New ideas about how to talk about gender identity? “Yes, and!” New ideas for multigenerational community? “Yes, and!” New ideas for music? “Yes, and!” New idea for how to be church? “Yes, and!”

Lauren read to you earlier Rev. Theresa Soto’s mediation, “Finding Our Dreams.” Soto writes, “Be brave enough / to name your dream. Nurture it. And / allow the rhythm of your breath / to bring your dreams to life.”[1] I want all of us to experience this congregation as a place where we can name our dreams. Yet there’s more to it than individuals naming and nurturing their dreams. They are offering gifts. As a covenanted spiritual community, we must be brave enough to listen, even if we had a different idea in mind, even if we thought we were in a different scene. And once we’ve heard new dreams expressed, may the rhythm of our collective breath bring those dreams to life.

That’s how we grow in our spiritual lives. That’s how we grow as a congregation.

Amen.

Blessed be.

Yes, and.

[1] Soto, Theresa I, “Finding Our Dreams,” Spilling the Light: Meditations on Hope and Resilience (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2019) p. 7.

O, the Beauty of the World!

Rev. Josh Pawelek and David Garnes

Josh:

A few Sundays ago we were playing “Improvs with Mary,” the game where people shout out words or phrases and Mary plays them on the piano. One of the kids asked Mary to play “Rev. Josh’s sermons.” [To Mary] Care to repeat what you played? [Mary plays briefly.] As I heard it that Sunday, Mary launched into a grim, morose, bring-out-your-dead dirge. You all laughed. I laughed too. To be fair, she concluded with a few bright, melodic flourishes, a hint of daylight resolving the dissonance of the storm. Later, Mary said “it wasn’t grim, it was just very serious. And it was the perfect opportunity to tease the minister.” That she was teasing hadn’t occurred to me. I laughed because I thought she nailed it. I thought, “yep, that’s me.”

My preaching isn’t all grim and serious. But when you come to worship on Sunday morning, especially when I am preaching, no matter how hopeful the message, no matter how good the news, no matter how alright I might suggest things are going to turn out—I strive not to ignore the suffering, hatred and violence that infuse and infect so much of the world; and I strive to remember that it doesn’t automatically stop at the boundaries of this building. We aren’t somehow separate or immune from it all.

In my June newsletter column I said I struggle with this month’s theme of beauty precisely because there is so much ugliness in the world—centuries of oppression based on race and gender and class; a national economy fundamentally addicted to militarism and fossil fuels; fear of and violence toward anyone who doesn’t fit into the gender binary; homophobia, transphobia, sexual violence, gun violence; inequity after inequity built into the very structures of society so that many of us benefit without realizing it.  Climate change. I struggle because a central pillar of my call to ministry is naming and confronting all of it with whatever power is available to me and to us, hopefully, with a big dose of humility. Our Unitarian Universalist principles call me to name and confront all the ugliness in the world and our complicity with it, as inadvertent as it may be. I don’t feel comfortable remaining silent in the face of any of it. We cannot live as if it isn’t there. Denial isn’t a spiritually sound way to live. Hence, Mary’s improv. 

****

Our congregation is celebrating its 50th anniversary year, and thus it seemed important on this particular weekend to remember the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a major milestone at the beginning of the gay rights movement. UUS:E member David Garnes was there. I’ve invited David to share his experience. Certainly one thing his words convey is the ugliness of homophobia in New York City in the 1960s.

 

David:

In the summer of 1969, I’d been a New Yorker for six years. I was living in a brownstone on the Upper West Side, on a quiet, tree-shaded block near Riverside Park and the Hudson. Through a happy coincidence, the eight small apartments were occupied mostly by a number of friends like me—young, single and gay. We were a mix of ethnicities—White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian.

On the hot and humid evening of Friday, June 27, Javier, a grad student  from Argentina who lived on the top floor, arrived home from Greenwich Village with big news. “There’s a  commotion down at the Stonewall,” he told us. “Lots of police and people throwing stuff, and they’ve got the street blocked off.”

We all knew the Stonewall, a bar on Christopher Street in the West Village, crummier than most, and run, like most gay bars, by the Mafia (with, apparently, some collusion from New York City’s Finest). The Stonewall attracted all types of patrons. Watered-down drinks were one dollar (relatively expensive in those days), and the bathrooms tended to flood regularly. It was not an elegant place, but its seediness did not stop us from going back, again and again.

That night, we contemplated heading down to the Village to join the crowd. But the hour was late, and, besides, it didn’t sound like much more than a somewhat stronger reaction than usual to one of the police raids that occurred regularly at the Stonewall and elsewhere.

I’d been in bars that were raided many times. The usual scenario consisted of a short warning (lights flashing, someone shouting, “It’s a raid!”), and the next thing you knew you were being herded, like slow-moving cattle, out onto Christopher Street. Sometimes you had to pass through a gauntlet of cops, a few looking fierce, others impassive, one or two embarrassed.

Occasionally, but not often, some patrons were marched into waiting paddy wagons, taken to the local precinct station, and then released. That particularly ignominy never happened to me. Mostly we dispersed into the street and headed off to another bar, or we waited for an hour or so and then returned to the scene of the crime after whatever arrangements had been made between management and the police. It was a game, somewhat humiliating, especially in retrospect, but one not without a certain sense of wacky adventurousness. You just went along with it; it was part of the deal.

   This raid, however, proved to be different. Sometime the next day—Saturday, June 28, another hot one—a friend who lived near the bar phoned and told me that the demonstration had, in fact, lasted through the night and was picking up steam. “Come on down!” he urged. So a few of us decided to take the IRT local subway down to the west Village and Sheridan Square, a block away from the Stonewall.

As soon as we emerged onto Christopher and 7th Avenue, we found ourselves in the midst of a dense and noisy mob. Surprisingly, the street in front of the Stonewall was not blocked off to pedestrians or traffic, but it was impossible to do more than mill around the periphery. The bar seemed to be closed, and the windows were boarded up. Directly across the street, members of the New York Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) stood in formation, wearing helmets with visors and carrying batons and shields.

I watched as demonstrators scrawled slogans like “SUPPORT GAY POWER” and “LEGALIZE GAY BARS” on the boarded-up window of the bar. Any cars that attempted to enter Christopher Street were rocked and jumped on by the crowds of mostly young men. I saw the top of a parked police cruiser crushed by a concrete block dropped from an upper window.

Chaotic activity seemed to come in waves. From the tiny park adjacent to the square, onlookers hurled bottles, bricks, and other objects, some striking observers as well as the police. Trashcans were set on fire. Many men in the crowd were holding hands and kissing, something I’d never seen happen before on this scale in a public place.

Many participants in the previous night’s events had shown up, a few of them conspicuous by their bandages and wounds. I remember one Puerto Rican kid, arm in a white sling and face completely swollen, bruised, and scabbed.

“What did you do last night?” I asked him.

“Not a freakin’ thing. They just clubbed us. My friend’s got a broken shoulder, and I heard some guy’s in a coma over at Roosevelt.” 

 

****

Josh:

I struggle because I also know we cannot live in denial of the beauty of the world. That isn’t spiritually sound either. There has to be room for beauty, too. In my June column I asked you to tell me what you experience as beautiful. I said this isn’t an idle exercise. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to carry us through difficult times. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to generate joy in the midst of despair. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to inspire us when we are lost and directionless. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to knit us back together when we are broken and torn.

Those of you who responded to my request find beauty in all facets of the natural world, in nature seen, heard, smelled, felt, tasted. You find it in family, friends, pets, random acts of kindness, solar panels, fireworks, and human creativity—music, quilting, children’s hand-made cards.

I remind us there is beauty in the midst of hardship and suffering too: the beauty of the human spirit, human integrity, human resilience, human persistence. There is beauty in the bonds people form as they struggle together to change unjust laws and institutional structures. There is beauty in the way communities come together, grieve, heal, and rebuild in the wake of natural disasters or acts of terror. Last Tuesday we welcomed the state champion youth poets, Connetic Word, for a performance. These young poets have a gift for turning their hard life-experiences—their stories of abuse, racism, homophobia and transphobia—their loneliness and pain—into powerful artistic expressions. Even as their poems use hard language, hard words, hard images to describe the ugliness they’ve experienced, the energy, heart, soul and spirit they put into their craft is beautiful.

There is beauty in people waking up to the ugliness in the world and saying ‘we’ve had enough;’ saying ‘no more;’ saying ‘it’s time to fight back;’ saying ‘it’s time to rise up;’ ‘time for change;’ ‘time to build beloved community;’ time to welcome everyone,’ and really mean everyone;’ time to say ‘I want my life to be different!;’ time to say ‘I commit my life to some cause greater than myself that will serve others and the earth.’

There must be room for beauty too. Let us train our hearts and souls to find it even in the most difficult moments.

****

David:

As I left Sheridan Square that night, I bought the Sunday Times, expensive at 50 cents but always eagerly awaited on Saturdays around 10 pm at subway newsstands throughout the city. On the ride uptown I looked for mention of the riot from the night before. Deep within the paper there was a short article with the headline “4 POLICEMEN HURT IN ‘VILLAGE’ RAID…MELEE NEAR SHERIDAN SQUARE FOLLOWS ACTION AT BAR.”

The report was brief, with no reference to previous raids, arrests, and nothing from the point of view of the protesters. That kind of minimal coverage would continue in the Times for the next several days, though the tabloid Daily News played it up with photos and longer pieces, as did the Village Voice.

As we arrived back at Sheridan Square on Sunday afternoon, I was surprised at the activity still going on. Amazingly, the bar had reopened for business, and a steady stream of customers wandered in and out. But the police were there in full force, including several on horseback. I saw another damaged cruiser, this one with its front windshield shattered. A parking meter lay overturned in the street, and I later learned that it had actually been used on the first night to batter the entrance door of the bar.

I stood awhile, observing, perhaps too chicken to go in the bar, and then left. We later found out the Tactical Police Force eventually cleared the immediate area. I also heard that poet Allen Ginsberg visited the bar in the evening, encouraging the patrons inside. In a later interview he described them as “…beautiful…they’ve lost that wounded look everyone had ten years ago.” Sporadic gatherings occurred over the next few days, but the demonstration was essentially over.

Did I realize that I’d been present at a seminal moment in American sociopolitical history? Perhaps not that weekend, though Stonewall was certainly the most dramatic example I’d personally witnessed in terms of a minority group taking a stand. I’m not sure it was the single event of Stonewall itself those few days, but rather its snowball effect over the following months that signaled the changes that were to come.

After Stonewall, I began to join in gay demonstrations around the city. I clearly remember marching on Fifth Avenue in those early days. Basically, we were a small group of people—men and women—simply walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk. There were no floats, no costumes, perhaps a few signs and banners. I was always very aware of the tourists gawking at us from the sidewalk, and I was never comfortable during those early peaceful protests. But I kept on marching.

Perhaps taking to the street occasionally wasn’t such a big gesture on my part, but it probably wouldn’t have happened at all had it not been for the brave protesters and demonstrators at Stonewall. Occurring in the midst of other social upheaval that pivotal year half a century ago, this small uprising is now rightfully seen as the turning point in the gay civil rights movement.

We’d all had enough.

****

Josh:

I know why I struggle. I worry that naming and reveling in the beauty of the world is a trap, a privilege, an elite myth that obscures the ugliness, the injustices, the suffering, especially the suffering humans perpetuate on one another. And indeed, many people pursue beauty as a form of escape, a form of denial. Mary and I were talking about this and she asked. “how can we have a genuine experience of beauty that doesn’t require us to keep our heads in the sand?” For me, that’s a fundamental question. We agreed—and I hope and trust you do too—there’s a difference between escaping into something beautiful that numbs us to the pain of the world vs. encountering something beautiful that enlightens us, increases consciousness, wakes us up to that pain; wakes us up to the harder, deeper truths of the world. And our task as liberal religious people is to pursue the beauty that wakes us up.

In that pursuit, the chords may sound serious, ominous, foreboding, grim. But beauty resides in the hard truths too. Listen for it: a few bright, melodic flourishes at the end, a hint of daylight resolving the dissonance of the storm. And once you’ve heard it, may it sustain you. May it move you to re-engage with life, inspired, grounded, healed, committed.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

Centering as Spiritual Practice, continued….

In March many Unitarian Universalist transgender and non-binary people were angry and hurt after the Unitarian Universalist Association’s UU World magazine published an article entitled “After L, G and B.”[1] The article was written by a cisgender woman about her struggles to understand and love transgender people in her family and within our faith. (For anyone unfamiliar with the term cisgender, it refers to people whose gender identity matches their biological sex.) Many cis UUs—and some trans UUs—wondered why the article generated so much negative reaction. After all, don’t we expect our denominational magazine to feature stories that challenge our understanding of gender? Given that most UUs are cisgender people; doesn’t it make sense for a cisgender person to write an article about her struggle to learn about, accept and love transgender people? Doesn’t that help the cause?

It doesn’t—not at this point in our history. This sermon is about why.

In late March, two Muslim UUs, one an ordained minister, the other a seminarian, published an open letter entitled “About Us Without Us: A Call to Our Unitarian Universalist Siblings from Muslim Unitarian Universalists.”[2] The letter expresses anger and pain at the way UUs relate both to Muslim UUs and to Muslims in general. They contend that “Unitarian Universalists have been culturally misappropriating and exotifying Islamic traditions in many ways for many years.” They ask: “Are Muslim UUs really welcome in UU spaces? Or is it simply our pain and our poetry” that are welcomed? Upon reading this letter, some of us might wonder, “with all the Islamophobia in the wider culture, with all the attacks on Muslims, mosque burnings, threatening phone calls, FBI surveillance and the President’s Muslim ban, why criticize us? We connect with and support Muslims in the wider community. We support Muslim immigrants and refugees. This congregation is hosting a very public forum on Islam in America next Sunday. Aren’t we doing a good job?

Not good enough. This sermon is about why.

Both of these stories come amidst a backdrop of calls throughout our denomination to confront our own White Supremacy culture. Although this call has been with us in a variety of forms for decades, we began encountering this specific call to recognize, confront and transform our own White Supremacy culture in the late winter of 2017, after revelations of racist hiring patterns at our denominational headquarters.[3] People understandably ask, does this challenge really apply to us? Afterall, as a denomination, we’ve made a very public commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement, to immigrants, to sanctuary for those facing deportation, to indigenous peoples’ struggles over water rights. We’ve repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. In an era when avowed racists are organizing across the country and online, how is ours a culture of White Supremacy? How is that even possible? Well, it is—even at this point in our history. This sermon is about why.

A common thread unites these stories. People on Unitarian Universalism’s institutional margins are demanding a genuine place at the institutional center. Further, people on the margins are demanding the power to redesign the center so that it serves their interests as well as it serves the interests of those of us for whom it was originally designed.

This sermon continues a sermon I preached last September entitled “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice.” Except I’m editing the title. I read to you earlier from Theresa I. Soto’s meditation entitled “dear trans*, non-binary, genderqueer and gender-expansive friends and kin: (and those of us whose gender is survival).” Soto says “no one can rename you Other, it can’t stick, as you offer the gift of being and saying who you are.”[4] No one can rename you Other—but that’s exactly what the title of my September sermon did. “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice.” Soto inspires me to reflect on how I use the word ‘other’ when I address these issues. I don’t really want to use it anymore, mainly because so many of those historical others aren’t other at all. They’re right here, members of our congregations: trans people, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, people with disabilities. As gender-queer UU religious professional and consultant, CB Beal wrote in March, “We’re right … here.”[5]  Imagine a congregation where we notice and celebrate the differences, but no difference or set of differences makes a person “other.” As Soto says, “it can’t stick.”

Here’s what I said last September:

In the life and culture of any institution, including congregations, there is a center and there are margins. The center is where power is exercised, priorities determined, decisions made, money spent, resources allocated, values articulated, sermons preached, hymns sung, joys and sorrows shared, coffee served, gifts given. The center specifies norms for appropriate behavior and emotional expression; norms for which topics are speakable, and which are taboo; norms for belonging—who is in and who doesn’t really fit. Sometimes these norms are clearly articulated. Sometimes they are assumed, taken for granted, unexamined.

The margins are those places where people experiences themselves as out-of- sync with the center or, worse, excluded. For example, oftentimes as people age, as their mobility, hearing and vision decline, they may begin to feel marginalized from the physical life of the congregation….  If the center is White, People of Color may experience themselves as marginal. If the center speaks English, people who speak limited or no English may experience themselves as marginal…. [if mental illness is unspeakable,] people with mental illness may feel marginal. [If sexual violence is unspeakable,] survivors of sexual violence may feel marginal. Often we have some identities that occupy the center; and others that occupy the margins. We are rarely only one or the other.

The existence of a center and margins is natural and unavoidable in any institution…. However, here, our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to pay attention to what our center and margins are—to be institutionally self-aware. Who are we including? Who are we excluding? But then further, because we envision a highly inclusive community, a multigenerational, multicultural and multiracial community, a spiritually pluralistic community … our center must be in constant dialogue with our margins…. We must be willing to center that which is marginal.[6]

One could argue that in publishing a feature article about how to understand, welcome and love transgender people, UU World was centering transgender people. Transgender UU leaders emphatically said “No!” They said no because the article contained certain factual errors and unexamined assumptions, for example, the assumption that it’s OK to ask trans people about certain body parts when, for anyone else, such questions would be an invasion of privacy. They said no because the article failed to fully name the violence to which so many trans people are now exposed given the Trump Administration’s determined attacks on transgender rights; and it failed to name at all the ways in which trans people continue to experience marginalization within our faith.

But perhaps most significantly, they said no because a cisgender woman wrote the article. UU World centered her story, not the stories of transgender people. CB Beal wrote: “When we speak of inclusion but we mean that white people will write about the lives of black people, that cisgender people will write about the lives of transgender people, that heterosexual people will write about the lives of queer people, that able-bodied people will write about the lives and experiences of people who are disabled by our society, we are doing the opposite of inclusion. It is this which causes me the most harm.”[7]

Furthermore, UU World’s editor had given an early draft of the article to a leader in the UU transgender community, Alex Kapitan, and asked for feedback. Alex said, ‘don’t publish this article,’ and provided alternative suggestions. The editor chose to ignore Alex’s feedback, even though he’d asked for it. That’s not centering. That’s marginalizing. (Read Alex Kapitan’s full statement). Alex Kapitan was offering a way to reshape the center. The center said no. That’s why people were angry and hurt.[8]

Institutional centers don’t want to, don’t like to, and don’t need to change. They are inherently conservative, predisposed to continue doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” Even when they say they want change, they have many tools at their disposal—some conscious, some unconscious—to help them not change. They can go on receiving open letters about anger, hurt, disappointment in perpetuity, and if they don’t really want to change, they won’t. But our Unitarian Universalist institutional centers have been saying for a generation that change is necessary—that our ongoing relevance and even our survival as a liberal religion depend on it. Our institutional centers have been promising change, and some real seeds have been planted in fertile soil. Now, with increasing frequency, visibility and courage, people on our margins are calling for the fulfillment of those promises. The uproar over the UU World article was one such call. The letter from UU Muslims was another. The demand from People of Color organizations to confront our White Supremacy culture is yet another. Such calls are becoming more and more central to our collective spiritual lives.

Change isn’t just coming. It’s here. And this has implications for any of us with identities that reside comfortably at the center of our UU institutional life: white people, straight people, cisgender people, able-bodied people, middle-class people. What do we do? In the wake of the UU World article, the Transforming Hearts Collective—a group of four trans and queer faith leaders that supports congregations in becoming radically welcoming spiritual homes for queer and trans people of all races, classes, abilities, sexualities, and ages—published a list of behaviors that will help transform the center of our institutional life in relation to transgender people. They said: Believe trans people; listen more than you talk; be willing to remain in discomfort; have hard conversations, with love; value relationships over perfectionism; don’t expect every trans person to want to educate you, but honor those who do; stay in your heart rather than your head; don’t ask a trans person anything you wouldn’t ask a cis person; comfort those who are hurting and build awareness with other cis people; uplift trans voices.[9]

I urge you not to encounter these suggestions simply as “things to do.” I say this because all too often, when those of us who occupy the center learn there’s a problem, or that someone’s been offended or hurt in some way, our impulse is to do something to get past the pain and anger as quickly as possible, to fix the problem, to make it go away—so we can return to the status quo. That’s not what this list is for. This list is not for doing so much as it is for being. It’s not a ‘to do’ list, it’s a ‘to be’ list.

Similarly, in her book White Fragility, Robin Diangelo offers a list of behaviors for White people to engage in when confronted with their own racism. Her list includes: Don’t just dismiss feedback. Don’t get angry. Don’t make excuses. Believe. Listen. Apologize. Reflect. Process. Engage.[10] Again, it’s not a ‘to do’ list. It’s a ‘to be’ list. It describes a way of being that is open, receptive, spacious, ego-less. This is how people on the margins need people in the center to be in order for them to come fully into the center and begin their work of redesign.  

A note on apology. Mindful that people at the institutional center, people with privileged identities will inevitably make mistakes as we undergo these changes, apology is an essential skill. The UU World editor, Chris Walton, offered a powerful apology. He wrote: “I am profoundly saddened and deeply sorry to have caused pain to people who matter to me and whose dignity and worth I had thought we were promoting with the piece. As the magazine’s editor, I was wrong to decide to publish this essay and I apologize for the pain it has caused.”[11]

Centering is immensely difficult work. But I believe we are close to or at a tipping point. I suppose there are many who might disagree with me, but I see our various centers (congregational, regional, and national) learning not to dismiss the margins. I see reflection happening, apologies happening, structures evolving, new practices are emerging, and accountability shifting. Yes, this transformation is painfully slow, but I see us tipping.

Theresa Soto promises “we will find the people ready to be / on the freedom for the people way.”[12] I really want Soto to find those people at the center of our UU congregations. I believe we—and by ‘we’ I really do mean all of us—are the people ready to be on the freedom for the people way. I pray that we may be those people. I challenge: let’s be those people! I encourage: we can be those people. And I eagerly anticipate the day when we can say with confidence: we are those people.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] French, Kimberly, “After L, G and B,” UU World, March 1, 2019. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/after-l-g-b?fbclid=IwAR3qQ-2rO9yhMpcx_O_LloGxwZGGZ5qsuXCrnEkK9pYP4w9PB7hqJ6VQh8Y.

[2] Hammamy, Ranwa and Saeed, Sana, “About Us Without Us: A Call to Our Unitarian Universalist Siblings from Muslim Unitarian Universalists,” unpublished open letter, late March, 2019. See: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1J9ccz9cmg2mmLu9hbVQqOYkYcoyUxL7YfmvpnqPIeNw/edit?fbclid=IwAR1zkpRxCzSzjE8GM4R4SKK0dCxmvcbR4AJBmdN2l5MHf5cKhVu6f1-Kwxk.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “White Supremacy Teach-In,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, May 7, 2017. See: http://uuse.org/white-supremacy-teach-in/#.XQQjx4hKhPY.

[4] Soto, Theresa I, “dear trans*, non-binary, genderqueer and gender-expansive friends and kin: (and those of us whose gender is survival)” Spilling the Light: Meditations on Hope and Resilience (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2019) pp. 12-13.

[5]Beal, CB, “Centering the Marginalized: symphony and triptych,” Medium.com, March 6, 2019. See:  https://medium.com/@jpc_cb/centering-the-marginalized-symphony-and-triptych-9dabc93cd461.

[6] Pawelek, Josh, “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, September 30, 2018. See: http://uuse.org/centering-the-margins-as-spiritual-practice/#.XQQotohKhPY.

[7] Beal, CB, “Centering the Marginalized: symphony and triptych,” Medium.com, March 6, 2019. See:  https://medium.com/@jpc_cb/centering-the-marginalized-symphony-and-triptych-9dabc93cd461.

[8] Read Alex Kapitan’s full statement at Kapitan, Alex, “What It Takes to De-Center Privilege: The Failure of this Week’s UU World Article,” Roots Grow the Tree: A Dailogue, March 6, 2019. See: https://rootsgrowthetree.com/2019/03/06/what-it-takes-to-de-center-privilege/.

[9] “Tips for Talking About the UU World Article,” Transforming Hearts Collective, March 8, 2019. See: https://www.transformingheartscollective.org/stories/2019/3/8/tips-for-talking-about-the-uu-world-article?fbclid=IwAR3a3AgGXiiwn7OerWOXV3645Pe5Qh4ZeiaHQQEXqAfwFNy8i5Xzl8g1n8s.

[10] Diangelo, Robin, White Fracility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018) p. 141.

[11] Walton, Chris, “Our Story Hurt People,” UU World, March 6, 2019. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/apology-spring-2019.

[12] Soto, Theresa I, “dear trans…” Spilling the Light, pp. 12-13.

Living Your Faith: Finding and Walking Your Path as a Unitarian Universalist

On May 26, 2019, the service was titled “Living Your Faith: Finding and Walking Your Path as a Unitarian Universalist.” Stacey Musulin presented the following talk.

Revised Manifesto

THE SEVEN PRINCIPLES WHEEL

Image courtesy Ian Riddell and Kimberley Debus

Those who participate in the Living Your Faith program are encouraged to write and deliver a “manifesto.” This is defined in our learning materials as “a specification of your beliefs and a description of how your practices support and further those beliefs.” It’s like a capstone project that strives to bring together what a person believes with who she aspires to be.

In March, my Living Your Faith compadres and I wrote our manifestos and shared them with one another. At our last meeting, I received some really good feedback on my delivery as well as what I’d written. The best advice I got, other than to sloooow doooown, was to open up more and talk about the uncertainties I have, and the times when I feel I’m losing my way. We recognize that the spiritual path we Unitarian Universalists are on is not a lock-step linear route to inner peace and enlightenment. I value that Unitarian Universalism supports people in their search for truth and meaning over our lifespans, both individually and collectively within the congregation. I have sincere gratitude for the joys and wonders in my world, but life can also be hard, messy, and hurtful. It’s ok to question everything. I don’t have it all figured out. I know that I will struggle and change my beliefs over time, but the important thing is to keep trying, keep learning, and keep evolving. As professor Brene Brown said in her recent Netflix special, The Call to Courage, “You’re going to know failure if you’re brave with your life,” and I hope that over time, I will learn to be more courageous in my precious time here on Earth, and I believe that my faith can help me do that.

I would like to share with you some of my own history and those that have influenced me on my spiritual path:

I only recently joined UUS:E. I am not a life-long UU. I was first introduced briefly to this faith at age 13 by a classmate, Emily. I’d never heard of Unitarian Universalism, so I asked her, “What do you believe?” Emily paused, then answered, “We believe everything is connected.” That summed it up for her and it obviously struck a chord in me because here I am at age 48, remembering her simple words of faith. That short sentence left an impression: “We believe everything is connected.”

Like so many in this country, my beliefs and cultural expressions have been influenced by Christianity. My ancestors identified as Catholic and I attended Catholic school for 11 years. However, one of my grandfathers for a time sought other religious community in the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches, and both my parents encouraged me to question what I learned in Catholic religious education classes. When I was a teenager, my father told me I could choose whether or not to be confirmed in the Catholic religion. I chose not to be. When she was middle-aged, about the age I am now, my mother studied many concepts of spirituality, from Bart Ehrman lectures & books about the historical Jesus to the writings of psychic Sylvia Brown. When she died, my mother identified as an agnostic who believed in a soul and some kind of afterlife.  When I met my husband, Andrew, I found a fellow person-of-Catholic-traditions-who-no-longer-identified-as Catholic. He and I enjoyed deep conversations. Andrew introduced me to the writings of Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Campbell, Stephen Mitchell’s excellent translation of the Tao Te Ching, Karen Armstrong, and the Bhagavad Gita. In short, I am grateful to my family for demonstrating and supporting the idea that there is no one single path to truth.

I am also very grateful for the religious education experiences I’ve enjoyed at UUS:E these past two years. I began coming to UUS:E in March 2017. I’d done a little internet research beforehand. A liberal religious tradition and the absence of a set creed intrigued me, but I think I was most curious to find out what Emily meant by, “We believe everything is connected.” As I learned more about Unitarian Universalism, the concept that participating in a discussion on race, attending a Social Justice Committee meeting, creating art, or learning strategies for nonviolent communication can count as religious education and spiritual practice at first surprised me. However, I think I always believed that those self-improvement activities, and any actions that help people directly, were more important than the traditional religious practices in which I may have engaged in the past. It was just really nice to finally have that understanding acknowledged.

I credit the influence of my participation in the Living Your Faith program this year for my decision to officially join UUS:E. I so appreciate the time, thought, and energy that facilitator Tom Gervais and my co-participants, Angie, Carolyn, Ed, Elizabeth, Peter, and Wendy shared with me. With everyone’s support, I met my personal goals to improve my confidence in articulating my spiritual beliefs and to define and develop some sort of spiritual practice.

 

So what do I believe?

  • I believe in the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, and acknowledge at least six sources of faith…I leave room for the possibility of there being a few more sources of inspiration, like art, music, and maybe even mathematical equations.
  • I believe in the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and to even aspire to a higher level: to treat others as they would wish to be treated (within rational limits, of course)
  • I believe in the power of language, of reason, and the scientific method. I believe that our minds are powerful forces, both individually and collectively.
  • I believe there is inherent goodness in humanity, and that inherent goodness is best expressed in activities that support the rights and worth of all people.
  • I believe that actions are more important than words and I recognize the admonition in the New Testament book of James that says, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
  • I believe that “it takes a village” – that there is value in engaging and growing with other people, even when it is not in my introverted nature to do so.
  • I believe that it is in my very nature to be imperfect and to experience suffering. But I also believe that it is possible to learn from my mistakes, to gain wisdom from the difficult experiences I have lived through, and will live through in the future. I believe it is possible to move beyond the negative emotions I feel.  Hopefully I can be a wiser and less-judgmental person for having lived those experiences.
  • I believe that there is some kind of all-inclusive Divine energy, but whatever that Mystery is, is not necessarily something that I can have a personal relationship with or fully comprehend with my human mind.
  • I believe that other people can hold different beliefs and have different practices, and that my beliefs and practices are not superior to that of others. I believe that freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right.
  • I believe that it doesn’t matter what I label my spiritual beliefs, so long as they “work” for me, respect others, and support my continued development to be a better person.

Finally, I believe in what my wise teenaged UU friend Emily believed, that “everything is connected.” I think that the Seventh Principle, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” may have been written as the final UU principle because it can be interpreted in a way that encompasses all the ideas within the previous six principles. Body, mind, and spirit are connected. Past, present, and future are connected. All life forms, our planet Earth, the Universe, and the Great Mystery (whatever you might believe that to be) are connected. The purpose of our lives is to realize the connections, and to achieve balance and peace.

So how can I get to that state of connection, and feel good about who I am and what I do?

In Living Your Faith, we discussed the importance of spiritual practices, but that these can take many forms. I try to meditate daily in an attempt to give my consciousness a break and realize that my true Self is not the myriad of thoughts and emotions running through my mind at any given moment. When meditating, if I stick with it long enough, I notice that I can breathe more deeply. I practice noticing the thoughts I have and realize that there is a “me”, a truer Self, that is separate from them.  I am very, very good at imagining and preparing for the worst possible future scenario. While this may sometimes be a good survival strategy, it is not the best way to appreciate the gift of the here and now. Meditation and mindful actions (such as yoga or gardening) are one way to balance my “monkey mind” (no offense to monkeys) and allow myself to be a better spouse, dog-mom, daughter, sister, friend, and co-worker. On the days when concentration and releasing thoughts fail, I meditate on a short prayer I heard Reverend Josh use in an archived sermon:

I don’t know….I am not in control….I have something to learn…I am here now.

The key is to commit to a spiritual practice consistently, and not to allow chores, work, and worries to get in the way of what I need to do to try to stay balanced.

There is a tendency to judge in our culture that left unchecked, creates toxic environments in our political system, our communities, our workplaces, our families, and within ourselves. Compassion and empathy can seem in short supply. I recognize that I can be quick to judge as well. However, when times get tough, I can, as Fred Rogers quoted his mother, “(l)ook for the helpers, You will always find people who are helping.” Witnessing the helpers, and learning and emulating their examples is one way to develop the empathy and compassion I think is needed in our outer and inner worlds today. When encountering extreme behaviors such as racism, sexism, and other forms of violence, I can employ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s principle to “attack the forces of evil, not the persons doing the evil.” I can demonstrate respect for life and keep hope through actions supporting the goal of a Beloved Community. Hopefully, my minor contributions may combine with others’ actions, like the effect of a steady wind creating multiple ripples on the surface of water. Over time and under the right circumstances, I have faith that those combined ripples can form great and powerful waves of good in our world because everything is connected, all our actions are connected.

I can also commit to educating myself in ways to improve my connections with other people, the Earth, and my own Self. I will continue to read, study, ask questions, attend service, and engage in other experiences to expand my understanding and create positive connections with others. When I feel the actions of others bruise my ego or put me on the defensive, I can identify the needs of others and how those needs and values are similar to my own, thus breaking down the illusion of “me” versus “them.” I can meditate on the concept that all life holds within some Divine spark that I share as well.

When I do not live up to my ideals or potential, or when my life seems hopelessly out of balance, I need to be compassionate towards myself, just as I continue to strive to be more understanding of others. Forgiveness is important to freeing oneself from the disappointments and frustrations of the past. The important thing when one falls down or falls short, is to get up and try again, to try to stay connected to your true Self, your beliefs, your loved ones, your community, and your world. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “…we must keep moving. We must keep going… if you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving.” I think that admonition can apply to just about anything we want to accomplish in our lives.

In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality…Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” I believe that the purpose of our lives is to realize how we all are connected to one another. As my husband, Andrew, often says, the most important thing in our lives is our relationships. The sharing of our stories, our concerns, and our joys is a sacred act that binds us into community at each Sunday service. With the love and support of my family, friends, and my UU community, I know I have a better chance of living a more purposeful, active, and balanced life that I would if I were going it alone. Diversity of thought and action is celebrated here. The inherent sacredness of each life and the stories we represent and relate are respected here. How do we stay connected amidst our differences? Retired UU minister and author Jane Ranney Rzepka credited her mother for explaining what holds a liberal religious community together. She said, “We don’t think alike, we walk together.” Being together, truly together, and present to ourselves and each other to me, is the best way to show “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

Thank you for listening and for helping me on my personal spiritual path. Thank you for being with me now, and in all the days to come.

The Dream Keeper: Reflections on Easter Sunday, 2019

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I love these words from the poet, Langston Hughes, which we’ve heard set to beautiful music this morning.“Bring me all of your dreams, / You dreamer, / Bring me all your / Heart melodies / That I may wrap them / In a blue cloud-cloth / Away from the too-rough fingers / Of the world.”

He speaks of the ‘too-rough fingers of the world.’ Langston Hughes knew just how rough the world could be. He knew about the pain and suffering people experience—both the pain and suffering of the human condition; and the pain and suffering human beings perpetuate against each other—the pain and suffering of violence, oppression, war, genocide.

What happens when the world is too rough? People begin to feel isolated and lost. People begin to feel fear and despair. People’s bright dreams for themselves, their families, their communities and the world grow dim. The poet responds to a deep human longing when he says “Bring me all of your dreams, / You dreamer, / Bring me all your / Heart melodies / That I may wrap them / In a blue cloud-cloth / Away from the too-rough fingers / Of the world.”

Each of us encounters times in our lives when we do not feel hopeful about the future. Each of us encounters times in our lives when our dreams grow dim. I imagine this is how the disciples and friends of Jesus felt after he was crucified. I imagine this is how Jesus’ mother felt. He had been saying all along that he would be going away to a place where they could not follow. He had been saying all along, ‘there will be a time when I am no longer with you.’ But they couldn’t quite imagine what that meant. They couldn’t quite imagine life without him. They felt so strongly about his ministry, his teachings, his healings, his nonviolence, his commitment to his God and his faith, his love for all people no matter their station in life. They loved him so much. They attached their dreams to him. And then he was gone, his crucified  body lain in a tomb, a stone rolled in front of the entrance.

In the midst of their pain, their grief, their profound sense of loss, his disciples somehow made their Easter proclamation: “He is risen.” He has come back to us. He lives again! They made him their dream keeper. They imagined him receiving their dreams, their heart melodies, and wrapping them in a blue cloud cloth, away from the too rough fingers of the world; because the fingers of the world, in that moment, felt more rough than they could ever have imagined. They made him their dream keeper, and as such he continued to live beyond death.

That’s one way to understand the resurrection.

Today we dream of an earth made fair and all her people one. We dream of an end to violence and war and oppression. We dream of a just and loving community. We dream of a sustainable future for our planet and for coming generations. We dream, but there is always a risk that the too rough fingers of the world will conspire to shatter our dreams. When that happens, who is your dream keeper? In those moments when you feel isolated and lost, fearful and despairing, who keeps your dreams for you? Who keeps your dreams until you are ready to dream them again? Is it a friend? Is it a spouse, a partner in life? Is it your parent? Your child? Your sibling? A neighbor? A fellow member of this congregation? Is there a god or goddess who keeps your dreams when you are not able? Does the earth keep your dreams? The mountain, the oceans, the river, the trees? Who sings your heart melody during the long hours of your silent time in the tomb? Who keeps your dreams, so that when you are ready, you may rise again, you may be reborn, you may be resurrected, ready to live life, ready for joy, ready for love, ready for compassion, ready to engage. Who keeps you dreams, so that when you are ready, you may hold the dreams of others who are in despair. Who keeps your dreams, so that when you are ready, you may rise to the sounds of bird song on beautiful spring mornings? Who keeps your dreams, so that when you are ready, you may rise to the sounds to the gentle, happy voices of loved-ones welcoming you back to yourself? Who keeps your dreams, so that when you are ready, you may rise to cries of Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia?

May you always have someone to keep your dreams when you are not able.

May you always be available to hold the dreams of others when they are not able.

May we be each other’s dream keepers.

Amen, blessed be and Alleluia!

Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Jesus journeys from the Mount of Olives down into Jerusalem. He rides a donkey. Nearly 2,000 years later, the average reader may not pause to contemplate this image—its oddness, its humor, its political theatrics, its peaceful message recalling certain Jewish prophecies about the coming of the messiah,[1] and yet contradicting the image Jews and others had of God. Yet, if we take the whole story at face value—Jewish and Christian scriptures together as one, long, seamless narrative—this is God. Or, as the Book of John says, Jesus is “the Word [that] was God.”[2] This is the creator, the divine warrior, the lawgiver, the Lord of Hosts making a “triumphal entry” into the holy city, not in a chariot, not in a palanquin, not on some mythical beast, lion or war horse, but on a donkey. Why is the creator of the universe riding this stubborn, ungainly and, perhaps to some, humiliating mode of transportation?

A more fundamental question: Why crucifixion? Why such a demeaning, disgraceful, bloody execution per order of the Roman authorities? Why not raise up an army out of the Galilean dust and destroy the Roman legions, just as he had destroyed Pharaoh’s army a thousand years earlier? His power is infinite. Why choose powerlessness?

These questions come courtesy of Fred and Phil Sawyer, who purchased this sermon at our 2018 goods and services auction. Last spring Fred and Phil had me preach on Jack Miles’ 1995 book, God: A Biography.[3] This year it’s Miles’ 2001 follow-up, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. Miles is Professor Emeritus of English and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and Senior Fellow for Religion and International Affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy.[4] He presents God not as the God our Jewish and Christian siblings worship, not as God deconstructed through modern Biblical criticism, but God as a literary character.

Miles isn’t a Biblical literalist. He doesn’t approach the Bible as a factual record of events. He also isn’t doing modern historical criticism. Historical critics ask who wrote a particular biblical book, where, when and why they wrote, what social, cultural and religious forces impacted their point of view, who their audience was. Instead, Miles treats the Bible as a long story in which God is the protagonist. He takes the story at face value. Whatever God says or does, that’s what he works with. This is neither the Jesus of Christian faith, nor the historical Jesus. This is Jesus the literary character. And a great character has the power to teach us something about our very human selves, even if that character is God.

In God: A Biography, Miles tells the story of God in the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, in which, after the book of Job, God is essentially silent. People speak about him, but he speaks no more. Miles describes him as a sleeper, a bystander, a recluse. He wonders if God has grown weary of his deep inner turmoil in relation to humanity.[5]

In Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, Miles tells the story of God in the Christian New Testament as a response to his silence at the end of the Tanakh. We discover the root of God’s inner turmoil: He has not kept his promise to his people. His promise was big: land, nationhood, prosperity, victory in battle, innumerable blessings and, for later Jewish exiles, a glorious homecoming. But God hasn’t delivered.

Miles says, “the action of the New Testament begins with the memory of a broken promise”[6] The Book of Luke, chapter 3, in describing John the Baptist, repeats the promise as proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah: “Clear the way for the Lord! / Make straight his paths. / Let every valley be raised, / Every mountain and hill lowered, / The crooked made straight / And the rough smooth / So that all flesh will see the salvation of God.”[7] But Isaiah spoke these words 700 years earlier. “Isaiah,” says Miles, “describes a triumphal march that never occurred. Mountains were going to be leveled and valleys filled to create a parade route for the Israelite exiles marching home from Babylon—but the parade was cancelled. The exiles to whom the Lord spoke through Isaiah did not return home in glory. Many of them never returned at all, and those who did merely exchanged one imperial ruler for another.”[8] Now, with Roman oppression steadily worsening, God’s unfulfilled promise has led him to a moment of crisis.

What does he do? He appears on earth. Not as a burning bush, a pillar of cloud or fire, or a whirlwind—nothing dramatic. He joins humanity the way all humans do. He is born. An innocent, helpless baby. Furthermore, he is born into a family and a nation experiencing a great humiliation: the Roman census. Miles says, “In ancient Israel, it was a grievous sin … to conduct a census, perhaps because the practice of people-counting was understood to be … connected … with taxation and forced labor.”[9] King David once conducted a census. God was so angry he sent a pestilence upon Israel, killing seventy thousand.[10] In subjecting Jesus and his young parents to the census, the story emphasizes their helplessness in the face of an onerous foreign power. Because it is a census of the whole world, the story “makes clear that it is … not just the Jewish condition God is taking on … [but] that of all oppressed people at the mercy of officious power.”[11] In response to the crisis of his broken promise, God comes as a helpless infant, born to helpless parents, living in a helpless nation.

John the Baptist, announcing the coming of the messiah, calls Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”[12] As Miles says, “A lion would be more to the purpose, a rapacious and terrifying cat.”[13] But no, Jesus is a lamb, implying gentleness, meekness, innocence. But wait—the Baptist also says “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”[14] Not so lamblike.

What’s going on? Two Jewish traditions are merging in this character. First, the Baptist’s Jewish audience would be familiar with the practice of sacrificing a lamb for the expiation of certain sins. What sins? We might call them sins you can’t do anything about, sins that are part of the human condition, like bleeding during menstruation or living with certain diseases, like leprosy These aren’t sins one commits. We can more accurately describe them as natural conditions, often associated in ancient times with words like ‘unclean’ or ‘impure.’ The Torah requires such “sinners” to make amends to God, often by sacrificing a lamb.[15] Miles points out that such sins harken back to the first time God cursed humanity, sentencing them to endless labor, painful childbirth, and death.[16] The book of Leviticus describes the ritual sacrifice required to make amends for the “sin” of leprosy. Miles says “the ceremony functioned as expiation not really for any sin of the leper himself but effectively for the sin that brought that [original] curse.”[17] Thousands of years later, God has still never reversed those original curses. People were essentially helpless in the face of them. “The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?” Wait, what? Is he to be sacrificed?

But there are others species of sin, most notably the sort humans do to each other: exploitation, extortion, robbery, murder, etc. These are the sins one commits. These are also the sins Rome was committing against the Jews. There is no sacrificial lamb for these sins. Ideally, the perpetrator repents and makes amends, ‘an eye for eye,’ as it were. If not, the victim can either submit or fight back. In the Book of Luke, after Jesus’ Baptism, a voice comes from Heaven, saying “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[18] Miles reminds us this line comes from Psalm 2, which follows those words with “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, / and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, / and smash them to bits like a potter’s pot.”[19] That is, “we’re gonna fight back.”

This is the tradition of the messianic warlord coming to liberate! Jesus is both the lamb and the warlord. Miles calls them “two native Jewish ideas made daring and new by unforeseen combination,”[20] though the reader doesn’t know yet how this combination will unfold. What we know is that Jesus has come to the river for baptism. He has come to repent. But this is God. Repent for what? What has he done wrong? Ah, he hasn’t kept his promise. And apparently he isn’t going to. He can’t. That’s the realization that lives at the heart of his crisis, the reason for his repentance. As Miles says, “If [God] cannot defeat Israel’s enemies … then he must admit defeat.”[21] This admission makes way for new possibilities.

Miles says, “Instead of baldly declaring he is unable to defeat his enemies, God … now declare[s] that he has no enemies, that he now refuses to recognize the distinction between friend and foe. He … announce[s] that he now loves all people indiscriminately, as the sun shines equally everywhere, and then urge[s]—as the law of a new, broadened covenant—that his creatures extend to one another the same infinite [love] that henceforth he will extend, individually and collectively, to all of them.”[22] This is his solution to the sins that people commit. He’s no longer telling them what they “shall not do.” He’s telling them what they shall do: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who scorn you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other cheek as well.”[23] The messianic warlord is taking on characteristics of the lamb.

This is a radical change in God’s identity, so radical that it troubles the Romans. But why should the Romans care? After all, Jesus is not a militant. In fact, he preaches “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” At times he upholds Roman law instead of the Torah. Jesus’ concerns, it turns out, are larger than Rome. Miles says, “The Lord is playing for higher stakes.”[24] Throughout the story Jesus heals paralytics, lepers and bleeding women. He raises the dead. He does not say, “you are healed.” He says “your sins are forgiven.” He’s referring to those original curses God has never rescinded. People still suffer and die because of his curses. This is a deeper dimension of the crisis. Can he resolve that? Can he somehow transform the human condition that has resulted from his curses?

As much as this is a story about defeating one’s oppressors with the power of love, it is also a story about transcending the human condition—the end of suffering, the end of death. Jesus, the messianic warlord who meets his earthly enemies as a lamb, also has a cosmic enemy, Satan. Those original curses? He now associates them with Satan. “Even when speaking of his own defeat,” says Miles, “Jesus does not speak of the Romans. He speaks instead, at the most crucial moments, of Satan; in so doing, he identifies his enemy not as Rome … but as death itself.”[25]

I asked earlier, why the cross? Why does the creator of the universe submit to a humiliating, demeaning and bloody human execution? To undo those original curses, to take away the sins of the world. Miles says: “When Jesus dies, death wins, and the Devil wins for the moment; but when Jesus rises from the dead, life wins and the Devil loses for all time. By rising from the dead, God Incarnate [doesn’t] defeat Rome, but he [does] defeat death. He … win[s] a victory of a new sort, over a newly identified enemy, and in the process he … redefines the traditional covenant terms of victory and defeat.”[26]

It’s a powerful story. And like all great stories, it tells us something about ourselves. It reminds us there are two kinds of suffering. One is the suffering humans inflict on each other, the suffering of injustices embedded in systems designed to privilege some and exploit, marginalize, disempower, abuse, and even destroy others. The second is existential suffering, the suffering inherent in our living, the suffering that comes from illness, loss, and death. Both kinds of suffering can generate crises in us, and thus there is a deep yearning in us to transcend. Ad so we try. We try, each in our own way, to bring love into the world, instead of hate, instead of violence. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes our love makes all the difference. But then there is that pesky problem of death. What are we to do about death other than learn to accept it as the final stage of our very human lives? Might we live again? That’s a question of faith. Where did the resurrection story come from? That’s a matter for the historical critics. Do we long to transcend suffering? A good story speaks to that longing.

In the end, we aren’t God. But sometimes it’s nice to imagine how sweet eternity could be.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Zechariah 9:9.

[2] John 1:1.

[3] Miles, Jack, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

[4] For information on Jack Miles, visit his website at http://www.jackmiles.com/.

[5] Miles, Jack, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996) p. 404.

[6] Miles, Crisis, pp. 18.

[7] Isaiah 40:3-5 quoted in Luke 3:4-6.

[8] Miles, Crisis, pp. 18-19.

[9] Miles, Crisis, pp. 86-87.

[10] Second Samuel 24: 1-15.

[11] Miles, Crisis, p. 87.

[12] John 1:29.

[13] Miles, Crisis, p. 23.

[14] Luke 3: 16-17.

[15] For example, see Leviticus 14 for instructions on how to make amends for the sin of leprosy.

[16] Genesis 3:19.

[17] Miles, Crisis, p. 25.

[18] Luke 3: 22.

[19] Psalm 2: 7-9.

[20] Miles, Crisis, p. 27.

[21] Miles, Crisis, p. 108.

[22] Miles, Crisis, p. 108.

[23] Luke 6:27-29.

[24] Miles, Crisis, p. 178.

[25] Miles, Crisis, p. 163.

[26] Miles, Crisis, p. 163.