Food Revolution

Rev. Josh Pawelek

This sermon is about food and diet. That’s not exactly a trigger warning, but the 15 people who purchased this sermon at last year’s goods and services auction and asked me to preach on the rationale for veganism—or plant-based diets—probably should have warned me. I’ve never encountered more anticipation and anxiety about a sermon. I’ve never received as many suggestions for reading from people within and beyond this congregation who have strong opinions about veganism (for and against), vegetarianism, what comprises a truly healthy diet, eating disorders, body chemistry, blood type, DNA, what hunter-gatherers supposedly ate, Big Agriculture, Big Manure, the meat and dairy industries, factory farming, food processing, sugar, salt, racism, classism, poverty, hunger, food deserts, land rights, water rights, water scarcity, animal rights, animal cruelty, species extinction, antibiotics, declining biodiversity, ocean dead zones, environmental justice, climate change, global warming, Oprah and church pot lucks! I’ve also never received as many recipes or invitations to lunch in advance of a sermon. This topic doesn’t just touch a nerve. It is explosive.         

I intend to make a case for plant-based diets—that is my assignment. However, I’m not asking anyone to change their diet. There’s no hard sell. Changing diet is one of the hardest things we do. It may lead to health or compromise health. It may bring feelings of confidence and self-worth or guilt and shame. It is not just a physical experience, but a deeply emotional and spiritual experience. My hope for this sermon is that those of you who currently eat meat but who would like to explore a vegan or vegetarian diet will be inspired to join together and support each other in that exploration.

In a worship service last January I spoke about deforestation as a major driver of climate change—right up there with burning fossil fuels. However, earlier that weekend, a group of you had watched the documentary Cowspiracy,[1] which argues that the leading driver of climate change is not the fossil fuel industry, but animal agriculture. When you consider the level of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere by the approximately 70 billion animals on the planet whose only purpose is to be eaten—or for their eggs and milk products to be eaten—by human beings—it far outweighs emissions from fossil fuels. When I mentioned fossil fuels last January, a number of people spoke up, saying animal agriculture is a bigger problem. People don’t cut down rainforests to drill for oil. They do it largely, though not exclusively, for animal agriculture. More than 90% of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is for animal agriculture.

This sounds strange because the global story about climate change focuses on fossil fuels. We ‘get it’ that the gas in our cars is problematic. We ‘get it’ that burning coal, oil and gas for energy is problematic. But we don’t look at steak, pork, chicken, eggs or cheese on our plate and think “global warming.” Cowspiracy argues that despite evidence animal agriculture is the largest greenhouse gas emitter, the public, including major environmental organizations, is oblivious.

The amount of data on this topic is mind-boggling. I’ll include in my online text a graphic from Cowspiracy which provides statistics and links to 25 articles from sources like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the World Bank,[2] that reveal the negative environmental impacts of animal agriculture. But simple comparisons are often more helpful than plowing through journal articles. According to John Robbins, author of The Food Revolution, if every meat eater in the United States swapped just one meal of chicken per week for a vegetarian meal, the carbon savings would be equivalent to taking half a million cars off the road.[3]

But emissions are only the beginning of understanding the threats animal agriculture poses. Many of you know that certain regions of the planet lack clean water; and in other regions, including in the US, clean water is becoming increasingly scarce. Animal agriculture, because it requires enormous quantities of water to keep 70 billion animals fed and hydrated, is a major driver of water scarcity. According to Robbins, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association claims that producing one pound of California beef requires 441 gallons of water. To me, that sounds outrageous. But evidently that number is low. According to the Water Education foundation, it takes 2,464 gallons of water to produce a pound of California beef. And according to soil and water specialists at the University of California Extension, it actually takes 5,214 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. Chicken and pork production use water more efficiently. It only takes 815 gallons to produce a pound of chicken, and 1,630 gallons for a pound of pork. California is very dry, so producing meat there requires more irrigation than in areas of the country with higher rainfall. Comparisons are helpful. Robbins calculates that if you take a seven minute shower every day for an entire year, you would use 5,200 gallons of water. Which means, using the Water Education Foundation’s more conservative number, you save the same amount of water by not eating a pound of California beef as you do by not showering for six months.[4] Comparisons are helpful. It takes 23 gallons of water to produce a pound of lettuce or tomatoes, 24 gallons for potatoes, 25 gallons for wheat, 33 gallons for carrots, and 49 gallons for apples.[5] Reducing or eliminating meat from our diet would radically reduce the pressure on global water resources.

Then there’s the question of land. Not only does it take enormous amounts of land to farm 70 billion food animals, but where does their food come from? In a very passionate 2012 speech, the Australian philanthropist, former Citibank executive and vegan, Philip Wollen, said: “If everyone ate a Western diet, we would need two Planet Earths to feed them. We only have one. And she is dying…. Poor countries sell their grain to the West while their own children starve in their arms. And we feed it to livestock. So we can eat a steak? Am I the only one who sees this as a crime? Every morsel of meat we eat is slapping the tear-stained face of a starving child. When I look into her eyes, should I be silent? The earth can produce enough for everyone’s need. But not enough for everyone’s greed.”[6]

Large segments of Earth’s arable land are used to produce food for animal consumption, and then we eat the animals. It’s a two-tiered structure. But consider the data that show 1.5 acres of arable land can produce on average 37,000 pounds of plant-based food but only 375 pounds of meat.[7] An obvious conclusion emerges: if humanity stopped eating animals on a mass scale, it would no longer require as much land to produce food, and it could easily produce enough food to end hunger on the planet, not to mention reclaim carbon-trapping forests.

And this is still only the beginning. There are problems with the storage of animal waste, waste spills more damaging than the worst oil spills in history, fertilizer run-off, ocean dead zones, over-use of antibiotics. Animal agriculture does immense harm to the environment. I cannot help concluding there is no sustainable meat-based diet for human populations. This is not to say that meat production can’t continue on a small scale, especially in regions that are inhospitable to plant-based farming. But given the data, it is unsustainable for a large-scale human consumption of meat to continue. Planet Earth will not survive it. Some argue that if they just keep a few chickens or a goat for milk, surely that would be sustainable. Yes, for individuals it would be. But if every family on the planet had a few chickens and a goat—mindful that billions couldn’t afford it—that’s still 20 to 30 billion animals, still unsustainable.  Our seventh Unitarian Universalist principle is “respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.” Given this principle, as one who eats meat, it’s difficult to learn of the degradation animal agriculture causes and not begin to wonder how I can, in the very least, reduce the amount of meat in my diet.

Some people are moved less by the environmental arguments and more by the many studies that show plant-based diets are more healthy for the average person. I commend to you John Robbins’ The Food Revolution for his discussion of how plant-based diets correlate with positive health outcomes while animal-based diets correlate with negative outcomes. This is familiar to many of you: consumption of meat correlates with higher rates of heart disease, obesity and cancer, while no such correlation exists for fruits and vegetables. Having said that, Robbins doesn’t address the negative health outcomes from consumption of sugar and highly processed foods. There are competing studies that show low to moderate consumption of meat has little or no long-term health impact when compared to consumption of high amounts of sugar and highly processed foods. Robbins’ also doesn’t account for people who simply cannot maintain health without some consumption of meat, eggs, milk or cheese. I know people who’ve tried desperately to become vegan but simply cannot stay healthy without some animal protein and fat in their diet. That’s real for some in this room.

Robbins’ also doesn’t account for the reality that it can still be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to eat a healthy diet. So many people live in so-called food deserts—often low income, urban areas where there are no supermarkets or farmers markets to offer fresh food at affordable prices. This is changing slowly. I name it to remind us that often it isn’t possible to change one’s diet, even if one wants to. That is true for some in this room too.

A final argument: animal cruelty. César Chávez, co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association, once said: “Kindness and compassion towards all living beings is a mark of a civilized society.  Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cock fighting, bullfighting and rodeos are all cut from the same defective fabric: violence. Only when we have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well ourselves.”[8] Animal cruelty in factory farming is widely documented. For me, it speaks less to our seventh UU principle than it does to our first. Except, as currently worded, our first principle isn’t adequate. For years I’ve heard Unitarian Universalists call for changing that language from “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” to “every creature.” Many do look at the cruelty of factory farming and say, “I don’t want to eat meat because I don’t want to support that.” But I think there’s a more fundamental question that applies even if every food animal’s life were free from suffering and their death free from pain. To eat animal meat we must take a life. Maybe that is an unavoidable law of Nature, just the way the food chain works. But if we claim a principle of respect for inherent worth and dignity, a principle that, for some, implies ‘do no harm,’ do we have the moral right to take an animal’s life for food, especially when there are alternatives that are more healthy for most people and clearly more sustainable for the planet?

I don’t have a definitive answer. Though I will say that while for me this question is more gray than black-and-white, my heart says no, we don’t have that right. Our culture makes it far too easy to ignore this question altogether. If nothing else, let’s at least be willing to wrestle with this question and the others I’m raising this morning.

One of the ways I’ve chosen to wrestle is to attempt to cut meat out of my diet. In our family we prepare or purchase approximately four meals a week with meat in them. Those meals, plus left-overs, means that about 1/3 of my meals have meat in them.

I became a vegetarian on Labor Day. By Thursday of that week I was hungry. I was eating, but I had gnawing hunger. I fried up a few eggs that morning, but it didn’t help. By noon I feeling weak and dizzy. So, I broke down and ate a 6” turkey sub from Subway. The following week I started again. This time I lasted longer. By Friday I was feeling wonky again. On Saturday, I felt so physically bad that I went to Subway for a 6” turkey sub. I felt better.

Apparently I couldn’t go cold turkey without a little cold turkey. I realized I needed to wean myself off of meat. So the next week, I set out to eat a vegetarian diet with a plan to have a meat-based meal late in the week. That worked very well for a few weeks. Then I went to New Orleans. I had to eat a few meals with shrimp and a few with sausage. Actually, I probably ate more meat in New Orleans than I would normally eat on my old diet. But guess what happened: I started not wanting it. On my fourth day in New Orleans, I switched back to vegetarian.

In a matter of six weeks I have reduced my meat consumption from approximately seven meals to three or four meals per week. And on many of those days I’ve cut out cheese, milk and eggs as well. I’m learning. And I recognize I need to try it for a much longer period of time before I know for sure what the impact is on me. But I am committed to weaning myself completely off meat. I’m going to take it slowly, but I am going to do it. And once I’ve succeeded, I will maintain that commitment for a few months before making any decisions about whether or not it is truly right and healthy for me, and whether or not I can move on to weaning myself off of milk, eggs and cheese.

This is personal. But I’ll end with this: We need to balance “what is right for me” with “what is right for the planet and future generations.” Although animal meat will likely never disappear from some regions of the world and from some peoples’ diets, I am convinced there is no meat-based diet that is sustainable for the mass of humanity. And for that reason, I am attempting to change my diet. For that reason, I invite those of you who eat meat to consider how you might reduce your consumption of meat. And I invite all of us, together, to continue this conversation with these two questions in mind: what food system is most consistent with our UU principles? What is best for the planet?

Amen and blessed be.  

[1] This film can be downloaded for $4.95. Visit for more information.

[2] Visit the Cowspiracy inforgraphic at

[3] Robbins, John, The Food Revolution (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2010, second edition) p. xxix.

[4] Robbins, John, The Food Revolution, pp. 235-237.

[5] Robbins, John, The Food Revolution, p. 237.

[6] Free From Harm staff writers, “Philip Wollen, Australian Philanthropist, Former VP of Citibank, Makes Blazing Animal Rights Speech,” June 24th, 2012. See:

[7] Visit the Cowspiracy inforgraphic at

[8] Lauren, Jessika, “Human Rights, Animal Rights, and Nonviolence: César Chávez’s Lasting Legacy,” 2013. Visit Peta Latino at

Are You Politically Correct?


Rev. Josh Pawelek

I begin with a trigger warning. If you are a person who is triggered by the concept of trigger warnings, be forewarned: In general I support trigger warnings—in academia, and in sermons. Also, a further trigger warning: if you think political correctness is running amok in the United States, know it is my firm conviction that it is not. I contend most allegations of political correctness are attempts to ignore, deny or demean the real pain and suffering that real people feel due to exclusion and oppression.

I want to tell you my experience of what happened during and after the opening worship at Ministry Days in Columbus, OH last June. Ministry Days is an annual gathering of Unitarian Universalist and associated clergy that takes place ever year during the two days prior to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly. The Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association or UUMA organizes Ministry Days. I am currently serving in the fourth and final year of a term on the UUMA Board of Trustees. During this term I have been responsible for leading the work of the UUMA’s Committee for Antiracism, Anti-oppression, and Multiculturalism.[1]

The story begins last winter when the incoming president of the UUMA asked my committee to lead the opening worship at Ministry Days. We designed our worship service around an adaptation of the New Testament story of Peter getting out of the boat and walking on water. In the story Peter walks on water briefly, but then becomes frightened and sinks. Many people interpret that story to mean that Peter’s faith wasn’t strong enough. Our point was to say, “wait a minute – he walked on water! Isn’t that amazing?” We selected hymns with a walking theme: “One More Step” and “Guide My Feet.” In our homilies we used the Peter story as a metaphor for our work on antiracism and muliculturalism within the UUMA and in the institutions we serve as clergy. We acknowledged that this is the hard and necessary work of institutional change, that we have to do it if we want to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world, that we have to take risks, that we have to get out of the comfort of our boats and attempt to walk on water. And we will only get so far before we sink. Then we tread water until someone helps us reach dry land; and when we’re ready, we try again. Our work continues.

All the worship elements fit together wonderfully … unless you happen to be one of our clergy colleagues who doesn’t walk with ease or doesn’t walk at all. It turns out our constant references to walking were painful to some of our colleagues with physical disabilities. After hearing us speak, sing and pray about walking, stepping, marching, feet and legs again and again, and after hearing it without any acknowledgement that not everybody walks, some of our colleagues started to feel excluded, isolated, and invisible. Some expressed their pain to us directly. Some expressed it on their written evaluations of Ministry Days. Some wrote about it on Facebook. People were upset.

As soon as it came to my attention, which was as soon as the service ended, I recognized what had happened. We had failed to account for the way this metaphor might be received by colleagues with disabilities. We had failed to account for the ways colleagues living with any kind of disability might be wary of, annoyed at, or hurt by the use of any kind of body-based metaphors without, in the very least, a recognition that these metaphors are not universally meaningful. As a result, some of our colleagues experienced a form of ableism. According to the UUA’s Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry,[2] ableism is the term “used to describe the discrimination against, and the exclusion of, individuals with mental health and physical disabilities from full participation in available community options, such as employment, housing, and recreation.”[3] Nobody accused us of discrimination, but our language made some people feel excluded, made them feel like second class UUMA members. And when you arrive at Ministry Days after a long, possibly difficult year in ministry, when you’re finally together with beloved colleagues expecting to settle into worship and be fed and nurtured, but instead you encounter language that causes you pain? Ouch!

I was mortified, embarrassed, sad. Among my colleagues I have a reputation for being a person who doesn’t make these kinds of mistakes, a person who anticipates how certain words and metaphors will be received, a person who strives mightily not to exclude, not to cause harm. Furthermore, this was the Committee for Antiracism, Anti-Oppression and Multiculturalism. We’re the people who are supposed to model inclusive, multicultural worship.

But we weren’t defensive. We listened. We took responsibility. The next day, at the end of the UUMA business meeting, I offered an apology.[4] And when my remarks were later published on the UUMA website, I added that, given what had happened, and given other experiences of ableism our colleagues with disabilities and their allies had discussed with us, the UUMA board had decided to conduct an accessibility audit. Over the coming year we would examine all the ways we gather and work together as colleagues, discern how our institutional culture may exclude colleagues with disabilities, and then recommend best practices for avoiding those exclusions in the future, including best practice around our use of language. 

It was hard to offer a public apology. But I felt good about it. It felt like we were responding from a place of integrity and humility. People who said they felt excluded the day before thanked me for the apology. One even said it ought to be used in the seminaries as an example of a real apology. Healing was happening.

Or so I thought. A firestorm erupted online in response to my apology. It quickly became clear that some colleagues felt the people who complained about ableism were being too sensitive. “It’s just a metaphor.” “It wasn’t a condemnation of them.” “How are they going to survive in ministry if they can’t handle a simple metaphor?” Some argued that I and our committee and the UUMA board had been manipulated into apologizing and committing to conducting an audit—that we were reacting to pain and anger, but not to real substance. Thus, they felt no apology was necessary. No, this was a case of political correctness running amok in Unitarian Universalism. They predicted our audit would lead us to request that UU clergy no longer use body-based metaphors. No more seeing. No more hearing. No more “running this race.” No more “standing on the side of love”­­—the slippery slope to censorship!

I don’t know the origins of the term “Political Correctness” or PC. I remember when the term arrived suddenly at Oberlin College in the late 1980s when I was a student there. Oberlin was and continues to be a very liberal school. Its students have been known for their advocacy for progressive causes for nearly two centuries. I remember liberals using PC to refer in a serious way to holding a set of progressive views. You were PC if you were antiracist, supportive of gay and lesbian equality, supportive of South African divestment, supportive of environmentalism and the greening of the campus. PC also had related to language. We didn’t say Black, we said African American. We interrogated language that equated dark with evil, and light with good. We didn’t say “man” to refer to all humanity. We didn’t say mentally retarded, we said people with developmental disabilities. We learned to use “person-first” language—not that disabled person, but that person with a disability. We tried to speak in a way that was affirming of people different from ourselves, that more accurately reflected their experience, that honored their integrity.  And although some alleged we were becoming “language police,” I remember owning my own political correctness. I wanted to get it right. I didn’t want to hurt people with my words. And truth be told, I didn’t want to sound ignorant of the great diversity of identity and experience all around me.

I also remember that PC was not only a serious label; it was also tongue-in-cheek, way of saying, “yes, we know what we believe in, we know what causes we support, we want to be more inclusive and compassionate in our language, but let’s not take ourselves so seriously that we stop listening to views that differ from our own. Let’s not approach our causes so earnestly that we alienate the people we hope to influence.”

By the time I arrived in Boston in the 1990s, PC was no longer a positive term. It had become a criticism of liberalism on college campuses and elsewhere. Alan Bloom had published The Closing of the American Mind; Dinesh D’Souza had published Illiberal Education—both strong, conservative critiques of liberal political correctness and multicultural education in the United States. Today PC is a purely pejorative term. It’s a put down. People use it as a way of saying, “you’re being excessively liberal in your views.” “You’re being silly, naïve, ridiculous.” “You’re being too sensitive.”

Perhaps the latest version of pushback against a perceived, PC mania is the attempt to abandon trigger warnings on college campuses. A trigger warning alerts an audience that a potentially difficult topic is going to be discussed. It helps people who have a history of trauma in relation to that topic prepare themselves mentally and emotionally to take part in the discussion. It is a compassionate gesture, but compassion isn’t prevailing in the debate over trigger warnings. A University of Chicago letter to incoming freshmen in August stated “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”[5]

As a Unitarian Universalist I am conflicted. Our faith tradition highly values freedom of thought, speech, expression, conscience and religion. We value spiritual freedom. We value the rights and integrity of the individual. We welcome the free interchange of ideas. We welcome debate and discussion, especially around controversial issues. And the idea of creating intellectual or spiritual safe space in which to retreat from ideas at odds with our own would seem to run contrary to our fourth principle, “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and our fifth principle, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.” So, trigger warnings, political correctness, safe spaces—all those things that stifle the free interplay of ideas—potentially mute our capacity to learn and grow in the presence of controversial ideas, and thus they seem to be at odds with Unitarian Universalism’s core principles.

But I am conflicted. If I use walking as a metaphor to describe the spiritual life over and over again in my worship services, and a person who cannot walk tells me they feel excluded or invisible, is it sufficient for me to respond, “Sorry, that’s the free interchange of ideas. You’re trampling on my freedom to express myself spiritually. It’s your job—not mine—to translate my metaphor into your life circumstances?” No. It isn’t sufficient. It’s actually quite callous. Isn’t it the case that the person who says, “Wait a minute, you’re excluding me,” or “You’re speaking as if your metaphor works for everyone but it doesn’t,” or “Your comments feel racist or homophobic or sexist and we need to talk about that,” or “Before you preach about rape and sexual abuse, please provide a trigger warning because some of us are living with post-traumatic stress and we need to prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally to hear your message”—isn’t it the case that the person who says any of these things is actually the one inviting the free interplay of ideas? And in not engaging with them, in shutting them down by throwing the principle of freedom at them, by calling them too sensitive, by calling them manipulative—or, worse, bullies—and by charging them with political correctness, aren’t I the one retreating from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own? 

I said at the beginning of my remarks that most allegations of political correctness are attempts to ignore, deny or demean the real pain and suffering that real people feel due to exclusion and oppression. Knowing that, when someone raises a concern with me about how they’ve been ignored, denied or demeaned, or when they offer me a new set of metaphors and different words that are more inclusive of them, or when they pull me aside simply to share that something I said or did caused them pain, I take them seriously. I listen. As my dear colleague, Rev. Mitra Rahnema said at Ministry Days, “I’m not going to argue the existence of oppression”–meaning that if someone is raising it as a concern, we need to talk about it, not shut it out. I take them seriously and I listen because they are inviting a real conversation, one from which I have something to learn. Those kinds of conversations lead to a wider welcome, greater inclusion, more peace, and ultimately more justice. Those kinds of conversations lead more surely to the beloved community than taking refuge in the freedom to say whatever I want without opposition. Call me politically correct. Call me too sensitive. Tell me I’ve been manipulated and bullied. I don’t think so. When we listen and respond with love, humility and, when necessary, apology, we are on our way to beloved community.

Amen and blessed be.

Addendum: “Answering the Call of Love”

For many years, Unitarian Universalists with disabilities and their allies have raised concerns about the song, “Standing on the Side of Love,” by the Rev. Jason Shelton, Associate Minister for Music at the First Unitarian Church of Nashville, TN. Standing on the side of love is one of those metaphors that makes some people with physical disabilities—specifically people who have trouble standing or who can’t stand—feel excluded. They understand it’s a metaphor, not to be taken literally. But so many metaphors are body-based, and when they are used over and over again without any acknowledgement that they are derived from physical experiences that are not universal, it makes sense that after a while, some people will start to feel excluded.  Surely we can find other words, other metaphors that are more inclusive. And in the very least we ought to acknowledge when they are not.

Rev. Jason Shelton has always been aware of the concerns raised about “Standing on the Side of Love.” He has understood the concerns. He has listened to them. And I suspect he has lost sleep over them. He hasn’t always known what to do about the concerns, in part because the title and the lyrics are published. It’s#1014 in Singing the Journey, “Standing on the Side of Love.” Jason was involved in the conversations our colleagues were having at Ministry Days and afterwards. And I think it’s fair to say that he and I are of like minds on this topic. It matters that we listen. It matters that we engage, even if it’s uncomfortable; and if we can do things differently and even make sacrifices for the sake of inclusion, justice and beloved community, then we ought to do them. Jason preached a powerful sermon on this topic in Nashville on August 14th.[6] In that sermon he said that as much as he is attached to standing on the side of love, love matters more than his lyrics, and he is willing to change the words. He said it came to him in the middle of the night: “Answering the Call of Love.” This word change, he said, is a way of actually embodying the meaning of the song. “What love calls us to do,” he said, “is to be in deeper relationship with one another, to see one another more clearly, to respond to those needs and to let go of our attachments—and God knows I’m attached to those words. But love is more important.” And then the congregation sang, “Answering the Call to Love.” I invite us to sing it now with these new words.

[1] To learn more about the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s Committee for Antiracism, Anti-oppression and Multiculturalism, see:

[2] Visit the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry (AIM) program website at

[3] Visit the AIM glossary at

[4] Read the full text to the apology at the UUMA website:

[5] Vivanco, Leonor and Rhodes, Dawn, “U. of C. tells incoming freshmen it does not support ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘safe spaces,’” Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2016. See:

[6] Shelton, Jason, “In Body or In Spirit,” a sermon delivered to the First Unitarian Church of Nashville, TN on August 14, 2016. Visit: and scroll down to the archives for August.

Big B Belonging and Huge H Helping

Rev. Josh Pawelek

img_0765The 2016-2017 congregational year is beginning. I am excited for what I expect will be a very normal year.

Wait, what? Normal? Who wants a normal year in ministry?

Here’s what I mean. Ever since we completed our building project six years ago, every one of those six years has brought with it some big issue or collective task that has drawn our attention away from the ordinary, the regular—the normal—conduct of our ministries. After we moved back into this building we spent about 18 months designing a new mission, vision and strategic plan. Important work, but it required us to pause. In essence, we needed to wait until we had a sense of where we wanted to go as a congregation. After that we went through a period of transition with our program staff. First our previous Director of Religious Education, Vicki Merriam announced her retirement. Then our previous Music Director, Pawel Jura, announced that he would be leaving for a new position. We designed an interim period in our religious education program, and then an interim period in our music program. We conducted extensive searches for a new Director of Religious Education and a new Music Director. Those searches overlapped somewhat, but not entirely. Last year was Gina Campellone’s first full year as our permanent Director of Religious Education. It was also Mary Bopp’s first full year as our Music Director. Last year was close to normal, but it was still a ‘breaking in’ year, still a learning year, still a transitional year.

It’s not that our regular ministries ceased during these years. Obviously they didn’t. We kept doing what we do. But we couldn’t quite focus our full attention on them because I and many of our leaders were addressing these other concerns.

But this morning, I am so happy—no, overjoyed—no, ecstatic—to say that Gina and Mary have both very successfully transitioned onto our staff. I am so done with transitions! It’s going to be a normal year in the sense that we can pay full attention to our ministries without needing to focus on some larger trend or shift or change in congregational life. Back to basics. Back to essentials. Back to our core. That’s the state of the church! Hallelujah!

What is normal? What is our core? I suppose we can identify normal by naming what we actually do: Sunday morning worship, religious education, social and environmental justice activism, pastoral care, managing our finances, caring for our buildings and grounds, organizing fundraisers. That’s one way to know what normal is. But I want to explore normal from a different angle by asking you this question:  What deep, human longing lies at the heart of your presence here?

People seek out congregations in response to all sorts of longings: community, guidance, support, inspiration, religious education for their children, a place to be still, to breathe, to grieve or to collect oneself before confronting the challenges of the coming week. Or perhaps they seek to respond in some productive way to the world’s immense hurt. These are not frivolous longings. They aren’t whims or flights of fancy. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who visited this church or any other purely on a whim, without giving it any thought, without hoping to find something meaningful. Sometimes people come to church without admitting to themselves what they’re really seeking—and maybe they don’t quite know. But when you scratch the surface, some deep human longing almost always becomes apparent. People come to congregations in response to longing. And in discerning what those longings are and attending to them, we help people more fully experience their humanity. This is true for any congregation of any faith. We help people find meaning in their lives. We help people connect with the sacred, the holy, the divine. We help people apprehend their embeddedness in some reality larger than themselves. For me, that’s one description of the core of our ministry—what we ought to be doing when things are normal: meeting people—meeting each other—in the midst of our deepest human longings.

What longing lies at the heart of your presence here?

Here’s my answer to the question. As many of you know I’ve just completed my summer vacation and study leave. I take this time every summer, and I’ve discovered over the years that summer reveals to me in stark relief a central dichotomy in the human experience: our capacity to feel connected and whole at certain times in our lives, and our capacity to feel disconnected and broken at other times. That dichotomy is always present, but I seem to notice it more and feel it more intensely during summer. This summer has been no exception. In the early weeks of July our family was living in Pittsfield, MA at Stephany’s parents’ home while Mason and Max attended camps in the area. Steph and I were able to spend time hiking in the Berkshire Hills while the boys were at camp. Those were warm days on quiet trails in still woods, flush with wildlife and the occasional panoramic vista. For a blessed two weeks there were few or no time constraints, no deadlines, no rushing from event to event. There was time for imagination, spontaneity, relaxing. There were moments of spiritual experience: oneness with Nature. Oneness with all life. Oneness with all. Connection. Wholeness. A sense of belonging in the universe. And then, July 5th, news of the latest police shooting of a black man, Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge. And then, July 6th, news of the latest police shooting of a black man, Philando Castile, near St Paul. And then, July 7th, a gunman opens fire on police protecting a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas, killing 5 and wounding 9. And then, July 15th, news of a terrorist attack in Nice, France: nearly 90 people killed as the attacker drove a heavy truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day. More police shot in Baton Rouge two days later. Learning of these acts of violence created a sense of disconnection in me, a sense of brokenness which contrasts enormously with that other experience of wholeness and connection out on the trail. And like it or not this experience of disconnection and brokenness is also a spiritual experience.

This is what I know: the gentle, sustaining, wordless power flowing through everything, connecting everything, making everything whole; and I know the hurting, grieving, violent world. I long to feel whole and connected. And I long to respond in some meaningful way to the world’s immense hurt. In more concise language, I long to belong, and I long to help. In the end, these two longings are why I went into ministry. They are why I go to church. What deep human longing lies at the heart of your presence here?

When I survey the religious landscape in the United States—and in the world to the extent that’s possible—I perceive deep and widespread spiritual longing. Theologian Harvey Cox reminds us that fifty years ago scholars were confidently predicting the demise of religion. Some of you remember or are familiar with the famous April, 1966 Time Magazine cover story proclaiming the death of God. The story examined the secularization of American society and what that implied for the decline of religious life. Yet in his 2009 book, The Future of Faith, Cox says “the soothsayers were wrong. Instead of disappearing, religion—for good or ill—is now exhibiting a new vitality all around the world and making its weight widely felt in the corridors of power.”[1] Ten days ago, Franklin Graham—son of the famous American evangelist Billy Graham—held a rally at the state capitol. I attended in solidarity with protestors who object to Graham’s position against homosexuality, as well as his anti-atheist rhetoric. What struck me was the fact that on a week-day in the rain more than 1,000 people came to hear Franklin Graham speak. Boston University Professor of Religion Stephen Prothero has described the world as “furiously religious.”[2] I sensed some of that fury in Graham’s words and in his supporters who referred to my gay, lesbian and transgender colleagues as abominations.

Certainly, some of the religious vitality and furiousness we witness across the globe emerges out of literal fury and results in extremist rage co-opting and re-interpreting various religious traditions and their sacred scriptures as calls to holy war, terrorism and murder. I suspect most of it, however, emerges out of a more humble, twofold spiritual longing: the longing for the peace and comfort that comes from experiencing or communing with a reality larger than oneself; and the longing to transform and heal, in some small way, the hurting, grieving, violent world. I sensed some of this among Franklin Graham’s supporters as well. In even more basic terms: A longing to belong, and a longing to help. My vision for a normal year in ministry is that we will respond well to these longings.


Earlier I shared an excerpt from Rev. Susan Ritchie’s reading, “Let the Wrong Ones In.” She writes of her own experience of belonging to Unitarian Universalism. “Somewhere along the line someone left the door open for me. Someone invited me in, someone made the way for me even though there is no equivalent of me in our forebears’ imagination. And when things have been bad, when I have been bad, this tradition has carried me around in my sorry little basket and given me over and over again the invitation to relationship, the invitation to be human, as human as I dare.”[3] It is my hope, my prayer, my mission that every person who enters through our doors—whether you come for worship on Sunday morning or for a community event, whether you’re renting space in the building or providing a service, whether you’ve been here since the congregation’s founding or you’ve come for the first time this morning—will  experience a similar sense of belonging here.

Having said that, the human longing to belong goes much deeper than belonging to a congregation. Belonging to a congregation is belonging with a small b. Belonging with a big B—or Big B Belonging—is that sense of belonging to the larger human family, or belonging to the whole of life, or belonging to God or Goddess, or to some holy power. Big B Belonging is feeling at home on this earth, feeling at home in this universe, locating yourself within the interdependent web of all existence. Big B Belonging is connecting or relating to a reality larger than yourself in which you find sustenance, strength and comfort; a reality in which you find inspiration and joy; a reality that challenges you, guides you, helps you make moral decisions, calls you to be loving, to practice compassion, to seek justice.

In any year in ministry—no matter what is happening in the life of the congregation—I fully expect to focus on small b belonging. But if that’s all we do, it won’t be enough. I want your experience of small b belonging to become the foundation for that greater, more powerful, more all-encompassing experience of Big B Belonging. That is church at its best. The truth is we don’t always have the time and space to attend to Big B Belonging, but in this normal year in ministry—this year of no transitions—it is my hope that we can move from small b belonging to Big B belonging.


And then there is the longing to help. How can we help? In any congregational year there are many ways to help here at UUS:E: caring for members and friends of the congregation who are in crisis, volunteering on a committee, as a religious education teacher, on a fundraiser, providing Sunday morning hospitality, greeting, tending to the building and grounds, or working on a social justice project, or a sustainable living project, or—as many of you are doing these days—helping with the Manchester Refugee Resettlement Project working to settle a Syrian refugee family in Manchester. If you are ever unclear about how to offer help in the life of this congregation, please do not hesitate to ask me. There are so many ways to help!

Having said that, I know the longing to help goes much deeper than helping through the auspices of a congregation. So I’ll call helping here “helping with a small h.” But in this normal year I hope we can also explore Huge H Helping—the work of healing and transforming this hurting, grieving, violent world. Think for a moment about any of the common critiques of modern society that are floating around out there: that it is becoming increasingly fragmented, that we are becoming increasingly isolated from each other, that the mediating institutions that once provided the building blocks of community are weakening and disappearing, that we are polarized, that we gravitate online to like-minded people and end up living in digital bubbles of sameness, that we no longer know our neighbors, that we witness callousness, insensitivity and violence far too often without challenging it. I want us to be a congregation that inspires its members and friends to intentionally and courageously subvert these trends. I want us to be the people who fill the gaps and holes and broken places that have opened up in our society. Yes, we need you to help here. But the world needs you to help everywhere. The world needs us to take actions that overcome fragmentation and isolation. The world needs us to be generous, kind, trusting, fair, hospitable and unselfish everywhere. And in the midst of pain, violence, terror, poverty, racism and so many other abuses of power, the world needs us to be present, to respond with love and courage, to seek healing and justice. That’s Huge H Helping. I am hopeful that in this normal year of ministry—this year of no transitions—we can deepen our resolve and capacity to respond to the world’s immense hurt whether we’re doing it here at UUS:E, or as part of larger movements for social and environmental justice, or as individuals just going about our days. I am hopeful that in this normal year in ministry, we can deepen our identity as people who help when help is needed. That’s what I’m looking forward to this year.

Belonging and Helping. Two deep human longings. In the coming year, may we meet each other in the midst of these longings and discover together some great measure of their fulfillment. Amen and blessed be.

[1] Cox, Harvey, The Future of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009) p. 1.

[2] Prothero, Stephen, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperOne, 2010) p. 7.

[3] Ritchie, Susan, “Let the Wrong Ones In” in Montgomery, Kathleen, ed., Bless the Imperfect (Boston: Skinner House, 2014) p. 35.

Addressing Patriotism from a UU Perspective

What Patriotism Means to Me

by David Garnes 

Good morning, everyone:

When I was a very little boy, I’m told that whenever I was outdoors and saw a flag flying, I stopped to salute it. Clearly, this was a ritual that must have been taught to me by someone, and I suspect my grandmother may have been the culprit. This would have been in the waning days of World War II, when such a gesture would have been viewed warmly and affectionately by all who witnessed me making it. I’m sure I basked in the attention, but I’m also sure I had no idea what I was doing.

I think later on in school when we pledged allegiance to  the flag that was displayed above the blackboard, I was engaging in another ritual that became so routine that it lost whatever meaning it might have originally had. On Flag Day in 1954 the phrase “under god” was added to the end of “one nation” in the pledge. This may have added some religious weight to the pledge, but for me it didn’t make it any more meaningful.

Saluting the flag is one of the most typical examples one might cite of showing at least a cursory acknowledgment of patriotism, but  I’m not sure that as the years went by that I ever developed a concept of what that word might really mean to me.

More recently, patriotism has become one of those words that seem to have been appropriated, along with liberalism, to connote something or someone quite different from how I might view it or them. Interestingly, however, one of our early patriots, once wrote:

“In the future, mankind will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protections of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations of justice and liberality.” Does anyone know who said that?…Well, it was the father of our country, George Washington, no less.

I find it interesting and not a little sad that over the course of our nation’s history, several of our national holidays have to do with war—Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day when it was established after the Civil War; Veteran’s Day, formerly Armistice Day, to mark the ending of World War I. The Fourth of July, though the most celebratory of our patriotic holidays is also directly connected to the outcome of a violent struggle.

The word “patriot” came into official public use most notably with the establishment in various states of a Patriot’s Day, in some states spelled ‘s, in others s’, and usually celebrated on April 19. This is in commemoration of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. So the word has come to have a connotation that leans somewhat towards military associations, or at least a “my country right or wrong” attitude, most notably in times of war. And it is absolutely American in the events it commemorates, those shots heard around the world.. You almost can’t think of the word patriot without having the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy pop into your head.

But patriotism has come in recent years to define political party affiliation as well. It has become a word that is often used to compare and criticize and separate, not to unify, heal, and work for a common purpose. Like liberalism, it’s a somewhat loaded word, particularly in our contemporary American culture. You can be judged as a person by how you fit into someone’s notion of what being a patriot means.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our most eloquent Unitarians and a vastly influential public figure in his day, once wrote:  “I confess I am a little cynical on some topics & when a whole nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice I am fain (meaning “inclined”) to explore the cleanness of its hands & the purity of its heart. I have generally found the gravest & most useful citizens are not the easiest provoked to swell the noise tho’ they may be punctual at polls,” end of quote (in other words, quietly taking advantage of civic opportunities to vote for those who are for the good of the country.”. That quote is from Emerson’s  Miscellaneous Journals.

In some ways, in our 21st century, we have almost outgrown the notion most commonly related to patriotism—that is, a fervent love of one’s own country—or to show strong patriotic feelings in that regard. If we confine patriotism to the love of a concept that is bordered by nationalistic ideals—just to our own country—I do  think we’re ignoring  the amazingly shrinking planet we inhabit.

Isolationism, building walls, patriotism bordering on xenophobia, taking steps backward from ties to other nations—these actions do not seem the best way to proceed. It’s hard not to see the exiting of Britain from the European Union as a kind of pride or love of country that harkens back to a time that is long gone, one where exclusivity triumphs over inclusivity.

Our UU principles, if we take them seriouisly, really demand interaction with everyone. Geographically, and in other ways, we may be separated both within our nation and with other nations, but the world is no longer a place where borders can serve the purpose of isolating and excluding.

If we’re to continue on a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, we need to do so in a world where we accept one another and where justice, equality, and compassion in human relations is the norm, and where we begin to exist as a world community. All these words and concepts permeate our principles. It’s all there. I’m so struck in re-reading our principles at how “universal” and forward-thinking they are as a necessary guide for future global behavior. Universal patriotism, I’d guess you’d say.

I want to end with a quote from one of my personal heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt. In her fruitful and influential life after FDR and the White House, she once wrote:  “True patriotism springs from a belief in the dignity of the individual, freedom and equality not only for Americans but for all people on earth, universal brotherhood and good will, and a constant and earnest striving toward the principles and ideals on which this country was founded.”


by Robert Sehi

My view of what is Patriotism has vastly changed since I was in Vietnam.  Its progress in me also relates to the rest of this message.  A Patriot is defined a person who loves and strongly supports or fights for his or her country.  That is how it is defined.  Often this has a connotation that incorporates some vision of the military.  Along with patriotism, we will also hear a lot in the near future about nationalism.  Nationalism is defined as a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.  I believe at this time in our nation’s history, we need to understand that both can be good and bad.

They are closely defined yet can be vastly different.  Both offer good and bad.  When I speak of nationalism on the positive side, what I mean is the type of desire of our nation to come out ahead without specifically separating people into categories.  How many of us would like to see the U.S.A. do great in the Olympics?  Maybe even in the World Soccer Championships? How much do we cheer when the women’s soccer team, and what a phenomenon they are, continually does so well in the world of soccer.

A personal example was my opportunity to perform as a balloon artist during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.  I stood in front of the coliseum that was fenced off, yet it was very clear what was happening in the track and field competition.  There were probably 4 to 5 thousand people milling around and suddenly we heard the beginning of our National Anthem.  All around me suddenly it got very quiet.  At the conclusion the roar of “USA, USA” was near deafening and I had chills and tears in my eyes. This was our Olympics.  USA’s!  What I witnessed were people of every ethnic background one can imagine cheering as well.  See, they too were American citizens and this was their Olympic as much as it was mine.  We were proud together.  In the other Nationalism, there is a connotation that one group of people should be in charge or in power over another minority group because, “it has always been that way.”  It may be due to a sense of superiority or perhaps a xenophobic response to anxiety.  The anxiety that you are losing your position in the community, in the labor market, or any other place of perceived right that is now being taken from you because of another group of people who are not like you.  You may have heard it with the remark, “we want our country back,” during President Obama’s first run as president.  There is some of that same connotation in the current political scene both here and overseas.

Patriotism supports or “fights” for his country.  I want us to note the word “fight.”  Remove any idea that this is a reference only to military.  In that quote about patriotism, the word love was also used.  Now I am going to share how I see patriotism.  Granted, this is not universal, and some may even think it is too altruistic and not realistic.  However, I would counter if we look at our country we will see how being a Patriot means to love, support and fight for it.  In the 1850’s there were church’s in the southern part of the U.S. that supported and preached, using scriptures, that slavery of the black population was proper under God’s eyes.  It took a Civil War to get the emancipation proclamation signed and though it freed many slaves in that time, the African Americans rights have yet to be fully experienced.  Yet, we have numerous laws that have passed moving this intention forward.  If you had told me in 1968 that we would have a black president someday I would have scoffed.  Not in my lifetime.  Many people have fought to make these movements happen with the idea that their country, the one they love, can be better.  Women’s suffrage began in 1848, yet it was not until August of 1920 that women received the right to vote.  One can hear the clamor about letting “women” vote.  If anyone saw the movie “Lincoln,” you can hear some of the background statements along this line in the debate about the emancipation proclamation.  Yet, women marched, suffered, struggled, because they loved this country and knew it could do better.  We could move forward as a country.  Who knows, perhaps in my lifetime I will also see a woman president.  Let me add something here that most people don’t think about.  As many of you are aware, I am a Vietnam Veteran.  On January 21 1977, President Carter pardoned those who were identified as draft dodgers.  There were many who protested this pardon and needless to say there was some nasty rhetoric.  I became aware that many of these draft dodgers had not only done what they felt was right for themselves.  Perhaps they chose not to fight a war they felt was wrong for their country.  Can you see this may also be a patriotic act?  Perhaps the most recent evidence we move forward is in the movement of the LGBT-Q community and the civil rights that are slowly being accumulated for this community as well.  The 1969 Stonewall shootings are a testimony of people who knew and took action to state that the country should do better.  Some lost their lives.  We are moving forward.  I have also seen the dark side of “patriotism” in statements like, “love it or leave it.”  The division of our great country on Vietnam where those who opposed it were considered unpatriotic whereas others believed it was not just.  After 9/11, remember instead of saying French fries, people changed them to “freedom fries?”  There was even an accusation that our current President is not patriotic because he does not use a certain phrase that some people feel is necessary to instill some sort of imagined bravado before our enemies.

As you can see, I keep mentioning this movement forward.  To me this is what a Patriot is.  A person, in whatever capacity they can, who works towards the betterment of our society that comprises all types of people.  People who are of different skin color, ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, different sexual orientation and identification, or any other category you can name.  Yes, many if not most of us will be rooting for the U.S. team at the Olympics this year.  That is a kind of good nationalism.  Patriotism is taking the ideals of this great country and moving them forward.  We do not need to make American great again, it is already great.  It is becoming greater.  We still have to fight for certain rights of individuals and groups of people.  Yet, when it is accomplished, it is recognized as quite an achievement, and for the most part our country accepts these changes.  Yes, I will defend this great nation in its lofty goals, in its concept of democracy, equality for all, and it is incumbent that this movement move forward – and this will continue long after I am gone.  A patriot may be a soldier, it may be a draft dodger, it may be a Muslim, it may be a some with a “alternative lifestyle”, a different color of skin, speaks a different language, but the ideal of the United States is moving forward.  Forward to the ideals and the aspirations of the founders of the country to establish a country founded on principles of equality, of fairness, where a populace participated in the rule of law and the changes to it.  I am damn proud to call you my fellow Patriots.  It is happening.  May it continue – we have a way to go, but we are making progress – believe Patriots.

I would like to finish with two quotes:

One from Giuseppe Mazzini

God has given you your country as a cradle, and humanity as a mother; you cannot rightly love your brethren of the cradle if you love not the common mother.

(Giuseppe Mazzini was an Italian politician, journalist and activist for the unification of Italy and spearheaded the Italian revolutionary movement.  His effort helped bring about the independent and unified Italy in place of the several separate states, many dominated by foreign powers that existed until the 19th century.  He also helped define modern European movement for popular democracy in a republican state.)

The second is on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty which says:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

We, the Patriots, who are sometimes nationalists as well, are the foundation of this promise as well as for the greatest experiment in freedom ever attempted on the face of the earth.  Our Constitution of the United States.  May you have a happy 4th of July.

A Remote Important Region

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Josh at Ministry Days“And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, / a remote important region in all who talk”[1]—words from twentieth-century American poet, William E. Stafford. I don’t pretend to know what the poet meant by the phrase, “a remote important region,” though I suspect it was something he felt, something essential in us he imagined must be real and must be accessible. But it isn’t easily accessible. It is shadowy, remote.

As we come to the end of the 2015-2016 congregational year, I want to reflect on a theme that has caught my heart and with which I’ve been wrestling in my preaching over the past year. Maybe Stafford didn’t have words for this remote, important region; or maybe he did but he didn’t want to name it explicitly; and maybe this isn’t what he meant at all: but when I encounter this appeal “to something shadowy, / a remote, important region,” I imagine he is talking about the body. I imagine he is talking about our physical, sensual bodies that breathe deeply as they enter into worship, sit quietly and comfortably, rise to sing, light chalice flames, meditate and pray, share joys and concerns, give money, hold hands, hug and love; our physical, sensual bodies that revel in pleasure and beauty; our bodies that grow, age, decline, forget, and eventually die; our bodies that witness and sometimes experience horrors and thus hold stress, anxiety, pain; feel fear, anger, despair. Our bodies—shadowy, remote, but utterly important regions. Why remote? Because for too long our faith, like our larger western culture, has kept the body separate from the mind. You’ve heard me come back to this claim again and again this year.

We know body and mind aren’t separate. Anyone who practices yoga or Buddhist meditation has some inkling of this non-separateness, this non-duality. Mystics, healers, yogis, gurus, sages, TED talkers, therapists, life coaches and UU ministers tell us all the time of this non-separateness. I’m telling you again right now. And yet somehow, in practice, our faith, like our larger western culture, resists this knowledge. Religiously speaking, the body remains shadowy, remote. “I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty,” says Stafford, “to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.”

Let’s face it (and I don’t mean this metaphorically): the Unitarian Universalism we inherit is not a deeply embodied faith. Those of you who attended Thomas Moore’s lecture here last weekend heard me say this to him. Historically we favor mind, ideas, words, talk. We stack books by our bedsides. Our clergy start sermons quoting poems. We may not identify as Abrahamic “people of the book,” but surely we are people of the word. Whether we care to admit it or not, we’re good Protestants who privilege the word in worship, expecting preachers to prove their point through reasoned argument. So many of our congregations debate whether it’s OK to clap or shout amen or hallelujah in worship. Sometimes the music moves us so much we want to physically move, but we’re not sure it’s ok. Sex education is great for our children, but feels dicey for adults. And most importantly for my purposes this morning, we’re often unable or unwilling to move anywhere until we’ve crafted the perfect mission and vision statements. We want to get the words right. But the body doesn’t typically occur to us as a religiously significant region. It is remote. Those of you who hail from less wordy faith traditions couldn’t stay there for many good reasons, but sometimes you whisper to me privately that you miss the ritual, the darkness, the incense, the spiritedness, hands raised high, even a living, incarnate God. You miss the invitation to live religiously in the body. We stay mired in mind, which, given what we know about non-separateness, is irrational.

This is what I’ve been coming to terms with over the last year: our minds are sharp and we don’t want to lose them, but alone they are insufficient for the ministry our era demands. There is a growing dissonance between the vision our words proclaim and our bodies’ knowledge of the world. Are you one who has felt this dissonance? We envision a world made fair, a glorious, golden city, a land where justice rolls down like waters. “The moral arc of the universe is long,” we say with Parker and King, “but it bends towards justice.” Do we ever pause to consider whether these wonderful, hopeful visions are remotely realistic? Do we ever peer beneath them to explore honestly what we must do to achieve them and how radically different our lives would be if they became our reality?

Fifty people gunned down on Latinx night at a gay night club in Orlando, FL. Is it possible our vision of a world free of violence is growing not closer but more distant? When we proclaim visions of a world free of racism, sexism, homophobia, violence, or fossil fuel consumption, does something shadowy in you feel dissonance? Do you wonder in some remote region of you how on earth this is really going to happen? Do you get a flash of maybe it won’t happen? And if you do, how quickly do you put it aside? How swiftly does it rise up in you only to find no outlet, only to have your mind tell you not to speak it because it may be misunderstood, may sound cynical, faint-hearted, privileged, or worse, like you’re not a real Unitarian Universalist. Do you tell yourself you shouldn’t feel this way? And what way is it exactly? If you probe, is there hopelessness or despair churning your stomach, tensing your shoulders, dizzying your head? And might you suddenly feel guilty, ashamed or weak for feeling this way? Yet this is one way the body tries to speak in our era. Let’s learn to listen.

Let’s face it. We name wonderful visions Sunday after Sunday, year after year—and I intend to keep naming them—but the naming hasn’t been enough to stem the tide of oppression, income inequality, global warming and so much needless violence. Despite our words, and despite all our good work and the work of so many others, those things are getting worse, not better. No doubt our words help people feel hopeful—and that matters—that is part of our ministry—but let’s come down from the mountaintop of our minds and join our bodies in the desert where they’re already facing it: facing extreme weather patterns and hottest years on record; facing gun violence in the home and almost daily mass shootings; facing opioid addiction; facing mental illness; facing decreasing life expectancy, a hollowed out American middle class looking for work that doesn’t exist, political polarization; the trauma of endless war, terrorism and its threat; mass incarceration, racist police violence, modern slavery, tens of millions of stateless people; and reactionary backlash to any effort to address any of it in a principled, peaceful and just manner. Sometimes it is too much for the mind to take in, but our bodies feel it whether our minds think and reason and vision or not. Our bodies know something of how deep it goes. Just remember how you felt as news of the Orlando shooting unfolded. Unless we can integrate this body-knowledge into our religious lives, our beautiful, hopeful, visionary words will come, in time, to mean nothing.

I was moved by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a letter to his son explaining the historical and ongoing violence against Black bodies in the United States. I preached about it on Martin Luther King Sunday. Coates counsels his son—and his readers—not to become too dependent on visions of a better world. He says, “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.”[2] “You must wake up each morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all.”[3] Hard words. But he’s facing what his body knows! His words collapse the distance between body and mind. Lay the vision aside for a moment. Consult your flesh-bone-and-blood body that breathes and bleeds, laughs and cries, ponders and thinks, makes love, gives birth, ages, dies. What is the body capable of doing in this moment? That question matters as much as what our vision is. Coates’ answer is struggle. It sounds hard. It sounds barren. But he offers to his son as a path to integrity and wholeness. “You are called to struggle,” he says, “not because it assures you of victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.” The more I sit with this, the more I realize I find it so much more hopeful than repeating the words of a vision whose realization grows more distant with each passing year. 

Bishop John Selders of Hartford’s Amistad United Church of Christ is a great friend of this congregation. He was deeply moved by his experiences in Ferguson, MO in the months following the police killing of Michael Brown. He returned from a visit there in December, 2014 and, at a meeting of clergy to discuss convening yet another dialogue with police he said “No. I’m done trying to talk the system out of racism.” What he learned in Ferguson, and what he was teaching us is that it’s time for the creative use of our bodies in the struggle against racism. It’s time for the physical disruption of business as usual. It’s time to take streets. These are the lessons of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. Social justice movements need our bodies as much—or more—than they need our words. As one who’s invested much in the talk of social justice, it was hard for me to transition to body-based struggle. I’ve named that from this pulpit a number of times. I’ve always been affirmed for using words. Would embodied struggle receive the same affirmation? But what a difference it has made for me to say nothing with my mouth and everything with my body, to stand in a street blocking traffic because Black Lives Matter, to spend an evening in jail. And how much more powerful the words that finally do come when the mind speaks what the body knows.

I’ve come to understand over the years many Unitarian Universalists feel paralyzed when it comes to social justice work, not because they don’t agree with the various causes, but because the distance between body and mind is so great. It’s counter-cultural for us, but it’s time to start naming the concerns, pain, anxiety, shakiness, nervousness, hopelessness and despair that can live in the body. This is the leadership our faith needs now. As we name what our bodies know, we give permission for others not only to name it, but to sing, dance, pray and laugh it. As we name what our bodies know, we’ll be making this important region less remote.

There’s a story making its way around the internet. Bill Graver sent it to me a few weeks ago. The teacher asks a group of young students to list the seven wonders of the world. They name the usual Pyramids, Great Wall, Taj Majal, etc. One student isn’t sure she understands. “Well, tell us what you have; we’ll help,” says the teacher. The student hesitates but then says, “it’s different for different people, but the seven wonders of the world are that we can see, taste, smell, hear, touch, feel, and love.” Friends: before we appeal to our lofty, beautiful visions of a world made fair, Let us learn to consult our bodies? The question is not only What do I think about what’s happening? The question is What does the body know about what’s happening? And a corollary: What is the body capable of doing in this moment? And as we ask, let’s be ready to encounter and welcome the hopelessness and despair that lives in our bodies. Let’s face it. Let’s see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it, feel it, love it. We may have to reign in our vision, but we will move farther than we thought possible.

And let us remember: the body doesn’t only hold the world’s pain. It holds the world’s joy too. In a faith community that understands the body as religiously significant, not only does our hopelessness and despair become speakable and thus more manageable, our joy and ecstasy become speakable too. Bringing the body in opens avenues for eye contact, touch, color, fragrance, dance, art, intuition, dreaming; for ‘let’s break bread together,’ for the creative occupation of space in the service of social justice struggle, and for the rediscovery of ritual, darkness, incense, spiritedness, hands raised high in praise, a living, incarnate God and a reenchanted world.

May our bodies find their home in our faith. May we learn to hear their voice. May we struggle for what matters. And may our lives be honorable and sane.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Stafford, William E., “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” See:

[2] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015) p. 70.

[3] Coates, Between the World and Me, pp. 70-71.

Those Who Serve, Families at Home

Lauriston King

David Garnes

Jim Adams

Reflections on a Memorial Day Service, May 29, 2016

Lauriston King

For me growing up in the years before time, Memorial Day meant putting on my high-top Keds, my flannel Little League uniform, marching down East Hartford’s Main Street in the morning, and getting to play ball that afternoon. Sometime over the weekend we would go on a family picnic up to Henry Park in Rockville.  Other than noticing the flags on veterans’ graves, reveling in the long weekend that delivered summer, and the newspapers filled with ads, I knew little about Memorial Day.

At its core, Memorial Day honors the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. (In that respect, it’s distinct from Veterans’ Day which honors all veterans.) In the years following the Civil War it was known as Decoration Day for the tradition of placing flowers on the graves of the fallen.  There continues to be argument about the who, when, and how of the first Decoration Day; sharp differences between the Union and Confederacy over when to hold the ceremonies; and how it changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day.  But the heart, the intent of the day, still rings true in the words of the Union general, John Logan, who called for a nationwide day of remembrance: “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

The name, Memorial Day, did not come into widespread use until after World War II. It was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967.  Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act the following year (June 28, 1968) that moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. (See, government can do good.) This moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date (the historical premise being that flowers were in abundant bloom) to the last Monday in May.

 So, here we are on a Memorial Day weekend, nearly 150 years later, with the experience of regional wars, two world wars,  numerous military efforts to overthrow distasteful governments, and the dispiriting sense of war without end. Indeed, earlier this month marked the date when the Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Obama, had been at war longer than any president in American history.

If we allow ourselves to think beyond the Weekend Spirit of Memorial Day, we find ourselves, as members of a liberal religious community, in the uncomfortable position of typically being against war and wary of those who seek to fire up the coarse emotions drive countries to war. At the same time, we want to support those who serve, as well as commit our military strength to defend those unable to defend themselves, no matter where terror and oppression strive to destroy lives and freedom.

Let me share a few brief thoughts on ways liberal religious communities might wrestle with these often opposing positions.

First, it is our responsibility, defined by our principles — dignity, respect, truth, justice, equity, democracy, care of the earth — to demand an open, public, and hard look at any call to war.

I say this because respect for citizens in a democratic republic demands it.

I say it because it has become way too easy to go to war in this country.  In the title of Geoffrey Perret’s 1989 book, we are A Nation Made by War.  It should not be easy for powerful people to suppress dissent by conjuring up the magic spell of National Security.

And, I say it because presidents and politicians lie.  Recall Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin, Iraq and “weapons of mass destruction”.

Second, it is our responsibility to know the political history of how, when, and with what rationalizations political people have committed our citizens to war.  Over the past few years I’ve been reading some of that history. I’ve lived through some 60 years of it and thought I knew something about what was going on.  I clearly did not.  What historians, biographers, and other scholars have found in looking at over 100 years of American wars is a pattern of overt and covert military force to support corporate interests; imperialist ambition; poor to non-existent intelligence; unfounded fears of weak adversaries, and an always fluid roster of new “enemies”.  All compounded by  an arrogance of power and willful ignorance of other countries and their cultures.  Simply put, we need to know how, by whom, and why we got into war so that we can gear up our informed skepticism the next time we hear that awful cliché, “boots on the ground.”

Third, it is our responsibility to understand the fundamental changes that have reshaped our relationship to war, and, more specifically to those who bear arms.  War is now waged in our name without specific declaration, with little shared financial sacrifice, with a small professional volunteer force, with legions of civilian contractors and complex technologies, and with no clear understanding of what victory means.  The citizen soldier has been replaced by the National Security State.

The issue here is the growing gulf between those who go into battle and the society from which they come.  We live in an age of spectator wars.  We watch combat on television, in movies, and through video games.  The harsh reality of death in war touches fewer and fewer families and communities.  Consider that some 625,000 died in the Civil War, where, in General Logan’s words, their “bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Compare these numbers to the 7100 lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Few cities, villages, or hamlet churchyards hold them. I have not known them.  I have not known their families. I doubt that I’m alone here. This increasingly huge gap between the very small number who serve and the much larger society raises basic issues of fairness, shared sacrifice, and social support for them.

That said, we have an immediate responsibility to respect and honor those whose lives have been taken in service to the country.  That is why we have Memorial Day.  That is why we acknowledge Memorial Day in a worship service. It is not a celebration of war but a reminder of the cost of war. Our civic duty to question, challenge, and dispute those in power must not obscure our responsibility to those who serve. We cannot allow that to happen.  Those who serve are our families, our friends, our neighbors.

One powerful reminder of these ties is the stories of those we do know, as we will hear from David Garnes and Jim Adams. Jim’s wife, Sylvia Ounpuu, has graciously agreed to stand in for Jim, as he is not able to be here today.

David Garnes

I’d like to begin by reading a poem from a book I wrote:

It’s called “After the War Was Over: December 1945.”

Standing on the cold and crowded station platform

Pushed against trousers of scratchy wool

The boy nestles in the fragrance of his mother’s coat

They’re meeting the man in the photo on the piano

The tall sailor in Navy whites holding the hand

Of the little boy straining to meet his grip

The son’s tiny white cap perches on his mass of curls

Not as comfortably as the father’s, worn with easy

Swagger atop his sun- bleached butch


First a far-off whistle then a single piercing light

As the huge engine lumbers in on screeching wheels

His mother’s nails dig into the boy’s mittened palm

Smudged faces are visible from every window and

Hands wave wildly to the sounds of muffled shouts

A sharp hiss of air and the steel steps are lowered

The sailor is first off the train and taller than anyone

He sweeps the boy’s mother in a fierce embrace

That knocks her felt tam to the dirty boarded floor

Your hat! Mommy your hat! Cries the boy


Then his turn comes

And he’s lifted high overhead where

He hangs suspended in the frosty air

He reaches out to his smiling mother

Mindful of the space between them

Hurting from the tight grip of unfamiliar hands

Smelling a scent different from the one he knows


As you may have guessed, the scared little boy is me, and the returning sailor is my father, James “Jim” Garnes, whom I was seeing for the first time in my memory. This in fact is one of my very earliest memories, one that has stayed particularly vivid in my mind. Though it was a big day no matter how you look at it, I think for me it represented the beginning of a relationship that I’m convinced was partially formed by the circumstances of war.

I was a pre-World War II baby. I was four months old on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. My mother told me in later years that I was asleep in my crib, she was doing the dishes, and my dad was listening to a football game on the Philco radio in the living room.

My father enlisted in the Navy because he wanted a choice of where to serve when it became apparent that married men with children would be drafted. He left for boot camp and eventually the Pacific before I was two years old and I didn’t see him again for several years.

Always a quiet, somewhat introverted person, he apparently was even more so in his first years back from the war. He was a stranger to me, but I suppose I’d become somewhat a stranger to him, since I had evolved from a baby into a youngster getting ready to start school. Moreover, I’d been pampered by my mother and my aunt and my grandmother, with whom we lived during the war. Why was this new, large arrival—my father was nearly 6 feet 5 inches tall—why was he getting all the attention? It wasn’t easy for either of us.

Nor had it been easy for those on the homefront during the war. My family was lucky in many ways. Women with children were not great candidates for jobs. My mother began work at the Mass Mutual Life Insurance Compny in Springfield in 1943, the very week they began to hire married women for the first time. Also, my grandmother, my dad’s mother, was home to take care of me while my mother was at work. Women working in companys that had unions also found that the unions themselves were not necessarily in favor of day care centers at work, since they feared it would give too much power to management. As I mentioned above, it was not an easy time.

I’d like to say that over the years my father and I became best buddies, but that was not the case. As an adult I developed a polite relationship with him and we got along “OK.” We just never connected, and in some ways he remained the stranger I’d met at the train station years earlier. However, my father and brother, born in the suburbs eight years after me in 1949, had a much closer relationship, and in retrospect at least, I’m very glad of that for both of them.

The times I remember the most were when I could get my dad to talk about the war. He didn’t much, but when he did, I remembered everything he told me about the typhoon his LST ship navigated through, the kamikaze attacks that were frequent towards the end of the war, and his participation in the battle of Okinawa. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the very thing that separated us in my early years on this planet and his early years as a father was what provided the most vivid, connecting conversations that we had.

The presence of war in those very early years of  my life and in his young adulthood and our absence from each other during this time certainly may have created a roadblock that made resuming—or, really, creating—a close relationship difficult. On the other hand, had the war had not occurred, there may still have been a certain distance between us. Who knows? Whatever…It’s that kind of “What if?” question that many, perhaps most, of us carry around, unresolved, regarding one thing or another.

World War II has been called the “good” war. I understand the term—there truly seemed no alternative but to get in the fight in 1941—but I’m not so sure I’d ever use that adjective to describe war. Remember: World War I, a scant 23 years earlier, had been “the war to end all wars.” And so it goes.

Perhaps because the spectre of war is so awful and the maintaining of freedom so tenuous, we tend to embellish our holidays and days of remembrance with traditions that go beyond the original intent of the particular observance. I think Memorial Day family gatherings and parades and visits to cemeteries to remember all those who have gone before are fine. Anything that strengthens the sense of community and acknowledges the value of human connection is worthy to be observed. Memorial Day mattress sales, on the other hand, I find more questionable!

War and death affect everyone, and in closing I would like personally to acknowledge the originally intended meaning of Memorial Day. As Lorry mentioned, it began as “Decoration Day” to honor the dead of the Civil War. My grandmother, for example, always called it that.

I want to name an Air Force officer whose all-too-real death was the first I’d personally experienced of someone actively serving in the military. I had a good college friend, Francis Driscoll, who graduated a year after I did and then served in Vietnam beginning in 1965. Fran was a pilot and bailed out from his damaged plane over Laos in 1968. His parachute failed to open, and the location of his remains is unknown.

High Flight

Jim Adams

The sun was just starting to come up and I sensed it as my eyes slowly opened, with the sound of the highway reverberating through the floor of our 1962 Ford station wagon.  I reached under the mattress that I was laying on, the one my Dad had wrestled into the car the night before in preparation for our journey half way across the country, and pulled out 5 fresh issues of Mad magazine that I had been saving for this trip.  I had made sure not to read a single page before I had hid them under my bed at home, one each month leading up to our departure.  My Mom and Dad, brother and sister, and I were on the road somewhere in the southeast US, as we did at least twice every year, headed for my parent’s hometown, Chrisman, Illinois.  For me, it was like a trip to Disney Land.  We were going on vacation; a week of rough housing with cousins, dinners with Grandparents, Aunts, and Uncles, working on the farm, and riding ponies.  But for now, as I began enunciating to my increasingly annoyed father who was at the wheel, I really needed to go to the bathroom.

I grew up in a military family, my father an Air Force pilot, and my Mother the dedicated wife who took tremendous pride in her role as a military wife, homemaker, kid raiser, and as my Dad would say, the one who “held down the fort”.  I had lived in 8 different towns by the time I was 14, and grew to think of life as being lived in segments, where friendships were temporary, and new and exciting adventures were always just ahead at my Dad’s next assignment.  We lived in Florida (twice), Japan (2 different homes), Tennessee, Illinois, Virginia, and finally Texas, where I would graduate from high school and college.  Yes, military life involved lots of moving, often with minimal advanced notice and always without any choice.  You went where they sent you.

As a kid, I never gave this routine much thought.  It’s just the way life was.  You get to try lots of schools, after a couple of years exploring a neighborhood and settling into a house, you’re not surprised when its time to move again.  And your Dad is just gone a lot; sometimes for a few nights, sometimes for months, and sometimes for a year or more.  I asked my Mom how it felt when he was gone and if she worried about him, especially the time he left suddenly one night during the Cuban missile crisis, or in 1966 when he was sent to Vietnam.  And here is what she had to say:

 “I was very proud of Rob (that’s my Dad) and knew he was an excellent pilot.  Sure, I worried, but at the same time I had every confidence in his ability.  I think it was hardest when he was in Vietnam as I went long periods without hearing from him but, thank God, I had you kids and family to help me through that time.  Having you three kids was a blessing to me, I loved being a parent; I truly loved my job!!!  The other wives became like family and we counted on each other in so many ways, kept ourselves busy with wives clubs, lunches, bridge, and just being there for one another.  Military life to me was a great privilege and I am quite proud to say I was a Military Wife!  I am so proud of your Dad.  Life with him has truly been a pleasure, maybe a little bumpy at times, but I loved it!!!”

There is no doubt that the most significant period for our family was when my Dad was sent to Vietnam.  We kids were too young to understand the gravity of the situation, but my Mom must have been very aware.  At the time, my Dad flew C-130 cargo planes, and though he wasn’t actually involved in battle, he flew into it, and he was lucky enough to come back alive after 1½  years.  But so many didn’t.  My Dad didn’t talk much about what he did, but I remember 2 of his stories well.  One of his jobs was to deliver paratroopers to the front lines.  They would sit quietly in the back of the plane during the several hours it took to reach their destination, and when they were a couple of minutes from the drop zone, my Dad would reach down and flip on a yellow light to warn them.  In a matter of seconds, they would all be on their feet, running in place, yelling, preparing themselves for the task ahead.  In the cockpit, my Dad could feel the plane shaking and hear their warrior chorus.  When they reached the drop zone, my Dad would flip on a green light, and open the aft cargo door, exposing the jungles of Vietnam several hundred feet below.  And immediately, the soldiers would start running in line out the back of the plane, and slowly, the shaking and the noise would subside until there was just the drone of the engines.  They were on their way.

Unfortunately, another of his stories involved soldiers again, possibly some of the same ones he carried before.  But this time there was only the drone of the engines.   Because some of his missions involved hauling the remains of soldiers back from the front lines in preparation for their return home.  As I said, my Dad never talked about things much, but I remember him saying how he so disliked these missions.  So many young men, and some women, never made it home like my Dad did.   On this Memorial Day, its important that we never forget them, their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of their families.

The other thing that was significant about my Dad’s tour of duty in Vietnam was that for the first time, the family got to choose where we wanted to live while he was away.  I’m not sure of all the reasons my parents chose the town they did, but for me, it was an absolute dream come true.  We were going to live in Chrisman, the special place I had visited so many times and come to think of as simply magical.  Where my Dad had been captain of the basketball team, my Mom a head cheerleader, with my cousins in their amazing Victorian home with ponies in the barn, my Uncle’s farm with so many chores, the town square with Wednesday night movies, the local drive in with root beer, a grandpa, 2 grandmas, and an Aunt that made me feel so special every time I saw her.  To this day, there had never been a place where I felt so much at home, but like all the other places before, when my Dad returned after a year and a half, we were packing up again and heading for Virginia.  On the day before we left, I can still remember running out the back door of my Aunts house, stopping at the edge of her garden, and bawling my eyes out.  Please don’t make me leave.  Of all the moves we made before and after, this was the only one that affected me this way.

As I think back on that wonderful town of Chrisman, I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my parents to leave after my Dad graduated from college as a 2nd Lieutenant.  They were in their 20s, still newlyweds, with a 6 week old baby, leaving the only place they had ever known as home.  I don’t think either of them had ever travelled any more than 100 miles from Chrisman.   But that would change.  They were now off to join a new family, their military family, which would bring them adventure, so many good times, support during rough times, and a sense of pride that they cherish to this day.    When I asked my Mom about this chapter in her life, here’s what she had to say:

I always said I never wanted to leave Chrisman, but alas and alack, that’s what happened.   I was excited yet hated to leave the folks and family.  Rob came to Chrisman when Charlie (my older brother) was just 6 weeks old, picked us up, and we headed for Tucson, Arizona.   We arrived on January 1st, having traveled through a huge blizzard.  We didn’t realize just how lucky we were when we found a motel open and stopped for the night.  Other wise we may have been stranded on the road as many other’s were.  I was so homesick.  But again, I was so proud to becoming a Military Wife, seeing sights I had never imagined seeing.  Cotton fields, orange groves, living in Japan, having two children there, one buried there.  Living in seven states, traveling through many more.  It was an experience I never dreamed of living.  I would do it all over again!!!

As long as I can remember, there has been a poem hanging on the wall of our house that my Mom had hung up long ago, a prayer of sorts I had always assumed applied just to my Dad.  But I realize now that in many ways, it was true for all of our family, especially my Mom.  I close with “High Flight”, by John Gillespie Magee, an American pilot in the Royal Canadian Airforce, who died during World War II at age 19:


Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds

And done a hundred things you have not dreamed of,

Wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.

Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along

And flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long delirious burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,

Where never lark, or even eagle, flew;

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand and touched the face of God.


On the Art of Being Lost

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”[1] These words from the Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau ring true to me. They echo the wisdom of more ancient spiritual teachers. The Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, said “Do not be an embodier of fame; do not be a storehouse of schemes; do not be an undertaker of projects…. Embody to the fullest what has no end and wander where there is no trail.”[2] Jesus said “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[3] These teachers are not referring to loss in the sense of losing something or someone. They mean lost as a state of being: not knowing where you are, where you’re going; not knowing what to say, how to act; not knowing how to get back to the familiar, or if it’s even possible to do so; not feeling the solid ground beneath you. Being lost can be frightening, overwhelming, but it also offers blessings. As it takes us out of our everyday experience, away from the familiar, the comfortable, the routine, it invites us to encounter the world from a different perspective. It challenges us to find sources of strength and creativity in us we didn’t know we possessed. It may even require us to ask for help, to rely on the kindness of strangers. Our world actually gets larger. In the process we learn something about ourselves. We wake up, we stretch, we grow, we break through, we transform. These are blessings. Getting lost from time to time is a good thing.

This makes sense to me, but I cannot remember ever being lost and thinking, Oh, great, I’m encountering the world from a different perspective. What a wonderful growth opportunity! The first thought that occurs to me when I’m lost isn’t fit for the pulpit! One of my earliest childhood memories is of being lost in a grocery store. I must have been three years old. I became separated from my mother and brothers. I remember crying very loudly. In fact, I have a memory of being outside of myself, watching myself crying from a few feet away. I was afraid but I suspect there was more than fear in my body. It was my first conscious experience of separation from my mother without knowing where she was or how I could get back to her. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that she might be gone. 

Then there was a family hike. I can’t quite remember which summer it was or which national park—it was either Yellowstone or Kejimkujik in Nova Scotia. My mother was nervous from the start, mainly due to the signs instructing us what to do in the event we encountered bears. My father, perpetually unconcerned, led us onward to a supposedly beautiful lake out in the wilderness where only the most experienced campers camped. We eventually found a small pond full of duckweed and decided that either the map was not drawn to scale, or we were lost. It turned out to be both.

But perhaps the most embarrassing experience of being lost was on my honeymoon in Italy. Steph and I were staying in a hotel in the town of Sarno about an hour’s drive east of Naples. We had spent the day exploring Pompeii and didn’t start heading back until after dark. Steph fell asleep as I drove. I soon stopped recognizing landmarks along the highway, and realized I had no idea where we were. I took a random exit. At the bottom of the ramp was a toll booth. I started speaking to the attendant in English, a reasonable thing to do since many Italians speak English. This Italian was not one of them. But instead of waking Stephany, who is relatively fluent in Italian, I panicked. I started speaking louder English to the attendant. This strategy was unsuccessful. It got worse from there. I won’t go into details, except to say it was not one of my finer moments. Steph eventually woke up. She had a long conversation with the attendant in Italian, which I suspect had very little to do with directions, and very much to do with me. We paid the toll and continued our journey. We knew from the attendant that we were heading in the right direction, though we still didn’t know how to get where we were going. As I remember it, we came upon Sarno by sheer luck. It was a long night.

All this is to say that even though the words of Thoreau, Chuang Tzu and Jesus resonate with me; even though I know being lost offers certain blessings, I don’t like the way it feels. Which is why I had originally not planned to read Thoreau’s famous words in praise of being lost, but rather a more cautionary tale from the American writer and environmentalist Barry Lopez entitled “Within Birds’ Hearing.” In this story the narrator gets lost hiking in the Mojave Desert. It’s grim. “By evening I was winded, irritated, dry hearted,” he explains after many days of wandering. “I would scrape out a place on the ground and fall asleep, too exhausted to eat. My clothing, thin and worn, began to disintegrate. I would awaken dreamless, my tongue swollen from thirst.”[4] He doesn’t speak of the wonderful things he’s learning about himself. He says, “I was overwhelmed by my own foolishness …. I knew the depths of my own stupidity.”[5] He may be having a spiritual experience, but it’s one of suffering. He may be learning about himself, but it’s a lesson of human folly and frailty. If there’s a blessing, it’s that he didn’t die. And this feels really important to me: I want to speak of the spiritual blessings of being lost, but I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s never wise to romanticize wilderness experiences. There is no way to be truly lost and entirely safe at the same time. Anyone who’s ever been truly lost in any kind of wilderness—whether in Nature or in some metaphorical wilderness—the depths of depression or grief or poverty or war—knows it can be terrifying. Lost people don’t always return. The blessings of being lost may not be worth the cost.

Well, Mary Bopp was having none of this. We started working with the Lopez story on Tuesday and she said “you’re taking all the fun out of it.” Unlike me, Mary is drawn to being lost. She told me about the dissonance she feels when visiting a foreign city with friends who want to plan the day in great detail. Rather than following paths prescribed by the local tourism bureau, Mary prefers to wander where there is no trail, to get off the beaten path. She says she enjoys the experience of solo hiking on a trail she’s never been on before. She also told me about her favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who often wrote in an early twentieth-century, late Romantic style in which the music continually modulates from key to key, so that the listener keeps losing their sense of the tonal center. Just when the listener feels like they’re arriving somewhere, the next modulation takes them in a different direction. They get lost. Different keys feel differently, offer different colors, different qualities. A modulation brings the listener into a new musical landscape. Mary loves this! She says it feels like it can go on forever, that there’s something eternal to it. She gets lost in it.

Mary’s appreciation of being lost reminds me of the historian Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She blends memoir, cultural history, nature writing and philosophy into a prolonged and varied reflection on the many ways we can be lost—lost in thought, in love, in a good story, in a city, in nature; lost as one comes of age; lost in the sense of not knowing entirely who one’s ancestors are. Solnit writes: “I love going out of my way, beyond what I know, and finding my way back a few extra miles, by another trail, with a compass that argues with the map.” She writes in praise of “nights alone in motels in remote western towns where I know no one and no one I know knows where I am, nights with strange paintings and floral spreads and cable television that furnish a reprieve from my own biography.” She writes in praise of “moments when I say to myself as feet or car clear a crest or round a bend, I have never seen this place before.”[6]

So let me pull back from my concern with being dangerously lost. Yes, it can happen. Yes, we can become so lost we may never return. But we also cannot limit our lives in fear and expect to grow spiritually. Solnit says “the word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…. I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.” I commend to you the practice of disbanding your army. I commend to you the practice of going beyond what you know. And with all seriousness but tongue somewhere near cheek, I implore you to get lost.

I remember hiking with my boys when they were younger, taking them a few hundred yards off the trail, blindfolding them, spinning them around, taking the blindfolds off, then instructing them to find their way back to the trail. At first it was an exercise in frustration. I would have to give them clues. But eventually they learned to look for landmarks as we walked away from the trail. Find the landmark. Find the way back. Over time they learned to pay attention to their surroundings, to observe and remember details in the landscape.

What trail in your life might you intentionally wander away from blindfolded and spinning? What new neighborhood, town or city might you explore without a map? What new experience do you want—or need—to have? Or consider the life-paths that lay ahead of you. Might there be one that excites you but feels just out of reach or more unknown, more difficult, more risky? Is there a way to start down that path even though you’re not sure where it leads? Or might there be some stasis that has overtaken your life; you know you need to break out of it, but breaking out would mean leaving the familiar behind, being lost for a while. Perhaps now is the time to wander where there’s no trail.

The benefits of intentionally being lost may be as simple as learning a new place, finding a new route, meeting new people, acquiring new skills, or just experiencing the joy of a nice surprise. But they may be more complex: discovering new dimensions of you, finding reservoirs of creativity, strength and resilience you didn’t know were in you. And they may come on a more explicitly spiritual level. Mystics throughout the centuries have described their ecstatic experiences of the divine in the same way we might describe being lost—entering the unknown, the dark, the cloud; feeling ungrounded, unanchored, dislocated; soaring, flying, falling, vertigo. For some being lost is a profound spiritual experience. Solnit suggests that “in relinquishing certainty we approach, if only fleetingly, the divine.”[7]

I’m suggesting we practice being lost. But I’m also mindful that we practice for a reason. Being lost is an inevitable human experience. I’m not referring to getting lost in the actual wilderness, though that is certainly a possibility. I’m referring to being lost in our lives: lost in suffering, in illness, in decline; lost when everything around us is changing; lost when we realize life isn’t unfolding as we hoped. It happens. We lose our confidence, our sense of purpose, our sense of direction. We can feel lost in our schooling, in our careers, in retirement. We can feel lost because we know what we have to do, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. We lose those we love and become lost in grief. The greatest benefit that comes from practicing being lost is that when we become lost for reasons beyond our control, we have some knowledge of how to be and what to do. We know to trust ourselves more than the map which may not be drawn to scale. We know to look for landmarks. We know panicking doesn’t help, though it may be hard to avoid. We know it may be a time to disband our armies. We know openness matters. We know patience matters. We know breathing deeply matters. We know it may be dark and cloudy for a long time, but that we can live with not knowing for longer.

When we’re lost, our world gets larger. I didn’t tell you that when I was lost and crying in the grocery store at age 3, a stranger helped me find my mother. And I didn’t tell you that when our family was lost in the woods, and we really didn’t know which way to go, a young couple happened by and gave us directions back to our car. I won’t say they saved our lives, but their chance appearance definitely kept us from spending a night in the deep woods. And I didn’t tell you that in Barry Lopez’s story about being lost in the Mojave Desert, his narrator is ultimately saved, as he puts it, by “the unceasing kindness of animals.” “Not till we are lost … do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” said Thoreau. Perhaps that is the greatest blessing of being lost: not always, but more often than not, there is someone there to help. Our world gets larger. The extent of our relations is literally infinite, but we forget this. Sometimes being lost is what helps us remember.

 Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1960) p. 118.

[2] Chuang Tzu, in Watson, Burton, tr., Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) p. 94.

[3] Matthew 10:39 (NRSV).

[4] Lopez, Barry, “Introduction: Within Birds’ Hearing,” Field Notes (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) p. 5.

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

[6] Solnit, Rebecca, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Penguin Group, 2005).

[7] “A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2005. See:

Sexism: Still Way Too Normal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

feministTwo phenomena—women’s basic economic inequality and widespread sexual violence against women—should surprise nobody. They are well-documented and receive considerable media attention. For every dollar men earn in the United States, women on average earn 79 cents.[1] In 2012 18.3% of women reported having experienced rape at some point in their lives and 19% of female college students reported an experience of rape or attempted rape since entering college. [2] Yet huge swaths of American society at best pay no attention or pay attention but don’t care and, at worst, affirm the data as consistent with a conservative, patriarchal world-view—often articulated as God’s will—that assigns women a subordinate status to men and, while claiming to honor women, imagines them not as legitimate wage-earners, not as in control of their own bodies, not as self-determining, moral decision-makers, not as heads of families, but rather as, essentially, the property, the play-things, the servants of men. This may sound overstated, but the persistence of the wage gap, sexual violence, behavioral double standards for women in the workplace and politics, inequities in funding for sports programs, inequities in funding for health research, the hyper-sexualization of women throughout society, multi-billion dollar industries causing and then preying on women’s insecurities about body image, weight, and beauty, increasing rates of sex trafficking and other forms of slavery in every state in the union, and a constant wave of smaller, daily anti-woman indignities suggest to me that the old view of women as fundamentally less human than men remains inordinately powerful in society.

I searched for “feminism” on YouTube. For every solidly, pro-feminist video in the queue there were at least ten misinformed, misogynistic, Make America Great Again, anti-feminist rants. I’m not sure what that says about my algorithms, but I have no hesitancy in stating there is a war on women.

This sermon is about sexism, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to say it was not my idea. A large group of bidders who wanted me to preach on women’s issues won this sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. Rhiannon Smith and Linda Duncan led this group and have been forwarding articles and statistics to me for the past 6 months. Rhiannon said, “We applaud the recent attention given in Sunday services to racial injustices in light of current events. We think that gender injustices have received less attention but also are central to our social justice advocacy as UUs. Specifically, we would like for the service to focus on the marginalization of women in the workforce, politics, and other arenas of power. For example, the service might address the wage gap, the underrepresentation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and politics, micro-aggressions against women, the disproportionate amount of attention paid to female politicians’ clothing and appearance rather than their ideas, [and] demeaning female politicians in the media….  We had 26 contributors in support of this service, so clearly this is a topic of importance to many people.”

I have preached on racism many, many times. I have preached on homophobia, on transphobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism and on the experiences of people with disabilities. But I don’t remember ever preaching a straight up, let’s talk about sexism sermon. I have preached on issues understood historically as “women’s issues” such as abortion and sexual abuse. I’ve preached about violence against women, the plight of incarcerated women, the challenges facing the primarily female personal care assistant workforce, and the need for paid sick days, family medical leave, a higher minimum wage and gun control which can all be framed as women’s issues. But I cannot remember ever preaching a sermon with the word sexism in its title. I’m embarrassed to say this sermon was not my idea because it should have been—and it should have been a long time ago. I identify as a feminist. I believe sexism is real. I believe I understand sexism well for one who doesn’t experience it. I believe sexism must be confronted. I believe our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to confront it. I am grateful for being challenged to confront sexism in this way.

I’ve been reflecting on why preaching on sexism has felt less urgent to me than preaching on other oppressions. One reason is that Unitarian Universalism had made enormous strides in confronting its own sexism by the time I entered the ministry. Such confrontation began in earnest in 1977 when the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly passed the Women and Religion resolution.[3] One of the more immediate results of that resolution was the removal of sexist and male-centered language from our institutional life. One of its long-term results was the achievement of gender parity in the professional ministry by the late 1990s.[4] That achievement has fundamentally transformed Unitarian Universalism. As a man coming into a profession in 1999 where half my colleagues were women, I had to be attentive to sexist stereotypes and power imbalances in a way I wouldn’t have been if the ministry had continued as a primarily male profession. I know this because I hear my elder male colleagues talk about what it was like in the 60s and 70s. There was no expectation that they would pay attention to sexism, let alone pay attention to it in their ministries and in our faith. And as women started coming into the ministry, there was enormous tension. How do you include women in a club that has heretofore been vastly male?

A major, visible milestone we haven’t achieved in Unitarian Universalism is the election of a woman as UUA president. That glass ceiling will be shattered at the June, 2017 General Assembly when one of three women running for the position will be elected. Will we be a post-sexist religion at that point? No. In fact, once we’ve elected a woman president, we may very quickly become more aware of how deeply our sexism runs.

Another reason the struggle against sexism has felt less urgent to me is that in Unitarian Universalism I have always been surrounded by strong, outspoken, talented, insightful women. I’m not looking for points. I’m stating a fact. In the congregations I’ve served there have been women doctors, lawyers, athletes, writers, poets, politicians, policy-makers, activists, mathematicians, engineers, psychotherapists, college professors, soldiers, research scientists, marketers, computer programmers, IT specialists, ministers, business owners, photographers, sculptors, biologists, chemists and corporate leaders, not to mention many women working in more traditionally female roles as teachers, nurses, social workers, homeschoolers, and secretaries—and the vast majority of these women, while pursuing these careers, have been raising children, running households and volunteering at church in every role from Sunday morning greeter to congregation president. I’ve been surrounded by strong women, and I am clear that the success of my ministry has depended on their presence.

1960s and 70s second wave feminism envisioned women living, learning, working and earning in all the ways men were accustomed to living, learning, working and earning. While that vision certainly has not become a concrete reality for all women, I see evidence of it having come to fruition in the lives of many Unitarian Universalist women—in their education, careers, earning power relative to women of earlier generations, the life choices they’ve been able to make and their leadership roles in society. But it is precisely the success of that vision in the lives of many UU women that has dulled my sense of urgency around addressing sexism directly. The problem of sexism is slightly less visible here.

But it’s real, and I take it as a truth that regardless of any woman’s education, career, family planning decisions, race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability or age, all women encounter a bedrock sexism in our society. The more privileged a woman is, perhaps the more she is able to withstand sexism’s most pernicious effects—though even that isn’t a given—but I’m convinced no woman avoids it entirely. Sexism is still way too normal.

It’s not only in those big statistics: 79 cents to the man’s dollar; 1 in 5 women sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Sexism also resides in day-to-day experiences, little slights that add up to a gendered burden men don’t carry. Linda Duncan referred to this as the “social inequality” that comes with being a woman. She talked about micro-aggressions: harassment on the street and in the office; the assumption that women are overly emotional; the strong, decisive woman perceived as bitchy while her male counterpart is praised for the same behavior; the experience of offering a good idea, only to have it ignored until a man offers it a few minutes later; the hyper-focus on looks, clothes and weight; and the ubiquitous, “give me a smile, honey.”

Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s public art series, “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” is an effort to combat street harassment. “Starting in her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood,” quotes a 2013 Ms. Magazine article, “Fazlalizadeh has peppered walls with black-and-white drawings of brazenfaced women accompanied by bold slogans such as, ‘Women are not outside for your entertainment.’ When a man tells a woman to smile,” says Fazlalizadeh, “he’s expecting her to entertain him. ‘It’s the same as saying, Dance for me; jump for me. Smile is never really a question; it’s a command.’”[5] Even if the man who asks a woman to smile believes he’s just being friendly, he is still telling her what to do with her body.

I found a video on You Tube by a young women named Whitney Way Thore telling the story of trying to buy a pack of gum at a convenient store. The clerk told her to smile. She was angry. People suggested he was just trying to be helpful. She pointed out that helping typically doesn’t require the one being helped to do something for the helper. “I want to help you, so let me tell you what to do with your body.” Thore calls it a “manipulative power play.”[6]

It’s a manifestation of that old, patriarchal world-view that says women are property, playthings, servants. The man may not even realize he’s acting out of that world-view, but he doesn’t need to know. It’s still operating. For women it is exhausting.

Why, because in all these situations women have to make a calculation. Am I safe? Should I say something? Should I ignore it? Should I confront it? Is it me? That’s the gendered burden men don’t carry—the stress of having to calculate. Often the easiest, safest path is non-confrontation, finding some way to de-escalate the situation, but that takes a toll too. In an article for Huffpost Women entitled “That Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About,” blogger Gretchen Kelly says, “We have all learned, either by instinct or by trial and error, how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable. How to avoid angering a man or endangering ourselves. We have all, on many occasions, ignored an offensive comment. We’ve all laughed off an inappropriate come-on. We’ve all swallowed our anger when being belittled or condescended to. It doesn’t feel good. It feels icky. Dirty. But we do it because to not do it could put us in danger or get us fired or labeled a bitch. So we usually take the path of least precariousness.”[7] In an article in The Guardian Thursday entitled “The Struggle to Speak Up: How Women Are Pushed to De-escalate Sexist Incidents,” Rose Hackman says “To the initial weight of having to deal with … acts of dominance is the added mental drain of having to evaluate how best to deal with it and not risk a violent backlash. De-escalating is just another form of the “emotional work” women provide with little recognition of its ongoing exertion and toll.”[8]

Earlier we heard Jenn Richard sing Ani DiFranco’s “Not a Pretty Girl.” This is a resistance song—a declaration of non-compliance with sexism, a proclamation that she refuses to play the roles society assigns to women. “I am not a pretty girl, / That is not what I do. / I ain’t no damsel in distress, / And I don’t need to be rescued.”[9] Taking a cue from this song, why not as individuals and as a congregation adopt an attitude and a posture and a program of resistance to sexism? Many of us already resist in big and small ways. Why not be more explicit, more intentional? Why not proclaim and celebrate our resistance? Why not say, “anti-sexism is central to who we are?”

Unitarian Universalism has made great strides in addressing its own sexism. But knowing that our past achievements can dull our sense of urgency, let’s take a bold new look at ourselves, a deeper look: how might sexism be operating in our collective life? Let’s commit to being a place where women don’t have to calculate, aren’t responsible for the emotional work of de-escalating sexism, and can name it not only without fear of repercussion, but with the expectation that people will want to learn more. And let’s be a place where men are encouraged to take on the gendered burden, where men are skilled in anti-sexist language and behavior and know strategies for resistance as allies to women. And let’s be a place where we have those nuanced conversations, where we understand how different women experience sexism differently—how sexism is different for white women than it is for women of color, different for straight women than it is for lesbians, different for trans women, poor women, rich women, developing nation women, women with disabilities, women with and without children, married women, unmarried women, divorced women, elder women, young women, girls, fat women, skinny women—let’s strive to understand the many ways different women experience sexism.

And let’s develop a women’s social justice platform. We have platforms for racial justice, GLBT justice, environmental justice. We ought to have a  women’s justice platform including equal pay for equal work, an end to sexual and other forms of violence, paid sick days and family medical leave, a living wage, an end to the taxation of menstrual products and diapers, reproductive choice and full access to reproductive health services and information and—relevant to CT politics during the recent legislative session—knowing that a woman is five times more likely to be murdered by a partner when the partner owns a gun, a women’s justice platform must include removal of all guns from the partner’s possession if a judge grants a woman a restraining order, even if that restraining order is temporary.

Let’s look out into the wider community at the organizations that are doing anti-sexist and women’s justice work and figure out ways to partner with them. And if we find that there are many different organizations working on many different women’s issues, let’s be part of the effort to unite them, so that we can resist together, transform together—so that there is a clear, unmistakable, unapologetic social justice movement for women. Let’s be fully in the movement to end sexism here and everywhere.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Hill, Catherine, “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap”  (The American Association of University Women, Spring, 2016) p. 7. See:

[2] “Sexual Violence: Facts as a Glance,” Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention, 2012.

[3] See the text of the 1977 UUA business resolution, “Women and Religion” at

[4]For more on the long-term impact of the Women and Religion resolution, see French, Kimberly, “Thirty years of feminist transformation: The 1977 Women and Religion resolution transformed the Unitarian Universalist Association” UU World (Summer, 2007):

[5] Little, Anita, “If These Walls Could Talk: Fighting Harassment With Street Art,” Ms. Magazine, Fall, 2013. See:

[6] Thore, Whitney Way, “Stop Telling Me to Smile.” See:

[7] Kelly, Gretchen, “That Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About,” Huffpost Women, November 23, 2015. See:

[8] Hackman, Rose, “The Struggle to Speak Up: How Women Are Pushed to De-escalate Sexist Incidents,” The Guardian, May 12, 2016. See:

[9] DiFranco, Annie, “Not a Pretty Girl.” See:

Once Upon a Time, We Were Together

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Image by Nancy Madar

Image by Nancy Madar

“Once upon a time, we were together”—words from Indian-born, Canadian poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar. “Follow the trail / To young Douglas firs, tree farmed, / close to power lines, radio towers visible, / western Hemlocks, also planted. / coastal streams built over, where coho once, pink once, chinook, / chum, salmon, steelhead— / Once upon a time, we were together.”[1] These words—like words of so many poets, novelists, artists, theologians, philosophers, prophets, healers, shamans, clergy, naturalists, farmers, elders—like so many words written, spoken, sung, imagined and dreamed throughout the modern era—express profound longing for something that has been lost. Here the poet notes lines of trees planted like power lines, in even rows upon land that is neither linear nor even. She notes how the world has built itself over ancient coastal streams where so many species of salmon once ran. But it’s not just that the trees now stand in straight lines rather than in natural groves, copses and thickets; it’s not just that streams and salmon no longer run—these losses are lamentable enough. She’s naming deeper, hidden loss—difficult to feel, and more poignant when we finally do feel it. She’s naming the lost human relationship with trees, with streams, with salmon. “Once upon a time, we were together.”

That’s the beginning of a story—“once upon a time, we were together.” It’s the human story. It’s our story. It is my prayer that this story will circle ‘round, ending where it began. And in the interest of the story ending where it began, I want to introduce you to the work of Morris Berman, specifically his 1981 book, The Reenchantment of the World. Berman describes himself as a sacred humanist. He is a historian, cultural critic, philosopher, professor, novelist, poet, pundit, blogger, the author of many books, including 2012’s Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline,[2] and a leader of the Wafers.[3] W-A-F: ‘Why America Failed.’ One who subscribes to the notion that America has failed is a Wafer. When he wrote Reenchantment Berman was—or at least seemed—hopeful that the industrialized West would undergo a revolution in culture, society, politics, economics and science necessary to avert the kinds of crises we currently face. Today he is differently hopeful. He puts his hope in what he calls New Monastic Individuals. He is not hopeful about the United Sates. He offers a searing critique of America and its people. In a recent interview he said “I’m not an optimist…. [The United States] is going … the way of the Roman empire and [will] just fall apart.”[4]

I asked him online if he could offer some reflections on the impact of Reenchantment since 1981. He wrote back to me, “My Dear Reverend,” and offered 1,000 apologies for not having time to offer such reflections. He was warm and welcoming. He hoped my flock appreciates how I’m using the book. I asked if he could give me a one-word answer—do you still stand by the book, yes or no? He said “yes, but with a lot of modification.”

The Reenchantment of the World was extraordinarily meaningful to me. It is the book I needed to read now. It woke me up to knowledge that has always been present in me, but which I struggle to keep before me. It’s the knowledge, essentially, that once upon a time, we were together. Once upon a time we human beings were together in mind and body, a seamless whole. Once upon a time, we human being were together with Nature, a seamless whole. And once upon a time, Nature and divinity were together, a seamless whole. Berman says: “The view of nature which predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this environment. The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging…. Member[s] of this cosmos [were] not … alienated observer[s] of it but … direct participant[s] in its drama. [Their] personal destiny was bound with its destiny, and this relationship gave meaning to life. This type of consciousness—participating consciousness—involves merger, or identification with one’s surroundings, and bespeaks a psychic wholeness that has long since passed from the scene.”[5]

But I didn’t just wake up to this knowledge of ancient, inherent togetherness. I woke up to the fact that we modern western people lost it. We lost this oneness of which poets, prophets and philosophers speak. We lost participating consciousness. We’re not even sure what that term means. We talk about an interdependent web, about everything coming from the same primordial, Big Bang fireball, about being star stuff, about being once cosmic family, one earth, one human family, everyone and everything related to everyone and everything else. But these are just words that live in our minds. They enable us to think about relatedness, but they don’t have the power to bring us fully, viscerally, sensually into an actual, ongoing felt experience of relatedness. Participating consciousness has that power. We lost it. And I’m convinced that in the deepest places in us we long for it because, in the deepest places in us we know: once upon a time, we were together.

In the first half of Reenchantment Berman analyzes how the architects of Modernity—the people who established modern science, technology, industry, capitalism, nation states, and corporate and governmental dominance of the environment—separated mind from body, separated humanity from Nature, separated earth from divinity. However, the early modernists never disproved the reality of participating consciousness. They didn’t need to. They rejected it and proceeded to build institutions, structures and systems that denied it. We’ve inherited those institutions, structures and systems. Understand this: The sustained, visceral human experience of oneness with Nature didn’t go away because it was proven to be wrong. It went away because it stood in the way of modern science’s need to separate body and mind. It went away because it stood in the way of capitalism’s need to dominate Nature. It went away because it stood in the way of modernist Christianity’s need to civilize the so-called heathens. It went away with a sword at its back, a gun at its head and flames lapping around its feet. 

"Head East" by James Starkey “Head East” by James Starkey (Itaziptco Lakota)

“Head East” by James Starkey “Head East” by James Starkey (Itaziptco Lakota)

A horrific example of this in more recent American history is the Indian School movement which forced Indian children—accustomed to a more earth-based, participating consciousness—to attend boarding schools where missionaries stripped them of their language, culture, religion and relationship to Nature and imposed modern consciousness on them. Berman doesn’t mention this example, but he does argue that widespread mental illness in our culture is a symptom of the loss of participating consciousness. That’s an overstatement, to be sure. Cultures with participating consciousness also have mental illness. But someone on his blog quoted writer Kent Nerburn’s claim that high rates of suicide in Canada’s First Nation communities are the ongoing result of “full-blown cultural PTSD, born of the boarding … school experiences.”[6] The loss of participating consciousness can make some people and some communities sick for generations. Berman says “for more than 99 percent of human history, the world was enchanted and [humans] saw [themselves] as an integral part of it. The complete reversal of this perception in a mere four hundred years or so has destroyed the continuity of the human experience and the integrity of the human psyche. It has very nearly wrecked the planet as well.”[7]

 400 years after the dawn of Modernity, most westerners—I include us in the category of ‘most westerners’—have been socialized into a culture that cannot and will not recognize participating consciousness. We don’t know what it is. We don’t have words for it. We don’t know what it feels like. We don’t know how we could be human differently. Berman theorizes about it, but he too is a creature of Modernity. We can romanticize about what pre-conquest Native American culture was like and how it supported participating consciousness. We can romanticize about what pre-modern European culture was like and how it supported participating consciousness. I get chills up my spine recalling that Isaac Newtown was secretly an alchemist, immersed in the older, occult world-view in which human beings permeated Nature. But we can’t really know. At best, we catch brief glimpses—in dreams and intuitions, in our inspired moments of creativity, in the endorphin rush of exercise or yoga, in those exhilarating moments of communion with Nature we describe as spiritual—but it’s always only a glimpse, always fleeting, never enough.

I’ve always said: “spiritual experiences are fleeting.” But I think that’s a lie. This is one of the ways Reenchanment has woken me up. The only reason these experiences are fleeting is because there’s no room for them in our modern consciousness. They don’t fit. They’re strange. They’re abnormal. But imagine a culture with a different philosophical foundation, a different relationship to Earth, different assumptions about what constitutes scientific knowledge and how we obtain it, different economic relationships, different corporate priorities. In such a culture such experiences might not be fleeting at all, might not come only at the margins of awareness or the edges of sleep; might actually be more … normal. Imagine that! That’s the revolution Berman was imagining: the emergence of an entirely different culture that could support and affirm participating consciousness. Our hope, he said, “lies in a reenchantment of the world.”[8]

In the second half of Reenchantment Berman offers the metaphysical basis for such a world. [9] He proposes a holistic, cybernetic theory of Mind, grounded in the research of the cultural anthropologist, Gregory Bateson. It’s a sweeping, multifaceted proposal drawing on studies of childbirth, child-rearing, learning theories, alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous, analogue vs. digital knowledge, Schizophrenia, tribal rituals, circuitry and coding, the principle of incompleteness…. the scope is mindboggling.[10]

One message I take from it all is that a culture that can experience a reenchanted world will be holistic. Holism is the idea that every component of a system is in relationship with every other component of that system. One cannot understand the whole by examining the parts in isolation from each other. Breaking a thing down into its constituent parts for study is called atomism, and it lives at the heart of the Modern world-view. It assumes the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. But to truly understand the whole one must examine relationships, systems, processes, energy flows. Because it includes these things, the whole is inevitably larger than the sum of its parts. In 1981 Berman saw signs of an emerging holistic culture in feminism, the environmental movement, racial self-determination movements, and in religious renewal, which I suspect referred to the increasing American interest in eastern religions, yoga, Native American spirituality and paganism.[11] He said these movements “represent the repressed ‘shadows’ of industrial civilization. The feminine, the wilderness, the child, the body, the creative mind and heart, the occult, and the peoples of nonurban, regional peripheries … that have never bought into the ethos of the industrial heartland.”[12] What unites these various movements is recovery. “Their goal,” he says, “is the recovery of our bodies, our health, our sexuality, our natural environment, our archaic traditions, our unconscious mind, our rootedness in the land, our sense of community and connectedness to one another.” [13]  

“Final Planting” by Sharon Gresk (Bicycle wheels re-purposed as a trellis for climbing vines–a symbol of recovery!)

“Final Planting” by Sharon Gresk (Bicycle wheels re-purposed as a trellis for climbing vines–a symbol of recovery!)

This sounds oddly akin to what we’re trying to do in this Unitarian Universalist congregation. Those of you taking the class on Thomas Moore’s A Religion of One’s Own, for example, are doing recovery work. We’re exploring dreams, sensuality, eros, creativity, wilderness, community; we’re exploring how to access the unconscious by paying attention to intuition, hunches, art, music and serendipitous occurrences. We’re knitting mind and body back together. But how does this recovery lead to participating consciousness, to an ongoing, intimate, felt relationship with Nature? How does this work reenchant the world?

A leap is required here, a leap out of the Modern mind. Are you ready? Ask yourself: what is the unconscious? What is your unconscious? Can you give a definition of the unconscious that adequately explains what it really is, where it resides, what it’s made of, why it seems so opaque, so difficult to visit? What blocks us from just peering into it? Is that what we’ve lost—the capacity to peer into our unconscious? No. Here’s the leap: We’ve been tricked into believing there’s a vast, numinous realm hidden in ourselves and that it’s healthy to peer into to the extent we can, because it is the source, the cause of our neuroses and worse. That’s a modern idea—that we each possess our own, discreet vast, hidden realm called the unconscious. It’s a lie. Only the tiniest, most miniscule portion of what we call the unconscious lies immediately within us. If we want to encounter it in its true breadth and depth, the direction in which to peer is not in; the direction is out, to Nature.

This is the most important message I take from Reenchantment: The physical, sensual, visceral world of Nature and what we call the human unconscious are one and the same. That’s what we’ve lost. Those intuitions, hunches, dreams and moments of communion? Those aren’t inscrutable messages from some vast, hidden realm. They are your consciousness trying to participate! They are your consciousness trying to participate in Nature in the midst of a non-holistic modern culture that cannot and does not recognize the intimacy and beauty of your relationship with Nature and has, historically, used violence to make it go away. No wonder these experiences are so fleeting. They are dangerous. Newton knew this! No wonder that modern sense of cosmic homelessness, that modern malaise, that modern existential anxiety. No wonder excessive, hyper war-making! No wonder a planet entering environmental collapse! “If we are in an ecological, systemic, permeable relationship with the ‘natural world,’” says Berman, “then we necessarily investigate ‘that world,’ when we explore what it in the ‘human unconscious,’” [14] and (my words) we necessarily investigate the ‘human unconscious’ when we explore what is in the ‘natural world.’

From a modern perspective, this sounds wrong. And I know it’s still too abstract. So, I have an assignment for you, a thought-feeling experiment. Go outside, breathe deeply, and imagine that every natural thing you encounter, every natural thing you see, taste, hear, smell, touch is your unconscious. You don’t need to accept it as true. Just imagine it is. Your unconscious: entirely knowable, not hidden at all, not opaque at all, not actually ‘un-anything.’ It’s been right in front of you your entire life. All around you. You knew it as a child. Everyone knows it as a child. I’ve been following this assignment for weeks. This grass-my unconscious-this grass. This tree-my unconscious-this tree. This night sky-my unconscious-this night sky. This cloud-me. This horse-me. Dirt-me. Stone-me. Forest-me. Us. Together.

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

Do the assignment. Not just once. Do it again and again, and don’t stop. See where this imagining takes you. What new/old knowledge comes? What does it explain to you that didn’t make sense before? I find it explains a lot. And in my private moments I’ve been weeping with joy. The world is enchanted.

It’s hard to stay in the world of this assignment. Our culture can’t support it and doesn’t really allow it. But I urge you to try. We’ve got to start somewhere. And remember, once upon a time, we were together. So our story began. My prayer is that our story will circle ‘round to end at its beginning.  

“Max Picking Blueberries” by Josh Pawelek (Every child knows something about participating consciousness!)

“Max Picking Blueberries” by Josh Pawelek (Every child knows something about participating consciousness!)

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Saklikar, Renée Sarojini, “Before Is Also a Place: To the Eve River.” See p. 37 of the 2016 “Poem in Your Pocket Day” website:

[2] Berman, Morris, Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

[3] Check out Morris Berman’s website, Dark Ages America, at

[4] “Resistance Radio – Morris Berman – 03.13.16” (Progressive Radio Network):

[5] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984) p. 2.

[6] Nerburn, Kent, “An Important But Hidden Story that Needs to be Heard,” Kent Nerburn: Wandering, Wondering and Writing, April 14, 2016. See: The article on the high suicide rate among First Nations people to which he is responding is here:

[7] Berman, Reenchantment, pp. 9-10.

[8] Berman, Reenchantment, p. 10.

[9] Berman, Reenchantment, pp. 142-143. He wanted a metaphysics that wouldn’t return us to a naïve animism or to a hunter-gatherer existence, and one that didn’t close down the enterprise of science but instead opened up new ways of doing science.

[10] Berman followed Reenchantment with two more books—Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West in 1989 and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality in 2000.

[11] Sounds strangely (or not) akin to the spiritual interests and identities of many Unitarian Universalists. Just sayin.’

[12] The separatist Basque region of Spain is an example of such a nonurban, regional periphery.

[13] Berman, Reenchantment, pp. 281-282.

[14] Berman, Reenchantment, p. 142.

“The Gift of Water” – An Earth Day service

“Water Calls Us” by Lauriston King, 

Lauriston King (under umbrella)

Lauriston King (under umbrella)

Water Calls Us. 

It calls us to value it beyond measure because it is the basis for life itself.  Indeed, nearly 60% of our bodies are water.  Even more impressive, our hearts and brains are about 73% water. When astronauts first saw Earth from space, they saw a blue planet, 71% of which is covered with water. The problem is that most of this water is too salty to use.  This leaves only about 1% for drinking, cleaning, and meeting the needs of crops and animals for the nearly 7 billion people on the planet. And it’s not equally available to everyone.  Some 1 billion people don’t have access to a reliable source of clean, fresh drinking water.  In contrast, Americans use about twice the amount used in other parts of the world.

Two recent incidents remind us of these two core realities, namely, that we need water to live, and that it’s often scarce.

In January 2014, storage tanks along the Elk River in West Virginia, ruptured and spilled toxic chemicals in water used by people in nine counties, including the state capital.  Residents had to use bottled water for two months.  The leaking tanks had not been inspected by a government agency in 15 years. It turned out that there was no law requiring that they be inspected, even though they sat along a river that provided water to surrounding communities.

More recently, citizens of Flint, Michigan, have been exposed to dangerously high levels of lead in their drinking water, the result of efforts to reduce costs of water treatment and delivery. Failure to treat the water system properly has resulted in sharp increases of lead in the blood of an unspecified number of people, including infants and young children. Lead in growing children can result in reduced leaning ability as well as other behavioral problems.

Just a few days ago, criminal charges were filed against three  men responsible for that water system. One was accused of approving a permit for a treatment plant—and I quote—“knowing that it would fail to provide clean and safe drinking water to families.”

There’s much more to these two cases, to be sure. But my basic point is this: These elected officials, water managers, and company executives betrayed a fundamental community trust, specifically, that they recognize and commit themselves to provide safe, clean water to their fellow citizens. These are not just technical failures.  They are moral failures as well.

Water calls us. 

Lush Land and Rugged RockIt calls us to respect its power. Anyone who been wading in the surf and been suddenly thrown to the ground and tossed about, or caught in an undertow or riptide that drags you out to sea, knows the power of the ocean. And think about how water carves and shapes the earth as it erodes deep channels such as the Grand Canyon.  Hurricanes and floods remind us of how powerful water can be.  Scientists predict that sea levels are likely to rise by anywhere from a few inches to several feet by 2100, threatening the destruction of coastal cities like Boston, New York, Houston, and New Orleans.  Respect for the power of water must be the basis for action to protect life, property, and community.

Water calls us. 

It calls us to study, to learn, and to understand how our lives are tightly bound and dependent on water.  We read and see stories about water every day, but most of the time it’s hard to see where they all add up.

That’s where science comes in.  Understanding the grand ecology of weather, climate, and climate change, is fundamentally about water.  That is the realm of those who study large earth systems, hydrologists, geologists, geographers, atmospheric scientists, and engineers. There is no debate that water is critical for life. There are no water deniers. So we, as individuals and a society, must be responsible for learning how it’s created, stored, distributed, delivered; why some places have abundant water and others do not; and how and why climate changes and with what effects.

Because water is a scarce resource, people will fight over who should get it, in what amounts, and in what order.  On Martha’s farm, the cows had first dibs.  In Bloomfield, across the river, there is a conflict over whether a private company, Niagara Bottling, should have special access to the region’s public water supplies.  This tension between private and public control over water systems goes on around the country. To understand these conflicts, and to make fair and equitable rules for who gets what, when, and how, we need the work of economists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers.  Simply put, we must understand water in all its natural, social, and human dimensions.

It may come as little surprise, however, that there are those, even in our own Congress, who not only deny the reality of climate change, but seek to cut off funding support for natural and social scientists who seek to understand these matters. Because water is necessary for life, willful ignorance about any part of the water system is not just irresponsible, it is morally bankrupt.

Water calls us. 

It calls us to quiet, familiar places.  When I was about eight, we moved to a new house in East Hartford that backed up to a tobacco field with lots of woods nearby.  I loved to play in the woods with my friends, wade in the brooks, fight through the brush along the bank, and walk along the bends and curves, as the water slipped toward some place that I was not yet allowed to go.

Many years later I moved to Texas with my own family.  The land was flat, there were no brooks or ponds, or streams spilling over rocks, only creeks and small ponds called stock tanks for the cattle. I felt disconnected, out of place.  I missed my brooks and streams.  I slowly realized that these were part of what gave me my sense of place, of home.

And one last thing. For me, the sound that a brook or stream makes invites me to stop, to listen as it passes along a sandy bottom, or over rocks. It calls me to listen as the water breaks the silence and, if only for a moment, receive the gift of a mind at peace, and the comfort of a sense of place.

Water calls us.

It calls us to treasure it, to respect its power, to understand it, and to be grateful for its gift of quiet and place.

Will we hear it?

Will we listen to it?

May it be so.


“The Ocean is a Gift” by Chloe Campellone

Chloe Campellone

Chloe Campellone

I was 7 years old. It was the summer of 2007 in Charlestown, Rhode Island. I was with my relatives that day, hanging out at my grandmother’s beach house. I loved that place so much. There was a backyard to play hide and seek in and you could see Block Island from her doorstep. Once we arrived we were all expected to sit around on the deck chatting and drinking wine. Well, the adults drank wine. The kids had juice boxes. The adults were in no hurry.  But I had little patience for chit chat. All I could think about was getting to the beach! After what felt like hours we finally got our swim suits on and headed to the beach on foot.

It was a short walk from Grandma’s house to the beach. We walked past many cool nautical themed beach houses I dreamed of living in. As we walked I could see those glorious path by seawaves getting closer and closer. We finally stepped onto the boardwalk and I flung off my sandals in excitement. The sun was beating down on me, the sand sifted between my toes, and the smell of seaweed and too much coconut scented sun screen moved among the sea breeze. The waves were huge and they crashed and boomed loudly.  I bounced impatiently as the relatives set up their beach towels and umbrellas into little campsites. As soon as I was lathered up in Coppertone and got the go ahead, I strapped on my favorite boogie board, the one with the shark on it, and ran to the sea with all my little 7 year old might.

My cousin Julia and I liked to wait until the very last second to jump on top of those quickly moving waves. The waves were so enormous to me, I could feel the adrenaline pumping throughout my body. I remember just soaring into the air with those incredible blue waves and thinking I was on top of the world. I also remember getting pulled under the water and taking tumbles with the riptide while I hung on desperately to my shark boogie board. Some may think that getting pulled into the riptide is scary, but all I remember were the endless giggles that arose from me and my cousin after we pulled our sand covered bodies out of the water. After repeating this cycle of soaring and tumbling in the waves for a couple of hours, I came out of the sea and onto the soft beach sand. I made sand castles and remember running back and forth from ocean to shore like a messenger to get more water for the moat around the biggest castle. Despite the sometimes pesky seagulls pecking for scraps of sandwiches and potato chips, and the loads of sand that managed to migrate into my bathing suit, making for a very uncomfortable walk home, I had a great day. In fact, it was one of my very best days ever.

 I’ve returned to this same place again and again, year after year, and the ocean never fails to offer me adventure and new experiences.  Once my dad and I sat on some rocks by the breachway and he taught me to capture crabs by sticking little pieces of hotdogs on strings into the water. I couldn’t help but laugh as I watched their little claws appear from between the rock crevices to get a hunk of the hotdog. I also caught tiny harmless jellyfish in a big net. We released the crabs and the jelly fish, of course. But it was fun checking them out up close.

Another time I kayaked with my grandpa though the little rivers branching off from the sea in Charlestown. I paddled as fish jumped above the water right next to me and herons sat peacefully, apparently with full bellies, lazily soaking up the warmth of the sun.

Another treasured memory is the morning I went clam digging, or “quahogging” with my grandpa. I put on the huge waders and trudged through the water. I dragged along a heavy clam rake and a big bag to carry home my winnings. If you’ve never used a clam rake this might sound like an easy enough endeavor. Think again!  Digging for clams is hard work. You’re bent over, your hands are tired and freezing, and if you’re really unlucky you might get attacked by sand fleas — which is why my grandpa gave me the waders! And yet, I can honestly say that was easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced.

The ocean is a gift. It cools us when we have grown too hot. It dares us to ride its waves. It teems with life and it invites us to explore it. We will never know its depth but its joy is ours to experience again and again. It calls to me and it calls to my family. It calls us all back to it year after year, summer after summer. And we come together, each taking a break from our own busy little worlds, to celebrate this gift. The ocean is a gift.


“The Ram Pump,” by Martha Larson

MarthaI grew up on a small family farm in the village of Still River in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts. My family had been there since sometime in the 1630s. I’m not sure when the water supply system I remember was installed, but I want to tell you about it, because although it was common in rural New England, many of you may not know about it.

Our house had neighbors on either side – fairly close for a rural village. But our property extended out back for acres and acres, including cow pastures, apple orchard, corn fields, and vegetable gardens. If you walked about a quarter of a mile through the pasture, past the saw mill, and beside the apple orchard, you came to a giant ancient maple tree, which sheltered the path down through a swampy area to the ram house. No, not a shelter for male sheep – but the little building which housed the hydraulic ram. The ram was common in rural areas – it pumped water from where it occurred naturally, uphill to where it was needed. And, it used no electricity or gasoline! Water was collected in the reservoir – fed by natural springs – an 8 x 8 building protected this water from leaves, twigs, and most animals. A small diameter pipe led downhill a few feet to the ram house. This was a 6×6 building. When you opened the door you looked way down – about 8 feet – to the sandy bottom where the ram was installed. There was a wooden ladder to climb down if the ram needed attention – which, as long as the water flowed, it didn’t.

Antique ram pump

Antique ram pump

Water flowed into the ram at high pressure, opened another valve, closed the first one with a clacking sound, and pushed the water into the outlet pipe and eventually 1,200 feet away to the holding tank in the barn. Cows got the water first, and the cool water also chilled the cans of milk each day until the Hood truck picked them up.

From the barn, the water (still pushed by the ram) went up to a holding tank in the attic of our house. When I turned the faucet in bathroom or kitchen, water flowed down by gravity. The water pressure was not high enough for a shower, but the old claw foot bathtub was used judiciously – never lots of water in it, and baths were limited – sometimes just once a week. We all learned how to get clean with a small amount of water in the bathroom sink.

We occasionally got to swim at the town beach 2 miles away, and even more rarely got to visit the ocean. But I loved to swim and so was delighted when I was 12 that my father, who had earned some extra money on jury duty, used it to build a pond down back at the foot of the apple orchard, not far from the ram and reservoir. This pond was for entertainment! Yes, it could be used to irrigate crops, but it became a place to enjoy water – to play with water.  It was a place to swim in the summer, row a boat in fall and spring, and ice skate in the winter. Countless family gatherings were held at the pond, including, years later,  my wedding reception.

During a summer storm in 1961 the barn across the street was struck by lightning. Fortunately, it housed no animals, but was old and dry and full of combustible things. The fire raged and the wind picked up. Having exhausted the supply of water the tanker truck carried, the volunteer firemen drove down to the pond – several times – collecting water that was sprayed on the roofs of the neighbor’s house and ours. The neighbor’s barn was a total loss, but no homes or people were injured, thanks to the pond.

During the mid and late sixties, there was a pretty severe draught in Massachusetts – perhaps Connecticut too. The old ram was becoming unreliable, and my brothers and I were all away at school – no one to climb down the ladder in the ram house and unclog or restart it. The cows were long gone, but garden and people needed water. A well was drilled beside the house, and the old farmhouse had a modern water system which is still working today.

The old ram house and reservoir are gone, and a new pond is in the area where they used to be. That pond is used to irrigate the fields of tomatoes, corn, and other veggies that my brother grows. It’s been used to put out at least two brush fires in the village, and still provides a lovely place to walk and reminisce.


“A Drink of Cold Water,” by Anne Vaughan

Anne VaughanMany of you know that I grew up out in the Sandhills of Nebraska, on a small farm near a small town called Ainsworth. A mile away from our house was a one room country schoolhouse which I attended from Kindergarten through eighth grade. My first few years there, we didn’t have running water in the building. One of our daily jobs was to carry a bucket out to the pump, pump it full of water and bring it in to fill up a gray crockery water cooler with a spigot at the bottom. That was where we got our drinking water. On warm days when we’d play outside during recess, we’d be hot after a game of baseball or pum-pum-pull away, and we’d run to the pump. Usually the bigger boys would pump that pump handle until water came pouring out. We’d cup our hands under it to catch a drink of cold, refreshing water before going back inside for classes.

At my home we had indoor plumbing and our water was pumped by a windmill that stood on a little hill above the house. In the mid-50’s some of the farmers and ranchers Windmillstill did not have indoor plumbing. We always had fresh, cold water to drink for ourselves and for the cows and chickens and pigs. I loved that windmill. It had a ladder that we could climb and look out at everything. You can still see a lot of those little windmills pumping water for cattle and horses out in the pastures.

Seven miles from Ainsworth is a very small town called Long Pine. There is a place called Seven Springs that feeds into Pine Creek. We used to love to go there and drink the water right from one of the springs because it was even fresher and colder than our water at home. My uncle once sent a sample of the water to the state for testing and they were amazed by the purity of it. Coco-Cola even had a small bottling plant there.

Not everyone has access to such good, clean water, but there are springs with good water in other places, too of course. There’s one in Willimantic where you see people filling containers with fresh, cold water. And we even have an old spring here on our property. There’s a path out back leading to that spring where you’ll find nice flat stones placed around it to make a kind of well where clear, cold water collects. This is water from that spring. (I had a jar of water that I collected from the spring and boiled it so it could be used in the child dedications.)

To me, water is sacred, but we often don’t treat it that way. When I was a senior in high school, they built a small feed lot in Ainsworth. That’s the kind of place they take range-fed cattle to be fattened up for a few weeks on corn before shipping them off to the packing houses near Omaha. Years later when we were back visiting my mom at her apartment in town, we noticed a water filter on her kitchen faucet. When I asked Mom about it, she just said the building superintendent told them to use it. But I know that it was because they were concerned about the purity of the water. It breaks my heart to think that the water once so clean and pure, which comes from the renowned Ogallala Aquifer, may now be contaminated by that feed lot and other larger scale farming and ranching that now take place there.


“Take a pebble, drop it in Water, Watch the Ripples on the Water”  by Mel Hoover and Josh Pawelek

I invite you to imagine water. Imagine it any way you wish. Notice that water has a spirit to it. Invite the spirit of water to come to you. Remember with thankfulness and joy plunging bare foot intoripples river beds, riding ocean waves, swimming in pools, picking up river-smoothed rocks, skipping stones and watching pebbles create ripples on the water’s surface.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

This is movement. This is energy. This is power. This is the spirit of water fanning out in all directions, fanning out through more and more molecules, expanding the circle, wider and wider and wider.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

If we want to make change—any kind of change—whether we’re talking about protecting water resources, or land resources, or animals or human bodies or the earth’s body—we must be willing to ripple the water. We must be willing to start something; willing to get things moving, willing to offer a different perspective, willing to take action. We must be agitators, instigators, innovators, catalysts. We must be willing to take risks, to say what we think and feel, to speak truth to power, to send a message that moves from person to person to person.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

If we want to make change, we must be willing to ripple the water. And if the first stone is too small and the ripples lose energy, we must be ready to drop another pebble, perhaps a larger pebble, generating larger, more powerful ripples. And when those ripples lose energy, we must be ready to drop the next pebble, and the next, and the next. May we be like pebbles dropped in water, sources of movement, energy, power and spirit.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

May we be like ripples on the water, constant, continuous, in all directions, expanding the circle wider and wider and wider.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

Let us take a moment together in the holy quiet to ponder the differences we can make together. What pebbles do we need to drop? What change would we like to see in our community, in our nation, in our faith? What water do we need to ripple?