From Radical Transcendence to Radical Immanence

Rev. Josh Pawelek

uuse chaliceBecause I’m in the middle of teaching our Building Your Own Theology class and inviting the participants to look deeply into themselves and their experiences in an effort to name what they believe; and because I am moved and inspired by what they are saying in class; and also because it’s been a hard few months here at UUS:E and I am looking for my own sources of grounding, comfort, solace, and peace; and also because our ministry theme for April is transcendence; and finally because it’s just plain fun for me—for all these reasons I’ve decided to share with you this morning my current thoughts on God—how I believe.

There’s a story floating through the sermons of many ministers—it’s often attributed to the late Rev. Forrest Church, though I’m not sure it’s original to him—in which the parishioner says to the minister,” I try and I try and I try, but I find I just don’t believe in God.” The minister responds, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.” It’s possible some ministers tell this story as a way of saying “I know, there are many versions of God out there—jealous, angry, punitive gods; capricious, whimsical, unpredictable gods; callous, arrogant, selfish gods; homophobic, sexist, racist gods; imperialistic, nationalistic, violent war gods—but I know who God really is, and after I’m done listening to you tell me about the god you don’t believe in, I’m going to tell you about a god you can believe in.” To be clear, that’s not my intention here. I don’t move through the world harboring the secret conviction that the God I believe in is somehow right when all those other Gods are wrong. I don’t come to a sermon like this with the assumption that if you just open your heart to what I have to say, you’ll get it, you’ll see the light, you’ll believe.

However, there is a religious impulse in humanity: a longing to connect and commune with a reality larger than ourselves; a yearning to serve, to help, to heal, to be good; a drive to imagine, to conceive, to create, to shape, to build; an instinct to worship, to praise, to offer thanks; a hunger for a better world—a more fair, just, peaceful, loving and sustainable world. Human beings express and act on this religious impulse in countless ways, through the construction over time of countless religions, theologies, spiritualties, rituals, practices, holidays, festivals, folkways, and self-help regimens— a vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous, always multifaceted testament to humanity’s longing to encounter the Holy. When I speak to you about God in my life, I am not attempting to extract the one true belief out of the whole and then proclaim, “Here it is!” When I speak to you about God in my life, I’m simply adding one more, small voice to the vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous landscape of human religion. I hope not that you will believe as I believe, but that you will be inspired to respond to the religious impulse that moves you and thus make your contribution to that vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous human religious whole.

Our April ministry theme is transcendence, a term often given as a quality of God. Transcendence hangs out with its close friends otherworldly, supernatural, ultimate, boundless, sublime, infinite, absolute, eternal. In his Handbook of Theological Terms[1] Van Harvey says transcendence “has been used to designate any ideal or thing or being that ‘stands over against’…. It conveys ‘otherness.’” God “is said to transcend the world in the sense that his being is not identical with or his power not exhausted by the [earthly realm].” “When this idea of transcendence has been radicalized … it has led to the view that [God] is ‘wholly other’ and, therefore, unknowable.”[2]

Radical transcendence. Sit with that for a moment. A radically transcendent God exists ‘over and above’ the world, over and above humanity. A radically transcendent God lives somewhere else. A radically transcendent God is distant, separate, detached, beyond, unreachable, unknowable, inscrutable, wholly other. I read earlier from the introduction to the twentieth-century, Neo-Reformed—sometimes called Neo-Orthodox—Swiss theologian, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans. Commenting on the Apostle Paul Barth says “However great and important a man Paul may have been, the essential theme of his mission is not within him but above him—unapproachably distant and unutterably strange.” Barth often used the Latin term deus absconditus, the hidden God.

There are religious people of all sorts who are quite comfortable with a radically transcendent God. I’m mindful of a quote, also attributed to the late Rev. Forrest Church: “The power which I cannot explain or know or name I call God. God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being.” We might call this a liberal version of deus absconditus. I find it enormously and refreshingly sane and wise to locate God in mystery, to believe in a God we cannot explain or know or name. Such belief requires us to admit our own limits; to acknowledge we don’t know everything; to find peace in the darkness; to accept that we cannot control every outcome; to accept that we must, at times, let go, that we must, at times, surrender. This is humility. At its best a wholly other God leads us to humility in our interactions with others and with the world.

The problem is, I’m not sure most gods like being radically transcendent. It seems difficult for them to remain distant and unknowable, shrouded in mystery. It’s hard for them. All too often transcendent gods leave their otherworldly home and visit earth; they descend; they come down to play, provoke, punish—to send plagues and swarms of locusts, to cause droughts and floods. One of my favorite stories of a radically transcendent God who makes himself known is the Hebrew Book of Job, a somewhat unique piece of Jewish wisdom literature from which we read earlier. Job was a righteous man—God-fearing, obedient. Satan wagers with God that he can induce Job to curse God. God accepts the wager, and Satan proceeds to destroy Job’s life, ruining his livelihood, killing off his family members and livestock, afflicting his body with horrible diseases. Job never curses God, but when he wonders why he’s been made to suffer so horribly, God becomes angry and sarcastic saying, essentially, “You didn’t make the world. I made the world. I can do whatever I want, it’s not your place to question, and you wouldn’t understand anyways.” One of the enduring critiques of transcendent gods is that they do whatever they want, that they’re capricious and arbitrary, that they mis-use and abuse their power without feeling a need to justify their actions—at least without justification we mere mortals would understand. They don’t stay radically transcendent. They descend.

But perhaps the problem doesn’t lie so much with the gods themselves, as with the people who speak for them. Many people don’t find an unknowable, radically transcendent god all that helpful or interesting. They’re uncomfortable with theological silence, uncomfortable with mystery, often because they need a God who can help them achieve certain social or political goals on earth. They want a transcendent god with all the power and the glory, but not the radical version. They want a knowable God who, more than anything, instills fear.

My mind wanders to Jonathan Edwards’ infamous 1741 Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon, which became the model for American hell-fire and brimstone preaching: “There is nothing that keeps wicked Men at any one Moment, out of Hell, but the meer Pleasure of GOD. By the meer Pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign Pleasure, his arbitrary Will, restrained by no Obligation, hinder’d by no manner of Difficulty.”[3] (I think this sermon should have been called God in the Hands of an Angry Preacher!). There’s often a political dimension to this kind of knowable, transcendent God—he’s a king, an autocrat, a dictator, a tyrant. He rules from the top of a hierarchy. People who promote such a God on earth often occupy parallel social and political positions—or would like to—and they favor this kind of God precisely because his power, anger and arbitrariness engender fear not only to keep a populace from rebelling, but also to motivate sufficient numbers of followers to commit violence in God’s name.

I’m aware there are ten thousand other versions of knowable transcendent God, many of them quite friendly, but knowing how easy it is for transcendent God to be coopted into the service of selfish human aims, I’ve tended in my life to seek God not in some otherworldly place, not in some higher realm, but right here, among us, around us, within us, infused in the dark, brown earth, thawing with the lake ice as winter turns to spring, sinking into to early April mud, tunneling with the earth worms, falling warmly with early April rain, rolling and crashing with the great ocean waves, rising and setting with the sun and the moon, coursing through our bodies, pulsing with our blood, beating with our hearts, breathing with our lungs.

I’ve longed for God to be nearby, close, present, immediate—like a friend, a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a lover—a wise counselor when my way is unclear, a source of inspiration when my well runs dry, a muse for my creativity, a provider of comfort and solace when life is hard, a bringer of peace in the midst of chaos—a still, small voice, speaking from that place within me where I know my truth, where my conviction resides, where my voice is strong.

I’ve longed for a God not beyond knowing, not unapproachable, not in Heaven, not on Olympus, not in the underworld, but right here in meaningful human interaction: the helping hand, the smile, the caring gesture, the thoughtful gift, the offered prayer, the full embrace, deep listening, meaningful conversation, the good night kiss, “I love you,” “thank you,” “I miss you,” “I’m sorry,” “What can I do?”

I’ve longed for God not ‘wholly other’ but wholly familiar: in the music, the rhythm, the harmonies, the hymns, the silence spaces between the notes, the beat that goes on and on; and in the holy quiet, in the ritual words, in the heartfelt sharing, in the chalice flame.

I’ve longed for God not to punish and judge and condemn, but to urge us in all manner of ways to build the beloved community, to welcome, to include, to be curious and adaptable, to apologize and forgive, to work for a more just human society, to work for a more sustainable earth, to work on behalf of the generations to come , to love, to love, to love.

I’ve longed not for a transcendent God, but an immanent God. In his Handbook of Theological Terms Van Harvey says “Immanence is the technical term used to denote the nearness or presence or indwelling of God in the creation. It is usually contrasted with Transcendence.”[4] Often God is both transcendent and immanent, so I don’t want you to draw too fine a distinction. The point I am making is very personal: Transcendent God, the God of Heaven, the God of the Whirlwind, the Creator of the Universe, the Almighty, the Strict Father—none of that has ever appealed to me. It may be because I don’t feel strongly about the afterlife. I’m not longing to see God after I die. I’m longing to live the best life I can live now, and thus I long for an immanent God—God here and now.

Those of you who’ve been listening closely to me over the years know that as much as I tell you I long for immanent God, I never say I know God is real, mainly because I can’t prove it. And I rarely say I believe in God, mainly because so many people confuse what they believe to be true with what they know to be true, and I don’t want to do that. Remember: we know something is true when we have some way of proving it. We believe something is true when it’s really important to us and we have no way of proving it. When someone says I believe X about God, what I hear them saying is “I really want X to be true,” or “I long for X to be true.” Belief isn’t knowledge. It’s longing. It’s wanting. It’s desire. I long for immanent God to be real, and I’ve learned through experience that the best way to satiate that longing is to live “as if” immanent God were real; to live as if every inch of the earth is sacred and matters; to live as if every human being is sacred and matters, every creature, every drop of water, every stone, every blade of grass is sacred and matters. Live as if it were so. You won’t prove anything God, but that’s not what matters. Living well, living the best life we can live here and now matters.

A final thought about immanence. Van Harvey’s Handbook of Theological Terms mentioned radical transcendence, but not radical immanence. If radical transcendence is the extreme otherness of God, radical immanence must be the extreme sameness of God. My mind wandered, again, this time to the passage from Daniel Quinn’s The Holy which we read earlier. The main character Tim is sitting in the dessert, perhaps sleeping. He wakes up to discover what he first imagines is “an alien creature towering over him—a visitor from the stars, bristling with silver spikes and armored in glossy green.” Soon “he saw that the creature meant him no harm—accepted him as an equal, seemed to enfold him in its own aura of vibrant power and dignity, as if to say, ‘It’s all right. I see you too are alive. No more is required. We are comrades.”[5] Eventually Tim and the reader realize the visitor is a cactus and Tim is somehow able to see—for a brief moment— into its essence, the “vibrant, sublime energy emanating from within.” Eventually he runs up a hill so he can peer down into the valley and behold the same energy coursing through the entire landscape: “Every leaf of every tree was radiant, lustrous—incandescent with power that was unmistakably divine.”[6] This passage struck me as a description of radical immanence.

I’ve never had an experience like that, though I know people who have. And I have certainly had those kinds of spiritual experiences—sometimes in nature, sometimes in response to music, sometimes in the midst of prayer—when I feel utterly related, when I feel at one with all there is. Such experiences are short-lived, fleeting, but they offer powerful opportunities to sense, to intuit, to grasp one’s connectedness to the whole of life; opportunities to sense, to intuit, to grasp the reality of our interdependence with the whole of life. Extreme sameness. Radical immanence. Is it God? I don’t know. But I promise you I will strive to live as if it were so.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992).

[2] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992) pp. 242-243.

[3] Edwards, Jonathan, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God, 1741. Read the text at http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=etas.

[4] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992), p. 127.

[5] Quinn, Daniel, The Holy (New York: Context Books, 2002) p. 378.

[6] Quinn, Daniel, The Holy (New York: Context Books, 2002) p. 379.

Dreaming Ourselves in a Multigenerational Community

Mr. Barb Greve, MDiv, MCRE

Mr. Barb GreveWhen I was a child I walked among real-life superheroes and I bet you do too. But don’t look now – they’re probably wearing their church clothes. 

There was Playdough Pat, whose superhero powers included being able to make anything out of Playdough in a matter of moments. What was most impressive about Pat’s Playdough powers was that ze seemed to magically know just who in our class needed the most help and was always there to help; whether the help we needed was with our Playdough sculpture or something that was going on in our lives. With a handful of Playdough and a caring heart, Pat was there to help. 

There was Boiler Room Bob, whose fix-it powers never ceased to amaze us. With just a wrench, a screwdriver and a roll of duct tape, Bob could fix anything that needed fixing on a Sunday morning or any other time. Whether it was a broken window or a stopped toilet, a burnt out coffee maker or the sound system, Bob was there to make sure it got fixed. 

There was Octo the Organist, who could inspire all near him to join together to make beautiful music. Octo’s specialty was that it didn’t matter what our musical skills were or how we sounded solo. His power to bring us together extended to making our combined music sound wonderful.  

I’ll always remember Justice Janet, who had an eye on world events and could explain them in such a way as they made sense to everyone, regardless of our ages. Justice Janet tirelessly encouraged us to use our privilege and power to help make the world better. She organized the first town-wide recycling program, started a community garden, regularly ran voter registration drives and was on a first-name basis with all of her local, state and national politicians. 

Playdough Pat, Boiler Room Bob, Octo the Organist and Justice Janet, along with all of their superhero friends, created a community where each person was valued for who they were. They learned that by staying in community and sharing their powers, they could cover each other’s weaknesses and broaden their own strengths. Together they were a force for good in the world, offering love and caring wherever they traveled. 

I bet there are Superheroes sitting among us today. If you watch carefully you’re bound to figure out who they are. Perhaps you’re even one and you don’t yet realize it. 

One of the important messages that the Superheroes of my childhood taught me was that church is a place where we can be fully in one another’s lives. They taught me that, as the Reverend A. Powell Davies wrote, “Religion is not something separate and apart from ordinary life. It is life – life of every kind viewed from the standpoint of meaning and purpose: life lived in the fuller awareness of its human quality and spiritual significance.” 

My hope is that at its core, Religious Education teaches this message of the inextricable connection between religion and life. In the skit earlier, the Ghost of Future RE offered Josh a version of the future where that didn’t happen. What we saw instead was a collection of adults who are lonely, afraid and disengaged from the world. But that doesn’t have to be the future path for you. 

In a recent blog post retired UU minister, the Rev. Tom Schade offered this possible description of a Unitarian Universalist future congregation: 

“Our congregation is where you go if you want your children to grow up to be morally and ethically strong and clear AND open-minded and curious about the world of differences. We are really one big, all ages cooperative Sunday School. Our primary purpose is to help families form themselves around spiritually progressive values: multiculturalism, gender equality, healthy sexuality, right relationships, arts and sciences, etc. Every member, adult, youth and child, contributes to our educational activities. We offer that education/growth experience to every family in our community, regardless of their religious affiliation or none. Most weeks, we have family worship. Some weeks we have a group field trip. Some weeks we engage is a work/service project or an arts project with an artist. But everything is for families and children and the future. All ages and generations are welcome.”[1] 

This is the direction in which you are already moving. Time and again your Transitions Team has indicated a desire to move to a more multigenerational model. You’ve begun to do some things that will bridge the divide between the youngest and the oldest among you: from nametags for all to elders attending children’s chapel. These are great starts. 

Karen Bellavance-Grace offers a model of religious education called Full Week Faith: a mash-up of good old-fashioned family ministry, first century-style mission driven church, and a faithful leveraging of technology and social media to expand the reach and breadth of our ministries.[2] 

In this model the staff are asked to not spend all their time gearing towards Sunday morning and instead balance out their efforts to provide additional ways for families to engage in church life all week long. This might include daily Tweets or Facebook postings, online classes for all ages, and organizing groups to attend sports games, concerts, math Olympiads and such – all events where children from the church are participating. The idea being that members of this community are together attending events out in the community where each other are engaged. 

Karen’s colleague Tandi Rogers even goes as far as dreaming that there is a traveling UU cheerleading squad who shows up at sporting and academic competitions to cheer for all sides, using phrases that incorporate our principles and values. 

There are many other models of how to deliver Religious Education, some include holding multigenerational worship every Sunday followed by an hour of multigenerational learning. Others include no Sunday worship and instead the congregation goes out into the community to do the good works of the church, as described in Rev. Schade’s advertisement. Some models continue to have the ages segregated for worship, but invite additional adults to work with our youngsters by sharing their skills and passions for 3-week workshop sessions. 

UUS:E’s desire to be a more multigenerational community is a wonderful idea and is good for your future. But in order to do this, everyone has to be willing to change. Being a multigenerational community isn’t just about more elders teaching Sunday School. Being a multigenerational community means the whole community worshipping together more frequently; with all of us becoming comfortable with squirming, fidgeting and sounds –and I’m not just talking about those coming from the children! It means continuing to offer opportunities for engagement at all areas of church life for all ages. 

It means that when thinking about social action activities, the social action committee is thinking about ways to engage families with small children. It means that when thinking about building projects the buildings & grounds committee is thinking about who the teens might be engaged in helping (and not just for their strength). It means that when we’re writing newsletter columns and blurbs we are considering how it will read to a 5th grader and when we’re choosing music for worship we’re not just using children and youth to play the music but that we’re also choosing music that has meaning for them. Being a multigenerational community means creating and finding more classes that can work for all ages, such as a common book read and discussion group; using books that are accessible to youngsters and elders. Being a more multigenerational community means that we adults have to make more room for the children. And the reward is that by doing so, we’re inviting them to make more room for us. 

There’s a secret trick to all of this. And it is best told through perhaps my all time favorite religious education story, written by one of the grandmother’s of Unitarian Universalist religious education, Barbara Marshman, and titled The Toadstool and Spindly Plant: 

At the edge of the forest stood a large squat toadstool. Next to him grew a spindly plant about the same height with four leaves. 

One day the toadstool said to his companion, “Hey Skinny, I’ve been watching you. Tell me this – how come when somebody kicks a toadstool, we fall all to pieces. But when someone steps on you, you can straighten right up again as good as new?” 

The skinny plant thought for a while, and then answered, “I guess it’s because I have something down under the ground called roots. They go down deep and when I get stepped on I just hang on tight with my roots until I’m all right again.” 

“Hey, that’s a great idea,” said the toadstool. “How do you go about getting these roots?” 

“Wellllll,” said his friend slowly, “it takes a long time. I’ve been growing mine for almost a year.” 

“A year!” shouted the toadstool, “Who has got that kind of time! A whole year growing something that you can’t even see! Roots may be handy, but that’s the silliest waste of time I ever heard.” And he laughed and laughed. 

Finally, he said to his forest friend, “By the way Spindly, when you’ve got all your fancy roots grown, what do you expect to be?” 

The Spindly plant seemed to grow taller as he spoke. “Do you see that tallest oak tree standing against the winds on the top of that hill? That’s my mother and someday I’m going to be strong and tall just like her.” 

A deep religious faith is like the deep roots of the oak tree. It helps to give us strength to weather the storms of life. Being regularly engaged in multigenerational life here at UUS:E will help you grow deep roots in our faith, like the oak tree grew deep roots in the Earth. These roots will help you feel secure in your community and will ensure that you won’t be like the toadstools and fall apart at the slightest little kick. 

May we each, through multigenerational community, cultivate our roots in order to better bend and sway to the changing times. And you never know, you might wake up one day and realize that you’ve been sitting next to a superhero this whole time. 

May it be so and may we be the ones to make it so.

Amen.

[1] Schade, Thomas. (2015, March 28), UU Growth: Alternative #3 to Community Building Strategy. [The Lively Tradition]. Retrieved from http://www.tomschade.com/2015/03/uu-growth-alternative-3-to-community.html?m=1

[2] Bellavance-Grace, Karen. (2013, October 3), Do Something. the full week faith.  [Full Week Faith]. Retreived from http://fullweekfaith.weebly.com/doing-something-the-full-week-faith.html

On Being/Becoming Generous People

Rev. Josh Pawelek

GenerosityOur ministry theme for March is generosity. We choose this theme for this time of year quite intentionally. March is the month and today is the day we officially launch our annual appeal during which we ask each of you to make a generous financial pledge for the coming fiscal year. I know I don’t have to sugar-coat this. We’ve talked enough about money, giving and financial stewardship over the years that I’m confident all of us (except those who are very new to the congregation) know that we—and by we I mean you, the members and friends of this congregation, and me, the minister, and the rest of the staff—we, all of us, want all of us to be as generous as possible when we make our financial gifts to this congregation. We take giving very seriously here, and I hope and trust each of you is reflecting now on what UUS:E means to you, and the financial gift you can pledge for the coming year.

Of course, generosity is important no matter what time of year and no matter to whom or to what institution or cause you are directing your generosity. I want us to be generous to UUS:E with our time, talents and treasure; but it is also my hope that we will be generous in all aspects of our lives—generous to our families, our friends, our neighborhoods, our towns or cities, institutions we care about, people in need, people who are suffering, people next door, people on the other side of the planet and, indeed, the planet itself. I want us to be generous people. And I want us to be people who are always becoming more generous. With this in mind, and mindful we are launching our annual appeal, I offer three reflections on generosity:

My first reflection, perhaps somewhat oddly, is about not being generous. It stems from the recognition that at certain times I experience myself not as a generous person, but as something else. I don’t want to admit I sometimes experience myself as selfish, stingy, closed-off, but sometimes that how it feels. I don’t want to give money to everyone who approaches me with an outstretched hand. I don’t want to say ‘yes’ to every idea everyone wants to pursue with my help, or to every worthy cause everyone wants me to support. I don’t always want to call my legislators or the Governor’s office every time someone asks—that could be a full-time job if I made every call I’m asked to make. As much as I love my parents, my wife, my brothers and their wives, my kids and my nephews and nieces, I don’t always want to spend time with them. I don’t always want to help out with the PTO, chaperone the field trip or coach soccer. I don’t want serve on yet another board. I don’t. I don’t. I don’t. And, often, the act of saying “no” or “I don’t want to” or “I’m sorry, I just can’t do it,” or “I’m sorry, there’s no cash in my wallet,” makes me feel incredibly guilty, selfish, stingy, closed. To this day, I’m not entirely sure where this comes from—especially the guilt, since it wasn’t part of my religious upbringing. But guilt is often the first thing I feel when I refuse the invitation to practice generosity.

I’ve learned to remind myself that all spiritual values have their limits when human beings put them into practice. There are practical limits to our compassion, love, wisdom, creativity, hospitality. Generosity is no exception. We cannot respond to every need. We cannot make every wounded person whole. None of us has infinite financial resources, infinite time, infinite compassion, infinite love. This is not a scarcity-mentality. It is a realistic assessment of our capacity. As much as we might want to, we cannot donate a second kidney. We cannot say “yes” to everything no matter how worthy. When we do, we risk exhausting ourselves, impoverishing ourselves, losing ourselves. We risk stressing out, checking out, burning out, disappearing, fading away. We risk becoming resentful, bitter, discouraged, depressed.

It is possible to be generous in an ungrounded way, in a way that potentially does harm to the one being generous. Over the years I have watched people impoverish themselves emotionally, spiritually and financially by giving endlessly to others. We might call them selfless, we might admire them for their sacrifice—sometimes it is truly beautiful—but more often than not, as they deplete their resources, their own life grows more and more tenuous, and their generosity loses its effectiveness. There’s a metaphor that keeps popping up in my life these days, the instructions one receives on an airplane: if the cabin loses pressure and the oxygen masks drop down from the ceiling, put your own mask on first, prior to putting your child’s mask on. If we want our generosity to be as effective as possible, and if we want it to be sustainable—that is, if we want generosity to be an ongoing, deeply-rooted part of our identity—then we need to put our own mask on first. We need to trust that saying “no” doesn’t have to be a sign of selfishness. Saying “no” may simply mean “I’ve reached my current limit.” Saying “no” in some situations sustains us for those situations wherein we say “yes.” Saying “no” in some situations enables us to be ready for and effective in those situations wherein we say “yes.” I’m talking about self-care, which includes saying “no,” and enables us to offer grounded and sustainable generosity to those people, institutions and causes that are most important to us.

My next reflection is about spontaneous generosity or random acts of kindness. Our middle school “Popcorn Theology” class recently watched excerpts from the 2007 film, Evan Almighty, in which actor Steve Carell plays Evan, a newly elected congressman who wants to change the world, and actor Morgan Freeman plays God. God convinces Evan that he must build an ark, just like Noah did in Genesis. Evan asks God if he really intends to flood the earth and start over. God doesn’t answer the question fully, but he indicates his intent isn’t as Biblical as it may seem. In protest, Evan says, “I don’t even know where I would begin.” “Well, I hear that a lot,” says God. “People want to change the world, don’t know where to begin. You wanna know how to change the world, son? One act of random kindness at a time.” Spoiler: ‘ark’ is an abbreviation for ‘act of random kindness.’

Whether we say ‘acts of random kindness’ or ‘random acts of kindness,’ this is very familiar language in our culture, to the point where it has become a hyper cliché. If you know me at all, you know I am underwhelmed by moral and spiritual guidance delivered through clichés. I actually don’t agree that one act of random kindness at a time, even when carried out by millions of people, will change the world. I happen to think the problems facing the world—climate change, poverty, violence, war, and so on—will not evaporate in the face of widespread kindness. I happen to think solving the problems facing the world today requires not random, but highly organized, large-scale, strategic interventions aimed at transforming the local, regional, national and global social, political and economic structures that currently perpetuate those problems. Such interventions cannot be accomplished by kind individuals acting randomly on their own, but rather by multinational, multicultural, multigenerational movements acting in visionary, courageous and sustainable ways over the course of decades. Since change of this sort requires conflict, not all of it will be kind. The world needs more than random acts of kindness.

Having said that, I don’t want to become known as the minister who urged his congregation not to commit random acts of kindness. If you were getting ready to post that message on Facebook, or tweet it, please hold off. Almost all of us have opportunities—many, many opportunities—every day to be kind, compassionate, generous. And we don’t have to go far out of our way to find those opportunities. Offer an encouraging word, a compliment, an affirmation—or just ask, “how are you today?” and really mean it. Reach out to a friend or family member you haven’t heard from in a while. Say “hello,” “I’ve been thinking about you,” “I miss you.” Let the other person have the parking space, even though you got there first. Let the other person cut in front of you in the traffic jam. Lend a hand, hold a door, offer a ride, help with a project—painting a room, raking leaves, shoveling snow, packing for a move, cleaning a garage, attic or basement. Ask, “Is there anything I can do?” and, if the answer is “yes,” do it. Mentor, tutor, coach, counsel, guide. Help with homework. Remember a birthday or an anniversary—the anniversary of a marriage, a death, any significant milestone in a person’s life. Remember with a card, a phone call, a gift. If you discover someone is lonely, talk to them, take them seriously. If someone is overwhelmed, assist them. If someone is grieving, comfort them. If someone is in pain, soothe them. If someone needs to be left alone, let them be alone.

And then there’s the giving of money. So often we encounter people who need money for any number of reasons. And yes, giving money to someone in need can be tricky. When you have money to give and another needs it, it invariably creates an imbalance in the relationship, which can be hard to talk about, hard even to acknowledge. At the risk of minimizing the complexities money brings to human interactions, my hope is that in those times when we have it and others need it, we can give it with humility, with grace, with no strings attached, with no regrets. Having money to give does not make a person better or more worthy, but it does give one an avenue for kindness and generosity that can make a huge difference in another’s life. My hope is that, when we have it to give, we will give it.

Offering our generosity through random acts of kindness won’t change the world. But what a difference it can make, not only in the lives of those who receive our generosity, but in our own lives. What a difference there is between a life in which we close ourselves off to the needs of those around us, compared to a life in which we reach out, make ourselves available, offer a kind word, give money when we have it to give—thoughtfully, carefully, always within our means—but freely, without reservations or misgivings. Generosity honors life, strengthens life, builds life up. Yes, church ought to enable our participation in those larger movements for social, economic, political and environmental change, but it also ought to inspire us to be generous in our face-to-face, human interactions. What a difference generosity makes.

My final reflection, then, brings generosity back to church. Again, I want us to be generous people. And I want us to be people who are always becoming more generous. This certainly means I want us to give as generously as possible to our annual appeal. And it also means I want us to be as generous as possible in all aspects of our lives. So, what is it about church—this particular church—that creates a generous spirit in us, that keeps us not closed but open to those around us, that inspires us to give? I read to you earlier an excerpt from a chapter from Anne Lamott’s Travelling Mercies, called “Why I Make Sam Go to Church.” Sam is her son. She describes how the people of the church welcomed Sam as soon as they found out she was pregnant, and how they continued to welcome him and support their small family through hard times once he was born. She writes of receiving gifts of clothes, casseroles and baggies full of dimes. She writes of the deep and genuine love the people of the church feel for Sam and the deep and genuine love he feels for them. This story jumped out at me because it’s about multigenerational bonds within a church community. What I’ve come to recognize during this congregational year—more fully than I’ve ever recognized before—is that for multigenerational communities to work well the members must be open—intentionally and purposefully open—to a whole range of needs and gifts unique to each generation—open to the needs and gifts of elders, of our children, of our youth and young adults, of parents and of non-parenting adults;  open to all these needs and gifts, learning how they complement each other, how they conflict with each other, and how we can mash them up into a beautiful whole. Multigenerational community demands openness. And I’m convinced the more open we are, the more generous we become.

Last year many of you were able to increase your financial giving, which enabled us to support a very intentional process of enhancing the quality and experience of our multigenerational community. We have been working closely with our interim religious education consultant, Barb Greve and we are finally beginning to introduce some innovations: Everything from the new children’s nametags, to increasing the number of non-parenting adults volunteering or subbing in the children’s religious education program, to inviting small groups of adults to attend children’s worship, to piloting a variety of techniques for multigenerational worship. This spring we’re going to experiment with having children present for the beginning of adult worship on a much more regular basis, and we have many more ideas for making full-week faith a reality over the coming year. The bottom line for me is that we are slowly increasing the opportunities for interaction across the generations. This requires a new degree of openness to change and new relationships. I’m starting to see it—perhaps you are too—and I love what I see. The more open we are, the more generous we become.

Generosity is one of the most significant spiritual values we can cultivate in ourselves and our children. So much of what we do here at UUS:E seeks to instill generosity in us by opening us up—opening us up to the world around us, to pain and suffering and need in the world, to the complexity and beauty of the world, to possibilities, creativity, joy and love: Sunday morning worship, religious education, opportunities to serve—as leaders, as committee members, as stewards, as caregivers, as teachers—opportunities to participate in social justice movements, opportunities to participate in environmental justice movements, opportunities to mark and celebrate life’s milestones—birth, coming of age, marriage, death—opportunities for us to be safely and fully who we are, opportunities to share the details of our lives, to hear and be heard, to see and be seen, to know and be known, to hold and be held, to shape and be shaped, to challenge and be challenged, to soften and be softened, to care and to be cared for, to bring and receive gifts, to love and be loved. All of it opens us up, enables us to be generous people, enables us to continue becoming more generous people.

For your generous gift to this year’s annual appeal, thank you. For your generous spirit, thank you. For all your efforts to become more generous people, thank you.

Amen and blessed be.

 

King of the Hill

Rev. Fritz Hudson

Introduction    

Rev. Fritz HudsonGood Morning to you all.  I bring you greetings from your southern kinfolk.

– those in your near south, in New Haven, at the Unitarian Society I serve there and

– those much further south, who gathered in Alabama this past week to mark the passage of 50 years since the Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights.

Your minister, Josh Pawelek, is leading worship in our New Haven Society this morning.  Josh and I spent this past week among those gathered in Alabama, in our office as Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association.  Our presence in each other’s pulpits today allowed us be marching through the streets of Selma last Sunday and to spend this entire week with our fellow Trustees, discerning the call that the spirit of Selma sends to our 1800 colleagues in ministry now.

Josh today, with my people in New Haven, is developing the reflections you heard from him back in January, on Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday.  He’s engaging them to insure that “Black Lives Matter” here in Connecticut, in its south as well as its north, and west, and east and center.   You know his power to do so.  You know his capacity to carry others with him on this mission, drawing on the strength of his deep roots here and on his far-sighted commitment to bringing social justice here. I consider it an honor to be with you today, to touch the hearth from which his fire rises.

What, though, can I offer you in return for your gift of Josh to my people to New Haven?  I struggled with this question quite a bit once Josh and I agreed to this exchange of pulpits.  What could I offer you that Josh hasn’t already given you, probably better than I ever could?  I decided that I might have one thing Josh couldn’t quite give you yet – the perspective of greater age.   I can actually remember the passage of 50 years, and more than a decade more.  Josh can’t yet.   Perhaps my longer view of Selma’s Call could be a gift to some of you. We’ll see.

40 years ago, at my entry onto this ministerial path, the Rev. Joseph Barth was the much revered, but just retired, Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Department of Ministry.  Only halfway down this path, at about Josh’s juncture, did I become able to take in some of the wisdom Joe’s years had brought him.   I’ll share with you now Joe’s learning as he sought to bring justice to his world.

“When I was in my last years of college and (divinity school), I spent my summers (touring Europe.)  The years were 1930-1935. … Always we spent at least 2 weeks and sometimes four in Germany.  I saw and felt Hitler’s rise to power, saw the Brown Shirts take over political favor and the black leather jacketed storm troopers strike terror on the roads and in the thousands of lives. … I saw the obscene salute spread in those years. Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler and Heil Hitler.” 

“When I entered the ministry in 1935, my major ethical goal in life was to “stop Hitler short of war.” … As the Ruhr, Sudetenland, Austria, Czechoslavkia and Poland fell … I worked longer hours, spoke more and more places, spoke day and night to ‘stop Hitler short of war.”  If ever there was clearly good moral goal to work at surely that one was unquestionable.  

“By the time the German war machine drove its way into Poland I knew that Nazism was having its way in Europe.  When England went to war I was sure that we would soon do so.  Before Pearl Harbor I knew myself defeated in the great goal of stopping Hitler and stopping war.  … I was in despair — hell that is.  In a deep depression I could almost feel myself ‘blowing apart.’ … 

“By that time I’m sure that I had read from the Bhadavad Gita, the Hindu Scripture, at least a dozen times this admonition: “Do your duty, without attachment.”  I had read it but never really attended to it or its possible meaning for me.  In depression (though) when I read it, it jumped out of the page and shook me.  (A)nd what it told me was ‘Look brother, you’ve gotten your good goals all intermingled with your hungry, demanding ego.  You’ve been so attached to your good goals that, now that they’re smashed, you have got nobody to be.'” 

“In that one day I knew what was wrong with me — my depression was not primarily the result of the failure of those … highly moral and significant goals.  I was what was wrong.  I wanted, tried to organize, tried to impose my will on the world.  … I didn’t know that even in the battle of good against evil I wasn’t necessarily meant to impose my ego on the world.  The fact was I had made no distinctions between opposing the authoritarian Hitler and imposing my will on the world. … I finally saw it: ‘Do your duty without attachment (of ego)’ really meant ‘Do the best thing you can see to do but let the Hitler in you go.” 

King of the Hill

– Who of you knows this as the name of a long-running animated TV show?  So I’ll show my age right off: I know absolutely nothing about this show. If its themes feed or fog my reflections this morning, you’ll have to tell me about that in our coffee hour after worship.

– Does anyone beside me know “King of the Hill” as the name of a childhood game?  In Chicago’s suburbs, as a boy in the 1950s, I mounted many a little bump on the earth and declared myself its “king”.  And inevitably I was dethroned from all of those “hills” by some friend who pushed me down the slope on one side or another, to claim and defend his or her own supremacy in my place – but only for a few moments of course. The fun in the game was that it was far easier to push someone from the summit than it was to defend it.  In a very short time, each of us could thrill at gaining supremacy, revel in holding it for a brief time, and then fall from it knowing that the thrill and the reveling could again be ours, and again and again and again.

Then as a young minister some years later, I came across a classic lithograph print produced by Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives. You might know it.  At its base is a two-sided stair-step, like those used to award athletic medals: two steps on the left, a central top platform, and two steps on the right.  On each step, is a human image.

– Lowest to the left is a crawling baby.

– On the middle step next is a young boy, crouched as if ready to spring into the air.

– On the top level, in the center is a broad-chested man standing at full height, obviously at the peak of his physical powers.

– On the middle step to the right side is an older man, somewhat round-shouldered and paunchy, bent over his desk.

– And lowest to the right is an old man, bent almost double over his thick cane, rising not much higher above his step then the baby rises on his.

These are, as the print is entitled, “The Ages of Man.”   The upright figure at its center I quickly could call “King of the Hill.”  But how much more challenged is our spirit in looking at these images than was mine in my childhood game?  The movement through our ages is slow.  Each step is reached and held only once.  And most challenging, we move through our ages only in one direction.  Once we’re no longer King of the Hill, we’ll never be again.  Where’s the fun in that?

I picture your minister on that center platform now.  Who here sees yourself up there with him or rising up to join him in your future?  Hail you Kings of the Hill!

I picture myself on the first step down below Josh to the right.  Who here sees yourself down here with me or moving with me toward the bottom right?   Crouching at our desk, as the lithograph images us, when we’re 64 or beyond it, can we “send a postcard, drop a line” to those rising, as Paul McCartney asked in his song? What exactly could we “indicate” to them?  What could we say, and mean it?  Or must we just sign off as the song’s lyric imagined: “Yours sincerely, wasting away?”  I think we can do much better.

Those of you on that top platform, Kings of the Hill: Who among you have seen this year’s movie Selma?  Those of us on that next step or two down, were any of us actually in Selma or Montgomery in that March 50 years ago?  Even if not, I’ll bet many here on my step have seen the movie and could place beside it our own memory of the events themselves as they came to us on our TV screens in 1965.  Yes?   Do you agree with me, that in large part the movie captures the spirit of the reality we remember?  In particular I think it well presents Martin Luther King Jr. as the King of the Hill he was in that winter.

He was 36 years old.

– In the horror of the Bloody Sunday end to the first attempted march to Montgomery, he knew the power it gave him to call to the clergy of all America to join him in attempting the march again.

– In the trap of the second march, when he sensed that leaving Selma could bring a violent unwitnessed attack on all his followers out in the countryside, he had the grace to kneel in prayer on the Pettis bridge and then turn his column back into town.

– With the nation’s revulsion at his back, from the beating death that night of his follower, Unitarian Jim Reeb, he then had the strength to mount the third march – five days over 50 miles to the Montgomery Statehouse steps.

And then from those steps, he could ask:

“How long with it take?

How long will prejudice blind the visions of men?

How long will justice be crucified?”

How long? he asked.

“Not long” he answered, and again “Not long” and again “Not long.”

Martin’s impatience for changes, of course, did bring some of them quite soon thereafter.  Their price, though, was our loss of him at the height of his strength, as our King.  His model, Jesus of Nazareth, likewise became revered as “heavenly king”, leaving this life from that top center platform.  The gifts to us all, from their half-lives, are great.  But where do we find our models to live with their visions unfulfilled – when “not long” becomes much, much too long – as our strength subsides, as we move down those right hand steps?

My time to seek my place in the “over the hill gang” impressed itself upon me at the death, two years ago, of my mother-in-law. She was the last survivor among Ginnys’ and my parents.  I first found a spiritual partner in an old Dennis the Menace cartoon I’d clipped and saved years ago.

– Mr. Wilson, Dennis’ sometimes grumpy neighbor, is sitting in his living room armchair, his newspaper open in his lap, but his face turned back over his shoulder.  He’s wearing a scowl.

– Dennis is in front of the couch back there, upside down executing a headstand on the rug.

– From his impish smile come these words, “How can I act my age?  I’ve never been my age before.”

Indeed none of us has ever been our age before, have we?  When we’re no longer Kings of the Hill, to whom can we now look for a model?  Two years ago, in my last sabbatical leave in ministry, I made my way to China, to the ancient city of Qufu.  He sought there the model of that city’s most famous son, and most famous old man.  Ch’iu was his given name.  Kung Futze, Master Kung, he grew to be called.  But our western world knows him best as Confucius.

Master Kung’s life stretched over the full length of our ages, up to its strength on the center platform and down again to its dissolution on that far step.  His spirit’s progression, though over those years etches a far different image in our mind’s eye.  In the Analects, he marks the landmarks of his passages in these words:

   At fifteen, I set my heart on learning. 

   At thirty, I had planted my feet firm upon the ground. 

   At forty, I no longer suffered from complexities. 

   At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven. 

   At sixty, I heard them with docile ear. 

   At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my heart;

     for I what desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.  (2:4)

The artist in my mind’s eye would not image this path in steps up and then down. Its shape rather would be the spiral captured by our poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, a century and a half ago.  You know his poem, “The Chambered Nautilus.”   It describes that sea animal’s progress:

   Year after year beheld the silent toil

   That spread his lustrous coil;

   Still, as the spiral grew,

  He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,

And from it the poet draws his spirits model:

   Let each new temple, nobler than the last,

   Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,

   Till thou at length art free,

   Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

But what is the driving engine of this growth, I still had to ask?  What allows for this expansion of the spirit, while it remains ever in touch with each turn of its past path?

Joe Barth’s story of escaping his depression at failing to save the world gets us started in the right direction, I think.

– Remember his words to his own tortured soul:  “Let the Hitler inside you go.  Do your duty without attachment.”

But I think we can go further along that path.

Gary Kowalski was for many years our minister in Burlington, Vermont. He moved from this long settlement into Interim Ministry, just ahead of my own passage from Lincoln Nebraska to New Haven.  He has spoken to the expanding spirit of our spiral when he contrasts the skills of gaining control and losing control:

Listen:

   To gain control of your life, you need the skill to influence other people and change the way they think.

  To lose control, you need the skill to listen with an open mind to what others say, and to let your own opinions be changed.

  To gain control of things, you need the skill to dominate and alter your environment.

  To lose control, you need the skill to be sensitive to your environment and value it for what it is. 

  To gain control of time, you need clear plans for the future.  To lose control, you require an appreciation for the rich ambiguity of the present, as well as for history and traditions that have brought us to this moment.

  On the whole our society has emphasized the skills of gaining control and neglected the equally important ones of losing control.

   We lose control whenever we fall in love, . . . whenever we make friends or have children, whenever we become subject to the give-and-take of living in relationship with other people.

And this past Sunday, in Selma, I felt confirmed in the strength of this spirit for my time of life.  Josh and I have talked with one another of our feelings as we crossed the Pettis bridge in Selma.  They were not exactly the same. His were perhaps much as Martin Luther King Jr.s were, perhaps as most of our “King of the Hill” aged forebears were being there 50 years ago.  I’ll let him tell you more of those feelings.

My feelings that day, I realized however, had been called out and given a name by my own agemate a few days before.  We marched in Selma on Sunday.  On the Friday and Saturday before then, 400 Unitarian Universalists gathered in a Birmingham conference. There we asked ourselves: What does the spirit that brought our forebears to march 50 years ago call us to do today.

Our prod to those reflections was the Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed.  Who knows Mark or his work here?  We have much in common, Mark and I.

– We’re both Chicagoans, rooted in its south-side.

– We’ve shared UU ministry now for over 35 years, each ending our settled service with a 16-year tenure – his in Toronto, Ontario, as was mine in Lincoln.

– And at 65 each of us, we’re both clearly over the hill.

Mark’s calling in our faith, however, has always included a special dimension, an outgrowth of his race.  Mark is black, as I and nearly all our colleagues are not.  And Mark has long owned his role as pioneer among us to bridge this gap in our experience.

– His first gift to us, many years ago, was his book Black Pioneers in a White Denomination.  It gave us the mirror to face our failures for years to affirm the worth and dignity of every person in our ministry.

– This year his gift to us is the book The Selma Awakening: How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalism.  Who here has read it?  I strongly recommend it.  It invites you into Selma, 50 years ago, through the eyes of our faith.

And from that story, in inviting us to return to Selma last Sunday, Mark drew one telling lesson.  What moved the over 200 UU ministers to go there back then, he asked?

– Yes it was the righteousness of the cause, he said, in part.

– Yes it was the call of King’s leadership, he said.

But more than that, what drew Unitarians and Universalists to Selma 50 years ago more than anything else, he said, were personal relationships.

– It began with four who had studied with King at Boston University Theological School.  It spread when those four called their friends in ministry to say, “I’m going to Selma.  Will you join me there?”

– It spread then when those friends reaching out to their friends and their friends reached further to their friends – until over a third of our settled ministers had been called, and touched, and moved to join into one body in those streets and on that bridge.  The spirit of those forebears, Mark told us, ask us today only one question:

– “With whom are we now in relationship”

– “From whom would the call to rise up come to us today”

And “to whom would we make our own call”

With whom are we now in relationship?

In the back of the book Mark lists the names of all the ministers he’s identified who went to Selma 50 years ago – almost 200 names are there.  I went through them when I read the book. I found I had known at least 87 of them.  I felt confident that had I been old enough to be among them then, several would have made me a call.  So when I moved, as I did last Sunday, across the Pettis bridge, I felt the power of Mark’s question.

– I looked around me at the seven or so veterans making the crossing for second time.  I knew my relationship with them.

– I looked at the current Kings of Hill now then beside me, those like Josh who’d answered this call.  I knew my relationship with many of them.

– Then I began to look and ask: who among this generation, who among the generation just now rising to their place on our platform, who are not here?

To whom of them have I not yet given my love, ceded my control?

With whom of them am I now called to enter into relationship?

Where is the as yet ungrasped hand I can pull on to answer our call – to cross whatever bridge is before us to widen the spiral of love and justice?

I’m glad I’ve come among you as you undertake your reflections on generosity this month.  I ask you to reflect now on the root of its spirit – in the word’s first syllable: “gen”.  Think of generosity’s siblings in the family of words that has grown up from that root: genesis, gender, genealogy, genius. “Gen” in the ancient Indo-European language, meant to give birth, to beget.   It is the beginning of relationship.

As the Rev.Ralph Helverson taught me as I entered this work, so must I now bid to  teach you as I fade from it.

Keep us growing without faltering;

Keep us exalted without egotism;

Keep us humble without abasement;

Keep us finding life in the process of losing it.

What Does the World Require of Us? (Revisited for Pawel Jura)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Pawel, August, 2014

Pawel, August, 2014

Our congregation is in mourning after learning of the death, this past Tuesday, of our beloved former Music Director, Pawel Jura. In speaking yesterday with the Rev. Jennifer Brooks, senior interim minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, VA, I learned that the Virginia Medical Examiner has confirmed that Pawel took his own life and that he died peacefully. As more information becomes available, including information about Pawel’s memorial services here and in Fairfax, I will share it with you as best I can. In the coming weeks and months both I and our Acting Director of Religious Education, Gina Campellone, remain available to you for care and consultation about this tragic loss.

My plan for this Sunday had been to preach a sermon called “On Being/Becoming Generous People.” I was going to talk about the progress we’ve made as a congregation to date in our year of transition in our religious education program, and about our progress in deepening our identity as a multigenerational congregation. I was going make the claim that truly multigenerational congregations are generous congregations, that that has been my experience this year: in deepening our multigenerational identity we are becoming more generous people—not just in terms of money, but in terms of our openness to trying new things, new ways of engaging in congregational life, and slowly creating opportunities to build new relationships across generational lines.

In one sense I am still preaching that sermon. Your generosity of heart and spirit in the aftermath of Pawel’s death has been remarkable, has certainly lifted my spirits during the past few days. However, I need to use different words than those I had planned to use, because everything feels different since we heard the news on Wednesday. Pawel’s death and our response to it need to be spoken from this pulpit this morning, because everything feels different and will for some time. Different, but not unfamiliar. At the reception following our vigil in honor of Pawel this past Thursday night, I suddenly recognized what I was feeling. That is, what I was feeling was familiar. I’d been there before. These feelings—most of them—are the same feelings I carried around for months following December 14th, 2012, the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, CT. I know these aren’t similar events—not even close. But so many of the feelings are the same: shock, pain, loss, confusion, an aching grief.

I read over the sermon I preached the Sunday after Sandy Hook and decided to adapt it to this moment. That sermon was called “What Does the World Require of Us?”—a title Pawel suggested. The purpose of that sermon was to help this congregation find emotional and spiritual paths forward in response to a national trauma that happened relatively close to home. The purpose of this sermon (which has the same title—thank you, again, Pawel) is to help this congregation find emotional and spiritual paths forward in response to a very personal trauma—the unexpected death of a loved-one—that happened relatively far away from home.

What was true in response to that infamous school shooting is just as true now in response to Pawel’s death: it is good to be together in our grief. Community is the foundation of our emotional and spiritual way forward. It is good to hug and hold each other. It is good to keep silence together when the words won’t come. It is good to weep together. It is good to pray together. It is good to sing together. Of course, we know this. We know it’s a precious thing to find life-giving community in a world that seems to do everything it can to drive people apart—to alienate, to fragment, to disconnect, to separate. But let’s not risk taking such a precious thing for granted, especially not now. At Thursday’s vigil I mentioned that Pawel had been speaking recently about the quality and specialness of our community here at UUS:E, saying that he missed us. He used the word “homesick” to describe how he was feeling. I said, for his sake and for our sake, “let’s be that community now.” Let’s be that compassionate community, that welcoming community, that loving, serving, justice-seeking, multigenerational, generous community that Pawel loved. In the wake of this unfathomable loss, let us pause, let us breathe, let us be at home in each other’s presence, and let us recognize anew how truly precious it is to be together. Yes, let’s be that community.

What does the world require of us in response to a death such as this? This question seems essential to me if we are to find emotional and spiritual paths forward. In the aftermath of tragedy, what does the world require of us? That’s the question I want to ponder now. And it’s the question I want you to take with you into this week, into these final weeks of winter, into spring. What does the world require of us?

There’s a part of me that answers this question with despair and helplessness, with the exhaustion of the week: “I don’t know what to do.” There’s a part of me that answers this question with anger, especially when the children who knew and loved Pawel are standing before me with tears streaming down their faces, children who may be encountering their first death and it’s not a grandparent, it’s a thirty-six year old man who they thought would be a friend and mentor for life: “I don’t know what to do.” And there’s a part of me that answers this question with confusion and incomprehension. How on earth could this happen? What can we possibly say? What can we possibly do that will make a difference? What does the world require of us? Who in the world knows? That’s my despairing, helpless, exhausted, angry, confused answer to the question, “What does the world require of us?” And let me be crystal clear: we all get to have our version of that answer. We all get to cry such tears. We all get to throw up our hands and say I can’t bear this! We all get to plead with the heavens: How could this happen? We get to have that response because it is real—an honest, human response to such an unexpected and tragic loss. 

But we don’t get to have it forever. I take very seriously the words we heard earlier from the Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox about love in the aftermath of loss. She says, “Oh, my dear, do not despair that love has come and gone. Although we are broken, the love that spilled out of us has joined the love that circles the world and makes it blessed.”[1] I believe it. Did we love someone who has died? Then let us not waste that love. Let us, in Rev. Tarbox’ words, not let it “sink like silt to dry out in the sun.” As painful as it is, let us let it spill out into the world, offering blessing after blessing after blessing. That is what the world requires of us in response to unexpected and tragic loss: that we let our love spill out to bless the world.

I identify three stages to meeting this requirement which I’ll share with you now. First, in the wake of the death of a loved one as dear as Pawel, find your grounding. Breathe deeply, slowly, fully. Fill your lungs with air and remind yourself it comes from green plants and algae. Remind yourself this air you breathe is evidence of your connection to the whole of life. Not separation, but connection.  Breathe in, and as you breathe, relax, rest, be still, be quiet, be calm. Breathe in, and as you breathe, reflect, concentrate, contemplate, focus, pray. Then, still breathing, when you feel ready, start to move. Slowy at first. Gently at first: bend, bow, stretch, lengthen, extend, reach. Keep breathing. And then, when you feel ready: walk, roll, run, dance. Then, still breathing, as you feel ready, begin to create. Creative acts are so essential to moving out of despair and finding our ground. Write, compose, sing, speak, play, act, sculpt, craft, paint, draw. Feel yourself slowly coming back to yourself.

If you can, go outside. I know it’s challenging with three feet of snow on the ground and yet another winter storm on the way. But if you can, touch the ground, the soil, the earth—the beautiful, dark brown earth. Or the snow, the ice. Work in it. Play in it. Remember spring is coming. Think about how you will tend the dark, brown earth after the thaw, how you will till it, turn it, plant seeds in it,  nurture what comes forth. Think about how you will let the dirt get on your hands, under your fingernails, between your toes. Do all of this for grounding. And as you ground yourself, feel yourself coming back to life. Listen for the still small voice. Hear your own truths, your convictions emerging once again. They are there. They’ve never actually left.

The mystic Howard Thurman wrote, “How good it is to center down!”—he’s talking about becoming grounded—“to sit quietly and see oneself pass by! / The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic; / Our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silences, / While something deep within hungers for the still moment and the resting lull. / With full intensity we seek, ere the quiet passes, a fresh sense of order in our living; / A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring  meaning in our chaos.”[2]  Maybe you can find your grounding quickly. Maybe you’re tying and you can’t quite get there yet. Maybe you need more time. It’s ok. Grief does not leave us quickly. Sometimes it never leaves. Take your time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. But have hope: your center is there—it’s real. You’ll find it. The world requires this of us. In the wake of tragic loss, after your time of despair, seek grounding.

Then, second, in the wake of tragic loss, with your despair now trailing behind you, from a place of groundedness emerging within you, attend—however you can—to the grief of those around you. It may not be immediately clear how to do this. So often, we don’t know what we need in the midst of grief. But know that this suffering, this pain, this trauma will ripple around and around through our lives, through our congregation, through the Kensington United Church of Christ where Pawel worked prior to coming to us, through the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, VA where Pawel worked after leaving us. It will ripple through Unitarian Universalism. It will ripple through Manchester and Hartford, through Berlin and South Windsor. It will ripple and ripple and ripple. It will touch people who never knew Pawel. Death does that. If and when you encounter a ripple of grief, attend to it. That is, stay present to it. We attend to grief with our presence. Offer a helping hand, a kind word, a hug, a supportive conversation. If and when you encounter a ripple of grief, don’t look away. Don’t turn away. And if you can’t make eye contact, hold onto the person. Don’t let them go. Take time. Make yourself available. Stay present.

The spiritual writer, Rachel Naomi Remen, says “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[3] The world requires this of us. In fact, our attention to others’ grief is the first way our love spills out in the aftermath of loss. It is the first way we bless the world. In the wake of tragic loss, with your despair finally fading behind you, from a place of groundedness within you, attend however you can to the grief around you.

Third, let your love bless the world. In the wake of tragic loss, having moved beyond despair, having grounded yourself, and while attending to grief as it ripples around you, then comes the time for repair, for healing, for returning to our living, and for extending the blessing. Certainly it is too soon to know what the work of blessing the world will look like in response to Pawel’s death, though I’m confident it will include music—piano concertos and choral anthems, modal chord progressions and haunting melodies, rounds and canons, bell choirs and rock bands, church music and cabarets—and that’s only the beginning. But for now, please know, please trust, please believe that the love spilling out of you even in this moment is not wasted. The love spilling out of you even as we worship has power. The love spilling out of you even in this sacred space can bring more beauty, more passion, more compassion, more comfort, more help, more solace, more peace into the world. The love spilling out of you will bless the world in ways you will know, and in ways you will never know. Indeed the love spilling out of you is even now joining “the love that circles the world and makes it blessed.”

Friends, the truth is we are connected—to each other, to all people, to all life. Our connections make it possible for us to love. And because we love, the world requires certain things of us. In the wake of tragic loss, in the wake of the unexpected death of a loved-one, in the midst of despair, first seek grounding. Then attend to grief—yours, and the grief of those around you. Then work to bless the world. Why try to meet these requirements? Because the world needs blessing. As we remember and mourn Pawel, as we slowly begin to celebrate his life, may we respond with acts of love that bless the world.

Amen. Blessed be.

[1] Tarbox, Rev. Elizabeth, “Legacy,” Evening Tide (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998) p. 56.

[2] Thurman, Howard, “How Good to Center Down!” in Fluker, Walter and Timber, Catherine, A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) pp. 305-306.

[3] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Bearing Witness,” My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000) p. 105.

Frozen, Pummeled, Pounded and Pulverized: A Winter Meditation

Rev. Josh Pawelek 

 

IMG_0711Winter has settled upon New England. Nay, winter has blanketed and blown, covered and caked, frosted and frozen, pummeled, pounded and pulverized New England. Winter has slowed us down. Winter has sequestered us, kept us home, again and again and again. Winter has demanded that we stop what we’re doing; that we sit still for a moment; that we curl up; that we sleep, perhaps longer than usual.

And she isn’t finished. If the reports are true, winter is bringing more snow and wind and ice and cold. “Slow down,” says winter. “Slow down, be still,” says winter. “Step aside from routine,” says winter. “Take rest,” says winter. This is winter’s way. Winter takes its time to do its saving work. Winter takes its time to do its nurturing work. Winter takes its time to do its healing work.

There are lessons for the spirit here. For like this season, our spiritual winters often blanket us with more than we think we can handle. Like the great storms of this season, our spiritual winters come, often unbidden, often when we least anticipate them, often when we feel we can least manage them. They come, and we have little choice.

Despite whatever snow fatigue we may feel; despite whatever cold fatigue we may feel, for the sake of deepening and strengthening our spiritual lives, let us learn winter’s way. Let us learn to think with the stark clarity of winter minds. Let us learn to feel with the inner warmth of winter bodies. Let us learn to glow like the pale sunlight of winter days. Let us learn, again if we must, to slow down. Let us learn, again if we must, to take rest. Let us learn, again if we must, to curl up, so that when our spring-time comes we are ready, because we have been properly nurtured; so that when our spring-time comes we are ready, because we have been properly healed; so that when our spring-time comes we are ready, because we know what truly saves us in this life.

Winter has indeed settled upon New England. Now may winter settle in our hearts and in our souls. Amen and Blessed Be. 

 

On Human Brokenness

Rev. Josh Pawelek and Nancy Thompson

Nancy Thompson is a graduate of the Buddhist teacher training program at The Interdependence Project, a secular Buddhist center in New York City, and is a student of Lama Tsultrim Allione. She joined UUS:E in 1995 with her family and began studying Buddhism in 2006. She leads the UUS:E Buddhist Group and teaches meditation at Samadhi Yoga Studio in Manchester.

I

Nancy

I was born into a Roman Catholic family in May 1957. When I was less than month old, I was taken to Holy Name of Jesus Church and cleansed of my sins by a priest who poured water over my forehead as my aunt held me. A rational person might wonder what I could have done in my first four weeks of life to require spiritual cleansing. Most likely, nothing. Catholics believe that we all enter the world tainted by original sin, the sin created when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the apple.

Move forward 50 years. I’m sitting in a small office in a former gun factory turned meditation center in New Haven, facing a Tibetan Buddhist teacher in orange robes. He asks why I have decided to take refuge, the formal vow that makes me an official Buddhist.

If he were a western teacher, fluent in English and irony, I might talk about my Roman Catholic baptism. Instead I keep it simple. I talk about how I am drawn to the idea of basic goodness – also known as buddhanature, inherent richness, essential nature (it’s like Eskimos and snow; Buddhists have many words for it) – how it has transformed my life to see myself as essentially good, working to remove the overlay of social conditioning and perceptions and expectations that cover up that goodness, rather than essentially bad. As a Catholic, I said every week, as part of Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word and my soul will be healed.” As a Buddhist, I don’t need to be fixed; I’m not broken, and I have all the tools I need for a tune-up inside of me.

Buddhism

Josh

I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist family. There was never a hint of the unworthiness or inherent sinfulness Nancy refers to in her religious upbringing. However, living in a town that, at the time, was fifty percent Catholic, I remember feeling somewhat jealous of my Catholic friends. Many aspects of their lives seemed lovingly held by their church and community. We were held too, but there just weren’t that many UU kids at school. I can’t remember how much we talked across our elementary school lines of faith about sin and hell, but I remember knowing at an early age that our church was theologically different. Our Universalist forbears had long ago given up the concept of hell—an all-loving God would never sentence people to eternal punishment. And our Unitarian forbears had championed the idea that human beings could work toward perfection. “Salvation by character,” they called it. We were worthy beyond measure.

My Pennsylvania Dutch, somewhat evangelical grandmother used to talk to me and my brothers about hell, about fearing God. But her admonitions were never enough to talk us out of our sense of being whole, good, worthy.

chalice

Forty years later, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, while I still embrace those core messages of our spiritual forebears, and while I don’t experiencing lingering feelings of religious or spiritual guilt so many Americans are raised to feel, I do wonder sometimes if I’m missing something. I may be moving in the opposite direction Nancy has moved on her journey to Buddhism. I wonder if there is a condition we might call brokenness. It’s not an inherent condition, not something we’re born with. But as a minister, as one to whom people come to speak of their pain, their mistakes, their illnesses, their suffering, the ways they’ve been hurt and the ways they’ve hurt others, it strikes me that we can break, that there are times when we need fixing. Sometimes that wonderful, comforting message that we are perfect just as we are, that we don’t need to be fixed, isn’t enough. It doesn’t ring true to the person who feels broken, and it doesn’t help them in the midst of their suffering. Something else is needed.

II

Nancy

Buddhism starts, literally, with brokenness. The Buddha’s First Noble Truth – dukkha – is often translated as “suffering,” but the word actually refers to a wheel and an axle that don’t fit together quite right, like the shopping cart with the wobbly wheel. Life contains big dramatic events that qualify as suffering – the Buddha mentioned old age, sickness, and death – but more often it is like a shopping cart with a wonky wheel that doesn’t move as smoothly as we want.

The thing is, we – the awareness that recognizes the problem – aren’t broken. The cart, for that matter, is functional: It holds things and moves, just not smoothly.

The breakdown is in our relationship to the wobbly wheels on the shopping cart of life. We encounter difficulties and we get angry or frustrated or confused or sad that things aren’t going the way we think they should. We are not able to make the world behave the way we want. And so we suffer.

Wobbly wheel

There’s a disconnect between our thinking mind and our innate, unbroken, unbreakable, perfect nature. Buddhists call that buddhanature. You can call it God, spirit, the light in each and every one of us, that which is worthy of respect and dignity.

We are perfect just as we are. But we forget that because we’re told over and over that we’re not – we eat too much, sin too often, drive the wrong car, use the wrong words, wear the wrong clothes.  The challenge of a spiritual path is to find our way home to that sense of our own basic goodness.

Josh

Somehow, Google knows our February ministry theme is brokenness. Last week I opened my email and found a message from Google featuring a quote from a self-helpish, inspirational website called HpLyrikz.com. The quote said, “I still get very high and very low in life. Daily. But I’ve finally accepted the fact that sensitive is just how I was made, that I don’t have to hide it, and I don’t have to fix it. I’m not broken.” Google must’ve noticed I’d been searching for resources on “brokenneness,” and thought this quote might appeal. I also noticed the quote had been shared millions of times. I traced it back to a 2013 TED talk by Glennon Doyle Melton called “Lessons from the Mental Hospital.” Glennon Doyle Melton is a writer, blogger and organizer. She’s a person in recovery. She grounds her work in her stories of living with addiction, eating disorders, mental illness.

GDM on HpLyrikz

As much as I want to affirm this idea that “I’m not broken,” as much as it resonates with my religious upbringing, I find myself bristling. It’s not that she’s wrong. She’s not. It’s that she makes this statement in the middle of telling her story, and then a million other people repost the statement, but they don’t mention the story. Now the statement is out on the web but without any context. The part in the story where she was addicted to drugs, had eating disorders, wound up in a psychiatric unit—the part in the story where she had to work really, really hard to heal—emotionally, physically, psychologically—the part in the story where those feelings of being broken still live in her even though she has them in check now—is lost. When I read about Melton’s life story, I wonder if it might not be more accurate to say that there was a time in her life when she was broken, when she was lost, when she was a “wretch,” as the hymn says. I wonder if it is useful to speak of human brokenness—to wrestle with the possibility not that we are somehow born broken, but that we can break. I wonder if it is useful—and I suspect it is—to wrestle with this idea before we make the leap to “I’m not broken.”

Having said that, Nancy’s discussion of buddhanature resonates deeply with me. It appeals to the lessons of my liberal religious upbringing. It makes sense to me that, if there is an original human condition, it is akin to buddhanature—it is the essential perfection that, in the language of our Unitarian Universalist principles, endows us—and, indeed, all life—with inherent worth and dignity. When we say, “We are perfect just as we are,” it’s true. But we forget it, often easily. We forget it perhaps because we were never taught this truth as children; or because we’ve made mistakes and we haven’t forgiven ourselves; or because, as Nancy suggested, others tell us negative stories about ourselves: “we eat too much, sin too often, drive the car, use the wrong words, wear the wrong clothes;” or we tell ourselves these stories. And some people forget it because they’ve experienced some trauma, some abuse, some oppression, some war, some mental or psychological breakdown so profound that they feel broken. And for such people, the message “you’re perfect just the way you are,” isn’t entirely accurate. It doesn’t meet them where they are. It contradicts their experience. They may have a long struggle ahead of them before they can genuinely feel perfect just the way they are. But what has always been—and will always be—an article of faith for me, not just as a pastor, but as a husband, father, brother, friend, colleague, neighbor, and stranger, is that the experience of brokenness is temporary. That is, some form of healing—spiritual or otherwise—is always possible. Returning to wholeness—spiritual or otherwise—is always possible. Returning home to that sense of our own basic goodness is always possible.

III

Nancy

I don’t think people have to be broken before they can feel whole. I don’t think you have to be lost to be found, to be blind before you can see. Brokenness isn’t just struggle or dissatisfaction – it’s a bone-deep questioning of your worth in the world, your ability to function. I can’t judge the authenticity of someone else’s experience of that; it doesn’t leave visible marks.

I want to share a story with you about what happens when you see people’s perfection rather than their brokenness. It comes from a friend of mine, Lisa, who is a Buddhist, a dedicated meditator, and a middle school science teacher. She shared this story on Facebook, and I’m going to just read what she wrote:

“I have this 12 year old student with SEVERE OCD. He’s a brilliant science student, kind, respectful, soft, funny. Most days he can’t even sit in the classroom seat. He can’t touch papers that other people have touched. He can’t handle any of the objects I bring to class to share. He annoys some of the teachers with this behavior.

“Today he dropped his pencil case on the floor and all his “clean,” well-organized world possessions got destroyed (in his mind). He started panicking and pacing and basically losing his cool. I responded by not feeding his story. I told him it was OK. I told him HE was OK. I told him to look me in the eyes. I showed him my confidence in his ability to handle this. I gave him clear direct instructions, he trusted me enough to follow them. I showed him how to breathe. I showed him how to manage his anxious biochemistry. By the end we laughed.

“I love this kid’s struggle. I love his process. I’m forever grateful that my job puts me in a place and time where I can be of service to grow a good human.”

She had prefaced the story with this statement: “Those of you that feel like weirdos or weak or high maintenance or just plain broken, you’re not. OK? You’re just not. It’s your brain and it’s telling you some shifty stuff.”

Lisa’s story shows what happens when you know, REALLY know, deep in your bones, that you are inherently perfect. You realize that everyone else is too, no matter how broken they may seem to themselves or to the world that hasn’t yet learned to see perfection. And you want to help them see that for themselves. That’s the work of a bodhisattva, a person who vows to lead all beings to enlightenment before going there.

The poet Galway Kinnell writes: “Sometimes it is necessary / to reteach a thing its loveliness, / to put a hand on its brow / of the flower / and retell it in words and in touch / it is lovely / until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing.

Sometimes we need to know that we are seen as perfect in order to see that in ourselves. When I took the refuge vow, the formal ceremony of committing to Buddhism, I was given the Tibetan name Khunzang Lamo, which translates to Always Good Divine Lady. That’s a touchstone for me when I don’t feel that way.

Josh

The poet, Galway Kinnel, continues: “As Saint Francis / put his hand on the creased forehead / of the sow, and told her in words and in touch / blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow / began remembering all down her thick length,/ from the earthen snout all the way / through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,/ from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine / down through the great broken heart / to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering / from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:the long, perfect loveliness of sow.”

If a person describes their condition to me as one of brokenness, I won’t counter with “You’re perfect just the way you are.” To the best of my ability I will be with them in their experience of brokenness. So often, our healing begins when those around us acknowledge that what we are experiencing is real. But even as I validate stories of brokenness, I will also remember the simple theological lessons of my Unitarian Universalist upbringing—all are saved, all are loved, all are capable of perfection. I will remember the teachings of the Buddha about our buddhanature. I will remember the teachings of Jesus, who said “the kingdom of god is within you” (Luke 17:21). I will remember the pronouncements of scientists and cosmologist who remind us of our common origin in the hearts of stars. As I remember, I will offer blessings of earth in words and touch.

Meet People

I urge you to do likewise. For as we remember, we are more likely to see the “long, perfect loveliness” in the person experiencing brokenness—and the more likely they will see it too. And as we bless, we help the one experiencing brokenness tell a new story about themselves—a story that enables healing, fosters wholeness, and inspires goodness.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

#BlackLivesMatter — a 2015 MLK Sermon

Rev. Josh Pawelek

MLKTomorrow the nation pauses for its annual observation of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. It will also be day 368 in Houston, TX, day 355 in Southfield, MI, day 337 in Bastrop, TX, day 332 in Iberia Parish, LA, day 186 in Staten Island, NY, day 170 in Baltimore, MD, day 167 in Beavercreek, OH, day 163 in Ferguson, MO, day 160 in Los Angeles, CA, day 160 in San Bernadino County, CA, day 153 in St. Louis, MO, day 60 in Brooklyn, NY, day 58 in Cleveland, OH, day 48 in Phoenix, AZ.[1] You likely aren’t familiar with all of these references—I wasn’t aware of most of them until I looked them up—though I suspect Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland stand out to you. These are references to police killings of unarmed People of Color—almost all of them Black men and boys—over the past year. Some of these cases, we know, ended with grand jury decisions not to indict the officers who fired the shots or performed the choke holds. Other cases are under investigation or pending. Some of the officers are on administrative leave. In the Bastrop, TX case the officer was indicted on a murder charge. The U.S. Department of Justice is looking for possible civil rights violations in some of the cases. Some of the families of the deceased have filed wrongful death suits. In Ferguson, MO, where community activists have been protesting daily in various ways, in various places since the death of Michael Brown on August 9th, they mark the days. This is day 162. Tomorrow is day 163.

These police killings have exposed the often harsh reality of daily life in urban and even some suburban Black communities that years and years of books, new stories, statistics, documentaries , sermons and newspaper editorials have not been able to communicate fully to people who don’t live or work in these communities. Perhaps we know, intellectually, about mass incarceration, about the war on drugs, about poverty, about failures in the education system, about race-based health disparities, about how all of it impacts People of Color communities negatively—but suddenly on television, or streaming across smart phone and computer screens, is disturbing video evidence of a profound callousness toward people in these communities, an apparent disregard for life, a too-easy-willingness to ‘take him down,’ a too-easy-willingness to shoot and, in some cases, a horrifying lack of interest in obtaining medical care once the “suspect” is lying prone in the street, bleeding, not breathing, dying. Maybe finally we’re ‘getting it’ not just in our heads but in our hearts.

Prayer for Michael Brown

People of all racial identities are waking up to this harsh reality, to the point where there is now an active, organized and growing racial justice movement in the United States. I don’t call it a ‘new’ movement, mainly because there have been racial justice movements ever since Europeans first began colonizing the western hemisphere. This movement isn’t new, but it is in resurgence. It has been re-catalyzed. People all over the country who were silent six months ago are now saying, “no more.” St. Louis and Ferguson, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Washington, DC, Oakland, Los Angeles, New Haven, Hartford and many more have witnessed vigils, marches, rallies, nonviolent demonstrations, disruptions of commerce, especially retail commerce around the holidays, disruptions of traffic—the ‘taking’ of streets—disruptions of campus life, actions at police stations, at city halls, at state capitols, at federal buildings.

The movement has a name: Black Lives Matter. Of course, many Americans now recognize this phrase as one side in a war of competing social media hashtags, with #BlackLivesMatter on one side and #BlueLivesMatter (or #PoliceLivesMatter or #CopLivesMatter) on the other; while at the same time the more inclusive-sounding #AllLivesMatter asserts itself as well. [For those of you who aren’t familiar with hashtags, just know that typing a hashtag (a pound sign) in front of a particular phrase in a message directs that message to a common online space—for example, a common space on Twitter or a common space on Facebook—where anyone following that particular phrase can find and read your message. I find it fascinating—and I suppose it makes sense—that in our era a social media hashtag like #BlackLivesMatter can become synonymous with a social movement. About the creation of this hashtag which is also a movement, Alicia Garza, a community organizer in the San Francisco-Oakland area wrote: “I created #BlackLivesMatter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two of my sisters, as a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was post-humously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed. [Remember, that was 2012.] It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society and also, unfortunately, our movements. Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”[2]

There’s a lot more to this story, and I commend to you Garza’s article, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.” My point here is that #BlackLivesMatter is a liberation movement emerging in response to Black peoples’ collective experience of oppression in the United States today—not fifty years ago, but today. Although this movement is immediately focused on reforming the ways police relate to urban Black communities—calling for an end to police use of excessive force, calling for justice for the victims of such force, calling for greater citizen oversight of police departments, better cross-cultural and antiracism training for police, body cameras for police, an end to police racial profiling, and an end to the militarization of police—the movement is about much more than police. Garza says, “when we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about [all] the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence. It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people … locked in cages in this country—one half of all people in prisons or jails—is an act of state violence.  It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence.”[3]

As such, #BlackLivesMatter is fundamentally different than #BlueLivesMatter, which is not a liberation movement, but an understandable social media reaction to the criticism police have been receiving in response to the deaths of Brown, Garner, Rice, etc. Blue lives do matter. It is a tragedy every time a police officer is killed or wounded in the line of duty. No reasonable person disputes this. It feels really important to me to name that today is also “day 30” since New York City officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were murdered in Brooklyn by a man who had posted earlier on his Instagram page that he was seeking revenge for the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. It feels really important to me to name that 121 police officers died in the line of duty in the United States (including Puerto Rico) in 2014—47 of whom were fatally shot in encounters with crime suspects.[4] And I am mindful that many people who live and own businesses in neighborhoods where police violence is endemic are themselves victims of crime—robbery, rape, etc.—and thus they still appreciate and desire a strong police presence in order to feel safe where they live. #BlueLivesMatter.

BlueLivesMatter

Having said that, it wouldn’t make sense to suggest that police are somehow an oppressed class, or that police are ‘targeted for demise’ in some systemic way. ‘Black’ is a racial identity. Blue is the color of a uniform worn by people of all racial identities. Black people and other People of Color experience elevated incarceration rates, elevated unemployment rates, health care disparities, educational disparities, housing disparities and a long history of state-sponsored, vigilante and drug war violence. Police don’t. #BlackLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter aren’t equivalent and don’t belong on opposite sides of our national discourse on race and racism. In fact, I’m convinced that the vast majority of police do not want to perpetuate racism through their policies and procedures. And I’m convinced that including police in concerted and sustained efforts to address racism will ultimately decrease tensions between police and people in urban Black communities, and will thereby make police work safer. Alicia Garza puts it more succinctly: As “Black people get free, everybody gets free.”[5]

Similarly, #AllLivesMatter is not a liberation movement. It’s certainly a true statement. I hear it as equivalent to the first Unitarian Universalist principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” or, as we said earlier with the children, “each person is important.” It’s the principle at the heart of the Biblical admonition to love your neighbor as yourself.[6] But all lives aren’t under assault. All lives don’t have to deal with racism the way Black lives do. The critique of #AllLivesMatter is that, while true, when inserted into the struggle against racism, it erases the unique experience of Black people, and it erases White society’s role in perpetuating racism. Garza says, “Progressive movements in the United States have made some unfortunate errors when they push for unity at the expense of really understanding the concrete differences in context, experience and oppression.  In other words, some want unity without struggle. As people who have our minds stayed on freedom, we can learn to fight anti-Black racism by examining the ways in which we participate in it, even unintentionally, instead of the worn out and sloppy practice of drawing lazy parallels of unity between peoples with vastly different experiences and histories.”[7]

A dear colleague of mine—a Black minister pastoring a Black church—summed it up for me when he said, “I’m tired of #AllLivesMatter, and I’m tired of people telling me how everyone’s justice issues intersect with mine. I was with women on reproductive rights. I was with gays and lesbians on marriage. I was with Hispanics on immigrants’ rights. But when we see young Black men being gunned down or otherwise killed by police, vigilantes or gangbangers, by poverty, a broken health care system or the drug war, who is with me? Right now, it’s time—long past time—for #BlackLivesMatter.”

I am committed to the principle that all lives matter. And I am committed to the principle that blue lives matter. But when I prioritize my personal social justice commitments, and when, as your minister, I prioritize the social justice commitments I envision our congregation making, as well as the social justice commitments I envision Unitarian Universalism making; and when I prioritize the social justice initiatives I am committed to supporting, promoting and, when asked, leading in the Greater Hartford region, my accountability is to #BlackLivesMatter.

What might that mean over the next few years? For one, it means that we as a congregation ought to continue the antiracist social justice work we’re already engaged in through the leadership of our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee. We ought to continue specifically with our efforts to reduce the mass incarceration of People of Color through drug policy and criminal justice reform. We ought to continue our work on environmental racism which culminated a few years ago with the passage of Connecticut’s environmental justice law. But what stands out to me the most—and what is new for us as a congregation—is that we can count on organized, nonviolent civil disobedience coming to Hartford, and possibly some of the surrounding towns. It’s just around the corner. Our region has its share of racial disparities. In fact, the Hartford region has some of the worst racial disparities in the country when it comes to education and poverty. It has its own history of police violence against young Black men. And it has young people in urban areas and college campuses, as well as local clergy and community activists, who are beginning to organize. Nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience is coming here.

When I first learned of this I admit I was surprised, and initially resistant because I have invested so much time and energy over the years in working “within the system,” talking to legislators, talking to city leaders, talking to police, advocating for changes in the law, testifying, witnessing, lobbying, organizing prayer breakfasts, holding public meetings, talking, talking, talking, talking. I suppose I have a passion for talking. But someone asked, “with all our talking, have we really made a dent in racism in our region?” Have outcomes for People of Color—Black people in particular—changed in any appreciable way as a result of all our talking? I didn’t have a good answer. I still don’t have a good answer. And because I don’t have an answer to that question, I’m persuaded that non-violent civil disobedience may be precisely what we need at this moment. I’m persuaded that figuring out creative ways to disrupt ‘business as usual’ can make a difference, can bring the right pressure to bear on the people who have the power to make change real.

Civil Disobedience

Large-scale, nonviolent civil disobedience like the actions we’re seeing in other parts of the country would be new for our region, something we haven’t seen in recent times—certainly not in my memory—though we have seen it on a small scale with the “Fight for Fifteen” movement. As a predominantly White, liberal, suburban congregation, I hope in the very least we can understand why reasonable people would to move in this direction, to cause disruptions, to take arrest if need be, to send a message that all is not well in Black America and we are no longer willing to play the talking game. I would hope in the very least we can understand that far too many Black people and other People of Color feel unheard, disrespected, forgotten, marginalized and penalized by our larger social, political and economic systems and they don’t want to live that way anymore. And not only do I hope we would merely understand, but that, mindful of King’s first principle that nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people, we would be actively supportive, figuring out the best ways possible for us to participate, for us to be part of this resurgent racial justice movement, for us to say clearly, proudly and courageously—not only in word but also in deed—Black Lives Matter.

The movement is here friends. May we care—I know we care. May we understand—I know we understand. May we be supportive. May we find ways to participate. May we be courageous.

Amen. Blessed be.

[1] Juzwiak, Rich and Chan, Aleksander, “Unarmed People of Color Killed By Police, 1999 to 2014,” Gawker.com. See: http://gawker.com/unarmed-people-of-color-killed-by-police-1999-2014-1666672349.

[2] Garza, Alicia, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” The Feminist Wire, October 7, 2014. See: http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.

[3] Garza, Alicia, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” The Feminist Wire, October 7, 2014. See: http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.

[4] See Officer Down Memorial Page at http://www.odmp.org/search/year/2014?ref=sidebar.

[5] Garza, Alicia, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” The Feminist Wire, October 7, 2014. See: http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.

[6] Mark 12:31a.

[7] Garza, Alicia, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” The Feminist Wire, October 7, 2014. See: http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.

Spiritual Winter

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Winter SceneFriends, the new year has arrived. The planet slowly tilts its northern hemisphere back toward the sun. Though day-light hours begin lengthening, the long, evening shadows still arrive early. The land, still bare; the branches still leaf-less. The earth still sleeps—and will for some time. There’s been no major storm, yet, no deep New England freeze, yet; though we brace ourselves for the cold, wind and snow we know from experience are coming. The mid-winter holidays have almost passed—the Christian celebration of Epiphany, Three Kings Day, Twelfth Night happens this Tuesday.

We settle now into the winter season (though, admittedly, some of us never settle). Winter is—at least in New England—the cold season, the still season, the blue season, the fallow season, the empty season. Winter is the season for solitude, hunkering down, self-care, rest, healing and hot chocolate.  I shared with you earlier a passage from Barbara Kingsolver’s 2007 book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which for me begins to describe this winter stillness, this hunkering down, this solitude. She says, “at the moment I had the house to myself. My sole companion was the crackling woodstove that warms our kitchen: talkative, but easy to ignore. I was deeply enjoying my solitary lunch break, a full sucker for the romance of winter, eating a warmed-up bowl of potato-leek soup and watching the snow. Soon I meant to go outside for a load of firewood, but found it easy to procrastinate.”[1] Yes, in winter our regular lives continue. Yes, there is plenty of outdoor activity in winter—sledding, skiing, skating, snow-boarding. Yes, some of us never settle into the season. But the cold, wind and snow do urge us indoors to the warm fire-side, to the hearty soup, to the moment of solitude.

I assign spiritual qualities to the seasons. I imagine winter as the season for the sustained, inward look, the honest self-examination, the probing self-reflection. I imagine winter as the womb season, the floating, sleeping, dreaming season, the season for gestation, for growth beneath the surface, for growth in the nurturing darkness. I imagine winter as the season for preparation, for getting ready—ready for new selves, new commitments, new directions to emerge, just as the physical, earthly winter season is the time when life gets ready—slowly—to emerge green and glorious and new in spring.

The spiritual winters of our lives, which can come at any time of year, are rarely easy, but they come with promises, with opportunities for growth. Sometimes they come because we invite them—because we resolve, finally, to make a change, and we believe we are ready to do the work change requires—for example, the work of breaking habits, the work of letting go of unhealthy attachments, speaking difficult truths, leaving dysfunctional relationships, repairing broken relationships, apologizing, forgiving, following less-travelled roads. Sometimes our spiritual winters come unexpectedly and unbidden. Writer Philip Simmons speaks of our spiritual winters seizing us[2]—sickness and its treatment, loss, death, financial hardship, losing a job. When such change comes we have no choice in the matter, no control over the timing. We must prepare for the new whether we want to or not, often very quickly. How do we prepare for change? How do we welcome the new? These are the questions of our spiritual winters. ‘Getting ready’ is winter’s work. 

I want to share my reflections on this work, this getting ready, this welcoming the new. And to begin, I want to discuss New Year’s resolutions, about which I feel ambivalent. These first weeks of January are famous for how quickly so many of us abandon or just forget about our New Year’s resolutions. (I made that up. I don’t know if January is famous for that, and I don’t know how many people actually make New Year’s resolutions, nor do I have any idea how many people keep their resolutions vs. how many people abandon them.) I came across a December, 2013 CBS News Poll that found that 68% of Americans didn’t make New Year’s resolutions—a sharp increase from 2011 when 58% didn’t make them. And, further, of the approximately 30% of Americans who did make resolutions, only half reported keeping them.[3] That sounds about right. In my experience most people don’t take new year’s resolutions all that seriously.

Including me. I usually don’t make a resolution unless I’m at a New Year’s Eve party where the host invites everyone to share their resolution. Then I have to scramble to come up with one, and I usually offer something vague like “I want to be a better parent.” And then everyone says, “Oh, you’re a great parent.” And then I say, “My kids might have a different opinion,” or “No, actually, I’m not. You should see me at home. I’m very cranky. I could be a better husband, too.” The nice thing—and what I mean by “nice” is “safe”—about making this kind of vague resolution at a party is that, typically, nobody will remember what I said a year later. Certainly nobody has ever asked how I’ll know when I’ve become a better parent, or a better husband or a better person. Lose weight? You can measure that. Quit smoking, drink less alcohol, get out of debt? All measureable. Or my favorite resolution from a party I attended a few years ago, “wear loud pants.” Now that’s a measureable resolution. But, being a better parent, a better spouse, a better person? Not easily measureable. How would I know—how would anyone know—when such a resolution has been achieved? And who would decide? I could become a better parent in my own estimation by raising my expectations for my kids, and they would likely hate it. Worst father ever.

Making New Year’s resolutions doesn’t feel like a real tradition to me. It feels like a Hallmark invention, except most Hallmark inventions have more actual religious and cultural history behind them than New Year’s Eve resolutions. I researched this. There’s evidence the Babylonian empire had a new year’s resolution custom, as did the Roman empire. [4] According to the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt the Puritans, because they had always “objected to the pagan frivolity of New Year’s observances,” used New Year’s “as a time for religious renewal and spiritual resolve, a time to move from irregular attendance on God’s ordinances to disciplined, holy living.”[5] Similarly, in the mid-1700s the Methodists created mid-winter “watch night” services as a way for worshippers to reflect on the year and renew their covenant with God. Among some 19th century evangelicals there was a tradition of “pious resolution” at New Year’s, a practice of recommitting one’s life to God.[6] And Schmidt says that the “more secular New Year’s resolutions for therapeutic self-improvement and healthful living, which … came into vogue at the turn of the twentieth century [and which are most familiar to us] had their roots in these Christian practices of ‘pious resolution.’”[7]

So there’s a scattered history behind our practice of making New Year’s resolutions; but when I say it doesn’t feel like a real tradition, I mean that most people who make resolutions don’t do so from a place of deep religious conviction or grounding in a specific cultural heritage. It’s just what Americans talk about at New Year’s Eve parties. “I want to quit smoking.” “I want to be a better parent.” “I want to wear loud pants.”

But I don’t want to let the practice go either. I also know that we have spiritual winters. Invited or not, they can and do seize us. Some people desperately need to make a change. Some people need to quit smoking, to get out of debt, to lose weight. Some people, myself included, long to be a better parent, a better spouse, a better person. And some people really do want to wear loud pants, not because they’re being cute or funny, but because they know something needs to change in their life: they need to lighten up, to live more authentically, to live more boldly, to be true to themselves. The pants are a symbol of a much deeper longing.

So perhaps the beginning of the year is a good time to make a life-changing resolution. Out with the old, in with the new. Certainly here in New England winter is part of the calculation.  Just as life recedes from the earth’s surface in winter and prepares, slowly, to emerge green, glorious and new in spring, perhaps something in us recognizes winter is the right time to do our own work of preparation, of getting ready. Perhaps the cold, the stillness, the blueness, the fallowness, the emptiness all speak to something deep in us, urging us—in our moments of winter solitude, in our moments beneath the cold January stars, in our moments  warming by the fire—urging us to take that sustained inward look, to discern what changes we need to make in order to quell our dissatisfactions, in order to respond to our deepest longings.

To be clear: spiritual winter is not the change itself. Spiritual winter is the season before the change: the womb-time before birth, the star-time before daybreak, the dream-time before waking, the frozen-time before spring’s thaw. Spiritual winter is the season for wondering and imagining what the change will be like, what it will feel like, how it will impact our routines and patterns.  It’s the season for trial runs, for approaching the threshold of change again and again until we’re ready to cross over. It’s the season for rehearsing our lines in front of the mirror, for testing, for making mistakes and learning lessons. It’s the season for discerning what words need to be said and how to say them. It’s the season for reciting our truths quietly to ourselves, making sure we’ve got them right, hearing how they sound as they issue forth from our mouths, letting them inhabit our bodies, letting them seep into the marrow of our bones. Spiritual winter is the season for anticipating how others might react to our new lives, our new selves. It’s the season for informing those close to us that a change is coming. It’s the season for asking them to accept us, asking for their continued love and care. It’s the season for putting in place the supports we need to live differently. Spiritual winter is the season for moving from fear to resolve, moving from aimless anxiety to focused strategy. It’s the season in which we cease wandering in the wilderness and begin travelling in a definite direction. It’s the season for moving from confusion to clarity, from caution to courage. It’s the season for getting ready.

But how? So many resolutions fall by the wayside. So many longings go unfulfilled. So many habits remain unbroken. So many truths remain unspoken. How do we do the work of our winter seasons well so that change comes in spring? Here’s what I know: If I’m an addict and I resolve to break my addiction, I am unlikely to succeed if I give up the substance but try to continue being the person I’ve always been. Breaking the addiction is not simply a matter of giving up the substance. I’ve got to let go of the self I was in relation to the substance. In that way I can create sufficient space for a new, non-addicted self to emerge.

If I receive a diagnosis of cancer, and I resolve to enter into treatment with the intention of beating that cancer, I am unlikely to succeed if I try to continue my life as it was prior to the diagnosis. There are aspects of my living I must let go of in order to effectively fight the cancer.

If I resolve to be a better parent, I am unlikely to succeed if I try to add better parenting techniques on top of my previous mediocre parenting techniques. I have to let go of my previous techniques. I have let go of the parent I was in order to become the parent I want to be. I have to create sufficient space for new techniques. I have to create sufficient room for my new identity to emerge.

If I resolve to repair a broken relationship, I am unlikely to succeed with a simple “I’m sorry” or “let’s be friends.” If I have played a role in the breakdown of the relationship, at some level I must let go of that part of myself that played the role, and in so doing create space for a new self to emerge, one that understands how my previous self contributed to the problem and is therefore able to avoid the problem in the future.

In my experience it is rare we are able to make substantive change purely by addition—by adding to what is already there. Change happens by subtraction—by letting go of old selves before we can make room for the new. Winter is a season of subtraction, a newly blank slate. Witness the barren winter landscape, the empty forest floor, the leaf-less branch, the frozen pond, the misty grey morning, the fallow field, the endless blanket of freshly fallen snow, the long evening shadows, the echo of the lone wolf’s howl fading gently into the still night sky. Emptiness. We prepare for change by subtracting, by cultivating emptiness. Philip Simmons says “Lying in the snow, I let my body cool, my breath slow, my mind empty of thoughts. The winter mind, knowing its own emptiness, beholds ‘nothing that is not there’ but also, as its final achievement, ‘the nothing that is.’”[8]

Friends, the new year has arrived. The planet slowly tilts its northern hemisphere back toward the sun. Though day-light hours begin lengthening, the long, evening shadows still arrive early. The land, still barren, the branches still leaf-less. Emptiness abounds. Perhaps there is a change you’ve resolved to make with the turning of the year. Perhaps a change has been forced upon you. Either way, in this winter season, and in all your spiritual winters, may you find your way to emptiness, to beholding the ‘nothing that is.’ This is subtraction. This is what is necessary to let go of unnecessary attachments, to let go of old habits, of old routines, of old practices, of old selves. This is what is necessary to welcome the new. This is the work of winter that gives rise to the promise of spring.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Kingsolver, Barbara, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007) p. 297.

[2] Simmons, Philip, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (New York: Bantam Books, 2000) p. 116.

[3] “Poll: Most Americans Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions, Go Out To Celebrate,” CBS NY, Dec. 29, 2013:

http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2013/12/29/poll-most-americans-dont-make-new-years-resolutions-go-out-to-celebrate/.

[4] Pappas, Stephanie, “Why We Make New Year’s Resolutions,” Livescience, Dec. 31, 2013. See: http://www.livescience.com/42255-history-of-new-years-resolutions.html. For more information on watch night services, see Durden, Jada, “Watch Night, a Time of Renewal, Celebration,” Shreveporttimes. Com, Dec. 31, 2014. See: http://www.shreveporttimes.com/story/life/community/2014/12/31/watch-night-time-renewal-celebration/21110623/.

[5] Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995) p. 117.

[6] Schmidt, Consumer Rites, pp. 117-118.

[7] Schmidt, Consumer Rites, p. 118.

[8] Simmons, Learning to Fall, p. 110.

 

Beautiful December: A Holiday Homily

Rev. Josh Pawelek

12-21-14Earlier we heard Martha Dallas’ Christmas story about the Bicker Family. Martha Dallas is a Unitarian Universalist religious educator in Burlington, VT. The story really gets rollin’ when there is apparently no Christmas present for Old Father Bicker. Honestly, I’m not sure he cares all that much, but he certainly puts on a good show of being grumpy. “Christmas is ruined,” he complains. When somebody sarcastically suggests that baby Amelia might have his present, he picks her up and asks, “Baby Amelia, is there something you have to give me?” She smiles. He smiles back. And then everyone starts smiling. Then Baby Amelia starts giggling. Old Father Bicker giggles. And then everyone starts giggling. Pretty soon they’re all laughing.  And old Father Bicker says, “Thank you, Baby Amelia, for giving me a smile. And thank you for giving this family the happiest Christmas moment I can ever remember.”

Christmas is saved.

We can all take a lesson from Baby Amelia. We can all bring light and joy into others’ lives—not just in this dark, mid-winter season, but in every season. A smile, a giggle, a laugh can make a difference. Our caring actions and support for those who are suffering and struggling can make a difference. Our witness and our actions on behalf of a more peaceful, just and loving society can make a difference. We can bring light and joy where it is needed most in any season.

I recently read a Hannukah blog post from the Velveteen Rabbi, one of my favorite spiritual writers, which makes this very same point. Reflecting on the Hannukah story and the practice of lighting the menorah lights in December, she writes, “We are all of us afraid of the dark. At night, anxieties suppressed or repressed come swimming to the surface of consciousness: am I safe? Am I loved? Am I needed? Is there meaning in the world, or is it all, ultimately, just a swirl of chaos?”

“Judaism does not ask us to ignore this darkness and the sense of doom it might [draw forth from] us,” she says. “On the contrary, it asks us to face them squarely, and then, ultimately, to defy them. But how?… “The soul of [humanity] is the lamp of God,” the Book of Proverbs tell us (20:27). What this means is that ultimately, our task is not to light candles, but to be candles. We have the potential to be the bits of light that help bring God back into a world gone dark.”

I like this notion: we can wrestle with our own challenges, with our own anxieties, with whatever it is in our lives that frightens us or orients us towards despair by being a light to others—smiling, giggling, laughing, caring, supporting, bearing witness, taking action. Our task is not simply to light candles, but to be candles.

Christmas in the Christian tradition celebrates the birth of Jesus, the birth of the messiah, the king, the peacemaker. In the book of Luke the angels announce his birth, proclaiming peace on earth, good will to all. We’ll read and act out this story on Christmas Eve. In our liberal religious, Unitarian Universalist tradition, we acknowledge that peace and good will don’t just come. The potential for peace and goodwill is always there, but for them to become a reality requires the addition of human hands, human hearts, human caring, human love: our hands, our hearts, our caring, our love. If there is to be peace on earth and goodwill to all, we must play a role. We cannot simply light candles. We must be candles.

December is beautiful for so many reasons. The first snows are beautiful. Frozen ponds are beautiful. Evergreens, standing alone against the backdrop of a grey afternoon, are beautiful. Flocks of Canada geese heading south in great, precise vees are beautiful. And lights kindled like beacons against the gloom of long, dark mid-winter nights are beautiful, just as the sun returning on the solstice is beautiful.

But lighting lights has never been enough. We must be light. We must smile, chuckle, laugh. We must find the lost, heal the broken, comfort the afflicted, embrace those who mourn, feed the hungry, house the homeless, release the prisoners, challenge injustice, dismantle oppression, speak truth to power when power is unresponsive, demand change whenever change is necessary, and bring more love into the world everywhere and always, everywhere and always, everywhere and always. We must be light. December is beautiful because it inspires us, in every season, to be light.  May we be light!

Amen and blessed be.