The Dream Keeper: Reflections on Easter Sunday, 2019

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

That’s one way to understand the resurrection.

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

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

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

May we be each other’s dream keepers.

Amen, blessed be and Alleluia!

Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Zechariah 9:9.

[2] John 1:1.

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

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

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

[6] Miles, Crisis, pp. 18.

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

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

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

[10] Second Samuel 24: 1-15.

[11] Miles, Crisis, p. 87.

[12] John 1:29.

[13] Miles, Crisis, p. 23.

[14] Luke 3: 16-17.

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

[16] Genesis 3:19.

[17] Miles, Crisis, p. 25.

[18] Luke 3: 22.

[19] Psalm 2: 7-9.

[20] Miles, Crisis, p. 27.

[21] Miles, Crisis, p. 108.

[22] Miles, Crisis, p. 108.

[23] Luke 6:27-29.

[24] Miles, Crisis, p. 178.

[25] Miles, Crisis, p. 163.

[26] Miles, Crisis, p. 163.

On Pilgrimage

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Scene from the Edmund Pettis Bridge, March 2015

In March of 2015 I travelled to Selma, AL for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day—March 7th, 1965—state and local police brutally attacked voting rights marchers as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activists organized that first march in response to the February 17th, 1965 police shooting of civil rights worker Jimmy Lee Jackson in Marion, AL. Martin Luther King, Jr. began a second march on March 9th but halted it at the bridge. King then led a third march beginning on March 21st and completing the 54 miles to Montgomery on March 25th with 25,000 people—including my father—joining by the end.

The Voting Rights marches hold a special place in the heart of our faith because so many of our ministers heeded King’s call for clergy to join him in Selma; and because White supremacists murdered one of those ministers, the Rev. James Reeb, on March 11th, 1965, as well as UU layperson, Viola Liuzzo, on March 25th.

While walking in a mass of 100,000 people through downtown Selma, I came upon the Reeb memorial, an 8-foot thick granite monument with a bronze image of Reeb in his trademark bow tie and glasses. There it was. There he was. A Unitarian Universalist martyr. There’s no other word for it. I felt I needed to do something with my body—kneel, bow my head, pray. I stepped over to it. I read the text. I looked at Reeb’s image. I touched the granite. I bowed my head and offered a silent ‘thank you.’ Then I rejoined the march.

Being present in Selma for the 50th anniversary observation was a peak spiritual experience for me, an awe-filled moment, a moment of knowing and trusting I am on a good path in my ministry and my life. This was a pilgrimage—a journey to a sacred site—a site where something momentous happened. Stumbling across the Reeb memorial was an unanticipated pilgrimage within a pilgrimage—a visit to a sacred Unitarian Universalist site within the larger sacred history of the Civil Rights movement.

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Our March ministry theme is journeys. Two weeks ago I spoke of the vastness within each of us, and offered a set of pathways for journeying into that vastness. This morning I’m addressing the vastness beyond us. I want to share my reflections on outward journeys, specifically the practice of pilgrimage.

I remember in seminary studying journeys as a phenomenon across religions and cultures. We likely began with one of the more ancient recorded journey stories, the late third millennium Mesopotamian poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh. First, Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his friend Enkidu, seek fame and renown. They journey to the legendary Cedar Forest—the realm of the gods—where they slay its guardian Humbaba and then cut down a swath of the sacred trees. In retaliation, the gods kill Enkidu. Distraught, Gilgamesh undertakes a second, much longer journey in search of eternal life.

We likely discussed Gilgamesh’s journeys along with those of the Greek hero Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, and his Roman counterpart, Aeneas, in Virgil’s Aeneid. These stories are examples of the “hero’s journey,” in which, in the words of scholar Joseph Campbell, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with [newfound] power.[1]

We might have compared these mythological journeys to various journeys in the Hebrew scriptures. For example, in Genesis 12, God promises land, national greatness and blessings to Abram—eventually Abraham—who departs with his family from Haran in Mesopotamia, journeying west into Canaan in search of that promised land. We might also have talked about the story of Moses as a possible example of the hero’s journey. Whether or not Moses fits the model, it is certainly true that, from the book of Exodus on, the Torah describes the Israelites’ 40-year period of wandering in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership. In this sense, the Torah is the story of the Israelite’s journey toward fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus, at the outset of his ministry, journeys into the wilderness for forty days where Satan tempts him. Then, for approximately three years he conducts a travelling ministry, moving from village to village around Galilee. He eventually journeys south to Jerusalem where authorities put him to death.

Turning eastward, before becoming the Buddha, Siddh?rtha Gautama, who lived a privileged, sheltered, royal life, desires to see the world beyond the palace and journeys out along the royal highway. The gods of the Pure Abode conspire to reveal the reality of human suffering to him. On three, successive trips he witnesses old age, illness and death, revelations which launch him on his path to enlightenment. There are easily thousands of such stories about the journeys of heroes, saviors, divine figures, and founders of religions. They are often origin stories—as in ‘this is the story of how Rome was founded,’ or ‘this is the story of how the Israelites came to the Promised Land.’

Pilgrimage is a different kind of journey—not the journey of the hero or founder, but the journey of the follower. Pilgrimage is a visit to a site after the hero or founder has made it sacred—for example, a site where Abraham is said to have once set up his tent; or where Jesus is said to have performed a miracle; or where a martyr gave their life for their principles. Some pilgrimages require the performance of certain rituals upon arrival. Journeying to consult the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece or to make a Passover sacrifice at the temple in ancient Jerusalem come to mind.

In Islam, there is a fairly unique occurrence in which the founder of the religion, the Prophet Muhammed, makes a pilgrimage. In this sense, the founder is also a follower. Remember that Muhammed, at the urging of the Angel Gabriel, recited the verses of the Koran over the last third of his life. A number of verses mention the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael laying the foundations for their house. Islamic tradition identifies the house as the Kaaba in Mecca, the most sacred site in Islam. Tradition holds that Adam originally built it, but it was destroyed. Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt it. People had been making pilgrimages there for ages before the founding of Islam.

At some point, Muhammed recited the verses that call on all Muslims to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. In the Koran’s third sura, known as “The Family of Imran,” an English translation says: “Indeed, the first House [of worship] established for [humanity] was that at Makkah…. In it are clear signs [such as] the standing place of Abraham. And whoever enters it shall be safe. And [due] to Allah from the people is a pilgrimage to the House—for whoever is able to find thereto a way.” [2] Knowing this verse, Muhammed knew he needed to make the Hajj. For many years Mecca’s non-Muslim leaders prevented him from entering the city; but he finally completed shortly before his death. Muslims refer to it as the “Farewell Pilgrimage,” after which he delivered the farewell sermon, which is notable for many reasons, one of them being his assertion of the equal worth of all people. One modern translation says: “an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab.”[3]

We hear echoes of this sentiment when Malcolm X describes his 1964 Hajj in his autobiography, one of the more famous pilgrimage stories in American literature. It transformed him. Among other things, it altered his view of White people. Previously he had assumed all White people are devils. What shocked him during the Hajj was his experience of White Muslims. “There were tens of thousands of pilgrims,” he said, “from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to back-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity … that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist.”[4]

Later he says, speaking of how the Hajj transformed him, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”[5] He hadn’t changed his views about the power and violence of American racism; but his pilgrimage experience expanded his understanding of humanity. It also deepened and sharpened his Muslim faith, gave him a global perspective, and led him to organize internationally.

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Unitarian Universalism has nothing like the Hajj. Given our eclectic theology, that makes sense. Yet, pilgrimage is a valuable spiritual practice. It deepens faith. It affirms, inspires, and strengthens connections to spiritual ancestors. Because it involves following—followership—it emphasizes humility. So, I wonder: what qualifies as a UU pilgrimage?

The teachers in our middle school Building Bridges class taught a session on Islam in which they discussed the Hajj. They asked the kids what a ‘UU Mecca’ experience might be. Their response? “A cruise near a rain forest with yoga and coffee,” which tells me that our children are paying attention and we have some work to do.

Our Affirmation class makes a pilgrimage to Boston. They visit historical churches, like King’s Chapel—the first American congregation to declare itself Unitarian; and Arlington Street Church, whose congregation in 1803 called the Rev. William Ellery Channing, perhaps the most important preacher of Unitarian theology in that era.

Greater Boston is filled with UU pilgrimage sites as so much of our early history happened there. The Gloucester UU Church, founded in 1779 as the Independent Christian Church, was the first Universalist Church in America. Its minister, the Rev. John Murray, had been branded a heretic in England for his Universalism. Its members refused to pay taxes to support the state church. In 1786 they won a landmark court ruling declaring they could not be taxed to support a church to which they did not belong.

Concord, MA was the center of the Transcendentalist movement, which grew out of the Unitarian churches and, in time, became highly influential on Unitarian and Universalist theology and spirituality. In Concord one can visit the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau wrote his modern scripture, Walden; or the Orchard House where Louisa May Olcott wrote Little Women.

I’ve mentioned Selma, where James Reeb was murdered in the midst of the Voting Rights marches. Viola Liuzzo’s memorial is along U.S. Route 80 between Selma and Montgomery. Other sites that come to mind include the Lewis Howard Latimer House in Flushing, NY and the Whitney M. Young Birth Place and Museum in Simpsonville, KY. Latimer, a founder of the First Unitarian Church in Flushing, was an inventor who prepared the mechanical drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent application. He was also the only African American who worked in the original engineering division of the Edison Company. Young, a member of the UU congregation in White Plains led the National Urban League through the 1960s and was one of the “Big Six” organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The forest spring — a sacred site at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East

Further afield, there is a rich Unitarian history and a thriving network of churches in Transylvania, Romania. There are similar histories and networks in the Philippines and in the Khasi Hills of eastern India. These are all locations to which American UUs make regular pilgrimages.

This is only the beginning of a list that answers the question, ‘What are sacred Unitarian and Universalist sites—sites where we can follow our founders, our heroes; deepen our Unitarian Universalist identity; expand our view of being human; and find inspiration to continue in the struggles to which our faith calls us?’ What sites might you add to the list?

A concluding thought: Many of you travel to different parts of the United States and Canada—for work, for vacation, to visit family. You sometimes visit the local UU congregation. Any time you do this—even if you are visiting the nearby congregations in Hartford, West Hartford, Meriden, or Storrs, you are making a pilgrimage. You are entering a sacred site, participating in its rituals, touching its history—the history of people who cared deeply about their faith and worked to sustain it for future generations.

May we all have the opportunity, at some point in our lives, to make pilgrimages – to be faithful followers, to deepen our faith, to find inspiration, to bring it all home for the flourishing of this sacred site.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949) p.23.

[2] Sura 3: 96-97.

[3] View the full text of the final sermon at http://www.cyberistan.org/islamic/sermon.html.

[4] Malcolm X and Haley, Alex, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine Books, 2015 edition) pp. 346-347.

[5] Malcolm X, Autobiography, pp. 373.

Five Inward Journeys

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I recently heard a podcast featuring Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, an Eskimo-Kalaallit Elder whose family belongs to the traditional healers from Kalaallit Nunaat, Greenland. He says, “I wish you could meet my grandmother…. She says ‘we are really, really big. In our mind, it’s absolutely enormous. And in our spirits, it’s enormous. And our body has enormous capacity.’ So we ask her … ‘What does it really mean?’ She says, ‘You can think of anything….’ She talks about the great sky over you. The great sky is your spirit. The home of your spirit is your heart. That is bigger than the big sky above us…. You are bigger within yourself than the big sky above you…. You really must be enormously capable…. But do we understand it? …. No, we don’t understand … the significance of what [we] carry within [ourselves] every single day.”[1]

His premise if this: if we cannot comprehend the vastness within ourselves, then we cannot comprehend the vastness within others. If we cannot comprehend the vastness within others, then we cannot collectively solve the global climate crisis, or any other crisis. I’d never encountered Angaangaq before. After viewing a number of his presentations, clearly one of his central messages to audiences all over the world is the need for human beings to comprehend and trust the vastness within ourselves.

Our ministry theme for March is journeys. In previous sermons on this theme I’ve observed that where most religions offer specific spiritual paths toward specific spiritual goals, Unitarian Universalism is more open-ended, more self-guided, the directions less specified, the available paths more numerous. We tend to value spontaneity, creativity and curiosity more than the discipline of sticking to pre-ordained rules. For these reasons and more, it can be challenging to explain the ‘typical’ UU spiritual journey.[2]

Yet I hear Angaangaq’s contention that without understanding the vastness within ourselves we will fail to understand the vastness within others, and we will fail, ultimately, to solve the challenges confronting life on this planet. There is much at stake. Understanding ourselves is a spiritual journey, and it matters that we journey with intention. With that in mind, I’d like to offer you a set of paths into our inner vastness—five inward journeys.

Observing

Picture the Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, in 1845, living alone in his cabin at Walden Pond. Despite his solitude, he describes an experience of “doubleness.” There is someone with him who is himself, but also not himself—an observer, a spectator, a critic who stands “aloof from actions and their consequences,” who is “as remote from myself as from another.”[3] This ‘other’ who is himself but not himself provides perspective and insight, raises questions, asks ‘Why this thought?’ ‘Why that feeling?’ It seeks to know his deeper motivations. It is not a voice of self-doubt, not a scolding, mean or belittling voice. It is gentle, even playful, but mostly detached. It observes, pays attention, studies, takes note. It wonders.

Thoreau says all this happens by a “conscious effort of the mind;” and indeed, this capacity for self-observation is rooted in the mind. It is a conscious capacity. It requires thought and analysis. I’m mindful that Thoreau lived before the advent of the therapeutic professions. He wouldn’t have known therapy as we know it today; but in a way, this ‘other’ he’s describing does what therapists do—help clients reflect on the origins of their thoughts, feelings and actions, help them make meaning, help them tie different facets of their lives together, help them notice and bring into consciousness what may otherwise remain buried in the vastness. The observer may actually be external, a therapist, a spouse, a good friend, a parent, a teacher. Whoever the observer is, whether within you or beyond you, do you give yourself time each day to consider the observations, to take them in, to reflect on them, to peer, in this way, more deeply into the vastness within you?           

Praying

I read to you earlier from St. Teresa of Ávila’s 16th-century, landmark mystical text, Interior Castle. In it she describes the soul as a castle made of a single diamond. She is concerned people have no knowledge of what’s inside the castle. “All our interest,” she says, “is centered in the rough setting of the diamond, and in the outer wall of the castle—that is to say, in these bodies.” Through the course of the text she describes seven mansions within the castle, which are really stages in the soul’s journey to communion with the divine. She says, “in the center … of them all is the chiefest mansion where the most secret things pass between God and the soul.”[4] And she says, “as far as I can understand, the door of entry into this castle is prayer.”[5] At each stage of the soul’s journey, as it enters each new mansion, prayer and meditation take on new forms, have new purposes, always with the goal of growing in closeness to the divine.

I’m not recommending St. Theresa’s theology, or even her specific pathway. I went to her this week primarily for the beauty of her metaphor, her stunning, sparkling, interior diamond castle—this vast, intricate, finely wrought spiritual space within us. I take such space as a given. I contend, as so many do, there is a spark of divinity in each of us, which we can understand in myriad ways, but we find it in this space. For St. Teresa of Ávila it is the soul. We might also refer to it as the heart, or that place I invoke at the beginning of worship, “that place inside of you, that place where you may go, etc.” We journey there not through remote observation or critical thought but through prayer, meditation, contemplation. And as I say often, not petitionary prayer, not prayer for some thing or some outcome, but prayers for openness, readiness. Prayers that move us deeper into our longings, that remind us of all we imagine our best selves to be; prayers that orient us toward that spark of the divine within. Prayers that seek to experience that spark, to rekindle it when it grows dim, to shelter it when the wind is strong, and to let it shine brightly when the world calls for its light.

Do you give yourself time each day to contemplate your interior castle, to reach for the spark of divinity within you?

Dreaming

I read earlier from Black Elk Speaks. These are the words of the late 19th, early 20th-century Oglala Sioux holy man, Black Elk, translated by his son Ben Black Elk and written down and published by the White poet and amateur ethnographer, John Neihardt and his daughter, Enid. There is some debate over the extent to which Neihardt truly understood what he was hearing. I quote Black Elk with that caveat. I quoted him to share a sense of the vividness of his visions. In his Great Vision,[6] which happened during an illness when he was nine years old, he describes a journey across the universe where, along the way, he encounters the six grandfathers who give him gifts and empower him to restore their nation.

The Great Vision offers a sense of the expansiveness of our interior world. For Black Elk it contains the entire universe. Of course, a person like Black Elk has a very unique spiritual profile which unfolds in a very specific cultural and historical context. The vast majority of us will never experience visions coming upon us in the way they came upon him. Neither will we have visions that are so lengthy and detailed. Having said that, most people dream. Most people have some degree of imagination, some capacity for becoming lost in reverie. Some of you have reported visionary experiences—some while dreaming, some while awake, some while in a trance—that have been very meaningful to you. My point is that the visioning, dreaming, imagining part of ourselves offers another path to the vastness within.

Do you take time to notice and reflect on the images in your dreams, visions, reveries. Do you value the products of your imagination? Do you write them down, follow them, interpret them? Do you understand them as revelations of your own internal vastness?

Sitting

This is a reference to zazen or seated meditation in Zen Buddhism. I offer this as yet another path down into the vastness of ourselves, though if practiced correctly over time, the sitter comes to understand the self as an illusion. I read earlier a passage from the 20th-century Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale….  When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no ‘I,’ no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.”[7]

This might seem to contradict what I’ve already shared. If there’s no self, then what is Thoreau’s remote observer observing? What is communing with the divine in St. Teresa’s prayers? What is perceiving the images in Black Elk’s vision? On one hand I say, ‘let the contradiction be.’ Let each of these pathways into the vastness have their own integrity. Afterall, there are always many truths in one room. But on the other hand, I’m mindful that all spiritual practice at some level seeks to soften the boundaries of self, seeks to reduce the power of the ego, seeks to blend self with a larger reality. In each of the inward journeys I’ve described, the boundaries around the self constantly shift, blur and blend. Thoreau hints at this when he says “When … life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only.” St. Theresa’s self merges more and more into communion with God. Black Elk’s vision blends his consciousness with the entire universe. As we take journey into the inner vastness,  we may very well find our previous conception of self no longer fits given what we’re discovering. The insights about the non-existence of self that flow from Zen Buddhist practice may not be so different from the insights that flow from observation, contemplation and dreaming.

And even if, through the course of your journeying, you find that the self persists, can you nevertheless give yourself moments each day to sit quietly, calmly, peacefully, welcoming the present moment, watching your thoughts arise, then letting them trail away? Can you, for at least a few moments, sit as if “there is … no ‘I,’ no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door?”

Stretching

I would be remiss if I did not include stretching, a reference not only to yoga, but to any form of physical activity—running, walking, swimming, weight-lifting, dancing—working with one’s hands. We say body, mind and spirit are connected. If this is true, then the physical body must also offer pathways into the inner vastness. Stretching the body, exercising heart and lungs, stretching the legs, the arms, moving through postures—it all requires a certain focus and discipline that ultimately feeds the mind, feeds the spirit, feeds the heart, feeds the soul. This is a hunch for me. I can’t put into words how this feeding works. But I know a great workout—one that gets the endorphins flowing—has the power to expand one’s sense of self, or to blur the borders of the self.

Do you give yourself time each day to stretch your body, to let it carry you into the vastness within?

****

Observing, praying, dreaming, sitting, stretching. Five inward journeys. I say give yourself time to take these journeys every day, mindful of Angaangaq’s wisdom, that if we don’t know our own vastness, we can’t possibly begin to know the vastness in others. And if we cannot know the vastness in others, we cannot begin to address the problems facing the planet. There is much at stake. We must dig deeply. I wish you good journeys.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Interview with Angaangaq ‘Uncle’ Angakkorsuaq, “Melting the Ice in Our Hearts & Understanding our Inner Depths, Religica, March 14, 2019. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVPxZ5YfkH0.

[2] See Pawelek, Josh, “On Setting Out and Coming Home,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, November 3, 2013, at http://uuse.org/on-setting-out-and-coming-home/#.XIkKAShKhPY.

[3] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden or, Life in the Woods (New York: New American Library, 1960) pp. 94-95.

[4] Peers, E. Allison, tr. and ed., St. Teresa of Ávila, Interior Castle (New York: Image Books, 1961) p. 29.

[5] Ibid., p. 31.

[6] Black Elk via John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993) pp. 20-47.

[7] Quoted in Ford, James Ishmael, This Very Moment: A Brief Introduction to Buddhism and Zen for Unitarian UniversalistsI (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 45.

The Wages of Trust is Life

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Spiritually speaking, where—or in what, or in whom—do you place your trust? Do you place your trust in God? Goddess? Spirit? Do you place your trust in the universe? In Nature? Do you place your trust in yourself? Do you place your trust in family, friends, neighbors? Do you place your trust in the people sitting around you—the members and friends of this congregation? I ask because where we place our trust matters. It shapes who we are and whose we are. And it shapes how we are in the world. Spiritually speaking, where do you place your trust?

Our ministry theme for February is trust. I wrote in my newsletter column that trust occupies a different location within Unitarian Universalism than it does in most other faith traditions. Unitarian Universalism is primarily a this-worldly, relational and covenantal faith. We explicitly gather around a set of seven principles—guidelines for how we are going to be together, how we are going to treat each other, how we are going to relate to the wider community and the world. We are non-doctrinal, meaning we do not gather around a specific theology or doctrine. What does this mean for trust? It means we place our primary trust in each other. In this sense, our trust is horizontal. It extends from person to person within the congregation and out into the wider community.

In more doctrinal faiths, people gather around a theological assertion, a commonly-held belief. As such they tend to place their primary trust in God. In this sense, their trust is vertical, extending “up” to God, or to wherever God lives. This does not mean that they don’t trust each other or that they don’t have agreements about how they are going to treat each other—they do. But they place their primary trust in God.

I call this sermon “The Wages of Trust is Life.” This title plays with a verse in the Christian New Testament book of Romans in which the Apostle Paul asserts, “for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.”[1] That is, if you live a sinful life the result will be death. If you put your faith in Jesus Christ the result will be eternal life. This is a doctrinal statement. Paul was among the first followers of Jesus to articulate in writing this doctrine about Jesus; a doctrine which lives at the heart of Christianity today. It has been a compelling doctrine for billions of people over the nearly 2,000 years since Paul wrote to the Roman Christian community. It is a compelling doctrine for a majority of the more than two billion Christians on the planet today. That’s a lot of vertical trust!

But our collective trust is horizontal. As a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we place our trust in each other. We don’t promise eternal life. Sorry. But we do promise a life worth living. And that matters. A life of community, companionship, partners for the journey, caring, compassion, support, mutual encouragement, mutual challenge, listening, love. These are the fruits of our trust in each other; and this is why I say, humbly, the wages of trust is life.

We aren’t the only ones whose trust is horizontal. From Christianity’s earliest days, Christians have debated the question: to what extent is religion about adherence to a doctrine? To what extent is religion about how we treat one another? A group of us are reading Jesus and After: The First Eighty Years by University of Massachusetts professor, E. Bruce Brooks. Brooks engages in a linguistic analysis of the Bible and other texts to show that prior to Paul’s efforts to establish Christianity as a doctrinal religion, there were Christians, centered primarily in Jerusalem but also living in communities throughout the ancient Near East, who knew nothing of Paul’s doctrines, and who focused primarily on being good to each other and their neighbors.

Brooks points out that in the earliest versions of the Gospel of Mark, which is the earliest of the four New Testament Gospels, a man comes to Jesus and asks, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus doesn’t give Paul’s answer. He doesn’t respond with doctrine. He doesn’t say ‘you have to believe.’ He advises the man to keep the commandments. He names five of the ten commandments from the Hebrew Bible—the five which have to do specifically with how we treat others: do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honor your parents. He also adds a sixth commandment which is not in the original ten: do not defraud. What is significant for Brooks is that Jesus doesn’t name any of the commandments that have to do with humanity’s relationship to or belief in God. He doesn’t mention ‘have no other gods before me,’ ‘make no graven images,’ or ‘speak not God’s name in vain.’ In this very early version of Christianity, in the decade following Jesus’ death, the emphasis is not on belief or doctrine, but on ethical human behavior, on living a good life.[2]

This tension between right belief and right living, or what some call ‘works,’ continued throughout the first century. Brooks refers to a famous passage from an early version of the Epistle of James. James was attempting to counter the emphasis on doctrine coming from Paul and his followers: “What good is it,” James wrote, “if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a [sibling] is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them: ‘Go in peace. Keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”[3] For shorthand, you might be familiar with the phrase, ‘deeds not creeds.’ I feel a certain spiritual kindship with these early, Pre-Pauline Christians—at least Brooks’ understanding of them. There’s an air of horizontalness about them. It is no coincidence that this passage from James appears in our Unitarian Universalist hymnal.

One can reasonably ask—and our critics do ask—if you don’t have a commonly-held belief, what holds you together? The answer is covenant. Our covenants hold us together.

Covenant is an Ancient Near Eastern concept. The Hebrew word berit or beriyth translates variously as covenant, treaty, compact, alliance or agreement. It appears 3oo times in the Bible. Its earliest, pre-Bibilical usage was political. It referred to a treaty whereby one king pledged allegiance to another, more powerful king. Most scholars agree this political model provided the template for Israel’s spiritual covenant with God, which is the heart of Judaism. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God regularly revises the covenant, making promises of land, prosperity, freedom, protection, victory in war, national greatness and on and on. The people agree to remain loyal to God and uphold God’s law. Then they typically miss the mark in some way. They fall out of covenant. God commissions prophets to call the Israelites back into covenant. They come back, the covenant gets revised, and so on. The covenants within Christianity are revisions and adaptations of God’s covenant with Israel The covenants within Islam refer back to the Christian and Jewish covenants.

Covenants were very important to our spiritual forebears in colonial New England, the Puritans. Although their faith was certainly doctrinal in emphasis, they also placed great trust in each other. The late Unitarian historian, Conrad Wright, wrote that “when the New England Puritans gathered their churches, they wrote out covenants, by which the members agreed to walk together in mutual fellowship, in commitment to one another as well as to Christ Jesus.” [4] This metaphor of walking together was very important to the Puritans. It’s a reference to the Hebrew prophet Amos who asked “Do two walk together who have not made an agreement?”[5] Walking together is another way of saying ‘we trust one another.’

Wright said “the earliest New England covenants … were simple statements. [For example,] the Salem covenant of 1629 is as follows: ‘We covenant with the Lord and one with an other; and doe bynd our selves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies….’ While there are words here with theological significance, such as ‘Lord,’ and ‘God’ … it should be remarked that this was not a creedal statement. The operative words here are: ‘we … doe bynd our selves … to walke together.’ They are not ‘we believe.’”[6]

Over time, theological disagreements emerged within the New England churches. The Orthodox clung to the old doctrines. Liberals rejected them. The Orthodox demanded doctrinal purity. Slowly the liberals moved on, establishing the first Unitarian congregations in the United States. Wright says that “very early in our history as a separate religious body we insisted that creedal statements are not the proper basis for religious fellowship; more than that, that theological diversity is not only to be tolerated, but to be embraced as a good thing…. [Today] we assert the right and duty of each one of us to adhere to his or her understanding of religious truth, and we accept the obligation to respect one another, even if we do not always agree.”[7]

Our early American Unitarian forebears rejected the old doctrines, but they kept their covenantal practices. They remained a covenantal faith. When this congregation was founded in 1969, Unitarian Universalism’s covenant featured six principles, including strengthening one another in a free and disciplined search for truth; cherishing and spreading the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity; affirming, defending and promoting the supreme worth and dignity of every human being and the use of democratic processes in human relationships; striving for a world community founded in peace and justice; supporting, extending and strengthening liberal religion; and cooperating with people of good will in every land.[8] In 1985 we changed our principles to their current language: “We covenant to affirm and promote: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

In 1989 this congregation created its own covenant and mission; and in 2012 we crafted our current congregational covenant, which supplements the Unitarian Universalist principles with more specific statements about how we intend to relate to one another here, including treating each other with respect, engaging each other with love and kindness, listening openly, speaking our truths thoughtfully, embracing conflict as an opportunity for growth, nurturing generosity, maintaining a sense of humor, being mindful of power dynamics based on identities such as race, class, sexual orientation and gender, and seeking forgiveness when we miss the mark. We’re now beginning a process of reviewing and updating that covenant. On March 14th the Policy Board will hold open forums to discuss possible updates.

None of these covenants are statements of belief. They do not express doctrines or creeds. They state our highest values. They express how we intend to relate to each other, how we intend to show up in the world, how we intend to live. We enter into this religious community trusting that each of us will do our best to live by these covenants, trusting that each of us is seeking relationships that have dignity, justice, compassion, a sense of interconnection, and love at their core. As Unitarian Universalists, we agree that such relationships here and now, in this life, in this world, matter immensely. That’s what unites us! That’s what gives us life. Indeed, the wages of trust is life.

****

The other night my 16-year-old asked what I thought happens after we die. Some faiths answer that question with a doctrine. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” My answer was “I don’t know.” That seemed OK to him, but for me, as a dad who wants to give his child all the hope and confidence in the world, it felt significantly less than satisfactory. We then had a philosophical conversation about what it might mean to simply cease existing, or whether there might be such a thing as soul that lives on after we die. That was a ‘head’ conversation. But lurking beneath was a ‘heart’ conversation, a longing, a yearning for something more, perhaps a sadness that our time on earth is short, that we really may not encounter each other again after this life is done, that nothing is truly eternal.

Yet, in such moments I’m also reminded: if this is the only life, then let’s live an amazing life. Let’s live the best life we can possibly live. Let’s life lives of integrity, lives that seek justice for people and the earth; lives that build beloved community; lives that search earnestly for truth and meaning; lives that recognize and value our interdependence with all other life. And this is why a covenantal faith is so important. None of us can live such a life on our own. We need one another. We need each other’s care and support and compassion and love. We may not be able to trust in some ancient notion of eternal life, but we can put our trust in each other to live this good life. Indeed, the wages of trust is life.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Romans 6:23 (New Revised Standard Version).

[2] Brooks, Bruce E., Jesus and After: The First Eighty Years (Amherst, MA: Warring States Project, UMASS Amherst, 2017) pp. 19-20.

[3] Ibid., pp. 85-86. Also, I am quoting the language of James 2: 14-17 that appears in #668, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).

[4] Wright, Conrad, Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches (Boston: Skinner House, 1989) pp. 7.

[5] Amos 3:3.

[6] Wright, Walking Together, p. 7.

[7] Wright, Walking Together, p. 27.

[8] The full text, complete with male-centered language, is at https://www.uuworld.org/articles/the-uuas-original-principles-1961.

A Tale of Tragedy; a Tale of Possibility

Rev. Josh Pawelek

On Sunday, January 13th, we began celebrating our congregation’s 50th anniversary year. For our service the following week, ‘Martin Luther King Sunday’—which we cancelled due to inclement weather—I had planned to preach this sermon on what was happening in terms of race and racism within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) fifty years ago; and to name parallels with what is happening within our faith today. I’m grateful to Martha Larson who agreed to postpone the service she’d been planning for this morning so I could bring this sermon. It’s an important 50th anniversary reflection with implications for who we are as Unitarian Universalists today.

A caveat: the story I will now tell you focuses on relationships between White UUs and African American, African Diaspora and Black UUs. That is, the racial dynamics in the story have to do with the place of African Americans in our larger White denomination in the late 1960s. The risk in telling this story is that we forget that Black people are not the only People of Color within Unitarian Universalism. There are Native American, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern, South Pacific Islander UUs, not to mention biracial and multiracial UUs. Their stories aren’t in the story I am about to tell. I’m naming this simply so that we don’t forget our denominational story about race is not an exclusively Black-White story.

The story of race in our faith from 1967 to 1970 is complex. It’s the story of a historically White denomination encountering its own institutional racism when it wasn’t prepared to do so. It’s the story of people dedicated to a vision of racial integration and the nonviolent principles of the Civil Rights movement coming into conflict with people dedicated to the Black Power movement and the principle of Black self-determination. It’s the story of the democratic principle at the heart of our faith coming into conflict with the justice principle at the heart of our faith. In the words of the historian of African American Unitarian Universalism, the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, it’s a tragic story.

During the “long, hot summer of 1967,” more than 150 riots broke out around the country. The rioters were primarily Black people, angry at institutional racism, at entrenched poverty, at police violence; angry that the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts had not fundamentally altered the racist structures of American society. They rioted out of deep pain and frustration. I’m mindful of Dr. King’s phrase, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Over the first weekend of October,1967, the UUA convened an “Emergency Conference on the Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion.”[1] 140 delegates from around the country gathered at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City. 37 of them were Black. As the conference got underway, 30 or so Black delegates withdrew into a private room, forming what eventually became the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus. They created a list of nonnegotiable demands which they presented to the Emergency Conference, asking that they be accepted or rejected without debate. The core demand was that the UUA create a Black Affairs Council and fund it for four years at $250,000 /year (that’s over $7 million today). The Black Caucus would select the Black Affairs Council members who would have complete control over the money.

What began as a racially integrated (though largely White-led) effort to outline a UU response to the 1967 riots ended as a Black-led action against the UUA. “Divisive” is an understatement. Black UUs had never organized in this way, had never made all-or-nothing demands, and had never demanded this level of funding for programs they would control exclusively. Black Caucus participant Henry Hampton later described their experience as tense, exhilarating and passionate. “Black UUs … long accustomed to the role they played in their congregations explaining The Negro to the white majority … for the first time … were exploring their identity as religious liberals with one another, black to black.”[2]

As for the remaining Conference participants, some left in dismay. Many who were used to certain norms for the conduct of meetings were unnerved that the Black Caucus had upended those norms. Many who, just a few years earlier had joined Dr. King in Selma for the Voting Rights march, and who had dedicated their lives to the Civil Rights movement, were bewildered that young, Black UU activists critical of Dr. King and the limits of nonviolence had overtaken their agenda. Some of those Black delegates who refused to join the Black Caucus reported feeling criticized and pressured for their decision.

Nevertheless, the tactics worked. More than two thirds of the conference delegates supported the demands and agreed to communicate them to the UUA Board. Black Power had arrived in Unitarian Universalism. UUA President, Dana McClean Greeley, wrote “They wish to form a Black Power organization … within the denomination. This will not be a perfunctory or easy discussion.”[3] Sure enough, later that fall the UUA Board rejected the idea of a Black Affairs Council and proposed a much less ambitious approach to Black empowerment. The Black Caucus countered with a call to congregations to stop paying their denominational dues. Tension grew throughout the year, but the Black Caucus never altered its demands. The following May, at the 1968 UUA General Assembly in Cleveland, just seven weeks after Martin Luther King’s assassination, after extensive, painful debate, delegates adopted a resolution creating the Black Affairs Council and funding it with $250,000 a year for four years. The vote was 836-347.

This was an extraordinary victory for Black Power within Unitarian Universalism. Once it was established, the Black Affairs Council began funding black-led organizations around the country that were addressing political repression, economic exploitation, and what they called educational and cultural nondevelopment. The list of organizations is long: the Black Community Fund of Philadelphia, the Center for Black Education, Washington, DC, the Coordinating Committee of the Black Community, Lawrence, KS, the Malcolm X Center of Los Angeles, Malcolm X Liberation University, Greensboro, NC, National Democratic Party of Alabama, the National Association of Afro-American Educators, the Congress of African People, and many more. Through the Black Affairs Council, Unitarian Universalist money and people reached deep into the heart of radical Black America.

The victory didn’t last. There were countervailing forces. UUs who were committed to pursuing racial justice work in a more traditional, racially integrated way had established their own organization in early 1968, Black and White Alternative or BAWA. They also wanted UUA funding. Black Caucus leaders understood this trend, I think correctly, as the unwillingness or inability of some White UUs and some Black UUs to embrace the goal of Black Power and Black self-determination; or worse, as the need of some White UUs to maintain control over racial justice efforts. The Black Caucus warned that if BAWA received funding, they would disaffiliate from the UUA. The divisions were bitter. People describe strong-arm tactics, name-calling, even spitting in opponents’ faces.

The 1969 General Assembly in Boston was highly contentious, including allegations of racism, the commandeering of the microphones and a walk-out by the Black Caucus and its White allies. In the end, delegates voted to continue funding the Black Affairs Council but not BAWA. The margin was slim: 798 to 737. Too slim. As Morrison-Reed has written, Black Power “won again and, in that moment, lost.” The UUA could not “move ahead when half [the delegates were] moving one way and the other half another.”[4]

Later that fall, facing a funding crisis, the UUA Board reduced the Black Affairs Council annual allocation, spreading it over five years. In response, the Black Affairs Council disaffiliated. At the 1970 Seattle General Assembly, delegates voted to discontinue funding entirely. Although the Black Affairs Council received funding from other sources and functioned for a few more years, the promise of the 1968 Cleveland vote went unfulfilled. Many people of all racial identities left Unitarian Universalism in response to these events. The pain, anger and heartbreak still reverberate through our faith fifty years later.

In 2012 Morrison-Reed wrote: “all sides felt victimized and misunderstood; they defended principles while others betrayed them. Integrationists felt they were being asked to repudiate their earlier actions and long-term commitment to equality…. They were shocked that there was no longer room to hold a different opinion and follow another path, and still be in fellowship. Institutionalists felt they were staving off ruin and preserving the democratic process. The BAC and its supporters felt as though whites were unwilling to put justice first or to trust African Americans with power…. The result and further tragedy is this: No one who was involved feels understood or appreciated, much less honored.” He then says “It is time to honor the passion, fervor, and commitment to principle of all who were involved—and to thank them for caring so deeply.” [5]

I don’t know how I would have responded had I been there. It would have been excruciating to witness the disruption of our democratic process. It also would have been excruciating to recognize that Black UUs felt so frustrated and enraged at the lack of vision, urgency and engagement on the part of the larger institution that they needed to assert themselves and demand Black Power.

For such excruciating moments, Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail has become scripture for me. To the moderate clergy who were urging him to be patient, King said: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”[6]

Democracy is a deeply-held, sacred principle for us. That doesn’t mean the democratic processes we use are perfect. There are times when our processes may actually limit our vision, curtail our thinking, and exclude certain voices. Sometimes it takes a disruption to realize this. When people who live under some form of oppression gather together, organize and say ‘this is what we need,’ even ‘this is what we demand,’ I’ve learned not to react defensively but to remember MLK’s words. “‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’” If we’re being called to act for justice now, let’s act now. There are risks, yes. But for me, that’s accountability. That’s solidarity. That’s honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That’s justice, equity and compassion in human relations. And though it may disrupt our current democratic process, hopefully it will inspire us to evolve our process, to make it more responsive to the pain, suffering, needs and demands of oppressed people.      

That’s my interpretation of what happened at the 1968 vote; and what essentially failed to happen in 1969 and 1970. That’s also my interpretation of what happened on October 14th, 2016, when the UUA Board of Trustees agreed to provide $5.3 million to Black Lives of UU (BLUU).[7] BLUU’s mission is threefold: To expand the power and capacity of Black UUs within our faith; to provide support, information and resources for Black UUs; and to promote justice-making and liberation through our faith.[8] The Board did not explicitly state that its 2016 decision was an attempt to fulfill the promise of the 1968 Black Affairs Council resolution, but 1968 was in the room. Board member Greg Carrow-Boyd acknowledged “we are fulfilling a promise [the General Assembly made] fifty years ago.”[9]

The BLUU story is still unfolding. In critical, if uncomfortable ways, BLUU is impacting power dynamics within Unitarian Universalism. It’s raising an important question: Can White UUs and White UU congregations truly hear and respond to the aspirations of Black UUs and other UUs of Color? And at a deeper level, BLUU is building a visible, robust, faithful, exciting, and permanent home for Black Unitarian Universalist identity and spirituality. 

Here’s how I believe we here at UUS:E are called to respond:

First, let’s continue our work with Moral Monday CT, our primary Black Lives Matter organizing partner.

Then, BLUU has asked that UU congregations provide space to Black-led social justice organizations. Let’s take this seriously. I’m proud to announce that we are beginning to build a relationship with the Manchester-based Minority Inclusion Project, an organization that helps non-profits address institutional racism.[10]

Then, to reach the $5,3 million funding goal for BLUU, the UUA has asked all congregations to participate in a program called “The Promise and the Practice of our Faith,” which raises $10 per congregational member. We began our participation in that through our community outreach offering in January. We’ll need further conversation about how to fully meet this goal, which the UUA understands as a commitment to countering our own White Supremacy culture.[11]

Then, for the fiftieth Anniversary of the Black Affairs Council, Mark Morrison-Reed has written a new book called Revisiting the Empowerment Controversy. As part of our fiftieth anniversary year, let’s read this book as a congregation this spring. I will also recommend, at the suggestion of Ollie Cohen, that we read the Beacon Press book and New York Times bestseller, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

Finally, I’d like to help establish a People of Color Caucus at UUS:E. It would admittedly be a small group, but with the right support and funding, I think such a caucus could generate some amazing ideas for the future of this congregation. It would be a shame for those ideas to never come to life.

The struggle continues. Let’s be in it. Amen. Blessed be.

[1] I’m basing my retelling of this story on the UUA’s 1983 Commission on Appraisal Report, “Empowerment: One Denomination’s Quest for Racial Justice,” and Carpenter, Victor, “The Black Empowerment Controversy and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1967-1970, both in Unitarian Universalism and the Quest for Racial Justice (Boston: UUA, 1993); Ross, Warren R., The Premise and the Promise: The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Association (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2001) pp. 41-56; and Morrison-Reed, Mark, “The Empowerment Tragedy,” UU World Magazine, January 16, 2012, see: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/empowerment-tragedy.

[2] Quoted in Unitarian Universalism and the Quest for Racial Justice, p. 26.

[3] Quoted in Unitarian Universalism and the Quest for Racial Justice, p. 102.

[4] Morrison-Reed, Mark, “The Empowerment Tragedy.”

[5] Morrison-Reed, Mark, “The Empowerment Tragedy.”

[6] King, Jr., Martin Luther, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. See: https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[7] McCardle, Elaine, “UUA Board of Trustees commits $5.3 million to Black Lives of UU,” UU World Magazine, October 17, 2016. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/board-commits-5-million-bluu.

[8] Explore the BLUU website at http://www.blacklivesuu.com/.

[9] McCardle, Elaine, “UUA Board of Trustees commits $5.3 million to Black Lives of UU.”

[10] Explore the Minority Inclusion Project website at https://ctmip.org/.

[11] Learn more about “The Promise and the Practice of our Faith” at https://www.uua.org/giving/areas-support/funds/promise-and-practice.

Groundhoggin’

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Across the northern hemisphere, spiritually speaking, these early days of February mark an auspicious time.

In early February we arrive at the middle of winter. We arrive at a cross-quarter time—halfway between solstice and equinox. In the ancient Gaelic calendar, this is the time for the celebration of Imbolc or Oimelc—Imbolc meaning ‘in the belly,’ pregnant; Oimelc referring to ewe’s milk,’ because the sheep are pregnant, ready to give birth. The milk is beginning to flow. Spring is coming.

Among pre-Christian Celtic peoples, as well as in many current-day pagan communities, the celebration of Imbolc—typically on February 2nd—is associated with Brigid or Bríd, the ancient Irish goddess: the exalted one, keeper of the flame, guardian of home and hearth, patron of bards and crafters, a poet, a healer, a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the ancient Irish tribe of gods.

In Catholicism February 1st is feast day of St. Brigid, who was likely a fifth-century Irish nun, remembered for founding monasteries and churches. Catholics attribute a number of miracles to her. Her blood was said to have healing properties. She’s rumored to have turned water into beer. Many historians of religion argue that over time, Brigid the Catholic nun took on the characteristics of Brigid the pagan goddess. These arguments ring true to me. Because the people would not—perhaps could not—give up their goddess, the church Christianized her, elevated her, venerated her. Thus the more ancient patterns and meanings remain to this day, even if they reside in the shadows.

This is also the time of Candlemas—typically February 2nd—the Catholic feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Briefly, in the Torah a newborn male child is circumcised eight days after birth. Thirty three days after that, his mother presents herself at the temple for purification, which she achieves through animal sacrifice.[1] In the Christian book of Luke, Jesus’ family participates in this ritual.[2] I find it fascinating that these rites of purification for Mary and Jesus occur exactly at the cross-quarter moment between solstice and equinox. For me, it signals a deeper, more ancient agricultural and earth-based spirituality living in the shadows of the Biblical stories.

Over the centuries Candlemas has become the time in many Christian denominations—not just Catholic—for the blessing of the candles the church will use in worship for the coming year. Supposedly the candles play a role in warding off illness. Some of you may have childhood memories of holding the blessed candles up to your throats in worship as protection against winter colds and flu.

And of course, animal divination figures prominently at this cross-quarter time. February 2nd is Groundhog Day. 19th-century German immigrants—the Pennsylvania Dutch—my people!—first introduced the idea that groundhogs have the power to predict the timing of spring’s commencement. Weather divination has long been important to agrarian and earth-based people. A farmer ought not to plant seeds if more frost and snow are likely. In some parts of Germany Candlemas was known as Badger Day; for in addition to American groundhogs and British hedgehogs, other animals known to have the ability to predict the coming of spring are bears, foxes and badgers.

It’s an auspicious time. Themes of divination, purification, healing, clearing away, getting ready, birth and the coming of spring abound. And so much seems to lie beneath the surface, in the shadows, hidden just beyond our conscious awareness.

****

I will be the first to own that what we might call the typical Unitarian Universalist (which I’m sure none of you are) doesn’t give much credence to all the magic and ritual that has built up around this cross-quarter time. Animals forecasting the weather? Blessed candles warding off illness? Purification through animal sacrifice? A nun’s blood healing the infirm? The power of ancient gods and goddesses? For many of us our natural inclination is to appraise it all as mythology, metaphor or quaint superstition. Many of you left your childhood religions precisely because these kinds of things didn’t make sense, weren’t rational. Many of you explored Unitarian Universalism because of our commitment to the use of reason in our collective religious life.

For me that commitment remains unwavering; and yet I am also drawn to the kinds of human experiences that occupy spaces our reason can’t easily access. Recently our UUS:E Humanist Study Group read an article by former Unitarian Universalist Association President, the Rev. Bill Schultz called “Our Humanist Legacy.” In it he describes how encounters with psychotherapy and with the death of beloved family members led him to understand the limits of reason in religion. He writes, “I came to have a far deeper appreciation for the irrational in every form and a far greater access to my own feelings, limits, and yearnings than I had had before…. Much of [my religion] seemed … too quickly dismissive of the vast realms of human experience that could not be reached by cognition alone.”[3]

He asks: “What are we to make of all the human experiences whose meanings could not be completely captured in scientific terms—dreams, for example, emotions, religious aspiration, wanton cruelty?…. All this could be reduced to physiological phenomena … but anyone who tried to capture the holistic significance of love or loyalty, guilt or grandeur, in terms of brain cell functioning alone could be rightly accused of displaying a pitiful paucity of imagination.[4]

Like Schultz, while not wanting to jettison reason from our religious lives, I have always been interested in how we cross the line spiritually from the reasonable to the unreasonable, the rational to the irrational, the mundane to the miraculous, the conscious to the unconscious, and so on. As people who take great pride in our reasonable approach to religion, and often lead with it when we describe Unitarian Universalism to others, I think we’re always at risk of missing something spiritually significant if we don’t develop skills for crossing those lines. I’m not talking about crossing a line into some kind of irrational belief or accepting some impossible miracle as true. I mean crossing into those dimensions of our lives reason cannot access.

That takes spiritual skill. Though I don’t claim to be expert in this in any way, the skill I want to introduce to you this morning is the use of intuition. You might say, ‘intuition isn’t a skill. Either you have a hunch about something or you don’t. Either you intuit something or you don’t.’ I say there’s more to it than that. I am convinced we intuit things about our surroundings and our lives all the time, yet for a variety of reasons we don’t notice it when it happens. We’ve learned to ignore it. But we can unlearn. We can develop our capacity to notice and respond to our intuitions more regularly. In honor of this particular cross-quarter moment, I affectionately refer to this skill as groundhoggin.’

What does the groundhog supposedly do? It wakes from its winter slumber, leaves its lair, and pays attention. I read to you earlier from spiritual writer Thomas Moore’s A Religion of One’s Own. He reminds us: “‘intuition’ comes from the Latin word that means ‘to keep watch over.’ To be intuitive is to be prepared to see some new kind of information or insight that is faint and passing. Intuitions come and go quickly, you have to watch for them…. They are … subtle messages coming at you, but so delicate and thin that you might easily let them go by. Because they are not the product of reasoning and factual research, you have to learn to sort them out and eventually trust them.”[5]

Moore writes about reading tea leaves, a global practice with ancient Chinese origins. He doesn’t believe tea leaves have some kind of magical property such that they can tell your fortune or predict the future. He describes a practice of paying attention to whatever images he immediately sees in the leaves—a dog, a horse, a person, a house, a car, tree, etc. Then he uses the image as a prompt for further contemplation. Why might I have seen the image of a car? Do I need to go somewhere? Is there some journey I need to take? Have I been wondering about the role of technology in our lives—the convenience of technology? The danger of technology? Did I forget to change my oil? He does the same kind of practice with the I-Ching, another ancient Chinese divination method. He does it with tarot cards. He speaks also of just noticing synchronicities—when two completely unrelated things happen at the same time in a meaningful way. Why did a certain person come into my life at a specific time? Why did a certain book come to my attention at a specific time?

He’s not saying there is some underlying, magical order to it all, or that some deity is orchestrating every minute aspect of our lives. He’s suggesting there’s an unconscious, irrational part of us that is constantly sensing things in our surroundings, very quickly making meaning out of what it senses, and then offering us images or impressions. But they’re vague. They’re opaque. They’re fleeting. Learning to pay attention to them, learning to keep watch over them, takes practice. As we practices, as we learn to parse out what they mean, we become more intuitive.

In protest, you could very reasonably argue that we’re just making things up here. A tea leaf car is just a tea-leaf car. Certainly there’s truth to that. But I’m mindful of our seventh Unitarian Universalist principle, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” We often interpret this principle as a call to care for the earth; but this principle is also a statement about the relational nature of reality which the study of biology increasingly verifies on a macro level and the study of physics increasingly verifies on a quantum level. All reality is interdependent, interconnected, interrelated. If this is true, then it is reasonable to assert that some connections—in fact, most connections—work beneath the surface of our knowing. They touch us in countless ways, they hold us in countless ways, but we aren’t consciously aware of them. Still, at some deep level, our bodies know. And often that’s what intuition is—a fleeting glimpse of an underlying connection. So why not learn to invite our unconscious, irrational, dreaming mind out into the open? Why not learn to keep watch over what lies beneath, what lies in the shadows? Why not go groundhoggin’?

In her meditation, “Winter Blessing,” the Rev. Kathleen McTigue suggests there is a vast world beyond our knowing. Even when the light goes out. / Mystery shimmers and shines in the world / in even the darkest corners. / It’s there where the roots push life into soil and rock, / in small lives lived under every stone; / there in the silent pulse beneath the tree bark. It’s in the depth of slow tides as they turn,/ there in the sky on moonless nights / when muffling clouds block out the stars. / It’s there in the prison, the hospital, / by the hospice bed, / there at the graveside, in the empty house– / something beating in the dark shelter / of our hearts– / the small shine of hope, the gilt edge of darkness. And then she invites us into a more tangible awareness of it all:  May we be granted the gift of deeper sight / that we might see—with or without the light.[6] As I read it, she’s talking about paying attention, keeping watch over, being intuitive. Groundhoggin!’

And when all else fails, there is Lynn Ungar’s groundhog-inspired advice: Do you want to play your part / in bringing [spring] to birth? Nothing simpler. / Find a spot not too far from the ground / and wait.[7]

****

From time to time we catch a glimpse of something else—some other reality beyond our senses, below the surface. We don’t see it per se; we feel it, imagine it, dream it. Maybe it comes to us in our quiet, contemplative moments. Maybe it comes to us in our moments of great celebration or exertion when we’ve danced, sung, run or stretched our bodies so far beyond their normal positions that somehow we open ourselves up to a world of power and magic, connection and sacredness waiting, always, just beyond our regular lives. Maybe it comes to us because we’ve developed our intuitive capacities.

Perhaps this cross-quarter time, drenched in layers of ritual, history, and superstition, is one such moment when we can pierce the veil and know a greater reality. Perhaps. But even if we can’t pierce it, we can nevertheless pause, lean back, and open ourselves up to the ancient cry, echoing across the generations: The fires are burning! The ewe’s milk is flowing! The earth is breathing. The light is returning! Spring is coming!

Happy Groundhoggin.’

Amen. Blessed be.

_________________________

[1] Leviticus 12.

[2] Luke 2.

[3] Schultz, Bill, “Our Humanist Legacy: 70 Years of Religious Humanism,” UU World, November/December 2003. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/unitarian-universalisms-humanist-legacy

[4] Schultz, “Our Humanist Legacy.”

[5] Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World (New York: Avery, 2015) pp. 204-205.

[6] McTigue, Kathleen, “Winter Blessing,” in Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2011) p. 5.

[7] Ungar, Lynn, “Groundhog Day,” in Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p.30.

For All the Days to Come: A Brief History of UUS:E

By Nancy Madar and Rev. Josh Pawelek

For All the Days to Come I, 1969-1979

The story of this congregation begins in the fall of 1968. Malcolm Barlow and Al Harris had been talking with the Rev. Nat Lauriat of the Unitarian Society of Hartford, who encouraged them to start a Unitarian Universalist congregation east of the Connecticut River. They ran ads in the Silk Town Flier, a newsletter Malcolm and Susan Barlow owned at the time and distributed door-to-door. They ran ads in the Manchester Evening Herald where Malcolm worked. They rented a hall at the Buckley School.

78 people came to the first organizational meeting on September 25th, 1968.

They were seeking spiritual community, reason in religion, freedom of conscience, and liberal religious education for their children.

They were people who wanted to make the world a better place.

 

That night we agreed to form the Unitarian Universalist Society of Manchester.

On October 8th they gathered again to establish their first committees. Yes: Before there was an official church, there were committees! From a newspaper article at the time, I notice Dave Sherman was appointed as chair of the program committee. An attorney named John Fitzgerald was their moderator.

49 people signed the incorporation papers on January 16, 1969 and officially became the Unitarian Universalist Society of Manchester—that’s fifty years ago this Wednesday! Of the 49 people who signed the original charter, five are still active members of the church today: Malcolm and Susan Barlow, Naomi Zima, Roland Chirico and Mary Ann Handley.

To Malcolm, Susan, Naomi, Roland, Mary Ann, to Dave Sherman and everyone else who was there at the founding:

Thanks for your vision. Thanks for the sacrifices you’ve made and the love you’ve given.

During that first decade the congregation rented space in various locations around Manchester—the Buckley School, a Main St. karate studio, the Singer Learning Center, and the YWCA. Sometimes we say we were wandering in the wilderness, but that’s not entirely accurate. We were wandering around downtown Manchester, and  eventually landed in the wilderness out here on West Vernon St.

That first decade was a time for the new congregation to fashion its identity as a beloved, liberal religious community. Their first minister was the Rev. Arnold Westwood. He eventually split his time between our congregation and the UU congregation in Amherst, MA. Having a part-time minister meant that the lay-people had to share many of the leadership responsibilities, including Sunday morning worship. That was the beginning of our UUS:E tradition of shared ministry.

Arnold taught us how to be a church. We loved him for this. He organized many activities: multigenerational snow Sundays, Blueberry Saturdays, and friendship retreats which created deep bonds and strengthened our sense of community.

In 1973 we changed our name to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East. Then, in the late 1970s, we purchased the land we now occupy here on Elm Hill from the Cox family. After breaking ground in 1978, many adults and young people worked countless hours building the new building and doing landscaping. We moved in in September, 1979

 

If you joined UUS:E during that first decade, thank you for your vision. Thanks for shared ministry. Thanks for wandering. Thanks for learning how to be a church and for passing your wisdom on to us.

Thanks for the sacrifices you’ve made and the love you’ve given.

 

For All the Days to Come II, 1979-1989

Having our own building provided us with opportunities we had never imagined. With strong lay leadership we established new programs for adults, built an affiliation with the UU Women’s Federation, created support groups and discussion forums, and built a thriving youth program.

Bob Richardson, then our volunteer music director, led choirs for special occasions and helped us stage very entertaining summer musicals: ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “South Pacific,” “Carousel,” “Music Man,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “Carnival.” The production of those musicals, along with fundraiser dances, district retreats and soup socials helped maintain and strengthen our sense of community.

During this decade we established the Memorial Garden, held the first Affirmation class, launched the Social Responsibility Committee. Members participated in programs at UU summer camps such as Rowe, Ferry Beach and Star Island. We also hired a part-time Director of Religious Education, Vicki Merriam, who held that role for over 30 years.

Rev. Arnold’s retirement in 1984 produced a lot of anxiety. It was our first ministerial transition. We called the Rev. Diana Heath as our new minister in 1985. Rev. Heath’s ministry was rocky. Ultimately she was not the right match for our model of ministry and she resigned in 1988. Even with the difficulties surrounding Rev. Heath’s ministry, the congregation was growing. The building was still new, but we were already talking about expanding it. Despite ministerial challenges, we conducted a capital campaign and expanded the original building and parking lot. And in October, 1989 we installed the Rev. Connie Sternberg as our third settled minister.

If you joined UUS:E during that second decade, thanks for your vision. Thanks for choosing UUS:E. Thanks for sticking with us through times of transition and growth. Thanks for continuing our tradition of shared ministry. Thanks for the sacrifices you’ve made and the love you’ve given.

For All the Days to Come III, 1989-1999

With a newly called minister, the congregation more clearly defined and deepened its understanding and practice of shared ministry. We expanded our programming and community outreach ministries. With some controversy we moved to two Sunday morning services in 1996.

We added Bob and Marilyn Richardson to our staff sharing the role of Music Director. We added a full-time office administrator and a Sunday morning sexton. We made improvements to the Memorial Garden. We established a sibling-church relationship with Shiloh Baptist in Hartford. We supported the Samaritan Shelter and Covenant to Care.

The congregation continued to grow, especially the children’s religious education program.  And of course, we created more committees, adding the Personnel, Denominational Affairs and Pastoral Friends committees.

One of our most significant decisions was to become a UUA Welcoming Congregation, making a commitment to welcoming and empowering gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

If you joined UUS:E during that third decade, thanks for your vision. Thanks for choosing UUS:E. Thanks for sticking with us through times of transition and growth. Thanks for continuing our tradition of shared ministry. Thanks for being a Welcoming Congregation! Thanks for the sacrifices you’ve made and the love you’ve given.

 

For All the Days to Come IV, 1999-2009

As our fourth decade commenced we began teaching the Our Whole Lives human sexuality curriculum. Our community outreach included tutoring in Hartford through the STARS program, as well as at the Washington school in Manchester. In 2000 we hired Annie Gentile as our full-time office administrator. Today she is our longest-serving staff member.

Rev. Connie retired in 2001. After a two year interim ministry, we called Rev. Josh Pawelek to be our fourth settled minister in March of 2003.

One of the most enduring legacies of the early years of our fourth decade was the work of our Sustainable Living Committee. They helped us “green” our sanctuary and we received the UUA’s Green Sanctuary designation.

During the early years of Josh’s ministry, the Journey Toward Wholeness Antiracism Task Force worked with Rev. Jeanne Lloyd, the other Hartford-area UU congregations, and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bloomfield to launch CUREJ: Congregations United for Racial Equity and Justice. CUREJ eventually played a key role in passing Connecticut’s 2009 Environmental Justice law.

At the same time, nearly fifty congregations launched the Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition for Equity and Justice (ICEJ). UUS:E was a charter member, and our members played central roles in the leadership of ICEJ until it closed its doors in 2012.

At the same time, UUS:E members and friends proudly participated in the fight for marriage equality in Connecticut—which became law through a state supreme court decision in 2008.

We hired Jane Osborn as our full-time sexton; and when Bob Richardson retired, we hired Pawel Jura as our new music director.

Space was once again becoming an issue. After conducting a thorough assessment, the Growth Options Management Team recommended that we expand the building and parking lot once again.

After a very successful Capital Campaign (chaired by Nancy Madar), we broke ground in the spring of 2009, just as we were entering our 5th decade.

If you joined UUS:E between 1999 and 2009, thanks for your vision. Thanks for choosing UUS:E. Thanks for sticking with us through times of transition and growth. Thanks for continuing our tradition of shared ministry. Thanks for being a Green Sanctuary. Thanks for anti-racism work. Thanks for marriage equality work. Thanks for the sacrifices you’ve made and the love you’ve given.

 

For All the Days to Come V, 2009-2019

 During construction, we met for services on Sunday afternoons at Center Congregational Church in Manchester. After expanding the building and parking lot, adding an elevator, adding accessibility features, and installing geo-thermal heating and cooling, we moved back to 153 West Vernon St. in April of 2010. We dedicated the new building that fall, with a keynote sermon by Gini Courter, who was then Moderator of the UUA.

We take great pride in the fact that our building is a green building. It has an Energy Star rating from the federal government; and we won the Green House of Worship Award from the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network.

After moving back we created new covenant, mission and vision statements. We launched a new website. We began strategic planning. We continued with a variety of social justice and sustainable living initiatives.

Vicki Merriam retired in 2014. After a period of program evaluation and making a commitment to building multigenerational community—more multigenerational worship, more multigenerational activities, more ways of including children in adult activities and adults in children’s activities–we hired Gina Campellone as our new Director of Religious Education. The RE program has thrived under Gina’s leadership and our commitment to building multigenerational community remains strong.

Pawel Jura left our staff for a new job soon after Vicki’s retirement. After a brief interim, we hired Mary Bopp as our third music director in early 2015. The congregation gave Mary a warm welcome, however we were greatly saddened to learn of Pawel’s death shortly thereafter.

Today there are many opportunities for spiritual growth and exploration: Small Group Ministries, the Buddhist Group, Women’s Sacred Singing Circle, Book Club, Dialogue From Your Home, Politics and Public Affairs, God Talk, the Humanist and Pagan study groups, Mental Health Ministry, Peas and Love Community Garden, Vegan potlucks.

There are many adult religious education offerings, and a thriving religious education program for children. In recent years we have agreed as a congregation to support the Black Lives Matter movement. And we have agreed to become a sanctuary congregation to help support people trying to avoid deportation or seeking asylum. Now there’s even an effort to launch a new interfaith coalition in greater Hartford.

The possibilities for engagement seem endless.

If you joined UUS:E during the last decade, thanks for your vision. Thanks for choosing UUS:E. Thanks for bringing your new ideas, your conscience, your spiritual explorations and your passion. Thanks for continuing our tradition of shared ministry. Thanks for the sacrifices you’ve made and the love you’ve given.

****

In the fall of 1968 our founders began gathering and organizing and leading. Fifty years ago this week UUS:E officially began when 49 people signed the incorporation papers. As we enter this year of celebration, let us remember it’s not really about the signing.

It’s about the vision.

It’s about the vision of a beloved, liberal, religious community—a spiritual community that balances head and heart, reason and spirit, body and soul;

–a spiritual community that values freedom of conscience and theological exploration above all doctrine and dogma;

–a spiritual community that knows us deeply, knows the contours of our lives—our joys, our pains, our successes, our failures; a community that welcomes us and our children warmly and lovingly into the world; and with sadness and love bids us a fond farewell when we die;

–a spiritual community that cares about this life, and this world, here and now, and seeks to bring more justice, peace and love into this life and this world, here and now.

We here today inherit that vision. May we be good stewards of that vision as we make it real in our time. May we pass it on in tact to those generations coming after us.

For all the days to come.

Amen and blessed be.

Up Into Beauty

Last week I offered my reflections on the spiritual blessings of New England’s late autumn landscape; how its empty fields, its leafless, grey branches, its slowly freezing ponds and streams, its long, dark nights, its silences and stillnesses invite us into our own emptiness, darkness, silence, stillness, nothingness. In response to the natural mystery of the season, I spoke of letting the ego recede, letting the self disappear. I said, ‘do as Earth does.’ Let emptiness fill you for a time; let stillness move in you for a time; let silence speak in you for a time. I suggested we learn to ‘praise nothing.’ There is great spiritual value is letting ourselves lie dormant.

You may have noticed echoes from last Sunday in the lyrics of the opening song, Dave Carter and Tracey Grammer’s “The Mountain.” There’s a movement in the song away from distraction, away from sensation, away from the noise and allure outward manifestations of organized religion: prophecy, temples, fine altars, tall hats and robes spun fine—a movement of our spiritual focus back to the earth, in this instance to the immensity—perhaps the mystery—of the mountain. They sing “I see the mountain and that is all I see.” And in this seeing the self disappears: “Miller take me and miller grind me / Scatter my bones on the wild green tide / Maybe some rovin’ bird will find me / Over the water we’ll ride.”[1]

You may also have noticed echoes from last Sunday in the words of the meditation from Elizabeth Tarbox: “Grey, the color of the lake before sunrise; grey, the underside of the gull that flies overhead while the earth … searches for morning…. In the bright red and green, and blue and gold of the season, and the noise and the festivity , give me grey, for the quiet of my soul, the moment of heaviness before sleep, the peace of meditation.”[2]

The late autumn season continues through this week. The earth’s northern latitudes now face as far away from the sun as they can through the course of any year. The dark hours are as long as they can be, the stillness, silence and emptiness of the season are as deep and pronounced as they can be through the course of any year. The solstice comes next weekend. Christmas comes shortly after that. The northern hemisphere will then lean back toward the sun, though our bodies will not perceive the change immediately. Despite the return of the sun, and despite the occasional winter storms that are sure to come, the landscape will continue in its emptiness, stillness, and silence for a few more months. The opportunities for us to ‘do as Earth does’and bring these spiritual qualities into our own lives remain well into winter.

 Remember our ministry theme for December is mystery. I acknowledge I’ve been speaking as if this particular seasonal descent into mystery—into emptiness, silence, stillness, darkness, nothingness—is easy, common, something everybody does. “Just reduce your ego, let go of yourself. No big thing.” In truth, not everybody does this. In fact, I suspect most people don’t  do this, at least not well. It’s not easy at all. Yes, sometimes mystical experience comes upon us, the self disappears for a moment into the vastness, into oneness, but it returns quickly. The mystical experience is fleeting, hard to hold onto. The other way into it, of course, is through some disciplined spiritual practice: meditation, prayer, yoga, chanting, sacred dance, etc. Over time, such practices can lead one to mystical experience, to the ineffable, to communion with the Holy, to the disappearance of self, to deep, lasting silence and stillness. But this usually takes years of practice and learning, often under the guidance of a mentor or spiritual director. I’m not pointing out these challenges to discourage anyone. I’m simply acknowledging that the descent into mystery I’ve been naming—this descent into the quiet, still, dark, empty spaces within ourselves—doesn’t always happen. It is not easy. It may seem intuitive to some of us, but unless we practice, our intuition will only get us so far.

 It’s not easy for two reasons. First, it’s not easy because we inhabit these bodies filled with elegant arrangements of neurons that enable us to sense the world, to touch, taste,smell, hear, see. Obviously some of these senses wane as we age; and not everyone is born with a full complement of senses—some are deaf, some are blind. My point is that our bodies sense. Our bodies feel. Our bodies perceive.And as deep as we may enter into states of emptiness, darkness, silence or stillness,our senses will always pull us back into the world of light and color, sound and music, pleasure, and pain, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, and all the various fragrances and aromas. It may be possible to resist the pull of our senses. It may be possible to gain exquisite control over our sense-driven impulses. But, as the Buddha learned, we have to eat. We have to live in our bodies. We have to tend to our bodies. We have to care for our bodies.

The second reason it is challenging to stay in emptiness, darkness, stillness, silence, is because we humans have evolved as meaning-makers. We want to feel at home in the world, so we’ve learned to tell ourselves stories—cultural stories, religious stories, family stories, national stories—to help us feel at home in the world. We want to feel hopeful about the future, so we tell ourselves stories that engender hope. The descent into the mysteries of emptiness, darkness, silence, stillness, nothingness is a movement away from meaning, away from our practices and habits of meaning-making. It is a break with and from meaning. The spiritual value of doing as Earth does in this season, of resting the mind, the senses, the feelings, of easing the self back, is immeasureable; but it is also immeasureably difficult for us to stay there because our desire for meaning is so potent. This desire pulls us up out of the depths.

Sometimes we can go too far into meaninglessness. We can get stuck in meaninglessness—or we worry we’ll get stuck there. Our musical meditation this morning was the song, “Blue-Spotted Tail,” by the Fleet Foxes. I hear in it a very human longing for meaning in response to the apprehension many people have that maybe there is no purpose in the universe, no point to our existence, that maybe all there is, ultimately, is emptiness. They sing “Why in the night sky are the lights hung? / Why is the earth moving ’round the sun? / Floating in the vacuum with no purpose, not a one…. / Why do I do all this waiting then? / Why this frightened part of me, it’s fated to pretend? / Why is life made only for to end?”[3] They don’t answer these questions. They leave them hanging, open, still searching, still longing, as the song ends. There’s an important insight here: meaning is often the only thing that stands between us and alienation or despair. If we have no story to help us feel at home in the world, then we feel alienation. If we have no story to help us feel hopeful, then we feel despair. The voice in the song is the voice of a person teetering on the edge, perceiving a vast emptiness, longing for meaning, and not finding it—yet. The lyrics don’t convey a full-blown existential crisis, but the person is struggling to find meaning. How can we have experiences of emptiness and nothingness in our lives without getting stuck in a kind of spiritual alienation and despair that overwhelms meaning entirely?

 Once again, I say, “do as Earth does.” Remember that nothing about this season is permanent. Remember that this season is but a portion of a larger cycle. Remember how Earth cycles through days, through seasons, through years, through millennia. These cycles contain their own mysteries which offer themselves for our contemplation and our meaning-making.In her meditation, “Shadows of Unknowing,” Elizabeth Tarbox first invites us to descend into the grey of the season, the silence and peace of the season. prophecy, This is last week’s sermon.

Then, she invites us back.

“The earth bows to find the dawn and feels its first slanting beams.”[4] She’s right at the point of transition in the cycle from night to day, from the greyness of pre-dawn to first light. Then she explores what it means for her. “Can I take this as a promise,”she wonders. “That after the questions, the doubts, and the hours of contemplation, there will be gold through the grey, promise fulfilled and truth revealed. I don’t know, but I believe in small epiphanies, a single beam of light in the darkness, some sought-for star, some one certainty emerging from the grey.”[5]

She not overstating a promise that isn’t there. She’s not assuring us of anything she can’t prove. She’s just moving along with the natural cycle. She’s letting her own body—in this case her eyes that perceive the arrival of dawn—pull her up from the grey, from the quiet, from nothingness, into the sensual world. And in that transition she finds a kind of confidence, faith, hope; enough to say, in the very least, “I believe in small epiphanies.”

Do as Earth does. With the season,descend down into nothingness, emptiness, stillness, quiet where there is no knowing, no perception, no self, and no meaning. Then, as Earth moves, let yourself move with it. Let your body, let your senses pull you back up—a sensual, perceiving,knowing, meaningful ascent.

 I call this sermon “Up Into Beauty” as a way of naming this sensual, bodily movement up from emptiness and nothingness. I notice that those moments when our senses perceive Earth or Nature moving through cycles, crossing thresholds, making transitions—those moments are often filled with beauty—breath-taking, language-defying, memory-evoking, mysterious beauty—the transitions from yesterday to today to tomorrow, from season to season, from generation to generation, from mountain spring to steam to river to ocean, the phases of the moon, the rhythm of the tides, the coming and going of storms: beauty arises in these precious moments.

The band played the Hothouse Flowers song, “Thing of Beauty,” which offers a cascade of images from such moments in Nature. “Lookout your window on a winter’s morning / Your breath is steam and there’s frost falling / And the sun casts a spell upon the road / A thing of beauty is not a thing to ignore.” There are images of evening and moonlight, water dancing upon stones, the secrets of dawn, the secrets of the night, the wonder of a bird in first flight, the mother who finally knows her child is grown, the wonders of the changes in the world, the mystery of sound, the glory of the sun. It’s a call to rise up and sense beauty, experience beauty. “Face up to morning / Face up to day / Face up to reality…. / There is so much to breathe, see, know, understand and do.”[6] It’s an invitation: “Can’t you feel it, can’t you see it?”

As a complement to the song, I offered Lynn Ungar’s meditation, “Salvation:” “Haven’t you seen / the way snow curls down / like a fresh sheet, how it / covers everything, makes everything /beautiful, without exception.”[7]

Perhaps earlier I spoke in a misleading way. I said it’s difficult to stay in that seasonal place of emptiness, silence, stillness, darkness, nothingness, first because our bodies are sensual, and as they sense they pull us back and up to the world; and second because our longing for meaning pulls us back up to the world. But in truth, it isn’t one or the other. It isn’t either/or. It’s a cycle back and forth between emptiness and fullness, between silence and sound, between stillness and motion, between darkness and light, between the mysteries of nothingness and the mysteries of the physical world. We encounter beauty as we descend from the world. We encounter beauty as we ascend to the world. Beauty arises as we move between dark and light. Beauty arises as we move between stillness and motion, between silence and sound, between unknowing to knowing.

Here in New England the dark season blesses us with its invitation to let self recede into nothingness for a time. But just for a time. The cycle now approaches a point of transition, a turning, an alteration. Do as Earth does. As the solstice arrives, let your body respond, softly, gently, slowly. Let the lights pull you up into the world. Let the tastes and the smells of this holiday time pull you up into the world. Let the sounds of carols and Christmas songs pull you up into the world. Let the touch of family and friends pull you up into the world. Let the stories pull you up into the world.

Search for meaning. Stay close to Earth as you do. Stay close to Nature as you do. Beautiful, brilliant stars may not lead magi to a savior, but they may offer guidance to those who are lost. Virgins may not give birth to Gods, but there’s something of divinity in every newborn. Angels may not appear on cold winter nights singing to shepherds and proclaiming ‘peace on earth, good will to all,’ but we can respond to such messages nevertheless. We can build beloved community here and in the world. There is reason to be hopeful.

Do as Earth does.From the emptiness, darkness, silence and stillness of the season rise up into beauty.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Carter, Dave and Grammer, Tracey, “The Mountain” from their 2000 album, Tanglewood Tree. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0ZhdcvUta0.

[2] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Shadows of Unknowing,” Evening Tide: Meditations by Elizabeth Tarbox (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998) p. 50.

[3] Fleet Foxes, “Blue-Spotted Tail,” from their 2011 album Helplessness Blues. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=teElNB0WuDI.

[4] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Shadows of Unknowing,” p. 50.

[5] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Shadows of Unknowing,” p. 50.

[6] Hothouse Flowers, “Thing of Beauty,” from their 1993 album, Songs From the Rain. see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woa0GFwhciQ.

[7] Ungar, Lynn, “Salvation,” in Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House, 1996) p. 21.

In Praise of Nothing

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Late autumn in New England offers many blessings, though this morning I’m not referring to the blessings we typically associate with the holiday season. I’m not referring to the blessings of family, friends and festivity. I’m not referring to the blessings of the solstice, the return of the sun, inaugurating the long, slow lengthening of day-light hours. I’m not referring to the wonderful displays of light and color that emerge in windows and doorways and front yards as the season progresses. I’m not referring to the Christmas spirit, the message of peace on earth, good will to all—or to all the holiday miracles, the Hannukah story, the virgin birth, the star of Bethlehem. Yes, all of these are blessings. But I’m referring to something different.

            I’m referring to the way the land blesses us in this season with its barren fields lying fallow—brown, windswept, muddy, freezing, empty. 

            I’m referring to the way the trees bless us with their leafless branches, exposed, web-like and grey against th epale December sky.

            I’m referring to the way the ponds and streams bless us as they slowly begin to freeze, as their surfaces turn cold, hard, dark, sheer. As the Cape Cod poet, Mary Oliver, puts it, every pond, / no matter what its name is, is / nameless now.[1]

            I’m referring to how the long mid-winter nights bless us; how the creeping afternoon shadows bless us; how the rapid dusk blesses us; how the cloaking darkness blesses us.

            I’m referring to how the late autumn quiet blesses us—the absence of bird-song as the singers leave the region for warmer climes; the absence of wild animals as they begin their winter slumbers; the absence of crickets and tree frogs—all the buzzers and croakers and peepers quiet now, no longer filling the night with constant, rhythmical sound.

I’m referring to how a pervasive seasonal stillness blesses us.

****

            Our ministry theme for December is mystery. I understand mystery in are a religious context as any experience, any phenomenon that feels spiritually significant yet has no apparent explanation; any experience, any phenomenon that feels meaningful, but makes no immediate sense; any experience, any phenomenon that feels other-worldly, in the sense that its connection to this world isn’t immediately obvious. Mystery subverts our capacity to reason, for a time. Mystery renders us quiet and still, for a time.

            That’s a very general definition. I remind us that some religions are structured around mysteries which the leaders understand and the followers don’t. Leaders ask—and sometimes demand—that followers accept the mysteries without question. Many of the early Christian Gnostic religions were structured in this way. Gnosis referred to the esoteric, hidden or secret knowledge necessary to achieve salvation. The Church of Scientology is structured in this way. There are many others.

The Christian doctrine of the trinity is often described as a mystery. “How can God be three entities, father, son, and holy spirit, at once?” That’s a question many of you asked as incredulous children in your traditional Christian Sunday school classes.  The answer you so often received back was some form of, “It’s a mystery. Accept it.” Our Unitarian and Universalist forebears are notable theologically for rejecting this kind of answer to this kind of question. They argued, essentially, that the doctrine of the trinity stretched the limits of reason too far and, frankly, had no supporting evidence in the Bible. In fact, that’s the origin of the name Unitarian–one God, as opposed to Trinitarianism’s three.

            Most of you already know this, but I want to say it for the benefit of visitors who are new to Unitarian Universalism, or people watching this sermon on Youtube or reading this text at a later date: There are no theological or doctrinal mysteries at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. (Just in case you were nervous!) There’s nothing we ask you to accept without question, or which we require you to learn in order to be initiated into the faith. In our congregations there are no inner circles of enlightenment surrounded by outer circles of ignorance. We gather around a set of principles which guide our interactions with each other and the world. But they are not secret or hidden truths. On the contrary, they are quite obvious. Furthermore, like our spiritual forebears, we tend to bristle when the concept of mystery becomes code for “don’t ask questions” or “don’t try to understand,” or “don’t think about it,” or, “just accept it.” We bristle even more when the concept of mystery is used as an excuse for lazy or bad theology. We expect to think about our religion. We expect to use our reason in our religious lives. We say, ‘show us the evidence.’

            Having said that, we also recognize that one of the most powerful dimensions of the human experience is our encounter with phenomena we don’t understand and can’t readily explain—our encounter with mystery. When we Unitarian Universalists identify the sources of our religious tradition, the very first is “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”[2] We bear witness to the fact that most human beings, from time to time, have experiences we can’t explain yet which feel spiritually profound and impact our lives in positive ways, move us in positive directions. A reading from the Unitarian Universalist resource network, Soul Matters, says that “the roots of [the word] mystery point beyond the idea of a secret, hidden truth to an experience that renders us speechless.” The reading also refers to the Latin root word muo, which translated literally means“shut the mouth” or “to be rendered silent or dumbfounded.” “It is also the root for our English word ‘mute.’” While we don’t like people in authority telling us to be quiet and not ask questions, when some phenomenon, some experience, some feeling, some beauty silences us, takes our breath away—mutes us—then it behooves us to pay attention.

            The term for that ‘paying attention’is mysticism. For me, mysticism is any practice of noticing, being present to,entering into, or communing with mystery. Mystery is the raw experience. Mysticism is our engagement with it. Though scholars often describe mysticism as the search for an immediate experience of God—sometimes a quiet, contemplative experience, sometimes an ecstatic, even erotic experience—for me, it has never required belief in a deity or active searching for communion with one. In fact, for me, belief may inadvertently destroy the mystical experience. That is, if you have an experience of mystery, and immediately fill it with belief—“Ahh, God is present, God is speaking tome!”—you have actually demystified the experience. You have offered an explanation for that which is unexplainable. You have reasoned theologically in response to an experience that defies reason. You have found a comforting balm to heal the discomfort of unknowing. Many mystics over the centuries have understood this dynamic and have counseled their followers not to leap to theological conclusions in the presence of mystery. The Medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart once said, “I ask God to rid me of God.”[3] That is, if he imposes any prior conception of God onto his experience of mystery, he is distancing himself from the mystery, and ultimately distancing himself from God.

The encounter with mystery is most powerful when approach it with no theological assumptions, no spiritual agendas or, as Meister Eckhart was fond of saying, “without a why or wherefore.”[4] Allow mystery to render you speechless, to take your breath away, to fill you with awe. Before thinking, before reasoning, before speaking, practice being silent, still,empty, barren, dark.

            Notice what such a state accomplishes: the reduction or diminishment of the ego; the softening and waning of the self, even the disappearing of the self. Some mystics speak in more extreme terms of the annihilation, the destruction, or the extinction of the self. In his Divan or Collected Works, the 13th-century Persian mystic, Jal?lad-D?n Muhammad R?m?, wrote, “I do not recognize myself. I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Parsi, nor Muslim. I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea; I am not of Nature’s workshop, nor of the circling heavens. I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire.I am not of the Heavenly City, nor of the dust, nor of Paradise, nor of Hell; I am not of Adam, nor of Eve, nor of Eden or Eden’s angels. My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless.”[5]

            The 16th-century Spanishmystic, St. John of the Cross once wrote, “If you desire to season everything, / Seek your delight in nothing; / If you desire to know everything, / Seek to know something in nothing; / If you desire to possess everything, / Seek to possess something in nothing; / If you desire to be everything, / Seek to be something in nothing.”[6]

            The message I want you to encounter this morning, whether or not you identify with the terms mystery or mysticism; whether or not you believe in god in some form or you are an atheist or agnostic; whether or not you perceive yourself as spiritually adept or clumsy; all of us need periods in our lives wherein our egos fade; wherein our selves disappear or merge into the vastness; wherein the world around us grows dim, grows dark. We all need periods of emptiness, stillness, silence.  In a culture as fast and bright, as stressful and anxiety-producing, as materialistic and money-centered, as competitive and mean-spirited as ours can be, having such periods of emptiness, stillness and silence—periods of nothing—are essential for our spiritual health as well as our mental and physical health. Mystery invites us into such periods.

            Emptiness, stillness, silence, . Here in New England’s late autumn, these spiritual qualities surround us. The fields are neither bursting forth with new life, nor yielding up a bountiful harvest. They are barren and unmoving. The trees are neither dotting their branches with buds, nor coloring the landscape with lush summer or resplendent autumn. They are empty. The ponds and streams are not moving, not teeming with fish, not overflowing their banks. They are slowly freezing. The sun does not traverse the entire dome of the sky through endless, bright summer days. No. It hangs low in the southern sky, giving way to long, dark nights.

            This season points more to what is not than to what is, more to emptiness than to fullness, more to nothing than to something. The Rev. Mary Wellemeyer calls it “a special time / of seeing into the depths of woods…. / The underlying shape of Earth, / the hints of stories from the past— / these offer themselves to eye and mind, / now, between the falling leaves/ and the coming of snow.”[7] Indeed, this is a season of absences, of once-concealed spaces now open, of once-hidden shapes now revealed, and of new shadows and subtle shades of grey. Of course, there is still some activity. The cold breeze sweeps a few stray leaves across suburban lawns and forest floors. A critter darts along the edge of the woods searching for some stray morsel. But through the course of any year, there is no season as still, quiet, and empty as the one we New Englanders are in now.

I urge you in this season to do as Earth does.

Do as Earth does.

Settle down into nothingness.

Find the reservoirs of emptiness in you.

Find the great and ominous silences in you.

Find the utter stillnesses in you.

Resist the urge to think, to reason, to explain. Resist the urge to theologize, to speak. Let go of ego. Let go of self. Receive the blessings of mystery. Notice what comes. Notice what the depths within you teach you about you.

****

My prayer for each of you in this late autumn season is that you will let emptiness fill you for a time; that you will let stillness move in you for a time; and that you will let your own silence speak for a time. Rest assured there will be time for lighting lights to signal the return of the sun. There will be time for family, friends, and festivity. There will be time for stories of the birth of a savior, of shepherds gathered in the fields encountering angel song. But before any of this takes over, may you experience the mystery of this season.

Welcome emptiness.

Welcome stillness.

Welcome silence.

Welcome darkness.

Praise nothing.

Praise nothing.

Praise nothing.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Oliver, Mary, “In Blackwater Woods,” in Sewell, Marilyn, Cries of the Spirit (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991) p. 128

[2] The sources of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition are listed at https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/sources.

[3] Quoted in Soelle, Dorothee, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) p. 68.

[4] For a discussion of Meister Eckhart’s concept of Sunder Warumbe (without a why or wherefore), see Soelle, Dorothee, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) pp. 59-62.

[5] Quoted in Soelle, Dorothee, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) pp. 65-66.

[6] Quoted in Soelle, Dorothee, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) pp. 216-217.

[7] Wellemeyer, Mary, “Late November” in Admire the Moon: Meditations(Boston: Skinner House Books, 2005) p. 2.