Stretching Our Hearts

Rev. Josh Pawelek

6-21 Stretching hearts“What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?” asked the Rev. A. Powel Davies more than half a century ago.[1] I love this question. I love the image of our hearts stretching. Of course, there’s nothing extraordinary about a religious leader asking a question like this. It’s a version of the question that lies at the core of so many religions. It’s the question of ethics, of justice. How shall we live? How can we bring love and compassion into the world, into our encounters with family members, friends, strangers? How can we live peacefully with others, especially those who are different from us in some way? How can we break down the strange and foolish walls that divide the human family? How can we stretch our hearts?

Indeed, the strange and foolish walls were very real half a century ago, and they are very real now. We didn’t need Thursday morning’s news of a white supremacist mass shooting at Charleston, South Carolina’s “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church to be convinced of this. But there it was again, a gut-wrenching and profound failure of “love your neighbor”—not only in the small heart of the killer, but in the small and atrophied heart of the social, cultural and political systems that produced him.  Despite all the progress humanity has made over centuries—despite its enlightenment, its knowledge, its scientific advancements, its faith, its modern conceptions of human rights and social justice—despite it all, the human family feels, to me, as divided as ever; as if we are somehow fated to revert back to a fight-or-flight limbic response to conflict; as if we’ll never be able to overcome the allure and the power of simplistic and false dualisms—‘us vs. them,’ ‘good vs. evil’—whether we’re talking about international, national or local conflicts, or conflicts within the intimacy of our own families—conflicts that seem intractable despite our earnest desire to see them resolved. Despite all our achievements, love—deep abiding love—seems so difficult to sustain. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” though still a potent ethical principle, seems worn down, battered, beaten. Our collective heart seems small and ineffectual.

Maybe it’s always been this way. Maybe every age has its insurmountable conflicts. Maybe the goal of a more peaceful, just and loving society always feels elusive to those who care about it most. Maybe each of us struggles to be more loving and compassionate and never quite meets the mark we set for ourselves. In ancient Greek mythology, Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, was for eternity compelled to roll an immense boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down again and again each time he approached the summit. Maybe we each roll our own boulders; and maybe collectively we roll boulders; and we almost get where we think we’re going, and then suddenly, in a flash, we lose our grip—a mass shooting in a church or an elementary school tears through a town, a loved one’s life falls apart, a foreign war we thought had ended suddenly begins again, a suicide rips through a community, a school system fails, a chronic illness debilitates, entrenched poverty crushes—and in a flash the boulder rolls back down the mountain. Maybe there’s always a layer of human existence that is like this.

Maybe, but that’s no excuse to give up. There is also in the human heart a yearning to do better, a yearning to not let hate destroy kindness and compassion, a yearning to make love—deep, abiding love— real in the world. Those families of the nine who died in Charleston, when they faced the killer in court, said, essentially, “you’ve hurt us; we forgive you.” So let us ask the question, and keep asking it, and never stop asking it: “What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?”

The heart in this question is, of course, a metaphor in which our physical hearts which pump our blood refer to our spiritual hearts—our center, our grounding, the source of our passion and compassion, the place inside where we commune with what is sacred to us, the home in us of love and warmth and joy. It’s the thing that soars when we fall in love, and the thing that breaks when a loved-one dies. How do we stretch that?

My heart has been stretching and growing and breaking and healing and stretching and growing and breaking again all year long, and I sure hope some strange and foolish walls have begun to crumble as a result. I want to say a few words about the way I experience my heart stretching, because it may be more or less the same—or radically different—than the way you experience your heart stretching. One thing I’ve always known about myself, but which I’ve had to contend with at a much deeper level this year than ever before—is that as much as I think I want to stretch and grow and change—as much as I preach the value of stretching and growing and changing—as much as I proclaim that we come to church to be transformed and to tear down those strange and foolish walls—my body doesn’t like it. Some bodies love it. Mine doesn’t. When my heart starts stretching, my body usually says, “wait, before you do that, here’s a slight headache,” or “here’s a backache for you,” or “here are some allergies you’ve never had before,” or, my least favorite, “here is some unexplainable dizziness. Enjoy!”

I’ve spoken about this before. The reasons why some people have somatic reactions to different kinds of stress are always complex. My simplest understanding of why it happens to me has to do with being raised in a family with an alcoholic parent. As is the case with many adult children of alcoholics, there is, in me, a deep-seeded impulse to not “rock the boat,” to keep the peace, to not create tension, to please others, to accommodate others. I know some of you know condition well. The challenge here is that stretching one’s heart in order to overcome strange and foolish walls inevitably creates tension. Stretching creates tension. It’s good tension, productive tension, creative tension, justice-seeking tension. And it’s necessary: the change we seek won’t come without it.

The insight I’ve had about myself this year is that my body actually mistakes good tension that will lead to good change for bad, unproductive, uncreative tension that will lead nowhere. As a child, perhaps it made sense to avoid tension of any sort and my mind and my body were in agreement: keep steady, keep the peace, keep out of trouble, keep, keep, keep, keep, keep. But now, as an adult, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve changed it for good reasons. I understand some tension is necessary. My mind affirms my heart’s desire to stretch, but my body still says “no, we can’t do that.” It’s unnerving when this happens, but it’s also become for me an important sign: my body feels a certain way because my heart is trying to stretch. And while I have to take my body seriously and attend to how it is feeling, my personal challenge is to teach my body to work with my heart. I can’t let my heart stay little. None of us can. The world needs deep, abiding love. These strange and foolish walls must come down.

Perhaps my most potent experience of intentional heart stretching has been my participation in Moral Monday CT which, as many of you know, held a Black Lives Matter rally in Hartford on June 8th, which included nonviolent civil disobedience—the blocking of a busy, rush hour intersection—for which 17 people were arrested, including me and three other members of our congregation. That didn’t just happen. It required months of heart-stretching. I started telling you the story in my MLK sermon in January. I said then that, given the high visibility of police killings of unarmed people of color—Staten Island, Ferguson, Cleveland, etc.—on top of what we already know about racism in the United States—mass incarceration, health disparities, educational disparities, income disparities, wealth disparities—it was clearly time to do more than talk. The powers that be will listen to talk, but talk alone doesn’t produce the kind of tension needed to subvert racism at its roots. We recognized that we need to use our bodies in a different way, that we need to occupy public space in a different way. I said in that sermon that nonviolent civil disobedience is coming, though I still wasn’t sure what that really meant. I was beginning to stretch my heart, and in my body I felt anxious, dizzy, achy. My body was not intending to do anything differently. As far as my body was concerned, we had a good thing going: “Just keep talking. You’re good at that. People like when you talk. But you in a street at rush hour? They might not like that!”

There is too much at stake. I was determined to stretch. We prepared ourselves to do what we needed to do. We conducted nonviolent civil disobedience training here at UUS:E in early February. That was stretching. Then we did a trial run on Monday, February 23rd in Hartford, stretching further. My body came along—still didn’t like what we were doing, and it let me know.

We picked June 8th as the date for our first major action. We conducted a final training here the night before. And then around 5:00 pm on the 8th we walked into the street. My heart soared. In that street was where I needed to be in that moment, more than anywhere else in the world. My body hated it. I became so dizzy after a while that I walked off the line to talk to our medics. They checked me over, gave me some sugar and water, and said it looked like stress. So I walked back out into the street, heart soaring, body still protesting—“we’re really rockin’ the boat now”—and got myself arrested.

Picture by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

Picture by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

My body is still trying to figure it out. It’s going to take a while. But my heart has stretched. And if I had any misgivings about what I had done after the fact, they vanished on Thursday morning with the news from Charleston. Black Lives Matter. These strange and foolish walls must come down. Deep, abiding love will bring them down.

As momentous as that particular experience has been for me, there has been so much more. My heart has been stretching around multigenerational community here at UUS:E. My heart has been stretching around new directions in our music program as we integrate Mary Bopp onto our staff. My heart is beginning to stretch around new growth strategies for our congregation. My heart has been stretching in response to having a teenager in the house. There’s been a lot of good tension, a lot of good, slow, measured change, and more is coming. My body still wants nothing to with it, but I know where that comes from, and I trust its resistance will eventually fade. I don’t want a little heart. I want a loosened, supple, open, expansive, generous heart. I want to be a vehicle for deep, abiding love to come into the world.

Rev. Davies asked, “What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?” What can we do to bring more love into the world? What can we do to assure we are loving our neighbors as ourselves? My response is to start small. Start simply by naming the strange and foolish walls in your life or out in the wider world that that you feel must come down. Name them not just to yourself, but to others. Naming them out loud is the beginning of commitment. Name them, and then ask yourself what you need to dismantle them. Find others who’ve stretched in the way you aspire to stretch, and ask them how they did it. What preparation do you need? What training? What support? Where can you practice before you take your action? Who will work with you? Is your body on board?

And here’s what we also need to remember: as much as we prepare ourselves, as much as we stretch, as much as we love, there will be moments when it falls apart. Events, often beyond our control, will crash through our lives. We’ll lose our grip on the boulder. We’ll tumble down. We’ll find ourselves at the base of the mountain looking up, tired, sad, angry, demoralized, wondering how to get back up again. I’m thinking, of course, about Pawel Jura’s death by suicide in late winter, which deeply impacted this congregation, brought so much of our congregational life to standstill. I’m thinking now also about the death of Carol Shapiro, whose bodily remains were finally identified last week, after eight years. Receiving this news brought me back to the time she disappeared. It was similar to Pawel’s death in the sense that everything came to a halt—boulders tumbling down the mountain.

Our hearts stretch differently in moments like this. No preparation, no training, no practice, no warm-up. They stretch too quickly. They stretch beyond their capacity. They stretch to the breaking point. They break. When Pawel died I found a reading from the late Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox about what happens to love in the wake of loss. She wrote, “Oh, my dear, do not despair that love has come and gone. Although we are broken, the love that spilled out of us has joined the love that circles the world and makes it blessed.”[2] Looking back on that time now, looking back at all those broken hearts—including mine: so much love spilled out. Deep, abiding love. Whatever strange and foolish walls might have existed among us, they melted away in the presence of that love. They melted away as you held each other, ministered to each other, carried each other, cried with each other, sang with each other.

This isn’t an answer to A. Powell Davies’ question about stretching our hearts. We don’t wish for broken hearts. We don’t wish tragedy upon ourselves or anyone. But strange and foolish walls have a tendency to vanish in the wake of tragedy. We saw it after 9/11. We saw it after Sandy Hook. We saw it after the Boston Marathon bombing. We see it in the outpouring of love for “Mother Emanuel,” for Charleston, for South Carolina. We hear it in those powerful, loving words, “we forgive you.”

In the end, it shouldn’t take a tragedy to get there. It shouldn’t take a tragedy for love—deep, abiding love—to come pouring out, every day, all the time. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to wake us up to the littleness of our hearts. Yes, we are up against so much. The strange and foolish walls are multitudinous and well-fortified. In Sisyphusian style we lose our boulders down the mountain. And maybe this is an enduring part of the human condition. But it can’t be an excuse for giving up. It can’t be an excuse for not stretching our hearts. Stretching is part of their design. I’ve learned that this year. So, my counsel is for all of us to name our strange and foolish walls, and start stretching—warm-up, practice, get training, talk to those who’ve done it before. And then do what we need to do to make that deep, abiding love real in the world, to let it circle the world, to let it bless the world. We have it in us. Stretch, and keep stretching. No wall can stand forever.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Davies, A. Powell, “Strange and Foolish Walls,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #662.

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

How to Encourage a Restless Soul

Rev. Josh Pawelek with poetry by Molly Vigeant

Part I

Surely at 3 am i should be asleep6-7 stars

but the night is awake

alive

with shining stars

i’m revived

 

I dry my eyes

from the day’s weep

and worries of the week

 

Wandering i go

away away

to find my home

so far

alone

 

restless souls 

are running

and the songs

i’ve been humming

seem to come out in screams

as though the voices

are needs

 

and this night

that’s so bright

with the moon

in this sky,

watch planes go by

like shooting stars

so far,

alone,

but i’m on my way home

 

for, sure on this shining night

i weep for the wondering

and those wandering

far, far alone

in the shadows 

of the stars

 

i weep for the wondering / and those wandering / far, far alone / in the shadows /of the stars”—Molly’s riff on the early twentieth-century American writer, film critic, and poet, James Agee’s poem,“Description of Elysium,” set to music by the composer Samuel Barber as “Sure On This Shining Night.” “I weep for wonder wand’ring far / alone / of shadows on the stars.[1] Thank you to Mary for suggesting this piece. Thank you to Janet for singing. And thanks to Molly for bringing her poetic response. Our June ministry theme is restlessness. These images of wondering and wandering at night, alone, weeping, and contemplating star shadows struck me as a great description of restlessness. We expect one who is restless to be up at night. We expect one who is restless to be wondering and wandering and, possibly at times, weeping.

We might also expect one who is restless to be troubled, stressed, worried—these are often the reasons our minds race at night—or at any time. We might expect one who is restless to be alone, perhaps lonely, with their thoughts, their struggles. We might expect one who is restless to offer some version of Molly’s stanza: “the songs / i’ve been humming / seem to come out in screams / as though the voices / are needs.” And for all these reasons and more we might attach a negative value to restlessness—“it’s keeping me awake,” “it’s increasing my worry,” “I can’t make it stop.”

And yet Molly says “Surely at 3 am i should be asleep / but the night is awake / alive / with shining stars / i’m revived.” And, the poet, James Agee—by all accounts a restless soul who struggled with personal demons—is “sure on this shining night.” Sure, as in confident, positive, hopeful some good will come. At another part of “Description of Elysium” he writes: “Sure on this shining night/ Of starmade shadows round, / Kindness must watch for me / This side the ground. / The late year lies down the north. / All is healed, all is health. / High summer holds the earth. / Hearts all whole.” He is restless, but also sure on this shining night.

So, let me suggest there is a restlessness that we ought not seek to subdue, a restlessness we ought not seek to silence, a restlessness we ought to encourage, a restlessness that, when it comes, we ought to welcome. We ought to wonder about it. We ought to wander with it.

Let me suggest there is a restlessness at the core of everything: a “Great Restlessness,” a great, restless motion at the heart of the universe; great, restless cycles of planets and stars and galaxies revolving, whirling, rotating, spinning; great restless earth rhythms: the seasons, the tides, the waxing and waning of the moon, the rising and setting of the sun, night and day, dusk and dawn, waves crashing, rivers running—all of it repeated in our own bodies: pulsing blood, beating hearts, breath—continuous, life-giving breath. Ongoing, unceasing, restless. Agee’s contemporary, the journalist, humorist and poet, Don Marquis, said “A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things.”[2] Let me suggest that sometimes our own, inner restlessness is calling us to align ourselves with this great, outer restlessness. It is not simply a call to personal change, to creativity, to some new endeavor—though it can be all these things—it’s a call to return to harmony with the earth, with the stars, with all there is. For this reason, let us encourage restless souls.

Part II

So you want to encourage a restless soul?

Are you sure?

 

We’re an odd type

We often spend days in solitude

And nights scribbling on napkins

 

We spend weekdays at work

And weeknights at work

And weekends at work

 

Work isn’t always a place

Sometimes the work is in your mind

Just thought after thought

Trying to disguise

The whirlpool of thoughts

That should never occupy any mind

 

Restless souls can be productive,

Creative,

And are always beautiful.

 

So what are you encouraging exactly?

 

Is it the rhythm

Of my walk

Or my talk

 

Or the beat

when I speak?

 

Or are you encouraging

The strings on my guitar

To vibrate

To the beat

 

Maybe it’s the ring of my voice

Slightly out of place

In a choir,

For solo

I make my own beautiful rhythm.

 

What in the world are you encouraging restless souls for?

 

Please tell me It’s for the beauty of a scattered mind

That loves a little bit of everything

All at once

 

Or is it the way we describe

Sunlight as reflections off the moon

Because our walks seem to be

Guided by stars

 

No, no

Encourage the way

We treat each day

Like it’s our last,

Because you just never know

 

Please tell me,

What are you encouraging exactly,

 

Because I want the world to know

Restless isn’t just tired,

Or angry

Or sad

 

It’s beautiful as any true emotion

And loved,

At least by me.

 

When I speak of encouraging restless souls, I’m encouraging us not to fight whatever restlessness we may be experiencing, not to resist it, but to explore it, to wonder about it, to wander with it, to weep with it if necessary—all with the spiritual goal of becoming more aligned with, more in tune with, more in sync with, more in harmony with the Great Restlessness at the core of all things, the restlessness that is all around us and also within us—the motion, the rhythm, the movement, the spinning, the whirling, the cycles of growth, decay, death and rebirth—all of it. A restless soul seeks the Great Restlessness—yearns for it, longs for it. I’m encouraging that seeking, that yearning, that longing.

Of course, we’re rarely aware of the Great Restlessness. We’re rarely aware of the universe expanding, the stars moving away, away, away, the galaxies spinning, or our own trail blazing at amazing speeds through space and time. We’re so used to gravity. We lack a large enough perspective. We take so much movement for granted. We aren’t even typically aware of our own hearts beating, our own blood coursing. The restless soul cultivates such awareness.

I recognize this is somewhat abstract. What might this look like in practical terms? What might cultivating such awareness look like as spiritual practice? Well, if the Great Restlessness is inherently rhythmical—cycles, tides, seasons, etc.—and if it is embedded in our bodies, then to experience it in practical terms we have to let our bodies be rhythmical. Restless souls embody their spirituality through rhythm. Through rhythm their bodies become vehicles for connection to and expression of the Great Restlessness.

The great commandment for restless souls is “Be rhythmical!” I’m a drummer, so perhaps rhythm occurs to me very easily as a component of spiritual practice. I go immediately to drumming. But rhythm lives in everyone, not just drummers. Any instrument will do. And if you don’t play an instrument, dance: bop, hop, bob, boogie, twist, turn, shimmy, skip, spin, tango, rhumba. If you don’t dance, just stretch: arc, bend, bow, flex, lengthen, extend, soften, widen. Strike the warrior pose, the mountain pose, downward dog, tree, bridge, cobra, pigeon, crow. Words have rhythm: write poetry, write prose, write your novel, scrawl, scribble, print, type. Prayer and meditation have rhythm: offer praise, give thanks, invoke, recite, chant, sing, bow your head, raise your hands, lie prostrate, walk a labyrinth. Rhythm lives in each of us—run, walk, roll, cook, plant, prune, tend, harvest, dig in the dirt.

And work at it. Molly says restless souls “spend weekdays at work / And weeknights at work / And weekends at work.” She’s talking about being relentlessly creative—working at poetry, at music, at art; working at words. That’s what she’s passionate about. When your time belongs completely to you, what do you work at? What do you practice?  To what do you dedicate yourself? What work do you do to channel the anxious, worried, idle restlessness of your day so that it connects you to the Great Restlessness? I was struck by a passage in The Prophet by the early twentieth-century Lebanese poet, artist and writer—also a contemporary of Agee and Marquis—Khalil Gibran. He wrote “you work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. For to be idle is to become a stranger unto seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite. When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.”[3]

When we let our bodies be rhythmical, we begin to embody the Great Restlessness. With our rhythm, we give it form and structure. We have some say in it. We have it, so that it doesn’t have us, so it doesn’t worry us and keep us awake when we should be asleep. When we let our bodies be rhythmical we race our minds into the Great Restlessness, so that they are not left to race aimlessly from unconnected thought to unconnected thought. Let us encourage rhythm.

Part III 

to awake a restless soul

is to take your heart

off parole

 

to let them sleep

is to reinvent

and lament

 

to give back

is to have

a heart attack

 

restless souls

need sleep too

they’re souls staring down

a beautiful few

 

to wonder

to wander

to follow

the “lost”

 

is to give hope

to the restless

and they’re

midnight thoughts

 

restless souls

need sleep too,

but to awake the restless

is too beautiful

to do

 

so goodnight

sweet angel

sleep tight,

say prayers

 

when you awake,

they’ll be no scares

your mind will still be restless

but your legs

rested

just enough

to follow your dreams

 

“Restless souls need sleep too,” says Molly. At some point we need rest. As the story goes, God created for six days and then took rest. We need our regular Sabbath, our regular time of not acting, of not moving, of stillness and quiet. Though the intricate rhythms of the Great Restlessness never cease, rest is part of our creaturely rhythm, part of our daily cycle. Our cells can only do their work for so long before they begin crying out for the body to sleep.

That cycle, we know, doesn’t always work. It breaks down. We can’t always sleep when we want to. We wake in the night, our minds racing. At times we are restless precisely when we need rest.

At yesterday’s UUS:E Mental Health Ministry summit about 15 of us discussed our experiences of restlessness, along with what sustains us in our restless times. Those present spoke of meditation, prayer, walking in woods, being near water—still water, running water, waterfalls, streams, rivers, ocean waves—walking beaches. They spoke of gardening, planting, tending, or just digging in the dirt—getting hands dirty. I couldn’t help myself: All of it has rhythm, I proclaimed with glee! All of it allows us to embody the Great Restlessness in some way. What sustains us in our restless times? What enables us finally to rest? Not fighting against our restlessness, but moving into it, owning it, finding our rhythm, regaining balance, re-establishing the cycle.

I pointed out that those of us who have or are raising children often speak of needing to “run” our kids to make sure they sleep well at night. And of course, most children run themselves if we let them. I remember my youngest, Max, digging in dirt at the base of a pine tree for hours on end, transfixed, oblivious to time, lost in the rhythm of digging. Of course, everyone at the summit pointed out that it’s true for adults too. A day with no rhythm is recipe for continued restlessness.

I love the sense of paradox here. To rest well, we must first respond to our restlessness with focused activity, with creativity, with music, with dance, with prayer, with work, with rhythm. For our Sabbath to be effective, we must spend the week working with passion and devotion at whatever it is we do.

Our restlessness always contains a message to us that at some place in our lives we are not aligned with, not in tune with, not in sync with, not living in harmony with the Great Restlessness at the core of all things. Rhythm is the path to alignment and harmony. As such, rhythm precedes genuine rest. And rest makes more rhythm possible.

Thus, my spiritual prescription of restlessness is rhythm. Find yours, embody the Great Restlessness, and then let us say, goodnight / sweet angel / sleep tight, / say prayers / when you awake, / they’ll be no scares /your mind will still be restless / but your legs / rested / just enough / to follow your dreams.”

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Agee, James“Description of Elysium” in Fitzgerald, Robert, ed.  The collected poems of James Agee (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968) pp. 5-7; first published in Permit me voyage by James Agee (Yale University Press, 1934).For the text to “Sure On This Shining Night,” see: http://allpoetry.com/Sure-On-This-Shining-Night.

[2] Marquis, Don, “A Fierce Unrest,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 304. This quote was the basis for my previous sermon on restlessness, “The Life We Have Lost in Living,” preached on February 12, 2012. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/the-life-we-have-lost-in-living/.

[3] Gibran, Kahlil, The Prophet (New York: Alfed A. Knopf, 1923, 1951) p. 25.

On Ancestors, Slavery, and Religious Dissent

Rev. Josh Pawelek

A Rogerene Interruption“Heroes of faith in every age, far seeing, self-denying, wrought an increasing heritage, monarch and creed defying. Faith of the free!”[1]—words from 20th-century Unitarian minister Vincent Silliman. I wanted us to sing this hymn before this sermon because it points to a dynamic in our faith that at times proves confusing both to Unitarian Universalists and to those who observe us from outside. Liberalism in the United States has both political and religious roots, and continues today to express itself both politically and religiously. In both politics and religion the American liberal tradition—at its best—orients us towards freedom, liberty, justice, equality, inclusion, human rights and, I add today, environmental sustainability. In both politics and religion the American liberal tradition—at its best—calls us to protest, to dissent, to offer prophetic witness when we encounter barriers to freedom, when we encounter injustice, inequality, exclusion, human rights violations and threats to environmental sustainability. The “faith of the larger liberty” is both political and religious. It is “monarch and creed defying.”

What occasionally causes confusion is the way our religious yearnings blend with our political concerns. We might come to worship on Sunday morning looking for explicitly spiritual sustenance, and suddenly the service takes on a political tone or reflects on a political issue. How is this religious? some might wonder, forgetting that this blending is an aspect of our liberal tradition. It might happen on a Sunday morning, but it also happens at the state capitol or, as it did for me last Monday, on the corner of Barbour and Westland Streets in North Harford, advocating with other clergy and Governor Malloy for drug policy reform.

Recall that the Puritans who founded colonial New England—the Puritans from whom our Unitarian ancestors were directly descended—were both political and religious. They were religious dissenters at a time when religious dissent had immediate political implications. And of course, for their dissent they were persecuted. As children many of us learned the Puritans left England in search of religious freedom. This idea of the free church would eventually become a centerpiece of not only the American liberal tradition, but of American democracy itself. The 20th-century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams said that in America “the conception of the democratic society is … a descendent of the conception of the free church.”[2]

That’s likely overstated, but there is a connection between the Puritan quest for religious liberty and the later American quest for political liberty. What I always find ironic is that, had they had our word ‘liberal’ in their vocabulary, they would have rejected it. They were anything but liberal. They were coercive theocrats who adhered to strict Calvinist doctrine and who could not conceive of the separation of church and state. Politics and religion were completely intertwined. They established a state church and levied taxes on all citizens to pay for it. They enforced attendance at Sunday worship. Though they originated as dissenters, they could not tolerate dissent within their own society, and often confronted it with state violence.

The Puritans brought the traditions of religious freedom and dissent to the New World, but they were not responsible for carrying them forward. Throughout the colonial era, individuals, groups, sects—including eventually Unitarians and Universalists—continued to rise up in defiance of Puritan religious orthodoxy and political rule until the congregational church was dis-established in the 1800s. One such new sect which formed in the late 1600s was the Rogerenes, named for their founder, John Rogers, whose father, James Rogers, a wealthy New London, CT merchant, was the 8th Great Grandfather of UUS:E member, Fred Sawyer. Oh yes! This is the sermon James Rogers’ 21st-century Unitarian Universalist descendant purchased at last year’s UUS:E goods and services auction!

Fred leant me a copy of Allegra di Bonaventura’s 2013 book, For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England.[3] (She’s an assistant dean at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale.) Di Bonaventura weaves together the stories of five colonial New London families—the Winthrops, the Livingstons, the Hempsteads, the Rogers (who founded the Rogerenes), and the Jacksons who were slaves of African descent. The book provides an intimate and rare portrait of slavery in colonial New England—a story not often told. It also offers an intimate and rare portrait of colonial New England family life, marriage, romance, death, work, commerce, politics, law, punishment, religion, religious dissent, and religious activism. I highly recommend it and I am grateful to Fred for suggesting it.

Fred is interested in his ancestors, the Rogers, and what lessons their lives might hold for us. For me it has always been an important spiritual practice to take time to remember that we are here because others came before us and bequeathed to us, if nothing else, the gift of life. It is important to look back and honor our ancestors—both our blood relatives, and our spiritual forebears—those “heroes of faith” about whom we sing in “Faith of the Larger Liberty.”

What happens, however, when we look back and discover some difficult fact about our ancestors? For example, white people who discover that their ancestors owned slaves. Given what we know about slavery—countless lives lost, bodies violated, families separated, work stolen, language and culture assaulted—and given the reality that we still live with the legacy of slavery and witness in, for example, our criminal justice system, attempts to reinscribe it through polices that lead to mass incarceration of people of color, learning that one’s ancestors held slaves can be very disconcerting. Upon learning that the Rogers held slaves, Fred seemed not troubled, but accepting and curious. What do we do with this information? He’s interested in understanding not only what it meant to hold slaves in this era, but also what it meant to set them free. Many Rogerenes ultimately freed their slaves and, in later generations, became outspoken opponents of slavery. While the historical record isn’t entirely clear on why they began freeing their slaves, and while they did it slowly and with some ambivalence, we can make some claims about it with a high degree of certainty. First, their religious experience led them to oppose slavery. Second, there were great risks involved in such opposition. Di Bonaventura points out that Puritan clergymen, as town leaders and moral arbiters, “led in slaveholding as a group, owning bondsmen in greater numbers than did their parishioners.”[4] To oppose slavery was to oppose the theocracy itself.  Religious yearnings blending with political concerns.

The Rogerenes were adept at opposing the theocracy. Who were they? They were a religious sect responding to an ongoing experience of the Holy Spirit. The founder, John Rogers, son of James Rogers, became acquainted with an English sect known as Seventh-Day Baptists or Sabbatarians in Newport, RI while on business trips there. Sabbatarians worship on Saturday. Rogers took to it wholeheartedly, and started a Sabbatarian church in New London. Once he had converted his father and some of his siblings, he broke off from the Newport church and started his own sect which eventually became known as the Rogerenes. Described as fanatics and outlaws, they worshipped not only on Saturdays, but any day of the week and—worse—they engaged in menial labor on Sundays. They refused to pay taxes in support of the established church. They called for the separation of church and state. They welcomed men and women of every background as full congregants—African slaves, free blacks, Indians, Europeans, rich poor, men, women, children—they were truly egalitarian in this sense. They lived together, ate together, worshipped together and baptized each other in the Thames river. Di Bonaventura speculates that their experience of egalitarian spiritual community is what led them to become uncomfortable with slaveholding. It was difficult to proclaim spiritual equality while continuing to benefit from a profound social, political and economic inequality. Over the years they provided emotional, spiritual, legal and financial support to their slaves, most notably to John and Joan Jackson who were involved in 45 lawsuits in CT and MA over a period of decades, starting with John’s attempts to win Joan’s freedom, and then in their combined attempts to win their children’s freedom.

Although di Bonaventura doesn’t mention it, I’m reminded of that well-known passage from the Christian New Testment book of Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[5] They seemed to be living a version of this vision.

The Rogerenes hid nothing. they seemed undaunted by Puritan power. This is likely due to the fact that they were wealthy themselves, and as much as the Puritan hierarchy detested them, it needed their wealth to fund the ongoing development of New London. In a sense, the Rogerenes could afford to be provocative. Even so, the Puritan authorities did not sit idly by. They had the Rogerenes arrested, fined, publicly punished, incarcerated. Here’s a passage from For Adam’s Sake that gives a sense of how both sides operated. In this passage, local authorities have caught John Rogers and his brother-in-law, Samuel Fox, eel fishing on Sunday and convict them of ‘sabbath-breaking.’

Fox paid his fine…. John Rogers was not so compliant. He refused to pay and was imprisoned in the makeshift New London jail.

The Sunday after her brother’s incarceration, Bathshua (Fox’s wife) staged a protest…. She entered the meetinginghouse in the midst of Mr. Saltonstall’s morning service and loudly announced before the assembled congregation that she had performed menial labor in violation of the law. Authorities seized her immediately and put her in the stocks. The commotion of her outburst and apprehension … allowed her brother to escape. When Saltonstall later began the afternoon service, John Rogers appeared back in action—thrusting open the meetinghouse doors pushing a wheelbarrow. It must have been quite a site when the Rogerene leader rolled up toward the pulpit, shrilly calling out his wares (the wheelbarrow almost certainly contained shoes of his own making; the wealthy merchant had taken up the humble craft of cobbling as biblically sanctioned manual labor)…. Members of the congregation pounced on Rogers… Town authorities [then forced] the Rogerene leader to stand fifteen minutes on a ladder with a rope around his neck…. The exercise made little impression on Rogers and they flung him back in jail.

From his crude confinement, John Rogers hung a handwritten “Proclamation” out a window, declaring his opposition to “the Doctrines of Devils”…. For this … the authorities charged him with blasphemy, an accusation that led to his transfer to a more secure imprisonment in Hartford, where he awaited trial and certain conviction in the General Court…. At his sentencing the court required Rogers to submit a bond to secure his good behavior. Rogers deemed the order a sacrilege and refused to comply, so he remained in prison.

[He] ended up serving more than three years in prison at a time when long-term incarceration was extremely rare and highly impractical…. Once Rogers finally did finish out his term, Saltonstall, whose delicate pride had been wounded in the attacks on his sermonizing, brought a civil suit against him for defamation. Saltonstall also served on the bench of the court that determined the outcome—a conflict of interest which the colonial court blithely tolerated—so it was no surprise when the plaintiff-judge won a spectacular and highly retaliatory damage award of six hundred pounds.[6]

In discerning what the Rogerene story may mean for us 300 years later, I want to make three points. First, I don’t support the interruption of someone else’s worship service. You may recall that anti-abortion activists invaded a UU service in New Orleans last July and that I was appalled. To some degree I feel for Mr. Saltonstall’s flock. But the Rogers lived in a different era, where there was no separation of church and state, where the religious and political authority were the same, where the minister was also the judge who heard his own case and decided that case in his own favor. In such a society where alternative religious viewpoints are illegal, interrupting Sunday worship may be the only option when political and religious freedom is at stake. What resonates for me is their willingness to speak out, their willingness to accept consequences in order to express their deeply held convictions. As Unitarian Universalists we are not formal heirs of the Rogerenes, and yet something in their story, their spirit, their courage, their willingness to speak and act on their truths, their concern for freedom both religious and political—something in them resonates with our UU spirit, our UU convictions, our UU principles. They swim in that same great river that eventually became the American liberal tradition we have inherited.  They are kindred spirits in this “Faith of the Larger Liberty.”

Second, the Rogerenes apparently achieved something that was remarkable and difficult in their time, something which remains remarkable and difficult today and yet which we are called to achieve: a diverse, egalitarian, beloved spiritual community. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” We might add: there is no longer gay or straight, trans or cis, young or old, documented or undocumented, rich or poor, imprisoned or free, addicted or sober, mentally ill or mentally well—at our core we are all one, we are all connected, we are all worthy of welcome, respect and love.

Finally, the Rogers family held slaves. They clearly benefitted from holding slaves—it was one source of their wealth. And yet their religious convictions caused them to become increasingly uncomfortable with slaveholding. I said earlier we continue to live today with the legacy of slavery in America. We continue to live in the midst of extraordinary racism. I feel blessed to inherit a liberal religious tradition that calls me to examine and confront this legacy, to confront it within the church, to confront it within the halls of government, to confront it on urban and suburban streets, to confront it with that New England spirit that is both monarch and creed defying.

While we UUs are not formal spiritual descendants of the Rogerenes, I’d like to suggest that we share some of the Rogerene religious and political DNA. We might say we both descend from a common ancestor–a common free church, free faith liberal spirit. We encounter in them not only a distant cousin, but a spiritual ancestor swimming in that great river that gave rise to the faith of the larger liberty, and whose memory we can invoke as we endeavor to build that land where justice rolls down like waters, and peace like an ever-flowing stream; where all are one, all connected, and all worthy of welcome, respect and love.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Silliman, Vincent B., “Faith of the Larger Liberty,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #287.

[2] Adams, James Luther, in Stackhouse, Max, On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976) p. 9.

[3] Di Bonaventura, Allegra, For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013).

[4] Di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, p. 32.

[5] Galatians 3:28.

[6] Di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, pp. 49-51.

Dispatches from the Culture War, 2015

Culture WarI’m wrestling this morning with two conflicting impulses in me. They arise in response to the American culture war, in response to deep divisions in the country over sexual orientation, gender identity, reproductive rights, sexuality education, marriage, guns, end of life issues, family values, and the age-old and still raging debate between science and religion. While the media often portrays the culture war as between religious people on one side and secular people on the other, it’s rarely that simple. Liberal religious people often line up against conservative religious people in the culture war. It is at once an inter-religions struggle—meaning between religions—and an intra-religious struggle—meaning it plays out within some religions. My conflicting impulses have to do with how I, as a liberal religious person, relate to people on the conservative side of the culture war.

One impulse is to approach such people with openness, curiosity, friendliness. This impulse emerges from a desire to learn, to find common ground, to achieve interfaith understanding, to build community. The other impulse is pugnacious and looking for a fight. This impulse emerges from moral anger and what I call “soul sadness.” For example, I am angry at people whose religion—often in combination with short-sighted and selfish political and economic interests—leads them time and time again to ignore, deny or denounce the findings of science, as if science is a liberal conspiracy, a tool of elitist subterfuge, an enemy. And, yes, I experience a profound, soul-sadness not only because so many people seem to react to science in this way, but because the consequences of such reactions are so destructive for the earth.

Last week I ran into an old acquaintance, someone with whom I had interacted at the edges of the first congregation I served. He attended worship there occasionally. He wondered if I remembered him. Of course I did. I’d eaten a few meals at his home where we used to debate evolution and creationism or “intelligent design,” which was in vogue at that time. When I saw him last week I said I remembered the articles on intelligent design he used to share with me and that I have always appreciated his willingness to be in conversation around what is still a highly divisive topic. He said, “But you’re an evolutionist.” I said, “Yes, I am. And I try to remain open-minded about other ways of understanding reality. I try to remain curious. ” That’s my friendly, learning-oriented, community-building impulse at work. In a religiously pluralistic society it is essential that we nurture and act on this impulse. In the midst of interfaith dialogue—especially dialogue across culture war lines—we grow more knowledgeable, more accepting, more peaceful. In learning another’s point of view, we develop and sharpen our own.

But then my blood boils when people of faith not only refuse to be in dialogue, but ignore, deny or denounce firmly established scientific consensus. One such consensus is that human activity—specifically the burning of fossil fuels—is a significant driver of climate change. More than 13,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers published in over 80 countries since 1991 have confirmed this position. That’s 97 percent of all formal scientific papers published on the topic.[1] Many religions embrace this consensus. On April 29th the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences together issued a report entitled “Climate Change and the Common Good.” The statement affirms that “Today, human activities, involving the unsustainable exploitation of fossil fuels and other forms of natural capital, are having a decisive and unmistakable impact on the planet. The aggressive exploitation of fossil fuels and other natural resources has damaged the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we inhabit…. Some 1000 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other climatically-important ‘greenhouse’ gases have already been accumulated in the atmosphere…. [and] now exceeds the highest levels in at least the last million years.”[2]

In the face of this global scientific consensus, on January 21st of this year, 49 United States Senators, as part of an effort to pass a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, voted against an amendment to the bill that said human activity is a significant contributor to climate change.[3] 49 United States senators proclaimed that the firmly established global scientific consensus is incorrect! A number of them cried foul, saying the amendment was a political stunt. They may be right, but a U.S. Senator’s ability to discern fact from fiction matters when the fate of the planet is at stake. The Senate has the power to shape energy and environmental policy in ways that ensure a sustainable future. It is infuriating every time that strange coalition of hyper-conservative faith, business and political interests drives a large segment of our national leadership to ignore science. In my view such willful ignorance is a sinful evasion of responsibility that demands a fighting response from all people of faith who take science seriously. Two conflicting impulses.

Stan and Sue McMillen inspired my reflections on this topic. They purchased a sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. This is their sermon. Stan suggested a couple of possibilities. First he said, “I have been increasingly concerned that religion continues to divide rather than unite us in justice work.” He’s right. Religious differences drive the culture war, and we need that first impulse—curiosity, openness—to bridge our divides. But then he said “There is another disturbing thread that concerns me: the disparagement of science by religion.” Because that ongoing disparagement will have catastrophic consequences for the planet if allowed to persist without opposition, we also need to cultivate that second impulse, a willingness to fight without apology for a sustainable future.

I’ve been wondering about how one decides which impulse to pursue in any given encounter across culture war lines. I’ve been wondering about how I decide, since I make the decision often, but don’t always stop to think about it—which is why I’m using the word impulse. Here’s my best thinking about when and why to follow either of these impulses.

At the beginning of any encounter with a person of another faith—and I suppose at the beginning of any encounter with any human being—approach them with openness, curiosity, friendliness. Assume common ground exists. Assume the other wants a peaceful, prosperous community, a just and fair society, the best possible future for their children and grandchildren. Assume the other cares about the earth. It won’t always be an accurate assumption, but it is much easier to build a relationship if you begin with the assumption that relationship is possible.

Then look for the common ground. Ask, inquire, explore, listen, learn. Stan expresses a concern that religion continues to divide rather than unite us in justice work. Religion is less likely to divide us if we find our common ground. I have been attending a series of meetings at the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford to work on passage of a bill of rights for domestic workers—people who work in other peoples’ homes providing health care, childcare, eldercare and cleaning services. Because domestic workers aren’t included in the Fair Labor Relations Act and many other national labor laws, they are easily and often exploited with few if any avenues for legal recourse. Passage of a Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights would begin to create a more just domestic work place in Connecticut. In the meeting at the Archdiocese there are Catholics, Pentecostals, Lutherans, UCCs, UUs and labor union. It would be so easy to say “No, I won’t work with the Catholic Church.” UUs and Catholics are diametrically opposed on many culture war issues: marriage equality, transgender civil rights, and most recently aid-in-dying for terminally ill patients. These divisions have been present in these meeting. The Catholics keep talking about aid in dying, in part because they’ve all been working together to defeat it. Most of them didn’t realize I’ve been working in support of it. Those who did were genuinely concerned I would feel alienated. The meeting organizer finally asked if I would share my thoughts about it. I did. But I made it clear that I would never want our disagreement on this or any other issue to prevent us from achieving our mutual goal of a more just work conditions for domestic workers. As much as Catholics and UUs have disagreed over the years, we’ve always shared the common ground of economic justice.

Nevertheless, division is sometimes inevitable. There are moments when we can’t find common ground and the impulse to fight or struggle takes over. Before that happens, it’s important to me to make sure I’m fighting for the right reasons. For me, a difference in theology or belief is never a reason to fight. That is, if someone believes in God and I don’t, that’s not worth fighting over. If someone believes the Koran is God’s final revelation and I believe all sacred scriptures are human inventions, that’s not worth fighting over. If someone accepts Jesus Christ as their savior and I find salvation in the natural world, that’s not worth fighting over. Differences in theology, tradition, practice—these are opportunities for the first impulse—curiosity, learning. But when someone else’s beliefs manifest in the world in ways that cause suffering, exploitation, oppression, in ways that destroy and kills, then it’s time to take a stand, to struggle, to organize, to fight.

I’ve preached about such moments many times. I am mindful that I typically frame fights between people of faith—whether over gay rights or global warming—as fights ultimately between religious liberalism and religious fundamentalism. I name fundamentalism as the problem. Well, I’ve had an evolution in my thinking, and I want to name it now, even though I haven’t fully worked through its meaning. When we fight for something we believe in—really fight, really struggle—we actually take on characteristics of the fundamentalists we oppose. We appear to them as they appear to us: unbending, unyielding, uncompromising—at least that’s the risk. I’m not a religious fundamentalist, but I’ll own that I’m a marriage equality fundamentalist. I’ll own that I’m a reproductive choice fundamentalist, an economic justice fundamentalist, a Black Lives Matter fundamentalist, a path-to-citizenship- for-undocumented immigrants-fundamentalist, an end-the-war-on-drugs fundamentalist. And I’m a climate-change-is-real-and-caused-by-humans-and-must-be-addressed-now-with-the-largest- mobilization-of-people-and-resources-the-world-has-ever-seen” fundamentalist. I’m owning my fundamentalisms. And I know when I move to that place of utter conviction it has the potential to silence conversation, to alienate people who might not completely agree with me, to damage relationships, to poison otherwise common ground. It can keep the culture war going. Thus I know I must pause at times to critique my fundamentalisms, to assure myself that the rationale behind them is still solid, to assure myself that they are and I am still spiritually and theologically grounded. When I move to that place of utter conviction, I better have solid evidence. 

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said something about this back on January 21st when the Senate took that vote on climate change. He voted for the amendment saying he’s now comfortable with climate science. But then he said something that at first seemed silly, but the more I think about it, it’s not. He said, “I think that people on my side”—meaning conservatives—“are really reluctant to embrace how much human activity is causing climate change because our friends on the other side”—meaning liberals—“have made it a religion.”[4]

It’s an interesting use of the word religion. He doesn’t mean religion in the liberal sense where we’re on a journey and our credo is always changing. He means something unchanging. He means fundamentalism. He’s saying “I experience you liberals as Climate Change fundamentalists.” He’s asking for compromise. He’s trying to respond to the first impulse. He’s looking for common ground. But fundamentalism of any sort isn’t interested in common ground. It’s interested in prevailing. And given what climate science is saying, given the great global disruption the models are forecasting, we’re long past time for compromise. Graham is right: those of us who take the science seriously have made it a “religion.” And we need to prevail.

The philosopher of religion Loyal Rue once wrote, “The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed, but if we live in right relationship with reality (wisely), then we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle.”[5] I take science seriously, because it is our best guide to understanding reality—not the only guide, to be sure, but the best. And when I say we are justified in fighting against unnecessary suffering, exploitation, oppression, and the destruction of the earth, I understand each of these things as failures of right relationship to reality. I am hopeful that in any sojourn we may take into “fundamentalism,” it is for the sake of restoring right relationship to reality, it is the path of wisdom, and it will save us.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] “The 97% Consensus on Global Warming” at Skeptical Science: https://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-advanced.htm.

[2] Dasgupta, P., Ramanathan, V., Raven, P., Sanchez Sorondo, M., et al, “Climate Change and the Common Good: A Statement Of the Problem And the Demand For Transformative Solutions,” published April 29, 2015 by the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science. See: http://www.casinapioiv.va/content/dam/accademia/pdf/protect/climate_change_common_good.pdf.

[3]  Kollipara, Puneet and Malakoff, David, “For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?” Science Insider, January 29, 2015.See: http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/01/first-time-years-u-s-senate-voted-climate-change-did-anybody-win.

[4] Kollipara, Puneet and Malakoff, David, “For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?” Science Insider, January 29, 2015.See: http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/01/first-time-years-u-s-senate-voted-climate-change-did-anybody-win. Also see: http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060012413.

[5] This quote is taken from Loyal Rue’s Religion is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature and What to Expect When They Fail (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005). It appeared in Dowd, Michael, “The Evolutionary Significance of Religion: Multi-Level Selection,” Metanexus, February 10, 2012. See: http://metanexus.net/blog/evolutionary-significance-religion-multi-level-selection?utm_source=2012.02.28&utm_campaign=2012.02.28&utm_medium=email.

 

Returning Home

Tom Bozeman

Tom Bozeman

Tom Bozeman

This morning, I’d like to share with you some of my reflections on growing up in this church and what I have learned from that experience about spirituality and faith – and the blessing that we have to offer the world as Unitarian Universalists in this society.

*

I grew up in Massachusetts and Connecticut. I was used to the seasons coming and going: the hot and humid summers, the crisp and refreshing autumns, the cold winters, the moist and lush springs – the air so filled with pollen that (some years) I was lucky if I could catch a breath between sneezes. When I was younger, most of my family lived around here, in this part of the US – on both sides, everyone from grandparents to cousins to parents to aunts and uncles – everyone except for one uncle’s family – lived in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Then, they gradually started moving away. North Carolina. California. Oregon. New Mexico.

The downside of their relocation was that they were now further away. But the upside was that now I had a reason to go on the adventure of going to visit them. Summer vacation was no longer just time off for school – it was now time that I got to spend long, languorous weeks visiting family in far-off places. My adventures to go see my grandparents in New Mexico were particularly exciting for a few reasons: 1) They had cable TV. If you haven’t experienced it, I’m not sure how I can convey to you the majesty of a child who is not accustomed to cable television – in the age before the Internet – getting to just sit and watch it hour after hour after hour for three weeks on end. All the music videos and movies one could ever want. 2) The delicious, sugary food. From sweetened yogurt to sugary breakfast cereals, there was this incredible smorgasbord of things that were not on hand at home with my Mom. Mmm – it was so good! 3) They had a pool in the backyard. Coming from a home that did not have that luxury, it was remarkable to get to just walk out the back door and jump in a pool. Incredible. 4) It was hot. This was New Mexico in the summertime. Southern New Mexico: Las Cruces, just north of El Paso, Texas. The temperature would regularly get up over a hundred degrees fahrenheit while I was there. I grew familiar with that moment when the door of the air-conditioned car is opened and the dry heat surges in and the rush is on to get into the nearest air-conditioned space as soon as possible, be it a movie theater or a bowling alley or a print shop. One side effect of that dry heat was that the water in the pool would slowly evaporate over the course of the day. Sometimes the garden hose would be left running – one end in the pool – in order to keep the water level up near the top.

This intense, dry heat thing was such a radical change from my experience of the southern New England climate. Around here, I grew up thinking of air conditioning as something of a luxury. But when I visited my grandparents, I couldn’t even conceive of being able to go without it. It was like humanity had carved out these air-conditioned safe havens in which to huddle during the blazingly hot Summer months. And this fit with the scenery, too: In Las Cruces, if one stood on the right hill, one could see the wall that demarcated the border between the edge of the city and the sheer desert. Unlike the carefully sculpted and settled New England landscape to which I was accustomed, there was the distinct sense of Las Cruces being sort of carved out of the local landscape – that the place would not be fit for human habitation without considerable work installing things like air conditioning.

Deserts are forbidding places for humans to exist. Certainly, many people throughout history have done so – including the Manso people who lived in the Las Cruces area when Europeans arrived. The Manso were nomads who roamed the area, generally staying close to the Rio Grande river. Because, of course, people need water in order to live. Certainly, the rivers around here were quite important to the so-called “Podunk Indians”. And, in the desert, the location of all-too-rare water was highly determinative of where and how people live their lives.

*

For me, as a teenager in Connecticut, UUS:East was like my social Rio Grande. I would wander the other six days of the week as through a social desert and then – finally – Sunday would come and I could go to church and youth group.

To be honest, I was actually not a big fan of coming to church for much of my childhood. Because Monday through Friday involved getting out of bed early for school and Saturday involved getting out of bed early to go do the laundry at the laundromat, I was very resistant to also having to get out of bed early on Sunday to go to church. But my Mom made me – because she thought it was important that we have community. So I came anyway, despite my resistance.

But, as I started entering my teenage years, my resistance to attending church gave why to yearning to attend church. Developmentally, my social life was becoming more important. And the social world on offer in the public schools felt deserted to me. Lacking warmth. Lacking care. Plenty of competitiveness. Plenty of insults. Plenty of ridicule.

When I came to church, though, that got flipped: here, there was a blessed lack of competitiveness, insults, and ridicule. Here, there was plenty of warmth, plenty of care.

And getting to go to district youth conferences – held in churches all over the district – and be in community with 30 or 40 other youth – people with whom I felt such affinity – was so, so invaluable to be me as a teenager.

The lush social environment of UUS:E and the wider UU world were a radical change from the intense social desert that I experienced in high school.

*

James Moffatt’s translation of Psalm 133 reads:

How rare it is, how lovely,

this fellowship of those who meet together.

Sweet as the sacred oil poured on the head,

that flows down the beard,

down the very collar of his robe;

Vital as the dew of [Mt.] Hermon

that falls on the hills of [Mt. Z]ion

For in this fellowship has the Eternal fixed the blessings

of an endless life.

I don’t know how many of you have experienced an anointing, but in my experience usually there’s just a small amount of oil applied to the forehead – just enough to coat a small patch of skin. And that’s in our comparatively privileged society. Imagine being in the desert of ancient Jerusalem and having the oil just poured on your head – so much that it flows down the beard and down to the very collar of the robe!

And the dew! Once again, in the desert, where fresh water is such a rare and valuable thing. Remember, all three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are all desert religions – they all grew up out of the desert – that place where life can feel so tenuous. Any form of water has incredible importance. Of course dew would have a mysterious sacredness to it – it magically appears at certain times of day – seemingly coming from nowhere – and just coats everything.

But, moreover, Psalm 133 is one of a cycle of “Songs Of Ascent” in the Psalms – songs that were likely sung by worshipers on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for one of the three Hebrew religious festivals that required their attendance at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Some of those pilgrims would not have to travel far, but others would have to travel quite a long distance to Jerusalem those three times each year. And, as they drew nearer to Jerusalem, they would likely have seen more and more familiar faces – the faces of people only seen three times a year. And so there would be the joy of recognition and reuniting with them.

But there was also the joy of coming together as a larger body. How many of you have ever been to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly? It was in Providence, RI last year and it will be in Portland, OR next month. One of the most beautiful things about GA is getting to gather and worship with thousands of other UUs – to get to feel in one’s body the power of thousands listening together, rising together, singing together, clapping together. I remember the first time that I went to GA, what a revelatory experience that was for me. I was moved to tears. I felt my heart burst open so wide.

When I read Psalm 133, I think of those beautiful experiences at GA. And I think of all those incredibly valuable district youth conferences that I attended. And I think of all those joyous memories that I have of growing up at UUS:E, getting to experience that overflowing anointing each and every week. It was truly a life-saving experience – for which I am eternally grateful.

And, yet, by the time I was 19, I had drifted away from UUism. It wasn’t until over eight years later that I realized that I was missing something.

*

I was in my senior year of college and was assigned a series of four papers: one on my intellectual self, one on my physical self, one on my emotional self, and one on my spiritual self.

When I got to that last one – on my spiritual self – I initially felt at a loss. What did I have to write about spirituality? And so I sat and struggled with that paper for awhile. And eventually I realized that, yes, in fact: Unitarian Universalism is a religion – and maybe I might be able to draw on my experiences growing up in this religion to talk about spirituality. And once that one realization landed, a series of others followed quick on its heals – and, by the time I finished writing that paper, I realized that I had been conflating the social and spiritual aspects of my experience at UUS:E.

Yes, I found far greater fellowship here than I did in my high school. Yes, I appreciated all the beautiful conversations that I got to have with so many beautiful people. But that was really just the upper layer of it. Underneath all of that was the spiritual sense of what it’s like to relate to people as if they had inherent worth and dignity. The spiritual sense of what it’s like to just be with one another in a way that embodies justice, equity, and compassion. The spiritual sense of accepting one another and encouraging one another to spiritual growth. The spiritual sense of seeking peace, liberty, and justice for all. The spiritual sense of respecting the whole web of life.

Those are all things that I could value or in which I could believe – but in embodying them with others, I aligned myself – I drilled into – my deeper connection with all that is truly valuable and beautiful in this world.

So, when I drifted away from UUism after high school, I met lots of great people and had some great adventures. But what I missed out on for stepping away from UUism – and what I didn’t realize that I’d lost until a teacher called my attention to it – was the spiritual sense of the deeper significance of how I am with others, and how they are with me. I didn’t realize it until wrestling with that paper on my spiritual self, but, in the absence of UU community, my spiritual “throat” was very parched. And that recognition led me back to Unitarian Universalism and, eventually, into the ministry.

Looking back and recognizing how spiritually rich my time in this congregation and in this district was, I realized for the first time the extent of the riches that I had been given growing up UU. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

*

And, yet, I also want to offer a challenge. Because, for one thing, I’m sad that it took so long for me to put those pieces together. And, for another thing, I don’t think that it’s sufficient for this to just be the oasis in the desert.

If there’s one thing of which we should be aware in this day and age, it is that we humans have the capacity to change the climate. Science and economics have taught us that, through our ingenuity and our resourcefulness, we can make an impact – for good or for ill.

*

When I think back to my childhood at UUS:E, one of the first things that I think of is walking around at coffee hour – in this very room (although an earlier version of it), waiting for my mom to be able to take me home, talking with various people. And, more specifically, I think about talking with an elder – Pat Fox – about our mutual affection for macaroni and cheese. In one sense: such a small, simple thing. In another sense: all the world.

How often in our incredibly age-segregated, socially-desertified society do we have those sorts of sweet interactions with one another? Do we get to be not just consumers or producers or employees or supervisors or coworkers or viewers or creators or students or teachers or an audience or a performer – but just people. Just people, experiencing life side by side with one another.

Those experiences of the raw, simple stuff of life – side by side with one another – that is the vein at the center of this river of fellowship. That is the nourishing water that we can tap into here. And that is the water that we can also bring out into the world with us. In every moment. When we are with people or with ourselves, we can bring that water that we carry in our souls. We can bring the openness that lets other people drink from it – and that inspires them to open, as well.

And then to talk about it with each other.

I know that, for me, it can be very challenging to be open like that in spaces in which I don’t already feel safe and secure. I have to always remind myself to do it anyway. That my faith – my many experiences is this space and in this faith movement – has shown me again and again how much is possible when we open our souls to one another, in even the most mundane ways, like sharing a mutual love of macaroni and cheese.

May this space, then, be one where we can return from the world outside and say, “I had the most wonderful conversation with this stranger at the store the other day…” or “You won’t believe the beautiful look in the eye of this person at whom I smiled the other day…” or “I saw this man who seemed kind of sad and I went up to him and we had this incredible moment together – and we both felt so bright afterward…”

Because it can feel like a desert out there. And we are the people of faith who declare that it doesn’t have to – and who know the spiritual riches that abound when share our water with others.

In the words of Saul Williams, may I let my “openness expose me to a truth I couldn’t find/In the clenched fist of my ego or the confines of my mind,” may I open myself to “represent a truth[…] that changes by the hour/And when you’re open to it, vulnerability is power/And in that shifting form […] find a truth that doesn’t change[…] the fact that God is strange”…

Talk to strangers

When family fails and friends led you astray

And Buddha laughs and Jesus weeps and it turns out God is gay

As angels’ and messiahs’ love can come in many forms

In the hallways of your projects or the fat girl in your dorm

And when you finally take the time to see what they’re about

Perhaps you’ll find they’re lonely or their wisdom trips you out

Maybe you’ll find the cycle’s end, right back where you began

But come this time around, you’ll have someone to hold your hand

Who prays for you, who’s there for you, who sends you love and light

Exposes you to parts of you that you once tried to fight

And come this time around you’ll choose to walk a different path

You’ll embrace what you turned away and cry at what you laughed

Because that’s the only way we’re going to make it through this storm

Where ignorance is common sense and senselessness the norm

And flags wave high above the truth, and the two never touch

And no one seems to recognize the symbols come to life

The bitten apple on the screen and Jesus had a wife

And she was his messiah like that stranger may be yours

Who holds a subtle knife that carves through worlds like magic doors

[…]

And when I look at you, I know I’m not the only one

As a great man once said,

“There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

I invite you now to please rise in body or spirit and join a song celebrating the articulating that water that we have to share with one another…

From Radical Transcendence to Radical Immanence

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreaming Ourselves in a Multigenerational Community

Mr. Barb Greve, MDiv, MCRE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

On Being/Becoming Generous People

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

 

King of the Hill

Rev. Fritz Hudson

Introduction    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King of the Hill

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

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

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

– Lowest to the left is a crawling baby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was 36 years old.

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

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

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

And then from those steps, he could ask:

“How long with it take?

How long will prejudice blind the visions of men?

How long will justice be crucified?”

How long? he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   At fifteen, I set my heart on learning. 

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

   At forty, I no longer suffered from complexities. 

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

   At sixty, I heard them with docile ear. 

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

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

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

   Year after year beheld the silent toil

   That spread his lustrous coil;

   Still, as the spiral grew,

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

And from it the poet draws his spirits model:

   Let each new temple, nobler than the last,

   Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,

   Till thou at length art free,

   Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

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

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

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

But I think we can go further along that path.

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

Listen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– “With whom are we now in relationship”

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

And “to whom would we make our own call”

With whom are we now in relationship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep us growing without faltering;

Keep us exalted without egotism;

Keep us humble without abasement;

Keep us finding life in the process of losing it.

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

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Pawel, August, 2014

Pawel, August, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen. Blessed be.

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

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

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