On Terror

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Mourners in Beirut following the November 12th terrorist attack. Credit: Hasan Shaaban/Reuters

Mourners in Beirut following the November 12th terrorist attack. Credit: Hasan Shaaban/Reuters

In light of the Paris terrorist attacks Friday night and the Beirut terrorist attacks on Thursday, I made the decision yesterday morning to bring a different sermon than the one I had planned to preach. This would have been a forgone conclusion had the attacks happened on American soil. They happened far away—Paris is 3,500 miles from here, Beirut is 5,500 miles. I wondered, could we just light a candle and have a moment of silence? That might have been sufficient if the sermon I had planned to preach would have offered some words of comfort, hope and peace—which is precisely the message I imagined I would want this morning if I were sitting where you are. But the sermon I had planned to preach wasn’t going to do that. I knew I couldn’t stand here and preach it to you without feeling a profound disconnect between my words and world events.

I feel grief. I feel a need to mourn. I am angry. I am frightened. I am confused. I suspect many of you feel similarly. With these feelings at heart, I want to offer a three reflections in response to these terrorist attacks. I hope they will bring comfort, peace and hope to you. I hope they will suggest ways to understand some of the reasons why attacks like these are happening and what they mean. And that I hope they will offer some preliminary ideas for how we as residents and citizens of the United States can best respond.


I begin where I always begin in the wake of tragedy: find what grounds you.

It is unfortunate, but we know this first step. We knew it after the Newtown shooting. We knew it after the Boston Marathon bombing. We knew it after the death of our former music director, Pawel Jura. I say unfortunate because over the past fifteen years acts of terror have become not just familiar but highly regular: remember 9/11; remember, around that same time, the suicide bombings of the second Palestinian Intifada (2000-2005); remember the Madrid train bombing (2004), the London underground bombing (2005), the Mumbai attacks (2008), the Norway mass shooting (2011), the Boston Marathon Bombing (2013), the Nairobi Westgate mall attack (2013), the Chibok, Nigeria school girl kidnappings. Remember countless suicide bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria throughout this era. Remember just this year the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, the Kenya University attack, the Tunisia beach attack, the October attack in Turkey that killed 128, the recent Jerusalem attacks. Thursday’s attack in Beirut killed 43, and now Paris again: multiple, coordinated attacks with assault rifles and suicide bombers at a concert hall, a soccer stadium, restaurants; 129 dead, hundreds injured. And following the Paris attacks will come the inevitable and highly under-reported nationalist and white supremacist attacks on Muslim communities throughout Europe and elsewhere, attacks that follow whenever organizations like ISIS commit atrocities in Europe. I won’t begin to add to this list the reality of so many people across the planet, including in the United States, who experience police and military actions as state-sponsored terror. That feels like a different sermon, but it isn’t. The bottom-line is, terrorism works. It makes people afraid. How can it not? Even across an ocean, in the relative safety of the United States, it is frightening. It calls forth those unbidden, stressful questions from our unconscious, ‘am I safe?’ ‘could it happen here?’ ‘Am I prepared?’ For those who are familiar with France and with Paris in particular—those who’ve travelled there, those who’ve lived there, those who have friends and family there—those who might have been there—it is frightening. For those of you who have connections to Beirut and Lebanon, it is frightening. If such large attacks could happen in two cities that are in a perpetual state of heightened alert and vigilance, then they can certainly happen in other cities. They already have. It is frightening.

In order not to be overcome with fear, with anxiety, with despair; in order not to become triggered or wounded; in order not to become numb or desensitized by the images and the media coverage, the Facebook posts and the tweets, find what grounds you. Yesterday, even though I knew I wanted to prepare an entirely different sermon, I made a commitment to not let that work get in the way of the plans I had made with my family. I made breakfast. I took Mason to his archery class. I made lunch. I took Max to his basketball practice. All of us attended the Manchester Art Association Art Auction. We were home at night. We ate dinner together. We watched TV together, which is one of our weekend rituals. Sticking to the plan, engaging in mundane family activities, was grounding for me.

I know it may seem selfish and insensitive to focus on ourselves in the wake of someone else’s tragedy. I understand that, but I don’t think it is. Finding our grounding makes it possible for us to manage the emotions that terrorism generates. Finding our grounding enables us to better understand what has happened, to help if and where possible, and to work toward that goal articulated in our sixth Unitarian Universalist principle: “world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” Ungrounded people cannot do any of this well.

Even if you are one for whom this tragedy feels far away, don’t underestimate the power of these events and so many like them to take a toll on your spiritual and emotional well-being. Don’t underestimate their power to unground you. As I have advised on far too many occasions: start with breathing. 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, be still, be quiet, be calm. Breathe in, and as you breathe, reach for peace, reach for hope, reach for love. Then, still breathing, when you feel ready, start to move. Move slowly at first, gently at first: bend, bow, stretch, lengthen, extend, reach. Keep breathing. If you can, go outside. Touch the ground, the soil, the earth—the beautiful, dark brown earth. Work in the dark, brown earth. Play in the dark, brown earth. Let the dirt get on your hands, under your fingernails, between your toes. Feel yourself coming back to life. Listen for the still small voice. Hear your own truths, your convictions emerging once again. Then, in time, as you feel ready, create. Creative acts are so essential to moving out of fear and finding our ground: write, compose, sing, speak, act, sculpt, carve, craft, paint, draw. Feel yourself slowly coming back to yourself.[1]

A Ruthless Response

French President François Hollande says the French response will be ruthless. President Obama says the United States stands shoulder to shoulder with France. I confess there is a part of me—a small part, but I won’t deny it is there—that wants a ruthless response, that wants to bomb the perpetrators mercilessly out of existence no matter the consequences. They cannot be allowed to perpetuate this kind of terrorism on the rest of the world. There is nothing that can justify this kind of indiscriminate mass murder of innocent people. Nothing.

This is the part of me that is angry and frightened, but also the part of me that believe it is being pragmatic. A year ago, as the United States-led bombing campaign against ISIS was beginning, I said to you that despite my objection to United States war-making, and despite taking to heart  Dr. King’s warning that ‘returning violence for violence multiplies violence,’[2] I nevertheless have “come to the heart-wrenching conclusion that we cannot abandon the millions of people who live in Iraq and Syria to [the] barbarous tyranny[we are witnessing in that region; and] that there is no solution other than to meet these atrocities not only with every available economic and diplomatic tool, but with resounding military force.” I said “I can barely imagine myself saying such a thing; but a chaotic, relentless, brutal and unfeeling spirit drives the Islamic State. I know of no word to name it other than evil.”[3] The Beirut and Paris attacks, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, are simply more evidence of this evil.

I am sure there will be a ruthless response. And even if a massive, global antiwar movement rose up and said, ‘stop, no more violence, find another way!’ I am fairly confident the response would still be ruthless. It is certainly an understandable response, and it may be the most pragmatic response possible, given that ISIS shows no interest in leaving the battlefield and is, in fact, extending the battlefield. Then again, maybe a ruthless response is not so pragmatic. I note that ISIS claims Friday’s attack was carried out in retaliation for the French bombing of ISIS in Syria, which immediately informs me that returning violence for violence really does multiply violence. And as much as that small part of me is OK with this multiplication because ISIS must be stopped, a much larger part of me actually says, ‘no more violence, find another way.’ Something must give. Some intervention in the cycle of violence must be brought forth. Of course these words sound naïve to that small part of me that wants a ruthless response, that small part of me that believes it is being pragmatic. But to that larger part of me that longs for a more measured, more peaceful, more hopeful response—to that larger part of me that longs for an expansive moral imagination that can see well beyond ruthlessness—it is naïve to think military solutions can remove the threat of terrorism. Violence has only increased the threat. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence. I understand the need for a ruthless response. And I hold out little hope for its long-term success. Somehow, the cycle of violence must be interrupted.

Embrace the Young Dispossessed

When Imam Kashif Abdul-Kareem of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford spoke from this pulpit a few years ago, he said in the talk-back after his sermon that he felt a significant percentage of Muslims globally are being mis-educated  about their faith. He didn’t speak too specifically about what this meant, but he did suggest that many young people were being educated to hate. I suspect the same is true in many countries, in many religions: people—especially young people—are being educated to hate.

I read to you earlier from Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel, the founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core. Patel talks about the faith line, meaning the line between religious totalitarians and religious pluralists, a line that cuts through virtually all major faith traditions. Writing in 2010, he says “we live in an era where the populations of the most religiously volatile area of the world are strikingly young. Seventy-five percent of India’s one billion plus are not yet twenty-five. Eight five percent of the people who live in the Palestinian territories are under age thirty-three. More than two-thirds of the people of Iran are under age thirty. The median age in Iraq is nineteen and a half. All of these people are standing on the faith line. Whose message are they hearing?”[4]

I have two responses to that question. First, while I do not know to what extent young people in these and other countries are hearing the message of the religious pluralists, I am confident the vast majority are not succumbing to the message of religious totalitarianism. Most people who live in these regions don’t become terrorists. Unfortunately, in the wake of terrorist attacks, some politicians, journalists, bloggers and other commentators, especially those with nationalist and racist leanings, become shrill and unskillful in their pronouncements about the perpetrators. One can get the impression, for example, that all Muslims are terrorists. We know this isn’t true. We know Islam as it is most widely practiced is a religion of peace. Our country has a legacy of White supremacist Christian terrorism, yet we know most Christians aren’t terrorists. We know Christianity as it is most widely practiced is a religion of peace.

Second, having said that, many young people across the globe, including in the United States, are becoming increasingly dispossessed. That is, due to poverty, war, modern forms of colonialism, racism and climate change, among many other ills, many people, especially young people, feel hopeless. They feel left out of whatever engines of prosperity exist in their nations, left out of the common good—the concept doesn’t apply to them. They feel abandoned, forgotten, unheard, landless, removed, imprisoned, walled off, barred out, humiliated, dehumanized. Dispossession is a physical, material condition—as in possessing no things, no money, no land—and a spiritual and psychological condition—as in possessing no hope, no sense of self, no sense of a future. The tip of the iceberg is the nearly 60 million people today living as refugees from war, economic collapse and environmental catastrophe. Hundreds of millions more are internally displaced and impoverished. And now we’re beginning to hear more and more about the phenomenon of stateless people. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates there are 10 million stateless people. Statelessness is hyper-dispossession.

I suspect there is a certain percentage of the dispossessed who are susceptible to the message of religious and other forms of totalitarianism. Just like there is a small subset of urban youth in the U.S. who find meaning and empowerment in gangs, there is a small subset of the dispossessed who find meaning and empowerment in totalitarian ideologies and organizations. After a period of involvement with these ideologies and organizations, after a period of mis-education, an even smaller sub-set becomes quite willing to lose their lives in acts of terror.

Yes, I want to discern some way to help ease suffering in Paris. And yes, I want to discern some way to help ease suffering in Beirut. I hope the way will become clear in the coming weeks. But it can’t stop there. There is suffering in Ankara, Jerusalem, Gaza, Nairobi, Chibok, Kandahar and Baghdad, not to mention Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, Cleveland, Hartford, and Manchester. Mindful that terrorism in all its forms impacts so many people across the planet, and mindful that terrorism is a symptom of complex social, political and economic realities, I also recognize that responding to suffering in the aftermath of terrorism will never be enough—and will not always even be feasible. I want to discern how I, how we as a faith community, and how we as a nation, address the root causes of terrorism, one of which is dispossession. I take Eboo Patel’s message to heart. Whatever we can do to advance the message, vision and structures of religious pluralism, here and across the globe, we must do. Much more than a ruthless response, we need to promote viable alternatives to religious totalitarianism. Much more than violence and militarism, we need organizing here and across the planet that replaces dispossession with opportunity, that replaces greed with generosity, scarcity with abundance and inequality with peace, liberty and justice.

Of course, these are easy words to say, hard work to do. If nothing else, remember the dispossessed are everywhere. If nothing else, find some way to work with young people, to support them, to give them some sense of possession—so that they possess themselves, their neighborhoods, their communities, and their future. Indeed, no terrorist ideology can claim the allegiance of people who possess themselves and their own future.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Adapted from Pawelek, Josh, “What Does the World Require of You?” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East on December 16, 2012. See: http://uuse.org/what-does-the-world-require-of-us/#.VkfXznarTrc.

[2] King,Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 62.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “If We Must Go to War,” In “Four Reflections on Atonement,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East on October 15, 2014. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/four-reflections-on-atonement/.

[4] Patel, Eboo, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim and the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010) p. xv.

Would You Be Free From Your Burden of Sin (There’s Power in the Blood)

Susan Campbell


Susan Campbell (credit, Chion Wolf / WNPR)

I will tell you, before I wind up, that I’m really not that much a public speaker. I’m telling you that so when I’m finished, you don’t have to turn to one another and say, “You know what? She’s not really much of a public speaker.” She knows that already, and she’s made peace with that, and she suggests you do the same. The most I can promise you is a speech mostly devoid of exegesis and/or hermeneutics. You’re welcome.

I am a product of the church – small c – of Christ, where every Sunday school lesson and every sermon I sat through was aimed at teaching me how to be a good wife – a worthy help-meet, a word I will hate until the day I go to my glory. At the Fourth and Forest church of Christ in Joplin, Mo., I had my whole life laid out for me. I would choose for my mate one of the young men in my youth group seated to my left or my right on the pew where I parked myself three times a week – more often, if they’d let me. We would get married in a simple service on a Friday night, go to Branson for our honeymoon, and be back to work by Monday. We would rather quickly be graced with babies, and we would raise up our children in the way they should go so that when they were old, they would not depart from us – that’s Proverbs 22:6 — and I would be accorded a Sunday school class to teach and to shepherd – but not one that included men, because that would be usurping authority over men, which we are forbidden to do in I Timothy 2:12. I would eventually be – through my own stewardship and exalted state of help-meeting — the wife of a deacon, and then my husband would be named an elder, and when it was time to go meet Jesus, I would be laying in my lily-white bed surrounded by my loved ones and I would have a little smile on my face, and someone would say, softly, “Oh, look, she’s talking to Jesus.”

But I would not be talking to Jesus. I would be smiling because finally and at last I could blow this clip joint and leave this circumscribed and ridiculously small existence to go and live with God, to sit right next to Her, right where she’s always intended, and not in a back pew, either. And God would be an African American lesbian with big meaty arms that swung when she threw them open to welcome me.

I hoped so much for that to be the case, knowing full well that a large portion of my friends and some of my family would take one look at such a god, and turn around and go on down to hell. For now, I was seeking to save my own soul in a branch of Christianity that keeps getting rediscovered like it’s something new, like it has something to offer. Historically, in times of strife, evangelical Christianity – and its hard kernel of a sub-group, fundamentalism – sees an influx of members anxious to escape the winds and the storm. Fundamentalism with its list of do’s and don’ts has long been the refuge of people who don’t want to think for themselves, who find modern life too confusing and complicated. I say that with as much love as I possibly can. It is infinitely easier to let someone else do your thinking for you, rather than discern your own righteous way. It was the ‘70s, the Me Decade, and all around me, my friends were succumbing to lust and drugs and such, and I was dating Jesus, where I was safe.

But I wasn’t happy. I read my Sunday school lessons and worked them ahead of time – not in the car on the way to church, as did my brothers. I memorized vast swatches of Scripture from the King James’ version – the way Jesus spoke. (And if you don’t get that joke, I feel a little sorry for you.) I carried my Bible like a sword (that’s Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.)

I believed, I believed, I believed, and part of that belief meant that I was responsible for my soul, and for yours, as well. And so every Saturday morning was devoted to knocking doors for Jesus, invading the lives of well-meaning residents of Joplin and Webb City, Mo., as I tried to share with them the gospel, the good news.

But I did not feel bloodlust when I knocked doors for Jesus. Instead, I felt sorry for the people on the other side of the door. I knew I had to save their souls – and that we were a peculiar people to be blessed to be in the one-true-church – but I still felt sorry for them because every Saturday morning, I would interrupt their routine by knocking on their door and saying not “Good morning,” but “Where do you want to spend eternity?”

If they’d had a lick of sense, they’d have answered, “Anywhere you’re not.” Mostly, they were polite, but if I’m perfectly honest, I can say that in all the years I knocked doors, I bagged only one soul, and he eventually left the church, so that’s a big zero for Susan’s Saved Souls column

I just didn’t have the heart for it. I watched too much television and from over-achieving young people’s conferences I kept getting sent to, I kept meeting people who didn’t look or smell like me having interesting, full lives outside the fort of the church. My best friend Alan was Roman Catholic and I didn’t have the heart to send him to hell. My beloved grandmother attended a Holiness church – more to keep my beloved grandfather from hounding her to do so – and I knew she was a good woman and if God was going to send someone like her to hell simply because she sat in a pew across town every Sunday, well, what kind of God was that?

I started to voice these concerns early on – tepidly, at first, because I knew the role of women in my church was not to speak out, but to provide support to their husbands. I argued about the lack of women preachers. I argued about the restrictions on divorce. I argued that we were the only people who would be admitted to heaven. That seemed entirely capricious and unfair. If my theology was exclusive, my DNA was that you reach out to help others. I was trained from the cradle to watch out for people who couldn’t watch out for themselves, by my war hero father. To think that by virtue of where I landed on a Sunday would mean the difference between eternal bliss and my flesh eternally melting from my bones in the fiery pit of hell made no sense. None. Neither did the notion that my flesh would melt and melt again from my bones in hell. How would that work? Science did not support it.

So I sat in Sunday schools with my hands balled into fists listening to my brothers in Christ tell me I was to hide my light under a bushel and be happy about it. Hiding a light under a bushel ran counter to what we’re taught in Matt. 5:15, and I got really, really good at lobbing three scriptures back for every one quoted to me.

Eventually, something had to give. I saw I was not going to change my church’s culture, but leaving took years. Church was a much a part of me as my green eyes, and when I finally made the break, my older brother, who’d started preaching at age 12, but also left the church, put it succinctly: Fundamentalism was like a sword that broke off in us. Your flesh grows around the sword’s hilt. You want to pull it out, but if you do, you think you’ll die. You learn to adapt. You learn to stop thinking of humanity as flawed, and sinful, and burdened – as went the old groaner of a hymn – by sin.  You come to realize that the notion of sin is a burden, that we’d all best focus on the notion of healing the world, not condemning the sinful – unless, of course, we’re willing to judge ourselves by the same measure that we judge others. You come to the idea that judging is completely beside the point. And it’s a waste of time.

It took a long time, but I finally settled on my own theology, from James 1:27, which I read earlier. It bears repeating: Paraphrased, it says: Pure and undefiled religion is this: Visit the widows and the sick, and keep yourself unspotted from the world. I suppose I am a red-letter Christian. I care about what Jesus said, not the Jesus I dated, but the historic Jesus who may have been no more than a really smart rabbi, and not the son of God. Whatever the man’s station, he made some incredibly prophetic statements about social justice. If you want to see a really good political platform, read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. I am not denying the divine. I am embracing it in you, the divine you that deserves my respect, and my help, if I can give it. The divine you that carries in you star dust from a time long forgotten, the divine you that reaches for grace that transcends false denominational boundaries that serve only to lash us to the earth. I embrace you because there is much work to do and if we waste our time arguing dogma, that work won’t get done. I embrace you in a wealthy state where we expect children to do homework while living in shelters, where we seem to have accepted that in capitalism, there are winners and there are losers, while we forget that those so-called losers are our brothers and sisters and cousins and friends and sometimes ourselves. I embrace you while we witness a bruising election season that finds itself in a hole and keeps on digging until there isn’t a serious conversation to be had. I embrace you, regardless of whether you embrace me back, because that – and that alone – is my theology, both the easiest and hardest thing ever.

Thank you.

Susan Campbell is the award-winning author of Dating Jesus (Beacon Press) and Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker (Wesleyan University Press). For more than a quarter-century, she was a columnist at the Hartford Courant, where her work was recognized by the National Women’s Political Caucus, New England Associated Press News Executives, the Society for Professional Journalists, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Sunday Magazine Editors Association. Her column about the shootings at lottery headquarters in March 1998 was part of The Courant’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage. She has appeared on CBS’ “Sunday Morning,” the BBC’s “World Have Your Say,” and various radio shows including WNPR. She also co-writes a religion blog, “Hot Dogma!”

Now Thank We All Our God

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Rev. Martin Rinkart

Rev. Martin Rinkart

“Now thank we all our God.”[1] Let me tell you the story of the Rev. Martin Rinkart who wrote the original German words to this hymn in 1636. I’m basing my telling of this story on a 2011 sermon[2] by the Rev. Ian Poulton, a priest in the Church of Ireland. I haven’t tried to verify the facts as Poulton presents them, but I do see that the same story is told in a variety of places. Even if the story has been exaggerated over time, even if what I share is only partially true, it still ought to make us pause and wonder what it means to have a grateful heart.

Martin Rinkart was born in 1586 in Leipzig, about 90 miles southwest of Berlin. At age 15 he began studying theology at the University of Leipzig. He became a Lutheran pastor in his early twenties. Poulton says he was regarded as a better musician than a pastor, but he persisted in the Lutheran ministry and held a variety of positions in the region early in his career. In 1617, at age 31, he became pastor at a church in the small city of Eilenburg to the northeast of Leipzig. If you know anything about this era in European history, you might know that 1618 saw the commencement of the Thirty Years’ War, a complicated and brutal war which ended in 1648. Rinkart died in 1649, having served for the duration of the war at the Eilenberg church. That is, he did ministry in a war zone for 31 years.

Here I am quoting Poulton directly: “The war was beyond the understanding of most ordinary people, all they knew was that army after army laid the countryside bare, having no regard for the welfare of civilian populations. Famine and disease became widespread; farms, livestock and crops had been destroyed and weak and hungry people had no resistance against illness. The war was to reduce the male population of Germany by almost half, in total almost a third of the people in the German states lost their lives, mostly through hunger and illness.

By 1636, Martin Rinkart was the only pastor left in Eilenburg. The walled city had become a place filled with refugees, who brought with them further infection to add to that already present, and who placed further strain upon the town’s desperately short food supplies.

The refugees brought plague with them and in 1637 8,000 people in the town were to die from it. The illness had no regard for wealth or age, the town councilors and many of the town’s children were among the victims…. In May 1837, he buried his own wife. He was to bury more than 4,000 people during the plague, which was followed by a severe famine that saw people fighting in the street over a dead crow or cat.”[3]

The most memorial services I’ve ever conducted in a year is eight—and that makes for an exhausting year. For a period from 1636 to 1637 Rinkart was apparently conducting an average of ten or eleven funerals daily. He was witnessing excruciating devastation, a total breakdown of the social order, not to mention the deaths of his wife, children, friends, colleagues, parishioners. I won’t call it unimaginable, because we can imagine it. We may not know about the Thirty Years’ War, but we have knowledge of other wars, of genocides, of the Holocaust, of slavery, of refugees streaming as I speak out of war zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan into Europe—many of them heading for the “promised land,” Germany. Even if we or our families have not been touched directly by these things, even if we cannot know what it feels like to live through them, we can imagine them. But what might be unimaginable, at least to some, is that in the midst of this devastation and horror, in the midst of relentless death, Martin Rinkart sat in his study, read his Bible, and wrote the words, “Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”[4] How was such gratitude possible given everything he was witnessing?

You might hear this story and get caught on questions about Rinkart’s theology. That’s always a risk with Unitarian Universalists. You might think or say, “Really? After all he went through, after what must have been terrible personal pain, he was thankful to God? Didn’t he understand God as all-powerful, wasn’t that his theology, in which case didn’t he hold God at least partially responsible for the devastation? Wasn’t he angry at God for allowing such suffering? Why didn’t he reject God, say ‘there is no God?’ Why didn’t his faith waver? Was he numb? Was he afraid?” If these are your questions, I urge you not to get caught on them. We don’t know what Rinkart’s spiritual struggle might have been, what his inner disappointment with and rage at God might have been. It doesn’t serve us well to get caught on his theology. I don’t believe in Rinkart’s God; I don’t expect you to either. But I want to share in his extraordinary gratitude. I want it in my life. I hope you do too.

It’s easy to feel grateful when our lives are going well. But can we still be thankful, can we still know and trust how truly blessed we are, when our lives are not going well, when things are falling apart, when the dream we had for our lives comes crashing down around us? Let’s get caught on that question. What does it mean to feel grateful even in the midst of despair?

One of the reasons I feel this is an important question for us is because there’s a connection between gratitude and one’s overall health and well-being. Spiritual teachers, theologians and philosophers have named this connection for millennia. So many prayers in so many religious traditions begin or end with the words, “thank you.” And, over the last fifteen years, psychological researchers have verified these connections through clinical studies. I’ll share one frequently-cited 2003 study conducted by psychologists, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough. I’m quoting here from a paper on gratitude and well-being in a Harvard Medical School publication. Emmons and McCullough asked study participants “to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.”[5]

There are many studies that show similar results. Some yield clearer results than others; some suggest not that gratitude is itself the key to well-being, but that people who report a consistent feeling of gratitude also exhibit a variety of behavior and personality traits that lead to greater well-being; and a few studies diverge and show little or no connection between gratitude and well-being.[6] The one result I have not found in my somewhat-more-than-cursory review of this science of thankfulness is a connection between gratitude and a decline in overall health and well-being. That is, no study has shown that gratitude is bad for you!

So, if gratitude is good for us, it makes sense that a practice of being grateful, of naming to oneself and others those things for which we are grateful, of cultivating a gracious spirit, of saying ‘thank you,’ will have a positive effect on our lives. And these might be the easiest of all spiritual practices. You don’t have to learn to quiet the mind in meditation. You don’t have to first puzzle through that pesky question of whether there is a God or not. You don’t have to be in a specific place at a specific time. You don’t need to pay a lot of money to study with a master. You just need a little time, perhaps daily, to name, either to yourself or others, those people and things for which you are grateful.

I confess I feel a bit redundant speaking to you about gratitude on Sunday morning. There are millions upon millions of articles, books, blogs, videos, TED Talks, inspirational speakers, Facebook posts, tweets and various memes about gratitude. This is not secret knowledge. This is not a mystery waiting to be revealed to the earnest seeker. Nancy Parker suggested I view a TED Talk by the Austrian-American, Buddhist-influenced Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast entitled, “Want to Be Happy? Be Grateful[7] I like his notion of what the practice of gratefulness might look like. He actually co-founded an online community called Gratefulness[8] which curates resources on living a grateful life. He counsels us to Stop, Look, Go” or “Stop, Listen, Go.” It’s very simple. Stop whatever you’re doing. Breathe. Come into the present moment. Then look or listen. What are you grateful for in this moment? He says, “Some of the most meaningful things to acknowledge are those we commonly take for granted. Examples include: our senses, a roof over one’s head, clouds, the ability to learn and grow, a pet, food, a friend.”[9] And then go, by which he means identify these things for which we are grateful not as ‘givens’ but as ‘gifts.’ And what do you say when you receive a gift? Thank you.

So many practices suggested out there in the blogosphere and on the self-help shelves are like this: simple, obvious and genuinely important to our health and well-being. But then I encounter a poem like W. S. Merwin’s “Thanks” which we heard earlier, and I perceive a deeper, less obvious, perhaps more urgent reason for gratitude. Recall Merwin’s words: “Back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging / after funerals we are saying thank you / after the news of the dead / whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you … / with the animals dying around us / our lost feelings we are saying thank you / with the forests falling faster than the minutes / of our lives we are saying thank you / with the words going out like cells of a brain / with the cities growing over us / we are saying thank you faster and faster / with nobody listening we are saying thank you / we are saying thank you and waving / dark though it is.”[10]

Merwin isn’t addressing the goal of health and well-being. His isn’t a survey of blessings at the Thanksgiving table. He’s speaking about resilience—how we stay strong in hard times, how we continue “dark though it is.” So much can happen that we don’t expect, can’t plan for. So much can throw us, knock us down, send us reeling, wake us up into sleepless nights and break our sense of connection to what matters. Our bodies betray us with illness and pain; we lose loved ones; sometimes we lose jobs, income, financial security; sometimes we struggle with addiction, mental illness, anxiety. Our culture feels angry and polarized, while poverty—both economic and spiritual—increases; while hunger—both economic and spiritual—increases, such that we stop trusting in abundance and assume scarcity. Wars break out; ideologues with weapons and no rules rampage across vulnerable lands; refugees stream across borders; desperate people stab strangers on the street and desperate police shoot back. The planet warms; the ice caps melt; species disappear; storms rage. Thank you? Thank you? When things break down, resilience is our capacity to repair whatever connections have been broken. Gratitude creates resilience.

Truly, in the end, we can take nothing for granted; because truly, in the end, nothing is simply a given; because truly, in the end, everything and everyone we care about, everything and everyone that matters to us, everything and everyone we love are gifts: gifts from God if you believe in that way; gifts from the universe; gifts from life’s enduring, animating spirit; or gifts out of sheer cosmic coincidence—but gifts nevertheless. Knowing this—believing this—can create resilience in us. Thank you. Thank you. Let us practice gratitude in good times, so that when hard times come, when challenges come, when illness and death come, when warming and war come, we may remain clear about the gifts we have received, about the blessings in our lives, and grow resilient in the midst of our despair. Whether he understood it in these terms or not, I have no doubt Martin Rinkart wrote “Now thank we all our God” at what was surely the lowest point of his life in order to stay resilient, and to encourage resilience in his community.

DSC_1921Friends, may we be relentlessly thankful for all the blessings of our lives, for all the gifts we receive, for the source of our lives, for the power that brought us and this world and this universe into being, for that fundamental creative energy at the heart of all there is, and for all the ways we are connected to each other, and to all life, and to each dry leaf decaying on the wet November ground, and to each blazing star gracing the heavens with its light. Thank you. Thank you. May we learn to pause and know that none of it is a given, and all of it is a gift. Thank you. Thank you. And may these simple, profound words speak in our hearts and on our tongues, again and again, even in our times of greatest despair: thank you, thank you.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Rinkart, Martin, “Now Thank We All Our God,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #32.

[2] Poulton, Ian, “An A-Z of Hymnwriters: Martin Rinkart,” For the Fainthearted, September 14, 2011. See: http://www.forthefainthearted.com/2011/09/14/an-a-z-of-hymnwriters-martin-rinkart/.

[3] For another version of the story, see Oron, Aryeh, “Martin Rinkart (Hymn-Writer), Bach Cantatas Website, July 2008. See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Lib/Rinckart.htm.

[4] Rinkart, Martin, “Now Thank We All Our God,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #32. Poulton says the Biblical inspiration for these words was Ecclesiasticus, Chapter 50, verse 22-24.

[5] “In Praise of Gratitude,” Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Health Publications: Harvard Medical School, November 1, 2011. See: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/in-praise-of-gratitude. Emmons’ and McCullough’s findings were originally published in Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M.E., “Counted Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003; 84: 377–389.

[6] Reviews of recent psychological studies on gratitude are at the following websites: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3010965/



[7] Steindl-Rast, David, “Want to be Happy? Be Grateful.” TED Talk, June, 2013. See: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_steindl_rast_want_to_be_happy_be_grateful?language=en

[8] Check out http://www.gratefulness.org/.

[9] Check out http://www.gratefulness.org/resource/basic-daily-gratefulness-practice/.

[10] Merwin, W. S., “Thanks, Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). See: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/thanks.

Telling it With a Sigh . . . .

Chaplain Emma Peterson

Emma Peterson In my work as a hospital chaplain, I am seeking to hear the stories of the patients and families I encounter. “Tell me the story of your life,” I ask. And my asking often comes in the midst of remarkable upheaval, in the moments where life as they knew it is suddenly so very different from what they hoped for, expected. I arrive in the unsettling, the reconsidering, the knitting back together. I meet people in the minutes just after the breaking, and long before the healing really begins. “Tell me the story of your life,” I say and wait for what comes. At first, there is usually a look of surprise. Eyes widen a bit, and lips purse as if to catch any words that may pass without permission. But there is always an answer. It begins slowly, a drawling “well,” but there is almost always a response that the person I am listening to has considered before.

          Because that’s how humans are. We are constantly working to make sense of the pathways of our lives. We are seeking the aerial view of the map we always believed we were following. We are aching to see the whole picture, as if it would clarify where we came from and where we are going. My life began like this, we say, and then it looked like this, and then it looked a little different, and now I am here. Usually, the people I encounter attempt to conclude their narratives with an air of confidence- an assurance that they were always meant to wind up exactly where they are. Or, they make an attempt at explaining why their life doesn’t look the way they had always hoped. “I turned left here, when I should have turned right.” “I took this job, pursued this love, moved far away or found my way back home.” I did this, and this, and now I am here. See? It all makes sense, and I was at the helm the whole time, for good or for ill.
          Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is arguably the most iconic poem in America. David Orr’s recent examination of the work and its impact on Western popular culture ranks it as a poem cherished in both academic and informal circles. It has been utilized in thousands of advertisements, appropriated onto countless novels and literary collections. It can be quoted without reference to its original source and recognized immediately by almost any audience. Americans love this poem. It speaks to the way we value personal choice, independence, and control over the worlds we exist in. “And that has made all the difference,” we explain over and over- to ourselves, to each other. Its refrain reassures us in moments when we fear we are losing touch with our personal compass. “I took the one less traveled by,” we proclaim proudly as we attempt to explain the mess of pathways, the lack of straight lines, the utter disaster that was our journey from A to B. I got myself here on purpose, we say, trying to convince ourselves all the while.
          But Western popular culture is guilty of a massive mis-reading of Frost’s most loved poem. We have made famous our misconception, popularized it in such a way that Frost’s intent has become far removed from what we want his words to mean. And, as I think is typical of so many stubborn American assertions, we are oblivious to the fact that Frost is actually confessing a deep anxiety of the human spirit. That is, a recognition that our paths are unknown to us until we begin to travel them.”Though as for that, the passing there/had worn them really about the same.” It all looks the same until we turn left or right, until we discover what is coming up around the next bend. We do not create the paths that lay before us, nor do we always dictate which direction we are going in. Frost is shaking his head at our insistence on explaining away our lives, on claiming ownership and control. Frost is opening a vulnerable cavity of awareness, recognizing a lack of actual choice while admitting he will still try to explain it all as his own doing years in the future.
          Neither Frost nor myself are making a claim that we never actually make our own choices. Of course we do. But a self-centric world view, an insistence that we can always, no matter what, determine where we end up, is painfully flawed. Such a view ignores all of the other forces that exist around us all the time. These “forces” I am referring to are both concrete and obvious, our families, our jobs, our personal obligations and the day to day monotony of survival. But I think it’s much, much more vast than that- I want to push beyond the lens of human consciousness, towards a possibility that there may exist forces in this incredible, miracle universe in which we exist. That these forces may actually have a rhythm, an awareness, an intention to them. And that maybe, we, tiny specks that we are, might not be the ones in charge here. We certainly try to appear in charge. Building up our systems and our rules, stomping our feet and proclaiming skywards that we are running the show here! And the world spins endlessly on in response. And This world continues on, storming, growing, dying, erupting. The world and the universe that cradles it was here eons before we ever were, will be here long after, and I’m not really sure if the entire universe sees your personal life plan as congruent to the big picture. Maybe something bigger than you has a better plan for your life, and it intends to get you there- no matter how desperately you aim in the other direction. And so look out, theres a curve ahead, and you may want to ride it instead of fighting it.
          Here’s something about those curves we face. They come, with their swooping, break-neck speed, and they leave whatever came before them behind.  One path always leaves another untravelled. And the loss there is real, and significant in the narratives of our lives. If you are uncertain where the meaning lies, look for the loss. Seek out the grief, and work to understand how its presence has informed your identity. “Sorry I could not travel both/and be one traveller.” In the past decade, I have imagined countless possible lives I could lead. But there is always, really, only room for one. How many people could I have become by now, if only I could seek out all paths, or settle down once I felt I had found my way home. Life doesn’t work that way. And there our traveller stands, on the precipice of possibility, knowing that whatever way he goes, he will lose the other way entirely. He expresses a brief hope to return again and seek the other path. “Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/I doubted if I should ever come back.” In that there is grieved recognition of a life not lived, and another lived instead.
          Just like so many of the patients I encounter, I too have learned how to tell my story. My words are practiced to sound that while I accept a small degree of mystery, I more or less knew my direction from the start. But this is all just well rehearsed nonsense. I don’t know how I wound up where I am, and the only thing I can point to to explain it all is this feeling that has swelled from my heart from the moment I realized that I was not the center of the universe. (Imagine that!) This feeling can only be called faith, a certainty in some divine presence that I know exists, even if I can’t even begin to qualify it. This love, this deep love that feels truly knitted into my very person, has kept me moving ever forward, and it has doubled back to find me each time I declared I was going to ignore it because I had other things to do. If destiny is real, then destiny hurts. But I have come to realize that ignoring the persistent whisper in my heart, the whisper that demands I follow what I have come to understand as my personal call, hurts far more than answering it, loudly, and with praise.
          I was raised in the bosom of small-town Methodist community. The theology of the faith that raised me was conservative, straight forward and simple. Christ, born of Father God and Mary, came here to save humanity. We took communion with homemade bread and warm grape juice, laid the baby Jesus in our manger on Christmas Eve, and covered the cross during Holy Week. I grew up spending Sunday’s being embraced by the bony, warm dry hands of little old ladies. My pastors were men who commanded authority, and who didn’t appreciate the questions I asked as I got older.
          I think I was about ten when I began to feel the persistent tug of cognitive dissonance. One Sunday, our minister preached a sermon about his certainty that Jesus Christ was “the way, the truth, and the light.” Proclaiming Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior was the only path to salvation. At the time, I had a friend Ming June whose parents owned the Chinese take out place on Main Street. She lived in a huge victorian home with a bevy of Chinese men and women who were here to work in the restaurant. In their sparse living room was a massive Buddhist alter, a smiling statue of the one who is awake in the center. Sweet incense burned around the Buddha all day long, orange peels dried at his feet, and small scraps of paper bearing prayers rested in his palms. Ming’s family alter was a sacred space, I knew it to be true, and the thought of her burning in hell for following the wrong prophet both broke my heart and awoke in me an anger that eventually led me away from the Methodist church and Christianity entirely. This burgeoning anger, this swelling of dissent carried with it a strong undercurrent of grief and loss. I ached to hear true gospel. I was coming into myself, developing an in your face liberal and queered identity, and I all I wanted was for someone to tell me God made me as I was, loved me every day, and recognized me even when I couldn’t recognize myself.
          This period of angst lasted an entire decade. I learned to ignore God, in no small part because I already believed God was ignoring me. I felt safely removed from the longing simmering in my heart. But then when I was 21, on a trip to Texas I visited a psychic, a veritable prophet, sitting in her sweltering trailer in July. She was all of four foot five, skin like leather left in the sun, and a voice only achieved when someone is very, very dedicated to chain smoking. She held my hands in hers, and spoke to me with a measured urgency unlike anything I’d heard before. “Ask me a question, dear child,” she implored me, and I did. I asked her what I was going to be when I grew up. My anxiety surrounding the mystery of what was to come next was growing inside me, and I had come to her in hopes of direction. “I don’t know,” she relied, her voice scraping gravel. “But I can tell you this, you are going to work for God.” She shook me up, this tiny psychic angel, and then she sent me on my way. I pushed her out of my mind for seven months, until on one late January afternoon I sat down and resolved to apply to seminary. I wanted answers about God. I wanted to know why I couldn’t hear “blessed assurance” without dissolving into tears. I wanted to know why people in my life, those who knew me and knew me not at all were always telling me to become a pastor. I determined I would answer these questions by hitting the books, and one year later found myself at Yale.
I read the entire Bible, and only found more to reject. I wanted to return to Christ, and while I loved the puzzle of the trinity, I just couldn’t conceive of Jesus beyond a revolutionary and a prophet. This broke my heart, and I spiraled again into grief and loss.
          But then I met Elizabeth Price, a CPE supervisor delighted by my reluctance to name the divine presence I felt always. She accepted me into the ten week chaplaincy program, and it was there I discovered the holy ground I had so long been seeking. In the hospital, where the world comes when it is breaking, the divine was everywhere. I encountered God in each patient I met, mixed in with the starkest possible representations of the human experience. And this stumbling upon what what I believed to be God calling me to chaplain ministry meant I needed to get to work. Gradually, a combination of dear friends and small miracles led me to the Unitarian Universalist Association of New Haven. And there, on that first Sunday morning, was a proclamation of the gospel I had been longing to hear. There it was! It was justice, and mystery, and radical inclusion all at once. I was home, finally, finally. God had found a way and I was home.
          I am not going off the deep end here. Please do not misunderstand this sermon as a spin of the relentlessly damaging adage “everything happens for a reason.” I do not believe everything happens for a reason. But I do believe there is so much more to this world than we, tiny fallible humans can ever hope to understand. I want to believe God, spirit, heavenly creator, knows me intimately and has intentions for what I (and you, too) will do in this world. All I can say is this- I would not be a Unitarian Universalist, I would not be a hospital chaplain, I would not spend every day swelled to capacity for love of the divine if something, something unfathomable and way, way bigger than me didn’t exist.
          In the photo series “Humans of New York” there was a picture taken of a middle-aged woman leaning against an iron fence in some small city neighborhood. The corresponding quote read, “I have this theory. Are you ready for it? So we are on earth for a finite amount of time. And time is a manmade perception. And we perceive time passing through change- seasons, aging, things like that. So to expand our time on earth, we must incite as much change in our lives as possible.” What a remarkable way to cope with the unexpected. And she’s right, at least in terms of how I think of my own life. My strongest memories, my strongest sense of how I have become who I am becoming, are directly connected to transition, to new life, to moving past something and growing in to something new. And most of this change comes with a period of pain, of grief, of reluctance to move beyond the familiar and the comfortable. But after all of that, after I truly put to rest what is no longer mine, there is new and better life. There is a sense of “this is where I am supposed to be.” I never would have gotten anywhere near where I am now if I had been in charge.
          I am telling this with a sigh. But I am no longer making claim that my own choice about left here or right there made all the difference in this strange and incredible life I’m blessed to live. The narrative of my life contains so much more than my own choices. Perhaps I am “giving it up to God.” Perhaps I am choosing to waylay personal responsibility in favor of divine mystery, for the pull of the unexpected, for the chance to see what happens next if I listen for the thread woven so tightly throughout my heart. If it were truly up to me, I likely wouldn’t of sent off that application to seminary in the wee hours of some January morning. I wouldn’t have chosen to witness so much death, so much loss, so much remarkable grace. But here I am. Best to let that be what it is, best to become whatever I am supposed to become.
          And maybe there are signs, sometimes, showing up how we can live in this unbelievable world. In the late afternoon, I am walking the dog around a man made pond. The earth around me is heavily landscaped, displaying appealing beauty with its perfect angles and intentional curves and straight lines. The day is cool and clear, breezy. A monarch butterfly flits past me, filling up my vision with a flash of orange and black, beating wings. She appears so suddenly that I catch my breath, and pause to take note of her arrival. She is lovely, and so bright against the endless blue sky. She circles my body, once, twice, before allowing the wind to carry her on. The breeze is strong, but she rides it like a kite. Her weightlessness has become her strength, and she has surrendered herself to the journey ahead. She will withstand the wind, and it will become a part of her,  taking her where she needs to go.

Falling: Thoughts on Forgiveness

IMG_0574Forgiveness is our ministry theme for October. This is a sermon about forgiveness. I’ve given it the title, “Falling,” mainly because autumn has come to New England, the leaves are changing and beginning to fall, and I’ve been caught by the notion that the act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires us to let go of something; to let go like leaves and fall; to let go like leaves and fall and trust that we will land where we need to be.

There are many metaphors that will work in addition to falling. All morning we’ve been singing those words from Rev. Raymond Baughan: “Turn scarlet, leaves.”[1] The act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires us to turn; to turn away from something; to turn away from something that has been holding us, constraining us, defining us—some hurt, anger, distrust, fear, self-pity, self-righteousness, pride. To forgive someone who has wronged us requires us to turn away, to turn toward something new—often something unknown—and to trust we are turning in a good direction.

In our first reading, Rev. Belletini likens forgiving to sinking “like stones in a pool” all those things that weigh us down. “Drop them like hot rocks / into the cool silence,” he urges.[2] Here again, the act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires that we let something go, drop it, plunge it, sink it, trusting that its removal from our lives will serve us well; will enable us, in his words, to “lay back gently, and float, / float on the calm surface of the silence.”[3]

We might add tumbling to the list. We sang Rev. Baughan’s words, “Tumble the shadows into dawn / The morning out of night.”[4] Perhaps forgiving is akin to tumbling—to leaving the solid ground we’ve been occupying; hoping and trusting some new ground will form beneath us, hoping and trusting we will land well. Falling, turning, sinking, dropping, quieting, letting go, surrendering, tumbling. Many words work. This morning, falling. If we are to forgive those who have wronged us, something must fall.

The impact genuine forgiveness has on our lives is well-known: it makes us free. Let’s remember this. Our national culture, at its worst—meaning not all the time, but increasingly—is becoming less forgiving, more tolerant of and comfortable with un-checked and unbridled anger, more content with broken relationships remaining broken, more quick to judge, more quick to assume the worst, more quick to lash out, more quick to publically shame. And public apologies, if they come at all, are shallow, worded to avoid responsibility for wrongdoing, and thus they don’t readily invite forgiveness. Ours is a ‘gotcha’ society, a litigious society, a road rage society, a mass incarceration society, a mass shooting society. The more familiar and habitual these trends become, the more we let them become the status quo, the less free we are. Something must fall.

Last July I had the honor of participating on the National Public Radio show “On Point.” The show was about religion in the public square. The topic of forgiveness came up in response to the way some of the family members of those killed in the June 17th mass shooting at Charleston, South Carolina’s “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church publically forgave the shooter. The quickness with which these family members forgave was puzzling to many people. One of the panelists on the show, Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, MD, responded, “Many people think that [to forgive] means to absolve the offender. But the word ‘to forgive’… is also about releasing the self from the pain, from the action that was committed by the other person…. When I hear people saying that they forgive … they are going to release themselves from … the desire for vengeance that can actually creep into one’s heart.”[5] I don’t pretend to know why or how those family members were able to utter words of forgiveness so quickly after such a monstrous crime, but I think Rev. Coates is correct: they did not want their lives to become defined by overwhelming anger, bitterness, and a desire for vengeance. They wanted release. They wanted to determine the values that would guide them through the chaos. They wanted emotional and spiritual freedom. I also suspect they offered forgiveness not to announce they had completed a process of forgiving, but that they had begun. Forgiveness is a practice, and this would not be the last time they would say those blessed words.

In a sermon entitled, “The Gift of Forgiveness,” minister emeritus of Boston’s King’s Chapel, Rev. Carl Scovel, says “When we forgive, we are freed, not from the hurt, but from the dominating power of the hurt. We are able to give up our anger. The hurt and wrath no longer direct us…. We may still suffer the consequences of the offense, but the offense no longer masters us.” “However it happens, we are free.”[6]

In a meditation entitled, “Forgiveness is Human,” Unitarian Universalist Army chaplain Rev. George Tyger writes, “We often think about forgiveness as releasing another person from an obligation to us…. In truth, through forgiveness, we free ourselves. We free ourselves from the desire to take revenge, the need to get even, and from anger. Without forgiveness, we carry these weights with us wherever we go. With forgiveness, we can put down these burdens.”[7]

Last Sunday from this pulpit Jeannette LeSure shared a powerful and painful story about her decades-long process of forgiving those who had abused her as a child, and forgiving her parents—particularly her mother—for not keeping her safe. Finding the capacity to forgive ultimately freed her not only to reclaim positive memories of her mother as a beautiful, if flawed, person, but also to become more fully the person she longed to be—an artist, a painter with a studio. Without forgetting the wrongs done to her, she can say on this side of forgiveness, “Who cares how my wings got so broken? When I paint in my studio, I soar to where Mommy and I could never travel, and she’s with me in every brushstroke. I just do not care. I am free.”[8]

But how? I can hear many of you, over the years—and me too—saying “I understand forgiveness brings freedom, but understanding the outcome isn’t the same as getting there. How do I actually get there?” “I’m so mad, I’m so hurt, I feel so betrayed. How can I forgive?” Or, “I want so much to not feel this anger and pain anymore, but it won’t leave me, it won’t be gone, it won’t get behind me.” Yes, there is freedom on the other side of forgiveness, but the chasm between that freedom and the experience of being wronged can feel so vast, can feel—for years, for decades, for a lifetime—unbreachable. Something must fall.

What if I told you that leaves are always falling, that falling is their natural state? We don’t notice them falling in spring and summer because they are firmly attached to their branches, but without that attachment, and without the ground on which to settle, they would keep falling and falling and falling in every season. What if I told you that even once they settle on the ground, that settling is just an illusion? The falling continues as gravity pulls their decaying fibers down into the dirt, into the dust, into the muck. The pace of the falling slows greatly once they reach the ground, but it continues even after nothing resembling a leaf remains.

And what if I told you the same is true for us, that without this floor, without the ground, we too, like leaves, would fall and fall and fall? Over the eons, as living creatures, we have adjusted well to the presence of solid ground—we have learned to trust that the earth’s surface more or less holds—but what if I told you that falling is our natural state? You might say that’s silly, not helpful, but take the ground away, and you know as well as I: we’ll all fall.

You might also say, “that’s a very astute observation, Rev., but even so, we have to hold onto something. We can’t live if we’re falling.” That’s true. We need solid ground in order to live. We need flat, even surfaces for walking, running, rolling, driving, dancing. We need chairs to hold our weight as we sit, tables to hold our food as we eat, desks to hold our computers as we work. Most of us lay down on mattresses to sleep. These are the physical handholds, footholds and body-holds that keep us from falling through life. They are more or less reliable. But not all of the things we hold onto are physical. Some are emotional and spiritual. On our best days, we hold onto positive emotions—what makes us feel happy and joyful, content and fulfilled? What makes us feel enthusiastic and excited or calm and serene? If we can have the experiences that create these feelings in us, and then hold onto them, we won’t feel as if we’re falling. We’ll feel stable, steady, solid.

But here is the key to forgiveness: not all emotional and spiritual handholds are positive or pleasant. Some are negative and quite unpleasant, but we reach for them too. We use them to stop falling too. Sometimes we hold on tightly to the experience of being wronged. The thoughts and feelings that spin out from that experience become our thoughts and feelings. They take hold in our bodies. They become habitual. Sometimes they become so familiar to us that we aren’t sure who we are without them. The same is true for the experience of betrayal, of being victimized, harmed, oppressed, let down. Thoughts and feelings spin out from these experiences: we want the wrong-doer, the offender, the perpetrator, the betrayer to feel pain as well; we want them to feel remorse, guilt and shame; we want them to be punished; we want vengeance. We typically don’t like it when we think and feel this way. It isn’t how we imagine ourselves thinking and feeling. But these are real thoughts and feelings, and we have them. Sometimes we keep coming back to them. They become our solid ground. They anchor us. We return to them habitually—and with good reason: they, too, keep us from falling.

No wonder genuine forgiveness is so difficult. In order to forgive we must somehow move off the solid ground of our pain, off the solid ground of our desire to punish, off the solid ground of our anger. In order to forgive we must let go of our hold on these things. We must let go and fall and trust that we will land where we need to be.

How do we do this? Practice. In her short book, Practicing Peace in Times of War, the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, writes about shenpa, which commonly translates as “attachment,” but which she describes as “getting hooked.” She says “Somebody says a harsh word and immediately you can feel a shift. There’s a tightening that rapidly spirals into mentally blaming this person, or wanting revenge, or blaming yourself. Then you speak or act. The charge behind the tightening, behind the urge, behind the story line or action is shenpa.”[9] Chödrön isn’t writing about forgiveness per se, but I suspect shenpa functions as an impediment to forgiveness. We can become hooked on our victimization, on our pain, on a desire to punish, on a desire for vengeance, on anger. The sense of self-righteousness that can flow out of these feelings is very powerful, very addictive. We get high from it—high both from the emotional rush of false power it provides, and from the way it allows us to place ourselves above the wrong-doer, to believe we are better than they. So, forgive? Not easy when we’re hooked on pain and anger.

For Chödrön, the practice of meditation overcomes the effects of shenpa. Meditation, she says, “teaches us to experience the uneasiness [of shenpa] fully [and then] to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to return again and again to the present moment.” She tells us to let the thoughts and feelings arise—because they are real. Let them come … but don’t follow them. Instead, let them dissolve—because eventually they will. She says: keep coming “back to ‘right now,’ even when ‘right now’ doesn’t feel so great. This is how we learn patience, and how we learn to interrupt the chain reaction of habitual responses that otherwise will rule our lives.”[10] “What happens when you don’t follow the habitual response?” she asks? “Gradually you learn to relax into the shaky, impermanent moment.”[11] Or to use my language, gradually, you learn to fall. When we’re no longer holding on, we’re falling. Rev. Belletini might call it floating.

Meditation, we know, is not for everyone. There are other ways to practice. I imagine very simple prayers: If I am angry, then may I feel anger. But let me not follow it. Let it not define my life. If I am in pain, then may I feel pain. But let me not follow it. Let it not rule my life. If I am vengeful, then may I feel vengeful. But let me not follow it. Let it not become the master of my life. I am convinced this is what the family members of the Mother Emanuel victims were doing when the offered forgiveness to the shooter. They were practicing not holding onto pain, anger and vengeance.

So practice. Practice not following the negative thoughts and feelings. Slowly, slowly, slowly their power over you will wane. Slowly, slowly, slowly you will begin to let go. Slowly, slowly, slowly you will fall. As you fall, the deeper truths of your life—and of living—will shine all around you. Forgiveness will come. Freedom will come.

Those words we heard earlier from Rev. David Breeden may make more sense now: “I dug and dug / deeper into the earth / Looking for blue heaven / Choking always / On the piles of dust rising / Then once / At midnight / I slipped / And fell into the sky.”[12] Slowly, slowly, slowly, it will come. May each of us, when we need it, learn to fall.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Baughan, Raymond J., “Turn Scarlet, Leaves,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #485.

[2] Belletini, Mark, Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

[3] Belletini, Mark, Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

[4] Baughan, Raymond J., “Turn Scarlet, Leaves,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #485.

[5] “Politics, Tragedy and Religion in the Public Square” On Point, July 6th, 2015. See: http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/07/06/god-public-life-united-states-scotus-charleston. 21:00.

[6] Scovel, Carl, “The Gift of Forgiveness,” Never Far From Home: Stories From the Radio Pulpit (Boston: Skinner House, 2004) p. 131.

[7][7] Tyger, George, “Forgiveness is Human,” War Zone Faith: An Army Chaplain’s Reflections from Afghanistan (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 73-74.

[8] LeSure, Jeannette, “Forgiveness: Freedom to Fly,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, October 4, 2015. Unpublished.

[9] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 56.

[10] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 59.

[11] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 63.

[12] Breeden, David, “Falling Into the Sky,”eds., Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, Falling Into the Sky: A Meditation Anthology (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) p. 1.

I’m Done Talking About the ‘End of Church!’

IMG_0568Our ministry theme for September is transitions—always a potent theme for this time of year, the beginning of the congregational year, the beginning of the school year, the commencement of the final harvest on New England farms, the arrival of autumn. Indeed, even if there’s no particular threshold we’re crossing in our personal lives at this time, autumn in New England demands that we pay attention to transition. Those words we recited earlier from Rabbi Jack Riemer remind us of this: “Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter. For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.”[1] This is a season of obvious, bold and brilliant transitions.

And, of course, the Rabbi is also making reference to atonement—that solemn, joyful practice at the heart of the Jewish High Holy Days—the Days of Awe—that solemn, joyful practice—both spiritual and social—of making amends, of saying, “I’m sorry,” of asking for forgiveness, of turning, in the Rabbi’s words, from “callousness to sensitivity … envy to contentment … fear to faith;”[2] that most sacred act of returning from separation back to relationship, from isolation back to community, from brokenness back to wholeness. This is indeed a season of transitions.

I want to name a transition in our congregation that is largely behind us now, and then offer a related transition in my thinking about what I’m calling “The State of ‘The Church.’” The transition in our congregation began when we learned in 2013 that our long-time, beloved Director of Religious Education, Vicki Merriam, would be retiring; and then, a year later, that our beloved and now sadly deceased Director of Music, Pawel Jura, would be moving to a new position in Virginia. We said “good-bye” to Vicki in June of 2014, and to Pawel a month later in July; and then we embarked on very intentional, careful and thoughtful periods of transition. Knowing that awesome religious education and awesome music are critical to a thriving Unitarian Universalist congregation, we wanted to transition well. Whatever else our mission says about who we are as a faith community and how we aspire to show up in the world, religious education and music are the programmatic life-blood of our church. We knew this. We wanted to make sure these staff positions and their programs were well-structured and appropriately funded; and we wanted to hire the best possible people. I am confident we have been successful in our efforts. We’ve already welcomed and congratulated Gina Campellone in her role as Director of Religious Education. We’ve already welcomed and congratulated Mary Bopp in her role as Director of Music. I’m not proposing that we do that again today. But I am naming that as a congregation we have come through a period of transition in our staff and major programs. I am overjoyed to be starting the congregational year and, instead of focusing my best energy on staff transitions, I can now return again to the ministry you called me to provide thirteen years ago. That feels great.

Congratulations to you, the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, for coming through this time of transition so well.

End of ChurchOver the past few years you may have noticed the prevalence of a certain topic in my preaching, teaching and committee work. During this period of transition I have continually repeated the message that in the United States the traditional church—that is, a congregation with a building, with Sunday morning worship as its central spiritual practice, with staff, with committees, with many bills to pay—is in serious decline. Some might say it is in free-fall. Across denominations, across faiths, membership is down, attendance is down, participation is down, volunteerism is down, financial giving—especially since the Great Recession of 2008—is down. Churches are moving from full time professional ministers to part-time professional ministers. Churches are closing. Just a year ago, September 14th, 2015, I preached a sermon on “The End of Church” in which I cited all sorts of statistics about all sorts of people who aren’t attending all sorts of churches. I quoted an article that had just appeared in the UU World magazine in which the Rev. Dr. Teresa Cooley cited many of those same statistics, arguing that “if we don’t pay attention to these trends, we could end up like those near-empty or abandoned churches that are increasingly becoming part of our [national] landscape.”[3] Just this past week there was yet another piece on National Public Radio about Catholic Churches continuing to close in the northeast and midwest.[4] These trends are alive and well.

Another way I—and we—have been talking about the decline of the traditional church is by naming how families with children are less able to participate in congregational life because childhood is changing. In a November, 2013 sermon on the value of multigenerational community, I said, “we’ve finally witnessed the death of Sunday morning as the one, truly sacred time in the United States, the one time when no other events or activities could be scheduled, no shopping malls could be open, and families with children were not forced every week to choose between church and a plethora of other activities and organizations that involve their children and, in some cases, demand—as the price of participation—that their children make whatever [that] other activity is their highest priority. What a difference [from a generation ago], when young people and adults who used to experience their congregation as a major center for social connection, now come to church with hundreds if not thousands of online ‘friends,’ vast social media networks, and unlimited opportunities for screen-based entertainment—entertainment one experiences essentially alone—just a few keystrokes away.”[5]

I think it’s been really important to talk about these trends, this evidence of the end of church, these data of decline in congregational life as we’ve gone through a time of transition in staffing and programs. It’s been really important for us to know what’s going on in American religious life. It’s been really important for us to envision our future with full knowledge of the challenges we may be facing. And while naming these trends and evidence and data can feel negative, grim, sobering even frightening at times, I don’t regret doing it. We needed this information, and we still need it, in order to make wise decisions, in order to sustain our congregation and our faith for future generations.

But now we’ve come through our transition and I don’t want to talk about decline anymore. I don’t want to focus on the end of church any more. I’m done talking about it, especially from the pulpit. I say this knowing full well the trends and issues aren’t going away. Indeed, over the summer a number of posts showed up on my Facebook page describing how difficult professional ministry has become, how hundreds of ministers leave the ministry every month, how those who don’t typically work 60-70 hour weeks, and many other sad statistics. Credible people have studied this. The writers are correct. It is salient stuff.[6] I deeply appreciate the people who post these articles on my page because they do it out of love and concern for me. But I’m done talking about it. I’m done talking about decline. I’m done talking about the end of church. I’m done giving it energy and attention. I’m done talking about all sorts of statistics about all sorts of people who aren’t attending all sorts of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.

Why and I done? Because I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. This church isn’t ending. This church isn’t in decline. And, most importantly, you’re here. That matters. Instead of trying to figure out the needs of people who aren’t here and who may never come here, why not respond to you—to your needs, your energy, your passion? Let’s prioritize you. Let’s talk about the fact that there are people here—present now—with pain and sorrow and misgivings and joy and contentment and milestones to celebrate—people who take church seriously, who understand its value in their lives and in the world. I want to talk about that.

And I want to talk about commitment. I’m committed to our Unitarian Universalist faith and to this Unitarian Universalist congregation. I hope and trust you are committed too. Commitment matters. In a society that increasingly tolerates and even sanctions the erosion of commitment in family life, friendships, work, community and politics, let’s talk about what it means to be committed to a spiritual community—to claim its principles as our own, to embrace its mission as our own, to abide by its covenant, to express its values in public, to sustain it for future generations. What an incredible thing—to be committed in this way: to a church, to a congregation, to a piece of land, to a building, to a sanctuary. I want to talk about that.

And I want to talk about courage. It is becoming abundantly clear to me that, while we have to be vigilant about church growth, and continue to take steps to grow our congregations, the future of our liberal faith doesn’t ultimately hinge on whether more people become Unitarian Universalists: and the future of American liberal religion doesn’t hinge at all on whether more people start attending church again. The future of our faith and the future of American liberal religion hinge on whether or not we—those who are present and committed now—can courageously express our values in words, but more importantly in deeds, in the public square for the sake of healing a profoundly broken society and adapting well to the environmental changes wrought by the global climate crisis. We need to be courageous.

In the past months I’ve seen physical vandalism and online threats against Unitarian Universalist churches that hang Black Lives Matter banners in New Jersey and Chicago. I’ve seen homophobic violence this past week against the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Danbury, CT. Last summer we saw anti-abortion activists disrupt Unitarian Universalist worship in New Orleans. This is frightening. Looking out more broadly I see ongoing, unmitigated, unaddressed gun violence in the United States. I see increasingly violent and racist rhetoric coming from our political leaders and some presidential candidates. I see corporations threatening states—“If we don’t get our way, we’ll leave”—forcing legislators to slowly dismantle social safety nets, and thereby increasing already unsustainable and immoral wealth and income inequality. (Did you see that happen in Connecticut this year?) And I hear raucous, hate-filled, irresponsible voices blasting out across the airwaves, fabricating threats to religious liberty, fabricating threats from Muslims, fabricating threats from immigrants and justifying state-sponsored violence by fabricating racialized demons.

Globally I see the tenacity of terrorist organizations across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia who feed on the misery of poverty, of failed governments and tyranny. And I see the ongoing insanity of climate change denial. I see the fires, the tornados, the droughts, the hurricanes, the snow storms, the super storms and the risings oceans. I see it all and, frankly, I am afraid. I am afraid for my children, for our children, for our communities, for young black men, for what semblance of democracy we still have, and for the planet. Friends, I need to talk about courage. What are our sources of courage in light of abundant reasons to feel fear? Our Unitarian Universalist faith gives guidance in response to this question. Decline? The end of church? Too many soccer games on Sunday mornings? I’m done talking about it. I much prefer to talk about being courageous people of liberal faith, because our era requires courage.

I said in that sermon last year that “churches and denominations may be in decline these days. But there is still a genius to the idea of people gathering faithfully, week after week, united around a set of common principles, giving thanks for the blessings in their lives, caring for one another, teaching their children, hearing the wisdom of their elders, searching together for truth and meaning, and working for a more just, peaceful and loving world.”[7] That genius hasn’t gone away. That genius still exists. I suspect it will always exist. So let’s talk over the months and years as we continue to build this spiritual community together. What does it mean to be here, now? What does it mean to be committed? Where do we find our sources of courage? Present, committed, courageous. May that be the state of the church.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Riemer, Jack, “On Turning,”Singing the Living Tradition Boston (Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #634.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “Ring Them Bells,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 9/14/14. See: http://uuse.org/ring-them-bells/#.Vfl8Ft9Viko.

[4] Hansi Lo Wang, “’It’s All About Church Closings’: Catholic Parishes Shrink In Northeast, Midwest,” National Public Radio, 9/14/15. See: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/14/436938871/-it-s-all-about-church-closings-catholic-parishes-shrink-in-northeast.

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “On the Meaning of Multigenerational,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 11/17/13. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/on-the-meaning-of-multigenerational/.

[6] Krejcir, Richard J., “What’s Going On With Pastors in America?” See: http://www.intothyword.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=36562

[7] Pawelek, Josh, “Ring Them Bells,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 9/14/14. See: http://uuse.org/ring-them-bells/#.Vfl8Ft9Viko.

Part of All That Ever Was: A 2015 First Harvest Reflection

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Photo by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

Photo by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon picking up garbage around the Mortensen Riverfront Plaza on the Connecticut River in Hartford. This was part of my court-ordered community service after engaging in civil disobedience for Moral Monday CT and the Black Lives Matter movement on June 8th. The Hartford Community Court had deployed our doughty crew to beautify the Hartford riverfront in advance of the Food Truck Festival which took place over the second weekend of July.

The park appeared very clean when we got there, but the more we looked for garbage, the more we found: cigarette butts, candy wrappers, plastic water, juice, soda, athletic drink, and beer bottles, tin cans, hub caps, tires, exhaust pipes, mufflers, shoes, pants, underwear (men’s and women’s), Styrofoam and waxed cardboard take-out food containers, paper and plastic bags, plastic forks, knives and spoons, spent fireworks, etc. I understand that the impact of garbage accumulating along the Connecticut River is relatively small and largely cosmetic when compared to the impact of greenhouse gasses accumulating in the atmosphere. But there is a connection. One of my co-defendants wondered philosophically why apparently so many people feel it is OK to leave their garbage on the ground rather than placing it in garbage cans, which are abundant in the parks along the Connecticut River. My response, which I blurted out without giving much thought, was that it’s the symptom of a spiritual sickness. And that spiritual sickness is our modern-world, industrialized nation, human disconnection from Nature. Our capacity to litter is rooted in our disconnection from Nature.

In this sense, littering is no different from any other activity we engage in that damages either a local environment or the entire planet: we are able to engage in environmentally harmful activities—with impunity—because we have become disconnected from Nature. We engage in activities that assault the integrity of the natural world because we’ve lost our ancestral sense of our place in Nature; because we’ve lost our ancestral knowledge—life-giving, life-directing knowledge—of our dependence on and our interdependence with Nature; because we’ve lost, ultimately, our experience of oneness, our experience of being, in the words of the Rev. Becky Edmiston-Lange, “part of all that ever was.”[1] In order, as a species, to cause the harm we’ve caused, we first had to imagine ourselves as somehow distinct and separate from Nature. We first had to elevate ourselves in our own minds above Nature while simultaneously demoting and demonizing Nature. We had to identify ourselves as the tamers, the domesticators, the controllers, the civilizers, the owners, the sellers, the managers, the harnessers, the subduers, the dominators, the exploiters of Nature. We had to proclaim ourselves to be the masters of Nature. None of this was ever true—we know that now. We were never really any of these things. But we had to believe it in order to create all the toxins, poisons, contaminants, carcinogens, hazardous waste, pollutants, sludge and slurry we’ve created. None of this was ever true, but we had to believe it in order to create our fossil fuel-addicted society. We had to believe it in order to create our convenience-loving, plastic-wrap, disposable, shopaholic culture. We had to be wholly disconnected from Nature to become the people we’ve become. And when I use the words “we” and “people” I’m referring to we-the-people who live in the modern-world, industrialized nation societies where that spiritual sickness—disconnection from Nature—is most advanced.

I don’t want to dwell any further on this spiritual sickness or its symptoms. My sense is that the members and friends of this congregation generally agree the modern-world, industrialized-nation human disconnection from Nature is real and has resulted over time in a complex matrix of corporate and governmental policies, practices and systems for energy, agriculture, construction, sanitation, chemical engineering, genetic engineering, education—relating to virtually every aspect of our lives—that have long-term, negative environmental impacts that will be—and in some instances already are—catastrophic. A human disconnection from Nature was necessary before the evolution of these policies, practices and systems could take place. I assume most of you agree with this statement in part because as a congregation you are so committed to addressing the causes of global warming and climate change, working for environmental justice, countering environmental racism, and pursuing green, sustainable, simple and healthy ways of living. What I’m wondering about this morning, therefore, is not what perpetuates the spiritual sickness, but what will bring healing. What spiritual practices, what ways of thinking and being, will help us re-establish our connection to Nature?

I’m going to share four spiritual practices that answer this question for me. The first is for the heart. I call it “longing.” It is the practice of allowing oneself to feel emotion in response to our experience of Nature. Many of us are familiar with that stirring of emotion—that awe and wonder—that come in the presence of natural beauty, that come in response to witnessing an amazing landscape, a panoramic mountain-top view, a vast ocean, a starry, night sky. Our family recently spent time in the Berkshire Hills around Pittsfield, MA where Stephany’s parents live. Somewhere along the way Max started asking, ‘can we go hiking in the Berkshire Hills?” I heard in this question a nine-year-old’s longing for Nature, to be in awe of the natural world, to be in the midst of natural beauty, to be in the midst of mystery, to feel connected to a landscape that he knew was important to his mother because she spent her childhood there.

Waterfall at Monument Mountain in the Berkshire Hills

Waterfall at Monument Mountain in the Berkshire Hills

I include this kind of emotion in the practice of longing—Max was longing to experience those hills—but I’m also talking about a more complex set of emotions, perhaps a more adult set of emotions, that emerges from a recognition that something has been lost. I read earlier Allison Gammons’ meditation “Spirit of the Falls.” She writes, “A spirit once dwelt here, manifest in the rock that guides the water… / alive in the trees and plants / holding back the dirt, keeping the mountain from  / sliding to the river…. / I felt the spirit in that mist, playing with me, / dancing and laughing as I danced and laughed…. / I search for it now, along the paved trails, / amid the people and noise. / I strive to find it in the mist of the falls.”[2] She’s longing to regain something that has been lost. And we know, quite often, the emotions that attach to the experience of loss are not awe and wonder but sadness, sorrow, grief, melancholy, despair, anguish, heartache. All these emotions are part of the longing I’m describing.

And there’s more. As we recognize more and more that the disconnection from Nature is something that we-the-people have imposed on we-the-people, something we’ve taught, something we’ve solds, something we’ve bought; as we recognize that human greed, arrogance and ignorance, as well as politics, corporate bottom lines and a relentless striving for convenience have done this to us and we-the-people have allowed it to happen such that it now threatens the future of the planet, we may realize we are angry. We may realize we are impatient, indignant, furious, outraged. These emotions are also part of longing.

None of them is easy to feel, but we need to feel them—we need to let them out. As long as they remain unfelt and unacknowledged, our disconnection from Nature continues. Feeling them fully—working through them—readies us for reconnecting. Let us create spaces, then, in which we can feel these emotions. We can certainly create such spaces here in our corporate worship. But I invite you to contemplate how you might create spaces in your own life to feel deeply your complex longing to connect with Nature.

The second spiritual practice is for the mind. I call it re-imagining. For me this is primarily an intellectual practice in two parts. The first part is a practice of surrounding ourselves with voices—writers, poets, musicians, artists, theologians—whose work resists the forces of disconnection and proclaims our interdependence with Nature; whose work announces our oneness with the natural world; whose work affirms we are part of all that ever was. Earlier I read the twentieth-century American poet Lew Sarett’s “Deep Wet Moss,” in which he imagines merging with, embedding into, becoming one with Nature, perhaps at the time of death. “Oh, there will come a day, a twilight, /  when I shall sink to rest / In deep wet moss and cool blue shadows / Upon a mountain’s breast, / and yield a body torn with passions, /  And bruised with earthly scars, / To the cool oblivion of evening, / Of solitude and stars.”[3] And then we sang Z. Budapest’s words “We all come from the Goddess, and to Her we shall return / Like a drop of rain, flowing to the ocean.”[4] This kind writing, these kinds of words, re-imagine us as intimately connected to Nature. Not separate from but part of. Find the voices that speak of this connection. Surround yourself with them. Allow yourself to experience them every day.

Then, part two: inspired by these voices, begin to let your own voice proclaim your connection to Nature. You write the poem. You write the letter to the editor. You write the song. You paint the picture. You sculpt, you dance, you play, you compose, you preach, you add your voice in whatever form it takes to the chorus of voices refusing to live a disconnected life. Re-imagine yourself as profoundly connected to Nature. Re-imagine yourself as your ancient ancestors must have imagined you—they who knew nothing of fossil fuels, but did know the power of sun, wind, and water. Re-imagine yourself for the sake of spiritual healing and wholeness for yourself and for the planet.

The third spiritual practice is for the body. I call it celebration. As we approach August, we also approach in the modern Pagan, Neo-Pagan, and Wiccan calendars, the celebration of the first harvest. This celebration happens at the halfway-point between the Summer Solstice and the Autum Equinox, typically at the very end of July or on August 1st—thus, the end of this week. The celebration has various names. I see it most commonly referred to as Lughnasadh from the Celtic tradition. Lughnasadh refers to the funeral games of Lugh. Lugh was a sun god who established the games in honor of his mother, Tailtiu, supposedly an earth goddess who, as the story goes, died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture—for human survival and sustenance. Other names for this celebration include Lady Day Eve, the Feast of Bread, or the Feast of First Fruits. In a 1962 book, “The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest,” folklorist Máire MacNeill described a variety of first harvest rituals including the “solemn cutting of the first of the corn of which an offering would be made to the deity by bringing it up to a high place and burying it; a meal of the new food and of bilberries … a sacrifice of a sacred bull, a feast of its flesh … and its replacement by a young bull,” and a variety of ritual dance-plays depicting stories of Lugh’s challenges and triumphs.[5] Lughnasadh corresponds to the English festival Lammas or “loaf mass,” the wheat harvest festival, during which it is customary to bring a loaf of bread made from the new wheat crop to church to have it blessed by the priest, after which it was said, historically, to have certain magical properties.

What I’ve always loved about the modern pagan adaptations of these ancient festivals is the way in which they are so immediately tied to the land, to the seasons, to the agricultural cycles, to specific foods the earth produces in specific times and places. They are celebrations of our intimate connection to Nature, our embeddedness in Nature. Margot Adler, the former National Public Radio producer and journalist—a Pagan and a Unitarian Universalist—once said “these festivals renew a sense of living communion with the natural cycles, with the changes of season and land.”[6]

7-26 Great HarvestHaving a spiritual practice of regular celebration asks us not only to pay close attention to planting and harvest-time, to times of dormancy and growth, but when those times come, to enact rituals that honor them, so that our connection to Nature isn’t just something we feel, isn’t just something we think, but is something our bodies physically experience. Today I’ve brought bread. I didn’t bake it myself. This is a honey whole wheat loaf from the newly re-opened Great Harvest Bread Company. Some of you will remember their building on Main St. in Manchester burned down two Octobers ago. They just re-opened in Vernon in June. They baked this bread Friday morning with wheat from a family-owned farm in Montana. Here’s what I’d like to offer to you: As we sing our final song, I’ll invite anyone who wants to come forward to receive and eat a piece of bread: a Lughnasahd / Lammas bread communion, a ritual celebration of the first harvest. I also invite you to contemplate: What rituals can we enact together that invite our bodies to mark the changes in the seasons and the land? What rituals can you enact on your own to do the same?

Finally, before we sing, the fourth spiritual practice is for the soul. I call it worship. Worship is the act of holding up that which is of utmost worth. If we believe that the earth—because it births us, nurtures us, sustains us, carries us, and receives our bodies when we die—is of utmost worth, then it seems to me we ought to offer praise and thanks to it on a regular basis. We ought to worship it. What if we began relating to the earth as divine—just as our ancient ancestors did? What if we began encountering the earth as Gaia once more? As Mother once more? As Goddess once more?  How can we begin to regard the earth in this way in our collective worship?  How can you begin to regard the earth in this way in your personal spiritual life?

These are four spiritual practices for reconnecting modern world, industrialized nation people back to the earth: for the heart, longing; for the mind, re-imagining; for the body, celebration; for the soul, worship of the earth. I offer these to you as we approach the time of first harvest in 2015. I offer them because there is so much at stake. May you reconnect to Nature. May you come to that full awareness—heart, mind, body and soul awareness—you are a part of all that ever was.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Edmiston-Lange, Becky, “Prayers and Dreamings,”in Janamanchi, Abhi, and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds. Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) p. 36.

[2] Gammons, Allison C., “Spirit of the Falls,” in Janamanchi, Abhi, and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds. Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) p. 21.

[3] For the text of Sarett, Lew, “Deep Wet Moss”see: http://www.kewpie.net/helenD/DEEPWETMOSS.htm.

[4] To view a performance of Z. Budapest’s “We All Come From the Goddess,” see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voBZowM0NTs.

[5] MacNeill, Máire, The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest (London: Oxford University Press, 1962) p.426. I also found this quoted on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lughnasadh.

[6] Adler, Margot, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, druids, Goddess Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today (New York: Penguin/Arkana, 1997) p. 111.

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


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



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,


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,


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


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.