Rev. Josh Pawelek
The 2016-2017 congregational year is beginning. I am excited for what I expect will be a very normal year.
Wait, what? Normal? Who wants a normal year in ministry?
Here’s what I mean. Ever since we completed our building project six years ago, every one of those six years has brought with it some big issue or collective task that has drawn our attention away from the ordinary, the regular—the normal—conduct of our ministries. After we moved back into this building we spent about 18 months designing a new mission, vision and strategic plan. Important work, but it required us to pause. In essence, we needed to wait until we had a sense of where we wanted to go as a congregation. After that we went through a period of transition with our program staff. First our previous Director of Religious Education, Vicki Merriam announced her retirement. Then our previous Music Director, Pawel Jura, announced that he would be leaving for a new position. We designed an interim period in our religious education program, and then an interim period in our music program. We conducted extensive searches for a new Director of Religious Education and a new Music Director. Those searches overlapped somewhat, but not entirely. Last year was Gina Campellone’s first full year as our permanent Director of Religious Education. It was also Mary Bopp’s first full year as our Music Director. Last year was close to normal, but it was still a ‘breaking in’ year, still a learning year, still a transitional year.
It’s not that our regular ministries ceased during these years. Obviously they didn’t. We kept doing what we do. But we couldn’t quite focus our full attention on them because I and many of our leaders were addressing these other concerns.
But this morning, I am so happy—no, overjoyed—no, ecstatic—to say that Gina and Mary have both very successfully transitioned onto our staff. I am so done with transitions! It’s going to be a normal year in the sense that we can pay full attention to our ministries without needing to focus on some larger trend or shift or change in congregational life. Back to basics. Back to essentials. Back to our core. That’s the state of the church! Hallelujah!
What is normal? What is our core? I suppose we can identify normal by naming what we actually do: Sunday morning worship, religious education, social and environmental justice activism, pastoral care, managing our finances, caring for our buildings and grounds, organizing fundraisers. That’s one way to know what normal is. But I want to explore normal from a different angle by asking you this question: What deep, human longing lies at the heart of your presence here?
People seek out congregations in response to all sorts of longings: community, guidance, support, inspiration, religious education for their children, a place to be still, to breathe, to grieve or to collect oneself before confronting the challenges of the coming week. Or perhaps they seek to respond in some productive way to the world’s immense hurt. These are not frivolous longings. They aren’t whims or flights of fancy. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who visited this church or any other purely on a whim, without giving it any thought, without hoping to find something meaningful. Sometimes people come to church without admitting to themselves what they’re really seeking—and maybe they don’t quite know. But when you scratch the surface, some deep human longing almost always becomes apparent. People come to congregations in response to longing. And in discerning what those longings are and attending to them, we help people more fully experience their humanity. This is true for any congregation of any faith. We help people find meaning in their lives. We help people connect with the sacred, the holy, the divine. We help people apprehend their embeddedness in some reality larger than themselves. For me, that’s one description of the core of our ministry—what we ought to be doing when things are normal: meeting people—meeting each other—in the midst of our deepest human longings.
What longing lies at the heart of your presence here?
Here’s my answer to the question. As many of you know I’ve just completed my summer vacation and study leave. I take this time every summer, and I’ve discovered over the years that summer reveals to me in stark relief a central dichotomy in the human experience: our capacity to feel connected and whole at certain times in our lives, and our capacity to feel disconnected and broken at other times. That dichotomy is always present, but I seem to notice it more and feel it more intensely during summer. This summer has been no exception. In the early weeks of July our family was living in Pittsfield, MA at Stephany’s parents’ home while Mason and Max attended camps in the area. Steph and I were able to spend time hiking in the Berkshire Hills while the boys were at camp. Those were warm days on quiet trails in still woods, flush with wildlife and the occasional panoramic vista. For a blessed two weeks there were few or no time constraints, no deadlines, no rushing from event to event. There was time for imagination, spontaneity, relaxing. There were moments of spiritual experience: oneness with Nature. Oneness with all life. Oneness with all. Connection. Wholeness. A sense of belonging in the universe. And then, July 5th, news of the latest police shooting of a black man, Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge. And then, July 6th, news of the latest police shooting of a black man, Philando Castile, near St Paul. And then, July 7th, a gunman opens fire on police protecting a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas, killing 5 and wounding 9. And then, July 15th, news of a terrorist attack in Nice, France: nearly 90 people killed as the attacker drove a heavy truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day. More police shot in Baton Rouge two days later. Learning of these acts of violence created a sense of disconnection in me, a sense of brokenness which contrasts enormously with that other experience of wholeness and connection out on the trail. And like it or not this experience of disconnection and brokenness is also a spiritual experience.
This is what I know: the gentle, sustaining, wordless power flowing through everything, connecting everything, making everything whole; and I know the hurting, grieving, violent world. I long to feel whole and connected. And I long to respond in some meaningful way to the world’s immense hurt. In more concise language, I long to belong, and I long to help. In the end, these two longings are why I went into ministry. They are why I go to church. What deep human longing lies at the heart of your presence here?
When I survey the religious landscape in the United States—and in the world to the extent that’s possible—I perceive deep and widespread spiritual longing. Theologian Harvey Cox reminds us that fifty years ago scholars were confidently predicting the demise of religion. Some of you remember or are familiar with the famous April, 1966 Time Magazine cover story proclaiming the death of God. The story examined the secularization of American society and what that implied for the decline of religious life. Yet in his 2009 book, The Future of Faith, Cox says “the soothsayers were wrong. Instead of disappearing, religion—for good or ill—is now exhibiting a new vitality all around the world and making its weight widely felt in the corridors of power.” Ten days ago, Franklin Graham—son of the famous American evangelist Billy Graham—held a rally at the state capitol. I attended in solidarity with protestors who object to Graham’s position against homosexuality, as well as his anti-atheist rhetoric. What struck me was the fact that on a week-day in the rain more than 1,000 people came to hear Franklin Graham speak. Boston University Professor of Religion Stephen Prothero has described the world as “furiously religious.” I sensed some of that fury in Graham’s words and in his supporters who referred to my gay, lesbian and transgender colleagues as abominations.
Certainly, some of the religious vitality and furiousness we witness across the globe emerges out of literal fury and results in extremist rage co-opting and re-interpreting various religious traditions and their sacred scriptures as calls to holy war, terrorism and murder. I suspect most of it, however, emerges out of a more humble, twofold spiritual longing: the longing for the peace and comfort that comes from experiencing or communing with a reality larger than oneself; and the longing to transform and heal, in some small way, the hurting, grieving, violent world. I sensed some of this among Franklin Graham’s supporters as well. In even more basic terms: A longing to belong, and a longing to help. My vision for a normal year in ministry is that we will respond well to these longings.
Earlier I shared an excerpt from Rev. Susan Ritchie’s reading, “Let the Wrong Ones In.” She writes of her own experience of belonging to Unitarian Universalism. “Somewhere along the line someone left the door open for me. Someone invited me in, someone made the way for me even though there is no equivalent of me in our forebears’ imagination. And when things have been bad, when I have been bad, this tradition has carried me around in my sorry little basket and given me over and over again the invitation to relationship, the invitation to be human, as human as I dare.” It is my hope, my prayer, my mission that every person who enters through our doors—whether you come for worship on Sunday morning or for a community event, whether you’re renting space in the building or providing a service, whether you’ve been here since the congregation’s founding or you’ve come for the first time this morning—will experience a similar sense of belonging here.
Having said that, the human longing to belong goes much deeper than belonging to a congregation. Belonging to a congregation is belonging with a small b. Belonging with a big B—or Big B Belonging—is that sense of belonging to the larger human family, or belonging to the whole of life, or belonging to God or Goddess, or to some holy power. Big B Belonging is feeling at home on this earth, feeling at home in this universe, locating yourself within the interdependent web of all existence. Big B Belonging is connecting or relating to a reality larger than yourself in which you find sustenance, strength and comfort; a reality in which you find inspiration and joy; a reality that challenges you, guides you, helps you make moral decisions, calls you to be loving, to practice compassion, to seek justice.
In any year in ministry—no matter what is happening in the life of the congregation—I fully expect to focus on small b belonging. But if that’s all we do, it won’t be enough. I want your experience of small b belonging to become the foundation for that greater, more powerful, more all-encompassing experience of Big B Belonging. That is church at its best. The truth is we don’t always have the time and space to attend to Big B Belonging, but in this normal year in ministry—this year of no transitions—it is my hope that we can move from small b belonging to Big B belonging.
And then there is the longing to help. How can we help? In any congregational year there are many ways to help here at UUS:E: caring for members and friends of the congregation who are in crisis, volunteering on a committee, as a religious education teacher, on a fundraiser, providing Sunday morning hospitality, greeting, tending to the building and grounds, or working on a social justice project, or a sustainable living project, or—as many of you are doing these days—helping with the Manchester Refugee Resettlement Project working to settle a Syrian refugee family in Manchester. If you are ever unclear about how to offer help in the life of this congregation, please do not hesitate to ask me. There are so many ways to help!
Having said that, I know the longing to help goes much deeper than helping through the auspices of a congregation. So I’ll call helping here “helping with a small h.” But in this normal year I hope we can also explore Huge H Helping—the work of healing and transforming this hurting, grieving, violent world. Think for a moment about any of the common critiques of modern society that are floating around out there: that it is becoming increasingly fragmented, that we are becoming increasingly isolated from each other, that the mediating institutions that once provided the building blocks of community are weakening and disappearing, that we are polarized, that we gravitate online to like-minded people and end up living in digital bubbles of sameness, that we no longer know our neighbors, that we witness callousness, insensitivity and violence far too often without challenging it. I want us to be a congregation that inspires its members and friends to intentionally and courageously subvert these trends. I want us to be the people who fill the gaps and holes and broken places that have opened up in our society. Yes, we need you to help here. But the world needs you to help everywhere. The world needs us to take actions that overcome fragmentation and isolation. The world needs us to be generous, kind, trusting, fair, hospitable and unselfish everywhere. And in the midst of pain, violence, terror, poverty, racism and so many other abuses of power, the world needs us to be present, to respond with love and courage, to seek healing and justice. That’s Huge H Helping. I am hopeful that in this normal year of ministry—this year of no transitions—we can deepen our resolve and capacity to respond to the world’s immense hurt whether we’re doing it here at UUS:E, or as part of larger movements for social and environmental justice, or as individuals just going about our days. I am hopeful that in this normal year in ministry, we can deepen our identity as people who help when help is needed. That’s what I’m looking forward to this year.
Belonging and Helping. Two deep human longings. In the coming year, may we meet each other in the midst of these longings and discover together some great measure of their fulfillment. Amen and blessed be.
 Cox, Harvey, The Future of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009) p. 1.
 Prothero, Stephen, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperOne, 2010) p. 7.
 Ritchie, Susan, “Let the Wrong Ones In” in Montgomery, Kathleen, ed., Bless the Imperfect (Boston: Skinner House, 2014) p. 35.