The Wages of Trust is Life

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

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

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

[5] Amos 3:3.

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

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

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

A Tale of Tragedy; a Tale of Possibility

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Groundhoggin’

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

Happy Groundhoggin.’

Amen. Blessed be.

_________________________

[1] Leviticus 12.

[2] Luke 2.

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

[4] Schultz, “Our Humanist Legacy.”

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

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

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

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

By Nancy Madar and Rev. Josh Pawelek

For All the Days to Come I, 1969-1979

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

For All the Days to Come II, 1979-1989

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

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

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

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

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

For All the Days to Come III, 1989-1999

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

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

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

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

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

 

For All the Days to Come IV, 1999-2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

For All the Days to Come V, 2009-2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The possibilities for engagement seem endless.

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

****

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

It’s about the vision.

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

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

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

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

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

For all the days to come.

Amen and blessed be.

Up Into Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, she invites us back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Praise of Nothing

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do as Earth does.

Settle down into nothingness.

Find the reservoirs of emptiness in you.

Find the great and ominous silences in you.

Find the utter stillnesses in you.

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

****

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

Welcome emptiness.

Welcome stillness.

Welcome silence.

Welcome darkness.

Praise nothing.

Praise nothing.

Praise nothing.

Amen and blessed be.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testify! Witness! Re-Imagine!

This is a sermon about how faith communities must respond to the reality of sexual violence in our larger culture. Specifically: how are we, as people of faith, called to heal the trauma with which too many people live as the result of widespread sexual violence?

The immediate impetus for preaching this sermon came in late September, when Professor Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about her experience of sexual assault in high school at the hands of then Supreme Court Nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. That hearing, that tragic episode in our nation’s history, revealed to me some basic truths about our culture:

First, perhaps due to increasing levels of education around rape prevention in high schools and colleges; perhaps due to the increasing willingness of people to file complaints about sexual violence in the work-place; perhaps due to the increasing visibility of the #MeToo movement; perhaps due to the incredible work of organizations like the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence[1]—there is a public recognition—and at times an expectation—that some allegations of sexual violence need to and will be taken seriously.

Second, nevertheless, people who attempt to speak about their experience of sexual violence, from the most mundane office harassment, to the most brutal assaults, still have to fight to be heard and typically have to endure withering criticism for making public allegations in the first place: “Why didn’t they tell anyone when it first happened?” “Why did they wait so long to say anything?” “Why can’t they remember exactly what happened?” Or worse, “What was she wearing?” “She was probably asking for it.” “Boys will be boys.”

Finally, it is easy for people in power—and truly for people in general—to feign concern, sympathy, even empathy for survivors of sexual violence, and then to ultimately ignore them, as if they had never spoken at all. Jude Kavanaugh is now Justice Kavanaugh.

Of course, Blasey Ford’s testimony did not reveal everything about our nation’s culture of sexual violence. As important, as powerful, as believable as her testimony was, it is also true that her various identities—educated, credentialed, successful, white, college professor—may actually have obscured as much as they revealed. Blasey Ford offers one, compelling image of who survivors of sexual assault are. But we need to remember that women of color experience sexual assault. Men and boys of all racial identities experience sexual assault. Gay and lesbian adults and youth experience sexual assault. Transgender people experience sexual assault, especially trans women of color. Immigrants experience sexual assault. Elders experience sexual assault. People with disabilities experience sexual assault. People in the military experience sexual assault. People in churches, in synagogues, in mosques experience sexual assault.

Yes, Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony created a compelling opportunity for faith leaders to talk about the US culture of sexual violence, and it is important to take that opportunity. And, it is also true that it shouldn’t take such a high profile revelation to move faith communities to speak and act out against that culture. It is a long-standing culture. The colonial system that gave rise to our nation and which still operates in our structures and in our national psyche had sexual violence at its heart. The slave system that anchored the economic prosperity of our nation from its earliest days and whose legacy lives on in our structures and in our national psyche had sexual violence at its heart. Sexual violence is one of the great unspoken, unacknowledged, still too invisible truths of our national history and our current national life.

What I want is for the reality of sexual violence in all its forms to be speakable, utterable, nameable, acknowledgeable, visible here. What I want is for us, here, to be able to receive disclosures of sexual violence with compassion and love. What I want is for us to be able to hold, nurture and honor survivors of sexual assault, in ways that give power and agency back to them, in ways that bring healing not only to them but to the wider community. What I want is for us to become active bystanders—people who can’t keep quiet in the face of sexual violence, people who demand respect for others in all situations, people who intervene when they witness sexual violence or the potential for it. What I want is for our congregation to not shy away, but to be able to speak about sexual violence as a public health crisis—as an epidemic—with forthrightness, conviction, and the resolve to treat it like we treat any other epidemic. What I want is for our words and deeds to contribute mightily to the dismantling of our national culture of sexual violence and to the building up of a new culture that recognizes the integrity of all human bodies and promotes agency, respect and justice.

****

Our ministry theme for November is memory. This theme provided a second, perhaps deeper impetus for speaking about sexual violence now. Traumatic events, because of their very nature, can be difficult to remember. They often become buried—a very natural, human response. The mind creates a buffer, a protective layer. Remembering requires the removal of the buffer. Remembering requires re-visiting, re-experiencing, re-living the trauma. For some people, it is truly best not to remember, and that is always a choice we must respect. And yet, in most cases, healing from sexual violence is very difficult without remembering, and without speaking aloud what one remembers. So when I speak of this congregation becoming a place where sexual violence in all its forms is speakable, utterable, nameable, acknowledgeable, visible, I’m asking us to imagine ourselves as a place where traumatic memories can be safely recalled, shared and honored.

Laura Cordes, the outgoing executive director of the CT Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said “I think one of the messages to go along with the ‘memory’ theme is ‘how we respond, matters….’ Victims REMEMBER how people (friends, family members and those in position to help) respond. The memories of the insensitive, shaming, dismissive, and blaming responses contribute to and can be just as harmful as the assault itself and keep survivors from getting the support, validation, healing—LET ALONE JUSTICE—that they deserve.”

In considering how to respond well, I’ve been turning to theologian Serene Jones’ 2009 book, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World for guidance. Serene Jones is the president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and formerly the chair of Gender, Woman, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. Informed by her research  in theology and trauma studies, she offers an overall framework for trauma work in congregations.  

There are three components to this framework: testimony, witness and re-imaginging. Jones says, “First, the person or persons who have experienced trauma need to be able to tell their story. The event needs to be spoken, pulled out of the shadows of the mind into the light of day.” That’s testimony.

“Second, there needs to be someone to witness this testimony, a third-party presence that not only creates the safe space for speaking but also receives the words when they are finally spoken.” That’s witness.

“Third, the testifier and the witness … must begin the process of telling a new, different story together: we must begin to pave a new road through the brain.”[2] That’s re-imagining.

So what might a congregational response look like? I’m not suggesting a random sharing of traumatic memories. I have a specific process in mind. Such sharing needs to be intentionally and lovingly managed through covenanted small groups and with carefully-crafted rituals. I imagine any member or friend of this congregation, living in the aftermath of sexual violence, who feels ready to begin a healing journey, ready to reclaim agency and power, ready to reclaim their life, could request that we create a trained small group to journey with them, to listen to and hold their story, to help them tell a new story, and to ultimately rededicate their life to the sacred power that lies within us, beyond us and between us.

That’s one possibility for how we can hear, hold and support the healing of individual survivors of sexual violence: creating spaces for testimony, witness and re-imagining.

****

With this idea in mind, I’d like to take a moment for us as a congregation to honor victims of sexual violence—people who have survived and, as the case may be, people who died as a result of sexual violence. I offer to you a very simple, candle-lighting ritual. I invite you to breathe deeply. I invite you to relax. I invite you to imagine the face or the name of someone you know who has experienced sexual violence. It might be yourself. It might be a family-member or friend. It might be someone you don’t know well, but you are familiar with their story. It might be someone you only know from a story in the news. Imagine the face or the name of someone you know who has survived sexual violence.

Hold them in your mind’s eye.

Hold them in your heart.

Now, if you would like to light a candle as a way to honor this person’s experience, their suffering, and their journey back to power and agency, please come forward at this time.

[Music]

We pray for all those who have experienced sexual violence.

We pray that they may find healing.

We pray that, if it is their wish, they may find the courage and the strength to speak aloud their experience.

We pray that if and when they speak, there will be a caring, loving community gathered around them, prepared, open, ready to listen, ready to hold them.

We pray that with this caring, loving community, they are able to reclaim the power and agency that was taken from them.

We pray that with this caring, loving community, they are able to re-tell their story, able to re-imagine their life in new directions with new possibilities.

We also pray also for our congregation:

That we may be a congregation that speaks to the world of the realities of sexual violence;

That we may speak with tenderness but also with unflinching resolve;

That we may tell a new story of our own faith as one that promotes human integrity healing, respect, and justice.

And, buoyed by this new story, that we may join the work of dismantling our national culture of sexual violence.

****

Changing culture in a single institution, like a church, is hard enough. Changing the culture of a country may seem beyond comprehension. Such change takes decades. Such change takes millions of committed people. Sometimes when we let the magnitude of the problem—and the magnitude of what is needed to address it—wash over us, we feel powerless to effect change. But we’re really not powerless. Simply by saying that the experience of sexual violence will be uttered, named, spoken aloud, made visible here is an exercise of our power. And the act of creating safe spaces for survivors to speak and be held and begin to rebuild their lives—that is an exercise of power. And I love this notion of the active bystander—one who cannot keep quiet about ending sexual violence; one who intervenes when they witness it happening or anticipate it is about to happen. We can commit ourselves to being active bystanders. That is an exercise of our power. And from there, we can be those who volunteer. We can be those who support. We can be those who advocate. We can be those who lobby. We can be those who testify! Those who witness! Those who re-imagine! We have power. Let’s use it. There is a movement to end sexual violence in our nation. Let’s be part of it. Let’s build that new way.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Learn more about the CT Center to End Sexual Violence at https://endsexualviolencect.org/.

[2] Jones, Serene, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009) p. 32.

Less Distant from the Hope of Myself: Reflections on Sanctuary

Our ministry theme for October is sanctuary. For my remarks this morning I had planned to take a break from talking about being a sanctuary congregation. I had planned to take a break from talking about how we as a congregation relate morally to larger social and political realities. I had planned to take a break from talking about how we have the capacity to provide care and shelter to people whose lives have been or are being upended in tragic ways by governments acting immorally. We’ve actually talked a lot about that over the past two years. As a congregation you are familiar with many of these themes. I was going to take a break. I had planned to talk about sanctuary in a more general, and perhaps a more personal spiritual way. I had planned to say that regardless of our life circumstances, regardless of our relative privileges, no matter who we are, there’s a human need for sanctuary, for places of safety and protection, of retreat and reflection, of beauty and creation. We all need sanctuary from time to time.

As I read in our meditation from the Rev. Ann Willever, Just for this moment / let me be still / let me rest / in the quiet of this sacred place / in the presence of the spirit gathered / held gently, yet mightily, by the threads of love / that bind us together.[1] She’s describing that kind of sanctuary we all need from time to time.

That’s still what this sermon is about—with a first caveat that this happens to be the week we are, for the first time, welcoming a guest into our sanctuary space; and with a second caveat that the dynamics of this situation are different—though not entirely—from the scenario we originally anticipated. This situation is easier in some ways, because our guest is not confined to our building. But it is still hard, because his life is so clearly at stake if his asylum claim fails.

For me, it has been a difficult week. It has been difficult because the work of bringing a guest into our building is highly detailed; it requires the input, insight, organization and commitment of many people. I want to thank Judi Durham and Rhona Cohen, who co-lead our Sanctuary Congregation Team, along with all the members of the Team who’ve had a hand in making this transition in the life of our congregation go as smoothly as possible.

It’s been a difficult week because the reality of a human being moving into our building impacts all of us who use the building. It is disruptive, especially for our staff. Gina, Jane, Annie, Mary and Emmy have all prepared for this moment—and yet nobody can fully prepare for something like this until it happens. I am so appreciative of their willingness to stay open, to be flexible, to raise questions we haven’t yet raised, and thereby support all of you in making this transition.

It’s been a difficult week because some of you, appropriately, have expressed concern about our decision-making process, because this situation—providing sanctuary to a person whose deportation order has been put on hold while he’s pursuing an asylum claim—is different from the situation that drove our deliberations last spring—providing sanctuary to a person who has an open deportation order. Those of you who’ve spoken or written to me about this difference, please know that I deeply value your willingness to raise questions. Having disagreements about this is hard, but if we can’t raise questions and be in dialogue, then in my mind we are muting our fifth Unitarian Universalist principle, ‘the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.’

It’s been a difficult week because we’re still trying to figure out what details about our guest’s story are shareable and how best to share them. Transparency is critical in the healthy functioning of a congregation—and yet we have to be careful in this situation: if our guest’s asylum claim fails and he must return home, we don’t want our public sharing here in the United States to inadvertently make his situation at home more dangerous. As a reminder, he is an atheist, and what he calls a free thinker, from a country where atheism is a crime punishable by death.

Having said that, this is a church, and we have never been under any illusions that it would be possible to keep our guest’s presence here a secret. Though we will not hold a press conference, the Manchester Police and Fire Departments are aware that he is living here. There’s no way around that. So what we can say is that our guest comes from a country in the Middle East. He arrived in the United States in mid-September and immediately presented himself to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and requested asylum. ICE detained him at a facility in Greenfield, MA. After ICE background checks and a briefing in the case a federal judge in Hartford determined he was neither a threat nor a flight risk, and allowed him to be released from detention as long as there was a place for him to go. This is where we come in. We are providing a place for him to stay while he pursues his asylum claim. On average, such claims take about 3-4 months to complete—though there are no guarantees.

It’s been a hard, stressful, taxing week. I know during such weeks I am not at my best—not as a minister, not as a pastor, not as a husband, not as a father. Some lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, “When I Am Among the Trees,” resonate with me. I am so distant from the hope of myself, / in which I have goodness, and discernment, / and never hurry through the world / but walk slowly, and bow often.[2]

There have definitely been times this week when I’ve felt distant from the hope of myself.

That could mean many things. I wonder what it might mean for you. It could be the feeling that accompanies a hard week, a week in which you know you aren’t at peak, aren’t your best self. It could be the feeling that accompanies a difficult diagnosis, or a recovery from surgery or illness that is taking much longer than the doctors predicted. It could be the feeling that accompanies the breakdown or loss of a relationship that really matters to you. It could be the weight of the world bearing down, those feelings of overwhelm that come in response to so much unwelcome, disconcerting news. Contemplate, for a moment, those times when you’ve felt distant from the hope of yourself.

[Musical Interlude]

I’d like to say I hope none of you will ever feel distant from the hope of yourself. It would be nice to never feel that way. It would be nice to always know your own goodness, to always have discernment, to never hurry through the world, to walk slowly, to bow often. But we know the world and our lives don’t work this way. We have hard days, hard weeks, hard years. Some moments in our lives are grueling. This is inevitable. What I do hope, for myself and for all of you, is that when you come to those grueling moments, you will also have sanctuaries—places to which you can you can for rest and respite, for comfort, solace and peace—beautiful vibrant places, tranquil, colorful places that soften life’s hard edges, that make living not only bearable but joyful, meaningful, useful.  

That is the idea of sanctuary I want to offer you this morning: places that matter deeply to you; places that help reduce the distance between you and the hope of yourself; places that help you remember your goodness. That’s what a sanctuary does. The poet speaks of the trees as her sanctuary. They call out, “Stay a while.” / The light flows from their branches. / And they call again, “It’s simple, they say, / “and you too have come / into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled / with the light, and to shine.[3] That’s a good statement of the place I’ve been trying to get to this week, a place where I can go easy, be filled with light, shine. I don’t want the hardness of this week—or the hardness of the laws that led our guest to flee is home country—or the hardness of our larger world, our polarized and often hate-filled politics—I don’t want any of it to change me. I don’t want any of it to change you, or to lessen your courage, to dampen your conviction. Where can you go for affirmation that you, too, are filled with light; that you, too, shine.

What is your sanctuary? What is the place that saves you again and again and again; the place where you find room to breathe and stretch, the place that shelters you, if only for a time, from the hardness, the madness, the cruelty of the world? Two weeks ago I asked the members of the Small Group Ministry I facilitate to respond to that very question. It was a wonderful sharing. I remember stories of homes, or certain rooms within homes, of ponds and rivers nearby, of baseball parks, of the powerfully, comforting memories of loved-ones who’ve died, of this place—this Unitarian Universalist meeting house, here atop Elm Hill, on the Manchester-Vernon line, east of the Connecticut River.

Contemplate, for a moment, the sanctuaries in your life.

[Musical Interlude]

I’m offering you the idea of sanctuary as a spiritual resource. Just as taking a sabbath—a day of rest—is a spiritual resource; just as prayer and meditation are spiritual resources; just as yoga is a spiritual resource; just as being together in worshiping community on Sunday morning is a spiritual resource, so is having a sanctuary, a place where you can go for rest, respite, renewal.

The Rev. Kathleen McTigue tells the story of the small hole-in-the-wall café near her office. She describes the café as a sanctuary for her. “It was a wonderful thing just then, to be marooned on this little island of calm amidst the impatience, irritability, and general craziness of life, in a pace where someone makes her living by patiently shaping and then serving two of the world’s most basic and nourishing foods.”[4]

I love the healing imagery at the heart of McTigue’s experience in the café. “It’s easy to believe,” she writes, “that some small corner of the world’s fabric is being patiently, lovingly stitched back together—and that something more gets carried out the door than a bag of bread and warm soup.”[5]

That may be what’s happening here. In providing space for our guest to live, to prepare his asylum case, to engage in activities that will keep him well in mind, body and spirit, perhaps we too are patiently, lovingly stitching some corner of the world’s fabric back together. Indeed, some small bit of fear and loneliness and desperation ebbed this week when our guest came here. His journey is far from over, his fate far from certain, but the fabric in his corner of the world, and in ours, has been strengthened.

Of course, there are many holes, tatters, and runs in the fabric. The edges are worn and frayed. My prayer is that in those moments when the holes and tatters and runs touch our lives, cause us to grow distant from the hope of ourselves, that we have place to go for renewal; that we have sanctuaries in which our small corner of the world’s fabric can be stitched back together. I leave you words from Rev. Willever’s “Autumn:” May whatever pain or sorrow or loss I feel today /be eased / if only for this moment /even as I feel tossed and turned by the wind / a fallen leaf, blown about / with no seeming direction / may I abandon the illusion of control / if only for this moment / and sense the love surrounding me / and the strength of he love within me.[6]

Amen, blessed be.

[1] Willever, Ann, “Autumn” in Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 40-41.

[2] Oliver, Mary “When I Am Among the Trees,” in Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006) p. 4.

[3] Oliver, “When I Am Among the Trees.”

[4] McTigue, Kathleen, “More Than a Cup of Soup,” Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 4-5.

[5] McTigue, “More Than a Coup of Soup.”

[6] Willever, Ann, “Autumn.”

Centering the Margins as Spiritual Practice

Last June at our Bridging Ceremony, at which we recognize graduating high school seniors and welcome them into the community of Unitarian Universalist young adults, the bridgers received a gift from me: The Jefferson Bible, officially known as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Thomas Jefferson is remembered for many things, not the least of which is his commitment to reason in religion. He famously took a scissors to the New Testament gospels in his King James Bible, snipping out all the miracles. For Jefferson, they weren’t reasonable. They couldn’t be verified, and therefore didn’t belong in a sacred scripture. What remained after this purge was the narrative of Jesus’ human life—we read of his execution but not his miraculous resurrection; and we read of his moral teachings—the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, the sayings, etc.        

For more than a century since this little tome was first published in the late 1800s, it has sat prominently in the libraries of Unitarian Universalist congregations. When I was a bridger in 1985, my minister gifted me with a copy, which I still possess and for which I still hold an emotional attachment. I don’t normally give this gift to bridgers. In nearly twenty years of ministry I believe this was only the second time I’ve given it. I wish I had thought more deeply about giving it—and about receiving it 33 years ago. After the service last June, Kristal Kallenberg approached me and asked about the reason for giving it. As soon as she asked I realized it’s not a good gift. Kristal said it didn’t seem right to offer Thomas Jefferson as a moral exemplar for our bridgers. It was Jefferson, after all, who could articulate the moral depravity at the heart of slavery,”[1] and yet who could not summon the political will—or the heart—to work for the abolition of slavery, not even on his own plantation. He could describe the moral life vividly; but when it came to slavery, he could not live it. And he knew it.

I’m not saying The Jefferson Bible has no value, or that it should be censored or banned or removed from our libraries. I’m saying it’s not a good gift for our bridgers.

I wasn’t remembering that our denomination has had huge debates over Jefferson precisely because he was a slaveholder and thus a potent reminder of White Supremacy at the heart of our nation’s founding. There used to be a Thomas Jefferson District of the Unitarian Universalist Association. After decades of intense debate, the district finally changed its name. I was fully aware of this, yet somehow I had compartmentalized The Jefferson Bible into a context-free zone in my mind, as if I could separate Jefferson’s moral vision from his moral behavior. It shouldn’t have happened. We live in an age when activists around the country, including Unitarian Universalists, are fighting for the removal of Confederate monuments and flags from public places precisely because they celebrate White Supremacy. I should have made the connection.

This is embarrassing, given my commitment to anti-racism and the Movement for Black Lives, but I offer no excuses. This is one of the ways and White supremacy operate. I’m thankful to Kristal for being willing to ask the question. I am sorry that she had to dedicate energy to naming something I should have known. I apologize to my colleagues—especially my colleagues of Color, some of whom will feel, in the very least, let down when they read this. I apologize to you, especially those of you who were present and may have felt a pinch, an ouch, a micro-aggression, or even a macro-aggression. And most of all I am apologizing to the bridgers. I am writing to them about my change of heart, and including replacement gifts—

a book of readings compiled for UU young adults called Becoming, and a book of meditations from Unitarian Universalist ministers of Color entitled Voices from the Margins, from which I have been reading throughout this service.

In her meditation entitled “Marginal Wisdom,” the Rev. Leslie Takahashi says, “The day is coming when all will know / That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than monochrome, / That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, / stubborn rocks in its course, / That the margins hold the center.”[2] In her meditation, “Waiting,” the Rev. Marta Valentín[3] beckons her readers to come “into the center / come in from the margins / I will hold you here.”

In the life and culture of any institution, including congregations, there is a center and there are margins. The center is where power is exercised, priorities determined, decisions made, money spent, resources allocated, values articulated, sermons preached, hymns sung, joys and sorrows shared, coffee served, gifts given. The center specifies norms for appropriate behavior and emotional expression; norms for which topics are speakable, and which are taboo; norms for belonging—who is in and who doesn’t really fit. Sometimes these norms are clearly articulated. Sometimes they are assumed, taken for granted, unexamined.

The margins are those places where people experiences themselves as out-of- sync with the center or, worse, excluded. For example, oftentimes as people age, as their mobility, hearing and vision decline, they may begin to feel marginalized from the physical life of the congregation. Another example: Many congregations are adult-focused. Children—and by extension, their parents—occupy the margins. If the center is White, People of Color may experience themselves as marginal. If the center speaks English, people who speak limited English may experience themselves as marginal. If the congregation’s primary theological orientation is Humanist, people who identify as Christian, Theist or Pagan may experience themselves as marginal. People with mental illness may feel marginal. Survivors of sexual violence may feel marginal. Often we have some identities that occupy the center; and others that occupy the margins. We are rarely only one or the other.

The existence of a center and margins is natural and unavoidable in any institution or community. However, here, our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to pay attention to what our center and margins are—to be institutionally self-aware. Who are we including? Who are we excluding? But then further, because we envision a highly inclusive community, a multigenerational, multicultural and multiracial community, a spiritually pluralistic community that can offer many styles of worship, music, and arts, our center must be in constant dialogue with our margins. And further: we must be willing to center that which is marginal.

We often use ‘centering’ as a spiritual term for finding our own inner grounding, our own foundation, our own anchor. But here I’m using centering differently. I am calling centering the the margins a spiritual practice.

Knowing that our congregational center is White, that our culture is a White culture, that it is possible for well-intentioned White people to perpetuate racism and White supremacy inadvertently, what if before making the decision to give a book created by a slaveholder to our bridgers, I had centered the descendants of former African slaves? What if I had simply asked, “if one of our bridgers were African American, how might it feel for them to receive this gift and learn from the minister that it represents a great moral example in the history of our faith and nation?” I can only imagine that it wouldn’t feel good, that it would likely do harm. And if it wouldn’t be good for that child, why would it be good for any of our children?

This week the nation witnessed what many commentators have described as a tragedy: the build-up to, and the actual testimony of, Christine Blasey Ford about her sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Survivors of sexual violence still occupy the margins in our society. The #MeToo movement is challenging this marginalization, demanding that we as a society center the experiences of survivors—take them seriously, believe them, care for them and hold perpetrators accountable. With so many high-profile firings, resignations, failed political careers and campaigns, and guilty verdicts, it seems as if the movement is having an impact—though I am not aware of an overall reduction in sexual violence.

The Senate Judiciary Committee leaders didn’t want to center Blasey Ford’s story, but they also knew they couldn’t ignore her. They had to at least appear to be centering her. They tried so hard not to publicly shame or discredit her ahead of time. Even the President, who consistently engages in character assassination on Twitter, held back for a few days, initially acknowledging that Blasey Ford’s allegations were serious and deserved a hearing. Committee chair Senator Grassley kept reiterating that Blasey Ford could testify whichever way was most comfortable for her. They even recognized how bad the optics were for eleven powerful men to be questioning a woman about her experience of sexual assault. They hired Rachel Miller, a female attorney with extensive experience prosecuting sex crimes, to do their questioning for them. The result was an extensive, unchallenged testimony in which Blasey Ford, though frightened, was able to speak her truth and, from my perspective, was utterly convincing. I believe her.

It was fascinating to watch the Judiciary Committee leadership decenter attorney Miller. She asked Judge Kavanaugh two questions, and then she was essentially gone from the proceedings. Evidently her questions were good for Blasey Ford, but not for Cavanaugh—a potent double standard.

I also want to name—and I’ll talk about how this works in congregations in a moment—that centering a story or experience from the margins is often experienced as a threat by those who occupy the center. Centering a story or experience from the margins often produces feelings of guilt, shame, and anger from the center. I think Judge Kavanaugh offered a perfect example of this. Who could have responded with grace and dignity. Instead, he responded with anger. He was livid. He scolded. He was partisan. He alleged a conspiracy against him. And his supporters on the Committee followed his lead, expressing their own anger and dissapointment

Back to congregations. Congregational cultures are inherently conservative, meaning they exist to conserve specific values and principles, specific ideas about worship, spirituality, and the role religion plays in our lives. So any act of bringing new identities and ways of being into the center from the margins, though it sounds reasonable on the surface, can be quite disruptive. The center often resists. When you, or some part of you, is centered in a congregation—when you feel comfortable at the center, when the center meets your needs, feeds you, fulfills you, when you are emotionally invested in it—the act of centering someone else whose experience, world-view, ideas, culture, or spirituality reside at the margins, can feel threatening. We often feel defensive before we think about it, before we remember, “Oh, yes, this is who we say we are: open to new and different ideas, longing for greater diversity, striving to expand the circle, not close it off.”

I invite you to contemplate centering the margins as a spiritual practice. At its easiest, it’s a practice of deep listening to new stories. At it’s most difficult, it’s a practice of trusting and believing people who are courageous enough to speak about how they’ve been wounded, the ways they’ve felt excluded, the ways they’ve been relegated to the margins. Centering the other requires a softening of the ego, an openness of heart, a willingness to share cultural and spiritual space, a willingness to change. I try to keep four themes in mind.

First, stay focused on what the other is trying to convey from their experience on the margin. If you find yourself defending the center, or saying ‘that’s not how we do it,’ or ‘The Jefferson Bible is an important part of our heritage,’ pause. Breathe. Ease back from defensiveness. Center the person who is speaking. Trust they have something valuable to offer. Trust marginal wisdom to shape the center in positive ways.

Second, avoid the impulse to fix problems immediately. Sometimes stories from the margins reveal flaws in the congregation, ways in which it isn’t aware of itself, ways in which it might be alienating people without realizing it. In the midst of such revelations our allegiance to the center may lead us to want to fix the problem quickly. Unitarian Universalist culture has a habit of moving quickly away from stories of pain and anger into problem-solving. But far too often the people doing the problem-solving aren’t the ones experiencing the problem. Far too often the people doing the problem-solving are recentering themselves and their power to fix, rather than focusing on the story. If someone is sharing a margin story and you find yourself wanting to fix what has happened, pause. Breathe. Ease back from this impulse to fix. Stay with the pain. Learn from the pain. Let your understanding of yourself and your church evolve in response to the pain. The time for fixing will come. For now, center the margins.

Third, beware of guilt, shame and anger. When the story from the margin is about something painful that happened at the center, such feelings are understandable. But if I start talking about my feelings, or worse, if I get angry because I feel I am being challenged, I am now making the story about me. I am decentering the other, and recentering me. “Thank you for telling your story, now let me tell you how YOUR story makes ME feel!” It’s important to notice guilt and shame, but instead of letting them take over the conversation, receive them as cues to refocus attention back on the story, allowing it to live and breathe in the discussion, allowing it to become part of your larger Unitarian Universalist story.

Finally, strive for humility. Indeed, centering the other is an act of humility. The key to honoring and affirming the stories and experiences of people from the cultural margins is humility. The key to not rushing in with solutions is humility. The key to decentering one’s own feelings of guilt and shame is humility. The key to welcoming people from the cultural margins into our cultural center is humility. The key to realizing how deeply the center is connected to the margins is humility.

Rev. Takahashi says “The day is coming when all will know / That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than monochrome, / That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, / stubborn rocks in its course, / That the margins hold the center.”[4] So often, the center of the institution is that static, stubborn rock. Sometimes we need to let go, to swim with the current. The rainbow serves all of us. The monochrome only serves some of us.

I suspect we know this in our heads. We know diversity of ideas, spiritualities and identities is healthy for congregations. But the more we practice centering the margins, the more we will know it in our hearts. It might just be the difference between articulating a moral vision and living it.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Jefferson, Thomas, Notes of the State of Virginia, Query XVIII: Manners, 1781. See: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/notes-on-the-state-of-virginia-query-xviii-manners/.

[2] Takahashi, Leslie, in Morrison-Reed, Mark and James, Jacqui, eds., Voices from the Margins (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012) pp. 30-31.

[3] Valentín, Marta, “Waiting” in Morrison-Reed and James, Voices, pp. 3-4.

[4] Takahashi, Leslie, in Morrison-Reed, Mark and James, Jacqui, eds., Voices from the Margins (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012) pp. 30-31.

Lest We Remain Unused

Subtitle: The Greater-Love-Greater-Inclusion-Greater-Justice-Liberal-Religious-Vision for the United States of America

Rev. Josh Pawelek

What great and noble work uses you up?

What great and noble work calls to you, inspires you, focuses your energy, lets your passions meet the world where it needs them most?

My message this morning is really quite simple. Being fairly confident we each have only one life to live, it matters that we can envision a better world, and then work with all our strength, power, heart, creativity, steadfastness and love to shape the world in response to that vision. In service to our vision it matters, in the poet Rilke’s words, that we not “remain unused.”[1]

We cannot predict the future, but we can imagine it. Really, that’s what I mean when I speak of vision—our best imagining of what the future can be—our own future; our children’s and grandchildren’s futures, for those of us who are parents or grandparents; the future of our neighborhoods, our communities, out towns; the future of our congregation, our Unitarian Universalist Association, our collective UU faith; the future of our country; the future of our environment; the future of the earth. We cannot predict the future, but we can imagine it. And once we’ve imagined, let us not remain unused. Let us instead take to heart Rilke’s claim:“there’s a power in [us] / to grasp and give shape to [our] world.”[2]

Our ministry theme for September is vision. As I speak, you are welcome to reflect on your vision for your own life, especially if you’re not sure what that vision is, or if you’ve encountered barriers to realizing your vision, or if you’re in need of a new vision. But I want to focus my words on our collective vision as members and friends of this Unitarian Universalist congregation. What great and noble work uses us up?

Our congregation adopted a new vision statement at our annual meeting in May. The statement says the “Unitarian Universalist Society: East will be home to a spiritually alive, richly diverse and growing congregation. We will send forth energy, spirit and strength into our beloved communities. We will love, be present to suffering, comfort, heal, bear witness to oppression, and boldly work toward social and environmental justice.” I hope you encounter in these words hints, suggestions and directions for great and noble work we can do together. I am certainly looking forward to being used up in service to this vision. I hope you are too.

Having said that, it feels important to offer the observation that our vision is not really unique among Unitarian Universalist congregations; nor is it unique among liberal congregations of many denominations; nor is it all that different from the visions articulated among many secular organizations, liberal and progressive people in general, and even some pop music and movie stars. Our process for arriving at the specific words in our statement was unique, but the end result fits a pattern. This, by the way, is not a problem. I think it’s a good thing—a sign of our health.

I began thinking about this non-uniqueness when Jenn Richard offered to sing Janelle Monáe’s “Americans” for this morning’s service.”[3] I read the lyrics and thought, well, it’s a secular song—it’s about America. That’s OK. We sing a lot of secular songs. But then I wondered, is it a secular song? It’s not a gospel song. It’s not centered on God or Jesus. But it is prophetic in its call for justice. Monáe emphasizes the spiritual nature of this call by weaving into the song sermon excerpts from a minister named Pastor Sean McMillan. He says “Until women can get equal pay for equal work, this is not my America. / Until same-gender loving people can be who they are, this is not my America. / Until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head, this is not my America. / Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful, this is not my America.” Later he adds “Until Latinos and Latinas don’t have to run from walls, this is not my America. / But I tell you today that the devil is a liar / Because it’s gon’ be my America before it’s all over.”

This is prophecy. For me, it’s a spiritual song. In total, it offers a vision of a more loving, more inclusive, and more just America. Though there are some subtleties within the song, its vision isn’t subtle at all. It is big, bold, obvious. It also feels very consistent with the vison American Unitarian Universalists and other liberal and progressive people of faith often express for our congregations, our local communities, and our nation: greater love, greater inclusion, greater justice.

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that Janelle Monáe is a Unitarian Universalist and doesn’t know it. She’s not a UU. I am suggesting that our collective Unitarian Universalist vision fits comfortably into a more widely-shared liberal vision for our communities, our country and our planet. For now, I’ll call it the “greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America.”

I subscribe to a blog called “The Velveteen Rabbi.” It features the poetry of Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. She lives in western Massachusetts and leads a congregation in North Adams. Earlier this week she sent out the link to her sermon from worship on Rosh Hashanah morning. The sermon is entitled, “A Vision of Better.”[4] I knew I had to tell you about her sermon when she announced that “Our theme for the High Holy Days is vision.” She preaches her version of the greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America. She talks about immigrant children being torn apart from their parents at the border; about the insidious Question #3 on the Massachusetts ballot seeking to abolish anti-discrimination protections for transgender people; about looming threats to reproductive freedom and women’s control over their own bodies; about widespread attempts to suppress voting rights; about attacks on press freedoms; about actual Nazis running for Congress.

She acknowledges to her people that they may feel overwhelmed, that much gets in the way, that the problem we all face is one of fundamental human disconnection. Nevertheless, she preaches, “It’s up to us to see a better world and then make that vision real. In this sense we’re called to be prophets, and then to build our vision into being. In Jewish tradition a prophet is not someone who predicts the future. A prophet is someone who exhorts us to be and to do better. We need to envision a better world than this. Then we need to set our hands to the task of building it.” That’s the Velveteen Rabbi’s version of the ‘greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America.’

We encounter this vision here all the time. You find it in my preaching all the time. We sing it all the time. Channeling the ancient Hebrew prophets, Isaiah and Amos, we sang earlier, “Come build a land where [siblings], anointed by God, may then create peace. Where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.”[5] We sang “We Would Be One,” pledging ourselves “to greater service, with love and justice, strive to make us free.”[6] We heard the echoes of this vision in the meditation from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “All will come again into its strength: / the fields undivided, the waters undammed, / the trees towering and the walls built low…./ The houses welcoming all who knock / and a sense of boundless offering / in all relations, and in you and me.”[7]

Our sixth Unitarian Universalist principle is itself a very short, very concise articulation of this greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious vision. It commits us, very simply, to “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” And the vision statement we adopted last May, in my reading of it, fits squarely within this greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice liberal religious vision.

We know something about the work of making this vision a reality. Because we collectively hold this vision, we voted to become a sanctuary congregation and have made ourselves ready to welcome guests seeking to avoid deportation. Because we collectively hold this vision, we voted to support the Black Lives Matter movement and have worked in solidarity with Moral Monday CT. Because we collectively hold this vision we fought for marriage equality and anti-discrimination protections for transgender people in years past—and we won. Because we collectively hold this vision, we continually engage in actions for social, political, economic and environmental justice. This has been our version, our interpretation, our reaching toward the greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision in the United States of America.

Even so, with any articulation of a vision—with any sermon, any song or hymn, any poem or prose, and principle or precept, any adopted vision statement—there is always the risk that something will get in the way, as Rabbi Barenblat says. There is always the risk we will feel overwhelmed and slowly retreat from the work. In Unitarian Universalism, where we tend to be hyper-focused on verbal expressions of our spiritual and religious commitments, we encounter the unique risk of confusing the speaking of the visionary words with the actual work of bringing the vision into reality. Just because we’ve said it doesn’t mean we’ve done it. Words may inspire the work, but they aren’t the work itself.

Nevertheless, in this moment, words are what I have, so I will use them. I want to make sure our new vision statement does not end up gathering dust in the online equivalent of the proverbial desk drawer. I want it to inform our Unitarian Universalist life together, lest we remain unused.

I challenge each of us to bring the words off the page, to manifest them through what we do in the world. Turn to a neighbor and say, “There is a power in me to grasp and give shape to my world.” [8]  Turn to another neighbor and say, “There is a power in me to grasp and give shape to my world.” I believe this about myself—and I believe it about you. Do you believe it about you? Let me hear you one more time: “There is a power in me to grasp and give shape to my world.”

I hope when you encounter the words in our vision statement that say “we will love,” that you will feel, stirring within you, the power to love, to love fiercely, to love across lines of difference, to love yourself, your neighbor, the stranger, the alien, the refugee, the undocumented person, the enemy—and that you will then bring your love to each other and to the world.

When you encounter the words in our vision statement that say we will be “present to suffering,” that we will offer comfort and healing, I hope you will feel, alive and flowing within you, the power of your own comforting, healing presence. I hope you can begin to imagine yourself approaching pain—somebody’s pain here, somebody’s pain in our larger community—with a gentle, steady resolve, an unwillingness to turn away, an offer of support, a compassionate touch. Remember healing is not just what medical professionals do. Healing happens whenever we take actions that overcome that fundamental human disconnection Rabbi Barenblat names. Healing happens as we make connections and build relationships, as we acknowledge, accept and live into our interdependence with one another and the whole of life.

When you encounter the words in our vision statement that say we will “bear witness to oppression, and boldly work toward social and environmental justice,” I hope you feel rolling and roiling and raging within you the power to confront oppression with clarity and conviction, the power to creatively address our society’s and our world’s most pressing problems, the power to join with others in solidarity, in struggle, in justice movements for the sake of our collective liberation from all the forces that diminish and destroy life.

I hope when you encounter the words to our version of the greater-love-greater-inclusion-greater-justice-liberal-religious-vision for the United States of America that you will feel power in you to act, to let the vision use you so that it may, in time, become the new reality.

I like the way Christian mystic Howard Thurman put it in the words we said together at the top of the service: “Holy One, may your fire burn brightly in me that I may, from this moment on, take effective measures within my own powers, to courageously build the kind of world I so deeply desire.”[9]

I like the way the Velveteen Rabbi put it in her sermon: “Be brave enough to envision a world better than the one we know now, and set your hands to bringing that vision to life. That’s the work.”

And I like the way Janelle Monáe concludes her song, “Americans,” with the words, “Please sign your name on the dotted line,” meaning ‘come on, sign up, commit yourself.’

Let’s make our vision real. Let’s not leave this precious life unused.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Alles wird wieder gross sein und gewaltig,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 121.

[2] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Da neight sich die Stunde und ruhrt mich an,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 47.

[3] View the video for Janelle Monáe’s song “Americans” from her 2018 album Dirty Computers at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POZNheF-KdY. Read the lyrics at https://genius.com/Janelle-monae-americans-lyrics.

[4] Barenblat, Rachel, “A Vision of Better.” View the full sermon at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiMutoPy4Nc&t=915s. Also check out the Velveteen Rabbit at https://velveteenrabbi.com/.

[5] Isaiah and Amos, adapted by Zanotti, Barbara, “We’ll Build a Land,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #121.

[6] Wright, Anthony, “We Would Be One,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #318.

[7] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Alles wird wieder gross sein und gewaltig,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 121.

[8] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., “Da neight sich die Stunde und ruhrt mich an,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 47.

[9] Adapted from Thurman, Howard, “I Confess,” Meditations of the Heart, reprinted in Lifting Our Voices (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2015) #54.