A Remote Important Region

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Josh at Ministry Days“And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, / a remote important region in all who talk”[1]—words from twentieth-century American poet, William E. Stafford. I don’t pretend to know what the poet meant by the phrase, “a remote important region,” though I suspect it was something he felt, something essential in us he imagined must be real and must be accessible. But it isn’t easily accessible. It is shadowy, remote.

As we come to the end of the 2015-2016 congregational year, I want to reflect on a theme that has caught my heart and with which I’ve been wrestling in my preaching over the past year. Maybe Stafford didn’t have words for this remote, important region; or maybe he did but he didn’t want to name it explicitly; and maybe this isn’t what he meant at all: but when I encounter this appeal “to something shadowy, / a remote, important region,” I imagine he is talking about the body. I imagine he is talking about our physical, sensual bodies that breathe deeply as they enter into worship, sit quietly and comfortably, rise to sing, light chalice flames, meditate and pray, share joys and concerns, give money, hold hands, hug and love; our physical, sensual bodies that revel in pleasure and beauty; our bodies that grow, age, decline, forget, and eventually die; our bodies that witness and sometimes experience horrors and thus hold stress, anxiety, pain; feel fear, anger, despair. Our bodies—shadowy, remote, but utterly important regions. Why remote? Because for too long our faith, like our larger western culture, has kept the body separate from the mind. You’ve heard me come back to this claim again and again this year.

We know body and mind aren’t separate. Anyone who practices yoga or Buddhist meditation has some inkling of this non-separateness, this non-duality. Mystics, healers, yogis, gurus, sages, TED talkers, therapists, life coaches and UU ministers tell us all the time of this non-separateness. I’m telling you again right now. And yet somehow, in practice, our faith, like our larger western culture, resists this knowledge. Religiously speaking, the body remains shadowy, remote. “I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty,” says Stafford, “to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.”

Let’s face it (and I don’t mean this metaphorically): the Unitarian Universalism we inherit is not a deeply embodied faith. Those of you who attended Thomas Moore’s lecture here last weekend heard me say this to him. Historically we favor mind, ideas, words, talk. We stack books by our bedsides. Our clergy start sermons quoting poems. We may not identify as Abrahamic “people of the book,” but surely we are people of the word. Whether we care to admit it or not, we’re good Protestants who privilege the word in worship, expecting preachers to prove their point through reasoned argument. So many of our congregations debate whether it’s OK to clap or shout amen or hallelujah in worship. Sometimes the music moves us so much we want to physically move, but we’re not sure it’s ok. Sex education is great for our children, but feels dicey for adults. And most importantly for my purposes this morning, we’re often unable or unwilling to move anywhere until we’ve crafted the perfect mission and vision statements. We want to get the words right. But the body doesn’t typically occur to us as a religiously significant region. It is remote. Those of you who hail from less wordy faith traditions couldn’t stay there for many good reasons, but sometimes you whisper to me privately that you miss the ritual, the darkness, the incense, the spiritedness, hands raised high, even a living, incarnate God. You miss the invitation to live religiously in the body. We stay mired in mind, which, given what we know about non-separateness, is irrational.

This is what I’ve been coming to terms with over the last year: our minds are sharp and we don’t want to lose them, but alone they are insufficient for the ministry our era demands. There is a growing dissonance between the vision our words proclaim and our bodies’ knowledge of the world. Are you one who has felt this dissonance? We envision a world made fair, a glorious, golden city, a land where justice rolls down like waters. “The moral arc of the universe is long,” we say with Parker and King, “but it bends towards justice.” Do we ever pause to consider whether these wonderful, hopeful visions are remotely realistic? Do we ever peer beneath them to explore honestly what we must do to achieve them and how radically different our lives would be if they became our reality?

Fifty people gunned down on Latinx night at a gay night club in Orlando, FL. Is it possible our vision of a world free of violence is growing not closer but more distant? When we proclaim visions of a world free of racism, sexism, homophobia, violence, or fossil fuel consumption, does something shadowy in you feel dissonance? Do you wonder in some remote region of you how on earth this is really going to happen? Do you get a flash of maybe it won’t happen? And if you do, how quickly do you put it aside? How swiftly does it rise up in you only to find no outlet, only to have your mind tell you not to speak it because it may be misunderstood, may sound cynical, faint-hearted, privileged, or worse, like you’re not a real Unitarian Universalist. Do you tell yourself you shouldn’t feel this way? And what way is it exactly? If you probe, is there hopelessness or despair churning your stomach, tensing your shoulders, dizzying your head? And might you suddenly feel guilty, ashamed or weak for feeling this way? Yet this is one way the body tries to speak in our era. Let’s learn to listen.

Let’s face it. We name wonderful visions Sunday after Sunday, year after year—and I intend to keep naming them—but the naming hasn’t been enough to stem the tide of oppression, income inequality, global warming and so much needless violence. Despite our words, and despite all our good work and the work of so many others, those things are getting worse, not better. No doubt our words help people feel hopeful—and that matters—that is part of our ministry—but let’s come down from the mountaintop of our minds and join our bodies in the desert where they’re already facing it: facing extreme weather patterns and hottest years on record; facing gun violence in the home and almost daily mass shootings; facing opioid addiction; facing mental illness; facing decreasing life expectancy, a hollowed out American middle class looking for work that doesn’t exist, political polarization; the trauma of endless war, terrorism and its threat; mass incarceration, racist police violence, modern slavery, tens of millions of stateless people; and reactionary backlash to any effort to address any of it in a principled, peaceful and just manner. Sometimes it is too much for the mind to take in, but our bodies feel it whether our minds think and reason and vision or not. Our bodies know something of how deep it goes. Just remember how you felt as news of the Orlando shooting unfolded. Unless we can integrate this body-knowledge into our religious lives, our beautiful, hopeful, visionary words will come, in time, to mean nothing.

I was moved by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a letter to his son explaining the historical and ongoing violence against Black bodies in the United States. I preached about it on Martin Luther King Sunday. Coates counsels his son—and his readers—not to become too dependent on visions of a better world. He says, “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.”[2] “You must wake up each morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all.”[3] Hard words. But he’s facing what his body knows! His words collapse the distance between body and mind. Lay the vision aside for a moment. Consult your flesh-bone-and-blood body that breathes and bleeds, laughs and cries, ponders and thinks, makes love, gives birth, ages, dies. What is the body capable of doing in this moment? That question matters as much as what our vision is. Coates’ answer is struggle. It sounds hard. It sounds barren. But he offers to his son as a path to integrity and wholeness. “You are called to struggle,” he says, “not because it assures you of victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.” The more I sit with this, the more I realize I find it so much more hopeful than repeating the words of a vision whose realization grows more distant with each passing year. 

Bishop John Selders of Hartford’s Amistad United Church of Christ is a great friend of this congregation. He was deeply moved by his experiences in Ferguson, MO in the months following the police killing of Michael Brown. He returned from a visit there in December, 2014 and, at a meeting of clergy to discuss convening yet another dialogue with police he said “No. I’m done trying to talk the system out of racism.” What he learned in Ferguson, and what he was teaching us is that it’s time for the creative use of our bodies in the struggle against racism. It’s time for the physical disruption of business as usual. It’s time to take streets. These are the lessons of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. Social justice movements need our bodies as much—or more—than they need our words. As one who’s invested much in the talk of social justice, it was hard for me to transition to body-based struggle. I’ve named that from this pulpit a number of times. I’ve always been affirmed for using words. Would embodied struggle receive the same affirmation? But what a difference it has made for me to say nothing with my mouth and everything with my body, to stand in a street blocking traffic because Black Lives Matter, to spend an evening in jail. And how much more powerful the words that finally do come when the mind speaks what the body knows.

I’ve come to understand over the years many Unitarian Universalists feel paralyzed when it comes to social justice work, not because they don’t agree with the various causes, but because the distance between body and mind is so great. It’s counter-cultural for us, but it’s time to start naming the concerns, pain, anxiety, shakiness, nervousness, hopelessness and despair that can live in the body. This is the leadership our faith needs now. As we name what our bodies know, we give permission for others not only to name it, but to sing, dance, pray and laugh it. As we name what our bodies know, we’ll be making this important region less remote.

There’s a story making its way around the internet. Bill Graver sent it to me a few weeks ago. The teacher asks a group of young students to list the seven wonders of the world. They name the usual Pyramids, Great Wall, Taj Majal, etc. One student isn’t sure she understands. “Well, tell us what you have; we’ll help,” says the teacher. The student hesitates but then says, “it’s different for different people, but the seven wonders of the world are that we can see, taste, smell, hear, touch, feel, and love.” Friends: before we appeal to our lofty, beautiful visions of a world made fair, Let us learn to consult our bodies? The question is not only What do I think about what’s happening? The question is What does the body know about what’s happening? And a corollary: What is the body capable of doing in this moment? And as we ask, let’s be ready to encounter and welcome the hopelessness and despair that lives in our bodies. Let’s face it. Let’s see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it, feel it, love it. We may have to reign in our vision, but we will move farther than we thought possible.

And let us remember: the body doesn’t only hold the world’s pain. It holds the world’s joy too. In a faith community that understands the body as religiously significant, not only does our hopelessness and despair become speakable and thus more manageable, our joy and ecstasy become speakable too. Bringing the body in opens avenues for eye contact, touch, color, fragrance, dance, art, intuition, dreaming; for ‘let’s break bread together,’ for the creative occupation of space in the service of social justice struggle, and for the rediscovery of ritual, darkness, incense, spiritedness, hands raised high in praise, a living, incarnate God and a reenchanted world.

May our bodies find their home in our faith. May we learn to hear their voice. May we struggle for what matters. And may our lives be honorable and sane.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Stafford, William E., “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” See: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/58264.

[2] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015) p. 70.

[3] Coates, Between the World and Me, pp. 70-71.

Those Who Serve, Families at Home

Lauriston King

David Garnes

Jim Adams

Reflections on a Memorial Day Service, May 29, 2016

Lauriston King

For me growing up in the years before time, Memorial Day meant putting on my high-top Keds, my flannel Little League uniform, marching down East Hartford’s Main Street in the morning, and getting to play ball that afternoon. Sometime over the weekend we would go on a family picnic up to Henry Park in Rockville.  Other than noticing the flags on veterans’ graves, reveling in the long weekend that delivered summer, and the newspapers filled with ads, I knew little about Memorial Day.

At its core, Memorial Day honors the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. (In that respect, it’s distinct from Veterans’ Day which honors all veterans.) In the years following the Civil War it was known as Decoration Day for the tradition of placing flowers on the graves of the fallen.  There continues to be argument about the who, when, and how of the first Decoration Day; sharp differences between the Union and Confederacy over when to hold the ceremonies; and how it changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day.  But the heart, the intent of the day, still rings true in the words of the Union general, John Logan, who called for a nationwide day of remembrance: “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

The name, Memorial Day, did not come into widespread use until after World War II. It was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967.  Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act the following year (June 28, 1968) that moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. (See, government can do good.) This moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date (the historical premise being that flowers were in abundant bloom) to the last Monday in May.

 So, here we are on a Memorial Day weekend, nearly 150 years later, with the experience of regional wars, two world wars,  numerous military efforts to overthrow distasteful governments, and the dispiriting sense of war without end. Indeed, earlier this month marked the date when the Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Obama, had been at war longer than any president in American history.

If we allow ourselves to think beyond the Weekend Spirit of Memorial Day, we find ourselves, as members of a liberal religious community, in the uncomfortable position of typically being against war and wary of those who seek to fire up the coarse emotions drive countries to war. At the same time, we want to support those who serve, as well as commit our military strength to defend those unable to defend themselves, no matter where terror and oppression strive to destroy lives and freedom.

Let me share a few brief thoughts on ways liberal religious communities might wrestle with these often opposing positions.

First, it is our responsibility, defined by our principles — dignity, respect, truth, justice, equity, democracy, care of the earth — to demand an open, public, and hard look at any call to war.

I say this because respect for citizens in a democratic republic demands it.

I say it because it has become way too easy to go to war in this country.  In the title of Geoffrey Perret’s 1989 book, we are A Nation Made by War.  It should not be easy for powerful people to suppress dissent by conjuring up the magic spell of National Security.

And, I say it because presidents and politicians lie.  Recall Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin, Iraq and “weapons of mass destruction”.

Second, it is our responsibility to know the political history of how, when, and with what rationalizations political people have committed our citizens to war.  Over the past few years I’ve been reading some of that history. I’ve lived through some 60 years of it and thought I knew something about what was going on.  I clearly did not.  What historians, biographers, and other scholars have found in looking at over 100 years of American wars is a pattern of overt and covert military force to support corporate interests; imperialist ambition; poor to non-existent intelligence; unfounded fears of weak adversaries, and an always fluid roster of new “enemies”.  All compounded by  an arrogance of power and willful ignorance of other countries and their cultures.  Simply put, we need to know how, by whom, and why we got into war so that we can gear up our informed skepticism the next time we hear that awful cliché, “boots on the ground.”

Third, it is our responsibility to understand the fundamental changes that have reshaped our relationship to war, and, more specifically to those who bear arms.  War is now waged in our name without specific declaration, with little shared financial sacrifice, with a small professional volunteer force, with legions of civilian contractors and complex technologies, and with no clear understanding of what victory means.  The citizen soldier has been replaced by the National Security State.

The issue here is the growing gulf between those who go into battle and the society from which they come.  We live in an age of spectator wars.  We watch combat on television, in movies, and through video games.  The harsh reality of death in war touches fewer and fewer families and communities.  Consider that some 625,000 died in the Civil War, where, in General Logan’s words, their “bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Compare these numbers to the 7100 lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Few cities, villages, or hamlet churchyards hold them. I have not known them.  I have not known their families. I doubt that I’m alone here. This increasingly huge gap between the very small number who serve and the much larger society raises basic issues of fairness, shared sacrifice, and social support for them.

That said, we have an immediate responsibility to respect and honor those whose lives have been taken in service to the country.  That is why we have Memorial Day.  That is why we acknowledge Memorial Day in a worship service. It is not a celebration of war but a reminder of the cost of war. Our civic duty to question, challenge, and dispute those in power must not obscure our responsibility to those who serve. We cannot allow that to happen.  Those who serve are our families, our friends, our neighbors.

One powerful reminder of these ties is the stories of those we do know, as we will hear from David Garnes and Jim Adams. Jim’s wife, Sylvia Ounpuu, has graciously agreed to stand in for Jim, as he is not able to be here today.

David Garnes

I’d like to begin by reading a poem from a book I wrote:

It’s called “After the War Was Over: December 1945.”

Standing on the cold and crowded station platform

Pushed against trousers of scratchy wool

The boy nestles in the fragrance of his mother’s coat

They’re meeting the man in the photo on the piano

The tall sailor in Navy whites holding the hand

Of the little boy straining to meet his grip

The son’s tiny white cap perches on his mass of curls

Not as comfortably as the father’s, worn with easy

Swagger atop his sun- bleached butch


First a far-off whistle then a single piercing light

As the huge engine lumbers in on screeching wheels

His mother’s nails dig into the boy’s mittened palm

Smudged faces are visible from every window and

Hands wave wildly to the sounds of muffled shouts

A sharp hiss of air and the steel steps are lowered

The sailor is first off the train and taller than anyone

He sweeps the boy’s mother in a fierce embrace

That knocks her felt tam to the dirty boarded floor

Your hat! Mommy your hat! Cries the boy


Then his turn comes

And he’s lifted high overhead where

He hangs suspended in the frosty air

He reaches out to his smiling mother

Mindful of the space between them

Hurting from the tight grip of unfamiliar hands

Smelling a scent different from the one he knows


As you may have guessed, the scared little boy is me, and the returning sailor is my father, James “Jim” Garnes, whom I was seeing for the first time in my memory. This in fact is one of my very earliest memories, one that has stayed particularly vivid in my mind. Though it was a big day no matter how you look at it, I think for me it represented the beginning of a relationship that I’m convinced was partially formed by the circumstances of war.

I was a pre-World War II baby. I was four months old on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. My mother told me in later years that I was asleep in my crib, she was doing the dishes, and my dad was listening to a football game on the Philco radio in the living room.

My father enlisted in the Navy because he wanted a choice of where to serve when it became apparent that married men with children would be drafted. He left for boot camp and eventually the Pacific before I was two years old and I didn’t see him again for several years.

Always a quiet, somewhat introverted person, he apparently was even more so in his first years back from the war. He was a stranger to me, but I suppose I’d become somewhat a stranger to him, since I had evolved from a baby into a youngster getting ready to start school. Moreover, I’d been pampered by my mother and my aunt and my grandmother, with whom we lived during the war. Why was this new, large arrival—my father was nearly 6 feet 5 inches tall—why was he getting all the attention? It wasn’t easy for either of us.

Nor had it been easy for those on the homefront during the war. My family was lucky in many ways. Women with children were not great candidates for jobs. My mother began work at the Mass Mutual Life Insurance Compny in Springfield in 1943, the very week they began to hire married women for the first time. Also, my grandmother, my dad’s mother, was home to take care of me while my mother was at work. Women working in companys that had unions also found that the unions themselves were not necessarily in favor of day care centers at work, since they feared it would give too much power to management. As I mentioned above, it was not an easy time.

I’d like to say that over the years my father and I became best buddies, but that was not the case. As an adult I developed a polite relationship with him and we got along “OK.” We just never connected, and in some ways he remained the stranger I’d met at the train station years earlier. However, my father and brother, born in the suburbs eight years after me in 1949, had a much closer relationship, and in retrospect at least, I’m very glad of that for both of them.

The times I remember the most were when I could get my dad to talk about the war. He didn’t much, but when he did, I remembered everything he told me about the typhoon his LST ship navigated through, the kamikaze attacks that were frequent towards the end of the war, and his participation in the battle of Okinawa. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the very thing that separated us in my early years on this planet and his early years as a father was what provided the most vivid, connecting conversations that we had.

The presence of war in those very early years of  my life and in his young adulthood and our absence from each other during this time certainly may have created a roadblock that made resuming—or, really, creating—a close relationship difficult. On the other hand, had the war had not occurred, there may still have been a certain distance between us. Who knows? Whatever…It’s that kind of “What if?” question that many, perhaps most, of us carry around, unresolved, regarding one thing or another.

World War II has been called the “good” war. I understand the term—there truly seemed no alternative but to get in the fight in 1941—but I’m not so sure I’d ever use that adjective to describe war. Remember: World War I, a scant 23 years earlier, had been “the war to end all wars.” And so it goes.

Perhaps because the spectre of war is so awful and the maintaining of freedom so tenuous, we tend to embellish our holidays and days of remembrance with traditions that go beyond the original intent of the particular observance. I think Memorial Day family gatherings and parades and visits to cemeteries to remember all those who have gone before are fine. Anything that strengthens the sense of community and acknowledges the value of human connection is worthy to be observed. Memorial Day mattress sales, on the other hand, I find more questionable!

War and death affect everyone, and in closing I would like personally to acknowledge the originally intended meaning of Memorial Day. As Lorry mentioned, it began as “Decoration Day” to honor the dead of the Civil War. My grandmother, for example, always called it that.

I want to name an Air Force officer whose all-too-real death was the first I’d personally experienced of someone actively serving in the military. I had a good college friend, Francis Driscoll, who graduated a year after I did and then served in Vietnam beginning in 1965. Fran was a pilot and bailed out from his damaged plane over Laos in 1968. His parachute failed to open, and the location of his remains is unknown.

High Flight

Jim Adams

The sun was just starting to come up and I sensed it as my eyes slowly opened, with the sound of the highway reverberating through the floor of our 1962 Ford station wagon.  I reached under the mattress that I was laying on, the one my Dad had wrestled into the car the night before in preparation for our journey half way across the country, and pulled out 5 fresh issues of Mad magazine that I had been saving for this trip.  I had made sure not to read a single page before I had hid them under my bed at home, one each month leading up to our departure.  My Mom and Dad, brother and sister, and I were on the road somewhere in the southeast US, as we did at least twice every year, headed for my parent’s hometown, Chrisman, Illinois.  For me, it was like a trip to Disney Land.  We were going on vacation; a week of rough housing with cousins, dinners with Grandparents, Aunts, and Uncles, working on the farm, and riding ponies.  But for now, as I began enunciating to my increasingly annoyed father who was at the wheel, I really needed to go to the bathroom.

I grew up in a military family, my father an Air Force pilot, and my Mother the dedicated wife who took tremendous pride in her role as a military wife, homemaker, kid raiser, and as my Dad would say, the one who “held down the fort”.  I had lived in 8 different towns by the time I was 14, and grew to think of life as being lived in segments, where friendships were temporary, and new and exciting adventures were always just ahead at my Dad’s next assignment.  We lived in Florida (twice), Japan (2 different homes), Tennessee, Illinois, Virginia, and finally Texas, where I would graduate from high school and college.  Yes, military life involved lots of moving, often with minimal advanced notice and always without any choice.  You went where they sent you.

As a kid, I never gave this routine much thought.  It’s just the way life was.  You get to try lots of schools, after a couple of years exploring a neighborhood and settling into a house, you’re not surprised when its time to move again.  And your Dad is just gone a lot; sometimes for a few nights, sometimes for months, and sometimes for a year or more.  I asked my Mom how it felt when he was gone and if she worried about him, especially the time he left suddenly one night during the Cuban missile crisis, or in 1966 when he was sent to Vietnam.  And here is what she had to say:

 “I was very proud of Rob (that’s my Dad) and knew he was an excellent pilot.  Sure, I worried, but at the same time I had every confidence in his ability.  I think it was hardest when he was in Vietnam as I went long periods without hearing from him but, thank God, I had you kids and family to help me through that time.  Having you three kids was a blessing to me, I loved being a parent; I truly loved my job!!!  The other wives became like family and we counted on each other in so many ways, kept ourselves busy with wives clubs, lunches, bridge, and just being there for one another.  Military life to me was a great privilege and I am quite proud to say I was a Military Wife!  I am so proud of your Dad.  Life with him has truly been a pleasure, maybe a little bumpy at times, but I loved it!!!”

There is no doubt that the most significant period for our family was when my Dad was sent to Vietnam.  We kids were too young to understand the gravity of the situation, but my Mom must have been very aware.  At the time, my Dad flew C-130 cargo planes, and though he wasn’t actually involved in battle, he flew into it, and he was lucky enough to come back alive after 1½  years.  But so many didn’t.  My Dad didn’t talk much about what he did, but I remember 2 of his stories well.  One of his jobs was to deliver paratroopers to the front lines.  They would sit quietly in the back of the plane during the several hours it took to reach their destination, and when they were a couple of minutes from the drop zone, my Dad would reach down and flip on a yellow light to warn them.  In a matter of seconds, they would all be on their feet, running in place, yelling, preparing themselves for the task ahead.  In the cockpit, my Dad could feel the plane shaking and hear their warrior chorus.  When they reached the drop zone, my Dad would flip on a green light, and open the aft cargo door, exposing the jungles of Vietnam several hundred feet below.  And immediately, the soldiers would start running in line out the back of the plane, and slowly, the shaking and the noise would subside until there was just the drone of the engines.  They were on their way.

Unfortunately, another of his stories involved soldiers again, possibly some of the same ones he carried before.  But this time there was only the drone of the engines.   Because some of his missions involved hauling the remains of soldiers back from the front lines in preparation for their return home.  As I said, my Dad never talked about things much, but I remember him saying how he so disliked these missions.  So many young men, and some women, never made it home like my Dad did.   On this Memorial Day, its important that we never forget them, their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of their families.

The other thing that was significant about my Dad’s tour of duty in Vietnam was that for the first time, the family got to choose where we wanted to live while he was away.  I’m not sure of all the reasons my parents chose the town they did, but for me, it was an absolute dream come true.  We were going to live in Chrisman, the special place I had visited so many times and come to think of as simply magical.  Where my Dad had been captain of the basketball team, my Mom a head cheerleader, with my cousins in their amazing Victorian home with ponies in the barn, my Uncle’s farm with so many chores, the town square with Wednesday night movies, the local drive in with root beer, a grandpa, 2 grandmas, and an Aunt that made me feel so special every time I saw her.  To this day, there had never been a place where I felt so much at home, but like all the other places before, when my Dad returned after a year and a half, we were packing up again and heading for Virginia.  On the day before we left, I can still remember running out the back door of my Aunts house, stopping at the edge of her garden, and bawling my eyes out.  Please don’t make me leave.  Of all the moves we made before and after, this was the only one that affected me this way.

As I think back on that wonderful town of Chrisman, I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my parents to leave after my Dad graduated from college as a 2nd Lieutenant.  They were in their 20s, still newlyweds, with a 6 week old baby, leaving the only place they had ever known as home.  I don’t think either of them had ever travelled any more than 100 miles from Chrisman.   But that would change.  They were now off to join a new family, their military family, which would bring them adventure, so many good times, support during rough times, and a sense of pride that they cherish to this day.    When I asked my Mom about this chapter in her life, here’s what she had to say:

I always said I never wanted to leave Chrisman, but alas and alack, that’s what happened.   I was excited yet hated to leave the folks and family.  Rob came to Chrisman when Charlie (my older brother) was just 6 weeks old, picked us up, and we headed for Tucson, Arizona.   We arrived on January 1st, having traveled through a huge blizzard.  We didn’t realize just how lucky we were when we found a motel open and stopped for the night.  Other wise we may have been stranded on the road as many other’s were.  I was so homesick.  But again, I was so proud to becoming a Military Wife, seeing sights I had never imagined seeing.  Cotton fields, orange groves, living in Japan, having two children there, one buried there.  Living in seven states, traveling through many more.  It was an experience I never dreamed of living.  I would do it all over again!!!

As long as I can remember, there has been a poem hanging on the wall of our house that my Mom had hung up long ago, a prayer of sorts I had always assumed applied just to my Dad.  But I realize now that in many ways, it was true for all of our family, especially my Mom.  I close with “High Flight”, by John Gillespie Magee, an American pilot in the Royal Canadian Airforce, who died during World War II at age 19:


Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds

And done a hundred things you have not dreamed of,

Wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.

Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along

And flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long delirious burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,

Where never lark, or even eagle, flew;

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand and touched the face of God.


On the Art of Being Lost

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”[1] These words from the Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau ring true to me. They echo the wisdom of more ancient spiritual teachers. The Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, said “Do not be an embodier of fame; do not be a storehouse of schemes; do not be an undertaker of projects…. Embody to the fullest what has no end and wander where there is no trail.”[2] Jesus said “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[3] These teachers are not referring to loss in the sense of losing something or someone. They mean lost as a state of being: not knowing where you are, where you’re going; not knowing what to say, how to act; not knowing how to get back to the familiar, or if it’s even possible to do so; not feeling the solid ground beneath you. Being lost can be frightening, overwhelming, but it also offers blessings. As it takes us out of our everyday experience, away from the familiar, the comfortable, the routine, it invites us to encounter the world from a different perspective. It challenges us to find sources of strength and creativity in us we didn’t know we possessed. It may even require us to ask for help, to rely on the kindness of strangers. Our world actually gets larger. In the process we learn something about ourselves. We wake up, we stretch, we grow, we break through, we transform. These are blessings. Getting lost from time to time is a good thing.

This makes sense to me, but I cannot remember ever being lost and thinking, Oh, great, I’m encountering the world from a different perspective. What a wonderful growth opportunity! The first thought that occurs to me when I’m lost isn’t fit for the pulpit! One of my earliest childhood memories is of being lost in a grocery store. I must have been three years old. I became separated from my mother and brothers. I remember crying very loudly. In fact, I have a memory of being outside of myself, watching myself crying from a few feet away. I was afraid but I suspect there was more than fear in my body. It was my first conscious experience of separation from my mother without knowing where she was or how I could get back to her. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that she might be gone. 

Then there was a family hike. I can’t quite remember which summer it was or which national park—it was either Yellowstone or Kejimkujik in Nova Scotia. My mother was nervous from the start, mainly due to the signs instructing us what to do in the event we encountered bears. My father, perpetually unconcerned, led us onward to a supposedly beautiful lake out in the wilderness where only the most experienced campers camped. We eventually found a small pond full of duckweed and decided that either the map was not drawn to scale, or we were lost. It turned out to be both.

But perhaps the most embarrassing experience of being lost was on my honeymoon in Italy. Steph and I were staying in a hotel in the town of Sarno about an hour’s drive east of Naples. We had spent the day exploring Pompeii and didn’t start heading back until after dark. Steph fell asleep as I drove. I soon stopped recognizing landmarks along the highway, and realized I had no idea where we were. I took a random exit. At the bottom of the ramp was a toll booth. I started speaking to the attendant in English, a reasonable thing to do since many Italians speak English. This Italian was not one of them. But instead of waking Stephany, who is relatively fluent in Italian, I panicked. I started speaking louder English to the attendant. This strategy was unsuccessful. It got worse from there. I won’t go into details, except to say it was not one of my finer moments. Steph eventually woke up. She had a long conversation with the attendant in Italian, which I suspect had very little to do with directions, and very much to do with me. We paid the toll and continued our journey. We knew from the attendant that we were heading in the right direction, though we still didn’t know how to get where we were going. As I remember it, we came upon Sarno by sheer luck. It was a long night.

All this is to say that even though the words of Thoreau, Chuang Tzu and Jesus resonate with me; even though I know being lost offers certain blessings, I don’t like the way it feels. Which is why I had originally not planned to read Thoreau’s famous words in praise of being lost, but rather a more cautionary tale from the American writer and environmentalist Barry Lopez entitled “Within Birds’ Hearing.” In this story the narrator gets lost hiking in the Mojave Desert. It’s grim. “By evening I was winded, irritated, dry hearted,” he explains after many days of wandering. “I would scrape out a place on the ground and fall asleep, too exhausted to eat. My clothing, thin and worn, began to disintegrate. I would awaken dreamless, my tongue swollen from thirst.”[4] He doesn’t speak of the wonderful things he’s learning about himself. He says, “I was overwhelmed by my own foolishness …. I knew the depths of my own stupidity.”[5] He may be having a spiritual experience, but it’s one of suffering. He may be learning about himself, but it’s a lesson of human folly and frailty. If there’s a blessing, it’s that he didn’t die. And this feels really important to me: I want to speak of the spiritual blessings of being lost, but I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s never wise to romanticize wilderness experiences. There is no way to be truly lost and entirely safe at the same time. Anyone who’s ever been truly lost in any kind of wilderness—whether in Nature or in some metaphorical wilderness—the depths of depression or grief or poverty or war—knows it can be terrifying. Lost people don’t always return. The blessings of being lost may not be worth the cost.

Well, Mary Bopp was having none of this. We started working with the Lopez story on Tuesday and she said “you’re taking all the fun out of it.” Unlike me, Mary is drawn to being lost. She told me about the dissonance she feels when visiting a foreign city with friends who want to plan the day in great detail. Rather than following paths prescribed by the local tourism bureau, Mary prefers to wander where there is no trail, to get off the beaten path. She says she enjoys the experience of solo hiking on a trail she’s never been on before. She also told me about her favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who often wrote in an early twentieth-century, late Romantic style in which the music continually modulates from key to key, so that the listener keeps losing their sense of the tonal center. Just when the listener feels like they’re arriving somewhere, the next modulation takes them in a different direction. They get lost. Different keys feel differently, offer different colors, different qualities. A modulation brings the listener into a new musical landscape. Mary loves this! She says it feels like it can go on forever, that there’s something eternal to it. She gets lost in it.

Mary’s appreciation of being lost reminds me of the historian Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She blends memoir, cultural history, nature writing and philosophy into a prolonged and varied reflection on the many ways we can be lost—lost in thought, in love, in a good story, in a city, in nature; lost as one comes of age; lost in the sense of not knowing entirely who one’s ancestors are. Solnit writes: “I love going out of my way, beyond what I know, and finding my way back a few extra miles, by another trail, with a compass that argues with the map.” She writes in praise of “nights alone in motels in remote western towns where I know no one and no one I know knows where I am, nights with strange paintings and floral spreads and cable television that furnish a reprieve from my own biography.” She writes in praise of “moments when I say to myself as feet or car clear a crest or round a bend, I have never seen this place before.”[6]

So let me pull back from my concern with being dangerously lost. Yes, it can happen. Yes, we can become so lost we may never return. But we also cannot limit our lives in fear and expect to grow spiritually. Solnit says “the word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…. I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.” I commend to you the practice of disbanding your army. I commend to you the practice of going beyond what you know. And with all seriousness but tongue somewhere near cheek, I implore you to get lost.

I remember hiking with my boys when they were younger, taking them a few hundred yards off the trail, blindfolding them, spinning them around, taking the blindfolds off, then instructing them to find their way back to the trail. At first it was an exercise in frustration. I would have to give them clues. But eventually they learned to look for landmarks as we walked away from the trail. Find the landmark. Find the way back. Over time they learned to pay attention to their surroundings, to observe and remember details in the landscape.

What trail in your life might you intentionally wander away from blindfolded and spinning? What new neighborhood, town or city might you explore without a map? What new experience do you want—or need—to have? Or consider the life-paths that lay ahead of you. Might there be one that excites you but feels just out of reach or more unknown, more difficult, more risky? Is there a way to start down that path even though you’re not sure where it leads? Or might there be some stasis that has overtaken your life; you know you need to break out of it, but breaking out would mean leaving the familiar behind, being lost for a while. Perhaps now is the time to wander where there’s no trail.

The benefits of intentionally being lost may be as simple as learning a new place, finding a new route, meeting new people, acquiring new skills, or just experiencing the joy of a nice surprise. But they may be more complex: discovering new dimensions of you, finding reservoirs of creativity, strength and resilience you didn’t know were in you. And they may come on a more explicitly spiritual level. Mystics throughout the centuries have described their ecstatic experiences of the divine in the same way we might describe being lost—entering the unknown, the dark, the cloud; feeling ungrounded, unanchored, dislocated; soaring, flying, falling, vertigo. For some being lost is a profound spiritual experience. Solnit suggests that “in relinquishing certainty we approach, if only fleetingly, the divine.”[7]

I’m suggesting we practice being lost. But I’m also mindful that we practice for a reason. Being lost is an inevitable human experience. I’m not referring to getting lost in the actual wilderness, though that is certainly a possibility. I’m referring to being lost in our lives: lost in suffering, in illness, in decline; lost when everything around us is changing; lost when we realize life isn’t unfolding as we hoped. It happens. We lose our confidence, our sense of purpose, our sense of direction. We can feel lost in our schooling, in our careers, in retirement. We can feel lost because we know what we have to do, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. We lose those we love and become lost in grief. The greatest benefit that comes from practicing being lost is that when we become lost for reasons beyond our control, we have some knowledge of how to be and what to do. We know to trust ourselves more than the map which may not be drawn to scale. We know to look for landmarks. We know panicking doesn’t help, though it may be hard to avoid. We know it may be a time to disband our armies. We know openness matters. We know patience matters. We know breathing deeply matters. We know it may be dark and cloudy for a long time, but that we can live with not knowing for longer.

When we’re lost, our world gets larger. I didn’t tell you that when I was lost and crying in the grocery store at age 3, a stranger helped me find my mother. And I didn’t tell you that when our family was lost in the woods, and we really didn’t know which way to go, a young couple happened by and gave us directions back to our car. I won’t say they saved our lives, but their chance appearance definitely kept us from spending a night in the deep woods. And I didn’t tell you that in Barry Lopez’s story about being lost in the Mojave Desert, his narrator is ultimately saved, as he puts it, by “the unceasing kindness of animals.” “Not till we are lost … do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” said Thoreau. Perhaps that is the greatest blessing of being lost: not always, but more often than not, there is someone there to help. Our world gets larger. The extent of our relations is literally infinite, but we forget this. Sometimes being lost is what helps us remember.

 Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1960) p. 118.

[2] Chuang Tzu, in Watson, Burton, tr., Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) p. 94.

[3] Matthew 10:39 (NRSV).

[4] Lopez, Barry, “Introduction: Within Birds’ Hearing,” Field Notes (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) p. 5.

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

[6] Solnit, Rebecca, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Penguin Group, 2005).

[7] “A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2005. See: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/08/08/a-field-guide-to-getting-lost.

Sexism: Still Way Too Normal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

feministTwo phenomena—women’s basic economic inequality and widespread sexual violence against women—should surprise nobody. They are well-documented and receive considerable media attention. For every dollar men earn in the United States, women on average earn 79 cents.[1] In 2012 18.3% of women reported having experienced rape at some point in their lives and 19% of female college students reported an experience of rape or attempted rape since entering college. [2] Yet huge swaths of American society at best pay no attention or pay attention but don’t care and, at worst, affirm the data as consistent with a conservative, patriarchal world-view—often articulated as God’s will—that assigns women a subordinate status to men and, while claiming to honor women, imagines them not as legitimate wage-earners, not as in control of their own bodies, not as self-determining, moral decision-makers, not as heads of families, but rather as, essentially, the property, the play-things, the servants of men. This may sound overstated, but the persistence of the wage gap, sexual violence, behavioral double standards for women in the workplace and politics, inequities in funding for sports programs, inequities in funding for health research, the hyper-sexualization of women throughout society, multi-billion dollar industries causing and then preying on women’s insecurities about body image, weight, and beauty, increasing rates of sex trafficking and other forms of slavery in every state in the union, and a constant wave of smaller, daily anti-woman indignities suggest to me that the old view of women as fundamentally less human than men remains inordinately powerful in society.

I searched for “feminism” on YouTube. For every solidly, pro-feminist video in the queue there were at least ten misinformed, misogynistic, Make America Great Again, anti-feminist rants. I’m not sure what that says about my algorithms, but I have no hesitancy in stating there is a war on women.

This sermon is about sexism, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to say it was not my idea. A large group of bidders who wanted me to preach on women’s issues won this sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. Rhiannon Smith and Linda Duncan led this group and have been forwarding articles and statistics to me for the past 6 months. Rhiannon said, “We applaud the recent attention given in Sunday services to racial injustices in light of current events. We think that gender injustices have received less attention but also are central to our social justice advocacy as UUs. Specifically, we would like for the service to focus on the marginalization of women in the workforce, politics, and other arenas of power. For example, the service might address the wage gap, the underrepresentation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and politics, micro-aggressions against women, the disproportionate amount of attention paid to female politicians’ clothing and appearance rather than their ideas, [and] demeaning female politicians in the media….  We had 26 contributors in support of this service, so clearly this is a topic of importance to many people.”

I have preached on racism many, many times. I have preached on homophobia, on transphobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism and on the experiences of people with disabilities. But I don’t remember ever preaching a straight up, let’s talk about sexism sermon. I have preached on issues understood historically as “women’s issues” such as abortion and sexual abuse. I’ve preached about violence against women, the plight of incarcerated women, the challenges facing the primarily female personal care assistant workforce, and the need for paid sick days, family medical leave, a higher minimum wage and gun control which can all be framed as women’s issues. But I cannot remember ever preaching a sermon with the word sexism in its title. I’m embarrassed to say this sermon was not my idea because it should have been—and it should have been a long time ago. I identify as a feminist. I believe sexism is real. I believe I understand sexism well for one who doesn’t experience it. I believe sexism must be confronted. I believe our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to confront it. I am grateful for being challenged to confront sexism in this way.

I’ve been reflecting on why preaching on sexism has felt less urgent to me than preaching on other oppressions. One reason is that Unitarian Universalism had made enormous strides in confronting its own sexism by the time I entered the ministry. Such confrontation began in earnest in 1977 when the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly passed the Women and Religion resolution.[3] One of the more immediate results of that resolution was the removal of sexist and male-centered language from our institutional life. One of its long-term results was the achievement of gender parity in the professional ministry by the late 1990s.[4] That achievement has fundamentally transformed Unitarian Universalism. As a man coming into a profession in 1999 where half my colleagues were women, I had to be attentive to sexist stereotypes and power imbalances in a way I wouldn’t have been if the ministry had continued as a primarily male profession. I know this because I hear my elder male colleagues talk about what it was like in the 60s and 70s. There was no expectation that they would pay attention to sexism, let alone pay attention to it in their ministries and in our faith. And as women started coming into the ministry, there was enormous tension. How do you include women in a club that has heretofore been vastly male?

A major, visible milestone we haven’t achieved in Unitarian Universalism is the election of a woman as UUA president. That glass ceiling will be shattered at the June, 2017 General Assembly when one of three women running for the position will be elected. Will we be a post-sexist religion at that point? No. In fact, once we’ve elected a woman president, we may very quickly become more aware of how deeply our sexism runs.

Another reason the struggle against sexism has felt less urgent to me is that in Unitarian Universalism I have always been surrounded by strong, outspoken, talented, insightful women. I’m not looking for points. I’m stating a fact. In the congregations I’ve served there have been women doctors, lawyers, athletes, writers, poets, politicians, policy-makers, activists, mathematicians, engineers, psychotherapists, college professors, soldiers, research scientists, marketers, computer programmers, IT specialists, ministers, business owners, photographers, sculptors, biologists, chemists and corporate leaders, not to mention many women working in more traditionally female roles as teachers, nurses, social workers, homeschoolers, and secretaries—and the vast majority of these women, while pursuing these careers, have been raising children, running households and volunteering at church in every role from Sunday morning greeter to congregation president. I’ve been surrounded by strong women, and I am clear that the success of my ministry has depended on their presence.

1960s and 70s second wave feminism envisioned women living, learning, working and earning in all the ways men were accustomed to living, learning, working and earning. While that vision certainly has not become a concrete reality for all women, I see evidence of it having come to fruition in the lives of many Unitarian Universalist women—in their education, careers, earning power relative to women of earlier generations, the life choices they’ve been able to make and their leadership roles in society. But it is precisely the success of that vision in the lives of many UU women that has dulled my sense of urgency around addressing sexism directly. The problem of sexism is slightly less visible here.

But it’s real, and I take it as a truth that regardless of any woman’s education, career, family planning decisions, race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability or age, all women encounter a bedrock sexism in our society. The more privileged a woman is, perhaps the more she is able to withstand sexism’s most pernicious effects—though even that isn’t a given—but I’m convinced no woman avoids it entirely. Sexism is still way too normal.

It’s not only in those big statistics: 79 cents to the man’s dollar; 1 in 5 women sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Sexism also resides in day-to-day experiences, little slights that add up to a gendered burden men don’t carry. Linda Duncan referred to this as the “social inequality” that comes with being a woman. She talked about micro-aggressions: harassment on the street and in the office; the assumption that women are overly emotional; the strong, decisive woman perceived as bitchy while her male counterpart is praised for the same behavior; the experience of offering a good idea, only to have it ignored until a man offers it a few minutes later; the hyper-focus on looks, clothes and weight; and the ubiquitous, “give me a smile, honey.”

Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s public art series, “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” is an effort to combat street harassment. “Starting in her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood,” quotes a 2013 Ms. Magazine article, “Fazlalizadeh has peppered walls with black-and-white drawings of brazenfaced women accompanied by bold slogans such as, ‘Women are not outside for your entertainment.’ When a man tells a woman to smile,” says Fazlalizadeh, “he’s expecting her to entertain him. ‘It’s the same as saying, Dance for me; jump for me. Smile is never really a question; it’s a command.’”[5] Even if the man who asks a woman to smile believes he’s just being friendly, he is still telling her what to do with her body.

I found a video on You Tube by a young women named Whitney Way Thore telling the story of trying to buy a pack of gum at a convenient store. The clerk told her to smile. She was angry. People suggested he was just trying to be helpful. She pointed out that helping typically doesn’t require the one being helped to do something for the helper. “I want to help you, so let me tell you what to do with your body.” Thore calls it a “manipulative power play.”[6]

It’s a manifestation of that old, patriarchal world-view that says women are property, playthings, servants. The man may not even realize he’s acting out of that world-view, but he doesn’t need to know. It’s still operating. For women it is exhausting.

Why, because in all these situations women have to make a calculation. Am I safe? Should I say something? Should I ignore it? Should I confront it? Is it me? That’s the gendered burden men don’t carry—the stress of having to calculate. Often the easiest, safest path is non-confrontation, finding some way to de-escalate the situation, but that takes a toll too. In an article for Huffpost Women entitled “That Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About,” blogger Gretchen Kelly says, “We have all learned, either by instinct or by trial and error, how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable. How to avoid angering a man or endangering ourselves. We have all, on many occasions, ignored an offensive comment. We’ve all laughed off an inappropriate come-on. We’ve all swallowed our anger when being belittled or condescended to. It doesn’t feel good. It feels icky. Dirty. But we do it because to not do it could put us in danger or get us fired or labeled a bitch. So we usually take the path of least precariousness.”[7] In an article in The Guardian Thursday entitled “The Struggle to Speak Up: How Women Are Pushed to De-escalate Sexist Incidents,” Rose Hackman says “To the initial weight of having to deal with … acts of dominance is the added mental drain of having to evaluate how best to deal with it and not risk a violent backlash. De-escalating is just another form of the “emotional work” women provide with little recognition of its ongoing exertion and toll.”[8]

Earlier we heard Jenn Richard sing Ani DiFranco’s “Not a Pretty Girl.” This is a resistance song—a declaration of non-compliance with sexism, a proclamation that she refuses to play the roles society assigns to women. “I am not a pretty girl, / That is not what I do. / I ain’t no damsel in distress, / And I don’t need to be rescued.”[9] Taking a cue from this song, why not as individuals and as a congregation adopt an attitude and a posture and a program of resistance to sexism? Many of us already resist in big and small ways. Why not be more explicit, more intentional? Why not proclaim and celebrate our resistance? Why not say, “anti-sexism is central to who we are?”

Unitarian Universalism has made great strides in addressing its own sexism. But knowing that our past achievements can dull our sense of urgency, let’s take a bold new look at ourselves, a deeper look: how might sexism be operating in our collective life? Let’s commit to being a place where women don’t have to calculate, aren’t responsible for the emotional work of de-escalating sexism, and can name it not only without fear of repercussion, but with the expectation that people will want to learn more. And let’s be a place where men are encouraged to take on the gendered burden, where men are skilled in anti-sexist language and behavior and know strategies for resistance as allies to women. And let’s be a place where we have those nuanced conversations, where we understand how different women experience sexism differently—how sexism is different for white women than it is for women of color, different for straight women than it is for lesbians, different for trans women, poor women, rich women, developing nation women, women with disabilities, women with and without children, married women, unmarried women, divorced women, elder women, young women, girls, fat women, skinny women—let’s strive to understand the many ways different women experience sexism.

And let’s develop a women’s social justice platform. We have platforms for racial justice, GLBT justice, environmental justice. We ought to have a  women’s justice platform including equal pay for equal work, an end to sexual and other forms of violence, paid sick days and family medical leave, a living wage, an end to the taxation of menstrual products and diapers, reproductive choice and full access to reproductive health services and information and—relevant to CT politics during the recent legislative session—knowing that a woman is five times more likely to be murdered by a partner when the partner owns a gun, a women’s justice platform must include removal of all guns from the partner’s possession if a judge grants a woman a restraining order, even if that restraining order is temporary.

Let’s look out into the wider community at the organizations that are doing anti-sexist and women’s justice work and figure out ways to partner with them. And if we find that there are many different organizations working on many different women’s issues, let’s be part of the effort to unite them, so that we can resist together, transform together—so that there is a clear, unmistakable, unapologetic social justice movement for women. Let’s be fully in the movement to end sexism here and everywhere.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Hill, Catherine, “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap”  (The American Association of University Women, Spring, 2016) p. 7. See: http://www.aauw.org/files/2016/02/SimpleTruth_Spring2016.pdf.

[2] “Sexual Violence: Facts as a Glance,” Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention, 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/sv-datasheet-a.pdf.

[3] See the text of the 1977 UUA business resolution, “Women and Religion” at http://www.uua.org/statements/women-and-religion.

[4]For more on the long-term impact of the Women and Religion resolution, see French, Kimberly, “Thirty years of feminist transformation: The 1977 Women and Religion resolution transformed the Unitarian Universalist Association” UU World (Summer, 2007): http://www.uuworld.org/articles/thirty-years-feminist-transformation.

[5] Little, Anita, “If These Walls Could Talk: Fighting Harassment With Street Art,” Ms. Magazine, Fall, 2013. See: http://www.msmagazine.com/Fall2013/national.html.

[6] Thore, Whitney Way, “Stop Telling Me to Smile.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RWz9D0166k.

[7] Kelly, Gretchen, “That Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About,” Huffpost Women, November 23, 2015. See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gretchen-kelly/the-thing-all-women-do-you-dont-know-about_b_8630416.html#sthashSvFmyyeWdpuf.

[8] Hackman, Rose, “The Struggle to Speak Up: How Women Are Pushed to De-escalate Sexist Incidents,” The Guardian, May 12, 2016. See: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/12/women-sexual-harrassment-sexism-deescalation?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail.

[9] DiFranco, Annie, “Not a Pretty Girl.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cZ-nAfSkW4&list=RD3cZ-nAfSkW4#t=50.

Once Upon a Time, We Were Together

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Image by Nancy Madar

Image by Nancy Madar

“Once upon a time, we were together”—words from Indian-born, Canadian poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar. “Follow the trail / To young Douglas firs, tree farmed, / close to power lines, radio towers visible, / western Hemlocks, also planted. / coastal streams built over, where coho once, pink once, chinook, / chum, salmon, steelhead— / Once upon a time, we were together.”[1] These words—like words of so many poets, novelists, artists, theologians, philosophers, prophets, healers, shamans, clergy, naturalists, farmers, elders—like so many words written, spoken, sung, imagined and dreamed throughout the modern era—express profound longing for something that has been lost. Here the poet notes lines of trees planted like power lines, in even rows upon land that is neither linear nor even. She notes how the world has built itself over ancient coastal streams where so many species of salmon once ran. But it’s not just that the trees now stand in straight lines rather than in natural groves, copses and thickets; it’s not just that streams and salmon no longer run—these losses are lamentable enough. She’s naming deeper, hidden loss—difficult to feel, and more poignant when we finally do feel it. She’s naming the lost human relationship with trees, with streams, with salmon. “Once upon a time, we were together.”

That’s the beginning of a story—“once upon a time, we were together.” It’s the human story. It’s our story. It is my prayer that this story will circle ‘round, ending where it began. And in the interest of the story ending where it began, I want to introduce you to the work of Morris Berman, specifically his 1981 book, The Reenchantment of the World. Berman describes himself as a sacred humanist. He is a historian, cultural critic, philosopher, professor, novelist, poet, pundit, blogger, the author of many books, including 2012’s Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline,[2] and a leader of the Wafers.[3] W-A-F: ‘Why America Failed.’ One who subscribes to the notion that America has failed is a Wafer. When he wrote Reenchantment Berman was—or at least seemed—hopeful that the industrialized West would undergo a revolution in culture, society, politics, economics and science necessary to avert the kinds of crises we currently face. Today he is differently hopeful. He puts his hope in what he calls New Monastic Individuals. He is not hopeful about the United Sates. He offers a searing critique of America and its people. In a recent interview he said “I’m not an optimist…. [The United States] is going … the way of the Roman empire and [will] just fall apart.”[4]

I asked him online if he could offer some reflections on the impact of Reenchantment since 1981. He wrote back to me, “My Dear Reverend,” and offered 1,000 apologies for not having time to offer such reflections. He was warm and welcoming. He hoped my flock appreciates how I’m using the book. I asked if he could give me a one-word answer—do you still stand by the book, yes or no? He said “yes, but with a lot of modification.”

The Reenchantment of the World was extraordinarily meaningful to me. It is the book I needed to read now. It woke me up to knowledge that has always been present in me, but which I struggle to keep before me. It’s the knowledge, essentially, that once upon a time, we were together. Once upon a time we human beings were together in mind and body, a seamless whole. Once upon a time, we human being were together with Nature, a seamless whole. And once upon a time, Nature and divinity were together, a seamless whole. Berman says: “The view of nature which predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this environment. The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging…. Member[s] of this cosmos [were] not … alienated observer[s] of it but … direct participant[s] in its drama. [Their] personal destiny was bound with its destiny, and this relationship gave meaning to life. This type of consciousness—participating consciousness—involves merger, or identification with one’s surroundings, and bespeaks a psychic wholeness that has long since passed from the scene.”[5]

But I didn’t just wake up to this knowledge of ancient, inherent togetherness. I woke up to the fact that we modern western people lost it. We lost this oneness of which poets, prophets and philosophers speak. We lost participating consciousness. We’re not even sure what that term means. We talk about an interdependent web, about everything coming from the same primordial, Big Bang fireball, about being star stuff, about being once cosmic family, one earth, one human family, everyone and everything related to everyone and everything else. But these are just words that live in our minds. They enable us to think about relatedness, but they don’t have the power to bring us fully, viscerally, sensually into an actual, ongoing felt experience of relatedness. Participating consciousness has that power. We lost it. And I’m convinced that in the deepest places in us we long for it because, in the deepest places in us we know: once upon a time, we were together.

In the first half of Reenchantment Berman analyzes how the architects of Modernity—the people who established modern science, technology, industry, capitalism, nation states, and corporate and governmental dominance of the environment—separated mind from body, separated humanity from Nature, separated earth from divinity. However, the early modernists never disproved the reality of participating consciousness. They didn’t need to. They rejected it and proceeded to build institutions, structures and systems that denied it. We’ve inherited those institutions, structures and systems. Understand this: The sustained, visceral human experience of oneness with Nature didn’t go away because it was proven to be wrong. It went away because it stood in the way of modern science’s need to separate body and mind. It went away because it stood in the way of capitalism’s need to dominate Nature. It went away because it stood in the way of modernist Christianity’s need to civilize the so-called heathens. It went away with a sword at its back, a gun at its head and flames lapping around its feet. 

"Head East" by James Starkey “Head East” by James Starkey (Itaziptco Lakota)

“Head East” by James Starkey “Head East” by James Starkey (Itaziptco Lakota)

A horrific example of this in more recent American history is the Indian School movement which forced Indian children—accustomed to a more earth-based, participating consciousness—to attend boarding schools where missionaries stripped them of their language, culture, religion and relationship to Nature and imposed modern consciousness on them. Berman doesn’t mention this example, but he does argue that widespread mental illness in our culture is a symptom of the loss of participating consciousness. That’s an overstatement, to be sure. Cultures with participating consciousness also have mental illness. But someone on his blog quoted writer Kent Nerburn’s claim that high rates of suicide in Canada’s First Nation communities are the ongoing result of “full-blown cultural PTSD, born of the boarding … school experiences.”[6] The loss of participating consciousness can make some people and some communities sick for generations. Berman says “for more than 99 percent of human history, the world was enchanted and [humans] saw [themselves] as an integral part of it. The complete reversal of this perception in a mere four hundred years or so has destroyed the continuity of the human experience and the integrity of the human psyche. It has very nearly wrecked the planet as well.”[7]

 400 years after the dawn of Modernity, most westerners—I include us in the category of ‘most westerners’—have been socialized into a culture that cannot and will not recognize participating consciousness. We don’t know what it is. We don’t have words for it. We don’t know what it feels like. We don’t know how we could be human differently. Berman theorizes about it, but he too is a creature of Modernity. We can romanticize about what pre-conquest Native American culture was like and how it supported participating consciousness. We can romanticize about what pre-modern European culture was like and how it supported participating consciousness. I get chills up my spine recalling that Isaac Newtown was secretly an alchemist, immersed in the older, occult world-view in which human beings permeated Nature. But we can’t really know. At best, we catch brief glimpses—in dreams and intuitions, in our inspired moments of creativity, in the endorphin rush of exercise or yoga, in those exhilarating moments of communion with Nature we describe as spiritual—but it’s always only a glimpse, always fleeting, never enough.

I’ve always said: “spiritual experiences are fleeting.” But I think that’s a lie. This is one of the ways Reenchanment has woken me up. The only reason these experiences are fleeting is because there’s no room for them in our modern consciousness. They don’t fit. They’re strange. They’re abnormal. But imagine a culture with a different philosophical foundation, a different relationship to Earth, different assumptions about what constitutes scientific knowledge and how we obtain it, different economic relationships, different corporate priorities. In such a culture such experiences might not be fleeting at all, might not come only at the margins of awareness or the edges of sleep; might actually be more … normal. Imagine that! That’s the revolution Berman was imagining: the emergence of an entirely different culture that could support and affirm participating consciousness. Our hope, he said, “lies in a reenchantment of the world.”[8]

In the second half of Reenchantment Berman offers the metaphysical basis for such a world. [9] He proposes a holistic, cybernetic theory of Mind, grounded in the research of the cultural anthropologist, Gregory Bateson. It’s a sweeping, multifaceted proposal drawing on studies of childbirth, child-rearing, learning theories, alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous, analogue vs. digital knowledge, Schizophrenia, tribal rituals, circuitry and coding, the principle of incompleteness…. the scope is mindboggling.[10]

One message I take from it all is that a culture that can experience a reenchanted world will be holistic. Holism is the idea that every component of a system is in relationship with every other component of that system. One cannot understand the whole by examining the parts in isolation from each other. Breaking a thing down into its constituent parts for study is called atomism, and it lives at the heart of the Modern world-view. It assumes the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. But to truly understand the whole one must examine relationships, systems, processes, energy flows. Because it includes these things, the whole is inevitably larger than the sum of its parts. In 1981 Berman saw signs of an emerging holistic culture in feminism, the environmental movement, racial self-determination movements, and in religious renewal, which I suspect referred to the increasing American interest in eastern religions, yoga, Native American spirituality and paganism.[11] He said these movements “represent the repressed ‘shadows’ of industrial civilization. The feminine, the wilderness, the child, the body, the creative mind and heart, the occult, and the peoples of nonurban, regional peripheries … that have never bought into the ethos of the industrial heartland.”[12] What unites these various movements is recovery. “Their goal,” he says, “is the recovery of our bodies, our health, our sexuality, our natural environment, our archaic traditions, our unconscious mind, our rootedness in the land, our sense of community and connectedness to one another.” [13]  

“Final Planting” by Sharon Gresk (Bicycle wheels re-purposed as a trellis for climbing vines–a symbol of recovery!)

“Final Planting” by Sharon Gresk (Bicycle wheels re-purposed as a trellis for climbing vines–a symbol of recovery!)

This sounds oddly akin to what we’re trying to do in this Unitarian Universalist congregation. Those of you taking the class on Thomas Moore’s A Religion of One’s Own, for example, are doing recovery work. We’re exploring dreams, sensuality, eros, creativity, wilderness, community; we’re exploring how to access the unconscious by paying attention to intuition, hunches, art, music and serendipitous occurrences. We’re knitting mind and body back together. But how does this recovery lead to participating consciousness, to an ongoing, intimate, felt relationship with Nature? How does this work reenchant the world?

A leap is required here, a leap out of the Modern mind. Are you ready? Ask yourself: what is the unconscious? What is your unconscious? Can you give a definition of the unconscious that adequately explains what it really is, where it resides, what it’s made of, why it seems so opaque, so difficult to visit? What blocks us from just peering into it? Is that what we’ve lost—the capacity to peer into our unconscious? No. Here’s the leap: We’ve been tricked into believing there’s a vast, numinous realm hidden in ourselves and that it’s healthy to peer into to the extent we can, because it is the source, the cause of our neuroses and worse. That’s a modern idea—that we each possess our own, discreet vast, hidden realm called the unconscious. It’s a lie. Only the tiniest, most miniscule portion of what we call the unconscious lies immediately within us. If we want to encounter it in its true breadth and depth, the direction in which to peer is not in; the direction is out, to Nature.

This is the most important message I take from Reenchantment: The physical, sensual, visceral world of Nature and what we call the human unconscious are one and the same. That’s what we’ve lost. Those intuitions, hunches, dreams and moments of communion? Those aren’t inscrutable messages from some vast, hidden realm. They are your consciousness trying to participate! They are your consciousness trying to participate in Nature in the midst of a non-holistic modern culture that cannot and does not recognize the intimacy and beauty of your relationship with Nature and has, historically, used violence to make it go away. No wonder these experiences are so fleeting. They are dangerous. Newton knew this! No wonder that modern sense of cosmic homelessness, that modern malaise, that modern existential anxiety. No wonder excessive, hyper war-making! No wonder a planet entering environmental collapse! “If we are in an ecological, systemic, permeable relationship with the ‘natural world,’” says Berman, “then we necessarily investigate ‘that world,’ when we explore what it in the ‘human unconscious,’” [14] and (my words) we necessarily investigate the ‘human unconscious’ when we explore what is in the ‘natural world.’

From a modern perspective, this sounds wrong. And I know it’s still too abstract. So, I have an assignment for you, a thought-feeling experiment. Go outside, breathe deeply, and imagine that every natural thing you encounter, every natural thing you see, taste, hear, smell, touch is your unconscious. You don’t need to accept it as true. Just imagine it is. Your unconscious: entirely knowable, not hidden at all, not opaque at all, not actually ‘un-anything.’ It’s been right in front of you your entire life. All around you. You knew it as a child. Everyone knows it as a child. I’ve been following this assignment for weeks. This grass-my unconscious-this grass. This tree-my unconscious-this tree. This night sky-my unconscious-this night sky. This cloud-me. This horse-me. Dirt-me. Stone-me. Forest-me. Us. Together.

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

Do the assignment. Not just once. Do it again and again, and don’t stop. See where this imagining takes you. What new/old knowledge comes? What does it explain to you that didn’t make sense before? I find it explains a lot. And in my private moments I’ve been weeping with joy. The world is enchanted.

It’s hard to stay in the world of this assignment. Our culture can’t support it and doesn’t really allow it. But I urge you to try. We’ve got to start somewhere. And remember, once upon a time, we were together. So our story began. My prayer is that our story will circle ‘round to end at its beginning.  

“Max Picking Blueberries” by Josh Pawelek (Every child knows something about participating consciousness!)

“Max Picking Blueberries” by Josh Pawelek (Every child knows something about participating consciousness!)

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Saklikar, Renée Sarojini, “Before Is Also a Place: To the Eve River.” See p. 37 of the 2016 “Poem in Your Pocket Day” website: https://www.google.com/search?q=%E2%80%9CBefore+Is+Also+a+Place%3A+To+the+Eve+River%E2%80%9D&oq=%E2%80%9CBefore+Is+Also+a+Place%3A+To+the+Eve+River%E2%80%9D&aqs=chrome..69i57.1086j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8.

[2] Berman, Morris, Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

[3] Check out Morris Berman’s website, Dark Ages America, at http://morrisberman.blogspot.com/.

[4] “Resistance Radio – Morris Berman – 03.13.16” (Progressive Radio Network): http://prn.fm/resistance-radio-morris-berman-03-13-16/.

[5] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984) p. 2.

[6] Nerburn, Kent, “An Important But Hidden Story that Needs to be Heard,” Kent Nerburn: Wandering, Wondering and Writing, April 14, 2016. See: http://kentnerburn.com/an-important-but-hidden-story-that-needs-to-be-heard/. The article on the high suicide rate among First Nations people to which he is responding is here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/11/canada-first-nation-suicide-attempts-attawapiskat.

[7] Berman, Reenchantment, pp. 9-10.

[8] Berman, Reenchantment, p. 10.

[9] Berman, Reenchantment, pp. 142-143. He wanted a metaphysics that wouldn’t return us to a naïve animism or to a hunter-gatherer existence, and one that didn’t close down the enterprise of science but instead opened up new ways of doing science.

[10] Berman followed Reenchantment with two more books—Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West in 1989 and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality in 2000.

[11] Sounds strangely (or not) akin to the spiritual interests and identities of many Unitarian Universalists. Just sayin.’

[12] The separatist Basque region of Spain is an example of such a nonurban, regional periphery.

[13] Berman, Reenchantment, pp. 281-282.

[14] Berman, Reenchantment, p. 142.

“The Gift of Water” – An Earth Day service

“Water Calls Us” by Lauriston King, 

Lauriston King (under umbrella)

Lauriston King (under umbrella)

Water Calls Us. 

It calls us to value it beyond measure because it is the basis for life itself.  Indeed, nearly 60% of our bodies are water.  Even more impressive, our hearts and brains are about 73% water. When astronauts first saw Earth from space, they saw a blue planet, 71% of which is covered with water. The problem is that most of this water is too salty to use.  This leaves only about 1% for drinking, cleaning, and meeting the needs of crops and animals for the nearly 7 billion people on the planet. And it’s not equally available to everyone.  Some 1 billion people don’t have access to a reliable source of clean, fresh drinking water.  In contrast, Americans use about twice the amount used in other parts of the world.

Two recent incidents remind us of these two core realities, namely, that we need water to live, and that it’s often scarce.

In January 2014, storage tanks along the Elk River in West Virginia, ruptured and spilled toxic chemicals in water used by people in nine counties, including the state capital.  Residents had to use bottled water for two months.  The leaking tanks had not been inspected by a government agency in 15 years. It turned out that there was no law requiring that they be inspected, even though they sat along a river that provided water to surrounding communities.

More recently, citizens of Flint, Michigan, have been exposed to dangerously high levels of lead in their drinking water, the result of efforts to reduce costs of water treatment and delivery. Failure to treat the water system properly has resulted in sharp increases of lead in the blood of an unspecified number of people, including infants and young children. Lead in growing children can result in reduced leaning ability as well as other behavioral problems.

Just a few days ago, criminal charges were filed against three  men responsible for that water system. One was accused of approving a permit for a treatment plant—and I quote—“knowing that it would fail to provide clean and safe drinking water to families.”

There’s much more to these two cases, to be sure. But my basic point is this: These elected officials, water managers, and company executives betrayed a fundamental community trust, specifically, that they recognize and commit themselves to provide safe, clean water to their fellow citizens. These are not just technical failures.  They are moral failures as well.

Water calls us. 

Lush Land and Rugged RockIt calls us to respect its power. Anyone who been wading in the surf and been suddenly thrown to the ground and tossed about, or caught in an undertow or riptide that drags you out to sea, knows the power of the ocean. And think about how water carves and shapes the earth as it erodes deep channels such as the Grand Canyon.  Hurricanes and floods remind us of how powerful water can be.  Scientists predict that sea levels are likely to rise by anywhere from a few inches to several feet by 2100, threatening the destruction of coastal cities like Boston, New York, Houston, and New Orleans.  Respect for the power of water must be the basis for action to protect life, property, and community.

Water calls us. 

It calls us to study, to learn, and to understand how our lives are tightly bound and dependent on water.  We read and see stories about water every day, but most of the time it’s hard to see where they all add up.

That’s where science comes in.  Understanding the grand ecology of weather, climate, and climate change, is fundamentally about water.  That is the realm of those who study large earth systems, hydrologists, geologists, geographers, atmospheric scientists, and engineers. There is no debate that water is critical for life. There are no water deniers. So we, as individuals and a society, must be responsible for learning how it’s created, stored, distributed, delivered; why some places have abundant water and others do not; and how and why climate changes and with what effects.

Because water is a scarce resource, people will fight over who should get it, in what amounts, and in what order.  On Martha’s farm, the cows had first dibs.  In Bloomfield, across the river, there is a conflict over whether a private company, Niagara Bottling, should have special access to the region’s public water supplies.  This tension between private and public control over water systems goes on around the country. To understand these conflicts, and to make fair and equitable rules for who gets what, when, and how, we need the work of economists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers.  Simply put, we must understand water in all its natural, social, and human dimensions.

It may come as little surprise, however, that there are those, even in our own Congress, who not only deny the reality of climate change, but seek to cut off funding support for natural and social scientists who seek to understand these matters. Because water is necessary for life, willful ignorance about any part of the water system is not just irresponsible, it is morally bankrupt.

Water calls us. 

It calls us to quiet, familiar places.  When I was about eight, we moved to a new house in East Hartford that backed up to a tobacco field with lots of woods nearby.  I loved to play in the woods with my friends, wade in the brooks, fight through the brush along the bank, and walk along the bends and curves, as the water slipped toward some place that I was not yet allowed to go.

Many years later I moved to Texas with my own family.  The land was flat, there were no brooks or ponds, or streams spilling over rocks, only creeks and small ponds called stock tanks for the cattle. I felt disconnected, out of place.  I missed my brooks and streams.  I slowly realized that these were part of what gave me my sense of place, of home.

And one last thing. For me, the sound that a brook or stream makes invites me to stop, to listen as it passes along a sandy bottom, or over rocks. It calls me to listen as the water breaks the silence and, if only for a moment, receive the gift of a mind at peace, and the comfort of a sense of place.

Water calls us.

It calls us to treasure it, to respect its power, to understand it, and to be grateful for its gift of quiet and place.

Will we hear it?

Will we listen to it?

May it be so.


“The Ocean is a Gift” by Chloe Campellone

Chloe Campellone

Chloe Campellone

I was 7 years old. It was the summer of 2007 in Charlestown, Rhode Island. I was with my relatives that day, hanging out at my grandmother’s beach house. I loved that place so much. There was a backyard to play hide and seek in and you could see Block Island from her doorstep. Once we arrived we were all expected to sit around on the deck chatting and drinking wine. Well, the adults drank wine. The kids had juice boxes. The adults were in no hurry.  But I had little patience for chit chat. All I could think about was getting to the beach! After what felt like hours we finally got our swim suits on and headed to the beach on foot.

It was a short walk from Grandma’s house to the beach. We walked past many cool nautical themed beach houses I dreamed of living in. As we walked I could see those glorious path by seawaves getting closer and closer. We finally stepped onto the boardwalk and I flung off my sandals in excitement. The sun was beating down on me, the sand sifted between my toes, and the smell of seaweed and too much coconut scented sun screen moved among the sea breeze. The waves were huge and they crashed and boomed loudly.  I bounced impatiently as the relatives set up their beach towels and umbrellas into little campsites. As soon as I was lathered up in Coppertone and got the go ahead, I strapped on my favorite boogie board, the one with the shark on it, and ran to the sea with all my little 7 year old might.

My cousin Julia and I liked to wait until the very last second to jump on top of those quickly moving waves. The waves were so enormous to me, I could feel the adrenaline pumping throughout my body. I remember just soaring into the air with those incredible blue waves and thinking I was on top of the world. I also remember getting pulled under the water and taking tumbles with the riptide while I hung on desperately to my shark boogie board. Some may think that getting pulled into the riptide is scary, but all I remember were the endless giggles that arose from me and my cousin after we pulled our sand covered bodies out of the water. After repeating this cycle of soaring and tumbling in the waves for a couple of hours, I came out of the sea and onto the soft beach sand. I made sand castles and remember running back and forth from ocean to shore like a messenger to get more water for the moat around the biggest castle. Despite the sometimes pesky seagulls pecking for scraps of sandwiches and potato chips, and the loads of sand that managed to migrate into my bathing suit, making for a very uncomfortable walk home, I had a great day. In fact, it was one of my very best days ever.

 I’ve returned to this same place again and again, year after year, and the ocean never fails to offer me adventure and new experiences.  Once my dad and I sat on some rocks by the breachway and he taught me to capture crabs by sticking little pieces of hotdogs on strings into the water. I couldn’t help but laugh as I watched their little claws appear from between the rock crevices to get a hunk of the hotdog. I also caught tiny harmless jellyfish in a big net. We released the crabs and the jelly fish, of course. But it was fun checking them out up close.

Another time I kayaked with my grandpa though the little rivers branching off from the sea in Charlestown. I paddled as fish jumped above the water right next to me and herons sat peacefully, apparently with full bellies, lazily soaking up the warmth of the sun.

Another treasured memory is the morning I went clam digging, or “quahogging” with my grandpa. I put on the huge waders and trudged through the water. I dragged along a heavy clam rake and a big bag to carry home my winnings. If you’ve never used a clam rake this might sound like an easy enough endeavor. Think again!  Digging for clams is hard work. You’re bent over, your hands are tired and freezing, and if you’re really unlucky you might get attacked by sand fleas — which is why my grandpa gave me the waders! And yet, I can honestly say that was easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced.

The ocean is a gift. It cools us when we have grown too hot. It dares us to ride its waves. It teems with life and it invites us to explore it. We will never know its depth but its joy is ours to experience again and again. It calls to me and it calls to my family. It calls us all back to it year after year, summer after summer. And we come together, each taking a break from our own busy little worlds, to celebrate this gift. The ocean is a gift.


“The Ram Pump,” by Martha Larson

MarthaI grew up on a small family farm in the village of Still River in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts. My family had been there since sometime in the 1630s. I’m not sure when the water supply system I remember was installed, but I want to tell you about it, because although it was common in rural New England, many of you may not know about it.

Our house had neighbors on either side – fairly close for a rural village. But our property extended out back for acres and acres, including cow pastures, apple orchard, corn fields, and vegetable gardens. If you walked about a quarter of a mile through the pasture, past the saw mill, and beside the apple orchard, you came to a giant ancient maple tree, which sheltered the path down through a swampy area to the ram house. No, not a shelter for male sheep – but the little building which housed the hydraulic ram. The ram was common in rural areas – it pumped water from where it occurred naturally, uphill to where it was needed. And, it used no electricity or gasoline! Water was collected in the reservoir – fed by natural springs – an 8 x 8 building protected this water from leaves, twigs, and most animals. A small diameter pipe led downhill a few feet to the ram house. This was a 6×6 building. When you opened the door you looked way down – about 8 feet – to the sandy bottom where the ram was installed. There was a wooden ladder to climb down if the ram needed attention – which, as long as the water flowed, it didn’t.

Antique ram pump

Antique ram pump

Water flowed into the ram at high pressure, opened another valve, closed the first one with a clacking sound, and pushed the water into the outlet pipe and eventually 1,200 feet away to the holding tank in the barn. Cows got the water first, and the cool water also chilled the cans of milk each day until the Hood truck picked them up.

From the barn, the water (still pushed by the ram) went up to a holding tank in the attic of our house. When I turned the faucet in bathroom or kitchen, water flowed down by gravity. The water pressure was not high enough for a shower, but the old claw foot bathtub was used judiciously – never lots of water in it, and baths were limited – sometimes just once a week. We all learned how to get clean with a small amount of water in the bathroom sink.

We occasionally got to swim at the town beach 2 miles away, and even more rarely got to visit the ocean. But I loved to swim and so was delighted when I was 12 that my father, who had earned some extra money on jury duty, used it to build a pond down back at the foot of the apple orchard, not far from the ram and reservoir. This pond was for entertainment! Yes, it could be used to irrigate crops, but it became a place to enjoy water – to play with water.  It was a place to swim in the summer, row a boat in fall and spring, and ice skate in the winter. Countless family gatherings were held at the pond, including, years later,  my wedding reception.

During a summer storm in 1961 the barn across the street was struck by lightning. Fortunately, it housed no animals, but was old and dry and full of combustible things. The fire raged and the wind picked up. Having exhausted the supply of water the tanker truck carried, the volunteer firemen drove down to the pond – several times – collecting water that was sprayed on the roofs of the neighbor’s house and ours. The neighbor’s barn was a total loss, but no homes or people were injured, thanks to the pond.

During the mid and late sixties, there was a pretty severe draught in Massachusetts – perhaps Connecticut too. The old ram was becoming unreliable, and my brothers and I were all away at school – no one to climb down the ladder in the ram house and unclog or restart it. The cows were long gone, but garden and people needed water. A well was drilled beside the house, and the old farmhouse had a modern water system which is still working today.

The old ram house and reservoir are gone, and a new pond is in the area where they used to be. That pond is used to irrigate the fields of tomatoes, corn, and other veggies that my brother grows. It’s been used to put out at least two brush fires in the village, and still provides a lovely place to walk and reminisce.


“A Drink of Cold Water,” by Anne Vaughan

Anne VaughanMany of you know that I grew up out in the Sandhills of Nebraska, on a small farm near a small town called Ainsworth. A mile away from our house was a one room country schoolhouse which I attended from Kindergarten through eighth grade. My first few years there, we didn’t have running water in the building. One of our daily jobs was to carry a bucket out to the pump, pump it full of water and bring it in to fill up a gray crockery water cooler with a spigot at the bottom. That was where we got our drinking water. On warm days when we’d play outside during recess, we’d be hot after a game of baseball or pum-pum-pull away, and we’d run to the pump. Usually the bigger boys would pump that pump handle until water came pouring out. We’d cup our hands under it to catch a drink of cold, refreshing water before going back inside for classes.

At my home we had indoor plumbing and our water was pumped by a windmill that stood on a little hill above the house. In the mid-50’s some of the farmers and ranchers Windmillstill did not have indoor plumbing. We always had fresh, cold water to drink for ourselves and for the cows and chickens and pigs. I loved that windmill. It had a ladder that we could climb and look out at everything. You can still see a lot of those little windmills pumping water for cattle and horses out in the pastures.

Seven miles from Ainsworth is a very small town called Long Pine. There is a place called Seven Springs that feeds into Pine Creek. We used to love to go there and drink the water right from one of the springs because it was even fresher and colder than our water at home. My uncle once sent a sample of the water to the state for testing and they were amazed by the purity of it. Coco-Cola even had a small bottling plant there.

Not everyone has access to such good, clean water, but there are springs with good water in other places, too of course. There’s one in Willimantic where you see people filling containers with fresh, cold water. And we even have an old spring here on our property. There’s a path out back leading to that spring where you’ll find nice flat stones placed around it to make a kind of well where clear, cold water collects. This is water from that spring. (I had a jar of water that I collected from the spring and boiled it so it could be used in the child dedications.)

To me, water is sacred, but we often don’t treat it that way. When I was a senior in high school, they built a small feed lot in Ainsworth. That’s the kind of place they take range-fed cattle to be fattened up for a few weeks on corn before shipping them off to the packing houses near Omaha. Years later when we were back visiting my mom at her apartment in town, we noticed a water filter on her kitchen faucet. When I asked Mom about it, she just said the building superintendent told them to use it. But I know that it was because they were concerned about the purity of the water. It breaks my heart to think that the water once so clean and pure, which comes from the renowned Ogallala Aquifer, may now be contaminated by that feed lot and other larger scale farming and ranching that now take place there.


“Take a pebble, drop it in Water, Watch the Ripples on the Water”  by Mel Hoover and Josh Pawelek

I invite you to imagine water. Imagine it any way you wish. Notice that water has a spirit to it. Invite the spirit of water to come to you. Remember with thankfulness and joy plunging bare foot intoripples river beds, riding ocean waves, swimming in pools, picking up river-smoothed rocks, skipping stones and watching pebbles create ripples on the water’s surface.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

This is movement. This is energy. This is power. This is the spirit of water fanning out in all directions, fanning out through more and more molecules, expanding the circle, wider and wider and wider.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

If we want to make change—any kind of change—whether we’re talking about protecting water resources, or land resources, or animals or human bodies or the earth’s body—we must be willing to ripple the water. We must be willing to start something; willing to get things moving, willing to offer a different perspective, willing to take action. We must be agitators, instigators, innovators, catalysts. We must be willing to take risks, to say what we think and feel, to speak truth to power, to send a message that moves from person to person to person.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

If we want to make change, we must be willing to ripple the water. And if the first stone is too small and the ripples lose energy, we must be ready to drop another pebble, perhaps a larger pebble, generating larger, more powerful ripples. And when those ripples lose energy, we must be ready to drop the next pebble, and the next, and the next. May we be like pebbles dropped in water, sources of movement, energy, power and spirit.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

May we be like ripples on the water, constant, continuous, in all directions, expanding the circle wider and wider and wider.

Take a pebble. Drop it in water. Watch the ripples on the water.

Let us take a moment together in the holy quiet to ponder the differences we can make together. What pebbles do we need to drop? What change would we like to see in our community, in our nation, in our faith? What water do we need to ripple?


For Gravity’s Sake

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Did you feel it? I didn’t either.

4-3 gravitational wavesIn the new issue of Smithsonian Magazine, physicist Brian Greene writes: “More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two black holes executed the final steps in a fast-footed pas de deux, concluding with a final embrace so violent it released more energy than the combined output of every star in every galaxy in the observable universe. Yet, unlike starlight, the energy was dark, being carried by the invisible force of gravity. On September 14, 2015, at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, a fragment of that energy, in the form of a ‘gravitational wave,’ reached Earth, reduced by its vast transit across space and time to a mere whisper of its thunderous beginning.”[1] This was not the first time gravitational waves have grazed or graced our planet, but it was the first time scientists detected it. It took fifteen months to determine the data were accurate, but on February 11th, 2016, scientists announced the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), operating identical detection systems simultaneously in Louisiana and Washington, had detected a gravitational wave emanating from the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago on the other side of the universe. [2]

When they pass by a planet or person, gravitational waves squeeze in one direction, and in a perpendicular direction they pull. How often does something more than a billion years old give you a squeeze and a pull?

For a brief explanation of the discovery of gravitational waves, check out Brian Greene’s video: 

I knew immediately I wanted to address this in a sermon. Our theme for April is creation, and that seemed an appropriate time. Historically creation is a reference to the earth, the sun, moon, stars, waters, dry land, plants, trees, fish, animals, human beings—everything God is said to have created in the book of Genesis. I use creation in the broadest sense possible, as a name for all there is, all existence, everything—the visible and the invisible, the near and the far, the new and the ancient. And here comes this invisible ripple in the fabric of space-time—its size a billionth of the diameter of an atom—gently squeezing us in one direction and pulling us in another. Our bodies don’t sense it, but now we have tools that can detect this very slight, very subtle, but very real movement across creation. “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” said an ancient Hebrew priest. Gravitational waves likely weren’t what he had in mind, but there it is, sweeping over us. The universe speaking? [3]

I want to offer some reflections on gravity as a way to deepen the message of my sermon from two weeks ago. In that sermon I spoke about how the modern world—specifically the Western industrialized nations—separated mind from body and separated divinity from the earth after humans had lived for millennia without such separations. In that sermon I offered prayers that we may learn to reunite mind and body, that we may learn to experience divinity present in the earth. I said, “May ours be a religion that gently sinks its people into intimate relationship with Nature, intimate relationship with the divine earth—a relationship that is the ancestral birthright of [us all].”[4]

I named René Descartes and Francis Bacon as two of the leading philosophers of modern science—people responsible for advancing these separations. I did not name Isaac Newton who is often identified as the symbol of Western science. According to science historian, Morris Berman, “Newton defined the method of science itself, the notions of hypothesis and experiment, and the techniques that were to make rational mastery of the environment a viable intellectual exercise.”[5] But there was something different about Newton. Not only did he help invent a whole new way of doing science and a whole new way of understanding Nature—my fourth grader just completed a unit on Newton’s Laws; and not only did he discover gravity; but he was also deeply immersed in the ancient scientific traditions—Occultism, Hermeticism, Alchemy. The 20th-century British economist John Maynard Keynes said “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”[6]

Today, if we learn about alchemy at all, we learn it was spurious, late medieval attempt to turn lead into gold, or to create an elixir to prolong life. It never worked. But this begs a question: if it didn’t work, why was it around for some many hundreds of years? What accounted for its staying power? There was much more to alchemy than these fantastic quests.[7] For my purposes here, it’s enough to know that alchemists did not understand themselves as disembodied observers of the natural world. More to the point, they weren’t observers in the sense that we understand that word today. They were participants. They did not experience a mind-body separation, nor did they experience a separation between themselves and the materials with which they worked. To them, all matter possessed Mind—its own kind of consciousness. Some refer to alchemy as “the search for the God-head in matter.” Everything was alive, and the alchemist was part of it. As they sought to transform matter, they expected themselves to be transformed in the process. Berman says “the alchemist did not confront matter; he permeated it.”[8] Apparently Isaac Newton subscribed to this archaic world-view, and took his role as a steward of the ancient practices quite seriously.

But alchemy’s ascendency also ended with Newton. He lived in an age of great social disruption, class conflict, revolution and war in England. Apparently the more ancient and occult world-views, including alchemy, aligned with the more radical and revolutionary political views. When the English monarchy was restored to power in the 1660s, it became dangerous for anyone to espouse radical and revolutionary views, whether political or scientific. In this climate, the ruling elites saw the new modern science—what they called the mechanical philosophy—as an antidote to the radicalism of the previous decades.[9] A vision of an ordered, mechanical universe translated into an ordered, mechanical society. As a highly public figure, Newton hid his affinity for alchemy and the occult. This affinity was only discovered when his private manuscripts were made public many years later. According to Berman, Newton delved “deeply into the Hermetic wisdom for his answers, while clothing them in the idiom of the mechanical philosophy. The centerpiece of the Newtonian system, gravitational attraction, was in fact the Hermetic principle of sympathetic forces, which Newton saw as a creative principle, a source of divine energy in the universe. Although he presented this idea in mechanical terms, his unpublished writings reveal his commitment to the cornerstone of all occult systems: the notion that mind exists in matter.”[10]

I didn’t know this about Newton. Learning it now, I find it highly ironic that a person who regarded himself as a steward of ancient wisdom, as a magician—a person who sensed God in matter—would become synonymous with a view of Nature and the universe as cold, inert, inanimate, orderly and vast. As physicist Joel Primack and science historian Nancy Ellen Abrams say in their book, The View from the Center of the Universe, after Newton, “the universe that had once felt like a great cathedral filled with angels had vanished, and infinite reaches loomed.”[11] Human beings had lived for millennia with a sense of belonging and confidence because they experienced themselves as intimately embedded in a universe filled with divinity. Now they began to experience existential terror in response to a universe seen as infinite or at least incomprehensively large, almost empty, and with no inherent purpose.”[12] “No place was special,” they say. “There was no secure foothold in the universe, no anchor…. Physics claimed to define physical reality, yet it treated human beings like objects, and those objects were left wondering whether anything in the universe recognized them as more than that. Perhaps they were just a random occurrence on an average planet in a vast and uncaring scheme of things.”[13] “The Newtonian picture left humans drifting in a kind of cosmic homelessness that persists to this day.”[14]

Some might call this sense of cosmic homelessness excessively bleak. Others might call it ‘overdone,’ something only philosophers experience. Obviously not every human being feels it. If anything, humans more commonly feel existential terror in response to more immediate concerns: war, migration, the climate crisis, violence, etc. So perhaps cosmic homelessness isn’t such a big deal. However, it is also true that 325 years since Newton published his Principia, many of us are used to the picture of the universe physics paints. To the extent we can grasp it, we’re used to its impersonal vastness. We’re used to our smallness. We’re even used to the conclusion that there is no larger purpose. Of course, many people don’t accept the astronomers’ conclusions and never have. They continue to resist the idea of a meaningless universe. Billions across the planet still take refuge in other-worldly religious visions, still bow down to a commanding, disembodied God, still look forward to a non-physical eternity in Heaven. As such they still help perpetuate the great separations of modernity—the separation of body and mind, and the separation divinity from the earth.

These separations are hurting us. We need a new alchemy for our time. I included in our liturgy this morning Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “When Something Comes to Me at My Window,” and Heather McHugh’s poem “A Physics,” because, for me, they begin to name an alternative to both cosmic homelessness and anti-scientific blind faith in a disembodied God. They gently sink us into intimate relationship with Nature. They blur the lines between us and Nature. They embrace what the body experiences. And they both start with a reverent shout-out to gravity. “How surely gravity’s law,” says Rilke, “strong as an ocean current, / takes hold of even the smallest thing / and pulls it toward the heart of the world.”[15] McHugh is more veiled. “When you get down to it,” she says. And then the lines between us and Nature blur. “Earth / has our great ranges / of feeling—Rocky, Smoky, Blue— / and a heart that can melt stones. / The still pools fill with sky, / as if aloof, and we have eyes / for all of this—and more, for Earth’s / reminding moon. We too are ruled / by such attractions—spun and swaddled, / rocked and lent a light.”[16] She seems to know something of what the alchemists knew.

Rilke challenges the idea of a disembodied existence. “Only we, in our arrogance,” he says, “push out beyond what we each belong to / for some empty freedom.”[17] And McHugh, though not exactly challenging, clearly sees God as somewhere else. “The whole / idea of love was not to fall. And neither was / the whole idea of God. We put him well / above ourselves, because we meant, / in time, to measure up.”[18] But gravity is real, and we do fall. I think McHugh is saying we’ll never measure up, and if anything, we need to measure down, get down to it, let gravity works its magic, pull God off the pedestal, squeeze God out of disembodied existence, out of other-worldly heaven, out of the judgement seat, out of timelessness into this time, into the body of this world, into the energy of this life. Rilke says, “like children, we begin again / to learn from the things, / because they are in God’s heart; they have never left.”[19] This is an alchemical vision for our time. And McHugh says, “We want the suns and moons of silver in ourselves.”[20] This is an alchemical vision for our time.  

And if this alchemy is still too mired in words, still too abstract, still leaves you wondering, “yes, but how shall I live?” perhaps there’s a lesson in Gary Short’s poem, “Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders,” in the image of a teacher endlessly kicking playground balls to his students at recess. “The balls rise like planets / and the 3rd graders / circle dizzily beneath the falling sky, / their arms outstretched.”[21] That’s how we ought to live: with joy and outstretched arms, awaiting our playground balls—whatever they may be—as they, like we, are pulled gently towards the heart of the world.

There is mighty work ahead. My next two sermons will name what this work is. This reunification of body and mind, of earth and divinity—it is the work of generations. It is work we are doing and must continue to do. And don’t be surprised, if in the midst of this work, you find yourself transformed into something more whole, like an alchemist, such that even your senses work differently, and you awake one fine morning, and you just know—because your body now knows—an ancient wave, rippling its way across the universe has just passed by, has just touched you, has squeezed you and pulled you, softly, as if to say “I know you’re there,” and then continued on its endless way.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Greene, Brian, “The Detection of Gravitational Waves Was a Scientific Breakthrough, but What’s Next?” Smithsonian Magazine, April, 2016. See: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/detection-gravitational-waves-breakthrough-whats-next-180958511/.

[2] Brian Greene Explains the Discovery of Gravitational Waves: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s06_jRK939I.

[3] In addition to Brian Green’s article in Smithsonian Magazine, see also MacDonald, Fiona, “It’s Official: Gravitational Waves Have Been Detected, Einstein Was Right,” Science Alert, Feb. 11, 2016, http://www.sciencealert.com/live-update-big-gravitational-wave-announcement-is-happening-right-now; and Krauss, Lawrence, “Finding Beauty in the Darkness,” New York Times, Feb. 11th, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/finding-beauty-in-the-darkness.html?_r=0.

[4] Pawelek, Josh, “I Am Lush Land and Rugged Rock,” a sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, March 20, 2016: http://uuse.org/i-am-lush-land-and-rugged-rock/#.VvwLLKQrKhc.

[5] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 107.

[6] Quoted in Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 108.

[7] C. G. Jung famously explores the depth and breadth of alchemy in his Collected Works, specifically Vol. 12, Psychology and Alchemy, Vol. 13, Alchemical Studies, and Vol. 14, Mysterium Coniunctionis.

[8] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 82.

[9] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 114.

[10] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 115.

[11] Primack, Joel and Abrams, Nancy Ellen, The View from the Center of the Universe (New York: Riverhead Books, 2006) pp. 80.

[12] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, p. 83.

[13] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, pp. 80-81.

[14] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, p. 82.

[15] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “When Something Comes to Me By My Window,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, trs., Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999) p. 116.

[16] McHugh, Heather, “A Physics,” in Keillor, Garrison, ed., Good Poems (New York: Penguin, 2005) p. 103.

[17] Rilke, Book of Hours, p. 116.

[18] McHugh, Good Poems, p. 103.

[19] Rilke, Book of Hours, p. 116-117.

[20] McHugh, Good Poems, p. 103.

[21] Short, Gary, “Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders.” See: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/03/29.

I Am Lush Land and Rugged Rock

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Lush Land and Rugged RockThis past week I’ve been in Boston at a meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Board of Trustees. Every morning, prior to commencing our work, we worship. One morning my colleague Jennifer Ryu was our worship leader. When we entered the worship space, there were no chairs. (Imagine how you might feel if you entered the UUS:E sanctuary on Sunday morning and discovered no chairs!) Jen’s plan was for us to stand for worship—and not only stand but move around the room, stretch, dance. We might call this “embodied worship.” Jen wanted us to get out of our heads. She wanted us to move, sense and feel more than think and analyze. She concluded the service with the poem, ‘For the Senses,” by the Irish priest and poet, John O’Donohue. “May the touch of your skin / Register the beauty / Of the otherness / That surrounds you.” Jen’s embodied worship felt strange, yes, but even more strangely familiar. Since the turn of the year I find myself increasingly drawn to a theology of embodiment. It has been pushing and pulling at me, poking up at me like spring-time crocuses. It’s as if the universe has been speaking to me about embodiment. On some days it has been quite vocal in its desire to get my attention. Embodiment keeps showing up when I’m least expecting it—in books I’m reading, in music I’m listening to, in random conversations, in my dreams. Those of you taking the adult religious education class on Thomas Moore’s book know that our next session is all about the body and Eros! So when Jen offered embodied worship, there it was again.

We human beings are part of Nature—intimately part of it. Not above it, beyond it, or distant from it, but part of it, participating in it, in relationship to it. This relationship is not abstract, not a purely intellectual concept. It isn’t enough simply to proclaim our seventh Unitarian Universalist principle, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” and be done with it. This relationship is visceral, sensuous. We experience it in and with our bodies. It is solid, concrete. We can touch it, hold it, taste it, smell it, see it. We are rooted in Nature, embedded in Nature. We are subject to its whims and fancies, blown by its winds, drenched by its rains, scorched by its fires, parched by its droughts. Its bounty sates our hunger. Its waters quench our thirst. Its nearest star warms our backs and gives us life. Its beauty calms and buoys are spirits. Its gravity draws us ever downward to the earth.

Nevertheless, in practice we modern people of the industrialized western nations have a difficult and confusing relationship with Nature. On one hand we love it, we revel in it, we praise it in poetry and hymns. On the other hand we consume Nature voraciously. We manipulate, exploit, brutalize and destroy it. How can these essentially opposite approaches to Nature live together so seamlessly in us? There are two reasons—we might say two sins. One is the separation of the mind from the body. The other is the separation of divinity from the earth. I fear we cannot fully live as intimate participants in Nature until we atone for these two sins.

A few reflections on mind-body separation. We know mind and body are not separate. Every self-appointed self-help authority from here to Xanadu says this all the time. Modern day mystics, healers, yogis, swamis, gurus, sages, TED talkers, therapists, Unitarian Universalist ministers and many other spiritual personalities will tell you there’s no separation between mind and body. Anyone who practices yoga has some inkling of this non-separateness. But at some point in our history mind and body became separate, and despite our best intentions, they’ve never been fully reunited. Modern science helped create this separation. In fact, the 17th-century philosophical innovation that enabled the emergence of modern science in western Europe was the separation of mind from body. Modern science assumed a disembodied human mind that could float above Nature and know it through impartial observation. Cogito ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am,” said René Descartes in 1637.[1] Not, “I feel.” Not, “I sense.” Feelings and senses could deceive and thus could not serve as a reliable source of knowledge. But the mind could reason, and if it did so according to certain, basic rules—the scientific method—the mind could know everything. According to science historian Morris Berman, “the idea that [we] can know all there is to know by way of … reason, included for Descartes the assumption that mind and body, subject and object, were radically disparate entities. Thinking, it would seem, separates me form the world I confront. I perceive my body and its functions, but ‘I’ am not my body.”[2]

The mind-body split had profound implications for how human beings related to Nature. Human beings stopped understanding themselves as participating in Nature and began to locate themselves—at least their knowing minds—outside of Nature. And this meant we could essentially do whatever we wanted to Nature in the quest to gain knowledge. In 1620 Francis Bacon—another architect of modern science—said “the secrets of nature reveal themselves more readily under vexations … than when they go their own way.”[3] Morris Berman says Bacon’s statement is remarkable, “for it suggests for the first time that the knowledge of nature comes about under artificial conditions. Vex nature, disturb it, alter it, anything—but do not leave it alone. Then, and only then, will you know it.” A scientific experiment is, in other words, “an artificial situation in which nature’s secrets are extracted, as it were, under duress.”[4]

I suspect I sound very anti-science. Please know I am not anti-science. As the child of a scientist, I have a deep appreciation for the scientific method. As the father of a child whose life was saved by what were then fairly recent advances in modern surgery and medicine, I have a soft spot in my heart for the science that produced those innovations. Hooray for science! Hooray for the insight that human beings could develop knowledge about Nature, about the world, about how things work through a method that requires stepping back and observing, that requires the artificial conditions of experimentation. Science has given us so much: sailing ships, steam engines, automobiles, airplanes, telephones, televisions, lightbulbs, lasers, semi-conductors, computers, artificial intelligence, the internet, rockets, robots, modern medicine. To be sure, the fruits of science’s advances do not extend to every person on the planet, but for those who benefit, the results have been life-saving and life-extending.

But there is that “other hand.” We have vexed Nature unceasingly, vexed the earth relentlessly. We are witnessing the evidence of that vexation in rising global temperatures and sea levels, monster storms, multi-year draughts, massive fires. At some point, human beings experimented with oil, natural gas and coal and gained a certain kind of knowledge: we can burn this stuff in power plants to create cheap energy! They were correct. But their knowledge was limited and short-sighted. Understanding how to unlock the energy stored in carbon did not provide knowledge of the long-term atmospheric consequences of using that energy on mass scale. It turns out the observations of the disembodied mind were not so objective after all, and  we are paying for it now, precisely because our minds and our bodies are one, and our bodies are feeling the climate crisis.

The first sin goes hand-in-hand with the second, the separation of divinity from the earth. Modern science wasn’t the first discipline to suggest a disembodied, distant observer with the power to manipulate Nature. Religion did it first, though at a relatively late date in human history. For the vast span of human life on the planet gods and goddesses lived right here on earth, infusing everything, enchanting everything, making everything alive, filling everything with power, even with consciousness. Divinity was part of Nature, participated in Nature, related to Nature. The gods and goddesses were earth-based. They were as material as anything else. And in response, human beings lived as participants in Nature, were rooted in Nature, were subject to its whims and fancies, blown by its winds, drenched by its rains, scorched by its fires, parched by its droughts.

Slowly, a new theology emerged and took hold in various places. 4,000 years ago, 3,000 years ago. At its center was a sky god, a war god, a god from another realm—above, beyond, distant, controlling —a god not of matter but of spirit. That god emerged often for political reasons, often for the sake of conquest. Maybe at times that god took a human form, lived among humans, died among humans and—miracle of miracles—was resurrected among humans—lived again—but didn’t stay on earth!—but still ultimately left the material body behind, ascended to Heaven, gave up participation in Nature, and in doing so, cemented in human minds the idea that our physical bodies don’t matter. What mattered was disembodied spirit.

The strict monotheistic religions were most likely to preach this message. Their followers learned to view Nature as mere matter that did not possess spirit—was cold, inert, dead, and thus by definition corrupt and profane. Nature was dangerously sensual, not spiritual. Likewise, the human body, as mere matter, was corrupt and profane; its passions and desires were to be avoided and even feared. In such religious systems humans felt God’s presence, but God lived somewhere else. Humans couldn’t go there, so they imagined elaborate schemes of salvation to get there at the end of life, or at the end of time, when they were no longer matter, when the body had returned to the earth, and only disembodied spirit remained. Indeed, even today, the great monotheistic faiths offer the life of disembodied spirit as real life, and contend this flesh-and-blood life, this sensual life, this felt life, this bodily life is an illusion to overcome.

“I am lush land and rugged rock,” writes Jezibell Anat in her meditation, “Gaia”—as I interpret it, a modern day challenge to any religion that would strip the earth of divinity, that would identify as corrupt and profane our human bodies and the land that sustains us.  I am “the massive, monumental Mother. / I am the founding force, / the germinating ground. / Touch me, / I am soft as moss and hard as diamond / …. Stand on me, I will sustain you. / Dig your roots into me, I will nourish you…. / I am the abundance of fertile fields, / the beauty of golden lilies / …. I am the rotting vine, / the moldy grain, / …. All matter returns to me, / for I am renewal. / I am the sphere of the seasons. / when your span has ended, / I will bring you home.” [5]  I cannot, in the end, experience this life and this earth as an illusion. This life and this earth, are too precious, too dear, to beautiful, too real.

Humanity has been struggling for generations to atone for the sins of separation. We, Unitarian Universalists, people of liberal faith, must continue to do our part, and today is a good day to recommit. Spring arrives today. We’ve sung songs about the earth, about Gaia, about Mother and Grandmother. We’ve called out to the four directions, aligned ourselves on the face of the planet—a powerful act of embodiment. Yes, a snowstorm is coming—winter lingers—but spring arrives today! We know from experience the earth is about to come back to life, to be reborn, to bud, to blossom, to bloom, to shine forth in 1,000 shades of green, to turn moist and fragrant and beautiful. A disembodied mind might wonder if this is an illusion, might imagine ways to test it, but our bodies encounter it with every available sense and know it is real and worthy of our reverence.

Spring arrives today! May ours be a religion as much for the body as for the mind. May ours be a religion that honors and reveres the physical, the sensual, the felt, the touched, the seen, the heard, the tasted, the held. Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion that promotes embodiment, that invites us and teaches us to live fully in our bodies, to worship with our bodies, to work with our bodies; to move, dance, sing, drum, prepare food, plant seeds, stretch, sit still—fully attentive and fully in our bodies. Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion that prays not only with words but with movement—clearing the ground of winter’s detritus, picking up sticks, raking, digging in dirt.  Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion that urges us to register, in the touch of our skin, the beauty of the otherness that surrounds us.[6]

Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion that meets us here in this world, in this life—not in some other world, in some other life. Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion whose mission is to knit mind and body more fully together for the sake of saving lives now, not at the end of time. Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion that witnesses and discovers and proclaims and knows the sacredness of the earth, the holiness of the earth. May ours be a religion that asserts our ancient ancestors’ faith in the divine sun, the divine moon, the divine ground, the divine fields, the divine fish, the divine animals, the divine forests, the divine seasons—a religion whose psalms announce: “I am lush land and rugged rock!”

Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion that gently sinks its people into intimate relationship with Nature, intimate relationship with the divine earth—a relationship that is the ancestral birthright of all of us. Spring arrives today. May ours be a religion that assures its people as they gaze up into the night sky and witness the light of 100 billion stars, no matter how small and insignificant they may feel, this earth, this sacred, holy, divine earth is home. Spring arrives today. We are home. Your body knows. Our bodies know. The great body, the “massive, monumental Mother,” of which we are all a part, knows.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] René Descartes’ Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences was originally published in 1637.

[2] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 21.

[3] Bacon, Francis, New Organon, Book I, Aphorism XCVIII, in Dick, Hugh G., ed., Selected Writings of Francis Bacon (New York: The Modern Library, 1955).

[4] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 17.

[5] Anat, Jezibell, “Gaia,” in Janamanchi Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 28-29.

[6] This is a reference to John O’Donohue’s poem, “For the Senses.”

Beloved Community – The Shelter of Each Other

Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull

Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT
March 13, 2016

The Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull

The Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull

“Nobody calls out for their therapist on their deathbed.”  Such is the observation of psychotherapist Dr. Mary Pipher.  In no way is Pipher writing off the benefits of psychotherapy.   She is rather landing emphatically on a “something more.”   Family is that something more—family, not necessarily biological, but family that breathes caring and commitment and is grounded in covenant.   Few families, biological, extended, or institutional, are sustainable by creed.  Covenant—experienced, learned, practiced—is the stuff of sustainable community; and family, in whatever form, is the first community most of us experience.

Tiospaye is the Sioux word Pipher introduces to bring to life what it means to dwell “in the shelter of each other.”   Tiospaye—“the people with whom one lives.”

Given her message, I would like to believe that it’s not coincidental that Mary Pipher has long been a member of the Unitarian Church of Lincoln, the capital city of Nebraska.  “Nebraska, the middle of nowhere,” some of you might be musing.   Not really, no more than Iowa, where I grew up. Lincoln and Des Moines are not exactly the Big Apple or even an understated Bean Town, but they are hubs of the heartland, where dwelling “in the shelter of each other” is as rich and challenging as it is here in New England or the Deep South or the Far West.  And the heartland, the Midwest, is home to the Sioux nation, whose people harvested the term tiospaye from how they lived before the intrusions of my ancestors.

A community of faith is a form of tiospaye. I was fortunate enough to know it from an early age.  What I recall most vividly from the church of my childhood–a Presbyterian Church in a small Iowa town–are the smells and the din of potluck suppers in the church basement on cold winter nights. It doesn’t take much to conjure up the 27 varieties of steaming meatloaf, the 92 renditions of quivering Jell-O, and always the cakes, the pies, the brownies and the cookies that we gobbled down if we cleaned our plates. Such were the sacred ingredients of extended family, of tiospaye.

The downside of this scenario is the stark reality that my brother and I were discipline fodder for any adult deeming our behavior out of bounds, and we did our share of out of bounds. But somehow we negotiated our way through this gauntlet of hyper-vigilance toward some semblance of responsible adulthood.   It’s that same brother who introduced me to Unitarian Universalism—long after I had graduated from seminary, long after I had detoured from being a Presbyterian into faith terrain that was a complicated and enervating wilderness.

In this sanctuary this morning I’m guessing that we hold stories of our biological and adopted families that stretch across the spectrum of beloved to tolerated to fractured to tragically dysfunctional.   A beloved family is some curious reality of luck and mindful compassion.   Beloved community, that mantra of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a reality to which we aspire.  What a profound kinship lies between beloved community and what it means to be “in the shelter of each other.”  Beloved community is an enhancement, an enrichment, of that notion.   It rises from intentional compassion and a deep understanding that we are all family.   Whatever dysfunctions we have are no excuse for not pursuing the path that Dr. King expounded and modeled.

Was it because he was just a born saint?   I don’t think so.   Any of us who are moderately acquainted with his life know that Dr. King had his share of follies and frailties, and he too stood on the shoulders of prophetic women and men who came before him.   The very term “beloved community” was borrowed from Josiah Royce, an early 20th century philosopher/theologian who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation, of which Dr. King was a member.   So too Dr. King borrowed that now famous claim that “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice” from the 19th century Unitarian abolitionist minister/theologian Theodore Parker.   We know also that Dr. King was profoundly influenced by the non-violent principles and practices of Mahatma Gandhi, with whose family he met in 1959, just eleven years after Gandhi’s assassination and nine years before King’s own assassination.  He and we abide in the historic and current “shelter of each other” for gifts received and gifts passed on.

Beloved community is not a state to which we simply open a door and there we are.   It is rather the inevitable outcome of intentionally pursuing and practicing principles of non-violence grounded in an understanding of brotherhood/sisterhood.  At the age of 30, in his Sermon on Gandhi, Dr. King proclaimed that:

“The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle’s over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.”

The battle to which he referred was rife with conflict, as battles are; but conflict needn’t be violent or disrespectful.   So it is in a world rife with conflict, as our world is.   So it is in a nation rife with conflict, as our nation is.   So it is as this nation teeters on the threshold of violence and crosses that threshold in spaces that embody these conflicts.   So it is in a community and in neighborhoods brimming with conflict.  So it is in a congregation in which conflict is inevitable.  So it is in a family in which conflict is a given.

Whenever a couple says to me, “We never fight!” I respond by saying, “You’re either not telling me the truth or you don’t live together!”   When we abide in the shelter of each other, it’s not a rose garden unless we count the thorns, those prickly appendages that are as much a part of the rose as the blossom.

The path to beloved community is wrought with peril, yet bends when least expected toward love and justice, like that long moral arc of the universe.  It’s simply impossible to find beloved community and to abide faithfully in the shelter of each other unless we’re willing to take the risks.  In this faith and this congregation, you strive to do so.   You aspire and you perspire.   Every congregation holds a history of pivotal moments.  You search your souls and move through these moments, not around them, held by what my friend and colleague, Robbie Walsh, calls “the tensile strands of love that bend and stretch to hold you in the web of life.”

How to engage historic moments of brokenness in this and any congregation, this and any community, as we aspire toward beloved inclusiveness?   How to own episodes in our congregational life, our community life, our family life, when an honest mirror stares back with blemishes?  Being in the shelter of each other ensures that each of us is a check and balance on all of us and all of us are checks and balances on each of us.  That proverbial observation that “humility is the beginning of wisdom” is an understatement.  Humility is not the same as doubt; it is rather an acute awareness that we are flawed.  We trip; we reel; sometimes we even careen in our attempts at wholeness and our temptations that lead us far from it.  To the extent that this community, this congregation, is beloved is also the extent to which we can admit our frailties to one another as well as celebrate whatever acts of communal compassion we may have helped make possible.   Families nuclear and extended are fallible.

My brother Jeff and I are among the lucky ones to have grown up in a family that was overall deeply caring.  Our father was blessed with a rollicking sense of humor that beveled the edges of his strong opinions.   But as I ventured forth into the world of college and, heaven forbid, seminary, I came into increasing conflict with Dad over primarily political issues.  We could both be stubborn, and neither of us was good at backing down.  As for my Mom, how frequently did she raise her voice in my direction: “Stop arguing with your father, Jan!  You’re going to give him a heart attack!”   Guilt, schmilt!   Sometimes I think guilt gets a bad rap in this faith.  It can be quite useful, and my Mom was a master at it.   Did this make her a bad Mom?  I don’t think so.  Did it make me a more compassionate daughter?  Well, it took awhile…. but I hope I’ve learned that when I’m in conflict with someone I love, or even someone I don’t particularly care for, compassion overrides content.

I don’t want in any way to understate the real cruelties that can be transmitted between parent and child.  Their aftermath commonly leaves scars that linger.  But when families work, they provide grounding and a far greater capacity to love our neighbors as we love ourselves than perhaps any institution I could name.   Families need not be biological families or families of adoption.  They can be extended families.  For some here this morning, many perhaps, this congregation is an extended family.

None of us can be the singular catalyst for healing another.   We need the check and balance of community with individuals liberated to speak the truth in love and sometimes the truth in love minus one.   We need the tempering and transforming influence of cohesive caring community.

With such community we can be there for our children and for the child that still resides in each of us.   Those words of Alice Walker awaken my own memories in the very title of her poem: “Sunday School, ca. 1950”.   So my past meets my present:

…there we stood

Three feet high

Heads bowed

Leaning into Bosoms.

As she continues, “then” meets “now”:


I no longer recall

The Catechism

Or brood on the Genesis

Of life


I ponder the exchange


And salvage mostly

The leaning.

In the leaning, in the “being leaned on,” in the caring behavior, in the flexing and stretching of strong opinions, in the feelings moving in and out of hurt and gratification, in the exchanges that stretch the patience of the best possible angels of our natures, across the minefields and the meadows of religious community, our souls ripen.  Let us be grateful for the prophetic women and men of all ages: Theodore Parker, who bore the scorn of his colleagues for his unconventional theology; Sophia Lyon Fahs, with whose words we opened this morning’s service and who persevered against formidable odds into ordination at the age of 82; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who paid the price of walking down the perilous road toward beloved community; Dr. Mary Pipher, who continues to share the wisdom gleaned through thousands of hours of therapeutic practice and thousands more in the spheres of church and family; Alice Walker, who kindles the flame of our chalices with the resonance of her poetry and prose; and you, you, and you–prophetic souls all, each with the message that is your life.

Where are we on the path to beloved community?  How do we dwell in the shelter of each other?   Let’s take a moment of silence and ponder these questions in our hearts.

(Moment of silence)

Beloved community is not a goal for the faint of heart.   Being in the shelter of each other is not a kumbaya party.  Together they call us to look into the eyes of another and see our own—teary, smiling, sobbing, laughing, in anguish, in celebration, in discovery, in epiphany, in faith that we can walk the path and that we are not alone.

So may it be.  Amen


“The Beloved Community,” from The King Philosophy, http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy.

Sophia Lyon Fahs, “We Gather in Reverence,” in Singing the Living Tradition, Beacon Press, Boston, The Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993, 439.

Mary Pipher, Ph.D., In the Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families, Ballantine Books, New York, 1996.

Alice Walker, “Sunday School Circa 1950,” in Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1970, 11.

Robert R. Walsh, “Fault Line,” from Noisy Stones: A Meditation Manual, Skinner House Books, 1992.

Your Money and Your Life (the Sequel)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

TithesLook closely. There is always an opportunity to practice generosity. There is always a chance, no matter what burden we carry, to give of ourselves. The more I reflect on this truth, the more I realize that being fully human—being whole—demands that we practice generosity. Our hearts are meant to be open, spacious, and roomy. Our hands are meant to help. Our goodness, compassion and love are meant to pour out. An open and generous heart is the hallmark of a well-lived spiritual life. It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the highest outward manifestations of any religion is generosity! When we take our Unitarian Universalist principles seriously, when we let them guide our living, generosity is the natural outcome.

Those are, with some adaptation, words from a sermon I preached in 2003, entitled, “Your Money and Your Life.” It was a sermon about giving money to the church. It was about tithing, about giving a certain percentage of your money to the church. It was ambitious for the newly installed minister who had only been on the job for four months to preach about tithing to Unitarian Universalists who historically and generally speaking have been wary of the concept and, frankly, have been somewhat reserved—especially in New England—when it comes to asking for money. Well friends, I am still ambitious, not only for myself and my values, not only  for our congregation and its mission, but for Unitarian Universalism and its capacity to change the world. And because I am ambitious I want to revisit that sermon from 2003, especially the part about tithing. We launch our 2016 Annual Appeal this weekend. The Policy Board, with my support, has set an ambitious goal—an increase of 6% over last year—and I’m feeling ambitious, which really means I’m feeling incredibly positive, hopeful, excited and joyful about our ability to raise the money we need to provide great worship, great religious education for children, youth and adults, great pastoral care, great opportunities for connecting and building community, great social and environmental justice activism, great leadership development, great concerts, art shows and guest speakers.

When I began my ministry I was clueless about congregational fundraising. There were courses about fundraising in seminary, but I didn’t pay attention. Some people love fundraising, but there’s something in me that cringes when it comes to asking for money. It didn’t help that the congregation I served as a student had a nearly $10 million endowment at the time (this was during the dot-com bubble). The interest from that endowment, along with a number of very lucrative rental agreements, provided annual revenues far above what the congregation’s members and friends were giving every year. Stephany and I were living on her part-time salary in those years. We felt we had no money to give to the church, and nobody asked us. I learned a lot during those years, and I am forever grateful for what I learned; but I didn’t learn how to do fundraising and, even more importantly, I didn’t learn the value of making a financial gift to the congregation I love.

It wasn’t until a few years after seminary that I attended a workshop by a Unitarian Universalist fundraising consultant named Mike Durall. I remember him making a distinction between low expectation and high expectation congregations. High expectation congregations ask their members and friends to make a commitment. Low expectation congregations don’t High expectation congregations have a strong vision for their future. Low expectation congregations don’t. High expectation congregations talk about money, and directly ask their members and friends to tithe. Low expectation congregations don’t. Durall said he found it difficult to work with Unitarian Universalist congregations because so often he experienced them as low expectation congregations. He liked working with High Expectation congregations like the Mormons. He said we could learn a lot from the Mormons.

I had two transformative insights that day. One had to do with how I conduct my ministry. I realized that I was setting low expectations. I was operating as if my job as a minister is to set an example of what it means to be a committed Unitarian Universalist, and then trust that people would just naturally follow my example, and naturally they would all want to do that. That assumption was misinformed for a number of reasons. First, just setting an example and leaving it up to lay people to decide whether or not to follow without actually inviting them to follow is about the lowest expectation one can set. If I want people to do something, I need to motivate them to do something. I need to invite, ask, arm-twist, cajole, organize, empower. Furthermore, as a staff member with a seminary education and the title Rev. in front of my name, there are ways of being a Unitarian Universalist that I can pursue precisely because my job gives me the authority and the time to do so. Lay people who have rich, busy, and often demanding lives outside the congregation, in so many instances, can’t follow my example even if they want to. Thus my role as a minister is not to set an example for everyone to follow, but rather to work with people to discern what being a committed Unitarian Universalist means to them, asking them directly to make that commitment, and then supporting them in keeping that commitment.

The second insight had to do with money—my money specifically. Mike Durall said, essentially, your congregation ought to be the place in your life that expresses your highest, dearest, deepest values. It ought to be the place you come back to week after week to hear those values proclaimed in a world that is in so many ways antagonistic to them. It ought to be the place that helps you keep those values at the center of your life. “Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve,” said Howard Thurman, “that in good times and in tempests, I may not forget that to which my life is committed.”[1] Church ought to do that for you. And then Durall asked, what’s a church like that worth? I knew the answer in my bones: it is worth everything. Our highest, dearest, deepest values matter immensely. Shouldn’t we have the highest expectations possible of the institution we ask to uphold, proclaim and act on those values? “Yes, yes, yes,” I shouted out. Others did too. And shouldn’t that institution have high expectations of us as well? Shouldn’t it elevate us, raise us up? Shouldn’t it call on us to bring those values into the world every day of our lives? “Yes, yes, yes.” And if we’re going to have high expectations of our beloved church, shouldn’t we be giving as generously as possible so that the church can do what we need it to do?” “Yes, yes, yes!”

But then, to myself: “Ohhh, wait a minute. Something is wrong here. I am an ordained, fellowshipped Unitarian Universalist minister. I have just completed a nearly $50,000 graduate degree in order to become a minister. I am dedicating my life to Unitarian Universalism and the congregations I serve. I expect Unitarian Universalist congregations to be there for my children and grandchildren, to provide them with the same, open-minded, spiritually-grounded, justice-seeking religious education I was blessed to receive as a child. I am relying on Unitarian Universalism to participate in and, when necessary, lead the national conversations on environmental justice, racial justice, economic justice, gender justice, marriage equality. I am counting on Unitarian Universalism to be there for all the milestones in my family’s life—births, dedications, affirmations, marriages, deaths. When I die I fully expect a Unitarian Universalist minister will officiate my memorial service. I look to Unitarian Universalism to elevate me, to raise me up. I proudly proclaim myself a Unitarian Universalist. My life depends on this, and yet I am giving less than half a percent of my annual income to the church.” This utter disconnect hit me so hard I had to leave the room to collect myself. My expectations of myself changed radically that day, from low to high. I am forever grateful to Mike Durall for challenging me to rethink my financial commitment to my beloved faith.

I’m reminded of an old image—I suppose it’s from old movies: the robber sneaks up from behind and says, “your money or your life!” It’s always presented as a choice: your money or your life. But we know that’s not what the robber means. The robber is not saying, “either give me all your money, or let me kill you, and in that case you can keep your money.” The robber doesn’t actually separate our money out from our lives. And similarly, we cannot talk authentically about generous living without talking about money. It’s not a real choice. So let’s transform the image. If generosity—including financial generosity—is the hallmark of a well-lived spiritual life, then I reason that our capacity to be generous gives us greater life! Our capacity to give of our money is part of what makes us whole. It is not a choice—our money or our life. It is a shift in perspective: through generosity we live our lives to their fullest; we become fully human; we fulfill the promise of our principles. Our money and our life.

Most of you know what tithing is. I believe it originated in the Ancient Near East. It appears in the Hebrew book of Genesis as a tribute paid to a secular leader, an offering given to the priests and the temple, or as a gift given directly to God. The Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob both, at different times, pledge one tenth of everything they have. Abraham pledged one tenth to King Melchizidek of Salem after winning a battle. Jacob, in the story we heard earlier, pledged one tenth to God after God visits him in a dream. But tithes are not always one tenth. Often the amount isn’t specified. In the Christian New Testament, as far as I can tell, there is no mandate to share one tenth, though there are many admonishments to give freely, promises that the giver shall be rewarded, and reminders that God loves a cheerful giver.

I don’t think Unitarian Universalists will ever become like the Mormons. It certainly isn’t likely that our congregation will establish a formal expectation of tithing. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have high expectations. We do. We ask that you consider what it would mean to give a certain percentage of your income or wealth to UUS:E every year. What would it mean to give 10%? What would it mean to give 7%, 5%, 3%? Can you commit to a certain percentage every year? And can you commit to increasing that percentage over time? This is important to me, because a congregation whose members tithe can be very powerful—can provide any ministry, serve any constituency, offer any program, achieve any vision. Anything. And by my best guess—and I think this is conservative—if every single one of us tithed at 10%, our annual congregational income would be over $1.5 million. That’s exciting to contemplate! Dream with me for a moment. Our mortgage would be gone! Our endowment could grow by a few hundred thousand dollars every year with no extra appeals. We would have money abundantly available to members who fall on financial hard times. We could fill all our staffing needs and pay excellent salaries and benefits. And imagine how our values could be put to work in the wider world, by making generous grants to organizations and people in the community whose work is consistent with UU principles, by founding new service organizations to meet unmet needs, and by supporting social and environmental justice campaigns that change the world. And we would never have to do another extra fundraiser!

I am dreaming. So let’s make it a little more realistic. Let’s cut back from 10% to 5%, a half tithe. What if we raised around $750,000 dollars every year? Every piece of the dream I just named would still be entirely possible—on a smaller scale, yes, but entirely possible. I think it’s worth dreaming. And I think it’s worth asking “What is it worth?” That’s our theme for this year’s appeal. What is it worth? That church that affirms your values, proclaims your values, acts on your values, and calls you to do that same—what is it worth? That church that offers a safe and familiar place to rest, to breathe, to heal, to rejuvenate, to connect, to commune—what is it worth? That church that offers a challenging place to question, to reason, to think and rethink, to feel, to intuit, to grow—what is it worth? That church that strives to provide your children and grandchildren with religious learning opportunities not through the rote memorization of catechisms and insinuations of guilt, but through experiences of wonder and awe, comfort, love, trust, gratitude and joy—what is it worth? That church that responds when you or your family are in crisis and need a helping hand, a supportive presence, a ride, a meal, a prayer, a conversation, a memorial service—what is it worth? That church that puts itself out there and fights in a principled, respectful way for economic justice, gender justice, racial justice, environmental justice—what is it worth? That church that keeps fresh before you the moments of your High Resolve, so that in good times and in tempests, you will not forget that to which your life is committed”[2]—what is it worth?

I know 5% is unrealistic for many. Even in good economic times, 5% is hard to imagine. And that is why we don’t formally ask anyone to tithe. It’s ultimately a personal and private decision on your part. Stephany and I have pledged $6,000 to UUS:E this year, which is just short of 5% of our adjusted gross income from last year. Many of you strive to tithe—3%, 5%. Some higher. Thank you. And for those of you who don’t, I ask simply you consider what it would mean. What is it worth? We need you. We have high expectations. You have high expectations of UUS:E. And UUS:E has high expectations of you. Let’s have a great Annual Appeal. May our financial gifts be a measure of the high expectations we hold. May we give generously. May our money and our lives go hand in hand.

Amen and Blessed be.

[1] Thurman, Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #498.

[2] Thurman, Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #498.