Got a New Normal? — UUS:E Virtual Worship, January 24, 2021

From a Wounded World to a Wondrous One
Rev. Josh Pawelek
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT
January 24, 2021



You could say Wanda got it wrong. She clearly had no idea what a rose bush is, at least at first. The neighbors knew it too. They suspected Wanda was approaching a big disappointment. That was a possibility.[1]

But she also clearly got something right, and that something was her vision of a beautiful rose garden, and her willingness to work hard to achieve it. That something was her focus, her commitment, her dedication. Wanda inspired her neighbors so much that they brought rose bushes to her party, and the garden moved from Wanda’s imagination into the real soil of that abandoned lot.

This past Wednesday, when the national youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, recited her inaugural poem, she said, “we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.” She was talking about addressing the wounds, the painful history, the division, the violence, the white supremacy in our nation—addressing all of it and healing from it. But her words also reminded me of this story we were planning to share this morning, of Wanda’s vision for the vacant, trash-strewn lot near her home. We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. Her words reminded me that no matter how local or global our vision is, our commitment, dedication, focus and hard work matter. That’s what the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris was all about. These two now world leaders are going to work tirelessly on behalf of a vision of, to quote Biden,Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And … truth.” We can and we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.


Since the pandemic began in the United States, since so-called normal life came to a screeching halt for so many, the members and friends of our congregation in Manchester have heard me repeat, many times, some version of the words, “we cannot go back to the old normal. We must dedicate ourselves to a new normal that is more fair, more just, more antiracist, more galvanized to address the climate crisis, more compassionate, more kind, more loving.”

And to be clear, the new normal must be more angry at injustice, more intolerant of hatred, more maladjusted to violence, racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny.

And it must provide no legal, social, economic or political sanction for fascism and other anti-democratic movements.

I started saying “we cannot go back to the old normal” in response to hearing the stories of colleagues of color – Black and Hispanic clergy serving predominantly Black and Hispanic congregations – about how the pandemic was impacting their people. Illness and death from Covid 19 were clearly much more prevalent in their congregations than in ours. Financial hardship, food and housing insecurity: much more prevalent in their congregations than in ours. The virus was exposing and exacerbating longstanding race and class-based disparities. The suffering was and continues to be enormous and it resides disproportionately in poor communities and communities of color. That’s why I started saying it. We cannot go back to a system whose sprawling inner workings result in such vast inequality. We have to work very hard – and we have to work now – for a new normal. Each of us, from the youngest to the oldest, from the poorest to the most wealthy has a sphere of influence, has some modicum of power to help birth this new normal. If you leave this service with nothing else, leave with these two questions: What is my power? How shall I use it to contribute to a new normal?

And better yet, what is our collective power? How shall we use it to contribute to a new normal?

Wednesday’s inauguration was wonderful for so many reasons. We could finally weep tears of joy rather than pain and fear and worry. We could finally feel hope after feeling hopeless for so long. We could finally believe those words of the poet: We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

How shall we use our power?


Of course, the pandemic isn’t over. Even with the arrival of vaccines, even with the arrival of a federal administration that takes scientific data seriously and fully expects to work with public health officials, many parts of the country, including New England, are still facing their most difficult months. Health and economic hardship continues for so many. We all live with pandemic fatigue, mask fatigue, isolation fatigue, screen fatigue, online worship fatigue. Understandably, there is an impulse to get it all behind us, to get the economy moving again, to get back to the way things were one year ago, to get back to the old normal. Yes, the pressure to return to life as it was is and will be intense.

Wait. Which is it? Getting back to the old normal or birthing a new normal?

As we begin anticipating the end of the pandemic, let’s learn to interrogate that pressure to get back to normal. When someone says, “I want life to get back to normal,” or when you say it, feel it, long for it, what do the words actually mean? In my newsletter column at the beginning of the month I asked members of our congregation to respond to this question. With her permission, I want to share Jean Labutis’ nicely nuanced response. On getting back to the old normal, she said: “What I hope will happen next is being with people again.  I miss that personal contact, the expression on people’s faces, the opportunity to acknowledge others, the stories, the laughs, the lunches and coffees where so much is shared, gatherings on my patio.” But with regard to the new normal, she said: I worry about the huge gains the rich have made and the deeper slide into poverty for so many….  The uneven distribution of wealth is at the core of our world’s suffering. No one needs a billion dollars.  NO ONE.”

I include Jean’s words about income inequality here because there are a lot of people in state government who were overjoyed to learn this week that Connecticut’s financial position is improving. We learned the state will be able to balance its budget without raising taxes. We can get back to normal. But let’s interrogate that claim. Normal for the past few decades has not been good for poor people; for low income workers, domestic workers, fast food workers, nursing home workers; has not been good for immigrants, for undocumented people; has not been good for prisoners and former prisoners; has not been good for many school districts. The old normal has been failing far too many people. The old normal won’t get us a subsidized public option in health care, won’t produce more affordable housing, won’t expand desperately needed mental health services, or services for people with disabilities, or services for ex-incarcerated people. It won’t repeal welfare liens. It won’t give us clean slate legislation for those of us working with GHIAA or CONECT. That old normal won’t because it can’t invest in our people, in our communities, in our cities and towns in a way that enables everyone to thrive. We need to be in the struggle for a new normal. We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.


In his inaugural address Wednesday, President Biden assured us, quoting Abraham Lincoln when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, “my whole soul is in it.” In my experience, we find our greatest spiritual health and wholeness—we find our whole soul is in it—when our external lives align with our internal lives. If in our external lives we intend to resist the pressure to return to the worst features of the old normal, how might that resistance manifest in our internal lives? What changes might we make to welcome a new internal normal so that we can remain strong and grounded and rooted as the pressure to return to the old external normal grows in intensity? I’ve been sitting with this question for a while now. I’ve been wondering about the role the pandemic has played in reshaping our internal lives. We’ve been forced to live differently. It’s been hard. We want to go back to life the way it was. But hold on. There’s that pressure. Interrogate it. Surely living through this pandemic has taught us valuable lessons about ourselves—about our strengths and weaknesses, our fears, our loves, the things that bring us joy, the things that matter most, the things that break our hearts, the pain we can endure, the problems we can solve, the challenges we can overcome. We aren’t the same people we were ten months ago. None of us is. I contend there are now new aspects of ourselves, beautiful, compelling pieces of each of us we need to hold onto as the pressure to go back to our old selves intensifies.

We asked some of the children in our congregations to share their thoughts about what has mattered to them during the pandemic. You will now hear from Ella, Mazzy, Sage, Simone, Margeaux, Quin and Julian.

In the midst of a wounded world, is not the wondrous one already rising up? (Floating to us with Sage’s beautiful bubbles?)

Sheila Foran from UUS:E gave me permission to share her words in response to this question:As a born introvert, yet someone who likes interacting with people – on my terms, in small doses, a person or two at a time – something unexpected has come out of the vagaries of the pandemic.  I have made some new friends. Re-established some relationships. Accepted help, and otherwise have not flinched when someone has extended a – metaphorical of course – hand of friendship. Coming out of this experience feeling better supported emotionally at first seems counter-intuitive, but maybe enforced social distancing and mask-wearing are just what this introvert needs to comfortably embrace whatever the ‘new normal’ is turning out to be.” And Jean Labutis said “I love my alone time.  I can process things more deeply, read more serious material, understand just what is truly important to me.  So I like that part of what is being emphasized now.  I have not spent many days without talking with someone from UUSE, sometimes on a very deep level.  I have been the recipient of uncounted acts of kindness.”

In the midst of a wounded world, a wondrous one is rising up.

I urge each of you to reflect on how the pandemic has shaped you, how it has strengthened you, softened you, connected you, grounded you –made you more wise, more perceptive, more compassionate. Don’t race back to the old you. Hold onto this new you and let it inhabit your inner world so you are prepared for and sustained in the struggle for a new normal in the external world—a more fair, more just, more antiracist, more compassionate, more kind, more loving world,” a rose garden to grace a vacant lot, a world of possibilities, to quote President Biden, a wondrous world to replace a wounded one.

May our whole souls be in it.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Brisson, Pat, Wanda’s Roses (Boyds Mills Press, 2000).