Born Again and Again and Again

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

We sang “Amazing Grace” earlier. I called it a hymn of transformation—“I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” There’s a story we often hear about the origins of this hymn. Its author, John Newtown, is the unbelieving captain of a slave ship on the middle passage from Africa to the Americas. During the journey a violent storm engulfs the ship and batters it for many hours. In prayer Newton tells God that if they are allowed to survive he will turn the ship around and set his human cargo free. The storm ends. The ship does not sink. Newton turns the ship around, converts to Christianity and immediately pens the words to “Amazing Grace.”

One might tell this story for any number of reasons. I draw your attention to it this morning because it offers an image of spiritual transformation which is widespread in our culture today: it happens quickly, in a flash, in a thunder clap, in response to some miraculous occurrence, in response to some evidence of life-saving divine intervention. The Holy Spirit enters you, lifts you up and sets you back down as a new person, a changed person, a transformed person on a new path, the right path, where just a moment ago you were on the wrong path. Boom! Born again.

By some accounts, the ship was called the Greyhound. Newton was on it. But Newton biographer, Christine Schaub, says he was “sailing as a passenger on a ship carrying ivory, gold, beeswax…and not a single slave.” It was March of 1748. The ship was caught in a storm. Newton may have prayed. The ship did not sink. It also did not reverse course. Some accounts say that given the damage to the boat they were lucky to make it to Ireland. It was a profound moment in Newtown’s life. He looked back on it as the moment of his conversion to Christianity, but his life did not change rapidly. Schaub says it was only after this experience that Newton started working in the slave trade, eventually becoming a slave ship captain. And she says he left slaving due to illness, not conscience. He was ordained as a priest in the Church of England in the mid-1760s. He wrote the words to “Amazing Grace” in the early 1770s. And it was not until the early 1780s that he became outspoken about the abolition of slavery, some 35 years after the storm.[1]

Let’s face it: the fiction about Newton is far more compelling than the historical account.  I don’t want to suggest that his decades-long transformation from slave-trader to abolitionist is insignificant. It’s not. But I think stories of radical, immediate spiritual transformation—from lost to found, from broken to whole, from aimless to purposeful, from sinful to saved, from imprisoned to free, from oppressor to ally—are, at least in the telling, far more powerful than stories of a gradual shift in one’s spiritual life. I also think it’s true that when we come to those pinnacle moments wherein we realize we’ve got to make a change, it’s normal to want that change to happen quickly. In her story, “Seagal Therapy,” Rev. Meg Barnhouse makes this very point. She writes: “I understand. I want fast transformation too. I would love it if there were twenty easy steps a person could do to become whole and joyful, hopeful and healthy. I would love it if the twenty steps could be done just once and—presto—it’s all fixed! And maybe the whole process could take about six weeks.”[2] Her point is that it’s rarely that easy. She says, “Maybe someone will come up with that. Meanwhile, transformation is usually painful.”[3] And, I would add, slow.

Our ministry theme for September is transformation. I think it’s fair to argue that spiritual transformation is one of the primary reasons people participate in religious communities of any kind. Certainly this is true in Unitarian Universalist congregations. We might not always call it transformation, but people seek out our congregations in order to bring change into their lives—to find community in the midst of loneliness, guidance in the midst of confusion, comfort in the midst of suffering, love in a world that can be so unloving, welcome in a world that can seem so unwelcoming. The list goes on. Even those of you who come because the community is familiar, stable, consistent—you’ve been here a long time—even you will still say you want church to help you grow. In fact, that’s part of our third Unitarian Universalist principle: encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. When we say we are spiritual seekers, we imply we’re looking for something we don’t yet have, something that will presumably bring change to our lives. When we say our lives our spiritual journeys, we suggest we are moving in some direction away from where we are now. So, I say we come for transformation.

But what of that prevalent image of instantaneous conversion, the “born again” moment, the lightening flash, the thunder clap, the Holy Spirit just taking over? What about the ancient stories of God speaking to Moses in the burning bush, Elijah on the mountain top, Jesus coming to Saul on the road to Damascus, the angel Gabriel coming to Muhammad in the cave of Hira commanding him to recite? What of the adult baptismal moment—being immersed in water and then emerging into a new life? What of those moments when one feels called down to the altar to testify, to say “I have seen the light;” to say “I am born again?” Boom.

I love those ancient stories about prophets hearing divine voices. And I do not discount the spiritual experiences of those who are born again or convert in a blinding flash. I think something real and precious happens in those moments. But in my experience the blinding flash is not enough to bring lasting transformation. Hearing that divine call—however you understand it—whether it’s from without or deep within—is not enough to bring lasting transformation. So often the ancient prophets hear the divine call but their first reaction is one of terror. Or, they think God must’ve made a mistake, must be speaking to the wrong person. They think they can’t possibly do what they’re being asked to do, so they do everything in their power not to do it. Their transformation comes, but it is rarely immediate.

Even when something wildly unexpected forces change upon our lives and we know things have to be different, there are inevitably deep-seeded patterns of behavior and thought, habits, addictions, long-standing physical and emotional attachments, relationships, commitments, loyalties, assumptions, financial arrangements, family dynamics, children—a dense constellation of everything that has brought us to where we are and has made us who we are—and it wants to stay exactly as it is! It does not want to come along for the ride no matter how blinding the flash, no matter how compelling the holy call. We resist change, even when we want to change.

Consider grief. A loved-one dies—a parent, a spouse, a child, even a pet. Their absence changes everything, except our bodies are still deeply attuned to them. Our love for them is no less intense on the day after they die. But now our love has nowhere to go. Our daily rituals, our habits, the things we do that we never actually think about, our self-understanding, our sense of humor, our priorities have all evolved in ongoing interaction with our loved-one. We can’t just turn it all off when our loved-one is gone. Our unconscious just keeps moving our bodies along in the same patterns as if our loved-one is still alive. So it’s as if we keep realizing over and over again that our loved-one is no longer with us, and the realization hurts. That’s what grief is. And when we say we are actively grieving, it means we are transforming from life with our loved-one to life without them, changing our routines, our behavior, out thinking, our identity, even our body chemistry. It takes years, if not decades; and, of course, for some it never ends.

Consider addiction. When an addict hits rock bottom and resolves to quit whatever substance they’re addicted to, it is a rare person who can just walk away, go ‘cold turkey.’ The body doesn’t allow it. Withdrawal hurts. The person who says, “one day I just quit,” more often than not is neglecting to say “after ten years of struggling.” I watched my dad slowly quit alcohol over the course of fifteen years, but becoming sober wasn’t the end. In some ways, it was just the beginning. Newly sober, the body still craves the substance. Certain social situations and feelings create a longing for it. One has to dig deeply into the reasons why the addiction began in the first place. One has to dig deeply into the behaviors that have accompanied the addiction, the relationships that have been damaged. Becoming sober is a process of transformation from living in intimate relationship with an addictive substance to living without it. It requires a slow, painful process of changing daily rituals, habits, self-understanding, sense of humor, priorities, and on and on. Such transformation takes years if not decades.

Here’s a less fraught example that has to do with transforming as a parent as children begin to grow up. My oldest son, Mason, started in a new school this year. New schools can be tough on kids, and I can tell you the anxiety level started rising in our home almost as soon as the last school year ended. We did all the things you’re supposed to do to help a child transition to a new school. We took our own tour of the building. We went to the student open-house. We have a number of family rituals we conduct every year before school begins, including having a lunch of fried clams at City Fish in Wethersfield. We did that. We really prepared Mason psychologically and emotionally to make this transition. The night before the first day of school I had trouble sleeping. My mind was racing over the details of what would happen in the morning—eating breakfast, preparing lunch, brushing teeth, combing hair, finding shoes, getting out the door on time.

The morning went smoothly. Mason was calm. And pretty soon it was time to go. “Am I coming with you to the bus stop?” I ask. “Nope,” he says, matter-of-factly. I’ve never not gone to the bus stop with Mason. “Are you sure?” “Yep.” So, we hug, and he runs down the street to the corner. He was completely fine. But not me. Tears start flowing down my face. It hits me: the anxiety, the tension, the sleeplessness—it’s all mine. And looking back it’s so clear to me: I’m used to parenting in a certain way based on assumptions about who my child is and what his needs are. My body, my emotions, my morning routine are all wrapped up in those assumptions. I know intellectually he’s getting older, but underneath the surface I’m fighting and resisting and grieving. Hence my anxiety and sleeplessness. I’ve got to let go of old ways and figure out new ones. I’ve got to transform as a parent, but it doesn’t happen in a flash. It takes time. Transforming well requires reflection, experimentation, practice.

 Now, imagine you have one of those compelling spiritual experiences, what we Unitarian Universalists often call a direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder. Imagine one of those mountain-top moments when you sense the oneness of everything, the inter-connectedness of all life; or an experience of being saved from disaster, like John Newton; or an experience of being held, embraced, loved deeply and without condition. It might be your blinding flash, your thunder clap, you still, small voice in the silence after the storm, or some Holy Spirit picking you up and putting you back down. Whatever that profound spiritual experience is, whatever language or imagery one uses, in the end I don’t think that is what transforms a person. At best such experiences open us up and allow us to look more closely at our lives, to recognize what matters most and what matters least, to recognize what is transient and can fall away, what is permanent and must be sustained; to recognize that perhaps we ought to dedicate our lives to a more noble purpose, to service, to caring, to loving our neighbor, the alien, the other, to living the life we feel called to live and not the life we may have fallen into through apathy or inaction.

But the spiritual experience itself doesn’t make any of this happen. It only has the power to show us new possibilities for our lives—and perhaps that’s what grace is. But if it’s going to happen, we need to make it happen. We need to do the work of transforming ourselves. And what inevitably gets in the way? That deep-seeded constellation of behaviors, thoughts, habits, addictions, long-standing relationships, commitments, loyalties, assumptions, financial arrangements, family dynamics, children’s needs, etc.—everything that has brought us to where we are now and has made us who we are now. None of it really wants to join us in this new life we’ve just envisioned—this more passionate existence, this more noble purpose. None of it wants to come along for the ride. So our efforts to transform ourselves are inevitably halting. We easily slide back into old, familiar ways, into bad—or at least unhelpful—habits, into apathy and inaction. We move forward, inspired, and then fall back, tired, out of energy, forgetful of what we had hoped to become. Forward and back, forward and back. Born again? I think it’s more likely we are born again and again and again before we achieve real transformation.

Do I sound pessimistic? I’m really not. Yes, we become settled in our ways, and like the prophets of old we resist the holy voices that prattle around the edges of our consciousness. But I also agree with the message implicit in the Rev. Angela Herrera’s meditation, “Doubting Thomas,” that there is always a new self—a more passionate self, a more authentic self, a wiser self, a more loving self—waiting and ready to emerge. No it’s not easy work. “If we would really live,” she writes, “we must be willing to die within the seasons of our lives.” [4] But it’s death either way, in her view, for “even the path of sameness leads to death by stagnation.” So the question is with us always. “Will you be reborn? Will you press through darkness and constraint, the danger of your remaking? And when you do, what will you bring forth?” What a wonderfully hopeful question! I commend it to you as we begin our congregational year. “What will you bring forth?”

And this is my prayer for us this morning: that each of us may envision the life we long to live and then support each other as we work to bring it forth. Knowing the work of transformation is hard, knowing we are up against that deep-seeded constellation of things in ourselves that hold us in place, may we be born again and again and again until our vision becomes reality.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Newton biographer, Christine Schaub, comments on what she calls “the pulpit story” at: debunks the myth of John Newton at

[2] Barnhouse, Meg, “Seagal Therapy” Did I Say That Out Loud: Musings from a Questioning Soul (Boston: Skinner House, 2006), p.93.

[3] Ibid., p. 93.

[4] Herrera, Angela, “Doubting Thomas,” Reaching for the Sun (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012) pp. 38. 

Into the Wilderness

Rev. Josh Pawelek.

I remember a moment, about twenty-five years ago, driving home from college on spring break with my friend Rob. We were heading east on Interstate 80, late in the day, crossing through the Delaware Water Gap where the Delaware River cuts through a ridge in the Appalachian. The sun was setting. Dark shadows lengthened across the thickly forested, low-lying mountains. I’ve been to more remote areas, but at that moment, for whatever reason, it felt pretty remote. I made some remark about the wilderness, how one could disappear into it—into those dark hills. I don’t remember his exact words, but Rob responded that the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. There’s a relationship. Although I wasn’t sure what to make of his statement at the time, it struck me as important. So I’ve held onto it.

Today I still think Rob is right. The wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. They mirror each other. They speak to each other. The darkness of the mountainside at dusk speaks to darkness in us. The emptiness of the sky overhead speaks to emptiness in us. The fullness of lakes after spring thaws speaks to fullness in us. The lush forest speaks to what is growing and vibrant in us. The vastness of the desert speaks to vastness in us. The raging river speaks to what is raging and uncontainable in us. Perhaps those features of wilderness that excite us, that call to us, that fill us with awe speak to what we find exciting in ourselves, speak to our passions. Perhaps what we fear in the wilderness—what makes us pause, turn back, flee—speaks to what we fear most in ourselves. There’s a relationship.

Our June ministry theme is wilderness. I love this theme at this time of year as the days grow warm and summer arrives. For me, summer—whether we’re talking about summer the season, or our spiritual summers, which can come in any season—summer is the time for exploring and experimenting, for stretching and growing, for traveling to the borders of our lives—to the edges, the boundaries, the margins, the fringes, the frontiers. Summer is the time for venturing out, for crossing into the unknown, for wandering in the wilderness that lies beyond our well-worn paths.

Perhaps the most familiar use of wilderness as a spiritual concept comes from the Jewish and Christian traditions. Here wilderness is the place where one finds challenges that must be overcome; the place of suffering and misery that must be endured; the place of temptation that must be withstood; the place to which scapegoats, criminals, lepers and all the supposedly unpure people are exiled. Many of you have a basic familiarity with the story from the Hebrew scriptures of the ancient Israelites wandering in the wilderness of Sinai for forty years following their exodus from centuries of slavery in Egypt. Many preachers use the Israelite wandering as a metaphor for whatever struggle or challenge we’re facing in our lives. We have to wander in the “wilderness” of that struggle or challenge in order to find ourselves, to prove ourselves, to come of age, to complete our quest. We have to wander in the wilderness in order to grow in some necessary way. We have to wander in the wilderness before we can be whole, before we can come home, before we can come fully into our “Promised Land,” whatever it may be. This is a powerful narrative. It’s a sustaining narrative. Struggling people can endure more easily if they believe their struggle will ultimately end and some good will come of it.

But if we’re being honest about the Biblical record, that’s not entirely what God had in mind. The wilderness time was a punishment. God had done great things for the Israelites in Egypt, but they still don’t believe God can bring them into Canaan, the “Promised Land.” They don’t believe it because spies they’ve sent into Canaan come back saying, essentially, “We’ll never defeat the Canaanites. They’re bigger than us.” In the Book of Numbers, Chapter 13, verse 32, the spies say “all the people we saw are of great size…. And to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”[1]

Upon hearing this report, the people start complaining—the latest in a long string of complaints. They say it would have been better to die in Egypt. They wonder if they should give up and go back to Egypt. This lack of faith angers God. It’s the last straw. God wants to disinherit them and strike them down with a plague immediately. After a long negotiation with Moses, God forgives them, but says, nevertheless, “none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it.”[2] Their children will enter the Promised Land, but for the complaint-ridden exodus generation: “Your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness.”[3] They are consigned to the wilderness not to discover faith anew, but because they lack it. It’s a punishment. And it’s for the remainder of their lives.

In the Christian scriptures Jesus goes into the wilderness after his baptism. [4] He fasts for forty days and then, in the midst of his hunger, Satan appears and tempts or tests Jesus. Jesus resists temptation. He passes the test. Satan departs. Here again we have this narrative of struggle in the wilderness—in this case a story of encountering and overcoming evil. Again, this kind of narrative is powerful and sustaining. We all have our wilderness struggles. Stories of overcoming obstacles and returning home, returning to friends and family, returning to a life renewed speak to and inspire us in the midst of our pain and suffering. Some of the best sermons ever preached locate the congregation in some wilderness, fortify them for the struggle, the test, the temptation—whatever it is—and then, from the mountaintop, paint with words that stunning picture of a land flowing with milk and honey, a promised land, a home at long last, a home we will reach if we can endure just a little bit longer.

That’s not the sermon I’m preaching this morning.

Twenty-five years ago my friend Rob said “the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us.” My concern is that the “Promised Land” narrative—as powerful, sustaining and inspirational as it is—is often too black and white, too either/or. It doesn’t allow us to fully value wilderness as a spiritual asset. It makes wilderness a place of suffering and trial, a place of punishment, a place where evil lives, but not a place that might offer its own wisdom, its own sacred power, its own sustaining wells. We move through it, always trying to overcome it and leave it behind. We privilege civilization; we abandon wilderness. And in so doing, I say we abandon something in ourselves. I’m convinced that something matters deeply.

Back to the Hebrew scriptures. Jon D. Levenson is a professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School. In his 1985 book, Sinai & Zion, he points out that scholars are unable to locate the site of Mount Sinai with any certainty. Mount Sinai is the place in the wilderness where Moses talks to God, where he receives the Ten Commandments, where God’s covenant with Israel is articulated. One can argue it is the most significant site in early Jewish tradition. It’s the place where the Sacred speaks. The inability to locate it, says Levenson, is not simply a failure of “the modern science of topography. Rather, there is a mysterious extraterrestrial quality to the mountain…. [It] seems to exist in a no man’s land…. ‘The mountain of God’…. is out of the domain of Egypt and out of the domain of the Midianites, [in] an area associated, by contrast, with the impenetrable regions of the arid wilderness, where the authority of the state cannot reach. YHWH’s self-disclosure takes place in remote parts rather than within the established and settled cult of the city. Even his mode of manifestation reflects the uncontrollable and unpredictable character of the wilderness rather than the decorum one associates with a long-established, urban religion, rooted in familiar traditions…. The deity is like his worshippers: mobile, rootless and unpredictable. ‘I shall be where I shall be’—nothing more definite can be said. This is a God who is free, unconfined by the boundaries that man erects.”[5]

Our spiritual lives may, on one hand, involve the familiar, the known—rituals, practices, prayers, meditations, worship, activism, service, gardening, the singing of comforting hymns, the dancing of familiar dances, being in community with people we know and love. We need these things in our lives. We need them to feel rooted, planted, grounded. But we also know that any repeated practice, any too familiar pathway, any rote repetition of words or principles, any unexamined theology can become stifling if it’s all we do. It starts to box us in, lull us to sleep, generate in us laziness, apathy, boredom. Thus, on the other hand, our spiritual lives also need access to wilderness—not because we lack a site for our encounter with evil, not because we’ve been consigned there for complaining too much, not because we’re on some hero quest in search of dragons to slay. We need access to wilderness because we are part of it and it is part of us. Its dark mountainsides can speak to us of our own darkness in a way civilization can’t. Its empty skies teach us of our own emptiness. Its full lakes after spring thaws inform us of our own fullness. Its rivers know our rage. Its deserts know our vastness. Its oceans know our depths. Its forests know our lushness. We need access to wilderness because it offers raw, unbridled truth—a truth not always easy to encounter, but with its guidance we can live with a kind of immediacy and presence civilization only dreams of—the immediacy and presence we so often notice in the way wild things live. Civilization as we know it is only the tiniest blip on the screen of human existence. Wilderness, not civilization, is the norm for that existence; and thus wilderness, not civilization, is our heritage, our birthright. Wilderness is our home as much as any Promised Land we may inhabit, either now or in the future.

We need opportunities to search for our sources of faith at the foot of holy, mysterious mountains rising out of remote landscapes beyond all established jurisdictions. We need encounters with the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable. We need wind rushing against our backs. We need experiences for which there are no words. Such encounters have the power to jolt us out of our settled, habitual ways of thinking, being and doing. Such experiences have the power to set our spirits free. Such encounters have the power to change us. I loved this quote from Vancouver School of Theology student, Emma Pavey, from a paper she delivered this past weekend. She said “we are ambivalent toward wilderness: it represents lostness, wandering, chaos and isolation, but also grants ‘thin’ moments of transformation.”[6]

So how to get there? Scholars don’t know the location of Mount Sinai. But maybe that’s ok. Rob said the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. Perhaps the Sacred that lives and speaks freely and truthfully out beyond the bounds of all established jurisdictions also lives and speaks in the wilderness places in us—in our darkness, our vastness, our rage, our emptiness, our fullness. But how do we access that wilderness? Like the wilderness around us, the wilderness within us can also be inscrutable, unknowable, beyond words. So often it exists beneath our awareness, in our unconscious depths, in our dreams, in our intuitions and hunches. We know portions of the landscape, but so much lies beyond knowing.

Earlier I read Meg Barnhouse’s meditation, “Going to an Inner Party.” I suggest she offers here one route into our inner wilderness. She says, “I love the flickering things that bump along the edges of mainstream consciousness. These glimpses of an inner wisdom flash like fish in a creek, and if I can grab one by the tail I feel like I have a treasure.”[7] She’s saying our unconscious puts words and ideas together without thought, as if by accident, or perhaps by accident. She’s learned to pay attention to these accidents. She’s learned to receive them as pearls of wisdom, and as sources of joy. The meaning isn’t always clear. There’s lots of interpretation involved. She finds it mostly amusing. But something deep within is speaking. And she’s listening. And it’s giving her a chance to look at the world differently, to make new connections she wouldn’t have made otherwise. That’s what wilderness does for us. Her meditation reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comments in his 1844 essay, “The Poet” about the effect poetry has on us. In response to “tropes, fables, oracles and all poetic forms,” he wrote, we get “a new sense, and [find] within [our] world another world, or nests of worlds.”[8]

We get back to our wilderness by listening to the flickering things that bump along the edges of consciousness. We get back to our wilderness by noting our dreams, by following our intuition, trusting our gut, letting ourselves feel deeply all our joys and sorrows. We get back to our wilderness by allowing ourselves moments of spontaneity and unpredictability. We get back to our wilderness by living, as best we can, like wild things, like children: immediate, unbridled, alert, raw, honest. It’s my faith that as we get back to our wilderness we’ll discover that the things we hold sacred live and speak there too.

Rob Laurens

Rob Laurens

My friend Rob once wrote a song called “The Blue of the Road.” It’s a song about driving, perhaps on I-80, heading east through the Appalachians, as the sun begins to set. In that song he says, “there in that wild blue ride the insights of your life, that wisdom unlooked for, the solution to the gnawing ache in your heart, and the laughing simplicity of effortless release, letting go. Like the answer to a prayer, the matter of course toward what is still right and true in your life…. When all is chaotic, when the days of your life are as dry autumn leaves scattered across the main streets of your home town. Get back to these great arteries, these long edges of grace that cut through the wilderness, these wonderful highways that put you at one with yourself and the last seeds of your American dream, and reopen your heart, and cause you to remember what you’ve always known: this great frontier has been with you all along.”[9]


Amen and blessed be.


[1] Numbers 13: 32, 33b. (New Revised Standard Version)

[2] Numbers 14: 22-23. (New Revised Standard Version)

[3] Numbers 14: 29a. (New Revised Standard Version)

[4] Matthew 4:1-11. Luke 4:1-13. Mark 1:9-13.

[5] Levenson, Jon D., Sinai & Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1985) pp. 21-22.

[6] See the abstract to Emma Pavey’s paper, “Wilderness and the Secular Age,” delivered at the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association’s Annual Meeting on June 2, 2013 at

[7] Barnhouse, Meg. “Goning to an Inner Party,” The Rock of Ages at the Taj Mahal (Boston: Skinner House, 1999) p. 63.

[8] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “The Poet,” quoted in Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) p. 374.

[9] Rob Laurens, “The Blue of the Road,”appears on his 1999 album, “The Honey on the Mountain.” See