The Time Where Words End: Reflections on Humility

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Come, my way, my truth, my life, such a way as gives us breathe, such a truth as ends all strife, such a life that killeth death.”[1]  Words of George Herbert, a seventeenth-century Anglican priest and poet; words that invite, beckon, welcome; words that help frame for me the way we arrive at humility.

Humility is our ministry theme for December. For most of us I suspect humility isn’t one of those loaded spiritual words; it isn’t one of those traditional words that raise our hackles, one of those vaguely unpleasant pin-prick words; it isn’t one of those haunting religious words. In fact, for many of us it’s not even religious. It’s as secular as it is spiritual. Humility is a character trait, a demeanor, a manner, a personality type, a way of holding or conducting oneself that creates space for others, that allows others to breathe; it’s a way of moving lightly through the world, walking softly upon the earth; it’s an open, inviting, welcoming, hospitable way of engaging others. It’s a way of service. It’s a virtue. We often know it when we see it and, in general, we appreciate it—even admire it—in others. And there’s something oddly—and at times confoundingly—elusive, even paradoxical, about it.

In short, I’ve learned over the years that when I try to be humble—when humility is my goal—I typically fail. It’s as if I can’t get there from here. I can’t just wake up in the morning and resolve to be humble. I’ve learned I can’t just leave my home after breakfast thinking, I’m going to be humble today, and expect to arrive at humility. Or when I feel badly about yelling at my kids and I say to myself, I’m not gonna do that anymore, I’m gonna be more humble: saying that to myself might get me fifteen seconds of humility (and I’m pretty sure it’s not genuine). Simply resolving to be humble is not the path to humility. Something else needs to happen. Something needs to call me out of myself—or perhaps deeper into myself. Something needs to stop me in my tracks, take my breath away, make me pause, make me still, make me quiet.

Come, my way, my truth, my life. Earlier I shared with you Rev. Mark Belletini’s meditation “Earth.” For me it’s one among many good descriptions of the kind of something that needs to happen in order for humility to rise in us. He writes: “This is our earth. / There are no other earths. / Before its wonder, philosophers fall silent. / Before its mystery, / poets admit their words are shadow, not light. / And all the great names religious teachers / have left to us / Ishtar, Shekinah, Terra Mater, Suchness, Wakan Tanka, / Gaia / suddenly refuse to announce themselves. / And so we too fall silent, / entering the time where words end / and reality begins.[2]

Times where words end. There are moments when one’s voice grows silent, when the self seems to dissolve, when the ego suddenly lies dormant. In such moments I find I more easily remember what matters most. I remember my highest values, my commitments. I feel called to dedicate or re-dedicate my life to some reality or purpose greater than me. I feel called to surrender in some way to that reality or purpose; called to let go and trust I’m being led in a good direction; called to relinquish some aspect of myself, making room for something new. Come, my way, my truth, my life. In such moments, when I’m not actually seeking to be humble, I’m more likely to arrive at humility. That’s the paradox: we can’t just decide to be humble. Humility rises in us as a result of something else: having no words, falling silent, surrendering, letting go, relinquishing; dedicating our lives to some reality or purpose greater than ourselves.

As I began working on this sermon I was focusing on one of Jesus’ parables in the book of Luke. Along the way I started arguing with the parable and decided it was better not to start there. I want to read it to you now and then explain my contention with it, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”[3]

I like this parable for a number of reasons, though mainly for its overall message that humility is a virtue, while unchecked pride, hypocrisy, vanity and their ilk are problematic. What challenges me about this parable is its black and white view of the world and human nature, its either/or thinking about how one ought to relate to the Holy, the stark line it draws between virtue and vice, the strict dichotomy it builds between acts of humbling oneself and acts of exalting oneself. Our lives aren’t always so clear, and I actually don’t want to live in a society with such absolute clarity. I think it’s more realistic—and more honest—to note that humility and pride can and do comingle in us. They balance each other. Both can contribute to our spiritual, mental and physical health and the line between them isn’t always clear.

Here’s an example of how this lack of clarity—perhaps it’s better to say balance—recently manifested in my life. Two Tuesday evenings ago about forty of us were standing outside the Hartford Public Library observing the Transgender Day of Remembrance. During that observation I was invited to speak. I was certainly humbled to receive that invitation. But I was also proud. I was proud to be recognized as an ally of the transgender community. I was proud to be recognized as a local faith leader. I was proud to be recognized for my speaking ability. I was proud to be a faith leader speaking to, for and with people who are so often excluded from faith communities. I was proud to be a Unitarian Universalist. I was proud to be the minister of this congregation. I was proud of our young people who were holding our bright yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” banner. I was overflowing with pride. And in a moment like that there’s no way on earth I’m going to minimize that pride. On the contrary, I’m going to reveal it. I’m going to let it shine. I’m going to speak with volume. I’m going to speak forcefully. I’m going to put some ego into my speech. And if I believed in the kind of God to whom I could describe this scene in prayer—I would probably sound a lot more like the Pharisee than the tax collector. Like the Pharisee’s prayer, my prayer would sound like self-exaltation. No apologies.

But I also know there’s more to it than that. Come, my way, my truth, my life. In the midst of that pride, I also recognize more fundamental reasons for being at the Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s not because I might get to speak. It’s not because I’m a Unitarian Universalist or a faith leader. It’s because I believe that bearing witness to violence and oppression matters. I believe that doing whatever we can to stem the tide of violence against transgender people matters; and that doing whatever we can to stem the tide of violence on city streets and in homes and against undocumented immigrants and between Israel and Hamas and on and on and on matters. It’s because I believe that asserting the value, dignity and integrity of transgender lives matters. And it’s because I hold the larger conviction—and I think we all share it—that all lives matter, that all people are worthy, that all people deserve to be treated with love and compassion, that all people ought to be able to participate fully in the life of our various communities and ought to be welcomed in doing so. This conviction—which is also a commitment—is in me, but it didn’t come from me. I suppose it has many sources, but first and foremost I experience it as a movement of spirit in my life. I feel I’m constantly being led to it. And while I don’t always feel like following, in those moments when I do let go and allow myself to be led, when I do surrender, when I do relinquish, in addition to whatever feeling of pride washes over me, a feeling of humility also rises in me. In that moment it doesn’t matter if the attention is focused on me. It doesn’t matter if I speak. It doesn’t matter if I’m a leader. It doesn’t matter if I’m a Unitarian Universalist. It doesn’t matter if there’s a bright, yellow “Standing on the Side of Love Banner.” It only matters that we’re present and willing to help.

I have a further, perhaps more global concern about drawing a very strict division between humility as a virtue and pride as a vice. In the midst of such moral certitude I get antsy thinking about all the people in the world who are in some way voiceless, powerless, oppressed. I think of the way humility was taught as a virtue to slaves on southern plantations in the hope they would be less likely to rebel against their masters. I’m mindful that humility can be held up as a virtue whose subtle and not-so-subtle purpose is to keep the voiceless from cultivating their voice. No need to speak out. Just accept your station in life. I’m mindful that humility can be held up as a virtue whose subtle and not-so-subtle purpose is to keep the powerless from seeking power. Patience. It’s not your time yet. I’m mindful that humility can be held up as virtue whose subtle and not-so-subtle purpose is to keep the oppressed from seeking their liberation. No need to change the way things are. Look forward to your reward in Heaven. But to the extent such ploys succeed they do not lead to genuine humility. At most they engender a warped and manipulated version of humility—a virtue adopted only because the ego has been assaulted and worn down; a virtue adopted only because pride and self-esteem have been eroded; a virtue adopted only because fear and self-loathing have made healthy exaltation impossible. This is what humility looks like—or certainly can look like—in a black and white, either/or moral landscape. I get antsy. I do not want to be a minister—and I do not want us to be a congregation—who counsels humility in those moments when what a person or a people needs to do is speak up, speak out, name their pride, express their anger, claim their power, advocate, struggle, fight and achieve liberation.

I was speaking with Jerry DeWitt on Friday. He’s the Louisiana-based Pentecostal-minister-turned-atheist who was profiled in the “New York Times Magazine” this past August. He’s now writing a book called After Faith: An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism. We’re zeroing in on a date for him to speak here in April. He was talking to me about how he understands his mission these days which includes his notion—a simple, profound notion—that everyone deserves the opportunity to express themselves. Everyone needs a voice.  I think he’s right, and I trust this is not a controversial idea here. It resonates seamlessly with our first Unitarian Universalist principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It has been central to Unitarian and Universalist identity for generations. I think it is fair to say it has been central to American liberalism since its inception. But ever since I was a child growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation I’ve been hearing, in various forms, a question about balance. Is it possible we’ve placed too much attention on the individual’s voice and not enough attention on what lies beyond the individual? Can we have a lasting faith if, at its core, all we discover is that each individual has the right to express themselves? Isn’t there something greater that binds us together? Or on a more personal level: Is my spiritual life just about self-expression? Is it ultimately just about me?

Of course, my faith can’t be just about me. Our faith can’t be just about each individual voice. It can’t be just about ego, as beautiful, creative and prophetic as the works of our egos may be. There’s got to be more. And there is. I love the way Rev. Walsh answers these questions in his reading, “On Buying a Cemetery Plot.” He says, “I have a desire to be remembered…. Is this vanity? Yeah. But it’s my vanity. And it’s an orderly and traditional kind of vanity. So to heck with it, I bought the plot.”[4] He’s honoring his ego, he’s honoring his voice. He doesn’t name it explicitly, but he’s proud. He wants to be remembered.  Then he shifts. He moves away from his focus on him and his vanity and starts reflecting on death. In the language I’ve been using, he’s orienting himself towards a reality greater than himself—toward a time where words end. He says “Cemeteries help us acknowledge and accept our limits….[and] Until we can live in the presence of death, we will not know the value of life—we will not be fully grateful for the gift of life, and we will not be prepared to make full use of this gift to enjoy and serve the Creation.”[5] I read this as a movement across a continuum from healthy pride to healthy humility, from “I want to be remembered,” to “I want to serve the Creation.” Come, my way, my truth, my life. There are times where words end, moments when our voice grows silent, when our self seems to dissolve, when our ego suddenly lies dormant; moments when we remember what matters most—our highest values, our commitments, the people and places we love; moments when we feel called to dedicate or re-dedicate our lives to some reality or purpose greater than ourselves; moments when we surrender to that reality or purpose; moments when we let go and trust we’re being led in a good direction; moments when it does not matter if we speak, if we’re the hero, the leader, the performer, the sage, the expert, the wise one; moments where it does not matter if we’re Unitarian Universalist or any other faith. In such moments it only matters that we are present and willing to serve the Creation. In such moments words end and a genuine humility can rise in us.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1]Herbert, George, “Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #89.

[2]Bulletin, Mark, “Earth” Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 32.

[3]Luke 18: 9-14.

[4]Walsh, Robert, “On Buying a Cemetery Plot,” Stone Blessings (Boston: Skinner House, 2010) p. 48.

[5] Ibid., p. 48-49.

Decolonizing Our Faith

READING

An excerpt/adaptation from “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching R(evolutionary) S(ub)-V(ersions)! or Relax! . . . It’s Just Religious Ed” (Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje, Provost and Professor of Cultural Studies and Islamic Studies at the Starr King School for the Ministry)

“Decolonizing” [religion] means looking at how it can subvert the dominating paradigm instead of merely reflecting it or having a merely reactive response to it….  [We must name how] the demonizing of the dark leads to the war against women and their bodies from the Inquisition to the beginning of the dismantling of women’s reproductive rights [and] is connected to the masculinization of the healing industry, to the hardening of Christian religious dogma in northern Europe, to the driving out of the Goddess, to the destruction of the Earth, to the mass killing of kweers of all colors, is connected to the expulsion of the Dark Other, i.e.,  the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain, is connected to the Afrikan slave trade and the invasions of the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, where indigenous peoples, Afrikans, and Asians were enslaved and massacred (and continue to fuel a fear of brown-skinned immigrants and the brutal murdering of dark-skinned peoples, women, kweers, etc.) because they were considered to be like women: incarnations of evil; incarnations of unbridled lust; like women, they were considered to be too connected to the body and to sex; and where the Earth was destroyed because like women, the Earth was considered to be wild and needing to be dominated; like dark-skinned peoples, it needed to be dominated and controlled. This interlocking vortex became reflected in our language, where all that was evil was “dark” and vice-versa. The Dark Other was soon not only people living with brown skin, but anyone who was other: people living with disabilities, women, kweers, etc.

SERMON: Decolonizing Our Faith

“Evening breeze sings to me…. Mother earth awakens me.”[1]

Friends, this sermon is about awakening—waking up, opening our eyes, rising, stretching, greeting the dawn, greeting a new day, greeting a new way of being in the world which, in some respects, is not new at all. That is, greeting a new way of being in the world whose roots are ancient; or greeting an ancient way of being in the world that has been with us all along and even though it has been hidden, suppressed, denied, distorted, discounted, ridiculed, colonized, marginalized, made invisible, lampooned, bamboozled, attacked, assaulted, bombed, burned, bashed, bullied, battered, tainted, taunted, targeted and terrorized it has survived and has been asserting itself anew; has been speaking, calling, singing like the evening breeze, shining like the morning sun. This sermon is about awakening to an ancient way of being which is also new.

Throughout my entire ministry I’ve wrestled with the claim—a philosophical and academic claim—that we live in the end times of the modern world.  Not the Biblical end times—that’s something completely different and involves far too much hellfire and brimstone for me. The era scholars call modernity is slowly coming to a close. I encountered this idea in college in the 1980s and then in seminary in the 1990s. While I’m not convinced anyone knows entirely what this means or what the future holds, I do think naming and reflecting on this claim provides insight into the mission of the liberal church today.

 

I wrestle with this claim because I don’t believe the modern world will transition to something new without considerable conflict. Despite all the wonderful gifts of modernity—modern science, medicine, technology, industry, transportation, democracy, freedom, liberty, individual autonomy, human rights—all of which I fully expect will continue in new forms in whatever era is coming—despite this positive legacy it is also true that the modern world has always held itself in place through violence and oppression. For nearly six centuries modern nations and their leaders have far too often turned to domination and exploitation to achieve their goals: domination and exploitation of the land, of natural resources, of the global working poor and laboring classes, of the global south, of peoples of color, of women, of indigenous peoples and cultures, of (in the words of Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje) “kweers of all colors,”[1] of Jews and Muslims—and sometimes Christians—of Goddess religions, earth-based religions, and all manner of traditional folkways, including healing and agricultural practices.  

The modern world may be ending but its insidious underside—its tendency to resort to violence and oppression—won’t just disappear. Over the centuries it has insinuated itself deeply into modern consciousness, into our social, political and economic structures. It is the constant, unspoken threat of violence at the heart of so many international negotiations. It is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate saying “all options are on the table,” which we know is code for “we reserve the right to bomb you.” It is the rise of drone technology striking up and down the Afghan-Pakistan border and across the Southern Arabian Peninsula. It is gang warfare on city streets and corporate warfare on workers and the environment. It is wealthy nations with no will to address crushing poverty within their borders. It is the crazed search for fossil fuels despite incontrovertible evidence we’ve already combusted the climate beyond recognition. It is theories of “legitimate rape.” It is all the uninvestigated, untried murders of transgender people. None of this will simply disappear with the end of modernity. It must be confronted, challenged, resisted, subverted and undermined in creative, innovative, artistic, nonviolent ways. It must be declawed, defunded, dismantled, disorganized and voted out of office. It must be transformed into something peaceful, just, fair and sustainable. In my view this is our work as free, liberal, loving people of faith. This creative, innovative, artistic, nonviolent work of confronting domination and exploitation is a critical role of the church in these end times of the modern world. In embracing this role I believe we awaken to that ancient way of being which is also new.

Let me tell you how the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has recently said yes to this task of challenging the violence and oppression at the heart of modernity. At our 2012 General Assembly (GA) in Phoenix, delegates voted overwhelmingly to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. I was not familiar with this term until UUA board members started talking about it a year ago. I was familiar with some of the history surrounding it, but not the term itself. In short, the Doctrine of Discovery provided the intellectual, moral and spiritual justification for European colonization and slavery at the dawn of the modern era. Here’s a quote from the UUA website: “The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of international law dating from the late 15th century. It has its roots in … papal decree[s] … that specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples. Hundreds of years of decisions and laws continuing right up to our own time can ultimately be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery—laws that invalidate or ignore the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.”[2]

These original papal decrees were written in Latin, but you can find English translations online. Two in particular stand out. The first, entitled Dum Diversas, issued in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal, is widely regarded as the first official sanction of the African slave trade. Here’s a quote: “We grant you full and free power, through the Apostolic authority of this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and … to lead their persons in perpetual servitude and to apply and appropriate realms, duchies, royal places, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods … to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.”[3]

Then in 1493, in response to Christopher Columbus’ first Atlantic voyage, Pope Alexander VI issued a decree entitled  Inter Caetera to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. “We … out of the fullness of our apostolic power, by the authority of Almighty God … give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever … all the islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south, by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole, namely the north, to the Antarctic pole, namely the south, no matter whether the said mainlands and islands are found and to be found in the direction of India or towards any other quarter.”[4]

A picture emerges of 15th-century European power elites—popes and monarchs—authorizing the domination and exploitation of foreign lands, peoples and resources, and thereby ushering in the modern age.  A few centuries later Protestant rulers of Europe and the United States adopted the Doctrine of Discovery for their own uses. You can see it in Mass Bay and Virginia colony charters; in the Atlantic slave trade; in American expansionism and manifest destiny; in centuries of Indian wars, countless broken treaties, trails of tears, and detainment on reservations. You can see it in the Mexican-American war, the annexation of the American southwest, the colonization of Hawai’i, American imperialism, the history of immigration law, the war on drugs, the war on terror and the mass incarceration of black and brown people in American prisons. You can see it in a variety of United States Supreme Court decisions, the most recent being a 2005 case called City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York. [5] “The case involved a dispute over taxation of ancestral lands…. During oral arguments, it became clear that [the case] would hinge on whether … the Oneida Indian nation ‘has sovereignty status’ with regard to [its] ancestral lands…. In [the first] footnote [of her] decision for the Court majority [Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg writes:] ‘Under the Doctrine of Discovery … fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.’”[6] For me this underscores how deeply modernity’s tendency toward domination and exploitation is quietly woven into our legal system.

When the UUA was designing the 2012 GA and the various ways our delegates would bear witness against Arizona’s harsh immigration laws, our Arizona partners started talking to our leaders about the Doctrine of Discovery. They said, essentially: the reason state and federal governments and the sheriff’s department can treat us this way, can racially profile us, can raid our neighborhoods, can keep us from accessing our ancestral lands, can tear families apart in the middle of the night is because the United States still believes in the Doctrine of Discovery. They asked us: Will your General Assembly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly ask your leaders to work with indigenous people to propose a Congressional resolution calling on the US government to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly call upon the US government to fully implement the standards of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?[7] We said yes. We voted, resoundingly, yes.

This yes is important to me; I hope it’s important to you. This yes meant, first, that as a historically white religious association with a distinct European American heritage we were able to hold ourselves accountable to people of color organizations in Arizona. That’s what it means to be antiracist: white institutional power made accountable to people of color, their institutions, and their organizing for a more just society. But deeper than that: in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery we said yes to decolonizing our faith. That is, we said yes to a vision of our world free from the violence, oppression, domination and exploitation at the heart of modernity. We said yes to working as Unitarian Universalists to achieve that vision. We said yes, we are ready to wake up to a new way of being in the world—a new way of being whose roots are also ancient.

What is that way of being, asserting itself anew, singing now on the evening breeze, waking with the morning sun? If Professor Farajaje is right—and I believe he is—that one of the central strategies of modern domination was the demonization of the Dark Other, which connects the demonization of the earth to the demonization of women, people of color, indigenous peoples and cultures, immigrants, Jews and Muslims, ‘kweers of all colors,’ and on and on, then this new way of being must point us away from demonization, away from division, away from distancing us from them; it must point us towards balance. The modern world has been out of balance since its inception. We need to regain our balance—our own, internal sense of balance and a collective, global sense of balance.

We need balance between the dark and the light, between the beauty each has to offer, and all the beauty that lies between them. We need balance between day and night, dawn and dusk.

 

We need balance between our current habits of consumption and what we truly need for living well—a movement away from the fetishizing of material things and the resulting rape of the earth towards more holistic modes, methods, practices and principles of sustainable living, of renewable energy, of reduced carbon footprints—an honest, realistic balance between the needs of humanity and the needs of the earth accountable to generations upon generations into the future.

 

We need balance between our technological lives and our natural, flesh and blood lives. We need balance between our technological relationships and our natural, face-to-face, body-to-body, person-to-person relationships. We need balance between our online friends and our actual friends.

 

We need balance between male and female energy, between the beauty each has to offer, and all the beauty that lies between them—indeed, a recognition that male and female not only balance, but blend, mix, merge and cross—a wonderful truth of human diversity—the reason we bear witness at the Transgender Day of Remembrance this Tuesday evening, saying no to the murders of transgender people, and yes to the dignity of transgender lives, yes to the human capacity for changing, transitioning, bending, crossing and queering.

We need balance among all faiths and cultures for a world in which no faith or culture dominates, where each faith and culture has access to the public square, yet where each refrains from imposing itself on the others, where each respects the others, where each seeks to understand the others, where all come together on common ground to work for the ongoing advance of justice and equality for all people and for the earth.

We need balance between the tools of war and the tools of peace, and much greater wisdom when it comes to declaring war.

We need a more just balance of wealth, for a world in which the rich and the poor and not so far from each other, not so unfamiliar to each other, not so disconnected from each other.

This sense of balance is that new way of being that has been asserting itself in these waning days of modernity; that new way of being that has been speaking, calling, singing like the evening breeze, shining like the morning sun. And in fact, it has been with us all long. Have you heard it? Its roots are ancient: It is there in the Tao, yin and yang, wu wei, neti neti, namaste, the middle path, shalom, the great commandment, the Sacred Way. Yet is also new. We have tools, knowledge and insights the ancient masters could never have imagined. So let us awaken from our modern slumbers, open our eyes, rise, stretch, and greet the dawn; and in this new day let us first regain what we have lost—our balance; and then let us begin to refashion the world.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] Farajaje-Jones, Elias (now Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje) “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching R(evolutionary) S(ub)-V(ersions)! or Relax! . . . It’s Just Religious Ed”  Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays, 2001 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, 2001) pp. 19-20.

[2] See “What is the Doctrine of Discovery?” at http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/index.shtml. Also, the UUA has produced a helpful introductory video at http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/199378.shtml.

[4] An English translation of Inter Caetera can be found at http://www.doctrineofdiscovery.org/inter%20caetera.htm.

[5] City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, 125 S. Ct. 1478, 148384 (2005).

[6] Frichner, Tonya Gonnella, “Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal Construct Known as the Doctrine of Discovery,” a preliminary study submitted to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, 9th session, February 4th, 2010, p. 19. See: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/E.C.19.2010.13%20EN.pdf

[7] Language to the UUA Board’s Responsive Resolution for repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is at http://www.uua.org/statements/statements/209123.shtml.

 


[1] Composer Unknown, “Evening Breeze” Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1072.

Being Thankful in a Thankless World

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In her meditation, “Saying Grace,” the Rev. Kathleen McTigue reminds us “wise women and men from every [faith] tradition teach that gratitude is at the heart of the spiritual life because it leads us to all the rest.”[1] This rings true to me. Pausing before a meal—even a brief pause—to be mindful of how the food actually arrived on the plate can lead us back through all those people who had some hand in getting it to the plate: the cashiers, the shelf-stockers, the grocery store managers, the truck drivers, the loaders, the processors, the pickers, the planters, the slaughterhouse workers—and then beyond the people, back further to soil, water, sun—and then further still to the insight that “everything hinges on everything else,” that we are fundamentally dependent, that we do not exist apart from a reality greater than ourselves. I think Rev. McTigue is right. A pause—even a brief pause—to express our gratitude can lead us to “all the rest.” Perhaps most importantly it can instill in us the desire to give back in some way, to live not simply as recipients of the earth’s abundance, but as people who actively engage the wider world, people who work for justice and peace, people who work for healing and repair, people who work to sustain the earth and all its creatures. Heart-felt gratitude ought to yield some kind of participation, commitment, action. Indeed, the final words of Rev. McTigue’s prayer of gratitude are that we may be strong for the work of our world.[2]

Similarly, in a 2007 article in the Unitarian Universalist World Magazine entitled “The Heart of our Faith,” the Rev. Galen Guengerich writes that where the central discipline of Judaism is obeying God’s commandments, and the central discipline of Christianity is loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and the central discipline of Islam is submitting to the will of God, the central discipline of Unitarian Universalism ought to be gratitude.[3] He says a discipline of gratitude—that is, integrating into our lives daily rituals that enable us to recognize and name the things for which we are grateful—inevitably “reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and the world around us for everything that matters.” And from this recognition of dependence flows what he calls an “ethic of gratitude” which “demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return.”[4] Heart-felt gratitude ought to yield some kind of engagement, participation, commitment, action. May we be strong for the work of our world.

Our ministry theme for October is gratitude. It’s an obvious theme for this time of year. The thanksgiving season is beginning. Farmers are bringing in the final harvest here in New England and throughout the planet’s more northern reaches. Harvest festivals and thanksgiving celebrations are common in many parts of the northern hemisphere at this time of year. Being a father of elementary school students I can anticipate assignments related to gratitude and thanksgiving. My boys will create adorable, little booklets about the things for which they are thankful. They will trace their hands to make turkeys. And many ministers preach sermons on gratitude at this time of year. I become a bit squeamish when it’s my turn to preach that sermon since there are only so many ways to name the importance of gratitude in our lives. Yet we keep preaching it. I’ve yet to find a colleague in any faith tradition who thinks gratitude is overrated.

So this is the message I want you to take with you today: a discipline of gratitude—finding some way to regularly call forth a feeling of gratitude for all that is good in our lives—reminds us of our dependence on a reality larger than ourselves and ought to inspire us to give back to our communities and to the world in some sustained way. While I’m convinced no controversy surrounds this message; and while I’m utterly confident that you already know this, that gratitude is a no-brainer, that we should be grateful for all the blessings of our lives, the fact remains: gratitude is never as simple as it sounds. We don’t always come to it easily. We can’t just make ourselves feel a certain way. For most of us, gratitude takes practice.

Most of you are parents. Some of you are actively parenting. Others have raised their children into adulthood. I suspect most of you who are parents—and even those of you who aren’t parents but who have been around children in that elementary school age range—have had the experience of doing something nice for a child—taking them to a movie, buying some toy they’ve asked for, taking them to their favorite restaurant—something slightly out of the ordinary and very nice—only to then watch the child behave like a selfish, impulsive, entitled little demon. When it happens, you the parent can’t imagine this is the child you’ve been raising. It’s mystifying. You didn’t teach them to act like this. You didn’t model this behavior for them. You’ve spoken clearly to them, many times, about appropriate behavior, especially in public places. You try to shut it down with your own polite reasoning, but it doesn’t work. The child escalates. You begin to get angry. The next words out of your mouth—your tone bordering on sarcastic—are some version of “a little thanks would be nice,” or “How about ‘thank you’?” Does this ring a bell? I can’t recall my parents ever saying this to me, but I remember being a selfish, impulsive, entitled little demon and I’m positive my ears heard some version of those words. “A little thanks would be nice.”

I suspect there are exceptions to this rule, but I’m pretty sure we aren’t born grateful. We may be born with the capacity to feel gratitude, but expressing it doesn’t come naturally. The phrase “thank you” doesn’t roll off our tongues once we’ve learned rudimentary speech, at least not as quickly as “I want,” “gimme” and “mine.” Of course children are more complex than their selfish impulses. Most children seem inherently trusting, loving, joyful, filled with awe, creative and truthful in the sense that they don’t naturally censor themselves. But “thank you” is not one of their inclinations. Not at first. They need to be taught.

I also suspect that even once a child learns to say “thank you,” we still haven’t taught them to recognize and name the feeling of gratitude when it rises in them. What we’ve actually taught them is how to be polite regardless of how they feel. That is, we might hear them say “thank you,” but it’s only because we’ve told them to, not because they actually feel it. I suspect our ability to recognize and name feelings of genuine gratitude develops as we age and mature. I suspect we’re not able to feel deep and abiding gratitude—and name it—until we stop taking our living for granted, which most children do unless they’ve experienced some kind of loss or struggle and they’ve have had to grow up too fast. I suspect we’re not able to feel truly grateful “for all that is our life,”[5] as the hymn says, until we’ve had the kinds of experiences that move us out of childhood, experiences that enable us to gain perspective on our lives, to view our lives from multiple angles, to compare our lives to other lives, to recognize how hard life can be at times, to recognize that it means something when someone else does something nice for us unbidden, when someone else lends us a hand when we’re in need, when someone else supports us in our times of crisis and struggle, when someone else notices our good work. I suspect we’re not able to feel truly grateful and name it until we’ve gained some sense of what’s at stake in our lives and in the world; until we’ve had the experience of making difficult, life-altering decisions; until we’ve experienced suffering and loss; until we’ve come to understand our limits, our fragility, our dependence. We feel genuine gratitude when we finally recognize our lives and the lives of others as precious, as sacred, as holy, and as unlikely, mysterious, miraculous gifts.

And when we finally arrive there, when we finally arrive at that feeling of being blessed in some way, perhaps by someone else’s kindness or the by recognizing the opportunities we’ve had—whatever it is—that deeply felt “thank you,” more often than not, also instills in us a desire to give back in some way. Heart-felt gratitude leads to some kind of engagement, participation, commitment, action. May we be strong for the work of our world.

But it still takes practice. I’ve given this sermon the title, “Being Thankful in a Thankless World.” I trust you all know I am not as cynical and hopeless about the world as this title suggests, but I do observe trends in our culture—behavioral trends—that drive a wedge between us and our capacity to feel gratitude. In doing my research for this sermon I was drawn to a blog post entitled “The Thankless World of the Conscientious Science Writer”[6] from Cynthia Closkey,[7] who who runs a web design firm called Big Big Design.[8] Closkey’s post led me to another post entitled “You’ve Got Mail, You Idiot,”[9] by an independent science writer named Christie Aschwanden,[10] who says that after twelve years of science writing she has learned the hard lesson that if you “tell readers that they’re wrong about something they know in their heart to be true … they will send you hate mail.” For example, she wrote an article stating that what determines whether cancer progresses is tumor biology, not a person’s attitude toward their cancer. She received a letter in response stating, “You are no scientist. You should not write. You are a foolish person.” Her article on climate change elicted this: “Get beyond your pathetic left-wing angst over the envirofacist lies.” An article contending that “taking a multivitamin won’t make you any healthier,” brought forth this gem: “You call yourself a ‘science writer’??!! Your article was all lies.”[11]

What Aschwanden is describing is not unique to her. It’s actually a widespread mode of social interaction in our nation. It’s the ‘gotcha” mentality, the red-state blue-state mentality, the liberal vs. conservative mentality. It’s road rage. It’s the phenomenon of negative political ads and this idea that a political debate can now be won not on the strength or veracity of a candidate’s arguments but simply by how frequently they interrupt their opponent, as if their belligerence and rudeness reveals some measure of their fitness for leadership. At the end of Thursday evening’s Vice Presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz asked a question submitted to her from a decorated war veteran, something along the lines of “aren’t you embarrassed by the volume of negative political ads? Why can’t the candidates refrain from tearing each other down and start to build the country up?” In their responses, both candidates thanked the veteran for his service and proceeded to tear each other down. I found it not only embarrassing, but infuriating.

I’m naming this particular kind of behavior because it has become so ubiquitous in politics, journalism, religion, and so many areas of public life. We can lean away from it and observe it and lament how common it has become—I can name it and critique it right here in this sermon—but it seems to be increasing. And I admit I get caught up in it from time to time. There is something seductive about it. I think it speaks to us at a pre-rational level. It grabs our emotions before we have time to think. It’s reptilian. It’s childish. It reminds me of my kids fighting in the back seat of the car over who touched who or who crossed over onto whose side. But for them it’s developmentally appropriate. For adults it’s not. In adults it invites us to close ranks, close down, lock in, box in, shut out, ignore, dismiss, interrupt and even, at times, attack. These are precisely the behaviors that prevent us from gaining perspective on our lives; from viewing our lives from multiple angles; from remembering how hard life can be at times; from remembering what it’s like to experience suffering and loss, and that there are far more important things at stake than belittling someone with whom we disagree—all of which we need in order to feel genuine gratitude.

That is, the contentious, polarizing, sound-bite craving, zinger-worshipping aspects of our culture lead us toward petty conflict and away from gratitude. I actually don’t believe we live in a thankless world, but in the midst of this cultural nastiness, gratitude takes practice. Gratitude requires discipline. It’s not the discipline of politeness, for while children need to learn please and thank you, our politeness is not an indication of how we actually feel. Perhaps this discipline of gratitude begins with saying grace, with finding ways to name all we’re thankful for. But I think gratitude arises ultimately from a discipline of deep self-reflection, a discipline of bearing witness to all that is our life and allowing ourselves to fully grasp our limits, our fragility, and our dependence on one another and the world around us. Grasping these things, I believe, leads us in turn to the recognition that our lives and the lives of others are indeed precious, sacred, holy. Grasping these things, I believe, leads us to the recognition that our lives and the lives of others, in the grand scheme of things, are unlikely, mysterious, miraculous gifts. Such recognitions make it possible for us to feel thankful in a thankless world.

Earlier we spoke together words from the poet Denise Levertov that capture for me the heart of this self-reflection I’m calling for. She says “an awe so quiet I don’t know where it began. A gratitude had begun to sing in me.”[12] As the thanksgiving season begins in New England, my prayer for each of us is that we may find ways to keep our hearts and minds above and beyond the fray; that we may find ways to reflect on all that is our lives; that we may experience awe in response to the gift of life; that gratitude—deep and abiding gratitude—may rise up in us like a song; and that we may be strengthened for the work of our world.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Saying Grace,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 68.

[2] Ibid., p. 69.

[3] Guengerich, Galen, “The Heart of Our Faith,” UU World Magazine, Spring 2007. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/11144.shtml.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Findlow, Bruce, “For All That is Our Life,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #128.

[12] Levertov, Denise, “An Awe So Quiet,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #479.

 

I Can Believe

Rev. Josh Pawelek

This past summer I read Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods. Jenn Richard recommended it back in June. It sounded like good summer reading for me, and it was. In this story all the gods are still alive. That is, any god any group of people ever brought with them to America—whether as explorers, immigrants or slaves—as well as the gods of the Native American nations, many of whom arrived in more ancient times travelling with immigrants across the Bering Strait between what are now Russia and Alaska—any god any person ever worshipped in America is still alive. Except … no one worships them anymore. Nobody remembers them. So, they lack power. They’re weak. That’s the premise: gods and goddesses are powerful when people worship them. As people forget them they fade. They don’t die, but they become shadows of their former selves. They’re immortal, but they struggle to survive. They live in dingy tenement buildings in forgotten towns. They make their livings through odd jobs, petty crime, prostitution. They aren’t particularly admirable beings.

These forgotten gods also believe they’re facing a new threat to their meager existence. Make no mistake, Americans still practice worship—but not in churches, synagogues and mosques. Neil Gaiman has something else in mind: Americans worship technology and entertainment. If our ancestors couldn’t live without their Gods, we post-moderns can’t live without our computers, televisions and cell phones. As we humans spend more and more time enmeshed with our electronic devices, turning to them not only for information, but also for comfort, companionship, guidance, and even community, our relationship to them begins to look more and more like worship. These devices—and the industries that produce and deploy them—become the new gods—our solace and our salvation.  Thus the old gods feel threatened. The book’s plot unfolds around preparations for a final battle between the old and the new.

Along the way we meet the character Sam, a student at the University of Wisconsin studying art history and women’s studies, an aspiring sculptor, a barista at a local coffee shop. She apparently has some divine qualities, though she’s a minor character and we don’t learn much about her. When I first read her monologue about her beliefs, beginning with “I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not,”[1] I became very excited. I could write a sermon about this!  I love her brazen embrace of contradictions, the way she runs warring theological ideas together as if they have always co-existed peacefully. She says, “I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.”[2] I read her monologue over and over again, wondering: is she describing a deeply examined, mature faith, a faith strong and nuanced enough to embrace these contradictions and yet still guide her and sustain her through all life’s challenges? Could this really work? Or is she just showing off her liberal arts education, sophomorically spouting some version of whatever conspiracy theory occurs to her, and expressing nothing more than a rebellious, youthful exuberance that won’t offer sufficient spiritual sustenance as she grows older? Is she describing an authentic, generous spirituality, or is she just too lazy to make a serious theological choice?

I ask these questions because, even though she’s fictional, I want Sam’s widespread believing to be real. I want this kind of believing to be useful for our spiritual lives. Frankly, I’m even a bit envious of Sam’s beliefs. I have an experience of feeling caught between two contradictory beliefs and recognizing that ministry would flow so much more smoothly if I could just believe both and not worry about having to choose one over the other. Some of you will remember I raise the question from time to time in my sermons about whether we live in the midst of one truth or many truths. To make the case for there being only one, ultimate truth, I might refer to the ancient South Asian story of the blind men and the elephant where each man touches a part of the elephant and describes the elephant based on the part he touches. The man who touches the leg says the elephant is like a pillar. The man who touches the tail says the elephant is like a rope, and so on. The elephant is a metaphor for the existence of one truth. The whole elephant may be beyond our reach; we may each, at best, have access to only a small piece of it, but no matter what we believe, we’re all touching the same elephant—we all touch a piece of the one truth. [3] But then, to make the case for there being many distinct truths, even contradictory truths, I might just ask how it is possible for me, as one who ministers to a congregation that includes atheists, theists, agnostics, Buddhists, Jews, Pagans and Christians, to say there is only one truth. If there is only one, then some of us—most of us, in fact—are wrong. That doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not convinced atheists and theists are somehow touching the same elephant. I’m not convinced Buddhists and Christians are somehow touching the same elephant. I’m not convinced all religions, at their core, are ultimately the same.[4] So which is it, one truth or many?

I inevitably feel some pressure to answer this question definitively. But I can’t. I’m persuaded by both arguments—I love the idea that there is one truth beyond our knowing; I love the idea that there are many distinct truths in one room. I can’t give up on either of these claims and I’ve never known quite how to resolve what feels to me like a deep contradiction. There’s a part of me that’s always felt like a bit of a fraud for not being able to offer a definitive answer. But when I reflect more deeply, I realize the problem is not the presence of a contradiction: the problem is the pressure to choose one side in this or any other theological debate and be done with it. The problem is the pressure to choose one spiritual identity and be done with it. Do you believe in God or are you an atheist? Define yourself. Are you a UU Christian, a UU Buddhist, a UU Pagan, a UU Theist, a UU Humanist? Define yourself. In your spiritual practice are you contemplative? Are you community-oriented? Are you ritualistic? Are you a social justice activist? Define yourself.

I understand why we crave definition. Having a clear self-definition, spiritual or otherwise, helps us communicate to the rest of the world: this is me! This is who I am. See me. Hear me. Distinguish me. Validate me. Value me. But sometimes succumbing to the pressure to define does more harm than good. What happens if you have a hunch that both sides of an argument are somehow true? What happens if you have a feeling that both sides of a contradiction are somehow true? What if two religions express radically different cosmologies, but your intuition tells you both are somehow true? Or what if you sense something is true even though it doesn’t make any sense, even though everything you’ve ever been taught tells you it can’t be true. I think it’s so important for us in situations like this, as liberal religious people, as spiritual seekers, as Unitarian Universalists to learn to follow our hunches, our feelings, our intuitions. If we’re forced to define our position, if we have to choose a side, if we have to reject an idea because we’ve been taught it can’t be true, then we risk missing something. We cut ourselves off from a range of possibilities.

Think of what we know about light. Sam reminds us in her monologue that light is both a wave and a particle—a contradiction. One of the first lessons aspiring physicists learn in the study of quantum mechanics is that as soon as we measure light—as soon as we try to define it—the wave collapses into the particle. We can observe the particle, but we miss the wave. The range of possibilities vanishes in that moment.

 

Sam also mentions “a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time.” This is a reference to Shrödinger’s Cat, a famous
thought experiment put forth in 1935 by the Austrian physicist Erwin Shrödinger as a way to talk about problems in quantum mechanics. The cat inside the box is both alive and dead—a contradiction—and only when we open the box does it become one or the other. The quantum world—the sub-atomic world—is like this. There are actually infinite possibilities at any given time.  When we measure—when we open the box—when we touch the elephant—we collapse these infinite possibilities into one definite state. But this doesn’t mean the other possibilities weren’t real. The fact that we can only observe the particle doesn’t mean the wave was a fiction.

I’m making a similar claim about our spiritual lives, about our beliefs. When we define ourselves spiritually or theologically by saying “I believe X” or “I don’t believe Y,” we risk shutting out a wider range of possibilities. Sometimes that’s fine. Sometimes we need to do it. Sometimes we are very comfortable with a clearly defined identity: humanist, atheist, theist, Christian, Buddhist, etc. But there’s always a risk. We risk missing something. What appeals to me about Sam’s expression of belief is her unwillingness to miss anything. She says, essentially, I will not collapse the wave; I will not open the box; I will not resolve my contradictions; I will accept and embrace them, I will live with them, and in so doing I will inhabit a universe of possibility.

I confess that, despite feeling drawn to Sam’s way of believing, I’m not exactly sure how to do it. My intellect doesn’t want to go there. It’s hard for me to say with a straight face, “I believe in a personal god and I believe in an impersonal god and I believe in a godless universe.” It’s hard for me to say it with the conviction that Sam brings to it which, again, is why I wonder whether it’s a truly tenable spirituality. She is, after all, a work of fiction. But in the very least, were Sam or anyone to put such live-with-the-contradictions believing into practice, they would have access to a wide range of spiritual resources to meet life’s challenges. I think back to the time when my son’s heart condition was diagnosed in utero and we realized it was going to be a difficult medical path for a few years and possibly for his entire life; or the time when my brother’s daughter was still-born, or when my father was at the peak of his struggle with alcoholism—hard, painful times in my life. I’ve learned that people progress spiritually through such times, that there’s an arc to the spiritual experience of struggle and difficulty, and sometimes it includes a period of such despair, confusion and loneliness that all one can do is let go and trust. It strikes me that in such times belief in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do makes sense. Such belief, which includes longing for an end to pain, becomes a spiritual resource. Such belief can reduce anxiety, bring calm, bring a sense of being held, bring a sense of resilience. It can carry a person through hardship at the moment when they feel they can’t take another step.

Then there are those moments—those mystical moments—when people report an experience of profound unity, a oneness with everything there is, a connection to all life. Unitarian Universalists who have such experiences typically report having them outdoors, when surrounded by the natural world—the mountain top view, crashing waves, leaves in autumn, the rebirth of spring, sunrise and sunset. Of course, communion with nature is only one source of these mystical moments. They come in worship, in community, through working to achieve a vision, through creative endeavor, through activism. Wherever and whenever it comes, people report experiencing the world as sacred, experiencing life as sacred, experiencing everything as holy now. It stikes me that in such moments a belief in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive makes sense. A belief in some divine essence at the heart of creation makes sense. And such belief becomes a spiritual resource. It inspires reverence for life. It inspires us to care for the earth and for each other. It inspires us to renew our commitments and to live by our principles. It inspires us to be hopeful, loving people.

Then there are those moments when we take stock of what we know about life and the world and how it all fits together. We take stock of the myths people have told throughout the ages, the supernatural explanations for things that at one time were unexplainable but which now even children comprehend. We bear witness to the enormous power of the human mind to understand the universe. We watched just this week as NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, discovered what appears to be an ancient streambed on the surface of the red planet. We watched this past July as scientists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland discovered the Higgs boson, the sub-atomic particle that accounts, at least in theory, for the existence of mass in the universe. Like the theory of evolution, this so-called “god particle” offers a compelling, non-supernatural alternative to the creation story in the Book of Genesis. We take stock of the findings of science and human achievement and in response, belief in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck makes sense. And such belief becomes a spiritual resource, calling on us to trust ourselves—to trust our instincts and our intellect, to trust our feelings and our intuitions, to trust in our own creativity and our capacity for innovation, to trust, ultimately, in the human spirit.

There. Three contradictory theologies that when taken together offer a rich set of spiritual resources. I’m still wondering: is this an authentic, generous spirituality, or simply a failure to make a serious theological choice? For now I’m going with the former. Light is both a particle and a wave, and while we can only observe the particle, we know the wave is there. We know the wave is real. And so it is with our spiritual lives. While we have to define ourselves from time to time, my instincts tell me we inhabit a universe of possibility—and I don’t want to miss anything if I can help it. Are there pantheons full of ancient deities still longing for the life and power human worship gives them? Are there new gods of technology and entertainment vying for our dedication? Who knows? But either way it seems to me, if such a universe of possibility awaits, then it is good and right to say “I can believe.”

Amen and blessed be.

 

 


[1] Gaiman, Neil,  American Gods (New York: Harpertorch, 2001) p. 394.

[2] Ibid., pps. 394-395.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “One Truth, Many Truths . . . Any Truths?” Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, May 8, 2011. See: https://uuse.org/one-truth-many-truths-any-truths/

[4] Ibid.

July Ministry Theme

Witness

Meditations

By Rebecca Parker

In the midst of a world
marked by tragedy and beauty
there must be those
who bear witness
against unnecessary destruction
and who, with faith,
stand and lead
in freedom,
with grace and power.
There must be those who
speak honestly
and do not avoid seeing
what must be seen
of sorrow and outrage,
or tenderness,
and wonder.

There must be those whose
grief troubles the water
while their voices sing
and speak
refreshed worlds.

There must be those
whose exuberance
rises with lovely energy
that articulates
earth’s joys.

There must be those who
are restless for
respectful and loving
companionship among human beings,
whose presence invites people
to be themselves without fear.

There must be those
who gather with the congregation
of remembrance and compassion
draw water from
old wells,
and walk the simple path
of love for neighbor.

And,

There must be communities of people
who seek to do justice
love kindness and walk humbly with God,
who call on the strength of
soul-force
to heal,
transform,
and bless life.

There must be
religious witness.

Hindus: The First Universalists?

On Sunday morning, June 24th, UUS:E was honored to welcome Dr. A. V. (Sheenu) Srinivasan.

Dr. A. V. (Sheenu) Srinivasan has functioned as a Hindu priest for four decades performing a wide variety of Hindu religious ceremonies of worship, weddings, housewarmings, and bhajans or kirtans. He has written extensively on Hinduism. Dr. Srinivasan’s most recent publication (2011) is Hinduism for Dummies. His publication, The Vedic Wedding: Origins, Tradition and Practice, is widely acclaimed and won the USA Book News 2007 Best Book Award in the category of Eastern Religions. With a contemporary format for Vedic (Hindu) weddings which retains all essential Vedic rites in an hour long ceremony, he has blended this approach with those of other creeds in many interfaith weddings. In addition, he has published a series of booklets on “How to Conduct Puja to …” providing simple set of instructions to perform a worship ceremony to Soorya (Sun god), Shiva, Rama, Krishna, Ganapati, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati and the Navagrahas (nine planets).

A popular writer and speaker, Dr. Srinivasan has published/presented numerous papers on a variety of cultural, social and religious issues in the U.S. and India. He has given courses on the classical literature of India at the University of Connecticut and Wesleyan University. Principal founder member of the Connecticut Valley Hindu Temple Society in 1979, he also founded the Raga Club of Connecticut in 2006.

The text to his sermon is below. We were also blessed to welcome  Joseph Getter, who offered traditional music from Southern India on the bamboo flute.

Hindus: The First Universalists: Audio Version (click here to listen to the MP3 or right-click or command-click to save)

 

Hindus: The Earliest Universalists?

by Dr. Sheenu Srinivasan*

Moksha and Hindus

For Hindus the goal of life is moksha or liberation from the wheel of rebirth. Ancient Hindu
sages sought to define the path towards moksha through the centuries. The most relevant
question in this context was posed in a compelling episode in the second Hindu epic, the
Mahabharata. The hero of the epic, prince Yudhishtira was challenged with this question:

“What is the path?”

His answer:

What great men have followed –THAT is the path
Because arguments are futile, the Vedas are complex
and different, no single saint has the whole truth and
the truth is mysteriously hidden

This prescription is simple, practical and straightforward and results from several centuries of
attempts by Hindu sages to seek answers to one of the most vexing questions pertaining to
individual liberation. Hindu ancestors, we are told, busied themselves in addressing the
fundamental problems of life: Who are we? Why are we here? Why do we die? Is there a
purpose to life? Who controls our life? Questions for which humanity is still seeking
answers.

The Revelations: They “heard it”

While Hindu ancestors contemplated fundamental questions about life on this earth, we learn
that their penance resulted in certain truths revealed to them and these are
referred to as Shruti. They comprise the most sacred scriptures of the Hindus: the Vedas. The
word Veda means knowledge.

The most fundamental truth emerging out of the penance on the banks of the river Indus is
described by the Indologist Sir Monier Monier-Williams (1819-1899) as “a creed based on
an original, simple, pantheistic doctrine, …” (See HINDUISM, Society for Promoting
Christian Knowledge, 1906, page 11). This meant that the earliest thought about a belief
system identified a Supreme Spirit. It excluded nothing. By definition it included all living
and non-living, ugly and beautiful, noble and evil, gentle and harsh, sophisticated and crude,
darkness and light … EVERYTHING.

This supreme spirit is identified as Brahman, a universal spirit that is always referred to as
“It” and not as a He or a She; this is the basis for the famous saying: Tat-Tvamasi i.e. Thou
art That, meaning “You are verily Brahman.” Brahman was understood to be the only thing
real in the universe. All else is therefore unreal, false or illusory and untrue. Brahman sounds like an abstract entity, but is entirely real and in every sense the Supreme Soul, Supreme
Being, Creator, the One and Only Reality. And if some wanted to call it God, so be it.
This pantheistic doctrine led to the firm declaration: ekameva advitiyam i.e. ‘There is but one
without a second’ referring to Brahman. The root word for Brahman is (brh) ‘to grow’ to
indicate infinite growth and expansion of the concept, from visible living or non-living
objects at the lowest level to the highest forms including humans. Brahman has no form.
Brahman is everywhere, the pure and formless One, limitless and all-pervading; the
Almighty and All-merciful. Think of this concept as each of us representing a ray of light
from that great source of light. Hindus believe that we are Brahman; (aham brahmasmi) i.e.
“I am Spirit” makes that assertion.

However, that belief comes with a very important caveat which ends up being the most basic
identifier of our life as humans. And that caveat is that when we are born as humans, we
inherit what I refer to as Brahman plus. The plus is known as maya (illusion) that comes with
the package. The illusion lets us forget our true nature that we are truly Brahman and
therefore our identification is not with the Supreme Spirit but something incredibly less
significant and reduced to a mere “ I ” identifying with the physical body and mind. This
illusion is like impurities that may creep in while developing a pure metal. These impurities
need to be removed to enjoy the beauty of the pure metal. Or think of this illusion as a
coating on this brilliant diamond that is the Brahman within us. Think of this as the cocoon a
caterpillar builds using its own saliva and imprisons itself. This saliva and the resulting
cocoon are the results of our actions and therefore need to be controlled. Hindu philosophy proclaims that we can remove this coating, this illusion and recognize our true self. Swami Vivekananda stated this eloquently in his speech to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago on September 11, 1893.

“Here I stand and if I shut my eyes, and try to conceive my existence, “I”, “I”, “I”, what is the
idea before me? The idea of a body? Am I, then, nothing but a combination of material
substances? The Vedas declare, “No”. “I am a spirit living in a body. I am not the body. The
body will die, but I shall not die. Here am I in this body; it will fall, but I shall go on living.”

From the One to the very many

But this was too abstract to some and therefore the attempts to visualize something more
tangible came about. Personifying and deifying components of this universe became a Hindu
specialty. When we step on the earth after waking up, we beg forgiveness from goddess
Mother Earth for stepping on her. We chant our salutations to the divinities in the seven
sacred rivers as we bathe. We salute Prana, the sacred breath of life when we partake food.
Thus we also tend to associate rituals with everything we do including as routine a step as
eating. The Upanishads warn us to be aware of the fundamentals and not be distracted by
mere rituals. Rituals and worships and ceremonies are and should be just a first step towards
realization.

Sir Monier Monier Williams (ibid) explains this development as follows:

“It is a creed based on an original, simple, pantheistic doctrine, but branching out into an
endless variety of polytheistic superstitions. Like the sacred fig-tree of India, which from a
single stem sends out numerous branches destined to send roots to the ground and become
trees themselves, till the parent stock is lost in a dense forest of its own offshoots, so has this
pantheistic creed rooted itself firmly in the Hindu mind, and spread its ramifications so
luxuriantly that the simplicity of its root-dogma is lost in an exuberant outgrowth of
monstrous mythology.”

True. But that is the price to pay when individual preferences towards a goal are respected!
And the “root-dogma” is not quite lost.

Seeking alternatives to the intellectual pursuit

From that most fundamental doctrine of The One, the ancients observed, with a sense of awe
and reverence, life sustaining natural forces such as the sun, the wind, rain, fire, and so on.
They could have stayed with that sophisticated, abstract concept of the universe, the supreme
spirit. But they did not. They needed more than philosophy.

So the ancients worshipped these natural forces. They bathed in the rivers. Lifting a handful
of water and looking at the sun, they offered it to him. They built a fire and made offerings to
the fire. They worshipped trees, animals, planets and even hand made tools used in
enterprises. When a Hindu stands before a deity and offers worship, the core belief that that
worship is to The One is in the background of the mind. An often quoted part of a verse in
the Rg. Veda (ekam sat vipra: bahudha vadanti) proclaims that “Truth is One but the wise
express it many ways.”

The basics are intact

In its August 31, 2009 issue, Newsweek proclaimed that “We are all Hindus now”. The
billion plus Hindus around the world may not have thought that but probably nod in
agreement. Hinduism, the mother of all religions, has a unique perspective on life and has as
its adherents a broad spectrum of people who span from the extremely orthodox immersed in
elaborate ritual worship to those who openly declare that they do not believe in God. The late
Swami Satchidananda of Woodstock fame used to say about the latter group: “That is what
they believe in!” They were not excluded.

Chapter 6, verse 72 of the Mahopanishad declares with no ambiguity

ayam bandhurayam neti laghuchetasam
udara caritanam tu vasudhaiva kutumbakam

This is my relative and that is a stranger is what small minded persons think, but for the
magnanimous the whole world is a family.

That the whole world is a family with each member of that family a Brahman is a Hindu
belief that connects the individual with the vast universe.

Therefore when I see you as audience, I notice you do not all look alike of course, but you
are indeed alike when I identify you with that “free, unbounded, holy, pure, and perfect”
souls.

A parable

That ability to see the real you comes with study and constant reminder of the true nature of
man. That ability is there in each of us and we need to remind ourselves of that reality
frequently. The Upanishadic mandate is unquestionably to begin that spiritual journey and
rise above mere rituals. To illustrate that spiritual journey I made up the following scenario in
my book:

You’re climbing some rock-cut steps to an ancient temple on a hill. But this temple is not to a
deity. It has no priests. It has no bells to ring, and you do not bring any offerings beyond your
self in body and spirit. As you climb, at each step, one after another, you discard a dogma.
You reject ritualistic approaches. You sweat through the futility of pride and vanity and settle
for humility. You seek satisfaction beyond pleasure of the senses — something deeper.
As you climb higher and higher, you recognize that ignorance of your real nature is the
source of all problems, so your goal is to destroy ignorance. Another step up and you realize
that you do not need to abandon anything but simply remain detached! As the ancient Hindus
said, real knowledge and infinite joy are yours, and they didn’t mince words. And with the
next step, you realize that simply believing is not enough; you must experience it yourself.
Yourself. One more step, and you rise above mere intellect and stand on the threshold of a
mystic experience with your heart and intuition tuned to that experience. Experience and only
experience counts here on this hill.

The sanctum sanctorum—the holiest of holy places—at this temple contains Bliss. Yes, bliss.
That is what the ancient Hindus considered worth living (dying?) for. Bliss is your birth
right, proclaims the Upanishads. Your interest is nothing but spiritual illumination. You have
entered the temple of the Upanishads. You have reached the source of joy. Now you can
begin your earnest inquiry into the ultimate Truth.

With this background I may perhaps summarize our core beliefs:

1. In general Hinduism has no hierarchy: No person who is the equivalent of a pope.
2. We have no single book. The Four Vedas, the Upanishads, the two major epics and
the Bhagavad Gita provide lessons and examples.
3. No concept of original sin – only of karma: a bank of good deeds and bad deeds with
consequences which follow an individual from one life cycle to the next until a pure
life allows one to escape rebirth.
4. Modern Hinduism or Vedanta puts stress on being and not simply believing
5. Through 5,000 years and more, absorbing every ritual and idea that has arisen or
arrived on Indian soil,
6. This tolerant view leads not just to recognition of the validity of different faiths but
other choices.
7. Nature plays an important role in Hindu worship.
8. Hinduism does not believe in proselytization. It lets you be. The philosopher
statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan said in his book The Hindu View of Life,
“Hinduism requires every man to think steadily on life’s mystery until he reaches the
highest revelation. While the lesser forms (including idols and images) are tolerated
in the interests of those who cannot suddenly transcend them, there is all through an
insistence on the larger idea of purer worship … Every man has a right to choose that
form of belief and worship which most appeals to him … Hinduism is not a sect but a
fellowship of all who accept the law of right and earnestly seek for the truth.”

These fundamental beliefs have paved the way for the Hindu towards development of a
philosophical outlook on life. These fundamentals comprise a code of behavior that form the
contemporary Hindu view of life that Dr. Radhakrishnan says is “an attempt to discover the
ideal possibilities of human life”.

So our approaches and beliefs may be somewhat different or in some aspects, quite different,
but we are indeed one because in each of us there is a soul that is perfect and eternal. That is
the uniting factor that brings us together as a community. That community spirit is especially
needed now as we face very trying times with close to 50% of our population facing poverty,
with student loans exceeding a trillion and the approval rate for the congress is less that 10%.
The Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people too, breathing just like you and me.
Day in day out we are bombarded with a lot of noise on television, radio and newspapers,
whose intent it may not be, but its effect surely is, to divide us and discourage us. The
institutions on which society must depend on seem to be falling apart. While I don’t want to
dwell on these aspects at length here this morning, suffice it to say that the most reliable
umbrella under which we can and must now gather and seek shelter to come together as a
community of concerned citizens. Under that umbrella we can gain strength once again,
achieve a certain level of quiet and tranquility and try to restore ourselves to a level
normalcy.

I find your philosophy so close to Hindu thought; I could not do better than quote a single
paragraph from a speech by Swami Vivekananda which sums up the outlook of Hindus, like
nothing else written by anyone, anywhere and at any time. On September 11, 1893, Swami
Vivekananda addressing the Parliament of Religions in Chicago said “… if there is ever to be
a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in time or place; which will
be infinite, like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of
Krishna and Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminical or Buddhist,
Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all of these, and still have infinite space for
development; which in its catholicity will embrace in its infinite arms, and find a place for
every human being, …. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or
intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose
whole scope, whose whole force, will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its own true
and divine nature.”

With that I salute you for giving me this opportunity to be among you.
_____________________________________________________________________
*www.avsrinivasan.com

No Greater Love (or Not Your Kind of People)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Watch video here.

Last month the rock band Garbage released its most recent album entitled “Not Your Kind of People.”[1] The lyrics to the title track seem so relevant to what I want to say this morning that I’ve decided to share them with you as a starting place:

We are not your kind of people / You seem kind of phoney / everything’s a lie  / We are not your kind of people  / Something in your makeup / don’t see eye to eye / We are not your kind of people / Don’t want to be like you ever in our lives. . . . We are not your kind of people / Speak a different language / We see through your lies  / We are not your kind of people / Won’t be cast as demons / creatures you despise.[2]

I don’t know if the band intends to convey a specific meaning with these lyrics or if they are describing a specific situation. It isn’t clear. I assume at some level they want listeners to find their own meaning and apply it to their own situation. Although the music is gentle (especially for Garbage) the lyrics convey a strong—even harsh—sentiment. We are not your kind of people conveys a feeling of disconnection, separation, alienation—a feeling, even, of brokenness in the human family. It’s akin to the feeling—a mixed feeling to be sure—that arose in me when I watched the film, “No Greater Love,” a 2009 Lionsgate and Thomas Nelson film. (Thomas Nelson is the world’s largest Christian book publisher and is Lionsgate’s exclusive distributor to the Christian entertainment markets.)[3] I don’t normally watch films like this. Alan and Kathy Ayers suggested it to me as background for this sermon which they purchased at last year’s goods and services auction. Alan and Kathy wouldn’t normally watch a film like this either. They watched it thinking it was something else.

Here’s the story-line: in a haze of alcohol and drug-use a young woman, Heather, walks out on her marriage and new-born baby due to her depression and disappears.  Ten years later her “ex” husband, Jeff (who she’d known since childhood), accidentally runs into her again when he sends his son to a summer Bible camp where she is working. They start to get to know each other again.  In turns out that during those ten years of separation Heather has become an evangelical Christian. She’s been saved in the traditional sense. Jeff, who is not religious in any sense, realizes he is still in love with Heather and calls off his engagement to another woman. But Heather’s minister, Chris, tells Jeff they can’t be together because he is a non-believer. (That’s when the not your kind of people feeling started rising in me.) This upsets Jeff; but then he reveals that he never actually executed divorce papers—he and Heather are still legally married. Now Pastor Chris tells them they have to stay together based on their church’s interpretation of Biblical law: under any circumstances marriage is better than divorce.  (We can assume they wouldn’t apply this standard to same-sex marriage, or in the event one of the partners underwent sexual reassignment surgery—that would be a very different movie entirely!) Heather is concerned that her unbelieving husband won’t allow her to practice her Christian faith. Jeff is concerned that Heather is now only staying in the marriage because the Bible and her pastor demand it.

I suspect most people can watch this film and, no matter what spiritual or religious beliefs they profess, get caught up in its romantic plot, and really root for Jeff and Heather to be in love and to be together. I certainly wanted a happy ending. What Alan and Kathy are reacting to, at least on the surface, if I understand what they’ve said, is the role of the pastor and church law and what appears to be Heather’s inability to think for herself beyond trying to fit herself into the framework her church and the Bible demand. And right there is the border between conservative religious people and liberal religious people. There are many ways to describe this border, but in this case the conservative religious person looks to some external authority—the Bible, the Ten Commandments, church law, the minister, a transcendent God—and the liberal religious person looks to some internal authority—conscience, reason, personal experience, “the still small voice in me”[4] as we just sang, “that place inside where we know our truth,” an imminent God, an inner sense of the divine. In this case the conservative religious person assumes the situation is black and white, that a definitive, correct answer exists, and can be found through a careful reading of scripture and church law—and the minister is the expert in these matters, or at least should be. The liberal religious person encounters a whole lot of gray and will search through that gray looking not for the “right” answer but for what is hopefully the “best” answer given all the nuances of the situation. The liberal minister’s job is to help the individual discern their best answer.

While the differences are more complex than I’ve just described them—some liberal religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as conservative; some conservative religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as liberal—they are very real.  Because of them, liberal religious people typically experience conservative religious people as unthinking and irrational. Conservative religious people typically experience liberal religious people as not actually religious, as non-believers, postmodern, relativistic, rudderless, etc. There’s a border here. (Remember: borders is our ministry theme for June.) It cuts through countries, states, cities, towns, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and families. From the perspective on either side of that border it is quite possible to feel we are not your kind of people.

Kathy and Alan asked me to preach on how, as Unitarian Universalists, as liberal religious people, we can best relate to people like Heather and her minister when we encounter them.  How can we relate to people who live on the other side of this border from us? How can we respect beliefs that at times seem illogical or irrational to us?  How do we accept people who hold those beliefs? How can we resist the temptation to judge?  Even in suggesting these kinds of questions, Kathy said she felt she was coming across as arrogant—but said it seemed like the same kind of arrogance she feels conservative religious people direct at her liberal religious identity.  So that’s the question: how do we relate across the religious border?

I’m pretty sure the capacity to relate across religious borders—and across many of the borders that divide people from people—doesn’t come to us naturally. It takes practice. It requires patience. We need to work at it. And I think we acquire it through a developmental process. That is, we develop the capacity to relate well across religious borders as we move beyond an initial sense of excitement about our own faith, an initial sense of pride in our own faith, an initial sense of feeling special because of our own faith to a deeper place of humility, a recognition that our faith is one of many, that there is room within a family, a neighborhood, a workplace, a school, a town, a city, a state, a nation, a planet for many faiths. None is set above. None is set below. None is set apart as special. It’s a movement from pride to humility.

The film “No Greater Love” does not reach that humble place and that’s not why it was made. The proof is in the title. There’s the romantic meaning, which has to do with how Jeff and Heather feel about each other. And then there’s the Biblical meaning. I read to you the Bible verse that contains this phrase, John 15:13, “there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In the film nobody lays down their life for their friends, not even remotely.  So, it seems like a bad title. But if you read the next few verses it becomes clear why this title might make sense. Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”[5] In my experience this is one of those Bible passages often used to justify an attitude of Christian exceptionalism. Not always, but often. Jesus says: “I chose you.” I didn’t choose everyone. I chose you. This is not universalism. This is exceptionalism.  And all through the film, although the characters don’t use the language of chosen-ness, they say it in many ways: We’re different. We’re special. There’s something about us that sets us apart from other people. Can’t you see? And Jeff, the unbeliever, who wants to be with the believing Heather, begins to see this difference; he sees that Heather’s faith has helped her resolve the problems that led her to leave him in the first place, and he admires it. He says, essentially, “I want what you have.”

There’s nothing wrong with a movie studio making a movie like this. There’s nothing wrong with people being excited about their faith, proud of their faith, even feeling special because of their faith. But let’s be clear: humility is a sign of a mature faith, and this is not humility. This film sets Christians—and a certain kind of Christian at that—apart and above other people. Despite its pleasant, romantic vibe, it contributes to a strengthening of the religious border by proclaiming we are not your kind of people. And that’s why liberal religious people, including liberal Christians, might react negatively.

To emphasize this last point, let me be clear: I am not suggesting that religious exceptionalism is somehow unique to religious conservatives. We religious liberals have our own version of it. It’s perhaps more subtle than the religious conservative version, because the language we typically use to describe our liberal faith expresses an openness to other religions, an embrace of religious pluralism. Our Unitarian and Universalist roots inform us all are chosen, all are welcome, all matter, all possess inherent worth and dignity regardless of who they are, what they believe, who they love, how they live. This is beautiful. It’s exciting. It fills me with pride. It makes me feel special. But I am also aware the line between humility is thin. If I’m not vigilant I can very easily fall into that place of assuming my faith is the more enlightened faith. My faith sets me apart. My faith is forged in the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind, not a set of ancient books that tell an exaggerated if not false history of the ancient Near East and promote a patriarchal culture whose values run completely counter to modern, democratic principles. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred, not from a church doctrine designed to control the people, to wage a war on women, to make sexual minorities invisible by preventing them from achieving full legal status, or to inspire holy war against perceived infidels. Can you hear it? I believe the sentences I’ve just uttered are true; they express who I am; they express my social, political and spiritual commitments. But let’s be honest: they can also be heard as an expression of liberal religious exceptionalism.

This is primarily because of the words I chose to use. I emphasized who I am not as much as who I am. I said “not in a set of ancient books” and then spoke about those ancient books in a condescending way. I said “not from a church doctrine,” and then implied that church doctrine is responsible for a whole host of social evils. I built my faith up while tearing the faith of others down. It’s divisive language, it’s fighting language, it’s us vs. them language, its exceptionalist language. It’s not empty rhetoric, but it is rhetoric all the same. It’s easy. I’m pretty good at it. There’s something satisfying about it. But it’s not humble. And it’s not effective if the goal is to relate well across the border.

Meeting the challenge of relating well across the religious border does not require us to change our liberal religious values. It does not require us to moderate our excitement about our liberal faith tradition, or our pride in it, or the way it might make us feel special and grounded and whole. The first step towards spiritual humility at the border is speaking our truth without denigrating others. My faith emerges from the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind. It is consistent with modern democratic principles: freedom, liberty, human rights. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred. It leads me to support reproductive rights for women and families, equal pay for equal work, civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It leads me to reject war and other forms of violence as methods for resolving conflict. It’s the same statement, but it doesn’t intentionally create an us and a them. It says who I am without criticizing who I am not.

But even more important than this is our capacity to bring curiosity to the border; to bring a genuine desire to learn about people who live across the border and to become well-versed in the religious ways of the world. Curiosity does not necessarily change who we are, but it does challenge us to clarify and deepen who we are. How different it would have been—and how much more authentic—if the character of Jeff has said, “Wow, Heather really believes the Bible is true. She strives to conduct her life in response to it. Well, what is true for me? Where do my truths come from? To what truth does my life respond?” Learning another’s faith enables us to become more of who we are, not less. Learning another’s faith challenges us to clarify and deepen our own faith; it challenges us to become more mature in our faith; and it calls us to humility as we approach the borders of our lives.

I suspect it is true there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends or one’s family. But in an age when we are so prone to exceptionalism, often without even realizing it; in an age when we are so divided, especially by religion; in an age when our borders are places of tension and conflict, cheap rhetoric, and deep feelings of  “not your kind of people,” I say it is also a sign of our desire to be more loving, more compassionate, more connected, more related, more peaceful when we approach the borders of our lives with humility, as curious searchers, and as people with strong opinions who may nevertheless be able to find common ground with those who believe differently. It may not be the greatest love, but it is an essential love for our time.

Amen and Blessed be.



[1] For more information on Garbage and “Not Your Kind of People, “ explore:  http://garbage.com/ and  http://www.amazon.com/Not-Your-Kind-People-Deluxe/dp/B007H9B8FS.

[2] Check out the song, “Not Your Kind of People” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEClCAFjYHg.

[4] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Blessed Spirit of My Life,” Singing the Living Tradition, (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993 # 86.

[5] John 15: 13-16.

The Desert Belongs to No One and the Sky is Wide Open

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“The desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open.”[1] Words of the poet, Salah Al Hamdani. This is a sermon about borders—borders that divide people from people: not only national borders, which exist in so many cases as the results of long ago wars over land and resources—wars where might made right and the victor determined where and how the lines would be drawn; but also the borders of identity, as in the way race can become a border that divides us, the way class can become a border that divides us, the way sexual orientation, gender, age, ability, politics, religion can become borders that divide us. Still, if you take only one idea from this sermon, don’t let it be the message that people are divided. Instead, remember the words of the poet: the desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open. The desert and the sky don’t recognize the borders we humans draw. Yes, we draw them, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not, and sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it. We draw them, but there is also something in us—and by ‘us’ I mean liberal religious people, though I hope this is true for most people—there is something in us that rejects the idea of a divided human family. There is something in us that cannot tolerate a divided human family. Perhaps for Unitarian Universalists our sixth principle points most clearly towards this something in us: “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” There is something in us that longs to transcend the borders that divide us. There is something in us that knows the desert belongs to no one, that knows the sky is wide open. This morning I want to call forth and nurture that something in us. I want to call forth and nurture that something in us that believes we elevate our humanity and assert our dignity when we move across any border that isolates us from other human beings. This is the message I want you to hear: When it comes to the question of borders, if you are in doubt, err on the side of crossing.

For me this is not only a political and social message. It is also a spiritual message.  I come back time and time again to the words of one of Unitarian Universalism’s spiritual forebears, the 19th century Unitarian minister turned Transcendentalist philosopher and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once said, “Spirit primarily means wind; transgression; the crossing of a line; supercilious; the raising of an eyebrow.”[2] Although it was not the point he was making, I have always heard in these words a claim about what it means to be a spiritual person. Like the desert that belongs to no one, like the sky that is wide open, wind knows no borders. It blows where it blows. It transgresses. It crosses lines. It picks things up from one place and puts them down in another. If spirit primarily means wind, then I say being a spiritual person means cultivating a willingness and a desire to cross the lines that separate us from the rest of life. Being a spiritual person means actively transgressing our habitual ways of thinking, our creeds and dogmas, our unexamined assumptions and conventions that keep us separate from the rest of life. To be a spiritual person means being willing to cross borders, especially those that arbitrarily and unfairly separate us from the rest of life. If you are in doubt, err on the side of crossing.

In two weeks I will travel to Phoenix, AZ for the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly or “GA.” As some of you already know, this year’s GA is different than usual. This year, we convene in a state that is under boycott. Local immigrants’ rights organizations such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network[3] and Puente[4] (which means ‘bridge”) called for the boycott in April, 2010 when Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law. At the time SB 1070 was one of the most radical anti-immigration statutes in the country, giving unprecedented powers to state and local police, sanctioning racial profiling, and blurring the line between state and federal authority related to the enforcement of immigration law. (Similarly radical laws have been passed in other states since that time such as Georgia’s HB 87[5] and Alabama’s HB 56.[6]) Given that the Unitarian Universalist Association had already scheduled its 2012 GA to take place in Phoenix, and given that Unitarian Universalists, despite having a range of opinions on the subject of illegal immigration, generally agree that laws like SB 1070 go too far in their violation of human rights and human dignity, the call for the boycott created a dilemma. Would we go to Phoenix and bring the millions of dollars that we typically pump into the local economy during GA, thereby tacitly supporting an unjust law? Or would we pull out of Phoenix and forfeit the more than $600,000 we’d already paid to reserve the convention center and hotels?

Two months after SB 1070 became law, our 2010 General Assembly convened in Minneapolis and wrestled with this dilemma. Should we go to Phoenix in 2012? Should we go to the border, or not? In the end, we decided to go. With input from the UU congregations in Arizona—especially in Phoenix—and with input from the grassroots organizers of the Arizona boycott, and after what the vast majority of participants described as a healthy and principled debate, we decided to stick with our plan to meet in Phoenix, but agreed that this will be a “Justice GA.” Instead of conducting business as usual, we will use our GA as an opportunity to learn firsthand about the plight of undocumented immigrants and their families; to bear witness to the injustices of AZ’s immigration law, the injustices that come with mass detention and deportation; and to call for federal immigration reform that respects the human dignity not only of immigrants but of working people in general.

Our ministry theme for June is borders. We chose this theme in reference to the Phoenix Justice GA. The reference is, of course, to national borders. There is no question that our national borders have become politically and economically divisive in recent years. They have also become a spiritual issue for many faith communities. What is our relationship to people who migrate across the border, especially those who are undocumented?  How are we called to treat immigrants? Does the old Biblical injunction to “welcome the stranger?” have any bearing on this national conversation? As a society we don’t agree on the answers to these questions. Certainly not all Unitarian Universalists agree on the answers to these questions. But the Unitarian Universalist Association has taken a very bold public stance in support of civil rights and humane treatment for undocumented immigrants, and I like to think that that is something we all can agree on.

For example, last Monday the Unitarian Universalist Standing on the Side of Love campaign called attention to a tragic anniversary. In an email to campaign followers, Dan Furmansky, the campaign director told the story of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas who was tased and beaten while in the custody of the United States Border Patrol on May 28, 2010. He was 42 years old. He died that night. “A San Diego resident since he was a teenager, Anastasio was captured at the U.S.-Mexico border while trying to return to his wife, Maria, and his five children after having been deported. The incident, captured on camera, offers a chilling glimpse of his screams and pleas for his life as a dozen agents stand over him. Border Patrol has refused to release the names of the agents responsible or reveal whether those involved have been disciplined.”[7] Rojas was murdered by Border Patrol agents. The murder was filmed. The film is on the internet. But no one has been held accountable. I don’t know anything about Mr. Rojas. I don’t know the circumstances that brought him to the US as a teenager. I don’t know why he was deported 25 years later. But, in the end, none of it matters: he didn’t deserve to die for trying to reunite with his wife and children. That’s what I’m talking about when I say we need to support civil rights for immigrants. That’s what I’m talking about when I say we need to respect the human dignity of immigrants. That’s why it feels so important for me to be present for Justice GA.

Was Mr. Rojas breaking the law when he crossed the US-Mexico border? Certainly. But can any of us imagine being separated from our children in that way, and not feeling compelled to do everything in our power to reunite with them? Can any of us imagine being forcibly removed from our community of 25 years—a community we’ve known as home since our childhood—and sent into what is essentially a foreign land, and not feeling compelled to do everything in our power to return? If it were me I don’t know if I’d have the courage or the nerve to cross back, but I’m convinced my spirit would be screaming, “Go! Transgress. Cross the line.” And if I were Mr. Rojas’ pastor and he came to me for counsel—“Pastor what should I do? My whole life is on the other side of this border”—although I would not feel remotely confident in my ability to counsel anyone in such a situation, even knowing how the story ends, I simply cannot imagine advising him to stay in Mexico and start a new life. I would want him to explore how long it would take for him to legally enter the US—it would likely be decades. If he could not tolerate that many years, I would consider with him the risks of crossing because I am aware people die in the desert, and they die in custody. But in the end, the desert belongs to no one, the sky is wide open. If his spirit were crying out for him to cross (as it clearly was), I would pray with him, tell him to be careful, to carry water, to not resist if he is caught. I would bless his journey. And his death would now weigh heavily on my heart and soul.

Earlier I read Sam Hamill’s poem, “Homeland Security,”[8] in which he pokes holes in this concept which predates the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, but which entered into the nation’s political life—and its spiritual life—with new-found vehemence and vigor, with a new-found hyper vigilance in the wake of those attacks. (“If you see something, say something.”) Hamill is saying we live with a false sense of homeland; we accept a lie about what the homeland is. The homeland we secure today is built on a legacy of violence. He names “our old genocides, the Indian Wars.” He names “those who sailed west with cargoes of human flesh in chains.” These legacies of imperialism, colonialism and racism live on in us (and by “us’ I mean the American people); they have made us a people rife with borders, a people prone to strengthening borders. “We cry, ‘We!’” says Sam Hamill. “We cry, ‘Them!’” These legacies of we and them permeate the American soul. They permeate the American spirit. I’m not just referring to the physical border Anastasio Hernandez Rojas crossed hoping to reunite with his family. I’m also referring to the psychic borders—for example, the one marked by racial difference that George Zimmerman perceived Trayvon Martin to be crossing before confronting him and eventually killing him this past February 26th in Sanford, Florida. In the aftermath of such atrocities, the legacies of we and them do battle within each of us and among all of us. That is, our collective instinct to secure the homeland does battle with that something in us that seeks to transcend borders. Our collective instinct to be wary and fearful of the other does battle with that something in us that is curious about and wants to be in relationship with the other. All the ways we divide people from people—race, class, ethnicity, culture, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, politics, faith and on and on—all of it does battle with what we know in our hearts: the desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open. All of it does battle with the notion that spirit primarily means wind, transgression, the crossing of a line.

The way we, the American people, speak of homeland today implies borders—strong, well-defended borders. It is not my intention to suggest that somehow we need more porous borders or that excessive airport security is not necessary to insure safety, or that the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all would become a reality if we somehow just did it. Our borders are with us for now. But that does not mean we cannot integrate Sam Hamill’s notion that the homeland is also “a state of grace, of peace, a whole new world that patiently awaits …. A taste of mind, a light flooding the garden, a transcendent moment of compassionate awareness, one extraordinary line in some old poem that reveals or exemplifies a possibility … in time … in time….”[9]  It is possible to have borders and still uphold human rights. It is possible to have borders and still respect human dignity. It is possible to have borders and simultaneously know and honor the people on the other side. It is possible to have borders that don’t tear families apart in the middle of night. That is the message of our justice GA in Phoenix.

I’m pretty sure there will always be a need for borders, that the presence of borders in our lives is, to some extent, inescapable. Nevertheless, we know in our hearts the desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open. Spirit primarily means wind and a parent who loves their children, if they become separated, will do whatever is in their power to reunite with them. Knowing how perilous it can be to cross borders in our time, I do not give this advice lightly: when it comes to the question of borders, if you are in doubt, first be sure you know the risks, but err on the side of crossing.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 


[1] Al Hamdani, Salah, “In the Mirror of Baghdad,” Baghdad Mon Amour (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2008) p. 180.

[2] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Nature,” in Whicher, Stephen E., ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 31.

[7] This quote is from Mr. Furmansky’s May 28, 2012 email. Mr. Rojas’ story and video of the tasing and beating that led to his death can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/20/anastasio-hernandez-rojas-death-border-patrol-tasing-footage_n_1441124.html#s=450562 and http://act.presente.org/sign/anastasio/?source=presente_website.

[8] Hamill, Sam, “Homeland Security” Measured By Stone (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2007) pp. 84-85.

[9] Ibid., p. 85.

Risking Creativity

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video here

The difficulty in understanding how [creativity] happens, even when it happens to us” says science writer Jonah Lehrer, “means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force. In fact, [at least in the western world] until the [European] Enlightenment, the imagination was entirely synonymous with higher powers: being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the ingenious gods. (Inspiration, after all, literally means ‘breathed upon.’) Because people couldn’t understand creativity, they assumed that their best ideas came from somewhere else. The imagination was outsourced.”[1] Or as we just sang, “heaven knows where we are going.”[2]

Of course, that’s not the complete lyric. It’s “heaven knows where we are going but we know within.” And so it is with creativity. It may very well be that some power beyond us breathes our creativity upon us, but in our most creative moments, something clearly happens within us. This is the message of Lehrer’s recent book, Imagination: How Creativity Works. He looks at a broad swath of research from a variety of scientific fields and combines this look with stories of famously creative people and businesses to show that creativity is a very natural and human phenomenon. Creativity is, in short—and this may sound somewhat anti-climactic—a bundle of distinct mental processes that combine to give rise to new thoughts.[3] He also says “creativity is our natural state.”[4]

I find this notion very inviting. I hinted in our April newsletter that I think there is a kind of wisdom inherent in all the old creation stories, no matter what culture they’re from. For me, this wisdom is much more profound than the typical plot line of these stories which is always some version of “and so the Gods created the heavens and the earth.” The wisdom inherent in these stories says to me that the world and the universe and the energy and power that sustain them, rather than simply having been created, are themselves inherently and continuously creative. That is, Creation itself is not passively created; it is actively creative. It’s a verb, not a noun. And since we human beings, like all living things, are intimately connected to the world and the universe and the energy and power that sustain them, doesn’t Jonah Lehrer’s statement ring true, that creativity is our natural state? Which leads me finally to the question that feels most relevant to our spiritual lives: how do we return to our natural state? How do we access the creative essence at the heart of who we are?

This question feels relevant because in our lives—in this particular, early 21st century era of human history—in this particular location in which we find ourselves (western, industrialized, technologized, capitalistic, militaristic, democratic United States of America)—there are a myriad of opportunities to become alienated from what is natural, to forget our connectedness, to grow distant from more grounded, holistic ways of living that might more readily nurture and call forth our creativity. We live in a society that doesn’t typically invite us to be creative. There are many examples of this lack of invitation, but the one that comes most quickly to mind is the high value we place on standardized testing in public schools. To be clear, I am not one who finds no value in such tests. They are useful in certain, limited ways. But I am concerned that we are now teaching our children, with unprecedented singular focus, how to comply with standards determined in bureaucratic offices. We are educating our children into a very specific kind of intelligence, into a very rigid mold. We are educating our children to think alike. We are not educating our children to think around, underneath, above, through and beyond standards. We are not educating our children to transcend standards, which is precisely what creativity is for, and precisely what we need as a society in order to solve our most pressing problems and to make advances in science and technology, business and finance, the arts, religion—any field that impacts our lives and life on the planet. Again, human creativity is a bundle of distinct mental processes that combine to give rise to new thoughts, new images, new visions, new combinations, new connections, new ways of relating, new ways of solving problems, new melodies, new harmonies, and so on. This is our natural state, but we are not currently educating our children into their natural state. If anything, we are educating them out of their natural state.

This is not to say there is no creativity in our society. The United States of America continues to be, in so many ways, one of the most creative societies on the planet. But creativity so often feels counter-cultural, even subversive. Creativity, in many settings, is risky. We might say it takes some nerve to muster one’s creative energy. And so creativity has become a phenomenon that people like Jonah Lehrer have to study in order to remind the rest of us what it actually is and why it is so important.

So, how do we return to our natural state? How do we access the creative essence at the heart of who we are? I have spoken in the past about my experience of writer’s block. I’m sitting at my computer trying to synthesize a number of different ideas into a coherent sermon, prayer, essay or article. I’m not only trying to write coherently; I’m also looking for words and sentences that sound good, that feel good to speak, that feel rhythmical and poetic. I’m trying to be creative, but I get to a point where I can’t write anymore. I can’t connect the different ideas. I know the connections are there—I can sense them—but I can’t see them; I can’t see how to put
them into language. I’ve learned in these moments to stop writing. I’ve learned to let it go for a while, to go for a run, play with the kids, take a hot shower, sleep, cook a meal, listen to music—anything to get away from the stress of writing; anything that brings relaxation. And that’s when the connections start to come. That’s when the right words, the right rhythm, the right feel comes. That’s when the creative insight happens. Not in front of the computer, but out on the road, in the shower, or after dreaming.

Lehrer says “every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer…. It’s often only…after we’ve stopped searching for the answer, that the answer arrives.”[5] I would not be surprised if the ancient Taoist Master Lao Tzu was writing about this very phenomenon 2500 years ago. Earlier we heard chapter 48 from the Tao Te Ching: “Less and less do you need to force things / until finally you arrive at non-action. / When nothing is done / nothing is left undone. / True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. / It can’t be gained by interfering.”[6] Lao Tzu does not link this process of letting things go their own way to any external force or divine entity breathing upon us. It is simply how life works. It is the Tao, the way. We know it within. It is our natural state. Our challenge is to live into our natural state.

Still, how to get there? Jonah Lehrer talks about alpha waves in our brains. Scientists measure electrical activity in the brain using an electroencephalogram or EEG machine. Alpha waves show up on the EEG machine when we are relaxed. According to Lehrer, when we are relaxed and the alpha waves are cycling, a section of the brain called the superior inferior temporal gyrus becomes very active. In fact, when scientists measure brain activity at the moment a person is having a creative insight, the superior inferior temporal gyrus typically lights up right before the insight occurs. Though it is still somewhat mysterious, the superior inferior temporal gyrus helps us make what researchers call remote associations. It helps us find the threads of connections between distinct ideas, words, shapes, colors, notes, movements, etc. It helps us order apparently unrelated things into relationships. In this way, it gives rise to new thoughts; it gives rise to new ideas. It helps us be creative. And it functions when we are relaxed. Lehrer says: “The counter-intuitive aspect of this research is that most people assume when you get a really hard problem … that seems impossible, what we have to do is drink another espresso, pop some Ritalin, do whatever it is we need to do to really focus on the problem. But that’s actually…the worst thing we can do because then we just get the wrong answer and it loops in our head like a broken record. Instead, what we should do is [relax]. Take a warm shower, play some ping pong…take a walk in the park, do anything we can to distract ourselves from the problem we’re trying to solve, because it’s when we’re not trying to solve it that the answer will actually pop into our head.”[7]

This was precisely the point in my writing when I hit a wall and had to stop. That was Friday night. I went for a run, took a shower, made dinner, played with the kids, had a glass of wine at a birthday party for my dad, then went back to the computer. Nothing really came to me. It was nice to relax but my superior inferior temporal gyrus wasn’t lighting up the way I had hoped. The thing I couldn’t quite put words to was the feeling of risk that sometimes comes with creativity. That is, after all, the title of this sermon: “Risking Creativity.” I had lost sight of why I chose that title in the first place. What’s so risky about relaxing? What’s so risky about letting things go their own way? Generating alpha waves feels very spiritual to me in the sense that it enables me to access a deeper place within myself; it moves me towards my natural state. It feels like a relief more than a risk.

But it finally came. Our creative moments always come with some risk. I can see it more clearly when I examine the literature on group creativity in institutions, say in a corporate science lab, in a school or university faculty, in government, in congregations. In any of these settings—any place where people work together to reach certain goals—over time certain ways of thinking tend to become dominant. Certain methods of research or teaching tend to become standard. Certain business models tend to become more or less given.  The way we do things, the way we think about things, the way we talk about things, the theories we accept as most accurate, the protocols we use—all of it, over time, becomes etched as if in stone. When this is the case, the people involved become boxed in; they become creatures of habit often without recognizing they’re just repeating long-established, rote patterns. They become less and less creative, even when they’re working in traditionally creative fields. In order to have and express a truly creative insight in such a calcified context, one must become, essentially, an outsider.[8] One must raise their hand and say, “Wait a minute, there’s another way.” That’s risky. it comes with potential costs: marginalization, alienation. What if I meet resistance? What if my boss isn’t interested? What if my minister isn’t interested? What if I’m perceived to be injecting too much chaos into the system? What if I’m perceived to be a trouble-maker? What if they ignore me? Having and expressing a truly creative insight in an institution that isn’t predisposed to innovation always entails some level of risk.

This may be somewhat obvious. In response to a creative idea we often hear some version of the message, But we’ve always don’t it this way. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? Here are all the reasons why your idea won’t work. It’s classic. It’s also a sign that an institution is slowly dying.

In addition to Lehrer’s book I’ve also been looking at a book called Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society by four renowned business and management consultants. They say people and institutions tend to be governed by habit and that we revert to habit when we are fearful or anxious about the future. Although they aren’t using the language of creativity specifically, they are talking about being “present” as a way to access new ideas and possibilities, to imagine and create a more positive future. They talk about learning to be open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense…the importance of letting go of old identities and the need to control and…making choices to serve the evolution of life. Ultimately,” they write, “all these aspects of presence [lead] to a state of ‘letting come,’ [there’s that ancient Taoist wisdom!] of consciously participating in a larger field for change. When this happens, the field shifts, and the forces shaping a situation can move from re-creating the past to manifesting or realizing an emerging future.”[9]

We feel the risk of creativity most keenly when we are fearful and anxious about the future, when we are comfortable with and set in our habits. Creativity calls us to confront our fears and anxieties and it calls us out of our habits. In order to let a new future emerge—in order to be creative—we need to be willing to set a piece of our frightened, anxious, comfortable, habitual selves aside and listen deeply for new connections, new relationships, new visions. To do this we need to be able to recognize and suspend our assumptions, to hold them out in front of us so they have less influence over our thinking, so we can encounter new ideas without being judgmental towards them, without saying “No, this will never work.” Only when we set a piece of our fearful, anxious, comfortable, habitual selves aside can we create space for new ideas to take hold in us.[10] Creative insights come as we set aside some piece of who we are. There’s the risk. In our most creative moments we lose some of our self so that a new self may emerge. This is our natural state. Are we ready for a new self to emerge? Are we ready to risk creativity? I’ll leave you with that question.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) p. xvi.

[2]Amoa, et al, “Woyaya” in Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1020.

[3]Ibid., p. vvii. For a helpful overview of the content of Imagine, check Lehrer’s March 19, 2012 interview on National Public Radio at http://www.npr.org/2012/03/19/148777350/how-creativity-works-its-all-in-your-imagination.

[5]Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) pp. 6-7.

[7]Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) pp. 30-31. Also view http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNVEZ5Whmk8&feature=relmfu.

[8] Lehrer offers excellent statements on the role of outsiders and the ways in which institutions become less creative over time at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ep5Ij-AfkLU and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3PBxGmCWH0.

[9] Senge, P., Scharmer, O.C., Jaworski, J., Flowers, B., Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society (New York: Doubleday, 2004) pp. 13-14.

[10] Ibid., pp. 29-33.

The Promise of Living: An Easter Homily

The promise of living / With hope and thanksgiving / Is born of our loving / Our friends and our labor. / The promise of growing / With faith and with knowing / Is born of our sharing / Our love with our neighbor. These are the opening lyrics from, “The Promise of Living,”[1] which is part of the 20th century American composer Aaron Copland’s opera, “The Tender Land.” The librettist is Horace Everett, which is a pseudonym for Erik Johns, which is a pseudonym for Horace Eugene Johnston, who was an artist and partner of Copland’s.[2]  They lived and worked together for much of the 1950s.

I like this phrase, the promise of living. It speaks to me on Easter morning in a very direct and simple way. It may sound initially as if what I hear in this phrase contradicts the deeper meaning of Easter, but I don’t think it does. Life is a gift, it reminds us, but life doesn’t promise us anything. This beautiful Creation we inhabit and about which human beings have told stories since our very beginnings to explain our very beginnings, doesn’t, in the end, promise us anything. This Earth which rises each spring out of the grey tomb of its winter slumber into new life—this beautiful Earth surely is a gift we receive, yet it makes no promises to us. And this springtime, like every springtime, is a gift to our eyes, our ears, our tongues, our noses, our ready hands and our bare feet—it’s a gift to our spirits; it brings us back to life—but it makes no promises.

This is what I mean: it does not promise us we will live without suffering or heartache. It does not promise us we can avoid fear and loneliness, anxiety and depression. It does not promise us we or our loved-ones will never hear a doctor’s voice delivering a hard diagnosis. It does not promise that our broken relationships will mend. It does not promise that we can somehow prevent hardship in our children’s lives no matter what we do to give them the best childhoods we possibly can. It certainly does not promise us the means to overcome death. And looking beyond our own lives, we recognize there is no promise of a more just society, a more peaceful society, a more loving society. There is no promise that shields us against incidents like the school shooting this past week at Oikos University in Oakland, CA, or the shooting in Tulsa, OK we are now hearing about from Friday. There is no promise that shields our nation from the tragic and terrible murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL last month. But despite this lack of promise; despite the very real possibility that we will encounter personal trials through the course of our lives—loss, pain, grief, disappointment—despite the many challenges we face as a people, we still must live as best we can. And therein lies the promise. As the song says, “The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving is born of our loving, our friends and our labor.”

There are no promises we can count on in any ultimate sense—no promise from God that our lives will turn out the way we imagine; no promise from the universe that our lives will turn out the way we imagine; no promise from the Earth that our lives will turn out the way we imagine—but there are ways we can choose to live in the midst of crisis, ways we can choose to live so that healing is possible, ways we can choose to live so that confronting hardship with grace and dignity is possible, ways we can choose to live so that a more just, compassionate and peaceful society is possible. Easter informs us that living this way is possible, that we can rise from the tombs in which we find ourselves. For me, the promise of living is born of our choosing to rise. For me, the promise of living is born of our choosing to live with love and hope in our hearts.

Easter wraps around the story of Jesus’ arrest, conviction and execution on the cross—the common form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire—followed by his disciples announcing his resurrection—his rising from the death—three days later.  Many times over the years I have pointed out that this story is built on the foundation of Passover, the Jewish spring-time celebration of liberation from slavery in Egypt which began this year began this past Friday. I have also pointed out that Passover itself, in connection with Shavuot which occurs later in the spring, are built on the foundations of even more ancient Middle Eastern planting and harvest festivals.

These stories and these festivals are beautiful and compelling and provocative. They have captured the human imagination for millennia. Their power, for me, does not reside in the notion that they might somehow be literally true and that they therefore offer some inherent promise to us centuries later. Their power, for me, lies in their ability to touch deep wells of human courage, resolve and perseverance in the face of challenge.  Their power, for me, lies in their ability to touch deep wells of human caring, compassion and love in the face of suffering and violence. Their power, for me, lies in how they remind us that no matter what life brings—no matter what pain, disappointment or illness; no matter what violence, injustice or oppression—no matter what winter tomb we find ourselves in—we can choose to live a certain way. We can choose to rise up like new life in spring. Though the landscape of our lives may at times seem barren, empty, and even hostile to life, we can choose to place seeds in the Earth, to nurture and nourish our gardens, to bring forth life, to bring forth a harvest. We can choose, as the song suggests, to share what we have with our neighbor, to rely on and trust in the caring of our friends, to labor with integrity in the fields of our calling—that is, to work hard at what matters to us. We can choose to ask ourselves, in any situation of struggle or crisis, what does love demand that I do? And we can do it. Friends, we can live in response to love. Of this I am sure: If there is to be any promise in our lives, it comes from our choosing to live in response to love. May we so choose.

Amen and Blessed be.  

[1] The UUS:E choir sang this piece as part of our Easter music celebration.  John Williams’ arrangement of “The Promise of Living” is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=bLM_YTnmLto.