I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, But Everything’s Gone Blue


“Drops of pain, flow like rain, tell why your tears are falling: for humankind, so frail, unkind, or for your own life’s calling?”[1] Words from Unitarian Universalist songwriter Shelly Jackson Denham. “Tell why your tears are falling.” There’s really only one message I want to bring to you this morning, and that is, very simply, not everyone, every year, can enter fully into the joy, merriment and hopefulness of the holiday season. It isn’t always possible. For some, the bright lights, the season’s greetings, the festive music, the Christmas trees, the messages of peace and good will—all of it clashes with their internal state, clashes with recent painful experiences, clashes with difficult childhood memories of the holidays. For some there is dissonance. We’re dreaming of a white Christmas, and yet for some, everything’s gone blue. We wish you a merry Christmas, and yet for some, “tears are falling.”

We call it “Blue Christmas.” I don’t know how long this term has been in vogue. I don’t remember ever hearing it used in this way prior to 2000. I don’t know if it has any connection to the song, “Blue Christmas,” which Elvis Presley recorded in 1957, and which was first recorded in 1948 by an artist named Doyle O’Dell. Whether or not there’s a connection, the song doesn’t really express the depth of sadness and pain some people can experience during the holiday season. Some churches hold special services—often at night—for people who are grieving, lonely, in despair or anxious during the holidays. Sometimes these services are called Blue Christmas services. Sometimes they’re called “Longest Night” services, a reference to the winter solstice.

On one hand, I think it’s important to hold such services. I think it’s important for the church to make a space for people who don’t want to—or simply can’t—be present at holiday services and other activities where the predominant mood is joy. On the other hand, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of saying, essentially, “everyone who’s depressed, you come to church at this special time and we’ll take care of you; the rest of us will have our Christmas joy and holiday merriment on Sunday morning.” As if we can—or even should—somehow keep all the difficult emotions in a separate place so they don’t intrude on “normal” Christmas. I don’t want to isolate Blue Christmas feelings from the regular holiday worship life of the congregation. It makes sense to me to spend time when we’re all together naming the reality of Blue Christmas for many among ourselves and in the wider community. I hope and trust each of us expects to bring our whole self into our spiritual community. I hope and trust each of us expects to bring our whole self into worship. And sometimes that means bringing sad selves, grieving selves, lonely selves, uncertain selves, regretful selves, hopeless selves, selves in pain. And those of us who don’t feel that way, myself included, might have a gut reaction that says, “no, the holidays are about joy, peace, hope, festivity, etc.” But if some of us are feeling blue, that’s part of the holidays too. So, let’s name it and honor it. That, in my view, is what spiritual community is for—to meet each other where we are, no matter where we are.

Another reason I feel strongly about observing Blue Christmas in the way we are this morning is that, while I suspect most of us, in most years, experience the joy, merriment and hope of the holiday season, it is also true that our lives can change—sometimes tragically—in the blinking of an eye. I’m thinking of those who’ve lost loved ones over the past year. Christmas can be so hard in the midst of grief. And I’m thinking of the Benson and Mills families, who lost three family members in last weekend’s shooting in Manchester. And I’m thinking of Christine Keith, and her son, 14-year-old son Isaac Miller. Christine was a Unitarian Universalist from the Lansing, MI area. She and Isaac were shot and killed in a similar domestic violence tragedy a week ago Thursday. And I’m thinking of the people of Newtown, Connecticut, marking the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school.

Human beings are resilient in so many ways. We have such incredible capacity to meet challenges and to persevere through hardship. But it’s also true that a fragility lingers at the edges of our lives and none of us can outwit it forever. Loneliness comes. Anxiety comes. Fear comes. Hopelessness comes. Pain comes. Illness comes. Death comes. It might not be us this year. But it might be us next year, or in five years. Naming it now not only affirms people who experience it now, but it prepares each of us for the day when we’re dreaming of a white Christmas, but everything’s gone blue.

And not only might it be us next year, or five years from now, but it’s also more than likely that it has been us at some point in the past. We each carry a bit of Blue Christmas with us every year. How many of us have had to endure a first Christmas without a beloved family member—a grandparent, a parent, a spouse, a child? How many of us have dealt with illness—our own or that of a loved one—through the course of a holiday season? How many of us have had years wherein the joy and merriment of Christmas was overpowered by some anxiety, fear, pain or grief?

My grandmother died some years ago. Reflecting on her death reminds me that for nearly forty years, I would travel to her hometown of Hanover, Pennsylvania after Christmas Day. It was family time—and it was idyllic. I have wonderful memories. Since my grandmother died—and since my children have grown older and we’ve begun to develop new holiday routines—we don’t make that Christmas pilgrimage anymore. Most of the time during the holiday season this change doesn’t faze me. Most of the time I don’t think about it. But every once in a while something grabs my attention, tugs at my heart—I hear a brass quartet playing “Silent Night,” or I pull that John Deere tractor tree ornament out of its box, or I pass by a snow-covered farm on a cold, clear winter night—and I’m back there again, six years old, ten years old, eighteen years old. For a moment my heart aches. For a moment everything is blue.

Blue Christmas. It may be any one of us this year. It surely will be each of us some day. It likely has been all of us once upon a time. Therefore, let us be honest about the holidays. Let us name the full range of feelings we may bring, will bring, have brought into this season. Let us name them not because we want to fix them or somehow miraculously make them disappear, but simply because they are real. In the midst of all our Blue Christmases, if nothing else, may we find comfort in being together in the fullness of our humanity. And with the fullness of our humanity laid bare in front of us may we, when we are ready—when we are truly ready—feel once again the joy, peace and hope, that are also real, and eventually come to each of us, like midwinter’s returning sun, like the lightly falling snow.[2]

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Winter Night,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #256.

[2] “The lightly falling snow” is borrowed from Connecticut Poet Laureate Dick Allen’s poem, “Solace,” written in response to the December 14, 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Listen to Allen’s reading at http://wnpr.org/post/simple-solemn-tribute-sandy-hook-victims

UUS:E will contribute to MACC’s Fund for Fire Victims

Every week UUS:E dedicates a portion of the funds in its collection plate to organizations whose work helps to sustain the local safety net. Mindful of the October 12th fire which destroyed the building at 801 Main St., UUS:E will dedicate its weekly offering on Sunday, October 20th to the “Main Street Fire Victims Fund” established by the Manchester Area Council of Churches. Information about the fund and how to prepare checks is below. 

Great Harvest

MAIN STREET FIRE VICTIMS FUND

  MACC Charities has established a fund for victims of the Oct. 12, 2013 Main Street fire.

 Checks may be made out to: MACC Charities. In the memo line please enter “Main Street Fire”.

 If donors wish to designate their donation to a particular category of fire victims they need to make note of their preference in the memo line as follows: 

  • Main Street Fire Victims – Residents
  • Main Street Fire Victims – Employees
  • Main Street Fire Victims – Businesses.
  • Donors may further designate to which business they wish their contribution to go.  CT Valley Coin  or Great Harvest Bread Co.

 Checks should be mailed to: MACC Charities, P.O.  Box 3804, Manchester, CT 06045-3804.

 If you do not designate and write “Main Street Fire” in the memo section of your check – the money will go to the fund and be used to meet the greatest need.   NO cash will be given out.  Needs will be assessed by the case management team of MACC in partnership with the Social Workers and staff of the Town of Manchester’s  Human Services & Senior, Adult and Family Services departments. Assistance will be given through a voucher system (paying a vendor directly on behalf of the victim as needed and/or issuing gift cards for food, clothing, gas etc.)

 No housing arrangements have been completed at this time for the 8 adults who lost everything at 801 Main Street.  NO furniture or household items are needed until arrangements have been made and we know what people need.

From Behind

 

Thanks for your generosity.

Pope Francis, Inverted Funnels and Big Hearts Open

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

Although both the religious and secular media reported that Pope Francis declined to move into the Papal apartment in the Vatican because it was too luxurious, because he did not want to project an image of opulence, because he did not want the Papacy to be associated with wealth, treasure and affluence when so many people in the world, including Catholics, live in crushing poverty—and although it still makes sense to me that these reasons did influence his decision—in his recently published interview with Antonio Spadaro in the weekly Catholic journal, America, he named a different reason. He said, “The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious…. In the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.” [1] Make no mistake: he’s not speaking only of the architecture of the Papal apartment and the rooms at St. Martha’s House where he now lives. He’s also speaking of the architecture of the human heart. He’s telling not only Catholics but the world—he’s telling all of us—what it means to have true abundance in our lives. It’s subtle, but it’s not just a suggestion. I read it as a long overdue proclamation. The final measure of abundance is not what we have. The final measure of abundance is the openness of our hearts. Thus, the work of achieving abundance begins with the opening of our hearts.

Once again, our ministry theme for October is abundance. In last Sunday’s sermon I referred to area farm-stands filled with the produce of the year’s final harvest—pumpkins, apples, pears, squash, corn. For me, the New England farm-stand in autumn has always been a powerful symbol of abundance, a seasonal reminder that the earth provides for our sustenance, that we are closer to and more dependent on the land than we often realize. And given this dependence, it is an appropriate response to feel and express deep gratitude for the bounty of the earth. Through the course of this past week the leaves have begun to change colors in earnest from green to yellow, gold, orange, auburn, crimson, brown. The beauty and the majesty of the leaves changing in autumn—this stunning, vivid reminder of the constant, steady movement of the planet, of the constant, steady cycles of the seasons—planting, growing, harvesting, resting; this stunning, vivid reminder of the constant, steady turning of the earth, of the natural turning of our own lives, of all the cycles of life, of all the joyful-sorrowful-poignant-mysterious-confounding-inspiring realities of being alive and knowing we shall some day die—all of it refers back eventually to the land that sustains, nurtures and blesses us with its stunning, life-giving abundance.

And yet we are mindful that this abundance all around us here, in the gentle hills and valleys east of the Connecticut River, is not abundance the whole world enjoys. It is not even an abundance everyone who lives here enjoys. It is not an abundance every member and friend of this congregation enjoys. We are mindful that far too many people here and around the globe live in crushing poverty, live with stark scarcity, have never seen a thousand pumpkins for sale by the side of the road, cannot imagine apples and pears ripening on a thousand trees, ready for picking; cannot conceive of grocery stores in buildings larger than most rural villages, stocked to the rafters with all manner of food from all over the world, selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of food every day, all day long. Due to larger arrangements of economic and political power, due to the dynamics of globalization, due to failed agricultural and economic development policies, due to urbanization, due to climate change and a host of other pernicious problems, the abundance we may experience in our region in autumn is also partially a myth, a deception, an illusion. It is real, but not the whole truth.

Last Sunday I spoke about the cruel reality that abundance in terms of access to food, water, shelter, financial security, health care, decent education and work that pays a living wage remains elusive for many, many people. And many more people who have access to these things now, live on the verge of losing them. The widespread tension, anxiety, distress and depression that result from this lack or potential lack of material abundance can lead people to latch onto easy, quick-fix, self-help schemes: “The answer is positive thinking.” “The answer is the ‘law of attraction.’” “Just adopt the habits of highly successful people.” “You can have everything you want, just change your thoughts and feelings.” “Just change your attitude.” “It’s easy.” “Just buy my book filled with secret knowledge.” “Just pray this way and prosperity will be yours.” “God wants you to prosper.” “Just send me money and God will prosper you.”

Of course, we have to acknowledge that the purveyors of easy answers—these people who start all their sentences with just—are at least offering something to people who are desperately hungry for some semblance of abundance in their lives. And, although just change your attitude is rarely sufficient, on occasion it’s exactly the message a person needed to hear. Sometimes it works. So my question to you was and is, if not easy answers, then what do we offer to people hungry for some semblance of abundance in their lives? What do you, your minister, your congregation, Unitarian Universalism, liberal religious people, progressive people of faith offer to those who experience scarcity daily? Though certainly the autumn bounty and the leaves and the beauty of the land all around us are signs of real abundance in this region for some who live here, I suggested that, given what we know about scarcity among us, around us and across the planet, we ought to regard this annual autumn bounty as a symbol of what could be; as a guiding, directing even commanding principle that some degree of abundance ought to be available to all people; that all people ought to be able to live with some version of Eden in their daily lives. In the very least, we must offer this vision to a hurting world. But visions don’t just become reality. There’s no magic trick. There’s no thought, feeling or attitude we can just change to make it so. Achieving a vision requires work—long-term personal spiritual work, and long-term collective social change work. So what is it? What is the long-term, roll-up-your-sleeves work that will bring that vision of Eden to fruition?

I knew nothing of Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he became Pope Francis. And, according to him, I probably wouldn’t have liked him, I probably wouldn’t have been inspired by him had I known who he was before becoming Pope. By his own admission, he was an authoritarian leader who made harsh, sometimes rash decisions without taking the advice of others; decisions that often—if I’m reading accurately between the lines—were inconsistent with what was actually in his heart. So he sits down for this interview with Antonio Spadaro who asks him, essentially, who are you? And knowing the entire world is paying attention, Francis tells him. And, at least for me, the answers are extraordinary, not only because he offers beautiful, compelling metaphors that speak simultaneously to the Catholic Church and to the world, but also because what he is saying about who he is, about his own spiritual life, his relationship with God, his long view, his enduring patience, his humility, his openness and much more—what he is saying, as I read it, is that our experience of abundance correlates with the openness of our hearts. This is not a promise that you can have everything you want. It’s not a sentence that begins with just. It’s not a pseudo-science or a conversation about the mechanics of positive thinking. It’s not self-help. It is much more than a slight shift in attitude. It is a fundamental way of being human. We attain abundance with big hearts open. How do we cultivate big hearts open? Here are some ways:

Embrace uncertainty. Be willing to doubt. Pope Francis said, “If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good…. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself.”[2] That is, if I am absolutely convinced of the truth and the correctness of my position, then my heart is a reversed funnel, letting others in only in dribs and drabs; letting in only those who agree with me. If I embrace uncertainty and am willing to doubt myself, then I make space for others in my life. I make space for my own growth. That is abundance.

Value people more than rules. Pope Francis said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods…. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” He said, “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.”[3] That is, if I insist on following rules before getting to know people, before building relationships, before meeting peoples’ immediate needs, before healing wounds; if I insist on the higher value of my truths, my principles, my doctrines, my faith, my power, my world-view, and thereby fail to encounter the person right in front of me, then my heart is a reversed funnel. I lock out multitudes. If I put people first and work out the rules later, that is abundance.

Accompany people, whoever they are. Pope Francis said, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.”[4] Perhaps the greatest gift we have to give, yet which in the midst of scarcity is so profoundly difficult to give, is our presence, our ability to accompany people who need accompaniment, our companionship. If I cannot dedicate at least a portion of my life to accompanying others, then my heart is a reversed funnel. But if I can go when called, if I can literally be there for others and welcome their accompaniment when I need it, that is abundance.

Organize your spiritual life around daily practices that increase your ability to love. Pope Francis said, “Finding God in all things is not an ‘empirical eureka.’ When we desire to encounter God, we would like to verify him immediately by an empirical method. But you cannot meet God this way. God is found in the gentle breeze perceived by Elijah. A contemplative attitude is necessary: it is the feeling that you are moving along the good path of understanding and affection toward things and situations. Profound peace, spiritual consolation, love of God and love of all things in God—this is the sign that you are on this right path.” That is, no matter what I believe, if my spiritual practice becomes simply a recitation or a confirmation of my belief, a black and white proof of the veracity of my belief, then my heart is a reversed funnel. If, no matter what I believe, my spiritual practice lifts me up on that gentle breeze, opens me up, increases my understanding of and affection towards the world, and brings me peace, consolation and love—love of that which is sacred to me and love of all things in that which is sacred to me—that is abundance.

I feel strongly that these paths to abundance—which I understand to be personal spiritual paths—are universal. That is, they ought to work for anyone. However, I perceive one danger in naming these paths. I want to be clear: I am not saying to people who live with scarcity—poor people, oppressed people, anxious people, depressed people—that they, that you, ought to just open your heart. I say this because it is also true that what we have—what we own, possess, etc.—is still an important measure of our abundance. What we have access to is an important measure of our abundance. The quality of our material lives is an important  measure of our abundance. Abundance is not purely a spiritual condition, it is also a material condition and I don’t want to lose sight of that. Doing the difficult spiritual work of cultivating ‘big hearts open’ is not a path to material abundance. So, I go back to that vision of a new Eden, a world in which everyone has what they need to survive—food, water, shelter, friends, education, health care, work, etc. —and also some—not all, but some—of what we want, the things we don’t actually need, but which give us some modicum of joy, pleasure, entertainment, relaxation and which often feed and nourish our souls. We don’t live in that world yet. It’s likely that world has never existed. But if you ask me what we offer to people—to the millions upon millions of people—who are hungering for abundance, it must be a willingness to work together for that world. So I offer this final way of cultivating a big heart open:

Rise up and, with patience and thoughtfulness, start moving, start building. Pope Francis said, “We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces. God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting.”[5]

I find this fascinating, challenging, provocative, and utterly true. There are times for protest. There are times for sit-ins and boycotts. There are times for Tiananmen Square and Tahrir Square. There is a time for Zucotti Park. There are times to take arrest for the sake of exposing unjust laws. And, any movement for social change whose main strategy is occupation—occupying space—sitting down and refusing to move, but not building an alternative source of sustainable, institutionalized power, not building some structure capable of promoting a different set of values—such movements become, in time, reversed funnels. They risk succumbing to their own fury, to their own internal divisions. Anger and rage, as legitimate and deserved as they often are, will only go so far. Disorder and chaos will only attract so many others to the cause.

But, if we are building something sustainable to secure and promote peace, nonviolence, justice, fairness, equality, compassion, reason, liberty, freedom, healing and love—fearless, generous, unlimited, undying love; if we are not just occupying space but actually working to bring such a new reality into existence; if we have each dedicated a portion of our lives to bringing this new Eden into existence; if we are working thoughtfully, slowly and patiently, yet always moving, always building; then, even if the powers that be seem to thwart us at every turn, we are living with big hearts open. Then we are living with abundance.

Amen and blessed be.

What Is Enlightenment?

Nancy Thompson.

You know how it’s said that the Native People in the northern climates – in my childhood we called them Eskimos – have 
50 words for snow?  It’s very important to them to know the condition of the snow to make their plans for the day or the month, so they developed lots of descriptive words to note subtle differences.
 
For Buddhists, the word “enlightenment” is kind of like that. Enlightenment is the promise of the Buddhist path, and it has many synonyms – grace, basic goodness, awakening, buddhanature, ground of being, original mind. The Buddha didn’t call himself enlightened.

 

 

Continue reading….

 

 

How to Act Like an Enlightened Being

Nancy Thompson.  

Buddhist teacher Noah Levine says that everyone has buddhanature – but few choose to do the work to awaken.  And it is work. We have those glimpses of our enlightened nature all the time, but we don’t live from there.
 
Much of Buddhist practice – from the simplicity of zazen, or Zen Buddhist meditation, to the elaborate bells and drums and thangka paintings used by Tibetan Buddhists – is designed to help us get in touch with our awakened nature for longer stretches of time and to develop familiarity with that feeling – to “bake it into the bones,” as one of my teachers says – so that it becomes our default setting and we go there more easily during our ordinary lives.

Continue reading….

 

 

Rev. Pawelek’s Comments on the Boston Tragedy

As I sat down to write my column for the church’s May newsletter, my dad called to tell me about bombs exploding at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Very soon after I learned of a distant relation (my brother’s brother-in-law) who was at the finish line. He escaped unharmed, but his friend was injured. Then I learned that my other brother, who was running the Marathon, is OK. Then my wife sent a Skype video message. She’s traveling with a group of exchange students in Italy, and heard about the bombing from a waiter in a restaurant in Rome. Already my colleague, the Rev. Lynn Ungar, has written a grounded, comforting piece in response to the tragedy. At least for me, her words say exactly what needs to be said in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy like this:

We don’t know, and we can’t imagine. And maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to sit with those two facts. We don’t know. And so it does no good to speculate about foreign terrorists or domestic terrorists or mental illness or right-wing or left-wing conspiracies. We don’t know. Maybe by the time you read this, we will. But for the meantime we just have to live with horrible suffering for no known reason….

However many of these horrible, heart-wrenching events happen, they will only be perpetrated by the most infinitesimal fraction of the population, while the rest of us watch and pray and donate blood and do whatever we can to hold safe not only our children and our friends, but also complete strangers whose suffering we can, alas, imagine. I can’t say whether it’s enough, but it’s how we live in this world.

I was originally going to share a few thoughts on enlightenment in my newsletter column. Enlightenment is our ministry theme for May. I was wondering whether I should address the Buddhist concept of enlightenment or offer a few reminders about the influence of the European Enlightenment on Unitarian Universalism. But not now. After listening to the news; after watching the footage of carnage and chaos on Boylston Street in downtown Boston; after connecting with friends and family who live in Boston; and after explaining once again to my boys that “something bad” happened, that someone set off a bomb in Boston (my boys love Boston), that I wanted them to hear it from me and not someone else, and that we are safe (how many times can I keep assuring them of this before they start to doubt my words?)—after all this I am reminded that whatever degree of enlightenment we’ve attained in our lives, however spiritually advanced we are, there are moments in which, as Rev. Ungar says, “we don’t know, and we can’t imagine.”

This is one of those moments. How to understand it? How to explain it? Yes, there will be answers. The authorities will likely figure out who did this and why. The perpetrators will likely “feel the full weight of justice,” as the President said in his remarks about the bombing. But how can we ever fully understand what goes through the mind of someone or someones intent on wreaking this kind of havoc? How can we ever fully understand what drives someone or someones to carry out this kind of violence? What could have possibly broken them so much that they would feel so driven to break others in this merciless way?

Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.

At the time of the Newtown shooting I counseled our congregation that in the wake of tragedy we are required to do three things: ground ourselves; attend to the suffering, whatever form it takes; and then enter into the work of repairing the world. This same advice applies now. I think it’s the right pastoral advice. But I admit it feels like a lot in the sense that so many people are still working through the trauma of Newtown. “Now we must add the trauma of Boston?” asked one of my parishioners on the phone.  ”Yes, I think we must,” I said. “Whether we like it or not, whether we’re ready or not, what choice do we have?”

We may not be ready. But life has taken a tragic turn. My prayer for us is that we may turn with life into this tragedy and respond to it in all the ways it asks us to respond. My prayer is that we may respond to it with all the grace and dignity we can muster.

A Life Redeemed

 

 

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“What happens when we recycle bottles and cans?” asks Kathleen Mctigue in her meditation.[1] “They are transformed; they are made into something else. Though it may seem a homely analogy for something as lofty as our souls,” she continues, “that’s exactly what we’re after. In our inconsistent and often clumsy ways, we’re aiming for transformation. Each time we take ourselves in hand and change our direction, ask forgiveness and start anew, we reaffirm our belief that we are redeemable.”

Our April ministry theme is redemption. The spiritual questions I’m introducing into our congregational life this morning are “What redeems you?” and “What redeems us?” I suspect for many of us the answers to these questions do not flow easily off our tongues. There may be some stumbling blocks. Redemption is one of those haunting religious words for Unitarian Universalists. Its history leaves an odd—even unpleasant—taste in our mouth. What is that taste?

Broadly speaking, when the minister suggests that we are somehow in need of redemption, even if we call it something else like change or transformation, there’s always the possibility—the risk—that the congregation will hear it as an allegation that there’s something wrong with us, that we’re somehow broken and need fixing, that we’re fallen and need salvation, that we’re estranged and need reconciliation. This contradicts an oft-stated assumption at the heart of our spirituality, that each of us—all people—possess inherent worth and dignity just as we are; that our spiritual lives are not about becoming someone or something else—better, fixed, perfect, saved—but rather becoming more fully who we already are. As we just sang, “Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again.”[2] It’s not that we think we’re perfect as we are. We know we’re not. But we are who we are, and if we understand the quest for redemption as an attempt to reach some idealized spiritual standard, it will likely distract us from that central spiritual task of learning to accept and embrace who we are.

That’s one potential stumbling block. We typically encounter another when we consider a particular way (not the only way, but a particular way) Christians (not all Christians, but some) have interpreted and used the suffering and death of Jesus as a model for what it means to live a spiritual life. In short—and please understand I am speaking very generally about a highly nuanced conversation that has been going on for nearly 2000 years—humanity’s sinfulness is so great that there is nothing anyone can do to fully redeem themselves. There is no price any human can pay to bring themselves into right relationship with God. We are stuck where we are. But we aren’t without hope because God has the power to redeem humanity. To exercise this power, God takes a human form, lives a human life, and suffers a violent human death. In so doing, God pays the price for human sinfulness. God’s suffering and death redeem humanity. Some Christians argue that this redemption only works if one professes faith in it. Others, like our Universalist (and some Unitarian) forebears, felt that Jesus’ suffering and death redeem all people regardless of belief.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this understanding of redemption will be a stumbling block for many of us if our goal is to reclaim redemption as a useful spiritual concept. For so many of us, myself included, it’s just unbelievable. And, to be sure, there are many Christians who wrestle with this unbelievability as well. But I want to be very careful not to disparage the beliefs of others. That’s not my intent. While I may find it unbelievable, I also recognize this particular belief has provided immense comfort and inspired incredible strength and resilience to millions upon millions of people throughout history. For people who’ve lived—and who live—under the yoke of social, political and economic injustice, the idea that God would take human form and experience human suffering—the idea that God’s story is the story of a victim succumbing to but then overcoming violence and oppression—has profound resonance. In the midst of suffering, the idea that “God paid the ultimate price for my redemption” is a source of great hope and courage. For those who have nothing else, such faith is everything. It literally saves lives. Far be it from me to argue it is incorrect simply because I don’t believe it.

Having said that, it is also true that this scheme of redemption is at times applied in a way I find highly abusive and I have no misgivings about naming it and confronting it when I encounter it—the same way I would name and confront religiously motivated terrorism, honor killings, sexism or homophobia. It’s the idea that because Jesus suffered on the cross, one’s suffering at the hands of others is somehow warranted, that one’s suffering at the hands of others is itself redemptive because it mirrors Jesus’ suffering. Slaves were at times told to endure their suffering at the hands of their masters because it was Christ-like and they would be rewarded in Heaven. Battered women are at times told to endure their suffering at the hands of their abusers just as Jesus endured his. This is not OK, not a path to redemption. I agree with the cliché that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” I understand suffering is part of the human condition. I have witnessed people suffer through disease, grief, even the violence of oppression and emerge from it stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more loving. This is part of the beauty of the human spirit. But I object to the notion that the violence anyone suffers at the hands of others is inherently redemptive and we should just accept it, or that God—and this is the implication—wants some people to suffer at the hands of others because it’s good for their souls. In my view, this is an abuse of Christianity for the purpose of justifying violence whether in the home or on some more grand scale. It is an attempt at misdirection, an attempt to make violence invisible by calling it something else, rather than exposing it for what it is: a diminishing of the human spirit. Or, in more traditional language, evil.

So, there are stumbling blocks in our encounter with redemption. If you’re wary about a sermon entitled “A Life Redeemed,” there are any number of reasons why your wariness makes sense. Nevertheless, I find spiritual potency and power in this word. I believe it can help us think differently about those places where we’re stuck. It can, in Rev. McTigue’s words, help us “loosen the pinching in our hearts and live with more wonder, serenity, kindness and wisdom.”[3] It may can us deepen our spiritual lives. What redeems you? What redeems us?

As I seek to answer these questions for myself, it feels important to name that whether I experience myself as redeemed or not, my gut tells me there are no cosmic consequences. This isn’t about the eternal status of my soul, Heaven and Hell, divine punishment or reward. I have this life to live in this world as best as I can. If I’m going to experience redemption, it’s going to be in this life in this world, not in some other life in some other world. It’s going to be “this-worldly” redemption. As Rev. McTigue says, this “isn’t about saving us, but instead shaping us, and it’s the most certain redemption available in this sweet world.”[4]

I like this idea of shaping as a metaphor for this-worldly redemption. Imagine you’re a sculptor and your life is the sculpture. Each day you mold, form and fashion your sculpture, you shape your life, and in the evening you review your work. Some evenings you like what you’ve created. The sculpture captures exactly what you envision for your life. But even so, you recognize the next day may bring new experiences, new insights, new feelings, and thus the work of shaping continues. Of course, some evenings you review your work and realize you haven’t gotten it right. You’re close, but not quite there. Or you’re way off the mark. The way you’ve lived, the decisions you’ve made, the way you’ve treated others, the way you’ve presented yourself to the world—none of it aligns with your vision for yourself. You want to do better, not because you fear divine punishment, but because you feel in your heart you can do better. So, the next day you start to reshape your sculpture: new angles, new edges, new interplay of light and shadow, a different expression, a different posture. This opportunity to make changes, to try again, to reshape your life, is the path to “this-worldly redemption.” Rev. McTigue says, “Each time we take ourselves in hand and change our direction, ask forgiveness and start anew, we reaffirm our belief that we are redeemable.”[5] Each day we have the opportunity to exchange the life we needed to live yesterday for the life we need to live today.

Do we pay a price for this-worldly redemption? Sometimes. If the shaping of our lives today includes recognizing and acknowledging we were wrong yesterday, admitting we hurt someone yesterday, admitting we had a role to play in the breakdown of a relationship yesterday, then yes, one could argue we pay a price. One could argue that offering a heartfelt apology is the price we pay for forgiveness, and sometimes we don’t experience redemption until we’ve been forgiven. This works for me, nut I’m not convinced “paying a price” is a helpful way to think about this-worldly redemption. It reminds me of European elites in the Middle Ages purchasing indulgences to erase sinful behavior and thereby get into Heaven. It reminds me of wealthy corporations going to court, losing, paying a hefty fine—because they can—and then going back to business as usual. Paying a price doesn’t always guarantee a transformed life. Sometimes paying a price is a way of avoiding the work that redeems us. I prefer to imagine a sculptor shaping and reshaping their work, day in and day out. Not everyone can pay; but certainly we each have some capacity to shape and sculpt our lives.

Let me flip this around for a moment. If we each have this capacity; if we can be redeemed by the work of our own hands, what happens if we don’t pursue it? What happens if days and weeks and years go by and the sculptor hasn’t touched the sculpture, hasn’t even looked at it? You’ve brought nothing new to your work for a long time—no new ideas, no new feelings, no new experiences. You wake up and the last thing you want to do is the work of shaping a life. Your muse isn’t singing. At best you’re going through the motions of a life. You don’t feel creative. You lack desire. You’re stuck. Perhaps we call this depression, perhaps melancholy, sadness, despair, a funk, a rut; maybe it’s boredom. Maybe it’s genuine confusion about your direction in life. Maybe it’s fear you won’t succeed. Maybe it’s that generalized anxiety about the future so many people report these days. Whatever form it takes, this condition is real and common. Sometimes it emerges in response to a genuine crisis in one’s life: the death of a loved-one, the loss of work, the experience of violence or betrayal. Sometimes it emerges in response to the ways life can overwhelm us—too many obligations, too many hours at work, too many details, too many conflicts, too little self-care. Sometimes it’s culturally induced, as in those situations where certain cultural norms—norms for beauty, body-type, success, wealth, happiness, sexuality, family, mental health—seem unattainable. When we can’t reach them we feel diminished, unworthy, imperfect, unsavable and broken, even when we know such norms are arbitrary, unfair, manipulative and often racist, classist, sexist and homophobic.

Again, this experience is real and common. But it’s not destiny. The more I engage in ministry, the more I am convinced we each have a calling. We each have natural gifts. We each have something about which we are passionate—something that lights us up and energizes us, something that makes us come alive. Yes, it is very easy in our culture to grow distant from it. Yes, it is very easy to become alienated from it. But the self that lives in response to a sense of calling, in response to passion—that is our true self. That is the self we encounter in that internal place where our conviction resides, where our voice is strong, where we know our truth. This is who we really are. In those times when we grow distant from this self, it’s as if we’ve actually become someone else—someone we never intended to be. We’ve somehow allowed ourselves to be shaped by forces larger than ourselves into a life we never chose for ourselves. Perhaps we’ve been spiritually kidnapped or hijacked. No matter how we name it, in response to such alienation the work of redemption is the work of returning to our true self, the work of accepting and embracing who we really are, the work of pursuing our calling, the work of exchanging the sculptor who refuses to sculpt for one who welcomes each day as an opportunity to shape a life. In all those moments when we come back to our true self, we experience a life redeemed.

If this begins to answer the question, “What redeems you?”—and I hope it does—I also don’t want to lose the question, “What redeems us?” That is, what redeems us collectively? I raise this question because I believe there is much more to this-worldly redemption than the work of redeeming our individual lives. This is not a new message from this pulpit. We live in proximity to infuriating, entrenched and devastating social and economic injustices. We live in proximity to crushing poverty. We live in proximity to urban and suburban violence, domestic violence, gang violence and, despite Connecticut’s new gun laws, I think it’s fair to say we still live with the potential for mass shootings. We live in a time of war. We live suddenly again this week with the renewed threat of nuclear conflict. We live with the specter of environmental collapse. We live with all those false division between people, divisions of race, class, religion, sexuality, politics and on and on. And we live in the midst of immense suffering—not the kind that occurs naturally and inevitably in the course of human living, but the kind human beings visit upon each other, sometimes with calculated, malicious intent; sometimes simply by refusing to see it, by looking away, by calling it something else. All of this may have longstanding historical roots. All of this may have the shine or the stink of inevitability and intractability. All of this may point to some apparently fatal flaw in human nature. But none of it—none of it!—is right. None of it is acceptable. None of it is destiny. Unless we give up. But friends, giving up runs counter to the human spirit. Those who give up and accept the reality of oppression are either those who’ve been spiritually kidnapped or spiritually hijacked by greed, power or fear; or those who’ve accepted the lie that their suffering will be rewarded in some other life.

What redeems us in us in light of the reality of injustice and oppression are our collective efforts to subvert and transform them. What redeems us are our collective words and deeds that help shape a more just society. What redeems us are our collective attempts to build the beloved community.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Backside Redemption,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2011) pp. 42-44.

[2] Carlebach, Shlomo, “Return Again,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1011.

[3] McTigue, Shine and Shadow, p. 44.

[4] Ibid., p. 44.

[5] Ibid., p. 43.

For All That Is Our Life: A Stewardship Sermon

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

This coming week marks the anniversary of a milestone in my life and in the life of this congregation. Ten years ago this week, Wednesday, March 19th, 2003 is perhaps most memorable as the day the United States launched its invasion of Iraq—the second Gulf War. That same week, here in New England, spring was in the air after what had then been a record-setting winter—a record that more recent winters have obliterated. During that sunny, soggy week I changed the sermon I had planned to deliver here on Sunday, March 23rd. I preached instead on my concern about the invasion and what it suggested to me about a growing malignancy in the American character. I also shared my instinct that war is, in the end, an aberration—inconsistent with a greater peace that lies at the heart of Creation. That same day—March 23rd—the members of this congregation—many of you were there—voted unanimously to call me as your settled minister, the fourth settled minister in UUS:E’s then thirty-four year history. It was my first formal calling, a huge milestone in my life. So, for me—and I trust for you—this is a very significant anniversary week. Next Sunday, spring’s first Sunday in 2013, we begin our second decade of ministry tog

In September of that first year I preached a sermon called “Taking Time.” I want to share an excerpt with you because in it I invited us to peer ten years into the future—to now, to today. I asked those present to take a moment and imagine: what will this congregation be like [in 2013]? How might we have grown? Will the building be larger? Will there be more members? More children? Will we be a truly green sanctuary? Will we be fully accessible?

On Sunday mornings many of us will be here…. Our bodies will be ten years older, our hair perhaps grayer (if we still have any at all), our faces perhaps sporting a few more wrinkles. And some of us will not be here. This is perhaps the saddest part of imagining the future: for any number of reasons, some of us will no longer be here. Some will have died. I urge us not to shy away from this sad truth. [Instead, let’s take time] for saying goodbye to our loved-ones, for honoring their lives, for experiencing and expressing the fullness of our grief.

And then imagine the world in 2013. Will there still be a war on terror? Will there be gay marriage? Will there be a Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition? Will our towns and cities east of the river be thriving or declining?

There was much more, but that gives you a flavor. It was a sermon about beginning what we hoped would be a deep and lasting shared ministry, about not rushing the building of that ministry but taking our time. I said we need to take time so that time does not take us. But taking time—being thoughtful and patient—is not always our natural instinct, here or anywhere. So often, time seems to take us. We feel there is never enough time. We do tend to rush, to keep busy. For better or for worse—and it’s often worse—our larger culture affirms us in our rushing, our multi-tasking, our high productivity, even when the product is sub- standard. I can point to moments over the last decade when the work of this congregation has felt frenetic, frenzied, even overwhelming; when we felt as if we didn’t have enough time to do things well. And in such moments we were more likely to make mistakes, to not listen deeply to each other, to not bring our best selves to the process. Still, I think mostly we have heeded the advice in that sermon. We have taken our time. We’ve been patient and thoughtful. We’ve listened to each other, made good decisions. We’ve allowed things to come in their own season. And I believe we are better for it. Looking back over ten years, though I have some regrets, they are few and they are vastly overshadowed by the immense pride I take in what we’ve accomplished together. I am unapologetically proud. I am also humbled by the fondness and affection you continue to express for me. And I am filled with joy and excitement at the prospect of continuing this shared ministry into a second decade. From the deepest place in my heart I thank you.

Our ministry theme for March is inheritance. Two Sundays ago I spoke about our liberal spiritual inheritance, in particular the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the sacredness of all living things. I talked about a conflict we experience over the purpose of that principle in our spiritual lives. Do we come to church to hear that message and thereby experience our own liberation? Or do we come to church so that we may be sent back out into the world to engage in acts of liberation in the world. Ny answer was both. We come to receive the good news of our spiritual inheritance. And we come to be sent back out into the world.

That is one way to explore the theme of inheritance. I also reminded us that in March we begin our annual appeal, which also has something to do with inheritance. Last night was the kick-off celebration and this is my stewardship sermon. So, here’s my appeal. Please make the most generous financial gift possible to this congregation, not only to support its day-to-day functioning, but so that it can fulfill its mission and continue to thrive. In asking this, I’m mindful that we here today inherit this congregation from those who came before, from those who’ve given so generously over the years of their time, energy, talent and money to establish and grow this beacon of liberal religion here on beautiful Elm Hill in Manchester’s northeast corner east of the Connecticut River. I’m mindful that when we give our financial gifts to UUS:E we are ensuring that future generations will inherit this congregation from us, embrace its mission, continue its traditions, and keep the beacon burning brightly.

UUS:E

Having now been here now ten years, I can look back at our shared ministry and begin to envision what coming generations will inherit from us. And I love what I see. I asked in that 2003 sermon, will we have a larger building? I don’t think many of us took the idea seriously. Certainly none of us could imagine what we would go through to create this peaceful, elegant, efficient, holy space. But we took that risk, that leap of faith. We went through it. And now we have something tangible, beautiful and sacred to pass on to future generations.

In that sermon I asked, will we be a truly green sanctuary? Will the building be fully accessible? Well, over the past decade, green and accessible have become central features of our congregational identity. It’s not been easy. The work is ongoing. We still struggle to live fully into these identities. But they are part of who we are. They are wonderful expressions of our spiritual inheritance, of our good news that all people matter, that the earth matters. This, too, is something sacred we will pass on to future generations.

And of course our ministry has not only been about what happens here at 153 West Vernon St. We know the congregation, ultimately, is not the building; it’s the people and what they do with their spiritual inheritance. I asked in that sermon ten years ago, Will there be gay marriage?” Today we have marriage equality in Connecticut. Our congregation wasn’t responsible for the Supreme Court decision that gave us marriage equality, but keep in mind: no one person was responsible. We have marriage equality in Connecticut because there was a movement to achieve it. Tens of thousands of people participated in that movement. And members of this congregation were there all along the way. And when I said I would stop signing marriage licenses to protest discrimination, you supported me. When I agreed to take on the leadership of Connecticut Clergy for Marriage Equality, you supported me. When I was invited to speak at rallies and marches you came with me. We were part of a movement to change the hearts and minds of the people of Connecticut. We were part of a movement to change the culture of Connecticut from one that was, on the issue of same-sex relationships, closed-minded, conservative and at times mean-spirited, to one that was open, accepting and loving. We were part of that! We entered that movement grounded in our spiritual inheritance and now we have something precious, wonderful and sacred to pass on to future generations. I’m just scratching the surface of our shared ministry, but looking back I am filled with pride.

Our 2013 annual appeal has begun. It’s time to pledge our financial gifts for next year. Many of you have signed up for group stewarding. Others will meet one-on-one with a steward. When the steward contacts you, please respond to them quickly. They don’t mean to be pushy. They do what they do out of a deep love for this congregation, for Unitarian Universalism, and for our liberal spiritual inheritance. They want to hear from you not only about your financial contribution but about what this congregation and this faith mean to you. They’ll remind you about the goals for this year’s appeal. In many ways the goals are mundane; they relate to the healthy functioning of the church: we want to expand religious education opportunities, reduce our dependency on fundraisers, pay all staff according to Unitarian Universalist Association guidelines. There’s more. They are clear, concrete goals, but I’m also aware that annual appeal goals don’t—and really can’t—express the ways in which our ministry touches and transforms lives and leaves something lasting and holy for future generations to inherit.

What I hope we have done these past ten years, and what I fully expect we shall continue doing in the coming decade is to constantly proclaim in word and deed, within these walls and beyond them, a drum-beat of good news, that message that each person matters; that each of us has something of value to contribute; that each of our lives tells a story worth hearing; that there’s a river flowin’ in our souls and it’s tellin’ us we’re somebody; that each of us possesses inherent worth and dignity—meaning it’s in you, no one can take it away. Inherent, meaning not contingent on the color of your skin, or the money in your wallet, or who you love or how old you are; not contingent on whether you walk on your legs or roll in a wheelchair, or how you express your gender to the world, or what you do for work or whether you live in a home or on the street; and not contingent on what you believe, whether you pass some spiritual test or confess the right creed. Your worth is inherent. It’s universal. Here we celebrate it. It’s good and essential news in a world that tries in so many ways to crush the human spirit.

And of course the good news extends beyond people. Those solar panels on our south-facing roof? They’ll save us a lot of money on our electricity bill. But we know they make a much more profound statement that we recognize our connection not only to each other, but to local ecosystems, to the environment, to the earth. We recognize the immense damage that has resulted from the burning of fossil fuels, the surpassing of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We recognize it’s time to change our global habits of energy consumption and that we need to start with ourselves. You see the organic garden? Those geothermal pumps? Those compost bins? Those marmoleum floors? It’s all part of the same proclamation, the same good news: the earth matters. The natural world matters. Living in harmony with the earth matters. And the survival of everything—everything!—depends on humanity hearing this message, taking it to heart, and making it real.

Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, people won’t look back and ask, “Did they achieve their annual appeal goals?” But I hope and trust they’ll know—without asking—that this congregation stayed true to its spiritual inheritance, that it valued each and every person, that it made room for everyone who wanted to quench their soul-thirst and deepen their spirits, that it inspired and empowered people, that it taught people, listened to people, connected people; that it fought for justice, that it resisted violence, that it subverted racism, that it was part of the movement to end mass incarceration, that is was part of the movement to end the achievement gap in public education, that it tutored children, that it struggled for affordable, accessible health care for all people, that it proudly flew a rainbow flag; and that it cared for the earth and future generations enough to change its own ways, enough to speak boldly in the wider community about our interdependence with the whole of life. And it did none of this for prestige, none of it for accolades, special recognition or awards. It did these things simply and humbly for the sake of saving lives—and not only saving them but fortifying them for the work of building the beloved community here and everywhere. These are just some of the intangible yet utterly essential roles this congregation will play in the coming decade of our shared ministry. They aren’t explicitly stated in our annual appeal goals, but make no mistake: when you make a generous financial gift to this congregation, you are making a gift that helps save lives, that helps liberate people, that builds the beloved community. I cannot speak more plainly about what I firmly believe we are doing here at 153 West Vernon St on Elm Hill in Manchester.

Well, I can speak a bit more plainly. Our liberal spiritual inheritance doesn’t stand on its own. It needs a foundation of love. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”[1] I read earlier from the Rev. Kate Braestrup’s Here If You Need Me. She’s writing to her brother who really doesn’t understand or approve of her having become a minister; and she’s writing about the experience of receiving devastating news. Her own devastating news was the car accident death of her husband. And her job as a chaplain to the Maine State Game Wardens requires her from time to time to deliver hard news to people. She says, “Your life, too, will swing suddenly and cruelly in a new direction with breathtaking speed. If you are really wise—and it’s surprising and wondrous…how many people have this wisdom in them—you will know enough to look around for love. It will be there, standing right on the hinge, holding out its arms to you. If you are wise, whoever you are, you will let go, fall against that love, and be held.”[2]

Friends, she’s right about the way life can change in an instant. And she’s right that love will find us in those moments if we let it. What I hope has been true about my ministry and about our shared ministry these past ten years is that I’ve been that kind of minister and we’ve been that kind of congregation in whom people in the midst of pain and loss can find love: loving words, loving arms, a loving presence, a loving community. I would hope that despite those moments of rushing, thoughtlessness, rubbing each other the wrong way and missing our mark, you will still find at the heart of everything we do, a profound love for humanity and the earth. That love is real, and it makes all the difference.

As we enter our second decade of shared ministry, my prayer for each of us is that we may find that love here when we need it; offer it to others when it is needed; and thereby continue to grow a congregation for all that is our life; a congregation worthy of passing on to those who come after us.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] First Corinthians 13:1.

[2] Braestrup, Kate, Here If You Need Me (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2007) pp. 205-206.

How Do We Know? or Spiritual Discernment in the Information Age

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

[Video Here]

 

“Light shine in. Luminate our inward view. Help us to see with clarity.”[1] I offer these words as a way to begin exploring our January ministry theme, discernment. When we discern, we attempt to “see with clarity.”

I love this theme for kickin’ off the new year. It can take us beyond the standard new year’s resolutions which—not always, but often—emerge out of guilt, anxiety, self-nagging: I will lose weight. I will be more open-minded. I will exercise more regularly. I will drink less. I will finally write that novel I’ve been aching to write but keep putting off. I will make an effort to connect more with family and friends. I will unplug. These kinds of resolutions are important. They play a role in our efforts at self-improvement. They help us set personal goals. None of them is easy. But so often we make them in an attempt to fix something we imagine is wrong with us. So often they come from a negative-leaning self-appraisal. And so often that negativity comes from outside of us. That is, it reflects societal values—or what we assume are societal values—what can be quite shallow values—and it has very little to do with what we really want for ourselves. Again, there’s a place for such resolutions in our lives, but I think we can and ought to go further and deeper as the year begins. Exploring discernment as a central feature of our spiritual lives moves us away from making resolutions to fix something about ourselves that may or may not need fixing, and moves us towards discovering what is true for us, what really matters in our lives, and what kinds of living will bring meaning and fulfillment. I like how Kathleen McTigue put it in our opening words: “The new year can be new ground for the seeds of our dreams.”[2]

So, what do I mean by discernment? To begin, I commend to you Jerry Lusa’s essay in our January newsletter (which is also at uuse.org[3]). Jerry writes, “Discernment is about finding the essence of things.” Discernment is about “going past the mere perception of something and making detailed judgments about [it]. It is the ability to judge well.”  He includes a quote from Anne Hill, a California-based neo-pagan writer, publisher, teacher, musician and blogger. She says discernment is “the ability to tell truth from fiction, to know when we have lost our center and how to find it again.”[4]

One could argue—and Jerry’s essay hints at this—that we practice discernment all day long in every context imaginable. Much of our discerning is about our daily routines and feels more or less inconsequential. We discern what we shall eat for breakfast. We discern whether we should take an alternate route in heavy traffic. We discern whether we shall read or watch television before we go to bed. Meaningful living and a life of the spirit aren’t necessarily tied to this level of “everyday” discernment, though certainly one could also argue from a Buddhist, or perhaps a Taoist, perspective that the more mindful we are about even the most mundane aspects of our day, the more meaningful our living will be.

So whether we’re seeking clarity about the mundane or the transcendent, the common or the extraordinary, the secular or the sacred, discernment becomes relevant to our spiritual lives—in fact, it becomes an essential and intimate feature of our spiritual lives—when we pursue it as an intentional process—a thought process, a contemplative process, a process of reasoning, reflecting or ruminating; a process of assessing or analyzing; a process of deliberating, of musing, of praying, of feeling, of intuiting—any process that we use intentionally to bring some sense of order and meaning to our lives; to help us distinguish between truth and falsehood; to help us distinguish between what matters most and what matters least; to help us distinguish between what is coming from within and what is coming from without. It’s any process we use intentionally to guide us to our center—or to guide us back to our center if we’ve lost it; to guide us to our own voice—or to guide us back to our own voice if it has grown silent; to guide us to our most authentic self—or back to that self if we’ve somehow grown distant from it; or to guide us to some reality greater than ourselves that we experience as sacred, holy, life-affirming, life-giving, saving, salving, healing, sustaining. In short, spiritual discernment is an intentional process that leads us deeper into ourselves or out beyond ourselves. “Light shine in. Luminate our inward view. Help us to see with clarity.”

And once we arrive there, once we’ve gained clarity, once we have truth, once we have our authentic self or that reality greater than self, then we have the capacity, the grounding, the confidence, the nerve, the will to make good decisions, to judge well, to select wisely, to act with integrity, to move forward on our path, to plant the seeds of our dreams.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

It’s not easy. I think what I’m describing as discernment is very difficult. Even with great intentionality, great focus, great discipline, the line between truth and falsehood is not always clear. The line between what matters most and what matters least is not always clear. Our most authentic self is not always clear. And certainly the nature of some life-giving, sustaining reality greater than ourselves is not always clear. Light shines in but doesn’t always luminate.

This week I’ve been imagining our capacity for discernment as a continuum. On one end of the continuum discernment begins, and there are reasons it is difficult to begin. On the other end … it ends. Discernment meets its limit—we can only gain so much clarity. I want to say a few words about each end of the continuum.

At the beginning we have a situation about which we need clarity. We have raw data, information, thoughts, sensations, joys and sorrows, problems to solve, dilemmas to manage, decisions to make, conflicts to resolve. Discernment begins as we pause, as we lean back, as we enter into that intentional process of thinking, contemplating, reflecting, musing or praying in order to gain clarity about the situation. And, keep in mind, we’re not simply thinking about the situation. We’re thinking beneath the situation; we’re looking for our truth in relation to it, our sense of what matters, our voice, our center, and at times we’re looking for our relationship to a life-giving, life-affirming reality beyond ourselves. But note: the act of pausing to think about a situation, let alone beneath a situation, is difficult in its own right. I’m pretty sure it’s not a natural human tendency. It’s a skill we develop. It takes practice. How often do we admonish our children and grandchildren to “think before you act?” How many times as children did we hear that advice? And ignore it? Pausing, leaning back, taking a breath—for the sake of discernment—is not a natural human tendency.

But there’s more to the difficulty in this information age. The world has changed remarkably in the last decade. When we lean back from a situation today, we are more and more likely to find ourselves leaning into a mighty river of information. When we lean back from a situation today, we are less and less able to pause and  reflect on a situation because the space—mental or otherwise—in which we had hoped to do our reflecting is filling up with more and more information. We are firmly ensconced in the information age. Things move and change so quickly that whenever we pause to discern, we risk falling behind—at least that’s how it feels, and the feeling is potent.

And then one of our devices beeps. Our pop-tune ring-tones interrupt. Even with our phones on ‘vibrate,’ it’s still an interruption. We have to see who’s calling, or texting; who’s pushing what new message.

And of course, sometimes we mean to pause for discernment, but instead we check out our Facebook page. Ohh, my friend (who is not an actual friend) posted an article with an interesting headline at Huffington Post. I’ll check it out. Hmm. Not so interesting, but there’s another author I know. They link to her blog. I’ll check it out. Hmm. This is funny. And wise. Might work for a sermon. Think I’ll tweet it. Oh, a colleague just tweeted the link to a sermon video. I’ll check it out. Uh, this is great, but I don’t have time to watch the whole thing. Wait, Colbert said what? I have to check it out. Hilarious. Ooh, a new video from one of my favorite bands. Gotta check it out. Very cool. I have to share this. Quick, back to Facebook. And so it goes.

Within the span of a decade the number of ways for people to communicate, connect, network, conduct business, report, offer opinion, advertise, sell, barter, share ideas, books, music, movies and inventions has exploded—perhaps not beyond measure but certainly beyond our wildest Y2K imaginings. Information now comes at us constantly. Constantly. We live in a message-saturated society with the potential for hundreds, if not thousands of voices to enter our consciousness every day from all corners. I suspect we’ve all developed unconscious filters to help us ignore most of it; but even still, the flow of information is staggering.

Don’t misconstrue my intent. I am not complaining. I’m not lamenting. I’m not pining away for some lost pre-internet golden age where there were three corporate TV networks, rotary phones, and newspapers printed on actual paper. (Remember Newsweek?) I’m not interested in going back. I’m not one of those clergy who talks about how much we’ve lost in this information age—how terrible it is that we interact as much online as we do in person, how we’ve lost some bit of our soul because of it. We have lost something. No question. But I feel strongly that as long as we can manage ourselves rather than the information managing us, then we’ve gained far more than we’ve lost. I like all the new tools. I’m not an early adopter, but I adopt. I feel very much at home working with email, websites, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, I-tunes, and I’m moving towards e-books. I like figuring out how to use the tools to best express and promote our liberal religious message. But I’m also aware that in an information-soaked, data-infused, message-saturated, device-permeated culture, spiritual discernment becomes all the more difficult: discerning the line between truth and fiction, discerning what matters most, discerning one’s voice, discerning one’s authentic self becomes all the more difficult because there is so much information. How do we know which information is accurate? How do we know which information is relevant? How do we know which information will guide us in a healthy, productive, life-giving direction? Where on earth is clarity?

The answer, at least for me this morning, strangely, lies at the other end of the continuum where our capacity for discernment ends. Earlier I read Tracey Smith’s poem “It and Co.” For me this poem as a provocative yet oddly comforting statement about the limits of our capacity to discern. I take “It” to be a reality larger than ourselves—reality in an ultimate sense—God, Goddess, Gaia, the earth, the universe, the cosmos. The “Co.”—the company—is us, humans. We are curious.  We are curious about It. We are trying—we’ve been trying for millennia—to discern the essence of It, but the light we shine never reaches far enough. We never gain clarity. “Is It us,” Smith asks, “or what contains us?” And then: “It is elegant / But coy. It avoids the blunt ends / Of our fingers as we point. We / Have gone looking for It everywhere: / In Bibles and bandwidth, / …. Still It resists the matter of false vs. real …. / It is like some novels: / Vast and unreadable.”[5]

She’s got us out at the far reaches of the universe, the limits of our perception, the end of the continuum. She’s got us at the door to the Holy of Holies, but we can’t peer in. She’s got us at the entrance to the mountaintop cave, but we can’t peer out. In traditional religious language, we can’t gaze upon the face of God. There’s no more clarity to gain no matter how much light we shine in. This ultimate reality is “vast and unreadable.” It “avoids the blunt end of our fingers as we point.” It rests behind an unpiercable veil. It is, in the end, utterly mysterious. And knowing this is important. Because here is a space that will never fill up with information.

Here we can pause, lean back, breathe. And while we can’t name what we’re leaning on, here we also aren’t caught in a river of constant data. Here we aren’t drowning in a sea of new facts and opinions. Here we can discern. We can’t discern It with a capital I. But we can move beyond the beginning of the continuum where information is flowing relentlessly. We can look closely at the situations of our lives. We can gain clarity. We can’t discern ultimate reality, but in the space it provides we can certainly discern our truth, our own voice, our most authentic self, and the things that matter beyond ourselves.

And we don’t have to go to the far reaches of the universe to enter this space.  There are hints of this everywhere: in the dark of winter; in the cry of a newborn baby; at the mountain peak; in the lover’s embrace; in the watery depths; in the nonviolent resistor’s courage; in crashing waves and tidal pools; in the wild abandon of children in summer (acting before they think); in those old stone fences running through New England woods; in the farmer rising before dawn; in crocuses breaking through the still frozen March ground; in elders sharing their stories and their wisdom by the light of a blazing fire. In all of it some mystery abides just below the surface constantly calling to us, constantly beckoning—some vast and unreadable essence, some beautiful and compelling but obscure essence, some take-your-breath-away, put-goose-bumps-on-your-fore-arms, send-chills-up-and-down-your-spine essence, some holy hallelujah cry just below the surface. And yes, the second we try to name it, the second we point our blunt fingers at it, the second we shine too bright a light, it slips away. But it keeps calling.

Some will find this confounding. I don’t. I find it comforting. There is something deeply comforting for me in the constant presence of a mystery constantly calling out to us, constantly presenting itself to us, constantly inviting us to seek, to search, to discern, even if it remains elusive. Its presence makes us curious. Mystery makes us curious. One of the most central and endearing human qualities is curiosity. If the presence of a vast and unreadable mystery inspires curiosity in us, then it invites us to be human. It invites us to discern. It invites us to plant the seeds of our dreams. Consider this: the absence of mystery doesn’t offer such invitations. Curiosity is a lot more challenging in the absence of mystery. I prefer the mystery. I know it may never be revealed, but there’s a lot we can clarify along the way. Thus, may we continue to seek. May we continue to discern.

Amen and blessed be. And Happy New Year!

 


[1] Kimball, Richard S., “Winds Be Still,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 83.

[2] McTigue, Kathleen, “New Year’s Day,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #544.

[3] Navigate to https://uuse.org/topics/monthly-ministry-theme/ and scroll down to “January Ministry Theme: Discernment” (posted 12/31/2012).

[4] Anne Hill, The Baby and the Bathwater (Bodega Bay, CA: Serpentine Music, 2012).

[5] Smith, Tracy K., “It  & Co.”  Life on Mars (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011) p. 17.

Love Keeps Coming: A Christmas Eve Homily

I found Colin McEnroe’s editorial in the Hartford Courant this weekend very moving. He was reflecting, one week later, on the December 14 tragedy in Newtown. He said, “If there’s an elixir, some potion we can drink, it’s almost certainly love. Right? Love is the only possible bright sparkling rope bridge we can clutch as we stutter-step through the dark universe.

“What a joke,” he goes on. “Our only good piece of equipment is love, the thing we fail at so often. We’ve been talking all week about weapons, but our only sure-fire weapon against chaos and nothingness is love….

I don’t know what comes next. But I am reminded to love.”[1]

I don’t know if he intended this as a Christmas message, but there it is: “We are reminded to love.”

Many of you know this past Friday I had the honor of participating in Tom Ashbrook’s National Public Radio On Point conversation about the spiritual challenge of Newtown. I believe Tom Ashbrook is a hopeful person, a positive person. But I also know that he, like all of us, was shaken to his core by this tragic event; and he wasn’t going to let his guests off easy. He wasn’t going to let us simply proclaim, “we should be hopeful.” He really wanted to know why. Given what we’ve witnessed, why should we be hopeful this holiday season? And how? How can any of us justify a feeling of hopefulness after this?

I suppose I ought to add: given all of it—given a culture of violence and crass materialism; given our national addiction to militarism; given our political polarization; given racism, classism, homophobia; given homelessness and poverty; given all the ways in which we are isolated from one another, separated, fragmented, alienated; given pervasive loneliness; given all of it, how can we justify an attitude of hopefulness? That’s what I was hearing Tom Ashbrook ask on the radio Friday.

It’s a fair question. And I suppose it’s the ultimate question any person of any kind of faith whatsoever is challenged to answer: why hope, when there is so much around us that says, again and again and again, there’s no reason to be hopeful?

Well, I’m not sure there is an answer—not a good one—not one that will suffice in the face of a tragedy like Newtown. Maybe we really do live in a cold and impersonal universe; and terrible, tragic things will happen from time to time; and evil things are just as likely to happen as good things. “It’s just the way things are,” said one of Friday’s On Point callers. “And it’s naïve to think you can somehow change it.”

But I do think we can change it. I really do. I don’t know exactly why I think this. If I did, I suppose I would have my answer to the question, Why be hopeful? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that our ancient ancestors learned to trust that the sun would return at the darkest time of year. Maybe it has something to do with the way a candle flame looks in the darkness—small, thin, even frail, but beautiful and heart-warming nevertheless. Maybe it has something to do with the grandeur of stars in a cold winter night sky. Maybe it has something to do with the ways people come together in the aftermath of tragedy, holding each other, supporting each other, bearing witness to suffering. Maybe it has something to do with the little kindnesses people seem to offer each other, over and over, in a million different ways. And maybe it has something to do with our capacity for love, this “joke,” says Colin McEnroe, this “thing we fail at so often,” yet this thing which is our only “sure-fire weapon against chaos and nothingness.” Time and time again, in the midst of pain and suffering—not always, but often—people find ways to love one another. As selfish and mean-spirited as we humans can be, we are capable of incredible love. I don’t ignore the mean-spirited part—I know it’s real; I just choose, most of the time, to focus on the love part.

Colin McEnroe said, “I don’t know what comes next. But I am reminded to love.” It may not be a good answer or even a sufficient one, to the question, “Why be hopeful?” It may be a naïve answer. It may even come across to some as a weak answer. But for me it’s the answer that makes sense.  It’s the only reasonable answer to an otherwise violent and chaotic world.

This is what I know: Love comes into world, again and again and again. It comes as a new-born baby, and it comes in the wise eyes of our elders. It comes with angels singing proclamations of peace on earth and good will to all, and it comes silently, a hand held in the midst of grief. It comes with gifts from wise men. It comes with Herod’s soldiers breathing down its neck, hoping to destroy it. It comes despite our best efforts to thwart it. It comes when we don’t think we’ll ever find it. It comes sometimes because we seek it out. It comes sometimes when it wasn’t what we were looking for. It comes sometimes in strength and abundance, and sometimes it comes thin and fragile.  Sometimes it makes all the difference and we can say with confidence, “love wins.” Sometimes it loses and at least for a time, hope disappears.  But love keeps coming, like the returning sun at midwinter. It keeps coming, like stars in the night sky. It keeps coming, like one small candle lit against the darkness. It keeps coming. And I, for one, am hopeful. I hope you are too. Love keeps coming.

My prayer for each of us this evening is that we encounter love, and that we rediscover, even if we’re not sure why, our reasons to hope.  

Merry Christmas. Amen. Blessed be.