A Blessed Mixing

To begin, I want to thank all of you again for the wonderful 20th anniversary celebration last Sunday. It was great. It meant the world to me. I still am not sure who all was responsible for the planning, but I know Peggy Webbe did a lot of it, along with Sylvia Ounpuu. Anne Carr, Jackie Heintz and Edie Lacey were helping out in the kitchen. Not sure who else. But please know that I am exceedingly grateful to the planners and the worker bees; and I am also exceedingly grateful to all the members and friends of this congregation over the past 20 years who have trusted me to serve as your minister. Thank you so much.

Right now the message I want you to hear on this Sunday at the beginning of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, this Sunday a few days before the winter solstice, this Sunday a week before Christmas, is that I love the way it all mixes together. I love menorahs mingling with nativity scenes on town greens. I love all the pagan references embedded in the celebration of Christmas—the evergreens, the lights, the ornaments, the wreaths, the elves, the reindeer, and Santa Claus, who has both Christian and pagan origins. I love the solstice bonfires. I love the giving and receiving of gifts, which has pagan roots, which in Europe was historically a more secular New Years tradition, but which has, over time, made its way into Christmas and Hanukkah. And as I said last week, I love the darkness of the season, which is always interacting with the light. It’s a blessed mixing.

It’s not surprising that we find Jewish, Christian and Pagan resources—songs, readings, decorations—mixed together in our holiday music service. It reminds us that in virtually any Unitarian Universalist congregation, there are pagans worshipping next to Christians (or people of Christian heritage) worshipping next to Jews (or people of Jewish heritage); and of course there are Buddhists, the occasional Muslim. There are so many formers: former Catholics, former evangelicals, former Mormons, sitting next to each other in Unitarian Universalist worship. And folks in any of these categories might be theists, might be atheists. And all of us, I swear, to some degree or another, are religious agnostics. We’re not willing to make definitive statements about any of it because we know there might be more information or data or evidence out there that hasn’t been discovered yet but which might change our hearts and minds regarding what we believe. We know there are experiences we haven’t had yet which might change our hearts and minds regarding what we believe. And we know that when you scratch beneath the surface of any faith tradition, when you peer beneath all the human-made aspects of any faith tradition—if you look to where the tradition is pointing—there’s often more mystery than anything else. So why not honor it all? Why not bring it all in? Why not put it all into the worship pot and mix it around, especially at the holiday season, a blessed mixing.

I am reminded that in the current listing of the sources for our Unitarian Universalist living tradition, we describe a blessed mixing: Direct Experience of awe and wonder; words and deeds of prophetic people; wisdom from all the world’s religions; the love at the heart of our specific Christian/Jewish heritage; humanist teachings; and the wisdom of earth-centered traditions. As many of you know, that source language that we’ve grown used to over the years, along with the seven Unitarian Universalist principles is up for revision. If the proposed revision goes through we’ll no longer have that specific list of sources. But we’ll still have a blessed mixing. The proposed new language refers to our inspirations. It reads: “As Unitarian Universalists, we draw upon, and are inspired by, the full depth and breadth of sacred understandings, as experienced by humanity. Grateful for the religious lineages we inherit and the pluralism which enriches our faith, we are called to ever deepen and expand our wisdom.” I’m going to dedicate a Sunday service in January to offering my reflections on the proposed changes to our sources and principles. Right now what I know is this: whether one likes the old language or the new language, the underlying message is the same. Our faith has many sources, many inspirations, many lineages. Our people individually and collectively draw on many sources, many inspirations, many lineages. To prioritize one would run counter the religious pluralism that resides at the heart of who we are. And who we are is a blessed mixing.

I say, honor it all. Bring it all in. Put it all into the worship pot and mix it around, especially at the holiday season. Receive what you need for your own spiritual flourishing. Enjoy what you like, for the health of your soul. Celebrate all the goodness, diversity, abundance and the love in the world. Be inspired to work toward the future you desire. All this is possible in the midst of this blessed mixing.

Happy holiday!

Amen and blessed be.

 

Darkness Invites Wonder

Meditation

“Early Awakening Reflections”
by Carrie Kocher

Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night. Sometimes, I go outside.

How achingly beautiful it can sometimes be in autumn to feel the first chill temperature of the air, to smell the slight hint of smoke from a wood fire burning in a hearth nearby, to observe the degree of cloud cover (or not), or the moon’s current phase, or to marvel at pinpoints of light finally reaching earth after a journey of billions of miles from many stars and planets and galaxies.

How achingly beautiful the owl’s hoot, the coyote’ whine, a duck or a goose breaking the pre-dawn silence with its sharp call. How pregnant and anticipatory that same silence, when I sit, bundled up, waiting, waiting, and waiting … or walking softly and gently on a path along the pond or through the woods.

Going out at night – especially in the wild country of Northern VT – actually does carry a little danger which, of course, makes it all the more special. It makes one aware of how we are always on the edge between life and death but just aren’t paying attention enough most of the time.

How rare it is to feel as though one really is a part of the natural world; to be open and available; to welcome an encounter with a mouse or a squirrel or chipmunk or rabbit or deer or fox or coyote or even a bear or a cougar or even a mountain lion (honestly, though, I’d prefer to avoid the last two if possible!); to recognize that the night really does belong to the creatures; to allow myself to feel naked and slightly nervous when their eyes pierce me through the darkness. In such moments I realize how little control I really have over life, that we really are just sojourners, guests on our achingly beautiful planet.  In such moments I’m torn between wanting to surrender, which is a kind of death, and wanting to struggle, which is a desire to live. Both have spiritual value. Both emerge from the darkness.

 

Sermon 

“Darkness Invites Wonder”
Rev. Josh Pawelek

Thank you Carrie.

Carrie is describing an ongoing encounter with the natural world in the dark, pre-dawn hours. In response to her awareness of non-human creatures in her midst she says: “In such moments I realize how little control I really have over life, that we really are just sojourners, guests on our achingly beautiful planet.  In such moments I’m torn between wanting to surrender, which is a kind of death, and wanting to struggle, which is a desire to live. Both have spiritual value. Both emerge from the darkness.”

Our ministry theme for December is wonder. The title of this sermon is “Darkness Invites Wonder.” I want to weave a number of threads together for you and thereby commend to you what is for me a late autumn / early winter spiritual practice of wondering in the midst of darkness, Carrie’s meditation being one example.

I offer this practice as distinct from—though certainly kin to—the spirituality Alan Ayers shared with us last Sunday. Alan told us about the wonder and curiosity that took center stage in his life as a child. He would wonder, how does turning the door knob unlatch the door? He would wonder, how can I clean the dessert sand out of my bicycle gears? And, much to the chagrin of his parents, he would take things apart, study them, learn how they worked, and sometimes escape from his room when they weren’t paying attention. He would recognize there was a puzzle or a problem in his midst that he didn’t understand—the door knob, the bike gears. He could see it; it was right there in front of him. He would wonder about it. He would act in response to that wonder. He would experiment, test, evaluate results. He would take logical steps. He would discover the answer, or at least an answer. He talked to us about how this basic practice of wondering continued in his professional life as a successful battery scientist, project manager and leader of multi-disciplinary teams. He linked this practice to his liberal religious, Unitarian Universalist faith. In short—and these are my words, not his—when religion provides all the answers, it diminishes our capacity for wonder. When religion encourages us to ask questions, it catalyzes our capacity for wonder. If nothing else, ours is a questioning, curious, wondering faith.

Alan brought the answers he sought into the light of day, but what happens when it’s dark? And by dark I don’t only mean night-time or mid-winter, or the physical absence of light, say in a cave or a room with no windows, though these are certainly sources of darkness. By dark I also mean there may be a puzzle or a problem in front of us, but we have no idea what it is. There’s no door knob mechanism to figure out, no bicycle gears to disassemble, no solid, concrete thing to analyze, no logical steps to follow. We sense the puzzle is there in the darkness, but we can’t see it, we can’t touch it, we can’t manipulate it. Maybe there’s a set of pale, yellow eyes staring at us from a distance, from within the underbrush, or on a branch above us, but we dare not approach lest we invite more danger than we can handle. Maybe we hear the night chorus, something rustling at the edge of the stream bed, something foraging, something hunting. It’s ominous. Is says, come no closer, this isn’t for you, at least not yet. So we sit, we listen, we wonder … and we wait for what may emerge. That’s the practice. That’s the wonder darkness invites.

This darkness may come to us as a feeling—a persistent feeling we can’t quite shake and can’t quite name, maybe a dull fear at the margins of our awareness. Or is it anxiety, grief, discontent? It’s hard to tell. No word quite captures it. Is it longing, hoping, wishing? Some mixture of these? It may even by a species of joy, excitement, expectation—the sense that something good is coming—yet we still aren’t entirely sure of its source. Where is it coming from? Why is it trying to poke through to consciousness now, in this moment?

Maybe, for whatever reason, we’re simply trying to shed the past and stop ruminating about the future so we can be more fully present in this moment, and our instincts tells us to seek the dark. For some it’s easier to become present in darkness, eyes closed, fewer distractions.

Maybe we are slowly coming to terms with how little control we have, slowly and painstakingly becoming aware of something larger than ourselves to which we must surrender; which, Carrie says, is a kind of death; so of course we approach it haltingly, tucking it away by day, but finding it returns, seeking an audience, in the wee hours of the night, whispering, let go, let go, let go.

Maybe there’s a buried part of us that knows exactly what we have to do with our lives, but what we have to do requires struggle. It will be hard, difficult, challenging. In the bright light of day we keep it buried, because we feel we don’t have the time or the space or the capacity for the vulnerability it requires. But it comes to us in the darkness, slowly showing us the way forward, helping us find our resolve, tapping gently into those hidden reservoirs of strength and capacity and resilience in us, saying to us, yes, struggle for this thing you know means everything to you. Struggle, which Carrie reminds us, is a desire to live.

Finding the inner resolve to let go, finding the inner resolve to struggle: both emerge from the wondering darkness invites.

I hope the distinction between the spirituality Alan described last Sunday and this wondering in the dark makes sense. Alan was talking about wonder in response to a known puzzle or problem—the door knob, the bike gears. We might call that “wondering in the light,” or “Wondering by day.” With such wondering, we can typically figure out steps to take, experiments to run; or we can figure out whom to ask. The path is relatively clear, even if challenging. The operative spiritual qualities when we wonder by day are intellect, reason, creativity, action.

“Wondering in the dark” takes a different form. We sense the puzzle is there, but we don’t know what it is or how to proceed. Wondering by night requires that we be still, be quiet, wait attentively. Something may eventually emerge—an answer, a pathway, a decision—but we can’t make it happen. We must wait. The spiritual qualities operative here are patience, receptivity, presence, grace.

This takes me back to my seminary days. I loved taking courses on the mystics. In so many of these courses the professor would start out by explaining that a mystic is one who, through contemplation, meditation, prayer, surrender, seeks union with God, divinity, the holy, the source. And inevitably the professor would instruct us to look in the mystics’ writings for two basic forms of theological content: cataphatic theology and apophatic theology (terms of ancient Greek origin). Cataphatic theology is positive and affirmative in the sense that it refers to what we know (or think we know) about God, what we can affirm about God, the attributes of God, how we can praise God, how God manifests to us in creation, in the natural world; God as touchable, physical, sensual, and most importantly, knowable. God in the light.

Apophatic theology is negative. As the British theologian Andrew Louth once put it,  “apophatic theology is concerned with our understanding of God, when, in the presence of God, speech and thought fail us and we are reduced to silence.”[1] Some apophatic titles that still stick in my mind a quarter century later are Dark Night of the Soul, by the 16th-century Spanish mystic and poet St. John of the Cross, and The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous mystical work written in Middle English in the late 14th century. God is in the darkness. Silence, stillness, speechlessness bring the mystic not out of the darkness, but deeper into it where an ultimately unknowable God resides. Again, the operative spiritual qualities are patience, receptivity, presence, grace.

Wondering in the light of day: cataphatic. Wondering in the darkness: apophatic

More recently I’ve been reading a work about a kind of apophatic wondering entitled Crisis Contemplation: Healing the Wounded Village, by the Rev. Dr. Barbara Holmes.[2] She is a former seminary president and now a spiritual teacher and writer who focuses on African American spirituality, mysticism, cosmology and culture. Holmes writes about the impact of crises on communities, specifically black and brown communities—climate catastrophes (New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria), the Covid 19 pandemic, the pandemic of racism. The trauma unleashed by such crises can change everything, can leave people feeling unmoored, unclear about what social structures are still reliable, unsure about where to place their faith. She’s describing a kind of darkness, where the stakes are quite high and the suffering can be extraordinary. I want to be clear, as Holmes is: unlike the mystics who seek out the darkness, nobody chooses the darkness of crisis for themselves or their communities. People enter it involuntarily. But if one must be there, what might happen?

In the midst of crisis, the unknowing, the coming undone, the darkness, Holmes offers the practice of crisis contemplation. I want to quote a few passages from her book, because for me crisis contemplation feels like a form of what I’m calling wondering in the darkness. As I share these words, I urge you not to engage cognitively in an attempt to know how the practice works.  Imagine there’s a puzzle or a problem in your presence, but you don’t know fully what it is. Don’t try to understand. Take these words in as you would poetry. Feel them. Let them wash over you. And then note what emerges for you.

She writes: When the ordinary isn’t ordinary anymore and the crisis is upon us, the self can center in this refuge that I am calling “crisis contemplation,” a space that is neither the result of spiritual seeking nor the voluntary entry into meditative spaces. It is a cracking open, the rupture and shattering of self, community expectations and presumptions about how the world works….[3]

It happens so slowly, / it happens so suddenly, / it is safe and then it is not. / When it happens, we are certain / about everything, / and then the fall / strips us of knowing / and doing, / and leaves us with / being. / Together we fall, / sweaty, shattered, / and gulping the darkness….[4]

Thank goodness for the darkness that blankets our freefall through the crisis and into the rich loam of contemplative potential. I am grateful that when we are at our lowest point, a portal opens that beckons us toward healing and restoration. In the midst of crisis, we are given the opportunity to shed simplified versions of reality for multi-dimensional mystical spaces…[5].

Finally: The darkness to which I refer is not a space of fear. It is an involuntary centering in a reality that is not always available to us when our egos are lit. Crises open portals of deeper knowing. When the crisis occurs, the only way out is through, so we take a cue from nature and relax into the stillness, depending upon one another and the breath of life![6]

What strikes me so powerfully about crisis contemplation is that darkness, for Holmes, isn’t the crisis. Darkness is a refuge from the crisis. Darkness is a refuge from the glaring, obscuring light. Darkness is a refuge from the insanity of the world. Darkness is a refuge from suffering. Darkness is a refuge from oppression. But it isn’t a place where answers are known, especially not in any immediate sense. It isn’t a place where reason and logic are the primary tools. It isn’t a place where we hear a call to action. In the darkness is stillness. In the darkness is quiet. In the darkness people wait, attentively. Sometimes together. Breathing in, breathing out, until whatever is waiting to be born arrives—a new self, a new community, a new faith, a new peace, a new world, a new love.

My prayer for each of us, as we move more deeply into this dark season, is that we may have our moments of quiet stillness, that we may have the patience to wait attentively, that we finally come to understand what pieces of ourselves we can let go, and the pieces of ourselves for which we must struggle.

The light will come my friends. But now is the dark season. Be mindful, as Barbara Holmes says, we grow toward the light fed by the darkness. I invite you to wait well, and wonder often.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Louth, Andrew, The Origins or the Christian Mystical Tradition: from Plato to Denys (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980) p. 165.

[2] Holmes, Rev. Barbara A. Crisis Contemplation: Healing the Wounded Village (Albuquereque: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2021).

[3] Ibid., p. 44.

[4] Ibid., p. 47-48.

[5] Ibid., p. 53.

[6] Ibid., p. 57.

For So the Children Come

I hope my surprise departure from the service to volunteer in the children’s ministry program wasn’t too alarming to you. Gina was worried you would be alarmed. I promise you: this was not her idea. Desiree and I cooked it up—a bit of worship theater. I hope and trust the message is clear. We always need adults to volunteer in our children’s ministry on Sunday mornings and at other times. Children’s ministry has always had, and I suspect will always have, the largest need for volunteers of any ministry we offer at UUS:E. Mindful that these needs are great, Gina and the Religious Education Committee have done a lot in recent years to actually scale back the number of volunteers we need, and to reduce the amount of time volunteers have to put in. Even so, this ministry has always had, and I suspect will always have, the largest need for volunteers of any ministry we offer. And that’s a good thing, because volunteering to work with our children and youth is the most reliable way for us to build relationships and community across the generations here at 153 West Vernon St.

For the record, most of you will remember that at the end of September we began messaging the congregation that we needed more volunteers for the children’s ministry. We emphasized something that Desiree said earlier: we’re trying to design programming for the kids that directly utilizes your gifts. This is a shift in our children’s ministry culture. Instead of asking who knows how to make stained glass? Or who knows how to set up an obstacle course? Or who would like to teach a song? Or who can lead a nature hike around the grounds? Or who is willing to be the lead teacher for the elementary-aged kids? Instead of that approach, we’re asking each of you to identify a skill, a gift, an area of expertise, a passion you can bring to the children’s ministry. You identify the gift. Gina and her team will turn it into a spiritual lesson for the children.

If you know how to set up a bike rodeo, let us know. We’ll turn that knowledge into a spiritual lesson for the kids. If you are passionate about gardening, we’ll turn that passion into a spiritual lesson for the kids. If you can lead yoga or tai chi or modern dance, we’ll turn your ability into a spiritual lesson for the kids. We’ll match your gift to the ministry theme for the month. Painting, water-coloring, cooking, exercising, gardening, story-telling, worship-leading, crafting of any sort, teaching a foreign language, playing games (especially obscure games), reading poetry, writing poetry, writing prose, listening to music, sharing your musical prowess, or lack thereof, demonstrating your musical instrument, designing service projects, designing social justice projects, and anything to do with animals. All you engineers—surely you have some knowledge or skill to bring to the children. All you social workers and therapists—surely you have some knowledge or skill to bring to the children. All you nurses and medical staff—surely you have some knowledge or skill to being to the children. Small business owners? Lawyers? IT specialists? Surely you have something we can adapt for our children’s ministry.

Incidentally: while I don’t typically leave in the middle of the service to volunteer for the children’s ministry, from what I’ve been able to glean from conversations with colleagues, I spend far more time working with our kids than most clergy. I understand it as part of my ministry. I am not just the minister for adults. I am the minister to the children and youth. I’ve led children’s worship once already this year. I’ve led a session for the Affirmation class. I think I’m scheduled to do a “Breakfast with TED” session in February. I love it. The reason I am able to dedicate this time is because of our shared worship ministry. On the Sundays when lay-people are leading worship, you quite often will hear, “Our minister, the Rev. Josh Pawelek, is working with the kids this morning.”

On the subject of volunteers, there’s good news. Gina reports that some of you have responded to the message, have offered your gifts to the children’s ministry, and we’ve already been able to work you in for a Sunday program. Anne Carr offered baking. She baked brownies with the kids for the holiday fair. This activity served as an opportunity to explore important concepts with the kids, such as institutional stewardship, the various ways we support the congregation, the importance of community, understanding that children can contribute and make a difference, and the fun of working together on a project.

Ben Elzerman shared his music. He demonstrated the bagpipes and led the kids in a percussion circle. They used this activity to explore November’s ministry theme of change. One instrument makes a pleasant sound by itself, but what happens when we add additional instruments and sounds to the mix? They talked about creating change in community.

Louisa Graver has offered to lead a workshop on making a peace quilt with the junior youth group. That’s going to happen in January. Sandy Karosi, Shirley Schiumo and Priscilla Meehan, who is a newcomer to UUS:E, have all volunteered to work in the nursery with our staff-person Molly Vigeant. This is a different structure than we’ve used in the past. We used to ask volunteers to teach a class three or four Sundays a month throughout the congregational year. Now we’re asking you to name what you can bring one time. Our culture is slowly starting to shift. That’s good news. Keep it up! Keep the ideas coming! Keep the gifts and knowledge and skills and passions flowing!

Having said all this, I want to remind us I’m talking about far more than volunteering with the children’s ministry. Yes, we absolutely want you to volunteer, because we want the ministry to be successful. But larger than that, deeper than that, more essential than that, we have been, and we continue, to build a vibrant, thriving, liberating, multigenerational spiritual community. We were very clear about that as a congregation when we hired Gina Campellone as our Director of Religious Education. We didn’t just want a successful children’s ministry hidden away in its own silo. We wanted children to be present in many aspects of congregational life. I went back to a sermon I preached on building multigenerational community in the fall of 2013. Some of you will remember that at that time, some in the Unitarian Universalist Association were talking about the “death of Sunday School.” Congregations in many denominations were facing challenges in sustaining children’s ministries. In increasing numbers, adults with young children generally no longer saw church as a significant part of their children’s lives. And one of our regional staff members, Wren Bellevance-Grace, use to talk about the demise of Sunday morning as sacred time. Sports leagues, karate schools, dance studios and on and on were scheduling children’s programming on Sunday mornings, and families were often forced to choose. Wren used to say, “the battle for Sunday morning is over, and we’ve lost.” Remember that?

We heard that message. We took it seriously. But we didn’t give up on our children’s ministry. Our guiding vision was this: children and youth don’t want to come to church just to take religious education classes. Even if they can’t fully articulate it, they want to come to church because they feel part of a multigenerational community that cares about them and their families. Here’s what I said a decade ago:

Let’s ask how we can connect across generations, and then do it. And this is my hope: After a few years of experimenting and creating, making mistakes and coming to some dead ends, learning together and building relationships, we will transform our congregation. At that point we won’t ask, “How can our children be more integrated into the life of our congregation?” We’ll say, “Wow, the children are really integrated into the life of our congregation!” And not only the children, but elders and young adults too! Our children will be more fully integrated into the lives of our elders. And our elders will be more fully integrated into the lives of our youth. And our youth will have input into more of our Sunday services. And we’ll know what music they’re listening to. And all of our adults will be discerning their passions and figuring out how to share them with people of all ages. And they’ll also be volunteering in the nursery. And if the youth group is walking against hunger, the elders will go with them. And if the social justice committee is organizing an action against mass incarceration, the children will go with them. And if the elders are organizing a game night, the youth and young adults will join them. And if the religious education director needs volunteers to help teach a 5th and 6th grade class, twelve people will raise their hand and beg to be given this opportunity. We will have a beautiful, blessed mixing, week in and week out, holding us, teaching us, challenging us, inspiring us. That’s what a vibrant, liberating, loving multigenerational community looks like to me. We will figure it out. And we will thrive.

Friends, I am convinced this is a major piece of our journey as a congregation in the coming years. It must be. Too many forces in society drive the generations apart, preventing each from receiving the gifts the others offer. Too many forces direct people away from living fully in neighborhoods, from knowing and caring about their actual neighbors. Too many forces drive wedges into what I call sacred family time, including family meal time, family leisure time, family prayer time, family reading time, family art time and, with the death of Sunday morning, family worship time. Too many forces deprive us of the benefits of multigenerational community: the wonder, awe and innocence of children; the questioning, testing, sometimes rebellious spirit of youth; the idealism, creativity and energy of young adults; the experience, skills and leadership of middle-aged adults; the wisdom, memory and depth of elders. The church can and must be that force in society that says no to all that drives us apart. The church can and must be that force in society that says yes to vibrant, liberating, loving, multi-generational community; yes to responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking multigenerational community; yes to being together across generations, caring for one another, listening deeply to each other, honoring each other, playing together, working together, singing together, dancing together, breaking bread together, baking bread together, [breaking and baking gluten-free bread together,] making art together, struggling for a more just and fair world together, struggling for the world together across the generations. In my experience, outside of families that manage to keep some semblance of togetherness—not all do—there is no other institution in society that has more capacity to bring generations together than the church. We may very well be the last refuge of multigenerational community. If that’s true, then I, for one, feel a deep moral obligation to build and sustain vibrant, multigenerational community here at UUS:E. I hope and trust you do too.

We’re not there yet, but we’ve made considerable progress. We are much further along in our evolution than we were when I first preached those words.

I’ll leave you with this idea: The presence of children—high school, middle school, elementary, kindergarten, toddlers, infants—is the most reliable indicator that a congregation has a bright future; that our liberal religious values will endure, will be passed on to the next generation. The presence of children is the most reliable indicator that there will be people ready to receive, carry on, and adapt the spiritual legacy of those who are here now; just as those who are here now receive, carry on, and adapt the spiritual legacies of those who founded this congregation in 1969; just as we all receive, carry on and adapt the spiritual legacies of those who established the Unitarian and Universalist denominations in the United States more than two centuries ago; just as those founders received, carried on and adapted the legacies of religious free-thinkers, rationalists, heretics, protestors, prophets and lovers of humanity and the Earth extending back through the tens of thousands of years of human religious and spiritual history.

When you volunteer for the children’s ministry; or even when you just hear the children engaged in activities outdoors when the windows are open during worship in warm months; or when you join us for one of our all-congregation activities; or when the children and adults are worshipping together and the children come just as they are, they make a little noise, they squirm, they move around—they produce that blessed holy hubbub—remember all the liberal religious and spiritual legacies that have made this place possible. Remember that our children will, in their time, become the holders, the carriers, the adapters, the speakers, the singers, the teachers of these great legacies. Remember that, and love them fiercely.

 Amen and blessed be.

Courageous, Part II — Profiles in Courage

We were/are so happy to have the Rev. Dr. Alvan N. Johnson, Jr. join us for worship on October 16, 2022.

Courageous Part I: A Reality Greater Than Ourselves

Our ministry theme for October is courage.

As a reminder: in case you’re wondering where these themes come from, our congregation subscribes to an independent Unitarian Universalist resource hub called Soul Matters. Soul Matters periodically surveys their subscriber congregations for input about spiritual themes they’d like to explore or study. Based on that input, Soul Matters identifies themes for each month during the congregational year, and then develops and shares resources for worship, small group ministry, religious education for children, youth groups, etc. We call it theme-based ministry. It’s somewhat akin to Christian congregations that use a Biblical lectionary in worship. On any given Sunday, every congregation across the country, or across the planet, that uses the lectionary reads and reflects on the same Biblical passages. Somewhat similarly, in any given month, all the Soul Matters congregations are exploring the same spiritual theme. We may each approach it very differently, but I like knowing, for example, that many of my colleagues around the country are in their pulpits, right now, speaking to their congregations about courage.

It is unlikely, though not out of the realm, that any of their congregations have just listened to a piano rendition of “We Are the Champions” by the rock band Queen. That one wasn’t on the Soul Matters list for worship music suggestions. But it could have been. The list did include “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, “I Will Survive,” by Gloria Gaynor, “Roar” by Katie Perry, “Tomorrow” from the musical ”Annie,” “Let it Go” from the movie “Frozen,”  “You Raise Me Up,” by Josh Groban, and “Over the Rainbow,” from “The Wizard of Oz.” In my view, “We Are the Champions” would fit perfectly on that list. Full disclosure: “We Are the Champions” was Mary Bopp’s idea. Queen was the first rock band she ever saw live as a teenager in southern California. Her older sister surprised her with tickets one day. I think it blew her mind.

[Sarcasm alert] If you know the song, you know it’s one major flaw is that it expresses way too much humility. We are the champions, my friends / And we’ll keep on fighting, ‘til the end. / We are the champions / We are the champions / No time for losers / ‘Cause we are the champions of the World. I know, right? Genuine humility is so rare in our world. When you encounter it, it’s a thing of beauty.

Set the chorus aside. This sermon is moving in a very different direction. The song starts with these words: I‘ve paid my dues / Time after time / I’ve done my sentence / But committed no crime / And bad mistakes / I’ve made a few / I’ve had my share of sand / Kicked in my face / But I’ve come through. He’s singing about the band’s rise to fame, but it could also be a matephor for any person’s struggle to overcome challenges. Nothing about this life journey has been easy. They’ve worked hard, they’ve sacrificed, they’ve been knocked down, sand in the face, they’ve been criticized, but they’ve kept going. They have been courageous, which is why Mary and I liked the song for this morning’s service.

What the song doesn’t say, but which is important to me as a pastor, is that something—something in them—has given them the courage to continue, has kept them going, has enabled them to persevere through the mess of it all, has sustained them through the pain of it all. This is true for anyone who attempts to face a difficult challenge. Some inner drive, some passion, some positive future vision, some high resolve, some deeply-held value, some fundamental commitment sustains them in their struggle.

I want to know, in your life, when challenges arise, when pain comes, when you’re living with grief, when your life feels like it’s falling apart, what sustains you? What enables you to keep going, to persevere? The answer isn’t courage. We don’t do difficult things because we’re courageous. We don’t endure pain because we’re courageous. We become courageous when, in those moments when difficult challenges arise, we find what sustains us, what buoys us, what grounds us. We remember our commitments. That finding, that remembering instills in us the courage to carry on.

We don’t do difficult things because we’re courageous. We become courageous when, in the midst of difficulty, we find what sustains us. As we said in unison at the beginning of the service, those enduring words from the twentieth-century Christian mystic Howard Thurman: Keep fresh before me the moments / of my High Resolve, that in good /times or in tempests, / I may not forget that to which my life is committed.[1]

I notice that, often, what sustains and grounds us in difficult moments, what enables us to face those moments with courage is something bigger than us, a reality larger than our mere selves. I was looking at Biblical quotes about courage. Almost always, the admonition to be brave, the admonition to be not afraid, to remain calm, steadfast, hopeful, that admonition is invariably coupled with an invitation to trust in God, to rest in God’s shelter, to abide in God’s love. God is a reality larger than ourselves. There is perhaps no better example of this than the 23rd Psalm which is often spoken at funerals and memorial services as a way to hold grieving families.

You are my shepherd. / I shall not want. / You cradle me in green pastures. / You lead me beside the still waters. You restore my soul. / You guide me in the paths of righteousness for You are righteous. / Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, / I fear no evil, for You are with me; / your rod and your staff comfort me.  / You spread a table before me in the presence of my enemies. / You soothe my head with oil; my cup runs over. / Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in Your house forever.[2] I like this psalm in particular because of the feeling it invokes. It invites people who are lost or hurting or oppressed in some way to feel held, seen, supported, protected, safe. It’s a feeling of assurance. And with that feeling comes a kind of courage, the recognition that “I can get through this difficult moment.”

It’s a very different feeling from “We Are the Champions.” It’s not a “charging ahead, take-the-bull-by-the-horns” kind of courage. It’s the courage that comes from letting go of control in situations that are very likely beyond our control, like the death of a loved one, like natural disasters, like mass shootings. “You are my shepherd.”

It’s that courage that comes from falling back into the love and support of others. “I fear no evil for you are with me.”

It’s the courage that comes from just breathing, finding our center, remembering what matters. “You restore my soul.”

It’s the courage that comes from trusting, without any supporting evidence whatsoever, that this difficulty, this pain, this sadness will resolve in time, even if, in the moment, we cannot imagine how things will get better.

Of course, this is a very theistic source of courage in difficult moments. In the 23rd Psalm, the reality larger than ourselves in which we are invited to take shelter is God. God is very important to some of you. However, God is not the place many of you land when you contemplate realities larger than yourself. What I want to know, and what I invite you to reflect on as we explore this theme of courage over the next month is, given your life experience, given your own theology, your spiritual inclinations and practices, how do you name realities larger than you that hold you in difficult moments, remind you of ‘that to which your life is committed,’ and become your source of courage?

Two obvious answers occur to me immediately. One is family. As many of you know, my father-in-law has been dealing with some health issues, was living temporarily at Manchester Manor, and last Sunday afternoon tested positive for Covid and needed to be rushed to the hospital due to the severity of his symptoms. What was already a difficult and challenging situation for our family, particularly for my wife and my mother-in-law, expanded ten-fold over the course of a few hours. He was really sick. At first it was very difficult to get any information. There was anxiety, there was fear, there were some tears, there were questions: When can we go to the hospital? Since it’s a Covid infection, can we even get into see him? What is the hospital doing to treat him? [I’m mindful that a number of you have had these very same, frightening moments through the pandemic with your own family members.] For my in-laws—and I’ve always loved this about them—what stayed fresh before them in this particular tempest was their very deeply-held commitment to family. That commitment is very sustaining, very grounding for them. It helps them stay clear and focused in a crisis moment. It helps them work together. It is a source of courage.

I also know this experience of family is not a universal. Not everyone can rely on family in difficult times. There are a million different stories about how family members become estranged from each other, fail each other, fight each other. Nevertheless, people who have loving, supportive families, whether biological or chosen, have a place to land when challenges arise. Healthy families can be a powerful, positive reality larger than ourselves. Healthy families, if we are blessed to have them, cradle us in green pastures, they lead us beside still waters.

By the way, my father-in-law is doing much better and I appreciate all of you who’ve offered supportive and encouraging words.

Another answer to the question, I hope for all of you, is this congregation. A supportive, loving faith community is certainly a reality larger than ourselves in which we can find respite from the pain and heartache of the world. As I’ve been saying a lot recently, our staff and our leadership truly want this congregation to be a place where each of us feels encouraged and even empowered to ask for and receive help when we need it most. In my last sermon, I was talking about how difficult it can be to ask for help, to name our vulnerabilities, to acknowledge that we sometimes feel like we don’t belong. I said doing these things requires practice, because for most of us they are not our natural inclination. But it’s more than just practice. Doing these things requires a leap of faith, a willingness to let go. In our moments of greatest distress, can we let ourselves fall and trust that others here will catch us, that they will meet us with goodness and mercy as they set us down, that they will spread a table before us, soothe our heads with oil, fill our cups to overflowing? It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but we gain courage as we let go, as we fall, as we trust that others will catch us.

So I invite you, for the next month, as we explore this theme of courage, to contemplate realities larger than yourself that hold you and enable you to become courageous, especially in your most difficult moments. Family, congregation, the natural world, the earth, the oceans, the night sky, your partner, your children, your ancestors, the chalice flame, your Unitarian Universalist principles, your faith, God, Goddess, the Great Mystery, the expanding universe.

When you are weeping as the planet warms and burns and storms, what reality larger than yourself holds you and gives you courage?

When you are raging at the hatred and racism, the slow dismantling of women’s rights, the subtle and not so subtle attacks on transgender and other queer people—all of it streaming through our nation—what reality larger than yourself shelters you and gives you courage?

When you are hurting, struggling, suffering, wondering if you can ask for help, wondering if you will get what you need, what reality larger than yourself sustains you and gives you courage?

When you are grieving the death of a loved-one, missing them terribly, trying to re-invent yourself in the wake of unimaginable loss, what reality larger than yourself spreads a table before you and gives you courage?

Whatever tempest besets you, in that place of initial anxiety, pain, despair, can you remember that to which your life is committed and find the courage ride out the storm?

This is my invitation to you: ask and answer this question: what reality larger than yourself holds you and gives you courage?

Amen and blessed be.

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

[2] Psalm 23, Singing the Living Tradition  (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #642.

 

Belonging in the Midst of Isolation / Isolation in the Midst of Belonging

I want to talk about social isolation in the post-pandemic era. You might think, Oh boy, isolation, that’s such a heavy topic. Maybe we should  just let the band keep playing. The music is so uplifting. It’s all about community, family and friendship. Why does he have to talk about isolation? Blech! If you are actually thinking something like that, please know that this sermon has a happy ending. Isolation is very real, but some combination of community, family and friendship is the response. Community, family and friendship contribute to a person’s experience of belonging, which is our ministry theme for September. They are antidotes to isolation. I am also exploring belonging in the post-pandemic era, but to get there we need to consider what isolation looks like right now.

To begin, I said last Sunday I’m not even sure what to call this moment in time. I’m calling it the post-pandemic era, but I am not personally convinced the pandemic is over. Covid is still spreading, though certainly not at the dizzying rates it has in the past, like last winter’s omicron surge. And obviously in Connecticut, high vaccination rates contribute to lower numbers of hospitalizations and deaths, and greatly reduced severity of disease when contracted (though not for everyone). And regardless of how I may personally assess the overall situation and my own tolerance for risk, most of the rest of the state and the country has accepted that we are in the post-pandemic era, or that we have transitioned from Covid as pandemic to Covid as endemic. We will now treat it like we treat the flu. It makes for some messiness. Different people make different decisions about what they deem safe and what they deem unsafe. In public life, messy. Different people tolerate different levels of risk for a whole variety of reasons, in public life, messy. It’s especially messy for anyone who is still Covid-vulnerable due to age or a health condition that compromises their immune system. And it’s messy for any institutions—like faith communities—that endeavor to take those vulnerabilities seriously.

Let me back up from Covid for a moment, and acknowledge first that in any faith community, it is rare that everyone involved experiences the same level of belonging. As I said last week, we want everyone to feel like they belong. That’s the aspiration. I think we do an excellent job of providing that experience here, and yet we know not everyone feels like they fully belong, at least not all the time. Even in the midst of a very supportive, caring community, it is possible to feel isolated. I love the way Sheila Foran put it in her reflections on belonging at our September 4th service. She asked, “What if … even though you are part of several cohorts … you may have a family, you have colleagues from work or school, you have friends and hobbies and yes, you have UUS:E  … what if you still feel that you may not fully belong? That there is always a part of you that is standing outside the circle.” In my experience this is common.

Sheila offered a number of reasons why one might feel this way. I want to add one to her list: In our culture—meaning our wider United States culture, which impacts our congregational culture—for most people (not all, but most) it is profoundly difficult to name our vulnerabilities in public. Especially for people who are independent, who easily manage their own affairs, who  at least have the appearance of “having it all together,” who are used to helping others but not needing help themselves—people who others regard as competent, resilient, courageous, even powerful—it’s really hard to say I need help, I am afraid, I am in pain, I am lonely, I can’t do this by myself. Remember adrienne maree brown’s list of questions: Can you drive me to the hospital? … Can you open this water bottle? … Can you put my bag in the overhead bin? Can you bring me groceries? … Can you hold me while I cry? … Can you listen while I feel this?[1] It’s really hard to make these kinds of requests if we aren’t in the habit of making them. It’s really hard to reveal our messy, hurting, vulnerable selves, even to people who we know, intellectually, care about us.

Why is it hard? We come up with all sorts of reasons why we don’t want to share our vulnerabilities. I don’t want to burden anyone. I’m embarrassed. I don’t want anyone to judge me. I don’t want people to think I’m needy or weak or that I don’t have it all together in my life. I don’t want this to get in the way of my friendships. If I ask for help it means my life is changing and I desperately don’t want my life to change. What if people don’t take me seriously? What if the people I tell can’t handle it? What if they don’t want to hear it? What if they say, ‘oh, you’ll be fine,’ when I am terrified that I won’t be?

Have you ever had the experience of sharing a vulnerability with another person, sharing something painful in your life, your grief, your medical condition, a financial problem, a parenting challenge, an addiction you’re struggling with, and the person with whom you shared it, the person you thought was with you, suddenly wasn’t with you. They stopped making eye contact. They changed the subject. They looked at their watch or their phone. They made some excuse to end the conversation. They had to go. They didn’t check in with you later. Afterwards you felt more isolated than you did before you shared. If you don’t share with anyone, your isolation deepens. If you share and people don’t respond the way you hoped they would, your isolation deepens.

And while I am describing this dynamic, I think it’s important to ask: have you ever had the experience of someone sharing their vulnerability with you, and you were the person who couldn’t hear it, couldn’t make eye contact, etc? I think we all struggle with both sides of this equation. I always appreciate when people say to me, Rev., I don’t think you’re really listening. I don’t think you’re really with me in this. But it is also hard to hear that I’ve let someone down in their moment crisis.

People not sharing their vulnerabilities deepens isolation. People not hearing the sharing—or somehow discounting it—deepens isolation.

Back to Covid. We ended, at least for now, our mask mandate here at UUS:E. The Policy Board voted, not unanimously by the way, to end the mandate during the first full week of September. We now recommend masking, but don’t require it. From one angle, we are joining the rest of society where mask mandates were disappearing all last year. In my experience, the only place you find mask mandates now is in health care facilities. Waiting so long to remove our mandate definitely made us an outlier. It seems like such a simple change, like it could have happened sooner. But it wasn’t simple. This change carries huge symbolic weight. Masks are loaded with symbolic energy now, engendering not only heated conversations, but full-blown arguments, disruptions of school board meetings, lawsuits, even fist-fights over the value of science, about the role and effectiveness of public health protocols, public health officials and public health agencies, about freedom and personal choice, about educational pedagogy, about parents’ rights, about workplace safety. Remember April of 2020 when we and every other congregation were desperately sewing masks to donate to hospital staff, and we were becoming aware of huge disparities when it came to which workers got personal protective gear and which workers didn’t? Masks are a big deal.

I wear my mask faithfully in the grocery store and really anywhere I go in public where I expect to encounter large groups of people I don’t know in potentially close quarters. When I walk in and I’m the only one wearing a mask, my mind races, my anxiety rises. What do people think? Do they think I’m sick? Paranoid? Self-righteous? Are they judging me as one of those people who believes in science? Am I judging them? Why aren’t they wearing masks? Do they not care about my health and well-being? Do they follow Covid Act Now? I have no opportunity to explain why I am still wearing a mask. I can’t strike up that conversation with random people. So I feel …. isolated. Masks are loaded with symbolic energy.

For our congregation, for the Emergency Preparedness Team, the Policy Board and the staff, that energy had and still has everything to do with meeting the needs of the most vulnerable among us. From March of 2020 we’ve been doing our best to center the needs of the people at most risk for greater health complications or death if they were to contract Covid. That has meant mandating mask-wearing inside our meeting house. As the Policy Board was discussing the removal of the mandate, the primary question was: what about the most vulnerable? The last thing we want to do in removing our mask mandate is inadvertently say to covid-vulnerable people: you’re on your own now! thereby creating more isolation, even as the end of the mask mandate actually reduces isolation for others. We remain fully committed to doing everything we can to center the needs of the most vulnerable. I want to share some preliminary steps we’re taking to do that.

Thank you to the members of the Pastoral Friends Committee. They are developing a UUS:E buddy system. If, in this post-pandemic time, you feel isolated, vulnerable, not sure how to navigate the loosening of restrictions here or anywhere, maybe you’d like a church buddy; someone to check in with from time to time, someone with whom you can share your concerns, someone who will listen to you and to whom you will listen. It’s totally voluntary. If that’s something you’d like, watch our eblast for information, or contact me. We will set you up with a buddy.

We’re also getting ready to launch three new small group ministries. For those who are unfamiliar with this program, small groups are usually 7-10 people who meet monthly to check in with each other and discuss topics relevant to our spiritual lives. They provide an excellent opportunity to build deeper relationships with a few people, which can sometimes be difficult in a congregation as large as ours. I want to encourage people who are feeling isolated to consider joining one of these groups when they are ready to go. And for people who still feel unsafe meeting in person, we are designing one of them as an online only option. The others, we expect, will be hybrid meetings, meaning some people will attend in person while others participate online at the same time. And if I say “online” and you start to feel even more isolated because you’d like to participate, but you aren’t very tech savvy and have trouble with platforms like Zoom, let us know. We have folks who can coach you.

These are just two ideas. We’d love to hear other ideas and I encourage you to share with me or Sally Gifford who is the current Pastoral Friends chair. Even if you don’t have an idea to share, if you are feeling isolated in this post-pandemic era, for any reason, I encourage you to say it out loud. Say it to me. Say it to someone in the congregation to whom you feel close. Let’s talk about it. Maybe there’s nothing we can do, no change we can make, no action we can take in response. But in the very least we can know. And you will be acknowledged, believed, supported, loved.

Earlier I read to you a passage from the activist, organizer, writer adrienne maree brown, in which she talks about learning to ask for help. It wasn’t easy. It took practice. There were a lot of cultural norms around not sharing that got in her way. But she learned to ask, even when she knew there was no way she could return the favor to the person helping her, and it changed her life. “The result of this experience is that I feel so much more woven into the world. I still anticipate independence, my default can-do self space. But I don’t want to sever any of this connecting fabric between myself and all of the incredible people who held me through [difficult times], saw me, corrected me, held me in my contradictions, met my needs. I want more of my life to feel this interdependent, this of community and humanity.”[2]

Community, family, friendship: always messy. Never perfect. But what are we here for—in this faith community, but also on this planet—if not to be there for each other when times get tough. Vulnerabilities and isolation are a part of the human condition. They are not going away. But here’s the happy ending. This congregation will do its best to address the needs of the vulnerable among us. This congregation will do its best to reduce isolation and increase belonging. And in doing so, all our lives will feel more interdependent, more, in brown’s words, of community, more of humanity.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] brown, adrienne maree, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017) p. 95.

[2] brown, adrienne maree, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017) p. 96.

Toward Redemption: Responding to Margaret Renkl

At the beginning of this morning’s service I shared with you excerpts from “An Open Letter to My Fellow White Christians,” by the New York Times’ Nashville-based contributing opinion writer, Margaret Renkl.[1] I call this sermon, “Toward Redemption: A Response to Margaret Renkl.” I wouldn’t be preaching on Renkl’s letter, except Stan and Sue McMillen purchased a sermon at last years’ UUS:E Goods and Services auction; after going back-and-forth about a topic, Stan finally landed on Renkl’s open letter, and this is the sermon (and a reminder that if you prefer a different sermon, be sure to come to the auction on May 14th and bid high!).

Stan had actually forwarded the letter to me when it was published two years ago. He re-forwarded it back in March, saying: “I really love this [letter] and it is as true today as it was when it was written…. Since then, [conservative] states have passed draconian laws. We’ve seen increased violence against Asians, Jews, and homeless people. Where is Christ in Christianity? Hopefully you can build on this and reflect not only on violence to humans, but also to Mother Earth and all the creatures that [share the planet with us.] What do you think?”

What do I think? Honestly, my first thought was, that’s about ten sermons worth of material, Stan, but you only purchased one.

Renkl’s open letter is powerful. She names White Christianity’s historical and ongoing collusion with White supremacy culture in the United States. “When we arrived,” she writes, “on our big ships and decimated this land’s original peoples with our viruses and our guns, when we used our Christian faith as a justification for killing both ‘heretic’ and ‘heathen,’ we founded this country in flames.” She writes about White Christianity’s complicity with slavery in the past and a racist criminal justice system in the present. She pleads with White Christians to look squarely at what has happened and is happening, to refuse the retreat into indifference, to seek redemption. To that end, she names White Christian leaders who have engaged or are engaging in redemptive, antiracist ministries. She concludes: “We are not yet beyond redemption. It is time to act on what we say we believe…. Remember the words of the prophet Isaiah: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks….” Remember the words of Jesus — “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake.” She challenges White Christians to “join the righteous cause of the protesters. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

At first I balked at this sermon idea. Renkl is writing to her “fellow White Christians.” But is she writing to us? As people of faith who largely don’t identify personally as Christian; who don’t automatically regard the words of the prophet Isaiah or Jesus as sacred scripture for us; who often regard Christianity with wariness based on difficult and painful past personal experiences; and as people who don’t necessarily have the authority to say where the Christ in Christianity is—we Unitarian Universalists can easily assume we’re not part of Renkl’s audience. She’s writing to them, not to us. The risk is that, consciously or unconsciously, we’ll start to point self-righteous fingers at White Christians for their racism, as if we have no redemptive work to do as Unitarian Universalists. So I balked at first. But it’s Stan and Sue’s sermon, so I got over it.

We are included in Renkl’s audience, because we cannot, and should not evade our own history. Most of us may not identify theologically as Christian today, but our spiritual forebears, the New England Puritans, where precisely those White Christians who, in Renkl’s words, “arrived on our big ships and decimated this land’s original peoples with our viruses and our guns … found[ing] this country in flames.” And as much as we can and should point proudly to our historical, faith-based legacies of activism and organizing against slavery, against poverty, for civil rights, for women’s rights, worker’s rights, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, immigrants rights, and for environmental justice, we can also point to Unitarians and Universalists connected to the slave trade through ship-building and sailing, connected to New England’s sweatshop textile mills, connected to Indian boarding schools, not to mention a history of general White church indifference to the plight of oppressed people. So it would be disingenuous for us to exclude ourselves from Renkl’s audience.

Renkl’s letter first appeared on June 8th, 2020, two weeks after the May 25th police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. When Renkl urges us to join “the righteous cause of the protestors,” she’s referring to that incredible movement that swept the nation—and the world—in the wake of Floyd’s murder. Many of you participated in the protests, marches and rallies here. We can prove it. We have pictures!

What is truly striking to me today is how different the nation’s energy feels two years later. I’m sharing a feeling more than an analysis. It feels like the nation hit a high-water mark for justice and liberation in 2020. That summer there seemed to be a widespread consensus across the political spectrum that what happened to George Floyd was wrong and should never happen again. Suddenly every business, every corporation, every local government, every congregation was figuring out how to say Black Lives Matter, was expanding training for diversity, equity and inclusion. I also point to the November, 2020 election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. They represented then—and now—a multicultural, religiously pluralistic, people-centered America. They shared then—and now—a vision of a more just and fair America. They shared then—and now—a commitment to addressing climate change. They understand and care about policy in a way their predecessor did not. They both have extensive experience in government and are competent administrators, especially in response to the pandemic. They are kind people.

I also point to what felt like the solidity of longer-term gains for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people—marriage equality, military service, representation in school curricula—including a general national consensus in support of GLBTQ people and communities. There was certainly still a long way to go at the end of 2020, and some parts of the country were more proactive than others, but those longer-term gains, by and large, seemed to have survived by the end of that year, despite some horrendous Trump-era assaults.

There’s certainly more I could name, but I’m trying to articulate the positive, progressive energy that was palpable in the nation in the second half of 2020.

What we—or at least I—didn’t know then was that we really were at a high-water mark. There’s a new energy now, a fury, circulating through the nation in response to whatever progress we might have made. Of course, ‘new’ isn’t quite the right word to describe it. This fury is an always-present dimension of the fabric of American life. Over the decades we’ve seen it in our politics, our culture, our churches, sometimes muted, sometimes loud. Right now it’s explosive. It’s a reactive fury, nativist, White, patriarchal. Versions of it get preached in many Christian pulpits. We see it in the passage of what Stan called draconian laws restricting voting access, restricting abortion access, restricting what schools can teach about gender identity and sexual orientation, restricting what schools can teach about race and racism. In Connecticut we see it in the so-called Safe Streets movement, attempting to roll back progressive juvenile justice reforms. We see it in unruly town hall meetings, people shouting, throwing punches, harassing town council and board of education members. We see it in Nazi literature being distributed around West Hartford, Manchester and other Connecticut towns. This fury has transformed peoples’ pandemic exhaustion into a potent political tool. Case in point: in the Virginia governor’s race last November, fury at pandemic restrictions became synonymous with fury over unfounded fears of critical race theory being taught in public schools. They became the same fury.

In thrall to this fury, so many people have rejected sound public health strategies for responding to the pandemic, and have instead privileged a warped understanding of personal freedom above even the most remote concern for the well-being of their communities, let alone for the most vulnerable members of those communities. Speaking of the Christ in Christianity, I have enough authority to say with confidence that the kingdom of heaven does not belong to those who ignore the most vulnerable. But that’s not the dominant energy in our nation right now.

Of course, it’s not our energy here at UUS:E. We are not a people of fury, and ours is not a furious faith. Yes, we share in all the legacies of White Christianity which Renkl’s letter describes, but we’re not defending them, as if our lives depend on them. We’re not arguing that they no longer impact our lives, and that therefore we should not talk about them. We’re aware that we have to account for them, that we have to continually work at transforming them into something that looks and feels like redemption—a church, a people, “a world made whole,” as we sang earlier. That’s why we talk about racism and other oppressions, a lot. That’s why we’re studying the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Widening the Circle of Concern report. That’s why we’re beginning a conversation about the proposed 8th Unitarian Universalist principle.

There are many ways to move toward redemption. Renkl names a number of White Christian leaders who have been or are engaged in redemptive, antiracist ministries. I have a few thoughts about how we ought to engage, especially in light of the fury I’ve been describing.

First, trust that for most people, fury is a very difficult emotion to sustain. Fury burns brightly, then burns out. Its energy is fleeting. It thrives most when it has opposition, when people react to it. The less we react, the less fuel we provide, the less capacity it has to sustain itself over time. I’m not saying we ought to ignore it, as it does have power and it is causing harm. But I’m less concerned about addressing it directly, in a reactive way, and more concerned about supporting the people it targets.

This new fury almost always targets vulnerable people. That’s it’s tell-tale sign. So I say, let’s focus our energy on the most vulnerable people in our communities. The “Plowshare Prayer”  we heard earlier from the singer/songwriter/church-worker Spencer LaJoye points us in this direction: Amen on behalf of the last and the least / On behalf of the anxious, depressed, and unseen / Amen for the workers, the hungry, the houseless / Amen for the lonely and recently spouseless / Amen for the queers and their closeted peers / Amen for the bullied who hold in their tears / Amen for the mothers of little Black sons / Amen for the kids who grow up scared of guns / Amen for the addicts, the ashamed and hungover / Amen for the calloused, the wisened, the sober / Amen for the ones who want life to be over / Amen for the leaders who lose their composure /  Amen for the parents who just lost their baby / Amen for the chronically ill and disabled / Amen for the children down at the border / Amen for the victims of our law and order.[2]

Ask yourself, even if you are vulnerable in some way, how can you position yourself—your body, your gifts and skills, your money—in proximity to vulnerable people such that you can offer help, support, caring, compassion? When we respond to the world with this kind of energy, we are saying “no” to fury that would exclude and deny and erase, and “yes” to love, “yes” to community, “yes” to life. When we respond to the world with this kind of energy, we’re also doing what I understand to be the core of Jesus’ ministry: From the book of Matthew, Chapter 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”[3]

When we respond to the world with this kind of energy, we’re actually bringing a very specific kind of Christianity to life: Universalism. We’re saying everyone is entitled to inclusion, not just some. Everyone is entitled to love and care, not just some. Everyone’s life is sacred, not just some. When we respond to the world with this kind of energy, we move toward redemption.

Finally, remember, the kind of redemption Renkl is talking about—this making right and just and fair our nation that was founded in flames—doesn’t happen overnight, but rather takes decades, if not centuries. It comes slowly as systems and culture change. And what changes systems and culture? It’s not any one thing that you or I do, though each thing we do matters. It’s what we do together. It’s what we as a congregation do together with other congregations, which is why it matters that we’re part of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance, in solidarity with nearly fifty other congregations across the region, organizing our people and our money to make positive social change. It’s why we partner with Moral Monday CT, Power Up CT, the Domestic Worker Justice Campaign and the Recovery for All Coalition. It’s why we partner with the Inter-Religious Eco-Justice Network and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. There’s wonderful energy in these partnerships. It’s not the energy of fury. It’s the energy of love and liberation. And though it takes time, and requires enormous patience, and we lose battles along the way, engaging in that collective work of love and liberation is the most sure path toward redemption.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Rankl, Margaret, ”An Open Letter to My Fellow White Christians,” New York Times, June 8th, 2020. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/08/opinion/protests-white-christian-racism.html.

[2] Cholst, Rachel, “Spencer LaJoye Turns Prayers Into Plowshares on Their New Song,” Adobe and Teardrops, March 1, 2022. This piece includes an audio track of LaJoye’s song on Soundcloud: https://adobeandteardrops.com/2022/03/spencer-lajoye-turns-prayers-into-plowshares-on-their-new-song.html.

[3] Matthew 25: 35-36.

Easter Music Service, April 17, 2022

All Faith Responds to Longing, UUS:E Worship, March 27, 2022

“All Faith Responds to Longing”
Rev. Josh Pawelek

I want to thank Penny Field for last week’s service, “Hineni: Here I Am.”[1] Last fall I invited Penny to speak about her spiritual journey as part of a two-part series on our March ministry theme, renewing faith. This morning’s service is Part II. I call this sermon, “All Faith Reponds to Longing.”

Hineni. Here I am.

In the Hebrew Bible, Genesis chapter 22, God calls out: “Abraham!” Abraham, who has no idea how God is about to test his faith, responds, “Here I am.”

In the book of Exodus, Chapter 3, Moses gazes at a burning bush just off the path. God calls out to him, “Moses, Moses.” Moses, who has no idea how radically his life is about to change, says “Here I am.”

In the Book of Isaiah, chapter 6, God asks the seraphs, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah, who does not know the mission God has in store—cries out: “Here am I; send me!”

Powerful images of faithfulness: people responding to God’s call even before they know God’s intentions.

But what if God doesn’t call? What if we never encounter that divine voice? Penny’s experience is the opposite of the Biblical characters. She told us about her deep “longing for a personal God that cared about and loved me…loved us.” This longing kept her and keeps her searching. “I asked everyone, even strangers standing next to me in line at the grocery store, what they believed about God. I read incessantly on the topic. I attended services and lectures in and on multiple faiths. In church after church I lit candles. I prayed, I meditated, I chanted, I wrote poetry, I walked in nature and I called out Hineni! Here I am! I’m ready my Lord!”

Silence. No sign whatsoever that God is listening, or that God even exists.

At times, I suspect, knowing Penny, the silence was beautiful, mystical, mysterious, comforting in its own way. But it was not God. At other times, I know, the silence was disappointing, painful, heart-breaking—and also not God. Penny is not fully at peace with this “not God”—she still searches. But she has certainly come to terms with it. She told us: “What I have finally found, as opposed to the kind of faith that means no doubt in the existence of God, is a deep acceptance of the truth of where I am at any given moment and a willingness to be open to it all…. When I accept my doubt as part of my faith as opposed to the opposite of faith, everything in me relaxes and opens. The more I’m open to life, to other people, to the things that scare me, the more I come to know what I can count on. I grow in faith in those things and those people and then this faith can be renewed again and again.”

Penny articulates the theological place in which many Unitarian Universalists—not all, but many—find themselves. It may sound something like this:

I don’t hear God’s voice. I’ve never heard God’s voice. I used to think I did, but it was just my childhood imagination.

A part of me that envies so-called believers who find great comfort in their certain faith in God, but even if I could fake it, I can’t handle the dogma, the hate, the exclusion that so often accompanies it.

I can’t in good conscience say the words of a creed I don’t actually believe. Why dedicate energy to saying the words if I don’t have any experience that tells me God is real?

Instead, I strive to embrace the here and now. I welcome and embrace my doubt, trusting it can lead to growth. I endeavor to live the best life I can, to treat people well. Through such living I discover there are things I can count on: family, friends, community, Nature, music, art, literature, creativity, the wonder of children. And yes, I can count on suffering too.

Mine is not a traditional faith. It’s not an unchanging faith. It’s not a faith in eternal things. It’s thoughtful faith, a humble faith. It works for me.

I want to elaborate on how, in my experience, this faith works.

A week ago I met a colleague for coffee, a United Church of Christ minister. She told me about a 12-year old girl in their congregation who died after a life-long illness. They were holding the memorial service later that day. We agreed there are no adequate words in response to the death of a child. Despite this, my colleague still had to speak at the service. With moist eyes and conviction, she assured me God would be there. This family would know God’s love in this moment. I don’t pretend to know what these words meant to her, but I can tell you how I heard them. She wasn’t saying God is an eternal, omnipotent being who intervenes in our earthly affairs. She wasn’t uncritically repeating an ancient creed. She was speaking from her heart—I could hear it in her voice. Most importantly, she wasn’t telling me God told her any of this, that she had heard God’s voice. What I heard was my colleague pronouncing her version of the ancient Hebrew word, hineni. Here I am. What I heard was her faith that if she stays open and present to  this family in their unfathomable grief, it doesn’t matter that there is nothing adequate to say: the family will experience a love for which there is no other word but divine. Faith isn’t a question of whether God is real or not. It isn’t a question at all. It’s a response to the moment, a response that can be as equally full of doubt as it is full of confidence: Here I am.

Earlier I shared with you a prayer from the doctor and Jewish spiritual writer Rachel Naomi Remen. She says when she prays she is moving from mastery (i.e., knowing) to mystery (i.e., unknowing). She’s moving not into certainty, but away from it.  She’s entering the unknown and asking, despite not knowing, that her actions will make a difference. Hineni. She says: “Understanding the suffering is beyond me. Understanding the healing is, too. But in this moment. I am here. Use me.”[2] That’s faith.

At age 55, after 25 years of marriage, after raising children, after the death of my father, after 23 years of professional ministry, I am convinced that a central facet of the human condition is longing. It takes many forms. As settled in our lives as we may at times feel, there is also always with us an ache, a wish, a desire, a yearning, a nagging sense—sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious—that something is still missing, that there could be more, that life isn’t quite what we’d hoped or imagined, that there is some work yet to fulfill, some community yet to build, some injustice yet to confront, some novel yet to write, some painting yet to paint, some song yet to sing, some relationships still needing repair, some relationships still needing to form and grow, some love still to give, some love still to receive, some greater joy, some greater hope, some more complete wholeness, some greater meaning, some more lasting peace, some more solid ground, some loving God, some primordial state to return to, some womb-like bliss to return to, some enduring, sheltering darkness to return to.

The poet David Whyte describes longing as “the defenseless interior secret core of a person receiving its overdue invitation from the moon, the stars, the night horizon, and the great tidal flows of life and love.” [3] When we experience longing, “it is as if we are put into a relationship with an enormous distance inside us, leading back to some unknown origin, with its own secret timing, indifferent to our wills, and gifted at the same time with an intimate sense of proximity …. to a life we want for ourselves, and to the beauty of the sky and the ground that surrounds us.”[4]

When I refer to longing, I’m not talking about a desire to escape from the world—to relax at the end of a long day, maybe with a glass of wine and some comfort food; or to take a vacation and ‘get away from it all’ for a week; or gaze mindlessly at a screen, play a video game, binge-watch the hottest new show. I’m not talking about a desire to tune out the relentless horror of the world. I’m talking about the desire to pursue our passions, to create beauty, to care, to nurture, to love, to connect with realities larger than ourselves; and, yes, to experience a loving divinity holding us, guiding us, grounding us.

Some will contend our longing makes us suffer, that the enormous distance inside us is unbridgeable no matter what we do, that we ought to seek ways of quieting our longing, letting it go, laying it tenderly to rest like those parents saying goodbye to their deceased child. There is truth to this. Our longing can cause suffering, especially if we’re longing for something we feel may not exist. That interior distance may be unbridgeable. There may be no heavenly court, no burning bush. God may be quiet, fragile and powerless.

And yet the world keeps calling to us, keeps poking and prodding, keeps eliciting our ache, keeps colliding with our longing. Someone has to speak at that child’s memorial service. And someone is fed up with their working conditions and is ready to organize. And someone is tired of being estranged from their parents, and wants to apologize. And someone is finally ready to fight their addiction, to move toward sobriety. Someone is ready to propose marriage, and someone has just realized their marriage is unworkable. Someone has just received a devastating diagnosis and is preparing for the fight of their life. Someone has just lost their job and realizes they can finally reinvent themselves. Someone has just given birth, and someone has just lost a child. Someone is fleeing war while their partner is marching to the front line. In such ways the world speaks to—some might say collides with—our longing. When our longing is stirred we can ignore it, pretend we don’t feel it. (I don’t recommend that.) We can try to let it go, try to detach ourselves from it. Sometimes that is the most appropriate, spiritually sound option. Or we can whisper into the silence our version of the ancient Hebrew word, hineni. Here I am. And then do what the world is calling us to do. We can respond. With or without God, that’s faith.

David Whyte describes longing as the foundational instinct that we are here essentially to risk ourselves in the world … that we are meant to hazard ourselves for the right thing, for the right [person], for a [child], for the right work, or for a gift given against all odds.”[5] Acting on that instinct, taking that risk—that’s faith. I say all faith is a response to longing, a longing for God to be real, a longing for wholeness, a longing for peace, for justice, for solace. We can’t prove any of it is possible. Faith is our willingness to say “Here I am” in the absence of proof.

I am learning to trust my longing, even when it seems unrealistic, and especially when it brings me to tears. I’m learning to respond with my version of hineni. And I’ve learned that sometimes, as a result of my Here I am,” a grieving family, or a person facing eviction, or a teenager trying to figure out who they are, or an elder coming to terms with their diagnosis of dementia, or a friend who just lost their mother, may experience a love for which there is no other word but divine. Our “here I am” can bring something good into the world. That’s the power of faith. It’s worth the risk.

I leave you with Dr. Remen’s words: “Understanding the suffering is beyond me. Understanding the healing is, too. But in this moment. I am here. Use me.”[6]

Amen and blessed be.

[1] View the entire March 20, 2022 service and/or read Penny Field’s poems and sermon at https://uuse.org/hineni-here-i-am-uuse-worship-march-20th-2022/#.YjtChurMLrc.

[2] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Prayer,” Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 272.

[3] Whyte, David, “Longing,” in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of everyday Words (Langley, Washington: Many Rivers Press, 2020) pp. 151.

[4] Whyte, David, “Longing,” in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of everyday Words (Langley, Washington: Many Reivers Press, 2020) pp.153.

[5] Whyte, David, “Longing,” in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of everyday Words (Langley, Washington: Many Reivers Press, 2020) pp.153 – 154.

[6] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Prayer,” Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 272.

Hineni: Here I Am — UUS:E Worship, March 20th, 2022

HINENI
Penny Field

“. . . And I said, Hineni: Here I am; send me. And God said, Go.” (Isaiah 6:8-9)

Sitting by the window in the slanted light
of late Autumn, I close my eyes
to look for you. I hear the clock in my ear,
life passing one tick at time.
Into that steady sound I defy the search
and declare: Hineni! Here I Am,
insisting you find me.

If faith is the opposite of certainty
then I am certain that I have no faith.

I want to see the crimson leaves, drifting
toward the golden ground, as evidence of you.
I can’t see the wind that brings them down
but still, they swirl in colored currents
all around the yard and I don’t doubt
that I will need to rake them to the curb.

But I want more than metaphor. I want
you to appear in my house, the ficus aflame,
your voice proclaiming that all will be well
or directing me to some burdensome task
that will change the world.

You are quiet as ever, leaving me
to my longing for you to locate me.
Hineni: Here I am.

*****

CHIAROSCURO
Penny Field

On a grand tour of Italy,
I stand in church after church,
shoulders draped in thin crepe
to show respect, inspecting
the details, astounded how
every crevice is carved or painted,
life and death depicted in stone
and bronze and tempera, a sudden
ray of sun revealing crucifixion
in bright colored glass.

I light a candle in every nave,
dropping a coin, cha-chink,
into the little metal box, praying
to a God I don’t think exists
but still hoping the light I buy
will save all of our souls.

In the Eternal City, I am awestruck
in the Santa Maria del Popolo
church. A Caravaggio masterpiece
leaves all the drama
of St. Paul’s conversion
to the effects of light.

As I light another taper,
the match sparking sharply
in the shadow of the great
apse, I burn to know
what Paul knew,
ache for the darkness of the world
to have meaning
in the bright contrast.

*****

HINENI
Penny Field

On the last Tuesday of every month a small group of us meet with Reverend Josh for God Talk. Our news bulletin describes God Talk as a discussion group for UU theists and each month Josh, or one of the members of the group, poses a topic or a question pertaining to god and we discuss. Please know that you are welcome to join us and I hope you do. It’s always a fascinating conversation. There are as many beliefs about god as there are people in the group and it’s been it’s a wonderful, thought provoking exercise that I thoroughly enjoy but I will say, it sometimes reminds a bit me of an old UU joke.

The joke says, “A group of UU’s are walking along and they come to a fork in the road. The sign says: this way to heaven, that way to the discussion about heaven and the UU’s all go towards the discussion about heaven. God talk and this joke both illustrate why I feel so at home as a member of a UU congregation but also why I struggle here. I love the discussion of spiritual things and I have many words to theorize on theological ideas but I also long for a direct experience of transcendence; of some power greater than myself; a personal experience of god and of faith. I have struggled to find that, not just in UUsm, but anywhere. My strong intellect tends to get in the way but I’m incredibly grateful that the 4th UU principle, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, so consistently allows me to work with the polarization between my head and my heart as I continue to discover what it means for me to be a person of faith.

Like many of us, I grew up with a god that was an old man with a long white beard in the sky who created the heavens and the Earth and ruled over us with the all the power to punish and to reward. My family wasn’t particularly observant and our Judaism centered around the cultural practices that maintained a connection to our heritage as opposed to any of the religious practices that were designed to bring one closer to god. My formal religious education at the synagogue was pretty dry and focused on learning the basic old testament stories, and some Torah informed history of the Jewish people. I also learning to phonetically read Hebrew so I could have a Bat Mitzvah, that ritual that marks a child’s moving into adulthood at the ripe old age of 13. For most of us kids, it was all about the party and the presents and little if anything to do with God.

It didn’t occur to me to question or even wonder about that all powerful God until, as a teenager, a series of incredibly painful things happened that launched my long search for a God that I could believe would actually help.

Once I really started looking, it became apparent to me that the god could not be all powerful unless he was a sadist and it made no sense that he was out there listening   deciding whether or not to answer our prayers based on some merit system. So how did it work? After studying history and comparative religion in college, I graduated as an Atheist. With the amount of suffering, the amount of darkness in the world and in my own life, I found no god in any of the great world religions that made any sense to me. I did, however, find much evidence that all religion was created by humans and easily used to control and manipulate people. As faith fell away and I became certain that there was no god, I felt lost and incredibly sad.

I was not a happy atheist. A hole seemed to open inside me that no amount of alcohol, drugs, men, or chocolate could fill, though I admit I gave those things a serious try. I suffered deeply from God envy, longing for the comfort that so many other people seemed to find in their faith in god. I wanted to believe that I was being carried, that god wouldn’t give me anything I couldn’t handle, that god would lift me up when I fell, but I was completely unable to make that leap of faith.

That deep longing for a personal god that cared about and loved me…loved us, kept me searching. I asked everyone, even strangers standing next to me in line at the grocery store, what they believed about god. I read incessantly on the topic. I attended services and lectures in and on multiple faiths. In church after church I lit candles. I prayed, I meditated, I chanted, I wrote poetry, I walked in nature and I called out Hineni! Here I am! I’m ready my lord! But my intellect was completely at odds with what my emotions so wanted. There was no concept of a personal god that made any sense to me. There is a saying that the longest journey we ever take is that from the head to the heart and for decades I believed that, in terms of finding god or a faith that worked for me, I’d never get there.

Over the years I’ve considered numerous intellectual theories about god including that perhaps God is the quiet, fragile, helpless God, that Josh preached about a few years ago: out there but having no power. Or perhaps god is an energy, not a being. Maybe it’s akin to electricity: I don’t understand how it works but it’s a power that I can draw on to help light my way. It doesn’t do anything on its own but if I put my plug into it, it can provide an energy source for whatever work I need to do. Or maybe god is nature or perhaps god just love. In me, in you, in us all. But none of these theories really touch my heart or help to fulfill my longing me to feel held by god.

I believe that the longing for the feeling of safety that a personal god would supply is a normal human longing. Who doesn’t want that? I feel that longing expressed in the hymn we sang: Comfort me oh my soul! Of course I want to feel comforted, taken care of, held, safe. I’m terrified most of the time. Life is scary and terrible things are always happening somewhere. Of course I want to believe that there is a plan, some divine wisdom behind it all and that there is some power greater than me that is in charge. To be certain of this would provide a comfort that of course I long for. But I have come to understand that doubting that this exists does not mean that I have no faith.

The bible defines faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. This is commonly accepted to mean that faith is an uncritical belief in divine beings, miracles, heaven and hell, and other phenomena that cannot be proved. By this definition, it is true that I have no faith. As I wrote in my poem:

I want to see the crimson leaves, drifting
toward the golden ground, as evidence of you.
I cannot see the wind that brings them down
but still, they swirl in colored currents
all around the yard and I don’t doubt
that I will need to rake them to the curb.
But I want more than metaphor.
If faith is the opposite of certainty
then I am certain that I have no faith.

But the Zen Sensei Sevan Ross says this: “Great Faith and Great Doubt are two ends of a spiritual walking stick. We grip one end with the grasp given to us by our Great Determination. We poke into the underbrush in the dark on our spiritual journey. Gripping the Faith end and poking ahead with the Doubt end of the stick. If we have no Faith, we have no Doubt. If we have no Determination, we never pick up the stick in the first place.”

I love this. If we have no faith, we have no doubt. So conversely, if we have no doubt we have no real faith. By this definition, faith isn’t about the certainty of unseen phenomenon, it’s about openness to everything. It’s about poking into the darkness, the unknown. Pema Chodron, a well-known Buddhist nun of great wisdom says, and I quote: “We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice. Faith is being open to what scares us.” End quote.

This perspective of faith has allowed me to be gentler with myself while searching for truth and meaning. Yes, the journey between the head and the heart is long and sometimes has felt like 40 years of wandering in the desert, but another saying that I believe to be true is that it’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey.  I can say that my journey has been and continues to be rich and growth-full and incredibly satisfying in so many ways even though, to this day, I have not found any form of traditional god based faith.

What I have finally found, as opposed to the kind of faith that means no doubt in the existence of god, is a deep acceptance of the truth of where I am at any given moment and a willingness to be open to it all. My intellect has allowed me to change my definition of Faith so my heart can experience the many mysteries of life as true spiritual experiences. I have accepted that I must live with the uncertainty and the pain of life and be open to my fear as opposed to continuing to search for something to relieve me that fear. To be open to the reality that there is no ultimate safety and that life is full of suffering as well as full of beauty.

When I accept my doubt as part of my faith as opposed to the opposite of faith, everything in me relaxes and opens. The more I’m open to life, to other people, to the things that scare me, the more I come to know what I can count on and I grow in faith in those things and those people and then this faith can be renewed again and again. I have great faith in the power of people coming together to support one another through the joys and the suffering and all that is our lives. You, and this community, are all a part of that for me. My heartfelt prayer is that you each find your own path to a renewal of faith as we journey together.

Amen and Blessed Be.