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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Healing Healthcare — UUS:E Worship, March 13, 2022

Moving Forward With Hope — A Sermon for the Annual Appeal

Today we kick off our Annual Appeal, our largest fundraiser of the year where we raise the vast majority of the dollars we need to provide compensation and benefits for our staff, operate our building, deliver our programs and reach our collective goals. This year’s theme is “Moving Forward With Hope,” a very appropriate theme as we look forward to a year in which Covid restrictions recede and congregational life begins to look and feel more like it did before the pandemic.

Why does UUS:E matter to you? What have you encountered here that makes a difference in your life? I invite you to ponder these questions now. What have you encountered at UUS:E that challenges and stretches you, that comforts and consoles you, that connects you to friends, to nature, to realities larger than yourself, that affirms your values, that keeps you resilient in the face of life’s stresses, that sends you forth into the world with vision and resolve? What have you found here over the years of your participation and membership? Why does UUS:E matter to you? Again, I invite you to ponder these questions as you prepare to make your financial pledge to the congregation for the coming year.

A few details about the campaign. First, from the bottom of my heart I want to thanks the members of the UUS:E Stewardship Committee: Jason Corsa, Louisa Graver, Larry Lunden, Stan McMillen and Phil Sawyer. They’ve been doing all the planning and strategizing about how to hold the most successful Annual Appeal possible given where we are with the pandemic. I am enormously grateful to them for their love and dedication to UUS:E. I invite everyone to give them a big round of applause, both here at the meeting house and online. Turn on your video feed and put your hands together!

Similar to last year’s Annual Appeal, the Stewardship Committee has sent a packet in the mail that will detail our accomplishments over the past year and our aspirations for the coming fiscal year which begins on July 1. [If you don’t receive the packet by early this week, please call the UUS:E office.] The packet will contain a Giving Guide to help you think about the amount of your financial pledge. We’re asking each member and friend to fill out the enclosed pledge form and, if you choose to use it, electronic funds transfer form. Please return them to the UUS:E office by March 20. For those who not responded by then, a Steward will contact you. After receiving your packet, if you have any questions, you are more than welcome to reach out to anyone on the Stewardship Committee. And please keep in mind this message from the committee: We are all stewards of UUS:E. As a congregation we are responsible, not only to maintain, but to grow, strengthen, and enhance all that UUS:E represents. We hope this year’s campaign will generate the same spirit of generosity that has made UUS:E a thriving, spiritual home for us throughout the year. The Stewardship Committee thanks you as always for making UUS:E the best it can be with your generous time, talent and treasure.

There’s one more important detail. We have a special challenge grant this year. Fred and Phil Sawyer have generously offered to provide a dollar-for-dollar match for every new or increased financial pledge. They will match up to $1,000 for each new pledge and as much as a $500 match for an increase in an existing pledge. The grant is capped at $20,000, half of which will go to support next year’s operating budget, and half of which will go to the UUS:E Endowment Fund. Fred and Phil: Thank you, thank you, thank you. You’re love, dedication and generosity to UUS:E makes a huge difference. I invite everyone to give them a big round of applause, both here at the meeting house and online. Turn on your video feed and put your hands together!

I started my reflections on why UUS:E matters and is worthy of our financial giving last week when speaking about the “things that must endure.” I was naming the bedrock values and practices we share here, and which we dare not lose even as we engage in the work of antiracist and anti-oppressive cultural change. I named respect for human dignity, relational culture, spiritual freedom, democracy, humility, religious education for children and youth, commitments to social and environmental justice, trusting science and the scientific method, caring for one another, and putting love and compassion at the heart of everything we do. In view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I named these values and practices as essential in the struggle against authoritarianism.

These are big picture reasons why UUS:E and Unitarian Universalism matter. I also think it’s important to remember the close-up, day-to-day, minute-by-minute, task-by-task picture of why this congregation matters. Earlier Gina shared the story A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams. It’s the story of a family that experiences a fire in their home—they lose everything—and their neighbors rally around them, bring them furniture and household items, even a stuffed animal, to start rebuilding their lives in a new apartment. Then, in need of a comfortable chair, they begin saving their pocket change. It’s a story about resilience in the face of crisis, about community generosity, and about patience and persistence in reaching goals.

We can talk about UUS:E in similar terms. Navigating the crisis of the pandemic has been an extraordinary team effort, with the members of the Emergency Preparedness Team playing a central role in figuring out what data to track and proposing safety protocols; in dialogue with the Policy Board members who consider and debate the proposals and make them official; in dialogue with the Personnel Committee members who make sure our staff have what they need to weather the crisis; in dialogue with the Religious Education Committee members who’ve been implementing their program online, in-person outdoors or in-person indoors depending on the data, and RE teachers and youth group advisors continuing to provide programming no matter the format; in dialogue with the Sunday Services Committee members who’ve been adapting their program to the hybrid, in-person/online format, learning the relevant technologies; in dialogue with the Music Committee members and all our musicians, figuring out what is possible for live music on Sunday mornings or virtual concerts, and learning the art of creating music videos; in dialogue with the Membership Committee members, who’ve been adapting their work to online formats and to the in-person realities of Covid and figuring out how to inform people about our protocols as they come to the meeting house on Sunday mornings; in dialogue with all the Program committees, and the small group leaders, who’ve been figuring out how to continue their offerings; in dialogue with Communications and Technology Committee members who’ve been researching and purchasing the necessary equipment to create virtual church; in dialogue with the Buildings and Grounds Committee members who’ve been addressing our ventilation issues; in dialogue with the staff who’ve been implementing many of the necessary changes, week-to-week, day-to-day, hour-to-hour; in dialogue with all of you who’ve been so patient, so understanding, so affirming, so generous, so loving through these past two years. During those two years we’ve easily dedicated ten thousand human hours to responding rationally, non-anxiously, and effectively to the crisis of the pandemic. We’re like the neighbors in A Chair for My Mother, each person bringing something to respond to the crisis. [We even brought stuffed animals for the stuffed animal sleep over in the fall of 2020!]

I can’t think of a better example of what it means to be a congregation worthy of our financial generosity: people willingly and gladly researching, learning, debating, experimenting, purchasing, installing, training, communicating, making policy—thousands of mundane tasks, many of them simple, responding to a slow-moving crisis over the course of two years. Perhaps we’re also like the family in the story, each task a dime or quarter in the jar, saving for that comfortable chair; each task part of a long-term effort to respond, adapt and persevere, with the ultimate goal of transitioning safely back into each other’s physical presence—the comfy chair of our collective life—at 153 West Vernon St., here on Elm Hill, at the Manchester-Vernon line, on the traditional lands of the Podunk and Wangunk people, in the gently rolling hills above the Hockanum, east of the Connecticut River. Thousands of mundane tasks over these past two years, thousands of mundane tasks week in and week out, collectively holding this congregational community in love and care, mindful that keeping ourselves safe actually sustains safety in the wider community and especially among the most vulnerable members of that wider community; mindful that with every task we move forward, fulfilling our mission, we move forward, fulling the promise of our faith. What a blessing to have such a congregation in our lives. Please give generously to our Annual Appeal. Together, let’s move forward with hope!

Amen and blessed be!

 

Some Things Must Endure — UUS:E worship, February 27, 2022

Some Things Must Endure
Rev. Josh Pawelek

In January I had a conversation with Sharon Gresk and Ida Gales, both long-time members of our congregation. They are also close friends who met and grew their friendship here at UUS:E. At the core of the conversation was their love for our congregation and their concern about the toll the pandemic has taken on us. At first I tried to reassure them: “We’re really doing OK. We’ve made a successful transition to online worship. We’ve been able to sustain a significant portion of our programmatic offerings and committee work online. Our religious education program for children and youth is as vibrant as it’s ever been. Our social justice public witness and activism remains strong. Music is one of the hardest programs to sustain online, but even there we’ve been able to innovate and learn new ways of doing things.”

Sharon and Ida weren’t having it. That’s not what they were talking about. They were—they are—missing something more fundamental about church, something more immediate, more visceral: the power of being in each other’s physical presence, what I call the somatic collective we create as we breathe together, hold silence together, speak together, sing together, take hands—all those ritual activities that are so fraught in the midst of an air-born disease. That’s what they’re missing: the subtle, intangible ministry we enact as we physically bear witness to each other’s sorrow and joy, failure and success, grief and elation; the full-facial, unmasked eye-contact that comes with conversation and interaction before and after the service, sometimes small-talk (which in itself has value); sometimes plumbing the depths; sometimes even establishing friendships that will last for the remainder of our lives. We heard words earlier from my colleague, the Rev. Marta Valentín: “Wind your thoughts like a river / toward the center of who we are: / this morning as one body.” This ‘one body’ is not mere metaphor. It actually happens in the space and time of in-person congregational life.

Please be assured: as pandemic restrictions ease, we will absolutely continue with online offerings because they are now part of who we are as a congregation, and so critical for people who are homebound, who live with compromised immune systems, or who live in other parts of the country. Learning how to offer high quality online worship has been one of the silver linings of the pandemic for us. And, with Sharon and Ida, and with so many others, we look forward to the somatic collective we create as in-person congregational life resumes.

I made a promise to Sharon and Ida, which is to ask all of you to consider your personal connections at UUS:E. Who do you know, and how have you lost contact with them during the pandemic? Think about people you might have had regular conversation with on Sunday mornings, but now you haven’t spoken to them face-to-face for two years. Maybe you’ve rotated off a committee or a leadership position, so you haven’t interacted with people you’d been working with regularly for a period of years. Think about people you might have chatted with while waiting to pick up your kids from religious education; or someone with whom you once taught a class in the RE program. It might even be people you see on Zoom, but you don’t feel that you really connect with them like you might in person. The pandemic has caused us to lose different degrees of touch with each other. We know this. Let’s not let it continue. Reach out to each other. Say “hello.” Say “I miss you.” Ask, “Can we connect?” And now that the omicron wave has receded, now that we are expanding the number of people who can be in the UUS:E meeting house, I encourage you, within your comfort zone, to meet each other in person. Certainly as spring arrives and the days grow warmer, meet in person outdoors. Meet each other however you can, because meeting each other is foundational to who we are. Meeting each other gives energy and vibrancy to our congregational life. I call this sermon “Some Things Must Endure.” This practice of meeting each other is one of those things that must endure.

As a reminder, our ministry theme for February is “Widening the Circle,” which presents opportunities for exploring how we move beyond our historically white, liberal religious congregational identity and culture, to a more multicultural reality; how we navigate the waters of diversity, equity; and how we confront and transform the legacies of white supremacy culture and settler colonialism. My previous sermon on this theme was entitled “Some Things Must Change.” Indeed, if we want to widen the circle, there are aspects of our congregational life, especially our culture, that need to change. I offered some ideas for how to embrace and advance that change.

It is also true, however, that some things must endure. Especially in this moment, as the world watches a despot carry out an unjustified invasion of a neighboring, sovereign nation, manifesting the most dangerous tendencies of a globally re-emergent authoritarianism that exists and operates here in the United States, it strikes me there are values and practices within Unitarian Universalist congregational life that we must preserve, values and practices that reject authoritarianism in all its forms and promote peaceful coexistence, just social, political and economic structures, self-determination and freedom. I want to share, briefly, some of the values and practices that, in my view, must endure even as we set about the work of change. Full disclosure: after more than 20 years of ministry, I have named in various ways at various times these values and practices. There’s nothing I’m about to say that I haven’t said before, and yet all of it bears repeating because it speaks so directly to who we are and why our faith and this congregation matter. And again, though I am not speaking directly to the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, I am mindful of the stark contrast between our practices and values vs. the practices and values that live at the heart of the authoritarian driving that invasion.

A value: our immediate spiritual forebears, the Universalists of the late 1700s and the Unitarians of the early 1800s, rejected the theological notion that some are saved and some are damned. In response to that prevailing Calvinist doctrine, they offered an all-loving God who saves everyone: universal salvation. We inherit from them the principle that each human being has inherent worth and dignity. As difficult as it can be to put this principle into practice, if our goal is to widen the circle, it must endure.

A practice: As Sharon and Ida were emphasizing in our conversation a few weeks ago,  meeting each other is part of our collective spiritual practice: learning each other’s stories. Learning each other’s concerns and anxieties. Learning each other’s goals and aspirations. Learning each other’s deepest questions. Learning each other’s lives. And ultimately, building and deepening relationships. If our goal is to widen the circle, this practice of meeting each other must endure.

A value: Unitarian Universalism trusts us to freely and responsibly conduct our own search for truth and meaning in the context of our congregational community. The resulting spiritual freedom, though at times daunting, enables us to make room for a wide variety of religious world-views, theologies and spiritualities. As we often say, ‘many truths in one room.’ If our goal is to widen the circle, this spiritual freedom must endure.

A practice: We lovingly and conscientiously provide a foundational religious education for our children. We teach them Unitarian Universalist principles and history. We cultivate religious literacy by exposing them to other world religions. We instill in them a passion for building a more just society and caring for the Earth. We provide a reliable place for our children to build friendships, to safely explore aspects of their identity that may feel risky to explore in other contexts, and to be part of a community that cares about them, roots for them, supports them, and values their opinions. If our goal is to widen the circle, these educational practices must endure.

A Value: Unitarian Universalism knows it doesn’t have all the answers, knows it isn’t perfect, knows there are multiple ways to accomplish goals, and therefore aspires to approach the world from a position of humble questioning rather than convinced theological knowing. Humility takes work to sustain, but if our goal is to widen the circle, this work must endure.

A Practice: Our congregation dedicates a significant amount of time and resources to building accountable relationships in the wider community, and engaging in acts of justice and liberation in solidarity with people from historically marginalized groups. Sometimes we work on a very local scale, for example with an organization like Power Up here in Manchester. Sometimes we work on a regional scale, as we do with the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. Sometimes we work on a statewide scale, as we do with an organization like the Recovery for All Coalition. Sometimes we engage nationally, sometimes even internationally. We don’t always get it right. We don’t always do it well. Yet we are engaged. We bear witness to our values in the public sphere. If our goal is to widen the circle, that engagement and witness must endure.

A value: Unitarian Universalism takes science seriously, respects scientific knowledge and methods, and is willing to modify its spiritual views in response to scientific discovery. If our goal is to widen the circle in an era when scientific knowledge is increasingly under attack, increasingly politicized, increasingly denied, our embrace of science and scientific knowledge must endure.

A practice: Our congregation dedicates a significant amount of time and resources to the work of earth stewardship and climate justice. We understand we are not separate from but rather exist in intimate relationship with our surrounding ecosystems. We understand that climate change is real and concerted, well-organized global action to address it is essential. We expect to be part of that action. If our goal is to widen the circle, this practice of earth stewardship and organizing for climate justice must endure.

A value: Love and compassion must live at the heart of all our relationships—with people, with nature, with the earth. We know putting them at the heart of our relationships is not as easy as just saying it. At the end of a long day, or in the midst of a stressful situation, love and compassion do not just flow out of us. When we are angry, love and compassion do not just flow out of us. But we also know there can be no social healing without love and compassion, no social justice without love and compassion, no environmental justice without love and compassion, and no widening the circle without love and compassion. The aspiration to put love and compassion at the heart of all our relationships must endure.

A Practice: We take care of one another. Consider all the ways we offer pastoral support to each other: providing rides and meals or running errands for people and families in crisis, visiting people in crisis, driving people to church, reading to people whose eyesight is failing, helping out financially. I love the way you take care of each other. If our goal is to widen the circle, this robust pastoral response to each other must endure.

One last value, perhaps most significant in light of the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine and the global rise of authoritarianism: we value democracy and democratic processes. The members of UUS:E show an amazing willingness to take responsibility for the health and well-being of this congregation, to participate in its governance, to trust our elected leaders while also asking good questions, to speak our minds thoughtfully and to thoughtfully listen to the views of others, and to make meaningful and sometimes difficult collective decisions about the congregation’s future. If our goal is to widen the circle, our internal democracy must endure, our commitment to the global flourishing of democracy must endure.  

Though we are thousands of miles from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this war will impact us in a variety of ways, though certainly not as profoundly as it will impact the people of Ukraine and Russia. And whatever that impact may be, however long it may last, we must be mindful that the authoritarianism driving it has taken root here in the United States and can easily grow if not countered. The values and practices we celebrate in this Unitarian Universalist congregation do counter and confront that authoritarianism. So please share them, speak them, write them, sing them, dance them, pray them, shout them from the rooftops, so they may endure.

Amen and blessed be.    

Some Things Will Change — UUS:E Worship, February 13, 2022

“Change, This God”
a meditation by Rev. Josh Pawelek

In the words of Octavia Butler’s Earthseed: The Books of the Living:

All that you touch / You change. /  All that you Change / Changes you. / The only lasting truth / Is Change. / God is change….

February wears on, offering spring-like moments here and there, the long, slow transition out of winter, reminding us, sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently: the only lasting truth is change.

Change, this God, can be cruel, clearly plays no favorites, lifts up no chosen ones, sends no saviors, answers no prayers, rarely offers comfort. Change, this God, follows rules, yes, yet in time even the rules change. What we thought was solid and reliable fades into something new.

Often we resist Change, this God, settled in our lives as we are, comfortable, used to our patterns, our routines. Our resistance makes sense: Change brings, in Butler’s words, confusion, pain, loss. But our resistance, more often than not, is misguided. It prevents us from tasting the fruits of Change:  surprise, delight, discovery, opportunity, and growth.

 And in the end, if the only lasting truth is Change, what choice do we have, but to relinquish, to let go, to surrender our lives as they were, to fall forward, trusting that no matter how hard we land, we will find some purpose in this Change, some coherence in this Change, some meaning in this Change, some new soft place, some kindness to ease the Change, some Love to quiet our fears, and then some action we can take, some impact we can have, some agency we can claim, some legacy we can leave! All that you touch you change.

 As February, wears on, offering spring-like moments here and there, may we find the courage, the resolve, the presence of heart and mind, to embrace Change, this God, however it is manifesting in our lives: to play with this God, to sing with this God, to dance with this God, to live as best with can with this God.

Amen and blessed be.

Some Things Will Change
Rev. Josh Pawelek

On June 8th, 2015, a crowd of approximately 300 people gathered near the Old State House in Hartford at 3:00 PM. Eventually, a smaller group of 17 stepped into the street and blocked traffic for an hour. This was the first of a series of Black Lives Matter protests in Hartford, organized by Moral Monday CT. Many of you will recall I and a few other UUS:E members were among the “Hartford 17” who were arrested and sentenced to three days of community service. The officers ferried us to the Hartford Public Safety Complex for processing. Ae we exited the long, white vans into a large underground garage, I had a momentary and very potent spiritual experience, an experience of beloved community. There we were: Black, Latinx, White, young, middle-aged and elder adults, gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, able-bodied people, people with disabilities, urban and suburban, working class, middle class and wealthy people, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Unitarian Universalist, hard-core atheists, agnostics, theists—a wonderfully diverse group. We were happy, joy-filled, high on life. We had just put our convictions into action, making a statement that is still reverberating through the region today. Passionate about this cause, we had let our passion sing.

I wanted that moment to last. I wanted others to experience it. I wanted all of you to experience it—not the ‘getting arrested’ part, the beloved community part. I wanted everyone to experience being part of a diverse, multicultural, antiracist beloved community with people from all walks of life, people of many, varied identities, people united in common purpose, passionate, joy-filled. I firmly believe this is how our lives can be on a regular basis. I hope you believe it too, even if it seems elusive. This belief that beloved community is possible—this conviction, this faith, this vision—lives at the heart of my ministry.

Our February ministry theme is widening the circle. It points to that perennial question in Unitarian Universalism, and in so many of the mainline Protestant religious traditions, and frankly in institutions of all kinds across the country—private and public, non-profit and for-profit—a question we have been faithfully asking here at UUS:E for many years: how do our historically White identity congregations grow in their racial, cultural and ethnic diversity? Of course, race isn’t the only dimension of the question when it comes to widening the circle within Unitarian Universalism. While we’ve made significant progress in welcoming, empowering and ordaining to ministry gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people and queer people in all the ways it is possible to be queer, that work is not over and we would be foolish to believe it is. While we were one of the first denominations to ordain women into the ministry, and one of the first denominations to reach gender parity in the ministry, our work on gender and sexism is not over and we would be foolish to believe it is. We can widen the circle around disability. We can widen the circle around class, around age (where are all the 30 year olds?), around politics (where are the liberal religious Republicans?), around theology (where are all the liberal theists who are apparently leaving the evangelical churches in droves?). There are many ways to widen the circle. Race, culture and ethnicity loom very large in this conversation.

“Widening the Circle” also refers to the June 2020 report from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Institutional Change, entitled Widening the Circle of Concern.[1] The UUA Board of Trustees convened the Commission in the spring of 2017 after allegations of racist hiring patterns at our denominational headquarters led to a series of high-profile resignations. The Commission’s charge was to “[support] long-term cultural and institutional change that redeems the essential promise and ideals of Unitarian Universalism.” The commission conducted an audit of the power structures within Unitarian Universalism in an attempt to understand how they perpetuate systemic racism and white supremacy culture. The report presents the results of that audit along with a series of recommendations. We are currently running a Widening the Circle of Concern study group with the ultimate purpose of bringing some of those recommendations back to the congregation. Our study extends through June and is open to all. If you’d like to join us, please contact me. We’re happy to welcome you to the discussion.

If we want to widen the circle—I hope and trust we do—some things must change. Some things must endure—and I will talk about that in my February 27th sermon—but today I’m focusing on what must change, slowly but surely, as we widen the circle. I’m going to ask you to imagine some different ways of being church, different ways of operating, different ways of having a congregational culture.

Imagine if it were our disciplined, spiritual practice—when we meet in committees and other groups—to intentionally ask Who isn’t here? What kinds of human experiences are missing from our congregational life? What world-views, what perspectives, what identities are missing form our decision-making? What backgrounds are missing from our foreground? Imagine, once we start asking that question, we begin to be curious about this absence, we begin to wonder about it. And then, instead of coming up with our own answers—which is what we often do—instead of speculating, instead of inserting our own answers on behalf of those who are absent, imagine that we develop a practice of reaching out and simply asking them: What might we do differently?

Imagine that one reason certain people aren’t here where we are, is because we aren’t there where they are. Imagine that they’ve actually been inviting us and we haven’t recognized it. Imagine that we begin to accept more invitations, that our people show up and care about and participate in the things, activities, causes and culture that they who are absent actually care about. And then imagine, maybe slowly, we begin to bring that care and participation here. As an example, our Land Acknowledgement group originally convened with the purpose of crafting a land acknowledgment statement so that we could be more explicit in honoring the Podunk and Wangunk people who lived on and stewarded these lands when the period of settler colonialism began. We’ve come to understand now, that a Land Acknowledgment statement will be much more authentic and powerful if it grows out of relationships with indigenous people. So our Land Acknowledgement group has been asking the question, how can we develop genuine relationships with indigenous people in our state. And wouldn’t you know it? We’ve received an invitation to participate in UCONN’s Native American Cultural Program powwow in late April. Imagine that? An invitation. We’d better accept!

Imagine, in the meantime, while we’re trying to accept invitations and build relationships in the wider community, that back here at our meeting house, we’re asking yet another question, also a disciplined, spiritual practice: Whose voices are we centering? How well are we centering the voices of those not present? Are we inviting them to speak, read poetry, play music, give lectures, present visual art? Are we budgeting sufficient funds to reimburse them for presentations? Imagine Sunday to Sunday, month to month, year to year an amazingly diverse array of voices.

I shared words from the late, grandmother of Afrofuturism, Octavia Butler, at the beginning of the service, words from her Earthseed scripture in her Parable series. I almost didn’t include her words today. When I’ve preached on change in the past, I’ve typically used a reading from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, “Change Alone is Unchanging.” Those words occurred to me immediately for this service. But then I asked myself: who’s voices am I centering? Of course, it’s important to weave in classical knowledge and wisdom from time to time. We’re not cancelling Heraclitus or any other ancient voice. But in response to the question, I chose words from Octavia Butler, a Black woman writer who is enjoying an incredible renaissance these days—much greater popularity now than when she was alive. She offers a provocative understanding of God as change—very different from the God of Christianity, the God of the Black church, the God of the evangelical church—not a comforting, personal God, but a God consistent with the patterns of nature, the patterns of the universe—possibly a very compelling God for agnostic and atheistic Unitarian Universalists, as well as spiritual naturalists and some pagans.  Imagine that as we center more voices from historically marginalized communities and identities, we gain more resources for growth in our spiritual lives. If you’re not familiar with Butler’s body of work, perhaps your interest is now piqued. Perhaps you will engage with her writing and come to understand all the ways she is influencing a new generation of people of color science fiction writers. Imagine we start an Octavia Butler book club. Imagine it catches the attention of people who know her work but don’t know Unitarian Universalism. Imagine they become curious about our faith as we become curious about an author they adore. Whose voices are we centering? This question matters if our goal is to widen the circle.

Our congregation is fairly well-attuned to the realities of oppression—racism, white supremacy culture, settler colonialism. We talk about these realities a lot. This is not something we need to imagine. We are constantly learning as a community just how deep these systems extend into our lives, shape our lives, impact our lives. We have a lot more to learn, but these kinds of conversations are not missing from UUS:E. I’m also mindful they are heavy conversations. We just completed a series of house meetings with the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. There were many conversations about the different ways oppression operates in our region: necessary conversations, but not uplifting, not fun, not joyful. Heavy. My recent sermon on the Safe Streets movement: necessary, but heavy.

Now imagine, as we explore who isn’t here and why, as we go where they are, as we accept their invitations, as we center their voices, our congregational culture begins to open up, to expand, to breathe, to dance. Imagine space emerging for new and different kinds of expression, creativity, worship, ritual and celebration. Imagine us moving slowly from a monocultural congregational life to a multicultural congregational life, what the Unitarian Universalist antiracism educator and organizer, Paula Cole Jones, refers to as a community of communities.[2]  As we evolve in this way, imagine that we talk about the realities of oppression less. Imagine that the heaviness begins to recede, not because we’ve forgotten it, but as a multicultural congregation we’ve learned how hold ourselves accountable for it; and in its place we find new sources of joy, fun and uplift. We find new love and gratitude for the ancestors, new love and gratitude for the land, new relationships, new connections, new understandings. Imagine, instead of the weight of addressing our white supremacy culture we break through, and in the multicultural space that emerges we find the blues, hip hop, gospel, cumbia, salsa, Reggaeton, soca and calypso, Dia De Meurtos, Watch Night, and Three Kings Day, Spanish, maybe Portuguese, maybe American sign language; new theologies, more avenues to God, to the sacred, more rigorous and diverse forms of atheism, a more elaborated and nuanced theology of liberation, more Black Humanism; all of it resulting in more spirit, more animation, more movement. Imagine a more far-reaching conversation about what excellence in ministry means, emphasizing not perfection but commitment, heart and effort. Imagine an emphasis on both/and thinking with multiple ways to accomplish goals.

Imagine different cultural assumptions bumping into each other, rubbing up against each other, causing misunderstandings, even causing hurt. There’s no escaping a low level of conflict in multicultural congregations, but imagine welcoming interruptions, so that we name the misunderstanding, name the hurt, talk about it, clarify, make amends, then move on more aware, stronger, wiser, our relationships deepened. Imagine a more generous conversation about what care for one another means. Imagine a more probing and honest conversation about what love requires. Some things must and will change. Octavia Butler says All that you touch / You change. /All that you Change / Changes you. [3] She speaks truth, though it is quite possible to resist this truth. Congregations do it all the time. We resist change in our lives all the time. But if our goal is to widen the circle, we must embrace this strange and confounding God, Change. Imagine: We will be change agents as well as changed agents.

These changes I’ve invited you to imagine won’t just come. We have to work at them. We have to practice asking who’s not here. We have to practice accepting their invitations, going to them. We have to practice centering their voices. I have faith these practices will one day result in that potent spiritual experience, that diverse, multicultural, antiracist beloved community experience with people from all walks of life, people of many, varied identities, united in common purpose, passionate, joy-filled, having fun. I want to do this work, engage in these practices. I hope you do too. Imagine.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Read Widening the Circle of Concern online at https://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/cic/widening.

[2] See Paula Cole-Jones’ workshop with Renee Ruchotzke on “Creating a Community of Communities” at https://www.uua.org/leaderlab/search/communities.

[3] Butler, Octavia, excerpts from Earthseed: The Books of the Living in The Parable of the Sower (Boston, NYC; Grand Central Publishing, 1993).

 

If I Win, Do You Lose? — UUS:E Sunday Service, February 6th, 2022

[Antiracist Resources for Children and Youth listed below]

Below is a list of resources that were used in, referenced in, or had an influence on this worship service.

Other videos and readings that influenced:

The Art of the Single Task — UUS:E Virtual Worship, January 30, 2022

Prayer

Spirit of Life, Precious and Loving God,

Source of breath, of movement, of feeling, of insight,

Come unto us as we come unto you.

Settle us, quiet us, calm us, slow us down, focus us.

May our lives, in this moment, be simple like winter, like snow, blanketing everything, covering everything, soft, cold, still; so radically different from spring’s green rebirth, summer’s rising, lush heat, autumn’s crisp, fiery splendor.  Like winter’s frozen landscape may we, in this moment, be free from distraction, free from information flooding relentlessly to us, free from the need—the expectation, the pressure—to accomplish, to achieve, to produce, to check items off our lists.

In this winter moment may we be simply present. Not idle, but engaged only in the task before us—no other. May our focus on the single task blend our spirits with winter, so that we match its quiet, its calmness, its slowness. May our focus on the single task open that window through which we reach the cool, sustaining water beneath the ice; that window through which we catch a glimpse of the sacred and know ourselves to be held in its embrace.

In this winter moment may we be simply present, focused only on the task before us.

Amen and blessed be.

The Art of the Single Task
Rev. Josh Pawelek

One morning during the winter of 1846, Henry David Thoreau woke in his cabin on Walden Pond in the woods south of Concord, Massachusetts. After greeting the morning and taking in the beauty of what he named “dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live,” he began his day. He wrote:

“Then to my morning work. First I take an axe and pail and go in search of water, if that be not a dream. After a cold and snowy night it needed a divining-rod to find it. Every winter the liquid and trembling surface of the pond, which was sensitive to every breath, reflected every light and shadow, becomes solid to the depth of a foot or a foot and a half, so that it will support the heaviest of teams, and perchance the snow covers it to an equal depth, and it is not to be distinguished from any level field…. I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”[1]

As much as Thoreau is describing a work task—opening a window in the ice to obtain drinking water—he’s also describing a mystical, spiritual experience. Peering into the window he encounters “a perennial, waveless serenity.” He witnesses Heaven “under our feet.” It’s not an extraordinary experience. He isn’t deep in prayer or meditation. He isn’t on a pilgrimage to some distant, holy shrine. It’s an ordinary experience. He’s engaging in a daily task.

How often does this happen to you? Engaged in a simple task, you are suddenly transported, swept up by a waveless serenity, a sense of calmness, tranquility, peace of mind. You apprehend Heaven close by. In words we heard earlier from the Rev. Mark Belletini, the curtain is pulled back, “revealing the table set with the feast of life / which is present here and now.”[2] How often does this happen to you?

For most of us, I suspect, it doesn’t happen very often, if at all; though I contend it can happen to us much more often than it does. We can have a more spiritual experience of daily life. And to start exploring how that is possible, let’s notice what isn’t happening while Thoreau is opening a window in the ice. For example, while he’s cutting his hole, he is not also reading the newspaper or a book. Similarly, he is not discussing current events with a friend. He is not fishing, though there are fish to catch. He is not lighting a fire and cooking his breakfast. He certainly is not watching television, listening to the radio, his favorite podcast or his latest Spotify playlist. He isn’t getting children ready for school—making lunches, checking backpacks to verify all homework is where it’s supposed to be, watching the clock to avoid missing the bus. He isn’t also walking the dog, feeding the cats, warming up the car, reviewing the day’s work schedule, or grabbing fifteen minutes for a quick yoga routine. He certainly isn’t also glancing at his phone with every beep, click or buzz: checking his emails, texts, voicemails, playing online Candy Crush or whatever his current gaming addiction happens to be. He definitely isn’t falling down the social media rabbit hole, commenting on his friend’s cat video, sharing his parents’ anniversary photos, anxiously checking the number of likes his post on last night’s rabbit stew has received, or tweeting out to his followers the narrative of his mundane life, “down on the pond cutting ice in search of water,” #alottasnow, #justsawheaven, #stayhydrated.

My point? He is not multitasking. He is doing one, simple task. Perhaps it was easier in his time, especially in the context of his world-renowned experiment is solitary living on Walden Pond. Nevertheless, in our era when multitasking seems—and sometimes is—an unavoidable societal expectation, a necessary condition for getting through the day and accomplishing everything we have to accomplish, it feels critical to our spiritual health and well-being to learn and practice the art of the single task. Engaging in the single task may be our most reliable—and quite ordinary—pathway to that waveless serenity, that apprehension of heaven under our feet, that more spiritual experience of daily living.

As a reminder, our ministry theme for January is living with intention. I can’t think of a better (and perhaps more fun) way to explore this theme than to talk about the myth of multitasking, and to urge all of us to learn and practice the art of the single task.

I don’t know when the term ‘multitasking’ came into vogue. I have not looked into that particular history. I suspect it emerged in part as middle class women were entering the American workforce in droves in the final third of the 20th-century, yet were typically still expected to perform the domestic tasks associated with the traditional female gender role—cooking, shopping, cleaning, child-rearing. Now holding 9-5 jobs outside the home, in order to complete all those household responsibilities, women had to multitask. I wouldn’t be surprised if the term first showed up in women’s magazines in the 1970s. Again, I am speculating, but it seems plausible to me that a concept like multitasking would emerge in response to a big shift in national employment patterns, partly as a way to appease men who may not have appreciated the various implications of women entering the workforce. Sir: your home-life won’t change. Women can multitask. Again, I’m speculating. I wouldn’t be surprised.

The concept of multitasking was ubiquitous in the early 2000s.  At that time it was riding the coattails of the personal computing revolution. Even then, on most computers you could open multiple windows at the same time—your Word doc, email, internet browser, spreadsheet, calendar. It’s all right there, a keystroke away. A long way from Thoreau opening a window in the Walden ice. You can work on everything at the same time. You can multitask. Very efficient. Very productive. Multitaskers were the new super-people.

And if we thought computers were remarkable aids to multitasking then, we had no idea what was coming. As I am preparing this sermon, I am working on my laptop. I’ve got some Word docs open—this sermon, the order of service, my newsletter column (which I’ve already handed in); some notes for an upcoming book discussion. My email inbox is open. A number of tabs are open in Google Chrome, including a map of Concord, MA showing Walden Pond, an online thesaurus (because I wanted a few words to go with ‘serenity’), and Tema Okun’s new website discussing the characteristics of white supremacy culture which I hope to study later in the day. Next to my laptop is my phone, which has the New York Times and the Hartford Courant open, my voice mail messages, texts and email (so now can choose whether to glance at messages on multiple devices). I’ve got easy access to Words With Friends, Scrabble, and Wordle (because I need to take head breaks from time to time—at least that’s what I tell myself). I’ve also got my calendar, my contacts, the weather, CovidActNow Connecticut data, not to mention Facebook (do they want us to call it Meta?), Facebook Messenger (because a lot of people just prefer to communicate with me there), Twitter and Instagram (which I don’t use, but they’re there nevertheless), Pandora if I want to listen to music (I can’t get enough of that Black Pumas song, “Colors,” from the Target commercial a few months back), and a virtual compass, mainly because I think it’s cool, but you never know when you’re gonna need your true north! Those are just the app I have open! I am the king of multitasking! So efficient. So productive. Yes!

No! Of course, not. Multitasking is a myth. I’ve named this before from this pulpit, probably multiple times.  It’s common knowledge. I won’t share the scientific data now—it’s easy enough to find if you’re curious. The bottom line is that the human brain really can’t focus attention on more than one activity at a time, unless one of those activities is so deeply ingrained in you that it requires no thought whatsoever. Otherwise, we can try to accomplish multiple activities at the same time—people make the attempt all day every day—we can open as many windows on our devices as we want—but when we try to do two things simultaneously, the quality of our activity suffers. When we think or say we’re multitasking, what we’re really doing is jumping quickly from one task to the other, or from task to task to task, which psychologists call ‘serial tasking.’ And more often than not, we’re jumping to a new task because it distracted us from the task we were doing. We may believe we’re being highly productive when in fact we’re in a state of near-constant distraction. Quality suffers.

And we suffer mentally, emotionally and spiritually. In a 2019 post at the website “RescueTime,” editor Jory MacKay cites a range of studies that show how multitasking negatively impacts working memory, increases anxiety, inhibits creative thinking, causes sleep disorders, results in more mistakes and, most significantly for me, prevents us from entering a state of flow.[3] MacKay describes flow as a highly productive state of sustained focus. She’s talking about it primarily from a business perspective. Yet, it feels akin to Thoreau’s ‘waveless serenity,’ a calm, clear state, an experience of one’s work or daily living as spiritual.

Which brings me to the art of the single task. Granted, our lives are such that there are times when we must attempt to accomplish multiple tasks at once. Working, volunteering, raising children or grandchildren, managing a household – often these things overlap; often there is more that has to happen in a day than can possibly fit into a day. Nevertheless, can we learn to live our lives doing one thing at a time? The answer, of course, is yes. That’s how our brains actually work. But it may not come easily due to the prevalence of distraction and widespread societal expectations that we will be highly productive. Learning the art of the single task takes practice, discipline, intention.

Our friends at Soul Matters (who provide our theme-based ministry resources) offered a great exercise for us to get started. They challenged us: pick one thing you usually do while multitasking and, when it’s time to do it, do it alone, each day for a week! An obvious place to start, they wrote, “is eating. Pick one meal a day and do nothing but eat. No watching TV at the same time. No checking your email as you chomp down. Just intentionally eat and focus on your food…. Some of us [might] choose to do a chore without our usual distraction of listening to a podcast [or the radio] while washing the dishes or sweeping the floor…. When you walk the dog, just do that…. You get the point…. [Pick] one thing you will do each day for a week.”

It’s a remarkably simple suggestion. But given the complexity of our world, given the incredible and distracting flood of information coming at us constantly, given the power of our devices—the number of windows we can open at any one time—given the many and varied responsibilities we hold as members of families, communities, congregations, as employees, students, advocates and activists, perhaps this simple suggestion, this return to fundamentals, this effort to engage the world as our bodies are designed to engage it, is the most radical thing we can do for our own mental, emotional and spiritual health.

Take this challenge with you into your week. Develop your art of the single task. Cut through your foot of snow. Cut through your foot of ice. Open only one window at a time. Surely drinkable water awaits. Surely moisture, sustenance, nourishment await. That state of flow awaits. With practice, with intentionality, who knows what we will encounter? A waveless serenity? Heaven under our feet? I wouldn’t be surprised. Take the challenge. Develop your art of the single task.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden or Life in the Woods (New York: A Signet Classic from the New American Library, 1960) p. 189.

[2] Belletini, Mark, “Slower and Slower,” in Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008) p. 12.

[3] MacKay, Jory, “The Myth of Multitasking: The Ultimate Guide to Getting More Done By Doing Less,” at RescueTime: Blog, January 17, 2019. See: https://rescuetime.wpengine.com/multitasking/#multitasking. I also found this article helpful: Taylor, Jim, “Technology: The Myth of Multitasking,” Psychology Today, March 30th, 2011. See: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-prime/201103/technology-myth-multitasking.