On the Moral Obligation to Ask for Help

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I want to say a few words about something most children do exceedingly well: asking for help. It makes sense. When we’re born, we don’t know how to do anything, except sleep, drink, cry and poop. That’s about it. Eventually we learn to smile, giggle, eat mush, then eat solid foods, talk, crawl, walk, run, jump, dance, etc. Children figure out many things on their own. For example, children learn to talk by listening to their parents or care-givers talk, and then copying what they do. However, when we’re young, there’s just so much we don’t know how to do how to do. We don’t have enough years under our belts. We don’t have enough life experience. We need help. Of course, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, teachers and paraeducators, doctors and nurses, friends and neighbors all have things they want to teach children, whether children ask for help or now. But even so, along the way, there are all sorts of things children want to do that they don’t know how to do. There are all sorts of things children want to learn. So they ask for help. It’s very natural.

The baby’s cry is a way of asking for help:

“Help, I’m hungry, I need something to eat.”

“Help, my diaper is wet.”

“Help, I’m all alone in this crib and I want to snuggle.”

And it evolves from there:

“Help: pick me up!”

“Help: my tummy hurts.”

“Help: how do you catch a ball?”

“Help: I can’t sleep, there’s a monster under my bed. Can you scare it away?”

“Help: show me how to do a somersault.”

“Help: I can’t get my shoe tied, my button buttoned or my zipper zipped.”

“Help: I’m having trouble with my homework.”

“Help: How do you spell dinosaur?”

“Help: What does this word mean?”

“Help: How do you build a tree house?

“Help: Can you drive me to the mall?”

“Help: When can I learn to drive?”

My point is that children ask for help all the time, and their asking is very natural. Help me understand how the world works, how my body works, how to make friends, etc.

But as we age, something very odd happens. We ask for help less. In fact, many people stop asking for help entirely. We get to a certain point in our lives when we’re adults, and suddenly, if we don’t know how to do something, we’re embarrassed to ask for help. We feel like we should know how to do a certain thing, and we don’t want people to know we don’t know how to do it, so we don’t ask. Or worse, we pretend we know how to do it, even though we don’t. We want to appear competent, skilled and knowledgeable. We want to appear as if we have it all together and we don’t need help. So we don’t ask.

I’m not saying this is the case for everyone. Some adults are very good at asking for help when they need it. But in my almost quarter-century of experience as a minister, I find that more often than not, adults (at least in the United States, and especially in New England) don’t like asking for help. A simple example in my life is things with motors. I don’t know anything about things with motors. A lot of people assume that men of a certain age know about cars, lawnmowers, tractors, leaf blowers, snow blowers, power tools in general, and kitchen appliances. If it runs on gas or electricity, I know virtually nothing. I’ve learned how to do a few things over the years by reading manuals or watching videos online, but I really know very little, and when something breaks, I am more likely to make it worse than better. I will ask for help, because I have to, but there’s always a tinge of embarrassment. I feel an impulse to resist revealing that I don’t know how to do something.

That’s just one example. In my experience it’s even harder to ask for help when there are more serious life challenges. When we’re used to always being in control of our lives, but something gets in the way of that, like not having enough money to pay bills, or not being able to drive, it’s often difficult to admit what’s going on. Remember our ministry theme for March is vulnerability. When we feel vulnerable, at risk in some way, it can be very difficult to ask for help. I’m speaking in generalities here, but many of us feel that if we need help, it somehow reflects poorly on us. It somehow suggests that we don’t measure up to some standard of what makes a good person, and we’re very tentative about asking, or we just won’t ask at all.

Mia Songbird is a writer, scholar, activist and organizer based in Oakland, CA who says: “So many of us have a deep aversion to asking for help. The idea of asking for help makes us feel like a failure, makes us feel weak. We often think of needing help as a burden. But that is toxic individualism talking! It’s telling us that we should be able to do it on our own, that if we were strong enough, good enough, capable enough, we wouldn’t need help.”[1] Think about this. We come into this world knowing instinctively how to ask for help. And yet somehow asking for help becomes problematic as we mature. We educate, train, socialize ourselves out of something that is instinctual and necessary.

Mia Songbird reminds us that human beings “long to give and receive support.” She refers to a friend of hers named Amoretta Morris who says we inhabit a “divine circle of giving and receiving.” I think it is divine. Or sacred. Or holy. She says that while we often focus on what asking for help means for the person who receives the help, we often forget that giving help can be transformative for the giver. There’s a flow to giving and receiving help. When we don’t ask for help, we block that flow.[2]

Mia Songbird says learning about this flow was liberating for her. Asking for help is as important as providing help. She writes: “We have a responsibility to each other to ask for help when we need it,” so that people around us can fulfill their very natural longing to help.[3] I take it one step further. Given that human beings have a deep longing to both give and receive support, I say we actually have a moral obligation to ask for help when we need it. As I hear myself say those words, I recognize that they sound strange. We typically think of helping others in need as the moral thing to do—the compassionate, loving thing to do. We don’t typically think of asking for help as the moral thing to do. I’m saying it is the moral thing to do, precisely because it creates opportunities for others to fulfill their purpose.

My message for all the kids is this: when it comes to asking for help, you keep doing what you already do so well, what you do very naturally: ask for help when you need it. And hope throughout your lives you will never feel like you can’t ask for help. That is, I hope you will never unlearn how to ask for help.

My message for adults: We actually know how to ask for help. We were children once. We were natural seekers of help from our caregivers and teachers. We can regain this capacity to seek help when we need it. But asking for help is more than this. It really is a moral obligation. It gives the people around us an opportunity to fulfill their longing to be of service, to be of support. And it thereby strengthens the bonds of community.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Songbird, Mia, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship and Community (New York: Hachette Books, 2020) p. 16.

[2] Ibid., p. 17.

[3] Ibid., p. 17.

That’s How We Learned to Get Through This

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Om Namah Shivaya, shivaya namah om. Salutations benevolent one. Or salutations Lord Shiva. Ancient words. Perhaps one of the most well-known mantras in Hinduism. Thanks again to Janet Fall for guiding us in these various chants this morning.

Om Namah Shivaya, shivaya namah om is a prayer, a meditation on divine love, a contemplation of oneness, of all-in-all. It may have a calming effect. It may bring spiritual insight. Even if it doesn’t, one may enjoy the physical act of vocalizing, the repetition of the words, or the way the chant sounds.

I call this sermon “That’s How We Learned to Get Through This.” In our lives, what have we learned about getting through difficult times, through pain, through loss, through anxiety and panic attacks—getting through what some may rightly call the end of the world? Om Namah Shivaya, shivaya namah om is one among many answers to these questions. More broadly, spiritual practice—prayer, meditation, being still, being quiet, slowing down, finding calm, finding peace, letting go, gaining perspective; and then adapting, evolving, transforming—spiritual practice helps us get through hard times. Any methods we have for grounding ourselves, centering ourselves, connecting ourselves to others help us navigate through hard times, help us “get through this.”

As a reminder, our ministry theme for March is vulnerability. Last Sunday Anne Vogel introduced us to this theme. She asked the question: is vulnerability a weakness or a strength? Of course, it’s always a bit of both. However, Anne rightly emphasized the positive role vulnerability can play in our lives. When we’re willing to be vulnerable, willing to be seen for who we truly are; encountered with our blemishes, imperfections, faults and flaws; encountered in our pain and suffering; encountered in the midst of our greatest need; when we’re willing to ask for help; when we’re willing to trust that others will catch us as we fall; therein lies our capacity, and the capacity of others, to learn, to grow, to give and receive love, to give and receive compassion, to find joy, and thereby to persist, to endure, to “get through this.” So here, at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, at this liberal religious spiritual community, this beloved community, we welcome vulnerability—your vulnerability, our collective vulnerability. We recognize vulnerability as a gift, as an opening for growth, learning, creativity, compassion, joy and love.

Having said that, I also wonder if we sometimes make it sound easier than it really is. “Come, be vulnerable, share your pain. It’s a gift. It’s a pathway to growth and love.” I don’t want to romanticize it and lose sight of how difficult it can be to share one’s vulnerability, especially in a public setting. Our larger society doesn’t look kindly on vulnerability. Most of us are socialized to some degree to hide our vulnerability. Most of us don’t easily share it. It takes practice, which is why I point to the necessity of spiritual practices as instrumental in helping us “get through this.”

I’ve also been wondering about and struggling with the tension between recognizing vulnerability as a universal human condition vs. recognizing the vulnerability of particular people or groups of people. Not all vulnerabilities are equal.

On one hand, it is true that human beings are inherently vulnerable. None of us can survive after birth without extensive and long-term care from parents or guardians. Throughout our lives, none of us escapes the pain of illness, injury, heartbreak, loss, decline and ultimately death, all of which produce fear and anxiety, sometimes low-level, under the surface fear and anxiety, sometimes full-blown and overwhelming fear and anxiety. There are many things we can do to manage our fears and anxieties. Healthy relationships, financial stability, safe neighborhoods, good schools for our children, meaningful work, friendships, spiritual communities, not to mention access to shelter, nutritious food, and clean water: all help lessen the fear and anxiety that arise from our inherent vulnerability. Which brings me to the other hand: the less access one has to these things, the more vulnerable they are, the harder it is to “get through this.”

And why do some people or groups of people tend to have less of these things? Why are some more vulnerable than others? We know we inherit and live within political and economic systems that by design make some people and some groups of people more vulnerable than others. Poor people are more vulnerable than wealthy people. People of color are more vulnerable than white people. Women are more vulnerable than men. People with disabilities are more vulnerable than able-bodied people. Elders are more vulnerable than middle-aged adults. Right now my heart is with transgender and gender non-conforming people who are daily becoming more vulnerable to political violence and what some are calling “eliminationism.” In statehouses around the country there are approximately 370 anti-trans bills under consideration. A March 6th message from the Unitarian Universalist Association described it this way:

“We are experiencing the outright political targeting of transgender and nonbinary+ children and adults…. This policy violence and dehumanizing rhetoric creates an environment that can provoke physical violence and further discrimination. We are also witnessing efforts to criminalize reproductive healthcare, comprehensive education about race, Black history, and gender, and numerous issues of human rights that are spreading across countless states nationally. These attacks cut right to the heart of our fundamental religious belief in the inherent worth and dignity of each person, a fundamental right of conscience, and the values of personal agency that give us all the opportunity to live fully into our whole selves.[1]

I deeply appreciate that the UUA has put out this message in support of trans and non-binary people and their families in this moment of heightened vulnerability. I appreciate that the UUA is offering programming on how congregations can organize against anti-trans legislation, as well as celebrating Trans Day of Visibility on Friday, March 31st. I hope our congregation can continue to do everything in our power to support trans people, their families and everyone who loves them in this time of heightened vulnerability.

The bottom line for me is that what makes our congregation a beloved community is that we can acknowledge and respond to the common vulnerability all human beings share and simultaneously acknowledge and respond to the specific, heightened vulnerability certain people or groups of people face because of who they are. All people live with vulnerability, so we respond. Some people live with more vulnerability, so we respond.

How do we respond?

My title, “That’s How We Learned to Get Through This,” comes directly from the poet, independent scholar, and activist (who has been described elsewhere as a queer black troublemaker and black feminist love evangelist) Alexis Pauline Gumbs. The quote is from her 2018 book, also a poem, entitled M Archive: After the End of the World.[2] Gumbs calls this poem “speculative documentary,” “written from and with the perspective of a researcher,” what she also calls “a post-scientist sorting artifacts after the end of the world.”[3] This researcher lives many generations from now among the descendants of those who survived the end of the world and evolved in response to it. The researcher is uncovering evidence of the impacts of late capitalism, antiblackness, and environmental crisis which, we know in our time, are taking an immense toll on the planet.[4] The quote I shared earlier stood out to me as a powerful recognition of an existential vulnerability, along with an enduring question, how do we live with it? How do we respond to it? How do we get through it? Here’s the quote again:

“they dug in their memories for the one day. for some of them it was a couple of days per month. rock-bottom days. The days in their lives when the world had already ended. They thought back. And asked:

What did we each do then? On the day that everything went wrong, when transportation and communication technologies conspired against us individually. When we personally couldn’t get out of bed, dehydrated with crying. When we didn’t ask for help. When we hurt the people we loved. When the sun died. When we lost everything. When we lost exactly who we needed to save. When we knew there would be no tomorrow. What did we each do then? How did we keep breathing past it (because we are the ones that did). They dug for those memories and stacked them in a row.

That’s how. That’s how we learned to get through this.”[5]

This fictional (yet not so fictional) researcher has uncovered a critical spiritual practice. Survivors of the end of the world looked back on their hardest days, and remembered what they did to get through it. They dug for those memories and stacked them in a row. I’d like to respectfully adapt this practice for our exploration of vulnerability. I’d like to invite you to recall a hard time in your life: an illness, the death of someone close to you, the dissolution of a cherished relationship, an attempt to get sober, an incapacitating period of mental illness, the loss of physical ability, the loss of a job, financial challenges, being bullied, being targeted due to gender identity, due to race, due to disability, due to something about you over which you have no control. You may even recall your experience of the world ending, as certainly there are days when it feels that way. In the midst of your vulnerability, how did you learn to get through it? What memories can you stack in a row and use in the future?

If I may, I’d like to name some stacked memories, which I’ve accumulated over the years, which emerge from my experience of alcoholism in my family of origin, of having a child born with a serious medical condition, and of losing my father and my father-in-law.

I remember taking small steps, short steps, tentative steps, one or two each day, and sometimes stepping back if necessary.  

I remember making lists and checking off the boxes.

I remember learning to wait, being patient, trusting that the fear and anxiety would ease in time.

I remember worrying less—or not at all—about what others thought.

I remember learning what it means to be enough.

I remember letting go of the need to be perfect,

giving up control,

embracing and living with uncertainty,


I remember taking deep, cleansing breaths.

I remember asking for help.

I remember opening up to the love of family, community and congregation.

I remember building an altar and praying. I can’t tell you all these years later what words came out of my mouth, but I suspect all the words we pray in the midst of our vulnerability are some version of what the ancients prayed: Om Namah Shivaya, Shivaya namah om. Our father who art in Heaven. Baruch Atah Adonai. Salutations benevolent one. I suspect all words we pray in the midst of our vulnerability are some version of Om, the sound of creation, the beginning sound, the sacred sound of the universe.

There is a common, human vulnerability. And some are more vulnerable than others. What have you learned about how to get through this? What memories will you stack for next time?

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Read the UUA’s entire March 6th message, “UUA Responds to Growing Legislative Attacks Against Trans and Nonbinary+ Kids and the LGBTQIA+ Community” at https://www.uua.org/pressroom/press-releases/response-attacks-lgbtqia-community.

[2] Gumbs, Alexis Pauline, M Archive: After the End of the World  (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).

[3] Ibid., p. xi.

[4] I want to add that M Archive is conceived as a poetic companion piece to professor M. Jacqui Alexander’s 2005 Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. At one time Gumbs served as a research assistant to Alexander. I realized early into my first reading of M Archive that familiarity with Alexander’s work would greatly benefit my understanding of Gumbs’ project. M. Jacqui Alexander is an Afro-Caribbean writer, teacher, and activist. She is both a Professor Emeritus at the Women and Gender Studies Department of the University of Toronto as well as the creator and director of the Tobago Centre “for the study and practice of indigenous spirituality.” I am adding Pedagogies of Crossing to my reading list.

[5] Ibid., p.49.

Towards a Spiritual Discipline of Love

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I am slightly embarrassed. My intention this morning was—and still is—to continue reflecting on the proposed changes to Article 2 of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) bylaws, which I began in my sermon on January 22nd. I’ll explain my embarrassment, but first, as a reminder, Article 2 is the section of the bylaws that tells the world, in writing, who we are as a religious people. It proclaims to the world, in writing, the center of our faith. It currently lists the seven Unitarian Universalist principles and the six sources of our living tradition. These lists—the principles and the sources—will go away, in writing, if the new version of Article 2 is accepted by the UUA General Assembly over the course of two years of voting.

As an aside, I emphasize in writing, because while what we say in writing about who we are matters immensely (which is why I continue to talk about it), I firmly believe the world learns most about who we are, not by what we say about ourselves in writing, but by how we live, how we engage the world. As the 19th-century Transcendentalist Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker once prayed: Be ours a religion which, like / sunshine, goes everywhere; / its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.[1] In religious short-hand, we might say deeds, not creeds.

I am embarrassed because when I spoke about the proposed new Article 2 last month, I was responding to a rough draft proposal originally published last fall. What I understood last fall is that the Article 2 Commission that produced that rough draft was holding a series of feedback sessions in November and December. Some of you attended those sessions. What I did not quite understand is that the Commissioners would use the feedback they received in those sessions to create a final version of their proposal to submit to the UUA Board of Trustees for its mid-January meeting. When I spoke about Article 2 a month ago, I was completely unaware of the final version, which has some significant differences from the rough draft. That’s why I am embarrassed. I was speaking to you about already outdated material. I hope and trust you will forgive me. 

[To read the final draft of the Article 2 Commission’s report, click here.]

Love is our ministry theme for February, so I want to talk about the place of love in the proposed new Article 2.  However, before I do, it feels really important to name that quite a few of you have shared reactions to and concerns about the Article 2 proposal. I don’t have the space to address all those reactions and concerns here—and I don’t necessarily think that’s my role—but I do want to say there will be opportunities for us to discuss the Article 2 proposal as a congregation. Carrie Kocher currently holds the role of UUS:E Denominational Affairs chairperson. Carrie, I’m pretty sure, accepted the nomination for that role, without knowing (because who knew?) that Article 2 would be up for debate this year. Carrie, like me, is receiving a lot of the comments, reactions, concerns, etc. Carrie and I are committed to organizing three UUS:E public forums on Article 2 proposal, likely in May. The purpose of those forums is for Carrie and I, and any other UUS:E delegates to the General Assembly, to develop a good sense of how you want your delegates to vote regarding Article 2 and the likely hundreds of amendments that delegates will be proposing during the General Assembly.

Among those of you who’ve offered comments, observations, concerns, I want to thank in particular Malcolm and Susan Barlow, Carol Lacoss, Judy Durham, Lorry King, Fred Wildes, Carrie Kocher and Sudha Sevin. Many others have commented, but I want to personally acknowledge these eight. Their comments have gone into depth and are leading me to deepen and nuance my own assessment of the proposal. We’ve talked about everything from the wordiness of and lack of poetry in the proposal; to observations that there is too much emphasis on antiracism and anti-oppression identity and practice at the expense of promoting a more holistic religious setting for spiritual searching, experience and growth; to concerns that the rough draft makes no reference to democratic processes and what that implies for the future of our faith; to fears that with this proposal the UUA is actually attempting to usurp power from the congregations. There’s a lot to talk about. There’s a lot out there on the internet, some legitimate some not so legitimate. There’s a lot of anxiety in the system, so to speak. There are camps forming within Unitarian Universalism, which is problematic, though to some degree predictable and I don’t believe fatal.  I have complete faith that the UUA’s democratic, General Assembly process, over the next two years, will produce the best final new Article 2 possible.

Our ministry theme for February is love. I feel the most important and essential change the proposed Article 2 makes is the way it centers love as the preeminent value of Unitarian Universalism. My favorite sentence from the rough draft proposal is “Love is the enduring force that holds us together.” I kept repeating those words when I preached about this a month ago. Now I’m upset. That language was removed from the final version. The final version says “love is the power that holds us together and is at the center of our shared values.” It’s a clunky sentence. “Enduring” is such a beautiful, poetic word. Love is the enduring force that holds us together. I miss it already.

Despite that change, something else emerged out of those national feedback sessions that moves me deeply. Vivian Carlson focused on this last Sunday in her reflections on love. The final version of the proposed new Article 2 adds this statement: “We are accountable to one another for doing the work of living our shared values through the spiritual discipline of Love.” As an aside, I wish the statement didn’t use the phrase “doing the work.” Its jargony. It adds no value to the sentence. “We are accountable to one another for living our shared values through the spiritual discipline of love.”

The spiritual discipline of love.

Framing love as a discipline brings it out of the realm of pure feeling or mere sentiment, out of the realm of Hallmark and Valentine’s Day, and more importantly, out of the realm of consumer capitalism, asking: what is the practice of love? How do we manifest love in the world? How do me make love real, impactful, healing, transformative? Last week Vivian asked the question this way: “how do we keep our hearts open to the source of love when others are difficult, hurtful, hateful?” She reminded us that “the spiritual discipline of love calls us to understand that many who have been hurt, met with hatred and violence often know only how to share the same with others. They have not been held in the heart of another. They do not know the experience of love.”  The spiritual discipline of love attunes us to the knowledge that we typically don’t know about a person’s life circumstances, that we typically don’t know about the ways they have or are suffering, about what burdens they are carrying, about how their day is going.

I told the story earlier from my colleague, Rev. Jo VonRue, about her fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Fong. As a child Rev. VonRue was poor, at times homeless, often wore dirty clothes that didn’t smell good, struggled in school and was the target of bullying. Though she was terrified of Mrs. Fong, who tolerated no shenanigans, she says “she was never unkind towards me.” One day Mrs. Fong pulled her aside and asked if she knew what deodorant is. She was mortified. However, she writes, “when I was recently asked about a time when someone stuck their neck out for me, Mrs. Fong was the first person I thought of. It’s funny how perspective changes over time: something that once seemed mortifying now strikes me as a gesture of caring; of love.”

I don’t want to speculate on Mrs. Fong’s motivations. She probably woudn’t say she was holding herself accountable for living her values through the spiritual discipline of love. But who knows? Maybe she was conducting her life and her teaching in accordance with the values of a faith community. Maybe she just had a wonderfully caring heart and knew what needed to be said in that moment, even if it would be difficult for the child to hear. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that opportunities to practice love abound. They are everywhere. They meet us every day. A Unitarian Universalist spiritual discipline of love, in my mind, orients us to these opportunities, sensitizes, alerts, attunes us to these opportunities, helps us not pass by without noticing them, helps us respond to them as best we can.

A spiritual discipline of love helps us respond skillfully when, as Vivian challenges us, others are difficult, hurtful, hateful. A spiritual discipline of love helps us respond skillfully, as Rev. VonRue challenges us, in “the messy, vulnerable places.” A spiritual discipline of love helps us respond to the neighbor in crisis, the neighbor who is sinking down, as the hymn says, the neighbor facing homelessness, the neighbor whose anxiety will not subside, the neighbor whose depression keeps deepening despite treatment, the neighbor who is lonely, the neighbor whose child is struggling, the neighbor who cannot shake their addiction, the neighbor for whom the treatment did not work, the neighbor who has just lost their beloved, the health care worker neighbor or the teacher neighbor who are burned out and exhausted, the immigrant neighbor who cannot access health care to treat a condition that could be life threatening, the prisoner neighbor preparing for re-entry, the survivor neighbor of the earthquake who has lost everything and everyone, the child neighbor who needs deodorant. Indeed, a spiritual discipline of love calls us back to that ancient, moral commandment to love neighbor as self; the commandment, in Vivian’s language, to hold others in our hearts, even those who are hurtful and hateful.

I don’t know what this spiritual discipline of love looks like, not yet. But I do look forward to figuring it out, exploring, experimenting, testing, practicing … with you. And assuming some version of this love-centered UUA Article 2 is adopted next year, I already have an elevator speech ready to go. When people ask me to explain Unitarian Universalism, I will tell them: It’s the practice of the spiritual discipline of love.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Parker, Theodore, “Be Ours a Religion,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #683.

Imbolc Reflections

Calling The Quarters
excerpts from “Quarterdance”
by Mary Bopp and Josh Pawelek

 Spirit of the East, we invite your presence. Come air, come breath, come knowledge.

Spirit of the South, we invite your presence. Come fire, come heat, come turning.

Spirit of the West, we invite your presence. Come moisture, come water, come mystery.

Spirit of the North, we invite your presence. Come earth, come roots, come wisdom.

Introduction to Imbolc
Rev. Josh Pawelek and Peggy Gagne


In early February we arrive at at a cross-quarter time—halfway between solstice and equinox. In the ancient Gaelic calendar, this is the time for the celebration of Imbolc or Oimelc—Imbolc meaning ‘in the belly,’ or ‘fire in the belly,’ pregnant; Oimelc referring to ewe’s milk,’ because the sheep are pregnant, ready to give birth. The milk is beginning to flow. Spring is coming.

Among pre-Christian Celtic peoples, as well as in many current-day pagan communities, the celebration of Imbolc—typically on February 2nd—is associated with Brigid or Bríd, the ancient Irish goddess: the exalted one, keeper of the flame, guardian of home and hearth, patron of bards and crafters, a poet, a healer, a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the ancient Irish tribe of gods.

In Catholicism February 1st is the feast day of St. Brigid, who was likely a fifth-century Irish nun, remembered for founding monasteries and churches. Catholics attribute a number of miracles to her. Her blood was said to have healing properties. She’s rumored to have turned water into beer. Many historians of religion argue that over time, Brigid the Catholic nun took on the characteristics of Brigid the pagan goddess. These arguments ring true to me. Because the people would not—perhaps could not—give up their goddess, the church Christianized her, elevated her, venerated her. Thus the more ancient patterns and meanings remain to this day, even if they reside in the shadows.


Imbolc is a cross quarter on the Wiccan calendar, which means it’s between a solstice and an equinox.  It’s a time between. It comes after the dark and cold time of contemplation following Yule at the winter solstice, but well before the renewal of Ostara, which comes with the return of the light at the spring equinox. Can you imagine the sun peeking through a winter forest? That’s an Imbolc image. It’s a time of slow awakening, just like the groundhog sticking its head out of its hole.  It’s a time of brushing away cobwebs and cleaning out what no longer serves us.  In the Wiccan practice, Imbolc is a time to replace our old ritual candles with fresh ones.  Some say Imbolc gives us the idea of spring cleaning. When my instructor told me Imbolc marks the beginning of spring on the Wiccan calendar, I told her she had obviously never lived in Maine, where there is usually still several feet of snow on the ground!  Apparently the Celtic parts of the world had milder winters!

By Erin Williams and Madeleine Breault

It is no longer Christmas, or Yule, or Hannukah-
our family’s traditions have been packed away into boxes
And stored in the basement until next year.

Many days are still gray and cold,
but it isn’t really Winter anymore,
it isn’t as dark,
the days stretch longer,
sunlight extends into the evening now.
And yet,
it is not Spring.
This is a time of waiting.
This is a turning time,
an in-between time,
A liminal time.

Imbolc means Fire in the Belly,
What is yet to be born,
What is still gestating,
My fire is
Making art, walking in the woods and swimming in the lake,
My fire is sitting in the sun, or watching the stars

My fire is the projects I want to do and the stories I want to write.
What projects are you imagining?
What trips are you planning?
What exciting spark is dancing around inside of you?

Who are you becoming?

Imbolc is Brigid,
Goddess of healers and poets
Goddess of the forge where tools were made in fire
Goddess of the wells and waterways,
where the earth provides us with nourishment-
The ice is melting now,
and the water trickles into the yawning earth-
The seeds are waiting.

This is a time of pausing, checking in,
This is a time of questioning
Are you ready to go outside on this cold morning?
To feel the sunlight
And Know how much you are loved?

Or is that too much,
Are you like the groundhog,
seeing your shadow,
needing more time-
To ruminate,
to sit at the hearth of yourself?

Sometimes things seem so uncertain,
but I know that the seasons are circles,
And I trust that endlessness.

I know that there is fire inside all of us,
And that is our potential,
that is how much we can love-
So even during these in-between days
I Celebrate the pause,
I Trust the circle,
I Remember
that the sun is returning
The ice is melting
The earth is stirring

There is a purple crocus bravely
Showing her face
And I am returning her smile.

by Peggy Gagne

The early Celtic version of Imbolc was not all that different from the festival in early medieval times, when Christianity was taking hold in Ireland. One of the goddesses the Celts worshipped at this festival was Brigid, (and you will see that spelled and hear it pronounced in a multitude of ways!).  She was the daughter of Dagda (the chief Celtic deity) and one of the Tuatha De Dannan, the first inhabitants of Ireland. She is associated with many things, most significantly poetry and fertility, but also such activities as healing, smithing, arts and crafts, and tending to livestock.  Making foods with a focus on milk, such as cheese or custard were and are still popular.

In celebration of her, it common to write poems and try out various crafts.  One popular craft is the making of a Brigid’s Cross, now known as a St. Bridget’s Cross.  (Hold up picture)

It is traditionally made out of plants called rushes, but these days can be made out of whatever material that works.  It is hung above the entrances to dwellings to invoke the help of St Bridget in warding off disease.

Even in mild winters like the one this year, I find it can be easy to get a little depressed by the shorter days with less light.  But as Imbolc approaches, I can feel not only the lengthening, but also the strengthening in the light, and it seems to give me a little strength too – to just hold on a little bit longer and we’ll be through this and spring will be here.  I can almost taste it in the air – and occasionally hear the hopeful song of an early spring bird.  I start to go out for more walks in search of the light and notice the early buds setting on some trees.  I notice shoots of early spring plants just starting to break ground.  I also find smudging the house lightens the feel of everything, since it’s too early to open the windows yet.  And my thoughts start to turn to the projects I’ve had in the back of my mind, both for my home and myself.  I start to look at day trips I might take with bus companies or night classes I might be interested in.  I start to look forward to being around people again.  New seeds of ideas to plant as the world becomes brighter and warmer.

If I had to sum up Imbolc in one word it would probably be HOPE.  Hope that the cold and dark will continue to recede.  Hope that the ideas and thoughts that I have come up with in these quieter days will take root and grow when I plant them at Ostara.  And hope that I and those around me will continue to move towards the light and encourage others to do so as well.

Thank you.

by Sudha Sevin

For me, celebrating the Celtic holiday of Imbolc is a very practical way to get through the post-holidays winter months. It’s an antidote to cabin fever.

Imbolc is just one of the Celtic seasonal holidays I mark. I have found that celebrating these special days, which are about halfway between the solstices and equinoxes, aligns me to the earth and the celestial energies that are emerging at the time. By marking them, I harmonize with those energies.

It is also a way to connect to cyclical time, which I experience as a spiral of present moments rather than clocks and calendars. Or you might think of it as “stepping out of time.” The Celts love to celebrate the liminal, whether it is faerie mounds, the dawn, or the threshold of your home.

How do you convey what Imbolc is? It’s vast. Its traditions have many different aspects and regional variations. I have to make choices about what to focus on. I could tell you Imbolc means this or that, but so much of it is subtle. Much of it is only known through experience. Still, I would like to try to share my experience of Imbolc with you.

So, this is our moment, right now, to mark Imbolc together. I invite you to close your eyes or gaze at a candle and let these words, which I wrote for you, wash over you. Perhaps from this, you’ll have your own experience of the magic of Imbolc.


Through the dark each of us has carried forward a tiny flame
Each has found a way to nurture that seed of light,
enduring black, cold passageways
in faith
that ‘round the next curve,
or the next,
a lit circle of entry shall show itself,
Tell us,
we’ve made it
to the surface.

The powers of Light are waxing
and the thin, hibernating bear shall reappear.

Remember that once bejeweled August harvest?
And then
the aging stalks and vines—we tugged and composted—returned to hushed earth?
Now so close is renewal,
pushing up
from earth’s womb.

The birds await your return.
In equipoise the trees hold the unsheathing of their leaves.

Come back to us, Lady!

Helpless lambs are born
from your red blood and white milk
a miracle

The sun’s light grows,
a toddler yet to be sure,
but soon strong
and able
to warm the bones of the dead.

So much promise,
that new one.

Do we not live by dreams?

Candlelight reflections
in the waters of the sacred well
is the shine
of our souls.

“Pagan at Heart”
Rev. Josh Pawelek

I am pagan at heart. I wonder if you are too.

Some pagans have direct relationships with the goddesses and gods who were known to the ancients. Among Unitarian Universalist pagans, especially those who observe the eight sabbat rituals of the neo-pagan wheel of the year, including Imbolc, which we’re exploring this morning, many of those gods and goddesses are Celtic in origin, such as Brigid. Others are Germanic. Some are Norse. Occasionally UU pagans explore the Greek and Roman pantheons. Occasionally they look beyond ancient Europe.

I haven’t talked about this much from the pulpit, but one of the goals of my study leave this past summer was to read non-European, non-White science fiction and fantasy writers who weave earth-based deities into their story-telling—Tomi Adeyemi and Nnedi Okorafor, both Nigerian-American writers, often work with West African deities, the orishas. S.A. Chakraborty, a Catholic-born convert to Islam, tells tales of Middle Eastern Djinn in her Daevabad series. Rebecca Roanhorse, a mixed race, Pueblo and African American writer, draws on the religious world-views of Pre-Columbian American civilizations. There’s more. My point for this morning is that paganism comes in millions of variations—some highly structured, some entirely spontaneous—and it exists in every corner of the planet where human beings live and, especially, as they interact with their natural environment in spiritually significant ways.

Paganism comes from the Latin word paganus, which refers to peasants, rural people, rustic people. Over the millennia ‘Pagan’ has become a word of derision in the lexicon of larger, organized religions, like Christianity and Islam, religions that sought (and still sometimes seek) to convert the people from their traditional folk ways, folk practices, folk religions, often in the context of conquest and colonization. While many indigenous cultures across the planet have held onto their Earth-based spiritual practices throughout centuries of colonization, in recent decades, many non-indigenous people, especially in the West, have reclaimed Paganism as a positive, powerful, meaningful spiritual identity. Today Paganism points to something that was lost or stolen generations ago: a recognition of the sacredness of the Earth; an understanding of the interrelatedness of all life; and a desire to engage spiritually with nature.

For some pagans, at least some of the time, the deities are very real. In my experience Brigid speaks to many people across Northern Europe and North America, especially at Imbolc. Something about her seems so real and accessible. At other times, the deities become metaphors for certain natural life forces or human lifeways – love, healing, fertility, birth, death, planting, harvesting, etc. Brigid is associated with the home and the hearth, bards, crafters, poets, brewers, and healers. At other times the deities become associated with the elements—earth, air, fire, water. Brigid is the keeper of the flame.

I am Pagan at heart. I don’t have that immediate, direct relationship with a deity (though if I had to choose one, I would probably choose Brigid; or as a person of German – Scandinavian – Polish heritage, I might feel called to do research and find a deity who aligns with that heritage.) But I’ve never felt called in quite that way. When I say I am Pagan at heart, I mean I live with a constant, sometimes muted, sometimes blaring, sense that the natural world is magical, enchanted, breathing, listening, observing, and even at times, conscious, knowing. It’s not an intellectual construct. It’s not something for which I have any scientific evidence. It’s not something I can prove. It’s not exactly rational. It’s a sensation, a feeling, an intuition, a spiritual inclination. When we arrive at Imbolc, and I hear that translation “in the belly,” referring to pregnant sheep, or Oimelc, referring to ewe’s milk, I get a flash of recognition: of course, we are six weeks out from spring, and signs of spring are slowly revealing themselves. Nature follows its seasonal patterns, winter slowly recedes, spring slowly approaches. I feel it. The term Imbolc affirms the feeling.

I’ve preached previously about the connections between Imbolc and Groundhog Day, the descendent of that ancient, Northern European tradition of using animal divination at this cross-quarter time to discern when to plant the first seeds. I see all the campy media attention given to Chuckles here in Manchester, or Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania. It’s a bit corny. Fun for kids. But secretly my heart leaps out of my chest. Of course they know when spring is coming! It probably has nothing to do with whether they see their shadow, but of course they know. They are Earth creatures beholden ancient instincts; Earth creatures embedded in the patterns of Nature even if they live inside museums. Of course they know when spring is coming. And if they could talk to us, they’d probably ask us why we talked ourselves out of this knowledge. They would probably ask us why we have educated and industrialized and technologized ourselves out of this knowledge which actually still lives inside us and is our birthright as Earth creatures like them.  They might even warn us: all life on the planet is now in peril precisely because you humans no longer know how to live in concert with the natural world.

Imbolc is one among many opportunities to get back in touch with that ancient knowledge, those ancient Earth creature instincts. Lighting fires of purification and cleansing? Blessing candles for the year’s rituals? Letting go of that which no longer works for us and is really just producing mental clutter? Getting ready for spring cleaning? It all seems to fit with this moment in the wheel of the year; it all seems to connect back to the way the Earth begins preparing itself for bursting forth in spring splendor. So I say yes to all of it. I am Pagan at Heart.

Even if you don’t use the word Pagan, I suspect, at least in some way, you are too.

Amen and blessed be.








Have We No Principles?

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Note: Rev. Josh offered this sermon in response to UUA Article 2 Commission’s rough draft report released in the fall of 2022. It does not take into account the final version of the report, which incorporates more of the seven principles language from the current (1985) Article 2.

Friends: our ministry theme for January is finding our center. Two weeks ago I spoke about shared ministry—a collective practice, a way of being church together—which lives at the center of our congregational life. Last Sunday, in observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday, we named the work of racial justice and also lifted up women’s rights and reproductive justice, GLBTQ justice, and environmental justice among many others avenues for social justice that are central to who we are as Unitarian Universalists. There are many other aspects of our center we can name. Last night we had a wonderful, all-congregation game night. Community—beloved community—being together—having fun together—playing together—all reside at the center of who we are as a congregation. A commitment to religious freedom lives at our center. The use of reason in our spiritual and theological searching lives at our center. A celebration of religious pluralism lives at our center. And there’s more.

However, imagine that someone who is completely unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism asks you to tell them about your faith, asks What is it? Says, You don’t share a common set of beliefs, so what holds you UUs together? More than likely, your response will include something about our seven principles. Because we don’t gather ourselves around a common set of beliefs. We gather ourselves around a set of seven principles: The inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of democratic processes; the goal of world community; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. These principles are not beliefs. They are not confessions of faith. They are our covenant, our agreement with each other, and with Unitarian Universalists across the globe, about how we intend to live. They are guides to living here and now, living with each other, living in our wider community, in our nation, on our planet.

Our principles are aspirational. To live them well is difficult. We often miss the mark, so we keep trying. Here, on Sunday mornings, and as we engage in congregational through the week, we receive an invitation—the ongoing invitation—to understand, explore, and live these principles. They inhabit a prominent space at the center of our faith—both in the intangible and soul space of Unitarian Universalism, and, in a very tangible way, on paper. That is, the seven Unitarian Universalist principles, along with the six sources of our living tradition are written in Article II of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) bylaws.[1] You might suddenly be thinking, Oh no, he’s preaching about bylaws. The last thing I want to hear on a Sunday morning is bylaws. This can’t be happening.

Oh, it’s happening.

Article I, by the way, tells us the name, Unitarian Universalist Association, and offers one sentence about the UUA’s history, that it is the successor organization to the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Then comes Article II, which is entitled, “Principles and Purposes.” Again, this is where we encounter the seven principles and the six sources of our living tradition. This is—on paper—the center of our faith.

The title of this sermon is “Have We No Principles?” It’s a rhetorical question, sort of. In the spring of 2020, the UUA Board of Trustees created the Article II Study Commission, and charged it “to review Article II of the UUA Bylaws, and propose any revisions that will enable our UUA, our member congregations, and our covenanted communities to be a relevant and powerful force for spiritual and moral growth, healing, and justice.” That’s the first sentence of the charge. The full charge is actually much longer, totaling 900 words.[2] This charge emerged after two years of dialogue and debate at the 2018 and 2019 UUA General Assemblies, and also after specific attempts to revise the principles going back more than a decade, including an effort to more clearly articulate the worth and dignity of non-human life, and including the movement to establish an 8th principle that calls us to conduct our congregational life and build beloved community in anti-racist, anti-oppressive ways.

The Commission has completed its work. It published its proposed new Article II this past fall. We’ve included it in our eblast a few times. We’ve had some online conversation about it with our Policy Board and Program Council leaders. We’ve included it as an insert in today’s printed order of service. If you’re following the online order of service, the proposed new Article II can be found there as well. I really like the proposal. Yes, there are some aspects of the language I might want to nitpick if I were in a nitpicky mood, but I will be happy and supportive if this proposal becomes the new Article II.

However, I do note two, somewhat glaring absences. First, the proposal lists no principles. Second, the proposal lists no sources of our living tradition. If the proposal becomes the new Article II, the seven principles we’ve come to know and love, the seven principles that have lived at the center of our faith for almost forty years, will go away. The same goes for the six sources. So, when I ask, “have we no principles?” it’s a rhetorical question, except that, on paper, we actually won’t have principles. Instead, the proposed new Article II names seven values at the heart of our covenant. Love is the central value, or as the proposal reads, “the enduring force that holds us together.” As we read further, “Love inspires and powers the passion with which we embody our values,” which include: justice, generosity, evolution, pluralism, equity and interdependence.

If you’re curious about the process that this proposal needs to go through in order to be adopted, it’s pretty simple. First, the UUA Board has the opportunity to amend the proposal this winter. Then in June, the UUA General Assembly, meeting in Pittsburgh, will have the opportunity to amend the Board’s version and then vote to accept or reject it. In order to be accepted, it needs a simple majority vote. If accepted, there will be a year of further study, some final edits, and a final vote at the 2024 General Assembly. At that point it will need a two thirds majority to be adopted as the new Article II of the UUA bylaws.

There’s a lot I can say about why I like the proposed new Article II. But I don’t think any of it actually matters until we acknowledge, reflect on and live with the grief that many of us will feel if this change goes through. The UUA adopted the current seven principles in June of 1985, the same month I graduated from high school. I’m not sure when, exactly, I became aware of the seven principles. It might have been during college. It might have been when I moved to Boston in 1989. At some point I became aware of them, and they have been the center of my faith ever since. They have been my response to the question, What is Unitarian Universalism? For better or for worse, they are in my bones. They are in my heart, my spirit, my soul. The rabbi preaches in response to the Torah. The Christian minister or priest preaches in response to the Christian New Testament. The Imam preaches in response to the Koran. I preach in response to the principles. I anticipate experiencing grief and a sense of loss if they go away.

I’m mindful that a majority of you became Unitarian Universalists after 1985. For you, the seven principles have been the only center of this faith you’ve ever known. And even for those of you who were Unitarian Universalists prior to 1985, like me, you’ve lived with the seven principles for nearly 40 years. They have lived in us. So yes, we will experience grief and loss if they go away. It will feel strange learning the new language of our center. It will feel strange referring to values, rather than principles. It will feel strange referring to inspirations rather than sources. It will take time to change.

I invite us to breathe together. Breathe deeply, mindful that this conversation about Article II, especially in its early stages, is as much about grief and loss as it is about embracing a new articulation of our center. Breathe. As we breathe, I’d like to share four, broad reflections on what I am thinking and feeling as I contemplate the loss of the seven principles.

First Reflection: Confidence

It has been my experience over the years that when I share the seven principles with people who are interested in Unitarian Universalism, the principles invariably resonate with them. The principles inspire them. People say Yes to them. People say some version of, these are my principles. People say some version of, I didn’t know religion could be like this. I’ve tried to read the proposed Article II as if I were very interested in Unitarian Universalism, but also brand new to the faith, visiting for the first time. When I read it that way, I feel confident that if the UUA adopts the new language, the same thing will happen. People will read the statement of values, and the values will resonate with them. People will be inspired. People will say: Yes, these are my values. People will say, I didn’t know religion could be like this. I feel confident.

Second Reflection: Change Alone is Unchanging

The seven principles were never intended to last forever. As the charge to the commission noted: “There is nothing sacred about the number of principles or sources, nor their specific wordings.” In the UUA bylaws there is an expectation that Article II will be revised on a regular basis. It has always been true of liberal religion that it embraces change, re-invents itself, adapts to better respond to the unique circumstances of its historical era. Liberal religion lets itself evolve. As much as it honors ancient revelations, it doesn’t cling to them. There is wisdom in our willingness and ability to change. When we are not willing or able to change, we risk becoming mired in outdated language, let alone outdate theological, social and cultural norms. Our willingness and ability to change is what keeps us healthy, vibrant and fresh as a religious movement over the long run. Our willingness and ability to change is what keeps us open to the reality that revelation is never sealed, that there are always new truths to be discovered, new relationships to build, new insights to gain, new hallelujahs to cry out. Change is good.

Third Reflection: Love, The Enduring Force

The seven principles have some glaring absences too. Perhaps their most glaring absence is their failure to mention love in any way. I am planning to preach more about this in February. The bottom line for me is that religion at its best promotes love. Religion at its best puts love into action. When I read in the Article II proposal that “love is the enduring force that holds us together,” my heart sings. Finally, that center of our faith that has been missing from the seven principles, has been found. I am filled with joy.

Final Reflection: Words Ultimately Fail Us

Anytime we ask language to articulate our center, our deepest-held beliefs, our purpose, the things that matter most, we confront a dilemma. No words can ever truly capture what we really mean. Yet words are all we have. So we do our best with the words we have, knowing, ultimately, that our words are inadequate. When I read the proposed new Article II, I feel like so much of it already lives in an unspoken form in the current Article II. And when I read the current Article II, I recognize that much of it will live on in the future, even if its specific words go away. This is because there is something deeper and more enduring to our faith than the limited and very human words we use to describe it. That something is, in fact, eternal, though our words are finite. The question for me is not whether we have the uniquely right words, but whether the words we have serve as good guides for our covenant, our living together. Future generations will gather at their proverbial rivers and call out our names. They likely won’t remember the words we used to describe the center of our faith. They’ll surely be using different words by then. But they will remember something of how we lived. My prayer is that whatever words we end up using, they will be the right words to guide us into lives of compassion, healing, justice and love.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Read the current Article II at https://www.uua.org/files/2022-10/uua_bylaws_10312022.pdf.

[2] You can read the full charge to the UUA’s Article II Commission starting on page 6 of its fall, 2022 report: https://www.uua.org/files/2023-01/a2sc_rpt_01172023.pdf.

On Shared Ministry

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Our ministry theme for this first month of 2023 is Finding Our Center. It has always been abundantly clear to me that the practice of shared ministry lives at the center of our congregational life—meaning our life here at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester. Given that, as a way to begin talking about this theme, I want to share my thoughts on shared ministry. Full disclosure: I preached a version of this sermon at the Unitarian Society of Hartford in October. A number of UUS:E members were in attendance. Afterwards, all of them said some version of “You have to preach this sermon in Manchester.” I am taking them up on their suggestion. I call this sermon “What Shared Ministry Means to Me.” The short response is: it means everything.

When I say “shared ministry” I’m referring to all the ways in which a congregation—the collective of lay people—shares, collaborates, partners, cooperates, or teams up with its professional staff: its minister or ministers, its religious education professionals, music professionals, membership professionals, etc. And of course, not every congregation has that full array of professionals. Not every congregation has a minister. So then the question becomes, how do the lay people share ministry among themselves? And a further question, which is somewhat beyond my scope this morning, though not completely absent: how do the area congregations with the same denominational identity share ministry? And even further beyond my scope, though not completely absent: how do congregations of all denominations and faiths in a particular region share ministry?

Ministry is never a solo act. Even if one person visits you in the hospital, the congregation, by some means (which is not always visible, which is often taken for granted) has authorized that person to be there; while it has also authorized, by some means, someone else to prepare worship for Sunday, someone else to attend the interfaith coalition board meeting, someone else to volunteer in the nursery, someone else to make the coffee, someone else to greet people as they arrive for worship, someone else to edit the newsletter, someone else to chair the board, someone else to handle the technology so that people can participate safely from home. And behind all that authorization (which is an admittedly bureaucratic term), giving rise to it, is a beautiful, sometimes messy set of very human relationships, human conversations, human covenants, human love and multiple avenues for connection to all that is holy in our lives. The ministry is shared. We share ministry because we are human in relationship with each other and with divinity understood and experienced in a multiplicity of ways. Our sharing means everything.

The best way for me to illustrate this in more detail is to tell you the story of my encounter with shared ministry here at UUS:E. As you know, I am serving in my 20th year as your solo professional minister. While UUS:E is not the only congregation I have served as minister, it is the one I have served for most of my career, and thus its conventions around shared ministry have shaped me far more than the conventions of any other institution in our Unitarian Universalist Association.

The first thing to know about our model of shared ministry, something which we don’t often name explicitly, but which becomes apparent to Sunday guests after about a month of visiting, has to do with how my time is structured. I am a full-time minister; however, I am a part-time preacher. I lead worship and preach, on average, twice a month. I sometimes co-lead a third monthly service—what we call an all-congregation service, where the children’s ministry worships with the adults. We do that at least once a month. Some of those services are staff-led, some are lay-led; some emerge out of a lay and staff partnership.  One or two Sunday services each month are lay-led.

This model developed out of necessity. The congregation called its first full-time minister, the Rev. Arnold Westwood, in the 1970s. Very quickly they ran out of money to pay him full-time, so he started splitting his time between UUS:E and the UU congregation in Amherst, MA. So, for us he was a part-time minister and a part-time preacher. And, out of necessity, lay people began leading worship on the weeks when Arnold was in Amherst.

The congregation liked this arrangement, so much so that it became a central part of our identity. To this day, the lay people of the congregation share the worship ministry with the professional minister. Allegedly—I don’t have the full story—the minister who succeeded Arnold in the 1980s didn’t like this model and, among other things, was overheard saying, “Wait until they hear a real minister preach; they’ll get rid of this model.” That minister moved on a few years later. The sharing continued.

Fast forward to the spring of 2002. I am the candidate for the minister position at UUS:E, getting ready to succeed the Rev. Connie Sternberg. Not once, not twice, but three times before I show up for what we call “the candidating week,” the chair of the search committee, Fred Sawyer, calls me to ask: “Are you sure you are OK with preaching only twice a month? You’re not gonna get into the position and then tell us you want to preach every week, right?” There was a lot of anxiety around this question. Was I just saying I liked the model so I’d be sure to get the job? Carol Simpson, Nancy Madar, Malcolm Barlow and Sylvia Ounpuu were members of that search committee. I trust they can vouch for what I am telling you. That anxiety was quite palpable.

I really liked the model, and wasn’t entirely sure how to convince the search committee that I really meant it. On the surface, I liked the model because I struggled with writing sermons. I think I prepared pretty good sermons, but the process took me forever. I didn’t relish the idea of sitting down every week, week in and week out, to prepare worship. The thought of doing that was exhausting. I knew that by the end of every congregational year, full-time preachers were tired, burned out, out of ideas, bone-dry, desperate for some down-time. I didn’t want that in my life. But that was mostly my anxiety, which is common to many new ministers—a need to be perfect, undergirded by a secret, hard-to-share knowledge that we are not perfect, undergirded by a fear that our imperfections will be discovered, undergirded by a nagging question: do I really have what it takes?

I also knew from experience that if I had, on average, two weeks to prepare a sermon, it would inevitably be better than if I had, on average, one week. Two weeks allows time for ideas to gestate. Two weeks allows time for more research. Two weeks allows time for more editing. Two weeks allows time to get the rhythm and the poetry of the words just right.

But this was just the surface of my embrace of the model. This was me struggling with the mechanics of worship design and sermon writing. There was much more underneath, though I understand it much better now than I did then.

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “the prophet-hood and the priesthood of all believers?” This concept emerged in Europe during the Protestant Reformation—mid to late 1500s, early to mid 1600s. There is a complex history to it which I won’t share here. Suffice to say, the concept meant that the people in the pews had some agency in matters of the spiritual life and the conduct of the church’s ministry. They are not passive recipients of spiritual ministrations; they are active participants in the ministry. “The prophet-hood and the priesthood of all believers.”

Although we weren’t really using that language anymore, I took the concept seriously. I had always wondered: in a faith that values the individual’s spiritual search, the individual’s hard-won personal theology, the individual’s evolving set of spiritual practices—in a faith that values personal experience as a source of truth and as a primary ground for meaning-making and theological reflection—where does any of that find expression in the life of the congregation if the minister preaches every Sunday? This question had been nagging at me ever since I had begun working in congregations in the mid-1990s. The answer wasn’t clear to me and, frankly, I was afraid to ask. I won’t tell you how many times colleagues of mine have said demeaning things about lay-people in the pulpit, but I will tell you that I’ve learned to push back hard when I hear it today.

I found an answer to my question when the UUS:E ministerial search committee presented this model of shared worship ministry to me, saying “this is central to who we are,” saying “we want to hear from you, but we also want to hear from each other,” saying “this is a fundamentally democratic way of being church.” I said “yes!” I meant it, and I’ve never looked back.

Of course there are many other ways of sharing ministry. This one, admittedly, is big. It’s rare. Professional ministers are trained to lead worship. Lay people, generally speaking, aren’t. How is it even possible? Well, it requires a huge commitment, not to mention a lot of enthusiasm, from lay people. It’s certainly not for every congregation. It works splendidly for UUS:E. It works splendidly for me.

Here’s why. I love preaching. I love creating worship. But that has never been all I wanted to do in ministry. A long time ago, before I landed at UUS:E, I wrote a personal mission statement for my ministry, which hasn’t changed much in the nearly 25 years since I first wrote it. “I am a theistic Unitarian Universalist; an aspiring antiracist, feminist, queer ally; a liberal, suburban American minister practicing a modern version of New England’s old ‘congregational way;’ a loving husband and father; and a spiritual leader dedicated to transformative preaching, teaching, healing and social justice ministries.” And precisely because I don’t have to come back every week and create a liturgy for Sunday worship; precisely because I don’t have to come back every week and spend the 10 to 20 hours it takes to create a decent sermon, let alone an excellent sermon, I have time to be very present to our people who are in crisis, who need pastoral care, who need a listening ear. I have time to teach. I have time to meet with visitors and newcomers to the congregation. I have time to supervise our staff.

Most importantly for me (although the pastoral care is very important), I can engage in social justice and antiracist organizing in the wider community. I have time to serve on the strategy team of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance, and then share that ministry with UUSE members and friends as they participate in our GHIAA core team, on GHIAA issue teams, or in GHIAA trainings and actions. I can serve as a partner with Moral Monday CT and Power Up CT on Black Lives Matter organizing, and then share that participation with members and friends of our congregation. I can serve on the Coordinating Committee of Recovery for All. I can serve as a clergy leader with the Domestic Worker Justice Campaign and the HUSKY for Immigrants Campaign. I can serve as a leader with Equality Connecticut’s new interfaith clergy organization in their effort to maintain and advance the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people across the state. Over the last twenty years I have had time to bring Unitarian Universalist principles into the public arena in what I believe is a very potent way, precisely because, most specifically, I share worship ministry, but also pastoral care ministry, administrative ministry, social justice ministry, and many other ministries with the lay people of UUSE.

Is it perfect? No. Do we have trouble finding volunteers? Yes, all the time. Do I invite sharing only to be met by crickets filling the summer evening silence as they rub their scrapers together? Yes. Do I fail to respond to lay people who want to share some ministry with me? Absolutely. It takes work, discipline, intentionality, and a tolerance for conflict. We often miss the mark. But on the whole, I have the time in my calendar to fulfill my entire ministerial call, to live out that personal mission of pursuing transformative preaching, teaching, healing and social justice ministry.

I have this time because, at the heart of our model, lives a belief in the prophet-hood and priesthood of all believers.

I have this time because, at the heart of our model, lives the belief that ministry is never a solo act, that it emerges out of a set of very human relationships, conversations, covenants, love and avenues for connection to all that is holy in our lives. Whether we know it or not, we share ministry with each other. I say it works better if we know it. It works better if we can name all the ways we share ministry, understanding that this is what it means to be in covenantal relationship with one another, understanding that this is how we manifest the principles of our faith, understanding and believing as my dear colleague, the late Hope Johnson said in her meditation we heard earlier, “we are one,” understanding and believing that our capacity to share ministry means everything.

Amen and blessed be.

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


“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.



“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.