A Meditation on the Coming of Autumn
Summer turns now towards Autumn. Let us hear the chorus of life resounding as one.
The autumnal equinox arrives in just a few days. Let us hear the chorus of life resounding as one.
We enter the time of the final harvest; the land yields up its final fruits. Let us hear the chorus of life resounding as one.
Already the leaves are beginning to change, beginning to dot New England lawns and meadows with small bursts of red, orange and yellow. Let us hear the chorus of life resounding as one.
Glorious late summer days, we know, will give way to autumn’s wind and frosty mornings, its cold rain, its barren fields. Let us hear the chorus of life resounding as one.
We need to hear this chorus of life. We need to hear it in uncertain times. We need to hear it when the future of our nation is unclear. We need to hear it when our politics and our society are racked by division and mean-spiritedness, separation and demonization.
We need to hear this chorus of life. We need to hear it when the future of our planet is unclear. We need to hear it amidst the news of floods and draughts, fires and storms larger than any we’ve seen before. We need to hear it amidst dire predications of environmental calamity that may or may not be true. We need to hear it amidst efforts to ignore and discredit valid scientific data.
We need to hear this chorus of life resounding as one. As we hear it, may we find strength.
As we hear it, may we feel peace.
As we hear it, may we garner hope.
As we hear it, may we grow in our faith.
As we hear it, may learn, once again, to love.
The chorus of life, resounding as one. As we hear it, may we remember who we are at our core, intimately related to each other, to all of humanity, to all of life, to our siblings the planets, to our parents the stars, to our grandparents the galaxies, to our ancient ancestor, the vast universe. The chorus of life resounding as one.
Let us hear. Let us hear. Let us hear.
Amen and Blessed Be.
The Identity Business
Mother Spirit, Father Spirit, who am I? A simple yet profound question from the early 20th century Czechoslovakian Unitarian minister, Norbert F. Capek; a question residing in some form at the heart of any spiritual journey; certainly a question residing at the center of the many modes of Unitarian Universalist spirituality. Who am I? At some point we human beings need a coherent answer to this question if we wish not just to live, but to live purposeful, meaningful lives. That is, from a clear understanding of who one is, there emerges a clear understanding of how to live, how to act, how to treat others, how to be in community, how to pursue one’s passions and dreams. Our identity—who we are—determines how we are in the world. Who we are determines how we are.
Our theological theme for September is identity. If it’s not immediately clear to you why identity qualifies as a theological theme, consider this: religious identity is for many people—if not most people—the central aspect of who they are. Religious communities are in the business of shaping, growing and sustaining people’s religious identity. That’s what we do. For example, Christians who attend Christian churches will encounter, week in and week out, a call to identify with Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, Mary and the saints, the Biblical stories and characters, the Christmas, Easter and Pentecost narratives, and with a particular expectation of what the future holds. And from this Christian identity one learns how to be in the world; one becomes able to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” Of course, we know Christianity is an immeasurably diverse tradition. There are many ways to identify as Christian and many ways for Christians to live their religious identity in the world.
The same is true for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists. In any religion the adherents encounter a call to identify with stories and characters from various scriptures, with God or the gods and goddesses, with practices, rituals, holy days, cultural heroes, gurus and a spiritual path or way of Dao. Religious identity is formed through all these associations. As the religious community shapes, grows and sustains this identity, the adherent learns how to be in the world. Who we aredetermines how we are.
You might say, “Wait! Unitarian Universalism doesn’t ask people to identify with a specific notion or manifestation of divinity. We don’t ask people to believe in God, to identify with a specific scriptural character or story, or with a specific scripture for that matter. We are light on rituals, holy days, cultural heroes and gurus.” And that’s true. But make no mistake: we’re still in the business of shaping, growing and sustaining a specific, Unitarian Universalist and liberal religious identity. We—and by ‘we’ I mean all of us in UU congregations—ask ourselves to identify with a set of seven principles. We ask ourselves to identify with a living tradition that draws on a wide variety of spiritual sources. We ask ourselves to identify with a particular congregation that gathers for worship and spiritual growth on Sunday mornings. We ask ourselves to identify with that congregation’s unique mission, vision and covenant.
But most importantly—if we’re conducting this identity business well—we ask ourselves, in a variety of ways, to identify as part of a larger whole, a larger unity. We ask ourselves as Unitarian Universalists to identify ourselves as related, as connected, as interdependent. As we said in our opening words this morning, “the same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.” We ask ourselves to identify ourselves as in relationship with each other, with all of humanity, with all of life, with the planets, the stars, the galaxies, the universe and, as some contend, the multiverse. We ask ourselves to identify ourselves not as isolated, not as separate, not as fragmented, but as whole and related. And from that identity of relatedness, we hope and trust and expect that a way of being in the world emerges—a way of kindness, fairness, compassion and hospitality; a way that seeks to grow individuality and community; a way that calls for sustainable, earth-centered living; a way that emphasizes service to those in need and justice for those who are oppressed. Our identity matters. Who we are matters. Who we are determines how we are.
This is more complicated than it sounds. Consider identity in the context of electronic social media. I read earlier from an editorial by author Curtis Sittenfeld about her recent and, in her view, late entry into Facebook. This will be old news to some, but let me say a little about the Facebook experience for those unfamiliar with it. At Facebook, once you have an account you can set up your own page where you can post any information you would like the rest of the world to know you. (One twelfth of the people on the planet now have a Facebook account. If they were a country, they’d be the third largest country in the world.) Once your page is established, other people can “friend” you. If you accept their invitation to become friends, then you can read their page and they can read yours. Note this doesn’t mean they are your actual friends, but it does mean they have become part of your electronic social network. On Facebook people constantly post information about what they’re doing, how they’re feeling, how they’re reacting to world events or very personal events. They post articles, pictures and videos—anything! This is social media. This, too, is the identity business. It provides a forum for people to say to the world: this is who I am! This is what I care about!
But what is the nature of this identity we can now broadcast to the world in one keystroke? Curtis Sittenfeld’s main reason for waiting so long to join Facebook was this very question. “I didn’t know which me would join,” she wrote. “Would my profile reflect Professional Writer Curtis (upbeat, friendly, responsible) or Real Curtis (disagreeable, slovenly, judgmental)? Would I use it to hawk my books, or to post pictures of my baby eating her toes?” Sittenfeld’s struggle to figure out her online identity might seem silly, except for something Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, said a few years ago in an interview with journalist David Kirkpatrick. Zuckerberg evidently kept repeating the idea that “you have one identity.” “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.” “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”
When I first read that my immediate thought was, “yeah, she’s right. Identity matters. We need to know who we are. Without a clear understanding of who we are we won’t have a clear understanding of how to live, how to act, how to treat others, how to be in community, how to pursue one’s passions and dreams. Who we are determines how we are. This is a matter of integrity.”
But Sittenfeld says: “You’ve got to be kidding. I mean, I’m not even the same person with all the members of my immediate family. And I’ve long thought that my impulse to act differently with, say, my friend from grad school and my husband’s aunt—to adjust my personality to fit the situation and the other person—is an example of good manners, not bad ones.” She’s reminding us that in truth we have multiple identities and we shouldn’t and, perhaps, can’t present all of them to the world at the same time. This is true not just for our online virtual lives; it is true for our real, flesh-and-blood lives. It has always been true. As an example, consider that for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, there are situations where it is downright dangerous to present one’s whole self. We can’t show every aspect of ourselves in every moment. Mark Zuckerberg got that wrong.
Except, maybe he didn’t. There is a link between identity and integrity, and while it’s not the link Zuckerberg was making, it’s a link I try to remember in the midst of this discussion. Consider that as a society, as a culture, as a nation, we are contending with increasing economic and environmental stress. It’s not only that our economy seems to resist all efforts to start growing in the wake of the 2008 recession, and that so many people remain out of work, are losing their homes, or both—that is stressful enough. Rather, it’s that our 20th-century assumptions about economic growth and about American economic dominance and resilience may no longer be accurate. The factors that led to growth in the past may not lead to growth in the future due to new global realities. We don’t really know if higher rates of unemployment and poverty will become the “new” American “normal,” and as a nation we are feeling stress.
Similarly, although it’s hard to say with certainty what is causing the increase in the severity and frequency of droughts and fires, flooding and storms, there is a lot of anxious wondering in our larger culture: are these extreme weather and climate patterns becoming the new normal? We don’t know, and as a nation we are feeling stress.
In the presence of such stress there is a tendency to use aspects of people’s identity against them. There is a tendency to scapegoat and demonize. Consider how people who can claim the identity of immigrant have been misunderstood, demonized and blamed for the nation’s ills. Consider how people who can claim the identity of Muslim have been misunderstood, demonized and blamed for the nation’s ills. Consider how sexual minorities and gender non-conforming people have been misunderstood, demonized and blamed for the nation’s ills. Consider how class identities—the rich, the poor, the middle class—are constantly manipulated, used and played against each other in our social and political discourse; or how political identities—conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican, progressive and Tea Party—are constantly manipulated, used and played against each other in our social and political discourse, resulting in government’s failure to adequately address serious problems facing our nation.
This is a society under immense stress. It isn’t moving towards reconciliation and healing. Rather it feels—and it looks—like it is moving towards greater fragmentation, separation, division, alienation and isolation. A culture under this kind of stress keeps forcing us into rigid identity categories—immigrant, native, patriot, traitor, liberal, conservative, straight, gay, religious, secular, choice, life, citizen, foreigner, white, person of color. This, too, is the identity business, and it is insidious and stifling. It keeps putting us into boxes that limit the full scope of our humanity. And as we fall prey to its seductions and separate ourselves from out fellow citizens; as we heed the call of division and demonize our fellow citizens; as we yield to the temptation to scapegoat and blame our fellow citizens, we forget that “the same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.” We forget our relatedness. As we forget, our integrity fails. Our personal integrity fails. Our collective integrity fails.
The appropriate—the necessary—response is spiritual. It is akin to the words we heard earlier from the first Sikh guru, Nanak, as he emerged from his transformative mystical experience: “There is no Muslim and no Hindu;” and as the spiritual writer, John Mabry, adds, there is “no Christian, no Jew, no Wiccan, no Buddhist;” and as we ought to add, there is no Unitarian Universalist. Yes, our many individual identities matter. Yes, it matters if we are straight or gay, white or person of color, man or woman or transgender, young or old, able-bodied or disabled, mentally ill or mental well, immigrant or native. It even matters what information we choose to broadcast to the world on Facebook, Twitter, Link-In and Google-Plus. But in an age of fragmentation and divisiveness, we need a spirituality that reminds us of who we are at our core. And at our core we are intimately related to each other, to all of humanity, to all of life, to our siblings the planets, to our parents the stars, to our grandparents the galaxies, to our ancient ancestor, the universe. We are connected to each other beyond any labels that might otherwise divide us. This is our true identity, and we forget this at our peril.
As we remember, we learn anew how to be in the world. As we remember, we learn anew how to build community, how to heal, how to love, how to center ourselves in the midst of this immense societal stress. As we remember we regain our integrity. And we survive and thrive as a people. This is my faith.
Amen and blessed be.Rev. Josh Pawelek Parish Minister Unitarian Universalist Society: East 09/18/11
 Capek, Rev. Norbert F., “Mother Spirit, Father Spirit,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 8.
 The seven Unitarian Universalist principles, adopted by vote of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1985 include the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
 Tagore, Rabindranath, “The Stream of Life,” Singing the Living Tradition(Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #529.
 Sittenfeld, Curtis, “I’m on Facebook. It’s Over,” New York Times Op Ed, September 4, 2011.
 Sittenfield, Curtis, “I’m on Facebook. It’s Over,” New York Times Op Ed, September 4, 2011.
 In my thinking about economic and environmental stress, I am influenced by Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011). Gilding, the former head of Greenpeace International, contends that “the [scientific consensus] says we have physically entered a period of great change, a synchronized, related crash of the economy and the ecosystem, with food shortages, climate catastrophes, massive economic change, and global geopolitical instability. It has been forecast for decades, and the moment has now arrived.”
 Mabry, John R., Noticing the Divine: An Introduction to Interfaith Spiritual Guidance (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2006) p. 152.