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Good Transformation: Roots and Wings, by Rev. Josh Pawelek

Earlier I shared words from the late Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox, one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist spiritual writers. She says, “Here we are then, between seasons, not knowing what to do next. Do we conserve and play it safe against an unexpected onslaught striking us like one last winter blast, or do we cast off our coats and take a risk, daring to embrace a spring which is not quite here?”[1]

            Our ministry theme for march is transformation. I like this theme at this time of year because the arrival of spring is a great transformation. Though every threshold between seasons is rich with spiritual metaphor and opportunities for theological reflection, the transition from winter to spring in New England is the boldest of them all, the most obvious, the most joyful, the most hopeful. In March, winter’s long night-time hours, its grey days, it freezing temperatures, its hard ground, its icy snow, sleet and slush, its absence of vivid color, its many sleeping creatures—all of it gives way, first to the increasing light, the rising warmth, the softening, muddy earth, the daffodil shoots breaching the surface; and then, as if all at once, the red buds on tree branches become bright green leaves, the daffodils flower—yellow, orange and white; so many other perennials bloom in beautiful, animated colors; warm rain pours down; mice, chipmunks and rabbits scurry everywhere, sometimes into our homes; ants spew out of their little hills (which weren’t there yesterday) sometimes into our homes; bats dart and dive at dusk in search of the many flying insects filling the evening air. Pollinators are on the move. Everything comes alive in spring. Everything wakes up. No wonder the religious festivals speak of rebirth, rejuvenation, resurrection, liberation. It is a great transformation, from a thousand shades of grey to a thousand shades of green, from coldness to warmth, from stillness to movement, from quiet to raucous, from sleeping to waking, from the earth’s nurturing darkness to the long hours of life-giving daylight. It is a great transformation.

            Elizabeth Tarbox’s meditation, “Between Seasons,” reminds us that in the midst of any transformation, any change, transition, disruption, upheaval--the entry of any new opportunity into our lives--we find ourselves caught between a strong inclination to stay where we are—to stay with the familiar, the known, the comfortable, the safe—and an equally strong inclination to embrace change and the growth that it inevitably brings. “Here we are then,” says Rev. Tarbox, “between seasons, not knowing what to do next. Do we conserve and play it safe against an unexpected onslaught striking us like one last winter blast, or do we cast off our coats and take a risk, daring to embrace a spring which is not quite here?”

            I am convinced that the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists like the idea of transformation, which I am using here interchangeably with the word change. We Unitarian Universalists recognize transformation as inherent in our living, in our life cycles, in society, in nature, in the quantum world, in the universe. We resonate with the words of the ancient Greek philosopher—the weeping philosopher—Heraclitus of Ephesus, whose words appear in our hymnal, #655: “In searching for the truth, be ready for the unexpected. Change alone is unchanging.”[2]

            The Rev. Dr. Sheri Prud’homme, a faculty member at the Unitarian Universalist Starr-King School for the Ministry, recently wrote that “one of the hallmarks of liberal religion, Unitarian Universalism included, is the idea that revelation is not sealed…. Our religion can and will change by the discovery or unveiling of new truths and new ways of understanding all existence and the sacred. At its core, then, our theological heritage proclaims an abiding openness to change.”[3]

            We like the idea of transformation. However, as I approach the 25th anniversary of my ordination to the Unitarian Universalist ministry (April 11th, for anyone who's keeping track!), I am also convinced that liking an idea, resonating with an idea, embracing an idea, does not mean that the idea is easy to integrate into our living.

While preparing this sermon, I became curious about what my colleagues have said about transformation and change. I searched on the internet for Unitarian Universalist sermons in response to the Heraclitus reading, “Change alone is unchanging.” I found a sermon entitled “Transitions, Expected and Unexpected,” at Quest for Meaning, the monthly newsletter of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF).[4] There was no mention of the writer’s name at the top, just the title. I started reading and, almost immediately, thought, ‘yeah, this is really good, it’s similar to what I would say.’ Here’s a quote: “Let’s be honest: as a concept, as a starting place for deeper theological reflection, okay, this idea [that change alone is unchanging] is fabulous…. But as a practical matter, when it comes to dealing with day-to-day life, it’s not so great. It doesn’t matter what height of spiritual discipline you’ve achieved, the unexpected can really mess up your day. Even Jesus lost it from time to time. For human beings (and I’m sure for other creatures as well) change is hard. As spiritually and intellectually exhilarating as the idea of change is, the physical and emotional experience can be a real drag. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is why the ancient Greeks referred to Heraclitus as the weeping philosopher.”[5]

            And then the writer tells a story about how hard it was physically and emotionally to make the move to Connecticut from Boston in the summer of 1999, how it made him sick; and then I realized I was reading my own sermon from fifteen years ago.

            Change alone is unchanging, but it’s also true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

            That was a sermon about why change is hard. I quoted research from the psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon that shows how our surroundings, and specifically our most intimate relationships, regulate our bodies. (This was from their 2001 book, A General Theory of Love[6]) When changes occur in our surroundings, and especially in our relationships—such as when someone very close to us leaves or dies—we become dysregulated: physical pain, anxiety, depression, stress, confusion. Even if we welcome a major life-change—like the way I welcomed our move to Connecticut in 1999—our bodies keep seeking the previous setting, the previous relationships which are now gone. This unanswered seeking can result in dysregulation. Our bodies grieve their losses even if, intellectually, we don’t. In this sense, our bodies resist change.

            In that sermon my recommendation for how to live when our bodies resist change is to lean into spiritual practice. I talked about quieting down, becoming still, being peaceful, paying attention, breathing. I said in moments of major life transition we must take time to grieve the life that has, for better or for worse, slipped away. And this is still true, especially when change happens and we have no choice in the matter—the death of a loved-one, the ending of a significant relationship, a life-changing or life-threatening diagnosis, an addiction finally admitted and confronted. These are all dysregulating experiences and the only option is to move through them, slowly, day by day, even hour by hour. Spiritual practice can help ease the pain of transformation.

                But this isn’t my message this morning. I think it’s too narrow a formulation to say that ‘change alone is unchanging’ and the primary reason we resist transformation is because our bodies don’t like it. Our relationship to transformation is more complex than that. I take a hint from Rev. Tarbox’s “Between Seasons” metaphor, which suggests that for many of the changes we face, we actually do have choices. In her words, we can “conserve and play it safe against an unexpected onslaught striking us like one last winter blast.” Or we can “cast off our coats and take a risk, daring to embrace a spring which is not quite here.” We navigate this choice all the time—what’s the safe, prudent, comfortable thing to do? What’s the exciting, new, innovative thing to do? What makes our relationship to change complex is that the longing for both safety and risk live inside us. When called to transform, we have impulses to avoid it (safety); and we have impulses to embrace it (risk). This is true for us individually. It is true for groups too. The tension between choosing safety or risk can be quite paralyzing for individuals, and quite polarizing for groups.

            I’ve been seeking a way beyond paralysis and polarization when we’re navigating change. And at least for this morning, I’m wondering how it feels to navigate change and transformation not as a choice between safety and risk, but as a partnership between roots and wings. Safety and risk tend to contradict each other. They have a built in tension. Roots and wings tend to work together. And for Unitarian Universalists, roots and wings are familiar spiritual terms. “Roots hold me close, wings set me free.”

            Roots: what grounds us? What is familiar and reliable? What holds us close? What holds us in place? What holds us steady? What brings us nourishment from the deep wells beneath the surface of our lives? Or, as we asked in last Sunday’s service, what is sacred? Marsha Howland spoke about being present for her mother’s death and how deeply sacred that moment was to her. She spoke also about meeting her grandniece for the first time and how sacred that moment was for her. Her memories of these moments ground her. They are roots. Sage Nitzan spoke about the sacredness of relationships—with their best friend, with their parents—and how these relationships provide grounding in difficult times. These relationships are roots. Then Dorothy Reiss spoke about her taekwondo practice and how its tenets—courtesy, respect, integrity, self-control, indomitable spirit and perseverance—express themselves in her life. These tenets are roots.

Wings: What liberates us? What sets us free? What expands our world-view, our thinking, our feeling, our capacity for love, compassion, empathy, caring? What enables us to grow and mature, to create, to innovate, to take risks, to move forward in our lives? With wings engaged we sail into change, we welcome the new, or to use Rev. Tarbox’s words, we embrace a spring which is not quite here. Sometimes we fly and we’re successful beyond our wildest dreams. Sometimes we fly too close to the sun, our wings melt and burn, and we fall back to earth. Sometimes we choose wings and realize later, we weren’t sufficiently rooted. We forgot to bring with us that which is sacred to us. Transformation requires both roots and wings.

            Resistance to change isn’t necessarily a rejection of change. My body fought back, but I wanted to move to Connecticut and start a family. Resistance to change isn’t necessarily a violation of the principle that change alone is unchanging. Sometimes we resist change because we’re seeking our roots first. We’re seeking our grounding. Certainly there is safety, familiarity and comfort in such seeking. It is not risk-taking. But it may be the very thing that enables us to welcome change. It may be the very thing that makes transformation possible. It may be the very thing that enables us to take the risk we need to take.

            Roots and wings aren’t an either/or choice. They are partners. They are friends. They work together. The complement each other. To navigate transformation well, we need both.

Change alone is unchanging and that which is sacred to us endures.

I leave you with Rev. Tarbox’s words, reminding us that in this place we have access to both roots and wings. “Thank God,” she writes, “we have each other and this place of worship to come to, when we need to make decisions in our search for both security and renewal. May we remember in the chilliest winter storm or the balmiest spring morning that this place is here for us, that here we share in creation’s love no matter what the season.”

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Between Seasons,” Life Tides: Meditations by Elizabeth Tarbox (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1993)  p. 17. 

[2] Heraklietos of Ephesos, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #655.

[3] Prud’homme, Rev. Dr. Sheri, “Theological Reflection on the Proposed Revision to Article II.” See: https://www.uua.org/files/2024-01/Article%20II%20Theological%20Reflection%201-22-24.pdf. Rev. Prud’homme continues, “From our early roots in Universalist and Unitarian Christianity; through the blossoming of humanism and ongoing dialogue with scientific developments; to the re-emergence of a sense of spirituality in creative interplay with humanism, process theology, liberation theologies, and religious naturalism; to a religious pluralism that embraces traditions and practices emerging from the organic multireligiosity of Unitarian Universalists today – Unitarian Universalism has evolved in the context of a changing American and global society and in response to new insights from an ever widening circle of voices and perspectives.”

[4] Visit Quest for Meaning at https://www.questformeaning.org/.

[5] Pawelek, Rev Josh, “Transitions, Expected and Unexpected,” Quest for Meaning. See: https://www.questformeaning.org/quest-article/transitions-expected-unexpected/.

[6] Lewis, Thomas, Amini, Fari, Lannon, Richard, A General Theory of Love (New York: Vintage Books, 2001).

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