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Some Things Are Worth Praying For by the Rev. Josh Pawelek

During my sabbatical I twice had the opportunity to visit Hanover, PA, my mother’s birthplace, the town where she grew up—about 40 minutes south of Harrisburg, and 40 minutes north of Baltimore. Her three siblings still live there. For seventy years her family ran W.L. Sterner’s, a hardware and farm store on Frederick St., which my grandfather, Walter Leroy Sterner, opened during the great depression. When I was growing up, Hanover was a rural farming community with a downtown that felt a lot like the downtown in the Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I didn’t know it as a child, but Hanover was already in transition at that time. Today, much of the farmland I loved has been sold off and developed for housing and strip malls. Hanover now feels very suburban, and has become a far, outer-ring suburb of Baltimore.

            I went there in October to visit nearby Gettysburg College with my son, Max; and again in January with my mom to visit family. On both trips I sat in the kitchen nook in my uncle’s home where a print of Eric Enstrom’s iconic photograph, “Grace,” is prominently displayed. Of course, ‘prominent’ is not an apt description. The image of an older, bearded, white-haired man wearing a flannel shirt and praying over a simple meal of bread and soup, a Bible nearby, is so peaceful, so still, so quiet, that even when prominently displayed, it refuses to take over the room. It’s an unassuming and humble image, soft, muted. It invites inward contemplation, far more than any kind of outward action.

            A 2018 Minnesota Public Radio story commemorates the photo’s 100th anniversary. The photographer, Enstrom, was a Swedish immigrant who’d settled in the mining town of Bovey, MN. The lore usually identifies 1918 as the year he took the photo, though it may have been a few years later. The man who sat for the photo, Charles Wilden, was a local peddler. I’ve seen some references to him being an alcoholic. Enstrom eventually paid Wilden $5 for the rights to his image, and from then on Wilden is missing from history. There’s also considerable evidence that the book on the table is a dictionary, not a Bible, though Enstrom clearly meant for it to appear as a Bible. The original photo was black and white. Enstrom, and later his daughter, colored the photo (I’m not sure what technique they used) and eventually sold the rights to the Augsburg Publishing House in Minneapolis who mass-produced it. It’s that mass-produced, colorized version that hangs in my uncle’s home in Hanover. I’ve been looking at it every time I’ve visited his home for my entire life.

            As a child, “Grace” revealed to me a way of being spiritual. Quiet. Still. Inward. Contemplative. Grateful. I would later learn that among German Lutherans in the 1700s and early eighteen hundred, a movement known as pietism downplayed the emphasis on church doctrine and dogma and promoted a more personal faith, a personal relationship with the divine, a prayerful life, a simple life, and again, a grateful life. My mother’s family would have been inheritors of the legacies of pietism—even if they didn’t use that term. I suspect Minnesota’s Lutheran immigrant communities, though more Scandinavian than German, would have brought a similar spiritual legacy with them to the United States. 

            I didn’t fully understand this spirituality as a child. I was being raised in a decidedly humanist Unitarian Universalist congregation in New Haven. Stillness and contemplation, yes. But the idea of a personal relationship with God, accessed primarily through prayer, no. I didn’t  have that spiritual model as a UU kid. And I don’t remember UU adults ever expressing that kind of spiritual need. But there it was, on the wall in my uncle’s home, a different way, and a bit mysterious. It never made me feel that I needed to have a personal relationship with a deity, but it was calming. It was peaceful. And if nothing else, it taught me, very gently, that pausing through the course of one’s day—pausing to express gratitude, to reflect on the events of the day; pausing just for brief moment of quiet—pausing matters.

In my young adult years I was active, "Grace" didn't say much to me. First, in my 20s, I was playing in rock bands in Boston. In my early 30s I was in grad school, studying for the ministry, and growing into an activist identity. In my late 30s and 40s I was putting all I’d learned into practice. You are a very active congregation and I have always felt called here to match your activity with lots of energy and enthusiasm. I’ve also been a fighter—for marriage equality, environmental justice, universal health care, affordable housing, transgender rights, immigrants’ rights, domestic worker rights, Black Lives Matter—the list is long. As you know, that fighting—we can also call it organizing, protesting, advocating, witnessing—has been a prominent dimension of my ministry. So during my young adult to middle-age years, I didn’t have much patience for “Grace” whenever I’d see it. I didn’t dismiss it out of hand. It just didn’t speak to me. It seemed to be asking for too great a withdrawal from the world. I felt there was too much at stake in the world for “Grace” to be a guiding image for spirituality and spiritual practice. I needed an image that was engaged, active—grounded, certainly—but moving, flowing, powerful.



Here’s a photo I took of my niece, MJ, leading chants at a rally in New Haven two years ago with Recovery for All (now CT for All). What’s important to me about this image is that the values at the heart of her religion—she’s a Reform Jew—values which align very much with our Unitarian Universalist principles—are being professed outwardly, in public, with a bullhorn, during a march. I could also show you photos of game night, the fair, the auction, children and youth ministry here at UUSE. We don't use a bull horn, but there's a lot of action and energy. Contrast such highly active expressions of faith with the quiet, calm, contemplative faith in Enstrom’s “Grace.”

It’s also possible “Grace” didn’t speak to me during those years because my childhood image of Hanover—that rural, farm-centered, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” existence—had finally been overtaken by suburban sprawl and strip malls. [Of course, that didn’t just happen in Hanover. It happened everywhere, including Connecticut.] On my two recent visits to my uncle’s home, I had an unexpected emotional response to “Grace.” I felt grief. Looking at the photo now, it speaks to me about something that’s been lost. I even began to wonder if the man in the photo, Mr. Wilden, was carrying some personal grief, which was speaking to me all these years later, even though that wasn’t the photographer’s intent.  The Minnesota Public Radio piece mentions how many people had died that year from the Spanish flu. Perhaps Mr. Wilden lost someone in that pandemic. It sounds like he was poor, making his living selling some kind of wares door to door. It’s possible he was an addict in an era that didn’t know what to do with addicts other than shun them. It’s possible he, too, felt something had been lost. It’s possible he, too, was grieving.

In thinking about Mr. Wilden as a person living with grief, it occurred to me that some things are worth praying for. That’s what “Grace” is saying to me at this point in my life. “Some things are worth praying for.” I no longer experience “Grace” as an image of withdrawal. Some religions call for withdrawal, citing the world’s sinfulness, depravity and evil. They say there is no way to be in holy relationship such a world, so don’t engage. But that has never been the Unitarian Universalist way. It has never been the liberal religious way. We love the world. To us the world is ultimately good. So we engage. But “Grace” reminds me that we can’t be constantly engaged, constantly active, constantly fighting. That kind of constancy yields an unbalanced spiritual life. It’s a recipe for spiritual, mental, emotion and physical burnout. Pausing matters. Don’t rush through. Take your time. Reflect on the events of your day. Express your gratitude for a meal, for the people and all the blessings in your life. It matters. Give your pain and fear over to a power greater than yourself. It matters. Shut your eyes, breathe, keep silent, humbly acknowledging your smallness either in the presence of God or before the vastness of the universe. It matters. Pausing brings necessary balance to your times of action and engagement.

“Some Things are Worth Praying For.” That’s my sermon title, but it’s not the full sentiment. The full sentiment is “Some things are worth praying for; and in some moments praying may be all we can do.” When despair and hopelessness rise in us, when we feel powerless in the face of all the things we cannot change, praying may be all we can do. And I say it is worth praying. It is worth saying the words out loud.

I felt this way—and I suspect you may have too—in response to the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel. I feel this way now—and I suspect you may too—in response to the state of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza. I pray for an end to the killing of so many Palestinians and I pray for all those Israelis and Palestinians who are grieving the deaths of loved-ones and neighbors. I pray for the safe return of the remaining Israeli hostages. I pray for a ceasefire. I pray that the war will not escalate. And, though I know there are some who will not like to hear me say this, I pray that those with power who are waging this war—and who have been waging it for generations—whether directly or behind the scenes, whether in Washington, DC, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Ramallah or Gaza City; whether from the air with drones, or in tunnels a mile underground—I pray they will find the moral clarity to realize the use of violence solves nothing. I pray they will find the moral courage to put down their arms and put up the foundations for a lasting peace, one that honors the longing in both Jewish and Palestinian hearts for a homeland. I imagine to some I sound naïve. So be it. When all I can do is pray, this is my prayer.

***

Some things are worth praying for; and in some moments praying may be all we can do. If that is the case, then I urge you to pray—or learn to pray if it isn’t your practice. Now when I view “Grace” at age 56, this is what comes to me. The war in Gaza is one star in a constellation of troubles that is worth praying for. I’m sure each of you has a list—from the very personal to the global—of things worth praying for. This morning, in addition to the war, I’m thinking about climate change and the increasing prevalence of climate catastrophes around the world. This morning I’m mindful we’re in an election year, and by all predictions, it’s going to be an ugly and divisive year. This morning I’m thinking of members and friends in our congregation who are facing difficult life challenges. A constellation of troubles worth praying for.

When we don’t have the power to make the troubles go away, our prayers still matter. Speaking the words out loud matters. Whether we’re speaking them to a personal, immanent divinity, a transcendent God, a quiet, present mystery, a vast, impersonal universe, a congregational community, our family members before a meal, or just to ourselves, it matters. Saying the words out loud means something more than the words themselves. It means we’ve decided not to give up, whatever the struggle is. It means we’ve decided not to give in to helplessness or despair, not to put our heads in the sand, not to withdraw from the world. It means that in the midst of our anxiety, our rage, our fear, our grief, our sense that something has been lost, we can still name to ourselves—and whoever else is listening—how things could be better, how there could be more love in the world, more compassion, more care, more justice—how things could be different, how we ourselves could be different.

Some things are worth praying for; and in some moments praying may be all we can do. In such moments, I say pray. Pray loudly and unapologetically. And my prayer for you is that in your prayers you will find the words that remind you a better world is possible.

Amen and blessed be.

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