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The Necessary Flames

Updated: Sep 1, 2023


Photo Credit Neal Thomassen

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Our ministry theme for April is resistance. I recognized early on in the planning for this morning’s service that it would be very easy for me to preach to you about the ways we resist unjust systems and institutions, the ways we resist abuses of social, economic and political power, the ways we resist as participants in movements for social justice, environmental justice, racial justice, gender justice, worker justice, GLBTQIA justice, justice for people with disabilities, justice for immigrants—you know the list.

I note there’s a whole heap of resistance happening in Tennessee right now. It started as a demand from ordinary citizens that the state legislature strengthen gun control statutes in response to the March 28th mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville. It escalated when three legislators added their voices, with bullhorns, disrupting legislative business as usual—an action which looked very much to me like nonviolent, civil disobedience. Two of those legislators, both young black men, were expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives on April 6th by a vote of their colleagues. The third, a white woman, kept her seat by one vote. So much has happened. So much resistance.

Incidentally, last Sunday, the expelled Memphis state representative, Justin Pearson, did indeed preach the Easter sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the River in Memphis. If I have my facts correct, Rep. Pearson’s father, the Rev. Jason Pearson, leads a church that is in the process of moving into the Church of the River and worshipping there on Sunday afternoons. The two congregations are building a close relationship. They had already planned to worship together on Easter Sunday. After the junior Pearson was expelled from the legislature, the elder Pearson suggested to Church of the River’s minister, Rev. Sam Teitel, that his son would be a wise choice to preach at their joint Easter service. It’s a powerful sermon.[1]

It’s no overstatement to say that resistance to injustice has been a central dimension of our shared ministry during the twenty years I have served as your minister. Of course, resistance for resistance’s sake has never been the point. Working towards a shared vision of a kinder, more fair, just, liberated and loving society is the point. Resistance is a tool, a method, a tactic we use in the service of that shared vision. Resistance is the fire that clears away those aspects of society that wound, oppress, exclude, detain, underfund, under-educate, under-employ, under-house, incarcerate, pollute, and kill; the fire that, in its aftermath, leaves space for the emergence of new structures, new social, economic and political arrangements, new laws, new cultural norms that better serve and sustain all people and, indeed, all life on the planet.

That’s the easy sermon!

Not that this kind of resistance is easy. It’s not. I’m remembering the first time I stepped into a street to block traffic in June of 2015 with Moral Monday CT, calling attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, protesting in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, MO. That was resistance in the form of nonviolent civil disobedience, which is used specifically to create tension in the public sphere. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes about this in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I understood it. I was excited. I was proud. And, once we were in the street, once we had stopped traffic, once drivers were clearly angry at what we were doing, once the police arrived, the tension overwhelmed me. My body started resisting me. I started feeling sick—dizzy, mostly. I almost left the action, but ultimately stayed and was glad I did. I realized later, this was my body’s way of telling me it did not like the tension, even though my mind thought it was the right action, the right way to advance the Movement for Black Lives in our state.

That’s the sermon I really want to preach this morning. I want to name the way our bodies resist what we know is right. This resistance lives very naturally in us. If we give into it, it can prevent us from growing, maturing, creating and changing. If we give into it, it can prevent us from becoming the next best version of ourselves.

At the beginning of our service I shared with you a poem from James Crews entitled “After the Fire.” He writes:

Let me endure whatever fires must pass through here, must scorch my skin. And if I have to feel the heat, let me also trust that like the lodgepole pine, the fire will open the parts of me that are still closed tight, releasing seeds I’ve been clinging to, hoarding for years. Let me thrive in this new clearing made at the center of my life, seeing now how the necessary flames melted away my resistance, revealing all that once lay hidden, asleep inside me.

This poem reminds me we humans are creatures of habit. We grow very attached to our daily routines and patterns, our favorite foods, our level of activity, the medicines we take, the shows we watch. They become sources of stability, familiarity and comfort in our lives. We don’t let them go easily. Even when we live with a variety of discomforts and we know we need to make changes, our bodies resist—sometimes before we have a chance to think about changing. I suppose the most obvious examples have to do with the ways we do or don’t take care of ourselves. Are we willing and able to change our diet to live more healthily? Are we willing and able to cut back on alcohol, on caffeine for the sake of our health? Are we willing to follow our doctor’s good advice? Our therapist’s good advice? Our minister’s (occasionally) good advice? Even when we know intellectually that we need to change our ways, something in us resists. We are creatures of habit.

The prospect of any big life change engenders a certain amount of resistance. We might resist leaving a job that doesn’t suit us because we’re attached to the salary, the benefits, the co-workers, the familiarity. We might resist retiring, even when we should have retired a long time ago, because so much of our identity is tied to our work. Think about the big life changes you’ve experienced. How often was it smooth sailing all the way through? How much internal resistance did you need to overcome before you were able to make the change?

Sometimes we resist because there’s something we need to say or do, and we know it’s going to create tension. We know it’s going to cause conflict. I gave the example of conducting nonviolent civil disobedience, but it could just as easily be realizing that a special, prized relationship is breaking down and the breakdown needs to be addressed if there is to be any chance of repair and reconciliation; or realizing that a friend is an addict and the addiction needs to be addressed; or realizing that a relationship is abusive and it needs to end; or realizing, as we were naming a few weeks ago, “I am struggling, and I need to ask for help.” My point is not that we don’t speak our truths when we need to. And in fact I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that some people are very comfortable with the tension their truths create. My point is that, for most of us, it is natural to resist saying and doing things that will create tension and conflict. I suspect many of you have had the experience of needing to say something hard to a loved one, yet you don’t want to say it. It feels too disruptive. It will create too much tension. It will rock the boat. We know we have to speak our truth, but something in us resists. It can make you sick.

I also want to name that at times we resist the things we are most passionate about. There’s something we want to pursue, but we don’t pursue it because we’re not sure how to make space for it in our lives. We fear our pursuit may interrupt our regular routines and patterns, that it may seem selfish to start something new. We fear we may not have the necessary skills or talents to paint, to sculpt, to dance, to write, to speak, to preach, to coach, to train, to run for office, to lead. We fear people won’t take us seriously. So again, something in us resists. We set the passion aside for the time being.

James Crews reminds us there is much that lays hidden, asleep inside us—our truths, our passions, our recognition that we need to live differently for the sake of our health.

I’m reminded of another poet who said something similar, though he used far more grandiose language. Walt Whitman, the 19th-century American poet, a student of the Transcendentalist movement, one wrote: Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)[2] This is from Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself, 51.” I haven’t studied it. I can’t speak to what he meant by these words, but it makes sense to me that the thing we’re resisting feels like a contradiction. It goes against our grain, our habits, the patterns to which we are accustomed. Whitman cheers us on. Very well then I contradict myself. I contain multitudes. In order to access them, in order to liberate them, in order to let them live, I must contradict myself. I somehow need to overcome this resistance.

I contain multitudes. You contain multitudes. We contain multitudes. There is a vastness within us, an expansiveness, a generosity, even—though it must be said with humility–a greatness in us; and we resist it.

It’s not just the poets who name this. It’s the scientists too. I read to you earlier from the late molecular biologist Darryl Reanney who reminds us that we are kin to the stars, that the hydrogen atoms in our bodies are continuous with the hydrogen atoms that first emerged in the moments following the big bang, what he calls the Genesis event. These bones, this hand /star-ash. Though he writes poetically, and his words at times sound metaphorical, this is not metaphor. We are literally star stuff. Reanney says our true age is not 24 or 43 or 56 or 81, but 15 billion years. Indeed, we contain multitudes. Yet, we resist. And there is so much that lays hidden, asleep inside us.

Back on the street in 2015, feeling sick and dizzy, I went to talk to the medic on our team. He did his best to assess me. He had no idea what was wrong with me. He said, “You seem fine, you’re probably just nervous. It’s up to you whether you want to go back out there.” I did want to go. I had trained for this. I had done my spiritual purification. I thought about how bad I would feel if I didn’t finish the action. So I went back out in the street and took my arrest. Sitting in the police van I sudden felt relaxed and peaceful. My resistance had burned away.

The poet writes: Let me thrive in this new clearing made at the center of my life, seeing now how the necessary flames melted away my resistance, revealing all that once lay hidden, asleep inside me.

I don’t know what power burns away our resistance to doing what is right, saying what is true, living well. Maybe the fire comes when we pray for it to come. Maybe the fire comes unbidden, grace bestowed by a loving divinity we never asked. Maybe the fire comes because we finally brace ourselves, clench our fists, and work up the nerve to do what we have to do. Maybe the fire comes because we recognize our current routine is unsustainable, and we no longer have any choice.

Here’s what I believe: in those moments when resistance rises up in us, the necessary flames are always there, ready to burn, ready to open the parts of us that are closed tight, ready to clear a space for growth, creativity, maturation, for the next version of our best self; ready to clear a space for the multitudes to come forth. The flames are there. Our task—and I say it’s a spiritual task—is figuring out how to let them burn. If you’re concerned about that task, remember that we know something about fire. Remember that we are kin to the stars. Remember that the atoms within us are consistent with the atoms that emerged as that primordial explosion began to cool. The most ancient parts of ourselves know what it means to come through fire. Surely, we can endure whatever fires must pass through here, must scorch our skin. Surely all that lays hidden, asleep inside us, can be revealed.

Amen and blessed be.

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