Hail and Be Welcome: the Magic and Mystery of New Arrivals

December 13, 2020, First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, Hawai'i

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It’s hard for me to imagine the place where most of you are. Not only have I never visited Hawai’I before, I’m coming to you from Maine. Especially in the winter, our two places couldn’t be more different. You have palm trees and pineapples and volcanic rock formations and sun all year. Meanwhile, I have tall pines with needles that feel like hair when you touch them. I have blueberry plants that turn deep red in the autumn. I have mountains so old that the peaks are worn and rounded, and they look more like mounds or hills than mountains. And right now, I have cold. It’s winter, and more often than not, the skies in Maine are clouded but almost bright white with the promise of snow. Even our timing is far enough apart that my sun is setting while it’s midmorning for you.

Our lands are different. I say this with certainty, coming to you as a disembodied head conveyed through long-distance communication. And yet, I’m willing to bet that where you are, you are as connected to your ecosystem, your local flora and fauna, and the spirit of your place, as I am to mine right now. Some of you might prefer to think of the “spirits of the land” as being metaphorical; however, to some of us, they’re very real. My own theological background is Pagan, and I know you have a community of Pagan and earth-relating folks in your congregation with us today.

When Pagans speak about communing or establishing relationship with spirits, often, we’re speaking literally. Our spirituality is fed by discerning what makes the character of this land that we live on different from other terrains, other locations. How is living near an ocean physically, spiritually, distinct from living in a desert? In a prairie? Part of what makes places resonate for us as “home” is a deep relationship to the spirits that dwell in the geography we inhabit. These relationships are sometimes tended by offerings of food or flowers, greetings and simply being-with, just like we tend relationships with our pets and our human friends and family. And white Pagans are far from the only religious tradition to engage in practices like this, of course. The cultivation of reciprocal, mutual relationship with denizens of the invisible world can be found in religions worldwide and throughout history. We also know that Indigenous peoples--in Maine, the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy and Abenaki, and in Hawai’i, the Kanaka Maoli—are connected to the spirits of these places as well, and were in deep relationship with the lands we currently occupy long before white colonizers arrived and attempted to rob them of that way of being.

So you can see some of the challenges we’re working with today. Truthfully, I haven’t been meaningfully outside for months. So in some sense, who am I to talk about feeling connected to the spirits of my “place” in this time of profound alienation? How can we talk about extending welcome; about the value of simple things; about the spirits of “home;” about being hospitable, against a backdrop where on the mainland, many of us have been forced indoors by the spreading coronavirus and using technology as our link to the world outside; where the land we currently live on was taken forcefully from those who lived there before; where you and I are a literal continent-and-then-some apart; and where none of us can safely gather together?

But the fact is, we can talk about these things.

We’ve been doing it for nine months already.

Like the tiny amount of lamp oil that lasted a full eight days in the story of Chanukah, our patience for waiting out this thing has miraculously lasted. It’s fraying; we can see the edges; but it’s lasted.

When the ordinary—acts like meeting together, welcoming new members to the church, connecting in a meaningful way with our holiday traditions and our homes—becomes extraordinary, it turns out that we’re not terribly unlike that small amount of oil: we can do extraordinary things.

So let’s talk about home, just a little more.

Spiritual homes, like the land where we make our physical homes, have character and uniqueness as well, shaped by the will and character of the people who claim them. If we ignore our church home, for example, it becomes a place of no activity and may even close. And just like with the spirits of our physical homes, these relationships require attention and tending, even while cultural forces of white supremacy, oppression, and predatory capitalism benefit from us experiencing fundamental alienation from those homes.

 

But if you’re here, it’s very likely because either you’ve found a spiritual home within Unitarian Universalism, or you’re still in the process of seeking a spiritual home. And as those of you who now feel comfortably at home may remember, finding that spiritual home—the place that calls us back again and again, the place that resonates with our own soul—isn’t always easy.

 

The words of Pagan leader and activist Starhawk in our reading earlier remind us that “We are all longing to go home.” She calls this home “community”… but one of the other important things she emphasizes is that many of us have never been there before, that our impression of it is “half-remembered, half-envisioned.” It isn’t just the physical place, or even the emotional truth of home, that she names: she’s evoking its spirits, its possibilities, its highest aspirations. She names a future where we are not wounded by our spiritual home, but empowered by it; and likewise, she names a future where we are not neglecting our community and our spiritual home is made stronger by our shared participation.

What is it, I wonder, that made you decide to call this place, this faith, your spiritual home?

What laid its hand upon you and claimed you, leading you to claim this place in return?

What was the thing that greeted you in the words that we Pagans offer greetings to the spirits and the elements when calling our ritual circles: “hail, and be welcome,” and made you realize you had come home to that place that celebrates you coming into your power, that calls you into the work yet to be done?

And who else right now is half-remembering, half-envisioning, this place, this congregation, that you call home, hoping that one day they might make their home here too?

Allowing others to claim our Unitarian Universalist faith—and for our faith to claim them as its own—is one of the fundamental ways that we create relationships of reciprocity with the spirits of our soul-home. Right now, it’s safe to guess that in spite of how easy our congregations are to attend, many of us aren’t engaging in outreach or membership efforts. In fact, we are one of the only faith traditions whose association has advised all congregations to remain closed for the duration of the pandemic, in response to what we’ve learned about how the virus can spread easily. As your congregation has, most UU congregations around the country have made the hard decision to forgo visibility in order to keep safe those of us who claim it as our home.

As a group, Unitarian Universalists are engaged with the world around us. Even now, most of us are active members of congregations. We pledge faithfully, we put on programming, we host worship open to all, even when it’s sometimes difficult to remain as connected as we remember from past years. But when it comes to welcoming new folks—uplifting new voices who might be heard within the congregation, flinging open the proverbial doors so that others might join in the work we joyfully do—we are often not doing this. It’s true sometimes even when we don’t have a pandemic going on, but right now, the work of connecting with, reaching out to others who are part of our periphery, whose presence is always quietly welcome here in the Zoom room but who haven’t yet been called forth to stay with us for the long haul, is just as important as it was when we could meet each other in a fellowship hall for social time.

Our community now is like the fisherman in our story for all ages. We know the fishing songs; we know the routines that put us at ease. Our existence has the simple joy of familiarity; of remembering that we can see these same people week after week, and not need to be surprised by novelty. Our story spoke of discerning what truly is of value to us: after being robbed, the fisherman realized that what he truly valued was not his new-gotten possessions or the wealth he gained from selling the pearl. But his mistake was not in gaining those riches, accepting the gifts of the ocean and the gifts of the spirits of his home, by selling the pearl in the first place. His mistake was to fall out of relationship after gaining them. His mistake was to use the land’s gift to him without paying it back. And so his home, his community of fishers and his peace sailing on the water, ceased to be his home until his relationship to the land and the community was restored.

Those who would seek to join us are, like the oyster bearing the pearl, gifts to be readily accepted. And when we accept them—when we accept you, out there, who want to join in the love and wholeness of this community and make it your soul-home—we also accept the invitation to stay in relationship to one another. We choose to stay in community. We choose to join in strength, recalling Starhawk’s words in creating “a circle of healing, a circle of friends, someplace where we can be free.”

When we welcome newness--new preachers, new members, new participants--in all their uniqueness and accept the gifts they bring to us, we are doing the work of recalling the fishers’ songs, reconnecting to our community and the thing that is most important to us. We are accepting the pearls offered to us, but instead of using them merely to enrich ourselves and forgetting what we truly value, we are seeing the pearl for what it is: a simple gift, offered freely, to be admired and not exploited. We can invite its bearer to join in our songs and become part of the community spirit. Whether we view our home spirits, our land spirits, our community spirits, as literal or simply metaphorical, they are relationships worth tending. The gifts they give us are not, to use a seasonal comparison, exotic and rarefied things like gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They are simple; and the gifts we give back—of time, of attention, of a little food and water and gratitude—are equally simple, and anyone can give or receive them.

May it be that in this season, surrounded by the beauty and bounty of your land and your spirits, by the joy of aloha and the beckoning chorus of the fishers’ songs, you are inspired to welcome even more community, more strength, more love, and more healing and friends into your soul-home. These people could be your brothers; your sisters; your siblings; your own pearls of great price.

May it be that in this season of seeking, you welcome one another home.

Works Cited:

Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark

Emily Whittle, The Fisherman's Tale

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Image by Arseny Togulev