Monday, October 27, 2014

Sermon: "Zombie Theology!" (Delivered 10-26-14)




Call to Worship
Why did the zombie go to the Unitarian Universalist church?

Braaaaaiiiins

Good morning and welcome to The Community Church of Chapel Hill, Unitarian Universalist. Good morning and welcome to a most unusual worship service.

As we draw towards the end of October, as we draw closer to Halloween, as we draw closer to those holy days known as All Souls Day and All Saints Day, I thought we might get into the spirit of this season and spend our worship service talking about zombies.

And, you may turn to me and ask, “Reverend Thom, are you serious?” Of course I’m not serious. Being serious can be counterproductive sometimes when it comes to growing our souls and expanding our spirits. Of all the evolutionary gifts we’ve received, our capacity for playfulness is probably one of the most important. Playfulness is found only in mammals. It is never found in lizards or toads or turtles. Those creatures only know fear and appetite. We risk becoming monstrous ourselves when our human existence is dominated by fear and appetite, reactivity and acquisitiveness.

Look around us. Look at our culture, our world. So much fear. So much reactivity. Cable news with commercial breaks. Fear with regularly scheduled breaks for appetite.

Instead this morning we practice the antidote to such a life that cannot really be called life. We play. We become playful. We laugh and groan together. We’ll spend this morning talking about, learning about, singing about zombies. If you’re a first time visitor, I want to tell you that we don’t do this every week. But, other Sundays are pretty good too.

Let’s play together. Let’s worship together.


Opening Hymn
Zombie Hymn #1 “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door”

May nothing evil cross this door,
And may ill fortune never pry
about these windows, may the roar
and rain go by. [...]

With laughter drown the raucous shout
and though these sheltering walls are thin,
may they be strong to keep hate out
and hold love in.


Reading
from Our Zombies, Ourselves by James Parker

Look: there he is, out of focus and deep in the shot, in the fifth minute of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. He’s wandering through a cemetery, wearing a shabby blazer, with the air of a distracted groundskeeper. In the foreground are two soberly dressed young people, Barbara and Johnny. They are visiting their father’s grave. Barbara kneels and bows her head, but Johnny’s a scoffer. “Hey, c’mon, Barb—church was this morning, huh? Hey, I mean praying’s for church, huh?” Sniffs Barbara: “I haven’t seen you in church lately.” A breeze rises. Dark, frondy tree limbs wave above them like seaweed in the black-and-white afternoon, and the zombie draws near. He has begun to reel and lurch. He grabs Barbara. There’s death in his skin tone, but his face is alive with a kind of stricken fixity. He bashes Johnny against a tombstone. Barbara flees in a car, but wrecks it. And now we really see him, framed disastrously in the skewed rear windshield, advancing toward us at an off-kilter zombie trot. No mistaking the message: the world is out of whack, the car is off the road, here comes the zombie.

And he’s never stopped coming. After fertile decades bumbling in the gore/horror subbasement, he veered toward the mainstream in the early 2000s and currently enjoys a cultural profile unmatched even by his fancy-pants cousin, the vampire… [I]t’s the zombie… who’s really bringing home the bacon. He’s the one who rides the best-seller lists and consumes the pop unconscious, whose titles spatter the humor section of your local bookstore: Zombie Haiku, The Zen of Zombie, It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies: A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols. People, sometimes hundreds of people, go on processional “zombie walks.” Video gamers are mowing down fresh multitudes of zombies with a fervor undimmed by habit. And AMC’s zombie series, The Walking Dead… [continues to be a] smash cable hit…

Sent freewheeling into postmodernity with nothing to say on his own behalf (because he can’t talk, because he’s a zombie), our hero would seem to be in a position of great semiotic vulnerability. And so it has proved: all manner of meanings have been and continue to be plastered onto the zombie. Much can be made of him, because he makes so little of himself. He is the consumer, the mob, the Other, the proletariat, the weight of life, the dead soul. He is too many e-mails in your inbox, a kind of cosmic spam. He is everything rejected and inexpugnable.


Sermon
A decade ago, in the spring of 2004, Mel Gibson – remember him? – released his film The Passion of the Christ. The film was controversial and polarizing and a box office hit. After several weeks at number one at the box office, the movie that knocked it out of the number one spot was none other than a remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. That’s right, a violent and gory film about rising from the dead and consuming flesh was beaten out at the box office by a zombie movie.

In the past decade or so the popularity of zombies has only risen, no pun intended. Zombie movies have gone from cult-horror classics to mainstream box office hits whose casts include movie stars like Brad Pitt. The Walking Dead, now in its fifth season, is one of the highest rated shows on television with tens of millions of viewers tuning in each week. Zombie books are found in the humor section of bookstore, and beyond. The high school student who needs a bit of extra motivation with his English homework can read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which sets Jane Austen’s classic inside a zombie apocalypse. Or, if you like serious literature, you’ll find that it is now acceptable for critically acclaimed literary talents – like McArthur Genius Award recipient Colson Whitehead – to write zombie fiction. Fitness enthusiasts can sign up for a Zombie 5K in which contestants run while weaving through and being pursued by swarms of the undead. Lest you think this is all a bunch of silliness, it was revealed last spring that the United States Department of Defense does in fact have a zombie preparedness plan, just in case.

So, zombies are a thing. This morning what I want to do is spend a little bit of time exploring why zombie culture has such a wide appeal to so many in our society. I also want to go deeper and put zombie culture in conversation with Unitarian Universalist theology and values and find out if they have anything to say to one another.

The first thing I want to say is that zombie movies in particular, and horror movies in general, contain an aesthetic dimension, but also dimensions that are psychological, emotional, moral, and political. The aesthetic dimension of horror films is problematic for many of us. How many of you would say that you are fans of horror movies? I would guess that the aesthetic dimension of horror movies – the gore, the screaming, the suspense, the sudden jolts – turns a lot of us off. Beyond the aesthetics, there is a psychological dimension that has to do with fear and disgust. Those are the emotions that horror tries to evoke. Horror movies often have a moral dimension as well. They are morality tales. Take a classic like The Fly or, say, Jurassic Park. These films ask a moral question: whether our capacity for scientific knowledge exceeds our capacity for wisdom and prudence. The films are a warning against our own hubris or greed or obsession, those qualities that can lead to something monstrous.

Zombie movies, perhaps more than any other type of horror movie, are moral critiques of the world in which we live. The first modern zombie movie was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It came out in 1968 and captured a world that was tumultuous and uncertain. The film is a metaphor for the social unrest of the times: Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Martin and Malcolm and Jack and Bobby, and the unraveling of the sexual, gender, racial, and economic norms of the 1950s. Night of the Living Dead was controversial for its depiction of gore, but it was also controversial because it cast a black man in a position of authority and leadership over the white actors in the film.

George Romero says of this film,
[We] were children of “The Sixties” [angry] that “Peace and Love” hadn’t changed the world. Some of our anger made its way into the film and journalists began to write about what we had done, calling it ‘essential American cinema.’ I had never thought of myself as in any way “essential”. Nor had I ever thought of myself as a filmmaker.
 It’s only in the years since Night of the Living Dead that I’ve taken myself at all seriously. The response to that film made me realize that I could inject socio-political satire into the sort of “horror” fictions that I loved since I was a boy. So, I continue to do it.  When I want to speak about what I perceive to be happening in the world… I open the door to my closet, ask the zombies to come out into the light, and I shoot a movie with those zombies.

Romero continued to inject social-political satire into his movies. In Dawn of the Dead, the survivors of the zombie apocalypse find refuge in a shopping mall. The movie is a commentary on consumerism and the camera shots of hordes of zombies trying to break into the mall look exactly like the throngs of shoppers trying to get in the door for a “Black Friday” sale. In Resident Evil it is the sinister Umbrella Corporation – part pharmaceutical company, part military contractor, part media conglomerate – that causes the zombification of the population. The enemy is unchecked corporatism. In 28 Days Later the virus that causes people to become zombies is known simply as “rage.” And, in the comedy Shaun of the Dead, the recurring gag is that it is hard to be sure who’s a zombie and who isn’t. The lurching, groaning person stumbling through the streets at night? It could be zombie or could just be someone who had too much to drink at the pub. The guy sitting on the sofa staring at the TV screen and drooling on himself while playing video games – is he a zombie or not?

Zombie movies offer moral critiques of the world in which we live – are we the victims of corporatism or consumerism? Is anger or apathy making us less than human? Zombie stories also ask us what it means to live life to its fullest.

The Walking Dead comic books are all introduced with the same teaser:
How many hours are in a day when you don’t spend half of them watching television? ... How long has it been since any of us really needed something that we wanted? The world we know is gone. The world of commerce and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility. An epidemic of apocalyptic proportions has swept the globe, causing the dead to rise and feed on the living. It a matter of months society has crumbled, no government, no grocery stores, no mail delivery, no cable TV. In a world ruled by the dead we are forced to finally start living.

Here we find one of the most significant recurring features in zombie literature and film: the idea of living one’s own life with meaning and purpose and intention instead of mindlessly living something less than life. So we find that the characters in zombie films don’t fear dying. They fear becoming zombies. They fear that their life may be devoid of thought, devoid of choice, and spent trying to find some brains to consume. In Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One, there are a minority of zombies called stragglers who don’t become aggressive cannibals but rather return to a familiar place and spend the rest of eternity holding a pose or just repetitively doing the same thing over and over again. The protagonist in the novel, Mark, has the job of clearing out the stragglers and reports discovering a straggler in the copy room of a high rise office building, repetitively pushing the same button on the copier, over and over and over again. This is horror.

So, whether it’s the stragglers, or the zombies trying to break into the mall, or the catatonic videogame player, or just your average run of the mill zombie shuffling after some brains, there is a point being made again and again about how we actually live and how we ought to live. There is a concept in Buddhism known as the hungry ghost. The hungry ghost is the person whose life has given in completely to greed, jealousy, or envy. Their whole life is one of constant hunger, constant grasping desire. However, what the hungry ghosts crave will never be enough to satisfy them. The hungry ghost will never be full. The zombie can never have enough brains.

Have you ever felt like you are surrounded by zombies? Have you ever felt like you are surrounded by thoughtless people just going through the motions? How many of us will admit to feeling this way from time to time? I’ll admit to feeling this way. I feel this way in the fall every other year. I feel this way during election season. (There are a number of ways I could go with this…) This year is a mid-term election. We know from history, from the past four decades, that voter turnout for the mid-term elections never climbs much above 40%. Sixty percent of Americans eligible to vote won’t bother to cast a vote. Let me put this another way: we know that Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis are locked in this very close race for the US Senate. Whoever winds up winning, the results will be that almost exactly one voter out of five voted for Hagan, one voter out of five voted for Tillis, and three voters out of five didn’t bother to vote. Let me say that again: one out of five will vote for Hagan. One out of five will vote for Tillis. Three out of five won’t vote. Do you ever feel like you are surrounded by zombies?

Anti-populism is a major recurring theme within zombie entertainment and it is a theme that I think we ought to struggle with. Take, for instance, Jess Walter’s zombie short-story entitled “Don’t Eat Cat.” “Don’t Eat Cat” is about a zombie workplace retraining program offered by Starbucks. The first step is the cat test. The zombie being retrained must have the self-control to be in a room with a cat without trying to eat the cat. The second step is learning how to operate the cappuccino machine.

It doesn’t quite feel right to laugh at that, does it? I mean, we can all from time to time feel tempted to label some other group of people as a bunch of mindless zombies. That group of people – that socio-economic class, that generation, the people who vote for that political party, the people who go to that church – they’re all just a bunch of sheep, a bunch of mindless zombies.

I think the best in our Unitarian Universalist religion calls us to resist such thinking. It calls on us to humanize one another – to sympathize, to understand, to identify with one another. We call that the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Two features of zombie entertainment help us to resist such anti-populism. The first thing is that the zombies are never the bad guys. Nobody chooses to be a zombie. Zombies are never at fault. “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” The other thing we find is that in zombie movies the non-zombies are always capable of being a lot scarier than the zombies. The survivors don’t exactly behave like paragons of human virtue. Far from it. We ought to remember this whenever there is a temptation to think of others as sub-human.

What should we take away from this morning? What should we take away besides the fact that your new minister has spent a frightening amount of time watching movies about, reading about, and thinking about zombies? Here are the three takeaways:

The first thing I want you to take away is that parts of our culture that are unfamiliar to you, or even off-putting, can be more than just mindless fun. I’m not saying you should go watch a horror movie. The Walking Dead isn’t for everybody, even if it is for tens of millions of Americans each week. I don’t want anyone here who is squeamish going and getting frightened and having nightmares and blaming me. But, please don’t dismiss culture that doesn’t do it for you.

The second thing I want you to take away is to challenge your thinking about the masses. It is somewhat natural to feel, from time to time, like we’re surrounded by mindless zombies. This way of thinking is actually kind of problematic and unproductive.

And, the third thing I want you to take away is a passionate commitment and desire to live what is truly life. We’ve seen this morning that fear and hate and discrimination and consumerism and corporatism and rage can lead us to act less than fully human. Join the living. Rejoin the living. Say yes to life.

And, to inspire us to do that third thing, I’d like to invite you to join me in our closing affirmation, the words of Henry David Thoreau. Why did Thoreau go to live alone in the woods for more than two years, you ask. My theory is that it was to survive the zombie apocalypse. Or, alternatively, maybe Thoreau was a zombie. Let’s read his words together and I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?
We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.
I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.I do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear, nor do I wish to practice resignation, unless it is quite necessary.
I wish to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, I want to cut a broad swath, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
If it proves to be mean, then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it is sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it. 

Bibliography

Film
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
28 Days Later (2002).
Resident Evil (2002)
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Day of the Dead (2008)
28 Weeks Later (2007)
Zombieland (2009)
World War Z (2013)

Print Media
Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead, Volume 1-15 (#1-90)
Paul Legault, ed., The Emily Dickinson Reader
James Parker, “Our Zombies, Ourselves,” The Atlantic
Jess Walter, “Don’t Eat Cat” in We Live in Water
Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

A Few Thoughts On Life In North Carolina So Far


I arrived in North Carolina almost exactly one month ago. Here are a few reflections on life so far here in Chapel Hill.

The house we bought in Chapel Hill is lovely. It was built in 1977, the year I was born, and has an open, contemporary feel. I’m having a new experience of home ownership. When I bought my condo in Kansas City in 2005 I got to work with the developer and have the condo renovated to specification, from choosing paint colors and plumbing and light fixtures to picking out cabinets and countertops. Everything was brand new or newly refinished. The home improvement plan was not to break anything and to try to go easy on the wear and tear. Our home in Chapel Hill has more, well, character. The wood floors are worn and the bathrooms could use an update. We’ll get to recreate our home over time while living here.

And, in Kansas City we had the benefit of a groundskeeping service to take care of the outside. I’ve spent more time on yard work in the past month than in the entire past decade. Our yard is gorgeous and it’s what sold me on the house. There is a postage stamp of grass in the front yard that I’ve only had to mow once so far. The area by the mailbox is sunny with a splendid butterfly bush and a tall rosemary plant accented by sprigs of mint. Most of our property is wooded. There are at least twenty five trees that are over 50 feet high. And, our yard backs up to two and a half acres of undevelopable woods. I’ve cleaned off the gutters, swept the porch, installed a bird feeder, and planted a small herb garden. I performed mercy killings of two miserable ficus trees on our deck and replaced them with gorgeous hibiscus plants. I exterminated all the mahonia growing in the yard. There are plans to put in a composting station.



I’ve industriously assembled several pieces from IKEA as well as a set of patio furniture. I haven’t yet figured out how to operate the gas fireplace.

Our wild neighbors include a family of four deer that live in the acreage behind our yard. The deer will appear standing in our front yard at random times at any hour of the night or day. Deer roam the neighborhoods of Chapel Hill like packs of wild dogs. I’m told I will consider them a nuisance once the novelty wears off. Traffic is picking up on the bird feeder on the back deck. For a few weeks the only visitors on the deck were precocious wrens pecking around in the soil of the hibiscus plants. Now we see cardinals, goldfinches, and sparrows regularly.

Our human neighbors include retirees who have welcomed us to the neighborhood with a potted plant and a big tray of ripe Georgia peaches. The Mayor lives two doors down. A few doors further down is a woman who lets her chickens out to peck around in her front yard every evening. We go in that direction when I take Lydia for walks in the evening.

We’ve begun to explore the town. We’ve visited the Durham Museum of Life & Science twice, the UNC Botanical Gardens once, and local playgrounds more times than you can count. We’ve taken furniture shopping road trips to Charlotte (IKEA) and Greensboro (Furnitureland South, which claims to be the largest furniture store in the world.) Later this week, before I start my ministry, we’ll be taking Lydia to the beach in Wilmington. I’ve checked out the music scene in Carrboro where Mates of State gave an intimate show at Cat’s Cradle with local band Bridges opening for them.



The first book I finished in North Carolina was John Brandon’s newest collection of short stories, Further Joy. Like his novels Citrus Country and Arkansas – and like the works of Karen Russell – Further Joy is part of a genre that I’ve termed “South Florida Gothic.” Now that I’m living in the South, sort of, I’ve picked up some of the classic works of southern literature to read. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is first up. We're only sort of living in the South; Chapel Hill considers itself to be “the pat of butter in a sea of grits” and prides itself on its “Keep Austin Weird” vibe.

One of the leaves I’m trying to turn over has to do with fitness. Inspired (intimidated?) by our fantastic neighbors in Kansas City, I’ve joined CrossFit of Chapel Hill. So far I’ve attended three workouts and a four-session onramp class. I hate it less than any physical fitness routine I’ve attempted over the past decade. I think it helps doing it with other people and having a coach to check in with during the workouts. The other day I wrote to a UU colleague of mine who does CrossFit and asked her if she found the culture of CrossFit weird. She asked me what I meant and I wasn’t sure. But here is what I think I may have meant: I tend to live a lot more in my mind than in my body. (I’ve read enough to reject such Cartesian dualism intellectually, but, you know, the former part of this sentence pretty much gets at what I’m talking about here.) In any event, one of the coaches, Greg, has already mentioned to me at least three times that he quit his desk job in order to do CrossFit all the time (one of the deeper circles of hell, I’m sure.) But people say things like, “We tend not to give a lot of thought to the strength of our ankles,” or, “Everything you think you know about swinging a kettle bell is wrong,” and these statements perplex me. I’m sure the coach was equally perplexed when I explained that not only did I not know what my “max weight” is for a particular exercise, but I didn’t really want to know. I’ve signed up for six months. We’ll see.

My new ministry with The Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian Universalist starts on August 11. Off to fill the birdfeeder, change a diaper, go to the gym, and find out if Addie Bundren’s corpse makes it to Jefferson, Mississippi. I also need to pack for the beach and buy tickets to see Spoon and St. Vincent play in Raleigh in September.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sermon: "Goodbye from Holmes' Prairie" (Delivered 6-15-14)




Liturgy for Worship

Opening Words – Otherwise by Jane Kenyon
Prayer – by Martha Munson, adapted
Reading – We Give Thanks by Max Coots
Hymns #38 “Morning Has Broken”, #15 “The Lone Wild Bird”, #357 Bright Morning Stars


Sermon
Last evening I was out in Abilene, Kansas, performing a wedding ceremony for Brian Becker and Rachelle Kuntz, a young couple who’ve been attending church here at SMUUCh for more than a year. With a wedding to officiate and the drive to central Kansas and back, I just didn’t have time to write a sermon for this morning. I thought I would have time to write one while I was out there, but instead I used my time to drive a bit further down the road and stop by for a visit in Holmes’ Prairie.

It isn’t easy to explain where Holmes’ Prairie is on the map. It’s out there on the Kansas plains, west of Wichita, geographically, but well to the right of Liberal, geographically and otherwise. Just keep driving until the NPR signal fades to static and you’ll arrive at the boundary that demarcates God’s country from godforsaken country.

Holmes’ Prairie is a town that has something to say about saying goodbye. Folks have been saying goodbye to the town as long as anyone can remember. Just as Unitarian abolitionists flocked to Lawrence before the Civil War, Holmes’ Prairie was first established by a band of Unitarian temperance activists from the northeast. They even named the town after Oliver Wendell Holmes. But they wound up finding life out on the plains a little too sobering and soon packed up their belongings and left. Go west dry men. They wound up establishing a commune and winery in Northern California.

Yesterday I rambled into town and dropped by Annie’s Pie Shop on Main Street. As I suspected, the town curmudgeon, Frank Rodden, was there, keeping watch over the comings and goings and perking up his ears to whatever passes for gossip in a town where nothing ever happens. “Hello, Preacher Boy!” Frank bellowed as I walked in. “Pull up a seat and Annie will bring you out a slice of banana cream pie. I got your letter saying you were heading off to North Carolina. I was wondering if you were going to pay me a visit to say goodbye in person before you left.”

“Well, Frank,” I said, “I only make it out to Holmes’ Prairie about once a year. It’s never exactly convenient to visit, but now I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to get back this way. I suppose I could follow you on Twitter, but it just wouldn’t be the same. By the way, what could you possibly tweet about here in Holmes’ Prairie?”

Frank grinned and replied, “Preacher, we are a town with 140 characters. Real characters, too. But do me a favor will you, Preacher? When you get there to Tar Heel country you need to take a trip out to East Pokeberry. The directions on how to get there are a little vague, but I’m sure you’ll find it. And when you get there, pay a visit to my cousin Jerry. He’s a cranky old man like me with a lot of sincerely held wrong opinions. He’s especially wrong when it comes to his opinions about barbecue. You’ll have to decide for yourself, I reckon.”

“Thanks, Frank. I’ll be sure to look him up when I get there. I mostly came by this weekend because I wanted to say goodbye. And, because I’m procrastinating on this last sermon. But while I’m here, tell me a bit about the news from Holmes’ Prairie, just for old time’s sake.”


Frank started by telling me about the latest news from the Holmes’ Prairie Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, or HPUUF as they call it for short, and since they’re your cousins in the faith, I wanted to bring you an update from their congregation. Yes, there really is a UU Fellowship in Holmes’ Prairie. They have ten members, nine singers in the choir, eight committees, seven principles, six sources, and their potlucks offer five different kinds of carbohydrates and four different types of textured vegetable protein. They proudly disbelieve in all three persons of the Trinity but do believe that there are at least two sides to everything: on the one hand and on the other hand. At the heart of the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship is their one indefatigable matriarch, Mabel Pool, who herds them all like cats and urges them to live lives of faithful service in the community. Mabel is the first one to organize a protest when the town council is about to do something backwards and needs to be set straight. She’s the first one to donate a pile of controversial books to the library whenever someone starts advocating censorship. And she’s the first one to organize hot meals whenever someone in the town’s been having a tough time and needs a little help. She even makes sure the casseroles are all locally-sourced, farm-fresh, and vegan.

Restless souls particularly struggle in a place like Holmes’ Prairie. Folks with critical eyes and striving spirits tend to bump heads with the town’s plodding and slow-to-change way of life. And the Unitarians in Holmes’ Prairie tend to be the most restless of the town’s citizens. My friend Frank had needled me before about the unorthodox communion practices of us Unitarians. Like most Unitarian Universalists, the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship observes a Flower Communion in the spring and a Water Communion at the end of the summer. They also stole our idea of having a Honey Crisp Apple Communion service in the fall. They liked these communion services so much that they decided to develop even more communion rituals, especially since it’s easy to get by without a proper sermon when you do these rituals. Sundays in Holmes’ Prairie are mighty hard to fill.

This year the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship decided to close the church year by holding their first ever Complaint Communion. Instead of bringing a flower from the garden or water from your summer travels, you bring a list of your complaints and criticisms to church. In the true embracing nature of Unitarian Universalism, all complaints are welcome. You can complain about family, where you live, the weather, politics, or social injustice. You can even complain about your fellow UUs. It was an open microphone Sunday and each person was invited to share their list of everything that disappointed or frustrated or annoyed them in the previous year.

The Complaint Communion has an interesting effect on those who participate. It is hard to say goodbye to another year, to admit that you’re a year older, to face the passing days, to accept mortality. It is hard to face that we haven’t achieved perfection, that we haven’t arrived at the promised land. And the complaining functions as a kind of pushing away, pushing away others who are close to us, pushing away the realities in which we find ourselves, holding the world at arm’s length as a safety device. After everyone had shared – the service ran nearly two hours – they all tried their best to sing hymn number 304, “A Fierce Unrest,” and pledged to live in the coming year, as the song puts it, with stinging discontent, even more than in the year before.


Lately, on these sweaty summer nights, down by the barely trickling river, ripples appear on the surface of the water. A young man, still a teenager, stands on the riverbank throwing stones. Jeremy Hall was the valedictorian at the Tri-County Regional high school. In August, he’ll be off to the University of Colorado with a full-ride scholarship. He’s going further away than any of his classmates. Late at night he goes to the riverbank to contemplate the goodbyes he’ll soon have to say.

Last summer Jeremy had been invited to have the experience of a lifetime, a six-week program on rainforest ecology in Costa Rica. He’d gone and had fun and was homesick the whole time. But when he got back something had changed. His group of friends was different. Best friends now were no longer speaking, and people were hanging out in different constellations than before , and they seemed to all be dating someone different than they had been dating at the beginning of the summer. Jeremy spent half his senior year trying to make sense of all the new developments, then gave up. Now, with college orientation just a handful of weeks away, it seemed to him like he was stepping out for real. Not a six week, “See you later” but an honest goodbye, at least until winter break. Jeremy wasn’t sad to be leaving Holmes’ Prairie except he was sad to be leaving Holmes’ Prairie. But it was a goodbye for the sake of his growth. Jeremy tossed another stone and thought to himself, “These goodbyes are hard, but at least I’ll never have to say them again.” Or, that’s what he told himself.


The biggest news recently in Holmes’ Prairie has been the retirement of Pastor Solomon J. Samuels III, pastor of the First Full-Gospel Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie. Old Sol is something of an anomaly, especially among Baptist preachers. His hardline Baptist theology became sun-bleached and windswept out on the plains leaving him to preach a kind of Christian existentialism that confounded most of his parishioners. But they loved him nonetheless because he could be counted on to show up when he’s needed. Pastor Sol’s theology wasn’t exactly based on the infallible glory and grace of God, but he worshipped God nonetheless, finding in humanity even less worthy of worship, and regarding the human condition, with its hypocrisies, its self-justifications, its foibles and failings, with a proper mixture of humor and compassion.

Pastor Sol had served the surviving remnant of the First Full-Gospel Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie with reliability and predictability over a span of nearly three decades. His sermons had preceded him in retirement by several years.

Climbing into the pulpit on his last Sunday in Holmes’ Prairie, Pastor Sol addressed his flock, and I’m thankful to Frank for passing along to me a copy of his remarks. I think they’re worth sharing with you. Here are a few excerpts from Solomon J. Samuels’ final sermon in Holmes’ Prairie,
It’s been said that goodbyes are a natural part of life. We live by endings that give way to new beginnings, which end and begin again in time. The seasons in their course, the cycles of life that surround us, attest to this fact. As the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes taught, “There is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” But, why is it so hard for us to accept endings, to say goodbyes? They are a part of life, are they not? 
There’s a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that speaks, I think, to the difficulty we have with goodbyes. He wrote, 
“These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence… But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.”
Emerson was an awfully bright guy but can be a little hard to follow at times. He’s talking about having the courage and the grace to live fully in the present moment, not longing and pining for how things might have turned out otherwise and not to worry anxiously about the future. The word “Goodbye” literally comes from the contraction of a parting blessing. “God be with ye” was shorted to “goodbye.” Adios and adieu. Leave the mystery of the future to God and take this time to be in the present. 
Submitting ourselves to endings need not mean giving up all that we’re thankful for. Indeed, we might all be truly grateful for a bounty of people while at the same time recognizing that humankind ought not to live by only one harvest. And so we might pray,
Gracious God, help us to be fully present for this moment of our lives, with the beauty of the present rose, neither lamenting the past nor despairing for the future.
Help us to have the grace to say Goodbye, simply trusting that God will be with us in days to come as God is with us even now. 
Remind us amidst moments of change that change is holy. And help us especially in this time not to look upon our brothers or sisters with eagle-eyed malice, but grant us the grace to cover each other with the mantle of Christian charity.\ 
May we have the humor and compassion to be open to our differences and even to the differing feelings that reside simultaneously within our heart. We are neither fully joyful nor fully sad, neither fully thankful nor fully ungrateful, neither entirely peaceful nor entirely restless. We are dappled beings, and, oh, the good Lord is a lover of dappled things.
Our prayers are for each other and my prayers are with each and everyone one of you.
Amen.


That, my friends, is the news from Holmes’ Prairie, a small town out on the Kansas plains, west of Wichita and well to the right of Liberal. It’s a town where nothing ever happens, but if we can take a moment to slow down, breathe, and notice, we’ll be sure to find abundant lessons for our living.


Sermon: "We've Changed Each Other" (Delivered 6-8-14)

Reading
The reading this morning was written by you. Actually, it was written by the seven members of the ministerial search committee when this church opened its search for a new minister in the fall of 2002. That search committee wrote the following when asked to describe the new minister you were seeking:

“Rarely to a congregation comes the defining moment which will change it forever. That moment has arrived for this congregation as we seek our new minister. Our church is poised to grow significantly in the coming years – in spiritual depth, in commitment to the community, and in membership. To do this, we need a ministerial leader to whom we can give our hearts and with whom we can share this journey.
“In this minister we seek a voice that will preach the message of love, acceptance, hope, forgiveness, and justice. The voice that will rejoice in our children, celebrate our successes, succor us when we are down, lift us up to our duty and our aspirations, marry our children, bury our dead. We ask no more, or less.
“And just as we are not a perfect congregation, we realize that there are no perfect ministers. But there are nearly perfect sermons, and we delight in those.
“We seek a spiritual leader who can inspire or challenge us from the pulpit with provocative messages that show us new paths for individual growth and spirituality, and help us understand ourselves better. We want what we hear on Sunday morning to stay with us through the week.
“As we continue to grow in membership, we will look to a minister who is warm and welcoming to current members, as well as prospective members; who will actively promote a greater sense of community for all members; and who will actively participate in the life of the church.
[…]
“And… we hope for a minister who will love us and support us on our spiritual journey in spite of our faults and eccentricities, and whom we can support on your spiritual journey in spite of your own faults and eccentricities.
“This is an exciting and optimistic time for our church. If you find this exciting and compelling for you as a prospective minister, we welcome your sincere consideration.”


Sermon
In early October, 2002, I paid a visit to the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association to meet with the UUA’s then settlement director, John Weston. Rev. Weston had had come to Boston after serving as the minister over at All Souls UU Church in Kansas City. In Boston, his job – his ministry – was helping ministers and congregations find good matches.

A week earlier I had had a successful interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, our denomination’s credentialing body, and was cleared to begin searching for a congregation to serve. I was going to meet with John to get advice on where I ought to apply. I carried with me a list of churches I was thinking about and John told me which ones he thought would be good places for me, which ones he thought I shouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, and which ones would never in a million years consider calling a 25year-old minister straight out of seminary so I shouldn’t even bother to waste my time. Then Reverend Weston said the following words, “There’s a church that wasn’t on your list but it’s one I’d strongly advise that you take a look at. It’s in Kansas but keep an open mind.” He then went on to say many good things about this church and about life in Kansas City.

I had never been to Kansas. I had never even been to the Midwest. Everything I knew about this part of the country was from what I could see from 35,000 feet. When this church posted its opening, I remembered John’s advice and took a peek, not really expecting to be interested. Then I read the words of the search committee, “Rarely to a congregation comes the defining moment which will change it forever.” I was intrigued.

Throughout the materials prepared by the search committee there was a palpable sense of energy and spirit, excitement and possibility. There was a future-oriented hopefulness that I found compelling. For example, in the materials that search committees prepare for prospective ministers to see, the last section asks the search committee to, “Describe the worst mistake your new minister could make.” Some search committees take this question far too literally. The worst mistake would be to commit a felony that devastates the reputation of our church in the community. That’s true but it conveys a low expectation of ministry. Axe murderers need not apply. Many churches tell candidates that the worst mistake they could make would be to make changes. But here’s what SMUUCh’s search committee wrote more than 11 years ago. “The worst mistake that our new minister could make would be to not show enthusiasm and energy in his or her approach to our church, the congregation and his or her position. We are eager for energy and excitement.” Wow, I thought. This was the church for me. Was it really what you wanted? I took you at your word.

In the end, I wound up applying for 15 churches in 13 states and one Canadian province, from Washington state to Georgia, from New England to Nevada. Fortunately, I had my choice of multiple places to serve, but I chose you. You were my top choice. Luckily, the feeling was mutual.

This has been a successful ministry in many ways. If you compare my ministry here to the ministries at those other fourteen congregations where I could have conceivably landed, we come out far ahead. I have to be careful when I say this, because church is not a competition. However, for the sake of comparison, only one of those 14 other congregations is still served by the minister they called 11 years ago. Numerically speaking, we’ve grown more than any of those other congregations. And, I’d take our successes, accomplishments, and strengths over anything those other churches could boast.

This morning I want to talk about some of the things that I’m most proud of from these past 11 years. I want to also talk about some of the things that have been disappointments. I want to share some of the ways in which I think I’ve changed and I want to share some of the ways in which I think you’ve changed. And, I want to share some of the things that I hope for you in the future.

When I came here I came with a mandate to attend to and to strengthen the worship life of this congregation. You were very clear that you wanted a preacher. To quote Theodore Parker, “I’ve taken great care with the composition of my sermons; they’ve never been far from my mind.” I am my own toughest critic and Anne would be the first one to tell you how I wrestle with the sermons I compose. My approach to sermons is that I try not to be boring and try not to offer you conventional wisdom, empty platitudes, or the dry talking points of all that’s boring and tedious and self-obsessed within Unitarian Universalism. I’ve endeavored to be honest with you and, as my contract with the church puts it, to “express my values, views, and commitments without fear or favor.” I will continue to do that this morning.

I’m proud of my work with many classes of the Preaching Practicum whose members have wrestled sermons into being and delivered them to their fellow congregants, and I’m proud of the worship committee’s Distinguished Guest minister program through which we’ve invited people like Victoria Safford, James Ishmael Ford, and Marlin Lavanhar to grace us in the pulpit.

Pastorally, I’ve been especially moved by the opportunity to memorialize members of this congregation’s founding generation as well as other pillars of the church. I will always treasure the privilege of officiating the service celebrating the life of Bob Neustrom, our founding president, and to eulogize other pillars of our church.

Another thing that I am most proud of in my ministry with you is the fact that this church is a healthy place for theological diversity. I’ve not had to fight worship wars with you. I’ve not had to watch my language. Nobody gets angry when I talk about God or Jesus or choose a reading from the Bible. I have to tell you, as a minister who tends more towards theism – as an increasing number of UU ministers do – I’m grateful for this congregation’s embrace of theological diversity. I think my ministry is evidence of the fact that UU ministers are focused on doing good ministry, not on trying to bring others to agreement with their own theological views.

Social justice is one of the areas I wish I had approached differently here at SMUUCh. I’ve done a lot of social justice work in my years in Kansas City. I done work around reproductive justice, with the Mainstream Coalition, and with civil liberties through organizations like the ACLU. My regret is that I often took this work on as a lone individual, rather than leading us into the work together as a congregation. I did this for several reasons. One of the reasons was that it was lonely moving here all by myself and since I couldn’t go to the UU church to make friends, a meeting of community activists was the next best place. But, more than that, my own sense of professional ethics told me that it wasn’t right to use my position of leadership to push the congregation towards working for my one particular personal passion. I felt that would be a conflict of interest. I attended organizing meetings and nonprofit board meetings, spoke at press conferences, testified in Topeka, and was flown to Washington D.C. as a featured speaker at a national leadership summit of a nonprofit organization – but when I did these things, I did them as an individual, on my own time. Our church’s model of social justice has been that any member of the church with a personal passion has been invited to start their own social justice initiative, the success of which is based on that person’s ability to recruit others to support that cause and their own willingness to keep that program going. But now, I believe this isn’t the best way for a church to approach social justice work. It is a libertarian way of doing social justice; each person should do what they want as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else. This approach actually disempowers the work the church might do.

In my second year as the minister here I offered an adult religious education experience called the Social Justice Workshop. Eight people signed up having no idea what it would be. I walked in and said that the role of this class is for this random group of people to discern, design, and perform a social justice project. It was an experiment. I wanted to see what would happen. Out of the blue, this group decided that they wanted to lead our church through the process of officially becoming a Welcoming Congregation, a congregation-wide learning process about how to be more welcoming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Our church had actually attempted this process in the mid-90s but the process stalled, which had nothing to do with our intentions about welcoming and everything to do with the absence of a process for doing church-wide justice work. This group successfully brought the church through the Welcoming Congregation process. I’m tremendously proud of the work of this group.

Allowing any member with a personal passion to develop their own social justice project is a libertarian way of doing social justice work. It is undemocratic. If I had it to do over again, I would have engaged not just eight people, but 90 or 280 in a discernment process to select an inclusive social justice focus for the church. Such a focus would speak to our great longing, the community’s great need, and our sphere of influence.

I want to talk a little bit about growth this morning because I feel that growth has been at the forefront of my ministry with you. The first thing I want to say is that we’ve successfully grown from a church with fewer than 200 members to one with more than 300 during my tenure here. Our growth led us to a new building. We’ve also grown younger. When I started my ministry here in 2003, not only was I young, I was younger than every single member of this church. One of the ways we’ve changed is that as I’ve grown older, the congregation has gotten younger. We have a lot of members in their thirties and even quite a few in their twenties. This actually will require your attention as a church, because each generation approaches religion differently. This growth was noticed by our denomination and I became something of a growth wunderkind, getting invited to denominational growth summits and being tapped to edit a book about growth.

Looking back on my ministry with you, one of the things I am most proud of is attempting to bring about the type of organizational change that growing churches need. My biggest regret was underestimating how hard this is, and not pushing harder than I did or more wisely than I did or more strategically than I did to make these organizational changes a success. Trying to do church with more than 300 members is fundamentally different than trying to do church with fewer than 200. Different systems and structures are required for a church to flourish as it grows larger.

In my second and third year of my ministry here I noticed an interesting dynamic. We were adding lots and lots of new members, but very few of them were getting involved in the work of committees. In fact, as we added more members fewer members served on committees. Back in those days, we had about 20 committees and each board member was assigned to be a liaison to two or more committees. Each board meeting, the members of the board would go through a list of the different committees and each liaison would offer a summary of what each committee was doing. I noticed something interesting. For three years a liaison was assigned to the “Denominational Affairs” committee, even though there was no such committee. No chair. No members. No meetings. No projects. No activities. But it wasn’t just the Denominational Affairs committee. Other committees didn’t really exist either, or had a chair but no members, or had members but didn’t meet, or met but never did anything, or really consisted of one person who had staked out his or her own territory. By the end of my third year, though this church claimed to have twenty committees, only two or three met regularly and performed significant work. And, I also noticed that all the really interesting programs and activities and events happened elsewhere in the life of the church, not through its committees.

I had a decision to make. The board and I could bust our asses trying to populate committees and get them functioning. Or we could take a proverbial walk in the woods and think about what was going on here. I searched far and wide for insight into what was going on with our church’s structure. I found the deepest and clearest insight in the writings of Thomas Bandy, a leading expert on church systems. The board and I read his book, Kicking Habits.

Bandy says that thriving churches are characterized by having a clarity of vision, being radically permission-giving, taking risks, and being outwardly focused. Members of thriving churches are changed, gifted, called, equipped, and sent into the world. Bandy says that declining churches are characterized by institutional control and the inwardly-focused maintenance of the status quo. Members are enrolled, informed, nominated, supervised, and kept.

Thriving churches feel like a game of racquetball. [Bandy actually uses the sport of Jai alai for this metaphor.] They are fast-paced, kinetic, and there is a continuity of motion even as the ball might move at unexpected angles. Declining churches feel like a game of croquet. To accomplish anything you must jump through a complicated set of hoops, in the right order, and other players can decide to gang up on you and knock you out of the game. It is a game marked by dullness, tedium, and frustration. Earnest efforts are easily thwarted by whoever decides to play gatekeeper.

Bandy describes a church he encountered where someone proposed a great new idea. 115 members of the church spent a combined 275 hours of people’s time over ten weeks in order to say no to the idea. In a thriving church, new ideas and new ministries sometimes fail. In fact, they often fail but there is no shame in this. It is better to be the church that tries and fails than the church that bothered not to even try because that person had not jumped through all the hoops. Anyways, when I go back and read Kicking Habits by Thomas Bandy and other books he’s written and co-written, I am re-convinced that he is fundamentally right about the types of organizational systems that allow churches to thrive. I would commend him to you.

What I failed to realize as your minister is how challenging it is to transform an organizational system. The process is never smooth or linear or easy. It is not as simple as making a clear appeal to reason or rational thinking.

It has been said about Policy Governance, the system of church governance that is now pretty much standard for UU churches with more than 250 members, “It takes five years to implement, or you can try to do it faster and take ten years.”

My biggest regret as your minister is not pursuing the organizational systems recommended by people like Thomas Bandy with greater commitment, resilience, and courage, and yes, it must be said, greater diplomacy and greater communication as well.

In the parlance of Unitarian Universalism, in the last decade we’ve grown to become a “mid-sized II” congregation, whatever that means. In the grand scheme of things, at the macro level, in the midst of the universe’s vast reaches of time and space, we are small, miniscule in fact.

Life is too short for croquet. I’m not sure what to make out of Einstein’s quote about God not playing dice with the universe, but I don’t think God calls us to play croquet. Or, in the words of this congregation’s search committee more than a decade ago, “The worst mistake that our new minister could make would be to not show enthusiasm and energy in his or her approach to our church, the congregation and his or her position. We are eager for energy and excitement.”

I am grateful to have served this congregation full of fine, fine people. I’ve treasured my ministry with you. And, I will remember with deep fondness and affection those things that are worth treasuring in the finite time we’ve had.

I will remember meals we’ve shared and the bustle and boisterousness of coffee hour.

I will recall weddings performed, babies dedicated, and the dead memorialized.

I will smilingly recall laughter and play, generosity and forgiveness.

I will treasure moments of tender silence, prayers shared, music that moved us towards the depths, and the insights of poetry.

I’m proud of our accomplishments during the course of my ministry with you.


Monday, May 26, 2014

Homily: "After Coming of Age" (Delivered 5-18-14)

This morning’s announcement from about the upcoming church canoe trip led me to recall a true story from having led a Coming of Age program many years ago. The first time I led a Coming of Age program was for a church in Boston and one of the activities we did that year was to take a canoe trip on the Concord River. The Concord River is probably the calmest, most peaceful river ever. It flows sleepily through the small town suburbs of Boston. Its banks lead to the backyards of expensive homes. We launched the canoes, the youth in one canoe, the adult advisors in the other. This wasn’t the best idea. Within five minutes the youth had managed to capsize their vessel. The Concord River may be tranquil and peaceful, but in April it is very cold. We stood on the banks, the adults dry, the youth dripping wet as their teeth chattered and their lips turned blue. The youth decided on a course of action.

They walked across a well-manicured lawn and rang the doorbell of an expensive home. When the owner opened the door, the youth spoke: “We fell into the river. We’re wet. We’re cold. We’re Unitarian Universalists. Please help us.” For the next hour the youth stood in the man’s driveway, wrapped in towels, while their wet clothes spun in the dryer.

The way a Coming of Age homily works is that I pretend like I am speaking to just the Coming of Age students, when, in reality, I’m speaking to everyone in the room. What I’d like to tell you this morning is that the process of Coming of Age, the process of growth, will introduce you to three temptations, will put before you three tests. However, your journey of growth will stagnate if you give in to any of the three temptations.

The first temptation is independence. If you give in to the temptation of independence you will find yourself in a state of isolation. The second temptation is narcissism. If you give into the temptation of narcissism you will find yourself in a state of disconnection. And, finally, there is the temptation of cynicism, which leads to a state of alienation.

Independence, first. Like the rite of Confirmation in Catholicism, like the Bar and Bat Mitzvah in Judaism, like adolescent rites of passage in native cultures all around the world, Coming of Age is in some ways a passage into religious adulthood. It occurs at the same time in life as you begin to enjoy increased freedom in life, although the youth may look at me and say, “Thom, that increased freedom can’t come fast enough.” It is tempting, though, to believe that you are more independent than you actually are. The truth is found in the story of the Coming of Age canoe trip. When they fell in the river, they had a choice: freeze and suffer by themselves, independently, or admit their own radical dependence and ask for help. It can be hard to ask for help. It can be hard to admit that you need help. The idea of radical independence can be tempting, can be seductive, but the truth is that we need one another.

Another temptation you’ll face is the temptation of narcissism, the temptation to become focused on, fascinated with yourself. We live in a narcissistic age, an age of endless self-fascination. We live in the age of the selfie. You know what a selfie is, right? Taking a picture of yourself with your phone. In an editorial written recently by Galen Guengerich, it is claimed that the first time the world “selfie” was used was about a decade ago when a young, intoxicated Australian managed to fall down a flight of stairs. He busted his lip on one of the steps so hard that one of his teeth managed to pierce through his lower lip. The young man decided he should share this with his friends, took out his phone, snapped a picture of himself, and sent the photo to his friends, writing, “Sorry about the focus. It was a selfie.” Early research that has been done on the selfie phenomena has shown that increased sharing of selfies leads to decreased feelings of connection and closeness.

We live in the age of the cell phone camera selfie, but also in the age of the spiritual selfie where there is a desire to shamelessly share our spiritual ideas in a narcissistic way. Every so often, I receive in the mail a bubble wrapped copy of a self-published book by some stranger who has written his own grand theory of religion or his own spiritual manifesto. (It is always men who do this, interestingly enough.) The author assumes that I’m interested in what they have to say. Inevitably, the folks who write these manifestos always seem profoundly disconnected and distant.

We are called to something greater than being religiously fascinated with ourselves, than being spiritually narcissistic. We’re called to name what we long for most deeply, what we love more than love, what we hold to be most precious, what keeps us up at night.

Finally, a third temptation that comes to us is the temptation of cynicism, criticism, and cooler-than-thou detachment. You’ve come of age in a religious tradition that prides itself on asking questions and challenging conventional wisdom. There is a shadow side to this.

There is an old UU joke that goes like this. There is a priest walking down the street who sees the church is on fire. He runs in, grabs the communion set, and runs out. The church burns down, but he gives thanks that the communion set could be spared. There is a rabbi walking down the street who sees the synagogue is on fire. He runs in, grabs the Sefer Torah, the scrolls on which are written the five books of Moses. The synagogue burns down but the rabbi gives thanks that Torah was spared from the fire. A Unitarian Universalist minister is walking down the street and sees that the UU church is on fire. She runs in and grabs the coffee maker.

I think this joke is about being cooler-than-thou, about believing that nothing is sacred. Religious cynicism isn’t new. In the 1700s Friedrich Schleiermacher published his speeches to the cultured despisers of religion, challenging those who dismissed religion and regarded it with a distant critical stance.

We live in a culture of criticism, of tearing down people who take risks, of finding fault, pointing out flaws, taking a superior, crossed-arm, posture. Criticism, as it turns out, creates nothing, achieves nothing, accomplishes nothing. It is a posturing. We need to find ways to encourage risk-taking, encourage leadership, encourage experimentation. We need to appreciate and trust. Criticism isolates ourselves from others.

You will be tempted to think of yourselves as independent, when the truth is that you will always, always depend on others.

You will be tempted to be self-focused, narcissistic, when spirituality asks us to focus on what we love and care about and long for most deeply.

You will be tempted to be detached and coolly critical, when spirituality calls us into a place of deep appreciation.


The challenge has just begun. 

I wish you way more than luck.*


* This is how David Foster Wallace ended his famous commencement speech at Kenyon College. I decided to use his phrase because his literary projects were concerned with irony and narcissism.