Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Mindfulness (2/10/16)

The word of the day for the first day of UU Lent 2016 is "Mindfulness."

When Christians observe Ash Wednesday, these words are frequently said during the imposition of ashes: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."

Today, I'm mindful of a similar observation made by Ken Sawyer who was my childhood minister. Here are words he spoke in his sermon "Leaf Mold,"
"More than just being aesthetically satisfying, leaf mold serves for me as a religiously profound symbol, as the ocean does too, as the crucifix does no doubt for others - as a symbol that embodies and expresses a central truth about the worshipper's understanding of how things are... Both the worshipper's crucifix and my leaf mold speak, among other things to each of us, about death and how it fits into some larger perspective."

Lent for Unitarian Universalists

I started the RevThom blog way back in 2005, more than ten years ago. For several years I posted regularly, everything from sermons to theology to politics to music and book reviews. Then the posts became less regular, mostly just the texts of sermons I'd given. Then I became a dad and my new church posted audio files of my sermons on YouTube. I'd update the blog a couple times each year - a music review here, a book review there, some blogging about Crossfit.

Last Sunday I preached a sermon called "Lent for Unitarian Universalists."

I began the sermon with a "show & tell" of Lenten manuals published by the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America between 1938-1960. The sermon itself contained a lot of different elements. I talked some about why Lent in particular and Christian holidays in general were de-emphasized within the Puritan and New England Congregationalist traditions. I talked about a conversation with a member of the church who has a deep and meaningful practice of Lent inspired by her Catholicism. I talked about the practice of giving something up for Lent. And, I introduced a variety of different spiritual practices that UUs have created for the Lenten season.

I've received a ton of positive and appreciative feedback. Parishioners told me about feeling connected to their spiritual pasts and open-minded and curious about spiritual practice in the present.

During the sermon I mentioned that I'd be posting something about a Lenten spiritual practice on-line. I've decided that what I will do is to participate in the UU Lent practice that has been developed by Mr. Barb Greve, Karen Bellavance-Grace, and Alex Kapitan.

Click here to find out about the UU Lent practice they've created.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

My Top 10 Albums of 2015

Each December I look forward to the AV Club’s list of the best albums of the year. In previous years, those lists have turned me on to some great bands like Japandroids, Dirty Projectors, and Cloud Nothings. This year, inspired by their recommendations, I’ve ordered the new records by Beach Slang and Julien Baker.

With a hat tip to the AV Club, here are my top 10 albums of 2015, and my vote for the best song on each album:

1) Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Lamar’s Butterfly has been billed as “a masterpiece of fiery outrage, deep jazz and ruthless self-critique.” In the course of its sprawling 80 minutes it offers a hip-hop exploration of the personal and political. President Barack Obama cited Butterfly’s “How Much a Dollar Cost” as his favorite song of the year. Lamar’s performance of “i” on Saturday Night Live left me in awe. The song’s defiant pride makes it the best song on the best album of 2015.

2) Chvrches – Every Open Eye
This fine sophomore record by the Scottish electronic-pop trio builds off the strength of 2013’s The Bones of What You Believe. Lauren Mayberry’s mesmerizing vocals and tight beats combine to make these eleven awesome pop songs one of the best albums of the year.

Best Song: Leave a Trace

3) Built to Spill – Untethered Moon
I saw my first Built to Spill show in my college Student Union sixteen years ago as they toured in support of their fifth album. Since then they’ve continued to build off their early success as alternative rock pioneers. Their latest album holds its own against their best and their show back in May at Cat’s Cradle showed them still in peak form.

Best Song:  Living Zoo

4) Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
Titus Andronicus is just about my favorite band making music right now with their big, soaring punk rock anthems and Patrick Stickle’s spitfire vocals.  TA’s fourth album is a concept album without a concept, and its 29 tracks are, frankly, excessive. But, within the filler there is more than an album’s worth of great punk songs, the best of which is “Dimed Out.” “No Future Part IV” and “Fatal Flaw” also deserve a listen.

5) Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Critics have lauded Barnett’s debut record as of the best of the year. I agree. Her humorous, personal lyrics and electric guitar makes this album a joy from beginning to end.

Best Song: Elevator Operator

6) Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
Sleater-Kinney put out their first record in more than a decade in 2015 and it was worth the wait. No Cities to Love doesn’t transcend any of their previous efforts, but the album has finally given Sleater-Kinney the success and acclaim they’ve long deserved.

Best Song: A New Wave

7) Heems – Eat, Pray, Thug
As half of Das Racist, Himanshu Suri (Heems) collaborated with Victor Vazquez (Kool A.D.) to turn out rap songs that were part absurdist farce and part post-colonial deconstructionism. Heems’ solo debut finds him at his most political, exploring his racial identity in the context of America’s racism and violence against brown people.

8) The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
This album is a step down from The King is Dead, but it another great collection from this prolific band.

Best Song: Make You Better

9) The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ
Yes, this is a concept album about professional wrestling. But, let’s face it, John Darnielle could get up on stage with his guitar and sing the phone book and I wouldn’t mind. Heel Turn 2 is one of the better songs on the album and works as an exploration of being less good than you know you should be.

10) Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi
This is the second consecutive mediocre release by DCFC. There are some gems here, and “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” is first among them.

Best Song: The Ghosts of Beverly Drive

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Interlude: Getting Swole

Click this link to read the previous entry. Click this link to jump ahead to the next post in the series.

Before we move along to the next post in the series, here are a few shots of me working out at Crossfit Chapel Hill.

Lifting a 145# Atlas stone on 7/26/15.

265# deadlift on 5/14/15

205# back squat on 4/4/15

Click the link to read the next post: Ministry, Junk Food, and Heroin

"My Butt Is Bigger" or, The Taboo of Embodiment

Click this link to read the previous entry. Click this link to jump ahead to the next post in the series.

A group of us were standing around at the “Crossfit Prom” – an inter-gym social event that meant dressing up, or not, and meeting up for drinks at a bar – when a member of another gym walked in. Wearing a little black dress she approached the group and announced, “I didn’t even know if this dress was going to fit me now.” Turning around, she continued, “My butt is bigger and my back is broader.” Completing the revolution, she added, “And my boobs are smaller!”

There are few places in my everyday life when someone in my social group invites me to gaze upon her bottom, back, and chest. As this was going on, I cast a sideways glance at Jamie, a linguistics professor and fellow member of Crossfit Chapel Hill. I observed, “That’s just not something I hear in my conversations anywhere else besides Crossfit.” Jamie nodded in agreement and added, “People sometimes ask me why I talk so much about bodies.”

There’s a lot going on in this conversation. There’s clearly a gender dynamic at play here. Women who do Crossfit may face judgment and criticism for the impact it has on their physique. A segment of society finds fault with women having muscle definition through their arms and shoulders or thick, muscular thighs. Slogans such as “Strong is the new skinny” challenge these cultural ideals about physical beauty. There’s obviously a lot more to say on this subject, but I want to talk instead about something else from this exchange.

“People sometimes ask me why I talk so much about bodies,” said Jamie, the linguistics professor. Her words have stuck with me. She’s naming academia as a place where discourse about the body is unconventional or unusual. The implication is that talking about the body is something that isn’t proper for academics, scholars, intellectuals, and those who are within this social constellation. My experience in liberal religious circles and also among activists working for social justice is that the body is not a topic that is apt to come up in conversation.

I remember something that Chad, a man serving on the board of the last church where I was minister, said to me when we were having a “temperature check” conversation about things the church might do differently in the future. Have you ever noticed, Chad asked me, that almost everything we do together as a community involves being sedentary? We worship sitting down. We have classes sitting around a table. We have discussions sitting in a circle. We have lots of meals together. Why is there so much sitting? What are we omitting from our life as a religious community?

Jamie’s comment at the “Crossfit Prom” and Chad’s observation about experiencing religious community sitting down reflect what I am going to call “disembodied culture.” Disembodied culture seems to me to be present throughout liberal social institutions including educational, religious, and community service organizations.

I want to suggest that there are several hallmarks of what I’ve termed “disembodied culture.” These may include:

·         There is limited opportunity for or lesser value placed upon physical expression. 
·         Discourse about the body is marginalized or regarded as improper. 
·         Discourse about matters of the mind or spirit are privileged over matters of the body.

So, why aren’t liberal social institutions more embodied? I think there are several possible factors at play.

·         The adolescent and pre-adolescent dichotomization between “jocks” and “nerds” continues to influence social arrangements. 
·         The dualisms of the Western world continue to make hierarchical distinctions between heaven / earth, spirit / matter, mind / body, etc. 
·         Liberal social institutions tend to be at the forefront of challenging oppression. Becoming “disembodied” is a conscious or unconscious strategy for combatting ableism and gendered bodily discrimination (fat shaming, sexualization, etc.)

In subsequent posts I’ll consider the impact of “disembodied culture” and consider possibilities for re-embodying our social institutions.

Click the link for a brief interlude before the next post in this series.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Cult(ure) of Crossfit

Click this link to read the previous entry. Click this link to jump ahead to the next post in this series.

There is a joke about Crossfitters that the only thing they talk about is Crossfit. One of the most common of the dozens of variations of this joke claims that Crossfit is Fight Club in reverse: The first rule of Crossfit is that you always talk about Crossfit. The fact that I’m blogging on this topic may be further evidence of the truthfulness underlying this joke.

Much has been said about the “cultish” aspects of Crossfit. It has its own insider language full of terms like WOD, AMRAP, EMOM, Rx, and so on. It seems to do a good job of changing people who do it regularly. People talk about it incessantly.

With beginning regular exercise a year ago at Crossfit Chapel Hill came not only new levels of physical activity, but also exposure to a community and culture that was new to me. In a previous post I talked about how I have spent my adult life mostly surrounded by “church people, minister colleagues, academics, social justice activists, and liberal do-gooder types.” Going to Crossfit meant immersing myself in a culture outside of what I was familiar with.

In some ways the culture of Crossfit Chapel Hill is not all that different from the culture of Chapel Hill, a predominantly liberal university town that prides itself on being North Carolina’s “pat of butter in a sea of grits.” Indeed, one of the coaches frequently wears an NPR T-shirt to the gym and several members workout in T-shirts showing their support for marriage equality in North Carolina.

When I say that the culture of Crossfit Chapel Hill was new to me I am not making a point about political differences, educational differences, or socioeconomic differences. Instead, what is different is a cultural understanding of how the physical self relates to the whole self as well as an understanding of the role of physical activity in life. That is what I am going to explore over the next several blog posts, but first let me say a little bit about the sport of Crossfit itself.

In his Crossfit memoir, Embrace the Suck, author Stephen Madden writes about taking up Crossfit during a kind of a fitness mid-life crisis in his mid-forties. He describes the philosophy of Crossfit this way,

What Crossfit was trying to achieve [was] to prepare us all for whatever life asked of us. I’m pretty sure [this was] meant… in the physical sense. That if we were walking down the street and saw flames leaping from the windows of the top floor of a building, we’d be able to sprint up the fire escape, kick down the door, drag the obese man who had been overcome by the smoke to the door, throw him over our shoulders, and carry him to safety on the sidewalk. Or cradle one twin baby in each arm while descending to the cellar laundry room. Or do one power snatch every minute on the minute for forty-five minutes.

Crossfit, writes Madden, is “based on principles of constantly varied functional movements done at high intensity.” What this looks like in practice is workouts that feature calisthenics (pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, burpees, squats, jumping rope, etc.), weightlifting (clean and jerk, snatch, overhead and bench press, deadlift, etc.), and gymnastics (handstands, exercises involving rings, etc.) in an endless variety of combinations and permutations.

At the heart of all of this is a critique of contemporary American culture and the ways a typical American lifestyle leads to diminished physical abilities. For example, the way we sit reduces our capacity to squat and weakens a chain of muscles that allows us to do important stuff. Or, too much typing on a computer leads to internal rotation of our shoulders and compromises our strength. Through doing these exercises, there’s an awareness of regaining strength and mobility that our dominant lifestyle compromises. The future benefits of this form of fitness is that our bodies may remain functional longer prolonging our ability to live independently as we age. In the present, at least for me, there is a greater awareness of my own body, how my muscles and groups of muscles fire, and the way in which my body occupies and moves through space. There is also a greater sense of agency over my own body. This is essentially what I mean when I talk about “embodied” living. That’s a topic I’ll continue to explore over the next several posts.

But first, a quick story. It was the evening of a Crossfit social at a popular bar on Franklin Street. As the evening grew later, someone decided that it would be fun to see if they could press another member of the gym. The next thing you know, people are taking turns lying stiffly across a pair of barstools while others take turn putting their hands underneath them and pressing them fully overhead. (For the record, I declined to participate in this as either the lifter or the lifted.) Yes, this is another example of the annoying stuff that Crossfitters do, besides talking about Crossfit incessantly. But, as one member of the gym push pressed another, I could not help but admit that this was a culture that was new to me.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Zero to Sixty

Click this link to read the previous entry. Click this link to jump ahead to the next post in this series.

People sometimes shudder and give me an uneasy look when I tell them that I went straight from a long period of no exercise to speak of to doing Crossfit three or four times a week. Crossfit has a reputation for being intense and brutal.

Consider a conversation I had with a Crossfitter in Portland, Oregon. He was telling me how strenuous and challenging Crossfit workouts were for him when he first started. I asked him what he had been doing before he started doing Crossfit. “Oh,” he said, “Mostly I was running marathons.” Yes, he did say marathons, plural.

I should probably explain how it is that I wound up joining Crossfit. Back when we lived in Kansas City, we had awesome neighbors, Jen and Erin, who were the two most in-shape people I had ever met. It seemed like every time I saw them they were leaving for a bike ride or coming back from a run. One day they told me that they had started doing Crossfit. I had never heard of it and had no idea what it was. But over the next several months, every time I saw them it was evident there was a physical transformation taking place. They went from generally in-shape to super-athletic and strong. I had an awareness that this thing they were doing was changing them.

Fast-forward to July, 2014. My family and I had just moved to North Carolina. We decided to take a break from the summer heat and go for a walk in the air-conditioned climes of University Mall. We were walking through the mall and we saw Crossfit Chapel Hall, located between an upscale food store and a hair salon. “Isn’t that what our neighbors did?” I asked my wife. “I guess they have Crossfit in North Carolina, too. I wonder what it’s like inside. Hold on a second, I’m going to check it out.”

I walked in and immediately was spotted by a guy with both arms sleeved in tattoos who was hoisting a barbell with an obscene amount of weight on it onto his shoulders. (I have to confess that when I walked in the door I wasn’t even sure that the object he was lifting was called a barbell. Were barbells the long ones or were those dumbbells?) He came over to me and as he introduced himself, the only thing I could think was, “Holy crap! His biceps are thicker than my thighs.”

I am pretty sure our conversation went like this:

“Can I help you?” said the guy with giant arms who turned out to be Jason, the owner of the gym.

Attempting not to stare at his arms, I answered, “I just moved to town and I once knew somebody who did Crossfit in Kansas City.”

“Um, okay… are you interested in doing Crossfit?”

At this point I realized that this was a possible outcome, which I didn’t think I had fully realized until then. “I’m not sure,” I stammered.

“Well, the first step is to come to class and try it out.”

“Can I come back tomorrow?”

“Or, you could come to a class this afternoon.”

Slightly panicked, I responded, “No, I’ll come tomorrow.”

When I left that day I was unsure if I was going to come back the next day.

The next day, July 21, 2014, I went to my first Crossfit workout and signed up to come back the following day for my first on-ramp orientation class where I would begin to learn the form for the various lifts and moves they’d have us do.

When I woke up on July 22, it seemed like every single muscle in my body ached. Quads, abs, glutes, biceps, and muscles I didn’t even know I had much less the names of. I limped into the gym that afternoon for my first orientation session.

And, here’s the thing, I kept going back. For the past year, the past 52 weeks, I’ve gone to Crossfit at least three or four times per week, every single week. Every. Single. Week. That means I’ve gotten far more exercise in the past year than I had in the previous eleven years combined.

I kept coming back. I came back when it was sticky and hot outside. I came back when a snowstorm had shut down the town. I came back sore and stiff. I came back after a workout had left me gasping for breath. I came back after workouts that left me overwhelmed with tears of frustration. I even kept coming back after literally walking out on workouts that seemed impossible. I kept coming back.

Click here to read the next post: The Cult(ure) of Crossfit

Thursday, July 09, 2015

A Decade on the Couch

Click the link to jump ahead to the next post.

I couldn’t actually remember the last time I had broken a sweat, that is if you don’t count from walking up a flight of stairs or carrying a bag of groceries to the car. That’s how out of shape I was when I walked through the doors of Crossfit Chapel Hill in July, 2014.

I had just moved to Chapel Hill and was ready to turn over a new leaf. For eleven years, from my mid-twenties to my mid-thirties, I had lived in Kansas City where I worked as the minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in suburban KC. In terms of fitness, I refer to my time there as my decade on the couch.

The purpose of this series of blog posts is to document my own transition from a life of utter physical inactivity to one that includes regular, challenging exercise. I want to write about how I’ve changed as a result of Crossfit. I also want to reflect on stepping into a culture that was completely foreign to me. My adult life up until this past year had been spent largely surrounded by church people, minister colleagues, academics, social justice activists, and liberal do-gooder types. None of these people were opposed to fitness, per se. Physical activity was just something that for the most part we didn’t talk about or acknowledge. In a future post I’ll write about that experience of being part of what I call a “disembodied” culture.

Here’s a brief physical autobiography so you can get a sense of my background in physical activity prior to joining Crossfit:

As a child I liked sports but wasn’t very good at them. I played Little League baseball poorly. I was even worse at youth league basketball. Throughout my childhood I suffered from acute asthma that kept me closely tied to an inhaler and restricted my physical activity. In high school I joined the swim team. I grew up next to a pond and my comfort in the water covered for my lack of size, strength, or speed. I competed in the butterfly and the individual medley but I hated practice and my endurance was a liability on anything longer than a 50 yard sprint.

I attended college at Reed in Portland, Oregon. Reed has a reputation for academic intensity; the Princeton Review always puts Reed near the top in its annual list of schools with students that study the most. Reed’s first President actually banned intercollegiate athletics calling them a distraction from education. Things had loosened up enough by the time I was there that the college offered women’s rugby, men’s basketball, and co-ed Ultimate Frisbee. It is safe to say that “picked last in kickball” is a superlative that would have described most of my fellow students. It certainly described me. I played Ultimate all through college and also earned PE credit for juggling. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to being called a jock.

Through grad school at Harvard I played pick-up Ultimate as the weather permitted. The combination of a lot of walking and eating on a grad school budget kept the weight off. Upon moving to the Midwest I quickly settled into a decade of physical inactivity. I played pickup Ultimate intermittently, less and less each passing year. I joined gyms and went a couple of times to walk on the treadmill or ride the stationary bike for 15 minutes, but the money was mostly wasted. I took walks, which I suppose would have been satisfactory exercise for a senior citizen. Fluctuations in weight during my decade on the couch had little to do with exercise or diet and lots to do with levels of stress.

That’s the shape I was in – out of breath from climbing stairs, pulse racing from lifting my daughter, sweat-drenched from carrying a suitcase to the car – when I walked through the doors of Crossfit Chapel Hill for the first time.

Click the link to read the next post: Zero to Sixty

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My Favorite Books from 2014

Each year I set a goal of reading at least 52 books. This past year I came close to reaching my goal finishing 46 books. (And, that’s if you don’t count all 22 volumes – more than 2,800 pages – of The Walking Dead comic book series that I binge read in October.)

In 2014 I read numerous books on the theme of racial justice. Most notable was Blood Done Sign My Name, Tim Tyson’s amazing history/memoir of a racist murder in a small North Carolina town in 1970. I also read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, an oral history of the Chicago high rise housing projects, and New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als’ extraordinary White Girls, a collection of essays exploring race, gender, and sexuality.

This past year I also continued on my quest to read every book published by McSweeney’s Press. To date I’ve read 194 of the 222 books published by McSweeney’s.

The most usual book I read this year was Paul LeGault’s The Emily Dickinson Reader. I read this alongside the complete collected poems of Emily Dickinson. What Paul LeGault did is an act of both genius and obsession. In The ED Reader he offers a one line “translation” of each of Dickinson’s 1,789 poems. These tweetable translations are often witty and sarcastic. I’m a big fan of art projects that demonstrate obsession on such a large scale.

I tend to read a lot of fiction and I’m especially a fan of short stories. My favorite novels from this past year include Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story about a technological dystopia, Courtney Moreno’s In Case of Emergency, Bill Cotter’s The Parallel Apartments. My favorite short story collections included Pastoralia by George Saunders, Further Joy by John Brandon, Jess Walter’s We Live in Water, and Painted Cities by Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski.

In non-fiction I read several books in the Voices of Witness series. These collect oral histories to illuminate human rights abuses both within and outside of the United States. I read oral history collections from survivors of Hurricane Katrina as well as from prisoners who had served time on death row but were later exonerated. Cory Doctorow’s manifesto about copyright law in the information age – Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free – was an interesting analysis of a topic I had never considered. No book I read this past year was as fascinating as A Very Bad Wizard by Tamler Sommers. This book includes a dozen interviews Sommers conducts with leading philosphers, psychologists, and biologists who think about the topic of morality.

My favorite book on the topic of religion from this past year was Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I don’t completely agree with Bell’s theology but I’m a big fan of his project of trying to write both honestly and popularly about doing Christian theology in our contemporary culture.

What does 2015 hold in the way of books? My immediate to-read list includes six volumes from the Voices of Witness series illuminating Human Rights crises in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Myanmar, Columbia, and Palestine; the complete essays of James Baldwin; the last two Marilynne Robinson novels, Home and Lila; the latest book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Living With a Wild God which deals with mystical experience; and all the short story collections by George Saunders I haven’t read yet.

Feel free to friend me on Goodreads if you want to follow what I'm reading.