Monday, August 28, 2006

Homily: "The Deep End" (Delivered 8-27-06)

The new meditation manual by Jeffrey Lockwood features a wonderful mediation about traveling. He begins by mentioning all these exotic and wonderful places he has visited, and all of the stomach-churning food products he’s been offered, including horse steaks and vodka made from fermented mare’s milk. Lockwood concludes that from these extensive travels he has learned the art of being a good guest. It is what he has learned that is the important part. The place itself is incidental. He could have learned the exact same lesson from visiting his aunt in Peoria, as long as we assume that his aunt is a disaster in the kitchen.

This same point was made in a slightly different way a while back by Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly. Writing about mountain climbers on Mount Everest, Reilly chronicles that it is now common for hundreds, even thousands, of climbers to attempt Everest each climbing season. It is normal for dozens to die attempting to reach the top.

Reilly explains that to put together a climbing team, you are looking at an expense of, at the very least, $100,000. Half of this amount goes to the Nepalese government in exchange for a permit to climb. What this means is that you get the real life scenario, played out dozens of times each year, in which someone attempting to reach the summit, who has already shelled out a small fortune, has to decide between going for the summit, or stopping to offer assistance to a person certain to die without help. If you stop to give that person oxygen and help them down, you will forfeit your chance to reach the top. It is now routine for dying men to be passed by those seeking the summit.

What you learn is more important than where you’ve been.

Today we hold our "gathering of the waters" ceremony. Traditionally, we've said simply the place from whence the water we contribute comes. But place names are seldom descriptive. Imagine water from the Gulf of Mexico. Did it come from a service trip to New Orleans? Did it come from a cultural exchange trip to Mexico? Did you make a final visit to a dying relative in Florida? Or, maybe, it was celebrating a honeymoon in Belize, as I know two members of this congregation did? But, the mind wonders, couldn’t the water be from some ill-begotten trip? After all, you could be bringing the water as a souvenir from your drug smuggling adventure, or from your trip you took to set up an offshore banking account into which you siphon the funds you're embezzling from work. Its all the same water, but it is different water.

To say it is from the a place, like, say, the Gulf of Mexico, doesn't say much. Always, always there is context that has to be taken into account. There is also the change, or growth that happens in your heart and in your soul. Did you learn something about what it means to be a gracious guest? Something about privilege? Something about solidarity, or compassion? Something about love? Something about your family? Do you come back committed? Do you come back inspired, determined? Do you come back renewed? Reacquainted? Bonded in deeper intimacy? A good tan?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but not all trips are equal. If you don’t believe me, go watch "Snakes on a Plane" or “Little Miss Sunshine.”

The title of my homily is "The Deep End." The title is taken from an image that was shared by a colleague of mine. [And truthfully, I forget the source of this image.] The image is of two ways of getting into a swimming pool. One way is to gradually ease into the shallow end. The other way is to jump into the Deep End, over your head. As my colleague explains this image, it is a parable about community. That is to say, there are two ways to enter into community. One way, you ease in, getting deeper as it feels comfortable, pulling back when you feel a little discomfort, getting out when you feel like it. This way doesn't lead to close-knit community. There is no reason for people to stick together. If you are holding onto another person, and you let go – it doesn't matter. Traveling together is more or less optional, because the stakes just aren’t very high. Of course, I am describing the shallow end.

But in the Deep End, everything is different. In over your head, you hang onto others for dear life. Sticking together is a matter of survival, your own and others'. Your participation is not a matter of personal preference, convenience, or whim. It is a matter of necessity. The stakes are high.

In the Deep End, intimacy is a function of the importance of the moment, of all being in the same important and urgent situation together. In the shallow end, intimacy is a matter of personal preference, even choice. Think back to climbing Everest.

Now, I’m going to bring up a subject that can be a touchy one in church company. The subject I am going to bring up is privilege. So, I am going to ask us to be in the Deep End together while we talk about privilege a little bit.

Now when I bring up privilege, I’m going to guess that you thought one of two things. One thing you may have thought is of the types of privileges you have that lots of other people don’t. Or, maybe you thought about the types of privileges that lots other people have that you don’t. I want to make an observation. Everyone here is less privileged than somebody else, that is, unless Bill Gates has become a new member of our congregation. If you are Bill Gates, please speak to me after the service. There’s enough peanut butter and jelly for you at the picnic. And, everyone here is more privileged than somebody else in the world unless we happen to have any political prisoners from North Korea visiting us this morning.

Which is to say that awareness of privilege generally leads to feelings of on one hand: shame, guilt, or embarrassment, or, on the other hand, resentment, self-pity, jealousy, or indignation. Going down this whole route is often a destructive exercise, because these types of shallow-end emotions aren’t helpful. They lead us away from the whole point, which is to lift up the deep end truth of the amazing possibility and potential that exists right here, in this room, our real power to make a real difference in the world, our ability to have such an amazing impact in the lives of each other, our children, our elders, our families, our community, our city, our schools, our government. That’s the deep end way of being together.

Today is the ingathering of our church community. In just a few moments we will hold our Gathering of the Waters ceremony. I imagine Jeffrey Lockwood pouring out his water and saying, “This water is for the art of being a good guest.” I imagine water poured for renewal, for beauty, for family connection, for justice and solidarity, for taking care of somebody, for remembering where you come from, for the love of nature, for remembering what’s important.

I imagine an Everest hiker who chose to forego the summit in order to help a fellow human being pouring out water and saying, “I bring what it feels like to be a good Samaritan.” We are so deeply in need of all of the gifts we bring that make this church a community.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

My respected colleague The Lively Traditionalist offers a heavy, heavy review of the movie Little Miss Sunshine on his blog. He interprets the movie as a vehicle for portraying "generational antagonism" with the Baby Boomers receiving the accusing finger. LT can get away with statements like this - he's got 30 years on me. I got something different from the film:

Even if you don't buy what LT writes you can't deny that Little Miss Sunshine is one symbolically rich movie. Consider the teenage son, Dwayne, who we discover has taken a vow of silence and is reading Thus Spake Zarathustra. Get the irony? Spake. Now, I don't claim to be up on my Friedrich Nietzsche (or my Proust) but when I think of Nietzsche I think of two things. First, the declaration that "God is Dead." And second, the idea of the "will to power." Could Dwayne's silence be a refusal to deny the existence of God? More likely, it is a declaration of the power of the will. When will battles fate in this film, will always comes up short. Greg Kinnear's Richard is perhaps the best example of this. His 9-step program is all about will (in this way, it is the exact opposite of the more familiar 12-step program) but his will is powerless to get him a business deal. Fate wins.

Little Miss Sunshine has other kinds of symbolic richness. Take for instance the barren and desolate landscape through which the characters travel. I cannot recall a road-trip movie in which both the natural and human-created landscape is as empty. From the harsh desert of the American Southwest to a landscape dotted with overpasses, ugly motels, and blacktop - emptiness is the dominant motif. (Anti-patriotic symbolism is another recurring theme. There is the hotel scene where listening to your parents scream at each other is found preferable to listening to a Bush press conference. There's also the creepiest version of "America the Beautiful" you could possibly imagine.) In no scene are these images of desolation stronger than in the scene where Dwayne and Frank have a turning moment. This scene takes place on an ocean pier as the characters gaze out on the empty horizon of a seascape that is every bit as harsh and desolate as the desert through which they've driven.

Existentialism is the conclusion of this film. Life is miserable. Happiness is an illusion. If you're not miserable, you're not really living. The secret is that we don't have to be miserable alone.

Of course, it is not the landscape or the symbolism that make the movie a fun one. The characters make it what it is. The characters, with the exception of Olive, each represent a flawed strategy for making it through life:

Grandpa's flawed strategy is hedonism ("selfishness" according to LT). Life is about doing whatever feels good, without much concern for how it impacts others.

Richard's flawed strategy is ideology mixed in with a bit of tragic hubris. Life is about following the right formula.

Sheryl's flawed strategy is permissiveness and fascination with the world. She shows no boundaries about what is appropriate for Olive to be exposed to.

Frank struggles with jealousy, despair, anger, and detachment. He requires others to confirm his specialness.

Dwayne represents nihilism and solipsism.

Each of these characters competes to expose Olive to their worldview or impose it upon her. All of the characters are flawed, but all of them are likable. You want for them not to remain trapped in the situation in which they are trapped.

The movie is about each of them discovering the inadequacy of each of these approaches to life, and finding another, one that isn't perfect. The secret is about being together in spite of being perfect.

Plus, the soundtrack features two songs by Sufjan Stevens.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Interfaith Cooperation?

Seen recently in an Overland Park parking lot:

A car with both a Christian fish emblem and a bumper sticker that proclaims "Tree Hugging Dirt Worshipper."

If the car belongs to a couple, I praise their interfaith commitment. If it belongs to a single individual, I commend this individual's constructive approach to faith.

In the meantime

On account of being out the pulpit last Sunday and not having a new sermon to post, this blog has been dormant for a while.

I wanted to invite readers to send me thoughts and feedback. What sorts of things would you be interested in finding here? Also, if you are a person who stumbled here through a search engine, was what you found helpful?

Comments, feedback and suggestions may be sent to:

It seems to me like the most common search engine hit is from people trying to figure out the meaning of the Latin saying "Uva Uvam Vivendo Varia Fit" from Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. It leads them here.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Answers to Religious Literacy Quiz

Here are the answers and scoring system for Stephen Prothero's religious literacy quiz:

1) Matthew, Mark, Luke, John (1 point each)
2) Answers can include the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Puranas, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Yoga Sutras, Laws of Manu, Kama Sutra (1 point if you could name any of these)
3) Quran or Koran (1 point)
4) Bethlehem (1 point)
5) The Good Samaritan (1 point)
6) Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (1 point each)
7) "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Matthew 7:12) or a similar sentiment from Rabbi Hillel or Confucius. ("Love your neighbor as yourself" is not the Golden Rule.) (1 point)
8) No, this is not in the Bible. In fact, it is contradicted in Proverbs 28:26: "He who trusts in himself is a fool." The words are Ben Franklin's. (2 points)
9) Yes, in the Beatitudes of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3) (2 points)
10) The Protestant, Catholic and Jewish versions of the Ten Commandments differ. Give yourself credit for any ten of the following 12 commandments, each of which appears in at least one of those three versions:
1. I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.
2. You shall have no other gods before me.
3. You shall not make yourself a graven image.
4. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
5. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
6. Honor your father and mother.
7. You shall not kill/murder.
8. You shall not commit adultery.
9. You shall not steal.
10. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
11. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.
12. You shall not covet your neighbor's goods.
11) The Four Noble Truths are: Life is suffering; Suffering has an origin; Suffering can be overcome (nirvana); and, the path to overcoming suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path. (Give yourself one point for each noble truth.)
12)The seven sacraments are: Baptism; Eucharist/Mass/Holy Communion; Confession; Confirmation; Marriage; Holy Orders; and, Last Rites (1 point each)
13) The establishment clause and the exercise clause. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." (1 point each)
14) Muslim holiday characterized by a month of fasting (2 points)
15) The following matches are worth 1 point each, up to 7 points:
Adam and Eve: Garden of Eden
Paul: Road to Damascus
Moses: Exodus and Parting of the Red Sea
Noah: Olive Branch
Jesus: Road to Damascus, Garden of Gethsemane
Abraham: Binding of Isaac
Serpent: Garden of Eden

Scoring: Add up total points, multiply by two. A is 90 points or higher; B is 80-89; C is 70-79. A passing grade is 60 points or more.

How did you do? Be Honest!!!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sermon: "Universalism Today & Tomorrow: How are we Saved?" (Delivered 08-13-06)

Opening Words

Of all the theological concepts that might cause us to squirm, maybe “Salvation” is the one that causes the most discomfort. Who among us hasn’t been asked, “Are you saved?” The question behind the question is often dirty: “Do we think the same way?” or, “Are you in or out?” or, even, “Are you someone for me to embrace or despise?” It all gives salvation a bad name.

It doesn’t help that we’ve participated in a battle of bumper-stickers:

“Born-again Christian” vs. “I don’t need to be born again, I got it right the first time.”

“Warning: in case of rapture, car will be unmanned.” vs. “After the rapture, can I have your car?”

“Repent! The end is near!” vs. “God is coming, and she is ‘disconcerted.’”

It’s hard to believe that salvation was once the central theological lynch-pin of our religious tradition.

We gather for worship amidst wars and strife, amidst plagues and inconvenient truths, amidst the descendents of violence and oppression: poverty, discrimination and fear. Maybe salvation isn’t that bad of an idea after all. So we gather once again in this tradition of truth-telling. We gather to explore together and to worship.


In nineteen sixty eight, when our church was celebrating its first anniversary, a sociologist named Milton Rokeach published the results of his study of a diverse sampling of American Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. In the study, he asked them to rank various religious values in order of importance. His research neglected Unitarians, so a minister, Robert Miller, duplicated Rokeach’s research, asking Unitarians how we would rank the same values in order of importance.

The highest ranked value, according to Miller’s study of Unitarians was “honesty.” At the other end of the spectrum, the three least important values were, from greater to least, cleanliness, obedience, and salvation. One interpretation of the low ranking that cleanliness received is that it scored so low not because we don’t value it, but because we take for granted. Obedience, on the other hand, ranked right where we would expect it to rank. (During my first year at SMUUCh I preached a sermon on obedience. This sermon is going to become the first chapter of the book I’m writing.)

The lowest ranked value, reportedly, was salvation. Not only did it come in dead last, many respondents had refused to enter it on their response sheets. Still other Unitarians lodged their protest by writing the word upside down! “Salvation” was the only value to receive a negative score. [Thanks to several of my colleagues for pointing me in the direction of this research.]

This morning I deliver the final sermon in the three part series, “Universalism Today & Tomorrow” in which we look at classic manifestations of Universalist theology and examine what they might mean for us, in our daily lives, today. In this final sermon, we turn to the doctrine of salvation and what it might possibly mean for us today.

To the earliest Universalists, salvation was very important. In fact, theirs was a theological system formulated around the workings of salvation. Like their more orthodox counterparts, they explicitly believed that salvation came through Jesus Christ; however, unlike their more orthodox counterparts, they understood that salvation was not limited or conditional. That is to say they believed that everyone was saved.

If you are interested in the history of it, these early Universalists actually did believe in Hell. However, for them Hell wasn’t infinite or eternal. These forebears of ours thought there would be a period of punishment after death, but that all souls would eventually be reconciled with God. Now, before anybody goes running for the door, I might add that this form of Universalism was short-lived, and that it was soon replaced by a form of ultra-Universalism which did away with this notion of temporal punishment, and favored a speedy, and guaranteed reconciliation with the creator for all people unconditionally.

And, if I can be historical for just another minute or two, I might add that while Salvation was central to these early Universalists, the notion was certainly not considered irrelevant to our lives here on Earth. To the contrary, salvation was supposed to inspire us to ethical lives here on Earth. The central image was of a loving, merciful God – not jealous or wrathful – and our human response naturally to the knowledge of such a God would be live lives of joy, mercy, and love. If God was merciful to us when it could be otherwise, we should be so merciful to one another. If God is gentle and loving to us when it could be otherwise, we should be so gentle with one another. If God didn’t condemn us for our faults when it could be otherwise, we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Salvation wasn’t taken for granted; it was central to their lives.

If you like this stuff, you will surely love the old Universalist stories. One of things that were handed down from our Universalist ancestors were folksy stories combining theology with domestic images.

One story involves a traveling Universalist minister passing through a town who stops in at the inn. He talks theology with the innkeeper, who is mopping the floor. The innkeeper tells the minister that he was wrong, that a unrepentant person could not be accepted into heaven. The minister turns to the innkeeper and says, “Do you require for your floor to be clean before you will consent to mop it?” “Clearly not,” replies the innkeeper, “I clean it as it is.” The minister adds, “Just as God takes us as we are.”

Another story: In this one, a Universalist preacher gives a eulogy and announces that the deceased shall go to heaven. This clearly displeases a man, who asks the minister, “How could you proclaim his salvation? That man was a liar and thief!” The Universalist preacher countered, “If your own son were a liar and a thief, would you go tie him to a stake and burn him.” “I could never do such a thing to my son,” responded the man. “But you expect God to do it to one of God’s children?” replied the minister.

So, how did we get to where we are then? If “Salvation” was such a major shaping force back then, why does it receive a low score in these modern times? And more importantly, what could it mean for us Unitarian Universalists today and tomorrow?

A new book of essays by Rebecca Parker called "Blessing the World: What can save us now" [Buy it!] takes up questions like these. Parker is the President of our UU seminary in Berkeley, California. Before that, she was a Methodist parish minister and turned to the old writings of Universalists like Hosea Ballou to inform a theology of salvation that made sense to her. The question of salvation might be said to be her life’s work, of which a major project was an earlier book disputing the notion of redemptive suffering and redemptive violence.

To give you an idea of how she thinks, I want to read from one of her essays where she takes issue with the “substitutionary theory of atonement” which is the fancy theological term for the idea that Jesus’ death atoned for the sins of all humanity. Here is what she says,

“The substitutionary theory of atonement generates a series of substitutions. Crusaders slaughtered Jews, who substituted for Muslims, who substituted for earlier “Jews” accused of killing Jesus, who substituted for the Romans who actually killed Christ. Jesus substitutes for sinful humanity to pay the debt owed to God… And committing violence substitutes for spiritual rebirth as the route to paradise.

“This theology, like violence, obliterates distinctions and replicates itself indiscriminately. Now Afghanistan can substitute for al Qaeda. Saddam Hussein can substitute for Osama bin Laden… Iraq can substitute for Afghanistan. Any Muslim can substitute for any terrorist.” [Parker, 71]

Remember, according to Pat Robertson, gays and feminists can substitute for September 11 hijackers. According to Education Secretary Rod Paige, the NEA can substitute for a terrorist network. And according to the rhetoric of the day, anybody can substitute for a nazi. Parker writes that, “Times, places, and people merge. Mass violence, in particular, fails to distinguish realities and excels at false identifications.” [Parker, 71]

How are we saved? “Not through substitution,” Parker answers. What I really want to share with you is a different essay by Rebecca Parker, by far the most thought-provoking one in her collection. The title of it is “After the Apocalypse.”

When I lived in an apartment complex just down the road, I used to receive a postcard about once a month. It was a glossy postcard with one side depicting cartoonish monsters with multiple heads and fangs and claws and forked tongues breathing fire and smoke and the other side would have the name of a Pentecostal church and an invitation to join them for a free evening seminar at the Overland Park Convention Center, where I could learn to decode the secret signs of the apocalypse. I always thought to myself, “I should go to that.” But then, I always asked myself after that thought, “Now Thom, can you promise to behave yourself there?” And I always thought that I better not go.

This would be funny, except for the fact that a whole bunch of powerful people – including people who serve in congress, who advise the President on national and international policy, and who command branches of our military – fully expect that Christ’s return to Earth according to the accounts in the Book of Revelation is imminent. They predict that his return will trigger a cosmic holy war, an apocalypse. And some of these people would love nothing more to see Iran and Syria and Egypt declare war and turn the Middle East into a full scale nuke fest. After all, if Iran substitutes for the beast with seven heads in the Book of Revelation, then we get to substitute for Christ. And it is all so completely insane and terrifying.

In her essay, Rebecca Parker describes this idea of apocalypse and says that there is a liberal version of it. The liberal apocalypse doesn’t have the violence or bloodshed or Left Behind novels. To paraphrase her,

“It involves the idea of us joining hands to dismantle the evil empires of racism, homophobia, poverty, ignorance, militarism, and environmental destruction, and build up a land of peace, equity, freedom, justice, and sustainability. This version of apocalypse doesn’t contain all the chaos or craziness of the more familiar image of apocalypse, but it does involve the end of the current world and the birth of a different world than we have known today. As one of our hymns goes, ‘We’ll be a land building up ancient cities, raising up devastations from old, restoring ruins of generations, come build a land of people so bold.’” [Parker, 17]

But she examines these two alternatives and suggests something different. What if, she wonders… what if we were to live as if the apocalypse had already happened?

After all, we live in a crazy world. Parker notes that the City of Seattle’s emergency disaster plan includes this helpful bit of advice, “In case of an evacuation due to nuclear attack, citizens may ride the metro buses without exact change.” [Parker, 20]

“We are living,” writes Parker, “in a post-slavery, post-Holocaust, post-Vietnam, post-Hiroshima world. We are living in the aftermath of collective violence that has been severe, massive, and traumatic. The scars from slavery, genocide, and [misbegotten] war mark our bodies. We are living in the midst of rain forest burning, the rapid death of species, the growing pollution of the air and water, and new mutations of racism and violence.” [Parker, 20]

“How do we live in this world? What is our religious task?” Parker asks. If we see the 20th Century as the apocalypse, what does it mean for us now? What would that kind of salvation look like? Parker imagines salvation consisting of four aspects: truth-telling, memory, salvaging, and choosing guides.

She imagines life after the apocalypse as living among the ruins. To do this, to redeem the world in this kind of environment, the first thing that is necessary is “truth-telling”. I find this to be an interesting aspect of salvation, especially since it connects the highest-rated virtue, “Honesty” with the lowest-rated, “salvation.” Truth-telling involves simply being able to see the world as it is and tell truths about what it is that we see. What does it mean, for instance, that our church is located in an area of the city that is known as Shawnee Mission? What does that name mean?

Related to the idea of truth-telling, Parker suggests that we are also saved through memory. She calls on us to remember the voices of those who have survived devastation. To quote her again, “Without memory, society can succumb to war’s false promise…. We have allowed ourselves to forget what we know, what we have seen, and what we have experienced.” [Parker, 65] In particular, Parker is concerned with how we remember war, particularly with how we remember the effects of war on individuals, families, and communities long after the fighting has ceased. If we did a better job remembering, we would live differently here and now.

Parker also connects salvation to an act she calls salvaging. Salvaging involves creating an inventory of what is essential, important, and valuable. Sifting through all of the rubble of so many claims of what will bring us happiness, security, and transcendence and using our powers of discernment and wisdom to differentiate between false claims and true, between what is life-giving and what is life-damaging.

Finally, Parker suggests choosing and learning from guides. She stresses in particular learning from the words and deeds of those who have been historically marginalized. She informs us that they have discovered what it means to live after the apocalypse.

If I could summarize Parker’s ideas about salvation, I would probably turn to the poet Wendell Berry, and his poem, Wild Geese.

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

If I’ve drifted too far away from theology and certain answers and precision, please excuse me. Salvation for us is not a matter of the right formula of words. It is not a matter of orthodox doctrine. Salvation, for us is also not a matter of one-liners, and dismissive witticisms found on bumper-stickers.

Consider salvation this way: Imagine that we are living after the apocalypse. We are called to live amidst the ruins, to live in the aftermath of all that has been torn and scarred and broken. Imagine living in that sort of world. And also this good news: what we need is here.

So, if someone asks you if you’re saved, go ahead and tell that person that we are all saved.

If someone asks you how you can be sure, tell that person that like Paul instructed, you have worked out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

And if that person tells you, “We’ll see about that when the rapture/apocalypse comes,” you can tell that person that it has already come, and what we need is here.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

I Voted

Yes, that was my voice you heard on the radio if you were listening to KCUR 89.3 yesterday afternoon. I gave a "person-on-the-street" interview when I exited the polling station yesterday morning. Asked about Missouri's new voting equipment (I filled in circles on a paper ballot and fed it into the ballot box) I replied that my voting experience had been positive and I was glad to know that a paper record had been left of my vote.

There are a million ways to commit voter fraud. Parties and candidates can spread voter misinformation, telling voters that polling places and dates have been changed, or that eligible voters are ineligible. Poor precincts can be improperly supplied with insufficient or faulty equipment. You can "create" voters illegally and stuff the ballot boxes. You can employ the brute-force technique and physically remove ballots or machines before the votes are tallied, or change votes on the sly. But shouldn't we all agree that there should be a safety in place whereby it is possible to verify that all votes cast are correctly tabulated? How else can you do this without a physical record of the vote? It worries me that electronic "touch-screen" voting machines don't create a physical record.

Meanwhile, later yesterday afternoon I was in line at the grocery store overhearing a conversation about the Missouri primary. One patron said she was planning on voting but had decided not to after getting calls from candidates. "That'll show them for bothering me at home. And shouldn't it be illegal for them to call?" I was aghast. Asked if I agreed, I gave another impromptu "person-on-the-street" interview.

"Actually," I said, "I think voting should be required, a condition of citizenship. To promote democratic participation Voting Days should be national holidays and businesses, schools, and government offices closed for the day."

Monday, August 07, 2006

Summer Trilogy

Just a little blogging about my Summer:

Click Here to read about my travels.

Click Here to read about books I've been reading.

Click Here to read about the music I'm listening to.

Summer Travels

With the beginning of August I have returned from all my Summer travels. Here is the travelogue:

In late June I spent a week in St. Louis attending the UUA General Assembly and Ministry Days professional development programs. My time their included meeting with the UU Minister's Association Executive Committee (to which I was elected), having a conversation on growth with the UUA Board Growth Working Group, and delivering the keynote address to the annual meeting of the UU Christian Fellowship.

In early July I was flown to Washington D.C. to speak about working with faith based constituencies at the national Gloria Steinem Leadership Institute sponsored by ChoiceUSA. I stayed the weekend and visited with two friends from high school. We toured the National Portrait Gallery, Spy Museum, and took in a Washington Nationals baseball game. (I'll be returning to D.C. in September to perform a wedding ceremony for my friend.)

In July I also took a trip to Portland, Oregon and the Oregon Coast. (See the picture below.)

Finally, I also went home for a few days to visit my parents. As always, this meant a scrabble tournament with my mom. (I won 4 games to 3 but needed a seven-letter, triple word on my final move to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. This avenged the tournament loss to her last November.) Just call me the David Ortiz of scrabble.

Me in front of the world's largest fir tree.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sermon: "Universalism Today & Tomorrow: What I learned from the feminist Muslims" (Delivered 8-06-06)

Back when I was twenty-three, I worked at a hospital that served as a level-one trauma center and served the indigent population of Dallas. During my time there when I was a hospital chaplain I learned a helpful technique, known as a verbatim. Following a conversation that is provocative or difficult or unsatisfactory, you employ a verbatim to help you understand your role in the conversation better. What you do is simply sit down and transcribe the conversation as it happened, that is, literally, "verbatim."

The key to it is honesty: writing down what you actually said, not what you meant, not what you wish you had said, not the right thing to have said at the time (that you thought of only two hours after you had said what you actually said which now you realize was clearly not the right thing to say at the time.) No, you write down what you actually said.

Those of you who are psychologists, therapists, or social workers might have encountered the "verbatim" technique during your formal training, but any of us who are the type of people who replay conversations in our head could probably attempt this. You look at what is written on the page and think, “How could I have said that?”

All of this just a lead in to say that the sermon this morning is going to focus on one of these verbatim exchanges. It is a conversation I had about four years ago, that I still replay in my head not because I said something I regret but because of how fascinating and memorable it was.

It was my final year at Harvard Divinity School and I was taking a class on the Muslim experience in the United States. (I was also taking two counseling courses and a seminar on topics in ministry.) I didn't like the Islam class very much, but I did find my classmates stimulating. The class was about fifty percent Muslim with those students representing an astonishing diversity from black power, Nation of Islam, Malcolm X Muslims to Muslims from north Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, south Asia, and Indonesia.

During the class I sat next to a group of young Muslim women who kept hijab – that is, covered. I'm not talking full-body burqas here. The group of young women wore flowing, loose fitting garments and head coverings. One of them wore a veil. And they were there at Harvard Divinity School because of its world-renowned women's studies program. They were studying feminist theology and self-identified as feminists.

I should say that in the conversation that follows that those four women do not represent the final, authoritative voice of Islam or feminism. Feminist theory might dispute that any single person gets to be the final, authoritative voice. And at the time I certainly wasn't the final, authoritative voice of the Western world and modern liberalism, and between then and now that fact has certainly not changed.

To make it easier to follow, I've combined the voices of the four feminist Muslims, giving them a kind of the eerie mono-vocal quality, which didn't actually exist. Also, in the verbatim I come across as kind of aggressive, but please remember two things: First, I was out-numbered four to one. Second, more importantly, the educational context of my Divinity School (with five hundred students representing one hundred different religious groups and nearly one hundred countries) told us we would be tremendously stupid not to take advantage of this wonderful diversity of perspective, background, and experience around us. We were expected to talk to each other. Here goes:

Me: So, you are feminists and you keep hijab... some people would say there is a tension between those two things. Is it a tension for you?

Them: Not at all.

Me: Okay, but many Westerners have this image of Islamic countries as male-dominated where women are forced to cover themselves up.

Them: Well, the Koran instructs Muslims to dress modestly, both women and men. It is up to each individual to interpret what constitutes modesty. The burqa is a fundamentalist thing and we definitely don't support that. A lot of Muslim dress is based in regional culture, but the basic commandment is modesty... and the expectation is the same for a man as it is for a woman.

Me: So, let's talk modesty. What's wrong with the human body?

Them: Nothing is wrong with the human body. It is a good thing. Because it is good it means we shouldn't objectify it. Hijab is a way of refusing to objectify it.

Me: I’m not sure I buy that. If there’s nothing wrong with the human body, and it is a good thing, say it is positive. Hiding it leads to fear and shame.

Them: So, Western Culture treats the body positively, does it? Let's see: sexy billboards, eating disorders, plastic surgery. Maybe it would be more accurate to say the Western World treats the body immaturely, sensationally, or as a commodity. Would you describe objectification as positive?

Me: OK. So, objectification exists but I see that as a by-product of freedom. If people are allowed to dress as they want to, there will be people who exploit that freedom and don't make good choices within it. Its the price of letting people be who they are.

Them: So, you really believe women are free in Western Culture? The decision to wear painful shoes, or get your nose broken by a surgeon, or starve yourself is not a naturally occurring decision. Nobody chooses these things freely. And we don't see Western Culture valuing women or men for who they are, but for how they dress, how they look. And that divides self from body. How does a woman in the West know whether she is valued for her ideas or for her looks, or whether her physical appearance has prevented her from utilizing her skills? Women in our society know that their achievements are based on merit, not on points that get added or deducted based on hair-color, fashion, or body type.

Me: Oh, so your culture has it figured out then?

Them: No, but Indonesia has had a female president. How many of those have you had in the United States?

Me: But, you see, that worldview assumes the worst... that in a free society human nature will lead us to objectify, and judge, and mistreat each other. I don't buy that assumption. I find that it is degrading to humanity to assume the worst of human nature.

Them: That's hypothetical, though. Look around at what actually happens.

Me: But because objectification and oppression happen doesn't mean they have to happen. You might say that a history of repression and inequality means that we need to learn how to be wise in our freedom. Freedom misused doesn't mean freedom is bad. It means we need to learn how to use it better, which we'll only figure out if we are actually free to use it.

Them: I don’t find any consolation in that. Especially not when the system I know seems to work. And, Western Culture has treated the body out of proportion. Look at all the money you spend on fashion, on vanity, on expensive elective medical procedures, on makeup, on the salon. That is a sign of a culture that has completely lost the ability to discern what is important and what is good. You see the wrap I'm wearing: not tight, not restrictive. Shoes: comfortable. Hair? Didn't spend time worrying about it. That's freedom, in my opinion.

End of Verbatim...

So, last week I debuted this sermon series, "Universalism Today & Tomorrow" and I said that I would be examining three major stages of Universalist theology, and looking at what they mean for us today. I described how the earliest articulation of Universalist theology - Universal Salvation – insisted that all people would be saved. Last week I talked about how the doctrine of Universal Salvation, the belief that all people would be saved, led Universalists to approach other religions not with suspicion or contempt or condescension but with open-minded curiosity and big-hearted appreciation.

I used to belong to a Unitarian Universalist Church that displayed a poster which contained versions of the Golden Rule as it appears in their respective scriptures. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." "Do not do to others what you would not have done to you." And so on. The implicit message in the poster was that all religions in the world, in their truest instantiations, wanted the same thing.

In the 1950's a quite famous minister, Rev. Ken Patton, was the minister of the Universalist Charles Street Meeting House in Boston. Behind the chancel, he painted a wall size portrait of a galaxy - a swirl of stars. He decorated the sanctuary with the symbols of the world religions. (Our church imitated this thirty years later, displaying symbols of the world's religions around the entrance to the barn chapel, in the 1970’s.)

Ken Patton's term for what he was attempting here was, "the religion for one world.”. A poetic stanza of Patton’s sums it up nicely: "Ours be the poems of all tongues / All things of loveliness and worth. / All arts, all ages, and all songs / one life, one beauty on the earth." The message here was implicit: all religions point to a larger, more universal reality.

Some UUs even went so far as to make ourselves central, saying all religions are a part of us, or that we are bigger than any particular religion. A big ego trip, that is. We're bigger than Christianity - no we're not. We're bigger than Hinduism - no, we approach Hinduism with respect, appreciation and open-minded curiosity. Not bigger than – respectful of, accepting of, not against.

I've never cared for this "bigger than" talk. That I've never cared for it has, I think, something to do with my conversation with the feminist Muslims. Whether I lost or won the conversation is not the point. Perhaps it is a conversation that is not “winnable.”

What was interesting about it, what was so striking to me was the way it seemed to destabilize this Universalist notion of our relationship to world religions. This wasn't like that Golden Rule poster. We didn't say the same thing with different words. This wasn't like that portrait of the galaxy. Our distinct symbols didn't point to the same “universal.”

We are used to saying, "Hey, we're different than some religions, like fundamentalist religion. We're different than hateful religion. We're different than totalitarian religion. We're different than bigoted religion... but those are not true religions. They are the hijacking of true religion." And if you take the form of the faith that isn't hijacked, we can put it on a poster or put it up in our sanctuary.

But, in the conversation with the feminist Muslims, I was confronted with a religion that wasn't hateful, fundamentalist or totalitarian. In fact, it was thoughtful. It was profoundly intelligent. It valued human dignity. It encouraged equality and wanted justice. And it answered questions about life in society very, very differently than I answered those questions. In fact, their answers challenged my answers. They weren't trying to force me to take their answers, just as I was not forcing them to accept mine, but their answers challenged my answers.

So, what is the right way? The Western way? The non-Western way? A different way? A pluralistic mix of both? Like I said, answering this question is not the point this morning. It may not even be fully answerable.

But it does lead me to wonder: What else that I take for granted does not necessarily need to be so? What else can be called into question? There's a parable in which two fish are swimming along when an older, wiser fish swims by and asks, "How's the water, boys?" The two fish swim on for a while until one turns to the other and asks, "What's water?" If anything, the life of someone like Jesus or Buddha exemplified calling things into question that we don't usually call into question. Jesus told his followers to renounce father and mother and sell everything they owned. Buddha taught that this world is an illusion. Like David Foster Wallace’s fish parable, they remind us that we live in water though we are not always aware of it.

All of this so far today has probably seemed kind of abstract, kind of “heady” stuff. It might seem a little bit distanced from day to day stuff. (The third part of this series will be much more heart than abstract philosophy.) But, if you feel like this has been somehow distanced from day to day stuff, that is because we’re trying today to open up a wider view, a wider view that causes us to think differently about the day to day life stuff we find ourselves in.

I want to leave you with a passage from the Upanishads: “You could have golden treasure buried beneath your feet, and walk over it again and again, yet never find it because you don’t realize it is there. Just so, all being live every moment in the city of the Divine, but never find the Divine because it is hidden by the well of illusion.”

Summer Music Report

For those of you who wonder "What has RevThom been listening to lately?" I bring you a round up of concerts and shows I attended this Summer.

Yesterday I went to the Bleeding Kansas Arts & Music Festival in Lawrence. Death Cab for Cutie headlined and put on a fantastic show. The double drum-set solo and guitarist Chris Walla's friendly earnestness were memorable. They offered up a great version of "What Sarah Said" and brought a new power and depth to "Transatlanticism" as their encore.

However, I was most impressed by the set from Broken Social Scene. This 10 member outfit put on a lively and layered show, at one time featuring a line up with four electric guitars and two drum sets. Band members entered and exited the stage in the middle of songs and traded instruments constantly. Along with guitar, bass, and drums they also featured trumpets, a trombone, keyboards, a violin, tambourines and maracas.

In contrast Mates of the State consists of just a keyboard and drum duo, but played a fine afternoon set. I ran into keyboardist Kori Gardner later in the day and she was just a down to earth individual.

British rockers Keane, who I'd never really gotten into before, were surprisingly good. I'll have to listen to more of them.

Off the main stage, local band Davan put on one of the most enjoyable sets of the afternoon. The quirky trio seemed like Devo for the 21st Century. At one point, the drummer employed maracas as drum sticks while the guitarist opted for a triangle and a cabaca.

Rounding out the day, I also checked out parts of enjoyable sets by local rockers Appleseed Cast and Ghosty, as well as Langhorne Slim, Fourth of July, and Boy Kill Boy.

Other Shows

On August 3rd, after spending the afternoon writing my sermon I checked the early shows at the Pitch Music Showcase in Westport. I saw a great set from avant garde rockers namelessnumberheadman, as well as sets from the emo-core group Super Black Market and the Lawrence hip-hop outfit Archetype.

A trip home to Boston in July happened to coincide with a visit from the 6 piece Austin, TX band Sound Team. Known for their dense sound - at times they employ three keyboard/synths - the high light of their show was that their lead guitarist, Sam Sanford, was a classmate of mine and fellow religion major at Reed College. Sound Team was supported impressively by the frenetic Cold War Kids and art-rockers Midlake.

Other Summer shows included one of the final performances by Lawrence ska band Matfield Green (featuring SMUUCh member Cambria DeLee on trumpet), local shows by The Architects and my good friends National Fire Theory, and The Reverend Al Green down at 18th & Vine.