Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sermon: "The War and Christmas" (Delivered 12-17-2006)

The Reading this morning is Micah 6:6-8:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?"

Let’s try that again with a modern translation that takes a few liberties:
“The people were arguing about how to please God, which for them was an important question. One person said that we could please God by decorating just the right way. ‘That’s not the way,’ said another person, ‘God wants us to say his name in public and for God’s name to appear all over the place.’ A third person suggested that God would be impressed by displays of wealth in the honor of God. And a fourth person said that God would be most pleased if we sent our sons and daughters to die in wars fought in the name of God.

“But, then the prophet spoke and said that God doesn’t want us to do any of that. God just wants us not to hurt one another, and to love each other and care for the vulnerable. God wants for us to live in peace. God also wants us not to worry about right way to worship, because if we treat each other with kindness, God doesn’t care how we worship.”

So, the other week I was fixated on and pre-occupied with thinking about that Homeowners Association in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, the one that threatened to fine a resident for displaying a Christmas wreath shaped as a peace sign. News stories like this always come up (don’t they?) day after day, and week and after week. When I hear about news stories like this I attempt to live by a rule that I have for myself, which is that if you allow stories like these to jerk you around by your emotional chain, you’ve agreed to surrender some part of your sanity and your liberty.

And just when you think you’ve found the craziest “sign of the apocalypse” story, along comes one that is even crazier. For example, you read that the hottest selling Christian video game (did you know that they make Christian video games?) is a video game version of Left Behind in which you and your Christian militia roam through the streets of a post-apocalyptic New York City killing United Nations forces who are the bad guys. I’m not making this up. And after you complete a kill, your video game character prays in order to clean its soul. How insane is that?

So, every part of my sanity, every part of my best self, every inclination not to get taken in was telling me that I should not stoop down and add my name to the list of people who let things like this raise their blood-pressure. I was telling myself, “Whatever you do, Thom, do not get suckered into feeling like you have to talk about the so-called ‘War on Christmas.’ You don’t even watch cable-news, Thom. And your parishioners mostly do not care that a couple of ‘truthy’ talking heads have deemed that it is a big deal whether crèches or menorahs get displayed on town hall lawns, and whether people wish each other a ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays.’

So, even though I should know better than to go down this road, I will say that being fixated on decorations is called, in religion, “formalist” thinking. It is a kind of formalism to worry about decorations or whether incantations are properly spoken. Formalism is the elevating of the forms of religious expression over the content of religious action. With formalism, what’s written on the sides of buildings, what’s spoken from the mouths of officials or ordinary people, and what’s displayed in public are given more weight than how we treat each other. The Bible, time and time again, strongly speaks against formalism. The prophet Micah says that God doesn’t want us to sacrifice rams in a ritually pure fashion, or make a big show. God wants us to be just and merciful. The prophet Amos says that God is not impressed with celebratory feasts; God does not delight in solemn assemblies, but God wants us to “let justice roll down like waters and peace like an ever-flowing stream.”

In Unitarian Universalism, these same sentiments have been expressed through the years. The 19th Century minister Theodore Parker distinguished between the permanence of truth and the transient nature of all forms. Over the years, Unitarian Universalism has made anti-formalism into a high art, albeit in the form of ritual minimalism. Forms are powerful though, have no doubt about that. If you have ever craved ritual, you know that much. But we should never confuse the seductiveness of forms with the idea that God actually cares one way or another about them.

Accordingly, I want to change the preposition. Instead of the War ON Christmas, I want to talk about the War AND Christmas. If you just stop to think about it, combining a peace sign and a Christmas wreath is not exactly mixing oil with water. Peace has always been thematically intertwined with Christmas:

Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, who is called by many the Prince of Peace. “Peace on earth” is a frequent salutation on Christmas cards. And just think about some of the lyrics in the hymns we sing:

“And peace shall over all the world its ancient splendors fling.”
“O come, and turn all hearts to peace, that greed and war at last shall cease.”
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, from heaven the news we bring.”
“Sleep in heavenly peace.”

And if that is not enough, I should mention that “It came upon the Midnight Clear” was written by a Unitarian minister in opposition to the war with Mexico, which Unitarians widely criticized as a war of imperialism and greed. (I grew up in the church where that hymn was written and first sung, by the way.)

And then there is the story from World War I of British and German soldiers coming out of the trenches on Christmas Day and singing “Silent Night” together. I presume that this is why we have a German version of “Silent Night” in our hymnal. I must admit that the cynic in me has never been able to enjoy this World War I story. I am interested in the expression of religion that leads us to choose to refrain from killing each other for more than one night. I am also aware that the wars we fight nowadays will not feature the sides coming together to sing “Silent Night.” The Taliban and al Qaeda are not going to sing “Silent Night.”

To better understand peace and Christmas, we might look back to the first Christmas. Jesus was born in Roman controlled territory in Judea, at a time, it’s been said, that was neither spectacularly violent, nor spectacularly distinguished by warfare. The Israelites were a conquered, dominated people living under the imperial rule of the pax romana, “the peace of Rome.” The insurgency was led by dagger-men, known as sicaroi, who carried out assassinations against both Roman soldiers and Jews who were deemed to be too cooperative with Rome. Some of these insurgents were inspired by the apocalyptic religious vision of messianic Jews from Qumran, who gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were a type of resistance literature.

But, the point is that if we want to equate Christmas with peace, we can’t think of peace in specific terms, as opposition just to the Romans, specifically. Peace has always had a broader and more universal meaning. It has meant justice, freedom, liberation, and kindness.

An episode from our denominational history will help to illustrate how we think tend to grapple with peace. As the United States prepared to enter World War I, this subject came up on the floor of the American Unitarian Association general assembly. The moderator of the AUA at the time was William Howard Taft, a position he served after his presidency and before being named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It was on the floor of the general assembly, the story goes, that Rev. John Haynes Holmes, a pacifist, and Taft, who favored intervention, engaged in an extended and bitter argument about the morality of the United States entering into the First World War.

I like to tell this story as an example of how our movement and our churches are big enough to contain both pacifists and those who believe that there are times when war is necessary or morally defensible. May it always be so that we have this diversity of opinion. And, may we always be willing to engage with one another in spirited discussion over such an important issue, although we may aspire to a less acrimonious debate than the one in which Holmes and Taft engaged.

When the Iraq War began I was the student minister at First Parish in Needham, serving under the mentorship of John Buehrens, a past-president of our movement. Four months before the war commenced, I filled in for John during the week or so he traveled to Iraq along with a delegation from the National Council of Churches that included former-Senator Bob Edgar. In the Spring of that year, shortly before accepting the invitation to become your minister, I led a prayer service on the evening the Iraq War commenced. (Whether we call that the beginning of the war, or say that the decade of sanctions, enforced no-fly zones, and intermittent bombings and missile attacks were also acts of warfare is a question I’ll let you answer.)

But, in my nearly three and a half years here at SMUUCh I don’t think I’ve ever addressed the war directly. I’ve mentioned it in passing, prayed for our soldiers and for all those who have been harmed by this war or are at risk of being harmed. I’ve used this war as an illustration. I’ve also been criticized by those who wish I would have spoken about this war more frequently and passionately. I’ve also been criticized by those who say I speak about too much, or speak of it wrongly. My philosophy is that you preach forty times a year and you say what you feel called to say. You listen, but you’ve got to come from a place of authenticity and conviction, or else what’s the point?

And Christmas comes around again, and you think about what you want to say, and mostly you don’t want to feed the community something sentimentalized or syrupy. Because you know, you know, that you do a disservice to Christmas when you sentimentalize it. And peace, it occurs to you, is often just as sentimentalized. “Get real. Peace just isn’t realistic. It isn’t practical.”

Which isn’t true, by the way. Peace, and not just peace but pacifism, was completely, utterly, and totally practical and powerful and effective for Gandhi. Non-violence was absolutely, entirely, and completely practical and powerful for Martin Luther King.

And this war:
This war with approximately three thousand American service-men and -women dead…
This war with its tens of thousands of American service-men and –women injured, without counting the “psychological casualties”…
This war with uncountable Iraqi citizens dead. How many? 100,000?…
This war with its five hundred billion dollar price tag…
This war of which to say that it has devolved into a civil war would be considered an optimistic assessment…
…I do not see what makes us think that war is practical.

The recent report from the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group details the situation in Iraq. They describe a volatile and deteriorating situation, rising levels of violence, and an increasingly suffering Iraqi population. They also describe the American armed forces – the most powerful army in the world – as worn down, improperly supported, and stretched near the breaking point. If you read the report, it is surprisingly candid and heartbreakingly dire.

Bill Sinkford quotes the Quaker social worker Mary Parker Follett as saying, “We have thought of peace as passive and war as an active way of living. The opposite is true. War is not the most strenuous life. It is a kind of rest cure compared to the difficulty of reconciling our difficulties. From war to peace is not from the strenuous to the easy existence. It is from the futile to the effective, from the stagnant to the active, from the destructive to the creative way of life.”

How is it that we so easily sentimentalize peace? How is it that we so easily domesticate it? How is it that we so easily sentimentalize Christmas? How is it that we are content to reduce it to forms without substance?

I want to end today by sharing a radical and powerful Christmas image, one that is not sentimentalized or domesticated. Here I am paraphrasing John Buehrens as he paraphrases James Luther Adams and George Hunston Williams:
“When Orthodox Christianity speaks of the three offices of Christ – as prophet, as priest, and as king – the real meaning is more radical than even we want to admit. It means that just as Word becomes flesh, just the divine comes to dwell in human form, that each of us is called to take up these offices, what Adams called the priesthood and prophethood of all believers, the latter for the ministry of healing and the former for the prophetic concern for justice. And spiritually, the spiritual significance of incarnation is that it is the spark of divinity in each of us that is given to rule and command our lives. Caesar is not in charge, and neither are any of the other powers and principalities.”

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the Lord on high? What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Let justice roll down like waters and peace like an ever-flowing stream. Happy Holidays. Merry Christmas. Peace on earth, to all goodwill.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

An hour with our past

Thanks to the usually feisty UU Enforcer for linking to this video of an evening of dialogue between leaders in the UUA and UCC.

The speakers chronicle over two-hundred years of history between our two movements. In the early 1800's, theological discontent expressed itself in a controversy over whether someone theologically liberal or orthodox would be named the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard. A few decades later, the Massachusetts courts were ruling on which side got to keep the Communion silver (the Unitarians won!). However, these two movements which were so mired in strife and conflict have become more parallel, even closer, in recent years.

Watch the video for a humorous and insightful look at our past, present, and future.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Vern Barnet flattered me in the opening lines of his Kansas City Star column today. (You can find the whole column on his web-site.)

Can you get inside of someone else’s head?

This question came to mind last week when I heard my brilliant young colleague in the ministry, Thom Belote, discuss Postmodernist doubts about the possibility of understanding one another.

Here is a ancient Taoist story that presents the issue.

Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu strolled to the bridge over the Hao River. Chuang Tzu remarked, "See how the minnows are darting about! That is the pleasure of fishes.”

“You not being a fish yourself, “ responded Hui Tzu, “how can you possibly know in what consists the pleasure of fishes?”

“And you not being I,” retorted Chuang Tzu, “how can you know that I do not know?”

“If I, not being you, cannot know what you know,” urged Hui Tzu, “it follows that you, not being a fish, cannot know in what consists the pleasure of fishes.”

Chuang Tzu replied, “You asked me how I knew in what consists the pleasure of fishes. I knew it from my own feelings on this bridge.”

Wendy Doniger, University of Chicago scholar, suggests that the bridge is a metaphor for those feelings that connect us to others as well as those that separate us from others. [...continue reading]

I meet monthly for lunch with a group of colleagues. We take turns giving presentations on topics related to ministry and scholarship. I had been asked to deliver a presentation on "post-modernism." The above column stemmed from my explanation (lifted from a book by Michael Berube) of competing theories of communication: Jurgen Habermas believes in the potential of consensus in communication whereas Jean-Francois Lyotard holds that differences are "incommensurable."

OK, so what is the big deal? Well, in our current culture with its partisanship, its culture wars, and its extreme dualism (not to mention our world where fundamentalism and democracy clash) what we believe and how we think about the possibility of dialogue and understanding matters quite a bit.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sermon: "Anger" (Delivered 12-10-06)

I am going to begin kind of light and quirky, but then change the tone. A few years ago William Shatner, Captain Kirk on Star Trek, recorded a novelty record. It contained a spoken word duet with hardcore music legend Henry Rollins and the title of the song was, “I can’t get behind that.” Taking turns talking over a background of noisy drums, the song features Shatner and Rollins ranting about things that make them mad. In the song, Shatner rants about things like, “My favorite TV shows have twelve minutes of commercials. I can’t get behind that!”

“I can’t get behind that.” I am sure that if I asked any of you to make a list of things you can’t get behind, you could. We could all write our own versions of this song. We could go through life making a copious list of things that annoy us, that irritate us, that get us steamed, that cause us to clench our fists, or our jaw, or to mutter under our breath, or out loud.

Two recent news stories caught my eye. They both involve people getting angry about their neighbors’ improvised Holiday decorations. In Pagosa Springs, Colorado a home-owners association made national news when it threatened to fine a resident for displaying a Christmas wreath fashioned into a peace sign. The complainants accused the wreath of being a pagan symbol – well, technically-speaking, all wreaths are pagan symbols. They also alleged that the wreath was a political statement, and disrespectful of our servicemen and –women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But this wasn’t the only story of Holiday decoration controversy this year. In another part of the country – I forget which although I seem to think it might have been Arizona in which case I always chuckle when I think of Holiday lights in Arizona – amidst the holiday decorations in his sub-division a man fashioned a light to project – a la Batman – an anti- George Bush image on the side of his house. Apparently, some of his neighbors responded by threatening to kill him and others threatened to burn his house down.

Two comments: First of all, I have noticed that things like this tend to get amplified in December. Sunlight is less. The weather has gotten chilly and inconvenient. Vitamin D deficiency. And then, of course, there are the psycho-social effects of this season. Family pressures, perhaps. Obligations imposed on us: decorate this, attend that, cook for them, buy things for them – and do it all with a big cheerful Holiday smile. I hope it is not too cliché to say that The Holiday Season is, for many people, the time of the year when we feel like we’re not actually living our lives but are being forced to live up to others’ expectations, and that the world around us and the people around us are just imposing themselves on us constantly. I do want to qualify this though, because I do realize that some of you don’t feel this way at all. But, if anger is related to feeling like we are being encroached upon by hostile force, if anger is related to not feeling like we are in control, anger during the Holidays is absolutely predictable.

When I heard those news-stories about the peace wreath, I’ll tell you what my response was. “Give me a break,” I thought. People will get mad at the smallest things! Where is the anger, the outrage, at the things that really matter? Where is the anger about poverty? About global-climate change? About oppression? You’re getting angry about Holiday decorations. Holiday decorations? Holiday decorations? Give me a break! I can’t get behind that.

Last Spring I quoted a minister named Tony Campolo whose famous trick is to use an expletive in a sermon and then ask the congregation how they can get offended at his language but not be offended at, say, the fact that children are malnourished or the environment is being poisoned. The point I was trying to make when I mentioned Campolo’s example is that so often our anger is misdirected, misplaced. If only we were angry at the things that actually, really, and truly deserved our anger.

But, now it occurs to me, that this might not be the best strategy. Why do I think this? Well, let me just start by saying that I am sure that you all know that I am the perfect judge of what people should get angry about and what people shouldn’t get angry about, because my anger is based not on my own subjective experience but on objective fact. Wait a second. You mean to say I am not a perfect judge? You mean to say we all blow things out of proportion and spend time fixated and furious about things that might not matter that much? It is not natural for any of us to question the legitimacy of our own anger. We tend to believe that our anger is justified. Anger proves itself, legitimates itself.

In the reading from Pema Chodron we learned that it is human for us to direct our anger towards the things we identify as getting in the way of our happiness. It is only human to focus on those things in our experience that cause us to feel pain and to attempt to change, to reshape, to oppose, or to destroy those things. Or, as Pema Chodron says, we can cover our feet with leather, we can change ourselves, which does not mean we won’t feel pain although our suffering will be lessened.

Some critics of Buddhism say that this is too self-focused, that this “control-how-you-react” stuff just gives the world permission to walk all over you. I sometimes fall into thinking the same thing whenever I explore Buddhism. But then I stop and take a moment and count to ten and realize that things tend to go better for me and others when I can interact with others with compassion rather than anger or hostility.

About a year ago, my colleague across town Jim Eller preached a sermon on anger. In it he told this wonderful Sufi story:

The story involves a Sufi Holy-man named Nasruddin who knows a philosopher in the village who delights in arguing with him. The philosopher makes an appointment to go quarrel over philosophy with Nasruddin, but the absent-minded mystic forgets the appointment he had agreed to and goes off to play cards in the park. The philosopher arrives at the appointed hour only to find Nasruddin gone. He paces, swearing and cursing. As the minutes and hours pass the philosopher becomes increasingly agitated. Finally, he writes, “Stupid Oaf” on Nasruddin’s door and storms home. When Nasruddin returns, he sees his defaced door and realizes he had forgotten the appointment. Nasruddin sets off to the philosopher’s home. When he meets the philosopher he says, “My dear friend. I had completely forgotten our appointment until I returned home and found you had written your name on the door.”

The topic this morning did elicit interest from several members of the church. D. send me a small packet containing notes on a presentation he delivered on anger. If I can condense what D. says into a sentence or two, it is that while raging demonstrations of anger are bad, we often are conditioned to stuff or suppress or ignore our own anger. This tends to produce negative consequences as well. D. is interested in how it might be possible to express or channel anger positively. (Although I far from an expert in psychology, I might mention that the question of whether it is better to channel and redirect anger or resist it is a question that both psychology and religion have asked.)

A Bill Tammeus column from 1990 that D. included in his notes he sent to me talks about religious figures who approve of anger. Tammeus references Jesus’ altercation with the money changers in the temple, calling this display of anger “authentic and useful.” Before you think about going out and emulating Jesus, I want to remind you that it didn’t work out so well for him – and you’re not Jesus after all. Tammeus also quotes Aristotle’s teaching that if you get angry, it should be, quote, “with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way.” It’s that easy is it?

I also received a number of helpful resources from P. who shared with me a wonderful video featuring Pema Chodron as well as a book on anger control by a pair of cognitive psychologists. One of the learnings from this book is that it describes how anger is often expressed in terms of blaming, catastrophizing, global labeling, misattributions, overgeneralization, and demanding and commanding.

With “Blaming” you give up the power to change the situation. Assigning blame takes away your own responsibility and agency.

With “catastrophizing”, you magnify the significance of events in order to justify your experience of anger. “It’s the end of the world.” “A complete disaster.”

Global labeling – calling somebody a jerk or worse – objectifies the other person and conflates them with their actions. “Well, he is just a jerk.”

Misattribution is when you pretend to read somebody else’s mind. “She was trying to make me look bad.” “He is out to get me.” We misattribute when we personalize or ascribe motivations to somebody’s actions.

Overgeneralizations predict the future. “That person always says inappropriate things.” “He never remembers.”

What all of these things have in common is that they tend to distort the actual facts of things. In so much as anger leads to distortions, it is incumbent upon us to take great caution with anger – to understand that if we value thinking clearly, anger can distort and cloud our vision and keep us from seeing with clarity.

So far, I’ve been mostly talking about anger from a personal perspective. Anger can cause us to experience ongoing suffering. It can lead us to act in unhealthy ways. It can cause us to become like the ugliness we see around us. It can cause us a distorted perception of the world around us. But anger also has a community component to it, a relational component. It effects not only our own personal soul, but the soul of our relationships and community.

Jesus once famously said, “Wherever two or three are gathered, there I am.” Or, to put it another way, and take total liberty with this passage, wherever two or three are gathered, there’s a chance of some tables being turned over. Like I said, I’m taking liberty with this passage, but I don’t think it is a wrong interpretation. When two or three gather, there can be anger, conflict, and tension. When two or three gather, there is humanity… and there can also be amazingly good stuff as well. So, how do we respond to anger in community?

Probably we should avoid blaming, catastrophizing, misattributing, overgeneralizing, and labeling. There is a need for speaking directly, but kindly. To speak the truth in love. And the “in love” part is not to be ignored. Jim Eller’s sermon also contained this wonderful quote: “It is a true act of friendship to be able to speak truthfully and critically to your friend about what they have done that have caused pain… but the moment you take even the slightest pleasure in that criticism, it is time to hold your tongue.”

For the children’s story this morning, I took out a hand mirror and invited all of the children to make the angriest faces they could. I then asked them what they thought about looking at their faces with their jaws clenched and eyes narrowed. The children agreed that they didn’t look their best while angry. Perhaps that is a lesson worth remembering in our hearts.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Pulpit Exchange

On December 2nd and 3rd I traveled to the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines and their minister, Rev. Mark Stringer, was in the pulpit here at SMUUCh.

If you are interested, a transcript of his remarks (when he delivered the sermon to his congregation) are available here.