Saturday, December 29, 2007

2007: A Year in Reading (An Essay)

Preface
When I was in Divinity School, I took a preaching course taught by two Unitarian Universalist ministers. I remember the advice one of them offered: That to be a good preacher, much less a good minister, you have to be a voracious reader. The instructor’s advice continued, suggesting, if I recall correctly, reading (at least) a book per week in addition to holding a greater than average number of magazine subscriptions and reading the daily paper.

The instructor also recommended that our reading embrace a wide diversity of subject matter. If we only read mysteries or romance novels we better have congregations of people with entirely identical reading interests. We were advised to read fiction, non-fiction, and poetry; books from different cultures; classics and contemporary literature; and books on subjects we knew nothing about and in which we were not in the slightest way interested.

One day in class we were assigned to write a brief paragraph about the most recent book that we had read that was not assigned for an academic class. I wrote about the then brand-new David Leavitt novel Martin Bauman: or, a Sure Thing about the coming-of-age and rise to success of a young gay writer. (Leavitt will come up later in this essay.) The instructor responded that I might read something more "substantial."

I will admit that my magazine and newspaper reading tends to lag. But, then again, the preaching instructor said nothing about on-line magazines and blogs, which I do read voraciously.

My goal for 2007 was to read 52 books, to average a book per week. What follows is my year in books more or less chronologically. Click here for the full list.

Addicted to Eggers
When I find an author I like, I tend to read his or her catalogue of works in their entirety. In 2006 I read all eight titles by David Foster Wallace which included two novels, three short-story collections, two collections of essays, and an impenetrable (to me) book on the mathematics of infinity. In 2007, it was another Dave: Dave Eggers. In 2008, maybe I’ll continue this pattern and read everything by David Sedaris.

I approached Eggers in 2007 the same way I approached Wallace a year earlier. Wallace’s magnum opus is the 1,079 page novel Infinite Jest. In order to warm up and prepare myself, I first read one of Wallace’s collections of essays. Eggers’ most well-known book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, comes in at 482 pages. Was I ready to be heartbroken and staggered? I decided to ease into Eggers by first reading his around-the-world-in-eight-days novel You Shall Know Our Velocity! With a taste for Eggers, I moved on to A.H.W.O.S.G. and then his short story collection How We Are Hungry. I finished these just in time to pick up his heart-rending novel What is the What. Written as the autobiography of a true-to-life Sudanese lost boy named Valentino Achak Deng, What is the What is a haunting and deeply affecting book. Over the course of reading it, at least ten times it moved me to such tears that I literally had to put the book down and take a walk around the block before I was emotionally ready to continue reading.

How are we hungry? For more Eggers! I soon discovered that Eggers was the founder of McSweeney’s, an exemplary and experimental literary quarterly of contemporary short stories. I decided to subscribe; the first issue I received was number 24. I also decided it might be worth it to go back and read the first 23 issues. At a rate of one issue per month, I would be caught up within two years. I began in April and by the end of December I had read issues 1, 2, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 24, and 25. These collections of short stories and experimental writing by contemporary authors range in size from 137 pages (volume 1) to 463 pages (volume 22) although, as the pictures below will indicate, counting pages isn’t exactly easy.



McSweeney’s volume 17 (above) is packaged in the form of junk mail.



McSweeney’s volume 19 (above) contains several short stories, a novella by T.C. Boyle, and reprints of government pamphlets and documents (including George W. Bush’s dental records from 1973) piled inside of a makeshift cigar box.

I could write pages upon pages about McSweeney’s. Allow me to say that it is a treat to get to read brilliant, quirky, cutting-edge, experimental literature. While I can’t do justice to the 10 volumes I read in 2007, let me give a brief list of the plots of just a few of the stories.
● A story about attempting to find love written in the form of a diary of a character inside the Oregon Trail video game. (Volume 25)
● A young man trying to impress a young woman decides to play hero during a hostage situation at a fast food restaurant. (Volume 24)
● A lion lays down with a giraffe in Africa. (Volume 22)
● KU professor of creative writing Deb Olin Unferth writes about Deb Olin Unferth. (Volume 18)
● A history of suburban Sasquatch in Southern California (Volume 17)
● Pia Z. Ehrhardt writes about a southern woman contemplating adultery. (Volume 16)
● A haunting story in the voice of a precocious patient in a pediatric cancer ward. (Volume 14)
● Giant capybaras roam across Sicily. (Volume 2)
● Egotistical architects engage in intellectual battles… in Marfa, Texas! (Volume 2)
● Famous U.S. Supreme Court decisions are diagrammed as basketball plays. (Volume 2)

Beyond Eggers
In 2007 I did read more than publications from Eggers’ literary empire. In early 2007 I read Sharon Salzberg’s The Force of Kindness. An American Buddhist nun with a retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts, Salzberg writes accessibly about Buddhist principles. It was a treat to revisit her writing as I had heard her speak in June 2006.

I also opened up some volumes of poetry this past year beginning with a tour de force anthology edited by Roger Housden called Risking Everything: 110 poems of Love and Revelation. This collection does not lack for power. It is sort of a collection of poetry’s greatest hits. Just consider a few of the poets he includes: Wendell Berry, e.e. cummings, Billy Collins, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Seamus Heany, Mary Oliver, T.S. Eliot, and William Wordsworth. Previously, Housden had published short, popular anthologies with titles like 10 poems to change your life, 10 poems to last a lifetime, 10 poems to open your heart, and 10 poems to set you free. These anthologies contain the poems and then brief essays on what they teach. I’m torn. On one hand, the canonization of the major poets might make it difficult for more obscure poets to get noticed. On the other hand, poetry is not exactly doing so well right now and any attempt to get people to read more poetry is commendable.

Following the Housden anthology, I felt inspired to pick up a major poet I had somehow never previously read. T.S. Eliot came from a family of elite New England Unitarians but renounced this heritage, moved to England, and became Anglican. As a side note, one of my friends at Harvard got to live in the same dorm room where Eliot had lived a century earlier. Her door actually had a plaque on it, announcing, “T.S. Eliot lived here 1907-1908.” Incidentally, this same friend also briefly dated James Iha, the guitarist for the Smashing Pumpkins. When she told me, I didn’t believe her. So, she took out her cell phone and called him up. He answered as he was about to enter a recording studio in Chicago and I got to talk on the phone for two (awkward) minutes with a Smashing Pumpkin!

So, I read Eliot’s Four Quartets and The Wasteland. Reading these made me feel like I should be taking a college-level literature class. I found The Wasteland to be practically impenetrable and not much fun. Four Quartets, while also coded, is transcendent – the unfolding of a powerful mystical vision.

The Prodigal Reader
One morning in late February as I dropped by Muddy’s, my local coffee shop, I ran into my friend John Herron, a history professor at UMKC. He was reading a thick book with the image of a threadbare American flag on the cover. I recognized it instantaneously. It was Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. I told him that I had once started it, but abandoned it. He told me that there was no good excuse for that; it is a great book. I actually think I did have a good excuse. My copy was originally given to be (along with a $250 Amazon.com gift certificate!) when I concluded a student ministry at a church in Boston. I took the book with me during my internship year in Texas where I tried it out as poolside reading. This book is not poolside reading! And then it got dropped in the pool. I honestly don’t remember whether this was intentional or not, but on a subconscious level, I AM sure. If you visit my office at the church, you can see the water-warped copy for yourself.

There are not many books I’ve abandoned in my life: Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment when I was 15; Michale Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (twice); Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove; and Christopher Moore’s Lamb are the only ones that come to mind. All of them I mean to come back to at some point in my life.

I came back and this time I loved The Metaphysical Club. It is about the intellectual life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey and how these pragmatists were instrumental in changing the way Americans thought about freedom and diversity during the post-Civil War era and through the beginning of the twentieth century. While intellectually demanding, this book is chock full of fascinating anecdotes describing the changing thinking in the United States following the civil war. For example, they describe a court case involving a likely-forged will. Charles Pierce appears as an expert witness and tries to use statistics to prove the impossibility of identical signatures. The jury is incapable of understanding that math could tell them anything about signatures!

Around the time that I was reading The Metaphysical Club I also read two books by Christopher Hedges in preparation for a Memorial Day sermon. These two books work well together. In War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, Hedges waxes philosophical while also sharing details of his time spent as a correspondent during the wars of the last quarter century. By contrast, What Every Person Should Know About War is presented in a stark question and answer format that lacks embellishment, philosophizing, or descriptiveness. Each book is powerful, one for its direct simplicity and the other for its relentless humanization of such a powerful de-humanizing force.

Apropos of Nothing
Sometime during the first half of 2007 I also read J.D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey. I found is respectable but not spectacular. I’m completely at a loss for what else to say about it, as I can’t think of how it relates to anything else I’ve read or done this year. I suppose that most of us can make a list of books we think we should have read. Well, I guess I get to cross one of those books off the list.

Summer Fun and Summer Fluff
Now we come to what I call fun, summery reading. Back in June of 2005 I got hear Nick Hornby speak at the Chicago Book Fair. I had loved the movies based on his books, but wasn’t expecting much from the books themselves. I was greatly impressed by his talk and immediately set out to read his books. By the end of that summer I had read his three fantastic novels (How to Be Good, About a Boy, and High Fidelity), his one atrociously bad novel (A Long Way Down), his soccer-fanatic memoirs (Fever Pitch), and a collection of short stories he edited called Speaking with the Angel. In terms of interesting connections, my favorite piece in Speaking with the Angel is the immensely creative short story “After I was thrown into the river and before I drowned” by Dave Eggers. This was the first piece of Eggers’ writing I had ever read and a foreshadowing of reading to come.

This summer I decided to finish off Hornby’s oeuvre by reading all three of his books of critical essays. These books include two collections of columns he writes for The Believer magazine (published by Eggers’ McSweeney’s, by the way) and his book Songbook in which he writes about his favorite songs. I find Hornby to be as gifted a critic as he is a novelist. The Believer column is a simple idea that he makes fresh and fascinating. He begins the column by listing all the books he has purchased in the past month and all the books he has read in the past month and then writes a critical essay about them. The two collections – The Polysyllabic Spree and Houskeeping vs. The Dirt – consist of approximately three years’ worth of his columns. Reading these columns led me to add dozens of books to my “to-read” list.

Here is where we start to get lots of intersections between these books. Hornby has an autistic son and the proceeds from Speaking with the Angel go to benefit a school in London for children with autism that he started. (Half the proceeds from The Polysllabic Spree also go to the school with the other half going to a center for young writers being opened in New York City by the good folks at McSweeney’s.)

I paid particular attention to Hornby’s thoughts about Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a book written from the point of view of an autistic teenager, because autism is so close to Hornby’s life. I found Haddon’s book to be compelling, quirky, and endearing while also bothersome because Haddon’s protagonist seems at times to be too competent. I worry about its effects on the parents and family members of those with autism. Hornby’s review is equally as mixed. He finds the book “absorbing, entertaining, [and] moving” while at the same time he admits to being bothered by the protagonist’s ability to overcome his own severe limitations by the sheer application of will-power.

The rest of my summery reading included three books by Sarah Vowell and two books by long-time favorite authors of mine written outside of their usual genres.

First up was NPR commentator Sarah Vowell’s Assassiantion Vacation, a unique piece of travel writing about places and people connected with the murdered presidential triumvirate of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. I followed that up by reading The Partly Cloudy Patriot, a book of essays dealing with her complicated feelings about American history and being an American, and then her autobiographical essays contained within Take the Cannoli. Vowell, a regular NPR commentator and the voice of Violet in The Incredibles is one of the most quirky and hilarious writers around. Her essay about taking driving lessons from Ira Glass had me stifling tears of laughter.

Unusual Books by Two of My Favorites
Before it was time to go back to work in August I read two books by a pair of authors I deeply admire: A.M. Homes and David Leavitt. I originally encountered A.M. Homes when I read her short story “Raft in Water, Floating” in the June 1999 issue of the New Yorker. From there I went on to read her two brilliant collections of short stories The Safety of Objects and Things You Should Know as well as her conceptual, anti-suburban novel Music for Torching and her deeply-disturbing and graphic Lolita-meets-Charles-Manson novel The End of Alice. I discovered a new Homes title while browsing at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, Massachusetts while on the Coming of Age pilgrimage to Boston. The Mistress’ Daughter is a memoir. Homes was adopted at birth. Her biological parents were a sleazy married businessman and his underage mistress. In her early twenties, Homes was contacted by her biological parents. Her book is a rich reflection on identity, family, genealogy, and the rights of adopted children.

I first read David Leavitt when I was assigned his short-story “Territory” in a high school English class. That short story, about a gay young man taking his partner home to meet his parents for the first time, produced one of the most memorable and powerful experiences in my public school education. Years later, I picked up Leavitt’s short-story collection Family Dancing, his collection of three novellas published under the title Arkansas, and the afore-mentioned novel Martin Bauman. About a year and a half ago I discovered that Leavitt had authored a book about the life of Alan Turing. This book is a part of W.W. Norton’s Great Discoveries series in which well-known authors are enlisted to explain complex mathematical and scientific discoveries in a manner accessible to non-scientists. From this series I had previously read David Foster Wallace’s book about Georg Cantor’s mathematical work on infinity.

Leavitt’s The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer is an accessible glimpse into Turing’s remarkable and tragic life. Leavitt is particularly sympathetic to Turing’s homosexuality and advances a creative hypothesis about the connection between Turing’s sexual orientation and his academic focuses. Before Turing’s suicide in his early forties he had, among other things, developed a tremendously creative proof of the insolubility of the Entscheidungsproblem, led the team responsible for cracking the Nazi enigma code at Bletchley Park during WWII, designed the world’s first computer, and pioneered the concept of artificial intelligence. Despite being one of the 20th century’s greatest minds, Turing was prosecuted under England’s anti-homosexuality laws and soon thereafter committed suicide.

Despite the tragedy Turing’s life, one of the more humorous realizations I had while reading this book was that I regularly face the insoluble problem of mathematical logic known as the Entscheidungsproblem. Suppose I am sitting at Muddy’s Coffeeshop working diligently on my sermon and suppose I need to use the restroom. Rather than go through the hassle of packing up my laptop to take to the restroom, I might ask my neighbor at the table next to mine if they would be willing to watch it for a minute. So, I ask my neighbor if they are trustworthy. Logically, the only answer they can give is “Yes.” If they are trustworthy they will tell me the truth. If they are not trustworthy they will lie and say that they are. It is impossible for them to answer that they are not trustworthy because that answer is a logical fallacy. Either they are trustworthy and they are lying about it, thus making them untrustworthy, or they are not trustworthy but telling me the truth about it which makes them trustworthy. The Entscheidungsproblem (to simplify it greatly) deals with whether we can find out for certain whether a person is telling the truth or lying by asking them a single question like this. We can’t. We have Turing to thank for proving the insolubility of this dilemma. Oh yeah, he also played an instrumental role in defeating the Nazis and invented the first computer.

Reading as Spiritual Practice
The calendar turned to August and church work picked up in earnest. I began the new church year by committing to a brand new spiritual practice. The UUA publishes a wide array of meditation manuals, most of which are written my ministers. These manuals contain 30 to 50 reflections, most of which are two or three pages long. I decided to begin each morning by reading one or two of these meditations and spending a few minutes in silent reflection on their significance and relevance to my life and ministry. I know this is a simple spiritual practice, but it one that I have been able to keep daily without fail for five months, so that is worth something. The first meditation manual I selected was Amethyst Beach by Barbara Merritt. Of all the meditation manuals I’ve perused over the years, this one ranks right at the top, along with Jane Rzepka’s A Small Heaven and Nancy Shaffer’s Instructions in Joy. (In late October I mentioned this practice to Jane Rzepka who sent me a copy of her meditation manual. I’d already read it about ten times, but am thankful for her gift.)

I continued this spiritual practice by picking up Delights & Shadows, a volume of Ted Kooser’s poetry. Ted Kooser is the Poet Laureate of the United States and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. I think the word that best describes his poetry is “nostalgic.” For that reason, I’ve always found it slightly inaccessible even though he writes extremely plainly and straightforwardly. I found spending time with his poetry rewarding this time, because I forced myself to sit with it.

I continued my daily spiritual practice by reading meditation manuals by Robert Walsh, Mary Wellenmeyer, and Meg Barnhouse. Despite having written at least a half-dozen books of spiritual writing, I had never read anything by Barnhouse. Since I sat next to her when I received Final Fellowship at the UUA General Assembly in Portland, I knew I had to read her. She is a hoot!

Barnhouse occupies an interesting niche in the genre of spiritual writing. It is a niche she shares with authors like Anne Lamott and Sark: outrageous, quirky women who approach spirituality with a no-holds-barred, no-subject-off-limit attitude. I love this genre.

However, I despised the book by the latest author trying to join the club. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love was easily the worst book I read during 2007. In this book, Gilbert goes through a tough divorce and then sets off to heal herself, receiving a book deal to spend four months each in Italy, India, and Indonesia. Hers was not so much a spiritual pilgrimage as an exercise in selfishness. In India she agonizes about her meditation practice at a tourist-y Ashram but never says so much as a word about disease or poverty. In Indonesia she does do her good deed for the year. She buys a house for a local friend of hers. She writes her New York writing friends to raise money and together they come up with around $15,000. Her fifty friends are able to just barely raise the needed funds. This does not say much about her friends. If I felt moved to do the same act of charity, I could come up with the cash on my own, even though it would be a bit of a sacrifice. I guarantee you Elizabeth Gilbert is leaps and bounds ahead of me financially, not to mention the wealth of her circle of friends.

That is what bugs me about Eat, Pray, Love: Italy, India, Indonesia. I, I, I. Me, Me, Me. Maybe she can do a sequel in which she travels to Ireland, Iceland, and Indiana. How different a book it would have been if she spent a year in Uganda, Uruguay, and Uzbekistan! (U-U-U; You-You-You) Imagine a year spent working with women fighting for gender equity in Uruguay, doing AIDS prevention education in Uganda, and using her tremendous writing skills to bring to light human-rights abuses in Uzbekistan. Which of these books would be more spiritually-liberating? Feel free to argue with me here.

Sermon Reading
During the course of a year, I always read a number of books for the purpose of sermon-preparation. Here are some links to sermons based on books I read in 2007:
● Two books by Christopher Hedges deeply informed my Memorial Day service.
● I preached a sermon in September based on Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy.
● In October I read an anthology of Gandhi’s writings for a sermon on his life.
● In November I read two books about Mother Teresa for a sermon on her life.
● In December I read two books about Depression for my sermon on the same theme.
● Finally, I will end the year by preaching a sermon based on Michelle Huneven’s novel, Jamesland.

Four Books Recommended to Me
Every year I try to read a book on business. SMUUCh member M.L. gifted me with a copy of The Halo Effect, which surveys previous decades of writing about what makes for successful companies and shows how all of those books are methodically flawed. I found it interesting not so much because I care about what makes IBM or WalMart successful or unsuccessful, but because the ways of thinking the book exposes are traps that we all fall into in other areas of life. How do we measure success in church life for instance?

Another church member, E.A., lent me her copy of Grave Matters which was a great read. Who knew that the environmental impact of the funeral industry could make for such compelling reading? I continue to be amazed by the concept of the burial reef, in which a person’s “cremains” are mixed with concrete and sunk in an area where environmentalists are attempting to rebuild the diversity of aquatic life.

A third church member, T.K., loaned me Roberta Gilbert’s Extraordinary Leadership, a book on Bowen family systems and ministerial leadership. Every minister learns Bowen family systems in seminary, but these concepts are easily forgotten. I try my best to stay current by reading a refresher book every year.

Along with the entire Church Board I read Thomas Bandy’s provocative book Kicking Habits about how to help churches to become transformational. (Thank you, Ron Robinson and Angela Merkert for turning me on to Bandy.) For a class on UU theology I read George Beach’s Questions for the Religious Journey. The class unanimously agreed it discouraged them from theological inquiry.

Two Books I Recommend
If you know anybody in their 20’s and 30’s I suggest you buy two copies of Strapped by Tamara Draut, one for them and one for you. This book brilliantly describes the economic context in which today’s 20- and 30-somethings try to make a life, the history of how this context came to be, and a prophetic call to action. The book is a bit heavy on the statistics, to its own detriment at times, but it completely reshaped my own understanding of how my generation deals with personal finance.

The second book I recommend is by Ben Nugent who happened to live in the dorm next to mine when I was a freshman at Reed College. Ben Nugent’s biography of the tragic life of folk-rock singer Elliott Smith is sympathetic, insightful, and a worthy tribute to one of the 1990’s greatest musical geniuses.

Bear V Shark & U.S.!
The last word in this sprawling diary of books I read in 2007 goes to two extremely creative novels by Chris Bachelder. In Bear V Shark, the entire nation is experiencing BvS mania. The book asks the great philosophical question, “Given a relatively level playing field – i.e., water deep enough so that a Shark could maneuver proficiently, but shallow enough so that a Bear could stand and operate with its characteristic dexterity – who would win in a fight between a Bear and a Shark?” (It really is a book about mass consciousness, media spectacle, etc.) While reading this experimental novel I conducted my own poll. I found that 90% of people choose the bear, thus displaying a clear mammalian bias. I am a shark man. No, I will not tell you how it ends!

The second novel by Chris Bachelder is even weirder. U.S.! has a triple entendre. It stands for the United States. It stands for us. And it stands for Upton Sinclair, the turn of the century American novelist and socialist. In Bachelder’s novel, Sinclair is repeatedly resurrected only to be assassinated by right wing Americans. The book is an allegory for the dashed hopes and resurrected hopefulness of the American left through the 20th century. Brilliant!

Turning to 2008
Before me sits a stack of books I aspire to read in 2008. First among them is a debut novel Bowl of Cherries by 90-year-old Millard Kaufman. Ask me in about a week what I thought of it.

And, in case you are interested, here are my ten favorite contemporary authors:

1) David Foster Wallace
2) Dave Eggers
3) Nick Hornby
4) Marilynne Robinson
5) A.M. Homes
6) Chris Bachelder
7) Sarah Vowell
8) David Leavitt
9) Pia Z. Ehrhardt
10) Anne Lamott

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Books Read in 2007

Every year on the Sunday after Christmas I lead a worship service called "Cozying Up With a Good Book." The Church book-club selects a book on which they challenge me to preach a sermon. This year I'll be talking about Jamesland by Michelle Huneven. But, I thought it would be fun to make a list of all the books I read in 2007. (If you didn't know it, I happen to be a big-time list-maker.) One of my New Year's Resolutions from last year was to read, on average, a book each week. Click here for a longer post about these books. So, without further ado, here is my list of Books Read in 2007:
Key:
[F] Fiction
[NF] Non-fiction
[SS] Short Stories / Literary Anthologies
[P] Poetry
[B] Autobiography / Biography / Memoirs
[CR] Critical Essays
[REL] Religion, Spirituality, and Ministry

1) You shall know our velocity! by Dave Eggers [F] 351 pages
2) A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers [NF/B] 482 pages
3) How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers [SS] 218 pages
4) Risking Everything edited by Roger Housden [P] 155 pages
5) The Force of Kindness by Sharon Salzberg [REL] 85 pages
6) What is the What by Dave Eggers [NF/B] 475 pages
7) Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot [P] 59 pages
8) War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Christopher Hedges [NF] 199 pages
9) Franny & Zooey by JD Salinger [F] 201 pages
10) The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot [P] 27 pages
11) The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand [NF] 446 pages
12) McSweeney’s Volume 1 [SS] 137 pages
13) A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon [F] 226 pages
14) McSweeney’s Volume 2 [SS] 191 pages
15) McSweeney’s Volume 22 [SS/P] 454 pages
16) The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby [CR] 140 pages
17) Housekeeping v. The Dirt by Nick Hornby [CR] 153 pages
18) What Every Person Should Know About War by Christopher Hedges [NF] 125 pages
19) Songbook by Nick Hornby [CR] 206 pages
20) McSweeney’s Volume 18 [SS] 250 pages
21) Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell [NF] 258 pages
22) McSweeney’s Volume 14 [SS] 304 pages
23) Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero [REL] 148 pages
24) Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell [CR/B] 196 pages
25) Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell [CR/B] 219 pages
26) McSweeney’s Volume 16 [SS] 230 pages
27) The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes [B] 238 pages
28) Kicking Habits by Thomas Bandy [REL] 258 pages
29) The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt [NF/B] 280 pages
30) Amethyst Beach by Barbara Merritt [REL] 63 pages
31) Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert [B/REL] 334 pages
32) McSweeney’s Volume 17 [SS] 215 pages
33) Delights & Shadows by Ted Kooser [P] 84 pages
34) Bear V Shark by Chris Bachelder [F] 251 pages
35) The Halo Effect… and the 8 Other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers by Phil Rosenzweig [NF] 174 pages
36) Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing by Benjamin Nugent [B] 225 pages
37) Noisy Stones by Robert Walsh [REL] 50 pages
38) U.S.! by Chris Bachelder [F] 304 pages
39) McSweeney’s Volume 19 [SS] 296 pages
40) Questions for the Religious Journey by George Kimmich Beach [REL] 175 pages
41) Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30- Somethings Can’t Get Ahead by Tamara Draut [NF] 244 pages
42) The Rock of Ages at the Taj Mahal by Meg Barnhouse [REL] 69 pages
43) The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas by Mahatma Gandhi, edited by Louis Fischer [REL/B] 343 pages
44) Extraordinary Leadership: Thinking Systems, Making a Difference by Roberta Gilbert [REL] 184 pages
45) Admire the Moon by Mary Wellemeyer [REL/P] 61 pages
46) Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial by Mark Harris [NF] 181 pages
47) McSweeney’s Volume 24 [SS] 207 pages
48) A Revolution of Love: The Meaning of Mother Teresa by David Scott [REL/B] 160 pages
49) Come Be My Light: The Secret Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” by Mother Teresa, edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk [REL/B] 362 pages
50) Talking to Depression: Simple Ways to Connect When Someone in Your Life Is Depressed by Claudia Strauss [NF] 194 pages
51) Undercurrents: A Life Beneath the Surface by Martha Manning [NF/B] 200 pages
52) Jamesland by Michelle Huneven [F] 384 pages
53) McSweeney’s Volume 25 [SS] 198 pages

And, in case you are wondering, that equals: 11,584 pages

Homily: "Did Joseph Get a Raw Deal?" (Delivered 12-24-07)

Readings

The Gospel According to Matthew 1:18-25
The Gospel According to Matthew 2:10-15, 19-21

Homily

“Joseph got a raw deal.” At least that is how one member of this church sees it. For him, Mary seems to get all the glory and accolades. And Joseph? Well, Joseph gets a raw deal. Allow me to elaborate on how this man views Joseph. To him, Joseph is a praiseworthy figure. He is more trusting and more loyal than many men might be under similar circumstances. He also has a self-denying, self-sacrificing quality to him, almost to the point of being self-less. And, of course, we know that the child he raises as his own son turns out pretty well. Can a father get some credit? The bottom line seems to indicate that Joseph is a nice guy, and we all know that nice guys finish last.

Where am I going this evening? I don’t want to make this a battle of the genders. That is not what this is about. I merely want to say that Joseph gets overlooked, and so tonight I thought we would give him his moment in the sun. So, let’s begin the basics of the story.

In the four gospels, Mark and John make virtually no mention of the parents of Jesus. Matthew, from which we’ve just read, contains a birth narrative as does the Gospel of Luke, however there is even less about Joseph in Luke’s Gospel than in Matthew. So, those 15 verses from Matthew which we read earlier are about all we know about Joseph. But those 15 verses are enough to allow us to make some judgments.

First, we are told that Joseph is a descendent of the royal lineage of King David, but he seemed not to inherit the traits of David’s son, Solomon, if you get my drift. On Christmas Eve I don’t want to spend too long rehashing matters of private human intimacy, just to say that poor Joseph is emasculated in the story, what with hanging around to raise a child who is not his.

Joseph’s emasculation goes deeper than just the fact the Mary’s child is not his. Joseph’s failure to secure a place at the inn is a sign of his impotency. We can imagine Mary saying, “Hey Joe, go get us a room at the inn.” And Joseph comes back empty-handed.

Then there is the whole matter of the scene that follows the birth itself, a scene that is practically reminiscent of a circus. We should have this image – Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in the stable, with maybe some cows and sheep to fill in the margins. Instead get a parade: Shepherds, wise-men, Kings, angels, gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Poor Joseph gets pushed out of the picture.

I’ve always had a little difficulty identifying Joseph in crèches and nativity scenes. You’ve got all these figurines of bearded wise-men, shepherds with head pieces, and I find myself having to take a second or third take to figure out which figurine is Joseph. Who is the father?

The good news is that it does get better. The story tells us that the earliest years of their family life together involve them fleeing as refugees to Egypt where they live in exile only to return later once things have calmed down following the death of Herod. Joseph, the text implies, displays competency leading his family to a new land and making the most out of life in exile. However, upon returning and settling down in Nazareth, Jesus’ parents suddenly drop out of the story entirely and Jesus goes off to get baptized by John the Baptist.

That’s the story. We all know how for Mary and Joseph in the church tradition. Mary becomes a celebrated figure within the Christian Church, literally elevated to glorious (and sometimes divine) levels of adoration and devotion. A cult of the Virgin Mary, the Madonna, thrives in the popular practice of Catholicism. Mary is petitioned directly in prayers. “Hail Mary, full of grace.” Joseph does get made a saint, but he is clearly playing second fiddle. So, did Joseph get a raw deal? (The city of St. Joseph, Missouri is named for him, so at least he has that going for him.)

It turns out whether Joseph got a raw deal or not is not really the question I am so keen on asking this evening. Has anyone ever felt like just a bystander as miracles unfold around them? Has anyone ever felt as though things – important things, meaningful things, earth-shattering things – were going on around them, but that your role was more witness than participant?

I tend to see Joseph this way. There is this wild party taking place – Mary is giving birth, farm animals are causing a ruckus, a bunch of shepherds show up, a bunch of Kings and wise men show up with groovy gifts, a star lights the whole scene, a multitude of angels are blasting away on trumpets… and Joseph is just a wallflower standing in a corner.

I can certainly imagine Joseph’s ego shouting: “Hello? What about me? Don’t forget about me? I am betrothed to Mary after all? I’m going to be the father to this child you are all getting so excited about. What am I, chopped liver?” But, he doesn’t seem to have an assertive bone in his body. Instead, he just kind of stands there and smiles and wonders quietly to himself, when are all these people going to leave?

OK, so maybe this is not the most impressive religious insight I have ever delivered. But, I do wonder about Joseph’s place in all of this. I think I can relate to it sometimes. Things are happening, the world is changing, history is being made that is going to change the course of human events forever… and Joseph is just there watching it all go down.

I wracked my brain trying to think of contemporary examples where a son completely passes the legacy of the father. We are used to stories where a son tries to live up to the father’s brilliance, success, and greatness. The example I thought of that involves the son surpassing the father is Peyton Manning winning a Superbowl while his father Archie looked on. Take that and multiply it by about a million and you’ve got Joseph and Jesus.

What I am talking about isn’t jealousy. It isn’t the need for attention. Rather, it is about feeling like you have a place in the larger scheme of things. It is about feeling like you matter. It is about feeling like you have something to contribute to the world that’s worth a nickel.

And I imagine Joseph in that moment of Jesus’ birth feeling this profound ambivalence (or maybe even doubt and despair) about whether he has a place in the larger scheme of things.

But here is the amazing twist: central to Jesus’ ministry was demonstrating to people that they have a place in the larger scheme of things, that they matter. He would say things about the last being first. He would praise the widow’s mite, the Samaritan’s compassion, the basic hospitality of Mary (the sister of Martha.) “The least of these.” Jesus’ ministry took the “Josephs” who occupy the margins and corners and pulled them into the center of things.

And we’ve come around, full circle. Let us keep before us all those things that we do that matter. And let us recognize what we do matters. I know so many of you in this congregation give of your time and your energy so selflessly, whether it is given to our church, to boards and community organizations, to volunteer efforts. Let us not forget that what we do matters.

I hope that you leave here tonight with perhaps a newer appreciation for Joseph. Not some loser who doesn’t know how to make hotel reservations. Not some guy off on the fringes. Not someone written out of the story. Let’s bring him back to his spot in the midst of miracle and wonder. And, in doing this, let’s bring ourselves back to a place where we can be certain that what we do with our lives matters. It matters more than we can know.

Epilogue

Just hours after preaching this homily I received an email. The email asked if I was familiar with a painting by Carvaggio entitled, “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” In this painting, Joseph fills a very important role: he acts as a music stand for an angel. I think I was on the right track in my interpretation of Joseph...

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sermon: "The Future of Covenant in Liberal Religion" (Delivered 12-9-07)

Movie Clip

Before the sermon I showed the final scene from the 1967 film “The Graduate.” In this scene, Ben disrupts the wedding of Elaine, with whom he is in love, in a most dramatic fashion. He fights off the father of the bride, tackles the groomsmen, grabs a crucifix (pictured below) to fend off the wedding guests, and then uses the crucifix to bar the doors of the church while he and Elaine run to catch a bus.

Sermon

Before I became a minister I used to think that scene was very funny. Now, whenever I perform a wedding (and looking out at you I see many couples I have married) I always harbor this fear that Dustin Hoffman will come and disrupt the ceremony.

So we come to the final, concluding sermon in this series on “Covenant in Liberal Religion”, a series that I began in the heat of July when I broke out a whip and used a film clip from Indiana Jones & Raiders of the Lost Ark to introduce our thinking about covenant.

Over the last six months we’ve explored different facets of covenant: the difference between covenantal religion and creedal religion; the covenant of membership and what we promise to each other as committed members of a religious community; the covenant of the free pulpit and our obligations to encourage each other to grow spiritually. We’ve explored the covenant between churches, how churches are expected to relate to each other and we’ve inquired about larger social covenants: what we might owe to and expect from the society of which we are a part.

Today we come to the conclusion of this series. What I would like to talk about is the future of covenant. I want to prophesy – to name and claim and describe – the covenants that those of us in liberal religion may claim in the future. Throughout this series I have defined covenant this way: “A covenant is a set of promises a community enters into which expresses its highest ideals. These promises are not made lightly. They are held sacred and they are demanding. It is expected that these promises will be hard to live up to, that we will fall short, but that when we do we will not give up, but re-make those promises and go forth again trying our best to live by them.”

The other important thing to remember about covenants is that they are evolving. In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh and Abraham establish a covenant which, as we move through the book of Genesis, gets altered, expanded, broken, and re-established. In the Christian scriptures, Paul interprets Jesus’ death and resurrection as a signal to replace the established covenant with a newer one. Paul’s letters represent one side of an animated conversation about what this new covenant ought to look like. As Unitarian Universalists, we are a part of a living tradition. Revelation is not sealed. Our faith evolves. And so our covenants, expectations, promises must evolve as well.

Before I conclude this series with my own remarks about the future of covenant for us as Unitarian Universalists, I want to tell you a little bit about the movie clip I just showed you.

The Graduate is probably my all-time favorite movie. Released in 1967, three of its actors – Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katharine Ross – were nominated for Oscars and its director, Mike Nichols, won the Academy Award for achievement in directing. Plus, Simon & Garfunkel’s soundtrack brought us “The Sound of Silence”, “Scarborough Fair”, and, of course, the hit “Mrs. Robinson.” Their soundtrack knocked The Beatles’ White Album off the top spot in the Billboard charts. But, The Graduate is not a film that is often shown in churches. Seduction, adultery, stalking, and crucifix-swinging are not a recipe for moral instruction. In fact, the whole movie is spiritually and morally bankrupt.

As a work of art, it falls into a genre I like to call the “banality of American middle-class life” genre. The Graduate fits into a larger canon of work that includes novels like Peyton Place and the contemporary writings of authors like A.M. Homes. The canon also includes movies like American Beauty and TV programs like Desperate Housewives and songs like Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” and Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia.”

How many of you have seen The Graduate? I want to offer you an interpretation of it and then tie it back to the idea of covenant. The Graduate begins with 21-year old Ben returning to California from having graduated from an elite school in the Northeast. He moves back in with his parents. He is uninspired, stalled, and looking for meaning. At his graduation party, his neighbor pulls him aside and tells Ben, “I’ve got one word of advice for you: Plastics.”

Ben may not know what he is looking for, but he is seeking meaning in his life and doesn't find "plastics" to be satisfactory advice. As the film unfolds, the facades of middle-class life drop away and a banal, seedy under-belly asserts itself. Then we come to the climax of the film. Ben breaks up the wedding of Elaine to the frattish “make-out king” to whom she is engaged. He disrupts this perfect ideal image. In a stunning use of symbolism, he grabs a cross and puts this symbol to use: locking people within the confines of their conventional faith and normal life while he and Elaine make a run for it. Towards something else. And then the movie just ends – not happily ever after – but deeply, deeply uncertain. Just remember the look on their faces. “What have we done?” “Where do we go from here?”

I’m surprised they never made a sequel. What becomes of Ben and Elaine? We never find out. They are perpetually stuck on the bus, heading towards some future that they, and we, can barely imagine.

I’m not interested in wild wedding stories and runaway brides. But, I would suspect that some of you can empathize with the feeling of desperately running from the church you were in, just seconds before the doors were barred by some over-sized crucifix. And I imagine that some of you here this morning can identify with, after having fled from the church you fled, sort of feeling this blank stare, “well-what-next?” feeling at the pit of your stomach.

Well, what next? For those of us who are more established within Unitarian Universalism, what does the future hold for us? Where is our living tradition headed? What covenants will bind us in the time to come? Where is the bus going?

Last month I went to Louisville to participate in three days of conversations about growth in our congregations. I was one of twelve ministers of growing churches selected to gather together for these conversations and denominational leaders including Bill Sinkford, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, came to listen to what the twelve of us had to say. Personally, it was an honor to be asked to help shape the future of Unitarian Universalism in this way. But it was also a deeply enriching experience.

The first part of our program involved each of the invited ministers standing up and saying in a single sentence what the saving message of their church is: one by one the twelve of us stood.

Each and every one of us had no problem articulating the work of our churches using these terms. We each had a conviction that our churches – and our faith – had a life-changing and life-saving message. One minister stood and said, “Our church offers a life giving community in a life-destroying culture.” A second stood and said, “All souls are welcomed, including even and up to and especially you.” When I stood I shared our mission: through inviting all into a caring community, inspiring spiritual growth, and involving people in working for peace, fairness and freedom, our church transforms lives and those lives transform the world.

And so I wonder, I wonder what if we were to attach covenantal significance to the mission of our church? What if we were to frame our mission in the language of covenant, to say that our mission actually articulates sacred promises? Not eternal promises, because mission and covenant can change, but promises for right here and right now.

What kind of promises could we make around inviting? One part of that promise would be that every single person in this community has a responsibility, an expectation, that they will help to welcome people when they come through our doors, and help them to find a home here. Another part of that promise would be that every single person in this community has a responsibility to help people who are searching for the blessings of a liberal religious community such as ours to actually find out about us.

(Here is the way I figure it. The population of Johnson County alone is 600,000. Our church has 300 members. So, roughly one out of every 2,000 people – or one-half of one-tenth of one percent – in our county belongs to this church. Might our religion speak to one-tenth of one percent, two tenths of one percent? One percent? What promise can we make here? Can we transform lives?)

The second part of our mission talks about inspiration and spiritual growth. What would happen if we made that into a promise? Might we promise to engage in spiritual practice? Might we promise, whenever we feel burned-out, cynical, out of touch with our sense of awe and wonder, to engage in practices of spiritual renewal? Might we inquire of one another, “How is your spiritual life?” And if the answer is “blah” might we promise to use our own gifts to lift up others’ lives?

Finally, the third part of our mission describes the fruits of belonging to this community: a life transformed that responds to that transformation by working to transform the world. Do we, in our living, evidence the fruits of a transformed life?

Maybe, just maybe, Ben and Elaine’s bus drops them off in front of the Unitarian Universalist church in Santa Barbara. You have to use your imagination. Maybe the bus makes a wrong turn and winds up in Overland Park, KS where they are dropped off right in front of SMUUCh. Hey, it could happen. What would Ben and Elaine find here? Imagine it. Imagine them: they arrive looking rugged and desperate. They arrive confused, angry, describing a troubled relationship with their families. They arrive with some issues in their own relationship, certainly. And they’re kind of unsure about what they ought to do with their lives, although Ben knows he doesn’t want to have anything to do with plastics. None of us arrive here exactly like this. We all arrive here a bit like this, though.

What do Ben and Elaine find? It depends on the promises our church has made with itself and the covenants we’ve freely entered into with each other and the source and resource of their very being. In need of a caring community, do Ben and Elaine find a “Bridge over Troubled Water”? Hungry for a spiritual growth, do they find the “Sound of Silence”? And, would it be a stretch, would it be a stretch to imagine Ben and Elaine, someday, many years from now walking down a strange street, a street in the third world, where they don’t speak the language. Perhaps they have come to care for the scatterlings and orphanages and when they look up they see angels in the architecture. Maybe Ben and Elaine are now Betty and Al. (By the way, that is a reference to the Paul Simon song “You can Call Me Al.”)

When I first began this sermon series back in the heat of July, I described our covenants in passive language. The covenant had to do with promises of acceptance, tolerance, inclusion, freedom and choice. Recently, I encountered a quote that I found provocative. The quote said, “I don’t want more choices; I want better things.” Our new promises, new covenant, will be active. The new covenant will describe our promise to work for better things: Invited, Inspired, and Involved we promise to help you discover better living and a better spirit to the end of helping you make a difference in working for a better world.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Sermon: "The Spiritual Dimensions of Depression" (Delivered 12-2-07)

Intro. to the Sermon

Our guitar player, Tom K., helped me to work up a song we’d like to share with you this morning. The song is called “No Depression in Heaven” and the version of it I’m familiar with was recorded by the band Uncle Tupelo from Belleville, Illinois, a few miles from where Tom grew up. The song has also been recorded by Sheryl Crow. But the first group to do this song was the Carter Family in 1936. I’d like for you to imagine that it is 1936. The Great Depression had knocked the American economy off its tracks. Here in Kansas, the Dust Bowl cost people their livelihoods and their lives. Wishing for something better, people might have found strength in singing a song like this:
Fear the hearts of men are failing
These our latter days we know
The great depression now is spreading
God's word declared it would be so

I'm going where there's no depression
To a better land that's free from care
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble
My home's in heaven
I'm going there.

In this dark hour, midnight nearing
The tribulation time will come
The storms will hurl the midnight fear
And sweep lost millions to their doom

I'm going where there's no depression
To a better land that's free from care
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble
My home's in heaven
I'm going there

Sermon

“I’m going where there’s no depression / to another land that’s free from care / I’ll leave this world of toil and trouble. / My home’s in heaven. I’m going there.”
The lyrics seem to tell us to give up hope in this world; our reward will come in heaven. They tell us to accept our suffering and sadness in this world; they’re only transient and temporal. There is no depression in heaven. Needless to say, this is NOT the message I am going to deliver this morning.

While we may reject the other-worldly escapism of this song, we can embrace the defiance in these lyrics. Whether we consider the word “depression” to be a nod to a mental health condition or to the state of the economy in 1930’s America, we can find in the lyrics the empowering and decidedly bold statement: the present reality is not my destiny. I am not stuck here. My home is not here. There is somewhere, somewhere, where there is no depression and I will get there. I know I will get there. I know I will.

Each year on the first Sunday in December I preach about a different spiritual affliction, one that many of us may tend to face. The timing of these sermons is intentional. With the likelihood of added strain and anxiety around the Holiday season, added expectations, stressful family dynamics, financial woes, and so on, this is a time when spiritual afflictions tend to surface.

Two years ago this week I preached on Loneliness. (This wasn’t the easiest sermon I’ve ever preached considering the dating relationship I was in at the time had come to its official end exactly twelve hours before I was due to step into the pulpit and speak words of comfort to those who suffer from loneliness.)

Last year I preached about Anger. I had recently begun my discipline of Friday sermon writing at the coffee-shop I frequent. I remember sitting there with my lap-top and a book Peggy K. had loaned me called the Anger Management Workbook. The title of book was written in large, bold, angry red letters. Nobody sat next to me. People glanced at me warily.

And this year, sitting in the coffee-shop with books carrying titles like Struggling with Depression I got an equal number of uncomfortable looks. At first, I would turn over the book to hide the title, but by the end of my preparation and studies, I placed the books face-up for all to see.

A few preliminary remarks: I am a minister, not a psychologist and not a medical doctor. So, in this sermon about a psychological disorder and medical disease, I am going to try to discipline myself to stay in the role of minister and consider the spiritual dimensions of depression. Which is not to diminish the importance of psychological and psychiatric medicine – I am not Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch and shouting that psychology is a fraud – but I’m going to try to speak from my area of specialized knowledge. I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one in the pulpit.

That said, there are a few things I learned during my preparation. The first is that depression is tremendously wide-spread. It is estimated that at any given time, ten percent of the population wrestles with some form of depression. That means that if there are nine people in your life who are important to you, chances are good that one of you struggles with depression. A friend of mine in medical school who studies at the same coffee-shop where I write my sermons told me that they were taught that 70% of all people will experience clinical depression during their lifetime.

Another thing to remember is that not all depressions are equal. Claudia Strauss distinguishes between what she calls Depression with a capital “D” and depression with a lower-case “d.” The best analogy can probably be found in the language of 12-step programs where they talk about “low bottoms” and “high bottoms.” A “high bottom” is someone who is an addict but manages to hold down their job, remain stable in their relationships, stay free of legal trouble, and so on. “Low bottoms” tend to lose their jobs, wreck their relationships, and winds up on the streets or in jail. Similarly, some who live with depression are high functioning. They succeed in school and in their careers; some even excel. They maintain relationships. For others depression causes everything to fall apart. I do not mean to dismiss the actual struggles of those who function at a high level with depression. One of the books I read was the memoir of a successful psychotherapist who chronicles her descent into and recovery from a deep, deep depression. When she first goes to see a therapist she says, “But I’ve felt like this all my life and I’ve gotten along okay.” “All that means,” her therapist answers, “is that you have a high tolerance for pain and a lot of determination.”

I also was reminded that while mental illness has become better understood, and while the stigma is diminishing, mental illness is still stigmatized. Consider my initial impulse to cover up the books. Consider the worried, anxious glances I received after I decided to display them. In the interest of honesty, I have no shame in letting you know that from time to time I have seen counselors and therapists. I’ve also taken anti-depressants. In my thinking, you join a gym to improve and preserve your physical well-being. You turn to mental health professionals to improve and preserve your emotional and psychological health.

One final piece of learning from my study and preparation: We would never look at a person in a wheelchair or on crutches and say, “You could get up and walk if you really wanted to.” We’d never say to someone with Alzheimer’s, “You’d remember my name if you just tried harder.” But, with depression sometimes we do fall into the false idea that if the person just bucked up, just tried a little harder, just had some willpower, they’d be OK. Why do we slip into assuming that this illness can be treated with will-power when we wouldn’t tell somebody with a broken leg to “walk it off”? Martha Manning says that we easily fall into taking a “moralistic view of depression as a personal weakness and a condition under one’s own control.” We should see it a different way. Those afflicted with depression, whether they function at a high level or not, are heroic. To simply live requires courage. If you are without hope, if you see your life through gray-tinted glasses, if joy and satisfaction are always elusive, then to keep living and fighting is a testament to strength and bravery.

Let me work something out right here. So, I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one in the pulpit. As a minister my call is to speak to the spiritual dimensions, the soul dimensions, of issues. So, the sermon reaches an impasse here. If I compartmentalize my thinking, what does theology have to say to medical science? It is like saying that there is a religious meaning to Tommy John surgery, the reconstruction of the ulna collateral ligament in a person’s elbow. (Unless of course it is a baseball player for the Yankees getting the surgery, in which case, clearly, God has acted with righteous judgment.)

But, what if I don’t compartmentalize my thinking? What if we say that spirituality, prayer, faith, meditation, and theology DO speak to depression? There is some danger in going down this road. I don’t believe prayer or faith is a sufficient treatment for depression. But, allow me to say that faith and medicine can at least be in conversation with each other.

At a basic level, religion can be in conversation with depression in the form of religious community. In the book Traveling Mercies author Anne Lamott describes finding a church when she was in the depths of sadness and despair. She talks about how, at first, she just slipped in to hear the congregation sing hymns at the very end of the service, and how she just sat in the very back row and cried through them. As she began to make connections in the community she describes it in these terms: “I came to this church at the end of my rope. The members of this church tied a knot in the rope for me to hang on to.”

One of the books on depression that I read explains that depression involves neural pathways being fixed in such a way that negative feelings and negative thoughts repeat constantly. The book suggests that depression can be improved by doing things that interrupt these neural pathways. This can be something as simple as changing the colors of your wardrobe, adding a plant to a room, rearranging the furniture, or taking an alternate route to work. Five minutes jumping on a trampoline or five minutes on a swing can flood your brain with feel-good chemicals. Laughing or singing or listening to music can stimulate your brain chemistry. In church community we can make relationships with others who can break us out of our fixed patterns. We can sing and laugh and listen to music that pumps up our brain chemistry.

While I cannot underestimate the worth of community and the effects it has on stimulating positive mental health, it is far from the only thing about religion and spirituality that can be in conversation with depression. I have a friend who has a relative who believes in a more conventional Christian theology. This relative suffers from severe depression and entertains thoughts of suicide. At times he has said that the only thing that keeps him from taking his own life is his belief that God would be angry with him if he acted on the impulse. His relief is not found in escapist ideas of heaven. God, he believes, wants him to live. In our church, I suspect few of us would articulate this the same way as he does. But I think we can speak of having a holy purpose and a sacred calling. In this church we talk about our mission to invite everyone into caring community, to grow spiritually, and to become involved in working for a peaceful, fair and free world. For us, it is not so much about avoiding the chastisement of a divine parental figure. For us, it is realizing at a profound and essential level that our lives are not just our own. I am a part of something bigger than I am and you are a part of something bigger than you are. Your life does not only belong to you. You are a part of something greater. The world has need of you.

And there is more. There is more than the importance of church community as an instrument for our further wholeness. There is more than the mission of our Unitarian Universalist faith that calls us to live lives of meaning and service, and that tells us that we are a part of an interdependent web where that space in the web that we occupy is important and that we should bless the entire web of life through our living.

There is more. I cannot end this sermon without saying something about creativity. One web-site I visited listed people who suffered from depression and bipolar disorder. The list included Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. They all suffered from some form of depression or bipolar disorder. The same can be said of any number of contemporary artists, like Kurt Cobain. Of contemporary depression sufferers, I think in particular of Elliot Smith, one of the most beautiful songwriters of the last two decades.

These lives may be described in terms of beauty and in terms of tragedy. What beauty and what waste of life! What beauty and what waste! A couple months back I picked up a biography of Elliot Smith, a songwriter from Portland, Oregon. The biography was written by Ben Nugent who lived in the dorm across from mine in college. Whenever I play an Elliot Smith record, I am simultaneously thankful and angry: thankful for the gift of his beautiful music, angry that he took his own life in 2003 and isn’t still making beautiful music. What beauty and what waste!

But creativity and inventiveness are not the sole possessions of depressed artists. Far from it. I believe that the holy is found in nature; the holy is found in relationship; the holy is found in justice work; and that the holy is found in creativity. Our faith helps us to experience awe, to sense the holy that is all around us in nature and relationship and justice and creativity.

What I have found in my experience with depression, in my experience with those who suffer from depression, in my research, in my intuition, and in my heart is that depression keeps people from being able to recognize and fully sense the holy. And so, while religion and spirituality are no substitute for counseling and therapy and medication, that practice of being able to name and recognize what is holy may be a way of resisting depression.

I began the sermon by living out a small dream of singing. I don’t claim any skill or ability in that act. But it was joy to collaborate with Tom K. And it was joy to sing. And I suspect some of you will find joy in teasing me about my singing. Even simple joys can be sources of hope and resilience!

In this season of advent, may absence turn to presence. May despair turn to hope. May indifference turn to joy. May all those who suffer from depression, directly or indirectly, be especially held in community, encouraged by a sense of purpose, and surrounded by an awareness of the holy that always, always pervades our living.

Benediction

If you are feeling depressed, may you go forth in the knowledge that this does not have to be your destiny. May you come fully to know the treasures of religious community. May you know that your life has purpose and that the world has need of you. And, may you grow in awareness of the holy, responding to it with joy, a joy to receive as well as to give.

Bibliography and Acknowledgments

Peggy K. loaned me two important books I read for this sermon: Talking to Depression: Simple Ways to Connect when Someone in Your Life Is Depressed by Claudia Strauss and Undercurrents: A Life Between the Surface by Martha Manning. In addition, Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies (like all her other writings) contains significant insight about the intersection between mental illness and spirituality.

Tom K. & Peggy K. each contributed in many ways to make this sermon what it was. The worship committee encouraged me to explore this topic. Dan D. began the worship service by reading the opening words with his wonderful voice. Jan L. and Ruth S. moved us during the service by playing a beautiful flute/piano duet. Allen G. took the time to share his wisdom. Sarah P. talked with me as I wrote the sermon, giving me the medical school take on the subject and otherwise sharing her wisdom. Finally, thank you to everyone who trusts me to be their minister. I always, always learn from you.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Gossip Column: Will Thom sing?

If you are in the Kansas City metro-area this Sunday morning (12/2) make sure you join us for worship at the Shawnee Mission UU Church at 10:00 or 11:30. I will be preaching on "The Spiritual Dimensions of Depression" but more than that I will be making my singing debut. Joined by Tom K. on acoustic guitar I will be singing a rendition of "No Depression in Heaven."

"No Depression" was a country song originally performed in 1936 by the Carter Family. The song originally referred to the Great Depression. Over the years it has been covered by numerous artists. (Click here to listen to version of it as sung by Sheryl Crow.)

However, the most famous version of the song was the one done by Uncle Tupelo. This band, based in Belleville, Ill. and fronted Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, recorded and toured from 1987-1994. Although heavily influenced by punk-rock, Uncle Tupelo played country music in order to find success within the St. Louis music scene. What resulted was a brand new genre of music: alternative country.

When Uncle Tupelo broke up, they spawned two important groups. Jeff Tweedy would go on to front Wilco, an experimental alternative rock band that has since released 6 studio albums as well as collaborations with Billy Bragg and the Minus 5. Their 2002 album "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" would go on to make Rolling Stone's list of the top 500 albums of all-time.

The other half of Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar, would go on to front Son Volt, a band that would stay closer to the alternative country formula and record 5 full-length albums including the brilliant 1995 release "Trace", the under-rated 2005 "Okemah and the Melody of Riot", and the brand new album "The Search."

I can't wait to sing on Sunday!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sermon: "Is Mother Teresa a Candidate for UU Sainthood?" (Delivered 11-25-07)

Reading

The reading comes from a new collection of writings by Mother Teresa entitled, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta”. While the words of Mother Teresa below may sound surprising, they are not the product of some muckraker trying to discredit her. The book is edited by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk who is leading the case in the Catholic Church to recognize Mother Teresa as a saint.
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me, the child of your love? And now I’ve become as the most hated one, the one You have thrown away as unwanted, unloved. I call; I cling; I want: and there is no One to answer, no One on Whom I can cling – no, No One. Alone. The darkness is so dark and I am alone, unwanted, forsaken. The loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable. Where is my faith? Even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. My God, how painful is this unknown pain? It pains without ceasing. I have no faith. I dare not utter words and thoughts that crowd in my heart and make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me. I am afraid to uncover them because of the blasphemy. If there be God, please forgive me. [I] trust that all will end in Heaven with Jesus. When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my soul. Love – the word – it brings nothing. I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Before the work started there was so much union, love, faith, trust, prayer, and sacrifice. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the call…? [p. 186-187, I have taken the liberty to alter the punctuation because Mother Teresa used dashes in her writings in the place of distinct punctuation marks.]

Sermon

Earlier this Fall, Leslie G. approached me after a worship service (or was it before a worship service?) and told me that she thought the recent media attention that had been paid to Mother Teresa was very interesting, and that she would enjoy hearing a sermon on her. In the frenzy of Sunday morning, where ideas and suggestions are more likely to overwhelm me than inspire me and those offering ideas are most likely to be met with a blank, panicked stare, I believe I responded to Leslie that I would think about it. But good ideas have a way of rising up, of resurrecting themselves days or months or years later.

What Leslie was referring to when she recommended I preach about Mother Teresa was a great volume of her private letters and diaries that have recently surfaced. These letters are surprising. In them, Mother Teresa confesses that she carried out her dutiful work for decades and decades, all the while feeling the absence of God. In her writings she speaks of the proverbial “Dark night of the soul”, only one that lasts not a night, but almost half a century. She writes of God’s absence, which she felt to such a degree that she, at times, went as far as to doubt God’s existence. I will say a lot more about this later, but this, I believe, is what piqued Leslie’s attention.

The sermon this morning will contain three parts. First, I will offer the briefest of overviews of the life of Mother Teresa, a cursory biographical sketch. Next, we will consider many of the ways that people have reacted to and criticized her life and ministry. Finally, we will engage with the mysterious reality that so much of Mother Teresa’s life was spent in utter spiritual desolation and abandonment, that when she searched for God she found emptiness.

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Macedonia in 1910. She was raised an Albanian Catholic and grew up with some degree of privilege as part of a political family. The Balkans in that day were as violent and unstable as they were in the 1990’s due to ethnic and religious strife. At age two, she and her family survived a violent massacre that claimed the lives of many around her. Later in life, her father would be poisoned by his political opponents.

During her teen years, Agnes Gonxha decided to become a nun and at 18 she was accepted as a novitiate into the order of the Sisters of Loreto, a Catholic order that specialized in education. She chose Saint Therese de Lisieux as her patron and asked to be sent to serve in India. In 1928, at the age of 18, she set off with the Sisters of Loreto to serve in India where she would serve as a school teacher for the next 18 years of her life. Then, in 1946 on a train ride to Darjeeling, she had a mystical experience in which she heard Jesus speaking to her, telling her to leave the Sisters of Loreto and begin a new order working directly with the poor and the sick of Calcutta.

She spent the next two years working within the Catholic hierarchy to get permission to follow this calling. (In many churches, things tend to move slowly.) The new organization she formed was called the Missionaries of Charity. They lived among the poor and the sick street people of Calcutta, serving them directly. Their ministry was to the sick, the hungry, and the dying believing that all people were children of God and that God loved even and especially the lowliest.

For the next fifty years until her death, Mother Teresa headed up the Missionaries of Charity. Her order spread and became a worldwide movement with sisters in her order serving the world’s poorest and most destitute in dozens of nations. In 1979, Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize. She became recognized as a living Saint and continued her work until her death in 1996. In 2002 she was beatified by Pope John Paul II. Beatification means to be regarded as “blessed” by the Catholic Church. It clears one’s way for canonization as a Saint and those canonization procedures are still on-going as we speak. (Again, the point about things moving slowly in churches.)

It is intriguing to note the way that various people have responded to Mother Teresa’s life and ministry. She was definitely a figure of selfless humility and mostly did her best to stay out of the spotlight. She constantly worried that praise for her was really praise that was owed to Jesus Christ so she made herself small and referred to herself simply as an instrument of God’s love. She sometimes called herself “God’s little pencil.” Perhaps, in the absence of a larger-than-life personality it has been easy for others to project their own ideas onto her. She was neither a prolific nor an especially talented writer. She hoped her private letters would be destroyed, perhaps out of modesty, and later agreed to write books under the condition that her papers would be burnt. (Those who held on to her private papers didn’t keep their end of the bargain.)

To this day, Mother Teresa remains one of the most frequently misquoted figures of the 20th century. If you go looking on the internet, you will find all sorts of sentimental writings that claim her authorship. Most notable is a poem called “Do it Anyway” which was actually written by a guy named Kent Keith. Which is just as well, because it is a lousy poem.

But more telling are Mother Teresa’s many critics. Let me share three kinds of criticism that are frequently leveled against her. The first criticisms come from fellow Catholics, particularly Catholics who embraced Liberation Theology. Primarily Central- and South American, Liberation Catholics drew their inspiration from reading Jesus as a social radical and were also inspired by socialism and Marxist critiques of wealth and society. This school of Catholicism thought Mother Teresa was too much a part of the establishment. Her ministry, they said, amounted to treating cancer with a band-aid. They were calling for a radical reshaping of the social and economic order and thought that direct care of the poor and hungry without addressing the underlying reasons for poverty and hunger was in error.

Mother Teresa was also criticized by those outside of Catholicism. These criticisms came from extreme secularists as well as from religious liberals, and while these criticisms frequently overlap, they are distinct as well.

Leading the charge of the extreme secularists is Christopher Hitchens. Immediately following Mother Teresa’s death, he released a book that was a harsh screed against Mother Teresa. The book carried the tasteless title, The Missionary Position. But the book actually raised a number of important questions, ranging from the quality of medicine and medical ethics practiced in the hospitals Mother Teresa built, to questions about how Mother Teresa raised and used funds, to larger questions about how Catholic doctrine influenced for the worse her care for poor. A full decade later, Hitchens was still at it. In his most recent book about why religion is evil, the best-seller God is not Great, Hitchens finds three opportunities to take further shots at Mother Teresa.

His two most legitimate points of critique involve her flying to Ireland to speak in support of a law that would outlaw divorce, and her quixotic and harmful attempts to improve public health while simultaneously teaching that contraception is immoral. (Is it really unreasonable to suggest that the victim of domestic violence should be able to leave her spouse, or that condom use should be encouraged to stem the spread of AIDS across the Indian sub-continent?)

Religious liberals have also found opportunity to criticize Mother Teresa. After all, she chose to devote her entire Nobel Prize acceptance speech to condemning abortion. While not all religious liberals can be labeled as “pro-choice”, I am confident that most would be able to imagine situations in which abortion would be the best outcome of an unfortunate situation. And few of us would take seriously her claim that, quote, “Abortion is the greatest destroyer of peace.”

Religious liberals should also take issue with Mother Teresa’s adherence to Catholic doctrine on the issue of contraception. When AIDS is spreading rampantly, it is bad health policy following from bad theology to teach that condoms are evil.

We can debate and deliberate these matters as much as we like. We can weigh her decades upon decades of brave, self-forgetting service in the slums of Calcutta against our concern with aspects of Catholic teaching and criticisms of Mother Teresa’s method. We can do this. But, there is no chance Leslie G. would be asking me to give a sermon on Mother Teresa if not for what came to light months ago in her letters and private writings.

What do we do with a Saint who loses her faith? What do we make out of someone who spent her life surrounded with people with leprosy, tuberculosis, festering wounds… what do we make out of someone who willingly chose poverty and despair at its most extreme levels in order to live according to a faith that so often wasn’t there? And why does this appeal to us as Unitarian Universalists?

I think we often fall into the trap of assuming things about other people’s faith lives and belief systems that aren’t exactly representative of the reality of their faith lives and belief systems. For example, while we are the only Unitarian Universalist church in Johnson County, we are far from the largest Unitarian Universalist church in Johnson County. I would wager that there are more people who are theologically Unitarian Universalist at Adam Hamilton’s Church of the Resurrection in Leawood than there are here. And there are probably more people who are theologically Unitarian Universalist at many of the UCC churches in our area than we claim as members of our church.

But what about religious leaders? I think we tend to assume that religious leaders of such a magnitude as Mother Teresa are either completely convinced of their religious convictions or are charlatans and fakers. Whether we are talking about the Pope or the President of the UUA, the Dalai Lama or Jerry Johnston we tend to believe in this all-or-nothing stance. So, what do we do with Mother Teresa?

As we move towards the conclusion of this sermon, let me say just a few words about her crisis of faith. In the tradition of mystical spirituality, the hidden divine who refuses to be known or comprehended is actually a common occurrence. In religious scholarship this is known as “apophaticism.” A mysticism of God’s inability to be known. The proverbial “dark night of the soul” is also a familiar concept. In our own Building Your Own Theology class we talk not only of peak religious experiences – “I have been to mountaintop” – but also “valley” religious experiences, the development of faith that occurs in the depths of grief and agony.

But, in the case of Mother Teresa, my goodness, that is one deep valley. That is one long stretch to feel the absence of God.

The title I gave this sermon, “Is Mother Teresa a Candidate for UU Sainthood?” is a tongue-in-cheek title. But, perhaps what was so appealing and even inspiring to some of us about Mother Teresa’s secret writings is the fact that someone can express doubt about the divine and still continue to live out their faith in a passionate way.

Maybe that is the lesson for us to take away with us this morning: we are not the only faith that leaves room for doubt, that can truly say, in the words of a popular reading from our hymnal that we should “cherish our doubts, for doubt is the attendant to truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge and it is the servant of discovery.”

Those confidential letters by Mother Teresa humanized her for me. I found myself able to empathize with her in a way I had never been able to before. All of sudden, Mother Teresa was not this angel on earth. She was not some larger than life abstraction. She was someone I could stand in the same room with. She was human. Just like us. Just like us. In Unitarian Universalism, we speak of the “Prophethood of all Believers” by which we mean the potential sainthood of all souls. I am deeply thankful for this reminder of human-ness in a life we might think of as so ethereal. How grand is that mixture of humanity and divinity!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sermon: "Do we Still Have a Social Covenant?" (Delivered 11-18-07)

Call to Worship

With Thanksgiving coming later this week, let us begin the service this week by thinking back to the Pilgrims. In 1620, the Mayflower anchored off the shore of Cape Cod. Aboard the ship, the passengers agreed upon a set of laws that would govern them and they called this “The Mayflower Compact.” The Compact was written in the tradition of covenant, which, the Puritans believed, existed not only between God and humankind, but also between human beings. Part of the Mayflower Compact read as such:
“[We] solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance… and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices… as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”
It may be appropriate to say that our nation began with an idea of covenant, and, more than that, with an idea that we each have a sacred responsibility to the civil body politic, to the general welfare of all. This morning we will wonder whether this can truly be said of our nation today. Do we have a social covenant anymore? Let us discern and discover together. Let us worship together.


Movie Clip
Before the sermon, I showed a film clip from “Sicko”, Michael Moore’s powerful documentary about the dark side of the American health care system. The clip I chose to show was of a hospital in California that practiced “patient-dumping.” Patient-dumping involves putting patients who are not profitable or unable to pay in a taxi and sending them to be dropped off near a homeless shelter. Following the footage, Moore’s voice breaks in and asks, “Who are we?... It has been said that you can tell the character of a nation by how it treats its most needy.”



Sermon

Who are we? Who are we?

I have my own “Michael Moore” story. In the summer of 2001 I worked for Parkland Hospital in Dallas, a large county hospital that served the indigent of that city. Think of Truman Hospital here in Kansas City and you’ll get the idea. To this day, I consider the emergency waiting room of Parkland Hospital to be the scariest place I have ever visited on Earth. On account of its air-conditioning and free drinking fountain, it was actually a favored place for many of Dallas’ homeless. Imagine being so bad off that you would choose to spend the day in a hospital emergency waiting room. I have no idea if Parkland practiced “patient-dumping.” In fact, I met many of the head administrators of the hospital and found them honorable and decent human beings. But, anyone who spent any time around Parkland Hospital knew that many patients left walking, or limping on crutches, or sometimes in wheelchairs – and sometimes in hospital gowns – to cross a six-lane street and wander a few blocks down Harry Hines Blvd. to the homeless shelters of Dallas. So, even if you think of Michael Moore as being someone with a flair for the sensational, in this case I have with my own two eyes seen something comparable to what he shows happen on a daily basis.

This sermon is the fifth in a six-sermon series on “Covenant in Liberal Religion.” In July we explored the difference between a creed and a covenant, between creedal religion and covenantal religion. In August we examined the covenant of membership, of what we promise to one another as members of this church. In September, we talked about the covenant of the free pulpit and the free pew as essential elements of free religion and we also explored what covenants we shared to encourage one another to grow spiritually. In October, I preached on the covenant that exists between churches. But this morning, I want to expand our idea about covenant; I want to talk about covenants that are larger than those that we share with the people of this church or this faith.

The ancient Greek word for city is “polis.” “Pi – Omicron – Lambda – Iota – Sigma. From which we derive the word, “politics.” A politician, then, is one who helps to govern the city. The word political means “having to do with the city.”

So, if we were to ask the question, “should a church be political?” we would really be asking, should a church have anything to do with the city? And, let me expand this a little bit. In Ancient Greece, if I remember my humanities classes correctly, there was not really a concept of nation. Greece was a consortium of city-states. The city, the polis, was the largest grouping of human beings. In the Trojan War, Athens goes to war with Troy. That may seem like Atlanta going to war with Tallahassee – but cities were considered to be their own sovereign states.

If we say that the church should not be political, we are saying that it should have nothing to do with the city around it, or the nation around it. Which is an idea I completely, and absolutely, and resoundingly reject. Emphatically reject. Being political has very little to do with endorsing candidates. It has to do with claiming a voice in the city in which we live, the state, and the nation. It has to do with answering the question, “Who are we?” This is a religious question if ever there was one.

The aspect of covenant we are talking about this morning is “social covenant.” A covenant, I remind you, is a set of serious and abiding promises into which we enter with the whole of our beings. These promises are so serious and so demanding that it is accepted that we will never fully live up to those promises – we will fail them – but that when we do we will re-enter into the covenant, do our best to live up to it knowing we can never perfectly live it out.

The idea of social covenant, or contract, or compact, has two roots. One root is the Enlightenment. Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, to name just a few, articulated ideas about social covenant. For Hobbes, our lives were nasty, brutish, and short and so there was a great need for social covenant to keep us from being our natural nasty and brutish selves. French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a book called Social Contract, in which he asserted the idea that a kind of democratic socialism was the best way to protect individual freedom.

But, the other root of social covenant is Biblical. When the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower composed and signed the Mayflower Compact, they understood themselves as acting within the tradition of Biblical covenant. When they wrote of covenanting to combine themselves into a “general body politic” for their own better ordering and general good, they imagined themselves fulfilling a religious commandment. Of course, it should be noted that it was the 41 men aboard the Mayflower and none of the women who signed their names to the covenant. And, the covenant included only them, and not the Native Americans whose land they were about to set foot upon.

In the Biblical tradition, it is the Hebrew prophets who most passionately speak to an enlarged sense of social covenant. Some of the most well-known prophets call for justice in the community. Amos speaks against the practice of making the measure of wheat great and the shekel small, dealing in dishonest measures. He declares, “You shall not buy the needy for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals.”

Micah famously claims that the Lord is not impressed with ostentatious demonstrations of wealth, or fancy sacrifices, or showy piety. Rather, according to Micah, the Lord commands simply that we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

The prophets did not just speak about how to treat one another within a given community. They also called for justice between nations. Isaiah calls for “swords to be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war anymore.” And, I cannot recall who said it, but I think to a more contemporary elaboration on Isaiah’s words that after we have beaten our swords into ploughshares, we shall beat our ploughshares into kettles so that if we ever have need of swords we will first have to beat our kettles back into ploughshares before we beat them into swords.

Whether we derive the idea of social covenant and compact from Enlightenment philosophy or Biblical roots, I want to say a few words about what social covenant might exist for us today. Numerous social and political commentators have talked about the decline, even the death of social covenant. Looking at employment, they point to the decline of job security, pensions, health care benefits, benefits like maternity leave or child care, as well as the lack of a general sense of loyalty between employee and employer. In the governmental sector, they point to the weakening of the safety net, the abolishing of state and national programs to help the neediest and most vulnerable in society. In education, they point to the disappearance of music and arts in many schools and the declining investment in teachers. How many of you have had to do private fundraising to keep a music program or club alive?

I am thankful to have grown up in a phenomenal public school system, the result of living in an economically bifurcated town in which half the town had tremendous wealth and the other half was a mix of working class and lower-paid professionals who together had the voting power to keep taxes high. The town had some of the highest taxes in the whole state. But my second grade teacher had a Ph. D in education. My high school English teacher had a Ph.D. in English literature from Stanford. My high school biology teacher had a Ph.D. in biology. My American history teacher had published articles about Native American history in scholarly journals. Six-figure salaries for public school teachers were not unheard of. When I think of social covenant that works, I think of my public school education. Which was not perfect. I remember that we were a school system that was part of the larger Boston area’s bussing program, which brought underprivileged students from the inner city to school systems such as the one I went to. I remember one year they decided to cut the late bus, which meant students from the inner city would not be able to participate in after-school sports, clubs, and other activities. In response to the threat of this cut, a large team of teachers collected pledges and ran the New York City marathon in order to keep the bus available to all students.

This story is inspiring, and at the same time, a bit troubling. Who are we? Are we a society that turns to bake sales to buy textbooks? That turns to garage sales to pay medical bills? That sends the sick away in taxis to be dropped off somewhere else? Who are we?

Last week, my colleague Peter Luton from Bellevue, Washington shared with me a wonderful story that illustrates the idea of social covenant.
The story involves a milk man in a small town who earns his living by going door to door each morning with a large jug of milk. For lunch, he stops in a sunny clearing and sets his jug on a rock while he unpacks his humble lunch of bread and hard cheese.

One day, the goat herder came by as the milk man was having his lunch. The milk man hollered a greeting which spooked one of the goats which sprang upon the rock and knocked the jug over, shattering it and spilling its contents. Not only would the milk man lose the rest of his day’s wages, but it might take up to a month to fashion another jug. How would he live without a month’s income? The milk man demanded the goat herder sell his goats to pay for the milk man’s losses. The goat herder responded that to do so would bankrupt him.

The two men went to the village judge. After hearing both of them plead their cases, the judge declared that is was neither the fault of the goat herder nor the fault of the milk man. To truly find out whose fault it was, he would hold a trial between the goat and rock. The judge sent his bailiffs to bring forward the goat and the rock. The goat came fairly easily. It took twenty bailiffs to carry the rock.

Soon, word of the trial spread throughout the village. The trial was to be held in the town center, and by the next day all of the townspeople had come to witness the spectacle of such a ridiculous trial. The judge ordered his bailiffs to seal all of the gates to the town center, trapping everyone inside. Then the judge spoke. “You have come to see a trial between a rock and a goat, which is a foolish thing. Thus, you have come to see me make a fool out of myself. The only fair judgment is to fine each of you a few coins for ‘improper thoughts.’” The money was given to the milk man who was able to purchase a new jug and continue his work.
We are entering an election cycle. We are a little more than 11 months away from a Presidential election, along with a whole slate of national, state, and local candidates. I would encourage you all, at minimum, to explore your religious convictions. How does the idea of social covenant speak to you? I would encourage you to pay attention to which candidates express a vision of a social covenant. How do they answer the question, “Who are we?” Better yet, I call on you to demand of them an answer to this question: Who are we? and Who ought we to become?

Then, perhaps, may it be said again that, “[We] solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance… and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices… as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of all.” Amen.