Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Sermon: "Questions & Answers 2007" (Delivered 1-7-2006)

This year I approached Question & Answer Sunday a bit differently than in year’s past. Instead of requesting questions a week ahead of time, I asked people to write their questions down on a note-card as they entered the sanctuary. Following the first hymn, I sequestered myself in the foyer and dealt out the cards with Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” running through my mind. “You have to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

But I did not run. I returned and answered as many as I could, as best I could…

The Lead Off Question
Q. How do we logically argue the separation of church and state with evangelical Christians?
A. Something related to this has been on my mind this week, as I read a news story about the Congressman from Minnesota who intends to be sworn in using Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Koran, which was part of his library that became the original collection of the library of Congress. It’s been said that this book represents the founder’s intent to be a nation founded on religious freedom and religious pluralism. I would answer by asking the person you are discussing the separation of church and state with just when theocracy has ever worked well. Historians and sociologists tend to think that religion has thrived so well in America because it is not run by the government. In many nations in Europe there is a state religion, but only ten percent of the population is churched. In America, the free market and the state refusing to meddle in religion has been a great thing for the success of churches. When it comes down to it, we don’t want government running churches. That is one good reason to support the separation of church and state.

Theology
Q. What book would you recommend mostly highly for learning how to feel compassion for some of the idiots who see intent on promoting sexist, racist, homophobic policies – or should we feel compassion at all?
A. Actually, someone in the congregation recently recommended I pick up a copy of “The Force of Kindness” by Sharon Salzberg, who is an American Buddhist. As I have begun to read it, I have found a lot of what she has to say quite compelling. She dispels the notion that kindness is an expression of weakness. That is the book I’d recommend.

Q. Why do Unitarians need to study the Bible?
A. Let me rephrase this question a little bit. By “need” I’m not saying that you should be forced to. We’re not a religion that forces people to do anything. But I believe that Unitarians should elect to study the Bible. And, not just for reasons of “cultural competence” or to be able to understand art and literature. If we are truly a religion that seeks to understand our neighbors, if we are a religion that is mature enough to encounter other faiths, then we’ll study the Bible for understanding rather than treat it dismissively or with avoidance. By choosing to remain ignorant of the Bible, you cede its interpretation, not to mention your own power, to those who use the Bible for ill. By the way, I am teaching a course on the Bible later this Spring.

Q. Why is the UUA putting less and less emphasis on humanism?
A. I can certainly understand how it might feel this way, but actually, the Unitarian Universalist Association is not in the business of emphasizing any particular theology over another. Similarly, Bill Sinkford in his role as UUA President is not the head theologian of our movement. As a movement, our theology is shaped by what goes on in local congregations, what people teach in adult religious education classes and what they talk about in small groups. It is also shaped by who enters the ministry. I have noticed that theism and/or Christianity seems to be on the rise in the ranks of UU ministry.

Q. What are the characteristics of post-modernism?
A. Perhaps the person who wrote this question saw this KC Star article by Vern Barnet from a couple of weeks ago. I will say this: the term is often thrown around imprecisely and perhaps in a way that is designed to obscure. Post-modernism involves the calling into question some of the assumptions of modernism. Modernism assumed that we would be saved by technology and industry (progress), that we would discover truth, and that by appealing to reason we could create agreement. Post-modernism calls these assumptions into question.

Q. Is Jesus the Son of God?
A. I was actually quoted in an article by Bill Tammeus offering an answer to this question. By clicking here you can read what I wrote to Bill and what he actually included in the article.

Q. When I was a young thing in the Baptist Church, the minister often talked about “being called” to the ministry. Is there anything in UUism that compares to this?
A. Yes. I would refer the person who asked this question to the new book called Living a Call by Michael Durall in which several UU ministers write about the articulation and implication of their call to the ministry. If you asked a sampling of UU ministers, the answers might range from one extreme - "God spoke to me and told me to go into the ministry" - to the other - "My career counselor spoke to me and told me to go into the ministry." I might also say that not all calls need to come from God. "I heard my brothers and sisters calling." "I heard the oppressed calling." "I heard those longing for liberal religious community calling." Is this not the way that God also calls?

Our Church
Q. Can we change the name of the church? I don’t like “SMUUCh.”
A. Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? I assume that this person just doesn't like that our acronym is pronounced "smooch." Indeed, this comment has come up every year during question and answer Sunday. A change in name would require us to adjust our by-laws, a process that requires support from the Board of Trustees. I would also like to say that naming churches after geographic locations is a little bit passe. For decades, UU churches have tended to name themselves after the geographic location. My favorite example of this is Northwest UU Church of Southfield, Michigan. However, more recently UU churches have begun naming themselves in ways that identify a core image or concept. Examples of these include Horizon and Pathways in Texas, Wellsprings in Pennsylvania, Micah's Porch in Chicago, and Tapestry in California. (After the service someone did nix the Tapestry idea. "If we name ourselves after a Carole King album, I'm leaving.")

Q. Our church is growing but growth is a double-edged sword. As we grow, how do we ensure that the institution (buildings, parking lots) does not become more important than the people it’s supposed to serve?
A. Hey, I can guarantee we won't be building a cathedral. Nobody is suggesting we build a replica of the Sistine Chapel. Our charge to our Facilities Task is to recommend a facilities plan that serves our needs. Those needs include more space in the nursery, a decent kitchen, more space in the foyer, more seats, appropriate offices, and a room big enough for all-church events. These identified facility needs do put the people the buildings are supposed to serve first.

Q. Are there any plans for a women’s or men’s retreat?
A. Good question. Are there? As a church we are a volunteer-driven organization. Many of our programs are created and run by members. As a permission-giving church, we seek to empower our members to creative enterprises that further our Mission & Vision. If you find yourself interested in having a men's retreat or women's retreat, find some other people who share your passion and make it happen.

Q. Being new to SMUUCh, I was wondering if there are any rites of passage for children?
A. For newborns, adoptions, and children who join the church we do Child Dedication ceremonies. These take place during regular scheduled worship and involve the whole congregation making a promise to support the child and his/her family. For children in 7th and 8th grade we offer the Coming of Age program. This is the Unitarian Universalist equivalent of a bar/bat Mitzvah or Confirmation. By the way, SMUUCh was the first congregation to have a Coming of Age program.

Q. Why is there so little variety in the form of Sunday services?
A. Why does the stork stand on one leg? If it didn't it would fall on its behind. This zen koan was originally told to me by John Buehrens. This koan speaks to the importance of tradition. Recently, Brent Smith shared with me this story. At his congregation, they recently had no paper order of service due to a printing error. Nobody missed a beat. They sang the songs and recited the words perfectly. About this experience, he wrote:
"I think the mission of the liberal church is the liberation of the Spirit. I also think that's the proper affect of of liturgy, whether or not it is intentionally aimed at that. It is to give the heart and mind the order necessary for there to be a foundation to the self from which it can freely soar towards new thoughts and new revelations, and deeper experiences of affection and realize wider invitations to love; the Creative Event. Without the order of service this past Sunday people discovered that their five year practice of the church's liturgy yielded an ordered flowing in, around, and out of them.

"The heart and mind were stilled, that the spirit might be liberated through deeper relationship. It is a state beyond personal likes, dislikes, and preferences, a readiness to listen together to the call of the Spirit so that a rededication to the good and just can occur; something heard and received variously. It is not a naturally occuring, "organic" kind of thing. Spiritual freedom isn't that way. It is a liturgical equivalent of what our ancestors called 'federated liberty,' the order created by human beings that makes freedom possible. It requires focussed planning and continuous practice. But the multiple and various responses in the greeting line told me that something liberating occured in that 1 hour that, with enough practice, could significantly transform the other 167 hours of any given week in the lives of the church and its people."
What Brent Smith is saying is that there is deepening that can only come through practice and repetition.

Q. Have we considered “advertising” in the newspapers, etc.?
Q. The Saturday edition of the KC Star has two pages of ads for churches including the location and times of services. What would we have to pay for at least a minimal informational ad?

A. I would refer you to the members of our Communications Committee. I heard an estimate once that we could expect to pay around $2,000 annually for a small listing on the religion pages of the KC Star. I do know that our advertising has been a budget casualty the past two years, a necessary cut to create a balanced budget. I also know that some people have expressed doubts about the effectiveness of newspaper advertising. I'll also say that the two best types of advertising are free: word of mouth and making news for our outstanding work! If we all told our friends, neighbors, and dog groomers about us, we'd grow even faster than we are growing. Similarly, social action projects and community forums are a great way to get known.

Q. Thom, what is your #1 objective for SMUUCh for 2007?
A. Unitarian Universalist churches are a bit different from many churches in that the minister is not the singular vision-setter for the entire church. Here at SMUUCh, a democratically-elected board works together with the minister, staff, and committees to create shared goals. I do think that we are doing very well at the "Invite" and "Inspire" parts of our mission. I think we have room to improve on the "Involve" part. One of my goals is much greater Involvement of each and every member in both service to and service outside of the congregation. Another goal of mine is to follow-up on last Spring's Evolution series by offering a series on Stem Cells.

Personal Questions
Q. Who is your favorite theologian?
A. From our tradition, I am very drawn to the theological works of James Luther Adams and Rebecca Parker. I am also a big fan of Brian McClaren, the leader of the "Emergent" movement.

Q. Who are some of your favorite writers?
A. Once I find a favorite writer, I tend to read everything by them. During 2006 I read all of the published works (3,570 pages!) of David Foster Wallace. The year before I read six books (How to be Good, High Fidelity, About a Boy, The Long Way Down, Fever Pitch, and Speaking with the Angel) by Nick Hornby. Currently, I'm really big on reading Dave Eggers.

Q. What do you do to recharge your spirit?
A. I'm a big fan of live music and rock concerts. But, in a way my ministry to the chruch stays grounded by ministry to the community. I've really enjoyed serving on the board of the MAINstream Coalition and volunteering with groups like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.

Q. What is your favorite color?
A. Orange.

Q. Why did you choose to live in KC, MO instead of JO CO, KS?

A. This is my fourth year at SMUUCh. During my first two years I did live in Johnson County, before I moved to the Plaza/Brookside area. For a single person there seemed to be more things to do at 40th and Main then at 95th and Metcalf.

Q. Do you like Pokemon?
A. I don't even know what this is.

Q. What are you proudest or happiest about since you came to the Kansas City area?
A. I'm proud of being awarded Final Fellowship by the UUA. I'm proud of the Evolution Series we offered last Spring. I'm most proud of the growth and health and vitality of this congregation.

Q. What are your life goals and career plans? How long we keep you?
A. Hmmm... I've never thought of myself as "kept." That imagery makes me a little uncomfortable. One stays as a minister of a church as long as one feels called to that ministry, and as long the ministry that the church requires is in synch with the ministry you are called to. Listen, I'm 29. I figure I'm good for another 36 years of active ministry, at minimum. One goal that I do have is being active in the creation of more Unitarian Universalist churches. But who knows?

Silly Questions
[There are always some like these!]
Q. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
Q. How many Unitarians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Q. If I were a moose and you were a cow, would love me anyhow?

A. A. A. No Comment

Q. Was “Andrew Dice K” worth all that money?

A. Clever nick-name. This question is a reference to Japanese pitcher, Daisuke (pronounced “Dice-K”) Matsuzaka, who the Boston Red Sox recently signed to a gigantic contract. They paid $51 million to his Japanese team for just the rights to negotiate with him, and on top of that it took another $52 million over six years to sign him. Was he worth it? Are any of them truly worth it?

Q. My 9 year old wants to know what 1062 X 1062 equals.
A. 1,127,844

Q. What should we name our baby?
A. I actually have an answer to this. I was talking with somebody the other day about all the interesting and creative names that parents give their children here at SMUUCh. (In just the past few weeks we’ve had an Easton, an Ava, and a Finlay.) But I was kind of lamenting the paucity of UU names. No Henry David’s. No Ralph Waldo’s. And then I remembered a British Unitarian from the 1700’s named Theophilus Lindsey. Nobody names their kid “Theophilus” any more. That is what I would recommend. You could even shorten it to “Theo.” Oh, what’s that you say. What if she is a girl? Does anybody know what the feminine form of Theophilus is?

More Questions
Q. Our country and now the world is money-driven and consumer-driven. Everything is based on things. Right now shopping zombies are walking through WalMarts all over the world trying to get more things. Is this good or bad? Ps. I’ve been looking all over for a Play Station 3. Will I be able to find it this week?
A. None of us are likely to ever become monks with begging bowls or desert ascetics who altogether renounce the world. That is to say, "things" will always be a necessary part of our life. I tend to believe that our culture encourages us to be in relationship with material things in a way that is neither healthy nor sustainable. One of the problems with consumerism is that we tend to act as consumers in all parts of our life. I would reject the idea that finding a church is like buying a car. In the religious life, "how much can I get for how little?" and "what can you do for me?" are not good starting places. I am also concerned about the "Bowling Alone" phenomenon. The findings in Robert Putman's book about the decline of civic organizations are of concern to me. Increasingly we know how to shop, but know less about how to organize in community. Community and church is something you build, not something you buy.

Q. My New Years resolution this year was “to be more in the world.” How can I “be more in the world”?
A. A couple of things come to mind. I am tempted to recommend that you pick up a copy of Thoreau's Walden (and maybe the Barry Andrews' book "Thoreau as Spiritual Guide.") I find Thoreau to be one of the most important thinkers about what it means to live in the world. I would also recommend a spiritual practice that helps you to notice more of the world. You may find it helpful to keep a gratitude journal, for example.

Q. Is it acceptable to come to SMUUCh more for the community than for the spiritual aspect?
A. I think that this question imposes a false dichotomy. Why can't the community be the spiritual aspect? But another question someone asked me helps me also to be able to answer this one. That person offered the quote, "Bidden or not bidden, God is present." What you come for does not need to equal what you get out of it. I love to tell the story of a minister who was visited by an elderly parishioner who said, "I've been coming to church for 80 years and, to tell you the truth, I can't remember a single sermon. Why should I bother to come?" The minister replied, "I've been eating meals for 50 years and, to tell you the truth, I don't remember a single menu. But I still continue to eat." Perhaps more is happening to you than you realize.

Evangelism
Q. How can I briefly articulate my faith when I feel under attack?
Q. Why do all my friends consider Unitarian Universalism to be a cult?
Q. What is a fast way to describe UUism to people not familiar with us?

A. I will come back later and answer this.

Q. How do you explain the differences between Unitarian Universalism and Unity?
Q. How is this related or unrelated to Unity or Science of Mind?
Q. Many times people in the community confuse Unitarian Universalism and Unity. Do you have an elevator speech to clarify the difference?

A. I will come back later and answer this.

Concluding Remarks
I want to end by simply saying that it has been a joy to stand before you and be challenged to give my best answers to these questions. How splendid a thing to be a part of a religious tradition that encourages us to ask questions. And, how splendid and superb to be a part of a faith that tells you not to take these answers as gospel truth, but encourages you to freely and responsibly search for your own answers.

In your going, I ask you:
How is it with your soul?
What are you spending and being spent for?
For what are you grateful?
What is calling you?
And, "What will you do with your one wild and untamed life?"


[In a few days I plan to post the questions I did not get around to answering last Sunday.]

Monday, January 08, 2007

Feedback on 12/31 Sermon

As promised, this post will include some of the comments and feedback I received from my sermon on December 31, 2006. Check back later for additional comments.

One person wrote the following, as part of substantially longer email:
"...I would say that is the most troubling aspect of unchecked exurban (far out suburban) development. Rather than move to perfectly suitable, usable housing in existing neighborhoods, families continue to choose to move further and further away from the urban core in a spiraling pattern of flight. They build huge, unsustainable homes and set all these choices up as their "right" or say that they "earned" this version of the good life and the philosophy is, if they can afford the cars and the gas and the mortgage payments, they deserve it. Historians of development, however, have shown how huge tax subsidies laid the pipelines for water, sewage, electrical and gas, curbs and roads that enabled developers to build such subdivisions. Federal gas subsidies support people's ability to drive SUV's around vast, spread-out landscapes. And cars sit bumper to bumper on I-35, which has to be continually expanded, maintained and built out further South to support people's decision to move further out, and that cost is borne by all the taxpayers. I think all of that is fine, as long as the people living out there don't denigrate others who live on "federal handouts" and as long as they don't act all superior about how independent and self-made they are as individuals. They, too, live off the federal teat."

Do you have a comment? Write to me!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Sermon: "'The King of King's County' and the Ethics of Suburban Living" (Delivered 12-31-06)

Opening Words
Up until two-hundred years ago, this land was wild. This land, right here. Bear, beaver, wolves, and elk roamed this land. The only humans were the Kaw and Kansas Indians who intermittently passed through. In 1825, the Shawnee were moved here from Ohio, onto a 1.6 million acre reservation, which was later reduced to 200,000 acres. Thirty years later they were again displaced to the Indian territory of Oklahoma.

Next to come were the farmers. This land, right here, supported several generations of farmers. In the early twentieth century, the land just to east of where we sit was developed as suburban upscale dwellings. The rise of the automobile rendered obsolete the trolley line that passed just a stone’s throw from right here.

In the mid-twentieth century people moved here in droves to pursue a vision of the good life, although racial tension, conflict, fear, and inequality were also a part of this history. Fifty years ago, the houses that surround this property were brand new. Roads to the south and west were still dirt. The sprawl of today was yet to come.

Today’s service has to do with the history of this land. It has to do with the history of Johnson County and Kansas City. Everyone who has lived here has come seeking “the good life.” But, this has meant different things through the years. We are no different. We, too, seek to live well – and history can help us to learn what it truly means to live well.


Reading
The reading this morning is from the book Kingdom Coming by Michelle Goldberg. It is not a passage I necessarily agree with. In fact, it is a passage that comes across as condescending. Goldberg is, self-admittedly, a secular New Yorker, someone who feels out of place if she strays too far from metropolitan life. Here is how she describes a visit to suburbia and to suburban mega-churches:
“These churches are usually located on the sprawling edges of cities, in new exurban developments that almost totally lack for public space – squares, parks, promenades, or even, in some places, sidewalks. With their endless procession of warehouselike chain stores and garish profusion of primary-colored logos, the exurbs are the purest of ecosystems for consumer capitalism. Yet, the brutal, impersonal utilitarianism of the strip mall and office park architecture – it perversely ascetic refusal to make a single concession to aesthetics – recalls the Stalinist monstrosities imposed on Communist countries. The banality is aggressive and disorientating. Driving through many of these places in states from Pennsylvania to Colorado, I’ve experience more than a few moments of vertiginous panic where I literally could not remember where I was.

“Because most exurbs are so new, none of the residents grew up in them; everyone is from somewhere else and there are few places for them to meet. In such locales, megachurches fill the spiritual and social void, providing atomized residents instant community…

“While megachurches look like everything else in the newly developed parts of America – they’re usually enormous, unadorned boxy buildings, designed to resemble shopping malls or multiplexes and surrounded by acres of asphalt parking lots – they provide an outlet for energies that aren’t rational, productive, or acquisitive, for furies and ecstasies that don’t otherwise fit into suburban life.”

Sermon
So, how many of you have read The King of King's County by Whitney Terrell? Each year around this time, the book club selects a book from their previous year’s reading for me to speak about in a sermon.

I want to give you a quick overview of the plot of the book. It begins set in the 1950s in Kansas City and centers on the life of a boy named Jack Acheson. Jack’s father is Alton, a bulbous con-man who idolizes the old-fashioned robber-barons. Alton envies the power and prestige of local developer Prudential Bowen and schemes a way to grow rich by speculating land along the Eisenhower interstate that is to run Southwest of Kansas City. As Alton secures shady-investors and convinces Johnson County farmers to sell-off their soon-to-appreciate land, we follow the lives of childhood chums Jack, Geanie Bowen, and Lonnie and Nikki Garaciello as they come of age in Kansas City attending Pembroke – I mean Pemberton Acadmeny.

It is a work of historical fiction. Prudential Bowen, most obviously, is J.C. Nichols. Instead of Nichols developing the Plaza based on the architecture of Seville, in Terrell’s book Bowen develops the Campanile based on the architecture of Florence. The book touches on a number of issues in the history of Kansas City: the corruption of Pendergast, the role of organized crime, and especially the role of housing discrimination and racially-based fear in influencing the rise of the suburbs.

The characters in the book itself are fairly miserable. Even Jack, the protagonist, is jealous, insecure, possessive, held captive to guilt, embarrassed and disloyal. That it is set in Kansas City is a great deal of the book’s magic. For example, I read that Prudential Bowen’s initial development was centered on a piece of property located at Fifty-first and Grand… and my jaw drops because I live exactly at Fifty-first and Grand!

Of all the themes that Terrell’s book touches upon, the greatest are the roles that duplicity, fraud, deceit, racism, fear and downright dirty greed played in the growth of the suburbs of Johnson County, Kansas. And, departing from the book, that is the topic I want to take up.

This past Summer I went to take the free tour of the Johnson County museum, located at sixty-third and Lackman. If you’ve never been, it is definitely worth a trip. The permanent exhibit is entitled “Seeking the Good Life” and traces the history of this land that I sketched out in the opening words above – from the days of the Shawnee Indians and the missionaries, to the farmers, to the advent of suburban living, to the modern day exurban lifestyle. What is striking about the exhibit is that as you pass from era to era, the exhibit repeats this wonderful and haunting refrain that goes something like this, “People came here seeking the good life. But was this the good life? For whom? And who was excluded?”

But was this the good life?

It occurs to me to mention that those who choose to dwell in the suburbs have no monopoly on, quote, “seeking the good life.” If you think of all people who have ever lived on the earth throughout the entirety of recorded history, when have people ever not sought after the good life? Of course, the lives of so many have been so difficult, so miserable, so desperate that by the good life they might have imagined good living simply as having regular meals or freedom from violence. But my point is that all people everywhere have sought to align their lives with “the good” – to employ a kind of Platonic abstraction – and isn’t it remarkable the different strategies and different ideals that people have adopted in pursuit of “the good life”?

And none of us – or few of us – are so lucky to get to set down with a clean slate and just intuit, just deduct, what the good life is. We all live amidst culture that makes competing claims on us – that tries to tell us, that tries to persuade us, that tries to sell us on what the good life really is. I speak not only of peer pressure and advertising, but also powerful cultural forces at work all around us.

Which makes this sermon relevant for two reasons: First, of all the various functions of religion, probably one of the most important is to play an instructive and illuminating role in helping those of us here to discern what the good life really is. Which cultural messages are legitimately good and which ones are giving us the bait and switch?

And second, it occurs to me that today is December 31st which is a time when a lot of Americans are taking time in the quiet week before the New Year to be reflective about their plans, their dreams, their aspirations for the coming year. We’re doing things like making resolutions… resolutions that reflect on the ways in which our lives have fallen short of “the good life” and are we are pledging with resolute resolve to aspire to a better life, happier life, healthier life, or otherwise more fulfilling life in the year ahead.

The good life indeed. As much as there have always been dreams of the good life, there have always been critiques of the ways in which that conception of the good life falls short.

The nationally famous Unitarian folk-singer Malvina Reynolds parodied suburban living in her most famous song, “Little Boxes.” She sang,
Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky /
Little boxes, little boxes, and they all look just the same.
There’s a [beige one and a beige one and a beige one and a beige one] /
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses all went to the University /
Where they were put in boxes and they came out just the same. /
There’s doctors and lawyers and business executives /
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all are just the same.

And they all play on the golf course and drink their martinis dry /
And they all have pretty children and the children go to school /
And the children go to summer camp and then to the university /
Where they are put in boxes and they come out just the same.”
Michelle Goldberg used a bigger vocabulary to say pretty much the same thing, speaking about an “endless procession of boxy, warehouselike, chain stores with a profusion of garish primary colored logos.” Henry David Thoreau epitomized critical thinking about life in society. His book Walden is as lucid an expression as have ever been written of the sentiment, “Please don’t box me in.” “I do not wish to live what is not life…”

Similarly, others have offered critiques of the suburban good life. Anti-racist analysis points out the effects of white flight. In Kansas City racial covenants were used to keep dark skinned people out of Leawood. This is not conspiracy thinking by the way. The Declaration of Restrictions which went into effect in 1945 and remained in effect until the late 1960s prohibited ownership or occupancy, quote, “by any person of Negro blood or any person who is more than one-fourth of the Semitic race… including… Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Turks, Persians, Syrians, and Arabians” although an exception was made for domestic servants. Today, quote “good schools” and quote “safe neighborhoods” are sometimes terms that are flung about and often do not reflect objective analysis but, instead, are euphemisms for segregation.

And finally, one of the most powerful critiques of suburbia has come from environmentalists who point out how unsustainable “the good life” can be. In January we will be beginning a documentary film series. The first film in the series is actually entitled, “The End of Suburbia.” Its premise is that we have constructed our communities on a peak-oil paradigm that assumes a ready supply of affordable fossil fuels. Once peak-oil goes away we will be in a canoe up a creek without a paddle… or, perhaps more aptly, stuck in an SUV in a cul-de-sac without a fill-up. This film predicts a cataclysmic inversion where exurban sub-divisions become the ghettoes of the 21st century and where the urban core becomes primo real estate.

I will say this: the themes which appear in The King of King's County can get a person talking. A Washington Post review of the book says that “Terrell brilliantly dramatizes the confluence of federal funding, state zoning, racial tensions, family ideals, and local shenanigans that created the places in which most of us live and work.” The review goes on to imply that just as the narrator, Jack Acheson, grapples with the anger and shame that are the legacy of his proximity to all of this, so must each of us contend with the way “each generation creates or miscreates a home for the next one.”

So, allow me to name the elephant in the room. Some people will probably leave today feeling picked-on, indicted, or implicated. Others of you, I’m sure, are sitting there giving thought to this and thinking that I am picking on, indicting, or implicating not you, but those people – those people who live south of a certain road, or west of a certain road, or in that school district, or in that zip-code or that sub-division, or who drive an automobile that gets worse than that certain number of miles per gallon. But, if you think I have decided to stand here and sanctimoniously judge, I hope you will listen because actually my message is quite different.

Our human instinct is to stereotype. Many of the stereotypes that our parents and grandparents may have held unquestioningly are now considered by us enlightened folks as unfortunate, ignorant, and common. And even today, there are other stereotypes that are more permissible, and equally unhelpful. Whether Michelle Goldberg calls us artless, soulless, and materialistic, or someone on the Missouri side says whatever it is that people over there say about people in Kansas, I will say that stereotypes tend universally to be both counter-productive and counter-intelligent.

I heard on NPR several weeks ago a demographic report that said that there are now, in the United States, more people living below the federal poverty line in suburbs than there are in urban environments. What does that say about seeking the good life?

Furthermore, demographic trends say that increasingly it will be the Johnson Counties of the world, along with the Wyandotte Counties, Platte Counties, and Clay Counties of the world that will contain greater and greater percentages of the United States population. Accordingly, that will mean a greater political power concentrated in the suburbs.

And I want to conclude by saying a little bit about what this will mean for us. I’ve written and thought quite a bit about Unitarian Universalism being slow (and slow is a charitable evaluation) to respond to the demographic population shifts that are happening in the United States. The way I see it, we Unitarian Universalists have quite a bit of valuable things to say about the good life, and it is our choice about whether we will show up and play a role in changing culture or not.

It has been a long time since our churches were filled with conformists beholden to culture. We’ve tried being counter-cultural. Now, we have the chance to be shapers, transformers, and shifters of culture. If we show up. Stereotypes are not helpful. What is helpful is to think, really introspectively and reflectively and historically and honestly… about what it means to live the good life. I know, from my day to day intersecting with your lives how you’ve reflected on the lives you are living, and made amazing decisions about what it means to live well.

How are we seeking the good life? Is that good life, in fact, good? For whom. Who is excluded? Or, who is now more included by virtue of your good living? It is your life. I thank you for making this church a part of it. Have a blessed and just 2007!


Afterword
It occurs to me after having delivered this sermon that there is much more I might say about this subject and what it means to live well in this environment. Also, I’ve gotten some wonderful feedback. Click here for more reflections.

2006: A Year in Books

I thought it would be fun to recap the books I read in 2006 (or, as many of them as I can remember.) Here goes:

I began the year by discovering the author David Foster Wallace. As you can see, I definitely got hooked.

Consider the Lobster by DFW (January)
Infinite Jest by DFW (February)
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by DFW (March)
Girl With Curious Hair by DFW (April)
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by DFW (May)
Oblivion by DFW (May)
Broom of the System by DFW (July)
Everything and More by DFW (August) [Although I can't claim to have really understood it.]

Yes, that's 3,570 pages of David Foster Wallace!

I also read several other novels:
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Kafka on the Shore by Huraki Murakami
The King of King's County by Whitney Terrell
You Shall Know Our Velocity! by Dave Eggers

I also finally finished reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, over two years after I started it. I had read about half way through, up to the point where Lumumba gets assassinated, but then loaned it impulsively to the barista at the coffeehouse I used to frequent. The barista, an evangelical Christian, had seen the title and asked about the book. I had told her that it was a novel about a missionary family in Africa. I couldn't help myself; I handed her the book with a smile and hoped she would enjoy it. Six months later it was returned to me. Daring to ask what she thought, she told me she didn't like it at all. It was obvious to her that the wife and daughter's failure to support Nathan Price had sabotaged his ministry. It was the women's fault. She had read this book with the most anti-feminist lens possible!

In the realm of non-fiction, I read:
Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts by Michael Berube
Kingdom Coming by Michelle Goldberg
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris
The End of Faith by Sam Harris [for this sermon]
Living a Call edited by Michael Durall
Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism edited by Kat Rolenz
Blessing the World by Rebecca Parker [for this sermon]
America, Fascism, and God by Davidson Loehr [for this sermon]
as well as parts of four books on Torture for a sermon on that
subject.

For my first book of 2007, I have just started Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.