Monday, September 24, 2007

Sermon: "Adventures in Apologizing" (Delivered 9-23-07)

In my role as minister, one of the things that I find myself regularly having to check myself on is that I don’t advise you to do things that I, myself, am unwilling to do. Two weeks ago I preached a sermon about how we encourage each other to spiritual growth. In delivering that sermon, I had to examine myself and ask of myself, “Do I have a spiritual practice that I adhere to?” Because it would lack integrity to encourage you to do what I myself am unwilling to do.

Every year I preach, at least once, on the subject of generosity. Often these sermons coincide with our annual stewardship drive. But before I ask you to practice generosity as a part of meaningful living, I need to examine my own practice. Last year, I gave over ten percent of my income to tax-deductible, charitable organizations. Over half went to this church. It would lack integrity to stand before you and preach what I do not, myself, practice.

This is not boasting: I am far from perfect, but fortunately being perfect is not what we are expected to be, especially in church. A church is not a place for the already perfect; it is the home of the human. We aim, not for perfection but for authenticity and integrity.

There is an old, slightly tasteless joke that claims that there are three religious truths. The first religious truth is that Jews do not recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah. The second religious truth is that Protestants do not recognize the Pope as the head of the Christian Church. And, the third religious truth is that Methodists do not recognize one another at the liquor store. (This joke is about integrity.)

In the Jewish tradition, there is an extensive collection of texts known as midrash. These texts preserve argumentation, disputation and varying interpretations about the meaning of scriptures, especially as they pertain to how to live out the Jewish laws. At one point in these extensive writings a hypothetical scenario is posed that goes like this: You are a Rabbi and your neighbor is a gentile. Your neighbor breaks his leg and is unable to go to the market. According to Jewish teachings, you are expected to practice the mitzvah, the good deed, of human kindness and compassion, by offering to do your neighbor’s shopping. But, your Christian neighbor gives you a shopping list that includes buying pork chops (or ham or pigs feet or… whatever.) And the authors of the Midrash dispute whether it is acceptable to give the impression of breaking the law in order to do a good deed. One line of thought says that not only should you obey the laws, but you should not even give the impression of violating the laws. Imagine you are the Rabbi, standing there at the deli counter, and up walks a member of your synagogue, one who is particularly prone to gossip, when the butcher simultaneously blurts out, “Here you go, the juiciest pork chops right off the pig.” And you find yourself going on the defensive. “Oh, these are not for me. They are for my neighbor.”

I had an experience like this my first year in Kansas City. I was told that I needed to drive up Metcalf and get a cheesesteak from the Chartroose Caboose. The Caboose has the town’s best cheesesteak. So, I drive up there during my lunch hour one day and the only parking space in the entire lot is right in front of the front door of the adjacent store – a Hooters. And I mean right in front of the door. So, I kind of weigh the options: Do I park my car with its Unitarian bumper sticker and divinity school decal right in front of Hooters or do I drive all the way around back and park in a completely inconvenient place? That’s what I did. I was adverse to even give the impression that I went to Hooters for lunch. This, too, has to do with authenticity and integrity.

But, I’ve really digressed here. This morning I want to talk about apologizing. This is a very basic, and universal religious theme: taking responsibility for one’s actions, expressing contrition, setting things right, atoning for the harm we have caused others, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Yesterday was the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Part of the Yom Kippur observance involves settling affairs with all those you have wronged in the previous year. It is a fast day, a serious day, and it also involves confessing wrongs and preemptively seeking forgiveness for the promises we will all inevitably break in the coming year.

Keeping with the theme of Yom Kippur, I had planned to give a sermon about apologizing. In planning this sermon, I remembered my own self-instruction about integrity and authenticity: Do not ask others to do what you yourself are unwilling to do. So, I sat down and made a list of people I felt I owed an apology. Some apologies were for things I had done or said, or not done or not said in the past couple of weeks. Others harkened back as much as a decade. You know, “I still feel bad about that.” And, so I sort of mapped out some adventures in apologizing. I thought, in the spirit of Yom Kippur I would set out to apologize to these people. And I did. But then, when it came time to put fingertips to keyboard, I stalled. What if one of those people to whom I apologized stumbled across this sermon on the web? Would they regard my apology as insincere, as motivated by my desire to come up with something to say to my congregation on Sunday? Would they regard me as trying to profit off my apology by appearing contrite and authentic?

Here is what I can tell you. I had over the past month some adventures in apologizing. I will not tell you to whom I apologized or for what I apologized. I will not tell you whether I was forgiven or whether I even got a response. That is not your business. It is literally between me and other persons, and is unfit for public comment.

Which kind of leaves us stuck. It just isn’t that much of an adventure without a who, a what, a where, or a how. So, there just isn’t that much of a story. Except for just a few general lessons I took away from this experience.

Those lessons are: First, the more you apologize, the better you become at it. Second, you do not control the outcome of an apology. And, third, the vulnerability created by an apology can actually be a constructive force.

First of all, I discovered that the more you apologize, the better you become at it. Apologizing is a bit like a cardiovascular exercise. The more you do it, the easier it becomes and the more capable you find yourself of doing more of it. I found this literally true. And perhaps, it is metaphorically true as well. Open up the heart and you find your heart stretches wider. I noticed becoming quicker to apologize, more aware of the small wrongs I do, as we all do, on a day to day basis. The word “sorry” came more easily to the lips, but not with less sincerity.

Second, I learned that you do not control the outcome of an apology. Apologizing is not like casting a fishing line. It is like sending a message in a bottle out to sea. When I first sat down to plot out my adventures in apologizing, I imagined attaching the apology to the end of a fishing line and casting the apology out there in the hopes of reeling something back. Send out contrite feelings; reel back forgiveness. Send out expressions of regret; reel back a relationship that recommences. But it doesn’t work that way. Apologizing is more like putting a note in a bottle and throwing it out to sea. Once sent, you have absolutely no control about whether it will ever be answered, or how. You control your end, but not the other end.

And finally, I learned that in apology one becomes vulnerable, but this is necessary and can actually be constructive. I want to tell you about the greatest apology I ever received. When I was twenty I had a friend who treated me rather lousy. That is not my interpretation. That is an objective fact. Eight years later I am living here in Kansas City and I receive an email from her out of the blue – after 8 years of no communication whatsoever. The email read: “I will be traveling to the KC area for business and heard from a friend that you were living there. Would you like to have dinner with me?” Then her signature. Then a post-script that read, “I completely understand if you turn down this invitation because I treated you so badly.” Those were not her exact words. Her exact words were unrepeatable in church and very self-deprecating.

When I read the top half of that email, my answer was “No way in Hell.” When I read the post-script, my answer changed to “Sure, why not?” It is actually the vulnerability that is part of an apology that makes it powerful, and potentially constructive.

Since I can’t recount my own adventures in apologizing in as much detail as I might, let me share two other sources of wisdom that expand our thinking about apologizing.

Last Wednesday, Forrest Church was in town to deliver a lecture about his most recent book, which is brilliant and intelligent and has nothing to do with apologizing. I was glad to see about thirty members from our church in attendance. Earlier that day, I was fortunate enough to get to join him for lunch along with two dozen other ministers. He gave us a similar talk, but ended with telling us something he didn’t repeat in his evening speech. He told us that a year ago he had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of esophageal cancer and told that most likely he had two to six months to live. Against the odds he beat the cancer.

Talking about his experience with cancer, he said that when he was first diagnosed, his immediate reaction was one of acceptance. (No denial, no anger, no bargaining, no blaming.) Immediate acceptance. He questioned this acceptance though. Perhaps it was ego-deception. Perhaps it was that he had spent thirty years ministering to people who were dying and helping them to accept the end of their own lives and so he could not tolerate having anything but the most peaceful thoughts when it was his turn?

But, upon further reflection, as least as far as I’ve been able to recall, Forrest Church said he was able to approach the diagnosis in the way that he did because he was able to tell the difference between unfinished business and ongoing business. The long, brilliant book he was working on was ongoing business. It didn’t need to be completed before he died. But other things were unfinished business, he could not accept death until the business was finished. We never finish all of our business. We all die in the middle of something. But we can finish those things that need to be done so that we can be at peace.

I would put apologizing, the healing of relationships, the needing to say “I am sorry” or to accept an apology in the unfinished business category. We’ll be restless until we do these things. Forrest Church had very, very little unfinished business and therefore acceptance came easily. We all have ongoing business, because life is ongoing beyond our living. We never complete everything; we just need to finish the things that are unfinished and accept that what is ongoing is ongoing. [Thanks to Vern Barnet and Mitra Rahnema for helping me to recall Church's deeply insightful words.]

I want to end this morning with the words of another Unitarian minister, Robert Walsh. Walsh writes about a man who he knew who had stationery that carried the proverb: “Nothing is settled. Everything matters.”

Walsh goes on to write that this proverb got under his skin, and he vehemently disagreed with it. His protest went like this:

“It’s not true that nothing is settled. In the past year choices have been made, losses suffered. There’s been growth and decay, commitments and betrayals. None of which can be undone… One day this year I was present when someone needed me; another day I was busy doing something else at the moment someone needed me. One day I said something to a friend that injured our relationship; another day I said something kind. The best and worst of those days are written. And nothing, not tears, not joy, not sorrow can erase it.”

Following this rant, Robert Walsh comes to see the proverb in a new light. Perhaps, he thinks, that “even though the past is the past, what is not settled is how the story turns out. As long as we are alive, the story of our life is still being told, and the meaning is still open. What is done is done, but nothing is settled… and if nothing is settled then everything matters: every choice, every act, every word, every deed. They matter in the days ahead and, most of all they matter today.” [from his meditation manual, Noisy Stones, p. 22-23]

We often think of an apology as an ending, a way to put the final period on an unfinished story. An apology ties up the loose strings and closes the open ends. But, this in fact may not be true. Perhaps an apology is just another act in an ongoing story, which although is not final, is still worthwhile.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sermon: "The Death of Environmentalism and/or the Death of the Earth" (Delivered 9-16-07)

Preface
Every year at the Church Auction I offer to the highest bidder the right to assign me a sermon topic. The person who buys the sermon doesn’t buy my opinion or my voice; they purchase the right to assign me study in their field of interest and the challenge of creating a sermon out of it. At the last church auction, the sermon was purchased by a man with almost a half-century experience in the energy industry engineering coal-fired power plants. He wanted me to preach an environmentally-themed sermon and furnished me with an enormous pile of literature – everything from a book sub-titled “Saving the Planet from the Environmentalists” and a book claiming humans are not causing global warming to articles about creative developments in the field of clean energy including wind, solar, and even more ingenious new technologies. The sermon below represents my best effort at honesty, fairness, and provocation.

Acknowledgements
I have to thank Dr. John Herron, professor of Environmental History at UMKC who pointed out the wealth of articles available at the environmental web-site www.grist.org/ At this web-site, you can find the essay “The Death of Environmentalism” and a series of responses by leading environmentalists such as Bill McKibben.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to an anonymous engineer with 32 years experience building coal-fired power plants who generously allowed me to interview him and gave frank and forthcoming answers.

Finally, I thank Dick Rinehart for purchasing this sermon at the Church Auction. I hope you feel you got your money’s worth.

Sermon - Introduction
I am going to throw down the gauntlet. I am going to draw a line in the sand. Before you [waving folder in the air] I hold Exhibit A. Exhibit A consists of my home utility bills for electricity, gas, and water for the year 2006. My home utility bills for 2006 totaled $956.26. If we break that down on a month-by-month basis, that averages out to $79.94 per month.

So, [setting down the folder in front of the pulpit] this is the gauntlet I am throwing down. You may like this sermon. You may not. You may agree with me. You may not. But, if you want to disapprove, or argue, or dispute what I say you will need to step across this line in the sand. And when you do that, you should be prepared to tell me what your monthly home utility bills are. And, if they are, on average, higher than $79.94 per month, I will point out that you are criticizing me even though you consume more energy than I do. If, and only if, you spend (on average) less than eighty dollars a month on your electricity, gas, and water, are you free to criticize me.

In fact, I am interested in what your home utility bills are. I invite you to go home and calculate it out and send me the results. We can post the findings on the bulletin board. OK, maybe not. But, I do want to make the point that the religious life should lead us to a larger sense of integrity and authenticity, a correspondence between our words and deeds, what we say and how we live.

I will say just a few words about how I live: I do not believe in wasting energy. I run my utilities sparsely. I have top notch energy conserving windows. Every piece of plastic, glass, metal or paper that comes into my house gets recycled. Every scrap of food waste gets composted. (I actually bring it with me to church to throw onto our church compost piles behind the garage.) But I am not perfect. I should have my own portable mug to bring to the coffee shop, considering how frequently I frequent the coffee shop. I should have my own canvass shopping bag to bring to the grocery store. But nobody is perfect; we can all stand to get better.

But, I have thrown down the gauntlet. I’ve drawn a line in the sand. If you don’t like what I say this morning, I will point to the line in the sand, paraphrase Cuba Gooding, Jr. in Jerry Maguire, and say, “Show me the bills.” I will paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, and ask, “Do you feel environmentally clean? Well, do ya?”

Part 1: “The Death of Environmentalism”
In 2005, authors Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus rocked the world of environmentalists with a provocative 37-page manifesto entitled, “The Death of Environmentalism.” Their criticism came from within the environmental movement – they each had a long history supporting environmental causes – and many environmentalists branded them traitors and turncoats. In this paper, they accused contemporary environmentalists of being ineffective at best, counterproductive at worst, out of touch, and strategically misguided. They wrote,
“Of the hundreds of millions of dollars Environmental groups have poured into the global warming issue, only a small fraction has gone to engage Americans as the proud moral people they are, willing to sacrifice for the right cause. It would be dishonest to lay all the blame on the media, politicians or the oil industry for the public's disengagement from the issue that, more than any other, will define our future. Those of us who call ourselves environmentalists have a responsibility to examine our role and close the gap between the problems we know and the solutions we propose.
“So long as the siren call of denial is met with the drone of policy expertise -- and the fantasy of technical fixes is left unchallenged -- the public is not just being misled, it's also being misread. Until we address Americans honestly, and with the respect they deserve, they can be expected to remain largely disengaged from the global transformation we need them to be a part of.”
They celebrate the early victories in the environmental movement – clean water and the banning of chemicals like DDT – but then claim that the last quarter-century of the environmental movement has little to show for itself. The authors point out that the average car on the American road gets worse gas-mileage today than it did in 1980 and that China(!) has stricter automobile fuel-emission standards than the United States. They point out that while virtually every Western European country has pledged to cut power plant emissions by 50-80% in the coming decades, the United States Senate voted 95 to zero against signing the Kyoto protocol in 1998.

The authors of this article continue by saying that environmentalists have failed to form the types of powerful alliances necessary for political change. They’ve either formed shallow allegiances or alienated potential allies (like auto unions, for example.) The authors claim that environmentalists have, by and large, been arrogant in seeking to enlist allies, asking allies what they can do for the environment but seldom reciprocating. To quote from their report once more:
"Even the question of alliances, which goes to the core of political strategy, is treated within environmental circles as a tactical question -- an opportunity to get this or that constituency -- religious leaders! business leaders! celebrities! youth! Latinos! -- to take up the fight against global warming. The implication is that if only X group were involved in the global warming fight then things would really start to happen.”
In effective organizing, environmentalists would begin by asking churches or minorities, unions or youth, what they need and how the environmental movement could help them with the problems that most concern them. They would begin by listening to the constituencies they court. Then, they would connect the concerns of their allies to the environmental agenda. The health of urban minorities would be framed as an environmental issue. The concerns of auto unions would be framed as an environmental issue. In doing this, environmentalists would shift back to thoughts expressed by Sierra Club founder John Muir, who wrote, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Finally, Nordhaus and Shellenberger point out how the American public has changed in recent years. In 1996, 17% of Americans agreed with the statement that “In order to preserve jobs, Americans must be willing to tolerate higher levels of pollution.” In 2000, 26% agreed. In 1996, 32% of Americans agreed with the statement that, “Most of the people actively engaged in environmental groups are extremists and not reasonable people.” In 2000, 41% agreed with that statement. When asked in a survey to name pressing issues that concerned them, environmental issues did not crack the top ten. Of course, this article came out a couple of years ago – before Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and a variety of other movies featuring the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Alanis Morrisette, and Keanu Reeves. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back.

Part 2: Coal: For your stocking or for your electricity?
But, I didn’t want to spend all my time this morning rehashing a provocative article by two dedicated environmentalists. I want to talk about coal-fired power plants. Well, sort of.

Currently, the effort to build more coal-fired power plants is an issue that environmental groups in the United States are strongly opposing. Coal-power was the big thing for decades in this country until came along and seemed to be the fossil fuel of the future. Natural gas, however, has since turned far more expensive and coal has made a comeback as the fossil fuel du jour. At this moment, coal power is booming, and not just in the United States.

A 2006 New York Times story reported that China is building a coal-fire power plant big enough to provide energy to a city of five million people at a rate of one plant every week. China burns more coal than the United States, the European Union, and Japan combined. And India, with a population expected to exceed China’s in two decades, is trying to keep pace with China’s energy production. Even more troubling, China and India are using power production technologies that are comparable to those used in the United States forty years ago. Pollution from Chinese coal-fire power plants has been discovered in Lake Tahoe, California and Yosemite National Park. The plants built in China and India are far more polluting than those built in the United States.

In the course of research for this sermon, I decided to have a conversation with a person who has designed coal-fired power plants for thirty two years. In the conversation, he may have been biased, but I found him to be frank. He explained to me, speaking in general terms, that burning coal has some advantages. For one thing, it is our most abundant resource. It is cheap. And, considering issues in global security, coal allows our country to move in the direction of being completely energy self-sufficient, not a bad thing if we could wean ourselves off dependence on Middle East oil. Finally, this engineer insists that we are about a decade away from having the technology to implement 100% capture of carbon emissions, technology we could implement in the United States even if it wouldn’t be used in China or India.

I asked the engineer, “So, tell me. If you were in charge of energy policy, what would you do?” He replied that he was completely in favor of expanding renewable energy sources including solar and wind power, but we are delusional if we think that those will be sufficient to feed our energy needs. He also replied that he considered the best solution to be nuclear power, even though it is unpopular and isn’t as cheap as coal. Nuclear power scares us though, and, like coal plants, nobody wants them close to where they live.

I had this experience when I lived in the Pacific Northwest. Politically, I was strongly in favor of clean energy, but I absolutely hated the series of hydro-electric dams that had been built along the Columbia River. They were eyesores. They disrupted the migration of the native salmon. I wished they had never been built. I wanted them gone… but I also didn’t want big fossil fuel power plants… or nuclear plants… but I wanted my lights to turn on.

I wanted plentiful energy, clean energy, and free-flowing rivers. And probably the most insightful thing that the engineer I spoke with told me was this: “People need to figure out what they want.” Do they want air-conditioning during the Summer and heat in the Winter? Do they want the lights to turn on when they flip the switch? And, how much are they willing to spend for this? Answer these questions, he said, and then we can explore the energy options. When I lived in the Pacific Northwest, I wanted things that were, ultimately, irreconcilable.

Part 3: Making Religious Sense of these Issues
And, now I’m going to say something marginally religious: that if we want these things (cars, air-conditioning, electricity, etc.) for ourselves, we have to want them for everybody. If we want to drive cars and turn on the air-conditioner, then we have to want these things for everybody else, including the populations of China and India. We can’t say, “I want to be able to drive and turn on my lights, but you do not get to.” And from the perspective of your person living in China or India or Indonesia or Brazil, they would say: “Well, you’ve been able to guzzle gas and heat your homes and so on for the last half-century. We only want what you’ve had all your life.”

There are some who would say, “Well, the world is over-populated. There are just too many people.” Which may be a factual statement, but it is a morally in-actionable one. The second you declare that there are too many people, you need to propose a solution: namely, who should there be less of and how should we make that happen? (The answers to that question are so often tinged with racism – the world is overpopulated and we need less black and brown and tan and yellow people.) And really, if you look at it honestly, shouldn’t there be less of those who are the biggest energy consumers, by which I mean, upper class and upper-middle class suburban Americans?

You can go ahead and propose that there should be less of us, but to propose that with any sincerity is ill. Imagine you are at your company holiday party, and you remarked, the environment would be better if half of us just disappeared. Most people would politely excuse themselves from your company and regard you warily. There used to be a nihilistic bumper-sticker about a decade ago that read, “Save the planet, kill yourself.” It was a witty sticker, because if you take the logic to its natural conclusion, you end up somewhere close to that.

Environmental activism is different than just about every other kind of activism. Suppose you are someone who is against homophobia. You can do all sorts of things to support GLAAD. You can vote for politicians that will stand up for Gay Rights. You can re-arrange your retirement investments so that you only own stock in companies that give same-sex partner benefits.

If you are a peace activist, you can march. You can vote for politicians who oppose the war. You can even refuse to pay your taxes as a statement against the war – of course you’ll go to jail for this. But you can move to a country that opposes the war. You can move to Switzerland.

If you are an environmentalist, even as you organize and vote and letter-write and educate and everything else you do, you will also consume natural resources. You will use energy. Even if you decide to move and live on the side of a mountain and eat berries and roots and twigs, you will still need to build yourself a campfire that adds carbon to the atmosphere.

What did John Muir say? “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” We are all hitched to everything else. We all consume. It is worthy to attempt to consume less and consume more wisely than our neighbors. Although, if you think for a second that I feel morally superior to only spend $79.94 per month on my utilities, I don’t. In the larger analysis, I still consume more than 95% of the world’s population. If everybody lived like me, the environment would be worse, not better.

But I also like how I live. I find my life has meaning… purpose, and worth, and love. It is worth living, albeit imperfectly. And maybe I can stand to live a little better. I wonder if I can lower my energy bills by ten dollars per month?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Something completely unrelated to ministry...

I am looking forward to next Tuesday's (9/18) release of the new full-length album "Spirit if..." by Broken Social Scene, their fourth as a group.

BSS, based in Toronto, is a rock band with up to 19 members, almost a collective of musicians. I got to see them play in Lawrence, KS in 2006 when they opened for Death Cab for Cutie and BSS put on a mesmerizing show. They featured anywhere from 6 to 11 musicians on stage at any one time, but it was difficult to count as the members of the band often wandered from instrument to instrument (as well as on and off stage) in the middle of their songs. At one point the line-up had six electric guitars and two drum-sets. At another point, a five piece brass ensemble. And, at still other points a mix of keyboards, violin, tambourine, maracas, you name it. One band member spent an entire song manipulating guitar-feedback.

I can't wait to hear the newest tunes by one of the most innovative bands on the scene today. Next Tuesday can't come soon enough!

Sermon: "Keeping the Faith / Encouraging Faith" (Delivered 9-9-07)

So, a Catholic Priest walks into a bar…

The film clip we’re about to watch comes from Keeping the Faith, a romantic comedy that came out in the year 2000. The plot involves best friends – a Rabbi (Ben Stiller) and a Priest (Ed Norton, Jr.) – who simultaneously fall in love with their long-lost childhood friend Anna (Jenna Elfman), who has, in the intervening years, blossomed into a gorgeous and successful businesswoman. In the scene we’re about to see, the Priest, after a clumsy and failed attempt to seduce Anna, has just been informed by her that she is in love his best friend the Rabbi instead of him. The scene commences with Norton’s encounter with an eccentric bartender as he tries to drink his sorrows away and concludes with a heart-to-heart discussion with another priest.


This is the third sermon in a series on Covenants in Liberal Religion. In July’s sermon I showed a film clip from Raiders of the Lost Ark and talked about the difference between faiths that gather around shared creeds and beliefs, and faiths (like ours) that gather around shared covenants. Last month, in August, I showed a film clip from the movie “Friday Night Lights” and talked about the covenant of membership in a Unitarian Universalist church. What do we promise to each other as members of this church?

This sermon is about the covenants we share about helping one another to grow spiritually. Just as the film clip I just showed had a couple of different parts, this sermon will also have a couple of different parts. In the first part, I will speak of the traditional covenant we share around spiritual growth. In the second part, I will speak about the ways we actually live that covenant in community.

Part 1
In traditional Unitarian Universalism, part of the covenantal relationship we share is called the “Covenant of the Free Pulpit.” It has a corresponding element that is called the “Covenant of the Free Pew.” Yes, this is boring. But it is also important. So, indulge me for a minute or so.

The Covenant of the Free Pulpit says this: I am called to speak the truth to you, as best I understand it and according to my conscious. And you are expected to expect me to do this. It is actually in my contract. The precise wording in my contract is this: “It is a basic premise of this Congregation that the pulpit is free and untrammeled. The minister is expected to express his values, views, and commitments without fear or favor.”

Let’s unpack that a little bit. Free and untrammeled… a trammel is what you put on horses. It is a fetter or a shackle designed to restrain movement. “Untrammeled” means you expect me to preach the truth howsoever I see it. And to preach it “without fear or favor” means two things. Preaching without favor means that there is nobody pulling puppet strings, nobody in my pocket instructing me in what to say or not say. Preaching without fear means that you agree to respect that what I say comes from my own convictions – my own life passed through the fire of thought – and that even if you disagree strongly with me, you will respect that my preaching comes from a place of conviction and conscience.

(By the way, this whole concept is going be to put to the test next Sunday. Each year at the church auction I put a sermon up for sale. The person who buys the sermon buys the right to assign me to preach on a topic that they find interesting. They buy the right to assign me research, or experiences that will expand my understanding. What they don’t buy however is my conscience. For example, if the person who buys the sermon wants me to preach about Alien Abduction, I don’t have to come out and say that Alien Abduction is a real phenomenon. I will preach to you what my own reason and conscience have to say about it. Last year, the winner of the sermon for sale was a distinguished engineer who works on coal-fired power plants and whose views on the environment differ from the views of others in this church on the environment. He wanted me to learn some of what he knows about coal energy and preach a sermon in light of it, which intend to do, but he didn’t buy my voice. My voice will be my own as I consider a topic that many of you have strong feelings about. It is not his sermon. It is my sermon on a theme that he bought the right to assign me.)

I want to share with you the extremely provocative saying of one of the most respected senior ministers in Unitarian Universalism. He once told his congregation, before preaching a controversial sermon, that if he offended them, if he angered them, if they thought that he was absolutely wrong, then their correct response should be to immediately and significantly increase their financial pledges to the church because his willingness to take an unpopular position proves that the pulpit is, in fact free, and that he was not trying to be political and dishonest to keep them satisfied, but that he was freely speaking the truth as he knew it – and not just telling them what he thought they wanted to hear.

The corollary to the covenant of the free pulpit is the covenant of the free pew. This covenant expects that you will come to listen to what is said from the free pulpit and pass what you hear through the fire of your own thought. As Suzanne Meyer puts it, “You’re not expected to take what I say on faith. You’re expected to engage it with your mind and with your heart.”

This covenant of free pulpit and free pew are interactive. We’re only living within this covenant when we actually engage in the weekly act of worship together. If you do not exercise your freedom of the pew, you deny the freedom of the pulpit. If I do not exercise my freedom of the pulpit, it isn’t worth your time to show up and sit and listen to me go through the motions.

A covenant is a set of commonly held promises… a set of commonly held promises that are enduring, but evolving… a set of commonly held promises that are taken seriously, taken so seriously that they are treated as sacred… but they are difficult promises to live up to, and so a covenant accepts that we will fail to live up to them, but that when we fail to live up to them we will not give up. We will re-enter into covenant, try our best again, but still may never fully live up to the promises we have made.

Part 2
I don’t want to spend the whole sermon talking about promises we make between the pulpit and the pew. I want to make it about something broader. In our Unitarian Universalist seven principles, there is in the third principle this very interesting phrase: “Encouragement to spiritual growth.” The seven principles, by the way, articulate the basic covenants we share as a religious community.

So, what does it mean “to encourage one another to spiritual growth?” “Growth” can be kind of buzz word when we talk about churches. We can talk about growth in numerical terms: How many members do we have? How many seats are full on Sunday? We can talk in terms of a growing budget, a growing number of programs, even a growing number of social service opportunities. All these are measurable. But, how do we actually measure “spiritual growth”?

Well, one way is we conflate these, to assume that one is a sign of the other. We think – well, if we have more people, more full seats, more programs, more social service opportunities – then we must be growing spiritually! Maybe. Or maybe it is a false correlation. Does a growth in membership mean that we have grown in the spiritual practice of hospitality? Does growth in budget mean that we have grown in the spiritual practice of generosity? Do more social action opportunities mean we are growing in the spiritual practice of prophetic outreach and service? Maybe. Maybe not.

But this brings us back to the question. What does the phrase “encouragement to spiritual growth” mean? And how do we encourage each other to spiritual growth? Do we offer the encouragement with abrupt frankness, “Hey you. Grow spiritually!” Do we encourage with more subtlety? “Hey, have you ever considered spiritual growth?”

But seriously, what does this encouragement to spiritual growth look like, besides my earlier encouragement for you to practice the freedom of the pew in partnership with my practice of freedom of the pulpit. How do we encourage each other to grow spiritually?

As I stand here, my first temptation is to resort to a list of programs that this church offers. Adult religious classes; volunteering in meaningful ways; getting involved in social action initiatives or starting your own; those types of things. But I want to resist that temptation because I think those kinds of answers take all of us, as individuals, off the hook. It says you grow spiritually through a class or a committee or a group or Sunday morning (and we do grow that way) but what about that sense of personal encouragement? I don’t want to take us, as individuals, off the hook that easily.

In our UU tradition, I think back to the intense, up and down friendship shared by the older Ralph Waldo Emerson and the young upstart Henry David Thoreau. You can imagine them taking their long philosophical walks through the woods of Concord. They challenged each other intellectually, provoking each others’ genius. It was also in each other’s presence that Emerson had many of his earliest transcendently spiritual experiences. According to Emerson biographer Robert Richardson, Henry David Thoreau had taken Emerson on a canoe trip, about which Emerson remarked, “We went to the boat and left all time, all science, all history behind us, and entered into nature with one stroke of the paddle.” He goes on in his journal to describe this canoe trip in ecstatic terms.

So, I have an inclination not just to tell you to sign up for classes or programs and come to worship, but to actually do that Emerson / Thoreau thing with each other. How would that work?

I have an outstanding colleague with whom I serve on a national-level UU committee. The first time I met him, he asked me within three minutes of meeting me, “How is your spiritual practice?” I was without a good answer. I got defensive and think I might have barked something back like, “How is YOUR spiritual practice.” And then the second time he met me, he asked, “Thom, how is your spiritual practice?” And then the third, and then the fourth, this same question. By the fourth time, I knew I was going to have to answer him. Yes, this was annoying. It was relentless. I was being encouraged to spiritual growth.

How often do these questions turn up in the relationships we share with each other in this congregation? How often do we ask each other questions like:
“How is your prayer life?”
“How is your meditation going?”
“How are you dealing with that (choose one of the following) anger, insecurity, fear, disappointment, loneliness, grief, guilt, frustration, emptiness, depression, etc.?
How often do we ask one another:
“Where is the holy in your life right now?”
“For what do you thirst?”
“What are you talking about with God these days?”
“How is your spiritual practice?”
I want to end today by suggesting to you that part of our covenant is, in the words of our third principle, to “encourage one another to spiritual growth.” How to do this without sounding condescending may be a challenge. But, what if this is a part of the promise we are expected to make to each other?

In the film clip I showed you at the beginning of the sermon we find the Priest played by Ed Norton, Jr. dousing his woes with spirits. In the next scene he has sobered up. It is this that scene I find touching: a young priest going to an older priest for advice, and the older priest encouraging him to spiritual growth. The Catholic tradition may or may not make a whole lot of sense to us, but I find in that exchange to be sweet and caring and meaningful.

May every Ed Norton find their confidant. (But not an eccentric bartender.)

May every Emerson find their Thoreau.

May we all become confident enough in ourselves to encourage each other to spiritual growth and may we all become secure enough to receive the encouragement of one another.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sermon: "Religious Literacy" (Delivered 9-2-07)

Opening Words
One of the recurring features on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno is a segment called “Jaywalking” in which Leno takes to the streets and asks easy questions to the people he encounters, who, in turn, offer up answers that are pathetically wrong. Asked to name the first President of the United States, someone might answer “George Bush.” Asked to name the Secretary of State, another person might answer, “Osama bin Laden.” (Letterman is better than Leno, by the way… just a personal opinion.) But, the humor in Leno’s segment is supposed to derive from our feeling that the wild ignorance of the person on the street is funny, and that we the people watching at home are smarter and more sophisticated.

Every couple of months, you can count on some newspaper or internet story decrying the lack of knowledge of some wide segment of the American populace. One story, detailing our geographic ignorance, tells us one out of five American adults can’t locate the United States on a world map. (You can watch the Youtube video of Miss South Carolina offering her thoughts on this.) Another article says that one out of four American adults did not read even a single book in 2006. I’ve heard of a middle school in at least one city whose teachers offer evening math classes for parents because the school district realized so many of the parents could not understand the homework assignments their twelve year-olds were bringing home. These stories can tend to make some of us feel smart and superior, but they are also saddening and depressing. The health of our nation is and has forever been intimately bound to education.

As Unitarian Universalists, we see nothing wrong with eating from the tree of knowledge. We are also aware that knowing about religion and practicing religion are two different things. And so this morning, as we consider a book about what we actually know and don’t know about religion, we will also be asking deeper questions about how our lives can live up to our minds.

Reading
The reading this morning comes from the newest book by Stephen Prothero called “Religious Literacy: What Every American should know about religion – and doesn’t.” Here is how Prothero’s book begins:
“A few years ago I was standing around the photocopier at BU when a visiting professor from Austria offered a passing observation about American undergraduates. They are very religious, he told me, but they know next to nothing about religion. In Austria, compulsory religious education begins in elementary school and European students can name the twelve apostles and the seven deadly sins, even though most of them wouldn’t be caught dead going to church or the synagogue. Amercian students are just the opposite. Here faith without understanding is the standard; here religious ignorance is bliss.

"Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. They are Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels, Catholics who can’t name the seven sacraments, and Jews who can’t name the first five books of Moses. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates….

"According to recent polls, most American adults cannot name one of the four Gospels, and many high school students think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A few years ago, no one in Jay Leno’s Tonight Show audience could name any of Jesus’ twelve apostles…

"One might imagine that ignorance of Christianity and the Bible is restricted to non-Christians or at least to non-Evangelicals. But born-again Christians do only moderately better than other Americans on surveys of religious literacy.

"[And], when it comes to religions other than Christianity, Americans fare far worse. One might hope that US citizens would know the most basic formulas of the world’s religions: the five pillars of Islam, for example, or Buddhism’s four noble truths. But most Americans have difficulty even naming these religions. In a recent survey of American teenagers, barely half were able to name Buddhism and less than half Judaism when asked to list the world’s five major religions. Far fewer could name Islam or Hinduism.” [p. 1-6]

Sermon
I grew up as a Unitarian Universalist in a small town in Massachusetts. In sixth grade our religious education curriculum covered Eastern religious traditions. We saw slide shows of Muslim minarets and mosques, Buddhist temples and Hindu shrines, statues of the Buddha, Shiva, and Kali. We also learned about Confucian, Taoist, and Shinto traditions. I have no doubt that as a result of my UU religious education I was more informed about religious diversity than the children of any other religion in my town. I was also better informed about religious diversity than the children of no religious tradition in town.

Here, in our congregation, we offer on alternating years the Neighboring Faiths curriculum in which our middle schoolers learn about, are exposed to, and visit the faith communities of our neighboring faiths. I have no doubt that as a result of our UU religious education program our children are more informed about religious diversity than the children of any other religion in Johnson County. Our children are also better informed about religious diversity than the children of no religious tradition.

I am going to try hard not to make this a book report sermon, but I want to introduce you to Stephen Prothero’s book, which is a lot richer than just a ranting lament about how few Americans know any of the four noble truths of Buddhism (very, very few it turns out) or know that the two clauses in first amendment to the United States Constitution that concern religion are the establishment clause and the exercise clause. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Those are the first words of the Bill of Rights, by the way.

Far from a rant, Prothero writes of what we once knew about religion, how we forgot it, and how we might grow in religious literacy once again. I do not know of Prothero’s personal religious beliefs, but I am certain that he is not trying to promote any specific religious agenda.

Prothero begins by going back to the origins of our country and points out that ours was the first country in human history to insist on universal literacy for every man, woman, and child. The reason for this insistence was religious, based on a particular theological idea that we were called to understand the scriptures for ourselves, rather than leave their interpretation to priests and Popes. The purpose of literacy was to be able to read and understand the Bible and most of the earliest books for children were overtly religious. “A is for Adam” began the New England Primer, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” While Prothero insists these early Americans knew their Bible forwards and backwards, I think we would hesitate to call this world paradise.

The author then chronicles the causes of religious illiteracy in our nation. He points out that Evangelicals like to point to a Supreme Court case from the early nineteen-sixties banning school prayer and to the secularism of the sixties and seventies as the reason for our religious illiteracy today. But, according to Prothero, the cause goes back more than a century earlier. The First and Second Great Awakenings of the mid-1700’s and early-1800’s – the first evangelical movements in America – were the heart’s answer to the heady piety that had pre-existed it. Those revivalists stressed not reading the Bible but feeling the spirit. They stressed devotion over doctrine. As Prothero puts it, “Ironically, the United States became a nation of forgetters at the same time it became a nation of evangelicals.”

But, in Prothero’s telling of history, liberals share the blame as well. In pushing for universal public education, Unitarian Horace Mann advanced a non-sectarian solution to education. Mann’s vision for public education included teaching piety and virtues, but thought the only doctrines that should be taught were the ones on which all denominations could agree. (Or, not that many.) You might imagine a religious melting pot that would first include all the Protestants, then the Catholics, then the Jews, and now, most recently, the Muslims as well as we talk of the religions of Abraham. What this does is blur distinction and difference for the sake of unity, but at the expense of literacy.

This continues even today, by the way. Today’s largest mega-churches are truly post-denominational. Whether we are talking about Joel Osteen’s 50,000 member Lakeland mega-church in Houston or Rick Warren’s 35,000 member Saddleback church in Orange County, what these churches have in common is that they have abandoned denominational identity entirely. Consider the titles of the bestselling books by the ministers of these churches, titles like: “Your Best Life Now”, “Become a Better You”, “The Purpose Driven Life.” These are not the type of books that make you more knowledgeable about your religious tradition. No wonder many Evangelicals (and the rest of us) are stumped when asked to name the four gospels. No wonder, according to Prothero's book, ten percent of Americans think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

As a solution to the problem of religious illiteracy, Prothero makes an impassioned plea for teaching religion in public high schools, colleges, and universities. He imagines religion becoming the fourth “R” – alongside reading, writing, and arithmetic. At the college level, he insists that all students should, at minimum, take a course in Bible 101 and World Religions 101. He also favors making courses on religion normative at the high school level. This suggestion I find to be anxiety producing for those on the religious and secular left and those on the religious right. On the left, there would need to be vigilance that the course material and presentation is absolutely objective and academic and does not devolve into sectarian proselytizing from the teacher. However, the religious right would feel anxiety as well. It is easy to imagine their objections to teachings that would open the minds of their children and undermine the teachings they receive at church. For example, if their church believes that being a Christian is the only way to heaven and that all other religions are the works of Satan, how would they respond to their child taking a survey course on those world religions in which those other beliefs and practices are presented as no more and no less valid than Christian beliefs and practices?

Stephen Prothero is more optimistic than I am. I imagine a conflagration of lawsuits from secular parents claiming their children are being indoctrinated as well as protests and lawsuits from the right claiming that their own faith’s teachings are being denigrated and undermined by classroom instruction. It is worth recalling the words of Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson, cited in Prothero's book, who said, “The task of separating the secular from the religious in education is one of magnitude, intricacy, and delicacy.” It sure is.

It is worth remembering that in the UU church that I grew up in, just as in this church, the teaching that we provide about world’s religions is not objective, nor is it value neutral. We teach that those who practice Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, neo-paganism, and Native American spiritualities deserve to have their faith respected. We teach that diversity in religion is good for our community and world. We teach that we have something to learn from them. We teach that their existence, by virtue of its existence, enriches our lives. This sounds benign, almost obvious to us. But these are all ideas that come out of our values. And so I find myself wanting public school students to learn about the world’s religions the way I learned about them in church. That isn’t exactly neutrality though.

I said I wouldn’t give you a book report this morning. And so, I bracket Prothero’s commentary on religious literacy and illiteracy for a moment. As a life-long Unitarian Universalist I tend to be fairly opinionated in matters of religion. As the child of two parents with over 55 years combined of public high school teaching experience, I tend to be fairly opinionated about public education as well. And, if we were looking for the so-called “fourth R”, besides reading, writing, and arithmetic, I am not sure that religion is the top choice. I can tell you that the current fourth “R” is preparing for standardized tests. (Perhaps, it is more fair to say that preparing students for standardized tests is now the first “R.”) But what should be the next top priority? I can imagine several. I can see someone making the point that every student should be expected to learn Spanish. I can see someone making the point that every student should be expected to learn Chinese. Considering the woes that many in our nation face, I can imagine someone making the point that every student should be expected to learn personal finance – then we might have less financial ruin, less bankruptcy, less people signing papers for sub-prime mortgages, less pay-day loan shops. I can imagine any of you who work in the health field saying that schools should teach better health habits, exercise, nutrition, sexual health, especially in light of our nation’s health woes. And I can imagine some of you advocating for other areas.

Is religious literacy more important than financial literacy? Is religious literacy more important than health literacy? Is religious literacy for important than language fluency in a world where we who live in this country may need to be functionally bi-lingual in Spanish in order to live from day to day and any of us who aspire to careers in business will be required to know Chinese?

But, it wasn’t my goal this morning to present a book report. And, it wasn’t my goal to offer an impassioned discourse on the present and future of public education. I want to return for a few moments to the religious side of religious literacy and say a few words about its importance.

First of all, religious literacy allows us to actually be conversant within our own culture. And, I’m not just talking about being able to understand pieces of art at the Nelson-Atkins museum. It has been frequently pointed out that a lot of political speech is coded theology designed to speak to conservative Evangelicals. Consider one of the questions from the quiz you’ve been given. The question asks what story George Bush was referencing in his first inaugural address when he spoke of the Jericho Road. Be honest, how many of you knew he was referring to the story of the good Samaritan?

Allow me to quote the passage from the President’s address that contains that reference: “Many in our country do not know the pain of poverty. But we can listen to those who do. And I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side. America, at its best, is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected.”

Whoa! Hold on a second here. If you are religiously literate… if you are familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan… if you understand the context of that story from the Gospel of Luke – then you can actually enter into this discussion. The question I would ask is this: is the story of the Good Samaritan a story about personal responsibility? Is this story being interpreted correctly, or is it being mis-used? Is his use of the Good Samaritan story valid?

We are called to be discerning people. We are called to ask – is this newspaper’s use of statistics valid? Is that scientific research valid? And, as well, is that biblical interpretation valid? Is that depiction of religion valid? The first reason to become religiously literate is that knowledge equals power.

A second compelling reason to be religiously literate is that it actually has the potential to change the depth and quality of your own faith. Let me explain what I mean by that.

For the last four years I have met intermittently with a support group for young clergy here in Kansas City. The group is composed mostly of mainline Christians: UCC and Disciples, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans. There is a widely accepted truth that Mainline Christian clergy tend to be more liberal than the congregations they serve. The reason for this is that the seminary experience for these clergy tends to be mind-opening. At a place like St. Paul’s or Brite or Vanderbilt or the Pacific School of Religion they are exposed to those of different faiths and traditions – those who interpret the Bible differently, pray differently, emphasize the sacraments differently. They learn that there isn’t just one way. (By the way, this liberalizing experience does not hold true at the Bible institutes that tend to train the more evangelical Christians.) And then, after seminary, Mainline pastors tend to seek out ecumenical if not interfaith groups to be a part of… for fellowship, for sanity, for creativity. Such reinforced exposure to difference has a naturally liberalizing influence.

Such an influence can also be found by learning about different faith traditions. Diana Eck, one of the foremost thinkers on religious diversity, has a saying that she is fond of. “If you know one religion, you know no religion. If you know more than one religion, you know your own religion.”

In the end, that might be the most compelling reason for religious literacy. The more you know about faiths other than your own, the more you know, implicitly about your own. Religious literacy is much more than being able to answer trivia questions. It is about understanding – a worthy goal for the seeking.