Thursday, January 31, 2008

Day 12: 29 Days of Gratitude

How I came up with this day is a little bit random. Years and years ago I heard a factoid on the radio... or maybe I read it in a book... or maybe it was some person without any idead who told me it - but regardless of my source, the factoid was that the average American sees some stupendously low number of sunsets and sunrises in a year. Each year, there are 730 sunsets and sunrises combined and I would wager that, with the exception of those glanced at while we are commuting, we see about 1%. And it is hard to be in the presence of awe while driving in rush hour traffic.

Somehow I've always found this amazing, regardless of whether the source was reliable or not. A sunset or a sunrise, besides holding the capacity for stunning beauty, announces time. A sunrise declares, "Here is a day that you have been given." A sunset can soothe us by announcing the ending of a day but it can also challenge us by asking, "What have you done with the gift of this day?"

The Practice: On Tuesday, February 12th, take the time to witness a sunrise or a sunset. Express gratitude for the gift of this day.

Day 11: 29 Days of Gratitude

In my sermon "Experiments in Gratitude" I said the following:
In discussing this sermon-series with the worship committee, one of its members, T.K., shared the results of a psychological study that I found absolutely fascinating. According to this study, if at the end of your day you make a list of three things particular to that day for which you are thankful, and then speak those things out loud to another person, it has the same effect as taking a low-grade anti-depressant drug. The types of things that might be on such a list could include: hitting every green light on the way to work; receiving a compliment on your sweater while in line at the store; receiving praise for a project at work or school; getting a caring call or email from a friend or relative; seeing a cardinal; or even just enjoying a perfectly ripe piece of fruit.
On Monday, February, 11 keep track of these types of things. Who smiles at you? Was lunch particularly delicious?

Practice: At the end of the day, make a list of 3-5 small things for which to be grateful. Share this gratitude list with another person.

Or share it in the comment section below.

Day 10: 29 Days of Gratitude

Whatever you do, you will not want to miss my sermon this morning entitled, "Dear SMUUCh: A Love Letter". I expect this sermon will have people talking.

But that has nothing directly to do with the practice of gratitude for Sunday, February 10th. It is the way of religious community as it is the way of all communities that people come and go, and relationships move from periods of intense closeness to times of greater separation. The Practice for today has to with expressing gratitude in religious community.

If you are a long-time member, give a call to someone you know who doesn't attend SMUUCh anymore and tell them you are thinking of them.
If you have been attending long enough to feel like a member with some history, give a call to someone you don't see as often anymore but wish you did.
If you are new enough to the church that the above practices don't feel right to you, perhaps give a call to someone in the directory you have never met before and introduce yourself.

Who do you miss? Who do you think of with deep gratitude in your heart? Who are you thankful to have the chance to meet?

Day 9: 29 Days of Gratitude

February is African-American History Month. The impact of African-Americans on our national and local history is too often ignored or under-emphasized. The month of February helps to remind us to learn more about the entirety of our nation's history.

Both Kansas and Kansas City have been locations where African-Americans have played an important role in the history of our nation. Topeka, KS provided the Brown vs. Board of Education court case which deemed "separate but equal" to be unconstitutional. (I attended the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Brown decision a few years ago.)

Kansas City has two national treasures located right next to each other: The American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. (These museums are rated as two of the top ten Black museums in the country.) Kansas City's history boasts of some of the greatest Jazz and Blues musicians of all time. The Kansas City Monarchs were one of the most heralded of the Negro Leagues teams.

I invite you to come join me at 12:00 for a visit to the Jazz Museum in the 18th & Vine neighborhood. Or, if your afternoon is busy, maybe come in the evening to hear saxophonist Bobby Watson & the Live and Learn Band.

Practice: Take some time today to learn about local African-American history. If you can't join us at the museum, go get a book from the library and also borrow a jazz CD.

If you have a favorite book about African-American history or a favorite Jazz or Blues CD, drop me a note in the comment section.

Day 8: 29 Days of Gratitude

Ralph Waldo Emerson writes:

"We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. The whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth."

Today's practice centers around developing a greater gratitude for that "whole human family" of which Emerson speaks. The challenge for today is to honor someone "we scarcely speak to." It may be someone we "see in the street" or someone we pass in the hallway at work. It may be someone we pass in the store.

Practice: Speak to someone you do not know. See if you can imagine this person "bathed with an element of love like a fine ether." Be grateful for this.

How did it go? Share below.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Day 7: 29 Days of Gratitude

In college one of my classmates who was also a Unitarian Universalist had a very simple practice of giving thanks for the food he ate. Before each meal he would pause briefly and silently mouth the words "Thank you."

Recently, a family in our church shared the family grace they say before meals. The words are adapted from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"For each new morning with its light.
For rest and shelter of the night.
For health and food.
For love and friends.
For everything that goodness sends."

Practice: On Thursday, 2/7 express gratitude for the food that you eat. You can do this as simply as mouthing "thank you" or by finding a reading that expresses gratitude.

If you have a particular table grace that you say, feel free to list it in the comment section below.

Day 6: 29 Days of Gratitude

Wednesday, February 6th is, in the Christian tradition, Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a serious season of purpose in preparation leading towards joy and triumph of Easter.

In our congregation we have some members who find significance and meaning in the Christian liturgical year. We also have many members who do not find Christian traditions meaningful to their own spiritual journey. (In fact, we have many members who tend to associate Lent with not being allowed to eat sugar as children and are perplexed about what that has to do with the Passion stories in the Gospel.)

Regardless of which group you find yourself in, there is a way to observe this day.

Practice: Recall the story of a person who suffered trying to make the world more fair and just. Express gratitude for the life of this hero or martyr. Tell the story of this life to someone else.

In the comment section below, I invite you to name heroes and martyrs who gave of the themselves selflessly to work for a better world

Monday, January 28, 2008

Day 5: 29 Days of Gratitude

A friend of mine is fond of saying that you have no business celebrating St. Patrick's Day unless you get up to go to early morning mass on St. Patrick's Day. By his criteria, what would he say about celebrating Mardi Gras unless you plan to go to services for Ash Wednesday and commit to a spirtual practice for the season of Lent?

I think this is a fair question. Does it reflect integrity to laissez les bon temps roulez and then give no thought to the somber weeks that follow? While you ponder this question, I will say that it is a lot of fun to put on some beads, to wear bright purple and gold clothing, and to escape from winter's heavy seriousness with an attitude of celebration.

Practice: With a joyful heart, give thanks for the ability to celebrate.

But, February 5th is not only Fat Tuesday. It is also Super Tuesday.

So, go ahead and wear your beads and bright clothes to your caucus site or primary polling place and celebrate our Democracy by actively participating in it!

Practice: With a grateful heart, exercise your civic responsibility by participating in our electoral system.

Day 4: 29 Days of Gratitude

A former member of SMUUCh recently send me a gift: a mix-CD with some of her favorite songs. I replied to her with an email listing some of my favorite songs and some of the music I've been listening to recently:

+ The soundtrack to the movie "Juno", especially all the songs by Kimya Dawson.
+ Two songs by the band Death Cab for Cutie: "Different Names for the Same Thing" and "What Sarah Said."
+ The song "All of the Trees of the Field will Clap their Hands" by Sufjan Stevens
+ The soundtrack to the movie "Once". (Listen to it live in concert.)

Practice: Give thanks for music.

There are a bunch of ways to do this. If you are not musically inclined, you can put on a favorite CD. If you are musically inclined, you can sing or play the instrument you play. Or, maybe share the music you appreciate with someone by lending them your iPod or some CDs from your collection.

Also, you might take a listen to a concert available for free at NPR's All Songs Considered.

What did you listen to?

Day 3: 29 Days of Gratitude

The practice of gratitude for Sunday, February 3rd has to do with practicing gratitude in the context of religious community. Just as living as a thankful person means living a better life, so too does the practice of giving thanks make our religious communities healthier and more vital.

Practice: Meet someone in church that you don't know very well and let them know that you are glad that they are part of this religious community.

Not too hard, right? Of course, the key to do this is to do it authentically and in a way that is not cheesy, or forced, or fake. Learn something about that other person. Ask them why they come to SMUUCh and what the church means to them. You get the idea.

If for some strange reason you are unable to attend church this Sunday, that doesn't let you off the hook. Flip through your directory until you find a name that you don't recognize and give that person a call and introduce yourself.

What is the Biblical teaching about strangers being angels in disguise...

Day 2: 29 Days of Gratitude

The spiritual practice for Saturday, February 2nd involves paying attention to and expressing gratitude for nature. Certainly this is an easier practice in mid-May than in the first week of February. But, if you pay attention you will still observe nature.

Practice: Take time out of your day to notice the natural world and cultivate a sense of awe, wonder, and gratitude for nature.

There are many ways to do this. The simplest way is to look out of your window, perhaps at a birdfeeder or at squirrels in a tree. Or, you may wish to take a walk and notice the wind, the sky, the air. Take time on your walk just to listen.

If you are interested in a group practice, I invite you to join me for a nature walk at Shawnee Mission Park. Regardless of the weather, we will gather at 9am at the trailhead of the hiking trail that is directly across from shelter number 8. (Enter the park off 87th Street. Driving south, you will bear to the left and pass the observation tower and the archery range. The trail is the next left and the parking lot of the trailhead has a statue of a bicycle near it.)

You are welcome to join me. And you are welcome to share your reflections in the comment section below.

Day 1: 29 Days of Gratitude

A marathon begins with just one step...

The spiritual practice for Friday, February 1st is one that is actually quite simple. (Perhaps you will find it annoyingly simple.) But, I am a big believer into easing into a practice. The practice for today is a practice in easing in.

Practice: Make a list of three to five things in your life for which you are grateful.

Simple, right? If you want to go further you may wish to share this list with somebody like a family member or close friend. If you are practicing gratitude as a part of a family or a group, you might work together to come up with your lists and then share them with each other. Or, you may wish to share your list in the comment section below.

Sermon: "Experiments in Gratitude" (Delivered 1-27-08)

There are two short one-liners about prayer with which I want to begin this morning’s sermon. The first is from an episode of the Simpson’s from many years ago where the family gathers around the dinner table and Bart Simpson is invited to say grace. He bows his head and says, “Dear God, we paid for all this food ourselves so thanks for nothing.”

The second one-liner comes from spiritual writer Anne Lamott who states that there are really only two types of prayers: “Please, please, please, please, please” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Ah, and we are back talking about prayer and spiritual practice again today in this, the second sermon in the series called “Get a (Spiritual) life.” But, before we get to prayer and spiritual practice I want to back up a little bit and offer some comments for your consideration about context. [These comments are embellished from a discussion with eleven other ministers at a growth conference I attended last November.]

I want to generalize. I want to suggest that while we live in a land of plenty, a land of prosperity, a context of widespread comfort for most of us gathered here this morning, that we are not a comfortable people. I want to suggest that there is a sense of dissatisfaction for many of us that permeates and pervades our living. This dissatisfaction is often framed in terms of a disappointment with our political climate, but the dissatisfaction goes beyond politics. The dissatisfaction is often framed as concern for issues – homophobia, global climate change, or poverty – but the dissatisfaction transcends our justice concerns. I want to suggest that the dissatisfaction is rooted in our very culture. There are hungers that are our culture does not feed. Hunger for depth. Hunger for relationship. Hunger for life. To paraphrase my colleague Michael Schuler, “We are a life-seeking people in a largely death-focused culture.” We want to replace irrational fears with trust. We want to replace attitudes that divide and separate us with meaningful connections. I want to claim that there is this sense of emptiness and restlessness that we are trying to fill. And coming here, to this church, is about feeding this hunger. It is about filling this void. It is about having the courage to try to create a culture that meets the needs that our larger culture fails to meet. Further, I would suggest, spiritual practice is one part of changing ourselves and defying the culture that conspires to leave us feeling hungry and vaguely uncomfortable.

This past week I read a book entitled Worship that Works by two UU ministers, Wayne Arnason and Kathleen Rolenz, who spent a sabbatical road-tripping across the United States and visiting houses of worship – UU and non-UU – that were widely held to have outstanding and transformational worship services. Currently, I am writing a review of their book for a denominational publication, so I’ll spare you too much detail. In their book, these two ministers devote considerable attention to describing the theory behind different parts of a church service.

In their section on prayer they describe the formula most common in Protestant prayers. The formula can be remembered by the acronym ACTS, which stands for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication.

It is interesting that for three out of the four parts the authors needed to reframe the words very deliberately to make them palatable to most Unitarian Universalists. Adoration, they say, usually has to do with titles given to God, titles like, “All powerful God, King of Kings, Lord of Heaven and Earth, creator of the universe, et cetera…” They reframe this by asking Unitarian Universalists to name feelings of awe, wonder, and grandeur.

Similarly, with confession the authors explain that this need not have anything to do with the notion of original sin. Rather, they advise, if our spiritual practice brings us into a place of utter honesty and authenticity, then we will be aware that we do not always embody our best selves. We will tell the truth about our own imperfections.

The third part they needed to significantly reframe is supplication, or asking. That is the “please, please, please” part. They explain that UUs often tend to be “rightly uncomfortable with this kind of supplication. We don’t believe in a God who is a substitute Santa Claus, dispensing favors like toys from a large knapsack.”

But, it is telling that the authors found it completely unnecessary to recast or reframe or translate the spiritual practice of gratitude and thanksgiving. They write, “Thanksgiving is probably the easiest prayer for Unitarian Universalists…. We are an appreciative people, thankful for our health, our lives, our communities, for liberal religion, for one another. We give thanks for food, for our volunteers, for our programs, for our ministers.” They said it, not me. Another UU minister once said something to the effect of, “If Unitarian Universalists had a shared and universal spiritual practice, it would be an exercise centered in the expression of gratitude.”

Beginning this Friday, February 1st, I am inviting the entire congregation to join me in a month of spiritual practices centered in gratitude. The idea for this was stolen from my wonderful colleague in Pennsylvania, Rev. Ken Beldon. The concept was his; the content is mine. In your order of service, you’ll find an introductory sheet describing the practices for each day. But that is just the beginning. On my blog you will be able to find entries for each of the 29 days of February and a lengthier description of the practice for each day, plus resources, and perhaps some quotes or additional reflections. You will also notice that I will leave the comment section open. You can write your own reflections about participating in the daily practice of gratitude.

A few “nuts and bolts” comments: First, any of these practices can be easily modified for solo practice or family practice. On my blog there will be some suggestions on how to do this. Second, most of the practices can be done in 5 to 15 minutes. Third, all but two or three of them cost nothing. Fourth, you are grown ups. You can alter them, switch days, or whatever. Fifth, have fun.

Finally, I can’t force any of you to participate. All I can do is offer the invitation. What will be the results of the month of gratitude? I have no idea. This is a big experiment. But I am curious about the results of the experiment. What will happen to us individually if we commit to a daily practice of gratitude? What will happen to our congregation if enough of us take up this challenge? Like I said before, I have no idea. That is why it is a big experiment. But, I think we’re on the right track. After all, gratitude is the practice that comes easiest to Unitarian Universalists.

I do, however, have a few hypotheses about what might happen. In discussing this sermon-series with the worship committee, one of its members, T.K., shared the results of a psychological study that I found absolutely fascinating. According to this study, if at the end of your day you make a list of three things particular to that day for which you are thankful, and then speak those things out loud to another person, it has the same effect as taking a low-grade anti-depressant drug. The types of things that might be on such a list could include: hitting every green light on the way to work; receiving a compliment on your sweater while in line at the store; receiving praise for a project at work or school; getting a caring call or email from a friend or relative; seeing a cardinal; or even just enjoying a perfectly ripe piece of fruit.

There are some things on the list that may seem like they have nothing to do with gratitude. For example, on one day, I ask you to celebrate the fact that February is National Baking Month and National Cherry Pie month by baking something. What does baking have to do with gratitude? On the surface, nothing. But go deeper. If you bake with somebody, can you be thankful for time spent in another’s company? If you bake for somebody, can the act of baking be an act of love and an expression of gratitude? Or, ask the Ancient Hebrews. In the Jewish tradition, they commemorate Passover with the eating of unleavened bread, Matzoh. The ancient story tells of the Hebrews needing to flee so suddenly from Egypt that the bread had no chance to rise. For the rest of the year eating risen bread calls to mind freedom and having a settled home. And then, there is the miracle of nature, the magical alchemy of yeast that makes the bread rise.

About two years ago I delivered a sermon on a book by the title, “How to Want What You Have.” The book described three practices: the practice of compassion, the practice of paying attention, and the practice of gratitude. What I discovered was that these practices were inseparable, not bounded, not hermetically sealed one from the others. As you pay more attention you become more thankful; as you become more thankful you also become more compassionate. Work on any one of the three and the other two develop as well. There is an interconnectedness that is evident in all of this.

So, I want to explore gratitude with you, first with a couple of examples and then from a more theoretical basis:

During my entire four and a half years as your minister I have only received two anonymous letters of criticism. Now, my official policy about anonymous feedback is that it goes directly to the shredder and I ignore it as if it was never received. There are two reasons for this. First, anonymous criticism goes against the democratic values for which our religious tradition stands. A democracy aspires to transparency and openness. Our legal system demands that the accused know who their accusers are. The whole point of free speech (or free press, or free assembly, or free anything) is that people can express their own opinions in their own name. The second reason I have the policy of ignoring anonymous criticism has to do with the type of community we hope to build. In such a community, communication is open and direct. Secret and indirect communication has a toxic effect on communal life. But, of course, there is policy and there is reality. The reality is that I do read it, and even though I pretend to ignore it, I do actually stew and steam.

I consider it a sign of health that I’ve only received two anonymous letters of criticism in my 4 1/2 years here. (And, to be honest, I’ve received many, many more letters of anonymous praise, some of them with money inside, and I don’t shred those so I guess that makes me a bit of hypocrite. But I’d still love to know who sent them, so I could thank them.)

In any event, back in 2003 after my first couple of months here I got this anonymous note that said that I chewed with my mouth open. I had already broken bread with dozens and dozens of church members and I had no idea whatsoever who sent it. My decision was immediately two-fold. I could cultivate and direct hatred, irritation, indignation, and wrath towards this mystery person. I could say, “Well, you ain’t exactly Emily Post, either.” Or further, I could fantasize about this person as being someone with horrible body odor, someone who trails six feet of toilet tissue from their shoes, someone who possesses a great fondness for velvet Elvises. Or, I could choose compassion instead – openness on my part despite their anonymity that cut off connection. And from compassion to gratitude – a kind of gratitude that does not condone anonymous criticism but can hold that other in a compassionate place – maybe they would be too embarrassed, too introverted, too intimidated to approach me directly.

One of my colleagues with whom I am most intimate about sharing the joys and sorrows of our ministries and our lives once described a particularly painful situation in her personal life, but then framed that grief in the language of gratitude. At first I wanted to tell her that there is a whole selection of emotions that one very well might feel under these circumstances, but gratitude is not among them. It turns out I was the one who was wrong. For her, a combination of attentiveness and compassionate resulted in gratitude, as unlikely as that was.

Recall one of the most challenging passages from the Christian scriptures: “Love you enemies, do good to those that hate you. Bless those that curse you; pray for those that persecute you.” Gratitude may seem like the easiest of practices, but it just may have the capacity to lead us to places of tremendous strength and depth.

So, this is my challenge to you. Over the next month, experiment with the practice of gratitude. Experiment with gratitude by yourself and experiment with gratitude in cooperation and in community with other people.

What will be the result? I can’t promise anything. But the result may be greater attentiveness, greater compassion, greater awareness of the world around you and – as a consequence of that awareness – a deeper investment in the world around you. It may help you to recreate the culture of this world when you find that culture wanting and diminishing of human life.

Take some risks.

Try out something new.

Bake something.

Being grateful is much better than the alternative.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Month of Gratitude

On January 14, I began a three-part sermon series entitled, "Get a (Spiritual) Life." You can read the sermons here:

Part 1: Prayer Follies & Meditation Misadventures
Part 2: Experiments in Gratitude
Part 3: I Have a Spiritual Life, Now What?

During the month of February every person in the SMUUCh community is being invited (some may call it "challenged") to a daily spiritual practice centered in Gratitude. Each day will have its own unique practice. Most of these practices can be done in 5 to 15 minutes, though you may wish to spend longer. My UU colleague in Pennsylvania, Rev. Ken Beldon, shared the concept of "A Month of Gratitude" with me; I designed the content myself.

Below you will find more information about each day’s practice. Click on each day to find out more about the practice, words of reflection, and other resources. I will also leave the comments section open on each day so you can write about your experiences.

Remember: Feel free to modify, swap days, or invent your own practices. You can practice alone or with another person. Most of all, have fun.

Fri. 2/1: Beginning simply
Sat. 2/2: Gratitude for Nature
Sun. 2/3: Practice Gratitude in Religious Community (Part 1)
Mon. 2/4: Gratitude for music
Tues. 2/5: (Mardi Gras) Celebrating Gratitude
Wed. 2/6: (Ash Wednesday) Gratitude for martyrs and heroes
Thur. 2/7: Gratitude for food
Fri. 2/8: Gratitude for the whole human family
Sat. 2/9: Gratitude for African-American History Month and the contributions of African Americans to the Kansas City metro area
Sun. 2/10: Practice Gratitude in Religious Community (Part 2)
Mon. 2/11: Practicing attentiveness
Tues. 2/12: Gratitude for day's beginning and day's end
Wed. 2/13: Gratitude through baking
Thur. 2/14: (Valentine's Day) Gratitude and Love
Fri. 2/15: (Susan B. Anthony Day) Gratitude for brave women
Sat. 2/16: Gratitude for our bodies
Sun. 2/17: Practice Gratitude in Religious Community (Part 3)
Mon. 2/18: (President's Day) Gratitude for public servants
Tues. 2/19: Practice compassion and understanding
Wed. 2/20: Gratitude for role models
Thur. 2/21: Choose your own Gratitude
Fri. 2/22: Gratitude for small things
Sat. 2/23: Gratitude for businesses that practice responsibility to the community and the environment
Sun. 2/24: Donate the Plate Sunday. Gratitude for Social Justice
Mon. 2/25 Gratitude and grief
Tues. 2/26: Practice Gratitude in Religious Community (Part 4)
Wed. 2/27: Gratitude for hobbies and skills
Thur. 2/28: Cosmic Gratitude
Fri. 2/29: Reflections on Gratitude

Monday, January 21, 2008

Sermon: "Prayer Follies & Meditation Misadventures" (Delivered 1-13-08)

Reading (from the sermon “What is Spirituality Anyway?” by Rev. Peter Morales)

"What experiences are part of my spiritual journey? What experiences are not? Why are we more likely to think the experience of listening to Mozart's Requiem as spiritual and listening to background music at Wal-Mart as other than that? What makes a religious retreat more of a sacred experience than being stuck in traffic? What makes reading poetry more holy than looking up a dentist's phone number in the Yellow Pages? Can dancing be a religious experience? Painting? Gardening? Making love? Writing computer code? Writing a letter? Cooking dinner? Eating a peach? What makes a spiritual experience? Are there real spiritual experiences and phony ones? Last week someone left a seven-page, single-spaced letter in my box here in the office. It was unsigned, save for a handwritten note on the outside that said simply "I'm back." The letter spoke, among other things, of a "spiritual" experience of channeling Jesus. It went on to talk about the evils of ancient pharaohs and their modern descendants, of platonic solids, and of heaven being reachable through a vortex in the Orion Nebula. The writer feels a deep connection to God and Truth. I see the evidence of a disturbed, confused mind…

"How do we know if we are growing spiritually? Can one shrink spiritually? Walk into any bookstore. You would need a truck to take home a copy of every book on spirituality. It is big business. In our own churches we have those who want more spirituality, and others who are disturbed by what they think that might mean. There is great confusion about this."


About seven years ago I performed my first wedding. The couple, aged 21 and 19, was just a few years younger than I. When I sat down for the first time to meet with them, I asked them, “So, will this be the first marriage for each of you?” They nodded in affirmation. This prompted me to blurt out, “Well, this is my first wedding too, so I guess we’re all in this together.”

That story though has nothing on the story of the first funeral I ever performed. I received a call at the church I was serving from someone who had no connection with the church whatsoever. They were asking for a simple graveside ceremony. I went to the funeral home the day before to talk with the family about their wishes. I asked the family members there (including a pair of ex-wives) to tell me a little bit about the life of the man who had died. The family was silent. Finally, one son broke the silence and stated, “Well, we were kind of discussing things and we all came to the conclusion that there is nothing positive that can be said about his life.” Now there was a conversation stopper. I took this as a challenge. I asked about what he enjoyed and one family member replied “Jack Daniels.” This response was met with a round of vigorous nods. I asked about how he spent his time. The answer was “mostly in front of the television.” Feeling hopeful, I followed up on this by inquiring about his favorite programs only to be told that he didn’t watch TV for enjoyment, but rather to yell at it. I pressed on. “Did he have any hobbies?” One son mentioned that he liked hunting. I tried to embellish this. “So, he enjoyed spending time in nature.” The son corrected me. “No, he hated nature. He just liked to shoot things.”

Over the last several months I have received a number of requests from people in this congregation to preach on the subject of prayer, meditation, and spiritual practice. I decided to turn these requests into a three part series that I’ve entitled, “Get a (Spiritual Life)”. The next sermon in this series will be delivered the last Sunday in January and the concluding sermon in the series will be delivered the first Sunday in March. This morning’s message will be more theoretical than practical, but at the end of this month I will preach a sermon introducing spiritual practices centered on gratitude. Then I will challenge the entire congregation to a daily practice of gratitude during the month of February. I don’t know if that sounds bad, but it won’t be that bad.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself here. This morning I want to explore the obstructions – the hurdles and hindrances – that so often get in the way of our cultivating a regular spiritual practices in our weekly or daily lives.

I am curious: how many of you currently engage in an activity that you would describe as a regular spiritual practice? [Answers included walking in nature, saying grace before meals, channeling ancestors through cooking, and meditation.]

I am also curious, how many of you have ever made a plan, made a resolution, to engage in a regular spiritual practice, but then abandoned that practice? [Answers included journaling, meditation, and walking in nature.]

Thanks for your answers. But, let me back up just a little bit and explain why it might be a good thing to have a regular spiritual practice. There are certainly dangers to spiritual practice; none of us want to wind up fixated on vortexes in the Orion nebula. But, the greatest danger, I might offer, has to do with becoming too inwardly focused, too self-centered. There is the danger of the practice becoming a kind of narcissism, a solipsism. A quote was recently brought to my attention by the legendary Reverend William Sloane Coffin, who once quipped, “There is no smaller package than a man wrapped up in himself.”

On the other hand, there is a sense that while “prayer does not change things. But prayer does change people and people change things.” Those of us who dedicate our lives to serving others, and especially those who are called to invest their lives in fighting for social change, for justice and against oppression are regularly cautioned on the importance of maintaining a regular and robust spiritual practice. This fact is as true for parents as it is for activists.

We are told, they are told, that a regular spiritual practice is what will keep you from growing depressed and despondent, angry and uncivil, negative and burned out. Rather than being self-centered, we’re told that spiritual practice will give us the strength to stick with the struggle. What do Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa have in common? All made time for regular spiritual practice.

I want to switch things up a little bit and approach the question of spiritual practice indirectly rather than directly. In this digression, I would like to call your attention to a remarkable article that appeared several years ago in The New Yorker. The article was called “The Learning Curve” and it was written by Atul Gawande about his experience as a surgical intern. (Gawande has since written two books on his experience as a surgeon.) “The Learning Curve” deals with a great medical irony: it is never in the best interest of the patient to have a surgeon performing the procedure who has never done the procedure before. Yet, it is essential to the continuation of medicine for surgeons to perform procedures for the first time. Even the greatest brain surgeon in the world had to do brain surgery for the first time.

In the opening paragraphs of the article, Dr. Gawande attempts the insertion of a chest tube (a relatively simple procedure) for the first time, and is unsuccessful. The attending surgeon offers him this advice. “Don’t be so tentative. Keep practicing. You’ll get it.”

Allow me to read at length from Dr. Gawande’s essay: [I originally found the text to this essay on-line, but am unsure whether it continues to be available on-line. However, you can find an audio version of the essay here.]
“Surgeons, as a group, adhere to a curious egalitarianism. They believe in practice, not talent. People often assume that you have to have great hands to become a surgeon, but it’s not true. When I interviewed to get into surgery programs, no one made me sew or take a dexterity test or checked to see if my hands were steady. You do not even need all ten fingers to be accepted. […] Skill, surgeons believe, can be taught; tenacity cannot. It’s an odd approach to recruitment, but it continues all the way up the ranks, even in top surgery departments. […]

“And it works. There have now been many studies of elite performers -- concert violinists, chess grand masters, professional ice-skaters, mathematicians, and so forth -- and the biggest difference researchers find between them and lesser performers is the amount of deliberate practice they’ve accumulated. Indeed, the most important talent may be the talent for practice itself….

“Surgical training is the recapitulation of this process – floundering followed by fragments followed by knowledge and, occasionally, a moment of elegance – over and over again, for ever harder tasks with ever greater risks. At first, you work on the basics: how to glove and gown, how to drape patients, how to hold the knife, how to tie a square knot in a length of silk suture. But then the tasks become more daunting: how to cut through skin, handle the electrocautery, open the breast, tie off a bleeder, excise a tumor, close up a wound. At the end of six months, I had done lines, lumpectomies, appendectomies, skin grafts, hernia repairs, and mastectomies. At the end of a year, I was doing limb amputations, hemorrhoidectornies, and laparoscopic gallbladder operations. At the end of two years, I was beginning to do tracheotomies, small-bowel operations, and leg-artery bypasses.

“I am in my seventh year of training… Only now has a simple slice through skin begun to seem like the mere start of a case. These days, I’m trying to learn how to fix an abdominal aortic aneurysm, remove a pancreatic cancer, open blocked carotid arteries. I am, I have found, neither gifted nor maladroit. With practice and more practice, I get the hang of it.”
This, by the way, is one of the reasons we will have an intern minister beginning next Fall. But breathe easy, she will not be doing chest tubes, laparoscopic gall-bladder surgery, or amputations. We hope. I remember my time as a hospital chaplain several years ago when I reassured myself with the knowledge that a practicing chaplain had never killed a patient.

What’s the joke... how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. The same could probably be said of spiritual growth.

So, let’s bring this whole ship back around to spiritual practice, prayer, and meditation. There are all types of stories and jokes that can be told about prayer follies and meditation misadventures. There is the one about the elementary school aged child who learns the Lord’s Prayer as “Lead me not into Penn Station, but deliver me from people.” Sharon Salzberg, a leading American Buddhist, tells a story of listening to the Dalai Lama and not being able to concentrate because she was hyper-focused on the shoes she was wearing.

I will ever so reluctantly admit that prayer follies and meditation misadventures can’t hold a candle to surgical residency horror stories. Maybe that is just as well. But the stories tend to have recurrent characteristics. People talk about falling asleep during meditation. People talk about what Buddhists call “Monkey Mind” – a mind that is unable to focus but instead jumps from branch to branch, screeching raucously all the time.

With prayer, the issues encountered are usually slightly different. First, there is always the question of whether the prayer is received. And for Unitarian Universalists, there is often an ambiguity or uncertainty about who or what is being prayed to. And there is even debate as to whether prayers need to be directed to anyone or anything at all.

My colleague, The Reverend Ken Sawyer once addressed a similar question in a sermon. He asked, do religious verbs like pray and worship require an object? Can you just worship or does something need to be worshipped? Can you just pray, or does something need to be prayed to? In the case of worship, his answer, like mine, is no. To quote Reverend Sawyer, “The other answer – and the dictionary approves of it, too – is to say that worship is not a transitive verb but intransitive. It requires no object. We don’t gather to worship anything or anyone, we gather to worship, period. It is something we do.”

He should know about transitive and intransitive verbs. He earned a Bachelors degree in English Literature from Amherst. When I checked the dictionary, I found that the verb to meditate is also intransitive. It does not require an object. However, the dictionary did identify the verb “to pray” as transitive, as requiring an object. This may be a reason that many of us are more comfortable with meditation than with prayer.

To those of you who are anxious about the transitive nature of prayer or worship, who are uncertain or cautious about exactly what is being worshipped or to whom or what we are praying, I have two responses.

The first response is not to worry, because it is not your responsibility to know. Among the dozens and dozens of pithy sayings in Alcoholics Anonymous there is a saying that goes something like this: “Take care of your side of the street.” The expression tells people to stop worrying about the things that they can’t actually change… “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” However, as I am using this saying, it means that if the verb is “to pray” or “to worship” focus less on the verb’s object, whatever that is or isn’t, and more on the verb’s subject, or, in other words, you.

And, if you aren’t buying that, let me recommend one other way of dealing with this problem. Focus not on “praying to” but “praying with.”

In his aforementioned essay, Dr. Gawande describes a study conducted by Harvard Business School on a number of different surgical teams that were pioneering a new surgical technique. They studied why some teams adapted quickly and others learned slowly. In their study the surgical team that fared the best scheduled six surgeries in the first week, debriefed after each surgery, and remained a cohesive unit. It was the sharing of practice that made the difference. If your own spiritual practice lags, try doing it with someone else. And practice, practice, practice.

The first time I performed a wedding or a funeral I had no clue what I was doing. I did it. And then I did it again. And again. And again. Now, I’m pretty good at it. It is the same with sermons: now having delivered over two-hundred of them (201 to be exact) they come naturally. I’m sure if I had attempted hundreds of chest-tube insertions rather than hundreds of sermons, I’d be proficient at the former. Fortunately, that’s not in my job description. So, if in prayer or meditation, you have no clue what you are doing, that is OK. You can’t kill anybody, anyways, and you won’t feel comfortable until you’ve done it a bunch of times.

The input that led me to preach this message today was that members of this congregation were hungry for instruction and practical guidance in spiritual practice. The next sermon in this series, two weeks from now, will introduce a spiritual practice centered on gratitude and challenge us to a daily practice of gratitude during the month of February. Whether you pray or meditate, whether you say grace before meals or journal, whether you take time to commune with nature or read scriptures from the worlds religions, I ask you to be forgiving of yourself, to understand that it takes practice, and to keep at it. To keep at it. Blessed be.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Sermon: "Remembrance Sunday 2008" (Delivered 1-6-08)

[This is the 200th Sermon I've ever delivered]

Each year we gather for a time to remember lives that have ended in the past year. In your order of service you will find a list full of names recognizable and foreign, individuals who transcended the particularities of their communities and families and were deemed notable for some wider influence. The list is dominated by names known for artistic or athletic feats, political service, intellectual achievement, or the ability to simply attract media attention. Some of these lives blessed the world with their contributions to human knowledge, to beauty, to peace, to human equality. Other lives are remarkable for how they were squandered.

Each year there are a few names that rise up and are of particular interest to Unitarian Universalists and the demographics commonly represented in this congregation. But, I also like to point out those names we are likely to miss. If you ever drink Gatorade, you may think to note Robert Cade who died this past year, the inventor of the original sports-energy drink and the reason we have two and a half drink coolers in every Quick Trip stocked with fluorescent energy beverages. If you ever ate Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat, you have Vincent DeDomenico to thank. He died this year at age 92. Next time you drive by a Bob Evans restaurant or a Les Schwab tire center, you may recall that both men are no longer of this world.

In the world of sports, this year saw the deaths of a plethora of young athletes – Josh Hancock, Sean Taylor, Damien Nash, Darrent Williams – the victims too often of youthful bad decision making. And it was certainly a bad year for professional wrestlers, if it can be said that there is ever a good year for professional wrestlers.

It was also a bad year for televangelists, most notably Jerry Falwell, but also James Kennedy, the founder of Coral Ridge ministries in Florida, and Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth.

While Falwell garnered the most attention, three religious figures passed with much less fanfare. One was the Anglican priest Chad Varah who founded the Samaritans suicide-prevention hot-line. The second was Father Robert Drinan, a Catholic priest whose religious views about the Vietnam War led him to become the first Catholic Priest to serve in Congress. Drinan ran on an anti-war platform and tried unsuccessfully to add military action in Cambodia to the list of charges for which President Nixon was impeached. And the third is Bruce Metzger, an academic and ordained Presbyterian minister, who was among the world’s greatest authorities on the Bible. In fact, Metzger headed the translation committee that produced the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the version most accepted by scholars and theologians. If your name appears on the cover page of the Bible, you are certainly worth mentioning!

There are people on the list who you might imagine I would mention at great length. I know a number of you adored Art Buchwald and a number of you adored Kurt Vonnegut and I know for many of you the name Molly Ivins stands above all others. But I would like to take this opportunity to lift up the lives of a couple of people it might be tempting to skip over.

The first person I want to explore is Tammy Faye Bakker Messner. In 1942, Tammy Faye was born in rural Minnesota and into an unstable family environment. Her parents divorced shortly after she was born and she found refuge from her tumultuous family life in the steadiness and security of a Pentecostal church. She thrived in this environment that offered her certainties and absolutes and she was encouraged to pursue training for the ministry. Attending a Bible College, she met Jim Bakker; they moved South; and their ministry soon grew into a television empire worth millions of dollars. Corruption, scandal, and fraud soon followed. Jim had an affair with his 21-year old secretary, Jessica Hahn, and spent nearly $300,000 in church donations to attempt to buy her silence. This was just the tip of the iceberg, as financial details about PTL came to light, including information on the Bakker’s opulent lifestyle with lavish properties, private jets, and even (rumor has it) a doghouse with central air.

Tammy Faye divorced Jim Bakker while he served time in jail and went on to marry Roe Messner, a religious architect who had designed buildings for the Bakkers. Messner’s local roots would eventually see the family relocate to the greater Kansas City area. Messner would also go on to serve time in jail for his financial mis-deeds.

In 1996 Tammy Faye was diagnosed with colon cancer and would spend the last decade of her life battling and eventually succumbing to cancer. It was also in these last years of her life that she would find redemption. It is ironic that as she declined physically, she was healed spiritually. As her body was eaten away, her soul expanded.

This growth is hard to understand. In fact it is multi-faceted. One aspect has to do with her relationship with parts of the gay community. On account of her extravagant make-up, fake eyelashes, and one-of-a-kind approach to fashion, Tammy Faye became somewhat of an ironic cult-hero and icon among some segments of the gay community, especially among drag-queens and cross-dressers. They identified with her on a superficial level, but also on a deeper level. Who was the real Tammy Faye Bakker?

In a most surreal way, Tammy Faye’s theology changed when she was featured on a reality TV show called The Surreal Life in which eccentric B-, C-, and D-list celebrities are filmed living in a house together. At first, Tammy Faye was prepared to decline the offer to appear on the show because she didn’t want to mix with “sinners.” Then, she had a kind of awakening, realizing that God’s love should lead us to meet people where they are. Her theology morphed into one that was far less judgmental, more accepting, and one in which she had something to offer and something to learn from those “sinners.” I’ve never watched it, but it is said that on this show she came across as practically saintly, or at least mature. Her interactions with the other people on the show were humane, compassionate, caring, and understanding.

A colleague of mine, a Unitarian Universalist minister, went to hear her preach in Tulsa, Oklahoma in a few years ago. Theologically, she was still very much a Christian. She had a personal relationship with Jesus. She now responded to her faith by living non-judgmentally, by seeing those around her as children of God, and by having a special compassion and message of hope and encouragement to those wracked with disease.

Tammy Faye went from being the object of ridicule and a punch line to many an off-color joke to an inspired, courageous, and whole person.

The second person I want to focus on is far more obscure and unlikely than Tammy Faye Bakker Messner. I’d wager that most of you have never heard of him unless you happen to be a baseball fan, and even then. The man I am speaking of is a relief pitcher named Rod Beck. He played thirteen seasons in the majors with the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, and San Diego Padres. He was a 3-time All Star, racked up 286 saves (good for 23rd all time) and earned a cool 26 million dollars during his playing career. By 2004 at age 35, injuries and wear and tear had taken their toll on his body and he was washed up and out of the major leagues for a second time.

The other thing worth saying about Rod Beck is that he was one of the more colorful players in the game. He was a big dude with a big gut. He wore his hair in a mullet and was perhaps most recognized for his Fu Manchu moustache. His nickname “Shooter” was a nickname that fit him. In fact, he seemed more likely to be a member of a Harley Davidson motorcycle gang than a baseball player.

For those of you who are thinking to yourselves that I am abusing my ministerial privilege a bit here by going on and on about a good, but by no means great, baseball player, I want to switch up the focus a little bit. I want to talk about the time after he washed out of the major leagues the first time. It is not a happy story, or a heroic story. A remarkable article describes Beck’s days after he washed out of the Major Leagues for the first time.

He wouldn’t give up the dream. After the first time he washed out of the majors, he accepted a position on the roster of the Cubs minor league team in Des Moines and bought an RV that he parked behind the wall in centerfield. His walk to work was about 100 steps. There he entertained his teammates, curious fans, anybody who wanted to come and hang out. Dozens of strangers every night just made themselves at home in his camper, hanging out and talking baseball as Beck waited for a major league team that would be willing to take a chance on him.

That chance came but his comeback was cut short and he retired for good. As far as I can tell, he didn’t donate his millions to an orphanage or to cancer research. This is not one of those types of stories. Rod Beck was not a healthy guy. He drank a lot more than he should have, smoked, and several articles on his death implied that he also abused harder, illicit drugs. He was found dead at his home in Arizona at age 38.

So, why do I bring up Rod Beck, of all the worthy souls I might have focused upon? He didn’t exemplify Unitarian Universalist values in some exemplary way. He was not some great humanitarian. He was a tragic figure, with quite a bit of self-destructiveness thrown in. But, his life calls to mind certain lessons. While living in his RV behind the center field wall of the minor league baseball stadium in Des Moines, someone asked Beck about his desire to continue playing. He replied, “If plumbing was a sport, all those guys would be on TV and I’d be working 9 to 5 playing baseball. And it wouldn’t mean a difference to me at all?”

Have you ever felt that way about what you do? How many of us have ever had to leave what we loved the most? How many of us, having discovered that one thing that the universe intended for us to do and blessed us with the ability to do well have ever had to stop doing that thing? I speak not only of work, of professions and vocations. The idea of retirement, whether you are a 33 year-old ballplayer or you are in your sixties or seventies, is a scary notion for many people. But it happens in other ways. A great singer loses her voice. A cycling enthusiast is diagnosed with degenerative arthritis. A reader loses her eyesight. A world traveler becomes too frail to travel.

This is the reason I selected Beck’s life. It is not that he was a colorful ballplayer. It is that he was an example of human living, one who struggled with transition, with letting go, with moving on. We can learn something from his story.

We can learn something from TV evangelist, fallen from grace, who in the face of her own mortality discovers a faith worthy of life.

We can learn something from the ballplayer who strained and strained to reach the summits of competitive achievement just one more time.

We can learn something from all these stories. These poets and artists. These musicians and actors. These athletes and inventors. These politicians and professors. These lives. These lives among so many worthy lives deserving of our remembering.

Closing Words
When Kurt Vonnegut passed away in April 2007, one of my favorite websites, The Onion AV Club, ran a memorial tribute to him. One of their features is a weekly list, and on April 24, 2007 they posted an article called “Fifteen things Kurt Vonnegut said better than anyone else ever has or will.” I leave you this day with a few of those fifteen things:

On conflict, he wrote: "There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, [or] to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too."

On Theology, he wrote: "She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is doing."

On Gratitude, he wrote, "I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"

On Relationships, he wrote, "There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind."

And finally, on Perseverance and Perspective, Vonnegut offered these three immortal words, “So it goes.” So it goes, indeed. Life and death, days and years. How blessed we are. Amen.

[The following list of Notable People Who Died in 2007 was included in the Order of Service. A feature on Wikipedia was immensely helpful in assembling this list.]

Notable People Who Died in 2007
Brooke Astor (105) American philanthropist, novelist, and socialite
Jean Baudrillard (77) French post-modernist philosopher and sociologist
Rod Beck (38) Colorful relief pitcher for Giants, Cubs, and Red Sox
Chris Benoit (40) Professional wrestler, steroid abuser, and murderer
Ingmar Bergman (89) Swedish film director and 3 time Oscar winner
Benazir Bhutto (54) Twice Pakistani Prime Minister. Assassinated while running for office
Scott “Bam Bam” Bigelow (45) Professional wrestler known for tattooed head
Joey Bishop (89) Comedian and last-surviving member of Sinatra’s Rat Pack
Philip Booth (81) Accomplished poet and professor
Art Buchwald (81) Pulitzer winning humorist and political satirist
Bobby Byrd (73) Funk/soul singer was side-man for James Brown
Robert Cade (80) Inventor of Gatorade sports-energy drink
Sri Chinmoy (76) Indian guru/philosopher known for feats of strength
Liz Claiborne (78) Fashion designer and entrepreneur
Jo Ann Davis (57) US Rep. from Virginia since 2001; died from breast cancer
Brad Delp (55) Lead singer of 70’s rock band “Boston”
Vincent DeDomenico (92) Inventor of “Rice-a-Roni”
Mary Douglas (86) Brilliant British social anthropologist; author of “Purity and Danger”
Robert Drinan (86) First Catholic Priest to serve in US Congress. Called for impeachment of Nixon
Kevin DuBrow (52) Lead singer for rock-metal band “Quiet Riot”
Thomas Eagleton (77) 3-term Senator from Missouri; kicked off ticket as McGovern’s running mate in the 1972 Presidential election.
Lillian Ellison (84) Pioneering female professional wrestler the “Fabulous Moolah”
Bob Evans (89) Founder of eponymous restaurant chain
Jerry Falwell (73) Fundamentalist minister and co-founder of “Moral Majority”
Dan Fogelberg (56) Folk singer-songwriter
Robert Goulet (73) Actor and singer; caught break playing Sir Lancelot in “Camelot”
Ruth Graham (87) Wife of evangelist Billy Graham
Merv Griffin (83) Television personality and creator of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune
David Halberstam (73) Pulizter winning journalist and author. Wrote 21 books about Vietnam, politics, economics, history, culture and sports
Josh Hancock (29) Baseball pitcher for St. Louis Cardinals. Died while drunk driving
Johnny Hart (76) American cartoonist best known for “B.C.” comic-strip
Lee Hazlewood (78) Country recording artist and songwriter. Nancy Sinatra collaborator
Leona Helmsley (87) Flamboyant and ruthless real-estate/hotel billionaire and tax evader
Joe Herzenberg (66) North Carolina politician and gay rights activist
Don Ho (76) Hawaiian musician and entertainer known for song “Tiny Bubbles”
Henry Hyde (83) Conservative congressman from Illinois served from 1975-2007
Molly Ivins (62) Populist newspaper columnist and best-selling author from Texas
Richard Jewell (44) Security guard suspected then vindicated of ’96 Olympic bombing
Lady Bird Johnson (94) First Lady and wife of LBJ
Robert Jordan (58) Renowned fantasy author of “Wheel of Time” series
Bruce Kennedy (68) For 12 years the CEO of Alaska Airlines (1979-1991)
James Kennedy (76) Televangelist and founder of Coral Ridge Ministries
Yolanda King (51) Eldest child of MLK, Jr.; actress; activist for gay rights and peace
Evel Knievel (69) Stuntman known for daring motorcycle jumps
Hilly Kristal (75) Owner of famous New York punk/rock club CBGB
Madeleine L’Engle (88) Author of young adult fiction; most know for A Wrinkle in Time
Richard Leigh (64) Co-author of Holy Blood and Holy Grail. Unsuccessful in plagiarism lawsuit against Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown
Ira Levin (78) Author of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives
Charles Lindberg (86) Last surviving US Marine who helped raise flag at Battle of Iwo Jima
Peter Lipton (53) Brilliant philosopher most known for his work on scientific theory
Norman Mailer (84) Macho author and Pulitzer winning journalist; wrote “The Naked and the Dead”
Marcel Marceau (84) World-famous French mime
Tammy Faye (Bakker) Messner (65) Televangelist wife of Jim Bakker and felon in the PTL scandal. Known for outrageous make-up. Later became theologically liberal
Bruce Metzger (93) Princeton Biblical scholar who chaired translation of NSRV Bible
Richard Musgrave (96) Influential economist in 1950s and 1960s
Ralph Myers (90) Local architect who designed Chiefs/Royals sports complex
Grace Paley (84) Short story author, poet, and activist for nuclear non-proliferation
Luciano Pavarotti (71) Italian opera singer was one of The Three Tenors
Phil Rizzuto (89) NY Yankees Hall of Fame shortstop and later sports announcer
Max Roach (83) Jazz drummer for Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and many more
Richard Rorty (75) Prolific philosopher of pragmatism, liberalism, etc.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (89) Historian, social critic, and speechwriter for JFK
Les Schwab (89) Businessman founded eponymous chain of tire stores
Joy Simonson (88) Washington D.C. based advocate for women’s rights
Anna Nicole Smith (39) Tabloid celebrity was sex-symbol, model, and actress
Kelsey Smith (18) Overland Park teenager and murder victim
William Sturtevant (80) American Smithsonian Institution curator
Sean Taylor (24) Football star for Washington Redskins. Murder victim
Hank Thompson (82) Country / Honky-Tonk recording artist for six decades
Paul Tibbets (92) Pilot of the Enola Gay in WWII; dropped Atomic bomb on Hiroshima
Ike Turner (76) With Tina an influential blues, soul, and funk musician and producer. Musical legacy tarnished by history of domestic violence and legal trouble
Chad Varah (95) Anglican priest; founded the Samaritans suicide prevention hotline
Kurt Vonnegut (84) Prolific and distinctive author; works included Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse 5, Breakfast of Champions, and Man Without a Country
Mike Wieringo (44) Comic artist worked on “Flash” and “Fantastic Four” comics
Bill Walsh (75) NFL coach won 3 Super Bowls with San Francisco 49ers
Donda West (58) Mother of hip-hop artist Kanye West; English prof. at U of Chicago
John Woodruff (92) Gold-medalist for US track & field team at 1936 Berlin Olympics
Jane Wyman (90) Oscar-winner and soap opera actress; first wife of Ronald Reagan
Boris Yeltsin (76) Two-term President of Russia (1991-1999)
Robert Young (83) 5-term U.S. Congressman (1977-1987) from Missouri

SMUUCh Members:
Betty Friauf
George R. Young

US Military Deaths
921 in Iraq
116 in Afghanistan

Monday, January 07, 2008

Sermon: "Jamesland" (Delivered 12-30-07)

Opening Words
It is late Summer on a farm not far from here. The children all head back to school and when they do all of the barnyard animals are lonely without the children to play with. So they decide to take a field trip to the local library. The horse walks in and says “Neigh.” The librarian answers that she doesn’t understand what the horse is saying. Next, the pig walks in and oinks. The librarian answers that she does understand. Finally, the chicken walks in and says, “Book-book-book.”

“Aha!” the librarian exclaims and soon the animals are headed back to the farm with a copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. They entertain themselves reading the book except for the frog, who pouts and frowns. The other animals ask the frog what has him feeling down. The frog responds, “Read it, read it.”

For those of you who don’t know, I am a voracious reader. It was my New Years Resolution last year to read a book each week, a goal I achieved. Recently, I told one of the members of our 30-somethings group about this goal. Unimpressed, he told me he read twenty books per week, but then admitted that they were all titled, Goodnight Moon.

In our faith as Unitarian Universalists, we do not draw inspiration from a single Good Book, but from many good books, as well as inspiration from experience, nature, other religious traditions, and science. Today, we focus on that source of learning and insight that comes from books.

In this week between Christmas and New Years, it is a great joy to take out a blanket and to cozy up with a good book. Let us cozy up this morning, encounter characters we do not know, and explore new worlds together.

Each year on the Sunday after Christmas I preach on a book that our fiction book club challenges me to read. The book they assigned me was Jamesland by Michelle Huneven. Set in Los Angeles, the novel explores the intersection of three different lives. One character is Pete Ross, a mentally ill and misanthropic gourmet chef. A second character, Alice Black, is the great-great granddaughter of William James. Alice is in her early thirties and is stuck working at a slummy bar and dating a married man who dumps her in the book’s opening pages. The William James connection provides a mystical aura around Alice’s life. Alice’s eccentric aunt holds regular conversations with William James’ ghost. Our third character is Helen Harland, a middle-aged Unitarian Universalist minister serving a small church that she can’t stand.

So, I thought there were several directions I could take this sermon. Perhaps, I imagined, you would love to hear about William James – the late 19th century psychologist, philosopher, and religious scholar. So, I picked up Robert Richardson’s brand new book on James, William Jams and the Maelstrom of American Modernism, and I am actually planning on reading all 600 pages of it at some point. Or maybe you would want to hear more about Pete the chef. So, I dug out my copy of the Joy of Cooking. I bet you didn’t know that Irma Rombauer, the author of the Joy of Cooking, was a Unitarian?

Of course, the other option is that I could focus on Rev. Helen Harland and her relationship with her church, but none of you would be interested in that.

In fact, I surmise that is why the book club selected this title: it is not very often that you find a mainstream novel where one of the protagonists is a Unitarian Universalist minister and where terms like “The 7 Principles” and “The Flaming Chalice” get referenced in a matter of fact way. Indeed, all through the novel the references to Unitarian Universalism appear in the most matter-of-fact ways, as if they don’t require explanation for the general reading public.

So, let me talk a little bit about Helen’s church for a little while, because I think that is what the Book Club wants me to do.

While it is very cool that a mainstream novel would feature Unitarian Universalism so prominently, it is unfortunate that the church doesn’t come across a little bit better. Helen’s relationship with her church is strained and uneasy. She follows a long time pastorate of an older male minister who took a laissez-affaire attitude to the church in general. Helen’s predecessor is mostly remembered for the long hours he spent tending his rose garden on the church premises.

By contrast, Helen is energetic, evangelistic about the UU faith, and, according to her many detractors, too fond of “spiritual language.” She is also meddlesome in the committee life of the church and leaders feel like she is trying to change the way they do things. In fact, she IS trying to change the ways they do things.

The focus of the conflict soon centers, soon focalizes, on a series of mid-week spiritual services that Helen institutes. These vesper-style services are more overtly spiritual than Sunday’s services. For Helen they are an outlet for the types of worship that she couldn’t get away with on Sunday morning. Her own congregation mostly takes no interest in these services and the mid-week services begin to attract a different demographic to her congregation.

In what I find to be the most telling interchange between Helen and her congregation, the membership committee gets wind of the fact that Helen is bringing the membership book to these mid-week services and inviting new people to join the community. The membership committee is irate. Their toes have been stepped on and they complain to the board. Rev. Harland apologizes and invites a membership committee member to come to the midweek services to help new folks join the church. The membership committee responds that they are overburdened and couldn’t possibly add this extra task to their duties. Helen says that she is just trying to bring new faces into the church. The membership committee replies that their job is not to get new people to join; their job is to screen prospective members to make sure that only the right types of people join. They forbid her from bringing the membership book to the mid-week services. Rev. Harland accepts those limitations and then heads straight to a stationary store to purchase a second membership book that SHE will get to control and bring wherever she darn-well pleases.

I hope I’m not scaring you by talking about this dysfunctional, conflict-ridden fictional church. Some of the members of the book club said they were disturbed when they read about the relationship between Helen and the congregation she serves. To them it seemed so different from their experience here at SMUUCh. I’m glad for that. I also need to say that there are a whole lot of UU church’s like the one in this novel, and some that are even worse.

A few comments on the relationship between Rev. Harland and the congregation she serves. During my first year here I repeated the mantra over and over again that most conflicts in churches are caused by breakdowns in communication. One person steps on another’s foot. Another person undoes what another has done. An email causes emotions to explode. A comment is misconstrued. A change is made and someone is not notified. People fail to talk directly to each other about how they feel. There is that old saying, “A tongue is very light, but nobody can seem to hold it.”

Now, I want to change my mantra. Conflicts in church are either about breakdowns in communication or struggles for power and often both. Communication itself, after all, is an exercise of power. But it is clear to me that Helen is involved in a power struggle with her congregation. She has a vision for her ministry that does not fit the laissez-affaire, rose-tending approach to ministry of her beloved predecessor. She is excited about bringing new people into the church. The church wants to remain a club. The church gets their way, by the way; while she is on vacation towards the end of her first year they vote to fire her.

I want to make a bold and perhaps unwise statement about these types of conflict. That bold statement is that in a clash of wills between a minister and a congregation, the minister (if they choose to) can get their way nine times out of ten. Yes, I actually just said it! The reason that this is the case is simple. A minister’s normal work-week is sixty hours. A heavy work week is seventy hours. Eighty-plus hour work-weeks are not unheard of. If the minister is focused, determined, and driven the minister will figure out a way to make happen what they want to see happen. The minister can simply throw more hours at a problem than any volunteer could ever muster. But, there is an important caution to attach to this bold statement. The caution, as anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows, is that getting your way has consequences. Winning the battle can mean losing the war, so speak. Getting your way can cause an awful lot of collateral damage. As one of my senior colleagues puts it, “You have to choose which hill you want to die on.” Getting your way can cause a whole lot of damage.

A second bold statement I want to make is that in the book the church gets the majority of the blame, but the story is biased to make Helen seem flawless and this just isn’t the case. Her failure is a failure to love them. If a minister does not love their church, the ministry will not last. It is important to love your faith, but that is not enough. It is important to love the holy, but that is not enough. It is important to love your calling, but that is not enough. It is important to love your vision of what the church may become, but that isn’t enough either. You’ve got to love the congregation for the ministry to last. That does not mean taking a laissez-affaire approach or not challenging the congregation or not working for change. But if the congregation does not feel loved, the minister will find frustration rather than success. That is, in my opinion, what happens to her ministry in the novel.

That really wasn’t where I had planned to go. But, now that I have introduced the theme of love, I want to talk about the book, the story, in wider terms than just dwelling on the politics within a fictional church.

What Jamesland is about, I want to suggest, is how to love those that are difficult to love. I will talk about this in the context of the novel but then put the book aside and speak in more general terms.

In the novel our three main characters – Rev. Helen Harland, Alice Black, and Pete Ross – each struggle with loneliness and isolation. I’ve just spent a bunch of time bashing Helen, but now I want to speak about her with admiration. She is fantastic with dealing with loneliness. She is seeking a network of friendship outside of congregational life and seems to have this magnetism that attracts everyone she comes into contact with. (She is way more extroverted than I.) And Helen does make the mistake of trying to assemble these people into a second congregation, but then again, she IS a minister. Pete Ross is lonely, isolated, and mentally ill. He is also socially boorish and confrontational, pushing people away with his sarcasm and hyper-critical nature. What is surprising is his ability to bond with those who are very bad off. He enjoys walking down by the river and visiting the homeless inhabitants of the tent cities of Los Angeles. He is surprisingly friendly to an eccentric, cross-dressing prostitute. Alice is more difficult to peg down. She comes across as struggling between a reclusive existence and participation in community. She tends to be standoffish and suspicious and to have a keen eye for the faults of others.

Together though, these three become “friends by shame undefiled.” They seem to open themselves up to each other in ways that diminish the personal faults they each possess.

There is a reading from the back of our hymnal by Ralph Waldo Emerson where Emerson writes, “How many person we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with!”

If there was a central point to take away from Jamesland, I think Emerson’s words here might nicely sum that point up. Connection is all around us if only we could put away our stubbornness, our delusions, our fantasies, our sarcasm, our hyper-critical instincts, our prejudices, and just find a way to rejoice with the persons we meet. Reflexively, I wonder if the act of reading helps us to expand our hearts. I wonder if encountering characters like Helen, Pete, and Alice help us to encounter and honor each other, in houses, in the street, in church. I hope so. Amen

Benediction by Ken Patton
“We arrive out of many singular rooms, walking over the branching streets. We come to be assured that brothers and sisters surround us, to restore their images on our eyes. We enlarge our voices in common speaking and singing. We try again that solitude found in the midst of those who with us seek their hidden reckonings. Our eyes reclaim the remembered faces; their voices stir the surrounding air. The warmth of their hands assures us, and the gladness of our spoken names. This is the reason of cities, of homes, of assemblies in the houses of worship. It is good to be with one another.”

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Did you learn that in Seminary?

I was asked to make an appearance as "Thom the Juggler" at our Family Fellowship Christmas Party. Unfortunately, it had to be cancelled due to inclement weather, but an abbreviated version of the party was held between our worship services on December 23. I couldn't help but perform what was to be my grand finale! (Thanks J.T. for the great photos!)

Yes, that's me juggling machetes while eating an apple!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

2008: A Year in Reading

I had so much fun putting together my reading list and essay for 2007, that I decided to make the 2008 list an ongoing project. So, here is how 2008 is shaping up reading-wise so far:

Books Finished

1) Bowl of Cherries - a novel by Millard Kaufman (326 pages)
Eat your heart out Holden Caulfield! This coming-of-age novel tells the tale of Judd Breslau, kicked out of the Ph.D. program in English literature at Yale at age 14. ABD (all but dissertation), Breslau takes up residence with a burned out Egyptologist, his captivating daughter, and his stable of washed up academics. Judd's life journeys then take him to Colorado, to New York City, and, finally, to an obscure Iraqi province where he awaits punishment for a capital offense. The story is witty, satirical, and epic.

What makes this story all the more remarkable is that it is the first novel by the 90 year-old Kaufman. (The dust jacket says he is at work on his second novel.) Plus, I have read only one other author, David Foster Wallace, who matches Kaufman's grand and enormous vocabulary. Bring your dictionary and prepare to be amazed. A book this unusual could only be published by the great people at McSweeney's.

2) After - poetry by Jane Hirshfield (93 pages)
I am going to say something heretical here. I like Jane Hirshfield better than Mary Oliver. While Oliver's nature poetry is about revelation, Hirshfield conceals as much as she reveals. Her poems are ethereal, beautiful, and often imbue the world with mystery. Her poems do not exclusively deal with nature, but those poems are among her best. Check out her poem: The Woodpecker Keeps Returning.

3) McSweeney's Volume 21 (279 pages)
This issue of McSweeney's featured 14 short stories, most of them loosely themed around the emergence of one's honest and authentic self (for better or for worse). Of particular note are Rajesh Parameswaran's story of a man with a fake medical practice, Christian Winn's story of a fistfight with a Mormon missionary, and especially Greg Ames' story of a mellow guy who gets more than he bargains for when he begins a relationship with a vivacious woman and tries to decide whether and how he will stand up to her dangerous ex(?)-boyfriend. Also, fantastic stories about forensic canine taxonomy in South America, haunted baby-strollers, and a hilarious Good Samaritan story involving rattlesnakes and weddings.

4) Worship that Works: Theory & Practice for Unitarian Universalists - by Wayne Arnason and Kathleen Rolenz (176 pages)
This is a book that I will post more about later as I am reviewing it for the Spring UUMA Newsletter and plan to cross-post that review on my blog. This book is the result of a sabbatical by the co-ministers of the West Shore Unitarian Church in Cleveland. They took a cross-country road-trip experiencing the best transformational worship services - both UU and non-UU - that our country has to offer and wrote this book about what they discovered. At first I wondered how they could do justice to their subject in less than 200 pages, but the book manages to be packed with substance without being dense. Of particular note were sections of the book in which they offered a theoretical and theological framework for understanding the various parts of UU liturgy, from announcements to candles of joy & concern to prayer and meditation. In writing it in a style that is accessible to lay-people, these two colleagues have done our movement a great favor!

5) Did I Say that Out Loud? - meditations by Meg Barnhouse (110 pages)
I had the pleasure of sitting next to Meg Barnhouse during the Service of the Living Tradition as last June's UUA General Assembly in Portland, Oregon. Since then, this is the second book of meditations by her that I have read. Her short pieces are usually hilarious (a meditation on the theological significance of seeing a goat riding in the back of a pickup truck) and occasionally fierce (a piece about being asked to perform a baptism for a family member at a church that is extremely sexist.) As a UU minister in South Carolina, a Southern flavor manages to creep into much of her writing. At other times, she captures odd moments perfectly well, like when she works out a deep significant meaning from a line from Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" only to discover later that she had misheard the line. One line from one of her mediations sums up this book quite nicely: "The present moment is my wealth." It is a wealth she seems completely incapable of squandering.

6) McSweeney's Volume 13 (264 pages)
OK, you shouldn't hold it against me that Volume 13 of McSweeney's was 264 pages of comics by many of today's most creative independent cartooists. After all, I am trying to read the whole McSweeney's catalogue and it would be elitist to skip this volume because it is filled with comics. Plus, there are also some incredible nuggets thrown in besides like an essay on the influence of cartooning on the abstract expressionist painter Philip Guston, an exploration of the last, unfinished Peanut's comic strip, and a piece on how Michael Chabon, author of the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, became interested in comics.

7) Letters to a Young Poet - by Rainer Maria Rilke (121 pages)
As part of my reading discipline, each year I try to read a couple of "classics" that I've never previously read. In that spirit, I picked up Rilke's most famous work, from which I've quoted innumerable times at weddings and during worship services, but never read in its entirety. I went into it expecting something transcendent and earth-shattering. It didn't live up to my lofty expectations; in fact, it was somewhat flat.

8) This Book Will Save Your Life - a novel by A.M. Homes (372 pages)
This is the sixth book I've read by A.M. Homes. The only books by her that I've not read are her two earliest novels and a travel memoir. Eventually, I plan to finish off her entire oeuvre.

While reading TBWSYL, I couldn't help imagining that some English major at UCLA or USC is working on a term paper, or maybe a thesis, in which she is contrasting this book with Michele Huneven's Jamesland. The two books are remarkably similar. Both are resurrection tales of lonely, empty, desperate lives returned to wholeness. Both are set in the City of Angels. Both feature restaurant openings. Both have threads of natural supernaturalism running through them: In Jamesland it is the ghost of William James and a recurrent deer motif. In This Book Will Save Your Life there's meditation, sinkholes, wild-fires, feral Chihuahuas, and a saber-toothed tiger roaming the city.

We should find Richard Novak (50-ish, divorced, estranged from his family, super-wealthy, and paying for all his human contact) loathsome. Instead, we find ourselves pulling for him at every turn. The author allows us to feel for a character who we would otherwise see as a stereotype.

9) The Death of Adam - essays by Marilynne Robinson (263 pages)
In honor of Women's History Month, I plan to read exclusively books by women this month with the probable exception of a volume of McSweeney's with contributions by male and female authors. I could scarcely have started with a better choice than this collection of essays on modern thought by Marilynne Robinson.

I had the great delight of meeting her in the Spring of 2006 when she spoke at a conference I attended in Iowa City, where she resides and teaches at the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop. She is an intellectual giant.

It is worth noting that 25 years passed between her debut novel, Housekeeping, and her second, the superb novel Gilead. She writes like someone who would take 25 years between novels. Each word of every essay is exact, deliberate, precise, and intentional. As a whole, these essays are indispensable to anyone who would like to be considered thoughtful about the world in which we live. Robinson's introduction is a bold and shaming essay declaring that we are ignorant about the great books that shape our world - The Bible, Calvin's The Institutes, Darwin's writings - precisely because we have not read them and permitted others' flawed interpretations of them to dominate our thinking.

She follows this by moving directly to her most important essay of the collection, a scathing critique of Darwinism that I universally recommend. In the ten subsequent essays, she rescues the term "reality" from those who use it to construct a hegemony of thought and does battle with free-market capitalism in her essay on "Family." Later essays are particularly devoted to rescuing the figure of John Calvin whose bad rap, she argues, is undeserved. Her concluding essay, "The Tyranny of Petty Coercion," is inspiring of courage.

The Death of Adam was originally published in 1998 and most of her essays were composed in the mid-90's. It has been a long decade and that pre-9/11, pre-Iraq War world seems more distant than it really is. Thus, her essays leave certain things unsaid that, had they been written yesterday, would have certainly merited comment. I am left to wonder whether Robinson would change these essays or just more strongly emphasize them if she were to revise them for the current day. Whatever she did to them would certainly be worth reading.

[We interrupt our regularly scheduled program to bring you this news: today I received a box in the mail from a man named Jim McGorman who lives in Pennsylvania. Jim sold me seven out-of-print volumes of McSweeneys. Now, I've added volumes 4-10 to my collection. They are beautiful! Volume 8 is guest edited by Paul Maliszewski, Volume 10 is guest edited by Michael Chabon, and Volume 6 contains an original CD by the band They Might Be Giants. Jim McGorman is a very cool photographer and film maker whose films have been featured on Wholphin which is put out by McSweeneys. You can watch his film, "A Taste of Nate", here. But don't confuse him with this Jim McGorman, also from Pennsylvania, who is in Avril Lavigne's back up band.]

10) Famous Fathers - short stories by Pia Z. Ehrhardt (166 pages)
I first encountered the writing of Pia Z. Ehrhardt (what a name!) in the 2004 book The Future Dictionary of America in which the words she invented were hilarious and clever. I later read her short stories in McSweeneys (where else?) This collection contains 11 short stories mostly set in and around New Orleans and mostly about various kinds of adultery and infidelity. They allow us a beautiful and disturbing glimpse into characters' longings, temptations, rationalizations, and desperations. The story "A Man" which is not set in Louisiana and does not deal with infidelity (I think) is probably one of the most haunting stories I have read in quite some time.

11) 365 Ways to Criticize the Preacher - a short novel by Pat Jobe (120 pages)
To the contrary of what I had assumed, Rev. Pat Jobe is not a woman. (Oops!) He is a United Methodist minister in North Carolina who has written a book with an irresistible title! 365 Ways... chronicles a year of diary entries by Beverly Roberts, a 70-year old church lady who hates her minister. The first entry is a litany of all the things wrong with the children's Christmas pageant. Her January 1 entry reads, "My new year's resolution is to keep Rev. Chister on his toes. If I always let him know when folks need a visit or a comforting word, he'll appreciate all my help. Or if he doesn't, he'll hear about it." By March she is cutting her pledge. By April she is trying to gather a majority of the Deacons Board to fire Rev. Chister.

There are issues of plausibility in the portrait painted of Beverly Roberts. Her racism, xenophobia, and sexism are a bit too strong. Similarly, her "conversion" raises the question of how people actually do change their ways. Do changes happen suddenly or gradually? Are there miraculous transformations or do changes happen only over a period of time and with lots of effort?

Despite its many shortcomings, 365 Ways... is a valuable reminder of how anger, meanness, and destructive behaviors so often stem from our own unresolved pain and trauma.

12) Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930 - a history by Cynthia Grant Tucker (240 pages)
In preparation for my March 16th Women's History Month sermon I read this history of midwestern women who were Unitarian ministers in the late 19th Century. My sermon contains a lot more information about this book, but let me just make one comment: as a UU living in the Midwest this book described theological tensions and social realities that I still recognize today. Our history does help us to understand ourselves.

13c) McSweeney's Volume 26: Where to Invade Next (80 pages)
The 26th volume of McSweeney's arrived in three pieces. It contained two booklets of short-stories and a hard-bound book(let) bearing the title Where to Invade Next. The epigraph is a quote from General Wesley Clark:
"About ten days after 9/11, I went through the Pentagon and I saw Secretary Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz. I went downstairs just to say hello to some of the people on the Joint Staff who used to work for me, and one of the generals called me in. He said, 'Sir, you've got to come in and talk to me a second.' I said, 'Well, you're too busy.' He said, 'No, no.' He says, 'We've made the decision we're going to war with Iraq.' This was on or about the twentieth of September...

"So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing Afghanistan. I said, 'Are we still going to war with Iraq?' And he said, 'Oh, it's worse than that.' He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, 'I just got this down from upstairs' - meaning the Secretary of Defense's office - 'today.' And he said, 'This is a memo that describes how we're going to take out seven countries in five years.'"
McSweeny's is a liberal press. Where to Invade Next is written in the voice and from the perspective of a neo-conservative Pentagon insider. It makes the case for pre-emptive war with Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Syria, Sudan, and North Korea. It is a chilling read. Inside the isolated logic of this book, it seems not only wise, but imperative, to "take out" these seven countries. McSweeney's has done it again by producing an innovative and affecting piece of experimental writing.

14) Housekeeping - a novel by Marilynne Robinson (219 pages)
Written 25 years before her second novel, Gilead, Housekeeping describes the childhood of two sisters raised alternately by a grandmother, a pair of great aunts, and an aunt in the Northwest town of Fingerbone. Like everything else that Marilynne Robinson writes, this novel features her always meticulous language. It is as if every single word is intentionally and carefully placed on the page. (A random side-note: While reading it, I thought often of my visit to Kansas City's Steamship Arabia museum.)

13a & 13b) McSweeney's 26 (235 pages)
As a companion to Where to Invade Next (see 13c above) McSweeney's 26 also contained two volumes of short stories. Both volumes contain present-day short stories but are packaged to model World War II-era Armed Services Editions released by the Council of Books in Wartime. (During the 1940's more than 1,300 pocket sized titles were released and there is even an account of a soldier who had been shot in the ankle who pulled out his armed services edition of Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop while waiting for help to arrive. Who knew?) Each story is also fronted by a reproduction of a winning work of art entered into the National Army Arts Contest in 1945. (Again, who knew?)

In my opinion, the best of the featured short stories are "Porcus Omnivorus" - a tale about an unusual encounter by a pair of Bosnian Muslims who have moved to the United States, "Moving Crucifixion" - a story of internet dating deceit in the United Arab Emirates, and "How Jesus Comes" - the story of a highschool track & field team's encounter with a tornado in 1976.

15) Coyotes – by Lauray Yule (61 pages)
In mid-April I got to spend a week in the high desert of New Mexico. I was meeting with the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association Executive Committee at Ghost Ranch, now a Presbyterian retreat center and once home to Georgia O’Keefe. My time in the Southwest was very enjoyable and included the opportunity to see wildlife such as mule deer, elk, wild turkey, as well as a wide array of bird species. On top of this, the land was simply breathtaking.

As a souvenir I bought this short book about coyotes, an animal that I became fascinated with after reading UU minister Webster Kitchell’s coyote books. One interesting factoid I learned from the book: Coyotes and badgers have been known to form cooperative hunting partnerships, combining the badgers’ excellent digging skills and the coyotes’ speed in order to catch burrowing rodents.

Unfortunately, I did not get to see any coyotes while I was in New Mexico. However, it turned out that I was an American Airlines casualty and due to flight cancellations I had to take the train home to Kansas City from Albuquerque. Riding in the lounge car, writing my sermon, I periodically gazed out the window at the spectacular terrain. In the late dusk I peered out the window and glimpsed a four-legged silvery ghost running across a field. I would like to believe it was a coyote.

And, what would a coyote be without a road-runner? I took this picture on the streets of Albuquerque a block or two from the University of New Mexico.

16) Trading Up: Why Customers Want New Luxury Goods and How Companies Create Them – a business book by Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske (284 pages)
On earlier reading blogs I mentioned that I intentionally try to diversify my reading by including books from different genres in my yearly reading list. Each year I try to read at least one business book.

Why are people willing to pay 2.5 times the cost of bottle of Budweiser for a bottle of Sam Adams? Why do people pay premiums for products as diverse as wine, coffee, and beer to home appliances to cars to lingerie to golf clubs? This book chronicles the "trading up" phenomenon and the habits of consumers who purchase "New Luxury" items. The answer is more complicated than, "Well Sam Adams tastes a lot better than Bud."

Sociologically, I found this book to be fascinating. One observation is that people don't spend with consistency. People in the middle-class "trade up" in some areas and "trade down" in others. The book mentions a woman in her twenties who spends hundreds of dollars on undergarments from Victoria's Secret but buys generic in almost every other category. Some people will drive a BMW but eat Ramen noodles. The business success of ritzy companies is intimately tied to the ability to buy cheap at Wal-Mart.

At other times I cringed. The book spoke about how people are turning to expensive products in order to sooth pain and escape loneliness. One person spoke of her expensive washer and dryer this way, "They are our mechanical buddies. They have personality. It's cool when they are all lit up and you are at the end of the cycle. The washer and dryer are the domestic hub. When they are running efficiently, our lives are running efficiently. They are a part of my family." Yikes! Talk about confirming my deepest, darkest fears about materialism and consumerism.

I did have one thought all throughout reading this book. I wondered, forgive me the blasphemy of asking, if this book had any relevance to church life. If you are a person in the business world or a minister who has read this book, I'd love to ask you this question.

17) Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe - a biography by Valarie Ziegler (171 pages)
Things I knew about Julia Ward Howe before I read this book: Unitarian, author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic", inventor of Mother's Day, outspoken pacifist and suffragette, wife of Samuel Gridley Howe who was famous for his work with the blind.

Things I didn't know about Julia Ward Howe until I read this book: how filled with drama her personal life was, that she forced herself to study foreign languages by tying herself to a chair, that she relaxed from the hectic demands of motherhood by reading Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason(!)

Recurring thought: If the story of the Howe family (or the Ward family) were made into a movie, it might strongly resemble the movie The Royal Tenenbaums. In fact, I would be greatly tempted to cast Anjelica Huston as Julia Ward Howe.

18) The Holy Man - spiritual writings by Susan Trott (173 pages)
My colleague Rick Davis who serves the UU congregation in Salem, Oregon introduced me to this book. It is a light read about a famous monk who lives at a hermitage on top of a mountain who dispenses wise advice from the Buddhist and Christian traditions to the throngs of pilgrims who come to seek answers to the questions of life. With a meandering, episodic plot I found it to be warm and humorous although it did leave me short of enlightenment.

19) Every War Has Two Losers – an anthology of writings on peace and war by William Stafford (164 pages)
I read this book in preparation for my Memorial Day sermon. It was my mother who influenced me to look into the writings of Stafford. She read a poem by him, "At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border" at her church's Easter sunrise service. Stafford, a Kansas native and conscientious objector during World War II, is an acclaimed poet and unusually deep thinker about the human condition.

20) American Nerd: The Story of My People - non-fiction by Benjamin Nugent (224 pages)
I had to pick up this book; I went to college with the author. (Last year, I greatly enjoyed reading his first book, a biography of Elliott Smith.) While you might assume that this book will be somewhat fluffy, this turns out not to be the case. The opening chapters feature discussions of characters in novels by Jane Austen and E.M. Forster and advance the theory that the character of the nerd was first invented by Victorian authors who worried that the rise of industrialization would bring an end to feeling. The book also contains a look at the character of the nerd through the lens of racist stereotypes and a controversial mini-essay on Asperger's syndrome. Alongside this thoughtfulness, American Nerd also manages to be fun (without poking fun) and deeply empathetic. (My only complaint is that Nugent has avoided mentioning our alma mater, Reed College, in both of his books. This seems odd because this college is relevant to the subject matter he has taken up in each of his books.)

21) What Narcissism Means to Me – poetry by Tony Hoagland (78 pages)
Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs introduced me to the poetry of Hoagland when he read Hoagland's poem "The Change" at a gathering of ministers. "The Change" is a majestic poem about the tennis star Venus Williams. This short collection of poetry is an extremely pleasant read. Hoagland is hard to pin down, striking a tone that is at some points narcissistic and at others extremely self-effacing, and usually a tad depressive, but also witty and socially conscious. What you will certainly run into is lines that take your breath away, such as in his poem "Grammar of Sparrows" where he exclaims, "As if my mood was a coastal wetlands area in need of federal protection..."

22) McSweeney's Volume 20 (199 pages)
This past volume of McSweeney's contains 13 short stories and 50 reprints of original artwork. Stories of note include one in which a father is punched in the face in Puerto Rico, one in which two characters begin a courtship in a manatee pool, one in which a man marries a tree, one in which a pair of amateur private investigators track down an innocent French ornithologist in Alabama, and one in which a Jewish man convicted of manslaughter befriends the leader of a white supremacist gang in prison.

23) The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier – by Tony Jones (242 pages)
At "Ministry Days" prior to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly I will be facilitating a collegial conversation about the intersection of Emergent Christianity and Unitarian Universalism. This topic has been of interest to me after I spent a month attending Kansas City's leading Emergent church, Jacob's Well in Westport, for one month during my vacation in the Summer of 2005. Jones' The New Christians is an introduction to the Emergent movement tracing the history, theology, philosophy, and culture of this fascinating movement. I find myself inspired and challenged by many of their ideas: a hermeneutics of humility, an ancient-future orientation, and a strong commitment to the practice of open conversation. A great book for anyone interested in acquainting themselves with the Emergent landscape.

24) Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance - non-fiction by Dr. Atul Gawande (257 pages)
I first encountered Dr. Gawande's writings when I read an essay of his that was published in the New Yorker. That essay, entitled, "The Learning Curve" or "The Education of a Knife" begins with a remarkable scene: Gawande, then a surgical resident, fumbles in attempting to place his first central line in a patient while his supervising attending doctor, a man who has performed this procedure thousands of times, observes. This example illustrates a tremendous paradox: it is in that particular patient's best interest for Gawande not to attempt the chest tube; it is in the best interest of the continued availability and advancement of medicine for Gawande to learn this procedure. The essay goes on to discuss how we learn new things and the great genius of the essay is that the topic is relevant to far more than medicine.

I picked up Better hoping for essays just as powerful. All of the essays in this collection are good, ranging in topic matter from handwashing in the hospital, to C-sections, to polio in India, to advancements in the treatment of Cystic Fibrosis. But none of these essays pack the same punch that "The Learning Curve" did.

25) The Children's Hospital - a novel by Chris Adrian (615 pages)
I first encountered the writing of Chris Adrian in McSweeney's Volume 14 which featured a haunting and inventive short-story of his. If that short story was not enough to inspire me to read this lengthy novel, then the author's bio on the back cover certainly did the trick. "Chris Adrian is the author of Gob's Grief. He recently completed a pediatric residency at the University of California, San Francisco, and is currently a student at Harvard Divinity School."

The Children's Hospital begins with a flood that submerges the entire surface of the Earth beneath 7 miles of water. The lone survivors are those persons who make up the population of a children's hospital that, with the assistance of angelic forces, is transformed into a floating fortress. From there, the story only gets weirder and weirder. If you've ever wondered what would happen if you merged Grey's Anatomy with the story of Noah's Ark, you might be interested in this supernatural, medical, apocalyptic novel.

26) World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars - a novel by Max Brooks (342 pages)
As a minister I frequently receive book suggestions from those in the congregation I serve. The range of books I am invited to read (and often given as a gift) is immense and far more than I could possibly read even if avoided all of the books that are on my reading list. So, when R. gave me two books by Max Brooks, World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, I couldn't help but smile. Of all the books I've received - including titles about church history, world religions, and spiritual practices; humanist classics; obscure novels; and even a romance novel (seriously!) - nobody has ever asked me to read about zombies.

I have a confession: I adore zombie movies. I generally dislike most horror movies and avoid most films with lots of violence. I do catch some action films - I saw the newly released Indiana Jones film a few months ago and will probably see the new Batman movie this week - but I am highly selective in that genre as well. But, if the movie has zombies, I'm there in a heartbeat.

The zombie movies created by George Romero were works of social commentary and the social commentary was not subtle in the least. They asked questions about the nature of our own humanity, free will, and depict civilization as often less than civil.

I was curious about whether a zombie book would work as well as a zombie movie. I am pleased to report that it did. Brooks' novel is written in the form of face-to-face interviews conducted around the world with the survivors of World War Z. He captures characters of different cultures, races, classes, and worldviews. Together, their individual stories flesh-out (no pun intended) the history of the zombie war. Along the way, we also receive plenty of pointed critique on everything from the military-industrial complex to suburban lifestyles to media responsibility and so on. A quick, light, and enjoyable summer read.

27) Waking Up the Karma Fairy: Life Lessons and Other Holy Adventures - meditations by Meg Barnhouse (134 pages)
A month ago at General Assembly I ran into Meg Barnhouse. She remembered me from the year before. Smiling, she reminded me of when we met. We had been standing together in a makeshift robing room at the convention center in Portland, Oregon as we waited for the Service of the Living Tradition to begin. Playfully, I had remarked to her, "You sure do have some mouth on you." (Or something to that effect.) She busted up with laughter and told me I hadn't seen anything.

I hadn't. Waking Up the Karma Fairy is the third book of meditations by Barnhouse I've read in the past year. Like the other two, this book was fun, original, opinionated, brazen, and true.

28) Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow - by Forrest Church (148 pages)
You can read a lengthier piece on this amazing book here.

29) McSweeney's Volume 15 (303 pages)
With the completion of this volume of McSweeney's, I've now read 15 of the 27 volumes! McSweeney's 15 is an interesting collection, featuring 10 short stories by American authors and 9 short stories by Icelandic authors (translated, of course.) In addition, this issue was printed in Iceland which may be the most literary country in the world. Of the Icelandic stories, I particularly enjoyed "Nerve City" and "Interference." However, Steven Millhauser's "A Precursor of the Cinema" is the clear gem of this collection. Written in the prose of a historian, his story reports about a mysterious late 19th Century artist and inventor. It succeeds as a riveting and intriguing story. I will definitely have to go out and see what else he has published.

30) Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto - essays by Chuck Klosterman (243 pages)
Have you ever wondered if Marilyn Monroe : 1950s :: Pamela Anderson : 1990s is a valid analogy? Have you ever pontificated why, if being a rock star is a common fantasy, seemingly nobody ever fantasizes about being Billy Joel? Me neither. But I do know that I've been told that it is essential that I read Chuck Klosterman about 150 different times.

Klosterman (along with Douglas Coupland) is probably one of the most lauded critics who writes about Generation X and popular culture. I fully expected to find this book enjoyable; I rarely pan anything I read. Yet, this book was a disappointment.

My reason for not liking Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is not purely utilitarian although, surely, someone with such a collossal accumulated knowledge of pop culture could put that energy to better use. My reason is not based in feminism, although Klosterman seems to have some unresolved issues with women and that worried me a little bit. My reason is not even aesthetic. He actually is a talented and engaging writer. Instead, I just found most of the book not all that insightful and it seemed like you could use the evidence he presents to argue the opposite of every "crucial" idea he posits. There is no nutritional value in this breakfast cereal.

However, one essay did have me laughing uproariously. His chapter in which arguments against the sport of soccer bookend an account of his brief and controversial tenure as a little league baseball coach is the high point of this book. Or maybe I am just being too generous.

31) The Age of American Unreason - non-fiction by Susan Jacoby (328 pages)
In 1963 Richard Hofstadter published the influential book Anti-intellectualism in American Life. Forty-five years later, unreason, irrationality, and anti-intellectualism continue as powerful forces shaping American culture, education, and government policies at home and abroad.

Jacoby does not spend the majority of her book focused on the last 40 years. She begins with a cursory history of intellectual and anti-intellectual currents in American thought from the colonial period to the 1960's. (The index lists 10 mentions of Unitarianism and 13 mentions of Ralph Waldo Emerson. We seem to be the group Jacoby turns to in order to lift up intellectual currents in American history.)

To be honest, I have my own quarrels and quibbles with how Jacoby depicts parts of our nation's history. In particular, I am critical of how she frames the First and Second Great Awakenings and how she portrays Emerson.

It is in the final third of the book that Jacoby comes to discuss current trends of unreason and anti-intellectualism. While I found myself agreeing with her on most of her points I was struck by how she arranged her critiques. It is curious that she describes the omnipresence of iPods among American youth with the same level of consternation that she directs at schools that have abandoned the teaching of evolution. She complains about politicians and media figures who have abandoned the use of the word "soldiers" by substituting the word "troops" in its place and she derides the astounding paucity of US ambassadors to the Middle East who actually are able to speak Arabic.

At first, this lumping of major ignorance with minor annoyance is jarring. However, soon you realize that she is arguing that all these things are interlinked. This argument is challenging. Is it fair to lump together parents who show Baby Einstein videos to their children with fundamentalists who teach their children that dinosaurs and humans roamed the earth at the same time?

Although I have my reservations, Jacoby does succeed in being provocative. Unfortunately, she also comes across as condescending, snobby, and even joyless at times. For this reason, her authorial voice distracts and detracts - something that can not be said about the intellectual giants, thinkers, and geniuses whom she praises.

32) Roller-skating as a Spiritual Discipline - meditations by Christopher Buice (55 pages)
My morning spiritual practice has two key elements. One is reading and reflecting on one or two brief meditations, poems, or passages from scripture. The second element is an expression of gratitude, in which I write a hand-written note (or at least an email) to someone for whom I am thankful.

For the meditations, I often turn to the meditation manuals published by the UUA. In solidarity with the Tennessee Valley UU Church which suffered an horrific shooting in July, I picked up this collection by The Rev. Chris Buice, TVUUC's minister.

UUA meditation manuals can be generally divided into two categories: serious and silly. Serious ones, like Elizabeth Tarbox's Evening Tide, are beautifully written and poignant. But the silly ones are a lot more eye-catching. Who knew that you could glean spiritual insights from pig-racing (Jane Rzepka) or hosting a drag queen fundraiser (Vanessa Southern). The title of Buice's meditation manual gives it away. He begins meditations with lines such as: "I learned the Hindu concept of 'non-attachment to ends' from a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle." "The teenage cashier in the local fast food restaurant is my guru." "There is a controversy among those who search for Bigfoot." And, "I think about the Buddha when I am bowling."

Of course, all ministries require a sense of humor and an ability to be serious. It is all about picking your spots. How blessed TVUUC is to have a minister who is also capable of laughing at life's absurdities.

33) McSweeney's Volume 28 (117 pages)
Although beautifully packaged, this latest volume of McSweeney's literary quarterly was the lightest issue so far. Eight handsome little books explore the reinvention of the fable, with contemporary authors composing original fables. A few of them bear a striking resemblance to Friedman's Fables by psychologist and family systems theorist, Edwin Friedman. In this collection, the fable that truly stands out is "Virgil Walker" which features an octopus who is also a social climber.

34) The Audacity of Hope - by Barack Obama (362 pages)
35) John McCain: An American Odyssey - by Robert Timberg (207 pages)
Is this blog the place to make opinionated statements about candidates for public office? I've decided that it is not, but do not infer from that decision that I lack opinions. I have more than enough. When it comes to candidates for public office I try to follow the same rule on this blog that I follow in the pulpit: to discipline myself to as much neutrality as I possibly can.

I did decide however that it would be an interesting exercise to read a biography of each of the candidates during their respective conventions. In choosing the books, I elected for fairness. I was not going to read a puff piece about one candidate and then a book smearing the other. So, after choosing to read a book in which Obama writes in his own voice, I decided that fairness dictated that I select a book about McCain that, while short of a hagiography, does present McCain in a positive light. During the DNC I read Obama's Audacity of Hope. During the RNC I read Timberg's biography of John McCain. I am embarrassed to admit that I had never previously read anything of any significant length about Obama. I had, however, read a good-sized piece about McCain.

During the 2000 primaries, Rolling Stone dispatched well known authors to spend some time on the trail with each of the four major candidates: Bill Bradley, George W. Bush, Al Gore, and John McCain. David Foster Wallace spent a week on McCain's "Straight Talk Express" leading up to the South Carolina primary. (McCain had won New Hampshire, but it was at this point in the primaries that Bush pulled ahead, his backers using push-polling to insinuate that McCain had fathered a black child with a prostitute. The reality was that John and Cindy McCain adopted a girl from an orphanage in Bangladesh.) Anyways, I have no idea what Rolling Stone wound up publishing, but a 79 page essay about McCain under the title "Up, Simba" can be found in DFW's magnificent essay collection Consider the Lobster.

I hope that you are registered to vote and plan to go to the polls on November 4th. If you are like most American voters, you probably have your mind already made-up. But even if you know with 100% certainty for whom you plan to vote, I think the exercise of reading about each is worthwhile. I am glad that I did.

36) Donkey Gospel - poetry by Tony Hoagland (71 pages)
I enjoyed reading What Narcissism Means to Me, another collection of poetry by Hoagland, so much that I decided to pick up this collection of poems. Likewise, this collection did not disappoint. He is one of the brightest shining lights in contemporary poetry.

37) Gob's Grief - a novel by Chris Adrian (356 pages)
The other day I mentioned author Chris Adrian to my primary care physician. After telling him a little about Adrian’s life, my doctor remarked, “Don’t you just hate people like that?” Adrian is an overachiever of epic proportions. After receiving a degree from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Adrian went to medical school in Virginia. While in medical school, Adrian published his debut novel, Gob’s Grief. While completing his pediatric residency at a hospital in San Francisco, Adrian published his second novel, a 615 page masterpiece under the title The Children’s Hospital (see #25 above.) According to the “about the author” section of The Children’s Hospital, Adrian is now a Divinity School student at Harvard. I think my physician said something to the effect of, “People doing their medical residency don’t even have time to sleep; they don’t write 600 page novels.”

While Gob’s Grief is not as strong as The Children’s Hospital, it is a fascinating book and the two do share several characteristics in common. Both explore the telling of a story from several different perspectives. Both feature an epic, surprising climax. Both include a mysterious child named Pickie Beecher.

Gob’s Grief is set in New York City in the years following the American Civil War. There, two men named Gob and Will who each lost brothers in the civil war obsessively work to create a machine that will bring the war dead back to life. The two turn to industrialization and spiritualism to help alleviate the grief for their own and the nation’s losses. Historical figures including Walt Whitman as well as key feminist leaders from this time in American history play fascinating roles in this fictional story. I will eagerly look forward to Adrian’s next novel.

38) Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War – non-fiction by Evan Wright (370 pages)
Earlier this month I shared a room at a retreat for ministers with another minister from my generation who was reading Generation Kill. Written by a reporter embedded with an elite battalion of Marines, Generation Kill tells the story of the first few weeks of combat faced by this unit at the outset of the Iraq War in 2003.

My experience was that this book was an engaging page turner; I couldn’t put it down. While both the madness and the horror of war are made clear, what stood out are the depictions of the Marines as they faced combat. The book shines a light on how Generation X and Y respond to and interpret war. One Marine relates combat to playing the Grand Theft Auto video game. The author observes that this generation’s low tolerance for boredom and stimulation deprivation contributes to excitement about combat. More humorously, the author describes how, in the days leading up to the invasion, a rumor about the death of Jennifer Lopez circulates among the servicemen and women.

Generation Kill is a powerful, profoundly troubling, and perception-altering account of the War in Iraq.

39) Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior - non-fiction by Arthur paul Boers (139 pages)
Originally I read a good portion of this book for my sermon on October 12. I returned to it and decided to finish it up. This Alban Institute publication combines a deep insight into family systems theory with biblical interpretation. While I longed for the author to spend more time on case studies, I think this is a book that contains many worthy insights into congregational leadership. Perhaps the book's most commendable feature is the sincere humility and gentleness of the author.

40) In Between: Memoir of an Integration Baby - by Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed (268 pages)
I received a free copy of In Between in exchange for agreeing to review it in a forthcoming issue of the UUMA News, the newsletter of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. I will post that review on my blog when it is complete. This book also formed the core of a sermon I preached on November 9th.

41) The Wordy Shipmates - a history by Sarah Vowell (248 pages)
During the Summer of 2007 I read three books by Vowell. In Shipmates, Vowell's quirky and endearing presence is not nearly as pronounced as it was in her earlier books. Still, she manages to do something special. She tells the story of the early Puritans in a way that is both sympathetic and compelling. Her recounting of the lives of John Winthrop, John Cotton, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson is entertaining and accessible. This is a must read for any Unitarian Universalists or any Americans who seek to understand themselves better.

42) The Care of Troublesome People - by Wayne E. Oates (78 pages)
Like Never Call Them Jerks (see #39 above) I read parts of Troublesome People for my sermon on October 12. Oates' book is far inferior. At points it seems sloppy and simplistic. It is also surprisingly repetititve for such a short book. Boers' book is by far the stronger of the two.

43) The Complete Persepolis - a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi (341 pages)
I enjoyed this gripping, autobiographical tale of the author's childhood in Iran, her adolescence and coming of age in Austria after fleeing from religious repression, her subsequent return to Iran and struggles as a young adult, and finally, her bittersweet exodus to France.

44) The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game - non-fiction by Michael Lewis (299 pages)
In 1985 Lawrence Taylor, a linebacker for the New York Giants, tackled Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, breaking his leg and ending his career. Taylor was big, fast, powerful, and relentless. He was probably the greatest linebacker ever to play the game.

In The Blind Side, author Michael Lewis tries to do for football what he did for Baseball in his book Moneyball. Moneyball set out to answer the question of how the Oakland Athletics could be playoff contenders year after year despite having one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. Its controversial conclusion was that the front office of the A’s used mathematical analysis to determine the skills needed for winning games and found that the market for baseball players undervalued certain skills.

In The Blind Side, Lewis sets out to answer why the left tackle is one of the highest paid positions in football. It turns out that football has been slowly growing more focused on passing over the past thirty years. Thus, the quarterback is the most valuable commodity on the field. Linebackers and defensive ends like Lawrence Taylor made life hard (and dangerous) for quarterbacks so teams schemed to protect the quarterback’s blind side. However, the most elite defenses could not be stopped by overloading the left side with an extra blocker or by pulling a guard as these strategies left other glaring weaknesses that an adaptive defense could exploit. The answer came in the form of the superstar left tackle.

The prototypical left tackle is at least 6’5”, though taller is better. He weighs between 325 and 350 pounds though that weight should be carried in the thighs and in the behind instead of in the gut. He should have oversized hands. He should be one of the quickest players on the team in terms of a short burst of speed. And, he should be agile. If the sport were basketball instead of football, you’d say you were looking for someone the size of Shaquille O’Neal who moves like a point guard. Players like Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones fit this mold and commanded some of the largest contracts in professional football because they were able to protect the quarterback’s blind side.

If this was Michael Lewis’ book, he could have written it in thirty underwhelming pages. Instead the majority of the book focuses on the life of a young man named Michael Oher who comes from the most underprivileged background imaginable and is blessed with all of the physical tools to become a star left tackle. Lewis’ book becomes a biography of how Oher is saved from his environment and given a chance to live out his potential for football stardom. It is a good thing that Lewis tells the story of Oher’s life. If he did not, the book would have been tremendously disappointing.

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