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.”