Sunday, April 27, 2008

Poetry Sharing in Seattle

A week ago, I got to travel to Seattle to attend and speak at a retreat for all the Unitarian Universalist ministers in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia. We stayed at a beautiful Catholic retreat center right on Puget Sound. Late one evening, sitting around a table with a group of other ministers, we began sharing poems that were meaningful to us. Here are a sampling of poems that were read:

Cheese Penguin by Sarah Lindsay

The Change by Tony Hoagland (scroll down to the entry for Tuesday, January 11)

America by Tony Hoagland

My Dead Friends by Marie Howe

A Contribution to Statistics by Wislawa Szymborska

Playing with Three Strings by Rabbi Schulweis (scroll to the bottom of the page)

(Thanks to Rob Eller-Isaacs who introduced me to both the Howe poem and one of the Hoagland poems.)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Sermon Series on Renewal

This spring I presented a four part sermon series on different aspects of Renewal. This theme is apropos of Spring, the season of the renewal of life. Follow the links below to the four sermons in the series:

On Easter Sunday (March 23) I preached on Bodily Renewal.

On March 30th I presented a sermon on Emotional Renewal.

On April 13th I considered the topic of Community Renewal.

The final sermon in the series (4/20) considered Relational Renewal.

Sermon: "Relational Renewal" (Delivered 4-20-08)

Whenever I preach on certain themes, I often ask two psychologists in our church to loan me relevant books so that I can gain a greater insight into the subject matter. You probably already know that I do most of my sermon writing at my local coffee shop and sometimes taking the books that they have loaned to me has caused a bit of a drama to unfold. When I was preparing to preach on Anger, for instance, I sat in the coffee shop and received worried looks as I flipped through the Anger Management Workbook. And, when I preached on Depression last December I got even more concerned looks as I prepared for that sermon by reading two books on how to survive depression.

Well, for my sermon this morning I went back to their lending library. Picture it: there I was, sitting in the coffee shop, researching when suddenly, sitting right next to me was the most gorgeous and stunningly beautiful woman in the world. She was reading one of my favorite books of all time. My heart skipped a beat. Then she turns to me and asks me in a sultry voice, “So, what are you reading?” I turn slightly away, panicking about how to answer. I can only delay for so long; she deserves an honest answer. The book they had loaned to me was called, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. “Oh,” she says, looking slightly dejected. “No,” I say, “This is not how it looks. I’m NOT trying to make a marriage work.” (This was, in hindsight, probably the wrong thing to say.) And from there I could only dig myself deeper. “I’m not actually married,” I say. In a matter of seconds, her face had turned from fascinated to disappointed to appalled to deeply confused.

When I choose a topic on which to preach, there are often two ways that I approach the task. There are some sermons that I just know. They dwell within the core of my being. I embody them and the task is just to bring out the truth that resides inside of my heart and mind. And, then there are sermons that are not like that at all, sermons that don’t come from any place of knowing that lives inside of the core of my being. These are the challenging sermons, the sermons that require of me new discovery, research, and a journey into new realms.

This morning we conclude the four part series on renewal with the final sermon in the series. We’ve considered bodily renewal and emotional renewal. We’ve considered how communities of people can rebuild and resurrect themselves. And, this morning I want to talk about how it is possible to renew relationships between people. It is the last sermon in the series because, well, because it is the one I dreaded preaching the most.

Now, I’m sure that many of you came here expecting me to speak on a particular kind of relationship – romantic relationships, partnered relationships, marriages. This morning won’t be about those but it also won’t not be about partnered relationships. Those relationships are most definitely on my mind; I will officiate at seven weddings in the next few months – some for members of this church, others for friends and relatives of church members, and two for friends of mine.

But I hope I can speak of relationships more broadly this morning, and that what I say can be gleaned by everyone here and applied to whatever your particular circumstances are. Our marriages, our partnerships, our romances are usually the primary relationship in our lives and the relationship we tend to think of first. But we live within a broad and expansive network of relationships. I would be willing to bet that just about everybody here has a strained or estranged relationship with somebody. It might be your partner or spouse. It might be a child or parent or sibling or some other relative. It might be an in-law. (I’ve heard that people don’t always get along with their in-laws.) It might be a friend. It might be a co-worker or classmate, a boss or a teacher. You might have a strained relationship with a member of this church or the minister of this church. But I would guess that just about everybody knows somebody with whom things just are not clicking. And, what this morning is about more than anything is about how to get things to click again.

One hypothesis: for the most part, the greater the investment that exists in a relationship, the greater the effort we will extend to renew that relationship when things are not at their best. A couple that has spent years and years together and has reared children together will shell out for counseling and couples enrichment. We don’t go to measures like these for that really horrible cousin who lives two time zones away and we, for the most part, just resign ourselves to tolerate him once every two years at the family reunion. When the stakes are raised, we are more open to doing the work of repair and renewal.

Another hypothesis: Every relationship goes through cycles, through ups and downs. The more we have invested in the relationship – invested in time, invested in emotional energy, invested in how important we consider this relationship in our lives – the more capable we are of weathering the low points, the valleys that are inevitable in all relationships.

I recently spoke with a woman in this church whose wedding I performed. I asked her for her relationship wisdom. She said, “Seventy percent of the time we are just fantastic together. Fifteen percent of the time we can’t stand each other. And the other fifteen percent of the time we are out of sync. I am moving closer while he is pulling away or vice-versa.”

So, what do we make out of this? In school work, 70% is a C-minus. Does this person have C-minus relationship? In basketball, a 70% field-goal percentage makes you the greatest player of all time. It makes you Wilt Chamberlain. (On second thought, he may not be the best example for us to emulate in our relationships.) But using the basketball analogy, 70% is a Hall of Fame relationship.

I am guessing that numerical metrics and specious analogies may not be the most useful way for us to go about evaluating relationships… or maybe not. In a marriage, is the experience of mutual satisfaction and contentment 70% of the time good? And, it also depends on how bad the “bad” is. And how would we compare this to other relationships? A consumerist example is probably lacking, but how would we evaluate a restaurant where we only enjoyed the dining experience seven times out of ten? And, what do we make out of people who endure year after year of disappointment. The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series in 100 years, and they still have thousands and thousands of loyal fans. Would any of us remain in a relationship that disappointing for that long?

Perhaps I am over-thinking here and getting a bit too philosophical and a bit too speculative. We are supposed to be discussing the renewal of relationships, and we have two choices: We could look at dysfunctional, strained relationships and identify the characteristics that threaten relationships. Or, we could look at healthy relationships and tease out the key factors contributing to that health. We could ask ourselves questions like, “What are a few key elements that make your relationship successful?” “What are a few practices that contribute to vitality in your relationship?” “What does relationship renewal mean to you?”

Questions like these are not just for couples, or relationships between two people. There is a whole school of thought by which groups of people can revive. The process is called Appreciative Inquiry, and it is described this way:
“Appreciative Inquiry is about the coevolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives ‘life’ to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable. Appreciative Inquiry involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. Instead of negation, criticism, and spiraling diagnosis, there is discovery, dream, and design. It seeks to build a constructive union between a whole people and the massive entirety of what people talk about as past and present capacities: achievements, assets, unexplored potentials, innovations, strengths, elevated thoughts, opportunities, benchmarks, high point moments, lived values, traditions, strategic competencies, stories, expressions of wisdom, insights into the deeper spirit or soul – and visions of valued and possible futures.”
I’ve known of several churches that have used Appreciative Inquiry as they’ve entered into a period of intentional renewal. And, while it is a tool that is usually used by communities, I don’t see why it couldn’t be used in smaller unit relationships. I don’t know if any of our psychologists have used appreciative inquiry in couple’s therapy, but I don’t see why not.

This is a sermon and not an amateur psychology lecture. So, I would like to connect this discussion about relationship renewal to both our Unitarian Universalist principles and to our common church life. The word “relationship,” (well, actually the word is “relations”) occurs in our UU Seven Principles, in the second principle that describes our goal of fostering, “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.”

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations: sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Two of these words are pretty simple. It is no stretch for us to affirm “justice”, which is to say that we should not exploit, deceive, or oppress others human beings. And compassion is another word that is fairly basic. It refers to a duty of care that we have for others with whom we interact.

Equity is a word that may be a little bit more unusual. I had always thought it was a synonym for equality, but I consulted the dictionary and found this was not the case. According to the dictionary, equity refers to having qualities of fairness, reasonableness, rightness, honesty, impartiality, candor, and uprightness.

I also think it is telling that I would just sort of assume the word meant equality. Equality is a word that has great appeal to many Unitarian Universalists and I wonder if subconsciously I just assumed that the word was there in the seven principles. There are all kinds of equality that are worth fighting for and that Unitarian Universalists have fought for over the years. We’ve have been on the cutting edge and on the front lines of the fight for marriage equality, gender equality, racial equality, and so forth.

So, why not put the word “equality” there? Because not all human relationships are based in equality and, if I can say something controversial, nor should they be. This does not mean that there aren’t fights for equality worth fighting. I am simply saying that power is a real and necessary part of many human relationships, despite the fact that we may wish that it wasn’t. There are real and necessary power differentials between adults and children, for example, and to pretend that there isn’t is a recipe for bad boundaries.

Even though it isn’t a topic for polite conversation, we are a microcosm of society and members of this church vary widely in terms of the privilege and wealth we enjoy. Privilege and wealth means the capacity to wield power – to wield power for either tremendous good or for tremendous ill. To try to pretend that we are all equal is to deny that some of us have positions of power that allow us to impact the world significantly.

If this discussion of power is worrisome to you, I ask you only to think about your job. Do you have the same power your superiors have or the same power those who report to you have? Sometimes this fact can be deeply frustrating, but that’s life and there are good reasons for it.

It has been interesting to tune into the news at various points during the day over the past week and see the Pope doing all the things Popes do when they visit the United States. Seeing it, I am reminded of just how unlike Catholicism Unitarian Universalism is. We are far, far, far less hierarchical, which for the most part is good although, to be completely honest I am insanely jealous of the Popemobile. But seriously, even though we are one of the flattest faith traditions in terms of a lack of hierarchy, even I do carry some measure of power in my position. I am human, but more is expected from me. My words and actions are subject to special scrutiny and what I say often has an exponent attached. To deny this would be a form of self-deception. Ministers don’t get to be just another guy or just another gal.

So, while we strive for equality in some circumstances, we realize that complete and utter equality is neither attainable, nor, in certain circumstances, desirable. So, we aim to use our power wisely… to use our powers for the cause of justice, in the exercise of compassion, and to further the demands of equity.

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations. That list is a great start. Just off the top of my head I would add accountability, forbearance, understanding, and appreciation as other traits worth developing in human relationships.

I want to conclude by talking about the renewal of relationships in church life. We are all people with many relationships: partners and spouses, parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, siblings, relatives, in-laws, friends, co-workers, colleagues, supervisors, teammates, and so on and so forth. We also have a relationship with others in the church and with the church itself.

That relationship, between our own selves and the church, sometimes follows the same pattern of a romantic relationship or a close friendship or even a kind of familial relationship. We go through periods of infatuation. We are smitten by the church. We go through periods of disillusionment. We go through periods of feeling out of sync.

When this happens, we have a choice. Our response is our choice. We can either let the relationship dwindle and atrophy… or we can take steps to heal, renew, and rebuild. The best news of all is that it is our choice.

Just as it is our choice (as well as our sacred duty) to practice Justice.

Just as it is our choice (as well as our sacred duty) to practice Compassion.

Just as it is our choice (as well as our sacred duty) to practice Equity.

It is our choice and our sacred duty to work on ourselves and to work towards whole and holy relationships. These choices speak volumes about our character.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sermon: "Community Renewal" (Delivered 4-13-08)

Community. Community is a word that comes easily to the lips. It is a word that we think we know what it means when we say it. This morning’s message is about community. About its possibilities. About its struggles and strivings. And, when community is threatened or endangered, about its healing and its renewal.

I think that the amount that the word is tossed around speaks to the volume of people’s hunger to be a part of communities. In the society in which we live, a society in which extended families are scattered across states and across continents, a society in which many of us know little about our neighbors, a society of so much impermanence and instability, the idea of community has enormous appeal, enormous draw.

And, so the word “community” is tossed about. We hear about such things as retirement communities and gated communities. We hear phrases such as, the African-American community, the gay community, the Jewish community, as well as communities referring to immigrants from different countries: the Jamaican community, the Laotian community, and so on. And then there are other sorts of communities: The theater community. The arts community. The swing-dancing community. The model train community. You get the idea.

And, of course, there are church communities. As one of my Unitarian Universalist colleagues puts it, “People come to us for the worship service but they stay for the community.” I find this statement to be true a lot of the time. When I hear people talk about what is most important for them as a part of this Unitarian Universalist church, “community” is often one of the top things if not the top thing that is mentioned. And perhaps what this means is really self-evident, but it may be worthwhile to unpack the idea of community a little bit this morning.

I want to offer you a quick glimpse into how I think about community, and how I regard Unitarian Universalist religious community in particular. I’m not one hundred percent certain that I came up with these ideas on my own, but if I did pick them up somewhere, I know not from where. I think about community this way: for a community to be a community, you must have meaningful engagement and interaction with people who are very similar to you and you must have meaningful engagement and interaction with people who are a little bit similar to and a little bit different from you, and you must have meaningful engagement and interaction with people who are quite different from you.

Suppose you are a retired person in your seventies. For this church to be community to you, you would need an opportunity for meaningful interaction with those who are very similar to you. So you might take part in the Ulysseans, our group for active seniors. But you would also need the opportunity to interact with those somewhat similar to you. So, you might sign up for Dinner for Eight and meet people more diverse in age and life stage. And, you would also need the opportunity to interact with those very different than you. So, you might sign up to be a Val Pal next February and have the chance to get to know a child in our church community. Or, you might volunteer with the Interfaith Hospitality Network and work with homeless families in Johnson County.

Or, suppose you are a coupled person in your thirties with small children. You would find deep connection with people quite similar to you in the “Thirty-Somethings Group”; if you sang and you joined the choir you would make connections with people somewhat similar to you; if you attended the training in two weeks and joined the lay ministry team and visited homebound members of our church, that might be an experience of forming deep relationships with those different from you.

My point in all this is that being around only those who are very much like you does not make a community. It makes a club. And, if everyone is extremely different from you it is difficult to feel like part of a community as well. So, it takes both of these, all of these, being with people who are sort of in the same boat you are in and encountering the other who stretches you.

The other part of being a church community is in recognizing that we have a responsibility to make our church a place where anybody can find community. A critical mass of Ulysseans, or Half-timers (as our 40ish to 60ish group calls themselves), or 30-somethings is important for all the participants in those groups to be able to find community. But, what about college students? What about those for whom English is not their first language? What about people of color? What about Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender persons? What about those living below the poverty line? What about billionaires? (I would hate to think that a billionaire would not be able to find community here. They need others like them to feel like they belong.) And, what about Republicans? I’m completely serious here. I want every single person who walks through our door to be able to find community here. That means building a critical mass of people at each point along a scale of diversity that includes racial and ethnic diversity, age diversity, gender diversity, political diversity, theological diversity, and more.

Community: Deep connections with people very similar to you. Deep connections with people somewhat similar to you. Deep connections with people quite different from you.

When Unitarian Universalists speak about community, they often prefix an adjective to the word, referring to something that is called “Beloved Community.” The term “Beloved Community” was made popular by Martin Luther King, whom our nation mourned last weekend on the 40th anniversary of his death. King’s concept of Beloved Community was contained in the immortal words of his famous speech, “One day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers…. One day every valley will be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight.” King’s dream was more than racial integration. It was about deep encounter with difference across the entire spectrum of human experience.

This morning’s sermon is the third in a four part series on renewal. The two previous sermons dealt with two aspects of individual renewal, the renewal of our bodies and the renewal of our emotions. This morning we shift to consider renewal within groups of people. This morning is devoted to the renewal of communities and next week’s service will concern the renewal of relationships.

In the reading before the sermon I selected words by the gifted poet Nikki Giovanni, words that addressed the anger and the fear, the profound sadness and existential despairing of the Virginia Tech community following the shootings there a year ago. If one were to sit down and create a list of communities afflicted by devastation or violence, the list would stretch on and on. To the example of Virginia Tech we could add Northern Illinois University and the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Natural disasters have ravaged communities as close as Greensburg, Kansas and all across our nation from hurricanes in Florida and New Orleans to wildfires in Southern California. Terrorist attacks leveled skyscrapers in New York City and crashed a plane into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. And, I’ve just limited these examples to the devastations of the past few years in our own country. If we expanded our gaze around the world or cast it back into the past we could magnify exponentially our list of devastations.

I do not want to rehash these horrors at any great length, but rather ask what might be learned from them. Why do some communities heal more quickly than others? What makes some communities more resilient than others? What prompts some communities to renewal while others remain stuck in destruction, or worse, respond to their trauma with bitterness, hatred, and conflict? What can we learn? I ask this question of what we can learn not because we face any great crisis, although in the case that we should this wisdom would be important. No, I ask this question because I believe that these extreme examples can teach us how to deepen our own lives in this church community and in the other communities to which we belong.

So, let us explore a few of these examples and see what they have to teach us:

Let’s begin with the story of the paper menorahs in Billings, Montana. (I recounted this story as our children’s story.) Billings is a fairly white town with few people of color and few religious minorities. The town had become a popular gathering place for white supremacists and similar hate groups. Hurling bricks through the windows of Jewish homes was not the first instance of hate crimes in the city, and it was not the first time the people of the city had come together to resist hate. The town’s painters union volunteered to repaint for free any home, business, or place of worship that had been defaced by bigoted graffiti. When skinheads harassed those attending the town’s African-American church, neighboring churches sent white allies to witness and support the town’s small African-American population.

Psychotherapist and author Janice Cohn was so moved by this story that she set out to study it. From the story she went on to write a children’s book and a children’s play based on these events. Asking the question of what gave the people in the town the courage to stand up to hate, she first pointed to a number of the town’s leaders: the editor of the newspaper, the police chief, and members of the clergy. These leaders helped to create a vision of the type of community Billings could be and should be. People came together to stick up for one another as a community.

Another example is found in the writings of Rebecca Parker, the President of our UU seminary in Berkeley, California. Rev. Dr. Parker writes about speaking at a special service of dedication for the UU Church in San Jose, California which had burned down and which now had been rebuilt.
“In the moment of devastation, they resolved to restore the shelter for human hope that their ancestors had built. They pledge their faith to those who had come before them and those who would come after them. They took hands across the generations, and they held on. They grieved the loss and then went to work. The rallied and rebuilt. They rolled up their sleeves and painted. They got out their pocketbooks and wrote a check – and then another. They stayed late through meetings to hash out the details and choose the right direction. They were in it for the long haul…. They created beauty from the ashes. Not just the beauty of a resurrected building, but the beauty of a communion of people bound together by devotion to something that seemed impossible.” [Blessing the World, p. 59-60]
Parker, in her sermon of celebration, makes it clear to point out that the congregation in San Jose “didn’t just make a replica of the past. They rebuilt what was lost, but they created something new as well.”

One of my colleagues in Florida tells me of how, in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma, locals feuded about how to rebuild a part of the city that was emotionally significant. Some would settle for nothing less than a complete rebuilding of the area how it had always been while others pushed for the rebuilding to capture the heritage of this meaningful location but also incorporate new features.

Rebecca Parker writes much the same thing when she talks about what happens when the old sanctuaries fall. (And, by “old sanctuaries”, she does not mean church buildings. She means churches, buildings, homes, neighborhoods, cities and, more than that, she means the sanctuaries we imagine in our minds and hold in our hearts.)
“When the old sanctuaries fall… we need to rebuild with something new as the cornerstone… something that marks the awareness that love for one another is our only security. Faithful solidarity with one another on this planet is the only power that is stronger than violence or terror or devastation. Joining hands, working together to create beauty, risking for the sake of a future we hope for but cannot see, but still moving in the direction of what we dream can be.” [Blessing the World, p. 61]
So, where I am going with all of this? One of the most compelling passages in the Bible is found in Ezekiel 37. In this passage, the prophet Ezekiel has a vision where he surveys a barren field littered with dry bones. In the vision, Ezekiel has a conversation with Yahweh and the bones are brought back to life: first they stand up; then they are “enfleshed” with sinew, muscles, and skin; and, finally, the breath of spirit and soul and life reanimates them.

Even though this is the birth of Spring, it is a time when many of us feel like dry bones. In the church world, many ministers have been known to say, “Everything after Easter is gravy.” In the academic world, the end of the school year approaches. Many of us look forward to planned vacations during the Summer months. And, at church many of our board and committee leaders await the conclusion of their terms and tenures of leadership.

What do we do when our communities feel like dry bones? What renews them? This morning we’ve looked at communities that have had the strength to move forward after great trauma and loss. We can learn from their examples. This morning we’ve also considered the diversity that empowers this church. When you are feeling dry, remember that here you can encounter others who understand you deeply and that there is the breath of newness and the thrill of difference all around you… always. Amen.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Sermon: "Emotional Renewal" (Delivered 3-30-08)

Opening Words
[These opening words were written by Rev. Thom and read by a child in our congregation.]

When children are young sometimes their parents tell them not to make faces or else their face will get stuck that way.

When a child is mad and furious and angry, she may make an angry face. Let’s see you squint your eyes, bare your teeth and make an angry face with me. And her mom will say to her, “Don’t make that face or else it will get stuck like that.”

Or, when a child is upset or sad, he may make a pouting face. Cross your arms, stick out your bottom lip, and make a pouting face with me. And his mom will say to him, “Don’t make that face or else it will get stuck like that.”

And, sometimes, children just feel silly. They like to stick out their tongue or make their nose into a pig snout or pull on their ears or do funny things with their eyes. What is the silliest face you can make? And, the parents of this child will say, “Don’t make that face! It might get stuck like that and what if you had to walk around for the rest of your life with your tongue sticking out.”

Now that I am older and know more, I know my parents were wrong. My face didn’t get stuck looking angry or sad or silly. But, every once in a while, I see somebody who looks mean all the time. Or I see somebody who looks angry all the time. Or I see somebody who looks sad all the time. And I wonder: were their parents right? Did this person’s face somehow get stuck like that? Or, is this person just constantly angry or mean or sad?

I guess some people do get stuck feeling the same way all the time. When they do, what sorts of things can they do to get unstuck? What can make them smile or laugh? This morning’s worship service is about these sorts of questions. Let us worship and let us learn together.

A few weeks ago I was at the gym, riding the stationary bicycle while watching the news on CNN. As I pedaled, my gaze lowered to the bottom of the screen, to those scrolling news bits that cycle from right to left across the TV screen. And then an item passed that read, and I am not making this up, quote, “Sirius Satellite Radio to launch station dedicated to 24-hour coverage of Eliot Spitzer scandal.”

I had to confirm if it was true, and it was true. Allow me to quote the actual announcement from Sirius: “For those who can’t get enough of the sex scandal that brought down New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Sirius Satellite Radio has launched what it is calling ‘Client 9 Radio,’ a special channel dedicated to covering all aspects of the Spitzer saga.”

Among the many questions one might ask about this is, “Why?” And, who would actually listen to such a station? And, could a person who would set their dial to “Client 9 Radio” be described as a healthy, balanced person?

Or, take another news story that is stirring people up at the moment, the story about the various controversial statements made in sermons by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Last June I had the pleasure, and it was a pleasure, of spending a day with Reverend Wright as he presented a day-long workshop to UU ministers on the subject of prophetic ministry and congregational growth. And, while I don’t mean to spend too much of my allotted time this morning playing the role of cultural pundit, I might offer a few observations about this news story. First, spending a day with Rev. Wright I found him personable, funny, engaging, and flat out brilliant. He served for seven years in the Marine Corps and Navy and was the valedictorian of his naval corpsman training. He has earned advanced degrees in theology from some of the world’s finest Divinity schools. In a thirty-six year ministry in Chicago he built a ten-thousand member mega-church that later affiliated with our sister denomination, the United Church of Christ.

Jeremiah Wright is to the South side of Chicago what Rev. Bob Meneilly is to Prairie Village, only Wright is several times more accomplished. Last week I had the chance to run into Bob Meneilly and George Tormohlen and discuss Rev. Wright with them. I asked them, “If someone sifted through every remark you’ve ever made in all your decades of public speaking and picked out two or three sentences and played a loop of them over and over again on television, how would it make you look?” They agreed that they have said things just as controversial as Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Three brief comments:

First, Jeremiah Wright didn’t say anything about the United States that the prophet Jeremiah in the Bible didn’t say about the people of Israel. In fact, compared the Biblical Jeremiah, Reverend Wright is fair and balanced and calm and restrained. Allow me to read from the Biblical Jeremiah:
“The Lord shall raise his hand against the inhabitants of this land. For all, high and low, are out for ill-gotten gains; prophets and priests are frauds, every one of them; they dress my people’s wound, but on the surface only, with their saying, ‘All is Well’ All well? Nothing is well! They ought to be ashamed because they practiced abominations; yet they have no sense of shame… Therefore they will fall with a great crash and be brought to the ground on the day of reckoning.” (Jeremiah 8: 10b-12)
Second, you can find sound-bytes from just about any pastor in America – McCain’s pastor, elders in Romney’s Mormon church, Clinton’s pastor (I presume), Mike Huckabee himself, the evangelical leaders who meet with President Bush, not to mention Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jerry Johnston – and, yes, Bob Meneilly, John Tamilio, and even some guy named Thom Belote – you could find sound-bytes from any of these people that would make Jeremiah Wright sound moderate and understated.

Third, the media stations, like those that think it would be a good idea to create a 24-hour station devoted to Eliot Spitzer, that repeat sound-bytes over and over and over are engaging in exactly the same sort of emotional manipulation and distortion that they accuse Reverend Wright of trying to stir up in the pulpit.

Alas, I digress. It is just that anger, rage, and indignation are easy places to begin if we are going to speak about emotions. There is a well-known bumper-sticker that liberals tend to put on their cars. The bumper-sticker reads, “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.” The people who put such stickers on their cars are alluding to issues such as war, poverty, health care, discrimination, environmental degradation, and so forth. But anybody could put this bumper sticker on their car. If you are not outraged, you are not watching CNN.

This morning’s sermon is the second in a four part series on the theme of Renewal. Today, I want to address emotional renewal. Then, on the second and third Sundays in April, I will preach the third and fourth installments of this series addressing the renewal of communities and the renewal of relationships.

I’ve decided to begin this morning with anger, outrage, and indignation because they are some of the easiest emotions to recognize. I want to branch out and also consider other negative emotions like fear, jealousy, and anxiety. And, I do not want to focus just on the so-called negative emotions either. I want to ask whether, it is entirely healthy or ethically defensible to strive for perpetual happiness, sanguinity, and bliss.

To place this question in the language of pop-culture references, we can think of Neo’s dilemma in the movie The Matrix. In the film he is given the choice between two pills. One pill will cause him to return to the reasonably comfortable life with which he is familiar and which happens to be nothing but an illusion. The other pill will reveal the truth. In Biblical language, the question is whether he should eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge or not. Is there anything to be said for ignorant bliss? Or, as Bobby McFerrin sang, “Don’t worry, be happy. Cause when you worry your face will frown and that will bring everybody down. So, don’t worry be happy now.” How different that is from Martin Luther King’s injunction that we should become maladjusted and live with the experience of a divine discontent.

What I’m trying to do here is to ask you to imagine balancing emotional states. On one hand is every joyful feeling. On the other hand is everything disturbing and outrageous. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the question seems to be: “Just how happy and content and at peace should we be?” To which side should the scales tip?

But, it occurs to me that perhaps I have framed this question incorrectly. Maybe the question is not about which emotions we are justified in feeling – in response to the events of the world, in response to our own personal lives. Instead, maybe the question concerns what emotional states help us to live well and effectively. There is an important distinction here:

Red-eyed anger might be justifiable. At the same time it may be counter-productive to feel this way.

Despair and gloom might be justified. At the same time they might be counter-productive to feel this way.

So, let me suggest this definition. Emotional renewal is what we do to be able to cultivate feelings that help us to live effectively and courageously and meaningfully. Emotional renewal is less about feeling good than about feeling in ways that help us to live well. Unfortunately, understanding what Emotional Renewal is and figuring out how to make Emotional Renewal happen are two completely different things.

Oftentimes, emotions are unwieldy things. Emotions are what they are. The paradoxical truth about emotions is that the more we try to exert absolute, willful control over them, the less we are able to manage them. Within our society, we have a tendency to try to suppress or stuff or avoid or just plain deny certain emotional states. Anger, worry, sadness, disappointment. Sometimes there’s the temptation to lie to ourselves and others about our emotions, to pretend we don’t feel how we feel. We say, “Oh, I’m not bothered,” while inside we seethe. “Really, I’m fine,” when we are steamrolled by sorrow. “Everything is OK,” when we are upset.
Emotions are what they are. And denying them is not the most constructive way to face them.

In the midst of writing this sermon I happened to run into my colleague Reverend Kathy Riegelman. So, I asked her what she thinks she would say if she had to preach a sermon entitled “Emotional Renewal.” She said that she would talk about finding that delicate balance between burying our emotions so deeply that we become flat and numb and the opposite, having no capacity to express our emotions well which leaves a person an emotional wreck.

While writing, I was also sidetracked by a phone call from my good friend Reverend Eva Cameron in Iowa. I asked her the same question. She said that she would talk about how, in her opinion, Americans choose to spend so much of their free time doing things that are emotionally avoidant. These things include web-surfing, computer games, and watching television. These things also include addictions – alcohol, drugs, gambling, over-eating – things that people compulsively do in order to avoid a certain feeling. She continued that if she were to deliver this sermon she would recommend engagement with activities that are emotionally expressive rather than avoidant. Such activities include meditation and other spiritual practices, exercise, and intimacy.

Sometimes, being the serious list-maker that I am, I wonder what it would look like to take an emotional inventory. To actually make a list of the emotions I routinely feel and then to actually name what it is that I do when I feel that way. And then, perhaps, to add a third part to the exercise and ask, “Well, how is that working out for me?”

“How is that working out for you?” [When I delivered this sermon I had no idea where I picked up this saying until several people told me that it is a frequent saying of Dr. Phil. Yikes.] The question, “How is that working out for you?” is a very brash and in your face expression. At the same time it is very liberating. It suggests that we might change… perhaps not change the way we feel but change the way we react to how we feel so that our life has better outcomes.

For our reading before the service I read a meditation written by Victoria Safford entitled “A Map of the Journey in Progress.” [The reading came from her book of meditations Walking Towards Morning. As I conclude the service, I return to her reading in which she takes not an emotional inventory but makes an emotional map.

In that reading, Victoria Safford writes, “Here is where I found my voice and chose to be brave.” Where is that place for you?

Safford writes, “Here’s a place where I forgave someone against my better judgment.” Where is that place for you?

She writes, “This is the place where I said no more loudly than I’d thought I ever could.” When have you done this?

She writes, “Here’s a place, a murky puddle, where I have stumbled more than once and fallen. I don’t know yet what to learn there.” Where is your murky puddle?

The reading by Safford ends with these words: “Here is where, if by surgeon’s knife, my heart was opened up – and here, and here, and here, and here. These are the landmarks of conversion.”

I wonder where your landmarks of conversion are? I cannot know those places as well as you know them. If the cartography of your emotional life was laid out before you, what places on the map would you point to and identify as the landmarks of your conversion, of your emotional renewal?