Saturday, May 31, 2008

52 Songs in 52 Weeks

I am trying out a new feature on this blog. Last Summer I read Nick Hornby's Songbook, a book of essays about his favorite songs. Ever since reading it I've had the urge to attempt something like what he did. This is my try at this sort of thing.

Ever wonder about what I listen to? For the next 52 weeks I've selected a song per week to write about. Here are the songs I've chosen:
Week of June 1: “Road to Joy” by Bright Eyes
Week of June 8: “Love/Hate” by Liz Phair
Week of June 15: “Radiation Vibe” by Fountains of Wayne
Week of June 22: “Declarations of Faith” by Zwan
Week of June 29: “Everyday Sunshine” by Fishbone
Week of July 6: “The Darkside” & “Suburban Sprawl & Alcohol” by L.P.
Week of July 13: “The Re-arranger” by Mates of the State
Week of July 20: “Scenic World” by Beirut
Week of July 27: “Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse” by Minus the Bear
Week of August 3: “California” by Phantom Planet
Week of August 10: “Stars” by Hum
Week of August 17: “California One / Youth & Beauty Brigade” by The Decemberists
Week of August 24: “Santa Monica” by Everclear
Week of August 31: “Going Away to College” by Blink 182
Week of September 7: “That’s the Way Love Is” by Poi Dog Pondering
Week of September 14: “Cath…” by Death Cab for Cutie
Week of September 21: “7/4 (Shoreline)” by Broken Social Scene
Week of September 28: “Let Me In” by REM
Week of October 5: “On Call” by The Kings of Leon
Week of October 12: “Widow’s Walk” by The Architects
Week of October 19: “Bandages & Scars” by Son Volt
Week of October 26: “In Ohio on Some Steps” by Limbeck
Week of November 2: “The Sporting Life” by The Decemberists
Week of November 9: “Stay” by Lisa Loeb
Week of November 16: “These Days” by Fountains of Wayne (Jackson Browne cover)
Week of November 23: “Written in Red” by National Fire Theory
Week of November 30: “Tears Don’t Matter Much” by Lucero
Week of December 7: “What Sarah Said” by Death Cab for Cutie
Week of December 14: "The Falling Kind" by Vedera
Week of December 21: “Dig For Fire” by The Pixies
Week of December 28: “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” by The Postal Service
Week of January 4: “I Was Wrong / You Were Right” by Badly Drawn Boy
Week of January 11: “Valley Winter Song” by Fountains of Wayne
Week of January 18: “The Gymnast High Above the Ground” by The Decemberists
Week of January 25: “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie
Week of February 1: “Crutch” by Buffalo Tom
Week of February 8: “Oppenheimer” by The Old 97’s
Week of February 15: “Reno Dakota” by The Magnetic Fields
Week of February 22: “Falling Slowly” by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova
Week of March 1: “Anyone Else But You” by The Moldy Peaches
Week of March 8: “Sweetness” by Jimmy Eat World
Week of March 15: “Just Like Heaven” as covered by Dinosaur Jr. and by The Watson Twins
Week of March 22: “The Impression that I Get” by The Mighty, Mighty Bosstones
Week of March 29: “Hands Down” by Dashboard Confessional (w/ Michael Stipe)
Week of April 5: “Light Pollution” by Bright Eyes
Week of April 12: “That Much Further West” by Lucero
Week of April 19: “Sheep Go to Heaven” by Cake
Week of April 26: "Sick of Myself" by Matthew Sweet
Week of May 3: “Light Rail Coyote” by Sleater-Kinney
Week of May 10: “The Plan” by Built to Spill
Week of May 17: “Don’t Call it a Ghetto” by The Architects
Week of May 24: “Tangerine” by Buffalo Tom
Week of May 31: “Too Young to Die” by National Fire Theory

A few notes on the songs above. I've limited my selections, with one exception, to songs released in the past 17 years (or, in other words, since I was a freshman in high school.) Even though all but one of the songs fall within this time period, the songs I have selected skew later. There are far more songs from the 2001-2008 time period than there are from 1991-2000. You will notice that I've also avoided many of my favorite alternative rock bands from the 90s. There are no songs from bands like Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, Rage Against the Machine, Green Day, The Breeders, The Gin Blossoms, Blind Melon, or many of the other bands I listened to in the early 90s.

The other thing you will notice is that most songs come from a genre that can be widely described as alternative-rock. There are a few exceptions. I've selected several songs that would be best-described as alt-country. (Think of bands like Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Lucero, The Old 97's, and The Drive By Truckers, for example.) I have also selected a few pop / pop-rock songs as well as one soul song.

I hope you will be inspired to look up some of these songs and bands. I hope you find interesting my writing about the music I listen to.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sermon: "The Life & Poetry of William Stafford" (Delivered 5-25-08)

The service this morning also contained three poems by William Stafford and a prayer written by Rev. Wayne Arnason.
A Ritual We Read to Each Other has been read all over the world at meetings held to resolve conflict, attempt reconciliation, and foster peace.

These Mornings was written in January, 1944.

At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border describes a place of natural wilderness near the boundary waters in northern Minnesota.

Wayne Arnason’s Memorial Day Prayer can be read here.

At his draft board hearing during World War II, a Harvard Ph.D. in Philosophy was asked if he opposed all wars. He nodded in the affirmative. “Even good wars?” a member of the draft board asked him. The philosopher’s reply: “Show me a good war.”

This morning’s sermon is based loosely around the life and poetry of William Stafford, a Kansas native who was a conscientious objector during World War II. [For this sermon I read the book Every War Has Two Losers, an anthology of Stafford’s writings on peace and war edited by his son, Kim Stafford.] This is provocative – is it not? – to talk about the life of a conscientious objector on Memorial Day. And, more than that, to talk about a conscientious objector to a war that is often lifted up as an example of a “good war.”

This morning will require your open-mindedness, your willingness perhaps to struggle with difficult ideas. I hope to provoke you – not in a rude or disrespectful way – but in a way that stirs the conscience. It is not my goal to convince you of the rightness or righteousness of any idea in particular, but to stimulate your powers of discernment.

Let me begin by recreating, will plenty of added embellishment, the discussion held by the worship committee at our last meeting when I presented this idea for an upcoming service.

“It will be a challenge to talk about a conscientious objector to World War II,” I began, “after all, if any war can be said to be justified, World War II would be it.”

Speaking up, a member of the worship committee disagreed, “That is a statement that can only be made in hindsight. We didn’t enter the war for moral reasons.”

“That’s true,” offered another member, “before Pearl Harbor the idea of going to war was extremely unpopular with a broad segment of the population. There was considerable division. Franklin Roosevelt had to promise not to go to war to win the election. The United States took an isolationist position up until Pearl Harbor.”

The conversation continued: “The leaders of the nations we declared war against were just so evil. Of course there were Hitler’s concentration camps and his attempt to exterminate the Jews. And, on the Japanese side, the atrocities perpetuated (the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March) were just so reprehensible and shocking. But, I think it is important to remember that we did not go to war to rescue the Jews or to liberate the Chinese. That was a justification given after the fact.”

I chimed in, “In July 2006 I was flown to Washington D.C. by the Gloria Steinem Leadership Institute to speak at a conference on reproductive justice. During my stay in D.C., I visited the Holocaust museum, which I had never previously. I remember a part of the exhibit that raised the question of why the Allies didn’t bomb the gas chambers or bomb the railroad tracks that were carrying Hungarian Jews to the concentration camps. War historians still argue passionately over this question.”

Another person added, “It is hard to make the case that our interest in the war was humanitarian. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden certainly put our own purity into question. (People still argue about the use of atomic weaponry on Japan.) On the other hand, look at Germany and Japan today. Both would have to be considered examples of highly civilized societies.”

The discussion continued: “I think the thing that influences our memory of World War II is that we were all in it together. It brought the country together. Everyone sacrificed. The elite fought alongside the poor. Remember, the sons of the extremely privileged fought. Jack Kennedy fought. George H. W. Bush fought. Sports heroes like Ted Williams fought. Hollywood stars like Clark Gable fought. It brought the entire country together.”

And it continued: “Well, that is if you don’t count the more than 100,000 Japanese Americans forced to spend the war in internment camps. Or, if you don’t consider the thousands and thousands of African-Americans who fought valorously overseas only to return to an America that denied their equality and often singled out African-American veterans for special violence and discrimination because it was felt that their wartime victories had made them too proud and uppity.”

What I am trying to do here is to complicate our thinking, to unsettle in a way that is as respectful as possible, our thoughts. I am indebted to a quote by William Stafford that I have included inside the order of service, “One of the consistent impulses of my life is to reduce uncertainties. But I find myself disquieted by expressions of certainty, or even by the manner of those who give off the sense of relying on their distinctive possession of truth. At any given moment, even a cloud is certain.” Etymologically speaking, a memorial day is a day of memories and it is worthwhile to probe and consider the way that we remember and the way those memories shape who we are. Emerson once quipped that “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.” Our memories, for better or worse, can ride and guide our living and thinking.

William Stafford was born in Hutchinson, KS in 1914 and graduated from high school in Liberal, KS. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas and was completing his masters in English Literature at KU when he was drafted for World War II. Stafford was a conscientious objector and a strict pacifist and spent the wartime years at work camps sponsored by the Church of the Brethren in Arkansas, Illinois, and California. During that time he earned $2.50 per month laboring in areas like soil conservation and forestry.

One event from his life as a conscientious objector stands out as both frightening and hilarious. During the early evening, after finishing with his day of hard work, Stafford and two friends decided to go into the small town in Arkansas closest to their work camp. They sat in a park – one writing poetry, one painting, and one reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass – when a mob of townsfolk approached them. Seeing the sketching pad and notebook, the crowd accused them of spying for the Germans. (As if a small Arkansas town of a couple hundred citizens would be of strategic interest to the Nazis.) Snatching the Whitman book the crowd demanded to know what it was. Stafford responded that it was a book of poetry. The crowd answered that it could not be poetry because it did not rhyme. The mob decided to lynch the three of them, but fortuitous intervention by the town sheriff rescued them.

After the war, Stafford went on to earn his masters degree from KU and became a professor at Lewis & Clark College. He spent the rest of his life teaching, writing poetry, and working on peace and reconciliation related issues. He was named the special poetry consultant to the library of congress – the position now known as US Poet Laureate – in 1970 and also traveled all over the world advancing the cause of pacifism. He died in 1993.

You may remember two weeks ago, on Mother’s Day, the fantastic Julia’s Voice group held what we believe was the largest peace rally in the Kansas City metro in the last five years. One funny observation: If you wear a suit and tie to a peace rally, you will get odd looks. The many, many people there who were not members of this church treated me with great suspicion. Some wondered if I worked for the CIA. Others thought I was a Jehovah’s Witness. When I was talking with a member of the American Friends Service Committee, I heard one of their members exclaim, “Watch out, there is a guy in a suit.”

During the rally, word got passed down the line that Channel 9 was all the way down at the other end looking for someone to interview. Having been through executive-level media training led by the president of a communications and public relations firm with a Park Avenue address in New York City, I figured I could give a pretty decent interview. Plus, I can run fairly quickly, even when I’m wearing a suit. And before you know it, I am standing in front of a camera talking about Julia Ward Howe and the original meaning of mother’s day and that we were there to lift up our hope for peace and for constructive solutions to the world’s problems. And the next thing you know the reporter cut me off and confronted me with a snide remark, “Don’t you think that is a little naïve?” Without missing a beat, I said something to the effect of, “No, I don’t. It may seem naïve to someone who doesn’t believe that human beings are capable of working out our problems. It may seem naïve if you are a pessimist or a cynic, but we are here today because we imagine the possibility of resolving our differences without bloodshed or vengeance, because part of us believes very deeply and can imagine that there is a different way than war.” Which I thought was a pretty good answer to give off the cuff.

What I find most inspiring about William Stafford is actually not the beauty of his poetry or even that he spent his life living out his convictions and dedicating himself to the possibility of peace. What struck me the most about him was a section of his writings about living as a pacifist that showed how expansively he thought about war and peace. Here are a few of the questions he was known to ask:

“Do you think any reduction in the ‘war making’ of ‘enemy powers’ can be induced in any way except by force? Well, could they reduce our war making against them by any means other than power? How do you account for or justify using one means of reasoning when predicting your own behavior and another means when predicting theirs?”

Or this question: “Is there any place in life today for persons who announce beforehand that they will not engage in carrying out the tasks implied in the current policies of the military? Well, would you like to see [more or less] of these people exist abroad? In Germany? In Russia? In the Middle-East?”

This turning of the question implies a way of thinking outside of the box, a way of releasing ourselves from the narrowness of our thinking. It claims: things need not be as they are. It claims: we ought to question the way things are and what we think we know. If we think that peace is naïve, we have limited our options

Following the first Gulf War, Stafford wrote this piece which shows his capacity to ask hard and unpopular questions:
“Is there a quiet way, a helpful way, to question what has been won in a war that the victors are still cheering? Can questions be asked without slighting that need to celebrate the relief of a war quickly ended?

“Or does the winning itself close out question about it? Might failing to question it make it easier to try a war again?

“Maybe a successful performance that kills tens of thousands, that results in the greatest pollution in history, that devastates a nation, that helps confirm governments in their reliance on weapons for security – maybe such an action deserves a cautious assessment?

“Does an outcome that surprised everyone confirm your faith in overwhelming armament as a mode of security for your country? If so, do you think that other countries may reach a similar conclusion? Has establishing the superiority of your own destructive potential made you feel secure against the terror that others have also learned to be effective?”
Memorial Day. We recall the wars of our nation: The Revolutionary War, the Tripolitian War, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, the war with Mexico, the Civil War, the Spanish-American war, World War I & II, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq. We remember so many lives lost. What better way is there to honor than to ask questions of our own memories, to employ our powers of imagination and reason to such an end that no more lives shall be added to the memorials we are bound to solemnly mourn into perpetuity.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Narrow Stairs

On Friday I picked up the new release from Death Cab for Cutie, who I will be seeing live in concert for the 2nd time on Friday, May 30th. Narrow Stairs is their 7th full-length studio album. It is also, in my opinion, one of their most diverse-sounding recordings.

(My weekend included a lot of time in the car including a trip to Olathe and a trip out to Powell Gardens to perform a wedding so I had the opportunity to listen closely to this record.)

The opening track, "Bixby Canyon Bridge," has the mild feel of a song that The Shins might have recorded, particularly if you listen to lead singer Ben Gibbard's vocal inflections. "Your New Twin Sized Bed" sounds like Death Cab doing their best Jack Johnson imitation. Finally, the song "Pity and Fear," considering its unusual percussion and rhythm section arrangement could almost be mistaken for an 80's Peter Gabriel song, at least until the end when the song accelerates its tempo and becomes a bit harder.

I happen to believe that Death Cab's later recordings are as good as their earlier sound, but those who are critical of everything that came after The Photo Album will love the 9th track, "Long Division", in which they return to their earlier sound.

My favorite two tracks on the album are "No Sunlight" which has all the bounce and buoyancy of songs like "The Sound of Settling" and "Crooked Teeth", and the interestingly titled track "Cath..." whose bright - even transcendent - guitar riffs disguise the depression of a relationship fated to failure. The song employs a narrative voice, perhaps of a jilted ex-boyfriend, to describe the snap of wedding pictures and the swirling emotions of that moment. The subject matter is quite similar to "Death of an Interior Decorator" off Transatlanticism.

As with any Death Cab album, not every song immediately stands out. A few of the tracks, like "Talking Bird" and "The Ice is Getting Thinner" seem like they are trying too hard to emulate the magic of their cross-over hit "I Will Follow You Into the Dark." Likewise, the songs "I Will Possess Your Heart" and a few of the songs that fall in the middle of Narrow Stairs did not immediately stand out to me. Oftentimes, the songs by this band that don't immediately catch me turn out to be some of my favorites.

Sermon: "Who Owns the Church?" (Delivered 5-18-08)

I begin this sermon with two stories for you to consider. Both are true stories that involve children in our church community.

The first story: One morning a mother and her child entered the church and the child made a bee-line for the downstairs classrooms. “No,” the mother instructed, “You are supposed to join the other children for the first fifteen minutes of the worship service.” The boy responded, “Oh yeah, well I want to go ask that Thom guy, you know, the guy who owns this place, and see what he says.”

The second story: A four year old was visiting with his grandmother who attends a church that is more theologically conservative. The four year old asks his grandma if she should come to church with him. Trying to be polite the grandmother replies, “Well, I will have to ask your parents if I can go.” The child responded, “Grandma, it is my church too.”

So, which is it? Is it, “let’s go ask that Thom guy, the guy who owns this place”? Or, is it the second story? “It is my church too.” Who owns the church? I bet you can predict how I am going to answer this question. How many of you think I’m going say that child number one is correct, that I own the church? How many of you think that child number two is correct, that the members of this church own the church? However, the answer I’m going to give may surprise you, but before we answer this question, I better say a little bit about what it means to own the church.

It is true that the second you sign the membership book in this church, you become a co-owner of this church. You own the church together with all the other members of the church. You own the church. I like this language of ownership a lot more than I like the language of membership.

As some colleagues have pointed out [on the Minister’s Chat List], membership is a word whose currency is losing value. Most of us are members of something. Sometimes “membership” just means the right to use. This is the case with something like gym membership, where we pay some amount per month for the right to use all the services of my gym. Other times, people pay for membership in something that is free for everybody. Some of you are members of KCUR or KCPT. Public radio and television are completely free, but some of you pay a fairly small amount to join as a member as a way to show that you support the services they provide for free to everyone in entire community. Similarly, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is free too. But some of you pay for a membership because you believe in having a great museum in our city. You support the services they provide for free to everybody and you derive very few tangible benefits from being a member. I am a member of American Civil Liberties Union. I paid about $30 to become a member. I derive absolutely no benefit from this. If my first amendment rights were violated, the ACLU will not ask if I am a member before they take up my case. No, I am a member because I believe in what the organization stands for and am willing to support it.

Sometimes, membership means even something weaker than this. I decided to go searching through my wallet to see what was in there and discovered that I was a Borders Rewards Card member. What does it mean to be a member of Border Rewards? It costs nothing to join. In fact, all I did was give them my email address and they knocked about $10 off my purchase. They don’t call me to ask me to help work the register or paint the store. They don’t ask me to pledge or serve on a committee. They don’t seem to notice if I go months without walking into their store. They don’t even care if I make purchases at Rainy Day Books. They expect no fidelity and demand no loyalty. In fact, they just send me lots and lots of coupons.

More and more, the word membership means less and less. This isn’t good news for those of us in the world of the church where our concept of membership involves active service, frequent participation, and high levels of generosity. In fact, we often ask for lots and lots of service, intense participation, and sacrificial generosity.

So, instead of talking about membership, I am going to talk about ownership. I want to say that when you sign the membership book you actually become an owner of the church. You own part of the church. What does ownership look like? What does it mean to be a good owner? Everyone here owns something. Some of you own a car or a house, or you own a small business or a pet cat. And along with owning that thing comes responsibility, a duty of care, and a certain amount of pride of ownership.

Let me digress for a minute and tell you that while my parents were visiting last weekend they announced to me that they got a new cat. This was a big deal to me as all the animals that were a part of our household when I was growing up – the dog, the two cats, the ferret, the turtle – have all gone to heaven since I moved out. Then, my parents confessed to me that the cat was invisible. I wondered if dementia might be setting in. I asked them to explain what they meant by an invisible cat and they told me that when they brought it home it ran and hid and they haven’t seen it for weeks. They know it is alive because it comes out to eat the food they set out and it uses the litter box. They just never see the cat. They’ve searched everywhere – and mind you, they don’t have a large house – and the cat is utterly undetectable. They are currently in the process of setting up “nanny cams” all over the house to try to find this cat. By the way, they named the cat “Smuuch.” They call the cat “smuuchy”… smuuchy, their invisible cat.

But I digress. I want to talk to you about membership and ownership. There are various ways of being an owner, some more honorable than others. Our goal is that every person in our community takes pride in ownership. Although there are too many examples to lift up, I want to lift up a few examples of pride in ownership. The first example is the Julia’s Voice group. Sara and a couple of members had the idea of starting a “Mothers for Peace” group. So they organized and went out and got $6,000 in grants and studied and invested themselves in putting together what I understand to be the largest peace rally in the Kansas City Metro Area in the last five years.

Two women had the idea of sponsoring a day of programming for women in the church and took ownership of this idea and organized a wildly successful women’s wellness retreat attended by 44 members of our church.

One member had the idea of starting a children’s performance group. You saw the fruits of her act of ownership earlier in the service. And how can I forget the angels who demonstrate their pride in ownership when things just sort of appear in the church without anyone taking credit for them? Brand new flat screen TVs and DVD players show up in Saeger House. Wireless internet arrives in Saeger House. I get this cool head set microphone I am wearing. The Saeger House kitchen gets a new stove, a new microwave, a new coffeemaker. Saeger House gets news guttering and a fresh coat of paint. All from angels who take pride in ownership.

It is not just members of the church either. I decided that one of the things that would be very good for the church and very exciting for my ministry would be to have an intern minister. I told the board that it would cost the church less than $3,000 to have a full-time intern. They said, “Go for it.” I assembled an intern committee to select a candidate. I secured $8,000 in grant funding and $4,500 in additional funding. The church agreed to come up with the other $2,500. All of these: Julia’s Voice, the Women’s Retreat, the Children’s Performance Group, and many others are examples of pride in ownership.

What does pride in ownership mean? It means taking good care of our buildings and grounds and taking responsibility for our property. It means paying our staff fairly and not exploiting them in the work they do for us. It means offering benefits and valuing the work they do. It means fully funding our programs. It means stepping up to serve. And, it can mean exercising ownership by going above and beyond. Those in our church community had a passion for an intern, a “mothers for peace” group, a children’s performance ensemble, and a women’s wellness retreat. They went out and made it happen. You can too. You can too. Two men can organize a men’s retreat. Ten parents can get together and fund a position like a youth-advisor. Five can do it if one of them is a decent grant-writer. Each of us has the potential of practicing ownership.

Of course, there are lots of ways to practice ownership poorly. I do this with my car. My car is filthy. I wash it about once every two years. And when I do, it gets washed by some middle-school soccer team trying to buy uniforms by washing cars in a mall parking lot. And I feel really embarrassed about how filthy my car is so I make an extra-generous donation.

Ownership is a responsibility, an art, and a sacred act. When done well, it enriches our lives. When done poorly, the results are highly disappointing. When done poorly, ownership can be a kind of “slumlord-ship” in which you do not fulfill your responsibilities of ownership. Or, ownership can be a kind of “squatter-ship” in which you take what the church has to offer without adding much. Or, it is possible to stake one’s claim as an owner and then practice abandonment or neglect. Or, you can practice ownership and membership like my parents’ cat practices “cat-ship.” Lots of time in hiding, coming out to sneak a morsel, and then dashing off. Undetectable membership.

During the annual meeting following the service, the Finance Committee will present the congregation with a budget with a $30,000 deficit. During the service and during the annual meeting we will pass out green forms with opportunities for you to raise your level of ownership. A balanced budget is not a fancy budget. If we have to make budget cuts, they will not be fun ones. If the church was a car, we’d be talking about cutting brakes and seatbelts; not Bose surround-sound speakers. If the church was your house, we’d be talking about cutting running water, heat, and refrigeration; not putting off installing granite countertops.

So, who owns the church? The answer is more complicated than you figured it would be. At the beginning of this sermon I presented you with two false choices. Does that Thom guy own the church or does the church belong to each and every one of you? You expected me to say, “you.” But, my answer is actually “both”… and it also “neither.”

I consider myself a co-owner of the church. In addition to the $8,000 in grant funding I secured I also make a generous financial pledge. [During the sermon, I disclosed what this amount was. I don’t feel comfortable posting it on-line, but I did feel comfortable sharing the amount with the worshipping community at SMUUCh.]

On one hand, I am proud of the fiscal contributions I make to SMUUCh. On the other hand, it represents a dynamic which I sometimes see, a dynamic of myself or other staff members or a small handful of members filling the gaps when everyone, collectively, does not live up to their responsibility and exercise pride in ownership.

I’ve taken a small, informal poll of some other UU congregations around the country to see how their stewardship drive turned out this year. Some report falling short whereas others have recorded hugely successful drives. One UU church in Iowa roughly half our size exceeded their goal and will expand several staff positions. Another UU church with about double the membership of our church set and surpassed a $1,000,000 pledge goal. If we pledged at the same level as they do, we would have a $100,000 surplus instead of a $30,000 deficit.

So, who owns the church, the membership or the minister? Both and neither. The answer, in fact is this, when you sign the membership book, or enroll your children in religious education you have made a commitment to practice responsible ownership. The real owners of the church are whoever exercises ownership over the church, everyone who takes responsibility.

And, in a different way, we are not the owners of the church. The church is neither owned by its members or its minister. It is actually owned by the living tradition which embodies the values, virtues, and sacred purposes for which we exist. We are merely asked to be stewards and caretakers of it for the brief lifetime in which we are have been blessed to be entrusted with this holy purpose.

UU Minister Dan Hotchkiss has written about this concept here.

We own the church; we don’t own the church. But we are surely entrusted to its care, to its vitality. We are surely its fiduciaries. We steward something much bigger than ourselves, for more than ourselves. We guard something that will outlive us. And, right here and right now we have the chance be the stewards of all the sacredness and possibility with which we have been entrusted.

I recently told a friend of mine about my parents’ cat “Smuuchy.” The friend, in turn, told me about her cat, who went into hiding for six months when the cat first joined the family. After time, the cat decided, “Well, I guess I can be a part of this family.” The cat came out of hiding, and sought out meaningful human contact, relationship, and community. It is a choice we all can make.

At our annual meeting, our members filled out commitment forms for an additional $13,240. In addition, 5 members volunteered to help organize fundraisers during the 2008-2009 church year. We are very, very close to closing the gap!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Sermon: "Reclaiming Mother's Day" (Delivered 5-11-08)

[On, Mother's Day, May 11th a group in our church called "Julia's Voice" hosted a peace rally that attracted an estimated 500 people who stood shoulder to shoulder over two long blocks in front of a large Mall in Overland Park. I delivered this sermon-in-three-parts at the worship service that morning. For the first part, I give thanks to Sara Sautter who helped with the editing and to Dr. Valarie Ziegler, the author of a biography of Julia Ward Howe entitled, Diva Julia. This book taught me most of the facts of Julia's life that I describe here.]

Part I: The Life of Julia Ward Howe
Julia Ward was born in New York in 1819 into an upper-class family. Her father was a strict Calvinist and feeling it was his duty to “protect” her, limited Julia’s exposure to society which he deemed sinful and a bad influence. This was particularly hard on Julia, a creative, free spirit who aspired to a career in letters and enjoyed flirting and mixing with society. Fortunately, learning was treasured in the home in which Julia was raised and she was a prodigious reader and writer. By age nine, she was reading works like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Paley’s Moral Philosophy.

She immersed herself in writing poetry, reading philosophy, and learning foreign languages. Remember, this young woman was bright, so she frequently found ways to subvert her father’s harsh restrictions. One evening she asked permission to invite a few friends over. Permission granted, she planned a gala ball with dozens and dozens of attendees. Surveying the noisy, busy, crowd, her stunned father remarked, “Well, I guess we have different notions of what was meant by ‘a few friends.’”

Following the death of her father when Julia was twenty, she enjoyed a brief period of great freedom before once again coming under the control of her brother and uncle. She made a name for herself as a New York socialite and her delicate features and bright red hair combined with her intellectual refinement and playfulness made her the “belle of the ball”.

Though many men noticed her, only one captured her heart. At age 24 she married Samuel Gridley Howe, eighteen years her senior, who hailed from a Unitarian family in Boston. At first, it would appear that their marriage would be the matching of two dynamos.

Julia was a literary star in the making and Samuel was a handsome young doctor; a truly dashing figure who returned a hero from military service during the Greek Revolution. In Boston, he had turned his attention to educational innovation and care for the blind. Later he would become an ardent abolitionist. In fact, Samuel Howe was among the Secret Six and used a portion of Julia Ward Howe’s inheritance to help support John Brown’s abolitionist activities. What had the potential to be a powerful marriage of equals turned out not to be. Samuel believed that a woman’s highest calling was to be a mother whose actions were limited to the domestic sphere.

Like her father, Julia’s husband disapproved of her literary and public aspirations. Soon enough, Julia was entrenched in motherhood, bearing six children in the span of twelve years. Pregnancy was difficult for Julia. She suffered physically with each birth, her life on the line several times. In addition, she suffered from what we now know as post-partum depression, sinking deeply into a melancholy that plagued her spirit. Though she loved her children and found her life better for being a mother, she was always somewhat resentful of motherhood, especially for the way it cut into her desire to study and write.

Julia Ward Howe was a special mind. In the few moments of peace she could find she relaxed by reading Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.” Notice, I said “Immanuel Kant” not Janet Evanovich. She also found time to publish poetry collections and plays. Her husband was deeply critical of these activities. On the positive side, her husband’s efforts as a doctor-philanthropist exposed Julia to social causes. During a visit to camps of Union soldiers to work on sanitation, Julia Ward Howe penned the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Julia Ward Howe was widowed in her mid-fifties. It was finally at this stage of her life that she could take on the public role she had always desired. She combined her literary talents with her developed ideas about justice and became an outspoken leader in the causes of women’s suffrage and pacifism. Despite the restrictions of Victorian society that prevented women from having a public role, Julia found ways for her voice to be heard.

Julia twisted Victorian notions of gender and in order to advocate for women to have a greater public role. The culture assumed that men belonged in the public sphere and women belonged in the home, but the culture also said that women were naturally tender, nurturing, and compassionate. So, Julia argued that women needed to play a public role to help balance out man’s brutality and militarism.

Until her death at age 91, Julia Ward Howe traveled tirelessly as a lecturer and organizer. She spent her 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s this way:

She founded and served for 23 years as President of the Association of American Women.
She was President of the New England Women’s Club.
For 10 years she was President of the Massachusetts Women’s suffrage Association.
She headed the New England Women’s Suffrage Association.
She helped found a General Federation of Women’s clubs.
She helped to organize clubs committed to the advancement of women from San Francisco to Newport, Rhode Island.
She founded a woman’s journal and served as its editor for twenty years.
She published at least six books during this time, ranging from an autobiography of Margaret Fuller to collections of poetry.
She preached in pulpits across the United States, founded a group for women clergy, spoke at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 and became president of the United Friends of Armenia in 1894.
She continued as an active member of at least three different philosophy clubs in Boston.
She traveled to France and Italy and delivered addresses on women’s rights in fluent French and Italian.
She was the only women elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters before 1930.
She received honorary degrees from Tufts, Brown, and Smith College.

Wow! Simply, wow!

Part II: “Let the Voice of Julia Ward Howe Speak”
Today is Mother’s Day, May 11th, 2008. Today is the 1,880th day of the Iraq War and the 1,826th day since President Bush announced that the mission had been accomplished. We have been in Iraq longer than we were at war with Korea, longer than we fought in World War II, longer than we fought in World War I, and longer than we were engaged in the Civil War. To date, the war with Iraq has claimed the lives of 4,075 American soldiers. On the fifth-anniversary of the Iraq War, my colleague The Reverend Don Southworth held a public reading of the name, age, hometown, and military rank of every member of the United States armed services who had died in Iraq. With only a five-minute break to use the rest-room half-way through, the reading lasted over five and a half hours (and nearly wrecked his voice for Easter Sunday.)

Today is Mother’s Day, May 11th 2008. This is the first of three sermons on the subject of war that I will deliver over the next four weeks. Two weeks from today, on Memorial Day weekend, the service will consider the life and poetry of William Stafford, a Kansas native and conscientious objector during World War II. Two weeks later I will preach about the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan and about what moral responsibility we have to the people of Darfur. Concerning conscientious objection during World War II, the worship committee engaged in a rich discussion about the way that our involvement in that war has been mythologized in our collective memory. And yet, and yet it is impossible for me to imagine a persuasive argument that military action against Nazi Germany was not warranted. And, concerning the Sudan, we need to ask the question of whether there is a peaceful way to end the genocide, bring justice to the refugees, and hold accountable the perpetrators of genocide?

These are all hard questions. They are hard questions that demand from us tremendous depths of moral and religious discernment. This morning we are going to wrestle. Two weeks from now we will wrestle. And two weeks from then, we will wrestle some more.

As a result of the religious and intellectual freedom we affirm as Unitarian Universalists, I must state that we are not all of one mind regarding the War in Iraq. Are Unitarian Universalists ever all of one mind? The diversity of thought in our church includes absolute pacifists who believe that all war is wrong. We include people who believe that military force is sometimes warranted, but hold that this was not the case in Iraq. We include people who believe that we have an obligation to stay in Iraq until it has been stabilized and others who hold that our continued presence there is inherently destabilizing. And, we do include some people who do subscribe to a political philosophy that holds that nations like Syria, Iran, and North Korea constitute threats to the world and who would support the United States proactively disarming the threats that these nations pose to us and to our allies.

And, good for us. Good for us. Because our church is not a place for people who’ve already figured out all the answers. Our church is a place of discernment, dynamic encounter, a context for listening and learning. And, at the end of the day, we may not all think alike. But that isn’t the point. We aspire to neither theological nor intellectual orthodoxy. As Francis David said, “We need not think alike to love alike.”

The other part – and listen very carefully – is that our church is not a place where we talk for the sake of talking. We shouldn’t get stuck in a state of analysis paralysis. Rather, our discerning and our encountering should lead us to act based on our careful moral discernments. Later in the service you will hear the voices of our Julia’s Voice organizing team about their decision to take action. What they have done is what I hope everyone will do on matters that concern them deeply. Discern. Organize. Act. And lift up this church as a place that aids in discernment, values your conscience, and inspires you to act on your convictions.

1,880 days is a long time. Our country is experiencing war fatigue and, for many people, the fact that we are at war is not something we consider on a daily or weekly basis. The front page of the newspaper or the lead story on the news concerns the latest news of the stock market or gas prices, the role of super-delegates in deciding the Democratic nominee for president, Britney Spears, or whatever else. The latest news from Iraq gets pushed back further and further. One colleague of mine begins the “candlelighting” portion of her church’s worship service by lighting a candle as a solemn reminder that our country is at war.

Of course, for so many people in our larger community and in our own church community, there is no danger of forgetting that we are at war. Our own church contains those whose spouse, whose niece or nephew or cousin, whose close friend is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Several members of our church, including a number of the leaders of Julia’s Voice, sponsor soldiers with whom they correspond with on a weekly basis. Many of us – counselors, social workers, employers, others – see the soldiers who return injured physically or psychologically or who are just trying to readjust to life again after being on the battlefield for a year or longer.

Emerson once quipped that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. In the life of Julia Ward Howe we see not only a brilliant mind, but a woman who evolved tremendously over the course of her life. From the “belle of the ball” to one of the leading figures for women’s freedom and agency. Early in her life she pooh-poohed women’s suffrage; on this subject she changed her mind one hundred and eighty degrees. She went from the author of a battle hymn and a donor to the activities of John Brown in Bleeding Kansas to a strict pacifist who declared that, “We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” Her story is the story of an evolution of thought, conscience, and the capacity for bold commitment.

Part III: The Voices of Julia’s Voice
I asked those who have been involved in planning today’s Julia’s Voice event to speak to what their participation has meant to them. Let us listen to the voices of Julia’s Voice:

Several members of the group told me stories of emerging consciousness and faith development. One woman wrote that she became a pacifist in third grade and was confirmed in this identity when she saw her older sister’s friends agonizing about the Vietnam draft. She became a feminist by participating in high school athletics and witnessing the resistance to Title IX. She wrote that Julia’s Voice has provided her with, “a group that lets me speak from my faith as a UU; from my assertiveness as a feminist; from my passion as a pacifist; and from my overwhelmingly powerful and uncontrollable instinct-turned-rage as a mom to protect my sons, and other mothers’ children from the senseless devastation that is war.

“Mothers have a unique voice vehemently objecting to this international pattern of responding to difference, misunderstanding, financial greed, and a concept of “self-interest” with violence. Mothers also have centuries of experience negotiating peace in our families, and our communities – skills that are urgently needed everywhere.

“Julia Ward Howe’s example gives UU mothers a long, historical mandate to find our voice and urge others to join us in speaking out not only against war, but for learning and using the tools for peace.”

She wasn’t the only person to use the word rage in her personal statement. Another woman wrote that she, quote, “became involved in Moms Against War because I am saddened by the many lives lost in this… war. Not only are thousand of young American men and women dying, but many innocent Iraqi men, women and children have perished as well. This movement has caused me to reflect on my beliefs and values. I believe that it is our duty to speak up, stand up, and show our outrage… Women have the gift of bearing life; and they also have the passion to preserve it.”

Likewise, another member of Julia’s Voice chimes in, “As a Unitarian Universalist, I believe in the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Mothers and others can be role models for defending principles without violence and destructive behavior…. Hopefully this event, where we stand side-by-side together for peace, will demonstrate to the people of Johnson County, Kansas, and beyond, that mothers and others are a powerful force for good. We will be heard!”

The youngest member of the Julia’s Voice group, wrote these powerful words, “Despite not being a mother myself, the idea of honoring your mother struck home for me. My mother was in college during the Vietnam War, and was active in anti-war actions. And yet, I thought about my own generation and how silent it has been. There is no draft in place pulling my peers overseas, yet the war still strikes a nerve with me through the media, and due to the proportionally high number of my peers who chose to enter the military right out of high school. When you are from a small town, military service is an economic opportunity where there are few, and is also seen as a right of passage for many young men. In 2004, a childhood friend of mine, Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher Wasser died of injuries in Iraq.

“For the sake of mothers of fallen soldiers, such as Chris's mom, who are steadfast in their belief in our presence in Iraq, I cannot stand here to question whether he died in vain, but I can say that I can think of how much good could come from putting our military to a [different] use... Mothers bring children into the world to bring light to the world, and we can all stand for peace in order to bring an end to this time of darkness.”

Similarly, the lone man in the Julia’s Voice group wrote that, “I had never been involved in a protest or stood for anything really. As you know, [my son] was on the trip to Boston for the Coming of Age trip where Sara and Nancy came up with the Julia's Voice idea. When [he] came back he had changed and he had taught me to look at my own coming of age at 45 and to take a stand on what I might do in my place in the world. I had supported the start of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I had felt misled and keep thinking what my response might have been if someone had invaded Kansas City.

“I have always felt that Moms had a greater capacity for love and caring in the world. They also have a great ability to create community and for the most part they always lead with love and understanding. Therefore, I know that if Peace in the World is possible, it would start with Moms.

“My own Mother's loving voice, even though she has been gone for many years, is with me in all I do in my life. We owe it to our Moms to have world peace. With out them we wouldn't even be here.

“With three boys of my own, I can't imagine losing one of them to war. I don't know how any Mom can handle losing a child to war and every child we have lost to war today hurts me so.”

Finally, our own Sara Sautter eloquently writes, “Occasionally I watch the New Hours with Jim Lehrer. At the end of these nightly broadcasts, the program pays homage, in silence, to the fallen soldiers in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Smiling faces, 22, 24, 19 years of age flash upon the screen. The silent fresh faces of young men and women who will never have the privilege to craft a full life – to love and to lose, fail and succeed, follow a passion, anticipate the blooming of dogwoods, watch their own children grow into adults.

“I can also feel the pain that the mother and father must feel. An aching, gnawing ‘how-will-I-survive-this’ pain. The pain I was feeling for the fallen soldiers and their parents was not alone. It was accompanied by anger. Anger because the deaths of these young people were preventable.

“Where is the justice here? Where is the mercy? This is why I became involved in Julia’s Voice. To give voice to the pain that mothers in this country, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Rwanda, in Israel, in Palestine, in every single country on this planet feels, and feels so deeply, when she loses a child. To resolve that each of our children deserves a full life to love and to lose, fail and succeed, to follow a passion.”

These are the voices of Julia’s Voice. This afternoon, they will be heard.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Homily: "Beauty We Did Not Create" (Delivered 5-4-08)

Opening Words
[This morning’s opening words were read by two children in the church. They stood on either side of a table holding baskets over-flowing with flowers for the Flower Communion Ceremony.]

This table was empty before we placed these flowers on it. The church was empty before we entered it.
Now, this table has many flowers on it, and looking out at you I see many faces.
[Holding up a Red Flower] Many of you are like this red flower, full of fire and passion. You care deeply.
[Holding up an Orange Flower] Or, you are like this Orange flower. You are daring and original.
[Holding up a Yellow Flower] Some of you are like this Yellow flower. Your faces are full of sunshine and you are content with life.
[Holding up a piece of Green Leaf] Some of you are like this piece of green. In the Earth you find wonder and amazement. You care for this planet
.[Holding up a Blue Flower] Some of you are like this blue flower. You come to church with grief and sadness.
[Holding up a Purple Flower] Some of you are like this purple flower. In the West, purple is the color of royalty, of Kings and Queens. You have come to regain your faith in the power and goodness of humanity.
[Holding up a White Flower] Some of you are like this White Flower. You look to the future… to learn… to grow… to change.
[In Unison] We are a diverse community. We each bring our own gifts and together we make a beautiful arrangement. Let us bless these flowers and bless our church community.

For the reading, I read the poem “A Man Walks Through His Life” by Jane Hirschfield. The poem gives us the image of a man walking down a road and eating apples, pears, and peaches that grow abundantly on trees on either side of the road. The poet’s voice interrupts and states her desire to confront the man and ask him, “Where is the plum tree you planted?” The poet stops, as if a peach pit has become stuck in her throat. She realizes that she too consumes the labors of others.

Jane Hirschfield’s poem bears a striking resemblance to a few pieces we frequently use in Unitarian Universalist worship services. Consider these words by The Reverend Peter Raible:
We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves beside fires we did not light.
We cool ourselves under the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
We are forever bound in community.
I assure you that I could come up with similar readings and quotations, poems and sermon excerpts sufficient to fill an entire sermon’s duration. I will spare you this monotony.

James Baldwin, a Harlem Renaissance author well-aware of the pain, oppression, and injustice manifest in the world was able to claim that a central question of our existence should be, “What do we do with all this beauty?” [Rebecca Parker has featured this quote by Baldwin in her writings.] If I could be permitted to slightly alter his question, I would ask, “What do we do with all this beauty, all this beauty we did not create?” On this Flower Communion Sunday, I want to riff on the theme of “beauty we did not create.”

For those of you who are newer to Unitarian Universalism, let me recount for you, briefly, the tradition of the Flower Communion, an authentically Unitarian ritual. The Flower Communion was developed by a minister named Norbert Capek, who converted to Unitarianism in New Jersey in the first decades of the twentieth century and then returned to his native Prague to found a Unitarian movement there. His congregation in Prague was largely made up of former Catholics who desired religious services that were stripped of traditional rites and rituals, smells and bells. But, one Spring day Capek had a revelation and instituted a communion of flowers the very next Sunday. It was a ritual representing the uniqueness we each bring to our common community and the gifts we receive from encountering one another. The ritual was simple: each person was to bring a flower. During the first hymn, children in the church would process with baskets of flowers and lay them on the altar. These flowers would be consecrated, blessed, and prayed over. Finally, each person would leave with a different flower than the one they had brought.

Capek’s life had greater significance than his being a liturgical innovator or the Father of Czech Unitarianism. When Nazi Fascism took hold of Germany and Hitler’s army blitzkrieg-ed across Europe, Capek resisted, was arrested, and was sent to die in a concentration camp. Before he was sent to Dachau, he spent a year imprisoned in Dresden. While awaiting his eventual journey to the gas chambers, he wrote letters, meditations, prayers, and hymns. One of his meditations, written while imprisoned, went like this:
In the depths of my soul,
There where lies the source of strength
Where the divine and the human meet,
There quiet your mind, quiet, quiet

Outside let lightning reign,
Horrible darkness frighten the world.
But, from the depths of your own soul
From that silence will rise again
God’s Flower.
[As quoted in a sermon by The Reverend Judith Miller.]
James Baldwin lived under the yoke of the dual oppressions of racism and homophobia, but asked, “What do we do with all this beauty?” Capek went to his death contemplating the triumph of the human spirit and divine beauty.

What I am trying to get at here, albeit indirectly, is that the perception and appreciation of beauty is not a trifle or a frippery. It can be an exercise in courage. It can enlarge our hearts.

What do we do with all this beauty, all this beauty that we did not create?

In theology there is a word called “grace.” When we speak of grace in the religious sense of the word, we are speaking of all the good that we receive that comes to us unbidden and undeserved. Grace has to do with the universe conspiring to bless us, to offer us the blessings of forgiveness, kindness, care, and beauty despite our own failures to earn these things.

Of course, when we speak of grace using the term in its more secular sense, we often speak of dancers, musicians, actors, and athletes who seem to move easily and effortlessly through a world that is often hard and cold and indifferent. The religious and secular meanings of the word “grace” are related in a sense. Each seems to say that the world is a place where our endeavors are fraught with difficulty and challenge, but that sometimes, somehow, we can manage to transcend this hardship. Through something, something from outside of ourselves or from within we manage, in the words of a decade old sermon by Ken Sawyer, “to do better than we very well ought to given the circumstances.”

Grace: A ballet dancer’s pirouette. Grace: A fluid motion of Mario Chalmer’s fall-away three-pointer with 3 seconds left in regulation in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game. Grace: a pear, an apple, and three peaches despite the fact of the plum tree we left unplanted. Grace: “All things which come to us as gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves.” (To paraphrase Richard Fewkes)

Whenever I introduce the Flower Communion Ritual I like to encourage everyone to take a flower whether you have brought one to contribute or not. To take, even if you have not brought, is a lesson in grace. I like to say that our flowers have the magical power to do a fish and loaves, feeding of the multitudes, type of thing… which, by the way, is also a story about grace.

Maybe it is the theologian in me… Maybe it is the poet in me… Maybe it is the romantic in me (as reluctant as I often can be to admit that such a romantic resides within me)… but whatever it is, I have found myself in an encounter with beauty and grace, a beauty I certainly did not create and a grace to which I have no rights of entitlement in particular. It is possible to understand grace in a theistic sense or in a naturalistic sense or in a humanistic sense. All I know is that I have profit from beauty I did not create.

This is the way of community, incidentally. Like Norbert Capek pointed out when he used Spring flowers as a metaphor for the gifts we give to and receive from community, community can be a source of grace and often we receive more than we put in. Like fishes and loaves… like our flowers that seem to magically multiply… somehow we are part and party to something greater than the sum of what everyone puts in. Somehow.

There is a line by Albert Camus that I have always thought of as deeply inspirational. Camus writes, “In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible Summer.” This quote, I can’t help but think has something to do with the willingness to appreciate and apprehend beauty.

And that is what is we are going to do in just a second or two with our Flower Communion liturgy. I find that it works best when we pass the baskets through the congregation. When you receive a basket select out a flower for your neighbor. Give your neighbor the gift of that flower, and offer your neighbor a blessing: “Please accept this gift of grace and beauty.” I invite you to participate.