Friday, August 29, 2008

Continuing Education in the Twin Cities (with pictures!)

During the month of July I wrote (and received) a grant from the UUA to visit and study best practices at large churches. The first church I visited was Unity-Unitarian in St. Paul, Minnesota. I went to Unity-Unitarian because of their highly-developed use of Policy Governance, a governance style invented by John Carver.

My trip began on Tuesday (8/26) with a drive up to the Twin Cities. I arrived in time to spend the late afternoon and evening with one of my colleagues in the Twin Cities who put me up for my stay. He took me out on the town and we enjoyed a good dinner and some great conversation about ministry, the Association, and all manner of things in the world of Unitarian Universalism. Whenever we get together I find our conversations dynamic and invigorating. I come away from them deeply enriched.

On Wednesday I began my day at Unity-Unitarian by sitting in on their weekly Executive Team meeting, followed by their weekly staff meeting. By shadowing the Executive Team I observed how their governance model impacts how the church staff operates. The members of the Executive Team and staff graciously allowed me to round in their offices. I spent the afternoon interviewing as many of them as I could. I interviewed the members of the Executive Team about their roles, the program staff about how "the ends" drive their programming, and the administrative staff about what was most important to them about their workplace. (I learned far too much to share in this post.) After a brief break in the late afternoon, I sat in on Unity's monthly board meeting and observed how the board operated under their governance structure. Following the board meeting, I had the chance to debrief with Rob and Janne Eller-Isaacs, the fantastic co-ministers of Unity-Unitarian. Almost 15 hours after my day at Unity began, I was headed back to my host's place with my head spinning with observations, ideas, and insights.

Before I returned to Kansas City on Thursday, I wanted to do see at least a few of the sights. Despite a light drizzle, I went to the shore of Lake Calhoun and looked out on this view as I did my morning spiritual practice.

Next, I had to go to the Walker Museum of Contemporary Art and play the modern art miniature golf course that had been created by 13 artists.

After lunch, it was time to head back to Kansas City. However, I did manage to take a break from the road in Iowa where I met up with another colleague who took me swimming in a quarry. Then we delighted in watching swallows, indigo buntings, goldfinches, and a variety of other birds enjoy the late afternoon on the prairie.

Week 14: "Going Off to College" by Blink 182

There is a game that many of my friends play that goes something like this: You are at a social event among peers and somebody will ask the question, “What is the one CD (or DVD or book) in your collection that you are embarrassed to admit that you own?” Then someone who takes pride in having the trendiest record collection of independent artists will confess that they also own Billy Joel’s River of Dreams. Or someone who is a deep lover of avant garde foreign films will admit to actually purchasing Ghostbusters 2.

The equivalent in my 52 song essay project is the inclusion of Blink 182. This California trio consisting of Tom DeLonge, Mark Hoppus, and Travis Barker happens to produce incredibly catchy pop-punk songs. They also spend a tremendous amount of time at live concerts telling jokes that most 14 year olds would consider immature. The immaturity bleeds onto their albums. “Going Away to College” is from the album Enema of the State, an album that also includes a song entitled “Dysentery Gary.” Blink 182 is basically the musical version of Garbage Pail Kids. But, if integrity means being honest about your whole self, warts and all, then I will openly admit that I own four Blink 182 albums and that I enjoy them.

When I put together the list of 52 songs, I debated whether to include Blink or not, but decided they are representative of my musical canon. Plus, the song “Going Away to College” is a great song to write about at the end of August as so many in our churches are going away to college.

As irreverent as Blink may be, they are also eerily empathetic poets of teenaged emotional life. Songs like “Stay Together for the Kids,” “Adam’s Song,” and “Story of a Lonely Guy” address themes of divorce, self-destructive behavior, and isolation. “Going Off to College” addresses the drama of saying goodbye to your high school sweetheart. I find the chorus to be evocative: “I haven’t been this scared in a long time / and I’m so unprepared, so here’s your valentine / a bouquet of clumsy words, a simple melody: / This world’s an ugly place but you’re so beautiful to me.”

You can click here to listen to Blink 182 perform this song live.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sermon: "Making It and Faking It in America" (Delivered 8-24-08)

The late William Sloane Coffin, one of the greatest prophetic ministers of the second half of the 20th century, used to advise that a minister should preach holding a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

Newspapers over the past six months or so have been dominated by stories about the economy. Whether it is the price of gas, hits to the stock market, foreclosure rates, the national debt, personal debt, massive downsizing, the price of basic staples, or other issues, the economy is at the forefront of people’s minds, perhaps only second to our interest in the media’s reporting about the political arena. Of course, there is a definite overlap: the economic vision, plans, and policies of the candidates has risen to the highest level of importance in the opinion of many.

If you turn to the Bible you find even more about economics than you find in the Kansas City Star business pages. When we think of books like Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy we tend to think of laws about food purity, gender roles, and sexual morality. And yet, if you slog through these books (and it is a slog) you find that economics are treated at much greater length than food or sex. These books contain extensive instructions about the issuing and forgiveness of debt, our duty to the vulnerable in society’s midst, and what constitutes upstanding business practice.

If you chafe at the idea of scouring the five books of Moses, turn instead to the Hebrew prophets, where the same issues are considered. The prophet Amos issued a fiery statement, saying, “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain… We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.'”

The authors of the Hebrew Bible were unafraid to take on these economic issues head on. This morning, as we embark on a four part sermon series, we will summon the courage to do the same.

Last Spring I traveled to Seattle on behalf of the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association Executive Committee to meet with colleagues in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia. While visiting I spoke with two ministers whose churches were gearing up for capital campaigns. On account of the state of the economy one church had decided to postpone the campaign until the economy turned stronger. Another minister reported that the church he served had decided to do exactly the opposite. He felt extremely confident in their ability to raise several million dollars cash because, according to him, “I believe we can meet our gift goal from members whose own personal finances are so insulated from the ups and downs of the market that the state of the economy has no connection to their lives, their future, or their ability to give generously to a campaign.”

If you remember your ancient Greek, you know that the word economy comes from the binding of the word, “Oikos” meaning “household” with the word “nomos” meaning law. Economy is then literally the laws of the house, the management of the household. I think it is worth remembering the root of the word because it makes thinking about the economy more concrete than abstact. It is worthwhile to pay attention to what is happening in the house and, perhaps, pay a little less attention to the green and red numbers scrolling across the screen on cable news.

It is not too difficult to predict with some degree of certainty that economic policies and promises will be the key issue in this November’s election. In fact, just this past week, the financial lives of the two candidates for President came into play. I offer the disclaimer that I adhere to a strict policy of not endorsing any candidate seeking office, but this back and forth between the campaign staffs of Barack Obama and John McCain tell us something. The Obama campaign sought to capitalize on McCain’s gaffe in which he was not able to say how many houses he owns. (McCain was raised by a long generation of high-ranking military officers but did not rise to the level of the super-wealthy until he had the good sense to marry into money, marrying a woman who inherited $100-million from her father’s lucrative beer distribution business.) When Obama’s campaign criticized McCain for not knowing how many houses he owned, McCain’s campaign went on the counter-attack, issuing a response that said, "Does a guy who made more than $4 million last year, just got back from vacation on a private beach in Hawaii and bought his own million-dollar mansion with the help of a convicted felon really want to get into a debate about houses?" Of course, the McCain campaign might have forgotten that only a few days earlier John McCain had joked in an interview with mega-church pastor Rick Warren that to be rich you needed to make more than $5 million per year, and, under that definition, Obama, who earned a mere $4.2 million last year would not qualify as rich.

The point of my bringing this up is not to lift up one candidate or put down another. Even though I do have personal feelings, from the pulpit I maintain a policy of strict neutrality. Rather, I bring this up to point out that the United States economy is facing some serious challenges and yet it is so easily avoided by both candidates who get sidetracked comparing their own houses.

This morning we embark on a series of four sermons on “The Economy, Your Wallet, Your Faith, Your Life.” In September I will preach the second sermon in the series, on “The Economy of Fear” in which we will turn to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous line from his inaugural address as he assumed the presidency during the Great Depression. September will also bring us the third sermon in which I will muse about “The Future of the American Dream” and predict some short and long term effects of a struggling economy. In October, I will conclude with a sermon on the “Economy of Faith” in which I will ask what our faith as Unitarian Universalists has to say to the economic problems we face as a nation.

I am no economist. I hope my words will result in lots of discussion and even disagreement. More than that, I hope to provoke. If you feel uncomfortable, I take that as a sign of success.

Let the anxiety begin with the act of dividing people into groups, which is always a dangerous and potentially offensive thing to do. The economy is experienced differently by different people. There are those people, like the donors to that capital campaign in that UU church on the West Coast, who really are so insulated that the state of the economy does not really touch them at all. Sure, their investments may be losing money and their home or homes may depreciate in value, but their personal connection to the economy is only seen on the computer screen which tells them this is the case. The rising cost of gasoline, utilities, travel, and food is not felt; the economy changes nothing for them. A gallon of gas could cost $40 or $400 and there are people for whom that would not cause a dent.

Also, on the more well-off side of the equation are those who live on a solid financial footing. These people live not only at a comfortable level but are also well prepared for challenges. They are positioned to be able to face a job loss or a medical emergency. Bad luck won’t bankrupt them. The economy has caused people in this group to make some basic changes, but nothing drastic. The volatility of the stock market has inspired them to set aside extra savings. Perhaps they are delaying a major expenditure such as home remodeling or buying a new car. Perhaps they are slightly scaling back on vacations and choosing a little more wisely about how they dispose of disposable income. Maybe, to paraphrase one observer, they used to begin the morning with a $4 cup of coffee and a $3 gallon of gas to get to work. Now that the gallon of gas costs $4, they buy a $3 cup of coffee instead.

On the opposite end of the economic spectrum, it is clear that those who are hurting the most are those who already were not making it in America. If you were dependent on social services and charities, you face the dual reality of those services and charities being cut back and a greater competition for those very resources and services that you depend on because of increased numbers of people seeking them out. For the poor whose every last cent goes to the basics of food, shelter, and transportation to and from a job, a dramatic increase in the price of food and the price of gasoline means that living this way, which was never sustainable to begin with, is now impossible.

In the middle, between those who are making it in America and those who were never making it, lies a vast economic stratum, impacted in all sorts of ways by the state of the economy. And it is that broad middle I want to speak about in the most depth this morning. Before I do so though, I want to make a couple of comments about two demographic groups. One group that is hit hard are retirees whose retirement savings are being drawn down more and more quickly because of an increase in prices and a flagging market. This generation is among the most vulnerable in a tight economy. The other group I want to mention is those in Generation X or Y. Those of us who are forty-ish and under enter the work world with the distinction of being the first generation in American history to be expected to enjoy a lower standard of living than their parents’ generation. Some of us will do much, much better than our parents while many of us will do far, far worse. One of the reasons for this is the accelerating shift of manufacturing jobs away from our country. Many professional fields continue to grow increasingly lucrative, but a greater percentage of the other available jobs are service-based positions that will never provide the same economic opportunities that careers in industry once did.

Between the two poles of those people who are unquestionably making it in America and, on the other end of the spectrum, those who were never making it in America to begin with, there dwells a diverse and enormous subset of the American population.

I want to make a couple of bold claims. These claims might even be taken as offensive. The first claim is that ups and downs in the market, in the value of the dollar, in the rate of inflation, and in the price of consumer goods are things that always occur in capitalist systems. The ability to adjust, adapt, thrive and survive the valleys is linked to the pre-existing health of those in society and to the quality of the safety nets created by society. To employ an analogy: If there is an outbreak of a strain of flu, those of compromised immunity will be the ones most susceptible. The more robust the public health infrastructure, the more successful society will be at minimizing the harm and avoiding epidemic.

The current economic downturn is unusually severe because of the chronic financial illness of millions of Americans and because societal safety nets have grown increasingly threadbare and porous.

One need only look at the financial situations of millions of Americans before the price of gasoline skyrocketed and the stock market tanked. Rates of personal savings had been declining for years, to the point where there was a negative savings rate in our country. Concurrently, levels of debt had been rising with more and more of this debt concentrated in high interest credit cards and other forms of bad debt. These practices were fundamentally unsustainable, but on the surface they didn't seem like a crisis when the economy was soaring. I’ve coined the term “Faking it in America” to refer to those financial practices that were inherently unstable but were easily masked when house prices and the stock market were climbing, when interest levels were dropping, and when credit was cheap. But, for millions, this turned out to be an illusion. They were not actually "making it in America" after all.

Combine the dangerous personal financial practices of millions of Americans with a moth-eaten security net and you are inviting disaster. In an economy where job changes are more frequent, health insurance is often not portable and people find themselves going through stretches of vulnerability and risk. In addition, the cost of health insurance has increasingly been passed on to employees and health plan benefits have become more limited. Likewise, company pensions have given way to 401(k) plans and other forms of retirement savings that place greater levels of risk on employees. Some will argue that these 401(k) plans benefit employees by giving them greater control over their investments and, to a degree, this argument is valid. At the same time, this is a strategy that places more of the risk on the employee and minimizes the risk to the employer.

America’s very rich have always been able to stitch together their own safety nets. Some have even been able to line those safety nets with imported silk. Business and government sharing the responsibility for providing safety nets to those who cannot provide their own is not only morally right, but it is also good for business.

In preparation for this sermon I interviewed, on condition of anonymity, a former employee of “Nova Star,” a company that specialized in sub-prime mortgages and a company with the depressingly ironic name of an astral body that is beautiful and exciting, but actually signifies instability, danger, and the threat of complete explosion. Now out of business, Nova Star found most of their customers through internet advertising. Nova Star mortgage lenders would then call these people, collect information and offer a mortgage. Nova Star did not offer fixed-rate mortgages. They only sold sub-prime. In the Summer of 2005, when a 30 year fixed rate mortgage to a first time homebuyer was around 6 and 1/4, Nova Star was selling adjustable rate mortgages that started at 8 and 3/4 and could rise to far higher levels over a short period of time.

I asked the former employee if she knew how bad the mortgages were. She said she knew full well. However, at $2,000 commission per sale, the money was hard to pass up for many of the employees. Others rationalized it differently. If they weren’t selling them, somebody else would be. Still, the person I interviewed talked about the toll the job took on her. When she found herself begging customers not to take one of their mortgages, telling them that they were being taken for a ride and that they would most likely lose their home within a few years, she knew that it was time to quit, and she did.

I followed up by asking her to tell me about her customers. Who were they? I asked. Were they ignorant and innumerate? Were they foolish? Were they deceiving themselves? She answered that self-deception was certainly a part of it, but it was a different kind of self-deception. These people who called her worked hard; in fact, they worked extremely hard. They looked at how hard they worked and came to believe that this entitled them to a nice house. Indeed, that is the lesson they were always taught: “Work hard and the American Dream will be yours.” Not only did they feel entitled to a nice house, but their idea of a nice house was influenced by their friends. So and so has a deck and a hot tub; I work just as hard and deserve the same. So and so has granite countertops and tile floors; I work just as hard and deserve the same. So and so has a finished basement with a fancy entertainment center; I deserve it just as much as they do. These sentiments led people not only to accept predatory lending, but also to dig themselves into a deeper hole by borrowing more money than the house was worth in order to make fancy additions, or to cash in years of equity for pricey upgrades.

What was most telling about the interview was something that she said at the end. You would think that someone who worked in this business would be a discerning consumer. And yet, the house that she bought was a lot bigger than she needed and she admits to having to cut back on other things in order to afford her house payments.

I understand these temptations. When I purchased my own home a little over three years ago, I encountered these same temptations despite the fact that I had imagined myself to be beyond such materialistic urges. I remember the process vividly. I remember my jaw dropping when I was told what I could “afford” to borrow in a mortgage. The home I did wind up purchasing was between $50,000 and $70,000 less than what my mortgage lender told me I could afford. I purchased a newly renovated duplex unit near UMKC and was told by the developer that I could add all sorts of bells and whistles, everything from fancy countertops to fancy appliances, to extra finishing in the basement. I looked at my own amortization schedule and realized that if I added in these things I might spend the first 3 to 4 years of the mortgage paying off the bells and whistles. I also realized, through some fairly rudimentary budgeting, that adding stainless steel appliances would mean giving up lots of other things that I would enjoy a lot more. Then again, I was not your most conventional homebuyer. I remember at one point having a serious discussion with my realtor about whether it was actually necessary for me to have a refrigerator. I wasn’t convinced that I needed one, so needless to say a Viking range didn’t hold a lot of temptation.

By way of conclusion, there are three points I wish to make.

The first point is how tied to emotions this entire conversation is. It is completely understandable if, during my sermon this morning, you found yourself experiencing emotions of anger, anxiety, jealousy, shame, envy, disappointment, or another strong emotion. These emotions, I would argue, tend to close us down from fully engaging in addressing our own economic well-being honestly and substantially. Just look at the two candidates for President and how a necessary and serious conversation about the economy turned into a spitting match about who makes what and whose palace is bigger.

Along these same lines, I would caution anyone who feels the urge to pass judgment this morning to be cautious with that instinct. In my years as your minister I have had visits with so many of you and been invited into so many of your homes. At times it is tempting to make assumptions about the financial status of our fellow members or friends, but we truly only see but a small part of each other’s lives. Remember, Warren Buffett, the second richest man in the world lives in a home built in the sixties that is far less impressive than many of the homes being built in South or West Johnson County. There are people living in Mission Hills who are living on the brink of foreclosure.

My final, and most important point, is that our society that gives us all kinds of messages about the size of the home we should have, the zip-code in which we should live, the kind of oven we should buy, the kind of car we should drive, and so many other things. It takes an act of faith, literally an application of our principles and highest values, to sort through which of these messages are healthy and which of these messages are sub-prime. Resistance to these messages is perhaps one of the hardest things to do. As Unitarian Universalists, we like to pride ourselves on being somehow above the sway of advertising and peer pressure. We are not. In fact, there are even messages in advertising that tell us that we are too sophisticated to give into advertising and then instruct us on what to buy that will show the world that we are unique and self-determining.

And yet, our faith calls on us to be questioning. It calls on us not only to question articles of belief but also to relentlessly question, critique, and challenge the culture in which we are situated. This is by no means easy. But, liberation is never easy. It wasn’t for the ancient Hebrews. It wasn’t for African Americans living under the law of Jim Crow. And, in the buyer-beware world in which live, achieving our own liberation from ways of living that are all image but devoid of substance will not be easy. It will not be easy.

And, thus, the perennial question: what things are of value? What things are important? What really serves to increase happiness as opposed to those things that make false promises and leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled?

I can tell you that these questions are so, so very important. May we have the strength to not only answer these questions in the thinking of our own minds, but let us also join in community and talk openly with one another, unafraid to admit our own fears and our own struggles. And finally, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, let us always remember to be careful about what we worship in our day to day lives, for what we worship we are destined to become.

Week 13: "Santa Monica" by Everclear

From 1995 to 1999 I lived in the beautiful city of roses, Portland, Oregon. This was just as the Pacific Northwest was taking off, with cities like Portland and Seattle exploding as hip places to live. Native Oregonians, I observed, took a condescending view of the Californians who headed north to seek a more affordable and less crowded life. I find it surprising that, despite this “Go back to California” mentality, rock bands from Portland would write songs celebrating California.

Last week I wrote about the Portland band The Decemberists who wrote about driving the scenic highways north of San Francisco. This week’s song, Everclear’s “Santa Monica” features a Portland band singing about a city south of San Fran. I suppose I would have expected a song more like Seattle-based Death Cab for Cuties’ “Why You’d Want to Live Here” which fiercely attacks Los Angeles. (“I’m in Los Angeles today / garbage cans comprise the medians / of freeways always creeping / even when the population’s sleeping.”)

Everclear reached the pinnacle of their success with their first two major-label releases Sparkle & Fade and So Much For the Afterglow, both of which were released in the mid-90s. "Santa Monica" succeeded as their top commercial hit on the strength of its catchy and repetitive lead guitar part and its escapist-fantasy lyrics.

The song begins with the strong opening line, “I am still living with your ghost / lonely and dreaming of the west coast.” What they sing is what you get. Vocalist Art Alexakis sings longingly, “I just want to see some palm trees… I just want to feel the sunshine… I just want to find someplace to be alone.” The chorus continues with this escapist sentiment, offering a image of paradise where, “We can live beside the ocean / leave the fire behind / We can swim out past the breakers / and watch the world die.”

Like other songs I will write about over these 52 weeks I cannot claim that there is anything morally uplifting about this song. Swimming in Santa Monica while the world dies is not a statement of my own aspirations. Yet, maybe the failure of empathy is mine as well because I don’t live day to day with the fantasy of moving somewhere with palm trees and good surfing. Alexakis’ escapism may be warranted for all I know.

This is likely an interpretive stretch, but if I look at this song through the lens of appreciative inquiry, I can at least celebrate the efforts of Everclear and The Decemberists to say what it is that they do like about California. It is better than DCfC’s Ben Gibbard jab that “You can’t swim in a town this shallow.”

You can see Everclear perform a version of Santa Monica here.
They perform an acoustic version of the song here.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Your No Grammar Whiz

As I was driving home this afternoon following a memorial service I conducted, I pulled up behind a car with an interesting bumper sticker. The only sticker on the entire car was an "Obama for President" sticker. However, below the Obama sticker the man had fashioned a homemade sign with bold, black letters on bright, yellow paper. The sign read, "Your No J.F.K."

I was a bit perplexed. My uncertainty about what this man hoped to communicate was only surpassed by my irritation at his grammatical mistake. At that moment I knew I needed to speak with this man. Fortunately, we were headed in the same direction. We soon came to a stop at a red light and I used to opportunity to pull up alongside him and gesture for him to roll down his window. When he did, I said to him, "I noticed your sticker. There is a mistake. 'Your' should read 'Y-O-U-apostrophe-R-E.' It is a contraction between the words 'you' and 'are.'"

The man politely thanked me. The light turned green. He drove forward but I had to make a right-hand turn because I had pulled up alongside him in the lane for right turns only.

Our conversation was only half complete. I also wanted to ask this man what he meant by the sticker. The absence of any other bumper sticker presented me with no clues about this man's political leanings. Was he an Obama supporter who had become confused in his messaging? Was he a Hillary supporter too lazy to take down his sign after Obama secured the nomination? Was he a McCain supporter crafting his own negative ad?

His homemade sign is a reference to the 1988 Vice-Presidential debate in which Dan Quayle compared himself with John F. Kennedy. Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who was sharing the ticket with Dukakis, fired back at Senator Quayle, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

This insult seems to only work one way though. To make this insult implies that you hold Kennedy in high esteem and feel that the person to whom you are addressing the insult does not rise to Kennedy's level. Does the typical McCain supporter hold Kennedy in that kind of high esteem? I would guess not.

The other thing that is ironic about the bumper sticker is that JFK strived to be recognized for his intellectual depth. Susan Jacoby writes,
"John Kennedy... played up the sophisticated qualities that set him apart from but also gripped the imagination of ordinary voters. He famously balked at donning cowboy hats, Indian headdresses, baseball caps, or any headgear designed to show that he was just an ordinary guy, and he would surely have been appalled by the suggestion that he put on a phony southern or rural midwestern accent. Whether Kennedy was as cultivated as he seemed, whether he really was an omnivorous reader who could have been a historian... was less important than his desire to be seen and admired for his intellectual qualities...

"Whatever the reality, there is no question that the image of Kennedy as a cosmopolitan polymath... was a vital part of his appeal. Cultural literacy in a presidential candidate was seen as a desirable trait by the public, and the culturally sophisticated image that the Kennedys presented to the world only enhanced their domestic appeal."
In light of these comments, the bumper sticker is unintentionally hilarious.

I am going to do something I almost never do on this blog. I am going to leave the comment section open. You're welcome to chime in. What do you think this man was trying to communicate with his homemade bumper sticker? Who do you think he is most likely to vote for in November? (Please keep your comments on topic.)

Edit: 8/24/08 After receiving several comments yesterday, I've decided to close down the comments because it is hard to draw a line between trying figure out what this man was trying to say with his improvised bumper sticker and offering critiques of the candidates. However, the comments I did receive interpreted this bumper sticker as anti-Obama, suggesting that Obama is not on par with JFK. This interpretation makes literal sense, but it is also confusing. Kennedy was assassinated short of completing three years in office, which makes evaluating the success of his presidency a challenge. More than that, this insult only works if you hold JFK in high esteem. Maybe this is an incorrect assumption, but I have a hard time imagining that there are lots of people out there who think JFK was the greatest thing since sliced bread but would vote for McCain over Obama today. Of course, I could be wrong and please correct me if I am wrong on this count. I think it is also important to mention that without a long track record on which to evaluate Kennedy's presidency (and an understandable hesitancy to criticize the victim of an assassination) we forget that Kennedy was not universally admired. Kennedy did wipe the floor with Nixon in '60 in the electoral college, but the vote was a lot closer. Nixon won more states (26 to 24) and, in a race in which over 68 million votes were cast, Kennedy received only 110,000 more votes than Nixon.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Sermon: "The Care & Feeding of Interns" (Delivered 8-17-08)

[In preparation for becoming a teaching congregation I invited my friend Elaine Aron to share the pulpit with me on this Sunday. Elaine is a student at Meadville-Lombard, the daughter of a member of the church I serve, and is about to become the Intern Minister at the UU Church in Davis, California. For a note on the title of this service, scroll to the end of this document.]

First Reading by Theodore Parker
“For the last year or two, the congregation did not exceed seventy persons, including the children. I soon became well acquainted with all in the little parish, where I found some people of rare enlightenment, and some truly generous and noble souls. I knew the characters of all, and their thoughts. I took great pains with the composition of my sermons; they were never out of my mind. I had an intense delight in writing and preaching; but I was a learner quite as much as a teacher, and was feeling my way upward with one hand while I tried to lead with the other…

“I sought illumination and confirmation from all sources. For historical things, I sought historical evidence; for spiritual things, I found ready proof in the primal instincts of the soul, and confirmation in the life of religious people. The simple life of the farmers, weavers, mechanics, about me, of its own accord, turned into a sort of poetry, and reappeared in the sermons, as the green woods, not far off, looked in at the windows of the meeting house.

“I think I preached only what I had experienced in my own inward consciousness, which widened and grew richer as I cam into practical contact with living people, turned time into life.”
Second Reading by Wendell Berry

There is finally the pride of thinking oneself without teachers.
The teachers are everywhere. What is wanted is a learner.
In ignorance is hope. If we had known the difficulty, we would not have learned even so little.
Rely on ignorance. It is ignorance that teachers will come to.
They are waiting, as they always have, beyond the edge of the light

The teachings of unsuspected teachers belong to the task, and are its hope.
The love and the work of friends and lovers belong to the task, and are its health.
Rest and rejoicing belong to the task, and are its grace.
Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.

Sermon Part I by Elaine Aron
I think that Wendell Berry, the author of the poem that I read this morning, must have been an intern minister at some point. As I have been preparing to be an intern minister this fall in Davis, California, I keep returning to Berry’s words and finding myself struck by how clearly they speak to my situation. They remind me of how I need to approach this upcoming year in order to be a bold learner and, ultimately, to be transformed into a minister. On a deeper level, his words remind me of how I want to approach life.

Berry warns the reader of the “pride of thinking one’s self without teachers.” Without teachers? Well, that shouldn’t be a problem for me. I mean, I have spent the majority of my life in school at this point. I’m a student, I’m in seminary, how could I think of myself without teachers?

But, the thing is, I want to be really good at this internship. I want to wow the congregation with my preaching that is commanding—yet humble—and betrays a wisdom beyond my years. I want to have an air of compassion and calm that silently announces my skills as a pastor and a counselor. I want to attend board meetings and staff meetings and think, “Oh yeah, I can totally see myself doing this.” I want the reviews from my internship committee to knock the socks off the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Basically, I want to get an A+ at internship.

And my teachers? Actually, in this internship fantasy, I guess I already know mostly everything. So my teachers...would just introduce me to some new curriculum? Provide references?

It’s pretty obvious that this is actually not an ideal internship scenario. Though it could appear to be a picture of perfect ministry, this internship fantasy is not even motivated by a desire to be an excellent minister. This “perfect” picture of internship is motivated by arrogance, and really by fear. This is Berry’s “pride of thinking one’s self without teachers.” And I guess I fell for it.

Returning to the poem: Berry writes, “Rely on ignorance. It is ignorance that teachers will come to.”

What?! Rely on ignorance? Isn’t ignorance the enemy here? This is the twist in the poem that I keep going back for: Ignorance is an asset.

Ignorance tends to be difficult for Unitarian Universalists to own up to. We tend to see education as saving souls. Our Puritan heritage places us squarely in a tradition that demands well-educated ministers. Our roots in the Enlightenment leave us with a legacy of thinking that humanity can be constantly improving and perfecting itself through learning. The flaw of ignorance would demonstrate how far we are from attaining that perfection. Not knowing is a vulnerability that we tend to mask or avoid, certainly not view as an asset.

However, the truth is that we all have our ignorance and we always will. This is true for even the most learned and the most experienced among us. However, the fact that we don’t know everything can be a source of profound religious sentiment, a source of awe and wonder. Our ignorance is also a source of hope, reminding us that there is always room for change and for growth.

“Rely on ignorance. It is ignorance that teachers will come to.”

Where can these teachers be found? They can be found everywhere. And they’re often in disguise.

I encountered a teacher just the other day. For the past two weeks I have been visiting my parents here in Kansas City. On this particular day, I am the only person at home when the phone rings. On the other end is Richard, an old friend of my dad’s with whom he had fallen out of touch over time. Richard sounds a little faint on the other end of the line and our conversation is bumpy at first. I haven’t seen Richard since I was probably fifteen years old. His daughter and I used to play together when we were little girls and I ask how she’s doing. He tells me that she is now a doctor and lives in the area with her family.

He then asks me what I am up to these days. I tell him that I am studying to be a Unitarian minister. He says, “Oh yes, they have a big church on the plaza.” And I say “yes,” thinking back to my youth group days at the All Souls church. Then we talk about the ins and outs of ministry a little bit.

The conversation seems to coming to a natural close he says, “You’re going to be a minister with the Unity church, right?”

“No, not Unity,” I say. “Our movement is called Unitarian Universalism.”

He responds, “Oh, What is that?”

...there is a pause. I feel flustered. I have to be honest: this question used to fill me with feelings of dread and inadequacy. Over the past several years, I have learned to talk confidently about Unitarian Universalism. But that’s usually when the interaction is in person and we have more than 15 seconds together.

But this is over the phone, and I thought the conversation was ending, so I feel like I have about a 5 second window to insert an explanation of our entire religious movement. I stammer and say something about “Trinitarian,” something about “Unitarian”, something about “liberal” and realize that I have committed the verbal equivalent of falling on my face. On the other end of the line I hear Richard go “oh...,” indicating that whatever message I had tried to transmit was not received.

At this point I notice that my dad has come downstairs and is standing next to me. I hand over the phone and get out of there. I am feeling embarrassed and like a sorry excuse for a seminarian. I also kind of want to blame Richard somehow, even though his question was completely reasonable. But I am feeling defensive.

Then, Wendell Berry’s poem bubbles to the surface of my mind and I realize that Richard is, in fact, one of my teachers. His question honed in on a place of ignorance within me. And I should not be ungrateful to my teachers. In this instance, the lesson is small and simple: I need to be able to speak more clearly about our religious movement. In fact, seeing this as a teaching moment instead of a shaming moment began a process of replacing my defensiveness with gratitude.

These kinds of teaching moments are going to fill my life next year, and for all the years to come. Teaching moments fill all our lives if we can learn to see them. Our teachers can come in disguise as people who bring up emotions in us that we don’t like. They can be the people in our lives who make us feel spitting mad, hot with shame or infected with jealousy. There can be teachers in the people who drive us nuts and we would just as soon not have to deal with them.

There is a lot that I am that I am going to fumble or just flat out screw up next year. And if what I really want to be an excellent minister, I need to focus not on perfection, but on taking full advantage of the lessons that are borne out of ignorance and are taught by the myriad of instructors that inhabit the world. I hope that my internship congregation can help me remember this when I forget.

By the way, I have got to tell you how happy I am that this church is going to be someone’s internship congregation. This is not something that every church does and it’s not something that every church is well suited to do. However, as a seminary student who has preached here on several occasions, I think I can say with some authority that this church has got what it takes to help guide an intern into ministry. I have felt warmly welcomed and supported here. I have felt like you’re rooting for me to grow my ministerial wings and fly. I am so glad that Anne Griffiths will get to spend the coming year with you.

I want to end this morning with a final line from Wendell Berry’s poem.

He writes: “Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.”

In the end, it is neither the intern, nor the supervising minister, nor the teaching congregation that is entirely responsible for the process of ministerial formation. As with other forms of human growth and change, it is a mysterious process that we are all a part of, yet it goes far beyond us. We can try our best, aim for our goals, and plan for success but, in the end, the direction that life takes is not fully up to us. Our striving needs to be balanced by the patience and trust to let tomorrow come tomorrow. That’s what’s going to happen anyway, so let’s be here, today. And when the steady giant of time transforms tomorrow into today, may we be open to its unexpected teachers.

Sermon Part II by Rev. Thom Belote
Exactly one month from today we will welcome Anne Griffiths to SMUUCh. She will be our intern minister from the middle of September through the middle of June and will be moving here from the San Francisco Bay Area to come and spend the year, here, with us. Anne will be the second intern this church has had; our first intern was here under Vern Barnett’s tenure, 25 years ago, in 1984.

So, what is an internship you ask? The term has different meanings in different settings. But, I want to be quick to dispel any preconceptions that you may have that we’ve hired someone to go out and get coffee for the staff or pick up my dry cleaning. Likewise, I want to dispel another notion that an intern is just hired help, someone we can just plug into any old place where we could use a staff person. Anne will not be our social justice coordinator or our development director. In her year of ministry with us she will most likely take part in our social justice ministries as well as our stewardship program. But her role, like mine, will be more of a generalist. She will preach regularly and participate in worship. She will teach classes. She will make hospital visits and be available for counseling. She will participate in small groups, work with committees, and, in an immediate and hands-on way, be exposed to all of the multitudes of functions of a Parish minister.

Last November and December we received applications from all over the country from seminarians who wanted to come here to Shawnee Mission for their internship. We are more and more visible as a leading church in our movement. And around the first of the year, I sat down with the members of the intern committee and weighed these applications, most of which were 30 to 40 pages in length. We offered the internship to our top choice and we were delighted that Anne accepted.

An internship is one of the many hoops that prospective UU ministers must jump through. Other hoops include the completion of a Masters Degree in Divinity, at least three months of chaplaincy in a hospital or prison, invasive psychological testing, and successful interviews with both a regional screening committee and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Of all these requirements, the internship is the most heavily weighted.

Let me dispel one more false idea which is that having an intern will make my work load easier. It won’t. Besides the responsibilities of supervision, I will still do everything that I do, maybe with more focus in one area or another or maybe by taking on something new I simply don’t have the time for now. Having an intern means the ministry of the church will multiply.

But, let me caution you, that while the presence of an intern is a boon (and it is) it is wrong to go into this experience with the attitude of what we will get out of it. We will be giving as much as we receive. Or, more exactly, we will receive in proportion to what we give in turn. In serving as a teaching church, we will help to mold and shape a leader in our movement. We will witness and abet ministerial formation. We will be, teachers as well as learners.

And, truly, I can’t say enough of what a sacred privilege it is for me as well as for this congregation to get to be present as a minister develops in our midst. I know. My experience as an intern seven years ago at a congregation in suburban Texas was transformative. I entered a student of ministry and left a minister. When I returned to Harvard for my final year the change that had taken place was palpable. My classmates told me I was different. (And they meant that in a good way.) I had a great supervisor in Dennis Hamilton, a great internship committee, and was the intern at a great church. In fact, when I began seeking out my first called position, a few months after my internship had ended, I compared every congregation that I looked at with the congregation I had served during my internship.

Anne will leave after her internship and take with her the imprint of this church. It will inform the rest of her years in the ministry. Our failings and successes as a congregation will be the model that she draws upon for the rest of her career. If we are cranky, she will expect crankiness. If we are kind, she will expect kindness. If we are unfairly critical, she will go forth into ministry timid and afraid of mistakes. If we are nurturing, she will leave with confidence. A dysfunctional internship sinks a ministry. A healthy and supportive internship propels into the world one who will serve with grace, courage, and passion. You may think I am being a bit melodramatic here, but I am sincere. Of course, it really takes both, a good intern matched with a good congregation, and, as Elaine alluded to, it also takes some ineffable alchemy that we cannot possibly control.

This past Monday I spent the day with Anne in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. We talked about working styles, expectations, opportunities, theology, growing edges, and hopes. In the words with which I opened the service, I read from the journal of Theodore Parker who reflected on being a learner quite as much as a teacher, and his beautiful image of feeling his way upward with one hand while he tried to lead with the other. This is what Elaine will do in Davis, what Anne will do here, what I will do as a supervisor, what we all do as leaders in a congregation.

The reading ends with Parker’s observation that he preached only what he had experienced in his own inward consciousness, which widened and grew richer as he came into practical contact with living people.

Practical contact with living people. This year those beginning internships all across the country put aside the world of books and papers, lectures and seminars and prepare to study a different kind of text: practical contact with living people. And in the magic and mystery of this, somehow, time turns into life.

This morning we bless Elaine and bid to her a fond farewell and deliver to her our best wishes for her year in Davis. We wait in eager anticipation for Anne’s arrival. We recognize in each meeting, one with another, the potential for life and grace and do not take any of it for granted.

[A note on the title of this service. The title of this service was, I thought, a clever adaption of the title of a controversial and hideous book by Laura Schlessinger entitled, The Proper Care of Feeding of Husbands. Actually, it is a cynical book demeaning to both men and women alike. Elaine thought the title was patronizing. As we discussed the service together, Elaine expressed to me that the title made interns sound like cutesy-wutesy exotic pets that are put on display and require special diets and grooming. I concede that Elaine had a point! And yet, I think back to my seminary days and my mainline Christian friends who spoke of being “in care” with the congregations that were helping them to grow their ministerial wings. So, I’ll stand by the idea of “care” and admit that I was too clever for my own good on the rest.]

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Week 12: "California One / Youth & Beauty Brigade" by The Decemberists

Over the course of the 52 Songs essay project I will write about three songs by The Decemberists, a band based in lovely Portland, Oregon. “California One / The Youth & Beauty Brigade” is the final track on The Decemberists’ first full length album Castaways & Cutouts.

As a band, The Decemberists have the ability to write both long, multi-themed pieces (a recent example being the three part song “Crane Wife”) as well as catchy, shorter pop numbers like “Sixteen Military Wives” off the Picaresque album. “California One...” is actually three songs in one. It begins with a song about driving the sublime California coastal highway and drinking sweet California wine. This transitions into a one verse song about a woman named Annabelle. The third movement of the song imagines a gathering of misfits and outcasts who come together to form the Youth and Beauty Brigade.

While The Decemberists are no strangers to nine minute plus songs, “California One...” is an unusual song for them. The Decemberists tend not to write songs that are personal in nature. They prefer songs based on historical figures or literary references, songs that imaginatively place them into unusual figures. This is somewhat fitting for a band that would name themselves after a failed military uprising in early 19th Century Russia. On just the ten song album Castaways & Cutouts, the Decemberists sing from the point of view of the ghost of Leslie Ann Levine (a victim of infanticide), a French legionnaire whose camel is in disrepair, and a mystery figure named Odalisque.

So, what makes "California One..." different is that you can completely imagine the band’s front man, Colin Meloy, taking a romantic road trip through Northern California, marveling in natural beauty and stopping to enjoy wine from the vineyards. The song also features crafty wording where the first verse begins, “Take a long drive with me on California One,” and the second verse begins, “Take a long dram with me of California Wine.”

The realism of the first half of the song raises an interesting question about the second half of the song in which Colin Meloy issues a plaintive call to come and join the Youth and Beauty Brigade. “We’re calling all bed wetters and ambulance chasers / poor picker-pockets / bring ‘em in. / We’re lining up the light loafer’d / and the bored bench warmers / castaways and cutouts, fill it up / Come and join the Youth & Beauty Brigade.” Obviously, this is fantasy. Yet, Colin Meloy follows up this call with the funny claim that he has “paid his debt to society by paying [his] overdue fines at the Multnomah County Library.” (Portland, Oregon is located in Multnomah County.) And, it is probably too much to analyze this song so closely, but this posturing as the heroic leader of a group of misfits and underdogs is interesting. Maybe the modern Decemberist revolt will not be led by Russian soldiers disgruntled with the Czar but by bored bench warmers, castaways, and cutouts.

You can listen to Colin Meloy perform a solo version of “California One…” here.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Our Card to TVUUC

At our August 3rd worship services we signed a beautiful, hand-made card (Thanks, K.) and sent it to the Tennessee Valley UU Church. I just received an email from my cousin Donna who attends there. She sent this picture.

Donna also sent a picture of some children from the church standing in front of our card, but I'd rather not post it on my blog. (It is a bad idea to post pictures of other people's children on-line without permission.) But email me if you'd like to see the picture.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sermon: "Grounded in Purpose" (Delivered 8-3-08)

For the benefit of those who may be newer or brand new to this church and to Unitarian Universalism, I might explain to you that for this past week Unitarian Universalists across the country have been mourning a heinous and terrifying incident that happened at one of our churches in Knoxville last Sunday when a gunman entered the church killing two people and injuring six others.

The shooter’s manifesto claimed that he, among other things, harbored a deep resentment of gays and of the quote-unquote “liberal agenda.” His former wife was a former member of this church. These details explain very little. We live in a nation in which millions of people actively dislike anything that can be labeled liberal just as millions of others actively dislike things that are labeled conservative. We live in a nation in which millions of people harbor homophobic feelings. And across our nation there are probably at least as many who hold a grudge against a former spouse. And yet, shootings like the one in Knoxville are thankfully rare. No explanation suits the senselessness of this homicidal act.

For the members of this church, we who grieve for our brothers and sisters in Knoxville, there are at least two kinds of reactions that are common. One reaction is the grief reaction, the need to commiserate, to weep, to hold each other. This response includes the ritualized act of marking pain and acknowledging the suffering of those who face the trauma most acutely. A second reaction, especially when the trauma we mourn is a bigoted act of hate, is to recommit ourselves to the cause of justice, freedom, and peace for all. Which is a productive reaction, but the energy behind it can be short-lived. Any profound movement for social change – be it the civil rights movement or the gay rights movement – needs to be grounded in basic values, convictions, and commitments and not in reactivity to a specific crime, a specific incident, or even a specific political reality.

So, what I want to suggest is a middle way, a response not grounded in reaction but grounded in purposeful living: The response of continuing to live meaningfully. The doing of what needs to be done.

Last Sunday afternoon and all this week life bestowed upon us the daily gift of the chance to live meaningfully. And life gave us a to-do list of necessary things, mundane things as well as transcendent things. We ate and slept. We changed diapers and did the laundry. We drove children to their activities. We made phone calls to grandparents or to grandchildren. We vacationed. We met friends for coffee. We showed up for our volunteer commitments or worked on behalf of a local candidate in preparation for Tuesday’s primary election. We embraced, held hands, made love, played music, wrote poetry, fired pottery and pruned the hedges.

The definition of trauma is that of being so affected as not to be able to do these necessary things. Not being able to eat or sleep or do the laundry. And our traumatized brothers and sisters in Knoxville are being well-cared for.

Hardly a week goes by it seems when we don’t learn about something horrible and traumatic in the community or in our world. Over the past five years, thinking of my tenure here as minister, if it has not been a shooting at a church or at an Amish elementary school or at a University in Virginia, it has been an earthquake, tornado, or flood; a hurricane, tsunami, or typhoon; a wild-fire or mine collapse; a death of a beloved member of this church or a war in a far off land; a hate-crime or a despicable terrorist attack.

And, I find myself torn. As a spiritual leader I want to be responsive but not reactive. I want for us not to do church the way an ambulance chaser practices law. The dishes need to be washed. The laundry needs to be folded. The dog still needs to be walked and the cat still needs to be… ignored (or whatever it is that one does with cats.) And here, here at this church, we need to continue to be grounded in purpose.

Living crisis to crisis is no way to live as anyone who has lived that way can testify. Trauma can happen to any of us and when we can’t eat or sleep or function we need to rely on the care of others until we are healed. But the rest of the time it really helps if we are grounded in purpose.

Which brings me to some of remarks I had planned to make this morning: Today, August 3rd, is the third day of my sixth year as your minister. I began my ministry here on, Friday, August 1st, 2003, two weeks shy of my twenty-sixth birthday. Thinking back, I can now laugh at how ungrounded I was in the first few days of my ministry here.

That first day I arrived at the office early and earnestly and began unpacking boxes of books and papers. In the middle of the day V. came by and gave me a basket with numerous plants, two-thirds of which I managed to kill by forgetting to water them for three weeks. I nursed the surviving plants back to life and they are still in my office. They remind to be grounded and not to forget the basics. As I was preparing to leave my office that evening on my first day as your minister, the ceiling caved in. Literally. Right below me, in the Saeger House living room twenty-four square feet of plaster fell from the ceiling. I called L. and asked her, “Um, what is a minister supposed to do if the ceiling collapses?”

On the second day of my ministry, Saturday, August 2, 2003 I had signed up to play in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament. Dressed in gym shorts and a grungy tee-shirt I thought there would be no harm in dropping by the church to check email on my way to the fields. I pulled into the parking lot just as the P. family was arriving for Sarah’s wedding to Ivan. Rev. Paige Getty was performing the ceremony, her last act as interim minister. It is difficult to act ministerial when you are making your first impression in your gym clothes and speaking with a family in tuxedos and a wedding dress. Later that day, I made an amazing defensive play, blocking a very hard thrown Frisbee with my front teeth. As I crumpled to the ground, my first thought was, “Oh, no… what will they think when their minister arrives missing teeth?” Luckily, none of my teeth were knocked out.

Then, on the third day, August 3rd, 2003 I came to church to worship. I intentionally scheduled myself to begin preaching on the third week of August. But I’ve always believed, from day one, that if I am in town I should come to worship, even if I am not the one leading it, because I want you to come to church if you are in town, regardless of who is in the pulpit. And so I did… and it was a little bit awkward to be greeted by several people who asked, “Is this your first time visiting us?” and to answer, “Yes, I’m your new minister, nice to meet you.” It has gotten better since then.

I knew when I contemplated what I might say this morning that I wanted my words to be offered within the context of the completion of five years of ministry with this congregation. But, I did not want to present a list of the many successes we’ve accomplished together in these five years. Nor did I want to present a list of the disappointments we’ve faced, though these are far fewer in number. And, for that matter, I did not want to make this a pep talk about the future, a recasting of our vision, a recalibration of our trajectory, a bold charge and challenge to you.

No, it was something else, something else that I wanted to say. And, it turns out that a lot of people are interested in hearing me say this. My latest invitation came from the Shelter Rock congregation on Long Island, over 700 members. Their congregation hosts an annual leadership conference for all of the congregations in the New York area and they invite leaders in our movement to offer programming. I was asked this week to be their special guest this year and come lead a program for them in early October. What I plan to tell them will sound a little like this:

Earlier, I made a laundry list of these things we do in our daily lives, because they are what we do. We do the laundry. We eat and sleep, take out the trash, recycle, walk the dog, tuck the children into bed, call grandparents or grandchildren. We volunteer. We vote. We water the plants.

And I wondered… if we have such a list for our lives, what would such a list look like for our religious lives and our church community? Perhaps, like this: We worship together. We form meaningful relationships with one another. We welcome our visitors enthusiastically. We arrive early to set up and stay until the end to clean up. We engage directly in those things that matter to us. We engage directly with those people we work alongside. We don’t pass the buck. We show care to those in our community who suffer and struggle and express concern for those we miss. We actually live our values in the world. We dwell together in peace, seek knowledge in freedom, and serve humanity in fellowship.

Now, I actually want to pause for just a minute here. And I want to go back to that laundry list of things we do in our lives. I worry that I actually may have panicked a few of you, and perhaps some of you are frantically scribbling down a to-do list on the margins of your order of service. And, I also wonder if I might not have bored some of you. Perhaps you think of laundry and plant-watering and dog-walking, child-schlepping and grocery-shopping and inside you scream… you scream and you plead to a god that you may not even believe in, “Please, tell me there is more. Surely there is more. There has to be more than this.”

And, we can have that same feeling about church, too. Another get well card to write… please. I don’t feel like coming to worship. That person initially seemed like someone who I could really share myself with and that person turned out to be tedious, or they thought I was tedious. I’ve been volunteering with that supposedly great cause for years and it is hard to see that we are doing any good. I try to meditate and I fall asleep, or I pinch myself so hard that I draw blood because the nothingness of it is just so frustrating. Where is the transcendence?

From time to time, I think we all feel like a character named Joe in a joke I once heard. Joe’s mother stood at the bottom of the stairs and called to him, “Joey, get up! You need to go to school.” Joe yells back, “I’m not going. The kids are annoying. The teachers hate me. Give me three reasons I should go.” His Mom replies, “First, the kids are not that annoying. Second, the teachers don’t hate you. And third, you are the principal and it is your job to go.”

Ministers frequently include the following apocryphal story in sermons. One day, an older member of the church asked to meet with the minister. She said, “Reverend, I’ve been coming to church every Sunday for over sixty years, and to tell you the truth, I can’t remember more than two or three of the sermons I’ve heard in all these years. Tell me, why should I bother to come?” The minister replies, “I’ve eaten meals for my entire life. I can’t remember more than two or three menus, but I still continue to eat.”

What makes the difference between a grounded life that is tedious and one that is extraordinary? I think the difference, truly, is feeling as though you have a sense of purpose. I think that being grounded in purpose steadies us, keeps us from just reacting to whatever blustery winds may blow, and keeps us from paralysis.

When I thought about what I would tell you after the completion of five years of ministry, all kinds of things come to mind. More than could fill 25 minutes, for sure. More than could fill an entire morning or even an entire weekend. But, I think the most important thing is this:

It is my conviction that the world tempts us with all sorts of things that don’t reflect the purpose of our being and those temptations uproot us from our living in a grounded way. And we need to constantly ask ourselves, both in our own lives and in the life of this church: do these things actually further our purpose, or are they frivolities and distractions? How is our purpose furthered here? Do these choices in my life reflect the purpose of my living? Am I helping this church to realize our purpose? Or, am I impeding us? What could I be doing to help us to realize our purpose?

Our purpose, to me, is clear: to be a beacon proclaiming the values of liberal religion in our community, working towards the fulfillment of those values, and within this civic circumference to be a grounded religious center that celebrates diversity, welcomes you with no strings attached, and helps each and every one of us to find meaning in our life and the courage to pursue that meaning through holy living.

That is what I call our purpose. It is what you called your purpose over five years ago, when you looked for your next minister abd ticked off a list of things you wanted to see happen: “Enthusiasm,” “Significant growth in the size of our congregation,” “Increased administrative staff,” “A stronger financial footing.” One of the things you said was that you needed someone who, quote, “Can help us move into greater involvement and presence outside our church boundaries; someone who take us out of ourselves and into the community. We need to get the message out.”

In 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, racists bombed an African-American church killing four teenage girls. And the response from that church was: we will continue to work for racial equity; we shall not be moved.

Last Sunday, a gunman opened fire on a church in Tennessee, a church that stood for racial integration, for women’s rights, for gay rights, for human dignity. In Tennessee this morning they shall not be moved.

Here in Overland Park, our response as a congregation to anything and everything that distracts us from the holy work that we are about, we shall respond: We shall not, we shall not be moved, from our purpose.

[At this point in the service I asked the congregation to sing, without any accompaniment, the song, “We shall not be moved.” We began slowly and tentatively. By the fourth time, we were all together. Then we sang it again and again, louder and louder each time through. Then we stood and swayed while we sang. With the congregation still standing I delivered a closing charge.]

Let’s keep changing lives with our welcome. Let’s keep changing minds with our good news. Let’s keep changing hearts with our acceptance and our love. Let’s keep changing our community and our world one minute at a time, one day at a time, one new face at a time.

Here we are very clear. You do not need to be afraid to be who you are! You do not need to be ashamed to love who you love! Do not be afraid to be who you are! Do not be ashamed to live beautifully upon this earth. We are glad you are here. We are glad you are here. We are glad you are here. We are glad you are here.

Sermon: "Working Out Our Own Salvation" (Delivered 7-13-08)

Reading (Philippians 2:12-28)
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you – and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.

In the Jack Nicholson movie, As Good As It Gets, there is the memorable line where Jack says, in response to love received beyond his deserving, “You make me want to be a better person.” This feeling can be ours in the face of love or loss, gratitude or grief. Indeed, these feelings are always more connected than we realize. In the words of Forrest Church, “Love is grief’s advance party.” So, as I think back over the past 48 hours, I hope it is not too melodramatic for me to say, “You make me want to be a better minister.” That is my response to the twin realities of this vocation: your invitation to me to be witness to your lives at their moments of deepest love and deepest grief; your invitation to me to be priest by marking those moments of joy or woe, or when the two are combined and woven fine.

I wrote my sermon early this week, on Thursday instead of Friday. It was a good sermon I wrote. Sure, it was all about Saint Paul, so that was a little quirky. And parts of it were kind of gimmicky. And the digression into some of the finer points of Pauline scholarship and interpretation were a bit much. What I had written was interesting but not essential. And then, early Friday morning I received a call and by the time I arrived at the hospital [the patriarch of our congregation] had already died. And we – his wife, his daughter, his step-daughter, and I – all gathered around his body and prayed together. I prayed in a way that I hoped would bring some comfort to his family. I instinctively placed my hand on his forehead and gently rubbed his brow. I don’t know why I did this. It just felt like the right thing to do. Perhaps it was the giving of an unspoken blessing or, more likely, the receiving of an unspoken blessing.

An hour or so later I was back at my office in Saeger House, working the phones. An email was about to go out to the entire congregation, but there were those in our community for whom I thought it would be kinder to hear the news about him from an actual voice rather than from a typed message in their email inbox. And somewhere in this blur of emotion and duty, love and grief, I realized that I had just written a quirky, scholarly, gimmicky sermon about passages from Paul, of all things. And to preach it would be, well it would be awkward is what it would be.

I ask that you abide with me for a few minutes in these moments of awkwardness and please trust that we will together emerge from these awkward words together.

About a year ago some friends of mine put together a team to play in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament here in Kansas City. Upon arriving at the fields, I discovered the tournament was being hosted by a group of young evangelical Christians. As part of the registration, I was asked to fill out a poorly written multiple-choice questionnaire asking me to describe my faith. I think I just wrote at the bottom of the page: “These questions fail to allow me to accurately describe my faith.”

When I handed in my questionnaire, I received a Frisbee with two cartoon drawings and a quote from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Let me describe the cartoons. The first cartoon shows a canyon of sin. One rim is labeled “man” (so much for political correctness) and the other rim is labeled God. A stick figure attempts to leap across the canyon but falls into the deep, dark crevasse of sin and death and Hell. In the second cartoon a cross provides a bridge between man (so much for gender inclusiveness) and God and the joyous stick figure is able to cross the canyon. The lesson the cartoon presents is that Jesus’ death spares us from the fate we deserve as sinful beings who fall short and that through Jesus’ death we can reach God.

Describing this common cartoon, the post-modern Christian Tony Jones has commented that this idea is evidence of a weak imagination and he also says the cartoon is blasphemous. After all, the born-again Christians who came up with this cartoon believe that God was the creator of not only canyons but also the creator of human beings. But, somehow, their imagination falls short of imagining that God is capable of building a bridge across the canyon.

And the purpose of churches like ours, churches that [our partriarch] founded and gave his blood, sweat, and tears to over the course of many decades, is not to reject religion altogether because of those whose religious imagination is too small and too limited. The place of churches like ours is cultivate a wider way of being religious, a larger imagination, a way that is more inclusive, a way that is not insulting to us as human beings and also not insulting to divinity by holding such a puny and limited imagination of the divine. Let me say this again: if we exist as a rejection of those whose religious imaginations are too small, we are bound to become just as small-minded and unimaginative ourselves. We exist, rather, to prove that religion need not be this limited. We can imagine bridges across any chasm that divides us. We can do the work of building up those bridges.

And, if I can stay on the topic of the Frisbee for one more moment, I want to let you know that the Frisbee also contains a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans. When I read the words printed on the disc I laughed out loud. The passage, Romans 3:23-24 reads as follows, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

I laughed out loud is what I did because it just so happens that this passage from Romans is one of the dozens upon dozens of passages from the New Testament that early Universalists pointed to in order to make a case for the doctrine of Universal salvation. It was a proof-text for our theology. Our religious forebears were serious about their Bible. They had no problem with the idea that human beings had within themselves a degree of sinfulness; they just believed that this finite sin was trumped by God’s larger and more expansive love and mercy.

Our religious forebears would have read the text like this: For all (that is everybody) have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but they are justified freely (that is, you don’t have to do anything to earn it) by God’s grace through the redemption that came through Jesus. And the emphasis is on that word "came." It is in the past tense. It has already happened. So, here is what this passage says, literally: Redemption has already happened, and it is free and it for everybody. Salvation has already happened, and it is free, and it is for everybody. That is the doctrine of Universal Salvation, taught by our religious ancestors centuries before us and look it is right there on this born-again Frisbee. Our religious ancestors just had a large view of God, a wide understanding of mercy, and an inclusive view of salvation. Their imagination was expansive.

Let me cut a whole bunch of stuff about how to read Paul’s letters, and why I spend time reading Paul on a regular basis. I could say a lot of things here that are interesting (ok, they are interesting to me) but they are hardly essential.

But, since I did plan to spend a lot of time analyzing the passage from Philippians that I read earlier, I should probably at least explain, very succinctly, what this passage means. There are about five important things in this passage, but I’m cutting here, so I will list only the two major points.

The Philippians had written to Paul asking him to clarify some doctrinal point about salvation that was causing them a lot of strife and anguish as a community. Paul’s response is a bit chippy. He tells them, trying not to sound exasperated, “Look, you have always listened to me, so listen to me now. Figure it out yourselves. But don’t just figure it out any old way. Figure it out with fear and trembling.” And I know we’re not big on fear here, but by fear, Paul is not evoking an image of a God who has created a canyon, a chasm shooting flames just like the Frisbee’s image of sin and death and suffering and hellfire No, fear means something different in the way Paul is speaking here. It means awe and humility. Work out your own answers about salvation, Paul says. Figure it out yourselves, but those answers better not make God small. You ought to still have a sense of awe. And, when you work out your answers, hold those answers with a deep sense of humility, because you are not going to know the answer for certain. That is the first thing.

The second thing is that even though Paul tells them to work out their own salvation, he can’t resist dropping a few hints. And the first hint is this: “Do all things without murmuring or arguing.” Or, in other words, stop feuding with each other. Stop gossiping. Stop being belligerent. That is the first rule of salvation. If you are at each others’ throats, and you are bickering with one another, and you’re not actively working to resolve conflict and heal the brokenness in your relationships, then you can kiss salvation goodbye. You can’t there from here.

There is way more depth to this passage, but those are the two key points: first, figure out your own answers, but those answers better not diminish your sense of awe and you should claim those answers with humility. Second, quit squabbling. Reconcile. Put yourself in right relationship with those who are causing you discomfort, because salvation isn’t coming if you don’t.

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. What exactly would this mean for us? I want to say some things very plainly. These aren’t clever things. We can put Paul aside for good this morning. How do we work out our own salvation?

As a religious community, when we do what we are supposed to be doing, our own lives and our collective life as a community is shaped by an understanding that though none of our lives are perfect, our errors and mistakes are small in comparison to a larger compassion and greater love that abides in this world. We don’t have to do anything to deserve it and we do not need to create it because it already is.

When we are doing what we are supposed to be doing as a religious community, we are working at finding even new ways to imagine the wide and ever-widening scope of all that is holy. Our imagination is to remain ever open to greater inclusion, wider embrace, and possibilities heretofore beyond our imagining.

In our common life as a community of faith we seek to invite people into a caring community, into a place where intimacy can be found. We seek to inspire spiritual growth, to help each other to discover a regular spiritual practice for deepening and renewal, a connection with ultimacy. And, we seek to involve all in working for a peaceful, fair and free world, which is to say a deeper purpose in our living.

Intimacy, ultimacy, purpose. Awe, humility, and a larger imagination. As one of our hymns proclaims, we are:

“One in the freedom of the truth, one in the joy of paths untrod, one in the soul’s perennial youth, and one in the larger thought of God. The freer step and fuller breath, the wide horizon’s grander view, the sense of life that knows no death, the Life that maketh all things new.”

Which brings me around to [our patriarch], who has been on my mind almost constantly over the past month as he faced life after suffering a massive stroke. He has been on my mind for the past 48 hours following his death on Friday morning. I think especially of his 41 years of constant service and dedication to the health of this church, his selfless sacrifice. His stepping up when we needed someone to step up, especially during the tough times.

Working out salvation has nothing to do with an afterlife. It has everything to do with making this life vibrant and full and worthy, for ourselves and for others. It means not losing a sense of awe and keeping a sense of humility.

May we all commit and re-commit ourselves to making our fine, fine church an instrument of salvation in a world that needs not limited thinking but grander views. May we all say, because of our encountering and growing and touching one another, we have made each other want to be a better people. You have made me want to be a better minister. I love you.

Week 11: "Stars" by Hum

On February 13th, 1998 I went to see Hum perform at La Luna, a rock club in Portland, Oregon. They were touring in support of their newly released album Downward is Heavenward, which turned out to a commercial failure as well as Hum's final recording before the band parted ways.

Hum is the loudest band I've ever heard. Experiencing them transcended the sense of hearing; you feel the music as much as you hear it. Waves of sound wash over you as if you are standing in the surf of an ocean beach. The sound thickens in the air around you, enveloping you, and you feel as though you are submerged in a sea of sound as thick as split pea soup. At other times you feel like you are standing in the eye of a hurricane of sound.

The irony is that Hum didn't look like the type of band capable of producing this level of sonic intensity. Hum wasn't the first band whose image was incongruent with their sound. Weezer had earlier perfected the image of nerds who could rock with surprising force. The grunge movement proved you did not have to look like Guns N' Roses or Poison to create music with the same intensity.

But Hum took this incongruity between sound and image to its furthest extremity. When they sing, in the song "I'd Like Your Hair Long" that "You'd prefer an astronaut," this line is almost delivered with a tinge of mourning. They play like rock stars but seem like they would rather be rocket scientists.

In 1995 Hum released You'd Prefer an Astronaut, their only commercially successful release. Although it is a strong album from start to finish, its success was bolstered by the popularity of its first single, "Stars."

"Stars" is my favorite song of all time; I consider the song to be 5 minutes of rock perfection. My love for the song is also nostalgic and personal. (How could it not be?) But, rather than my emotional attachment to it, I'd rather dwell on the technical reasons that I believe make the song superb.

"Stars" begins with softly strummed guitar chords and the exposed voice of singer Matt Talbot who twice repeats the two-line chorus, "She thinks she missed the train to Mars, she's out back counting stars." The second time he sings the word "stars" he is joined by the raucous thunderclap of a distorted power chord. (In live versions, this chord has been known to reverberate for over half a minute.) Once the chord dies down, all the instruments kick in and the song takes off.

The lyrics to "Stars" take second stage to the instrumentation. The meaning of the lyrics are not easily ascertained. They seem to describe a young woman, wracked with personal pain, sitting in her backyard and counting stars as a way of seeking cosmic relief from her affliction. What's more, the song is sung from the point of view of someone who accepts some level of blame for her sad condition but is powerless, or perhaps reluctant, to attempt to mend the situation.

This is as far as the song's narrative arc takes us. There is no resolution. She is still out back counting stars and he is still stuck. I don't mean to insinuate that there is anything profound about this, but the song does succeed as a snapshot of one person's hurt and isolation and another's shame and sense of powerlessness. Despite the melancholy of this image, there is also a kind of beauty in what has been captured. Perhaps it is as contrived to think that a couple minute rock song should resolve as it is to believe that the problems faced on a television sitcom should resolve within 30 minutes.

Within this interpretation of the song, the loud aggression of the music can be understood as kind of cathartic, if mis-placed, release of frustration. Again, there is nothing profound here. I do not require of the song that it ends with reconciliation or atonement. I can tolerate its unfinished messiness.

Emotionally, "Stars" bears some resemblance to the hit song by Ben Fold Five entitled "Brick." In "Brick," which is a fine song in its own right, the male narrator expresses his sense of shame and powerlessness with a depressed whimper. "Stars" takes the tone of a fantastic howl, an eruption of raw, sublimated energy.

You can hear the song and watch the music video here.

Friday, August 01, 2008

My Op-ed on TVUUC shootings in the KC Star

I apologize to my readers who came to my blog this week looking for information about the fatal shootings at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, TN and found only last Saturday's posting about a rock song by Minus the Bear.

On the day after the shooting I composed both a pastoral email to the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church as well as an editorial for the Kansas City Star. This morning, my editorial appeared on page B-8. If you don't take the Star, you can access the story on-line here.

Here is what I wrote:
All across the country, Unitarian Universalists as well as our brothers and sisters who represent a vast diversity of faith traditions responded with shock, horror and disgust upon learning about the fatal church shootings at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville on July 27.

These events struck home for me. My cousin is a member there and her husband was an usher on the opposite side of the room from which the gunman entered. The father of a friend of mine from seminary was one of the men who tackled the shooter.

Like a school, a camp or a hospital, a church is supposed to be a safe place. Every week millions of Americans enter houses of worship seeking healing for their grief, solace for their worries, and deep connections with each other.

Houses of worship are places where we can be vulnerable enough to be ourselves. It is because of that vulnerability that clergy and religious leaders are held to high standards, as are teachers, doctors and nurses.

As I write this, I have become aware of the news that the fatal attack was motivated by this broken man’s hatred of gays and “liberals.”

Such hatred represents a double violation. He attacked not only a single congregation but all places of worship that encourage their members to be fully who they are.

That Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville has a long history of promoting justice, equity and compassion in human relations. During the civil rights movement it took the risk of fighting segregation. In the decades since, it has continued this tradition by openly standing for human dignity and promoting equality for all persons.

We would do well to heed the theologian Forrest Church’s caution that, “To the extent that we eliminate risk from life, we may also succeed in sucking the air out of it. ‘A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for’. . . To bring ourselves to life requires courage.”

Church continues that the opposite of fear is not security, but love. It is a courage born of love to continue to work for justice and for equality, to not be cowed by those who are ill and misanthropic in their hatred. It is a courage born of love to be true about who we are and to share our lives as they are with others in beloved community.

May every place of faith in our community and country cast away fear in favor of the courage to be, the courage to love, and the courage to stand for human dignity.

Week 10: "California" by Phantom Planet

For 3 of the 5 weeks in August I have chosen to write about songs about California. The obvious reason for this is that I will be taking a trip this month to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park to perform a wedding for an old friend. I could have easily found two more songs about California and made it a whole month; in fact, both songs by the band Buffalo Tom that I have selected to write about later in the 52 songs project mention California tangentially (even though Buffalo Tom is from Amherst, Massachusetts.) The two songs I will write about this month that don’t talk about the state of California are “Stars” by Hum, my favorite song of all time, which I will write about just before my birthday. At the end of the month (at about the time that people are going off to college) I will write about Blink 182’s super-catchy song “Going Off to College.”

Every time I travel to airport I bring a copy of Phantom Planet’s album The Guest and play the first track and first single from that album, Phantom Planet’s only popular hit to date, “California.” There is an irony to this. For one thing, the song is about returning not leaving. I also play the song no matter where I am destined to go. If I were to go to Alaska or Siberia or Outer Mongolia I’d still drive to the airport listening to “California.”

It is a well-crafted pop song that makes me feel energized and buoyant. And this should really be enough, shouldn’t it? Unfortunately, I feel like I need to defend my selection of this song. Even though “California” is Phantom Planet’s breakthrough hit, the breakthrough needed a bit of help. The song didn’t catch until two years after it was released when it was used as the theme song for the teen television drama The O.C.. The other thing about the band is that in their early incarnation they were overshadowed by their celebrity drummer, the actor Jason Schwartzman, who is most famous for playing the lead role in the Wes Anderson cult-classic film Rushmore. Schwartzman went on the appear in movies including I ♥ Huckabees and The Darjeeling Limited.

I saw Phantom Planet in Lawrence, KS in 2004 after their release of an excellent self-titled album and after Schwartzman had left the band to pursue acting full-time. They played a heavier version of California in their live-show that featured their guitarist standing tall atop the speaker stack and playing the melody in such a way that it seemed the guitar was practically singing the chorus.

Phantom Planet’s self-titled album is stronger, in my opinion, than The Guest. Besides the song “By the Bed” which may be their strongest song, their self-titled album also features outstanding tracks including “Badd Business,” “Big Brat,” and “After Hours.”

You can see the music video to “California” here.
You can see the playful, zombie-themed video to “Big Brat” here.