Friday, October 31, 2008

Week 23: "The Sporting Life" by The Decemberists

Ah, the sporting life! Even though I’ve lived outside of Massachusetts for nearly the past six years I still do maintain a rooting interest in Boston’s professional sports teams. For those of us who root for the Sox, Pats, and Celts we might invoke the title of an old 10,000 Maniacs song and declare, “These are days.”

Since 2001, the Red Sox have won two World Series, made it to the seventh game of the American League Championship Series an additional two times, and can boast of one American League East title among their 5 playoff berths. The Patriots, not to be outdone, have won the AFC East title every year except for one since 2001. In addition, they can celebrate winning three Super Bowls, a 16-0 regular season record in 2007, and a record of 15-3 in the playoffs. Even the Celtics joined the party by winning an NBA championship in the 07-08 season. (The Bruins are a disgrace. Don’t ask me about the Bruins.)

In my dreams, I envisioned spending the last few days of October basking in the Sox’s third championship of the decade, rooting for the Patriots to extend their record regular season winning streak, and celebrating the Celtics beginning their title defense by hosting their 17th banner. Dreams don’t always come true. The upstart Tampa Bay Rays knocked the Sox out of the playoffs with a gritty win in game 7 of the ALCS. Tom Brady’s disastrous knee injury has meant that the Patriots have had to settle for a 5-2 record and a share of the division lead in the AFC East. The Celtics did get off to a good start by opening their season and title defense with a comeback victory against the talented Cleveland Cavaliers.

However, I have to confess that my interest in sports is overwhelmingly vicarious. Not a jock, I can identify a bit with the protagonist of the song “The Sporting Life” by the Decemberists. Consider the lyrics:
I fell on the playing field
the work of an errant heel
the din of the crowd and the loud commotion
went deafening silence and stopped emotion
the season was almost done
we managed it 12 to 1
so far I had known no humiliation
in front of my friends and close relations

There's my father looking on
and there's my girlfriend arm in arm
with the captain of the other team
and all of this is clear to me
they condescend and fix on me a frown
how they love the sporting life

And father had had such hopes
for a son who would take the ropes
and fulfill all his old athletic aspirations
but apparently now there's some complications
but while I am lying here
trying to fight the tears
I'll prove to the crowd that I come out stronger
though I think I might lie here a little longer

There's my coach he's looking down
the disappointment in his knitted brow
I should've known
he thinks again
I never should have put him in
he turns and loads the lemonade away
and breathes in deep
the sporting life
This song is not autobiographical. I’ve never had a girlfriend leave with the captain of the other team and my parents never foisted athletic ambitions upon me. I’m just saying that I can empathize with the protagonist.

Besides Colin Meloy’s fun lyrics (“errant heel,” “din of the crowd,” “knitted brow,” etc.) “The Sporting Life” is set to an inspiring beat that is eerily similar to the rhythm line from Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.”

I wrote about The Decemberists back in week 12. If you have never had the chance to listen to them, do yourself a favor. They are one of the most fun bands around. Here is a list of my 20 favorite Decemberists songs. Some contain links to their lyrics when these are particularly noteworthy.

1) “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground” (Her Majesty) lyrics
2) “The Crane Wife 1&2” (The Crane Wife)
3) “California One / Youth & Beauty Parade” (Castaways and Cutouts)
4) “The Sporting Life” (Picaresque) video
5) “July, July!” (Castaways and Cutouts) lyrics
6) “Angel Won’t You Call Me?” (5 Songs EP)
7) “The Crane Wife 3” (The Crane Wife)
8) “Sixteen Military Wives” (Picaresque) video
9) “O Valencia!” (The Crane Wife)
10) “Song for Myla Goldberg” (Her Majesty)
11) “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect” (Castaways and Cutouts) lyrics
12) “Apology Song” (5 Songs EP)
13) “Sons & Daughters” (The Crane Wife)
14) “Of Angels and Angles” (Picaresque)
15) “Oceanside” (5 Songs EP)
16) “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” (Picaresque) lyrics!!!
17) “The Legionnaire’s Lament” (Castaways & Cutouts) lyrics!!!
18) “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” (Her Majesty)
19) “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist” (5 Songs EP) lyrics!!!
20) “Red Right Ankle” (Her Majesty)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Sermon: "The Economy of Faith" (Delivered 10-19-08)

Last June, or maybe it was July, I had the idea of delivering an autumn sermon series on the economy. I knew about the subprime mortgage crisis. I had read books on personal finance and consumer behavior and I knew about the debt loads and low personal savings rate that imperils millions of Americans. I thought I was embarking on something cutting edge. I had no way of knowing what lay ahead and, unfortunately, how timely this sermon series would be. At the same time, I am a minister, not an economist or financial whiz. I can much more easily explain to you the difference between pre-millennial and post-millennial dispensationalism than I can explain short-selling or derivatives. I thank you, again, for your willingness to listen and ask for your patience as we wade into these waters together.

This morning I will present the final sermon in a four part series of sermons on the economy that I began at the end of August. So far I have spoken on “Making It and Faking It in America,” a sermon about some of the factors that have contributed to the economic and financial problems we face as a nation. Next I preached on the “Economy of Fear,” speaking about how fear, anxiety, and panic have contributed to the volatile financial situation and about how we can cope with fear. Then, at the end of September, I preached on “The Future of the American Dream” and challenged us to a new way of thinking about what it might mean to live the American Dream. This morning, I want to talk about “The Economy of Faith.” Even though this is the last sermon in the series, the sermon series is far from over. I hope you will carry the work of these sermons forwards, that you will debate, discuss, and discern.

The first question you may be asking yourself is, “What exactly is an economy of faith?” What does this term mean? The word “economy” does come from the linking of two Greeks words, Oikos, meaning “household” and Nomos, meaning “law.” Economy, then, literally means the laws of the household. In speaking, then, of an Economy of Faith, I want to tell you that I am not going to focus on the finances of the church. This won’t be a sermon about, to coin a brand new word, “ecclesionomy”, the laws of the church. Rather, I want to argue that the values of our faith have something important to say about the laws of the household.

When we think of economics, we so often think of things on the macro-level: Gross national product, the strength of the dollar, interest rates, the rising and falling of the markets as indicated by green upward-pointing arrows and red downward-pointing arrows that scroll across the top and/or the bottom of the television screen. And things like these—derivatives, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the Wall Street bailouts—can be difficult to reconcile with the day to day. Of course, they are related. All these events in the market do enter into our homes, but they are, for the large part, out of our control. We live or struggle to live with the consequences in our own homes. We try our best to make decisions that are wise and responsible.

On the extreme micro-level however, we might connect faith and economy. All we would need to say is that there is a moral dimension to how we use our pocketbooks. There are moral dimensions to our spending, earning, and investing.

Last month Congressman Dennis Moore came to speak at our Second Sunday Forum. I am very, very glad for something that he said very early in his talk. He held up a piece of paper containing a bar graph representing the budget of the United States government and comparing what is spent in different areas. He said, “A budget is a moral document.” And, if you give this just a half second of thought, this claim is true. Whenever you make a budget decision you are answering a set of very basic questions: “What do we owe? To whom? At what cost?” So, whenever the government makes a decision about funding medical services at Veterans’ hospitals, or providing services to families with special needs children, or choosing to cover a procedure for those on Medicare, or sending international relief to another country, or funding scientific research with the goal of curing a disease or better harnessing renewable energy, or funding the arts, those decisions are moral decisions.

I would argue that the budget that we create each year for the church is a moral document as well. Do we practice justice in our employment practices, by compensating staff fairly and offering health insurance? Does our church step up to be a worthy partner with organizations in the community? Have we been wasteful? Have we been chintzy or miserly? These questions have moral dimensions, too.

And, I am going to go one step forward. I am going to say something that I said at the beginning of our church’s Board Retreat a couple of months ago. It was something that was controversial to say because I know at least one board member took issue with me and disagreed with me strongly. That is fine and good. We can disagree. You can disagree with me and that is a great thing. Disagreement is not failure. Disagreements not only allow us to psychologically self-differentiate; they also sharpen our own thinking.

I am going to tell you what I said that was controversial, but before I do so, I want to talk about two different kinds of disagreements.

The first type of disagreement is a disagreement about methods and means. Should we paint the kitchen red or blue? This is a disagreement about means. We agree that the kitchen should be more attractive, we just disagree about the right way to make this happen. When we disagree about means or methods, we share a larger agreement. Because we share a larger agreement, we can then engage in a process in order to decide on the right way to get to the goal we hold in common. That process may include lots of discussions, but it will likely come down to a compromise. The compromise we reach may be to paint the kitchen green. There are other disagreements though, that are about values. For example, in our American culture, perhaps there is no greater disagreement than on the issue of abortion. Some, to greatly simplify this position, hold strong convictions that women have the right to choice and that the medical decisions they make should be private and not subject to government intrusion. Others, to greatly simplify their position, believe that abortion is morally wrong and that the government has an interest in enforcing a particular moral standard around this issue. When our disagreements are based on values, our positions are intractable. Compromise is not a valid solution. When we disagree about values, the goal of dialogue is not to reach agreement but to reach an understanding on how we will abide in each other’s company, how we will share living in the same world.

(And, if you will permit me to continue with the digression for just a bit longer, that is why, to continue with the abortion example, I think the most brilliant thing that has been suggested is that instead of continuing to argue when we know that neither side will give an inch, that we should work to find some aspect of the conversation where we can agree. I would say that just about every person who holds a pro-choice position would hold forth the goal of fewer unwanted pregnancies. And, on the side that is not pro-choice, I would also think that almost every person would embrace a goal of fewer unwanted pregnancies. Voila! The same goal. Now, what is left is to discuss the means for achieving that shared goal.)

So, what did I say at that Board Meeting that was a matter of disagreement? I said this. I said that not only is our national budget a moral document (as Dennis Moore said), and not only is our church budget a moral document, but our own household budget (our personal Oikonomos) is also a moral document. I actually said something a bit more flippant than this. I said, “Don’t tell me what you believe. Show me where you spend your money and I will tell you what you believe.” Upon rethinking this, I can see how this statement could make someone uncomfortable and put someone on the defensive. But, I can’t withdraw my assertion that there is a deeply moral dimension to our own personal financial decisions.

There are all sorts of ways to spend money, save money, and invest money in ways that reflect our values. Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to choose the neighborhood in which we will live and this decision speaks to a certain set of values and priorities. We choose to buy certain types of groceries. We may buy goods from some companies that generously support causes we believe in and avoid buying from other companies that support causes we do not believe in. We value education and so put away money in our children’s education fund. We value the symphony, or the art museum, or the theater, or public radio. We care about the priorities of a politician and give money to that candidates’ campaign. We value this church and voluntarily support it. Family is important to us so we save for a trip to visit a relative living in a distant city. How is it possible to deny that our own day-to-day financial decisions shine a light into our values?

I speak for myself and I think I speak for every single person here when I say that it is true that the depth of our care and concern is deeper than the depth of our pockets. If this is not the case, I would think that it would indicate a poverty of values. So, we have to weigh our decisions and prioritize our values. That is life. That is faith too. Let me explain.

Forrest Church says that religion is our response to being alive and knowing that we will die. I think his is a good definition but I disagree slightly. I say that religion is our response to being finite creatures in a universe that is infinite, at least according to our capacity to imagine it. We are finite, limited beings in a world that is, for all intents and purposes, infinite and limitless.

Our first response to this is frustration, frustration that we will not get to do everything we want to do, see everything we want to see, and solve every problem we want to solve. We have to choose. We have to choose. And our choices have moral dimensions. In fact, without both the ability and the necessity of choice there could be no ethics. In fact, the greater the number of things we have to choose between, the greater our ethical responsibility is. With greater freedom comes greater responsibility. And, so, after the frustration of realizing that we are necessarily limited, comes faith. Faith is how we choose to walk forward into this very partial and limited slice of the infinite that we are able to experience.

I want for us to return to this idea of an economy of faith and explore it. I want to say a few more words about faith. Maybe the two – faith and economy – sound a little bit irregular together because one comes to us from Ancient Greek and the other from Latin. The word faith comes to us through Middle English, but goes back to the Latin root fides meaning trust. If you like word games, that is why dogs are sometimes named “Fido.” The name means trusted one, faithful one, one on whom you can depend. (I actually once preached a sermon called, “Faith is Like Naming your Dog.”) Putting the two words together, an economy of faith would be the laws of our living that reflect what we pledge fidelity to.

I want to say just one more thing about faith. It is something that I think was best articulated by a colleague of mine who said that the role of religion is to cause our hearts to break open. And when this happens, when our hearts have been broken open, we will be most connected to our ability to love, we will know joyfulness, and we will grow in our ability to apprehend beauty. The result of this transformation is that we will respond to this breaking open of our hearts by choosing to bless the world with our lives.

And, it occurs to me that I have not really talked all that much about the economy or stock portfolios or whatever. So, let me conclude simply with these thoughts:

As a religious community we will respond to whatever comes in the days ahead with faithfulness, with principle, and by not fleeing from our highest values. Though we may disagree on the means to achieve those values, we have one goal. We would be one.

Through adaptability we will continue to find ways to bless the world. We will create programs and opportunities, ways of gathering and ways of serving. We will take care of one another. We will take care of one another. We will take care of one another.

We will be called to even greater levels of discernment, requiring us to grow focused and even more discerning on how we are called to bless the world.

I want to conclude by relating a story from a New England church whose minister was exploring the church archives and came across the financial ledger from the days of the Great Depression. [This story is contained in Thematic Preaching by Jane Rzepka and Ken Sawyer, pages 115-116.] The story tells how next to many of the pledges there was a second number written with a small “s” beside it, indicating how much the pledge had fallen short. But, there were an equal number of pledges with a small number and an “o” next to them, for those who overpaid their pledge. The author continues,
I read lots of historical material this week, but nothing touched me more than the dusty ledger book from the thirties, from high up on the shelf: In our church during the Depression, for every pledge that had to fall short, one of many generous people overpaid his or her pledge to compensate.

I love the history of this church. Gandhi was never a member. Mother Teresa never belonged here either. Just regular folks. They dedicated their babies, they worshipped, they reached out to do their part in the world, they cared for one another, they kept this place going, they tried to live their best lives.
I have every confidence that, if faced with a similar situation, we would do likewise. That we would not only make sure the ledgers add up but that we would continue to worship, reach out, take care of each other, and try to live our best lives. The economy of faith is not a rollercoaster ride. Our values, our concern, our care do not zigzag. They are secure investments, growing slowly and steadily all our lives as long as we put our hearts and our hands to the tasks before us.

Week 22: "In Ohio On Some Steps" by Limbeck

In honor of the rapidly approaching election, I decided to choose a song with a swing state in its title. “In Ohio on Some Steps” is a track from Limbeck’s nearly perfect 2003 album, Hi, Everything’s Great.

Limbeck hails from Orange County and creates music that combines elements from alternative country music (see Week 21 in the 52 Songs in 52 Weeks essay project) with a mellow pop feeling that fits perfectly with their Southern California roots. On recommendation I picked up Hi… when it was released and instantly fell in love with the record. Their follow-up, 2005’s Let Me Come Home, failed to capture me in the same way and I lost interest in the band.

Limbeck’s songs are often geographically focused. “Honk + Wave,” the first song on Hi… ponders complex feelings about an ex-girlfriend and what would happen if he happened to see her again by chance. The chorus includes the line, “The only thing I really want to know… is, if we drove side by side on a highway in the Beehive State, if we could honk and wave.” Other songs on the album talk about losing money at the casinos in Kansas City and driving home from a show in Tucson. Limbeck does not neglect their local geography with multiple references to highways and Southern California.

One of the things that makes Hi, Everything’s Great so fantastic is that the band quickly followed it up with the release of Hey, Everything’s Fine. Hey… contains the exact same songs that are on Hi… only it is an acoustic version recorded at a house party in Southern California. Being able to listen to the studio and live version of the album more or less side by side helps to fill in and enrich my own appreciation of every song on the album. If a song didn’t catch my interest on Hi…, it did on Hey… Having the ability to listen to different arrangements of each song gave me greater insight into their music.

No song of Limbeck’s is more geographically interesting than “In Ohio on Some Steps.” A slow-paced song, augmented by organ, “In Ohio” tells the story of a house party that goes late into the night. There the singer meets a woman named Emily who seems to be from either Wisconsin or Virginia (both swing states as well) and describes the all-night coming and going from this house. People come home late and leave early for work.

“In Ohio” has an almost dreamlike quality, a sense of geographic disorientation. At the same time the singer is calm and seems to be ensconced in a state of bliss (or sleep deprivation) that borders on transcendence. The singer sits out on the steps of this house in Ohio, watching the early morning rain, and feels great.

“In Ohio” ends with a repetition of the closing line, “Someday, you’ll end up in Ohio.” The line is beautifully sung with the assistance of female backing vocals. It is a line not to be taken literally. Rather, it is a way of saying that within some vast geographic (or life) disorientation you discover moments of peacefulness and comfort.

Here’s a video of Limbeck playing “In Ohio on Some Steps.”

Friday, October 24, 2008

Sermon: "You Are Driving Me Absolutely Nuts!" (Delivered 10-12-08)

Opening Words
“Hello Saints!” It is a greeting that you hear in some African-American church communities.

“Hello Saints!” When this greeting is spoken it says several things at once. It is a way of addressing someone with respect, a way of saying that I see the divine within you. At the same time, it is also a way of honoring the fact that we are of the same community; a way of affirming that you and I belong to the same body. And, finally, it is also a charge, a way of reminding each other to live in a saintly way.

“Hello Saints!” That is the greeting you hear, not another greeting which would work just as well in most forms of Christian theology… you never hear somebody say, “Hello Sinners!”

And yet, and yet, although we don’t speak much of “sinners” here in this church, I am moved by that old saying that claims that, “Churches are homes for sinners, not museums for Saints.” We can translate this sentiment in a way that would work here in our religious community. We would say, “This church is not the place for the already perfected, the people who have already figured out all the answers. This church is not the place for those who have attained some level of enlightenment that cannot be surpassed, who merely exist here in stasis. Rather, this church is the home for those who are still trying to figure out the answers, who are committed to working on themselves a little bit, and who freely choose to dwell among other imperfect people because we can all learn something for each other.”

To paraphrase a little poem by Kurt Vonnegut,
When I was young, I was young and mean
I used to get in trouble like Augustine.
But Augustine, he became a Saint,
So if I do to, Mom, don’t you faint.
Let us worship together.

Reading: Matthew 5: 21-26
“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.

I want to share with you a piece of advice I received early on in my ministry. The advice came from a celebrated senior colleague with over thirty years of meritorious ministry in our movement. He said, to paraphrase,
“If you wake up in the morning and make a list of all the people who are angry at you, who are upset, who complain, who make your work difficult, and you decide to go heal their anger and satisfy their complaints, you will wind up surrounded by angry, difficult people. But, if you wake up in the morning and make a list of all those who bless the church, who are generous and kind, who do amazing things each and every day, you will wind up surrounded by kind, generous, nurturing people. There is not enough time in the day to do both, so you must choose to whom you will give your time and your attention.”
The colleague then went one step further and said, if you spend your time trying to make the angry people less angry and trying to address their complaints, everybody else will observe this and decide that the way to get attention is to complain and get angry. On the other hand, if you spend your time working cooperatively with those who are happy, and constructive, and inspired, everybody else will observe this and decide that way to get attention is to be cooperative and kind.

That was the advice, I received. And, I will have to admit, there is something to be said for it. And yet, I want to challenge this received wisdom. The advice was practical. It was certainly strategic, perhaps even efficient. But, does faith call us to act in only practical ways, to be efficient and choose the paths of least resistance? Do our guiding principles ask us to avoid the people and the issues that trouble us?

This morning I want to draw on several different sources: from our own guiding principles, from the Jewish tradition and Christian scriptures, as well as from more contemporary voices who advise us on how we should interact with those who aggravate us. Wayne Oates has written on The Care of Troublesome People and Arthur Boers has published a book with the eye-catching title, Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior.

In Jerks, Boers relays a story about famed educator Parker Palmer, a story that may sound familiar to anyone who has ever taught:
“[Palmer] visited a university campus where he was given the opportunity to teach a political science class for an hour. Of two-and-a-half dozen students there, Palmer noticed only the ‘Student from Hell.’ He became obsessed with this student, who slouched at the back of the room, had neither pen nor paper, kept his cap pulled over his eyes, and wore a coat as if he meant to escape at the first possible opportunity. Palmer writes, ‘I committed the most basic mistake of the greenest neophyte: I became totally obsessed with him, and everyone else in the room disappeared from my screen.’”
Later, Palmer is picked up in a University van that is being driven by none other than the “Student from Hell.” On the way to the airport, Palmer and the student talk. It turns out that he “was having great trouble completing college, that his unemployed, alcoholic father made life hard for him and actively discouraged his studies.”

It is interesting that this story seems to both confirm the advice I received from my senior colleague and challenge it at the same time. By focusing his attention on the most dysfunctional and inappropriate student, Palmer did lessen the educational experience of the other 29 students in the class. He also created a dynamic that told those other students that if they wanted attention, they should acts as disruptively, if not more disruptively, than the student that claimed his attention. And yet, at the same time, with the “Student from Hell” there was a brokenness that called for intervention instead of avoidance.

I am sure that those of you who have taught have all had your share of “Students from Hell.” For everyone else, we all have somebody whose life crosses paths with ours, someone who aggravates and annoys and angers us. That other person makes us feel, to turn to the thesaurus: bothered, bugged, chafed, disturbed, exasperated, irked, irritated, nettled, peeved, riled, ruffled, and vexed. We all have somebody in our life at whom we want to scream, “You are driving me absolutely nuts!”

What do some of the world’s religious traditions say about this? A close reading of the Gospels reveals that they are full of teachings and instructions about dealing with the people who drive us nuts. Matthew 5 puts the onus on us to reconcile differences with those who take issue with us, or else we risk an imprisonment, which in this passage is clearly metaphorical. Those who drive us nuts can drive us nuts; can imprison our spirits and make our focus too small and too narrow.

But the lessons go far beyond Matthew 5. Matthew 18 contains some of the most challenging instructions on dealing with those who aggravate us. Matthew 18 contains the parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus speaks of leaving the 99 in search of the one stray. But we learn in this passage that the lost sheep is not lost on account of a bad sense of direction. The sheep does not need a Garmin GPS device.

No, the parable of the lost sheep is followed by a discussion of conflict. The lost sheep has gone astray because of some amount of anger or annoyance. Matthew 18 follows with Jesus’ instructions about what to do if you have problems with someone. Jesus instructs us to first deal with the person directly. If that doesn’t work, bring two or three others to help you mediate. If that doesn’t work, involve the whole community. And, if that doesn’t work, the gospel tells us to treat the person who offends us like a gentile or a tax collector or, in other words, like Jesus’ preferred company.

Matthew 18 continues with Peter asking Jesus if he should forgive someone who offends him seven times. Jesus’ reply is that he should forgive seven times plus seventy.

In the Jewish tradition, the high holy of Yom Kippur is also known as the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur was observed this past week. Part of Yom Kippur involves setting your affairs in order, seeking out forgiveness and making restitution to all you have wronged. This atonement, this act of cleansing, cannot be completed if you only consider those whom you have outwardly wronged. You also need to look into your heart and set things right with those with whom you have not shown patience, those who have driven you absolutely nuts.

The Jewish prayerbook for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur contains the following prayer,
“O source of peace, lead us to peace, a peace profound and true; lead us to a healing, to mastery of all that drives us to war within ourselves and with others. May our deeds inscribe us in the Book of life and blessing, righteousness and peace! O Source of peace, bless us with peace.”
I enjoy challenges. The advice of my senior colleague was itself a sort of challenge. It was a “turn the other cheek” sort of challenge, to focus on positive things even as others criticize and complain. But, it seems to me like a much greater spiritual challenge to master all that drives us to war within ourselves and with others.

So how do we do this? How do we face those who drive us absolutely nuts?

I think that there are a few helpful hints. The first thing that may be helpful is to cultivate a little bit of self-awareness. I think it is fair to say that we all annoy somebody. I don’t think we can help it. I think we all have some aspect of our personality or our behavior that challenges other people to accept us. If I can return to the Gospels for one last time, I think this is what Jesus was speaking of when he talked about not pointing out the speck in your neighbor’s eye while you are in denial about the beam in your own. Self-awareness allows us to realize that we ourselves are not always the cat’s meow, and maybe we should be a little bit more tolerant of others who show the same imperfections that we do.

Another helpful hint is to hold the person who drives us absolutely nuts in our mind and really dare to see that person. I invite you to do this. A lot of our own judgment of that person may be a story about them we have created, so it is always fair to look for examples in that person’s life that might call into question whether that story always accurately describes that person. I invite you to think about a person that drives you absolutely nuts. In your mind, take a look at that person’s life. Does that person have friends? Does that person have people who love her or him? If you see the negative in that person, who sees the positive? And, if someone sees the positive in them, is that person just deluded? If we dare to go down this road we mind find some startling things. The person who aggravates us to no end may have more friends than we have. They may have areas of their life where they are respected, even esteemed. This understanding is sobering.

Finally, we might turn to our own Untiarian Universalist Principles and Purposes for some direction here. Our Seven Principles speak of every person having inherent worth and dignity, and they also challenge us to cultivate acceptance of one another. I don’t think we are called to accept every behavior or even every thought. But our principles do challenge us to accept every person.

How does all that I have been talking about this morning relate to the greater cultural forces that we are facing as a country? I think that many of our problems, especially the economic problems we face, will draw us into greater proximity with one another, will require cooperation and working together in close quarters. We will be stretched, I predict, to be with others in more closely knit ways as opposed to being dispersed in our own private individualities. Our capacity to not allow others to drive us absolutely nuts will be a basic life skill.

My fellow Saints, and those growing in saintliness, I ask you to consider the more challenging path. Instead of dividing this world between friends and enemies, between those we tolerate and those who drive us nuts, may we move in the directions of unity and greater connection. And, may we also realize that this church is not a museum for the saints. It is a home for those who fall short of perfection. Thank goodness. I’d rather be a companion than a curator.

Namaste. The God inside me sees and recognizes the God inside of you. Namaste.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Week 21: "Bandages & Scars" by Son Volt

The words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head...
In 1987 in Belleville, a small town in southwestern Illinois on the outskirts of St. Louis, a band formed that would alter the course of music history. The band called themselves Uncle Tupelo and though its members were passionate fans of punk, they could only find steady gigs playing country music.

Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were the leading creative collaborators in the band. In a seven year span they released four albums and gave birth to a brand new musical genre known as “alternative country.” Although music critics disagree about how to classify this genre, I use the functional definition that alt. country is Americana music created to appeal to alternative rock fans. This is one of my favorite musical genres and I even once sang an Uncle Tupelo song, the title track to their album No Depression, during a worship service.

In 1994 the band broke up due to personal differences between Farrar and Tweedy. Jeff Tweedy, along with John Stirrat, went on to form Wilco. Farrar joined forces with former Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn to form Son Volt. Wilco took a more experimental creative journey while Son Volt stayed closer to formula used by Uncle Tupelo.

The band Son Volt has released five albums. (I own all but one of them.) In quick succession, they released three albums in the late 90s before being dropped by their record label. They came back in 2005 with the release of the album Okemah and the Melody of Riot which they then followed up with a fifth album.

“Bandages & Scars” is the first song off Okemah. The song is an overture to the musical and political legacy of Woody Guthrie. (Guthrie was born in the town of Okemah, Oklahoma. He often performed with a guitar emblazoned with the words “This machine kills fascists.” When Son Volt toured to support their album, they used a backdrop depicting a guitar with the same words on it.)

“Bandages & Scars” begins with lyrics evoking the dust bowl, “Can’t drink holy water / Can’t find it in the well.” It then modernizes these concerns by putting these lines in parallel with a 21st century environmental consciousness and talking about the ozone layer and lead poisoning. In the second verse, Farrar’s lyrics capture the radical, systemic change Guthrie called for in his music. “Piecemeal solutions with only leave scars / bandages for nosebleeds…”

As great as the verses are, the simple, one-line chorus is what causes me to shiver when I hear this song. It is a simple line, “The words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head.”

Take a listen to Son Volt performing “Bandages & Scars” live and see if you agree with me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Week 20: "Widow's Walk" by The Architects

In week 19 of the “52 Songs in 52 Weeks” project I wrote about a song by Kings of Leon, a band whose members include three brothers. This week’s song is by another band featuring three brothers, Kansas City’s hardest rocking band, The Architects.

With Brandon Phillips on lead guitar, Zach Phillips on bass, and Adam Phillips on the drums (along with a guitar player who is not a blood relative) The Architects churn out in-your-face, authentic rock songs that swagger with punk and soul influences. The words on a concert tee shirt they sell tell it all. Those bold and controversial words read: “Stones > Beatles.”

Later on I plan to write about another Architects song, “Don’t Call it A Ghetto,” but this week I will write a few words a different song that also appears on their second album.

That song is “Widow’s Walk,” an up-tempo number that draws heavily from punk influences. The song begins with a guitar power-chord followed by the delivery of exposed, spitfire lyrics sung at a rapid pace. After the first four lines, the bass and guitar join in and the song takes off at a frantic pace only to slow down momentarily for the exposed lyrics of the chorus, “Oh, along the widow’s walk.”

At only two minutes and thirty seconds in length, “Widow’s Walk” is frenetic and power-packed. The melody and tempo-changes are extremely catchy, but not significantly catchier than many other songs by this band. The lyrics are barely comprehensible, which is just as well because they are not particularly great. (If you want to go looking for the lyrics, try scouring the band’s blog which can be found on their myspace page.)

So, what makes this song so special? After thinking about it, I am left with this insight. I find it curious that a band from the heart of Midwest would choose to title a song after an architectural feature of old houses in maritime communities. For those who do not know, a widow’s walk is a long balcony on the top level of a home that looks out on the ocean. It is a lookout, a place where women who husbands were sailors would keep watch, looking for signs of the return of ships from sea.

Punk music, and “Widow’s Walk” is certainly punk, has always claimed the role of sentinel, of watchdog. Just think of songs like “Take Warning” and “Caution” by Operation Ivy, “Warning” by Green Day (not to mention their entire American Idiot album), or, even, “All Quiet on the Eastern Front” by The Ramones. It seems that most every punk rock group has a song that casts themselves in the role of the vigilant sentry on the watch against social forces of ill. “Widow’s Walk” is perhaps the most creative metaphor for this role that I have encountered in punk music.

Besides “Widow’s Walk” and “Don’t Call It a Ghetto,” other songs by The Architects that I enjoy include, “Damn Sight Better” and “Black Guitar Kalashnikov” off their debut album, Keys to the Building, “Grace,” “Revenge,” and “Bury My Heart in Lebanon, MO,” off the Revenge album, and “Daddy Wore Black” and “Pills” off their latest release, Vice.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Week 19: "On Call" by Kings of Leon

The band Kings of Leon consists of four members, three brothers and a cousin, Nathan, Caleb, Jared, and Matthew Followill. The three brothers grew up as the children of a southern Pentecostal preacher named Leon. Now the four make up an alternative rock band drawing their influence from southern rock and blues.

KoL have released four albums. Their first, Youth and Young Manhood, was a bold announcement of their arrival. Its debut single, “Molly Chambers,” is one of KoL’s strongest songs. The next year (2004) they released their sophomore effort, Aha Shake Heartbreak, which I found to be largely a disappointment. Three years later, they released Because of the Times, an album that found the band embracing a new, somewhat less Southern sound. (They recently released their fourth album which I have not yet had the opportunity to listen to.)

“On Call” was the first single off Because of the Times and probably the best song on the album, although the song “Ragoo” is a very close second. “On Call” leads off with a celestial-sounding synthesizer that is then augmented by exposed vocals. As the full band kicks in the music carries with it a herky-jerky quality. The bass line and guitar riffs are composed of shortened notes. It is only later in the song that the band releases the fullness of their sound.

Lyrically, “On Call” is rather repetitive. However, the lyrics do carry a certain sweetness to them. The song is a promise to be there. “I’m on call, to be there.” “When you call, I’ll come a running.” This oath of loyalty and dependability is perhaps what makes this song stand out.

You can see the somewhat odd looking original music video here.
You can see Kings of Leon perform on the David Letterman show here.
You can also see them perform “Molly Chambers” on David Letterman here.