Monday, September 29, 2008

Sermon: "The Future of the American Dream" (Delivered 9-28-08)

Last July, when I decided that I would preach a four part sermon series on the economy in the fall, I had an inkling of suspicion that the sermon series would be timely. I did not imagine the extent to which it would be timely. So, I find myself kicking myself for not planning a sermon series on winning the lottery or Tom Brady not having a knee injury… or world peace while we are at it.

To give you a little bit of a recap, this morning will be the third sermon in the series. At the end of August I preached about “Making It and Faking It in America” and talked about some of the conditions that created the “perfect storm” of financial trouble we are experiencing. Two weeks ago I preached on the “Economy of Fear,” a sermon in which I examined the powerful grip that fear so often has on and over our lives.

Given that I will spend this morning preaching on the economy, I’m sure many of you are curious to hear my perspective on bank failures and the proposed $700 billion dollar bailout of the banks. So many with much more fiscal wisdom than I have said so much, that anything that I could add would not add much, except to say that I think my comments two weeks ago on fear speak to this in some way. I quoted Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address where he said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and then described fear as paralyzing and unreasoning. Elsewhere in that sermon I said, “In social contexts, fear can lead a nation to place unlimited power in the hands of a tyrant or a strongman, to willingly suspend the rules of law and to turn away from the deepest principles it professes.”

The calls for the need to push ahead with the bailout with the utmost haste in order to prevent cataclysmic disaster are appeals to fear. Rhetorically, they are exactly the same as the calls for a preemptive war with Iraq, a war which, it was argued at the time required immediate action because the threat was imminent. Franklin Roosevelt called fear unreasoning. Drastic actions strike me as imprudent and it seems to me that our wisest course is to go slow, with a plan that is well thought out, well considered, and reasonable, rather than to forge ahead only to have our domestic decisions come to resemble our international ones.

But, rather than dwell on the immediate present, I want to consider the future of the American Dream. I want to look into my crystal ball of prophecy and prognostication and ask what the future holds.

One possibility is that we will elect a president with a last name somewhere in the middle of the alphabet and that this president will take office in January, wave a magic wand, and all our problems will immediately cease. This is highly unlikely.

Another possibility is that we will face hardship and struggle as a nation for several years but that eventually the economy will rebound. This is actually what seems most likely, but it raises questions. In the long run, will the tremendous chasm between rich and poor grow even wider, or will it narrow? Will the number of Americans living in poverty increase or decrease? Will the number of Americans without adequate health care grow, or will we move towards a solution to this crisis?

It seems most likely to me that after a period of a few years of choppy water and storms we will return to a country much the same, perhaps a little worse off than we are right now, but hopefully a little better, and probably some mixture of better and worse. While that seems most likely, it would make for a boring sermon. Instead, I want to cast a vision that is a lot more interesting.

I had an epiphany last summer as I joined a family in our congregation for dinner on a July night. This family lives in one of the more outlying suburban rings in Johnson County, in a newer housing development. During the delicious meal, the conversation turned serious and theological. They asked me, “Thom, do you have hope?” I swallowed hard. We had been discussing some of the problems on that endless list of somber and sobering problems that do exist in the world. I was surprised with how quickly I answered. “Yes, I do have hope,” I said. This answer had come from my lips before I even knew what I was going to say next. And then, what came next came from someplace, I know not from where. I continued, “The problems in the world are undeniable. But, I find myself gathering hope from the many small, un-newsworthy things that I encounter each and every day: miracles of new friendship, families eating together, moments of unexpected compassion and kindness, the wondering gaze and laugh of a child. Taking hope from all these little things may seem trite. It may seem like a bunch of sentimental nonsense. So, I would point to one other thing that gives me hope. We humans are superbly adaptable beings. And I think I do have faith in human adaptability, ingenuity, and creativity. I believe we are capable of surviving whatever tests lie ahead of us.”

Somewhere in the conversation that night I learned a simple, odd fact about the development where this family lived. Among the many, many things that the homeowner’s association in this housing development bans is the drying of laundry outside. You can’t clothespin your towel or your sheet or your tee shirt to a laundry line. If my mouth didn’t, my brain pronounced this stupid: Stupid that in the heat of the Kansas summer with the limitless sun above, this entire neighborhood would be forced to pay for natural gas or electricity to dry their laundry.

It was then that a vision began to grow inside of me. It was a vision of all of the families in this community coming together to meet out in the street, and bringing with them the copies of their homeowner’s association codes. These codes are then tossed these into a great bonfire while children roast marshmallows on spits hewn from the splinters of their un-neighborly fences.

It was a vision in which chicken coops are erected, violating the once obeyed regulations of this development. Lawnmowers are disassembled for their spare parts. Goats now do what once required gasoline. And goat droppings fertilize the soil of the great vegetable gardens now spanning those backyards.

Let me describe that life I envisioned. The adjustment to it will not be easy. The hours we may work at our usual jobs may actually decrease, but our workday will easily double. We may have a conventional job, but also a community job that will pay us not in cash, but in trade and barter.

I know what many of your community jobs will be. I went and perused the auction catalogues from years past. I know who the cooks will be. I know who will bake and who will brew and who will quilt and who will design the gardens and who will fix things. Some of you will create pottery, others poetry. And the writers and musicians and jugglers and storytellers will be needed as well. With a 14-16 hour workday, television sets will be useless. We will have no time to watch. The golf courses will be repossessed and turned into community gardens and cow pastures. Doctors returning home from their shift at the hospital will make rounds in the neighborhood. Industrial chemists will transform their basements into apothecary laboratories.

And perhaps none of this will come to pass, but it could. And, if it did people would find some way to survive. This picture that I am painting is far from utopian by the way. What would cause a situation like the one I’ve described to come to pass is a kind of apocalyptic economic shifting that would make 1929 seem tame. Such an event would leave the widest conceivable gap between the ultra-rich and the lowliest of the poor. And there will be 21st Century Robin Hoods. Pharmaceutical workers will post instructions on how to create the newest drugs on-line. Hackers will steal Wi-Fi signals and tap into the power grid. The black market will rival the free market.

History is not without stories like the vision I am projecting: While some forms of radical religion left England to come to the colonies in the form of Puritans, Pilgrims, and Quakers, England had many other radical religious groups that decided to stay including groups known as the Diggers and Levelers that aspired to take back the land from royalty. There was the French Revolution. But, we can also look to countries across the globe where the ultra-rich live alongside extreme poverty. I doubt few in this room would happily trade places with a Saudi Arabian prince or an African general in a country under military rule. I will admit to not knowing much about those lives, but it seems to me that if you owe your security to armed personnel on your payroll, rather than to the safety found in common prosperity, you are living a type of life that I would not like to live.

Am I saying this will happen? Probably not, but it could. And, it will probably happen in much smaller increments. People will put out laundry lines and supplement their diets with homegrown vegetables. People will seek out forms of entertainment and relaxation that are less costly. Many people will save $1,000 a year by turning off their cable, $600 by quitting the gym and going to the park instead. People will rediscover the meaning of luxury, a term that has lost its meaning as most people in our society use or consume multiple luxury products and services every single day. People will trade down in their habits of consumption. [The business book Trading Up by Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske describes the rise of new luxury goods.]

In this vision, the public library will ascend and Borders, Barnes & Noble, Netflix, and Blockbuster will decline. The public square has disappeared from our landscape so we will reclaim it. In our metro area, the public square has been perverted by places like the Town Center Plaza, Zona Rosa, The Legends, and the Power & Light District. Those places are the antithesis of the public square (which is not to say they are not fun), but if you go there, make sure you bring your credit card.

Contrast this with a proper public square such as the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain where street musicians fill the air with delightful music, people set up tables for cards and chess, and you can bring your own picnic supper. You can have a grand evening at the Plaza Mayor without spending a euro. Perhaps, if you are feeling fat in the pocketbook you might purchase a gelato or some churros y chocolate.

I think this would take a lot of adjustment for many Americans who seem to equate having a good time with spending money. In this morning’s reading, the poem “Happiness” by Raymond Carver, the poet observes two boys delivering papers in the early morning light while he gazes out the window and sips a cup of coffee.

The poet observe the two boys whose happiness seems to be entirely in the moment, disconnected from even the earnings and spending power gained by their modest business. What will the man do after he finishes his coffee and the sun fully rises? Will he go off to work? Will he write poetry? Is he retired? The poem is silent. The final stanza of the poem declares, “Happiness. It comes on suddenly. / And goes beyond, really, / any early morning talk about it.” How many of us can really claim the same? Can we imagine a happiness that does not want or desire?

In the children’s book Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, Henry is a stand-in for Henry David Thoreau. I cannot tell you whether anything like this race to Fitchburg ever took place in history although I can tell you that it is easy to imagine Thoreau getting up and deciding to spend the day just walking to Fitchburg. I can also tell you of those immortal words from Walden where Thoreau writes, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides on us.” So, listen to the prophet of Concord:
“The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is […] an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour […] but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain. If we do not get our sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you.”
The Irishman of Thoreau’s day is the Mexican, the Filipino, and the Nigerian of today. But Thoreau is asking a bigger question: do the railroads serve us or do we serve them? Does our economic system serve us well or do we live to serve it? We can measure, with exacting certitude, the rising and falling of bank accounts, retirement portfolios, and debt. How shall we measure whether we are fair, whether we are moral, whether we add to the sum of justice and goodness and mercy in the world? Do we have a spiritual practice that helps us to create better relationships with others around us? I am describing an economy of faith. We will return to that topic in three weeks to close out this sermon series.

So, what is the future of the American dream? The meaning of the term, “American Dream,” is a loaded term. We have so often used it to describe a certain style of living, a certain amount of wealth, owning certain possessions, and taking vacations to certain places. And yet, I think of other dreams:

When John Lennon sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” he was not dreaming of taking a cruise.

When Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream… It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” he was not speaking of a three car garage.

When the Hebrew prophet Joel announced, “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions,” the visions and dreams were not about whose flock of sheep would be larger.

The time might come… the time might come to gather in the streets and roast marshmallows on spits hewn from un-neighborly fences. More likely, we will find smaller ways to cooperate, share, assist, and build community. But amidst these smaller ways we should not forget our bigger dreams or our larger visions.

Week 18: "Let Me In" by R.E.M.

In June of 1995 I went to my first rock concert. I still have the mustard yellow concert tee shirt that I purchased at the merch booth at an amphitheater outside of Boston where I saw R.E.M. perform on their four continent world tour. The back of the shirt had lines crossing out 43 shows in Europe and the United States representing the dates they had to cancel in the middle of the tour when drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm.

Throughout my entire high school experience I idolized R.E.M. They released their mainstream breakthrough album Out of Time in the fall of ‘91, during my freshman year. They followed this up a year later with Automatic for the People. Then, in the fall of ’94 they released Monster, the album that includes the song “Let Me In.”

I became a fan of R.E.M. a bit late. By the time I purchased Out of Time and their prior recording, 1988’s Green, they had already started to drift from the sound that had made them college radio mainstays through the early and mid 1980s. Of course, during high school I went back and explored their earlier sound. I listened to their debut album, Murmur, and to their subsequent albums leading up to Green: Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Life’s Rich Pageant, and Document as well as a pair of compilations, Dead Letter Office and Eponymous, and their stand-alone EP Chronic Town.

The point I want to make is that R.E.M.’s Green represented the band’s first sign of comfort with gimmicky and banal music. The more musically precocious sixth graders in my junior high went to hear R.E.M. in concert and you know they were going to hear the song “Stand” off the Green album, not the other brilliant tracks that album contains. Perhaps R.E.M. fans would argue with me; after all, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is certainly gimmicky. But, the two songs are ontologically different. “It’s the End,” despite its verses consisting of absurdist litanies delivered at rapid-fire speed, has an element of timelessness to it. Contrast this with “Stand” which succeeds as a catchy tune but lacks lasting significance.

R.E.M. then went on to release Out of Time, an album that became one of their most commercially successful records but was also overshadowed by albums by Nirvana and Pearl Jam that were released around the same time. Out of Time is a fascinating record. Its top hit, "Losing My Religion," is an excellent song that also features exposed mandolin solos that seem overly image conscious. This album has beautiful songs like “Country Feedback,” “Texarkana,” but it also has its embarrassing moments. The opening song, “Radio Song,” is a train wreck of an identity crisis featuring rapper KRS-1. I can’t believe that any self-respecting R.E.M. fan would feel anything but contempt for “Shiny Happy People.”

The follow up to Out of Time was Automatic for the People, which is one of R.E.M.’s strongest albums. Its first track (and first single) “Drive” consciously marks a change in voice. Michael Stipe sings, “Hey kids, rock and roll,” a line that distances himself from his listeners. While Automatic lacks an epic mistake like “Radio Song” or “Shiny Happy People,” songs like “Man on the Moon” and, especially, “Everybody Hurts” aspire to popular acclaim and commercial success.

This brings us to Monster. I believe that one cannot really understand Monster without knowing the trajectory established by the band’s three previous albums. What’s more, Monster was released at the height of the 1994 alternative music boom. As groups like The Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, and Radiohead found tremendous commercial success, more veteran acts tried to adopt a more youthful sound. One example of this is David Bowie who tried to attract a younger audience by touring with Nine Inch Nails(!)

The release of Monster grabbed people’s attention. The debut single, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” was more electric-guitar driven than any previous R.E.M. song and the video featured a bald-headed Stipe vamping in front of a microphone. Monster showcased several fast paced rock songs including “Star 69” and “Crush with Eyeliner” but also slower songs as well. “Strange Currencies” is, in my opinion, R.E.M.’s most underrated song. “Tongue” features Stipe singing in falsetto.

Before I focus in on “Let Me In,” I want to say a bit about R.E.M.’s life after Monster. Two years later, they released a follow-up, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which failed to capture me. I paid no attention to any of the four albums (Up, Reveal, Around the Sun, and Accelerate) that they’ve released since.

“Let Me In” is a striking song that I think is best understood in the context of the history of the band I’ve presented above. “Let Me In” stands out for its unorthodox style. It features the drone of loud, distorted electric guitars and organ. The only rhythm is provided by the quiet tap of a tambourine that fades in and out. Above this sound, Michael Stipe sings faint, poetic verses and a plaintive, exposed chorus. The song is dedicated to the memory of Kurt Cobain and an almost sacred quality surrounds the song. “Let Me In” combines R.E.M.’s embrace of louder guitars, their interest in experimentation, and a slow, spiritual sound that they developed in earlier recordings.

You can listen to the album version of the song here, and a live acoustic version of it here. Or, if you want to pick up a copy of Monster for yourself, you can find it for about $2.99 at any used CD shop.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sermon: "Forthrightness" (Delivered 9-21-2008)

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Tell all the truth but tell it slant. In this most famous of Emily Dickinson’s poems, she offers advice on how to speak with honesty so that the person to whom you are speaking is able to hear the truth, and not close off from it because it is too difficult to hear. Dickinson’s poem would perhaps prefigure that famous line from the movie A Few Good Men in which Jack Nicholson declares “You can’t handle the truth.”

This morning I want to talk about honesty, about standards of communication, about how being honest (or less than honest) impacts the nature of our relationships, the quality of our community, and, even, how the forthrightness or lack of forthrightness in our communication tells us something about our religious lives. Related to this central theme there are lots of interesting questions: Can we, in fact, handle the truth? What does it mean to be authentic? When speaking a difficult truth is at odds with good manners, which should take precedence? I will endeavor this morning, so help me God, to give you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, un-slanted. But the truth about the truth is that there are layers of complexity and nuance, matters worthy of our most careful considerations, so we will try to figure our way through this maze together.

I will always remember, as a 22 year old seminarian, attending a reception for first year students at the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters in Boston. I made myself into a wallflower and stood off in the corner of the room concentrating on not letting the cheese fall off of my cracker. Then UUA President John Buehrens approached me and greeted me. I confessed to him that gatherings like these made me feel a bit awkward as I was a bit of an introvert. His response surprised me. “So am I,” he said. “In fact two-thirds of ministers, perhaps even more are introverts.” This fact was difficult to reconcile. After all, why would an introvert choose to risk getting up in front a room, week after week, to deliver original compositions? Why would an introvert pursue a vocation that would call on her or him to give television interviews, testify in front of legislatures, speak at rallies, and offer extemporaneous prayers or in front of a roomful of strangers? And, for that matter, what about all those social settings where you are expected to be engaging, witty, and a presence that sets others at ease? I’m still an introvert but I am a whole lot better at cracker-balancing and social events than I was a decade ago.

Over the years I learned that introverts and extroverts each have a shadow-side. Sometimes, others consider introverts to be closed, guarded, extremely private, and, at times, even distant or disinterested. Extroverts, on the other hand, are often considered to be fake, disingenuous, and inauthentic. Extroverts are accused of gregariously trying to please others and, in so doing they can be accused of being chameleon-like, of suppressing their true selves in order to curry favor with others.

Who are you really and for what do you stand? Whenever we meet another person – in the streets, on the airplane, in an assembly, at coffee hour, we have the chance to actually discover the truth about that other person, if they are willing to let us in through their defenses.

Having lived in different geographic regions of the country – the Northeast, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and Texas (which, I think counts as its own region) – I’ve seen how different geographical areas are known for different styles of interpersonal communication. Bostonians have a reputation for being in-your-face, rude, and abrupt. There is a joke that if you are visiting Boston and ask a local what time it is, the local will answer, “That sweater doesn’t look good on you.” In fact, when I first moved to Kansas City, I brought a bit of Boston with me in the form of my driving habits. For about the first six months I drove up and down Metcalf using the horn on my car liberally. (Massachusetts liberalism is secondarily political; primarily the liberalism has to do with the interpretation of traffic laws.) The first time I had a passenger ride with me here in town, the passenger was mortified, as I drove down Metcalf laying on the horn. In their mind, I was rude. In my own mind, I was giving other drivers the courtesy of making them aware if they committed a driving faux pas such as failing to use a blinker, or not noticing that the traffic light was green and it was time to drive forward. It was a ministry.

Contrast this with the stereotype of a person from Dallas, where I lived for a year. In Dallas, everyone seemed so nice, at least face to face. Social interactions were well-lubricated by a code of public manners; friction and conflict were to be avoided at all cost. Honest assessments of one another were reserved for private communications. Or, in other words, you could hear one woman tell another woman that the sweater one is wearing is absolutely marvelous on her and then tell her friends, moments later, that the sweater was hideous and unflattering. Men did the same thing, often with a healthy dose of profanity mixed in.

And, here in the Kansas City metro area, we live at the intersection, the crossroads, the place where Southern Midwest nice meets Northern Midwest nice. I am no expert on Northern Midwest nice, but I would suggest that while Southern manners seeks to avoid all forms of public conflict, Northern Midwestern manners (as far as I can tell from listening to Garrison Keillor) is more inclined to not only diminish public conflict, but private conflict as well. Honest opinions and judgments are stuffed, or only shared in the tremendous intimacy of the closest of relationships, with the result being that those negative thoughts have little opportunity for release and they can dwell, on and on, within us.

Of course, I have just stereotyped three geographic regions. My comments have been, at most, vaguely general and certainly not universal. So, perhaps setting these ideas of geographic determinism aside, we should look at our own habits and practices of authentic communication and honesty in our own church community and in our own lives.

So, where on the continuum of honesty and openness would you place yourself? Are you brutally honest and openly outspoken, and, if so, how has that worked for you? Do you put on a public persona that is agreeable and polite only to fork your tongue when making private utterances? Or, do you follow the teachings of some motherly figure who advised you not to speak unless you have something nice to say, and, if so, what do you do with those things that proper manners prevent you from expressing? I know that none of us struggle with these concerns, that as Unitarian Universalists we have all grown so enlightened that all of our thoughts about other people are charitable and that we are utterly imperturbable. Our hackles cannot be raised. Our goat cannot be got.

But, on the off chance that you know somebody who could stand to hear this message, I will share my thoughts anyways.

The title I’ve given to this sermon is “forthrightness.” It was a deliberate choice of a word. Nowadays, you often hear a person referred to as honest, trustworthy, or even “bold” if they describe themselves as someone who doesn’t subscribe to social conventions that honor keeping everybody happy.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a person describe themselves or anybody else as “forthright.” It is an antiquated word that, according to the dictionary, is said to mean, “Going straight to the point, being frank, direct, and outspoken, communicating without evasion, having directness in manner and speech without subtlety.”

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Kansas City public library to hear Stephen Pinker, the famous MIT and Harvard professor, speak about his newest book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. During his talk, Pinker talked about two types of speech, private and public speech. Private speech is coded in such a way that there is plausible deniability about what you are really saying, even though every person who hears the utterance knows what is being said. Public speech is literal and direct and takes away the possibility of plausible deniability. This concept is best understood if I give you an example.

Suppose you are on the phone with somebody, and the person on the other end of the line says, “Wow, it is getting late.” That would be an example of private communication. The person who you are talking to is really saying, “I wish for this conversation to end.” You understand this coded language so you wrap it up and say, “Well, I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. Have a great night.” I suppose if you didn’t understand the coded language, you might respond. “Yes, it is rather late at night. Have you seen any good movies lately?”

What makes the statement “Wow, it is getting late,” private is that while each side understands what is being said, there is plausible deniability because the actual meaning of the phrase, “Wow, it is getting late,” is never actually spoken. Nobody would ever end a phone call by saying, “I wish for this conversation to end now.” Pinker explained that in private forms of communication, both sides understand the code, but there is plausible deniability about whether you know that the other side knows what you really mean.

We make statements like, “Wow, it is getting late,” hundreds of times every day. Please don’t misunderstand me. These forms of communication are civil and good mannered. But, it occurs to me that if these sayings flow so easily from our tongues, we may default to this setting when what is actually called for is forthrightness and hard honesty.

There are times when speaking the truth without telling it slant can be profound. In May Sarton’s moving book, Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year, she writes extremely straightforwardly about her experience of aging,

“This seems to be about the darkest passage of my life. I am not only in more pain that I have been in for over a year and more exhausted in consequence, but it is as if the foundations were crumbling; I realize more and more that the foundations have been friendship. And the friends, naturally enough, are getting fed up with my being ill and never getting well. There have been a few incidents recently that rubbed this in, so I have gone back to that bitter poem by Robert Frost, ‘Provide Provide,’ which I remember reading when I was in my twenties, and thought , What a terrible man. What a wrong poem. Now that I am almost eighty and feel abandoned, I reckon that the poem is true, and I am glad he wrote it.”

That Frost poem, by the way, describes a Hollywood starlet whose world was once her oyster but now is forgotten and ignored. The poem ends with these stanzas.
Some have relied on what they knew;
Others on simply being true.
What worked for them might work for you.

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard,
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
So, what is the point here? Both Sarton and Frost are speaking of something ugly and difficult but they are also transgressing social codes of communication to say something that is, frankly, uncomfortable and also true to their own experience.

In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of an awkward situation on a plane flight. She is sitting next to a man with health problems who spills yogurt all over himself. In embarrassment, the man pretends as if the yogurt is not spilled and stares out the window. It is only when Remen takes a damp towel and wipes off the man’s shoes that he shares the depth of his vulnerability. Remen responds by telling him about her own health problems. Intimacy is discovered in this difficult vulnerability.

[An enormous note of thanks is due to my colleague, Rev. Eva Cameron, who shared the Sarton quote and Rachel Naomi Remen story with me.]

How does being honest (or less than honest) impact the nature of our relationships, the quality of our community? What does the forthrightness or lack of forthrightness in our communication say about our religious lives?

Emily Dickinson seems to call for a kind of imprecise speech, a slanted truth, that doesn’t rock the boat. Sarton and Frost speak difficult truths directly. Rachel Remen, by being honest at the same time as she is compassionate, inspires connection when she could have, just as easily, walled herself off from her fellow traveler.

As a congregation, we are all fellow travelers. We share a lateral relationship that is ours to create. We determine the extent to which it will be shallow or intimate, closed or open, private or public. We determine whether our inter-relatedness will be so bound by manners or so superficial that directness and honesty will be excluded. In the words of our Intern Minister, Anne Griffiths, “We know we are dancing when we actually step on each other’s toes.”

This ability to be a bit more forthright with each other is just the first step, not the final challenge. It is only when we are able to be honest, direct, vulnerable, and authentic with each other that we even begin to be able to do the same with that force that is greater than us, whether we call it God or the ground of being, our deepest selves or the spirit of life.

Allow me to be bold enough to suggest another name for the Divine: “The stranger who wishes to know us as we truly are.” Blessed Be and Amen.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Week 17: "7/4 (Shoreline)" by Broken Social Scene

I first heard Broken Social Scene at an outdoor musical festival in Lawrence, Kansas in 2006. The experience of seeing them perform live was unlike any I’ve had at any musical performance. Broken Social Scene embodied their name in their performance. At any given time between six and twelve musicians played on stage. During songs band members would enter and exit the stage, trade instruments with one another, or, for example, exchange an electric guitar for a trombone. While the social scene may have been broken, the sound certainly wasn’t. Their music was intricately layered, complex, and varied. At one point the sound might be delicate and soft. At another time, they might rock out full force with six electric guitars and two drum sets.

BSS is probably best-described as a creative musical cooperative. Hailing from Toronto, they have released four albums as an ensemble. Most recently, they have released two additional albums under the heading Broken Social Scene presents… These albums each focus on the song-writing visions of a different member of the band.

“7/4 (Shoreline)” is from BSS’ self-titled fourth album. The fun liner notes for this album go song by song and indicate which of 17 band members appear on each song and then list a series of notes about the song. We are told that Justin, Kevin, Feist, Brendan, Andrew, Jason, Evan, Charlie, Jo-Ann, and David perform “7/4.” The notes for performing the song are as follows:
- Try to Fix the ending
- DON’T Max it out
- turn up Cranley [a reference to Evan Cranley]
- boycott gifts from strangers
- write more songs about Fear
“7/4” is written in a 7/4 time signature and showcases many of the band’s signature traits. The song bounces back and forth between soft and hard, showcases Feist’s impressive vocals, and reaches moments of chaos only to back off and regain composure. You can watch a video of this song here.

Other notable songs off this excellent album include “Fire Eye’d Boy”, “Windsurfing Nation”, “Swimmers”, “Superconnected”, and the climactic final song, “It’s All Gonna Break.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sermon Series: "The Economy: Your Wallet, Your Faith, Your Life"

From late-August through mid-October, 2008 I will be preaching a four part sermon series entitled, "The Economy: Your Wallet, Your Faith, Your Life."

The four sermons in the series are as follows:

1) "Making It And Faking It in America" (delivered 8/24/08)
2) "The Economy of Fear" (delivered 9/14/08)
3) "The Future of the American Dream" (delivered 9/28/08)
and,
4) "The Economy of Faith" (delivered 10/19/08)

I hope you will read the sermons in this series. Also, if you go to a congregation besides the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, I'd be interested to know if your religious leader has addressed the economy from the pulpit. If so, please send me a link to an on-line sermon or podcast if one is available.

Week 16: "Cath..." by Death Cab for Cutie

Cath...
She stands with a well intentioned man
But she can't relax with his hands on the small of her back
As the flashbulbs burst she holds a smile
Like someone would hold a crying child

Soon everybody will ask what became of you
Your heart was dying fast and you didn't know what to do

Cath...
It seems that you live in someone else's dream
In a hand-me-down wedding dress
With the things that could have been are repressed
But you said your vows and you closed the door
On so many men who would have loved you more

Soon everybody will ask what became of you
Your heart was dying fast and you didn't know what to do
The whispers that it won't last roll up and down the pews
And if our hearts were dying that fast,
They would have done the same as you
I'd have done the same as you
“Cath…” is the first of three songs by the Seattle-based band Death Cab for Cutie that I will write about over the course of this 52 songs in 52 weeks project. DCfC is a band that I hold in such high regard, however, that I could do a feature called “52 songs by Death Cab for Cutie in 52 weeks.” (See below.)

This song is the second single off DCfC’s newest album (their seventh), Narrow Stairs, which I wrote about when it was first released last spring. It immediately grabbed me as my favorite song on the album.

“Cath…” is a sad song. (If you don’t understand what the song is about, the literally-rendered music video will make it clear.) But, I find the song exquisite for the way it describes a precise moment. Sung from the point of view of an omniscient third person narrator, the song captures everything in that split second of indecision, not only Cath’s deeply ambivalent feelings, but also the hand on her back, the camera’s flash, the whispers in the pews.

Musically, the song is more up-tempo than the lyrics would suggest. And musically, the song is at least as strong as its lyrics. It begins with an inventive series of guitar chords (explained here) and then settles down to support the first two verses. When the second verse is extended with the line about whispers in the pews, the music crescendos and hammers home the final lines of the song.

It is the twist in the final lines of the song that both ties the song together and makes it something more than it has been up to this point. All along the song has been distanced and descriptive, perhaps to the point of seeming judgmental. Yet, the final lines of the song are empathetic and reflexive. The listener is lifted up out of the pews and made to stand in Cath’s shoes.

While probably not intentional, the rhymed words “you,” “do,” and “pews” suggest a two word sentence often usually uttered at weddings: “I do.” The implicit suggestion of those two words leaves the song unresolved. The narrator confesses: “I’d have done the same as you.” As the song ends, we are left to answer the question for ourselves: “Would you say ‘I do’ too?”

In addition to the video links above, here, here, and here are links to three live versions of “Cath…”

If I were writing a feature called "52 DCFC Songs in 52 Weeks", here would be the songs I would choose (the higher a song appears, the more I like it):
1) Cath… (Narrow Stairs)
2) What Sarah Said (Plans)
3) Transatlanticism (Transatlanticisim)
4) Sound of Settling (Transatlanticism)
5) Blacking Out the Friction (The Photo Album)
6) Different Names for the Same Thing (Plans)
7) This Charming Man (You Can Play These Songs With Chords)
8) Marching Bands of Manhattan (Plans)
9) We Laugh Indoors (The Photo Album)
10) Death of an Interior Decorator (Transatlanticism)
11) Why You’d Want to Live Here (The Photo Album)
12) Bixby Canyon Bridge (Narrow Stairs)
13) Company Calls (We Have the Facts and We Are Voting Yes)
14) The New Year (Transatlanticism)
15) Flustered / Hey Tomcat! (You Can Play These Songs With Chords)
16) I Will Follow You Into the Dark (Plans)
17) No Sunlight (Narrow Stairs)
18) Amputations (Something About Airplanes)
19) Army Corps of Engineers (You Can Play These Songs With Chords)
20) A Movie Script Ending (The Photo Album)
21) Expo. '86 (Transatlanticism)
22) Tomorrow (You Can Play These Songs With Chords)
23) That's Incentive (You Can Play These Songs With Chords)
24) Long Division (Narrow Stairs)
25) We Looked Like Giants (Transatlanticism)
26) I Was a Kaleidoscope (The Photo Album)
27) Pictures in an Exhibition (Something About Airplanes)
28) Title & Registration (Transatlanticism)
29) Brothers in a Hotel Bed (Plans)
30) I Will Possess Your Heart (Narrow Stairs)
31) 405 (We Have the Facts and We Are Voting Yes)
32) Styrofoam Plates (The Photo Album)
33) Company Calls Epilogue (We Have the Facts and We Are Voting Yes)
34) Passenger Seat (Transatlanticism)
35) TV Trays (You Can Play These Songs With Chords)
36) Summer Skin (Plans)
37) Tiny Vessels (Transatlanticism)
38) Title Track (We Have the Facts and We Are Voting Yes)
39) Bend to Squares (Something About Airplanes)
40) Grapevine Fires (Narrow Stairs)
41) This Temporary Life (Future Soundtrack to America)
42) Lowell, MA (We Have the Facts and We Are Voting Yes)
43) Line of Best Fit (Something About Airplanes)
44) Stable Song (Plans)
45) Song for Kelly Huckaby (You Can Play These Songs With Chords)
46) The Ice is Getting Thinner (Narrow Stairs)
47) For What Reason (We Have the Facts and We Are Voting Yes)
48) Debate Exposes Doubt (The Photo Album)
49) Talking Like Turnstiles (Directions DVD)
50) Talking Bird (Narrow Stairs)
51) A Lack of Color (Transatlanticism)
52) Fake Frowns (Something About Airplanes)

Sermon: "The Economy of Fear" (Delivered 9-14-08)

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, we do not restrict our sources of inspiration to a single holy writ, nor to a single set of practices, or to a singular creedal formulation or catechism. Instead, in the tradition of free and liberal religion we remain open to the wisdom which can come to us from a multiplicity of sources: many different scriptures, philosophies, practices, arts, and, most certainly, the prophetic words and deeds of women and men through the ages.

If there is a text that we can look to for inspiration this morning, I know of none better than two speeches by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his 1941 State of the Union address, FDR famously developed his idea of four universal human freedoms: First, the freedom of speech and of expression; second, the freedom of belief; third, the freedom from want; and, finally, fourth, the freedom from fear. Offering commentary on this speech, one observer claimed that these four freedoms are not equal. Rather, the four freedoms include two original freedoms and two derivative freedoms.

The original or basic freedoms are the freedom from want and the freedom from fear. The derivative or secondary freedoms are freedom of speech and the freedom of belief, as well, we might add, those freedoms enumerated in our Bill of Rights, namely freedom of the press, of assembly, of petition for the redress of grievances, as well as the freedom to vote and the rights of personal privacy.

When this observer argued that freedom from want and freedom from fear are original and primary, he was saying that without these, no other freedom can be secure. Or to put it in far more blunt terms, if you want for food to eat, the exercise of free speech is not all that important. And, if you live in a war torn region, with the perpetual threat of danger to life and limb, having the freedom to compose, say, poetry loses a lot of its value.

Which is to say that people who are hungry, who lack clean water, who lack shelter from the elements, who live daily with the fear that they will die too young from curable disease or military aggression, will always eagerly trade civil liberties for bread to eat and political freedom for safety. This helps to explain the rise of European fascism three quarters of a century ago and the rise of the Taliban and other fundamentalist Islamic regimes in more recent times.

As Unitarian Universalists, we have tended to be eloquent and spirited in defense of secondary or derivative freedoms. As a major part of the “free church” tradition, our faith has lifted up the rights of conscience, the freedom of the pulpit and of the pew, and the practice of democratic values in our shared congregational life. We’ve been pioneers in interfaith understanding and dialogue which has allowed us to be sensitive to violations of either the establishment clause or the free exercise clause of the first amendment. Our strivings to be a religion that practices transparency and equity has led us to be outspoken about the integrity of the democratic process, whether it has been Unitarian and Universalist women like Susan B. Anthony and Olympia Brown fighting for women’s suffrage or our own Beacon Press being the only publisher in the United States that wasn’t too chicken to publish the Pentagon Papers.

Susan B. Anthony and the editors of Beacon Press are the heroes of those derivative freedoms of which Roosevelt spoke, the freedom of expression and belief. But, this morning I want to speak of the two original freedoms: the freedom from want and the freedom from fear.

(This, by the way, is the second sermon in a four part series I’ve titled, “The Economy: Your Wallet, Your Faith, Your Life.” In two weeks I will preach a sermon on the “Future of the American Dream.” Next month, I will preach on the “Economy of Faith,” in which I will ask what our Unitarian Universalist values tell us about our country’s economic situation.)

But today I want to talk about the connection between the economy and fear. The Four Freedoms speech was a powerful address opposing American isolationism and calling on the citizens of the United States to accept, in Roosevelt’s words, “personal sacrifice” in order to battle the illiberal forces of fascism that threatened the entire planet.

However, it was in a speech that FDR delivered eight years earlier, as the United States faced not the rise of fascism abroad but financial ruin at home, that he linked fear and economics, beginning his first inaugural address with those defiant words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Taking over a country with its economy in shambles, at the deepest pit of its greatest depression, Roosevelt named the fear that gripped the hearts of Americans.

Fear: it is an emotion that is hardwired deep inside the reptilian parts of our brain. Along with anger and lust, fear is an animalistic emotion that has been with us long before we ever evolved into human beings. One theorist of religion, Stewart Guthrie, went as far as to claim that our desire to ease the grip that the emotion of fear has on us actually led to the development of religion practice.

Guthrie asks us to imagine this scenario. You are a caveman (or, to use the more politically correct term, cave person) and you are walking through an alpine meadow. Ahead of you, you see a big, brown bump. From where you are standing, you can’t tell whether it is a big rock, which is more likely, or a big grizzly bear, which while less likely, also has far more serious consequences. Although it is most likely a rock, you act as if it is a bear.

Now, you are a caveperson and you are back at camp and a gigantic thunderstorm comes blowing through, like those thunderstorms that have come through Kansas City all this week. The storm is obviously scary, but you, the cave person, look up at the clouds and you recognize one of the clouds has the vague features of a human face. (At some point in our life we have sat on a park bench or lain down in the grass and amused ourselves by looking for familiar shapes in the clouds.) But, this thunderstorm is scary and seeing a human face in the clouds is reassuring because if the cloud has some human qualities it might also have other human qualities, namely the ability to use language. This means the cavepersons in the camp can offer to appease the storm by offering the storm God roasted mammoth. Voila! Religion is born.

According to Guthrie, religion originated as a way to suppress fear by animating and anthropomorphizing the natural world so that we might talk with it, negotiate with it, and thereby control it.

Our reptilian brains are still very much a part of our being and we still behave a bit like those ooga-booga cavemen and cavewomen. Last I checked, our hurricanes still have eyes and we give them names. Last I checked, the stock market is still described as bull or bear: the bull an ancient sign of abundance and virility and the bear, a fearful, monstrous creature.

Fear, the primal emotion embedded in the reptilian part of our brain, is such a powerful emotion. In extreme cases of sudden fear, our brains fill our bodies with powerful chemicals causing us to have a fight or flight reaction. In other cases, fear can paralyze us. People who live with chronic anxiety suffer from all manner of health ailments and can even manifest many of the symptoms of a heart attack, so great is the power of anxiety.

In social contexts, fear can lead a nation to place unlimited power in the hands of a tyrant or a strongman, to willingly suspend the rules of law and to turn away from the deepest principles it professes. Fear also causes us to look for scapegoats. In Europe, anytime a plague would beset a city, you could be sure that there would also be a pogrom, a raid on the Jewish community leaving buildings torched and people killed. In the 20th Century, Hitler’s rise to power can largely be attributed to the German’s complex feelings of national shame, economic hardship, and the feeling of victimization following the treaty of Versailles. In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic in the United States led some people openly to call for gay men to be quarantined in concentration camps. Following September 11th, whose seventh anniversary we marked this past Thursday, Americans with stereotypical middle-eastern appearances – whether they were Muslim, Jain, Sikh, or Hindu – were the targets of harassment, violence, and suspicion. And today, in a country with such profound economic uncertainty, Latinos and immigrants feel wary.

Which leads me to ask you: Whatever happened to the African killer bees? Let me explain this question: During the mid-1990s, television news frequently would report about the impending invasion of Africanized honey bees, aggressive killer bees that would come from Central America and Mexico to take over the Southwestern United States. There was even a made-for-TV horror movie about the bees. Now the 90s were a pretty safe time. The expansion of the internet triggered an enormous stock-market bubble. Our wars consisted of Somalia and Kosovo. Then September 11th happened and we all forgot about the killer bees. Instead, we had Al Qaeda terrorists, anthrax, dirty bombs, avian bird flu, global warming, Iraq, high gas prices and a sluggish economy. Some of these were legitimate concerns. Others are, for the most part, media inventions. Fear gets great ratings.

The writer Dan Savage, who I suppose could be called a cultural commentator, has written about our addiction to fear. In an essay, Savage set out to write about greed, spending several weeks visiting depressing river boat casinos in the American Midwest. In the essay he discovers that greed does not lead people to the casinos; rather, greed leads people to build casinos. He writes that life in the United States is basically safe for a whole lot of people, that this safety is monotonous, and that people go to casinos to add a contrived element of risk to their fairly safe lives. He points out that after September 11th, business at the casinos was first non-existent and then sluggish for months on end. If you are already on edge, you don’t need go to the casinos in order to stimulate your brain chemicals by risking and losing money in the slot machines.

Which brings me back to the point of this morning and a few comments about the economy of fear. These first two sermons in the series have been more to set the scene for my last two sermons, but the points I would have you take away this morning are as follows:

First, take all media reports about the economic downturn causing cataclysmic doom with a grain of salt. Much of the media delights in elevating our levels of anxiety and worry. Fear, while it serves its purpose, can trigger individual health problems and can cause societies to fall short of their great aspirations. Search out those sources and resources that allow us to respond in our own lives with creativity, courage, and wisdom instead of those messages that keep us trapped in fear.

Second, I would have you go back and read FDR’s first inaugural address. The line, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” is the most famous line of that speech, yet the speech was not sanguine or cheery or naively upbeat. Rather, the speech only gets stronger. It is a short speech, only 1,905 words or about 400 words shorter than this sermon. Roosevelt brings his message home in the seventh paragraph telling the citizens of the United States,
“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”
Through the rest of the speech he lays out a plan for action, for the reform of financial institutions and other important steps, but in this paragraph he sets the tone that his words are not about promised services, but rather they are a call to shared service and mutual commitment to a common cause.

It seems to me that our politicians and would-be politicians today could learn something from this, Democrat and Republican alike… and yes, I did say Democrat and Republican alike. If there is any cynicism in me it is that any candidate who stands up and says that they are not here to promise you things but rather to ask for you to step up, for you to go above and beyond, and personally sacrifice (to use Roosevelt’s exact words) for the common good would be crucified rather than hailed. I don’t think I am off-base in thinking that the solution to our economic and environmental problems will require shared efforts and cooperation.

Reading his words, it strikes me how they disarm fear. They disarm fear by calling on people to do actual things as a part of a larger, shared effort. Perhaps that is the final lesson: that fear breeds and multiplies in the distances that separate us from one another. To the extent that we can come together, shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart, to the extent we can meet together and share some purpose together, we can shake the grip of fear.

In Memory of David Foster Wallace

My favorite author, David Foster Wallace, committed suicide by hanging on Friday, September 12, 2008. My feelings of sadness are confused with covetousness and anger. I am sad for his wife, his family, his students, and all his adoring readers; I am possessed by a greed that will never be satisfied for more of his insightful observations, more of his ambitious works that stretch the conventions of the written word and walk the narrow tightrope of challenging his readers without hazing them to the point of alienation.

DFW, judging from photos of him that appeared on the dust jackets of his books, never looked like a writer. He looked like a washed up tennis pro (which he sort of was) or the roadie for a mediocre rock band. Looks can be deceiving. In a literary career spanning almost two decades he left us with three collections of short stories, two impressive books of essays, a non-fiction book explaining the mathematics of infinity, and two novels. His masterpiece was the post-modern novel, Infinite Jest, published in 1996. Jest was a hefty, 1,079 page book that included 388 endnotes on nearly 100 pages. It ends with a cliffhanger and, when Wallace was questioned about this lack of resolution, he offered the arrogant response that if you followed the narrative arc of the book for an additional 50 pages, the conclusion could be determined.

I first read DFW in January, 2006. Within seven months I had read all 8 of his books. Most of my friends who are avid and adventurous readers can’t stand his writing; some are palpably repulsed by him. It is true that reading David Foster Wallace could feel like rushing at the post-modern literary fraternity. David Foster Wallace used extensive abbreviations and acronyms, often when it wasn’t altogether clear for what they stood. He footnoted obsessively and sometimes footnoted the footnotes of his footnotes. He loved the O.E.D. and, in his 3,570 pages of published writings, I estimate that he used 5,000 words whose meaning I did not know. (I am not a person with a small vocabulary.)

Besides Infinite Jest, his two books of collected essays are the highlights of his writing career. In three separate travel essays he writes hilariously about the Illinois State Fair, the Maine Lobster Festival, and cruise ships. His bravado is unmatched in an essay on “Authority and American Usage” in which he reviews and demonstrates the socio-political agendas (elitism v. populism) behind two grammar manuals. He also clearly delights in pointing out all the grammatical mistakes and inconsistencies in these grammar manuals.

His essays consider why the autobiographies of athletes are often insipid. They offer intimate character studies of John McCain, conservative talk-show host John Ziegler, and a professional tennis player. They show the reaction of a mid-western family following 9/11. They consider the lobster. His autobiographical essay entitled, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” is one of the finest short essays I’ve ever read. (You can read it on-line here.) However, it is a longer essay contained in the same collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, that I consider his highest achievement in writing. Aboard a cruise ship, David Foster Wallace contemplates mortality. I often return to one quotation from that essay, a quote about youth and mortality.
“I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting now to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable — if I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try to live with them.”
Oh, how I wish that David Foster Wallace had chosen differently. The last, final, ultimate choice in his life has broken my heart.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Week 15: "That's the Way Love Is" by Poi Dog Pondering

Poi Dog Pondering is a band with a history as interesting as its name. Fronted by charismatic lead singer, Frank Orrall, the band formed in 1985 in Hawaii. Their first album had a distinctive Polynesian flavor. However, the band relocated to Austin, TX where they abandoned their Hawaiian sound and experimented with forms of continental folk music. By 1992 the band had again moved, this time to Chicago which it has called home ever since.

Poi Dog Pondering has always had a shifting rotation of musicians, with Frank leading an ensemble of 6 to 12 players. With the move to Chicago, PDP again shook up their line-up and re-reinvented their sound. Frank added digital sound, loops, synthesizers, and the band sometimes incorporated a DJ into their live performances. The band also brought in a trio of African-American back-up singers and began to explore Chicago’s musical traditions of soul, funk, and house. Ever visionary, PDP added a dance troupe and even explored incorporating independent film and complicated lighting into their live performances.

From about 1997 to 1999, Poi Dog Pondering was just about my favorite band. Their first five studio albums along with their double live album were all in regular rotation in my CD player. I didn’t get the chance to hear them live until the summer of 2003 when I caught them in Lawrence, Kansas. I honestly haven’t paid much attention to them for the past decade.

Their album Natural Thing, released in early 1999, was the last album of theirs that I purchased. Upon first listening to the album, two tracks stood out. Both these tracks featured a guest rapper, which seemed like another novel development in PDP’s musical repertoire. (That one rap was delivered in French made it stand out all the more.) However, after my fascination with these gimmicky tracks diminished, one song stood out head and shoulders above all the others: “That’s the Way Love Is.”

“That’s the Way…” is a cover in which Poi Dog Pondering pays homage to the Chicago house band Ten City who released the song in the late 80s. (You can see the Ten City video of the song here.) “That’s the Way…” begins with a catchy violin intro by Susan Voelz and then the rhythm section jumps in and the song becomes an upbeat dance track. The vocals dominate the song, though. Frank takes the first verse and is followed by the deep, resonant voice of Robert Cornelius who sings the second verse. Arlene Newton ups the ante by soulfully belting out the third verse. However, it is the fourth singer, Kornell Hargrove, who steals the show. Singing high in the upper register, showcasing a vocal range I cannot comprehend, Hargrove sings completely exposed as all the instrumentation drops away. This vulnerable solo adds an amazing touch to the song.

Lyrically, “That’s the Way Love Is” is a melancholy meditation on the hurt caused by love’s unpredictability. In this way, the lyrics stand in sharp contrast to the upbeat dance music. The lyrics talk about how “in love, nothing is for certain.” Love, the lyrics declare, is such a powerful, dynamic and volatile force that is utterly beyond our control. “Lovers leave without reason. Feelings change just like seasons.” At the same time, the lyrics to the song assert that we are not doomed by love’s turbulence. “Young hearts never stay sad long. Another love soon comes along. That’s the way love is.”

Monday, September 01, 2008

Sermon: "Are We All Bad Apples?" (Delivered 8-31-08)

Last March, immediately following the Academy Awards, I went to the Tivoli Theater in Westport to see the film that had won the Oscar for best documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side. From the moment the closing credits came on the screen, I knew there was a sermon I needed to preach. Directed and produced by Alex Gibney, the documentary examines the connections between the practices of torture and prisoner abuse at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan, at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and at Guantanamo Bay. When the media first broke stories of torture and prisoner mistreatment, high-ranking officials in the US Government and military were quick to blame the abuses on, quote, “A few bad apples.” But Gibney’s documentary follows the ladder of command upward, assigning blame to the prison guards’ commanding officers, and then to their commanding officers, and then to the top brass of the United States military, and then to the members of the Bush administration: Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz. But, just when you think Gibney is about to drive the nail home, he abruptly pulls back. He asks a larger theological question: “Are we all bad apples?”

This sermon has been five months in the making and I knew I wanted to show a clip from Taxi to the Dark Side, however, I learned this past week that the DVD won’t be released for another month. Fortunately, Alex Gibney had explored a similar theme in an earlier documentary he directed, an adaptation of the book, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. In Enron, Gibney spends a tremendous amount of time looking at Enron’s executives, Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. But in the most memorable scene in the film, Gibney plays tapes from the Enron trading floor as rolling blackouts swept the state of California in the late 90s. At this point, Enron controlled the much of the California power grid. They could selectively order power plants to close, skewing the balance of supply and demand and raising prices to astronomical levels. During a heat wave that prompted a public health crisis, Enron ordered power plants to cut production in order to gouge the pocket books of the state of California and its citizens.

[Here I played a clip from the film in which the recorded voices of traders are juxtaposed against the effects their actions affected the state. The tapes include traders calling power plants and asking them to “get creative” and find a way to shut down. The tapes also include Enron traders commenting on California wildfires by cheering, “Burn, baby, burn!” and “That’s a beautiful thing.”]

If I hadn’t hit stop, if I had kept the film rolling, you would see images of emergency personnel rescuing people stuck in elevators. You would see pictures from violent car accidents caused when traffic lights went out. These images would be juxtaposed with audio tapes of traders cracking jokes about grandmothers sweating without any air-conditioning. Of course, frail senior citizens did die when their air-conditioning went out. This segment of the documentary concludes with Jeffrey Skilling joking at a corporate meeting, “What’s the difference between California and the Titanic? When the Titanic went down, it still had its lights on.”

In these two documentaries, Gibney asks this same question, a deeply theological question: “Are we all bad apples?” In each film, the players are different. At Enron, the traders were seduced by greed, by a highly competitive culture that led them to want to out-do each other as well as by a culture that led them to relativize their actions. If the guy in the cubicle next to mine is doing it, it must be alright. They were also acting within the context of a corporate ethos that groomed the traders to show no mercy and to go straight for the jugular.

As for the soldiers who directly participated in the abuse of prisoners, these soldiers lived under constant fear of death. This intense stress disarmed moral questioning. A culture of conformity led servicemen and women to do as others do and the competition to gain confessions led the soldiers to improvise and exacerbate their torture methods. Finally, the encouragement of superiors led these interrogators to avoid a sense of responsibility.

So, are we all bad apples? Are all of us only a certain situation away from being prone to abuse or taking advantage of our fellow human beings?

Since World War II, psychologists such as Stanley Milgram have conducted experiments that have repeatedly shown that a stressful environment and a strong authoritative figure can lead regular people to perpetrate shocking acts of cruelty.

The cases of Enron and Abu Ghraib and the psychological experiments by psychologists such as Milgram challenge more than two centuries of Unitarian teachings about human nature. The interview with a sub-prime mortgage lender that I included in last week’s sermon is just one more example that challenges our thinking about good and evil. Allow me to lead you through a whirlwind tour of Unitarian ideas of human nature.

There is an old joke that the Universalists believed that God was too good to send anyone to Hell and the Unitarians believed that they were too good for God to send them to Hell. There is some truth to this joke. The original Unitarians differed with their more orthodox brothers and sisters not over the mathematics of the trinity, but rather over fundamentally incompatible understandings of human nature. The orthodox Puritans adhered to the doctrine of the total depravity of human beings. Thanks to Adam and/or Eve (I’ll let you decide where to assign the blame) we are born into original sin and we are predestined to live as sinful, miserable beings prone to acts of unspeakable evil. The Unitarians broke with their Puritan brothers and sisters first and most powerfully on this issue.

In his tour de force 1819 sermon “Unitarian Christianity,” William Ellery Channing argued,
“We object strongly to the contemptuous manner in which human reason is often spoken of by our adversaries, because it leads, we believe, to universal skepticism. If reason be so dreadfully darkened by the fall, that its most decisive judgments on religion are unworthy of trust, then Christianity, and even natural theology, must be abandoned; for the existence and veracity of God, and the divine original of Christianity, are conclusions of reason, and must stand or fall with it. If revelation be at war with this faculty, it subverts itself, for the great question of its truth is left by God to be decided at the bar of reason. It is worthy of remark, how nearly the bigot and the skeptic approach. Both would annihilate our confidence in our faculties, and both throw doubt and confusion over every truth. We honor revelation too highly to make it the antagonist of reason, or to believe that it calls us to renounce our highest powers.”
I find Channing’s language beautiful, but if you find it tedious or confusing, what he is saying is simply this: We have the capacity to reason about religion. The rhetoric of this statement is biting. If you disagree and argue that human beings are incapable of reason, you’ve lost the debate before it’s even started.

Indeed, this insistence on the capacity of human beings to reason was the key to our early faith. The rise of democracy, which paralleled the rise of liberal religion, was predicated on the belief that human beings were capable of self-government and did not require a monarch or cleric or dictator to protect us from ourselves. Channing self-identified as a Christian but his elevation of the human capacity to reason allowed the Transcendentalists to trust their own explorations into the realm of the spirit. By elevating reason, Channing also prefigured the rise of humanism about a century later. Humanism is based on faith in the capacity of human beings to reason. Therefore it is no wonder that early Unitarians like Horace Mann were leaders in education. Education was linked to moral character. Unitarians supported education not merely for its practical applications, but for moral reason and theological reasons.

I could rattle on and on about this history all morning long, but I want to ask whether it still holds true. After all, the full title of the documentary is Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Say whatever you will about them, but the one thing you can’t take away from them is the fact that they were smart. In her recent book, The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby links education to moral character, citing 19th Century Unitarianism ten times. And yet, counter examples of smart people who do heinous things abound.

A slightly related argument runs that human beings are essentially good, but that groups are what bring out the worst in human nature. This was the argument of liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society. However, a feminist critique of this theory points out that sins like domestic violence, sexual abuse, and incest problematize the idea of the individual as an inherently moral agent.

Twentieth Century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams offered one of the most important theologies of groups, writing about what he called voluntary associations and rephrasing the words of Jesus to say, “By your groups, ye shall know them.” A group of Klansmen can come together for the purposes of lynching and cross-burning. A group can also come together as the Montgomery Improvement Association and organize the Montgomery bus boycott. A group can laugh on the trading floor as an entire state suffers. Or, a group can organize a candlelight vigil for the purposes of sharing grief and finding strength amidst loss.

So, what about human nature? Are we basically good or are we all bad apples? Insofar as Unitarian Universalism goes no deeper than offering a tired, knee-jerk rejection of the Puritan doctrines of human depravity and original sin, it will have no ability whatsoever to speak to the realities of evil. A worthy theology of human nature must provide for a way of understanding the reality of evil and sin in our world and not just offer a simplistic accounting for it. However, it must also be a strong enough theory to account for the equal reality of human goodness, and the capacity of human beings to work tirelessly, heroically, and at times sacrificially for what is good and right, regardless of the cost.

While the construction of a theology of human nature for liberal religion in the 21st Century is a project that is far bigger than a Sunday sermon, I do want to offer a few guideposts:

The first guidepost is to embrace our traditionʼs legacy of liberty and the willingness to question. That questioning needs not only to be directed outwardly, to the creeds and teachings of other faiths as well as to messages given to us by our culture, our media, and our government. Our questioning needs also to be directed inwardly, reflexively. The human capacity to rationalize is as great as its capacity to reason. We need to be willing to be our own fiercest critics without being cruel to ourselves.

As far as the balance between developing the good side of human nature in groups as opposed to doing it alone, I lean towards the group model. In my own vocation, among colleagues, I submit myself to networks of accountability, others against whom I can check myself. We recognize that it is a tremendous warning sign whenever someone pulls away from networks of accountability. (I even serve on the Executive Committee of the UU Ministers Association because I believe that the strength of our collegiality is what best holds us accountable to the better angels of our nature.)

Finally, thinking back to the dark subject matter Alex Gibney treats in his documentaries, I find myself thinking of those who did not go along, who blew whistles, who disobeyed direct orders. A doctrine of the inherent goodness of humankind is impotent to make sense out of Enron or Abu Ghraib. But, a doctrine that insists on inherent human depravity is just as impotent to make sense of those who somehow find moral clarity and willingly pay the price for that discovery.

Psychologists point out ways in which men and women, boy and girls, can be trained to resist participation inhuman and inhumane acts. That education involves exposure to situations (even replicated situations) where students are prepared to act heroically when the time comes. Education should also involve powerful encounters with others. If you learn to see the humanity in others, it becomes more difficult for you to accept their dehumanization.

What I have put forward here is somewhat of a middle-path. We are not quite as good as we think we are. Nor are we as bad as we fear we are. I categorically reject the notion that human nature is fixed. If it were so, all these words would be for naught. To paraphrase one psychologist who has worked on the question, “We may not all be bad apples, but we are all apples.”

Let us go forth this day both humbled by our capacity to do ill and emboldened by our capacity to resist the doing of ill.