Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sermon: "Atheists v. The God Squad" (Delivered 2-22-09)

The reading this morning comes from a piece published in the UU World magazine written by UUA President Bill Sinkford on “Learning from the Interfaith World.” Sinkford writes,
Two years ago the Evangelical community published a statement on environmentalism that is, from their theological perspective, every bit as good as anything Unitarian Universalism has contributed. And if you want to work on poverty, or immigration, the Roman Catholic Church has been leading far more effectively, for far more years, than have we. Effectiveness, not ideological purity, should determine who you work with. […]

We need to get over our Christian-phobia. Unitarian Universalists will joyfully chant the Buddhist sutras, delight in midrash of traditional Jewish texts, recite Native American prayers, and sing Gospel hymns. But ask many Unitarian Universalists to join in reciting the Lord’s Prayer and you are in big trouble.

This country’s dominant faith is Christianity. If you are going to work in the interfaith world, you have to be able to be in the presence of people for whom the Christian message is life-saving Good News. If a[n Evangelical Christian] and a Catholic can stand with us to argue for [environmentalism and immigration reform], we must be able to respect the Lord’s Prayer.
The following issue of the UU World contained a letter to the editor responding to this piece by Sinkford. The letter was written by Chad Inman, a member of our church, who wrote,
UUA President William G. Sinkford cites resistance to reciting the Lord’s Prayer as an example of UUs’ Christian-phobia. While I agree that UUs need to be as receptive to the wisdom in the Christian tradition as they are to that found in other faith traditions, none should be criticized for not joining in a prayer with which they may have significant theological differences. It is not respectful to recite devotional words unless they can be spoken with sincerity. For me and for many other non-theistic or non-Christian UUs, respecting the Lord’s Prayer may simply take the form of silently respecting others as they recite it, even if we do not join in.

Two snapshots from the past few weeks: A couple of weeks ago I headed over to Shawnee Mission East high school where Fred Phelps was scheduled to picket. Some parents here at SMUUCh informed me that the East students had planned a massive counter-demonstration. I was being asked to go as a cool head in case things got out of control. It was a peaceful protest. On one side of the street stood twelve members of the Phelps clan, half of them minors, holding signs pronouncing God’s hatred. On the other side of the street I stood with hundreds and hundreds of youth. The student counter-demonstrators held bright signs, many of them proclaiming God’s love. One of the images I remember from the day was that of a young woman, maybe 15 years old, picking up a sign that said, “God loves everyone, no exceptions” and then becoming self-conscious and wondering out loud, “Why am I holding this sign? I am an atheist. Somebody else hold this sign.”

On Presidents Day I attended what had been billed as an interfaith prayer service for immigrant justice. We gathered in the late morning on that frigid cold day near the Crown Center, across the street from the Lathrop Gage building which houses the Department of Justice offices that deal with immigration and where, on some days, as many as fifty deportation cases are processed. I was joined by Anne Griffiths, our Intern Minister, the intern minister from All Souls UU Church on the Plaza, and by a handful of members from that congregation. Of the hundred who gathered that day in an act of prayerful witness, Unitarian Universalists made up ten percent. The prayer service itself was anything but interfaith; the prayers, the songs, and the testimonies were all decidedly Christian. That didn’t bother me particularly although I did look around when we were singing the English version of “Siyahamba” with lyrics that claim, “We are marching in the light of God / We are praying in the light of God / We are singing in the light of God” and so on. When I did look around during this song I noticed that some of the Unitarian Universalists were not singing along. But they were standing there respectfully.

In one month, on the last Sunday in March, we will have a special guest in the pulpit. Rev. Dr. William Murry will speak as our Fourth Annual Unitarian Universalist Distinguished Guest Minister. Murry is the author of a book entitled Reason and Reverence and is one of the great voices of religious humanism in our movement today. I figured I would take this opportunity to talk about issues of atheism and theism as they play out in our larger culture as well as how differences in belief play out in our own religious community.

Let’s go back to that column by Bill Sinkford and to Chad Inman’s reply. As I read Sinkford’s comments I hear him saying that in the contemporary religious landscape there are all kinds of opportunities for collaboration on important issues. I hear him saying that it is an act of self-marginalization for us not to work with those with whom our theology differs. And I hear Sinkford saying that at times we might be in the presence of others who do things like say the Lord’s Prayer and that we ought to join in because it is worthwhile to sacrifice ideological purity for effectiveness.

To which Chad replies, (and I think I know Chad well enough to paraphrase him), “Look Bill, I’ve got no issue with interfaith work that brings me into contact with people who pray in the tradition of their own faith. When I’m in these situations my own UU faith teaches me to be respectful. If someone says the Lord’s Prayer I don’t snicker; I don’t turn my back; I don’t let out a Bronx cheer. But I don’t join in either because to say the words of the prayer without sincerity would cheapen the prayer. I feel that it would be disrespectful, even dishonest, to mouth a prayer with a lack of conviction. I don’t buy that there is this polarization between effectiveness and ideological purity. For me it is about respectful difference and following my own rights of conscience.”

Speaking for myself, I’d have no problem saying the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, as long as my participation was welcomed, I’d have no problem taking communion, chanting in Sanskrit, calling the four directions, walking a labyrinth, participating in the ritual hand cleansing before the Shabbat meal, singing a praise song, or howling at the moon. And you know what? I am right. But do you know what else? Chad is also right. It is not disrespectful to follow the dictates of your own conscience. If Chad and I attended a Christian worship service at which communion was being offered, and the religious leader presiding over the service declared that the table was open, I’d probably take communion. And Chad might decide not to. And both of us would be right and neither of us would be wrong. We’d each be participating according to the dictates of our own conscience.

This topic is good for me to address. For those of you more acquainted with my theology, you may be aware that I tend more towards theism. At the same time I am the minister to not only the theists in this congregation, of which there are many, but to the atheists, agnostics, humanists, and free-thinkers as well. So, I do want to offer a few thoughts and observations and reflections, first about atheists in our wider culture as well as right here at SMUUCh.

Recent years have seen the rise in atheist pride. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have ascended to become well known in our wider culture. I teasingly call them “The Four Horsemen of the Non-apocalypse.” Their books – The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, The End of Faith, and God is Not Great – all make the case against religion and for atheism. A little more than two years ago I stood in this pulpit and trashed Dawkins and Harris.

Please note: my criticisms of these men had absolutely nothing to do with their atheism. It had to do entirely with what I perceived as their mean attacks on not only the radical right wing of Christianity and Islam, but on all faiths, even moderate and liberal religions.

I retract nothing I said a few years ago but I do want to temper those remarks with a few other observations. Allow me to begin with the paradoxical observation that as our political representation has grown more diverse, atheists are widely marginalized from our politics.

Consider this: We just elected a person of color as President of the United States. Two years earlier Nancy Pelosi became the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House. Our last four Secretaries of State, Democrat and Republican, have all been from groups (people of color and women) who are underrepresented in our politics. While there are few out gays and lesbians elected to public office, Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts is nearing thirty years of continuous service and has been out of the closet for twenty years. At the Oscars, Milk, the biopic film of the first openly gay man to hold a significant public office in the United States was nominated for 8 Academy Awards.

No doubt there have many atheists who have held significant public office, just not openly. There is a widespread belief that is supported by polling data that says that it would be next to impossible for an atheist to be elected President or ascend to other high offices. The only open atheist to serve in congress is Pete Stark, also a Unitarian Universalist, who in 2007 publicly declared, “I am a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.” (Stark’s congressional district is in the San Francisco Bay Area.)

I imagine that this truth, that being honest about your atheism precludes you from many positions of political power, is frustrating for many atheists. Equally frustrating is the term “fundamentalist atheist” that has been slapped on many writers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens. There has even been anti-atheist backlash from fellow liberals like Christopher Hedges. Hedges published a book called American Fascists in 2007 in which he took on fundamentalist Christianity. Hedges came back 14 months later and published I Don’t Believe in Atheists in which he took on atheists with nearly equal force.

The whole idea of “fundamentalist atheists” is unfortunate. Atheists don’t conspire to pass ballot measures to limit the rights of other human beings. They don’t call in bomb threats against abortion clinics. They don’t picket Shawnee Mission East high school. They don’t fly airplanes into skyscrapers. When a church or a synagogue or a mosque gets fire-bombed or vandalized or covered with graffiti, you can be sure that atheists didn’t do it but that the members of another religious community down the street were responsible. I fully admit that I find Hitchens and Dawkins and Harris to be acerbic and belligerent, but not violent or dangerous or criminal. On a scale, religious extremism does not balance out with anti-religious extremism. Religious extremism is dangerous. Secular extremism is relatively benign.

I want to move this discussion to our own church. In our faith community you will find people who are avowedly theistic and people who self-define as spiritual and who take part in prayer, meditation, and spiritual practice. And you will also find those who reject the concept of God entirely, those for whom religious language does not do much, and who are most in tune with reason and the scientific method.

So, I ask the question: how do we do as a community at being a place that is welcoming for both those who maintain a strong faith in God and for those for whom God is a concept that does nothing for them? How do we do? Are we able to love alike even when we do not think alike?

Anecdotally, we are able to do things in this church community that we are not able to do in the wider culture. Right now the nominating committee is in the process of selecting candidates for next year’s board. Being an atheist or being a theist will not preclude you from congregational leadership. More importantly, we do manifest a diversity of beliefs and ideologies.

At the same time, we could do better. From time to time I do hear from people who are timid about bringing the fullness of their theology out into the open out of fearing that their own beliefs might be denigrated. To the extent that these stories are true, they represent a profound failure within this church. This can go both ways. Those who identify as spiritual can label humanists as stodgy or cranky whereas theists might be characterized as credulous or intellectually vapid.

The important lesson to hold onto is a lesson of humility. The failures of members of extremist religions and the failings of people like Dawkins and Hitchens are failures of humility and respect. When Chad Inman wrote about his choice not to join in saying the Lord’s Prayer he combined the best of following his own conscience with the best of maintaining a respectful posture towards others with a different theology.

If we cannot practice this respect here at this church, what hope is there for the larger world? May our engagement with one another be marked by genuine respect and magnanimity. Our church is large enough to hold multitudes. May we embody that nearly 500 year old Unitarian ideal that proclaims, “We need not think alike to love alike.”

Week 40: "Anyone Else But You" by The Moldy Peaches

Last week I wrote about the song “Falling Slowly” which won the Academy Award for best song at the 2008 Oscars. This week’s song of the week is another flashback to last year’s Oscars. “Anyone Else But You” by the Moldy Peaches was featured on the soundtrack to the movie Juno, which earned a nomination for best film last year.

The Moldy Peaches are a DIY (Do It Yourself) two person band made up of Kimya Dawson and Adam Green. Their songs often include a formula of simple, sentimental, amateurish folk music that features silly and absurdist lyrics. Kimya’s voice is tremendously soft and innocent. In fact, the duo’s shy self-consciousness makes them quite endearing.

“Anyone Else But You” is a duet where Kimya and Adam trade verses. You can hear them perform the song here. You can hear Ellen Page and Michael Cera cover the song in the movie Juno here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sermon: "The Politics of Prayer" (Delivered 2-8-09)

Opening Words
[These opening words are loosely adapted from a portion of the sermon delivered by Sharon Watkins at the National Cathedral on 1/21/2009.]

There is a story attributed to Cherokee wisdom:
One evening a grandfather was teaching his young grandson about the internal battle that each person faces.
“There are two wolves struggling inside each of us,” the old man said.
“One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment, self-pity, fear . . .
“The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope, truth, love . . .”
The grandson sat, thinking, then asked: “Which wolf wins, Grandfather?”
His grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”
Feeding and fasting… each is a type of spiritual practice, a form of prayer. Eating is communion, the breaking of bread. Fasting is a form of cleansing, a foreswearing of harmful habits.

In financial hard times, our instinct is flight – to hunker down, to turn inward, to hoard what little we can get our hands on, to be fearful of others who may take the resources we need. In hard financial times, which fast do we choose? The fast that placates our hunkered-down soul – or the fast that reaches out to our sister and our brother?

In international hard times, our instinct is to fight – to pick up the sword, to seek out enemies, to build walls against the other. Which fast do we choose? The fast that takes us away from the common table of humanity or the fast that removes anger and vengeance from our hearts?

[This prayer is an adaptation of the prayer delivered by Gene Robinson at the inaugural celebration on 1/19/2009.]

O God of our many understandings, we pray that we will…

Be blessed with tears – the tears that come from having our hearts truly opened to the pain and the hurt of this world.

Bless us also with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, in all of its forms and guises that cause anyone to separate another from the fabric of humanity.

Bless us with patience – and the knowledge that the road to what we envision, if our vision be worthy, will be long.

Bless us with humility – open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.

Bless us with compassion and generosity – remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.

Before I get to the meat of this sermon, there are a few sayings that I want to ask you to keep in the forefront. The sayings come from the sixth chapter of the Matthew’s Gospel and are attributed to Jesus:
“Be careful not to parade your religion before others; if you do, no reward awaits you in heaven.”

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; they love to say their prayers standing up in synagogues and at street corners for everyone to see them… But when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray… in secret.”

“In your prayers do not go babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard. Do not imitate them.”
Fast forward about two-thousand years. Our focus this morning is on the inauguration of Barack Obama and on the inauguration festivities that surrounded that cold morning on January 20th, less than three weeks ago. More specifically, we will focus on the role of prayer, and especially the role of public prayer, in these events. And if you are starting to feel chafed that this sermon will be all about Obama, take a second and chill out. The inauguration is the context, not the content. And, it is important to be able to distinguish between these two things.

Let me briefly set the scene. During an inauguration ceremony there are traditionally two acts of religious speech: an invocation and a benediction. Other elements include taking the oath of office, the inaugural address, the reading of a poem written for the occasion, and music. The event takes place within a larger celebration that includes parades, balls, special meals and so on and so forth.

Let me introduce you to the four principal religious figures who took part in the inauguration festivities: Rick Warren, minister of the evangelical and non-denominational Saddleback Church in suburban Los Angeles, was chosen by Obama to deliver the invocation. Joseph Lowery, an 87 year old Methodist minister and civil rights hero, was selected to deliver the benediction.

Rounding out our cast of characters are two other clerics, Gene Robinson, an Episcopalian Priest from New Hampshire, who was the Episcopalian Church’s first openly gay Bishop. Robinson delivered a prayer at the beginning of the celebrity filled inauguration party held the night before. Since prayers don’t get good ratings, HBO decided to begin its coverage of the celebration after Robinson had delivered his invocation. On the other side of inauguration Tuesday, Obama’s first full day in office began with a Wednesday prayer service at the National Cathedral. While various faiths were represented and had speaking roles, the preacher was Sharon Watkins, President of the Disciples of Christ denomination. In Robinson, Warren, Lowery and Watkins, Obama selected a tremendously diverse group (well, a tremendously diverse group of Protestant ministers) to offer prayers.

There is something you may not know about Barack Obama and prayer. Barack Obama’s campaign had a rule that they followed with immense and intense discipline. Every Obama sanctioned campaign event began with a prayer. When Obama spoke to a large crowd in Kansas City last October, Reverend Bob Hill of Community Christian Church on the Plaza offered the invocation. When Obama spoke in Golden, Colorado, my UU colleague Peter Morales delivered the invocation.

It occurs to me that I might also mention who offered the prayers at prior inaugurations. I had no idea so I looked it up and discovered that Billy Graham offered the inauguration prayers for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, both George Bush the 41st and George Bush the 43rd, as well as for Bill Clinton. I have no idea who prayed at the inauguration of Ford or Carter.

I probably wouldn’t be preaching this sermon, however, if it were not for the fact that Rick Warren delivered the invocation. Obama’s selection of Warren did not sit well with many members of the Democratic Party’s base. This dissatisfaction centered on Warren’s support for Proposition 8, the anti- gay marriage ballot initiative that passed in California and was pretty much the only blemish for the Democratic Party on Election Day back in November. Warren is a cultural conservative on issues like abortion and gay marriage. He is also probably the most recognizable religious figure in the country.

Despite Warren's conservatism on some social issues, it is arguable that he represents a change in the evangelical movement. He does not come across as angry or confrontational, unlike other prominent evangelicals such as Pat Robertson or James Dobson. He certainly lives very differently than famous evangelists like Jim Bakker. In the 1980s Bakker and his cohorts amassed enormous amounts of wealth, bought planes, and constructed church “retreat centers” that were indistinguishable from luxury resorts. Warren, by contrast, lives in a modest home, drives a modest car, and practices what is known as reverse tithing. That means he gives ninety percent of what he earns to charity and lives off ten percent. Of course, he is the author of a book, The Purpose Driven Life, that has sold tens of millions of copies and he makes a lot of money selling all his various Purpose Driven products. At the same time, Warren takes no salary from the church he founded, The Saddleback Church, which now has around 35,000 members and is one of the ten largest churches in the United States. In fact, when it became clear that he could live off his book royalties and other sources of income he pledged to repay the church all the money they had ever paid him. There is a flip side, however, which is that Warren legally avoided paying income tax for about an entire decade, winning his case against the IRS and forcing the IRS to change the tax code for clergy.

Even though Warren’s congregation is conservative on cultural issues, those issues do not dominate. Issues like poverty and the environment attract a lot more attention. Warren is often lauded for his work battling HIV/AIDS in Africa and, at the same time, I doubt whether he has developed the type of understanding of health policy or human sexuality that is required to do that work effectively.

So, even though this report card on Warren is nuanced, there is something about him that I believe. I believe Warren is capable of changing his mind. I believe Warren is capable of a change of heart. That is a feeling that I have. And I do not have the same feeling about the Pope, or the President of the Latter Day Saints, or James Dobson, or Pat Robertson, or Jerry Johnston, or Fred Phelps.

So, what about this decision to ask Warren to pray at the ordination? What was Obama’s thought process there? You could make a case for several theories.

Perhaps it was a political gamble. Even though it was a decision that would anger many of his die hard supporters, maybe Obama thought that he could gain a listening ear from cultural conservatives by asking Warren to pray. Maybe it was symbolic: a way for Obama to indicate that he is, in fact, open to listening to a broad cross-section of people.

I want to spend a minute or two looking at Warren’s prayer itself and then return to the question of what it meant for him to offer this prayer.

Warren’s invocation was 486 words long, or about one fourth of the length of this sermon. It was twice as long as a prayer should be (in my opinion.) And yet, it was one hundred words shorter than Lowery’s benediction almost one hundred words shorter than Gene Robinson’s invocation delivered the previous day.

If I were responsible for scoring Warren’s prayer, I would give him respectable marks for content. There were no major flubs or glaring embarrassments. Even though our theologies differ, there was nothing in his prayer that was impossible for me to translate into religious language that would be comfortable for most Unitarian Universalists. I would also found his invocation to be appropriate. At the outset, one of the ways he refers to God is as the “compassionate and merciful one” which some have taken as an inclusive nod to Muslims. When he says in his prayer that our nation is united by a commitment to freedom and justice for all, when he asks that we be forgiven for when we fail to treat our fellow human beings with the respect they deserve, and when he asks that we achieve humility in our approaches and civility in our attitudes, even when we differ, I want to believe that he is sincere despite his glaring failure to practice what he preached when it came to standing up for equality for marriage equality in California. I do appreciate the switch he makes as he ends the prayer. When he talks about Jesus he switches to “I” language instead of “we” language. I thought that was appropriate. And, if you are upset that he ended with the Lord’s Prayer, I would ask you this question: If the speaker had been Hindu and ended his prayer by reciting a passage in Sanskrit that he identified as being a part of his own tradition, would you have been equally upset?

(Warren’s artistry, however, seemed to be sorely lacking. His oratory, to me, seemed flat and clunkish and not at all affecting. It seemed like a decent prayer by a speaker who appeared off his game.)

So, where have I been going for approximately the last sixteen hundred words (or about three times as many words as Joseph Lowery used to deliver his benediction)? If you remember, I began this sermon by quoting Jesus’ words against praying in public. My decision to preface my sermon with those words was not to be contrarian or glib.

In some way, those words from Jesus speak to my feelings not just about Rick Warren but about all of those offering prayers as a part of the inaugural festivities. “They love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues or on the street corners for everyone to hear them.” “In your prayers do not go babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard. Do not imitate them.”

Traditionally, these lines have been interpreted as an instruction not to be showy in your spiritual life, “not to parade your religion before others.” This traditional interpretation is not a bad one. Indeed, I’ve heard that there is often an inconsistency, a kind of hypocrisy, between public religious pronouncements and private actions.

But, I want to suggest a slightly different interpretation of Jesus’ teachings here. I want to argue that it is the way of prayer not to be able to satisfy some of the public needs of the occasion. A prayer is not sufficient to what the event requires. This is true no matter how artfully the prayer is said, no matter how long it goes on.

What do I mean by this? Prayer is a communication. But, to whom? Often times, a prayer is a communication to God, which we might also call the great mystery, spirit of life, thou. And, I also happen to believe that prayer can be a communication within our selves, with our truest selves, with the ground of our being. But when prayer is between people, when it is transpersonal, we have to be cautious.

For example, all this year, working with Anne Griffiths (our Intern Minister), I’ve been remembering my own experience as a hospital chaplain. In that role I was invited by patients to pray for them and with them. When someone would ask me to pray for them, I would ask back, “For what do you want me to pray?” If I didn’t ask this, I would probably wind up praying a prayer that missed them. In our church, after candlelighting, I invite us to pray and sometimes I hit and sometimes I miss. It works for some of you and not for others. But it is my standard practice to end the time of prayer with silence, which for many of you is probably a chance to name the prayers that I omitted.

If you watched the inauguration, you will recall that during the first few lines of Joseph Lowery’s benediction, the camera cut away to a church in the south where tears flowed from a woman’s eyes. He had hit that perfect note where what he was saying was exactly what she had in her heart.

But the point is that it is not always like this. And Jesus’ words against showy, blustery, verbose prayers can be read equally as speaking against those types of prayers that fail to connect, that pretend to be communications between people but really are not.

Was it a savvy political move to have Rick Warren offer the invocation? Perhaps. Was it a move towards an administration that will listen to all voices? Symbolically, maybe. An actual move towards dialogue, towards having a conversation that involves many different voices, would mean creating a leadership team to address poverty and bringing Warren to the table, which I think he would do well at. It would mean finding those issues of public policy where evangelicals have something really important to bring to the table and inviting them to the table. Prayers do not and cannot substitute for dialogue.

As for Lowery’s prayer, man, I don’t know about you but I could listen to that guy talk for weeks. But, at the same time I also try to remember that just because he reached me does not mean that he reached everyone. And, I should really try very hard to remember that. We should all try to remember that.

[My benediction is adapted from Joseph Lowery's benediction at the inauguration ceremony on 1/20/2009.]

And as we leave this mountain top, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our community. We go now to walk together as children, pledging that we won't get weary of our duty in all the days ahead.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Week 39: "Falling Slowly" by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova

I am writing this entry on Sunday afternoon a few hours before The Academy Awards. Appropriately, this week’s song of the week is the song that won the Oscar for best song in a motion picture last year.

That song is “Falling Slowly” from the beautiful and heartbreaking movie Once. Once, a kind of Generation X, alternative-folk musical set in Ireland, tells the story of the spontaneous friendship (and unrequited falling in love) between a street musician (played by Glen Hansard) and a Czech woman (Marketa Irglova.) The most memorable scene in the movie features them bonding while playing this song in a music store. It is a scene to which no words can do justice.

There is so much to love about these musicians and this song. There is Glen Hansard’s structurally unsound guitar. There is the sweet softness of Marketa Irglova’s voice. The song is deeply gorgeous and touching and transcendent. And fortunately there are tons of videos of them performing the song live on youtube. You should definitely check it out!

Here. Here. Here. Here. And Here.

As a bonus. Here is a clip from the movie of another great song, "When Your Mind's Made Up."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Week 38: "Reno Dakota" by The Magnetic Fields

At just over 60 seconds in length, “Reno Dakota” is by far the shortest song I will write about in the course of this 52 Songs in 52 Weeks Essay Project. As I am running about a week behind, I intended to write about this song last week right after Valentine’s Day.

While “Reno Dakota” is an exceptionally short song, it is located on an exceptionally long album. In 1999 The Magnetic Fields released a three-volume concept album called 69 Love Songs. With 23 songs per volume, the album approaches 3 hours in length. The Magnetic Fields is a band fronted by Stephin Merritt, an especially prolific musician who also records with several other bands. You can read all about the album here.

“Reno Dakota” is named for an obscure documentary film-maker. It is a fun little song featuring a repetitive banjo strum and the beautiful voice of vocalist Claudia Gonson. Part of the joy of the song is its clever rhyme scheme and interesting use of words. For example, “Reno Dakota” is rhymed with iota, quota, and Nino Rota (who composed film scores for Fellini.)

You can watch a video that was set to the song here.
You can also watch a guy without a shirt attempt to cover the song here.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Eulogy for Allan Shontz

[I delivered this eulogy at the "Celebration of Life" service for Allan Shontz on January 30, 2009. The family requested that I post it on-line so that it could be shared with family and friends around the country.]

Whenever I am given the honor of speaking of the life of a man of Allan’s age and time, there are often certain similarities that I hear in the stories of these lives. Men like Allan were born into a very different country than the one we know today. Their childhoods were marked by the small town farm and the one room schoolhouse. They came of age in a country thrown into turmoil by the Great Depression and a world thrown into crisis by the evil of fascism. And these men, these men sacrificed for and served our country and then returned to make a life in the growing cities and suburbs. From the lessons of hard-work they learned on the farm and the discipline and self-sacrifice instilled by service to our country, men like Allan entered a burgeoning world of industry and science. They lived by an other-centered ethic and believed in duty and hard work.

Allan Shontz was born in Jerome, Iowa in 1920. His parents and his ancestors came from German, Dutch, and Swiss stock. On a trip to Europe later in his life, Allan looked at the phone-book in a small Swiss village and found it teeming with Shontz’s. Allan attended, for one year, a one room school house in Jerome and then his family moved to the Kansas City area and took up residence in and around Blue Valley. Allan graduated from Paseo High school and was an Eagle Scout.

In 1941 he both graduated from KU with a degree in electrical engineering and married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Brandt. Together they would have five children. During World War II, Allan would put his science and engineering skills to use stateside. He was trained in the latest technologies at Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts and then served stateside working on radar for the Atlantic submarine fleet based out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Following his service, he returned to Kansas City and went to work for the Vendo Company doing research and development. Ambitious, and embodying the work ethic of his childhood, he also earned an MBA degree and designed and built two houses with his father.

In 1973 he married Lillian. Their blended family included 8 children. Three years later, at the age of 56, Allan founded a telecommunications consulting company. He ran this company for the next 17 years before retiring at age 73. Did I mention hard work?

In his retirement, Allan and Lillian enjoyed international travel. When here in the Kansas City area, Allan was a devotee to the religion that is Jayhawk basketball. He owned a tape of the 1988 KU championship team starring Danny Manning. It is fitting that, at the time of his death, the Jayhawks are the reigning national champions.

Beyond basketball, Allan had wide and varied interests: he loved his volunteer work with the youth symphony. He passed his time singing and whistling. He loved ice cream shamelessly. It is said that when he was offered a choice of ice-cream flavors, Allan would answer, “Yes.”

But more than any particular interest that Allan had, there was a sense of curiosity and restless determination that he embodied in his activities. In his shop he held his own handiwork and others’ to a high standard. He was a learner and a searcher.

He thought of his own life as being on a journey. This fact may explain his religious views. In St. Louis, Allan belonged to the Ethical Society. When he moved to Kansas City, he was involved at All Souls UU Church and then later in this congregation. Theologically, Allan was a humanist. He believed in the potential of human beings to better themselves and to improve the lives of others. He believed that human beings had an ethical duty to give back, to improve how they interacted with one another, and to serve each other.

Many aspects of Allan’s character were most evident in how he treated his family and in how he treated Lillian. Allan was generous and thoughtful, concerned with how he could serve and bring out the best in other people. As a family man he delighted in seeing his daughters engage with activities like the Girl Scouts. He had a perfectionist streak in him. This came out, for example, one summer when the family was outfitting their station wagon for a camping trip and installed curtains for car camping. The curtains were flawed in their construction and Allan insisted that they be re-sown.

But, more than anything, Allan was dutiful and protective. Lillian told me the story of how one Halloween the children had planned to go out and make some minor form of mischief. Allan followed stealthily in his car, just to make sure things didn't become dangerous.

Allan never wanted to burden anyone. In his last days, he would live out this tendency. As his body and his mind began to deteriorate, Lillian was faced with hard decisions about how best to care for him. It is a blessing that at the point where his life would have been a hardship on others, where he would have been living a quality of life marked by pain and loss, he died peacefully in his sleep. A final gift from one who was always looking out for others.

In Allan’s final years and final days, his family tells me that he dredged up from the recesses of his mind some funny and spirited old songs. One song he sang was, “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” a tune recorded by Al Jolson and based on a piece of graffiti found written in a jail cell. Another song he sang was, “Lovely bunch of coconuts.” Those of Allan’s generation knew hard work. They knew sacrifice. They knew what it meant to live for others. They also knew to hold life lightly, and to rejoice in its silliness and its playfulness. They knew, Allen knew, humanness... what it means to be human.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Week 37: "Oppenheimer" by The Old 97s

As I write this entry, number 37 in my 52 Songs in 52 Weeks essay project, I am running about a week behind schedule. I was scheduled to post this entry on February 8. Instead I am posting it on February 16.

Perhaps this delay is convenient. The song “Oppenheimer” by the Old 97s is up-beat and chirpy and puts you in a good mood when you sing along to it in the car. There is a Valentine-y sweetness to the song.

I was first introduced to the Old 97s in 2001 when I lived in Dallas, Texas. My main social outlet was the Ultimate Frisbee community. During a social event that was a precursor to Dallas’ Winter League, I found myself talking about music with some other Ultimate players. When I mentioned that I had never heard of the Old 97s it was a scandal. Next thing you know “Oppenheimer” was blaring on the jukebox and I was having my first exposure to the genre known as “alternative country.”

In the song, Old 97s frontman Rhett Miller sings about falling in love with a woman who lives on the same road as he does, a road called “Oppenheimer.” There is not a whole lot more to the song than that. What I can tell you is that there is a certain amount of verbal joy that comes from singing the word “Oppenheimer.” Try it at home. The word is just plain fun to say!

You can listen to a live performance of this fast, fun, and bright song here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sermon: "Discovering Your Ministry" (Delivered 2-1-09)

You’ve got to do when the Spirit says do! This was the title of the first hymn we sang this morning. It might also be a fitting motto for members of our faith tradition through the ages. The history of our Unitarian and Universalist forebears is a history of women and men who did when the spirit told them to do. During the 1800s, during our nation’s westward expansion, it was often Universalists and Unitarians who built the civic infrastructures of some of our nation’s great cities. In cities like St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Portland, Oregon, Universalists and Unitarians did things like start public school systems and public libraries. They founded other cultural institutions like symphonies and museums. They created parks and cemeteries. They formed the social service agencies that would serve those with disabilities and illnesses. They established world class universities and colleges. (I attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a college founded by Unitarians.) The spirit said, “Do.” They did.

And, while I’m on this topic, I should not fail to mention that the Universalist turned Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King played a pivotal role in keeping California with the Union during the civil war, just as Unitarians from Massachusetts swarmed to Kansas in the days leading up to the civil war, risking their own lives to keep Kansas a free state.

“Now, that is all fine and good, Thom,” you may be saying. But all that happened a century or a century and a half ago. What about today? During my final year in divinity school I spent a year apprenticing under Rev. John Buehrens, who had earlier served 8 years as President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. He fondly told a story of visiting our UU congregation in Orlando, Florida and being approached by a group of women from that congregation who made sure to let him know that Orlando was the largest metropolitan area in the country without a Planned Parenthood clinic… well, it had been until the women of this Unitarian Universalist church came together and brought one to Orlando.

This morning I want to talk about ministry. When I say “ministry,” I’m not talking about ministers who are ordained and carry the honorific title, “Reverend.” The Protestant tradition, Martin Luther spoke of the “Priesthood of all Believers.” In Protestant theology that meant that it was not up to church priests to do your religious lifting for you. Our own tradition, in the words of the theologian James Luther Adams, speaks of the “Prophethood of all Believers.” To Adams, this term meant that all members of our religious community are called upon to serve as prophet as well as priest, to live out your faith in the world. Or, in other words, I want you to discover your ministry.

This church has a three part mission statement. The first of the three parts is “To Invite.” “To invite everyone into a caring community.” It is my sense that we do really well at this. Sure, we could always do better at spreading the word, but we are a friendly church with lots and lots of truly warm-hearted people.

The second of the three parts is to inspire. “To inspire the search for spiritual growth.” We do well at this also, though there is room for improvement. In my New Years letter to the members of this church I challenged us to take it to the next level by adopting a spiritual practice.

And then there is the third part of our Trinitarian—Oops! I mean “tripartite”— mission statement, which declares it our mission to “Involve everyone is working for a peaceful, fair, and free world.” The other word for this is that it is our mission for everyone to be involved in ministry.

There are all sorts of things I could say about this. First, it is a relatively novel thing for us to declare that the mission of our church is to involve people in ministry. It is novel because for many years such a thing would have been taken for granted. Historically, those who swelled the ranks of many of our churches were the movers and shakers in the larger community. I don’t mean the wealthiest, although that was sometimes the case as well. I mean: the UU church, even a tiny one, was the place where you would encounter the NAACP board member, the volunteer ACLU lawyer, the president of this or that non-profit organization, and the benefactors of numerous others. Again, looking back to our history, I ask you to consider a short list of those who attended Theodore Parker’s 28th Congregational Society in Boston in the mid-1800s: William Lloyd Garrison (the famous abolitionist leader), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Susan B. Anthony’s right hand woman in the fight for women’s rights), Samuel Howe (who developed cutting edge resources at his school for the blind), Julia Ward Howe (the peace activist and founder of Mother’s Day), William Nell (an African-American historian, organizer, and abolitionist), and Louisa May Alcott whose writings were forward-thinking on issues of race and gender. Talk about a who’s who of mid-19th Century shapers of culture. All attended one single church in Boston!

With changes in our larger culture over time and in civic participation within the culture at large, UU churches have changed a bit. Now, we receive people through our doors who come to us with a deep seated desire to be involved in making a meaningful change in the world but who are looking for how it is that they can make a real difference. As one of my colleagues puts it, “We have thought of ourselves as the leaven. Now we must also be the bread.”

This may explain the latest trend in church hiring. The latest trend in church hiring is to add a position known as a “Director of Equipping.” This language comes from churches that usually possess a theology different from our own. In how they understand the church, the role of the church is:
First, to be a conduit for change and transformation in a person’s life;
Second, to gift its members with the results of that change;
Third, to help its members to discern their call;
Fourth to equip its members to live out that calling;
And, fifth, to send its members forth into ministry.
Two summers ago, our board of trustees read a book by Thomas Bandy that described the church in these terms.

The famous theologian Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” What the world needs are people who have come alive. I think of my ministry in terms of this stuff about calling, equipping, and sending. And, when I talk about sending, I don’t mean sending you away permanently. Bandy’s metaphor for the church that is doing the sending is to compare the church to a player in the game of jai-alai. In that game, players carry a scoop that is capable of hurling the ball at speeds of almost 200 miles per hour. The ball ricochets off a wall, back at the player who then uses the scoop to direct the ball. Bandy says that the church propels its members into ministry and that the evolution of our spiritual development will continually be altering the course of our ministries.

When I talk about sending, I must repeat that there are different kinds of sending. At the church I served immediately before coming here, a couple in that parish ran a non-profit called “African Baobab” that did hands on relief work in Africa. I don’t believe it is the mission of this church to send everyone to Africa, though I do believe that if that is your calling we should help to equip you and to support you in living out that calling. There is also such a thing as “sending within.”
In less than two weeks we will have the first meeting of my annual Preaching Practicum class, a class in ministry. This class prepares participants to deliver a sermon and minister to other members of this church with an inspiring sermon. Thanks to the great work of Anne Griffiths, our Intern Minister, we had our first lay ministry training a couple of weeks ago. This training taught members of the church how to minister to one another in difficult times.

And, J., one of our members, is launching a completely re-imagined stewardship ministry. Very few of us feel called to go and have a conversation with somebody else about how much they plan to pledge to the church. I hope almost everyone here would feel like it would be an important ministry to visit a couple of other members of the church and to have a deep conversation about the role your faith is playing in your life and to ask them about the role they would want for this church and their faith to play in their lives. And, if you haven’t worked with J. before, prepare to be amazed.

I hope, if you take nothing else away with you this morning that you will take with you a sense that ministry is not just something that I do. What we do in this church is ministry. When we train our members in lay preaching, lay visiting, and how to have conversations of depth with one another, that is ministry to one another. When we teach our children, that is ministry. And, it is ministry when we serve our community, when we take our values outside into the world and let them shine.

I want to close with a thought. One of my colleagues in the ministry regularly does an exercise in which he is asked to consider what it would be like if what he was doing was ten times as bold. Ten times as bold. It is that “ten times as bold” thinking that led Universalists and Unitarians to build public schools, colleges, libraries, parks, and public service programs out on the frontier. It was that “ten times as bold” attitude that led the women of Orlando to launch a chapter of Planned Parenthood in their city.

What would it look like if we decided, right here in this church, to be ten times as bold. Listen for the spirit and do when the spirit says do. Allow your senses to awaken and know that we have only scratched just the very surface of what we are capable of.

Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” He also said, “There is something inside every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the strings that somebody else pulls.”

Friday, February 06, 2009

Love Overwhelms Hate!

Earlier this week I received emails from a couple of parents of high school students in my church. They alerted me to the fact that members of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church were scheduled to picket and protest at Shawnee Mission East high school. Students had organized a counter-demonstration. The parents had contacted me to ask if I would go as support to their children and also to be a responsible adult in case things got out of control.

For those of you who don't know about Phelps, he is a vicious hate-monger based out of Topeka, Kansas. His church, which seems to be mostly members of his family, travels the country demonstrating at events. Members of his church hold up vile signs that announce that "God Hates Gays." (He actually uses a deeply offensive slur instead of the word "gays" but I don't want to print that disgusting word on my blog.) His protests are aimed primarily at gays although he drew widespread media attention for protesting at the funerals of American servicemen and women. Heck, Phelps even protested at a speech delivered by Jerry Falwell when Falwell came to speak in KC about four years ago.

Phelps had targeted SM East high school because the students had elected an openly gay homecoming king a few years ago.

The Phelps contingent consisted of 12 people. Six seemed to be adults and six seemed to be minors. Of the minors, two of them seemed to not yet be of reading age. It was heartbreaking to see a little boy who seemed to be about 5 years old carrying a sign that read, "Pray for more dead soldiers."

On the opposite side of the street, the counter demonstration was out in force. There were hundreds and hundreds of Shawnee Mission East students, alumni, students from other high schools, parents, and clergy. The newspapers this morning said only 450 attended the counter demonstration. It seemed to me like it had to be at least twice that number, maybe more.

The counter-demonstrators were a spirited and creative bunch. Bright colors. Spirit. Energy. Creativity. Of course, some of the signs that the students had created were a bit juvenile, but most of the signs proclaimed the importance of the values of love, acceptance, and community.

A few observations:

+ One girl picked up a sign that said, "God loves everybody" and then became distressed and tried to pass the sign off to other students while pondering, "Why am I carrying this sign? I'm an atheist."

+ Four students arrived dressed as the Village People and carried a boom-box playing "YMCA." These young men who probably couldn't grow facial hair if their lives depended on it had used brown magic markers to draw 70s-style moustaches on their upper lips and had choreographed an amusing dance.

+ Students were passing around buckets asking people to donate to AIDS research. Their goal was to raise $200 for AIDS research for every minute the Phelps clan protested. They probably raised thousands of dollars for AIDS research.

+ I heard one student remark. "You know, being on the side of love is a lot more fun than being on the side of hate."

+ As the Phelps' packed up their signs to leave, the crowd erupted in singing, "Na Na, Hey Hey, Goodbye." This was followed by a spirited rendition of the school song.

It was clear to me that this counter-protest was about school community. The students were expressing their school spirit by insisting that their school be a hate-free zone.

Upon reflection, I left the afternoon hopeful. It was not just that the love-side had outnumbered the hate-side by a ratio of 50:1 (or 100:1). My hope was grounded in the awareness that in two or three or four years all of these students would be old enough to vote. This is how the battle for marriage equality and equal rights in our country will be won. I was deeply impressed by the moral clarity and commitment to inclusion that these young women and men demonstrated.

Here is a sign I saw:


Week 36: "Crutch" by Buffalo Tom

I graduated from high school in 1995. As a graduation present my parents got me my first CD player. I still have it. In fact, I’m listening to it right now as I write these words. After buying the CD player I bought my first two CDs at Newbury Comics in Harvard Square: Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and Sleepy Eyed by Buffalo Tom.

After I got the CD player I moved to Portland, Oregon to begin college where I saw my first rock show at a club. (I had earlier heard R.E.M. play at a large, outside amphitheater near Boston.) I went to a club called La Luna in Portland to hear Buffalo Tom. Hailing from the magnificent college town of Amherst, Massachusetts, Buffalo Tom was sometimes teasingly called Dinosaur Jr. Jr., a reference to the biggest band from Western Mass at the time. This didn’t make much sense to me considering the two bands’ sounds are quite different. Dinosaur Jr. is all electric guitar distortion. Buffalo Tom plays earnest, acoustic pop-rock with some folk-rock influences. The most the two bands seem to have in common, besides coming from the same place, is that each band has three members.

Back in the summer of 1995 I was grooving on Buffalo Tom’s newest single, a catchy number called “Summer.” I had known about the band before that. Ben Hall, now a UU minister and then one of my youth advisors at First Parish in Wayland had exposed me to them.

Well, when I went to see Buffalo Tom play in Portland I was joined by several other Reed College students who also hailed from Massachusetts. By the time the show had finished the city buses had stopped running and none of us had any cash. Stuck, we decided to hang out in the parking lot by the tour bus and try to meet the band. When the band came out we struck up a conversation. One of my buddies asked if the band would mind giving us a ride home in their tour bus. That did not wind up happening, but bass player Chris Colbourn did give us some cash so we could take a taxi home.

This week’s song of the week is the last track from what is arguably Buffalo Tom’s best recording, Let Me Come Over. It is a traveling song, speaking of journeying between Boston and San Francisco. (I had planned to write about this song a week ago while I was on the plane back to Kansas City from San Francisco where I had attended a training for internship supervisors at Starr King School for the Ministry.) If you listen to the song on Youtube (sorry the video is lame) you will hear the folk/pop/rock influences of the band on the verses as well as their spirited and intense choruses.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Week 35: "Transatlanticism" by Death Cab for Cutie

In previous week I’ve written about two other songs by DCfC (Cath…, What Sarah Said) and though this will be the last song by the band I will write about, there are probably a dozen other Death Cab songs about which I could write short essays.

I have seen Death Cab for Cutie twice in concert. Each time they have ended with an exquisite version of “Transatlanticism,” the title-track of their breakthrough 2003 album. At 7:55, “Transatlanticism” is the longest song on the album.

Musically, the song begins with faint, almost inaudible percussion layered with a progression of piano chords with pauses between them. Over this minimalist soundscape, Ben Gibbard’s vocals are exposed. As the song develops, guitar chords are layered over the piano chords, the drums grow louder, and the song swells.

Lyrically, “Transatlanticism” explores themes of division, separation, and distance. With apparent references to the Genesis creation story and to Noah’s Ark, the song’s two verses describe birth of the Atlantic as the clouds open up, filling in holes and creating islands. As those islands continue to be swallowed up by the inundation, people take to their boats and find themselves at a distance that is too far to cross.

As the song swells musically, the lyrics become simple and repetitive. The latter half of the song consists of Gibbard repeating the line, “I need you so much closer.” The only variance is in a simple refrain, “So come on, come on.”

These words do little to capture the beauty of this song. Fortunately, there are several versions of it available on youtube: here, here, and here.